“You want to do what,” Sidney said, wondering if maybe this was some kind of weird translation error on Geno’s part. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Movie,” Geno said again. He spun his beer bottle around in his hands. The label had softened from condensation, and he started peeling it off, his long fingers picking at one corner. “Video? It’s not right word?”
“You want to film us having sex,” Sidney said. Was this seriously why Geno had asked him over for dinner? Geno never had him over; he should have known something was up.
Geno leaned back in his chair and smirked, tongue wedged in his cheek. “Nice for summer. Nice to watch, think about.”
“You could get a boyfriend, you know,” Sidney said. “Or watch actual porn.”
Geno’s smirk deepened. “Porn, okay,” he said, shrugging to show what he thought about the whole business. “You better.”
“This is never happening,” Sidney said, but Geno kept looking at him, arrogant and fond, and Sidney already knew he was going to give in.
“I be very careful,” Geno said. “Very safe. Put on computer, make safe. Nobody see. Okay? It’s fun. You don’t need worry.”
“I’ll think about it,” Sidney said, and Geno grinned and said, “You sit here, I get more beer,” casually generous now that he knew he had won.
They were out of the playoffs a little more than a week later, after somehow blowing a 3-1 lead. It was pretty fucking awful, and Sidney was desperate to get out of town and spend some time doing anything but thinking or talking about the extent of his responsibility for their early exit. He licked his wounds at home for a day, and then Geno called him the day after that, when Sidney got home after locker cleanout, and said, “I come over, okay?”
“Uh, okay,” Sidney said. Geno liked to invite himself over when he wanted sex, but it wasn’t usually in the middle of the day. “Now?”
“Yes, now,” Geno said, and fifteen minutes later he was outside Sidney’s house, waiting for Sidney to open the gate.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you until September,” Sidney said, when Geno came in through the mud room door. He was wearing a T-shirt with the Louis Vuitton logo on it, and Sidney hated that he knew what the fucking logo looked like, and blamed Geno completely.
Geno shrugged. “Maybe say goodbye. I leave tomorrow.”
“We said goodbye already,” Sidney said, because they had; that was one of the main purposes of cleanout.
“Not real goodbye,” Geno said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned. “Maybe it’s my last chance for movie.”
“For Christ’s sake, Geno,” Sidney said. He was absolutely not smiling.
“It’s fun,” Geno wheedled. “Good luck for me at Worlds.”
“My ass is not a good luck charm,” Sidney said, and Geno laughed and slung his arm around Sidney’s neck and started walking him into the house.
Sidney took him into the kitchen first and offered him something to drink, because that was what you did with company, even company that invited itself over and had the manners of a large and exuberant dog. Geno accepted a bottle of water and did his usual investigation of the contents of Sidney’s junk drawer. Sidney had taken to adding random things just to fuck with him: Malkin action figures, the fractured shell of a robin’s egg he’d found in the back yard, stunningly blue. They’d been having sex more frequently since the whole mess with the Olympics, but it still happened erratically enough that he didn’t think Geno had caught on.
“Hmm,” Geno said, giving him a suspicious look. He held up the box of animal crackers Sidney had tossed in his cart the last time he was at the grocery store. “You eat these?”
“Yeah, it’s my favorite snack,” Sidney said, as blandly as he could manage.
Geno snorted and said something in Russian that probably wasn’t too polite.
Well, maybe he was starting to catch on.
Geno dropped the animal crackers back in the drawer and closed it with a bump of his hip. “Come here,” he said, and leaned back against the counter, slouching down a little, subtly opening up his body.
Sidney slid in and kissed him, his hands at Geno’s waist. He was already turned on, that kind of low melting feeling that could become a hard-on with a little bit of encouragement. His dick knew what it meant when Geno came over.
Geno reached down and groped him through his jeans, and grinned against Sidney’s mouth. “We go upstairs? Make movie.”
Sidney was such a goddamn sucker, because he was going to let Geno get his way.
Geno was kissing down his neck now, using his teeth a little the way Sidney liked, and it was incredibly distracting. “Hold on a second,” Sidney said. “G, come on.”
“Yes, you nervous, want talk about movie,” Geno said. He pulled back and rubbed his thumb over Sidney’s mouth. His own mouth was plump and wet and somehow Sidney always managed to forget how good this was.
“I’m not nervous,” Sidney said. “But I’m trying to think with my head and not my dick. We should talk about it a little.”
“Okay,” Geno said. He leaned in for another messy kiss. “I think about lots, how to do. Maybe—let me play with you, I take movie.”
“I guess,” Sidney said dubiously. “If that’s what you want.” It didn’t sound sexy, but nothing about a sex tape sounded very sexy to him. He’d seen Geno’s porn collection, though, and it was all super vanilla, mainly amateur stuff, couples filming themselves in their bedrooms—so maybe filming Sidney get off was exactly what Geno wanted.
“Yes,” Geno said, and went for Sidney’s neck again.
Sidney batted him away. “You have to promise to be really careful. I don’t want to be the next—Kim Kardashian, or whatever.” A sex tape with a guy would be a little more embarrassing than a sex tape with a woman, but either would be mortifying, and Sidney would have to change his name and move to the Arctic, probably.
Geno scoffed. “It’s embarrass for me too, you know. Maybe mama see my dick, friends in Russia chirp forever. You think I want? No!”
“Yeah, okay,” Sidney said, grinning despite himself at Geno’s outraged expression. “I hear you.” The truth was, he trusted Geno every bit as much as he trusted the rest of the team core, which was to say, with his life. He still didn’t really understand why Geno wanted to do this, but Geno liked a lot of things that Sidney had no interest in, like hunting and techno.
“It’s fun,” Geno said. “Don’t worry.” He kissed Sidney again. “Upstairs, bed?”
“Okay,” Sidney managed, between kisses. “Okay, sure, we’ll—Geno!”
Geno pulled away, laughing, one hand still on Sidney’s ass where he had pinched him. “Come on,” he said, and they went.
+ + +
He moved the film to his laptop that night, into a hidden and password-protected folder, and deleted it from his phone. He told himself he wouldn’t watch it again. Once was enough.
But he watched it again the night after Russia won gold at Worlds—gold, nothing compared to the gold he should have won at the Olympics, but nothing to sneeze at, either. He staggered back to his room in the very small hours of the morning, drunk largely out of his mind, and pulled up the video on his laptop. He couldn’t remember where he had hidden it, at first, and spent a number of bleary minutes clicking around in a state of escalating frustration, and then he couldn’t remember the fucking password, but finally he had it there, full size on the screen, and it was—
The third time was at home in Moscow a week later, stone cold sober, in the middle of the afternoon. There was no excuse for it. He had the tape, he had asked for it and Sidney had said yes, and he wanted to watch it.
“You’re making a face,” Sidney said from the computer screen.
“I’m not make face,” Zhenya heard himself say, off-camera. “Why I make?”
“How should I know?” Sidney asked. He scrunched up his own face, and it shouldn’t have been cute but it fucking was.
Movie-Zhenya laughed, and the footage jittered around and turned into a dark blur for a moment. Zhenya wouldn’t be winning any awards for film-making, but he thought it was perfect: the image resolving once more into Sidney’s bare torso, his fat flushed cock leaking onto his belly, and Sidney grinning and a little embarrassed but letting Zhenya film him, lying there and letting it happen.
Zhenya needed to stop. This was the second summer of this bullshit. He had gotten over Sidney last summer, and then gotten right back under him as soon as the season started. But this time he was serious about it. There was no harm in a dumb crush, but after a year and change it was perhaps less of a crush and more—well. He needed to stop.
He deleted the file from his computer and emptied the trash, and immediately regretted it. But it was too late, and probably for the best.
He met Kostya a few days later, at a dreadful nightclub in Yakimanka that Alyosha liked for some mysterious reason. Zhenya never wanted to go and always let Alyosha talk him into it, and this time he was glad for it, when he saw the blond head at the bar, the laughing face in profile, illuminated by the strobing lasers from the dance floor.
“Ah, there he goes,” Tolya said, disgusted, when Zhenya got up from the table, and everyone laughed. Zhenya made a rude gesture. They all thought they knew something, but they didn’t know anything.
Zhenya didn’t know anything, either, but he knew how to pick up. He slid in at the bar and waited for the man to look over at him. It didn’t take long.
“Let me buy you a drink,” Zhenya said, leaning in close to be heard over the loud music. He touched the man’s elbow, fleetingly, just enough to show his intent.
The man gave him an assessing look, head cocked to one side. Zhenya knew he wasn’t extraordinarily handsome, but he was tall and he was wearing a shirt that did him a number of favors, and much uglier people managed to find true love. He liked to think there was hope for him still.
The man pursed his lips, and then he smiled. “Okay. You can buy me a drink.”
Kostya was exactly Zhenya’s type: small, blond, and fearless. He had a good job with a consulting firm, and a jogging habit that Zhenya didn’t understand. He was whip-smart and gently, sweetly funny, happy to laugh but never at anyone’s expense. He pretended to be impressed by Zhenya’s wealth and (minimal) fame until they got to know each other better and it became clear that Kostya was indifferent to hockey and had no real idea who Zhenya was.
He was nothing at all like Sidney. Zhenya thought about that a lot for the first couple of weeks, and then he thought of Sidney less and less until finally he wasn’t thinking about Sidney at all. There was only Kostya, half-living in Zhenya’s apartment, taking good care of him in bed and letting Zhenya fuss over him all the rest of the time.
The summer went by too quickly. Three months wasn’t long, but it was enough time for a beginning—enough time that Zhenya knew he wanted more.
“It’s a long while to be apart,” he said, when he tentatively raised the subject a week before his flight back to Pittsburgh. They were in bed together, and his timing probably sucked, but there was no good time for it. “Maybe you could come visit, but—it’s a lot to ask of a person.”
“It is,” Kostya said. He turned over and put both hands on Zhenya’s face. “I care about you, Zhenya,” and Zhenya waited for the inevitable but. “I’d like to give it a try.”
“You—really?” Zhenya said. He slid his hands down Kostya’s bare arms.
“Yeah,” Kostya said. “Sure. Maybe it won’t work, but maybe it will.” He kissed Zhenya’s cheek. “And where else will I find a man with such deep pockets?”
“It’s true that you’ve got very expensive tastes,” Zhenya said. Kostya refused to let Zhenya buy him anything more expensive than dinner at a nice restaurant.
“You be quiet,” Kostya said, abruptly fierce. “I like you because you send me flowers at work even though I tell you not to, and you make me laugh more than my last three boyfriends put together. That’s what I care about. I wish you were poor because it would keep you here in Moscow with me. But I’m glad for you that you have your dream, and maybe it will work out for us. Let’s try.”
“You really want to?” Zhenya said hoarsely.
“I wouldn’t have said so otherwise,” Kostya said, and Zhenya pulled him down and kissed him. He still had a week in Moscow before he had to leave. Their time together wasn’t over yet.
+ + +
He was back in Pittsburgh by early September. More than a third of the roster had left over the summer, traded or signed away: Nealer and Brooksie, Joey V, Nisky. And of course Dan was gone, and Shero, and Sidney tried not to think too much about how his own failures had contributed to all the changes.
He spent a few days welcoming the new guys, but there were so many of them that he knew he wasn’t doing a great job, spread too thin to give the full tour to everyone. But it couldn’t be helped.
He saw Geno for the first time at an informal practice at the arena. He had seen a lot of the guys over the past couple of days, golfing or at a cookout at Duper’s, but Geno was a new addition, and Sidney went over to him in the locker room to say hello and Geno grinned up at him, his smile that always kind of looked like a smirk, and said, “Sid, you have good summer?”
“Yeah, it was great.” Geno looked good: tan, maybe a little bigger through the shoulders. “I didn’t realize you were back in town already.”
Geno raised his eyebrows. “I text you two days ago, you don’t answer.”
“Oh,” Sidney said. “Right. I, uh, lost my phone. Guess I should think about getting a new one, eh?”
“You think it’s mistake you get iPhone?” Geno asked. “Lose on purpose, get old phone back.” He was still smiling, but the rest of his expression looked oddly serious, and Sidney wasn’t used to seeing that on Geno’s face. “Maybe you come over soon, we talk.”
Sidney licked his upper lip. He hadn’t thought about Geno much over the summer, maybe a couple of times while he jerked off, but he was looking at Geno’s bare chest and he was for sure thinking about it now. But—“Not today. I’m flying to New York later for the media tour.”
Geno disappeared into his shirt for a moment, and came out again tousled in a way Sidney couldn’t help reading as post-coital. “When you back? Tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Late, though. So the day after, maybe.” Now that Geno had suggested it, he couldn’t wait, wanted to have Geno in his bed as soon as possible. He was mostly attracted to women, had only slept with women over the summer, but sex with Geno was good, fun and uncomplicated, and it had been four months. There were a lot of things he wanted.
“Okay,” Geno said. He tipped his head to the side. “You get new phone, then text.”
“I don’t think I really need a phone,” Sidney said. “I have a land line. People can call me.”
Geno stared at him. Sidney managed to hold out for a few seconds, but his expression must have wavered in some way, because Geno barked out a laugh and shook his head, and reached up to grab his chest protector. “Sid, go change. We practice. Talk later.”
“Right,” Sidney said, and Geno held out his hand for a fist-bump before Sidney stepped away.
He went to the AT&T store near the arena to buy a new phone, and then spent the flight to Newark trying to figure out how to sync his contacts. A year with an iPhone and he still didn’t understand how it worked, and maybe Taylor had a point when she told him he was hopeless. He would never be able to ask her for help now; he would never hear the end of it.
The media tour was two long days of interviews and photoshoots and having people fuck with his hair. He flew back to Pittsburgh late in the evening of the second day. On the drive home from the airport, his phone started ringing.
He accidentally hung up instead of answering, which wasn’t his greatest moment, but the person called back right away.
It was Jen. “Have you listened to your voicemail?” she asked, skipping all the pleasantries.
“Uh, no,” Sidney said. “I’m heading home from the airport.”
“Okay,” Jen said. “Don’t talk while you drive. Call me when you get home.”
“Jen, come on,” Sidney said, but it was too late; she had already ended the call.
He drove the rest of the way home in a state of—not panic, but certainly intense concern. Jen never called him at this time of day unless something was pretty wrong.
He called her from his foyer, his suitcase on the floor at his feet. “I’m home,” he said when she answered. “What’s going on?”
“You tell me,” she said. “Apparently you and Geno made a sex tape.”
Sidney felt every cell in his body freeze solid, and then he went hot all over with a sharp spike of adrenaline. His face felt hot, the skin of his face felt too tight.
Geno had promised.
“Sidney?” Jen said.
Sidney cleared his throat. “Sorry. I—that was supposed to be private.”
“Well, someone fucked up,” Jen said bluntly. “Because it’s everywhere.”
Sidney felt like doing something dramatic, like dropping to his knees or throwing his phone across the room. “Okay,” he said. “We’re—what do you want me to do?”
“We’re meeting tomorrow morning at 8:30,” Jen said. “You’re responsible for making sure Geno’s there. He isn’t answering his phone. Go over to his house if you need to.” She paused, and then added, very dryly, “I’m certain you know where he lives.”
“I can do that,” Sidney said. He welcomed a chance to cuss Geno out in person. “We’ll both be there.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” Jen said, and Sidney went right back out into the insect-loud night and drove over to Geno’s.
Geno came to the door with his phone pressed to his ear. When he saw Sidney on his front stoop, his eyebrows shot up, and he said a few things in Russian and ended the call. “Sid, don’t expect to see. Think you text.”
“You said you would be careful, you asshole,” Sidney said. “You fucking promised me.” He realized he was clenching his hands into fists, and forced himself to relax.
Geno’s eyebrows somehow climbed even higher. “Careful? With text?”
“Jen called me,” Sidney said. “The fucking—our goddamn sex tape is on the internet.”
“Movie?” Geno said incredulously.
Neither of them behaved well during the subsequent five minutes. There was some yelling in two languages, and Sidney called Geno a few unkind things in French, which was a bad idea as Geno was pretty fluent in French profanity. “Don’t believe,” Geno kept saying, until finally he stomped down the hall into the kitchen, Sidney trailing uselessly after him, and they both crammed in front of Geno’s laptop to watch the search results come up. Geno had his browser set to Russian, but Sidney recognized Geno’s name, and there were screenshots. Those were pretty hard to mistake for anything else.
“How,” Geno said, staring at his big hand covering Sidney’s dick. The image quality was horrifically good.
“Jen said, someone fucked up,” Sidney said. He took a few backward steps toward the kitchen table and collapsed into one of the chairs. His anger was fading. He was annoyed, and embarrassed. He didn’t really want the whole world knowing that he slept with guys, and he really didn’t want everyone knowing what he looked like naked and turned on. But it wasn’t the end of the world. Geno had fucked up, but he hadn’t done it deliberately. Sidney had known the risks when he agreed to make the film.
“It’s not me,” Geno protested. He leaned back against the countertop and crossed his arms. “I don’t fuck up.”
“Well, it got out somehow,” Sidney said. “And it wasn’t me, I deleted it right away.” They had filmed the video with his phone, since it was newer and had a better camera, but he’d deleted it as soon as he sent it to Geno.
“I delete too,” Geno said. “In June. Long time. It’s not me.”
“You deleted it?” Sidney said. “I thought—why did you even want to do it in the first place, if you were just going to delete it?” All of this trouble, and Geno hadn’t even kept the damn thing?
“More safe,” Geno said. “I watch few times, then delete. Safe.” He sucked on his teeth for a moment. “Sid, you say—lose phone?”
“Yeah, last week,” Sidney said. “So?”
“I think—show me how you delete movie,” Geno said.
“I deleted it,” Sidney said, his stomach sinking. “I definitely deleted it.”
“Show me,” Geno said again.
Sidney fumbled his phone out of his pocket and unlocked it, and joined Geno at the island. “Here,” he said. “I’ll show you, I’m—I know there was that iCloud leak, but I don’t keep things in the cloud, I—here.” He pulled up a picture he had taken earlier that day, a cute dog on a leash outside the Prudential Center. It wasn’t a very good picture. “I select this, I delete it—”
Geno groaned, and started shaking his head. He said a few words in Russian. “You delete on cloud, not on phone.” He took the phone from Sidney’s hand and tapped the screen a few times, then turned it around to show Sidney the same picture of the dog, still there in all its full-color glory, undeniably not deleted.
“Oh, God,” Sidney said weakly. He turned around to brace his elbows on the countertop and put his face in his hands. “Geno—”
Geno sighed and said a few more things in Russian. “I say it’s not me.”
“It was me,” Sidney said. He sucked in a deep breath and let it out. “Oh, God.”
He heard Geno moving away from the island, and then the refrigerator opening and closing, and the sound of liquid pouring into a glass. “Sid, you want vodka?”
“Sure,” Sidney said. “Why the fuck not.” They were going to skate in the morning, but it wasn’t every day you accidentally leaked the sex tape you made with your fuck buddy. Sidney was willing to make an exception.
+ + +
Kostya was going to laugh himself sick when Zhenya told him what had happened.
By morning, his phone was a bristling thicket of text messages, missed calls, and mockery. The team’s group chat had blown up. The other group chat had blown up even bigger and brighter, a mushroom cloud that would sear Zhenya’s retinas if he looked. He ignored all of it—including, guiltily, the half-amused, half-censorious voicemail from his parents—and drove to the arena for the meeting with Jen.
He ran into Sidney in the parking deck. Sidney was clutching an uncharacteristic cup of coffee, and he looked pale and queasy. Good, Zhenya thought, and then felt ashamed of his own vitriol. Sidney hadn’t done it on purpose. He had tried to do the right thing.
“Morning, Geno,” Sidney said, and Zhenya could see him sliding his game face into place. Sid Crosby, master of the meaningless soundbite—a blank slate, and not someone who had ever made Zhenya beg to come.
Jen was waiting for them, perched in her office like a bird of prey. “Boys,” she said, when they came in, and Zhenya watched Sidney wince. He was the favorite child, and always took it to heart when Jen was disappointed.
Zhenya had never been the favorite, and he refused to feel ashamed. They were adults with a consensual sexual relationship, and if it was inconvenient for the organization, that wasn’t Zhenya’s problem.
Sidney obviously didn’t share Zhenya’s philosophy. He started apologizing even before he sat down. “Jen, I’m sorry about this. I know it’s unprofessional. We never intended for the footage to get out.”
Zhenya rolled his eyes. Obviously Jen knew it had been an accident.
“What’s done is done,” Jen said. “We need to work on damage control now.” She looked tired, and she had a giant mug of coffee steaming at her elbow. It had likely been a late night for her, and Zhenya wasn’t ashamed but he did feel sorry to cause her trouble.
“So there’s, uh. Damage,” Sidney said.
“It’s a figure of speech,” Jen said. “But I hope you’re going to tell me that you’re in a loving, committed, long-term relationship.”
Zhenya slumped down in his chair and avoided eye contact.
“Well. No,” Sidney said. “We’re—it’s a casual thing.”
“Not anymore,” Jen said. “Congratulations, you’re in love.”
“What?” Sidney said, but Zhenya’s intestines had already turned into a solid block of concrete. He knew what was coming next.
“You have two options here,” Jen said. “It’s a casual thing, and you spend the rest of the season answering questions about why you thought it was a good idea to screw around with a teammate. Or you’re in love, and your privacy has been violated, and anyone who talks about it is being creepy and invasive.”
“It’s creepy and invasive anyway,” Sidney said. “Why does casual sex negate privacy?”
Zhenya didn’t know what ‘negate’ meant, but he could guess. Sidney was getting worked up; he rarely used words Zhenya didn’t know unless he was really and truly pissed off about something.
Zhenya sympathized. He was feeling pretty worked up.
“I didn’t say I agreed with it, I’m just telling you how this is going to play out,” Jen said. “It looks bad for the organization if the two faces of the franchise are fooling around and making sex tapes. But if you’re serious about each other—well, that’s a different narrative.”
“That’s bullshit,” Sidney said.
“All PR is bullshit,” Jen said. “But the second option gets you way less speculation about your sex life.”
“How long,” Zhenya said. His voice sounded very normal.
Jen’s gaze shifted over to him. “At least six months. Ideally through the end of the postseason.”
“How long what?” Sidney asked, and he really was flipping out; he wasn’t usually so slow to put two and two together.
“We date,” Zhenya said. “Pretend—together. Yes?” It was the worst-case scenario for him, for reasons that started with Kostya and ended with Sidney. But he knew they were going to do it, if Jen thought it was the best way.
His stomach ached. He was going to have to end things with Kostya.
“That’s right,” Jen said. “Ideally you’ll do at least one joint interview, but I’ll settle for public appearances at team events. You can break up quietly during the offseason.”
“Geno can do the interview,” Sidney said. “Everyone already knows about him.”
“I won’t do,” Zhenya said sharply. It was true that he had never hidden his sexuality, but that didn’t mean he wanted to talk about it, in English, with reporters. North Americans could be funny about that sort of thing; they thought they were more accepting than they were.
Jen ignored Zhenya’s outburst. “Geno is the less interesting interview subject for exactly that reason. If you aren’t on board, we’ll scratch that idea. But I’ll send you both a list of team events I expect you to attend together. And you’ll need to do something in public together twice a week. I don’t care what. Go to the drugstore and browse the greeting card aisle.”
“Twice a week is a lot,” Sidney said. “We’re both pretty busy—”
“You’ll manage,” Jen said.
Zhenya couldn’t stand to listen to another second of Sidney’s complaining. The tape had leaked: it was done. Jen had a plan, and none of Sidney’s resistance would change her mind. Sidney was single; why the fuck did he care? It was six months out of his life, and then it would be over, and it was his fault in the first place for being too helpless to use his own fucking phone.
Or it was Zhenya’s fault for wanting the film, and if they were playing that game, peeling back all the layers to pinpoint the ultimate source of blame, it was Zhenya’s fault for ever wanting Sidney at all.
“Sid, be quiet,” he said, when Sidney opened his mouth to let loose another stream of bullshit. “It’s best. Jen knows. We do, until season is over. Don’t argue.”
“There’s got to be a better way to deal with this,” Sidney said, scowling.
“No,” Zhenya said. “Shut up. You don’t like, you go back in time, don’t lose phone.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Sidney said.
Well, so the fuck what? Did Peter the Great intend to be killed by his own bladder? Of course not, but he died anyway. Zhenya folded his arms and didn’t respond.
“Nobody’s blaming you, Sidney,” Jen said, which was a polite fiction, because Zhenya was definitely blaming him. “At this stage, it doesn’t matter how it happened. But we need to deal with it starting today.”
Sidney looked like he was going to keep arguing. Zhenya kicked his ankle, not very hard, and Sidney flinched slightly and shut up.
“Okay, Jen,” Zhenya said. “Six months. We do.”
Jen looked at him, and then at Sidney. Zhenya could imagine what she was thinking. She had probably expected Sidney to agree at once, and Zhenya to drag his feet, and frankly Zhenya had expected that, too; but here they were.
“All right,” Jen said. “I’m glad we’re all in agreement.”
Sidney sighed heavily. “Tell us what you want us to do.”
+ + +
“Don’t abandon me,” Sidney said beside him, wild-eyed. “I can’t deal with these assholes by myself. Geno—”
“Fine,” Zhenya said tightly.
“Hey, sexy lady!” Suttsy sang out, and started doing the Gangnam Style dance, like that wasn’t a solid two years out of date.
Fine: Zhenya wouldn’t leave Sidney to deal with this alone. It was fucking embarrassing, but it was worse for Sidney. Zhenya was barely in the video: his hands, his voice, his knees on the mattress between Sidney’s splayed thighs. The rest of it was all Sidney. And Sidney had spent his entire career crafting a public persona with the approximate texture of styrofoam, and now anyone with an internet connection could see what he looked like when he came. Zhenya was pissed off, but he felt a little guilty, too, because Sidney never would have made the tape if Zhenya hadn’t talked him into it.
He crossed the locker room to Suttsy’s stall and smacked his head. “Stan, it’s not how you do! Here, I show,” and he galloped halfway across the room, pushing Suttsy ahead of him.
“You both suck,” Beau said, “and Geno’s trying to distract us, that’s not fair. I want to talk about the fucking sex tape,” so Zhenya’s efforts were wasted. He went back to his stall, disgruntled. They were obviously going to talk about it.
“I didn’t even know the two of you were screwing,” Paulie said, and there was a loud chorus of agreement from around the room.
“We’re not,” Sidney said, because he never knew when to keep his mouth shut. “Or I mean—we are, but. It’s not, like. A thing.”
“It’s not a thing?” Beau said. “I saw your dick, man. I’m permanently scarred.”
“You see his dick all the time,” Scuds said, and Zhenya was grateful for a voice of reason until Scuds went on, “but I guess not, uh, with Geno touching it.”
“Well, I didn’t even know Sid liked dudes,” Suttsy said.
That went on for a while: Tanger hollering at Flower in French, other people sharing their stupid and unnecessary opinions. Zhenya tuned it out and focused on changing into his gear. Hornqvist kept glancing at him, but Zhenya ignored him. He didn’t know the guy; he didn’t want to talk about this. It wasn’t Hornqvist’s fault that Nealsy was gone, but Zhenya couldn’t help feeling a little bitter about it.
At least Duper wasn’t there, banned by the trainers until the start of camp. He was the worst of them. Half the time he would stick up for Sidney, and the other half he would lead the charge. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it.
Sidney’s voice cut through the general commotion at last. “Okay, that’s enough. It’s real funny, you’re all amused and disgusted. Message received.”
“I still have more questions,” Downie said.
“I don’t care,” Sidney said. “I’m cutting you guys off. Oh, and Geno’s my boyfriend now, I guess, so make sure you tell everyone we’re in love.”
“What?” Tanger shrieked.
Zhenya escaped to the ice very quickly after that. Any guilt about abandoning Sidney had vanished. He didn’t understand how Sidney could be so good at talking about hockey and so bad at talking about anything else. ‘We’re in love,’ for heaven’s sake. Zhenya was no diplomat, but Sidney was immeasurably worse.
Suttsy came out a few minutes later and joined Zhenya in a stick-handling exercise. He didn’t say anything, and Zhenya began to relax—foolishly, because after a minute of blissful silence, Suttsy said, “So if you and Sid are, uh. Do you have to break up with that guy? I forgot his name—”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. He wished now that he hadn’t told Suttsy, but there had been no reason to hide it, at the time. Zhenya had never formally come out to the team, but he’d had two serious long-term boyfriends since he came to Pittsburgh, and he had talked about them and shown pictures, the same as any of the guys with wives or girlfriends. Suttsy had asked him about his summer, and Zhenya had told him about Kostya, and it was too late now to undo it.
“Dang,” Suttsy said. “I’m sorry, man. That sucks.”
Zhenya shrugged, but he was spared from responding when the rest of the guys finally came down the tunnel to the ice.
When practice was over, he went home and called Kostya.
It was evening in Moscow. Kostya was at home, freshly showered after his run and wearing an oversized T-shirt he had stolen from a previous boyfriend and refused to give up despite Zhenya’s half-joking claims of jealousy. He was sitting on the couch; Zhenya recognized the picture on the wall behind him. Kostya’s face shifted around as he tilted his laptop screen back and forth to find the perfect angle. He looked relaxed and happy, eager to hear about Zhenya’s day and talk about his own.
“Hey, kid,” Kostya said.
Zhenya gave himself a moment to watch Kostya smile at him. Three months wasn’t long, but Zhenya wasn’t ready for it to be over.
“How was your practice?” Kostya asked.
“Kostya,” Zhenya said. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
+ + +
He was pretty grossed out by the idea that anyone who knew him had actually watched the video. Maybe Duper had found a transcript online and was just copying and pasting. Probably not, but it made Sidney feel better. The Arctic seemed more and more tempting.
Because the footage was—pretty bad. Sidney forced himself to watch it so he wouldn’t be surprised by any questions, but thirty seconds in he had one hand over his face and was peeking through his fingers, totally mortified. Geno had captured everything: Sidney’s dick, and Geno’s free hand between Sidney’s thighs, mostly out of frame, but it was clear from the movement of his forearm what he was doing.
The noises were probably the worst part. The slick sound of Geno’s fingers working in Sidney’s ass, Sidney’s quiet gasps every time Geno hit a good spot, and worst of all, the way Sidney cried out when he came.
He texted Geno: I can’t believe your dick isn’t in this video at all
Geno replied later that evening, when Sidney was reviewing his talking points for the press conference Jen was forcing them to give the next day, because of course there had to be a press conference. Why I film my dick? Can see any time, can’t see yours
Sidney smirked at his phone. Geno was fixated on his dick, and Sidney found it a little weird but also flattering. Nobody else had ever been as—as blatantly appreciative of Sidney’s body. It was hard to resist the way Geno looked at him and touched him, and that was probably why Geno was the only guy Sidney had hooked up with more than once.
You can see mine whenever you want, he typed, and then decided that was maybe too flirtatious for the current circumstances, and instead sent, Told you to stick to porn. But that sounded too accusatory, so then he sent a smiley face.
Shit. He never should have upgraded from his flip phone.
The press conference was at noon. Jen had promised it would be an informal thing, just a few reporters in a room, but Sidney still wore slacks and a polo, because he knew how it went. But Geno had apparently taken Jen totally literally, because he showed up at her office wearing jeans and a backwards cap, and the drag of his gaze down Sidney’s body was both appreciative and judgmental.
“We can’t all get away with dressing like Eurotrash,” Sidney said.
Geno snorted. “Who teach you that word?”
“I’m nipping this in the bud,” Jen said. “We’ve got ten minutes before we need to head upstairs. Sidney, you’re doing most of the talking. Geno, you sit there and look angry and violated. How long have you two been dating?”
“About a year and a half,” Sidney said. That was easy: they had decided to count from the first time they hooked up.
Jen nodded, looking down at her notes. “How is your relationship going to affect the team?”
“It isn’t,” Sidney said. “It hasn’t. When we’re playing hockey, that’s what we’re focused on. We don’t bring our personal lives into the room.”
“Okay,” Jen said. “Why didn’t you make your relationship public prior to this?”
Geno laughed. “When is Sid ever talk about? Keep private, don’t say. Why he’s do different for this?”
“You’re not supposed to talk, but I’ll allow it,” Jen said. “Okay. Why a sex tape? Why couldn’t you just keep it in your pants?”
“Well, you know,” Sidney said. “Geno was in Russia all summer.”
“That’ll get a laugh,” Jen said. “Good. Okay. If they ask anything you don’t feel comfortable answering—”
“Yeah, I know,” Sidney said. “We’ve got this, Jen.”
Geno grabbed the brim of his cap and slid it around to face the front. “If reporters too mean, then I cry. Russians very emotional, you know. No problems.”
“I dare you,” Sidney said.
“No crying,” Jen said. She sighed, but Sidney could tell she was trying not to smile. She liked Geno; she thought he was funny. But you couldn’t give Geno any encouragement or he would run completely amok. Sidney thought he and Jen had fairly similar philosophies about dealing with Geno, but Jen was way better at following through and way less susceptible to Geno’s charms.
The conference went smoothly. Jen had the reporters pretty well-trained after all this time, and nobody asked any questions she hadn’t anticipated. Geno managed a good soundbite about how they were public figures but their bodies weren’t public property—a little garbled, because Geno’s sentence structure always took a hit when he was talking to the press, but Sidney thought it was a good point, and said as much once they were done.
Geno shrugged. “I think about, why I’m so mad, you know? Maybe people curious, decide to look, and it’s okay because we not, like, real for them. They think I’m Geno, play hockey, not real. But I’m Zhenya too, but they don’t know. So they don’t think, oh, it’s person here, it’s private, don’t look. Maybe if I say, now they think, it’s public, but it’s private, too.”
“Uh, sure,” Sidney said. Geno had obviously thought about this much more than Sidney had.
“Okay, see you tomorrow,” Geno said, and spun his hat around to face backward again.
+ + +
He saw Geno a few times, largely in passing at the rink, and at a pool party at Flower’s. Geno was a little squirrelly at Flower’s, but Sidney didn’t decide for sure that Geno was avoiding him until practice on Sunday, when every time he tried to talk to Geno, Geno just sort of—smiled at him and slid away down the ice.
“Is Geno avoiding me?” Sidney asked Suttsy, when they had a break during a drill. He was sorry Nealer had been traded; Nealer was a handful, but he had always known what was going on with Geno. Suttsy was probably the most likely to have a clue now that Nealer was gone, and if he didn’t know, well—maybe Tanger would know.
“How should I know?” Suttsy asked. “Did you ask him? Use your words.”
“Fuck off,” Sidney said. “Look, things are weird right now.”
“Because of how you have to pretend to be his boyfriend,” Suttsy said. “I don’t know, man, probably he’s mad because he had to break up with his actual boyfriend.”
“What?” Sidney said.
“You know,” Suttsy said. “I keep forgetting his name. That guy he was with over the summer.”
“Right,” Sidney said blankly. Geno had a boyfriend?
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Geno seemed to really like being in a relationship. He was rarely single for long.
“Oh, fuck,” Suttsy said. “You didn’t know?”
He probably should have known, and Sidney considered lying to Suttsy for a brief moment, but really there was no point. “No. He didn’t tell me.”
“Fuck,” Suttsy said again. “Sorry, dude. I shouldn’t have said anything. Guess I assumed he told you.”
Geno should have told him. “It’s fine,” Sidney said. “I’m glad you told me. I’ll talk to him.”
“Okay,” Suttsy said, looking like he was pretty sure it wasn’t okay, but then Kuni came over to tap Sidney in for the drill, and there was no more time to talk about it.
He cornered Geno in the showers later, which wasn’t playing fair, but all of the usual unspoken rules about keeping your eyes to yourself kind of stopped applying once you sucked a guy’s dick. He and Geno had stayed on the ice for a while to talk to Johnston, and most of the other guys were out in the change room already, and so Sidney didn’t feel too bad about getting right up in Geno’s space beneath the shower head and saying, “We gotta talk.”
Geno yelped and flinched away from him, covering his junk with both hands like he had anything Sidney hadn’t seen, touched, and/or licked. “Sid! It’s shower.”
Paulie, showering on the other side of the room, said, “I think this is a fining offense.”
“We aren’t doing anything,” Sidney said, “we’re just talking. Shut up, Paulie.”
“Wash balls, Paulie,” Geno said. “You smell.”
“Fuck both of you,” Paulie said, and deliberately turned his back to them.
“Geno,” Sidney said. He lowered his voice. “I talked to Suttsy. Can we—let’s go to lunch after this. Can we?”
Geno was still clutching himself. “What Stan say?”
“You know,” Sidney said. “Come on. We can have a date, like Jen told us to. We’ll go to that sandwich place you like. I want to talk to you.”
Geno turned his face into the spray. “Fine. Go shower. Leave me alone.”
Sidney didn’t take particularly long to shower, but Geno was already dressed and waiting for him in the change room by the time Sidney was done. Geno had his phone in one hand, but he mostly sat there and watched Sidney get dressed. Sidney had a brief fantasy, there and gone in a moment, of standing naked in front of Geno and rubbing the head of his dick against Geno’s mouth. Public sex wasn’t really his thing, but he couldn’t help thinking about it with Geno staring at him like that.
But Geno had been—in a relationship, if Suttsy was right, so it probably wasn’t the sexy kind of staring.
Sidney felt terrible. No wonder Geno had been avoiding him.
They didn’t talk as they made their way out to the street. As they exited the arena, Geno reached over and took Sidney’s hand.
Sidney shook him off. “Come on, G. You don’t have to—you look like you’re going to your own funeral. Nobody expects us to hold hands.”
“We’re boyfriend,” Geno said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. “In love, date.”
“I’m not really a holding hands kind of guy,” Sidney said.
Geno muttered something under his breath and strode off down the sidewalk. He was mostly leg, and he was deliberately trying to leave Sidney in the dust. Sidney refused to scuttle after him. Geno got half a block ahead and then was stopped by a red light, and had to linger there awkwardly while Sidney caught up with him.
Sidney was—he felt like shit about the whole situation, and maybe he should have let Geno hold his fucking hand.
“Sorry,” he said.
The light changed. Geno shortened his stride and kept pace with Sidney, so that was better, at least. The sidewalk was crowded with office workers out on their lunch breaks, and they kept separating to dodge foot traffic, and then coming together again.
Sidney said, “Suttsy told me you were seeing someone.”
Geno shrugged again. He was fiddling with his Lokomotiv bracelet the way he did when he was agitated about something. “Over now. It’s not fair for him, make him wait.”
“What was his name?” Sidney asked. Was? Is? The guy hadn’t died, but, well—he was in the past tense for Geno, now.
Geno blew out a breath, and stepped around an oblivious woman on her cell phone. “Konstantin,” he said. “Kostya.”
“I’m sorry,” Sidney said. “Christ, Geno. I’m so fucking sorry.”
“You don’t do on purpose,” Geno said. His hands were still shoved deep in his pockets. “It’s person who finds phone, puts video on internet. Maybe I’m little bit mad, but I know it’s—you don’t want either.”
Sidney didn’t want Geno to forgive him. He wanted Geno to yell at him a little, so maybe he would feel less guilty. But it wasn’t Geno’s responsibility to make him feel better about it.
They were almost at the sandwich shop. Sidney knocked his elbow against Geno’s and said, “Let me buy you a sandwich.”
Geno turned his head and gave Sidney an unreadable look, then grinned. “Buy me two, then I have dinner.”
Six months would go by quickly. It would be easy enough to put in the bare minimum, go to the grocery store together once a week to satisfy Jen, and otherwise keep to their usual patterns. But Sidney had caused Geno pain without meaning to, and he felt really fucking bad about it, and there was no real reason for them to just suffer through.
Sidney decided then that he was going to be the best pretend boyfriend of all time.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll buy you two.”
+ + +
There were no feelings involved, and Jen knew it. Zhenya went on Twitter and found the pictures she was referring to, and they did look sweet: Sidney from behind, his back and shoulders huge in his T-shirt, and Zhenya smirking at him and gesturing with his pickle spear; and another one of Sidney leaning across the table to give Zhenya a kiss. Zhenya’s eyes were closed. It didn’t mean anything.
The next day was season ticket deliveries. Zhenya and Sidney were both in high demand and usually worked separately. This year, Jen had scheduled one joint delivery, with a camera crew in attendance: the final delivery of the day, so there would be plenty of time for pictures and posing.
He and Sidney arrived at the house only a few minutes apart. It was a nice suburban house, large and well-kept, with a freshly mowed lawn and a minivan parked in the driveway. Sidney had the camera crew with him, and they all piled out of Sidney’s SUV and started bickering about lighting angles or something.
Zhenya joined Sidney, leaning against the side of the car, and bumped their hips together. “How tickets go? Okay?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Got to play hockey with some kids. How about you?”
“I meet two cat and one baby,” Zhenya said. “It’s good day.”
Sidney grinned. “Jen texted me and said there’s a baby at this place and a dog. I think she’s trying to bribe us into behaving.”
“Okay, you give tickets, I hold baby and kiss dog,” Zhenya said.
The camera guys had finished their negotiations and started filming. The microphone boom hovered overhead like an evil bird. Zhenya pulled Sidney’s cap off his head and bent down to kiss him. Sidney made a tiny surprised noise. His hand fisted in the hem of Zhenya’s jersey. His mouth was soft and dry.
Zhenya pulled back. He slid Sidney’s hat back on and tugged the brim down until it covered Sidney’s eyes. “Let’s go.”
Sidney pushed the brim back up. He was smiling. The whole interaction had been caught on camera, and Zhenya was sure it looked cute and flirtatious, and he prayed that Kostya would never see the footage.
The baby at that house was cute, and the dog was even cuter, a little corgi that gamboled at Zhenya’s feet and rolled over onto its back when Zhenya crouched to pet it.
“Geno loves dogs,” Sidney told the season ticket holders, an ecstatic couple in their early thirties. He was holding the baby on his hip and looked totally comfortable. “Animals in general, really.”
“I swim with whale shark, over summer,” Zhenya said. “It’s not whale, though.” He ruffled his hand through the dog’s furry belly. Sidney casually signed a few shirts while he held the baby with one hand. Zhenya was in hell, and it was surprisingly temperate and sunny.
“So you guys are really, uh. Together,” the husband said.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Not how we wanted people to find out, but.” He laughed, his awkward interacting-with-strangers laugh.
“Well, uh. Good for you,” the guy said, brightly, falsely cheerful.
Enough of this. Zhenya gave the dog a final pat and rose to his feet. “Let’s take picture. Sid, give baby, you don’t hold right.”
Sidney rolled his eyes, but he let Zhenya take the baby.
Zhenya’s phone buzzed in his pocket several times in quick succession while they were posing for photos. It was probably the fucking group chat. Zhenya had been ignoring them for almost a week, ever since the news about the tape broke, but his silence hadn’t deterred them whatsoever.
“Pay attention,” Sidney muttered, and elbowed him.
They made it out of there finally, with much shaking of hands and dog-related commotion. Sidney and Zhenya stood on the curb together while the camera guys packed their equipment.
“You skating tomorrow?” Sidney asked.
Zhenya shrugged. They didn’t have anything scheduled, but Zhenya would be at the rink regardless. “Skate with Max, maybe. Do weights.”
“Okay,” Sidney said. He nodded a few times. “Maybe I’ll see you there.”
The camera guys were done, and ready to go. Nobody was filming, now. Nobody was watching them. They didn’t need to touch. Sidney nodded at Zhenya again and stepped off the curb.
Zhenya stripped off his jersey and went to his own car.
He checked the damn group chat when he got home. They were still talking about him and Sidney, of course. There had been a group re-watch of the sex tape a few days ago, followed by lengthy deliberation about what Zhenya had done to deserve a man like that. Now Tyson was talking about adding Sidney to the chat, and Zhenya needed to shut this down right away.
No Sid in group text, he sent, and his phone immediately started vibrating as every one of those technology-addicted assholes capslocked at him about disappearing for a week.
Most of the queer guys in the league were in the group chat. There were a few holdouts who thought it was a waste of time, and it was true they spent most of their time gossiping about good places to pick up and about who wasn’t quite as straight as he seemed and might be down for some no-strings fun. But the chat had been critically important for Zhenya when he first came to the US, back when it was an email loop instead of a chat, when he was so confused and annoyed by all of the unspoken rules about how he was supposed to behave. In Russia, nobody cared what he did with his dick; in North America, a lot of people cared, but most of them pretended they didn’t. It was still exhausting even now, and when he was twenty and barely spoke English, it had been almost more than he could tolerate. He wasn’t sure he would have made it through that first year without Teemu’s regular obscene updates about his exploits, and he still owed Sasha a huge debt of gratitude for giving his email address to Shaone.
But he still wasn’t going to share his own exploits. At least not his exploits with Sidney.
Geno send us the nudes, one of the Chrises texted. I know u got nudes
They were out of control. The chat had been pictures of Sidney 24/7 since the tape leaked. Zhenya would never admit to anyone that he had saved a lot of them to his phone. No nudes, he said.
Who needs nudes when we’ve got a whole sex tape, Tyson sent. What a time to be alive
Henrik texted a whole line of laughing emojis, and Zhenya turned off his phone.
When he turned it back on the next morning, he had a lot of bullshit notifications that he promptly dismissed, and also a message from Sidney. Text me when you’re ready to head to the rink. I’ll pick you up
Of course he phrased it as a command and not an offer. Zhenya thought about ignoring him, but then Sidney would probably show up at his house anyway to make sure Zhenya hadn’t slipped in the shower and cracked his head. I leave now, no time, see you there
I’m heading out the door, Sidney replied at once. Be there in ten
Zhenya cursed Sidney’s ancestors and went upstairs to get dressed.
Sidney arrived in his new car, the fancy electric sports car he had just purchased and been soundly chirped for in the dressing room. Nobody would have paid any attention, but Sidney used the phrase ‘environmentally friendly,’ and there was no coming back from that.
“Hmm,” Zhenya said, sliding into the passenger seat. The car was actually pretty fucking sweet, but he would never tell Sidney.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Sidney said. “Your stupid Porsche is way smaller.”
“Porsche is sexy,” Zhenya said.
“Whatever,” Sidney said, which meant he knew Zhenya was right and didn’t want to admit it. He braced his back against the seat and lifted his hips, and fished a folded piece of paper from his back pocket. “Here.”
“What’s this?” Zhenya asked.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about, uh. We probably can’t just look at greeting cards for six months.” Sidney did a careful three-point turn and eased the car up the driveway. “So I came up with some ideas.”
Some ideas. Zhenya unfolded the paper. Three-quarters of the page was filled with Sidney’s handwriting, which was usually pretty legible, but it looked like he had made a particular effort toward neatness for Zhenya’s benefit.
“Idea,” Zhenya said.
“I’m trying to make the best of this, okay?” Sidney said, a little defensive. He pulled out onto the main road. “We don’t have to do all of it.”
Jesus. Zhenya read down the page, mentally sounding out the words he didn’t know on sight. Sidney had listed most of the major tourist attractions in Pittsburgh—the zoo, the incline—things Zhenya had done many times with friends visiting from Russia. The aviary. The football stadium. And then toward the bottom, where it looked like Sidney had started running out of steam, some more prosaic activities: eating at Market Square, eating at the Russian restaurant Zhenya liked on Mt. Washington, going to the movies, working out at the Point, and Zhenya had to laugh then because Sidney was really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
“Look, I’m trying,” Sidney said, and he sounded like he was actually somewhat affronted, which wasn’t Zhenya’s intention.
“I know, Sid,” he said. “It’s nice you think of. But when we have time?”
“We won’t have time for all of it,” Sidney said. “That’s not the point. I’m trying to give you options.” He sighed. He had one hand on the gearshift the way he always did, even though as far as Zhenya knew he couldn’t operate a manual transmission. “Look, I know you don’t want to do this. I fucked up, and now you’re stuck with me for a while. So I thought—at least we could do some fun stuff together. Make the time go by a little faster, eh?”
Zhenya refolded the paper along the creases Sidney had left. This was always the danger with Sidney: his simple, stubborn thoughtfulness toward everyone around him. There was no calculation to it. Sidney was kind and careful because his parents had raised him that way. Zhenya knew, had always known, that he wasn’t an exception, that Sidney would act like this with anyone, but it was devastatingly easy to let himself pretend that Sidney had some special consideration for him.
He couldn’t bear the thought of—of dating Sidney like this, in a sad parody of all the things he had wanted from Sidney in the not-so-distant past.
“We can do whatever you want,” Sidney said. “We don’t have to do any of that stuff. I’m trying to make this okay for you.”
Zhenya looked at him. Sidney glanced over for just a moment before he returned his eyes to the road. Zhenya wasn’t sure what he was thinking.
“Don’t have to—do work, Sid,” Zhenya said. “It’s okay. Jen is not expect, and I don’t need.”
