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It’s the day after his birthday and he’s making a quick snack in his kitchen when his phone rings. The toaster dings and his toast pops up while he checks the caller ID. Pat Brisson, it reads. Sid grabs both pieces of toast in a napkin and answers the phone.

 

“Hey, Pat.”

 

“Hey, Sid. Happy birthday! Did you get my present?”

 

Sid glances over to his wine rack where the bottle of Chateau Margaux, 2009 is shelved.

 

“I did. Thanks so much. I think I’ll open it in Pittsburgh. For the start of the season,” he says while rifling through the cutlery drawer for a knife.

 

“Sounds good. How are you?”

 

“I’m good. You?” he responds absentmindedly. He almost drops his jar of peanut butter on the ground as he struggles to open it with one hand.

 

“Good, good. Listen, Sid, I promise this is the last time I’ll ask, but I have to check. Is there anywhere you want to play during the lockout? ‘Cause I’ve got dozens of teams in a dozen leagues that’d be thrilled to have you.”

 

“I’ll wait it out, Pat. Like I told you last time you asked. And the time before that,” Sid answers as he smears peanut butter on his toast a bit more aggressively than is probably necessary.

 

He’s thought about playing in another league. He really has.

 

He’s missed so much hockey in the last year and a half, with concussions and neck injury. The thought of missing part of another season, maybe even all of another season, is the stuff of nightmares.

 

But the thought of going to another, lesser league and maybe doing even more damage to himself, maybe permanently taking himself out of the game when he could have instead been resting up and training is even more terrifying.

 

“I know, Sid. I just had to ask. Let me just say one more thing, okay? I think you might be interested in hearing this one.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“I got a call from Gennady Ushakov.”

 

“I don’t know who that is,” he says around a mouthful of peanut butter toast.

 

“He’s Evgeni Malkin’s agent. Malkin’s been driving him up a wall, asking if you’re going to play during the lockout. Malkin wants you to come play for Metallurg. Ushakov says Malkin’s always wanted to play with you. And I remember your rookie season, you seemed pretty excited about the idea of playing with Malkin. Metallurg would take you in a heartbeat, no question. I thought you might at least want to consider it.”

 

Sid hums.

 

Brisson is absolutely right about how much he had wanted to play with Malkin.

 

He remembers his first year, quietly anticipating the end of Malkin’s KHL contract. He’d played against him at World Juniors and he’d watched hours’, maybe days’ worth of tape. He plays such beautiful hockey. The most beautiful hockey Sid had ever seen. To this day, he’s still never seen someone control the ice the way Malkin can.

 

He also remembers how his heart sank when Malkin signed an extension with Metallurg in ’06. How disappointed he was that he wasn’t going to get the chance to play with him.

 

“I’ll think about it,” he finally says, to get Pat off his back.

 

“Great! Let me know what you decide as soon as you can, alright? I’ll leave you alone so you can mull it over.”

 

Sid and Pat say their goodbyes and Sid hangs up the phone.

 

He sits at the kitchen counter and finishes his peanut butter toast, chewing and thinking.

 

At noon, he meets Andy at Citadel Hill. Andy times his sprints up and down the steep hill, logging his splits in his notebook, then lays out cones and ropes and has Sid run sidesteps and ladders.

 

After ninety minutes or so, when Sid’s shirt is sweat-soaked and stuck to his skin and he’s working hard to catch his breath, Andy says, “All right, you’re done for the day.”

 

Sid groans and drops to the ground and lays back on the grass. He throws his arm over his face to keep the sun from his eyes and says, “I’m thinking about the KHL.”

 

Andy laughs, “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised to hear you say that.”

 

Sid turns his head to look at him with an eyebrow raised.

 

“Really? ‘Cause I’m pretty surprised to hear myself saying it,” he cheeks.

 

 “You were born to play hockey, Sid. And you’re better at it than anyone else in the world. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to hear you say you didn’t want to wait to play again. Especially after how much time you missed the last two seasons,” he says.

 

Sid doesn’t have a reply to that. He just lays there on the grass for a few more moments before he sighs deeply and levers himself off the ground.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Andy,” he says as he reaches down to grab his keys and his water bottle.

 

“See you, man,” Andy replies and lays a friendly clap on his shoulder.

 

Sid hops in the shower the minute he gets home, washing off the sweat and the grime, and his shower runs much longer than it usually does. He’s always done some of his best thinking in the shower, when there’s no distractions, just him, his soap, and the water. And he has quite a bit of thinking to do at the moment.

 

He hadn’t intended to give Pat’s suggestion much thought. He’d intended to politely say to Pat that he’d considered the matter and come to the same conclusion he had before, which was that he was going to wait for the lockout to end and the NHL season to begin.

 

But he isn’t so sure that’s what he wants anymore.

 

Andy is right about how much Sid has missed playing. It has been such a long two years, dealing with his concussion and his neck injuries. Never in his life has he ever felt more separated, more distant from hockey than he does right now. It’s such a big part of him and his life and he’s been without it for so long. He misses the game.

 

By the time he steps out of the shower and towels his hair dry, he thinks he might have just convinced himself to sign a KHL contract.

 

Two hours later, he hops in his car and drives over to his parents’ house. When he walks in the door, Sam comes running up, tail wagging, excited and happy to see him. He crouches down and scratches right behind her ears, just the way she likes and she pushes into his space, licking his face.

 

“Hey, girl,” he says gently.

 

She just keeps licking his face and Sid laughs and says, “Yeah, I’m happy to see you too, girl,” and then he stands up, toes off his shoes, and walks to the kitchen.

 

His mom is leaning over, checking the chicken in the oven. He walks over and gives her a kiss on the cheek that she returns.

 

“Hey, honey. Did you have a good birthday?” she asks.

 

“Yeah, had some of the boys over. We went out on the lake, drank some beers, caught some fish. It was good,” he answers, grabbing a piece of broccoli from a serving bowl and popping it into his mouth.

 

His mom raises an eyebrow at him, and he smiles back unashamedly.

 

“I’m hungry,” he mumbles through his mouthful of broccoli.

 

“Oh, trust me, I know. You’re always hungry. You’ve always been hungry. I can’t remember a time when you haven’t been hungry. But dinner will only be another ten minutes and you won’t starve before then,” she replies with a raised eyebrow and a laugh.

 

“One more piece?” he asks with a grin as he tries to grab another broccoli stem.

 

She swats at his hand and orders, “Go set the table.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” he says cheekily, and turns to grab the plates from the cabinet.

 

Once the table is set for three, he walks back into the kitchen and leans against the island, watching his mom wipe down the countertops.

 

“You’re being pretty quiet over there. There something on your mind, honey?” his mom asks.

 

“I’m thinking about going over to play in Russia.”

 

His mom lays the towel down and turns to look at him.

 

“Well, that sounds exciting,” she says with a small, sincere smile.

 

Both of his eyebrows fly up.

 

“You think it’s a good idea?” he asks uncertainly.

 

“Did you think I wouldn’t?” she replies.

 

“I don’t know. I guess I thought maybe you’d be upset. Me, going to the other side of the world to play hockey.”

 

“Why on Earth would I be upset, Sidney? It wouldn’t be forever. Just a few months. Nine at the most. And I know how much you love it, honey. And how much you’ve missed it. I’m your mom. I just want you to be happy. Playing hockey makes you happy.”

 

“Oh,” is all Sid can reply.

 

“Did you want me to be upset?” she asks.

 

“No, no. I just thought you might be mad I was going so far away or something,” he answers.

 

“Honey, I’ve known since you were five years old that hockey was going to take you very far away from me. I learned to accept it.”

 

Sid nods, but says nothing.

 

Mother’s intuition in full force, she asks, “Was that all you were worried about?”

 

“I… What if I get hurt again? Ruin all the work and the rehab I’ve done. What if I end up right back in square one again, with the injuries?”

 

“That’s the risk you’ve always taken, honey. Even when you were a boy. Especially when you were a boy. You were such a target. They were always after you. Every time you’ve ever stepped on the ice, getting hurt, seriously hurt has been a possibility. It’s another thing I learned to accept,” she says with a smile that’s just a little bit sad.

 

The oven beeps and his mom puts on her oven mitts to pull out the chicken.

 

“Will you go tell your dad that dinner is ready? He should be out in the garage, working on that old Camaro.”

 

Sid nods and steps out of the kitchen.

 

He pulls open the door to the garage and steps down the two stairs. His dad is bent over the engine of the car, messing with something.

 

“Hey, dad,” he announces.

 

His dad stands up and smiles at him, “Sidney! I didn’t hear you come in. How are you?”

 

“I’m good. Mom told me to come get you. Dinner’s ready.”

 

“Oh, sure. Hold on a minute, though. Need to wash my hands.”

 

“Yeah, I don’t think mom wants engine grease on her placemats.”

 

His dad snorts at that and opens the door to the small bathroom. He flicks on the light and steps up to the sink to wash his hands.

