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Si c'est aimer

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Madrigal

Si c'est aimer, Madame, et de jour, et de nuit
If it is love, Madam, and by day, and by night
Rêver, songer, penser le moyen de vous plaire,
To dream, muse, think of how to please you,
Oublier toute chose, et ne vouloir rien faire
To forget all things, and want to do nothing
Qu'adorer et servir la beauté qui me nuit :
But adore and serve the beauty who harms me:

Si c'est aimer que de suivre un bonheur qui me fuit,
If it is love to pursue a happiness who runs from me
De me perdre moi même et d'être solitaire,
To lose myself and be lonesome,
Souffrir beaucoup de mal, beaucoup craindre et me taire,
To suffer from much ache, to fear much and keep quiet,
Pleurer, crier merci, et m'en voir éconduit :
To weep, to cry for mercy, and see myself turned away:

Si c'est aimer que de vivre en vous plus qu'en moi même,
If it is love to live more in you than in myself,
Cacher d'un front joyeux, une langueur extrême,
To hide with a merry face an extreme pining,
Sentir au fond de l'âme un combat inégal,
To feel in the depths of my soul an unfair fight,
Chaud, froid, comme la fièvre amoureuse me traite :
Hot, cold, as love fever treats me:

Honteux, parlant à vous de confesser mon mal !
Shameful, telling you about confessing my ill!
Si cela est aimer : furieux je vous aime :
If that is love: madly I love you:
Je vous aime et sait bien que mon mal est fatal,
I love you and well know that my ill is deadly,
Le coeur le dit assez, mais la langue est muette.
The heart says it enough, though the tongue is silent.

Pierre de Ronsard, Amours, “Premier livre des sonnets pour Hélène“, 1578 (My translation)

 

***

 

The sound of the front door opening then closing echoed down the hall to the kitchen. Julien smiled reflexively at the teapot brewing on the table, filled with enough for two. Alexei was back right on time, as promised. It was still early; pink hues lingered in the clear sky stretching beyond the windows of Julien’s kitchen. Another perfect summer day was in the making, one they would have lots of time to enjoy together. Julien’s slight annoyance, that he had carried with him since being awakened at break of dawn by Alexei sneaking out of bed, flew away like an early bird.

A racket coming from the front of the house blew away the last few feathers of it from Julien’s mind. Alexei was insulting his luggage in a patchwork of languages. Julien smiled wider and wider as he strained his ears to listen, a small part of his attention focused on setting up their breakfast. Two mugs, lovingly called ‘the ugly ones’ by their owners, joined the banged up teapot on the table. Julien had never cared for fine tableware, the upkeep too much of a hassle. He thought to himself, like he always did, that the mugs’ gaudy patterns were only enhanced by the contrast with the graceful patina of his kitchen table. It seemed carved straight out of a trunk of cherry wood and Julien was proud of the old-fashioned, solid thing.

Plates and cutlery were next but that simple mission was forgotten when Alexei appeared at the doorway. Julien had seen him not three hours before at his most unattractive: unshaven, unwashed, vision foggy with drowsiness and breath equally so when he had kissed Julien on the ear, mumbling that he was going to finish shutting down his place and would be back around seven. Julien had in fact seen many ugly sides to Alexei, in many ways. Standing there with his blond hair catching the light and an intent look on his face, Alexei was still the most beautiful sight in the world.

Julien stood no chance of ignoring such a beacon. He walked leisurely the few paces that separated them, slid a confident hand in Alexei’s hair and kissed him. In the bliss of the moment, Julien spared a thought to the easy affection between them. It was not a novelty, it had not been for some time, but he never stopped relishing how comfortable they had become with each other. It proved that the journey to get there, with all its hazards and hurdles, had been worth it.

Alexei and Julien separated to take a breath, regretfully. They stayed close a little longer, holding tight while lost in each other’s eyes, until Julien whispered a sweet greeting to Alexei’s lips and stepped out of the embrace. He went back to his forks and knives. When he glanced up again, he found that Alexei’s eyes had not moved at all, his gaze trained on Julien and Julien only. Alexei had such an expression on his face that had this been anyone else, had this been anyone but the two of them, Julien would have expected him to blurt out I love you.

“What?“ Julien said, in a quiet half-laugh. “Why are you looking at me like that?“

Alexei shook his head, turned away to putter with the teapot. He filled both their cups to the brim and sat down. Julien sat too, opposite him. He was not actually waiting for a confession of love, he never had, but he liked his questions to be answered. Alexei was taking his time. He drank a little tea, looking past Julien and out the window. The pose made him look far away and Julien did not like it. He had Alexei for one more day, nothing less. Julien kicked at him under the table.

That got him Alexei’s full attention back and he glared at Julien, a bit annoyed, a lot fond. It all smoothed out as Alexei kept staring, like those emotions evaporated in light of Julien’s eyes. Or maybe like Alexei felt too much for his face to settle on one thing.

“I’m going to miss you,“ Alexei said at last. That was a confession. And it was an honest one, almost as good as a love one.

It made a mess of Julien.

Chrisse[1],“ he sighed in response, the only response he had. Words always danced out of his reach when the situation needed them to be picked up and arranged prettily.

And it was hard to settle on one reaction. He was thankful for the emotion behind Alexei's words, so very thankful, but it was also an unpleasant reminder of the months of loneliness ahead. Julien was used to it. Alexei and him, they had been spending more time than not leaving each other, even when they were in the same city. When Julien left angry and slamming the door, it was close to fine. The rest of the time spent without Alexei, as usual as that was, Julien did a lot of missing him too.

Alexei had cracked a smile at the characteristic profanity.

“Please,“ he said, “just use that mouth for eating, Jules.“

Maybe it had been the right thing to say, if not the perfect expression of everything Julien felt, allowing them to move on to lighter topics than their imminent separation.

“You sure that’s the only use you want for my mouth, Alyosha?“

Alexei groaned at the easy innuendo but it still succeeded in drawing his attention to Julien’s lips, like he had started craving them the very moment they stopped kissing. Julien’s satisfied grin was kissed off as it toppled into smug, their breakfast momentarily forgotten.

 

***

 

They were working themselves up to the typical training sessions of the off-season so they spent about an hour working out together at the gym that morning, not pushing that hard yet. Julien had enjoyed the complete rest but it also felt good to put a little strain on his muscles again.

Once they had showered and wolfed down lunch at a steakhouse near the gym, they went about their separate business. Julien lazily watched TV in the upstairs bedroom while Alexei made a last play for the upper hand in his war against the faulty electric system of the basement. Alexei’s delusions amused Julien endlessly. He had many gifts but handiwork was not one of them.

The back garden was in the middle, where they naturally drifted together again.

Alexei was the first there, in all his defeat. Adorning one of the rickety blue chairs of the deck, he did not look too disheartened about being bested yet again when Julien, bored with the TV, joined him. He looked quite happy and at peace. Julien took the chair next to him and closed his eyes. A crackling, vibrating voice, sang about smoke getting in your eyes from the portable radio Alexei loved bringing with him as he moved around the house. It was made out of cheap grey plastic and looked like it, and Julien had trouble understanding Alexei’s affection for it. It did the job, he supposed.

The sun was beating down hard, and the notes of the old love song rustled along the grass, along the flowers and leaves. Julien had a hazy thought about gardeners then floated back to quiet contentment.

Wood creaked, whispering to Julien about Alexei’s round trip to the house. Julien half-opened an eye when he came back, two bottles of beer in tow. Julien grabbed his with one hand, Alexei’s hand with the other. And they sat there for a while, faces tilted to the sun and hands loosely linked, like a couple of kids. Like a couple of old men.