“I know,” Sidney said. “I know that.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. “Maybe—we do Market Square, when weather is nice. Good for pictures.”
“Jen would be happy,” Sidney said. He glanced at Zhenya again. “Keep the list. You can think about what you want to do. Or nothing. Whatever.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He folded the paper into a smaller rectangle and slid it in his wallet, tucked behind his driver’s license. He didn’t think he would look at it again.
+ + +
Sidney thought about going over to talk to him, but Geno clearly didn’t want company, and he probably wouldn’t welcome the intrusion. But it was Sidney’s fault, and maybe he could say something—
“Are you trying to make Geno’s head explode?” Flower asked.
“Huh?” Sidney said.
Flower rolled his eyes. “You keep staring, like laser eyes. Are the two of you in a fight?”
“No,” Sidney said. “We’re aren’t—no. We aren’t fighting.”
“Okay,” Flower said. “Do you want to see some pictures of the baby?”
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to call her a baby anymore,” Sidney said. “I thought she was a toddler.”
“Did I say that?” Flower said. “That doesn’t sound like something I would say.”
“Vero said it, my God, both of you shut the fuck up, please,” Tanger said from behind them. “Show him the baby pictures and stop talking about it.”
He’s bitchy, Flower mouthed at Sidney, and then grinned and held up his phone. Sidney had seen Estelle two days ago, but he’d learned that toddler time was like dog years. Six critical developmental milestones could be achieved in the span of twelve hours.
“Okay,” Sidney said. “Let’s see the pictures.”
He caught up with Geno in the parking lot afterward, when everything was done. Geno looked tired—more tired than usual. His wet hair was parted sharply at one side and combed away from his face, the way he usually styled it before games, but he was wearing sweatpants and getting ready to head home. Sidney wasn’t sure what the occasion was.
“What, Sid,” Geno said, rubbing at one eye, his face screwed up in a grimace.
“I thought—it’s been a few days,” Sidney said. They hadn’t been out together since their sandwich date, and Jen had texted him the night before to remind him that two dates a week was a requirement and not a suggestion. “I need to go to the grocery store, if you want to come with me. I could make you dinner afterward.”
Geno hesitated, then shook his head. “Not today. Maybe—lunch tomorrow, after practice.”
“Sure,” Sidney said. “Tomorrow’s fine.” He had been—sort of looking forward to it, thinking about having Geno in his kitchen, talking about the upcoming season, maybe listening to some music while he prepped dinner. He and Geno had separate groups of friends and had never interacted much outside of hockey and, well, fucking. But Sidney liked Geno and always liked hanging out with him. But if Geno didn’t want to, they wouldn’t.
The next day, after practice, they walked to Market Square. There was a nice Italian place with outdoor seating, and the weather was warm and sunny. Geno was wearing big-ass sunglasses and a backward cap, what Tanger called his Hot Gay Frat Boy look, and he looked really good, his long legs in slim-fit pants, his collarbones peeking out of his V-neck shirt. Sidney knew he was still in the doghouse, and he felt a little bad about looking, but come on.
Market Square was the kind of place Sidney ordinarily gave a wide berth. It was popular and very public, and they would for sure get interrupted multiple times for photographs. But that was exactly what they wanted, now: hard evidence that they were together and happy. Sidney still felt sort of awkward about going out in public, knowing how many people had heard about or—worse—actually watched the sex tape, but there was nothing he could do about it and he was trying hard to suppress his embarrassment.
“We can get a pitcher of sangria,” he said to Geno, once they were seated.
Geno pushed his sunglasses up on top of his head and narrowed his eyes at Sidney. “You chirp?”
“Of course not,” Sidney said, although of course he was.
“Hmm,” Geno said. He slid the sunglasses back into place. “Sangria. You buy.”
It was warm enough that Sidney started to feel uncomfortably sweaty, sitting there in the sun. But Geno was happy. He complained a lot about feeling cold; back when they still had road roommates, he had been notorious for keeping the thermostat in his hotel room set at a temperature Sidney didn’t even like to think about. Geno leaned back in his chair now, his legs stretched out beneath the tiny bistro table and bracketing Sidney’s feet, his head tilted back to bare his face to the sun: basking. Sidney stared at the long line of his throat, realized he was staring, and looked away across the plaza.
“You look,” Geno said. He sounded amused.
“Well,” Sidney said. They hadn’t talked about any of this. Sidney wasn’t even sure it was okay for him to look, although Geno didn’t seem pissed off about it.
“You like,” Geno said, his voice dipping down into the deep, scratchy register Sidney associated with sex.
“Stop it,” he said, and kicked at Geno’s feet. Geno wasn’t playing fair.
“Why?” Geno asked. He sat up straight and dragged his feet away. The sunglasses made it impossible to read his expression. “Someone see? Someone hear? Oh no, they flirting! Didn’t know, so shock—”
“Yeah, I get it,” Sidney said. “Fine.” He reached across the table and took Geno’s hand, squeezing hard enough that Geno winced. “What are you doing, G?”
Geno looked down, tucking his chin against his chest. “We’re boyfriend now, can’t flirt?”
Sidney didn’t really have a response to that. He didn’t want Geno to flirt with him right now. He didn’t really want to think about having sex with Geno while Geno was probably thinking about someone else.
“Maybe we shouldn’t, for a while,” he said.
Geno extracted his hand, scowling. Sidney could see his eyebrows drawing together above the rims of his sunglasses. “No? What I do for six months, right hand?”
Market Square was a terrible place to have this conversation. Sidney felt like he was in a car that was rolling down a slope, quickly picking up speed, and he couldn’t find the emergency brake. “Maybe you need some time to—get over Kostya.”
It was the wrong thing to say, and Sidney knew it as soon as the words left his mouth. Geno scowled harder. He poured some more sangria into his glass. “It’s not you decide,” Geno said.
“I know that,” Sidney said. Jeez, he was fucking this up. “But I would feel more comfortable if we waited. Come on, quit frowning at me. Someone’s going to take a picture and I don’t want Jen to chew me out. We’re supposed to be happy.”
Geno grinned at him, insincere. His front teeth were all the same size and shape, and it was kind of weird. He needed a better dentist. “So happy,” he said.
A woman came over then and asked them for a picture, and Sidney had never been more grateful for an interruption. They posed and smiled, and when she was gone, Geno said, “Sorry, Sid.” He sounded like he meant it.
“It’s okay,” Sidney said. “I know we don’t really—talk about this.” They had started having sex after the lockout, and Sidney couldn’t even remember who initiated it. They had both been pretty drunk. And then they never had a single conversation about it, even after the Olympics, when it went from being a sometimes thing to more of a—well, Sidney hadn’t slept with anyone but Geno for a solid three months last spring.
It had never really seemed like something that needed talking about.
“Why talk?” Geno said. “What we say? I like sex, oh yes, me too, we agree, so nice.” He tapped his feet against Sidney’s. “It’s not real. Don’t need to worry that you bad boyfriend.”
“I’m a great boyfriend,” Sidney said, although probably none of his ex-girlfriends would agree.
“Okay, Sid,” Geno said. He raised his glass to his mouth and smiled. “I believe.”
+ + +
He was trapped in a terrible state of limbo where almost everyone he knew found the sex tape thing absolutely hysterical. Mario and Nathalie were sympathetic, and his parents—his dad was touchingly outraged on his behalf—but Geno was the only person Sidney saw on a regular basis who didn’t think it was funny and wasn’t likely to make inappropriate jokes about it. But spending time with Geno wasn’t particularly fun or comfortable at the moment.
They went for lunch again the day after the first preseason game, and Sidney wondered how many times they would go out to eat together over the next six months. He was already kind of sick of it. He liked eating at home, where nobody interrupted him mid-chew to ask for a signature. But what choice did he have? Geno didn’t seem to want to do anything else.
Geno kissed him on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, one hand on Sidney’s jaw. “Grumpy,” he said.
“I’m not grumpy,” Sidney said.
“You don’t like eat here,” Geno said. “Don’t like eat out.”
“It’s fine,” Sidney said. He wasn’t going to complain about this to Geno. It wasn’t Geno’s fault.
“Hmm,” Geno said, but he let it go.
Sidney got a text message from Geno a few evenings later, when he was at home debating with himself about whether he should go to the grocery store to buy some ice cream. Day off Monday, nice weather, we go see bird?
It took a moment for Sidney to figure out what Geno was talking about. Bird? Right: the aviary. Sidney had basically no interest in going, but he knew Geno had been before and enjoyed it, which was why he’d put it on the list. He had a vague memory of seeing a picture of Geno holding some brightly-colored birds. Parrots? Sidney didn’t know anything about birds.
Sounds great, he replied, meet there at 11?
He got there at 11:15, and sat in his car for a few minutes before Geno pulled into the parking lot in his Mercedes. He was wearing a Malkin jersey, one of the promotional jerseys they used for signings and events, which seemed like an odd choice, but he looked good, and Sidney wasn’t going to question it.
“Hi, Sid,” Geno said, when Sidney got out of his own car. He was grinning, excited: the Geno Sidney was used to, instead of the quiet stranger he’d been for the past couple of weeks. “You ready? Go see bird?” He hooked an arm around Sidney’s neck and started dragging him toward the entrance. Sidney stumbled along after him, laughing, feeling his heart lift in his chest. This had been a good idea. Geno liked the list. Maybe Geno wasn’t mad at him anymore.
He bought two tickets while Geno hung all over him, draped over his back. Geno’s fingers slid into the front pocket of Sidney’s jeans, way too intimate for a public place, and a lazy curl of arousal warmed Sidney’s belly. He hadn’t gotten laid in a while, and Geno was familiar. But he still felt too weird about it, knowing what he had caused Geno to lose.
“Knock it off,” he said to Geno as they walked away from the ticket booth.
Geno widened his eyes, trying to look innocent. “What I do?”
He kept his hands in his own pockets after that, though, or at most slung an arm around Sidney’s shoulders as they stood in front of an exhibit. Some of the birds were beautiful, or strange-looking, but Sidney didn’t really care. Geno was so into it, though.
“How you say?” he demanded, pointing to the placard listing the names of all the birds in that cage.
“Uh, violaceus euphonia,” Sidney said. “That’s a mouthful, eh?”
“Read to me,” Geno said, the lazy bastard, and so Sidney read him the little paragraph about how the violaceus euphonia liked to eat berries and nectar. And then they had to circle the cage until they spotted the bird itself, yellow on the breast and blue on the back, or maybe a dark purple. Geno watched the bird hopping around on a branch, opening its beak to twitter softly. He was smiling. He liked the weirdest things, and Sidney would probably never understand him, but it was kind of—well, he liked it, the way Geno was so shamelessly curious about everything. It was like nobody had told him that adults were supposed to be serious and boring.
He just liked Geno in general. They had never spent a ton of time together away from the team until they started screwing, and then their alone time was devoted pretty exclusively to sex. But Geno was good company: funny, enthusiastic, easy-going as long as he got his way. When they inevitably got asked for pictures, Geno did the cheerful bantering around Sidney had never mastered, and it was great to be able to stand there and smile and not have to say a damn thing.
They ended their visit with the penguins. The birds were little and quick and loud. Geno was enchanted. “Like you, Sid,” he said, pointing to a penguin waddling over the rocks, and Sidney rolled his eyes, because he’d heard it all before.
“We could go for lunch,” he said, as they finally made their way back outside. He was having a good time, and there was nothing at home as entertaining as listening to Geno baby-talk to penguins in Russian.
“Lunch?” Geno said, and shook his head. “No, I can’t. Max bring baby today, we spend time.” Geno was Milana’s godfather and took his duties very seriously. He had more pictures of her on his phone than Max did.
“Oh,” Sidney said. “Well, have fun.” He knew he ranked well below babysitting on the list of Geno’s priorities.
He had been sort of trailing after Geno, and they came to a stop then by Geno’s car. The temperature had crept up a little in the couple of hours they’d been inside. Sidney hadn’t winterized his pool yet; maybe he would go for a swim. He was thinking about that, and about what he was going to make for lunch, and he didn’t expect Geno’s hands on his shoulders, drawing him in.
Geno looked serious again. He touched his fingertips to Sidney’s jaw, and then bent to kiss him, ducking beneath the brim of his cap.
The kiss felt different from the other kisses they’d shared since the tape leaked. It was slower, and deeper. Sidney tried to pull back after a minute, because he probably shouldn’t have his tongue in Geno’s mouth in the parking lot of the aviary, but Geno made a disgruntled sound and pressed in closer, and Sidney didn’t fight him. Part of him was still angry and humiliated about the sex tape, and how everyone knew some really private things about him now, and he spitefully wanted to put on a good show. But most of him was just enjoying kissing Geno.
Their mouths slid together. Geno shivered, and Sidney curled his hands around Geno’s hips and held him close. It felt so good, and it was exactly what Sidney was trying to avoid. It would be so easy to fall back into having sex with Geno, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to hold out for the whole season. But he wanted to hold out for at least a little longer.
He broke away at last and kissed the corner of Geno’s mouth, one hand on the back of Geno’s head to hold him in place. “Guess we should get out of here.”
“Yes,” Geno said. He licked his lips, and reached out to settle Sidney’s cap back into place, where the brim had been knocked askew. His cheeks were slightly flushed.
“Sorry,” Sidney said. He had definitely crossed a line. Maybe not any of Geno’s, but one of his own for sure.
Geno shrugged. “Why? Make Jen happy, make me happy.” His eyes dipped down to Sidney’s mouth, appreciative, obvious.
“Max is waiting for you,” Sidney said sternly.
“So?” Geno said, grinning, and tossed his keys up in the air and caught them again, one-handed.
Later that evening, when Sidney was reviewing some game tape, Geno texted him a couple of pictures from the aviary. One was a fan photo, Geno and Sidney standing together, Sidney with one arm around Geno’s waist and Geno making fucking bunny ears behind his head. Sidney was smiling at the camera. Geno was smiling at Sidney.
The other picture was one Geno had taken: Sidney from behind, zoomed in on his ass, which—okay, maybe those jeans were a little tight.
You’re gross, he texted Geno, and Geno responded with a picture of his own face, grinning huge and cheesy. Sidney saved it to his phone. It never hurt to have blackmail material.
+ + +
The farmer’s market didn’t go well: too crowded, and they got stuck shuffling along behind a slow-moving group of people who obviously recognized them and kept turning around to stare. Sidney started looking strained around the eyes almost immediately, but of course he refused to admit that anything was wrong. Zhenya only got him out of there by faking a headache and demanding a smoothie.
“Need juice,” Zhenya said. “Green juice.” Sidney had developed a juicing obsession, and had been making periodic attempts to get Zhenya to join the cult of liquid spinach. He had refused thus far, and he was hoping the prospect of introducing him to green juice would be tempting enough to get Sidney to abandon this market fiasco.
“I don’t think green juice cures headaches,” Sidney said, determinedly clutching a bag of apples, his sole purchase.
He was going to be difficult. “Sid,” Zhenya said. “It’s not fun for me if you don’t like. I don’t like either, okay? It’s too many people, can’t move. Let’s go.”
“You really want juice?” Sidney said.
Zhenya would have agreed to drink literal sewage if it would get Sidney to leave the damn market. “Yes, I try,” he said, but then once they got to the juice place he ordered something that involved three kinds of fruit and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“You played me,” Sidney said, aghast.
“Yes,” Zhenya said, and grinned at him around the straw.
He hoped that would be the end of the dating venture, but a few days later, Sidney wandered into the trainer’s room while Zhenya was getting his knee looked at and said, “Oh, Geno—hey, do you want to go for dinner tonight? I was thinking about that Russian place you like.”
“Hot date?” Chris asked, without looking up from Zhenya’s knee.
“The hottest,” Sidney said. “Look at him, he’s, uh—”
“A dreamboat,” Chris said.
“Right,” Sidney said after a moment. “That.”
“Dream—boat?” Zhenya said.
“Oh, jeez,” Sidney said. “How do I define this? Stew, you said it, you tell him what it means.”
“It means someone who’s really good-looking,” Chris said. “I have no idea why.”
Zhenya was wearing basketball shorts, a really old Pitt Football shirt, and socks pulled up to his knees. He was probably the least dreamy boat on the planet.
Well, Sidney had thrown the gauntlet. “Okay, I dress up,” Zhenya said. “Take you out. Dream boat.”
Chris made a muffled noise that sounded suspiciously like laughter. He lowered Zhenya’s leg to the exam table and said, “Knee looks good, Geno. I think you overdid it in practice, that’s all. Ice it tonight if you need to, but you’re fine.”
Zhenya was possibly a bit paranoid about his knee. “Thanks, Stew. Sorry for bother.”
“You’re not going to dress up,” Sidney said. His voice was pitched a little higher than usual.
If they were going to argue about this, Zhenya didn’t want to do it in front of Chris. He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the table. “Come on, Sid. I need shower, maybe eat sandwich.” He clapped a hand on Sidney’s shoulder and started steering him toward the door.
“Bye, guys,” Chris said. He sounded amused. Zhenya raised a hand in farewell without turning around.
“I was going to ask Stew about my hamstring,” Sidney protested, as Zhenya pushed him out into the hallway.
“Leg is fine,” Zhenya said. “Stew tell you yesterday. Don’t need to look again. What time I pick you up for dinner, 7:00? It’s too late?” They were all accustomed to late meals, but when there wasn’t a game, Sidney liked to eat at old-person hours.
“You’re picking me up?” Sidney asked.
“Yes,” Zhenya said, trying to sound more certain than he felt. Driving separately would make it less of a date, more just two buddies going out to eat. Safer. He didn’t know what he was doing. Something stupid.
“Oh,” Sidney said. He turned his head to glance at Zhenya over his shoulder. He looked pleased.
Zhenya was a self-destructive idiot. It had been a month, and he still thought of Kostya, from time to time. But lately it was a deliberate effort: he was thinking of Kostya to keep himself from thinking of Sidney.
He arrived at Sidney’s house that evening exactly on time. Sidney came around from the side door, dressed in nice jeans and one of his devastating polo shirts under a jacket, at least a size too small and clinging to the puffy outlines of his nipples.
Zhenya got out of the car and went around to the passenger door to open it, and told himself he was only doing it to yank Sidney’s chain.
“Really?” Sidney said dryly. He looked Zhenya up and down. “I thought this was a casual place.”
“You dress fine,” Zhenya said, deflecting. Sidney was right, and suit pants and a collared shirt were overkill, but Zhenya liked the way Sidney’s eyes lingered on him when he dressed up.
“Well,” Sidney said. He stood there by the open door of the car, and tucked his hands in his pockets.
Zhenya felt like a fool, awkwardly holding the door handle while Sidney pointedly refused to take the bait. There was no good way out of it. “Okay, we go eat,” Zhenya said, and went back around to the driver’s side and let Sidney situate himself.
He had called ahead and told the owner of the restaurant that they were coming, and the best seat in the house was reserved for them: a table tucked into a recessed nook, the walls hung with decorative quilts. The restaurant wasn’t fancy at all, but it had the best Russian food in Pittsburgh, and Zhenya enjoyed fanciness but didn’t require it. He just wanted to eat.
“You’re gonna have to tell me what to order,” Sidney said, examining the menu. “I don’t know what any of this stuff is.”
“All is good,” Zhenya said. “Can’t pick bad.” Sidney gave him a skeptical look, and Zhenya grinned and added, “But I help.”
They mostly talked about hockey during dinner. If it were a real date, Zhenya would have made Sidney talk about something other than work, but it wasn’t a date. They were only doing this because they had to, and hockey was familiar territory, the thing they had talked about the most over eight years of knowing each other. Zhenya didn’t have to fumble for the right thing to say. He knew the vocabulary. He was fluent in hockey, and it was easy to listen to Sidney dissecting the team’s strengths and weaknesses, and easy to offer his opinions on Johnston when Sidney asked.
“This was fun,” Sidney said over dessert. He sounded surprised, which wasn’t flattering.
“You don’t expect?” Zhenya said. “Think I’m boring?” Sidney always wanted to talk about hockey, he always enjoyed it, and what else did they talk about with each other? How had Sidney thought this meal was going to unfold?
“Come on,” Sidney said. “That’s not—I’m trying to be nice. The food’s good. I liked talking to you. I had a good time. I like spending time with you.”
Zhenya tried to mask his reaction. Sidney had a way of saying things that slid beneath Zhenya’s skin like a sharp blade under a fingernail, just as painful and unwelcome as that.
“What?” Sidney said. “I can’t say that? We’re friends.”
Zhenya had spent the past eight years conducting an informal but detailed study of North American male social behavior, and he was pretty sure normal dude friends didn’t earnestly tell each other how much they enjoyed hanging out. “You finish that?” he asked, instead of responding, and smirked as Sidney protectively dragged his plate closer.
It was dark by the time they made it back to Sidney’s. The moon was full, or almost full, or just past full, and shining brightly above the trees. Non-date protocol dictated that Zhenya stay in the car and peel out of the driveway as soon as Sidney had cleared the blast zone. But for some reason he got out and walked with Sidney to the door.
On the porch, Sidney fished his keys out of his pocket and then hesitated. “Geno,” he said, turning back toward Zhenya. A light beside the door was on, and Sidney’s face looked soft and young in the yellow glow. They were men now, and not boys, but Sidney looked then like the boy Zhenya remembered.
“Yes?” Zhenya said. His voice came out hushed and airless.
Sidney shifted his weight forward, his lips parting, and Zhenya stepped in and grasped Sidney’s shoulders and bent to kiss him.
There were no cameras. Nobody would see them. There was no reason for them to kiss, there in the private darkness of Sidney’s front stoop. But Zhenya pressed his mouth urgently to Sidney’s and felt Sidney respond at once, his head tipping back to give Zhenya better access, and Zhenya couldn’t do this again. He needed to protect himself. Sidney seemed to want everything, but actually wanted nothing, and Zhenya had been burned by it before. He couldn’t seriously be this dumb.
He moved back. Sidney blinked up at him. His mouth was wet from Zhenya’s mouth.
“Should go,” Zhenya said.
“Sure,” Sidney said easily. “Early day tomorrow. Thanks again for dinner.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said, and turned and went back down the steps in the quiet night.
+ + +
Maybe he didn’t even have a heart, Zhenya thought uncharitably, watching Sidney joke around with Flower in the dressing room before their first game of the regular season. Maybe he had been constructed from spare parts, optimized to play hockey, and benevolently spared all of the mess and trouble of human emotions.
He was being ridiculous. Sidney had plenty of feelings, they just weren’t the feelings Zhenya wanted him to have.
Zhenya hadn’t played in a single preseason game, and he was unprepared for the extremely creative and obscene chirping he received about the sex tape. He didn’t know any of the guys on the Ducks particularly well, but of course Sidney had played on Team Canada with many of them, and it seemed that Zhenya was being folded into the loving embrace of Canadian mockery.
“Haven’t seen Sid look that happy since the Olympics,” Getzlaf said to him during warmups. “Nice work, Malkin.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” Zhenya said in Russian, and grinned toothily at Getzlaf’s baffled expression.
It was the nicest thing anyone said to him all game. The Penguins won, which was gratifying, but Kuni took one look at him when he came into the locker room and started laughing.
“They got you good, eh?” Kuni said.
“Shut up, Kuni,” Zhenya snapped, yanking his jersey over his head. “It’s not—”
“It’s extremely funny,” Kuni said. “Come on. We’re all contractually obligated to make fun of you and Sid until the heat death of the universe.”
Zhenya swore at him in French and sat on the bench to strip off the rest of his gear. It wasn’t even remotely funny.
The next afternoon, they flew to Toronto for their first away game. When Jen came on the bus to distribute room keys, she didn’t have one for Geno.
“You’re rooming with Sidney,” she said. “He’s got keys for both of you.”
Zhenya didn’t think he was a stupid guy, not the smartest person out there but certainly at least of average intelligence, but he hadn’t seen this coming at all.
“I have own room,” he said, because hadn’t that been the entire fucking point of the lockout?
“Not anymore,” Jen said mercilessly. “You’ve got a road buddy for the rest of the season. Order some room service and have fun.” She patted his shoulder and moved off down the aisle.
“Got a roommate now,” Horny said from across the aisle, grinning. Zhenya flipped him off.
He loitered on the bus, taking his time winding his headphone cords around his phone and dragging his bag out of the overhead bin, but Sidney waited for him just outside. He had his media face on, and Zhenya hated to see it.
“So, uh,” Sidney said.
Zhenya grunted, and headed for the hotel entrance.
Sidney followed him. “I asked Jen why we can’t be one of those couples who don’t share a bedroom. My mom doesn’t sleep with my dad half the time because of his snoring. But she just gave me a look.”
Zhenya grunted again. He was familiar with Jen’s looks.
“It’s not a big deal,” Sidney said. “We’ve both had plenty of roommates, eh?”
Zhenya slanted him a look of his own. This was very different from having a road roommate, and Sidney knew it.
Because Jen was careful, and thorough, there was only one bed. Zhenya watched Sidney’s eyes slide across the bed, then slide over to Zhenya, and then slide away.
“Well,” Sidney said, and dropped his duffel on the mattress.
Zhenya was granted a reprieve of several hours before he actually had to deal with it. Sidney went shopping with Flower and then out to dinner, and Zhenya ordered room service and sullenly watched a movie on his laptop and tried to decide whether jerking off would make sharing a bed with Sidney better or worse. His phone kept buzzing, because one of the Chrises was having a lot of drama with the married guy he persisted in hooking up with despite everyone telling him to knock it off, and that was a good distraction for a while, but ultimately not enough to bleed off Zhenya’s restless tension.
Sidney came back a little after 8:30, his usual witching hour for the night before a game. He had a small shopping bag in one hand and a styrofoam box in the other. He paused at the foot of the bed and looked Zhenya over, his face perfectly blank, and Zhenya shifted in his nest of pillows, self-conscious. He felt vulnerable in his pajamas with Sidney still fully dressed, down to his hat and shoes.
“Hey,” Sidney said. He set the bag and the box on the console, beside the TV.
Zhenya didn’t say anything. He watched as Sidney fished his phone and wallet out of his pockets and started stripping down right there, unbuckling his belt and pulling his shirt over his head. He folded his clothes neatly as he went and tucked them into his bag. When he was down to his boxer-briefs, he went into the bathroom, and Zhenya covered his face with his hands and exhaled slowly.
He heard the toilet flush, and the tap cut on, and he was staring intently at his computer by the time Sidney emerged again, wiping his hands on his underwear.
He watched furtively over the top of his laptop as Sidney roamed around the room, plugging in his phone charger and fiddling with the thermostat.
“Don’t touch,” Zhenya said. “It’s good now.”
“It’s way too warm in here,” Sidney said. “Get under the covers if you’re cold.”
“Nice for sleep, don’t make too cold,” Zhenya insisted.
“I’ll keep you warm,” Sidney said, exasperated, and then he made a face and turned away.
Jesus. Zhenya glowered at his laptop.
“I, uh,” Sidney said. He had his back to Zhenya, messing around with something on the console, and Zhenya couldn’t resist a long indulgent ogle at Sidney’s broad shoulders. “I brought you some dessert.”
He was apparently totally serious, because he came over to the bed with the styrofoam container in his hands, and he opened it to show Zhenya a single slice of carrot cake: not Zhenya’s favorite dessert, but certainly in his top five.
“Kuni ordered it for dessert,” Sidney said, when Zhenya didn’t say anything. “And he said it was good, so I thought, uh.”
Zhenya felt like his chest was turning inside out. “Sid,” he said.
“Oh, I got a fork for you,” Sidney said, turning back toward the console.
“Sid,” Zhenya said again, and Sidney turned back toward him, and Zhenya swallowed and said, “Share with me.”
They sat side by side on the bed, watching the tail end of Zhenya’s movie and trading bites of the cake. Zhenya turned on the English subtitles for Sidney, and within a few minutes Sidney got really into it, slumping against Zhenya’s side to get closer to the screen, and laughing softly.
“Russian movie most funny,” Zhenya said. Sidney was heavy and mostly naked, pale all over except in the places where a shirt didn’t cover him: his forearms and elbows, the back of his neck.
“Not sure I’d go that far,” Sidney said, without even bothering to look away from the screen.
Zhenya glanced at his phone. Barely 9:00. It was too early to sleep, and Zhenya wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved.
He had never slept in a bed with Sidney, not even for a brief nap after sex. When they first started fucking, Zhenya had established a number of rules for himself once it became clear that Sidney wasn’t interested in anything more than casual hookups. They didn’t have sex more than once a week. They didn’t have sex at Zhenya’s house, only at Sidney’s. Zhenya never stayed the night. And he had stuck to those rules for more than a year now, without a single slip-up.
Sharing a bed was so intimate. Zhenya had done it often enough with other people that he knew what it would be like with Sidney: hearing the soft noises he made in his sleep, feeling the warm shape of him beneath the covers. And sharing a bed without sex, only to sleep—well, Zhenya might die from it, and he wasn’t being dramatic at all, only realistic. He knew his limits.
Sidney finished the cake and leaned over to set the empty box on the bedside table. The long muscles of his back tensed and stretched. Zhenya pressed his palm to the base of Sidney’s spine, right above the waistband of his shorts.
His hand shifted as Sidney shifted, sitting up straight again and then turning to face Zhenya, crossing his legs beneath him.
“I know this is weird,” Sidney said: sympathetic, reasonable, willing to talk.
Zhenya pulled his hand away. He couldn’t help himself. Sidney had never been an option for him until suddenly he was—until Sidney kissed him, three weeks after the end of the lockout, in the back hallway at Duper’s house, one hand holding a can of beer and the other hand on the side of Zhenya’s neck. And Zhenya had thought—
Well, he’d been wrong.
“Geno,” Sidney said, frowning at him. “What’s going on?”
Zhenya didn’t want to talk, and he didn’t want sympathy or reason. He closed his laptop and set it aside, and then he cupped Sidney’s face in both hands and leaned in to kiss him.
Sidney kissed him back for a moment, hands curling around Zhenya’s wrists, and then he pulled away and licked his lips. “We probably shouldn’t.”
What the fuck was his problem? If he was still worrying about Zhenya’s tender broken heart, Zhenya was going to exile him down the hall to sleep with Flower.
“We do before,” Zhenya said. “Why not now? Don’t want?”
“It’s not that,” Sidney said. He studied Zhenya’s face. “We don’t need to have sex tonight, you know. We can watch some TV and go to sleep.”
Zhenya was determined that they were going to have sex. Sex would make the situation acceptable: just two buddies passing out after mutually satisfying orgasms. Nobody had any feelings. They were making the best of unfortunate circumstances.
He kissed Sidney again, keeping his mouth gentle until Sidney responded. Zhenya slid his hands into Sidney’s hair, too short at the moment to get a satisfying grip on, and tilted Sidney’s head back so he could deepen the kiss. Sidney went along with it, sucking on Zhenya’s lower lip and settling his hands on Zhenya’s knees.
Zhenya had been amped up all evening, tense and anxious, and it didn’t take much for that unsettled energy to transform into arousal. He went up onto his knees and tipped Sidney backward onto the mattress, his hands sliding up the insides of Sidney’s thighs to spread them wide, making a space for himself.
“Hey,” Sidney said. He pushed up on his elbows and gave Zhenya a serious look, wholly at odds with his messed-up hair and red mouth. “Geno. You really want to be doing this?”
“Don’t ask stupid question,” Zhenya said, and lowered himself down onto Sidney’s broad chest.
Sidney wrapped his arms around Zhenya and kissed him hungrily, with no hesitation. Sex with Sidney was the easy part, the stuff Zhenya felt like he had under control, and it was a relief to be able to kiss him and not have to think, to just let himself feel good for a little while.
He sank into the uncomplicated sweetness of Sidney’s mouth opening under his. Sidney liked to spend a long time kissing and refused to be rushed. It was his one constant. Once they got past the kissing, Sidney would do anything, in any order, but the kissing was sacrosanct. Zhenya had found it a little weird at first—who wanted to kiss that much when you could be sucking dick instead?—but he had grown to like it, how seriously Sidney took it, how much it turned him on. Five minutes of slow kissing and Sidney turned into a panting, eager mess, his dick wet and his balls tight, ready to go.
Sidney broke away at last and turned his head to start kissing along Zhenya’s neck, and Zhenya hid a grin in Sidney’s hair, because that was the all-clear.
“Sid,” he said, “let me suck you.”
Sidney pulled away to frown at him. He was still on the fence, for whatever reason. Zhenya licked his lips, and watched Sidney’s gaze, predictably, drop to his mouth. Sidney was easy: easy to turn on, easy to get off, and Zhenya knew what he liked.
But Sidney was also stubborn, and he went back to kissing Zhenya’s neck without responding. His hand tangled in Zhenya’s necklaces. It felt good, but Zhenya wanted to get his mouth on Sidney, and he didn’t care about whatever bullshit reason Sidney had for resisting.
“What you want?” Zhenya asked, as Sidney nosed at his earlobe, making Zhenya’s scalp prickle. He rocked his hips against Sidney’s, grinding their erections together through Sidney’s underwear and Zhenya’s shorts, and Sidney groaned and dug his fingers into Zhenya’s back.
“Fine,” Sidney said, “you—suck me,” and Zhenya grinned again, because Sidney always asked for that, either that or the other thing, every time they had sex.
Not that Zhenya was complaining.
Sidney shifted beneath him, tensing, and Zhenya knew this move, and he braced one hand on the mattress to help Sidney flip them over.
“I’ve got you trained,” Sidney said, on top now, dark-eyed and staring at Zhenya’s mouth.
“Yes,” Zhenya said, and reached down to tug at the waistband of Sidney’s boxer-briefs. There was a damp spot on the front, where Sidney had leaked onto the fabric. He was willing to agree with essentially anything as long as it would speed up the process of getting Sidney’s dick in his mouth.
Sidney shoved his underwear down his legs and kicked it off toward the foot of the bed. He sat up and straddled Zhenya’s hips, flushed and naked and too much to be believed, his cock bobbing between his legs. “Can I, uh.” He shuffled forward slightly.
Zhenya’s dick twitched in his shorts. “Yes, yes,” he said, and got his hands on Sidney’s ass, urging him closer.
Sidney knee-walked up the bed until he was straddling Zhenya’s chest. “You need a pillow?” he asked, and then went ahead and grabbed one without waiting for a response. Zhenya lifted his head obediently, and Sidney tucked the pillow underneath. His fingers carded through Zhenya’s hair for a moment.
“Come on,” Zhenya said. He loved doing this. He was already making a mess in his shorts. Sidney had a great dick, top shelf in every way, and Zhenya maybe had a little bit of an oral fixation. He squeezed Sidney’s ass encouragingly.
“You’re so impatient,” Sidney said. He rubbed his thumb over Zhenya’s mouth, and when Zhenya opened for him, he slid two fingers inside and stroked Zhenya’s tongue. Zhenya sucked eagerly, holding Sidney’s gaze, and Sidney laughed breathlessly and said, “God, you love this, don’t you? You want my dick in you—”
Zhenya moaned, probably way too loudly—but it didn’t matter now. Everyone already knew about them. He could make as much noise as he wanted.
Sidney dragged his fingers out and shifted forward to rub the head of his cock against Zhenya’s mouth, smearing sticky pre-come. Zhenya licked his lips, and licked Sidney in the process, and Sidney grunted and grabbed a fistful of Zhenya’s hair and held him in place, right there with his lips kissing the wet tip of Sidney’s cock.
“Geno,” Sidney breathed, and Zhenya opened his mouth and closed his eyes.
Sidney rocked forward carefully, like he hadn’t spent most of last season fucking Zhenya’s face and didn’t know exactly what Zhenya could take. But Sidney was always careful at first.
Zhenya tucked his chin down, giving Sidney a better angle. The first slow drag of Sidney’s dick over his tongue made Zhenya feel like he was transmuting into vapor, already totally out of his body. He dug his fingers into Sidney’s ass, feeling the muscles flex as Sidney drew out and pushed in again. Zhenya’s hard-on throbbed. He couldn’t come from this, but he had gotten close a few times, when Sidney let himself get loud and a little rough.
“Fuck,” Sidney whispered, rocking his dick in and out of Zhenya’s mouth. “Geno, your mouth.”
He waited for Sidney to stop being so cautious, but it didn’t happen. Sidney maintained that same slow pace, just the first few centimeters of his cock fucking into Zhenya’s mouth, stopping as soon as he hit the back of Zhenya’s throat, never pushing too far. Zhenya could take more than that, wanted it, and he made a sound of protest when Sidney drew back again.
Sidney stopped, and pulled out all the way, which wasn’t at all what Zhenya wanted. He gazed down at Zhenya, and he was pink and breathing hard, his hands braced on the headboard.
“Why you stop,” Zhenya said. He squeezed Sidney’s ass again and slipped his fingers into the cleft.
“I don’t know,” Sidney said. “I don’t want to come like this.” He moved backward and sat on Zhenya’s chest, which wasn’t exactly comfortable. Zhenya wheezed, and Sidney said, “Oh, sorry,” and shifted his weight so it wasn’t all pressing directly on Zhenya’s diaphragm.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, cajoling, and stroked his hands along Sidney’s thighs. “Let me, I like—”
“I know you do,” Sidney said, “and I like it too, I mean, obviously, but.” He touched Zhenya’s mouth with his fingertips. “Let’s do something else.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, maybe a little whiny. He opened his mouth to suckle at Sidney’s fingers, lifting his head from the pillow to take them in deeper. Sidney was still hard, and his dick was so close but infuriatingly just out of reach.
“I feel weird,” Sidney said. “Okay? Will you stop—let’s do something else.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t argue with that. He stroked Sidney’s thighs again, soothing this time instead of teasing, his palms flat and gentle.
Sidney bent down to kiss him, his mouth as gentle as Zhenya’s hands. “Do you have any lube?” he asked, his lips brushing Zhenya’s.
“No,” Zhenya said. He tightened his hands on Sidney’s hips. “You bring lube on one night? Need so much, can’t—”
“Shut up, I was just asking,” Sidney said. “It doesn’t matter.” He stopped sitting on Zhenya’s ribcage finally and shifted off to one side, and reached down to tug at Zhenya’s shorts. Zhenya was freeballing, as usual, and Sidney smirked at him as he worked the shorts down Zhenya’s legs.
“It’s comfy,” Zhenya said.
“You just want everyone to look at your dick,” Sidney said. “Come on, take your shirt off.”
When Zhenya was naked, Sidney rolled on top of him again. “Hey,” he said softly, and Zhenya kissed him then, because he didn’t want to hear it.
But Sidney was done with kissing now. He made a muffled noise against Zhenya’s mouth and rolled again, off to one side. He propped himself on one elbow and draped a leg across Zhenya’s thighs, and slid a considering hand down Zhenya’s body. “What should I do with you?”
What a question. “Make me come,” Zhenya said hoarsely. He liked Sidney’s teasing, and Sidney knew it, but he wasn’t in the mood for it right now.
Sidney’s expression changed. “Okay,” he said, and covered Zhenya’s cock with his hand, resting there for a moment. “I can do that.”
Sidney started by rubbing the heel of his hand along the length of Zhenya’s dick, slow and firm, the way Zhenya touched himself. He had shown Sidney once, and now Sidney did it the same way every time, which was crushingly effective, partly because it felt good but mostly because it meant Sidney had paid attention and wanted to do what Zhenya liked.
“You’re so hot,” Sidney murmured, his eyes darting between his hand and Zhenya’s face. He curled his fingers around Zhenya’s erection and started to finally work him over, his thumb and forefinger a tight circle tugging at the loose skin of the shaft. It felt so fucking good, and Sidney wouldn’t quit staring at him.
“Don’t watch,” Zhenya said, and turned his head aside, and then finally put one hand over his face, when he could still feel Sidney’s sharp gaze.
“Hey,” Sidney protested. His mouth bumped across Zhenya’s cheekbone, his fingers. “Geno, come on.”
“No,” Zhenya said against his own palm.
Sidney huffed. “You’re the one who wanted to do this so bad, and now you won’t even—”
“Won’t even what,” Zhenya said. He knocked Sidney’s hand away and sat up. “Won’t pretend to make love to you, just because you like it sweet?”
Sidney frowned up at him. “What are you—”
“Turn,” Zhenya said in English, one hand at Sidney’s hip, urging him over onto his back. Sidney went, and looked up at him, and after a moment put his arms above his head. His fingers curled toward his palms. He was giving Zhenya permission.
Zhenya slid down the mattress and wrapped his hand around the base of Sidney’s dick, pulling it away from his belly, and he went down without any preamble. The head dragged over his tongue, bare and wet. He glanced up and met Sidney’s gaze, and Sidney groaned and his cock twitched in Zhenya’s mouth. Zhenya closed his eyes and sucked gently, and he felt Sidney’s fingers brushing against the back of his neck and sliding into his hair.
This was what he had wanted the whole time: Sidney’s uneven breaths, his hand on the back of Zhenya’s head, guiding him into a steady rhythm. Zhenya drew his knees up and got a hand on himself, jerking fast and tight. He took Sidney in too deep because he liked it. He went down too far and gagged, his mouth watering, and then did it again, and Sidney’s fingers tightened in his hair.
“God,” Sidney said, “Geno,” and finally flexed his hips and pushed his cock into Zhenya’s mouth.
Zhenya let himself go slack all over, everywhere but his hand on his dick. Sidney fucked his mouth, just the way Zhenya wanted him to: a little rough, and every glide in and out made Zhenya looser but also tighter, limp and wound up. Sidney was leaking constantly, slick and faintly salty, coating Zhenya’s tongue. He was starting to feel hot all over, the way he always did before he came, sweating a little, but also suspended in the moment and the way Sidney made him feel.
“Geno,” Sidney was saying, over and over, a name Zhenya responded to automatically and had for a long time. Someone said Geno in the dressing room and he looked over: they meant him. And Sidney meant him, with his hands on Zhenya’s head, the pulse of his heart in his cock on Zhenya’s tongue. “Geno, I want—will you make yourself come?”
Zhenya pulled off and rested his face on Sidney’s hip, panting. He tightened his hand on his dick. He was so fucking worked up.
Sidney’s fingers traced the rim of his ear. “I want to hear you. The way you sound—I’ve been—”
He stopped, and Zhenya waited for him to go on, but he didn’t. Zhenya set his teeth in the crest of Sidney’s hip and bit down, not hard, but Sidney jerked beneath him. Zhenya tugged hard at his own dick, quick and dry, and he felt his belly clench, and everything between his legs go molten.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. His hand settled at the back of Zhenya’s neck. “Come on.”
Zhenya bit down harder, and listened to Sidney cry out. He was right there, right on the edge, pulled taut, shaking, and Sidney held him there with his one hand and his other hand still tracing Zhenya’s ear, and Zhenya felt his toes curl against the mattress as he trembled through his orgasm.
Sidney was saying something to him, petting his nape. Zhenya listened for a moment, but it wasn’t anything important: his name, some semi-coherent praise. He sucked on Sidney’s hip where he had bitten, and then kissed the small mark he had left there. It might bruise, but they had nothing to keep a secret now.
He waited until his limbs didn’t feel quite so rubbery, and then he turned his head and licked the tip of Sidney’s cock, and then moved it aside with his hand and licked up the pre-come that had leaked onto Sidney’s belly, smooth and hairless right below his navel.
“Fuck, fuck,” Sidney said, and his hands were heavy and gentle, holding Zhenya together. He pulled carefully at Zhenya’s hair, encouraging him to lift his head. When Zhenya did, Sidney curled one hand around the base of his dick and offered it to Zhenya, and Zhenya opened his mouth and rubbed the underside with his tongue, holding Sidney’s gaze.
Sidney cursed again and pushed into Zhenya’s loose mouth. Zhenya knew what Sidney wanted, and he sucked until Sidney pushed in further, and then he held still and let Sidney rub against his tongue, the fat slick head sliding in and out and in.
Sidney drove his hips up and Zhenya took it until he couldn’t anymore, as Sidney’s movements went wild and jagged, and then Zhenya pinned him to the bed and sucked him hard.
Sidney cried out wordlessly, his hands clenching in Zhenya’s hair, and his hips jolted beneath Zhenya’s hands as he groaned harshly and came.
Zhenya swallowed most of it and then pulled off to lick the last dribble from the tip. His mouth tingled from Sidney’s come.
“Shit,” Sidney said quietly, and touched Zhenya’s lips. “Come on, come up here.”
Zhenya happily came off his knees and sprawled on top of Sidney, who laughed and smacked his ass with both hands, a resounding crack. Zhenya wanted to bite him somewhere, but there were too many good spots to choose from; there was no way he could decide.
Sidney wrapped his arms around Zhenya’s neck and kissed him. “I can’t believe you,” he said. “You let me do this—”
“Don’t let,” Zhenya said. He wriggled around to settle himself more comfortably. “I like.”
Sidney huffed, and kissed him again. “Yeah,” he said. “You really do.”
Neither of them had much patience for extended post-sex cuddling. Sidney nudged Zhenya away after a minute and went into the bathroom. He came out with a damp washcloth and scrubbed at the wet spot Zhenya had left on the bedspread. Zhenya lay flopped on the mattress and watched him: his eyebrows drawn together in concentration, one knee up on the bed as he worked, his limp dick hanging between his thighs, still a little shiny from Zhenya’s mouth.
“Well, good enough,” Sidney said, and sighed.
“It’s fine,” Zhenya said. “Let’s watch TV. Then we sleep.” He was satisfied with how the evening had turned out. Sidney hadn’t resisted or complained too much, Zhenya had gotten what he wanted, and now he could pass out watching TV and avoid any negotiations about who got which side of the bed. It didn’t have to be awkward at all.
+ + +
He still thought it might be weird and awkward once he shook Geno awake, but it wasn’t, mostly because it turned out that Geno was non-verbal for the first fifteen minutes. Sidney had never been around Geno first thing in the morning, and it was kind of cute the way Geno rolled over, his hair all fuzzy, and blinked at Sidney like he’d never seen him before.
“Do you want coffee?” Sidney asked. “I can make some before I get in the shower.”
Geno blinked some more, and then he nodded.
By the time Sidney was done in the washroom, Geno was sitting up in the bed with his phone in one hand and the cup of coffee in the other.
“Feeling a little more awake now?” Sidney asked him.
Geno slurped his coffee obnoxiously and didn’t respond. His eyes slid down Sidney’s body and lingered over his dick.
“Go get in the shower,” Sidney said, and that was that: their first night together, and their first morning.
They met with Jen a few days later, before the pet calendar shoot. Sidney braced himself to get scolded—they hadn’t been on a date in a week, not since dinner at the Russian place—but Jen wasn’t upset. She actually seemed happy.
“I thought this would be a pain in my ass all season,” she said, “but we’re getting good publicity. You’re cute, you’re in love. The internet loves you guys. You’re a meme on Twitter.”
Sidney glanced at Geno, who didn’t look surprised. He’d probably seen the meme. He’d probably made the meme.
“Okay,” Sidney said. “So, uh.”
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” Jen said. “Cute stuff around town. Plan an outing for your next road trip. Geno, I want a few pictures on your Instagram account. Space them out so it seems natural. And you’re doing a couples costume for the team Halloween party, so start thinking about that.”
Geno perked up immediately, which was bad news for Sidney. “Dress up together?”
“Yeah,” Jen said. “I’d give you some suggestions, but I think you’ve probably got a handle on it.”
“Yes, I think about,” Geno said, with a terrifying glimmer in his eyes.
The Halloween party was less than a week away, which didn’t give Sidney much time to think of a costume that would be less embarrassing than whatever Geno came up with. He spent a while that evening Googling for couples Halloween costumes, but it was all, like—Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, or sexy Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Neither of them was a woman, although Geno could probably be persuaded to wear just about anything that was described as sexy.
Finally, with trepidation, he added ‘gay’ to his search, which felt weird, because he wasn’t gay. But the costumes were better, at least: Batman and Robin, or Mario and Luigi. Geno would definitely insist on being Batman and relegate Sidney to Robin.
I found some good costumes, he texted Geno. Let’s go buy something later this week
I buy on internet, Geno responded. Show you soon)))
Sidney couldn’t begin to imagine what Geno had settled on. It could be literally anything: sexy kitchen appliances. So he was relieved when Geno came over after practice a few days later, toting a paper grocery bag, and produced a tacky but not at all sexy vampire costume. Sidney had no problems with satin and brocade in the context of Halloween.
“If I’m a vampire, what are you?” Sidney asked, and hoisted himself up to sit on the kitchen island. His mother would scold him, if she could see—but she couldn’t, and Sidney was twenty-seven, and he would sit on the counter if he wanted to.
“No, this my costume,” Geno said. “You sexy vampire.”
Sidney felt his expression freeze in place.
Geno laughed at him. “It’s jokes, Sid. I know you don’t like. Here.” He dropped the costume on the counter and reached into the bag again. The second costume was just a long black coat and a pair of fake fangs.
