Like many other things in Zhenya’s life, the process of waking up is a steady routine enforced primarily by Sid. Waking up today is the same, but different.
Sid’s never been much for cuddling in their actual sleep. He lets Zhenya octopus him sometimes, just to appease Zhenya’s deep, yearning need for a certain quota of physical touch. But often he rolls away in the night to the other side of the mattress so he can sleep with his arms and legs and neck in the exact position that’s best for him, and then rolls right back to greet Zhenya in the morning when he’s woken, batteries recharged.
This morning, Zhenya wakes without Sid nudging back into his embrace, his side of the bed still empty of any body but his own. He blinks blearily at the light filtering in through the blinds, then flips over onto his other side to hide from it by planting his face back into the pillow. He wiggles a bit, trying to worm his way deeper into the warmth of the mattress. Sid can have his space. Zhenya’s bed is the most comfortable shit money can buy, and sometimes sleeping there feels pretty much like getting a warm hug for hours regardless of whether Sid’s touching him.
“Uh, what the fuck?” Zhenya hears Sid say from his spot a few feet away.
“Mm?” Zhenya mumbles half-heartedly, not bothering to open his eyes. The chances that Sid is mad at him for something this early in the morning are minimal, because he hasn’t been awake long enough to actually do anything. He snuffles back into the pillow.
“Oh, hmm,” Sid goes on. He’s talking in his sleep, most likely. He talks mostly nonsense when he does that, words that can’t even be rearranged and constructed into real sentences. Years ago, after they’d first fallen into bed together, Zhenya used to wonder if it was his English that made him unable to follow Sid’s mutterings. He’d strain his ears sometimes trying to pick up on whatever Sid wasn’t letting out while he was awake. But eventually he’d figured out that it’s impossible for anyone to piece together. You always don’t...fuck. Get there. Underwater? Often, no, no, in the tone of a polite denial or brush-off. Sid says no so often Zhenya once thought he was overhearing Sid’s nightmares, but nothing concretely scary or horrified ever comes out of his mouth. The most haunting thing Sid ever says in his sleep is I don’t care.
The duvet lifts abruptly without Zhenya’s permission, like Sid’s fucking with it. Zhenya’s happy drowsiness is beginning to slowly slip from his grasp. Maybe it’s time to give up on it. He pushes himself up onto an elbow and cracks his eyes open.
Sid’s lifted the bedding high over his head, arms ramrod straight like tentpoles, and he’s staring raptly at his own dick.
“Holy shit,” he whispers. And that’s concerning.
“What’s happen?” Zhenya frowns, hurriedly lifting the sheets with his own forearm to get a look at what’s beneath them. There’s Sid’s dick, same as it always looks.
And then Sid lets out something that sounds like a legitimate yelp, drops the F-bomb a few more times. He yanks the sheets back down to cover himself and goes, “Jeez, can you not,” something vulnerable and hunted in his eyes.
Zhenya blinks, bewildered. Sid stares back at him, wide-eyed. In a bizarre gesture, he’s hiked the covers up over his chest like he’s hiding it, like it’s private. Zhenya tugs lightly at them under where Sid is holding them high to his own body. “You hurt? Let me see.”
“No, asshole,” Sid whines.
Zhenya lifts his hand to his own eyes and scrubs hard at them, then takes another crack at opening them, taking in the person beside him. He looks like Sid. He has all of Sid’s features. He’s in Zhenya’s house waking up in Zhenya’s bed where Sid does. But he’s looking at Zhenya with this odd, apprehensive, mistrustful scowl that Zhenya has never once seen Sid direct his way. Not once. “Sid?” Zhenya asks, all at once absolutely certain it’s the wrong guess.
But still, the man says, “Yeah, I’m Sid,” shifting in place like he’s unsure about the accuracy of that statement. “That’s my name.”
Zhenya stares. “Sidney Crosby?”
“Yes, I said yes.” He swallows hard, lifting a hand to feel at his own Adam’s apple afterward. “Who are you?”
That’s a blow Zhenya never could have imagined he would have to weather. Immediately, he does a silent mental run-through of possibilities: a curse, a time jump. “You not my Sid?”
“I think…yeah, no,” this Sid admits, and then looks horribly like he’s going to cry. He sniffles, tears springing up easier than Sid usually lets them. Sid always wages full-on wars against his tears, scowling and wiping at his eyes and fighting them back and not really caring if he can’t see for shit as long as none slip over his lash line. It’s something Zhenya’s never really understood. When Zhenya cries, he just cries.
This Sid is crying. Not making a big deal of it, just wiping away a couple tears after they’ve fallen. “I’m not sure where I am,” he says, laughing without humor.
Must be a curse, Zhenya thinks. Memory loss or removal. Need to take him to see a Navigator.
The issue with trying to apply logic to the situation is that it doesn’t stave off the panic rising in Zhenya’s throat. But he sees that same panic mirrored back at him from Sid, and if there’s one thing they always do, it’s protect each other. Zhenya can’t look at Sid’s face, wild and overwhelmed, and not offer comfort—even if it’s not Sid as Zhenya knows him.
He opens his arms to create space for someone to roll into. “It’s okay, come here, I’m safe. You safe here, I’m safe.”
“But I’m naked,” Sid complains.
Oh, right. A Sid that’s bothered by nakedness is a strange idea for Zhenya to process. “I’ve seen before,” he says.
It doesn’t really seem to help. “How do I know that? How am I supposed to know who you are or if I can trust you? Did you do this to me?”
What exactly this is, Zhenya still doesn’t know. And he’s a little busy being quietly horrified that something awful has happened to Sid’s brain again, but at least his body is still the same. Carefully, as if reaching out to pet a wild animal, Zhenya takes the hand that Sid isn’t using to hold the sheets up over his nipples, and digs his thumb into the pressure point in the valley of Sid’s palm.
He goes loose instantly on the other side of the mattress, all the tension seeping out of his shoulders. “Oh. I can’t believe you know about that.”
Zhenya knows. He knows all of the tricks to Sid’s body by now. It’s the tricks to his mind that still trip Zhenya up sometimes. “I’m Geno,” he says as both explanation and introduction. “Who are you?”
“I’m Sidney. And so is this guy, I guess,” this version of Sid says, casting an obvious look down the shape of his own body under the bed covers. “But I don’t recognize any of this.”
Zhenya keeps squeezing at the right place on Sid’s hand. A more relaxed Sid is a more cooperative one, and Zhenya can’t imagine that that wouldn’t hold true for any version of Sid in any timeline, any universe, any brainspace. “What’s last thing you remember?”
“Well, having a vagina, for one thing. And,” the person in Sid’s body reaches up to pat curiously at his chest. “I never really had much goin’ on up here, but this is concerningly flat.”
Zhenya squints. “You’re girl?”
“Always have been. Until now?”
Christ, that’s. A lot to swallow. If this Sid is a woman, then the chances that the issue at hand is something like a memory loss curse are looking increasingly unlikely. This isn’t just Sid with amnesia or Sid as a teenager. It’s not just a tweaked version of Sid. He’d been right before—it’s not Sid. Zhenya’s heart sinks like a stone.
The odd shyness about Sid’s body makes more sense now, at least. Zhenya can’t imagine what it must feel like to wake up naked in the bed of a strange man you’ve never seen before, especially as a woman. It’s fucking harrowing, probably. He lets go of Sid’s hand and scooches away to swing his legs over the edge of the mattress, crouching to gather up the robe he’d left tossed on the ground in a pile. He wraps himself up in it as hurriedly as he can, too weirded out to check over his shoulder to see if lady-Sid is freaked that Zhenya was naked under the covers too. Sid doesn’t usually sleep nude, but of course he happened to on the night before his body was to play host to some accidental intruder.
And if some woman is in Sid’s body, then where is Sid? Is he in there too, stuffed down and locked out of the control room? Or is he somewhere else in another form, confused at the life he’s waking up to?
Does he exist at all, or is he just…gone?
Shit. Zhenya turns around. Lady-Sid is still blinking at him from the bed. Zhenya has to wrack his brain to remember where their conversation left off just a moment ago. He offers, “If you were girl before, I’m think you’re still girl now. If you want?”
“I don’t know how to be anything else,” she shrugs.
Then that’s that. Zhenya heads over to the closet, grabs Sid’s bathrobe off the hook on the door, right next to the empty hook where Zhenya never remembers to hang his own. He presses it to his nose quickly, sniffs at the scent of Sid. It’s fresh like he’d been wearing it just last night. He had been, comfy and content on the couch watching whatever was on TV. Zhenya hadn’t been paying attention.
He tosses the robe onto the bed. “I’m go eat. Meet me in kitchen? Downstairs.”
He gets a silent nod in return, and takes it as license to clear the fuck out of there and let her have a moment. Downstairs in the kitchen, he busies himself making some distracted semblance of a breakfast. He puts the coffee on, even though he doesn’t drink it and can’t make a good pot to save his life. Sid sometimes drinks it, so maybe lady-Sid will want it.
Lady-Sid—there has to be a better name for her than that, but Zhenya’s not sure what else to call her. Zhenya doesn’t know where the hell she came from, but he’s betting it’s a parallel universe. Nothing else makes sense. Sid isn’t a Navigator, so he shouldn’t be able to hop universes, but this doesn’t seem like hopping parallel universes in the same way Navigators do, using Magic to walk through worlds without ever running into another version of themselves because they only exist in one entity. Everyone else, the Constants—they all have infinite forms, iterations of themselves that live differently in alternate dimensions. But Constants never meet their other forms, because the only people who can travel between universes are people that don’t have other forms. Navigators.
