Sergei Gonchar falls in love at first sight. Or at least that’s the way Evgeni’s going to tell it.
“That’s not how it started,” Sergei laughs.
“It might be?” Ksenia Gonchar says, smiling a little at him. “For me at least.”
Deep down Sergei has a soft heart. He might hide it with flippancy, but he can’t hide the way Ksenia’s words have made him blush a little like the teenager he was when he meet her at the Nagano Winter Games. Back then they were both representing their countries – he was a member of Team Russia’s Silver medal winning hockey team, and she was a figure skater for Armenia.
“I’m putting that in my speech,” Evgeni says.
Sergei groans. “You’re not giving a speech.”
“I’m your best man,” Evgeni reminds. “I’m making a speech at your wedding.”
“It’s a vow renewal,” Sergei corrects. “And you are not giving a best man speech because I’m not having a best man.”
(Evgeni is totally Sergei’s best man and he’s totally giving a speech.)
It’s been ten years since Sergei and Ksenia met, and it’s been about two months since Evgeni moved out of their home into the one he bought.
Located about fifteen minutes away, Evgeni’s house is very large and very generous in all the ways he has only recently become accustom to knowing. Filling all the space is something he’s still getting the hang of. Most of the rooms are half empty, if not entirely. A silvery Porsche sits in the garage. Its lean lines catch the light and although Evgeni is yet to break ten thousand kilometres mark on the odometer, he’s already looking at finding something suitable to park next to it. Maybe something red. Red and fast.
Max and Jordy, of course, disagree. They would. Their vote is for something dark and big. (Something ugly, Evgeni thinks).
Sidney isn’t much better, but then, Evgeni isn’t sure if he has even spent any of the five-year, $43.5 million dollar contract extension the Penguins signed him to at the end of the previous season. It wouldn’t surprise him if Sidney is living off the interest it’s accruing in his bank account. After all, Mario doesn’t seem to charge him rent.
Sidney makes a face when Evgeni tells him that.
As of yet, there is no sign whatsoever that Sidney is going to move out of the Lemieux home. For all that the team likes to tease him and players on other teams like to taunt him about that, Evgeni thinks he can understand. Or, rather, he can appreciate that. Maybe. He says as much and Sidney makes another face. It’s clear he isn’t quite sure if he thinks Evgeni is teasing him or not.
It’s a face Evgeni has grown to recognise. He isn’t sure if he likes it or not.
Although Evgeni is only part way through his second NHL season, he has met some of Sidney’s former teammates. Some he knew before from the various Team Canada teams he has faced over the years. The hockey world can be a small one. Maybe Evgeni isn’t great with English, but he does know Sidney.
Sidney isn’t comfortable with a lot of people.
A lifetime of media training conceals some of that. Evgeni thinks with a few seasons more practice, it will conceal all of it. For some reason it’s a thought that sits uneasy within him. For now though, Evgeni catches the way Sidney sometimes has trouble holding extended eye contact with some people, and the way he is careful with himself in a way Evgeni never was around people who were his teammates.
Sidney has never been careful around Evgeni. It’s something Evgeni has always taken pride in.
Two months before Sidney signed his contract extension, Sidney finally allowed the Penguins to put a C on his jersey. There is a weight to that. Sidney tries not to show it, but Evgeni sees.
(Evgeni as an A on his jersey.
He wouldn’t have said no to a C but he probably wouldn’t wear it half as well as Sidney does.)
The season picks up pace, and to be honest, Evgeni loses track of time. There are games and points and goals and Evgeni burns with ambition. He wants and wills himself to do everything and anything that will get him and the Penguins closer to the Stanley Cup. And they are getting closer. Evgeni can feel it. He knows better than to say that, but he feels it. He feels it in his bones. It isn’t until Ksenia is cautiously asking him if he’s bringing anyone to the vow renewal, that Evgeni remembers that he requested a plus one when he RSVP’d at the start of the season. Back then he and Oksana were giving their relationship a second shot. They had both wanted things to be different. The only problem was they weren’t. Evgeni still wanted more than she could give him, and she loved him more than she should (and she knew that where Evgeni didn't).
It’s only been a few months, but it stings to think of her. Ksenia knows. Unlike some of his friends who had been dubious about the longevity of their rekindled romance, Ksenia had always liked Oksana and she’d been so happy when they got back together. When Oksana came to Pittsburgh, it was Ksenia who made an effort to take Oksana under her wing. During the pre-season, she had even invited Oksana to New York with a group of her close friends to look at wedding gowns. Evgeni vaguely remembers how excited Oksana had been when she returned Pittsburgh with a burgundy dress of her own. Evgeni isn’t sure what she did with it – but he supposes that isn’t the point.