“Where’s the rest of it?” Sidney asked.
Geno shrugged. “You wear own clothes. Black shirt, black pants.” He grinned. “I’m old vampire. You young. Young hot vampire boyfriend.” He folded the coat and set it on the counter, and dropped the fangs on top.
Sidney wasn’t sure how he felt about being vampire arm candy, but he really liked the idea that Geno thought he was hot, and he was kind of touched that Geno had taken his preferences into account when he picked the costumes.
His costume reveal complete, Geno took two steps to the right and opened the junk drawer. He rummaged around for a moment, but Sidney had cleaned out the drawer over the weekend and there was nothing in it but a package of rubber bands and a few delivery menus.
“You don’t put thing,” Geno said, and gave Sidney a sideways glance.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sidney said. He hadn’t put anything in there for Geno to find because—well, he hadn’t been sure they were still doing this. They had gone for lunch a few days ago, but otherwise they hadn’t been alone in a week, and they hadn’t so much as kissed since that night in Toronto. He didn’t know if Geno wanted to do it again. He didn’t know if he wanted to do it again.
Who was he kidding? Of course he wanted to do it again.
+ + +
The place was pretty nice: the rooftop of a building, enclosed by a Plexiglas canopy, with a pool set into the decking and covered over now by thick Plexiglas panels, and lit from within so the floor glowed. Flower and Vero were posing for pictures there when Sidney arrived, and they beckoned him over, Vero waving both arms above her head. Their faces were painted to look like skulls, and Flower was wearing a huge sombrero. Sidney didn’t know what they were supposed to be.
“Where’s your better half?” Flower asked when Sidney approached.
“Marc-Andre,” Vero said, laughing. “You know very well that Sid is the better half.”
“Screw both of you,” Sidney said, and walked off toward the bar, leaving them laughing behind him. Vero was usually on his side, but lately she had been worse than Flower. He was getting sick of reminding them that he and Geno weren’t actually in love.
Sidney had a beer, and a physically uncomfortable conversation with Borts, who was easily seven feet tall in his platform shoes. Sidney’s neck didn’t want to crane back that far.
He didn’t know where Geno was, and he thought about texting him, because they were supposed to get some pictures together, and they might as well do it early in the evening before everyone was too drunk to hold the camera steady.
He went to the bar to get a second beer. There was a big commotion at the door from the entirety of KISS, and Sidney turned around and saw Geno coming in with Max and his wife. Geno looked totally ridiculous in his frilly shirt and button-up vest. He stopped to say something to Paulie and dramatically swirled his cloak around, clutching it to his shoulder and giving Paulie a theatrical look over his collar.
He was absurd. Sidney smiled helplessly, watching him ham it up.
He saw Geno spot him, and then abandon Paulie without a backward glance. Sidney leaned back against the bar and waited for him. Geno was smiling, and Sidney was smiling too, each of them watching the other as Geno drew closer, and if Sidney had to pretend to be in a relationship with a teammate, he was glad it was Geno.
“Costume look good,” Geno lisped around his fake teeth. He took the beer from Sidney’s hand. “Thanks for get, nice you do.”
“I didn’t get it for you,” Sidney said, but he braced his elbows on the bar and watched Geno try and fail to drink from the can. His teeth kept getting in the way.
“Stop laugh,” Geno said.
“You’re an idiot,” Sidney said. “You’re gonna have to take them out.”
“No,” Geno said. “Where’s your teeth? You put in, we go find Kate, tell her take picture.”
“Okay, okay,” Sidney said, and fished the teeth out of his pocket.
Max’s wife took what seemed to Sidney like a really unreasonable number of pictures, but Geno kept going over to look at the phone and consult with her, and then coming back and putting his arm around Sidney again. “Need look good,” Geno said, “you keep close eyes,” and Sidney smiled for the camera until his face hurt.
Kate said something in Russian, and Geno leaned down and mouthed at Sidney’s neck with the blunt tips of his fangs and said, “I want to suck your blood.” His accent made it sound ridiculous, like a real old-school black-and-white movie vampire, and Sidney burst out laughing.
That was the picture Geno posted to Instagram: his face tucked against Sidney’s neck, and Sidney grinning widely, one arm around Geno’s back. Geno showed it to him before he posted it, and it looked good; they looked happy. Jen would be happy.
“How you spell vampire?” Geno asked, and Sidney took the phone from him and typed in the caption: Vampire boyfriends.
He lost Geno for a while after that, out on the dance floor jumping around with Max and Suttsy. Sidney spent some time talking with Tanger and Catherine, who had gone all out with their costumes, as always, and then he got into a conversation with Desi about tennis, somehow. Geno was somewhere, the sound of his laughter carrying over the noise of the music, like Sidney was tuned to that exact frequency and would hear him laughing no matter how loud it got in the club.
He was getting his third and final beer of the night when Geno slid in behind him at the bar and bit at the back of his neck. He still had his teeth in, from the feel of it.
“Hi Sid,” Geno said, his hands sliding from Sidney’s hips up to his belly, pushing under the hem of his T-shirt to drag over bare skin.
Sidney turned in his arms. Geno looked drunk: flushed and glassy, his tongue rolling over his lower lip.
“You’re fucked up,” Sidney said. Geno had lost the cape, and somehow his costume looked even more ridiculous without it, a frothy cascade of cheap, shiny satin and billowing sleeves.
“Max drive,” Geno said. “So I drink. Sid, costume look good.” He ducked his head to nuzzle at Sidney’s throat, dragging the tips of his fangs over Sidney’s pulse.
Sidney tilted his head back to give Geno better access. The teeth were stupid, the whole vampire thing was stupid, but he liked being the center of Geno’s attention. “You gonna suck my blood?”
“Yes,” Geno said. He tried to open his mouth wider to bite, but the hinge of the fangs wouldn’t open far enough. He made a disgruntled noise and poked at Sidney’s neck with the tip of a fang.
“I don’t think you can drink from me, if we’re both vampires,” Sidney said. This was so stupid, but it was kind of turning him on. He shifted his feet, widening his stance, and Geno immediately took advantage and pressed closer. His dick pressed against Sidney’s hip, the shape of it unmistakable, still soft but probably not for much longer.
They needed to stop. Flower was probably taking pictures of them already, and Sidney didn’t want to hear it. “Geno, come on,” he said, turning his face aside to dislodge Geno’s mouth. “If you want to—we could go back to my place.”
Geno drew back and studied him. “You want?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. He was horny, Geno was hot even in his dumb costume, and he enjoyed fucking Geno when he was a little drunk; sometimes he would get noisy.
“Yes, you want,” Geno said. He touched the spot on Sidney’s throat where he had pressed his fangs. “Too early for leave. Half hour? I tell Max I go with you.”
“Okay,” Sidney said, and somehow managed to kill half an hour drinking his beer and talking to Beau and Suttsy about—something—and watching Geno from the corner of his eye, where he was clowning around with Tanger across the room.
Geno came to collect him at last. He had his cape on again, and in the stairwell he stopped on a landing and pushed Sidney against the wall and bent to kiss him, and the cape fell in dark folds around Sidney’s shoulders, making a small soft hidden space for them.
Sidney wasn’t a small guy and rarely felt small, no matter how many assholes on his team tried to tell him he was short, but he felt small then, with Geno looming over him. But Geno’s mouth was careful and almost uncertain, brushing lightly against Sidney’s until Sidney grabbed two fistfuls of the stupid cloak and held him in place to give him the deep, slow kiss he needed.
“Let’s go,” he said, when they broke apart, and Geno exhaled and nodded and went ahead of him down the stairs.
At home, he took Geno up to his bedroom and stripped him out of the costume. Geno was huge and lanky and his ass was incredible, fat and round, thick with muscle. Sidney gripped a perfect double handful and squeezed, and kissed Geno’s collarbone. Geno sighed and slumped into him, resting his cheek against the side of Sidney’s head.
“I want to eat you out,” Sidney said, even though he knew Geno wouldn’t let him. Geno was always weird about it, and he would only agree if the circumstances were exactly right. Immediately after a shower had a high rate of success; in the shower was even better. But at the end of the day, after sweating on the dance floor—there was basically no chance.
Sure enough, Geno shook his head mutely and clutched at Sidney’s back.
“Okay,” Sidney said. He kissed Geno’s collarbone again. “We’ll do whatever you want.”
He sucked Geno’s cock, sprawled between Geno’s legs on the bed, sucking gently at the tip and teasing under the foreskin with his tongue and using his hands on everything he couldn’t fit in his mouth. Geno rested the soles of his feet on Sidney’s lower back, and his toes curled every time Sidney did something he liked. Toward the end he said Sidney’s name a few times and petted cautiously at his hair, and Sidney pulled off and used his hand to work Geno through it, sitting back on his heels and watching Geno twist against the mattress and bite at his own lower lip.
When Geno was finished, Sidney turned him over onto his stomach and patted his ass a few times, watching it jiggle. “Can you, uh—”
Geno huffed, and stretched out one long arm toward the bedside table, where Sidney kept the lube.
Sidney squeezed a generous stream of lube in the cleft of Geno’s ass, and slid his dick into that warm soft space. Geno huffed again and rested his head on his folded arms, and lifted his hips slightly, encouraging.
“God,” Sidney said. He lay down on top of Geno’s broad back and planted his hands on the mattress beside Geno’s shoulders, and rolled his hips. He’d used a lot of lube, and there was no friction, only a slick glide.
“You love my ass,” Geno said, muffled.
“I—yeah,” Sidney said. He reached down and spread Geno’s cheeks apart slightly, settling himself in deeper. He had the same feeling he got when he cheated on his diet plan, like surely this wasn’t good for him or allowed. Anything that felt like this had to be forbidden.
But it wasn’t: he had the organization’s endorsement, and Geno’s languid consent. Geno let out a long, satisfied groan, like a sleepy dog repositioning itself, and Sidney pressed his smile to the back of Geno’s neck and rolled his hips again.
He still couldn’t believe that Geno wanted to do this—that Geno would ever let Sidney touch him. Sidney had met a couple of Geno’s boyfriends, and they were charming and good-looking, and Sidney hadn’t ever been able to figure out what Geno saw in him. Familiarity, maybe, or just an easy fallback when he was at loose ends for a while.
“Geno,” he whispered against Geno’s nape, grinding his hips slow and steady and then fast and frantic until he came all over Geno’s lower back.
Geno reached back and patted Sidney’s hip. “Good, Sid.”
Fuck. Yeah, it was always good.
“You should stay,” he said to Geno, after they had cleaned up, and Geno was turning his boxers right side out. “I’ll take you home in the morning.”
Geno lowered the shorts and squinted at him. “I call for car.”
“You don’t have to,” Sidney said. “It’s late. We’re—you can stay.” Geno didn’t snore. He kept to his own side of the bed, and he didn’t try to spoon in the night, which Sidney had always found completely incompatible with actually sleeping. It was no hardship to have him spend the night.
Maybe Sidney would make pancakes for breakfast. Company was a good excuse for pancakes.
Geno frowned at him, twisting the shorts in his hands. He was uncertain, and Sidney didn’t know why, but knowing Geno, it was probably a really dumb reason, like he didn’t think Sidney’s sheets were soft enough.
“I’ve got a spare toothbrush,” Sidney said.
Geno shook his head, but he was smiling. He dropped his shorts on the floor. “Okay,” he said.
+ + +
“We’re, uh. Gay icons,” Sidney said to Geno, scrolling down to read the rest of Jen’s message.
Geno shoveled another forkful of pasta salad in his mouth and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“Halloween,” Sidney said. “We did a good job with the pictures.”
“I tell you vampire is best costume,” Geno said. A chunk of half-chewed rotini escaped from his mouth and landed on the table between them.
“You’re disgusting,” Sidney said, and Geno grinned at him, unrepentant.
They were out for lunch after practice. Sidney felt a little guilty that they spent so much time eating lunch near the rink, instead of doing anything more creative, but the fact of the matter was that they would both be pretty busy at all times for the rest of the season. They both needed to eat post-practice, it was an easy way to be seen together in public, and Jen hadn’t told them to knock it off, so Sidney was going to ride this wave as far as he could.
“We go out in Nashville?” Geno asked, apparently done with the topic of Halloween. “Like Jen say.”
“Sure,” Sidney said. “Maybe for dinner, the day before the game.”
“Boring,” Geno said. “We go shop, hear music. Fun.”
“Maybe,” Sidney said. It did sound fun, but he didn’t want to commit to anything too ambitious, not the day after back-to-back games. “You’re not going out with Nealer?”
Geno shrugged. “He’s Pred now, he’s like, try to show those guys he’s not Penguin, you know?” He poked at his pasta salad. “I text him, but. He’s not want.”
“Sorry,” Sidney said lamely.
Geno shrugged again, dismissing the subject as easily as he’d dismissed Halloween. “You finish chicken?”
“Uh, yeah,” Sidney said. When did he ever not finish food?
They lost to the Flyers the next night, and then flew to Detroit to lose to the Red Wings. Geno was in a dark rage in the hotel room after the game, and they went to sleep without exchanging more than a few words about toothpaste and setting the alarm; and he was still in a bad mood the next morning, at breakfast and on the flight to Nashville, to the extent that he was ejected from the card game and exiled to the front of the plane.
“Your husband’s causing trouble,” Flower said, as Geno stormed past them down the aisle.
“I’m going to kill you,” Sidney said, mashing frantically at the buttons on his PSP, and then he shouted in triumph as Flower’s guy went down in an actual smoking heap.
Flower swore at him in French. “You cheated.”
“I told you I was gonna kill you,” Sidney said. He subtly leaned into the aisle. Geno was slumped in a seat a few rows ahead, hunched over his phone. Everything about his posture screamed Do Not Touch.
“Best out of three,” Flower said, and Sidney settled back into his seat and said, “You’re on, asshole.”
He didn’t have a chance to talk with Geno until they checked in to the hotel that afternoon after practice. Sidney got caught up in the lobby signing some things for fans, and by the time he made it upstairs to their room, Geno had stripped down and climbed in the bed.
“Oh,” Sidney said. He didn’t always nap on days they didn’t have a game, but they’d had a late night and an early flight that morning, and seeing Geno cozied up and blinking at him was making Sidney want to crawl in beside him and pass out for an hour or two. But maybe that would be weird.
“Come sleep,” Geno mumbled, and turned over onto his stomach.
Sidney hesitated for another moment, and then he started unbuckling his belt.
He fell asleep easily and slept deeply, and woke with Geno already awake beside him in the bed, sitting up and typing peaceably on his phone. Sidney stretched his arms above his head and arched his back, his jaw popping as he yawned, and Geno glanced over at him and smiled.
“How you sleep?” Geno asked.
“Good,” Sidney said. He liked sleeping with someone else in the bed, as long as they didn’t have any annoying habits. He had always felt like he slept better with someone there beside him, like his body recognized the slow steady breathing and took it as a sign that all was well.
He rolled over onto his side and pressed his face against Geno’s elbow. “What are you doing?”
“Talk with friends,” Geno said. He dropped his phone on the mattress beside him and gazed down at Sidney. After a moment, he put one hand on Sidney’s head, his palm cupping Sidney’s ear. “Sid, maybe we only go for dinner.”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Shopping and music seems like a little much, eh?” He burrowed in closer, soaking up Geno’s warmth. “You were pretty pissed off earlier.”
“I don’t like lose,” Geno said, which was like saying the earth was round: duh.
“We’re only six games in,” Sidney said. “The season’s young. We’ll win tomorrow.”
Geno snorted. “Oh, you promise?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said recklessly. “I promise.” He turned onto his back. “We’ll go for dinner. I’ll find a place.”
They went out as dusk was settling. It had been a warm day, but the temperature was dropping now, and Sidney cast a longing glance at the jacket he’d chirped Geno for. He wished he had brought his own.
“Yes, now you sad,” Geno said smugly. “But I don’t share.”
The restaurant was a few blocks from the hotel; they walked. If Sidney had had more advance notice, he would have tried to get reservations somewhere interesting. Geno liked good food, and he was pretty adventurous about it. But on three hours’ notice, on a Friday night in downtown Nashville, there was only so much he could do.
“Here?” Geno asked, when Sidney slowed outside the restaurant.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Sorry, it’s just steak, I know it’s not, uh. The most exciting.”
Geno gave him a weird look. “It’s fine, Sid. It’s not real date. Don’t have to do special.”
“Well, sure,” Sidney said. “I know.”
“Hmm,” Geno said, and then he stood there at the door and waited for Sidney to open it for him.
Over dinner, Sidney did his best to avoid the subject of hockey completely. It wasn’t easy; he and Geno didn’t really have other go-to conversational topics. “Uh, so what do you think about the Steelers?” he tried, which got him nowhere, because the Steelers weren’t having a great season, and Geno was depressed about it. The upcoming parents’ weekend was similarly a bust, as Geno’s parents weren’t attending. Finally, in desperation, Sidney stumbled on what should have been his opening gambit and asked about Geno’s goddaughter.
Geno lit up. “Milanka is walk soon, I think. Max send me movie today, I show you,” and he pulled out his phone.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to use our phones at the table, G,” Sidney said, because that was Geno’s latest campaign, and he had been assigning and collecting on fines at a breakneck pace.
“Baby is different,” Geno said, with a look of total withering disgust. Okay: noted.
The baby was really cute, chubby and beaming at the camera as she pulled herself up on unsteady legs, clinging to the coffee table and kind of rocking back and forth, like she was thinking about taking a step but wasn’t sure it was a good idea. And Geno was cute, too, the way he talked about her, laughing and swiping through endless almost identical pictures.
“You really like kids,” Sidney said, and immediately felt dumb. Everyone knew Geno liked kids.
Geno looked at him for a moment. “Yes, Sid.”
There was something about the way he said it, with such gentle condescension, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Right,” Sidney said, and turned his attention back to Geno’s phone.
They had sex that night, tucked up close together in bed with their hands on each other’s dicks, a misappropriated tube of free hotel lotion to ease the way. Geno mouthed along Sidney’s jaw and played with his ass with his free hand, stroking behind his balls and over his hole, a light teasing touch that had Sidney grinding back hungrily, eager for more. But still neither of them had wised up enough to bring lube, and he didn’t want his ass to smell like hibiscus.
“Sound good,” Geno whispered, after Sidney seized up and came, gasping out all of the noises he could never manage to hold back. “Sid—”
“Come on,” Sidney said, and tightened his hand around Geno’s cock.
After, sleepy and sated, he pulled Geno into his arms. Geno sprawled across his chest with a sigh, and Sidney kissed the top of his head, filled with sudden unexpected affection. The whole situation was absurd, and Sidney would be glad when it was over and Geno could find someone to be with for real, but he had expected to be way unhappier about everything than he actually was. Maybe Geno would look back on these months as wasted time, but Sidney wasn’t sure he would ever think of it as a waste.
“Sid,” Geno said quietly, and Sidney stroked his back for a few minutes before they untangled to go to sleep.
+ + +
He grabbed Sidney when it was over, before he could escape to the showers. “You know about?”
“Olli told me,” Sidney said. He took off his cap and ran his hand through his sweaty hair. “But he asked me not to spread it around.”
Zhenya didn’t care about Sidney keeping secrets. He was the captain; of course there were things he was privy to that the rest of the team wasn’t. The issue was that Dr. Vyas had talked fast and used a lot of words Zhenya didn’t know, and he wanted Sidney to fucking explain it to him. “He’s okay? It’s—cancer?”
“He’s going to be fine,” Sidney said firmly. “They’ll take the tumor out—the, uh, the lump in his throat—and that’s it. Just surgery. He won’t miss too much time.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He knew Sidney wouldn’t lie about this. If he said it was going to be okay, it was probably going to be okay.
“Don’t worry, eh?” Sidney said. He patted Zhenya’s chest protector. “Olli’s tough.”
“I’m not worry,” Zhenya said. “Annoy Olli slack off. Why he’s get vacation?”
Sidney laughed. “Oh, sure. That’s what you’re worried about.” He gave Zhenya a considering look. “Listen, uh. Do you want to come over later? I’ll make dinner.”
He wanted sex, and Zhenya was happy to provide. “Just dinner?”
Sidney smirked at him. “Maybe dessert, too.”
Zhenya drove to Sidney’s house as night fell. Sidney came out to meet him. His gate code was a string of random numbers that Zhenya could probably remember but stubbornly refused to, mainly because of how it made Sidney shake his head and try not to smile.
“One of these days I’m going to leave you out here honking until the neighbors call the cops,” Sidney said, when Zhenya got out of his car.
“You won’t do,” Zhenya said. “Then who’s suck your dick? You can’t do yourself.”
“That’s what you think,” Sidney said, and he was way too cute when he looked like that, sly and pleased with himself.
Zhenya followed Sidney’s ass into the house and down the hall to the kitchen. He wasn’t an ass man—he preferred the front view—but Sidney was dressed in well-worn sweatpants that had to be a calculated decision, and Zhenya certainly appreciated the effort.
The kitchen smelled like food. “It needs a few minutes,” Sidney said, checking whatever was in the oven. “Have a seat. I’ve got, uh. Snacks. Do you want a beer?”
Zhenya did. There was a bowl of mixed nuts—not straight out of the can, actually poured into a serving dish—and a container of hummus, and baby carrots. He sat at the breakfast bar and sipped his beer and picked every macadamia nut out of the bowl.
“You’re going to leave me with nothing but peanuts, aren’t you,” Sidney said, without looking up from the red onion he was slicing.
“No,” Zhenya said. “Pointy kind, too.” He couldn’t remember the word for ‘almond.’
“You’re a goddamn menace,” Sidney said. He was smiling at the onion.
Dinner was rosemary chicken baked with small red potatoes, and a side salad. They ate in Sidney’s dining room, which was a first. Sidney fed him on occasion, but they usually ate at the breakfast bar, or in front of the TV in the den. There was a basket on the table filled with some sort of decorative seasonal arrangement, with multi-colored ornamental squash, pine cones, and unlit candles.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Sidney said, following Zhenya’s gaze. “My parents are going to be here in a few days, and my mom always gives me a lecture about—home decorating, and how it’s important to have a comfortable domestic environment. That’s exactly what she calls it, too.”
Zhenya covered his mouth with his hand so Sidney wouldn’t see him smiling. He had spent some time with Sidney’s mother over the years, and she was a hell of a lady.
The food was good, and Sidney talked for a while about his sister, and then about Duper’s kids, one of whom had recently lost her first tooth. “They have a jar of teeth,” Sidney said. “From the older two. Is that weird? Do most people do that?”
“Gonch and Ksenia, no,” Zhenya said. “I think no.” He had never seen any evidence of a tooth jar in the Gonchar household, but there was no telling what went on behind closed doors.
“It’s weird,” Sidney said decisively. “Have you talked to Gonch lately? How are the girls?”
“Uh, good?” Zhenya said. They were doing too little talking about hockey and too much talking about things Zhenya hadn’t thought Sidney had any interest in. It made him uncomfortable. They weren’t that sort of friends. He didn’t want Sidney exerting any special effort for him, because it might give him the idea that Sidney cared about him as more than a teammate and periodic source of uncomplicated sex.
“Are they still liking Dallas?” Sidney asked, relentless, and question by question he dragged out every detail Zhenya knew about the girls’ schooling, neighborhood, and social life. Soon Zhenya forgot to be resentful, because he did miss all of them, and it was good to talk about them some, with someone who knew them.
“Let me take picture,” he said, when Sidney finally wound down, and was picking at the last bits of his chicken. “For Instagram.”
“Oh,” Sidney said. “Yeah, sure.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled for Zhenya’s camera, far more relaxed than he usually was in pictures, here in his own house, and being photographed by someone he knew.
The picture turned out well. Sidney looked happy, with his eyes crinkled up. Best boy freind, Zhenya captioned it, and hit post.
He followed Sidney into the kitchen when Sidney began clearing the table, and loitered by the dishwasher instead of offering to help, because Sidney’s grumpy face was adorable.
“You know,” Sidney said, scooping leftovers into glass containers, “if you’re just going to stand there, you might as well go get in the shower.”
He said it coolly, without looking in Zhenya’s direction, but Zhenya felt himself glow red-hot anyway, like the coil on an electric range. He knew what Sidney wanted, and it embarrassed him each time. But he wanted it, too, and he was going to let Sidney do it.
Sidney glanced at him then. His lips were parted, the tip of his tongue in one corner of his mouth, and his eyes were hot and dark, trailing down Zhenya’s body before he looked away.
“Go shower,” Sidney said, and put the lid on the chicken.
Zhenya went upstairs with his head floating in the air, detached from his torso. The beer didn’t explain it: he’d had two bottles, and Sidney liked the cheap stuff, not strong.
Sidney wasn’t even that good in bed. There was no reason for Zhenya to feel this way, but he always did, almost panicked from how good it was. His body knew its limits, and Sidney could take him close, all the way to the outer edges of what he could handle.
Fine: Sidney was pretty fucking good in bed.
Sidney’s room was at the back of the house, overlooking the yard. It was small for a master bedroom, and the walls were painted dark gray, and with the heavy dark furniture and the thick drapes on the windows, Zhenya always felt that he was entering a cave, snug and safe. He dropped his clothes on the floor and went into the bathroom. Sidney had blown some serious cash here. The shower enclosure was big enough for Zhenya and Sidney both, with plenty of room to spare, and the water fell directly from a grate in the ceiling, like a solid sheet of rain sluicing down.
Zhenya stepped beneath the spray. He was half-hard. One glide of his soapy hand over his dick was all it took to get him all the way there. He closed his eyes and turned his face into the water, and let it wash over his skin as he cleaned between his legs. The shower was hot, and that was why he felt hot. He leaned his forehead against the tiled wall and pushed one sudsy finger into his ass, squirming his hips at the sensation. He didn’t like this part, but it was worth it.
He was thoroughly scrubbed and rinsing himself when he heard the shower door open. He didn’t turn to look. Sidney’s hand touched his hip, and then Sidney was pressed against his back, his hard dick nudging between Zhenya’s legs, his lips brushing a kiss to the top of Zhenya’s spine.
“You look good,” Sidney said. He squeezed Zhenya’s hip.
“You get ready for me,” Zhenya said, both amused and aroused by the thought of Sidney loading the dishwasher with an erection.
“I knew what you were doing up here,” Sidney said. He moved his hand to grip Zhenya’s ass. “You gonna let me?”
Instead of answering, Zhenya turned to the side and bent over slightly and braced his hands against the wall.
“Shit,” Sidney breathed. “Geno, God.”
Zhenya’s face burned. The worst part was the way Sidney talked about it—or maybe the worst part was how much Zhenya loved to hear him.
Sidney’s hands left him, and then Zhenya heard the soft thunk-thunk of Sidney kneeling behind him. “Geno,” Sidney said again, so quietly. His hands slid over Zhenya’s ass, spreading him open.
Zhenya put his head down and exhaled, waiting for it. He was mostly out of the spray, a little chilled and trembling, and the contrast of Sidney’s big warm hands on his ass was winding him so tight. They had barely gotten started and Zhenya was already coming apart at the seams. Well, it was like this every time, and that was a good chunk of the reason he wouldn’t let Sidney do it as often as he asked.
Sidney kissed his way in, sloppy, his hands clenching on Zhenya’s ass. “God. Geno,” he said, and his breath was hot and damp and right there, making Zhenya clench.
“Sid,” Zhenya gritted out. He couldn’t stand the teasing, not with this.
“Yeah,” Sidney said, kind of nonsensically, and licked a hot slick stripe across Zhenya’s hole.
Zhenya jerked away from the sensation: wet and soft and so unbearably good. But Sidney was used to him, and he pressed forward and licked again, and Zhenya felt his toes clenching against the floor. Christ, it was a lot, the feelings in his body and the way it made him feel to know that Sidney was on his knees for him.
Sidney sucked a few wet kisses to Zhenya’s inner cheeks, and then his lips dragged over Zhenya’s hole again, soft, kissing him there the same way he kissed Zhenya’s mouth. Zhenya cried out involuntarily, shocked the way he always was by the careful deadly action of Sidney’s lips and tongue.
Sidney pulled away. Zhenya could hear him panting. His fingers kneaded Zhenya’s ass. “Let me hear you,” he said. “You sound amazing. God, your ass is incredible, I can’t believe—”
He dove back in, lapping with the tip of his tongue and then kissing again, making his tongue broad and flat and rubbing at Zhenya with it, and then pulling back to breathe and suck what would probably be a giant hickey on the back of Zhenya’s thigh.
“Come on,” Sidney said roughly, and pushed his tongue against Zhenya’s hole, not licking but merely holding it there, and Zhenya was hot everywhere and open and throbbing and he knew what Sidney wanted. He braced his hands against the wall and rocked back against Sidney’s face, rubbing himself over Sidney’s tongue: a slow perfect drag making him shudder and moan.
Sidney moaned in response, muffled in Zhenya’s ass. His fingertips dug in, and Zhenya would probably have bruises there, five dark points on each ass-cheek, showing where Sidney had gripped him.
Zhenya’s cock hung heavy and aching between his thighs. He wanted to touch himself, but Sidney would complain, or maybe stop, and that was the last thing Zhenya wanted. He rolled his hips, grinding back against Sidney’s mouth, the sweet delicious pressure and friction boiling him down to raw nerves.
Sidney pulled back, sucking in air. “Geno, I—I can’t,” he said, and he released Zhenya’s ass and pressed his face against the back of Zhenya’s thigh and started jerking himself off. Zhenya recognized the sound. Sidney was crazy, crazy to like this so much, crazy to want Zhenya so much, and Zhenya was crazy to let him.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, and he didn’t know what he planned to say after that, but Sidney said, “Hold your—hold yourself open for me.”
Oh, Christ. Zhenya braced his core and took his hands off the wall, and reached back to spread himself wide for Sidney. Bent over like that, his hamstrings quivered, but Sidney’s mouth was on him in another moment, and Zhenya rode his tongue and listened to Sidney jack off and he would put up with a lot of discomfort to have this.
Sidney pulled away again. He was panting now, and gasping out the breathy moans he made right before coming.
“Wait,” Zhenya said, “Sid, I want,” and he turned and sank to the wet floor of the shower and took Sidney in his arms. The water rained down on them from above. Sidney’s cock was thick and flushed, his hand a blur as he worked himself frantically. He pressed his face against Zhenya’s shoulder, his body curling toward Zhenya’s, and then he groaned so sweet and heartfelt and splashed his hot come all over Zhenya’s abdomen.
The water washed it away after another moment. “Sid,” Zhenya said, tipping Sidney’s face up to look at him. He combed the wet hair back from Sidney’s forehead and leaned in to kiss his pink mouth, swollen from eating Zhenya out. Sidney was lax and pliant from his orgasm. He let Zhenya kiss him. His hands touched Zhenya’s hips, slid down his thighs.
“I can keep going,” Sidney said. He kissed the corner of Zhenya’s mouth. “Or I can give you my fingers—”
“No,” Zhenya said. He took Sidney’s hand, and brought it to his cock. “Please, Sid. Like this.”
“Sure, G,” Sidney said. He kissed Zhenya’s cheek, and then his mouth. “Whatever you want.”
Sidney brought Zhenya off with his hand, slow and tight. Zhenya splayed his legs apart as far as they would go, his knees uncomfortably pressed against the tile, and thrust into Sidney’s grasp. Sidney held Zhenya with one arm around his waist. His mouth dragged along Zhenya’s collarbone, his jawline, making Zhenya shudder and move against him more urgently.
“I can’t believe how hot you are,” Sidney said. He pressed his face to Zhenya’s neck, sucking at the mole below Zhenya’s ear. “God. You turn me on so much. I want to make you feel good. Does it feel good? Geno—”
Zhenya stared blindly at the ceiling, blinking through the water that streamed over his face. He was so close. All of his muscles were tight and trembling. His dug his fingers into Sidney’s shoulders. He was so close, and he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer, he had to—
“Yeah,” Sidney said, his words muted by the roaring in Zhenya’s ears, “there you go. Oh, Geno.”
Zhenya sank back on his heels, breathing hard. He wiped the water from his eyes and looked at Sidney.
“Good?” Sidney asked, smiling. He held his open palm beneath the spray, and Zhenya’s come dripped off toward the drain.
“Good,” Zhenya managed.
Sidney leaned into him, his hands sliding down Zhenya’s back to his ass. He kissed Zhenya hungrily, like they were only starting.
Zhenya would have stayed there with him forever, but his knees were starting to hurt. He cupped Sidney’s jaw and gentled the kiss, until their mouths were barely brushing together, and then he pulled back and said, “Come on, Sid.”
“Yeah, okay,” Sidney said. They climbed to their feet, and Sidney bent each of his legs in turn, grinning as his left knee cracked.
“Sid,” Zhenya said reprovingly. They really could have done this somewhere more comfortable, like a bed.
“Worth it,” Sidney said, still grinning. “C’mere, I’ll wash your hair.”
Zhenya balked. He could wash his own hair. “I wash this morning. It’s not need.”
Sidney touched his hip. “Just let me, okay?” He glanced down, frowning, and when he looked up again, his expression was bewildered but determined: a bad combination, because Sidney would dig in his heels even when he wasn’t sure why he wanted what he wanted. “I like taking care of you,” Sidney said.
Well, fuck. Zhenya looked at Sidney’s earnest face and felt his resistance crumble. He’d never had much willpower when it came to Sidney.
Sidney sat him on the bench that jutted out from one wall, littered as always with a perplexing array of bottles of body wash, like Sidney didn’t know what kind he liked and so had bought one of everything. Zhenya tilted his head back and let Sidney shampoo his hair, careful fingers scrubbing at his scalp and stroking behind his ears. It felt good, like a head massage. Sidney watched him the whole time, smiling a little, and that was good, too, because Zhenya was an idiot who hadn’t learned a damn thing and shone like a disco ball every time Sidney gave him attention.
There were worse things to want in life.
“Close your eyes,” Sidney said, reaching up to angle the showerhead. Zhenya turned his face into the spray as Sidney washed him clean.
As they toweled off, Zhenya tried to ignore the painful tenderness in his heart at the sight of Sidney bending down to carefully dry between his toes.
“Stay the night,” Sidney said. He took the towel from Zhenya’s hands and hung it on the rack.
Zhenya felt strangely off-kilter from the sex, and he hated the thought of going back to his empty house and sleeping alone. If he woke in the night, he wanted to be able to reach out and feel Sidney’s body there beside him, warm and breathing.
“Okay,” he said, and Sidney smiled at him, happy to have gotten his way.
It was early for sleep. They climbed into Sidney’s bed together, and Sidney turned on the TV: the Wild-Rangers game, already well into the second. Sidney curled into Zhenya’s side with a soft sigh, and Zhenya put an arm around him. His chest ached with a welter of emotions he thought it was better not to identify.
“I’m worried about Olli,” Sidney said, when the game went to intermission.
Zhenya glanced at him. Was this the true reason Sidney had invited him over? He was fretting, and didn’t want to be alone. “You say he’s okay.”
“Well, yeah,” Sidney said. “But—he’s so young. He’s the same age you were when you came to the US. Remember how young we were?”
“It’s not so long ago,” Zhenya said.
“It seems like a long time ago,” Sidney said. “I’m not worried about the cancer, I’m worried about him. It’s a lot for him to deal with.”
“Team will take care,” Zhenya said. He bent to press a kiss to the top of Sidney’s head. “Maybe you do party soon, have fun time for, uh, make him not think about.”
“Thanks for volunteering me,” Sidney said dryly.
“I help,” Zhenya said. “Russian drinking game. Maybe we do before day off.”
“You’ll give everyone alcohol poisoning,” Sidney said, and Zhenya laughed and kissed his head again.
Sidney fed him in the morning before they left for skate: Sidney’s usual game-day breakfast of scrambled eggs and fruit, and half a loaf’s worth of whole-wheat toast for them to share. Sidney gave him a cup of coffee and a kiss before they sat down to eat, and it was getting harder and harder to remember that none of this was real.
+ + +
Later that day, the team flew to Minnesota to kick off their longest road trip of the season. He spent part of the flight sitting with Jen to go over his upcoming media obligations. She had a list for him, and it was all totally standard—radio call-in, merch signing, a sick fan in Winnipeg who wanted to meet him—until he got to the last item on the list, and looked up from the paper to see if Jen was serious about this.
“Don’t give me that look,” Jen said.
“You said we didn’t have to do an interview,” he said. “I don’t think—”
“It’s with Michelle,” Jen said. “It barely counts. She’ll go over all of the questions with you beforehand. The two of you are a great human-interest story right now. People want the content. We’ll get some cute footage. It’s painless.”
“I would really rather not,” Sidney said. Sleeping with guys wasn’t part of his—identity, or whatever, the way it was for Geno. He didn’t mind kissing Geno for pictures, or being affectionate with him in public, because that was stuff they did in private, so it wasn’t fake. But talking about it, acting like they had a real relationship that Geno was invested in—that part felt like lying, and Sidney didn’t want to do it. Geno was still in love with Kostya, probably.
“Noted,” Jen said, “but you’re still doing it. Next time, don’t film your dick.”
He told Geno the news as they settled into their hotel room before dinner. Geno accepted it with a shrug. “So? Michelle ask easy question, we talk about it’s so nice be in love, don’t have to hide, you show cute face, it’s easy.” He was taking all of his shirts out of his garment bag to—Sidney wasn’t sure, inspect them for wrinkles or something. Geno was weirdly fussy about his clothes.
“I don’t make any cute faces,” Sidney said.
“You do right now,” Geno said, and made kissy noises at him until Sidney went into the washroom to deprive Geno of the satisfaction of seeing him smile.
The interview was scheduled for their off day in New York, before they played the Rangers. Sidney tried to get Geno to go over the questions with him that morning, but Geno wouldn’t do it: he was meeting up with Kulemin, and was showered and out of the hotel room while Sidney was still sitting around in his underwear, trying to decide what he wanted to order from room service.
“Bye, Sid!” Geno said, more cheerful than Sidney had ever seen him that early in the morning, and let the door slam shut behind him.
Well, fine. Sidney went over the questions by himself, and it was true they were all softballs. Between that and a couple of pints of beer at lunch with Flower, he was feeling a little more relaxed about the whole thing by the time he joined Michelle in the nondescript hotel conference room where they were filming the interview.
Geno was there already, sprawled out in a chair and half-draped over the empty chair beside him that was clearly meant for Sidney. He looked over when Sidney came in and grinned at him, and made absolutely no effort to sit up straight or make more room for Sidney.
“Did you have a nice time with Kulemin?” Sidney asked politely, and settled himself right in the warm crook of Geno’s arm. He wasn’t sure if Geno was trying to fluster him or just thoughtlessly taking up as much space as he wanted, but Geno’s dumb flirtatious bullying hadn’t flustered him in a long time, and he was used to Geno acting like the biggest guy in the room, even when he definitely wasn’t.
“Yes, always nice to see Kolya,” Geno said. He smiled at Sidney, warm and fond, and tucked him in a little closer, and—maybe he was just trying to act sweet. Sidney knew there was a soft-hearted, vulnerable side to Geno, but he usually saw it only during sex or immediately after, or lately in the mornings, before Geno remembered how to talk, when he was a bleary, blinking face peeking above the covers. Sidney wasn’t used to seeing it in public, with Michelle smiling at them, and the camera guy fiddling around with his lights.
“Are you ready to get started?” Michelle asked.
“Yes, we ready,” Geno said. His hand curled around Sidney’s shoulder. Sidney could smell his deodorant, which was a smell he associated with sex, and definitely not something he needed to be thinking about right now.
“Okay,” Michelle said, and nodded to the camera guy.
Jen had put sort of an informal ban on relationship questions during press scrums, but they still slipped through sometimes, and they all hinged on how the relationship affected hockey. Michelle’s questions took the opposite tack: they treated the relationship as the key element, and focused on how hockey influenced their private life. Sidney wasn’t sure how he felt about it, the implication that his (imaginary) relationship with Geno was the cornerstone of his life.
But Geno took it in stride. “Maybe if bad game, Sid yell at me on bench—”
“I don’t yell at you on the bench,” Sidney said. “I communicate. Firmly.”
Geno ignored him. “—maybe we mad at each other little bit, but it’s not at home, you know? We talk in locker room, then at home, it’s okay.” He grinned. “Sid is captain at rink, so maybe he like to be captain at home, too.”
Sidney managed not to roll his eyes. People were going to think Geno was implying things about their sex life that—okay, weren’t totally untrue, but it wasn’t anyone else’s business.
“Do your teammates tease you a lot?” Michelle asked.
There had been and still was a lot of chirping about the sex tape itself, but the guys didn’t say much about the dating part of it, because they knew it was a fucked-up situation. But Sidney didn’t mind lying about this. “All the time,” he said. “Just unbearable. You know how those guys are. Lots of chirps. Nobody’s all that creative about it, so it’s the same stuff over and over.”
“Sit in tree,” Geno added. “K-I-S—how you spell kissing?”
“How do you even know that?” Sidney asked. “Never mind, Gonch’s daughters taught you.”
Geno laughed, and squeezed Sidney’s shoulder.
“Geno, some of Sid’s former roommates have reported that he talks in his sleep,” Michelle said. “Can you confirm this for us?”
“Yes, lots,” Geno said, and Sidney glanced at him, a little surprised. Geno had never mentioned anything. “Sometimes hard to know what he’s say. Last night he sit up in bed and look at me and say,” and he widened his eyes and dropped his voice, “‘They coming. They almost here.’”
The camera guy cracked up, and Michelle started laughing, too.
“Who?” Sidney said. “Who’s coming?” Geno was definitely making this up.
“You don’t say,” Geno said. “Lie down and sleep. Then I’m lie there and think maybe it’s like movie, with zombie." He gave Sidney an affectionate look, and thumbed at the back of his ear. “Not nice scare me, Sid.”
“You’re full of shit,” Sidney said, and Geno widened his eyes and clapped his free hand over Sidney’s mouth.
“They’re going to edit this out, G,” Sidney said, his words garbled by Geno’s palm.
“Shh, let Michelle ask next question,” Geno said.
Michelle tossed them a few other softballs—about whether Sidney had learned to make Geno’s mother’s famous borscht recipe, and what their plans were for Christmas—and then she said, “One last question. Where do you guys see yourselves in ten years?”
That one hadn’t been on the list, and Sidney floundered for a moment, trying to think of a response. “Hopefully still here in Pittsburgh, still playing hockey,” he said, which was always his rote answer when he was asked about his future plans. But that wasn’t really what Michelle was asking.
Geno took his arm away, and took Sidney’s hand instead. He looked down at their joined hands for a moment, and then looked at Sidney. His expression was startlingly serious, his eyes intent on Sidney’s face for a few unsettling seconds before he turned toward the camera. “I hope still here, still play hockey, and—still with Sid.”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. He covered their clasped hands with his free hand. His chest felt tight, like sinus congestion, that same pressure and fullness. “Still together.”
+ + +
He was good company. He liked to sing in the shower in Russian, and he didn’t hog the washroom. He liked to spoon a little, first thing in the morning, when he was still mostly asleep, and Sidney treasured those quiet blissful moments with Geno limp and sleep-warm in his arms.
His first night at home, back in his own bed, he lay awake for a while and missed the simple companionship of Geno breathing deeply at his side.
The plane had landed before midnight, but Sidney was still tired enough that he went straight home to bed and didn’t unpack until the following day. When he did, he realized that Geno’s wallet had somehow gotten mixed in with his things. He rifled through it nosily, but there was nothing in it aside from Geno’s driver’s license and a few credit cards, not even any cash.
I’ve got your wallet, he texted Geno. Want me to bring it over?
I come get later, Geno responded a few minutes later.
I don’t mind. I’m going out anyway. He could hit the grocery store on the way back. Combining errands was a Trina Crosby mandate.
Ok thanks Sid, Geno sent. Home now so ok come over
Sidney put on real pants and drove over to Geno’s house. It was unfamiliar territory: Geno could be persuaded to throw a team event maybe once a season, but often the house was full of a rotating cast of Russian friends and relatives, and anyone who ventured over had to be prepared to either speak Russian or muddle through with hand gestures. When he and Geno hung out, they mostly did it at Sidney’s place.
Sidney parked in the driveway and paused for a minute to inspect Geno’s sculptures, thoroughly rusted after years of exposure to the weather. The Alien one was wearing a penguin hat—not a Penguins cap, but a plush hat with a beak and eyes, and two long ear flaps like wings.
Geno was so fucking weird.
He walked up the steps and rang the doorbell. Geno came to the door holding a wooden spoon and wearing an apron that read, ‘KISS THE COOK!’ in bubbly red letters. If he wasn’t dressing like a frat boy, he was dressing like someone’s corny suburban dad.
“You’re cooking?” Sidney asked, handing over the wallet. Geno didn’t cook anything that involved more than three ingredients.
“Spaghetti,” Geno said. “You want? You eat lunch already?”
“Well, no,” Sidney said. “I mean—I haven’t eaten.”
“Okay, you eat, I make too much,” Geno said, and led Sidney into the house.
Max was sitting at Geno’s kitchen table, holding the baby on his lap. Sidney stumbled a little over the threshold. He hadn’t realized Geno had company.
But Geno had told him to come over, and Geno had invited him in. He wasn’t intruding.
“Hi, Sid,” Max said, smiling at him, and grasped Milana’s wrist to make her wave.
“Hi,” Sidney said. “Didn’t mean to interrupt lunch.”
“Sid, come here,” Geno demanded, from where he was standing by the stove. “Taste.” He had fished a single noodle from the pot, and it was dangling limply from the end of his spoon. When Sidney hesitated, he jabbed the spoon imperiously in Sidney’s direction and raised his eyebrows, a clear command.
Putting up a fight wasn’t worth it; dealing with Geno was an exercise in picking your battles. Sidney moved in and sucked the noodle from the spoon, holding Geno’s gaze as he did. He chewed thoughtfully. It was firmer than he liked, but edible, and that was how Geno liked it.
“Maybe another couple minutes,” he said.
“Okay, it’s ready,” Geno said, and turned off the heat.
Sidney sat at the table with Max while Geno drained the pasta and messed around with the sauce. The baby slapped her hands on the table and beamed at Sidney. She had a few teeth, top and bottom, and she was drooling steadily.
“New tooth is coming,” Max said, wiping some of the drool with her bib, yellow with a duckling embroidered on it. “You like to hold her?”
“For sure,” Sidney said, and Max transferred her over. She looked at Sidney for a moment like she wasn’t sure what to think of him, but then she smiled and flailed a little in his grasp with excitement. He made a goofy face at her and settled her in his lap so she could watch Max and Geno.
Maybe he should think about finding a girlfriend, after this whole thing with Geno was finished. He wanted a family, and one wouldn’t miraculously appear for him overnight. There were steps he needed to take.
“You’re good with her,” Max said approvingly.
“I was eight when my sister was born,” Sidney said. “I remember her at this age. She was so strong and she was always trying to dive out of your arms onto the floor.”
Geno said something in Russian, and Max laughed. “Yeah, it’s true. Zhenya says—I’m not sure how to say in English. She make a lot of trouble.”
Geno said something else, turning around to gesture with his spoon, and Max responded, grinning. Sidney listened to them and jiggled the baby on his lap. He wondered sometimes what it would be like to have a conversation with Geno in a language they both spoke fluently. He knew there was a lot going on in Geno’s head that didn’t make it past the language barrier. But Geno’s English was probably as good as it would ever be, and Sidney wasn’t going to learn Russian any time soon.
Lunch was an odd combination of spaghetti, pickled green tomatoes, and Olivier salad. Sidney kept Milana on his lap during the meal, and with Max’s encouragement, fed her small bits of everything on his plate. Max and Geno spoke mostly in English for Sidney’s benefit, but from time to time they veered off into Russian. They were talking about the huge cadre of Geno’s friends that was coming out for the holidays, at least eight or nine people it sounded like, and when they were arriving, and who was going to stay where.
Geno had been pretty isolated during his first few years in Pittsburgh, dependent on Gonch and Gennady and otherwise largely adrift. That was still kind of how Sidney thought of him, alone in his big house with his ugly curtains and his backyard sauna. Geno had friends on the team, but they were work friends; he didn’t socialize with them away from the rink, the way Sidney hung out with the French-Canadians.
But listening to Geno talk with Max made Sidney feel like there was a huge and important part of Geno’s life that he had been oblivious to. Geno was hardly alone. Twelve hours after the end of a long road trip and he had Max in his kitchen, sharing a meal and talking about their mutual friends, both of them pausing every other sentence to blow kisses at the baby. It was nicer than Sidney would have thought, to sit there and feel like he was being shown something private about Geno that he had never known before.
Max and Geno wound down at last. Milana started fussing, and Max reclaimed her from Sidney and investigated her diaper, made a face, and took her out of the room.