Julien, always the cliché when it came to Alexei, wished he could suspend time and enjoy the moment, if only for one more hour.

It was strange how people changed as the years went on. When he had been younger, Julien could not bear to sit still on a nice day. He felt restless if he was not running, skating, sweating his energy up. Alexei by his side had helped him settle down. At thirty-one, an excess of energy was less of a problem, but Alexei still was his path to calm.

Holding hands soon got too hot to be comfortable. One of them — either of them, or both, Julien was unclear then about where he started and Alexei ended — snorted softly and let go. They were a bit ridiculous, like all lovesick idiots.

Alexei rested his arm on the back of Julien’s chair, watching with undisguised interest as Julien stretched and popped his back. Alexei’s hand was just in the right place to stroke Julien’s upper arm. With every small back and forth of Alexei’s fingers, the atmosphere slowly turned charged. Yet another stroke had Julien shivering. It must have been the state Alexei wanted him in, because he took his hand back and got up.

Julien barely had the time to miss it that Alexei was cupping Julien’s jaw and bending down to kiss him. That, too, ended a little fast for Julien’s taste. He panted helplessly while Alexei splayed a hand on the nape of his neck, playing lightly with the short hair there, and slowly lowered himself to straddle Julien.

Alexei’s body was protecting Julien’s eyes from the direct glare of the sun but it was still hard to look up at his face, beaming like Alexei could not think of a better place to be than in Julien’s lap. Alexei kissed him again and Julien stopped worrying about blinding sights.

The make-out session was good, was perfect, but for one detail.

“You’re heavy,“ complained Julien. His legs were starting to fall asleep.

Alexei raised one coy blond eyebrow. “Then let’s move this to the bedroom, shall we?“

Julien followed, won over long ago.

 

***

 

Alexei’s skin had that faint smell only a long time outside in the sun gave it, and Julien opened just enough buttons of Alexei’s short-sleeved shirt to taste the warmth off of his neck, collarbone, shoulders. He was teasing, shamelessly so.

Julien licked and bit and kissed, smirking when Alexei showed a sign of impatience. He was trying to get rid off the shirt that clung to his shoulders with clumsy fingers and Julien gently replaced them by his own, working on the buttons, though at a less hurried pace. He gave Alexei a kiss for every button that went undone, ignoring his frustrated groans, mostly for show.

Once Julien had finally finished pulling away Alexei’s shirt, he moved down Alexei’s body slowly, his hands tracing over the sharp-edged shape of his ribs and hipbones. Julien lingered so much because he knew, that way, when he blew him, Alexei would fall into pieces between his hands, the relief too strong for him to keep his guard up after the long build-up.

When he did let it down, Alexei was radiant. Or he was true, more of the same. What else could remain after being stripped of every layer but the truth? Julien cherished that truth, as the only proof of love Alexei could stand to offer.

It was a test of Julien’s willpower too, seeing Alexei come apart. It made sappy things bubble and die in a burst on the tip of his tongue, like how Alexei had the sun inside him, how he was the brightest thing Julien had ever seen. And every last one of those sappy things had to be repressed, smothered in Alexei’s skin or lips, else Julien would scare him away again. Julien had never really had a doubt that it was worth it.

 

Alexei usually took the time to revel in the afterglow of a blow-job, a picture of decadence, laid out on silky sheets, limbs loose. But this time, coming seemed to just take the edge off and he pawed at Julien’s clothes with frantic need. So, after, Julien fucked Alexei, his arms bracketing Alexei’s head and tensing under the effort to support his own weight. Alexei’s grasp on them was so strong Julien could feel the bruises blooming. He picked up the rhythm in response.

Alexei’s mouth fell slightly open, as if he had been preparing to say something but could only manage wet panting. His legs shook around Julien. With every thrust, his cheeks went ever redder, his expression grew more desperate. Tears even blurred his eyes. Amazingly, he did not try to cover them or hide. Alexei held eye-contact like he would die if he looked away from Julien for one second.

His desperation was almost alarming. Alexei never got like this. Julien did what he could: his fingers brushed down Alexei's thighs soothingly and wiped away the single tear that made it down Alexei’s right cheek.

But that sense of urgency was contagious. It swept Julien away as well, near the end, convinced him he had to cram everything into that one moment. It led him to forget himself.

Funny thing about saying I love you in Julien’s mother tongue, it could stretch out for two long syllables or slip in one swishing sound. “J’t’aime,“ and that was it. It was covered up by Alexei moaning loudly, Julien at least made sure of that. It was the coward’s way out, saying it without saying it, but Julien was okay with being cowardly from time to time. Bravery had not paid off so well. And they had precious little time left together, Julien would not ruin it, not again.

 

***

 

They napped spooning and Julien was woken up by Alexei’s arms tightening around him. The clinginess of Alexei that day kept surprising him. It was pretty out of character, not that Julien was complaining. Alexei was murmuring in Russian, things Julien’s mind was too groggy to translate.

“What was that?“ he mumbled.

Alexei kissed his shoulder, once, instead of answering. Julien turned, so that they were both lying on their sides, face to face.

“You’ve been strange today,“ Julien said. Maybe for longer, now that he thought about it. They were almost a month into the off-season. Alexei never stayed that long in Vancouver.

“Have I?“

“Alyosha.“

Alexei closed his eyes to escape Julien’s scrutiny. He blew air through his nose, strands of hair moving out of the way. It was getting a little long, his hair, a little untidy. Julien liked it.

“I guess I have.“

Julien was tired of prying to get a straight answer out of Alexei but he gave it one last shot. “You’d tell me, right? If something was bothering you. If it was something serious.“

“Of course.“

Julien tried to convince himself it did not feel like a lie.

Alexei sat up, rubbing his eyes.“I should get ready,“ he said, “it’s almost time.“

 

Alexei was very quiet after they got into the car. Julien threw a curious glance his way, only to find him staring out the window. All of Vancouver seemed to have polished its exterior for Alexei's departure, simmering in the warm colours of the sunset.

They stopped to let a family cross the street in front of them. It was a young couple and their child, the little girl swinging between them. Even from inside the car, they could hear her shrieks of delight as she skipped merrily along. Alexei had a lopsided smile for the scene, from somewhere deep in his thoughts. Longing gripped Julien and sank its claws in his chest. It was harder to shake off, so close to their separation.

Julien took one hand off the wheel and hesitantly reached for Alexei. His hand hang in mid-air. Alexei looked awfully closed off. Whereas it had felt simple, natural to touch and hold hands earlier, the distance between them now felt like hundreds of thousands of miles. And every minute Julien drove them closer to the airport the silence that had started off companionable grew tenser, full of the unsaid. Julien had rarely had the courage to break that kind of silence.

Both of them had yet to say a word when they reached the line of cars waiting to drop off passengers.

Alexei spoke first. “Can’t you stay a little longer? Come with me?“

Julien quickly looked at him then back at the road. Alexei was avoiding Julien's eyes.

"I don't know, Alyosha," Julien frowned, torn up. "I'd need to make a u-turn somehow and the parking'll be a goddamn mess and—"

Alexei cut him off, "Please." He let a little vulnerability seep through, in the look he eventually directed at Julien.

"Jules," he begged.

"Yeah, okay.“

Yielding had never been easier.

 

The queue to the underground parking was seemingly endless but Julien joined it without comment. Once inside, he wandered around for a while before he found a free space to park. He cut off the engine. Nobody moved. They looked at each other. The same silence was weighing on them.

Alexei clicked his seatbelt off, looked around the parking lot. It was crowded, but in a way that left no time for nosiness, and the car windows protected their privacy. It was seldom less risky to be affectionate with each other in public.

