by 織工 (Okō)
illustrated by beili
The fall of 2013 dawns unseasonably warm, and September in New York City opens with a few 30-degree-Celsius days during which Nikolai Mikhailovich Kudryavtsev cranks up his window air conditioners and tries not to feel guilty about his mounting electric bill. It’s not like he can get the superintendent to insulate Kolya’s apartment any better than he already has. The converted brownstone is just old and leaky, hot in the summer and overheated in the winter unless he opens the windows.
Kolya knows he can afford it, even now that he’s paying rent on his apartment and also his parents’ mortgage on their duplex in Brighton Beach, but it irks him to pay so much for poor insulation. There’s still nothing he can do about it, so he just keeps the apartment as warm as he can stand.
When Kolya wakes up from yet another nightmare on September second to another 30-degree day, he grits his teeth, showers off the chilled sweat and makes his way to Nick’s apartment for what has become their habitual daily summer workout session. Today is planned as weights and treadmills and stationary cardio, and Kolya grits his teeth and gets through it without thinking much about the upcoming hockey season, and what’s going to have to change when they get back on the ice this fall. Kolya is quieter than usual but Nick doesn’t push, just sets the pace and keeps them going. They both know that the pre-season conditioning is going to be a bitch, but hopefully it won’t be too bad after a summer spent trying to eat to plan and work out regularly.
And maybe Kolya should tell Nick about his worries, about his recurring nightmares of the two of them being outed and losing everything. In last night’s dream Kolya was sent back to Russia and imprisoned for propaganda, beaten to death by his fellow inmates for being gay. The snap of bones breaking woke him in a cold sweat.
But he doesn’t want to think about it – not right now, not when the hockey season is coming up so soon and everything might have to change. It feels fragile, like today is the last day of the summer somehow, like it might be Kolya’s last chance to have this, and he’s too selfish to give that up.
Nick’s little sister Isabelle ducks her head down the staircase when they’re finishing up the workout, Kolya stretching out the incipient aches and pains of pushing a little too hard.
“Lunch!” She hollers. “I know you’re hungry, you’re bottomless pits!”
“Just a minute!” Nick yells back. He turns to Kolya. “I’ll shower down here,” he says, cocking his head toward the bathroom off the rarely-used guest bedroom that doubles as a gym storage room, because hardly anyone ever uses it. “You’ve got clothes in my room, yeah?”
Kolya nods. He wipes sweat out of his face with a towel and heads up the impractical spiral staircase to the main floor of the ridiculously huge apartment Nick bought when his sister moved to New York City for college.
“Ew,” Isabelle says, when Kolya ruffles her hair in passing. “You’re so gross, Kolya.”
He snaps a towel in the air at her, missing on purpose, and ducks into Nick’s bedroom while she squawks in mock-outrage, the motions routine by now. Kolya’s preferred shampoo is on a shelf in Nick’s shower, and a drawer in Nick’s oversized dresser holds all the clothes of Kolya’s that have migrated here over the last six months. Kolya tries not to think about that too hard while he digs through them looking for underwear.
Lunch is pasta with homemade red sauce and grilled chicken, and a kale salad Isabelle swears her friend Amy loves, but which Kolya thinks is too sweet, drenched in a honey vinaigrette that makes it taste oddly dessert-like and grassy at the same time. Nick seems to really like it, though, so Kolya shovels his portion onto Nick’s plate and takes some of his chicken, since Nick seems intent on ignoring protein for greens today.
Isabelle laughs. “You two are adorable,” she says. “Seriously, I don’t think even mom and dad do that anymore.”
Kolya pauses. He hadn’t really thought about it, but of course they can’t do this when they’re not at home. He sighs, and pokes at the food on his own plate for the rest of the meal.
After lunch Isabelle goes back to her practice room, saying something about catching up with her classmate Amy, who has just returned from a summer in Italy.
“Something’s wrong,” Nick says. He’s trying so hard to be direct that Kolya can’t help but smile.
“It’s –” Kolya tries to find the right words. “I – we have to be more careful soon, you know?”
Nick shrugs. “Okay,” he agrees. “So don’t eat off my plate.”
He looks almost entirely unconcerned, and Kolya doesn’t know how to put the aching dread of his nightmare into words. But Nick is trying, and Kolya owes him something in response.
“I –” Kolya starts. “I have nightmares.”
He starts. He closes his eyes. When he opens them, Nick is waiting patiently. Kolya doesn’t want to talk about this here, where Isabelle might overhear them. He tugs Nick into the bedroom – the one Kolya has already started thinking of as ‘theirs,’ god help him. Nick comes easily, lets Kolya bully him onto the bed and into Kolya’s arms when Kolya tugs him down to lie next to him.
“Last night,” Kolya starts, talking to the dandelion-blond top of Nick’s head. “I dreamt about us – that people found out.” He pauses. “We lost our contracts,” he says. “I went back to Russia, went to prison.” He tightens his grip on Nick, who wheezes slightly in protest. “It was bad,” Kolya says. “It would be so bad, Nick, you don’t know.”
Nick exhales long and low, and then turns around in Kolya’s arms and presses a careful kiss to his lips.
“Okay,” Nick says. “That sounds like an awful dream. So we’ll be more careful, like last season, right? No marks, nothing to tip people off.”
“I just –” Nick starts. Then he pauses. “Well. We said before. We can’t stop hiding until after hockey. That’s the plan. We both want to go to Sochi for the Olympics, right? We can’t do that if people find out.”
He doesn’t sound as sure about it as he did before, but Kolya doesn’t want to think about that right now.
“Okay,” Kolya agrees. “Okay. That’s the plan.”
Nick kisses him again, and Kolya leans into it this time, wanting to lose himself in Nick, in this fragile place they have where it’s just the two of them, where Kolya doesn’t have to worry about the future. Right now, he can almost believe that he can have this forever, this and hockey, everything he ever wanted and one thing he never thought he’d have.
* * *
The New York Rangers do their team physicals on the eleventh of September. That day the temperature outdoors tops 33 degrees Celsius. That kind of heat is just plain absurd for that time of year in a theoretically moderate climate, and it’s a soupy, New York kind of humid on top of it. Kolya pulls on a light-weight suit and takes a taxi to the Garden, and even then he’s sweated through the fabric before he’s gotten into the arena.
Kolya has looked forward to the beginning of hockey in past years with almost obsessive fervor. He has counted down to training camp and the pre-season, even if he has played fewer and fewer games in the pre-season as the years have gone by. The Rangers already know he’s their first-line center, so they really just need him in the practices, in the last pre-season game or two to test some of the call-ups, see who clicks and who doesn’t. There’s no point getting the veteran players tired before the season even begins, and Kolya knows that, even if he likes the excitement of the pre-season, the energy the kids bring to the locker room.
Summers past have been a ticking clock to hockey coming back, and there have even been years when Kolya has crossed days off on a physical calendar on his refrigerator to help with the bubbling excitement, making the countdown something tangible to help with the wait.
This fall is different, but hockey season is back and some of the players are bitching about the heat, so Kolya steps out of the team doctor’s office and puts a smile on his face as he enters the locker room, walking over to his stall, where his name has been re-printed for the new season: Nikolai Kudryavtsev. It’s a little warm in the room, sure, but nothing to merit the pretty epic complaining that’s going on from some of the Northern Europeans and Canadian rookies. All of the Northern Europeans and Canadians are bitching like crazy about the heat, while their few teammates from southern climes chirp back about ice queens melting under pressure.
“Babies,” Kolya says, dropping into a pause in the conversation. “You wait for the first New York summer without air conditioning. 36 degrees indoors in a top-floor walk-up, then you complain. This is nothing.”
“Ugh,” rookie-Paul-from-Maine complains, and flicks a towel at Kolya. “You’re supposed to be on our side, K, aren’t you from freaking Siberia?”
“Kid went native a long time ago, Paulie,” Big Lars says, not even looking up from where he’s taking off his fancy lace-up loafers. “And he’d fuck with you on this one even if he hadn’t. He’s a dick that way.”
Kolya flips him off casually and Lars blows him a kiss while Paul makes an exaggeratedly disappointed face. Then Kolya grabs for his towel when Paul flicks it at him again, apparently under the impression that looking sorry is enough cover for a second attack. Rookies, Kolya thinks. Always the same shit to teach them.
“Play nice,” Kolya says. “Or I’m telling Nick to fine you for unsportsmanlike behavior. Comparing Maine to Siberia, really?”
Anton shudders, having been fined early his first season for showering reporters with shaving cream even after he’d been told they were off-limits for that kind of prank here in New York.
“Stop,” he advises. Anton’s Russian accent is thicker than Kolya remembers his own ever being, like listening to some of Kolya’s dad’s chess buddies out in Brooklyn. “Little Lars fine for serious. He crazy motherfucker.”
