There is a whiteboard on the wall of the Pine Hollow Fire Department that reads, 72 Days Since Last Fire. It's the longest streak they've had since Sidney moved out to Oregon in what his mother describes as "a fit of whimsy," though not, according to the mayor, the longest ever. Sidney is hoping they beat that record.
"Do you think today is the day?" Ethan asks when he arrives at the station a few minutes after Sidney. He's young, only a couple years out of high school, and is clearly under the impression that working at a fire station would be a lot more exciting than it is. Possibly, Sidney thinks, he should have moved somewhere with a population of more than six hundred thirty-two.
"Probably not," Sidney says instead of I hope not. He understands that Ethan is itching to do some work, but he gets nervous when people tempt fate. The other guys laugh and call him Superstitious Sid whenever Sidney hushes their absent wonderings about where the next fire will be. Sidney doesn't care; he isn't going to let them jinx anyone in the town. "It's warm out today. People aren't going to be inside."
Ethan sighs and flops down in his chair. "How do you do this all the time? All we ever do is hand out water to people on hot days and rescue cats."
"I like rescuing cats," Sidney says, just as the station's cat decides to make her appearance. He bends down to pick her up, clicking his tongue. "Hey, Nat."
Nat turns around in his lap, sniffing haughtily, then settles down across his thighs. Ethan makes a disgusted noise and tilts his head back to stare at the ceiling.
"Was it more exciting in Canada?" Ethan asks idly.
"Not really," Sidney says, because he doesn't remember Canada as ever being anything but as sleepy and still as Pine Hollow.
"Damn," Ethan says.
They do end up being called to rescue someone from a tree, but instead of a cat, it's tiny Madison Li, who at age six had developed a terrifying ability to climb trees and has only gotten better since. Sidney brings her down gently, manfully suppressing a wince when one of her shiny Mary Janes catches him in the cheek. Ethan gives her a juice box and a packet of crackers while Sidney talks to Sandra Li, and then they return to the station to join the other guys.
It's another low-key day – Aiden and Mia have some fire inspections to take care of, and Carlos is called out to deal with a fire alarm that turns out to be a broken CO2 detector – and Sidney spends most of it compulsively reorganizing the station's filing system, which has been his project ever since he arrived.
"I guess today wasn't the day," Ethan sighs when the end of their shift rolls around. Sidney nods and carefully wipes away the "2" on the board before writing in the new number. 73 Days Since Last Fire.
Friday night means it's a bar night, and they all go to The Hollow Barrel to drink some probably illegally homebrewed beer and watch whatever game is on. Sidney isn't as into sports as Mia or Carlos are, but he likes watching them get angry at the Giants.
"Aw, fuck," Mia sighs at the end of the seventh inning. She drains her beer in one gulp and leans back in her seat. "That's it. That's the end, we're not coming back from that."
"Have a little faith," Carlos says in a hollow sort of voice, and Ethan laughs, throwing his head back. Sidney watches them, smiling a little but unable to join in. He's feeling a little off, like he's waiting for something, and he isn't sure what it is.
"I'm going to go home," he announces after his second beer. Aiden squints at him over the top of his glass.
"Really?" he asks. "It's early, still."
Sidney shrugs. "I'm tired." He puts down some cash on the table. "See you on Monday."
"Night, Sid," Ethan says, and the others echo him. Sidney waves and heads out into the warm summer night.
It's a short walk to his house – everything is a short walk in Pine Hollow – but Sidney is tired by the time he arrives, and he just manages to take off his clothes and fold them before he collapses into bed and falls asleep.
He arrives at fifteen minutes past eight, his damp hair slowly drying in the early morning sunlight. Olivia waves hello to him from the table she's waiting and nods towards his table, which she has propped a little index card that says Reserved in her elegant cursive. Sidney grins and carefully sets it aside before he takes his seat.
Sidney is halfway through his coffee and omelet when the door opens and the stranger comes in. Sidney sits up straighter despite himself and tries to watch him without making it obvious that he is. Judging from Olivia's glance, he isn't all that successful.
For the last week, the same man has been sitting at the corner table across from Sidney's. He's large and silent, with eyes Sidney can't help but describe as sad. Sidney isn't sure what it is about the stranger that draws his attention – if it's his sad eyes or the fact that Sidney doesn't recognize him even though he knows nearly all of Pine Hollow's residents by sight.
"He's cute, isn't he?" Olivia asks when she comes by to refill his coffee. Her hair is purple this week, dark at the top and fading towards pale lavender at the bottom. When she isn't waiting tables, she paints. Sidney has two of her paintings in his house, one of an icy winter landscape, the other of an industrial city at night. She's originally from Boston, and Sidney helped her fireproof her home after she admitted to nearly setting her studio on fire.
Sometimes he thinks it would be easier if he could date her, because she's funny and sweet, but she's also probably his closest friend in Pine Hollow and – and anyway, she's right. The stranger is attractive, and that's what Sidney has been trying not to admit to himself.
"Oh, honey," Olivia says, catching sight of his face. "Relax. I'm just making an observation." She pats his shoulder with her free hand. "But he's been looking at you all week. Maybe you should talk to him."
Sidney shakes his head. "I can't."
"One day you're going to get over this shyness and flaunt your stuff." Olivia bumps her hip against his chair. "Maybe tomorrow?"
"Maybe," Sidney says. He looks back over at the stranger and catches him looking back. The stranger's eyes widen, just a little, before he quickly glances away, cheeks going red.
He goes for a run after breakfast and manages two miles before his ankle and knee start protesting. He stops outside the Bronze Antler Bed and Breakfast, breathing hard and sits down on the porch to rub at his leg. The scar tissue on his ankle is all right, but his knee feels a bit swollen, so he goes inside to beg some ice off Mikaela, the newly married daughter of the owners.
"Oh, Sidney," she sighs when she sees him. "You know you're not supposed to push yourself too hard."
He shrugs and claims one of the sofas in the sitting room while she goes to find him some ice. He is rifling through one of the magazines left on the table – Home & Garden, not particularly to his taste, but better than nothing – when the door to the B&B opens.
He twists around and sees the stranger standing in the doorway. From the looks of him, he's been running too. He's wearing a Pittsburgh Football t-shirt and a baseball cap with a logo Sidney doesn't recognize, and he's sweaty and somehow still really attractive. Sidney should have known, really – he would have heard if someone had moved into town, if only because the fire department would have had to check out the house, so of course the stranger is staying at the B&B.
"You're lucky," Mikaela calls, startling him out of his surprise, "I had an ice pack hidden in the freezer – oh, Geno! You're back."
Geno – if that's really his name, Sidney's never heard of anyone called that – looks up and smiles. "Who you talking to?" He has a deep voice and a heavy accent that reminds Sidney of winter, of snow and cold.
"Sidney," Mikaela says, pointing over to where Sidney is sitting. Sidney lifts his hand in greeting as Geno turns to stare at him. "Sidney, this is Geno, he's been staying here for the last week. Geno, Sidney works for the fire department."
"Hi," Sidney says, trying not to go red when Geno continues to stare at him. "I saw you at the diner."
"Yes," Geno says. "Excuse me." He nods jerkily to Sidney, then to Mikaela before practically running upstairs.
"Huh." Mikaela glances at Sidney. "That was weird. He's usually very friendly." She shrugs and grins. "Russians, huh?"
"Is he Russian?" Sidney asks. "I didn't know Geno was a Russian name."
"Oh, it's not, it's some kind of nickname he has," she says, coming over to sit beside him on the couch. "Here." She hands over an ice pack and watches Sidney put the ice pack on his knee. "You feeling all right? Normally you're pretty good about going easy on your leg."
"Just restless," Sidney says, and he tries not to think about Geno's stare, the way his dark eyes had raked over him, like they knew his every secret.
He goes to the store to buy more eggs and fruit and sees Geno buying cereal and cookies. Geno is at the diner when Sidney eats lunch there on Sunday, at the library when Sidney goes to return the CDs he had borrowed, and in the town square when Sidney goes for his jog. Every time, Geno takes one look at Sidney and looks away or runs in the opposite direction.
Frankly, Sidney is starting to get a little annoyed. He may not have wanted to approach Geno himself, but he is a perfectly nice person. There's no reason for Geno to avoid him.
So on Monday, when Sidney sees Geno as he is grabbing a quick lunch from Lucille, who has run her little sandwich shop for forty years, he touches Geno's arm and asks, "Did I offend you?"
Geno starts so badly that Sidney takes a step back. "I – what?"
"Every time you see me, you avoid me," Sidney says. "If I did, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to." He has this sick feeling in his stomach that maybe Geno knows, maybe somehow he saw Sidney looking at him and figured out why Sidney only watches and never approaches him. "I just – I'm sorry."
Geno stares at him again. Sidney tries not to fidget. "I – no, you not offend me."
"Then why?" Sidney asks, waving his sandwich around. "Why are you avoiding me?"
"I'm not," Geno very badly lies, gaze sliding to Sidney's left.
Sidney sighs. "Look," he says. "Why don't we start over?" He holds out his free hand. "I'm Sidney."
Geno eyes his hand warily for a moment, then takes it gingerly. He has huge hands, with long, callused fingers. Sidney wonders, briefly, what it is Geno does, wonders how those hands would feel against his arms, his chest. "Evgeni. But call me Geno."
"Geno," Sidney says, trying out the name the way he says it, and Geno smiles, just a little.
"Yes," he says.
"Come eat with me?" Sidney suggests, nodding towards the sandwich Geno has in his hands. "The square has benches."
"Okay." Geno follows him quietly and sits down next to Sidney, long legs sprawling wide. Sidney looks away quickly and unwraps his sandwich so he isn't tempted to just stare at Geno's face.
Sidney finally breaks the silence by asking, "So where are you from?"
Geno looks up, eyes wide. "From?"
Sidney winces, cheeks flooding with heat. "I mean – Mikaela said you were Russian?"
"Oh, yes," Geno says. "I am from Russia. Is where I was born."
"So why Oregon, then?" Sidney picks at the lettuce in his sandwich. "It's kind of far away from Russia."
"I live in – Pennsylvania," Geno says, stuttering a little over the state name. "But, I am on vacation. Friend tell me Oregon is great."
"It is," Sidney says earnestly. "I'm from Canada, originally, but I – I love it here."
"Good," Geno says. "It's good, loving the place you live."
"Why did you leave Russia?" Sidney asks curiously.
Geno glances down. "Work," he says vaguely. Sidney opens his mouth to ask more, but Geno stands up abruptly. "I go," he says.
"Wait, what?" Sidney scrambles to his feet, reaching out to grab Geno's arm. "I –"
"You have work," Geno says. "I have phone call."
"Oh, okay." Sidney tries not to be too obviously disappointed, but he can feels his shoulders slumping despite himself.
"I see you at diner?" Geno suggests, and Sidney can't help the wide grin that spreads across his face.
"Yeah," he says. "I'll see you there." He watches Geno walk away, not sure why he's so pleased, and then heads back to the station.
"You're smiling," Ethan says suspiciously when Sidney walks into the station. "What happened?"
"Good day," Sidney says.
The local high school has a fire drill at two, so Sidney and Ethan head down there to check that it's all going smoothly. Even on his bad days, Sidney is able to scrounge up some energy and smiles for the kids, and the encounter with Geno has left him happier than usual, so he even stays late and talks to the kindergarten class about fire safety. Madison proudly tells everyone that Sidney rescued her from a tree and then solemnly presents him with a drawing of it. Sidney thanks her and ruffles her hair gently before getting up and saying goodbye.
"And what do we say to Fireman Sidney?" coaxes Hannah, the elderly teacher, and all the students chorus, "Thank you, Fireman Sidney."
"Thank you for having me," Sidney says, pleased, and he backs out of the room so he can wave to them the whole way.
"Hey, Yogi Bear," Ethan says when Sidney gets back to the station. "Did you tell them that only they could stop forest fires?"
Sidney rolls his eyes and throws his keys at him.
He goes to the diner at his usual time for dinner, taking a brief detour at the drug store to pick up a plastic protective sheet for Madison's drawing. He sits at his usual table and Olivia stops by to ask, "The usual?"
"Yeah," Sidney says. "Thanks." He sits back and is about to pull out his phone when Geno slides into the seat across from him.
"This okay?" Geno asks hesitantly.
"Yes!" Sidney moves the silverware around so Geno has some more room, but the table isn't really made for two people of their size and Geno's knee bumps into Sidney's. "Hi."
Geno smiles shyly. "Hello."
"Do you know what you're going to order?" Sidney asks.
"I like the burger," Geno says. "Unhealthy, but I like."