They exchanged a long, deep kiss. Then Alexei came back for more, then Julien, then Alexei again.

“Can’t miss your flight,“ Julien managed, out of breath, resting their foreheads together. They had left early enough that Alexei probably still had a decent amount of time to make it to check-in. But Julien understood what they were doing, just as he understood it was pointless. They could steal a moment here and there all they wanted, it would be a cold comfort when they were alone again. They were only delaying the inevitable.

“Yeah, I know,“ Alexei said. His reluctance drew a thin smile out of Julien.

“Come on, let’s go,“ he prodded gently.

They went out, up and up to register Alexei’s luggage, before walking to check-in. Julien had to make a conscious effort to keep himself from sticking too close, from touching Alexei too much. They reached the check-in point far too early.

“You forgot anything? Anything you might have left at my place that I’ll need to send you?“ asked Julien, grasping at straws for something to say other than goodbye.

It made Alexei clench his jaw for some reason. “No,“ he said, in a flat voice.

They lapsed back into silence, hovering in a state between together and apart.

“Well, I guess this is it, then,“ Julien said, steadier than he felt.

Alexei nodded dejectedly. It was killing Julien that he could not touch him like he wanted. He only had his words, lacking as they often were, so he pushed through his constricted throat, to reassure Alexei. “Hey.“ He waited for Alexei to lock eyes with him. “Hey, I’ll call you, okay? I’ll call you. It’ll be fine.“

Alexei’s smile still looked pained. “Sure, Jules. You’re right.“

They hugged, making it last longer than what they would normally allow themselves.

“Jules,“ said Alexei, as they parted, like his voice was a thread he could spin around Julien’s wrist, to hold on to him. He trailed off after saying Julien’s name, creating a tiny gap where, once again, I love you would have fit in just right. Julien almost pushed. He almost tried to get him to say it, to just say it, to say it just once. But Alexei’s plane was waiting to take off, it was not the right time. There would be other occasions.

He simply said, “Bye, Alyosha,“ with all the tenderness he had.

Alexei swallowed audibly. “Take care, Julien,“ he replied, after a beat.

If it was a little too formal, a little too solemn, well. They were still in public. Julien understood.

He watched Alexei walk away, kept watching a while after he had disappeared out of sight.

 

***

 

Julien returned to a house that was exactly the same as he had left it — obviously, it had only been a few hours. It should have been impossible for him to find something off about the undisturbed rooms. It should have been impossible for Alexei’s absence to be so glaring. But the rancid smell of loneliness did not care about impossible and was already permeating the atmosphere. Experience had taught Julien to plan around it, he was to leave for Quebec City in a couple of days. In the meantime, however, he was stuck in a house turned unlivable without Alexei.

And he kept circling the landline. It was stupid, Julien knew it was stupid, Alexei could not answer the phone from a plane somewhere above Canada. All the aimless pacing he did around the desk where he put the phone on only made him feel suffocated, like the walls of the living-room were closing down on him. He tore himself away when he closed in on his own breaking point, resolved to find something more productive to do.

Fortunately, there was always some cleaning up needed at his place. Julien was not a messy person, but he had a lot of stuff. And he was not very good at throwing it away.

As he cleaned, Julien found reminders of Alexei strewn all over the place. The portable radio sat silent and forgotten in a corner of the deck, the whole grain bread only Alexei liked lurked at the back of a cupboard, a sock Julien did not remember buying sneaked into the laundry basket. If he kept it up, Julien was sure he would be able to find all kinds of proof that Alexei made himself at home there.

He chose to give up on the job and go to sleep. He would let a housekeeping service take care of it. Falling asleep, at least, even in a cold bed, was eased by the perspective of Alexei calling him as soon as he landed the next day.

 

That was not what happened. Julien woke up and killed time from there, focused on hearing a phone which did not ring. There was no report of a plane crash, thank God, thank God, but by lunch he could not ignore the twisting in his stomach and called the airline himself. They assured him the plane and all its passengers had arrived safe and sound at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport four hours ago. Julien was grinding his teeth as he hung up. But he had to understand, after a long distance flight, of course Alexei would want a shower and some rest. He would call soon, no doubt about it.

A day later, there was still no news and Julien himself would be unreachable for the time it took to fly from Vancouver to Quebec City, a whooping six hours and a half with the obligated stop in Montreal. If Alexei chose that time stamp to wake up and call, Julien would lose it, bad. Needless to say, his day was spent in a pretty foul mood. It did not improve when his distraction cost him a lunch and maybe a pan, lined with burnt pasta.

Rummaging through his cupboards for an edible alternative, he was greeted by the sight of Alexei’s bread, which nearly set him off. The blasted thing was too disgusting to eat so he would have to get rid of it before leaving. Julien hated waste, and cursed Alexei and his shit taste in bread. He threw it into the trash with more viciousness than deserved, acknowledged he was being childish and, all the same, kicked the trash can for good measure. Julien was very glad that he was soon leaving that house, ridiculously full of Alexei.

 

***

 

His condo in Quebec City was in order, if a little stuffy, and more importantly, made for one. Julien dropped his bags in the entryway, opened a window, then beelined for the coach, sinking in it gratefully. He loved planes, with all the love of a kid from a small fishing town, for whom being in the air would always be an adventure, but travelling was exhausting after a month of staying in the same place. Julien’s ability to fall asleep in a plane seat had been shot to death.

The couch was long enough that Julien could spread out on it and not have his head and feet hang off from both sides, so he did just that. He listened to the city grumbling outside his windows, a familiar background noise that he had to attune himself to all over again, after almost a year away.

Julien fantasised that the car horns had a different ring to them in those streets, that everything sounded a bit different, compared to Vancouver. Forcing some distance with the city that belonged to Alexei and him so thoroughly was not the worst idea he had ever had, considering how pissed he was at Alexei.

He had phone calls to make: to his physical trainer in Quebec City, who would tell him when and where they could start; to Alexei, who had better pick up this time; to his family, maybe. All of those could wait, Julien decided. He was feeling home. He wanted a nap and to forget about the world for a while.

 

A little life back in him, Julien got around to contacting his trainer. Olivier was a jovial man, with a laugh like an opera singer, that thundered through the receiver and around the gym he privatised for his summer training sessions. Every year, he threatened to quit, claiming hockey players depressed him with their one-track focus and their failure to enjoy a workout as anything other than a mean to an end. Olivier never did move on to better things. The widespread theory was that he got fond of his maudits joueurs de hockey[2].

Julien had known him for years, liked him for just as long. He was good at what he did, for one, but Julien had mainly picked him because he was nothing like a drill sergeant, and Julien got sick of being yelled at by people watching him sweat. Olivier's laid-back attitude extended to scheduling, which was another of the things Julien appreciated about him. He got the training sessions started as soon as the first hockey player showed up, and from that point on ran his ship independently of when the others arrived.

This time around, Julien was one of the last to get there, and might suffer for it the next day since, as Olivier gleefully informed him, Wednesdays were still dedicated to speed and agility. That meant a lot of cardio and burning leg muscles. Julien was dreading it as much as he was looking forward to it.

After hanging up with Olivier, he contemplated his phone, dialling Alexei’s number a dozen times in his head before he could bring himself to actually do it. The shrill beeps of a phone call ringing unanswered were quickly becoming the sound he hated most in the universe. Alexei did not spare him that trial, as he answered like he had the previous calls: he did not. Or rather, he let his answering machine do it for him. Julien was unsurprised but angry, and angrier still about being unsurprised.