“I wouldn’t ask,” Ksenia says. “But the caterer wants to finalize the numbers.”
Evgeni opens his mouth to answer Ksenia, but he isn’t sure what to say.
Distance is the reason he volunteered when she asked about the break-up. It’s was easily digested answer. Or excuse.
It is and isn’t true.
It is and isn’t false.
He isn’t sure what Oksana would say. Probably something that makes more sense.
A few times Sergei tried to talk to Evgeni about their break up. Evgeni felt very young and stupid saying he loved Oksana. He did. He does. It just wasn’t enough.
Taking pity on him, Ksenia smiles a little. “My cousin Anton will be coming. He’s a figure skater.”
As supportive as Ksenia and Sergei have been since Sergei caught him making out with a bartender in Tampa Bay while the Penguins were on a road trip, Evgeni isn’t letting them set him up.
“He is very handsome,” Ksenia adds.
Embarrassment prickles over Evgeni’s skin, because no. He’s not so pathetic that he needs to sit on the singles table with various dateless cousins, single family friends and miscellaneous hockey players. It was bad enough – and as obvious – as that one time when Jordy and Heather invited him out to dinner with Marc while he and the Rangers were in Pittsburgh.
“I have a date,” Evgeni finds himself saying.
Ksenia perks up. “You’re seeing someone?”
Evgeni – he nods.
“You didn’t say anything.”
“It’s new,” he tells her tells her, thinking on his feet.
Ksenia beams at him. “I can’t wait to meet them.”
It’s only later that Evgeni realises what he’s done.
He needs a date.
There are some numbers stored on Evgeni’s cell that he could call. He hasn’t called any for a while, but then he hasn’t wanted to. He’s mulling over them at lunch while he waits for Sidney to decide what to order. Although they have been to the restaurant before, Sidney looks a little anxious. Evgeni already knows Sidney wants to order something off the menu. However he isn’t sure if Sidney will. Sometimes he gets flustered when their orders are taken and can’t manage it.
Today is one of those days.
Not for the first time Evgeni wishes his English was better so that he could be of more help. When their meals come, he ends up pushing his plate towards the middle of their table so Sidney can take a few bites of his pizza. He isn’t expecting it when Sidney asks about suits.
“Game suit?” Evgeni tries to clarify.
He still doesn’t understand this part of the NHL.
More than once he’s tried to get someone to explain it to him. Sergei just shrugged and taught Evgeni how to properly tie his tie, while Jordan laughed. As far as Evgeni could tell, that was his way of saying no one understood the tradition. Since arriving in Pittsburgh Evgeni bought two new suits. One is black and the other is pale grey.
“Do I need a dinner suit for Ksenia’s and Gonch’s vow renewal?” Sidney asks.
Sidney gives Evgeni a look. “Everyone is going.”
That is certainly true. The event was initially meant to be low key. However, it has grown since Sergei and Ksenia initially decided to turn their annual Christmas Party into their early anniversary vow renewal. Perhaps not many people can fly in from Russia to attend, nor can many of Sergei’s friends in the NHL find time in their schedules, but all the Penguins are coming. Literally all of them. Even Mario and Nathalie. Currently the locker room joke of the moment is how Sidney is their plus one. It isn’t entirely untrue. It wasn’t entirely funny either.
Sidney is good at laughing along with things.
A lot of the time he starts laughing a beat after everyone else, but most people don’t notice. Evgeni notices. Evgeni noticed the tension in Sidney’s shoulders too, and the way he ducked his head. Evgeni can’t help but notice. It makes him feel a little sad to think of how Sidney will probably spend the entire night hearing the same joke and struggling to make small talk sitting at the singles table while having glasses of champagne pressed upon him. Given Ksenia’s inclinations, Evgeni wouldn’t be surprised if she has someone in mind for Sidney too.
“We could go together,” Evgeni finds himself offering.
Sidney pauses a little. “You want to?”
And – Evgeni thinks why not?
He nods, and is rewarded with a shy smile.
The following day, Evgeni is late for practice. Since he moved out of the Gonchar’s home, that has been happening. Without Sergei there to make sure he is on time, sometimes Evgeni runs behind. More than once he has gotten into trouble about it. When Sergei pulls Evgeni aside, Evgeni thinks it is to give him a heads up that a formal reprimand is heading his way. He might have only been five minutes late, but Michel Therrien is strict when it comes to practice.
