“I could just live at your house,” Sid said, scowling at a color swatch. “I like your house.”
“My house best,” Zhenya agreed. Then, because he did actually care about Sid and his ongoing bower-building angst, he added, “But your house good, too. Here, give me.” He held out a hand, and Sid thrust half a deck of samples into it. Zhenya leafed through them. The warmer tones were for the dining room, he knew, and the pale greens and blues were for the bedrooms. There were no truly stomach-turning colors in the batch; the obvious nos had long since been weeded out. “All look fine, Sid. Pick any one, it’s good.”
“But I have to pick the right one.” Sid thunked his head against the back of Zhenya’s couch. The couch was leather, a muted gray. Zhenya’s mother said it was the one tasteful piece of furniture in his house. Zhenya thought it looked out of place.
“There no right one, Sid. Have to pick what you like.”
“I don’t know what I like, okay?”
“Pick what other person like,” Zhenya said.
“You know there’s no other person.”
A good thing, really, because painting even one room for your object of interest was a little intense, much less the entire house. Better to wait until pretty late in the courting process for that. Even Zhenya knew that. He’d long since learned that reassurance was hopeless, though. Distraction was the only option. He slid his arm along back of the couch and down around Sid’s shoulders. Sid gave Zhenya an evil eye. “Not now, Geno. I have to figure this out.” He stole the swatches from Zhenya’s hand.
Zhenya brushed his fingers across Sid’s collarbone – always a delectable part of Sid. Sensitive, too. “You’re right. No other person. Nobody want Sidney Crosby, terrible hockey player with terrible house.”
For a moment, Sid looked stricken.
“And terrible ass,” Zhenya added. “Terrible points per game—”
Sid kissed Zhenya hard enough to shove his lips against his teeth. “Shut the fuck up,” he said against Zhenya’s mouth, and there was no more talk of color swatches.
The first time Zhenya’s mother had visited his house in Sewickley, he’d proudly toured her around the whole of it, taking extra time for his collection of Penguins recliners, his trophy room, and his shark.
“Why?” she asked, looking at the shark where it hung regally on the wall behind Zhenya’s dining table. Her brows were drawn together.
“It’s a shark.” He’d have thought that was obvious, but he wouldn’t say that to his mother. “A hammerhead, just like the one I caught. It’s the right length and everything.” He carefully lifted it down, so his mother could appreciate the detail. “See how nice the paint is? Feel the gills!”
Cautiously his mother brushed her fingers over them. “But why? Nothing else in your house is even nautical.”
Zhenya was starting to get an inkling that she didn’t entirely approve. “It’s themed like me,” he said.
“But what about your mate?”
Zhenya bristled. “If my mate likes me, of course they’ll like my house.”
“You know that’s not fair. What person who respects themselves accepts the suit of a man who won’t build a proper bower for them?”
“I’m not pursuing anyone right now, Mama.” He was nettled now. He turned away from her and took a breath before gently returning the shark to the wall, testing the fixtures just in case they were loose. Fiberglass sharks falling from the sky during dinner did no one any good. “I’m building my house for myself. If other people don’t like it, they don’t have to come here.”
His mother took a sharp, trembling breath, her lips pressed thin, and Zhenya immediately flushed with shame.
He was very, very nice to her, all the rest of the visit. He even let her pick out his couch.
Sid came to Zhenya’s house angry. He kicked his wet shoes in the general direction of the shoe rack, which meant he had to be really pissed; usually he was meticulously polite about how he placed his belongings in other people’s houses. “Why do they always fucking ask me?”
Zhenya said, “I have pirozhki from Mrs. Belyakova.”
“Thank God,” Sid said, following him into the kitchen.
Zhenya couldn’t reproduce any of his mother’s dishes, but at least he could reheat things in the oven. He took the buns out of the fridge, plopped them on a tray, and banged the oven door shut after them. Sid fidgeted at the other side of the island, still pissed. “Beer in fridge,” Zhenya told him.
Sid went for the chilled Yuengling, and when he resurfaced, he said, “Why does everyone fucking care? Why can’t they just mind their own business?”
“PR people?” Zhenya hazarded. This wasn’t a new complaint. “Ask about house?”
Sid blew out a breath. “Yeah,” he said, like he knew he was conceding defeat.
“PR people always care about everything.”
“Yeah.” Sid twisted the cap off his beer and took a swig. “They wanted me to talk about it for a video – some kind of Pens bachelor bower thing.”
“We’re very eligible,” Zhenya said, nudging Sid’s shoulder. Sid wrinkled his nose, but Zhenya knew he’d gotten the word right; he and Sid both had shown up on enough lists over the years. “Everyone want to know our house, see who we court. It because I’m so hot, and you okay at hockey.”
“Shut up,” Sid grumbled, his mouth curling up at the corners despite him.
That evening, sprawled next to him on the bed, Sid said, “I wish they wouldn’t.”
Zhenya really wasn’t entirely awake anymore. “Mm?”
Sid’s hand curled over Zhenya’s arm. “It’s my house, and it shouldn’t matter to anyone else.”
“Except mate,” Zhenya said, because apparently when he was dozy with afterglow, he sounded like his mother. Ugh.
“What if I’m doing it all wrong? What if I finally meet someone and they have totally different taste than I do? What if they don’t like my house at all?”
“You don’t have taste,” Zhenya told him sleepily. “All your taste you get from magazine and, and consultant.”
“Fuck,” Sid said, burying his face against Zhenya’s shoulder.
