Zhenya got dumped a few days before New Year’s. He couldn’t say it came as a surprise. Yuliya had been unhappy with the distance for a long time, and she didn’t want to move to Pittsburgh. He didn’t blame her. All of her family and friends were in Moscow, and her job, her apartment—every part of her life aside from Zhenya, who began to realize over the summer that he was only a small part, much smaller than he had thought.
A year and a half down the drain, just like that. Zhenya watched her bustle around his bedroom, stuffing things into her suitcase, and felt nothing, only a sort of cratered-out shock, bombed clean. She didn’t love him enough to leave Moscow, and he didn’t love her enough to leave the NHL. Or maybe they loved each other exactly the right amount, but a person needed more than love to be happy.
His mother would be devastated. She liked Yuliya. She was hoping for grandchildren.
“Let me take you to the airport,” Zhenya said, when it became clear that Yuliya did in fact intend to leave the country that same afternoon. She had planned this, he realized belatedly; she had tickets already. She had been waiting for a day when he didn’t have practice or a game, kind to him even at the end of it all.
“There’s no need for that,” she said. “I’ll take a cab. But you’re sweet to offer.” She zipped her suitcase and came over to give Zhenya a kiss, firm and dry. “Be good to yourself, Zhenya.”
“Give me a call when you’re home safely,” he said, and then they were finished with each other.
+ + +
Horny took one look at him and said, “You look sick,” and leaned away as though a few extra centimeters would protect him from Zhenya’s purported germs.
“Not sick,” Zhenya said. The eggs he had choked down were sitting uneasily in his stomach. He bent down to get his feet into his pants and felt his guts churn.
“Hangover?” Horny asked.
“Shut up, Horny,” Zhenya said. It was a weak comeback, as comebacks went, but he didn’t have the energy for anything more inventive.
Skating helped to burn the headache out of him, but he was slow on his feet, slow with the puck. He saw Sully frowning at him during line rushes, and worse, Sidney, who knew enough about Zhenya’s inner life to be dangerous.
Sully didn’t approach him after practice, but Sidney did, his captain face on. “Everything okay, G?”
“Fine,” Zhenya said. He needed to shut this down as quickly as possible. He had no desire to discuss his breakup with Sidney. “Tell Sully I’m fine for game tomorrow.”
“I’m not worried about that,” Sidney said, “you’ve never had a two-day hangover in your life.”
“How you know it’s hangover?” Zhenya asked. “Maybe I’m sick.”
“Yeah, because I have no idea what you look like when you’ve got a hangover,” Sidney said, rolling his eyes. “Come on, what happened?”
Sidney wouldn’t be satisfied until Zhenya sobbed out the whole story in his kitchen, which had only happened once, but apparently set the standard for Sidney’s expectations about Zhenya’s willingness to unburden himself. Fine. “Yuliya,” he said shortly.
Sidney’s expression shifted into his sympathetic face. “You had a fight?”
“We break up,” Zhenya said. “She’s back to Moscow.”
“Oh, shit,” Sidney said, and made his sorry-about-your-dying-relative face. “I’m really sorry.”
“Yes, well,” Zhenya said, hoping that this conversation was about to be over.
“Listen, I’m having Flower and Vero over for dinner tonight,” Sidney said. “If you’d like to join us, you’ll save me from being the third wheel.”
His first instinct was to say no, but there was nothing to do alone in his house but watch television and contemplate the sad ruin of his life. “Kids come too?”
Sidney’s eyes crinkled. “Right, that should have been the first thing I mentioned. Yeah, the girls will be there.”
That settled it. “Okay,” Zhenya said. “I come.” He added, after a moment, “Thanks.”
He showed up at Sidney’s that evening with a bottle of wine for the adults and a stuffed animal for the children, a chubby plush elephant that one of Seryozha’s daughters had abandoned at his house years before.
Sidney laughed when he saw it. “You came prepared, eh?”
If Sidney didn’t understand the role of novelty in entertaining children, there was no hope for him. “I give them toy, then I’m favorite,” Zhenya explained patiently.
“Bribing toddlers,” Sidney said, shaking his head. “Come on back. You’re a little early, I’m still getting dinner ready.” He led Zhenya into the kitchen, where there was a colander in the sink filled with salad greens, and half a red onion on a cutting board. Zhenya poured them each a glass of wine while Sidney finished making the salad.
“What’s dinner?” Zhenya asked, leaning against the counter and watching Sidney frown at the onion like it was about to reveal the meaning of life.
“You know what dinner is,” Sidney said, “and I don’t want to hear anything about it.”
Zhenya grinned. Sidney made the same baked pasta dish every time he had company, a recipe from his mother. Over the years, Zhenya had eaten it more times than he could count.
It wasn’t long before Flower and Vero arrived with the girls in a flurry of noise and excitement. Zhenya heard the front door open, and then both girls came running into the kitchen and flung themselves at Sidney, clinging to his legs until he laughed and crouched on the floor to hug them. The older one immediately launched into a story Zhenya found difficult to follow, something about a puppy, but told at such a rapid clip and high pitch that it was basically incomprehensible to him.
“She’s been waiting all week to tell him that story,” Flower said behind him, and Zhenya turned and shook hands with him and kissed Vero on both cheeks.
“I was so happy when Sidney told Marc-Andre you would be joining us tonight,” Vero said, smiling at Zhenya. “I hope my children won’t be too much for you.”
“Girls are very cute,” Zhenya said. Sidney was laughing hard at whatever Estelle was saying to him, still crouched there on the floor with the little one tugging at his hand. Zhenya hadn’t thought this through.
The girls were funny and well-behaved through dinner, and after the meal was finished went into the next room to play, Scarlett dragging Zhenya’s elephant by one ear. Sidney served dessert, and conversation turned to everyone’s bye week plans. Flower and Vero were staying in town—Vero called it a ‘staycation’—and Sidney was going to Colorado, and Zhenya—
“I make plans for go to Miami with Yuliya, but. She can’t wait so long to break up with me,” Zhenya said, poking at his cake with his fork. He didn’t have much of a sweet tooth. “So now I think, maybe I stay here, watch football, sleep.”
Flower and Vero exchanged a look. “I’m sorry to hear that, Geno,” Flower said. “This must have just happened.”
