Author's Note: Mother of God has it been a long time since I've contributed to Fictionpress! I could run the gamut of excuses, but instead I'll tell you why I'm contributing again: This was the sixth straight year that I attempted the NaNoWriMo challenge (write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days), and this year, for the first time, I won with 50,206 words! I was even more excited by this since it was a novel based on a plot bunny I've had for three years but never had the guts to start. The novel isn't edited or even finished yet, but I felt the need to post the first chapter on Fictionpress, anyway. Don't be surprised if you look back at old chapters and find things changed - it's part of the editing process =)

Disclaimer: This plot is not based on any real hockey player, living or dead, and persons in this novel are fictional. Any similarities to persons living or dead is purely coincidental... uh... yeah. Gracias.

Other Warnings: Rated 'M' for themes and language. Also, I know that players are recruited far earlier than a few months before practice starts, but it doesn't make a good story if you factor in real life. Sorry! Reviewers (please?): I seem to be losing my grammatical touch, probably literally due to under-use. If you see me making a grammatical mistake more than once, please let me know!

Number 81

Part One: Genesis

Chapter One

"Golden Gopher Athletics, Hockey Department. This is Andrea, how may I help you?"

Dom Lutia waved at his administrative assistant as she silently mouthed 'Good morning, Coach!' at him, holding her palm over the phone receiver.

"No, I'm sorry, Coach Lutia is not available for questioning today. No. He's recruiting." She rolled her eyes at the ceiling and Dom gave her a grin as he turned and strode down the short hallway of the Athletics complex to his office. He ran his eyes over the plentiful Gophers memorabilia on the walls and placed his coffee carefully on the coaster on his desk. The swivel chair creaked under him as he relaxed into it. He leaned back and sighed, mentally preparing himself for the long day ahead.

Andrea appeared with a smile and a black binder. "Morning, Coach! Ready for your last day of recruiting?"

He gave her a despairing look and she laughed. "Come on, now. What if they're the next Gretzky?"

"Mm, I'm not sure that's so likely," he said, finally leaning forward and stretching his arm out to take the binder from her hands. "There's only two left; one's a goon and there's barely any information on the other."

"How far do you have to go to see those two guys?"

Don opened the binder to the last two pages, passing green check marks and red 'x's on the pages preceding them. He consulted the first few lines of each. "Shon is from Aitkin, so that's not too bad - handful of hours north of here. This Nikolai kid though," he sighed, flipping the page. "He's far to the North. We are talking Lake County North. He goes to school in Two Harbors, but he lives in this tiny little township of about one hundred people. It's so small and so unrecognized that I couldn't even find directions to it on Mapquest; I had to use coordinates and the geological surveying site."

Andrea pulled a face. "I hope you get cell phone reception up there, but I doubt I'll be able to help you if you get lost. Good luck. Oh, and," she turned back from her position half-out the door. "Katy wants you to give her a ring when you're on the way."

Dom nodded at his binder, and Andrea disappeared back to her desk. He looked at the last two pages of the binder and hoped against hope that these two players would really bring something to the roster. It was a difficult part of the year when he had to go all over the state of hockey to find possible additions to the team, but in the end, it was his personal visits that made the team what it was, in many cases. If Lutia wasn't known for his recruiting drive, he wasn't known for anything. He focused on the typed notes on the first page.

Shon Koslovskovich - Aitkin High School / Aitkin, MN / Omaha Lancers USHL. 6'2'' 195 lbs, shoots R, Center, Captain. Led Aitkin High School to two state championships as captain of team. Led team in points per game and set school record for points scored in a single season, as well as career points. Set school records for penalties per game, per season, and penalty minutes.

Dom snorted. Well, you can't say he doesn't have personality. He could be trouble, but he's at least worth a look... especially with that size. The Gophers had recruited high school goons before, and Dom and his coaching staff had always managed to settle them down. He turned to the next and final page.

Nikolai Graham - Two Harbors High School / Stony River Township, MN. 6'0'' 180 lbs, shoots R, Right Wing, Captain. Set school records for points per game, goals per game, points in season. Soft hands, good hockey sense. Slow break. Personality?

This was a gamble, and Dom Lutia knew it. Two weeks ago, he hadn't decided whether he was going to go have a look at Nikolai Graham of Stony River Township. There was very little information out there about the kid. The Two Harbors Agates were a failing hockey team in a minor conference, and not even their bright northern star could elevate them past the first round of the state championships. Even though Nikolai Graham had amassed an avalanche of points against near-perfect hockey teams like Roseau at the championships, the Agates had always been on the first bus back to the North Woods. Many young Captains had soft hands and points-per-game school records. The question was: What set him apart?