Sidney smiles at him. "Do you usually try to eat healthy?"
"Yes, I keep in shape." Geno flexes his arm, grinning, and Sidney – his mouth goes a little dry.
"Um," Sidney stumbles, forgetting what he'd meant to say. "I – same here, I guess. I have to, for my job."
"Yes?" Geno asks. "What do you do?"
"I'm a firefighter," Sidney says, trying not to sound too proud.
"Oh." Geno nods. "It is important job."
Olivia comes over then with a glass of water, humming absently, but she draws up short when she sees Geno. "Oh, wow."
Sidney glares at her, trying to communicate to her that she shouldn't comment, but Geno doesn't see and asks, "Wow?"
"I just – I've never seen anyone sitting with Sidney before," Olivia says. "He doesn't like to change his routine."
"Olivia," Sidney hisses, face heating up.
"No, it's good," Olivia says, patting his shoulder and completely missing the point. "Glad to see you loosen up some."
Sidney sighs and leans back as Olivia sets the water down. He chances a look up when she leaves, cheeks still hot with embarrassment. To his surprise, Geno is grinning widely, the skin around his eyes crinkling.
"Sid like his patterns," he says.
"Yeah," Sidney says, scowling at his glass. "I do."
"No, is good," Geno insists, reaching out to tap the table in front of Sidney. "Routine is good. But I am glad you change it for me."
Sidney smiles at that and says, "I'm glad too."
Olivia returns with another glass of water for Geno and hands him a menu. "Here you go, uh – what's your name?"
"Evgeni," Geno says. "Call me Geno."
Olivia smiles at him and says, "Nice to officially meet you. Any friend of Sidney's is a friend of mine. Would you like more time with that menu?"
"No, thank you." Geno hands it to her. "I would like a burger, please."
"Sure thing." Olivia catches Sidney's eye and winks heavily. Sidney flushes again and sincerely hopes Geno can't figure out why.
"What is that?" Geno asks suddenly, nodding at Madison's drawing, which Sidney had set on the side of the table. "Pretty colors."
Sidney laughs and slides it over towards Geno. "Madison – she's a little girl here – likes to climb trees. She got stuck the other day and I got her down, so she drew this."
Geno stares at the drawing, fingers tracing over the bright lines. He doesn't say a word, just stares like he can't look enough.
"Geno?" Sidney asks hesitantly, and Geno looks up, eyes shiny and a little red.
"Pretty picture," he says, voice hoarse, and he pushes it back carefully.
"Are you okay?" Sidney wants to reach out, to touch Geno's arm, but he doesn't even know if that would help. All he knows is that he doesn't want to see Geno look like that.
"Yes," Geno says. "I am okay." He forces a smile; it looks uncomfortable and awkward, not like the wide, infectious grin he had directed at Sidney earlier. "You like kids?"
"Yeah." Sidney tucks the drawing away, out of sight. "I've always – I want kids one day."
"You have girlfriend?" Geno asks, voice turning teasing. "Pretty girl at home?"
Sidney flinches and ducks his head. "No," he says quietly. "No girls."
There is a long pause before Geno asks, "No boys, either?"
Sidney meets Geno's eyes. "No," he says.
"Dinner is served!" Olivia calls, breaking the moment. Sidney jerks back and makes room for his plate. Geno flashes Olivia that wide smile, and Sidney tries very hard not to be jealous.
They eat, again, mostly in silence. Sidney can't help filching a couple of fries from Geno's plate when he isn't looking, even though he can tell from the amused way Geno looks at him that his thievery has not gone unnoticed. When he goes for a third one, Geno catches his wrist with faster reflexes than Sidney was expecting.
"If Sid want fries, he should have order burger," Geno says. "Not omelet."
"It doesn't count if it's from someone else's plate," Sidney says, cautiously flexing his wrist to test Geno's grip. Geno tightens his hand gently, thumb pressing against the jut of Sidney's bone.
"Not real rule, Sid," Geno says comfortably, and he releases Sidney. Sidney represses the urge to rub his wrist and shifts to a more comfortable sitting position.
"We do this again tomorrow?" Geno suggests when Olivia has cleared their plates. "Better than eating alone."
Sidney has never really seen a problem with eating alone, or doing anything alone for that matter. He's gotten used to being on his own; he doesn't remember being any other way. Every now and then, his mother will call and ask if he's met anyone, if he thinks he'll settle down there, and the truth is that Sidney is perfectly happy on his own.
Or he has been, anyway.
"Okay," Sidney says. "Lunch, too?"
"Meet you at bench," Geno says.
"It's weird," Sidney says to Olivia before Geno arrives for dinner on Friday. "This seems too easy. I don't make friends like this."
"It's cute you think you're making a friend," Olivia says.
Sidney glares at her. "It isn't like that."
"Really?" Olivia raises her eyebrows. "We both know you think he's attractive –"
"Shh," Sidney hisses, looking around.
"Honey, no one cares." Olivia squeezes his shoulder gently. "You know we all just want you to be happy, right? When you showed up here after your accident, you were just so lost. I know I just wanted to take you home and feed you until you smiled again."
"I'm not a stray dog," Sidney says, louder than he means to.
"No," Olivia agrees, "but we adopted you anyway."
Sidney sighs and drops his head in his hands. "I don't want anyone's pity."
"Well, tough shit," Olivia says. "And your boyfriend is here, so look alive."
"He is not my boyfriend," Sidney hisses after her as she moves away to get them their water. She waves him off, laughing, and Sidney sits back against his seat huffily.
Geno drops into the seat across from Sidney a moment later and smiles at him. "What she say to you?"
"Nothing," Sidney says. "Nothing important."
"Okay," Geno says easily, nodding. "How is your day?"
Sidney tells him about it, and Geno manages to look interested all the way through even though it had been boring to Sidney. Olivia brings them their food and gives Sidney a look that he doesn't want to try to parse, so he gently kicks her ankle until she leaves.
"People here like Sid," Geno says suddenly, watching him closely. "You have friends?"
"Yeah," Sidney says, shrugging. "I mean, I – I talk to Olivia and the guys at the station and I guess I know mostly everyone."
"Good," Geno says, sounding weirdly satisfied.
Sidney nudges Geno's knee under the table. "What about you? You don't talk about your life that much. You have friends, don' t you?"
Geno chuckles. "Yes. I have friends."
"Russians?" Sidney asks.
"Some, yes," Geno nods. "I mostly friends with guys I work with. They good guys."
"Good," Sidney echoes, and Geno throws his head back to laugh.
"Hey," Sidney says when they're paying the bill and heading out, "I usually go down to the bar with the guys from work on Friday nights. Do you, I mean. You don't have to."
Geno is watching him, a small smirk twisting up his lips. "Yes?"
Sidney punches his shoulder, turning red. "You know what I'm asking."
"But you don't ask." Geno crosses his arms and raises his eyebrows. "Sid have question?"
Sidney sighs, annoyed. "Do you want to come to the bar with me?"
"Yes, Sid," Geno says, smirk turning into a smile. "I come with you."
Ethan spots him first, calling, "You're late, Sidney!" before he spots Geno behind him. "You brought a friend."
Mia spins around on her stool, eyes narrowed, and fixes Sidney with her intense stare. "You brought someone?"
"Hi," Geno says, lifting his hand in greeting.
"Guys," Sidney says, calling Aiden and Carlos's attention too, "this is Geno. He's visiting town."
Geno shakes everyone's hands, repeating their names back to fix them in his head, and Sidney feels weirdly proud of how everyone seems to warm up to him instantly. Mia suggests they grab a table, and they migrate to a booth in the corner. Sidney ends up tucked against Geno's side, legs pressed together hip to ankle.
"I get us drinks," Geno says, patting Sidney's knee. "What you want?"
"Tell him our usual, Ted'll know what that means," Aiden says before tilting his head back to drain the last dregs of his beer bottle.
"Sid?" Geno asks, nudging him.
"Pick something," Sidney says, shrugging. He has never developed a taste for alcohol, though he'll drink it if it's put into his hands, and he figures Geno will have a better idea of what to get than he does.
"What if I bring vodka shots?" teases Geno.
"Then I will drink them," Sidney says firmly and, next to him, Ethan snorts loudly. "What?"
"Just get him a rum and coke," Ethan advises.
Geno's face does that thing again, sadness fluttering across his eyes and casting its shadows into his smile, until he visibly forces it away. "Yes, okay."
Sidney frowns after him until Mia kicks him under the table and says, "Sidney."
He sighs and looks up to see all four of them staring at him intently. "What?"
"You don't have friends," Ethan says bluntly.
"Hey," Carlos says, raising his hands and giving Ethan a look. "What he means, Sidney, is that you don't have friends who aren't from around here. You said he was visiting? Did you know him back in Canada?"
"No," Sidney says, frowning. "I just met him this week."
"This week?" Mia asks in disbelief. "Really?"
"Ask Olivia, if you don't believe me," Sidney says, irritated. "He's a nice guy, is all."
Mia opens her mouth to say something else. Carlos touches her hand and says, "I'm glad you are making friends, Sidney."
"Me too," Aiden says lazily. He raises his now-empty bottle in a salute. "Mazel tov."
"Is this why you've been so perky this week?" Ethan asks Sidney suspiciously, and Sidney decides it's a good time to go see if Geno needs helps with the drinks.
"Hello," Geno says when Sidney joins him at the bar. "Something wrong?"
"My friends are jerks," Sidney says. "I have friends."
"Aww," Geno says, reaching out to ruffle Sidney's hair. Sidney ducks, batting at his arm. "Is okay, I like you anyway."
Sidney sighs and says, "Yeah, for some reason."
Geno frowns at him, but is distracted by Ted telling him the price of the drinks. Geno hands over a wad of cash – and Jesus, Sidney has never seen anyone carry that much cash around except in, like, movies about drug dealers – before shoving some of the drinks at Sidney.
"Help carry," he commands, and Sidney does.
Back at the table, they've moved on to discussing Mia's kids, who are just now in first grade and apparently have made enemies of the other, bizarrely coincidental set of twins in their year. "It's terrible," Mia sighs, taking her beer from Geno with a thankful smile. "It's like The Parent Trap level of pranks."
"What is this?" Sidney asks when Geno hands him a drink that is dark on top and pale on the bottom.
"Dark and Stormy," Geno says carefully. "Rum and ginger ale."
Sidney eyes it dubiously, then shrugs. "Okay."
Geno smile and says, "Not vodka but still good," and sits down next to Sidney.
It is good, and Sidney drinks two more before he decides he probably should stop, his face pleasantly warm and his hands tingling. Geno looks almost completely normal, even though he's had nearly twice as much to drink as Sidney, but when Sidney looks closer, he sees that Geno's eyes are a little glassy.
The others are arguing about baseball again, so Sidney leans into Geno and says, "Thank you for coming out."
"It is fun!" Geno says. "I like your friends."
"They're not bad," Sidney agrees. "Sometimes they're even okay."
Geno laughs and has started to say something else when his phone rings. He makes a face and says, "Sorry," before slipping out of his seat and heading for the door.
Sidney waits a full five minutes before giving into temptation and following Geno outside. Ethan yells something mocking after him, but Sidney ignores him.
Geno is still on the phone, talking very quickly and emphatically in Russian. Sidney lingers in the doorway to the bar, waiting for Geno to turn around and see him until he just gives up and clears his throat.
Geno spins around, looking hunted. "Oh," he says, and then he says something into the phone before hanging up. "Sorry."
"Are you okay?" Sidney asks, moving towards him. "That sounded angry."
"Yes, I am fine, only –" Geno sighs. "I go back to Russia tomorrow. Should not have stayed here so long."
Sidney frowns and sways forward. "No," he says, insistent. "No, stay."
"I have to go home, visit parents," Geno says. "They forget what I look like."
"You can't leave," Sidney says. "You only just – we've barely had any time together."
Geno shakes his head. "Sid, I only mean to come for a week. I stay longer because of you."
Sidney flushes hot at that. "You'll come back then? To visit?"
Geno stares at him, eyes huge. "I don't know," he says slowly, "I have work –"
"You have to come back," Sidney says.
"You are happy, yes?" Geno asks, somewhat desperately. "Sid, you don't need me –"
"I'm happier with you here," Sidney says, reckless. "I like you here. And I don't like new things."
"Sid," Geno sighs, and that's it, that's the final straw for Sidney because, outside of his family, only Geno calls him that and Sidney likes it that way, likes that Geno has a private name for him. So Sidney throws caution out the window, reminds himself that Geno is going to Russia anyway, and takes three steps forward to press his mouth to Geno's in a clumsy kiss.