“Yesterday,” Zhenya said. He was a little surprised that Sidney hadn’t said anything, not even as an explanation for Zhenya’s last-minute addition to the dinner party.
“The two of you seemed so happy,” Vero said. “I’m very sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Zhenya said. It wasn’t okay, but he didn’t know what else to say.
“Maybe you should go to Miami anyway,” Vero said. “You could have a little change of scenery.”
Zhenya grimaced. He had planned a romantic vacation for Yuliya, partly in an attempt to spackle over the growing cracks in their relationship, and the thought of spending five days alone in an opulent hotel room made him want to jab his fork directly into his eyeball and end his misery now. “I think it’s not good idea,” he said.
Vero, a goddess among women, changed the subject.
The girls started getting fussy around 8:00, and Flower and Vero packed up and headed out. Zhenya started to make his excuses, but Sidney shrugged and said, “It’s early still. You can help me finish this bottle of wine.”
Zhenya wondered if they were going to have sex, but Sidney really did seem to mean actual wine and not wine as euphemism. He refilled Zhenya’s glass and took him into the sitting room, and turned on the Predators-Blues game. Probably no sex, then, and Zhenya was relieved. Not that he didn’t want to have sex with Sidney essentially all the time, but his breakup was too fresh to cope with everything that would get stirred up by crawling into and then out of Sidney’s bed.
Nothing happened through the first period. Zhenya watched Nealsy skate around the ice and missed him still, all this time later.
At the first intermission, Sidney muted the television and said, “You should come to Vail with me.”
“Uhh,” Zhenya said.
“Think about it,” Sidney said. “I’m not going to be doing anything too interesting, but at least it would get you out of town.”
“You ski? Snowboard?” Zhenya asked. He had never known Sidney to do either, but he couldn’t imagine what else Sidney was going to do at a ski resort by himself.
“Well, no,” Sidney said. “I never learned, and it seems like a good way to get hurt. I just like the snow. And it’s a good time to fit in some high-altitude training.”
Zhenya rolled his eyes. Just what he needed: a relaxing week of power skating drills with Sidney.
“The place I’m staying has a hot tub,” Sidney said, like he expected that to be the deciding factor. “You can think about it. Although, uh, not for too long, because I’m flying out in two days.”
“Fine, I think about it,” Zhenya said, mostly to get Sidney to drop the subject. There was not a single earthly chance he was going to Colorado.
+ + +
Sidney looked up, eyes wide. Zhenya had deliberately waited until Sidney was naked in the change room after morning skate, hoping to see that exact expression.
“You will?” Sidney asked. “You want to?”
“Yes, okay,” Zhenya said, shrugging. He had slept like shit last night, miserable hours wasted staring at the ceiling. Seeing Flower and Vero in love with each other and with their children had hit him harder than he expected. He was in the mood to make a terrible decision. And maybe Vero was right, and he could use a change of scenery.
“Okay,” Sidney said. “I’ll send you my flight info. Maybe you can get on the same flight.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said.
“Okay,” Sidney said, and smiled.
Zhenya bought the tickets before his nap. He had half-hoped that nothing would be available, derailing this idiotic scheme before it left the station, but apparently Americans didn’t like to travel during the first week of January. He was even able to get on the same flight as Sidney on the way out there, although not on the way back, which he took as a sign that the cosmos endorsed the plan, or at least didn’t disapprove.
They won against the Canadiens that night, their last game before the bye. Zhenya scored the game-winning goal in overtime. It wasn’t a bad night.
He got out of the arena as quickly as he could and went home for a small gathering with Max and Seryozha and their families, Genya, George, a few other local friends. They all expected Yuliya to be there, and he watched them realize, slowly, that she wasn’t upstairs getting ready, that she wasn’t there at all.
“Vodka,” Max said, and gripped Zhenya’s shoulder in wordless sympathy.
Seryozha found him alone in the kitchen a while later, as Zhenya was pulling more food from the refrigerator. “I won’t ask if you’re okay,” Seryozha said quietly. “I’m sorry, for whatever it’s worth.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Zhenya said. “But there you have it.”
“Are you still going to Miami?” Seryozha asked.
Zhenya considered lying by omission, but Seryozha would find out eventually; and Zhenya had never broken the habit of telling him almost everything. “Sid asked me to go to Vail with him.”
“Hmm,” Seryozha said. “Just the two of you?”
“Yeah,” Zhenya said. His ongoing—whatever—with Sidney was something he and Seryozha never discussed, but Seryozha clearly knew and just as clearly thought Zhenya was an idiot.
“Well,” Seryozha said, and shrugged. “You’re too old now for me to tell you what I think. Have fun. Don’t ski.”
Zhenya winced at the thought of subjecting his painstakingly reconstructed knee to downhill skiing. “No skiing. I think Sid mostly wants to do some high-altitude training.”
“I wish I could say I was surprised,” Seryozha said, “but I know Sid.” He picked up one of the platters of caviar on bread. “Here, let me help you take all of this out.”
+ + +
“Nice of you to join me,” Sidney said.
If they started off this trip with a fight about Zhenya’s punctuality, he was going to turn around and head home. But Sidney smiled at him and leaned down to pull something out from under his seat: a McDonald’s bag and a cup of coffee.
“Sid,” Zhenya said.
“New Year’s Eve, right?” Sidney said. “I figured you could use some fortification.”
“Thank you,” Zhenya said after a moment. He dropped into the seat beside Sidney and knocked their elbows together.
“You’re welcome,” Sidney said. Most of his face was hidden by the brim of his cap, but Zhenya could see he was smiling.
They weren’t seated together on the plane, but the woman beside Zhenya traded seats when he asked. Sidney claimed the window seat and slept for most of the flight. Zhenya alternated between reading his detective novel and watching Sidney drool onto his balled-up sweatshirt. He hadn’t been in his right mind when he agreed to this.
The plane landed around noon, local time. Sidney went from passed out to terrifyingly alert in the span of about two minutes. He hustled Zhenya through the airport and out into a rental car in record time, and then as they were pulling out onto the freeway said, “Maybe we should have gotten some lunch in the airport.”
“How long is drive,” Zhenya said, with a sinking sensation of doom—or maybe that was just his stomach growling.