Dom's questions had been answered when Two Harbors High School - apparently sensing his indecision - had mailed him a tape of the young man in question. Dom had followed the hockey player's motions on his small-screened office television as the kid deked defenders, dangled goaltenders, made impossible passes, and fired off shots from the blue line, the crease, and everywhere in between. It was as if he could see things on the ice that no one else could.

Dom tapped his pen on the last word of Nikolai's description. He'd asked his assistant coach Mark Hillen about this remark, and watched in as the usually eloquent Hill had struggled for words.

"...There's just something a little off about him," Mark had finally finished lamely. "He seems very... It's impossible to describe. You'll understand what I mean when you go see him."

"Not a big ego, I hope," Dom supplied, hoping he wasn't right.

"No, no," Mark cut in hastily. "Nothing like that; he's very quiet. Too quiet. Just... you'll see."

So Dom found himself about to drive hundreds of miles to visit a goon and a kid with a defective personality. He prayed that it would pay off for his team.

The phone rang, startling him out of his daze. He checked his watch, then picked up the receiver.

"Hello, Katy. No; I'm just finishing up some paperwork. What? Yes. Yes, I do. Yes, I have gas! I filled up on my way to work. Okay. No, I'll try not to drive on the gravel roads this time. Yes, I'm perfectly aware of what it did to the paint job last time. What? Is that Matt? Oh, just give him the phone."

Dom rolled his eyes as the receiver on the other line changed hands. His son's voice, cheerful and carrying, rang through the line. "Hey, Dad!"

"Hey, Matteo. You're finally up, I take it."

"Dad!" his son complained, "I have the right to sleep in on non-game Saturdays; you know that!"

"I'm surprised you're up before noon then."

"What! I don't sleep until noon."

"You did last weekend."

Matt rapidly changed the subject, sensing an impending loss. "Be quiet. Are you on your way to the North Woods?"

"Yep. I'm going to pick up some of your future teammates, with any luck." Lots of luck, he amended silently.

"Well, good luck. I hope that you get that Koslovskovich guy... he sounds like a bruiser!"

The elder Lutia snorted. "He sounds like trouble. Do the dishes today, okay?"

His son sighed. "All right."

"See you later, then, kiddo."

"You know I don't like it when you call me that..!"

"Bye!" Dom cheerfully hung up the phone. Heh-heh, he laughed to himself. Nothing like a good heckling of the offspring to start the day.

The alarm on his watch warned him against continued occupancy of his swivel chair. He sighed and stood up. The chair wheeled itself backward and into the wall. He didn't bother to adjust it.

"See you on Monday, Andrea," he called down the hallway, making for the opposite exit. "Thank you for coming in today."

"No problem, Coach," she replied. "Bring them to the Gold Country."

Dom smiled at the reference to the University and pushed open the doors of the Bierman Athletic Complex. Brilliant July sunshine poured down on the pavement and made his silver Mazda's paint job look a lot shinier than it actually was. He cast a chagrinned look over the paint job on the lower body as he pulled his keys out of his pocket. Gravel roads, he griped to himself as he got in and shifted the vehicle into reverse.

Bierman grew smaller and smaller behind him as he drove down 15th Street and turned onto University Avenue. The black binder occupied the passenger seat; his coffee sat in the cupholder. I'm going to need a lot more of this before the day is done, the coach thought with a grimace as he took another pull of the quickly-cooling liquid. It was a good four hours to get to the first stop on his trip, and he'd be lucky to get to Two Harbors by three o'clock in the afternoon. He settled himself in for a long drive.

Twelve o'clock on the dot. I'm making good time today! Dom leaned against his car as the gas pump ticked in front of him. All around him, the 1200-person town of Aitkin buzzed with Saturday business. For a place the size of his son's high school, Aitkin sure was busy. Dom replaced the nozzle and got back in the car.

404 Elm Street - should be just past Frontier. Here we are. Dom made a right-hand turn and followed the street to a cul-de-sac. 404 Elm Street was a friendly-looking red brick two-story, and Dom's hopes lifted momentarily. Looks nice enough. He checked his full head of iron-gray hair - sticking straight up on the top as always - in the rearview mirror, straightened his tie, and got out of the car. The walk up to the door was short, and before he knew it, a woman of about fifty years of age was holding the door open. Mrs. Koslovskovich, I hope.

