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The first Zhenya heard about it was an email from Sidney in the middle of August. It was sitting in his inbox when he woke up, with the very innocuous subject line of Some news, and Zhenya didn’t even open it right away, too busy trying to figure out why his message notifications had exploded overnight. All of his Russian friends had been asleep, the same as he was, and he didn’t usually hear much from anyone in North America until the week before training camp, when everyone started rolling back into town and trying to rustle up a cookout or a few rounds of golf.

All of the messages were about Sidney. Zhenya lay on his back and squinted up at his phone. He couldn’t deal with that much English before his first cup of coffee, so it was time to go straight to the source. He closed out of his messenger app and opened the email.

Hi guys,

I hope everyone is having a great summer. I look forward to seeing you all back in Pittsburgh.

I’m writing to tell you that I’m gay, and I’ll be coming out publicly in a couple of weeks. The press conference is scheduled for 2 September. Hopefully, this timing will let things die down some before the season starts, and we can all focus on hockey.

This news might come as a bit of a surprise to some of you. Please don’t hesitate to call or text if you have any questions for me. I’m also attaching the contact information for You Can Play, if you feel more comfortable reaching out to them.

I understand that you’ll want to talk with your families about this, but please don’t spread the news around before the press conference. Management has everything worked out, and I’d prefer not to deviate too much from the game plan.

Again, feel free to get in touch with me at any time if you’d like to talk.

Take care,

Sid


Zhenya read the email three times, and then ran it through Google Translate to make sure he wasn’t misinterpreting something.

He wasn’t.

He was pretty sure he wasn’t.

Some news.

“Jesus,” Zhenya said.

A bit of a surprise. Sidney had always been a real master of the understatement, but this was too much, even for him.

The messages were mostly from the team’s group chat, and mostly positive. A lot of the guys seemed confused or surprised, and there were some questions about what was going to happen at the press conference and what they should say to the media, but everyone who had chimed in was supportive: I’m glad you felt like you could tell us, man, or Does this mean I can set you up with my gay cousin? There were, Zhenya noted, a few people who had been conspicuously silent, but maybe they were off camping in the woods with no cell reception. It happened. It wasn’t like he had replied yet, after all.

A few messages had been sent directly to him, privately. What do you think about this? from Kuni, and from Wilson, Did you know?

“Jesus,” he said again. He dropped his phone onto the nightstand and lay in bed for a while with his arm flung over his eyes. A sunbeam spilled through the open drapes and crept across the carpet. Finally he got up and put on his workout clothes. It was the middle of the night in North America; everyone he wanted to talk to was asleep.

He went to the gym with Seryozha, and then home for lunch, and then to the rink with Max, feeling the whole time like a snow globe that someone had upended and shaken vigorously.

“Zhenya. Zhenya!” Max said, obviously not for the first time.

“Yeah,” Zhenya said. “What?”

Max looked suspicious. “Have you been staying up past your bedtime again? I told you to stop playing that internet chess.”

“Fuck you. I don’t have a bedtime,” Zhenya said. “I’m not an infant.”

“You’re skating like an infant,” Max said, and dropped the puck on the ice. “Again.”

When they were done, after he changed out of his gear but before he went to shower, Zhenya sat on the bench in the locker room and typed out a message to the group chat. He had been mulling over the wording all day.

Hey Sid, it’s big step and good thing that you do. Team will support you. He meant that as both a promise and a threat, and hoped everyone would know it.

By the time he got back to his apartment, it was late afternoon. He made a cup of tea and called Pascal from his kitchen table.

“How I’m not know about Sid?” he demanded, when Pascal answered the phone.

“Wonderful to hear from you, Geno,” Pascal said. “The weather in Montreal is lovely this morning. Retirement is treating me very well. How’s Moscow?”

“Duper, I’m not make jokes about this,” Zhenya said. “Tell me, when do you know this about Sid, that he likes men?”

Pascal was quiet for a moment. “You’re surprised,” he said.

‘Surprised’ didn’t even begin to cover it. “You know? How long.”

“Ah, you know how Sid is,” Pascal said. “He doesn’t like to talk about these things, you know? He told me when we roomed together, and maybe he felt obligated, in case I was uncomfortable. I don’t think he was trying to hide it from you. He probably thought you knew.”

“Who else knew?” Zhenya asked. His stomach slowly sank toward his feet, like a paper airplane gliding to a stop. “Flower knows? Tanger? Kuni?”

“I spoke with Marc yesterday, after Sid sent his email,” Pascal said. “Sid told him several years ago. He didn’t tell anyone else on the team, but I know that Tanger and Kuni were not surprised.”

“Fuck!” Zhenya said. “So it’s only me, too stupid, not pay attention—”

“Oh, get over yourself,” Pascal said. “This isn’t about you. You know now, so stop whining and give Sid your support.”

Pascal was right, which was embarrassing. Zhenya was an adult, and he needed to handle his shit. “I support him,” he said, a little sulky. “I’m tell him already.”

“Good,” Pascal said. “You know this is going to be difficult for him.”

“Pascal, do you think—Sid doesn’t trust me? Or he thinks I don’t like, maybe say bad things?” That worry had been churning through his head since he first read the email. He thought he knew Sidney pretty well, that they were friends, maybe even friends outside the context of the team and the game. They even kept in touch over the summers, a little, sending pictures back and forth and video chatting from time to time. But he had missed this huge and apparently obvious thing about Sidney, a thing important enough that Sidney was willing to sit on a stage and tell everyone private information about himself, and maybe that meant they weren’t really friends at all.

Pascal sighed. “I think this is a conversation you need to have with Sid. I don’t have that much insight into his inner workings, you know.”

“Neither does Sid,” Zhenya said, because Sidney was delightful in many ways, but he had the self-awareness of a sea sponge.

“Well, that’s true,” Pascal said. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t think he doesn’t not trust you.”

Zhenya worked through that sentence in his head until it made sense. “Not help, Pascal. Useless.”

“Sorry,” Pascal said, not sounding very sorry. “Call him. You know he would be happy to hear from you.”

“Yes, okay, get off phone now,” Zhenya said, but first he spent ten minutes catching up with Pascal and getting all of the updates about his gaggle of children and his post-retirement life, which sounded altogether very pleasant and boring, exactly what Pascal deserved.

After they hung up, he saw that he had a new email from Sidney, addressed only to him.

Hi Geno,

Thanks for what you said on the group chat. I really appreciate it.

I hope you’re okay with all of this, and that it doesn’t cause too many problems for you with the Russian media. Jen told me she would be in touch with you before the press conference to give you some talking points. I understand that it’s a touchy situation. Please say whatever you need to and don’t worry about it getting back to me.

Thanks again, and I’ll see you in September.

Sid


Zhenya groaned and got up from the table, and went over to his liquor cabinet to pour a glass of vodka.

Sure, it would cause problems for him with the Russian media, and Zhenya was already dreading the verbal acrobatics that would be required for him to remain politically neutral while expressing justifiable support for his teammate, but—fucking Sidney. It was just like him to give Zhenya permission to throw him under the bus. As if he were doing Zhenya a favor.

But it was too difficult to express all of that in English, so he wrote back and said, It’s OK. Don’t worry about reporters. Jen help me with how to say. Excited to beat Canada in World Cup!

After a moment’s thought, he added, Proud of you, and attached a picture of himself holding a giant inflatable penguin at his birthday party.

There were a lot of other things he wanted to say, like When did you decide to do this, or Did you honestly think I wouldn’t support you, or worst of all, Why didn’t you tell me; but it seemed safer to end his email there, and to drink a little more vodka instead of thinking about everything that might have been different if he had known.

+ + +

Zhenya went to St. Petersburg at the end of the month to start practicing for the World Cup. Before he left, he broke up with the woman he had been dating since he got back to Russia in June. It wasn’t a serious thing, and they both knew it, but she cried a little anyway, and then Zhenya felt like an asshole. He hadn’t meant to hurt her.

He took the train to St. Petersburg, a four-hour trip that was infinitely more relaxing than a commercial flight. It was nice to have some time to himself to stare out the window and read a bit, and watch the countryside flash by, the farmland scattered with dachas, the low meandering rivers, the small towns there and gone in a blink. Zhenya was a city boy, but he had seen a lot of the country when he played for the KHL, and he loved the quiet green placidity of the rural parts, unbothered by whatever was going on in Moscow.

The summer was ending. He was excited, every year, for the start of the new season, but also sad to leave home. He always spent his final week in Moscow making the rounds of his favorite places—the Sanduny Baths, Gorky Park along the river. He liked to rent a restaurant and have one final night out with his friends. But now it was time to put that behind him, and it was good to have those four hours to sit quietly and feel Moscow dwindle away in the distance.

Kolya met him at the train station in a truly miniature sports car, and Zhenya had to do some Tetris to get his sticks in the back seat. There was no way they would fit in the trunk. He wasn’t sure the car even had a trunk.

“Nice car,” he said, very dryly, as he folded himself into the passenger seat.

“It’s a rental,” Kolya said, and sighed heavily. “Sasha’s. I got deputized to come pick you up. Did you get dumped? You look sad.”

“Are we going to the hotel or are you going to idle the car here all day like a jackass?” Zhenya asked.

“I remember you being much nicer than this,” Kolya said, and eased the car away from the curb.

The rest of the team straggled into town over the next couple of days. He had seen a lot of the guys in Moscow, of course, but it was good to have everyone in the same place, and good to start skating together again. They were all looking to redeem themselves after the World Championships, and before that, the Olympics, which Zhenya still couldn’t really bear to think about more than two years later, shamed by how thoroughly he had let everyone down.

The day of Sidney’s press conference, Zhenya and Sasha and Kuzya dressed as cartoon characters for the SKA game against Lada, and played a ridiculous intermission game against a bunch of children. They went for a late lunch and drinks, afterward, Sasha still wearing his dog suit and waving cheerfully at everyone who stared. Kuzya, adorable child that he was, laughed until he choked on a crouton.

Zhenya was grateful for the distraction. He had messaged Sidney that morning to wish him good luck, but he didn’t expect a response. Sidney had turned into a black hole of communication: no matter what went in, nothing emerged.

He watched the press conference that evening from his hotel room—not live, but half an hour later, after someone had uploaded it, so he could pause and rewind as necessary. He wanted to be sure he understood everything. His phone was blowing up, but he ignored it. The feed started before Sidney took the stage, broadcasting a view of the table with the familiar Penguins backdrop behind it, a few water bottles lined up at one end. Zhenya sat cross-legged on his bed and felt his heart unaccountably racing.

Sidney appeared, wearing a suit. He looked completely calm as he walked onto the stage and took a seat behind the microphone.

“Thank you all for being here today,” he said.

He read a nice statement that Zhenya was certain had been sweated over by multiple people for multiple weeks. Inclusivity (Zhenya looked that up) in professional sports was very important to him; he wanted to serve as a role model; no one should feel unwelcome in the locker room. It all smelled like bullshit. Sidney was the most apolitical person Zhenya had ever met, completely unwilling to express an opinion where someone might see, and Zhenya wondered, not for the first time, why Sidney was doing this. The only part that rang true came at the end, when Sidney asked that everyone respect his privacy.

He didn’t take any questions. He left the stage, and his parents came on and talked a little about You Can Play and how they loved Sidney and were proud of him; and then Mario took the stage and politely but firmly made it clear that Sidney had the full support of the organization and no nonsense would be tolerated.

That was it. The whole thing took less than twenty minutes.

Zhenya’s phone buzzed again. He picked it up at last and winced at the sheer number of notifications. It was early afternoon in North America, and the entire team was awake and prepared to dissect every last nuance of the press conference.

Zhenya didn’t have the energy for this. He typed out a message to the group chat, so they would all know he was still fully prepared to crack heads if need be: I’m just watch, great job Sid!! He didn’t read anything that anyone else had written.

He checked his phone when he got up in the night to piss, and saw that Sidney had messaged him privately, the first he’d heard from Sidney since those initial emails, two weeks back. I’m glad to be done with that.

Zhenya couldn’t think of a useful response, so he just sent Sidney a few emojis and went back to bed.

+ + +

By morning, every reporter in Russia had heard the news, and they were all waiting at the rink to ask Zhenya what he thought about it.

“Fuck,” Zhenya muttered. It wasn’t too late to go back to the hotel. They were only doing an informal skate; it was probably okay for him to skip it.

“What do you want to do?” Sasha asked him quietly.

“Rip off the bandage,” Zhenya said. “You know there’s no avoiding it.”

“They won’t go easy on you,” Kolya said.

“I wouldn’t expect them to,” Zhenya said, and extracted himself from Sasha’s terrible clown car.

Sasha, bless him, stuck to Zhenya’s side like a burr, not saying much but also not abandoning Zhenya and going inside like he very easily could have—like Kolya did. The questions were awful, as Zhenya had expected them to be, and he knew that Sasha’s silent show of support would be all over the news; and he knew that Sasha knew it, and was staying by him anyway.

“Isn’t it true that by playing on a team with Crosby now, you’re endorsing non-traditional relationships?”

“Certainly you’ve known about Crosby’s homosexuality for many years. How can you explain this to your Russian fans?”

“Do you expect this news to impact your position with the national team?”

Zhenya repeated his carefully prepared lines. He was only a hockey player, and it wasn’t his job to have opinions about these topics. He had known Sidney for a long time and enjoyed playing hockey with him. He hoped his fans could understand that the US and Canada had different laws and customs, and that part of playing in the NHL was tolerating those cultural differences. He was proud to represent Russia in the World Cup and proud of his role on the team.

“Okay, no more questions,” Sasha said after a while, interrupting the reporter who was asking Zhenya something about the moral fiber of the nation. “As Zhenya’s captain, it’s my responsibility to make sure he puts in enough practice time.” He flashed the gathered media his gap-toothed smile, and they all laughed, disgustingly in love with him as always.

“Alexander Mikhailovich, what’s your opinion on this news?” an enterprising reporter asked. “You know Crosby, so I’m certain you have something to say about this.”

Sasha grimaced, but to Zhenya’s surprise, he answered. “Yes, I’ve played against Crosby many times. He’s a great player, and I always thought he was a good man.”

It was a masterful response. The past tense gave Sasha just enough plausible deniability while still making it clear what he really thought. Zhenya would have to file that one away for future use.

“And now we really have to go,” Sasha said, and steered Zhenya toward the building.

Inside, Zhenya went over to a bench in the entryway and sat down heavily. He was shaking a little with adrenaline.

“Hey,” Sasha said, and sat down beside him. “You did a good job. I don’t think you said anything you’ll have cause to regret.”

Zhenya looked down at his feet, at his bony knees protruding from his basketball shorts. “I’m proud to be Russian, Sasha. Always.”

“I know you are,” Sasha said. “Nobody could doubt that.”

“But I’m not always proud of Russia,” Zhenya said.

Sasha sighed. “It will be easier once you’re back in the States. Just one more week, yeah? And by the time you’re home again next summer, this will all be old news.”

“Yeah,” Zhenya said. “I hope so.” Sasha stood up and picked up his bag, but Zhenya stayed where he was. After a moment he looked up, and tried not to notice the sympathy on Sasha’s face. “I don’t want to talk about this with the team,” he said, because he heard what they said on the ice, in the locker room: some of them would not be okay with it, and would not see any reason to hide it.

“Okay,” Sasha said, and patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll change the subject if it comes up.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said; and true to his word, when one of the Andreis brought it up while they were all changing into their gear, Sasha rolled his eyes and said, “Sidney Crosby, who cares about him? Don’t you have something more interesting to talk about?”

Zhenya could have kissed him, but—well.

+ + +

The team flew out to Pittsburgh a week later, after winning one exhibition game against the Czech Republic and losing another. Zhenya wasn’t playing well, and he was already frustrated with himself in a way that boded poorly for the rest of the tournament. He played his best hockey when he was feeling a little bit thwarted, but it was easy to go too far and tip over into impotent rage.

Years of experience had taught him that sleeping on the flight was a surefire route to multiple days of jet-lagged misery. He forced himself to stay awake for all twelve dismal boring hours from Prague to Paris to Pittsburgh. He read until he couldn’t bear it anymore, and then played chess on his phone until he couldn’t bear that either, and finally zoned out watching American sitcoms on the little seatback television and told himself it was good for his English. Kolya, who claimed to be immune to jet lag, reclined his seat as soon as they left Charles de Gaulle and snored blissfully through the entire flight.

It was evening when they arrived in Pittsburgh; Zhenya’s body thought it was the middle of the night. His eyes felt like they had been baked into his skull, hard and glassy.

He caught a cab with Sasha and Kolya, who were staying with him. His cleaning service had come by to put sheets on the beds and toilet paper in the bathrooms. The house smelled like bleach and lemon. It was good to be home, but strange. It was strange to have two places he thought of as home.

He ordered three pizzas, one for each of them, ate most of his, and then passed out for ten hours.

“Rise and shine,” Kolya said, when Zhenya staggered downstairs the next morning, feeling three-quarters human and one-quarter slime mold. “I made coffee.”

“I like you,” Zhenya said, and Kolya’s eyes crinkled as he smiled.

He ate three slices of cold pizza for breakfast, secure in his knowledge that Kolya didn’t know the Penguins’ nutritionist and was thus unable to rat him out, and drove to the rink to meet with Jen. She had scheduled some interviews for him over the next few days leading up to the exhibition game against Canada. The list was much longer than he liked, but his ideal number of interviews was zero, which he had to acknowledge didn’t give Jen much room to work.

“By the way,” she said, when they were wrapping things up, “you did pretty well with the Russian media.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “Pretty well? You watch my interview?” His English felt a little rusty, after a summer of nothing beyond a few phone calls.

“Don’t play dumb, Geno,” she said. “Someone in my office is aware of everything you say to or near a reporter.”

“I say just what you tell me,” Zhenya said indignantly.

“Try to look less panicked in the future,” she said. “I’m giving you constructive criticism. There’s going to be a lot of attention on you during the World Cup, and you’re going to get a lot of questions about Sidney. Don’t look scared, or they’ll smell blood in the water.”

“I’m not scared,” Zhenya said. “Only—nervous, little bit. Want say right thing, do right thing for Sid.” And not get himself kicked off the national team for expressing illegal opinions, but that went without saying.

Jen’s expression softened. “Yeah, I know you do, Geno. You’re handling it well, okay? Ovechkin will still draw most of the attention, but after the news about Sidney, you’re going to have reporters chasing you around. Frankly, my recommendation is to, ah, do your best to avoid them.”

Zhenya laughed, utterly delighted. “You? You, Jen, say to me it’s okay to hide from reporters?”

“Just this once,” Jen said, trying to look stern and failing. “Under these specific circumstances. Don’t get any ideas.”

“It’s too late,” Zhenya said, getting out of his chair, because he knew when it was time to stage a tactical retreat. “I’m remember these words always. Big mistake for you, Jen,” and then he got the hell out of there before she could add a few more interviews to his list.

+ + +

Sidney had been in Ottawa practicing with the Canadian team, and Zhenya saw him for the first time on the day of the Russia-Canada exhibition game. The Canadians took the ice after the Russians were done with their morning skate, and Sidney smiled at Zhenya in passing and bumped their fists together, but that was all. They didn’t usually talk much when they were competing, mostly because Zhenya found it too awkward, like he was cheating on a girlfriend.

Still, after he showered and changed, he went back out to the ice with some of the other guys to watch the Canadians skate. Truthfully, he watched Sidney. Let Sasha and Pasha worry about strategy; Zhenya was worried about his captain.

Sidney seemed fine, happy and laughing, goofing around some with Marchand and Price. But Zhenya noticed that some of Sidney’s teammates were keeping their distance, and it made him want to put his foot through the boards. What did they think Sidney was going to do, drag them to the ice and start humping them in the middle of skate?

Probably nobody thought that. They were uncomfortable, or they didn’t know what to do, and so they were behaving like assholes. Maybe they thought Sidney’s gay was contagious. Maybe they thought it was a sin. It wasn’t Zhenya’s business. Sidney knew how to handle himself.

Christ. Sidney liked men.

He had always thought Sidney was kind of sexless, like one of those dolls with nothing between the legs but smooth plastic. Sidney didn’t date, he didn’t pick up, and Zhenya had figured he just wasn’t interested, or wasn’t interested enough to do anything about it. It was blowing his mind, in basically the worst possible way, to contemplate the shape and size of Sidney’s desires.

Kolya prodded him with an elbow in the ribs. “Lunch?” He looked very knowing, in that quiet, watchful Kolya way. It was impossible that he actually knew anything.

“Yeah,” Zhenya said, turning away. “We’ll go into town, I know a place with a good view over the river.”

They lost the game that night in overtime, and then flew out to Toronto. Zhenya didn’t have an actual conversation with Sidney during the tournament. They said hello in passing a few times, and once had a brief discussion about the merits of their respective locker rooms while Marchand tried and failed to loom. The guy was short.

It didn’t take Zhenya long to realize that he always saw Sidney with the same few guys from Team Canada. They moved around in a protective cluster, keeping Sidney away from reporters and anyone else they deemed suspect, like the entire population of Russia. It was both infuriating—Sidney was Zhenya’s captain for 82 games a year, and these clowns were acting like Sidney was theirs—and touching. The taboos of international competition prevented Zhenya from doing any of the hovering and scowling that he wanted to, and he was glad the Canadians were stepping up in his absence.

Their nursemaiding was the highlight of the tournament. The rest of it was shit. Zhenya was dogged by reporters everywhere he went, wanting to know what he thought about Sidney Crosby touching other men’s dicks. He couldn’t even pawn them off on Sasha; it was Zhenya, specifically, they wanted to talk to.

He was trying very hard to not have any thoughts about Sidney Crosby touching anyone’s dick.

He played like shit, and Canada knocked them out in the semifinals. Zhenya shook Sidney’s sweaty hand for a brief moment in the handshake line. Russia was finished.

“The Canadians are a good team,” Sasha said later that night, when they were out drowning their sorrows. It was Zhenya’s last hurrah: one last night to be fully Russian, before he went back to Pittsburgh and became a Penguin again for a while. Toronto wasn’t Zhenya’s favorite city, but it had some good bars.

“They’re better than we are,” Zhenya said bluntly. “Our defense—”

“Well, yes,” Sasha said. They had already spent an hour and a half analyzing everything that had gone wrong with the game.

“They tried very hard,” said Kolya, who always tried to look on the bright side.

Zhenya snorted and drained his glass, and set it down on the table with a thump. “My point, Sasha, is that we were rightfully trounced by the better team, and there’s no use in you letting it prick your ego. Everyone knows your ego is the only thing you’ve got going for you.”

“He’s got a point,” Kolya said.

“Fuck both of you,” Sasha said. “My ego is going to sweep the Metro this year, and you’ll both be crying into your tea like grannies.”

They drank more. After a while, Kolya said, a little tentatively, “You’re probably glad to be going back to Pittsburgh, Zhenya.”

“Why, no Russian media?” Zhenya asked. He knew what Kolya was getting at, but he would rather chew glass than talk about it. Kolya tried to be supportive, but it was obvious that he didn’t approve and the situation made him uncomfortable, and Zhenya would prefer to talk about literally anything else, up to and including his own failures as a hockey player and human being.

“He’s only looking forward to getting home to me and Kuzya,” Sasha said.

“Those sculptures are creepy as shit,” Kolya said. “Zhenya, I wonder about your taste sometimes,” and Zhenya was happy to accept the ragging if it meant they could move on to safer topics.

He drank perhaps a little more than he should have, and Sasha insisted on escorting him back to his room despite all of Zhenya’s protests that he was perfectly fine. “Vodka runs through my veins,” he said, as Sasha shoved him out of the elevator, “I’m the great Russian bear, the bear of the wild taiga—”

“You’re a fucking Penguin, you lunatic,” Sasha said. He herded Zhenya down the hallway and fished Zhenya’s keycard out of his pocket to open the door.

“You’re a fucking Capital,” Zhenya said. “What even is that? What a stupid thing to name a team.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard you complain about this before,” Sasha said. He waited for Zhenya to take off his shoes and climb in bed, and then he put Zhenya’s phone on the nightstand along with a bottle of water. “Text me in the morning to let me know you survived.”

Zhenya was going to pass out in approximately one minute. “Sasha,” he said. “Thank you.” He didn’t mean just for getting him back to his hotel room. Sasha wasn’t his closest friend, but he had proven his worth in the last weeks, and Zhenya would be grateful forever.

“You’re welcome,” Sasha said. He patted Zhenya’s cheek. “I’ll see you in a few weeks, hey? We’re going to destroy you.”

“Not a chance,” Zhenya mumbled, and sank down into sleep.

+ + +

He had a day at home to nap and ponder the contents of his refrigerator before he joined the Penguins for training camp. The World Cup had been a frustrating experience on multiple levels, and he was glad to park his car at the rink on Tuesday morning and put the whole last month behind him.

The guys made a big ruckus when he rolled into the locker room—possibly a little late, but anyone who expected Zhenya to be on time on a regular basis was in for a lifetime of disappointment. He waved like Queen Elizabeth as he came in, grinning hugely, and got a few pairs of balled-up socks thrown at him for his trouble.

“We love you, Geno!” Flower called out.

He had missed the first few days of camp, and all of the usual start-of-season catching up. Bones came over as Zhenya changed into his pads and pretended to interview him, using the end of his stick as a microphone. “Did you enjoy your summer vacation, Geno? How was the Great White North?”

“That’s Canada, you dumbass,” Cole said.

“Russia best,” Zhenya said, as he was expected to.

“I heard a rumor that you ate caviar out of Lord Stanley’s silver mouth,” Bones said. “True or false?”

“True,” Zhenya said. “Only best for Lord Stanley.”

“Last question,” Bones said. “How much Flyers ass are we going to kick this year?”

Zhenya grinned and bent to lace up his skates. “I think lots.”

Seryozha was out on the bench with the rest of the coaching staff; it was the first time Zhenya had seen him since leaving for St. Petersburg. They clasped hands, and Seryozha said, “I’m sorry about the World Cup. I know you’re disappointed.”

Zhenya shrugged. “Of course, but there’s the season to focus on now.”

Seryozha lowered his voice, as if anyone in the building could understand them. “How is Sid?”

“Fine, I think,” Zhenya said. “He’s playing well. We didn’t talk much, you know how he is.”

“No, but I know how you are,” Seryozha said, rolling his eyes. “You wouldn’t speak to your own mother if she was playing against you in a tournament.”

“Nor would she want me to,” Zhenya said, which made Seryozha laugh.

“Enough Russian chit-chat!” Cole yelled from the ice. “We need some Malkin magic to get this skate going!”

“Well, you heard the man,” Seryozha said.

Practice was boisterous, as it usually was early in the year. There was talk about when Horny and Haggy were getting back, but no one said a word about Sidney. At first Zhenya took that to mean they had already talked the subject to death in his absence, but after a while the silence began to seem too deliberate, like everyone was avoiding bringing it up.

Afterward, in the locker room, some of the younger guys started joking awkwardly about maybe needing to wear towels in the change room so they didn’t distract Sidney from scoring. Zhenya listened for a few moments, hoping someone else would step in so he didn’t have to muster his English. Flower and Tanger were glancing at each other, and then Flower caught Zhenya’s eye and raised one eyebrow. Zhenya lifted his shoulders slightly: Go ahead.

“You know,” Flower said, interrupting the increasingly stupid and offensive banter, “Sid is not going to be distracted by your ugly faces. He’s somehow managed to share a locker room with Kris for many years, and Kris is much prettier than all of you put together.”

Tanger, on cue, tossed his sweaty hair out of his eyes and smiled brilliantly. That made Zhenya feel better: Flower and Tanger had obviously planned this.

“And,” Flower continued, “if you’re worried about Sid looking at your dick in the showers, you don’t need to worry. Nobody would look at your tiny dicks when Geno is a much more tempting prospect.”

Okay, that he hadn’t expected, but Zhenya could roll with it. He leaned back in his stall and grinned, spreading his legs slightly to draw attention to his crotch. Kuni, sitting beside him, made a noise that sounded like suppressed laughter.

“In other words,” Flower said, “quit being idiots. You all know Sid. Would he ever do anything to make any of you uncomfortable?”

A guilty silence fell. Zhenya watched the guys shooting furtive glances at each other and shuffling their feet.

“I guess we’re worried about making him uncomfortable,” Wilson said at last.

Tanger rolled his eyes. “Just act like usual! Nothing important has changed. Sid is still the same person he was in June.” He paused. “Maybe don’t call each other fags so much, though.”

On his way out to the parking lot after practice, Zhenya heard Flower calling his name, and stopped to wait for Flower to trot out after him.

“Thanks for playing along back there,” Flower said, shamefully a little out of breath. “I shouldn’t have brought you into it without warning you.”

“It’s fine,” Zhenya said. “I’m glad that you and Tanger say. Hard for me, I’m just call them idiots and say to shut up, then maybe they don’t understand.”

“It’s good to know you’ve got Sid’s back,” Flower said. “Thank you.”

Zhenya ground his molars. Flower said it like he was surprised, like maybe he thought everyone in Russia hated gay people and Zhenya was somehow fighting through his programming to be supportive. “Sid is Sid,” he said. “It’s a surprise to me, but it’s okay. Glad he feels like he can say.”

“You’re a good guy, G,” Flower said, and slapped his shoulder before heading on toward his car.

Zhenya got a text message from Sidney that afternoon. Flower said I should say thank you but wouldn’t tell me why.

Zhenya rolled his eyes. It’s because I have huge dick. Let Sidney puzzle over that one for a while.

+ + +

Sidney showed up at the rink a couple of days after Canada won the World Cup. He was supposed to be taking some time off, but telling Sidney to take a break was like telling a cat to sit at the table and eat with a knife and fork: futile, and completely against its nature. Sidney wasn’t dressed to skate, at least, but he hung out on the bench during practice and ran his mouth the entire time. Business as usual.

Zhenya was pleased to see the team give him a warm welcome, even the stupid children. Nobody acted weird as they skated past to bump fists with Sidney and congratulate him. Sidney was glowing in the wake of Canada’s victory, as happy and relaxed as Zhenya had ever seen him. Zhenya’s eyes kept returning to the bench, over and over, to watch Sidney laugh with his head thrown back.

It got worse after practice, when Sidney followed them to the locker room to hang around shooting the shit. He was wearing jeans and a dark blue T-shirt and his usual black cap, nothing fancy, but everything fit him well and showed off the shape of his body. Sidney was built like a tank, no surprise there, but he looked like he had spent the summer eating everything in sight and hitting the weight room every day.

Zhenya watched him and felt desire bowl him over, uninvited and undeniable.

Sidney worked his way around the room to Zhenya’s stall. He held out his hand, and they bumped fists and slapped their palms together.

“Congrats, Sid,” Zhenya said. He had a good poker face; he was fairly certain he looked normal. “On win and MVP. You deserve.”

“I’m sorry you guys didn’t make it to the finals,” Sidney said, and grinned. “I would have enjoyed beating you.”

Zhenya scoffed. “You lucky we go out early. Then you don’t get embarrass in home country.”

“Right,” Sidney said, still grinning. He tapped the flat of his hand against Zhenya’s shoulder. “Can we talk later? I’ll take you out for lunch.”

“Okay, lunch is okay,” Zhenya said. “I need to shower and change.”

“Of course,” Sidney said. “I’ll wait for you.” He continued on through his rounds. Zhenya watched his ass shift in his pants, and then tore his gaze away.

When Zhenya came out of the change room after his shower, Sidney was waiting for him in the corridor, leaning against the wall with his head bent over his phone. Zhenya spent a moment looking at the shape of Sidney’s thighs in his jeans, the thick muscle of his upper arms.

He was in very bad trouble, the absolute worst kind of trouble there was.

Sidney looked up from his phone and smiled to see Zhenya standing there. “Ready to go?”

Zhenya reminded himself to breathe. “Yes. Let’s go.”

Because Sidney had the palate of a five-year-old, he wanted to go to one of the many chain restaurants near the rink, a deeply mediocre Italian place that served the kind of heavily-sauced limp pasta Americans liked so much. Zhenya argued with him a little for form’s sake, but Sidney looked so hopeful about overpriced soggy noodles that Zhenya capitulated pretty quickly.

“I’m sorry about the World Cup,” Sidney said, once they had looked over their menus, debated the wisdom of getting a bottle of wine, and placed their orders. “And that’s all I’ll say about it, unless you want to talk about it more.”

Zhenya shook his head firmly. He had already done the full post-mortem with Sasha and Kolya, and he had no interest in going through it all again. “No. We make little talk. How was summer? Mine is good, very relax.”

Sidney laughed. “You already know how my summer was, G. We talked, like, once a week.”

Had it been that frequently? “Only until you send email, then you—how to say, go off radar?”

“Fell off the radar,” Sidney said. “Yeah, I know, get in line, Flower scolded me and Kuni just looked disappointed.”

Canadians. Zhenya was all too familiar with Kuni’s disappointed look.

“It was just—a lot,” Sidney said. “Telling the team. Some of the guys knew, but a lot of them didn’t, and they were all texting me about it. And I know I told them they could, and I was happy they did it, but between dealing with that and trying to gear up for the press conference, I was kind of running on empty, you know?”

Zhenya nodded. He got it. Hockey players were needy, and they all wanted to suckle at Sidney’s teat.

“I ignored the people who I thought could handle it, I guess,” Sidney said. He gave Zhenya a sort of funny sidelong glance. “I wasn’t sure you were going to be one of them, but—then you were, so. Thanks.”

“You think I can’t handle?” Zhenya asked, offended even though he hadn’t handled it, and still wasn’t, really.

“Well, I didn’t know, okay? It can be hard to know how someone will react before you tell them.” Sidney pulled the paper off his straw and started folding it into a tiny square. “Things have been a little… Everyone’s so worried about me. They keep asking me how I’m doing, like I’m constantly two minutes away from a nervous breakdown. Or they want me to reassure them that everything’s okay. But you’ve been acting just like always, pretty much. It meant a lot to me that you kept sending me pictures, even when I wasn’t responding. It made me feel like there was still a regular life I could get back to after everything died down, you know?” He looked up at last and quirked his mouth to one side. “Sorry, I’m rambling.”

“It’s okay,” Zhenya said. “Maybe I’m not ask because I don’t care. You boring.” He was frankly shocked to have gotten so much out of Sidney, who much of the time made him think of the flat surface of a pond, glassy and opaque. Well, but you never knew how deep it was, or what was swimming around underneath.

Sidney was looking at him steadily. They were sitting in a booth right by the window, and the light made his eyes look almost golden. “Jen sent me, uh—you know they get all of your Russian language stuff translated? She sent me some of what you said to the press.”

“So?” Zhenya said, trying desperately to remember what he had let dribble out of his mouth. He hadn’t expected Sidney would ever see any of that.

“I don’t totally understand the political situation over there,” Sidney said, “but I know that you were kind of pushing the envelope of what’s acceptable for you to say.” He drew in a breath, like he was about to say something else, but then he shook his head and smiled. “You’re a lot more articulate in Russian, you know.”

Zhenya made a noise that he hoped fully expressed his outrage. “You like talk to reporters in French? No! It’s hard, Sid.”

Sidney laughed. “Yeah, I know, I know. Believe me, Duper used to fine me every time he heard me speaking French, even if it was an old interview clip from years back. He sent me a couple of invoices over the summer after I said, like, one word to him on the phone.”

Pascal was a man after Zhenya’s own heart. “You lucky I learn any English. Maybe I don’t ever learn, then you have to do all interviews, very hard life for you.”

“You make me do most of them anyway,” Sidney said, smiling. “Geno, come on, I’m trying to be serious, here. I know I keep saying this, but it really means a lot to me to have your support. Especially when I know you’re in a tough position. So that’s all. I just wanted to say that. And now you look really uncomfortable, so we’ll stop talking about it and enjoy our meal, okay? What do you think about the line combinations you guys were running in practice today?”

They talked about hockey for the rest of lunch, which certainly counted as an enjoyable meal by Zhenya’s standards, especially when the alternative was being forced to listen to Sidney thank him for not being a shitty person. They weren’t even interrupted for autographs more than a couple of times. When the check arrived, Sidney lunged for it at once. “It’s my treat,” he said, “I told you I’d take you out, eh?”

“Like date,” Zhenya said, and immediately wished for lightning to strike him dead.

Sidney got a weird look on his face, and then visibly decided to laugh it off. “You’re a pretty cheap date, G.”

“Yes, I’m best,” Zhenya said weakly, and wished they had gotten that bottle of wine after all.

+ + +

Zhenya knew himself well. He was thirty now, and he had known for more than half his life that he was attracted to men. He had never acted on it, not even indulging in the type of adolescent fumbling that he maybe could have justified to himself as boyish mischief. Not even kissing. He liked women more, or at least more often, and the risk had never seemed worth it. As he got older, it became increasingly unlikely that he would ever do anything about it; the prospect of being, in effect, a thirty-year-old virgin was too embarrassing.

He’d experienced a lot of angst about the whole business when he was younger, but as time passed, it simply became another boring factoid about himself. He had a lot of fake teeth; sometimes he thought about men when he jacked off. It was neither interesting nor remarkable. Almost a decade had gone by since he last felt the need to spend any time thinking about it. Best to leave that stone unturned.

After Sidney’s email, he had started thinking about it again, in a sort of subterranean way. The news dredged up a lot of feelings that Zhenya thought he laid to rest years ago. But his thoughts were cloudy and generalized, certainly not about anyone, and definitely not about Sidney. He had never thought of Sidney as—as desirable. Sidney was a good-looking guy, and Zhenya had known that, but only in the way he knew that Sidney was right-handed and shorter than his listed height. Sidney was straight, or more likely asexual, and Zhenya had simply never let his thoughts wander in that direction.

But Sidney wasn’t straight, and Zhenya was thinking about it now.

When he got home from the restaurant that afternoon, he lay on his couch and looked through the pictures Sidney had sent him over the summer. Sidney tended toward landscape shots and photos of his dog, but there were a few pictures of Sidney playing golf, or with his sister, or hanging out with that beefy blond kid he trained with. Zhenya spent a long time inspecting those photos, like there was some detail hidden in the background that would explain everything. Mostly, after a while, he was just looking at Sidney.

He deleted the pictures from his phone. Sidney was off-limits for any number of extremely compelling reasons.

