Sidney was stillborn.
It wasn’t the worst news Trina and Troy received that day.
Magical interference in stillbirths was banned throughout most of the Western world beginning in the late 1600s. To be accurate, magical interference in almost everything was publicly banned from that time. The lack of exception for childbirth traumas was simply the part that broke the Crosby family’s very human hearts.
The passage of legislation allowing a family’s choice in extreme cases was stuck in committee during the final months of Trina’s pregnancy. An enchantment would’ve restored Sidney’s spark along with his life. The cure legally available in Canada was a good deal colder. But what won’t a mother do for the life of her child? What won’t a father try for his son?
The procedure was an unmitigated success. A healthy baby boy, perfectly average in height and weight with a heart that beat steady as a metronome.
Sidney never cried.
This isn’t to say he was a happy baby. Sidney rarely smiled and when he did it was easily attributable to gas. Trina worried; her mother and all the baby books said she should worry if Sidney never fussed. Troy said she should be thrilled their son slept straight through till morning once he’d outgrown mid-night feedings. She couldn’t shake the feeling of unease and Troy eventually sighed and made a doctor’s appointment.
The pediatrician flipped through Sidney’s chart until she reached the oldest page. The one that listed his birthday, 8/7/87. The one outlining the procedure that took place the day before the passage of the Statute of Magical Limitations Z53L-Subsection Q.
“Ah, well, that would explain it, Mrs. Crosby,” the doctor gave Trina a tight-lipped smile. “He’ll be an easy baby, no need to worry. If he shows any signs of physical dysfunction, that’s when you’d need to worry.”
“Physical dysfunction?” Trina’s hand stilled, paused in the path she’d been gently stroking through Sidney’s dark, downy hair.
“Mmm, yes,” the doctor closed Sidney’s file and tapped her pen against the front cover. When Trina looked up, the doctor wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Any illness of unusual length or ferocity, slowness in development, difficulty in sleeping. Those are the sort of problems you need to worry about. He’ll...he’ll be a dream child, more likely than not.”
“More likely than not,” Trina repeated.
She never bothered Troy about seeing the doctor after that.
Sidney was a solemn three-year-old the first time Troy laced him into a tiny pair of skates. The air in the Halifax Forum was cold enough to freeze their breath as they exhaled. Sidney’s wide brown eyes precisely traced the paths of the clouds rising from their mouths.
Troy helped Sidney to his feet. He was expecting shaky legs and some small display of fear, but Sidney stepped onto the ice without hesitation. In a matter of minutes, Troy’s son was gliding around the rink. His ankles never bowed. His gait never faltered. Sidney turned to his father with a broad, genuine grin and Troy narrowly avoided tripping into the boards. It was almost as if Sidney was born to skate.
Maybe he was.
Taylor Crosby was a perfect baby, pink and squirming and wailing with a vengeance.
“She’s so loud,” Sidney said. He looked down at her from his perch on the stool beside the bassinet.
“She wants you to know she’s here,” Trina rustled up a tired smile for Sidney. She bent to pick Taylor up before slowly turning to look at her son. “Would you like to hold her?”
Sidney went preternaturally still, eyes flicking from Trina’s weary features to Taylor’s fussing form. “Yes, please.”
“Go sit in the rocker,” Trina nodded towards the chair in the corner. It was a gift from her father. She’d never used it with Sidney. Her son had turned self-soothing into an art form. Before Taylor was born, the chair was a sad reminder of everything their little family was not.
Sidney sat expectantly in the rocker. He let Trina settle a pillow across his lap and manipulate his arms into the correct position. Ever so slowly, she deposited a crying Taylor in Sidney’s arms.
As soon as she was cradled against his chest, Taylor quieted, blinking blearily up to meet his serious gaze. “Mom,” Sidney didn’t look away from Taylor’s yawning face, small arms wrapped securely around his sister.
“Yes?” She watched in quiet awe as Taylor fell asleep, slumped against her brother’s bent torso.
“How come my name doesn’t start with a ‘T’ like everyone else?” Sidney asked. His left index finger traced the miniscule shell of Taylor’s ear.
Trina’s breath caught in her chest. It was a long while before she could speak without fear of sobbing. “Well, Sidney,” she said, “that’s a very good question.”
“Do you have a good answer?” Sidney asked, looking up with a genuinely curious expression.
“Because you’re special,” Trina said, putting every ounce of love she had into each syllable.
Sidney studied her with those serious dark eyes before ducking his head to smile broadly at his sleeping sister.
“So is Taylor.”
Taylor was the only person allowed in Sidney’s personal space without complaint. She had an almost magical--Trina crossed herself every time the thought flit past--way with her brother. Taylor would twirl around Sidney in an effervescent blur of joy and laughter and it clung to him, lingering like so much fairy dust.