"Hello!" she greeted him brightly, before he had a chance to speak. "You must be Coach Lutia! My husband took the call that you were coming to talk with Shon. "Shon, honey," she called up the stairs, taking Dom's suit jacket. "The Gophers coach is here!"

"All right," a rather boisterous voice boomed down the stairs. "Be down in a few minutes."

"Now, kid," Mrs. Koslovskovich said firmly. She gave Dom an exasperated look over her shoulder. "He doesn't have much in the way of manners, I'm afraid, but what can you do with these boys. Can I get you something to drink?"

Dom smiled and politely turned the offer down - any more caffeine and I'll be vibrating - and sat down on the plaid couch in the living room. A few minutes later, Shon Koslovskovich appeared in the doorway. Dom stood and extended his hand as the big hockey player's strides ate up the living room floor instantly.

"Coach Lutia?" The young man said in an overconfident tone.

"Yes, that's -"

"Yeah, we got your phone message."

Dom frowned internally, docking the high school senior a point for politeness. Never cut off someone you're trying to impress! he thought, but kept it to himself. In a second, he wished he hadn't been so polite.

"Sorry, man, but I think I'm going to go with the Sioux instead. Better facilities, you know," Shon said offhandedly. His mother came into the doorway and looked cautiously at Dom from behind her son's form. Dom worked hard to keep his facial expression from betraying the anger in his mind.

"Well, that's not necessarily true, unless you prefer NHL-sized ice to Olympic-sized. I suppose you've thought through the fact that our larger ice sheet works better for your longer strides?"

Shon obviously hadn't thought about it, but he shrugged disinterestedly nonetheless.

Dom continued, "And that our playing style works much better for your style of hockey than North Dakota's does?"

Shon shrugged again, and Dom sighed internally.

"Well, it seems that you've given it some thought. Thank you for your time. Mrs. Koslovskovich," he acknowledged the woman in the door, who looked at him apologetically as he took his suit jacket from her, shook Shon's hand again, and strode out the front door.

Damn it, Dom seethed, Aitkin and its rude hockey star fading into the background in his rearview mirror. I'm not sure that this day could've gotten off to a worse start. The car's indicator blinked angrily back at him as he turned onto Minnesota highway 210 and accelerated rapidly. Dom had met some rude recruits before, but Shon Koslovskovich had really taken the cake. Quite frankly, Dom thought, this Nikolai Graham kid had better turn out to be something special to make this trip worthwhile.

He sighed and collected himself, separating the two boys in his mind. Nikolai Graham had been different on paper than his Aitkin counterpart. Hopefully he'd be different in person - and a little more receptive to the Gophers coach's recruiting pitch.

MN-210 flew by, fifty-five miles of campgrounds and waterways, low maple forests and reeds. The terrain became hillier, and abruptly morphed into bluff country as he hung another left onto Minnesota Highway 61. High pines and rocky outcroppings began to dominate on the left; and on the right, Lake Superior burst out of the wilderness, wide blue waters sparkling in July sunshine. The highway hugged the shoreline, and the trees to the left became denser and darker, with low thorny undergrowth. Loons called intermittently, mixing with the hum of motorboats on the lake. Duluth came and went in a flurry of moderate traffic, showboats, and factories; and then more of the same, dark shade to the left, bright water to the right.

Two Harbors, Minnesota. The Mazda shuddered to a halt in front of the high school, two stories high and serving half of Lake County, which was as about as far North as you could get in the state of Minnesota. The hockey arena stood off to the right of the main building, and Dom stepped through the doors to take a quick look.

The ticket office was dwarfed by a banner. A hockey player, caught midstride with the puck in front of him, was featured wearing the Agates' colors of cobalt blue and silver. His dark eyes matched his uniform, and were focused sharply on something in the distance. 81 was the number on his sleeve, and the name below the banner read: Nikolai Graham. Dom felt his spirits lifting again, despite himself, and was focused more on the contents of the page in his notebook than the arena as he toured it quickly - nothing special here, he thought. Except, perhaps, for a future Gopher.

Northbound again, this time on Minnesota Highway 2, the slightly overheated car and its slightly impatient owner cut through dense pine forest on both sides of the road. Stony River Township, where Nikolai Graham allegedly lived, was half a county north and slightly west of the high school he attended. It hadn't looked far at first, but upon further review, there were two highways and at least two more frontage roads to be taken to get to the spot where the township supposedly was. It was not a good day in Dom's life for him to get horribly lost, and since no GPS program could possibly get him out of a North Woods mess, he sincerely hoped that he'd made the right calculations.