Zhenya was largely cooling his heels through the preseason. Sully had him back in the lineup for the final two preseason games, but until then he was at loose ends, working out and practicing but not traveling to games or playing. He hated being idle. He was prone to navel-gazing, and having too much time on his hands was a recipe for overthinking and misery even under the best of circumstances.

Finding Sidney Crosby attractive was far from the worst thing that had ever happened to Zhenya, but it was still pretty bad. He had an unnerving sense of something moving around below the conscious surface layers of his mind, which made him think of that line from The Fellowship of the Ring: ‘Drums, drums in the deep.’ He lost most of a day to re-watching those movies, all three of them in a row, lying on his couch in a pair of basketball shorts until he felt like a human toadstool, sprouting damply from the cushions. Sidney was rattling around his head like a loose marble, and Zhenya really needed to get out of the fucking house.

He went for drinks that night with a few of the guys, Phil and Bones and the Swedes. It made for a great distraction until it turned out that someone had talked Sidney into joining them. He rolled up half an hour late, wearing jeans that could have been painted on, and a T-shirt that dipped down at the neckline just far enough to show a hint of collarbone.

Zhenya, staring, knocked over his water glass.

“Whoa, G!” Haggy said. “Party foul.”

“You’ve had one beer, man,” Phil said. “Get it together.”

“Shut up,” Zhenya grumbled. “It’s just mistake, I’m clumsy.”

Sidney spotted them then and waved, like there was some possibility they would get up and leave if he didn’t make his presence known. Zhenya watched him make his way through the bar, turning sideways at times to squeeze his giant ass through a narrow gap between chairs.

At some point, Sidney had decided he was only going to wear clothes that were black, white, navy, or gray, so that everything matched and he never had to think about his outfits. He admitted this to the team after Flower gave him a hard time for wearing variations on the same black T-shirt for eight days in a row. That was around the same time he figured out how to cut and style his hair in a way that didn’t look dumb, and how to buy clothes that fit. Watching him now, Zhenya had to admit that the overall effect was pretty devastating.

“Wow,” Sidney said, when he arrived at their table and saw Zhenya mopping up a lake of water with a napkin the size of a postage stamp. “You guys really got started without me, eh?”

“Geno’s on punishment,” Bones said. “Isn’t there a fine for this? Is this a fineable offense?”

“It is now,” Sidney said. “What do you think, G, a hundred bucks?”

Zhenya gave him a flat stare. “Bad idea if you try,” he said, and everyone laughed.

A group of Penguins players at a bar in Pittsburgh would never be anonymous, but aside from a few requests for pictures, they were left alone. It was a good time, fun, low-key. Nobody seemed uncomfortable. Sidney’s superpower was making every conversation about hockey, but Bones and Horny managed to segue into cute things their kids had done recently. Zhenya liked kids, but he had a limited attention span for listening to stories about kids he didn’t know, and when Bones paused for a moment to pull up yet another picture of his daughter, Zhenya ruthlessly changed the subject to American football.

“Take notes, Phil,” he said. “Maybe you don’t get last place in fantasy football this year.”

“Big talk for a guy who lost last year,” said Sidney, who was so psychotically competitive that he was still gloating about his win nine months later.

“If you guys fight, I put money on Sid,” Horny said.

Sidney went up to the bar after a while for their next round of drinks. He got roped into a conversation with a fan, which wasn’t at all out of the ordinary, but instead of making his excuses after a minute, he stayed and stayed. Zhenya tried to keep an eye on the situation without being too obvious about it. The guy Sidney was talking to had his back turned, but Zhenya could see Sidney’s face, the way he cocked his head as he looked up at the guy, smiling his familiar crooked smile. The guy put a hand on Sidney’s arm, right above the elbow, and Sidney, instead of shaking him off, actually leaned into it a little.

Shit, Sidney was flirting, and Zhenya forced himself to look away; that was nothing he needed to see.

“Okay, G?” Phil asked.

“Yes, just annoy with Sid for be so slow,” Zhenya said.

“He’s talking with that dude,” Bones said. “Bet you ten bucks there’s some sort of sob story and Sid ends up going to visit the guy’s grandmother in the hospital.”

“I wonder if he ever tries to fake people out,” Phil said. “Like, pretends to not speak English or whatever. ‘Sidney Crosby? No, no, no, you’re mistaken, my name’s Javier.’”

“Do you think he’ll do that if we pay him?” Haggy asked.

Zhenya shook his head. “No, someone takes picture, then it’s story about Sid is asshole to fans.” He paused. “Also, he is very bad actor.”

“Hey, you’re talking about Emmy Award winner Sidney Crosby,” Phil said. “Show some respect.”

Sidney finally came back a few minutes later with five beers on a tray, and Zhenya could do the math. He didn’t sit down. “So, uh, I’m actually going to head out,” he said.

Zhenya watched as everyone looked toward the bar, where that same guy was waiting, leaning back on his elbows. He was tall, good shoulders; Zhenya couldn’t fault Sidney’s taste.

“Oh, you know that guy?” Bones asked.

“Well,” Sidney said, and scratched his temple.

Horny started laughing.

“Oh,” Bones said, and then, “Oh!”

“Right,” Sidney said, grinning, his ears red. “So, I’ll see you guys at practice tomorrow?”

“Mazel tov,” Phil said, and lifted his glass in a toast.

They watched Sidney leave. The guy put a hand on Sidney’s back, right between his shoulder blades, as the two of them headed toward the door.

“Wow,” Haggy said. “Now there is something I never expected to see.”

“Does he ever, uh. Do that?” Bones asked.

“No,” Zhenya said. In ten years, he had never seen Sidney so much as look at someone in public, and he had certainly never seen Sidney blatantly pick up a dude at a bar.

“First time for everything,” Phil said. “Christ, good for him.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Horny said, and they all clinked their glasses together and drank, and Zhenya stayed in his seat and listened to Phil talk about his sister and felt his sharp unsettled thoughts burrowing through him like small creatures hidden in the earth.

+ + +

Sidney was almost insufferably happy at practice the next morning, laughing so much during drills that Zhenya put him in a headlock and dragged him around the rink, until Sidney got his feet under him and wrestled Zhenya to the ice.

“Major for fighting!” Tanger yelled.

Zhenya was jealous. It was insane, he knew it was insane, but he had felt for a long time that Sidney was his: his captain, one of his favorite people. Sidney had no one else to claim ownership of him, and so Zhenya had mentally added Sidney to his roster. He liked every weird and annoying thing about Sidney, his neurotic routines and the way he tried to boss everyone around during games, his single-minded obsession with hockey. He was kind of boring, he had bad taste in all forms of entertainment, and he never remembered anyone’s birthday. Zhenya would fight lions for him.

“You have good time last night?” he asked Sidney later, when they were in the change room after practice, getting dressed in their street clothes. They had stayed late to talk to the press, and everyone else was gone.

Sidney turned delightfully pink. “Yeah, I—yeah. It was fun. I hope I didn’t, uh. Cross any lines.”

“Everyone is happy for you,” Zhenya said firmly. “Good you can do, don’t have to sneak.”

“I probably shouldn’t have,” Sidney said. “It was kind of—impulsive. I want to keep my personal life private, you know? Hooking up at bars isn’t really the best way to do that.”

It was true, and it would also ruin Zhenya to watch Sidney flirt with random men, especially now that he knew what it looked like and was desperate to see Sidney tilt his head like that again, but at him.

“It’s okay to not always do smart thing,” he said. “It’s big change for you.”

Sidney shook his head. “You have no idea. It used to be like a fucking military operation, you know? Finding a guy, or—picking a place to meet, getting in and out without anyone seeing you—I guess I got a little too excited about not having to hide it.”

“Yes,” Zhenya said vaguely, his higher brain functions entirely derailed by the thought of Sidney having semi-anonymous sexual rendezvous with—how many guys? Over how many years? He had let them touch him and kiss him, maybe hold him down and fuck him. Or maybe he held them down, and the thought sent a spike of delicious shivery heat through Zhenya’s body.

“Anyway, I probably won’t do that again, but—it was nice to be able to do it, and—the guys seemed cool with it, so that was nice, too,” Sidney said. He bent to pull his shirt from his bag, and Zhenya’s eyes flickered down without his permission, just automatically tracking the movement, and he saw the bruises on Sidney’s hips in the shape of fingers.

If he got an erection in the change room, he would never forgive himself.

“G?” Sidney said, a little uncertainly, and Zhenya remembered that he was expected to contribute something to this conversation.

“Guys are cool,” he said. “Phil say, good for him. We toast after you left.”

“Oh, great,” Sidney said, laughing, and pulled his shirt on, thank God. “I’ll never hear the end of it now, eh?”

“No, those guys, they don’t care,” Zhenya said. “Young guys, sex is like new for them, still exciting, maybe they chirp a little, but it’s not too much because, you know, they look up at you.”

“Look up to me,” Sidney said, stepping into his pants. “Do they really?”

Zhenya rolled his eyes, making a big production out of it, dropping his head back and sighing with exasperation.

“Okay, I take it you thought that was a dumb question,” Sidney said.

“They all have Sidney Crosby poster in bedrooms, look at every night, dream of play in NHL with best player,” Zhenya said.

“None of them are that young,” Sidney said, frowning a little like he was taking Zhenya’s teasing seriously and doing the mental math.

“Go home, Sid,” Zhenya said. He was about to hit the limit of what he could tolerate in terms of Sidney being adorable.

Sidney laughed and said, “Okay, okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He bent to pick up his bag and added, “Actually, do you want to come over later?”

“Why, you bored?” Zhenya asked, because Sidney was nothing if not predictable. The only times Sidney invited him over were when he was injured or sick or otherwise not playing, and desperate for a distraction.

Yes, okay, I’m really fucking bored,” Sidney said. “Sully doesn’t want me to play until Saturday, and I’m going nuts. I’m trying not to leave the house alone too much because everybody wants to tell me what they think about me coming out. So I just sit at home and feel my brain ooze out of my ears.”

“We go out together,” Zhenya offered. “Go shop, go downtown.”

Sidney made a face. “No, let’s just—you should come over for dinner, we can watch a movie or something.”

He knew he should say no, but he didn’t want to; and anyway, it would seem weird for him to turn down the invitation. “Okay,” he said. “What time?”

He went over to Sidney’s a little after 6:00. Sidney was waiting for him in the mud room, wearing an old pair of sweatpants and no socks. His hair looked soft and rumpled, like maybe he had taken a nap.

“Hey,” Sidney said. “I was just about to start on dinner. What do you think about grilling out?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said fervently. All men enjoyed cooking things with fire.

Sidney led him into the kitchen and handed him a zucchini. “Slice this,” he said.

Zhenya was happy enough to be put to work. Sidney was a capable if unimaginative cook, infinitely better in the kitchen than Zhenya, who ate at the rink as much as possible and otherwise survived on things like eggs and sandwiches that required minimal preparation. He could handle chopping vegetables, though.

He finished with the zucchini, and then the eggplant Sidney tossed to him. Sidney was doing something to a package of chicken breasts. Zhenya peered over Sidney’s shoulder, which proved uninformative, and then, in a fit of temporary insanity, indulged himself by curling one hand around Sidney’s hip, just where he had seen the bruises. The tips of his fingers slid beneath the hem of Sidney’s shirt and brushed against bare skin.

He was rewarded by Sidney drawing in a breath and going still, for just a moment. Zhenya had jerked off earlier, pre-emptively, but the feeling of Sidney’s soft skin beneath his fingertips could have gotten him going again without too much trouble.

After that one moment, Sidney shook Zhenya off and said, “Make yourself useful and go start the grill.”

It was a warm evening; they ate out on the deck, talking about their upcoming trip to the White House. As dusk settled, the lights strung overhead turned on. Insects began chirping out in the yard. Sidney had a couple glasses of wine and slowly uncoiled, leaning back in his chair and sprawling out. His feet brushed against Zhenya’s once, twice, probably nothing deliberate but simply the product of two large men sharing a small table.

“Thanks for coming over,” Sidney said. His eyes were crinkled up at the corners, the barest hint of a smile.

“Thanks for feed me,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t stop looking at Sidney’s mouth or the broad span of his shoulders, and he was certain his staring was obvious, but Sidney either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Sidney laughed. “Someone has to, and you can’t go to Gonch’s all the time.”

Zhenya ate the last piece of eggplant instead of dignifying that with a response. Seryozha had put Zhenya on a strict once-a-week dinner schedule, telling him it was time to learn how to fend for himself. It hadn’t really worked; Zhenya just started getting more takeout.

“Stay a while longer,” Sidney said. “We can watch a movie. I’ll let you pick. And I’ve got some of that cognac you like.”

Zhenya needed to stop to torturing himself and go home. “Okay,” he said. “For cognac, I stay.”

+ + +

He was back in the lineup for the game against Detroit. Sidney wasn’t playing that night, and Zhenya was totally unprepared for the sea of signs and rainbow flags that greeted him when they took the ice for warmup.

“It’s like this every night,” Flower told him. “At least this is a home game. Our fans are being mostly supportive. Mostly.”

Okay, mostly; but there weren’t only Penguins fans in the stands, and not all of the signs were positive. Zhenya’s grasp of idiomatic English was shaky, but he spoke fluent locker room; he didn’t need anyone to translate a sign that read, We were right: CINDY SUCKS!

“He’s not even play tonight,” Zhenya said.

“Just wait until Saturday,” Flower said. “Just wait until the first time we play the Flyers.”

Zhenya groaned, and abandoned Flower to skate a few angry laps around the ice, filled with a protective rage that had no outlet. Sidney had known what he was getting into, but that didn’t mean Zhenya had to like it. None of these people had any right to say a fucking thing about Sidney, good or bad. They didn’t know him, but they thought they had some claim to him, and Zhenya wanted to burn the arena to the ground.

The Red Wings steamrolled them, which didn’t help.

Sidney got a concussion in practice a couple of days later. Zhenya knew something was wrong when Sidney wasn’t in the lineup for the game against the Blue Jackets, but he didn’t know for sure what had happened until the following morning, when Flower texted him, Tanger, and Kuni: It’s his head. He says not bad. Don’t tell team yet, testing tomorrow.

Zhenya swore a blue streak and called Flower immediately.

“It’s concussion?” he demanded, when Flower answered.

“I don’t know,” Flower said. “Probably. He’s seeing the doctor on Monday. That’s all I know right now.”

Fuck,” Zhenya said.

“I don’t think it’s too bad,” Flower said. “He told me he’s feeling okay, just some headaches, but he doesn’t want to take any chances.”

That didn’t mean much; Flower wasn’t exactly a reliable source of information when it came to Sidney’s injuries, as Sidney invariably downplayed the severity to keep Flower from worrying. “Season has not even started,” Zhenya said. “How he’s hurt already?”

“Tanger threatened to wrap him in bubble wrap,” Flower said. “Listen, I need to feed my children, but I’ll text you if I hear anything else, okay?”

There was no chance in heaven or hell that Zhenya was going to rely on Flower for updates. He had to spend the afternoon doing a fan event at the arena, but he texted Sidney before he got in his car to head home and invited himself over. I bring dinner, he added.

Okay, Sidney replied, and then, Pizza?

Zhenya frowned at his phone; a request for pizza was a bad sign. Sidney was feeling sorry for himself. But he stopped to pick up two pepperoni pies on his way to Sidney’s house.

The front door was unlocked when he arrived. Sidney was in the den, lying stretched out on the couch with the television on, watching the tail end of the Capitals-Islanders game. He lifted two fingers in greeting when Zhenya appeared in the doorway.

“Should not be watching TV,” Zhenya said sternly.

“It’s okay,” Sidney said. “Didn’t Flower text you? I’m really not feeling too bad. It might not even be a concussion.” But he reached for the remote anyway and turned off the game.

In the sudden silence, the room seemed very small and still. The only light came from a single lamp on the end table, turned down low. Zhenya felt like an idiot. There was no reason for him to be at Sidney’s house right now; none of this was part of their routine. But there he was, and Sidney didn’t seem unhappy to see him.

They ate right there in the den, with the pizza boxes open on the coffee table. Zhenya sat on the floor, leaning back against the couch, so Sidney didn’t have to get up. They didn’t talk while they ate. There were rules about pizza.

Sidney packed away six slices and settled down again with a sigh. “Thanks for coming over,” he said. “And for the pizza.”

Zhenya was still busy stuffing his face, and didn’t respond.

“I’m not worried,” Sidney said. “I’m just going to take it one day at a time.”

“I’m not reporter, Sid,” Zhenya said. “It’s okay if you say you worry.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Sidney said. “Or at all. Don’t make me fine you.”

Zhenya took what he promised himself would be his final slice and flipped the lid of the box shut. He was curious to see what else Sidney would say while Zhenya was still under the veil of pizza silence. The dim light and the quiet made it seem like a time for sharing secrets.

Sidney sighed again. “Have you talked to Ovi lately? What do you think about how the Caps have looked in the preseason?”

Zhenya rolled his eyes. He should have known.

“Don’t answer that,” Sidney said. He was quiet for a minute. Zhenya ate his way down to the crust. He would finish eating and go home. He still wasn’t sure why he had come. Then Sidney said, “I think coming out might have been a mistake.”

Christ in heaven. Zhenya hastily swallowed his last bite and said, “Why you say that?”

“You aren’t allowed to talk,” Sidney said.

“Pizza is done,” Zhenya said. He very much wanted to turn around and look at Sidney’s face, but he had a feeling Sidney would clam up if he did. “Tell me why you say.”

“I underestimated, uh. How much I would hate it,” Sidney said at last. “Having people know about me.”

Zhenya made an encouraging noise and shifted a little on the floor. His ass was going numb.

“Every time I leave the house, people look at me,” Sidney said. “And they know.”

The nature of his objections still wasn’t entirely clear to Zhenya, but he knew Sidney well enough to fill in the blanks. “It’s big change. You private, like to keep private. Don’t like people talk about you except hockey.”

“Yeah, maybe I should have kept my fucking mouth shut,” Sidney said.

Zhenya was dying to know, and he might never have a better chance at getting Sidney to talk to him. “Why you did?”

He had worked through the logic of Sidney’s timing. Sidney had won basically every award and competition it was possible for a hockey player to win; his position in the league and with the team was ironclad. The Penguins’ roster had changed only minimally over the summer, so most of the guys in the room already knew and liked him. Coming out would never have been uncomplicated or fun, but Sidney had chosen his moment well. But Zhenya couldn’t figure out why Sidney had done it, and he didn’t know why he cared so much, but he did care. He wanted to know.

He listened to Sidney breathing in and out. “Well,” Sidney said after a minute. “Do you know, nobody on the team has asked me that.”

Unsurprising; Sidney was easily spooked when it came to discussing his feelings. Everyone except for Flower had long since given up. Zhenya waited.

“There were a couple of reasons,” Sidney said. “Taylor was a big part of it, actually. She had this friend at Northeastern, a gay guy, and I guess this kid played hockey when he was younger, and apparently he was pretty good. But he quit playing when he was a teenager, because, well. I’m sure you can imagine.”

Zhenya nodded grimly. He didn’t have to imagine.

“Anyway,” Sidney continued, “Taylor started bugging me about it, like, how important it is for gay kids to be able to picture themselves succeeding at stuff. I got pretty mad at her, to be honest. I never felt like I owed people anything. I never wanted to be a—an icon, or whatever. I just wanted to play hockey. But Taylor wouldn’t let up, she kept sending me articles, and after a while I started to take it sort of seriously. Don’t get me wrong, I was still really on the fence about it. I talked to my parents about it a lot, and Pat, and the You Can Play guys, and I talked to Mario, and I really thought about it a lot, for more than a year.”

“What’s other reason?” Zhenya asked.

“I got caught,” Sidney said. “I did something stupid, I was careless, and there were—pictures. This happened last winter. We managed to keep it quiet, but after that I felt like I was living on borrowed time. I figured, if someone was going to out me, I might as well do it first, you know? And do it on my own terms. I couldn’t handle doing it during the season, but after we won the Cup again, I felt like there would never be a better time.”

“Oh, Sid,” Zhenya said. He could only imagine the helplessness and terror that Sidney must have felt, with the threat of being outed hanging over his head.

“Yeah, I won’t lie, it was pretty terrible,” Sidney said. “But that’s why I came out. I’m not sure I would have done it otherwise, even with Taylor being a huge pain in my ass. Well, I thought maybe after I retired, but certainly not while I was still playing—I mean, my God, can you imagine the media attention?” He sounded very dry. “I wish I didn’t have to say that. I wish I could say I did it for selfless reasons, but really I did it because I was scared.”

“You still do it,” Zhenya said. “Maybe doesn’t matter why. You go on stage, say things about be a role model, make hockey for everyone. It’s okay you’re not perfect, not—not saint. You still do.”

“Maybe,” Sidney said, sounding unconvinced. “I don’t know, maybe it will help a few kids.”

There were many things Zhenya could say, but only one thing that he really wanted to. What Sidney had told him was an intimacy, the kind of thing a person didn’t share lightly. Zhenya wanted to… not return the favor, exactly. More like show Sidney that he understood he had been told something secret and valuable. But there would be no taking it back; once he said it, Sidney would always know.

“Geno?” Sidney asked, his voice soft.

Zhenya stared at the blank screen of the television. He could see Sidney’s reflection, dim and distorted: the shape of his body on the couch, the pale smudge of his face turned toward Zhenya. “It’s help me,” Zhenya said. His heart thundered in his chest. “If I’m a kid.”

He heard Sidney draw in a sharp breath. “You mean—Geno.”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. He shrugged awkwardly. He had never told anyone before, not his family, not his closest friends. Nobody knew about him. But now Sidney knew.

“But—you date women,” Sidney said.

Unbelievable. “Yes, I like both, Sid,” Zhenya said.

“I didn’t know,” Sidney said. Zhenya heard him shifting on the couch, and watched in the television as Sidney turned onto his side. After a moment, he felt Sidney’s fingers brush against the back of his neck. “You never—I didn’t know.”

Zhenya closed his eyes. Sidney’s hand slid into his hair, combing through the messy waves.

“Does anybody know?” Sidney asked.

“No,” Zhenya said. His throat felt tight. “When I read your email—first I think, you very stupid. But also very brave. And I wish I—” He broke off, not sure how to say it in any language.

Sidney’s nails scratched gently against his scalp, and Zhenya fought a shiver. “It’s different for me,” Sidney said. “It’s legal in Canada, for one thing. I could even get married, if I wanted to.”

Zhenya shrugged again, careful not to dislodge Sidney’s hand. It was true, but what was there to say?

“Thanks for telling me,” Sidney said. “I really didn’t—I had no idea.”

“Well, I’m never know about you,” Zhenya said, because evidently he was still bent out of shape about that.

“You’re right,” Sidney said. His fingers stilled for a moment, and then he shifted his hand to stroke the rim of Zhenya’s ear, setting off sparks along Zhenya’s spine. “I guess I didn’t want you to know. If I never told you, I could still—this is embarrassing.”

“I don’t laugh,” Zhenya said, afraid to move or breathe.

“I always had this—fantasy,” Sidney said. “Like, a daydream. Never really serious, but. I would think about it sometimes. That I would tell you, and—you would want me.” His hand slid down Zhenya’s neck and lifted away. “Pretty stupid, eh?”

It was almost exactly what had in fact happened. Zhenya turned to face the couch, folding his legs beneath him. Sidney looked—the lamplight made his eyes look very dark, and his hair was soft and curling a little toward his forehead.

“Hey,” Sidney said quietly, the barest exhalation of a word.

Zhenya leaned in and pressed his lips to Sidney’s cheek, close to the corner of his mouth. Sidney’s skin was prickly with faint stubble. Zhenya lingered there, breathing, and then shifted half a centimeter and kissed Sidney again.

Sidney made a low noise and tilted his head to bring their mouths together.

Their lips touched in a dry, careful kiss. Zhenya pulled back after a moment to check the expression on Sidney’s face. Sidney was looking right back at him. As Zhenya watched, Sidney’s tongue flickered out to dampen his lower lip.

Zhenya forgot every reason why this was a terrible idea and leaned in again. Sidney wrapped his hand around the nape of Zhenya’s neck and kissed him, slow and thorough and not at all hesitant. His mouth was soft and wet and Zhenya lost track of himself entirely, sinking down into the sensations of Sidney kissing him and stroking his thumb against the side of Zhenya’s throat.

“Geno,” Sidney murmured, when Zhenya pulled back to press wet kisses along his jaw. “Are you—”

“I go home soon,” Zhenya said. As much as he wanted to stay and find out what Sidney would let him get away with, Sidney needed to rest. “You sleep. No more TV.”

“It’s still early,” Sidney said. “You could stay for a while.” He licked his lips and tried to pull Zhenya in again, which was completely underhanded and unfair; there was no way he didn’t know what he looked like, sprawled on the couch with his mouth red from kissing.

“No,” Zhenya said, but he kissed Sidney again anyway before he left.


2. Sidney

Zhenya woke early from a restless sleep and spent some time wandering aimlessly around his house, trying to decide if he should feel smug or terrified. Was he really the type of asshole who would gamble with an important personal and professional relationship because he wanted to get his dick wet? The answer was a clear yes. He kept ricocheting between elation and nausea, and eventually he got so fed up with the emotional whiplash that he drove to the rink earlier than he had planned, just to give himself something to do.

He checked his phone after practice, hoping for a message from Sidney; but he only had messages from Max, about a mutual friend’s grandmother, and from his friend Alyosha in Moscow, about some carnival he had attended.

I’ll send flowers, he said to Max, and to Alyosha, Send me pictures of the lion or I won’t believe you. And then he texted Sidney: Sorry about head, because Sully had made the announcement to the team that morning. He added a few random emojis for the pleasure of imagining Sidney squinting at his phone in confusion.

Sidney had kissed him.

Well, Zhenya had kissed him first; but Sidney had kissed him back. Sidney had put his hand in Zhenya’s hair and admitted to being interested in him, certainly sexually and perhaps romantically, and for—how long? A while. Always, Sidney had said. Maybe years.

Zhenya was interested in Sidney, certainly sexually and perhaps romantically, and had been for about a week. They weren’t exactly on even footing. He had the feeling that he had failed to grasp something very obvious and was scrambling to catch up. It reminded him uncomfortably of his final year in school before he dropped out, when he was playing hockey all the time and had largely given up.

Sidney texted him that evening just as Zhenya was beginning to think about dinner: I have leftovers, if you want to come over.

Be there 20 min, Zhenya replied, and went upstairs to put on some real pants.

Sidney had left the garage door open for him. Zhenya went inside and followed the lights and sounds to the kitchen, where Sidney was standing by the stove, balancing with one foot resting on top of the other, a wooden spoon in his hand. He was in his lying-around clothes, soft pants and a hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, the same Sidney Zhenya had known for a decade, but also someone wholly new.

“Hey, Sid,” Zhenya said.

Sidney turned and smiled at him. “Hi. I’ve got—Nathalie brought me some of that stew you like.” He looked uncertain, and Zhenya wanted to go to him and take him in his arms and reassure him; but he didn’t know if Sidney had invited him over for more kissing or to let him down easy.

“How is head?” Zhenya asked.

“Okay,” Sidney said, shrugging. “I felt pretty good for most of the day.”

“But not now,” Zhenya said, well-acquainted with Sidney’s carefully edited half-truths.

Sidney wobbled his hand from side to side. “A little bit of a headache. It’s not too bad.” He turned off the burner and said, “Don’t give me that look. I’ve already got Flower and Kuni crawling up my ass about this. I can handle reheating some leftovers.”

Right: heaven forbid anyone worry. But Sidney was probably doing enough worrying for ten people, and wanted reassurance that he would be okay. “Probably you don’t have concussion,” Zhenya said. “Only pretend, so you can have nice vacation. Get lazy over summer.”

“I’m not pretending,” Sidney said, but he was trying not to smile.

They ate at the weird booth in the kitchen that Sidney referred to as a ‘breakfast nook.’ Sidney talked at length about his yard service, which was such typical boring Sidney behavior that Zhenya was certain Sidney intended it as a message: they were going to pretend nothing had happened. Fine. It was for the best. Honey was sweet, but that bee might sting.

But when they were finished, after Sidney put their bowls in the dishwasher, he sat down again and said, “I guess we should talk.” And then he sat there and stared at Zhenya, obviously hoping that Zhenya would crack first.

Two could play that game. “Don’t know how to say in English,” Zhenya said.

Sidney started laughing. “You’re a fucking asshole, you know that?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said, because he admittedly was, but at least he wasn’t a spineless worm like Sidney, inviting men over for dinner and then trying to trap them into emotionally fraught conversations.

“Fine,” Sidney said. He pressed his toes against Zhenya’s shins beneath the table. “I know we need to talk about it, but. I don’t want to right now.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said. He was happy enough to table the subject for the time being. He couldn’t even identify everything he was feeling, much less have a conversation about it.

“Okay,” Sidney said. He sucked his lower lip into his mouth. When he released it again after a moment, it was red and wet and horrifically appealing. “We’ll talk about it. But right now I just really want to kiss you again.”

Zhenya was unequivocally on board with that plan.

They made out on the couch in the den for a long time, Sidney sprawled on top of Zhenya and kissing him over and over, deep and wet and messy. Zhenya worked his hands beneath the waistband of Sidney’s sweats and groped Sidney’s bare ass to his heart’s content. It was a fantastic ass, and it felt just as good as it looked.

Sidney pulled back at last, breathing hard. “Shit,” he said. “Geno, we should—we need to stop soon, or I’m, uh. I’m going to lose it.”

“Good.” Zhenya used his grip on Sidney’s ass to grind their hips together. They were both hard, and had been for a while. Zhenya was a little bit light-headed with how much it turned him on.

Sidney made a pained noise and dropped his head to Zhenya’s shoulder. “No, not tonight,” he said. He pressed his mouth to Zhenya’s ear and added, low and dirty, “But I’m definitely going to jerk off after you go home.”

Sid,” Zhenya choked out. He had somehow failed to anticipate that Sidney would be a pricktease.

“I’ve got a concussion, remember?” Sidney said, and sucked a slow kiss against Zhenya’s throat.

It took another ten minutes and every atom of Zhenya’s willpower for them to disentangle. Sidney’s hair stuck up in uneven tufts, and his mouth was full and slick from kissing. He sat blinking on the couch, listing a little to one side, and palmed his erection through his pants. He was a wet dream come to life; Zhenya stood there with his shoes in one hand and stared.

“Go home,” Sidney said, smiling. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You practice?” Zhenya asked.

Sidney shook his head. “Skating on my own. But I’ll be around.” His hand flexed. “Now beat it so I can, uh, beat it.”

Jesus Christ. Zhenya went out to his car in a red-hot daze. He hadn’t been wrong about liking men.

+ + +

He got a text message from Sasha the day before the Capitals game: We’re still on for dinner tonight?

Yes, I look forward to purchasing you the most expensive steak dinner in Pittsburgh, Zhenya replied. They had decided that Zhenya still owed Sasha for knocking the Capitals out of the playoffs the season before.

Good, I’ll bring Kuzya and Dima, then, Sasha said.

“What’s funny?” Horny asked, nudging him.

“Ovechkin,” Zhenya said. “He’s very attach to baby Russians on team. Like mama duck. Take them everywhere.” He was maybe stretching the truth a little, and neither of the babies was really a baby, but Sasha had a big head and deserved any rumors Zhenya started about him.

Across the locker room, Sidney glanced up and smiled at him. Zhenya winked, and watched in delight as Sidney smiled harder and dropped his gaze.

He had forgotten how nice this was: the earliest parts, the flirting and the lingering gazes, the excitement and anticipation. Earlier, during practice, Sidney had knocked their elbows together and said, “Come over later?” as if there were any possibility that Zhenya would say no.

Unfortunately, he had in fact had to say no. “Dinner with Russians,” he said, trying to convey through his facial expression exactly how sorry he was to have plans.

“Well,” Sidney had said, glancing down and then up through his eyelashes, “maybe after that.”

Zhenya was on cloud nine. Sidney kept sending him text messages, little nothings about his garbage disposal and a new kind of cheese Tanger brought him, and each one had Zhenya beaming foolishly at his phone. He was fucked.

Dinner turned into a boisterous affair, which wasn’t at all surprising. Sasha hadn’t been joking about bringing Kuzya and Dima, and Zhenya had invited Max and Seryozha, and they drank enough that Zhenya was glad he had taken a cab downtown. Kuzya told a series of very old Vovochka jokes which everyone had heard many times, and worse, he kept fumbling the punchlines. Drinking was the only way to get through.

“Don’t forget that you’re playing a game tomorrow,” Seryozha said, and Zhenya rolled his eyes; a little bit of vodka early in the evening would hardly do him in.

Still, when they wrapped things up—before ten, like responsible adults—Zhenya was feeling loose enough to text Sidney: You awake?

He was fishing; Sidney liked his sleep, but he never went to bed this early unless he was deathly ill. His phone buzzed when he was halfway home: Yeah. Come over.

“Sorry, new address,” Zhenya told the cab driver, and directed him to Sidney’s house.

Sidney met him at the door wearing nothing but a pair of pajama pants, slung low enough on his hips that Zhenya could tell he hadn’t bothered with underwear. “You look nice,” Sidney said, hooking his fingers in Zhenya’s belt loops and reeling him in.

Zhenya had been struck dumb by the sight of that much bare skin on display, but what he had in mind didn’t require much talking. He bent his head to meet Sidney halfway in a heated kiss.

Sidney pulled back almost immediately and made a face. “You’ve been drinking? We have a game tomorrow.”

“Yes, dinner with Russians!” Zhenya said, unable to believe that Sidney was giving him shit about this. He had never once in his life been hungover for a game. “I tell you this! We drink vodka, have good time, go to sleep early.”

“Well,” Sidney said. He licked his lips and looked Zhenya up and down; evidently all was forgiven. “Not too early.” He took Zhenya’s hand in his and gave him a look that could have melted steel. “Come on.”

Sidney took him upstairs. Zhenya had never been in Sidney’s bedroom before, and he would have given just about anything for five uninterrupted minutes to rummage nosily through Sidney’s nightstands and closet, but at the moment he was far more interested in the way Sidney yanked the covers off the bed, pushed Zhenya down, and climbed on top.

“You aren’t too drunk, are you?” Sidney asked, hovering above Zhenya on his hands and knees, warm and half-naked and much too far away.

“My God,” Zhenya burst out, “if I’m ever too drunk to get it up for you, I’ll be ashamed to call myself a man.”

Sidney squinted at him. “What?”

No, not too drunk, come here,” Zhenya said, in English this time, and wrapped his arms around Sidney’s shoulders to pull him down.

Kissing Sidney was becoming wonderfully familiar: the taste of his mouth, the way he liked to suck on Zhenya’s tongue. Sidney settled the full solid weight of his body on top of Zhenya, crushing him down into the mattress. He was heavy, and Zhenya was surprised by how much he liked it.

He ran his hands over Sidney’s broad back, feeling the thick muscle along Sidney’s spine. Sidney didn’t care what his body looked like as long as it performed the way he wanted, and he kept his body fat higher than some of the guys on the team because he said it helped his energy levels as the season progressed. But underneath that slight soft layer he was rock solid. His back, his ass

Sidney drew back, laughing, as Zhenya gripped a double handful and squeezed. “You’re kind of obsessed with my ass, G.”

Wasn’t everyone? “I like all parts,” Zhenya said. “Chest, thighs—”

“Yeah, yeah, head, shoulders, knees, and toes,” Sidney said. He sat up, very cruelly removing his mouth from reach, and rolled his hips. “What about that part?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. He seized Sidney’s hips and guided him to repeat the motion. He felt like he was melting into the bed. Sidney was a demon. Nobody should kiss like that, nobody should have skin that soft and smooth, or eyes that dark. It was unearthly. Zhenya wanted to touch and taste every centimeter of Sidney’s body.

“Okay,” Sidney said. He scooted a little way down Zhenya’s thighs and got his hands on Zhenya’s belt buckle. “Can I?” he asked, raising his eyebrows, and Zhenya had the glorious realization that Sidney wasn’t going to rile him up and send him home again, that this was actually happening.

“Yes,” he said again, mouth dry, and tugged at the waistband of Sid’s pajama pants. “You take off, I want—”

“Yeah, okay,” Sidney said, and there was a mad scramble while they both stripped, laughing and thrashing around on the bed. Zhenya wrestled Sidney’s pajama pants down to his knees and then stopped and stared, completely undone by the sight of Sidney lying in the rumpled sheets, his face and chest flushed pink, and his cock lying hard and thick and pink against his abdomen.

“Geno, come on,” Sidney said, and Zhenya forced himself back into motion and yanked Sidney’s pants the rest of the way off.

He didn’t know where to start. Everything about Sidney was new to him, and Zhenya was feeling the pressure, suddenly. His ego wouldn’t let him deliver anything but a top-notch performance. Sidney was too important. He didn’t want to fuck this up.

He was ready to bluster through it and get his hands on Sidney’s—something—but Sidney sat up and wrapped his arms around Zhenya’s neck, and kissed his cheek. “Hey,” Sidney said. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. No pressure.”

“I’m never do before,” Zhenya admitted. If he had to make a fool of himself, at least it was with Sidney, who had already seen him at his worst—furious, puking, heartsick—and seemed to like him anyway.

Sidney laughed softly and gave him another kiss. “Yeah, I sort of figured that out.” He lay back, drawing Zhenya down with him. “Just kiss me for a while, okay?”

Kissing was easy. Sidney was very warm, and his mouth was soft and yielding. He spread his legs and cradled Zhenya’s hips with his thighs, and that was—fuck, that was his dick, and Zhenya felt his own flagging erection take a renewed interest in the way Sidney squirmed around beneath him.

Sidney grinned against Zhenya’s mouth and flexed his hips up in a dirty grind. The hot friction of skin on skin was unbearably good. Sidney was unbearably smug, sort of chuckling to himself and grabbing at Zhenya’s back, and Zhenya’s nerves fell to the wayside as his competitive nature got the best of him. He wanted to take Sidney to pieces.

He nipped sharply at Sidney’s bottom lip. “What’s funny?”

“You’re making a lot of noise,” Sidney said, still grinning. “Are you always this loud? Because we’ve barely gotten started.”

“You don’t like?” Zhenya asked, incredulous.

Sidney’s eyes darkened. “I didn’t say that.”