Nick walks into the room, and Paul’s head snaps around, guilt written across his features so clearly Kolya has to bite back a laugh. Kolya has been an assistant captain for two years now: he knows he can’t be laughing at the rookies yet, not when they don’t know him or trust him to not be cruel about it.
“Sure am,” Nick agrees. “Ask Anton’s mom.”
There’s a chorus of groans at Nick taking the easy way out on that one, but no one is really surprised: Nick being known for never picking up just makes a few of the veterans shake their heads with a little more amusement. Nick shrugs, going a little pink in the cheeks, and Kolya is struck by the urge to kiss him, stronger than ever.
Kolya has to close his eyes and swallow to bite back the surge of want that rolls through him. It’s completely inappropriate for the locker room. Kolya really thought last spring was the honeymoon period, that he’d have gotten this kind of reaction out of his system by now. It’s a little alarming to discover that he hasn’t.
Everyone continues to strip down and change and Kolya keeps his eyes on the ground or above the waist with practice born of long years of paranoia. None of the new guys seem to give him a second glance, which Kolya is always a little more worried about early in a season. He thought it would be hardest his first year with the Rangers, not knowing how North American hockey culture was different from Russian norms. Today, though, Kolya finds that he has to consciously keep himself from glancing over at Nick. He’s gotten soft over the summer, less cautious than he needs to be.
Remember Sochi, Kolya tells himself. You need to make the Olympic team. You know they won’t let a pedik play hockey for Russia. It’s his plan: He wants a gold medal in Sochi like he wants to keep breathing, to keep playing hockey. He can’t let anything get in the way of that, so he has to hide even better than before. That’s the plan.
Kolya rushes into his gear and is one of the first guys out on the ice, where they go through the now-familiar motions of shots on goal, stick-handling tests, passing drills to test out the rookies and new trades. Kolya’s line was pretty settled last season with him on center with their captain David Brooks on right wing, and Mikulàs Svoboda on left wing. Still, Kolya knows they’ll throw a few rookies and trades at him, see who might play well in Brooks’ place until his recently replaced hip is up to snuff. It’s going to be fun to play with combinations, see who they put on the power play and penalty kill.
“Are you fucking kidding me,” Paul says to Lars on his way down the tunnel toward the bench. “There are three Nicks on this team?”
“Nikolai, Nicholas, Mikulàs,” Big Lars says. “Call ’em Kolya, Nick, and Mike.”
“Fuck my life,” their American goalie call-up — Kolya has to learn his name still —says. “That’s crazy, you know that?”
“Goalie says crazy?” Anton asks. His tone carries a world of meaning: Everyone knows goalies are the really crazy ones; they sign up to have frozen pucks shot at their faces.
“At least we get to be on the ice for more than a fucking shift at a time!” Kirill, their other goalie prospect, shoots back at him, standing up for his position and flipping Anton the bird despite his goalie glove on one hand.
“Angliyskiy,” Kolya calls, because if Anton and Kirill keep chattering in Russian all the time they’ll never learn to speak to the press without sounding stupid.
Anton has his own place by now and has probably settled in as much as he ever will. But Kirill has just come over from Moscow and is staying with Kolya’s former host family, the Bykovs, for the season. He’s probably speaking nothing but Russian at the house, seeing more Cyrillic in their Brooklyn neighborhood than anything in the Roman alphabet. Sergei is retired from playing hockey now, but he and Yulia keep taking in Russian rookies, saying something about keeping the house full. Kolya has seen Kirill a few times when he went over to see Sergei and play with their daughters, and he seems like a good enough kid. His English definitely needs work, though.
“Da, da,” Anton calls back, flipping Kolya off at the same time. “He’s always a bitch about English,” Anton says in a low voice to Kirill, “but he’ll translate for the coaches and trainers when you need him to.”
“Speak English,” Nick says. His accent is terrible, but comprehensible, even if he trips over tol’ko a little bit. “I’ll totally fine you for shittalking, don’t think I won’t.”
Anton almost falls flat on his ass, he’s so shocked.
“You didn’t tell me he spoke Russian!” Kirill shoots at Anton. Clearly Kolya is not to be trusted on this front, because he doesn’t get so much as a glance.
“I speak a little Russian,” Nick says. He butchers govoryu completely, but it’s a decent effort. Kolya wonders if Nick has been using Isabelle’s operatic language tapes when Kolya isn’t around, because he really didn’t think Nick was paying that much attention to his sister’s pronunciation lessons with Kolya.
“Fuck my life,” Anton says, once he’s done pinwheeling his arms to keep his balance on his skates like something out of an old cartoon. “What the fuck, Larsson?”
Nick shrugs and glances at Kolya, who just raises an eyebrow. He’s not getting Nick out of this one.
“Izzy was learning it for school,” he says. “She got Kolya to give her lessons last year. You have any idea what little sisters are like? It was self-defense, man.”
“Don’t look at me,” Kolya says, keeping his tone carefully dry, teasing. “The Larssons are both crazy. His sister’s taking two languages. She says Russian’s just for fun.”
“Okay, ladies,” Coach Sims calls. “Back to work!”
Practice keeps Kolya’s attention after that, and if Anton looks at him a little oddly, well, he’s always been a bit of a jerk since he found out that Kolya broke his contract with a Russian hockey team to play with the New York Rangers. It’s not Kolya’s problem. Finally, they get off the ice.
Kolya strips down mechanically, showers, and doesn’t look at Nick any more than he absolutely has to, trading casual barbs with Marc and Timmo and letting Big Lars show him pictures of his twin niece and nephew’s third birthday party. They’re stupidly adorable, and Kolya loses track of time until Nick taps him on the shoulder.
“Come on,” Nick says. “Izzy says she made meatballs, and she has some kind of question for you. Catch a cab?”
Big Lars shrugs, and shoves Kolya in Nick’s direction.
“Baby pictures will keep,” he says. “Go help out mini-Lars, eh?”
“For the last time,” Marc yells across the locker room. “You’re not Canadian!”
Nick and Kolya slip out as the room erupts into yet another rehashing of whether or not non-Canadians, and especially Lars, are allowed to say “eh” unironically.
When they get to Nick’s apartment, Isabelle is curled up on the couch by the windows, piles of books all around her. The oven timer is set for another half hour, and the whole place smells amazing.
“Smells good,” Nick says.
“Studying!” Isabelle says without looking up. “Be done when it beeps.” She turns a page, and grabs a pencil from where it’s stuck into her french braid, ignoring them completely.
Kolya smiles and flips on the television without reply. He and Nick watch most of an episode of some house-hunting show on HGTV with closed captioning and the sound muted before the timer goes off and Isabelle gets up with a sigh and a stretch. She’s nearly as tall as her brother, but leaner and gawkier, still growing into her limbs at nineteen, but graceful as she moves around the kitchen.
“Mom’s recipe,” Isabelle says, when she ladles out meatballs and mashed potatoes. “Mandy helped me interpret her scribbles, you would not believe how much she didn’t write down on the card.”
“It’s good,” Nick says. Kolya kicks him under the table for speaking with his mouth full.
“What were you working on?” Kolya asks. “Nick said you needed help with something?”
“That was music theory before,” Isabelle says. “And I think I’m ahead on my Russian, so I’m good right now.”
“Oh.” Kolya isn’t quite sure what to make of that. Nick smiles at him.
“Lars totally believed me,” he points out. “You can just, like, tutor Izzy, then we’re set, right?”
It seems like Nick was paying attention to Kolya’s worries after all. Kolya nods. He’s not sure that will be enough – he’s not sure anything short of breaking up with Nick will be safe enough, other than having a time machine, or maybe a magic wand to make himself straight – but he’s not willing to fight about it over dinner, or while they wash up.
Instead he changes the subject.
“That’s a lot of books,” Kolya says, nodding toward the couches where Isabelle has set up camp. “You going to leave Nick any space?”
It’s an absurdly huge apartment for two people, especially for New York City, but usually Isabelle keeps her schoolwork in her practice room, the bedroom Nick set aside for her piano and desk.
“Ugh, I know.” Isabelle’s tone is put-upon. “I’ll put them away later, I just didn’t want to deal with unpacking right now.” She looks at Kolya. “I can’t believe you’re done with college already. You suck, and I hate you.”
But she’s grinning a little bit. She’s the one who baked Kolya a cake for his graduation, and made him have a party when he was planning on ignoring it entirely.
“I started before you,” Kolya points out, because it took him nearly six and a half years to get his college diploma, even when he was cramming his summers to the breaking point and taking online classes and inter-session half-credit seminars and studying on road trips as an excuse to get out of socializing with the team.
“Logic!” Isabelle complains.
Nick slips out of the room toward the bathroom, neatly getting out of having to clear the table. Kolya makes a note to chirp him about that later.
“Now who am I going to complain to?” Isabelle demands. “I wanted you to keep reading my papers, dammit.”
