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Tiptoe through our shiny city

Chapter Text

Julien is standing, back very straight, head bent very low, hands clasped tightly together, under the high pointed arches holding the church’s roof together. Parishioners are aligned in scores of neat bench rows in front of him and he knows without looking that they mirror his posture.

Well, the churchgoers are like mirrors of Julien in the same warped way glass and water cast hazy reflections off their surfaces when the light is right. Julien and them, they’re not made of the same thing.

Other people’s eyes are on the choir and they’re humming, mouthing, singing along. Gloria in excelsis Deo, Glory be to God on high. That’s the only part Julien knows. He doesn’t sing.

Jules is standing very alone.

This church is all wrong. The service in English makes him feel wrong-footed, stupid. He thought that he could let the meaning flow past him, taking comfort in the crumbs of familiarity, and that it would be better than having to listen to the real deal. It’s not. The church is all wrong, or perhaps Jules is all wrong for the church, but it has to be one or the other — he isn't imagining the knot in his stomach.

The Mass isn’t completely unfamiliar. Julien recognises rhythms, intonations, it’s just good for nothing but to jar with the words he knows to say. He’s jolted into estrangement by every Our Father and Hail Mary.

Julien carelessly turned down his billet’s proposal of taking him to Saint-Sacrement, the nearest francophone church in Vancouver. He didn’t want to be an inconvenience, he said. He didn’t want to spend so long alone with her, he thought.

She’s nice, Isabelle, and not just pretty-girl-nice, with the glib smile to match. It’s an uncharitable distinction to make, Julien’s aware. That's one more thing to put on the list of the Church’s failures, clearly they didn’t manage to teach him charity right. So there’s nice, and there’s pretty-girl-nice, he can’t explain better. He has wished before — not often, but he has — that he were a pretty girl and a mere smile of his, no matter how rehearsed, could be construed as a kindness.

Being told to shut up and look pretty must be awful. People are always asking Julien to talk though — talk and look tough, talk in English, talk in English better, and longer, and faster. Shut up and look pretty is not one of his options. It seems like it would be relaxing. Not often, but it does.

Isabelle’s smiles couldn’t be more genuine, which is why she makes Julien uncomfortable. She doesn’t fake it, she doesn’t try to hide, not what she thinks of him, not anything. Isabelle may not dislike him personally, but she certainly dislikes that he’s the newest burden to fall on her shoulders. Jules has been a burden many times before, he knows what it feels like.

He understands. Billet families in juniors were one thing, living with a teammate and his wife is another situation altogether. Julien waltzed into the life Isabelle painstakingly built for herself, and he’d be surprised if she had any say in it. She was expected to let him sleep under her roof, eat her food, occupy her home. She wasn’t asked. She isn’t compensated.

Julien’s just that kid who goes everywhere her husband goes, even when she can’t, he’s no one to her, and she’s supposed to mother him on top of it. Isabelle’s hardly ten years older than him. Julien gets why she resents him, he doesn’t begrudge her that right. He resents her for something else.

Isabelle has an air about her sometimes, keener than melancholy, sharp enough to be real sadness. Julien will be gone soon, she’ll have her cosy life back exactly as it was. What does she have be to be unhappy about? If Jules had the house, the money that come with a husband who plays for the Vancouver Canucks, he wouldn’t waste them away feeling sorry for himself.

They’re not what he wants, that would be ridiculous. Being in the NHL is still unfathomable on most days but, if his coach, his GM, the press, the points he’s putting up, are to be believed, he will get his own massive paychecks and mansions. He doesn’t want someone else to do it for him. But most people wouldn’t mind, most people would jump at the chance to be handed a life of leisure without lifting a finger. It can’t be such a bad deal, for Isabelle, is what he’s saying.

Isabelle has her sadness, Julien overstays his welcome. There’s no love lost between them, nor understanding. But then he refused Isabelle’s company on the way to church, and Chatel, forgetting he was no father of Julien, barely a billet one, tried to forbid Julien from going alone.

“I mean, what, you don’t go to church on Sundays and now you’re feeling all devout and shit? You have to go? In the middle of the evening? If you’d told us before, maybe, but in this house, you don’t go wandering the streets by yourself whenever you please, not on a family holiday. That’s not how we do things around here,“ he said.

The sentence on its own, that’s not how we do things around here, isn’t necessarily condescending, Julien would have been grateful to hear as much when he first landed in Vancouver, grateful for any kind of guidance. Said in that tone of voice though, it was. Julien wanted to repeat the words back in a high-pitched mocking voice, as a child would taunt.

He didn’t because he’s nineteen; he felt his blood boiling because he’s nineteen. This is so typical of Chatel, concerning himself with Julien only when there’s a risk he could be made to answer for his inaction. Chatel treats Julien as a kid lacking judgement whenever the need arises, as an adult who shouldn’t need his hand held in every other circumstance, and Julien wishes he’d make up his mind already.

He’d also wish for Chatel to be away more but the man’s a part-time resident of the golf course as it is. If it weren’t for Isabelle, Julien would be living with a complete stranger, though Julien isn’t quite glad that she’s at home more regularly than her husband. Between Isabelle’s resentment and Chatel’s aloofness, he just prefers the one that doesn’t make him feel invisible.