Geno grinned and ate the last slice of tomato from the dish. “Katya say, leave house, I need break. So now Max is boss.” He cocked his head at Sidney. “You take spaghetti? Still lots.”
“You should freeze it,” Sidney said. “Keep you from ordering takeout.”
“I cook!” Geno protested. “Feed you lunch! Always chirp, say I can’t,” and he muttered to himself in Russian as he got up to start clearing the table.
He determinedly ignored Sidney while he cleaned up and put the leftovers away, but Sidney could see the half-smile on his face and knew Geno was only teasing him. Down the hall, he heard Max talking to the baby in a high-pitched voice, and her delighted squeals. Sidney was glad he had come over, and glad Geno invited him to stay.
“Okay, bye,” Geno said, closing the freezer door.
Sidney went over to him and pushed Geno up against the fridge and gave him the slowest, hottest kiss he could manage, his fingers tucked in the front pockets of Geno’s pants. Geno made a low noise and leaned into him, and when Sidney drew back at last, Geno’s cheeks were a little flushed, a sweet soft pink.
“Bye,” Sidney said, grinning, and Geno dragged him in for another kiss, and that one was even sweeter.
+ + +
“Hey, is this a good time to talk?” Sidney said, and Zhenya could tell from the tension in his voice that something was wrong.
“You hurt?” Zhenya asked. He was at home, standing in his kitchen. There was a squirrel on a nearby tree, upside down, frozen motionless, staring directly at Zhenya. It flicked its bottlebrush tail and scampered down the trunk and out of sight.
“It’s Duper,” Sidney said.
It was a rare day off: no practice, not even any meetings. But Zhenya drove to the arena anyway, to be there for Duper’s press conference.
Sidney was waiting for him in the parking deck, camped out in his car with his head bent over his phone. Zhenya rapped on the driver’s side window, and regretted it when Sidney startled hard, his head jerking back.
“Sorry,” Zhenya said, when Sidney climbed out of the car. “Think you see me.”
“It’s okay,” Sidney said. He was wearing his gray wool coat, the one Zhenya liked so much. His mustache looked terrible. He regarded Zhenya uncertainly for a moment, and then he stepped in close and slid his arms around Zhenya’s waist and buried his face in Zhenya’s chest.
“Oh, Sid,” Zhenya said, doubly stricken by this show of emotion and by Sidney wordlessly asking him for comfort. He held Sidney close and stroked his hair, and took his own comfort in the solid press of Sidney’s body.
“Okay,” Sidney said, after a minute or two. He pulled back and turned to rummage in his car, and emerged with one of his black baseball caps. He jammed it on his head: his armor.
They all held it together for the press conference, and the interviews afterward. But they all went out for lunch once it was done, the core six of them, and Duper got choked up talking about how his kids had reacted to the news, and that set Flower off, and Sidney had the stern, blank look on his face that meant he was trying really hard not to have any feelings. It was sad to watch grown men fight their emotions so much, but Zhenya certainly wasn’t going to be the first among them to cry openly in a restaurant.
“It’s six months,” Kuni said. “You’ll be back with us next season.”
“That’s right,” Tanger said. “It will go fast. We won’t miss you any.”
“Sorry, you’ll see my ugly mug every day at the rink,” Duper said, and Zhenya could tell by his expression that he didn’t think he was coming back.
“Pascal,” Zhenya said, and when Duper turned to look at him, “It’s hard for team, if you’re not play. But it’s most important you here for family. Don’t worry. Kids need you more than stupid Tanger.”
“Fuck you, Geno,” Tanger said, and actually threw a fry at Zhenya. His aim was terrible: it sailed past Zhenya’s shoulder and fell to the floor behind him.
“That’s pathetic,” Sidney said, his first contribution to the conversation. He was taking it hard, Zhenya knew. Duper was more than a friend to him: he was an older brother, in a way, just as Seryozha was for Zhenya.
“Some of us spent our youth focusing on hockey, instead of wasting time with baseball,” Flower said.
That broke the mood. They were back to the more familiar territory of mockery: safe ground for everyone. Zhenya watched Sidney for the rest of the meal and saw him slowly unbend. By the time they were squabbling over the check, Sidney had even cracked a few smiles.
Sidney hung back with Zhenya as they all walked the few blocks back to the parking deck at the arena. “You want to come over tonight? I’ll make dinner.”
Zhenya actually had some things he needed to take care of at home. But he didn’t think Sidney cared too much about dinner, or whose house it happened at. “Sid, come home with me now. You watch TV, take nap. Don’t be alone.”
He was certain that Sidney would turn him down. Sidney didn’t like to show weakness. There were no seams anywhere, nowhere for a crack to start. But Sidney drew in a breath, and then another, and then he said, “Yeah, that. Sounds kind of nice. Thanks.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He succumbed to impulse, and took Sidney’s hand.
At home, he took Sidney into the media room and parked him in one of the recliners. Sidney looked up at him, still a little blanker than Zhenya liked to see, and Zhenya reached down and pulled the lever to pop the footrest up.
“Oh, uh,” Sidney said, as the chair forcibly reclined him.
“You sit,” Zhenya said. He picked up the remote and turned on the TV. He had an essentially endless supply of pre-recorded hockey games, and he picked one at random. “Watch hockey. I bring you food.”
“We finished lunch less than an hour ago,” Sidney said.
“Eat more.” Zhenya took off Sidney’s cap and fluffed his fingers through Sidney’s hair. “Sit, be good. I busy, so don’t bother.”
“You’re a dick,” Sidney said. He grabbed Geno’s wrist and looked up at him. “Thanks, G.”
“Yes, okay,” Zhenya said, laid bare by Sidney’s clear direct gaze, and escaped to the kitchen.
He made Sidney a plate with deviled eggs that George’s wife had brought him, and bread and cheese, a handful of cashews, a few individually wrapped chocolates that he dug out of the deepest recesses of his pantry—probably several years old, but Sidney would eat them anyway. He took all of it in to Sidney along with a bottle of beer, and Sidney was already intensely focused on the game, accepting Zhenya’s offerings with a murmur of thanks and without looking away from the screen. Zhenya ran a hand through his hair again, overcome by fondness.
But he really did have things to do, and he left Sidney there and put in a load of laundry, and made a grocery list and wiped down his kitchen and bathroom counters so his cleaning lady wouldn’t tut at him too much. He moved the laundry to the dryer. He called a friend in Moscow to congratulate him on a new job, and they talked for a while, about the job and a little bit about politics, which Zhenya usually tried to ignore.
When that was done, he went back into the media room to check on Sidney. The plate was picked clean aside from a few stray crusts of bread and the candy wrappers, and the beer bottle was empty. Sidney turned his head to smile at Geno, and his mustache was still awful, but the rest of him looked so good, the thick mess of his hair and the curve of his shoulders in his hoodie. His smile seemed real, and unforced.
“Hey.” Sidney’s smile faded, but the soft look stayed in his eyes.
Zhenya went over to him and tugged gently at Sidney’s ear. “Guess you hungry.”
“Guess so,” Sidney said, predictably refusing to take the bait. He reached up and curled his fingers around Zhenya’s wrist. “You didn’t have to do all this.”
Zhenya shrugged. Of course he didn’t have to, but he wanted to. It was in his nature to make a fuss over the people he cared about.
Sidney put the recliner back into its upright position, and rose to his feet. “Sit down,” he said to Zhenya, and maneuvered him into place, his hands on Zhenya’s shoulders to push him into the chair.
“It’s your chair,” Zhenya protested, sitting anyway. “I don’t sit. You watch hockey, Sid—”
“No,” Sidney said, and as Zhenya watched, he sank to the floor between Zhenya’s knees. His hands slid up the insides of Zhenya’s thighs, warm and confident, and his eyes were fixed on Zhenya’s face, his lips curled into a slight smile.
“You, uh.” Zhenya’s mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He recognized that look.
“Let me,” Sidney said. His thumbs pressed into Zhenya’s groin, his fingers splaying out to bracket Zhenya’s dick.
Did he think Zhenya was going to say no? Why would Zhenya ever pass up the chance to have Sidney suck his cock? But Sidney kept looking at him, waiting for permission, and Zhenya pressed his thumb to Sidney’s lower lip, delighting in its soft yielding, and said, “Okay.”
Sidney opened his jeans one button at a time, pop-pop-pop-pop, all the way down Zhenya’s fly, and scooped Zhenya’s soft dick out of his underwear.
It was a rare indulgent pleasure to grow hard in Sidney’s mouth, with Sidney alternating between watching Zhenya and closing his eyes so sweetly, his lashes a dark feathered smudge against his skin.
Sidney liked to take his time, but he didn’t tease Zhenya now. He went down with brutal efficiency, sucking hard and using his hand to work along the shaft. His wet red lips stretched obscenely around Zhenya’s dick. Zhenya watched him until it was too much, and then he tipped his head back and closed his eyes and let Sidney’s extraordinary mouth wind the tension in his belly into a hot coiled knot.
When he came, it was with a bare shiver, a sweet, easy unwinding.
Sidney pulled off and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He tucked Zhenya back into his boxers and gave him a gentle pat. His mouth was slick and flushed, and Zhenya almost wished he hadn’t come yet and could rub his cock against Sidney’s lips and push back inside.
“That was really good,” Sidney said. He was smiling.
Jesus. Zhenya struggled to gather his frayed thoughts. “You want, uh. I can—”
“No, that’s okay.” Sidney sat back on his heels, his thighs splaying apart, and Zhenya could see that he was only half hard at most. His smile softened, tucked gently in the corners of his mouth. His eyes lingered on Zhenya’s face.
The moment of orgasm was never Zhenya’s most vulnerable. It was the part that came right after, this part where everything he felt welled to the surface, and Sidney was watching him and thinking God only knew what. Zhenya leaned down and kissed him so that he wouldn’t have to see Sidney’s face.
Sidney put his hands on Zhenya’s shoulders, his thumbs stroking the sides of Zhenya’s neck. His mouth tasted like Zhenya’s come. “Geno,” he murmured, and kissed Zhenya again, and then pulled back to smile at him.
It didn’t mean anything, it didn’t mean anything, it had never meant anything, and Zhenya watched Sidney’s expression and told himself that it meant nothing, and he knew it was true but he didn’t believe it. His heart was all in.
+ + +
Flower was lurking around outside the locker room when they arrived, and he claimed Sidney at once. “Important business,” he said, drawing Sidney away, which meant he had plans to prank someone, and wanted Sidney’s help. Sidney rarely did much to help, but he was always happy to enable.
Zhenya wasn’t surprised that Flower was scheming. After the news about Duper, Flower would be in peak form for at least a week, intent on wreaking havoc and—although he would never admit it—lifting everyone’s spirits.
“I tell Dana,” Zhenya threatened.
“Dana will help us,” Flower said, smirking back at Zhenya over his shoulder, which was probably true.
Zhenya didn’t give it another thought. Flower’s pranks were a routine part of Zhenya’s work life, and as Zhenya was hardly ever the target, he didn’t pay much attention until someone started hollering. He changed into his base layers, and then went down the hall to the equipment room—not to tattle to Dana, but to ask a question about his skate blades.
On his way out, he passed Sidney in the hallway. Without slowing, Sidney said, “Flower’s going to prank you.”
It was such a stunning display of loyalty that Zhenya stopped in his tracks and felt his brain short out. Flower was Sidney’s closest friend, both on the team and in life, and for Sidney to brazenly rat Flower out like that meant—well, Zhenya wasn’t sure what it meant, because Sidney was an eternal fucking mystery, but he knew what he hoped it meant.
Flower could get extremely creative with his pranks, given enough time for planning, but on such short notice, Zhenya expected he would stick with one of the classics. Sure enough, there was a cup of water on the shelf above Zhenya’s stall, balanced precariously on top of his shin guards. When he reached up to grab them, he would douse himself.
He could easily avoid the trap. But the locker room was subdued, and Zhenya saw a lot of unsmiling faces. This was his team, his and Sid’s, and it had been for a long time, and if someone needed to take a cup of water to the face, Zhenya was willing to put his body on the line.
He sighed, sat, and started putting on his gear. And when it was time, he reached up, grabbed his shin guards, and let the water rain down.
He didn’t have to fake his outraged sputter. Nobody enjoyed getting soaked. He leapt to his feet, raking back his wet hair, and bellowed, “Flower!”
The locker room descended into chaos. Flower, already dressed in his pads, sat at his stall and smugly accepted everyone’s congratulations like a king holding court. Zhenya scrubbed at his hair with a towel and tried to look menacing.
Sidney caught his eye and shook his head, smiling slightly.
Johnston ran a hard practice that day, scrimmages the entire time, and there was no chance to talk. But Sidney found Zhenya in the workout room afterward, where Zhenya was biking the tight feeling out his legs, and said, “I did warn you.”
“All you say is, Flower is prank.” Zhenya turned down the resistance on the bike so he could talk to Sidney without shamefully panting. “Don’t say how. I’m not see cup.”
“Shoulda looked harder.” Sidney grinned and clapped Zhenya on the shoulder, and went off to do some unfairly erotic stretches that Zhenya tried very hard not to watch.
Flower and Tanger were in the change room when he went in, Tanger standing naked with his deodorant in one hand, gesturing with it as he talked. He ignored Zhenya’s arrival, but Flower glanced at him, and then said something to Tanger, who rolled his eyes and went on into the room with all the sinks.
“Yes, you prank me, very funny,” Zhenya said, and opened his locker.
“I know you saw the cup,” Flower said. “I saw you looking at it. It was good of you to play along.”
Zhenya grunted, stripping off his sweaty base layers. He needed to work on his powers of deception.
“Geno,” Flower said, and something in his voice made Zhenya abandon his grumpy rummaging around for a pair of clean socks and look over. Flower’s expression was concerned, his eyebrows drawn together, his lower lip tucked into his mouth. He said, “You and Sid—you got here at the same time this morning.”
Zhenya knew where this was going, and he already hated it. “Yes,” he said shortly. He dropped his shower slides on the floor and jammed his feet into them.
“Are you spending the night with him?” Flower asked. “He hasn’t said, but he wouldn’t.”
“Not your business,” Zhenya said. Flower was #2 on the list of people Zhenya least wanted to discuss this with, right after Sidney himself.
“Come on,” Flower said. “I see how you look at him.” There was a pause. Zhenya refused to look over. Then Flower said, “Are you okay?”
“Fuck!” Zhenya slammed his locker shut and turned to glare at Flower. “Fuck off.”
Flower ignored his outburst. “It’s a long time, for you to have to pretend.”
Fine. Zhenya felt his ears burning hot with shame. He was an obvious, besotted idiot, and everyone on the team knew about it. He was desperate to escape to the showers and forget this conversation had ever happened. “It’s over soon. Few months.”
Flower scrunched his mouth in a humorless smile. “Be careful, Geno. Sid is a dumbass.”
“I tell him you say,” Zhenya said. Christ, he needed to get out. This was the most uncomfortable conversation he’d ever had with Flower, and that included the time Flower caught him blowing a security guard in an empty conference room and asked him a series of earnest questions about why he enjoyed it.
“Feel free,” Flower said. “He’s been a dumbass since birth and he only gets stupider as he gets older. He knows I think so.”
“Bye, Flower,” Zhenya said, and flip-flopped on into the bathroom. He was done with this.
The conversation wasn’t anything he wanted to dwell on. He knew very well what Flower was trying to tell him. He knew how the Frenchies operated, and he was mortified to think of them sitting around discussing his pathetic crush. He nursed his humiliation all afternoon, and was still sulking when he went to George’s house for dinner, until George’s wife said, “I’m sending you home if you keep making that ugly face, Zhenya,” and Zhenya forced himself to quit wallowing and behave like a good guest.
He watched Sidney closely at skate the next morning. Sidney smiled at him a lot, but he smiled at everyone a lot. He was a friendly guy, and generally pretty happy. The team was having a good month. There was no reason for him not to smile.
Flower was probably right, and Zhenya was fooling himself. Sidney was happy to suck dick, but he didn’t date guys. He’d had—Zhenya tried to count back—three serious girlfriends in the time Zhenya had known him, and a handful of more casual affairs. Zhenya had watched each of them successively try and fail to lock Sidney down. He sympathized with their efforts. Sidney was clear marriage material: warm, considerate, family-oriented. He wouldn’t buy you flowers on a whim, but he would remember your anniversary every single year, and he would love you unwaveringly until the day one of you died.
But Sidney hadn’t married any of them, and he’d been single now for almost two years, sleeping around some—Zhenya wasn’t blind—but mostly sleeping with Zhenya.
Maybe it meant nothing. Maybe none of it meant a thing, the way Sidney kissed him, the way Sidney looked at him when they fucked—Sidney turning to him for comfort, Sidney opening up to him, Sidney warning him about Flower’s prank. He believed that Sidney cared for him, but there were many types of care, and most weren’t romantic.
But God help him, it felt so real.
He had an early dinner pre-game at Max and Katya’s. They were playing the Islanders that night, and Kolya and Misha joined them for the meal. It was a good time, fun, laid-back, and when Zhenya checked his phone before he drove home to change for the game, he had a message from Sidney: Hope you had fun at dinner
He sat in Max’s driveway with his phone pressed to his chest, trying to ignore the terrified pounding of his heart. It felt so real.
+ + +
They had been in New York, and flew up that morning. Sidney kept a close eye on the time, because traffic into the city could be a fucking nightmare if they got snarled up crossing the river, but the trip went smoothly for once. They were at the hotel in plenty of time, and getting out to Northeastern was easy enough, a quick cab ride or even the T if he was feeling adventurous. He went up to the room with Geno, dropped his suitcase on the bed, and then hesitated.
“Hmm?” Geno said absently, absorbed in his usual routine with his garment bag.
“I’m, uh. Taylor’s got a game today,” Sidney said. “I’m gonna go. If you want to come with me.”
Geno lowered the shirt he was examining and gave Sidney a long look unpleasantly reminiscent of the look Sidney’s mother gave him whenever she heard him swear. “Sid, we don’t need date. It’s okay. Maybe go tomorrow for lunch.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sidney said. He wished he still had his coat on; it had nice deep pockets, and he needed something to do with his hands. “You don’t have to.”
Geno slid the shirt back onto its hanger and gave it a crisp shake. “I like Taylor. Like hockey. If you want, I come.”
“Okay. Great.” He was really relieved that Geno hadn’t turned him down, which was stupid; he did things by himself all the time. But it was nice to have company, and nice to have Geno’s company. “I’ll buy you some arena food,” he said, to sweeten the deal.
“Not in diet plan,” Geno said.
“When the fuck have you ever cared about the diet plan?” Sidney asked, and Geno shrugged shamelessly, grinning. He didn’t need a diet plan because he was Evgeni Malkin; his diet plan was eating inferior hockey players for breakfast.
“I can call a cab,” Sidney said, already knowing it was a futile effort; and sure enough, Geno shrugged again and said, “Let’s take T.”
Geno had a weird fascination with American cities, so much so that Sidney had actually Googled pictures of Moscow at one point to figure out if Geno had never seen a skyscraper before. He definitely had—Moscow was huge—but he always wanted to take the train, and Sidney had set such a rich precedent of giving in to basically whatever Geno wanted that it was impossible for him to put his foot down now and refuse.
They took the T. Sidney had been sitting all day, so he stood and held on to the grab bar with one hand. Geno stood and held on to Sidney, his hands clutching the front of Sidney’s coat. The motion of the train swayed their bodies into each other. Geno was so warm and he smelled really good. Sidney gave in to temptation and slid his free arm around Geno’s waist, hidden under Geno’s coat, and tucked his face against Geno’s neck. He didn’t care who saw them. If people took pictures, so what? Everyone already knew.
He hadn’t expected to see Taylor before the game. He and Geno arrived at the arena as the players took the ice for warmups, and found their seats, up toward the back above the center line. They were in the family section, based on the number of older couples wearing Northeastern gear. A few people did double-takes at them. One kid, six or seven, turned around to stare. Sidney grinned and waved, and the kid turned scarlet and whipped back around in her seat. Sidney made a mental note to go say hi to her during the first intermission.
“Sid, it’s empty,” Geno whispered to him, after they sat.
Sidney shrugged. “Women’s sports.” He was used to it, after years of attending Taylor’s games, but he was sure the sparse attendance came as a surprise to Geno, who only had men’s games and the Olympics as comparisons.
Geno grunted. “Where’s Taylor?”
Sidney pointed her out, sitting in the stands with one of the assistant coaches and the other scratches. She hadn’t played any regulation time yet this season, and probably wouldn’t; the starting goalie was a senior with a good record. He knew Taylor was disappointed, but they hadn’t talked about it. He tried not to talk about hockey with her unless she brought it up. She could be touchy about it, and Sidney—well, he didn’t understand, and that was the whole point. He couldn’t understand what it was like for her, as much as he tried to.
He left Geno sitting there and went to find the promised arena food: giant hot dogs, with mayo on Geno’s the way he liked, and big plastic cups of watered-down beer. By the time he made it back to their seats, the game was about to begin.
It was a good game. Sidney liked the skill of women’s hockey, and Geno seemed to get really into it, too, leaning forward intently to watch every play. They did a full breakdown of the prior period during each intermission, and Sidney watched Geno talk with his hands and argue about the D-line and felt so powerfully fond of him that his chest ached with it. Geno was the fucking best, to come with him to his sister’s hockey game, when she wasn’t even playing, on a rare free afternoon. He could have done anything he wanted, and apparently what he wanted was to be here with Sidney, drinking shitty beer and booing the opposing team with one arm draped around Sidney’s shoulders.
Northeastern won decisively, 5-1.
They waited for the stands to clear out, and to give the players some time to celebrate and change, and then they made their way down to the dressing room. Excited players were going in and out of the room, some of them still in their base layers and others showered and changed into street clothes.
Taylor came out in sweatpants and a Northeastern hoodie, her hair scraped back into a messy ponytail. She spotted Sidney right away and came bouncing over, her arms outstretched, and Sidney scooped her up in a hug, laughing at her exuberance, partly from joy and partly from relief that being scratched hadn’t gotten her down.
“Hey, kiddo,” Sidney said, as they broke apart, and she wrinkled her nose at him and turned to Geno.
“Hi, Geno,” she said, offering her hand, and Sidney watched, amused, as Geno solemnly shook hands with her. “Thanks for coming. Sorry Sid dragged you to this.”
“It’s good game,” Geno said. “Good team. I like to see.”
“Well,” Taylor said, and Sidney knew her well enough to see that she was pleased and embarrassed, and not sure how to respond. “Thanks.” She turned back to Sidney. “Your mustache is really bad this year.”
“Yes, so bad,” Geno agreed immediately, and Sidney watched him and Taylor grin at each other and deeply regretted his decision to invite Geno.
“It’s not any worse than last year,” Sidney said.
“Always worst,” Geno said. He put an arm around Sidney and squeezed him gently. “You go out? Celebrate big win?”
“I thought we could go for dinner,” Sidney said to Taylor, and she bounced back into the locker room to get her things.
Geno’s arm was still around Sidney’s shoulders. He turned his head and spoke directly against Sidney’s ear. “I go back to hotel, you have nice time with Taylor.”
“You could come with us,” Sidney said, mostly to be polite, because he did want some time alone with Taylor.
“No.” Geno shook his head. “Suttsy is text me, I go for dinner with him, Olli, maybe Paulie. You go with Taylor. Then I see you later, okay?” He gazed down at Sidney, and after a moment, bent to kiss his cheek, soft and careful.
Sidney let Taylor pick where she wanted to go for dinner, and they ended up in a hole-in-the-wall burger place, sitting on stools at a counter in the back, dripping all over themselves and laughing about it. Taylor talked about her friends and her classes more than she talked about hockey, and Sidney listened to it all and soaked it up. Her life was already taking her places he would never go, and he couldn’t really relate to any of it, but she sounded busy and happy, and that was all he cared about.
“It was nice of Geno to come today,” she said, picking at her few remaining fries.
“He’s a good guy,” Sidney said. “He had fun. He didn’t say that to be nice.”
“I bet,” Taylor said, her eyes crinkling, and Sidney narrowed his own eyes. That was the same look his mom gave him when he talked about Geno. Well, no surprise that his mom and Taylor were in cahoots.
He really didn’t want to hear it. “You want to come to the game tomorrow?” he asked, an unsubtle topic change, and Taylor let him get away with it, because she was a good sister.
They didn’t stay out late; Taylor had a team party she wanted to go to.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, after the game,” she said, and they hugged on the sidewalk outside the burger place before they went in their opposite directions. He would see her again tomorrow, after the game, and then probably not again until he went home for a few days at Christmas. But their lives had never crossed paths much, and it was hard to feel sorry about that when they were both doing exactly what they wanted to be.
He took a cab back to the hotel, because fuck Geno and his train obsession. The room was dark and empty when he let himself in. He wasn’t surprised—he hadn’t expected Geno to be back from dinner yet—but he was a little disappointed anyway, which was dumb. He lived alone. He had roomed alone on the road for years. He could entertain himself.
Geno got back maybe an hour later, when Sidney was in bed with his tablet to review some footage for the game the next day. He heard the key card in the door, and then Geno came in, his toque crumpled up in one pocket of his coat, his hair all over the place. His nose was red.
“Hi, Sid,” Geno said, and gave him a warm look and a smile that involved his eyes more than his mouth.
“How was dinner?” Sidney asked.
“Good,” Geno said, and started telling a story about something Olli had said as he went through his usual coming-in routine, hanging up his coat, emptying his pockets, changing out of his clothes. He stood naked at the foot of the bed, sloppily folding his jeans, and the curve of his ass was so fucking sweet.
Sidney waited for Geno to pull on the sweatpants and T-shirt he wore to sleep, but instead Geno turned to look at Sidney for a long moment, and Sidney didn’t even bother trying to keep his eyes on Geno’s face. Geno looked so good: his dark nipples, the slight curve of his love handles, his soft dick hanging between his thighs, a few shades darker than the rest of his skin.
“You, uh,” Sidney said, and then didn’t have a clue where he was going with that sentence.
Geno’s eyelids were heavy. Sidney was probably getting laid.
But Geno didn’t get in bed with him. He went into the washroom and shut the door, and then Sidney heard the shower cut on.
His whole body went hot. Geno showered after workouts and games, but otherwise he showered exclusively in the mornings. There was only one reason for him to take a shower at this time of night. He was asking for it—as close to asking for it as he would ever get.
God. Sidney was getting hard just thinking about it. He set his tablet aside and slid one hand inside his shorts, holding himself and remembering the sounds Geno had made the last time they did this. Geno was hardly ever loud, and somehow that made the few noises he did let out all the more wonderful. Sidney treasured each quiet moan.
Geno was in the washroom for what felt like a million years but was probably no more than ten minutes. He came out as naked as he had gone in, and pink everywhere from the hot water. He was most of the way hard, and Sidney felt done the fuck in by the thought of Geno getting turned on as he cleaned himself.
Geno cast Sidney a sidelong glance as he rubbed at his hair with a towel. Sidney knew he was embarrassed, because he was always embarrassed, for whatever dumb reason; he wanted Sidney to reassure him that it was okay.
Sidney sat up and stripped off his shirt, and then wriggled down the bed until he was lying flat on his back. He pushed the covers down below his hips to show Geno the bulge of his erection.
Geno turned red, probably because there was only one way they did it in this position, and he was overthinking it and making himself more embarrassed.
“C’mere,” Sidney said. He squeezed himself through his shorts. “I love it, G, you know I do. Get over here and let me eat you out.”
Geno swore in Russian and dropped the towel on the floor.
He climbed on the bed and knelt by Sidney’s hips, his thighs spread to show off his truly mouth-watering cock. He looked uncertain. “Sid—”
“Get over here,” Sidney said again. He pulled his dick out of his shorts and tucked the waistband beneath his balls, showing off for Geno.
“Fuck.” Geno climbed on top, straddling Sidney’s waist, and bent down to kiss him.
The kissing was key. Sidney loved making out, and he knew Geno was way less interested in it than he was, and he didn’t care. Geno could deal. He just wanted a few minutes to hold Geno against him and stroke his shoulders and slide their mouths together, a few minutes of something sweet before they moved on to the dirty part. To his credit, Geno didn’t try to rush him anymore, and Sidney got as many blissful minutes of kissing as he wanted.
But he really did want to eat Geno out. “Okay,” he said at last, pulling away to kiss Geno’s neck. “Turn around. You know how I like it.”
Geno was red again, but he did what Sidney wanted. He turned around to face toward the foot of the bed, and carefully shuffled backwards.
Sidney stroked Geno’s hips and thighs, soothing. “Good. God, you look so good. Bend over for me, okay?”
Geno cursed up a storm, but he leaned forward to brace his forearms against Sidney’s thighs, and squirmed back that last critical inch to get his ass right there in Sidney’s face, clean and still damp from the shower, his tight little hole exposed by the position with his knees drawn up.
“God,” Sidney breathed out. He hooked his hands around Geno’s hips and pulled him back, settling him right against Sidney’s mouth, and brushed his lips against Geno’s hole.
A shudder ran through Geno’s body. He shifted slightly, and the pressure of his body weight increased. His hair brushed against Sidney’s thigh. He had lain down fully, his head resting on Sidney’s leg, his hard cock pressed to Sidney’s sternum, and his total helpless yielding got Sidney just as hot as the taste and feel did.
He licked gently, keeping his tongue soft and wet, broad strokes to warm Geno up and get him wanting more. He felt Geno’s fingers brushing against the outside of his calves, where Geno’s arms were resting on the mattress. He wanted Geno to ride his face, but that would take some time, he had to get Geno worked up, and he had to start slow, and—
God. Maybe if Geno let him do this more often, the novelty would wear off and Sidney would stop feeling so dumbstruck by it every time. But the way Geno resisted was part of what made it so special: that Geno didn’t want to like it and did anyway, and that he would let Sidney do it sometimes even though it was hard for him—that he trusted Sidney to take care of him, to make it okay.
Geno shuddered again as Sidney’s tongue worked slow and careful. He was leaking onto Sidney’s chest. Sidney pushed his tongue firmly against Geno’s hole and rubbed back and forth, and he felt Geno’s cock twitch, and did that again and again until Geno reared back, crying out and lifting out of reach.
“Hey,” Sidney said. He tugged at Geno’s hips, not too hard, and let go when Geno resisted. He already felt dazed. His chin was wet with spit. His dick was making a small sticky puddle on his belly. The waistband of his shorts dug in beneath his balls.
“It’s too much,” Geno said, “I’m—”
“I’ll stop,” Sidney said, even though he really didn’t want to.
Geno didn’t respond right away. He was breathing heavily. Sidney couldn’t see his face, and that was the only bad thing about this position.
“Geno?” he said, when Geno still didn’t say anything.
“It’s okay.” Geno laughed unsteadily. “Feels too good.” But he settled down on top of Sidney again, right where Sidney wanted him to be.
He licked at Geno again, fluttering his tongue lightly, and Geno’s exhale was damp heat against Sidney’s thigh through the fabric of his shorts. Sidney felt shaky with how badly he wanted Geno to come on his tongue. Or maybe Geno would want to be fingered, or have Sidney suck him, and any of that would be good, he just—couldn’t get enough of having sex with Geno. Lately it was never enough; as soon as they were done he was already thinking about the next time, what they would do, how Geno would look when he came.
Geno moved his hips tentatively, arching his back to rub himself against Sidney’s mouth. Sidney made an encouraging noise and squeezed Geno’s hips. He loved the moment when Geno let go and started taking what he wanted, using Sidney for his pleasure and just—God. Just getting himself off with Sidney’s mouth, because it felt good and he wanted it.
“Ohh,” Geno moaned, “Sid, it’s,” and Sidney felt himself burning up, because that was everything he wanted to hear. His fingers tightened helplessly on Geno’s hips. Geno moved against Sidney’s tongue in a slow drag, and then pushed forward to rub his dick against Sidney’s chest, a dizzying circuit of pleasure, rocking forward and then back again, and Sidney kind of couldn’t breathe and he didn’t care. His tongue was going numb. He didn’t care about that, either.
Geno was tensing up, moving faster, starting to make the noises that meant he was going to come soon, repeated quiet moans that he tried to muffle against Sidney’s thigh. Sidney gripped his hips and helped him keep the steady motion he needed as his rhythm began to falter. Everything was wet and slick, Geno’s ass and perineum and the lower half of Sidney’s face.
“Fuck, fuck!” Geno cried, and pushed back hard, and Sidney held him in place and worked at Geno with his tongue, and felt the sweet flutter of Geno’s hole a moment before Geno spilled hot and wet across his chest.
Sidney eased him through it, licking carefully until Geno twitched his hips away, crawling slightly forward before he collapsed on Sidney again.
“Jesus,” he heard Geno say.
Sidney grinned. His mouth felt tender. He grabbed a corner of the sheet and dried his face on it. Then he reached down and gave Geno’s ass a pat. “Good?”
Geno made an inarticulate noise, and Sidney grinned harder.
Geno levered himself up after a minute, and flopped over onto his back. His come was smeared halfway down Sidney’s chest. Sidney pushed up onto his elbows to take in Geno’s glazed expression, his flushed wet cock lying limp against his abdomen: a job well done.
Geno smirked at him. “What you want?”
“Suck me,” Sidney said. He had been hard forever. Geno licked his lower lip, and Sidney stared helplessly. He knew exactly how good Geno’s mouth was.
“That’s all?” Geno asked teasingly.
Fine. Geno knew what he liked. “I brought lube. It’s in my kit in the washroom.”
Geno chuckled and rolled off the bed. Sidney got rid of his shorts, finally, and wiped Geno’s come off his chest with his underwear. His dick was throbbing. He had gotten pretty close to the edge, with Geno squirming around on top of him like that, and the break was giving him a chance to cool down a little. He wanted to be able to enjoy Geno’s mouth, and not come right away.
Geno came back out with the little bottle of lube in his hand and climbed back on the bed. Sidney spread his legs to make room, and Geno sprawled out on his belly and sucked a few wet kisses to the insides of Sidney’s thighs, making Sidney shake. “Look so good,” Geno murmured approvingly. “So hard.” He uncapped the lube, and Sidney drew his knees up and closed his eyes, ready for everything Geno wanted to give him.
Geno wasn’t a tease. He stroked his lube-slick fingers over Sidney’s hole and pushed one in right away. They had done this enough that it had gotten really good; Sidney didn’t tense up anymore the way he had at first, because he trusted Geno and knew Geno would do it right and make it feel good.
“Two?” Geno asked, and Sidney nodded without opening his eyes. Geno’s finger slid out, and Sidney heard him squeezing out more lube, and then he was back with two fingers, sliding in deep, and Sidney reached above his head to grab the top of the pillow and arch into the sensation.
It felt weird and dirty, in a great way. Geno’s fingers were so long, and he dragged them out and pushed them back in, slow and steady, uncomfortable and spine-melting. It was right on the edge of what Sidney could handle, and he fucking loved it. He always came so hard with something in his ass.
Geno’s free hand curled around the base of his dick, and Sidney braced himself for the hot, wet, perfect slide of Geno’s mouth sinking down on him. Geno gave fantastic head, sloppy and enthusiastic. There was nothing like hearing someone moan around your dick because they were enjoying it so much. Geno had very specific likes and dislikes, he didn’t want to do anal and he was less interested in ass-play in general than Sidney was, but the stuff he was into he was really into. Sidney didn’t have any complaints.
Geno took him in deep, and then pulled off to lick at the head. Sidney opened his eyes to watch, and had to close them again immediately. Geno was staring straight at him with hot eyes, the pointed pink tip of his tongue peeking out of his mouth, extremely devastating to Sidney’s self-control.
“So hard,” Geno said again. He worked his fingers in Sidney’s ass and sucked on the head of his dick. “You need to come, Sid? Get too excited—”
“Fuck off,” Sidney panted. “You know it gets me going,” and then he cried out as Geno slid his fingers in so fucking deep and sucked hard. He wasn’t playing fair, he was trying to make Sidney come, and Sidney tried to arch both into and away from the sensations shaking his body.
It was so intense. “G, fuck, I can’t,” he said, and Geno worked his fingers and sank his mouth down, and Sidney heard himself groaning and almost couldn’t believe it was him making those noises. He tore at the pillow, his body taut like a wire, and pushed his cock into Geno’s mouth and shuddered through a powerful orgasm.
He heard Geno cough a few times, and dragged his eyes open to watch Geno wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. He smiled at Sidney, softer than Sidney expected, less self-satisfied.
“Sorry,” Sidney said. He hadn’t meant to choke Geno.
“It’s fine,” Geno said. He slid his fingers out of Sidney’s ass and went into the washroom. Sidney heard the tap running. He stared at the ceiling and floated on the high of his orgasm.
He’d been in committed relationships, he’d had lots of sex with the same person and gotten good at it, the kind of good where you knew what the other person liked and how to give it to them. He wasn’t in a relationship with Geno, but they had gotten good at each other in the same way, and Sidney felt a little weird about that—having monogamous relationship sex with Geno. Well, they were monogamous, at least for the time being, and it was probably dumb to worry about having great sex with your—well, whatever Geno was to him. Sidney didn’t know the right word.
Geno came back out of the washroom, sex-rumpled in the way Sidney loved, like he’d been taken good care of. He climbed in bed and nudged Sidney around until Sidney was where Geno wanted him, leaning back against the pillows and curled up with his head resting on Geno’s shoulder. Geno drew the covers up over both of them and dropped a kiss to the top of Sidney’s head.
“Good?” Sidney asked. He was feeling drowsy now, but not really tired. Maybe they could watch a movie.
“Good,” Geno said. “You have fun with Taylor?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Do you want me to tell you about it?”
“Okay, tell me,” Geno said, and Sidney did.
+ + +
“Are you inviting Sid?” Max asked him, two days out, and Zhenya blinked at him dumbly, because he hadn’t thought about it at all.
“Uh,” he said.
“You probably should,” Max said. “People will post pictures, and if he’s not in them, won’t it seem suspicious?”
Zhenya narrowed his eyes. “You just want him to hold your baby.”
“That’s purely selfless on my part,” Max said. “The man’s ready to start ovulating any day now. Reminds me of someone else I know.”
“I don’t have any fucking idea what you’re talking about,” Zhenya said, with as much dignity as he could muster, and got up to take the fish out of the oven.
But Max was right, damn him, and after practice the next day, Zhenya waited for Sidney to finish talking to the media and then sat down beside him and said, “I do Thanksgiving at my house, you come?”
“Thanksgiving was in October,” Sidney said. One corner of his mouth was tucked up, a dead giveaway that he was trying to pull Zhenya’s leg.
“Okay, Kate bring pie, but if you don’t want,” Zhenya said, shrugging, and turned away like he was about to stand up and leave.
“What kind of pie,” Sidney said, and Zhenya knew he had him.
Thanksgiving was usually a day off for the team, when they could swing it, and Zhenya’s house started filling up by mid-morning, when he was still in his pajamas, enjoying a rare chance to sleep in and linger over his coffee. George and his wife arrived first, with two turkeys, and got to work doing things to their innards that Zhenya tried not to examine too closely. Genya came over not long after, and drafted Zhenya to boil and peel eggs for the salad. George put some music on. The kitchen was warm and Zhenya drank some more coffee and bickered with Genya about how finely he should chop the eggs.
The next time the doorbell rang, it was Sidney: still be-mustached, and wearing his nice coat and smiling at Zhenya uncertainly. He had a casserole dish in his hands.
“Sid, I tell you don’t bring,” Zhenya scolded, ushering Sidney in out of the cold. He took the casserole dish from Sidney’s hands while Sidney took off his coat and hung it in the hall closet. He was, adorably, dressed up a little: slacks and a black wool sweater that Zhenya petted approvingly. Zhenya was in sweatpants, but he always appreciated the effort.
“You can’t show up at someone’s house empty-handed,” Sidney said. “Are you petting my sweater?”
“No,” Zhenya said. “You want wine?”
“Well—sure,” Sidney said.
Zhenya took him into the kitchen and investigated the contents of the casserole while Sidney greeted Genya and the Birmans, all of whom he knew. It was some kind of rice dish; Zhenya put it in the refrigerator for the time being. Sidney was unbearable. Zhenya had specifically told him not to bring anything.
By the time he opened a bottle of wine and took a glass over to Sidney, a conversation about hockey was in full swing. Zhenya exchanged a knowing look with George’s wife, put the glass in Sidney’s hands, and said, “Sid, no hockey. It’s holiday. Come sit.”
“I can help with the food,” Sidney said, because Trina Crosby did not play around.
“No,” Zhenya said. He put his hand on Sidney’s elbow and steered him over to the kitchen table. “You sit. I peel potato. You keep company and drink wine. It’s only job for you.”
“That’s not much of a job,” Sidney said, and only shut up when Zhenya grabbed the potato peeler off the counter and pointed it at him menacingly.
But he did shut up, and drink his wine, and Zhenya sat with him at the table and peeled potatoes into a stockpot he kept on the floor at his feet. When Sidney finished that glass of wine, Zhenya got up and poured him another, and Sidney got a little flushed and relaxed, leaning back in his chair, and Zhenya was pleased with his work. He had asked Sidney to come over early for this exact reason. There would be a lot of people over for dinner—Max and Katya and the baby, of course, but also people Sidney didn’t know, local acquaintances Zhenya knew through the Birmans or from the rare occasions he was able to make it to church. They all spoke varying degrees of English, but there would be a lot of Russian, and Sidney would be the odd man out. Zhenya wanted him relaxed and comfortable, and that meant a little bit drunk.
“How your family does Thanksgiving?” Zhenya asked him, partway through his mountain of potatoes, and Sidney smiled and looked around the warm, busy kitchen and said, “Honestly, it wasn’t ever too different from this.”
Max and Katya arrived not long after. The baby was dressed in a puffy suit, sort of like a sleeping bag. The hood had bear ears sewn into the seams. Zhenya claimed her as soon as she was unzipped, ignoring Sidney’s covetous gaze.
“Max,” Zhenya said, “help me out with our fearless leader here. I can’t keep track of him the whole time.” Max and Sidney knew each other well from Max’s work with the team, and Max’s English was better than Zhenya’s, although Zhenya would never admit it aloud. He would be able to translate, and keep Sidney from spending the whole meal adrift in a sea of Russian.
“Of course I’ll help take care of your boyfriend,” Max said sweetly, and then switched into English and said, “Sid, you would like to hold the baby?”
“Well,” Sidney said, and Zhenya sighed and handed her over.
Genya roped him into helping with the food again, and Zhenya stood at the counter halving and chopping celery and watched Sidney sitting at the table with Katya, talking about the baby. Katya didn’t speak much English, but that didn’t seem to deter either her or Sidney; they kept laughing and gesturing at each other, and Milanka was loving it, reaching out to one of them and then the other, grinning and bouncing excitedly in Sidney’s grasp. It was hard to look away, and Zhenya kept sneaking glances until he almost sliced his thumb open and forced himself to concentrate.
The parameters of his relationship with Sidney kept changing. At first it existed only inside Sidney’s bedroom, and there were clear rules and limits, and Zhenya knew what to expect. Then it moved into the public sphere, and that was easy in a different way. But since then it had metastasized into the shared liminal space of hotel rooms, and then into Zhenya’s fucking house, and now there was no part of his life that Sidney hadn’t infiltrated.
Are you okay, Flower had asked him, and—maybe he wasn’t.
Rocking the boat now was a terrible idea. He had another five months to get through, at minimum. If he said something, and Sidney didn’t feel the same way—
What was the rush? He had five months. Whatever Sidney felt, it wouldn’t go away. Zhenya could keep his fat mouth shut for once in his fucking life.
At the table, Sidney laughed, holding Milanka in his arms. Zhenya scraped the chopped celery to one side of the cutting board and reached for another stalk.
He watched Sidney closely as the house began to fill up, and then less closely as Sidney didn’t display any signs of unease. Sidney was pretty good at talking with strangers—awkward, but polite and sincere. Zhenya seated Sidney across from him at the table, with Katya on one side and George on the other, and Sidney ate a lot and drank another glass of wine and smiled the whole time. He seemed perfectly content to sit there surrounded by Zhenya’s friends, eating a somewhat bizarre admixture of Russian and American food, listening to Russian conversation, and playing with the baby.
“I thought you said this wasn’t real,” Genya said, from his seat at the head of the table.
Genya thought he knew everything. Zhenya considered and discarded a number of possible responses. “Yeah, that’s what I told you.”
Genya snorted, but he let it drop.
The party began to break up at last. People made noises about leaving, drifted into the hallway, put on their coats, and then stood around for another twenty minutes, still talking. Zhenya finally got most of them out of the house, and then went into the kitchen to find Sidney talking with Genya, leaning against the counter and eating pie straight out of the pan.
“Sid,” Zhenya said reproachfully, and Sidney looked only a little bit guilty.
“Guess I better get going,” Sidney said. He shoveled another forkful of pie into his mouth.
“Can stay,” Zhenya said. Genya was sitting right there, judging him, but he wanted Sidney to stay more than he cared about what Genya thought.
He caught Genya’s eye, not meaning to. Genya smirked, and raised his wine glass in a silent toast.
When the house was empty at last, and Sidney was the only one left, they moved around the kitchen together, putting food away, loading the dishwasher, and setting pots in the sink to soak. Zhenya emptied the dregs of three separate wine bottles into a single glass, and took a sip. It wasn’t terrible.
“Thanks for inviting me,” Sidney said. “It was really nice. Your friends are nice.”
“Lots of Russian for you,” Zhenya said.
Sidney shrugged. He bent down to fill the dishwasher’s dispenser with soap. “I don’t mind. It’s nice to—I’m glad you’ve got so many friends. Your house always has people in it.” He straightened a fork in the silverware basket. “It’s nice having people around.”
He sounded wistful. Zhenya frowned, and tugged on one of his belt loops until Sidney straightened up. Zhenya slid an arm around his waist, and told himself he was an idiot, and leaned in to kiss Sidney’s cheek. “Good to have company.”
Sidney turned into the embrace and leaned his head against Zhenya’s shoulder. “I’m not, uh. I’m not a huge fan of living alone, I guess. Too quiet.”
Zhenya had more or less figured that out after the literal multiple years and multiple houses it had taken for Sidney to finally, permanently move out of Mario’s. He wrapped his arms around Sidney’s back and felt his heart trying to burst from his chest. Move in with me, he wanted to say: you don’t have to live alone. He knew what it was like to share a bed with Sidney and make breakfast with him in the morning, and he could extrapolate from that to the rest of it: evenings together on the couch, half-hearted arguments about whose turn it was to take out the trash, Sidney’s clothes mixed in with his in the closet. A family.
Maybe he would say it, in another five or six months.
“Let’s go upstairs,” he said now, and Sidney laughed and reached down to squeeze his ass.
“Happy Thanksgiving to me,” Sidney said.
+ + +
They went for lunch afterward, at a ramen place that had recently opened near the arena. Sidney was suspicious until the food arrived, and then he slurped his noodles happily enough. Zhenya was expanding his horizons one meal at a time.
“I’m having dinner with Nate after we play the Avs,” Sidney said, reaching across the table to help himself to some of Zhenya’s tempura. “And probably Matt and Tyson, but I haven’t talked to Nate about that yet. You want to come? Get some good pictures for Instagram.”
Ah, fuck. Zhenya tried to think of how he could wriggle out of this, but there was no way; Tyson would sell him out eventually. “I, uh. Have dinner with Tyson. We’re make plan already.”
Sidney squinted at him. “You know Tyson? How do you know Tyson?”
So Zhenya had to tell him about the fucking group chat. Sidney didn’t believe him at first, like Zhenya was playing an elaborate prank, and Zhenya ended up pulling out his phone and showing Sidney the recent messages, a long stream of drivel about which professional sport had the best asses. Sidney scrolled through it, his eyebrows raised, and finally he glanced up at Zhenya and said, “I guess my sample size is pretty small, but my vote’s for hockey.”
His sample size was Zhenya, as far as Zhenya knew; the other guys Sidney had slept with were random nobodies he picked up in bars. Zhenya was more pleased than he probably should have been that Sidney thought his ass was the best.
“How many guys are there?” Sidney asked. He returned Zhenya’s phone. He looked puzzled, but not—angry, or whatever Zhenya had been worried about. Weirded out.
Zhenya wobbled his hand from side to side. “Dozen, maybe.” The number was constantly shifting, as guys retired or were drafted, or made an apparently permanent move to the big show from the AHL.
“And they’re all, uh. Like you,” Sidney said. His expression was carefully blank.
Zhenya managed not to roll his eyes. Was Sidney afraid to say the word? It was true they had never talked about it, but that was only because Zhenya saw no reason to ever talk about it. He liked dick; that was just the way he was. Sidney knew about his preferences—obviously—and Zhenya certainly wasn’t trying to hide anything. There was simply nothing interesting to be said about it.