Eyes glued to the ice, Trina spoke. “My mother. You know she can, she could...” She paused, watching the kids as they stepped onto the ice below. “Do you think--”
“Trina,” Troy shook his head once, eyes fixed on their children. Sidney was smiling widely, the way he only does for hockey and for Taylor. He slowly and patiently guided his sister across the ice. From the stands, Troy and Trina heard his gentle words of encouragement as Taylor let go and took her first, trembling strides alone. Sidney let loose a joyous crow of laughter and something that felt very much like hope warmly unfurled in Trina’s chest.
“Troy. We have to talk about it,” Trina whispered, tears slipping down her cold-ruddy cheeks.
“Not if we want either of them to play,” Troy replied, not unkindly, as he took his wife’s mittened hand between his calloused fingers. “I told him never to settle for ordinary and he won’t be. Could you really keep Sidney from playing?”
It was a long while before Trina stopped trembling.
Sidney and Jack were sprawled across the Johnsons’ living room floor, sharing a plate of Mrs. Johnson’s famous chocolate chip cookies while they worked. The other guys on the team made fun of Sidney for maybe spending too much time at the Johnson house, but he was homesick and something about them reminded Sidney of Taylor. He never had to fake a smile because he was honestly happy with them.
Jack picked through a stack of books for their joint history paper. “So, not a lot of practitioners in Cole Harbour, Sid?” Jack asked, jotting down notes in his sloping cursive.
“Hmm?” Sidney looked up from a picture of Rosa Parks, hero of the Civil and Magical Rights communities.
Jack huffed a laugh. “Not many magic users back home?” he asked, drawing lopsided sigils below his notes on JFK.
“Oh.” Sidney’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know, it’s pretty conservative. That’s just the way it is in Nova Scotia. There weren’t any that I knew, but.” He shrugged.
“Yeah, I know. You don’t get out much,” Jack grinned, biting into a cookie.
Sidney threw his pen at Jack, who easily batted it away. “Shut up, you bag of milk,” Sidney rolled his eyes, leafing through a heavily annotated and vandalized copy of A People’s History of the Magical Rights Movement.
“What does that even mean, Sidney?” Jack laughed and tossed Sidney his pen.
“It means you’re an idiot, Johnson,” Sidney uncapped the pen. He scribbled in the margins next to a letter from President Eisenhower to Chief Justice Warren. The letter detailed the many ways in which Warren’s views on integration were moronic.
“Uhuh,” Jack settled down to read the next chapter of Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of The Civil and Magical Rights Movements From 1830 to 1970. After finishing a passage about Harriet Tubman, he said, “You know, my mom’s family’s actually not from around here.”
“Yeah?” Sidney raised his brows, but didn’t look up from the devil horns he was drawing on members of the Topeka Board of Education.
“Yeah. They’re from Salem,” Jack said, deliberately enunciating ‘Salem.’
Sidney glanced up to see Jack staring at him expectantly. After an awkward silence, he said, “I hear Oregon’s really nice.”
Jack blinked, mouth dropping open in surprise. “You--shit,” Jack laughed, rolling onto his back, pages crinkling beneath his shaking shoulders. “Shit, man. You’re seriously something else, Crosby.”
Then Kenny came tumbling in with his mini-stick, demanding a faceoff lesson. Sidney rose to his knees and forgot all about Jack and his oblique references to Oregon towns neither of them had ever been to.
“Jack, sweetheart, look how tall you’ve gotten,” Trina yanked Jack down for a hug.
Sidney retrieved the massive NTDP equipment bag from the back of the truck, slinging the strap over one shoulder. “Mom, you’ve read his stats.”
“It’s not the same as seeing, Sidney,” Trina pulled back, stroking Jack’s too-long blonde hair out of his eyes. “I was so pleased when your mother called, dear.”
“She wishes she could come herself, but Kenny’s got the flu and probably won’t be better till it’s time for Ottawa,” Jack smiled down at her. “Thanks for putting me up, Mrs. Crosby.”
“Oh, it’s Trina, sweetheart. Let’s get you boys inside, you must be starving,” she led the way into the house. “Taylor’s helping me make Kraft Dinner if it won’t break your hearts to ruin your nutrition plan for the day.”
“I think we’ll survive,” Sidney said. He bumped shoulders with Jack, motioning for Jack to follow Trina while Sidney took the bags upstairs.
“Taylor, you remember Sidney’s friend Jack, don’t you, honey?” Trina asked.
Taylor, a tiny blonde ball of energy perched on a sloppily-painted pink footstool, squealed with delight. “Jack! Mommy’s letting me make the--whoops!” She lost her precarious footing, spatula flying out of her hand and stool tipping.