However instead of a warning of an impending bag skate, Sergei gives him a confusing, if supportive talk. It reminds Evgeni a little of the one he had given in their Tampa Bay hotel room, only this one involves Sidney for some reason.
Apparently Sidney said something before Evgeni arrived.
Sidney being Sidney means he could have said anything. Evgeni wracks his brain, but he can’t think of anything notable Sidney could have told Sergei. It takes Evgeni an embarrassing amount of time to put two and two together. In fact it isn’t until Sergei is telling him how welcome he is to bring Sidney to come to the ceremony that Evgeni realises what is happening. Or rather, what Sergei think is happening. And oh. Oh. Sergei thinks Sidney is Evgeni’s date. Like dating date. Like the new person Evgeni said he was seeing.
Evgeni needs to say something. He knows he does. He needs to explain to Sergei that he got the completely wrong impression.
Only… if he explains, he has to explain how he lied in the first place.
After practice, Evgeni doesn’t shuffle off the ice with the other guys. It’s a day that ends in a Y and that means Sidney wants to stay late to work on something or another. Today it was originally going to be his slapshot, but when Evgeni lingers, they end up working on blind passes. It isn’t exactly hard work. Or rather, Evgeni doesn’t find it too hard. Skating with Sidney has always been enjoyable. As serious as Sidney can be, there is no one who has as much fun on the ice as he does.
Together, they lose track of time. Or attempt to. Therrien doesn’t quite let them get away with it. After half an hour, he calls them off the ice.
“Don’t push yourself too hard,” he reminds them.
It’s something that they both nod to, but Evgeni isn’t sure how seriously they take it.
Since arriving in Pittsburgh all Sidney has done on the ice is push Evgeni; to be better, to be braver, to care more than he ever thought he would about the black, white and gold jersey he wears on his back. In turn, Evgeni hopes he’s done the same for him. Each day, each practice and game. He tries to.
By this time they clean up the scattered pucks and get off the ice, the locker room is empty. Sure, it wasn’t exactly an original tactic on Evgeni’s part, but whatever. Evgeni knows he has to come clean. He does. And, he will… eventually.
So Evgeni needs a plan for that… another one.
On the Penguins day off, Evgeni plans mostly consist of sleep and maybe wasting some time on the internet while he tries not to think about how he’s going to fix the mess he’s made. He isn’t expecting Sidney to drop by. Normally, he wouldn’t dare show up unannounced. It goes against all of his ingrained instincts. Perhaps Sidney wouldn’t be able to articulate why, but Evgeni has a few ideas. He isn’t expecting it when Sidney asks if they can go shopping. A request to go over game tape would be understandable. Maybe even a confusing talk about not letting personal issues become on-ice issues if Evgeni had recently done or said something stupid to Alexander Ovechkin (which, for the record, he hasn’t). A trip to the mall makes no sense. If possible, Sidney avoids public places, especially ones as chaotic as the mall.
“Sid?” Evgeni asks.
Sidney shrugs. “I’m the Captain.”
That doesn’t explain anything.
Evgeni tells Sidney that.
It takes a moment for such an out of character request to gain some context; the vow renewal. Specifically, the need for guests to bring a gift even though Sergei and Ksenia specifically requested that guests only bring themselves.
“They don’t actually mean that,” Sidney explains.
Evgeni is reasonably certain they do. Ksenia has beautiful – if meticulous – taste and the last time Evgeni had dinner with them, Sergei complained about how much stuff they had to move into storage when they sold their home in Moscow. However Sidney is sceptical.
“It’s rude,” he says.
Judging by his tone of voice, it’s clear that he isn’t going to be convinced otherwise.
“Can you help?” Sidney asks.
Evgeni isn’t sure how.
“You know them,” Sidney says.
Then, changing tact, Sidney leans back in his chair. “What did you buy them?”
Evgeni hasn’t bought them anything. For some reason this makes Sidney exhale in relief.
“Want to go halves on something?”
The words sound rehearsed. Evgeni wouldn’t be surprised if they were something someone told Sidney to say to one of his teammates. It’s easy to agree to the proposition. It’s harder to decide on what to buy them. Neither of them have any real idea what an already married couple would want. After an hour at the mall, Evgeni stares at flatware while Sidney calls Mario. Evgeni isn’t sure what help he would be, but Sidney has absolute faith in Mario.
Later, while they are watching the sales assistant gift wrap the box of delicate Italian glass Christmas ornaments that they ended up picking (with surprisingly useful help from Mario), Evgeni has a traitorous thought. It comes to him when the sales assistant hands them a card to sign.
“You should write it,” Sidney decides, pushing the card to Evgeni.