Geno's mouth opens beneath his, his hands coming up to cup Sidney's elbows, and Sidney sighs, relaxing a little. Geno isn't quite kissing him back, but he isn't pushing Sidney away either, and Sidney is going to take as much as Geno will give him right now.
And then Geno's hands slide around to Sidney's back and he pulls Sidney in, shifting a little until Sidney opens up to him, the kiss turning dirty and messy. Geno is breathing raggedly by the time Sidney pulls back, and he blinks heavily at Sidney before managing to say, "Not fair, Sid."
"Don't leave," Sidney says, clutching at Geno's shirt. "Please."
"I have to," Geno says. "But I – I will come back. And here." He takes his phone out of his pocket and hands it to Sidney. "Your number. I will text."
Sidney puts in his number, messing up twice because he can feel Geno watching him. He hands the phone back and says, "I wish you could stay longer."
Geno gives him a pained look, his mouth twisting in a strained smile. "Sid," he says, voice quiet, and Sidney has to kiss him again, just to let himself have a little more of what he hadn't allowed himself to think about over the past week. Geno cards his hand through Sidney's hair and cups his jaw, warm and steady.
"I will come back," Geno says. "Take you on date."
"We've been eating together all week," Sidney points out. "You know more about me than anyone."
Geno's eyes slip away from his, and Sidney wonders how he keeps managing to say the exact wrong thing, the one thing that will make Geno suddenly withdrawn and sad again. "I know, yes. But they not real dates, Sid."
"I like that you call me that," Sidney says, pressing close.
Geno kisses the corner of Sidney's mouth, light and fleeting. "I go now. Have to pack."
"Call," Sidney says. "Promise."
Geno reaches out to catch Sidney's hand in his and squeezes, hard enough to bruise. "Promise."
He doesn't hear from Geno all that much, just the occasional text that is strangely cryptic – Dog happy ))))) – and a call every so often that is short and unrevealing. They don't talk about the kiss, or Geno's promise to come back. Sidney doesn't want to press too hard, so he tries to tamp down his loneliness, never as bothersome as it is now. He eats his lunches and dinners alone, trying not to look too morose when Olivia or someone walks by, but he's sure he isn't fooling anyone.
"Did he say how long he would be in Russia?" Ethan asks during one incredibly boring day at work.
Sidney leans back so Nat can crawl onto his chest like she clearly wants and shakes his head. "No. And besides, he lives in Pennsylvania, he was only here on vacation."
"Hm," says Ethan thoughtfully.
That night, Sidney is checking his email (all junk aside from one family update from his father) when he sees an ad for Rosetta Stone. He frowns and clicks on it.
"Jesus Christ," he says involuntarily when he sees the price. He scratches his neck and looks around his house; it's not really like he has anything better to do with his time, he reasons, and learning new languages is probably good for his head (he makes a note to check with his doctor about that) and, well, he has a tidy nest egg tucked away for some distant, hazy future. It can take a small dent.
"This is crazy," he says, and he closes the window.
And then he opens it again and clicks buy before he can regret it. He sighs, drops his head into his hands as the order processes, and figures that at least it will give him something to do.
He's pretty awful at first; he can't keep a consistent accent and staring at Cyrillic kind of gives him a headache when he tries to make sense of it, but he keeps at it. He practices at work with clumsily written flashcards and ignores the knowing looks he gets from his coworkers.
Geno calls him at the end of the week, sounding tired, and Sidney talks to him a little about how Olivia has been painting these weird abstracts lately, and Geno talks about how much he's missed Russian food, and then Sidney says shyly, "I've been learning Russian."
Geno goes very quiet, his breathing speeding up. After a moment, he clears his throat. "Yes? You try?"
"привет," Sidney says, carefully forming the consonants. Geno makes a soft noise and, worried, Sidney asks, "Did I say it wrong?"
"No," Geno says. "No, you say it just right." He sounds weird now, and Sidney wishes, not for the first time, that he could see Geno's face.
He doesn't try using Russian on Geno again, but he keeps learning it because it's become routine now. He isn't sure that he's actually learning anything that will stick, but he can fumble out something resembling a sentence at times.
Summer turns into the first blush of autumn, and the fire department is tasked with keeping a vigilant eye out for the potential fire hazards of leaves and dead branches. Sidney likes this time of year, both in Oregon and back home, when the first crisp chill of winter is creeping in. The trees are gorgeous, too, and Olivia's paintings turn to oranges and reds.
Geno's calls diminish in frequency, but his texts pick up, now telling jokes about working and talking about people he works with. Sidney calls him, just once, and catches Geno on a night out. He has to nearly shout so Geno can hear him.
"Oh!" Geno says, and someone in the background yells, "Who is it, G?"
"No one!" Geno shouts back, and he must go somewhere else because suddenly the background noise is muted. "Sorry."
"I'm no one?" Sidney asks, trying for teasing and coming off more hurt.
"No, I not mean – they nosy." Geno huffs out a sigh. "Sorry. Don't want them to ask nosy question."
"Okay." Sidney scratches the back of his neck and wonders why he had thought this was a good idea. "I – you said you would come back?"
"I know," Geno says. "I'm sorry, very busy. But – I think, maybe in winter? I have some time."
"Okay," Sidney says. "I mean, I'm going home for Christmas – but yes. I'll be here."
"I will call. Promise." Sidney can hear the smile in the warmth of Geno's s, and closes his eyes so he can picture it more clearly. "Sorry, Sid – they will come for me if I stay –"
"Go," Sidney says. "I just wanted to talk to you."
He listens to the sound of the – bar? party? for a moment. Then Geno says, soft and surprisingly heartfelt, his voice cracking, "I miss you."
Sidney swallows. "You too."
"Bye," Geno says, still soft, and the line goes dead.
Sidney sits down on his couch and stares sightlessly at the city painting Olivia had given him. This, this is why he never wanted to try for a relationship – this heavy-heart feeling, like he might burst with emotions he can't express.
"This isn't even that cold," he tells her, smirking at her thick, fuzzy sweater and black beanie. She scowls at him and tucks a strand of her hair – frosty blue now, in deference to the season – behind her ear.
"I'm from Louisiana," she points out, stomping her way to the door of the diner so she can start her shift. "And my heating's out."
"You haven't lived there in years." Sidney hurries up and holds the door open for her. She gives him an amused smile but heads inside anyway. "Do you want me to take a look at your heating? I might be able to help."
"You think?" she asks, unwinding her scarf. "It's not the same as fire alarms, you know."
Sidney shrugs. "I'll look at it, at the very least."
She laughs at him openly and shoves him towards his booth. "I'll bring you your food in a few."
Sidney's phone rings a little after he starts eating, and he frowns when he sees that it's his parents. He answers it, conscientiously putting down his fork because his mother can sense him talking with his mouth full from miles away, and says, "Hello?"
"Sidney, darling," his mom says. "I hope I haven't caught you at a bad time."
"I'm just eating dinner," Sidney says. "What's going on?"
"Well, your father and I were talking about Christmas, and we thought we'd come out to you instead of you coming home," she says, sounding hopeful. "We haven't seen your new place since you moved."
"I haven't been home, either," Sidney points out. "You don't want me to come home?" He means it to be teasing, but it slips out more plaintively than he intends.
"Oh, you know," she says. "Last Christmas you were still settling in and –" She makes a noise that he assumes refers to the accident. "Speaking of which, have you seen your doctor?"
"I have my check-in next month," Sidney says. "But Mom – you really want to come out here for Christmas?"
"I just thought it might be nice," she says. "You do have room for us, yes?"
"I do," Sidney says. "Okay. Sounds great." He hangs up after saying his goodbyes and sits, staring at his phone and trying to figure out why he's feeling so weird.
He talks to Geno a few days later and mentions his family coming; Geno makes a weird noise and Sidney says, "Oh, did you want to meet them?"
"No," Geno blurts out, and Sidney recoils involuntarily, hand tightening on his phone. "I – no, I am busy. Sorry. I not mean –" He devolves into Russian too fast and too advanced for Sidney to follow. "Sorry," he repeats.
"It's all right," Sidney says. He picks at the hem of his jeans. "I know it's, uh, weird, but I – thought I should ask. And stuff. You don't have to meet them if you don't want to. It's not a big deal."
Except that it is, really. Sidney wants the important people in his life to know each other and be friends; somehow, that seems absolutely vital. And he likes Geno, and he wants to know what Taylor thinks of him, wants to know if Geno will get along with his parents.
It hurts a little that Geno doesn't seem to want to know that too.
"Just, soon, right?" Geno says awkwardly. "And, busy. But I try to come later?"
"Sure," Sidney says. He makes up an excuse to hang up and goes upstairs to lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. He manages to lie there for about ten minutes before restlessness settles in, and he sighs, getting up and digging up warm clothes.
It's a bit of a walk to the fire station from his house, and the temperature has dropped enough that he wishes he had put on thicker socks. He isn't exactly sure what he's going to do once he gets there, but he just can't stand looking at the walls of his house anymore.
The fire station is a little eerie at night, lit only by the emergency exit signs. Sidney doesn't turn on the lights, though, just looks around and lets out a low, trembling sigh.
He sits down at his chair and is about to close his eyes when he hears a soft mew.
They turn the heating off at the fire station at night, and Sidney had made Nat an insulated bed to sleep in, but it's still chilly and she looks distinctly unhappy when he goes to look for her. She lets out a plaintive yowl when he kneels down next to her and butts her head into his chest. He lifts her out and settles her into his arms.
"Hey," he whispers, scratching her ears. "It's cold, eh?"
She huddles into him, tucking her head under his chin, and he carefully slips her inside his coat, keeping her as cozy as he can. He isn't sure that his house is actually prepared for a cat, but he can put her in a box for the night and pick up litter and food in the morning.
Except that when he does get back to his house, he can't bear to put her in a box and instead lets her curl up on the other pillow, her green eyes watching him as he goes about getting ready to sleep. He slips into bed and says, "Night, Nat," and closes his eyes.
He has to drive two hours to get to his doctor's office, which is made all the worse by the fact that he doesn't really want to go. The cold makes his leg stiff and achy, although it's not nearly as bad as it had been the year before, and though he hasn't had any headaches or dizzy spells in ages, he knows she'll be dismayed by his progress.
Sidney absently flips through a magazine while he waits, thinking about what he's going to buy Taylor for Christmas, and jerks up when the nurse comes out and calls, "Sidney Forbes?"
He gets up, wincing at his leg, and follows her back to do all the preliminary tests. She pronounces his blood pressure excellent and asks him about how low his heart rate is, nodding when he says that he runs.
"You have an athlete's heart," she says cheerfully. "It's a good sign." She marks it down in his chart and goes to get his primary doctor.
For as much as Sidney hates going to the doctor, he likes Dr. Owens, even if she does click her tongue disapprovingly at every check-up when she looks at his leg. This time is no different, although she does admit that she's pleased with his improved reflexes and mobility.
"It's looking better," she says. "Just be sure to stretch when you run and don't put unnecessary stress on it." She settles back in her seat. "And how's your head?"
Sidney sighs. "It's fine. No headaches."
"And your memory?" she prompts.
"Nothing new," he says, more snappishly than he means to.
"That's fine," she says. "Completely normal. Don't worry about it. But if you do remember anything –"
"Call you, I know." Sidney gets up, suddenly anxious to leave. "Can I go now?"
Dr. Owens sighs. "Yes. Back in three months?"
Olivia, who has an uncanny memory for dates, gives Sidney a piece of pie with his dinner and won't let him say no, insisting that it's diner policy to give free pie to people when they come back from the doctors.
"No it isn't!" he tries to say, and she shoves a forkful of pie into his mouth.
His family arrives in town a week later, exhausted from the plane and subsequent car journey. "Did you really have to move out to the middle of nowhere?" Taylor gripes, dropping her bag unceremoniously in Sidney's front hall before giving him a huge, bone-crushing hug. She's as tall as him, now, and it's weird not to have to look down at her.
"You look so grown up," he says, wistful. Her smile turns sad, and she cups his cheek for a moment before moving aside to let their parents past.
Taylor, of course, takes to Nat instantly and parades around the house with Nat perched on her shoulder like a large, furry parrot. His mother fusses about him having a cat when, she claims, he can barely feed himself, but she's quickly won over when he tells her about rescuing her from a fire out in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town.
"The poor thing," she says, just like Sidney had known she would.
Taylor complains at him about the undecorated state of his house, which results in Sidney and his dad traipsing out to the woods to find a small enough tree to bring back. Sidney doesn't have any ornaments either, so they spend one night making chains out of construction paper Sidney begs off the elementary school and popcorn balls.
