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sophomore slump

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Julien has never heard of the term ‘sophomore slump’.

He supposes that’s not surprising, nor is it anything he’s unused to. One of his biggest difficulties with language is understanding the terms he’s never heard, ones easily understood by others but that have no analogue in his own tongue.

He’s never heard of the term ‘sophomore slump’ until they start using it in reference to him. Until it’s everywhere.

*

The first time he hears it, his sophomore season hasn’t even technically begun.

“It’s the preseason,” Alexei mutters to Julien in French, the reason for doing so becoming obvious when he follows with, “The points don’t matter,” which is certainly not something he should be saying in hearing distance of their coach. It’s a good thing Thibault, despite the name, can barely even say hello in French.

It’s a good thing, because Julien has been pointless in four. He hates that word. Without a point sounds far different than pointless. There are a number of players on any team who may not contribute many points, or any — certainly the goalie isn’t typically involved in scoring — but they’re hardly pointless.

Though, Julien supposes, he’s not the goalie. Not the defenceman whose contribution to offence is a bonus, not the entire purpose of his existence. Julien, without scoring, without assisting, well. He’s pointless.

Maybe it’s the right word after all.

*

The problem with slumps is that everyone tells you you’re in one, you start to believe them. And if you believe them, you’re doomed to prove them right.

He doesn’t think he’s playing any differently, doesn’t feel like he is, but the results are undeniable. He misses a pass that he should have easily had, sends another pass too hard for Alexei to take, fans on a shot that should be in the back of the net. While he’s in the middle of the game, he feels the same, but there are moments of disconnection, and when he watches the game tape they look off, sloppy like he’s never been before. Precision has always been his strength. You can’t be a playmaker if you can’t make the plays.

Julien’s frustrated, and more frustrated by the media, the way they simultaneously decry Alexei’s slump while dismissing Julien’s. Or, not so much dismissing it as stating that’s what they should expect from him, that the very reason his rookie year was so incredible was that no one was expecting it, and that no one should expect that from him in the future.

If Julien’s frustrated, Alexei’s quietly furious, less by his own press, which he dismisses with a derisive sniff, than by Julien’s.

There are many ways to call someone an idiot. That’s true even if you know one language. That’s more true if you know three. Julien tucks the Russian Alexei mutters against his chest, tries to remember it. It’ll serve well on the ice. Besides, he’d want to know if Alexei ever turned the words his way.

Alexei has called Julien out more than once on his language. Not in the way Julien’s mother might have — but didn’t, because Julien knew better than to swear in front of his parents — appalled by the sacred twisted into profane, the disrespect to the church he was raised in.

“Lazy,” Alexei said. “Always falling back on that. Lazy, and stupid, and you aren’t either.”

“Va donc chier,” Julien said, and Alexei had rolled his eyes.

Julien wouldn’t describe it as lazy or stupid, the way Alexei can find a different word to cut every one of the journalists down when it’s just the two of them, and even if he was, he wouldn’t say a thing, because he knows Alexei’s stringing together every single one of those insults on Julien’s behalf.

*

Playing hadn’t felt wrong, exactly, not the sort of wrong that it looked like, watching himself, but it isn’t until everything clicks back into place that Julien remembers what playing right felt like. The effortlessness of it, the connection — skate blade, stick curve, muscles, mind, everything doing what he wants it to, what he needs it to do to win.

It isn’t like he hasn’t scored at all, hasn’t racked up any points, but it’s different, feels right, one goal that seems to break everything free, Julien yelling in Alexei’s face and Alexei grinning back at him, someone’s helmet jamming rough into his neck, someone’s arms — not Alexei’s, so he doesn’t know — wrapping around him, lifting him off his feet. Julien opens the scoring, and Alexei extends the lead, and it’s perfect, exactly the way it should be.

Julien doesn’t pay for his drinks that night, loses count of the slaps on the back, the hands ruffling his hair out of order, and he can’t stop smiling. Keeps aiming that smile in Alexei’s direction, and every time he does, Alexei smiles back, like it’s contagious.

*

It’s like a break in the levee then: after that, it’s a deluge. They’re a deluge. Back to the phenomenon, the phenomenal.

