"In his head, he's like - no hands, no arms," the nurse said, and Geno blinked at her in confusion, wondering what she meant. He had arms. Behind him, his mother made a concerned noise. "He can't reach out, you see?" the nurse continued. "Now, I'm not saying anything is wrong with him, of course not, he's fine, all there inside. But he's never going to bond with anyone. He still has a soul, a psyche, but he lacks the psychic reaching facility that would allow his soul to find others. No one can hear him. He can't contact anyone."
Geno didn't really understand that part, although from his mother's upset noises he knew it was something bad. He patted her hand and said, "It's okay, Mama. I'm fine."
"See? He's such a sweet boy," his mother said, and she sounded so, so sad.
The nurse said, "You know, most people who do not bond lead perfectly happy lives. Think of the flexibility this will give him. He'll be able to travel so freely! Maybe he'll go into space. Gagarin couldn't bond either, you know."
Geno laughed at that. "I'm not going into space," he said. "There's no hockey up there."
"He'll be fine," she continued. " He still has everything he needs. He just can't make a psychic connection, and that's not such a big deal, really."
On the way home, his mother was quiet, and when they got inside, she asked, "Did you understand what she said?"
"Yes," Geno said, which wasn't actually a lie. He understood all the words she used, anyway.
His mother smiled at him, although she still looked sad. "She means you won't ever be able to take a bondmate." Geno nodded, trying to look serious, and she sighed. "She means you'll never have a partner, sweet baby boy. But you won't be alone, either, and I want you to understand that. You'll have family, you'll have friends. You'll be fine." And she hugged him tightly, too tightly, but Geno just put his head against her shoulder and waited, not really understanding what she meant. He was never alone. He had his mother and his father and his brother, and he'd always have them, and he didn't need anyone else. There was nothing to worry about.
"He's not going to that zoo," Sidney's father responded instantly; Sidney couldn't block his ears enough not to hear him. He could always hear people. Always. If they weren't there in his ears, they were there in his mind.
"He can hear you," the nurse said chidingly. "And there is nothing wrong with him. He's just highly sensitive."
"He'll get tougher."
"Mr. Crosby, this is not a failing on his part. It's just who he is. It's a gift! At the academy in Vancouver they'll teach him to manage it, to actualize it. He'll be able to pursue an amazing career in a number of fields, and they'll prepare him for that. And they'll help him find a suitable bondmate, too - someone who can balance him, help him keep his mental discipline up."
Sidney's father was angry, and Sidney curled up tighter. In his mind, he pictured ice, cold and flat and even, absolutely without feeling. As always, it made things better. "No," Sidney's father snapped. "He's not going to some academy that's in session all year round and doesn't even have sports teams. He's staying with us, and he's going to play hockey. And you don't need to worry about his mental discipline, either. He's plenty tough enough."
"Mr. Crosby, it's not a question of -" she said, but Sidney's father was tapping him on the ankle. Over the sock, of course.
"Come on, kiddo. Let's go."
Sidney followed his father out with his eyes shut, keeping track with just his ears. He was pretty good at it. The noise in his head wasn't so bad if he just shut down one of his other senses.
"Did you understand what she said?" his father asked.
"She wants me to go to the academy in Vancouver," Sidney parroted faithfully. She still did, was still thinking about him. "Because I did bad on the test."
"You didn't do bad. You're just different, that's all."
Sidney shrugged. He knew that different was just another way to say bad.
"You're special. But we can work with this, and it might even be an advantage to you on the ice. You'll just need to keep away from people a little more. Maybe we can homeschool you. You'll be fine."
"Okay," Sidney agreed. He'd be fine. He could do that.
"And you're going to be the best hockey player there is," his dad continued.
Sidney felt himself smiling, really smiling. "Yes," he said. "I am." He was going to work hard so that he could spend all his time on the ice, cold and cool and perfect. The ice was his future.
"You just need to stay focused," his dad told him, like he had a thousand times before, but Sidney didn't mind hearing the words again. "Keep your head in the game. Now is the time for hockey."
Sidney nodded, pulled on his gloves, and reached up to take his father's hand. They were going to have to cross a street soon, and he still got distracted by all the thoughts going by so fast. He stepped off the curb into the dark, trying not to hear the minds going past (shit gonna be late, what the fuck was that?, dancing queen, young and sweet, only, god I hope she calls soon), and held on with just one finger.
Sidney knew that wasn't exactly true. The helmet made things quieter, but it didn't make things truly silent. And when he touched someone, he could still hear their thoughts, even with the helmet on. But the helmet stopped the headaches, pushed the world out to a reasonable distance, gave him space to think inside his head. When he wore it, he didn't have to sort through a dozen minds to find his own, and he didn't have to worry about seeing with the wrong eyes or hearing with the wrong ears.
He never wanted to take his helmet off. Sometimes he slept in it.
When he was 14, David Larouche dropped off the team. Sidney's father spent some time talking to the other parents, and even with the helmet on, Sidney could pick up on his father's anger from the other side of the rink. In the car on the way home, his father told him what had happened. "He got stupid and - and selfish," his father said. "He liked some girl, I guess, and they didn't think about the consequences, and they got themselves bonded. Now they're stuck together for life, and what kind of life do you think it's going to be?"
Sidney shrugged. He knew David liked Marie. When she came to watch them practice, David always leaked his feelings all over the place - happiness, possessiveness, something else that felt weird, kind of itchy. Sidney figured David and Marie were probably pretty happy to be bonded, actually, but he shuddered just thinking about it. He knew you had to touch to bond, or he thought you did, and then afterward you touched all the time, and your bondmate's mind was always in yours, and - it would be awful. He didn't even want to imagine it.
"You have to be careful, Sidney," his father said. "You - you could bond with someone really easy, and if you do that, you're stuck. You won't be able to move around much without disruption sickness. You won't be able to do much. You won't be going into the draft, that's for sure. You have to keep your eyes on the prize."
"I will," Sidney promised.
"Don't get too close to girls," his father told him. "I know it's tempting, believe me I know, but you don't want to end up bonded at your age." Like I did, his father was thinking, remembering bonding right after the draft and missing his chance to play for the Canadiens, to live out his dreams, to have what he really wanted.
"I won't," Sidney said. It wasn't tempting at all, actually, but he knew better than to tell his father that.
She looked at him sidelong, smiling a little. "I was thinking maybe you'd want to see me tonight," she said.
Geno flushed. "Anna, I - uh, I can't bond," he said.
"I know that, stupid," she said. "That's why. You think I want to bond now? You think I want to spend the rest of my life in this stupid dirty town, locked into an early bond?" She smiled. "I just want to have fun."
"Oh." Geno blinked at her, trying to adjust his thoughts. The classes in school all talked about sex only as the body part of bonding. And of course he'd heard the whispers in the hallways about whores who couldn't bond. He figured it all just meant sex wasn't for him. He hadn't realized there was a middle ground, that he could do stuff with other people for fun instead of for love or money, that other people would want that. So he was grinning when he said, "Yeah. Sure. Tonight?" He sounded way too eager, and he'd have to sneak out, but he didn't care at all.
He met Anna late, just as the sun was going down, and they kissed. Anna ran her hands over his arms, his shoulders, his back, and he stroked her side under her sweater. After an hour, she looked up at him and smiled. "This was fun," she said.
Geno nodded. His heart was pounding like he'd skated half a game, his skin tingled everywhere she'd touched, and his dick had been hard for so long he thought he might die. He'd never dreamed he could actually do any of this, and he'd never felt better or more alive. "Yes," he said. "It was."
Six days later, Anna shoved her hand under the waistband of his pants; it took maybe three strokes before he gasped and came. Two weeks after that, when her parents were out, he went down on her, both of them figuring it out together, Geno listening carefully for every noise she made. It was the best summer he'd had so far, and - as she kept reminding him - totally risk-free.
Anna bonded at 17, but by then they were only casual friends, and anyway Geno was playing professional hockey. He didn't have a chance to go to her bonding party. But he had learned that lots of other people appreciated the idea of risk-free sex, too.
Dr. Howard put Sidney in a psychic isolation chamber - Sidney found himself wondering how much it cost to build one, if maybe he'd be able to buy one when he got an NHL contract - and ran a suite of tests Sidney vaguely remembered having when he was little. After ten minutes Sidney could tell something was going wrong. Even inside the isolation chamber, he could sense the doctor's rising anxiety. The chamber did keep him from hearing any thoughts, but that only made it worse. The tests went on for more than an hour, and towards the end Sidney's headache got worse than ever.
Afterward, the doctor turned on the intercom and said, "Just rest in there, Sidney. I'm going to give you some time to recover, and then we'll talk about the results."
The lights went off in the room, and once Dr. Howard left, it felt like being inside a giant hockey helmet. Sidney closed his eyes and let his mind expand into the places in his head usually occupied by other people. He breathed in, out, in, out, imagining skates moving along endless ice.
He awoke to hear Dr. Howard saying, "Sidney?" She was still on the other side of the glass, but he could feel her, and he forced himself awake. She took him into her office and shut the door firmly.
"Sidney," she said, "were you never tested in Canada?"
"I had the mandatory testing." He'd had it late, but he'd had it.
She frowned. They would never have missed this.
"I think they advised my parents to put me in a special school, but it would have interfered with hockey, so they didn't."
She sighed. "Please respond to what I say, not what you hear me think. Psychic communication isn't a sure thing, after all, and in any case it's more polite."
Sidney just stared at her. Psychic communication was always a sure thing, and how was he supposed to tell the difference when she was thinking so loudly right at him?
"I'm fine," he protested.
"Sidney," she said, and took a deep breath. He could feel her mind receding, getting distant and blurry, and he wished everyone knew how to do that. "You are highly sensitive. It would take two days to run a full Watanabe scale on you, but I can already tell that you're at least an eight. Probably higher. That makes you very rare, and - frankly, it's disturbing that you've reached this age without training."
"I take the mentation classes," Sidney protested. "I have good grades in them."
"Those are designed for the general population," she said patiently. "People who score below three. I'm a 6.27, and I've taken sixteen years of classes on focus, protection, ethics, control - everything. You have nothing, and you're seventeen. You should have been in an academy starting at six at the very latest. Of course you have headaches. Of course you have frequent bouts of nausea. You're an unprotected high-level psychic. It's impressive that you're functioning as well as you are."
"So how do I get protected?" Sidney asked her.
"Well, generally in the US kids your age have already had the training. But when we pick up someone late, we refer them to one of the academies for a year of intensive training."
"I can't," Sidney said. "The draft's coming up."
"Well, you'll have to miss it. Can't you do it next year instead?"
Sidney swallowed against the panic. He couldn't miss the draft, he couldn't. They'd think he wasn't interested or something, think it was a sign of weakness, and they wouldn't take him, wouldn't give him a contract, and he would age out of Junior and then he wouldn't be able to play anywhere and he'd be stuck, stuck with his head and the headaches and the people everywhere forever, and no hockey -
"Whoa." Dr. Howard was holding up her hands. "Sidney, calm down. You're broadcasting very loudly."
"Sorry." Sidney took a breath, and another breath, and tried to push the feelings into the box in his head.
"Better," she said approvingly. "So you do have some training?"
"Books," Sidney said. His parents had bought them to figure out how to teach him to control himself, and some of the techniques had helped. Later, he'd found them and read them, and that had helped even more.
"Books," she said, and sighed. "Books aren't enough. You need intensive training conducted by someone who can directly monitor your progress. You need someone to coach you so you don't force a bond with -" she frowned. "Actually, I'm surprised, given how sensitive you are, that you haven't bonded already."
Sidney tried to hide his instinctive flinch. "I don't - I don't touch people," he said.
She felt sad. "That's not a good sign," she said gently. "You don't touch people because you can't handle the extra input, right? And you don't know how to block it. You need to learn. You don't want to go through your whole life afraid to touch anyone, do you?"
"I'm not afraid," Sidney snapped. "I just don't like it."
"Right. Of course you don't. But you can learn this stuff, Sidney. You're very smart and obviously dedicated, and this is something you can master once you have the right teachers and the right environment."
"I'm not going," Sidney said flatly. "I'm not missing the draft."
"If you don't get training, this will get worse. Did you learn about Vincent Van Gogh in school?" At Sidney's nod, she said, "That's what happens when people don't get training for their psychic abilities. And you need that training more than almost everyone. Your mind is going to keep reaching out and reaching out, reaching for another half, and you're going to need to learn how to deal with that."
"So you can't fix me," Sidney said. "Not without a whole year of training."
"You're not broken," she told him.
"Can I still play hockey?" he asked her.
"I suppose if you've been doing well so far there's no reason you can't, but, Sidney, this is the rest of your life we're talking about, and -"
"If I can still play hockey, I'm fine. That's all I wanted to know," Sidney told her. He thanked her and left. He didn't bother to tell his mother what she said.
For once, Geno didn't see it coming, although later he'd realize he should have. Ovechkin smiled at him and talked to him and touched him a lot, but Geno just didn't get it until Ovechkin came up to him after a practice and said, "Is it true what they say? You can't bond?"
Geno looked at him and smiled. He knew how this went.
"What an interesting gift," Ovechkin said, and smiled back. Geno followed him up to his room that night.
The sex was good - the sex was great - but the thing about Sanya that really got Geno was that they could talk. Not casual gossip, like with girls, and not about local hockey, like with teammates; Sanya had his eye on the world stage. He knew about the up and coming players in the US and Canada, just like Geno. "There's more than just Sidney Crosby," Sanya said to Geno one night in bed. "Although he's -" and he broke off, grinning.
"Amazing?" Geno offered. Geno had seen clips of his games, of course. He loved the way he moved, the way he thought, how he placed himself on the ice.
"He's so tidy. I look at him and dream of driving him right through the boards," Sanya said.
Geno laughed. "You want to fuck him up," he said.
"What else can you do with someone like that?" Sanya asked.
Sanya talked about the coaches, the general managers, the world of the NHL. It was like he was already playing there, in his head. He was sharp and funny and he knew how to get what he wanted. Geno couldn't imagine ever getting tired of him.
One night, they went out to a bar, and Geno watched Sanya's eyes tracking all the girls who walked past. It made him feel a little strange. "You don't mind, do you?" Sanya shouted, after he made a few comments about a girl's ass. "It's not like I would ever do her," he added.
Geno didn't want that to make him feel good, but it did, until Sanya added, "I'm not staying, after all. That's why it's so great you have your little gift."
Geno nodded and pounded back another drink.
"You can set that pace, but can you hold it?" Sanya said, grinning, and finished his drink in one long swallow.
"Try me," Geno said.
It was a mistake, of course - Geno didn't drink like Sanya did - and he paid for it at practice the next day. But even hungover and skating, he knew it was worth it; Sanya's eyes had stayed on him for the rest of the night, Sanya's laugh had been just for him.
It was a great few weeks, and Geno's real mistake was thinking it could stay like that. Because after the last game, after the last horrible loss, Sanya had cried on Geno's shoulder, sure, but then he'd just said goodbye. Geno caught up with him in the hotel, after, and said, "You busy tonight?"
"Tonight, I lick my wounds," Sanya had said, and for once he wasn't laughing.
"I could help you with that," Geno pointed out.
Sanya shook his head. "Better we say goodbye for now. I'll see you again sometime, after all. Next year, if not before." He summoned up a smile, clearly fake, and added, "Your gift will be as good then as it is now, and we'll have a better time than we would tonight."
Geno nodded and headed back to his own hotel room. He meant to go to sleep, since he had an early flight the next morning, but instead he couldn't sit still. He showered and did sit-ups and showered again, and he still couldn't shake the feeling that he'd lost something. Something besides the game.
It couldn't be Sanya, though. That was - just a thing they'd done. Permanent was for people who could bond. Not Geno.
He slept like shit, though. And he thought a lot about calling Sanya, though after the second time he just couldn't stop himself from picking up the phone he at least had the sense to dial someone else.
Sidney took a deep breath, bit his lip, and took Geno's hand. Then he smiled, a genuine smile as opposed to the kind of scary fake one he'd been wearing a minute ago, and said, "Hi," plus some other stuff Geno didn't understand. Sidney didn't let go of Geno's hand, and Geno was pretty sure it wasn't a culture clash thing, because he'd shaken a lot of hands in the last 24 hours, but none for this long.
"Tell him it's good to meet him, too," Geno said.
Sergei relayed that, staring at the handshake that would not end, and Crosby flinched and dropped Geno's hand. Geno found himself kind of glad he couldn't have a conversation with the guy and thus would not be required to figure out what was going on in his head.
Geno spent his first months in the US just trying to keep his head above water. The dislocated shoulder didn't help, but mostly it was the newness and difference of everything, the disorientation and the language barrier, the wrenching, painful way he missed home, his family, his friends, his life. Crosby was just one more weird thing in a sea of weird things. He could play, though. Seeing him on tape was nothing to seeing him in person, to playing with him.
"So, you're friends with Crosby?" Sergei asked him after they got home from the early November road trip.
"Hardly know him," Geno said. "I mean, he's nice enough, but - I don't speak his language, and he's kind of uptight."
"Happy when you're around, though."
That was bullshit; Crosby was never happy except on the ice. When he wasn't playing, he was mostly standing around with a vacant expression on his face, his back pressed against a wall like he was trying to get through it, get out.
After that, though, Geno started watching. Crosby generally sat near him - on the bench, sure, but whenever they had to sit and wait somewhere, he'd look over and Crosby would be there.
Huh. Maybe Crosby did like him, after all.
So quiet, in fact, that it took him a minute to hear Recchi's kid's weirder than usual today, and another few seconds to pick out Colby thinking if Sidney doesn't let go soon Malkin's going to think we brought him here as a consort, not a forward. Then Sidney dropped his hand and did a quick check of other minds - not Geno's, he couldn’t read Geno's - to see if he'd done anything wrong. He had, damn it. The problem with being able to read everyone's minds was that he was always responding a little too late, a little bit off, unable to process it quickly enough to seem normal. He tried to get away from Geno, give him some distance so Geno wouldn't think anything weird, but Sidney found himself drifting back towards him. It was just so - so much of a relief, not to have to keep himself constantly on guard, afraid that he might get overwhelmed by an unexpected skin-to-skin touch.
Sometime in December, Geno started smiling at him, and Sidney felt - he felt good. Good enough that Mario noticed.
"You seem like you're doing a little better," Mario said to him one morning on the drive in to practice.
"Yeah." Sidney found himself smiling.
"Headaches going away?"
Sidney thought about it. He'd had a few headaches, yeah, but not - not every day, even. "They are," Sidney said, surprised to realize it. "They're better. That's weird. They never get better."
Mario smiled. "Maybe you're figuring it out." Then he hesitated.
Sidney could hear what he was going to say next, so he just answered it; that didn't bug Mario. "No, I am not going to take time off. I'm just getting into this, just getting good at it. I can do the - the head stuff later."
Mario's thoughts were a lot less concerned than they had been, and he answered, "As long as you're managing, you can play. That's always been our deal."
"I can manage," Sidney told him instantly, sifting through Mario's mind for any doubt and only relaxing when he couldn't find it. "I always manage."
Mario's thoughts shifted away to a meeting he had, and Sidney let his own mind drift. As they approached the stadium, though, he had a thought. "Hey. Do you think if I wore a helmet I could learn to drive?"
Mario's mind immediately filled with images of Sidney crashing, hurting himself, killing himself, and Sidney said, "Okay, I guess not."
"Give it some time, Sidney," Mario said, and patted him on the shoulder, careful, as always, to stay away from his skin.
After a while, Sidney fell asleep, his head on Geno's shoulder. "Get me beer," Geno said, since he was pretty much trapped, and someone did.
"Weird," Orpik said. "Three beers and he turns into a fucking teddy bear. Normally he wants, like, a four-foot distance between him and all other humans."
"Not true," Geno protested.
Sergei laughed. "Zhenya," he said in Russian, "he touches you. We have all noticed. But you must have noticed he hates to touch anyone else. Don't know what makes you so special." And Sergei went off to get more beer.
Half an hour later, Sidney whispered, "You're quiet."
Geno nudged him a little. "Sid? You awake?"
"Not really," Sidney said, sighing so heavily that Geno shivered at the breath on his neck. "I just thought you should know. You're quiet."
Geno had no clue what he meant - maybe that Geno didn't say much in English? But Sidney said it like a compliment, so Geno patted him on the head. "Thanks," he said.
"Thank you," Sidney said back, so apparently he was reflexively polite when drunk. Odd, since he never managed that sober. And then he started to snore again.
So he texted back. We're going to kill you.
Sanya sent him ((((((((((. Geno smiled again.
They shut the Caps out, and after the game, Sanya sent him another text. You owe me for that one.
Geno said to Sergei, "Going to meet up with Ovechkin." He figured it was safe; Sergei'd been in the US too long to be up on the gossip about some players from World Juniors.
Sergei raised his eyebrows, but all he said was, "If you're hungover in practice tomorrow, Therrien will just be the first to kill you."
"I wouldn't," Geno said, and he meant it. They were on a winning streak. He wasn't going to be the link that broke it.
And he thought that was all he was doing, cherishing the companionship, the conversations, the late-night texts and phone calls, until the first night Sanya was away from home and didn't text or call him.
Geno waited, checking his phone every few minutes, heart beating faster than it should, and he knew he was in trouble. But he didn't know how much trouble until he pictured what else Sanya might be doing: hooking up with a girl in a bar. Touching her. Maybe bonding with her.
The sinking feeling in his gut, the way his heart clenched - "Fuck," Geno said out loud. "Oh, fuck. I'm so - fuck."
He waited ten minutes, fifteen, and Sanya didn't call, and he knew that was fine, knew they had no - no agreement, that Sanya didn't have to call, but he just couldn't convince himself.
At thirty minutes, he took out his phone, typed a little text to Sanya - Good luck tomorrow!!! - and then made himself delete it.
"I can't be this stupid twice," he said, knowing he was exactly that stupid and hating himself for it.
His fingers still itched to dial, though. In desperation, he picked up his phone and called Artyom, back home.
"I'm such an idiot," Geno said when Artyom picked up the phone.
"Oh, Zhenya," Artyom said. "Tell me everything."
Sidney knew that shouldn't be happening. Mario and Nathalie had a really good bond that dampened their thoughts almost completely; from the guesthouse, they were usually barely a buzz in the back of Sidney's head. Sidney checked the time - two in the morning. He needed to go back to sleep.
He wasn't going to go back to sleep, wondering about this. Worrying about it. Sidney got out of bed, shoved his feet into slippers, and walked across to the main house.
Mario was in the family room, watching TV. Sidney took a closer look; no, he was watching hockey. The game had obviously been recorded by an amateur using a handcam, so it took Sidney a few seconds to pick out Stephanie.
Mario looked up and paused the recording. "Hey," he said. "Couldn't sleep either?"
"No, I was, I just - is this Stephanie's away game from last week?"
"Yeah, the coach sent this to all the parents." Mario gave Sidney a long, thoughtful look, and Sidney could feel his formless worry. "Want to watch with me?"
Sidney didn't say anything, just sat down next to Mario on the couch, careful to keep a full cushion between them. Mario's worry spiked a little, which was ridiculous. Sidney was fine.
Mario skipped back to the beginning and hit play, and Sidney settled in to watch. Hockey was great; hockey was always soothing. He could feel himself relaxing, unwinding, as the game unfolded.
In the second, Stephanie got hooked and fell, and Mario's anger spiked. Sidney blinked and looked over at him, because it was just no big deal at all, and anyway Stephanie was way too tough to let it bug her. "Sorry," Mario said, laughing. "It's different when it's your kid, that's all." He looked at Sidney, shrugged, and added, "You never forget when they were babies, when you were everything they wanted and needed, and you could keep them safe." Sidney got a burst of sense memory along with that - Stephanie small and heavy in Mario's arms, the smell of her, a night of exhaustion, Nathalie sick in the guest room, Mario's bare feet pacing the floor, falling asleep holding her in his arms. Sidney let the memories in, telling himself he was too tired to evade it, but the truth was that it was kind of nice; the feelings were good ones, even though it seemed like they shouldn't be, and Mario was enjoying remembering them, which added some extra pleasure.
At the end of the game, Mario shut off the TV and DVD player and stretched. "Don't know about you, but I'm ready to get some sleep now," he said.
"Yeah," Sidney said.
Walking back to the guesthouse, Sidney thought about Mario's burst of anger when Stephanie got hooked. It'd obviously been the same anger that woke him up, the same sharp, protective burst, the same flush, the same brief urge to do something. But in the guesthouse, it had been - closer. Louder. Worse than when Sidney was sitting right next to Mario.
Sidney was losing focus. He was fucking up.
"I have to get my shit together," Sidney said out loud to the empty guesthouse. The team was good, they had a chance to do something this year; he couldn't waste time on his brain bullshit.
Sidney nodded, resolute, and got ready for bed again. It took him another hour to get back to sleep, though.
"I have a date," Sanya told him, getting out of bed and getting dressed.
"I - now?" Geno said, his throat tightening.
"Yes. It's time for me to grow up, I think." Sanya shrugged, looked at Geno with a crooked smile. "Leave childish things behind."
"You mean me," Geno said.
"I have to bond sometime. This girl, she's Russian, she travels, she's good at sports - she's perfect for me, Zhenya." And Geno heard the other part of that: she's everything you aren't.
"And this is something you decided to tell me after we had sex," Geno said, and he was angry, suddenly furious, ready to punch him, ready to pound him into the boards.
Sanya's smile looked a little forced this time, a little uneasy, and Geno was glad. "It's just fun."
And that was it, all Geno could take. He didn't behave well at all after that.
"Zhenya," she said when she picked up the phone. "It's late there, right? You're a big star athlete. You need to get your sleep."
"Just having some trouble getting there," Geno said. "I thought I'd call and hear your lovely voice."
"You mean you were thinking about that fucker Ovechkin," Valeriya interpreted. "And you thought you'd better call me so you didn't fall on your phone and accidentally dial his number."
"I. I wouldn't call him. I'm not that stupid," Geno said.
"Which means you were thinking about Ovechkin." Valeriya sighed. "Okay, let me have it."
Geno didn't say anything for a minute. What was there to say? She'd heard every detail of his idiotic love affair a dozen times; probably more, if the people back home still gossiped like he remembered.
"Talk to me, Zhenya," Valeriya said, and her voice was softer.
"I was so stupid," he said, finally. "I know better. How could I have been so dumb?"
"It's not stupid to like people," she said. "It's not stupid to want people. It's maybe a little stupid to hope that someone will be different this time when you don't know of any reason he might change. But it isn't stupid to care about someone."
Geno's heart clenched, because it was. That was the problem, that was the whole problem. "It is," he said. "It's stupid for me to care about someone." He had to pause to swallow hard there, because it was - well, it had always been true. But it was still hard to say out loud.
"Zhenya," Valeriya said, and she sounded like she was going to tell him that wasn't true.
He didn't let her finish. He didn't let her lie to him. "I just need to not get attached," he said, and if his voice sounded a little rough, well, she wouldn't tell anyone. "I need to not want - things. They won't, they can't, I shouldn't either. I have to make it better for myself and just not care anymore."
"Oh, sweetie," she said, her voice soft. "I think that's like saying the winter will be easier if it's just not cold anymore. People need people. You more than most. You can't decide not to and make it happen, just like that."
"But I have to," Geno pointed out, and he knew he was right. Valeriya - she could bond, she'd never understand this. He just couldn't get his hopes pinned to people like this, couldn't get emotional about them anymore. "Maybe if I just - only sleep with them once. That might help."
"Zhenya," she said, and sighed. "I think that's something you can't do."
"I can," he said. He had to.
There was a long pause, and then she said, sounding resigned, "Do what you think best. You know we'll be here in case of trouble."
Geno's eyes filled. He was so lucky. He had such good friends. "I know," he said, and his voice was even worse, scratchy and raw.