"There," Sidney's mom says when they've decorated the whole tree. "That's better, don't you think?"
"It looks great," Sidney says quietly.
Christmas is a quiet affair, just small presents for each other followed by a home-cooked meal. Sidney plays cards with Taylor and ignores his phone when it buzzes with a text.
He does check it before he goes to sleep, though, and sees, Merry xmas sid ))))
Sidney stares at it for a long time, until the screen goes dim and his eyes are watering from the light. He slips his phone under his pillow and closes his eyes. Nat settles over his legs, mewing quietly, and Sidney smiles.
His family leaves two days later, leaving his house very quiet and still. He hibernates in his room with Nat to stave off loneliness until Ethan and Mia show up at his house and bodily drag him out to the bar. "You can't just stay in your house forever," Mia says as they frogmarch him to the door.
"It's New Year's Eve," Ethan adds. "You need to go out."
Sidney sighs, but resigns himself to the inevitable. "Let me grab a coat, at least?"
The bar is crowded with people, roughly half the town's adults squeezed in together, cheering and laughing and drinking champagne. Olivia cheers when she sees him and drags him into a hug before shoving a champagne flute into his hand.
"Cheer up, Sidney!" she says, squeezing his side, and he forces himself to not squirm away.
He exiles himself to a corner to watch the Times Square celebration on the bar's TVs and drink champagne and whatever beer people push at him. He pulls out his phone, just to look, and sees no missed messages. He purses his lips and then downs the rest of his beer before getting up.
"Are you leaving?" Olivia asks as he passes her. "Sidney!"
"I'm tired," he lies. "Just want to lie down."
"But it's almost midnight!" She grabs his arm and squeezes gently. "Come on, just stay until midnight."
He just shakes his head, swallowing hard against the bitter taste of rye at the back of his throat. Olivia seems to see something in his expression, because she nods and releases his arm. Sidney gives her a half-hearted smile and starts to fight his way back towards the door, apologizing when he steps on people.
"Sidney!" someone yells – he thinks it's Ethan – but he ignores them, focused on the open door. He gently nudges aside Ian, the second grade teacher, as they start to count down, loud and drunkenly excited. Sidney makes a face and rubs at his temple.
He thinks he can hear someone calling his name again, but it's hard to tell over the loud chorus of numbers. Sidney shakes his head and finally manages to break free of the crowd, taking a gasping breath and steadying himself on a table.
"Sid!" he hears and he's turning before he has fully registered the nickname, the one that only one person uses. Geno is fighting his way through the press of people, using his superior height to clear a path. "Sid, wait!"
Sidney holds onto the table, knuckles going white, and Geno comes to a stop in front of him, licking his lips nervously as he stares at Sidney.
Neither of them says anything for a moment. Then Geno coughs, offers a small smile, and says, "Hi."
"Hi," Sidney says dumbly. "You're here."
"I promise," Geno says. On the TVs behind him, the ball finishes its slow drop, and the bar bursts into raucous cheers. Sidney bites his lip and then nods.
"Okay," he says.
Geno smiles for real then, that blinding smile that makes Sidney's fingers twitch. "Happy New Year, Sid," he says.
"Happy New Year," Sidney says, and he smiles back.
Sidney looks straight ahead. "I'm fine."
"Really?" Geno sighs. "Sid, I not mean to make you mad, about not meeting your family. I just – it make me nervous, you see?"
"Sure," Sidney says.
"Sid, look at me," Geno says, voice coming out snappy, and Sidney turns. "I am sorry."
"I know," Sidney says. He reaches out and touches Geno's elbow. "Thank you. For coming out."
"I can stay only a few days," Geno warns. "But I tell you I take you on a date. Do you still want?"
Sidney shrugs, aiming for casual even as his heart rate speeds up. "Sure."
Geno beams. "Good." He wraps an arm around Sidney's shoulders and squeezes. "Now, sleep. Plane ride very long."
Sidney sets Geno up in the guest bedroom and is about to leave when he's struck with the sudden urge to say, "спокойной ночи, Geno."
Geno stares at him, and his face – crumples, and Sidney is at his side in an instant, apologizing frantically. "Sorry, did I say it wrong? Oh god, Geno –"
"Sid say it perfectly," Geno says, turning his face away from Sidney. "You been working hard."
"Yes," Sidney says. "Not in a while, but – yes."
Geno nods. Sidney wishes he could see more of Geno's face than the line of his cheek, but he wants to respect Geno's space, too, to let him come to Sidney in his own time. He lays his hand over Geno's and waits.
"I miss you," Geno says when he looks back at Sidney, eyes a little damp. He turns his hand palm up beneath Sidney's and laces their fingers together. He lifts Sidney's hand to his lips and closes his eyes, tension running out of his shoulder.
"I'm right here," Sidney says. "Right here."
They sit like that for a few minutes before Geno lets out a noisy sigh and releases Sidney's hand. He smiles, tremulous and not quite solid, and says, "Thanks."
Sidney nods and gets to his feet. He chews at his lower lip for a moment before giving into his curiosity. "Are you all right? There isn't – something going on with you?"
"Fine now," says Geno. "Miss – home."
It's obvious, even to Sidney, that he's not really telling the whole truth, but he doesn't know how to press and he doesn't want to, either. So he just nods and leaves the room, shutting the door behind him. Nat comes padding down the hallway towards him and twines between his legs as he goes into his own bedroom.
"We're going to have a guest for a few days," he tells her as she jumps onto the bed. She meows curiously, tail twitching, and he nods. "We'll see how it goes."
"She isn't really house-trained," Sidney says. "And I don't cook much."
"Cute," Geno says, reaching out to scratch Nat's ears. "Didn't know you had a cat."
"I kind of kidnapped her from the fire department," Sidney admits. "We found her in the spring, so we didn't realize that we weren't really outfitted for her to stay when it's this cold."
Geno snorts. "This isn't cold." He turns back to the stove. "In Russia, breath freeze and fall to the ground in winter."
Sidney rolls his eyes affectionately. "I'm sure." He sets Nat back on the floor and says, "Now, don't bother Geno, Nat."
Nat meows and settles directly over Sidney's foot.
"Much better," Geno says serenely, giving Sidney a sweet smile. Sidney nearly swallows his tongue and sits down heavily on one of his stools while Geno finishes making breakfast.
"I had a cat," Geno says, setting the plates down. "I rescue her from backyard. Skinny thing." He gestures with his hands. "I name her Dixi."
"We rescued Nat, too," Sidney says. Nat, hearing her name, looks up and paws at Sidney's leg. He smiles and helps her up onto his lap. "You still have Dixi?"
"She died," Geno says. "She got sick." He picks up his fork. "Long time ago now."
"Sorry." Sidney pokes at his eggs. "So how long are you going to be in town?"
"Four days." Geno rubs his ankle against Sidney's, watching him carefully. "Forgive me for before?"
"I do," Sidney says. He feeds Nat a torn-off piece of toast and sighs. "I just – I like you, Geno. I thought you felt the same."
"I do," Geno says. "It is –" He gestures vaguely, making a pained face. "Complicated."
"Are you married or something?" Sidney asks.
Geno laughs. "No. No girlfriend or boyfriend either. So we can have date tonight, like I promise," Geno says. "I'll find a restaurant for us."
Sidney feels himself turn red, and he hurriedly turns to his breakfast so he doesn't have to look at Geno's giant grin.
Mia has her head down on her desk when Sidney comes into the fire station, and Ethan is lying on the couch looking pale and sweaty. Sidney smirks a little and settles down at his seat. "Carlos and Aiden not here?"
"They called in sick," Mia says into her arms. "No one better have a fire today, is all I'm saying."
Sidney takes pity on them and makes coffee. Mia thanks him before she puts her head back on her arms and, to all appearances, goes to sleep. Sidney smiles, feeling vaguely superior.
Geno comes to the station around five, looking hesitant. "Hi," he says, waving at Ethan and Mia. "Sid," he adds. "I found a place."
"Do I need to dress up?" Sidney asks doubtfully, looking down at his jeans.
"No. Perfect," Geno says, and Ethan makes a gagging noise from behind them.
Sidney turns to glare at him. Geno takes Sidney's hand and starts tugging him towards the door. "Don't be a jerk," Sidney calls to Ethan. "Or I'm making you do the next school trip on your own."
"Liar, you love those school trips," Ethan says. Sidney shakes his head and lets Geno tow him outside.
"So where are we going?" Sidney asks as Geno leads him to a rental car.
"Somewhere special," Geno says.
The car smells like diner food and pie, and Sidney tries to look into the backseat until Geno pushes his face away. "Geno!"
"It's a surprise," Geno says stubbornly.
"I can smell the food. It's from the diner." Sidney crosses his arms, suppressing a smile. "I can tell."
"Then you don't need to look." Geno starts driving, navigating carefully on the no-longer icy roads. It's been warm lately, and the worst of the ice has melted and turned the side of the roads muddy and damp. Sidney hates this part of winter, when it starts to warm and fade away. He unrolls the window anyway, closing his eyes and leaning his head out the window so the breeze can run through his hair.
"Okay, we here," Geno says sometime later, and Sidney opens his eyes to see them parked at the edge of a half-thawed lake. "I think it very pretty." He gives Sidney a worried look. "Okay?"
"Perfect," Sidney says. He reaches out to squeeze Geno's hand and opens the door. "Where are we going to eat?"
"On the car?" suggests Geno. He grabs the bag of food and circles around to join Sidney. "Ground too wet, I think."
"Okay." Sidney pushes himself up onto the hood of Geno's car and looks out over the lake. "This reminds me of home."
"Yes," Geno says. "For me also."
Sidney looks over and waits for Geno to continue. Geno smiles a little and opens the bag. "I grow up in a small city in Russia," he says. "Magnitogorsk."
Sidney tries to repeat it back, and Geno laughs. "Shut up," Sidney says, poking him. "I tried."
"Yes," Geno agrees. "Magnitogorsk is, how you say, industrial city?" He pronounces industrial carefully, frowning, and Sidney nods. "Yes. I had choice of working in factory, but –" He laughs. "No patience for that kind of work." Geno pokes at his sandwich. "I love Russia, but there was nothing for me."
"I'm sorry," Sidney says. He picks up his food. "I miss Canada, you know. Especially the winters." He smiles self-deprecatingly. "Weird, right?"
"No," Geno says. "Not weird at all." He looks sad, suddenly, and Sidney wishes he hadn't mentioned it.
They eat dinner quietly, both of them looking out over the lake and lost in their own thoughts. After a while, Geno laughs and says, "This not a very good date, is it?"
"What?" Sidney asks. "It's great!"
"No, I'm too –" Geno makes a face. "I always feel sad now, because Christmas. Miss home, you know?"
"I haven't been home in more than two years," Sidney says. "It's not much of a place, but I still – I want to see if things have changed."
"I always hope they still same," Geno says. He reaches into the bag and pulls out a container. "I get pie from Olivia. She says it your favorite."
Sidney smiles and accepts a fork from Geno. Geno scoots towards him and balances the container on his knee so they can both reach it. Sidney leans against him and hesitantly rests his head on Geno's shoulder. Geno lets out a breath and nudges the pie more towards Sidney.
They clean up together, shoving their trash into the plastic bag from the diner, and Geno puts it in the trunk with a guilty smile. Sidney grins at him and carefully laces their fingers together. "This was nice. Thank you."
"You deserve better," Geno says.
"That's not what I want." Sidney takes a deep breath and looks up at Geno. "I like you."
Geno makes a face. "You deserve better," he repeats, and then he kisses Sidney.
Sidney lets out a tiny sigh and hooks his other hand in the lapels of Geno's jacket. Geno pushes Sidney back against the car, leg slotting in between Sidney's thighs, and Sidney arches into him.
They end up in the backseat of the car, curled up uncomfortably against each other in the too-small confines of the rental. Geno starts laughing against Sidney's mouth and says, "I feel like dumb kid."
"I never really did dumb kid things," Sidney says.
"I know," Geno murmurs, hand curved around Sidney's jaw. He eases back and smiles sheepishly. "Sorry."
"Don't be sorry," Sidney says. "Come on, let's go home."
"I am never going to make this work, am I?" Sidney asks her, and she jumps off the couch onto his shoulder. "Thanks, Nat."
She noses his ear and then drapes herself along the back of his neck. He scratches her head and heads for his bedroom, feeling stupid. He should know better, really.
In the morning, he once again wakes to the smell of food and Nat settled on his chest. He lifts her off him and goes downstairs to find Geno making, of all things, pancakes.
"Oh, I don't really eat –" Sidney starts.
