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America was new and bright and loud – endlessly loud, a raucous babble that Zhenya might have found a comfort if picking meaning out of it weren’t so damn hard. He retreated often to his and Gonch’s rental, those first few weeks. “You’re young, single – don’t you go out?” Gonch asked.

“Are you encouraging me to be irresponsible, old man?”

“Well, you did come here,” Gonch said, unruffled. He offered Zhenya a second beer, a kind of acknowledgment of all the pressures and calculations it had taken to bring Zhenya to America in this year 2015.

But work – work was fine. Everyone was friendly; almost immediately they’d begun teasing him about his accent, his enormous nose, his name. God, they slaughtered his name, every single one of them. By week two, he’d been dubbed Eugene.

Besides, put a video camera in his hand, and he was home, no matter the language. Zhenya familiarized himself with lighting considerations in the locker room and on the ice. He started to get comfortable with his subjects. Michelle of the perfectly applied lipstick and the million-watt smile always looked good at the other end of the lens. And the hockey players – they looked good, too. Really good.

“Oh my fucking god, that ass,” Michelle breathed in awe. Zhenya had to pull his eye away from the viewfinder to see where she was looking – at Sid, of course, in his custom-fitted jeans.

“You work here long time, right?” Zhenya said. “A long time,” he corrected himself. Fuck English and its fucking articles, but he had to get them right. “You should get used to it by now.”

“Get used to that? Seriously?” Michelle looked up at Zhenya from under perfectly arched eyebrows. She didn’t have a single blond hair out of place. Zhenya might have been a little afraid of her if she hadn’t taken him out for hot dogs after work his first day, if she weren’t the kind of person to swear over Sidney Crosby’s hockey ass.

He was a little afraid now, though not of her. Dry-mouthed, he allowed, “Ass is okay.”

“Okay?” she said in disbelief, gearing up to fight for Sid’s ass’s honor.

“I like his shoulders better.”

Michelle paused mid-sputter. She gave Zhenya a long, careful look in the eye. He made himself look back. His heart beat too fast. “Yeah?” she said.

“Yeah.”

Her expression softened. She squeezed Zhenya’s arm, and she said, “His shoulders are pretty okay, too.”

Somebody called her over then, and Zhenya was left alone with his video camera and his racing pulse. And it was fine. He gave himself a moment to be sure, but it was really true: he was fine.

--

The life of a professional camera man in sports was less glamorous than one might think. Zhenya rode the Pens charter plane with the rest of the media crew: Michelle and Sam and the ROOT team. He went to bed too late and woke up way too fucking early. “Good thing you’re behind the camera instead of in front of it,” Michelle said one morning. She had a donut from the continental breakfast. Zhenya had two.

“You look like me, too, if you don’t have all that makeup,” Zhenya told her crankily.

Wearing the world’s most non-committal expression, she pushed his mug of coffee closer to him with a single lacquered fingernail. Fucking coffee. Fucking Americans.

The media crew were good people, though, at least after ten AM. He came out to all of them by the end of October. He felt lighter with every confession.

In November Zhenya hooked up with a guy a head shorter than him with gauged ears and wicked smile. Zhenya found him on Grindr. Cory blew Zhenya with his eyes shut. Then he talked Zhenya through blowing him.

“Haven’t sucked a lot of dick?” he asked afterwards, not unkindly.

Zhenya flushed and hid his face in the pillow – he was twenty-nine years old, for fuck’s sake. But then he turned back and said, resolute, “Not yet.” Cory laughed, and a weight fell away from Zhenya. Lying on hotel sheets, Cory running his hand appreciatively over Zhenya’s bicep, Zhenya felt buoyant, floating, like a cloud.

--

“You’re Russian, right?” Sid asked idly between bites of teriyaki out of a styrofoam container. The bus rumbled beneath them as they waited for the stragglers to emerge from the Oilers practice facility. “That’s cool that you got to come over here for work.”

Sid and Zhenya didn’t talk much. Sid was the star; Zhenya was one of those guys recording Sid’s every move. That was fine. Zhenya could admire a person’s attributes without needing to talk to him, and he did. He admired them a lot. Covertly. Except here he and Sid were, the first on the bus waiting to go back to the hotel, and Sid was talking to him.

“Yes, Russia. I knew Gonch in Magnitogorsk – you know he played there, during the lockout?” Sid nodded encouragement, still chewing. “When he come back to Pittsburgh, he help me get job here.”

“Yeah, I know Jen was upset when our old guy quit. But you’re doing an awesome job,” Sid added, as though Sid knew thing one about cameras. Zhenya already had hours of footage that proved he didn’t, even how to sit in front of one.