 

“How’s the Camaro looking?” Sid asks.

 

“All right, I think. I’ll need to replace the brackets for the radiator, and those’ll be a pain to track down, but she’s coming together nicely.”

 

“That’s good,” he says.

 

“How’s training going? Andy working you hard?” his dad asks.

 

“Oh, yeah. He had me doing ladders for about an hour today. I definitely thought about killing him a couple times, so he’s doing his job.”

 

His dad laughs, “Good. I’m glad to hear it. Anything else going on? Any word about how negotiations are going with the CBA?”

 

Sid shakes his head and sighs, “Not anything I’ve heard. But, um, I did want to talk to you about that.”

 

His dad opens the garage door and steps into the house, holding the door open for Sid to follow him in.

 

Earlier in the day, he hadn’t been worried about how his dad would feel about the KHL. He figured his dad would understand, would get that hockey was hockey. Would get that he didn’t want to wait for the NHLPA and the team owners to sort out their mess to be able to play. But he had misjudged his mom’s reaction and now he’s a bit nervous that he’s miscalculated how his dad will react too.

 

“Yeah?” his dad asks.

 

Like a band-aid, he goes straight for it, “I’ve been thinking about the KHL.”

 

His dad stops and turns to look at him.

 

“Really?” he asks.

 

“Really,” he replies.

 

His dad is quiet for a moment, considering before he speaks.

 

“That could be good for you. Get some practice on international ice, on Russian ice before S0chi,” he finally says.

 

“Yeah,” Sid hesitantly agrees.

 

“I’ve never been to Russia. It’d be nice to get out there for a game while you’re over there. Check out the sights. Where were you thinking about signing? Moscow? St. Petersburg?” he asks.

 

“Magnitogorsk,” he answers.

 

“Where the hell is Magnitogorsk?” he laughs.

 

Sid opens his mouth to answer and realizes he doesn’t know.

 

“I don’t actually know. I mean, somewhere in Russia, I guess.”

 

His dad starts laughing. Hard. Back bent, hand on his chest, tears in his eyes laughing.

 

“Oh, I love you, Sidney. Never change,” he says through his laughter.

 

His mom steps out into the hall.

 

“What is so funny?” she asks with a smile.

 

“He’s just laughing at me, don’t worry about it,” Sid answers for his dad.

 

“For what?” she asks.

 

“I told him that I want to sign with Magnitogorsk in the KHL and he’s laughing at me ‘cause he asked me where that is and I told him I don’t know,” Sid sighs.

 

His mom purses her lips, fighting a smile hard and losing. She laughs at him too, only a little bit though.

 

“Well, we can check on Google if you’d like,” she supplies, still biting her lip.

 

Sid sighs, “Let’s just eat dinner now. You guys can laugh at me while we eat.”

 


 

 

After a delicious dinner and an informative geography lesson from Google, Sid heads back home. He falls onto his couch and pulls out his phone. He has one more person he needs to talk to before he calls Pat back and tells him he’s interested. And, in this rare instance, it’s not a call he’s looking forward to.

 

He’ll never feel bad for growing close to Mario, letting him become such an influential figure in his life. A strange amalgamation of friend, mentor, and boss. But the many hats he wears to Sid can very occasionally make for uncomfortable moments, no matter how hard they try to keep the business separate from the personal.

 

Telling Mario he’s going to another country to play for another team because the organization that represents Sid’s interests can’t come to an agreement with the organization that represents Mario’s interests will definitely be one of those uncomfortable moments.

 

But he tries to push that from his mind as the dial tone rings through.

 

Allô?” Mario answers.

 

“Hey, Mario.”

 

“Sid! How are you? How was the birthday?”

 

“I’m good. It was good. How are you and the family?”

 

Très bien. We’re helping Steph pack for college. We’re moving her into her dorm next week.”

 

“Tell her I said ‘Congratulations’! I’m excited for her. God, I feel like I was just babysitting her yesterday!”

 

“God, you’re telling me, Sid.”

 

Sid pauses and there’s a moment of silence over the line.

 

“Did you need something, Sid? Not that I’m not happy to hear from you, but…” Mario trails off.

 

“Any news on negotiations?” Sid asks with little hope.

 

Mario sighs, “No. But, I promise, you’ll be one of the first people I call when I do have news.”

 

Sid hums.

 

“I, ah, I wanted to let you know I’ll be signing a KHL contract. With Metallurg. I’m about to call Pat to have him set it up. I just wanted to be the one to tell you. So you didn’t hear it from someone else,” Sid says.

 

Mario’s quiet for a moment.

 

“I understand, Sid. I’m not upset. Just…. be safe. Don’t get yourself injured over there, okay? And keep your phone on. I’ll be calling you the second we have a new CBA in place, understood?”

 

“Understood,” Sid replies.

 

“All right. Well, I guess I have a few phone calls to make now. Au revoir, Sid,” Mario says.

 

“See you soon,” Sid replies and hangs up the phone.

 

Sid stares at the blank screen for a moment. With a fortifying breath, he opens up his call history and dials Pat.

 

“Yeah, hey, Pat. Yeah, I’m good. I thought it over, and I’ll do it. Can you talk to Metallurg for me? Okay, great. Thanks, Pat. I’ll talk to you later. Bye.”

 


 

 

The next morning Pat calls him back.

 

“They’ll take you, no questions. The only thing they want to know is how much you want. What do you want to ask for?” Pat asks.

 

“How much should I be asking for?”

 

“Malkin makes about $4 million US per year. That’s 220 million rubles. But that’s an older contract. It expires this year. He’ll get more next. And you can ask for even more than that. You’re better.”

 

“No. I don’t want more than Malkin. He’s their captain. Three and a half. One season.”

 

“Alright. Easily done. I’ll get back to you in a few hours.”

 

Over the next week and a half, Sid gets at least two calls a day from Pat. Pat is, apparently, working like a madman and half-jokingly tells Sid he needs a raise. Sid might even agree with him with how quickly Pat pulls the whole thing together.

 

It takes him less than 10 days to get Sid his Russian work visa, a new cell phone with a Russian SIM, complete airfare arrangements, a plan to house him in Magnitogorsk, and a fully reviewed KHL contract ready to be signed.

 

After one last dinner with his parents, he loads his bags into the trunk of his dad’s SUV and rides to the airport.

 


 

 

He flies first class from Halifax to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Moscow. At the Moscow Airport, a representative from Metallurg is there to meet him with a translator and a photographer.

 

The translator walks up to Sid and offers his hand. Sid reaches out and they firmly shake hands.

 

“Nice to meet you. I’m Dmitri Alexandrovich. You can call me ‘Dima’. I’ll be your translator here for all team events.”

 

“Nice to meet you. Call me ‘Sid’.”

 

Dima nods and then turns to introduce the front office guy and the photographer, both of whose names Sid barely catches and both of which he almost immediately forgets.

 

Soon after, the four of them board a private plane for the short flight from Moscow to Magnitogorsk.

 

When they land in Magnitogorsk, Malkin is waiting for them on the tarmac with a camera crew and several more members of Metallurg’s front office.

 

Malkin smiles a big, goofy smile at them as they step off the plane. Sid meets Malkin’s grin and offers out his hand for a handshake. Malkin grabs his hand, then pulls him in for a hug. Sid lets out a surprised huff of laughter and returns the hug with two friendly pats on the back while the camera noisily shutters in the background and the film crew moves to get a better angle.

 

Malkin pulls back and grins, and Sidney greets him in his extremely limited Russian, “Здравствуйте. Меня зовут Sidney Crosby.”

 

“Pleased to meet, Sidney Crosby. I’m Evgeni Vladimirovich. Call me ‘Zhenya’.”

 

Malkin turns to Dima and the two exchange a slew of Russian.

 

Dima turns to Sid and says, “You will be staying with Evgeni Vladimirovich. He will host you while you are here. He says to tell you he is very excited to have you on his team.”

 

“Tell him I’m excited to be here. And also tell him ‘Thanks’, and that I really appreciate him letting me stay with him. I won’t stay too long. I’ll start looking for a place of my own. He shouldn’t have to put up with me for more than a week or two,” Sid says.

 

It takes a minute for Dima to translate Sid's comment, but when he does several people start speaking in Russian at once.

 

Eventually, Dima says, “Evgeni Vladimirovich says it will be no inconvenience. You should stay with him for the whole season. Kirill Stepanovich says the organization would also prefer you stay with Malkin for longer. It will help you learn, living with a Russian speaker, hearing the language spoken all the time. ”

 

With all of the Russians staring so intensely at him, it’s hard for Sid to demure, even with his deeply ingrained Canadian politeness.

 

Plus, Sid can’t deny that he’s also a little curious about the Penguin who never was. So he just nods and agrees.

 

Dima tells him that they will take his gear to the rink for him and leave it with the equipment manager, so Sid nods again and hands over his bags.

 

Through Dima, they set up a plan for Sid to go to the rink tomorrow morning after he sleeps off his jet lag so he can meet the staff and some of his teammates and get a chance to check out the facilities.

