Off-ice, Malkin was gawky. Tall and too skinny for it, legs too long, hair too long, or so Max said. Or maybe the awkardness came from the way his head seemed to hang down from his shoulders like a guilty dog or a vulture, cocked to the side sometimes as he strained to catch a word or two he understood, though more often he seemed to just let the English flow over him undisturbed.
Not that Sid looked at him all that often. Seriously. He definitely didn’t say any of this to anyone else, because that would be really fucking stupid.
“A vulture,” Flower said, wrinkling his nose.
“You know, like—”
“I know what a vulture is,” Flower said. He was quiet for a moment. He ran the tip of his down the side of his bright yellow pads. “You look at him a lot, eh?”
Sid opened his mouth. Shut it again. He was red, he knew, but maybe Flower wouldn’t look up.
Flower looked up. His eyes lit with glee that did not bode well, but he only slapped Sid’s shoulder and said, “I think our kid is growing up.”
“You’re fucking two years older than me, asshole. And—” Flower would tease Sid about this, too. Sid pushed ahead anyway. “And he’s really quiet? I know he doesn’t speak English,” Sid added, before Flower could interrupt. “But he’s just—I’m supposed to care about this stuff now, eh?”
Instead of any of the chirping he could have done, Flower said, “You’re not captain yet. You can just be a normal hotshot asshole. You have time.”
He waited expectantly for Sid to agree. When Sid didn’t, immediately, Flower’s eyebrows rose. “They asked me, you know,” Sid said finally. It felt like a confession, as though the front office hadn’t talked about in public. “I told them no. I said I didn’t have enough experience.”
Flower mused on this for a while. “So you’re trying to get some?”
“I want to be good at it. Not just at the hockey part.” And this, the confession so fundamental that Sid had to drop his voice and look away. “Everyone’s older than me, Flower.”
“Not everybody,” Flower said cheerfully, clapping him on the back. “You’ve always got Jordy.”
Geno had been mad at Max earlier. Max swore that he wasn’t even teasing, that Geno got pissed for no reason. He’d stalked out of the weights room, past Sid, looking thunderous and half a second from pulling someone’s skates out from under them, if any of them had been wearing skates.
Now he looked… peaceful. Sid saw him relax sometimes, usually with a beer and Gonch around to translate, but this was different. That perpetual hunch was gone, and the thinning late-autumn sun lit his upturned face. His fingers were laced together, hanging between his thighs.
Sid slowed his steps as he approached. He sat a few feet away, quietly. A breeze blew down his collar and across his arms, threatening to bite. He had an army of goosebumps by the time Geno finally looked at him. “Sid?”
Geno sighed deeply. He looked up, to black specks circling far above. “Birds,” he said.
Geno nodded to himself. He met Sid’s eyes, looking a little resigned. “Go?”
It was Gonch who’d sent Sid up to find Geno. “Not yet. No,” Sid added, in case that wasn’t clear. “Nyet?”
Geno’s laugh made his eyes crinkle. Sid’s heart swooped in ways not recommended by his trainer.
They sat there a little while longer. Gonch could wait.
“I knew a kid who was like that,” Flower said, low, though Geno and Gonch were already gone for the day and Geno would only understand half the words anyway. “If you got too close, he’d—” Flower jerked back. “His mom had bruises a lot, too.”
They were quiet about that for a while, Flower and Sid and Max and Brooksie. Finally Brooksie blew a sigh out his nose. “So we just don’t touch his back.”
Sid passed the word along, quietly, a few words in a few ears until it was just understood.
On the ice it was different. On the ice, Geno flew right past everyone who tried to lay a finger on him. Or he cross-checked them in the face. Coach was still working on that part.
“Jordy?” Sid said. He followed Jordy into the room and let the door swing shut behind him. “Man, are you…?”
“It’s my mom.” Jordy said. “She was in an accident last night. She’s probably fine, they said?” He sniffled. “I just wish I could go home, you know? To make sure. Fuck.” He wiped roughly at his eyes.
Cautiously, Sid squeezed Jordy’s arm. Jordy shuddered, and Sid pulled him in for a hug. Jordy hung on, tight.
“He could come eat with me,” Sid offered. “Just me. It wouldn’t be loud.” Not that volume specifically seemed to bother Geno all that much. Just people too close and voices he didn’t understand.