There’s still a slim chance that this girl is some other Sidney Crosby from their world, and this is all just a routine bodyswap. That, Zhenya can handle. A bodyswap that spans universes? Suddenly things look a lot more complicated.
When lady-Sid finally joins him in the kitchen, wrapped up in Sid’s robe, she looks a fair bit less red-eyed. But she’s still quiet, unsmiling. The coffee machine beeps obnoxiously, and Zhenya yanks the pot out from it and holds the whole thing up. “You want?”
“Oh, um,” she blinks. “Actually, do you have tea?”
Glory to God, Zhenya thinks, and turns to pour the whole pot directly down the sink drain.
“I’m make tea,” he says over the sound of a boatload of coffee whooshing away, hoping it quells lady-Sid’s distress. “Tea’s better.”
Eventually they settle on the couch with some tea for each of them, and there’s no more avoiding the elephant in the room. Zhenya’s not that well-trained in ways he can make himself seem less threatening, but he thinks that using a softer voice is one of them. “Tell me about where you from, okay?”
Lady-Sid puts her teacup and saucer down on the coffee table, then brings her feet up onto the couch so she can hug her knees into her chest. It’s another odd thing to see happen in Sid’s body, just not a position he usually sits in. It’s weird to even look at Sid’s body, strong and wide and male, and think she. “Well, like I said, my name is Sid. Sidney. I’m from Nova Scotia, in, uh…Canada? Is that where we are right now, Canada?” She looks around herself in search of some context on the walls or in the room to help her, but finds nothing.
“Pittsburgh,” Zhenya supplies. “You not live in Pittsburgh now?”
“Pittsburgh, jeez. Okay, um, no. I live in Montreal these days. Or, I did. I don’t know where I’m gonna go now, but—anyway. That’s where I was when I fell asleep last night. Montreal.”
Zhenya tries not to register any bafflement at the Montreal tidbit. It might be easiest to focus on the similarities between this Sid and and the one they’re missing. “You from Cole Harbour?”
“Yeah, exactly,” she perks up. “My parents still live there and all that.”
“How your parents called?”
Lady-Sid stumbles over that one a little bit. “How did they…?” she trails off. Zhenya’s not sure why it’s a hard question. “Oh, you mean what are their names? Trina and Troy.”
Zhenya can’t recall the last time Sid didn’t understand what he was saying because of a syntax thing, but he tries to shoulder off any indignation. Taking a sip of his tea, he presses on. “And sister?”
“Yeah, Taylor, my twin,” she says, and Zhenya inhales tea straight down his windpipe.
“Twin?” he coughs.
“March 6, 1996!” she chirps. Zhenya still struggles very slightly with translating years at the blink of an eye unless they’re close enough to this year, but he can tell whatever she just said isn’t near early enough. “That’s why she wears the 36 and I wear the 96. I wanted the 36 when we were kids, but she was the goalie, so—that’s enough about Taylor. You get it.” She stops the babbling abruptly. “Do you get it? I’m talking about hockey, you know?”
A part of Zhenya he didn’t even know was wound tight uncoils at the knowledge that Sid still plays hockey in other universes. It must be ingrained in the very fiber of his being. Even so, it doesn’t overshadow Zhenya’s shock at discovering that this version of Sid is a mere twenty-three years old like Taylor. With every passing moment, this gets worse than he thought. “I’m know hockey,” he chokes out.
Lady-Sid falls quiet for a moment on the other side of the couch. “Does, um. Does he play hockey? The Sid you know?”
For the first time that morning, Zhenya smiles. “He plays.” He plays like you wouldn’t believe.
Next to him, she mirrors his grin, eyebrows creeping up. “And you?”
Zhenya stands from the couch, goes to grab a framed photo from the mantle down the hall. It’s a picture of him and Sid in their jerseys, taken a couple of years ago. He hands it to lady-Sid as explanation in itself.
She examines it, passing a thumb over Sid’s face through the glass. Zhenya wonders if she can see her own reflection in the glare of it. “You guys play for Pittsburgh, eh?” she says finally. “That’s rough, sorry.”
“Sorry?” Zhenya throws a deadpan look at the 1,000-point plaque he got just a couple weeks ago, hanging on the wall behind lady-Sid’s head. Three Stanley Cups, Three Conn Smythes between them, a few Hart trophies to boot, and someone’s telling him sorry you play in Pittsburgh?
She looks a little confused. “You know, just ‘cause the Pens are so…historically bad. Been decades since they could even contend. Just…bad.” She shrugs. “Except for Fleury. Dude’s a legend.”
Zhenya bulldozes straight past the fact that Flower’s apparently still playing in Pittsburgh where she comes from, and jumps to his own defense. “Evgeni Malkin good too, of course,” he argues.
She looks blank. “Who’s Malkin?”
Unbelievable. “Me,” Zhenya grunts, trying not to glare. “Him,” he says again, tapping the image of himself in the photo she holds. Then he wrenches it from her grasp none too kindly, turning away.
Zhenya’s going to get whiplash. The idea of Sid talking to another player in the league and telling him that his team can’t contend because they’re bad, like, holy hell—it’s a joke. One moment this girl is just like Sid, the next she’s a completely different person.
“Oh,” she says, sounding softer. “Sorry. I—I haven’t heard of a Malkin. You seem important to him, to Sid, and. To the Penguins too, probably. I’m sorry.”
At long last, Zhenya peels several layers into what he should’ve realized earlier. This iteration of Sid doesn’t know him. And that hurts enough, definitely. Maybe there was a part of him that hoped he and Sid were together in other universes, other lives. Not even together, necessarily. But together.
The laws of the cosmos aren’t much for romance; things don’t really work that way for anyone. Still, it feels a little like confirmation of what Zhenya’s always silently feared: he’s not permanent for Sid. He’s not essential to Sid’s existence. That’s why Sid keeps his old house even though he doesn’t live there, why he’ll speak the word love but not the word marriage. Why teammates know about them, but the public doesn’t.
That’s just the first half of it. The real kick in the balls is that if lady-Sid follows men’s hockey and hasn’t ever heard of Evgeni Malkin, then Zhenya’s not just left out of Sid’s life in other universes; he’s left out of hockey.
There are worlds in which Zhenya doesn’t make it to where he is today. Nothing about his path is inevitable. He’s not a force of nature. Just a product of it.
All the more reason to take nothing for granted. He’s here living the life he wants to live, loving the person he wants to love. And Sid loves him too, for now if not for life. That’s always going to count for something.
And Zhenya’s going to find him, even if he has to go through fire and water to do it.
He tells lady-Sid that he has to go to the toilet and leaves her alone in the living room to go take a shot at the only idea he has. Shutting the door to his room behind himself, he flops onto the bed where he’d woken just an hour ago to total chaos, breathes deeply, and reaches up to his neck to take his pendant in hand.
It’s been years since he first heard them, but Seryozha’s instructions ring clearly in his mind. Clutch it tightly, Zhenya. Up in your head, reach out for him. It will take some time to get through to him, and when you do, you won’t have long. Only say what’s important.
Seryozha isn’t a Navigator, but he’s the best interpreter and friend Zhenya knows. Zhenya spoke English as well as he was ever going to by the time he and Sid went to get linked tokens, but it was vital that he understood everything perfectly, no context clues or assumptions necessary. There’d been no Navigators on the team then, a stark contrast to the relative abundance they have now—but Seryozha had known a guy. An anglophone, not Russian. Seryozha had come with him and Sid to link their pendants through Magic, and repeated in Russian every comment, instruction, or explanation that the Navigator had uttered, even though Zhenya could comprehend nearly all of it without trouble. And then Zhenya and Seryozha had gone to Zhenya’s house and left Sid with the Navigator so they could test out the link from further apart. Clutch it tightly. Reach out for him. Only say what’s important.
This thing isn’t proven to work from light-years away, but maybe there’s a first time for everything. Zhenya shuts his eyes harder, seizes his pendant in his fist, and hopes against hope that Sid still wears the same chain in parallel universes. He reaches and reaches and reaches.
“Please tell me that’s you,” comes a voice, and it doesn’t fully sound like Sid, but fuck, it is. There’s no mistaking the feeling of him when their linked tokens are working, even if they’ve hardly done this a handful of times before. It feels like being in the room together.
Phone calls work perfectly well for regular conversations across oceans. Linked tokens are for if you need to find each other. Sid’s had concussions and illnesses and stalkers, a sufficient amount of dangers to his safety that might not allow for a phone to help him if he needs Zhenya. Better safe than sorry, and besides. Sometimes it feels closer to contact each other like this, to meet in some psychic middle ground. He can’t see Sid or touch him, but. He’s there.
“It’s me,” Zhenya says, and Sid laughs like he’s been waiting on bad news all day, only to receive some good in the end. His voice is a little higher—female, Zhenya realizes.
“You have no clue how glad I am to hear that,” says Sid, but Zhenya thinks he’s got a pretty good idea. “Listen, are you here somewhere too? Wherever it is that I am?”
“Montreal?” Zhenya guesses.
“In another life,” Sid corrects, which means he’s figured out at least as much as Zhenya has in the time they’ve been apart. “Another universe. But—yeah, Montreal. How’d you know?”