 

With the practicalities arranged, they all exchange a round of polite, bilingual goodbyes, and the men from Metallurg’s front office head out, leaving Sid standing alone in the airfield with Malkin.

 

Sid and Malkin stare at each other for an awkward moment, neither quite sure how to speak to the other. Or at least speak to each other in a way they’ll understand.

 

Eventually, Malkin raises his hand and jangles his keys then tilts his head toward a bright yellow Lamborghini at the other end of the tarmac. Sid smiles, then grabs his bags and he and Malkin make their way across the runway.

 

As they approach, Malkin presses a button on a key fob and the trunk and both winged doors lift up. Malkin looks at him with a proud grin and gestures for him to load up his suitcases. Sid smiles back at him and hefts his duffle into the undersized trunk of the Lamborghini, then gently fold his garment bag over top of it.

 

“Nice car, yes?”

 

Sid laughs.

 

“Yeah, it’s pretty nice,” he agrees.

 

Sid squeezes himself into the passenger seat as Malkin sits behind the steering wheel. The doors of the sports car fold down on their own and click into place.

 

“A little cramped though, eh?” Sid jokes with a grin. He looks down at his lap, where his thighs are tightly squeezed between the door and the gear shift.

 

Malkin’s brow furrows and he tilts his head.

 

“Small car,” Sid simplifies.

 

Malkin nods.

 

“Yes. Small. Fast also,” he says with a smirk as he shoves his foot down and shoots out of the airfield.

 

Sid laughs and braces his hand against the door as they tear around a corner.

 


 

 

“So that’s how you guys drive in Russia, huh?” Sid asks with a shake of his head when the car finally pulls to a stop inside a large garage at the end of a long driveway.

 

The doors swing up and Malkin replies, “No. Most not so good. Just I’m best.”

 

Sid laughs and shakes his head. Malkin pops the trunk and grabs Sid's bags before he has the chance to.

 

The garage door opens into the kitchen. Malkin leads him through the kitchen and through the open living room to a bedroom, the first door on the right in a long hallway.

 

He sets Sid's suitcase down, then opens the door and ushers Sid in.

 

“Is good?” Malkin asks after he gives Sid a chance to look around.

 

“Yeah, it’s great! Thanks again, Malkin. I really do appreciate you letting me stay here,” Sid replies, and he throws his suitcase on a large king-sized bed.

 

“Is no problem. And I say call me ‘Zhenya’,” he answers.

 

“Zhenya, then,” Sid agrees.

 

“You sleep? Or need food?” Zhenya asks.

 

“How about food, then sleep?” Sid supplies.

 

Zhenya nods and leads him back out to the kitchen.

 

“Make dinner, you get wine,” he says to Sid as he pulls two cuts of salmon from his fridge and places a pan on one of the stove burners.

 

Zhenya sears the salmon in olive oil, asparagus in the pan as well. When he’s finished, he pushes a plate across the kitchen counter to Sid and the two of them stand there in the kitchen, leaning against the countertops, eating their dinner, and drinking their wine.

 

“Bed now?” Zhenya asks when they finish the food.

 

Sid nods and drains the remainder of his wine. He sets his glass and his plate in the sink next to Zhenya's.

 

“What time do I need to wake up tomorrow?” Sid asks over his shoulder.

 

“You sleep. Wake up, we go. Jetlag. Is okay,” Zhenya reassures him.

 

Sid, exhausted from the travel and the foreignness of his surroundings, gives him an appreciative half-smile and agrees, “Alright. Thank you, Zhenya. I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

“Доброй ночи,” Zhenya says, wishing him a good night.

 

“Dobroy nochi,” Sid repeats back.

 


 

 

Sid wakes up the next morning to bright light filtering through the bedroom window.

 

He reaches for his phone on the bedside table to check the time. 9:47.

 

It’s several hours later than he usually wakes up, but he’s not surprised. International travel always messes with his sleep cycle.

 

He shuffles out of bed and does what he needs to do in the bathroom. After that, he decides he might as well unpack his things before he starts his day.

 

He hangs his suits in the closet, folds his clothes into a dresser, and sticks several books on a bookcase near the window.

 

When he has nothing left to unpack, he walks out of the bedroom, intending to scavenge for breakfast in the kitchen, but on his way there, he spots Zhenya slouched on his couch, playing on his phone.

 

Zhenya must hear him, because he looks up from his phone and smiles at Sid.

 

“Awake! Think you sleep forever, maybe dead!” Zhenya jokes.

 

“Nah. Just sleeping off the jet lag. It always takes me a day or two to get my body right,” he says.

 

“Is fine. Hungry?” Zhenya asks.

 

“Always,” Sid answers.

 

Zhenya smiles and leads him into the kitchen.

 

He makes them both omelets. As he cooks, he tells Sid the Russian words for things around the kitchen. By the time they’re finished eating Sid can name several breakfast foods, most of the appliances, and a few obscure kitchen utensils.

 

Once they’ve washed the dishes, Zhenya tells him to get dressed so they can go to the rink.

 

Zhenya tells him it’s a twenty minute drive from his house to the rink. They hop into Zhenya’s second car, a Range Rover, and hit the road.

 

As they’re driving, Sid gets curious.

 

“Your English is pretty good. Especially for someone who’s only ever lived in Russia,” he trails off.

 

Zhenya picks up on the implied question.

 

“I’m think maybe go to NHL, play hockey. Metallurg not want me go. Talk very much, so I’m stay. But still think, maybe I’m go. So learn English. Watch English movie, TV, for if I’m go,” he answers.

 

Sid hums consideringly.

 

“Well, you did a good job. Your English is good. A hell of a lot better than my Russian,” Sid replies.

 

Zhenya laughs at that.

 

“Is okay. We practice.”

 


 

 

Zhenya parks the car and leads them through a side entrance of the building. He takes him to some administrative office where he’s given a badge and the passcodes to keypads around the building.

 

With the practicalities out of the way, Sid knows it’s time to finally get on the ice, and, God, is he ready.

 

Zhenya can see, just from looking at him, how antsy he is to get on the ice, and he teases him for it.

 

“Sure you want skate? Can show you gym first. Or maybe you want meet manager first,” he jokes.

 

Sid shakes his head at the teasing, taking it in stride.

 

“Just show me where the locker room is, eh?” he asks.

 

Zhenya smiles and wordlessly takes him to his gear.

 

His gear is waiting for him in a stall in the changing room. His skates, his stick, his jock and pads. He forgoes the pads, just puts on his jock and his skates and throws a black Penguins practice jersey on before he lets Zhenya lead him out to the ice.

 

When they step onto the ice, Sid takes a deep breath. This will be his home arena for the indefinite future and he needs to know it intimately. Needs to feel more comfortable on the ice here than he does anywhere else in the world.

 

He glides along the ice, smooth and fresh, blades digging divots into the surface, leaving trails of snow behind him.

 

It’s his favorite thing in the world, ruining a pure, smooth sheet of ice. It feels illicit, like some sort of desecration. He imagines this is almost what it feels like to rule the world, that thrill, that sense of power and importance rushing through him.

 

He skates a lap, trying to ingrain the differences in the ice in his mind. The extra length of the rink, the slightly different lines on the ice. He tries to put it all to memory.

 

Zhenya gives him those few minutes to himself to acclimate before he grabs both their sticks and a bucket of pucks.

 

Playing with Zhenya is everything he’d dreamt of when he was a rookie.

 

He’s so unbelievably good. He skates beautifully and his stick handling is absolute perfection. He can just dangle the puck around Sid sometimes, in a way that very few people have ever managed before. He even threads the puck through Sid’s legs a few times.

 

His instincts are incredible too. And his vision is impeccable. He goes for shots Sid would never have imagined taking, maneuvering around Sid so gracefully and unpredictably. It might be the most fun he’s ever had, practicing against someone as talented as Zhenya.

 

He doesn’t think he’s played with a better hockey player since his rookie year with Mario. It makes him so glad he came, just for this experience. This chance to play with someone this skilled, this good.

 

He skates a sharp line, corners around the net. He’s focused on stripping Zhenya of the puck when he hears someone.

 

“I heard the rumors, of course, but I couldn’t believe they were true,” a voice calls just from the other side of the boards.

 

Sid looks up, attention pulled from Zhenya and their game, and sees Sergei Gonchar.

 

“Gonch!” Sid shouts with a smile.

 

Sid skates over to the boards and leans over to pull Gonch in for a friendly hug.

 

“Hello, Sid. I must admit, I never thought I’d see you over here,” Gonch says.

 

Sid shrugs, “Hockey is hockey. I’ll go wherever I need to to play it.”

 

“I guess when you put it that way, it isn’t so surprising to see you here,” Gonch allows.

 

“How are you?” Sid asks with a smile.

 

“Good. Glad to be back home. Ready to play,” he says.

 

“Good,” Sid returns, “and how are the girls?”

 

Gonch finally smiles at him.