He had thought they were past the point where Alexei freaked out and froze him out. It was sad too, though Julien tried not to let himself feel it as much as the anger. He wondered what Alexei was doing at that moment, what he was thinking about. If he had seen his own phone display Julien’s number, and watched until it gave up ringing. If it had hurt a little, to cut him out.

That got Julien remembering their last day together, Alexei’s odd behaviour, the empty spaces standing for I love you. Was that it? Alexei realising he had fallen in love and needing to take a step back? The realisation had been complicated for Julien too. He could still feel how dread had pooled in his stomach at the thought of Alexei finding out.

If kissing Alexei for the first time was the dumbest and bravest thing Julien had ever done, then falling for him was a suicide mission, was jumping out of a plane without a parachute. It was not even dumb or brave, just asking for his heart to be flattened upon landing.

But there was nothing Julien could have ever done to stop it, and he had taken the damn fall. He had even told Alexei later, who had left for a while, made it tense between them for a while, then had come around. They had not spoken a word about it since, but it was out there. Julien loved Alexei. Maybe Alexei was coming to terms with loving Julien, saying he loved Julien.

It was the best case scenario, of course. It could have been a different kind of freak out. Julien worried, but not that much. History suggested Alexei would always come back to him.

 

***

 

Wednesday's training session took place at a stadium, a little farther from Julien’s place than the usual gym. He did not mind, awake since dawn, jet lag messing up his body’s internal clock. The group was easy to spot, tall bulky men loitering around in shorts and t-shirts on an early morning, most of them well-known faces, from previous years of attending the summer training if not from playing together.

A mix of English and French greeted Julien. Players from the local teams sometimes liked to stay for a while in Quebec with friends instead of spending all of the off-season in their hometowns, or some other places.

“Perreault,“ hollered the decidedly Anglo voice of Joe Buchanan. Julien had been headed towards Benoît, a Canucks teammate he had spotted before Joe, but settled with a wave in Benoît’s direction. They would catch up later.

Joe seemed to have already earned himself the undying loyalty of a young guy Julien had never seen before, dodging his heels like every other stray Joe collected wherever he went. One day, that would get him dragged into big messes and even bigger drama, Julien was just sure of it.

“Hi Buch,“ Julien grinned back.

They shared a quick hug, then Joe introduced his newly-acquired shadow.

“This is Serge Bovard, another recruit for our training sessions fresh out of Team Canada!“

Joe was one of the few players in the program who only had a tenuous connection to Quebec City, namely Julien. The two of them had missed each other at World Juniors by a few years but later played together for Canada and became fast friends. Julien had easily convinced Joe, high off their performance in the gold medal game, of the superiority of Olivier’s training program. It helped that it was not that far from Toronto and that his wife Kelly had family in the area.

Speaking seemed to ask a special effort from Bovard, who was visibly waffling between two languages and struggling with what to call Julien. “Hello, nice to meet you, euh…“

He could not be much older than twenty and still had the thick French accent Julien himself had sported at that age and that had slightly faded away over a decade. It was a little touching, and Julien kept his smirk tame as he shook Bovard’s hand and replied casually, “Julien. Salut[3].“

“We missed you at Worlds, man,“ Joe said, taking over and saving the poor boy.

Hostie de tabarnac'[4], you didn’t have to finish behind Finland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to get me to come next time,“ grumbled Julien.

Bovard looked faintly alarmed, Joe faintly amused. He shrugged, philosophical, “Sometimes that’s how it goes. But what have you been up to?“

“Oh, you know,“ dodged Julien, shooting a sidelong glance at Bovard, “up to no good. How are Kelly and the kids?“

That always lead to endless stories and photos which neatly tied them over until training started proper.

 

By the time Olivier relented, Julien felt like puking. And strangling Benoît. He had found Julien at some point between drill number seven and number eight and had been ribbing him ever since. He fared better thanks to his full week head start on Julien and cheerfully rubbed it in Julien’s face. Joe had lead Bovard away to preserve his young ears as soon as he had realised the profanities Julien and Benoît traded were escalating. Julien’s friends picked up quick on French Canadian insults.

And they picked up even quicker on the potential for a situation to end up in a homicide, Joe coming back just in time to hold Julien back, the latter’s hands already outstretched to wrap around Benoît’s neck. Bovard was hot on Joe’s heels and really, Julien understood feeling out of place, but the guy needed to cool it with the duckling impersonation.

“Getting on in years, Julien!“ Benoît said, cackling as he ducked behind Joe to hide from Julien’s murderous glare. Julien could not determine whether hockey players’ unoriginal chirping material made his life easier or more difficult.

“Shut the fuck up, you’re only a year younger than me.“

Less than original too, as far as parries went, and doubly vexing when Julien realised that still made him the oldest of the group, even if only by a small margin. He remembered being as green as Bovard, retirement impossible to consider. It was not all that easy to do at thirty-one either, but there was the nagging sensation that he should be looking at it straight on, thinking of when, how.

Julien avoided the whole planning for the future thing as a rule of thumb, because he was bad at it. He was not raised to. Julien grew up learning how to live one day at a time because tomorrow was for worrying, so even now that contracts guaranteed his future, the next few years, in his head, were just a vague impression of Canucks colours and Alexei’s smile.

Benoît had found a new target while Julien was lost in thought. Bovard in a headlock, he was crowing about their gang of traitors to QC gaining numbers and growing stronger, corrupting the youth. Julien despaired of the company he kept.

“He did worse than us, the kid did, on par with Buch the Anglo here,“ Benoît told Julien, as if confiding to him in an aside, while Bovard was thrashing around to escape his clutch. “He got drafted by Montreal.“

“I like Montreal, we’re building a good thing. Better than your West Coast team made up of old men,“ protested Bovard’s muffled voice. It was nice to see he had some spine. They would make a good recruit out of him yet.

“I don’t want to hear it, traitor!“ shouted Benoît nonsensically, and he started to drag Bovard to God knew where. But his victim fought back so that it degenerated into a full-on wrestling match. When Julien made an inquisitive face towards Joe, who kept calmly stretching while the action unfolded, he just shook his head like nah, I’m not intervening. Julien sighed and set out to clean other people’s rookie’s mess. Honestly, the company he kept.

 

***

 

As the week went on, Julien got comfortable in his routine, which boiled down to sleeping, training and eating, with a few distractions in between, mostly hanging out with the guys. He thought of Alexei often, kept on seeing, hearing things he would have liked to talk to him about. It was like little postcards Julien composed in his head, capturing the instant, very few words needed. At most, he mentally scrawled New day, same as the last, thinking of you, on the back.

Julien was doing good except for the fact there was still no news from Alexei. Not a phone call, certainly not a postcard. Every day that passed without breaking the silence from the distant continent, Julien’s worry went up a notch. They were both fine with not talking for long stretches, but while they were apart, two weeks and counting, that was a whole lot of silence.

When the news broke, Julien missed the silence. They did say ignorance was bliss.

 

It happened on a sunlit Saturday, free of training, perfect for lazing around in bed. Julien was idly doing the crosswords from Le Journal de Québec, and he had only turned the TV on for background noise, so he almost missed it.

“And now, today’s headlines. Vancouver Canucks’ superstar Alexei Konstantinovich is leaving the NHL,“ announced the anchorperson.

Just like that, without fanfare, without Julien even really hearing it, they were destroying his happiness on national television.

Alexei’s name having caught Julien’s attention, he turned the volume up. He had missed most of the news anchor's sensational headline, but he did not remain in the dark for long, thanks to the Breaking News banner helpfully scrolling at the bottom of the screen.