“No, not all gay,” he said. “One guy, he’s got wife now.”
“So some of them are like me,” Sidney said.
‘Like me,’ for Christ’s sake. “I guess, Sid. What’s like you?”
“You know,” Sidney muttered. He looked down and fiddled with his chopsticks. “I didn’t know you had this, uh. Group chat.”
“Why you care?” Zhenya said, a little annoyed. “Why it’s your business?”
Sidney shrugged. He was still playing with his chopsticks, and not meeting Zhenya’s eyes. “I don’t know. I guess I thought I knew you pretty well. But I didn’t know about this.”
Zhenya’s traitorous heart clenched gleefully. Sidney wanted to know him. Sidney was hurt that he didn’t have Zhenya all figured out.
“Know now,” Zhenya said. Sidney’s brow furrowed, so Zhenya added, as an olive branch, “We do dinner all together. You, me, MacKinnon, Tyson. Duchene, if he wants. Okay?”
“Okay,” Sidney said. He looked up, finally. “Sure. That should be fun.”
Zhenya hesitated, but he had to say it. “Sid, Tyson is not know we’re fake. He thinks it’s real. So don’t say.”
“Oh,” Sidney said. He leaned back in his chair, and then leaned forward again. “Okay. Well, Nate knows, because he was with me over the summer, so—yeah. But I told him to keep his mouth shut.” He frowned slightly. “You didn’t tell the group chat, huh?”
He hadn’t, and he didn’t want to explain why, because he barely wanted to admit it to himself. “Those guys, too much—talk all the time. Gossip. Don’t trust.”
“Okay,” Sidney said. He shrugged. “I’ll warn Nate.”
After the game, a couple of days later, they all met up in the loading bay and walked to a restaurant a few blocks away. The Avs had lost, but it was a close game that went to overtime, so nobody had to feel too embarrassed. Tyson hung back to walk with Zhenya as Sidney went ahead with MacKinnon and Duchene, and Zhenya sighed internally, because he knew what was coming.
“Do I get to add Sid to the group chat now?” Tyson asked, grinning, and elbowed Zhenya harder than Zhenya would have preferred.
“No Sid in group text,” Zhenya said firmly.
“Fine, fine,” Tyson said. “I gotta report back to the rest of the guys, though, so make sure you do something juicy at dinner. Is his ass as good as it looks?”
It was better, but Zhenya would never say so to anyone but Sidney. “Why you’re look? Don’t be gross.”
Tyson sighed heavily. “I tried to kiss him once, you know. He shot me down real nice. Biggest regret of my life. I’ll never get my hands on that now. Any time I try to check him out, he yells at me.”
“Good, don’t be fucking creep,” Zhenya said, and Tyson elbowed him again, directly in the liver.
Dinner was a little surreal. Zhenya had never expected these parts of his life to collide. He and Tyson weren’t friends, but the bond of the group chat ran deeper than friendship. Whenever he was in the same city as one of the guys, he tried to meet up with them for dinner, or even just a quick drink. And he couldn’t claim it was totally unrelated to hockey—they were all hockey players, after all—but it wasn’t about hockey. They never talked about hockey when they got together. Zhenya had Tyson placed firmly in his mental non-hockey box, and of course Sidney was always in the hockey box, he lived in the hockey box, and the contents of these different boxes weren’t supposed to get mixed together.
On top of that, Sidney was different around MacKinnon. Zhenya knew they were friends, but he hadn’t realized how close they were. Sidney was totally absorbed in MacKinnon even before they were seated in the restaurant, laughing nonstop and telling stories about people Zhenya didn’t know. It was stupid to be jealous, but he was, a little. He had gotten used to being the center of Sidney’s attention. He told himself sternly that Sidney saw him almost every day, and hadn’t seen MacKinnon in three months. It didn’t help much.
Tyson was a good distraction. He wanted to talk at great length about some guy he was crushing on, who Zhenya gathered was probably straight, and more slowly gathered was probably one of Tyson’s teammates.
“No straight guys,” he said sternly. It was one of the group chat’s maxims.
“I don’t think he’s, like. Straight-straight,” Tyson said. “Heteroflexible?”
Zhenya didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded like bullshit. “No teammates.”
Tyson smirked at him, and looked meaningfully at Sidney, who was laughing with one hand over his eyes. “Yeah? Seems like it’s worked out okay for you.”
“You too young,” Zhenya said. “Only baby. Can’t work for you.”
“Ugh,” Tyson said, and turned to Duchene on his other side. “Duchy, entertain me. Geno’s an asshole.”
“I’m staying out of this,” Duchene said, and loudly slurped his Coke.
The whole night was like that. Sidney looked across the table at Zhenya a few times and smiled at him, warm and familiar, but otherwise he was focused on MacKinnon. Zhenya did his best to make conversation with Tyson and Duchene, but he was feeling tired after the game, and Sidney had picked the restaurant so the food wasn’t great, and mostly he wanted to go home.
The Avs guys had a curfew, because they were flying out in the morning. They paid the bill and spilled out onto the sidewalk. It was late and dark and their breath formed small pale clouds in the cold air.
“See you in March, Geno,” Tyson said, and they clasped hands, and then those guys turned off toward their hotel, and Sidney and Zhenya walked back to the arena, where their cars were parked.
Sidney hooked his fingers in the opening of Zhenya’s coat pocket. “Did you have a good time with Tyson? I told Nate and Matt to leave you guys alone so you could talk.”
The events of the evening rearranged themselves in Zhenya’s brain. “Yes,” he said carefully. He had to shorten his stride to let Sidney keep his hand where it was. “It’s good I see him.”
“I’m glad,” Sidney said. He smiled up at Zhenya. “Seemed like he was talking your ear off, eh?”
“He say a lot,” Zhenya said, still thinking about Sidney wanting him to have—Christ, quality time with Tyson. Sidney was always watching and thinking and he was so good at hiding his thoughts that Zhenya was never sure what was going on behind that mild gaze.
“Maybe we’ll do this again, the next time we play those guys,” Sidney said, deadly earnest.
“Maybe,” Zhenya said. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he fished it out to glance at the screen. It was a message from Tyson to the group chat: Saw Geno’s man tonite and he’s looking fiiiiiiiiine, followed by three cake emojis and a peach.
“What?” Sidney said. “What’s funny?”
Zhenya showed him the text, and Sidney frowned and said, “I think I rate at least four slices of cake.”
Zhenya looked at him, waiting for his serious expression to crack, because Sidney could never hold out for long. Sure enough, his mouth twitched, and Zhenya slung an arm around his shoulders and said, “You walk too slow, it’s cold out.”
There was no use fighting it. He was in love.
+ + +
He wasn’t really acting like a dick. Just—weird. Squirrelly. He had sat next to Sidney on the bus, which he never did, but only for about five minutes, and then he got up and swayed down the aisle to take an empty seat toward the front of the bus. And before that, at their team meeting yesterday morning before skate, Geno had showed up with two cups of coffee and given one to Sidney, something sweet and milky that Sidney knew he probably shouldn’t drink but did anyway. And then Geno sat on the other side of the room and wouldn’t meet his eyes. Weird.
“What’s going on with you?” he asked now, as Geno rummaged grouchily through his duffel, muttering under his breath in Russian.
“Nothing is go on.” Geno glanced up and smiled at Sidney, and it seemed genuine enough. “Can’t find best shirt, that’s all. Maybe I don’t pack.”
Sidney had meant the question more generally, but he let it slide.
They went out for dinner separately, Sidney with Flower and Tanger, Geno with Suttsy and Horny and a whole bunch of other guys, practically half the team. The restaurant Tanger picked had a shitty dessert menu, so they walked to a bakery that Flower kept insisting was just one more block away and ended up being halfway to Union Square. By the time Sidney made it back to the hotel room after that adventure, Geno was in bed already, nestled under the covers with the thermostat turned to sweltering.
“How was dinner?” Sidney asked. Geno looked really cozy. Sidney wanted to climb in with him and curl up close and see what would happen. It was usually pretty easy to talk Geno into sex: a little kissing, a hand on his thigh, and Geno was all for it.
“Good food, but company is not so good,” Geno said, and Sidney grinned and said, “I’m gonna tell the guys you said that.”
He stripped down all the way, ignoring Geno’s smirk and raised eyebrows, and crawled naked under the covers to flop down mostly on top of Geno.
Geno made an outraged squawk and flailed around a little. Both of his hands ended up on Sidney’s ass, and Sidney buried his face in Geno’s neck to hide his smile. He was definitely getting what he wanted.
“Too heavy,” Geno grumbled. He squeezed Sidney’s ass, and stroked his fingertips along the cleft. He was in his pajamas, and the soft rub of fabric against Sidney’s bare skin made Sidney feel kind of—well, slutty, and he liked it.
He shivered, and shifted his weight, settling more comfortably on top of Geno. “You wanna?”
“You always want,” Geno said accusingly.
That didn’t sound good. Sidney pushed up onto his elbows. Geno was smiling, though: only teasing.
“Hey,” Sidney said softly. Geno’s eyes were so warm, and his body was warm, spread out beneath Sidney’s. He could feel Geno’s dick starting to fatten up.
“Hey, Sid,” Geno said, just as softly. One hand curled around the nape of Sidney’s neck, and he lifted his head from the pillow to bring their mouths together in a hot crush.
Geno knew how to kiss him just right: firm and slow, with the perfect amount of tongue. One of Geno’s hands was tight on Sidney’s ass, stroking and squeezing. Sidney reached down to shove Geno’s T-shirt out of the way so he could rub his dick against Geno’s bare belly. Kissing always got him so hot, and he was hot now, hot under the covers and hot with how much he wanted to make Geno come. He could get Geno to beg for it, sometimes, cracked open and half in Russian, and he thought about it a lot when he jerked off, Geno writhing and saying please, please.
God. He sat up and shoved the covers down. Geno’s mouth was open, wet and red. His dick was hard against Sidney’s ass, where Sidney was sitting on him.
“I want you naked,” Sidney said, and was a little surprised by how rough his voice sounded.
Geno swallowed hard enough that Sidney heard his throat click. “You help.”
Sidney ended up dragging Geno’s sweatpants down his legs one slow inch at a time, kissing every newly revealed patch of skin: his balls, his pale thighs, the scar on his knee, his bony shins. He looked up at Geno after each kiss, and Geno was looking right back, with something heavy in his gaze that made Sidney’s belly tighten. Geno complained sometimes that Sidney was too nice during sex—sweet, he had said more than once, like it was an insult. But it didn’t seem like he was going to complain this time.
When Geno was naked, Sidney sat back on his heels to look at him: big and long, his dick hard, his hip a little bruised from taking a check into the boards. He looked so good, and Sidney wanted to hear every noise he could wring from Geno’s mouth.
“Fuck, I can’t wait to make you come,” he said, and Geno smirked and drew one knee up and said, “Okay, come on.”
Sidney went into the bathroom to get the lube, and when he came out again, Geno was touching himself, long fingers wrapped around his dick. Sidney watched him for a minute, pretty powerfully turned on by the visual. Geno’s mouth was open, and he stared straight at Sidney like he was daring him to say something. But what the fuck would Sidney say aside from ‘keep going’ or ‘let me do that instead’?
“You only watch?” Geno asked slyly, and Sidney shook himself out of his stupor and got back on the bed.
Geno reached for him, parting his thighs, and Sidney settled there between Geno’s legs and kissed him. Geno’s arms twined around his neck.
“I love having sex with you,” Sidney said, which was maybe a little sentimental, but it was true. And if you couldn’t be sentimental mid-fuck, then when could you?
Geno made a choked noise and kissed Sidney urgently, his hips lifting from the bed. Sidney stroked a hand down his thigh and said, “Shh, okay, I’ve got you,” and fumbled around with the lube until he managed to pop the cap one-handed.
Most of Geno’s height was in his legs, so they were able to kiss in this position if Sidney stretched a little. He liked how Geno wrapped his legs around Sidney’s hips, giving up any real leverage and letting Sidney do the work of rubbing their dicks together. And he liked how Geno could take his full weight, so he could brace himself with one hand and get a handful of Geno’s ass with the other.
“Mmm, feels good,” Geno said. He sounded vaguely drugged. He turned his head aside to give Sidney better access to his neck, and Sidney sucked lightly on his pulse point, not hard enough to leave a mark but enough to make Geno squirm.
“I need—hold on,” Sidney said, and reached down to get his other hand on Geno’s ass, too. He squeezed his double handful and made a pleased noise he couldn’t quite hold back.
Geno started laughing. “Sid, you,” he said, and imitated Sidney’s noise.
Sidney kissed Geno’s neck and grinned. “Shut up. I like your ass.”
Geno was still laughing, too hard now to respond. He clung to Sidney’s back and kept laughing even as Sidney rolled their hips together, loud bursts of laughter that went on and on.
“Oh my God,” Sidney said, after at least a full minute of this. He pulled back enough to look at Geno’s face, and Geno was crying with laughter, his eyes wet, his mouth pulled up in a wide grin. “Geno! It’s not that fucking funny.”
Geno imitated the noise again, and went off into more peals of laughter. Sidney was going to lose his erection if Geno didn’t knock it off soon, but he also kind of hoped Geno wouldn’t ever stop.
“Okay, okay,” Geno said at last, and reached up to wipe his eyes with the back of his hand. “Okay, let’s fuck.” He arched against Sidney, and they had both softened up a little, but it didn’t take them long to get back in the groove.
And then it was so good: Geno running his hands over Sidney’s back, rocking his hips up as Sidney ground down, and kissing Sidney so intently, his eyes closed. Sidney kept pulling back to look at his face, the high flush on his cheeks, his lips parted and waiting for Sidney to kiss him again.
It was so good, hot and sweaty and good, and Sidney took Geno’s clinging and his sweet kisses as a sign that he would let Sidney do it how he liked for once. Sidney slowed things way down, barely rocking their hips together, and kissing Geno really gently, light brushes of their lips over and over until he felt drunk with it.
“Sid,” Geno whispered, and Sidney kissed the long arch of his neck and mouthed at his earlobe and couldn’t believe he got to feel this way, this good.
“You want to come like this?” Sidney asked him quietly. He had lost interest in making Geno beg. “We can—I’ll finger you, or—”
“No, like this,” Geno said, and he sounded like he would be willing to beg, if Sidney wanted him to.
“Are you close?” Sidney asked. He wormed one arm down between Geno’s legs to stroke his balls. Everything was slick with sweat and lube. He teased his fingertips over Geno’s hole and felt Geno tremble beneath him.
“Close,” Geno agreed. Sidney rubbed his thumb over the skin behind Geno’s balls and heard Geno’s breath catch, and then he pressed there and Geno moaned. And that was it, that was the sound Sidney wanted. He kissed Geno deeply, sliding his tongue into Geno’s mouth, and Geno moaned again.
Sidney moved against Geno, working their hips together. He could feel the way Geno was drawing tight, his spine arching and his ass clenching to drive his hips up. He wanted to feel it, he wanted Geno to come, he wanted to kiss Geno’s slack mouth as he shuddered and came down. Geno tore his mouth away, panting hard, and Sidney kissed along the tender underside of Geno’s jaw, trembling himself, all overwhelmed for some reason.
“Come on, baby,” Sidney murmured, his lips against Geno’s skin, and right away felt embarrassed, because it was sort of a dumb thing to say. But Geno sucked in a huge breath and went still, and in another moment he started to come, a warm wet rush where their bodies were pressed together.
It was exactly what Sidney had wanted: Geno’s hands on his back, the soft cry he let out as Sidney kept moving, wringing another tremor and spurt of come from Geno’s body. He kissed Geno’s face and his mouth until Geno twitched beneath him and hissed, too sensitive for Sidney to keep going.
He pushed up onto his elbows then to examine Geno’s face. Geno looked flushed and smug, but as Sidney gazed down at him, his smirk faded into a sweet smile that made Sidney’s heart beat a little faster.
“Hi, Sid,” Geno said. He pulled Sidney down for another kiss, and worked a hand between their bodies to wrap around Sidney’s dick. Sidney’s hips jolted forward into the touch, and Geno hissed again and patted Sidney’s ass with his free hand and said, “Up, come up.”
Sidney got up onto his knees and shifted to straddle Geno’s waist, well clear of his oversensitive cock. His belly was smeared with Geno’s come, and now his ass was getting coated with it, too, and it made him feel—used, dirty. He braced his hands on Geno’s chest and thrust into Geno’s grasp. Geno’s hand was dry, but Sidney’s dick was wet with lube and Geno’s come, and when he pushed his hips forward, there was nothing but a tight, slow glide.
“Good,” Geno said. He palmed Sidney’s thigh, stroking up the inside to tease at Sidney’s balls with his thumb, his other hand fisting Sidney’s dick. His grip was a little too tight. Sidney touched his wrist, and Geno loosened his hand, and then it was perfect, slick and slow, Geno working his hand down and Sidney rolling his hips forward, the firm steady pace he liked.
He was going to come so fucking hard. Geno was watching him, open-mouthed, his eyes flickering back and forth between Sidney’s face and his dick. Sidney bent his neck to see what Geno saw: the red wet head of his cock appearing and disappearing above the circle of Geno’s fingers, the foreskin pulled back to show the slit. Geno’s hands were so big.
“Like that?” Geno asked. “Want—”
“No, keep going,” Sidney rasped out. He could feel his orgasm building, a warm glow in his lower belly, and a growing tension that made him snap his hips forward faster, chasing the sensation. He needed to come. He wanted to make a mess all over Geno, come all over his hand and his chest and rub it into his nipples to make him squirm, make him—
“Ah, good,” Geno said, and then said something in Russian, which he hardly ever did during sex, and somehow the sound of it was what tipped Sidney over the edge.
He curled forward, holding himself upright with his hands hard on Geno’s shoulders, and his dick twitched hard in Geno’s hand as he did just what he’d imagined and came, well—basically everywhere.
Geno laughed softly, and wiped his hand on Sidney’s chest. “Good game, Sid.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Sidney said fondly, and leaned down to kiss the smile off Geno’s face.
Tissues wouldn’t cut it for cleanup. Geno dragged Sidney into the shower, and then dragged him back into bed, where he arranged Sidney like he was a pillow and draped himself over Sidney’s torso with a pleased sigh.
Sidney turned on the TV and ran his fingers through Geno’s damp hair. He hoped Geno would find a boyfriend who loved him the way he deserved, when this was all over. Maybe he would even get back together with Kostya, and then the guilt that had been living in Sidney’s chest since September would finally pack up and move out.
He bent down to kiss Geno’s forehead. Geno made a noise of sleepy inquiry. Sidney tugged gently at a lock of hair and said, “You gonna pass out?”
“No,” Geno said in Russian, one of the few words Sidney knew, and which meant he would be asleep in no more than five minutes. Sidney kept stroking his hair until he heard Geno’s breathing even out at last.
+ + +
“Sid, you come too,” Geno said, looming suddenly in the mirror as Sidney shaved after his post-game shower. “Okay?” He patted Sidney’s hip, right above his towel.
Sidney had been planning on going anyway—team bonding, and all that—but he was definitely going now. Geno’s gaze held the warm promise of a couple of drinks and going back to their hotel room, maybe for sex but maybe not, maybe just to curl up in bed together for a few close minutes before they fell asleep.
“Sure, G,” he said, and Geno smiled at him like he knew just what Sidney was thinking.
The best thing to do at a bar was to seat Sidney way in the back, ideally on the inside of a booth or in the middle of a row of guys at a table. The harder he was to access, the fewer people would ask him for selfies. If any of the guys wanted to talk to him, they just came over and ousted whoever was sitting beside him. It was a good setup, but lately Geno had started claiming the spot next to Sidney and refusing to surrender it. “I’m boyfriend,” he would say, and nobody argued with Geno; it was never worth it.
Tonight, Sidney ended up tucked in at a table with Geno wedged against him on one side and Scuds on the other side, and Flower and Dumo across from him, and Duper, who had traveled with them, and Paulie down at the end. Geno went up to the bar and came back with a beer for himself and a Jack and Coke for Sidney, because he thought he was funny.
“One day, Sid will learn how to drink like a man,” said Duper, who wasn’t drinking anything stronger than water because of his blood thinners, and had no room to talk.
“Maybe then he’ll finally get some hair on his chest,” Paulie said, and he and Flower high-fived across the table, while poor Dumo looked like he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to laugh.
“Fuck all of you,” Sidney said placidly. Jack and Coke was delicious.
Usually there was no hockey talk after a loss, but they made an exception for Dumo, who had been called up two days ago because Olli was out of the lineup again, something with his shoulder. Dumo had played a few games with them the year before, so he wasn’t totally fresh, but it was still good for him to talk through the game and discuss what they had done well and what they should have done better. They kept the conversation technical, and when Flower started getting too quiet and staring down at his beer, Sidney decided it was time to change the subject.
He knocked his foot against Geno’s and said, “You ready for the Christmas video this year?” Filming was a few days away.
“Better not make me talk,” Geno said darkly.
“You’re such a baby,” Flower said, and that was good: bickering with Geno always got him out of his funks. “They’ll give you two lines—”
“Two is too much,” Geno said. “I don’t act, I’m hockey player.”
“You were in a fucking movie with Kovalchuk,” Scuds said. “Don’t think any of us have forgotten about that.”
“You jealous,” Geno said, and Sidney left them to it and went to get himself another drink.
By the time he returned to the table, the topic had moved on to girlfriends, namely why Paulie didn’t have one, and whether he would let Scuds set him up with one of his wife’s friends.
“She’s really nice,” Scuds was saying. “Labor and delivery nurse. Cute, likes dogs. Why not?”
“I don’t need your help,” Paulie said. “Set her up with Sid.”
For fuck’s sake. Everyone looked at him. Sidney sipped his drink and tried to look inscrutable.
“Sid’s into dudes now,” Scuds said dubiously.
“Right now I’m with Geno,” Sidney said. He didn’t want to talk about his personal life with these assholes.
“Okay, but after you’re with Geno,” Paulie said, and then frowned. “Or, I mean. Are you only into dudes now?”
He couldn’t avoid answering a direct question. They were all looking at him, waiting for his response—even Flower and Duper, who already knew the answer. Maybe especially them. Flower looked gleeful, the way he always did when someone was in a tight corner.
Sidney preferred women, but it would be rude to say that with Geno sitting right there. But he didn’t want to lie, either. He hesitated for a moment, choosing his words. “I don’t know. I mean, I want kids, so. I think I’ll probably end up with a woman.”
He thought it was a safe answer, but he watched Flower and Duper exchange a look, and felt his heart sink. Either they were surprised, or he had fucked up somehow—but he didn’t know how.
Scuds, oblivious, started going down the list of all the single women he knew, from his kids’ pediatrician to the college girl who walked their dogs. Sidney nodded politely and ignored the ongoing silent conversation he could see from the corner of his eye. Flower could yell at him later about whatever the fuck it was that he’d done; there would be plenty of time for that on the plane tomorrow.
Scuds ran out of women eventually, and Sidney took the opportunity to excuse himself to the washroom. He knew he fucked up sometimes, just like everyone else did, because nobody could say the right thing all the time in every situation. But he usually had some idea of where he’d misstepped, and this time he didn’t have a goddamn clue.
He took his time peeing and washing his hands. They were probably talking about him while he wasn’t there, and he didn’t want to return too soon and feel that awkward abrupt silence settle.
Geno was gone when he got back.
“Oh, uh,” he said. “G took off?”
“Said he was tired,” Dumo said.
“Lame,” Scuds said.
Flower and Duper were both looking at Sidney. Flower raised his eyebrows. Things were starting to slot together in Sidney’s brain, really uncomfortable things that he hadn’t considered at all until this very moment.
“Guess that goal tonight took a lot out of him, eh,” he said, a beat too late, and then, “I’m gonna—I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
“Lame!” Scuds said again, but Sidney didn’t care what any of them thought.
+ + +
But Geno was in the hotel room, sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched over his phone, still wearing his suit pants and dress shirt. He looked up when Sidney came in. His expression was totally blank.
“You left,” Sidney said. Maybe it wasn’t the best opening, but he wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Yes,” Geno said. He bent his head over his phone again.
Okay. Maybe Sidney had misinterpreted. Maybe Flower and Duper were pranking him. He hung his coat in the closet and undressed down to his underwear. He could feel Geno’s eyes on him, but every time he glanced over, Geno was staring intently at his phone.
He didn’t know where to start. He didn’t want to guess, and get it wrong.
He went over to Geno and put his hands on Geno’s shoulders. “Hey,” he said softly.
Geno set his phone down on the bed, finally, and looked up at Sidney. His expression was wavering a little now. He looked—God. He looked sad, and a little angry. His mouth was a tired line, drooping downward at the corners.
“Geno,” Sidney said, alarmed.
“You need stop,” Geno said. He gripped Sidney’s wrists, gently but firmly, and drew them away from his shoulders. “Okay? Can’t be boyfriend.”
Sidney blinked. “But—I am. Until—”
“Playoffs, yes,” Geno said. “But it’s pretend, Sid, okay? It’s not real.”
“I know that,” Sidney said. He twisted his wrists out of Geno’s grasp. He wished now that he hadn’t gotten undressed. He felt really naked, in his underwear while Geno still had all his clothes on. He was wearing the boxer-briefs Geno liked, short and black and tight, and it was wildly inappropriate to think about sex right now, like maybe his brain was shorting out.
“We stop,” Geno said. “Do in public, like Jen say, but—can’t spend night, can’t—no sex. Don’t make—don’t make me—” He paused, and sucked in a ragged breath. He pressed his lips together and looked away, shaking his head.
“Don’t make you what,” Sidney said. His pulse beat in his temples. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. He didn’t have anywhere to put them, he needed pockets. He folded his arms across his chest and tucked his hands in his armpits, and that helped a little.
Geno leaned forward to rest his head against Sidney’s crossed arms. His fingers toyed with the hem of Sidney’s underwear. When he spoke, his voice was so quiet that Sidney strained to hear his words. “Don’t make me think it’s real.”
Sidney’s stomach felt all tangled up. He was drawing a pretty bad conclusion. He pulled away from Geno and paced across the room, but there was nowhere for him to go. He had to sleep here tonight, and wake up with Geno in the morning, no matter what happened. No matter what Geno said next.
“I, uh.” Sidney licked his lips. His mouth was so dry. “It’s not real, so. I wasn’t trying to make you think anything.”
Geno was bent over, his forearms braced on his knees, but he looked up now. His eyes were glittering. “No? You take me on nice date, come to my house, talk with my friends, bring me cake, warn about Flower, make me think—you look at me, Sid—”
“I wasn’t trying to,” Sidney said. He felt sick. “I thought—you’re still getting over Kostya. And it’s my fault. I thought—if I was nice to you. I thought that might help.” The best pretend boyfriend of all time. And he’d done it: he’d been so good at it he’d convinced Geno he meant it.
Geno laughed, a raw, harsh sound. He dropped his head down again, staring down at the floor between his feet. “Sid, I’m with Kostya for get over you.”
Oh, Christ. Sidney was going to throw up. He sat down hard in the armchair in the corner. “What?” he said weakly.
Geno cupped his head in his hands and said something in Russian. Whatever he was saying sounded like it hurt.
“I don’t understand,” Sidney said. His hands were trembling slightly with adrenaline. “You’re—how long have you felt like this?”
Geno shook his head mutely. He rocked back and forth slightly.
“The first time we hooked up,” Sidney said. “Did you think—”
“I know, okay,” Geno said, talking to his own knees. “First time I think, maybe, but then I know you don’t want. But I still—fuck! I know I’m stupid. Okay? I know.”
“Then why did you keep having sex with me?” Sidney asked. Fuck, he couldn’t believe this. The whole time they’d been hooking up, Geno had been—God. “You should have stopped—”
Geno sat up at last. His eyes were so bright. “I try!” he said harshly. “That’s why I delete movie! I stay away all summer, don’t text, don’t think about, meet Kostya—it’s over! But then we need pretend, and you so—you always like this, so nice, stop be so fucking nice, Sid. I want serious, okay, and you only—play around, pretend like serious, but you’re not serious. Only play. I’m tired of play!”
“I thought you liked it,” Sidney said dumbly. “Having sex with me.”
“I do like,” Geno said. He made a frustrated noise and covered his face with one hand. “Okay? I like too much, that’s why I keep—so you stop, okay? Don’t kiss, don’t—only what Jen say. And that’s it.”
“Geno,” Sidney said. He didn’t know what else to say.
“You don’t feel,” Geno said. He lowered his hand. His eyes fixed on Sidney’s face, wide and pleading. “Sid?”
“I’m really sorry, G,” Sidney said. He was a little mad at Geno for putting him in this position, for hiding his feelings for so long and never saying anything, but he was also mad at himself, for never noticing, and for trying to be nice to Geno and inadvertently leading him on. “I don’t. I don’t feel the same way.”
Geno nodded tightly. He folded his hands in his lap and stared down at them, his jaw set. His shoulders rose and fell a few times as he inhaled deeply.
Fuck, was he going to start crying? “Geno,” Sidney said, moving forward in his seat, ready to get up and—
And do what? Offer Geno comfort? Take Geno in his arms and stroke his hair and tell him it was going to be okay? That was what he wanted to do, and that was how they had ended up here, with Geno near tears in their hotel room: because Sidney had been playing his role to the hilt, and had taken it too far.
“God, Geno, I’m so fucking sorry,” he said, and every part of him was sour with remorse.
Geno made a hurt noise and got up from the bed, and went into the washroom and closed the door.
Alone, Sidney pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. What a fucking mess they were in. What a fucking mess they had created for themselves. And they still had the rest of the season to get through.
The tap ran for a few minutes. Sidney sat up when it cut off, and a moment later, Geno came out, drying his face with a towel. He wouldn’t meet Sidney’s eyes.
“I can, uh. I’ll go sleep in Flower’s room tonight,” Sidney said.
“No,” Geno said. He turned his back to Sidney and started unbuttoning his shirt. “Someone see, Jen gets mad.”
“What are we going to do?” Sidney asked.
Geno shrugged. “Pretend.”
Right. Pretend. For months, when Sidney knew now how Geno felt, and would think about it every time they kissed.
There was nothing he could do about it tonight. It was late. He brushed his teeth. Geno was already in bed, curled on his side, a motionless lump beneath the covers. Sidney carefully slid in beside him, and turned out the light.
The night before, he had held Geno as he fell asleep, after sex, listening to Geno’s breathing steady out, quick and even. He listened for it now, but Geno’s breaths stayed unnaturally slow and deep, and Sidney fell asleep before he ever heard Geno settle.
+ + +
Most mornings on the road, Sidney was still in bed when Zhenya woke up. When he heard Zhenya stirring, he would scoot in close and wait for Zhenya to turn on his side, and for a few minutes they would lie together, Sidney’s arm around Zhenya’s waist and his face pressed to Zhenya’s back.
That was over now.
He should have kept his fucking mouth shut. But he wasn’t sorry he hadn’t. He couldn’t go on like they had been, not after hearing Sidney say out loud, so casually, that Zhenya was only a brief detour for him, and not a destination.
His head ached. He had humiliated himself. He knew Sidney would be kind to him, and pity was infinitely worse than scorn or disgust.
Sidney had been so sweet with him the other night, before the game. Zhenya had never felt so—but he was back to reality now. How stupid of him, to think that Sidney might have any feelings for him beyond friendship.
The door opened. Zhenya thought about rolling over and pretending he was still asleep, but then Sidney was standing there, smiling at him tentatively, and it was too late.
“Hey, uh,” Sidney said. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.” He was holding a Starbucks cup, probably from the hotel lobby. His hair looked soft. He hadn’t showered yet. He placed the coffee cup on the nightstand. “Got this for you.”
Starbucks was boyfriend coffee. Sidney usually made him a cup of shitty hotel room coffee to help lure him out of bed, and that was bad enough, but going downstairs first thing in the morning to get Zhenya the good stuff was exactly the type of bullshit Zhenya couldn’t bear.
Zhenya decided he would pretend Sidney had woken him, because then Sidney wouldn’t expect him to talk. He looked at the coffee, and then looked at Sidney, and let his expression speak for itself.
Sidney got it. He wasn’t stupid. He winced, and picked up the cup again. “Sorry, I—guess I shouldn’t have done that.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Seems like I always manage to do the wrong thing.”
He shouldn’t have done it, but Zhenya still wanted his coffee. He sat up and reached out to take the cup from Sidney’s hands, and popped off the lid to investigate. Sidney had gotten him exactly what he liked: drip coffee, pale with cream.
“This is gonna be weird now, isn’t it,” Sidney said. He perched on the bed by Zhenya’s knees, at the perfect distance to be friendly but not intimate.
Of course it was going to be weird. Zhenya eyed him and didn’t respond. Making eye contact was a challenge. His face felt warm. He hoped he wasn’t too obviously blushing. He wasn’t ashamed of his feelings, but it was always embarrassing to be rejected.
“I never thought you would, uh. Feel that way about me,” Sidney said.
Was he joking? Was he blind? Had he never looked in a mirror? Even in the T-shirt and jeans he had put on to go downstairs, his solid, muscular body made Zhenya’s palms itch. And on top of that, he was—well, he was marriage material. He was Zhenya’s captain and his friend: single-minded, obsessive, slow to adapt to change, and unbearably kind-hearted, patient, and generous. Zhenya loved him, and he knew he had to stop, and he couldn’t imagine how.
“Guess you took me by surprise there,” Sidney said, and why in God’s name was he still talking?
“When is bus,” Zhenya said.
“Oh, uh.” Sidney checked his watch. “It’s still early. You’ve got half an hour until breakfast.”
“Okay, you have first shower,” Zhenya said, and when Sidney was in the bathroom with the door safely closed, he drank his coffee and scrolled through Instagram and let his heart hurt as much as it wanted to.
Later, in the elevator on the way down to breakfast, Sidney turned to him and said, “I’ll talk to Jen. Maybe see if we can wrap this up early.”
“No,” Zhenya said. He absolutely didn’t want Jen learning about his shame. It had been mortifying enough to watch Flower and Duper give him sympathetic looks across the table. The fewer people who knew, the better.
“Come on, Geno,” Sidney said, in his obnoxious I-know-best voice. “We aren’t going to—we can’t keep doing this for the rest of the season. That’s not fair to you.”
Zhenya was abruptly, unreasonably furious. What made Sidney think he had any right to tell Zhenya what he could or couldn’t handle? Zhenya had been heartbroken before; he knew what it felt like, and he knew it would pass. Sidney didn’t get to decide for him.
The elevator doors slid open. “Don’t tell Jen,” Zhenya said, as calmly as he could manage, and brushed past Sidney and followed the smell of food down the hall.
Breakfast was the usual hotel buffet: eggs, sausage patties, oatmeal. Zhenya filled his plate and poured a second cup of coffee. He usually limited himself to one, but he needed the fortification this morning. He hadn’t slept well, or enough.
He sat at a table by himself, and tried to emit enough fuck-off vibes to get everyone to leave him alone. But someone pulled out the chair beside him, and Zhenya risked a quick sideways glance to confirm it was Duper.
“Bon matin,” Duper said.
“Fuck off, Pascal,” Zhenya mumbled, his mouth full of scrambled eggs.
“Wonder if we’ll get any snow this month,” Duper said. “White Christmas, what do you think? My kids keep asking me, and I say, do I look like the weather man to you? No, I’m far more handsome.”
“Not like back home,” Duper said. “It’s a white Christmas there every year.”
He talked like that through the whole meal, rambling about nothing. Zhenya knew what he was doing, and felt foolish to be catered to, but also sharply grateful. Borts and Spaler joined them, and Duper started lecturing them about the importance of finding a wife who would put up with their disgusting habits. Zhenya ate a croissant.
“Thanks, Duper,” he said quietly, when the meal was over, and they were all gathering their things to get on the bus to the airport.
Duper clapped him on the back. “He doesn’t deserve you, and we’ll never talk about this again.”
Zhenya hoisted his duffel, and went out into the cold.
It wasn’t about what anyone deserved. These things never were. He could be a literal saint, the patron saint of stray kittens, or whatever—lost children, women with terrible husbands—and still Sidney wouldn’t love him. There was no power on the earth or above it, or below, that could make someone love you.
He sat alone on the flight back to Pittsburgh. The sky was overcast until they rose above the thick bank of clouds that lay over the city. There was snow in the forecast. But there was the sun, once the plane broke through, waiting there out of sight. Zhenya lowered his window shade, reclined his seat, and slept until the wheels touched down.
+ + +
Geno texted him about an hour before the event started. I wear gray suit red tie. We match
Fuck. Sidney replied, I’ll wear navy
He drove to the arena in the dark. The western horizon was purple and indigo with the last of the light. They were getting close to the darkest, shortest days of the year.
His stomach was unsettled, vaguely queasy. He felt so fucking guilty. But Geno should have said something. There had been no way for Sidney to know.
The gala was just kicking off when he arrived. People were standing around in the concourse, talking and posing for pictures. The familiar space was transformed by decorations and mood lighting, the tables set up for hors d’oeuvres and the silent auction. Jen spotted him almost immediately and swooped in to start fussing with his tie.
“Really?” Sidney said, amused. He was pretty confident about his tie-knotting skills.
“Your divot’s off-center,” Jen said. She poked the knot a few times and stepped back to examine him. “You’ll do.”
“Thanks,” Sidney said dryly. “You look nice.” She did. He was used to seeing Jen dressed up for work, but this went beyond her normal degree of dressed up. She was wearing red lipstick, which various girlfriends had conditioned Sidney to think of as extremely fancy.
Jen did a little half-turn to show Sidney the back of her dress. “New dress. Maternity clothes are so expensive. I’m going to wear it to every event this winter. Don’t tell anyone. I’m hoping nobody will notice.”
Sidney laughed. “I won’t tell.”
“There’s Geno,” Jen said, nodding over Sidney’s shoulder. “Come find me in a bit and we’ll take some pictures, okay?”
She went off, click-clicking away in her heels, her phone in hand, all business. Sidney straightened his suit jacket, took a breath, and turned to face the music.
Geno looked really good. He always looked good in a suit. His hair was dumb, combed down to the side like that, but Sidney was willing to overlook it. He shoved his hands in his pockets and watched Geno come closer, smiling at Sidney the way he always did, fond and familiar, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Hi, Sid,” Geno said. He put his hand on Sidney’s hip and leaned in for a kiss, and Sidney only noticed the split second of hesitation because they had kissed so many times over the past few months. Otherwise the kiss was the same as always, soft and affectionate, totally appropriate for public.
“Uh, hi,” Sidney said, when Geno pulled back. Geno wouldn’t quite meet his eyes.
Sidney hadn’t felt awkward with Geno in years, not since Geno first joined the team and could only communicate via hand gestures or Gonch. But he felt pretty fucking awkward now.
God. Geno had feelings for him. Geno wanted to be his boyfriend for real. Sidney had never once considered it, hadn’t even thought of it as a possibility. But Flower and Duper obviously knew. Flower hadn’t said anything about it on the plane, but he had given Sidney a few really judgmental looks. Sidney couldn’t imagine Geno confessing anything to them, so they had just noticed, and how was Sidney that oblivious when he saw Geno basically every day and interacted with him way more than Flower or Duper did?
Because he hadn’t been looking for it. He’d been so convinced Geno was still hung up on Kostya that he’d never let the thought enter his mind.
“Geno,” he said softly.
Geno plastered a bright, artificial smile on his face. “Let’s get wine, Sid. Not too much, practice tomorrow. Can’t be hangover.”
“I won’t—fine,” Sidney said, and let Geno tow him over to the bar.
They mingled. Sidney could make small talk in his sleep, and he let his mouth run on autopilot as Geno steered them around the room, chatting with various rich people who were thrilled to have the undivided attention of not one but both of the team’s top two centers. He didn’t know what the fuck he talked about. Hockey, probably. His undivided attention was devoted to Geno.
He knew they touched each other a lot—they had to; it was part of the charade—but he hadn’t realized how much he touched Geno, or how casually, without thinking about it. Now he was second-guessing every touch, hesitating with his hand halfway to Geno’s waist, and probably being incredibly awkward and obvious about it, judging from the looks Geno kept shooting in his direction. But he couldn’t help it. Geno was a better actor than he was, because all he could think about was Geno pulling Sidney’s hands off his shoulders in the hotel room in New York, telling Sidney without words that it wasn’t okay to touch him like that.
Geno extricated them from a starstruck older couple and tugged Sidney away across the room, his hand at Sidney’s elbow. He put an arm around Sidney’s shoulders and leaned in close. His lips brushed Sidney’s ear. “Jen is watch, don’t make worry face.”
“I’m not,” Sidney said. Geno nuzzled at his ear, sending a helpless shiver down Sidney’s spine, and he turned his head away, forcing himself to smile, trying to make the gesture seem cute and playful. “Geno, stop it.”
“Me?” Geno’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “Why it’s me? You don’t delete, lose phone—”
“You’re the one who wanted it in the first place,” Sidney said. “Christ, why are we back to this? Does it fucking matter? What can we do about it now?”
Geno kissed his cheek. This was the worst Sidney had felt about anything in a long time. He wanted to shake Geno off, but they were in public, and Geno was right: Jen was heading for them, a photographer in tow, and she would see right away if they were arguing; she knew them both too well.
“Be good,” Geno muttered to him, as if Sidney was the only one causing problems.
Jen wanted them to pose for pictures: Crosby and Malkin, nauseatingly in love. Geno goofed around with the photographer and teased Sidney gently, and nestled easily against Sidney’s side when Jen told Sidney to put his arm around Geno’s waist. Geno faked it and smiled the whole time, like it was the easiest thing in the world, and Sidney couldn’t handle the thought of months more of this, Geno lying with every smile and probably hating Sidney for it.
“Can you give him a kiss?” the photographer said, and Geno turned to Sidney and smiled at him so fondly and bent down to slot their mouths together.
Geno’s kiss said that everything was fine. But Sidney had seen Geno in the hotel room that morning, pale and speechless. And he saw Geno’s hard eyes now when they broke apart.
“Thanks, guys, we’re all set,” Jen said.
“I’m done,” Sidney said to Geno in an undertone, as soon as Jen and the photographer were out of earshot. “That’s enough for one night.”
“Fine,” Geno said, and stalked off toward the bar. He would drink too much, maybe, and regret it at practice in the morning. But Sidney wasn’t going to scold him about it; he wasn’t Geno’s mother, or his boyfriend.
He was done with pretending with Geno, and done with talking with donors—done with all of it, frankly, the entire evening, and ready to go home. But he knew he couldn’t leave yet, not without hearing about it from Jen and probably Mario.
He saw Tanger across the room, standing against the wall with his phone out, typing away. Sidney went over to him, and Tanger looked up as he approached, and smiled at him.
“Flying solo tonight?” Sidney asked, because he hadn’t seen Catherine anywhere.
“At home with the small one,” Tanger said. “He’s beneath the weather.” He wiggled his phone at Sidney. “I’m getting news.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Sidney said.
Tanger shrugged. “Kids get sick all the time, it’s not major. Just a cold, I think.”
“Sure,” Sidney said. Geno was talking with a woman, a young-ish woman wearing a tight dress, and she had a hand on Geno’s arm, and was smiling up at him. Sidney wished her luck.
“Are you jealous?” Tanger asked, following his gaze.
Sidney was pretty sure Geno had never had sex with a woman, or even thought about it. “Oh yeah. Seething.”
He wished right away that he hadn’t joked about it. He couldn’t stop thinking about the look on Geno’s face last night, of total resignation, like he had gone in knowing Sidney would disappoint him.
Sidney wasn’t like that. He wasn’t like Geno in that way.
“Ah, shit,” Tanger said, stuffing his phone back in his pocket. “Jen’s looking. Go, go!”
Tanger slunk off. But Sidney didn’t slink. He went right over to Jen, where she was standing talking with a photographer, someone Sidney didn’t recognize—probably local press. Sidney hovered politely until the conversation ended and Jen turned to him.
“Can we meet tomorrow?” Sidney asked. “Maybe before practice, if you’ve got time. Or after.”
“Of course,” Jen said, frowning slightly. “I’ll be here tomorrow at 8:00. Is everything okay?”
“There’s no crisis,” Sidney said. “But. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Sure,” Jen said slowly. Sidney could see the wheels turning in her head. She would probably have the whole thing figured out before midnight. “Tomorrow.”
He had to say goodbye to Geno before he left. Someone would probably notice if he just took off, and Sidney didn’t want any scrutiny right now, not with Geno so hurt and angry and Sidney so bewildered and guilty.
Geno was talking with a group of people, charming them in his effortless way with his big smile and his vaguely sheepish body language, like he was apologizing for being so tall and overwhelming. But he detached himself when Sidney came over, and ducked his head to put his ear closer to Sidney’s mouth.
“I’m heading out,” Sidney said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Geno said, and turned his head to give Sidney a kiss.
+ + +
“Okay,” she said, and spun her chair around to turn off the coffee maker. “What did you do?” She turned back toward him. Her eyes were narrowed even further. “Don’t tell me there’s another sex tape.”
“No, nothing like that,” Sidney said. He took a seat. Jen had a framed photo on her desk from her wedding, of her and her husband smiling at each other like they were the only people left in the world.
Jen popped the lid on the coffee to blow on it a few times, and then took a sip. She sighed. “I really shouldn’t drink this.”
“I thought a little bit of caffeine was okay,” Sidney said. If his bribe didn’t work, he was fucked.
“It’s more the sugar,” she said, “but I’m going to drink it anyway.” She replaced the lid, and set the cup aside. “Your bribe is acknowledged. Now tell me what you want.”
He usually appreciated Jen’s bluntness. “The fake dating thing is, uh. I was hoping we could—stop.”
Jen folded her arms on top of her desk. “We agreed you’d go through the end of the season.”
“Circumstances have changed,” Sidney said. “If there’s any way we could wrap it up early. I’d appreciate it.”
“Circumstances,” Jen repeated. “Okay.” She cocked her head to one side. “You’ve talked with Geno about this?”
He had, technically, mentioned it to Geno. “Well—sort of.”
Jen sighed. “Okay. Say you break up before the season’s over. What happens when you lose a game? You’re distracted by your relationship troubles, your head’s not in the game—”
“People are already saying that,” Sidney said. “We lose a game, and it’s because Geno’s ass distracts me on the power play, or whatever.”
“Well, that’s true,” Jen said. She sighed again. “It won’t be believable if you break up right away. We’ll need a month or two to start introducing some signs of tension. I’d say mid-February is the earliest we can shoot for.”
Sidney’s heart sank. That was two months away, and maybe Geno could handle it, maybe Geno didn’t mind pretending, but Sidney minded. The gala had been awful, and he’d gone home and miserably relived all of his interactions with Geno, the awkward kisses, the slight hesitation each time they touched. Two months was too long.
But it was better than four months, or five, or—Christ—even six, if they went all the way; and Sidney hoped every year that they would go all the way.
“I’ll need to talk with Geno as well,” Jen said. “To make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Geno was mad enough at him already. He had deliberately avoided promising that he wouldn’t talk to Jen, but he knew he was meeting with her against Geno’s wishes, and he didn’t want Geno to find out.
“I guess you’re right,” Sidney said. “Too much trouble to change the plan now.”
“Sidney, did something happen?” Jen asked. “You’ve both seemed fine with how things are going. What changed? Did someone say something to you?”
Everything had changed, but it wasn’t Sidney’s secret to share. “Guess I feel bad that Geno’s stuck with me for so long.”
“Then he shouldn’t have made a sex tape with you,” Jen said crisply. “Geno’s an adult. He’ll be fine.”
Sidney left Jen contentedly sipping her coffee and went downstairs to change before practice. He wasn’t vain enough to think he had ruined Geno’s life. Geno would be fine, eventually. But that didn’t make Sidney feel any less guilty.
Geno avoided him at practice. Usually, Geno hung out with him between drills, but today he was all the way at the other end of the ice. And he didn’t come talk with Sidney in the locker room after, to sit beside him for a few minutes and bullshit around. They had developed so many new patterns this season, and somehow Sidney hadn’t realized it. He wouldn’t be going to Geno’s house anymore, for dinner and sex. He wouldn’t be spending the night. All of that was over, and it was only pretend, it didn’t mean anything, but he was sad about it anyway.
They had months left, though, and two dates a week to get through. He cornered Geno at last in the change room and said, “We should make some plans.”
Geno didn’t look up from pulling on his socks. “What plan.”
“Uh, a schedule,” Sidney said. “For, you know. Dating.” He’d had a vague idea that a set schedule might make things easier for Geno, but now, with Geno steadfastly refusing to look at him, he wished he hadn’t said anything.
“It’s okay, Sid,” Geno said. He sat up then. He looked tired. The circles beneath his eyes were darker than usual. “Don’t need schedule. We go for lunch, okay? Or dinner. Do team things. Don’t worry.”