"We're always here for you," Valeriya said. "We always care." Geno sniffled a little bit, and she laughed quietly. "Now go to sleep, Zhenya," she said. "You can't have late nights being a big bag of emotions with your friends. You have games to win. How will you be worth that ridiculous salary if all you do is stay up late and party?"
"I don't!" Geno protested.
"Yes, you are such a good boy. I'm sure you spend every night in prayer."
"I wouldn't go that far," Geno said, and it was good to be teased. He didn't feel like crying anymore.
Five minutes later, when he put down the phone, he was smiling, and the good mood stayed with him as he climbed into bed and slipped into sleep.
And he hoped that at home, things would be - easier. Maybe being in a smaller town would fix his head. Something had to.
As soon as he got to Cole Harbour, though, he knew he was in trouble. He could hear everything - people down the street, people inside buildings, people he knew, people he didn't recognize. They all recognized him, though.
He couldn't even follow the thoughts, too many, all related, all different. He was glad his father was driving, that he wasn't in a taxi trying to be polite to the driver, and he found himself pressing his fists against his ears like he used to when he was a kid, before he learned that he couldn't stop the thoughts from coming that way.
"For Christ's sake, Sidney, put on your helmet," his father said, and Sidney could hear the anger and the worry underneath, hear him thinking about success and failure, about Sidney's brain letting them all down, about - Sidney dove into the backseat for his gear bag, where the helmet was always on top, just in case.
With the helmet on, the world receded a little, enough for Sidney to be able to focus as they drove to the house.
"You've got to keep it together," his father told him, for maybe the millionth time.
"I know," Sidney told him. He did know.
Back at the house, things were better. His mother and Taylor both came running out to greet him. Taylor had grown ridiculously, Sidney realized; it was always a shock to come back home and find his parents pretty much the same but Taylor once again changed almost beyond recognition. "Hey, monkey," he said, smiling at her.
"BRAINCASE!" she shrieked, loud enough for the entire town to hear, and she threw her arms around him. He could feel his parents' tension at that, but she was touching bare skin on his arms and his neck, so their worry was overwhelmed by her joy, pure and clean, flushing through his brain and driving all the other thoughts away. "I can't believe you didn't win, you loser," she said to him, and he could feel the pride behind the words: her brother played in the Cup Final, her brother almost won the Stanley Cup.
Sidney couldn't think of anything to say. He just stood there, hugging Taylor, blinking fast. This was why he came home.
As the day wore on, though, things got worse. Sidney wasn't used to being in Cole Harbour anymore, and it was like he'd lost some filters. He jumped when the neighbors dropped a dish, he flinched when two kids down the street got into a fistfight, he almost walked into a wall before he realized what he was seeing was through Taylor's eyes, not his. His brain kept jumping into Taylor's without him realizing it; during dinner, he had to be careful to eat exactly what she was eating so that the tastes didn't trip him up. He knew his parents could see him eating the potatoes first, stretching out every tiny bite so that he had enough to match Taylor's normal-sized serving, and he ducked his head and stared down at his plate. As soon as the meal was over, he said, "I'm really tired. I'm gonna - go to bed."
His parents exchanged looks, and their concern was so strong Sidney felt like he could reach out and touch it. Worse, he could feel worry spike in Taylor's mind, and she - she shouldn't have to think like that, shouldn't have to worry about him. He was her older brother, he was supposed to take care of her. He blinked, shoved away from the table, and almost ran to his room.
It wasn't better there. His parents had apparently forgotten they had to get far, far away before they talked about him. Worse, they were doing it with Taylor right there, so he could hear all of them. "He's getting worse, isn't he?" his mother said.
"He'll be fine," and Sidney could feel his father's anger under the words, hear him thinking he's going to throw it all away, he's going to fuck this up, everything we've worked for, why can't he just keep his fucking head on straight?
And then, worst of all, Taylor: "He's going to be okay, right?" And Sidney could feel how much she needed to be reassured, and, under that, how she wouldn't completely believe any reassurance she got. She was old enough now to understand that something was wrong with Sidney, really wrong with him, and that, more than anything, drove his decision.
She wrinkled her nose. "Why are you going to see her?"
"I'm going to buy a house, here in Cole Harbour," he told her.
Taylor's face fell. "But - but you live here," she said.
"I'm 21," Sidney said. "I can't live at home all my life." She looked betrayed at that, even worse than before. "I'll still be really close, I swear." Her eyes looked a little watery, too - fuck, shit, damn. His head was doing well enough that he couldn't hear her thoughts, but he needed to know what to say to make her feel better, so he pushed just a bit, and - oh. She was thinking about being left here alone all the time, about missing Sidney all year and looking forward to the offseason so much, about not ever having Sidney around to draw their father's attention. "And you can come spend the night at my place, any time you want," he promised her. That helped, at least enough to get her to agree to come with him.
It wasn't hard to pick a house. Mrs. Hodgkins drove them by a couple, and since Sidney knew jack about what he wanted from a house, he mostly looked at the neighborhood. The third place she showed them was on three acres, and when Sidney stood in the middle of the master bedroom, he couldn't hear anyone. "How soon can I have it?" he asked her.
She smiled, which she should; Sidney could hear her calculating the commission on this sale. "The owners have already moved," she said. "A cash offer at their asking price could move this very quickly, and you could be in the house in weeks."
Sidney wrote a check for $50,000 after he signed the offer; Mrs. Hodgkins said he only needed ten thousand in interest money, but he wanted to send a message.
The owners - former owners - accepted his offer two hours later. Mrs. Hodgkins volunteered to schedule the inspection. Sidney calculated the number of days left until he was alone and suggested that he and Taylor go camping. Out in the forest, with just Taylor for company, he'd be fine. And when they got back, he'd have a house of his own to move into.
Letting go of things he wasn't supposed to want.
Mikhail was in town, and he'd introduced Geno to all his friends, which led to meeting their friends, which led to visiting at all hours with big groups of people he barely knew. It was fun. It got more fun two weeks in, when Mikhail's sister's roommate's friend Katya started smiling at him across the room. After a half-hour or so, she came over to him and said, "Talk with me?" She was cute - tiny and blonde, with a smile that seemed to take up half her face - so he did. Ten minutes later, she said, "Buy me a drink?"
He bought her a drink and learned that she was from Prokopyevsk, which almost made Magnitogorsk sound glamorous. She worked with Mikhail's sister's roommate at a pharmaceutical company. "A little bit boring," she said. "But so much better than working for a mine." She smiled a lot and laughed whenever Geno said anything even a little bit funny. She avoided touching him, though, which confused the shit out of Geno, until she leaned forward, somewhere around the fourth drink, and said, "Liuda says you cannot bond."
"We had one like you at home," she said, almost wistfully. "She was lots of fun to be around. So good with her hands." And for the first time she touched him, stroking his arm thoughtfully.
Geno felt a bolt of lust shoot through him at that, and he knew how this song went so well. "I'm good with my hands, too," he said.
Katya smiled again, sincere and real. "Show me?"
He did, and the night was great, and he took care not to get her last name or her phone number. She took his, though - "You really are amazing at this," she said, and he wasn't at all averse to the flattery - and promised to call him again in a week or two.
Mikhail managed to wait until almost eleven to call him, which was amazing restraint. "Well?" he said impatiently. "Well? Did you fall in love with her?"
"Didn't even get her last name," Geno said.
"Oh thank god," Mikhail said. "We thought Ov - we were worried you were broken for good."
"Not broken," Geno said, trying not to wince at the name Mikhail hadn't said. "I'm good. I think Katya would say I'm very, very good, in fact."
Mikhail groaned. "Don't say that. It's been years for me, I'm trying to hold out until my next promotion. After that, it'll be safe to play around. I won't need to worry if I bond."
Geno didn't have those worries, of course, but he knew how they went. "Another year, right?"
Mikhail sighed gustily. "Another fucking year," he agreed. "Or another year with no fucking."
"You have to remember that god gave you two hands," Geno advised him.
Mikhail paused. "It's not even that, you know. It's - the being alone. I can feel it, feel that I'm alone now, in a way I don't think I could before. I think it's because it's really time to bond, you know?" He laughed a little. "Right, you don't, but - I can just feel that she's missing, all the time. It sucks."
"Right," Geno said, because what else could he say? He was lonely, too, but it wasn't the same. His soul wasn't looking for its other half. He was exactly as he'd always be, the most that he could ever be, and Mikhail wasn't. "The year will end," he said comfortingly, and Mikhail sighed again.
Geno finished the conversation a little melancholy, maybe, but a lot proud: he was perfectly happy with having had sex with Katya, and he didn't need any more.
He did just as well a week later, with Valeriya's friend Boris, who traveled a lot for the telecommunications company he worked for. And then again five days after that with Boris's friend Evgeniya, who made a joke about them being two halves of the same name, came over for dinner, and stayed the night. He did well all summer long.
And Geno didn't think of Sanya - Ovechkin very often at all.
"I need to be ready for training camp. I need to be on top of things." He hesitated, then added, "And I need to get out of here. I - being around -" but he didn't know how to say it.
"Being around me?" Taylor said, looking up at him in shock.
"No! Being around Mom and Dad. It's. My brain thing. I can - I'm hearing them all the time now. I have to get back to Pittsburgh. Things were better there." Sidney winced, because while it was true - he'd only been hearing things at that clarity across that distance intermittently in Pittsburgh - even 'better' hadn't been good enough. "Something about being home, I think. It's fu - it's messing with me."
"You can swear around me," Taylor said. "I watch your games. I know you have a potty mouth."
Sidney cracked up. "I don't have a potty mouth," he said. "I have a normal adult vocabulary."
Taylor laughed, too, for a little bit, and then she got serious all of a sudden. "Nothing about you is normal," she said.
Sidney shrugged. "That's true."
"But. Your head. It's not - it's not normal, but it's not broken, right?"
"I think I'll be okay in Pittsburgh." He'd better be.
"It sucks that you can't stay, though. We only got you back for, like, a month. That's nothing."
Sidney didn't need to read her mind to know what she was thinking. Their parents could get a little intense. "Why don't you come back with me? You could hang out with the Lemieux kids. Mario and Nathalie would love to have you, I bet." And there, she'd be staying in the main house, and he'd be in the guesthouse. He'd have space. He wouldn't have to spend every minute working to stay out of her head, wondering if he could somehow hurt her by reading her mind too much.
Taylor narrowed her eyes at him. "Did you ask them before you invited me? Like, you do know you have to ask before you invite someone to stay in someone else's house, right?"
Sidney shrugged. "If you want to come back with me, I'll ask now."
"Oh my god, you're the worst. You're like - not even human. You are the braincase-iest braincase ever."
Sidney threw a t-shirt at her and picked up his phone.
He didn't get that long.
As soon as Taylor was safely ensconced upstairs with Stephanie, playing some kind of dance game, Mario said, "Sid, why don't I walk you back to the guesthouse?"
Knowing what was coming didn't help if you couldn't fucking avoid it. "Sure," Sidney said.
Mario waited until they were out of the house, probably because his kids were world-class eavesdroppers. "You don't look like you gained any weight in Nova Scotia," he said neutrally.
"I was working out a lot," Sidney told him.
"Too much?" Mario said, and he still sounded neutral, but Sidney could sense some kind of feeling underneath it, he just couldn't figure out what the feeling was.
"Of course not! Andy was there, he wouldn't let me overwork. We did focused workouts to develop specific muscle groups and build overall endurance."
"But you didn't gain any weight. Diet all right?" And Mario still sounded casual in his voice, but not in his head, where he was ticking down a list of possibilities.
"I ate exactly by the plan. Come on. I was staying with my parents. You know they wouldn't let me go off my diet."
"So..." Mario said invitingly, trailing off.
Sidney didn't want to say it. He didn't even want to think it. But he and Mario had a deal. "I - it was tough being up there, with -" he gestured at his head.
Mario nodded and didn't say anything else until they were in the guesthouse. He was thinking hard, Sidney could tell, but he didn't want to push into Mario's head to find out what. "Tough," Mario said once they were inside. He headed over to the living room and sat down on the couch, leaving the chair Sidney preferred to him.
"Just. My parents. I bought a house, but I couldn't move in in time, and. My - father, especially, he has a lot of - thoughts."
Something flared in Mario's head, yet another feeling Sidney couldn't put a name to. "He's proud of you," Mario said firmly, and he sounded confident and sincere, but that feeling was still there behind it all.
"He's. Yeah." And he was, but he was also so many other things. Sidney found his father's head consistently exhausting. He didn't know how to say that, though, so he added, "He's so pissed off that we lost in the Final."
And that was a huge flare of whatever it was - anger, yeah, but something else, too. Sidney got why Mario was pissed that they'd missed the Cup, but he couldn't figure the rest of it out. He wished people's feelings made more fucking sense. "That was last season," Mario said firmly. "This is a brand-new season, and I know we're going to be great. And, Sid. Getting to the Final is something to be proud of. You got there faster than I did." Mario reached out and deliberately touched the back of Sidney's hand, so Sidney got a rush of pride and belief and sincerity before Mario pulled away again. "I mean it."
Sidney nodded and stared down at his feet, swallowing hard.
Mario stood. "Welcome back. And thanks for bringing Taylor. Dinner's at seven." He headed for the door.
It took Sidney ten minutes to get up and start unpacking, and he still wasn't entirely sure what had just happened, but he felt better than he had all summer.
Alone. Private. Away from the family, away from the noise he loved but couldn't live with all the time. He headed for the shower and almost walked into the wall, hit by a sudden flash of Alexa walking to the bathroom in the main house. Sidney flinched and dragged his brain out of hers, but that took him to Austin's, to Stephanie's, to Taylor's. Finally, he focused on Mario, forcing his way into his head. Mario was sitting still, which meant Sidney could find his helmet and get it on.
In the morning, it happened again. All the kids, and then another round through all of them as they ate breakfast and wondered where he was.
Sidney called a realtor.
"Hi, Mr. Crosby. I'm Mia, I'm delighted to be working with you," she said. She stepped forward and held out her hand.
"Hi," Sidney said, shoving his hands into his pockets until she got the message and stepped back again. Shaking hands was a thing you had to do, but surely he didn't have to shake hands with someone he was paying.
She looked from Sidney to Mario before focusing back on Sidney. "So, what can you tell me about what you're looking for?"
"In Sewickley," Sidney said. "I don't want to pay more than four million."
"Beds?" she said, smiling so widely Sidney wondered if she had extra teeth. "Baths?"
"Yeah," Sidney agreed. He didn't need more than one of each, but whatever he ended up with was fine. They didn't usually make one-bedroom houses far enough away from other houses for him.
She paused. "So, you don't - really have any specific needs in that arena?"
"Not really," Sidney said.
Mario said, "Sidney's more interested in the property itself - location, for example."
"Ah. Right." She made some notes on a piece of paper. Sidney looked at the paper, trying to figure out what she was writing, and found himself looking through her eyes. The paper said call vet, get dry cleaning, check on HA and MMF, fax extension forms. After that there were just some squiggles and question marks.
People were weird.
In the end, it only took about a week. Sidney could rule out half the houses without ever getting out of the car, and he ruled out most of the rest standing on the front porch. Finally, though, he found a house that worked - on the porch, he could feel minds buzzing around, but they weren't so close he slipped into them. Inside, it was even quieter, and after he installed some psychic insulation, it'd be perfect. Sidney stood in the middle of the kitchen and took a few deep breaths. Then he said, "How much is it?"
"Three nine, which I realize is on the high end of your range, but I noticed you were mostly interested in quieter places, and this really is as quiet as you'll get," Mia said. She'd gotten more nervous around Sidney as the week went on, which was irritating, since he was really trying hard to be friendly. "The closest neighbors are an elderly couple - no late nights or anything. Really lovely property."
"Okay," Sidney said.
There was a long pause in the kitchen, and then Nathalie, who had been switching off with Mario, said, "He means he'll buy it."
"Um," she said, hesitating. "You don't want to see the other floors?"
"Uh, no," Sidney said, and shrugged. Mia nodded and reached into her messenger bag for some papers. Sidney knew this part; he just signed a lot of pieces of paper, and then he signed a check, and then eventually he'd sign more paper and another check and have a house. Easy.
The thought of leaving the Lemieuxs still nauseated him, but he didn't really have any choice. He couldn't live in the helmet.
It was a nice picture, though. Living in the helmet. He could make this house as much like a helmet as possible, and then he'd be - safe. Comfortable. He'd be able to sleep, able to relax. He'd be able to play with nothing holding him back.
Jordy looked up at him all big-eyed and said, "There are unconfirmed reports that Sidney Crosby is buying a house."
"Yeah, in Sewickley," Sidney said. "It's. Nice." He couldn't figure out what else you said about a house. It's made of bricks?
Talbot came up to him and gave him a serious stare. "Sidney, you can't move away from home. What will Mario and Nathalie do without you? They'll be alllllll alone, with just their other four children."
"Fuck you," Sidney said, and headed for his stall. Being back was great. This was where he knew what he was doing, what was going on.
"Our little boy is growing up," Sergei said. "If Mario has not already given you sex talk, I will do it."
"Not listen," Geno advised. "He make shit up."
Sergei turned and said something rapid-fire to Geno in Russian that made Geno laugh his ass off. Sidney grinned helplessly, just watching that. Geno's moods were catching, which was weird, since they were also the only moods Sidney absolutely couldn't catch.
The only thing the contractor actually said was, "You know, we've done this before, but only to commercial spaces."
"But you can do it here?" Sidney said. He already knew they could; he was keeping an eye on the contractor's mind, just to make sure he understood and could do it and would.
"Oh, yeah, of course." The guy clearly let his questions go as not being worth it. "Uh, it'll take a month or so to get all the material in, so we can start, hmmm - beginning of November?"
"As soon as possible," Sidney said.
"So November 3rd, 4th, somewhere in there."
It wasn't as fast as he wanted, but it'd do.
After they were done and the cleaners went through, Sidney went over; it was an easy five-minute jog from Mario's, which was nice. He stood in one of the empty downstairs rooms - family room? living room? he couldn't remember what Mia had called it - for a few minutes and listened, hard. Then he tentatively reached out with his mind, and - just that little, quiet buzz. Upstairs in the bedroom, he couldn't even hear that. Sidney looked around for a few more minutes, jogged back to Mario's, and made a list of the furniture he'd need.
Nathalie took him to a furniture store, but that was basically a disaster. It was full of people - the fans weren't nearly as bad as the angry couple quietly fighting over couch swatches - and the furniture all felt - weird. Dirty.
"What do you mean, dirty?" Nathalie asked patiently.
Sidney stood near the couch he'd just jumped off, trying to put it into words. It was like - "I can. Other people have touched it a lot," he said, quietly enough that no one could overhear. "I can feel it."
Nathalie nodded like that made perfect sense and said, "Why don't we try buying furniture online?"
That worked better. Sidney could just point and click and charge his credit card and then arrange for delivery. The deliveries were annoying, because he had to be there for them himself, even though the season was kicking into higher gear. But he didn't want any more strangers in the house than he could help, not if he was actually going to live there; he didn't want to look at his walls and know they'd been touched by too many people, like the couches at the furniture store.
Once he got the hang of online ordering, it was great. He bought two couches, a TV, a bedroom set - he got a queen bed, so he could really sprawl out if he wanted. He got some insulating curtains to put up over the windows and installed them himself, measuring carefully three times before he did anything. It took him four off days, but when he was done, there was no way anyone was ever going to be able to look into any of the windows. And Sidney wasn't entirely sure, but he thought it was even quieter.
He hired Mario's security company. He added new, extra locks to all the doors and installed them himself, after three trips to the hardware store to buy the tools. He put safety guards on the showers so the water couldn't get too hot. He repainted the walls in the master bedroom until they were the perfect, soothing shade of beige. He worked on the house whenever he wasn't training or playing, and it kept him distracted.
He still slept at Mario's. He just wore the helmet all the time, and things were pretty much fine. Nearly fine, anyway.
Sidney recoiled. All those people, in his house, touching things, leaving impressions of themselves wherever - but Flower was still talking.
"Like I said, you're not having a housewarming. We all know that. We're hockey players, but we're not that stupid. But we got you something, the whole team, and me and Jordy and Brooks are coming by to deliver it on Friday, so deal."
"Uh, okay. Uh. Thanks?" Sidney tried. Flower nodded, satisfied, and walked away.
When they showed up on Friday, they were carrying a big wrapped box. They came in, following Sidney's instructions to take their shoes off and leave their coats in the foyer, and put the box down in Sidney's empty dining room. Sidney got them all bottles of water. Then Jordy said, "Well? Don't we get a tour?"
Sidney thought about it. A few minutes wouldn't hurt, and these guys were his team. He kind of wanted them to see his house. He led them through it, wishing he could remember the names Mia had had for all the rooms. The guys were mostly silent, although Brooks at one point said, "You've owned this house since September and you've only furnished four rooms?"
"Yes," Sidney said, because that was obvious. He got hit with a wave of worry and sadness from Brooks, though, so he added, "I don't know what I'll do with the other ones. I'll figure it out after I'm living here."
Brooks and Jordy nodded, though they still weren't feeling all that happy, and Flower said, "Maybe we should have given you a gift card. Or a decorator." In his head, he had a series of images that made no sense - prisons and vases and paintings of fruit.
But other than that, they stayed quiet until they got to Sidney's bedroom. He'd put in the most work there, obviously; the curtains were up, the bed was there, he had a side table and a desk and a comfortable chair. Best of all, when you walked in, the place was dead, absolutely silent on every level. Sidney felt himself relaxing a little, just knowing he was safe here.
Brooks and Flower and Jordy looked around. Then Jordy said, "Great. You've got your very own Fortress of Solitude."
Sidney smiled at him, seriously happy, because that was it. That was exactly what he'd been trying to make. "That's perfect, Jordy," he said. "That's what I'll name it." He looked around his bedroom, feeling happier than he had in days. "The Fortress of Solitude."
The guys exchanged looks, and Sidney made a conscious effort not to know what they were thinking; he didn't want other minds touching his, not here. After a long, long pause, Brooks said, "So let's open your present." And they all trooped downstairs to do that.
It was gorgeous, a beautiful wooden clock with a little pendulum thing in a glass case. "If you keep the glass closed, it doesn't make any noise," Jordy pointed out helpfully. "We made sure, because we know you'd end up throwing it in a well otherwise."
"Wow." Sidney touched it gently. It was smooth and soft and gave an immediate impression of care, of effort - whoever made it had worked hard on it, had loved it. "It's really nice. It's - it's great, guys, wow." When he looked up, the guys were smiling at him, and he could feel their genuine happiness, multiplied by three.
"It's from everyone," Flower reminded him. "All our names are on the back."
Sidney flipped over the clock and there, on the back, painted in tiny, perfect script, was the entire 2008-09 roster, including their numbers. He stroked his finger over the names and grinned helplessly. "It's perfect. Thank you," he said.
"Okay," Brooks said. "We're glad you like it, and you did a great job pretending we weren't freaking you out by being in your space, but we're going to go before we overstay our welcome."
They weren't, actually. It was okay, even good, having them there. But Sidney didn't know how to say that, and he didn't know if that would always be true, so he just nodded and smiled and showed them out, thanking them once more before they left.
Afterwards, he stood in his living room, looking for the perfect place for the clock. Once he had it picked out - he'd get out the studfinder in the morning, to make sure he hung it somewhere really stable - he took a breath and looked around his living room.
The Fortress of Solitude. His Fortress of Solitude. Perfect.
He spent the next two hours reasoning it out. He loved living at Mario's, and he couldn't do it anymore. It wasn't safe. It wasn't fair. He needed to be alone.
The next morning, they went to Boston, and when they came back Sidney started packing. It was like everything wanted him to move; they kept losing, and Sidney couldn't get focused enough to pull the team together. On January 11, Sidney spent his first night at the Fortress.
Two days later, they beat the Flyers 4-2. Sidney took the win as clear evidence that the move was the right one. And he did feel better. He was sleeping better. He could keep the helmet off all the time at home.
When he walked into the Fortress and closed the door behind him, he was closing out the world. It was great.
Ilyusha stood up. "This childish feud has to stop. The Olympics are coming, and we'll all be on the same team, playing for Russia. That's more important than your ridiculous playground games."
"I -" Ovechkin, right, Ovechkin said.
Ilyusha kept right on going. "Let me be clear. If I have to get you both drunk, I will," he said. "If I have to beat you both up, I will. If I have to kill you both, believe me, I will. I don't care what happens to either of you as long as this ends."
"I don't -" Geno started.
Ilyusha held up a hand. "I don't want to hear excuses. I don't want to hear details. You'll stay here until you make up or until you die." And then he left, locking the door behind him.
"It's great to have such caring people in my life," Ovechkin said, smiling acidly. "With friends like these, suicide never looks so bad."
Geno just sighed. He knew where this was going, and the truth was - they'd both fucked up. "I'm sorry I was such a dick. I was jealous, I was stupid, I'm sorry."
Sanya looked up at him and smiled. "I'm sorry I punched Gennady. I should have punched you instead." He paused and then added, more gently and hesitantly, "I'm sorry - I'm sorry I couldn't be - what you wanted."
Geno smiled back and tried to mean it. "I was stupid to think that, to expect that. I knew it even then."
"I'm so great you could not resist me," Sanya said, nodding seriously. "So many people want a piece of this." He said the last four words in English, gesturing at his body and posing.
It wasn't your body that I got hung up on, Geno didn't say. He was smarter than that. "Maybe two years ago, your body was worth having," he said. "Now, though, you look like such a slacker. I'm sad for you, really."
Sanya stood up and mimed rage. "You'll pay for those words," he said. "At the All Star Game, we will have a showdown, and you will eat your words for all the world to see."
"I think maybe you'll be the one doing the eating," Geno said. Sanya staggered back dramatically, falling onto the bed with a crash, swooning like a heroine in a novel, both hands pressed dramatically to his heart. And Geno laughed. How could he help it? "You're insane," he said.
"Oh yes," Sanya said, smiling up at him. "Don't forget lazy, dirty, dramatic, and playboy. All my faults have to get equal time or they get jealous and start acting up."
Geno winced a little at that, but it was obvious Sanya meant nothing by it, so Geno could let it go. He had a strategy that worked for him, he had a way to deal with it. And since he wouldn't be making the mistake of wanting Sanya again, he could at least let himself have the friendship. So he just snorted and said, "If I start to list all your flaws, we will still be here tomorrow, and Ilyusha will resort to calling our mothers."
Sanya's cringe at that one wasn't feigned. "Then let's kiss and make up now. Quick. Before he gets on the phone."
Geno said, "I don't know, I think you have more to fear there than I do. Your mother is a tiger, after all. Mine is a sweetheart."
"Don't pretend with me," Sanya snapped, getting up. "I've seen you calling your mother after games when you get hit."
Geno shrugged elaborately. "She worries. That's all."
"Well, mine does not worry. She acts. And I don't want her acting on me this time." Sanya crossed over and put his hands on Geno's shoulders. "Friends?"
Geno swallowed and smiled. "Friends," he said.
Sanya kissed him on both cheeks and then went over and kicked the door. "You can let us out! We've made up, and no one is dead!"
"Thank god!" Ilyusha yelled from the other side. "But I'm going to leave you in there longer, I think. This is the least annoying either of you has been since 2007."
The Penguins were just a giant cluster of hockey players, all moving around, all hugging everyone they could reach, and Sidney didn't even know who he was near most of the time. He could pinpoint where Geno was, though; Geno, as always, was easy to track, a pool of calm, cool quiet that Sidney instinctively reached for.