“Hmm,” Gonch said, giving Sid a considering eye. Sid firmed his shoulders and stood his ground. “I’ll mention it to him.”
Two days later, Sid took Geno to his favorite cheesecake place. “Cheesecake,” Geno repeated carefully, with approval. He stood at the counter and pointed at the flavors he wanted to try. Sid bought them a sampler and gestured to a booth, but Geno barely looked at it; he made a beeline for a tiny two-person table next to the window.
Sid knocked into Geno’s knees when he sat down, and all the cold winter air seemed to be seeping directly through the windowpane, but Geno looked so happy about it. He bit into a square of cheesecake and hummed with pleasure, and he watched starlings hop around the bare branches of the tree just outside. He pointed them out to Sid, too, cackling as one flew at another. “Fight,” he told Sid. “Roughing.”
“You think that one’s Patrick Roy?”
Geno laughed. “Yes, Roy. Asshole.”
Sid paid more attention to Geno than the birds: the way Geno’s eyes lit up, his intent concentration as he watched. Geno didn’t seem to notice, and no one else would ever know.
When they were finished, chilled but comfortably full of cheesecake, Geno turned to Sid and said very seriously, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Sid said, feeling just as solemn. “Maybe again sometime, eh?”
Geno broke into a smile. “Yes. Again.”
“What, like you’re some kind of health freak now?” Sid shot back, defensive. “You had nachos at the airport yesterday!”
“Sure,” Flower said slowly, and said no more about it.
When Sid got close enough to hear, Gonch was telling the bouquet of mics that Geno would to do better, that they all had to do better. “But I think we will win,” Gonch translated. “This three-game homestand is very important to get our momentum back, and I think we will. If we get it together, we can win all three games.”
Sid slipped away again before any of those mics turned towards him, but he found Geno later in the changing room. “Good interview,” he said. “So we’re gonna win?”
Geno lifted his chin. “Yes. Win.”
“You want to play darts?” Sid asked him, after Max disappeared to the bar with the threat of shots.
Jordy blinked at Sid. “You suck at darts. You’ll get all pissed.”
“No, I won’t.”
He did, but Jordy got a kick out of it. Anyway, Max was too busy trying to coax Brooksie with neon-colored shots to bother either of them anymore.
“Not bad, G,” Sid said after the third game, fistbumping Geno as he came in off the ice.
“I say you!” Geno exclaimed over his shoulder as he stomped down the tunnel.
“You want to?” Sid asked. Fuck if he knew why he was surprised; Geno had obviously enjoyed it before. Geno nodded hopefully, and Sid’s heart stuttered a little. “Okay. We can do that.” Anything to coax Geno a little more out of that shell. That’s what captains did, right? Made their teammates feel like they belonged?
Geno chose different flavors this time, but he wanted the same tiny table by the window. The starlings were still there, squawking, and Geno watched them avidly and munched on chocolate turtle cheesecake and raspberry swirl. Every so often he peeked at Sid out of the corner of his eye, which meant he caught Sid watching him.
Geno only smiled and turned his attention back to the window while Sid tried not to flush. It occurred to Sid that maybe it wasn’t for fitness reasons that Flower had been so astonished about the cheesecake.
When Sid tried to talk to him the next day, Geno just stared, incomprehending, as though he’d never heard a word of English before in his life. When Sid had finished speaking, he only shrugged and turned away.
Sid fell back on the tried and true method: he asked Gonch. “Is Geno okay?”
“He will be,” Gonch said. He didn’t look up from the bar he was loading with weights.
“Okay,” Sid said, dubious.
“It’s just growing pains,” Gonch told him. “Leave him alone, and he’ll be all right in a few weeks.”
“A few weeks?”
“Just leave him alone,” Gonch repeated.
It might be he wasn’t being professional about this at all.
He walked up to the house and rang the doorbell. Its tones reverberated through the house. He waited. After a minute or so, he got out his phone and texted Geno, I know you’re in there.
No answer. Feeling increasingly foolish, he was just turning to go just when the lock rattled in the door.
Sid stared at the doorknob. Nothing else happened; from within there might, very faintly, have been the sound of feet on carpeted stairs. Cautiously Sid twisted the knob, and the door opened into what felt for all the world like an empty house. “Geno?” he called.