“If that’s what you want,” Sidney said.
“What I want,” Geno said, and snorted. “Go shower, Sid.”
Probably it would be like this for the rest of the season. Geno would want as little to do with him as possible, to spare his own feelings, and Sidney would give him space, because he didn’t want to cause Geno any further pain. They would be teammates, but not friends. But maybe next season, after Geno had a full summer away from him—maybe next season they could be friends again.
Next season seemed really far away.
He went home after practice and tried to review some game tape, but he couldn’t focus. He ended up lying on the couch with his tablet and scrolling through Geno’s Instagram account. Geno had been posting more this season, a few pictures a week instead of a few a month, and most of them featured Sidney: Sidney and Geno at Halloween, Sidney smiling over an empty plate, Sidney laughing at Nate at dinner. There were a couple of pictures Sidney hadn’t noticed Geno taking, one of him staring out the window on the bus, his earbuds in, and one in a hotel room somewhere—they all blurred together—of Sidney stretched out on the bed, fully dressed, legs crossed at the ankles, talking on the phone. His head was turned away from the camera, but Geno had captured the side of his face, enough to show that he was grinning. He couldn’t remember who he had been talking to. Taylor, maybe.
He went back to look at the picture from Halloween. He remembered Geno’s fangs against his neck, and Geno in his bed that night. That was the first time Geno had stayed over. Sidney had gotten up early the next morning and gone downstairs to make pancakes, and Geno had shuffled downstairs half an hour later, still non-verbal, and leaned against Sidney’s back while he cooked the final few pancakes. It was a warm memory, soft around the edges, and a little painful now, like probing at a loose tooth.
He thought of the quiet intimacy he’d shared with Geno in hotel rooms and bedrooms, and his chest ached with knowing he wouldn’t get to have that again.
He was afraid to think about what it meant for him to feel that way.
The most recent picture was from only a few days ago, the morning they flew out to New York before the game. The plane had been delayed a little for some reason, some technical issue that needed double-checking, and Geno had asked Kuni to take a picture of the two of them while they sat around in the waiting room. Geno was smiling at the camera, one arm around Sidney’s shoulders, and Sidney was looking over at Geno, his chin tilted up, with an expression of naked fondness on his face that he couldn’t believe he had actually produced. But there it was, in black and white, because Geno had edited the photo for some reason. Sidney had looked at Geno like that, and Geno had posted the picture.
Why had he looked at Geno like that? He couldn’t remember. Maybe Geno had said something cute. But he scrolled back through the feed again, and—he looked like that in a lot of the pictures. Like that was just what his face did, when he was looking at Geno.
Sidney closed out of his browser with a groan, and opened his video player. He was wasting time; they had a game in two days. He had work to do.
+ + +
Then it turned out Sidney had the fucking mumps.
Zhenya was in Columbus for the away game. Dr. McLane came into the locker room after skate and said, “Geno, please come with me.”
Nobody liked getting summoned by the medical staff. Zhenya was treated to any number of sympathetic glances on his way out of the room. That didn’t make him feel any better when Dr. McLane led him into the trainers’ room, closed the door, and said, “Sidney has the mumps. Do you have any symptoms? Fever? Headache?”
“No, no,” Zhenya said. “Feel fine.” He wasn’t lying. Even his knee felt pretty good.
“Hmm,” Dr. McLane said. She directed him to sit on an examination table, and began prodding at his face and neck. Zhenya winced as she hit a tender spot, and she gave him a sharp look and probed again in the same place, and then shook her head. “Just muscle soreness. Geno, I don’t want to hold you out of the lineup unnecessarily, but the mumps is very contagious, and you’ve had intimate contact with Sidney recently.”
“I get shot,” Zhenya protested, because he’d gotten the full battery of everything before the Olympics.
“So did Sidney,” Dr. McLane said. “You may be fine. Tell someone right away if you start having any symptoms. None of that tough-guy nonsense. I’m sending a sample for testing. We’ll get the results back tomorrow. Don’t let anyone drink out of your water bottle.”
“I never let,” Zhenya said indignantly. Hockey players were animals, but Zhenya strove to maintain some level of decorum.
He felt fine, and continued to feel fine all through the game and the flight home, and the next morning at the rink, he went to see Dr. Vyas before practice and got the all-clear: he was mumps-free.
“Somehow,” Dr. Vyas said dryly.
“Russian shot best,” Zhenya said.
“I’m sure that’s it,” Dr. Vyas said, somehow even more dryly.
Sidney was still contagious, and quarantined at his house, which Zhenya knew because Flower did a dramatic reading, after practice, of the texts he’d received from Sidney over the past couple of days.
“‘Think one of my nuts might be swollen,’” Flower read. “Then he offered to send a picture, my God, the man has no shame. ‘I’m so fucking bored. Death awaits me. I fear the end approaches—’”
“He didn’t actually say that,” Paulie said, but he didn’t sound totally certain.
“Have you met him? Sid is the most dramatic person alive,” Flower said. “Feel free to text him yourself. He needs entertaining. I have a family, I can’t spend all of my free time texting Sid about his scrotum.”
Zhenya spent some of his own free time that afternoon trying to think of something he could text Sidney that would hit the right note: friendly, casual, appropriately sympathetic without seeming too invested. He was still hurt and embarrassed and licking his wounds, but they had to get over the awkwardness at some point, and Sidney—knowing Sidney—would give Zhenya space forever, until Zhenya made some indication that he was ready to make amends. But Zhenya couldn’t come up with the right words, and he absolutely wasn’t going to take a cue from Flower and text Sidney about his balls.
Instead of texting Sidney, he sat at his kitchen table and called Seryozha. Zhenya hadn’t told anyone about what had happened in New York, although Flower and Duper had certainly inferred most of it. He needed to unburden himself, and Seryozha was the ideal candidate. He knew about Zhenya’s pathetic crush, and that the relationship was a fraud, and he was also safely in Montreal and unable to give Zhenya any disapproving looks in person.
“Tell me why you really called,” Seryozha said, after Zhenya made the requisite inquiries about Ksenia and the girls, and Seryozha’s teammates, and how he was adjusting to Montreal. “I know you don’t care about my boring life.”
“You should make an effort to be less boring, then, so that I care more,” Zhenya said.
“I’ll take that under advisement,” Seryozha said. “Now tell me what’s bothering you.”
Zhenya told him what had happened at the bar, and in the hotel room. Seryozha listened patiently, and Zhenya felt the wretched days-old ache in his belly ease as Seryozha made a series of quiet sympathetic noises.
When Zhenya was finished, Seryozha said, “You got your hopes up.”
“Yeah,” Zhenya said. “I know I shouldn’t have.” The squirrel that lived in the tree outside had emerged from its winter nest, and was perched on a low branch, staring in at Zhenya through the glass. He would have to give it a name, soon.
“I can’t blame you.” Seryozha sighed. “Sid’s never had good boundaries with you.”
“Boundaries, what the fuck is that?” Zhenya asked. “Don’t give me that self-help relationship foolishness.” He could tell Seryozha in plain terms what had happened, but any serious discussion of it was too much for him. His emotions were still too raw for him to want to talk about them in depth.
“Well, what are you going to do about it?” Seryozha asked. “You have the rest of this season to get through, don’t you?”
“We’ll make it work,” Zhenya said. Somehow. Kissing Sidney in public a few times a week wasn’t a terrible hardship, but Sidney’s guilty cow eyes were going to do him in. He was going to have to tell Sidney to stop, and Sidney would apologize a lot, and express great empathy and compassion, and Zhenya would try to avoid throttling him. He wished he could hate Sidney, or even muster some appropriately indignant rage.
“And then next season?” Seryozha asked.
“No, it’s over,” Zhenya said. “I’m done with all that.” He never should have started sleeping with Sidney at all, but barring that, he should never have started sleeping with Sidney again last season, after the summer. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“We’ll find you someone this summer,” Seryozha said. “I’ll set the girls on it. Take them to the park with you and they’ll chat up every handsome man they see until they find one who will agree to take your sorry ass on a date.”
“You say that like I should be grateful,” said Zhenya, who was.
“Yes, well,” Seryozha said.
“Don’t tell Genya,” Zhenya said.
“Genya doesn’t know?” Seryozha asked. “Zhenya—”
“I’m not a boy any longer,” Zhenya said. “Genya doesn’t need to know all my business.”
Seryozha made a skeptical noise, which wasn’t unwarranted. Genya was deeply involved in the vast majority of Zhenya’s business. “Who’s going to keep an eye on you, when I’m not there?”
“You fussing old woman,” Zhenya said, and outside the squirrel chattered like it agreed with him.
He hung up with a lighter heart: a welcome reminder that his sorrow wouldn’t last.
+ + +
“They told him to stay at home until Wednesday,” Flower told Zhenya confidentially after skate. “To be safe. He’s losing his mind. I should read you the text messages he sent me last night. Stir-crazy, you know? He ran out of ice cream. He’s on the edge.”
Zhenya grunted, not sure what he was meant to make of this information. A small and mean part of him was glad that Sidney was so bored and unhappy. It served him right. But the team needed him, and Zhenya’s petty anger burned itself out on the ice that night, a satisfying victory over Tampa despite Zhenya’s own mediocre performance. He drove home thinking of Sidney alone in his big house, frustrated and dessert-less. He could imagine Sidney slumped resignedly in front of his television, watching the game and wishing he were on the ice with them.
Zhenya told himself he wasn’t going to do it, and he resisted that night, and for most of the morning, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Sidney trapped in his house for four days now. Sidney hated to sit around, he was always doing something, and multiple days of banishment from the rink were sure to set him bouncing off the walls. It was only natural for Zhenya to feel sympathetic.
He was being a good teammate, he told himself, even as he drove to the grocery store to purchase several flavors of ice cream, expensive out-of-season berries, and the crusty bread Sidney liked, and then drove to Sidney’s house and called him from outside the gate.
“Uh, Geno?” Sidney said, when he picked up.
“Hi, let me in,” Zhenya said.
“You’re—are you at my house?” Sidney asked.
“Yes, outside,” Zhenya said, and Sidney drew in a breath like he was going to say something, but then the gate rolled open and Zhenya drove through.
Sidney met him at the mud room door. He looked just how Zhenya had expected: sweatpants, messy hair, a wild look of desperation in his eyes that would have been comical under any other circumstances. His gaze dropped to the plastic grocery bags in Zhenya’s hands, and when he glanced up again, his expression had flattened into his blank media look, the one Zhenya had never learned how to read.
“You, uh. What’s all this?” Sidney asked.
A powerful self-consciousness rose up to swallow Zhenya whole. Even Flower hadn’t done more than mock Sidney’s misfortune. And here Zhenya was, unbidden, toting concrete evidence of his feelings for Sidney, as though he hadn’t humiliated himself enough already.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just, Flower say—” But there was no point; there was no justification for what he was doing. He shoved the bags at Sidney.
Sidney took the bags, looking adorably confused. “You want to, uh. I just finished lunch, if you’re hungry—there are leftovers—”
“No,” Zhenya said. It was time for him to extract himself from this situation, with as much of his dignity intact as possible. “Have to—do errand. Maybe you still sick, so not good to, uh. Okay, bye.”
“Geno, wait,” Sidney said, but it was too late: Zhenya was already halfway out the door, and Sidney didn’t make a second attempt.
+ + +
Sidney had never seen the point of introspection. If he had a bad game, he thought about his performance only enough to diagnose what he’d done wrong, and then he went to the rink and got to work. If he got dumped, he distracted himself with work and hobbies, because dwelling on his painful emotions served no purpose and wouldn’t get him un-dumped. He knew where he had gone wrong with Geno, and they had already agreed on how to change their behavior moving forward, so there was nothing else to think about.
He kept thinking about it. Geno posted a new picture to Instagram, of him holding Max’s baby and pulling a goofy face at her while she smiled, and Sidney spent a long time, way longer than he would ever admit to anyone, trying to decipher Geno’s emotional state from that photo. The playfulness was a good sign, but maybe Max had brought the baby over to cheer Geno up, and the picture represented only a temporary respite. Sidney really had no fucking idea, because Geno wasn’t talking to him at all.
He didn’t even know what he wanted to talk to Geno about. Nothing was happening. He was bored senseless, but that wasn’t Geno’s problem, and he could imagine Geno’s reaction if Sidney tried to go to him for entertainment.
He wasn’t totally dumb. He knew the way he was thinking about Geno didn’t really fit within the boundaries of a normal friends with benefits relationship, even one with the unpleasant surprise twist of oops-sorry-about-your-feelings. But he had never—he hadn’t thought about a guy like this before, hadn’t known he could or wanted to. Having sex with men was a far cry from dating a man, which he had never done or even considered.
Well, he had been dating Geno. But that wasn’t real—but Geno had thought it was real, so maybe—
He was in agony, basically, and then Geno made it ten times worse, at least, by showing up at his house with grocery bags full of what turned out to be Sidney’s favorite foods. He unpacked the bags in the kitchen after Geno left and felt his emotions building to a high and unfamiliar peak. Geno was really—God. The look on his face, stubborn and scared. The way he had turned his coat collar up when he walked back to his car, refusing to look back at where Sidney still lingered in the doorway.
He was finally cleared to practice the next day. Duper was at the rink, hanging around to chirp everyone from the bench, and when practice was over, Sidney sat down beside him and said, “Can we go for lunch?”
“Hmm,” Duper said. He cradled his coffee cup in his hands, probably empty by now. “You know the price for making me listen to you talk about your feelings.”
“I didn’t say anything about feelings,” Sidney said.
“You’re transparent to me,” Duper said. “Clear as glass. You may buy me lunch, and in return you’ll have my full attention for as long as it takes me to eat my steak.”
Sidney sighed. Duper had his number. “I’ll go get in the shower.”
Duper picked an upscale steakhouse overlooking the river, and made many smug noises over the menu, deliberating aloud about whether he should order the most expensive steak or only the second most expensive. He was really annoying, but an obnoxious Duper was a happy Duper. He’d been too quiet since the news about his blood clot. Sidney would listen to him gloat about steak for the rest of the afternoon and never say a word about it.
But after they placed their orders, Duper leaned back in his seat, rested his folded hands on the edge of the table, and said, “Okay, tell me.”
“Don’t tell anyone else about this,” Sidney said. “It’s not, uh. I’m not the only one involved.”
Duper nodded. “This is about how Geno’s in love with you?”
Sidney could feel himself turning red, and he fought it as hard as he could. “He isn’t—in love with me, that’s—”
“No, of course,” Duper said. “Forgive me. I’ll be serious about this. He talked to you in New York, I take it? After we were out at the bar?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “He said I was—pretending too well, I guess. Making him think I meant it. So, you know. I feel like a piece of shit, I guess I hurt him pretty badly, and I have to keep pretending to be his boyfriend for the rest of the season. It fucking blows.”
“And?” Duper asked. He narrowed his eyes. “My Spidey senses are tingling.”
Duper was obnoxious, corny, and dramatic, and he knew Sidney way too well. Sidney looked out the window toward the river and tried to think of how to say it.
“My God,” Duper said gleefully. “You like him back.”
Duper made it sound like they were schoolchildren. “I don’t know. I never thought about it.”
“Yes, Sidney Crosby, bastion of heterosexuality, as long as you ignore the occasional cock-sucking,” Duper said. “Aren’t you too old to be having a crisis about your sexuality?”
“Uh, I don’t think there’s an age limit on that,” Sidney said. Duper had been a mistake. He should have talked to someone more reasonable, like—well, he didn’t know anyone reasonable.
“You like him, he likes you, go ahead and put a ring on it,” Duper said. “What’s the problem?”
“He’s too important to the team,” Sidney said. “I can’t take that risk.”
Duper raised one skeptical eyebrow. “Geno is a professional, even if you aren’t. The team will be fine.”
Sidney swallowed. “He’s too important to me.”
“Ah, there we have it,” Duper said. “You’re scared.”
“Jesus, yeah, of course I’m scared,” Sidney said. He looked down at the napkin draped over his lap and fiddled with the hem. He knew he cared about Geno a lot as his friend and teammate, but past that, nothing was clear to him. How could he be sure? How could he know? It was a big decision, feeling that way about someone.
What if he got it wrong?
“Guess I don’t want anything to change,” he said finally. “But that’s stupid. It’s already changed.”
“It doesn’t have to be a bad change,” Duper said.
Sidney huffed. So far it was pretty bad. Geno had barely looked at him during practice. They skated on different lines, they ran separate drills, and Geno seemed perfectly content to avoid Sidney completely aside from their dates.
But Geno had brought him ice cream. That door wasn’t closed yet.
“You know, it took me a long time to tell Carole-Lyne I loved her,” Duper said. “I was young and stupid, of course—much younger than you are now, so really you have no excuse—”
“Hey,” Sidney said.
“—but oh, how I agonized! I wanted to be absolutely certain before I said it. What if I told her, and then it turned out I was wrong? What if I had to take it back? I had to be certain that what I felt was love, but how was I supposed to know what love felt like? It was a dilemma, you see.”
“But you said it eventually,” Sidney said. He had been in love with his last girlfriend, and when she broke up with him during the lockout it was a hard blow. But everything with Cassie had been clear and straightforward and easy until it wasn’t, and nothing with Geno was straightforward anymore.
“I don’t think love is a feeling,” Duper said. “It’s a decision you make. It’s something you do. Of course I have many feelings for my wife, and those feelings are what I think of as love, but—our marriage is something we do together. We create those feelings between us every day, by being together.”
This was why Sidney had wanted to talk to Duper. He was full of bullshit most of the time, but if you could get him to be serious for thirty seconds, he always had good advice.
“You think I should give it a shot,” he said. “With Geno.”
Duper shrugged. “Did I say that? I’m not giving you advice. I would never tell you what to do. I care about Geno, and I don’t want him to get hurt. If you’re not serious about him, you should leave him be.”
“I don’t know if I’m serious,” Sidney said. “But I also don’t know if I’m, uh. Not serious.”
“Well, leave him alone until you figure it out,” Duper said. “That’s my only advice. You know he’s a gentle and delicate man.”
“Oh sure, that’s Geno,” Sidney said. “Gentle and delicate until he cross-checks you in the face.”
“He cross-checks you gently,” Duper said, and then, his expression shifting into seriousness once more, “Did you really not know how he feels about you?”
Sidney shifted uncomfortably in his chair, remembering how he had resisted the dating scheme when Jen first proposed it. Maybe he’d had some vague, unacknowledged inkling.
“Guess I never thought about it,” he said, and Duper sighed and nodded, like that was exactly what he had expected Sidney to say.
Sidney drove home the long way, taking back roads along the river. He wanted to go back in time a month or two and date Geno again, but with intent. He hadn’t known at the time that there was anything worth paying attention to. He needed more data, and he wouldn’t get it from two uncomfortable lunches a week, where they talked exclusively about hockey and exchanged a dry kiss on the sidewalk before going their separate ways.
He needed—a do-over, a second run. Time to be with Geno, and think about what it meant, and what he wanted it to mean. But that wouldn’t be fair to Geno, not when Sidney was still so uncertain about his own feelings, all tangled up with sex and friendship and admiration and eight years of knowing each other.
The idea came to him while he was sitting at a stoplight, and the person behind him had to honk at him more than once before he realized the light had turned green.
He could still date Geno. He just had to do it without Geno noticing.
+ + +
He spent some time Googling, although most of the results were geared toward teenagers who didn’t want their parents to know they were sexually active, which wasn’t really Sidney’s demographic. In the end, he had to rely on his own ingenuity.
The obvious place to start was with their obligatory dates. He could try to steer Geno away from endless meals out. Jen had mentioned, way back at the beginning, going to the drugstore together, and maybe they wouldn’t go to the actual drugstore, but Sidney liked the idea of running errands together—doing those ordinary, domestic things. Bickering about organic versus conventional grapes at the grocery store. Going to the greenhouse to look at plants for the empty beds along the side of his house. And whatever weird errands Geno had—Sidney was sure they were weird.
That was the easy part; he would just invite Geno along whenever he went somewhere. The hard part was the rest of it, the non-public things: getting Geno alone, or at least alone-ish. They would spend a lot of nights together in hotel rooms, but Sidney wasn’t willing to push the envelope there. Hotel rooms were too private, and kind of fraught, with the bed right there, a constant reminder of all the things they’d done together and wouldn’t anymore. The only thing to do there was to get through it with a minimum of awkwardness.
What he needed was to get Geno in his house, and he could imagine any number of dumb, transparent excuses for inviting Geno over, but the easiest and safest way was to hold a bunch of team events. Poker nights, football watching parties, whatever—Geno probably wouldn’t come to everything, but he had to come to some things; he had the A. Hanging out in a group would let Sidney spend time with Geno without Geno feeling pressured or uncomfortable.
He looked at his calendar and picked a few dates that seemed promising, when they had two or more days between games. He would do some vague locker room ruminating about how it was time for him to start hosting more events now that his house was finally finished, and ignore the inevitable chirping about how he’d been living in his house for more than a year. He would start small, maybe with a movie night. If that went well, he would schedule a few more events.
So that was settled, and the dating, and the only thing left for him to think about was the most fundamental question of how to interact with Geno at the rink. Hockey was the only constant in their relationship, the one aspect that would for sure still be the same next season, and Sidney was all too aware of how any friction between him and Geno would impact the room. He knew his obligations to the team and the organization—and so did Geno. There wouldn’t be any overt trouble, no brawls during practice or petty refusals to speak to each other. But there were a lot of other ways to shut a guy out, and Geno had been pretty cold with him for those couple of days before he got the mumps. That couldn’t continue. He was willing to take his cues from Geno to some extent, but they had to be able to work together.
But Geno was noticeably less frosty at skate the morning after Sidney’s lunch with Duper. Sidney had gone hard at practice the day before and decided not to skate, but he did some work in the weight room, and Geno came in after a while with Suttsy, both of them still in their base layers and Geno with his sweaty hair sticking to his forehead.
Suttsy hopped on the bike, but Geno came over to where Sidney was resting on a bench between sets and said, “Face okay today, you still feel good?”
“Yeah, I feel pretty good,” Sidney said. “Ready for the game tonight.”
Geno nodded a few times. “We play good hockey, with captain back.” He chewed on his lip for a moment, and then shrugged and said, “Okay, see you,” and went to join Suttsy on the bikes.
It was still kind of awkward, but at least Geno wasn’t ignoring him. And during the game that night, when Kuni scored off an assist from Geno on the power play, Geno gleefully smashed Sidney against his side just like always. Sidney clung to him for a few moments of wordless gratitude before Geno, grinning, skated away.
+ + +
“How long will you be in New York?” she asked, when he explained the situation to her.
“For me, only one day. It’s friends from Russia, you know, they like to see New York. And Sid is go to Canada for Christmas, you know.”
Jen considered, swiveling back and forth in her desk chair. “Seeing his family will explain why he’s not in New York with you. But you need to spend New Year’s together. Deal?”
“Okay, deal,” Zhenya said, relieved. New Year’s would be much easier: he could park Sidney in a corner with Milanka and be done with him. Whereas in New York he would have to drag Sidney along for all of the sightseeing, and Sidney would probably be painfully earnest and interested in all of it, the dumb tree at Rockefeller Center and the inevitable shopping, and Zhenya would want to shake him and kiss him in equal measure.
“Geno, let me ask you something,” Jen said, and Zhenya settled back into his chair, when he had been tensed to rise to his feet. That tone of voice was never a good sign. “Has something happened with you and Sidney?”
“Why you ask,” Zhenya said, because he had enough media training to know you didn’t answer an open-ended question like that.
Jen sighed. “He came to see me last week. He wanted to know if the two of you could break up earlier than we had planned, and he didn’t want me to talk to you about it.”
Zhenya really wanted to shake him now. The little—after Zhenya had specifically told him not to talk to Jen. But it was difficult for him to muster much genuine anger. Sidney always tried to do what he thought was right, and if Zhenya confronted him about it, he would get one of Sidney’s intense wide-eyed looks and a sincere apology. And that wouldn’t be satisfying: Zhenya wanted a fight.
“It’s only little argument,” he said. “It’s after game, you know. Lots of emotion. It’s little bit yelling. But it’s okay now.” He paused, and then added, “It’s okay we break up early?”
“It’s not ideal,” Jen said. “You’re sure nothing happened?”
“No, no, it’s fine,” Zhenya said. He absolutely did not want to talk about this. “Only wonder.”
“If you say so,” Jen said skeptically, and Zhenya escaped downstairs for skate before she could drag anything out of him.
They flew to Florida the next day, for a brief road trip before the break for Christmas. Zhenya hadn’t spent any notable amount of time alone with Sidney since New York, almost two weeks prior, and he wasn’t looking forward to the inevitable awkwardness of sharing a hotel room. At least it was only for two nights, and then Sidney was leaving for Christmas, and they didn’t have another road trip until the new year. He knew there was no real hope for him of getting over Sidney until the summer, but any time apart helped.
But first he had to get through the next three days.
They were in Ft. Lauderdale by midday. Some of the guys had cooked up a beach excursion, and Zhenya agreed to go along without thinking about it. He liked the beach—lying on the beach, ideally drinking on the beach—and he had no cause to regret his decision until he heard Sidney say, on the bus from the airport to the hotel, “Guess you feel like losing at beach volleyball again, eh?”
Zhenya sank down in his seat and closed his eyes. So much for his peaceful afternoon of sunbathing.
The beach was nice: a quiet stretch of sand north of town. Most of the team came along, which was both good, because Sidney would be too distracted captaining to give Zhenya any unwarranted attention, and bad, because there would be multiple witnesses to Zhenya helplessly staring at Sidney in swim trunks. Zhenya grumpily settled down on a towel, put his sunglasses on, and pretended he was asleep when Rusty came over to try to entice him into playing volleyball. Zhenya didn’t volley.
The sun felt nice, and the warm sand beneath his back. The quiet sounds of the ocean mixed with the voices of his teammates and the happy shrieking of some children playing in the waves. Zhenya did fall asleep for a while, and woke with a start when he felt something touching his foot. He kicked out wildly.
“Whoa, hey,” Sidney said, laughing. “Just me.”
Sidney was by far the deadliest creature in the entire state of Florida. Zhenya wiped the drool from his mouth and pushed up onto his elbows. Sidney was crouching at his feet like a—a beach nymph, a huge muscular nymph ready to lure Zhenya to his watery doom. He looked fantastic. Zhenya had been restricted to his own hand for the last two weeks, and he was ashamed to realize that he would happily crawl back into Sidney’s bed with even the slightest encouragement. And then regret it and hate himself, but that was a minor detail.
“You’re gonna burn,” Sidney said. “Where’s your sunblock?”
Zhenya pointed mutely. He didn’t need any sunblock—it was December, for God’s sake—but saying all of that seemed like too much effort.
“I’m gonna, uh,” Sidney said, and when Zhenya kept staring at him without saying anything, he opened the tube, upended it over Zhenya’s chest, and squirted a fat drizzle right onto his belly.
The sunblock was warm and nearly liquid from sitting out in the sun. Sidney smeared it all over Zhenya’s chest and shoulders, down his arms, his hands moving efficiently, without lingering. Still it was enough to make Zhenya’s breath come a little shallow. He hadn’t been touched so much in weeks.
“Turn over,” Sidney said, and shamelessly sat on Zhenya’s ass to do his back.
Zhenya grunted at the firm slide of Sidney’s slick palms down his spine. If he popped a boner on a public beach, he was fining Sidney for his entire net worth.
“Sorry,” Sidney said quietly. “Someone’s taking pictures. Figured we could get this out of the way and be done until after Christmas.”
Of course. Sidney would never touch Zhenya of his own volition.
He was being dramatic. Of course Sidney wanted to touch him. That was the only place their desires overlapped.
“There,” Sidney said. He patted his hands against Zhenya’s upper back. “Can’t have you burned to a crisp at the game tomorrow.”
Zhenya grunted again. What was he supposed to say, thank you?
“Okay,” Sidney said. His weight lifted away from Zhenya’s body. “Gotta go spank those guys at volleyball again.”
Zhenya didn’t watch him go. He pillowed his head on his arms and went back to sleep, sweetly and easily, like maybe he had never fully woken in the first place. He turned over a few times, when one side of him got too warm, only half waking. He dreamed about the water, that he was on the water, not boating or swimming but floating there, arms spread, rocked by gentle waves.
He roused finally when Kuni came over to nudge his hip with one foot and said, “We’re packing up, G.”
He was still drowsy on the trip back to the hotel, and agreed to dinner plans largely to get Horny to stop talking to him. In the elevator, wedged in among sweaty, sandy teammates, Sidney reached up and touched Zhenya’s cheek, and said, “Got a little sunburned there, G.”
“You put sunblock,” Zhenya said, subtly leaning his head away from Sidney’s hand.
“Yeah, Sid, why’d you fuck up your man’s sunscreen?” Scuds asked.
“I forgot about his face,” Sidney said, sounding a little rueful. Zhenya was trying not to think about how much he liked the idea of being Sidney’s man.
Alone in their room, Zhenya waited for Sidney to initiate an excruciating conversation about appropriate behavior, boundaries, and respect.
He wasn’t disappointed. Sidney put his things down on the desk—his cap, his sunglasses, a bottle of water, an inexplicable pack of chewing gum—and said, “Sorry about, uh. That stuff on the beach. I know I crossed a line.”
“It’s fine,” Zhenya said. He would keel over and die if they talked about this.
“Well,” Sidney said. He looked like he wanted to keep apologizing, but for once in his life he must have decided that silence was the better part of valor, because all he said was, “You want the first shower?”
Zhenya lingered at dinner that night, ordering dessert and another bottle of wine even though he knew the guys were ready to head back to the hotel. He couldn’t stop thinking about the last time he and Sidney had shared a hotel room, and he couldn’t deal with any more of Sidney’s well-meaning earnest apologies. He wished Sidney would be more of a dick about it, so Zhenya could hate him and move on.
Sidney was sitting on the bed when Zhenya got back to the room, fully dressed except for his shoes, and safely on top of the covers. The TV was on—some sitcom that Zhenya vaguely recognized but had never watched.
“Hi,” Zhenya said. He wasn’t sure what to do. Sidney usually undressed as soon as he was in the room, and the fact that he was still in his clothes was a clear message. Zhenya wanted to change into his pajamas, but maybe he shouldn’t until they were ready to go to sleep. And maybe he should go into the bathroom to change—although maybe that would only draw more attention to the awkwardness.
“Hey,” Sidney said.
He hated having to think so much about things that shouldn’t require any thought at all. Frustrated and annoyed, Zhenya started unbuttoning his shirt right there. Sidney had seen every part of him, and pretending otherwise struck him as absurd.
“I thought we could watch a movie,” Sidney said.
Zhenya stepped out of his pants and glanced over. Sidney was staring fixedly at the television: giving Zhenya his privacy, although Zhenya hadn’t asked for it. He didn’t care if Sidney looked at him.
“What movie,” Zhenya said.
“You can pick,” Sidney said, which was how Zhenya knew he was still feeling guilty. He never let Zhenya pick.
Because Zhenya was an asshole, he clicked slowly through all of the channels three times, and finally settled on a movie they would both hate: a slow period drama, with a woman in a white dress meandering through a garden, trailing her fingers over rose blossoms.
“Good movie,” Zhenya said, and settled back against the pillows.
Sidney cast him a sidelong glance. Who would crack first? Not Zhenya: he was committed now, and he had done worse things for stupider reasons. And not Sidney, either, it turned out. He went on his tablet after a while, but even Zhenya wasn’t petulant enough to give him a hard time over it. The movie was excruciatingly boring—endless talk in drawing rooms—but Zhenya found himself getting into it after a while. The people were pretty, and they had nice clothes.
“I look good in suit like that,” Zhenya said. The actor inside the suit was very pretty.
Sidney looked up from his tablet, blinked at the TV for a few moments, and then turned to Zhenya and offered him a tentative smile. “Yeah, G. You’d look great.”
+ + +
“Have a good break,” Sidney said to him, as they walked to their cars in the airport parking lot after losing pathetically to the Lightning. It was after midnight, and cold out. Zhenya already missed the beach.
“Happy Christmas,” Zhenya said, and Sidney smiled and bumped their shoulders together, and Zhenya had to accept that he probably wasn’t going to get over Sidney until the summer. They were together too much, and Sidney was too unfairly attractive and kind. He would be gentle with himself: it was understandable that he couldn’t move on.
He was alone with his thoughts for a few days, and then he flew out to Newark the day after Christmas. He met Alyosha and Tolya and Tolya’s girlfriend at the airport, and they took a car into the city to meet up with Filya and his son.
None of them had been to New York before. Zhenya had been to New York many times, but he was always thrilled by the skyscrapers and the noise and the crowds, and New York right after Christmas was a special kind of wonder, with the big tree at Rockefeller Center and the absolute havoc on Fifth Avenue. Alyosha had a selfie stick, and he wanted to stop every block and take a group picture, and who was Zhenya to deny him? He posed for every picture and smiled and was grateful beyond words to have friends who would make the long trip from Moscow to spend New Year’s with him.
He was less grateful when they found a café for a mid-afternoon snack, and to drink tea and coffee and warm up a little, and Alyosha said, “So, how is it dating your captain?”
They had all met Kostya, over the summer; they all knew the thing with Sidney was fake. But they certainly didn’t know about Zhenya’s feelings for Sidney, because he had been too embarrassed to ever say anything about it, disgusted with himself for continuing to be so hung up on Sidney despite Sidney’s almost total lack of encouragement. And even this fall, when he had started to think there might be a chance, he had kept it to himself; and now he was grateful, because that part, at least, he wouldn’t have to admit.
“It’s fine,” Zhenya said. “Sid and I are friends. There’s nothing to say about it.”
“You’re so boring,” Tolya’s girlfriend said. Zhenya didn’t know her well, and resented being taken to task for his apparent lack of drama. For a moment, he considered telling her the whole story: there was plenty of drama even for a jaded long-time soap opera fanatic, which she was, and which was the only common ground Zhenya had found with her.
“You’ll get to see for yourselves, at New Year’s,” Zhenya said. “He’ll be there for dinner.”
Tolya, who cared nothing for other people’s romantic entanglements, perked up at that. He worked in hockey, and had what Flower would probably describe as a ‘man-crush’ on Sidney. “Crosby’s going to be there?”
“Yeah, so pretend you paid some attention to English classes in school,” Zhenya said, which led to Tolya listing off every English vocabulary word he knew, and they were lucky they didn’t get kicked out of the café.
He had to fly back to Pittsburgh that night, because there was a game the next day. His friends were spending the night in New York, and would fly in the next afternoon, and then he would have more than a week with them in Pittsburgh before they went home to Moscow.
Sidney looked happy and relaxed at skate, chatting with Suttsy, and Flower and Tanger, and then skating over to Zhenya with a sort of determinedly friendly look on his face. Zhenya was doing a stick-handling drill and considered pretending that he didn’t notice Sidney, but Sidney wouldn’t go away until he got what he wanted.
“How was Christmas,” Zhenya said, resigned to his fate.
“Really good,” Sidney said. “Taylor was home from school, so. Full house and all that.”
Zhenya had nothing else to say about Christmas, and struggled to think up something else to contribute to the conversation, as Sidney didn’t seem to be going away. But what the fuck was there for them to talk about? Was he meant to ask Sidney what presents he got for Christmas? Probably socks, and new underwear.
“How was New York?” Sidney asked.
Small talk bored Zhenya senseless even under the best of circumstances. He wanted to skip right over this conversation. “It’s good, Sid. Maybe we skate now, okay?”
“Sure,” Sidney said. “Well, I thought—probably we ought to go on a date soon, eh? I was thinking I’d hit the grocery store tomorrow after practice. If you’d like to come. Two birds with one stone, you know.”
Zhenya didn’t know why Sidney was talking about birds. “Okay, fine, we go,” he said, and that was how he found himself in the produce section while Sidney glowered suspiciously at some broccoli.
“Seen better days,” he said to Zhenya in an undertone.
Zhenya had no opinions about any cruciferous vegetable. “Buy frozen if it’s bad.”
Sidney made a face. “The texture’s weird. Better than canned, I guess.” He dropped two heads of broccoli in a bag and plopped it in the cart.
They moved on to the spinach, which was equally disappointing, and then to the navel oranges, which Sidney squeezed gently with intense, furrowed-brow concentration that Zhenya shouldn’t have found charming but did. Sidney was adorable, and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Good you eat fruit,” he said. “Can’t get sick. No mumps again.”
“The mumps was a fluke,” Sidney said. “I was highly immunized. Someone coughed on me. I got a superbug. Mutated. Can’t hold me accountable.”
Zhenya didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. He put a bunch of bananas into his basket. He had done a big shopping trip on Christmas, just him and a few other beleaguered souls shuffling through the aisles, and an equally beleaguered cashier; but one could never have too many bananas.
Sidney was very slow, which Zhenya didn’t find surprising. He wanted to consider each of his eight options for a can of black beans, inspecting the price and sodium content like he still, after years of feeding himself, hadn’t settled on a preferred brand. But he was also very inefficient, skipping aisles and doubling back multiple times because he’d forgotten something. Zhenya trailed after him. He had never spent this much time in the grocery store. How did Sidney operate like this?
“Give me list,” he said finally, after the second time Sidney pushed the cart all the way back to the produce section because he’d apparently forgotten that basil was a plant.
“You don’t know how to read,” Sidney said, which was only mostly true, but he handed over the list and waited patiently while Zhenya deciphered it, and let Zhenya lead the way down each aisle in turn.
A guy asked them for a picture in the pasta aisle, as Sidney mulled over the distinction between penne and fusilli. They posed with the guy standing between them, and the woman with him—girlfriend? Wife? Zhenya didn’t know how straight people operated—snapped away with her phone. Sidney stood awkwardly far from the guy and leaned in so his head would be in the shot, still terrible at fan photos after so many years.
“There,” Sidney said, satisfied, when the couple moved off, and tossed a box of penne in the cart. “Photographic evidence.”
All Sidney cared about was evidence. Maybe he wouldn’t want to go for lunch together anymore: too awkward, to make stilted conversation while Zhenya pined away. Sidney was tired of Zhenya’s pathetic lovestruck mooning, but he needed to buy groceries, and he had decided to kill two hares with one shot.
Zhenya wasn’t feeling reasonable, only sorry for himself, and he sulked shamefully in the checkout line as Sidney read aloud every gossip rag headline and asked Zhenya who all the people were.
Zhenya ignored him for a while, but was finally spurred into vocal outrage by Sidney pretending he didn’t recognize Angelina Jolie. “We see movie with her,” he hissed at Sidney. “You and me and Talbo—”
Sidney was laughing at him. “Did we? You sure about that?”
“You lie, you full of shit,” Zhenya said, trying to fight his smile; but the outing ended on a good note.
He went home then, with his bananas and a gallon of milk. Alyosha was sitting at the kitchen table, eating leftover pasta directly from the container.
“You’re lucky I’m here to provide for you,” Zhenya said, dumping the bags on the counter.
Alyosha rolled his eyes. “There’s plenty of food in the house, your fridge is overflowing. There was no reason for you to go to the store again.”
“No,” Zhenya said. He added the bananas to his fruit bowl. “Probably no reason.”
+ + +
The house was lit up when he arrived, the driveway full of cars. The temperature was below freezing, and there had been a light dusting of snow earlier, just enough to make Geno’s statues and the trees beside his front door look like they had been coated in powdered sugar. A wreath was nailed to the door, with a red bow on it. Geno took his festivities seriously.
He rang the bell, and Geno came to the door with a glass of wine in one hand. He had taken off his suit jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt to his elbows, baring his watch and his Lokomotiv bracelet. He looked so tall and handsome, backlit in the doorway and his hair still damp from his post-game shower.
“I brought, uh,” Sidney said, and offered the wine bottle.
Geno rolled his eyes. “I say no food, you think you bring drink, go around?” He took the bottle out of Sidney’s hands, and stepped aside and gestured Sidney into the house. “Cold outside. Warm in here. You want drink, food?”
“I’ll take some wine,” Sidney said, and Geno left him there to hang his coat in the hall closet. Sidney couldn’t avoid making a mental comparison to Thanksgiving, when Geno had been all over him, touching him, guiding him around—hovering. He wouldn’t do that now, and Sidney had the uncomfortable realization that the sour taste at the back of his mouth was regret.
He had made his bed, as his mother liked to say.
God, what was he doing? Why couldn’t he just swallow his pride and tell Jen they needed to end things early? So what if Geno got mad at him? Geno was already mad at him. Sidney couldn’t imagine anything would make it much worse.
He steeled himself, and went into the kitchen. The television was on in the next room, a low hum under the louder sounds of conversation and laughter. Geno was standing at the island, pouring wine into a glass. The kitchen was full of people, Geno’s Pittsburgh contingent of Max and Kate, the Birmans, Gennady, but also Geno’s friends from Moscow who Sidney had never met. They all turned to look at him as he came in, and Geno said something and gestured at Sidney, smiling—or was that a smirk?
Sidney went around and shook hands and made his introductions, feeling painfully self-conscious. They all knew why he was here. He wished he was at Duper’s right now, watching the kids tear around as Vero and Catherine got drunk and hilarious.
The Moscow friends didn’t speak a lot of English. “Good hockey, good,” one of them said, shaking Sidney’s hand with great enthusiasm—Anatoly? Sidney had already lost track of the names. Geno used nicknames when he talked about his friends, and Sidney hadn’t paid enough attention, and now couldn’t connect the people in Geno’s stories with the people standing around in the kitchen.
Geno came around with a bottle of wine to top off people’s glasses, and he patted Sidney’s shoulder in passing and said something that made everyone laugh. Sidney smiled along with it, hoping he wasn’t the butt of the joke. He didn’t think Geno would do that to him, but—well, he probably deserved it.
Max shifted toward him and said, “Zhenya said, get you drunk, then we all speak the same language.”
“Oh,” Sidney said. He smiled gratefully at Max. “Not sure there’s any amount of alcohol that would make me speak Russian, but we can give it a shot.”
Max grinned. “Good thing it’s day off tomorrow for you.”
The plan for the evening, as far as Sidney could tell, seemed to involve hanging out in the kitchen drinking and eating. Sidney talked to Gennady for a while, and then to George’s wife, and the Moscow friend who spoke the most English, a blond guy who worked for a soccer team. He still felt awkward, and painfully aware that he was intruding. These weren’t his friends, and they probably didn’t want to spend their New Year’s Eve struggling to talk in English with some guy who had screwed Geno over. But everyone was kind to him, and Sidney wasn’t sure if that was Geno’s doing or simply that his friends were decent people.
Geno never let Sidney’s glass get empty. Sidney lost track of how much he’d had to drink. He started feeling warm and floaty, maybe from the alcohol but maybe also from how ridiculously hot Geno kept his house, and he cut himself off by putting his wine glass on the counter so Geno couldn’t keep coming around to refill it. On Geno’s next pass, he took in Sidney’s empty hands, frowned at him, went off and came back with Max’s baby, who he thrust at Sidney with an expectant look. She was totally passed out and limp in Geno’s arms.
“Are these my options?” Sidney asked, settling Milana against his shoulder. “Wine, or a baby?”
“You need job,” Geno said. “You stop drink, okay, job is hold baby.” He hesitated, and then he leaned in and kissed Milana’s fat cheek. When he pulled back, Sidney got a whiff of his cologne, and he felt hot then for a different reason altogether.
At some silent, invisible signal, everyone drifted into the dining room and sat down for more food, carried in by Geno and Gennady on large platters that everyone passed around the table. Sidney felt his heart lift when Geno sat beside him, but a minute later he saw the blond guy taking pictures with a selfie stick, and realized Geno was only sitting with him for Instagram.
“Need more wine?” Geno asked him.
“Sure,” Sidney said. Why not.
He ate a little bit of everything. “Caviar,” Geno told him, as the plates went around, “fish and beet, dumpling,” and from time to time consulted with George for a word. There was more Russian as the night went on and people drank more, and Sidney sat back and watched and tried to imagine that it was real: that Geno was his boyfriend, and Sidney was here because they both wanted him to be. He would keep his hand on Geno’s leg or his back. Geno would look at him and smile, the sweet fond smile Sidney hadn’t seen in weeks.
What would it feel like, to see that smile again?
What would it feel like, to have this forever? Geno at his side, Geno happy with his friends. Sidney would need to learn Russian, and that would be hard, but he had learned French. What would they do about kids? What would they do about—God, about retirement? Sidney didn’t like to think about it, and it was hopefully really far away, but time never stopped, not for good things or for bad things, either. Someday they would have to deal with it, and Geno liked the US well enough, but it was clear he intended to move back to Moscow when he was done playing. Would he stay for Sidney? Would Sidney want him to?
All relationships took compromise, but maybe this one would take too much.
The night drew on. Milana was taken upstairs to be put in bed, and then the son of one of the Moscow friends, who protested loudly that he wasn’t tired—in Russian, but it was pretty clear what he was complaining about—and then started nodding off over his plate. Sidney felt pretty sleepy, too, his usual post-game adrenaline dulled by the wine and the rich food. He wouldn’t mind Geno taking him upstairs and putting him to bed.
“Midnight soon,” Geno said to him. “We take picture, then you go home. I know you tired.”
“I’m not tired,” Sidney said, feeling not much more mature than the eight-year-old who had recently been carted upstairs.
“Of course tired,” Geno said. “Me, too. Play twenty minutes, then eat—” He leaned back in his chair and splayed one palm across his belly with a groan. “Eat so much. Need nap.”
“You can make it to midnight if I can,” Sidney said, and Geno grinned and said, “You sleep at table, I tell whole team.”
They went out to the back hallway for pictures, where Geno had set up his tree. Geno stood at Sidney’s side with his arm around Sidney’s shoulders, holding Sidney tucked in his armpit. Sidney smiled, and moved around where Geno put him, and smiled more. There were a lot of pictures. Geno was warm and he smelled great. Sidney had drunk too much wine. He wanted to turn his face into Geno’s neck and stay there, with Geno’s arm around him, held close.
“What time?” Geno said. He grasped Sidney’s wrist and tilted his arm to show the face of his watch. Midnight was ticking closer, thirty seconds away. Geno said something, and everyone quieted, waiting, and then Geno said something else and they all burst into noise. It was 2015.
A lot of kissing and hugging was going on around him. Max shook Sidney’s hand wildly, and that seemed to break the ice: everyone hugged him, or kissed his cheeks, and he went along with it, laughing, buffeted around in the crowded hallway, until he fetched up against Geno, who held him there, both hands on Sidney’s shoulders, as Sidney rocked back on his heels.
There was the smile he had missed. Geno’s warm hand cupped the back of Sidney’s neck. “Sid,” he said, and hesitated for a long breathless moment, and Sidney held as still as he could, afraid to scare Geno away. Geno kept looking at him, holding him there, not moving, and the moment stretched out, tighter than Sidney could bear.
He licked his lips. “S novim godom,” he said, like he had practiced. Happy New Year.
“You say good,” Geno whispered.
“Geno,” Sidney said, and then someone bumped into him from behind, and he glanced aside, and the stretched moment snapped at last.
Geno moved on to someone else. Sidney exhaled slowly and tried to calm his racing heart.
After that they were done: the pictures were taken, the old year had passed. He could have gone home. But Geno waded up to him again through the crowd and said, “We do firework, you stay?”
Sidney felt a soft painful glow in his belly. Geno didn’t want him to leave.
“Yeah, G,” he said. “Of course I’ll stay.”
They all put on their coats and went out to stand in the driveway. It was even colder now, the sky clear and cloudless. Orion hung above the bare trees, the only constellation Sidney knew, and smaller than it looked Nova Scotia. Geno handed out sparklers, and then came around a second time with a barbecue lighter. He lit Sidney’s sparkler last, and stayed there beside him, holding his own sparkler, laughing at something Kate was saying to him.
Sidney took that image home with him and to bed, an afterimage behind his closed eyelids: Geno smiling, his face washed from below with the stuttering light.
+ + +
He made plans for a movie night at his house: Unbroken, because he had read the book and liked it, and because it seemed like an uncontroversial feel-good sports/action flick. He picked a date during the three days off between the Habs and the Bruins, and texted the team’s group chat about it. He had a head count of twelve after a couple of days of harassing the guys after practice, and then he contacted his go-to caterer—okay, Nathalie’s go-to caterer—to order some food. His liquor cabinet was in pretty good shape, but he went to the store for a few cases of beer.
The afternoon of, he went home after practice and tidied downstairs a bit. The caterer came over with the food, and he put the wings in the oven to keep warm, and arranged the rest of the food on the kitchen island. The beer was cold, the house was clean: he was ready.