“Uh, a couple of hours,” Sidney said. Zhenya mentally added half an hour to that to account for Sidney’s driving, and forced Sidney to get off at the next exit to find a drive-through.
They went all the way through Denver, from one side to the other, and then up into the mountains. Zhenya hadn’t seen more of Colorado than the airport and downtown Denver, the arena and the hotel. The mountains were snow-covered and lovely, smaller than he expected until they got closer and he realized it was only a trick of perspective.
It was a nice drive, although Zhenya could have done it in half the time. But Sidney’s grandpa driving wasn’t worth an argument, not when Sidney seemed so content, humming along with the radio and talking about how nice it was to see the snow. He had been in a good mood all season, like a weight had been lifted from him with their second Cup, and Zhenya let himself bask in it a little: Sidney happy, and here with him.
Sidney had rented a house west of town, perched on a slope at the very end of a winding road. It was typical Sidney, secluded and quiet. Zhenya would ordinarily have preferred a place closer to the bars and dancing in town, but under the current circumstances he was grateful for the privacy.
The house was enormous, and very sleek and modern, not the sort of place Zhenya would have expected Sidney to choose. Zhenya dropped his duffel in the entryway and wandered around the downstairs. There was a stuffed bison head mounted above the fireplace, a little incongruous against all the pale wood and streamlined furniture. Zhenya decided he approved.
“Which bedroom do you want?” Sidney called from somewhere in the house.
Zhenya found him on the second floor, surveying a large bedroom with a private balcony. Sidney had already put his bag at the end of the bed, so he had clearly decided which bedroom he wanted.
“There’s another one just like it downstairs,” Sidney said. “Or there’s another king across the hall.”
How many bedrooms did this place have? “I look, then decide,” he said.
“Okay,” Sidney said. “I think I’m going to take this one.”
Shocking. “Okay,” Zhenya said.
“Well,” Sidney said. “What do you want to do now?”
Zhenya wanted to eat something that wasn’t fast food, and maybe take a nap, not necessarily in that order. Sidney wanted to walk around Vail and window shop, because he was that kind of person. They compromised by walking the half an hour into town so Sidney could look at boutiques on the way.
Vail was a spectacle, a Disney fantasy re-creation of Switzerland. Americans were weirdly fixated on Europe despite proclaiming their superiority to Europe at every opportunity. Zhenya had been rich for a long time, but he started life as a poor kid from the industrial armpit of Russia, and he couldn’t help doing some slack-jawed staring around at the cobblestoned courtyards and manicured storefronts.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” Sidney asked, chuckling, as if this wasn’t exactly the sort of tacky bullshit he couldn’t get enough of.
“Yes,” Zhenya said, watching him. It was much colder than it had been in Pittsburgh, colder even than it had been in Denver, and Sidney’s nose and cheeks were red. Zhenya, without thinking, reached out to zip up Sidney’s coat all the way to his chin.
“Uh,” Sidney said, his eyebrows shooting up.
Zhenya cursed himself silently. There were lines; he had drawn many of them. “Can’t catch chill,” he said. “Bye week is for rest, not get sick.”
“Sure,” Sidney said. Christ, he was pretty. Zhenya was exactly as big of an idiot as Seryozha thought.
They ate an early dinner at a pizza place. Zhenya ordered a gigantic salad and convinced Sidney to split a pitcher of beer. Sidney talked at length about how great the local arena was, and Zhenya realized after a while that Sidney thought he had to sweet-talk Zhenya into training with him.
“Yes, I skate with you,” he said, interrupting Sidney’s raptures about how the ice was like, the smoothest. “I’m already say.”
“I just wanted to be sure,” Sidney said. He probably had their itinerary printed off and taped in a notebook somewhere. 9:30-11:00 A.M., skate on world’s smoothest ice.
The sun had set by the time they left the restaurant, and they walked back to the house in the dark, their breath clouding out in the cold air. “We could get in the hot tub,” Sidney suggested, but Zhenya was tired and didn’t want to do anything but lie on the couch in the basement media room and stare at the television.
Sidney joined him after a while, which was a little unusual. Sidney watched a lot of hockey, and he kept up with a couple of shows—mainly, Zhenya thought, to be able to name something when he was asked what he liked to watch—but otherwise he had next to no interest in television. But he came in and wedged himself into the ten centimeters between the arm of the couch and the top of Zhenya’s head. A period of uncomfortable maneuvering and complaining ensued before Zhenya figured out that Sidney was trying to get him to put his head in Sidney’s lap.
Zhenya was watching a reality show about a vet in Alaska. Many adorable things were happening on the screen, but he found it impossible to pay attention with his face so close to Sidney’s dick. Sidney radiated warmth like a nuclear reactor, always had, and Zhenya told himself that was the only reason he was feeling overheated. When Sidney started stroking a careful hand through his hair, Zhenya gave up altogether and closed his eyes.
He remembered feeling like this a lot back when he and Sidney were still—he hesitated to call it dating. Screwing around? Fooling themselves? They had mostly fucked and watched hockey. Zhenya spoke at most ten words of English when they started, and not much more than that when they finished; they hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time talking. He and Sidney at twenty and nineteen, respectively, had been horny, obsessed with hockey, and oblivious to any potential consequences of their sneaking around. He was certain now that Mario and Seryozha had both known, but neither of them ever said anything.
It ended, by mutual agreement, at the end of Zhenya’s second season, when things had gotten too serious for either of them to handle. Zhenya returned to Pittsburgh in the fall and Sidney had a girlfriend. He had been—well, a little heartbroken, in retrospect, but it wasn’t like he and Sidney had any sort of future together.
But somehow it had never really ended. He kept falling back into Sidney’s orbit whenever they were both single, and then one of them would get a girlfriend and it would stop again for a while. What it amounted to was a decade of intermittent sex and companionship, the longest-lasting and most reliable relationship of Zhenya’s life. And possibly the reason none of his actual relationships had worked out, but that was a real landmine of a thought, and Zhenya backed away without examining it too closely.
“Do you want to talk about what happened with Yuliya?” Sidney asked quietly.
Jesus Christ, Zhenya had never wanted anything less. “It’s okay,” he said. “I know it’s coming for long time.”