Why Chatel offered to billet Julien in the first place is a mystery, since he meets the minimum requirements of the job and no more. He doesn’t get to lord his authority over Julien when it comes to letting him go to church or not. After all, the informal responsibilities Chatel sees fit to accept start and end with keeping Julien from damaging their organisation’s image and property. That means damaging himself — at least, that’s how Alexei puts it. Julien isn’t clear on whether he’s the image, the property, or both.

Jules isn’t naive but there’s a cynical streak in Alexei that makes Jules wonder about growing up in the iron-curtained, iron-ruled USSR.

Right then and there, even if it had come from good intentions, and it hadn’t, Chatel’s concern was as unwanted as it was unjustified. Julien couldn’t fuck up attending Midnight Mass if he tried. It could fuck him up, but that’s a different story.

He was ready to deliver his spiel and probably get his ass kicked — he had a few choice words, Julien always has a few choice words — when Isabelle jumped in.

Julien’s learned fast that arguments in this house have a simple code, you raise your voice you lose. Every disagreement is an escalation of civility. That is not how Julien fights, acting civil sounds to him like a lack of caring. He’s angry a lot. It’s an unbearable rule.

Julien doesn’t know how to navigate conflict within those limitations, Isabelle does. She said, “No. Midnight Mass is tradition for Julien.“ She put her hands on her hips, dug in her heels, and steeped her mild words into unyielding iron. “If he wants to go, he’ll go.“

Isabelle is from Rimouski, and not its wealthiest neighbourhood, though nothing like where Julien was born. What he really envies Isabelle, even if only ever for a moment, is the odd lilt of her accent in French.

He hasn’t heard it that often, they aren’t supposed to use too much French at home since that would be coddling the boy, funny that anyone should accuse Isabelle of that, but he’s heard it enough to notice. It’s definitely not the stumbling noises made by clumsy English speakers, yet it’s not quite the accent of a native of Rimouski, syllables here and there falling flat.

She doesn’t sound like where she’s from. Isabelle sounds almost like she’s from Toronto when she speaks English, Julien has no idea how she does it. He’s jealous of whatever it is that makes her able to mould her accent to the places she’s chosen.

Somehow, Isabelle set her voice adrift from Rimouski. And Rimouski isn’t anything like Gaspé to begin with. Still, Isabelle comes closer to sharing a home, an origin, a history with Julien than anyone else in Vancouver.

When their eyes met, after she came to his defence for the very first time, that tentative closeness was good enough. For once, they understood each other, she understood the abrupt and overwhelming need to perform arcane rituals, because sometimes they were the only things that could ward off longing for home. And he understood that shared experience of deep homesickness was the only reason Isabelle could ever have to step in like she did, instead of maintaining her usual careful neutrality.

The argument kept going for the sake of appearance, Isabelle offering more reassurances to her husband, Julien minding his tongue, but they had won. Maybe it didn’t count as Isabelle picking Julien over Chatel, probably Julien shouldn’t want her to pick sides, but it would take a better man than Julien not to keep score. The thought that Isabelle chose Chatel when it mattered, for what mattered, is too mind-boggling.

She saw Julien out, nodding towards the road, for him to go and her to stay, when Julien hesitated on the porch, looking back.

Distance stretched between them again.

***

Julien could have believed he’d gotten the day wrong when he arrived, there were so few people for such a big church. He was early, but this was Christmas Eve. Even on ordinary Sundays back home, the whole town milled around their places of worship well before service, conversing and gossiping.

The handful of old people in front of the present church watched him with varying combinations of curiosity and bewilderment, and Julien hid further in his coat, hands in his pockets, surly eyebrows drawing his face into a frown. Playing the part of the hockey goon, so no one would get any ideas and try to welcome him into the fold, came easy to Julien.

Here, he didn’t have to be nice and polite, invite prying questions, and he was more than comfortable with broadcasting that fact loud and clear to everyone around because he wasn’t planning on coming back. Julien wouldn’t be made to talk.

He’d hated the exchanges of pleasantries, a prerequisite to Mass back home. He’d hated that everyone had to show up because everyone attended. He’d hated the hypocrisies, and many other things about Mass from a certain age on. But the scarcity of people waiting was strange, for lack of a better word.

It had to be true, then, what Hugh had said.

The golden chain Julien wears around his neck had caught in the laces of his jersey while he had been taking it off in the locker room, like a million times before. Hugh, watching the quick, customary untangling from his nearby stall, had declared, point-blank, “Guys usually end up losing the cross after they’ve crossed the Rockies.“

It hadn’t been a judgement either way, just a statement of fact, or perhaps an automatic parroting of folk wisdom, and all the more striking for it. Like the mountains really stood tall as barriers to religious devotion.

Jules’ faith had ebbed away long before he came to Vancouver, but he’d kept the cross.

While waiting for the church’s doors to open, he swiped his thumb back and forth over the gold, tarnished from insufficient care, and marred by faded indents of teeth. When he paid attention, it did weigh him down. Julien thought he might rather like to prove Hugh right. Lose the cross.

Even after months in Vancouver, he feels a lingering sort of disquiet at the casual, everyday blasphemy to be found there. He feels he should make sure to set himself apart from it, lest people in Gaspé will be able to tell, when he comes visit, that he loves his new city exactly the way it is.

What matters is that he loves it, and once Jules loves freely, he doesn’t look back. What matters is that he could be happy, in this Godless West.