Zhenya woke up enough to feel a little bad. Sid was forever anxious that someone would find out about the woman he’d hired, very briefly, to advise him on a scheme for his living room. Zhenya had thought it looked nice when it was done – or at least, something his mother would like – but as soon as Sid let the woman go he went back and tore everything out again. The living room had not yet recovered.
Zhenya wrapped his arm a little closer around Sid. In bed it was dark and close and private, and the question Zhenya had learned better than to ask sat curled on his tongue, again. “Sid,” he began cautiously.
Zhenya stroked Sid’s arm. “Sid, why you build house?”
Sid stiffened, and Zhenya held his breath. He wouldn’t put it past Sid to get up and go sleep in the guest bed; he’d stalked off before when Zhenya had asked this question. After a moment, though, Sid sagged against him. “I’m not going to not build a house, Geno,” he said, in his reasonable voice.
“But you hate so much.”
“I don’t hate it.”
“Sid. You hate it.”
Sid sighed, which Zhenya took for agreement. “It doesn’t matter. It’s just something I have to do.”
“And then you live there? Find mate, happy ever after?” Somehow Zhenya couldn’t picture it. No matter the décor, Sid happy in that house with a mate he’d wooed seemed so impossible: a peculiar daydream, a perverse thought experiment.
“That’s the whole idea, right?”
“You want that?”
Sid was quiet for a long time. Finally he said, very softly, “I want someone. I mean, I want—I want to have someone. Someone great. So this is what I have to do. I just—I hope they like it. When I find them.”
Zhenya was abruptly angry with bowers of every kind and every person who had ever built one. “They like you. So they like your house.”
Sid huffed softly. “You know it doesn’t work like that, Geno.”
Disquieted, Zhenya protested, “You Sidney Crosby. Nobody say no to you because they don’t like your house.”
“Mm.” Sid didn’t sound particularly convinced. Sleepily he added, “It’s easy for you to say. You’re good at it. Bowers.”
“Maybe not,” Zhenya confessed. Only here, safe in the dark, could he admit to himself how his mother’s words sometimes worried him. “Maybe just bad at give a fuck about it.”
“Well, I like your house,” Sid mumbled. “I’d live here.”
That was nice of Sid. Zhenya patted his shoulder and fell asleep.
By the time Zhenya hauled himself out of bed the next morning, Sid was already gone – home to shower and change for practice, like usual. Zhenya wandered around his kitchen looking for something edible until finally he remembered the last of the pirozhki in the fridge. Too impatient for the oven, he put it in the microwave instead. As he watched it slowly spin on the turntable, Sid’s words floated sluggishly to the surface.
“I’d live here.”
It wasn’t a new thought. Zhenya had heard it lots of times before.
“I like your house.”
Sometimes hearing it made Zhenya smug: of course his house was the best. Last night the words were a kind of comfort. Today they were something else - the beginning of an idea.
Sid could live here.
He could keep his workout gear and toothbrush here. He could stay every night, instead of a couple of nights a week during the season when logistics allowed. They could tell the team, instead of being lazily discreet and pretending no one guessed. Sid wouldn’t have to worry about his bower ever again.
He could be… a roommate? Zhenya did have plenty of room.
The microwave beeped. Zhenya stared down at the window, now gone dark. He didn’t want a roommate. That was stupid. He wanted Sid.
He had to slump onto a barstool before he fell down. He stared blankly at the ragged edge of a fingernail he’d torn off.
He wanted Sid. Zhenya wanted him to have, to keep. He wanted Sid to live in this house and lounge on the collection of Pens recliners and not worry about building a bower, because he already had one. The one Zhenya had given him.
When Zhenya was young, a couple of old bachelors kept an auto shop down the street. They shared an apartment, and when they weren’t greased to the elbows they wore glasses and sober suits. Zhenya was ten before he understood from his father that they were partners – not just men who fucked, but a mated pair. He’d never had any idea such a thing was possible.
Of course, in Russia these days it was hardly a comfortable life. Better in America, where people courted and mated in every configuration under the sun.
That didn’t help Zhenya, though. Zhenya spent a week telling himself it wasn’t true, that he didn’t really want Sid. He wasn’t stupid enough to think he could woo him.
The pair who’d run the auto shop had moved into their apartment together. No one built a bower. No one had done any wooing – at least, not the kind that meant window treatments and artwork. That had seemed very sensible to Zhenya, in his ten-year-old wisdom. It still seemed sensible, except Sid was not going to move into a condo with him, and anyway Zhenya’s Alien and Predator sculptures wouldn’t fit in a condo, nor his collection of recliners.
Zhenya knew what guys who were willing to be wooed looked like. They decorated their bodies instead of their living space: delicate tattoos and heavily styled hair and floral jeans. They weren’t the kind of guys who played hockey. They were nothing like Sid.
Sid wended his way to Zhenya’s booth with casual and practiced intent. Horny was just sliding out, and Sid slid in next to Flower his place. “After?” Sid asked Zhenya, like Flower wasn’t right there, poking at his phone.
It’d been a long time since they’d tried very hard to be discreet. It wasn’t like anyone really cared. It was just fucking.
Zhenya eyed Sid over the top of his hamburger. Sid looked the same as always – eyes a little bright from however many beers, cheeks flushed with the close heat of the bar. He didn’t look like a guy who’d been having unsettling revelations. The corner of his mouth was greasy from the fried onion blossom he’d shared with Downs and Suttsy. The faded remains of a bruise darkened his jaw – a hockey bruise, nothing Zhenya had done. They were at least a little discreet.