“Still,” Sidney said. “I know you were hoping—I know you want to get married. So I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“Sid, please let’s not talk about this,” Zhenya begged. He felt much too exposed from hearing Sidney say I know you want to get married instead of I know you wanted to marry her. The distance between those two statements was chasmic. Well, Sidney could read him like a book; that was nothing new.
“Okay,” Sidney said. “Okay. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t get up, and he didn’t stop touching Zhenya’s hair; and Zhenya fell asleep like that, after a while, and woke in the middle of the night to a dark and silent house. Sidney had covered him with a blanket. Zhenya rolled over and slept the rest of the night through.
+ + +
“I told you,” Sidney said smugly, like he was personally responsible for the creation and maintenance of the ice surface.
“Yes, you say, always know best,” Zhenya agreed, and stole the puck.
They worked on stick-handling for half an hour, and then ran high-tempo drills for another half hour. Zhenya was panting and soaked with sweat by the end of it. He should have gone to Miami, where he could have been miserable in peace.
“You look like you’re about to start whining,” Sidney said. “We can go get breakfast for lunch. I’ll order pancakes and let you eat half of them.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. There was a reason Sidney was his favorite person; and then he spent the time it took to shower and change trying not to think about what it meant that Sidney was his favorite person.
The arena was right in town, and the diner Sidney had in mind was a short walk away, no more than half a kilometer. “This place is great,” Sidney said, as they dodged people in ski gear. “I eat here after pretty much every workout.”
“Pancakes?” Zhenya asked. He couldn’t imagine Sidney cheating on his diet to that extent.
Sidney laughed. “No, not every time. But I have to bribe you to skate with me again tomorrow.”
Sidney talked about hockey all through lunch, a steady familiar stream of sound that didn’t require any input from Zhenya. He could see why Sidney liked Vail: everyone was either too rich and snooty to care about minor celebrities, or intent on pretending to be too rich and snooty. Zhenya watched a couple of people do double-takes at Sidney, and then deliberately look away and ignore him.
“Are you even listening to me?” Sidney asked.
Zhenya shrugged, unembarrassed. Sidney had been talking to him about hockey as long as they had known each other, even when Zhenya didn’t understand a word he was saying. It was background noise by now. “You say anything important?”
“Well, not really,” Sidney said, and leaned across the table, eyeing Zhenya’s bacon. “Are you done with that?”
“No,” Zhenya said, holding his fork up warningly. Sidney was shameless about eating off other people’s plates. “You want bacon, you should order. Eat potato.”
“They’re soggy,” Sidney complained.
“Look at how much I don’t care,” Zhenya said in Russian.
“I know you just said something really rude,” Sidney said, and darted his hand in and snatched a piece of bacon before Zhenya could stab him.
They drove back to the house after lunch and Zhenya fell asleep on the couch with his book. He woke up when Sidney started rummaging around in the kitchen. There were grocery bags on the counter; Sidney must have gone to the store while Zhenya was sleeping.
Zhenya sat up and rubbed at his face. He hadn’t slept so much since the off-season. He felt slow and syrupy. Sidney had turned on the gas logs in the fireplace. Outside, a light snow was falling.
“Hey,” Sidney said. He was still wearing his coat and boots, and his cheeks were pink. “You have a good nap?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. He stretched his arms overhead, hearing something in his shoulder crack. “How long I sleep?”
“A few hours,” Sidney said. “It’s about 3:30. Do you mind putting the rest of this away? I want to go change.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said, and shuffled over to take Sidney’s place in the kitchen. Sidney had bought far more food than Zhenya thought they could eat: eggs, bread, pasta and jarred sauce, sliced meat and cheese, oranges, multiple plastic tubs of greens, chicken breasts, two pints of ice cream.
Sidney came back into the room wearing sweatpants and a Stanley Cup t-shirt, tight through the sleeves and shoulders. “Leave that out,” he said, and took the second pint from Zhenya’s hands.
They sprawled together on the giant sectional in the living room, Sidney eating ice cream directly from the carton and watching game highlights on his tablet, and Zhenya reading his book and watching Sidney. This was more uninterrupted time than he had ever spent with Sidney, and he felt weird about it, largely because of how weird it didn’t feel. That was the whole problem, of course, that things with Sidney never felt weird, even when they really should have.
It grew dark. Sidney got up to turn on the lamps and put away the ice cream, and then settled back on the couch. Zhenya finished another chapter. An owl hooted outside a few times and went quiet. Sidney pushed his toes against Zhenya’s hip and said, “You want dinner? Or we can go out.”
“Eat here is okay,” Zhenya said. He took a furtive pleasure in seeing Sidney like this, soft and comfortable in his at-home clothes, the Stanley Cup Champions shirt he hadn’t worn in public since the summer. Zhenya liked feeling that he was privy to a secret, private Sidney, one that most people never got to see. He didn’t want to share.
“Are you going to cook, or are you going to make me?” Sidney asked.
“Me,” Zhenya said at once. Sidney was a decent cook, but he had never met a dish he couldn’t under-salt.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Sidney said. “If you would just learn to appreciate the natural flavors—”
“Shh, don’t argue,” Zhenya said. He closed his book and patted Sidney’s socked foot. “Can’t be best at everything.”
He made pasta with chicken and broccoli and whatever random spices he could find in the cabinets. It turned out pretty well, or at least Sidney ate it without complaining.
“Let’s get in the hot tub,” Sidney said when they were done, and Zhenya loaded the dishwasher and tried to steel himself for the sight of Sidney in swim trunks.
He was absolutely not prepared for Sidney to forgo the swim trunks and climb into the hot tub naked as a jaybird.
“Sid!” Zhenya said, not quite a yelp.
“Come on, Geno, there’s nobody out here,” Sidney said, as if Zhenya’s primary concern was being spotted by the neighbors. “Get in already, you’re going to freeze.”
Fine. Zhenya scowled at him and dropped his own trunks, taking care to give Sidney an eyeful as he swung his leg over the side of the tub.
Sidney sank down until the bubbling water came up to his chin. “Nice dick.”
Zhenya scowled harder. It was true that he and Sidney saw each other naked multiple times a week, but there was a difference between being naked in the locker room and being naked in an outdoor hot tub with nobody else around.
But it was impossible to stay crabby with the night sky overhead and the snow-covered trees around them. It was still snowing lightly, small flakes landing in Zhenya’s hair and turning into steam just before they hit the water.
