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When in Doubt, Set It on Fire

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“Consol is cursed,” Sidney said over the phone.

“What,” Alex said, very reasonably.

“The ice. You heard about Beau? He’s out for six weeks because of the fucking ice.”

Sidney sometimes behaved as though his team was Alex’s team, as though Alex cared as much about all the Pens’ daily minutia as Sidney did. “Pittsburgh ice is always terrible.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

Alex had no idea what Sidney was saying. It happened frequently.

--

The next time Alex answered, Sidney said, “I can’t figure it out.”

“Figure what out?”

“Did someone curse us? Like intentionally? Who even has that kind of power?”

“Like witch?” Alex asked, stupidly. He knew better, he knew it—

“Do you think the Flyers can do witchcraft?”

“...no.”

“It’s like murder, right? Means, opportunity, motive? Because the Flyers have fucking plenty of motive.”

“You saying you wouldn’t curse Wells Fargo Center if you can?”

Sidney sputtered.

--

This time, Sidney sounded a little ragged. “It’s not the Flyers.”

“It isn’t?” Alex propped his feet up on the coffee table and put the TV on mute. He was a little surprised. A good seventy percent of the time, whatever Sidney was upset about was due to the Flyers.

“I figured it out.”

Alex waited. He waited a little more. “And?”

“I’m fixing it,” Sidney said, like a promise. “It’s fine. I’ve got it under control.”

--

“So what about the ice?” Alex asked, after an entire conversation had gone by without mention of it.

“What about it?”

“Still cursed?”

There was a long pause. “It’s being taken care of.”

--

Sidney refused to talk to Alex about the ice. Alex felt a certain twinge of concern. It was his Sidney-twinge; no one else could pain him quite the same way.

He called Zhenya. “How is Sidney?”

“Hello to you, too.”

“Is Sidney okay?”

Another long pause. Alex was starting to mistrust them. “He’s all right,” Zhenya hedged.

“What the fuck does that mean, ‘all right’?”

“You know how Sid is. Twitchy.”

“Yes, like a rabbit. I do sleep with him, you know.”

“Fuck you, I was trying to forget.”

This was getting Alex nowhere. “What I’m asking is, is he more twitchy than usual?”

“How the fuck should I know? I don’t sleep with him.”

“Stop fucking around and tell me if something’s wrong.”

An intake of breath. More quietly, Zhenya said, “I don’t know. Maybe. He doesn’t talk to us, you know? If it’s something he thinks isn’t our business or that he wants to keep to himself, we never even hear about it.”

Alex sighed. “I know.”

--

Sidney’s stats started on a gradual downward creep in mid-November and continued all through December. Alex caught the Pens on TV when he could, but the eyeball test couldn’t tell him anything except that Sidney looked just that little bit slower and that little bit worse at reading the ice – which still put him well ahead of most of the NHL, granted.

Naturally, Alex tried to get Sidney to talk to him by chirping him about it.“You’re looking old man out there now, like me.” But Sidney’s non-response was tight and unwelcoming, and while usually Alex would delight in finding a new tender spot to prod, this time he was too worried to tease Sidney about it. “Your wrist bother you again?” he asked instead.

“My wrist is fine,” Sidney said, and abruptly changed the subject. He excused himself a few minutes later, crushing all Alex’s eventual phone sex hopes.

The Caps were scheduled to come to Pittsburgh at the end of the December. A week prior, Sidney was scratched. Reasons undisclosed, of course.

Sidney didn’t answer his phone. Alex called Zhenya again.

“Some kind of flu?” Zhenya suggested uncertainly. “He’s not injured. He’s been dizzy, though. Two days ago at practice he fell on the ice three times, just during skating drills, and Johnston sent him to the trainer.”

Usually, Alex wouldn’t put it past Zhenya to lie about Pens injuries, but Zhenya knew how Alex was about Sidney – knew more than Alex had ever put into words, probably, because Zhenya was irritating like that. This led back to the conclusion that something was really wrong with Sidney, and even Zhenya didn’t know what it was.

Alex tried Sidney’s phone again. Sidney still didn’t answer.