“I can’t write in Cyrillic,” Sidney says, like that is a valid excuse. It isn’t.
“What should I write?” Evgeni asks Sidney. Evgeni has no idea. He’s never been to a vow renewal before.
In the end Evgeni scribbles something that isn’t original – best wishes and happiness – but then as he’s signing his name (first and taking up a lot of space) he realises Sidney doesn’t write or read Cyrillic. He doesn’t speak Russian.
Over their season and a half together, Sidney has become one of Evgeni’s closest friends. Maybe they can’t always understand what the other is saying, but Evgeni’s always felt that they understood each other. He knew they would, even before they met. However there is a reason the guys drank shots for each person Sidney unknowingly turned down the last time the Penguins went out to celebrate after a win. The hangovers half the team ended up with were evidence of it.
Sidney really is that oblivious – and that’s with people who speak the same language as him.
He would have no idea if he was being introduced to Ksenia’s great aunt as Evgeni’s date.
Evgeni can’t help but think - what if Sidney was his date?
He wouldn’t know.
It would be such a neat solution to both of their problems. Evgeni wouldn’t have to go through his contact list scrambling to find someone who might be interested in being his plus one at short notice. And Sidney? Evgeni would practically be doing Sidney a favour. Everyone knows how he is. The only thing Sidney is worst at than small talk is dealing with people who stand to close to him; the vow renewal won’t be short on either.
The more Evgeni thinks about it, the better it sounds. Neither of them would have to have an awkward night sitting on the singles table or face the prospect of getting set up with a stranger. They’d be helping each other. They would probably even have some fun and afterwards Evgeni could quietly tell Sergei that they decided they were better as just friends. That would be it.
Once Evgeni has decided to not say anything, it’s easy to let the white lie gain some momentum. At the pre-ceremony party, Evgeni is surprised by how easy it all is. In the lead up to the party, Evgeni found himself worrying; Ksenia was a romantic and Sergei knew Sidney. It wasn’t a good combination. The night before the party he had practiced all kind of answers to every pointed question which might possibly be directed at him or Sidney. Multiple contingency plans were conceived. None were all that feasible but that didn’t stop him. However in the end he doesn’t need them, mostly because no one really pays that much attention to them.
Upon arrival Sergei introduces them to a few people. Sidney sticks close to Evgeni’s side and then just like a team dinner, Evgeni ends up sitting next to Sidney. Between the two of them they manage to luck in to ordering something at least one of them likes. Unlike team dinners, the party is held early in the evening so Ksenia and Sergei can bring their two daughters. In-between keeping them entertained and making their extended (jet lagged) family members feel welcomed, Ksenia only has a few free moments to make Sidney feel at home while Sergei doesn’t once get the chance to top up Sidney’s glass of wine. This has a twofold effect of making Sidney’s shoulders loosen up as he realises he won’t be the centre of attention, and allowing Evgeni the chance to slip one of the servers his credit card to pay for the meal.
“Call it a wedding gift,” Evgeni says later, when they find out.
Ksenia shakes her head. “You should be spoiling Sidney, not us.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Evgeni spots Sidney nodding along to something Ksenia’s old skating coach is saying. From the distance it isn’t possible to tell if Ksenia’s coach is speaking English or not. It probably doesn’t make a difference. Sidney has always been good at understanding Evgeni, and Ksenia’s coach is making some very expressive hand gestures. Judging from the way she’s gotten to her feet and is pointing to her knees and ankles, it’s related to skating. It’s no surprise that Sidney understands her too.
“I spoil Sidney plenty,” Evgeni finds himself telling Ksenia.
It isn’t exactly a lie. Evgeni did spend the morning watching footage of Rick Nash when he could have been sleeping in.
Ksenia grins. “I don’t doubt that.”
Glancing over his shoulder, Evgeni catches Sidney mid-yawn.
“You better take him home,” Ksenia says, and just like that Evgeni has passed the first hurdle without anyone suspecting a thing.
Evgeni’s spent most of his life on one hockey team or another. It isn’t much of a surprise that most of the following days practice is filled with chirping and jokes about how Sergei is playing favourites. Despite all the Penguins being more or less invited to the ceremony, Sergei had no guilt about excluding them from dinner with his family.
“I see you all enough,” he tells Jordan when he complains.
Jordan clutches his heart dramatically.
Because Sergei is immune to most locker room antics, the tide quickly turns. The focus of amusement becomes Sidney and the fact he was invited.
“What’s so special about him?” Max asks.
“Captain’s duty,” Evgeni tells Max seriously, but he ruins it by winking.