“This is pretty nice, eh?” Sidney said.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. There were snowflakes in Sidney’s eyelashes. He still wasn’t sure if he was glad he had come, but he wasn’t exactly sorry, either. “Thanks for invite me,” he said.
Sidney smiled at him. “You’re welcome,” he said. Beneath the water, his feet bumped against Zhenya’s. Zhenya tipped his head back and closed his eyes.
+ + +
“Let’s take the gondola up the mountain,” Sidney said, after the check arrived. “There’s a good view from the top.”
Zhenya didn’t know what a gondola was, but he liked views. “Okay,” he said.
The gondola was the lift running from the village up to the top of the mountain. They had to wait in line for long enough that Zhenya started feeling frantic with impatience, but when they climbed at last into the little car and started going up the mountain, he was rapt. He had been to the Alps a few times, but never in the winter, and there was something magical about the fir trees sagging under the weight of fresh snow, and the jagged mountain peaks in the distance.
It was fiercely sunny at the top, the light reflecting off the slopes. Zhenya wandered around squinting and taking pictures with his phone. He roped Sidney in for a selfie, one arm slung around Sidney’s neck, and Sidney laughed and protested and went along with it in the end. Zhenya felt very anonymous in their puffy coats and hats, and he impulsively turned his head and kissed Sidney’s cheek. “Thanks, Sid.”
“Ugh, get off me,” Sidney said, and ducked out from beneath Zhenya’s arm, and tucked his chin down into the collar of his coat in a pitiful attempt to hide his smile.
The sun was behind the mountains by the time they made it back down to the village, and it was dusk when Sidney pulled into the driveway at the house.
“We could go out for dinner,” Sidney said, as they stripped off their outerwear in the mud room.
Zhenya shrugged. He didn’t want to. “Maybe we eat here.”
Sidney made melt sandwiches with meat and cheese and baby greens. “This is a one-man operation,” he said sternly, and gave Zhenya a glass of wine and kicked him out of the kitchen.
Zhenya turned on the gas logs and stretched out on the couch with his book. Fandorin was closing in on the killer at last. Zhenya had read this book before, but not for years, and as he didn’t remember the ending, he was just as caught up as he had been the first time.
Sidney came over after a while and handed him a plate, which Zhenya accepted without looking up. But the sandwich smelled good, and he had to set down his book to eat.
“Good book?” Sidney asked, curled up at the other end of the couch with his own plate.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. Sidney wasn’t a reader, which was an unfortunate character flaw, but Zhenya was willing to overlook it. He poked his toes against Sidney’s ankle. “Thanks for make dinner.”
Sidney smiled at him and turned on the television. “Which game do you want to watch?”
Zhenya considered. “Capitals,” he said. He would text Sasha later and give him a hard time about it, regardless of the outcome.
There were a ridiculous five goals in the first period. “Good choice,” Sidney said after the second goal, and it only got more absurd from there. Zhenya got up at the first intermission to put their plates in the dishwasher and refill their wine glasses. When he went back over to the sofa, Sidney caught his hand and drew Zhenya down beside him.
“Sit with me here,” Sidney said.
Zhenya didn’t resist, hungry for the simple animal comfort of curling up with Sidney and sharing body heat. He settled against Sidney’s side, his head on Sidney’s shoulder and Sidney’s arm around his back. They had watched hockey like this so many times that Zhenya knew exactly where to place his head to avoid the uncomfortable knob where Sidney’s collarbone met his shoulder. As the game went on, Sidney’s fingers crept beneath the hem of Zhenya’s shirt and stroked along his side, and Zhenya shivered and closed his eyes. He could watch the highlights later.
“Geno,” Sidney said softly, sometime later, and pressed his lips to Zhenya’s forehead. “Sleep with me tonight.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said.
“Just to sleep,” Sidney said. “Unless you want…”
It was happening again. They were definitely going to have sex. Zhenya knew he was rebounding hard, but ultimately it was Sidney he was rebounding from, always. Sidney wasn’t a distraction; he was a safe place to land.
Zhenya raised his head. Sidney was watching him, and there was nothing to do but lean in and press their mouths together.
Sidney tasted like wine. He lifted his hand to grip the back of Zhenya’s neck, but otherwise he held still and let Zhenya kiss him as slow and wet as he wanted. It was their first kiss in a year and a half, but Zhenya remembered everything, the way Sidney’s lips felt against his, the little sigh he made after a few moments, settling into it.
“Sid,” Zhenya murmured, sitting up and turning so that he could get both of his hands on Sidney’s face, cradling his jaw and gazing at his sweet flushed open face. Sidney’s lips were parted. Zhenya leaned in and kissed him again.
They kissed until the game was over—not making out, but gentle, careful kissing. The Capitals won in overtime, and Sidney took Zhenya’s hand and led him upstairs to the room with the balcony. It wasn’t late, but they were both yawning. Zhenya went across the hall to get his toothbrush, and they brushed their teeth side by side at the sink.
Zhenya stripped down and climbed into bed while Sidney moved around the room, turning off the overhead lights and turning on the lamp on the nightstand, and then taking off his own clothes. Sidney was fish-belly pale this deep into the season, but thick and strong all over, and Zhenya watched the powerful stretch of his ass and hamstrings as Sidney bent to shove off his boxers and felt a ripple of satisfied possessive heat run through him.
Sidney liked to sleep naked, which had delighted Zhenya when he first discovered it, and was still pretty delightful now. He turned onto his side when Sidney got in the bed and helped himself to a thorough exploration of Sidney’s ass and thighs, until Sidney was pink and laughing and had one leg hitched up over Zhenya’s hip to give him better access.
“You’re perfect, you feel so good,” Zhenya said, pressing kisses to Sidney’s neck and teasing his fingers along Sidney’s perineum. “I want to be near you all the time, even when you’re annoying the shit out of me. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize.”
“What are you saying?” Sidney asked.
“It’s not important,” Zhenya said in English. For all his groping, he wasn’t genuinely invested in started anything. He rolled mostly onto his back and pulled Sidney mostly on top of him, his arms around Sidney’s waist.
“Hey,” Sidney said. He kissed Zhenya’s jaw. “You okay?”