“She’s tell me. I’m not there, Sid. She’s here.”
Sid goes quiet, processing. “The Sid whose body I’m in? She’s in mine?”
Zhenya chews on his lip. “Yes.”
“So…you’re not here,” Sid completes the thought, sounding heartbroken about it.
Zhenya aches for him. Zhenya may be missing Sid, but he’s still got a world and a life he knows. Sid’s alone. And wherever Zhenya’s counterpart form is in that universe, he likely doesn’t give two shits about some girl named Sidney Crosby. “I’m still here so I’m help you come back, Sid.”
“Yeah, that’s. I don’t know exactly how we’re gonna do that,” Sid mutters, missing all of his humble confidence.
Between them, the link wobbles. There’s not much more time.
“Sid, you safe, yes?”
“Yeah, I’m fine, G. Confused, but I’m fine. I’ve just been sticking to the apartment all day, learning what I can. Things are so weird here, you’d laugh. The apartment’s right downtown, and I’ve got this roommate—she’s fine, I guess, but she keeps calling me Squid. Like, I thought I left that in grade school, right? And clearly I still play, because there’s—” Sid’s new, feminine voice disappears and comes back quieter. “We’re fading. Talk again soon? I can’t believe this worked at all, though.”
Yeah, that’s a miracle to dissect another day. “Maybe you get a friend visit soon,” Zhenya tells him. “I’m go talk to Navigator. Someone come find you.”
“Great,” Sid says, and it sounds far away. “You know I…”
Zhenya tries to lean into his words to catch them, but he’s gone. Zhenya squeezes at his pendant, and it’s gone cold. He cracks his eyes open at the ceiling, wishing they had longer together.
Zhenya emerges from the bedroom and comes down the stairs to find lady-Sid poking her nose around at all of the photos on the mantle. She’s got one in her hand, examining it.
“Squid,” Zhenya calls, and she turns. Perfect. “We’re go somewhere.”
She looks vexed. “Is anyone ever going to let that name die?” she complains, but it’s a name that’s not Sid, and she turned. That’s all Zhenya needs.
He crosses the distance to join her at the mantle, peeks over at what’s in the frame she’s holding. It’s a photo of Sid, his parents, and Taylor. “Car,” Zhenya directs. “Let’s go, Squid.”
Squid narrows her eyes at him. Then she takes another long look at the photo, sighs, and places it back where it was on the mantle.
Zhenya has three choices in terms of a Navigator. Guentzy is an immediate no. To be honest, there’s no articulate reason for it other than that Zhenya just can’t picture him knowing what the fuck to do. Cully would probably be a lot more helpful, but Cully also has a life, a ton of kids to feed and play with and fret over. He doesn’t need another one.
So that leaves one more Navigator on the team. Zhenya barely has time to shoot off a warning text to him before he’s herding Squid into the car and getting on the road to his house to interrupt his off day.
When they get there, Muzz opens the door looking alarmed. “Is something wrong?” he asks when he sees Zhenya on his doorstep, accompanied by what looks like Sid. He’s leaning halfway out the cracked door like he’s not even intending to invite them inside, which, fair. It’s not like Zhenya spends any of his free time hanging out at Muzz’s house. Muzz’s girlfriend is sweet and his dogs are visually hilarious, but Zhenya isn’t sure what he’d even say to Muzz if they were left alone together for more than twenty minutes.
Zhenya glances over at Squid, who’s hanging a pace behind Zhenya, examining her fingernails. He turns back to Muzz. Muzz shoots a wary look at Squid too, like he can tell the issue has more to do with her than it does Zhenya. But he can’t see what Zhenya sees. He can’t see where Sid isn’t.
“Need your help,” Zhenya grunts.
“Okay,” Muzz shrugs. “Come in.”
The giant Newfoundlands, big as horses, trot into the hall as soon as they can sniff the presence of new humans. Zhenya gives them pets like he would any animal, but it’s Squid who drops to the ground next to them, exclaiming, “Oh, hi!” She lets them walk all over her as she sits down on the floor, scratching their necks.
“Um,” Muzz says, blinking. Zhenya’s not sure how many times Sid’s been to Muzz’s house, although it’s probably a couple more than Zhenya has. Zhenya’s willing to bet that Sid’s affection for the Newfies usually takes a form closer to letting them gently lay their heads in his lap when he sits on the couch, as opposed to rolling around on the floor like he’s one of them.
Zhenya resists the urge to sigh. He’s not a fucking babysitter. He loves small children, but children are one thing, and bratty younger Sid imitations are another. “We talk in kitchen. Let them play.”
“Sure,” Muzz answers, bemused. He leads the way around the corner, and then they’re more or less alone. “So, uh. Something up with Sid?”
Zhenya really does sigh, now. “It’s not Sid.”
Muzz’s eyebrows creep up at that. “Something up with…you?”
“No. Mean Sid’s not Sid. It’s Sid from…” he trails off, suddenly insecure that ‘parallel universe’ isn’t even the proper English term. If it is, it’s still definitely more syllables than Geno likes to say in English at any given time. The Russian slang for all of the alternate dimensions their world is surrounded by doesn’t really have a good English companion, so that’s out too. Параллельная вселенная is the proper Russian term, and that means ‘parallel universe,’ but Zhenya doesn’t know if it translates well directly to English or if he’ll just sound stupid saying nonsense. And so begins the tired old routine that everybody who’s ever learned a second language knows well: find a way around. “Sid from different world, you know? Different Sid, other Sid. She’s like, come over from, uh. Different universe.”
Understanding starts to dawn on Muzz’s face. “Oh. It’s Sid from a parallel universe?” Of course, ‘parallel universe’ was right all along. “You sure? That doesn’t generally happen, a visit like that when he’s not a Navigator.” He’s silent for a second. “Wait, she?”
“She say she’s woman.” The sound of Squid using a high-pitched puppy voice with the Newfies filters in from around the corner. “Girl,” Zhenya corrects. Twenty-three years old counts as a fully-grown woman sometimes. Zhenya thinks about Squid telling him how much the Penguins suck, and thinks blankly that it doesn’t count this time. “It’s not like this most times?”
Muzz shrugs. “No, it’s pretty common for souls of the same kind to live in different types of bodies, be different genders and stuff across universes. I just didn’t expect it for Sid, I guess. But I mean, there’s countless versions of all of us in countless realities, so. There’s probably a ton of girl Sids we’ll never even know about.”
Zhenya takes a moment to briefly lament the fact that he didn’t get a smart, mature, agreeable girl Sid. There has to be one out there somewhere.
“Anyway,” Muzz continues, “if she’s here in Sid’s usual body, where’s the Sid we know?”
“They switch,” Zhenya explains. “Why I’m here. Need real Sid back. I’m think, like, maybe you can get?”
“Hold on, hold on. They…switched? So not only is another universe’s Sid here, our universe’s Sid is in the world she came from, living in her body like she is in his?”
Zhenya nods. That’s about all he knows so far.
Muzz blows a big breath out. Rubs a hand over his own forehead. His face doesn’t betray anything specific, but this doesn’t really look like the face of, no problem Geno! I’ll just pop on over to the dimension Sid’s stuck in and wrangle him. Back in no time.
“So,” Muzz says in a Bad News Voice. “Navigation doesn’t really work like that. I can walk through different worlds and timelines, sure, but…trying to move Constants with me doesn’t fly. That’s why you’re all Constants. Actually…you saying some kind of soul switch has happened is, uh…” he trails off, lets another heavy breath go. “I can’t overstate how odd it is. I’ve never heard of it happening before. And…I don’t know if anyone has.”
“It’s just like bodyswap,” Zhenya argues feebly. “Regular.”
Muzz shakes his head. “Bodyswaps are when you switch with someone else. Someone else in your own world. You’re talking about Sid switching with himself. Across totally different universes. This just doesn’t sound like something Magic can undo in a couple minutes.”
That’s. Not what Zhenya wanted to hear at all. He feels dread pooling in the pit of his stomach. It’s the same terror from earlier when he’d realized Sid was missing. Except now he doesn’t have to worry that Sid has totally popped out of existence, but rather that Sid is doomed to live out the rest of his life stuck in an alternate reality he doesn’t recognize, and Zhenya will be stuck with—
Squid meanders into the kitchen. “What are you guys talkin’ about?” Zhenya realizes with a pang that her voice is just the same as Sid’s. She’s in Sid’s body, obviously, so of course it would be right now. But still, nothing about her accent is different or personalized. She pronounces ‘are’ and ‘about’ the same way Sid does.
She’s from the same place. Maybe even grew up in the same house, a thousand universes away.
“I’m tell Muzz about switch. So he’s know.”
“Oh,” Squid nods. She steps forward to extend a hand toward Muzz. “So you’re Muzz, eh? I’m Sidney. Nice to meet you, you have awesome dogs.”
Zhenya swears mentally. It hadn’t even occurred to him that Squid wouldn’t know the guys either, or at least wouldn't have met them before. As Zhenya thinks about it, the number of people in this universe likely to be familiar to her is diminishing by the second.
Muzz graciously shakes the hand held out at him, even though it must be weird when Squid looks the same as Sid ever does on the outside. Or maybe it’s not, for Muzz. He’s a Navigator; he must visit parallel universes in which people look the same but are different all the time. “Thanks, it looked like they liked you too.”
Squid smiles, but cuts to the chase. “So, any ideas about how to get me back to where I came from?”