Zhenya appreciated the sentiment, anyway. “Thanks.”

“You a big Ovechkin fan, then?”

“Eh. He’s good. Your—your rival, right?” Zhenya said, pleased he’d found the right word.

Sid snorted, an inelegant, impolite sound. “That’s what the media says.”

“You score goals, too,” Zhenya said, sensing a sore spot and unable to resist. “But not as many as Ovechkin.”

“You’re trying to wind me up,” Sid said, humor quirking his mouth. “He doesn’t even have a Cup.”

“You don’t either.”

Sid shrugged, a little stiff. “Not yet.”

“Maybe this year,” Zhenya said, by way of apology, and was immediately sorry. The Pens were cobbling wins together somehow, but anyone with eyes could see it wasn’t sustainable. Fleury alone kept them afloat.

Sid cleared his throat. “So what made you want to come to America? It was Primanti Brothers, right?”

“Yes, I came all the way from Russia for sandwich,” Zhenya agreed. He hesitated, but really if Sid was going to disappoint him, better to find out now. “It’s because I like men.”

Sid’s mouth dropped. “Oh.”

“It’s not easy in Russia now, you know. I thought maybe come here, new place, try new things.” Like Grindr, his mind unhelpfully supplied. But also: “Dating. Find a boyfriend, hold hands in public.”

“That’s…” Sid glanced down at his to-go box and back up again. “That’s really cool. How’s that working for you so far? Trying new things?”

Zhenya exhaled in relief. “Pretty good.”

--

In December, the third time Zhenya let Cory fuck him in the ass but the first time Zhenya had insisted on dinner first, Cory broke up with him. Or he didn’t break up with him, which was the problem. “Like I said, I’m heading down to Chicago in a couple of months, and I’m just here for a good time, you know?”

“But we are having a good time,” Zhenya protested.

“Yeah, but.” Cory patted Zhenya’s cheek and leaned in to steal a kiss. “I don’t think that’s all you want. And it’s all I can offer, now. Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” Zhenya said, because it would be. It would be. “It’s been fun.”

But maybe Cory was right, because when Zhenya got up the next morning, he was much sadder than anyone would be if all they’d lost was an easy hookup. He had extra coffee before he left the house, and even so, when he got to Consol Michelle took one look at him and said, “You want to go out tonight, Eugene?”

“There’s a game,” he pointed out. “It’ll be late.”

She shrugged. “We should go,” she said, like it was a foregone conclusion – and if she said it, then probably it was.

The Pens lost to Carolina that night, scoring once on an infuriating thirty-eight shots. “I thought Ward wasn’t supposed to be good,” Zhenya muttered.

“He isn’t.” Sam sounded personally aggrieved.

Everyone in the postgame scrums was frustrated, and that frustration caught up to Zhenya, too, even though he didn’t have to talk to anyone. He carried it with him in his shoulders even after the he’d set the camera down, retrieved the video, and uploaded it so Sam could tweet out the links.

Michelle found him. “You ready?” She already had her red wool coat on, the one that hung to her knees.

“We don’t have to go. I’m tired. I know you’re tired.”

“Nah. I’m still so pissed about that game, I’ll be up for hours yet. Come on.” She gripped his elbow and pulled him to his feet, and he went.

By the time they arrived at Murphy’s, the sort-of Irish pub a few blocks down from Consol, Sam and Chase the intern had been dragged along, too. They argued about a high stick called in the third and kept arguing through finding a booth and ordering their first beers. So help him, Zhenya found it comforting.

“So what’s up?” Michelle asked, scooting in close. “Break up? Do you want to talk about it?”

That caught Sam’s attention. “You broke up with someone? I didn’t know you were dating.”

“Not really break up. We weren’t really boyfriends.” The word still felt strange on Zhenya’s tongue. Forbidden. Sam didn’t bat an eye. “Just, you know. We hook up sometimes. But now we don’t anymore.”

“Aw, Eugene,” Michelle said. She squeezed his arm.

“That sucks,” Sam said. He reached across to clink his beer against Zhenya’s. Chase the intern made a commiserating face. They all listened as he explained his six-week fling, haltingly, as he excised most of the details. Everyone listened, and nobody said a cruel word.

This was why he had come to America, he thought somewhat fuzzily as he unlocked his front door: so when he was sad about his not-boyfriend, his friends would be sad with him.

--

Two days later, the Pens played Columbus at home and outshot them thoroughly, just like last game. The difference was they won this one, a whopping five to two. It was Coach Sullivan’s first win, and the change in the air felt like more than just snow. It showed on everyone’s faces, including Sid’s, even after the last of the media dispersed and Zhenya put away his camera.