Zhenya wasn’t okay at all; he was a hot fucking mess. He took Sidney’s hand and brought it to his mouth. “Sid,” he said, and kissed Sidney’s knuckles. “Why we’re never do this?” He didn’t mean the kissing, or even sharing the same bed.
Sidney exhaled gustily and rolled off him. “We’re talking about this now?”
“We don’t have to,” Zhenya said, a little stung. He folded his arms across his chest, and they were both lying there looking up at the ceiling, side by side but not touching, like a sad metaphor for the last eight years of his life.
“No, we should,” Sidney said. “But—we did do it, Geno. For almost two years.”
“It’s not same,” Zhenya said. “That’s only sex, and we—maybe we feel more, but we don’t say, we pretend it’s nothing. I don’t want to pretend now, I’m too old.”
Sidney huffed. “I didn’t think you were ready,” he said, and bumped his foot against Zhenya’s. “I didn’t—well. I thought you would never be ready.”
“Me?” Zhenya exclaimed. “You’re one say we need to stop, it’s bad idea, too much for lose—”
“Fine, I didn’t know if I was ready,” Sidney said. “Okay? Is that what you want to hear? We both had a lot to lose, and you—I know what you would have to give up, Geno. Okay? You’ve got this whole—you have a very specific idea about how you want your life to turn out, and there’s no room for me in that.”
Zhenya rubbed his hands over his face. Sidney knew him too well. It was painful to hear his longest, most treasured dream distilled down like that. It had gone through many iterations over the years, changing slightly with each new girlfriend, and right now it was a bare scaffolding with no one to fill the starring role of wife and mother.
He wasn’t proud of himself.
Maybe it was time to consider a different dream.
“Hey,” Sidney said. He pressed himself against Zhenya’s side and slung an arm across Zhenya’s waist. “I don’t want to fight with you. Let’s just sleep, okay?”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. His head was spinning. He pressed a kiss to Sidney’s forehead and leaned over to turn off the light.
+ + +
Sidney came shuffling downstairs after a while, wearing a pair of sweatpants. “Hey,” he croaked, squinting, his hair sticking up. He had never been much of a morning person.
Zhenya held out one arm, and Sidney came over and sank down against him, yawning and resting his head on Zhenya’s bare shoulder. “You sleep good?” Zhenya asked.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “You going to make me breakfast?”
“Okay,” Zhenya said, but he tightened his arm around Sidney and held him for just a while longer.
It was their last full day in Vail. They went to the arena and skated, and had lunch at the diner again afterward. Zhenya couldn’t keep his eyes off Sidney, well aware he was staring but unable to stop himself. It was true that he had a lot to lose, but he would lose something either way; and he had lost enough time with Sidney.
“Seriously, is there something on my face?” Sidney asked. “You’re freaking me out.”
“No, face is fine,” Zhenya said. “Nothing on face but beauty.” It was a line from Talbo, years back, and Sidney laughed and swiped at Zhenya with his stick.
They went back to the house after lunch, and Sidney stretched out on the couch and turned on the television—not hockey, for once, but one of the nature documentaries Zhenya liked. It was a clear invitation. Zhenya happily lay down on top of him, smashing Sidney into the cushions and rubbing his face against Sidney’s neck to make him squirm.
“Stop it, you’re heavy,” Sidney said after a few minutes of that. He shifted around and shoved at Zhenya’s shoulder until they were lying spooned together, Zhenya against Sidney’s back. Sidney wedged a throw pillow beneath his head and said firmly, “Watch the wildebeest migrating.”
Zhenya did, for a while, but Sidney was very distracting, warm and close. His hair was still a little damp from showering at the rink. Zhenya buried his face against the back of Sidney’s neck and curled his hand around Sidney’s hip, fingers dipping just beneath the waistband of Sidney’s sweatpants. His skin was so smooth. Zhenya let his hand drift further south, down toward the heat of Sidney’s groin. He palmed Sidney’s soft cock and felt Sidney’s chest expand as he inhaled.
“Geno,” Sidney said.
Zhenya kissed his neck and squeezed his dick, toying with the wrinkled foreskin. Sidney started to get hard, his cock swelling up right there in Zhenya’s hand, and Zhenya felt intoxicated. He had missed this, without knowing he was missing it.
He worked Sidney over lazily, not really making any effort to get Sidney off, just enjoying the smell and feel of him, the little punched-out noises he made. The wildebeest program ended and a new one began, something about tropical birds. Sidney’s cock grew wet at the tip and Zhenya smeared it all around. Sidney pushed his hips into Zhenya’s hand, silently asking for more, but Zhenya didn’t give it to him. He wanted Sidney to beg for it.
“Geno,” Sidney said at last, moving his own hand down to grasp Zhenya’s wrist. “Come on, I—stop teasing.”
“Tell me what you want,” Zhenya said. He nosed at the back of Sidney’s ear, just to feel Sidney shiver against him.
“I want to come,” Sidney said, “I want you to make me come,” and Zhenya tightened his hand and got serious about jacking Sidney off.
Zhenya was a shitty boyfriend and a negligent son, but he was good at Sidney. There were no mysteries here. Sidney was Zhenya’s first man, and he was certain that he was Sidney’s first anything, although Sidney had never directly confirmed that hypothesis. They learned how to be good at sex together. They were still good together. Zhenya tugged steadily at Sidney’s dick, maintaining the careful, constant friction Sidney needed to get off, and Sidney flexed his hips and groaned and cursed under his breath, his fingers digging into Zhenya’s forearm.
Zhenya felt dizzy from how turned on he was. He sucked wet kisses against the back of Sidney’s neck and rubbed his own erection against the solid curve of Sidney’s ass. “How long it’s been since someone fucks you?” he murmured into Sidney’s ear.
He was just spewing filthy bullshit, he didn’t really care what the answer was, but Sidney gasped and said unsteadily, “I—it was you, after the—the Rangers, when we went out in the first round. Do you remember?”
As if he could have forgotten. That was the last time, and then Zhenya had gone home to Moscow for the summer, and met Yuliya.
“You can,” Sidney said. “If you want, if you—oh—”
“Yes, come on,” Zhenya said, rolling his thumb over the head of Sidney’s dick, and Sidney stiffened against him and spilled over Zhenya’s fist, shaking and shaking with the force of his orgasm.