“Not—not really. What happened to you is…really, really uncommon, I think. And you have no clue what caused it,” Muzz asserts, pausing to see if Squid will correct him.
“Not a one,” Squid shakes her head. “Sorry that’s no help.”
“It’s fine. Things are almost never straightforward with Magic, but maybe I can figure something out. Give me some time to do some research, okay? But in the meantime, uh.” Muzz stops, scratching at one of his sideburns. “I’d suggest you not tell anyone else about this.”
Zhenya can feel his eyebrows rise. “No one?” That’s not the next strategy he’d envisioned. He’d kind of figured that if Muzz couldn’t get this done, they would tell just about everyone in the inner circle of the Penguins, and then maybe someone would know of some guy in juniors that had something similar happen and it would all get worked out. Crowdsourcing, in a sense. Zhenya doesn’t know how many people in their locker room would go to great lengths to help him, but he knows how many would do anything they could to help Sid.
“It’s just not a great idea,” says Muzz. “Constants switching universes is basically unheard of. Only Navigators are supposed to be able to travel. I’m just worried that this could spiral out of our hands if we don’t keep it on the down low.”
Squid’s nodding. She has no reason to question it. Zhenya himself feels a little more on the fence. It goes against his instincts to keep something this important from team. There’s a reason that team knows about him and Sid being together. Sneaking around, hiding a huge part of their lives from the people they were constantly in the presence of—it was never going to be a recipe for success, not in love or in work. So they hadn’t hid it from team.
Then again, Zhenya has a limited definition of team. A lot of people come in and out of their locker room. Free agents on rent, call-ups who won’t stay long. Just plain assholes, sometimes. Not everyone can be trusted, and not everyone deserves access to Sid’s inner workings when they’ll only ever view him in the way that serves their pre-existing image of him, the way that allows them to mistake his focus for tactlessness, his directness for rudeness.
Zhenya would never have time for them, people who only view Sid as their ticket to something. Zhenya would knock them over a thousand times if it meant they never got the chance to get their grubby fingerprints on even one Sidney Crosby story to tell their friends so they could feel important for five minutes.
So, okay. Maybe they won’t tell the team about the switch. If it’s going to cause uproar bigger than they can contain, it won’t be worth it. Keeping the secret will make things infinitely more complicated when it comes to the question of whether Squid can interact with the media, whether she can even really play. Squid may not know very much about what Sid’s life is like in this universe, but Zhenya has even less of an idea about what life is like in hers.
Well, whatever the answers are, they’ll be a lot clearer after tomorrow. Practice starts at 11 sharp the next day, and they’re gearing up for playoffs. What a shitshow.
“We’re be quiet,” Zhenya agrees anyway.
“And I’ll let you know what I come up with solutions-wise,” Muzz promises. “Give me a couple of days.”
“Can do,” says Squid. “I mean, probably.” She turns to Zhenya. “Can do?”
So then they leave Muzz alone to enjoy the rest of his afternoon, and Zhenya is left to figure out how to entertain Squid for the rest of the empty day before them. When they park back at Zhenya’s house, he checks his phone—Sid is likely still holed up in the Montreal apartment, and Zhenya would try to contact him again if he thought he had the energy. But the couple minutes they’d spoken earlier was enough to sap the link and disconnect them, which is even quicker than it’s ever happened before. Zhenya thinks right now he could probably clutch his pendant for a whole hour, and it still wouldn’t make Sid’s heat up, wherever he is.
Re-entering the house, a noticeable awkwardness settles in the air. “So,” Squid starts.
Zhenya kind of just wants to hide in his room until it’s time to go to bed. His room is also where Sid sleeps, but not right now, it isn’t. Zhenya contemplates telling Squid about Sid’s house, a place all of her own that she could go live in while she’s here, but that seems like a level of irresponsibility that Zhenya can’t quite justify. There’s no need to turn Squid loose to the full extent of a house to herself when Zhenya has perfectly serviceable guest rooms.
“So,” Zhenya says, “come.”
They settle Squid into a guest suite on the second floor, move some of Sid’s possessions in for her to borrow from. Clothes, toiletries. As he’s hanging Sid’s robe on a hook where it doesn’t belong, Zhenya mentions, “Tomorrow’s skate, you know? And we’re not tell anyone about switch, so.”
Squid shrugs over by the nightstand, where she’s positioning the framed photo of Sid and his family that she’d been looking at earlier that day. Zhenya thinks it’s kind of weird, but they must look exactly Squid’s family, with the exception of Sid. Zhenya’s willing to be sensitive about her missing them, even though it pisses him off that she thinks she can just take a picture from Zhenya’s mantle and move it wherever she wants without asking. “If there’s skate tomorrow, then I’ll skate,” she declares, unbothered.
Zhenya’s less sure about it than that, but there’s no point in saying so. They’re not telling anyone that Sid isn’t quite Sid, so Squid has to pretend to be Sid no matter what. If she’s feeling confident about it, it probably won’t help to blow holes in that. But at the same time, Sid is a huge fucking deal in this world. There’s no way Squid can be prepared for that if she’s not even accustomed to wearing the 87, much less carrying the weight it bears.
There’s also no way Zhenya can adequately equip her for it over the course of just a few hours. It’s going to be what it’s going to be, and Zhenya won’t waste his breath on futile preparation. He’ll save it for the damage control.
Zhenya feels much less resigned to his fate and much more on the verge of an anxious breakdown when they’re about to step into the locker room the next day. He halts so sharply outside the door that Squid full-on runs into his back. “Hey, jeez,” she says, stepping back when Zhenya turns to face her.
“You know you captain, ah?” Zhenya checks. “Or like, name of coach, and guys?”
“Yeah, I do know how to use Google, actually,” Squid responds.
The insolence. Let her drown in there.
Maybe Zhenya’s just worried now because Sid had been doubtful when Zhenya tried out the linked tokens again earlier this morning. He’d told Sid what Muzz had told them, about how it’s a good idea to keep the switch undercover. Sid had said, “I don’t know about that,” in that way of his that actually translates to extreme skepticism. But it’s too late, and they don’t have any Plan B now.
Squid sidesteps him and leads the way into the locker room with all the confidence of someone young and stupid. As a matter of fact, it’s almost praiseworthy the way she holds it together as the state of the room reveals itself to her: full of giant men in various states of undress who all want to bro hug her. But she takes to it like a duck to water, like it’s not even unfamiliar, greeting everyone as she passes them with all the casual ease that Sid would. She doesn’t spend too much time on anyone, but she doesn’t shy away from anyone either.
If Zhenya hadn’t spent as much time looking at Sid’s face as he has, he’d never notice the way her smile’s just the tiniest bit wooden.
When she gets to Sid’s stall, she drops trou without the slightest hesitation and starts to get ready. Zhenya leans up next to her and lets their faces do the talking when they make eye contact—the shit-eating quirk in the corner of Squid’s mouth that’s barely detectable versus the flat, unimpressed gaze Zhenya’s throwing back at her. You haven’t impressed me yet, Zhenya tries to broadcast.
“Every locker room’s the same,” Squid whispers out of the side of her mouth. “I know that much.”
Phil comes lumbering in a few minutes after them, and that’s when she almost blows it. Squid lets out a whoosh of breath at the sight of him. “Oh, Amanda’s brother is here,” she says, voice flooding with relief. “Hey, Phil.”
Zhenya freezes, but the guys who overhear the greeting just laugh. Phil shakes his head, snickering. “You know what I wish? I wish people would stop calling me that,” he says.
“Well, they call her ‘Phil’s sister’ just as much,” Squid points out. Then she realizes too late that it might not make sense for her to say, and tacks on, “I’m sure.”
The whole thing is pretty easy to brush off. Still, it gets Zhenya’s hackles up. He knows women’s hockey is a tight community, so maybe it makes sense that Squid would’ve run into Amanda Kessel at one point or another over in her universe. But she can’t be making mistakes as glaring as that one if she’s trying not to become a government science experiment or whatever other horrible things happen in the movies. Staying undercover is for the good of her own safety. For Sid’s safety too.
Zhenya bumps her shoulder a little bit when he moves past her to head to his own stall.
He continues to supervise her as he gets himself dressed, has to try not to laugh when the only bit she flounders over is getting Sid’s cup on right. At least she doesn’t seem to balk over how ratty and old it is, just the foreign physics of protecting her brand new set of nuts. When she’s finished she turns around and looks out at the rest of the room with an obvious sense of satisfaction, but as it should be, no one’s paying her any mind. Except for Muzz, who’s sitting patiently in his stall. He gives her an encouraging smile.
Zhenya likely should be doing the same, but he can’t quite bring himself to be genuine about it. While no one’s looking, he flashes her an exaggerated, mocking thumbs-up. He can relax after she proves herself not to be a complete wreck on the actual ice.
Squid sticks her tongue out at him. Probably deserved.
When there’s no other reason to lag, they head in the direction of the rink, and Zhenya feels nerves flutter high in his chest again. He stops before they step on the ice just like he had outside of the locker room. “Squid,” he warns.
“Everyone on, let’s go,” Sully calls, which usually isn’t a warning he has to give Sid and Zhenya specifically.
“I know how to play hockey, Geno,” Squid says under her breath, setting one skate onto the ice. “I know how to play. I can play.”
So Zhenya just steps back, watches her push off, and lets her play.