Maybe the Penguins should be a problem, but to be honest Evgeni hadn’t really thought about them until Sergei inadvertently provides a solution to that unforeseen problem. After practice while Evgeni is warming up some lunch in the team kitchen, Sergei appears with coffee and extra sandwiches he must have picked up from a local café. They smell much nicer than anything the Penguins nutritionist would allow them.
“Aren’t you going to save anything for Sid?” Sergei laughs as Evgeni practically inhales them.
Evgeni coughs up a mouthful of crumbs.
“Uhm,” Evgeni starts to say, scrambling for an answer, because yes, a good boyfriend would save something.
Sergei gives Evgeni a look. “How long have you been seeing Sidney?”
It’s too soon after practice for Evgeni. His mind is still half on the stick handling drills that they had been working on. As such, he isn’t sure if the look Sergei is giving is knowing, or just judgmental.
“Ksenia said it was new.”
“It is,” Evgeni finds himself saying. “We’re taking things slowly.”
Sergei takes a sip of his coffee.
Evgeni finds himself elaborating. All the rehearsed answers about how long they have been dating, when they knew they felt something for each other, who said what and when exactly friendship turning into more…. All of it gets mixed up and to be honest Evgeni isn’t sure what he says. He kind of panics. Which really shouldn’t happen.
Evgeni is a planner. He worked out how to get to the NHL when he was convinced to sign a contract he didn’t want and had his passport taken for ‘safe keeping.’ A fake boyfriend is nothing compared to that. However while he is scrambling to try and salvage the situation, Sergei lays his hand on Evgeni’s arm.
Sergei nods. “It’s good you are taking things slowly. I know you care deeply for him.”
Evgeni finds himself nodding.
“Have you told anyone?”
“It’s new.” Evgeni repeats.
Sergei nods. “I won’t say anything until you and Sidney are ready.”
And just like that; Evgeni’s plan becomes foolproof.
(Well, close enough.)
The Penguins fly out for a short road trip before Christmas.
It isn’t the best road trip, but Evgeni doesn’t like any game against the Capitals that the Penguins don’t win. On the ice Alexander Ovechkin – Sanja – smirks and says the usual stupid things, and like always Evgeni walks away with penalty minutes to show for his stupidity. He isn’t sure what he keeps trying to prove. On the flight home, Evgeni doesn’t particularly want to talk to anyone, let alone Sidney who wants to analysis their play in each and every game they played. However as they are gathering their bags, Sergei gives Evgeni a look.
Sighing, Evgeni picks his way over to Sidney. He’s not up for conversation, but he can stand with Sidney while he is talking to Flower.
“You ok?” Sidney asks, stopping mid-sentence.
Sidney manages to smile a little, and Evgeni can see the exhaustion in him to. Bumping his shoulders against Sidney’s somehow turns into Sidney leaning against Evgeni’s side. It’s a bit awkward, but somehow nice. Sidney is warm and Evgeni is tired. Sidney’s breathing changes a little, but when he doesn’t pull away, Evgeni slumps a little into his side. He managed a little sleep on the plane. A lot more would be nice, but it will have to wait until he gets home.
“Comfortable there?” Flower teases.
Sidney body tenses up.
“Yes,” Evgeni says, shifting his weight a little to compensate. “Get our bags so we don’t have to move.”
That, as Evgeni knew before he said it, doesn’t go over well with Flower. They end up in a bit of a scuffle. While they are occupied, Sidney grabs all of their bags, which is another demonstrate of why he is the best captain in the entire league. When Evgeni tells him that, Sidney blushes and Flower rolls his eyes but he doesn’t disagree which Evgeni thinks means he won that one. He doesn’t stick around to find out.
“See you at practice,” Sidney says when they get out to the parking lot.
Evgeni shrugs. “Maybe.”
It’s optional, and Evgeni can’t deny that he likes the option to catch up on some sleep.
(Evgeni ends up going to practice anyway.
When he gets home, he naps in a patch of sunshine which is almost as nice as sleeping in.)
The day of the ceremony arrives quicker than Evgeni thinks anyone anticipated. On the morning of it, Evgeni wakes up aching and wishing he could sleep for a few more hours. Unfortunately, in his unofficial best man capacity, he promised to pick up the flowers for Ksenia. He also picks up breakfast, which turns out to be a good call because the Gonchar house is chaotic.
“Thank God,” Sergei says, when he opens the front door.
Ksenia doesn’t repeat Sergei’s statement, but it’s clear than she wants to.
Evgeni sticks around to help carry some bags of equipment for the photographer and also for the hair and beauty stylist. Half way through the morning, Sergei gives up a some of his unaffected façade and Evgeni helps him dress. Like at their wedding day, Sergei’s hands tremble. Evgeni feels his eyes get teary when he does Sergei’s bow tie for him.