He shut the door behind him and peered around. He’d never been past the front entryway of Gonch’s house before. He took off his wet shoes and lined them up by the others in the hallway, and he padded up the stairs in sock feet. Four doors along the hall were open, onto a master bedroom, a bathroom, and two rooms that clearly belonged to kids.
Sid came to the fifth door, and he knocked. “Geno?”
There might have been a grunt from the other side of the door. Sid pushed the door open, into dimness. The shades were closed. The only light was the bright glare of the laptop, sitting unattended on a desk. A video was still playing on it.
There was an enormous plaid-fleeced lump on the bed. Sid approached, and he sneezed. Hard. Then a second sneeze. Something crunched underfoot. What the fuck. “You okay in there?”
A muffled curse came from inside the blanket. The lump shifted and sat up, and finally Geno’s head peeked out, blanket pulled tight around his neck. His hair stood up in every direction.
The shape he made under the fleece did not make sense. There were lumps. Bluffs and canyons, a whole impossible geography. “Geno?”
Geno huffed and spit something out in Russian, but maybe not at Sid. He wasn’t looking at Sid, anyway. His face was flushed. Finally he met Sid’s eye, and he pleaded, “Don’t laugh.” Then he threw the fleece blanket off his shoulders.
It still made no sense. They made no sense. They shifted, flapped a little, sending little gusts of stale, musty air into Sid’s face.
“What the fuck,” Sid said, very softly. He looked for Geno amidst all the… feathers. Geno stared back, looking—uncertain? Afraid? Like he’d bolt at any moment, if those things would even fit through the door. “I don’t know what’s happening,” Sid said.
“Wings,” Geno said. “Like birds?”
“No shit.” They spanned the room, their feathery tips brushing the walls on either side, and they weren’t even fully extended. They were creamy underneath and mostly brown on top, from what Sid could see. They came from Geno’s back. “When did you get them?”
“I always have.”
“Fucker, you did not always have those. I’ve seen you in the shower.”
Geno’s hands were gripping his knees, Sid noticed. The knuckles were white. “They’re cool?” he offered.
“Ugly. Now, they ugly.” A wing shook, and for the first time Sid realized the feathers weren’t smooth. They stuck up in places, weirdly fluffy, not sleek like feathers that flew.
“What’s happening? Are you sick?”
Geno huffed, some of the uncertainty leaking out of his eyes. “No. Every year, it happen.” He gestured dismissively at the—wings. That he had.
“Does it hurt?”
Geno hesitated. “Not hurt. Just—” His expression twisted, that familiar look of frustration when English was eluding him. He curled his hand into a claw and mimed scratching at his arm.
“All the time, itch. More worse when they hide. Awful.”
Sid nodded, like this made sense. “So I should leave you alone, I guess.”
That hesitation again. Sid waited. “Maybe—you watch movie with me? So bored.” Geno pulled an exaggerated scowl.
“Yeah, sure. I can watch a movie with you.”
Geno had trouble figuring out how to arrange himself so that he could see the laptop screen without his wings knocking into Sid or other things. The two of them ended up sprawled on their bellies on Geno’s bed, the laptop set up on a couple of books where Geno’s pillow usually went, his wings folded neatly at his back.
Geno’s movie was in Russian, and Sid didn’t understand a single word of it, but Geno got pretty into explaining it, enough that he forgot to be shy about his English. He was lying close to Sid and his eyes were bright, and it didn’t matter that Sid didn’t always understand the explanations, either.
He sat carefully to one side while Geno shook his wings out, trying to loosen the old feathers, and he coughed on the dander that shook out instead. At Geno’s halting direction, he spritzed water on the wings with a spray bottle.
“Where did they come from?” Sid tried again one day.
“I always have,” Geno repeated.
“Do you parent have wings, too?”
Geno slowly shook his head. “No. And you can’t say, Sid. You don’t say anybody about me.”
“I won’t. Of course I won’t.”
“I know.” Geno patted Sid’s shoulder, and then he settled back on his elbows, watching the end credits scroll past, though surely he wasn’t reading them. His breath was unhurried and even, and he was right there – bare-chested, of course, because not in a million years would the wings fit under a shirt.
Sid had a million things to ask, Can you fly and Can I touch them and more, but what came out of his mouth was, “Can I kiss you?”