Zhenya couldn’t understand how he had missed this, how he had ever thought of Sidney as sexless. Well, Sidney was good at being bland and polite, but underneath his public face was this greedy smirking breathtaking creature, and Zhenya felt his world tilting sideways to a new axis.

He kissed his way down Sidney’s neck, delighting in the way Sidney dug his heels into the small of Zhenya’s back and tugged at his hair. Then he rolled off to the side and took in the whole sturdy span of Sidney’s body. He stroked a hand along Sidney’s hip and listened to Sidney draw in a sharp breath.

“Are you, uh,” Sidney said.

“Shh,” Zhenya said. He pressed himself close against Sidney’s side and let his hand wander: up the soft inside of Sidney’s arm, down the middle of Sidney’s chest, tracing the crease of Sidney’s hip. Sidney watched him, biting his lip but not interfering, and Zhenya had to lean in and kiss him, running his tongue along the indentations in Sidney’s lip.

Beneath his palm, Sidney’s belly rose and fell with rapid, shallow breaths. Zhenya wanted everything, he wanted to touch Sidney everywhere, he wanted to make Sidney fall apart. He wanted to watch Sidney come.

He slid his hand down to palm Sidney’s cock, and Sidney arched into the touch, his mouth falling open.

There it was: Zhenya was touching another man’s dick.

The sky didn’t fall. Sidney’s dick felt more or less like his own, a different shape and size, but the same texture and heat. Zhenya squeezed gently, and Sidney shuddered and drew one knee up, planting his foot on the bed and pushing up into Zhenya’s hand.

“Feels good?” Zhenya murmured against Sidney’s ear.

“You know it does,” Sidney said, and turned his head to kiss Zhenya’s mouth.

Zhenya experimented for a few minutes, teasing his fingers over the crown of Sidney’s cock and stroking along the shaft, cupping Sidney’s balls. Sidney was quiet, chewing on his lip and watching Zhenya’s face, but his flush deepened and his breath came shallow, and his cock leaked pre-come over Zhenya’s fingers.

He got serious about it at last, tightening his grip and working Sidney over. He didn’t know anything about sex with men, but he was an expert at jacking off, and he touched Sidney the way he would touch himself, watching Sidney closely to see if he liked it. Sidney didn’t give him much in the way of feedback. He was quiet and still, and he turned his face against Zhenya’s neck, his eyelashes fluttering against Zhenya’s skin.

“Sid, it’s okay?” Zhenya asked, totally in the dark, and Sidney let out a long sigh and came all over Zhenya’s hand.

Holy shit.

He stroked Sidney through his orgasm and kissed his sweaty hairline. After a few moments, Sidney looked up and smiled at him, sweetly dazed. “It was pretty okay,” he said, and then laughed at Zhenya’s expression and added, “Shut up, you know it was good. You’re already unbearable, I’m just trying to keep your ego in check.”

Zhenya didn’t think any of this was a laughing matter. He raised his hand to his mouth and licked a bit of Sidney’s come from his knuckles. It was bitter, but otherwise not bad.

“Jesus,” Sidney said, and he hooked a leg around Zhenya’s waist and rolled them, easy as anything. He was still flushed and breathing hard from his orgasm, and Zhenya had never, not once in his life, wanted someone with this degree of desperation.

“That was so good, it felt so good,” Sidney said, and he was kissing his way down Zhenya’s chest, settling between Zhenya’s legs with his unbelievable wet mouth, and then he was wrapping his hand around the base of Zhenya’s dick and licking his lips and bending his head to take Zhenya in his mouth.

“Oh, God,” Zhenya said, and prayed he wouldn’t embarrass himself.

Sidney sucked cock like he was hoping someone would give him a medal. It started off messy and only got messier, absurdly wet and hot and good. Sidney’s mouth made slick noises every time he went down. He took Zhenya in deep, backed off, tried again, and then pulled off to prod at the hinge of his jaw and said, “Don’t look so pleased with yourself, bigger isn’t always better.”

“Yes,” Zhenya said incoherently. If Sidney wanted his dick to be smaller, he would make it smaller; he would do anything to get Sidney’s mouth on him again.

“You can pull my hair a little bit,” Sidney said, “I like it,” and with that devastating revelation went down again and put his soft wet mouth all over Zhenya’s dick, sucking hard, and Zhenya had reached his limit. He tugged at Sidney’s hair, maybe not so gently, and said, in what he hoped was English, “I’m going to—Sid—”

Sidney made a noise in his throat and sucked harder, which Zhenya took as permission to hold Sidney down and come in his mouth.

Sidney swallowed, because of course he did.

“Who created you?” Zhenya asked. He cupped Sidney’s jaw in his hands and stroked his thumb across Sidney’s shiny mouth. “You can’t be human.”

Sidney laughed a little and kissed Zhenya’s hip. “What are you saying?”

“Only silly thing,” Zhenya said in English. “Come here, come,” and he pulled Sidney up to lie on top of him and kissed the taste of his own come out of Sidney’s mouth.

Sidney tolerated being held for a few minutes before he started squirming in Zhenya’s grip. Zhenya released him, and Sidney sat up and braced himself with both hands on Zhenya’s chest. He gazed down at Zhenya for long enough that Zhenya started to feel uncomfortable. He didn’t know what Sidney was searching for in his face, or what he might find there.

“Stay the night,” Sidney said at last. “I’ll drive you home in the morning before skate.”

Zhenya hesitated. Things with Sidney had the potential to get serious fast, and he didn’t want to fall into the trap of playing house before they even had a conversation about what they were doing. He had made that mistake a couple of times in his early twenties, and both times it had ended poorly.

Something in Sidney’s expression shuttered. It was agonizing to see. “You don’t have to,” Sidney said. “I’m just offering.”

Zhenya squeezed Sidney’s hips. “Sid, I sleep here, it’s too serious or too, uh, too easy, you know? Maybe you meet girl at club, tell her sleep over, make breakfast in morning, say goodbye, that’s all. Or maybe you spend night with—with boyfriend, and it’s like serious. I’m try to be careful with you, do right way.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. “I think I get it.” He hesitated for a moment, and then he bent over and kissed Zhenya’s cheek. “You can sleep in one of the guest rooms, then, if you want. So you don’t have to call a cab.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said, relieved that Sidney had understood his garbled explanation, and gave Sidney another squeeze before he went into the bathroom to clean up.

+ + +

Sidney made him breakfast in the morning, scrambled eggs and toast and sliced apples. There was no coffee, because Sidney was a heathen who didn’t drink coffee, and the only tea Zhenya could find in his cabinets had a picture of a sleeping bear on the box and was three years past its expiration date. Zhenya hadn’t realized tea could expire.

“Caffeine is basically a drug,” Sidney said, when Zhenya gave up on his rummaging and sat down at the ‘nook.’ “You can just go cold turkey.”

“What,” Zhenya said flatly.

“Oh,” Sidney said, and grinned. “Sorry. Cold turkey is when you quit something suddenly. Come on, you’ve heard people say that before.”

He probably had, but he let a lot of things wash over him without trying too hard to understand. But Sidney was good about defining words, and he never made Zhenya feel stupid. “You’re good at explain,” he said. “Otherwise maybe I say yes, okay, cold turkey, for sure.”

Sidney laughed. “You’re sounding pretty Canadian there, G. No, I know what it’s like, I spent my first year in Rimouski feeling like the dumbest person alive, and the more French I learned the more I felt like I didn’t know anything at all. Like, I could hold a conversation about the weather, but I still couldn’t really express myself.”

The story of Zhenya’s entire fucking life. “Team should learn Russian. Then you all know I’m smartest.”

“I’ll suggest it to Jim,” Sidney said, smiling, and Zhenya leaned across the table and kissed him, just because.

“Oh,” Sidney said, pink and pleased.

There was no turning away from it now. Zhenya was going to follow this rabbit hole as far down as it went.

Sidney’s concussion kept him out of the lineup for another two weeks. He insisted he was fine, mostly, really, Geno, it’s just headaches—and fine meant he was bored, and bored meant he wanted company, and the end result was that Zhenya was at his house whenever he could swing it. They played six games in ten nights, and two of those were away games; but all of Zhenya’s spare time was spent in Sidney’s bed.

Sidney walked him through a series of sexual firsts like he was checking items off a list. He coached Zhenya through giving his first blowjob, Zhenya on his knees in the den with Sidney splayed on the couch, petting Zhenya’s hair and giving him increasingly mind-melting instructions. “Don’t try to take too much,” Sidney told him, “just use your hand for the rest of it,” and “Suck on the—yeah,” and “Can I—oh, oh.” Zhenya was drooling everywhere, his jaw ached, and his cock throbbed between his legs. He liked everything about it. He kept his gaze on Sidney’s face as much as he could, and he got to watch Sidney’s eyes close and then squeeze shut. When Sidney came, he even managed to swallow most of it. And what didn’t make it into his mouth, Sidney carefully gathered up with his thumb and fed to Zhenya a bit at a time.

They didn’t talk about what they were doing. Zhenya tried several times, but Sidney brushed him off, and finally, in a bout of emotional honesty that surprised them both, said, “I’ve spent the last six months talking to everyone about my feelings, and I’m tired of it. I don’t want to talk about my feelings anymore. This is going really well, and I want to just enjoy it and not have to spend a lot of time thinking about how I feel.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said after a moment.

Sidney opened his mouth and closed it, and said, “I—sorry. You’re right. We should probably talk about it.”

Right, because Zhenya was definitely going to force the conversation now. “You think is going well?”

“Oh,” Sidney said, and turned a little pink around the edges. Christ, Zhenya couldn’t get enough of him. “Well—yes?”

Zhenya had to kiss him, and that was the end of talking for a while.

A few days later, after the team returned from Montreal, Sidney paused during some very enjoyable naked kissing and said, “What do you think about fucking me?”

Zhenya thought yes, Zhenya thought absolutely. “Good,” he croaked out.

“Good,” Sidney said, hair all messed up, smiling, and produced lube and a condom from his nightstand. He got himself arranged the way he wanted, two pillows stacked up beneath his hips, and spread his legs.

He was a vision. Zhenya ran his palms up the insides of Sidney’s thighs and watched Sidney’s cock twitch. He hooked a hand behind Sidney’s knee and pushed his leg up, baring his little pink hole, and Zhenya had to press his thumb there, to feel the tender blood-hot skin.

Sidney exhaled. “Go slow,” he said, “and use a lot of lube. You’ll want to use your fingers—”

“Yes, I know,” Zhenya said, amused. “It’s not first time for me.” One of his ex-girlfriends had really liked it, and Zhenya had certainly enjoyed the hell out of himself every time. He couldn’t imagine it would be all that different with Sidney.

“When did you… Oh,” Sidney said, looking a little embarrassed, like it was totally unremarkable for him to part his thighs like that and show Zhenya everything, but vague references to Zhenya having anal sex with women were simply a bridge too far.

Zhenya uncapped the lube and coated his fingers. The lube was thicker than he liked and a little sticky, but this was Sidney’s show and he had to assume Sidney knew what he was doing. “Okay?”

“Yeah, come on,” Sidney said.

Sidney was quiet as Zhenya worked two careful fingers into his ass, but Zhenya had learned to expect that Sidney would be essentially silent even up until he came. He instead watched Sidney’s face for cues, but he didn’t necessarily know what it meant when Sidney’s eyebrows drew together, or when his mouth twitched upward at one corner. Sidney was impossible to read during sex and it was stressing Zhenya out. It was like fucking the Mona Lisa.

“What you like?” he asked, drawing his fingers out almost all the way and tugging gently at the rim.

“Well, um,” Sidney said, and shifted his hips slightly. “There’s a spot—try curling your fingers like this,” he said, and lifted his hand to demonstrate. Zhenya pushed in again and did as Sidney had directed, but Sidney shook his head and said, “No, that’s—pull out a little, maybe—”

“Like this?” Zhenya asked, and tried again.

“I think—oh!” Sidney said. He reached down to grab at Zhenya’s wrist. “Right there, do that again.”

“Yes?” Zhenya asked, delighted, and did it again.

Sidney liked it. He let out a breath every time Zhenya thrust his fingers in just so, and after a few minutes he reached down to palm at his dick. Zhenya got so caught up in watching for small signs of pleasure to roll across Sidney’s face that he completely forgot about the endgame until Sidney said, “Okay, I think that’s good.”

Right. Zhenya pulled out his fingers and rolled on the condom and kissed Sidney thoroughly. Sidney smiled against his mouth and ran his hands along Zhenya’s back, and Zhenya was still kissing him when he guided his cock into the perfect hot clutch of Sidney’s ass.

He went slowly. All joking aside, he knew that bigger really wasn’t always better. Sidney wrapped his legs around Zhenya’s waist and clung to his shoulders, not really pulling him in but not stopping him, either.

“Okay?” Zhenya asked, once he was all the way in. He got his knees beneath him and sat back on his heels to survey the territory. Sidney’s dick had softened up a little, but his face was relaxed; he didn’t look like he was in pain. “Sid, it’s too much?”

“No, it’s okay,” Sidney said. He wrinkled his nose at Zhenya and smiled. “You’re a lot to take, that’s all. Just go slow.”

Zhenya wasn’t sure whether to feel smug or apologetic. “Yes, I go slow,” he said, and curled his hands around Sidney’s hips, tugging him down that last bare centimeter.

He stayed where he was, on his knees. The position limited his range of motion, which maybe wasn’t a bad thing. He experimented with a few shallow thrusts. Sidney stretched his arms above his head and braced against the headboard, and that—was really a sight, Sidney with his back arched and his legs spread wide, and Zhenya’s dick sinking into his stretched hole.

“Yeah, do it,” Sidney said, and Zhenya was still skeptical, but Sidney felt too good for him to hold out forever.

But as he rolled his hips, slow and shallow, Sidney came unglued. He went red, a flush that began in his cheeks and spread down to his chest. His cock fattened up again and started leaking onto his belly, and he bit his lip and turned his head from side to side. Zhenya watched in amazement, not sure what he was doing to produce this reaction but unwilling to vary his rhythm at all and risk wiping that dazed blissed-out look from Sidney’s face.

“Don’t stop,” Sidney said, after a time, and reached down to take himself in hand.

Zhenya liked to think he was pretty good at sex. He’d had a fair amount of it over the years, with a good number of partners. He could usually keep his cool no matter what was going on. But nothing had prepared him for Sidney touching himself and squirming around on Zhenya’s dick.

“Sid,” Zhenya said, amazed.

Sidney arched his back, his face all screwed up, and he said, “Oh, God,” and came all over his fist and heaving belly.

Zhenya halted, giving Sidney time to shudder through it. He stroked a hand along Sidney’s quivering thigh and waited for Sidney to open his eyes and stretch and say, “Keep going, I like it.”

Sidney was too much for him. Zhenya was only a man. He had been holding off, so focused on Sidney’s pleasure that he forgot about his own, but now, given permission, he realized how close he was to the edge. He dropped down on top of Sidney with a groan and slid in deep, burying himself to the hilt. Sidney hooked his ankles around the backs of Zhenya’s thighs and reached down to grab Zhenya’s ass, pulling him in tighter.

“God, just like that,” Sidney said.

Zhenya felt himself losing it, gut-punched by the heat and strength and yielding of Sidney beneath him, the small sighs Sidney was making now, like his orgasm had uncapped all the noises he had been holding inside. It was far too much. Zhenya felt hot and overwhelmed and unprepared. He gave a few hard powerful thrusts, his hips smacking into the solid resistance of Sidney’s body, and he buried his face against Sidney’s neck and let go.

“Whew,” Sidney said, a few minutes later. “That was better than it usually is.”

Zhenya sat up, one hand holding the condom in place, and stared at him. That didn’t sound like a ringing endorsement.

“What?” Sidney asked, grinning.

“How you say? Small praise,” Zhenya said. He climbed off the bed and went into the bathroom, a little annoyed with Sidney. Even if it wasn’t the best ever, Sidney could at least pretend.

“Faint praise,” Sidney called after him. “Come on, Geno, are you mad at me?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. He dropped the condom in the trash and washed his hands. His face in the mirror was blotchy and sullen. He knew he was being ridiculous, but he didn’t care. He had thought it went really well. Sidney could be such a dick. He said whatever was on his mind and didn’t spare a thought for how it might make anyone else feel.

“Geno,” Sidney said, and he was in the doorway, gripping his own shoulder with one hand. “Come on, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“No?” Zhenya asked. He cut off the tap and gave Sidney a dark look in the mirror. “How you mean?”

Sidney sighed. “Look, I prefer topping, okay? Bottoming is fine, I mean, it feels good. It just—isn’t easy. I have to really focus on it to get off. It was easier with you than it usually is. That’s all I meant.”

Zhenya experienced a swift, visceral image of Sidney on top of him, fucking him, laboring between Zhenya’s thighs, and put a hand on the vanity to steady himself. “You like?”

“What, topping?” Sidney asked. His expression was changing, shifting from contrition to a sly dark interest that Zhenya really liked to see. “Yeah. I like it a lot.”

“Why you say to fuck you, then?” Zhenya asked. “We can do other way.”

Sidney rolled his eyes. “Really? Have you even fingered yourself before? You sure didn’t know about my prostate. I’m not really convinced you’re ready to jump right in to taking it up the ass.”

Zhenya scowled, freshly piqued. Maybe insulting your bed partners was a weird Canadian mating ritual.

“Hey, c’mere,” Sidney said, and when Zhenya didn’t move, stepped into the bathroom and settled his hands on Zhenya’s hips and pressed his face against Zhenya’s back. “Look, I really enjoyed that, okay? And I’ll fuck you if you’re interested, but I think you should try it on your own first. It’ll be easier for me to make it good if you know what makes it good.”

“Yes, fine,” Zhenya said, still a little irritated, but then Sidney started kissing along his shoulder and Zhenya had to turn and pull Sidney against him and kiss him, and it turned out he wasn’t too old to go twice in one day.

+ + +

The team flew out to Nashville a couple of days after he and Sidney fucked. Sidney didn’t travel with them, which gave Zhenya some time and space to think about things—but mostly what he thought about was how out of it Sidney got during sex, like he was drunk on the way Zhenya made him feel, and how loose and relaxed he was afterward, content to snuggle in close, at least for a few minutes, and let Zhenya stroke his back.

“All right there, Geno?” Kuni asked him.

Zhenya re-entered his body with a jolt. He was on the bus; they were traveling to the hotel from the airport. Kuni was staring at him from across the aisle, kind of smiling but also looking kind of concerned. Sidney had texted him a picture that morning, a rare selfie: his bare torso reflected in his bathroom mirror, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth, and Zhenya’s phone was burning a hole in his pocket.

“Yes, it’s fine,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t imagine what expression was sketched across his face. “I’m only think about game.”

He went to dinner with Haggy and Phil, and afterward went back to his hotel room to take care of his sex homework. He had been putting it off for a few days, largely because he was still disgruntled. Fingering someone else was fun and sexy, but he didn’t have much interest in doing it to himself. It seemed kind of boring. He wanted Sidney to do it for him, but Sidney had made it clear that wasn’t happening.

Zhenya stripped and settled on the bed with the small bottle of mineral oil he kept in his toiletry kit for masturbation purposes. He slicked his fingers and held one knee against his chest and reached down to push one finger into his ass.

There: he had done it. It felt fine. He would tell Sidney, and then—

He sighed, and pulled his finger out. He was being petulant. He wasn’t even aroused. Sidney had asked him to do this, and Zhenya needed to do it in good faith.

He wiped his hand clean with a tissue and started over. He cupped his soft cock and trailed his fingers along the shaft, a light tease, and thought about the sex he’d had with Sidney the night before, after the Penguins beat the Sharks. Sidney had been on top of him, their lubed-up dicks sliding together, and Sidney had even gotten a little noisy toward the end, thrusting his cock against Zhenya’s hip and groaning, kissing Zhenya messily. Sidney came first, and then he sat up and slotted Zhenya’s dick between his legs and ground down until Zhenya held him in place and came all over his own belly. It had been very hot and very satisfying, and Zhenya was fully hard now, remembering it.

He slicked his fingers again and pulled his leg up to his chest, and reached down to stroke at his hole. It felt—really good, and he circled his fingertips and felt waves of warm pleasure roll through him. Whenever he did this to someone else, he was so focused on getting inside; he had never thought a simple touch could feel so good.

But it did, and he spent long minutes just rubbing at himself gently, breathing hard and wondering how he had missed out on this for so long.

When he felt ready, he slid a finger inside. Being turned on made all the difference: it was a hot thrilling glide, intensely pleasurable, and Zhenya drew that finger out and pushed back in with two, his jaw dropping open at the way his body made room.

“Oh, God,” he heard himself say.

He worked his fingers in and out in a blind haze of lust, not totally sure what he was doing but too caught up in sensation to care very much about technique. He was soft and melting open, his balls drawn up tight. After a while he remembered that spot Sidney had directed him to, and he tried to find it in himself, probing cautiously, but there was nothing; he couldn’t find it. He pulled his fingers out, frustrated, and shoved a pillow under his hips, the way Sidney had done it, and pressed in again, and curled his fingers; and this time he hit something that made him jerk hard and cry out, his cock dribbling a hot smear of pre-come.

Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus. He moved his fingers again, in exactly that same way, and felt his thighs tremble. His body was a white-hot arc. He thrust hard against that spot, again and again, and let go of his leg to tug frantically at his cock, feeling the tension in his groin and belly that meant he was going to come soon. The sensations were so intense that he wasn’t even sure it felt good, but it did, it must have. His face was hot, his spine was arching, and he squeezed rhythmically around his own fingers and came so hard he felt like he was being turned inside out.

He came back to himself slowly. He pulled his fingers out, wincing a little at the way it felt now, and examined the thick splatters of come on his belly. Well—Jesus. He grabbed a handful of tissues and mopped up a little.

He reached over to snag his phone from the nightstand. Sexy pictures were tacky, but he wanted to shake Sidney up. He rested his right hand on his thigh, his shiny fingers turned upward and catching the light, and took a picture of that, and sent it to Sidney. Then he went into the bathroom to wash his hands.

His phone rang a few minutes later. Zhenya settled back against the pillows and grinned to see Sidney’s name on the screen.

“Did you just sext me?” Sidney demanded.

This was going to be delicious. “What is sext?” Zhenya asked innocently.

“You know what that means,” Sidney said, although he didn’t sound totally certain. “You sent me that—were you jerking off?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “And also, with fingers, like you say.”

Sidney made a soft broken noise. “Did you like it?”

“Mm, I like a lot,” Zhenya said. “It’s feel very good.” He paused a beat, letting that sink in, and added, “I come so hard.”

Sidney made another noise, even better than the first. “Tell me what you did.” His voice was deeper than usual.

Phone sex was not something Zhenya had ever imagined Sidney indulging in, but he was completely in favor. “I’m lie on my back,” he said. “Hold knee up and touch myself, just outside at first, until I need more. At first it’s not so good, but then I use pillow, and it’s better.”

“Shit,” Sidney muttered. “Did you touch your dick?”

“Yes, for finish,” Zhenya said. “Almost I don’t need, it’s so good just from fingers.”

“You’re going to drive me crazy,” Sidney said.

Good, Zhenya thought. “You’re home? Where?”

“I’m in the den,” Sidney said. He sounded a little breathless, and if Zhenya were ten years younger, he would be getting hard again, just from listening to Sidney get turned on. “I’m watching the Blackhawks and the Blue Jackets.”

“What you’re wearing?” Zhenya asked. It was a cliché, but he really wanted to know.

“T-shirt and track pants,” Sidney said. “And—no underwear.”

Of course not. “You’re hard?”

“Yeah,” Sidney said. “You can’t expect me to listen to you talk about how you came with your fingers up your ass and not, uh. Be really into it.”

Sidney was definitely going to fuck him, probably as soon as Zhenya got back from Nashville, and he looked forward to coming his brains out. “Take your cock out,” Zhenya said.

“Okay,” Sidney said unsteadily.

“If I’m there,” Zhenya said, “I go on my knees, take you in my hand. You’re wet, so I taste it, lick the head.”

“Oh, God,” Sidney groaned. “Do you—Geno—”

“You touch yourself?” Zhenya asked. He closed his eyes. He could picture Sidney lying on the couch, the waistband of his pants tucked beneath his balls, his cock hard and thick in his fist, the foreskin still snug over the head until Sidney eased it down.

“Yeah,” Sidney said. “I’m—will you tell me more? About how it felt, when you—”

“I’m think about you,” Zhenya said. “Wish you’re here, wish it’s your fingers. Think about your mouth, think about your cock in me, you hold me down and put it in me.”

“I will,” Sidney said, ragged. “If you like it, if you want me to, I’ll do it, I—I like it so much, Geno, and you’re so—you make those noises, and I’ve been—I can’t stop thinking about it, what you’ll be like when I—when I—”

“Sid,” Zhenya murmured. “I’m already addicted to you. Do you have any idea? It’s already so good, and we’re still getting used to each other. I’m a little worried about how much I like being with you. I didn’t know it would be like this.” But he was cheating; he was supposed to be getting Sidney off, not indulging himself with pointless confessions. He switched back to English. “You’re close? You want my mouth?”

“Geno,” Sidney cried. “I’m so close, I’m—I—”

“Yes, come now,” Zhenya said, low in Sidney’s ear, and Sidney let out of one his soft long sighs and Zhenya knew he was doing just as Zhenya had told him to.

“Wow,” Sidney said, after a minute.

Zhenya grinned helplessly. Sidney was just so… Zhenya didn’t even know what word to use. “It’s good? You like?”

“I always like it,” Sidney said, evidently determined to ruin Zhenya. “It’s been—yeah. With you. It’s good. But you should go to sleep now, I guess. You’ve got a game tomorrow.”

“Earlier here,” Zhenya said. He wanted to keep Sidney on the phone a while longer. “How is head?”

“Uh, well,” Sidney said. He drew in a breath but didn’t say anything. Zhenya waited. “I had a little bit of a headache, earlier,” Sidney said finally. “But it’s okay this evening.”

“Sid,” Zhenya said.

“Please don’t,” Sidney said. “I’m trying really hard not to worry about it.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said gently. “Sorry, Sid.”

“You’re a good distraction,” Sidney said, and Zhenya covered his eyes with one hand, because he knew, he got it, but Sidney didn’t need to say it. But then Sidney said, “Sorry, that came out wrong. I don’t mean—fuck. I don’t know how to say what I mean. We’re doing this, and I also happen to have a concussion, and you’re good at taking my mind off it. But it’s not like I’m going to stop with you once I’m better.”

“No?” Zhenya asked, warmed despite himself, and amused by Sidney’s fumbling.

“No,” Sidney said. “Or I mean, I wasn’t planning to. But if you think we should stop—”

“No,” Zhenya said. “I don’t think.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. “Well. Good luck tomorrow. I guess I’ll see you when you get back.”

“Bye, Sid,” Zhenya said, smiling hard, hoping it hadn’t crept into his voice.

“Bye,” Sidney said, and hung up.

Zhenya dropped his phone on the bed and pulled a pillow over his face, overwhelmed by his ten thousand conflicting emotions. What he felt most, and most strongly, was a foolish, giddy kind of joy.

+ + +

It was a while before he got what he wanted. There was the game, and the late-night flight back to Pittsburgh, and the team Halloween party, and then Sidney at practice on Monday, taking contact and visibly thrilled about it. Zhenya watched him laughing and doing trick shots and knew his two-week sex fugue was drawing to a close.

Sidney at the rink wasn’t Zhenya’s. He belonged to the coaching staff and the team. Zhenya sat in the locker room after practice and watched Sidney talk to the press, polished to a glossy sheen. He had first known Sidney as a baby-faced teenager, and watched him transform from an awkward, giggling boy into a careful man, who was rarely caught off-guard and seemed fully at home in his body and how he liked things done. But Zhenya thought, watching him, that maybe there were three different versions of Sidney: the media Sidney, and the Sidney for friends and the team, but also a secret, at-home Sidney, the Sidney he was by himself, someone Zhenya had only caught glimpses of but was desperate to know better. That third Sidney was where the awkward boy had gone, not erased but lovingly hidden away. Zhenya got it. He was fiercely protective of his own at-home self, the one who mulled over old hurts and insults and sometimes lay awake at night tormented by his thoughts.

The press scrum went on. He wanted very badly for Sidney to look over at him, and he lingered at his stall, messaging Denis about plans for their father’s birthday. He felt like a sullen teenager, ignored by his crush, and identifying the feeling finally propelled him off the bench and into the showers. He was thirty.

Sidney came in to shower just as Zhenya was leaving. They weren’t alone, but Sidney touched his hand to Zhenya’s bare waist for a brief instant and said, “You busy this afternoon?”

It was way better than any furtive locker room glances. “No,” he said, and Sidney tilted his chin up and smiled and slid on by.

He ate lunch and went home long enough to bring in his mail and text Max and Seryozha about dinner later that week, and then he drove over to Sidney’s house. Sidney came to the door with his hair still damp. He had a half-eaten apple in one hand.

“Hi,” he said, and grabbed Zhenya’s T-shirt with the other hand and pulled him inside.

Zhenya would never pass up an engraved invitation like that. He settled his hands on Sidney’s hips and bent to kiss him. Sidney laughed against his mouth and wrapped an arm around his neck, the apple bumping the bony knob at the top of Zhenya’s spine.

“Mm, hi,” Sidney said again, pressing a kiss to Zhenya’s jaw. “I didn’t expect you until later.”

“You say this afternoon,” Zhenya said. “If you’re busy—”

“I’m not busy,” Sidney said. He pulled away and wandered toward the kitchen, and Zhenya followed him helplessly, mesmerized by the way Sidney’s ass looked in his sweats. “I just thought it would take you longer to get over here.”

“No,” Zhenya said. What else did Sidney think he had going on? Sidney was by far the most exciting part of Zhenya’s life at the moment. He leaned in the doorway and watched as Sidney stood over the trashcan to finish the apple. He had no idea what Sidney’s game plan was, but based on that warm reception, he had a feeling he was going to enjoy it.

Sidney dumped the apple core in the trash and gave Zhenya a considering look. “Are you hungry?”

“No, I eat at rink,” Zhenya said, and then belatedly asked, “You play tomorrow?”

Sidney lit up. “Yeah. We were going to see how it went in practice today, and it went well. They cleared me.”

“Great news, Sid,” Zhenya said, his own heart lifting in response to the uncomplicated joy on Sidney’s face. “Hard for you to wait and not play.”

“The fucking worst,” Sidney agreed. “But it’s over now, I mean, knock on wood.”

“We should celebrate,” Zhenya said. “It’s good day.”

Sidney smirked at him. “What did you have in mind?”

There was only one thing on Zhenya’s mind, but when it came down to it, Sidney wouldn’t fuck him. “We have a game tomorrow,” he said. “It’s not a great idea.”

“Why not?” Zhenya demanded. They were both naked, they were hard, Zhenya was ready for it, and Sidney was obstructing.

“You might be a little—sore,” Sidney said.

Zhenya had played through much worse than a sore asshole, and said so, but Sidney wouldn’t be swayed. “We have plenty of time for that,” he said, and gave Zhenya a sly look through his eyelashes. “And anyway, there are other things we can do.”

‘Other things’ meant Sidney lubing up his fingers and working Zhenya over until he was a panting, incoherent mess. Zhenya had fingered himself the afternoon of the Predators game and again after the Halloween party, and he had thought about doing it that morning before practice, but he was running late. It had been consistently great, just as enjoyable as the first time, but it was so much better with Sidney doing it that Zhenya forgot how to talk and could only communicate through a series of moans. Unlike Zhenya, Sidney knew what he was doing, and he quickly found that good spot and rubbed at it firmly until Zhenya yelled.

“You’re doing so well,” Sidney murmured, lying tucked up close beside him, three fingers buried in Zhenya’s ass. “Do you like that?”

“Sid,” Zhenya said, just about the only word he still knew how to say.

“Yeah, you like it a lot,” Sidney said, and a few minutes later, when he wrapped his other hand around Zhenya’s cock, Zhenya came after only a few strokes.

“Jeez,” Sidney said.

Zhenya needed some time for his heartbeat to slow, but once he could move again, he rolled over and scooted down the bed until he could bury his face in Sidney’s crotch. Sidney smelled so good, and the way he sucked in a lungful of air when Zhenya nuzzled his balls was more or less the best thing that had ever happened in Zhenya’s life.

“You’re gonna suck me?” Sidney asked.

“Maybe,” Zhenya said, just to be a dick. Obviously he was going to suck Sidney off.

Sidney’s cock was perfect, just like the rest of him: the perfect size, not too big, and the head round and smooth against Zhenya’s tongue. Zhenya kept it simple, still figuring out how to coordinate his mouth and his hand, and not sure how much he could take without gagging. But Sidney seemed to like it, from the way his thighs tensed and relaxed over and over, like he wanted to thrust but wouldn’t let himself. He kept one gentle hand at the nape of Zhenya’s neck. Toward the end, he flexed his hips very slightly, pushing just the smallest bit into Zhenya’s mouth.

Zhenya swallowed and sat up, wiping his mouth and feeling extremely pleased with himself. Sidney was panting and a little sweaty, his eyes glazed. Zhenya lay down beside him and pulled Sidney into his arms and kissed him, sliding his tongue into Sidney’s mouth, sharing the taste of his come.

Sidney groaned contentedly and put his arms around Zhenya’s neck, letting himself be kissed. They stayed like that for a while, until Zhenya started to feel uncomfortably sticky between the legs and got up for a quick rinse in the shower.

Sidney joined him after a minute, slipping in beneath the spray. Zhenya took the opportunity to hold Sidney against him and get his hands all over Sidney’s ass and kiss his way down Sidney’s neck, and Sidney laughed and said, “Don’t tell me you want to go again.”

“Mm,” Zhenya said. He probably could, given another ten minutes. He kissed the hollow of Sidney’s collarbone. “Let’s go out,” he said impulsively. “Go for dinner.” Like a date.

“Oh,” Sidney said. “I can’t, I’m going to Mario’s tonight.”

Of course he was. There was no reason for Zhenya to feel rejected, but he did, a little. “No problem,” he said. “You bad company. Picky.”

Sidney grinned. “I know what I like, that’s all.” He reached around Zhenya to grab the body wash. “I’ll do you if you do me,” he said, shamelessly flirting, as if Zhenya would ever for any reason turn him down.

All of that was wonderful, and the sex was great and getting better all the time, but Zhenya’s favorite part came afterward, when they went downstairs and Sidney roamed around the kitchen wearing nothing but sweatpants and talking idly about their upcoming road trip. Zhenya leaned against the island and watched Sidney pile an assortment of seemingly random ingredients in a bowl: brown rice, leftover roasted Brussels sprouts, corn and black bean salsa, shredded chicken, some kind of white dressing that was either ranch or tzatziki sauce.

“—interesting to play the Sharks again,” Sidney was saying. He put his concoction in the microwave to reheat. It was probably healthy, but that was the kindest thing Zhenya could say about it.

“We win,” Zhenya predicted. “They still scared from playoffs.”

Sidney laughed. “You think? Maybe they spent all summer getting angry, though.”

“No, Sharks too polite,” Zhenya said. “Very gentle.”

“I’m going to tell Thornton you said that,” Sidney said.

Zhenya scoffed. He wasn’t afraid of anyone with a beard like that. A man’s ability to grow magnificent facial hair was inversely related to his hockey prowess, which explained why Zhenya was so fucking great at hockey.

Sidney bent down to peer into the microwave, like he wanted to keep an eye on the food to make sure things didn’t get out of hand, and Zhenya had hit his limit. He reached out and hauled Sidney in, his hands at Sidney’s waist.

“Oh yeah?” Sidney said, and leaned up to give Zhenya a long, sloppy kiss that made Zhenya want to take him right back upstairs. But Sidney had plans, and Zhenya needed to go home and take care of some of the things he had been neglecting for the past two weeks, like laundry and calling his parents.

“Have fun with Mario,” he said at last, with a final kiss to the corner of Sidney’s mouth.

“Thanks, I’ll tell him you said hi,” Sidney said. He was still standing close, toying with the hem of Zhenya’s T-shirt, and looking up at him with an open contented expression that made Zhenya’s stomach hurt. Maybe this was his favorite part: the way Sidney looked at him when they were alone, and the way Zhenya didn’t have to stop himself from looking right back.

+ + +

He had Max and Seryozha over for dinner on Wednesday, just the three of them. Zhenya ordered food from his favorite Russian restaurant in town, and made a green salad to keep Max from teasing him about never eating vegetables.

Max was fighting with his wife, one of their usual ridiculous fights over something very trivial, and which would end, inevitably, with a return to truly nauseating levels of domestic bliss. Zhenya listened to him complain about it at length and shared long-suffering looks with Seryozha across the table.

“Well, what about you, Zhenya?” Seryozha asked, when Max finally wound down. “You must have a new girlfriend, since you haven’t invited yourself to dinner once since you got back from Toronto.”

“No girlfriend,” Zhenya said. Boyfriend, maybe, if he got his way, but he and Sidney hadn’t had that conversation yet. The best lie was a close cousin to the truth, so he added, “I’ve been at Sid’s a lot. You know how he gets when he isn’t playing.”

“Insufferable,” said Max, who of course had been skating with Sidney a lot while he was out of the lineup.

Zhenya fought a surge of irritation. Sidney was insufferable, but Zhenya didn’t like to hear anyone speak badly of him, not even Max, who knew Sidney well and liked him.

But Seryozha was watching him closely and smiling into his vodka glass. “Careful, Max. Our Zhenya will tear your head off for thinking an unkind thought in Sid’s direction.”

“I’m not that bad,” Zhenya muttered.

“You’re exactly that bad,” Max said.

“Please try not to fight everyone in the league this season,” Seryozha said. “I know that’s a tall order, especially with—well.”

Zhenya scowled. It was true that his baseline protectiveness of Sidney had escalated dramatically since they started seeing each other, but Seryozha wasn’t supposed to know that. “You can’t expect me to look the other way when—”

“Yes, that’s what I expect,” Seryozha said. “It’s what Mike expects, and it’s certainly what Sid expects. Words won’t kill him.”

Maybe not, but they would kill Zhenya. The game against the Panthers the night before had been Sidney’s first game of the season, and Zhenya watched him go from overjoyed to grim as the first period progressed, his jaw set in a hard line each time he approached the faceoff circle. Zhenya hadn’t heard what was said to him, but he could imagine.