Kolya shrugs, and puts plates in the dishwasher. He’s going to have so much more time this season, now that he’s done with college himself. Even if he reads all of her papers, it can’t take that much more time than being in class himself.
“I can still read them,” he says. “You already know how much time I need in advance, especially when we’re on the road.”
Isabelle launches herself at him, long ash-blonde braid spinning out behind her before he has an armful of teenage opera singer.
“You’re the best,” she announces, face muffled slightly against his chest. “Seriously, I started doing so much better on my papers when you started reading them!”
Privately Kolya thinks this is probably because Isabelle was in the habit of writing her papers the night — or morning — before they were due, and having to write a full draft makes more of a difference than he does, but he just gives her a hug back.
“You’re the best big brother,” Isabelle says. “Nick’s sometimes a jerk about it, and you actually help.”
Kolya’s breath catches and he hugs Isabelle a little closer, burying his face against the crown of her head.
“I’m a jerk about what now?” Nick asks, bare feet silent on the hardwood floor as he comes over. “I seem to be on everyone’s shit list today.”
Kolya manages a weak smile. He still feels a little blindsided by Isabelle calling him her brother so casually, like it’s not a big deal. Maybe it’s because Kolya is an only child, but he kind of wants to just sit down and think about this for a minute. At the same time, he desperately wants to keep busy to avoid thinking about it, about what Isabelle’s acceptance really means.
Nick seems to pick up on Kolya’s mood, because he pulls Isabelle away from Kolya.
“Hands off, Izzy,” he chides, but he’s smiling. “My turn for hugs.”
And he wraps Kolya up in his arms, tucking his head into the crook of Kolya’s neck and squeezing tight. Kolya lets himself relax into the embrace: Nick is shorter, but easily strong enough to support them both, broad-shouldered in a way Kolya will never be.
“Ugh, you two are going to be all squooshy tonight, I can just tell,” Isabelle complains, but she doesn’t sound like she really minds. “I’m going to do scales. Don’t eat all the ice cream without me.”
She rustles around, picking up her phone and laptop, and disappears into her practice room with an almost-slammed door.
“You okay?” Nick asks.
Kolya presses a kiss to the top of his head.
“Long day,” he says. He’s not sure he wants to talk about this just yet, but Nick probably won’t press him on it. They’ve managed to work that much out over the summer, at least.
“You’re getting old,” Nick teases, pinching Kolya in the side and not letting him squirm away. Kolya really doesn’t try that hard. “It’s not even the pre-season yet.”
“If I’m old, you are too,” Kolya points out. Nick is only two years younger than Kolya, after all, and they’ve both been playing hockey since they were legal to skate, been playing for the Rangers for more than half a decade.
“Nah,” Nick says. “I’ve got at least another year before old age kicks in.”
“Squoosh!” Isabelle yells, tipping her head out of her door. “You guys!”
Nick laughs, and tugs Kolya over to sit by the TV.
“Come on,” Nick says, and turns HGTV back on, unpauses the show they were watching and turns the sound on. “I bet they go with the second house.”
If Kolya sits a little closer than usual, neither of them comment on it tonight, and Nick pulls Kolya tight into his arms when they go to bed without a single word.
* * *
For all Kolya’s worries about the team noticing him looking at Nick in the locker room, the season starts off pretty much fine. The captain, David Brooks, is still practicing in a no-contact jersey after hip surgery last summer, so Kolya takes up what slack he can on the ice, demonstrating one-man rushes and some of their power play shots. Kolya figures it’s part of being an assistant captain, having an A on his jersey, and it’s kind of nice to have some structure around interaction with the new guys. Timmo, who just got an A when Carter retired last spring, follows Kolya’s lead. For his part, Marc pranks everyone until the rookies gang up on him and fill his car with packing peanuts through the moonroof.
They can hear Marc cursing in fluent Quebeçois from halfway across the practice rink’s parking lot that night. When Kolya comes in the next day, the rookies’ skates are full of shaving cream, their helmets are full of glitter, there’s a bucket of water balanced on a half-open door, and Kolya has to defuse the beginnings of an all-out prank war before Nick fines everyone egregiously huge amounts of money to get it to stop.
If Kolya does his best to ignore the frisson of want that fizzles through him when he sees Nick at the rink, the little flare of desire that’s all that much stronger now that he knows Nick wants him back, well. Kolya spent nearly five years ignoring his attraction to Nick; he figures he can dial it back now, when it’s his career — their careers — on the line. So Kolya treats Nick more or less the same as he did before they started dating. He wants to ruffle Nick’s hair on their way out to the ice, to hug him when practice goes well, but Kolya is used to not getting what he wants.
They all know that pre-season games don’t matter for playoff statistics, but everyone travels with the team, with the AHL call-ups who are scrapping for a chance to stay up in the big leagues. Their first road trip in late September sees them in a small hotel just outside Columbus, Ohio. Kolya gets up early to read one of Isabelle’s short papers, which he printed in the tiny business center. He’ll take pictures of it and email them to her if the scanner at the hotel isn’t working, and she’ll make fun of his handwriting being childlike, if past revisions are any guide.
In any case, Kolya is the only one up when Kirill wanders into the little breakfast area in sweats, obviously still half-asleep. Kolya spares him a glance and goes back to Isabelle’s discussion of the comparative merits of Donizetti and Rossini as bel canto opera composers. There’s a lot of italian terminology that she hasn’t put in italics, and Kolya underlines the unfamiliar terms in red.
“Shit!” Kirill exclaims, and Kolya looks up in time to see him stabbing frantically at a sputtering microwave. The appliance shorts out with a flurry of sparks and a huge plume of smoke, and Kirill slumps against the counter when the fire alarm goes off.
“What the hell.” Kolya says, shoving the papers into a bag in case the hotel has sprinklers too.
“Why did it do that?” Kirill asks, obviously not awake enough for English yet. “I just wanted breakfast.”
Kolya walks over. He unplugs the microwave before he looks in, then he smacks Kirill on the back of the head, not particularly gently.
“You fucking moron,” he says. “You don’t microwave metal!”
Their teammates and a bunch of hotel guests are coming into the hallway now, looking confused, some a little scared. Kolya shoves Kirill into a seat.
“Stay there,” he says. “I’ll explain.”
One of the hotel’s desk staff is rushing over, uniform rumpled, and obviously at the end of a long overnight shift.
“It’s not a fire,” Kolya says. “Just the microwave shorted out. He’s a moron, and I’ve already unplugged it. Can you call the fire department, turn off the alarm?”
The woman nods, and Kolya smiles at her in thanks before searching the crowd for Timmo, who comes over quickly.
“Not a real fire,” Kolya says. “Just Kirill putting metal in the microwave. Tell the team?”
Timmo raises an eyebrow, but nods, and goes over to the guys who are gathering in little clumps. The alarm turns off, and an announcement over the lobby loudspeaker tells everyone something too garbled for Kolya to catch. He shrugs, and goes over to Kirill, who is sitting at one of the little breakfast-area tables with a burnt-looking bowl of oatmeal.
“Sorry,” Kirill says. “I’m been stupid.”
“Yeah,” Kolya agrees. “No metal in the microwave again, okay?”
Kirill nods, and Kolya pats him on the shoulder before getting them both coffee with sugar. He settles at the next table over and pulls out Isabelle’s paper to finish reading it.
“I want to finish this before we leave,” Kolya says to him in Russian, taking pity on the kid’s forlorn expression and not forcing him into more English just yet. Pity only goes so far, though. “You get to explain to the team why they’re awake so early. Get me only if you really need a translator.”
Kolya dives back into Isabelle’s description of bel canto composers, tangentially aware of Timmo taking point on keeping the guys from ragging on Kirill too hard. Kolya suspects the kid is going to be the subject of a bunch of pranks in the near future, but that’s life as a hockey player.
“Calisse!” Marc says, settling in at Kolya’s table despite Kolya’s sidelong glare. “Fucking everyone knows that about microwaves, what an idiot.”
“Probably didn’t have one growing up,” Kolya says absently, wondering if Donizetti can really be called ‘progressive’ the way Isabelle is doing. He circles the word and puts a question mark next to it. “The Bykovs still don’t.”
“Sacré feu,” Marc says. “You’re kidding.”
Kolya takes a sip of his coffee, which is mostly cold, and nods, going back to Isabelle’s paper. He’s almost done — just one more paragraph, and a re-read to make sure the introduction’s phrasing of the thesis agrees with the conclusion.
“Okay,” Marc says. “Intervention time. You clearly need more fun in your life, you’re supposed to be done with papers and shit. Didn’t you fucking graduate?”
In hindsight, Kolya should have seen it coming, stopped Marc from standing up on a chair in front of a room of half-awake, pissy hockey players.
“Okay, assholes,” Marc calls. “Listen up! If you don’t know how to cook, Kolya’s gonna teach you so you don’t burn the hotel down and wake us all up at the ass-crack of dawn again!”
Kirill looks over at Kolya, confused.