“You going anywhere for Christmas?” Sid asked, pulling off a sock. That was how good a mood he was in: he was making small talk before he even took his shower.

Sid in a good mood, dark-eyed and smiley, left Zhenya a little breathless. “Just stay here. Gonch’s family is here from Dallas. We’ll just relax, eat a lot.”

“Good,” Sid said. “That’s my kind of Christmas, too.”

Zhenya smiled back and began zipping the camera case shut.

“You said you were, uh. Trying new things. How’s that going? You find that boyfriend yet?” Sid was peeling off the other sock, his expression hidden.

“Not yet,” Zhenya said cautiously. This part of himself – it wasn’t buried so deep anymore. He kept it nearer the surface, where others could see. He could share it with Sid. “But other things – they go good. It’s good for me, here.”

“Yeah?”

Sid looked oddly hopeful, and Zhenya’s chest warmed. He thought of Michelle and Sam and Zoe two nights earlier. “Yeah.”

--

Michelle was not yet over having someone to appreciate male hockey players’ finer qualities with. “You know how long I’ve been keeping this to myself?” she asked, peering over Zhenya’s shoulder at postgame video from the locker room, currently paused. “Jen’s too married, and Sam’s too straight. If they don’t have boobs, he’s not interested. God, look at those arms.”

The arms belonged to Hornqvist. Zhenya could certainly see the appeal. The cap sleeves did Hornqvist a lot of favors, not that he needed them.

“Of course, they’re not Sid’s arms,” Michelle added, nudging Zhenya.

“You hush,” Zhenya said, for what good it did him. He could hear Michelle smirking behind him. Her tastes were wide-ranging and depended on the day; Zhenya’s were pretty consistent, and Sid was at the center of all of them, because Zhenya was a fucking cliché.

“Do you ever wonder?” Michelle asked.

“Mm?” Zhenya said.

“About Sid. Whether he’s, you know.”

Zhenya twisted to look at her. “I wonder a lot of things about Sid.”

She pushed at his shoulder. “Whether he’s gay, too.”

That—no. Zhenya had not wondered about that. Very deliberately. “No,” he said quellingly.

Michelle was not quelled. “He never brings a date to the events. There’s a woman up in Halifax he talks about once in a while, but I’ve only seen her once. She doesn’t really visit.”

“He’s very private.” That, at least, was indisputable.

“Mm,” Michelle said. “Okay, I have to go write up this article about the charity thing. Enjoy your ogling.” She gave his shoulder a squeeze and retreated towards the door.

“I’m working,” Zhenya called after her. “Or I was, until you distract me.”

Michelle flashed him a pearly-white smile.

--

Zhenya gave the idea a little thought. He swiftly decided it didn’t matter one iota to him if Sid was gay. First, because if Sid had been closeted this long, there was nothing whatsoever to suggest he would change that any time soon. Second, because even if he did, Sid was the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Zhenya was the camera guy.

It took Zhenya a solid two days and a certain amount of effort to come to this conclusion, which was good timing, because it meant he could go into work the next day and give Sid a casual nod without tripping over his own feet.

He had other things to think about, anyway. That change in the air hadn’t been just Zhenya feeling sentimental. The team was outshooting the opponent three games out of four. Sometime in January, Sid flipped a switch, and suddenly he was scoring on a league-best pace. He looked looser, easier, free of a tension that Zhenya had assumed was native to him. He tipped his chin to Zhenya more often - he met everyone’s eyes more often.

It was a good time to be the camera guy.

--

Sid talked to Zhenya now. Zhenya wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. “Did he say hi the night he started his point streak?” Michelle asked. “Because if that’s it, then you’re stuck making small talk as long as that lasts.”

“Not stuck,” Zhenya protested.

It wasn’t like he minded catching a meal on the road with Sid and talking about, for example, the Russian Five – the real five, not that makeshift group the Red Wings cobbled together later. He shared the story his father always told of going to a CSKA Moscow game and seeing them score a goal on a play where every one of the five touched the puck, on after the other. “Beautiful,” Zhenya said. “Beautiful playmaking.”

Of course, Sid wanted to know details Zhenya didn’t have, wanted to talk theory that Zhenya could admire but not really speak to on his own. “I only play until I’m fourteen, you know. I know I’m too small to play pro.”

“Too small?” Sid laughed, glancing at Zhenya’s feet and following him all the way up to his forehead. “Really.”

“Really! I’m so short then, Sid. Even shorter then you.”

“Ohhh,” Sid said, laughing some more. “Now I understand. Even shorter than me.”