Guys started arriving around 6:00: Ehrhoff right on time, Olli a few minutes later, Tanger and Geno predictably late. Sidney had given everyone the gate code, left the side door open, and told them to let themselves in, and when Geno arrived, Sidney was talking with Perron and couldn’t immediately exit that conversation. Perron had been traded to the team three days ago; Sidney wanted him to feel welcome, and abandoning him to go say hi to Geno probably wouldn’t make the best impression.
He watched over Perron’s shoulder as Geno took a beer from the fridge, plopped his cap on Rusty’s head, filched a wing from Tanger’s plate, glanced over and met Sidney’s gaze, and then totally unsubtly opened Sidney’s junk drawer and rifled through it.
Sidney held his breath. He had put a puck in the drawer—the halved puck he and Geno had split back in 2008, for his 100th goal and Geno’s 200th point. He thought Geno would probably recognize it. He saw Geno’s hand close around something, and after a moment Geno glanced up, and his eyes were so full with—
“Yeah, it’s a great area,” Sidney said to Perron. “Lots of guys like living there.”
“I’ll probably look for apartments this weekend,” Perron said. “Hotels get old after a while, you know?”
“Oh, for sure,” Sidney said. Geno had closed the drawer, and turned to face the sink, his back to Sidney. His head was tipped back, drinking his beer. His sweater clung to his shoulders. Sidney dragged his eyes away.
He herded everyone downstairs after they had all eaten a plate or two of food. He didn’t use his media room much; if he wanted to watch TV, he usually did it in the den at the back of the house. But it was perfect for big groups, with the couches and the floor seating and the extra chairs he’d dragged in, and the big screen with the projector. He tried to be strategic about where he sat—he wanted to sit by Geno—but Geno lingered in the doorway, talking with Horny, until Sidney gave up and took a seat in an armchair. Geno promptly sat on one of the couches, way at the end, with his absurdly long legs stretched out on the ottoman.
Guilt soured Sidney’s mouth. He was pushing too much. He’d gone too far with the puck, and Geno was telling him to back off.
He forced himself to focus on the movie. His attention kept wandering, though, with Geno so near and maybe mad at him. He resisted looking, and resisted again, and finally he succumbed and turned his head.
Geno was watching him already. His eyes reflected the light from the screen. He held his beer bottle against his mouth, his teeth biting at the rim.
Sidney tipped back the last lukewarm mouthful of his own beer, and rose to his feet. Geno was on the other side of the room, past the door, and there was no real reason for Sidney to go over there. But he went anyway, and started gathering up discarded plates, his beer bottle tucked under his armpit.
“Sid, leave it, my God,” Tanger hissed at him, and Sidney kicked at him in passing, gently enough that Tanger’s responding flinch and wince were pure showmanship.
There was a plate on the floor right by Geno’s end of the couch. Sidney crouched down to grab it, and felt Geno’s hand on his shoulder. He looked up. His heart felt clotted, like his blood was too thick to pump. Geno stared right at him, his face softened by the glow of the TV.
“Bring me beer?” Geno asked quietly.
“Sure,” Sidney said, just as quietly. “Of course.”
“Can I get one, too?” asked Rusty, sitting next to Geno.
Geno made a disapproving noise. “You get for self, don’t be lazy.”
“All of you shut the fuck up,” Suttsy said from the other end of the room, and Sidney rose to his feet and took his stack of plates upstairs to the kitchen.
The kitchen was empty, quiet, and cooler than it was downstairs. The climate control in the media room was always a little goofy. Sidney put the plates on the counter beside the sink and turned the tap on as cold as it would go. He ran his hands beneath the water for a few moments, and then dabbed at his face and the sides of his neck, his nape. He still felt Geno’s hand on his shoulder, that light careful touch.
He was an idiot. Geno probably knew exactly why Sidney had planned this whole movie night. Geno had accepted the invitation, though; he could easily have said he was busy. So if he knew, and he still came—
Well, he could speculate, but he couldn’t know what Geno was thinking, unless he asked him, and doing that would show his hand.
He took two beers from the fridge, one for him and one for Geno, and removed the caps, and went back downstairs.
Geno had repositioned on the couch. He was turned to the side, one arm stretched along the back behind Rusty’s shoulders. His eyes shifted to Sidney as soon as he came through the door, and stayed fixed on him as Sidney came around the rear of the couch. He held out his hand, expressionless, and Sidney put the bottle against his palm. Geno shifted the beer immediately to his other hand, and wrapped his fingers around Sidney’s wrist.
“Thanks, Sid,” he whispered.
“You’re welcome,” Sidney managed, stricken by the gentle pressure of Geno’s grasp. He stood there like a fool until Geno released him, and then he went back to his own seat and tried not to trip over the carpet on the way.
Geno watched him through the rest of the movie, turned sideways toward Sidney’s end of the room, sipping his beer and blatantly watching Sidney instead of the screen. Sidney did his best to pay attention to the movie, but his gaze kept drifting back to Geno, and every time, Geno was staring at him. He didn’t look like he was trying to be flirtatious about it—only watching. Still it put Sidney on edge. He couldn’t tell what Geno was thinking, and Geno had a lot of reasons to be mad at him.
The movie ended, eventually. Sidney wasn’t sure what had happened in the entire last half. Sharks? The jungle? Whatever: he had read the book.
He turned off the projector, and the guys started gathering up their plates and empties, because some of them had been raised right and the rest of them were susceptible to peer pressure. Sidney picked up his own empty bottle and headed for the door, but Tanger pulled him down onto the sofa beside him and said, “Sid, I have a question.”
He didn’t have a question: he had a rant, about—car seat options? He and Catherine were arguing about something, but past that Sidney couldn’t totally figure out what was going on, partly because Tanger was speaking French and partly because he wasn’t making any fucking sense, and also Sidney didn’t know anything about car seats. He cast a desperate glance at the door. Geno was leaving, head tilted down as he talked to Perron, and Tanger was rambling about safety ratings. Geno would probably be gone by the time Sidney finally made it upstairs.
But Geno wasn’t gone. He was still in the kitchen, eating cold wings from the pan, and drinking another beer, and talking with Rusty, who looked like he was the only other guy left.
Sidney moved into the room and started loading up the dishwasher. He thought Geno was probably looking at him, but he wasn’t going to turn around to check.
“—so, anyway, that’s that,” Rusty said.
Geno grunted. Silence fell.
“Well, guess I ought to get going,” Rusty said.
“You’re welcome to stay,” Sidney said, “there’s still food,” by which he meant, get the fuck out of my house immediately.
Rusty was no fool. He made his goodbyes and scrammed.
And then Sidney and Geno were alone. Sidney closed the dishwasher and turned around, and leaned back against the counter. On the other side of the kitchen, Geno mirrored him, snagged another wing, and rotated it around to inspect the underside before he took a big bite.
“Those can’t be any good by now,” Sidney said. “They’ve been sitting out for like four hours.”
“Still taste good,” Geno said, his mouth full of meat.
“You’re disgusting,” Sidney said.
Geno shrugged. Sidney had witnessed him doing far grosser things, and they both knew it. He neatly bit the rest of the meat from the wing and deposited the bones on his plate. Holding Sidney’s gaze, he raised his hand to his mouth and licked the sauce from his fingers.
Sidney felt warm again, and this time he couldn’t blame the climate control. Geno sucked his thumb into his mouth and pulled it out again slowly, dragging it between his lips. He licked each of his fingertips, really showily, and Sidney could see his soft pink tongue and of course he was imagining Geno sucking his dick. Geno was trying to make him think about it.
“Come on,” he said. “Geno. What are you, uh.”
Geno shrugged again, his fingers still in his mouth.
There was too much space between them. Sidney pushed off the counter and crossed the room, full of momentum at first but slowing as he approached, because he didn’t know what he wanted to do, or what Geno would let him. The whole night had been weird.
Geno reached for him as he came near. Sidney wasn’t sure where the line was, how Geno wanted to be touched or how much, but he didn’t resist as Geno pulled him in by the front of his shirt. He stood between Geno’s legs, hands hovering at Geno’s hips. Still slouched against the counter, Geno buried his face in Sidney’s shoulder. His hands slid beneath Sidney’s shirt to splay across his lower back. His fingers were wet from his mouth.
“Hey,” Sidney murmured. He let his hands settle, finally, curved around Geno’s hips. He had touched Geno in the past month, kissed him, been close to him, but only for show. It was so different to be near to Geno like this, just the two of them in Sidney’s house, and Geno wanting it—Geno wanting Sidney to hold him.
“Don’t talk,” Geno said, muffled against Sidney’s shoulder.
“Come on,” Sidney said. He turned his head to rest his own cheek against Geno’s hair. “You can’t say that. You said we had to stop.”
Geno shook his head. “Yes. We stop.”
“Yeah, but—this isn’t stopping, G.” Geno felt so good against him. Sidney moved his arms to wrap around Geno’s back, folding him in as close as he would go, and Geno made a soft noise and sagged against him.
“I can’t help,” Geno said. “Still feel.”
“God.” Sidney squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Everything inside him hurt. “Will you please let me tell Jen we need to end this early? I’m sure she’ll let us—”
“No,” Geno said. He straightened up and pulled back slightly, and Sidney let him go, his hands dropping again to Geno’s hips. Geno’s mouth was pulled into a straight line. “What’s point? I still see you, still be around. Can’t stop feel. It’s just few more months, then we’re done. Just wait.”
“I feel like shit about this,” Sidney said. “I feel like shit that I did this to you.”
Geno shrugged. He stared down at the floor, and folded his arms across his chest, a defensive posture Sidney rarely saw him take. “It’s not like hockey, can’t work hard, do better. I feel, you don’t feel, that’s it. I can’t stop. You can’t start. That’s all.”
“Geno,” Sidney said helplessly.
“Stop,” Geno said. He cupped Sidney’s head in his hands and leaned in to kiss him, so soft and sweet. Sidney closed his eyes and let Geno take what he wanted: a minute or two of careful kissing, and Geno stroking his thumbs over the skin right in front of Sidney’s ears.
It would be so easy to tell Geno he’d changed his mind, that he had feelings, he wanted to be together. Geno would be so fucking happy, and that was a powerful temptation, the thought of making Geno happy like that. But he had to be sure. If he said something, and then he was wrong—if it turned out he really couldn’t feel that way about a guy, or make peace with the things he would have to give up—well, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he did that to Geno.
Geno broke away finally, after brushing a final kiss to Sidney’s cheek. “I go home now.”
“Okay,” Sidney said. He licked away the trace of sauce that had been transferred to his mouth from Geno’s. “Let me walk you out.”
A light snow was falling. Sidney stood in the doorway to his mud room, letting all the warm air out of the house, and watched Geno climb into his car and reverse out of his spot by the garage. As he pulled toward the gate, Geno lifted one hand in a wave.
Sidney waved back, and then he went inside to turn on the dishwasher.
+ + +
They had an afternoon practice the next day, and a long, incredibly dull team meeting afterward. By the time Johnston finally released them, after some meandering twaddle about the team’s compete level, it was late afternoon, and some of the guys were making noises about going out for a few drinks.
“Sure, I come,” Zhenya said, when Beau asked him, because his friends were gone and his house was so quiet it echoed; and then it was too late to back out when Beau went over to Sidney, next, and Sidney shrugged and said, “Yeah, I’ll go for a beer.”
There was a sports bar not far from the rink where they went sometimes for a late lunch or a few rounds. It was too early for dinner, so the place was mostly empty, and they got a big table in the back and a waitress who obviously recognized them but was trying to play it cool, which Zhenya always appreciated. He knew he would have to sit beside Sidney, steeled himself for it, and managed to produce a smile when Sidney took the chair beside him.
“Hey,” Sidney said, and leaned into him for a moment, bumping their shoulders together. “You did good last night. I should have said earlier, but.”
But what? They hadn’t talked after the game, or during practice. Did Sidney mean he had been avoiding Zhenya? Did he think Zhenya needed his approval for a good game? It didn’t matter. Zhenya wasn’t going to pick a fight over a meaningless comment.
“We win next game,” Zhenya said, and from across the table Suttsy said, “That’s bad luck, Eugene.”
Downie ordered a couple of pitchers of beer, the really bad stuff that hockey players loved and that Zhenya had reluctantly developed a taste for over the years. They drank for a while. Sidney talked to Suttsy about something, and Zhenya talked to Beau, who was sitting on his other side. Someone at the other end of the table ordered mozzarella sticks, which sparked some thorough chirping, because more than one of them had been there to witness Sidney almost choking to death after his jaw surgery.
“I still can’t believe it,” Suttsy said sadly. “The best player in the world, felled by deep-fried cheese—”
“Sorry nobody’s ever liked you as much as I like mozzarella sticks,” Sidney said, which was a decent chirp as far as Sidney’s efforts went.
The bar began to fill up as the dinner hour approached. A few people came over and asked Sidney for autographs or pictures, and Zhenya watched as he interacted with them, unfailingly polite as always. Zhenya had fans come up to him in public on a fairly regular basis, but Sidney had fans come up to him everywhere, all the time. Zhenya had seen him get impatient or uncomfortable, but only rarely, and he never complained.
“Phew,” he said under his breath, after the third person went away, and Zhenya leaned on him a little and said, “You so popular, why you’re get so many fans? Too pretty, Sid—”
“You shut up,” Sidney said, and jabbed his fingers into Zhenya’s side, right above his waistband, making Zhenya yelp and jolt away, directly into Beau.
“Your flirting is gonna kill me,” Beau said, shoving at Zhenya, and Zhenya scowled and returned his attention to his beer. It wasn’t flirting.
Sidney left after not too much longer. “Dinner,” he said, and when everyone made protesting noises, “I need to eat an actual vegetable, and so do the rest of you.” He stood up and looked down at Zhenya, and Zhenya could see the thought crystallize in his gaze a moment before he bent to kiss Zhenya’s mouth.
The kiss was nothing: a light brush of lips, the type of quick kiss couples exchanged in public all the time, and that Zhenya had shared with Sidney more than once. Sidney wasn’t taking any liberties. It made sense for them to kiss. But for some reason it filled Zhenya with a blind rage anyway, to feel Sidney’s hand on the back of his neck, Sidney kissing him so casually with their teammates watching, like it was nothing, like it meant nothing to him, and Zhenya had kissed him in his kitchen three days ago like it meant everything.
“Wow, what the fuck is that mean face for?” Beau asked him, when Sidney was gone. “Geno needs another beer, guys.”
Zhenya drank another beer, and then he went home. The weather had been frigid for the past few days, and ice was starting to form on the river, disjointed circles of pancake ice floating on the water. They were well into winter now.
His house was empty, dark, and cold. He was in a black mood, and he knew he should call Genya, or Max, and invite himself over. Instead he went into the kitchen and turned on all the lights and the radio, and poured himself a drink, and sat at the table with his phone. The screen on his phone was so small; if he watched it there, it barely counted.
The video wasn’t hard to find. It had replicated all over the internet by now. There were gifs, in case Zhenya preferred his porn as tiny, soundless, three-second loops. That wasn’t at all what he wanted. The noises were the best part.
“There?” he heard himself ask, tinny through his phone’s speakers.
“Yeah.” Sidney’s breath hitched. “There, oh—don’t stop, just like that,” and he closed his eyes and somehow spread his legs a little further and arched his hips to push down onto Zhenya’s fingers.
Zhenya scowled at his phone. It wasn’t fair for Sidney to look like that, flushed such a sweet pink with his mouth all wet and open. It wasn’t fair for Sidney to be so earnest and well-intentioned. He was terrible, the worst person Zhenya knew, and—
He drained his glass, and got up for a refill. When he returned to the table, Sidney had progressed from sighing to moaning. His hand worked over his dick, so slowly, like he didn’t want to distract himself from Zhenya’s fingers in his ass.
Zhenya felt incredibly pathetic, getting hard at his kitchen table watching a months-old video, when he could be having real sex with Sidney right now, probably. If he called Sidney and told him to come over, he was pretty sure Sidney would. He missed—God, he missed the sex, of course he did, but he also missed lying in bed watching Sidney get undressed, and the heat of Sidney’s body against his when they curled up together to watch TV.
He was horny and frustrated and angry, and by the time he finished his second drink, a little drunk. He watched Sidney come, trembling and crying out, and then he went back and started over again from the beginning, Sidney shifting on the mattress and saying, “You’re making a face.”
Sidney didn’t want him. He wanted a woman.
With a wordless groan, Zhenya hoisted himself out of his seat and went upstairs to his bedroom. He would jerk off, and then he would feel better.
But he was still angry, somewhere down deep, a low futile thwarted anger, and when he took off his jeans, he didn’t stop there. He took off his shirt, too, and his socks and his underwear, and then he snagged the mesh ball cap off the top of his dresser and put it on—backwards. Sidney had simple tastes, and Zhenya knew what got him going.
The alcohol powered him through. He was an asshole, and Sidney would never love him, and he didn’t care. He went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror: his flushed face, bare torso, hard dick. He wrapped a hand around himself and flexed his dick to one side, showing off.
He took a picture like that, his reflection in the mirror, and sent it to Sidney.
“You’re an idiot,” he said to the naked guy in the mirror, who was old enough to know better and still knew nothing.
He got in bed, and thought about watching the video again, or taking Sidney’s long-ago advice and watching some actual porn. His phone buzzed, and his heart slammed around in his chest as he opened the message, from Sidney: Geno what the fuck
A valid question, and Zhenya didn’t have any answers. He flipped the covers aside and took another picture, the length of his body and the flushed head of his cock, and texted that to Sidney as his reply.
Sidney didn’t message him again. Zhenya watched the video and brought himself off to the sight of Sidney’s face, Sidney’s dick, and of course he regretted everything when he was done, but what was life without a few regrets?
+ + +
Jesus. If that was the reaction Zhenya got from a naked selfie, he couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t been blowing up Sidney’s phone this entire time.
There was no time to talk with Sidney in private until that afternoon—first the flight, then practice, and lunch, and some meetings, and finally they were back at the hotel with a few hours to kill before dinner. Zhenya followed Sidney to the elevator, and followed him down the corridor to their room, and loomed behind him while Sidney fumbled around with the key card.
“Will you—stop,” Sidney said, turning around finally to glare at Zhenya.
“Sorry, I make you nervous?” Zhenya asked sweetly. He wasn’t sorry at all. He felt wild and somehow still angry, and he was probably going to do something reckless, although he wasn’t sure what. It would come to him.
“You’re a fucking dick,” Sidney muttered, and managed at last to get the door open.
He stopped right in the entryway beside the closet and dropped his bag on the floor. Zhenya tried to move past him into the room and Sidney wouldn’t let him, blocking him like they were on the ice. He looked up at Zhenya and he was mad, Zhenya could tell from the hard set of his mouth and the way his nostrils were flaring a little, and a sharp thrill ran down Zhenya’s spine: they were going to have a fight.
“I can’t believe you sent me those pictures,” Sidney said.
“You don’t like?” Zhenya asked. What was the worst thing he could say? “Think you like my dick best, it’s only thing you like.”
“Fuck you,” Sidney spat. “How can you think that? Is that really what you think about me? That I’m just using you for sex—”
Zhenya scoffed, and he wasn’t even faking it, because Sidney was delusional. “Yes! It’s just sex! You tell Jen it’s casual thing, you don’t feel—”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t—care about you.” Sidney shoved his hands in his pockets and looked away, his expression pinched. “I don’t want to fight about this. Forget I said anything.”
Zhenya wasn’t done. He was all shaken up, and he needed to release some of that pressure. Sidney looked so tidy and self-contained in his nice coat and nice sweater, and Zhenya had never been tidy in his life; he was a seething wreck of feelings and bad decisions, and he was going to make a bad decision now.
He grabbed the lapels of Sidney’s nice coat and dragged him forward. “Geno, what,” Sidney said, but he went, stumbling a little, and didn’t resist when Zhenya turned him around and backed him up against the door. “What,” Sidney said again, and Zhenya sank to his knees in his good pants and lifted his hands to unbuckle Sidney’s belt.
“I thought you said,” Sidney started, but he shut up when Zhenya looked up at him incredulously.
He got Sidney’s fly open and yanked his pants and underwear down his thighs. His cock was starting to fatten up, and it got bigger as Zhenya stared, feeling his mouth water a little. He pushed Sidney’s coat out of the way and leaned in to press his face against Sidney’s groin, breathing in his scent, rich with musk and soap and laundry detergent.
Sidney’s fingers combed through his hair, but Sidney didn’t say anything. Zhenya curled one hand around the base of Sidney’s cock and put the other on Sidney’s hip, pinning him against the door. The side panels of Sidney’s coat fell around him, closing him in, making a dark warm space. He felt hidden, and safe. He closed his eyes and opened his mouth around the head of Sidney’s dick, and went down in a slow slide.
He had missed this: the thick blunt weight against his tongue. He didn’t want to think for a while, he wanted to only—be a body. The hotel room was warm, and the floor was hard beneath his knees but Sidney’s hands in his hair were exquisitely careful, and Zhenya felt himself starting to drift already.
Sidney grew harder in his mouth. Zhenya bobbed his head steadily, working the base of the shaft with his hand, and when he drew back to suck at the tip, the faintly salty taste of Sidney’s pre-come burst across his tongue. He pulled off to lick at the slit, lapping up the thin fluid, and he felt Sidney shift against him, settling back more solidly against the door. Sidney was going to let him, and Zhenya spread his thighs apart to give himself more room. He was so hard that the crotch of his pants was an uncomfortable pressure trapping his erection, but he didn’t want to stop long enough to unzip.
Sidney kept his hands on Zhenya’s head, a reassuring weight. Everything was soft and close and warm. Zhenya wanted more—he would always be greedy about this—and he shuffled in and tilted his head back a little further, opening the line of his throat.
“Fuck, Geno,” Sidney whispered. “I’m gonna—stop me if you don’t want me to,” but of course Zhenya wanted him to, he always wanted it, there was something about it that made him feel like he was—like Sidney wanted him so much he couldn’t help it. Being dragged down onto Sidney’s cock settled something in Zhenya that he had never bothered to examine too closely. People liked all sorts of weird things, when it came to sex.
Sidney’s hands tightened in his hair. “I’m gonna,” he said again, and pushed Zhenya down.
He went happily, relaxing his throat the best he could, and gagging a little when Sidney went too deep. “Sorry, sorry,” Sidney said, pulling out, but he knew very well that Zhenya liked it. He rubbed his cock against Zhenya’s lips and waited for Zhenya to open for him, and then he pushed back in, all the way, as far as he could go. He let Zhenya struggle with it a little, choking for a moment, before he tugged on Zhenya’s hair and dragged him back off.
Zhenya sat back on his heels, panting. Sidney swore and floundered out of his coat, and Zhenya’s cave was gone but he liked the idea of Sidney looking at him, Sidney watching him while he sucked Sidney’s cock until he came.
Sidney dropped his coat on the floor. “You ready?”
Zhenya rested his hands on his own thighs and lifted his chin and opened his mouth, and Sidney cursed again and went for it, sliding his dick in deep.
He was bigger now, even harder. Sidney never lasted long when they did it like this. He acted like it was some weird thing Zhenya liked, and he was only doing it for Zhenya’s benefit, but Zhenya thought Sidney liked it just as much as he did. Zhenya stayed relaxed and let Sidney take control, pulling Zhenya in to meet him every time he thrust his hips forward, a steady rhythm that got a little rougher as Sidney kept going.
Zhenya felt like he was melting, or floating above the ground. He kept his eyes closed and his face turned up, and he could feel Sidney’s gaze on him, and he didn’t want to look because that would ruin it, his fantasy of the way Sidney was looking at him, full of wonder and affection. The reality was that Zhenya was just some guy who liked to suck dick, and he skirted carefully around that thought to stay in the soft warm place he had landed, with Sidney’s hands on him and Sidney’s cock nudging the back of his throat.
“God, Geno,” he heard Sidney panting, and he had to touch himself, he had to rub his aching hard-on through his pants, and Sidney groaned and said, “I can’t believe you, fuck,” and guided Zhenya off again.
He waited, eyes closed, mouth open, and Sidney muttered something Zhenya couldn’t make out and said, “Come on, will you—look at me, please.”
Zhenya reluctantly opened his eyes. The look on Sidney’s face was, devastatingly, exactly what he had imagined: warm and awed and tender, and Zhenya said, his voice rough, “You come in my mouth.”
“Okay.” Sidney moved one hand to rub his thumb over Zhenya’s lower lip. “If you—okay.”
Zhenya took charge now, because Sidney got too rough at the end, couldn’t control himself. He put his hands on Sidney’s hips, and Sidney relaxed against the door and gently stroked Zhenya’s hair and let Zhenya suck him off, sloppy and deep, spit running down Zhenya’s chin that he didn’t bother to wipe away.
“I’m close,” Sidney gasped, and Zhenya pulled back until only the head of Sidney’s cock was in his mouth, and sucked hard, working his tongue against the underside. Sidney groaned a few times and tugged too hard on Zhenya’s hair and then went motionless and filled Zhenya’s mouth.
Zhenya made a mess with it, swallowing some of it but letting the rest of it cream his lips and chin, mouthing over the head while Sidney was still coming. Sidney made a shocked noise and curled forward, and his cock twitched weakly against Zhenya’s tongue.
Zhenya waited until Sidney was done: for his ragged breathing to even out, and his hands to start moving over Zhenya’s hair again. Then he sat back and showed Sidney the come on his lips and tongue, opening his mouth to let Sidney see the mess before he swallowed it down.
“Fuck,” Sidney said harshly, and sank to his knees and pulled Zhenya into a rough kiss.
Zhenya leaned into him and let Sidney lick his own come out of Zhenya’s mouth. He felt shivery and dazed, a little chilled even though he was still wearing his coat, and it was so good to have Sidney kiss him and run his hands over Zhenya’s back.
“I can’t believe you,” Sidney said between kisses, “you’re the most—God. Geno,” and then he was climbing to his feet and hitching his pants up with one hand. He pulled Zhenya along with him, herding him into the main part of the room and toward the bed. “Take your clothes off,” Sidney said, and went back for his suitcase. He came back while Zhenya was still fumbling with his coat and set his bag on the desk, and opened it up, and took out his toiletry kit.
Zhenya was too aroused to think particularly clearly, but he made the connection a few seconds before Sidney turned around with the lube in his hand.
“Do you want me to?” Sidney asked, and Zhenya thought about it, and—yeah, he did.
“Okay,” Zhenya said quietly, and Sidney smiled at him and tossed the lube on the bed.
They both undressed. Zhenya crawled beneath the covers, feeling a little shy. He didn’t enjoy penetration, but in the process of discovering that, he had also discovered that he was pretty sensitive to prostate stimulation. Last season, after the Olympics, he had finally shown Sidney how he liked to be fingered. They had only done it a few times, but Sidney was so careful and so diligent about observing the limits Zhenya had set that he mostly felt a hot anticipation in his belly.
Sidney moved the lube to the nightstand and joined Zhenya in the bed. “Are you cold?” he asked, worming down beneath the covers and rolling to pull Zhenya into his arms. “We can do it like this if you want.”
Zhenya hid his face against Sidney’s chest and considered. It would be painfully intimate for Sidney to hold him the whole time, but it would also keep Sidney from seeing his face. And Sidney was really warm.
“Okay,” he said. His throat felt a little raw from Sidney’s cock.
“Okay,” Sidney said, and Zhenya felt the press of Sidney’s lips to the top of his head.
They lay like that, on their sides, with one of Zhenya’s legs hitched up over Sidney’s hip, and one of Sidney’s arms tucked down between Zhenya’s thighs. Sidney rubbed his slick fingers across Zhenya’s hole, circling over and over until Zhenya felt so soft and warm there.
“Good?” Sidney murmured. His mouth grazed Zhenya’s cheekbone.
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He tucked himself close and curled in, rubbing the tip of his nose against Sidney’s neck. His face was hot. He wanted to come, but he also sensed the lurking regret waiting for him on the other side of his orgasm. He shouldn’t be doing any of this, and he knew it.
Sidney had a lot of flaws, but he was good at taking instruction. He pushed in with two fingers right away, all the way in, and Zhenya flinched at the uncomfortable glide. It didn’t hurt, but he never liked the sensation. Sidney curled his fingers and began searching carefully with his fingertips, and Zhenya twitched involuntarily and sucked in a huge breath when Sidney found the right spot.
“Right there?” Sidney asked, really unnecessarily, because obviously he had found it.
Zhenya groaned and pushed his face into Sidney’s neck, rubbing back and forth a little to scrape his two days’ worth of stubble against Sidney’s skin and make him shiver. He was so hard from sucking Sidney’s dick, and as Sidney began rocking his fingers in place, everything between Zhenya’s navel and his knees felt like it was glowing. Sidney didn’t move his fingers in and out, only kept them right there, rubbing firmly. Without the uncomfortable friction, Zhenya could enjoy the fullness and the sweet rolling melting pleasure.
“Hey,” Sidney said, nosing at Zhenya’s temple. “Come on, kiss me,” and Zhenya gave in and turned his head to let Sidney slide his tongue into Zhenya’s mouth.
He wasn’t coordinated enough to kiss back. Sidney’s fingers were working him just right, and that was all Zhenya could focus on, that tingling, throbbing warmth. He couldn’t do much more than clutch at Sidney and feel everything.
Sidney kissed him slowly and thoroughly, totally focused. Zhenya squirmed closer, trying to get some friction on his dick, and Sidney turned onto his back without removing his fingers, bringing Zhenya with him. Zhenya settled on top, one knee up and to the side, and that was even better, to be able to press his cock against Sidney’s belly, flexing his hips ever so slightly as Sidney pulsed his fingers inside.
“Is that okay?” Sidney asked, kissing his jaw.
“Yes, okay,” Zhenya said weakly. He turned his face away and rested his head on Sidney’s shoulder. He wanted—he reached down and took Sidney’s free hand and brought it to his mouth, cheeks burning, and went down on three of Sidney’s fingers.
“Fuck.” Sidney stroked the pads of his fingers over Zhenya’s tongue. “Is that what you needed?”
It was everything Zhenya needed, filled with Sidney’s fingers at both ends, and he let himself moan a little, overwhelmed. He sucked on Sidney’s fingers and felt like he was floating in warm water, leaking all over Sidney’s abdomen. He twitched each time Sidney curled the fingers of his other hand. The pleasure was so indulgent.
“You looked so good in those pictures you sent me,” Sidney said quietly, and Zhenya squeezed his eyes shut and sucked harder. “That fucking hat. You look like such a douchebag when you wear your hat like that, and it gets me so hot. You look so fucking cocky. Everyone knows you’re an asshole, but nobody else knows you’re like this, nobody else gets to see you sucking on my fingers because you need something in your mouth,” and Zhenya wriggled desperately on top of Sidney, unwilling to move too much and dislodge Sidney’s hand, but also unable to hold still.
And Sidney wasn’t done. “I jerked off after you sent me that second picture. I was in the den, and I shoved my sweatpants down and jerked off right there. I knew you were jerking off, too, and I looked at your pictures the whole time.” He pushed mercilessly at Zhenya’s prostate, not letting up this time, rubbing hard with his fingertips, and Zhenya moaned again around the fingers in his mouth. His skin felt hot everywhere, and hotter where he was pressed against Sidney, his chest against Sidney’s, Sidney’s soft cock against his belly.
Sidney dragged his fingers out of Zhenya’s mouth and pushed them back in, fucking him just like he’d done with his dick. Zhenya squirmed again, flushed and tight, clenching around Sidney’s fingers in his ass. He was going to come, and he was resisting it now, idiotically, because he didn’t want Sidney to know how badly he was affected by the mental image of Sidney touching himself, one hand on his fat perfect cock, because of Zhenya’s pitiful selfies.
But Sidney knew his body too well. “Come on,” he muttered, shoving hard against Zhenya’s prostate. “Let me feel it, G,” and he rolled them over again, putting Zhenya on his back on the bed, and got his hand on Zhenya’s dick, wet from Zhenya’s mouth.
That was it for Zhenya. He had hit his limit, officially more than he could withstand.
Sidney gave him a few rough tugs, and Zhenya cried out and came so hard that he squeezed out a few tears.
He went limp, panting. His thighs trembled. Sidney slid his fingers out, and Zhenya winced at the feeling. He scrubbed his hands over his eyes and opened them, tentatively.
“I’ll clean you up,” Sidney said. He wasn’t looking at Zhenya. He went into the bathroom and Zhenya heard him washing his hands. When he came out again, he had a handful of tissues, and he offered them to Zhenya and then sat at the edge of the bed as Zhenya wiped up the mess on his belly.
Now that the sex was finished, Zhenya wasn’t sure what to say. What he wanted most was for Sidney to get back in the bed with him and hold him and kiss his face and tell him how much he’d enjoyed it. But that wasn’t going to happen.
He tossed the dirty tissues onto the nightstand. Sidney was frowning at the mattress and scraping his thumbnail against the sheets. Here was the regret Zhenya had been waiting for.
He cleared his throat. “You, ah. Get dinner with Flower?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. He sighed. He wouldn’t look up. “Geno, I can’t—the lines are getting all blurred. I don’t know what you want me to do. You keep changing things on me.”
Zhenya rolled onto his side and scooted in until he could press his face against Sidney’s thigh. “I shouldn’t send picture. I know. I’m mad, want to—I don’t know.”
He felt Sidney’s fingers trace along his hairline. “Why were you mad?”
“It’s dumb reason,” Zhenya said. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Okay,” Sidney said. He tugged gently on a strand of Zhenya’s hair. “We, uh. Probably shouldn’t do this again.”
“No,” Zhenya agreed, and he lay there for a few more minutes, letting Sidney play with his hair, before he got up to put on his clothes.
+ + +
Geno was already in the locker room the next morning when Sidney arrived for practice. He saw Geno look up from strapping on his pads, and felt Geno’s gaze track his progress across the room. His face was hot, and he hoped he looked sweaty instead of embarrassed. His head was a mess after what had happened in Montreal. The sex had been really intense, and that was definitely not totally Geno’s responsibility, or maybe even mostly, and Sidney felt like he was getting to the point where he had to—do something. Make some kind of decision. At least put his foot down and tell Geno they needed to have a meeting with Jen.
He floated the greenhouse idea to Geno after practice. Geno stared at him blankly, and Sidney figured out after a moment that Geno was probably taking ‘greenhouse’ literally.
“Uh, where you go to buy plants,” Sidney said.
Geno brightened. “Okay, good. Not today, maybe we go Wednesday,” because they had a game tomorrow.
“It’s sort of on the way to your house. I can come pick you up,” Sidney offered, and so on Wednesday he drove over to Geno’s house mid-morning. He was in a good mood: they had crushed the Wild the night before, 7-2, the kind of decisive victory that always had the team riding high for a few days.
Geno came out of the house when Sidney pulled into the driveway, and he was all bundled up as usual, with a big scarf wrapped around his neck. He smiled at Sidney as he climbed into the car, and Sidney thought Geno was probably in a good mood, too, and for the same reason.
“Nice game, eh?” he said, and Geno grinned and said, “Yes, it’s very good.”
The greenhouse was up in Sewickley Hills. The main building had all sorts of home décor crap, candles inside lanterns and fake succulents in planters, and Sidney took Geno in there first, because it seemed like the sort of thing Geno would like. Sure enough, Geno spent a solid half hour roaming around, using hand lotion testers and very seriously inspecting a small-scale T-Rex skull.
“You know that’s fake, right?” Sidney asked. “The real things are way bigger than that.” The air reeked of potpourri. It was making his nose itch.
Geno gave him an unimpressed look. “You think we don’t learn about dinosaur in Russia?”
“You told me your mom used to do your art homework,” Sidney said. “You have absolutely no—”
Geno put a hand over his mouth to silence him. Sidney considered doing something really immature like licking him, but then they might end up on the news in the bad way. Hockey players destroy local gift shop, tune in at 11.
“Your hand smells like a candle,” he said, muffled, struggling to move his lips against the firm pressure of Geno’s palm.
“Oh, you say something? I don’t know this word,” Geno said, and Sidney did lick him a little bit then, and hid his smile in his coat collar when Geno flapped his hand around in disgust.
They did finally go outside to the nurseries. Sidney had a list of plants he was supposed to locate and examine, but it was way more fun to follow Geno around as he poked curiously at every plant and went up on his toes to peer into hanging baskets. Gravel crunched beneath their feet as they wandered the rows. They had the place mostly to themselves.
“Oh, Sid!” Geno exclaimed, lifting a potted—Sidney didn’t know what, something spiky with red tips. It looked like the kind of plant that might grow three feet overnight, turn sentient, and eat you. “It’s perfect, I buy for you, then you have pet.”
“You’ve got some weird ideas about pets,” Sidney said, but he was grinning, going along with it, because Geno was happy, and he missed this teasing, playful side of Geno’s personality. Things had been so fraught between them for more than a month; Sidney would be glad when it all went back to normal.
But as he listened to Geno carrying on about the plant—“It’s cute, so spiky”—he realized that normal didn’t include a lot of the things about Geno he had come to cherish. Normal meant no more sex, of course, but also no more hanging out in Geno’s kitchen while he talked on the phone in Russian, and certainly no more curling up with Geno to watch TV, or watching him brush his teeth in the morning, invariably dripping foam down his chin. Normal had all of the chirping and silliness but none of the intimacy. Sidney had gotten to know Geno as more than just a teammate, and he didn’t want to return to a life where Geno held him at careful arm’s length. He liked the cheerful bully, but he would miss the thoughtful, emotional man he had spent the past four months growing to—
He was—he felt—
“Sid, you okay?” Geno asked, peering at him.
“Fine,” Sidney said. He was deeply rattled. “You should get the plant if you want it.”
Geno shifted the plant to the crook of one arm and held a hand to Sidney’s forehead, frowning at him. “You little bit warm—”
“Knock it off.” He took the plant from Geno and bumped him with his hip. “Let’s get a move on, eh?”
He hung back and watched Geno move ahead of him, the familiar shape of his body in his coat, his toque stuffed in one pocket. Sidney had been waiting all this time for some change in his feelings that would let him know what to do. But that change hadn’t come, and maybe that was because he’d felt this way about Geno for a long time—maybe since the Olympics, when Geno had been truly vulnerable with him for the very first time.
He didn’t feel about Geno the way he had felt about any of his ex-girlfriends, even the ones he had loved, and that was confusing. But it didn’t mean his feelings for Geno were worse, or better; only different. Geno was his own person. Sidney would never feel about anyone else the way he felt about Geno: Geno who had been at his back, letting him lead the way, for eight years; Geno who remembered what Sidney said in his sleep, who needed a cup of coffee in the morning before he could be bothered to speak English. What was love, if not the way Geno’s smile made Sidney feel like his heart was squeezing tight inside his chest, collapsing into something as bright and dense as the core of a star.
“Sid?” Geno said, turning around to look at him, waiting for him to catch up.
“Sorry,” Sidney said. “I’m just being slow.”
+ + +
A woman he had dated for a few months in his early twenties told him, when she dumped him, that he sucked at romance. Apparently not much had changed, because he couldn’t think of how to do it aside from sitting Geno down and—telling him.
Finally he decided there was no perfect time. They played an afternoon game against the Rangers, and lost again, and Sidney stopped at his favorite bakery on the way from the arena and bought a huge piece of tiramisu.
He drove to Geno’s. Geno’s car was in the driveway. Sidney walked up the steps to the front door and rang the doorbell. When Geno came to the door, still dressed in his shirt and suit pants, the collar unbuttoned to show his undershirt, Sidney felt his belly clench in a familiar way that he only now recognized for what it was. Geno’s hair was damp, and his mouth was turned down at the corners, and Sidney’s heart was so full that his breath came short. His lungs didn’t have enough room in his chest.
“Sid,” Geno said, looking puzzled, but he stepped aside for Sidney to come into the house. “I don’t expect.”
“Thought maybe you could use some cheering up,” Sidney said, and handed Geno the little cake box.
Geno took it from him, still puzzled, and lifted the lid. He glanced up at Sidney.
“It’s tiramisu,” Sidney said, probably unnecessarily. His giant heart pounded against his ribs. He was nervous, and he didn’t know why. He knew how Geno felt.
“Come in kitchen,” Geno said, and led the way.
The radio was on in the kitchen. Geno turned it down but not off, and filled his electric kettle under the tap. “You want?” he asked, and when Sidney nodded, he added more water.
Sidney lingered by the counter. He watched as Geno got out two plates and two forks, and said, “I got that for you to eat.”
Geno’s gaze flickered over to Sidney for a moment. “We share.” He carefully cut the tiramisu in half, and put a piece on each plate, and by then the water was boiling, and he dropped two tea bags in mugs and poured the water, and Sidney helped him bring everything over to the table.
“Are you ever going to make Russian tea for me?” Sidney asked as they sat down, because so far Geno had only ever served him Lipton.
“No,” Geno said. “Too much trouble, and maybe you don’t like.”
“I’d still like to try it,” Sidney said, and Geno’s mouth scrunched for a moment, his eyes sliding away, before he said, “Okay, maybe someday.”
They ate in silence. Sidney was so jittery his hands were shaking a little. He had carefully planned out what he was going to say, but now that he was here, sitting at the table with Geno, he couldn’t remember a single word. Maybe words were the wrong way to go, and he should just lean over and kiss Geno—but then Geno would think he wanted sex, and of course he did, but the point was that he wanted more than sex, he wanted everything.
Geno put his fork down. “Sid, why you here?”
“Well.” Sidney took a breath. “Don’t you want to finish your cake?” Geno had only eaten half of it, and it was really good.
“Sid,” Geno said.
Sidney drew another breath. He set down his own fork, and scrubbed his hands along his thighs. “Okay. I, uh. I wanted to talk with you about something.”
Geno took a sip of his tea. He raised his eyebrows and gazed at Sidney over the rim of his mug, calm and direct.
Why was this so hard? “I’ve been thinking a lot,” Sidney said. “About the way you feel about me. And I, uh. I’ve realized I feel the same way about you. I know I hurt you, and I’m sorry about that. I wish I had—but I’ve thought about it a lot.” He was repeating himself; this was going terribly. Geno was still looking at him, not smiling, just watching him with a flat fixed look on his face. Sidney forged ahead. “I’d like to date you for real, and not just because Jen told us to.”
There. He’d said it. He wiped his hands on his pants again. His palms were damp.
Geno curled both hands around his mug. He held it in front of his face, hiding his mouth. His eyes were so dark. Sidney couldn’t read a damn thing from him, not from his body language or his expression.
Wasn’t he happy? Wasn’t this what he wanted?
“Geno,” Sidney said uncertainly.
“No,” Geno said.
Sidney sat back in his chair, his face burning. No?
Geno put his mug down on the table, carefully, his movements slow and deliberate. He picked up his fork and took another bite of tiramisu. He chewed, and swallowed. Then he said, “I tell you I’m tired of play.”
“I’m not playing.” Sidney rubbed his hands over his hot face. This wasn’t going at all like he had imagined. “I wouldn’t joke about this. I know you’re—I know what you want, okay? I know you want to settle down, I know you want a family, and I—”
Geno cut him off. “Yes. Want family. And you tell Paulie, you want kids, so you marry woman.”
Sidney blinked at him. “Uh. What?” He knew Geno had been upset about that, but he thought it was because of the implication that Sidney wouldn’t end up with him. But Geno was bringing it up now, in this context, after Sidney had just said he did want to be with him, and something wasn’t adding up.
“You think I can’t have family?” Geno said, his voice sharp. He dropped his fork on his plate with a clatter. “Family only for man and woman? Two men, can’t do—no kids, no—”
“What?” Sidney said. His heart thumped in a hard, nauseating rhythm. “I don’t think that.”
But Geno was on a tear now. “It’s not good enough for you? Okay for me, but you do better, need wife—”
“That’s not what I think,” Sidney said, but he sounded weak and pathetic even to himself. Geno wasn’t wrong: he had said it, and he had meant it, but—everything was different now. He didn’t mean it anymore.
Geno shook his head and looked away, his mouth thinning into a hard line. “No. I don’t want—few months, make me think it’s real, then you change your mind, decide you want wife, make babies. Can’t, don’t want.”
Panic squeezed Sidney’s chest. He had been thinking a lot about what it would be like to have Geno as his boyfriend, all of the quiet ordinary mornings and evenings, going to dinner at Flower’s together, maybe taking Geno to Cole Harbour over the summer. And now all of the light and life was emptying out of those fantasies, draining away. Sidney had already blown his chance, and he hadn’t even known.
“G, come on,” he said, pleading now and not ashamed of it. He hadn’t crashed and burned this hard since high school. “I want to give this a shot. I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Why not?” Geno asked. “You already do once.” He shoved his chair back and rose to his feet. “Go home, Sid.”
Sidney looked up at him: his weary face, not angry but resigned. None of this was going how he had planned, and he didn’t know how to explain himself to Geno, or how to make Geno believe him. He needed to fall back and regroup, but he also had the feeling that if he didn’t press the issue now, Geno would never let him bring it up again.
“Come on,” he said. “Please. I thought this was what you wanted.”
“Bye, Sid,” Geno said firmly, and escorted Sidney to the door.
+ + +
But night fell, and his house grew dark, and he was alone. The moral high ground was a delightful place to visit, but a lonely place to live. He finished the tiramisu and tried not to think about the look on Sidney’s face when he presented Zhenya with the cake box: not Zhenya’s favorite dessert, but certainly in his top five. He remembered the carrot cake, all those months ago, and it hurt to consider how well Sidney knew him in the smallest and most insignificant and most meaningful ways.
He paced around the downstairs, typing half of a text message to Sidney and then erasing it again, locking and unlocking his phone, telling himself he would hit send and instead opening up his folder of pictures of Sidney and looking at his stupid, beautiful face.
Zhenya knew he was an impulsive person, but he had worked hard on thinking before he acted. But sometimes he slipped up, and the stronger his emotions were, the more challenging it was for him to stop and take a moment before he did something stupid. He had an abundance of emotions about Sidney, and all of them were strong, and he hadn’t even known he was still angry about Sidney’s bullshit until he opened his mouth and it came spilling out of him.
He was angry. Sidney’s casual dismissal of the possibility of having a family with anyone but a woman had hurt him deeply. Sidney was a smart guy, but he was also an idiot, and Zhenya had known that for a long time; he didn’t expect Sidney to ever do much self-reflection. Still it had upset him, and it had been so gratifying to see the hurt and shock on Sidney’s face. He had probably thought Zhenya would fall straight into his arms, blubbering with gratitude.
Well, Zhenya didn’t blubber. He went into the den and turned on the Stars-Blackhawks game. Sidney was probably watching the same game, and Zhenya could picture him lying on the couch with one arm behind his head, maybe drinking a beer, maybe thinking about Zhenya.
I feel the same way, Sidney had said, and—well, did he? Zhenya hadn’t confessed the true depth or extent of his feelings.
But Sidney knew he didn’t date casually. Everyone on the team knew he was looking for the right person. The One, although Zhenya had never believed there was only one right person out there. He would have married Dima in a heartbeat, although in the end Dima hadn’t wanted to leave Moscow, and that was that. Sidney wasn’t perfect, maybe not even perfect for him, but oh, Zhenya loved him.
There were five goals in the first period, but Zhenya didn’t take note of a single one. Sidney wanted to date him. Sidney wanted it to be real.
He had told Sidney the truth, though: he was wary of Sidney changing his mind again, or maybe stubbornly refusing to change his mind and then regretting it. What if Sidney wasn’t content with him, in the end? And there were so many logistical issues to consider: summers, retirement, and maybe that was looking ahead too far, but Zhenya was thinking about the rest of his life, because that was how long he wanted to have Sidney.
He started another message to Sidney, deleted it, tried again, and finally gave up. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to happen. He would sleep on it, and see how he felt in the morning.
He woke up the next day with a birthday-morning feeling: a feeling that something good was going to happen. He lay in bed with his eyes closed and waited for the feeling to resolve into something more certain, and then he remembered, and brought his hands to his face to cover his foolish, hopeful smile.
Sidney was in the lounge when Zhenya arrived at the rink, uncharacteristically eating there instead of at home, and when he saw Zhenya come in the room he rose half out of his chair, then turned red and sat down again.
Zhenya made himself a breakfast sandwich and said hello to the other guys in the lounge—Borts, and Paulie and Beau sitting together.
“You should sit with us,” Beau said. “Sid’s being a dick this morning.”
“Only because you so ugly,” Zhenya said, and went to join Sidney at his table.
Sidney looked away when Zhenya sat down, and then snuck a glance at him, and then looked away again. He was cute. Zhenya was charmed, and didn’t want to be. He needed a clear head.
“Hi,” Sidney said to his plate. His cheeks were still flushed.
“Hi,” Zhenya said. He bumped his feet against Sidney’s beneath the table.
Sidney sucked in a breath, squared his shoulders, and lifted his head to meet Zhenya’s eyes. “Do I have a chance at all?”