 

“They are wonderful. They’re still in Ottawa, but they’re coming to visit soon.”

 

Zhenya skates up and he and Gonch start speaking to each other in Russian. Sid understands the greetings, but once they move past that, he completely loses the thread.

 

Whatever it is they’re saying, it seems to be friendly. He knows they’ve played together before, both for Team Russia and for Metallurg, so he assumes they’re on good terms.

 

When they finish up their conversation Gonch turns back to Sid.

 

“I hope you will come to dinner, Sid. Zhenya as well. Ksenia and my girls will be arriving later this week and they will be glad to see you.”

 

“I’d love to. You know Natalie's my buddy. Just tell me when and I’m there. I’ll drag Zhenya with me,” Sid agrees easily.

 

Gonch nods and says, “I will. I won’t keep you any longer though. It looks like you’re needed elsewhere.”

 

He nods over to the tunnel where Dima and two men in expensive suits are standing.

 

Sid nods back and says ‘goodbye’ to Gonch, then he and Zhenya skate over to the men in the tunnel.

 

Sid expects Dima to speak first, but it’s one of the men in the suits who speaks.

 

“Sidney, Evgeni. Pleasure to meet you. I’m Paul Maurice, your new head coach,” he says and offers out his hand.

 

“A pleasure,” Sid says and shakes his hand.

 

Zhenya shakes his hand after Sid and says, “Nice to meet.”

 

“You being here is going to make this a lot easier for me. I’m glad you’re here,” Sid admits to Paul with a self-deprecating smile.

 

Paul laughs, “Yeah, I’m sure an English speaking coach will probably help. Glad to be of service. Training camp starts on Wednesday, so don’t wear yourselves out.”

 

Sidney and Zhenya both nod.

 

Dima steps forward, “Evgeni Vladimirovich, you already know Mr Rashnikov. Sidney, this is Viktor Fillipovich Rashnikov. He owns the team.”

 

Sid nods towards Rashnikov and holds out his hand for a handshake. Mr Rashnikov shakes it.

 

Sid uses some of the simple Russian phrases he’s learned.

 

“Priyatno poznakomit'sya,” he says, telling him it’s a pleasure to meet him.

 

Rashnikov returns the pleasantries.

 

Dima interjects, “We have your jersey ready for you, and the PR department would like to take some pictures of you.”

 

Sid nods and follows them down the tunnel to the dressing room.

 

There’s a stall set up for him, with his name on it and a jersey hanging from a hook.

 

Крозби 87

 

It’s strange to see Cyrillic letters above his numbers. It makes him pause. But he shakes it off and steps forward.

 

“Pictures holding it first?” he presumes.

 

Dima translates and the photographer nods.

 

Sid spends the next twenty minutes taking pictures. Sid holding his jersey, Sid and Zhenya holding his jersey, Sid and Rashnikov holding his jersey, Sid wearing his jersey. After they run out of possible combinations, the front office men let Sid and Zhenya go.

 

“Eat?” Zhenya asks as they walk toward the Range Rover.

 

“Yeah. I could eat,” Sid agrees.

 

Zhenya drives them to a small, rundown restaurant on the side of the road. The hand-sign reads "Кухня." Sid raises an eyebrow at him.

 

Zhenya looks at him and says, “Is good food. Books have covers, yes? Is how you say in English?”

 

It takes Sid a minute to parse the mangled idiom, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, you mean?”

 

“Da,” Zhenya agrees.

 

Sid shakes his head and follows Zhenya out of the car.

 

Sid looks back to the sign and reads, "Кухня. That means 'Kitchen,' right? You taught me that one yesterday."

 

Zhenya looks proudly at him, and says, "Yes! Good! You learn quick!"

 

 Sid tries not to blush. Zhenya opens the door and waves Sid inside.

 

Zhenya was absolutely right about judging a book by its cover and Sidney regrets even thinking a bad thought about this shabby little restaurant. Sid wants to cry, the borscht is so delicious. When they walk out the door, Sid tells Zhenya they have to come back. Zhenya nods.

 

“I’m come here every week. You too,” he says.

 


 

 

When they arrive back at Zhenya’s house, Sid collapses on the couch, tired from a long day.

 

Zhenya roots around in a cabinet near the TV and Sid asks, “What are you doing?”

 

Zhenya makes a triumphant noise and pulls a DVD box from the cabinet.

 

He walks over to the TV and puts the disc in the DVD player.

 

“Movie. We watch. Is good for learn Russian. How I’m learn English. Watch movie.”

 

“What movie?” Sid asks

 

Cheburashka. Is good. Fun,” Zhenya says as he navigates through the onscreen menu.

 

Jaunty music begins to play and some sort of Claymation creature with huge ears appears on screen.

 

“What on Earth is that?” Sid asks, bewildered. Zhenya drops down next to him on the couch.

 

“Is Cheburashka!” Zhenya answers with a grin.

 

“Is that supposed to be some kind of monkey?”

 

“No. Is… monster? Science never know him. He secret. From rain forest. He eat oranges, fall asleep in box. Wake up, he’s in Russia.”

 

“What did you call it again?” Sid asks incredulously.

 

“Cheburashka. Cartoon. Everybody know. Cheburashka and Gena. They make trouble. Have good time. Fun.”

 

“Gena?”

 

“Yes. Крокодил Гена. Is green. Teeth. Big mouth.”

 

“Crocodile Gena?”

 

“Oh, crocodile is same word in English! Yes. Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena! My favorite. Best.”

 

Sid shakes his head and tries to pay attention to the movie. It doesn’t take long for him to get sucked in. It’s cute and entertaining and simple enough for Sid to understand what’s going on even with his incredibly limited Russian vocabulary.

 

By the time the movie ends, Sid is smiling and he thinks he might have even picked up a few words in Russian.

 

Zhenya turns to him when the credits roll.

 

“You like?”

 

Sid smiles at him, “Yeah. I like.”

 

“Good. We watch tomorrow.”

 

“Again?”

 

“Yes. Watch same movie, again, again. Best for learn. You know words this way. How I’m learn English.”

 


 

 

Three days and three more viewings of Cheburashka later, training camp begins and Sid has learned all the words to what Zhenya tells him is the Russian birthday song. He's not sure if Zhenya's just messing with him though. If you ask Sid, it's a little odd for a birthday song to be about playing the accordion on a street corner in the rain. But then again, it is Russia.

 

When Sid and Zhenya step into the dressing room, quite a few heads turn their way.

 

Nearly all of the guys know Zhenya. He’s their team’s captain. So most of the guys come say ‘hello,’ and chat with him for a minute. Zhenya makes them laugh or teases them and all the guys walk away smiling. It seems like Zhenya has that effect on everyone, which is quite a relief to Sid. He’d thought it might have just been him.

 

A handful of the guys speak English, and all the ones that do come welcome Sid to the team. Gonch gives him a brief ‘hello’. Mats Zuccarello also gives him a nod of recognition. Justin Hodgman and Cal O’Reilly both come over and introduce themselves.

 

Even some of the guys that don’t speak English come over and greet him though. They speak to him in slow Russian and he returns it right back.

 

By the time practice starts and he steps out on to the ice, Sid has met most of the team.

 

He had continuously introduced himself as Sid, but most of the team seems to think it doesn’t sound nearly Russian enough. It’s Viktor Antipin (“Call me Vitya, yes?”) who first calls him ‘Crozya’.

 

He isn’t the last though. By the end of practice, the only two still calling him 'Sid' are Zhenya and Gonch.

 

Another thing occurs by the end of practice as well. Coach Maurice seems to have decided Sid’s permanent wingers will be Hodgman and Zuccarello. Sid supposes Maurice thinks the fact that Hodgman and Zuccarello both speak English will make it easier, better for Sid on the ice.

 

He doesn’t necessarily agree with that. He’s played with guys who barely speak English before and it was never a problem. Communication is important, but hockey is a language all on its own. You don’t need to speak the same language to have good chemistry.

 

But Sid likes Zuccarello and he thinks Hodgman has potential, so he doesn’t try to argue.

 


 

 

They all practice together for the next few days, building team chemistry, getting to know each other and their roles, hanging out with the guys. He and Zhenya set up dinner plans with the Gonchars. Sid thinks the team is coming together nicely. He’s feeling pretty optimistic.

 

The night before the season opener, Sid knocks on the front door of the Gonchar house.

 

Zhenya fidgets beside him, messing with the label on a bottle of red wine they brought as a gift.

 

Ksenia opens the door and greets them both warmly in Russian.

 

Sid manages to return the niceties and Zhenya offers her the wine.

 

She thanks them both profusely and shepherds them into the house.

 

Ksenia switches back to English, and Sid is grateful for the reprieve.

 

Sid's telling her about how the team is looking, when he hears a familiar sound coming from the TV.

 

He stops in the middle of a sentence and leans into the living room.

 

“Cheburashka!” he says, unreasonably thrilled to see the strange little creature on the television.