It hit Julien like a crosscheck. It was a blow coming from behind, his blind spot, and it left him defenceless, spinning into a cold world without any fixed point.

He stared, unmoving, barely registering what was being said, as a stranger cut into his heart.

“Earlier today, the Canucks PR released a joint statement with Alexei Konstantinovich’s agent, saying they had negotiated an early termination of his contract. Konstantinovich will not be playing for the Vancouver Canucks this upcoming season. The player felt that after the Canucks’ disappointing postseason, in which he himself only had a point, it was — quote — the right time to start his transition towards retirement, one he intends to spend surrounded by family and friends in Russia — end of quote. Konstantinovich is rumoured to have already signed with a KHL team. Canucks insiders have put forward Konstantinovich’s hometown team, CSKA Moscow, as a likely option.“

The news broadcast moved on to their other stories. Julien was unresponsive, his grip on the remote slack, and he only came out of it to turn the TV off when they started on the profile of some first round pick from that year’s draft. Kormazov or Kurmazov, whatever. All of Russia could go to hell.

The denial did not last long, a split second, knee-jerk of no, Alyosha would never, and then it was over because Alexei would. Jules may have been blindsided by Alexei leaving but he still knew him. He knew his serious, duty-bound Alyosha, who was no longer his apparently. Alexei would never make such a decision on a whim. There had been contract negotiations, with the Canucks, with CSKA. He must have pondered long and hard, thought of the best way to go about it, set everything up.

It was all deliberate.

Julien felt the tears flood his eyes, and still he did not move. He had this stupid idea that it would hurt more if he did, as if he had really been sent flying into the boards. But then again, Julien was just a dumb, dumb fool.

 

Of course, at some point, he had to move. Bodies never did stop for a broken heart. Julien tried to parse through the confusion and hurt shrouding his brain to figure out what he should do next. He could not just get on with his day as though nothing happened, finish the crosswords, prepare lunch. He could not. But what else was there?

Taken by a strange impulse, he wandered through his condo, room after room, like they had the keys to something, anything that would make this all right. Julien listened to his hushed steps, watched golden specs of dust shift in the light. He thought it was magic when he was a child, that someone magic could make all those particles float to their hands instead of dispersing them, and use them to create whatever they wished to. He had never felt further away from a version of himself that could hold a belief so pure.

In the living-room, the phone taunted him with the red flashing light indicating he had a message. The unreasonable burst of hope he felt at that sight, how he could practically hear Alexei telling him that it was all a big misunderstanding, Jules, I’m coming back to you, I swear, it was too much to handle. He turned away, not wanting to listen to anyone other than the one person who would never call.

He went back to bed, having nowhere else to go, and buried under the sheets so he would not need to acknowledge the world still turning outside. Julien waited for something to give. Lunch, then dinner passed, he did not get up, he did not eat. He thought.

 

Some time during spring of the year before, Julien had come home to Alexei sprawled out on the couch, eyes shut, listening to opera of all things. Julien had made fun of him for it, obviously, a little. Alexei had laughed and guided him by the hand to get them both lying snugly on the couch.

Alexei had whispered in Julien’s ear about going to the Bolshoi theatre with his parents, about the biggest room a child could imagine, with the velvet plush seats and the gold everywhere, with the ceiling so high Alexei had had to crane his neck at a painful angle to look at the paintings and the giant chandelier. Alexei’s breath had tickled Julien’s cheek while he had painted glimpses of a foreign theatre for Julien.

Alexei had told Julien about orchestras and singers in perfect harmony, filling all that tremendous space with vibrations that went straight to the heart, about the dancers’ bodies rising into impossibly graceful curves, only enhanced by their glittering costumes, about the elegant public, men in tuxedos, women in evening gowns and jewels. Alexei had a gift for telling beautiful stories.

It had left Julien entranced, and more than a little jealous. Alexei’s childhood memories were so very bright and delicate, whereas Julien’s were dyed in the uniform grey of the winter sea in Gaspé, stunk of fish entrails and the sulphur used at the pulp mill where most of the men worked.

To distract himself and to preserve the sweetness of the moment, Julien had asked about the opera Alexei had been listening to when he had come in. It had been Alexei’s turn to tease Julien because apparently the opera was in French and Julien had not cottoned on to even that much. Julien could not remember who had written it but he remembered the title. Orphée et Eurydice[5].

Legendary lovers, had explained Alexei, like Romeo and Juliet. They had been happily in love until the day Eurydice was bitten by a snake and died. Orphée’s sorrow was so profound, so dull was his life without Eurydice, that he set out for the Underworld, determined to bring his love back from the dead. He vanquished every obstacle on his way thanks to the literally bewitching music he created, and finally appeared before the god and goddess of the Underworld. He played for them the most beautiful music he had in him and even the god of the Underworld was moved.

He agreed to let both Orphée and Eurydice leave the Underworld, but only if Orphée trusted the god’s word that Eurydice would be following him and if he never looked behind before he was back in the world of the living. Orphée was overjoyed and he did his best to comply but the way out was long and winding, more and more doubts were clouding his judgement. As the end was in sight, he broke down and turned around. He saw that Eurydice had been following him all that time, only to be ripped away from him the next instant. Orphée had broken his promise, Eurydice was lost to him forever.

At the time, what Julien had taken out of that story was that he needed blind faith to keep love from slipping through his fingers. Don't check, don't look back, trust your lover is right behind. Perhaps he should have understood it to mean that the game was always rigged for lovers.

 

He had a teacher, once, warn him against turning everything into a great tragedy. He did not get it then. Truthfully, he could not be bothered to look 'tragedy' up in the dictionary. But the warning still stayed with him and in another year, in another class, when they were studying literary genres, he thought he understood. The teacher had warned him against his tendency to filter everything through his ideas of a destiny set in stone, to think of lives as little paper boats in an irrepressible current, often headed towards chaos and destruction.

He had been guilty of that with Alexei, at first, when what they had was so fragile. He had been guilty of waiting with baited breath after every step he took towards Alexei, to see if it would be the one to send it all crumbling to the ground. But it kept not happening so Julien had tried to change, he had tried so hard to let Alexei and him be anything but tragic. And, still, there it was. The tragedy: two lovers saying goodbye, only one of them knowing it was forever.

The problem was not how Julien saw the world, it was just Julien. He turned everything he touched into a tragedy.

 

***

 

He left his bed very late in the day, sick of himself and feeling bad for missing meals. He had to force the food down but Alexei could not take that from him as well, Julien was a professional athlete and took care of his body. He hesitated on his way back to his room when he saw the red light still blinking on his phone. He did not want to listen to the messages anymore than he had earlier that day but he needed to be sure of something.

His hands shook as he dialled Alexei. “Pick up, pick up, come on, pick up, you coward,“ Julien urged under his breath.

A click, then, instead of Alexei’s usual message, a robotic voice informed him in Russian that they were sorry but the person he was trying to reach was unavailable. Julien found it grating the first time he called, never mind the second, or third. To not even get through to Alexei’s answering machine was the nail in the coffin of any spasm of denial which might have remained in Julien’s mind. Right there was a clear evidence of Alexei’s efforts to burn every bridge between them.

Up to that point, Julien’s heartbreak had been a quiet thing, too huge for him to even sketch its outline, but suddenly he was yelling, words at first, then just cries that sounded barely human, until they started hurting his throat on the way out. He threw the phone to the floor and trampled it, crashing his heel into the useless device over and over and over, as pieces started to fall out.

 

There was something Julien realised in shouting at someone long gone: a person could only be betrayed if they had faith in the first place. And Julien had expected Alexei to leave him, but that was years ago. It was before Julien’s mother died while he was on the road, and before Alexei snuggled up to him in the generic hotel room, leaving a space for Julien’s grief between their entwined bodies.