“It won’t last,” Max said. “They’ll get it out of their systems before long.”

“It’s cute how optimistic you are,” Zhenya said.

“Don’t be so proud of your pessimism,” Max said, which was unfair. Zhenya was a realist.

He tried to talk to Sidney about it the next time they saw each other, at morning skate before their game against the Islanders; but Sidney didn’t want to hear it.

“It isn’t a big deal,” Sidney said. “People said a lot of shit to me during the World Cup, too.”

That didn’t make Zhenya feel any better at all. “Sid, you should tell team, we stick up for you—”

“Leave it,” Sidney said tightly. He had his media face on. Zhenya had chosen his moment poorly: they were in the locker room, and nobody was really paying attention to them, but Sidney looked so bland that Zhenya knew he wouldn’t be able to pry anything else out of him.

“Okay,” Zhenya said. He gripped Sidney’s shoulder for a moment. Sidney wouldn’t look at him. Fine. Zhenya gave up and went back to his own stall.

“Flower already tried,” Kuni said quietly when Zhenya sat down. “I don’t think he had any luck, either.”

“Stubborn,” Zhenya said.

Kuni shrugged. “It’s Sid.”

They won that night, and Zhenya drove to Sidney’s house uninvited and let himself in through the garage. Sidney had just gotten home and was still in his suit, eating a sandwich in the kitchen. He didn’t look surprised to see Zhenya.

“Want a sandwich?” Sidney asked. The loaf of bread was still out on the counter.

“Okay,” Zhenya said. He leaned against the counter as Sidney made him a ham and cheese sandwich, standing close enough to Sidney that their hips brushed, and tried to think of what he wanted to say.

“I know you want to talk about it,” Sidney said, “but I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said again.

“It wasn’t so bad tonight,” Sidney said. “It was mostly just one guy on the Panthers. And I’m not going to tell you who, so don’t ask.”

“You talking about it,” Zhenya said.

“Oh, shut up,” Sidney said. “Look, it sucks, of course it sucks, but I knew it wasn’t going to be all sunshine and daisies. Did Flower tell you to come over here tonight?”

Zhenya blinked. “What? No.” He was only rarely and tangentially involved in Flower and Tanger’s ongoing attempts to run Sidney’s life.

“Okay,” Sidney said. “Do you want mustard or mayo?”

He didn’t stay long. They were flying out to Philly early in the morning, and Zhenya was too jittery and distracted from the game to do much more than eat his sandwich and then pin Sidney against the counter and kiss him for a while.

“What happens on the road trip?” Sidney asked. He leaned his head against Zhenya’s shoulder and slid his hands into the back pockets of Zhenya’s trousers.

“Maybe we wait,” Zhenya said reluctantly. Sneaking into Sidney’s hotel room sounded very hot but also like a good way to get caught.

“For more than a week?” Sidney said. “That’s a long time, Geno.”

Zhenya grinned, pretty thrilled to hear the plaintive note in Sidney’s voice. “You like my dick so much, feel sad to wait one week? It’s not so long.”

“It seems pretty fucking long,” Sidney grumbled, and squeezed Zhenya’s ass through his pants.

That was how they ended up having phone sex almost every night they were on the West Coast. It was more frustrating than satisfying, Sidney’s low rough voice in his ear. Sidney scored two goals in the game against the Kings, and later that night Zhenya told him exactly how to touch himself, and brought Sidney to the edge twice before finally giving him permission to come.

“Jesus,” Sidney said afterward, breathing hard, and Zhenya’s throbbing erection was the only thing that prevented him from going down the hall and knocking on Sidney’s door.

They usually talked a little, afterward, coming down from it, and that was even more frustrating, in a way: listening to Sidney’s quiet laughter and wishing he were there in Zhenya’s bed, warm and languid and close enough to touch.

The other major challenge of the road trip was trying to figure out how to behave around Sidney in public. Roadies were seen as a prime opportunity for team bonding and were consequently packed full of group meals and evenings out. Zhenya was a handsy guy and had never hesitated to put an arm on the back of Sidney’s chair or squeeze beside him in a booth that maybe wasn’t quite large enough, but now all of those normal behaviors seemed too fraught and, well, possessive. He wondered what it meant that Sidney had let him get away with that for years. Well, he knew what it meant.

He tried to act normal, but it was just impossible. What the fuck was ‘normal’? How much had he looked at Sidney before they started fucking? Had he sat beside him at dinner, or at a different table altogether? He already couldn’t remember, all of their old patterns wiped away by everything that had changed. Zhenya didn’t have any regrets, but it made things a little awkward.

“Are you and Sid fighting?” Olli asked him at dinner in San Jose, after Zhenya had started to move toward the empty seat beside Sidney, paused, reconsidered, told himself he was being stupid, taken another step toward Sidney, and then given up and gone to sit across the room with the children, who had enough liquor on their table that they probably needed an adult.

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “Big fight, very serious. Maybe I ask for trade, you know. I like California, good weather here. Maybe Sharks take me.”

Sheary squinted at him. “I can’t ever tell if you’re joking.”

“He does that thing with his chin,” Rusty said.

“I thought California would be too warm for you,” Wilson said, “what with the whole Siberia thing,” and Zhenya really regretted his decision to sit with these idiots.

“Stupid joke,” he said. “Very old. I hear many times. Not funny.”

“I don’t know, I think we’re kind of funny,” Wilson said, grinning.

Sidney was looking at him from across the room. Was that normal? Had Sidney looked at him like that before? Zhenya was certain he would have noticed Sidney licking his lips like that and glancing coyly aside.

“Are you sure you aren’t fighting?” Olli said doubtfully.

“Don’t worry, Olli,” Rusty said. “Mommy and daddy still love each other.” Then he looked worried, like he wasn’t sure if it was still okay to make jokes like that.

Zhenya reached out for the nearest shot and downed it. This was what he got for never going to church. His mother had been right.

But it was all worth it the next day when Sidney pulled him aside after morning skate and said, “You know, we have the day off tomorrow, after we get back.”

Zhenya stared at him blankly. “Yes?”

“And we don’t have a game the day after,” Sidney said. “So, if you want to…”

It still took a moment for Zhenya to figure out what he was talking about, and then he went hot all over under his gear. “Yes,” he said.

“Okay,” Sidney said, grinning. “Let’s tear it up tonight, eh?”

They shut out the Sharks, 5-0.

+ + +

Zhenya had needed a lot of sleep when he was younger, but these days he was done after six hours, usually, unless he was sick or injured. So even the red-eye flight from California was almost enough for him, and he didn’t bother trying to sleep more once he got home.

But Sidney would be asleep, probably for several hours. Zhenya tried to attend to all of the boring things that needed attending to after being away for a week, but sorting his mail just didn’t hold that much appeal.

Finally, finally, when Zhenya was starting to think about maybe calling Sidney or simply driving over there and ringing the doorbell, Sidney texted him and said, Want to come over? :)

The smiley face blew his mind. Yes, you feed me?

I’ll feed you and then I’ll fuck you, Sidney replied. Come over.

Zhenya found his keys and his wallet and was out of the house in under five minutes.

Sidney came to the door in the same shorts and T-shirt he had probably slept in. His hair was all fluffy. He had very clearly just woken up.

“Hi,” he said, smiling at Zhenya, and gave him a minty-fresh kiss.

“Hi,” Zhenya said, dumbfounded by basically all of this.

“What would you like to eat?” Sidney asked. “I’ve got a bunch of stuff in the freezer.”

Did Sidney seriously think they were going to have lunch first? “Sid,” he said. He slid a hand beneath Sidney’s shirt, palming the small of his back. “Maybe we eat later.”

He watched Sidney’s tongue slide across his lower lip. “Let’s go upstairs.”

It wasn’t easy to kiss and climb the stairs at the same time, but somehow they managed it. Zhenya was hard by the time they made it to the top, and a quick grope assured him that Sidney was, too. Fuck, he was going to have that in him.

He pushed Sidney down onto the bed and got himself naked. Sidney looked incredibly appealing, sprawled out on his elbows with his hair rumpled and his mouth wet and his dick hard. He looked like someone had held him down and had their way with him. Zhenya was about to have his way.

“Fuck,” Sidney said, when Zhenya slid his jeans off, and grabbed himself through his shorts.

Zhenya raised his eyebrows and grinned. A streak of pure wicked mischief prompted him to turn around, bend over, and shove his boxers down, giving Sidney a glimpse of his hole before he straightened up again.

Sidney hissed in air through his teeth. “Quit teasing me and get on the bed.”

Zhenya was going to come in two minutes. He climbed on the bed and shoved up Sidney’s shirt and pulled down his shorts, baring his cock and his belly, the soft vulnerable parts that nobody else got to see. Zhenya rubbed the heel of his hand along the length of Sidney’s dick and Sidney braced his feet on the mattress and pushed up into the touch, swearing.

Zhenya couldn’t resist spending a few blissful minutes sucking Sidney’s dick. He had started to realize that Sidney was so quiet and restrained during sex not because he didn’t like it, but because he thought he liked it too much and was trying not to embarrass himself. Zhenya’s new mission in life was to make Sidney lose it as frequently and messily as possible. And he loved putting his mouth on Sidney’s dick, the way his breath came a little faster and his abs jumped when Zhenya slid a slow hand up his belly.

“Geno,” Sidney said at last, both hands fisted in Zhenya’s hair, and he gave a cautious tug.

Zhenya pulled off and sucked a hickey onto the soft inside of Sidney’s thigh, and then bit down until Sidney squeaked. “I love your cock,” he said, “love to suck you.”

“Yeah, I—I love it too,” Sidney said, a little breathless, “but you need to stop now if you want anything else.”

Zhenya did want, very much, and Sidney knew it. “Okay,” he said. He moved up the bed far enough to give Sidney a kiss. Sidney’s mouth opened for him. His hand trailed along Zhenya’s spine and down to splay across Zhenya’s ass.

“Fuck me,” Zhenya said. He brushed his lips against Sidney’s ear. “Keep clothes on.”

Sidney exhaled hard and rolled them, and then tugged at Zhenya’s hips until Zhenya got the picture and turned onto his stomach. “Spread your legs,” Sidney said roughly, and when Zhenya did, “More than that. Pull your knees up, come on.”

Zhenya did it, feeling his face go hot, and liking that slight sharp edge of embarrassment. It was okay to be like this with Sidney, who would never try to humiliate him.

He felt Sidney’s dry thumb stroke over his asshole, and he shuddered and wrapped his arms around the pillow, clutching it against his chest.

Sidney exhaled again. “Okay,” he said.

Sidney opened him up slow, sliding his fingers deep and twisting them, taking his sweet time. He stroked his free hand along Zhenya’s side and down his hip. Zhenya breathed in long shuddering gasps and let himself get as noisy as he wanted; he knew Sidney liked it. He felt good and then great and then not great enough. Sidney was being too slow—maybe not deliberately teasing him, but certainly taking longer than Zhenya wanted. He felt wet and open and hot all over and he wanted Sidney to push his cock in and fuck him.

“Sid,” he said sharply, for about the fourth time, and finally Sidney huffed and said, “Jesus, I hear you, I’m doing it, okay?”

He had expected that they would do it like they had when he fucked Sidney, with him on his back with a pillow beneath him, but instead Sidney urged him onto his side. He heard Sidney fumbling with the condom wrapper and swearing under his breath, and Zhenya grinned and craned his neck around to look at Sidney’s dear grumpy face.

“My hands are slippery,” Sidney said, wrinkling his nose, but he got the condom situation sorted out and spooned up close behind Zhenya, pressing sloppy kisses to the back of Zhenya’s neck. He touched the back of Zhenya’s thigh. “Pull your leg up,” he said, and Zhenya drew his knee toward his chest, making room.

Sidney slid the head of his dick along the crease of Zhenya’s ass, slow firm pressure across Zhenya’s hole and down to his balls and back up. “Tell me if you want me to stop,” Sidney said, and Zhenya arched his back and pushed down and felt himself open slowly around Sidney’s cock.

“Shit, shit,” Sidney said, and grabbed hard at Zhenya’s hip.

It was a lot to take, a lot to feel. Only the first few centimeters were inside him, and it wasn’t really much bigger around than three of his fingers, but he felt split open, and not just physically. He reached back to put his hand on the back of Sidney’s head, needing to touch him.

“Yeah, I know,” Sidney said softly. He kissed Zhenya’s neck once, then again. “Let me know if you need to stop.”

“No,” Zhenya said. “Don’t stop. Don’t—I—”

“Yeah,” Sidney said, sounding just as cracked wide as Zhenya felt, and he moved his hand down to Zhenya’s bent thigh and used his grip as leverage to work his dick inside, one small rocking thrust at a time.

He paused once he was fully seated, and moved his hand from Zhenya’s leg to his waist, curling his arm around Zhenya and holding him close. Zhenya clenched around the hot hard length of Sidney’s dick and reached down to cup his own balls, drawn up tight. He was so turned on. It was a lot but it was so fucking great.

“You’re so loud,” Sidney said appreciatively. “Does it feel good?” He drew out most of the way and pushed back in, a long searing drag, the head pushing at that good spot on the way in.

“Yes,” Zhenya said. He took Sidney’s hand and drew it to his dick, letting Sidney feel how hard he was, and wet at the slit.

Sidney made a harsh noise and set his teeth gently in the nape of Zhenya’s neck and got down to the business of fucking him, slow and hard, each thrust punching long moans out of Zhenya’s belly. Sidney used his hand to work Zhenya’s foreskin over the head of his cock. Zhenya felt like he was being carefully deconstructed into his component parts, a lumpy mass of bone and muscle. Even the fabric of Sidney’s shorts rubbing against the backs of his thighs felt good.

“Okay?” Sidney kept asking. “Geno—”

“Yes, it’s good,” Zhenya managed, and let out a startled gasp as Sidney pushed in just right. He heard himself devolving into Russian, the type of sentimental bullshit he would only let himself say because Sidney didn’t understand any of it.

Sidney was murmuring steadily behind him, but Zhenya was too focused on the molten glow in his belly to pay attention to what he was saying. He reached down to cover Sidney’s hand with his, urging him to stroke Zhenya’s dick a little faster, a little tighter.

He didn’t think he was all that close, but Sidney pushed in again and Zhenya suddenly felt his orgasm cresting. He shouted something wordless and ecstatic and came hard, his asshole clenching repeatedly around Sidney’s cock. Each pulse seemed to make his orgasm go on a little longer. There was nothing he could do but breathe through it.

Sidney kept moving against him in that same shallow steady rhythm, but after a minute it was too much, and Zhenya reached back to put a hand on Sidney’s hip. “Sorry, stop,” he said, hearing his own voice deep and rough.

“Too sensitive?” Sidney asked. He blew out a breath. “Okay, hold on.” He shifted slightly, moving to pull out.

“No, stop,” Zhenya said. “Just—give a minute. Wait.”

“Oh, God, I don’t know if I can,” Sidney said. His hips twitched. “Your ass is amazing, you feel so good, Geno—”

“Wait,” Zhenya said again. “Maybe it’s not too much, then you come in my ass.”

Sidney whined and pressed his face against Zhenya’s neck. Zhenya grinned fiercely. There was nothing he liked more than making Sidney lose his shit.

He waited for his pulse to slow and his breathing to even out. “Okay, try,” he said. “Gentle.”

Sidney rocked his hips very carefully, very gently. It was fine now: not too much.

“Okay, good,” Zhenya said. “You come now,” and Sidney put his hand on Zhenya’s hip, tacky with Zhenya’s come, and slammed into him hard, not careful at all now, until he breathed out softly and went still, trembling where he was pressed all along Zhenya’s back.

Zhenya closed his eyes and wallowed in it, feeling Sidney’s chest rise and fall against him.

“I’m pulling out, okay?” Sidney said after a moment, and dropped a kiss to Zhenya’s shoulder. It didn’t feel great, but it was over quickly. Sidney sat up, and Zhenya rolled onto his back and looked up at him, proudly taking in the flushed bewildered expression on Sidney’s face. He folded his arms beneath his head and stretched. Sidney blinked at him a few times and then climbed off the bed, and Zhenya watched his bare ass as he waddled into the bathroom, the waistband of his shorts tucked down around his thighs.

“Hurry back,” he called.

He felt great. Tender and a little sticky between the legs, but great. He felt even better when Sidney re-appeared, sans condom and clothes, and got back in bed, and snuggled up and rested his head on Zhenya’s chest with a contented sigh.

Zhenya put an arm around him, feeling very smug, and who could blame him? He was good at sex and good at giving Sidney exactly what he wanted.

“How was that?” Sidney asked, a few minutes later.

“Good,” Zhenya said. He gave Sidney a squeeze. “Best. I don’t know how to say. I’m like a lot.”

“I liked it a lot, too,” Sidney said. He pushed up onto one elbow and gazed down at Zhenya, running the fingers of his other hand through Zhenya’s sweaty tangled hair. He got a strange look on his face, and then smiled and shook his head. “How are your lips so chapped all the time?”

Was this seriously what Sidney thought constituted appropriate pillow talk? “Skating,” Zhenya said. “Cold air.”

“Yeah, but—haven’t you ever heard of lip balm?” Sidney asked.

Sidney was so fucking annoying. “You say this to all lovers? Oh, thank you for fuck, sorry you lips so gross, not good for kiss, ew—”

“No, not all of them,” Sidney said, grinning. “Just the hockey players.”

Zhenya narrowed his eyes. It made sense: Sidney didn’t really socialize with anyone who wasn’t either a childhood friend or a hockey player, or both, and anyone in the NHL who ratted Sidney out would be ratting himself out as well. But Zhenya didn’t like the idea that he was just the latest in a long line of Sidney’s hockey-playing hookups. “How many?”

“I’m not telling you,” Sidney said, “and I’m not giving you any names, either. You would try to start shit with all of them.”

He wasn’t wrong. “When this happens?” Zhenya demanded.

“You’re unbelievable,” Sidney said. “Forget I said anything.” He lay back down, and Zhenya could feel his huffiness in every line of his body.

He knew he should apologize, but he was too busy imagining it: Sidney at the Olympics, at Worlds, maybe hooking up with the same guy a few times, maybe playing him during the season and going back to his hotel room after the game.

“Stop thinking about it, you jealous fuck,” Sidney said, but he sounded fond.

Zhenya rolled him onto his back. Sidney was smirking, and he didn’t look too annoyed. Zhenya slung a leg across Sidney’s hips and kissed him, and if Sidney didn’t like his chapped lips, that was too fucking bad. “You don’t need other hockey player now,” Zhenya said. “Only me. I take care of you.”

Sidney’s face did something else that Zhenya couldn’t interpret. “Yeah, okay,” Sidney said. “I know you will,” and he pulled Zhenya down for another kiss.

+ + +

He had known that their pattern would change once Sidney was playing again, and it did, but it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The sex fugue had been fun, but that wasn’t all he wanted from Sidney, and it was good to have Sidney back in the locker room and on the ice. They were still feeling out the new parameters of their relationship, but playing hockey together was the same as always, one of the best and most rewarding parts of Zhenya’s life.

And Sidney was on fire. Even when he didn’t put up any points, he was there grinding away in the corners as always, making ridiculous blind passes and protecting the puck like it was going out of style. Zhenya knew exactly how impatient and bored Sidney had been during his concussion, and he felt incredibly lucky to see Sidney once more doing what he loved most.

They didn’t stop having sex, although the frequency dropped off a little. Sidney had more demands on his time than Zhenya did, way more media obligations and also the demands of his own expectations, more time on the ice and in the weight room, and more hours dedicated to recovery and sleep. Zhenya saw him more frequently at the rink and less frequently at home, but Sidney had him over for dinner a couple of times, and once, very memorably, for some afternoon delight after a boring morning of team meetings. All of it was good, even when they weren’t screwing, even when Sidney fed him leftover lasagna and sent him home. Maybe especially then.

They played Toronto about a week after they got back from California, and had a few days off after that before they went on another roadie. Zhenya was looking forward to asking Sidney to fuck him again. He had decided that he probably slightly preferred being on top, but Sidney liked it better the other way, and Zhenya was happy to indulge him. It wasn’t like he objected to taking it.

“Team’s going out tonight,” Horny said to Zhenya before skate that morning. “You coming?”

“Maybe,” Zhenya said. He didn’t want to commit to anything before he knew what Sidney was planning. He liked jacking off after a game but didn’t always want to have sex, but Sidney was getting to be pretty good at talking him into it.

“You have to,” Horny said. “Whole team already decided, even the old guys.”

Zhenya grunted. “When you decide this? Nobody’s ask me.”

“Maybe you should be on time to skate,” Horny said, grinning.

Everyone was a fucking critic. “Sid says he’ll go?”

“Yeah, Sid too,” Horny said.

Zhenya didn’t care how obvious he was being; everyone already knew Sidney was his favorite. “Okay, I come out,” he said, and Horny grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.

They played a fantastic game against the Leafs, a goal for him and one for Sidney, and everyone was in high spirits as they caravanned to a restaurant downtown. It was one of their usual post-game haunts, a place they had been going for years and through multiple incarnations of the roster, and frankly Zhenya thought the food was pretty mediocre, but it had been a long time since he expected North Americans to have any taste.

They didn’t have a private room, but they were seated up on the second level, toward the back, and the whole group of them was usually intimidating enough that people didn’t come over for autographs, especially if they positioned Sidney facing the wall. Zhenya sat with Phil and Bones and Dales and rationed himself to one glance in Sidney’s direction every ten minutes. It wasn’t easy; Sidney was doing shots with Flower and Tanger and laughing freely, and every time Zhenya heard the sound of it he twitched with the desire to look over. Sidney was generally a happy guy, but liquor made him flushed and loose, and Zhenya wanted to go over there and put his hand on the back of Sidney’s neck and see exactly how quickly he could make that laugh turn into a moan.

It was a dangerous impulse. Zhenya fidgeted with his phone, fighting the urge to text Sidney something really inappropriate, and tried to focus on the conversation at his own table. He’d had a few beers, and Dales was speaking quickly, and that combined with Zhenya’s distraction meant he didn’t have much of an idea about what was going on.

“—asked me if I knew her middle name!” Dales said, and everyone laughed. Zhenya laughed too, even though he had no clue what was funny.

He went downstairs to piss, and then leaned against the wall outside the bathroom and texted Sidney: We leave now, go home? He added an eggplant emoji, which he knew Sidney wouldn’t understand.

He waited a few minutes, but there was a good chance Sidney had his phone muted and wasn’t paying any attention to it. That was fine; Zhenya would see him tomorrow, probably, or the day after.

He passed the bar on his way back upstairs. His gaze skimmed across the cluster of people waiting for the bartender’s attention, then caught: he knew that dark head and that jawline. Sidney was talking to a guy wearing a Pirates shirt, a big guy with big arms and a beard. Not talking: flirting. As Zhenya watched, Sidney laughed and gave the guy a cute sidelong look that Zhenya had most recently seen directed at him, in bed.

Zhenya felt himself flush hot, not with anger but with humiliation. This whole time, the past month and more, when Zhenya had thought they were starting something, Sidney had thought—what? That they were just passing the time?

If had been slightly more sober, he would have gone on upstairs and fought it out with Sidney some other time. But he was just drunk enough that it seemed like a good idea to sidle over to the bar and plaster himself against Sidney’s back, hooking an arm around Sidney’s neck—friendly-like, casual. Sidney tensed, and then relaxed when he glanced back and saw who it was, and then tensed again: busted.

“Sid, team is look for you,” Zhenya said, his mouth pressed to Sidney’s ear, making some pretty aggressive eye contact with the Pirates guy all the while.

Sidney said something that Zhenya couldn’t hear over the noise at the bar. He couldn’t imagine it was anything important. He put his other hand on Sidney’s hip and hooked his fingers in Sidney’s belt loop, and he felt Sidney shiver against him. Zhenya wanted to take him home and wreck him.

The Pirates guy shook his head, smirking, and turned away.

Zhenya waited until he was gone, and then he dug his fingers into Sidney’s hip and said into his ear, “What the fuck, Sid?”

Sidney shook him off and turned to glare at him. He looked a little guilty, but he mostly looked pissed off, which Zhenya hadn’t expected at all. “What the fuck is your problem?” he said, shouting up at Zhenya to be heard.

Zhenya looked away from Sidney’s angry expression and shoved his hands in his pockets. He needed to walk away. Regret was setting in fast. He was acting like an idiot, he was being careless and reckless, and in public. He could easily imagine the headlines: Malkin and Crosby Come to Blows, Penguins Franchise in Ruins!

“Fuck you,” Sidney said, angrier than Zhenya could really account for. He clamped a hand on Zhenya’s arm, fingers digging in hard enough to hurt, and gave him a sharp tug.

“What?” Zhenya said.

“You want to do this, we’re doing it,” Sidney said, and towed Zhenya away from the bar.

Zhenya followed him, unresisting, feeling a little shaky with adrenaline from Sidney yelling at him. Sidney hauled him down the back hallway, past the kitchen and through the fire exit at the rear of the building, out into the patio area behind the restaurant, closed now for the winter.

The cold air hit his overheated face like a slap. It was the middle of November, and they were both in thin dress shirts, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. It was November, and they had been sleeping together for a month, and Sidney had smiled up at that guy like he was thinking about going home with him that night, instead of with Zhenya.

“I don’t know what your fucking problem is,” Sidney said, “but you’ve got to know that wasn’t cool.” He was furious, red-faced and bright-eyed the way he only got on the ice, after a shitty hit or a bad call.

Zhenya felt his own anger sparking to life again in response. “Not cool? When you flirt with this guy—”

“Fuck off, Geno,” Sidney said. “I can flirt with whoever I want to, and you need to get a fucking grip on yourself. You can’t touch me like that in public. I know you’ve got your whole possessive thing going on, but if people see you doing that they’re going to put two and two together real fast, okay?”

Zhenya frowned at him, baffled. “What?” He and Sidney were having two completely different arguments, and he couldn’t keep up. He understood how Sidney’s mind worked roughly 75% of the time, and the other 25% he was lost at sea. He was way out past the breakers now.

“That’s how people get outed,” Sidney said. He looked like he was arguing with a referee, pissed off and righteous. “You need to cool it. We’re fucking, okay, but you’re not my—you don’t have some claim on me. You need to cool it. Christ. I thought you could be a grown-up about this, I didn’t think you would get this upset.”

“How I’m not upset?” Zhenya demanded. He couldn’t even process what Sidney was saying. His stomach ached with a sudden sharp stab of panic, because: what if this was the end of it?

“Come on, Geno. It’s pretty obvious you aren’t serious about this,” Sidney said, and Zhenya could only stare at him in numb disbelief.

“Sid,” he managed, after a moment, shocked by how much and how unexpectedly it hurt. He had thought they were on the same page, but they weren’t even in the same book. “How you can say? How you think I’m not serious?”

“You’re just experimenting,” Sidney said, frowning. He folded his arms and tucked his hands in his armpits. “You never even invite me over. You like the sex, you’re really into—but the novelty’s going to wear off, and then you’re going to stop. And that’s fine, I knew what I was getting into, but it isn’t fair for you to expect me not to look around.”

Zhenya was the biggest idiot in the world, to let Sidney think it was only sex to him, that his heart didn’t flip over in his chest every time Sidney smiled at him. He couldn’t believe how fully they had misunderstood each other.

“Sid,” he said again, and watched as Sidney flinched back a little at the raw sound of his voice. “You’re so important to me. Even before sex. You’re my—how I take big chance with you, if I’m not serious?”

“I—what?” Sidney said, looking a little uncertain for the first time.

“It’s serious for me,” Zhenya said. “It’s not experiment.” Christ, if he’d wanted to experiment, he would have done that when he was a teenager, not waited until he was a grown man with a career and too much to lose; and he certainly wouldn’t be experimenting with Sidney, who was, in all of this, probably the most vital thing that he could lose.

“How was I supposed to know that?” Sidney asked, and he was playing defense now, his shoulders drawing up toward his ears. “I can’t read your fucking mind, Geno. If you want something, you have to tell me. I never know what you’re thinking, it’s like if you think it’s going to be too hard to say in English, you don’t even bother. Or maybe you say it in fucking Russian and then won’t translate it for me.”

Zhenya winced, speared by that direct hit. This was what he got for not forcing Sidney to talk about it. Sidney was no shallow pond; he was Loch Ness, serpent and all.

“I didn’t know,” Sidney said, more quietly. “I can’t read your mind, I—what was I supposed to think?”

“You can let me say,” Zhenya said. “When I try talk to you four times, and you asked me to please not make you talk about feelings.”

“I—that’s fair,” Sidney said. He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked away, and Zhenya couldn’t bear it, he couldn’t stand to see the bewildered misery on Sidney’s face.

“I’m serious,” Zhenya said. “Okay? I want serious with you.”

“Okay,” Sidney said, and exhaled hard. He wouldn’t meet Zhenya’s eyes. “We should go inside. Everyone’s probably wondering where we are.”

Zhenya’s heart dropped like a stone. This couldn’t be the end of it. “Sid, come home with me,” he begged.

Sidney hesitated, and glanced at him finally. He looked as sick as Zhenya felt. It wasn’t much of a comfort. “I want some time to think, and—we’ve both been drinking. But I’ll text you tomorrow, okay? I promise.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said, defeated. It was out of his hands. Sidney had wrung him out like a dishcloth, and there was no fight left in him now.

“Geno,” Sidney said. He hesitated for another moment, and then he stepped forward and folded his arms around Zhenya’s waist in a tentative hug. Zhenya resisted at first, rattled and hurting, but Sidney clung to him and said, “I promise I’ll text you tomorrow,” and Zhenya gave in and buried his face in Sidney’s hair and held him, and prayed that it wouldn’t be the last time.

+ + +

By all rights he should have tossed and turned until dawn, but instead Zhenya passed out hard and slept late. He woke up feeling pretty good, and then remembered what had happened with Sidney and wanted to pull the duvet back over his head and sleep for the rest of his life.

He didn’t; he was a grown-up, mostly, no matter what Sidney thought of him.

There was a message from Sidney waiting for him on his phone: Will you text me when you get up? I want to see you. And then a few emojis: penguin, sushi, football, and finally, crushingly, a heart.

Zhenya read the message a few times, silently mouthing the words to himself. A small hope sprouted in his chest. He imagined Sidney painstakingly scrolling through his phone to find the emojis he wanted, and was totally unable to cope with his subsequent feelings.

He took a picture of himself lying in bed, squinting up at his phone, and sent it to Sidney along with a string of hearts and eggplants. He scrolled up to look at Sidney’s message again, that single perfect heart.

Sidney replied to him right away. I know what the eggplant means, you know.

Zhenya was head over heels for this idiot. You come over?

Okay, Sidney said. Zhenya waited for something else, like some indication of when Sidney planned to show up, but his phone stayed silent. After a few minutes, he rolled out of bed and went into the bathroom to shower.

The doorbell rang when he was working on his second cup of coffee. It was Sidney, of course, standing on Zhenya’s front stoop in the morning light. He looked awful, his face pale except where it was purple beneath his eyes, like maybe he hadn’t slept at all, and Zhenya felt a tender stab of guilt and concern. He shouldn’t have confronted Sidney at the restaurant; Sidney was always at his worst when cornered.

What was done was done. “You eat already?” Zhenya asked. “I have eggs, can make toast.”

“No,” Sidney said, “I—Geno.” He flushed, then, a bright, painful scarlet. “I thought about what you said.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said. His heart began beating very fast.

“If you want something serious,” Sidney said, “I want that, too.”

Heaven help him. Zhenya cupped Sidney’s poor red face in his hands and touched their foreheads together, gently, just resting there for a moment. “My Sid,” he whispered.

Sidney drew in a shaky breath. “Some eggs would be good.”

Zhenya parked Sidney at his kitchen table while he made scrambled eggs and tea, and fried some bread in a pan, because Sidney needed more good things in his life. Every time he glanced over, Sidney looked a little less crimson, a little less freaked out.

“Thanks,” Sidney said, when Zhenya brought him a plate and mug, and Zhenya bent to kiss the top of his head, so full of tender emotions that he didn’t know what to do with himself. He would do anything for this red-faced uncertain Sidney.

They sat together. Sidney ate, and Zhenya drank his coffee, and when he emptied the cup got up to refill it with tea. He wanted a beer, but it was too early for that.

When Sidney finished his food, he pushed the plate away and looked at Zhenya, still a little pink and very serious. “Geno, this is such a bad idea for you. I don’t even understand why you want to do this. We’re going to get caught, and it’s going to ruin your life.”

Zhenya couldn’t think about that. “How we’re get caught? We friends, teammates. Everyone say, oh, so cute, they so close, get along. It’s okay if we spend time.” He reached out and curled his hand around the back of Sidney’s neck. “It’s okay if I’m boyfriend.”

Sidney smiled suddenly, like he couldn’t hold it back. “Boyfriend, huh?”

“It’s what I want,” Zhenya said.

“It’s what I want, too,” Sidney said, and then, “Fuck. I’m terrible at this.” He seemed younger than he usually did, and less confident, and Zhenya knew this was the at-home Sidney he had longed for. “I’ve had a lot of sex. But not, uh. The rest of it, so much.”

Zhenya stared at him, feeling the implications settle in. Sidney was so confident about sex, so obviously experienced, that Zhenya hadn’t really thought about it. But of course it made sense, that Sidney had maybe never had a long-term relationship, and it explained a lot about their fight, and about the past month in general. Sidney just didn’t have any clue what he was doing.

“It’s okay,” Zhenya said. “I know about the rest.”

“I thought you were just experimenting,” Sidney said. “And I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to hear you tell me that it didn’t mean anything to you.”

“First time we kiss, I’m serious then,” he said. There was no universe in which this could ever have been a casual thing for him. He drew in a breath, trying to think of how to say what he needed to. “Sorry I make you think it’s not big deal for me. You’re right, what you say. I’m make assume, but you don’t know, because I don’t say. Sid, it’s big deal, it’s most important to me.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. He gave Zhenya a ruinous shy glance. “Maybe I’ll learn some Russian. Then we’ll be on even footing, eh? You can talk to me in English and I’ll talk to you in Russian, and then we’ll both give up and just communicate through selfies, which is what I know you want anyway.”

Zhenya scooted his chair closer and moved his arm to circle Sidney’s shoulders, and leaned in to kiss Sidney’s cheek. “I like selfie, and Russian.” He kissed Sidney again. “Sorry I don’t ask you for come to my house. When you have concussion, I think maybe it’s good for you to stay home. And then it’s how we do, you know? It’s habit.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. He leaned into Zhenya’s side, solid and warm. After a few minutes, he said, “Your shirt is so ugly.”

Zhenya pulled back to look down at his shirt, affronted. “My shirt is fine! Why you say?”

“It has glitter,” Sidney said, smiling a little. “Is this 2008?”

“How you chirp about my shirt when everything you own is from Penguins?” Zhenya demanded. “You afraid nobody recognize you if you don’t wear Penguins shirt?”

Sidney laughed. “They’re free! I’m being frugal. I like free stuff.”

“Let’s go out,” Zhenya said abruptly, without knowing he was going to say it. “Tonight. We go for dinner. You come home with me and sleep in my bed.” He should have done this the right way from the start, with real dates, so that Sidney couldn’t mistake his intentions.

“I thought you didn’t want to spend the night together,” Sidney said, his laughter still bright in his eyes.

“Yes, when we just start!” Zhenya said. He should have done a lot of things differently, maybe. “I don’t want you to think I’m get too attach,” he admitted. “Afraid I’m scare you off.”

Geno,” Sidney said, smiling, and then smiling harder, until his eyes were all crinkled up.

“I know it’s stupid,” Zhenya said. “Sid! Don’t laugh.”

“I’m not laughing at you,” Sidney said. “I’m laughing because you’re—God, just come here,” and he tangled his hand in Zhenya’s hair and kissed him a few times, until they were both smiling too hard to keep going.

“It’s okay if you are,” Sidney said, when they finally broke apart. “Attached. I’m, uh. I’m getting pretty attached.”

“Good,” Zhenya said fiercely, and drew Sidney back into his arms.

+ + +

He managed to talk Sidney into taking a nap with him, the two of them tangled up in his bed. Zhenya didn’t really sleep. He watched Sidney sleep, the rise and fall of Sidney’s chest, and felt the whole length of his life spinning out before him like a shining strand of thread.

He took Sidney out for dinner that night to a steakhouse downtown. It was a date-night place, not somewhere to go with a friend, but Zhenya didn’t care. Sidney glowed like a lantern in the candlelight, his collared shirt open at the throat, and both of Zhenya’s languages deserted him as he watched Sidney smile at him from across the table.

“We aren’t going to talk about hockey,” Sidney said.

Zhenya took a sip of wine to loosen his dry mouth. “No? What we’re talk about then? You have topic? You make list?”

“You just can’t help yourself, can you,” said Sidney, who was an inveterate list-maker, and hated being teased about it.

“Only tease because it’s sweet,” Zhenya said. “You make list for date? Wear nice shirt, wear nicest pants?”

“Oh, is this a date?” Sidney said. “I don’t think I was informed. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

Zhenya had never stood a chance, and couldn’t respond except to shoot Sidney a look that he hoped conveyed his exact plans for after they went home.

Sidney leaned forward, resting one elbow on the table. “I made a list about you, you know. Last night, when I couldn’t sleep.”

“You make?” Zhenya asked, enchanted. “Can I see?”

“Absolutely not,” Sidney said. He scrunched up his face the way he did when he knew he was being weird but wasn’t going to stop. “It’s important to weigh the pros and cons when you’re considering a major decision.”

“I’m major?” Zhenya asked, a little amused, but also—well, it was major, as much as he wanted to pretend that everything between them was straightforward and easy.

“Yeah, of course you are,” Sidney said. He glanced away, swirling his wine in the glass. “You’re—how did you say it? You were important to me even before the sex.” His mouth tugged into a wry smile. “And I’m really aware of how many things could go wrong.”

“Don’t think about,” Zhenya said. “If, if—how you know? Planet falls into sun tomorrow, we all die.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s real likely,” Sidney said, laughing. “Geno Malkin here with the hot takes.”

Zhenya shrugged. He didn’t want to be lectured about this. He knew what he was risking, and he knew the risk was worth it. “See what happens, okay? We’re careful, be careful with each other. Okay to worry. But I think it’s good.”