It’s not apparent right away. Squid does some settling into her borrowed limbs on the ice, some coasting around and stretching. She looks a little tense, like Zhenya’d told her she was being watched and now it might be a little in her head. But then the coaches start running drills, and at the first blow of the whistle, she’s off.
Her skating is just as good as Sid’s, the speed, the edgework. Her vision is just as good as Sid’s, her ability to make a play. She’s absolutely flying out there, making a show of it more than Sid normally would. When Sid does crazy shit in practice, it’s because he actually wants to practice it. Squid, on the other hand, had been underestimated to her face, had been told she had something to prove. So she more than proves it.
She’s Sidney Crosby. Zhenya doesn’t know what the fuck he was expecting.
The first time she drives hard to the net with the puck on her stick, Muzz is in good position. But when Squid shoots top shelf, his elbow drops maybe half an inch and it goes in. It just looks like perfect timing on the shot, but Squid skates closer to the net afterward, and Zhenya’s hovering just barely close enough to hear her go, “Hey, you don’t need to do that, okay?”
Muzz hesitates, but then just nods, busted. When they go a full round and Squid is up again, Guentzy shoots wide and the rebound off the boards comes straight to Squid, who takes a bad-angle shot from near the goal line. Muzz has to slide so it doesn’t bank off of him and in, and he pastes himself so hard to the post that the puck gets trapped between his arm and the iron. It’s not in.
Squid taps Muzz’s pads with her stick before her line rotates. It’s okay; she puts it past him next time.
The only thing noticeably different about Squid’s hockey appears when they get to body contact and checking drills. Squid’s lips thin out into a tight line when they transition to it, but she doesn’t say anything.
Their first go round, Squid’s on with Dumo, who delivers a safe check into the boards, but Squid goes down pretty easily. Dumo has to be at least fifty pounds heavier than the body she’s used to being in, so yeah. Dumo freezes, surprised, and Squid pops right back up. “I’m fine,” she brushes him off, and skates back to where Zhenya is.
“We focus on playing real defense, not just bodychecking everyone in sight,” she jokes, cheeks a touch pink.
‘We’ meaning women. “You in big body now,” Zhenya reminds her.
Squid sighs. “I know. It’s…mental.”
Good. That means that if she’s like Sid in that regard, Squid can overcome it.
Practice wraps up shortly after that, but Zhenya taps her in the chest when she turns to skate off. “We stay,” he tells her. “We work.”
Zhenya pretends that it’s to refresh her on what she might already know about bracing for a hit from those who would like nothing more than to crush Sidney Crosby to dust in a fair and legal fashion, but really it’s so he can interrogate her while there’s no one left to overhear. “Who you play for?” he asks in between runs of a one-on-one angling drill.
“Team Canada,” Squid says, like that much wasn’t obvious. “And Les Canadiennes, up until recently.”
And Zhenya will ask about that too, but first: “Olympics?”
Squid shrugs, looking down. “I went to PyeongChang. And um, Sochi.”
Sochi, good lord. Squid would’ve had to be…seventeen, probably, turning eighteen within the calendar year to be eligible to play on the senior national team. That’s ludicrous. That must’ve been literally historic. It's insane to think about it happening in the context of this universe, at least.
It occurs to Zhenya that even though his Sid isn’t here, he’s still looking at the best hockey player in the world.
“Win gold?” Zhenya rasps.
“Twice,” says Squid, a real grin breaking on her face. Still, she insists, “It was the team we had.”
Zhenya lifts his fist, holds it out until she bumps it.
“The drill,” Squid says. “Let’s go again.” And that’s that.
As they make their way off the ice, Zhenya brings up Les Canadiennes again, and immediately kind of wishes he hadn’t, because it makes Squid’s shoulders droop after they’d had such productive ice time. She stops in her tracks.
After a moment, she explains, “The CWHL just folded. My team doesn’t exist anymore.” Then she peeks up at Zhenya. “Here too, or…?”
Zhenya starts to shake his head instinctively without really knowing, but then remembers. He had heard about that, just a few days back. Shamefully, he’d already forgotten; the news hadn’t affected him. But there are people whose entire lives it knocks off-balance, and he feels guilt settle in his stomach at the crushed look on Squid’s face.
Her sadness bleeds into bitterness quickly. “I can make a living off sponsorships, but my teammates, they have to fall back on their other jobs. The jobs they had during the season, too. Can you imagine that? Doing all this, and oh yeah, your day job too?”
Christ, no. Zhenya’s about to say so, but Squid goes on. She’s ripping her helmet off, maybe just for something to do with her hands. “We need investments, we need one league, we need consistent television coverage. People care about women’s hockey once every four years, and after that they say they support it but turn a blind eye in reality. It just, like, sucks, because. What we do is worth believing in, you know?”
And Zhenya’d seen the proof with his own two eyes on the ice against some of the best hockey players in the NHL. Squid’s not from his universe, but there are iterations of the women she must play with and against, and they’re from Zhenya’s universe. He should’ve been paying more attention before.
Squid turns and keeps walking before Zhenya can offer any words of comfort. He’s not entirely sure what he could’ve said regardless. When Zhenya trails into the locker room behind her, they find Muzz sitting in his stall. He’s fully changed and ready to go, but he looks to be waiting for someone.
Turns out it’s them. “Hey,” Squid nods at him, and he stands. Squid looks around the room, empty of anyone save the three of them. “Were you waiting?”
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking. I’m gonna go visit Sid and check out his situation over in your world, see what I can gather. But if you can get it, I’d like to have the name of the universe,” Muzz tells Squid.
“Name?” Zhenya asks. If someone prompted him to name his universe, he wouldn’t have a clue what they were getting at.
Muzz shrugs. “Most Constants don’t know it. It’s just a series of numbers and letters Navigators use to maintain something like a map. Works kind of like a…serial number, or coordinates. I’m not expecting you to have it, but it would make things a lot easier if you did.”
Squid frowns obvious enough to make her answer clear. “No idea, sorry. But you said a Navigator from there would know it?”
“For sure,” Muzz nods. “But if we have no way to contact one—”
Squid looks to Zhenya. “You’ve been talking to your Sid, right? With linked tokens?” When Zhenya looks surprised, she continues, “Come on, I heard you talking this morning when I passed by your room. I could only hear your voice, so it was either linked tokens or you just chatting to yourself because you like to.”
Muzz hums. “Are your and Sid’s tokens your necklaces?”
Zhenya can barely refrain from gaping. He knows he’s an open book with his emotions, but he hadn’t realized he was so predictable that anyone could just start, like, accurately naming private facts about him.
Muzz lets out a little laugh like he can’t contain it. “It was just a guess. If it’s working for you and Sid even now, it would’ve had to be something he was wearing on his body when the switch happened, I’d think.”
Zhenya nods. “He’s always wear.”
“That’s why it’s a good choice for a token,” Muzz smiles. “Anyway, if you have a way to contact his universe, have him ask a Navigator over there for the name. If we couldn’t get it, I could just travel in the general direction I think it sounds like, but there’s a good chance I’d get kinda lost, and we have a game tomorrow. Red Wings.”
If this is how casually Muzz discusses getting turned around while travelling through literal alternate dimensions, it’s no wonder he’s never fazed by anything in goal. Zhenya opens his mouth to say something to that effect, but footsteps echo as warning, and two seconds later, Dumo emerges from the showers. “Oh, what’s up,” he says as greeting, heading for his stall. Zhenya had been sure no one else was around. They should’ve checked more carefully. “Headed home to the love nest?” Dumo asks Squid and Zhenya.
“Oh! Oh, yep,” Squid hurries. She pastes one palm to Zhenya’s cheek so mechanically that it makes kind of a smacking noise. “Just headed home with my, uh. My...? The love of my life.”
Zhenya would groan out loud if he could. He hopes his grimace isn’t too obvious. He steps back, and Squid’s hand falls.
Dumo is occupied with getting changed, but he gives them a brief dubious glance. “Right, okay,” he says, but that’s the extent of it. “See ya,” he calls when he’s done changing, and heads for the door.
“Mhm,” Squid continues, patting Zhenya’s shoulder with increasing force. “Love of my life, right here,” she drawls, sarcasm getting richer as Dumo walks further out of earshot.
Muzz looks as if someone sneezed all over him. “That was horrible,” he croaks in a strained voice. “You have got to work on that.”
“What is she like?”
Zhenya bites his bottom lip. He’d expected the question to come eventually, but it’s going to be a tough one to give Sid an answer for anyway.
“She’s like…” Zhenya says the first true thing that comes to mind. “Little bit like you, little bit not.”
“Give me the compare and contrast,” Sid pushes. It’s still odd to listen to his altered voice. “The details.”
“She’s amazing player,” Zhenya acknowledges right off the bat. “She’s play like you.”
That news doesn’t seem to shock Sid at all. “I got on the ice here too, today. I’ve been talking to a few of her teammates. Her old teammates, I guess, with what happened to the league.” He pauses long enough for both of them to start feeling a little guilty about the problems they don’t have, instead of consumed by the ones that they do. “There are two gold medals hanging in her room, did you know that? She has two.”
“Like you,” Zhenya says again, even though that’s a sore spot that will never be one hundred percent healed. Maybe he wouldn’t still be as wounded about the way his last Olympic showing went if he knew he would ever get the opportunity to redeem himself, but he can’t know that. And he’ll never get another chance to win an Olympic medal for home at home, so.