Everything seemed to freeze for a moment. Taylor’s outstretched hand hovered near the bubbling pot of pasta, which was threatening to escape the stove top. Jack’s hands were both extended towards Taylor, who was slowly rotating in midair as the stool toppled to the ground.
“Oh. Oh dear,” Trina breathed as Taylor dropped her hands, sending the pot back to the stove with a clatter.
“Whoa,” Taylor giggled as Jack lowered his hands, slowly settling Taylor on the tiled floor beside the stool. “Cool.”
“Um…” Jack looked from Taylor’s gap toothed grin to Trina’s resigned frown. “Whoops?”
“I suppose that explains a few things,” Trina bent to right the stool. Sidney strolled into the kitchen, oblivious to the tension in the air.
“Sidney, Sidney, guess what!” Taylor scrambled towards Sidney, arms outstretched.
“What, Taylor?” Sidney asked, scooping her up and settling her on his hip.
“Mom let me make dinner!” Taylor replied. Jack and Trina exchanged relieved looks.
“Wow!” Sidney grinned. “Well, serve it up. We’re dying for some KD.”
The sun hadn’t quite crawled over the horizon when Jack shuffled his way into the dim kitchen. Sidney was hunched over a steaming mug bearing the SSM seal. He wore a pair of basketball shorts and a rumpled Rimouski Océanic tee with a cartoonish depiction of Lousky on the front.
“Fresh pot if you want some,” Sidney offered with a tilt of his head, hands running through his already-disheveled, dark hair. “Weather’s supposed to be warm today. I was thinking we could run a six mile loop before breakfast, maybe play a little road hockey after.”
“Sure,” Jack shrugged, pouring his coffee into the Spartans Hockey mug Sidney had left next to the coffee maker. “Cute, Sid.”
“I thought so,” Sidney smiled beatifically.
“Where’d you even get this?” Jack scowled at the familiar green helmet.
Sidney shrugged, broad shoulders shifting smoothly beneath the thin cotton of his shirt. “Taylor wanted to come with us when we go swimming this afternoon.”
“Yeah?” Jack settled into the chair opposite Sidney, yawning widely.
“I think she has a crush on you or something,” Sidney leaned back in his chair, legs sprawling until his sneakered foot bumped against Jack’s.
“Or something,” Jack muttered into his coffee, gently bumping Sidney’s foot back.
When they returned from their run, sweaty and laughing, Trina and Troy were in the kitchen making breakfast. Trina was at the kitchen island slicing up fruit while Troy manned a grill pan of ham and a skillet full of scrambled eggs.
“You’ve got ten minutes to wash up before breakfast is ready,” Troy said, smiling over his shoulder.
“Thanks, Mr. Crosby,” Jack returned the smile, nodding at Trina.
“Sidney, would you wake up your sister, please?” Trina asked, cutting a pineapple into precise chunks.
“Sure thing, Mom,” Sidney headed towards the stairs. “You can have first shower, Jack.”
“Thanks, Sid,” Jack lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe away the sweat beading at his temples and hairline. When he dropped the fabric, Sidney was paused at the foot of the stairs, staring with wind flushed cheeks. “You good, man?”
“Um, yeah,” Sidney’s cheeks reddened further before he turned and took the stairs two at a time. “Taylor, do you smell bacon?” he shouted, flinging open Taylor’s door. Jack chuckled and headed for the bathroom.
The night before the draft, Sidney and Jack avoided the press and fans by holing up in their room at the Westin Ottowa. They avoided sleeplessness by watching a marathon of old Friends episodes. Sidney worked himself into a rare fit of that hysterical, honking laughter.
“Miss Chanandler Bong,” Sidney gasped, falling back onto the comforter of the absurdly plush hotel bed.
“This show is just plain awful. You have the worst taste in TV,” Jack threw a pillow at Sidney.
“You’re just plain awful,” Sidney laughed, clutching the pillow as he turned off the television.
“Hey, Sid?” Jack flicked off the lamp. The room was illuminated only by light filtered through the window sheers.
“Yeah?” There’s a quiet rustle of fabric as Sidney crawled under the blankets.
“Why, are you?” Jack could just make out Sidney’s distinctive profile. His aquiline nose and pronounced lips were visible in the yellowy light.
“Yeah. Yeah, a bit. Mostly I’m worried,” Jack admitted.
“You don’t have anything to worry about,” Sidney said, voice firm. He turned to face Jack, darkness obscuring his expression. Jack could picture the painfully earnest look easily enough. It’s the one Sidney always used in pre- and post-game pep talks and in practice sessions with Taylor. “You’re going first round, it could be one-two for us tomorrow.” He paused, loosing a small huffing noise that was almost a laugh. “Today.”
“I’m not worried about that,” Jack pulled the comforter up to his chin. “I’m worried about what people will say about my family once I’m more well known.”