He was everything Zhenya wanted in the world that wasn’t made of metal. Zhenya didn’t know how he could have gone all this time without noticing.
But Sid had asked him a question, a long-familiar one, and the answer was already on Zhenya’s lips. “Yeah. After.”
Sid was more than tipsy by the time Zhenya got them home. It was the first time he’d been to Zhenya’s house in a week. Zhenya’d had a notion to try and do… something to it, to make it more Sid-friendly, but this Sid was plenty friendly enough – as soon as the door was closed, he crowded Zhenya against the wall and kissed him with yeasty, boozy kisses. He snuck a hand around the back of Zhenya’s neck and another under the hem of his shirt, and it was really very impressive that they made it all the way up the stairs.
Zhenya didn’t have to open his eyes in the morning to know Sid was gone. He lay in bed and told himself that wanting someone to wake up to in the morning didn’t mean he wanted Sid. And wanting Sid didn’t mean he wanted him to keep.
It was no good.
Eventually Zhenya dragged himself to the shower, then to the kitchen. He drank tea and swiped through the messages on his phone. When he was finally, thoroughly, painfully awake, he went to his den and dug through his desk until he found a notebook. Pen and paper in hand, he wandered through his house and tried to imagine what he could do to it that would make it a place for Sid.
That latent fear had been well-founded: he really didn’t know what he was doing. He’d only gotten by before by not caring. Now he looked at the colors of his walls and wondered if there was some color Sid would like better, but he had no better idea than Sid what that color would be. He scowled at his dining room furniture, which had always seemed good enough for the Kremlin, but now didn’t look quite good enough for Sid.
The shark was, at least. When Zhenya had first put it on display, Sid had pronounced it awesome.
Zhenya untaped his socks and listened only casually to Flower’s remodel woes. “It’s fucking horrible,” Flower said. “The entire kitchen, it’s all that dust, you know, from that shit you put in the walls?”
“Sheet rock?” Downs offered.
“That shit,” Flower agreed. “You can’t even walk in without sneezing. And all the food is in boxes in our living room. We don’t eat anything but takeout.”
“But it’ll look great when it’s finished, right?” Downs asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Flower said complacently. “Vero’s going to fucking love it.”
Maybe it was that casual confidence that made Zhenya find Flower as he was packing up and say, “You want food? I’m buy.”
Flower eyed him suspiciously, as if this was some sort of prank. As if Zhenya would ever do such a thing. “Why?”
“Want to give you tips. Your blocker side weak today. Even Sunshine score goals on you!”
“Wow, thanks a lot, Geno,” Beau said from the locker down the aisle.
Flower squinted at him, and Zhenya gave him his most innocent expression. “It better be good food.”
It was steak, because Zhenya was currently bitter about his favorite Russian restaurant changing the recipe for knish, and Flower wasn’t interested in sushi. “Okay,” Flower said once they’d placed their orders. “What’s this about?”
Now that he had Flower here, Zhenya didn’t know how to start. It had seemed like such a good idea in the locker room. Flower just watched him, patient, and finally Zhenya said, “How you decide remodel your kitchen?”
Flower stared. “Uh. Really? That’s what you want to talk about?”
Embarrassment prickled across Zhenya’s shoulder blades. He pushed ahead anyway. “You see Vero sad about kitchen, you give her new one? Or you plan for surprise? Anniversary?”
“Not really,” Flower said, still eyeing Zhenya like he might be contagious. “It was Vero’s idea, mostly. She does a lot of the cooking.”
That… wasn’t helpful at all. “When you first court her, you build her bower? How you know what she like?”
“I…didn’t really build one?” Zhenya gaped, and Flower shook his head. “Come on, Geno. You know we’ve been together since we were teenagers. And then I got drafted right away and I came to play for the Baby Pens. There wasn’t time for that kind of thing.”
“You don’t build her bower? Never?”
“Well.” To Zhenya’s utter shock, Flower started to blush. His mouth curved in a fond, private smile. “She kind of built one for me.”
Flower shrugged, still pink and pleased. “Our house we rented in Wilkes-Barre. I was on the road all the fucking time, and when I came home, there was always some kind of new shit in the house. Curtains or pillows, or this one time she painted our whole bedroom. She said it was for me. For us, you know?”
Zhenya didn’t. He squinted at Flower, trying to fit him into this weird, kinky life Zhenya had never dreamed of. Flower definitely didn’t have fancy hair or abstract moderns printed on his pants. Maybe that ever-present hairy patch on his chin was some kind of substitute.
Under his scrutiny, a new, sharper flush stole over Flower. “Why are you asking, anyway?”
Zhenya shook himself out of his contemplation. He considered Flower carefully; he was scowling, but that was probably because he was embarrassed, contrary to all expectation. Probably if Zhenya didn’t give him a hard time – and Zhenya wouldn’t, at least not on purpose, not about this – then he wouldn’t give Zhenya a hard time, either. Probably.
“I want fix up my house. For bower.” Now it was Zhenya whose cheeks were burning. “Want to court someone.”
“Huh,” Flower said. “Wow. And you ask me? Joke’s on you, sorry. I’m the worst person to ask.”
“Maybe not,” Zhenya said, feeling reckless and a little desperate. “Maybe you’re perfect. Person I want court is, is guy.”
“Shit.” Flower stared. “Shit. Is it—”
“I’m not tell you,” Zhenya interrupted, before Flower could get that last word out. Zhenya had admitted to enough today; he didn’t think he could stand to make that last confession.