“So what else?” Sid pushes forward, knowing that there’s a mental black hole there that he doesn’t want Zhenya to fall back into. He’d been the one to pull Zhenya out in the first place five years ago.
“She’s like, uh, confident. She’s know she can do,” Zhenya continues. A rueful chuckle finds its way out of his mouth. “Some time too much.”
“Oh yeah? You callin’ me cocky?”
“Not you. This difference now.”
“Ah, is it,” Sid teases. “Well. She’s had a little bit of a different life than me, probably. You never know what makes somebody the way they are.”
Zhenya thinks about that for a moment. Of course, it’s true. There are reasons why Squid might be a little more willing to acknowledge her own greatness than Sid. Sid’s never been perceived as less good than he actually is just because of the body he’s in. He’s never had to tell people to convince them. But when people look at Squid’s hockey and can’t see past that one thing, Zhenya can see why she might be used to using her mouth to back herself up.
It’s possible that Squid’s just had to defend herself more. He thinks about a twenty-three year old girl with two Olympic golds to her name still getting told that her sport isn’t interesting enough to have support, to make money.
Zhenya moves on to the next annoyance. “She’s not know how to be in relationship.”
Sid’s laugh bursts out of him, and Zhenya feels a pang, an ache for him. “Oh, you guys are hamming it up for the team, eh?”
“Ugh, it’s hard, Sid. It’s not work.”
“Maybe she just doesn’t know how to be in our relationship,” Sid suggests. “She hasn’t seen it before, she doesn’t know what it’s like.”
Sid’s instinctive thoughtfulness makes it harder for Zhenya to justify all the attitude he’s been giving Squid. “Why you so smart?”
“I’m just saying. Tell her about us. This is the perfect chance to vent,” Sid reasons. “All of the things about me that bug you? You could say them all to my face in one go, but I won’t even be offended.”
And that’s just like him, to tell Zhenya that he should be easier on someone else, but harder on Sid himself. “Sid,” Zhenya frowns. “Tell what, Sid? I’m say how it’s just couple days and I’m miss you so much? I’m tell how I hate she’s here, not you?” It’s silent for a moment. “Don’t want complain,” Zhenya whines. “Want you home.”
“I’m kidding, G, you know that. I—” Sid pauses. His steady breath is audible through the link. It draws Zhenya’s mind to warm puffs of air on his neck in the mornings when Sid wriggles into his hold to nuzzle him awake, or the way he breathes loud through his nose when he’s thinking hard. Zhenya didn’t have any idea of all the things he could miss, now that he’s scared he’ll never have them again.
“I miss you every second,” Sid all but whispers. “That’s…pretty dramatic, but…you know.”
It’s not that they’re unfamiliar with some distance. They’re used to long summers apart, even used to the season getting so busy that they only ever see each other on the ice or when they climb into bed at night, a different kind of distance. Now, it’s all the not knowing that’s poisonous, dreadful. Muzz might figure out something to get Sid home tomorrow, or it might take an eternity.
With that train of thought, Zhenya barely remembers the purpose of the entire conversation in time to get it across to Sid before they get cut off. “Oh, Sid, Muzz is come visit you. But he’s need name of universe. It’s like, only Navigator know. Squid say talk to Emmanuelle.”
“Oh, sure,” Sid agrees, “I met her the…” and then he starts to fade out, in again. “...pretty clear. It’s just something that...,” he says, sounding further and further away. “Losing you, I think.”
After that, he’s gone. Maybe eventually they’ll get the timing right enough to be able to say a proper goodbye. Reaching out for Sid is draining to have done twice in one day, but if they keep doing it often then maybe they can build up a kind of stamina for it, be able to talk for longer periods of time. Another thing to put on the running list of goals.
Zhenya sighs, sits up. He’s actually kind of starving, now that he’s not too distracted by the all-consuming feeling of a Magic link to feel it. He heads downstairs to the kitchen, where he finds Squid rummaging through the snack cabinet. She’s on her toes to be able to see into the higher shelves even though Sid is tall enough to see them just fine. “Hungry?” Zhenya asks.
“Your home is my home, right?” she says, plucking a box of cereal from the shelf. “Right? He does live here, doesn’t he?”
It’s at that point that Zhenya realizes just how little he’s communicated with Squid about the world she’s living in. He hadn’t wanted to. He had hoped it wouldn’t be necessary. But the longer this goes on, the more he has to accept the reality. There really isn’t much point in pretending it doesn’t exist.
“He’s live here.” Zhenya pulls one of the tall chairs out from the counter bar and sits himself down in it. “He’s live here two years.” Nearly three, really. Sid had come to stay temporarily when he had concussion issues and couldn’t start the season in October of 2016. From then on he’d been kind of halfway between Zhenya’s house and his own for awhile, until Zhenya had started putting all of Sid’s clothes in drawers instead of letting him cart them back in forth in bags, had started stocking the kitchen with all the foods Sid liked. Sid stopped leaving right around then. “He’s move in when his head’s bad, concussion.”
Perhaps sensing that this is the most she’s yet been able to get out of Zhenya since she got here, Squid attentively settles into the chair at the opposite end of the counter. There’s still an empty one there between them. “So how long have you guys been together, then?”
That’s a tricky question for even he and Sid to answer to themselves. You could trace it all the way back to the first time they fucked, just before Zhenya left to spend the lockout at home. But then they spent months and months not talking about it, and Zhenya spent all that time thinking it would never happen again, Sid dangerously good at pretending it hadn’t messed with their everyday relationship at all. They’d given into the pull again eventually though, started hooking up on a regular basis. It was casual, refreshingly and paradoxically easy given how much would’ve been at stake if things ever went sideways.
But then Sochi had happened. Afterward, they sicced Sid on him to pull his head out of his ass in order to effectively serve his team. Instead, Sid had been on his side, helped him serve himself—forgive himself.
Zhenya started taking Sid more seriously, and never looked back.
“Five years,” Zhenya decides aloud.
“Wow,” Squid says around a mouthful of wheat squares. She’s scooping them straight out of the box by the handful. “Alright, so he lives here. And he’s your…boyfriend? Husband?”
Zhenya examines his own hands on the counter. These are the questions he hadn’t wanted to answer, the questions he avoids asking himself. “Not married. Just…”
“Together,” Squid finishes for him, and Zhenya nods once. “Well, cool.” Zhenya nods again, slowly. “I guess, can I—I’m not trying to be an asshole, but you sound kind of like you want to be married.”
It’s not that Zhenya wants to be married right now. It’s not that he even thinks marriage is the only valid form of commitment. But it is the most popular one, something he always envisioned himself doing when he found the right person. And maybe it isn’t just the fact that Sid’s never expressed any interest in getting married, but rather that fact combined with the additional facts that Sid’s never done a lot of the things that would indicate that five years is just the beginning for them. He’s never come to Moscow in the summer. He’s never sold his house. He’s never broached the topic of ‘after retirement.’ It all reads like Sid has an escape plan, if you’re reading with confirmation bias. Zhenya knows he’s reading with confirmation bias for his fears, which is why he’s never started a fight about it. Still, he’s terrified of being right. “I want, someday, of course. But it’s not yet for us, I’m think.”
Squid chews on cereal, frowning. She offers the box to Zhenya, and he takes a handful for himself. “What has he said when you’ve talked about it? When you’ve brought up marriage and kids and stuff?”
Zhenya swallows. The cereal is way dry, like nothing that should ever be called a breakfast food, and a lump of it sticks in his throat. Whatever—it’s eleven at night, not breakfast time. “I’m not bring up,” he admits.
“Then when he’s brought it up. Just like, in general, when the topic comes around.”
“No,” Zhenya says. “Seriously, we’re not talk about.”
Squid gives him a look that seems completely blank on the surface, but Zhenya can tell is actually highly judgemental. “You…never talked about it? Really? In five years, you’ve never thrown it out there? Just to, I don’t know, float the idea?”
Zhenya bristles. “It’s hard! You’re not know, how can you say?”
“Alright, so tell me about it, then,” Squid shrugs.
As if it’s just so easy to do. Zhenya inhales, shrugs too. “He’s…he’s like, best thing. I have…good life, you know, a lot of good things. But Sid like, best, happiest thing, out of all. I’m think about me, and future, and…I know I’m make work however, I know he’s first choice for me, always.”
Squid blinks, smiles at him a little bit. Zhenya looks her in her eyes, in Sid’s eyes. Over the brief time Squid has been in Sid’s body, Zhenya has had no trouble separating them, telling her apart. He’s still not confused now. But saying this to Sid’s face —it feels painfully like saying it to Sid’s heart.
“But he’s never say,” Zhenya goes on. “He’s not ask about future, make plan. And I’m know Sid. He’s not hide things. He’s maybe not say to everyone, but…when he’s want something, he’s just go get. So, I think—I think. Um.”
“So you’re worried he doesn’t want that with you. Because he hasn’t asked for it.”
Zhenya shrugs again. It feels silly to admit something like that as a grown man. You’d think five years would be long enough for Zhenya to take his balls in hand and just ask Sid if this was forever love, if Sid wanting to be a father eventually translates to Sid wanting to be a father with Zhenya, if—if he’s still into Zhenya as much as he was when they started out.
But if he asks, then. Then Sid could say no. Maybe they’re just riding this out until something better comes along. Maybe Sid’s already said no, and Zhenya was supposed to read that on him a long time ago.