“Your family’s the best,” Sidney sounded surprised. “Why wouldn’t--”
“You’re not really that oblivious.” There’s a long moment of silence, stretching thinner and thinner like pulled taffy until it snapped and so did Jack. “Sidney, we’re all practitioners.”
The silence resumed, broken only by the sound of room service delivering to the honeymooners across the hall and the gentle ding and metallic slide of the elevator doors.
“I didn’t know,” Sidney said, finally.
“You expect me to believe that after all these years, you had no idea?”
“I...no. Yes?” There was a rustle of fabric as Sidney pushed up on one arm so he was half-sitting, turned towards Jack. “I didn’t know and I do expect you to believe me.”
“You...there are protection wards all over my house,” Jack turned to face Sidney in the dark, mimicking his posture. “Like...super obvious wards painted and carved all over the place.” Sidney remained silent and still. “My dad works for the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. Kenny accidentally turned our dog purple when you were visiting last year. My mom’s cooking is literally magical,” Jack flicked the lamp back on.
Sidney stared at him with wide brown eyes, mouth dropped open in surprise. “That...oh.” He blinked once, twice. “Oh.”
“You didn’t know,” Jack said flatly, sitting up fully and crossing his legs on the bed.
“No,” Sidney shook his head, clutching the pillow Jack had thrown tightly against his chest.
“Well. Hi. I’m Jack Johnson: magic user. Pleasure to meet you,” Jack extended a hand between their beds.
Sidney stared at Jack’s hand before reaching out to shake. “There’s nothing wrong with being different.”
“Yeah? Tell it to the assholes who tagged our garage last year.”
Sidney’s hand tightened around Jack’s. His features twisted and grew hard, the look eerily akin to his faceoff expression. “Never let anyone tell you different is bad. You should never settle for ordinary when you can be...be the best.” He shifted his grip until Jack’s first two fingers are pressed against the pulse point at Sidney’s wrist.
His heart beat steady as a metronome.
“Robot heart,” Sidney said, simply. “Docs said I’d be one step up from a vegetable and tomorrow I’m going to be a first round draft pick.”
“But you…” Jack stared down at where his fingers rested against the pale, thin skin of Sidney’s arm. “That’s not...you, you’re not...cold.”
“I am for most people.” Sidney shrugged, his mouth twisted into a pitiful approximation of a smile. “Not you. Or Taylor. Or, well, hockey, which isn’t a person, obviously, but, well.” Sidney shrugged again, releasing his grip on Jack’s hand.
“Taylor, she...she’s a bit magic, I think,” Jack said, slowly withdrawing his hand, eyes moving from Sidney’s wrist to his eyes.
“Really?” Sidney’s smile was more genuine at the mention of his sister, skin crinkling at the corners of his eyes.
“Yeah. She did a hover spell on the pasta she was making for dinner last week,” Jack nodded, grinning at the memory.
“Huh. Well...nothing wrong with being special.”
Sidney flicked off the lamp and they settled back into comfortable silence.
“Ohmygod, Salem,” Sidney chucked a pillow across, missing Jack in the darkness. “Was that your idea of a joke?”
In his head they’re always ‘the Lemieuxs,’ but on move-in day Nathalie smiled softly and shook her head.
“I kept my name,” she explained, straightening a framed picture of Sidney sandwiched between Jack and Taylor. It’s from the day the three of them redecorated Sidney’s old room for Taylor. They’re all liberally splashed with ochre paint and Jack’s head is thrown back in body shaking laughter. They all look deliriously happy. “The Asselins are rather...notorious amongst a certain set in the Americas.” Nathalie let that hang in the air for a moment, carefully tapping another nail into the wall of the Lemieux guest house.
“So...do the kids have your name, then?” Sidney asked, passing her another framed picture. This one’s of the entire Johnson family, complete with Champ--still magicked a lurid purple--leaping into frame.
Nathalie looked down at the picture then up at Sid with a gentle smile that crinkled the corners of her blue eyes. Sidney smiled back reflexively and released his hold on the frame.
“Just Lauren and Austin,” Nathalie shook her head, tucking a stray strand of blonde hair behind one ear. “The Asselin name provides a certain amount of protection, even in a place as conservative as Pittsburgh.”
“I...hadn’t realized Pittsburgh was that conservative,” Sidney frowned, using a utility knife to open another box. It was full of cold weather clothes, toques and sweaters and gloves his mother had carefully selected to stave off the chill of a Pittsburgh winter. He set the box aside and sliced open another full of more carefully wrapped picture frames.
“Perhaps not compared to Cole Harbour,” Nathalie allowed, turning to him with her mouth set in a grim line. “Sidney, if anyone gives you trouble, you come straight to me or Mario. Do you understand?”