“Okaaay,” Flower said slowly, skeptically, but he let it go. “So what do you want from me?”
Zhenya unrolled his silverware from his napkin. He poked at the fork tines with the knife. “This guy is—I don’t know if he ever want be courted. Maybe not. But I want him think about it, you know? I want to at least maybe try.”
“Well, you could invite him over. That’s what people do, right?”
Sure, after a few dinners with drinks, a few evenings driving up the interstate in your sports car with the wind in your hair, then you’d invite them over to view your bower. If they liked it, then next time or the time after that, they’d start to bring bower gifts, one at a time: little things to build the beginnings of a shared home and a shared life.
So sure, everyone knew what an invitation like that meant - if you hadn’t already been sleeping with the person for years. “He already come over, lots of times.”
“Uh huh,” Flower said, eyeballing Zhenya. Zhenya did not rise to the bait. “I dunno, man. Stock his favorite Gatorade? Cook him dinner? You know, make that chicken pasta shit he likes with the red peppers.”
“Maybe,” Zhenya said doubtfully. His cooking skills left something to be desired at the best of times, and what was the point of even trying to make Sid’s favorite fettuccine thing if he got it wrong? Wasn’t that worse? “But what about bower? I’m supposed to make nice for—him.” Him. He hadn’t—shit. All that thinking and not-thinking and confessing, and saying it aloud was still a shock. It was dumb. This whole thing was dumb as fuck. Zhenya was dumb as fuck. “Never mind,” Zhenya said, ducking his head. “It doesn’t matter. I know it never go anywhere.”
“Hey.” Flower slapped Zhenya on the shoulder. “Don’t look like that. You look like you just put the puck in your own net.”
Zhenya couldn’t muster up an answer to that. It felt like he had, kind of, like his own heart had betrayed him by latching onto the stupidest fucking idea and refusing to let go.
“Look, I don’t know what this guy’s going to say,” Flower said. “Maybe he’ll say no. But it’s worth trying, isn’t it? He’s worth trying for?”
And put like that, the answer was simple. “Yeah.”
Flower did have some bower ideas, after all; he texted them to Zhenya in a barrage of what even Zhenya could tell was creatively atrocious spelling. Zhenya eventually gathered that Flower was getting the ideas from Vero. Flower responded to Zhenya’s alarmed text with assurances that he wouldn’t tell anyone else, which didn’t leave Zhenya particularly assured, but he didn’t have any other choice, really.
And they were good ideas, the kind of thing Zhenya would undoubtedly know if he’d ever given this any thought at all before: get the carpet deep-cleaned, the curtains washed. Dress up the kitchen, the living room, the bathrooms in his accent colors of choice. Of course generally a person looking to be wooed made their favorite colors pretty clear, and Sid was no help there, but Zhenya eventually decided he couldn’t go wrong with black and gold. And red for Canada, he supposed, much as it pained him.
He took the other suggestions, too; he stocked the fridge with purple Gatorade and the cabinet with the peanut butter protein bars with the chocolate chips that Sid kept everywhere.
In the middle of all this, after an afternoon game at home, Sid said in the showers, “So, I’ll come over later?” It wasn’t really a question. They’d gotten past asking permission years ago.
“Can’t,” Zhenya said hurriedly. The house wasn’t ready yet. He didn’t have the new throw pillows or the table runner. He didn’t know how to cook the pasta thing. “Busy. Very busy.”
“Sure,” Sid said slowly.
Zhenya tried the fettuccine that night. Somehow the chicken was dry and the noodles were mushy, and Zhenya ended up throwing the whole thing out.
They took a road trip after that, a back-to-back that left Zhenya with new bruises across his shoulders – fucking Kreider and his cross-checks – and halfway around his shin, a bloom of deepening purple. He staggered off the plane in Pittsburgh thinking only of bed, and when Sid muttered in his ear, “Tomorrow, eh? After practice?” it didn’t occur to Zhenya to say anything but yes.
That meant that the next afternoon he had to hurry home to unpack the black and gold throw pillows that had finally arrived. He barely had time to put them on the couch before Sid was walking in the front door. Sid didn’t even glance at the pillows. He grinned at Zhenya, a sunny, easy expression that lit the same old inexplicable fire in Zhenya’s gut – although maybe it was less inexplicable now.
“Hi, Sid,” Zhenya said fondly, despite his nerves. He couldn’t help the fondness. He never had been able to – that is, unless Sid had just won a faceoff from him in practice or won an Olympic game the same day Zhenya lost.
“Hey,” Sid said. He leaned up and kissed Zhenya. Into Zhenya’s mouth he breathed, “Hey.”
Probably fuckbuddies weren’t like this with each other, Zhenya thought as he followed Sid up the stairs. Probably he and Sid had left fuckbuddies so far behind them that they’d forgotten what it was even like. He wondered when that had happened.
Then Sid dropped to his knees and eyed the fly of Zhenya’s pants with intent, and that was the last thing Zhenya wondered for a while.
Afterwards they ordered Indian. Zhenya offered Sid Gatorade with dinner. Sid, deeply skeptical, turned him down, which was probably for the best. They watched New Jersey beat the Canes, and they agreed loudly that the Devils wouldn’t have stood a chance if it weren’t for Jordy’s broken leg.
They were headed back to bed – for something lazy and easy this time before they slept, because although a week and a half was a dry spell for them, maybe they were getting a little older – when Sid said, “Oh hey, you got new pillows.”
All Zhenya’s hopes and fears came rushing back. “Yes,” he ventured.
“Red for Russia,” Sid said approvingly, and then he continued up the stairs.