 

Natalie, Victoria, and Gonch all look up from the TV, but it’s Natalie who smiles up at him jumps from her seat. She opens her mouth and out comes a slew of Russian.

 

“Natalie!” Sid says, exuberantly.

 

Natalie laughs and wraps him in a hug around his waist.

 

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen you! You’ve gotten so big!” he exclaims.

 

“I’m ten now,” she states proudly with a toothy smile.

 

“Oh my goodness. You've gotten so big! You’re too tall for me. You have to stop growing. I won’t allow it anymore,” Sid laments.

 

Natalie giggles.

 

Gonch stands up from the couch and smirks at him, “So you like Cheburashka?”

 

Sid groans.

 

“Zhenya makes me watch it every single day. He thinks that little creep will teach me Russian.”

 

“He’s not wrong. It’s a good way to learn. Repetition. Simple sentences. You should keep doing it.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. I know. It’s getting old real quickly, though,” Sid complains.

 

Sid looks back up to the television and he furrows his eyebrows.

 

“Wait a minute. That’s definitely Cheburashka, but this is definitely not in the Cheburashka movie. I’ve watched it about a dozen times now and there was never any song about a train,” he says.

 

“It’s one of the sequels,” Natalie informs him.

 

Sid turns to look at Zhenya.

 

“There are sequels?” he asks darkly.

 

Zhenya gives him a shit-eating grin.

 

“Yes. Four Cheburashka movies.”

 

“There are four different ones, but you’ve been making me watch the same one over and over?” he asks coolly.

 

Zhenya just smiles at him.

 

Sid wants to curse but he looks down at Natalie and over at Victoria on the couch.

 

“I’ll get you back for this,” is all he says to Zhenya.

 

Zhenya just laughs at him. Gonch laughs at him too.

 

Ksenia shoos them all into the dining room. She serves a delicious dinner of stroganoff, homemade rye bread, and some sort of potato salad.

 

After dinner, Ksenia and Sergei put the girls to bed, and the four of them spend the next few hours drinking wine and catching up.

 

Overall, it's a great night.

 


 

 

Their first game of the season is a home game against Dynamo Moscow. In the dressing room, they’re all on edge, rearing to start the season. The stadium is packed and the crowd roars when Sid steps out onto the ice for warmups.

 

He skates around Metallurg’s half of the rink, doing his usual pregame routines. He skates up to the line at center ice, as he always does before the game starts, and Alex Ovechkin meets him there.

 

“Sidney Crosby! You come to Russia, why you not come play with me? Moscow so much better than Magnitogorsk. Why you not in Moscow?” he asks with a big smile.

 

Sid shakes his head and jokes back, “’Cause it’s much more fun to beat you, Ovi.”

 

Ovechkin laughs, “So mean! I’m beat you tonight, show you you wrong!”

 

“We’ll see,” Sid chirps back.

 

Later, when Sid’s leaned over at center ice, smacking the puck behind him from the faceoff circle, all his doubts about whether he made the right choice coming to play in Russia disappear.

 

He’s playing hockey again. For a year and a half, he wondered if he would ever get the chance to play again. But here he is. And it feels so good, like such a relief. It feels like standing in the sunlight. So satisfying, and natural. Just right.

 

At the end of the night, he skates off the ice with a huge grin, three points, and a game-winning goal to his name. 

 

After the game, the press corps floods into the dressing room. Dima sits beside him, translating questions.

 

They’re mostly softball questions, easy, with obvious answers.

 

“How is playing in the KHL different than the NHL?” Dima translates.

 

“Well, obviously, international ice is bigger. So, I guess, because of that, in the KHL it’s a lot more of an East-West game. There’s more room to maneuver, so it’s less North-South than hockey on North American ice,” Sid says and waits for Dima to translate.

 

Ultimately, Sid discovers that doing media in the KHL isn’t all that different from doing it in the NHL. The only real difference is that he has to wait for the translations.

 


 

 

The team starts out the season strong. They win four of their first five games. But game six will be their first road game, and Sid knows that will be a different kind of challenge.

 

They fly into St. Petersburg mid-afternoon and they don’t have a game until the next evening. Zhenya decides that the team needs to bond more, build chemistry. He spreads the word that he’s rented a large banya for the team’s use.

 

Zhenya tells him if he wants to be like a real Russian man, he has to come. And Sid’s never backed down from a challenge in his life, so he hops in the hired car with Zhenya and rides to the banya.

 

Most of the team shows up, and they all enter a large wooden room, almost like a sauna. They strip down completely and start to head to a door on the side of the room. Sid has no idea what he’s doing so he watches what everyone else is doing and follows along.

 

Zhenya, unashamedly naked, grabs what looks like a tree branch from a pool of water.

 

“I’m Captain, so I’m the banschik,” he announces in Russian, and then he walks around the room whacking people with the wet branch. Sid is very confused, but he lets Zhenya hit him with the stick and follows the rest of the team into the next room.

 

This room really is like a sauna. It’s hot and steamy and the walls and benches are all made of wood. Sid picks a bench and sits down, enjoying the heat.

 

Zhenya is the last one in and he drops down next to Sid.

 

“So what was all of that with the stick?” Sid eventually asks.

 

“Stick is venik. Leaves good for you. Healthy. I’m banschik. I hit you with venik,” he explains.

 

Sid hums and closes his eyes, letting the steam relax him, body and mind. He thinks, maybe Zhenya might have been onto something about the banya being good for them.

 

When they lose the game the next night 7-3, he thinks, maybe not.

 


 

 

They bounce back, of course. Wins and losses. It’s the nature of the game. Win two, lose one. Win one, lose three. It’s the game.

 

The only constant in it all is Zhenya by his side.

 

And that isn’t something to complain about.

 

He really likes Zhenya. It surprises him, how close they are.

 

He’s only known him for a little less than two months, but it feels like much more than that. Maybe it’s because Zhenya is one of the few people that he can speak English with, or maybe it’s because he spends so much time with him, but whatever the reason may be, his relationship with Zhenya feels completely essential, feels so incredibly important.

 

Through the wins and the losses, the ups and the downs, what really seems to matter is that he’s playing the game he loves and that he’s playing it with Zhenya.

 


 

 

They beat Chelyabinsk soundly (8-2) and the team goes out to celebrate.

 

Zhenya lets the Vitya pick the bar as a reward for his hat trick. He chooses some club with fast paced music, flashing lights, and plenty of half-naked women.

 

It’s really not Sid’s scene, but a lot of the guys seem to enjoy it, so he quietly nurses a drink in their booth in the VIP section.

 

After everyone has a few drinks, tongues are a little looser.

 

Vitya gets a little curious.

 

“Russian girls not good enough for you, Crozya?,” he jokes in Russian.

 

Sid half-heartedly smiles back.

 

“Very beautiful. But have girl back home,” he lies in broken Russian.

 

Sid’s answer seems to satisfy Vitya’s curiosity. Or maybe he’s just distracted by a beautiful Russian woman. Either way, he leaves Sid alone.

 

Sid finishes his drink and tells Zhenya he’s heading out. Zhenya says he’s ready to leave too and gets the valet to bring around the car.

 

It’s late, after midnight, when they pull into the driveway.  Zhenya’s been quiet the whole drive home, but so has Sid.

 

Sid reaches to open the car door when Zhenya puts a hand on his arm and asks, “You have girlfriend?”

 

Sid freezes up for a moment.

 

“What?” he says, bewildered.

 

“You say to Vitya, girl in Canada.”

 

“Oh. No. I mean, I told him that. But, no, I don’t have one. A girlfriend. I just wanted him off my back.”

 

“’Off back?’” he clarifies.

 

“I wanted him to leave me alone about picking up, you know, girls in clubs and fan girls, or whatever. I don’t do that kind of thing. I’m not really interested.”

 

Zhenya turns in his seat and looks at him for a moment.

 

“Not interested?” he eventually asks.

 

Sid stares down at his watch, fiddling with latch.

 

“Yeah. Not interested,” he answers lowly.

 

Zhenya slowly nods.

 

“Okay,” is all he says before he opens the door and steps out of the car.

 

Sid takes a fortifying breath and follows him into the house.

 


 

 

The next morning, Sid is sitting in a comfortable chair by the window, reading the new Jared Diamond book. He’s determined to enjoy their day-off.

 

He’s completely engrossed in the book, several chapters in, when a pistachio shell hits his forehead and bounces off, landing on the page in front of him.

 

He glances up at Zhenya, who’s chewing on a pistachio, sitting with a pile of shells in front of him, and trying to look innocent, badly hiding a smirk.

 

Sid purses his lips and turns back to his book. Twenty seconds later, another shell hits him, this time against his cheek and it falls to the floor.

 

Sid sighs. He is thoroughly enjoying his book, but if he’s honest, there probably isn’t a book in the world that can hold his attention better than Zhenya can. And to be completely honest, he doesn’t think there is ever likely to be one.