"Special occasion," Geno says. "Want to say sorry."
"Sorry?" Sidney asks hesitantly. "Sorry for what?"
"I shouldn't have –" Geno makes a face. "I like you, Sid, but this was bad idea."
"What was a bad idea?" Sidney edges towards him. "Dating?"
"Yes," Geno says. "I just promise I take you on date, I – I'm not a good date, Sid. Things are complicated."
"You've said that," says Sidney. "You just won't explain why."
Geno looks down at the skillet of pancakes. "I can't, Sid."
"I can't," Geno snaps, hitting the counter. Sidney starts back a step. "Don't ask, Sid."
Sidney sits down heavily and watches Geno move around the kitchen, stomach twisting in knots. "So," he says slowly. "Are you leaving?"
Geno nods. "Today."
"I –" Sidney lets out a slow, shuddering sigh. "You shouldn't have come back."
"I know," Geno says, worrying at his lower lip. "Sid –"
"I'm going for a run," Sidney says, and he bolts out of the kitchen.
He runs and he runs, until his lungs are burning and his legs ache and his knee is shooting pain up his thigh. He pulls up to a stop on the outskirts of the town and rests with his hands on his knees, staring blindly out at the early morning sky. It's a little cold without a jacket, but Sidney doesn't care. He's shaking with rage, and his eyes are itching weirdly. He rubs at them furiously and turns back to trudge back home.
His knee is killing him by the time he gets back to the house and he stumbles inside, heading straight for the freezer to dig out some frozen peas. He's sitting on one of his stools when he hears, "Sid?"
Sidney groans. "I thought you left."
"About to," Geno admits, coming into the kitchen. "You okay?"
Sidney lifts the peas and Geno lets out a hiss, taking a step forward to touch the thick scar tissue. "It isn't that bad," Sidney says, even though he can see how red and awful it looks. "I had an accident, about two years ago." Geno tenses, fingers going still on the scar above Sidney's knee. "That's where the scars are from. They had to do a lot of surgery on my leg – I had to do a lot of physical therapy to get back in shape for the fire department."
"Sorry," Geno murmurs.
"I don't really remember it," Sidney admits. "There are a lot of things I don't remember. They say that's normal, though."
"Still sorry," he says, and his voice sounds thick and a little hoarse. He clears his throat. "Come on, Sid, sit on couch. Use cushion."
Sidney tries to push Geno off him, but Geno won't let him. Finally, Sidney lets out a sigh and allows Geno to help him into the living room. Geno settles him on the couch and hovers anxiously. "You gonna be okay?"
"I'm fine," Sidney says. "You should go." He turns his head so he won't have to look at Geno and wishes that he had a TV.
"Sid," Geno says heavily, "we are friends, yes?"
"If you say so." Sidney looks up at him. "I thought we were."
"This isn't –" Geno gestures between the two of them. "It isn't because I don't like you. It just – not fair to you."
"I thought you were leaving," Sidney says coolly, crossing his arms.
Geno droops a little. "Yes." He hesitates, mouth turned down unhappily. "You will be okay?"
"Yes," Sidney says without conviction. "Goodbye, Geno."
"Bye, Sid," Geno says softly. He leaves the room. Sidney closes his eyes and, a few minutes later, hears the sound of Geno coming down the stairs, suitcase thudding behind him. The front door slams, and Sidney lets out a long, broken breath, before curling up onto his side, his chest tight.
Sidney shrugs, pushing his salad around his plate disinterestedly. "Just said it was complicated."
"That's not an answer," she says, rolling her eyes. She steals a fry off his plate – he had forgone his usual meal in favor of a self-indulgent burger and fries – and taps it idly against her mouth. "Do you think he's mixed up in something bad?"
"I don't know," Sidney sighs. "I wish – I wish he hadn't come back." He makes a face. "I kind of feel like I forced him to. I made him promise."
"He wouldn't have come back if he didn't want to." Olivia eats her fry and leans forward. "But he never did tell you what he did, did he? Maybe he's in the mafia!"
"Maybe he's a completely normal guy," Sidney shoots back.
"Or a spy," Olivia says eagerly. "He was here to do reconnaissance."
"Who would he be spying on here?" Sidney asks incredulously. "The very dangerous Mikaela and her spy fortress cunningly disguised as a bed and breakfast?"
"Okay, point." Olivia sighs and reaches out to squeeze his fingers. "Well, good riddance, right?"
"Yeah." Sidney lets her touch him for thirty seconds more before pulling his hand back as politely as possible. "I guess."
Except that getting over it proves more difficult than Sidney had hoped.
His life in Pine Hollow has always been fairly mundane, and he's fine with that. He likes it when life is routine and predictable and Geno had ruined all of that and now he's ruined it all over again and Sidney just can't seem to get his life back to what it used to be.
He still takes care of Nat, having gotten used to having her in his space, and he Skypes with his family when he has time, and Olivia starts trying to teach him to paint, although they both agree that he's fairly hopeless. Sidney manages some terrible abstract mostly in pale grays and blues that Olivia hangs up in her house despite the fact that he keeps threatening to burn it.
"It looks pretty here," she says, adjusting it so that it hangs straight. "I like the colors."
"It's awful," Sidney says, glaring at the little black smudges that are meant to be him and Geno. He hasn't told Olivia that, of course, but he had woken up that morning from the fourth in a series of recurring dreams of him and Geno sitting by the edge of that slowly thawing lake and hadn't been able to go back to sleep. He had thought, vaguely, that getting it out should help – though having it on Olivia's wall wasn't part of his plan.
"It's got a certain charm," Olivia says diplomatically before bodily shoving him from the room so he won't try to destroy it with his eyes.
Winter thaws into an early spring, and jobs start picking up again, though they're more of the fire safety check and dog rescue sort than anything else. The count on their whiteboard gets up to 82 Days Since Last Fire (there had been a few during the winter, small electrical malfunctions that were quickly dealt with).
On the 83rd day, Sidney and Carlos are at Mrs. Perry's house dealing with a malfunctioning smoke detector when Sidney's phone buzzes against his hip. He answers it in the front hallway while Carlos puts in a new battery and hears, "Sidney! Sidney, get in the car and get here quick!"
"Mia?" he asks, startled. "What's going on?"
"The B&B is on fire!" she says. "Get down here as soon as you can, get your suits, and help us out."
The line goes dead and Sidney stares blankly at it for a moment before bolting for Mrs. Perry's kitchen.
They arrive at the B&B to find it ablaze, Mia and Aiden standing outside with their old, bedraggled truck and spraying the hoses helplessly up at the upper levels. Sidney clambers out of the car, much more gracefully than Carlos, and heads over to them.
"Where's Ethan?" he asks, raising his voice to be heard. "Mia!"
"He went inside to check that we didn't miss anyone!" she calls back. She jerks her head over to the side and Sidney sees Mikaela and the people who must be staying at the B&B clustered off to the side, watching in horror. "I don't know where he –"
The old building gives a great shudder. Sidney starts back a step and opens his mouth to say something – and then a window on the upper story shatters outward, spewing flames and glass. Mia curses under her breath, eyes going wide.
"I'm going in to get Ethan," Sidney says, and he starts in towards the B&B.
Sidney pushes his way in through the front door, listening carefully. He doesn't hear movement anywhere on the bottom floor, so he readjusts his helmet and goes hunting for Ethan.
He has to watch his step, the wood creaking ominously with every step. He doesn't see any sign of Ethan in the main public rooms or the kitchen, nor any sign of anyone else. Sidney frowns and yells Ethan's name. There's no response.
The stairs bend beneath his feet as he jogs up towards the second storey. The heat is much more intense upstairs, the fire eating away at the outer walls. The air is thick and hazy with smoke and soot, and Sidney tries to bat it away so he can see more clearly. He hurries down the hall, peeking into each room as he passes.
He finds Ethan in a room towards the end of the hall, unconscious and pinned under a fallen wardrobe. The wall behind it has given way and the fire is starting to creep towards them. Sidney swears and crouches down to lift it away, shoulders straining and knee protesting the weight. Ethan doesn't so much as twitch when Sidney manages to shove it off him.
"Ethan!" he yells, shaking his shoulder. "Ethan!"
Ethan lets out a weak moan, but doesn't open his eyes. Sidney groans and pulls Ethan's arm over his shoulders before pulling him upright and heading for the stairs.
The building is making even more dangerous noises now, ones Sidney recognizes as foretelling a collapse. He manages to drag Ethan's limp body down the stairs, apologizing when he bangs Ethan's hand against the railing. He pulls Ethan out into the open air and chances a look back at the B&B. It's nearly glowing from heat, and as he watches, part of the wall on the upper floor caves in.
"Shit," he gasps, and he hoists Ethan over his shoulder, stumbling down the walk to get him onto the stretcher Aiden has hauled out of the back of the truck. Mia, who is the only one of them to have EMT training, hands off her hose to Sidney and leaves to check on Ethan.
They get the fire under control once Sidney is able to help hose the building down, but there's no saving the B&B. Mikaela sits on the hood of Carlos's car, hugging her knees and watching the slowly dying flames lick away at her livelihood. Sidney takes off his helmet and touches her shoulder hesitantly.
"You okay?" he asks her.
"My family has owned that place for four generations," she says, voice very distant. "I was going to leave it to my daughter."
Sidney tries, desperately, to think of something to say – but he can't even imagine losing something that important to his life, not without losing his mind too. So he sits next to her and lets her lean into him until her husband arrives a few minutes later, looking panicked.
Mikaela falls into his arms and starts crying. Sidney backs away and goes to join Mia and Aiden back by the truck. "We're taking Ethan to the hospital," Mia says, catching sight of Sidney. "Carlos is staying behind to take care of the press."
"I'll write the report," Sidney says. "Look after him, okay?"
"We will. Thanks, Sidney." Mia gives him a quick hug and disappears into the truck with Aiden.
Mikaela and her husband give Sidney a ride back to the station, where he changes back into his normal clothes and starts writing the report. Olivia drops by with food and ice for his knee, which is not happy about the strain Sidney had put on it. She gives him a cautious hug before she leaves, and he hugs her back tightly, breathing hard.
"You're okay?" she asks him quietly.
"I wish we could have saved the B&B," he says, resting his head on his hand.
"I know," she says. "Go home, get some sleep. I'll let you know if I hear anything about Ethan."
"Thanks, Olivia." He turns back to the computer and stares at the screen blankly, eyes catching on the words, we were unable to save the building.
He heads home after finishing the report and emailing it to the mayor. He calls his parents to let them know that he's okay, then switches off his phone, changes clothes, and falls into a dead sleep.
He gives up on getting her back to sleep and drags himself downstairs. He's expecting Mia or Olivia or possibly Carlos; he definitely isn't expecting Geno.
Sidney stares at him through the glass, then yanks his door open. Geno nearly falls forward as he makes the motion for another knock before he catches himself on the doorframe. He's wild-eyed and disheveled, his hands shaking as he reaches out to seize the front of Sidney's pajamas.
"Sid," he says, voice rough. "You – you okay?"
"What?" Sidney says. "Geno, what are you doing here?"
"I see, on news," Geno says, checking Sidney over, patting his hands over Sidney's chest. "Fire? They say firefighter got hurt. Not say who. I try calling hospital, they say no Crosbys."
"My name is Forbes, like my mom," Sidney says, but Geno is already pushing past him into his house. "Geno!"
"And I try calling phone, but you not answer," Geno says, sinking down onto Sidney's sofa. "I think – I think –"
Sidney sits down next to him and gingerly rubs his back. "Hey," he says, "hey, I'm all right, I promise. See?"
Geno sighs and turns to tuck his face into Sidney's neck. "Scare me."
"I'm okay, Geno," Sidney says. "I'm okay."
Nat unwinds herself from Sidney's neck and jumps onto his lap before draping herself over Sidney and Geno's knees. Geno laughs, small and hiccupping, and scratches her head. "Yes. You are okay." He takes a deep breath. "Tell me what happen?"
So Sidney does, doing his best to downplay the whole situation – he gets the feeling that Geno will overreact a bit to hearing that Sidney ran into a burning building – and by the time he finishes, Geno is visibly fading, his eyes dropping heavily and his hand slowing on Nat's head. Sidney shakes his shoulder gently and says, "Hey, you should go to bed."
"Yes," Geno says. "I must fly home tomorrow. I just –" He smiles sheepishly. "I thought you got hurt."
"I'm fine," Sidney says again. "I promise, okay? Come on, you can take the guest room."
Geno stumbles along in his wake and sits heavily on the edge of the bed. "So tired," he groans, stripping off his sweater and shirt. "Had to fight for plane."