When they broke up the hug to do the handshake line, Sidney knew where he had to be. He had to touch all of the Red Wings, barehanded, and they deserved honest handshakes, but he absolutely didn't want their feelings in his head, not right after winning the Cup. So he pushed into the line right behind Geno - Scuderi grinned and made space for him - and tried to stay as close to Geno as he could. It helped. It didn't make it easy, but it kept the bleedover of the Wings' emotions to just the time when Sidney was actually shaking hands. Joy, he felt, joy joy joy and then sadness, overwhelming sadness, and then joy, and then sorrow and anger. Whiplash. By the time he was done with the handshake line, Sidney was pretty sure he was shaking.
Geno won the Conn Smythe, which was good because he deserved it, and also good because Sidney needed the time to breathe. He stayed close to his team, got a strong hit of their joy, and after a minute or two was ready to shake Bettman's hand and lift the Cup.
That moment, lifting the Cup - Sidney never wanted to do anything else. He never wanted to feel anything else. It wasn't just his joy, it wasn't just knowing he'd finally done what he was meant to do - touching the Cup hit him with endless layers of pure, brilliant joy, all the feelings of everyone who'd ever lifted it. It felt like Sidney's brain was being overwhelmed, overwritten by euphoria the entire time he touched it.
And every time anyone else lifted the Cup, it was another pulse of happiness, driving him just that much higher. Sidney felt like he was floating, felt like he didn't have a body. He couldn't even remember where he was hurt anymore.
A few minutes in, Mario leaned into him, grabbed his head - another pulse of joy, undercut with a little worry - and said, "How are you holding up?"
"I'm good," Sidney said, laughing at how true it was. "I'm great, I'm the best I've ever been." Mario smiled and let him go again.
And Sidney really did feel fantastic. Still, by the time they got to the locker room, he was coming down a little, and he felt - weird. Seasick. Dan asked him if he was okay, and he said, "Just - gotta sit down for a minute." He did, picking a spot where no one would accidentally touch him, and tried to take it in.
He couldn't. His brain wouldn't work right; it felt like his head had shorted out somewhere in the celebrations. He couldn't feel his stomach, couldn't feel his leg, felt someone else's leg, saw a weird angle of the Cup, and he couldn't make it stop. After a few minutes, Sidney got up and went to the one place where his head might behave.
Near Geno, everything was fine again. Sidney stopped worrying.
The next morning, Mario found him in the Iceoplex, asleep on the bench wearing all his gear. "Sid," he said. "What's going on?"
"Just needed to be near the ice," Sidney told him.
Mario thought, He's getting worse.
"I'm not. Not - consistently worse," Sidney protested. He'd been fine during the Cup run, after all.
"You need to see a doctor." Sidney could hear the doubt Mario wasn't letting into his voice.
"They never tell me anything useful. They just want me to go get locked in an academy forever."
"They can at least tell us if you're reaching some critical point, if you're doing damage to yourself like this."
Mario's head was full of hockey players he knew with damaged brains. He thought of Keith Primeau, Pat LaFontaine, Eric Lindros. Sidney figured that probably meant he was destined to lose the argument, and his head hurt too much for him to really care.
Sidney decided he could afford an expert this time - not just the closest one to the border, but the best one. That turned out to be Delia Gamble, M.D., Ph.D., and Sidney flew to San Francisco during a break to meet with her.
"Best," Sidney realized quickly, really meant "most painful." Dr. Gamble's staff dragged him through eight hours of horrible testing and then told him to return as soon as possible for the remainder of it. Sidney went home to play more games and sleep at the rink as infrequently as he could stand, and returned a week later for the second, worse round.
Dr. Gamble required a third visit before she'd actually diagnose him, and that meeting left Sidney sort of wanting to go back to the testing. She was completely opaque to him - not quiet, like Geno, but her blocking was basically perfect. So Sidney had to wait for her actual words.
"You scored 9.72 on the Watanabe scale," she told him in a flat, no-nonsense tone. "Your range is phenomenal, about where we'd expect with that number, but your inadvertence, control, and resistance are all incredibly poor, which is not terribly surprising, given that you report that you have absolutely no training."
"Right, and I've been doing okay up to now," Sidney said, trying to get the conversation back on track.
"Let me finish," she said. "You're reporting near-constant headaches. The psychological measures we ran on you had you all over the place, which is, again, not entirely surprising for someone who spends every minute of his day with strangers in his head." Sidney wanted to point out that it wasn't every single minute, especially now that he had the Fortress, but she was unstoppable. "You meet the diagnostic criteria for OCD, depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder, and if you didn't have extenuating circumstances, you'd meet the criteria for autism, sensory processing disorder, and ADD, too. You don't seem to be able to perform basic life maintenance tasks, and you report an almost complete absence of normal interaction. You are, to put it as simply and bluntly as possible, about one misstep away from a complete breakdown."
Sidney blinked at her. Brain doctors had always acted a little hysterical around him, but she had to know he'd see through it, blocking or not. "I'm still playing well," he pointed out.
She looked down at her folders, took a deep breath, and looked back at Sidney. "Mr. Crosby," she said patiently. "I am aware that hockey is extremely important to you, but it is not the sole measure of your ability to function."
Yes, it is, Sidney thought, and she frowned at him. "I'm blocking, but when you direct thoughts at me like that, I can't avoid hearing them."
"You know, there are other coping mechanisms," she said. "You can find other ways to meet your needs." She apparently sensed Sidney's rising panic, because she held up her hands. "I am not saying you have to stop playing hockey. At this point, you rely on it so heavily that I'm very concerned about what a long-term hiatus in play would do to you. I'm saying you have other options. I want you to hear that, because sooner or later, you will have to stop playing hockey, through injury or retirement, and I'm afraid that could be the single step between you and a breakdown."
Sidney wondered what "breakdown" meant in this context, making sure to think it pretty hard, and Dr. Gamble said, "You know, it's rude to project rather than speak with words." She studied him with raised eyebrows for a few seconds, then continued. "A complete breakdown, in your case, would look like your life now, except that you'd lose your tenuous grasp on control. The headaches would become paralyzing. The nausea would be constant and uncontrollable, no matter how blandly consistent your diet. The psychological disorders would take you over. The random sensory input would overwhelm your own body's input, and you'd find yourself struggling to walk and speak and eat, never mind play hockey."
"But that's not happening now," Sidney pointed out, trying to suppress his panic at the thought of no hockey. "And it's not going to happen anytime soon."
"What I am trying to tell you is that I cannot predict when it will happen," she said patiently. "The precipitating event could be anything. And it could happen at any time. You need training."
"In the summer," Sidney promised. He meant it, too; the symptoms she was describing were too much like some kind of mega-CTE for him to want to risk them. "I can do it in the summer. A year, right? That's just four summers." He didn't mention all the exercise and press and filming and interviews he had to do in the summer, and he was careful not to think about it loudly enough that she might hear.
Dr. Gamble played with one of her pens for a minute before nodding. "It won't be the same, but you're very motivated, and I think you'll be even more motivated after you see how much better this makes things." She reached for a pad of paper and started writing. "I'm going to give you some names to call to get things set up."
Sidney nodded and took the paper, intending to call as soon as he had a break in his schedule. Maybe after the playoffs.
The trainers were worried, he could tell, and getting more worried with every passing minute, but Sidney couldn't make it work, couldn't find any place in his head that wasn't loud and painful and chaotic. He struggled, taking deep breaths, trying to force his brain into place, but he still bounced - a fan in the upper seats pissed off at the refs, someone working at a concession stand dropping a hotdog on the floor, a janitor reading a book, Curtis arguing with Rick. Sidney's breathing got faster and faster, until he felt like he was choking, suffocating. In the end, he passed out. He woke up in the hospital.
Concussion. That's what the doctors said, and they said rest was the only cure, but even the Fortress was a prison. Sitting in his shielded bedroom, in the dark, with his helmet on, his brain hurt, his body hurt, and his mind spun through so many foreign thoughts he sometimes couldn't remember his name. He wasn't supposed to be able to hear anything in his own bedroom, but it was like he'd turned the volume all the way up and then lost the control, and he heard everything, constantly.
Mario and Nathalie visited frequently, though Sidney wasn't sure how often. They never came at the same time, and they wouldn't bring the kids, wouldn't let them see him like this. Sidney wished they'd come more. When Nathalie or Mario came, he could focus on them for a while, focus on the gentle buzz of their bond, and the pain got a little better.
"I wish we could help you," Nathalie said during one of her visits, her whole mind soft and sad and warm; Nathalie was never quiet, but she was never loud, either - people who had been bonded a long time never were - and Sidney loved that.
"You help," he said, or tried to say. He couldn't tell anymore if he was saying words or just thinking them; he couldn't hear himself most of the time.
"Oh, Sidney," Nathalie said, and carefully patted his leg, which was under the covers.
Seconds later, the noise spiked - someone down the street, thrilled about something she got in the mail - and Sidney rolled over and puked. He kept buckets on both sides of the bed for that. When he went to the bathroom, he rinsed them out. The smell didn't even register most of the time; he was too busy smelling other people's dinners, other people's cigarettes, other people's bodies, other people's perfume. Nathalie, though, immediately picked up the bucket and carried it off, and when she came back, she said, "Can we get you to the doctor you saw before?"
Sidney tried to imagine flying to San Francisco like this and retched again. Nathalie managed to get him sitting up and over the bucket without ever touching his skin. She was good that way. "I'll be better," he promised, desperate to prevent any attempt to get him across the country. "Soon, things will get quieter." He didn't actually believe that anymore, but Nathalie couldn't hear anything Sidney didn't want her to.
"I know," she said, and sat down again. "I know." She was wondering how much he could stand.
Time passed - Sidney had no way of knowing how much - and Nathalie said, "Is it better if you're alone?"
Sidney thought about it. "I'm not ever alone," he said, because he wasn't; even when he slept, he dreamed other people's dreams. "But it's better when there are people. Safe people," he added, because the idea of seeing, say, Talbot made him sicker. Some people were just loud all the time.
"Safe people," she said thoughtfully.
"Sid's not doing well," Mario said, no preamble.
Geno tried to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach at that. "Concussions hard," he offered. "He get better, though."
"Yeah," Mario said doubtfully, and Geno thought he didn't mean it at all. He wondered what Mario knew that the rest of them didn't. With Sidney, it could be anything.
They were still walking, and almost to the exit, and Geno was pretty sure that whatever Mario had come to say he hadn't said yet. Mario followed him all the way to his car, and then he said, "I think Sidney might appreciate a visit from you."
Geno stared at him. Sure, if Sid had had a different injury he'd already have visited, but - "He has concussion." A concussion meant you needed to be quiet and rest. Visitors were not encouraged. Nothing interesting was encouraged. If your teammates wanted to know how you were, they asked the coach and stayed away.
"I think it might help," Mario said.
"Okay?" Geno offered, unsure how he could help but entirely willing to try. If Sid could have people over, he'd be one of them. "I visit him Friday." He'd have all day Friday to do whatever Sid needed done. Even though it was hard to imagine anything Geno could do that Sid couldn't pay someone to do better.
Mario looked a little disappointed, but nodded. "Here's directions to his house," he said, handing over a print out and an envelope. "Here's his key, and the security code. He's not well enough to get up to let you in, so just go in. He's on the second floor, in the bedroom on the right." Mario hesitated, then added, "He - he looks pretty bad. The doctors say the hospital can't do anything for him, though, so he's best off at home. Don't get scared. My wife and I check on him twice a day."
Geno nodded, said goodbye, and climbed into his car. He drove out of the parking lot and then pulled over, staring ahead. The whole thing made less than no sense. Sidney had a concussion, not a skate cut or an eye injury or anything that was going to be gross to see. Why did Mario think he'd be afraid? And why had Mario decided to give Sidney's keys to Geno? It made no sense.
After a few more seconds of thought, Geno put the car back in gear and pulled out the map. He'd never relax, thinking about this, worrying about this. He could check in and then come back on Friday. That'd work out fine.
Geno came in, shut the door, and waited for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he could see Sidney curled on his bed, wearing - a helmet? If they were afraid he'd fall down, shouldn't he have a nurse with him? Geno also figured out the source of the vomit smell. The bathroom door was open, and he decided, first things first - get rid of the puke.
When he came back, Sidney was talking in his sleep. "Stop," he said quietly. "Stop. I don't -" and then wordless whimpers.
Geno couldn't stand it. He walked over to the bed and put his hand on Sidney's shoulder. He didn't want to shake him, not if he was this bad, but just simple contact should be enough. Sidney always noticed when people touched him. Sidney didn't respond, though, which was freaky. After a few seconds, Geno said, "Sid, wake up. You having nightmare."
Sidney gasped. He kept his eyes tightly closed, but his breathing changed, and Geno knew he was awake. He didn't say anything, though. After a few seconds, he reached up and wrapped his hand around the one Geno had on his shoulder.
"Geno," Sidney said. His voice was scratchy and rough, almost rusty.
"Mario said visit," Geno explained, feeling awkward and tense and a little pissed off at Mario for letting Sid get this bad.
"You're so quiet," Sidney said. "It's great."
Geno figured in that case he had better be quiet, and shut his mouth. Sidney fell back asleep after a few seconds. After a couple of minutes, Geno tried to pull his hand away, and Sidney tightened his around it, so he sat down in the chair helpfully located next to the bed.
Sidney slept for three hours while Geno sat and ran plays in his head, wishing he'd brought something to do. He couldn't even reach his phone. He finally pried his hand away because he had to take a piss, and as soon as he managed, Sidney opened his eyes. "Will you come back?" he asked hopefully.
"Okay," Geno said. "Game tomorrow. Day after?"
Sidney's expression was complicated. Geno figured he shouldn't have brought up the game; Sidney wasn't playing, couldn't play, and for Sidney that was basically like not being allowed to breathe.
"I'll see you the day after tomorrow," Sidney said firmly, in the same voice he used when they were two down and shorthanded.
When Geno got up to the top of the stairs, Sidney was walking out of his room. Geno hastened forward - he still wasn't entirely sure how well Sidney could walk, and falling down and hitting your head when you already had a concussion was a really bad idea - and put part of his plan into action.
"Sid, you stink," he said.
Sidney made a face. "It's hard to shower," he said. "Mario makes me sometimes, but we're afraid I'll slip and then he'll have to catch me."
That made no sense - Mario was plenty fit enough to catch Sidney, who wasn't even that big - but Geno ignored it. "You go sit in shower," he said firmly. "In dark. I change sheets." Geno figured that part of the reason Sidney was feeling so crappy was that he was filthy, sleeping in dirty sheets, and surrounded by stale air all the time. Geno couldn't fix his head, but he could fix that.
Sidney squinted at him. "Okay," he said finally.
Geno turned off all the lights in the bathroom and turned the shower on. He helped Sidney in, handed him the soap and the shampoo, and left, cracking the door so he could hear thumps or whatever. He stripped and changed the bed and opened the windows behind their blackout curtains so at least some air could circulate. Then he washed all the buckets. And cleaned the floor around Sidney's bed. Sidney was still in the shower, so he went back in.
Sidney was lying curled in the shower stall. His face was pointed to the side, so at least Geno didn't need to worry about him drowning himself. Geno had left the shower door a little bit open, too, so he opened it a little more and said, "Sid, you wash?"
"Not yet," Sidney said. "My skin hurts." He reached out a hand for Geno to help him up, and Geno pulled him up to a sit. "If you'd just stay here, it'd be easier," Sidney said.
"Then I stay," Geno said. Sometimes he wondered if Sidney was even from this planet, and this was one of those times, kneeling on the bathmat in front of the shower while Sidney held onto him with one hand and washed with the other. Geno's shirt was wet from the shower spray, and he was trying to do the decent thing and not look, except he really didn't have much choice, especially since his eyes were adjusting to the dark, and the bathroom didn't have blackout curtains.
Sidney was still in great shape. He'd lost some weight, though. Next time, Geno would have to bring something bland for him. Everyone knew he hated tasty food.
After Sidney was clean, he walked back to bed, and he didn't even put the helmet on before he fell asleep, fingers wrapped around Geno's ankle. Geno played games on his phone and waited until Sidney was deeply asleep before he left. As he headed to the bedroom door, Sidney's sleep turned restless, and Geno hesitated before finally letting himself out.
"Sure." Geno didn't think Mario needed to know about the handholding. "He doing better, I think." Actually, Geno thought he'd just been more comfortable being clean, in a room that didn't smell horrible, lying on sheets that weren't disgusting. And if he hadn't known he couldn't ever project thoughts, he'd have thought he projected that, because Mario grimaced and responded immediately.
"We can't change his sheets or help him in the shower, because - Sidney's sensitive." Mario made the universal tapping-the-temple gesture to indicate how Sidney was sensitive. "He can even pick up impressions off objects, so if we touch the sheets he sleeps on too much, it makes him crazy. And any skin contact is -"
Geno shrugged. He knew Jordy and Kris, especially, said that Sidney could sometimes hear them on the ice, and Flower could hear everyone but Geno off the ice, but it was fairly meaningless to him. "Wouldn't know," he said.
"Right. I think - uh, are you..."
"Can't reach out," Geno explained. "Zero on contact."
"Oh. Oh." Mario didn't look sorry, the way most bonded people did when they realized Geno couldn't bond. He looked fascinated. "That explains it, then. Sid - Sid's really comfortable around you, and he's not comfortable around most people. He can't read you, of course, that makes sense."
"No one can read someone during play," Geno pointed out.
Mario tilted his hand back and forth. "Sidney's never said, but I think he can, sometimes. The helmets - most things don't work on him exactly right."
Geno said, "He always say I'm quiet."
"Right," Mario agreed. "He can't hear you. And I bet you make it harder for him to hear other people, too."
Geno had been told that by other sensitives; they didn't like being around him, usually, but they were rare enough that it had only come up a couple of times. And Sid, of course, would have to be the exception.
Geno thought about that until practice started, and then again after practice. While he showered, he thought about the times Sidney had touched him, and tried to imagine that being all the times Sidney had willingly touched anyone.
It wasn't fun to imagine.
When he left, instead of going to visit Sidney, he drove to his house and packed a bag - just a few things, enough so that he could spend the night. Then he went to Sidney's.
Sidney didn't meet him, and when Geno walked into his room, he was curled into a ball, hands wrapped around his head. "Sid. Hey," Geno said, and went over to try to untangle him.
As soon as he touched him, Sidney went limp. "You came back," Sidney said, voice shaky and still rusty.
"Told you I was," Geno said.
"Right. It's just - it's been a long time." Sidney grimaced, clearly not liking how that sounded.
"Been a day, Sid," Geno told him. "You throw up today?" The room didn't smell bad, but he wanted to be sure.
"No. It's better when I can sleep some." Sidney looked at Geno, then looked away, and it was as clear as if Geno could actually read his mind: he didn't want to say that Geno had helped. Sidney sucked at that.
"So. Game tomorrow. Tonight I need carbs."
"There's a pasta place that delivers," Sidney said carefully. "You could stay for dinner."
"I stay for night," Geno said, and indicated his bag, over by the door.
"Really?" Sidney looked at him, surprised.
"Mario say you superpsychic," Geno said.
Sidney looked away and muttered something.
"And I tell him that I am zero on contact."
Sidney looked back, shocked. "Holy fuck, you're a psychic buffer."
Geno blinked at him. The only word he knew in English for what he was was "null," and that wasn't a word he ever wanted to use for himself.
"It's what they called it in this book I read. People who score zero on contact can't be reached, but your mind tries to reach them anyway, and it, like, sort of cancels your psychic ability or something, like one of those rooms that absorbs sound. In the book they said mostly buffers end up working in the military or government or places like that. It's really rare. They get paid a lot, as much as high-end psychics." Sidney looked at Geno speculatively.
"I get paid lots," Geno pointed out, just in case Sidney was about to suggest he find a government to work for.
"Yeah. And you're better at hockey than you would be at being a spy," Sidney said. He winced.
Sidney shrugged. "I have a concussion." He hesitated, looking down, then continued. "But at least this time I can tell it's the concussion that's causing problems. So." He made a face, then added, "Thanks."
"Where I sleep?" Geno asked.
Sidney hesitated for so long it was obvious what he wanted to say, so Geno just said it for him. "If I sleeping here, I change sheets again."
"Okay. Do I stink?"
"Like ass of rotting rhinoceros," Geno assured him.
"Then I won't shower. I know how much you like that. I've seen the girls you date," Sidney snapped back.
Geno went downstairs to forage for food feeling pretty good about how Sidney was doing.
Sidney was still concussed, of course. That meant he couldn't do anything, and it also meant Geno couldn't watch TV, but he turned out to be happy to eat and then sleep while Geno read and played on his phone and texted. After Sidney was really and truly asleep - sleeping so hard he was barely moving, his whole body slack, snoring softly - Geno thought about going downstairs to watch TV. In the end, though, he just put his phone on the nightstand and switched off the low-watt light he'd had on. He fell asleep fast, and didn't think about much of anything.
Geno hadn't been aware that the Lemieuxs came over quite this early - he glanced at the clock and discovered it was only seven. He groaned, and Nathalie said, "I'll go make coffee." She was still beaming as she left the room.
Geno dragged himself out of bed and got dressed. Sidney came out around the time Geno was pulling on a pair of clean sweatpants, and Geno went into the bathroom and pissed. As soon as he flushed, Sidney opened the door and came back in. "Morning," he said, sounding ludicrously cheerful.
"Oh?" Geno said. "Thought it was middle of night."
"I've been up since five," Sidney said. "I just - haven't been getting out of bed. And then I thought, why not? I can. So I did." He put the lid down and sat on the toilet, apparently prepared to watch Geno wash and brush his teeth. He really did look better.
Geno decided he didn't have the energy to stay grumpy, especially since Sidney was clearly oblivious. And the grumpiness was gone for good when he got downstairs and discovered Nathalie cooking - she had omelets going, and had also started soup and had something in the oven. "I like to put together a few meals at a time," she explained, pouring coffee. "Sid needs to eat good food, but it's not like he can cook right now." She laughed a little. "Or ever, really."
"Nathalie's a really good cook," Sidney said cheerfully.
Geno settled down to eat. "Never see you this happy before," he said.
"My head hurts," Sidney said, eating, "but - I can taste this stuff. Just what I'm eating, not even what you are. As long as I'm within about five feet of you, it's not too bad."
Geno thought about that. It was - good and alarming all at once, and he tried to focus on the satisfied feeling it gave him, ignore the rest of it. After a few minutes he made himself stop thinking about it - it wasn't like this was forever, after all. When he looked up, though, Nathalie was watching him thoughtfully.
After lunch, she said, "Geno, why don't you shower while I'm here to keep an eye on Sidney?"
"I can just go with him," Sidney pointed out. "I've seen him shower before."
"I want to talk to you," Nathalie said, and she sounded just as calm and cheerful as always, but Sidney looked slightly alarmed. Geno was a good enough strategist to get the hell out of there and to stay in the shower for much longer than usual.
He eventually came out, sort of surprised that Sidney hadn't come in after him, and headed into the bedroom to get dressed. Sidney was there, sitting on the bed, and as soon as Geno walked in, he started talking. "I realize your job is not to take care of me," he said. Geno wished Nathalie, during the talk she'd obviously had with Sidney, had also told him about the importance of letting people get their pants on. "And I realize that you need your space. So you should tell me when you don't want me around or when you have other things to do, okay?"
He looked at Geno, his eyes squinted against the dim light, his face tense, and Geno's chest felt suspiciously warm. "I will say, Sid," Geno told him. After he finished putting on his boxers, he walked over and put his hand on Sidney's head, and Sidney - relaxed. His whole body just unwound, and he leaned into the touch like he genuinely wanted it.
Geno had never been able to make anyone feel that good just by being there. He stood there, Sidney's head pressed against his belly, and didn't bother to try to sort through his feelings.
Still, at the end of a road trip, the bonded players were always easy to pick out - silent, tense, sweaty, sometimes a little sick. Everyone tried to avoid sitting near Dupuis because he tended to actually puke. And everyone tried to avoid unnecessary talking to any of the bonded guys during a trip, especially on the first and last days, when fights could break out over just about anything.
Geno always hung out with the unbonded guys, of course, and this road trip was no different. Except that he kept tuning Jordy's monologue out.
He'd had to leave Sidney behind. Sidney couldn't travel, couldn't possibly handle it, and Geno had to play, wanted to play. But Geno suspected that all the telepathic input in those first days had made the concussion worse, and he didn't like to think of Sidney back in bed in the dark, wandering through endless minds, unable to remember which hands were his. He found himself a little tenser, and his answers got short.
About an hour into the flight, Geno noticed that he had a little bubble of space around him. He gave up pretending to be social, put his headphones on, and fell asleep.
Geno walked up the stairs quietly, not wanting to wake Sidney if he'd managed to sleep, but as soon as he walked into Sidney's room, Sidney said, "Hi."
He didn't sound the way he had the first time, but he didn't sound good, either. His breathing was fast and he'd swallowed hard before he spoke. Geno stood right next to the bed to change.
"The sheets are probably dirty," Sidney said, and Geno knew from the way he breathed carefully, shakily, in between the words that Sidney couldn't do it right now, couldn't get up and wait while Geno changed the bed.
"I back from road trip," Geno pointed out. "Tomorrow, we shower and clean. Tonight we gross."
"Yeah," Sidney said, and Geno could see well enough now to see him draw the back of his hand hard over his eyes.
"Sid, what happened?" Geno asked.
Sidney said nothing while Geno pulled back the sheets and climbed into the bed, and then eventually he said, "Got stuck in my neighbor's head. Tripped walking to the bathroom." Sidney hesitated and then added, "I'm never going to be able to play like this. I'm fucking useless. I can't even walk."
"You hurt yourself?" Geno asked, trying to sound calm despite the sudden spike of adrenalin. It was exactly what he'd been imagining while he was on the trip: Sidney falling down and hitting his head again.
"No. I mean, bruises." Next to Geno in bed, Sidney made a hand gesture to indicate how much of a big deal that wasn't. "It's just. Can you imagine me in a game?"
"You get better," Geno told him, trying to sound sure even though he really only hoped. There was no way to know how any concussion would progress, let alone one in Sidney's weird, weird head.
"Yeah," Sidney said, and took a deep breath. "Doesn't help that my neighbor is widowed. I hate his head. He's old and everything hurts, and all he ever does is miss Terry."
"Yeah. I can't. It's so awful. I can't imagine wanting that."
"You have long time with bondmate before she die, you know," Geno pointed out.
"Yeah, a long time with someone in your head every second. At least now, if I want to, I could sell this house and get away from my neighbor. Can't do that with a bondmate."
"But if you bonded, you be in just your bondmate's head, not everyone's," Geno pointed out.
"Maybe. There's no way to know how it would work, and mostly - mostly it doesn't happen like that. Not for people like me. They try to game your bondmate in the academies, did you know that? They, like, interview people and test them and stuff. It's crazy. They interview someone for you to be stuck with for life, and then they put you in a room together like an arranged bonding. I don't exactly need someone supervising my dates," Sidney said, as though he'd ever been on a date in his life.
Geno let that go. "Everyone want to bond, Sid."
"Not me," Sidney said. "I just. I wish my head was like yours."
Geno shrugged. There was no point in wishing; Sidney's head wasn't like his. But he could loan the silence out, anyway. He reached out and laid his hand on Sidney's forehead, and Sidney sighed. Just as Geno was about to slip into sleep, Sidney said, "Thanks."
Sidney woke up at 5:00 every morning, which Geno considered unbearably early; Geno generally woke up sometime between six and seven, hours before he would have in his own house, to find Sidney lying next to him, hand touching some part of Geno's skin. Usually Sidney was watching Geno sleep.
"Is creepy, you know, you do that," Geno told him.
"Am I supposed to just lie here with my eyes closed?" Sidney asked. "Like my life isn't boring enough right now."
"What you normally do? Before?"
Sidney looked away. "Normally I'd exercise. But right now I only have three hours of exercise total for the whole day. So." He shrugged. "There's no point in getting out of bed until it's time for breakfast."