It was a good thing Zhenya didn’t wonder if Sid could be interested in guys. Otherwise it’d be really hard not to embarrass himself, watching Sid’s eyes almost disappear when he smiled.

--

Sid’s point streak ended and picked up again. The Pens spent a month trying to get traction and failing, a frustrating string of alternating wins and losses. It was easy to wonder if they’d ever win two in a row again. And then, towards the beginning of March, another switch flipped. They won two and then three and then four.

They were on a five-game streak when mighty Washington rolled into town. “Let’s do this,” Michelle said under her breath as the Pens skated out for warm-ups.

“You know, if they lose, we still have a job,” Zhenya pointed out, amused. “It’s not our team. Just our job.”

“Really?” Eyebrows high, she stared him down until he turned away. His eye caught on Sid, hip-checking Fleury as Sid passed him in the corner. “You’re saying there’s nobody out there you’d like to see lift the Stanley Cup?”

He flushed, and she elbowed him companionably.

The Pens didn’t just win; they destroyed the Caps six to two. The locker room afterward was jubilant, the air intoxicating. Zhenya breathed it in and tasted hope on the back of his tongue.

“Eugene!” Sid called, just as Zhenya stepped out into the hall. He turned, and Sid pulled up in front of him and took hold of his arm, grinning like he’d forgotten how to do anything else.

“Good game,” Zhenya said.

“Yeah,” Sid said, not even trying to downplay or deflect. “You know, I think—I think maybe we can do it this time.” He turned shifty for a moment, glancing around for eavesdroppers, and then he whispered, like a confession, “I think this team could go all the way.”

“Yeah?” Zhenya said. He grinned back. He couldn’t help it.

“Yeah.” Sid nodded, a firm, resolute dip of the chin. Then he seemed to notice his hand, still on Zhenya’s arm, and he let go. “Have a good night, eh?”

“Of course,” Zhenya said.

--

He was right. They did it. The Pens sped their way through three teams and pushed San Jose to the brink, three games to one, and they dropped one, but then they went to the Shark Tank and they killed it. They won the Stanley Cup.

Sidney Crosby, the best player on earth (tm), finally lifted the Cup.

Zhenya only saw part of Sid’s skate with the Cup. It was hard to cry and take film and skate all at the same time, and he didn’t want to risk the equipment – he aimed the camera in the right direction and blinked until he could see again.

Everyone wanted to talk to Sid, of course. Conn Smythe winner, a Cup, triple gold captain – so many narratives overturned. The Captain Who Couldn’t, could. Every time Zhenya caught sight of him, he was talking to a mic or hugging someone new.

Michelle liberated several bottles of champagne from the locker room and brought it to the PR war room. “Like a battle zone in there,” she said, not looking sorry about it at all. Her hair was damp with champagne; it dripped onto her dress in splotches.

“They get you?” Zhenya asked, tipping champagne into a coffee mug.

Michelle’s sheepish grin said everything. “To us,” she said, lifting a mug of her own. They were classy as fuck, all of them. “To the fucking Penguins.”

--

Zhenya went back to the hotel to sleep, kind of. At eight in the morning he staggered onto a bus, and the bus took them all to a plane, and Zhenya took his customary seat in the back, just forward of the rear bathroom. He put on his headphones to block out the sounds of drunken hockey players, curled up against the window with his blanket and pillow, and tried to sleep again.

Two hours into the flight, he woke up with an ache in his back. He sat up to try and stretch it out. Michelle was slumped against the window in the seat across the aisle. Next to her, Sam bent over his laptop, his face lit by the screen as he typed, tinny pop leaking from his earbuds. The plane was almost quiet, at least compared to the yelling an hour ago. Even deliriously happy hockey players had to power down for a few minutes, it seemed.

He was half gone again when someone dropped into the aisle seat next to him. He squinted his eyes open. Oh. “Sid.”

“Yeah.” He angled himself towards Zhenya, much too alert for someone with as much delicious booze in him and as little sleep as Sid surely had.

God, those shoulders. It’d been ten months, and Zhenya had never gotten tired of them.

“You won,” Zhenya said, shaking himself. “You won the Stanley Cup.”

Sid broke into a grin. It must be pretty near to the surface right now, all the time. “Yeah.”

“I told you.”

“You did,” Sid agreed. He politely didn’t point out that neither of them had believed Zhenya at the time.

Somewhere up front, someone yelled – Dumo? Probably Dumo. College had clearly trained him well. Groans followed and something about sleep. For a moment, there was a rare moment of stillness – the eye of the storm. Patchwork green stretched out the window, the airplane frame creaked, and Sid’s knee was a warm pressure against Zhenya’s thigh.