"How did you get here so quickly?" Sidney asks, picking up Geno's clothes and folding them neatly.
"In Vancouver." Geno kicks off his shoes and stretches. There's an ugly bruise stretching from his left hip, up his ribs, and Sidney lets out an involuntary hiss. "What?"
"That looks bad," Sidney says, nodding to the bruise. "Do you want ice for it?"
"What?" Geno looks down. "Oh. Is not so bad."
"I'm getting ice," Sidney says, and he leaves Geno to take off his pants while he goes to the kitchen.
He wraps an ice pack in a towel and returns to find Geno lying in bed, already mostly asleep. Sidney hands him the ice and watches while Geno presses it to his side, sighing in relief.
"I forget about that bruise," he admits, catching Sidney's gaze. "Thank you."
"How did you get it?" Sidney asks, reaching down to grab Geno's pants. "It looks pretty ugly."
Geno's wallet falls out of the back pocket, and Sidney picks it up while Geno says something about an accident at work. It has fallen open to a plastic photo insert, the kind Sidney is never able to fill, and it wouldn't be remarkable except –
Except Sidney is in the front photo.
Sidney stares at it, breath coming quickly. It's not a photo he recognizes – he looks a few years younger, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two at the most – and what's even stranger is that he's wearing a jersey. A hockey jersey, if the stick in his hand is anything to judge by.
"Sid?" Geno asks. Sidney ignores him and carefully slips his finger in to pull out the photo. It feels real enough, and on the back is written, Sidney Crosby.
"I," Sidney says, and then he sees the yellow card, tucked in behind the photo.
Dear Mario Lemieux, it reads in neat, emotionless print. Sidney Crosby has had his memories of hockey removed. Please never mention this to him again. Thank you. In the bottom right corner, it says, Lacuna INC.
Sidney swallows hard and pulls out the card. His trembling fingers fumble a little, ripping the plastic photo holder. He murmurs an apology distractedly and flips the card over.
Someone has written his address in pencil and added, be careful. Sidney stares at it, nauseated and shaking. He doesn't understand what this means, if this is some kind of elaborate prank or if this is something worse, something even more insidious that he can't comprehend. He slowly turns around to look at Geno, who is sitting up in bed now and looking worried.
"Sid?" he says, and then his gaze drops to Sidney's hands. "Oh."
"Geno," Sidney says, and he's amazed by how steady his voice sounds when he feels like he's tearing apart at the seams. "What is this?"
"Sid," Geno says. "I –"
"What is this?" Sidney snaps, throwing the card and photo at Geno. "Who are you?"
Geno flinches and shifts so that he's facing Sidney. "My name is Evgeni Malkin. I play hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins. And –" He swallows and raises his chin. "You once play for them too."
"What are you saying?" Sidney clenches his hands into fists, trying to keep his breathing steady.
"I say, you remove your memory," Geno says. "You got hurt. Couldn't play."
"And I decided to wipe my memory?" Sidney asks incredulously. "What else do you know about me? You knew this – Crosby, right? That's what you said my last name was."
"Yes," Geno says. "I was your friend." He clenches his hands into fists before glancing up to meet Sidney's eyes. "I thought I never see you again."
There's so much hope and sadness and pain in his eyes that Sidney has to look away, because he isn't this person Geno remembers. He doesn't even watch sports, let alone play them, and he doesn't know a thing about hockey.
Except, clearly, he does.
"I can't – I can't be here," Sidney says, and he turns on his heel, almost running from the room.
He grabs his phone and a pair of shoes before leaving the house. He's poised to call his parents when he realizes, suddenly, that they must know – that of course they know the truth – and nearly throws his phone into a tree in frustration. He calls Olivia instead and apologizes when she answers, saying, "I'm sorry, I just – I need to not be in my house right now."
To her credit, Olivia doesn't ask questions and is waiting for him on the porch when he arrives at her house. "Hi," she says, giving him a hug. "Come on, I'll make us hot chocolate."
Sidney rests his head on his arms while she boils the milk and stares at his lap blankly. "My name," he says quietly, "is Sidney Crosby."
The name tastes strange, but familiar, and he knows, suddenly, that it's true. He had been hoping he could find a way to convince himself that Geno was mistaken somehow, that this was all some crazy coincidence, but he knows he won't.
"Can I use your computer?" Sidney asks Olivia quietly when she sets down a mug of hot chocolate in front of him.
"Sure," Olivia says. "Let me go get it for you. Sit, relax, okay? You look white as a sheet."
Sidney wraps his hands around the warm mug and closes his eyes. He can hear the sound of Olivia moving around the house, and it's reassuringly normal.
Olivia returns a couple of minutes later and sets her laptop down in front of him. "What are you looking up?" she asks.
"Nothing," he mumbles, opening the internet and typing in, Sidney Crosby.
The number of search results nearly cause him to back out. The very first article is titled, Where in the World is Sidney Crosby? which he manages to read two sentences of before getting to after his career-ending hit two years ago.
He rubs at the scar tissue on his knee and forces himself to breathe slowly.
There's a link to a video titled Crosby's Last Game, and he clicks on it even though he really, sincerely does not want to see it. He sees himself, a small figure in a black and gold jersey emblazoned with the number 87, get hit hard by another player who clearly doesn't see him. He has to look away when the little him doesn't get up and listens, chest tight and painful, as the announcers and the crowd fall silent.
"Sidney?" Olivia says quietly, reaching out to him. "What are you watching?"
Sidney closes the window and shuts the computer. "Nothing," he says. "Can I sleep here tonight?"
"Sure," Olivia says. "I'll make up the couch for you."
He sleeps poorly, tossing and turning well into the early morning. He finally gives up around six a.m. and leaves a note for Olivia on the kitchen table before walking home. It's a beautiful spring morning, the air dewy and smelling of fresh earth.
Geno is awake when Sidney lets himself in, looking exhausted still and very bedraggled. "Hello," he says quietly when Sidney walks in.
"Hi," Sidney says.
"I –" Geno makes a strange motion. "I go. We have a game tomorrow."
He starts to move past Sidney, and Sidney bursts out, "I looked myself up."
Geno looks back at him. "Yes?"
"I know you weren't – that I was once who you say I was." Sidney shoves his hands into his pockets. "Why did you come find me?"
Geno smiles. It isn't a very good smile, nor is it a happy one, but there's something like love in it. "To know if you are happy."
"I was," Sidney says.
"I know," Geno says. "I never mean – Sid, I just want to know you are safe, and happy." He shrugs helplessly. "I can leave, never come back."
"No," Sidney says involuntarily. "I – I can't – Geno, I don't know who I am anymore. You've changed everything."
"You are Sidney," Geno says simply. "You are not different, Sid. Fire instead of hockey, but you are still the same."
"So when you kissed me," Sidney says, "was that for me? Or for – for who I was before?"
Geno smiles faintly, and this time it looks more sincere. "Both." He leans forward, slow enough that Sidney could back away if he wanted, and brushes a light kiss over Sidney's cheek. "Bye, Sid. Call, if you need."
Sidney closes his eyes and nods. After a moment, he hears the door open and close, and he lets out a low, shuddery sigh before sinking to the floor and burying his face in his hands. He doesn't move for a long time.
He begins by calling Lacuna, pretending to be a prospective client, and asks, "So the process is irreversible?"
"Yes," the woman on the other end says, sounding distressingly cheerful. "That's why we always carefully interview our clients to be sure they're absolutely sure that this is what they want and that they will be better off without the memories they are removing."
Sidney strokes his hand through Nat's fur absently. "And how do you know that?"
"If they're desperate enough to come to us," she says, "that's a good sign."
His parents are the next call, and he stumbles awkwardly through a highly-edited explanation of how he had found out. His mom spends nearly five minutes crying before she confirms it, saying, "You were so sure, Sidney, you had it all set up before you even told us what you were doing. I don't think you would have said anything if it weren't that you had to tell us."
"Do you think I did the right thing?" Sidney asks.
"Only you can decide that, don't you think?" she says. "I just know that you were so unhappy."
After he hangs up, Sidney strips off his clothes and stands in front of the mirror, cataloging the scars and blemishes he had always brushed off as the ordinary marks a firefighter would acquire over the course of his life. But he looks at them now and compares them to the footage and articles he's managed to find online, touching the scarring on his knee (sixteen hours of surgery, one article had claimed, they'd had to put in a titanium joint), the back of his head (two concussions), the thin, pale scar over his ribs (fell while skating as a kid), and seeing the ghost of who he once was in their faded lines.
He watches video of himself playing games, listening to the announcers talk about his playing style without understanding them. It might as well be someone else, a complete stranger, for all the affinity he feels for the speedy black and gold figure in the low-quality YouTube clips. It's only when he sees the look of unbridled happiness on his own face that he feels a pang of regret. He knows that look – it's how he feels when he's helping out around town or talking to the kids about fire safety.
What's worse are the videos of himself with Geno, the two of them clearly friends and affectionate towards each other, laughing at private jokes and sharing joy in the love of the game, and Sidney feels an absurd sense of jealousy towards his past self for getting to share that with Geno. He watches himself smile, huge and unguarded, and wonders how he could have given up Geno along with everything else.
Taylor is the last one he calls, and she cries too, soft and heartfelt, but she seems happy when she says, "Oh, Sidney, I'm so glad you know."
"Really?" he asks. "You don't wish I'd never found out?"
"I mean –" She pauses thoughtfully. "Maybe it would be better, but I miss talking to you about hockey. Mom and Dad said I shouldn't mention it, and I get that. You never would have known how much you were missing. And that was what you wanted."
"It was?" Sidney asks.
"Yeah." There's a long pause on the other end before Taylor says in a soft whisper, "I was so afraid for you."
"What?" Sidney asks, sitting up. "What do you mean?"
"When you got hurt and they told you that you'd never play again, something broke inside of you. It was like – it was like you were a ghost. You didn't talk to anyone, you barely came out of your house. When you found out about Lacuna, though, you were happy. You wanted to make a fresh start for yourself, somewhere no one would know you. Where you didn't have to be Sidney Crosby, failed hockey superstar." Taylor lets out a wet sigh. "And you were happy. It was – nice, having my brother back."
"Taylor," he murmurs, clutching the phone to his ear. "I'm –"
"Don't apologize," Taylor says fiercely. "You did what you needed to, okay, Sidney?"
"It was selfish," Sidney says.
"You deserved to be selfish." He has never heard his sister sound so firm before, and he realizes, for the first time, that Taylor knows better than him. "You gave your life to that sport. Now you have a new one."
Sidney swallows hard. "I love you, Taylor," he says, slightly choked.
"I love you too, Sidney," she replies, and they sit in silence, listening to each other breathe.
After he hangs up, he finally gives in and goes looking for interviews of just himself, no Geno. He's obviously uncomfortable in most of them, smiling awkwardly and making bad jokes and laughing at himself, but whenever he's asked about hockey, he lights up and starts talking faster. He looks so young, Sidney thinks miserably.
The worst thing he finds, though, is a commercial for Tim Horton's, and watching the hope and amazement on the face of himself at thirteen is too much. He shuts his laptop and sits in the darkness of his living room, shaking a little. He smoothes his hands over his knees and wonders if your heart can break for yourself.
But brooding on things he can't change won't do any good, he reminds himself. He made his choice; now he has to live with it.
He goes to work. He eats at the diner. He visits Ethan in the hospital, bringing him soup from Olivia and flowers from the rest of the town. Ethan thanks him about five times for carrying him out of the burning building, leaving Sidney flushed and embarrassed, but happy despite himself. The town does a collection to help rebuild the B&B, and Sidney pitches in one weekend, helping to lay the tile in the bathrooms. The labor feels good, and he's pleasantly sore afterward.
He's surprised by how much his life doesn't change. When discussing his amnesia with his doctors, he had always imagined that it would be the way it is in movies, that he would wake up one day remembering everything. They had told him not to get his hopes up, but he had always imagined that one day he would remember something. It's almost a relief to know that he never will.
He doesn't discuss it with anyone, though, not even Olivia. Even though his story is clearly well-known in the sports and hockey world, he likes that people in Pine Hollow look at him and see Sidney Forbes, the responsible firefighter who likes kids and adopts cats, not a physically damaged sports star. He isn't sure that they would understand why he wiped his memories – even he finds it hard to imagine erasing that much of his life – and he doesn't want to talk about it. It's just the way it is; there's no changing it.
He does text Geno, though, asking him, When do you have some free time?
2 weeks y?
Come visit, Sidney sends. Need to talk.