***

Julien tunes back in as the priest allows the congregation to sit down again. The irony of his mind coming up with that conclusion during Mass doesn’t escape him, but that's what happens when he doesn't have a good enough incentive not to leave his thoughts unsupervised. He’s frustrated with himself for forgetting his brand-new watch because he can’t tell how far along they are. He isn’t yet used to such a weight around his wrist.

His gaze wanders for a loop then comes to a stop, at the floor tiles of polished stone at his feet, stuffed in polished shoes by force of habit. Julien bets the floor is actual marble. It looks precious. Everything in this church does, neat, sparkling. Prosperous.

It’s all wrong.

Even the pews have a dull shine to them, the kind that doesn’t only come from generations kneeling and praying. Julien can faintly smell the wax they used to brick the wood, the citrusy tang of cleaning products, under the incense.

They take care of appearances in this church, which doesn’t inspire trust in Julien. He doesn’t trust any of the words coming out of the priest’s mouth about the value of humility and spiritual wealth, as opposed to the false temptations of material wealth. Not that he would have, if this church was different.

They tried, back in Gaspé, to keep their wind-battered church in good condition. They tried. Regardless of their piety, good Catholics can’t give to God money they don’t have. And the new church swallowed up more than its share of what little money the diocese did have.

The new church wasn’t new anymore, christened the same year Julien was, and it wasn’t ever a church but a cathedral, technically. The Perreault family, and their similar-minded neighbours, refused to call it by any other name than the new church. They’d learnt to be wary of change and the construction of the new church was a change they’d despised above all.

It was built far, far from the sea, and everything about that new church, from the deep brown of the walls to its asymmetrical shapes, clashed with the customs of the land. If anything, it resembled a lopsided barn. The families who’d been driven by poverty to abandon their boats and nets saw this denial of the fisherman roots of the town as a personal offense.

When they met near the town’s new centre, which wasn’t particularly new either, nothing could be discussed until they hadn’t loudly belittled the ugly architecture project. That was no cathedral, certainly not. Stubborn and proud without any reason to be, as was their preferred way, Julien’s parents and the others kept going to the church they’d always gone to.

A squat building, perpetually in need of some fresh white paint to cover the scars of the outside walls, and some repair work to support the fragile driftwood bones of the low steeple rising from the middle of the roof, it was forgettable. Or rather, it was similar to half the churches in the Gaspésie, and that’s a good number. Lakes, lakes and churches, Québec can always afford to spare.

Their small church’s lack of distinctive beauty didn’t mean much. It was the dull cornerstone of their lives, it had hosted their weddings, funerals, and the Masses in between, for a respectable century. The roof didn’t leak most days, and it was all they could ask for. They thanked the Lord for the roof above their head. They thanked the Lord that they didn’t want for more.

That was a lie. Jules had always wanted so much more. And he wasn’t the only one to tell that lie in church, not that one.

The lies may not have turned him off of attending Mass, but Julien hadn’t liked them any more than the hypocrisies.

A lively bout of reading brings his attention back to the pulpit. Watching the holy man gesticulate and froth at the mouth is detachedly comical. Julien could make sense of the homily, at least the gist of it, probably, if he tried. The priest selected extracts from the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy. Trying doesn’t strike Julien’s fancy.

Père Antonin knew his audience, he avoided the teachings of 1 Timothy 6:6-19, aimed at those who are rich in the present world. He talked instead, in sweeping abstract terms, of the hope brought to every sinner by the birth of Christ. Time and time again, he dangled the promise of salvation, with a distinct emphasis on the burdens of earthly life being finally laid to rest.

It’s possible Jules’ memories are biased. He’d always wanted so much more.

The moment of exaltation is soon over and the priest drones on with studied solemnity, preaching something that may or may not be like Père Antonin’s sermons. Julien doesn’t care for it. He longs for the door, for freedom, and a drink to warm him up.

He took a seat in the back rows precisely so he could make a discreet exit if it became unbearable. And here he is, waiting. Here, where there’d be no consequence to walking out mid Mass, still too afraid to stand up and leave. Fear is a curious thing.

So is longing.

Julien gave his word but, for all Isabelle and her husband really cared, he could have ended up anywhere on this Christmas Eve. He could have at least tried to have some fun in a bar or walked around to see the Christmas lights, or honestly done anything else. He knows precisely what he was thinking when he decided to suffer through Midnight Mass instead.

He was thinking of his first Christmas in Vancouver, spent watching the festivities from the fringes, with a family of two he didn’t belong to. He was thinking church wasn’t a good idea, but he was also thinking of everything he hadn’t done as usual that day.

It’s the first Christmas Eve Julien wasn’t sent on errands all over the place, getting more wood for the fire, even though they always prepared enough, checking the cellar for a wine they never had, bartering with this neighbour for oil, and that neighbour for flour.

It’s the first Christmas Eve he hasn’t shared a cigarette with his older sister right before Mass, when dinner was ready at last and just waiting for them to come back. They huddled close together in their Sunday clothes and winter coats, out back, well out of view of their mother, and bickered about who had the worst chores.

Julien would say he’d rather cook, she would say she’d rather hike through the snow, they'd jostle for their turns to take a drag. It helped, the heavy smoke mixed with their fogged breaths, the smell of nicotine and cold clinging to his scarf, their light-hearted conversation, the companionship. It all helped Julien endure Midnight Mass.