Geno thought about pointing out that Sidney could eat breakfast when he woke up, but realized in time that Sidney wouldn't want to be that far away from him.
Once they both got to the kitchen, Geno moved on to the next stage of their routine. "Okay," he said. "Oatmeal or eggs?" They were the only breakfast foods Geno could reliably cook, and he definitely didn't want Sidney near the stove, so they had one or the other every morning that Nathalie didn't come over.
Sidney hesitated. "We should have eggs," he said. "Protein's good for the brain, right?"
"So you want oatmeal. So we have oatmeal," Geno said, and pulled the container off the shelf. Geno liked his with fruit syrup, and Sidney always said he didn't want any and then used half of Geno's - more, if Geno didn't threaten to stab him with a fork.
"It's been a month," Sidney said, halfway through breakfast.
Geno counted back in his head to the game against the Lightning. "Six weeks," he corrected. Almost two months, and Sidney showed no signs of recovery. This was long for a concussion, really long for a first concussion. Mostly Geno tried not to think about it.
"Not since the concussion," Sidney said. "Since you moved in here."
Geno blinked at him. "I not live here," he said.
"Yeah, you do," Sidney said. "When's the last time you slept at your house?" He paused, and then apparently misinterpreted Geno's expression, because he added, "I like it. I like that you're here." Then he considered and tried another tack. "Do you want to go home for a while?"
Geno looked down at his oatmeal and thought about it. He kept going back to his house and packing bags. Mostly clothes. Some books. Sidney had all the exercise gear he could possibly need, and here Geno used Sidney's unscented toiletries, so he hadn't really had to bring much. And it wasn't bad that he lived here. Sidney needed help, needed someone around, and it was nice coming back to someone who cared about hockey and reminded Geno to use hot packs and keep the ice packs on the full twenty minutes. "If I live here," Geno finally said, "I bring better movies."
"What are you talking about, I have great movies," Sidney said, and Geno could hear the relief in his voice.
"You have four movies," Geno said patiently. He'd watched all of them, usually during evenings when Sidney caved and took pain medicine and spent hours just lying on the couch - and on Geno - in the living room.
"Right," Sidney said, and Geno could tell he wasn't arguing to argue; he actually believed what he was saying. "And they're good."
"I bringing mine," Geno said firmly.
"Great. Depressing Russian crap," Sidney said.
Geno rolled his eyes. Just for that, he was starting off with his Russian movies. Sidney obviously had some things to learn.
It made sense that he liked the silence he got from touching Geno; that was what he'd been searching for his entire life, and it made the concussion just about bearable, too. But it didn't make sense that he would enjoy sitting close to Geno, their sides touching, his hand on Geno's thigh. It didn't make sense that he would rather slide his hand up and down Geno's arm, feeling the hair there bend and spring back into shape, than just rest his fingers lightly on Geno's wrist. It didn't make sense, but it felt good, and Sidney - Sidney was letting himself get away with it. He didn't have hockey. He could have this.
Then he remembered some of the things Nathalie had told him. "When in doubt, ask," she'd said. "Always ask." And the truth was, Geno didn't seem totally neutral about being touched; sometimes he shivered, sometimes he moved Sid's hand to somewhere else. He never said no, though. But still. Probably Nathalie would think Sidney should ask about this.
So he did. They were sitting on the couch; Geno was watching one of his boring Russian movies - things were exploding, which Geno thought would make Sidney interested, but there were plenty of explosions he could see where he didn't need subtitles - and Sidney was just sitting. He had a lot of time to sit these days.
"Does it bug you?" Sidney said.
Geno paused the movie and glanced over at him. "The war?" he asked, obviously surprised, gesturing at the movie. "Why you think so? I from nowhere near there."
"Not the movie," Sidney said, being as patient as he could. "This." And he ran his hand along Geno's arm again.
Geno made a weird face at that. "...Nathalie here today?" he asked.
"Yeah, she made chicken and broccoli and brown rice and lentil soup. We should have the chicken for dinner. And she made a fruit thing for you, and left some ice cream to eat with it. And she told me all about Lauren's boyfriend drama, but she didn't like me suggesting that Mario just punch the guy." Sidney thought back, but that was really all that had happened during the visit, except the part where she said how much happier he seemed, and that had been crazy: he wasn't playing hockey, so he wasn't happy.
Geno was smiling like Sidney had said something funny. "She talk about touching?"
"You been doing this whole time," Geno said. "Why ask now?"
Sidney seriously had no idea what Geno was getting at, but he could answer questions. "I was just thinking. A while ago Nathalie told me that I was used to picking answers to things from people's brains, so I never really learned - stuff." She'd had a big long list of things he didn't know, but his head had hurt too much to pay close attention, and it wasn't like he needed to know for hockey. "Facial expressions and - whatever. She said there's ways people talk because they mostly can't read each other's thoughts all the time, and I never learned them, so I would have to ask you."
Geno laughed. "Now you think of this."
"I okay with it now," he said. "It's fine, Sid." And he patted Sidney's hand and hit play again.
Sidney thought about that for about five minutes, while some woman ran through a village and talked a lot in Russian, and then reached over and paused the movie again. "Now. So you weren't before?"
Geno sighed. "Always okay. Just confused, for a while."
"Why confused?" Normally Sidney was the only one confused about this stuff.
Geno looked at Sidney, looked away again, and Sidney automatically tried to reach into his head, and then felt the usual surge of relief when he couldn't. "People touch me like this," Geno said, after a long pause, "they usually want sex. I know you not want that. Can't figure out what you want. I get it now. You just -" and Geno finished with some Russian Sidney couldn't understand.
Sidney couldn't even take that in. "I've never had sex," he said. "I'd bond right away, probably, and - it'd be awful. All the touching. I bet it'd hurt."
"Right," Geno said. "I know. So I know you not want. I just confused at first, like I said."
"But not now."
"No. Not now." Geno picked up the remote and glanced at Sidney, and after a few seconds he hit play.
Sidney spent most of the rest of the movie trying to imagine Geno getting touched that way. By - a girl, probably? Sidney could sort of picture the kind of girl Geno might like - small, blonde, skinny. Lots of makeup. Someone who smiled a lot and was nice to him. He imagined her small hands moving on Geno's just like his, pictured her manicured nails and soft, smooth skin. But he couldn't imagine what would come next. It still made him feel weird, like his skin was kind of tight, so after a while he switched to thinking about ways to modify his slapshot.
He had a hard time getting to sleep that night, but that was just a sign that he needed to exercise more.
They took him to the hospital for x-rays and an MRI and painkillers, and then one of the trainers took him home. Geno nodded off, a combination of adrenalin crash and Percocet haze, and woke to Jerry nudging him. "Wake up, the bondmate's waiting," Jerry said, and Geno forced his eyes open to find himself - at Sidney's house. Of course. He lived there. Right. Sidney was standing in the doorway, apparently waiting. He'd probably heard Jerry coming from a mile away. Geno groped for the crutches, then startled a little when Sidney yanked open the passenger-side door of Jerry's SUV.
"Jesus fucking Christ, now he's in worse shape than I am," Sidney snapped.
"Good to see you, too," Jerry told him. "Hope you're feeling better."
"Well?" Sidney demanded. "What did the doctor say?"
"Torn ACL and MCL," Jerry said, and Geno heard Sidney swear under his breath. He still couldn't find his second crutch, god damn it.
"Here," Sidney said, and handed the crutch to him. Geno began the process of levering himself carefully out of the SUV, and Sidney leaned in, taking Geno's weight and helping him move from sitting to standing without putting any weight on the knee. The knee still fussed a little, of course, but it helped to know he was stable, and that Sidney wouldn't let him fall.
"Ice, Advil, elevation," Jerry said, although they all knew the drill. "Tomorrow he's got an appointment with a specialist."
"Give it to me, he'll never remember it," Sidney said.
"He's had some Percocet," Jerry said.
"I can tell," Sidney said. "Hang on, let me get him inside. He doesn't need to be standing for long."
Geno didn't really notice getting into the house; he was concentrating on the crutches, on not tripping on the walkway or the steps into the house. The Percocet made everything fuzzy and distant, including the pain in his knee, but it made it hard to coordinate, too. When he got inside, he stopped, panting, to prepare for the stairs up to the bedroom, but Sidney said, "Over here." Sidney's house had a lot of rooms that were probably designed for entertaining or something, and most of them had minimal furniture, if any. The room Sidney was indicating was probably a formal dining room, but Sidney was never going to have dinner parties, and he'd never had a table in it. Now there was a bed in it.
"How?" Geno asked.
Sidney shrugged. "You can get anything delivered fast if you just pay enough for it." He probably saw Geno wondering when they'd called Sid, because he added, "I had lots of time. I saw that hit and I knew. Fucking Myers."
Geno got over to the bed and lay down, prepared to fall asleep. Sidney poked him long enough to put pillows under his knee and to get him to swallow some pills that Geno didn't even bother to look at. He woke up at some point, just enough to register cold on his knee, and again later to the feel of Sidney curling around him on the bed. Otherwise, he slept.
In the morning, Geno's knee looked bad, but he'd seen worse. He crutched his way to the downstairs bathroom and then swallowed the pills Sidney handed him.
"You have an appointment today. Specialist," Sidney reminded him, and Geno groaned.
It took him an hour and a half to get ready to go - the crutches were still hard to manage and just showering took forever - and by the time Geno was dressed, he was sweating and swearing. He wasn't in the mood for Sidney weirdness, so he groaned when he saw Sidney, who was waiting by the door like he expected a goodbye kiss.
"Oh, god. What?" Geno said to him.
"Cab's here. You're not driving, and I can't," Sidney said, and he started picking things up off the table near the door: his house keys, his phone, his wallet.
Geno stared. "Sid. You not coming."
"Of course I'm coming. You walk like a toddler on skates for the first time. And you're not going to ask all the right questions."
"Been doing this a while," Geno pointed out.
"Right, and you're terrible at it, so I'm coming with you."
Geno stood in the hallway - it wasn't worth sitting and getting back up - and thought about it. Sidney was determined. He also never left the house anymore, but - actually, he could. With Geno. And it would be nice to have someone to open doors. He decided not to argue any further, which, with Sidney, was the same as admitting Sidney had won.
And Sidney was very useful, it turned out. He opened all the doors, scoped out good seats in the waiting room, and moved up a footstool so Geno could elevate his knee. He also attacked the doctor like a terrier, asking for prognosis and statistical outcomes and re-injury percentages, like Sidney genuinely thought he could figure this out, plan an attack, do it better than the professionals who made their living from it.
Sidney also, weirdly, walked around the examination room a lot, pacing like he was nervous or restless, stalking over to the examination table to touch Geno's wrist, then walking back to the x-ray box, over and over. Geno had no idea what he was doing until they got out, when Sidney said, "You're going to have surgery."
"That not what he said," Geno pointed out tiredly. "He said we wait and see for now."
"That's what he was thinking, though." Sidney shrugged. "You make it quieter, but I can still go through someone's head if I want to, especially if I'm a few feet away from you."
"Pretty sure that's rude," Geno told him. Geno had had to sit through all the same mentation classes as the other kids, but he'd spent the time thinking about hockey, since nothing psychic was ever going to apply to him. So he hadn't actually learned about the rules of psychic contact, but he still felt confident about what he was saying. It had to be rude.
Sidney shrugged. He obviously didn't care, which wasn't surprising. "It saves a lot of time, and I hate that doctors don't tell the whole truth. They should. We make a living off our bodies. Or. You do, anyway."
"You still a hockey player," Geno told him.
"Not now. But I will be," Sidney responded.
He couldn't think of anything. It was exactly the problem he'd been having all along - there wasn't anything to do if there wasn't any hockey.
Eventually, he called Taylor. "I have like five minutes, make it fast," she told him. "How's your head?"
"Broken," he told her. Like he wouldn't have called her if he'd got better. "Geno tore his ACL."
There was a pause, which wasn't like Taylor, and then she said, "Yeah, I know. I watch the games, braincase."
"Right. So he's out," Sidney explained.
She sighed. "Obviously. Were you going somewhere with this?"
"What do I do with him?"
The pause this time was long enough that Sidney checked to make sure the phone was still on. "Um, what do you want to do with him?" she finally said.
"I need to - distract him," Sidney said. "So he doesn't realize how annoying I am." During Taylor's next weird pause, he realized what the problem had to be. "We live together now."
"You live together now?" she repeated, her voice high. "Maybe you should have started the conversation there."
"You seriously are the biggest braincase ever. I don't know how you live," she said. "So your problem is that you need to distract your boyfriend from how awful you are."
"I already said that," Sidney told her. She was usually smarter than this.
"Look. I don't want to be all - gross, and I really don't want to think about this too much, but have you tried lots of sex? That's pretty distracting."
"We're not having sex," Sidney said, horrified.
Taylor made an inarticulate noise and then said, "Poor Malkin. Oh god. He's crazy. He's crazier than you."
"Do you have any useful suggestions?" Sidney said.
"Uh. Movies? Video games? Maybe you can find something to do together that's really distracting. Maybe a jigsaw puzzle?"
"Taylor," Sidney said, frustrated.
"This would be easier if you had any hobbies or interests at all."
"Like you can talk."
"I have other things in my life," she said, assuming a tone of voice that would really make more sense if she were older than Sidney. "I just never talk about them to you, because when I do you space out and then ask me what I think about the Kings' offense." She made a noise. "Hey, that's it! Ask Malkin what he likes to do when he's not doing hockey, and then do whatever that is. He's a relatively normal human being. I mean, not really, but compared to you, totally. So he has to have something he does, at least during the off season."
"Hey, thanks," Sidney said. He could follow a program like that. Structure, action, goals - it was all there.
"You are sincerely the weirdest person I have ever met, and I can't really believe we're related, but I love you anyway. I have to go. I'm late for practice."
"You're late for practice?" Sidney said, horrified. "What were you thinking, talking to me when you should be at practice?"
"I was thinking you're my brother, braincase, so relax. I'll talk to you later. Bye." Taylor hung up.
Sidney headed into the living room, where Geno was sitting with his knee elevated and doing something with his phone. "What do you like to do?" Sidney asked him.
Geno looked up and blinked at him. Everyone was pausing before they talked today. Or else it was another concussion symptom. "Sidney?" he said.
"Yes, still me. What do you like to do?" Sidney repeated, then realized he needed to clarify something important. "Besides hockey, I mean."
Geno stared at him. "That is weird question for you."
"We have nothing to do," Sidney told him. "We can't play hockey. We can't practice. We're in the same house together. You can barely walk, and I can't go anywhere without you." He decided to borrow Taylor's phrasing, since she was more - normal. "You're going to figure out I'm awful, and then we're both fucked."
Geno laughed and did something else on his phone. "Pretty sure I already know you," he said.
"People hate being around me," Sidney explained patiently. "I drive them crazy."
Geno looked up at him, smiling. "And you not want drive me crazy?"
"Exactly," Sidney said, pleased he was getting it. "So what do you like to do?"
Geno shrugged. "Don't worry about it."
"I'm going to worry about it, so could you please just answer the question?"
Geno seemed genuinely amused by whatever he was doing on his phone. "I like - movies, video games. Bars, Concerts. Like to make stuff, sometimes. Go outside; Pittsburgh pretty. Dogs. Cats. Kids. Biking." Geno waved his hand. "Normal stuff."
"Okay," Sidney said. He got his computer, sat next to Geno on the couch, and ordered an Xbox and a Wii. Then he ordered some Lego sets - they had stuff that was labeled for teenagers and adults. Bars were out, concerts were out, but he could probably buy some alcohol. Sidney didn't drink much - unless Geno was right there, it made his brain even worse - but Geno could get drunk, and that would eat up some time. Biking was out. They had a yard, though; he bought some outdoor chairs. And a table.
Then he started researching dogs, which used up the rest of his computer time for the day. After that, he started making notes.
Two and a half hours later, Geno poked him and said it was time for dinner. They had reheated Nathalie food, fortunately, because Geno couldn't stand and Sidney couldn't cook. Sidney emptied salad from a baggie while Geno put food in the microwave, and then they were ready.
"Big dogs or small dogs?" Sidney said, sitting down.
Geno passed him some beef stew. "Sid. Relax."
"Why does everyone say that to me?" Sidney seriously didn't understand. He took a reasonable approach to life. If you didn't stay on top of things, they went to shit.
"Something to think about," Geno said, using a phrase Dan liked to use in practice.
"Whatever. Big dogs or small dogs?"
Sidney could see the logic there. "That's good. You don't have to bend over as much to pet them. Easier on your knee."
"Sid. We not getting dog."
"Of course we are. It will be good company, and lower our blood pressure, and you'll have a loyal companion. Besides me, I mean. Someone who doesn't talk back." Sidney paused, thinking about that, and remembered the word Taylor had used on the phone. "Are we boyfriends?"
Geno chewed and swallowed very carefully and, Sidney thought, kind of pointedly, and then said, "You want be?"
Sidney considered it. "What's involved?"
Geno's smile turned a little weird in a way that had Sidney automatically trying to reach into his head. He was still glad he couldn't make contact, but that also meant he couldn't figure out what was going on with Geno. "Not sure."
"You've been with lots of girls." Sidney had seen the photos on blogs.
"Boyfriend is before bonding. I can't bond. I can't be boyfriend."
Sidney looked at his plate and tried to figure that one out. "So you just - hang out with them? Like. Hold hands? Kiss?" He'd seen pictures of Geno kissing girls.
"Fuck, mostly," Geno said. Sidney dropped his spoon, horrified - he'd seen Geno pictured with at least eight different girls, but he couldn't believe he'd really had sex with all of them - and Geno continued. "People not want bonding sometimes, but still want sex. So. I good for that."
Sidney couldn't even believe that. "You've. With all those girls. How many?"
Geno frowned. "Not sure." He considered it. "Just girls?"
"By yourself doesn't count."
Geno gave him a patient look. "Guys too?"
"Fifty? Hundred? I not count."
Sidney stared at him. "That's awful."
"Fun," Geno told him.
"I have a really hard time believing that," Sidney said. He couldn't even picture it. All the - touching. Although Geno wouldn't hear anything, and the people touching him wouldn't feel anything. He calmed down a little, thinking of that.
"Is fun for me," Geno assured him. "Is fun for them."
Sidney sort of tuned him out, thinking about it, trying to picture it - like touching Geno, quiet and safe, but also like jerking off. He couldn't really wrap his head around it, and thinking about it started to make him feel weird. Itchy. He forced himself to stop. When he looked up, Geno was finished eating and watching him, looking amused. "Your turn for dishes," Geno said, and he sounded - gentle.
Sidney found his face heating a little for no good reason, which pissed him off, so he sounded meaner than he really meant to when he said, "Since you fucked up your knee it's always my turn for the dishes" and started grabbing plates.
He stared at the packages, bemused - the Legos looked fun, if a little fiddly, and the Xbox and Wii were obviously great, except that Geno could have just taken a cab to his house and gotten his own if he'd wanted them - and then called Sergei, who knew Sidney, and who also made sense most of the time.
"Sid bought me toys," Geno explained. "He thinks I'll be driven crazy living with him, and so he bought me toys."
Sergei laughed and said, "You aren't telling me Sidney Crosby bought you sex toys, because I wouldn't believe it."
"He bought me Lego sets. And game consoles. He forgot to get any games, but I have a bunch at my house, so maybe we'll just go get them."
Sergei stopped laughing. "He's really worried. Did you say you were getting tired of him?"
"No. Maybe he thinks I normally take out my aggressions at him on the ice."
"How do you take out your aggressions at him?"
Geno thought about it. "I don't have a lot. He's not hard to be around."
Sergei made a sharp, disbelieving noise. "He complains all the time. He's bitchy. He wants everything exactly how he likes it, and he has a panic attack if it isn't. You can never be sure if he's actually listening to you or not unless you're talking about hockey. He managed to make Flower refuse to sit next to him on the plane. He drove every road roommate he ever had crazy. Don't get me wrong, I like the kid, but you can't tell me he's not annoying."
"He's not -" Geno hesitated, because that wasn't true, exactly. "Okay, he is like that, but it's not bad." Sergei moaned. "What?"
"Zhenya," Sergei said, and stopped dead. He took a deep breath, and then another, and then said, "Never mind. Look, Sidney's trying to figure out what you like besides hockey. He's trying to make you happy. I don't think he's ever even thought about doing that for anyone else. It's a gift, okay? Take it that way."
"I'll write him a thank you note," Geno said, trying for a light ending to the conversation.
Sergei wasn't having it. "If that's how you communicate, sure," he said, his tone rich in judgment.
"We talk. Like normal people. I haven't had to leave him a note so far."
"I have a very hard time believing that you and Sid together manage to do anything like normal people," Sergei said, and he sounded almost fond, which was actually scarier than his judgment.
Geno hesitated, trying to figure out what he wanted to say. He had things he wanted to ask, but so many of them wouldn't make any sense to Sergei, and the rest felt - too personal, almost. After a long hesitation, he finally went with, "We do some normal things," because they did. They ate breakfast together. They watched movies together. They argued over how to tie garbage bags, which Geno had heard Sergei and Xenia do when he lived with them. Normal.
"Normal isn't what's important," Sergei said. "If it works for you, that's what's important."
Geno blinked at that, because it seemed - off topic and yet really on point, and he didn't really know how to respond. He went with the reflex answer: "No, hockey's important."
Sergei sighed. "Try not to let Sid rub off on you so much, okay?" Then he laughed at what he'd said. "And if he already does that with his dick, don't tell me."
Geno laughed, too, even though it wasn't entirely funny. Sid was - Sid was not like that.
The conversation went into other areas - Sergei's kids, Geno's parents, politics - and eventually Geno hung up. Sidney, across the room, looked up at him. "That took forever," he said. "Did something bad happen?"
Take it as a gift, Geno thought, and the thing was, Sergei was right. Sidney didn't even understand why two friends might talk for a while on the phone, and he was still trying to figure out what Geno wanted. "No, we just talk. Sometimes I want to hear real language," he said.
Sidney rolled his eyes. "Right," he said, and went back to whatever he was doing with the stopwatch function of his phone and a magazine.
Geno laughed, opened a Lego set, and started building.
"You've said that like 80 times," Sidney told him. "I'm going." If he didn't go, he couldn't read the doctors, couldn't be there in case of trouble, couldn't - whatever. He wasn't about to sit at home and wait. "It's not like I have anything better to do," he reminded Geno. "And I'd just worry anyway."
Geno smiled at him, and Sidney felt - weird. The moment seemed to stretch out, and Sidney kind of wished he could reach into someone's mind to find out why. Then the cab honked, and Geno, who had gotten good on the crutches, led the way.
The hospital was horrible. Everyone was worried. Everything hurt. Sidney managed to keep his mind in one place for about an hour, by reading the nurses, but after that he lost focus and kept skipping around, mind to mind to mind. He found Geno's doctor at one point, and through a lot of effort managed to stay in his head long enough to find out that the surgery was going well, and that Sidney really, really didn't ever want to look at the inside of Geno's knee again, even through a video camera. Then he went back to drifting.
The surgeon came out eventually, to let Sidney know that Geno was in recovery. "Can I see him?" Sidney asked. He could see Geno in the doctor's mind, asleep in a hospital bed, but it wasn't the same.
"We don't generally allow visitors," the doctor said, but Sidney could see that he was willing to be persuaded. He was a Pens fan, and he'd played hockey in high school, and he had a soft spot for Geno and Sidney, even though he'd never admit it.
Sidney tried to figure out how to get the doctor to agree, but the problem was that all that information didn't add up to a plan. After a few seconds, he just looked at the doctor and said, "Please?"
The doctor went for it, which was pretty much proof that he'd wanted to all along. "You must be worried about him," he said. And now he was thinking that it was kind of strange that Sidney Crosby would come to the hospital with a concussion just to look in on a teammate.
"He's my - friend," Sidney said, stuttering over his word choice, and then swore at himself. He was tired, he was distracted, his head hurt, and he'd thrown up once already, and the word Taylor had used had just seemed automatic.
He had some hopes that he'd caught himself in time, but a glance into the doctor's head told him otherwise. The doctor had filled in the missing syllable without a second's hesitation, and now he was making mental deductions: that Sidney would want to be near Geno, that Sidney would help Geno, that Geno would do better with Sidney around. All true things, actually, so maybe boyfriend was the right word to use, no matter what Geno said about not being qualified. Huh.
After a few seconds, the doctor smiled reassuringly, and Sidney could hear that he was trying to be supportive about the boyfriend thing and was mostly worried he wasn't doing a very good job of it. Sidney relaxed a little, as much as he could under the circumstances.
"He's in here," the doctor said, leading the way into a room filled with beds, only half of them full. "Don't get in the nurses' way and they'll probably let you stay."
"Thank you," Sidney said. The room was already getting quieter; he could hear the doctor's thoughts, still, and the thoughts of the nurse the doctor was talking to, but not random ones from throughout the hospital. And then Sidney saw Geno and felt - weird. Geno was still sleeping, and mostly Sidney felt less worried but somehow not better. He pulled a chair over and sat next to Geno's bed and waited for him to wake up. When he did, Sidney would be able to feed him ice chips, and that would at least be doing something.
Sidney sat for a while, basking in the silence, picking up the nurse's thoughts only when she came over. Geno woke up, sort of, and said something in Russian.
The nurse frowned. "It says here he speaks English."
"He does, pretty much," Sidney said. "Just probably not when he's coming out of anesthesia."
"Do you speak Russian?" The nurse was calculating the odds of getting a Russian translator in, trying to remember if either of the Russian-speaking nurses were on duty, not wanting to use the stupid phone translation system that never worked right.
"No," Sidney said, and then wondered why he didn't. He should really learn some. Instead, he turned to Geno and said, "How are you feeling?"
Geno said, "Thirsty."
"Can you rank your pain on a scale of one to ten where ten is the worst pain you've ever experienced?" the nurse said to him, speaking rapidly, all her words kind of blending together.
Geno blinked at her. "Yes?" he finally said. He obviously wasn't tracking, and Sidney wasn't sure why the nurse would say long sentences to someone as out of it as Geno was.
"Geno. Pain number," Sidney said.
"Five," Geno said, after a pause.
"He's a hockey player," Sidney told the nurse. "You have to add four to that to get what normal people would say."
She laughed, but said, "I can't give him anything more for the pain unless he's at eight or higher."
Sidney could imagine what eight or higher would be for Geno, but it wouldn't be this. Slapshot to the balls without a cup. Kronwalled into the boards with an already dislocated shoulder. She just didn't get it, and she wouldn't. "Okay, thanks," he said, and as soon as she was gone, he told Geno, "Next time she asks, tell her your pain is an eight."
"Not that bad," Geno said.
That was bullshit. "Tell her your pain is an eight, or I'll be such a pain in your ass that it will be an eight."
Geno smiled a little. "Already are," he said.
"Fuck you," Sidney said. "Do you want an ice chip?"
When they left the hospital, Sidney had a sheet of aftercare instructions, two prescriptions, and a seriously stoned Geno. He was easy to handle, though, just kind of cuddly and dumb and whatever. Sidney could deal.
He got Geno into bed with only minor difficulty and then wandered around the house for a while, tidying up, making sure everything was in place, checking the locks and the blinds. But he kept having to go back to see if Geno needed anything - it'd be the stupidest thing in the world if he tried to go to the bathroom on painkillers and fucked up on his crutches and fell - and eventually he just stayed there. His head still hurt like hell from the morning at the hospital, and he told himself that was the reason he was climbing into bed next to Geno, careful to be on the side with the good knee, careful not to touch him because it sucked being touched when you were already hurting. Geno slept through the whole thing, and after a half-hour or so, Sidney did, too, soothed by the quiet that meant Geno was nearby, by Geno's regular breathing, by his warmth.
Geno liked it. And because he didn't really have a lot to do, it was hard not to think about that. Mostly he tried to avoid the topic, even in his own head, because - because he was probably already in deep shit, basically. But lying in bed all day left him too much damn time to think.