Sid cleared his throat. “Listen, can I ask you something?”

“Mm.”

Sid sounded amused. “Are you even awake? I can come back later.”

Zhenya roused himself. “At least I sleep in a bed last night.”

“I slept in a bed! For a little while, anyway.”

“With the Cup?” Zhenya asked.

“Maybe,” Sid said, utterly unembarrassed. Probably Zhenya would be, too, in the circumstances. “But listen. You know we’ve got a pool party tonight.”

“Yes.” Maybe Lord Stanley would go for a swim. Would chlorine react with silver? That seemed like it could go badly.

“Do you want to come? To the party?”

“No, no.” Zhenya clapped his hand on Sid’s knee and said, “It’s for players, remember? Not for PR. Don’t worry, we’ll get our party, too.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Bewilderingly, Sid’s fingers curled over Zhenya’s wrist in a loose, warm grip. “I mean, do you want to come with me? As my date?”

Zhenya played those words back over in his head, in case he’d misunderstood. He looked at Sid looking back with wide dark eyes, regarding Zhenya openly. Unafraid. Incautious. Zhenya had trouble catching his breath. “You?”

“I always thought if I could just win the Cup, whatever I did after wouldn’t matter. Nobody would care anymore, you know? I could do anything I wanted.”

Zhenya was still struggling to catch up. “And this is what you want?” He waggled his wrist under Sid’s hand.

“Yeah. I mean—yeah. If you want to. Obviously, you don’t have to go if you don’t—”

“I want to.”

“Yeah?” Sid’s grin this time was slow, disbelieving, even more beautiful than the others because it was for Zhenya. Just for Zhenya.

“Yes.” Zhenya laid his other hand over Sid’s and squeezed. Sid peered down at Zhenya’s knuckles so all Zhenya could see of his face was the corner of his mouth, still smiling.

“Okay,” Sid said, all at once. He slipped his hand from between Zhenya’s two and shifted to stand.

“You gonna kiss me at this party?” Zhenya asked, unwilling to lose Sid so soon.

Sid stilled. “I was hoping to, yeah. If—if you let me.”

Oh, Sid had no fucking idea. “You gonna give me a preview?”

Sid stared into Zhenya’s eyes, so intent that Zhenya’s eyes began to water. Zhenya had a sudden, sinking fear that he’d called Sid’s bluff. Then Sid leaned up and pressed a kiss to Zhenya’s lips – quick and soft and warm and then gone again. Sid stared at Zhenya, and his breath came in quick, sharp gasps.

Zhenya had been out for two years, more or less. Sid had been out for ten minutes. But somewhere ahead of them sat the Stanley Cup, all strapped in, and what did they have to wait for, really?

Zhenya curled a hand around Sid’s neck and tugged him in, and he kissed him how he’d ached to kiss him for months. Sid’s mouth was warm and wet; he tasted of beer and – peanut butter pretzels? Zhenya pulled away, suddenly smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. “I see you tonight,” he said.

“Yeah,” Sid said slowly, his smile so bright it gleamed.

Zhenya leaned over and snatched one last kiss. “You go celebrate with your team.”

“Yeah, okay.” Sid pushed up onto his feet, braced himself on the back of the seat, and turned towards the front of the plane. He cast one last glance back, and then he stepped out of sight.

Zhenya collapsed into his seat. He stared at his hands like they could tell him what had just happened, could confirm that his senses had told him true. But they couldn’t, of course, and he was left to trust his own memory of the look in Sid’s eyes and the press of his mouth and—

Okay, now was not the time for a boner. Not that his would be the only one on the plane right now, probably – was anything as great for the libido as winning? – but even so.

He became aware of movement to his left – Michelle, climbing over Sam, who was still intent on his laptop. But instead of heading to the bathroom, she crossed the aisle and sat next to Zhenya. “I heard that,” she said.

Zhenya flushed, sudden and hot, all the way to the top of his head. “You don’t hear anything. You dreamed it.”

“Mm,” Michelle said, smiling softly. She leaned up and pressed a kiss to his cheekbone. Then she shoved at the armrest between them until it swung up and into the seat, and she leaned into Zhenya. “You’re way more comfortable than the window,” she said.

“I’m not a pillow,” Zhenya protested weakly.

“Yes, you are. It’s in your contract.” She snuggled more securely against him. Within moments, she’d gone still, her breath even. Her hair still smelled of some unholy alchemy of champagne and hair spray.

Zhenya closed his eyes and waited for the plane to bring them home.

[end]