“Perfect,” he manages to say.
Sergei shakes his head and then pulls Evgeni into a hug.
“Thank you,” he says.
Evgeni nods but can’t quite meet Sergei’s eye.
“Go help Sid,” Sergei tells him. “I’m sure he’s a mess without you.”
Sidney probably isn’t – but Evgeni gives Sergei his space.
As Evgeni is leaving, Ksenia catches him and pushes a small box into his hand.
“I had the florist make these,” she tells Evgeni with a soft smile.
Opening the box, Evgeni finds a boutonniere.
“Sergei and I ordered an extra one for his best man” she smiles.
Unable to help himself, Evgeni hugs her. Only the feeling of the delicate tulle of her dress being crushing under his fingertips makes him remember himself and pull back.
“Your dress,” he starts to say.
She shakes her head. “It’s fine.”
Evgeni was so afraid when he came to Pittsburgh. Under the ambition and the driving need to prove himself, he was terrified. There was no safety net. Not only that; there was a very real chance that he might not have a home to go back to if he couldn’t cut it in the NHL. The Gonchar’s opened their home for him, and they made him a part of their family. Evgeni doesn’t know how to thank them for that.
“I got one for Sidney too,” she adds, handing him a second identical box. “But I understand if he doesn’t feel comfortable wearing it.”
Evgeni nods, feeling unspeakable overwhelmed.
(Evgeni is beloved – and it humbles him).
When Evgeni goes to pick up Sidney, he looks a little flushed and has trouble meeting Evgeni’s eyes. The suit he is wearing is cut beautifully. However the lines of it would probably look much nicer without Sidney’s hands in his pockets. Evgeni remedies this by holding out the boutonniere. Upon accepting the neatly tied box, the strangest thing happens. Sidney goes perfectly still and his nerves seem to dissipate.
“Is that for me?”
Evgeni nods. “For wedding party.”
“I’m in the wedding party?” Sidney asks, looking a little stunned.
Evgeni is getting good at thinking on his feet.
“Captain,” he says simply.
Feeling a little indulgent and maybe a little like the romantic he probably is, Evgeni steps close and takes his time pinning the boutonniere to Sidney’s jacket. Up close, Sidney’s suit isn’t black but navy. Dark and inky blue, it makes Sidney’s eyes somehow brighter. Evgeni almost wants to say that, but he stops himself.
He probably wouldn’t say it right in English.
As much as Evgeni makes a point of not looking backward, there is something so comforting about a cacophony of Russian voices and conversations which greet him when he and Sidney arrive at St Gregory church. He didn’t know how much he missed this. It reminds him so much of home, more so when they take their seat with a group of Sergei’s family in the front row. Not for the first time, Evgeni feels like part of the family.
The ceremony itself is shorter and more casual than they would be able to get away with back home. Which, Evgeni realises, is probably one of the reasons they decided to hold the ceremony in Pittsburgh rather than in Moscow during the off season. It’s also very sweet. Evgeni doesn’t know many people as in love as they are. At the altar, Sergei tears up in the middle of his vows and Ksenia steals a kiss when he fumbles with their rings.
Part way through the ceremony, the Gonchar’s eldest daughter climbs off her grandparents laps and slips up the alter steps to her parents. Picking her up, Sergei smiles down at her with so much love. Evgeni maybe get a little choked up at the sight, but he trusts Sidney to keep that to himself. (Sidney might lean against Evgeni’s side at this point in the ceremony; it’s a comfort Evgeni doesn’t refuse.)
In contrast to the calm and intimate ceremony, the reception is loud, chaotic, and joyful. Evgeni and Sidney are seated near the head table, and again, no one seems to particularly notice them. They are seated on a table with a few of Sergei’s old teammates and also a few cousins from both sides of the family. The table is large enough that different conversations happen at the same time, but at no point does anyone turn to Evgeni and pointedly quiz him about Sid. Mostly there are conversations about how the Penguins might stand a chance this year and an endless supply of stories about Sergei and Ksenia over the years.
Evgeni even forgets that he had been so worried.
Part way through the night Evgeni has shrugged off his jacket and has his arms over the back of Sidney’s chair. He can’t remember putting it there, but it doesn’t feel odd or even daring. Sidney hasn’t seemed to notice either. Like Evgeni, he is listening intently to Sergei’s coach from the Nagano Winter Games, the great Vladimir Yurzinov. It’s a little bit surreal to be sitting on the same table with him, and to hear him give advice about how to improve Sidney’s faceoff percentage between bites of his meal.