A few days later, Geno sends him a snapshot of a travel itinerary. Sidney writes down the dates so he won't forget and starts making a list of things he wants to ask Geno. He thinks it means something that Geno, of everyone from the life he can't remember, is the one who tracked him down. There are a few obvious explanations, of course, but Sidney wants Geno to tell him.
Geno arrives on a gorgeous morning in May, almost a year to the day after he had first shown up in Sidney's life. Sidney is ready for him this time and meets him at the front door to help Geno carry in his bags. Geno smiles in greeting, though it's shy and hesitant. Sidney smiles back as best he can.
"Come in," he says, and he leads Geno inside.
Geno looks odd standing in Sidney's living room, a piece of Sidney's old, unremembered life amidst the fabricated bits and pieces of his new life. Neither of them speak for a moment, just staring at each other. Then Sidney says, "Thank you for coming."
"Glad to, Sid," Geno says. He sets his bag down and bites his lip. "Are you – okay?"
"Actually," Sidney says, "I am." He knows, intellectually, that he should be sadder than he is, but he guess this is what he had intended for himself. No memories of hockey means he can't miss it, not the way he would miss firefighting and Pine Hollow now.
"Good," Geno says. "I was afraid."
Sidney chews his bottom lip for a moment. "Do you want anything to eat?" he asks finally. "Or drink? You can drop your stuff in the guest room –"
Geno grabs Sidney's elbow. "Sid," he says. "It is okay not to be good host. Very weird, this situation."
"Well, let's put your bag in the guest room." Sidney steps away from Geno and picks up the bag. "And we can eat or something."
Geno lets out a quiet huff of laughter. "You are exactly the same."
Sidney bites the inside of his cheek very hard and doesn't look back at Geno.
They eat grapefruit around Sidney's kitchen table, neither of them looking at each other. Sidney has the list of questions he wants to ask Geno tucked into his pocket, but he can't bring himself to take them out. He just wants to enjoy sitting in comfortable silence for a while.
"How have your games gone?" Sidney asks hesitantly when he's finished his grapefruit.
Geno shrugs. "Not bad." He squeezes the remainder of his half into his bowl and lifts it to his mouth, slurping loudly. He beams childishly at Sidney when he's finished. "We get into finals."
"Oh." Sidney frowns. "Should you be here, then?"
"I have a few days," Geno says. "I explain to coach and Mario, they understand."
"I just – I want to know what I was like," Sidney says. "And why you came to look for me."
Geno sighs and starts scraping his spoon along the inside of his bowl. "I already explain why I look for you, Sid."
"Not really," Sidney says. "No one else came, did they? Not even – Mario, he's the one who got the card, isn't he?"
"You tell Mario not to come," Geno says without looking up. "I have to beg him for address."
"But why did you?" Sidney presses. "Geno, what were we to each other?"
Geno meets Sidney's eyes. His mouth has twisted down unhappily, his eyebrows knitted together in a frown. "Friends."
"And that's it?"
"Yes," Geno says. "Promise. I – sometimes, I think, maybe we could have been more, but you never say anything. And then you erase your memory."
"I'm sorry," Sidney says. "I can't imagine that I would have done that if I had known."
"Maybe," Geno says. He leans back in his seat. "Hockey was your life, Sid. After you get hurt, you look like –" Geno frowns and says a Russian word that Sidney doesn't know. "Like, um, Harry Potter?" He waves his hands and sucks in a breath.
"Dementors?" Sidney suggests.
"Yes!" Geno snaps his fingers. "Like they suck out your soul."
Sidney takes a deep breath. There's a sour taste at the back of his throat, and he wants nothing more than to get away and try not to think too much about how completely miserable he must have been. "I should go to work."
"I drive you?" Geno gets to his feet and holds out a hand. "If you want."
"I'd rather walk," Sidney says, shying away from the touch. "Um, thank you, though."
Geno nods and walks him to the door anyway, hovering about a half step behind him. There's an odd moment at the door where Geno looks at him expectantly before laughing sheepishly and saying, "I know it not the right time but –" He holds out his hand. "Before, we used to do good luck handshake."
He shows Sidney, bumping their fists together, and Sidney tries to copy him. He gets it right on the third try, making Geno smile so huge and bright that Sidney smiles back involuntarily. Geno says, "You will get better. We practice."
Sidney flushes and bites his lower lip. "Geno –"
Geno waits, head tilted a little to the side, and Sidney completely loses the thread of his thoughts. There are too many things he wants to say and ask, and he can't marshal his mind into order, so he just says, "I'll see you when I get back from work," and flees.
He had known seeing Geno again would be a strange experience, but he hadn't realized how difficult it would be to push aside the part of him that desperately wants to kiss Geno. And knowing that Geno wants that too, that when Geno sees him, he sees the friend he had been attracted to, does nothing to help with Sidney's roiling confusion. Life, he thinks in annoyance, never used to be this complicated.
He is vague and absent at work despite his best intentions and rushes home once he's done. Geno is reading a book in Russian when Sidney walks into the living room, but he puts it down and smiles.
"Good day?" he asks Sidney.
"All right, I guess." Sidney sits down next to Geno. "I have a lot of questions, you know."
"I am sure," Geno agrees, smile turning wry. "Ask any."
Sidney goes through his mental checklist and picks the one that has been niggling at him the most. "What was your plan for when you came here?"
"Like I say, I want to know if you are happy." Geno starts picking at the loose threads in his jeans, tugging bits of airy fluff away and letting it float out of his fingers. "I want to know if the memory loss – if it was good thing for you."
He pauses for a moment, and when he speaks again, his voice has gone very quiet and low. "When you tell me you erase memory, I was so angry. How can you erase so many years? Of happiness, not just sadness. And me, and your friends. But you were so sad, Sid. And so I want to see if it was the – the right thing to do." Geno reaches out tentatively to graze his fingers along the back of Sidney's knuckles. "And yes. You smile again. I think I never see that smile, after accident."
Sidney closes his eyes so he doesn't have to look at Geno's strange, sad-joyful expression. "Geno," he murmurs.
"I not mean to kiss you," Geno says, sounding sheepish. "I not even mean to talk to you, but you keep talking to me. Can't just ignore you." He raises his hand to Sidney's jaw, turning Sidney's face up towards him, and Sidney's eyes flutter open in surprise. "Can never ignore you."
"You know I'm not the same as – as I once was," Sidney says. "I don't know that I ever could be."
"You not change that much," Geno says. "Before, you think hockey is what make you Sidney Crosby. Yes, that is important, but that is not you. Important things don't change." His smile turns mischievous. "And you still have big ass."
"Hey!" Sidney protests, because he gets enough of that from his coworkers, thank you very much.
"No matter what you do, you always Sidney," Geno presses. "You are loyal to family and friends. You like kids. You – obsess. Like routine. A little shy." He shifts so that their legs are touching, and he bumps his ankle into Sidney's. "And I always like you."
Sidney stares at Geno for a moment, chest rising and falling with his rapid breaths, then surges forward and kisses him inexpertly, too much teeth and not enough tongue. Geno tightens his hand on Sidney's neck and pulls him in, even as he eases the kiss back to something a little less urgent.
"Relax," he murmurs against Sidney's mouth. "Not leaving."
Sidney tries to do as Geno says, but he's been longing for this for months, even when he was angry with Geno. It seems of vital importance that he take what he can now that they have everything out in the open. He tucks his hands underneath the hem of Geno's shirt and closes his eyes.
"I'm glad you came to find me," Sidney says when Geno pulls back. "Even with – with everything, I'm happier with you."
"I should not have," Geno says wryly. "Sometimes, I am selfish."
"It ended up all right." Sidney leans back. "Want to go eat dinner?"
"I – okay," Geno says after a long pause. "Yes."
Olivia does a double take when they walk in together and hisses at Sidney, "Aren't we mad at him?"
"Not anymore," Sidney says before going to claim his usual seat.
They eat mostly in companionable silence, but when Geno finishes his food, he sits looking at Sidney with a strange expression until Sidney says, "What is it?"
"I – know it hard," Geno says slowly, "but – I think, maybe you want to come to a game?"
Sidney makes a face. "Won't that be hard to explain?"
"Maybe," Geno acknowledges. "Probably Mario can think of something."
"Just –" Sidney pokes at the remains of the garden salad that comes with his meal. "I'm pretty sure that – that I picked this place because no one would know me here. I wouldn't have to deal with questions. I could – start over."
"Yes," Geno says.
"Right." Sidney looks up. "But – they'll know who I am, won't they?"
"Yes." Geno sighs. "Not possible, yes. I just think – we are in finals this year. I want my – you to see." He goes slightly red and starts twirling his fork through the remains of his meal.
"I'll watch on my computer," Sidney offers. "If it's important to you, I'll watch."
"Okay," Geno says, and he smiles.
There's an odd tension to the air when they get back to Sidney's house, a sense of expectation. For a moment, Sidney is sure they're going to have a repeat of their date, but then Geno leans in and asks, "Okay?"
Sidney doesn't trust himself to speak normally, so he just nods and closes his eyes when Geno kisses him.
They have to shoo Nat out of the bedroom when they finally manage to get there, Geno's jacket and Sidney's shoes already abandoned out in the hall. She meows pointedly before prancing her way off the bed and heading for the door. Geno laughs, hands rucking up Sidney's shirt, and says, "Cat is spoiled."
"Oh, yes," Sidney says regretfully, and he shuts the door so she won't come back in unexpectedly.
Sidney isn't sure what to expect from sex with Geno – he hasn't had sex of any kind since he moved to Oregon, and he hasn't felt that he is in any way lacking for it – but Geno is patient and willing to go slowly.
"Besides, I still have to play," Geno says, rolling over so that he's mostly straddling Sidney's hips. "Go easy on me, Sid."
Sidney laughs and pulls Geno's hand to his mouth. He kisses the inside of Geno's wrist affectionately, then reaches down to touch Geno's dick.
It's gratifyingly easy to do this with Geno, both of them eager and prone to laughter, and there is none of the awkwardness Sidney had always vaguely expected from sex. Instead, they jerk each other off, hands bumping against each other and breath mingling in the negative space between them, and afterwards, Geno gets a towel to clean up the mess. Sidney unapologetically watches him go, taking in the long, straight lines of Geno's body, broken by the generous curve of his ass.
"Thanks," he says when Geno wipes the come off his stomach.
"Know you don't like mess," Geno murmurs, kissing Sidney's forehead. He lies down next to Sidney, curled up on his side, and stares at him with such intensity that Sidney squirms a little.
"What?" he asks, self-consciously wiping at his face.
"Nothing," Geno says. "Just – glad."
Sidney feels himself turning red and tries to duck his face away, but Geno just puts a finger under his chin and nudges it upward. "Me too," Sidney says.
Geno kisses him again, trails kisses down Sidney's neck and chest before pulling back to trace his fingers along the different scars and marks across Sidney's ribs and sides. When he gets to Sidney's hip and thigh, he pauses for a moment before moving down.
He gently presses his lips to Sidney's knee, his fingers ghosting over the raised lines snaking up Sidney's thigh. Sidney strokes one hand through Geno's hair, trying to get him to move back up, but Geno is too intent on kissing every part of Sidney's body that is scarred, as if he can make the marks vanish just by wishing.
Sidney falls asleep at some point and wakes up a little after midnight to a room lit only by the faint moonlight filtering in through his shutters. Geno is pressed up against Sidney, hand splayed just over Sidney's heart. He wakes up when Sidney tries to slip out from beneath him to go to the bathroom and groggily mutters, "No."
"Just going to the bathroom, don't get up," Sidney says softly. Geno mumbles something under his breath and rolls over onto his stomach.
Sidney brushes his teeth and splashes some water on his face before he puts on his underwear and starts picking up their clothes. Nat is lying just outside his door, and she lets out a little mewl when he passes by. He stoops to stroke her back and carefully pulls her off his socks.
When he returns to his bedroom, the sheet around Geno has drifted down, exposing the hollow of his hip and curve of his ass. Sidney sets the pile of clothes down on his dresser before sitting down next to Geno.
"Sid?" Geno asks, eyes opening to narrow slits. "Come back, sleep."
Sidney eases down next to him and presses his face into Geno's shoulder. Geno grabs his hand and threads their fingers together before tugging Sidney's arm over his waist.
"Go to sleep, Sid," Geno says, voice fading with tiredness, and Sidney does as he's told.
It feels completely self-indulgent – and really, it is – but Geno has to go back to Pittsburgh the next morning. Sidney thinks he's justified in wanting to be a little selfish.