“Yeah, that’s a lot,” Squid says, shouldering the heavy weight of Zhenya’s palpable fear with more ease than Zhenya could’ve hoped for. “I get that. Not the exact situation, of course, but…not wanting to talk to someone because what they say could change everything. But even though I totally do that, I still think you should give it a shot. Like, if you haven’t said anything because he hasn’t said anything, who knows? He might not be saying anything because you’re not saying anything.”
Again, easier said than done. Especially when Zhenya hardly has a way of saying anything to Sid right now. He politely refrains from pointing that out.
“So, when he gets back,” Squid continues, “You’ll do it.”
“Squid,” Zhenya huffs. “It’s—”
“Promise,” she demands. “Swear you will. Just decide. You know you have to do it someday, you have to have that conversation to get what you want, nothing about it is optional. I think you know that. So I’m here, I’m me, I’m Sid,” she gestures at Sid’s body, the sweats and old Rimouski shirt she’s wearing. “Telling you that you need to get it done, and it’s gonna be okay, no matter what happens.”
Zhenya’s not exactly sure why he feels like he could cry right now.
“Perfect.” She steps down from the high chair, closes up the cereal box and shoves it back up in the cabinet where it came from. “Now, we have a game tomorrow. Talk me through the Wings in this universe. What can I expect?”
Expect the unexpected. Squid makes some sick two-way plays against the Red Wings, good sticks at the right time to force turnovers, good pickpocketing—marks of that women’s hockey defensive creativity she’d joked about. She also logs two assists and one goal that she stuffs in on the power play despite Howard and Helm elbowing at her either side. It clinches their playoff spot.
Right after, Zhenya comes and fishes her out of the net for the group hug. “Big body,” he says.
“Big goal,” she says, lifting her hand for the fist bump.
Squid’s first post-game media availability goes fine. It’s always easier after a win. You’re officially going to the playoffs, how do you feel? Good. How did it feel to get that last goal there? Felt really good, yeah. We’ll try to keep it going. Easy stuff. Squid might not be as used to being a leader as Sid is, seeing as she’s still young and upcoming in her universe, playing with Poulin as her captain both in Montreal and at the Olympics. Nevertheless, she’s like him in that she knows how to answer a question.
As they’re leaving, Zhenya spots the back of Taylor’s blonde head in the hall outside the dressing room area doors. She’s talking to a few men in suits, likely escorting representatives from one of the team’s corporate partners somewhere. It’s been good to have her in town working for the Pens over the last year, for Sid especially, who hadn’t had time with her as he does now for so much of their lives. Zhenya recalls the Crosby family photo Squid had nicked for her nightstand, the fact that she knows Taylor as her twin. Zhenya doesn’t know that many twins, but he thinks they famously are pretty codependent. Chances are that Squid would love to see Taylor, even if it’s not quite the same.
“Taylor!” Zhenya calls, beckoning her over despite the fact that she’s working. Whatever businessmen she’s schmoozing look to be heading out the door at the end of the hall anyway. After the last of them leaves, Taylor turns and heads their way, her grin turning from professional to genuine.
Squid freezes in place, shoulders rising. For a second Zhenya is reminded of the stray cats that used to roam the gutters and crevices of the apartment complexes in Magnitogorsk, all the times Zhenya would run into them as he left for hockey practice in the early morning, and they’d freeze guiltily with their spines arched for a few foggy breaths, just before they skedaddled.
“I left something!” Squid practically squeaks, doing an about face. “Sorry, I forgot my, uh. I’ll just go get it.” She skitters back through the main dressing room doors and out of sight.
She’s gone before Taylor even makes it within ten feet of Zhenya. Taylor looks mystified as she takes the last few steps of the journey. “He okay?” she wonders.
Zhenya wonders too.
The win has Zhenya feeling loose, happy like he hasn’t been since the switch first happened. It’s been a rollercoaster over the past couple of days, but this is…okay, for a moment. Squid is adjusting, and outside of the brief weirdness about Taylor, capable of handling herself. When Zhenya next speaks to Sid, which will be in a few minutes, he’ll have info that can help Muzz find him and suss out the situation, a step closer to fixing things.
When they get back to the house, Zhenya bids Squid goodnight and shuts the door to his room so he can reach out through the link and nudge Sid.
“I got the name from Emmanuelle,” Sid says before anything. “Was pretty tough to ask without tipping her off, but she was cool about it. We’ll have to run through it a bunch of times to make sure you memorize it. That’s what I did.”
It’s just what Zhenya wanted to hear, and he’s got good news to give Sid in exchange about how they’ve clinched a playoff berth. Not that Sid didn’t know that was coming, but it’s still nice. Essential universe information takes precedence, though. “Tell me name.”
Zhenya mouths along as Sid repeats a series of letters and numbers several times in a row. He makes Zhenya say them back to him until there’s no chance of forgetting it, and then Zhenya gets to tell him they’re officially going to playoffs. It’s stellar motivation for kicking their asses into gear to figure out how to get Sid back before they start. There’s only one game left in regular season.
“Big things goin’ on here too,” Sid tells him. “It’s really cool to see the whole community come together, you know? I’ve learned a lot. I won’t lie, having to deal with new equipment in my pants is a lot to handle, but everything else has been smooth.”
New equipment. Zhenya snorts. “I know, it’s first time you’re see pussy. So surprise.”
“Hey now,” Sid laughs. “Can’t blame a guy for knowing what he likes. And anyway, even that whole thing has been educational.” Zhenya opens his mouth to make fun of him some more, but Sid goes on. “Did you know that girls just…leak, I guess? Like, at random times, or all the time? Something was feeling kind of—noticeable down there, so I went to the bathroom and touched around, and I was…you know. Wet. But I wasn’t even thinking about sex!”
Zhenya feels his mouth shifting around on his face. He swallows.
“It’s like being thirteen, when you would get a boner for no reason and it was like, why did this happen, right? Except this body’s definitely already gone through puberty, so I think this is just normal for women. Or at least for the woman I’m being.”
“Sid,” Zhenya says very slowly, brain stalled out. “You touch?”
“What? Yeah, I mean—” Sid cuts himself off. “Oh. Geno, seriously?”
Sid’s amused exasperation doesn’t even register with Zhenya. His mind is caught on the image of Sid reaching a hand down and carefully, inquisitively feeling his way around his own pussy. Is it his own? Maybe not, technically, but it’s certainly attached to him right now. “Sid,” Zhenya whines.
“Jesus, you’re actually into this,” Sid observes, his breath going curiously shallow.
It’s been a long time since Zhenya had sex with a woman, but bisexuality doesn’t just wear off. He knows Sid understands that, but Sid still isn’t a woman. This hits differently than people classically interpret bisexuality.
“You wet now?” Zhenya murmurs. “If you’re touch there now, you wet?”
“Geno,” Sid sighs shakily, so pretty and feminine. “God, I…I shouldn’t touch like that without asking her, but I—I know I’m wet. I don’t need to check.”
Fuck, it’s all Zhenya can do not to groan too loud. He’d give anything to be able to see it, Sid laid out on a bed somewhere, so slick and hot between his legs he’s almost dripping, just from knowing Zhenya wants him like that. Sid’s right, he can’t fuck with Squid’s pussy without making sure it’s okay, but Zhenya’s dick is still his dick. It isn’t too hard to keep hold of his pendant in one hand and his cock in the other. “Fuck, Sid,” Zhenya breathes. “If I’m there, I’m kiss you there. Eat you so good.” He’d work Sid’s pussy until he had to lick it from his thighs to clean up. Then maybe after Sid came once and had a moment to recover, he’d let Zhenya slide right in—or, or maybe not, maybe Sid would need Zhenya down there for so long that Zhenya would come humping the mattress, face between Sid’s legs—
“Oh, this is so not fair,” Sid mewls, doubtlessly going crazy with the urge to get himself off, but not willing to make the assumption that it would be fine with Squid. The line is a little blurry there, what with her being Sid but not Sid at the same time. But even if it weren’t someone else’s pussy Sid was borrowing, it’d probably be best this way regardless; Sid doesn’t know the first thing about how to work a clit, and judging by how long it took Zhenya to successfully learn to make a woman come, Sid trying to get himself off in a female body would just be an exercise in futility and frustration.
It’s incredible to imagine, though. Zhenya comes white hot all over his own belly, swearing and moaning.
“Fuck you, fuck you so much,” Sid moans as well. Zhenya pictures him squirming, hands out of commission tucked under a pillow or something.
“You want me fuck you,” Zhenya smirks lazily, dragging a finger through the warm spunk on his stomach.
“Yeah. Whatever. That’s still possible when I’m back, even if it’s just my ass,” Sid comforts himself.
Just his ass. Zhenya could riot. “Not just ass, it’s best ass, it’s—”
“Okay, okay, okay,” Sid shuts down that entire line of thinking, whether it’s for Zhenya’s or his own good. “Anyway. You’re fading.” He must mean the link is trembling, but Zhenya’s head feels heavy. Between a game, an orgasm, and the effort of maintaining the link for this long, he’s going to slip into sleep any moment. “Recite the name for me, the universe name.”
Sleepily, Zhenya complies. It sounds like counting sheep, but he gets it right.
“Goodnight,” is the last thing he can hear Sid whisper. Or perhaps he says it at a normal volume, just from light-years away.