--

That next week felt like years. Finally, finally the Caps flew into Pittsburgh. Snowflakes wisped down out of the night sky as Alex stepped off the plane. He saw the other guys off to the hotel and took a cab to Sidney’s house out in Sewickly. Usually he waved to Mario Lemieux’s house as it went by; tonight he wasn’t in the mood.

Sidney’s gate was closed, so Alex paid the cab driver and then braved the snow coming down thicker by the minute to key in the security code and trudge up the drive. There were lights on in Sidney’s house, but he didn’t answer the door when Alex knocked. Alex eventually had to dig out the key Sidney had given him and let himself in. He stamped snow off his dress shoes, and then he left his luggage in the entryway and went looking for Sidney.

He found him sprawled out on his couch in front of the TV, which was playing the post-game highlights for the LA-Phoenix game. He was dead asleep, which meant Alex had a moment to look him over without Sidney shying away or making faces. He looked... not good. It was hard to judge his complexion solely by the light of the TV, but definitely he had dark smudges around his eyes that ought not to be there.

He looked cold, too, in just his t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. Alex unfolded a woven blanket in Penguins colors and laid it over the top of Sidney, tucking it carefully around his shoulders. Then he went away to take the important parts of his luggage upstairs.

Sidney was still asleep when he came back. Alex thought about Sidney's back, about waking him up, but he didn't look readily wakeable. Instead Alex made himself a sandwich and brought it into the den to eat it. He spent more time looking at Sidney than the TV. Sidney was so still that Alex kept craning his neck to make sure Sidney was still breathing.

Drugs? Sidney was too smart for that; he notoriously did everything the right way. He wouldn’t get himself hooked on coke or something. Surely.

Alex finished his sandwich and headed for the kitchen, but in the poor light he stumbled over a pair of shoes. He cursed.

“What?” came Sidney’s voice, alarmed and still half asleep.

Alex shoved the shoes aside. “Sid?”

“Who...?” Sidney blinked into the gloom.

“It’s Alex. You know, your boyfriend.” Alex turned on a lamp.

“Alex,” Sidney said slowly, blinking at him. Then his eyes widened. “Shit! Shit, what time is it?”

Alex glanced at the DVD player. “After one.”

“Shit, shit, shit.” Sidney tried to get up but got tangled in the blanket and instead rolled off the couch with a thump. Alex winced; Sidney didn’t even seem to notice. He got to his feet and looked wildly around the room. Finally he saw his shoes behind Alex and scrambled to get them on.

“You going somewhere?”

“Sorry to run off like this. You can get something to eat if you want, or just sleep—”

“I already eat.”

“Great,” Sidney said. Alex wasn’t convinced he’d even heard him. “Okay, I’ll be back in an hour or so. We can fuck then if you—”

Sid,” Alex said, gripping Sidney’s shoulders in his hands. “Where you going?”

Sidney blinked at him, and then his expression turned shifty. “Just down to Consol. Something I forgot to do.”

“You look terrible. No errands tonight. You come to bed with me.” Alex tried to steer Sidney towards the stairs, but Sidney wriggled away.

“I can’t. I’m really sorry, I have to go.”

He made another step towards the door, but Alex stepped in front of him again and peered closely at his pale face, at the dark circles under his eyes. “You really have to go?”

“Really, seriously I have to.”

“Then I’ll come with you.”

“No, Alex—”

Alex took Sidney firmly by the arm and said, “I go with you, or I sit on you. Your choice.”

Sidney scowled up at him. Then he shivered and bit out, “Fine.”

“I meet you out front,” Alex said. “Have to get my shoes.”

“I’m not waiting for you,” Sidney said, and headed for the garage.

Alex hurried to the front door, digging his phone out as he went. Hurry up, Zhenya. On the fifth ring, Zhenya answered sleepily. “Zhenya!” Alex said sharply. “This is Alex. Get your ass down to Consol.”

“What the fuck.”

Alex poked his toes into his shoes. He didn’t bother to bend and tie the laces. “Something’s going on with Sid, and I don’t know what the fuck it is, but I think you should come.” Because more than just Alex should be there to see Sidney get shot by his dealer or die of an aneurysm or whatever the hell.

“You mean you want my help,” Zhenya said, like that brat he was, but Alex could hear shuffling. “Fine. I’ll be there.”