“Yeah,” Sidney said. His eyes lingered on Zhenya’s face, the same color and depth as amber. “I think so, too.”

“Yeah?” Zhenya said, watching Sidney watch him.

“Yeah,” Sidney said. “I think it’s going to be really good.” His smile started in his eyes and spread across his face, one of his goofy, whole-hearted grins. Zhenya had to smile, too, and then they were sitting there beaming foolishly at each other, and it wasn’t until the waitress came over to ask them how the food was that Zhenya realized he hadn’t taken a single bite.


3. Love

Sidney was asleep by the time Zhenya got home, a surprisingly small lump on the left side of the bed. Zhenya did his best to be quiet as he undressed and brushed his teeth, but Sidney was a light sleeper, and he stirred and blinked his eyes open as Zhenya slid beneath the covers.

“Hi,” Sidney said softly, smiling at him, barely visible in the darkness.

“Hi,” Zhenya said. He tucked himself in close and gave Sidney a kiss. “Sorry to wake.”

“Did you have fun?” Sidney asked.

“Yes,” Zhenya said. He had gone out with Seryozha and Genya, who was in town for a few weeks. His life increasingly centered around Sidney, a state of affairs he was entirely pleased about, but of course it was nice to speak Russian and drink vodka with his closest friends. He was funny in Russian, quick on his feet, and it was good to feel that way for a change. He had been happy to go out, and he was happy now to come home to Sidney, warm and sleepy and welcoming. “Very fun. Now sleep, I tell you more in morning.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. He kissed Zhenya’s cheek and settled back against the pillow. Zhenya slung an arm across Sidney’s waist and closed his eyes.

In the morning, Sidney made breakfast sandwiches out of English muffins and eggs and ham and cheese. Zhenya sat at the kitchen table and read the news on his phone. Kolya had scored a goal against the Leafs: good. Putin was planning a trip to Kazakhstan: who cared. Third-warmest January on record. Increasing evidence for Trump/Russia allegations. What else was new. Sidney was humming to himself a little, swaying to some unheard music as he stood at the stove, monitoring the eggs.

“Don’t make yolk too hard,” Zhenya said. Sidney liked his eggs over hard, which completely defeated the point of eggs.

“I already did yours,” Sidney said. “Yolk-down on the bread. It’s going to be really soggy. I hope you’re fucking happy.” He turned around to give Zhenya a look that was probably intended to be stern but instead came across as mostly fond.

Zhenya grinned. He was pretty fucking happy.

He drove them to the rink together before morning skate. They didn’t spend every night together, and they didn’t always carpool, but it happened frequently enough that Zhenya was surprised nobody had commented. If anyone had said something to Sidney, he hadn’t mentioned it to Zhenya.

Sidney slumped in the passenger seat, yawning and tapping at his phone. “You’re going to Kuni’s party next week, right?”

“Yes, of course,” Zhenya said. Kuni had agreed to take over Duper’s annual Lonely Hearts Valentine’s Day Party. Hardly anyone on the current roster had a lonely heart, but the name wasn’t going anywhere. Zhenya looked forward to drinking pink punch and eating Maureen’s famous cupcakes, and maybe fooling around after with Sidney, who invariably drank too much punch and got giggly. “What we’re do for Valentine’s Day?”

“Uh, we’re playing the Canucks,” Sidney said.

Zhenya rolled his eyes. “I mean for celebrate, Sid.”

“Nothing?” Sidney said. “It’s not even a real holiday. Do they even have Valentine’s Day in Russia? Why do you care about this?”

Sidney didn’t have a romantic bone in his body. “No? Don’t want flowers, chocolate?”

“Well,” Sidney said, probably thinking about chocolate. “I don’t really care about that stuff, Geno. It doesn’t matter to me. It seems like a waste of money.”

Right, because Sidney was really strapped for cash. “What if I care?” Zhenya demanded. “Send me flowers, take me out, make big fuss—”

“Oh, sure,” Sidney said, laughing. “Two dozen red roses, straight to your door.” He yawned again. “How’s your knee feeling?”

“Little bit sore from practice yesterday,” Zhenya said. “I talk to trainer before skate. I think it’s okay, though.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. “I think it’s normal to be a little sore. You looked like you were walking fine this morning.”

“Thanks, Sid,” Zhenya said quietly. Being injured sucked, and he knew he was hard to deal with when he wasn’t playing, but Sidney’s constant calm support had made all the difference for him, this time around.

“You’ll be back out there soon,” Sidney said. He reached out to squeeze Zhenya’s leg. “Maybe another week, eh?”

“Don’t jinx,” Zhenya said sternly. He still hadn’t figured out how Sidney decided which things to be superstitious about, but injuries didn’t seem to be on that list.

Sure enough, Sidney rolled his eyes and said, “You can’t jinx an injury, Geno, come on.”

“Okay, I’m in lineup for Canucks, otherwise I blame you,” Zhenya said, and switched lanes as he went across the river.

In the parking deck, before they got out of the car, he leaned over and gave Sidney a kiss. “Thanks for breakfast.”

Sidney returned the kiss with interest, and a little bit of tongue. “I hope it was soggy enough.”

“Perfect soggy,” Zhenya said.

Sidney sighed and rested his forehead against Zhenya’s shoulder. “I’m not looking forward to this.”

“I know,” Zhenya said. He slid his hand into Sidney’s hair. The Penguins were holding their You Can Play night, and Sidney had been quietly dreading it for weeks. It was all he’d been asked about after practice the day before. Zhenya had watched his smile grow tight and fixed as he answered question after carefully worded question about what it was like to be a gay man in the NHL. They had gone back to Zhenya’s house afterward and Sidney retreated to the media room with a bowl of ice cream and watched some boring travel show until it was time for dinner.

Sidney drew in a breath, held it for a moment, and then released it.

“I know, Sid,” Zhenya said. “But it’s just today, and then we go on road trip, and your dad’s here.” Then he winced; Sidney’s father was a whole other source of tension, and Zhenya shouldn’t have brought him up.

But Sidney nodded, his forehead rocking against Zhenya’s shoulder. “You’re right. The reporters are all nice about it, I just—don’t have anything else to say.”

“Hey,” Zhenya said. “I tell Jen I’ll do interview tonight. But only at same time as you, so they have to pick.”

“Yeah?” Sidney said. “You would do that?”

“Of course,” Zhenya said. “You worry, not happy, so I try to help.” He waited a beat. “Also, maybe you’re grateful, then you blow me.”

Sidney laughed and shoved at him, and got out of the car.

Zhenya watched the game from the locker room that night, where he could yell in Russian as much and as loudly as he wanted to. The game went to overtime, and then to the shootout, and Johnson denied them three times in a row.

It happened. They couldn’t win every game, and that was what he said to the reporters who swarmed him when Jen let them into the room. He talked about his injury, and the upcoming dads’ trip. When it was all done, he went over to Sidney’s stall and tapped his foot against Sidney’s ankle, his hands carefully tucked in his pockets, and said, “I take you home when you ready.”

Sidney looked sweaty, tired, a little pissed off—nothing out of the ordinary for after a loss. He smiled up at Zhenya easily enough and said, “Give me twenty minutes.”

Sidney was quiet on the ride home, and quiet as they brushed their teeth and hung up their suits. When they climbed into bed, he lay on his back in silent invitation, waiting for Zhenya to tuck himself in close and rest his head on Sidney’s shoulder.

“Thanks for doing those interviews,” Sidney said quietly, stroking his hand down Zhenya’s back.

“It’s okay,” Zhenya said. “Now you owe me.”

He was bullshitting, but Sidney said, “I do. Not just for—Tanger told me I need to quit whining and like, accept my lot in life. I decided to come out, and I have to deal with the consequences. It was kind of harsh, but he’s right. But you’re always on my side, no matter what.”

Zhenya bit back some uncharitable words about Tanger, who probably had not been quite so blunt as Sidney indicated; Sidney had a tendency to interpret things in the worst possible way. “We’re team now, okay?” he said, turning his head to press a kiss to Sidney’s sternum. “Not only on ice. Always.”

“Team,” Sidney said softly, like he was testing the shape of the idea.

Zhenya couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t be hugely incriminating. He kissed Sidney again, and rolled over and turned off the lamp.

+ + +

It was going well. It was going really well, maybe even better than Zhenya had hoped. They were deep enough in that the initial giddy infatuation had faded. They were learning how to be annoyed by each other, and how to be kind during arguments. But mostly it was easy: easy to be with Sidney, easy to care about him more and more as the weeks went by. For all his quirks, Sidney was an uncomplicated person, so even-keeled he was essentially a barge. Zhenya liked that. He’d been through his fair share of dramatic relationships, and it was never worth it. He liked easy.

Sidney was easy. It was the rest of the world that made things so fucking difficult.

They fucked in Sidney’s hotel room in Denver, after beating the Avs. Sidney went out for a late dinner with his father and Nate, and then he came back to the hotel and texted Zhenya: Booty call. ;)

Screwing around during roadies was probably a bad idea, but they had been doing it since December with no problems. Zhenya was a weak man who was incapable of saying no to Sidney, basically ever.

He went down the hall and knocked on Sidney’s door. Sidney answered, flushed and bright-eyed. Three drinks with dinner, Zhenya decided: just enough to make him a little bit careless.

“Hey,” Sidney said. He wasn’t smiling. His gaze fixed on Zhenya’s mouth.

So. It was going to be like that. Zhenya shouldered him out of the way and started unbuttoning his shirt.

Sidney put him face-down on the bed and worked him open, one hand between Zhenya’s legs and the other pushing his head into the pillow, muffling the noises Zhenya could never hold back. “Shh, shh,” Sidney said, “G, you’ve gotta keep quiet,” but he wouldn’t be doing any of this if he didn’t love the way Zhenya was never able to keep quiet at all.

He was expecting Sidney to give it to him hard and fast, and that was exactly how it happened, Sidney draped over his back and kissing his neck and shoulders. “You feel so good,” Sidney whispered, “you’re so hot, I’m so lucky,” and Zhenya moaned long and broken into the pillow, feeling himself boil over.

Sidney came first, just as the rough in and out of his cock was pushing Zhenya past the point of no return. “I’ve got you, hey,” he murmured into Zhenya’s nape, and replaced his dick with his fingers, shoving in hard and just right.

After, when they had cleaned up a little, Sidney settled himself on top of Zhenya with a yawn. It was late, and they had an early flight to Arizona in the morning, but Zhenya wasn’t going to leave until Sidney kicked him out. He reached down and cupped Sidney’s ass, ignoring Sidney’s sleepy laughter. He would never pass up a chance to get his hands on that.

“How was dinner?” he asked, squeezing gently.

“Good,” Sidney said. “My dad’s hung out with Nate before, you know, over the summers. We had a good time.” He wriggled backward into Zhenya’s grasp, and Zhenya smirked and squeezed him again.

“Nate chirp you more about one thousand points?” Zhenya asked, because that had been a hot topic during warmup.

“No, I think he felt bad that it didn’t happen tonight,” Sidney said, smiling against Zhenya’s shoulder.

“Soon,” Zhenya said. “Team makes it happen, okay? Then it’s over and you don’t have to hear about.”

“For sure,” Sidney said. “Soon enough.”

Zhenya held him for a while. He needed to get dressed and go back to his own room. Plenty of guys hung out in each other’s rooms in the evening, but if someone caught him doing the walk of shame the next morning, it would be harder to explain away. But he didn’t want to leave Sidney’s bed.

“Sid,” he said, and sucked in a breath. He was going to say it. He hadn’t known he was going to, but suddenly he wanted to, with a deep-rooted certainty that it was the right choice. “You should tell your dad.”

Sidney went absolutely still. Then he sat up, and stared down at Zhenya, his lips parted. “But you said—”

“I change my mind,” Zhenya said. He moved his hands to Sidney’s hips and held him there, the tight muscular curve where his ass met his thighs. “I’m think about a lot, okay? Since we talk.”

Sidney frowned down at him. “Are you sure about this?”

Yes, if I’m not sure I don’t say,” Zhenya said. He understood Sidney’s hesitation; he had pretty thoroughly rejected the notion when Sidney first floated it.

“I don’t have to tell him it’s you,” Sidney said. “I can just say I’m seeing someone.”

“No, tell him,” Zhenya said. “And mom, and sister.” He rubbed his thumbs over Sidney’s warm soft skin. “It’s good for you, don’t have to hide.”

“Geno,” Sidney breathed. He lay down again and tucked his face against Zhenya’s neck. “I promise they won’t tell anyone. They kept it a secret about me for—well, a long time.”

That had never been Zhenya’s concern, but the truth—that he was afraid Sidney would get tired of him, and wanted to minimize the potential fallout—was too embarrassing to speak aloud.

“When you told them?” he asked. It seemed like something he should already know, but they had never talked about it.

“Oh, gosh. It was when I was at Shattuck,” Sidney said. “I did it over the phone, because I was so scared of how they would react. And it wasn’t great at first, but they got used to the idea pretty quickly. They were mostly worried that it would be hard for me, with playing hockey.”

When he was at Shattuck—so he would have been fifteen. “You know then? You sure?”

“Yeah, I knew… I don’t know.” Sidney shifted against him, settling their bodies together more comfortably. “Always. But it got kind of impossible to ignore after puberty. I didn’t care about girls at all, but I was really into my teammate’s older brother.”

“Yes, you like older man,” Zhenya said, trying very hard not to think about baby-faced teenaged Sidney exploring his sexuality.

“You’re only a year older than me,” Sidney said. “I don’t want to hear it.” He rubbed his face against Zhenya’s neck. “What about you? When did you know?”

“Twelve, maybe thirteen,” Zhenya said. “Friend had dirty pictures. Woman is very hot, nice body, but I’m look at man with her, too, and I think, I want see him, maybe see his cock better, how it looks.”

Sidney laughed quietly, his breath puffing against Zhenya’s skin. “Not his ass? I’m surprised.”

“You think you’re very cute and funny,” Zhenya said. “You’re lucky this is the best sex of my life.”

“You’re in trouble once my Russian gets better,” Sidney said.

Zhenya wasn’t too worried; Sidney’s Russian was abysmal. He slid his hands along Sidney’s spine, going for his ass again.

“Hey,” Sidney said. He turned his head and kissed Zhenya’s jaw. “Thank you. I want my parents to know how happy you’re making me.”

“Sid,” Zhenya said hoarsely.

“It’s just because the sex is so good,” Sidney said, and Zhenya slapped his ass sharply and delighted in the sound of Sidney’s bright shameless laughter.

He wasn’t sure exactly when Sidney had the conversation with his father, but Troy approached him the morning of the Coyotes game, when Zhenya was drinking coffee and checking his email in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for everyone else to get a move on. Troy sat down beside him on the couch, and Zhenya nodded companionably, thinking nothing of it, and then remembered what Troy might have to say to him and choked on his coffee.

Troy didn’t look unsympathetic. “I had a surprising conversation with my son last night,” he said softly. “I have to admit, when he told me he’s been seeing someone, you were not who I expected.”

“It’s surprise for me, too,” said Zhenya, who was still waiting for Sidney to come to his senses.

Troy nodded. He gazed down at his clasped hands for a moment. “Sidney’s a grown man, and he can make his own choices. But a father never stops worrying about his children. Sidney wants a family, I think even more badly than he’s let on. I know you’re in a difficult situation, with your country and all that. And I know you and Sidney haven’t been together for very long, and probably neither of you are thinking about this right now. But I hope you’ll keep his happiness in mind, when the time comes.”

Zhenya resented being lectured like a miscreant child, but he also couldn’t help but approve of anyone who was willing to be so unapologetically protective of Sidney. “I keep in mind,” he said begrudgingly. “I want Sid to be happy, very much.”

“That’s all I ask,” Troy said. “How’s the knee?”

When Sidney materialized a while later, bickering with Flower about something, Zhenya and Troy were having a perfectly civil discussion about the Coyotes. Sidney looked back and forth between the two of them, so comically suspicious that Zhenya had to had a smile behind his coffee cup.

“You two having a good chat?” Sidney asked, eyes narrowed.

“Best,” Zhenya said, smiling. He turned to Troy and said, in Russian, “Your son likes to fuck me until I cry. He’s better at it than he is at hockey.” Then he switched back to English and added, “Difficult to translate. It’s how we say, maybe, thank you for good advice?”

Sidney looked suspicious enough to pop.

Later that night, after a humiliating loss to one of the worst teams in the league, Sidney came to Zhenya’s room and said, “What did you really say to my dad? I know it was something inappropriate.”

That was what he got for dirty-talking to Sidney in Russian; he had picked up most of the swear words. “You be very mad if I say,” he admitted, and couldn’t help laughing at Sidney’s scandalized expression.

+ + +

Kuni’s party began early in the evening, so the guys with small children could have a couple hours of fun before the inevitable bedtime. Zhenya, not currently in possession of any children, small or otherwise, rolled in a little late. He was promptly greeted by the sight of Sidney laughing with Tanger and Catherine in the living room, their son propped on his hip. From the sweet pink flush on Sidney’s face, he was already a few glasses of punch in.

Zhenya screeched to a halt in the doorway. His conversation with Troy was still very much on his mind, and it was impossible not to notice how happy Sidney looked, ducking his head to listen to whatever Alex was saying to him.

“Geno!” Kuni said, swooping in with a glass in each hand. He had a garland of pink crepe paper slung around his neck. “Nice of you to stop by.”

Zhenya plastered a smirk on his face. “Only here for cupcakes. Where they are, kitchen?”

“Why am I not surprised,” Kuni said. He handed Zhenya a glass. “Time’s wasting. You’re at least two drinks behind everyone else here.”

“Everyone drink too fast, not my fault,” Zhenya said.

“You’re an hour late,” Kuni said. “Bottoms up.”

It was good advice. Zhenya drank his punch, ate two cupcakes, drank some more punch, looked at pictures of Muzz’s dog, and hustled Guentzel and Sheary at beer pong.

“Beer pong?” he asked, widening his eyes innocently. “What is ‘pong’?”

“Oh my God,” Phil muttered, grinning.

He mopped the floor with them, and then he went to find Sidney.

There were no small children in sight, now. Sidney was talking to Flower, both of them laughing hard, and Zhenya sidled his way into that conversation with a casual hand on Sidney’s hip to let him know he had company.

“Hey, G,” Sidney said, smiling up at him. “You’ve got something on your face, uh…” He reached up and brushed at Zhenya’s chin, then examined his fingers. “Been hitting those cupcakes pretty hard, eh?”

“Only two,” Zhenya said, “how many you have?”

Sidney smirked at him, his chin tipped up. He was so fucking cute. “You’ve gotta ask nicer than that.”

“Wow,” Flower said, and Zhenya managed to tear his eyes away from Sidney’s face. Flower’s eyebrows were making a break for his hairline.

“Hi, Flower,” Zhenya said belatedly.

“Yes, hello to you, too,” Flower said, and Zhenya winced, because that look boded very poorly for him.

“When did you get here?” Sidney said to Zhenya, oblivious. “I didn’t see you come in. Do you want to split some of that seven-layer dip with me?”

“Yes, can’t eat all by yourself, it goes straight to hips,” Zhenya said, well aware that Flower was watching this like the latest episode of his favorite television show, but completely unable to stop himself.

“That’s why you have to help me,” Sidney said. His gaze dropped to Zhenya’s mouth and stuck there for a moment. “That dip is a two-man job.”

Zhenya was painfully aware of how fully Sidney’s attention had shifted to him, like he had completely forgotten that Flower was standing right there. He caught himself leaning toward Sidney, responding helplessly to the unspoken invitation of Sidney’s body language. From the look on Flower’s face, they weren’t being very subtle about it.

“Okay, I go get dip, bring back,” Zhenya said, and escaped.

The kitchen was, mercifully, empty, aside from a few heart-shaped helium balloons floating in one corner. He fixed a plate with the dip and a heaping pile of chips, and another one with an assortment of chocolate chip cookies, foil-wrapped chocolates, and a cupcake. He knew what Sidney liked.

“So,” Flower said behind him, and Zhenya fought down a groan, which would only make him seem guilty as sin. Well, he was guilty, but Flower didn’t need proof.

“Sid’s flirting with you,” Flower said, his eyes narrowed. “Why is Sid flirting with you?”

Fucking goalies. “I don’t know why you say,” Zhenya said.

“Never mind, I know the answer to that question,” Flower said. “Why are you flirting with Sid?”

“It’s just jokes, Flower,” Zhenya said. “Sid has huge ass, ha ha. Funny.”

“No,” Flower said. “It isn’t. You tease him, yes, but not like that. You don’t look at him like that.” He paused, frowning. “Geno, what’s going on?”

It wouldn’t be so bad, maybe, if the team knew, but Zhenya wasn’t going to blow their cover without discussing it with Sidney first. “You imagine things,” he said. “Don’t think so hard.”

Flower frowned harder. “Be nice to him, okay? Maybe tone it down a little.”

“Okay, Flower,” Zhenya agreed, mostly to end the conversation.

Flower kept staring at him for the next forty-five minutes, until he and Vero finally packed up their adorable children and left. It made Zhenya so uncomfortable that he abandoned his vague plans of luring Sidney into a back room for some canoodling and instead joined the card game in progress in the den. The deck was Valentine’s Day-themed, because Kuni couldn’t control himself.

Sidney came to find him after Flower finally took off. They went out into the quiet foyer together, and Zhenya said, “Come home with me?”

Sidney shook his head. “I can’t. My dad’s just sitting at home by himself, I can’t abandon him for that long. And my mom’s getting in tomorrow morning before practice.” He hesitated. “They want to, uh. Have you over for dinner this week. Or we could go out somewhere. Whatever you like.”

He should have seen it coming. “Dinner,” Zhenya repeated, trying to accustom himself to the idea.

Sidney winced. “Maybe I shouldn’t have brought this up here.”

“It’s fine. Happy to have dinner with parents,” Zhenya said firmly. “See you tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay,” Sidney said, and looked around to make sure they were still alone before he tipped his head back for a kiss.

+ + +

He was justifiably nervous about dinner with Sidney’s parents, but in the end, it was no big deal. He already knew Sidney’s parents to some extent, after so many years, and they were patient when he fumbled his English, as sometimes happened when he was on edge. Troy didn’t say much, but Zhenya had the impression that he was a quiet person in general, content to let his wife and son carry the conversation. And when dinner was over, and Zhenya was taking his leave, Trina hugged him briefly and whispered, “I don’t care what my husband thinks, I think the two of you are good for each other.”

Sidney scored his thousandth point against the Jets on Thursday, a huge relief to everyone. Someone produced a single can of Molson, and Horny bullied Sidney into chugging it before Jen let the media into the dressing room. Zhenya couldn’t tear his eyes away: Sidney’s hair soaked with sweat, his mouth wet with beer.

They flew out to Columbus that same night for a game against the Blue Jackets the next day. Zhenya was desperate for even five minutes alone with Sidney, but Sidney was swarmed by happy teammates on the plane and on the bus to the hotel, and in the hotel lobby, and Zhenya had to wait until Sidney finally laughingly pleaded exhaustion and went up to his room. He gave it ten minutes and then went down the hall to knock on Sidney’s door.

“Took you long enough,” Sidney said, grinning, and pulled him inside.

“Sid, I’m so proud,” Zhenya managed, between kisses. “You play so good tonight—”

“You weren’t too shabby, yourself,” Sidney said. “That pass to me in overtime—”

“One thousand points,” Zhenya said. He held Sidney’s face in his hands and gazed down at him, full of joy and pride and the sheer wonder of playing hockey with Sidney that never wore off.

Sidney started kissing him again, hot and frantic. Zhenya realized with delight that they were probably going to screw around. Sidney loved post-game sex but tried to do the responsible thing and go to bed early if they had a game or travel the next day. Zhenya could never predict when Sidney would decide to throw caution to the wind, but when it did happen, Sidney was all in.

“Where’s lube?” Zhenya asked, and Sidney shoved him down onto the bed and said, “Wait there.”

They were both too impatient for anything fancy. Zhenya pushed Sidney’s thighs open and rubbed off against him, their slicked-up cocks grinding together. Sidney braced his feet on the mattress and arched his back into Zhenya’s thrusts, and Zhenya kissed him until he lost all coordination and had to drop his head to Sidney’s shoulder to stifle his groans.

Later, sweaty and sated, Sidney lay diagonally the wrong way on the bed and draped his legs over Zhenya’s lap. “Jen showed me that video, with all the guys congratulating me,” he said.

Zhenya curled his hands around Sidney’s kneecaps. “Yes? You like my part best?”

“You’re responsible for nine-hundred and ninety-nine of those points, eh?” Sidney asked. “That tie you were wearing is so fucking ugly.”

“It’s great tie,” Zhenya said, scowling at him.

“Okay, sure, I take it back,” Sidney said. “Hey. Listen. It was really—I really liked what you said, okay? It meant a lot to me. I’m really glad you were on the ice with me tonight.”

“I’m glad, too,” Zhenya said, and watched Sidney smiling at him, the light of Zhenya’s misbegotten life.

+ + +

Toward the end of the month, a fan took pictures of them at the grocery store, and it exploded all over Twitter. The first Zhenya heard about it was the official Pens Twitter account retweeting one of the pictures with the caption, Still our favorite bromance!

He was at Sidney’s house, helping with breakfast, which mainly entailed stealing pieces of frozen mango while Sidney smacked at him with a wooden spoon. When he saw the picture on his timeline, he laughed and said, “Look, Sid,” and flipped his phone around to show Sidney the screen.

Sidney didn’t think it was funny at all. He went pale, and took the phone from Zhenya’s hand to study the picture more closely. Zhenya watched him zoom in, zoom out, scroll down.

“Sid, what’s wrong?” he said.

“Who took this picture?” Sidney asked, still staring at the phone.

Zhenya shrugged. “Fan, I don’t know—some person.”

“There’s more of them,” Sidney said, scrolling. “Pictures. Someone took a whole—Jesus.” He gave the phone back to Zhenya and dumped the rest of the mango into the blender, frowning.

Zhenya squinted at his phone. He wasn’t sure what Sidney was so upset about. The pictures were pretty innocuous. He remembered that shopping trip: they had stopped at Whole Foods on the way back from practice, because Sidney wanted some new kind of yogurt he was obsessed with. The pictures were of Zhenya trying to convince Sidney to buy some ice cream, laughing at him, holding a carton in each hand. They weren’t even touching.

“Sid, it’s okay,” Zhenya said, bewildered. “Everyone talk about so nice that we’re friends. It’s not big deal.”

Sidney jammed the lid onto the blender. “It’s nice that you’re able to be so cavalier about this, I guess.”

“Sid,” Zhenya said.

“Cavalier means you aren’t worried about it,” Sidney said. “Great. Congratulations.”

“Don’t turn blender on,” Zhenya said. “Listen to me. This isn’t trouble. It’s okay.”

“Yeah?” Sidney said. “How long do you think that’s going to last? It’s only a bromance as long as both of the guys are straight. Well, I’m not straight, and people are going to start talking. You need to be a lot more fucking worried about this.” He turned the blender on then: conversation over.

Zhenya thought Sidney was overreacting, and he thought it all through the chirping they got before practice the next morning, and even through Flower pulling him aside and saying, “You and Sid have been spending a lot of time together lately.”

How the fuck was he supposed to respond to that? “It’s good to have friends,” Zhenya said.

“Hmm,” Flower said, looking unconvinced.

Everyone he knew was an asshole, including Sidney, who wasn’t exactly giving Zhenya the cold shoulder but kept looking at him in a way Zhenya couldn’t help interpreting as judgmental. Everyone was overreacting, and he thought that up until the moment he and Sidney were summoned to Jen’s office after practice.

“I’m not asking any questions,” Jen said, “I’m just telling you what this looks like. There’s no reason for the two of you to be at the grocery store together. You aren’t roommates, neither one of you is injured right now, and you haven’t done this sort of thing in the past. The fans like it that you guys are friends, but Geno, you need to have a serious conversation with yourself about what you’re doing.”

“It’s just buy groceries,” Zhenya protested, outraged that fifteen minutes for yogurt was causing this much upheaval in his life.

“Yes, a very domestic activity with a gay man, when your country is trying to pretend that gay people don’t exist,” Jen said. “Sorry, but there you have it. Sidney, if you’re asked about this, I want you to say that you guys were buying stuff for a team event.”

“Poker night,” Sidney said.

“Perfect,” Jen said. “I’m busy, so get out of my office, and don’t do anything else that might cause rumors.”

Sidney drove them back to Zhenya’s house afterward. Zhenya slumped in the passenger seat and didn’t even give Sidney any shit about his lead foot.

“Geno,” Sidney said softly, when he had parked his car in Zhenya’s driveway.

“Yes, you tell me, you right,” Zhenya said.

“Why would I say that?” Sidney said. “I’m not trying to win. I don’t want things to be like this. I just think you’re kind of in denial about how bad this could get for you. And I can’t be careful for both of us, okay? I spent so long monitoring every single thing I said and did, and I don’t want to go back to that level of like, constant fucking vigilance. So you need to step up a little and think about what is and isn’t okay for us to do.”

“Sid,” Zhenya said, stricken. He really hadn’t thought at all about what it meant for Sidney to be out of the closet but still hiding for Zhenya’s sake. “I don’t mean for—you shouldn’t need to hide.”

“It’s fine,” Sidney said. He shrugged. “I mean, there’s no way for you to be out. I knew that going in. And it’s not like I’m, uh, particularly eager to talk to anyone about my personal life. I just mean that I don’t want to be as paranoid as we probably need to be, so that’s gotta be on you.”

It wasn’t fine. Zhenya thought about it a lot over the next few days, as they went on a road trip to Dallas and Chicago, and then came home again to play the Bolts. Of course he couldn’t ever be public about his relationship with Sidney, but he hadn’t thought too hard about what that would mean for Sidney, what he might have to give up. He had been trying not to think about it, because logically, there was no benefit to Sidney in being with him. If Zhenya were nobler or more self-sacrificing, he would break up with Sidney for his own good, and let him move on with his life.

He had been in love before, and he recognized the signs in himself, the smug pride he felt when Sidney shot him a tiny secret smile from across the room, the painful melting tenderness when Sidney curled up against him after sex. But it was far worse with Sidney than it had been with anyone else—bigger, more intense. He felt it bursting out of him all the time, too forceful for his body to contain. He wasn’t self-sacrificing. He wasn’t prepared for it to end.

The day before their game against the Sabres, he went over to Sidney’s house for dinner, and they watched the Bolts-Sabres game. Sidney took actual notes on a pad of paper. He was the best person Zhenya knew, the weirdest and kindest, the hardest working. At the first intermission, Zhenya muted the television and said, “Sid, Flower thinks you have crush on me.”

“Oh,” Sidney said, blinking. “Well. Can you have a crush on someone you’re in a relationship with?”

“Be serious,” Zhenya said. “He talked to me at Lonely Hearts Party, and after pictures. He’s very—what’s word? He thinks something is up.”

“Suspicious,” Sidney said, and sighed. “Yeah, I know. He thinks I’m tragically longing for you in secret. Believe me, I’ve been hearing about it.”

“You want to tell him?” Zhenya asked.

“Tell him—about us?” Sidney set down his pad and pen and turned on the couch to face Zhenya, tucking one leg beneath him. He reached over and set his hand on Zhenya’s thigh. “Geno, that’s… a pretty big step.”

Zhenya swallowed and looked down at his hands. “I think, maybe I tell Gonch.”

Sidney didn’t say anything, but he gently squeezed Zhenya’s leg.

“I think what you say, about have to hide,” Zhenya said. “So—maybe we tell some people, then it’s not so bad for you. Family know, friends know. Then maybe it’s more easy.”

“And you want to tell Gonch?” Sidney asked quietly.

Zhenya’s throat felt tight. “Sid, he’s like brother for me. I want to say, look, Sid is wonderful, I’m so happy, but I—I think maybe—”

Sidney scooted closer and put his arms around Zhenya, and Zhenya leaned into him gratefully. “You know,” Sidney said, “Gonch has been really kind to me since I came out. Just really decent, you know? He’s a good guy.” He rubbed a hand down Zhenya’s back. “I think he would probably be supportive.”

Zhenya nodded, unable to speak.

“I didn’t know you were thinking about telling people,” Sidney said.

Zhenya sighed gustily. “When I have girlfriend, everyone know. Maybe wait one month, make sure we get along, then have her meet friends, maybe meet parents if they come to Moscow. It’s not big deal. So why it’s big deal with you?”

“You know why,” Sidney said.

“Yes, I know why,” Zhenya snapped. “Why do we have to be afraid all the time? I want to hold your hand in public, I want to tell everyone how much you mean to me, and I can’t do it because Russia will repudiate me. You deserve so much better than this. I’m starting to think about how we can make this work long-term, and I don’t know if there’s any way. I’m going to fucking lose you, for no reason, and it will kill me.”

Sidney was still rubbing his back in long, careful strokes. “You want to tell me what you just said?”

“Fuck Russia,” Zhenya summarized. English was always frustrating, but at times like this, when he wanted so badly to express himself, it was almost unbearable. He couldn’t think of the right words, the right phrasing, and then his thoughts came out garbled and simplistic: the thoughts of a child, or a fool.

Sidney huffed. “It sounded like a lot more than that.”

“It’s too hard,” Zhenya said. “Learn Russian. Okay, I say I want you, but Russia is very complicate, so how we’re make this work, to be together? I worry lots about this, about—how I can have you.”

“Oh, Geno,” Sidney murmured. “Listen. I’ve been thinking about this, too. We’re definitely going to have to make some hard decisions. But this is still pretty new. So I’m thinking we give it through the end of playoffs, and then we each do our own thing for the summer, and in the fall, if we still feel the same way, then we’ll—then we’ll decide.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t imagine that a summer apart would do anything but make his heart grow impossibly fonder, but it wasn’t a bad plan. They would have been together for almost a year by the time the next season rolled around: a reasonable milestone for making life-altering choices. And they would be life-altering. He wasn’t an idiot. He knew what this would come down to, in the end.

“So, I don’t want you to tell people because you feel guilty, or like it’s the best thing for me,” Sidney said. “There’s time for that in the fall, eh? We don’t have to tell anyone yet.” He sighed. “I shouldn’t have bugged you about telling my parents.”

“No, I understand why you want,” Zhenya said. “You say don’t have to tell it’s me, but I say yes, tell. I’m glad you did. Don’t say sorry now.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. “Well. I’m glad, too. But we don’t have to tell anyone else.”

Zhenya sat up to kiss him, hard and close-mouthed. “Tell Flower. And Tanger, Kuni, Duper if you want. And I tell Gonch.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. “If that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do.” And then the intermission ended, and he picked up his pad and pen once more.

+ + +

A few days after his conversation with Sidney, before the team left for a nine-day road trip to western Canada, Zhenya went to Seryozha’s for dinner. Ksenia and the girls were still in Dallas, and Seryozha had rented a townhouse in Cranberry to be close to the rink. The place had come furnished, and it was even more personality-less than Sidney’s professionally decorated house, but Seryozha had decorated the downstairs with endless family pictures. Zhenya knew he missed them horribly.

Seryozha made shchi with pork. They ate and caught up on the latest business. Zhenya saw him most days at the rink, but there wasn’t always time for in-depth conversation, or for Seryozha to show him new pictures of the girls: skating, at the park, with friends. Zhenya missed them. They were family to him, too, the same way Seryozha was.

When the meal was finished, they moved to the sitting room, and Seryozha broke out the vodka.

“We haven’t done this in a while,” Seryozha said. “I thought maybe you didn’t like my cooking anymore.”

It was as good an opening as any. “Seryozha, there’s something I need to tell you,” Zhenya said. His hands trembled. “It’s about Sid.”

“Ah,” Seryozha said, and when Zhenya risked a glance at him, his mouth was pulled to one side, a wry twist.

“You knew?” Zhenya asked. Were they so obvious?

But Seryozha shook his head. “No. I had—suspicions. You started talking about him much more during his concussion, and then you turned down two dinner invitations in a row and said you had plans with him. I wondered, a little, but I didn’t think… Zhenya, you’ve made things very difficult for yourself.”

“I know,” Zhenya said. “I know I have.”

“You care about him,” Seryozha said, studying his face.

“Very much,” Zhenya admitted. “I—Seryozha, it’s the real thing.”

Seryozha sighed and rubbed at his forehead. “Of course it is. I wouldn’t expect anything less from the two of you.” He gave Zhenya a long considering look. “This is new for you, I think?”

“Not, ah, the interest,” Zhenya said, feeling his face heat. “But doing anything about it, yeah.”

Seryozha shook his head again. “Have you told your parents?”

“You’re the first person I’ve told,” Zhenya said.

“Ah, Zhenya,” Seryozha said. He leaned forward and patted Zhenya’s knee. “Here’s the part where I give you advice that you probably won’t take. They’ll be here in a few weeks, and I think you should tell them before they arrive. They’ll worry about you, like I’m worried about you, but I don’t think anything you could do would make them love you any less. Just like I don’t love you any less.”

“Seryozha,” Zhenya said hoarsely, feeling himself tear up.

“Come here, you idiot,” Seryozha said, and pulled Zhenya into a rough embrace.

When he took his leave at last, he drove directly to Sidney’s. There was a time when Zhenya would have wanted to retreat to his own house after a difficult conversation, but Sidney’s house was as comforting and familiar to him now as his own. He knew where everything was in the kitchen; he had his own toothbrush in the bathroom, and his own drawer in the dresser. He had dropped anchor. Zhenya was more grounded in Pittsburgh than he had ever been. Russia was home, but wherever Sidney was, that was home, too.

It was late, but Sidney was waiting up for him, yawning on the couch in the den with SportsCenter on the television. “Hey,” he said, when Zhenya came in, but didn’t make any move to get up.

Zhenya lay down mostly on top of him, resting his head on Sidney’s chest to hear the slow, steady beat of his heart. Sidney put his hands in Zhenya’s hair and scratched gently at his scalp. “How did it go?”

“Okay,” Zhenya said. “Good. He’s nice to me. We talk a lot. He thinks I should tell parents, tell Max if I want. It’s good. Just—” He blew out a breath. “I feel tired, you know? I have girlfriend, everyone say, oh good, let’s meet. I have boyfriend, everyone sad, upset, worry about me.”