They don't even spend the whole day having sex, regardless of what Mia clearly seems to think from whatever Olivia told her. Instead, Sidney asks Geno about his family, about his life. It's clear that many of them are stories that Geno had told him before, but he seems happy to tell them again. More often than not, he starts laughing halfway through, sending Sidney into giggles.
They eat lunch sitting cross-legged on Sidney's bed even though every fiber of his being winces at the thought of crumbs getting into his sheets, and afterward Geno pushes Sidney back into the sheets and blows him until Sidney's toes are curling and his hands are clenched tightly in Geno's hair.
"I was thinking," Sidney says later when they're doing the dishes together. "Maybe I could come to a game if I stayed in a hotel to watch it?"
Geno dries the plate in his hands with slow, methodical strokes, looking thoughtful. "Or," he says slowly, "could stay at my house."
"Is that – would that be okay?" Sidney asks cautiously.
"Sure. I book you a flight," Geno says. He sets the plate in his hands in Sidney's cupboard and turns to look at him. "Will be nice, having you with me. If we lose, I have you for comfort." He waggles his eyebrows, grinning.
Sidney shoves at his shoulder, flushing red. "Stop. Do you really think that'll work?"
"Yes," Geno says. "Wear hat, no one know it you. And you meet my dog."
"Okay," Sidney says. "Okay." He smiles up at Geno. "I want to be there for you, you know?"
Geno nods and pushes Sidney back against the kitchen. "Appreciate it." He kisses Sidney slowly, cradling his jaw, then pulls back to rest their foreheads together. "Don't have to."
"I know that." Sidney bites his lower lip. "I just – I want us to do this the right way. If you want to."
"Want what?" Geno asks. "You?"
"Yes. If you want to date," Sidney says awkwardly. "Because I'd like that."
"Me too," Geno says softly. He strokes Sidney's cheek affectionately and nods. "Okay. Come to Pittsburgh."
"Okay," Sidney says. He laughs at himself. "I've been saying that a lot."
Geno smiles and kisses him before linking their hands together. "Come. I leave in the morning."
Sidney laughs and lets Geno lead him back to the bedroom.
After, while Geno is in the shower, Sidney goes downstairs to check flights out to Pittsburgh. He's waiting for the ticketing options to load when curiosity gets the better of him and he goes looking for interviews of himself after his hit. He finds a video of himself giving a press conference and clicks on it after a moment of hesitation.
It's worse than he had imagined, seeing the blank, depressed look in his face, the way he hardly even looks up from the table. There's a tall man on his left that the video caption identifies as Mario Lemieux, and he takes over from Sidney on half of the questions.
Sidney is almost finished watching the video when Geno comes downstairs and finds him. "Sid," he says quietly, and Sidney turns around to see that Geno's expression has turned to that indefinably sad look again. "Why you watching that?"
"Curious," Sidney says. "I never could watch any before."
Geno settles down next to him and wraps his arm around Sidney's shoulder. "I hate watching," he says. "Makes me too sad."
"I can turn it off," Sidney says, already leaning forward.
"No, watch if you need," Geno says. He leans against Sidney, warm and heavy. "I stay with you."
"Thanks," Sidney says quietly, and he clicks on the next video, glad to have Geno by his side.
When the door opens, he's nearly bowled over by a huge, very enthusiastic dog. Geno appears a moment later, laughing and calling, "Jeffrey, don't bother Sid." He seizes the dog's collar and hauls him back. "Sorry," he says to Sid. "He very energetic."
"It's okay." Sid steps inside and checks to be sure they're out of sight of the street before leaning in to kiss Geno, quick and shy. "Hi."
"Hey," Geno says. He lets Jeffrey go and pulls Sidney in for a more thorough kiss. "Glad you are here."
"Me too." Sidney looks down at his bags. "Where should I put my stuff?"
"I show you." Geno beckons for Sidney to follow him. "I had thought."
"Oh?" Sidney asks. "And?"
"I think, maybe," and here Geno glances back at Sid apprehensively. "Maybe you want to meet Mario, the team? Would mean a lot for them."
"I –" Sidney swallows hard at the thought of seeing people who once knew him so well, of all the expectations they would have, and just feels nauseated. "I don't think I can, Geno."
"Okay," Geno says. "I understand." He opens the door to his bedroom and leans in to brush his lips across Sidney's. "Your choice."
"Thanks." Sidney smiles, relieved, and sets his bags down. "Are you going to give me the grand tour?"
"Sure," Geno says, and he takes Sidney's hand to show him the house.
It's kind of odd being in Geno's house, especially when Geno leaves the next day to do stuff for the game. Sidney's not used to being at loose ends, and he's especially not used to being in a strange place. He deals with his restlessness by alphabetizing Geno's DVDs and then looking for one to watch. He eventually settles on something that looks suitably mind numbing and settles in to wait for the game to start. Jeffrey joins him on the couch a few minutes later, settling warmly against Sidney's side.
Sidney makes himself an omelet for dinner – easy enough – and returns to the living room in time to switch to NBC for the game. It's hard to follow at first, and Sidney has to lean forward so he can watch the action more closely. He gets the hang of it about five minutes in and starts looking for Geno among the black and gold crowd, admiring the elegance and speed of their skating. He thinks, vaguely, that he might want to try going on the ice, just for a bit.
Geno scores once in the first period, seeming to skate right through the defenseman of the other team, and Sidney can't help cheering, which makes Jeffrey leap up and start barking. On the screen, Geno is being hugged by the team, and he's grinning hugely as he skates back towards the bench. Sidney looks down at Jeffrey and says, "Did you see that?"
It's kind of a turn-on, watching Geno weave in and out of other players. By the time he gets a second goal in the third period, Sidney's half-hard and trying not to be embarrassed about it. Geno's hot, and Sidney loves how happy Geno seems.
The Pens win in overtime with a messy goal that barely squeaks in past Colorado's goalie, and Sidney whoops, delighted. He can see the relief and happiness on Geno's face as the camera's zoom in on him, and he can't wait to congratulate him when he gets home. There's a small part of him that wishes he could share more fully in his excitement, that he could reclaim the joy he used to get from hockey.
When Geno comes home, flushed with victory, Sidney gives him a hug and a kiss before dragging him to the bedroom give him a congratulatory blowjob. Geno yanks on Sidney's hair on accident and apologizes in hoarse Russian, switching to English when he realizes what he's doing.
Sidney pulls off to say, "It's okay," and goes back down. Geno groans at that and doesn't last much longer.
"You like the game?" Geno asks breathlessly, and Sidney laughs, flopping down next to him.
"You looked good," he says.
"I know," Geno says smugly. He rolls over onto his side. "And – it was okay?"
Sidney thinks about it for a moment. Thinking about hockey feels more like pushing at the place a tooth has fallen out; something was once there, but it isn't, now. "I – yeah. I think so." He nods, more surely. "Yes."
"Okay," Geno says softly. "Good. When you find card – I think I ruin everything. Not supposed to know what you erase."
"I know," Sidney says. "It's worked out okay so far, though." He smiles a little. "I don't think I would ever do it again, though."
"Never," Geno says firmly. "Won't lose you again."
"But do you think maybe," Sidney says slowly, "you could take me skating one day?"
Geno smiles. "Really?"
"I'd like to," Sidney says. "It looks like fun."
"Okay," Geno says. "Promise you will like it." He smiles and presses his face into Sidney's shoulder.
Sidney returns home a few days later, promising to watch the rest of the finals at home. Geno sends him off with a kiss and a hug that Sidney doesn't want to leave.
"I visit after we finish," Geno says. "Not whole summer, but maybe month?"
"I'll make room," Sidney says, tangling their hands together. Geno smiles and kisses him again, out of sight of the driver he had called, before gently shoving Sidney out the door.
"Safe flight!" he calls, and Sidney waves before getting in the car.
It's easier than Sidney is expecting, getting back and keeping in touch with Geno. Geno is diligent about phone calls and texts, sending Sidney little fond messages throughout the day that make Sidney blush and grin stupidly at his phone until Ethan anemically throws a pencil at him and tells him to stop being so nauseating.
"Sorry," Sidney says guiltily, and Ethan gives Sidney a little smile before turning back to his desk.
"So you worked things out with him, then?" Olivia asks when she catches sight of Sidney's phone and sees Geno's name on the screen.
Sidney flushes a little and says, "Well, we're going to try, at least."
"I'm glad," she says quietly. "As long as you worked all your shit out."
"Thanks," Sidney says, and he texts Geno, Olivia gives us her blessing.
Sidney snorts and tries not to grin like an idiot.
Geno does come to stay for a month after the end of the finals, and Sidney is glad to have him, even if Geno does mope about not winning for the first week. "I want to bring back Cup for you," Geno tells Sidney sadly, kissing his cheek.
"That would have been nice," Sidney agrees, "but I like having you here too, you know," and Geno laughs, ruffling Sidney's hair before pushing him back onto the couch cushions.
They go skating a few towns over, taking Mia and her family with them. Olivia tags along too, ostensibly to help watch Mia's kids but she spends most of the car journey interrogating Geno about his family, his intentions regarding Sidney, and, most embarrassingly, their sex life.
"Okay, enough," Sidney says when he finally realizes that Olivia is trying very hard to ask Geno about blowjobs by using some truly inventive euphemisms. Sidney knows he's blushing, and when he glances over at Geno, he sees that Geno is a little pink too, but he's smiling.
Sidney and Geno detach themselves from the rest of their group at the rink, letting Olivia and Mia help the twins totter around the edge of the rink while Geno leads Sidney out into the center of the ice. Sidney is a little wobbly at first, but muscle memory seems to kick in after a few minutes and soon he's zipping across the ice under Geno's fond eye.
"Race?" he suggests to Geno, and he takes off as soon as Geno nods, ignoring the shout of protest from behind him.
It's exhilarating, cool air ruffling under his collar and the stands blurring as he skates past. Geno catches up with him and Sidney grins at him before coming to an abrupt stop, spraying ice against Geno's pants.
"Hey!" Geno says. Sidney circles Geno, laughing, and lifts his face to breathe in the cold, sweaty smell of the rink.
"See?" Geno says after a moment. Sidney looks at him. "You love it."
"Yeah," Sidney agrees, and he leans into Geno.
Sidney's leg can only take about an hour of skating before it starts to protest the strain. He leaves the ice reluctantly and listens to Mia's kids chatter excitedly about the tricks they wanted to learn.
"—and this one girl did a jump so high I thought she would go over the stand!" one of them is saying, and Geno gives Sidney an amused smile.
"That was fun," Sidney says as they head back to the car. "Thank you for taking me."
"You okay?" Geno asks. "Not –" He makes a weird gesture. "Too sad?"
"No," Sidney says. "It was – I'm sad I can't skate much, but it isn't that bad." He rubs at the muscle in his thigh and smiles. "I'm okay, Geno."
"All right," Geno says, resting his hand on Sidney's back for a moment. "Need to be sure."
Sidney watches some more videos of himself playing hockey that night while Geno is on the phone with his family. He's watching them win the Stanley Cup when Geno comes in, and Geno says, "Favorite video."
Sidney twists around and smiles at him. "We look really happy."
"Never see you more happy," Geno says. He sits down next to Sidney and watches with him, pointing people out and explaining who they are. Sidney listens and watches himself and Geno and their friends hug and shout happily.
"They good guys," Geno says eventually. "Different team now, but a lot the same – Flower, Adams, Tanger – still there."
"Yeah?" Sidney chews at his lip thoughtfully. "Maybe I could – um, meet the ones I was friends with?"
"Really?" Geno asks, sounding surprised. "You don't have to, you know."
"I want to," Sidney says firmly. He kisses Geno. "I'll come to Pittsburgh before your season starts."
"Okay," Geno says. "I set it up." He reaches out to close the laptop and pulls Sidney toward him. "Yes?"
"Yes," Sidney says, and he kisses Geno until Nat starts whining in the kitchen and the two of them have to part, laughing, so Sidney can go feed her.
"Sure you want this?" Geno asks Sidney, hand twitching a little in Sidney's grasp. "I know it a lot."
"I said I would meet them," Sidney says. His heart is beating hard against his ribs, frantic as a hummingbird, and he kind of feels like he might throw up. But – he can do this. He'll make himself be able to do this.
"They going to be happy to see you," Geno says. "Miss you."
Sidney lets out a deep breath. "I just hope they don't expect too much."
"I tell them not to be pushy," Geno says, smiling a little. "Must be careful, with them."
"Yeah." Sidney steels himself, throwing back his shoulders. "All right. Let's do this."
Geno pulls the door open for Sidney, and the people inside the hotel room all turn to look at them. Sidney swallows hard, smiles, and says, "Hi."