The next afternoon, Zhenya tried the fettuccine again. This time he undercooked the chicken and had to keep putting it back in the oven until it was finally done, and the noodles still came out mushy.
He gave up and texted Flower, and half an hour later Vero called. He sent her a photo of the instructions, and then she walked him through them. She even explained what lemon zest was, which he hadn’t been able to find at the store, and how he could use the side of the cheese grater to get it.
The second try, the chicken came out pretty good. It was edible, at least. Maybe it wouldn’t be how Sid wanted it, but who knew what recipe his mother cooked it from; Zhenya found his on the internet. He texted Vero his success anyway, complete with a photo. Then, without thinking too hard about it, he texted her his other frustrations: Sid not noticing any of the other things Zhenya had done, thinking the red was for Russia. What was the point?
Vero’s spelling was better than Flower’s. She wrote, if he can’t tell a difference it means your house already feels like his house and don’t worry so much, it’s really about you not your bower.
He ignored the second message – of course he was going to worry – but the first one gave him pause. He looked around his kitchen at the chrome appliances and freshly clean curtains, and he saw Sid lounging against the counter with a beer in hand, giggling. It was a familiar image, because Sid had stood just that way dozens of times in the years since they’d started this.
I’d live here, Sidney had said.
And suddenly the thought settled in Zhenya, steady and certain, that he didn’t need to worry after all. About the fettuccine, yes, about whether Sid would feel even the remotest interest in changing what they had, but not about his house.
He looked through the upcoming schedule of games and practices and meetings and a visit to the children’s hospital, and he chose a night he was sure to be in Pittsburgh and free – three days out. He texted Sid, want you come for dinner Monday 6 I cook ))))).
Instead of texting back, Sid called him. “Dinner?”
Zhenya ignored all the implied questions. “Dinner,” he said firmly.
Sid sidled up to him at skate the next morning. “What, are you planning ahead, G?” he asked.
Zhenya couldn’t fathom explaining to him now, at practice, when they were about to run passing drills. “You see,” he said cheerfully and skated away.
“My birthday isn’t until August!” Sidney called after him, not even remotely discreet.
Monday afternoon, Zhenya went home and checked through his entire list of ingredients three times. Then he went over the whole house, scrutinizing the state and placement of every lamp and curtain and Xbox controller. He climbed up onto his counter and cleaned the tops of his cabinets, and then halfway to the sink he felt abruptly ridiculous, climbed down, and went to go find a more reasonable pastime, like playing Angry Birds on his phone.
Finally it was time to start the pasta, which went uneventfully except when he zested the lemon too energetically and scraped his thumb open on the grater. “Fuck,” he said, sticking his thumb in his mouth and immediately wanting to gag on the blended flavors of lemon and blood.
He found a bandage, though, and finished the rest of the pasta all right without dripping any blood into it, and then it was nearly six and he barely had time to change out of the spattered t-shirt he’d been cooking in. He put on his favorite nice jeans – torn in one knee, well-weathered – and a dark Henley. That seemed safe. He checked the gel in his hair one last time. Then he headed back downstairs just in time to see Sid open the door.
Sid paused in the darkened foyer. “Hey. I—brought wine?” He held up a bottle.
For a moment Zhenya was frozen. Had Sid already read his intentions? Was that a bower gift? But Zhenya had an idea that if Sid knew what Zhenya was up to, he wouldn’t look quite so bemused. “Hey, Sid,” he said, working up a smile. He wasn’t sure how well it worked. “Dinner all ready.” He ushered Sid towards the dining room, and Sidney let him. Zhenya supposed he could have lit candles if he really wanted to set the mood, but it’d felt silly when he’d thought of it.
He left Sid to find a seat and went for the pasta, warming in the oven like Vero had suggested. He brought the salad, too – a mix from the store, because Zhenya’s kitchen prowess had limits – and glasses for the wine. He set the bowl of pasta on the table, and Sid’s eyes got wide. “Geno?”
“Shh,” Zhenya said, to save himself from answering any more questions – yet. He went back to the kitchen for the wine screw.
“You made my favorite food.” Sid said it like an accusation, as soon as Zhenya got into the room. “Or ordered it in. What’s the deal?”
“No, I make.” Zhenya slumped into his seat, just around the table corner from Sid. Somehow he thought they’d eat first before having this conversation. He couldn’t fathom why, now. “I get recipe, and I cook it. I zest my thumb. See?” He thrust his bandaged thumb towards Sid, and Sid watched it like it might bite.
“Okaaay,” Sid said. “Uh, why did you do that? What’s the occasion?”
“Sid,” Zhenya began, and stopped. He should have thought about this. He should have prepared a speech. But of course he was terrible at speeches anyway. “Sid, I want talk to you about bower.”
Sid’s brows drew together. “Yours or mine?”
Zhenya had to think about that. “Both. Sid, you know I buy new shit for house. You know, pillows?” Sid nodded cautiously. “Because I find someone I want to court.”
“Shit, really? Geno, that’s awesome, man.” Sid’s eyes lit, warm and genuine and happy.
“Yeah,” Zhenya agreed, although he didn’t know, really, if it was. “That why I pick Pens colors, and red. Red for Canada.”
Canada, Sid mouths.
“That why I ask you come for dinner, I make your fettuccine with peppers.” Sid went rigid, in shock or horror or Zhenya didn’t know what. He pushed ahead. “It’s you, Sid. I want court you, if you let me.”
“Geno,” Sid began, and stopped.