“Yeah,” Sidney said. “I know. It’s hard. It never gets easier. When I came out, I thought, like, that would be it. I would never have to do it again. But you have to come out all the time, for the rest of your life. You go shopping for your sister, and the cashier tells you that you’ll make some girl very happy one day, and it’s like—do I play along, or do I tell her I’m gay?”

“Let’s run off,” Zhenya said. “Run to—to Australia. Nobody knows us. We live by the beach, learn to surf.”

Sidney laughed softly. “Okay. I know you like the beach.”

“No winter for you in Australia,” Zhenya said. “Maybe Chile? Very nice mountains, cute animals.”

“You’ve never been there, how would you know,” Sidney said, and then, “Are you really thinking about telling your parents?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “Maybe.” He listened to Sidney’s heartbeat, slow and constant. “It’s scary, Sid.”

“I know it is,” Sidney said. “You should do whatever you want, okay? Don’t let Gonch pressure you.” He tugged gently at Zhenya’s hair. “Let’s go to sleep, eh? We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

Zhenya dropped Sidney at home the next day after practice and went on to his own house to pack before their flight to Winnipeg. He haphazardly tossed some clothes in his suitcase and then wandered around the downstairs looking for the charger for his e-reader. His parents would be there in less than three weeks, there in his house, and Zhenya couldn’t help but notice all of the indications of Sidney’s habitual presence: Sidney’s favorite snacks in the pantry, Sidney’s Team Canada sweatshirt hanging in the mud room, the Cyrillic workbook on the kitchen island. It would be easy enough, the work of an afternoon, to erase all of those small signs, but—he didn’t want to. He liked Sidney right where he was, nestled securely into Zhenya’s life.

Fuck. He was going to have to tell his parents.

+ + +

They won three games in a row: Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Vancouver. After practice in Edmonton, Flower plopped down next to Zhenya on the bus back to the hotel and said, “Sid told me.”

“Maybe we don’t talk about here,” Zhenya said, anticipating a hurt-him-I’ll-kill-you conversation.

Flower shrugged. “What’s there to say? I’m happy for you.” He paused. “He really likes you, though, so don’t screw it up.”

“I like him,” Zhenya said simply.

“Well,” Flower said, and flashed his huge smile. “Good. Keep it that way, okay?”

Well, he planned to.

He emailed his parents that evening, and three days later, the night before their game in Calgary, he sidled up to Sidney as they waited in the lobby to go out for dinner and said, “I talk to my parents tonight.”

Sidney looked up from his phone. “Okay?”

“Sid,” Zhenya said, and watched as realization dawned. “Sit with me while I do.”

“Really?” Sidney said, squinting at him. “You want me there?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said.

Sidney’s face did something complicated. He shifted on his feet, bumping their shoulders together. “Sure,” he said. “What time?”

After dinner, Zhenya set up his laptop on the desk in his hotel room. Sidney sat on the bed, carefully out of sight of the camera. Zhenya spun around in the desk chair and looked at him. Sidney had his tablet and his phone, a bottle of water, a bag of peanut M&Ms from the vending machine: he was set for the long haul.

“I didn’t have any dessert at dinner,” Sidney said defensively, clutching the M&Ms.

Zhenya got up and went over to him, and took Sidney’s face in his hands and tipped his head back and kissed him. “I love you,” he said, and then said it again in Russian, just to cover all his bases.

Fuck waiting until next season. He felt it now, and he wanted Sidney to know.

“Geno,” Sidney said, his eyes huge.

“Shh, time for me to call parents,” Zhenya said, and kissed him again.

He could feel Sidney watching him as the laptop made its dialing noise. No matter what happened, Zhenya would have this for the rest of his life: the memory of this feeling.

His parents accepted the call. There they were, huddled together, smiling, so happy to see him. He hadn’t told them why he wanted to talk.

“Zhenechka,” his mother said, beaming.

“Mama, papa,” Zhenya said. He sucked in a breath. “I have something to tell you.”

They all cried: his mother first, and then Zhenya, and then his father, at last, until all three of them were weeping together. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand,” his mother kept saying, and there was nothing Zhenya could tell her; there was no explanation.

Zhenya pressed his face into the crook of his arm, blotting his tears on his sleeve. “If you want to cancel your trip—”

His father made a distressed noise. “Zhenya, no—Natashka, stop it, can’t you see how upset he is? Of course this is hard news for us, but you’re still our son.” His mother was crying into her hands. His father put an arm around her and kissed the top of her head, wiping at his own eyes with his free hand.

“I’m sorry,” Zhenya said, sick with shame and misery. “Mama, please forgive me, please don’t cry.”

“Oh, Zhenechka,” his mother said, looking up at last and wiping at her face with both hands. “You’re still my son. We can’t be happy about this news, because we want your life to be safe and easy, and maybe it won’t be, now. But of course we love you, always, and of course we want to come see you. Isn’t that right, Volodya?”

“Yes, that’s right,” his father said. “And if—if Sidney would like to visit with us, when we’re there, we would be very pleased to see him.”

Zhenya braced his elbows on the desk and covered his face with his hands, overwhelmed, feeling fresh tears welling up. “I’ll ask him,” he managed, after a moment. “I’m sure he’ll want to.”

“Oh, my love,” his mother said. “My sweet boy, my baby. Are you happy? Is he good to you?”

“I’m so happy, mama,” Zhenya said. He turned to look at Sidney, who was intent on his tablet, apparently unfazed by all of the crying and Russian. He glanced up and gave Zhenya a sweet, sympathetic smile.

“Oh, is he there now?” Zhenya’s mother asked. “Is he there with you?”

“Well—yes,” Zhenya said, not sure how his parents would react to this information. “I asked him to sit with me while I talked to you. I think he’s watching game highlights.”

His father laughed a little. “Yes, that sounds like him.”

“Can we see him? Can we say hello to him?” his mother asked, and when Zhenya hesitated, “Please, Zhenya, can you ask him?”

So Zhenya turned around again and said in English, “Sid, my parents like to say hello.”

“Oh,” Sidney said, blinking. “Really? Is it going okay, then?”

“I think okay,” Zhenya said. “Will you say hi to mama?”

“Yeah, of course,” Sidney said, and he got up and came over and put his hand on Zhenya’s shoulder, and bent down to get his face into the frame. “Hello, how are you?” he said, very formally, in his slow, careful Russian.

Zhenya’s parents glanced at each other and smiled.

“Oh, did I say it wrong?” Sidney said to Zhenya.

“No,” Zhenya said. He put his hand over Sidney’s and squeezed. “You say just right.”

Sidney’s Russian was at about the same level as his parents’ English, which was to say, almost nonexistent, and Zhenya ended the call a few minutes later, with many promises to talk again soon. Sidney went into the bathroom and came back with a handful of tissues and a damp washcloth, and Zhenya blew his nose and wiped his face and then leaned his head against Sidney’s belly and took a deep breath.

“Come on,” Sidney said quietly. “Let’s lie down.”

Zhenya took off his shoes and pants and crawled beneath the covers. He lay on his side, facing Sidney, and Sidney slid in close and cupped his hand around the nape of Zhenya’s neck, his thumb stroking behind Zhenya’s ear.

“Do you want to tell me about it?” Sidney asked.

Zhenya shrugged. “They worry, they cry a lot, but say—” He had to stop, then, and swallow around the knot in his throat. “They say I’m still their son, they still love me.”

“I’m so glad,” Sidney said. “Oh, Geno. I’m really happy to hear that.”

“They want see you, when they come,” Zhenya said. “Spend time, visit.”

“I would love to,” Sidney said. “G, of course. I would love to do that.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said. He closed his eyes and burrowed a little closer. He was warm and sleepy, coming down hard from the emotional tumult of the last half hour.

“Are you falling asleep?” Sidney asked, his voice rich with amusement.

“No,” Zhenya said, eyes still closed. “I’m awake.”

“Okay,” Sidney said. Zhenya felt the mattress shift as Sidney repositioned, and then Sidney slung an arm across Zhenya’s waist and tucked his knee between Zhenya’s thighs, slotting their bodies together as close as they could fit. “I was pretty surprised when you asked me to be here.”

Zhenya reluctantly squinted his eyes open. Sidney’s face was very close, and he was chewing on his lower lip, watching Zhenya intently.

“Oh, Sid,” Zhenya said. He draped his own arm over Sidney’s shoulders, gathering him in. “Of course I want. I think—maybe parents are very upset, but then you’re here with me.”

“I didn’t think you would want me to—see that,” Sidney said. “To see you like that.” He chewed on his lip again for a moment. “I guess I thought being together would be a lot like being friends with you, except with sex. But it isn’t like that at all.” He pressed a lingering kiss to Zhenya’s cheek. “There’s so much more to you than I knew.”

“Sorry?” Zhenya said, not certain how to interpret that remark. Sidney had seen the at-home Zhenya before, mostly notably after Sochi, but also a few other times through the years, after a hard loss or a bad breakup. But this was different, and they both knew it: the deep intimacy of a good relationship, the stripping down of the self. Zhenya was aware that Sidney had never experienced it before, had never been so rawly himself with another person.

“Don’t be sorry,” Sidney said. “It’s good. It’s so much better than I thought it would be.”

Zhenya huffed. “You don’t think it’s good?”

“I mean, I thought it was going to be pretty good,” Sidney said. “You’ve exceeded expectations.”

Zhenya smiled and pressed his face against Sidney’s neck. Sidney smelled like the soap at the arena, overlain by a lingering trace of cologne. He was Zhenya’s now: Zhenya’s to have, Zhenya’s to love. “Stay here tonight,” he said. “Stay with me.”

Sidney sighed. “I want to. We’ll be home soon.”

“Four days,” Zhenya grumbled. It was much too long.

“Soon enough,” Sidney said, and held Zhenya in his arms until Zhenya fell asleep.

+ + +

He felt a little emotionally bruised in the days after the conversation with his parents. He hadn’t really been ready to tell them, and although it had gone about as well as he could have hoped, it still hadn’t been easy. But now that it was done, he didn’t regret it. He was glad that they knew, and glad that he wouldn’t have to stop spending time with Sidney for the duration of their visit, which would probably kill him.

Sidney spent the rest of the road trip doing what Zhenya could only interpret as hovering. He sat next to Zhenya at team meals, and twice sat beside him on the bus, when they usually both sat alone. He came to Zhenya’s hotel room the night before their game in Philadelphia and they watched television together, curled up close and warm in the bed. Zhenya relaxed into the rhythm of Sidney’s steady deep breathing and felt himself comforted at a cellular level. The whole world could go to shit outside, but he would still have Sidney, there with him in the quiet room.

“Do you want to have sex?” Sidney asked, after a while.

Zhenya shook his head and burrowed closer. He wanted only to be held.

“Okay,” Sidney said softly, combing his fingers through Zhenya’s hair.

The road trip ended in a painful 4-0 loss to the Flyers. The plane landed in Pittsburgh close to midnight, and Zhenya went directly home with nothing more than a wave across the parking lot to Sidney, too tired and frustrated to be good company. It was good to sleep in his own bed again, after more than a week of hotel rooms.

In the morning, he ran some errands, did a load of laundry, caught up on his email, texted with Sidney about the respective culinary merits of white versus yellow onions, and finally fell asleep on the couch for a while. He woke up disoriented and half-hard, swimming up out of a dream about Sidney deep-throating him.

That had never happened in waking life, but it made for a pretty fantastic mental image. He and Sidney last had sex the night they beat the Canucks, a solid five days ago now, and Zhenya was feeling every second of it. He reached down to squeeze himself through his sweatpants. He was definitely thinking with his dick when he snapped a picture like that, his hand wrapped around himself, and texted it to Sidney.

He expected Sidney to ignore it, or maybe to scold him for sending sexy pictures, but instead Sidney replied a few minutes later and said, On my way.

Zhenya’s day had just gotten infinitely better. Come to bedroom, he sent, and went upstairs.

He was naked when Sidney arrived, leaning back against the pillows and stroking himself lazily. He heard the front door open, and Sidney’s heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, and then Sidney appeared in the doorway, smirking a little, obviously hard in his jeans.

“Nice dick shot,” Sidney said. He raked his eyes over Zhenya’s body. “Nice dick.”

“Take clothes off,” Zhenya said roughly, and Sidney gave Zhenya another long heated look and pulled his T-shirt over his head.

The sex was always good, and Sidney was always responsive and eager, but Sidney got into bed and kissed Zhenya like he was dying for it.

“We can’t ever go this long again,” Sidney said, squirming around on top of Zhenya, ducking his head to bite at Zhenya’s nipple. “Fucking road trips, fucking—”

“Five days and you can’t handle?” Zhenya asked, honestly pretty delighted to hear that Sidney felt so deprived. He pulled Sidney’s hips down to grind against his dick. He was already sweating; this wasn’t going to last long.

“Yeah, it was awful,” Sidney said. “I almost came to your hotel room after the game in Calgary, but Taylor called me, so I decided that family was more important than sex.” He sat up and ran a hand through his hair. “Definitely wasn’t the right decision.”

“I tell her you say,” Zhenya threatened.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Sidney said. He slid his hand down his belly to tease at his foreskin, and he absolutely knew what he was doing, he knew what he looked like. As Zhenya watched hungrily, he closed his eyes for a moment and let out a gentle sigh. “I want you to fuck me.”

“Yes, okay,” Zhenya said, trying not to sound too eager. They had done it that way a few times, always on Sidney’s initiative. Sidney insisted that he did like it, and he always did seem to enjoy himself; and after they had a couple of arguments about it, Zhenya had been forced to accept that Sidney knew what he wanted and wouldn’t ask for something he didn’t get off on.

Sidney smirked at him. “Yeah, I know how much you like my ass.”

Sidney’s was by the far the best ass Zhenya had ever gotten up close and personal with. He didn’t see any reason to hide his appreciation. “You like my ass,” he said.

“I sure do,” Sidney said. “Less chat, more action.”

Zhenya got Sidney situated in his usual position: on his back, pillow under his hips. Maybe it was boring, but it was Zhenya’s favorite. He would never get enough of watching Sidney’s face as he fell apart, his thick body spread out for Zhenya’s enjoyment.

“Kiss me,” Sidney said, and Zhenya did, laying his full weight on top of Sidney, who could handle it—who liked it, sliding his arms around Zhenya’s neck and rolling his hips up. Zhenya wanted to hold him open and shove his cock inside and make Sidney take it.

“Listen to you,” Sidney murmured, his mouth dragging along Zhenya’s cheekbone. “You’re going to fuck me really good, huh?”

“I’m going to fuck you until you don’t remember your name,” Zhenya said, and sat up to look for the lube.

Sidney settled into it as Zhenya fingered him, relaxed, eyes heavy-lidded, his arms flung above his head. He arched his back slightly each time Zhenya pushed his fingers in. Zhenya knew he was staring and didn’t care enough to stop. He should be used to this by now, after six months, but he hadn’t developed any immunity to Sidney. Every time they had sex felt like the first time, that same terrifying spike of wonder.

“You ready?” Zhenya asked, when his fingers sank in easily, and Sidney was breathless and toying with the leaking head of his dick.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sidney said, nodding, “come on,” and then he looked up at Zhenya through his eyelashes, the wicked creature, and said, “Please, Geno, please give it to me, I’m so ready for it, I want your cock in me right now.”

Zhenya groaned. Sidney had his number, all right, and from the way he was smirking at Zhenya now, he knew it. But Zhenya didn’t mind getting played when the end result was Sidney 'helping' with the condom and then hooking his hands behind his knees and giving Zhenya a good look at his slick hole.

Zhenya couldn’t resist teasing him a little, rubbing the head of his dick along Sidney’s crack and nudging at the rim of his hole. Sidney grunted and pushed down into it, and Zhenya pulled back when he felt Sidney opening around him and said, “You greedy, you want so bad?”

“Don’t even try that bullshit with me,” Sidney said. He wrapped his legs around Zhenya’s waist and tugged, trying to frown at Zhenya but instead looking turned on and happy, and Zhenya didn’t have the heart to delay any longer. He got one of Sidney’s legs over his shoulder, bending him almost in half, and slid all the way home in a single unbroken thrust.

He held there for a minute, giving Sidney time to adjust to the stretch, and giving himself time to adjust to the slick hot pressure around his dick. But meanwhile Sidney was wiggling around and grabbing at Zhenya’s sides, really not behaving himself at all, and Zhenya was going to nail him into the bed.

But first he had to bend down and give Sidney a kiss, slow and open-mouthed. Sidney made a soft noise and wrapped his arms around Zhenya’s neck, and Zhenya had to kiss him again and again, out of his mind with the feeling of Sidney’s body beneath him.

“Geno,” Sidney said against his mouth. “Come on, fuck me.”

So he did, just like that, down on his elbows on top of Sidney and fucking him slow and deep, and kissing his mouth and his flushed cheeks, listening to Sidney’s unsteady breaths. “Baby,” he said, “Sid, baby,” murmuring every idiotic tender thing in his heart, pressing his mouth to Sidney’s neck and kissing the words into his skin.

He knew he was being too sweet. He had crossed the line from fucking to making love five kilometers back. But Sidney was clinging to him and making small broken noises, his hands in Zhenya’s hair, kissing him and kissing him and grinding his cock up against Zhenya’s belly.

“Sweetheart,” Zhenya said, “you’re so good, you’re so good to me,” hearing the unmistakable fondness in his own voice, and he didn’t think Sidney needed to know any Russian at all to understand what he meant.

“Oh,” Sidney said, and threw his head back. Zhenya recognized that look on his face. He kissed the bared stretch of Sidney’s throat, lips brushing Sidney’s Adam’s apple. Sidney sucked in a breath and held it and spilled hot and wet between their bodies.

Zhenya fucked him through it, and Sidney panted and kissed Zhenya and held him close, and said his name all quiet and sweet, and Zhenya shoved in a final time and buried his face in Sidney’s neck and filled the condom.

He felt a little embarrassed, after, which was stupid, because Sidney knew how he felt. But Sidney held him and kissed him, smiling at him with a soft intent look, kissing him over and over until Zhenya didn’t feel embarrassed at all.

+ + +

His parents arrived in Pittsburgh during the last week of March. Zhenya went to pick them up at the airport in the evening. He saw them before they saw him as they came out to where he was waiting, just past security. They looked tired after almost a full twenty-four hours of travel, but his father was smiling at whatever his mother was saying, the two of them gazing at each other with their usual fondness, still in love with each other after so many years.

Zhenya had been anxious about their arrival, but as soon as his mother spotted him, she flung her arms out and came trotting toward him, abandoning her carry-on for his father to deal with. She said his name, and Zhenya bent to embrace her, still a little cautiously at first, but then more firmly as she kissed his face and clung to him.

“Zhenechka, it’s so good to see you,” she said.

“Hi, mama,” he said, and then his father was there, wanting his own hug, and the relief Zhenya felt was so sharp it was nearly painful.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, as they went out to the car. “We can go somewhere for food, if you’d like.”

“We ate in New York,” his father said. “Maybe your mother is hungry, though.”

“No, I only want to sleep,” his mother said, and at home they stayed awake only long enough to drink some water and comment on the state of Zhenya’s refrigerator, more well-stocked than usual thanks to Sidney’s grocery shopping obsession.

His mother was awake the next morning when he went downstairs to rustle up some breakfast before leaving for the rink. She was standing at the island to look through the stack of children’s books Zhenya had ordered for Sidney to help with his vocabulary, a cup of tea steaming at her elbow.

“Good morning,” Zhenya said from the doorway. He had meant to put those books away.

“Good morning, Zhenechka,” his mother said, her voice and expression full of warm affection. “I hope you aren’t forcing that man to learn Russian.”

“It was his idea,” Zhenya said, feeling unexpectedly shy. “He wants to.”

“Hmm,” his mother said. She opened the workbook and flipped through the pages. “Oh, his poor handwriting,” she said. “Zhenya, look.”

“He’s trying very hard,” said Zhenya, who was only marginally literate in English, and sympathized with Sidney’s struggles.

“Hmm,” his mother said again, giving him a knowing look. “Well. Would you like some breakfast, before you go?”

“You don’t have to cook for me,” Zhenya said. He was desperate to have her cook for him. Sidney fed him well, but nothing could compare to his mother’s food, all of the familiar Russian dishes Zhenya had been raised on and that still tasted like home.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you can only make eggs,” she said. “Sit down, sit,” and Zhenya ate so much he got a stitch in his side during his workout and had to sit on the bench for a few minutes while Tanger and Olli mocked him.

He was out of the lineup again after blocking a shot with his shoulder like the true genius that he was. It was driving him up the wall. The Penguins had clinched their spot in the playoffs a week ago, so the feeling of letting down his team wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it was still a terrible time of the year to be injured. But half the team was out injured, it seemed like, so at least he was in good company.

He saw Sidney briefly in the dressing room as the uninjured members of the team changed for practice. They didn’t have a chance to talk, but Sidney raised his eyebrows at Zhenya from across the room, and Zhenya made the A-OK signal with his hand. Sidney flashed it back at him, smiling a little, the corners of his mouth tucked up.

Sidney was scarce over the next few days—hiding, no doubt, while Zhenya’s parents recovered from jet lag and were likely to be at the house.

OK to come over, Zhenya texted him, amused, after three days of this. Parents know about you.

I’m trying not to rub it in their faces, Sidney replied; but the next morning, the doorbell rang during breakfast, and Zhenya went to answer it and found Sidney with his hands stuffed in his pockets, looking sheepish. He had a key to the house, and it had been months since he last rang the doorbell instead of just letting himself in and hollering Zhenya’s name to announce his presence.

“Hi,” Sidney said. “Uh. I should have texted you first.”

Zhenya ignored all of this nonsense. He leaned in for a brief kiss. “Hope you hungry, mama is make breakfast.”

“Oh, uh,” Sidney said, and Zhenya herded him into the kitchen before Sidney could come up with a viable excuse for refusing to eat Zhenya’s mother’s cooking.

Zhenya’s parents were seated at the table, both watching alertly to see who came through the door. Zhenya watched their faces as they recognized Sidney: surprise, then a sort of cautious happiness, like they were ready to be pleased but weren’t certain what was going to happen.

“Hi, uh, good morning,” Sidney said in Russian.

“Oh, Sidney,” Zhenya’s mother said. His parents both rose to their feet, and Zhenya watched the awkward dance that ensued, nobody sure if they should hug or shake hands, until finally Zhenya’s mother rolled her eyes and threw up her hands and pulled Sidney in to kiss both of his cheeks. Zhenya’s father hugged him, too, although he skipped the kissing. Sidney was red-faced and uncomfortable and smiling.

“Please eat with us,” Zhenya’s mother said, very slowly and simply, and Sidney smiled more and put his hands back in his pockets and said, “Thank you, yes.”

That interaction seemed to have taxed both parties’ abilities to communicate, and Zhenya was pressed into service as a translator after that, which wasn’t exactly his strong suit.

“Tell him it’s nice to see a man with a healthy appetite,” his mother said, and Zhenya sighed long-sufferingly and said, “Sid, she say you eat good, very fat.”

“I don’t think she actually said that,” Sidney said.

“Zhenya! You’re translating properly, aren’t you?” his mother said, giving him a suspicious look.

“Yes, mama,” Zhenya said, and tried to look innocent.

“Stop that, both of you,” his father said. “Zhenya, ask Sidney if he would like some more bread.”

Despite his efforts to play it cool, Zhenya hadn’t been totally sanguine about Sidney and his parents spending time together. But they all three looked so shyly pleased to be sitting at a table together, giving Zhenya a hard time about his failures as an interpreter. Zhenya’s heart was too full for him to mind the teasing.

He and Sidney had to leave for the rink before too long. Zhenya’s mother sent them off with travel mugs of sweet milky tea, and once they were in the car, Sidney took a sip and smiled at Zhenya and said, “Your parents are pretty great, you know.”

“They like you,” Zhenya said. They had always liked Sidney, and seemed to still like him now, maybe even more than they had previously. It was great, and Zhenya was very fortunate, and somehow still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But his parents seemed determined to be positive about the situation, and warm and welcoming to Sidney. Zhenya came home a couple of days later after a meeting with his financial advisor and found Sidney in the kitchen with his mother, the two of them standing by the stove laughing as Sidney’s phone said, “Cut the onion” over and over in rapid-fire English. He was on the phone with Sasha about the Olympics—Sasha was ranting at length about the NHL’s decision not to participate, having apparently decided to call every Russian in the league to complain about it—but he ended that conversation very quickly once he saw what was happening in his kitchen.

“What’s going on here?” Zhenya said suspiciously.

“Ah, Zhenya!” his mother said. “Good, now you can translate for us. His phone talks much too quickly.”

Zhenya sidled around her to drop a kiss on Sidney’s cheek. “She make you cook?” he muttered.

“She’s teaching me to make stuffed cabbage,” Sidney said, turning his head to smile at Zhenya. “It was my idea, so don’t give me that look.”

“Mama,” Zhenya said weakly, and his mother gave him a brave determined smile and said, “Now I’ll know someone’s taking care of you when I’m not here.”

That evening, after Sidney went home, Zhenya and his parents took a stroll around his property. It had been a warm day, and it was a warm evening, pleasant to be outside taking in the signs of spring, the early flowers growing in neat beds near the pond, and the new green buds on the trees.

They talked for a while about family and friends from back home, and Denis’s new business partner, who Zhenya’s father didn’t like. Then Zhenya’s mother said, “Will you be staying here, then, after you retire?”

“In Pittsburgh?” Zhenya asked blankly.

“Sidney might like Moscow,” his mother said, “but Russia is no place for a gay man, these days.”

“Natasha,” Zhenya’s father said.

“Mama, I—it’s only been six months,” Zhenya said. “We haven’t reached the retirement-planning stage yet.”

“Well, he adores you,” his mother said, “so what are you going to do about it?”

Zhenya turned away from her to look out over the pond. He still felt weird that his parents knew about him and Sidney; he wanted not to care, but he did. He didn’t want to talk with them about his future with Sidney, not when that future was so uncertain.

How could he ever make the choice? It was an impossible decision: Sidney, who was turning out to be maybe the love of his life—or Russia, his motherland. He couldn’t have them both, not in the long run, and he knew it, and had been trying hard not to know it.

“There’s time for that,” his father said gently.

“Plenty of time,” Zhenya said. “Let’s go back inside.”

+ + +

Plenty of time, and he could only devote so much of it to fretting. Sully had decided to hold him out of the lineup until playoffs to let his shoulder fully heal, but he was spending as much time at the rink as he always did, skating and working out, and going to the arena for games. Everyone was fucking injured; Tanger was out for the rest of the season because of his neck. Zhenya was crabby as hell, but he could go over to Sidney’s house whenever he wanted and lie on the couch with his head in Sidney’s lap and take comfort in Sidney’s quiet laughter as they watched TV. Sidney was the answer to every question, even the ones Zhenya was still too afraid to ask.

The day before their final road trip of the regular season, he went home from the rink to an empty house. His father had left a note: his parents had gone to the mall and would be home in time for dinner. Zhenya rolled his eyes fondly. They both had cell phones, but text messaging was a work in progress.

There was a huge bouquet of roses on the kitchen island, neatly arranged in a crystal vase. Zhenya dropped his keys and his wallet on the counter and investigated. He didn’t think his parents had any important anniversaries around this time of year, but maybe his father had just felt like making a romantic gesture. He fished out the card tucked loosely among the blossoms.

He recognized Sidney’s handwriting first, his clumsy childlike Cyrillic, and felt his stomach swoop wildly in his gut.

Two dozen red roses. Zhenya remembered that conversation.

Evgeni, Sidney had written, and then, I love you, and Zhenya leaned against the island for a few minutes, overcome by his emotions.

When he was ready, he carefully tucked the note in his wallet and splashed some water on his face, and drove over to Sidney’s house.

Sidney was in the kitchen, rinsing salad greens under the tap. “Hi, G,” he said, smiling at Zhenya. “What’s up?”

“I’m get your flowers,” Zhenya said, and watched as Sidney turned bright red. He could talk about sex like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, he had no problem telling Zhenya exactly what he wanted in bed and how, but any discussion of his feelings left him flustered and tongue-tied, and Zhenya loved him.

“I forgot those were getting delivered today,” Sidney said, and grimaced. “I hope my handwriting wasn’t too bad.”

It was pretty terrible, but Zhenya would never say it. “Look very good,” he said. “Sweet words, nice to say in Russian.”

“Geno,” Sidney said. He stood frozen, hands in the colander, the water still running.

“You mean?” Zhenya asked.

“Yeah,” Sidney said. He looked down at the colander. “I know I said we should wait, but I—”

Zhenya didn’t let him finish. He crossed the room and pulled Sidney away from the sink and kissed him, and Sidney put his wet hands all over Zhenya’s shirt and slid his tongue into Zhenya’s mouth, hot and heavy within fifteen seconds, and—well.

Zhenya had never fucked in the kitchen before, but there was a first time for everything.

+ + +

He sat by himself on the flight from Toronto to New York, a little tired and not in the mood for playing cards. He was reading Pasternak, or trying to; it was a classic, and Zhenya wanted to improve himself, but the truth was that he enjoyed biographies and thrillers and had no taste for great literature. He gave up after a while and pulled out his phone to scroll through his recent messages with Sidney. They were mostly pictures: Flower posing in a pair of brightly colored swim trunks, Pascal’s children in their Sunday best, an ugly painting in Sidney’s hotel room in Toronto.

Zhenya typed in a new message: Team go out tonight, maybe we leave early))))

The typing bubble popped up right away. Sidney sent him a winking face and a heart. Zhenya had never been more in love. The feeling was so big and bright he was amazed nobody had noticed, certain he was lit up like a lightbulb all the time.

They lost to the Rangers that night, their final game of the regular season, but everyone still wanted to go out—both to lick their wounds and to celebrate the end of the season. The young guys had picked a sports bar near MSG, which wouldn’t have been Zhenya’s first choice; it was packed after the game, and from the looks they got when the whole group of them came in, plenty of their fellow patrons knew exactly who they were. But the hostess took them downstairs to a private room in the basement, and Zhenya relaxed a little then.

He made the rounds: the old guys, the young guys, the new guys, and even Sidney’s table for a few minutes, until he got tired of the way Flower was smirking at him. He was a good friend to Sidney, and had, Sidney claimed, been nothing but supportive, but he was much too pleased about knowing their secret, like a small child with a new toy he didn’t have to share. Zhenya didn’t trust Flower when he had that sly look on his face. It generally indicated that someone was about to get pranked, and Zhenya had developed a Pavlovian response over the years.

He got sucked into playing pool with Bones, Hainsey, and Dales for a while. After he and Dales trounced the opposition, Zhenya went searching for Sidney and found him in a booth in the corner with Flower and Kuni. The table was littered with empty shot glasses. Sidney was pink and beaming. Zhenya slid into the empty spot beside him and slung his arm across the back of the bench, and pointedly ignored Flower’s insufferably knowing look.

“Hi, Geno,” Sidney said, smiling, managing somehow to reorient his body toward Zhenya without actually moving.

Flower was still the only one on the team who knew, but if Sidney kept looking at him like that, Kuni wasn’t going to be in the dark for much longer. Zhenya slid Sidney’s pint glass away from him and raised his eyebrows at Kuni and Flower. “How much he’s drink?”

“More than he should have, that’s for sure,” Kuni said.

“I’m right here,” Sidney said. “I’m not drunk.”

“You’re a little drunk,” Flower said. “I told you not to let Rusty keep buying you drinks.”

“He wanted to,” Sidney said. “I couldn’t say no!”

“Oh, Sid,” Zhenya murmured, far more charmed than he should have been. They had an early flight the next day, and nobody was going too crazy—except for Sidney, apparently. They had all partied quite a bit when they were younger, but he rarely saw Sidney drunk anymore. Sidney was horribly appealing like this, wrinkling his nose at Flower and leaning into Zhenya’s side ever so slightly. His sleeves were rolled up to bare his forearms. He looked really good, and Zhenya wondered how soon they could go back to the hotel without being too obvious about it.

“Almost thirty and he still can’t hold his liquor,” Kuni said. “It’s tragic, really.”

“I can hold my liquor just fine,” Sidney said. “Hey! Quit laughing at me, Flower, you—fuck all of you.” He tried to glare at them, but his mouth kept twitching.

Conversation moved on to embarrassing drinking adventures of years past, and then to the upcoming series against the Blue Jackets. Kuni went to ask Cully a question and never came back, and then Flower got up to hit the bathroom, and Sidney and Zhenya were alone.

Zhenya slid in a little closer. His thigh pressed against Sidney’s. Beneath the table, their knees knocked together. “Want to leave?” he asked, dipping his head to brush his lips against Sidney’s ear.

“Soon,” Sidney said. He leaned back against Zhenya’s arm, still resting on top of the bench. His hair brushed against the inside of Zhenya’s elbow, shivery good. “I want to finish my beer.”

Unbelievable. “Don’t you drink enough? Already you’re hungover tomorrow.”

“I’m not going to have a hangover,” Sidney said. He licked his lips and gave Zhenya a molten look. “Maybe I just want to make you wait.”

“That’s how you want?” Zhenya asked. His voice sounded raw in his own ears. He dropped his arm to curl around Sidney’s waist, untucking his shirt from his trousers and sliding his fingers underneath to stroke over bare skin.

“Geno,” Sidney said hoarsely. “Don’t tease.”

You don’t tease,” Zhenya said into Sidney’s ear. “I say go back, and you say no, play little game. But maybe I don’t play nice.”

“Jesus,” Sidney breathed. He turned his head away, and Zhenya pressed his advantage by nosing at the soft skin beneath Sidney’s ear, where he was more sensitive than he liked to admit, and had to bite down on a groan when Sidney shivered.

But that was too far. They were tucked away at the back of the room, and the sides of the booth were high, but they weren’t alone. Zhenya slid back, putting a respectable distance between them, and laughed when Sidney gave him a very disappointed look.

“Later,” Zhenya said. “Finish beer. Talk about hockey.”

“Fine,” Sidney said, and stuffed his shirt back into his waistband.

Sidney talked for a while about the game that night, but then, to Zhenya’s surprise, he veered off into more personal territory. “I’ve been having so much fun playing hockey this year,” he said earnestly. “Conor and Jake are so great. It’s been so much fun having them on my line.”

He was a delight: fully turned to face Zhenya with one knee up on the bench, his expression serious as he made a hand gesture evidently intended to demonstrate the extent of his joy. Zhenya couldn’t resist poking fun at him a little. “Sid and kids,” Zhenya said.

Sidney rolled his eyes. “Where did you hear that? Don’t let any reporters hear you saying that.”

“It’s cute,” Zhenya said. “It’s good name. Why you don’t like?”

“It’s dumb.” Sidney wrinkled his nose.

“Cute,” Zhenya insisted. He leaned in and pressed his face to Sidney’s neck for a moment, dragging his lips over Sidney’s pulse and breathing in the familiar smell of his skin. “Love you,” he whispered.

“Hey,” Sidney said. His hand landed on Zhenya’s thigh, too close to his groin to be polite. He turned his face into Zhenya’s hair. “I think it’s time to go.”

They walked back to the hotel together, their shoulders bumping. Midtown was packed with tourists, as always. They stood at a corner waiting for the light to change, and all around them was the stench and clamor of the city, the hot air blowing up through the subway grates, the yellow cabs playing chicken with jaywalkers. Zhenya couldn’t ever get over how big New York was, not just in size but also in the feeling of it. He glanced at Sidney beside him and found that Sidney was already watching him.

“I realized something,” Sidney said. “It’s six months since the first time, uh. Since that night you came over with pizza.”

Since the first time they kissed, he meant. “Today?”

“Yeah,” Sidney said. “Six months exactly.”

How did he even know that? “You mark on calendar?” Zhenya asked. “Mad I forget? It’s big anniversary, six months.”

But Sidney wouldn’t let himself be teased. “It’s been a good six months,” he said, his face turned toward Zhenya, half in the light and half in shadow. He was smiling.

“Next six even better,” Zhenya promised, and the light turned green and they went on across the street.

+ + +

The Blue Jackets put up a good fight, but they went out in five games.

“Christ, I’m glad that’s over,” Sidney said, the night after the final game, on the drive back to Zhenya’s house. Everyone was too worn out to feel like celebrating. They had a full week until their first game against the Capitals. Zhenya would be at the rink every day, but when he wasn’t at the rink, he planned to sleep in, lie in the sun in the back yard, and put in some quality alone time with Sidney.

They had slow lazy sex in the morning before Sidney even got out of bed, their hands on each other’s cocks and Sidney’s mouth on Zhenya’s neck, sucking wet kisses that Zhenya knew would be hickeys if Sidney were the slightest degree less cautious. They showered and dressed before they went downstairs, but Zhenya’s father gave them an amused look anyway and said, “It’s good that you were able to sleep so late, Zhenya.”

He had spent an hour dicking around on his phone before Sidney even began stirring. “I agree, it’s very nice.”

“Enough of that, Volodya,” said his mother, who after all these years was determined to pretend that Zhenya was still saving himself for marriage. “Zhenechka, would you like coffee or tea?”

“Both,” Zhenya said, already helping himself.

Sidney had gone over to investigate what Zhenya’s mother was stirring in a pan. “I help breakfast?” he asked haltingly.

“No, no, no,” Zhenya’s mother said. “No. Go sit.” She gave Sidney a mug and pointed him sternly toward the table, and Zhenya experienced an almost painfully tender upwelling of emotion when Sidney smiled and bent to kiss his mother’s cheek.

He took Sidney home after breakfast. It was a beautiful day; he rolled the windows down and felt the wind whip his hair into tangles.

“Do you want to have lunch with my parents?” Sidney asked. “Or dinner. My mom said she’ll cook.”

Zhenya considered. “Dinner. Have errand, work out. Okay?”

“What? For sure,” Sidney said. “Dinner’s fine. We’ll eat at 6:30, but I’m going to tell you to come over at 6:00 so you aren’t late.”

Zhenya rolled his eyes. “It’s not work if you tell me.”

“Maybe I keep hoping I can shame you into becoming someone who isn’t chronically late,” Sidney said.

Fat chance of that happening. Zhenya was more than just set in his ways; he was calcified. “Cute that you hope,” he told Sidney, pulling into the driveway. “Dumb, but cute.”