 

When Sid folds the book closed, Zhenya laughs and pumps a fist up in victory and Sid can’t help but smile at him. This is probably his favorite thing about Zhenya. How he feels everything so loudly and freely. His relentless love for life and fun.

 

“Alright, you win. What do you want?” Sid answers, trying to suppress his indulgent smile.

 

He shouldn’t be endeared by this. He really shouldn’t. Zhenya is being completely obnoxious. But he really is endeared. He likes it.

 

“I’m bored. Be fun, Sid,” Zhenya whines.

 

Sid rolls his eyes and smiles.

 

 "Fine. Let's go have early lunch at Кухня. I think Babushka Marishka said she was making Medovik."

 

"You love so much. Sugar teeth!" he laughs at Sid.

 

Sid rolls his eyes and corrects, "Sweet tooth. It's sweet tooth. And yeah, guilty as charged."

 

Zhenya ignores him and smugly dangles the keys from his hand as he walks out of the room. Sid shakes his head and follows. 

 


 

 

They get on a plane to Moscow. It's the start of a seven game road trip, and the first game is a matinee against Dynamo. He'll get to play against Ovechkin again. They arrive a day early and have the afternoon free.

 

Zhenya is his roommate, as he always is when they play away games. They both drop their bags next to their respective beds. Zhenya throws himself on top of his bed and folds his arms behind his head.

 

“Eat lunch now?” he asks Sid.

 

“Can we maybe walk around a bit first? I’d like to check out the Red Square, see St. Basil’s,” Sid says.

 

Zhenya groans.

 

“Why you want this? Tourists. So many. Lots Americans and from China. Many people take pictures. Is terrible,” he complains.

 

“You’ve lived in Russia your whole life, but this is my first time here. Every now and then I actually do want to be a tourist."

 

Zhenya throws him an unimpressed look.

 

"You don’t have to come with me. I can go on my own,” Sid points out.

 

Zhenya huffs.

 

“No. I’m come. Fine. We be tourist. Then, eat. Yes?” he asks.

 

Sid smiles.

 

“Sounds like a plan.”

 


 

 

It turns out Zhenya is a little bit right. The Red Square is full of tourists. Large groups from China and loud American families and groups of drunk European teenagers.

 

But Sid doesn’t mind the tourists so much. After all, he is a tourist himself. And it isn't too crowded. Not as badly as he worried it might be. The cold is keeping some of the tourists away, he presumes. Sid and Zhenya are both bundled up in fine wool coats to fight the November chill.

 

He sees why it is such an attraction, though. Why people come from all over the world to see it. St. Basil’s Cathedral is breathtakingly beautiful. He’s never seen architecture like it. It’s wonderful.

 

He tries not to gush too much about it to Zhenya, but with the way the corner of Zhenya's eye is bunched up and his lips are pulled up at the corner, Sid can tell Zhenya is entertained by Sid’s enthusiasm.

 

They continue along the tourist path and come across a souvenir shop. Zhenya turns to Sid with a questioning, judgemental gaze and Sid rolls his eyes and brushes past him to enter the shop.

 

He picks up a few knick-knacks to bring home for his parents and sister. A table book of the 1974 Summit Series for his dad, a replica Fabergé egg for his mom, and a miniature of St. Basil’s for Taylor. He’s about to get in line when he spots something across the store that makes him smile.

 

"What?" Zhenya asks him.

 

Sid nods toward the opposite end of the shop. Zhenya follows his line of sight and laughs when he sees it.

 

He throws a mischievous look at Sid and crosses the store to grab the plushie. He gets back in line behind Sid.

 

Sid pays for his souvenirs and then Zhenya steps up to the register to make his purchase.

 

When they exit the shop, Zhenya turns to Sid and hands him the Cheburashka plushie.

 

“For you,” he says, embarrassed.

 

Sid takes it and smiles brightly back.

 


 

 

It’s Christmas in North America and they lose 4-3 in OT to Avangard Omsk.

 

Sid really isn’t thrilled about it. He just wants to go home, take a shower, and go to bed. Maybe call his parents to ask how their Christmas went.

 

But Zhenya decides North American Christmas is important enough that the team should do something together to celebrate.

 

Sid sighs when Zhenya tells the guys that they’re all going out to dinner. Sid had been looking forward to a night in. But Zhenya says he’ll pick up the check, so naturally, the whole team agrees to go and all the guys order the most expensive steak and wine on the menu.

 

Sid is tired and a little bit homesick, but when Zhenya offers Sid one of his pelmeni, he can’t help but feel a little warmer.

 

He takes the dumpling then cuts off a piece of his steak and hands Zhenya the fork with a small smile.

 

Zhenya smiles back, just for him.

 


 

 

Sid sips his champagne and leans against the balcony rail. He can’t believe how fast four months have gone by. He arrived here in Russia in late August and it’s already the last day of December. The time is absolutely flying by.

 

He likes it here in Russia. He really does. So much more than he thought he would. And maybe a lot of that is Zhenya. Zhenya, who has opened his home to Sid, who has spent so much time helping him with his Russian and making him dinner and playing hockey with him.

 

Zhenya, who has very quickly made himself so genuinely important to Sid, and who seems to have made Sid just as important to himself.

 

Zhenya is the best friend he has in all of Russia. He may be the best friend Sid has in the whole world.

 

There’s twenty seconds left of 2012 when Zhenya wraps an arm around Sid’s shoulders from behind.

 

“Here you are,” he says with a loose smile.

 

Sid smiles back just as softly, maybe a little tipsy from the champagne and the vodka.

 

Zhenya hands him an unlit sparkler.

 

“For you,” he says.

 

All around them, people are counting down in Russian.

 

“Tри, два, один!”

 

The clock strikes midnight and the fireworks burst in the air.

 

Zhenya turns to him and grabs him by the chin. He tilts Sid’s head just so slightly to the right.

 

He leans in and presses a firm kiss to Sid’s left cheek.

 

He pulls back, turns Sid’s head a few degrees the other direction, and leans back down into Sid’s space. He presses another kiss, this one to the corner of Sid’s mouth. His lips lingers there for a moment, but eventually, he pulls away.

 

“С Новым годом,” he says softly.

 

Sid looks up at him for a second before he pushes up on his toes and presses a soft kiss to Zhenya’s cheek in return.

 

He pulls back only slightly, face just a few inches from Zhenya’s and returns the wishes.

 

“Happy New Year,” he says with a quiet smile, just for Zhenya.

 

Zhenya clenches his eyes shut and turns his head. Zhenya takes a step back.

 

Sid’s smile turns just a little bit sad. Zhenya wants him. Sid knows he does. He can see it. He knows that the chemistry between them, this attraction is real. It's mutual.

 

But he also sees that Zhenya can't accept that. He doesn’t want to want him. Maybe Zhenya has decided this is something he can’t have. Or maybe he's decided it’s something he shouldn’t have.


It doesn’t really matter. Either way, the end is the same.

 

Sid steps back and raises his sparkler.

 

“Got a lighter?” he asks.

 


 

 

It's the morning after a tough overtime win against Ak Bars Kazan. He and Zhenya had eaten breakfast at Кухня earlier that morning and had spent the rest of the morning relaxing in their living room, enjoying their day off, Sid reading a book and Zhenya playing a video game. 

 

It's just after 11 and they're chatting over tea in the kitchen when Sid’s phone rings.

 

He checks the caller ID and his breath catches.

 

“Hey, Mario,” he answers after the second ring.

 

“Sid,” Mario says.

 

And that’s all Sid needs to hear. He can tell from Mario’s voice that it’s over. The lockout is finished and the NHL will be starting back up.

 

“Did you get it done?” Sid asks.

 

“We got it done,” he agrees.

 

“When do you need me back?” Sid asks.

 

“I’ve already booked you a ticket. You depart from Magnitogorsk airport at 4:44pm local time.”

 

Sid looks over to the clock on the wall.

 

"Today?"

 

"Today." 

 

“I guess I’d better pack, then,” Sid says into the phone.

 

“I guess so. I’ll see you soon, Sid,” Mario says.

 

“See you soon,” Sid agrees and then hangs up.

 

Zhenya stares at him from his kitchen barstool. He heard enough to realize.

 

Sid stares back, uncertain what to say.

 

“You can stay,” Zhenya says softly.

 

Sid shakes his head.

 

“I can’t.”

 

“Yes, you can,” he argues.

 

Sid keeps shaking his head.

 

“I have to go.”

 

“Nyet,” Zhenya states.

 

“I have to go,” Sid says again.

 

“Why you can’t stay?! You like here! Good hockey,” he pleads.

 

Sid’s shoulders fall.

 

“You know why I can’t, Zhenya.”

 

Sid stares at him hopelessly for a moment and decides he has nothing left to lose. He’s leaving in a few hours anyway.

 

He puts down his phone and walks over to Zhenya. He wraps his hand around the back of Zhenya’s neck and pulls him in for a kiss. Zhenya melts into it almost immediately and kisses him back. It’s perfect.