Every now and then, Evgeni finds himself translating for Sidney, but not as often as he had predicted.
Hockey really is a universal language.
There is something very easy about being with Sidney. Maybe that might make some of the Penguins laugh if Evgeni said that, because Sidney can be difficult. He is picky and a perfectionist. When they’re on the ice, he pushes every single person to be better. Equally though, he makes every single Penguin better just by being there. Sure, there are times when he doesn’t particularly feel comfortable off the ice, and it shows, but he always makes an effort. Here and now, he is utterly fascinated by Vladimir and so open to his analysis of Sidney’s game.
Enthusiasm brings out enthusiasm.
Sidney and Vladimir might be separated by several decades, cultures, politics, and language, but they connect at the Gonchar’s reception between the entrée and the main course. By the time Evgeni is excusing himself to go to the bathroom, Pavel Bure and Ksenia’s old figure skating partner, Samuel Gezalian, have joined the conversation and are talking about evolutions in training styles over the years. Evgeni figures it’s safe to leave Sidney as he is; nodding intently at a point Pavel is making about the role of technology and probably just about to chime in with his take on the issue.
Evgeni isn’t expected it when Mario Lemieux catches him mid-way out of the hall.
Gesturing to the empty seat next to him, he motions for Evgeni to sit. Dressed impeccably, Mario’s face is a little flushed and there is a glass of wine in his hand. He takes a sip of it after checking in with Evgeni.
“Good, good,” Evgeni tells him.
For some reason that makes Mario laugh a little. “Sidney looks like he is having fun,”
“He is,” Evgeni nods.
Maybe with someone else, Evgeni might make a joke about how Sidney has a captive audience made up of a table full of Evgeni’s childhood heroes. He probably should – it might make Mario laugh. (Mario was one of Evgeni’s childhood heroes too).
“You should go over,” Evgeni says, because he thinks Mario would probably love talking old school hockey with them.
Mario laughs. “Maybe later.”
In the corner of Evgeni’s eye, he spots the vibrant gold of Nathalie Lemieux’s dress and figures that’s his cue to leave. However that’s when Mario decides to give Evgeni a heart attack by telling him how he is a good person. Evgeni has been told that he is a good player many times. Yet there is something in Mario’s voice that makes Evgeni think that that isn’t what he means. It makes Evgeni duck his head and feel self-conscious for some reason.
Standing up, Mario’s focus shifts to his wife, and Evgeni feels like something very important has just happened.
In a bit of a daze, Evgeni manages to exchange a few words with Nathalie before politely excusing himself. It’s a little bit later when Evgeni gets back to his seat. Between talking to Mario and going to the bathroom, Evgeni was waylaid by a few friends but he can’t honestly remember what he said to them. When he finally gets back to his table, he finds himself going still when Sidney greats him with a bright smile and lovely hazel eyes. When Evgeni pauses, Sidney’s expression shifts a little.
“Are you getting nervous about your speech?” he asks.
To be honest, Evgeni hasn’t thought of it once tonight. But taking the excuse like a lifeline, he nods weakly.
"You get to give it in Russian; you'll be fine," Sidney says like it’s a fact.
Evgeni rolls his eyes.
(Mario knew what he was doing when he made Sidney captain.
Evgeni might not have said no if the captaincy was offered to him, but he doesn’t think he could carry it as well as Sidney.)
The Penguins are Sidney’s team in a way that maybe no other team has been before.
They all love him, in their own ways.
Maybe twenty minutes before the speeches, the Penguins contingency of French Canadians come to collect Sidney.
“You’ve more than done your duty,” Duper says.
“Yeah,” Tanger agrees. “We’ve come to relieve you.”
Sidney makes a face, but Flower is efficient and is bullying him to his feet.
“We told you that you were going to dance,” Flower reminds him.
Evgeni doesn’t need to look at Sidney to know what expression must be on his face. Reaching for Sidney, Evgeni tries to keep him by his side. Unfortunately he isn’t quick enough. He only gets Sidney’s suit jacket and a vaguely embarrassed look thrown over Sidney’s shoulder as compensation. He’s right to be embarrassed. Sidney isn’t much of a dancer. Though to be fair, none of the Penguins are. Nor many of the other hockey players present.
From the table, Evgeni watches Sanja bounce over to Sidney and say something which makes him shake his head.
Deep down, Evgeni thinks Sidney probably likes Sanja. It’s hard not to. But that doesn’t stop Evgeni from making a rude gesture when Sanja glances over to him with a smirk on his face. If anyone were to guess Evgeni’s lie, it would probably be him. That’s usually the way with him.