“Did you just call me dumb?” Sidney asked, grinning. “Am I supposed to put up with this?” He unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned across the gearshift to give Zhenya a kiss.

Sidney’s hello and goodbye kisses were never perfunctory. He liked to lean in and close his eyes. There was usually some tongue involved. Zhenya was historically a three-times-a-week kind of guy once the initial fervor died down, but Sidney wanted sex all the time and always kissed like he was trying to start something.

Zhenya loved it, obviously. He knew it had less to do with him and more to do with Sidney’s innate sex drive, but he still felt like a real Lothario when Sidney made a low noise and tilted his head a little, getting a better angle to slide his tongue into Zhenya’s mouth.

When Sidney pulled back at last, he looked a little dazed. “Okay,” he said, and licked his lips. “I’ll see you tonight.”

“Bye, Sid,” Zhenya said, and drove home whistling.

Dinner was fine—nice, even. Sidney’s parents had been in town for more than a week, and Troy seemed to be adjusting to the idea that Zhenya was going to be around a lot. He even cracked a few jokes during the meal. They weren’t very funny, but there was basically no limit to how many points Zhenya was willing to award him for effort.

He didn’t spend the night at Sidney’s. He wanted to get an early start the next day, and it definitely wouldn’t happen if he woke up with Sidney next to him in the bed, warm and drowsy and muttering grumpily if Zhenya tried to rouse him before he was ready. He kissed Sidney goodbye at the front door and didn’t expect to see him again until the next afternoon at the rink.

But he was making coffee in his boxers in the morning when he heard his gate trundle open. It was early enough that his parents were still asleep, and he couldn’t imagine who was showing up at his house unannounced at that hour. Maybe Max?

He went outside to investigate. It was Sidney, just climbing out of his car. He was wearing a dress shirt and slacks. The look on his face told Zhenya almost everything he needed to know.

Sidney said it anyway. He came up the steps to where Zhenya was standing frozen on the front stoop.

“Pat called me,” Sidney said. “We were careless. There are pictures.”


4. Afraid of Nothing

The pictures weren’t as bad as they might have been. Nobody was naked. They weren’t even kissing. But the images were still pretty damning: blurry and dim, taken from across the room, but unmistakably Zhenya’s head tucked against Sidney’s neck, Sidney’s hand on his nape as they sat in the booth at the bar. The pose was too intimate for friendship. And then in the final shot, the two of them standing to leave, wearing the same shirts as in the previous images, linking the one to the others. Their faces were centered in the frame. There could be no argument for mistaken identities.

He didn’t remember Sidney touching the back of his neck like that. He didn’t remember drinking enough to explain his incredibly poor decisions.

“Say something,” Sidney said.

Zhenya got up from the table. “You want tea?”

“I—sure,” Sidney said. “Geno—”

“What,” Zhenya said.

“I’m sorry,” Sidney said quietly. “This is my fault. I should have stopped you, I—”

Zhenya banged the kettle down on the burner. “Don’t sorry. It’s me. We talk about this. You say, can’t be careful. I know I need to do. But then I think, oh, nobody looks, it’s okay. But it’s not. Stupid.” He leaned against the counter and covered his face with his hands. Six months with no trouble, and he thought they were in the clear. He let his guard down for ten minutes, in a dark bar, surrounded by his teammates, and now this. He felt the ground crumbling away beneath his feet. He was sliding fast. He was sinking.

He wondered who had taken the pictures. One of the servers, maybe. A busboy.

“Geno,” Sidney said again, and Zhenya sucked in a breath and turned to dig the tea out of the cabinet.

He needed to call Genya, and Barry. They were probably calling him already. He didn’t know where his phone was.

“We’ll figure this out,” Sidney said. “I talked to Mario already. We’ve got a meeting with the front office in an hour and a half.”

“Sid, it’s bad,” Zhenya said. He set the tea on the counter and opened the canister. His hands were trembling.

“I know,” Sidney said. He exhaled hard and rubbed his face. “I—Geno. If we need to break up—”

“No,” Zhenya said sharply.

Sidney exhaled again. “C’mere, G. Please just—come on. Come sit down.”

Resisting wasn’t worth it. Zhenya turned off the kettle and joined Sidney at the table. He should have poured himself another cup of coffee. He needed to get in the shower soon if they were going to meet with Mario.

“Hey,” Sidney said. He put a hand on Zhenya’s arm, just below the elbow. “Let me know what you need, okay? We can stop seeing each other for a while—”

No,” Zhenya said.

Sidney huffed softly. “Okay. Message received. Look, you aren’t alone with this. You don’t have to deal with it by yourself. We’re a team, right? Like you said.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said.

“We’re ready for this,” Sidney said. “The organization, I mean. I can’t even tell you how many plans there were in place for me. We’ll figure it out.”

“Oh, figure Russia?” Zhenya said. “Call Putin, say sorry Zhenya is cause trouble, he better by Pyeongchang.”

Sidney’s mouth twisted. He looked away.

“Don’t be naïve,” Zhenya said. “The Penguins aren’t ready for this.”

“Please don’t do that to me right now,” Sidney said. “You know I can’t understand you.”

“I go shower,” Zhenya said, and pushed back his chair.

+ + +

He found his phone; it had fallen onto the floor behind his nightstand. He had more than a hundred notifications. He ignored them all and called Genya on speakerphone while he got dressed.

“Zhenya, thank God,” Genya said, when he answered. “You saw?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “Just now.”

“Say nothing to anyone,” Genya said. “I can’t talk long. I’m meeting with Tretiak in half an hour. Is it true, about you and Crosby?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “He’s the one who told me. He’s in my kitchen right now. We got together at the beginning of the season.”

Genya swore. “You idiot. Christ, you’re a fucking idiot. Don’t say anything to anyone.”

Zhenya’s stomach ached, sharp and sour. “We’re meeting with Mario soon. Sid organized it. I’ll have Barry call in, but I think—I don’t think I can put it off.”

“That’s fine,” Genya said. “Of course you can talk to the organization. But don’t do anything, and don’t talk to anyone else. Tell JP to call me. Or I’ll call him. I’ll be in touch. Don’t talk to any reporters.”

He called Barry, after that, and they had a similar conversation. “Don’t say anything until I’m on the line,” Barry said. “Those guys care about you, but they care about the organization more. It’s business. Will Crosby be there?”

“I think,” Zhenya said. “I ask him.”

“And he’s on your side?” Barry asked.

“He—yes,” Zhenya said.

“Right, dumb question,” Barry said. “It’s true love, then, huh?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said.

“You’re gonna make me earn my keep,” Barry said. “Okay, I’ll be waiting for your call. Don’t talk to anyone.”

Zhenya went downstairs in a daze. His parents were sitting with Sidney at the kitchen table. His mother was crying.

“Sorry,” Sidney said. “I think one of your relatives texted her.”

Zhenya couldn’t deal with this. He couldn’t offer his mother any comfort, not when he felt so paper-thin, like one good jab would tear him open from neck to navel and his guts would spill out all over the floor.

“Mama, we have a meeting,” he said. “We need to go right now.”

“Go, go,” his father said, one arm around his mother’s shoulders. “We’ll be here when you get back.”

Sidney handed Zhenya a travel mug and ushered him toward the door with a hand at his lower back. “I’m driving,” he said quietly.

“Okay,” Zhenya said.

He sat in the passenger seat and drank his coffee and stared out the window. His stomach growled. Sidney glanced at him, and pulled into the next McDonald’s to order an Egg McMuffin and fries.

“Sid,” Zhenya said.

“It’s never too early for fries,” Sidney said, and Zhenya accepted the bag from him and couldn’t manage to choke out a single word. He put his hand on Sidney’s leg and squeezed.

+ + +

The meeting was held in the big conference room on the third floor of UPMC. They weren’t late, but everyone was waiting for them when they arrived: Mario, Jim, Sully, and Jen.

“Geno needs to call his agent,” Sidney said, before anyone else could speak.

“By all means,” Mario said, and gestured at the phone on the table.

Once Barry was on the line, and pleasantries had been exchanged, Mario leaned back in his chair and said, “I take it that the pictures are an accurate reflection of reality.”

Zhenya glanced at Sidney, who returned the look and raised his eyebrows. The message was clear: it was Zhenya’s play.

“We’re in relationship since October,” he said.

Beside him, Sidney let out a long breath.

“Well,” Jim said. He shook his head. “Mike, did you have any idea this was going on?”

“None,” Sully said. “They’ve kept it completely out of the room.”

“Then my primary concern has been addressed,” Jim said. His eyes crinkled. “Congratulations, gentlemen.”

“Thank you,” Sidney said, apparently taking this totally in stride. “I hope we’ll have the organization’s full support, moving forward.”

“Of course you will,” Mario said. “I thought that would be clear, by now.”

“Geno’s in a different position than I was,” Sidney said. “It isn’t really comparable. There are going to be different issues to deal with.”

“The Russians are freaking out,” Barry chimed in. “Geno’s Russian agent is meeting with the president of the Federation right now.”

“Legal issues?” Mario asked.

“Too soon to say,” Barry said. “I’ll keep you updated.”

“I appreciate that, JP,” Mario said. “What’s our strategy for now?”

“Say nothing,” Barry said. “Deny. Play dumb. I don’t care how you do it. But I can’t overstate how delicate the situation with Russia is, and one person saying the wrong thing could cause a hell of a lot of trouble.”

“None of this will leave the room,” Mario said, and looked around the table for confirmation. “Agreed?”

“Team will ask,” Zhenya said.

“I’ll deal with it,” Sidney said, and Zhenya realized then that as protective as he felt toward Sidney, Sidney felt the same way about him.

I’ll deal with it,” Sully said, and Sidney took a breath and nodded, his lips pressed together.

“We can go the no comment route, or we can issue a denial,” Jen said. “Geno, do you have a preference?”

Everything was happening too quickly. Decisions were being made. The situation was slipping out of his grasp, and he wanted fifteen minutes to sit down and think, to really think through the implications of what was happening, but everyone was looking at him now, and they wanted an answer.

“What is difference,” Zhenya said.

“I think denial is better,” Jen said. “We won’t issue a statement, but we’ll deal with it as it comes.” Zhenya couldn’t bear to see the sympathy on her face. Jen was supposed to scold him and be fond and annoyed, not look at him like his life was a tragedy.

“Okay,” he said, because what else could he say?

“I’m happy to talk to reporters about this, if you think that will help,” Sidney said.

“I do,” Jen said. “Thank you, Sidney.” She glanced at Zhenya. “I think it would be better to keep Geno away from the press, for now.”

Because he was so rattled, she meant. He was barely holding it together. He had seen his own face in the mirror that morning. One look at him and everyone would know.

“Sid, you’re being very calm about all of this,” Sully said.

Sidney shrugged. “I came out already. This isn’t a crisis situation for me. Maybe it’s a little embarrassing, but who cares? But it’s a crisis for Geno. We need to make this go away.”

“We’ll have to wait and see what Genya comes up with,” Barry said. “Everything hinges on the Hockey Federation’s response. Until we know what’s happening there, we can’t do much.”

“Jen, please stay in touch with JP,” Mario said. “We’ll wait for his word before we release any official statements.”

“Of course,” Jen said. “In the meantime, Sidney can issue an informal denial if anyone raises the issue.”

“Which they probably will,” Sidney said.

“Laugh it off,” Jen advised. “That Geno, drank a little too much, wacky guy.”

“We can meet again if we need to,” Mario said. “Otherwise, Jen and JP, I’m content to turn this over to you. Any other concerns?”

There weren’t. Zhenya sat for a moment, waiting to be told what to do next.

“Come on,” Sidney said gently. “Let’s go get changed.”

+ + +

They were early. Zhenya changed into his workout clothes and hopped on a bike, pedaling slowly at first and then more quickly until his legs burned and his lungs ached. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He kept going.

The team began trailing into the workout room after a while. Some of the guys came over and clapped him on the shoulder. They had probably all seen the pictures. He didn’t know what Sully had said to them. Nobody said anything to him, and he was grateful. He didn’t want to talk to any of them. They couldn’t understand.

As the first numb shock wore off, Zhenya realized that a large portion of what he was feeling was relief, clear and cold. The worst conceivable thing had happened. The decision had been made for him. He didn’t have to choose. He couldn’t betray Russia if Russia abandoned him first.

They had an off-ice workout that day, and he didn’t see Seryozha until it was over, and he had showered and was waiting in the hall for Sidney to finish talking to the media. His own phone was too terrifying; he had Sidney’s, with the notifications muted, and was playing chess. He was trying to exude enough fuck-off vibes that nobody would try to talk to him.

“Zhenya,” a voice said, and Zhenya looked up.

“I’m sorry,” Seryozha said simply.

Zhenya’s hand clenched around the phone. There was nothing to say.

“Your friends are very worried,” Seryozha said. “I’ve heard from Alyosha, and Kolya—”

Kolya,” Zhenya said, and it came out sneering, tight with disbelief.

“Yes, Kolya,” Seryozha said. “Even Sasha Ovechkin has texted me. Max is at your house right now, consoling your mother. There are many people who care about you.”

Zhenya looked down and swallowed. “My friends in Moscow—it isn’t a good idea for them to contact me.”

“They all know more about the political situation than you do,” Seryozha said. “Let them make that decision.”

Zhenya swallowed again. There was nothing to say.

“Hi, Gonch,” and that was Sidney’s voice, and Sidney’s hand at Zhenya’s elbow. “G, you ready to go?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said.

Seryozha pulled him into a hug. “Call or text any time,” he said. “Day or night. I mean it.”

“Thank you,” Zhenya said. He clung to Seryozha for a moment, gratitude and despair mixing in his chest, and then forced himself to let go. He and Sidney couldn’t linger too long in the corridors. Someone might see them together.

He called Genya again on the drive home.

“I have good news and bad news,” Genya said. “The good news is, you’re not off the team.”

“Okay,” Zhenya said, and waited for Genya to tell him the bad news.

“Obviously, the Federation is not stupid,” Genya said. “They know exactly what you’re doing with Crosby. But they’re willing to turn a blind eye, as long as nothing like this happens again.”

“What does that mean,” Zhenya said.

“It means you have to stop,” Genya said. “I don’t care how careful you think you’re being. It can’t continue. Not if you want to keep playing for Russia.”

Of course. As long as he stayed in the closet, they were fine with it: their pet queer, safely neutered. The law didn’t apply to famous hockey players, only to ordinary people. Zhenya had the ability to make rich men even richer, and so for him, all problems had an easy solution. Stay quiet, don’t make trouble, and every door would be opened for him.

“I have to—to end things with him,” Zhenya said. “That’s what you’re telling me.”

“And find yourself a girlfriend,” Genya said. “Parade her around in public. You should think about getting married before too long.”

“And then all is forgiven,” Zhenya said. “I get to play for Russia.”

“What else were you expecting?” Genya asked. “What did you think I was going to tell you? No problems here, feel free to keep screwing Crosby—”

“It’s not screwing,” Zhenya said, more sharply than he intended.

“Right, of course, you’re in love with him,” Genya said. “Come on, you idiot. You don’t pay me to tell you what you want to hear. Did you think this would have a happy ending?”

“No,” Zhenya said. His throat felt raw, like he had spent the morning vomiting. “I know there are no happy endings.”

“What did he say?” Sidney asked, when Zhenya ended the call.

“I tell you at home,” Zhenya said, and leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes.

+ + +

At home, there were his parents to deal with, and Max, who seemed hurt to not have been told but was otherwise accepting. He went through his text messages, finally, and his missed calls, and his voice mail, his email inbox, his Twitter notifications. Most of his Russian friends in Pittsburgh had messaged him, demanding explanations or offering sympathy, or both; and some of his friends in Moscow, and even a couple of his very oldest friends from Magnitogorsk, boys he had grown up with. He had done nothing to deserve it, and he was humbled and awed that they were reaching out to him now.

Even Denis had called him, and left voice mail. “I don’t approve,” he said. “It isn’t natural. But you’re my brother, and I hope I’ll see you before too long. Take care of yourself, Zhenya.” Zhenya covered his eyes with one hand and listened to the message again, and then a third time. It was more than he had hoped for.

Sidney brought him a sandwich and a beer while he sat at the desk in the living room with a pad of paper, writing notes about who he needed to get in touch with and who he should let Genya or Barry deal with, and Zhenya looked up at his beloved worried face and felt every possible word die in his mouth.

“I thought it was maybe a little too early for vodka,” Sidney said.

“Yes,” Zhenya said, and Sidney bent down to give him a kiss.

“I need to go home for a while,” Sidney said. “My phone’s blowing up. Pat wants to talk to me. And I should probably check in with my parents.”

“Oh,” Zhenya said. Of course Sidney had business to take care of: he was in the pictures, too. “Sorry, Sid, I—”

“No, it’s fine,” Sidney said. “Don’t apologize. You’re my priority right now. I told Mike this isn’t a crisis for me, and I meant it. A little inconvenient, but I’ll live. I’ll come back later, if you want.”

“Yes,” Zhenya said, probably too quickly, but he was reluctant to let Sidney out of his sight, like maybe Sidney would evaporate into mist if Zhenya turned his back.

“Okay,” Sidney said. He kissed Zhenya again. “I’ll be back after dinner.”

Sidney left. Zhenya finally caught up on all of the multiple ways for people to get in touch with him and went into the kitchen. His mother was cooking, as she often did when she was upset. She had pressed Max into service, chopping hard-boiled eggs.

“You’ll chop your thumb off, holding the knife like that,” Zhenya said. “Does your wife know you’re here?”

“What do you know about knife skills?” Max said. “You can barely make a sandwich.” He set the knife down and gave Zhenya a narrow look. “Has Sid been cooking for you? Is that why there’s so much food in your refrigerator lately?”

“Well,” Zhenya said.

“I should have known,” Max said, and it was all so normal, like nothing had changed. Zhenya sat down at the table and planted his elbows and covered his face.

“Sidney is a delight,” Zhenya’s mother said. “I’ve been teaching him how to make Russian food. Oh, Zhenechka, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Zhenya said into his hands.

The decision was still his after all, and there was no escaping it. Even if he did nothing, he would be making a choice.

“Zhenya?” his mother said.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m fine. Let me help you with something.”

Sidney came over that night, as promised. Zhenya was already in bed—not sleeping, not even really thinking about sleeping, but so overwhelmed by the day that a retreat to the warm nest of his blankets seemed warranted. He heard his door creak open, and he rolled over and Sidney was there in the doorway, and Zhenya felt a hard knot of tension in his chest immediately unravel.

“Hey, G,” Sidney said, soft, smiling at him.

“Hi,” Zhenya said. He watched as Sidney closed the door behind him and began stripping down. “How you find me?”

“Your dad said you were up here,” Sidney said.

“Oh, you talk with him?” Zhenya asked. “Remember word?”

“I said your name and looked confused, and he pointed at the ceiling,” Sidney said. “We’re great at communicating.” He took off everything but his boxers and climbed into bed with Zhenya. They lay facing each other. Sidney leaned in and kissed him, careful and lingering.

“Hi,” Zhenya said again.

“Tell me about your conversation with Genya,” Sidney said. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

So Zhenya told him, and when he was finished, Sidney rolled onto his back and draped one arm over his eyes. “So, that’s—okay. Okay.”

Zhenya made a questioning noise.

“That’s it, then,” Sidney said. “That’s—” He sat up. “I should go.”

“What?” Zhenya said. He sat up, too, and put his hand on Sidney’s back. “You’re just get here.”

“We’re just delaying the inevitable,” Sidney said. “There’s no way we can stay together.”

The slow hot rage that Zhenya had been choking down all day roared into furious life. “No? Why not? I have to do what national team wants? I have to do what Russia say?”

Sidney turned his head to stare. “Well, yeah. Don’t you? It’s not like you’re going to, uh.” He made a vague gesture that could have represented just about anything.

“Going to what,” Zhenya said. He felt dangerous.

“Going to, I don’t know—tell Russia to go fuck itself and get gay married to me,” Sidney said. “This has been great, I mean—it’s been really great. It’s been—but it’s not like you were ever going to pick me. I can’t ever go to Russia, and you can’t stay here, you’re—you love Russia.”

Zhenya felt like Sidney had punched him. It was a physical sensation, a hard blow directly to his soft center. He knew he was gaping, and couldn’t stop. “Not pick? Not—”

“Come on, Geno,” Sidney said. “You don’t want any of this. You’re going to marry a woman and move back to Russia after you retire. That’s always been the plan.”

“You know plans so well?” Zhenya said harshly. “Know all I want—”

“I’ve known you for a long time,” Sidney said. “I think I have a pretty good idea of what you want.”

Zhenya rolled off the bed and paced over to his closet, and then turned on his heel toward the bed. Sidney was scowling, sitting up in the rumpled sheets, shirtless and strong and pale and beautiful. Zhenya wanted to throttle him. He always thought he knew best, even when he blatantly knew nothing.

“You can’t decide,” Zhenya said. He heard his voice shaking with suppressed fury. “You can’t make decide for me. You don’t know. Don’t say to me what I want. You don’t know.”

“Say it, then,” Sidney said, all heated up the way he got when they argued. “Say it right now. Tell me that you’re 100% ready to tell Russia to go screw itself. We’ll make out in public and tell the Federation to go to hell. Putin, too. We’ll send him an engraved, personal fuck you while we’re at it. I bet he remembers you.”

“Unfair,” Zhenya said. “Don’t be mean, Sid.”

Sidney deflated. His shoulders slumped. He looked down at his hands. “Sorry. You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Sid,” Zhenya said. He took a few deep breaths, calming himself. “Why you’re fight with me?”

Sidney poked at a bruise on his knee. When he spoke again, his voice was very quiet. “If you stay here for me, you’re going to resent me. I can’t be the reason you lose everything else in your life.”

“Sid,” Zhenya said, but Sidney still wouldn’t look at him. He went back over to the bed and sat on the mattress and pulled Sidney into his arms. Sidney was stiff but unresisting. “I know it’s hard for you too, having pictures.”

Sidney shook his head, but he leaned into Zhenya a little. “It isn’t easy, but it’s okay. Pat’s dealing with most of it.”

“You want break up?” Zhenya asked. “Tired of me?”

No, of course I’m not tired of you,” Sidney said. “But that’s not the point.” He turned his head and kissed Zhenya’s shoulder. “I just really want you to think about what you’re doing here.”

Zhenya rolled his eyes. “Good advice, I don’t think at all before you say.”

“I don’t trust you when you’ve got that look on your face,” Sidney said. “You look like you’re about to take the stupidest fucking penalty of all time. There’s no going back, okay? You can’t change your mind later. If you do something stupid, I’ll make you regret it for the rest of your life.”

“You think stupid is be with you,” Zhenya said.

“Well, yeah,” Sidney said.

Zhenya’s head ached. His heart felt punctured clean through.

“We can’t,” Sidney said. “It’s got to end.”

“Let’s sleep now,” Zhenya said, after a moment.

“It’s early,” Sidney said.

“Watch TV, then,” Zhenya said desperately. He didn’t want to talk any longer, or look at Sidney’s sad resigned face when he told Zhenya they couldn’t be together. He had—well, maybe he had hoped that Sidney would fight for them, and talk Zhenya into it along the way, but that wasn’t in Sidney’s nature. He would do what he thought was best for Zhenya, with no regard for what he wanted for himself.

“Okay,” Sidney said. He sighed, and shifted back against the pillows. “What do you want to watch?”

Zhenya didn’t sleep much that night. He lay awake in the darkness, listening to Sidney breathe quietly beside him in the bed, and imagined the great indifferent galaxy wheeling slowly through the sky above, black and full of stars.

+ + +

He woke Sidney in the morning with a gentle hand in his hair. Sidney grumbled a protest but opened his eyes, and Zhenya had to watch, agonized, as Sidney’s initial sleepy smile faded into guarded uncertainty.

“I’m bring you tea,” Zhenya said.

Sidney sat up and accepted the mug from him. “I—thanks.” He curled his hands around the cup and gazed at Zhenya over the rim. “What time is it? Do we have time? You should come back to bed.”

“We have time,” Zhenya said.

They fucked face-to-face, lazy and sweet. Sidney spent a long time stroking between Zhenya’s legs, smearing lube everywhere, playing with his balls and perineum and his hole, not even teasing him but simply touching, his gaze fixed on Zhenya’s face. Zhenya knew that Sidney was saying goodbye to him, and he let it happen, out of cowardice or despair; and because he felt that if he didn’t acknowledge it, then it couldn’t be real. Nothing had happened. He wasn’t going to lose Sidney. He could bring Sidney tea in bed every morning, and drink in Sidney’s soft gasp as he sunk at last into Zhenya’s body. Nothing had to change.

Everything was going to change.

Sidney went into the bathroom afterward, while Zhenya lay in bed and dealt with his phone. He heard the shower cut on. When Sidney emerged with a towel wrapped around his waist, his face was drawn and pale. Zhenya pretended not to notice. What was there to say, for either of them?

He watched as Sidney pulled on his clothes and raked a hand through his damp hair, and felt that his heart was being extracted from his chest without even the benefit of anesthesia. He might not survive it.

“Well,” Sidney said. He came over and stared down at Zhenya, still lying stretched out with his phone held above his face. He lowered the phone to his chest and returned Sidney’s gaze.

“Sid,” he said, full of huge love and terror and grief.

“I’ll see you at practice,” Sidney said. He bent down to kiss Zhenya’s cheek.

“Bye,” Zhenya said, and went back to his text messages so he wouldn’t have to watch Sidney leave.

He called Barry later, on his way to the rink. “What’s news?”

“You tell me,” Barry said. “You’re in the clear as long as you quit kissing Crosby. Gennady tells me it’s all over Russian social media, but it’s being kept out of the mainstream press for now. Gennady is going to talk with Tretiak again later today and tell him there won’t be an issue.”

Zhenya said nothing.

“There won’t be an issue, right?” Barry said.

“No,” Zhenya said at last. “No issue.”

“Good,” Barry said. “Keep me updated.” He paused. “Sorry about the true love thing.”

“Me too,” Zhenya said.

He had a meeting with Jen scheduled for before practice. She was on the phone when he went up to her office, and he sat and played with the miniature zen garden on her desk, raking around and around the stones. His restless night was catching up with him. His eyes felt gritty. He was going to skate like shit during practice and Sully would give him a disappointed look, and Sidney, too, most likely.

“Sorry,” Jen said at last, ending the call. “How are you? Would you like some coffee?”

“Please,” Zhenya croaked, and gratefully accepted the mug Jen poured for him, strong and black and filled almost to the brim.

“That was JP on the phone,” Jen said. “He says you’re moving ahead with the national team.”

“Jen, I’m not decide,” Zhenya admitted. “Don’t know what to do. So just—go along, don’t argue.” It was easier to confess to her than to Genya or Barry, who would be disappointed and upset, and try to talk sense into him. Jen might judge him, but she would do it secretly, and would only give him helpful PR advice.

“Oh, Geno,” she said. “I’m sorry. It’s a tough situation. I’ll take my cues from JP for now, but if you want to do something different, just let me know, okay? You’re the boss, here.”

Zhenya nodded, and sipped his coffee.

Jen gave him a considering look. “I was going to ask if you wanted to talk to the press today, but I think we should hold off on that. But let me show you what Sidney said yesterday, so at least you’re on the same page.” She rotated her laptop around to show him the screen, and pulled up a clip of Sidney in his workout clothes and cap, sitting at his stall in the otherwise empty locker room.

Zhenya couldn’t hear the reporter’s muffled question. Sidney flashed his crooked grin and mopped at his face with a towel and said, “Yeah, Geno—he’s an affectionate guy. Definitely had a little too much to drink. The guys were all cutting loose a little, little bit of decompression before the playoffs, you know? Someone started buying shots—not naming any names. Gotta protect the innocent.”

He was so good-looking. Zhenya forgot that, most of the time, so used to looking at Sidney’s face, but sometimes it hit him hard. Even sweaty, flushed, wearing that terrible sweat-stained cap, his face covered with the stubbly beginnings of his playoff beard, he was way out of Zhenya’s league.

“He’s good liar,” he said.

“He’s had a king’s ransom’s worth of media training,” Jen said. “Anyway, the internet doesn’t believe it, but the media isn’t ready to outright accuse Sidney Crosby of lying, and the photos are ambiguous enough that I think you’re getting away with it.” She turned the laptop back around. “But I don’t think I need to tell you that there won’t be a second chance.”

“No,” Zhenya said.

“It will die down by the fall,” Jen said. “But for the rest of the playoffs, any non-hockey interaction between the two of you will be taken as confirmation. Be careful.”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “Thanks, Jen.”

“Keep me in the loop,” Jen said. “We can meet again tomorrow if we need to. Just send me an email.”

“Thanks,” Zhenya said again, and went downstairs to get changed.

He was warming up on the bike when Flower came in and hopped on the bike beside him. “Morning, G.”

Zhenya grunted an acknowledgment. He didn’t feel like making conversation.

“How are you holding up?” Flower asked quietly, and Zhenya swallowed and put his head down, pedaling a little faster.

“How is Sid?” he asked, just as quietly.

“Worried about you, mostly,” Flower said. He reached over and bumped Zhenya with an elbow. “Let me know if I can do anything to help, okay?”

Zhenya liked Flower, they got along well, but Flower was Sidney’s friend, first and foremost—certainly Sidney’s closest friend on the team now that Pascal was gone. Zhenya had expected that Flower would close ranks, after what had happened. He certainly hadn’t expected sympathy.

“Take care of Sid,” he said. He sounded awful, even to himself. “Please. It’s all I want.”

“Okay, G,” Flower said. “Sure. I can do that.”

+ + +

He and Sidney largely avoided each other for the next several days, as they geared up for the series against the Capitals. Sidney was polite and friendly during practice, didn’t change his behavior in any way, but all the rest of it was different. Sidney was acting as though they had already split up, which they hadn’t, not really, not officially; but maybe Sidney didn’t know what a breakup was supposed to look like. He still texted Zhenya a lot, innocuous photos of the planters on his deck or a cute dog outside a coffee shop.

Zhenya didn’t reply to any of his messages. They would be friends, come hell or high water, for the good of the team, and Sidney would text him every day until it was true; but Zhenya didn’t want to be friends, couldn’t bear to contemplate a future in which that was their only relationship, teammates who sometimes texted about nothing in particular.

Zhenya was a natural disaster in human form, tormented by indecision and guilt. He wasn’t okay. He missed Sidney constantly. He had grown accustomed to telling Sidney everything, storing up funny little anecdotes to share with him, and now he had nobody to share those things with. His mother didn’t care about the dirty joke Horny told him during practice. Max didn’t care about the random discount set of shot glasses Zhenya found at the dollar store, Canada and Russia inexplicably nestled together in the box. He and Sidney had been friends before, not close friends but friendly, but somewhere along the line, Sidney had become his best friend, the person Zhenya most wanted to talk to, and he felt painfully alone.

He kept Sidney’s note in his wallet, the card from the flowers, and took it out so many times to look at it that the corners went soft and frayed.

He went to the grocery store one afternoon after practice, mainly to give himself something to do, and put a pint of Sidney’s favorite ice cream in the cart without thinking about it, then put it back, then bought two. His mother helped him put the groceries away when he got home, and he was faced with the pathetic reality of his own purchases, a haphazard mixture of random produce, frozen meals that nobody would eat, and Sidney’s favorite desserts.

“Zhenya, who is going to eat these?” his mother asked, holding a package of the little round brownies Sidney liked.

The Malkins weren’t a dessert family. “It’s for company,” Zhenya said firmly. “For when I have guests.”

“For Sidney, you mean,” his mother said, far too discerning for Zhenya’s peace of mind.

“No,” Zhenya said, a beat too late. He had bought kale, two bunches, and a huge clamshell of cherry tomatoes. He had no clear plan for any of it.

“We haven’t seen much of him, lately,” his mother said.

Zhenya turned away from her and began aimlessly rearranging things in the cabinet. “He can’t come here, mama. We can’t be together anymore. You know there’s no way.”

“You’re choosing Russia, then,” his mother said. Zhenya didn’t respond, and after a moment, she added, “I’m not as glad to hear that as I thought I would be.”

“Mama, don’t,” Zhenya begged. He knew his parents had gotten attached to Sidney, and it would kill him to listen to a full rundown of the nature and extent of their fondness.

“All right, Zhenechka,” she said. “It’s all right. Let me make you something to eat.”

He met Sasha for drinks the night before their first game against the Capitals. They wouldn’t be friends during the series, but they could be friends before and after, and Sasha had been texting him nonstop about getting together, refusing to drop the subject until Zhenya finally gave in. They met at a bar near the hotel in DC, a place Sasha had picked, and when Zhenya walked in he saw that it was a hole in the wall, dimly lit and mostly empty on a Wednesday night.

“Zhenya,” Sasha said, rising from his seat at the bar to greet him. They clasped hands, and Sasha slapped him on the back, maybe harder than he needed to.

“Hi, Sasha,” Zhenya said. “Nice work against the Leafs. Shame it took you six games to put them out of their misery.”

Sasha rolled his eyes. “I’m not letting you bait me. Buy me a drink, please. You owe me. I keep getting asked questions about you. Why does anyone think I want to talk about Zhenya Malkin?”

“Sorry,” Zhenya said.

“Well,” Sasha said, and he abruptly looked sympathetic, which was terrible. Zhenya lifted his hand to summon the bartender.

They talked about the Predators sweeping the Blackhawks: a safe topic. Sasha was royalty in DC, and the bartender clearly recognized him, but maintained a respectful distance.

A few drinks in, Sasha cleared his throat and said, “So, I’ll see you in Pyeongchang?”

“I hope so,” Zhenya said, which was true enough: he could always hope.

“You and Crosby,” Sasha said, and stopped.

“Yeah, it’s true,” Zhenya said.

“Well, I know that,” Sasha said.

“It’s over now, I guess,” Zhenya said. “We’ve stopped.”

“For the Olympics,” Sasha said.

“For all of it,” Zhenya said. “You know how things are, Sasha, do I really have to spell it out for you? You know how it is.”

“Okay,” Sasha said. “I’m sorry. Let me get you another drink.”

It wasn’t very late when he returned to the hotel. His room was down the hall from Sidney’s, and as he passed Sidney’s door, he heard the television on, a muted laugh track. He lingered there for a terrible moment, gripped by a sudden fantasy of knocking on the door and going inside and having Sidney again, just one final time. But then he shook himself out of it and went on.

+ + +

They won two games against the Capitals, and then flew home to Pittsburgh for the third. Sidney smiled at Zhenya on the bus to the airport, and Zhenya hated himself. With each day that passed, his inability to decide looked more and more like he was, in fact, making a decision—like he had already decided. Inertia was a powerful force, and it was dragging him away from Sidney and away from that treasured miraculous span of his life when Sidney was his.

His parents came to meet him at the airport. “Up two games, oh Zhenya,” his mother said, kissing his face. Over her shoulder, he saw his father waving tentatively at Sidney, and Sidney waving back, and then stuffing his hand quickly in his pocket, like he thought he had done something wrong.

“Let’s go home,” Zhenya said, and tore his eyes away.

During the game the next night, Sidney took a bad hit only a few minutes in. He was right in front of the net, he had the puck, and so Zhenya was watching him when it happened. A hard check to the face, and Sidney was down on the ice—down, and not getting up.

Zhenya was on his feet in an instant, tensed to go over the boards.

Kuni, standing beside him, gripped the back of his jersey and gave him a sharp tug. “Don’t even think about it,” he said.

Zhenya turned on him, outraged. “Sid’s hurt! Kuni—”

“If you go out there right now, everyone’s going to know,” Kuni said, and Zhenya dropped down onto the bench, shaken.

Sidney didn’t get up. He tried, he turned over and tried to push himself up, but he couldn’t manage it. He couldn’t shake it off. Zhenya was frantic, watching him lie there. A hit like that, right to the head, and with Sidney’s history—it was a career-ender.

He wouldn’t let himself think that. Chris was there, down on the ice with Sidney, talking to him. “Oh, please, oh, God,” Zhenya said, not even sure what language he was speaking, “Sid, please, get up,” and Kuni gripped his shoulder, both comforting him and holding him there, pinning him to the bench. Kuni knew, and Zhenya wondered if Sidney had told him, or if it was just that everyone on the team had figured it out, after the pictures.

“Fuck this,” Phil said. “Come on, G,” and he hopped the boards and skated out to check on Sidney.

“Okay, go,” Kuni said. “Not too close,” and by the time Zhenya made it over there, circling at a casual distance, Sidney was up on his knees, and Hainsey and Horny were helping him to his feet, and then he was up: he was standing. He was slowly skating away.

He met Zhenya’s gaze. I’m okay, he mouthed.

Zhenya made it through the rest of that period, somehow, fueled by a combination of terror and rage. At the intermission, he went down the hallway, ignoring Sully’s attempt to get his attention, and kept going straight past the locker room, down the hall to the trainers’ room.

The door was closed. Zhenya opened it and went in. Sidney was sitting on one of the tables, stripped out of his gear, hunched in on himself. Chris and Dr. Vyas glanced over, startled, when Zhenya came in, and Dr. Vyas rose to his feet and said, “Geno, it’s not a good time.”

“How is he,” Zhenya said harshly.

“We’ll let Mike know once there are any updates,” Dr. Vyas said. “Now, please—”

“Let him stay,” Sidney said. “Please. I want to talk to him. Just five minutes.”

Chris and Dr. Vyas exchanged a look. Dr. Vyas shrugged. “Five minutes. Then I’m coming back and kicking you out, Geno.”

“Okay, five minutes,” Zhenya agreed, and they went out.

Zhenya dropped his helmet on the floor and sank into the chair Dr. Vyas had abandoned. He rested his head on Sidney’s thigh. After a moment, he felt Sidney’s fingers combing through his sweaty hair.

“Sid,” Zhenya said.

“I’m okay,” Sidney said softly. “They’re not sure I even have a concussion. I’ll be out for a few days, just to be safe, but I’m okay. He just rung my bell pretty good.”

“Oh, God,” Zhenya said. He felt his throat closing up. The shock and fear were hitting him now, a powerful wave of emotion beating at him. “Sid, I see you lie there on the ice, don’t move, I think—oh, God.”

“I’m okay,” Sidney said.

Zhenya raised his head to look at Sidney’s face. He was just the same: his hazel eyes, his awful beard. “I miss you,” Zhenya said.

