Some of the most important decisions of his life, Julien took in a rush, on the spur of the moment.
When hockey gave him the chance to get out of Gaspé, to leave behind an overcrowded house in an emptying town, he jumped at the opportunity without a second thought. He took a leap of faith.
Other decisions he meditated thoroughly, deliberately, mulling over best options and possible consequences.
Years passed between the first time he had felt the yearning that would become so familiar to him, the first time he knew how to name that yearning, and the moment he told Alexei he loved him. An action meditated, considered, thought over, practiced.
No thought crosses Julien’s mind when he receives Alexei’s wedding invitation, the first contact they’ve had in years. He’s blank, numb. Doesn’t think about the reasons Alexei may have had to invite him, whether it’s plain cruelty or something else (Alexei was never cruel, not to him, until he was). Doesn’t consider whether Alexei actually expects him to go, to travel to the other side of the world to see his former… whatever the fuck they were, marry some Russian woman.
He doesn’t R.S.V.P.
He buys a plane ticket anyway.
When he’s off the phone with the travel agency, he pours himself a glass of vodka and downs it in one gulp.
The second thoughts arrive as soon as he lands in Russia, as he mumbles “here for a friend’s wedding” to the officer at border control, halted Russian words that feel rusty and taste ashen in his mouth; as he drags a suitcase around Moscow Domodedovo International airport; as he waits for a taxi, wondering what he should do; as he sits on the bed and looks at the wooden walls and the stuffy curtains of his hotel room.
He doesn’t know what comes next.
Moscow is beautiful in July; he already knew that. He could take a walk, or call any of the Vancouver guys he knows are attending the wedding, who called him to ask whether they would see each other in Russia. He could go for a drink. Or two.
He’s itching for something he doesn’t know how to name, close to fight or flight, but he doesn’t have anyone to fight or anywhere to run to, so he lays in bed, and asks himself what the fuck he’s doing here, what’s the plan, until he falls asleep.
He wakes up in the middle of the night, having most likely fucked up his chances of fighting jet lag. He turns on the light and squints at his watch. It says 3 AM. He has been asleep for over 6 hours.
Alexei is getting married today.
The thought gives him a rush of adrenaline, but he just ends up pacing the room, still unsure of what to do. He always made the first step in his relationship with Alexei, always took the plunge without knowing whether there would be water in the swimming pool to stop his falling. More often than not, he was left waiting for Alexei to react, to reply, to either give Julien what he both feared and wanted or leave him to crash against the tiles.
He’s already in Russia, so he can’t leave the springboard now. He has to jump.
He picks up the hotel phone and dials Alexei’s number, the one he knows by heart and doesn’t think he’ll ever manage to forget. It rings once, twice, three times, and Julien thinks it’s going to go to voicemail, starts wondering if he has it in him to actually leave a message. He’s about to hang up, having decided there’s no point in any of this, when somebody picks up the phone.
Alexei’s “Алло” sounds tired, but not sleep-rough like he would when he had just woken up. It sends shivers down Julien’s spine in the cool air-conditioned room, hearing that voice directly in his ear after all those years of missing , of no place feeling like home because Alexei wasn’t there. He sits on the bed and hopes the creak of the springs can only be heard on his side of the phone. If Alexei doesn’t hear him, Julien can still hang up, forget this ever happened.
“ Алло,” Alexei repeats when Julien doesn’t answer, and he sounds angry now. That anger has Julien shivering again. He has to answer, to say anything before Alexei hangs up. He doesn’t know if he could call again, or if Alexei would even pick up the phone if he did.
“Alyosha,” he whispers, and he can tell the moment Alexei recognises his voice by the sharp inhale of air he hears through the phone, as clear as if Alexei were right next to him. “Hi.”
“What are you doing?” Alexei replies, in his still polished Parisian French. And Julien doesn’t have an answer, not to that, because he doesn’t know what he is doing, he has no idea what he intends to achieve with this trip to Russia, with this call. “I am getting married today,” Alexei adds after a moment, as if Julien didn’t know that, could be calling for any other reason. The silence stretches, the only sound on the line Alexei’s soft breathing. Julien breaks it.
“Why did you invite me?”
That’s not what he really wants to ask. He has a thousand questions circling around his head, none of them even close to reaching the tip of his tongue. Why didn’t you say anything. Why did you put in a bag everything we built, everything we had, our city, our life, my love, and took it to the other side of the world, away from me. Why did you leave.
He doesn’t say any of this, and Alexei doesn’t answer any question, spoken or unspoken. Alexei’s silence is deafening, and Julien is done, so tired of acting and waiting for Alexei to react, of putting himself on the line and being met with static. He’s exhausted from the years he spent with anger simmering in his gut all the time, festering, exhausted from the beats his heart still skips when he hears Russian, when he sees blond hair and blue eyes at the grocery store.
Maybe he came here for closure.
Alexei doesn’t say a word.
“I am going to hang up the phone and leave this country for good,” Julien says, in the end. “Congratulations on your marriage.”
That’s when Alexei finally speaks.
“No! Wait.” There’s a plea in his voice, and that’s what makes Julien keep the phone to his ear, in the end. Alexei doesn’t beg.
“Answer the question.”
“I don’t know why I invited you. I don’t… I just did.”
“That means nothing.” When Alexei doesn’t answer again, Julien makes another rash decision. “Give me your address.”
It seems to take a split second for Alexei to catch on, to really understand what Julien is asking. “You can’t come here.”
Julien laughs, and the laughter feels bitter, ugly, it catches in his throat. “Why? Is your wife there? You invited me to your wedding and now you don’t want to see me?”
“She’s not my—” There’s a pause, and Julien doesn’t think Alexei is even breathing. He can’t hear anything at all. “She’s not here. Come.”