“You always say you like my house, you know?” Zhenya swept his dining room and his shark with a gesture. “And we good fit. Have good sex, right?”
Sid laughed, a single, dry puff of air.
“And—” There was no point in holding back now. “And I like you, Sid. Like you a lot.”
“Like mates?” Sid squawked.
Zhenya looked at Sid, at his wide eyes and the shocked blush on his cheeks and the curl of hair peeking out from his baseball cap and over his ear. “Think maybe. If not now, easy to get there.”
“Shit.” Sidney pulled his baseball cap off, ran his fingers through his hair, screwed it back on. “Shit, Geno.”
“If you say maybe, that good enough. I court you so good, Sid. I show you.”
“G,” Sid began, far too gently. “G, I don’t want to be courted. You know I’ve got my own house I’m working on. I gotta find my own mate.”
“You hate your house!” Zhenya exclaimed. “You always say you want to live here. That a sign, right? I court you without even know it, my house courts you. That’s what it mean, you like someone’s house – mean you like them, they right person for you. You at home here, and—” That awful sympathy in Sid’s eyes hadn’t eased even a little, but Zhenya had to finish. “—and I at home with you.”
“Geno,” Sid said, so carefully. “I’m really flattered, okay, that’s really flattering that you’d feel that way about me, but I’m—”
“Not interest,” Zhenya said, staring at his clean, empty plate. “I know.” He had known. This had been the longest of long shots all along, and he’d let himself hope anyway. That was the only reason this hurt so much. He heaved a sigh, and even his lungs hurt, it felt like. “Just fucking, right? So you eat your fettuccine, and then we do that.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sid said, and Zhenya jerked his gaze up to Sid. “I think—we should take a break from what we’ve been doing, for a while.”
“Oh.” Right. Zhenya supposed that would be awkward.
Sid stood, and Zhenya did the same, barely conscious of it. “I don’t like you any less. You get that, right?”
“Sure,” Zhenya said. He didn’t understand what was happening. He didn’t want to.
“Okay, so.” Sid came round the table and hugged Zhenya, and Zhenya hugged back. Sid was as solid as always, and he smelled clean, of shampoo and fresh air. Then Sid stepped back, and he said, “So I’m going to go now.”
“But what about dinner? I make for you. It’s not even taste bad.” Zhenya could see the refusal forming on Sid’s lips, and suddenly he couldn’t stand imagining Sid not getting to eat his pasta, even if he didn’t want anything else from Zhenya anymore. He swept the serving bowl up and thrust it into Sid’s hands. “I make for you,” he repeated lamely.
“Okay, Geno. Sure.”
There was nothing for it then. Zhenya followed Sid to the door, and he opened it for him, because Sid’s hands were full of pasta. He watched Sid walk to the end of the drive – he must have walked from his house, his bower - and when Sid got to the gate, Geno pushed the button to open it for him.
And then Sid was gone.
This, Zhenya supposed dimly, was why fucking teammates was a bad idea. He went to skate and stepped on the ice, and the worst part was all the things that were the same: Sid’s chuckle when Downie fell on his ass, Sid’s stall still three down from his. Sid even talked to Zhenya – carefully, in way that made Zhenya want to hit things. To hit Sid, maybe.
Flower pulled Zhenya aside after practice. “No go, huh?”
Zhenya didn’t want to talk to Flower. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, but especially Flower, who’d let him hope. “Why you let me? So stupid.”
Flower looked genuinely contrite, for what little good it did either of them. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
They played a game the next night, and Sid still gave the same little speech before the game. He was the same, but it felt like Zhenya wasn’t, anymore.
He went home and crashed. The next morning he got up and looked around his house. He considered that probably black and gold and red weren’t really complementary; he thought his mother probably wouldn’t like them. He took down everything new that he’d bought and put it in a big garbage bag. He took the Gatorade out of the fridge, too, and the protein bars out of the cabinet. After some consideration, he put them in a box and stuck it in the spare bedroom that doubled as his storage room.
Finally his eyes caught on the shark. It hung there the same as always, sleek and powerful, but Zhenya could hear the delight in Sid’s voice when he first saw it. Awesome, he’d said.
For just a moment, Zhenya wanted to take a mallet to it. He wanted to shatter it into a million fiberglass pieces.
The moment passed. The shark wasn’t Sid’s; the memory of catching one just like it, on a blue, salt sea under a blazing sun, didn’t belong to him. Gently Zhenya took it down from its hooks and carried it into the garage, and he put in the corner farthest from the door, behind old luggage. It’d be fine there until Zhenya could bear to look at it again.
“You’re both such a fucking mess,” Flower said.
“Who both?” Zhenya didn’t look up from his skates.
“You and Captain Idiot. He looks like someone ran over his dog, and you look like the dog.”
“I don’t know what you say.” Zhenya pushed to his feet and brushed past Flower, none too gently. “Sid fine. No reason he not be fine.”
He kept sneaking peeks that day, though, from the corner of his eye. He’d been right. Sid looked fine.
It was so quiet in Zhenya’s house, with Sid never over to visit. He had no one to watch horrible wedding shows with or grope him on the sofa or laugh that absurd, carefree laugh. He didn’t know what he’d thought would happen, if Sid said no. He hadn’t thought about it at all. That was stupid of him, he saw now. He shouldn’t have—
But even now he wasn’t bitter enough to believe that he shouldn’t have. Flower had been right; Sid was worth trying for.
He went out for drinks with some of the other Russians once, but Max kept trying to talk to him. It was horrible.