It’s not their Calder year, not quite that level, but it’s better somehow, better because it shows that it wasn’t a fluke, like they said, that it wasn’t luck, or happenstance, that they can do this again and again, that together they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Something clicks. Julien doesn’t know how else to describe it. Something clicks that hadn’t even in that first year, that Calder year.

Playing with Alexei, it’s like —

It’s like Julien can always see him. Julien’s always dismissed discussions of chemistry — he acknowledges that there are some players who he plays better with, of course, but that’s a result of complementary play styles, practice, and above all, communication.

This isn’t like that. All of the above applies, of course, but it’s also —

Julien thinks he could find Alexei on the ice with his eyes shut. He’s never experienced anything like that before.

It’s like that off the ice too — not the same, but something like it, Julien always aware where Alexei is, something in him tuned to his frequency, but Julien doesn’t want to think about that. Julien won’t think about that.

*

Except Julien can’t think about anything else. On the ice, it’s fine, it’s beautiful, there’s nothing wrong with it — what could be wrong with chemistry, what could be wrong with one of the most productive lines in the league? Even the media can’t find something negative to say about them, though he’s sure they’re trying.

Off the ice is another matter.

Alexei shoots a smile at him, broad and toothy and so beautiful, and Julien smiles weakly back, I love you ugly on his tongue. He feels like he’s betraying Alexei with the way his stomach flips, the words burning in him, acidic, feels like he’s betraying himself. Or, perhaps betrayal isn’t the word. Betraying Alexei, sabotaging himself.

It’s not the first time he’s thought it, of course, but it’s the first time he’s thought it and known that it isn’t something that’s going to go away.

Julien doesn’t remember feeling anything like this before. Alexei’s not — he’s not the first man Julien’s eyes have caught on, held. Julien’s hardly having an epiphany at the age of twenty-one, though it has been something he’s tried to ignore. The deck was stacked against him enough without adding being a faggot to the list. One of those English words he’d have been happy never to learn, one he heard long before he moved out of the Gaspésie.

But it’s one thing to have your eyes linger longer than they should, maybe want to be around someone in a way you know isn’t friendship, to think of someone in a way you know they aren’t thinking of you, would hate you for if they knew. Julien’s done that before. That’s not new.

This, this blooming, dangerous feeling, this disaster — this is something he’s never felt before.

Alexei’s his teammate, and his best friend, probably, and the best player Julien’s ever seen, and Julien’s ruining it.

*

It’s something you live with, wanting someone you can’t have. Or perhaps it isn’t for everyone — those who can’t keep the words off their tongue, even knowing it isn’t possible, burdening the unattainable with the knowledge, burdening them with the duty of rejection. Julien wouldn’t. Can’t. Can’t do that to Alexei, can’t do that to himself, can’t look him in the eyes and see whatever he’s reflected as: pitiful, weak, wrong.

And then there are those people who know, they know it won’t happen, and somehow they cup it with both hands and put it aside. Julien would do that in a moment if he knew how, but he doesn’t.

It’s something you live with, curled ugly inside you, or it’s something you hand over, that hideous thing, like it could ever possibly be wanted, or it’s something you smother until it vanishes.

It’s something Julien lives with.

*

They make the playoffs again. They go out in the first round this time, the opposite of progress, and there’s no awards waiting for either one of them, nothing but the bitter copper taste of failure.

Julien’s sure everyone would prefer to lick their wounds alone, but instead they’re all shuffled into the plane, forced together, seething with resentment. Julien can’t look at their goalie. Their goalie isn’t looking at anyone.

Alexei sits beside him on the plane, as usual, quiet, as usual, but there’s a different tenor to his silence, frustration, disappointment. Maybe Julien’s projecting. Probably not, though.

He doesn’t break the silence for hours, and even then it’s only a murmur, something Julien doubts anyone can hear but him.

“It’ll happen,” Alexei says, with this firm confidence he always has. Julien doesn’t know how he does it. “We’ll be better, and it’ll come.”

“That isn’t really comforting,” Julien says, though it sort of is. He doesn’t know why.

“It’ll happen,” Alexei repeats, with his knee nudging against Julien’s, hand coming down to land over his, and that time it isn’t comforting because Julien isn’t processing a single word he’s saying, his entire body tuned into the places they’re touching.

Alexei takes his hand away, and it takes every ounce of restraint Julien has not to beg for him to put it back, to hold on until Julien believes him, however long that’ll take.