The North Woods thickened and darkened as the sun tilted overhead. A truck shot past him on the left, dangerously crossing the double yellow lines on the one-lane highway, blaring cheerful ranchero music in its wake. Highway 15 rolled away to his left, and the road widened to two lanes. A wide meadow, another highway crossing, then down to one lane again. The forest became darker still, and Dom began to see signs warning against hunting and the defiling of protected lands. Superior National Forest, read a green sign just past a bluff. Greenwood Creek. Greenwood Lake. Railroad tracks. 2:34 read the green numbers on the dashboard as the Minnesota head coach turned right onto Minnesota Highway 1. Bursts of green light patched their way through the pine canopy, and Dom rolled down his window to let in the forest's scent. A wide meadow, another highway crossing, then down to one lane again. The road curved northeastward and the presence of iron ore was obvious as outcroppings of mining facilities broke through the forest that was becoming more and more wild. Lakes, ore, trees, lakes. Suddenly, the third left on Highway 1 appeared behind a curve, and Dom took it. 3:40.

This trip takes forever! Dom thought, amazed. How long must it take him to get to school? Two hours, three? I've been traveling way above the limit for at least an hour and a half, and I'm not even there yet! The frontage road paced the wildlife due North for twenty minutes, then wrapped west abruptly around a series of lakes. Again, due north, the lakes out Dom's passenger window. Three of them, dark and strangely foreboding as the rest of the wild and ragged country around them. The temperature had dropped ten degrees from when Dom had begun in Minneapolis, even in the middle of the hottest part of the Minnesota summer. The hum of mosquitos drifted through the window as the road jackknifed through a particularly hilly segment. Deer appeared on the side of the road, looked at the silver car, and vanished without a trace. Sunlight spilled onto the road, but seemed unable to penetrate the forest floors. Dark shapes moved. A wooden sign nailed to a cross-hatched stick appeared at a sudden one-lane road. Stony River Township, turn right. He turned right.

The road struggled against the encroaching wilderness. Potholes loomed large as swimming pools, some filled in with gravel, some with rain water. Dom slowed to thirty miles per hour. The road narrowed further still, as if there was room for that. Briefly he wondered how supplies reached this town if the road was barely big enough for a car to pass by. Actually, probably by snowmobile. At one point in the road, the branches of two pine trees touched, but half of the trees' trunks had been sawed away. As Dom passed them, he noticed heavy scarring on the tree, as if something large continuously struggled to fit between them. Boulders appeared, rough outcroppings with dark ore inlaid, dark and hulking under the potent shade. A sudden southward shift, a rickety metal bridge over a quiet lake, and a sign: Stony River Township, MN. Welcome!

Dom couldn't feel welcome as he slowed further still to the 15 mile-per-hour speed limit and entered the small township. It looked to be three streets wide, one main swath with a convenience store and a gas station, an auto mechanic's, less than fifty houses, and wilderness encroaching all around. It was dark even in direct sunlight, and, in direct opposition to Aitkin on this Saturday afternoon, it was almost completely empty. The isolation was forbidding, and the head coach quite frankly got the chills one would experience when looking at a ghost town. He drove south and turned right on the first road, just across from an empty ore elevator with Great Stony River embellished on the side. The new road went straight west, and Dom looked for the mailbox with 111 on the side. The houses on either side looked empty and poor, barely four hundred feet squared, tool shacks leaning against them, rusting and small cars in the drive. The houses abruptly ended, and Dom stopped his car on the side of the road. Did I miss it? He wondered, peering ahead. The car inched forward as he thought he saw a break in the trees. Yes, a mailbox further ahead. He accelerated, and the road abruptly ended and turned to dirt. The Mazda complained, but he pressured it until he reached the small wooden box on its stand. 111.

The road leading up to the house slanted uphill very sharply, but was fairly short. Ruts lined the side, and Dom tried to keep his car out of them. Suddenly, the house. He parked in front of it and stared. If Stony River Township was isolated, this house was the most isolated of them all. Brown and completely dark, hunched down and appearing to glare at visitors, daring them to knock on the front door, as if guarding secrets. The yard was tamed but showed signs of rebellion on the outcroppings, and the lot was entirely enclosed by dark reaching forest. The lake shone through the trees far down and to his left as Lucia got out of his car, straightened his tie, and climbed the rickety stairs to the front door. He knocked three times.