“Yes,” Kolya tells him. “Marc just said I’m going to teach you how to cook. He’s a moron, ignore him.”
Instead, Kirill and Paulie take turns nagging Kolya about it for the rest of the trip, with Marc egging them on from the background, until Kolya agrees just to get them to leave him alone.
“Fine,” Kolya says. “Once, then you take a class, stop bothering me.”
Marc gives him an obnoxious thumbs-up from behind Kirill and Paulie, who look like New Years or Father Christmas came early. Kolya hopes they’ll forget about it, but of course Marc can’t leave well enough alone and makes them set a date. Kolya invites them over to his apartment the day after one of the last pre-season home games at the end of the month.
Kirill comes over alone that day, saying Paulie has plans with a girl he met at a coffeeshop. Kolya has never really understood how people meet strangers in public, but he just shrugs. It’s probably easier to meet strangers if you’re straight, Kolya thinks, and heads off that line of thinking. He smiles when he takes the bottle of wine Kirill offers as a host gift. Kolya is pretty sure Yulia Bykov, Kirill’s host mother, tucked it into Kirill’s bag on his way out of the house, but he doesn’t say anything about that. It’s kind of nice to have a guest who feels the same way about house gifts Kolya does.
“Kitchen,” Kolya says. Kirill follows him the three steps into Kolya’s small, New York City-sized kitchen, where the ingredients are already laid out on the counter.
“Where’d you learn to cook?” Kirill asks, looking around with curiosity and obviously taking advantage of Paulie’s absence to skip out on his English. Kolya is just as happy to have an excuse to get away from Nick, who is in a bad mood after taking one angry penalty too many in the game they lost last night. And it’s nice to speak Russian with someone who isn’t his family from time to time.
“My mama taught me,” Kolya says. That sounds soft, maybe, so he keeps going. “She was too sick to cook when I was little, so I learned to cook simple things for our dinners, fast things I could do after practice, or slow things I could start before it and finish afterwards.”
“It was that or not eating,” he says. “There wasn’t much takeout in our neighborhood in Chelyabinsk, and it was too expensive, anyway.”
“I thought you grew up in one of those Soviet buildings with a communal kitchen. How’d you leave food going without someone messing with it?” Kirill says.
Stealing it, he means, and Kolya understands without Kirill saying it outright. They both grew up in Russia, after all. So Kirill knows the structure of Kolya’s childhood better than the Americans do. There’s just one big difference: Kirill’s family has money. He grew up in a pre-Soviet building, in a big old-fashioned Western-style apartment in central Moscow that his family held onto through bribes and official paperwork getting lost when it was time to relocate small families into smaller spaces. And that means their childhoods were very different, even with all the things they share.
“We had a small kitchen put in along one wall,” Kolya says. He’s not going to mention Uncle Gennadi to Kirill, not right now. “It was pretty good practice for a New York kitchen, really.”
Kirill looks like he’s about to ask another question, so Kolya heads him off.
“What’s the first step,” Kolya asks, switching the conversation back to English. “Read it to me from the cookbook, and explain it before you pick up a knife.”
Kirill bitches a little about having to read in English, and Kolya makes unsympathetic noises, and they move around each other in the kitchen fairly easily making spaghetti sauce from scratch, a simple tomato meat sauce. Kirill doesn’t lose a finger, doesn’t even cut himself this time, or splatter tomatoes all over the kitchen. They don’t touch the microwave, but Kolya figures Kirill has probably figured that one out for himself by now.
“Fuck, yes,” Kirill says, looking down at the finished dish when they’ve served it up for lunch with a side of roasted vegetables. “I’m Instagram this.”
Kolya raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t correct Kirill’s grammar or tell him not to. Instagramming food is one of the less absurd things Kirill could be doing on social media, and he doesn’t think Dena will mind the world having photographic proof that some of New York’s hockey players know their way around a cookbook.
Kolya has two more cooking lessons that week, because Kirill begs and then drags in Paulie and Sebastián. The other two aren’t particularly interested, and mostly seem to like hanging out and drinking Kolya’s booze while other people do the cooking, but Kirill seems to like it well enough.
Kolya keeps doing it after the first time mostly to see the look on Marc’s face when Kirill brags about the new things he’s learned to cook. He learned years ago that the best way to troll Marc is to run with his pranks until he gets tired of them. It’s not like they’ll have time for it once the regular season gets underway, Kolya reasons, and the rookies will get tired of it soon enough. In the meantime, he has leftovers in his fridge, even if they’re not exactly gourmet-quality cooking.
* * *
The hockey pre-season officially ends on October third, and Kolya is called into the offices a few days before the trip for a meeting with team management. When he arrives, palms slightly damp with nerves, he sees that the owner, manager, and coaches are all there, but the only other player present is the team captain, David Brooks.
“Nikolai,” David James, the team’s owner, greets him. “Good to see you. Please, come in, take a seat.”
Kolya resists the urge to rub his palms on the legs of his suit pants, glad he dressed semi-formally for this meeting despite the short notice. They all file into a meeting room and Kolya ends up on one side of a long, oval table, with Brooks a familiar presence on his left.
“I’m sure you’re wondering what this is all about,” Jim Rowney, the team manager starts. “You know you’ve done an exceptional job with the A, Nikolai, especially these last few weeks.”
Kolya forces himself to nod. He really doesn’t know what this has to do with anything — he’s been one of the assistant captains for two years now, and they haven’t called him in to talk about it before.
“And you really stepped up with the Junior Rangers fundraiser last spring,” James says. “We were very pleased at the publicity that generated, the way you were able to help fundraise for local kids and keep trade rumors to a minimum in the process. PR was impressed, I have to say.”
Kolya remembers the Junior Rangers fundraiser more as an ongoing stealth campaign by Nick to get Kolya to play with little kids without being afraid he’ll poison them somehow by being gay. But management doesn’t know anything about that – and definitely doesn’t know the two of them are dating. They’re professional hockey players: to say they’re closeted would be putting it mildly.
The ostensible reason for the Junior Rangers fundraiser was to distract the New York tabloid press from running trade rumors about Rangers players during an extended losing slump. It worked, and local kids got hockey gear, so Kolya has counted it a success. It did a number on his GPA that semester because he had no time to revise his written work, but he’s gotten lower grades for less worthy reasons.
“Thank you,” Kolya agrees, after a brief pause, when it becomes clear they expect him to respond somehow. They look expectant, so he adds: “The Junior Rangers fundraiser was something Dena mentioned maybe doing again?”
Dena, the Rangers’ head of PR, was particularly pleased with photographs of Kolya’s team winning the scrimmage. She keeps one in her office of Kolya spinning the twelve-year-old goalie in the air in celebration which Kolya finds a little embarrassing even as it makes him proud.
“Yes, of course,” James agrees. “We’ll have to think about that, see who would be the best choices to lead the effort, who might have the time to be involved with it this spring.”
That sounds like they don’t want Kolya to do it again, which is confusing. Did they not want him to do it last spring after all? He’d thought he had the green light. His stomach turns over.
“Is there something else I should have been doing?” Kolya asks. “I thought I was cleared to spend time on that last spring.”
James looks baffled.
“Yes, of course,” James says. “There’s no question of that.”
“All right,” Kolya agrees cautiously.
He feels a little like he’s back in the room with his old hockey team, with Traktor’s management in Chelyabinsk. Back in Russia, he was always trying to feel his way through a minefield of expectations and implications without knowing what he was agreeing to in advance, even before they took his passport and pressured him into signing an extended contract with unspoken threats to his family’s health and financial wellbeing. Kolya hasn’t missed the feeling at all in the last five years since he left Russia for New York City and the NHL.
“We’re really very pleased with your performance,” Rowney says. “It’s quite admirable that you’ve managed to complete your bachelor’s degree while playing. We know that’s not easy, juggling responsibilities like that, and you’ve not let it affect your play at all.”
Kolya is now well and truly confused. He knows he had the team’s blessing to complete his BA, and he’s had a lot of positive comments on it before, but that’s not worth a meeting. If they’re not telling him he was doing something wrong, Kolya has no idea why he’s here. He’s already signed a contract with the Rangers for the rest of his likely career, and his agent would have warned him if they were thinking about trading him.
Kolya tries to keep the question out of his voice, and fails utterly. They could tell him any of this over the phone, or in an email, or even in passing in the hallway when they’re here for a game or practice.
Brooks sighs, and shoots James and Rowney a dirty look across the table.
“Kolya,” he says. “What they’re trying to work their way around to saying is that they want you to be captain after me, and move into being the face of the franchise. They want you to think about it this season, maybe step up a little more with the A this year than they’ve expected you to in the past.”
Kolya stares. This is so far from anything he could have expected that he has no idea what to say in response.
“You’re —” he starts, and doesn’t know how to finish that sentence. “What?”