Into that unhurried breathing came a pause. Geno searched Sid’s face, slow, methodical, with just the beginning of a furrow in his brow. “Kiss?” Geno said finally, like the word was a puzzle piece.
“Never mind.” Sid pressed his face into his arms. Heat flushed the tips of Sid’s ears, his neck, down his back. The next moment, cool fingers curled around the nape of his neck and squeezed ever so gently. After a moment of further burning embarrassment, Sid turned his head.
Geno was smiling at him, warm, like sunshine. He wriggled closer and craned his neck, and then his mouth was on Sid’s.
The angle was awkward as hell, and Geno retreated almost immediately. Sid followed. “Really?” he whispered against Geno’s mouth. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath.
Geno pressed in and kissed him again.
“Yes,” Geno said.
They took Sid’s Range Rover. Geno pointed the way according to what his phone told him, but after a few minutes he stuck it in his pocket, grumbling. After that he gestured left or right or straight with a nod of his head and no reference at all. Sid was positive Geno had no freaking clue where they were going, beyond away.
“This is the highway,” Sid said eventually, at a four-way stop. “Out into the farms and woods and stuff?”
“Yes,” Geno said, looking deeply satisfied.
The weather was pretty. The sun was shining, and there was a feeling of thaw in the air, a promise of spring. It smelled of mud and, as they got farther out, of cows. Geno was delighted with the cows, for some reason.
Geno began pointing to turns again, each road less traveled than the last, until finally Sid pulled off onto the shoulder of a gravel road, next to an empty field. Geno got out, so Sid did, too. Aside from very distant mooing, the only sounds were the trickle of snowmelt in the ditch and the chirp of invisible birds.
Not all invisible. Geno climbed up to sit on the hood of the Range Rover and stared up into the sky. A speck glided far above them. “Hawk,” Geno said confidently. He pointed to a pair of specks, nearer but no larger. “Crows.”
“You’ve been really working on that Rosetta Stone, huh?” Sid said. Geno hummed, unperturbed. “Did we come out all this way to look at birds?”
Geno took a deep breath, in and out again. “Hurry,” he chided Sid fondly. “Always hurry.”
Sid huffed and settled himself to wait for whatever it was they were waiting for. He pressed next to Geno – for warmth, obviously – and he watched the sky. “Can you talk to them?” he asked idly.
Geno laughed, snorting, through his nose. “I sound like bird?”
“No, I mean—”
“I can’t talk. Wrong mouth. But—” he pointed to the hawk, still floating effortlessly on unseen currents. “Birds talk to me.”
“What? They do?” Sid straightened up to stare at Geno.
“That one, he say goal for Talbo, next game.”
Sid kept on staring, incredulous. “Oh for—you’re fucking with me.” Geno shrugged, looking a little surly now. That shit-eating grin he got when he was teasing was nowhere in sight. Huh. Sid tucked the conversation away to consider later.
Without warning, Geno hopped off the hood and began to strip.
“Uh,” Sid said.
Geno handed Sid his jacket, and as he began to pull his t-shirt over his head, Sid finally got a clue. Geno tossed him the t-shirt and the undershirt, too. Bare-chested, he crunched a few yards down the muddy gravel road, and he stood with his back to Sid and his head bowed.
One moment the wings were shadows, a suggestion of form, and the next they were solid and whole, spanning twenty feet or more. They were beautiful, magnificent. They made Sid’s breath catch.
Geno cast a glance over his shouder – it might have been a wink – and then he hopped into the sky. Three wingbeats percussed the air, blowing against Sid’s face. Then Geno was above Sid’s head and climbing. Forty feet, eighty, a hundred. He swooped suddenly, dropping a full wingspan in half a second, and Sid’s heart nearly stopped. Then Geno was climbing again, higher and higher, past the crows and into headier altitudes, into the sun.
Even at that distance, he was visibly different from the other specks: his legs hanging down made an ungainly silhouette. He moved slower than the crows, and he didn’t glide, like the hawk. He had to keep flapping.
He still looked like the freest thing Sid had ever seen.