Having Sidney nearby was comforting. Geno spent a lot of time listening to Sidney breathe and then cursing himself for liking it so much. Because the problem was - Sidney needed Geno. He didn't want Geno. And there was no way around that one.
Two days into the recovery, Geno started being awake for longer periods, long enough for Sidney to feel like he could go skate without Geno maybe dying on him. As soon as Sidney was gone, Geno called Artyom back home.
"Jesus, Zhenya, it's one in the morning," he groaned.
"Sorry," Geno said. He'd known he was calling too late, but he'd hoped not to wake Artyom up.
Geno took a deep breath and blew it out, trying to order it in his head. Artyom made an impatient noise after a minute, and said, "I am not sitting on my couch talking to you instead of sleeping in my nice warm bed next to my very sweet bondmate so that I can listen to you make cow noises. What did you do?"
Geno sighed. "I did something - stupid. Something really, really stupid."
"Please don't tell me you slept with Ovechkin again," Artyom said. "Because I can hire someone to break his jaw. Or yours."
"No. I moved in with Sidney Crosby."
Artyom choked out a surprised-sounding laugh. "I'll give you credit. You found the only thing you could possibly do that would be stupider than starting up with Ovechkin a third time." He groaned. "Why? Why would you do such a thing?"
"He needed me," Geno said, and then felt a stab of pain in his chest, because it was horribly, horribly true. He'd wanted to be with Sidney because Sidney needed him. And now he wanted Sidney to want him, and - the first one was stupid, but the second one was new territory of stupid. Sidney couldn't want anyone that way; for fuck's sake, he'd asked if they were boyfriends like he was trying to find a name for a new hockey play.
"Oh, Zhenya," Artyom said, and he sounded really sad.
"He needs me," Geno said. "But -" and he couldn't say the rest, not even to Artyom.
"Why? What does he need you for? Is it his concussion?"
"No, it's - his concussion fucked up his psychics, and he needs me to dampen it."
"No soulmate, of course," Artyom said.
"But he can bond?"
"Yes," Geno said. "He can." And he should, Geno knew that. Once Sidney got over his fear of bonding, he'd realize how much it could help him, and how nice it would be, and he'd do it, and it would be good for him.
"You need to help him fix whatever he can fix," Artyom said. "Because you've got to get out of there. The longer you stay, the more this is going to hurt you in the end."
The sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach told Geno that Artyom was right. "I - yeah," he said.
"And then you come home for a while, and we will help you pick up the pieces," Artyom said. "Do you think you'll be back for the summer?"
"I have to do PT for my knee," Geno said, "so I don't know." He didn't mention Sidney's head. There had to be a way to help him there. He'd figure it out. And he'd get out, before he screwed himself and the team beyond fixing.
Geno nodded. "I feel ready." Then he realized something. "What about Sid?"
Mike shrugged. "He'll let us know when he's ready. Concussions - we don't want to push him." He hesitated, then added, "When he went down, the second time, he was - in the ambulance, I was there with him, and it was awful. I've never seen a concussion that bad. I thought he might be having seizures."
"He better now," Geno said.
Mike looked intent, interested; Geno wondered what the trainers thought of Sidney. "How's he doing? We check in, of course, and he's working out here every day, but that doesn't mean shit."
"He helping me," Geno said. "After surgery."
Mike nodded. "Sidney's a good guy."
"Yes," Geno agreed, and that was exactly the problem. Sidney could be an ass, mostly without even realizing it, and his head was so fucked up there was no telling exactly what went on in there, but he was, fundamentally, a good guy.
"You okay?" Mike said. "Maybe we should ease up on that last set. You don't look so great."
"I'm fine," Geno told him, and concentrated on the exercise.
Two days before they were scheduled to return to traveling, Mario came down while Geno was watching Sidney skate with a trainer, and sat down next to him. "Geno," Mario said. "How are you doing?"
"Getting better. Not back this season, but next season for sure," Geno told him, even though Mario had to know all that.
"Right." Mario hesitated. "How are you finding your new living arrangements?"
Geno blinked. "With Sid? Fine." He wasn't going to go into the whole have-to-get-away thing with Mario, not the least because he had no intention of getting away from Sidney until Sidney would be okay without him. They weren't both going to get fucked over by this.
"Sidney can be challenging to live with," Mario said carefully.
"He not so bad," Geno said, and, really, Mario should know that better than anyone. "He little bit strange sometimes, but he try hard."
Mario shot a look at Geno that seemed equal parts confused and relieved. "So you're fine being around Sidney all the time? I know he's clinging to you, and I completely understand how that could get frustrating."
After a few seconds' thought, Geno realized that Mario didn't mean frustrating the way Geno meant it. Geno wasn't frustrated in that sense. "Is fine," Geno finally said.
"Sidney wants to reassign you to his room. He's - you know how he is, he needs space, and in the past we've accommodated that by giving him his own room. He's pretty challenging to room with anyway." Geno knew that; he hadn't been there for the first year Sidney played, but he knew that Colby Armstrong was the only one who could stand to room with him, and after they traded him they gave up trying to put Sidney in with anyone. "But now he says it'd be better to have you in his room, and I see why that would be true from his perspective. I want to know how it looks from yours."
Geno thought it was a better idea than sitting in another room wondering how Sidney was until, inevitably, one of them cracked, but all he said was, "Fine with me."
Mario turned to look at him face on, this time. Geno kept watching the ice, keeping his face as neutral as he could, and after a while Mario said, "If it gets too much for you, let me know. Sidney's intense."
"Sure," Geno said, and that was that.
After a really bad loss, near the end of their first road trip with the team, Sidney found himself unable to sit still - he was up and pacing around the room, straightening all the toiletries, rehanging their suits, checking to be sure that the sheets were the same length on both sides of each bed, trying to find the right arrangement of lights so that an even number of them was on and yet nothing was shining directly onto any of the pillows.
Eventually, Geno said, "Sit down. You make hole in carpet."
Sidney did, but then he started jittering in place, unable to hold still. Geno flattened his hand on Sidney's knee and said, "Sid. What wrong?"
Sidney was immediately angry with Geno, immediately wanted to shout at him, and it took effort and time to bite that back. Eventually he said, "I don't know," and he sounded sulky even to his own ears.
"What you not think about?" Geno asked.
And that was it, and suddenly Sid was thinking about it, so fuck Geno all to hell. He tried his best to focus on something else, but it was the only thing in his mind, and for once he was tempted to hop deliberately to someone else's mind, to take a break from the thoughts in his own. Geno waited, watching him, and eventually Sidney forced himself to ask. "Do you think the - the psychic thing made the concussion worse?"
Geno shrugged. "Probably. But not like you can help it."
And Sidney was angry again, pissed off, and he couldn't stop himself from pushing away from Geno and snapping, "Fucking shows what you know, you dumbshit." He kind of wanted to hit Geno, so he got up and went into the bathroom and hunched over the sink, eyes closed, wishing he could punch himself or something.
After five minutes, maybe ten, Geno pushed open the bathroom door. He just stood there, not saying anything, and Sidney stared at the faucet and forced himself to say it, hating that Geno would be pissed at him, would think less of him. "I could have - I could have fixed it. Not fixed it, exactly, but. When I was little, they wanted to send me to the academy in Vancouver, and then later a doctor wanted me to miss the draft but I said no, and then this year a doctor warned me, she fucking warned me that something like this would happen, and I was planning on doing some work on it this summer, but the fucking concussion happened and -" and Sidney just broke off, hating himself.
"You say no to doctor because of draft," Geno said. "You say no to academy because?"
"I was really little," Sidney said, and for some reason he didn't want to say the rest of it, but he finally did. "My father didn't want me to go."
"Because it's not important, okay?" Sidney said. "That academy - I shouldn't need to go to a place like that. There's no sports there."
Geno didn't say anything for a minute or two, and then he said, "But you can fix now?"
"I don't know. I don't know if the concussion will fuck that up or what. But I have - phone numbers. I was going to call them in the summer."
"So you call them tomorrow," Geno said. "You have time off. Why wait?"
Sidney wanted to say there were a dozen good reasons, but there weren't, not real ones. He didn't want people to fuck with his head, and he didn't want to be told he had amazing abilities, and he didn't want to be the weirdo who couldn't even control his own thoughts. But those were stupid reasons, and they'd always been stupid, and he had a job to do. "If I had fixed it before," Sidney said, "I'd have been out there tonight."
Geno came forward a couple of steps and patted Sidney on the shoulder, and Sidney was so, so grateful he couldn't hear Geno's mind. "You Sidney Crosby. Not god, no matter what Pierre McGuire say. No way to know what if, what if. Tomorrow, you start fixing. That's all."
Sidney nodded but didn't look at him, and after a minute or so Geno said, "Come to bed when ready," and left the bathroom.
It's good, Geno told himself as he shifted around in bed. It's what you both need.
It took him a long time to fall asleep. When he did, Sidney was still in the bathroom.
Geno woke up the next morning with a headache and rubbed his eyes, wondering if Sidney was still in the bathroom, if he was maybe frozen there. When he opened them, though, Sidney was sitting next to a room service cart. Which was probably what had woken Geno up.
"I got you an omelet," Sidney said. He looked tense.
Geno groaned and hauled himself into the bathroom, then back out to sit on the edge of the bed and eat. After his third bite, Sidney said, "So, we're two hours behind Pittsburgh, and that's where one of the doctors I'm supposed to call is, so I tried calling at six, but I guess her office doesn't open until nine. I'll call again at seven."
"You sleep?" Geno asked.
Sidney shook his head and looked away.
"Worried or guilty?" Geno said, looking at the tension in his shoulders, at his restless hands and jittery leg.
"You were right, I mean, I could have fixed it before, but I didn't, so. No point in feeling guilty." Sidney shrugged.
Geno took a bite and chewed while he put that one through his Sid Interpreter. "So, both."
"I guess if you want to put it that way," Sidney said, sounding pissy, and Geno smiled.
"Like that," Geno said. "Pissy Sid better than mopey Sid."
"I don't mope," Sidney snapped, prickly and offended.
"Sulk in dark like teenager," Geno told him. He slapped the back of his hand to his forehead, then flopped back onto the bed dramatically, his other arm flung out. "Oh, so hard to be so great," he moaned.
"Oh, fuck you," Sidney snarled, sounding much better. "I sit in the dark because I have a fucking concussion."
Geno propped himself up on his elbows so that Sidney could see his raised eyebrow. "Had concussion in game 2 against Caps, in 2009? Remember coming in with Duper, you all in dark alone. So sad."
To Geno's surprise, Sidney blushed. Not just a mild flush, but a deep, dark red that spread over his face and neck. Geno felt both his eyebrows climb up as he tried to imagine what Sidney could possibly find that embarrassing about sitting in the dark.
"I, uh," Sidney said, and cleared his throat awkwardly. "Flower was, you know, on the phone, the way people do." He trailed off.
"Yes, and?" Geno said.
"He, uh, they were talking about sex stuff. He has a good imagination," Sidney said, and his blush got even darker.
Geno choked. "We walk in on jerking off?" he said, and collapsed back on the bed, laughing so hard he thought he might die. It wasn't really that funny, except that he remembered talking with Dupuis about how weird Sidney had seemed, and they'd considered sickness and sulking and nerves and some new game preparation thing, but neither of them had even thought of the obvious answer. Geno curled around his stomach, unable to breathe from the laughter, and then something cold and wet hit him on the head. He jerked upright, startled, and saw Sidney fishing another ice cube out of his water glass. "Sorry," Geno said, waving his hands in surrender. "Sorry. Should not have laughed."
"Fucking right," Sidney said. He threw the ice cube, hitting Geno on the neck, and put the glass back down. "And anyway," he added, back to sounding pissy, "I wasn't jerking off."
Geno blinked at him. "I confused now," he said. "You blush like that just listening?"
"No," Sidney said, and now the blush was back, worse than ever, and he started talking rapidly, even though he knew Geno had trouble tracking him when he got like that. "I just. He was getting off, so. They say that orgasm occurs mostly in the brain, and I'm going to take a shower now," he said, and basically bolted for the bathroom.
Geno stared after him, then turned back to eating, trying to figure out what had just happened, what Sidney had meant. Two minutes later, it snapped into place in his mind, and Geno felt a rush of heat through his entire body. It was impossible not to imagine it, to think about Sidney biting his lip, digging his fingers into the bed, maybe choking off noises, his body shaking as he got close, and Geno did think about it. And then he pressed the heel of his hand down on his dick, trying to get his hard-on to go away.
He couldn't make it happen, though; the image stayed in his head, as clear as if he'd watched it all, and eventually he reached into his boxers and jerked himself off, listening for the water to turn off in the shower, thinking about Sidney sitting in the dark, coming without ever being touched. Geno came hard and fast, but after he cleaned up and changed his boxers, the image seemed different. Very Sidney, yes, but also sad. Sidney shouldn't have to get off alone, untouched, to someone else's fantasies. He liked being touched, as long as it didn't leave him involuntarily plunged into someone else's mind. He needed someone who could touch him without hurting him, someone he could have real sex with, someone who would be with him forever.
Sidney needed a bondmate.
It was worse than he'd imagined it would be. The first appointment turned out to be just for what they called an intake. Sidney sat in a room with imperfect psychic shielding - he could already tell they hadn't done the area behind the wall studs - across from a peppy social worker who introduced himself as Kyle. "It's really great to meet you," Kyle said sincerely.
Sidney pasted on a media smile and said, "I'm glad to meet you, too." He was pretty sure it sounded natural.
"We just want to get a history, some background," Kyle said. "We want to make sure we address the whole you."
Sidney wasn't even sure what that meant, but he figured it would be okay as long as the whole him included his brain. "Okay," he said. "Great."
"Great!" Kyle echoed, except he sounded like he really meant it. "So, Sidney, what can you tell me about what you're experiencing?"
Sidney said, "I had them fax you my medical records?" Those had better fucking not have gone anywhere but here. The last thing he wanted was for them to get to the media.
"Right, right," Kyle said. "And the doctor will be reviewing those with you during your exam." Sidney tried not to flinch at that news. "But, Sidney, I want to know how you're doing," Kyle finished.
"I have a concussion," Sidney said patiently. "I'm still not playing."
Kyle paused, looking at him alertly, like a journalist who hoped Sidney might slip and say something quotable. After a wait, Kyle said, "But that's not the whole story, is it?"
It was. It was totally the whole story. Sidney tried to figure out what else he could add. "The concussion is making my psychic abilities worse," he tried.
"Interesting, Sidney, very interesting," Kyle said. "Do you mean they're not functioning as well?"
"No," Sidney said. "Not exactly. They're just - they're all over the place. Out of control."
"So you feel out of control?" Kyle said.
Sidney wanted to punch someone. A whole bunch of people. He was more than willing to start with Kyle. "I'm not out of control," Sidney said, as patiently as he could manage. "My psychic abilities are."
"Interesting," Kyle said again. "So you feel like you are separate from your psychic abilities?"
Sidney shifted in his chair, sighed, and tried to figure out how many more minutes this damned interview would last.
Eventually, Kyle let him go. Sidney went on to the medical exam, which was at least familiar. By the time Sidney escaped, his head was pounding, he felt like he might puke, and he was furious. He managed not to say anything to the cab driver, but he was definitely looking forward to yelling at Geno.
He found Geno in the living room, an ice pack on his knee, staring off into space. "That was fucking ridiculous," Sidney snarled at him.
Geno looked up, raised his eyebrows, and looked back down again. "They say Ovechkin better than you?"
Sidney wanted to hurl himself onto the couch, but Geno was holding his leg pretty still, so he sat down more carefully. "They," he said, and tried to find the words to explain why it had sucked so much. "I had to talk to this guy. Kyle. And he kept asking me how I felt about things."
Geno laughed. "His job make you talk feelings? Then he had bad day, too," he said.
Sidney found himself smiling, almost against his will. "Yeah, he was no match for me," he said. Geno leaned over and thumped his shoulder, the way they did during games, and Sidney laughed.
They used his first name constantly at the clinic. It was like they were all journalists, trying to get his attention so they could ask something he didn't want to answer. It was annoying. "It's my parents and my little sister. My parents live in Cole Harbour, in Nova Scotia - uh, that's in Canada - and my sister does, too, but she goes to Shattuck St. Mary's, that's a boarding school in Minnesota, so she lives there during the term."
The doctor nodded. If she actually was a doctor; Sidney wasn't sure what you called someone who specialized in broken psychics.
"I'm a doctor, both M.D. and Ph.D., although you should feel free to call me Shawna," she said, and Sidney flinched a little, remembering that she was reading him. He'd had to sign an 18-page consent form just to walk into this room, so she was basically allowed to do anything she wanted to do to him. "I'm not allowed to do anything I want to you," she said. "However, there are specific behaviors that are unethical or actually illegal in most circumstances that I use in this process. That is why you had to read and sign the consent form."
She was blocking, but Sidney got enough of a reading off her emotions right then to be pretty sure she'd be rolling her eyes if she weren't so professional.
"What about Mario and Nathalie and Geno?" the doctor asked. "They came up, too, when I asked about family."
Sidney flinched, hating that she could just pick shit out of his head. "They're - I lived with Mario and Nathalie for a long time when I first came here." Until he'd gotten so bad he'd had to move out to keep his head in one piece. "They're. Friends?" Sidney wasn't sure there was a good word for his relationship to them. Geno, at least, he had a perfectly good word for, but for some reason he found himself not using it, trying to avoid thinking boyfriend where Shawna could hear. "And Geno's my roommate. Teammate. Buffer."
"That's a lot of roles," she said.
That was stupid. "It's not like I cast him in roles or something. He's just. He's there a lot."
"He's important to you," she said.
"He's a great hockey player," Sidney told her. "Maybe the best in the world."
The doctor tilted her head a little and laughed. "I can see you mean that," she said. "All right, let's begin our first training exercise. The important thing here is the imagery; the pictures must be clear and crisp in your mind, so I will help you maintain them at first. I want you to imagine a house, a small one, with no windows or doors, and to maintain that picture in your head as I am asking you questions."
Sidney imagined a house without doors, and he thought he was doing pretty well until he felt a gentle nudge in his mind and the picture went into perfect focus, so real he thought he could touch it. Live in it.
"Perfect," the doctor said. "Now, tell me how you met Geno."
"It was right after he came from Russia," Sidney said. "He came over to Mario's, but I - I was there, but I had a headache, and I didn't meet him until the next day in the locker room." He remembered it clearly, shaking Geno's hand, his discovery of Geno's silence.
The doctor's intake of breath was sharp in the quiet room, and her shielding slipped enough for Sidney to get another hit of her feelings: sorrow, disgust, pity. Broken, her mind said.
"Geno's going to be fine," Sidney said, bewildered. "His knee is healing perfectly. He'll miss the rest of the season, that's all."
The doctor's shielding was back in place, but her voice sounded sad. "He's going to spend his life unbonded," she said. Sidney nodded, waiting for her to get to the sad part, and she sighed. "Sidney," she said, "I realize that for you psychic contact has been consistently unpleasant and entirely out of your control, but that is not how it is in reality."
"Yes, it is. In my reality," Sidney told her.
"I know you've had a lot of trauma," she said. "But we will heal that. In time, you'll realize that a soulbond is a beautiful, natural thing. It's how we were meant to be, how humans were designed to be. And someday you'll find your soulmate, and you'll be complete. But your friend never will be."
Sidney couldn't agree. Geno was complete. He didn't need another person.
"Don't forget your house," the doctor said, nudging his mental image back into place. "Sidney, humans are social, psychic creatures. We do not do well in solitude."
"Right," Sidney said, keeping his mind focused on the house. "But Geno's not in solitude. He has people. He has me, the team, his family, all his friends."
"Those people will move through his life. No one will be with him forever, because he can't bond. He'll end up alone."
"No, he won't," Sidney said. Geno had more friends than anyone he knew. People genuinely liked Geno. And Geno put up with Sidney, so obviously his standards weren't high.
She shook her head. "You'll understand better when you're soulbonded," she said.
In his head, Sidney's house collapsed.
The doctor patted Sidney's hand, and he wanted to pull away even though there was no psychic transfer at all. "You'll get better at this," she said. "You're a hard worker. I can tell."
Over dinner, Sidney didn't tell Geno what the doctor had said about him being alone forever, but he did mention the hard worker remark. Geno laughed so hard he dropped his fork. "What give her clue?" he finally managed to choke out. "Oh, discovery! Call press conference! Sidney Crosby works hard."
"I should've told her ice was cold," Sidney said, grinning. "That would've really blown her mind."
"Oh, baby," his mother said softly.
"It's just -" Geno said, but he couldn't really find the words, so he gave up.
"I know," she said. "Take care of yourself." Then she took a deep breath. "And if that boy screws this up, I will kill him myself."
Geno still had a lump in his throat ten minutes after he hung up, so he decided to go the whole way. He texted his friends back home, telling them he wouldn't be seeing them this summer because he'd be doing knee rehab in the US. And being with Sidney, of course, but Geno was telling everyone the reason was his knee, and if he knew it was also about not leaving until Sidney was done with his psychic thing, spending as much time with Sidney as he could while he could - well, no one else would ever have to know.
Or, at least, his theory was that no one would know. That went down the drain when Artyom messaged him a series of frowns and Valeriya responded to his texts with a terse, We will talk about this. He winced, reading that. She taught twelve year olds now, and sometimes he pitied them. The next message was from Mikhail: You're fucking up, I can sense it. What did you do? Tell me or I'll call your mother. Geno groaned.
Fourteen minutes later, his phone rang. Geno had been timing it, because every single person he was friends with was nosy and incapable of letting anything go and someone was going to want to call to yell at him. He picked up without even looking to see who it was. "What?" he said.
"Is that any way to answer the phone? Your mother would be ashamed," Sanya said, and Geno groaned again. "Don't take that tone with me," he continued. "I'm a big hockey star and you should be grateful that I'm calling you. Do you know how many people would swoon just hearing my voice?"
Geno found himself grinning without really wanting to, which was basically always the problem with Sanya. "I'm grateful when you don't call," he said. "My favorite time to see you is when I'm skating past you on the way to your goal."
"Look, I know coming second to me in the draft has always been hard for you to stand," Sanya said, "but you have to learn to deal with these things. I'm great! Just remind yourself every morning: Alex Ovechkin is great. In time, you'll accept it, and you'll start to heal."
"Hope you can accept my fist in your face, next time we meet," Geno said, and then realized he'd said exactly the wrong thing.
"And that won't be happening this summer, apparently," Sanya said. "You know, it's funny, when I got the messages from all our friends telling me the sad, sad news, at first I was just surprised. 'Zhenya is spurning the motherland,' I said to Sasha. 'I thought he was such a good boy, but no.' And then I remembered the rumors about a certain Russian and a certain boy wonder, and then I just thought I would call."
Geno went with silence. It seemed like the safest response.
"You're staying in America to have sex with Sidney Crosby!" Sanya said. "He doesn't even know he has a dick, and you're having sex with him!"
"I'm not -" having sex with Sidney, Geno was going to finish, but he shut up. Sanya wouldn't be able to hear him over the laughter.
After a few minutes, Geno ended the call. Probably it was better Sanya hadn't been able to hear him anyway. It was actually more pathetic to stay in the United States to not have sex with Sidney Crosby.
Geno sighed, and started flipping through his texts. Eighteen so far, and two voicemails. He didn't need to worry about killing the time when Sidney was taking his psychic crash course, apparently, because he was going to spend the next month getting yelled at by everyone he knew who spoke Russian.
Two minutes later, Geno's phone rang again, and this time he looked at the ID before answering. Fuck.
"We'll talk about this more when you're here for the game. Next week," Sanya threatened, and hung up.
"Good," Shawna said, and touched his arm with her palm. Bare flesh on his bare flesh - his skin crawled and Sidney yanked away reflexively, completely forgetting about the stupid house.
"When someone is touching you," Shawna said patiently, "that is when you need your imagery the most."
"Try it again," Sidney growled, pissed off at himself and at her, too.
"Let me know when you're ready," Shawna said.
"Can't you, I don't know, read my mind and find out when I'm ready?"
"Sidney," Shawna said patiently, "I can read your mind and see how your imagery is coming. Of course I can do that. But you should know that it's very challenging to read someone on the level of reflex and instinct."
Sidney thought about that. "It's not that hard," he said. "I've stopped my next door neighbor from tripping before."
Shawna flinched. "Please don't do that anymore," she said. "It's very dangerous for both of you."
"He's old!" Sidney said, defensive and angry because she was making him be defensive. "If he falls down he could break something. And his life is bad enough as it is, with -"
"Sidney," Shawna said, and for the first time Sidney could hear anger not just in her head but in her voice, "do not disclose information you've discovered in nonconsensual deep probes of someone else's mind. It's bad enough that you know."
"I can't not know," Sidney protested, and he could hear himself whining, yeah, but he was fucked both ways here, and that sucked.
Shawna took a deep breath. "I know," she said. "That's what we're here to fix. But in the meantime, please understand that you are in a position of power, and you must not abuse that power."
Sidney blinked. He was in a position of power on the ice - that's part of what it was about, finding the advantage and using it. Off the ice, though, he didn't even have power over his own stupid brain.
"I understand that it feels that way," Shawna said. "But the reality is that you are forcing your way into the minds of others, and that is an abuse of your considerable power." She took a deep breath. "Now. Focus."
When he got home, Geno walked out to meet him. He was walking pretty well now, and Sidney took some time to evaluate that. People could learn bad habits from injuries, and it was always best to work on those right away.
Geno apparently noticed something about Sidney, because he said, "That bad?"
"I'm an evil mindbreaker," Sidney snarled, and stomped into the kitchen for a protein shake.
"Sorry to hear," Geno said. "You not do good in jail."
Sidney said, "Yeah, there's no hockey there." He finished mixing his shake and took a sip. He could never understand why no one but him liked the vanilla flavor. Geno just waited. After a few minutes, he sat down at the kitchen table.
Sidney played with his glass, turning it around and around, trying to get the edges of the glass to line up perfectly with the tiles on the countertop. "She acts like it's my fault, like I'm a bad guy," he said, not looking at Geno. "I mean, I could have gotten help sooner, but." He stopped, not able to articulate this.
"You not want it this way?" Geno said.
"Yeah. It seems like if I'm going to be an abuser or whatever, I should at least be choosing that. Getting something out of that."
Geno was quiet for a long time. "Can hurt someone else and hurt yourself, too. Can hurt someone else and not mean to."
"So what then? Everyone's bad? Everyone's guilty?"
"Sometimes no one bad," Geno said, and Sidney could tell he was picking his words carefully. "Things still not go right. No one's fault. Everyone hurt, but no one bad."
Sidney tried to line that up in terms of hockey in his head. Like, maybe you - you hit someone, but you didn't see him? But you should see him, or you shouldn't be playing. "This makes no fucking sense."
"Is people, Sid," Geno said sadly.
Fucking people. They were always the problem.
"Be my guest," Sidney muttered. He knew he was displaying all his worst personality traits to Shawna, and normally he'd worry about that, but she could see into his head. And anyway she was supposed to keep this all confidential.
"This is not how we traditionally proceed, but I've workshopped this with my colleagues - without names, Sidney, and they also maintain confidentiality - and one of them suggested it might be best to take a trauma-oriented rather than a skills-oriented approach here."
Sidney tried to figure out what that meant. "So, when you say trauma-oriented, you don't mean traumatize me if I get something wrong. Right? That has to be right, because, I mean, you're not allowed to traumatize me." Sidney really hoped she wasn't allowed to, anyway.
"I mean that we may need to work on some of the issues resulting from your trauma - even though this is not a therapy session, and I would encourage you to get separate therapy for that purpose - before we can be successful in skill-building."
Did that mean he was failing at this shit? Sidney didn't want to care about that, but he did.