“I...thank you, Mrs.--Nathalie, but people have said awful things to and about me for a long time. I can handle it.”
“That may be so, but you don’t have to. If anyone catches on to what that is,” Nathalie indicated the charmed necklace the Johnsons had pressed into his clammy hands at the draft, “you may have trouble of a particular kind. I can help.”
“Oh. Oh, you--thank you.” Sidney ducked his head, ill concealing the flush rising on his cheeks. “I doubt it’ll be a problem, but thank you, Nathalie.”
“Anything for family, dear,” Nathalie replied, like it was the simplest thing in the world. She graced Sidney with another brilliant smile and an absent pat on the shoulder before bussing a brief kiss to his cheek. “I’m going to go check on Mario. When left to his own devices he has a tendency to overcook the pasta.”
It was a while before Sidney’s hand dropped from its iron grip on his necklace.
As far as Sidney could tell, none of the Penguins were practitioners. Nathalie and the kids kept him company as often as possible, but he spent the majority of his first months in Pittsburgh showcasing his long-practiced media smile.
wen u smile like that u lk constipated, Taylor texted him, linking to some--admittedly awful--photograph of Sidney giving a post-game interview. He looks exhausted and sweaty. The Steelers cap one of the PR guys slapped on his head is tilted back from his brow at an odd angle and his smile is really more of a grimace than anything.
When you text like that you look like a dope, Sidney replied, smiling down at his phone.
watevs hoser you look miserable :D like you meaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan it. The low, rough sound of Frank clearing his throat had Sidney wincing and looking up from the brightly lit screen.
“About ready, kid?” Frank looked meaningfully from the clock to Sidney, who was only half-dressed in street clothes.
“Sorry. Two minutes.”
Sidney met Frank his second week in Pittsburgh.
“Buonomo. Frank Buonomo,” he’d introduced himself with a crushing handshake and a shark like grin. “I’m the director of team services. I keep you safe and I keep you on time. You have a problem with someone on staff? Come to me. You have a problem with a fan? Come to me. You lose any equipment or personal effects or, Gretzky forbid, your passport? Come to me. You have a problem that needs fixing? You come to me. And yes, that includes problems of a more enchanting variety, if you catch my drift. Okay?”
“I...yes. Yes, sir,” Sidney nodded, flexing the tingling fingers of his right hand. “I, uh, sort of have a few people for consulting on the, er, enchanting variety of problems.”
“Ms. Asselin one of those people?” Sidney nodded. “Then we should be good, but know I’m here in case. And it’s Frank. ‘Sir’ was my old man.”
“No problem, Mr. Crosby.”
“If you can insist--”
“Okay, Sid,” Frank nodded. “See you on the bus.”
Sidney shook himself free from the memory, yanking a sweatshirt over his head and shoving the last of his gear in his bag.
Frank was waiting just outside, shoulders thrown back and mirrored sunglasses firmly in place.
“Yeah,” Sidney nodded, following Frank to the idling town car. “Sorry about the wait.”
“Family,” Frank shrugged, sliding into the backseat after Sidney.
“Yeah. My sister thinks I need to work on my media smile.”
“That or perfect your ‘screw you’ glare,” Frank grinned, more a baring of teeth than a smile.
“Maybe,” Sidney agreed, typing his response.
I’ll smile like I mean it when you come to a game.
Sidney was curled around a Penguins mug of steaming hot decaf when the ‘SPECIAL REPORT’ banner scrolled across his television. He was watching the replay of the final Anaheim Ducks/Boston Battlecasters game from the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals. The news anchor cheerily informed him that Russian hockey phenom and ‘believed magic practitioner’ Geno Malkin had vanished from a government owned training facility outside of Magnitogorsk. Precisely what definition of vanished the Russian government was using remained unclear. Malkin’s family was thus far unavailable for comment.
Sidney’s phone started trilling the brain melting Taylor Swift song his sister had set as his default ringtone. He still hadn’t bothered switching it back. The chirping was worth it for the pleased tone in Taylor’s greeting whenever he took her calls.
“Hey, Jack,” Sidney set his coffee on the side table, muting the television. “How’s the City of Angels?”
“Hot, smoggy, and entirely angel free,” Jack sighed. “You hear about Malkin?”
“Had NHLN on, so just that he ‘vanished,’ whatever that means. You think he’s okay?”
“Tverdovsky thinks he’s traveling to the States under the radar,” Jack replied.
“Bonding with your fellow tradee?”
“Shove off, Crosby.” Sidney could practically hear Jack’s smile. “Just don’t be surprised if some surly Russian wizard shows up on your doorstep, yeah?”
“It’s the most precise translation I could get out of Oleg,” Jack admitted. “They do a lot of old school rune casting in the southern Urals. That necklace Malkin wears is some powerful warding from cursework. Something spooked him and I doubt it was the bigwigs with the super league.”