Brooks is their captain — has been since before Kolya came to New York, and he’s good at it. Sure, he’s in his mid-thirties, but some guys play longer than that, and Brooks just got cleared to get back to training after hip surgery over the summer. Jagr is planning on playing until he’s fifty, everyone knows that. Kolya always figured Brooks would just stick around like a bad penny.
“I’m retiring at the end of this coming season,” Brooks says. His tone is utterly matter-of-fact, as if losing hockey won’t devastate him. Maybe it won’t – maybe he’s one of the guys who can move on without it destroying him.
“My hip can’t take another reconstruction,” Brooks is saying. “And it won’t last long if I keep playing past this season.” He shrugs. “I’ll buy out the rest of my contract, and take some time off while the kids finish high school here in the city before figuring out what to do next.”
“All right,” he says, because he can’t think of anything else to say. “But why me?”
James laughs, and the head coach, Michael Sims, steps in. James looks honestly amused, which Kolya doesn’t find as reassuring as he maybe should.
“You’re good with the rookies,” Sims says. “They look up to you, do what you ask. The vets all know you’re solid and level-headed, don’t fly off at the handle. You think things through, and you don’t take stupid penalties on ice. You’re already leading the team in a lot of ways, K. This would just make it a little more official off-ice.” Sims shrugs. “You’d have to take on even more interviews, polish your PR skills a bit, but you did well with the Junior Rangers fundraiser. And you’ve finished your bachelor’s, so we already know you can handle the time commitment in addition to playing.”
It sounds so logical laid out that way. Kolya resists the urge to flee the room.
The only thing he can think of to say is But I’m Russian. Are you sure you want a Russian captain? But that doesn’t make sense — the Washington Capitals have a Russian captain, and it’s happened before in the NHL often enough that Kolya can’t list everyone. Hockey doesn’t respect national boundaries that way, not when there’s luck and talent and hard work in the mix.
There’s no way he could ever say Are you sure you want a gay player as your captain? even if it’s the only thing he can think right now. Kolya might be thinking about coming out after he retires, maybe, if it all works out, but he can’t possibly tell anyone now. And Kolya can’t say no to this offer just because he’s a little worried about the extra media attention bringing up parts of his life he can’t afford to shine light on. He’ll have to hide better, that’s all.
Because, in point of fact, there’s really no way Kolya can say no to this offer, even if he really wanted to. The Rangers are his US employer, and his reason to be in the United States at all. If they want him to be the captain, whether for good reasons or bad, he’s going to say yes. They can’t break his contract if he says no, but Kolya doesn’t trust that they wouldn’t retaliate in some way if he didn’t obey.
Traktor Chelyabinsk, his Russian hockey team, never moved against him openly, either before or after he fled to the NHL, but they didn’t have to. Kolya knows well enough what his reputation is like back in Russia ever since he fled Russia to play hockey in America. He has a sense of what’s said about him behind closed doors and in his absence. There isn’t a certain job waiting for him in Russia, if he has to leave New York because he disappoints the Rangers.
And that’s his reputation now. If Russia finds out he’s gay on top of everything else, well. It doesn’t bear thinking about. So Kolya has to say yes. He’ll just have to be more careful.
“I — yes, of course,” Kolya says after a moment, grabbing at PR training and finding words that seem insufficient. “It’s an honor.”
James and all of the coaches grin at him and shake his hand, and Brooks looks relieved. Kolya smiles his media smile and shakes hands and lets them make plans for him, and tries his best not to freak out too visibly while he’s in the room with all these people and their plans for him.
If Kolya spends that evening hiding at home with downloaded Russian soap operas and more vodka than is strictly advisable, well, he’s allowed to make bad choices once in a while.
* * *
It seems like karmic payback that it’s the next day that Kolya finds out what the rookies have been calling the two of them behind their backs. It happens when Nick takes the football away from the rookies after cool-down from practice.
“You should be stretching for cool-down,” Nick chides, and tucks the ball more firmly under his arm when one of the rookies makes a grab for it. “It’s going to be a long road trip starting tomorrow, you should go home and play video games or something.”
“Awww, papa, you never let us have any fun,” Paulie complains, newly secure in the knowledge that Nick won’t actually fine him for chirping, or not much.
“Mama let us play keep-away for cool-down,” Kirill points out, gesturing toward Kolya’s stall, where he’s stripping out of his pads now that the last beat reporters have left him alone from a round of nonsense pre-season interviews. Kolya feels his stomach drop to the soles of his feet, and spares a moment to be grateful the press are already gone and there are no cameras pointed at him. He hasn’t minded the additional press attention that much, but he hasn’t had to lie to a reporter yet, either.
Nick pauses, then raises an eyebrow, obviously not quite getting what they mean. He dodges away from Sims, who clearly wants in on the game of keep-away and is going for the football.
“You’re totally the mean one,” Paulie explains. “Kolya’s the nice one. Plus he feeds us. You know?”
“Mama and papa,” Kirill says, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. He makes a lunge for the football and Paulie grabs it away from Nick in a move they’ve obviously used before. Then Paulie holds the ball up out of Nick’s reach, and Nick glares at him. Paulie is a huge guy, is the thing, easily six five in his bare feet. Nick is short for a hockey player. There’s no way Nick will get the ball back without climbing Paulie like a tree.
“Oh, fuck off,” Nick says, but he doesn’t seem upset about it, more focused on the football. “I’m not the mean one.”
“You fine Kirill for skates,” Anton points out, walking by on his way to the showers.
“He forgot his skates and his Under-Armor!” Nick exclaims. “Of course I fucking fined him!”
“Not to play,” Kirill says, still obviously sulky about the whole debacle.
“Nyet zhalyuas’!” Nick says. His accent is still terrible. Kolya thinks he must be even more stupidly in love with Nick than he has ever realized, because he still feels a little fond at how badly Nick butchers the “zh-” sound. “No bitching,” Nick repeats. “You’re a professional, you bring your gear even when you’re probably scratched for the night.”
Kirill sighs exaggeratedly, though he doesn’t argue the point.
“You still mean one,” he says, and points at Kolya. “Mama cooks.” He points at Nick. “Papa yells.”
“Way to be wrong, bro,” Sebastián breaks in, pausing in stripping off his pads. “My Mami can totally yell the house down. You try fucking around in her kitchen, she’ll take your ears off.”
The locker room devolves into debates over which mothers yell best. Cuban, Russian, and Quebeçois seem to be the front-runners. Kolya forces himself to keep breathing, to keep stripping down as if he hasn’t just had a near-heart-attack in the locker room.
* * *
“So you’re pissed,” Nick says when they get back to Kolya’s. Kolya was half hoping Nick would just go back to his own place, but he stuck to Kolya’s side like a burr the whole subway ride home.
Kolya makes a non-committal noise and starts pulling leftovers out of the fridge. They’re probably horrible: he was trying to teach Kirill and Paulie and Sebastián how to make blini yesterday, and most of the fillings are burnt. Kolya doesn’t feel like cooking now, though, and he can’t just throw the food away. He’s eaten worse food in his life. Though, Kolya thinks uncharitably, at least he had the excuse of being a literal child when he fucked up this badly in the kitchen.
“K, hey,” Nick says, and puts a hand on his arm. “Is this about the rookies? You know they don’t mean it.”
“They do mean it,” Kolya says, and puts the first hastily-assembled plate in the microwave and piling toppings together on a second plate for himself.
“So, okay, they probably do,” Nick caves. He doesn’t sound like he cares one way or the other. “So what? They’ll get over it.” He laughs a little, like this is all some kind of prank, a joke the team is playing. “And you have been feeding them a lot, Kolya, you know?”
Kolya spins on him. Nick actually steps back.
“So I teach them to cook,” Kolya spits. “Blame Marc, was his idea.”
Nick looks wary now, like Kolya is some kind of wild animal in need of soothing, like he’s the one behaving strangely.
“So what’s the problem?” Nick says. “I mean, hell, I don’t want to be the mean one forever, you know, but they’ll get over it.”
“I’m not their mama,” Kolya bites out. “I’m not — I’m a hockey player, not a cook, not your wife.” Panic rises in his throat with the words, and he grabs at the edge of the kitchen counter and stares down at it.
When the microwave beeps and Kolya looks up, Nick seems honestly baffled.
“K,” Nick tries. “No one’s saying that, I mean —”
“The hell they’re not,” Kolya says. “Mama and papa? You wait,” he says, too angry to focus on his English. “They talk more soon, say more things about us. I certain, Nick.”
This kind of thing happened before in Russia, is the thing. Kolya cooked one meal too many for a high school teammate and it nearly ruined everything. It didn’t matter that his mama was too ill to cook: Kolya had to stop having teammates over to his apartment for the rest of the year. When that wasn’t enough, he lost his virginity to a girl he didn’t care about at all, and that papered it over well enough to get drafted to Traktor and get out.