"You're not failing," Shawna said. Then she smiled a little. "This just means you have to work harder."
Sidney nodded, set himself to give his best effort, and said, "Okay. Then let's get started."
"I'd like you to recount to me a positive experience of touch. I'll be monitoring this in your mind, but I would like you to put it in words as well."
That was easy. "Meeting Geno, I already told you about that."
"Pick another, then," she said.
Sidney thought of when he'd been helpless, unable to get out of bed, sick and sore and wandering through everyone's mind, and Geno had come in and touched him - not even skin to skin, but he'd brought this gorgeous peace with him, and Sidney had just wanted to touch him forever.
"In words, Sidney," Shawna said.
"When Geno touched me, when he came to visit me for the first time, after the concussion. That was good."
"What about a positive memory that involves touch but not Geno?"
Sidney struggled with that one for a long time, but of course he could find one. He was working at this, and he'd succeed. He finally found one. "When I didn't have to tell Mario and Nathalie not to touch me. They just knew, and they never touched my skin. That was good."
"That's a positive memory about not being touched," Shawna said.
"Mario's dogs?" Sidney offered. "I like animals. They're safe to touch."
Shawna said, "Let's limit this to human touch."
Sidney tried not to lose his patience and totally failed. "Well, if you're going to shoot down every example I come up with, what am I supposed to do?"
Shawna breathed in, breathed out. "Let's refocus. Maybe another aspect of touch. Have you ever experienced sexual pleasure through touch?"
Sidney could feel himself blushing, hard.
"Let me amend that: through someone else's touch?"
Sidney's face burned. He couldn't believe she wanted to talk about this. He found his mind wandering, stupidly and instantly, to all the sex he'd eavesdropped on when he was a teenager, getting off to that, the times Flower had had sex in hotels and he'd followed along helplessly, the -
"Sidney," Shawna said. "I can see that the question doesn't work for you. Let it go."
He did, gladly. Shawna said, "Let's take this from a practical rather than a narrative direction. We're going to do very specific guided imagery, here, something designed solely to address your history of trauma from skin to skin contact."
Sidney nodded, willing to do anything that didn't involve thinking about - that stuff again. She said, "I want you to imagine your skin as armor. Nothing can pass through it; it is an impenetrable psychic barrier." She helpfully shoved an image in his mind, of his hand and arm turned into metal.
Sidney tried, but it was hard to buy. Shawna said, "Sidney, when I say armor, what - oh," because Sidney's mind had instantly gone to his uniform, his helmet, his pads, his gloves. "That will work. Put that on, in your mind, and then I'm going to touch your hand."
It was astonishingly easy, compared to the other stuff she'd had him do. After thirty tries, he had it down, could get the uniform on in his head in seconds, and he wasn't hearing anything from her when she touched him.
"Eventually, this will be second nature; you won't even need to initiate it, it's something your mind will do on its own," Shawna said, and she sounded relieved.
"Then let's keep going," Sidney said. It was working, he could do it, he wasn't going to quit until he had it.
"Sidney," she said. "This will come with time. Right now, you need to rest." She could probably tell he wanted to argue, because she added, "Overworking your mind will make your concussion worse."
And that was it, she'd won the argument, damn her. "We'll continue this tomorrow," Sidney said.
"On Monday, Sidney," Shawna said. "Tomorrow is Saturday." She gave him practice exercises - "Touch someone who isn't Geno three times. Make sure your imagery is in place, to help you deal with the mental exposure" - and let him go early.
As soon as he got home, Sidney basically ran to his room and hid. Geno let him, thank god.
"Had to get them out of the house. Lola didn't sleep last night, and the nanny's sick. If Caro doesn't get a few hours she'll want my balls off by tonight."
"Can't have that," Flower said, shaking the oldest one's hand. "What if you need to have more mini-Dupers?" Duper's kid actually laughed at that. Sidney never really understood why girls of any age liked Flower so much, but whatever. He was a goalie. He deserved it.
Sidney had his sights set on the little one. Lola. She was only three months - well, maybe six - and he remembered from when Taylor was this age that her thoughts would mostly be about warmth and comfort and milk. And total misery, of course, if anything was wrong, but Lola looked okay. "Hey, can I hold her?" he said, gesturing to Lola.
The team went silent, and everyone turned around to look at him.
"I won't drop her," Sidney said defensively. Why did they assume he would fuck this up? Holding babies was easy. "I know exactly how to hold them. I was nine when Taylor was born. I never ever dropped her." Sidney looked over and caught Geno smiling at that, like something funny was going on.
Sidney looked back at Duper, who seemed really, really dubious. But all he said was, "Okay, I guess. If you want to." He handed Lola to Sidney.
Perfect. He was even in his uniform, kind of. He made sure the imagery was in place and positioned her so she could put her head on his shoulder, just like Taylor had. Lola did it, too, and her head pressed against his neck the way he remembered. He didn't hear anything. It was like she was Geno.
Except then he couldn't tell how she was doing, and he didn't want her to cry, so he dropped the armor. She was happy, warm and content and recently fed, so he said, quietly, "Hey, you want to go skating?" She didn't understand him, but his voice made her happy, and she smiled. He raised his eyebrows at Duper, who kind of waved his hand, and Sidney stepped onto the ice. And then he couldn't help grinning, because she loved it, loved going fast with the wind in her face, put her head up so she could feel it better, her whole body braced against him. She was totally going to be a hockey player, he could tell.
After a few minutes, Dan cleared his throat and said, "Sidney, you skating with us today, or just Lola?"
"Sure. No contact, of course," Sidney said, and hoped it didn't show how much he hated saying those words by now.
"Then let's get to this," Dan said.
Sidney handed Lola back to her dad. She burst into betrayed wails, wretched at the loss of skating. Duper gave Sidney an evil look and started bouncing her up and down, and Sidney went off to do the parts of practice he could do.
Geno left, heading upstairs to do his exercises, since he wasn't even allowed to strap on skates yet. Afterwards, they met up, and Geno said, "You like Lola?"
"Yeah," Sidney said.
"She like you," Geno said, and he was smiling, but something seemed off about it.
Sidney hesitated. "Well, I mean, she's too young to really like me. She just likes people. And skating. She totally takes after Duper."
"You have one someday?" Geno said.
Sidney blinked. "Like, one of my own? A kid of my own?"
Geno was being weird. Sidney couldn't even figure him out sometimes. Sure, he'd love to have a family, but - "Where would I get a kid of my own?" he finally said. It was the strangest thing he'd ever heard of.
Geno laughed a little. "Okay," he said, which wasn't really a response, but sometimes Geno didn't have the English or whatever, no big deal.
They went home. Sidney didn't have to go to a brain torture session, thank god, so they sat on the couch and watched some hockey from the KHL. After a while, Geno made them protein shakes. It was a good afternoon. But he only had one touch finished.
"What you need get?" Geno asked, since that was the only reason Sidney ever actually wanted to leave the house.
"I need to touch people," Sidney said. Geno felt his eyebrows climbing, and Sidney apparently noticed, because he added, "It's homework. From the brain doctor. I have to touch three people, skin to skin, before tomorrow. So far I only have Lola."
Geno remembered Sidney touching his hand, his side, his neck, his arm, his leg over the course of yesterday afternoon. "I not count?"
"No. It's for practice on not, you know, letting people climb into my head when I touch them. You can't. Anyway, I think she thinks I already touch you too much."
Geno tried not to think about that one at all and totally failed. "How - why? Why she think that?"
"I don't know," Sidney said, rolling his eyes. "I never understand anything she says. It's like we can't actually talk to each other. Like she only speaks Weirdese or whatever, and I'm over here speaking English." That in no way answered Geno's question, which would have been more like, What have you told this woman? But Sidney was barreling on. "I don't want to go back in there and not have done this. We need to go somewhere where I can touch people. I have no fucking clue where that would be."
"Why you not touch guys at practice yesterday?"
"I got Lola, and. I didn't want to do the guys. I just. I didn't. If it didn't work, and they were thinking about me, or whatever. It can get weird." Sidney scrunched up his face. "But I'm going through this in my head, and - I'm not actually sure how to do this, like how to go in for a touch on someone I don't know. Shawna should have given me a playbook. Can you just touch strangers in public?"
Geno pictured some of the possible outcomes of taking Sidney somewhere like a mall, to touch strangers, on purpose, and then he picked up the phone. "Is Geno. We come over?" he said, when Nathalie answered.
"That would be wonderful!" she said, sounding genuinely enthusiastic. "You can stay for dinner. I feel like I've been neglecting you lately. I'll send Mario over to get you."
When Geno hung up, Sidney was looking at him alertly, and he said, "We go to Mario's. You touch them. They not care if you weird."
"Oh, hey. Good idea. I should have thought of that," Sidney said, and went to go get his stuff and wait on the front porch. Geno followed, of course. It was what he did, and he refused to feel pathetic about it this week.
Mario was there in under ten minutes, which surprised Geno; he knew Sidney had bought a house in the same general area as Mario's, and he knew they carpooled because Sidney couldn't drive, but he'd never really processed the proximity before. He figured Sidney had wanted to stay as close to them as he could. Actually, he sort of wondered why Sidney had ever moved out.
Sidney bounded down the steps to the car and hopped in the front seat, and Geno followed, climbing in back.
"How are you feeling?" Mario asked, looking at Geno in the rearview mirror, and Geno knew he didn't just mean the knee.
"Good," he said, hoping that would cover it.
"Sidney? How are things?"
Sidney shrugged. "Working the problem, so I guess that's good."
"That's fantastic," Mario said, smiling like they'd just made the Cup finals. "Great news, guys." Geno wasn't entirely sure why he got counted in on this one, but English was weird sometimes.
Mario pulled out of Sidney's driveway and drove down the street. About a minute later, Geno saw Sidney take a deep breath and wondered if he was maybe feeling nauseated again. And then Sidney leaned over and poked Mario on the neck with his bare finger. Mario didn't flinch. The car stayed perfectly in its lane. His breathing didn't even change. Geno kind of wanted to clap.
"Sid?" Mario said, sounding casual, like he was asking about the weather or something.
"Homework," Sidney explained. "I'm practicing."
Mario nodded, getting that comment just like he used to get blind passes, and Geno hadn't really thought he could think better of Mario Lemieux, but he'd been wrong. "How's that going?" Mario asked.
"That went okay," Sidney said. "I mean, I'm not really sure what the point of this is, but I figure, the coach is the coach, right?"
"That's right," Mario said. "Do you want me to come with you to a session?"
Sidney actually thought about it before he said, "Not - not right now."
"Offer stands, always," Mario said. "You know that, right?" And then they were at his house. Geno had visited it a few times, but he mostly remembered it from that first night in the US, bewildered and exhausted and so, so far from home. There had been a million little things that were strange, in the plane, in the airport, on the trip, at Mario's house, but shaking Mario Lemieux's hand had convinced him he'd made the right decision. He still felt sort of awed that he could just walk in here, where Mario Lemieux lived, like he belonged.
Sidney led the way, though, and to him, this was basically home, still, obviously no big deal at all. Nathalie came out to greet them, patting Sidney carefully on the shoulder, and Sidney responded by reaching out and touching her on her bare forearm. Her eyes got wide, and she said, "Sidney?" Then she looked past him, at Geno and Mario and said, "Oh, Sidney." Her eyes teared up.
"That wasn't supposed to happen," Sidney said. "Did - did, I transfer something? Fuck, why are you crying?" He looked sort of panicked, and he'd pulled his hands back and shoved them deep into his pockets.
"Happy tears," she said, and hugged him very briefly. "I'm happy for you, sweetie."
"And yet you're crying," Sidney pointed out. "And also there's nothing to be happy for."
Nathalie smiled, still teary. "Oh, Sidney," she said again, and she sounded ridiculously fond. The sad part was that Geno was right there with her. Maybe being around Sidney too much did something to your brain.
Dinner went fine. Geno found himself sitting back, watching as Sidney joked with the younger Lemieux children, interacted with Mario and Nathalie, and just generally - was happy. Was almost normal. It was the only time he'd ever seen Sidney fit with people like this. He didn't even bring up hockey that much.
Geno wondered about the oldest Lemieux girl. She was in college, of course, but she was - probably the right age. If Sidney bonded with her, he'd be a member of this family forever.
And Geno would have to see them together all the time, but that was fine. He'd be a free agent eventually. He could go to the Kings or somewhere. Only play the Penguins a couple times a year.
Nathalie nudged his arm. "Whatever you're thinking, you should stop," she said softly.
"Just, ah," Geno said, but it was hard getting a lie together in English on the spur of the moment.
Nathalie watched him for a few seconds. Then she said, "Have some pie."
Geno did. She cut him an extra-big piece.
Sidney managed not to project his thoughts, which were basically: duh. Of course he did better with goals.
Shawna thought for a moment, staring off into space, and then she said, "I don't want to push you too hard, especially if you're still determined to travel with the team."
"Yes," Sidney said firmly. "We leave tomorrow."
"Then today I want to review your touching skills and do a little more mental activation work. We're not going to push this, but I am going to ask you to do quite a lot of homework while you're gone."
Sidney shrugged. "Not like I'm playing. I'll have plenty of time."
"Great," Shawna said, and smiled. "So, for homework, I'd like you to touch every member of your team, skin-to-skin - with their prior consent, of course. And I'd also like you to do some - hmmm." She paused, frowning, and then said, "You know, instead of guided contemplation, I'd like you to write."
"What, like - about anything?" Sidney figured he could write a lot of words about hockey, if he had to.
"I'd like you to start a journal, and write in it every day, about how you're feeling, how your psychic abilities are functioning, things like that. In addition, while you're gone, I'd like you to write in your journal about your past experiences with touch, and your hopes and fears about touching in your future. Be sure to bring the journal with you when you come back."
"We're only gone for six days," Sidney said.
Shawna responded to his horror rather than his words. "This will be a stretch for you, Sidney. But if you don't stretch, you're not going to reach your goals."
Sidney nodded. He could reach his goals. Reaching goals was what he did. But back at home, he told Geno, "I've got to write about my feelings." He knew he was whining, but he deserved to. It was such fucking bullshit.
Geno laughed, long and loud. "Write how you feel you not like writing about feelings."
Sidney laughed despite himself. "I will," he said. After a few seconds, though, his laughter died off. "I also have to touch everyone on the team. And write about touching," he said.
"She really like touching," Geno observed.
"Yeah, she does, and - I don't even get why. It's so stupid."
Geno took a breath like he was going to say something, but then he didn't. He looked at Sidney, looked away, looked back. "She coach, like you say to Mario," he said. "Maybe it make sense later." He sounded a little sad, which was weird.
"Yeah," Sidney said. The problem was, he wasn't sure he wanted it to make sense later. It was like she was trying to change him into someone he wasn't. All he wanted was to be just like he had been before, but with fewer headaches.
- Touch everyone.
- Write about it.
- Journal entry.
Sidney, being Sidney, apparently decided to get through all that on the plane. As soon as they reached cruising altitude, Sidney stood up and walked to the back; Geno had the aisle seat, so it was easy to swivel out and watch. Sidney walked up to Tanger, who was getting his iPad and headphones out, and said, "Hey."
"Hey," Tanger said.
"Can I touch you?" Sidney asked.
Tanger dropped his iPad on his lap. The half of the team that hadn't already gotten their headphones on stood up or turned around to watch, and everyone else started taking their headphones off to find out what the hell was going on.
"Whoa." Tanger said. "Uh, what?"
"Can. I. Touch. You?" Sidney said, spacing his words out in the way that meant what he really wanted to do was just punch someone.
"...Sure?" Tanger said. He sounded like he was guessing. "Uh, Sidney, did you maybe -" but he didn't get any further than that, because Sidney poked his cheek.
Tanger flinched away, and Sidney said, "Hold still" and poked him again. He waited a few seconds, nodded, and said, "Thanks."
Tanger turned to stare at Geno like he could somehow explain this, but Geno was too busy trying not to laugh. Sidney turned to Flower next. "Hey, can I -" he started.
Flower held up a hand. "Go for it," he said, not bothering to look up from his laptop. Sidney held his hand for a few seconds - Geno could tell, now, that he was counting to five - and then moved on.
By the time he was halfway through the plane, people had stopped looking at Geno for an explanation and just accepted it as another Sidney weirdness. Sidney touched all the trainers and all the coaches, too, and they looked a little more wary. Geno figured he'd have a talk with Dan later. Sidney finished up by touching Mario again, and Mario had apparently seen this one coming, because he stood up when Sidney got to him, way at the front of the plane, and held out his arms. Sidney blinked, nodded, and hugged him for a lot longer than a count of five, resting one hand on Mario's neck above his collar. The whole plane went, "Awwwww."
"Oh, fuck you, you losers," Sidney snapped as he pulled away. Mario smiled and sat back down, and Sidney came over to Geno.
"Wait, how come you're not touching him?" Jordy called out. Talbot punched him and said something in French, loud enough that every French speaker on the plane laughed.
Except for Sidney, who just shrugged and called back, "Yeah, that's right." The whole plane went silent for a second, then got way too loud to compensate. Sidney, totally ignoring all that, took out his notebook and put a checkmark next to point one on the first page. Then he turned over to a new page, frowned, and started writing.
Geno looked across the aisle at Kovy, who shrugged and said in Russian, "It's not like I speak French, you know."
Geno sighed and put his headphones back on. He'd ask Sidney back at the hotel.
Except he didn't actually get that far. They landed in DC and headed for the hotel, and Sidney, like always, went up to the room through the service elevator and the stairs. Geno stayed with the team, which meant he was an easy target for Dan, who appeared next to him as soon as he'd gotten his key card and said, "Geno, let's talk."
Jordy mouthed something at Geno. It looked like "Uh-oh." Geno sighed. "Okay," he said, and followed Dan up to his room.
"I don't want to know what you're doing with Sidney," Dan said as soon as the door shut behind them.
"I - what?" Geno said, blinking. He'd expected this to be about Sidney's new touching mission, and he was totally derailed.
"I'm just going to ask you," Dan said, plunging ahead in what was obviously a previously composed speech, "and I will also ask Sidney, to keep it - discreet. I don't want any complications."
He gestured to one of the chairs, and Geno sat in it. He took as much time as possible getting comfortable, so that he could try to figure out what the hell Dan was talking about, but there just wasn't that much time in the universe, basically. "Keep discreet," he finally said. "Keep what discreet?"
Dan held up his hands. "That's entirely your business. I'm just saying, let's keep it your business, for the good of the team."
"Yes," Geno said helplessly. "Okay." He'd ask Sidney later, and maybe between the two of them they could figure this out. Or, more realistically, he could ask Sidney to ask Mario what the fuck was going on.
Dan clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Thanks, Geno."
Geno nodded, and rose to go. "Oh, and Geno?" Dan said, and Geno sat back down again. "What was that, on the plane? What was Sidney doing?"
This one, Geno was prepared for. "Sid trying to get his head fixed," he said. "That his homework."
"Oh!" Dan said. He looked thoughtful for a few seconds, then smiled. "That's probably a really good thing," he said. "Does Mario know?"
"Of course," Geno said.
"Great," Dan said. He laughed a little. "Sidney's becoming a real boy, isn't he?"
"Yes?" Geno said, hoping it wasn't obvious that once again he had no clue what Dan meant. He liked it better when they only talked about hockey.
"Congratulations, then," Dan said, and stood up, and this was definitely Geno's cue to go.
He basically fled the room. Out in the hallway, he stopped for a second, just breathing and trying to figure out what the hell they'd been talking about.
His phone vibrated and he took it out. A text from Sanya:
Tomorrow we kick Pens ass make u cry. 2nite we DRINK!
Geno blinked at it, nodded once, and went to tell Sidney where he was going.
"Just had talk with Dan," Geno told him, looking sort of stressed, as far as Sidney could tell.
"What about?" Sidney really hoped it wasn't some kind of - bad family news, or something. He couldn't actually imagine anything that bad that Geno wouldn't know first, but that didn't mean it wasn't something terrible. In Sidney's experience, bad shit tended to happen.
"No clue," Geno said, and his face kind of wrinkled. "Keep discreet, he said."
"Keep what discreet?"
"He not say," Geno said, kind of laughing about it. "Make it easy be discreet, maybe? If I not know, I not tell."
Sidney stared at his feet for a while, but he couldn't keep himself from asking. "Do - do people make sense to you?" It was basically the same question he wanted to ask everyone, all the time, but Geno at least probably wouldn't laugh at him.
Geno shrugged. "Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. No more lately." He looked at Sidney. "You can see in their heads. They still not make sense?"
Sidney flushed, because - no. No, people never made sense. "They think one thing and say another," he said. "They tell you they want something when they want the opposite, and then you try to do what they want, and they get mad, or you try to do what they said, and they get mad. Every single person has a different memory of the same exact event. Every single person has an opinion about me, and it's all different, and, and - it's all so much fucking bullshit, okay? Reporters ask you questions and they already have the answers they want in their heads, and then they write something else anyway. People have all these feelings for no fucking reason at all. They're. Seriously. People are just stupid."
Geno blinked. "Always thought, if I had -" and he made a gesture, from his temple out into the world "- I get it."
"You wouldn't," Sidney said. "You fucking wouldn't, trust me."
Geno nodded. Then he stood up and started changing.
"You going out tonight?" Sidney asked.
"Ovechkin," Geno explained. "He take me out." He made a face, like maybe he wasn't saying the whole thing, but Sidney was more grateful than ever that he could take whatever Geno said as the whole truth, without hearing all the things he wasn't saying.
"Have - fun? I guess?" Sidney said. He couldn't imagine drinking with Ovechkin would ever be fun, but Geno had said he liked going to bars. "Don't mix alcohol and your pain medication," he added. "Don't drink and drive."
"Not new, Sid," Geno said, and patted him on the shoulder. "I be okay."
"Are you going to be back late?"
Geno smiled, in a way that wasn't exactly a smile. "Yeah," he said. "After you sleeping, anyway."
"See you tomorrow, then," Sidney said. "I'm going to sit here and write about my feelings," and suddenly he wished he could go out with Geno. Just. Be with him. But Nathalie and Mario had both told him a million times to give Geno space. And anyway, he had homework to do.
"Fuck you," Geno said cheerfully. "I'm exactly the same as the last time you saw me."
"Oh, no," Sanya said, pulling up a chair, leaning forward eagerly. "Because now you are married to Sidney Crosby. You are all grown up, and also the odds from Russia right now are 11:4 that you've lost your mind. Tell me everything. Is he good in bed? Does he make you cry?" He dropped his voice. "Does he like spanking? You can tell me, Zhenya. I've always thought his ass was made for it."
"It's not," Geno said, and couldn't stop himself from sighing. "It's not like that."
"Ohhhhhh," Sanya said. He made a comically sad face and poured Geno a drink. "So it's a tragedy." He nodded solemnly. "Maybe we shouldn't be in a bar, then. Maybe we should go to my place."
Geno thought about it, imagined it, imagined saying no and staying here and drinking and then going back to the hotel, drunk, and crawling into bed next to Sidney. It was worryingly appealing, sickeningly appealing, and that was why he poured the rest of his drink down his throat, slammed the glass back on the table, and said, "Let's go."
Sanya smiled a little, his head tilting the way it did when someone on his own team made a surprising play. "All right, then," he said. "Let's go."
Geno shook his head and sat heavily on the bed to take off his shoes. He mumbled something in Russian, then said, "Is not you. Is me" and headed to the bathroom. Two minutes later, Sidney heard the shower turn on.
It was 10:00. Time for bed. But. Geno had been drinking with Ovechkin, and he'd come back after only three hours, and it seemed like maybe something was wrong. Sidney decided he could always work on another day's journal entry - it wasn't cheating, it was just preparing some material in advance in case he got sick or busy or something - and kept working until the shower shut off.
He looked at the clock again. 10:21. Geno usually took five minute showers. He looked at the journal for a second - the last line he'd written was "I feel like the team needs to tighten up the defense to make up for the lack of offensive power available right now" - and then closed it. He got a bottle of water out and opened it. Five minutes later, Geno came out, a towel wrapped around his waist, and blinked at Sidney, who handed him the water bottle.
"Thanks," Geno said, and drank half of it, just standing there. Then he got out a pair of boxers and put them on, and sat down on the bed.
"You're going to feel like shit tomorrow," Sidney said, and then he sat carefully on the other side of the bed. "But - you're okay now?"
"Had sex with Ovechkin," Geno said.
Sidney jerked, startled. He felt - something. He wasn't sure what. Kind of hot. Embarrassed, maybe? "You - with - with him? We're playing him tomorrow!"
"Not first time, Sid," Geno said.
"Right, I know, you said - oh. You mean, not your first time with Ovechkin? You had sex with him more than once?"
Geno took another long swallow from the bottle of water, emptying it. Sidney mechanically got him another one. "Had sex with him a lot," he said. "Wanted." He sighed. "Wanted boyfriends, once. Twice."
Sidney tried to figure that out. "You wanted to be boyfriends with Ovechkin?" he finally guessed, really glad he'd had so much practice at translating Geno's English.
"Once, I young," Geno said. "We just teenagers. I stupid. Second time, less young, but more stupid. Big fight. Big -" he paused, clearly sorting through his English vocabulary, which always suffered when he drank "- drama."
"Is that why you hated him?" Sidney was kind of pleased to get to the bottom of that. Everyone on the team had had a guess, but, as usual, they'd all been wrong. Well. Except Flower. Fucking goalies.
"Yeah. I stupid," Geno repeated.
"Because you had sex with him?"
Geno laughed, but it didn't sound amused, exactly. "I wanted him," he said. "I thought - we have sex, we be boyfriends. I know it not work that way. Can't bond, no boyfriend," he said.
Sidney had heard him say that before, but this time, he thought about it. The minutes stretched out, but Geno didn't try to fill them in. He understood about needing time to think it through. Sidney couldn't figure it out, exactly; he and Geno were boyfriends, so of course Geno could be one, but maybe it was different with someone like Ovechkin. "So you had sex, and you wanted to be his boyfriend, and he didn't want you because you couldn't bond?" If so, then Sidney was actually kind of - not good with that. Geno was enough for anyone, even without a bond.
"Right," Geno said. He drank most of the second bottle of water. "Stupid, like I say. I know what I for."
Sidney felt his pulse accelerating like he was about to hit the ice, and he didn't really know why. "Do you want to be his boyfriend now?" he asked, and suddenly it was really important that the answer be no.
Geno looked at him. Sidney couldn't read his expression at all, and he really, really wanted to. "No," he said heavily. "No, I not want boyfriends with him at all. We have sex, it just sex."
"That seems - good?" Sidney said. "I mean, if he just wants to have sex, and you just want to have sex, then - that's good, right?"
Geno shook his head. "I sleep now," he said.
"Right," Sidney said, and went off to brush his teeth.
When he came back, he thought Geno was asleep, but as soon as he got in bed, Geno curled around him, holding him a lot tighter than usual. "I such stupid," he whispered to Sidney, his accent heavier than usual, his voice low and rough. "Stupider than ever."
"How so?" Sidney asked, but Geno didn't answer. Sidney waited, and waited, and then Geno's breathing shifted and slowed and he knew he was asleep.
Sidney wasn't tired. Or, he was, but he couldn't make himself relax enough to sleep. He couldn't stop thinking about how Geno had - had loved Ovechkin, maybe, and Ovechkin had not loved him back, just because he couldn't bond. Then he thought about how Geno had said he knew what he was for. The more he thought about it, the more Sidney felt like he'd been hit hard from behind when he didn't even have the puck, and the referees hadn't called it. He wanted to board Ovechkin. Maybe spear him. He wanted to hurt him. He didn't know why, but it felt like Ovechkin deserved it.