 

Zhenya’s good at this, at kissing him. The two of them fit together just right. Like they belong.

 

It’s a no-look pass across the ice, tape to tape. Two people perfectly in sync. No need for discussion. Their kiss is raw intuition, instinctive. Knowing how to move, where to be, what to do.

 

Zhenya pulls back first and stares at him. They’re both breathing a little heavy and Sid’s afraid to speak, has no idea what he would say even if he weren’t. But he doesn’t need to say anything at all because Zhenya leans back down for another scorching kiss.

 

His tongue slips across Sid’s lip to ask for entry and Sid gives it to him. He opens his mouth and groans into the kiss.

 

Zhenya backs him up until he’s pressed against the kitchen island. Sid levers himself up onto the countertop without breaking the kiss. He spreads his legs apart and Zhenya steps between them while he wraps an arm around his waist. Sid wraps his legs around Zhenya, pulling him in closer. Zhenya groans and grinds against Sid and Sid moans too.

 

Zhenya starts to kiss his way across Sid’s jaw, scraping his teeth against his skin, leaving little bites. Sid tilts his head to the side. Zhenya takes the hint, kissing down past his ear and down along Sid’s neck. He pulls back and pulls Sid's shirt up over his head and throws it to the floor. He leans back into Sid's space and rubs his nose along the line of his neck. He picks a spot near where Sid’s neck meets his collar, and he sucks and bites and kisses.

 

Sid moans and digs his fingers into Zhenya’s shoulder blades.

 

Zhenya pulls away from Sid's neck to examine his work. They’re both breathing heavy now, chests heaving. Zhenya leans back down to taste once more and lick across the mark he made, then pulls up and brings his mouth back to Sid’s for a sloppy kiss, wet and indulgent.

 

Sid hums into the kiss, opening his mouth for Zhenya, meeting him halfway. Zhenya’s tongue grazes across his, and Sid answers, sliding his along the side of Zhenya’s.

 

Sid pulls back, mouth hovering just a fraction of an inch from Zhenya’s, to catch his breath. His lips linger, so close to Zhenya’s, but not quite touching.

 

“My room’s closer,” he says into Zhenya’s mouth before he bites Zhenya’s bottom lip.

 

Zhenya nods and gently kisses him back for just a second. Then he pulls half an inch away and closes his eyes. He breathes Sid’s air, savoring the moment. His lips right over Sid’s, their noses graze. He can feel the heat radiating off Zhenya. Zhenya presses their lips together again and pulls Sid off the countertop by his waist. He pushes Sid out of the kitchen, and the two of them stumble towards his bedroom.

 


 

 

The two of them lie in Sid’s bed, nestled together, quiet and thoughtful. Zhenya has his nose buried in Sid’s hair and Sid’s cheek is resting against Zhenya’s shoulder.

 

“Stay. Stay with me,” Zhenya finally asks.

 

Sid shakes his head, cheek rubbing against Zhenya’s bare skin.

 

“I can’t.”

 

He drags his hand up Zhenya’s stomach and rests it on his sternum. He skates his fingers through the patch of hair on Zhenya’s chest. It’s surprisingly soft against his skin. He feels the steady thump of Zhenya’s heart beat against the palm of his hand.

 

He lies in Zhenya’s arms for a few more minutes before he eventually climbs out of bed. He walks across the room to where he had dropped his boxer briefs and pulls them back on. He walks back over to the side of the bed and sits on the edge. He leans over and gently presses a chaste, lingering kiss to Zhenya’s lips.

 

“I have to pack. Mario says they already bought me a plane ticket. My flight leaves in four hours.”

 

Zhenya looks up at him and pulls him back in for a much more passionate kiss. After a minute, Sid pulls away, chest heaving.

 

He brings his hand up to cup Zhenya’s jaw and drags his thumb across his now kiss-red bottom lip.

 

“I have to go. I’m sorry. Мне жаль.”

 

He presses one last kiss to his lips and stands up.

 

Sid makes his way around his room, pulling clothes from drawers and placing them in his suitcase. He grabs the few books he brought from off the bookcase and the souvenirs he bought for his family and drops them all in with his clothes. He grabs the Cheburashka stuffed animal Zhenya bought him and packs it in his suitcase too.

 

“I take you to airport,” Zhenya finally says.

 

“Thank you. We’ll need to stop by the rink, get my gear, too,” he replies.

 

Zhenya rolls onto his side and watches Sid pack up his things, erasing himself from Zhenya’s home.

 

“Can just have them send to you. Penguins buy you more gear,” Zhenya says after a few minutes.

 

Sid looks up from his suitcase and stares at Zhenya for a moment before he nods, “Okay. Straight to the airport then.”

 

“If you not have to go to rink, can stay in bed with me for little bit more, yes?” Zhenya asks.

 

Sid pulls the zipper of his suitcase shut and latches the luggage lock. He sighs and walks back over to the bed. Zhenya looks up at him, not pleading or angry. Just a serious look on his face.

 

“I’ll give you fifteen more minutes,” he finally says and throws a leg over Zhenya’s hips to straddle him.

 

Zhenya half smiles, and he rests his hands on Sid’s hips, “I’m think thirty more.”

 

Sid huffs a small laugh and leans down to kiss him again.

 


 

 

It’s Mario who picks him up from the airport in Pittsburgh. Sid reaches over the center console of the Mercedes to give him a one-armed hug.

 

“It’s good to see you, kid. I missed having you around,” Mario says sincerely as they pull away from the curb at Arrivals.

 

Sid smiles back at him, “It’s good to be back.”

 

“Nathalie says you’re coming over for dinner tomorrow. I’ve been told to tell you you’re not allowed to say ‘No’.”

 

He laughs and agrees, “No arguments from me. You know I love Nathalie’s cooking. If she says I’m coming to dinner, then I’m there.”

 

Mario chuckles as he merges onto the highway, “Ouais. I did know that. But, just so you know, the orders come from Austin and Alexa, actually. I don’t think they’ve gone more than 6 weeks without seeing you since they were eight and nine years old. They’ve missed you.”

 

“I missed them too,” he says fondly.

 

“I’m glad you’re back,” Mario reiterates.

 

“Me too. I missed you guys. And the team too. It’s good to be back. I’m ready to get back to playing Penguins hockey. Glad you guys were able to settle negotiations, end the lockout.”

 

Mario groans, “Câlisse, Sid. You have no idea how glad I am these negotiations are finished. What a pain in my fucking ass. Merde. Believe me, Sid, no one in the world is more relieved than me the lockout is over.”

 

Sid laughs.

 

“Tell me how you really feel, Mario,” he jokes.

 

Mario glares at him from the corner of his eye, and grumbles, “Yeah, laugh it up, kid. Laugh it up. I was in meetings every day for the last three months arguing over escrow and tax law and no movement clauses while you were over in Russia playing hockey and drinking vodka, having a wonderful time. Worked my ass off to get you back here, and this is the thanks I get.”

 

Sid raises both hands, still grinning, “Didn’t realize it was such a touchy subject. Désolé.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Mario grumbles, but Sid can see the corner of his mouth pulling upwards.

 


 

 

When training camp starts three days later, there’s an excitement in the air.

 

Plenty of the guys had given up the season as a wash, so getting the call from their agents had been a shock, but a welcome one for most. Everyone is rearing. Hungry for the season to start. Hungry to play. Hungry to win.

 

When Sid steps out on to the ice, he can’t help but grin. He skates the length of the rink, and taps Flower’s pad with his stick as he skates by.

 

“I told you it would happen,” Flower says with an exuberant smile.

 

“Yeah, yeah. You were right,” Sid agrees, only half glad he'd been wrong.

 

“How was Russia?” he asks.

 

Sid gives just the slightest smile and he pauses for a moment before answering.

 

“It was really great. I’m glad I went.”

 

“Well, then, I’m glad you went too. But I’m even gladder you’re back,” Flower nudges him.

 

“’Gladder’? Is that right? I think it might be ‘more glad,’ actually,” Sidney teases.

 

“Oh, tais-toi! English is terrible! You know this! Leave me alone with these beautiful, sexy goal posts. I have to sweet-talk my ladies before you assholes start hitting pucks at them. I’m too busy to talk to you about English,” he replies with disdain.

 

Sid laughs and skates away, directly toward Tanger who has a pile of pucks that he is shooting into an empty net.

 

Sid skates up beside him and wraps an arm around his shoulder in a half hug.

 

“Kris! How’s the baby? And Cath?” he asks.

 

Tanger smiles at him and says, “Sid! Good to see you! Alex is perfect. He’s so good. And so is Cath. Tired, but good. You need to come meet him.”

 

“I will be there the minute they get to Pittsburgh. You know I love babies,” Sid says.

 

Tanger laughs at him.

 

“Yes! We all know you love them! You can’t steal mine, though. You’ll have to get your own,” Tanger teases.

 

Before Sid can answer, Coach blows his whistle and calls them in and the first practice of the season begins.