“Oh, Geno, I love you so much,” Sidney said.

It was the first time Zhenya had ever heard him say it aloud. He put his head down again and hid his face against Sidney’s thigh, feeling hot sharp tears welling up.

“I’m sorry,” Sidney said. “I shouldn’t have said that. I know you’re—I know that it’s over. And we’ll both be okay. I know it’s for the best. But I love you so much.”

Zhenya knew, then, what his decision was going to be.

He lifted his head again, and let Sidney see the tears in his eyes, the open love and devotion stamped on his face. “Kiss me,” he said, and Sidney leaned down and did.

+ + +

He stayed late at the arena that night to break in a new pair of skates. The repetitive motions and the sound of his blades cutting through the ice sent him into a meditative trance after a while. He went around in circles, testing the give on the ankle supports, and let the complicated snarl of his thoughts fade away to white noise.

In the morning, he got out of the shower and found a message from Sidney to the team’s group chat: Feeling good. :) Conor, hope you’re doing okay, because Sheary was out, too, after an unfortunate collision with Horny in the second period.

“How is Sid?” his father asked, when he went downstairs for breakfast. His parents had both attended the game and seen the hit. “Have you heard anything?”

“He just messaged everyone and said he feels fine,” Zhenya said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. He wasn’t sure what his mother was cooking, but it smelled great.

“That’s good to hear,” his father said. “It looked bad.”

“Yeah,” Zhenya said. He still hadn’t entirely shaken off his panic. He knew he would be reliving it in his nightmares for years to come: Sidney trying and failing to get up, and then lying there on the ice, face-down.

“It was hard for you, wasn’t it,” his mother said. “To see that.”

Zhenya drew in a breath. “Yeah. It was hard.”

“Zhenya,” his father said.

“Maybe we should sit down,” Zhenya said.

“You’ve changed your mind, haven’t you,” his mother said. She set her spoon down on the counter. “You’re staying with him.”

“Let’s sit down,” Zhenya said.

Nobody cried, although his mother looked like she was thinking about it. “You can’t ever take it back,” she said. “You can’t change your mind again. Even if you end things with him—”

“I know, mama,” Zhenya said. He might never see Russia again, any of it: his beloved Moscow, his favorite bathhouse, the park where he liked to sit and read—or in Magnitogorsk, the apartment block where he grew up, the outdoor rink where he first learned to skate. He would never see his friends again, or at least not for many years.

Maybe he would be able to go back, in a year or two, after the attention faded and the public’s interest moved on. He was wealthy, and moderately famous. He had certain protections. But he thought that things in Russia would get much worse before they got better. He had to prepare himself for the possibility that he would grow old and die in North America.

“Natasha, I’m sure he’s thought this through,” his father said. “He knows it’s a serious decision.”

“Yes, I know,” his mother said. “I know. I’m sorry, Zhenya. But this will change so many things for you.”

“I hope it won’t cause too many problems for you,” Zhenya said. “I know I’m being selfish.”

“Don’t you worry about us,” his mother said. “Maybe some people will disapprove, but who cares about them? I know we have friends who will support us. And if it gets to be too bad, well, we’ll just move here and you’ll be stuck with us.”

Zhenya shared a look with his father. It was more complicated than that, but of course his mother was trying to put a brave face on things.

“What’s your plan?” his father asked. “Are you going to make a statement?”

“Well, uh,” Zhenya said. He looked down at his coffee mug. “I need to talk to Sid, first. He’s going to be pretty unhappy with me. He thinks I’ll resent him, if I stay here.”

“Will you?” his father asked.

Zhenya shook his head. “How could I? He hasn’t asked me to stay. He wants to break it off. He’s going to tell me I’m making a mistake.”

“You’ll have to be persuasive,” his mother said. “That’s hard for you, you aren’t very romantic. Volodya, give him some advice.”

“I’m plenty romantic,” Zhenya said, piqued that he was being doubted on this.

“I’ll send you over there with some food,” his mother said. “You’re going over now, aren’t you?”

“I—yes,” Zhenya said.

His mother sat quietly for a moment, stirring her tea. “You were so small, when you were born,” she said. “Much smaller than Denis. You were bright red, but you hardly cried at all. The doctor put you in my arms, and I knew I would love you until I drew my last breath. And now you’re a grown man, and I can’t protect you any longer. I can only pray for you, and hope that’s enough.”

“It’s more than I deserve,” Zhenya said, and they all did cry, then, for a little while.

Zhenya’s mother hadn’t been joking about the food. He drank a second cup of coffee as she filled a bag with containers of leftovers—all of Sidney’s favorites, and the unopened brownies.

“Tell him there’s always more where that came from,” she said.

“And give him our best wishes for his recovery,” his father said.

“Yes, of course I will,” Zhenya said, and then belatedly texted Sidney: You at home?

Yeah, why? Sidney replied. Zhenya didn’t waste time on a response. Sidney’s house was ten minutes away; Sidney wouldn’t leave before he got there.

He could have been a different person, in a different life, and stuck to women, married a woman, and nobody would have ever known about him. He would have been safe.

But he had Sidney, now, in this life.

+ + +

Sidney was out in his yard wearing a pair of Crocs and watering the planters lining the front walk, as if he didn’t pay someone to do that for him. Zhenya thought that Sidney was probably just waiting for him, and looking for something to do so that he wasn’t too obviously waiting. Love wrapped around his heart like a vine, deeply rooted. He needed to marry Sidney immediately, as in possibly the very next day.

“Hi,” Sidney said, when Zhenya got out of his car. “You could have said you were coming over.”

“Maybe you leave, if I say,” Zhenya said. “Pretend you’re not home. Why you’re not rest, Sid? Come inside. Plants don’t need water.”

“I feel fine,” Sidney protested, but he let Zhenya herd him into the house.

Sidney’s parents were sitting in the kitchen, which Zhenya hadn’t anticipated, but probably should have.

“Oh, ah, hi, good morning,” Zhenya said, trying to think of a reasonable way to express ‘sorry for abandoning your son for the past week and inadvertently toying with his emotions.’

But Trina rose to her feet and came over to give Zhenya a hug, to his total consternation. “Geno, it’s so good to see you. I’m so sorry about everything that’s happened.”

“I—thank you,” Zhenya said, shooting a look at Sidney that he hoped conveyed his bafflement. He hadn’t realized Trina liked him quite so much. Troy looked equally surprised, which was oddly comforting.

“Geno and I are going to sit out on the deck,” Sidney said.

“Yes, of course,” Trina said, releasing Zhenya at last. “Do you need anything? Do you want any water? I can make a pitcher of lemonade—”

“We’re fine, mom,” Sidney said gently. “Thanks, though.”

He led Zhenya outside, and they settled into the lounge chairs on the deck, nicely situated to catch the morning sunshine. It was a beautiful morning. Cardinals chirped and fluttered in a bush near the house, twigs in their beaks—building a nest.

Sidney slid on his sunglasses. “Sorry about that. They’re a little rattled after last night.”

“Me too,” Zhenya said.

“Oh,” Sidney said. “I—sorry.”

“No, don’t sorry,” Zhenya said. “Sorry is not point.” He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. He wished he had thought to bring his own sunglasses; it was bright. “Sid. I’m ready for tell Russia go screw itself.”

Sidney sat up straight and turned to face Zhenya, swinging his legs over the side of the chair. Zhenya couldn’t read his expression well behind the sunglasses, but he was sure it was incredulous. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

Maybe. Probably. “No,” Zhenya said. “Sid, I love you. I want be with you. I can’t—last night, I saw you get hit, and all I want is go out to you, say, I’m here, it’s okay. But I can’t. You’re most important to me, more than anything.”

“You can’t say that,” Sidney said. “That’s too much pressure. I can’t be the—the center of your life.”

“That’s what relationship is, Sid,” Zhenya said slowly, unable to believe that he had to spell this out.

Sidney made an impatient gesture. “No, I know that, that’s not what I—I just mean that you have an entire life in Russia, and I’m. Maybe I won’t be enough for you.”

“I have life here,” Zhenya said. “Max, Seryozha. Other friends, you don’t know—Russians. Team, hockey. Parents come. I have restaurant I like, favorite club, go watch football. I live here most of the year, for eleven years now. It’s home. Many good things about Pittsburgh, for me. And also you, and you’re best, but not only part.”

Sidney stared at him. Zhenya really wanted him to take off the fucking sunglasses so he could read Sidney’s expression.

“You say, don’t be stupid, you make me regret,” Zhenya said. “But if I lose you, I regret that, maybe every day until I die.”

“Geno,” Sidney said.

“It’s my choice,” Zhenya said. “I’m decide. If you want me, have life together, be in Pittsburgh together, then we do it.”

“Of course I want that,” Sidney said, “but Geno—”

“No, don’t argue,” Zhenya said. “I want.”

“It’s going to be so hard for you,” Sidney said.

Zhenya exhaled. “I know. I’m big mess, for long time, probably. Sad, angry. No Olympics for me, no—” He broke off, thinking of the relatives whose funerals he wouldn’t be able to attend, Denis’s little daughter he wouldn’t see grow up. It was a hard choice, the hardest he had ever made, infinitely more difficult than leaving Metallurg for the NHL. But he had decided, and he felt the gut-deep clarity of that decision. The turmoil of the past week and a half had resolved. It would be hard, but he was at peace with it.

“Oh, Geno,” Sidney said. “How can you want this? I’m not worth it.” Then he shook his head immediately, before Zhenya could protest. “Not that there’s anything wrong with me, in particular. I just don’t see how I’m that much better than anyone else out there. There are so many other people you could fall in love with.”

“No,” Zhenya said. “There’s only you.”

Sidney stared at him for a moment longer, and then started laughing, a little shaky, a little bit watery. “You romantic piece of shit. Okay, fine. Fine! I give in. I’m the best, you love me, you want to move to Canada and learn to appreciate Tim Horton’s—”

Zhenya kissed him, then, just to shut him up. It was the only way.

+ + +

There were a lot of phone calls to make. They sat together in Sidney’s study and called first Brisson and then Barry on speakerphone. Zhenya graciously allowed Sidney to do most of the talking. Brisson handled the news calmly, and had a lot of good advice about how to manage the eventual public revelation of their relationship, but Barry was flabbergasted.

“You’re going to do what?” he said, for the fourth or fifth time.

Zhenya sighed heavily. “JP, I say already. I know you don’t like, don’t want to hear. But I don’t change my mind.”

“Okay,” Barry said. “Okay, okay. I get it. You’re gay, you’re—”

“He’s not gay,” Sidney said.

“Whatever, bisexual,” Barry said. “Does it really matter?”

“Yes,” Sidney said.

“It doesn’t matter to Russia,” Barry said. “You think Putin cares about these gentle distinctions? You’re both men, you’re screwing, that’s all it takes. Geno won’t ever get to go home again.”

Fuck Russia,” Zhenya said. “They don’t want me, fine! I don’t want them!”

“Geno,” Sidney murmured.

“Why I want to do what Russia say, smile, lie, pretend I’m not like this?” Zhenya said. “No! I don’t hide. If Federation say, okay, you love Sid, that’s fine, then yes, I go back, I play for national team, of course I love Russia, I want to be Russian, play for Russia always. But not if I have to hide.”

“Okay,” Barry said. “I guess I can’t argue with that.”

“I’m different person now,” Zhenya said. “I don’t want spend whole life hide, sneak. Can’t go back to Russia, keep mouth shut, look other way. It’s not right.”

“Yeah, okay, I hear you,” Barry said. He sighed. “So what’s your plan?”

“No plan,” Zhenya said. “Maybe we come out after playoffs. Haven’t decide yet. I tell you first.”

“You had better call Gennady,” Barry said. “He’ll need time to protect himself.”

“Yes, he’s next call,” Zhenya said.

“Okay,” Barry said. “Well.” He sighed again. “Congratulations on the true love.”

“Thank you,” Sidney said. He reached over and took Zhenya’s hand.

Sidney held his hand all through the phone call with Genya. “You idiot,” Genya said. “You goddamn idiot. No, I understand, you don’t have to explain yourself. I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“I think I was always going to pick him, Genya,” Zhenya said quietly. “The pictures just sped up the timeline.”

“Yes, I know how you are, always in with both feet.” He sighed. “Prepare for me to say some awful things about you to the Russian press.”

“I know you’ll have to,” Zhenya said. “But I hope I’ll see you again, the next time you’re in the States.”

“Of course you will,” Genya said. “Ah, you idiot. Give me a few days’ notice before you make any announcements, hey?”

“I’ll tell Barry,” Zhenya said. “Maybe it’s best if he calls you, instead of me.”

“Yes, that’s probably best,” Genya said. “You’re getting good at this.”

“It was Brisson’s idea,” Zhenya admitted. “We talked to him earlier.”

Genya laughed. “Pat is a smart man. Okay, what else?”

“I have a list of names for you,” Zhenya said. “Friends and family in Russia. Please contact them for me, and say I love them, and—to maybe wait for some big news before they decide if they want to contact me again.”

“I’ll make sure they know,” Genya said. “You idiot. God bless you, Zhenya.”

“I hope I’ll see you again soon,” Zhenya said, and when they ended the call, he turned and took Sidney into his arms and held him for a while.

+ + +

Sidney and his parents went out somewhere for lunch, and Zhenya stayed at the house and lay out on the deck in the sun. His body ached in a generalized way, the long season and the physicality of the playoffs catching up with him, and the heat of the sun felt good on his skin. He lay on his stomach and drifted, thinking about nothing.

He heard the door slide open after a long while. “You’re going to burn to a crisp,” Sidney said, sounding amused. “Come inside.”

Zhenya turned his head to squint up at Sidney. He had changed into a navy polo shirt that fit him indecently well. “I’m use sunscreen.”

“Come inside anyway,” Sidney said. “I brought you some takeout. And we could take a nap.”

“Not sleepy,” Zhenya said.

“We could take a nap anyway,” Sidney said. “Come on, G, I’m obviously using ‘nap’ as a euphemism.”

“You want to screw,” Zhenya said. He sat up and shaded his eyes with his hand to give Sidney a very obvious once-over.

“Well, yeah,” Sidney said plaintively. “It’s been more than a week. I really want to fuck you.” He paused. “I mean, if you’re up for it. I know things have been crazy for you—”

“I want,” Zhenya said, and watched, mesmerized, as Sidney licked his lips. He couldn’t resist teasing a little, so he added, “Only if you make it good.”

“I always make it good!” Sidney protested. “Don’t I?”

Zhenya reached out to hook his hand around the back of Sidney’s thigh and urge him closer. Sidney shuffled in, and Zhenya wrapped his arms around Sidney’s legs and pushed his face into Sidney’s belly. “It’s always good,” he said. “Let’s fuck, then you give me lunch.”

“I like that plan,” Sidney said. His hands sunk into Zhenya’s hair.

Sidney fucked him, and it was good—it was great, like always. They lay around in bed for a while afterward, just holding each other, trading slow kisses. Sidney had the curtains open, and the room was filled with light.

They probably both looked pretty well-fucked when they came downstairs again later, but Sidney’s parents didn’t say anything about it. Trina followed them into the kitchen as Sidney reheated the pasta he’d brought for Zhenya and said, “Sidney, let me do that. You should really be resting.”

“I am! I just took a nap,” Sidney said, and Zhenya had to cover his mouth with one hand to hide his smirk. “I feel fine, mom, I promise. I really don’t think I got a concussion.”

“I’m sorry, sweetie,” Trina said. “I can’t help worrying about you.”

“Geno isn’t worried,” Sidney said. “Look at him. He’s just sitting there waiting for me to bring him his lunch.”

Zhenya really objected to being slandered as unworried. He was so worried he had decided to repudiate his country over it. But Sidney was his team, and so he said, “Sid is fine. Good at diving. Only want to make Ovechkin feel bad about slash him in the head.”

“Well,” Trina said. The microwave beeped, and she got to it before Sidney could and pointed a stern finger at the ‘nook’. She plated the pasta, and fished a fork from the drawer, and then she said, gently, “Geno, Sidney told us about what you’re planning to do.”

“Oh,” Zhenya said. Well, he should have expected it; Sidney’s parents would find out sooner or later. It wasn’t that he minded, necessarily. He just felt so raw.

“Would your parents like to come over for dinner this evening?” Trina asked.

“My—yes,” Zhenya said. Sidney sat down beside him on the bench and put an arm around Zhenya’s shoulders. His life in Russia was over, but there was a new life for him here: a pretty good one. “I think they like that very much.”

+ + +

He and Sidney met with Sully the next morning before skate. “We’re going to keep it under wraps until the playoffs are over,” Sidney said, “but we’d like to tell the team. Maybe today, if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course,” Sully said. “I don’t anticipate any problems in the room. Anyone who is uncomfortable with it will have to handle himself, to be frank. You have the full support of the coaching staff.”
 
“Thanks, Sully,” Zhenya said. “It’s mean a lot to us.”
 
Sully smiled. “I wasn’t exaggerating when I told Jim I had no idea. If any of the guys cause trouble, it’s on them, not either of you.”

“We aren’t going to hide it,” Sidney said. “There might be a lot of media attention. We don’t want the guys to be blindsided.”

“I understand,” Sully said. “To be honest with you, I doubt it will come as much of a surprise. After the pictures came out, I told them I wouldn’t tolerate any baseless speculation, but—well, you know how they talk.”

“Gossip,” Zhenya said. “Like grandmother.”

“I raised two daughters,” Sully said, “and I can confirm that hockey players are much worse than teenage girls.”

Sidney sighed. “The chirping is never going to end.”

“No, probably not,” Sully agreed.

They had a team meeting after skate, to go over some video footage. Before they got started, Sully said, “Sid would like to make an announcement,” and stepped aside to let Sidney take his place at the front of the room.

“Team barbecue?” someone called out.

Sidney smiled tightly. “No. Well, sure, we can do that, but—uh, that’s not what I want to say.” He shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket and looked uncomfortable.

Good grief. Sidney could lie to the press with a snake’s tongue, but put him in front of his teammates and he would fumble around like a schoolboy. Zhenya rose from his seat and elbowed Sidney out of the way. “What Sid try to say is, we’re in relationship.”

Silence. Flower was concealing a smile behind his hand. Some of the guys were grinning. Some of them looked like Zhenya had just sprouted an additional head or three, like a hydra.

“So, like—you’re dating?” Sheary said after a minute. “It’s true?”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “For six months now, me and Sid. Sorry we don’t say. It’s secret now, until after playoff, so don’t tell reporter.”

“I told you assholes they were screwing,” Cole said. “Nobody carpools that much. Well, except Horny and Haggy.”

“Me and Hags also are dating,” Horny said.

“Haggy can do way better,” Phil said.

“Oh my God,” Sidney said weakly.

“Okay, if there are no questions, let’s watch some of this tape,” Sully said, and it was as easy as that.

Flower approached him after the meeting broke up. Sidney had been swarmed by the young guys, who were apparently trying to convince him to attend Rusty’s birthday party. Sully had been right, Zhenya thought: most of the guys didn’t care, or didn’t care very much, and if any of them did, they were smart enough to keep their mouths shut.

“You’re coming out, then?” Flower said quietly.

Zhenya nodded, and shrugged. “Not press conference, like Sid. Just, maybe stop hide. Then people know, but we don’t have to say.”

“I’m sorry,” Flower said. “That the world is like this.”

“Maybe it’s better, someday,” Zhenya said. He didn’t really want to talk about it with Flower.

“Sid is coming over for dinner tomorrow night,” Flower said. “Why don’t you come with him?”

“Okay,” Zhenya said. “Thanks, Flower.”

“He was alone for a long time,” Flower said. “I’m sorry for how things have happened. But I’m glad that he has you.”

“I’m glad I have him,” Zhenya said, and watched Sidney laughing at whatever Jake was saying, his eyes all scrunched up, his head thrown back. He would be a mess for a long time, but at the end of it there was this: Sidney, in this life.

+ + +

After they won the Cup again—after all the selfies, after Zhenya almost ate it when he hoisted the Cup, and Sidney was interviewed with his face still wet with joyful tears; after the champagne, and Sidney shaving his beard in Zhenya’s hotel room, after the flight home and the party at Mario’s and the parade, and all the rest of it—after all of that, Zhenya took a couple of days to do absolutely nothing. He went to Sidney’s to swim in the pool, and then back to his own house to eat his mother’s cooking, and he slept a lot and shaved his own beard and otherwise did nothing.

On the third day, he and Sidney went downtown together, to walk around the city. The weather was hot and sunny, and they walked out across the Sixth Street bridge toward the baseball stadium, with the water shining below them and the sky a fierce washed-out blue overhead.

A fan approached them, a girl—a young woman, really. Zhenya was getting old, and an increasingly large percentage of the population seemed like children to him.

She wanted pictures with both of them. “Absolutely,” Sidney said, and raised his eyebrows at Zhenya: Now?

Zhenya nodded. Now.

She posed with each of them, Sidney first and then Zhenya, and then Sidney said, “Will you take a picture of the two of us?”

“Oh, sure!” she said.

“You’ve got to promise that you’ll put it all over the internet,” Sidney said.

All over the internet. Zhenya was going to marry this idiot. “Instagram,” he clarified. “Twitter. Make sure is public.”

“Uh, okay,” she said, looking puzzled now. Well, she wouldn’t be puzzled for long.

They stood leaning against the railing, the river behind them, and past that the downtown skyline, this city Zhenya had come to love. Sidney slid his hand into Zhenya’s back pocket and squeezed, the minx.

Zhenya wrapped an arm around Sidney’s shoulders and gazed down at him. “Ready?”

“Oh yeah,” Sidney said, and Zhenya leaned in.

Sidney’s kisses were never perfunctory. There was some tongue.


5. Motherland

They went to Miami for a couple of weeks, to let the furor die down. Zhenya owned a condo on an island south of Miami Beach, accessible only by boat. Oprah used to own a home on the island. A couple of hockey players were small potatoes, comparatively. It was the kind of place you could go to be left in peace.

Going to Miami with the Gonchars at the end of the season had been Zhenya’s pattern for years, and doing it now made him feel that he was still rooted in his old life. Not everything had to change. He could still eat Seryozha’s cooking, and talk with Ksenia about her work with her foundation, and teach the girls to play chess.

Sidney fit seamlessly into Zhenya’s existing habits. He worked out with Zhenya and Seryozha, and even went deep sea fishing with them a few times. The girls were both very committed to improving his Russian, and most evenings there were impromptu language lessons around the dinner table. Sidney wasn’t much of a beach person, but he liked to lie out beside the pool, pretending to read but mostly napping. He turned pink all over after the first day, and then, gradually, developed a very nice tan.

Natalie was a teenager now, and heavily invested in her own sunbathing, but Victoria was eight, and she wanted nothing more in life than for someone to play with her in the pool. Sidney was a known sucker for children, and Zhenya spent a lot of time watching them splash around in the pool together. The girls were American through and through: born in the US, fluent in English, with American friends and American interests. But they spoke Russian at home, they ate Russian food; Russia was in them still. Victoria beat Sidney over the head with a pool noodle and Zhenya
imagined the future: his own family, his own children. His children with Sidney.

A few days before they were due to leave, Sidney rolled over when they were watching television in bed and said, “What do you want to do for the rest of the summer?”

Go home, Zhenya almost said. The words crumbled on his tongue. “I’m not think about,” he said instead.

“Would you like to make some plans?” Sidney asked. “I usually go to LA for a while, and then I’m in Cole Harbour for most of the summer. But I don’t want to, like, drag you along with whatever I’m doing. We can make new plans. I’ve got the hockey school in mid-July, but other than that, I mean. We could just hang out in Pittsburgh all summer, if that’s what you’d like to do.”

“Maybe not LA,” Zhenya said. He wanted familiar things, familiar places. “But I help with hockey school, if you want me.”

Sidney pushed up onto his elbow and smiled down at Zhenya. “Yeah? That would be really great, G. The kids would be so excited.” He paused. “You’d have to put up with Nate, though. He’s a lot to deal with.”

“I’m not scare about MacKinnon,” Zhenya said. “He’s small problem. Has crush on you, very cute.”

“Ugh, he doesn’t have a crush on me,” Sidney said. “He’s got a girlfriend.”

“Crush,” Zhenya said firmly, and pulled Sidney down into a kiss to stave off any subsequent protests.

Sidney freed himself at last and sat up to straddle Zhenya’s hips. “Let’s stay in Pittsburgh, okay? Andy’s got a new girlfriend, he’ll jump at the chance to stay in town and train us. And we don’t have to go to Canada for longer than a week, if you don’t want to. You might like my place up there, though. The lake’s pretty nice.”

“You don’t have to do only what I like,” Zhenya said. “Important you can be in Canada, see family, be with friends.” He stroked his hands up Sidney’s thighs, up to the tan line from his swim trunks. They had fooled around earlier, and Sidney was still naked, a warm muscular lapful and just about the most appealing sight Zhenya could imagine.

“We’ll play it by ear,” Sidney said. He leaned down and kissed the corner of Zhenya’s mouth. “Remember when I told you I regretted coming out?”
 
“Yes,” Zhenya said. It seemed like a very long time ago.
 
“I don’t anymore,” Sidney said. “I’m glad I did it. I’ve been through this already, so now I can—help you, maybe.” He drew in a breath and let it out. “When the pictures first came out, I thought—maybe it was my fault. Like, if I didn’t come out, nobody would have been paying attention to me. You know? Nobody would have been looking. It would have been a lot easier for us to hide. But there’s no point in playing that kind of what-if game. It happened, and we’re dealing with it, and I’m—I don’t have to be freaked out about it. You take such good care of me, all the time. But this time, I can take care of you.”
 
“Oh, Sid,” Zhenya said. “Sid, you always take care.”
 
“Well, I want to,” Sidney said stubbornly. “Let me do this. Let me just take care of you this summer.”

“Maybe start now,” Zhenya said, and slid his hands up a little higher.

+ + +

He met with Jen the day after they got back from Miami. She and Barry had been running interference for him, dealing with all of his media inquiries and turning down the vast majority of them, but she had set aside a few for him to look at. Zhenya reluctantly dragged himself over to the rink while Sidney was still shuffling around the kitchen in his boxers.

“You look tan,” Jen said approvingly.

“Wait to you see Sid,” Zhenya said. “You’re go on vacation, Jen?”

“Next week,” she said. “I wanted to meet you with before I took off.” She handed him a folder. “There are only three things in there. I’ve been ruthless.”

“You scary,” Zhenya agreed. “Not smart to mess with Jen.” He opened the folder and read through the papers. The Post-Gazette wanted to interview him, which he would probably turn down. The Pittsburgh Pride march wanted him to participate in their parade next year, which sounded kind of fun. And there was an email, in Russian, from a freelance reporter in New York. She was a lesbian, she wrote; she had been born in St. Petersburg, and moved to the US as a child. She wanted to talk with him.

“Let me think about,” Zhenya said.

“Not a problem,” Jen said. “None of these need an answer right away. PrideFest is almost a year away. I guess they wanted to lock you down early. They wanted both of you, but I figured Sidney wouldn’t be interested.”

“Probably not, but I ask,” Zhenya said; and he did, that same day, over lunch.

“Absolutely not,” Sidney said.

Zhenya said nothing. Sidney looked at him.

“Oh, God,” Sidney said. “You want to.”

“Maybe,” Zhenya said. “It’s fun! Big parade, happy people, maybe balloon. Wave, smile. Fun.”

“No way,” Sidney said. “I mean, you can go. You can take a cardboard cutout of me, and have it on the float with you. Wiggle it around every now and then so people think it’s really me.”

“You not cute,” Zhenya said, but he meant that Sidney was very cute, possibly the cutest person Zhenya had ever known.

He spent some time that afternoon looking up local gay rights organizations. He had a lot of money, and no more reason to hide. Maybe there was something he could do.

+ + +

Sidney took good care of him, but it was still hard. Sometimes it was very hard, and Zhenya drank too much vodka and shut himself in the den, watching Soviet cartoons from his childhood. Sidney would let him wallow for a while, but then he would come in and put his head in Zhenya’s lap and let Zhenya play with his hair until he felt like a person again.

“I don’t know what to say,” Sidney said, the first time he found Zhenya sitting in the dark, watching old episodes of Nu, pogodi! “I don’t know how to make you feel better about this.”

“You can’t,” Zhenya said. “It’s not your job, make me feel better.”

“I guess,” Sidney said, obviously still deeply unhappy about the situation.

“Just sit here,” Zhenya said, because Sidney was a task-oriented person and needed something to do with himself. “Be with me.”

Sidney’s face softened. “Okay,” he said. “I can do that,” and after that he was more or less content to sit with Zhenya and let Zhenya sit with his emotions.

They went to Nova Scotia for the hockey school, and it was weird, but good. Zhenya had thought Sidney was famous in Pittsburgh, but he was essentially Jesus to the good people of metropolitan Halifax, which took some getting used to. But it was nice to see where Sidney had grown up, and to meet some of his childhood friends. They spent a lot of time with Sidney’s parents and his sister, who Zhenya had met a few times but only in passing. He liked her much more than he had expected. Taylor had Sidney’s same innate sweetness but a better sense of humor, and the three of them sat out on Sidney’s dock most evenings, drinking beer and watching the sun go down, dangling their feet in the water.

Zhenya lasted almost a full two weeks in Cole Harbour. The Friday after the school ended, he woke up to an email from Barry. The picture of Zhenya and Sidney kissing had, as they expected, been interpreted as pro-gay propaganda. Zhenya was being prosecuted to the full extent of the law: a fine of 100,000 rubles, and a warrant for his arrest. It wasn’t very much money, less than two thousand dollars, but the symbolism of it cut him like a knife. The last tie was broken. Russia didn’t want him.

“Let’s get out of here,” Sidney said, when Zhenya told him. “We can go back to Pittsburgh.”

“I don’t want,” Zhenya said. “Sorry.”

“Then let’s go, uh—one of my friends has a cottage out near Boggy Lake,” Sidney said. “It’s about three hours from here. Nobody’s ever up there, he’d be happy to let us use it. We could go up there for a while and just—be alone.”

“Yes,” Zhenya said. “Please.”

“I’ll call him right now,” Sidney said. He bent to kiss Zhenya’s forehead. “You aren’t reading the news, are you?”

“No,” Zhenya said. He had blocked every Russian-language media source he could think of, and a lot of English-language ones, too. Why tempt himself? He knew what was being said about him. He didn’t need to read it.

They spent a glorious five days at the cottage. Zhenya lay on the dock, swam in the lake, had sex with Sidney every night, and didn’t have any communication with the outside world aside from a single video call with his parents, who admired his sunburn and insisted that everything with them and Denis was perfectly fine.

“We only miss you, Zhenechka,” his mother said. “How is Sid?”

“You like him more than you like me,” Zhenya said, and went to drag Sidney out of the lake so his parents could say hello.

They were back in Pittsburgh by the end of July. They trained with Andy, and played golf with Mario. Sidney found a Russian tutor, and started Skyping with Zhenya’s parents a disconcerting amount—for practice, he claimed. They took a mid-week trip to the Poconos, just because.

Zhenya got a tattoo.

“I don’t know about this,” Sidney said, when Zhenya showed him the results of his first sitting, the outline mostly finished but none of the shading. It spanned the width of his back from shoulder to shoulder, and halfway down his spine: the coat of arms, the double-headed eagle.

“I don’t care,” Zhenya said, pulling his shirt back on. “Not for you.”

Sidney didn’t say anything for a moment. Zhenya tried not to glare, and probably failed. Then Sidney said, “The next time you go—can I go with you?”

Zhenya sat down beside him on the couch and took his hand. “Two weeks, is next appointment.”

“I’ll be there,” Sidney said.

+ + +

He finally met with the freelance reporter toward the end of August. She flew out to Pittsburgh, and he gave her a tour of the arena, the executive suites and the concession stands, the trainers’ room and Dana’s equipment lair. They sat in the locker room to talk, and she told him about what it had been like for her to come out, her conservative parents who were still in denial, the rich community she had found in New York.

“Can I ask you some questions?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he said, and she turned on her recorder.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about your relationship with Crosby,” she said. “Neither of you has made any official statements about it. What made you decide to go public about your relationship?”

She wasn’t going to ease him in at all. He took a breath. “Obviously, it was a considered decision to have that picture taken—”

“The one on the bridge,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “Sid is a private person. He doesn’t like to talk about these things, and I’ll try not to embarrass him now by talking about it too much. The decision was mine. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was ashamed of him, or trying to hide. There’s nothing shameful about it.”

“Why the picture?” she asked. “Why that picture? There’s a lot of symbolism in it, the Pittsburgh skyline in the background. I’m sure you know it’s been analyzed to death.”

“I don’t enjoy text messaging in English,” Zhenya said. “I’ll do it, but I’m not happy about it. Sid and I have spent most of our relationship sending photos to each other, even before we started dating. It’s how we communicate with each other when we’re apart. So that was the main symbolism for us, I suppose. And also, it meant I didn’t have to give a press conference.”

She smiled. “You don’t like those.”

“I don’t!” Zhenya said, laughing a little. “It’s too many people staring at me. I get nervous. I forget how to talk, and then there’s a series of analysts talking about how shameful it is that I still haven’t learned English, surely it’s a sign that I’m not truly committed to the NHL.”

“I don’t think anyone can doubt your commitment now,” she said.

“It’s not commitment to the NHL,” he said. “It’s commitment to Sid.”

“What about your commitment to Russia?” she asked.

That was the heart of it. He had known she would ask him, but he still found the question painful, the implication that he was disloyal, that he had abandoned his country and his responsibilities there. He sat for a few moments, choosing his words.

“I’m always Russian,” he said. “I’m proud to be Russian. I’ll always love Russia. But it’s not a good place for me, right now. I hope someday it’s better, for people like me.”

“If the laws changed, would you go back?” she asked.

“If they ever change the laws,” he said, “I’m making Sid move to Moscow with me.”

“Does he speak any Russian?” she asked.

Zhenya grinned. “It’s a work in progress.”

At the end of the interview, he took off his shirt and showed her his tattoo, finished now, the elaborate blackwork and the shading. “There’s the main image for your article,” he said. “Russia can get rid of me, but I’ll carry the eagle around for the rest of my life. I’ll never give up hope.”

“Hold still,” she said, and the camera flashed.

+ + +

The team started trickling back into town in early September. There had been some roster changes over the summer, and there were new guys to greet and get to know, and existing teammates to welcome back.

“We’re the team parents,” Sidney said dully, after a painfully earnest dinner party at Muzz’s: baby’s first, complete with an overcooked main dish and a whispered argument with his girlfriend in the kitchen.

“You know it’s gonna happen,” Zhenya said. “You already mom, so—”

“I’m not the mom,” Sidney said.

Zhenya only gave him a look.

“Fuck. I’m the mom.” Sidney’s shoulders slumped. “Are we going to have to start throwing parties now? Maybe Maureen can give me her cupcake recipe.”

“She buy them from bakery downtown,” Zhenya said. “Big secret.”

Sidney sat up, his mouth falling open with outrage. “What the fuck!”

Maybe there would be parties, but Mario threw the big welcome-back cookout every year, and all Sidney and Zhenya had to do was show up. It was great to see the guys again, but also painful to feel the absence of the ones who weren’t there. Zhenya watched Sidney slowly realize that Flower really wasn’t there, he wasn’t coming back, that they would never play on the same team again, and he tucked Sidney into his side and held him there until Sidney shook him off at last and said, “I’m fine, Geno, come on.”

“I’m cold, need you keep me warm,” Zhenya said, and Sidney laughed at him over his shoulder as he went off to steal Tanger’s child.

Alex was getting a little old to want to be held, but Sidney was determined. Zhenya and Tanger stood together by an ugly fake stone planter and watched Sidney talking to Catherine with Alex in his arms.

“You need to give that man a child,” Tanger said.

“Probably we get married first,” Zhenya said absently. Jake looked like he was thinking about pushing Sheary into the pool, and Zhenya was the dad now; he should probably intervene.

“Hey, Sid!” Tanger shouted. “G says you’re getting married?”

Sidney’s head snapped around. Alex took that moment of distraction as an opportunity to escape.

“Tanger, someday I fucking kill you,” Zhenya said.

But Sidney was smiling now, heading their way, looking outrageously bow-legged in his shorts and flip-flops. He was the best decision Zhenya had ever made. There was no room in him for regret.

“I think Geno just proposed,” Tanger said, when Sidney got close enough, and Zhenya reached out and reeled Sidney in again. Sidney had a limited tolerance for PDA, but he looked like he might put up with it now.

“Do me a favor and fuck off, Tanger,” Sidney said, and Zhenya lowered his head and kissed Sidney until they got a few plastic cups thrown at them for their trouble.

They went to sit on a bench in a shaded corner of the yard, away from the drinking and splashing around and shrieking children. “Did you mean it?” Sidney asked.

It had been an off-hand comment, nothing thought through or serious, but certainly Zhenya did mean it and had been thinking about it for a while. “If you want,” he said. “Big party, dancing, make you embarrass. Or just two of us on the beach. Whatever you like.”

“You really want to?” Sidney asked.

“Yes,” Zhenya said, and Sidney was still looking at him, expression uncertain, and so he said, “Let’s get married. When you ready. I want very much.”

“I want to marry you,” Sidney said. He brought Zhenya’s hand to his mouth and pressed a hard kiss to his knuckles. “A lot.”

“You still like me when I have no hair?” Zhenya asked. He knew what his receding hairline indicated.

“I’ll kiss your bald head every day,” Sidney said, and then made a face. “Is that weird?”

“Maybe it’s little bit weird,” Zhenya said. There were no words in any language to describe the way he felt in that moment. “But I like weird.”

Sidney leaned against him for a moment longer, and then he rose to his feet and said, “You want to get some more food? Nathalie hid some smoked meat in the kitchen. She told me she’s been saving it for you.”

Dusk was falling. The lights around the pool had turned on, casting a glowing halo around Sidney’s body. Kuni’s children were running barefoot across the lawn, and Sidney turned to smile at them, and then winced as the youngest one took a tumble. But she came up laughing, no harm done.

“They’re a handful,” Sidney said to Zhenya, grinning.

“How many you want?” Zhenya asked.

“At least three,” Sidney said.

“Okay,” Zhenya said. Three was a good starting point. “Let’s go eat.”

He took Sidney’s hand. They walked back up to the house.