Attending church without that comfort was a terrible idea, but not going seemed worse.

Jules has been struggling with faith for a long time. Every faithful heart is allowed to waver and doubt, so they say, but in the next breath they make their flock profess I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and I believe, I believe, I believe. No place for doubt there.

Julien grew up in a town perched precariously above the ocean, more than precariously fed by the ocean. Certainty was a luxury he couldn’t afford, even at the discounted rate offered by their priest, making do with rote repetitions that didn’t raise too many questions, and calling them belief.

It didn’t exactly stop everyone else, sure. Jules was different, that’s a given, he’s different.

He believed with an awkward fervour sometimes, when he needed reassurances so badly. Then he didn’t believe at all, in anything. In the end, he didn’t believe the way the Church demanded of him.

Julien used to like going to church. He doesn’t think he’s lying to himself about that too. He did love the music, the pictures of saints with their glimmering halos. Jules has always had trouble resisting the beautiful. He doesn’t know that he ever loved the stuffy atmosphere, the sanctimonies. When he had enough, it was like a long war was ended in a brutally short battle.

Sitting among the rare believers in a city of heretics, Jules is more Vancouver than Gaspé. He feels only indifference towards the hymns, the stained glass windows, and the flickering of candles. They haven’t lost their beauty, they’ve just lost his interest.

It gives him hope for other attractions he should give up.

***

Julien stays until the Eucharist, sitting with his indifference. As everyone moves to the front of the church, he takes the opposite direction and sneaks outside. He walks, empty of the body of Christ, empty of plans for where to go from here.

He is at peace.

But he’s so fucking alone.

It's still not snowing, it was raining when he got to the church but now the sky is clear, and Julien walks with slow, hushed footsteps, eyes fixed on the moon. He doesn’t know who’s staring at who, really, but if one of the two looked away now it seems the other should vanish into thin air.

Jules feels a little like a stranger in his own body. It’s not all bad.

He feels shrouded in a silence that lives in some unnameable place between restful and distressing. This time of night last year, Julien’s ears were ringing from four different conversations trapped together around the bustling Christmas dinner table.

And Alexei thinks Julien is loud. He said so like he admired Julien for it, almost like he couldn’t imagine his own presence ever taking up as much space. It’s funny to Julien, that Alexei doesn’t realise.

Julien has been the quiet one in his family and on every single hockey team before the Canucks. They weren’t mistaken, and they weren’t even close to the reality of him. Julien’s head is always loud, except when he’s on the ice, but he’s not loud any more than he’s quiet. There are just days where it’s easier to be one over the other.

For Jules, no doubt, it comes down to ease. He speaks his mind the most when he’s taking confident strides on the ice, stick taps and sharp shouts on his left offering up support — the sound of which these days seem to follow him out of the rink, putting him at ease even there.

Some people are just comfortable to be loud around.

A woman pushes past him, her clicking high heels hurrying home. The spell breaks, but both Julien and the moon keep on existing, only too profane to be Christmas miracles.

If Jules is being honest, he would like to tell Alexei the revelations that fleeing Mass has set spinning wildly in his mind. Isn’t that something? Jules met Alexei mere months ago and he would give him whole truths, in the hope of making them clearer and realer. Things he says out loud to Alexei tend to do that.

He won’t. This is stuff you don’t tell anyone, no matter how fiercely you want to be known. The fact that he contemplates the possibility alone is… Well, in a spirit of honesty, he has to say it’s consistent. Alexei screws with his head without trying. Especially when he’s not trying.

Jules wishes he were with Alexei.

A car rushes and splashes down the damp road, carrying with it the flitting impulse to hop aboard a car of his own and let himself be driven away. The car disappears, the impulse, unfortunately, gets too attached to Jules for him to escape its clutch.

He started off in a random direction, he isn’t sure where he is. How close he is to Alexei’s place, where he inevitably ends up to get a break from the tense dynamics of the Chatel household. Alexei is his chosen escape route, or maybe just his chosen destination, and maybe it’s never much of a choice at all.

Julien should know better than to give in, he really should. Hoping the busy street at the next intersection will help him recognise his surroundings, he walks on.

The street is large, well lit, with shop signs Julien has seen before, and that’s the downside of big cities: nothing’s more similar to an avenue you know than an avenue you don’t. He has no clue which of the two this one is.

The phone booth in front of a local bar is his best chance. He could call his billets. Julien swerves around the drunks spilling out on the pavement, rummaging through his pockets for spare change and excuses that will serve him well. Such as: he isn’t confident he remembers the number of the Chatels’s landline, it would bother them to have to come pick him up, and there are taxi numbers stuck to the booth’s windows he might as well try.

It’ll be outrageously expensive. Julien shrugs off the guilt. He may have forgotten his new watch but he doesn’t forget that he has spending money. It’s worth it anyway, if only for delaying the moment when Julien’s face to face with Chatel again.

Soon enough, the taxi’s stopping smoothly at the curb.

A taxi’s a gateway to wherever, and Julien could go either direction, get back to the Chatels, or run to Alexei. He barely hesitates before giving the driver Alexei’s address because, again, when Alexei’s one of the alternatives, it’s not much of a choice at all.