Zhenya kissed Sidney’s sweaty temple and drew his messy hand out of Sidney’s sweatpants. He considered his options for a moment, and then wiped his hand on the front of Sidney’s pants.
“Ugh, Geno,” Sidney said, but he turned onto his back and pulled Zhenya down into a kiss.
It was so nice to lie on top of Sidney and kiss him and rub his cock against the ridge of Sidney’s hipbone. Zhenya could have stayed there all afternoon and gotten off like that and kept kissing Sidney afterward, as long as Sidney would let him. But Sidney started wriggling before too long and said, “Let me suck you off,” like Zhenya would be doing him a favor.
“Okay,” Zhenya said dumbly.
“Yeah?” Sidney asked, smiling, and leaned up to give Zhenya a kiss. “Okay, come on,” and he went down on his knees on the floor, and tugged at Zhenya’s pants until Zhenya sat up and swung his legs around and made a space for Sidney between his splayed thighs.
Sidney pulled Zhenya’s waistband down far enough to get his cock out. Zhenya had been hard for a while now, and the head of his dick was pink and swollen where it peeked out from Sidney’s loose fist, beaded with pre-come. Sidney was still flushed from his orgasm. As Zhenya watched, he licked his lips, slow and deliberate—showing off.
“Fuck,” Zhenya said, and dropped his head back against the couch. Well, Sidney knew what he liked; Sidney was the origin of most of his sexual preferences.
“I want you to watch me,” Sidney said.
Zhenya couldn’t deny him anything. He lifted his head and watched Sidney rub the crown of Zhenya’s dick against his wet mouth; and then, even more devastating, Sidney opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out slightly and then sat there, waiting, his bright eyes fixed on Zhenya’s face.
Oh, Sidney knew him much too well. Zhenya pushed forward into Sidney’s mouth, rubbing his dick along the flat of Sidney’s tongue, and then did it again when Sidney made an encouraging noise. He fed Sidney the first few centimeters of his cock and felt the head bump against the roof of Sidney’s mouth.
“Suck it,” Zhenya said. Sidney’s eyes darted up to meet his, all pupil. He pulled off and licked at the head, and Zhenya groaned and tucked his own hands beneath his ass so he wouldn’t grab at Sidney’s hair.
Sidney went down again and sucked, his cheeks hollowing. He worked the rest of the shaft with his hand in perfect coordination, pulling up as his mouth sank down. He glanced up from time to time to make sure Zhenya was still watching him, and of course Zhenya was; he couldn’t look away.
Sidney pulled off after a while with a loud, showy pop. “Are you close? I want you to come in my mouth.”
Zhenya hissed in air through his teeth. If he hadn’t already been close, he would be now. “Yes, soon,” he said, his voice rough. Sure, he could draw it out and pat himself on the back for his stamina, but why deny Sidney what he wanted?
“Okay, good,” Sidney said. He went back to sucking, and Zhenya watched him and felt his soft wet mouth tugging the orgasm out of him like a fishing line.
He slid one of his hands into Sidney’s hair, cradling his skull, being careful not to shove him down or hold him in place, just wanting to touch him. “Sid,” he said warningly, and Sidney tipped his chin up to let Zhenya sink a little further into his mouth, and Zhenya groaned and thrust just once, unable to stop himself, and came.
He collapsed against the couch, panting. He heard Sidney get up and go into the kitchen and spit in the sink, and then the faucet turned on as he rinsed his mouth.
“Sid, come here,” Zhenya called out, because he wanted his post-sex cuddles, and Sidney was just going to have to live with it.
“I know, I know,” Sidney said, and then he was standing in front of Zhenya again and smiling, and sinking down on the couch to curl up with him. Zhenya put his arm around Sidney and pulled him down so they were lying together, squeezed side by side on the couch. Sidney let out a contented sigh and tucked his head beneath Zhenya’s chin, his nose brushing the hollow of Zhenya’s throat.
All of this was familiar: the sex, the closeness, the never talking about it. Zhenya was a little astounded that two otherwise competent adult men could have casual sex with each other for eight years and avoid having even a single conversation about it, but there it was. They had started to talk about it last night, maybe, a little, but then Sidney had given him an out and Zhenya had taken it, because he was a coward who hated talking about his feelings.
He was tired of not talking about it.
“Sid,” he said. “I don’t like how we do.”
He felt Sidney tense against him. “What?” Sidney tried to pull back, but Zhenya held him in place, one arm wrapped tight around Sidney’s back.
“Stop, shh,” Zhenya said. “Maybe I say wrong. Please listen and don’t go hide upstairs,” because avoidance was a tried-and-true Sidney tactic. He drew in a breath and tried to organize his thoughts. “You say I have—idea, about how I want. And it’s true, but—I try for so long, with all girlfriends, but they don’t want me enough, or—maybe I’m problem, and they know someone else has my heart.”
“Geno,” Sidney said, his voice muffled against Zhenya’s chest. His eyelashes flickered against Zhenya’s throat, faintly ticklish.
Zhenya held him firmly. He could feel from the tension in Sidney’s body how badly Sidney wanted to escape this conversation, but it was years overdue, and Zhenya wasn’t flying back to Pittsburgh without dragging this out into the open. “I think we’re too young before, first time. And you’re right, I’m not ready before, so I take all good parts with you but it’s not serious. Maybe I’m scared, or I don’t think it’s possib—possibility?”
“Possibility,” Sidney said, still coiled tight.
“Yes, possibility,” Zhenya said. “Maybe, I don’t know. It’s never serious. But maybe now…” He trailed off. He wasn’t sure what to say, still didn’t know how to articulate everything he was thinking.
“Is this why you’ve been so quiet for the last few days?” Sidney asked, after a moment. “You were thinking this through.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. He had probably been thinking about it unconsciously for years, but seeing Sidney with Flower’s daughters had dredged it all to the surface, and he felt pretty foolish, now, for never recognizing his emotions for what they were.
Sidney was quiet for a few minutes. Zhenya held him and tried not to freak out, but he was—okay, he was freaking out. He had no clue what Sidney was going to say, absolutely zero idea, and he wouldn’t survive having his heart stomped on twice in the same week.
