So it’s been an unreasonable amount of time since I posted anything. Have a few thousand words of a draft from Chapter 16, “Kiddo”
Ilya gave him what almost passed for a nervous smile, but there was still a heaviness lingering behind it. He didn’t comment any further though, and instead wrapped his long fingers around the brass knob and opened the door to Anya’s room.
“Anya, my darling… is okay to come in?” Ilya asked, and Zach could hear the tenderness in his voice. How could he have walked away from this? He looked from Ilya to the little girl in the middle of the room. A kid was so far out of the realm of possible outcomes he’d considered… but here she was.
“Hey there,” Zach said, crouching down to meet her on her terms.
She turned to him, giving him a once-over, then without preamble, she looked him dead in the eye and said, “Didja say sorry?”
Zach almost choked. He couldn’t help but admire her tenacity. “Yeah,” he managed to get out. “Yeah, kiddo. I did, just like you told me to.”
She nodded as if this clearly was the correct response, then carefully arranged her toys around her to make room for Zach. “Didja mean it? Papa says it – it needs ta – you need ta mean it if sorry counts.”
Zach glanced over at Ilya, wondering if him walking out and breaking Ilya’s heart had anything to do with this particular life lesson.
Anya was still looking at him expectantly.
“Yeah kiddo, I meant it. Your Papa… he’s the best. And I wasn’t – I didn’t treat him that way. Like he’s the best. That’s why I came here – to say I was sorry. He said I could meet you,” Zach added, chancing another glance at Ilya, who sat on the floor now, looking smaller than Zach had ever seen him. “Your dad,” Zach said, nodding at him, “he’s pretty great, huh?”
“Mm-hmm,” Anya said, splitting her attention between Zach and her toy dinosaurs. “He’s good. He flies me sometimes.”
Ilya smiled softly and jumped in, explaining. “I pick her up and spin around, like plane.”
Zach smiled. “Papa’s strong, huh?”
“Mm-hmm. Pea-cos he plays hockey.”
Trust Ilya’s toddler to know the word ‘hockey’ already. “You know kiddo… I play hockey too.”
“Hockey’s best,” she said, nodding firmly as though this settled the matter.
Zach laughed out loud. He couldn’t help it. There was absolutely no doubt about who her father was. “Hockey is the best. Definitely. Dinosaurs are pretty awesome though,” he added, gesturing to the toys around her.
They sat together in silence for a few minutes, then Ilya spoke. “Maybe Zach should –”
“’M havin’ a tea party,” Anya announced, looking up.
Zach hardly breathed. Sure Ilya had been about to tell him to leave, he froze, hoping that Anya would ask for him to be there. And he wanted to stay. The thought surprised him, but as soon as he consciously accepted it, he knew it was true. Maybe Ilya would let him stay if his daughter wanted it? He wanted to stay too.
“When is tea party, Anushka?” Ilya asked. “Soon?”
“Now,” she nodded, then her little eyebrows furrowed. “Not now. Right after now.”
“Right after now?” Ilya asked gently.
“Mm-hmm.” She pushed a stegosaurus into Zach’s hand. “If you wanna come, you can,” she offered, smiling at him.
Zach’s heart squeezed inside his chest. He knew right then that he would do anything to keep her smiling. She invited him to this tea party, where there would invariably be fake tea and weird imaginary food, and he might have to do a silly voice and understand toddler-speak laced with bits of Russian.
But she invited him. She wanted him there. And he wanted to be there, to watch her tell her stories and play and make her smile.
Not ten minutes ago though, he had promised Ilya not to push. Not to cross boundaries. He had promised to let Ilya set the pace. What he wanted didn’t matter so much right now. Zach couldn’t – wouldn’t – let himself break this promise so soon.
Instead of answering Anya right away, he turned to look at her father, raising one eyebrow in silent inquiry.
Ilya sighed and shrugged as if to say, do what you want.
Zach bit his lip. He was trying to do the right thing here. He smiled at Anya, lightly bumping the stegosaurus against her knee. “I want to, kiddo. But, since I’m a guest… we had better ask Papa if I can stay. He’s the best right? He’ll know what to do.”
Oh god… how could anyone on the planet resist those eyes?
“You’re sure is what you want?” Ilya asked her, gently tucking a curl behind her ear.
“Yeah. Zach can come.” She put her dinosaurs down and half-leaned, half-fell over, hugging Zach around the middle. She snuggled in, then wrinkled her nose. “Take a bath first. You can’t smell at my party.”
The bedroom was quiet for a few moments as Anya’s words sunk in for both of the grown men. Zach looked over at Ilya, afraid to say anything in case it made the other man kick him out, but he needn’t have worried. Another minute later and Ilya’s shoulders were shaking with laughter.
“She’s right, you know,” he managed to wheeze out. “You do kind of stink.”
“And you didn’t say anything because?” Zach was too relieved at not being kicked out to have room to be annoyed or embarrassed.
“Am so surprise to see you, I’m not notice right away,” Ilya said, still laughing. Zach was so glad to see that smile again. He didn’t care that it was at his expense.
“I’m notice now though,” Ilya continued. “You really come straight from game, didn’t you?”
Zach knew Ilya so well, but the expression painted across his face was unreadable. The emotions shifted behind his eyes so quickly that Zach couldn’t get a grip on them before they changed again. He still wasn’t sure how Ilya felt about the whole run-away-from-the-game thing… and yeah, maybe it had been a supremely stupid thing to do… honestly, he couldn’t even say that it sounded like a good idea at the time. At the time, he hadn’t been a conscious choice. Ilya had been hurt, or at least Zach had thought he was. Ilya needed him. His brain had stopped working after that.
“Yeah,” he said finally, his eyes meeting Ilya’s. “Yeah, I did.”
The Russian was silent for a moment, looking shocked, touched, and exasperated. Zach hoped this was okay. After another moment that was probably shorter than the five years it felt like, Ilya smiled.
“You hear Princess… if you’re coming to tea party, you’re need shower. And new clothes.”