***

The car speeds through the deserted streets and in no time Julien finds himself in front of Alexei’s door. He feels shaky as he walks up to it, shaky as he rings the bell, from a baffling cocktail of nerves and anticipation. Giddiness is a good word for it. Julien recently learned that one.

One of his teammates had been mocking a call-up who was unguardedly overjoyed to have played three minutes in the first period, to have made it to the big show. It’s a nice word; it wasn’t said nicely. Alexei was the one who brought it up, asked Julien to ask for a translation so they could puzzle the meaning out with their usual twisting and tinkering through a triangle of languages.

Julien had been too focused on ignoring a superficial injury to pay attention. He could be alarmed how much he’s come to rely on Alexei for keeping the two of them appraised, but he’s much more careful than Julien ever was to monitor locker room talk. Alexei soaks it up twice as fast as the rest, either anxious to fit in, or refusing to be insulted without his knowledge. Could be both. Julien does worry about both at once.

He’s probably been standing at Alexei’s door for about a minute, but it feels like hours, the way the tension’s ratcheting up. It belatedly occurs to Julien that Alexei could be sleeping, out of the house, simply busy. Showing up unannounced wasn’t any sort of deliberate decision, not even a quarter of one, which is becoming painfully plain to see.

Julien can’t bring himself to regret it. It’s too early to tell, of course, but he’s fairly convinced Alexei is unlike any other of his bad ideas.

Finally, the door opens just a crack, showing half of Alexei, in yellow socks, dark jeans, and a soft-looking red sweater that shouldn’t complement his complexion, but somehow suits him well. That is to say, the overall effect is pretty good. It’s fine. Jules is weirdly self-conscious of his breathing, his heart thumping, both a beat too fast.

It’s the Canucks colours. Alexei in a Canucks jersey is Alexei playing on Julien’s left, it’s the one unvaryingly good and exciting thing in Julien’s life since the start of the season.

“Julien,“ Alexei says warmly. He draws closer, pushing the door open all the way. “It’s a surprise.“

“Good surprise?“ Julien holds his breath.

“Of course.“

Alexei sounds like he means it, too. Julien lightens up so obviously it’s embarrassing. He clears his throat, pointing to the entryway. “Can I?“

Alexei gets that crinkle at the corner of his eyes that means he’s poking fun, and repeats, “Of course.“

Julien shoves Alexei out of the way for his cheek, softer than he set out to be, fonder. He doesn’t take many things for granted, and being welcome to Alexei’s space, to Alexei’s time, even less than most things, but he likes that Alexei thinks he should.

Julien shakes his shoes off in the entrance, feeling lighter still, and follows Alexei inside. “Are there other people?“ he asks. Alexei didn’t have plans last Julien had heard, but that could have changed. Alexei doesn’t have to tell him everything.

He gives Julien an unreadable look. “No, I was by myself.“

Julien nods, happy with the answer. He always prefers having Alexei to himself, selfish though it may be.

He surveys the breadth of Alexei’s shoulders as Alexei hangs his coat for him, and finds them to be slumping slightly. The bright colours Alexei’s wearing lend him a glow that could fool a stranger but Julien’s trained eyes see right through the poor disguise.

Alexei could still be beating himself up over their last game. Julien has been doing that, too. The first line taking an offensive zone penalty is an idiotic way to lose a lead, not to mention a frustrating one. If they could both use the company, he’s glad he came.

They reach the living room and Julien throws himself at the sofa, stretching his arms and legs across the entire length of it, the leather groaning with his weight, Julien groaning along in relief. The exhaustion of the day is catching up to him all at once, he could sleep for a small eternity.

Alexei stations himself by the armrest, overlooking Julien, who tilts his head back to meet his gaze. Even upside down isn’t a bad look on Alexei.

“Why aren’t you home?“ Alexei inquires.

Home is a day’s travel away, as Alexei well knows. Julien shrugs instead of stating the obvious.

The cushion his head’s resting on is bulky, putting his neck at an uncomfortable angle. Alexei gently takes it from under Julien, only to squash it over his face a second later as if to smother him. But he doesn’t push for an answer. He lets Julien be. It’s stuffy and dark under the cushion and Jules is smiling so wide his cheeks hurt.

The sounds of Alexei moving around the place are better than silence. Julien burrows into the sofa and closes his eyes, tension leaking out of him. Just lying there, listening, he’s happy enough. Alexei leaves him to it for a few minutes, giving Julien plenty of time to slow his racing thoughts.

He isn’t made for idle lazing about, so it’s not long before the quiet stillness becomes too quiet and too still. He’s starting to grow antsy when Alexei comes to stand by his side again, soothing away Julien’s nervous energy like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Maybe it is, since it’s Alexei.

Jules shouldn’t dwell on it, on how effortless it is for Alexei to give him what he needs. He presses his face into the cushion, tightens his arms around it.

“Are you breathing?“ Alexei gives him a light kick in the shin, as if to check Julien’s muscle response for proof that he’s alive. Julien’s leg obligingly spasms. It isn’t that funny, but Alexei laughs, so Julien grins.

Alexei mimics another kick — to the ribcage this time — as Julien’s sitting up. Julien puts his leathery shield aside early enough that he sees the danger coming, grabs at Alexei’s ankle to stop him, and pulls. Alexei stumbles, hobbling on one leg since Julien won’t let go. He gives up his balance unexpectedly, letting Julien and gravity drag him down, crushing Julien’s legs as he falls on the sofa.