But Kolya can’t do that again: he doesn’t have a backup plan for the Rangers, never thought he’d need one. If him-and-Nick fucks things up, if something as stupid as prank-inspired cooking with the rookies fucks this up with rumors, Kolya doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
Kolya clamps down on the counter so tight his knuckles go white.
“Okay,” Nick says. “Okay, so if they talk, we laugh it off, and tell them to feed themselves.” He places a tentative hand on Kolya’s shoulder. “Mikushka.” he says, and his voice is soft. “Eat something, hey, okay?”
Kolya wants to yell, wants to break things: he could afford to replace anything he broke at this point, but he can’t get past his childhood fear of waste. He forces himself to unclench his grip and take the plate out of the microwave.
“That one’s yours,” Kolya says, and puts his own in to heat up.
Nick opens his mouth and then bites back whatever he was going to say.
Good call, Kolya thinks bitterly, and waits for the microwave to beep so he can eat his horrible blini. Nick sits across from him at Kolya’s small table and doesn’t say anything, just shovels down the food as if it isn’t burnt and pretty terrible. He’s clearly waiting for Kolya to say something, to explain. Kolya stares down at his plate and sighs.
“I –” he starts, and takes a deep breath, tangling his ankles with Nick’s. “I just can’t fuck up hockey. I –” I can’t go back, he wants to say. I can’t risk that.
“You’re still having the nightmares,” Nick says. It’s almost a question. “About people finding out?”
Kolya shrugs. He hasn’t been, not really. He doesn’t need the dreams to remind him what a bad idea it is to be taking on a leadership role in the NHL with such a big secret to hide.
“They want me to be captain,” he hears himself say. “After Brooks.” He looks at Nick. “I said yes.”
“That’s – but that’s a good thing, right?” Nick says. “They’re less likely to trade you if you’re captain, you know?”
Kolya isn’t so sure about that, but that isn’t why he brought it up. “It means I can’t stop the cooking lessons,” Kolya says. “Dena likes them. PR says I have to keep teaching the rookies so they can post on Instagram for a better team image.”
“Fuck that!” Nick says, shoving his empty plate away with an abrupt gesture. “They don’t get to tell you what to do in your time off.”
Kolya just stares at him, and Nick glares back. “It’s my job, Nick,” he says. “If I’m captain next, I step up. They ask me, I say yes.”
That’s how it works, Kolya knows. It may not be part of his contract, but if the Rangers want him to do something, he’s not in a position to say no. Traktor never told him outright that his mother would have better doctors if he signed their contract. They didn’t have to. The Rangers have even more leverage, because Kolya will do anything to stay in the States.
“You can say no,” Nick all but yells. “They can’t fuck with your contract for not teaching the rookies to cook. You have an agent for a reason!”
Kolya just shrugs, and Nick hisses out a breath and stands up in a rush. He’s obviously angry and just as obviously reining it in.
“I’m going home,” Nick bites out. “I don’t want to fight about this right now.”
Nick lets himself out with the key Kolya gave him in June, and Kolya stares at their empty plates sitting on the table and tells himself he doesn’t feel like he just lost the argument anyway.
* * *
“Mama, catch,” Paulie calls, and Kolya raises a hand to keep from being smacked in the face by a roll of tape.
Marc and Kirill high-five with a grin. Kolya shakes his head, and tries not to frown.
“Man,” Timmo says from his right. “You fuckin’ hate being called that, don’t you.”
“They’ll get over it,” Kolya says. It’s not a denial, but Kolya really doesn’t want to talk about this right now. They just lost three games in a row, one at home and two away, and he’s pissed off and tired, and trying to keep it together so the team doesn’t give up. It’s too early in the season for them to lose hope over a few losses, but three games in a row is enough for even the less superstitious players to start thinking their luck has gone sour.
“Right,” Timmo says, and takes the tape away from Kolya, chucking it at the back of Paulie’s head where he’s chatting with some of the other rookies.
“Hey, assholes,” Timmo says, loud enough to carry. “Lay off the mama and papa shit, it’s getting old. Find a new joke, eh?”
Kolya stares at him, sure his surprise shows on his face clear as day.
“What?” Timmo asks. “So they’re douchebags, sure. Doesn’t mean I won’t call them on it when it’s too much, eh?”
Kolya nods, and finishes getting dressed on auto-pilot, not really sure what just happened.
* * *
The Rangers win their first regular season game two days later. It’s a home game against the Bruins, and the whole team is ecstatic.
“Going out!” Kirill tells Kolya. “Marc says good bar, not cares age?”
So it’ll be Warren 77 again, Kolya thinks, the bar their old teammate Carter’s friend owns. He hopes Carter is still willing to call his buddy to rope off a booth even now that he’s retired from playing hockey. When Kolya texts Carter, he says it’s already taken care of. When Kolya looks up from his phone he sees that both Paulie and Sebastián have put a metric ton of gel in their hair and are being chirped for their clothes by older teammates. Kolya has visions of his own rookie year.
“Rookies, you buddy up. No leaving the bar without checking in first,” Kolya calls. “Paulie, Seb, you check in with Big Lars; Kirill, Sam, you’re with Timmo. And, Marc,” Kolya adds, and waits for heads to turn in surprise: Marc’s not a rookie. “You’re with me.”
Marc flips him off for the implied insult, and Kolya shoots him his best shit-eating grin while the team laughs.
About half the team ends up coming out, piled into cabs in clumps of twos and threes. Some time later Kolya finds himself at the edge of one of their two reserved booths next to Nick. The rookies who are too young to drink legally huddle in the back of the same booth sneaking shots or pouring them into the sodas they’ve been pretending to drink most of the evening; the older players and veterans are either up and about or sitting behind Kolya in another booth. Kolya is balanced awkwardly on the edge of the bench, so he stretches his arm behind Nick’s shoulders to keep himself anchored.
“Hope you’re thirsty,” Big Lars says, carrying over a tray of shots. He winks at the rookies, some of whom are starting to look a little the worse for wear by now.
“I hope that’s good vodka,” Kolya says back. “You always get the fruity shit.”
“Little Lars likes the fruity shit,” Lars says back. “Don’tcha, kid?”
“Not a kid!” Nick protests, which is absolutely not a denial, because Nick has awful taste in alcohol. “What’d you get?”
More than half the tray is fruit-flavored, and the rest is shitty vodka from the well. Kolya shares a look of disgust with Kirill, and gets up to get something actually worth drinking. Nick, who has been leaning into him, scowls as Kolya stands up, makes a grabbing gesture with one hand. Kolya shakes his head, and Nick grimaces, but lets Kolya get up.
“This stuff is fine,” Nick protests, tipping back a citrus shot.
“This stuff is gross,” Kolya corrects. “You have shit taste in vodka.”
“Good taste in –” Nick puts down his shot glass and pauses mid-sentence, looking contemplative. “Nope,” he concludes. “Not drunk enough yet,” he decides and takes another shot.
Kolya shakes his head and goes to the bar to get something decent. When he comes back, Lars’ tray is empty and Nick is gone from the booth. Kolya gets the rookies to clear the table, sets down his own tray in the empty space, and raises a shot with Kirill.
“To Americans,” Kolya says. “Despite their fucking terrible taste in vodka.”
Kirill nods, eyes big and solemn, and Kolya is pretty sure he’s too drunk to be firing on all cylinders in English anymore, so he repeats himself in Russian, and Kirill grins at him, clearly well past plastered.
“You like him anyway,” Kirill says. “But that vodka was really nasty. This is much better.”
Kolya stares at him, empty glass in hand. It seems like the bar went dead silent just as Kirill spoke, but that must be his imagination.
“Oh, shit,” Kirill says. “Timmo’s gonna kill me. It’s very, very secret, right? I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Hey, hey,” Seb says, waving an empty shot glass at him. “English, dude. Share with the class.”
Kirill grins at him and Kolya has a moment of sheer, unbridled panic that he really hopes doesn’t show on his face.
“You vodka sucks,” Kirill says. “I’m telling Kolya this better, thank him for selling.”
“Buying,” Paulie says, correcting. “K bought the vodka. The bartender sold it.”
Kolya tips back another shot, waiting for his heart to stop rabbiting like it’s trying to beat out of his chest. He’s pretty sure Kirill meant that Kolya likes Nick anyway. And then he said it was a secret, and that means – that means Timmo said something to him. Kolya looks around the bar. Most of the players are seated behind him, but Timmo is chatting with Marc on the other side of the room. Kolya heads over.
“What, not going to get the rookies plastered?” Marc asks.
“They have drinks,” Kolya says. “Terrible vodka and now good vodka. Seb is complaining about the rum being gone.” He shrugs. “Cubans are weird.”
“But why is the rum gone?” Marc wails in a terrible Johnny Depp impression, and heads over to the bartender, apparently keen on fixing that problem ASAP.
“Kirill said something strange just now,” Kolya says to Timmo, watching as Marc gets a few mixed drinks and yet more shots to take over to the team’s booths.