Sidney shook off Zhenya’s arm at last and sat up. He put one hand on Zhenya’s chest and pushed him onto his back, staring down at him with a blank face, completely unreadable. Zhenya’s pulse beat in his temples, a petrifying adrenaline-fueled rush.
“All of those things you want, you can have them with me,” Sidney said. “It would be—complicated, but. If you wanted to.”
“Family?” Zhenya said, almost afraid to speak the word.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “I mean, obviously it would be easier with a woman. For a lot of reasons. But if you want—we could do that. Together.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, his throat tight.
“It was just a thought,” Sidney said, shoulders hunching. “Forget it.”
“You’re ask me?” Zhenya asked. He took Sidney’s hand and brought it to his heart, let him feel it hammering, terrified and elated. “You want be together?”
“Well,” Sidney said. He glanced down, and then back up, and he was smiling now, very slightly. “I told you I didn’t know if I was ready,” he said. “But I think maybe I am, now.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said again.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Do you want to? Do you want to think about it?”
Zhenya said, “I want so much,” and he drew Sidney down and clung to him as they both trembled.
+ + +
“I’m cut you off,” Zhenya said, absolutely thrilled by this turn of events. He took the glass out of Sidney’s hand and drained it and set it carefully aside. “No more for you.”
“Come on, you’ve had at least two more glasses than I have,” Sidney said. He was trying not to smile and doing a piss-poor job of it.
“Yes, but I can hold liquor, you can’t,” Zhenya said. Sidney opened his mouth again, probably to argue, and Zhenya added, “Be quiet, give me kiss,” and he hauled Sidney onto his lap and kissed his wine-sweet mouth, and Sidney wrapped his arms around Zhenya’s neck and didn’t say anything else, at least for a little while.
He slept in Sidney’s bed again that night, and woke around dawn to find that Sidney was already awake, and watching him.
“Up early,” Zhenya said, reaching out to rub his thumb along Sidney’s cheekbone. He was looking forward to a thousand mornings of this, waking up to Sidney’s sleepy disgruntled face next to him in the bed.
“Yeah,” Sidney said, “someone kept kicking me.”
“House has ghost,” Zhenya said, “I sleep like angel.”
“I don’t think you know what that word means,” Sidney said.
Zhenya laughed softly and ruffled his hand through Sidney’s hair. “Sleep more. I make breakfast.”
He made French toast to use up the last of the eggs and bread. Sidney came downstairs as Zhenya was plating the food, probably lured by the smell. They sat at the table and Zhenya watched Sidney slowly wake up as he ate, rubbing at his face and looking around with a glazed expression.
“Sleepy face,” Zhenya said fondly.
“I really shouldn’t be eating this,” Sidney said, looking down at his plate like he had just realized what was on it. Then he shrugged and took another bite.
“We work hard this week,” Zhenya said. “Too much skate. It’s bye, supposed to be relax. Eat toast.”
“It’s really good,” Sidney said, flagrantly talking with his mouth full, and then he reached over to steal a sip of Zhenya’s coffee.
“You don’t like coffee,” Zhenya said.
“Ugh, I forgot how much I don’t like coffee,” Sidney said, and made a hideous face.
They needed to leave the house by 10:00 to make it to the airport on time, and they both still needed to shower and pack, but Zhenya was in no hurry to get up from the table when Sidney was there sitting in a sunbeam with his broad shoulders and his bright eyes.
“Sid, when we’re home,” Zhenya said. “Maybe I need some time.” He had loved Yuliya, and he needed time to mourn that relationship and get his head on straight. Diving headfirst into anything with Sidney was tempting but ill-advised.
“Yeah, I figured,” Sidney said, apparently unaffected by this news. “I’ll give you some space for a few months. You can let me know when you’re ready.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said urgently. He took Sidney’s hand and gripped it tight. He needed Sidney to understand this. “Don’t get girlfriend. Wait for me.”
Sidney looked startled. “I—yeah, of course. I told you I want to do this with you. I’m not going to change my mind if you want to wait until next season.”
“No, not that long,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t bear the thought of waiting that long—more than six months!—to have Sidney in his home and life. He turned Sidney’s hand over and dropped a kiss onto his palm. “Few months, that’s all.”
“I can probably survive that,” Sidney said, and Zhenya kissed his hand again, and then leaned in and kissed his smiling mouth.
Zhenya lost the argument about who got to drive back to Denver. “You aren’t on the rental agreement,” Sidney said, which was evidently inviolate. “Also, you drive like an asshole.”
“I’m good driver,” Zhenya said, genuinely a little offended. “Drive fast, okay, but careful, very safe. And if you’re in car, I’m most careful.”
Sidney’s expression softened. “Well, okay. But I’m still not letting you drive.”
So Zhenya had to cool his heels in the passenger seat all the way to the airport, two and a half hours of Sidney getting stuck behind slower traffic in the right lane because he wasn’t aggressive enough about passing. Well, Zhenya had just signed up for this: a lifetime of suffering through Sidney’s polite Canadian driving.
“I don’t have to speak Russian to know that you’re talking shit about me,” Sidney said.
“I’m say only nice things,” Zhenya said. “Not too short, good captain, okay at hockey—”
“Oh, only okay?” Sidney said, laughing, and Zhenya slouched down in his seat and smirked to cover up how many feelings he was having. He loved the sound of Sidney’s goofy laugh. He would put up with a lot to get to keep hearing it.
Zhenya’s flight left a couple of hours after Sidney’s. He hung out with Sidney at his gate until Sidney’s flight boarded, and then permitted himself a hug—maybe lingering too long, but Zhenya got away with a lot of bullshit by invoking cultural differences. He turned his face into Sidney’s hair and breathed in the scent of his shampoo. Sidney put his arms around Zhenya’s waist, hidden beneath Zhenya’s coat.
It was hard to let go. “Safe flight,” he said, pulling back at last. He adjusted the collar of Sidney’s coat and tried to ignore the way Sidney was looking at him, blushing and pleased. Zhenya wanted very badly to kiss him, but that was obviously out of the question.
“Hey,” Sidney said. “I’m glad you came with me. I think it worked out pretty well, eh?”
Zhenya needed to step away or he was going to kiss Sidney in the middle of Denver International. “See you tomorrow,” he said, and then added in Russian a few things he wasn’t ready to say in English just yet; but Sidney looked at him like he understood every word.