It was before they won the Cup together. By themselves, had quipped Alexei, with an arrogant grin, that in the moment had only felt appropriately victorious. Game-winning, series-winning, season-winning goal and everything. And in truth, it had been all them, that goal, a miracle in overtime of Game 7, finally, after that gruelling series against the Islanders. It was as beautiful hockey as they had ever played together.

Julien had not expected Alexei to leave him for years, and that was when Alexei did. The irony. But then Julien tried to wrap his head around that, his part of the responsibility, in allowing himself to stop waiting for a good thing to end. He did not know if he wanted to regret it, if he should regret it.

If he was to blame for anything, it was for not seeing the big picture. Julien had always been myopic about his environment, taking in only the details close to him. Sometimes he could assemble the little pieces into a bigger whole, like how he had taken all these moments he had shared with Alexei, over nine long years, to mean Alexei loved him. He could never have had the vision to foresee that if Alexei loved him then he would leave him. That was more Alexei’s territory, the big picture.

Julien, dim-witted Julien, had imagined Alexei and him staying with the Canucks until they retired. Slowing down, wearing their bones down, together. Occasionally, he had dared to picture a new house, a little removed from Vancouver, where there was more green and wild sea, but still close to the city that was all theirs. Pets, maybe. They could stay out of the spotlight until it had mostly forgotten about them. And they would be free to stay together.

Julien was not sure, hindsight screwing with his memories, how much of that he had truly believed and how much he had pretended to. There had to have been a smudge of pretending because how solidly could he have hoped to build a life known only to the two people in it? Julien had entertained the fantasy of a future for them, might have failed to completely believe in the possibility, but he had always imagined Alexei staying, if not with him, at least in Vancouver. Vancouver was not Vancouver without Alexei.

 

Alexei never spoke about Russia the way some other guys did, homesickness in their eyes and a thin contempt for North America in their voices, not even when they were rookies and everything was intimidating and foreign. Julien had assumed Alexei felt for Russia what he himself felt for Quebec, a nostalgia for simpler times, rather than for the land itself. So Julien had just not seen any reason for him to go back.

Family, friends, had said the statement. Lover, countered Julien, a person who knew and loved all of you, with whom you could be true. That was what they were for each other. It should have been enough. Alexei should have stayed, because Julien did, because Julien had every intention to.

What a consolation it was, for Julien, and for Vancouver, to be the home Alexei loved the most when he chose another.

 

***

 

If it hurt like a missing limb to wake up in a world where Alexei had left him, the TV, the radio, the papers throwing that fact at his face, in an unflagging stream of roundtable debates and opinion pieces, was pure agony. Because he knew it was not a nightmare from which he could wake up, he did, but they were not helping Julien deal with his new reality, all these people in glossy suits and slim smiles who talked about Alexei never returning like it was unremarkable.

It was worse when they showed some temper and raged about how terrible a loss it was for the sport. They did not have a clue. This was not about hockey and hockey was not in mourning. Not the way Julien was.

That morning, he managed to get out of bed and do what he needed to only by keeping his mind on the work of his hands and feet to the best of his ability. Julien carefully avoided the corpse of his phone, still smashed to bits on the floor of the living-room. It occurred to him that his mom would have been ashamed of his behaviour, though that really did not help with anything. Especially since, every so often, he could not help it, when it got too quiet, a voice in his head would cry out that Alexei was gone. Gone. Gone, gone. Like he would forget. It was a weight impossible to lift, on his shoulders, on his heart.

Julien was done sooner than he wanted to be, as there were only so many things he could occupy himself with on a Sunday during the off-season. He started drinking around three. So much for taking care of his body like a professional. He just had no idea what else to do, how else to process the slow, painful tearing of his insides. Drinking was all he knew.

He had a bottle of whiskey in his cabinet, which surprised him because he hated the stuff and the raspiness that clung to his throat after a sip. He took it with him back to his room. Suffering for suffering, best not to do it in half.

The whiskey tasted just as bad as he remembered; one more bitter pill to swallow, with the added side-effect of inviting honesty. At least the drawn curtains protected his teary admissions, kept them hidden from view. At least it was not vodka and the memory of kissing Alexei for the first time. Julien could be thankful for that much.

He had been something of an hypocrite, the day before, when the accusation of cowardice had rolled easily off his tongue, no one on the other end of the line, like he himself never was petrified by the consequences of loving Alexei. Inevitable had never meant effortless. Julien, too, was afraid of how people would look at him if they knew, he was scared to death of what his family would say.

But there had always been people who looked at Julien and stopped at the whiff of poverty stubbornly clinging to his bearing, speech and manners, frowning as if it left a bad taste in their mouth. Julien was already something of a family disappointment, the son who never came home. It could be that he had less to lose than media darling, pride and joy of two illustrious doctors Alexei Konstantinovich.

So staying together with Alexei had been an exercise in balance, a little more cautious distance than Julien would have liked here and there, a sprinkle of bravado to ignore the risks. Julien would not have minded walking that tightrope until it became second nature. It had to end somewhere, if they just kept at it, Julien would have seen it through to the end.

Alexei had not let him try. Julien thought he understood why, yet if he really did, if he understood keeping his public image intact rather than his heart, he would have left first. Possibly.

 

***

 

The next morning was predictably difficult. Julien had not thought through the drowning his sorrows in whiskey thing. He could keep some coffee and plain toast down, for all the good that did him. He still felt worse than death warmed over. Tepid death, at best.

He groaned in his coffee cup at the idea of exercising. He was not sure how he would manage to speak to people without letting a mistake stumble out of his mouth. He was not sure he would remember how he used to act around them before his whole world got upended.

Julien tried to enter the gym in as innocuous a fashion as possible, looking for the briefest reprieve. He did not get it. Benoît was waiting right by the door, looking pissed off, which was rare enough that everyone else had known to give him a wide berth. Julien’s day took a turn past harrowing and straight into abysmal, which was just fitting after the weekend he had had. He tried not to brace himself too obviously.

“I kept trying to call, man, all weekend.“ Benoît folded his arms, and somehow made it look both vulnerable and menacing. “Where were you?“

Julien forced the words out, thinking to himself that coming in had been a mistake, “Yeah, it got broken, uh, my phone.“

“Okay…“ Benoît was unconvinced. It seemed to make him madder, Julien’s poor excuse. And he was not wrong in that, if it had been another teammate and Julien had been phone-less, he would have just shown up to Benoît’s place at some point during the weekend. Part of the job though it was, hockey players did not like unexpected change much, and they usually dealt with it by banding together.

Benoît went on, raising his voice, “But like, since when have you known? How could you not tell me?“

It took Julien a moment to puzzle out the discombobulated questions, to figure out the reason why Benoît was so mad at him. He thought Alexei had told Julien about his plans to leave the NHL. Julien’s face must have done something particularly scary because the realisation visibly dawned on Benoît. He took in Julien’s appearance for the first time in their conversation, the dark circles around his eyes, how pale and sick he looked, and let out the smallest, “Oh.“

An awkward silence stretched on. Julien looked away. It stung in a way that reminded him of taking a shower when his body was riddled with fresh wounds. The pain was so dull he always forgot about the scrapes and bruises, but the minute hot water touched them, they turned into burning coals on Julien’s skin. And he remembered exactly where he was hurting. The spot kept throbbing long after too.