Timmo shrugs. “He’s pretty drunk.”
“Not this drunk,” Kolya says. “What did you tell him about me that’s a secret?”
Timmo looks at him dead-on, utterly serious. “You and Nick,” he says, voice too low to carry. “Kid had some questions, I told him to shut up about it, leave you guys alone.”
“Ah,” Kolya says. His breath feels tight, like he’s been body-checked without warning and had the wind knocked out of him. He grabs at the drink shelf bolted to the wall and blinks.
Timmo is staring at him now, like Kolya’s done something strange. Kolya wants to tell him everything is fine but he can’t find his voice right now. He will in a minute. Surely.
“I’m getting Nick,” Timmo declares, and leaves Kolya standing by the wall trying not to freak out too obviously.
“Kolya,” Nick says softly. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Kolya wants to laugh. He wants to yell, he wants to cry. More than anything, he wants to be able to breathe again.
“Mikushka, you’re scaring me here,” Nick says, too soft to be heard. He glares at Timmo, shoves between the two of them like he can take a hit for Kolya, like it isn’t too late. “What the fuck did you do to him?”
“Kirill said something to him,” Timmo says. He nods at the two of them. “I just told the kid you two were keeping things on the DL, you know?”
“Fuck,” He says. “You fucking asshole, you knew?” He holds up a hand, stopping Timmo from responding. “Not one word. We’re talking about this later. I’m not doing this here.”
Timmo nods, and Kolya feels Nick’s hand at the small of his back. He leans into the touch a little bit, hopefully not enough to be obvious. It’s probably too much. He’s not sure he can stop himself, despite that.
“We’re leaving,” Nick announces. “I’m too tired for this shit.”
“I’ve got the kids,” Timmo offers, and then, softer. “Hey, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” Nick says. His voice is quiet. “Me too.”
Kolya lets himself be herded into a cab, and they end up at Nick’s place somehow – Kolya doesn’t really remember the intervening time between leaving the bar and Nick putting a glass of water in his hand in the kitchen.
“K, talk to me,” Nick is saying. “Vozlyublenyy. Hey. Tell me what happened, okay?”
Kolya drinks the water in one long swallow, then refills it from the tap. He can’t look at Nick.
“Kirill knows,” He says. “Timmo told him it was a secret, but.” He tips back the second glass of water. “Fuck.”
“Okay,” Nick says. “So. What now?”
Kolya puts the glass down on the counter.
“We think about it in the morning,” he says. “I’m too drunk now.” He looks at Nick. “Can I stay here?” He asks. He doesn’t want to go home to his empty apartment right now, hear the silence pounding away at him, resonating with all the things Kirill might say, who might have overheard. He doesn’t want to dwell on all the ways this will go wrong.
“Baby,” Nick says, and grabs him into a tight hug. “You can always stay.”
Kolya melts into the embrace and lets Nick be the big spoon, huddling into the curve of him like he can hide from the storm he knows is coming, like Nick can protect him, like Nick’s reckless habit of dropping the gloves on the ice could do any good against this.
* * *
Kolya wakes up to the radio with Nick sprawled half on top of him, whuffling in his sleep and sporting ridiculously fluffy and disheveled hair. He must move, or tense, because Nick wakes.
“Morning,” Nick rasps, blinking slowly. He looks half-awake and perfect, and Kolya – Kolya just wants to keep this forever.
He kisses Nick in reply, cupping Nick’s face in his hands and pulling him close until the two of them are pressed together hip to hip, face to face. Nick still tastes faintly of flavored vodka under the morning breath, but Kolya couldn’t care less.
He runs his hands down the line of Nick’s back, all wide shoulders and solid muscle, grips at his hips almost hard enough to leave marks, encouraging Nick to roll his hips against Kolya’s.
“Mmm,” Nick says, pulling back from the kiss with a smile. “Good morning.”
Kolya reels him back in with one hand laced in his hair, tugging him close a little too quickly. They almost bang noses, but Nick lets him set the pace, doesn’t try to gentle the kiss, just runs one hand up under Kolya’s shirt, strips them both until they’re naked, the sheets kicked down to the bottom of the bed in a messy tangle.
It’s almost too much, Nick’s bare skin pressed against his own, and Kolya has to bury his face in Nick’s shoulder for a moment. He never wants to give this up, not for anything.
“Hey,” Nick says, petting his hair. Kolya doesn’t want to talk, though, so he presses a light kiss to Nick’s collarbone and slides down the bed peppering sucking kisses down Nick’s torso as he goes. Nick isn’t quite all the way hard yet, but Kolya has always liked the feeling of Nick’s erection plumping up against his tongue. He sucks hard on the head, almost vicious with it, and Nick bites back a cry.
“Let me hear you,” Kolya says. He wants to know Nick is as desperate for this as he is, doesn’t care about thin walls right now. When he bobs his head again, Nick groans low in his throat but doesn’t bite down on his palm to muffle the sound and Kolya hums in encouragement. When Nick gasps, Kolya rewards him by rolling his balls in one hand, tugging gently. He knows by now that Nick loves the feeling of the hockey calluses on Kolya’s fingers and palm. If it weren’t a practice day, Kolya would slick his fingers up, fuck Nick until they both couldn’t take more, then stretch out for a nap. They’ve done that more times than Kolya can count this summer, woken up stick and sated and ready for more.
But it’s a work day, so to speak, so fucking is off the table. Kolya contents himself with teasing Nick with fingers and tongue, stroking his cock and licking around the head while Nick sobs and writhes against the mattress, trying so hard to stay still instead of fucking into Kolya’s mouth. He’s always so polite, doesn’t ever seem to care that Kolya can’t deep-throat him very well, and Kolya feels overwhelmed all of a sudden.
Kolya doesn’t want to think about last night, about what it might do to them, but he feels keenly aware of the moment in a way he hasn’t since their first time, as if this might be the last time he gets to have Nick spread out below him, broad and strong and vulnerable and all for him.
“Come for me,” Kolya says, pulling back to press a kiss just below the crown of Nick’s cock. Nick whimpers and comes all over Kolya’s face with a strangled sobbing cry.
“Oh my god,” Nick gasps, grabbing at Kolya’s shoulders and pulling him up into a sticky, messy kiss. He’s still shaking, but single-minded. “Let me, K, please.”
It only takes a few desperate strokes of Nick’s hand before Kolya comes hard. He collapses onto Nick like a puppet with cut strings, like he’s had his feet taken out from below him on the ice. He rests his head against the dip of Nick’s collarbone and tries to collect his thoughts, feeling satiation looping through him warring with fear of the future.
“I love you so much it scares me,” Kolya says into Nick’s shoulder, after a moment has passed.
“I love you too,” Nick says. Then he shakes his head. “And – what else did you say?”
Before Kolya can answer, Nick’s second alarm goes off, blaring klaxons that could wake the dead. It makes them both jump, and then it’s a flurry of showering and throwing on clothes before practice, because that alarm means they’re about to be late.
When the two of them all but skid into the locker room at the same time, running too late to attempt subterfuge, Anton makes a face. He looks rough, like he had too much to drink last night at the bar. Kolya isn’t sure where Anton was when he and Nick left, whether he saw or heard anything, but he doesn’t have long to wonder.
“Shameless. You fucking faggots should be more afraid,” Anton hisses, just loud enough to be heard, just quietly enough to be deniable. Kolya steels himself for a flood of similar comments over the next few weeks. If he’s lucky, it won’t get outside the team until after January, after he’s been able to play at the Olympics.
“Fuck off, asshole,” Kirill says. It’s in Russian, but it’s also the kind of slang hockey players pick up pretty damn young. Everyone understands him, even if Kolya thinks they didn’t pick up on all of what Anton said.
“What’d he say,” Marc demands, tone flat. He has his crazy goalie face on, the one everyone knows means business. He probably had the same face on when he broke Nick’s nose last year, though Kolya doesn’t really remember.
“Nothing worth repeating,” Kolya says, trying to shut things down. He’s not going to let this snowball.
“Very bad thing,” Kirill says at the exact same time. “Like – don’t know English. Not okay, not teach you these Russian words.”
“Enough gawking,” Timmo calls out into the dead-silent room. “We get out on the ice late, coach Sims’ll make us all do a bag skate. Get your panties untwisted, ladies, we’re here to work.”
Kolya hates that he’s slipped up enough that Timmo has to keep order in the locker room – Kolya is supposed to be the next captain. He should be doing that kind of thing, not causing the problem.
Kolya shoves on his gear and gets out of the locker room as fast as he can. If he avoids Anton on the ice as much as he can, well, they’ve never really been friends, and they don’t play on the same line. He does see Marc, Kirill, Timmo, and even Lars skate past Anton a few times, though, and each time Anton looks a little less sure of himself. It makes Kolya feel petty, small inside, but the growing unease on Anton’s face makes him feel a little bit better.