Julien doesn’t mind. He can take the weight.

Alexei’s chuckling again, proud of himself. The sliver of skin on display between his sock and pant leg is hot under Jules’ fingers. Jules quells the urge to stroke it, tend to it like a fire. Alexei would find it weird for an array of obvious reasons, and Julien can't have that.

He has to loosen his hold on Alexei so they can rearrange themselves into a more comfortable fit on the sofa, each sitting at one end, their legs entangled in the middle. Julien doesn’t dwell on it.

“Do you want something? To eat, drink?“ Alexei seems to consider standing up, decides against it, reclines lazily. “You know where the kitchen is.“ He waves just as lazily in that direction.

“Perfect host,“ Julien teases.

“I try.“

Julien takes his time pondering the options available, not feeling any more inclined than Alexei to move. “I don't want alcohol,“ he says, crossing it from the list out loud.

They occasionally stop at the corner shop on the way to Alexei’s to grab a few beers — wine if Alexei is buying — for the evenings they spend like this one, staying in, working themselves up to a cheap buzz, mostly out of habit. But Jules could do with a bit more control, not less. He’s flirting with self-destruction as it is.

Alexei’s faint surprise turns into easy acceptance in the blink of an eye. “Okay. No alcohol.“

They stay silent for a while, lounging. The points of contact between them burn pleasantly, calves against calves. Julien’s hard-pressed to pick his way through the sluggish warmth filling him up to find reasonable choices of drinks to throw in the mix.

Alexei says, “How about hot cocoa?“

He spoke in a low voice — so well-suited to intimacy, yet so oblivious to the moment that, in one fell swoop, the warmth is gone, snuffed out, sucking out the air from Julien’s lungs. He cloaks it in a hum, and pretends he hasn’t been all deflated by Alexei’s interjection. “Hmm, I’d like that.“

Jules shouldn't feel disappointed, Alexei didn’t brush him off, they weren’t doing anything. It’s silly. But he shrinks away from Alexei, pulling his legs back, hugging his knees to his chest.

Alexei doesn’t seem to notice. “Hot cocoa it is,“ he announces cheerfully, and springs to his feet with newfound determination. Julien snorts at him for no real reason but the French phrase for the toy the image summons up. Devil in a box. Wrong team.

“All right, come on.“ Alexei gives Julien a hand, which Julien accepts reluctantly, hauls him up. “Let’s get you some.“

Julien lets go the second he’s upright, and it’s easier this time. It’s easier to let go when he isn’t the only one clinging on.

***

He peers over Alexei’s shoulder as Alexei pours a generous amount of cocoa powder into the saucepan where he has milk heating up, and stirs. Alexei is almost sunny now, whistling absently a few bars of a song Julien doesn’t recognise. Cooling air wafts in from the open window because Alexei can’t break out of the routine of ventilating the kitchen when he cooks, even if it’s just hot cocoa. It’s nice.

Jules doesn’t know what to make of it. He stands close to Alexei, a bit too close, drawn back to the flame like a moth that won’t learn his lesson.

Their shoulders and arms brush with every clockwise stir. That’s on Jules. He hasn’t broken out of the routine of cramped kitchens. The spoon goes around the clock again and Jules doesn’t keep the inclination of his body from slumping an inch more towards Alexei.

There were two birch trees, near the edge of the pond Julien spent his winters skating on, that had grown bent towards each other, blending into one where the tips of their branches touched, bending impossibly closer when the wind was harsh. They were a safety hazard in stormy weather, really.

With Alexei’s upper arm pressing against his, Julien thinks he’s figured out why the trees would take the risk of being uprooted for the chance of propping up their foundations with each other’s strength.

The close quarters at the very least mean Alexei can nudge Julien to signal he’s done, gesturing towards the right cupboard for Julien to bring out mugs. So all in all, it’s pretty convenient. It works out.

They don’t bother sitting down at a table, drinking right there in the kitchen, leaning on opposite counters. The hot cocoa smells rich and delicious. Julien burns his tongue a little in his haste to taste it but he likes his drinks scalding hot.

Alexei blows on his mug and takes more sedate sips. “Does it taste the same for you?“ he asks out of the blue.

The question nearly stumps Julien, would have stumped him if he was any less attuned to Alexei’s moods. “No,“ he says.

It can’t taste the same, the brands are different, the milk here is less good, the chocolate Alexei buys is fancier. And nothing ever quite compares to the hot cocoas drank before bed, as a kid, on special occasions.

Alexei nods. “For me neither.“

Julien has spent his evening trying to recreate whatever he could of Christmases past and he hasn’t felt better than the moment he stopped, choosing instead to fall in with Alexei. “It’s not the same, but it’s good, right?“

“Yeah.“ A hint of emotion creeps up in Alexei’s voice. “Perfect.“

A glance outside confirms snow won’t come anytime soon, all the neighbours’ windows are dark, a dog is yapping nearby, and Julien could go for something more substantial than hot cocoa. It is kind of perfect, like they’re the only two humans left in the world.

They finish their drinks contemplatively, lost in their own thoughts.