“I’ll get Nathalie to refresh the wards around the property in case.”
Sidney turned the sound back on low and they watch the rest of the period together, idly commenting on the game as he slumped further into the couch.
“Get some sleep. On, like, an actual bed.”
Stephanie and Alexa were very patiently walking Sidney through the rules of Spit the afternoon Geno came to Pittsburgh.
“No, but you have to slap your hand down, Sid,” Alexa shook her head. “You slap your hand down and shout or else it doesn’t count and you have to take the other pile.”
“Are you sure that’s what you said last time?” Sidney frowned, looking down at Alexa’s tiny hands on the stack of cards.
“Yes,” Stephanie sighed from the other side of the coffee table. “I don’t know how you can be so bad at this, still.”
“One of my many flaws,” Sidney replied, face serious. Stephanie rolled her eyes, but it got Alexa giggling. “Walk me through it one more time.”
The doorbell rang and Sidney’s eyes snapped toward the hallway.
“Oh, just go already,” Stephanie gave him a gentle kick, stacking the cards. “C’mon, Alexa, bet we could get Austin to play Spoons.”
Sidney padded down the hallway in stockinged feet, listening to the sounds of Mario and Gonch talking. He entered the foyer and stopped, eyes fixed on the figure looming in the doorway.
“Oh.” Sidney wasn’t entirely certain he was breathing properly. His chest felt sort of tight and his head was sort of floaty and possibly there wasn’t enough air for everyone in here.
“Sidney, good, I want to introduce you,” Mario waved Sidney forward with a broad smile. “Sidney, this is--”
“Evgeni Malkin,” Sidney nodded, extending a hand.
Malkin grinned, clasping Sidney’s hand. His grip lingered, overlarge fingers engulfing Sidney’s smaller digits. “Sidney Crosby, an honor to meet you, even if your pronunciation is terrible.”
“Yours is excellent,” Sidney replied, fighting a blush with his eyes fixed on Malkin’s face. He looked tired, skin a shade too pale, but the smile looked genuine. There was something unspeakably lovely about the way the skin around his eyes gently folded when his smile widened.
“I didn’t know you spoke Russian,” Gonch said, startling Sidney and Malkin out of their staring contest.
“Sorry?” Sidney looked at Gonch, reluctantly releasing his grip on Malkin’s hand.
“You understood what he just said?” Mario’s brow furrowed as he looked between Malkin and Sidney.
“You...didn’t?” Sidney looked back at Malkin.
“What did Lemieux ask?” Malkin looked from Mario to Gonch, finally letting Sidney’s fingers fall free from his hold.
Gonch replied to Malkin in Russian, eyes flicking to Sidney. Malkin frowned and spoke to Sidney, but it was an incomprehensible stream of unintelligible vowels rolling and trampling across each other. Sidney shook his head.
“I don’t understand,” Sidney frowned.
Malkin’s gaze dropped from Sidney’s frown to the chain disappearing beneath the collar of his ratty Team Canada sweatshirt. He spoke in rapid-fire nonsense to Gonch, whose gaze flicked to Sidney and back to Malkin with a shrug. Malkin reached out a hesitant hand, gesturing for Sid to return his grip.
“Do you understand me, now?” Malkin asked, warm palm pressing against Sidney’s, heart lines brushing gently.
“Yes,” Sidney nodded.
“Even more perfect than I thought,” Malkin laughed.
“Me?” Sidney felt a bit like he’d been boarded and concussed for good measure.
“Sid magic,” Malkin nodded. “We have much to talk about, so we must find something you can call me that you can actually pronounce. Geno?”
“I--yeah, okay. Geno.”
The team found out about a lot of things entirely thanks to Sidney’s own recklessness. He’s never been particularly sorry about it.
It was in the midst of one of the ubiquitous post-season barbecues, the team scattered about the porch and backyard at the Lemieux place. Alexa Recchi is holding an infant who will not stop crying. Sidney can’t remember the kid’s name--he likes kids, but there are four or five Recchis and they’re too close together in age to keep straight--but it’s physically painful to watch Alexa try to coax the wailing bundle in her arms to quiet. Sidney’s feet moved of their own volition, weaving him through the chatting crowd to her side.
“Here,” Sidney said, holding his arms out to Alexa. She stared at him, bleary eyes confused, before glancing at Nathalie. Nathalie raised an eyebrow at Sidney, but gave Alexa a slight nod. Alexa passed the baby over. Sidney expertly settled it--more likely than not a her, judging by the glittery pink onesie--against his chest.
The baby ceased crying immediately, blinking up at him for a moment before dropping into an exhausted slumber.