At the end of practice, the locker room is subdued. Kolya knows he should do something about it, but isn’t sure what he can do, so he just keeps his head down and tries to get through it.
“Hey,” Marc says, as Kolya is grabbing his shoes. “Grab lunch with me, hein?”
Kolya wants to go home and freak out, but Marc has the look on his face that says he won’t take no for an answer.
“Where?” Kolya asks.
“Your place,” Marc says. “Holly’s at mine, and Timmo lives in fuckin’ Jersey.”
Kolya shrugs. It’s going to be some kind of intervention, if Timmo is involved, too. He probably deserves it.
“Fine,” Kolya says. “But I’m not cooking for you assholes on no notice.”
“Nick’s already getting food, he’ll meet us there,” Marc says. “Kirill and Timmo went with him. Let’s walk.”
They get a cab to Kolya’s, hitting the usual traffic from double-parked delivery trucks taking up multiple lanes on sixth avenue, and when Kolya unlocks his door, Nick is already there laying out containers from the deli down the block, with Kirill getting out plates and Timmo straddling a chair and helping himself to a beer from the fridge.
“Okay, so,” Marc says when the door is closed, before Kolya can open his mouth. “After the way you freaked on us, we figured we should tell you we’ve got your back. Anybody who fucks with you is fucking with us first.”
“What?” Kolya asks. This is not what he expected at all. This is so far from what he expected that he can’t figure out what planet he’s on.
“Dude!” Timmo says, gesturing with his beer bottle. “Marc broke Nick’s nose last year because he was a dick to you. We’re just glad you worked it out, okay?”
Kolya pulls out a chair and slumps into it. They don’t sound at all surprised by this, is the scariest thing.
“Shit,” he says. “Who knows?”
“Us,” Marc says, waving at the room. “Big Lars. Dan, and Sergei, probably, but they’re retired, and, you know. Sergei thinks you’re his own damn kid by now, and you’ve babysat for Dan enough times you’re basically honorary family, his kids fucking love you.”
Kolya stares at him, and Nick hands him a beer.
“So we suck at being discreet,” Nick says.
“Not really,” Timmo says, just as Marc nods.
“Fuck,” Kolya says. He’d really thought they were doing okay.
“They’re talking too fast,” Kirill hisses. He looks frustrated.
“They’re saying we’re really goddamn obvious and my life is fucking over,” Kolya says.
“No they’re not,” Kirill says back. “They like you too much to tell you that.” He shrugs. “They’re too American, they’d lie to make you feel better even if it were true.”
Kolya chuckles bitterly and Nick clears his throat.
“Okay,” He says, speaking slowly and clearly the way he used to do their rookie year, when Kolya’s English was terrible. “So, um, first of all, thank you? But also, well, how do we shut talk like – whatever that was – down? I mean, I don’t mind rumors about me so much, but.” He shrugs. “It’s a little different for Kolya, you know?”
“Fucking Russia,” Kirill says. He looks fierce. “I can keep secret.”
“We can all keep a secret, kid,” Timmo says. “It’s not us they’re worried about.”
“It’s you a little bit,” Kolya admits. “It’s anyone at all.”
Timmo looks a little bit offended, but Marc shoves him and makes a face, says something in rapid-fire French that seems to placate him. Kirill seems unsurprised, at least.
Nick sits down next to Kolya and puts a hand too high on his thigh and Kolya has a moment of blind panic before he realizes: this is kind of okay. These people all know, and they’re all still here. They’re not going to the media, and they’re not telling Kolya he’s a disgrace or broken or dangerous. It’s more than he’d ever expected. He shakes his head, trying to clear it.
“So,” Nick says. “Anton, for one. I don’t want him making trouble.”
“Oh, he won’t,” Marc and Timmo say. It comes out in a kind of creepy Quebeçois unison from both sides of the kitchen.
“You don’t know that,” Kolya says. Marc might be their lead goalie, and well-liked, but this kind of thing goes deeper than team. They don’t understand what Anton might do to him, or why.
“I do know,” Kirill says. He looks frustrated, then switches to Russian. “My family is still in Moscow, you know? They have money, connections They know some very powerful people. If I tell them, look, this hockey player from nowhere, from a fucking suburb of Ufa, he is making problems for me? Well. They can make problems for him, or for his family still in Russia. He knows this now, I told him during practice.”
Kolya stares at him.
“What did he say?” Nick asks.
“Shit, kid.” Marc looks impressed when Kolya translates word for word. Timmo and Nick both just look surprised.
“Why would you do that?” Kolya asks.
“My godmother, she has very good friend, yes?” Kirill says. He speaks slowly, in English this time, careful with his words, and looks between Nick and Kolya the whole time. “Friend is good lady, kind. She is family. They have – they move to Finland last year.”
Kolya blinks as it all falls into place. Kirill’s godmother is like him, and she and her partner, her good friend, her all-but-wife, had to move to Finland to get out of Russia after the laws changed.
Kirill shrugs. “Russia not good place for you,” he says. “You very good, Kolya, kind, much helping me. I not tell uncle why, just say Anton makes me trouble.”
“My god,” Nick says. “You’d blackmail him for us?”
“Not mail,” Kirill says, frowning. “Just – threaten, little bit.”
Kolya chokes back a laugh.
“Well,” Timmo says. “I’ll drink to that.” He drains his beer.
“T’es donc ben naiseux,” Marc says, conversational. Kolya recognizes it as an insult. “Idiot. Take these.”
He hands around tumblers that he apparently found in Kolya’s cabinets and pours a generous amount of Kolya’s vodka into his own.
“To silence,” Marc says, and looks at Timmo meaningfully, while pouring for him.
“To having your backs,” Timmo says, and Marc starts pouring for Kirill.
“No gossip,” Kirill adds, looking at Marc as if for approval. Marc nods, and pours a glass that he shoves at Nick.
“To the team, I guess,” Nick says. He looks decidedly cheerful, as if this is unalleviated good news. Marc pushes a glass at Kolya and gives him a blank glare that Kolya knows for a fact wins them shoot-outs by scaring the opposing team.
“To –” Kolya pauses. “To friends,” He says, finally. It feels insufficient, and also like too much.
They clink glasses, and Kolya drains his double in a long swallow, Nick’s hand still heavy on his thigh.
By the time Marc, Timmo and Kirill get up from trading stories around the kitchen table, Nick is leaning against Kolya’s shoulder like a limpet, halfway in his lap. The vodka bottle is long-since empty, and Marc is completely trashed from trying to keep up. Kolya would think Marc had never drunk with Russians before, but he knows for a fact that’s not true.
“Holly is gonna be so mad,” Marc is saying as Timmo wrangles him out the door. “I’m – so mad, calisse. I’m sooo drunk.”
Timmo says something soothing in French, and Kirill pauses in the doorway.
“I meant it,” Kirill says in quiet Russian. “Anton knows my uncle could bedevil his family without much trouble. He’ll be quiet if he’s smart.”
Kolya nods and claps him on the shoulder, at a loss for words.
“What was that?” Nick asks when Kolya comes back into the main room. He’s sprawled on the sofa now, looking consideringly at a mostly-empty glass of vodka. “Something about Anton and – was it – family?”
That would be the word Nick picked up, Kolya thinks.
“Just – the same offer, I think,” Kolya says. “About Anton.”
“That’s a little scary,” Nick says. He sounds contemplative. “I mean. Could he really do that kind of thing?”
Kolya sits down, moving Nick’s feet out of the way so there’s room for him on the sofa. Nick puts them back in his lap and wriggles around to get comfortable again.
“Maybe,” Kolya says. “Probably. I don’t know.” He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter.”
Nick blinks, and puts the glass down on Kolya’s broken-down coffee table with a click.
“Of course it –” He pauses. “Oh,” he says, and it looks like he’s just had some kind of revelation. “You mean it only matters if Anton thinks he could.”
Kolya rests his hands on Nick’s ankles, rubs his thumbs around Nick’s ankle bones gently. The sunshine through the windows lands on Nick’s hair, lighting it up like a halo, blindingly bright, and right here in Kolya’s grasp. Kolya grabs a little tighter. He doesn’t know how he could ever have thought about letting Nick go. Something crystallizes in his chest, hard and certain in place of the lingering dread of his recurring nightmares.
“It –” Kolya says, because he thinks he has the words now. “It also –” he pauses. “I want to play hockey.” He admits. “So much. I want to play in Sochi. I want a gold metal, and I want to play for Russia.”
Nick prods him with a toe when Kolya sits in silence for some time. Kolya opens his mouth, and hears words fall out of it as if from a distance.
“But I want this more.” Kolya admits. “I just don’t want to have to choose yet.”
“Oh.” Nick breathes. He sounds shocked by Kolya’s admission. Kolya is a little surprised by it, but mostly by how true it feels. He wants Nick more than he wants hockey, even if he isn’t sure whether Nick feels the same way.
For now, though, Kolya thinks, he can have them both.