“So…“

Julien gives Alexei his full attention. Alexei is toying with the handle of his empty mug, pushing it this way and that, the china scraping against the counter. “You’re going to need a ride back to the Chatels’s?“

Alexei has a car already, a car and this place, and the expenses made some members of the press shake their heads at hot-headed kids ostentatiously burning through their first contract money with no thoughts given to what the future could have in store for them, but Julien thinks it’s only about independence. He can respect that, if not ask it for himself, not yet. Also, fuck them all, because Alexei is that good. He is a guarantee.

Going back to his billets would just guarantee Julien a house asleep, at best Isabelle in a robe, reading downstairs, judging him over her glasses. That’s not what he wants, never mind what he needs.

Julien is keeping Alexei waiting. He has stayed over at Alexei’s before, a natural occurrence to avoid waking up the Chatels after nights out with the team when Alexei and him were among the last out of the bars and clubs. It’s different now because he has to ask, the words are tough to push past his lips. “I don’t want to go back,“ he admits in the end.

Alexei stops fidgeting with his cup to process Julien’s reply. The slackened grip is an unnatural look on his slender fingers, and they seem more nervous for being motionless. “Did you have a fight again?“ Alexei worries.

“No, it’s… it’s Christmas, you know?“

Alexei’s expression clears. “Yes.“ He takes Julien’s mug away, clasping his shoulder awkwardly in passing, rinses it and leaves it in the sink.

Jules tries to muster up his courage. “Can I sleep… uh, can I sleep here tonight?“

“On this night? This very sacred night celebrating the birth of your saviour?“ Alexei’s tone isn’t dismissive, not of the religious, not of Julien. But he is definitely messing with Julien. He crosses his arms over his chest, gauging, and, even knowing he isn’t serious, that is still a tiny bit nerve-wracking. “I don’t know, that’s big. What do I get if I say yes?“

Julien can’t pull off nonchalant like Alexei does, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to relax into a casual slouch, resting his elbows on the countertops behind him, putting on an unbothered air. “What do you want?“

His words ruin whatever illusion he’d maintained that he was keeping his cool and Jules wants to hit himself over the head as soon as they’re out of his mouth. The way he said them — he has to get a hold on himself.

Alexei ignores the tension in the air, or doesn’t feel it at all, smoothly answering the loaded question, with that innate composure Julien was striving for. “Spend New Year’s Eve with me.“

Julien certainly didn’t expect that, he knows for a fact they both received plenty of invitations to New Year’s parties. “Just the two of us?“ he splutters. “Why?“

“New Year is a bit more like Christmas in the Soviet Union,“ Alexei explains. “It’s only fair. I stay with you the rest of the night, you stay with me on New Year’s Eve.“

“It's not, because it's late,“ Julien replies reflexively, to give himself some room to think. Alexei's confused face makes him clarify. “I'm just saying, it's not perfectly fair, if you get more time on New Year's Eve.“

Alexei discards Julien's counterargument, with a sniff and a frown that establish fairly well his opinion of Julien's use of technicalities. But underneath the faked scorn, he seems almost brittle. Julien looks at Alexei, really looks at him. If it’s like Christmas for Alexei, a family holiday with its own traditions, he gets why going from one crazy party to another through the night wouldn’t be ideal. But there’s something else.

Alexei is a master at hiding what he’s feeling, Julien has seen him after bad games. He’ll smile at the shit questions from assorted reporters, gracious, with barely an edge to his good cheer. He’ll keep it up as long as necessary, until he’s alone. Jules is hopeless at covering up his emotions when he’s thrown off-kilter, Alexei doesn’t slip.

Julien shares Alexei’s room on the road though. They’re at a point where Alexei doesn’t hide his hands clenching into fists, his teeth grinding. He knows Julien is right there with him. So this is something different, something Alexei doesn’t trust him with yet.

That bothers Jules. He can’t help himself: from the very beginning, understanding everything about Alexei has seemed like the most important mission, like a dire need. The last thing Julien wants is to back Alexei into a corner, force him to reveal what he isn’t ready to vocalise, and lose his hard-earned trust, only Alexei’s not closing up. He’s looking back at Julien, direct and true, like he’s just waiting for Julien to figure him out, as though they've switched roles and Alexei's the one willing Julien to understand him without a word. Masquerades are not a Christmas tradition, but obviously Alexei wouldn't care.

He had been by himself before Julien showed up. Alexei isn’t one to crave company all the time, and if he were, it wouldn’t be a problem. He’s not exactly hurting for attention. Last time they were out with the team, he charmed the prettiest girl in the club and he wasn’t even giving it a solid effort.

Jules was jealous. Of how easy it is for Alexei. All the boys are jealous of Alexei.

It makes sense that it would be more complicated than it appears, Alexei usually is, in Julien’s experience. Alexei doesn’t have to be alone unless he wants to be, but his desire for solitude probably comes in various shades of intensity, from hostile reclusion to grudgingly accepting visitors, and to be part of those select few he tolerates is to meet twice as many intangible requirements. Julien guesses so anyway, since he, of all people, somehow fits the bill to a T. He’s unfamiliar with the situation.

Julien doesn’t know who Alexei is when he’s in Moscow, maybe there it’s different, maybe there Alexei is simple, approachable. Isn’t that what phenomenons do? Show themselves only under the right circumstances?

And Alexei took to the trial of Vancouver with remarkable poise, his English better than Julien’s in a matter of weeks, forever cool and collected under the media’s scrutiny. He wears confidence like misdirection, as though he’s a magician throwing glitter at his audience so they won’t look too closely at the sleight of hand.