Three running footsteps, as if the person in the house was afraid to keep the visitor waiting. The door creaked open, but only six inches. An eye peered out at him from the darkness beyond, tentative, turned so that only the left side was visible. Dom was caught short in surprise, suddenly wondering if he was in the right place. He mentally checked the cracked numbers on the side of the house against the address in his binder. This was it, all right. He tried to mentally assure the person on the other side of the door that he was friendly.

"Hello. I'm Dom Lutia, the coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers men's hockey team?"

The door was suddenly open another foot, and now both eyes behind it were visible. The young man stared at him in absolute surprise for a half-second before realizing his mistake and quickly turning back again.

Too late. Dom abandoned all caution and stepped up and into the doorframe, cupping the young man's jaw in his right hand and pulling him forward into the light, rotating his hand so that the right side of his face was once again exposed. The young man, who had started when Dom had grabbed him, now gave up the struggle almost instantly and closed his eyes. Dom stared.

Dark bruises exploded over the boy's face, cuts and welts intermittent, following a line of a large object, like a baseball bat or a crutch. From temple to orbital to cheekbone to jawline, blue angry bruises burst like fireworks. Two of the larger cuts still leaked clear fluid, as if they hadn't had time to heal.

Dom found his voice. "What happened to your face?"

A tremor ran through the young man. Dom felt it in his fingers. The young man kept his eyes closed, becoming very submissive in his fear of the stranger. And yet, Dom noted, his body caved in toward the coach as if hoping for some sort of comfort. Dom released the boy's jaw and stepped back. He opened his binder to the last page and consulted it, more for time than for information. Finally, he found the words he was looking for.

"Are you... Nikolai?"

The young man opened his eyes again at last, and their murky blue color was dulled like he'd suffered a major concussion. The right eye still drooped a bit from the angry bruise engulfing it. He looked at Dom for a moment, then nodded silently.

Dom smiled at him and held out his hand. Nikolai reached out and shook it, a surprisingly firm handshake from one so passive only a few moments ago. Dom noticed that Nikolai had stopped shivering and now was looking at him more with curiosity than anticipation and fear. Dom wondered if he was expected, after all.

"Did you get the message I left - that I was coming here today to visit you?"

A thin line formed between Nikolai's eyebrows as he furrowed his brow. He shook his head.

Dom frowned at the door frame. "That's strange - I left it with somebody in your household, a man. Your father?"

The line disappeared, and with it all of the confusion on Nikolai's face. His blue eyes clouded over and he spoke for the first time. He had a quiet voice with a rough edge, like it wasn't often used, and he was all but impossible to understand. His heavy Northern Minnesotan accent was almost indecipherable; it sounded like an entirely different language, a Scandinavian dialect. Dom tried to read his lips to understand what he was saying.

"He must have forgotten to tell me." Must bitten off and blending into have; forgotten and tell strongly lilted; to far too long.

Dom looked at him, trying to figure out what Nikolai wasn't telling him. Failing that, he moved on. "Well, it's a good thing you're at home, then. Do you want to talk with me about the Gophers? We've been watching you for a while, and we want to know if you're thinking about joining us."

A little life and light appeared in Nikolai's eyes. Really? they said. Nikolai cast his gaze back into the dark house, then down to his watch. Dom watched his hesitation closely before suggesting that they walk down to the lake and talk in the sunshine. Nikolai gave an abrupt and relieved nod. He disappeared for a moment, returned with a small key, and locked the door behind them. They walked to the edge of the meadow-like side yard and set off down a small forest trail, hidden by the sheer number of trees surrounding it. The incline was steep, and the head coach had to work to keep his balance as tree roots and slippery leaves together conspired against him. Nikolai seemed to have no problem with the forest trail, barely looking down as his feet found shale and dirt.

They crossed a small highway - in good shape, but deserted - and the ground leveled out as the lake stretched out in front of them. It was quiet and lit by sunshine, framed by tall pines, their tops swaying in the wind and releasing a heady North Woods scent.

Dom broke the silence with a smile. "So... it's quite a drive from here to Two Harbors. You take the bus two hours? You must have to get up at, what, four in the morning?"

Nikolai nodded without expression, but not unkindly.

"Jeez," Dom said. "And my son complains when he has to go to school at seven."

This time Nikolai smiled a bit, but looked down at his feet and scuffed the ground with them. Not the most verbose hockey player I've ever met, Dom thought, but I don't think he's being mean. Obviously a young man of very few words.