He went to restaurants by himself, most nights he was free. He ate a lot of steak and cheesecake.
“G, you should come out with us,” Suttsy said. Hornqvist agreed, and Paulie was nodding, and fuck, Zhenya wondered if the entire locker room knew what had been going on in his head these past two weeks. That thought alone was enough to make him want to decline.
“You should come,” Flower agreed from Zhenya’s left. Softly in his accented English he said, for only Zhenya to hear, “It could be good, right? Get out with the team a little bit.”
Zhenya caught sight of Sid across the room, looking on with casual interest. “Fine,” Zhenya muttered. It didn’t mean he had to stay out long.
This time, going out meant dinner: fries and cheesesteak subs and beer. Horny took the seat next to Zhenya like it was rightfully his and entertained the whole booth with photos of his tiny, blue-eyed daughter. Sid sat at the table across the way. Zhenya ate his sub and drained his beer, and meanwhile Sid was deep in discussion with Duper and Spalsy about the fuck knew what.
At some point Sid got up and headed for the john, and when he was heading back, Horny called him over so Sid could see the pictures, too.
Somehow this resulted in Sid taking the seat across from Zhenya, and in a spare moment between conversations, he turned to Zhenya and said, “So how’s it going?”
He didn’t drop his voice, didn’t pretend this was a private conversation, and that was what kept Zhenya from baring his teeth. “Okay. You?”
“Sure.” Sid stole a fry from Bortz’s abandoned plate. “You hear anything out of Ovechkin lately? What are the Caps fucking doing?”
Sasha’s name always churned up the same complicated mix of patriotic loyalty and personal ambivalence. The Caps, on the other hand, were fair game. “Suck,” Zhenya said succinctly.
“Yeah, but—” And Sid was off, detailing exactly how Brooksie and Nisky were upgrading the blue line, and why the Caps couldn’t seem to convert their great numbers into wins. It was the kind of analysis Sid inflicted on any willing or semi-willing audience at the drop of a hat, even if that audience had, for the last couple of years, very often been Zhenya.
He looked just the same. Zhenya wanted to twist Sid’s curls around his finger and tug, just a little.
Sid eventually seemed to realize that Zhenya wasn’t paying as much attention as he might have, and he trailed off. “Yeah, so,” he began again, but he didn’t seem to have anything to follow it. He ran his finger through the condensation on the side of Zhenya’s water glass and, for the first time, looked a little bit nervous. Zhenya wondered if he should feel bad about that.
All at once Sid stood up and flashed Zhenya a media smile. “Tomorrow at skate, right?”
“Right,” Zhenya agreed. Sid walked off, and Zhenya looked at his empty plate. This was how it was going to be now. Sid wasn’t going to come home with him at night, and he’d still look for Zhenya on the power play. He’d still bump Zhenya’s fist and let Zhenya go out last. And that was all.
Zhenya was just going to have to get used to that.
On a rare free day, Zhenya woke up to a text. Can I come over? Sid asked.
Zhenya’s stomach went cold. He squinted at the words, but they didn’t change. The time stamp was from two hours ago, when only absurd people like Sid bothered to be awake. It answered none of his questions.
He threw the phone on the bed and stumbled into the shower. He stumbled out again and down the stairs. He poured his timer-brewed coffee and drank it in front of the TV, letting last night’s hockey highlights wash over him in gibbering, incomprehensible English.
When he finally stomped back upstairs for something more closely resembling clothes, he was almost surprised to see his phone still lying there on the bed. Its battery was low. He plugged it in. He opened the message again and stared at it a while longer, and finally he pecked out the letters. ok.
It was barely two minutes later that his phone chirped at him. Okay, I’ll be right over.
Zhenya went downstairs, poured another cup of coffee and waited. Sid knocked, although it occurred to Zhenya that Sid still had his key. Probably he should get it back. Or maybe it didn’t matter, if Sid was going to knock every time he came over. Not that that would happen often.
Zhenya yanked the door open. “What.”
Sid stood on Zhenya’s doorstep, his hands buried in the pocket of his hoodie. He jumped a little when Zhenya opened the door. “Hi.” His eyes were very wide.
It was so terrible, standing there like that, like they weren’t even friends; like awkward acquaintances who’d met at a party once. Zhenya sighed. “You come in.” He stepped back inside, and he didn’t wait to see if Sid followed.
He did; he followed Zhenya all the way to the living room. Zhenya turned on his heel. “What you want, Sid? You leave something? You know I bring to practice for you.”
“No, that’s not—I mean. No.” Sid’s shoulders were rigid, and Zhenya wondered vaguely what Sid had to be worried about. Then Sid finally drew his hands out of his hoodie, and in one of them was a… something. A wrapped something. Sid held it out to Zhenya, and Zhenya took it, unthinking. It was thirty centimeters long and lightweight, wrapped in that Pens paper they sold at the NHL store at Consol. The skating penguin wrapped around the side of it.
“Open it,” Sid said.
Zhenya flipped it over and found a folded corner. He ripped it open. Soon enough the paper was on the floor, and he was holding something that might, perhaps, be a weapon.
“It’s a microplane,” Sid said. “It’s for your kitchen.”
It didn’t look anything like a plane. Why Sid would think he wanted a miniature plane for his kitchen, Zhenya couldn’t begin to guess, but it hardly mattered, because this wasn’t one. It didn’t even have wings.
He brandished it at Sid. “Why you give?”
Sid’s cheeks, already flushed with cold, somehow turned redder. “Fuck,” he said. He crossed his arms, and he didn’t meet Zhenya’s eyes. “I shouldn’t have—fuck. It’s a courting gift, Geno. A crappy one, I guess.”