Julien calls a taxi.
Alexei’s house is modern, all sharp edges and glass windows. It looks cold and unwelcoming in the pale morning light, the sun barely out. It makes Julien shudder.
When Alexei opens the door, his back-lit figure looks exactly the same as he did when he left Julien, the same as in every picture, in every memory, still the most beautiful thing Julien has ever laid eyes on; and he feels the tug in his heart, the same yearning as before to reach out and touch and caress. He doesn’t, just clenches his fists and follows Alexei inside, not missing the way Alexei does a double-take to make sure nobody is watching them, even at such an early hour.
Once inside, Alexei offers him a chair, but Julien refuses it, stands instead, finally starting to notice all the subtle differences in Alexei’s appearance: the shorter hair, the bags under his eyes, a new scar on his face—probably from a high stick. None of those things make him any less beautiful. It’s painful just to look at him.
Surprisingly, Alexei is the one who breaks the ice that’s settling over them.
“Why did you come?” he asks.
“Why did you invite me?” Julien retorts, not missing a beat. And he sees Alexei open his mouth only to close it again. He knows that look; Alexei is fighting with himself. Finally, he heaves a sigh and seems to give up. On what, Julien is not sure.
“I couldn’t…” Alexei takes a deep breath, letting the air go slowly. “I couldn’t go through with it, the wedding, without talking to you.” Silence again, and Alexie looks like what he’s trying to say hurts, as if admitting any of this is physically difficult. Julien feels no sympathy for him, but he takes no pleasure either in watching Alexei struggle, and he imagined he would enjoy that, during all the years when the blame he laid at Alexei's feet fuelled his bitterness. “So I invited you, and if you didn’t come, I would just marry her and carry on with my life. But if you came, maybe… maybe that meant we—I could fix this.”
Julien can’t help laughing again, short, strangled, closer to a sob than to any expression of humour. “Do you really think there’s anything to fix? You destroyed everything we built together when you left.” He breathes in, trying to blow out the little flame of hope that’s beginning to grow in his chest, smothering it with anger. “I found out you weren’t coming back from the press. ”
Alexei looks ashamed in a way Julien can still see, and even now he's probably the only one who can. After years together, Julien learned to read Alexei very well, on and off the ice, even through Alexei’s carefully schooled expressions. That wasn’t enough to anticipate Alexei leaving. It isn’t enough to prepare him for the next thing to leave Alexei’s mouth.
“I love you.” Alexei says it in French, then repeats it in English, and a third time in Russian, those words Julien studied and practiced during weeks, months, before being able to utter them (just to be ignored). Hearing them years later has Julien feeling drained, lightheaded, like he would after being bag-skated, his heart pumping too much blood and his brain unable to form any thought. He forgets to breathe. He can’t take this, those words he longed to hear twisting everything in his mind, his anger and his ache and his utter longing for the man he has in front of him.
“I loved you for 10 fucking years,” he snarls, spitting the words in Alexei’s face. “It wasn’t enough for you to stay.”
This time, the pain on Alexei’s face is clear and obvious, for anyone to see. But he doesn’t say anything, and Julien continues, anger rising in his chest, making him move closer to Alexei, getting into his space.
“What the fuck do you want from me, now? What are you gonna do? Leave her? Take me to Vancouver, then come back here when you get tired again? When I’m not longer worth the—”
Julien never finishes that sentence. Alexei shuts him up with a kiss, light and almost questioning. Julien can’t say no to this, doesn’t want to, every nerve ending in his body lit up, feeling the sunken hollow he has been living with in his heart slowly fill with Alexei's touch. As if Alexei’s warm hand in his hair, Alexei’s scorching hot lips on his mouth, could burn away the long nights lying awake, the scald of the vodka drunk directly from the bottle falling down his throat, the agony of losing everything, his city, his team, his life, the future he sometimes dared to picture for himself, for them.
His body doesn’t care that it shouldn’t be so easy, that he has been alone for half as long as they were together; his heart doesn’t either. He has been drowning for five years and he’s getting air now for the first time.
“Alyosha…” he whispers against Alexei’s mouth, lips tingling, whole body burning where they’re touching. And they’re touching everywhere, though Julien doesn't remember moving, getting so close, doesn’t know when his hands landed on Alexei’s hips. He breathes in Alexei’s air, the faint smell of his shampoo, his cologne getting to Julien’s head, almost making him forget what he’s doing, how he got here. Almost. “You are getting married today.”
Julien looks down, avoiding eye contact in the silence that follows. He finds Alexei’s hand tangled in his, bare, no engagement ring in sight. Alexei squeezes his hand.
“I am not, Jules,” he says, using Julien’s name, the nickname that was just for them, for the first time tonight. And Julien doesn’t dare raising his eyes, still focusing on the touch of those hands he hadn’t felt in years but could still recognise in the dark, unsure he understands what Alexei means, unsure he can believe it. But he does know the determination in Alexei’s voice. Alexei sounded just the same when he used to say they were going to score, they were going to win the game. They were going to win it all. “I am leaving. With you.”
And Julien looks into Alexei’s eyes, and sees truth in the deep blue, sees the effect of countless sleepless nights under his eyes, sees regret and a plea for forgiveness and the same hope that’s been growing in him since he walked into Alexei’s house, unyielding now, refusing to be put out. He doesn’t think he can forgive. Not right now, not yet. But at that moment, standing in a barely lit professionally-designed living room in Russia, looking into those eyes he knows so well, he can’t deny he’s still in love, and he hasn’t stopped being in love with Alexei Konstantinovich since that first day over a decade ago. And Alexei loves him.
And maybe that could be enough, this time.