 


 

 

Practice is absolutely exhausting. When Sid crashes into bed that night, he expects to fall asleep right away, but thoughts of Zhenya keep him up.

 

He should call Zhenya. He knows he should. Zhenya was his best friend over in Russia. Zhenya had devoted so much of his time to helping Sid adjust, helping him fit in. Sid owes it to him to try to maintain that relationship, to not let it wither and die.

 

But with the way they left things, Sid has absolutely no idea what he would say. He has no idea if Zhenya even wants to talk to him.

 

They both knew exactly what was going on when they fell into bed together, both knew that Sid would be out of the country in less than twelve hours, but Sid still doesn’t know if he hurt Zhenya. He fucked him and then left the country. He thinks maybe he’d be mad if someone did that to him.

 

Bur he still has no idea what to say. So he chooses to say nothing.

 

He figures it’s better than calling and saying the wrong thing, making the situation worse, even more uncomfortable. He knows it’s not the right thing to do, but he doesn’t even know what the right thing is anyway. And phones work two ways, he decides. If Zhenya wants to talk to him, he can call.

 

He misses Zhenya, though. He doesn’t want to never speak to him again. He doesn’t want to abandon their relationship, let it dissolve over time and distance. He likes Zhenya. He likes him a lot. Zhenya is important.

 

But, God, he just doesn’t know what to say.

 

Sid sighs and his gaze drifts to the corner of his room, where the Cheburashka stuffed animal Zhenya gave him sits on a leather chair.

 

Maybe he’ll call tomorrow. But maybe he won’t.

 


 

 

Once the season begins, the pace is relentless. Their schedule is almost recklessly jam-packed. There’s no time at all for any of them to catch a breath. Two nights on, one night off, two nights on, one night off. Game after game after game. It’s endless and intense and exhausting.

 

Sid absolutely loves it.

 

It’s hockey, pure and simple. Nothing but hockey. Crammed into every minute the NHL could manage without breaking labor laws, trying to make up for lost time. God, he loves it.

 

And the team is doing well. Very well. They’re winning a lot more than they’re losing. Sid himself is doing well too. He started on a much hotter streak than most. While everyone else had still been shaking off the rust, Sid had been perfectly conditioned and warmed up from his four months with Metallurg.

 

So he’s thriving and he’s busy with their crammed schedule, but still Sid makes the time to keep up with how Metallurg is doing. When the team is flying from city to city on the charter plane, or when they have a few hours of down time in a hotel, Sid streams Metallurg’s games on his laptop, checks the stats and standings. He invested four months in the team. He wants to know how things are going without him.

 

As it turns out, they’re not going well. They're struggling a bit. It doesn’t particularly surprise him. Metallurg essentially lost their entire second line with both Sid and Mats coming back to the NHL. And in addition to that, they lost one of their top pairing defensemen. It isn’t a shock that the team is struggling, that their chemistry is off.

 

He feels bad about it. And he wants to call Zhenya and apologize. But he’s doesn’t think Zhenya would want to hear it. Zhenya asked him to stay and Sid said ‘no’. Apologizing won’t change that.

 

He wonders if Zhenya holds it against him for leaving.

 

He hopes he doesn’t.

 

But when the beginning of March comes around and he watches Metallurg fall out of the Gagarin Cup playoffs after 7 games in Round 1, he thinks Zhenya probably is angry at him for abandoning his team. Sid certainly wouldn’t blame him. He would probably be angry too.

 

God, he really misses Zhenya. It’s been two months since he’s spoken to him and he knows it’s no one’s fault but his own. He wants to be Zhenya’s friend right now, make him feel this loss less keenly. Comfort him and make it sting a little less.

 

He feels partially responsible for it, the loss. He knows nothing he can say will make it any better, but he wants to make sure Zhenya knows he isn’t alone, wants to make sure he doesn’t think the blame falls entirely on himself. He wants to make sure Zhenya knows that some of the blame lies with Sid.

 

And, God, he wants Zhenya to know he’s still thinking about him. Still paying attention. He hasn’t forgotten. He hasn’t left his mind, even for a moment.

 

Sid’s chickenshit and he knows it. He’s been too afraid to call Zhenya because he’s so worried about what he might say. But he has to say something right now. He can’t leave Zhenya high and dry.

 

He pulls out his phone and flips through his contacts. His finger hovers over the button, but he can’t bring himself to call. He stares at Zhenya’s number, but he just can’t press it.

 

He curses at himself and opens up a text. He tries so hard to come up with something supportive and kind and helpful. But all he can come up with is I’m sorry. I miss you. It wasn’t your fault.

 

So that’s what he sends.

 

He drops his head back against the wall and sighs.

 


 

 

Sid steps out of the shower on one of those rare off days and his phone rings on his nightstand where it’s charging.

 

He drags the towel over his hair and walks over to check the caller ID.

 

He stares. And stares.

 

And then realizes the phone is going to stop ringing soon if he doesn’t answer it.

 

He presses accept and raises the phone to his ear.

 

“Zhenya?” he asks.

 

“Sid,” he says cautiously.

 

“How are you?” Sid asks, grasping at normalcy and etiquette.

 

“Good,” Zhenya says gruffly.

 

Neither of them says anything for a moment. Sid can hear people in the background, filtering through Zhenya’s phone.

 

“You do big thing for me?” Zhenya finally asks.

 

“Anything,” Sid immediately agrees.

 

“Come get me?” he asks.

 

“What?” Sid says, stunned.

 

“Airport. In Pittsburgh. You come get me? Maybe I stay in your house?” he asks hesitantly.

 

Sid’s speechless for a moment before he answers.

 

“Yeah. For sure. Of course. Wow. Okay. I’ll be right there. Well, give me 20 minutes. I have to put clothes on. I’ll call you when I get there,” he rambles out.

 

“Okay. 20 minutes. I’m be waiting,” Zhenya says before he hangs up the phone.

 

Sid pulls the phone away from his ear and stares at it for a moment.

 

He needs to get to the airport.

 

Well, first, he needs to get dressed. But then he needs to get to the airport.

 

He dazedly walks to his closet and pulls on the first pair of jeans he finds, then pulls on a white t-shirt. He slides his phone into his pocket, then grabs his keys and his wallet and he walks out the door.

 

He gets in his car in a sort of haze and before he knows it, he’s loitering outside Arrivals at Pittsburgh International Airport.

 

He calls Zhenya, tells him he’s here, in a black SUV, at the arrivals pick-up. Eventually Zhenya spots him and drops his bags in the back of the SUV, then hops in the front seat.

 

“Hey, Zhenya,” Sid manages to get out.

 

“Hey, Sid,” he replies softly.

 

Zhenya’s tense, a little fidgety in the passenger seat. Sid’s feeling a little awkward too. A little hesitant.

 

“Good flight?” he asks.

 

Zhenya hums, not really answering either way.

 

It seems like Zhenya doesn’t know what to say any better than Sid does. They drive back to Sid’s house silently, both lost in their own heads.

 

They pull into the driveway and Sid puts the SUV in park.

 

“Zhenya, what are you doing here?” Sid finally asks.

 

Zhenya shifts in his seat. Eventually, he speaks.

 

“Metallurg season done. They offer new contract. But I’m not sign. I’m think, maybe is time for play NHL. Maybe is time for come to Pittsburgh…,” he trails off.

 

Sid’s breath catches.

 

“Are you serious?” he asks.

 

Zhenya just nods.

 

“Have you talked with the front office yet? I can’t believe they didn’t tell me,” Sid starts.

 

“I’m not talk with anyone,” Zhenya states.

 

Sid raises both eyebrows.

 

“No one?”

 

“No one. No agent. No team. No manager. Just think. Could be with Sid right now. Could play hockey with Sid,” he admits.

 

Sid’s heart is beating over time, and he can’t find the words to say. Eventually, he comes up with, “Let’s go inside.”

 

Zhenya nods and opens the car door. He follows Sid into the house and shuts the front door behind them both.

 

Sid tries to walk further into the house, but Zhenya gently pulls him back by his wrist. Sid stops and turns around to look at Zhenya.

 

Zhenya takes one step forward and cautiously raises his hand to rest his palm against Sid’s cheek. Sid sighs and leans into it. His eyes flutter shut. Zhenya leans forward and presses a soft kiss to Sid’s lips.

 

A second later, he steps back and looks away, avoiding Sid’s gaze.

 

“Zhenya,” Sid breathes out.

 

Zhenya looks up and sees Sid smile, so bright and so happy. He can’t help but shyly smile back, Sid’s joy is so contagious.

 

“Sid,” Zhenya says.

 

Sid steps toward him, pushing into his space so they’re practically chest to chest and he beams up at Zhenya. He pushes up on his toes and pulls Zhenya in for a much deeper kiss, tangling his fingers in Zhenya's hair.

                                                                                     

When he finally pulls away, he quietly says, “We’re gonna be great together, Zhenya. God, it’s gonna be so good.”

 

Zhenya smiles and kisses him again.