Zhenya stared at the thing some more, waiting for the words to process. They didn’t, really. “Why you give?” he repeated.
“Because I—god, I want to accept. If you still want to. Court me, that is.”
Zhenya didn’t have any fucking idea what was going on. “You come. You sit.” He led them into the living room, and he sat on his mother’s couch. Sid came and sat on the other end. “Now, you explain. Very tiny words.”
Sid shrugged tightly. “There isn’t much to explain. I told you I wasn’t interested, that I didn’t like you like that. But I guess I was wrong.”
“You guess? How you not know?” he demanded.
“You know what it’s like. I’ve always—I’m Sidney Crosby. Of course I’m going to build a bower. Of course I’m going to court some girl and have a bunch of kids. I didn’t—I never thought there was another option. Except.”
Sid bit his lip, and Zhenya noticed, because Zhenya couldn’t drag his eyes away from Sid. He still couldn’t quite put together what he was hearing.
Sid laughed, unhappily. “I used to wonder how guys courted other guys. That seemed—that sounded better. But I didn’t know how, and anyway those kinds of guys, I knew they wouldn’t be into hockey. Or me.”
It was surreal, hearing Zhenya’s own thoughts echoed back at him.
“You know, Flower told me all the stuff you did. The cooking, and the new colors—” he blinked and looked around him. “You got rid of them?”
Zhenya shrugged. “Not do good anymore. Not do good ever, really.”
“And the—fuck, Geno, did you get rid of your shark?”
For a moment Zhenya wanted to say yes, to repeat his fantasy of smashing the thing in his driveway. Some distant ancestor of hope was beginning to unfurl in his chest, and it hurt, and he wanted to smash it, too. But finally he said, “No. Just put away.”
Sid stared hard at him, but he didn’t ask. “Anyway. I never thought maybe someone would court me, instead, and when you invited me over, I just—but god, these last few weeks have been so fucking awful, Geno.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. On that they could agree. But, “You seem fine, though. Every day, you fine.”
Sid gave him a sickly smile. “Fooled you, I guess. Anyway, I talked to Flower, and he told me some stuff – did you know Vero decorated their first house?” Zhenya blinked at him. “Um, sorry, not the point. The point is, I changed my mind? And I—I’d really like to be courted. And come live in your bower. And—” He looked earnestly into Zhenya’s eyes. “And fucking everything, Geno. If you want.”
Sid had last walked out of his house three weeks ago. Zhenya had been sad longer than he’d been hopeful before. He ought to be happy now, but he couldn’t remember how. But the longer he tried to figure out what he was feeling, the more Sid’s face fell. He ducked his head and said, “But I understand, if I screwed it up too much. Or if you want some time to think about it, or—”
Zhenya shifted over and pulled Sid into a hug. His eyes were hot. He pressed his lips to Sid’s hair, and he said, “I miss you, Sid. I miss you so much.”
Sid gripped his bicep. “Yeah,” he said, a little shakily.
Zhenya squeezed a little tighter. “You really want here? With me? Everyone give you shit, you know. Team, Don Cherry…”
“Don Cherry can go to hell.” Sid pressed his face into Zhenya’s shoulder. His next words were a mumble that Zhenya couldn’t make out.
“What?” Zhenya asked.
Sid pulled back to look Zhenya in the eye. Very seriously he asked, “Are you sure, Geno? Are you sure you don’t want some pretty Russian girl?”
“No,” Zhenya said, as sure as he’d ever been sure of anything. “Rather have ugly Canadian.”
“Fuck you,” said Sid. His eyes were shiny-wet, but he was grinning for the first time Zhenya had seen – well, in a while, actually. Maybe Zhenya had been missing a few things.
He couldn’t help it; he pulled Sid in for another hug, just to feel him there, secure and solid and warm. Sid’s breaths were a little unsteady, and that was all right, because maybe Zhenya’s hitched a couple of times, too.
Then Zhenya bent down and kissed Sid’s ear, and Sid took a sharp breath of an entirely different kind. His hand strayed into Zhenya’s lap. Suddenly Zhenya was very, very aware he had not had sex in three weeks. Still, he had enough presence of mind to say, “You sure you want to fuck, now we courting? What our mothers say?”
Sid’s eyes glinted with humor now as well as the traces of unshed tears. Clearly and with intent, he said, “Fuck you.”
“Yes,” Zhenya agreed.
Later, when Zhenya was half-awake and starting to think about lunch, it occurred to him, “Sid?”
“Nngh,” Sid said articulately.
“Why you bring me little plane?”
Sid lifted his head from the pillow and blinked at Zhenya. “What?”
“Courting gift, why you bring? For… kitchen? It doesn’t have wings, even.”
Sid rolled over so he could look at Zhenya with having to actually sit up. “Not wings. It’s—you use it for grating stuff, really small. It’s good for zesting lemons. So you don’t get your thumb again.”
“Oh,” Zhenya said softly, far more touched than he should have been by Sid giving him a kitchen tool.
“Ugh.” Sid hid his face behind his hand. “You know I suck at bower stuff. I guess I’m not any better at it from the other side.”
Zhenya tugged him closer. “It’s fine, Sid. We be terrible together.”
Sid’s breath was warm against Zhenya’s chest. “Yeah, okay. That—that sounds like a plan.”
Their mating gift from Zhenya’s mother was an enormous framed print of a sailing ship at sea. Zhenya hung it up opposite the shark.