Sid watched until his eyes watered, and then he blinked the tears away and kept watching. He pulled Geno’s jacket on around his own, because the air might smell like spring, but it was still fucking cold. And finally, finally Geno dropped again, a gradual spiral of descent, until he landed boots-first on the wet gravel road. His wings tucked themselves behind him, compact but still in sight. He bent over, winded.
Sid ran down the road and pulled up in front of Geno. “You looked good up there.”
Geno gave Sid a small, fond smile. “You look good here, too.” Sid shrugged, shouldering the words away. That wasn’t what he’d meant. But Geno stepped in close, serious now. “Glad you like. Glad I show you.”
“Anybody would like them, Geno.” Sid hesitated, but Geno kept on looking at him, honest and open, and so Sid reached beyond Geno’s shoulder to stroke the edge of the wing. It was soft under his fingers, the new feathers all grown in and smoothed down now. “You could show them to other people.”
“No!” Geno stumbled backward, alarmed.
Sid wanted to let it go. If Geno wanted to stay a secret Sid could keep in his pocket, then Sid wanted to let him. Yet some instinct prodded him to say, “Why?”
Geno stared at him, eyes huge. Sid noticed goosebumps starting to rise on Geno’s arms.
“Shit, it’s cold,” Sid said, struggling out of Geno’s jacket. When he’d finally gotten himself free and turned to hand it over, the wings were gone. Geno slipped the jacket on, and they scurried back to the Rover and blasted the heater.
Sid knew which direction Pittsburgh was, in a very general way. He’d just turned off the gravel road and onto pavement when Geno said softly, “It’s weird.”
Sid cast him a sidelong glance. “Yeah?”
“Wings,” Geno clarified. “Nobody else have. My English bad, I too quiet, too weird, now also wings.”
Sid considered carefully, and he said, “I don’t think that’s how the guys would feel.”
“Weird,” Geno insisted.
“They’re awesome, though,” Sid said. “You’re awesome.”
“Of course I’m best,” Geno said, the words already comfortable and worn. They didn’t tide him over for long. “But—”
“I think,” Sid said, very deliberately, “if you wanted to tell some of the guys, they’d be cool with it.”
“Hmm,” Geno said, deeply non-committal.
And then, as they filed onto the bus, Sid heard Jordy teasing Gonch about officially losing his first-period goal. “They said Talbo tipped it,” Gonch said, unperturbed. “Maybe, I don’t know.”
Geno shrugged. “Not me. Birds see. I only watch them. Most stuff they don’t tell me, anyway.”
“Yeah, but, I mean—” Sid pulled up, lost for words. “Geno.”
A twinkle appeared in Geno’s eye. “You want I tell?”
Sid blinked. “Sure?”
Geno angled in, close, close, pressing Sid into the wall outside the trainer’s office. His words were warm on Sid’s face. “I kiss you now.”
As futures went, it was pretty okay.
“Mm.” The blinds were closed in Sid’s top-story bedroom, and Geno was close and warm, and Sid was very, very relaxed. And a bit sticky.
“You think it’s okay?”
“It was great,” he said, patting Geno’s thigh.
“No,” Geno said, maybe a little bit impatient. Which really wasn’t fair, given he’d just sucked Sid’s brains out his dick. “Wings, Sid. It’s okay I—I show?”
Sid scowled into the dimness, trying to bring some fraction of his brain back online. Eventually realization seeped through, and he shoved up onto his elbow. “Show the guys, you mean?” Geno nodded. Sid stroked his arm. “Yeah, for sure. Maybe start with just one or two, you know? Flower and Brooksie, or someone.”
“For kind of—keeping an eye on me this year, I guess?”
“You’re welcome?” Sid said.
“I don’t know how I could get to the show and be homesick. I played with the Petes for two years already. But.” Jordy shrugged, eyes fixed on his fork.
“I think it happens to everyone, you know?” Sid said.
Jordy offered him a cautious smile, and then his eyes lit. “Oh man, I think they’re bringing out a ham.”
Flower nodded thoughtfully, and he squeezed Sid’s shoulder. “Good.”
Geno’s wings still took Sid’s breath away, every time. This time he got to see that same wonder reflected back to him in Brooksie’s eyes. Geno did a one-eighty for Brooksie to see, his shoulders tense with the effort of not knocking anything over.
“Wow,” Brooksie said. Geno flushed, quietly pleased. “Wow.”
Geno’s hand curled over his. “Good things.”