Except Geno apparently still liked Ovechkin. Enough - enough to have sex with him. Sidney couldn't even imagine it. He knew Ovechkin, had been in his mind a few times, and of course he knew Geno, but - what had it been like? He tried to picture it - Geno taking his clothes off, just like Sidney had seen him do so many times. And then Ovechkin taking his clothes off. And then - kissing? Sidney shifted, hot and uncomfortable, and kicked off the duvet. Next to him, Geno grumbled in his sleep, and Sidney forced himself to be still, to be calm, even though he couldn't relax, couldn't stop feeling like he needed to do something.
It took Sidney a long time to fall asleep. The last numbers he remembered seeing on the clock were 2:13.
Sidney still woke up before Geno, though, which made sense. He showered and dressed and ordered breakfast and waited for Geno to wake.
Geno groaned when he woke up and headed straight for the bathroom. Sidney kind of wished he could be in Geno's head, just long enough to make sure he was okay, not feeling sick, not - slipping in the shower or whatever.
Plus, if he could visit Geno's head for just a few minutes, he could find out what last night had been like. He'd be able to stop thinking about it if he could just satisfy his curiosity; it was not being able to picture it that was making him obsess.
When Geno came out, he said, "Sorry for last night."
"It's fine," Sidney said. "You weren't gross or anything. You didn't cry or puke."
"I not Jordy," Geno agreed, and sat down. Sidney had gotten him oatmeal and dry toast, since those seemed safest, and he started poking at the oatmeal. "I whine, though." He made his voice sort of stupid and slurred. "Oh, Sid, my life the WORST. So hard. No one love me."
"You weren't like that," Sidney said, and he could hear that his voice sounded weird, off, tighter than usual. He tried to make it lighter when he continued. "You just made it sound like Ovechkin is kind of an asshole, and that wasn't a surprise."
"He -" Geno laughed. "He not asshole. He just Ovechkin."
Sidney didn't think the two were mutually exclusive at all, but he didn't say so.
With Geno gone, Sidney had to bring up his barriers. He hadn't really worked on it with Shawna yet, but imagining himself in his helmet helped. After a few seconds of that, though, he started reaching out. He wondered if he could just check in on the guys, maybe - he wasn't sure what kind of range he had, and probably Shawna would be interested to know.
He could easily reach the guys. They were dispirited, dragging, and Dan was switching up strategy with them. Sidney couldn't make those plays and didn't want to hear them, so he moved on. It was just - common sense to see what the Caps were doing, he wasn't specifically looking for Ovechkin. But Ovechkin had his helmet off, and he was easy to find, and - Sidney went in, amazed at how much easier controlling this was when he wasn't fighting to stay in his own head every minute. Ovechkin was laughing at something Semin had said to him in Russian, and he was thinking about the weaknesses in the Pens' lines, but it would be easy to go a little deeper, find his memories of last night.
It would help, Sidney was sure. If he could just find out what they did, he'd stop thinking about it. He took a deep breath and plunged into Ovechkin's mind.
Because it was a deeper memory, it hit him in flashes, like it was happening to him - like he was the one watching Geno's throat as he finished his drink, he was the one getting hard on the drive back to his place, he was the one pressing Geno against the door, kissing him, hearing Geno's groan as he sucked his tongue, ran his hands along his sides. Sidney lost himself in it - Geno's tongue in his mouth, Geno's hand on his dick, his body arching into Geno's mouth, aching to come. Sidney jerked back into his own body on the edge of an orgasm, and bit his lip hard until he had backed off a little. Only a little, though. He was shaking, and he felt raw, exposed. Everything was too intense, suddenly; he could feel his suit moving against his skin, feel his dick pressing against his fly, feel air moving past his lips as he struggled to get his breathing under control. He tried to get his hard-on to go away, but it fucking wouldn't, and Geno would be coming back soon. He tried to arrange himself so that it wasn't so obvious.
Sidney stared at the ice for the last period, but for once he couldn't focus on hockey. The sex thing had happened to him before, of course - he'd been caught in so many minds having sex, come from so many minds having sex, that he'd been pretty sure he knew all about it. But he'd never. It was. It was different this time, and he couldn't figure out why, and even though Geno was back, and Sidney was shielding, too, just to be sure, he was still getting flashes of the sex Ovechkin had had with Geno, like random misfires in his brain. Every time, he felt hotter. He had to focus just to hold still.
At 14:36, Geno leaned over and asked him quietly, "You okay?"
"Fine," Sidney said, but he was pretty sure it had come out wrong.
Geno shot him a quick look and moved so that one finger brushed against the back of Sidney's hand. The damping effect was immediate and total, but it didn't fucking help. It was like Sidney's mind was wandering inside his own body, because he couldn't stop thinking about it. He couldn't stop feeling Geno touching him. His skin prickled like he had goosebumps or something.
Sidney wanted to punch himself in the head, except that would probably make things worse, too.
And, he realized, he wouldn't even be able to tell Geno about it, because Geno would probably - it would be weird.
Sidney forced himself to stare down at the ice, focus on every play, drive every other thought from his mind. It was bizarrely difficult.
Geno shook his head and went to Brooksie's room to piss and stayed to spend a few minutes talking around the game. They threw around some half-hearted trash talk, and then Geno headed back to his room.
Sidney was still in the shower. Geno blinked and started changing for bed, assuming Sidney would be out soon. Twenty minutes later, he was staring at the TV, not really watching anything, wondering when he should try breaking down the door, when he heard the shower shut off. Sidney came out flushed so red it looked like he'd been trying to boil his skin off, and said, "Oh, I thought you'd be asleep."
Geno raised his eyebrows at Sidney. "Want to brush teeth," he said.
Sidney turned redder, which Geno would have bet was actually impossible, and said, "Oh, right." Geno hauled himself up and headed for the bathroom, and as he got to the door, Sidney added, "Sorry?" The doubt in his voice, like he wasn't sure what the human custom was for when you'd been a bathroom hog, made Geno chuckle as he went in.
When he got out, Sidney was wearing his normal sleep clothes and sitting on the edge of the bed, so precariously and tensely perched that he kind of looked like he had burns on his ass. "You sleep tonight? Or just be tense?" Geno asked him.
"I. Uh." Sidney looked confused, like Geno had used a lot of unfamiliar words. "I was wondering. How do you decide who to have sex with?"
Geno could feel his face wrinkling. "This - that - that what you thinking?"
"Yes?" Sidney said.
Geno wished he had gone to sleep while Sidney was in the shower. "If I like, then I say yes," he said.
Sidney said, "That can't be right. You haven't had sex with lots of people in - you know, since you've. Since we've lived together."
Geno winced. He'd pretty much counted on Sidney never, ever noticing that. "Have not gone out much," Geno pointed out.
"Right, but - why Ovechkin?"
That one Geno didn't want to explain at all. "He friend. Not many chances for him. He not want to bond in US, and he getting old for unbonded. Can't take risk."
Sidney looked irritated. "You're not answering my question, though. Why did you want to have sex with him?"
"For fun. Why you ask?" Geno needed to end this conversation as soon as possible, and you could almost always deflect Sidney by taking the battle to him.
Sidney flushed again. "Just curious. Are you going to sleep tonight or what?"
Geno climbed in bed.
"Sidney," Shawna said patiently. "You wrote six journal entries about hockey."
"You said write about my feelings," Sidney pointed out, confused.
"Next time, I want you to try writing 100 words that are nothing to do with hockey," Shawna said. Sidney just stared at her, betrayed, because - where the hell else was he supposed to get feelings he actually understood? Shawna continued obliviously, even though she was reading his mind. "I'm very pleased with the amount of touching you did, though. That went very well."
"Yeah," Sidney said. "Nothing from the guys at all." He really wanted to make Shawna stop looking disappointed - it wasn't that he cared what she thought, exactly, he just hated feeling like he was failing at something - so he added, "I even did some blocking on my own in the arena, when Geno went to the bathroom." Then, unfortunately, he remembered what else he'd done while Geno was out, and he blushed horribly.
"Sidney," Shawna said grimly, after a few moments of horrified silence. "That was absolutely unethical. You deep-probed an unknowing, unconsenting victim, and you used your abilities to gain knowledge neither Geno nor Ovechkin would have wanted you to have. You have abilities most people don't; you have an obligation not to abuse them, not to abuse the people around you."
Sidney thought about that. "I'm not abusing them," he protested. "I don't think they'd care much. Geno told me he had sex with Ovechkin, and Ovechkin doesn't know how to keep secrets."
"In the arena, you thought about the fact that you could not share with Geno that you'd gotten this information from Ovechkin."
"Right," Sidney said.
"That is a clear indication that it is morally unacceptable for you to have this information." Shawna was angry enough now that Sidney could feel it, and he flinched back a little. "Sidney," she said. "I know you're accustomed to learning things by flipping through people's minds willy-nilly, but you are learning to control this. Making ethical choices is a part of control, and until you can do that, you won't have achieved it."
Sidney nodded and hoped that conveyed his sincere dedication to ethics. Shawna apparently wasn't buying it, though; she spent the rest of the session chewing him out, and gave him two books on ethics in psychic interactions to read in addition to his feelings homework. Sidney left feeling kind of like he'd been bag skated - not out of breath or anything, but just the same weird sinking feeling in his stomach.
And he still couldn't stop thinking about Geno and Ovechkin, damn it.
Sidney went home and threw himself into his workout - at least he was allowed to do that, even if it left him with a headache - and tried not to think about it. That turned out to be almost impossible, though. It was like he'd broken something in his brain. He'd go sit with Geno, just like he always did, just like normal, and then he'd remember himself - remember Ovechkin kissing Geno, and suddenly he'd be hot and short of breath and unable to relax. Or he'd touch Geno the way he'd touched him a million times before, sliding his hand along his arm or wrapping his arm around Geno's waist, but then he'd remember Ovechkin doing the same thing but meaning something totally different. And Sidney's skin would get tight, and his stomach would get warm, and he'd get hard.
He was jerking off a lot, even though no one around him was thinking about sex. Normally, it was something he did when he had to, when the people around him got distracted enough to distract him, too. Now he was - he was looking forward to it. He was wishing he could take more than one shower a day, because it was the only time he could count on Geno not walking in.
That afternoon, sitting next to Geno, it happened again: he touched Geno's face and flashed on Ovechkin touching his face just before kissing him, and suddenly he couldn't think about his email anymore; he was trying to figure out if he could do another workout and take another shower.
He wondered if Geno ever felt like this, so distracted by his own dick that he didn't want anything else but to jerk off.
He wondered if Geno jerked off in the shower. Every day? Every other day? Did he maybe know some secret trick to getting time alone, even living with Sidney? Sidney found himself picturing it. Geno in the shower, water running down his body, over his biceps and pecs and abs and glutes, him bracing one arm against the wall and wrapping the other hand around his dick, maybe moaning, the way Sidney sometimes did, when he couldn't help it. Or maybe Geno did it somewhere else - maybe in their bed, while Sidney was in the shower, and then maybe one day Sidney would forget something, and he'd come back out, and he'd see Geno on the bed, naked and hard, his eyes shut, and Geno wouldn’t even know he was there, and he could just, just watch, see Geno get himself off. Maybe Geno would bite his lip the way he sometimes did when he was really concentrating, maybe he'd make noises -
"You okay?" Geno asked, and Sidney slammed back into awareness of his body. He was hot all over, probably flushed, and sweating a little. And his dick was so hard it hurt. He was grateful he was wearing sweatpants and a loose t-shirt, which seemed to be covering things up, pretty much. He shifted his computer on his lap just to be sure.
"Yeah," Sidney said, and tried to figure some way of getting out of there. Or, given that he couldn't stand up without his problem being really, really obvious, a way to get Geno out of there.
"You getting sick? You look like fever," Geno said, and leaned over to touch Sidney's forehead. Sidney steeled himself not to react when Geno touched him, and he was pretty sure he didn't, but Geno narrowed his eyes and frowned, so maybe not. "Sid," Geno said. "What's wrong?"
Sidney couldn't think with Geno this close. He couldn't even figure out what lie to tell. He just needed to get off and then he'd be able to think again, but his mouth was stupidly, unbelievably, moving without his permission. "I. I saw something I shouldn't have," he said, and cringed.
"When? At Shawna's?" Geno asked, still frowning.
"No, in DC. I - read Ovechkin. Shawna told me I shouldn't have," Sidney added. "Sorry."
Geno laughed a little. "You look in Ovechkin's head, what you see make you sorry," he said. "You pay forever."
"I saw him with you," Sidney said helplessly. "I can't stop thinking about it."
Geno's expression changed, and Sidney couldn't figure out what it meant. He looked Sidney up and down, and he started smiling again, but a different smile. "He like sex a lot," he said, and it wasn't a question, but Sidney nodded, knowing he was blushing hard. Geno rubbed his hand over Sidney's head, ruffling his hair, and said, "I going for walk. Trainer's orders."
He got up, and Sidney could hear him putting on his shoes, grabbing his keys. "Bye, Sid!" he called, and then the door shut.
Sidney had no idea what had just happened, but it was - he was so fucking grateful. He didn't bother with a shower, didn't even bother heading upstairs, just shoved his hand into his sweatpants, his underwear, moaning with relief when he got his hand around his dick, shaking with it, with how much he needed it. It only took him a few strokes and he was coming, hard, fully dressed, in his living room. And it felt so good he didn't even care.
He collapsed against the couch, breathing hard, and just lay there for a few minutes. He felt like he did after a good workout, blissful and relaxed and comfortable.
And then he noticed he was sticky, and come was drying on his skin, and headed upstairs to shower.
And Geno needed to stop thinking about Sidney jerking off, because he was outside, in public, and some of the mental images were - something he'd have to save for later.
He made himself stop thinking about Sidney jerking off, except then he ended up thinking about why Sidney had needed to. He'd read Sanya, read Sanya having sex with Geno. And it had made him horny.
That was good, right? It should make Geno feel good and hopeless, since that was obviously the first step to Sidney figuring out that sex was a thing that he could want, too. Something that would make him start looking at bondmates, start thinking about his future, maybe looking at Stephanie Lemieux. Although if Sidney was really that interested in Sanya's memories, maybe he wasn't going to be looking for a girl.
By the time he got to the park, Geno was imagining the kind of guy Sidney might bond with. No one on the team, he was pretty sure, but there were lots of guys Sidney might want. It might not even be someone Geno knew.
Geno did a careful circuit of the park, letting the futures spool out in front of him - Sidney with a bondmate, Geno maybe visiting them sometimes, watching them curl up together on the couch. Geno staying for dinner, definitely a guest in Sidney's house, Sidney happy and radiating contentment the way the newly-bonded did.
Geno shook his head, hard. He was tearing up at the park, in front of little kids.
He'd be fine. Sidney would be happy, and Geno would be fine.
"The point, Sidney, is to apply them. To think about how they might relate to your own life."
And Sidney flinched, because that was one thing he'd been trying hard to avoid lately, relating things to his own life. That just. That didn't end well; it ended with him on the couch, weird around Geno, unable to think - and then Sidney realized that he was thinking this where Shawna could read him and recoiled.
Shawna frowned thoughtfully, studying some air molecule or something, for about a minute. "Sidney," she said, her voice level, "I want to explore that incident on the couch. I think it's an excellent example we can use to build your practical ethics skills." Sidney wanted nothing to do with discussing that experience at all, ever. Shawna held up her hands. "So maybe we won't discuss it," she said. Sidney had heard a lot of threats from a lot of coaches over the years, so he knew hers for exactly what it was, and he waited for the deal. "Let's try writing about it. I'd like you to use the next ten minutes of our session to write 100 words about how you feel, now that I know what happened on the couch, and be sure to include why you feel that way."
Sidney didn't want to talk about it, and he knew all about picking the better of two bad options. He nodded, pulled out his journal, and started writing.
But then, like always, he got stuck. He knew he had feelings, he wasn't broken, he just didn't know how to put them into words. There were a lot of different feelings in the world, and people didn't nicely label them in their heads - oh, now I'm feeling pity, now I'm feeling disgust, now I'm feeling yearning. They just felt, overwhelmingly and constantly, so that it was impossible to figure out what anyone was feeling, or whose feelings were whose. Feelings were fucking hard.
Sidney flailed around for a bit, trying to find the right word. Eventually he found one.
I feel uncomfortable that Shawna saw me on the couch after Geno left.
Thirteen words out of 100. And he'd already covered his feelings. He had no idea what else to write.
"Remember to write why," Shawna said. Sidney nodded and knuckled back down.
I feel uncomfortable that Shawna saw me on the couch after Geno left. I don't know why I feel this way.
Twenty-one words. Sidney stared at the paper and tried to figure it out. It wasn't. Jerking off wasn't wrong. His father had encouraged it, his mother had encouraged it, all the school health classes had encouraged it - "Safe Bonds Are Late Bonds!" and "Don't Bond Before You're Ready!" and "Masturbation Is the Safest Sex." And that really awful poster in the nurse's office that said, "IF YOU TOUCH HIM, YOU COULD BOND WITH HIM" with a creepy serial killer face underneath. And Mario had had the same talk with Sidney lots of times, about how he didn't have to bond or have sex with other people if he didn't want to, and jerking off was a perfectly acceptable choice. (Mario was the only person he'd ever heard say he didn't have to jerk off if he didn't want to, either, but apparently Mario didn't know any magic way to avoid having to do that. Some people just didn't want to? Apparently? Mario knew a lot of weird shit, basically.)
So jerking off was okay. And Shawna already knew he did it. She was in his brain enough to know that for sure. So. It wasn't just - the act. Even though that had been what he hadn't wanted to let Geno see. Although actually, now that he was thinking about it, that maybe wasn't true; it wasn't that he hadn't wanted Geno to see. He'd had the rules drummed into him - if you jerk off when a guy's in the room, wait until he's asleep and be quiet. If you can avoid doing it with someone else in the room, you should. But he was trying to picture it now, jerking off on the couch with Geno still right there, and it seemed like that would be okay. At least for Sidney. And maybe Geno? They did a lot of stuff together that most people didn't do. And it seemed like a good idea. More fun than listening to Jack jerk off back at school, and that had always been - pretty hot, on all kinds of levels.
Sidney shook his head and tried to focus. So if he didn't mind if Geno saw him (provisionally) and he knew there was nothing wrong about what he'd done (definitely), why did he care?
For some reason, he thought of Taylor, ordering him to be very far away when her date came over to pick her up last summer. Sidney had explained that he just wanted to know what the guy's intentions were, and she had said that was exactly the problem. "It's personal," Taylor told him. "I don't want, like, details of my date in your head, maybe even before I know about them. And it's creepy. You're my brother, you shouldn't know that shit. And I am not above meeting him in an undisclosed location if I have to, so don't make me." She'd relented a little, though, and promised that if the guy fucked her over she'd let Sidney pummel him instead of just doing it herself. She was a good kid.
But that might be it. Sidney picked up his pen and wrote some more, so that it read:
I feel uncomfortable that Shawna saw me on the couch after Geno left. I don't know why I feel this way. I think it might be because it's personal. I don't want details of certain events of my life in Shawna's head. Also, it's inappropriate. I don't have that kind of relationship with Shawna, where she should know this stuff.
Sidney counted. Sixty words. Fuck, he was only a little over half done, and he had no fucking clue where to go next.
"Sidney," Shawna said quietly. "We're out of time." Sidney blinked up at the clock. Had it really taken him 45 minutes to write 60 words? Apparently. "But you did really well, and I think you've achieved a breakthrough here." She smiled. "And I'm also beginning to understand more about you. So this has been very productive."
"Good," Sidney said. "I'm glad." He wasn't all that glad, actually, but he was hoping her gladness meant he could get out of the last 40 words.
"Yes, this one is complete, at least for now," Shawna said. "New homework, though - I'd like you to write 100 words about how this exercise, these feelings, relate to things you might know about other people and their possible feelings. And I'd like you to write 100 words about your feelings about sex in the context of Geno." Shawna smiled at him, a big, happy, wrapping-up-the-session smile. "Any questions?"
Sidney did have questions, but not any that could be voiced in words, so he just shook his head and left.
He managed to get a taxi driver who just drove, instead of wanting to chat or asking him to sign stuff, so Sidney spent the trip home trying to figure out how to write what Shawna'd asked him to. Two hundred words was nothing, except he'd already realized it was a lot. And for some reason, he kept thinking about the second hundred words, about what Shawna had said. Sex in the context of Geno.
When Sidney got back home, Geno was running through his stretches. "How it go?" he called out, and Sidney headed into the exercise room - it was supposed to be the family room, that's what the real estate agent had called it, but it had all the gear in it, and Sidney had never really been clear on what you did in a family room that you didn't do in a living room or parlor or den.
Sidney considered the answer to the question. His head felt full, like Shawna had put too many thoughts into it. Maybe it was just a concussion symptom. Either way, he was having a hard time making words happen, so he just stood in the doorway, watching Geno do his stretches, thinking about the session.
Thinking about sex in the context of Geno.
Geno had a great ass. He was a skater, so of course he did, but. Sidney enjoyed watching Geno do these stretches. Not just because they were helping him get back into condition, get back to hockey, although of course that mattered the most. But. It was - pretty. Or maybe pretty wasn't the word, but he didn't know what the right one was. He just liked watching the muscles work together, liked Geno's obvious strength, his -
Geno cleared his throat. "Sid? You okay?"
Sidney realized he'd been staring at Geno's ass for long enough for Geno to finish his stretches and sit up. "Am I being weird?" he said.
Geno made a wavy hand gesture. "Maybe Sid weird, but I used to Sid weird," he said. "She make you think hard?"
"Yeah," Sidney said. He felt like if he touched his head he'd be able to feel the new thoughts in there. There were so many they were kind of pressing to get out, which was why his next words were, "Would it be weird if I jerked off while you were sitting on the couch next to me?"
Geno didn't look at Sidney, just kind of bent his head to look at his knees. "Why?" he asked. "You want to?"
"It's - you know, before, when I said I read Ovechkin's mind?" Geno nodded. "After you left, I jerked off. On the couch."
"I know," Geno said. "You clean up good," he added, and it sounded like his usual sense of humor, except - not exactly right. Sidney made a note to think about that later.
"But I could have done that with you there," Sidney pointed out. "Right? Or would that have been weird?"
Geno took a deep breath. "Sid," he said patiently. "I need shower. Then answer question."
"Oh, right, sorry," Sidney said, and held out his hand to help Geno up. Dried sweat was itchy. Definitely important to shower.
But in the end, the answer had to be the same. Yes, Geno wanted to know why. But that couldn't change anything. He dried off carefully, dressed comfortably, and headed downstairs. Best not to put this off.
Sidney was sitting on the same couch - of course he was - watching TV. "Hey," he said, and muted the voice of Pierre McGuire. He turned to face Geno expectantly, so apparently they were just going to plunge right into this.
"Why you ask what you say before?" Geno said.
"Because I was wondering. I was thinking about wishing you would go so I could jerk off, and then I wondered if I could have just done it with you there."
Geno tried to put it all into clear English. "If you want that with someone, you ask. If person say yes, not weird. If person say no, don't do, and also maybe some weird. Better to ask people you think might say yes."
"Okay," Sidney said. "So - I ask you? Like, 'Geno, I want to jerk off, want to stay?'"
"You can say," Geno said, and this was the awful part, but he knew better, he really did. "And I would, would want to say yes. But would have to say no."
Sidney blinked at Geno, obviously confused, and Geno wasn't sure how much of this he would get. There were so many areas where he just didn't get it at all. "You'd want to say yes, but you'd have to say no," Sidney repeated carefully. "Because of the team?"
Geno sighed. "No, not team. Remember how I said about Ovechkin? I care too much. I want too much. So I get hurt. Twice."
"Right," Sidney said, and he obviously wasn't getting the parallel at all, damn it.
Geno gritted his teeth and prepared to spell it out. "Now is same for you. For you I care too much. I want too much. I get hurt."
Sidney thought about that. "You'll get hurt because - because you can't be my boyfriend? But we are boyfriends."
Geno blinked at that one, at Sidney's matter-of-fact tone. "Who -" he started, but it didn't matter who had told him that or why he thought it, because no matter what it absolutely couldn't be true. Geno forced himself to focus on just what he needed Sidney to understand. "Sid. I can't be bondmate. You going to get bondmate. So we can't be boyfriends."
Sidney flinched, his whole body tensing. "I'm not going to get a bondmate," Sidney said, and he sounded well on his way to pissed off. "I don't want a bondmate. I just want -" and he hesitated for a long moment, frowning, before he added, "- I want this. I want you." He paused, clearly figuring it out, and continued, "Just maybe with the sex stuff. It's reasonable, right? You already like me. I like you. And you said you think sex is fun."
And that was it, Geno could see it coming, because it was so obvious. Sidney wanted someone safe, and Geno was safe. And Sidney really did care about Geno. And Sidney obviously wanted to learn about the kinds of things that came with a bond - intimacy, closeness, caring, sharing your life with someone.
In a way, Geno had been prepping him for bonding all along. And now Sidney wanted to take another step, to learn about sex. He was curious about sex, and Geno didn't know whether to punch Sanya or kiss him, next time he saw him. Probably both; Sanya would get it. Geno felt - he didn't know what he felt. He knew what he wanted, though, and in the end, he just wasn't strong enough to resist it.
"Okay," Geno said to Sidney.
"Okay? We're boyfriends?"
"And if I want to jerk off on the couch in front of you -"
"You can." Geno smiled, and it felt almost natural, because he was looking forward to this, he really was, even if he also knew he was heading for disaster down the road. That was later. He was good at not thinking about later. "As long as we not have guests."
Sidney laughed and kicked Geno in the side. "I don't want to jerk off in front of anyone else," he said. "That'd be weird."
Geno laughed, too, even as his heart did something strange. And then, because he wanted to, and because he could, he reached over, pulled Sidney into his lap, and kissed his cheek.
It was time to get with the program, though. He thought about it, about when he could jerk off with Geno there, and while the couch had been what he'd been thinking about, the bed seemed like a better choice. He could make sure there was stuff nearby in advance, and the lighting would be low, which would be an advantage.
Thinking about it was getting him ready before the show, though. Sidney focused on his latest horrible Shawna book. Nothing was more boring than psychic ethics, he was discovering.
Geno looked up from where he was putting together a Lego model of - something. Sidney thought it was one of the famous building ones. Waterfall, something like that. "Big sigh," he said.
"It's the fucking worst," Sidney said. "It's all about - like, it takes a specific situation, and then it breaks it apart and applies these different theories, like if we go by this theory than we'd think that and do the other, but if go by this other one then it's totally different, and then at the end there's no answer. I don't know what the fuck the point is."
Geno thought about that while he put several tiny bricks in place. "Like play," he said, eventually.
"No, it isn't, because play makes sense," Sidney told him.
"In practice, you learn lots. Different moves, different plays, different strategies. But in play, you put it all together, sometimes use this one, sometimes that one, always looking at it different." Geno shrugged. "So to me it seems like play."
Sidney thought about that, staring at the page in front of him without really seeing it. "But play has a goal. You want the puck in the net, and you build a strategy from where you are to there. This - there's no fucking goal. Or if there is, they haven't said yet, and I'm in chapter 12."
"So ask Shawna," Geno said.
That was a good idea, actually, and Sidney pulled out his journal and made a note. Then his phone chimed, letting him know that it was time to do his journal entry, so he did that, and it took longer than usual. He could write down that his heart rate was accelerating intermittently, but figuring out why was harder, and now that Shawna wouldn't let him write about hockey, he didn't even have any way to make an analogy that worked. So bedtime passed Sidney by, and it was actually 10:20 before he looked up from his journal.
Fortunately, Geno tended to go to bed later than Sidney. He still had time to get ready.
As he headed for the stairs, his heart rate accelerated again, and he was pretty sure he actually did know why, but he had no intention of writing it down for Shawna.
As always, he was quiet as he walked through the bedroom to the bathroom. Sidney had left the bedside light on, which was weird, but he was always asleep by this late. Geno finished getting ready and headed to turn off the light, and then Sidney blinked at him.