Benoît put a self-conscious hand on Julien’s shoulder. “You know what, fuck that guy anyway, right? If he doesn't want to stay, we don't want him there. We don’t need him to win. We’re going to be fine.“

“Yeah,“ Julien said grimly. “Fuck that guy.“

 

Benoît used the first excuse that came to him to flee and breathe in a less stifling atmosphere. Julien, left behind on the doorstep, adjusted the strap of his gym bag on his shoulder and squared himself up. He was friends or friendly with the group of men there, there was nothing to be afraid of. They knew what he had just lost but they also did not, really. The cut-off laughs that followed Julien as he made his way through the gym were all in his head.

The overheard snippet of conversation that froze him in place was not, however.

Michel was running his mouth, talking with a bunch of his Nordiques teammates, back turned to Julien. “I guess there was some truth to these rumours. No smoke without fire, boys, just as I always tell you.“

Was Julien this obvious? Did everyone watch him walk in and just knew? Had they known before? He was breaking out in a cold sweat, panicking about how to react, how to deny when he had already betrayed himself.

“Shut up,“ Rémi said, rolling his eyes. “You never predicted Konstantinovich’d leave the Canucks.“

Julien breathed again, in shallow gasps.

But Michel was not done. “Hey! I did so! Or close enough. Tell you what, I’m predicting right now that Vancouver’ll be easier to beat this season, for sure. How’s that for a—oof.“

One of the guy in his little posse had finally noticed Julien and elbowed Michel in the gut to prevent him from saying another word, but the damage was done. And their attempt at a cover up, pretending, badly, that they all suddenly found important things they should be doing, was pathetic. Julien had always thought Michel was an asshole. He left before Michel started whistling, hands in his pockets, to better match the very image of innocence.

Instead of turning and running like he wanted to, Julien settled into dynamic stretches in as isolated a corner as he could find. He had nearly forgotten about his hangover with all the disturbance but even the easy movements felt cruel to his headache and upset stomach. He just gritted his teeth and plowed on. He had to do this. Professional athlete, Julien reminded himself for the millionth time in not that many days.

Olivier was doing the rounds, doling out encouragements to the guys already exercising, giving others their work-out plan for the morning. When he came up to Julien, he had one look at him and took him aside.

“Go home,“ Olivier said, in a hushed, neutral tone of voice. “And come back tomorrow sober.“

It was a relief to hear but for the intrusive thoughts of failure, disappointment, spreading uninvited into Julien’s mind, making him mechanically protest.

Olivier shut that down, quick. “No. You’re in no state to be working out. I don’t care why you’re so badly hungover this morning, you’re a grown-ass man and I’m your employee, not the other way around, but I don’t want you puking all over my sparkling clean gym.“

Julien hung his head in defeat and collected his things under the watchful gaze of Olivier.

As Julien started walking away, Olivier stopped him in his tracks by calling his name quietly. “I’m not judging but this isn’t like you,“ he added after Julien had turned around. Julien just looked at him, waiting for something else because he had no reply to that. “What I mean is I hope it gets better, whatever it is.“ Olivier looked a little embarrassed but sincere.

Getting better. Julien would not have put money on it, but he nodded his thanks for the sentiment, too exhausted, and desperate to get out of there, to form words.

 

***

 

He stopped to buy a new phone on the way home. He had considered going without, locking himself up in an undisturbed bubble for the rest of the off-season, but, realistically, Julien knew people needed to be able to get in touch with him. No phone would also mean losing his one last connection to Alexei. It was a pitiful one, and it might already be gone, but Julien was not ready to do that to himself.

He slept the morning away in the hope it would do some good to his hangover, and to put off setting the new phone up. He had a boxful of messages he did not look forward to hearing. After his nap, Julien resigned himself to taking care of it, knowing he felt as good as he was going to that day and running out of excuses. He should try and work on his ability to justify to himself not doing things that would upset him, it had been a short list.

Most of his Canucks teammates had called after failing to talk to Alexei, upset about not being in the know and redirecting it, more or less obviously, at Julien who, they presumed, had known for months. It was not just Julien’s calls Alexei had blocked then. Julien did not know how he felt about that. But the messages would have hurt more if he had not already gone through this with Benoît, so there, a silver fucking lining.

Julien did not have the energy to call each teammate back, or any, actually, but he had faith in the Canucks gossip mill. The entire roster would soon be informed that Julien had been just as clueless as them.

There was nothing from his family, probably for the best. And the last message was an ominous one from the Canucks PR, asking Julien to call back as soon as he could.

For one fleeting moment, Julien lost all common sense, so hungry for explanations of Alexei’s departure which absolved Alexei. He imagined that the organisation had found out about Alexei and him and blackmailed Alexei into leaving, into promising to never see Julien or speak to him ever again. But that story had an obvious flaw, besides being fuelled by paranoia and desperation. If the Canucks had had the chance to choose, no way would they have picked Julien over Alexei, the better player, the better poster boy.

 

Julien shook his head and called back.

A secretary answered in a pleasant voice. “You’ve reached the Vancouver Canucks’ Marketing, Communications and Community Outreach VP’s Office, who's calling?“

“This is Julien Perreault.“

“Mr Perreault! I'll put you through right away. Mrs Daniels has been waiting for your call.“

True to her words, the secretary did not keep Julien on hold for long before Daniels started speaking on the other end of the line. “Julien, hi, how are you doing? How's the training?“

Julien would have preferred to forgo the pleasantries and go straight to the matter at hand but he knew to be polite to management. Somewhat polite. “Yeah, good. Good.“

“I'm glad to hear that. Listen, I wanted to talk to you about a golf tournament the Canucks want to organise for charity at the end of August. We wanted to know if you'd be up for it, if you'd be back in Vancouver.“

Julien hated golf. “Was that the urgent business we needed to talk about?“

Daniels laughed, warm and calm. “I overstated the urgency of it, I guess, sorry. So, what do you say?“ As Julien was taking his time answering, casting about for a way to get out of that particular obligation, she tacked on, “You don’t expect to be back in Vancouver by then?“

There was no overt difference in the way Daniels addressed him but Julien still felt that a strained undercurrent ran through that last question. He was starting to understand what the call was really about. “No! I mean, yes, I’ll be back !“ he said. “It’s just… Isn’t there a different charity thing I could help with?“

Her voice lost all of its edge, mellowing back down to a smooth flow, and she hung up soon after they had agreed on a suitable charity event for Julien to attend in August.

 

The phone rang again shortly after. Being reachable was striking Julien as overrated. He looked at the phone’s cord plugged into the wall, the temptation hard to resist.

Noel did not bother with salutations or small talk. “Nice of you to pick up the phone,“ the agent sniffed, “this is only the fifteenth time I’m calling today and God knows I have so much time to spare.“

“You didn’t leave a message,“ Julien protested.

“No use in that.“

Julien took a deep breath and only slight frustration transpired when he asked, “Why are you calling, Noel?“

“I needed to let you know the Canucks are testing the waters with me, checking you’re as happy and satisfied as can be.“

“Yeah, I got a call from PR.“

“You did? Interesting.“ Noel sounded contemplative. “Well, if you were thinking about getting more big bucks with your next contract extension, now’s the time to start the talks. I'm sure I could get it for you, we hold all the cards. The Canucks look just scared enough to see you walk that I could.“

“No, it’s fine.“

“You sure?“

“Yeah.“ Julien had no particular wish to screw over the team that made him, the team he won a Stanley Cup for. “Thanks.“

“A discussion for some other time, then. And you’re welcome,“ Noel said, still brisk and professional. “Another thing, Jules?“ he asked more tentatively.