Zhenya’s stomach twisted, because—of course he did, of course Zhenya wanted nothing more than for Sidney to love him.
He risked a quick glance around the room, but nobody was paying attention. “I’m scared,” he admitted, and watched Sidney’s expression change—open up, somehow.
“I’m not gonna screw this up, G,” Sidney said. “I mean—I’m gonna try really hard not to screw it up.” He reached across the table and slid his hand into Zhenya’s and squeezed, and Zhenya swallowed at the feeling of Sidney’s broad palm in his, somehow more intimate than anything else they had done together. “I know you don’t believe me. I mean, I told you there was no way, and now I’m telling you there is a way, so you probably think I’m a giant flake.”
Zhenya swallowed again. “It’s not—don’t believe.” Sidney wasn’t deliberately cruel. He wouldn’t lie about this. But Zhenya was in too deep already. He could step back now, and be friends with Sidney when it was all over. If they did it for real, though, if he spent the rest of the season letting himself love Sidney, and then Sidney decided he couldn’t—
“You know how I am,” Sidney said. “It takes me a million years to make a decision, but I’ve decided now.” He rubbed his thumb over Zhenya’s knuckles. “Let me show you that I mean it.”
“Oh my God,” someone said loudly, and Zhenya looked over to see Flower and Duper crowded together in the doorway, both of them with their hands clapped over their mouths, looking horrifically gleeful.
Zhenya swore in Russian and pulled his hand away from Sidney. Those idiots knew too much as it was.
“For Christ’s sake,” Sidney said. He shoveled the last of his scrambled eggs in his mouth and stood up. “I’ll go deal with them. We’ll talk more later, eh?” He gazed down at Zhenya, his face soft, and lifted his hand to touch Zhenya’s cheek, like he didn’t care who saw.
The team flew out to Philly that afternoon, for a game the next day. Zhenya got up at one point to piss and passed Sidney and Flower, slumped down in their seats with their stupid PSPs. Flower glanced up as Zhenya went by and waggled his eyebrows, and Zhenya smacked his elbow, not gently, and took a vicious pleasure in Flower’s outraged squawk. They should all mind their own business, even Sidney.
Zhenya somehow allowed himself to be talked into going out for dinner with all of them, Sidney and Flower and Duper, and Tanger and Kuni, Scuds and Suttsy, and Sidney sat way at the other end of the table but looked at Zhenya the whole time.
“Make him work for it a little,” said Duper, sitting to Zhenya’s right. “A little bit of groveling.”
“Fuck you,” Zhenya said, and Duper chortled like Zhenya had said something clever.
They walked back to the hotel as a big noisy group. Zhenya was toward the rear, and Sidney waited for him just inside the lobby, pink-cheeked from the cold. Zhenya felt his heartrate pick up, which was stupid; sharing a hotel room with Sidney was well-mapped territory. But everything was different now.
“Hey,” Sidney said to him, fond, familiar, and Zhenya almost hated him for how easy he seemed to think it was: nothing one day and everything the next.
But he couldn’t work up any serious indignation, not when Sidney started undressing as soon as they were in the room with the door closed, humming a song Zhenya vaguely recognized and scrolling through his phone in his underwear. Zhenya went into the bathroom to wash his hands and give himself an incredulous look in the mirror. This was happening, somehow, unless he was dreaming, or maybe in a coma and living out an alternate timeline. Soon he would be returned to his own reality, having garnered some lesson from his unconscious sojourn. He was pretty sure he’d seen a movie about that.
“What do you want to watch?” Sidney called from the other room, and Zhenya went out there to keep Sidney from settling on a Friends marathon, which he always managed to find, unerringly, like a sitcom homing pigeon.
Sidney was already on the bed, mostly naked, with the covers pushed back. Zhenya tried not to look at him. His nipples were so pink. All of his tan lines had faded. Zhenya went to inspect the thermostat, and found that Sidney had set it to the temperature Zhenya liked, even a few degrees too warm.
“I’ll put a shirt on,” Sidney said. “If you want me to.”
“No,” Zhenya said. Sidney ran hot, slept hot, and never slept in more than his underwear. Did he think the sight of his bare torso would send Zhenya screaming for the hills?
“We could watch, uh. The Avs are in St. Louis,” Sidney said, looking at his phone, and Zhenya gave up and changed into sweatpants and a T-shirt and crawled under the covers.
The bed was big, and Sidney was way at the other side of it. He smiled at Zhenya. His necklace glinted at the hollow of his throat, catching the lamplight.
Zhenya could petulantly stay on his own side of the bed, and punish himself and Sidney both, but he was tired, and tired of not getting what he wanted. He shifted over, and Sidney extended one arm and made a space for Zhenya to tuck himself in close, curled against the curve of Sidney’s hip. He slouched down and rested his head on Sidney’s shoulder.
He felt Sidney tug at the waistband of his sweatpants. “I missed this. When we weren’t—this is what I kept thinking about.”
“Avs?” Zhenya asked, deliberately missing the point.
“No,” Sidney said. He slipped his fingers beneath Zhenya’s waistband and began stroking his thumb over Zhenya’s belly, underneath his shirt. “You know what I mean.”
“Miss hotel room?” Zhenya asked. “They’re all same, Sid—”
“You’re a dick,” Sidney said fondly.
Zhenya looked up. Sidney was gazing down at him, his eyes crinkled at the corners. Zhenya didn’t give a shit about hotel rooms, the Avs, the city of Philadelphia, or really anything else in the universe, not as long as Sidney kept looking at him like that.
He turned his head back toward the television. “I think Avs lose.”
“How much?” Sidney asked.
“Five hundred bucks,” Zhenya said.
Sidney’s thumb swept back and forth over Zhenya’s skin. “You’re on.”
+ + +
He was worn out. He and Flower didn’t talk on the flight back to Pittsburgh. Sidney pretended to watch some tape on his tablet, and then gave up and stared out the window and thought about going home with Geno, taking Geno back to his house and maybe making him a sandwich if he was hungry, and otherwise taking him upstairs and icing whatever the fuck it was that Geno had pulled during the game, and falling asleep with Geno breathing on the other side of the bed. How had he thought this longing wasn’t love?
But Geno didn’t want to go home with him. “Not tonight,” Geno said, when Sidney caught up to him in the parking lot. “Long day, I’m tired.”
You can sleep with me, Sidney wanted to say. But he wouldn’t push. “Sure. Maybe tomorrow.”
Geno sighed. “Maybe not, Sid.” He shook his head, and turned toward his car. “Go home. See you tomorrow, for skate.”
Okay: Geno still wasn’t taking him seriously, and Sidney couldn’t blame him. But he wasn’t going to give up. The thought of Geno going back to Russia for the summer and meeting someone new, falling in love with someone who wasn’t Sidney, filled him with shaky panic.
The trouble was, he had no idea what to do about it.
He had three months. At least three months. And Geno hadn’t told him no. Geno had let Sidney hold him in bed. Geno had tried to collect on his five hundred bucks that morning and accepted a kiss and a cup of coffee as his payment. Geno would let Sidney talk him into it, and Sidney was on it, he was all over that, he just—didn’t know where to start.
He had vague memories of Geno making really over-the-top romantic gestures for his boyfriends—huge deliveries of flowers, sappy intermission Jumbotron displays, and the subsequent locker room chirping while Geno looked smug. He wasn’t sure if Geno liked receiving that sort of thing or only giving it, but—well, it couldn’t hurt. Sidney didn’t give a shit about flowers, but he would probably still be pretty happy if Geno gave him flowers.
He was too tired that night to do much more than go home and get ready for bed. But he thought about it in the morning as he ate breakfast and got dressed before skate. Who knew Geno well enough to help him? Max, certainly, but Max would rat him out to Geno right away and with no guilt, and the same was true of Gonch. Flower and Duper would be happy to offer terrible advice that would probably get Sidney into trouble, and anyway he didn’t want to talk to them about what was going on, not when it still felt so fragile and private.
Who else was there? Gennady, but he was basically the worst of all possible options. Sidney didn’t know him that well, and talking to him would be like seeking permission from a parent, which Sidney found weird and gross.
Finally, reluctantly, right before he went on the ice for skate, he sent a text message to Tyson: Need some advice about Geno. Don’t tell anyone
When he checked his phone again later, he had thirty-one notifications, and he put his head down on his knees and groaned.
“The fuck’s wrong with you?” Suttsy asked.
“Nothing,” Sidney said to his kneecaps.
“Geno! He’s making weird noises!” Suttsy hollered across the locker room.
“Shut up, Stan,” Geno said, his voice closer than it should have been, and Sidney propped himself up on his elbows as Geno approached his stall, still wearing his pads. Geno gazed down at him, and then reached up to stroke a sweaty clump of hair off Sidney’s forehead. “Okay, Sid?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said, pinned in place by Geno’s expression, exasperated and indulgent. “Just, uh. It’s nothing.”
“Don’t make noise, Stan is too worry,” Geno said. “He’s still baby, get all nervous.”
“Kiss my ripe asshole,” Suttsy said, and Sidney had to cover his face with his hands and focus on his breathing until they both mercifully went away.
He went home for lunch and heated up some leftover spaghetti, and read the texts while he ate. The first few were from Tyson: What kind of advice??? Did u fuck up bro and then U need romance advice??? R u in the doghouse
Texting Tyson was probably the stupidest thing he had ever done.
He also had a lot of messages from unknown numbers, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that Tyson had given his number to all or at least most of the guys in Geno’s group chat.
“I’m an idiot,” he told his empty kitchen, reading messages about Geno’s alleged preferences in jewelry, baked goods, watches, and the bedroom. They were totally off base about the last category—where had they gotten the idea that Geno was a top?—which automatically made Sidney suspicious about the rest of their advice.
I asked you not to tell anyone, he texted to Tyson, and went upstairs to nap.
He woke up to a whole bunch of emojis from Tyson, most of which he didn’t bother interpreting, and then finally some actual human language: Call me tomorrow but not before 10 because my ass will be asleep!!!!!
Okay, thanks, Sidney replied, because Tyson was a ridiculous person, but it never hurt to be polite.
That night, Geno was pulled from the lineup at the last minute because of his groin, and Sidney watched him grumpily leave the ice during warmups. He was in the locker room after the game, sitting at his stall in his suit. They lost in the shootout, their fourth loss in a row, after too many losses that month and the month before, and Sidney went over to him after he was done talking to the press and said, “Geno—”
Geno reached up and curled his fingers around Sidney’s wrist. “You come home with me.”
Sidney felt his spine loosen. “Really?”
“You’re alone, think too much,” Geno said. “It’s not good for team.”
If Geno needed to tell himself that spending the night together was good for team morale, Sidney wasn’t going to argue with him. “I’ll ice your crotch. That’s romantic, right?”
Geno snorted at him. “We go for breakfast in morning. Nice date.”
“Only if it’s a real date,” Sidney said. “I’ll take you to that place Beau keeps talking about, with the French toast.”
Geno tried to frown at him, but he wasn’t too successful, and some of the misery of the bad game sloughed away. Geno wanted Sidney in his house. Geno was going to let Sidney take him out for real. He didn’t need Tyson at all: he could woo Geno with brunch.
He followed Geno home, which turned into Geno zooming ahead, cutting off an SUV, and vanishing into the distance. But Geno came to meet him at the front door, already changed into sweatpants and a sleep shirt, and he let Sidney kiss him in the entryway, and then he took Sidney into the kitchen and gave him a mug of peppermint tea and some of the weird but delicious chicken salad he made that used avocado instead of mayonnaise. Sidney ate standing at the counter, watching Geno try to arrange the ice pack so it got the right spot on his groin without touching his junk.
“You’re such a baby,” he said, after Geno had shifted around in his chair for several minutes, flinching each time the ice pack made contact with his balls.
“It’s too cold,” Geno said, scowling. “You say you help, but only eat my food and laugh at me—”
“I’m done,” Sidney said, putting the lid back on the container, “let’s go,” and they went upstairs and he spent some time sitting between Geno’s spread legs, holding the ice pack against his crotch with one hand and gently pushing his nuts out of the way with the other.
“I miss All-Star Game now,” Geno said.
“Me too,” Sidney said. He had talked about it with Johnston that afternoon. “Gonna let my knee heal up.” He met Geno’s eyes and smiled. “We’ll have some free time over the break, eh?”
“Oh, you make big plan?” Geno said.
Sidney said, “I bet I can think of something.”
+ + +
Geno was grumpy at brunch in the morning, and then perked up when his food arrived, and then got grumpy again as they finished and waited for the check, staring out the window and responding to Sidney with a few words or a grunt. Sidney tried not to take it personally, but maybe it was personal; he was definitely causing a lot of upheaval in Geno’s life.
“Should I not have come over last night?” he asked finally.
Geno abandoned his contemplation of the parking lot and gave Sidney a puzzled look. “What? No, it’s fine, I say come over.”
“Well, it’s just—are you mad at me?” Sidney asked.
Geno sighed. “No. Just—lots of thoughts, you know? Sorry I’m bad mood.” He paused, and then added, “Maybe don’t kiss here.”
“Oh,” Sidney said. That felt—not great. Geno had kissed him last night, and again this morning when they were shuffling around each other in the washroom, one hand on Sidney’s hip and his minty breath gusting over Sidney’s lips. “Should I not kiss you at all?”
Geno’s shoulders hunched. He looked uncomfortable. “Kiss is okay. But—maybe not here. It’s, you know. You say it’s real date, so—”
“Do you think I wouldn’t kiss you if this was a real date?” Sidney asked, and knew he was right when Geno hunched further and his ears turned red.
“You don’t kiss girlfriend,” he muttered.
Sidney wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of PDA, but that didn’t mean he didn’t do it ever, and he was pretty used to kissing Geno in public by now. This conversation felt surreal. “I mean, if you don’t want me to kiss you, I won’t,” he said, and then added, “But I’d like to.”
Geno went redder, but in the parking lot he fisted his hands in Sidney’s coat and drew him in for a long, sweet kiss, and smiled at Sidney after, his eyes soft. Sidney went home happy. A little bit of weird behavior from Geno was pretty standard.
He called Tyson when he got home. It was after 10 in Pittsburgh; he could pretend he had forgotten about time zones, and maybe leave voicemail.
But Tyson picked up after only a few rings, and he sounded perky, which was bad news for Sidney. “Sid, my man!”
“Never call me that,” Sidney said. “Tyson—”
“Yeah, I know, you’re mad that I gave out your number, you can skip the lecture,” Tyson said. “They won’t spread it around. They’ve got some good advice, don’t you think?”
The latest suggestions included erotic melted cheese, a romantic mid-season vacation for two to Egypt, and skydiving, which Sidney was pretty sure they weren’t allowed to do. “Oh yeah,” he said dryly. “Great advice.”
“Anyway, tell me what you did,” Tyson said. “You and Geno had a fight? Did you tell him his dick is too small? He’s really self-conscious about that.”
Tyson was unbearable. “We didn’t have—I just want to do something nice for him. He’s so creative about that shit. I don’t have any ideas.”
“Aw, Sid,” Tyson said. “You’re overthinking this. He totally knows you’re boring. If you really want to prove your love or whatever, you should maybe try knocking him up, like, immediately.”
“Uh,” Sidney said. The conversation had taken an unexpected left turn. “That’s biologically impossible.”
“Whatever, you know what I mean,” Tyson said. “Don’t you read any of his Russian interviews?”
“Not really,” Sidney said. “Don’t tell me you do.”
“There’s another Russian guy in the group chat,” Tyson said. “I’m not telling you who it is, so don’t ask. But him and Geno are always selling each other out.” He pitched his voice higher. “‘Oh so-and-so told a reporter that Roman Josi is the prettiest dude in the league.’”
“Is he?” Sidney asked, amused.
“Probably,” Tyson said. “Anyway, Geno’s always going on and on about how big and empty his house is and how he needs a husband to cook for him and pick up his dry-cleaning and whatever, and he needs a million kids to fill up all the rooms in his house. So just give him a baby, man. The Russian media’s spent all season trying to figure out when you two are going to pop one out.”
“That's not how it works,” Sidney said.
“Oh my God, you humorless piece of shit,” Tyson said. “You know what I mean.”
Sidney had been hoping for something more along the lines of ‘evening dinner cruise’ or ‘exotic animal rental,’ or ideally specific examples of things Geno’s past boyfriends had done. “How about something less drastic and life-altering than a baby.”
“What kind of shitty boyfriend are you that you can’t even figure out how to apologize? Just tell him you’re sorry, man, fuck,” Tyson said. “Just buy him some flowers. You’ve been together for like two years. He doesn’t expect you to suddenly turn into a romance wizard overnight. Just do whatever you normally do.”
It was clearly time to cut bait. “You’re right,” Sidney said. “Guess I got a little hyped up about this. Thanks, Tyson. Tell those guys to lose my number.”
Tyson laughed. “They’ll get bored in a couple days. Maybe send them a few pictures of your ass to distract them.”
“Send them a few—what the fuck,” Sidney said, and hung up to the sound of Tyson cackling like a fucking hyena.
He texted Geno: Is your group chat obsessed with my ass?
His phone buzzed. How you know?
So all of that was a failure. But Tyson was right, as much as Sidney hated to admit it. Geno didn’t expect any grand gestures from him. Geno knew what he was like, and wanted him anyway: boring, unromantic, and stubborn. If he wanted to convince Geno, he would have to do it in his own boring, unromantic, stubborn way, because anything else would ring false, and then Geno wouldn’t believe him.
He went to the arena that afternoon to get a cortisone shot in his knee. Geno was there when he arrived, stretched out on one of the exam tables, groaning and cursing as Chris prodded around in his groin. Sidney stopped in the doorway to the trainer’s room and took in the sight of Geno with one leg slung over Chris’s shoulder, making noises that weren’t so very different from the noises he made during sex.
Chris glanced up and smiled at Sidney. “Okay, Geno, my next appointment’s here, so you’re done for now. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He lowered Geno’s leg and gave him a friendly smack on the hip.
Geno sat up and turned around, and Sidney got to watch his face suffuse with warm affection as he realized who had interrupted. Sidney wanted Geno to look at him that way every day for the rest of his life.
Chris went into his office for a moment to check the paperwork from Dr. Vyas, and Sidney went over to Geno and pushed his hands underneath the legs of Geno’s shorts, sliding up along Geno’s thighs. “You busy tonight?”
“Hmm,” Geno said. “This part of big plan?”
“Maybe a small plan,” Sidney said. He didn’t want Geno expecting anything elaborate. He leaned in and stole a kiss while Chris was still out of the room, and Geno smiled against his mouth, kissing him back.
“Come for dinner,” Sidney said. He kissed Geno’s cheek, and the corner of his eye, and stepped back. “Any time. I’m going home right after this.”
“Okay,” Geno said. He slid carefully off the table and shifted his hips back and forth, wincing. “Have fun get needle in leg.”
“Thanks,” Sidney said, and Geno grinned and slapped him hard on the ass before he went out.
He made a ten-bean stew for dinner, with shredded chicken, simmered for a few hours until the whole house smelled of it, warm and comforting on a cold winter afternoon. Geno came over at dusk, stomping into the mud room knocking snow off his boots, his nose red from the cold, and Sidney unwound the scarf from around his neck and tugged him down for a kiss.
“Smell good,” Geno said, sliding his hands along Sidney’s arms. “What you make?”
“Come find out,” Sidney said, and took Geno’s hand to lead him into the house.
The stew had turned out well. Geno ate a big bowl and went back for seconds, and even so there was plenty to portion out for leftovers. Sidney waited until Geno got up to rummage through the freezer for the ice cream, and then he said, “You’re welcome to stay the night, but if you don’t want to, that’s fine. But I thought we could watch a movie, if you’d like to.”
It wasn’t elaborate, or exciting. But it was what he wanted to have with Geno: simple, peaceful domesticity, and playing hockey together, and sharing their lives: creating love, like Duper had said. He wanted to grow love between them, safe and unshakeable. The kind of love that got you all the way through.
Geno turned toward him, the ice cream carton in his hands. He was smiling. “You let me pick?”
“Sure,” Sidney said. He swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. “You can pick.”
+ + +
“Geno,” Sidney whispered to him, “Geno,” and Zhenya kissed down his neck and sucked on his earlobe and hurt with the sweet pain of finally getting exactly what he wanted.
That was as far as it went. Zhenya knew Sidney would have taken him upstairs if he asked, or even fucked him right there on the sofa, but sex with Sidney wasn’t a novelty anymore. He wanted to stay right where he was and kiss this Sidney, not the one who had rejected him in a hotel room in New York, but the one who made him dinner and iced his crotch and let out a soft sigh every time Zhenya kissed him.
Sidney walked him to the door when he left, shuffling along in his socks. He looked sleepy and thoroughly kissed. After Zhenya put his coat on, Sidney wrapped the scarf around his neck, going up on his tiptoes to loop it behind Zhenya’s head, and finished it off with a kiss to Zhenya’s chin.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, and maybe he was dying; maybe this was what death felt like.
“Gotta stay warm,” Sidney said, smiling up at him: Zhenya’s dream, after so long.
He floated all the way home on that cloud, and woke up the next morning stuck under a different, darker cloud. Sidney was confused; he thought he wanted Zhenya, but he only liked the companionship; he would meet a woman, and leave Zhenya in the dust; on and on until he was sick of himself and the fruitless spiral of his own thoughts, and turned on the radio in his kitchen as loud as it would go, to drown out the internal bullshit.
The emotional whiplash was exhausting but familiar. Waiting it out was the only solution, and distracting himself in the meantime. He couldn’t see into Sidney’s heart, and probably even Sidney didn’t know the truth of the matter. Only time would tell.
He didn’t have to go along with Sidney’s plans. He could still tell Sidney to back off. He could still tell Jen he didn’t want to do this anymore. He knew he wouldn’t. Already he was caught fast in his fantasies of a life with Sidney, and they grew richer and more detailed each time Sidney smiled at him.
He only had so much time to devote to ruminating. There was practice that morning, and although Zhenya wasn’t skating he was still expected to show up and let one of the trainers work him over, and sit in on the team meeting. But first: breakfast.
Flower was in the lounge when Zhenya shambled in to make his egg and cheese sandwich and drink a cup of coffee. He lifted his own mug at Zhenya in greeting, and Zhenya sat down across from him with his food and said, “Bon matin, Flower. When you leave for Columbus?” Flower, in perfect health, was going to the All-Star Game.
“This afternoon,” Flower said. “How’s things?” He looked tired. Sidney had mentioned that Estelle was rebelling against the concept of sleeping through the night.
Zhenya shrugged. “You know. Can’t skate, so. But Stew think I’m okay soon, maybe one week.”
“That’s good,” Flower said. He got a sly look on his face. “How’s Sid?”
Zhenya had no patience for meddling. “Flower—”
“Okay, I know, I know,” Flower said. “He hasn’t said anything to me. You don’t have to worry.” He slurped his coffee, and smiled at Zhenya over the rim of his mug. “It’s good, though?”
Zhenya’s usual tactic with Flower was to avoid giving him any ammunition whatsoever. But he thought of Sidney putting his scarf on for him, the determined, careful expression on his face, and he felt his own face breaking into a stupid grin he was powerless to stop.
“Ah,” Flower said, smiling wider. “So.”
“I think it’s good,” Zhenya admitted, and the hot kick of hope inside his heart seared him raw all the way down to his roots. It felt cleansing.
He sat in his usual spot during the team meeting: front row to the right. Sidney always sat in the back to the left, but today he came right up to the front of the room and took the chair next to Zhenya.
“Morning,” Sidney said, nudging Zhenya with his elbow. “Chris ice your balls for you already?”
“Stew is not—shut up, Sid,” Zhenya said, trying to ignore how adorable Sidney was, fluffy and not all the way awake, smiling at Zhenya in his ugly warmup jacket.
“Here,” Sidney said. He offered Zhenya a little styrofoam cup full of coffee.
It was perfectly doctored, exactly the color Zhenya liked. “Thanks,” he managed, after a moment, and Sidney smiled at him and settled his hand on Zhenya’s thigh, casually, like they did this sort of thing all the time.
Kuni and Tanger were looking at them from the other side of the aisle. Zhenya subtly flipped them off with his free hand.
Sidney kept his hand there all through the meeting, big and warm, and Zhenya watched Johnston’s mouth move and didn’t hear a word he said.
When it was all done, he sat in his car in the parking lot and took a folded piece of paper from his wallet: the list of dates that Sidney had made, all those months ago. A few tiny snowflakes fell from the gray sky and stuck to his windshield as Zhenya read through the list. He had been careful not to notice it at the time, but Sidney had written down all of Zhenya’s favorite activities, so clearly trying to think of what he would enjoy the most.
Months ago, and he knew Sidney had felt guilty, maybe still did, but there were many ways to be kind to someone that didn’t involve gently, thoughtfully trying to date them in the way that would make them happiest.
Maybe he hadn’t misread Sidney’s signals, not even at the very beginning.
He texted Sidney, who had still been in the weight room when Zhenya went to shower. What you do tonight?
Sidney didn’t respond until Zhenya was at home, idly watching hockey and back-reading the group chat. Dinner at Duper’s, but I could come over after
Yes)))) Zhenya replied at once.
Okay I’ll text you, Sidney said, and Zhenya scowled at his phone for a few moments, torn between eagerness and irritation with himself for being so easy to please.
Sidney came over that night with a plastic container in his hands and his hair full of snow. “Carole-Lyne made cookies,” he said, and lifted his chin to let Zhenya unzip his coat.
“What kind?” Zhenya asked.
“Butterscotch chip,” Sidney said, grinning. He looked relaxed and happy, still riding the uncomplicated pleasure of a good meal and an evening with Duper’s family, and Zhenya bent down for a kiss, because he couldn’t resist and saw no reason to.
It turned heated right away. Sidney moved away only long enough to put the cookies on the side table, and then he was kissing Zhenya with his mouth open, urgent, hungry kisses. Zhenya drew Sidney in close, as close as he could get, his arms around Sidney’s shoulders, their chests pressed together, their feet bumping. Zhenya would have dragged him to the floor right there in his foyer, if that was what Sidney wanted, and sucked him off on the carpet. It had been a couple of weeks since the last time they had sex, on that afternoon in Montreal, and Zhenya had thought about it every day since.
Sidney pulled back, panting. “Fuck. Geno, I swear I didn’t come over for sex.”
“No?” Zhenya asked. “You don’t like anymore? Maybe get bored?”
He was teasing, but Sidney scowled at him and dragged him down for another kiss, biting at Zhenya’s mouth. “How could you ever—do you know many times I’ve looked at those fucking pictures?”
Zhenya wasn’t sure at first what he was talking about, but then Sidney looked up at him with his eyes dark and his mouth wet and said, “You were wearing your hat like that the other day after practice and I almost got a boner in the locker room, and you know those pants show fucking everything.”
Jesus fucking Christ. “You only look?” Zhenya asked, his voice rough.
“I jacked off last night after you left,” Sidney said, “and I looked at those pictures and thought about you. I’m not fucking bored.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He cupped Sidney’s face in his hands and bent to kiss his forehead, soothing. “Let’s go upstairs.”
Sidney followed him closely all the way up the stairs and into Zhenya’s dark bedroom, hands on his hips and ass, and he shoved Zhenya down on the bed straight away and started pulling at his shirt. He seemed worked up, almost desperate, and Zhenya always liked being shoved around a little, but it wasn’t Sidney’s usual modus operandi.
“Hey,” Zhenya said, pushing up to sit on the edge of the bed. He tugged on Sidney’s belt loops. “Sid, what’s up?” He leaned in and kissed Sidney’s face a few times, the high hot flush of his cheeks. The light in the hallway spilled through the door, but it wasn’t enough to show Zhenya the color of Sidney’s face; but he could feel the heat of it under his lips.
Sidney stepped in between Zhenya’s thighs and bent to press his face against Zhenya’s hair. “Sorry. I’m—sorry.”
“I don’t mind,” Zhenya said. He tucked his hands beneath the hem of Sidney’s sweater and stroked his soft back and sides. “You know I like. But maybe you upset.”
Sidney drew in a deep breath and let it out again. His hands fisted in the collar of Zhenya’s T-shirt. “I don’t want to lose you. And I don’t know how to—you still don’t think I’m serious. I don’t know how to convince you.”
Zhenya moved him backward, gently. He looked up at Sidney’s frowning face, the crease between his eyebrows. “Sid, it’s not—test? I don’t, ah. It’s not you say right thing, do right thing, then I believe.” He took one of Sidney’s hands in his and moved it to cover his heart. “I tell you. I’m scared.” He closed his eyes, because this part was embarrassing, and he didn’t really want to say it, but he also didn’t want Sidney to feel that Zhenya was deliberately making him jump through hoops. “I feel too much, you know? Then, if you don’t want—and I can’t stop. It’s two years now, and I still—so maybe I always feel.”
He felt Sidney’s fingers tracing along his cheek. “I can’t believe you never said anything. I was such a—and you let me, and you never said anything.”
“It’s good sex,” Zhenya said. He opened his eyes at last, and the expression on Sidney’s face made him squeeze them shut again immediately, because he couldn’t bear to have Sidney look at him like that, so stripped bare and unguarded.
“Come on,” Sidney said quietly. “Let’s just—can we get in bed?”
They undressed and slid beneath the covers. Zhenya turned on the lamp on the nightstand. They curled in close, facing each other. Sidney tucked one foot between Zhenya’s ankles, and stroked his hand over the side of Zhenya’s face. Zhenya gazed into Sidney’s eyes and knew they were at some threshold, each of them waiting for the other to take that final step.
“Do you remember—after the Olympics,” Sidney said.
Zhenya would never forget it: Sidney inviting him over and then springing the trap of his watchful, sincere concern; Sidney sitting beside him as Zhenya worked through weeks of self-directed rage and despair, one patient hand on Zhenya’s back.
“Yes,” he said.
“That was—I think that’s when things started changing for me,” Sidney said. “But I didn’t realize it.”
“It’s change for me, too,” Zhenya said. He watched Sidney’s face, the hopeful affection in his gaze. Maybe all of this had been inevitable. There was really no going back, after you cried on a man’s sofa and he held you and said it wasn’t your fault.
“I guess I’m, uh,” Sidney said, and then grimaced and didn’t continue.
“Sid?” Zhenya said, and Sidney rubbed his thumb across Zhenya’s cheekbone and didn’t respond.
“You going to the rink tomorrow?” Sidney asked finally, and Zhenya exhaled a soundless breath. The threshold receded. They weren’t quite there yet.
“Yes, go see Stew,” he said.
“Okay,” Sidney said. He shifted in closer and pressed his face to Zhenya’s throat, his head nestled beneath Zhenya’s chin. Zhenya rubbed Sidney’s back and held him there, with love beating in his heart like blood, until it was time to go to sleep.
+ + +
“Hi,” Sidney said. He kissed the back of Zhenya’s neck, and stroked a hand along his hip. “You awake?”
He was awake, but Sidney knew better than to expect a response. Zhenya tugged the covers up slightly, burrowing in. He was so comfortable, and warm all over. He wasn’t ready to get up.
A few blissful minutes passed. Sidney held him and traced patterns on Zhenya’s hip with his fingernails. It felt good. Zhenya turned toward him a little, rotating backward into the broad heat of Sidney’s body, and Sidney pressed his smile against Zhenya’s neck and slid his hand forward, moving down between Zhenya’s thighs to grope his soft dick.
“You wanna?” Sidney asked.
It was still much too early in the day for words, but Zhenya brought his hand down to cover Sidney’s, and Sidney chuckled and kissed Zhenya’s neck again.
He had to move away to dig the lube out of the drawer, and then he rolled Sidney onto his back and sprawled on top of him. Sidney was big and warm and starting to get hard. He smiled up at Zhenya and said, “Don’t kiss me, your breath smells terrible.”
“Yours worse,” Zhenya said, and blew a great noxious cloud of morning breath right in Sidney’s face.
“Oh my God,” Sidney complained, squirming, but Zhenya had him pinned, and he ducked his head to kiss along Sidney’s throat and collarbones until Sidney was sighing and rolling his hips up against Zhenya’s.
Zhenya still felt slow and glazed with sleep, warm and lazy. He cupped Sidney’s head with both hands, burying his fingers in Sidney’s hair, and tucked his face against Sidney’s neck. Sidney was all spread beneath him, his huge, strong thighs parted around Zhenya’s hips, his feet flat on the bed to grind up as Zhenya ground down.
Sidney got loud right away. It was wonderful to kiss his neck and listen to him enjoy himself, his fingers digging into Zhenya’s back. He was hard and leaking against Zhenya’s abdomen, lube and pre-come mixing with sweat until everything was a slick, seamless glide.
Sidney came with his back arched and his mouth open in a shameless moan. Zhenya kept moving until Sidney twitched and made a noise that was less pleasure and more discomfort, and then Zhenya rolled off of him, onto his back, and considered the messy expanse of his own belly, and his dick so hard the foreskin had drawn all the way back.
“Mmm, Geno,” Sidney said, and stretched with his arms above his head until something in his spine popped. He turned onto his side and smiled at Zhenya, and tweaked one of his nipples. Zhenya hissed. “I want to make you beg for it,” Sidney said. “Is that okay?”
How Sidney could say things like that with a straight face, Zhenya would never understand. He didn’t want to talk about it; he just wanted to get off. He turned onto his own side to face Sidney, and slung his good leg over Sidney’s hip, and drew Sidney’s hand down between his legs.
Sidney kissed his neck and jerked him off with agonizing slowness. Zhenya did beg a little, because he liked it, and Sidney wanted him to: “Please, Sid,” his voice rising and breaking, and Sidney kissed his jaw and murmured, “You’re doing so good, just like that,” and still wouldn’t let him come until Zhenya was trembling and wordless.
They lay tangled together afterward, smeared with drying come. Zhenya rested his head on Sidney’s shoulder and didn’t ever want to move. But eventually Sidney sighed and kissed the top of his head and said, “We’d better get going.”
He didn’t hang out with Sidney again that evening, although they texted some, and Zhenya was foolishly pleased by each pointless message about Sidney’s crock pot. The next day there was practice, and then the All-Star game in the afternoon. Duper had agreed to hold a viewing party at his house, and of course Sidney was already there when Zhenya arrived, loitering in the kitchen with his brightly colored socks and his wide, sweet smile that he turned on Zhenya, without mercy, when Zhenya came through the door.
“Hey,” he said, reaching out, and Zhenya took his offered hand and dropped a quick, stolen kiss on his palm when no one was watching.
He and Sidney sat on opposite sides of the room during the game. They hadn’t talked about it, but Zhenya certainly didn’t want the team getting suspicious. Maybe next season they would say something, if they made it through the summer. But Sidney kept looking at him, and wasn’t subtle about it, and Zhenya couldn’t bring himself to mind.
The game was predictably ridiculous. Tanger and Duper yelled at the television in French every time Flower appeared, things that made Duper’s children giggle and Sidney grin and shake his head. Zhenya was irritated about his groin, but he wasn’t sorry to be in Pittsburgh instead of Columbus. He ate far too many of Carole-Lyne’s incredible jalapeno poppers and mocked Horny for gasping every time someone took a shot on net, and whenever he glanced over, Sidney was smiling at him.
When the game was done, and they were taking plates and empty beer bottles into the kitchen, Sidney caught him for a moment in the hallway and said, “Want to come over for dinner?”
He drove to Sidney’s house that night. It was snowing moderately, a storm that would last through the night and into the next day. The forecast was calling for half a foot of snow. Maybe he would get snowed in at Sidney’s and never have to leave.
Sidney met him at the side door. “How were the roads?” he asked, hovering as Zhenya took his coat off.
“Fine, Sid,” Zhenya said, amused that Sidney thought someone who had learned to drive in Magnitogorsk—where it snowed far more than it did in Pittsburgh, and where most people kept a handgun in the glove compartment—would have any problems navigating the short distance between their houses.
“You might have to spend the night,” Sidney said, and reached around to pat Zhenya’s ass.
Christ, he was trouble. “You feed me first, then maybe I let you see my ass,” Zhenya said, and walked Sidney into the kitchen with his hands on Sidney’s hips.
There was a good smell in the kitchen—a rich smell that Zhenya recognized but couldn’t place. He paused in the doorway, frowning, and squeezed Sidney’s hips. “What you make?”
Sidney leaned back against him, tipped his head back on Zhenya’s shoulder to look up at him. “Your mom sent me her borscht recipe.”
“What?” Zhenya said dumbly.
“I emailed her,” Sidney said. “You’ve got her address on that list in your kitchen. Maybe I snooped a little. I had to translate it, so I’m not sure it’s totally right, but I think it tastes okay.”
“You email mama?” Zhenya said. He cleared his throat.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. He turned around in Zhenya’s arms and peered up at him. “Is that okay? She seemed happy about it. She sent me a picture of you when you were a baby. You were pretty cute.”
Zhenya pressed his face against Sidney’s hair to hide the sudden sharp wetness in his eyes. Sidney had emailed his mother.
“Geno?” Sidney said, patting at his back.
“It’s okay,” Zhenya said, and hoped Sidney would ignore the roughness in his voice.
The borscht wasn’t exactly like his mother’s, but it was very close. Zhenya made a lot of appreciative noises, and Sidney scrunched up his face and tried to act like it was no big deal.
“Well, come on,” Sidney said, “I know how to cook, and it’s not like it’s a complicated recipe.” But he looked pleased.
Sidney talked about the All-Star Game, and the phone call he had gotten from Flower earlier. Zhenya ate and watched him, his big nose and the faint stubble on his upper lip, and loved him, and didn’t want to stop.
Nothing worth having was without risk. Dima, who he knew had loved him, had broken his heart in the end. Maybe Sidney would break his heart as well, and then Zhenya would have to leave the team because he couldn’t stand to be around Sidney all the time. So what? He had tried to teach himself cynicism over the years, but he could never seem to make it stick. The hard parts always ended, and in the aftermath came new chances for joy. He would take this risk: this longed-for chance.
“What is it?” Sidney asked him, and Zhenya wondered what expression he had on his face.
“It’s good food,” he said, and felt himself bloom under Sidney’s answering smile.
+ + +
They had the afternoon free in Newark. Ordinarily he would have gone into the city to see Kolya, but the Islanders had a game that evening, and Zhenya felt too lazy to make the trip for any lesser reason. Instead he took a nap, with Sidney beside him in the bed, stroking Zhenya’s hair as he scrolled around his tablet with his other hand.
He woke warm and rested. Sidney hadn’t moved. He bent over to kiss Zhenya’s temple, and gave him a few minutes to put his thoughts in order. Then he said, “We could do dinner tonight, just the two of us.”
“Nice date,” Zhenya said. He ran his hand along Sidney’s thigh.
“I’ll find somewhere romantic,” Sidney said. “Candles. Expensive wine.”
“You can’t afford,” Zhenya said, and Sidney laughed and said, “We’ll have to split the bill, then.”
Zhenya had been holding himself back for months, trying to keep their relationship at least marginally professional, but there was no reason for it now. He could fuss as much as he wanted, or at least as much as Sidney would tolerate, which was a much lower bar than Zhenya would have set. Sidney didn’t want Zhenya to hold the door, and he didn’t want Zhenya to push his chair in—Zhenya got an incredulous look when he tried—but he would let Zhenya hold his hand across the table, and he smiled the whole time. Zhenya didn’t have a single complaint.
The food was good, and they shared a bottle of wine. On the walk back to the hotel, Zhenya looked up at the night sky, glowing faintly orange from the city lights, and the whole galaxy wasn’t large enough to contain the way he felt.
In the hotel room, Zhenya changed into his pajamas, and Sidney stripped down to his underwear and went into the bathroom to shave. Zhenya got in bed and turned on the TV. They would watch a game, probably, and Zhenya would campaign for the Islanders, but it didn’t hurt to check what else was on.
“Sid,” he called.
The buzzing of Sidney’s mustache trimmer stopped. “Yeah?”
“What game is on?” Zhenya asked. He hated trying to navigate through the listings on the TV.
“I’ve got the schedule up on my tablet,” Sidney said. “Should be the first tab there.” The buzzing started up again.
Zhenya knew the passcode for Sidney’s tablet after watching over his shoulder so many evenings. He unlocked it and opened the browser, and then squinted at the screen, because that definitely wasn’t the game schedule.
Two men smiled at him from the screen, holding a baby between them. Zhenya scrolled down, baffled, and then checked Sidney’s other open tabs. It was a lot of the same: two guys with a baby, or two guys with older kids who clearly weren’t biologically theirs, and a lot of text that Zhenya didn’t want to read. He pulled out his phone to translate some of the words. Adoption. Surrogacy.
The buzzing stopped. He heard Sidney run the tap, rinsing stray hairs from the sink. The light in the bathroom turned off. Sidney came out, wiping his hands over the lower half of his face. He smiled at Zhenya. “You find it?”
Mutely, Zhenya turned the tablet around to show Sidney the screen.
The smile dropped from Sidney’s face. He turned white, and then flushed red.
“You look,” Zhenya said. “You read?”
“I forgot that was open,” Sidney said. He grimaced, and reached up to rub at the back of his neck.
Zhenya set the tablet aside. The entire expanding universe wasn’t big enough. “Sid, come here,” he said, and Sidney crawled into bed with him and lay curled on his side, his head resting in Zhenya’s lap. Zhenya bent down to kiss his hot face.
Sidney fisted his hand in the soft fabric of Zhenya’s sweatpants. “I know two men can have a family.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. His chest was so full. “Maybe it’s a little bit extra work. But not so hard.”
“I’m just doing some reading,” Sidney said. “It’s way too soon. And I’m not ready, but I thought—”
Zhenya squirmed down until he was lying beside Sidney, curled in toward him under the covers. Sidney still looked embarrassed, but he rolled onto his back and pulled Zhenya on top of him. Zhenya arranged himself so he could lie with his head on Sidney’s shoulder, and for a few minutes they lay together in silence, with Sidney trailing his fingers up and down Zhenya’s spine.
“I want to give you all the things you want,” Sidney said at last.
“I want lots,” Zhenya said. Sidney’s heartbeat was a steady thrum against his ear. “You know.”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “I think I do. And I want—I don’t want you to miss out on anything.”
Zhenya sucked in a breath. This was the hard part, because he had dreamed for many years of what his family would look like, and he thought Sidney probably had his own dreams, and they didn’t look much like Zhenya’s. “You don’t miss out, either. If you want—”
“I won’t,” Sidney said. “Everything I want is with you.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said. His throat was closing up. He was going to start crying. Well, Sidney had seen him cry before. He had a lot of feelings. It wasn’t news to anyone.
“You’re it for me, I think,” Sidney said. His hand was gentle on Zhenya’s back.
Zhenya laughed wetly, and turned his face against Sidney’s neck. “Only been few weeks, Sid.”
“No,” Sidney said. “It’s been a lot longer than that.”
He rubbed Zhenya’s back patiently until Zhenya stopped shaking. Then he got up and brought Zhenya some tissues, so he could blow his swollen nose.
“I talk to Jen,” Zhenya said. “Say we don’t break up when season’s over.”
“All right,” Sidney said. He laughed, and covered his face with his hands for a moment. When he lowered them again, his eyes were shining. “Okay. That sounds like a plan.”
+ + +
Zhenya had no idea what he was talking about. ????
Tyson replied with twenty or thirty totally random emojis, like he had just scrolled through his options and smashed his finger against the screen, and Zhenya decided it probably wasn’t worth worrying about.
Sidney, sitting beside him, tipped his head onto Zhenya’s shoulder and yawned. “Something funny?”
“No,” Zhenya said. He put his phone away, and wrapped his arm around Sidney’s shoulders. “Good game tonight.”
“Wish we hadn’t gone to overtime, though,” Sidney murmured sleepily, and Zhenya held him until the bus stopped, and they all disembarked to go home.
+ + +
+ + +
He landed in Pittsburgh before lunch, opened up his house, texted some of the guys that he was back, and made plans with Mario to hit the links. He needed to swing by the grocery store; Geno would be back in a few days, and would probably claim jet lag as an excuse to make Sidney feed him until training camp.
He snapped a picture of his empty refrigerator and sent it to Geno. Any requests?
It was evening in Moscow; Geno responded within a few minutes. Yes send me Sid pick need pretty face)))
Sidney grinned foolishly at his phone. He had seen Geno pretty recently; they spent two weeks in Moscow and Magnitogorsk together after Geno came out for the hockey school. But any time apart from Geno was too much time. Sidney thought about him constantly, missed him, wanted to be with him, and he couldn’t wait to have Geno with him all season, at least six months of uninterrupted time. They had basically been living together by the end of last season, and everyone on the team definitely knew. Tanger had offered to give Sidney the safe sex talk. And nobody else was any better. Sidney’s mother had broken out the photo albums while Geno was in Cole Harbour, and Sidney had been forced to retreat to the back yard with his dad to escape Geno’s theatrical exclaiming over pictures of toddler Sidney in diapers.
Sid pick, though, honestly. He snapped a picture of himself frowning as hard as he could manage, and sent that to Geno.
Beutiful like super model, Geno replied, and he couldn’t spell, he was lazy about housework, he kept sending Sidney listings for geriatric cats at the local animal shelter even though Sidney had made it very clear he didn’t want to get a cat, and Sidney loved him so much. Thinking about the way he felt about Geno was like poking a bruise, tender on the surface and softly painful underneath, down where his body was remaking itself.
He had been pretty sure about Geno even before the summer, but now he was certain. They made it through the devastating first-round loss to the Rangers, and a couple of months apart while Geno went to Miami and Sidney went to a bunch of weddings. They survived meeting each other’s friends and parents in the here’s-my-boyfriend capacity. They had a big, noisy fight about Geno’s passive-aggressive tendencies, and survived that, too. Sidney was ready.
He picked Geno up at the airport a few days later. He got there way too early, and sat in the cell phone lot, jittering one leg the way Geno hated and always complained about, until Geno texted him: Plane is land see soon!!!
He forced himself to wait another ten minutes, and then he started doing loops through the arrivals lane. On his third pass, Geno was there on the curb, wearing his douchey sunglasses and scowling at his phone. Sidney’s heart kicked into overdrive. He pulled up and honked, and Geno looked up, and Sidney had told himself he would stay in the car, not make a scene, but he was putting the car in park and getting out and Geno was smiling at him and opening his arms, and Sidney smashed his face against Geno’s neck and held on.
“I miss you,” Geno whispered to him, “so happy to see, miss so much,” and yeah: Sidney was ready.
He talked Geno into going home with him. “You don’t have any food,” he pointed out, totally reasonably. “I’ll feed you. We can go to the store and open up your house tomorrow.”
“But you don’t let me sleep,” Geno said. “At my house, I can sleep.” Slouched in Sidney’s passenger seat, he looked seven feet tall. Sidney was trying not to stare.
“You told me not to let you sleep,” Sidney said. “I’m listening to Past Geno. Present Geno is always full of shit.”
Geno made a disgruntled noise, but he didn’t argue, so Sidney figured he had won that round.
Food and sleep weren’t the only reasons he wanted Geno to come to his place. He had cleaned out his junk drawer yesterday. It was totally empty now, except for one thing: a ring box, made of crushed black velvet.
It was probably kind of dumb to get an engagement ring for a guy. He didn’t really expect Geno to wear it. It was more for the symbolism. But he had still sweated over the design: a simple platinum band, polished smooth on the outside and engraved on the inside with the date of the first game they ever played together. He wanted Geno to like it.
At the house, they left most of Geno’s bags in the trunk of Sidney’s car. Geno dug a change of clothes out of one of his suitcases and brought that inside. Everything else he needed was already in Sidney’s bedroom or washroom, a toothbrush and a razor and one of those weird scrubby shower puffs that seemed like a rich breeding ground for mold. Sidney smiled every time he showered and saw it hanging there on a hook Geno had suction-cupped to the wall.
“So tired,” Geno complained, following Sidney down the hallway to the kitchen. “Need nap, Sid—”
“Quit whining,” Sidney said. He was vibrating with anxious excitement. He turned to give Geno a kiss, and grabbed the front of his T-shirt to pull him along in front of the fridge. “What do you want to eat? I’ve got leftover stuffed shells, or I can make you a sandwich.”
“Sandwich,” Geno said. Sidney released him, and Geno went to the sink to wash his hands while Sidney took out the sandwich fixings, lettuce and sweet onion and the fancy whole-grain mustard Geno liked. Sidney watched him dry his hands on his pants and look out the window for a minute, into the sunny back yard. Then he turned, rubbing at his face and yawning. His gaze caught on the junk drawer, which Sidney had left open a sliver, to make it more tempting.
Sidney’s heart was racing. He was going to throw up. He shifted slightly so he could see Geno’s face straight on. He didn’t want to miss anything. He knew Geno was going to say yes.
“You want avocado on this?” he asked, overflowing with love and hope, and watched as Geno opened the drawer.