Alex tried to be relieved. He hurried out the front door to meet Sidney as he pulled out of the garage. Sidney barely gave him a glance as he climbed in. His jaw was set, his eyes were fixed forward, and he didn’t say a word until they pulled into Consol and he called a hello at the night security.

“So what we doing?” Alex asked as they strode down Consol’s back hallways. Sidney didn’t answer. Another few minutes of wending through the arena’s innards, and they spilled out into a part Alex recognized. From there, it was just a little ways to the ice.

The chill down Alex’s spine wasn’t all due to proximity.

When they got to the tunnel, Sidney paused. His lips twisted, and then he dug in his jacket and pulled out a little glass jar. Alex recognized the shape – it was an old salsa jar. Yellowish fluid sloshed in it. “Just pour it when I tell you to, okay?”

Before Alex could answer, Sidney was stomping down the tunnel. Alex shook the jar again. The fluid clung to the glass a little. He swallowed down his forboding and followed Sidney down the tunnel and out onto the. In his dress shoes. On ice. Of course he had excellent balance, but there were limits. Fortunately Sidney wasn’t paying the slightest attention to Alex’s occasional slips and slides; he was already halfway to center ice. He stopped when he got there under the dim, off-hours glow of the stadium lights and started searching his jacket pockets again. Just as Alex got close, Sidney pulled out a pocket knife.

“Sid?” Alex said, ever more alarmed and wondering if he should try to wrestle the knife away.

Before he could make up his mind, Sid had popped the knife open and sliced a thin red line across the inside of his arm. Alex opened his mouth to yell, and then he forgot what he was going to say. He forgot because a red mist rose up to hover above the ice like a sinister morning fog. It lifted higher and higher until the light from Consol’s brilliant stadium lights began to dim, until Alex was caught with Sidney in the center of a hellish twilight.

Then, as if blown by an equally sinister wind, the mist’s soft, ill-defined edges began to skitter and dance and pile on top of themselves and finally settle into the shape of something that might in a nightmare pass for a face. Its eyes and mouth were dark, shadowy pits in its shifting surface.

Alex tore his eyes away long enough to glance at Sidney. Sidney didn’t look surprised.

The face spoke. “You’re late,” it said. Its voice was like a cracking whip. Like, Alex thought, the sound of pond ice breaking up underfoot. Like the spring thaw. Its mouth moved, but not quite in time with the words, like a bad dub.

“I came,” Sidney said, sounding much more sure of himself than he had at home. He looked even less well, though, with the shadows of his face all cast in red. He still held the knife; blood continued to drip down his arm and off his pinkie finger, unheeded.

“You’re late,” the face repeated. “You violated our bargain.”

“I’ll make it up to you.”

“Will you.”

Alex’s feet slipped out from under him, and he landed on his ass with a force that he knew meant bruises tomorrow. “Fuck!” The glass jar rolled out of his hand, a good ten feet down the ice. He tried to get back upright and came down on his knee. His unpadded, unshielded knee.

“Stop that!” Sidney said. “I came, and I bled, okay? So just, just leave Alex alone.” He took an awkward step towards the face, slipping a little as he went and in the same motion something dropped from his hand.

The face was rumbling at Sidney again, something about sacrifice, but Alex’s attention was caught on the thing Sidney had dropped. It looked like a... cigarette lighter? What was Sidney doing with that? Keeping on eye on the face, Alex stretched across the ice and closed his fingers around the lighter. Yep, that was definitely what it was. He stuffed it in the inside pocket of his jacket.

Sidney yelped. The mist was moving again, a fine chilling spray that swirled possessively around Sidney, almost but not quite a hand. Sidney was flailing but couldn’t seem to get a grip on, well, mist. “Alex!” he called raggedly. “Now!”

Now?

“The jar! On the blood!”

Alex could barely see Sidney now, much less the jar. He scrambled on his hands and knees to where he thought the jar had rolled. The ice could have been greased, it was so slick. Sidney screamed; Alex slipped and hit his chin. He kept going, groping blindly for the jar. He shouldered into something solid that grunted a curse. In Russian. “Zhenya?” He said it too loud, but it hardly mattered, because Sidney was yelling so much louder.”