“Yeah.“

“I’d heard rumours, about Konstantinovich, but I didn’t put any stock in them. I’m sorry. Must be hard for you.“

Julien felt a lump in his throat. He wanted to yell that no one had any idea how hard this was for him. He wanted to babble to one of his oldest friends, get the lead load he had been hauling around for three days off his chest. He just cleared his throat, said, “Yeah. Bye, Noel,“ and ended the call.

 

***

 

Julien, still smarting a little from being kicked out of training, did everything right. He went to bed early, and without a drop to drink, which was the hardest part. He had a decent night of sleep and woke up feeling surprisingly okay, or at least not like he wanted to immediately numb himself with the bottle of whiskey still on his nightstand. It made sense, he guessed. Humans were presumably not wired to ache so badly, for so long. Sooner or later, the brain understood that what hurt was going to keep on hurting for a while and learned to put it aside in order to function on a daily basis.

Just in case, Julien tested his own wounds, poked at them with thoughts of Alexei, because he could not quite trust the absence of any searing pain. While it was still undoubtedly there, it was just muted enough that Julien, for the first time since he had seen that TV report, felt like he could not only survive Alexei but keep living without him. He felt something approaching lighter.

His reflection in the mirror looked better too. His features were slightly fuzzy from the steam of his shower but the skin had less of a green tinge. It was strange to stare at himself for this long, Julien never used to give much thoughts to his looks. Before, he had been somewhere been indifferent and satisfied, because his body was perfect for hockey, tall and tough, and it was all that mattered. But then Alexei had touched him with reverence sometimes, had called him beautiful once or twice, or ten times. And now, standing in front of the mirror, Julien hated his body for all the ways it remembered Alexei.

It helped if Julien covered the tattoo of Vancouver on his chest with the palm of his hand. He could pretend he did not remember the night he had tried to preserve, eternal, with black ink on his skin, and he was fine. His body did not strum with the bass of the music they had danced to that night, ecstatic with the knowledge that they had money and talent and youth and each other. That night when Jules, learning about belonging, had kissed Alyosha and Alyosha had kissed back. When they had been on top of the world.

Julien took his hand off the tattoo like it was burning. He was fine. He had woken up feeling okay.

 

***

 

Olivier did not say anything out of the ordinary when he supervised Julien’s training. To Julien’s relief, he kept the subjects easy and breezy. That seemed to be the word among his friends too, not one comment on the Canucks, Alexei or Julien missing a day of training. Benoît did mention his phone troubles, and Julien said they were solved. But Benoît must have been wary of pulling on that thread, because he quickly steered them towards a harmless debate on the merits of mobile phones.

It was a little stilted between them, compared to what it had been. They tiptoed around Julien like he was made up of worn wooden boards instead of flesh and blood. Julien resented being treated like he could so easily crumble but avoiding any allusion to subjects he would rather not dwell on did have a hand in taking his mind off them, so he bore the awkwardness, a necessary evil.

Julien went home to eat and have his midday nap but that amount of sleep after a few restless nights was apparently too much for his brain, slow to switch on. He was dragging his feet on going back to the gym, yawning and sighing as he put on his shoes in the entryway. It was then that he had the brilliant idea of looking at the photos on the wall.

One in particular was of him and Alexei, their arms around each other, the Calder Trophy between them. His eyes fell on it so many times a day, he did not really see it anymore. Once he had, it tugged at him, making it impossible to look away, and Julien was in for a brutal trip down memory lane. The elation and pride contained in that memory felt like the colours of the photograph, the light shades too light and the dark ones too dark. Put together, they revealed their artificiality.

It had been his proudest achievement at the time, and it had not even been his per say. Alexei had won that year. The race, however, had been theirs, and the world recognising what Alexei had accomplished in one season, in their rookie season, had been enough of a victory for Julien. They both knew it had taken Julien to get Alexei there.

The frame was not sent crashing down or otherwise damaged in a fit of anger. Julien was becoming weary of ruining his possessions as a placeholder for breaking Alexei’s nose, and that picture was precious to him, despite everything. It did not mean he could stand to look at it right then. Julien practically ran out of his place, all reluctance forgotten, as if the photo had grown legs to chase him away. To avoid brooding about it, he threw himself into his afternoon workout with a fury that had Olivier making worried faces at him again. But he was fine. He just needed to keep busy.

“You’re up for some ball hockey?" Benoît asked when they were done for the day. “I have a place lined up.“ He was Julien’s favourite. Julien missed hockey, and narrowing his focus down to his grip on a stick and the plays to make sounded ideal.

“Genius!“ Julien thumped Benoît on the back enthusiastically. “Calvaire[6], I’m in!“

 

Settling the teams required more discussion than Julien would have thought.

“Ben and Julien should be on the same line,“ Joe declared. He turned to Julien and Benoît, “You two need to get a feeling for how you work together before the season starts.“

Benoît glowered at Joe who winced, regretting saying it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Benoît was a left-winger, Alexei's position. Even Bovard, who was Serge now, frowned a little. At least that was how Julien interpreted his attempts to furrow his brows. Serge did not look equipped for it, especially not towards Joe. Joe was a difficult guy to frown at.

Besides, he had a point. It was reasonable to expect Benoît to be promoted to the Canucks’ first line come October, he could handle it. And if Joe thought it would be a good combination, Julien trusted his opinion. Big bad nickname or not, he was smart about hockey. The rest did not matter. Julien could let it go.

It was not unsettling or anything, to have someone else on his left wing. Hockey was hockey was hockey and Julien did know how to play without Alexei. There had been juniors, international competitions and Alexei’s injuries. Julien was good by himself. More than good, he even won most of the time.

He played different, that much was true. He could not anticipate as well what his linemate would do without the chemistry honed by thousands of hours of shared games and practices, not to mention all the time spent studying each other. Alexei’s hockey was the only one Julien knew like his own, if not better than his own, so playing without him, he could do it but it was always just less.

It felt right, in a way, that nothing could come close to what he and Alexei had been. But there was some familiarity with Benoît, Julien had fun. He could see them on a line together.

The game lost cohesion as the afternoon aged and, by the end of it, one of the designated goalie had up and left his net while the other was flat on his back, both arms stretched out over his head, a couple of meters away from his crease. A few guys were making plans to go out. Julien discreetly pulled away, but not discreetly enough that it escaped Joe’s notice.

“Wanna have dinner at my place?“ he asked kindly. Julien considered it. It would be much more quiet than a bar, but Kelly and the kids would be there. Even though Julien liked them, he doubted an evening surrounded by domestic bliss was what he needed. He declined. Joe looked understanding, he squeezed Julien’s shoulder lightly and said goodbye.

 

Julien was still thinking about it when he was getting ready for bed that night, Joe’s big happy family. And the first time he went to the NHL Awards, to see Alexei crowned. Hadn’t they been happy too? Hadn’t they been family?

Those were the easiest of the questions that hurt, the ones he knew the answers to, even if he did not like them. What tormented him were the questions that came after, when the dam was breached. Why leave now? What had changed? What had Julien done? They whirled inside Julien’s head, mocking, promising him the hell of untold reasons.

He called Alexei just to make it stop, remembering too late that it was useless if Alexei had blocked him. But it was Alexei’s voice that got through, his recorded message. Julien choked on disbelief and everything else.

He hung up without saying a word.

In the dark, the misery he had fought, all day, to keep at bay was waiting, ready to pounce. Julien surrendered. Curled up on his side, arms wrapped around himself in a last-ditch effort to prevent himself from spilling over, he let the sobs rattle his chest. They did little harm there, inside, among the pathetic wrecks where nothing, nothing alive, remained.

“Alyosha,“ he sobbed, “Alyosha.“

He would not call anymore.