Sanja somehow manages to tuck Sidney by his side and keep him there during the speeches. When Evgeni spots them, Sidney is rolling his eyes at something Sanja is saying. Maybe he will never have the ease that people like Max and even Evgeni has in social situations, but Sidney looks comfortable as he exchanges an amused look with Evgeni as he stands to give his speech.
(Since getting the C sow onto his jersey, Sidney has worn it so well.
Evgeni is so proud to call Sidney his Captain.
Evgeni is so proud of Sidney.)
At the conclusion of Evgeni’s speech, Sergei pulls Evgeni into a hug.
“You made me sound like a romantic,” Sergei says, sniffing a little.
“You are,” Evgeni tells him without any repentance in his voice. Mostly because Sergei is.
As the music starts back up and Ksenia goes to check if the cake is ready to come out, Evgeni takes the glass of champagne Sergei offers. Shaking his head, Sergei manages a grin. With his dress shirt wrinkled and his tie loosened, Sergei look happier than Evgeni has ever seen him.
“You look happy too,” Sergei tell him.
And Evgeni is.
“It’s good to see,” Sergei says earnestly. “I hated seeing you so lonely.”
Something about his tone of voice catches Evgeni off guard. Lonely? Of all the things Sergei could have said about Evgeni, he didn’t expect that. He isn’t sure that he’d say that about himself. Sure, Oksana hadn’t followed him to Pittsburgh, but Evgeni wasn’t short on company. When he says that – the last bit of that – Evgeni means to turn it into a joke. He smirks and perhaps the expression isn’t quite his. Sanja has so many; it’s not like it’s the first thing Evgeni has stolen from him.
Sergei takes a sip of his glass of champagne. “Those people weren’t Sidney.”
“No,” Evgeni allows. “They weren’t.”
Sergei nods like Evgeni said the right thing.
No one else was Sidney.
And the thing is, as far as all the Penguins and the rest of the guests are concerned, Evgeni and Sidney are just friends.
Which should be perfect.
Out of the few Russian NHL players who managed to make the ceremony, Alexander Semin – Sasha - is perhaps the one Evgeni didn’t expect to see through his ruse. That probably says more about him than it says about Sasha.
After the speeches are over and the focus has moved on to the cake, Sasha finds Evgeni by the bar and invites him outside to take a breather.
Where Sanja was the prodigy who made Evgeni fight for scraps of spotlight when they were growing up, Sasha was Evgeni’s idol on and off the ice. He maybe still might be. Quietly confident and endlessly talented, Sasha is one of Evgeni’s few sensible friends. As a teenager making more money than he knew what to do with, Sasha was the friend who rolled his eyes at Evgeni when he was being ridiculous with it and gave considered advice when asked. Now he is the friend who gently asks what he is doing.
Evgeni doesn’t know. He thought he did, but now he doesn’t.
“I lied,” he says. “I told Ksenia I was dating Sidney. I let Sergei believe that.”
Evgeni feels small and petty. He lied and he has used his best friend.
“How did you know?”
Sasha exhales slowly. “You aren’t a good liar.”
No. Evgeni isn’t.
Sasha smiles a little. “No, Zhenya. You aren’t lying with Sidney.”
Evgeni’s heart does something inside his chest. He wishes Sasha would stop looking at him; it doesn’t feel fair that he sees this too.
“No,” he manages to say, because he doesn’t think he ever was. Not really.
"One hell of a first date," Sasha comments in that way of his.
For some reason that makes Sasha laugh.
“There are worse things than falling for your best friend,” he tells Evgeni.
“Want to tell me?”
Sasha shakes his head. “Not on your life.”
He is no help. None.
Evgeni sighs. “What should I do now?”
“Maybe ask him to dance?” Sasha suggests. “That could be funny.”
“Maybe ask him on a second date,” Sasha offers seriously. “I think he would like that.”
Sasha nods. “Yeah.”
It’s late when Ksenia and Sergei depart for their very short second honeymoon at the tiny boutique hotel they booked a suite in. After they leave, the party keeps going. Or at least, the majority of the guests keep partying. In the interlude between songs, Evgeni and Sidney slip out.
In the passenger seat of his own car, Evgeni smiles a little as Sidney drives him home.
“Would you like to go see a movie?” he finds himself asking.
Glancing over, Sidney’s face is a little pink. “I thought it was my turn to ask?”
“I will say yes if you ask,” Evgeni tells him, with his heart in his throat.
“Movie?” Sidney asks.
Evgeni grins and nods.