"Awake?" Geno said, surprised.
"Yeah," Sidney said, although he only sounded half awake, his voice slow and soft.
Geno climbed into bed, rolled over on his side, and closed his eyes. And then Sidney touched his back and said, "Are you really tired?"
So he'd been waiting. Geno hoped it wasn't for any kind of in-depth talk; the boyfriend discussion was enough for any day. Any week. "Normal tired," he said, rolling back over to face Sidney.
"Oh. Good, okay," Sidney said, and he swallowed hard, and then - pushed the covers down to his waist. Geno followed the movement, and realized, after a few seconds, that Sidney wasn't wearing a shirt. And his other hand, under the covers, was - moving.
Oh. A rush of heat went through Geno, because he should have expected this, yes, but he hadn't, and it was - it was Sidney. Geno watched for a few moments, then reached over and grabbed the covers. He waited for Sidney to object, and he didn't - Geno looked up, and Sidney was biting his lip, just watching - so Geno pushed the covers all the way off.
Sidney didn't stop, which Geno assumed meant he was free to look, and he did, moving his eyes from Sidney's flushed face down to where Sidney's hand was wrapped around his cock. He was moving surprisingly slowly and either he liked a light touch or he liked to tease himself; either way, he was really into it, leaking a little and gasping now, and it was the noises that pushed Geno from watching to doing. He wasn't about to risk touching Sidney, not now, but he couldn't resist touching himself, and when he kicked the covers all the way down and shoved his hand into his boxers, Sidney moaned.
"Take them off," Sidney said, his hand going still on his own cock. "I want - I - it's. It's fair," he said, his voice shaky.
Geno shoved his boxers down fast and got his hands on himself again, and he wasn't doing anything, really, didn't have lube or lotion, but Sidney's wide, dark eyes were making him hotter than he could believe. Sidney was stopping and starting now, making more noise, obviously close, but Geno was catching up fast.
Sidney stopped jerking off again and took his hand off his dick altogether. "I can't," he said, digging his fingers into his thigh, "I can't fucking -"
Geno said, "Don't have to wait," stunned to hear his own voice, rough and deep like he'd been sucking cock instead of just jerking off.
"But I want to see," Sidney said, and apparently he still couldn't finish a sentence, "oh god, oh fuck," he added, and he moved his hand back to his dick like he couldn't entirely help it.
Geno watched, waiting, and then Sidney reached out and ran a hand along Geno's arm, down to his wrist, and gasped and came. Thirty seconds later, Geno followed him over the edge, his head full of the image of Sidney spread out before him, his body resonating to the feel of Sidney's hand on his wrist.
After a minute, when Geno could breathe and open his eyes again, Sidney passed him a tissue. "So, that went well, right?" Sidney said. "I mean - right? You'd do it again?"
"Yes," Geno said. He was as wrung out as if they'd fucked, not just jerked off, and he felt loose-limbed and blissful. Yes, he'd definitely do it again, for as long as Sidney wanted.
Sidney nodded once, looking satisfied, and turned out the light.
And that was something he didn't even want to imagine, dozens of people watching that, so he forced himself to talk. "What are you doing today?" he asked.
Geno looked up, surprised. "PT," he said, and shrugged. "Call my parents. You?"
Sidney could feel his face scrunch, because - "Shawna," he said. Suddenly his food looked a lot less appetizing.
Geno studied him for a minute, and then said, "You not want tell her we - last night?"
"I don't want her to see it," Sidney said. "But she will. I'm not going to be able to keep it out of my thoughts for an entire hour." He ate a bite, then looked up and caught Geno smiling at him. He had no idea why - the oatmeal was fine, but it was just oatmeal, and no one had said anything funny - but he smiled back anyway. Geno just had a good smile.
Sidney turned out to be right about the session, although he'd maybe cursed himself, too. He managed four whole minutes without thinking about jerking off with Geno, and as soon as he did, Shawna's eyebrows went up. "Sidney," she said. "It seems like something fairly major has changed in your relationship with Geno. Do you want to talk about that?"
"Not really," Sidney said.
Shawna's brows drew together a little, and she stared off into space for a few seconds before she said, "Overall, Sidney, I feel like this is a very positive development for you."
Sidney just stared at her. He hadn't realized that if he didn't want to talk about it she still would. He was pretty sure this wasn't fair.
"One of our main goals has been acclimatizing you to relationships and touching, so that we can prepare you for finding your bondmate," Shawna said.
"No, it isn't," Sidney said. "That might be your goal, but it isn't mine."
Shawna held up a hand. "I'm aware that this isn't something you can envision for yourself, Sidney, but it is nonetheless -"
"No," Sidney said. "It isn't. It isn't anything. I don't have to have a bondmate if I don't want to." Mario had said that to him about a thousand times, so he was really pretty sure about it.
"That is not really a functional approach to your future," Shawna said, her voice patient and kind. "Sidney, do you really want to go through life alone, never touching anyone?"
Sidney thought about it. Six months ago, his answer would have been, "Yes, absolutely," but he wasn't sure anymore. He was still really damn sure he didn't want a bond. He just didn't feel the same sense of rightness about her description anymore.
"Precisely," Shawna said.
"I can want not to be alone and not to never touch anyone and still not want a bondmate," Sidney said confidently. He knew it was true, because that was exactly what he did want.
"Describe your ideal future to me, then," Shawna said.
Sidney didn't even have to think about it. "Well, obviously first my concussion would be better, and I'd be playing again. Really well. Top of my game. We'd win -"
Shawna held up her hand. "We'll take your ideal professional future as read for the moment. Describe your ideal personal future."
Sidney had never really had a personal future outside of hockey. It was a weird thought. He'd always just wanted to play, and practice, and other time existed to sleep and eat and heal and prepare. Other time was still about hockey, it was what you had to put in to get to play. And the future - the future was where he'd have to retire, where his brain would get worse, where things would go bad. There was no planning for it, just putting it off as long as possible.
But in a way, that future had already happened. He wasn't playing. And he was doing things that weren't hockey. Mostly just sitting around with Geno, or sometimes doing stuff with Geno - he blushed and glanced up at Shawna, but she was just watching him, her mind shielded and her face neutral - but there were hours when he didn't think about how he wasn't playing hockey.
"How would you like your life to be different in the future than it is now?" Shawna asked him.
Sidney thought for a long time, really trying to picture a future he might actually want. He finally said, "I want to be healthy. I want to be playing. I want everything else the same."
"Sidney -" Shawna began, pained, and then she sighed. "Let's pick this up again another day. In the meantime, when you go home, I would like you to consider this. Set three specific goals for yourself, for the future. Things you'd like to achieve. We'll talk about them tomorrow."
Sidney nodded, confident, and headed home.
"She wants me to set goals," Sidney explained.
Geno laughed. "She figure out what you good at," he said.
"Yeah," Sidney agreed, and pulled out his journal. After a few minutes of careful thought, he wrote down:
- Get sex stuff figured out. (Hands, mouths, other stuff?)
Geno made a choking sound, and Sidney looked up, his concentration broken. "Whips and chains?" Geno said. Sidney looked at the TV, but it wasn't on. Geno was making another Lego kit. Sidney squinted at it, wondering if the Tower Bridge had a dungeon in it.
Geno tapped Sidney's journal. "Other stuff," he read. "Whips and chains?"
Sidney thought about that. "What do you do with the whips and chains?" he asked. "Do you - I don't want to put anything like that anywhere inside me. Or you," he added quickly.
Geno shook his head, hard. "Sometime I show you in porn. Not worry about it now."
"Good." Sidney was prepared not to worry about that ever, unless Geno really wanted to do - whatever it was.
"What other stuff?" Geno repeated, and he was using his patient voice, which Sidney had come to realize meant he was actually close to losing his patience. Geno was weird.
"Like. Stuff with asses," Sidney explained. "I know people do that."
Geno nodded. He looked a little red. "You not have to," he said, and he sounded careful, hesitant. "That not - not for all people."
"Right, but I won't know unless I try it, right?"
"It." Geno looked down at his hands, considering. "It mostly for bonded. Can hurt, and so safer if bonded."
Sidney thought about that. He wouldn't want to hurt Geno, and neither one of them could just check in to be sure, so that would be bad. "So you never have?" he asked, preparing to cross that off his list.
Geno got a little redder. "I. Yes, I have." He looked at Sidney and sort of shrugged; it didn't look natural, exactly. It looked like the kind of move the trainer would make you stop because you could hurt yourself that way. "I like. No point waiting for bond for me."
"Well, if you like it, then of course we should try it," Sidney said. "Is there anything else we should try? I've seen a lot, but it doesn't always make that much sense, so I could have left some stuff out."
Geno didn't answer right away, so after a few seconds, Sidney looked up. Geno was watching him with a strange expression on his face; Sidney wished there was some way to figure out what it meant, but faces were just not informative like that. Sidney totally understood why humans had to be psychic, even if it fucking sucked.
"Geno," Sidney said, tapping his pencil pointedly on the paper. He still only had one goal and he didn't want to spend forever on this project.
"Um, no, that, that most of it. You want - you want do that?" Geno gestured at the list.
"Yeah. I mean, maybe I won't like it? But obviously we should try it and see."
"With me?" Geno asked, not looking at Sidney.
Geno was so fucking weird sometimes. "Who else?" Sidney asked. "Maybe I should try assfucking with Talbot, you think?"
Geno winced. "Not think about that," he told Sidney, and, okay, Sidney didn't exactly want to imagine it either. "Wait for bondmate," he continued.
And that was it. "I'm not getting a bondmate," Sidney snapped, and threw down his pencil. "Jesus fucking Christ. I'm used to Shawna being stupid, but you're supposed to have your brain working!" Then Sidney had a truly awful thought. "Do you want me to get a bondmate?" he asked. That would - that would really suck, if Geno - it would just suck, that's all.
Geno blinked at Sidney, then looked down at his hands. The silence stretched out. "I. No," Geno said, and Sidney felt like he could breathe again, except there was clearly still something wrong with Geno. "For me, no. For you, yes."
Sidney's heart accelerated, and he could feel his pulse pounding in his head, the guaranteed precursor to a truly terrible headache. "What does that mean?" he snapped.
"You better with bondmate than with me," Geno explained. "Can have bond. So you should have bond."
"That is the - what the fucking fuck," Sidney snarled, getting up and walking up and down because he just could not keep still. "I don't want one. I don't understand why everyone is so obsessed with getting me something I couldn't fucking stand." And then the headache hit, sharp and violent, and Sidney stomped upstairs to lie in the dark for hours.
Which meant that by the time Geno came upstairs he'd thought way too much.
Geno opened the door quietly and looked in, and Sidney said, "Hey."
"Sorry, Sid," Geno said, and sat down on the bed next to him.
"No. I mean, yeah, you should be, I'm so tired of that fucking bullshit, but I figured it out. I figured you out, anyway. Shawna's still a fucking mystery." Geno just watched him, so Sidney kept going. "You want it. Right? You want a soulbond."
"Right," Geno said. "So I want for you. Not -" he hesitated, obviously groping for a word, and then just as obviously gave up. "Not seeing nose on my face?" he tried.
Sidney pretty much got where he was going with that, anyway, so he just nodded. "Why do you want one so much, though?" he asked. "I don't get it. It makes no sense." He knew he sounded whiny, but he didn't actually care.
Geno sat for a long time, thinking about it. He stopped looking at Sidney and stared down at his own hands, at his fingers twisting together. Finally he said, "I not like alone."
"Right, I know," Sidney said. "Because if you did like to be alone, living with me would make you crazy. But you're not bonded now, and you're not alone."
"Have friend. In Russia. Artyom," Geno said, and he still wasn't looking at Sidney. It was weird. "He play hockey too, some, but - just fun, always." Sidney nodded. Lots of guys weren't good enough to even dream about going pro, but they could still love playing. Those guys - and girls - were usually really cool. "We teammates, in -" and Geno used a Russian word, one Sidney didn't know.
"Like, Squirt? Midget?" Sidney guessed. "Kid leagues?"
Geno nodded. "We - talk lots, laugh lots, cry lots, you know? Good, good friend. He bond at fifteen."
Sidney winced. Fifteen was way too young. Even people who were obsessed with bonding all the time thought fifteen was too young. He had no idea what to say, though, so he finally just said, "Wow."
"Yes," Geno said. "And we still talk lots, laugh lots. He go to his bondmate for crying. And bondmate come first. How it should be. They good together, you can see; happy together. When she walk in the door, his whole body look happy. Big smile."
Geno thought for a while longer. "I see - all my friends, they start like that. Go in pairs. Bondmate, bondmate. And I not." Geno's body was getting tenser. "After - after first time with Ovechkin, I talk to my friends. I talk to Artyom, he help a lot. They all help. One night, I play Ovechkin's team, I stupid sad again, away from home. Want to call someone, but - Artyom on date with bondmate, can't interrupt. Valeriya out with boyfriend, going to be bondmate maybe, can't interrupt. Galina with bondmate, can't interrupt. Call Lev, we talk. After, I think - soon, all will be bonded. All will be - can't interrupt." He shrugged. "So, yes, I want bondmate. I want someone happy when I come in. I want someone always. I want not be, uh, not sure in English, but - leftover person. Person no one needs."
"Third wheel?" Sidney said.
Geno made a face. "I want not be fifth wheel."
Sidney thought about it. "You can have that without a bondmate, though. I mean. There's stuff you can't have? Whatever, the - like, brain sharing. But I do that all the time and it sucks, so don't worry about it. You can have someone who's happy to see you. You can have someone who's there forever. Who, like - puts you first." Just in case Geno was somehow still missing the point, Sidney added, "You already do."
Geno put his hand on Sidney's head. "You not stay forever. Shawna going to get you bonded."
Sidney sighed and tried not to be pissed off, but it was really hard. "Geno. Do I not do things I say I'll do?"
Geno looked like he was thinking about that. "At Flower's birthday party, you say you not throw up."
"Talbot spiked my drink," Sidney said. "I thought I was drinking disgusting punch, not disgusting punch with vodka in it." He took a deep breath and let his anger over that one go for the moment. "Anything important. Anything I can actually make happen. If I say I'll do it, I do it, right?"
"And if I say I won't do it, I don't, right?"
"I am never going to get a bondmate. Shawna can't make me, you can't make me, Gary Bettman can't make me. I don't want one. I think it's gross. I'm never going to eat pepperoni, I'm never going to like dancing, and I'm never going to want a bondmate." Sidney paused for a second, thinking it over, and realized he had something else he needed to say. "What I want is you. Not instead of a bondmate, or as a fake bondmate. Just - you."
Geno was silent, watching him, and Sidney tried to convey how totally, completely he meant it with his face. After a minute or so, Geno blinked several times, hard. "Okay, Sid," he said. His voice sounded shaky.
"Oh, shit, are you going to cry?" Sidney said.
"Maybe," Geno told him. He sniffled.
"I have no fucking idea what to do if you cry," Sidney said helplessly. He never knew, except with babies. Adults started crying and there was just never any way to do anything about it. Even in their heads, they were just sad sad sad, not - thinking about something they needed, or whatever. Sad didn't come with a plan to fix it.
Geno pushed down the covers and curled up next to Sidney in the bed. "This," he said. "You do this." He put his head on Sidney's shoulder. After a few seconds, Sidney put his arm around Geno, wondering if this was the right thing or the wrong thing to do. Geno was nice and warm, and he didn't pull away or anything, so Sidney stayed like that.
Geno turned out not to be a noisy crier. Sidney's shoulder just got kind of wet. And it gave Sidney time to think. After a few minutes of thought, though, he was pretty sure this had taken a wrong turn somewhere. "Wait," Sidney said. "Why are you crying?"
"Not, anymore," Geno pointed out. Which, when Sidney thought about it, was obviously true. Geno was just lying there, sort of on top of Sidney. He'd stopped on his own, without Sidney doing anything, which was convenient.
"Why were you crying?"
Geno kind of laughed. "Lots of feelings," he said.
Sidney thought about that. "Okay," he said, surprised to find that was true.
Geno snorted. "Okay?" he said.
"Sure." Sidney was feeling suddenly good, suddenly - happy, he guessed. "You can have lots of feelings if you want. I mean, I won't know what to do, but. If you want to have feelings, you should have them." Geno should have what he wanted all the time, Sidney decided.
Geno laughed a little. Then he kissed Sidney on the mouth.
"Oh, hey. Sex?" Sidney said.
"We're right here," Sidney pointed out. And now that he was thinking about it - yeah, he wanted. Wanted to be closer to Geno. It seemed like a good time, for some reason.
Geno still looked like he wanted to laugh, so apparently he was still having feelings, but he raised himself onto one elbow so that he could kiss Sidney. Sidney had been expecting - he wasn't sure. Something like people did in movies, that thing that always looked kind of like they were eating each other. Geno didn't do that, though, which was good because Sidney had never been sure how you knew it was time to put your tongue in someone else's mouth.
"Sid," Geno said, and kissed him again, just a press of lips, and this time Sidney figured out that he should kiss back. "Better," Geno said.
"Oh, fuck you," Sidney snapped, and kissed Geno, just to show he could.
"Next time, maybe," Geno said, and kissed Sidney's jaw. The jaw wasn't really supposed to be, like, a sexy place to kiss, so Sidney couldn't explain the spike of heat that shot through him. "Hmmm," Geno said, and moved to kiss Sidney's ear.
Sidney gasped. He couldn't help it. Touching yourself didn't feel like this, like sparks on your skin. Geno ran his teeth along Sidney's earlobe, very gently, and Sidney's whole body jerked. "Too much?" Geno asked.
"I -" Sidney didn't know what to say, what to think. He was hard and he hadn't even noticed getting hard, too distracted by Geno's mouth on him.
Geno shifted to his neck, a series of kisses that left Sidney panting. Sidney was pretty sure this wasn't how this was supposed to go, but Geno looked focused and interested, kind of intent, so he went with it.
Geno moved back up and kissed his lips again, and Sidney kissed back. He was actually doing pretty well until Geno ran a hand up Sidney's side, under his t-shirt, along his ribs. Sidney gasped and Geno did - something - with his mouth, gently stroking Sidney's tongue with his, pulling back to graze his teeth over Sidney's lower lip. He kept it up, kissing, moving, kissing again, until Sidney's heart pounded in time with the throbbing in his dick and it just didn't seem like he could be more turned on. Then Geno brushed his fingers over Sidney's nipples, and, wow, apparently he could.
"I, okay, I -" Sidney said, pushing up into Geno's hands, trying to chase the feeling, and Geno, god damn him, responded by moving away altogether. Sidney forgave him a few seconds later, when he brought his mouth down to one of Sidney's nipples, but it was just a few slow kisses and then he was pulling back again. "No, I -" Sidney said, and he grabbed Geno's head, trying not to pull, trying not to push even though he wanted Geno's mouth back on him so fucking badly. "Geno, I need -" he said, panting, and thank fuck Geno seemed to get it. He went back to licking and kissing, and Sidney went back to shaking and trying not to fall apart.
After a few minutes, Sidney let go of Geno's head so he could dig his fingers into the sheet, and that was obviously a mistake, because Geno moved away again, downwards, kissing Sidney's abs and sometimes running his teeth over them, like biting but without any actual pressure behind it. It felt good, but not as great as the nipples had, which was actually probably a good thing. Now that he could pay attention again, he was - stupidly hard. His dick was pushing against the elastic of his underwear, and just that much pressure felt good and distracting and intense. He needed a little more friction, wanted to put his hand on his dick or something, except then he'd come and this would end and he definitely didn't want that. So Sidney breathed carefully, trying to back off some.
That worked until Geno got down to Sidney's waistband and kissed there and Sidney's dick brushed against his face. Sidney gasped and his hips jerked forward, totally out of his control for a second. "Sorry," he said, and he was surprised to find his voice rough and scratchy, like he'd been yelling for an entire game.
"I do?" Geno asked. His voice sounded rough, too, actually.
"You - what?" Sidney said. He wasn't tracking very well, maybe.
Geno responded by licking the head of Sidney's dick through his shorts. Sidney didn't know what to do, didn't know what to say, he just wanted - "More," he said. "God, please, more."
"Yeah," Geno said, and pushed Sidney's boxer briefs off. And then Geno's mouth was on his dick, soft and warm and wet, and Geno's hand was on him, too, and Sidney couldn't - he couldn't - he reached down blindly, grabbed Geno's hair, and came. Geno sat up and smiled at him, a little shyly.
Sidney blinked hard a few times, waiting for his brain to reset, and then said, "Holy fuck. That was. Wow, Geno."
"See why I like sex? Make everyone talk like me." And then Geno slid his hands into his own boxers, and that wasn't what Sidney wanted, not at all.
"No, wait, take those off. I want - uh, I could blow you, but you'd have to talk me through it. I wasn't. I wasn't really paying attention to how you did it."
Geno kicked off his boxers and smiled. "Hand is good," he said, lying back down next to Sidney.
Sidney reached down and touched Geno's dick, just feeling it, the delicate skin and the soft wet head, and Geno was the one breathing hard now. "I haven't really done this, either," Sidney said, running two fingers along the underside of Geno's dick, marveling at how good it felt just to touch him like this. "I mean. You know that. But it should be easy, right? Do what I do to myself?"
"Yes," Geno said, his voice sounding strained.
Sidney ran a fingertip lightly over the slit at the top, then drew all five fingertips along the shaft to the base and up again. He couldn't stop touching, stop feeling, and he let himself get lost in it for a couple of minutes, until Geno's hips were shaking and his fingers were digging into the mattress. "Sid," said Geno, and his voice cracked. He groaned something in Russian.
"Yeah," Sidney said, and wrapped his hand around Geno's dick for real. After a few strokes he stopped, remembering, and said, "I should get lotion."
Geno grabbed Sidney's hand and wrapped it back around his dick. "Sid, no, please, just - just -" and he didn't seem to have any English left, but Sidney got the idea and stroked him again, Geno's hips thrusting up to meet every stroke, and then Geno made a choked-off noise and came, shooting all over Sidney's hand.
Sidney grabbed the tissues and wiped his hand and then wiped off Geno, who was still breathing hard, his eyes closed. After studying him for a few seconds, Sidney lay down next to him, his head on his shoulder, mirroring the position they'd been in before.
"That was - fun. Good," Sidney said. "We should do that some more. Later, I mean."
"Yes," Geno said. He sounded dopey, almost sleepy.
"Are we napping now?" Sidney asked.
"Yes," Geno said.
And Sidney actually did feel like napping, even though he hadn't really done anything much. He stayed there, next to Geno, and let himself drift off to sleep.
Geno had to follow that one back in his head before he could answer. "Because of sex?"
"Right?" Sidney said. "That was real sex?"
It still took Geno by surprise, exactly how new to sex Sidney was. He'd had sex with a lot of virgins, obviously, but most of them had been a lot less new than Sidney. "Yes," Geno said, and he found himself smiling as he thought back over the night. "Real sex."
"It seems like it's a big change," Sidney said. He kept eating, but he was obviously thinking about it, and Geno waited to see what would come out. Eventually, Sidney said, "But it's not, is it?"
Geno thought about that. He remembered his first time, Anna, how he'd realized that he of all people could have all the sex he wanted, risk-free. He'd realized that that was how he'd connect with people, with his body instead of his mind. "Felt different after my first time," he said. "Like - could see future." It had taken him a few more years to realize exactly how empty that future might be, but he'd at least seen the outline of it. He blinked, realizing that that was maybe not true. It felt sort of like having his heart broken, but in reverse - the same sense of a huge internal change, but without the pain.
When Geno could focus back on Sidney, he was nodding. "Right," he said. He took the last bite and carried his plate over to the sink to rinse it. "That's why it doesn't feel different."
Geno didn't follow, and after some thought, he still didn't follow. "How so?"
"I already knew this was my future," Sidney said, gesturing around at the kitchen, at the dishwasher he was putting his plate into. At Geno.
Geno thought about it. The rest of his life, here with Sidney. Playing with Sidney, talking with Sidney, listening to Sidney. Sidney happy to see him when he walked in the door. Sidney wanting him most. He felt himself grinning, couldn't stop it if he'd wanted to.
When Sidney turned to look at him, Geno felt his body, his mind, his soul click into place, so strongly that he was sure even a soulbond couldn't be any better, or bigger, or clearer. "Okay," he said. "Mine, too."
The doorbell rang, fifteen whole minutes before the start time, and Sidney took a deep breath before he opened it. It'd be fine. It would totally be fine.
"Hi," Nathalie said. "Happy official new house day! I came to see if you need anything."
Sidney showed her around the preparations, most of which Geno had handled. They had snacks, lots more snacks than Sidney could imagine needing for one hockey team, some hockey team families, a bunch of Lemieuxs, and random Russians, and they had a lot of beverages, because Geno apparently believed you couldn't host a party effectively unless you had two bottles for each guest (one alcoholic, one non-alcoholic). They had a room downstairs set up for the little kid guests, with toys and a sitter. They had a freezer full of ice.
"Wow," Nathalie said.
"I told Geno it was a lot, but he just went ahead," Sidney said defensively.
Nathalie smiled at him. "It's perfect. You both did a good job."
Half an hour later, Sidney led a team tour over the new house: the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the random rooms downstairs that he had forgotten the names of again, even though he'd asked the architect at least ten times.
"Hey, you have furniture in almost all the rooms!" Brooks said enthusiastically.
A little later, Flower said, "And a king-sized bed, wow." Sidney felt himself blushing horribly, and Flower clapped him on the back bracingly and wandered out.
"You can see Mario's house from here," Beau said, sounding a little shellshocked. "Like. It's right there."
"I wanted to live close by," Sidney told him.
"Well, you - uh, you succeeded," he said, staring out the landing window, across the street to Mario's house.
Brooks shoulder-bumped him and said, "Don't knock it. This is so much better than his last house, you can't imagine."
And it was. It genuinely was.
"What are you doing with the other one?" Flower asked, as they all headed down to demolish hundreds of thousands of calories in appetizers.
"The Fortress?" Sidney shrugged. "I sold it. I don't need it anymore." It was true, he didn't. He didn't even need Geno to shield him. Shawna was annoying, yeah, but she'd been effective, and Sidney could deal with annoying people if they worked.
Flower turned, smiled big at him, and said, "I'm going to hug you right now, so fucking prepare yourself or whatever."
Sidney nodded, braced for it, and Flower hugged him tight. Then he climbed up several steps and yelled, "Your attention, please!" When he had everyone looking at him, Flower said, "Today is a beautiful day for the entire Penguins organization. Today, our little Sidney is all grown up. He's become a man!" A lot of people clapped; someone threw a couch cushion at Flower.
"Come drink!" Nealer yelled. And everyone did.
An hour later, Sidney was standing in the kitchen; he had his eyes closed, but he could still tell when Geno walked into the room, of course, and just like always he found himself smiling for no reason at all.
"You have headache?" Geno said, sounding worried.
"No," and just denying that made Sidney's smile bigger. Two years, and it was still such a fucking gift. His head didn't hurt. He didn't have headaches, and he had hockey again. Hockey and Geno.
"You hiding in kitchen," Geno pointed out.
"Just checking on everyone," Sidney said, and shrugged. He wasn't eavesdropping, just skimming over the crowd and picking up general moods, making sure not to dip into anyone's actual thoughts. "Everyone is really happy. It's almost like we won something."
Geno looked like he was going to say something, but he didn't. Instead, he wrapped his arms around Sidney, squeezing tight, and Sidney felt himself relaxing the way he always did, melting into Geno's touch.
"It's weird," he said after a minute. "It's weird to think," and it was hard to put into words, but Sidney still tried. "It's weird to think that everything might be okay. That the future will be - fine."
"Yeah," Geno said, pressing against Sidney even harder. "It's weird. But good. Very, very good."
And it was.