Jules is always watching and he missed it, he allowed himself to be fooled right alongside everybody else. He assumed. The realisation that being away from home gets to Alexei the same as it gets to Julien, that he’s not a self-sustained island, not always, comes as a shock.

It still rings true. Julien doesn’t think Alexei liked being alone tonight, he thinks Alexei’s lonelier than Julien ever knew.

“New Year’s Eve, you, me, yes or no, Julien,“ Alexei says, impatient. “It’s not advanced mathematics.“

Julien narrows his eyes warningly. He doesn’t stand for those implied slights to his intelligence, and won’t stand for more, even coming from Alexei. “Yes,“ he says just the same, because he wouldn’t know how to say anything else if he had a step-by-step explanation.

Alexei had to expect as much, but he freezes in motion for a moment. Then he bobs his head a couple of times, woodenly, doesn’t even finish mumbling, “I’ll go get…“ before he leaves the room.

Julien still manages to catch the delighted look on his face. He lets himself bask in it, in being given another assurance that Alexei likes having him around. It’s at least as gratifying as the time Alexei wanted Julien, and only Julien, to be the first to see his place after he’d moved in.

***

Alexei comes back with his phone and a team-issued list of phone numbers which he hands to Julien. “Call the Chatels, tell them you’re staying with me tonight.“

“I guess I have to, yeah.“ Julien grimaces at the paper. He’s sick of having a keeper, even if being billeted saves him a lot of hassle. He should have followed suit when Alexei, one month into the season, argued that he could live on his own. Alexei had been living alone in Moscow before though, which must have helped his case.

He claimed he had acclimated enough to life in Vancouver as it was. Julien believed it. Now, he isn’t so sure. By his count, it may have been something of an overestimation on Alexei’s part. Regardless, it was never true of Julien, he feels as far from acclimated as when he first left Gaspé.

They’d snickered about that word, acclimated, that English shared with Russian and French for once, and that made it sound like they were exotic animals in a zoo. It was close enough to the truth it shouldn’t have been funny, but they could laugh about it between the two of them.

Alexei pushes himself up so he’s back to sitting on top of the counter, raising his eyebrows in an unspoken question as to what Julien is waiting for.

Dealing with the Chatels is difficult on a good day. Get Alexei involved, and it becomes a whole other problem.

Isabelle likes him even less than she likes Julien. He's not her burden but she clearly pities whoever will have to carry that particular load, and she’s also made it very clear she disapproves of them being friends without having to breathe a word against it to Julien himself. The worst she’s ever said is that Alexei has very pretty eyes, but colder than they are pretty, some of the coldest she’s seen.

Jules agrees. He loves when Alexei stares down the world with nothing but chilled steel in his eyes. It makes him look untouchable, a defiance wrapped in suspicions, a gauntlet inside fortified walls with the disclaimer in large illuminated letters that the only people worthy of picking it up, among the few who got past Alexei’s defenses, are the ones who managed to do so by catching him off guard, and even that he’d survived.

Jules loves a challenge.

It's a fatal flaw of his because only time can tell a challenge from a lost cause. Jules will probably fall for the wrong one sooner or later, waste years on a mirage. At least he won't make that mistake with the Chatels, he's already made up his mind, they belong to the lost causes.

Julien braces himself, dials and, predictably, Isabelle picks up. “Hello?“

“Yeah, it’s Julien.“

“Julien? Where are you calling from? We were starting to worry.“

She doesn’t sound that worried, which is fair enough, it’s not the first time Julien warned them late he’d spend the night out. “I’m staying over at Alexei’s.“ Then before she can say anything about it: “See you tomorrow, okay?“

“Sure. Thanks so much for the heads-up,“ Isabelle replies, sarcastic and a little pissy. A click lets him know she hang up on him. That’s fair, too.

Julien sighs at the disconnected line. “Joyeux Noël[1].“

He thinks he’d try harder with Isabelle, if he didn’t have Alexei.

Alexei has been watching Julien, listening. It only took their first week together, if that, for Jules to grow to love Alexei’s eyes, but right away they felt like a steadying weight he’d been missing, like another unobtrusive piece of equipment to keep Julien safe on the ice, to the point he was amazed he’d ever managed to play without it.

“I can stay,“ Julien confirms, unprompted. He hands Alexei the phone and the paper.

Alexei hops down the counter and with Julien taking a step forward, they’re suddenly much closer than they were a second before. Alexei takes back his things, his fingers graze Julien’s. Julien shivers.

“Oh, sorry. It's getting cold.“ Alexei goes to close the window. “You know, you said you'd live there until the end of the season, you can’t fight with them like this.“

“I know,“ Julien mumbles, shaking the tightness in his chest loose. “It’s fine.“

“Is it?“ Alexei says, the brat. He likes to ask these kinds of questions, Alexei, likes it better than answering them.

“You say that, you must have a solution to all my problems. Maybe I should move in with you?“ Julien jokes.

“No way.“ Alexei’s smile takes the sting out of the words. “I don’t want a roommate who will make rude calls late at night to tell me he’s sleeping elsewhere.“

Julien punches his shoulder, grinning along. “Ta gueule[2]. You’d be so lucky.“

Alexei’s retort is lost in a big yawn. “Well, at the moment, I’m tired. Are you ready for bed?“

“Yeah.“