Geno appeared at his side with a gleefully evil grin, the barest hint of ketchup caught on the corner of his mouth. He settled his hand on Sidney’s shoulder where it’d brush against the exposed skin at the collar of his shirt. “Sidney Crosby,” Geno laughed, lilting rhythm of enchanted Russian ghosting against Sidney’s ear, “are you a baby whisperer?”
Sidney’s every nerve ending seemed to be firing simultaneously, but he carefully kept his body still. He couldn’t help but be wary of the sleeping form cradled next to his heart.
“What would ‘baby whisperer’ even mean?” Sidney turned his head to scowl at Geno. He swayed gently from side to side, ignoring the tingling sent down his spine by calloused fingers in the too-long curls at the nape of his neck.
“You are,” Alexa put a gentle hand on Sidney’s arm, smile softening the dark circles beneath her eyes. “She hasn’t slept for more than an hour at a time in days.”
“Why don’t you go inside and rest for a bit, dear?” Nathalie suggested, gently turning Alexa towards the house. “There are plenty of eyes on the kids.”
“I--yes. Yeah. That’d be great, thank you,” Alexa yawned widely and let Nathalie herd her inside.
“Have you always been good with kids?” Geno asked, tipping the beer in his free hand back for a long drink.
Sidney very studiously ignored the long line of Geno’s pale throat as he swallowed. Raising an eyebrow, Sidney nodded toward the pool where the Lemieux kids were splashing around.
“I mean babies, the really small kids, obviously,” Geno smirked, thumb pressing hard against the knob at the top of Sidney’s spine..
“I used to help out with Taylor,” Sidney answered through gritted teeth, manfully withholding the whine threatening to escape the back of his throat. “And babies...like me.” He would’ve shrugged if he wasn’t worried about dislodging Geno or jostling Baby Recchi, whose name he still hadn’t discovered.
“That was more than ‘like,’” Geno shook his head, careful to keep his voice lowered as he eyed the sleeping baby. “That was narcolepsy levels of abrupt sleep. When my cousin’s kid was fussing like that, it’d take hours to get him to sleep.”
“I’m just that good, Malkin,” Sidney replied, tone and expression flat.
“Anyone wanna tell me why Sid’s holding my kid?” Mark asked, walking up with a puzzled frown and a squirming toddler tucked under his left arm.
“He’s the baby whisperer,” Geno supplied, completely unhelpfully.
Sidney sighed, but didn’t argue.
“Seriously?” Mark looked skeptical. He set down the kid--Sam? Cam?--who promptly ran off and cannonballed into the pool, much to the chagrin of the Lemieux kids.
Sidney shrugged and passed Mark his baby. She woke immediately and started shrieking unhappily. Mark quickly passed the pink bundle back. She settled against Sidney’s faded Pittsburgh Zoo t-shirt with a contented yawn.
“Baby whisperer?” Mark asked, something not unlike awe tinging his tone.
“Baby whisperer,” Geno nodded.
And that was how Sidney became the unofficial babysitter of choice for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
When he finally heard the full story of Geno’s journey to America, Sidney thought it sounded more than a little like the plot to a spy movie. There’s a lot of misinformation and dodging agents from the Federal Service for Magical Intelligence and Export. Even if he wasn’t an amazing player--and Sidney’s seen too much tape to think Geno is anything else--Sidney would want to shake the hand of a man willing to so blatantly deny his country’s ‘rights’ to his power.
“I’m sorry,” Jack adjusted the angle of his webcam, scowling across two thousand miles separating them, “but did you say you can magically understand Malkin--”
“Geno,” Sidney corrected.
Jack rolled his eyes, “Yeah, fine, Geno. You can magically understand him with skin to skin contact?”
“That’s seriously the part of his daring escape from Russia that you’re stuck on?” Sidney asked. Ever since finding out the Johnson family was magical, he’d put as much spare time as he could into reading up on the various sorts of enchantments and the culture of magical peoples. Honestly, he didn’t have a ton of free time, but a spell that translates with skin on skin contact hadn’t sounded that strange compared to some of the things he’d read about.
“The rest of it’s impressive, but sounds like the plot of a Bond film.”
“It’s the last part that’s the stuff of thirteen-year-old girls’ dreams.”
Jack sighed, sounding crackly over iChat and the tinny speakers of Sidney’s laptop.
“I don’t really know if you’ll want to hear this, Sidney,” Jack said, biting on his bottom lip.
“Well, now you have to tell me,” Sidney leaned forward, like he could intimidate Jack through the webcam lens.
“Back up, that schnoz is big enough already,” Jack snickered when Sidney leaned back and glared. “Okay, okay. So I don’t know how accurate this is, because I’m crap with translation and transmutation enchantments,” Jack prefaced, “but there’s this old wives’ tale about Russian wizards.”
“Yeah?” Sidney prompted when Jack spent a beat too long staring up at the ceiling of his hotel room.