“Holy fucking shit, Sasha!”

“There’s a jar,” Alex said. “I have to find it. I think it’s magic.”

The next moment, something cold and smooth was pressed into his hand. “Nearly broke my fucking ankle on it,” Zhenya said. “Go. Go!”

Alex scrambled back towards the sound of the screaming. The knees of his pants were wet from the ice, and then more wet. He looked down and thought the fog was coloring his vision, but then he realized what he saw: the blood that had pooled below Sidney’s cut, still unfrozen and spreading ever farther across the Penguin logo. Alex scrabbled uselessly at the lid to the jar, and then he got a grip and twisted it and poured it out on top of the blood, and in the process he took a sniff and realized what the magical fluid was. Gasoline.

Sidney was still screaming. Alex didn’t stop to think. He scrambled back, hoping he’d kept his pants out of the gasoline but barely caring, and he flicked the lighter, and he threw it onto center ice. It flared instantly, a blinding blaze taller than Alex. The rumbling red voice bellowed. The mist swirled and caught at Alex and stung his face and hands. A wind whipped around him, blowing the mist in all directions, and then like tardy shadows fleeing the light, the fog dispersed towards the boards, and between one instant and the next it was gone.

Alex gasped for air and looked around. One moment he saw Zhenya levering himself awkwardly his feet and the next he saw Sidney lying on the ice. “Sidney.” Alex scrambled to him, and turned him over. He was very pale, his eyes closed and his mouth gapped open, and for a moment Alex thought—

But no, Sidney’s chest rose weakly. Light-headed with relief, Alex sat right on the ice and took Sidney’s hand. “You fucking idiot,” Alex said.

“Is he okay?” Zhenya asked as he got close.

“Fuck if I know,” Alex said. Sidney was looking a little blurry now. Alex wiped at his eyes. Nerves, that was what it was.

“Sid?” Zhenya prodded Sidney’s arm. In English, he said, “I know you there. It not nice you play dead.”

Alex opened his mouth to Zhenya what an idiot he was, but then Sidney moaned. The next moment his eyes fluttered open.

Alex couldn’t help himself; he bent over and kissed Sidney. “You idiot. What did you think you’re doing?”

“Did it work?” Sidney asked. “Is it gone?”

Alex glanced around, in case some remaining wisp of red mist was lurking. In the process he noticed the patch of bare, blackened concrete where center ice used to be. “It’s gone, but I think I kill your logo.”

Sidney’s brow creased and he tried to push himself up. Zhenya had to help him. He squinted at the blackened patch. “Good. Good.” And then he collapsed in Zhenya’s arms, unconscious.

“Fuck,” Alex said. “Sid? Sid?”

“We should get him out of here,” Zhenya said.

“And take him where? ‘Hello doctor, this is my friend, he just wrestled with an evil bloody hockey spirit a few minutes ago.’”

“Hockey spirit?” Zhenya echoed, and then he shook his head. “I was thinking we’d take him home.”

In the end, that’s what they did. Together they hoisted him up and scuttled off the ice with him, and then Alex put him in a fireman’s carry while Zhenya took point in case they ran into security. Fortunately they didn’t, because even Zhenya looked a bit singed and more than a bit crazed.

They drove separately – Zhenya pointed out how many questions there’d be if his very recognizable sports car stayed at Consol without him – and met at Sidney’s front gate. Zhenya helped get him inside and upstairs, and one Sidney was laid out on the bed Alex finally got a chance to bind up the cut on Sidney’s arm that had been bleeding weakly all this time. When that was done, Alex sat on the bed, back to the headboard, and stroked Sidney’s uninjured arm. It took him a few while to notice how his hand was shaking, how his whole body felt like it might rattle apart with the next breath.

Zhenya came in. Alex ignored him until he thrust a candy bar in Alex’s face. Or, no, a granola bar, one of those held together with syrup and topped with chocolate. “What’s this?” Alex asked, taking the bar – already half-unwrapped – just to stop it from moving.

“You need the sugar,” Zhenya said. Alex opened his mouth to argue, and Zhenya added, “If you don’t eat it, I’ll feed it to you.”