"Well," Dom sighed, "since you didn't get the message, you didn't get the background information you needed for my visit today. Obviously, I'm here because you were one of the high school players in the state this year that stood out to our recruiters as a possible future Gopher. I visit all of our recruits to see if they have any real interest in the program, which is why I'm here today. Have you thought about which college you're going to choose?"

Nikolai kicked the ground again, pulling his jaw off to one side. "Some," he said quietly, and even the short 'o' was elongated, the rest of the word bitten off.

"Well, if you're thinking seriously about the U, I want you to come try out for the team in August."

Nikolai looked up in surprise at the sudden firmness in Dom's voice.

Dom nodded at him affirmatively. "I think you'll do pretty well, personally, considering your playing style and your obviously well-developed hockey sense. A year in the weight room and you could even be in NHL form."

The young man smiled slightly and genuinely. It was the first time he'd done so, and Dom noticed a small tear in his closed-mouth smile. He changed the subject abruptly, having run out of patience for the guessing game.

"How did your face get like that? And don't tell me that you fell," Dom added sternly.

Nikolai looked at him for a moment, then down at his shoes, out to the shoreline. "I..." he trailed off, and Dom noticed how the young man picked at the sleeve of his long-sleeved shirt as he thought. Wait. Long-sleeved shirt? It's eighty degrees out here, and humid! Why is he wearing long sleeves and pants on a day like today? A distant alarm bell sounded in Dom's brain.

Nikolai checked his watch and sprang to his feet, and horror impeded on his neutral expression. "Ooh my God," he said quietly, looking at Dom apologetically. "I'm sorry, it's dinner - it's five o'clock already -"

Dom could barely understand the boy now that he was speaking in phrases; his accent was so strong. He stood up as Nikolai started backing up toward the forest trail again.

Nikolai stared at him as if begging him to understand. "You can come with," he said, making a vague gesture toward his house.

"Sure, sure, sure," Dom said reassuringly, still not very sure what he was agreeing to. He watched Nikolai's erratic movements closely as they crossed the highway and strode back up the trail. Nikolai moved at lightning speed, and Dom thanked himself for staying in shape. The long and steep climb would have done a lesser man in. They shot through the semi-wild back yard, a boulder randomly featured in the center, and back up to the house.

The inside of the house was dark and unhappy, smelling of something strange and sharp, old and mottled furniture featured against stained walls. Nikolai slid through a door and around a countertop to the kitchen sink. Dom followed him and leaned against the counter, frowning as he watched the young man in front of him bang pots around as if his life depended on the timing of whatever he was preparing. Dom became more and more suspicious - why would any normal person get this upset that dinner wasn't on time?

He picked up a large carving knife that was on the counter and waved it idly at Nikolai as the boy turned around.

"You shouldn't leave this kind of thing out unprotected - whoa!"

Nikolai jumped and banged into the stove, turning white as a sheet and grabbing his chest with one hand; the kitchen counter with the other. He took a deep steadying breath as Dom set down the knife and came forward. Dom wasn't sure if it was the right thing to do, but he let his heart and his instincts take over. He wrapped his arms around the boy reassuringly.

"Whoa, buddy, whoa," he said soothingly. "I didn't mean to scare you. I'm sorry. Shh-shh... It's okay."

Nikolai leaned into him, tucking his head into Dom's shoulder and shivering silently. He said something into the fabric of Dom's shirt, and Dom put his hand on Nikolai's head. "What was that, buddy?"

Nikolai's voice came small, and different than before. "Help me," he whispered.

Forty minutes later, Dom stood at the front door. He looked at the young man standing quietly and calmly in the doorframe, a complete change from the panicked boy he'd encountered in the kitchen.

"I will come back for you, Nikolai."

Nikolai looked at him for a moment. "Um... Nik... please."

Dom raised his eyebrows in surprise, then nodded. "Nik."

Nik leaned his head against the doorframe and gave him a small return nod.

"Nik, I will come back for you."

As the Mazda lurched into drive and began the descent back into civilization, Dom Lutia watched Nik Graham get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. He picked up his cell phone and dialed it.

"Athletic Department, Legal. This is Brenda, how may I direct your call?"

"Hi, Brenda, this is Dom Lutia. Would you put Mr. Ness on for me? I need to start paperwork today to bring a player to Minneapolis immediately."

As Brenda transferred him to a new line, Dom hoped that 'immediately' would be soon enough to save Nik Graham.

A/N: I write for personal satisfaction, but also for reviews!!! Hint, hint ;) Much, much more of Nik Graham in the rest of the story, I promise... Dom is definitely not the narrator for the entire thing.