“So what do you know about matchmaking magic?”
Sidney Crosby refused to be set up by some Russian’s overly friendly magic. He had a robot heart and a long track record of being not remotely interested in the varied advances attractive men and women have made over the years. Well, to be fair, if Jack had ever shown the slightest interest--but no. No way. Not happening. Sidney had his family and Jack and the Lemieuxs and hockey. He was perfectly happy, thank you very much.
Except Geno’s not just ‘some Russian’ and his ‘overly friendly magic’ calls out to Sidney’s blood like a siren song.
By playoffs the team was almost used to seeing Sidney allow someone in his personal space off of the ice.
“It’s just a little weird,” Flower shrugged, eyes fixed on the screen of his PSP as they flew over endless stretches of snow-dusted fields. Sidney could never remember all the states in the middle.
“I’m not that weird about letting people touch me,” Sidney insisted, pausing his eighth attempt at this impossible seventh Lemmings level.
Flower paused Madden just long enough to give Sidney an incredibly unimpressed look.
“So maybe I am,” Sidney admitted, restarting his game only to have the Lemmings fly over the cliff. Again. He turned off the PSP, tucking it into his backpack. “Is it...does it make anyone uncomfortable?”
Flower immediately shut off his game, turning to Sidney with a firm shake of his head. “Absolutely not. And even if it did, screw them. You’ve got the A, you work harder than anyone. You deserve to be happy.”
“I--you think Geno makes me happy?”
Flower flashed a small, crooked grin. “Yeah. Doesn’t he?”
And for the time being, that settled that.
By spring, Geno had firmly entrenched himself in nearly every aspect of Sidney’s life. It’s almost exactly and a million miles from what Sidney wanted. Also by spring, Geno’s English had progressed so far that it was no longer necessary to touch Sidney to get his full point across.
Sidney wasn’t entirely sure what it meant that he felt the loss like a punch to the gut. Okay, he was pretty sure.
“Is good, yes?” Geno grinned, familiar and warm and perpetually larger than life. They’re walking to their cars, shoulders bumping companionably as they stroll from the Igloo. “Know how Sid hates too much touching.”
“I don’t mind,” Sidney insisted, fumbling with his keys.
“Is fine, don’t have to be polite,” Geno chuckled, leaning on the side of Sidney’s Range Rover.
“I’m not,” Sidney dropped his keys. “Dammit,” he muttered, kneeling down to retrieve them. Warm, familiar fingers settled over his, and he looked up into Geno’s warm brown eyes.
“Sid,” Geno breathed, voice unsteady as his fingers settled on the pulsepoint of Sidney’s wrist. “Your heart."
“What about it?” Sidney asked, swallowing down hard on the dozen other things he could say, like: it started malfunctioning as soon as you showed up; I was never supposed to deal with anything like this; it’s yours--take it take it take it.
“It’s going to beat right out of your chest,” Geno said, his voice taking on the lilting quality of the enchantment’s translation.
“It isn’t really supposed to do that,” Sidney said, voice caught in his throat. “It’s...I’m sorry. I never meant--we can pretend you never found out.”
“You want to pretend I don’t know I accidentally magicked your robot heart to malfunction?” Geno’s grip on Sidney’s wrist tightened infinitesimally.
“Think of it more like an upgrade,” Sidney smiled, sad and sweet. “We can just pretend you don’t know why, okay?”
“Pretend...you love me?”
“Not on purpose,” Sidney assured him, free hand rising to rest on Geno’s shoulder.
And it shouldn’t feel romantic, kneeling in a parking lot and awkwardly holding hands over Sidney’s keys, but Geno gaped at him like he just got the Cup and the keys to a really ridiculous sports car. Sidney thought, rather hysterically, of a long-ago conversation with Jack. He couldn’t keep a single giggle from escaping. Geno raised puzzled brows.
“Just, Jack said once that the enchantment was a teenage girl’s fantasy. Understand everything the guy you love is saying? Dream come true.”
Geno made a strangled sort of sound in the back of his throat, free hand coming up to cup the back of Sidney’s neck. “Sid, you are a very confusing person.”
“How could you think I wouldn’t love you back? Any man would be the luckiest man alive to have the love of Sidney Crosby.”
“Yes, really,” Geno leaned forward until their foreheads were gently pressed together.
“So...does that mean you’re going to kiss me now?”
“Ah. Good. We, uh, may need to practice. I don’t have much experience.”
“That...that is perfectly okay. Now shush. Time to practice. I know how dedicated Captain Crosby is to perfection.”
“I can’t believe you’re making fun of me right n--”
It was, by far, the most pleasant way anyone had ever shut Sidney up.
The first time Sid met Geno his heart skipped a beat.
It felt a little like dying, but more like being born.