“Fine,” Alex said. After a few swallows, though, he began to feel better. When he was done with the bar, Zhenya handed him a bottle of Gatorade. It didn’t taste great following the chocolate, but by the time Alex had downed half of it he wasn’t shaking anymore.

He looked at Sidney. “What about him?”

“I think maybe he looks better?”

Alex looked closer. Yeah, he thought maybe Sidney did. There was color in his cheeks for the first time since Alex had walked in his door. How many hours ago had that been?

Zhenya heaved a sigh. “I’m going to take one of the guest bedrooms. Yell if you need me, okay?”

Alex kept watching Sidney. “Okay.”

--

Alex woke to someone shaking him. Alex cursed loudly and colorfully.

“Alex,” Sidney said.

Sidney.

Alex startled awake, blinking at Sidney. In the morning light, he looked... better. Definitely better, although still paler than Alex liked, still shadowed under his eyes. In fact, once Alex began to pull himself upright. Sidney slumped onto the bed. Alex laid a hand on Sidney’s arm, just to reassure himself that Sidney was there and warm and whole. He was.

“Sid, what happened?”

Sidney took a deep breath. “I was right, kind of. About the curse. It was a spirit that finds bad ice and makes it worse. And then it feeds on the injuries. Like Beau.”

“And, what? You injure yourself on purpose? How that gonna help?”

More color crept into Sidney’s face. He ducked his head. “It was a bargain. I fed it, and it wouldn’t hurt anyone else.”

“You fucking idiot. You give your life so Beau doesn’t break any more wrists?” Alex searched Sid’s face, trying to understand. “I not think you want be that kind of hero.”

“Not my life,” Sidney disagreed, scowling. “Just some blood, now and then.”

Twenty-four hours ago, Alex hadn’t known evil ice spirits existed. However, he was fairly confident now that he knew some things about this one, and one of them was, “He sucking your life out with your blood.”

“What? No.”

Alex took Sidney by the shoulders and said as calmly as he could – which wasn’t very – “Zhenya say you fall at practice, you get dizzy, you can’t even skate. You not score a goal in ten games, and then you out with ‘undisclosed injury.’ That spirit want to suck life out of you until there not any life left.” Alex couldn’t help himself; he dragged Sidney against his chest and held him as if that evil spirit was still trying to drag Sidney away. But here Sidney was, muscle and bone against Alex’s chest, dark hair curling against his nose and in need of a shampoo.

“Hey,” Sidney said. He shrugged, trying to get out of Alex’s hold. Alex held him tighter, and Alex’s breath got a little shaky. “Whoa, hey, Alex.” He shoved against Alex, not hard, but enough that Alex let him go. Sidney pulled back and peered into Alex’s eyes. The eyes were blurry. “Shit, man,” Sidney said. He curled a hand around Alex’s bicep and squeezed. “I’m fine, okay?”

“Why you didn’t tell me? Or Zhenya? Someone?”

Sidney ducked his head, and before the words left his mouth Alex knew what they were going to be. “I thought I had it under control.”

“Fuck.”

“I did! I kept us injury-free for two and a half months, and I finally figured out how to banish the spirit, and it worked. Everything’s fine.”

Everything was, Alex supposed, fine. Consol’s ice maybe not yet – he wondered distantly if they still had a game scheduled for tonight – but it’d recover. But. “I almost lose you.”

“Alex,” Sidney said. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to Alex’s lips, and when he pulled back, there was something soft in his expression that Alex had only ever seen during afterglow.

It was hard to stay angry in the face of that. Still. “You tell someone next time,” Alex said, poking Sidney in the chest for emphasis. Then he realized what he was saying. “I mean, no next time. You don’t make any more bargains with evil ice spirits who going to eat you.”

“Fine,” Sidney said. He rolled his eyes, but he smiled a little as he did it – sheepishly, maybe, and so he should be. “Look, are you hungry? I’m starving.”

Alex was hungry, now that he thought about it. That granola bar had been a long time ago. But when Sidney started to stand up, Alex grabbed his hand. “Not yet.” He pulled Sidney back down, and, surprisingly, Sidney didn’t argue. He settled back on the bed next to Alex, hip-to-hip, and for a few more minutes in the early morning quiet, Alex held onto Sidney’s hand.

[end]