Zhenya and Squid pay another visit to Muzz’s house the next day to deliver the name of Squid’s universe. They could’ve just texted it, but it seemed better to come by, give Squid another chance to be around the Newfoundlands that made her smile so hard on her first confusing, terrible day here. They’d done better by her than Zhenya had. Plus, this way they’d be able to wait around while Muzz travelled to find Sid. Whatever news he’d come back with, they’d get it immediately.
Muzz sits them down on the couch in a placid manner, but then he just stands there in front of them, like he’d asked them over so he could practice a soliloquy for an audition, or something. The dogs pant nervously.
“So are you guys going to—just watch me do it?” Muzz asks.
Squid goes, “Uh, I guess so? If that’s fine?” Like her, Zhenya has never physically seen someone hop universes before. He isn’t sure quite what it’s going to look like. Muzz is acting as if it’s frightening to see. Will he shake, convulse? Will his eyes roll back or bleed, something terrible like that? Zhenya’s witnessed other forms of Magic, and none of that looked violent, but you never know.
“Only Chris sees me do it on a regular basis,” Muzz explains, lifting one shoulder and dropping it. “I'm not always sure why Navigators keep Magic so private, even amongst ourselves, traditionally. Sometimes I wish Constants would know more about how Navigation and Magic all works, but also…I guess I assume they can’t understand. Get my back up about it. But then…who’ll ever help them understand like I wish they did, you know?” He frowns at the couch cushion, somewhere in the region of the space between Zhenya’s and Squid’s knees. “Sometimes I want both.”
Zhenya’s thought about that before in different terms: being Russian, all the stupid shit people say to him about what it must be like there, all the dumbass overused jokes Zhenya still pretends to laugh at sometimes. Really, he’s laughing at the fact that they’ve even dared to say it. But he never tells them why they’re wrong. Only thinks angrily about it later. He’s not obligated to explain anything. But he wonders if some of them would be receptive if he tried.
Stupidly, he’d never thought about the variety of different things that could cause someone to feel that way. He’s thinking about it now.
“You can show, if it’s okay. Or we can go,” he offers.
Muzz bites the inside of his cheek and shakes his head. “Nah, stay,” he decides, and without further ado, something’s happening. Muzz’s body gets…bright, like he swallowed a strip of LED lights and the layers of his skin are just barely thin enough for it to shine through. Then he disappears between the space of two blinks.
There isn’t any convulsing or bleeding or speaking in tongues. Obviously. Zhenya is a fool sometimes, but he’s constantly learning.
“Are we allowed to tell him that’s beautiful?” Squid asks once Muzz is gone. Add that to the list of questions Zhenya still doesn’t know the answers to.
They hang out for a good while, mainly playing with the dogs. There’s time to waste, seeing as it’s an off day. The next game they play will be the last game of the season. It’ll be against the Rangers, and they’re hoping to go out on a high note, carry that into the first round. Zhenya tries not to think too optimistically about the idea that if things are going well right now, maybe Muzz will have Sid back in time readjust to his own body in that very game.
As if summoned by the thought, Muzz re-materializes before their eyes. Zhenya checks the clock and finds that it’s been nearly two hours.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?” Muzz opens with.
“Bad,” Squid and Zhenya manage to choose in near unison.
“Alright, the bad is that, um…I’m still at square one on ideas to force a switch back. I think I thought it would be a lot clearer to figure out if I could just get to Sid, but I did that pretty easy, and then, uh. It still didn’t make any sense. I tried to see if there was any way to bring him back with me, but it didn’t work.”
Zhenya struggles to figure out how there could possibly be any good news that comes along with this.
“The good is that, well, he’s doing fine there. Keeping a low profile,” he tells Squid, “or about as low a profile as it’s possible for him to keep in Montreal considering who you are, wow. Congrats on gold last year, by the way. I don’t know if you know, but in our universe, the Americans won. So Canada thanks you, I guess. Sorry I can’t get you home quite yet.”
“Oh,” Squid blushes. “No, to be honest, I didn’t have that great a tournament. I mean, I was fine, but Mélodie put us on her back that whole Olympics and got the shootout winner. Anyway, uh, it’s okay, thanks for going to check in on stuff. We’ll regroup and try to come at it from a different angle—”
Zhenya stands abruptly. “Yes, we’re go home. Think.” The truth is that Muzz doesn’t deserve the sour mood roiling in Zhenya’s gut, the impending outburst of all the sunken hope he’d let himself feel. The bad news is that they still don’t know shit about shit, and the good news is that Sid’s functioning fine without him. Zhenya’s not upset about that, he’d never want Sid to be less than fine, safe, healthy. But Zhenya’s not functioning at all, not fine, not any of those things. He needs to be home, needs to hear Sid talk again and remember how much better it makes him feel every time.
“Oh, okay. Sure,” Muzz says lightly. He walks them to the door, and despite the fact that there must be storm clouds visible above Zhenya’s head, Zhenya hugs him before they go, a silent thanks for trying he can’t bring himself to vocalize while knowing that the effort didn’t yield anything.
Squid senses that he wants to be left alone. It can’t have been difficult, seeing as he hadn’t said a word in the car. Zhenya’s bad moods usually aren’t hard to pick up on. So she tells Zhenya she’s heading out to dinner, getting picked up by Cully or someone, a slightly odd choice for Squid to want to hang out with, but not an odd choice for Sid on the surface, so it’s fine.
Establishing the link does calm Zhenya down at first. It’s become familiar over the past few days, and Zhenya’d been right when he’d thought that they could get better at it with practice, learn to prolongate it by a minute at a time. “Hi,” Zhenya sighs softly when he feels Sid there.
“Hey,” Sid says. “Thought I might be hearing from you soon.”
“Yes,” Zhenya licks over his lip, thinking. “Muzz come visit, ah? He’s tell us about it when he’s come back, but I’m want hear from you.”
“Yeah, it was good. He came and saw my whole set-up here, met the roommate and everything. He tried a few things he thought might help me be able to hop back, which obviously didn’t work, but it was good to touch base with him. Trial and error in this thing, yeah?”
“Yes,” Zhenya repeats, unsteadier this time. Sid feels like the only person he can admit this to. “I think I’m little bit…when I have good mood, I’m too much hoping you’re come back with him today. And then it’s not happen.”
“Oh. I mean…” Sid chews on that for a moment. And then: “Come on, G, you—you had to kind of know that wasn’t happening, right?” he says, gentle, but unmistakably firm. “This could take time.”
“I’m know. But we’re get nowhere, Sid, I—” The problem is that Zhenya is only good at patience if he knows the end result will come eventually. It’s hard to know that, here. It’s hard to know anything when they’re all just fumbling around, hoping they stumble into a solution. And now Sid’s talking him down like Zhenya’s hopes for him are silly, misguided. Come on, G, you had to kind of know that wasn’t happening, right? Something about that irks.
He hadn’t linked with Sid so that Sid could reason with him, he’d done it so Zhenya could say he was sad and missed Sid, and hear Sid say he felt the same. Which he’s not doing. It’ll be better to change the subject, Zhenya thinks. The last time he’d talked to Sid, they’d had some odd version of phone sex and Zhenya had fallen asleep happy and warm. He’s far from that now, but it does remind him of a thought he’d had when he’d woken up that morning. “Sid, what we talk about last night, I’m think. I’m think maybe we ask Squid it’s okay, and you try learn how use.”
Sid takes a moment to get with the topic switch. “Her vagina? I know how to use it to pee and I think that’s about all I need.”
“Just think about. It’s different experience, and now you’re stuck there, I think it’s opportunity to feel…completely different thing, you know?”
“I get that, Geno, I see what you mean. But I’m busy just keeping up with life here, I’m not sure how much time there is for me to sit around getting myself off when I’ve never even been that interested in this body in the first place and I don’t really know my way around it.”
Zhenya shrugs to himself, even though Sid can’t see it. He’d thought of that too, but Sid had been so into it last night with Zhenya in his ears. “Like guys, though. Could get help.”
Sid is deafeningly silent. Finally, he gathers, “Are you saying you think I should sleep with someone else?”
“I’m just try—”
“Who would I even sleep with, Geno? There’s no—there’s no—”
“I know, I’m not there. Squid’s not know me when she’s come here, other me not there with other you. You’re not even bring up and I’m already know for so long, Sid. Maybe you’re not bother, I don’t know—”
“That’s not even what I was going to say! What the fuck are you talking about? I spend all my time here talking to you over there, I’m so fucking tired all the time just from the energy it takes, and you think I’m just glad to not have you? To not have anyone? What the fuck is that?”
It’s disrespect and unfairness, Zhenya knows. But anger and fear are gnawing at his core, and they’ve got big teeth.
“Never mind, Jesus,” Sid spits. “Talking about how I should have sex with other people. Are you gonna have sex with her, then?”
Zhenya frowns. He knows he won’t. Even though she’s living in Sid’s exact same body, Zhenya feels as if he’s looking upon a doppelganger every time he finds her doing things Sid wouldn’t do. He doesn’t think he could ever do it: try to fuck around in Sid’s house knowing that he’s not home. “No.”
“Then don’t say shit like that. Look, I can’t do this right now. I can’t stand—” A big exhale. The masochist in Zhenya wants so badly for him to finish the sentence. “I’m going.”
He can feel Sid let go before it’s even time, sever the connection and go do other things. Just like Zhenya was waiting around for.
Zhenya should know better than to console himself with alcohol, especially on the night before a game. Yet, there he is: sprawled out on the couch, vision wavy. He’s not sure whether that’s from the drink or the tears.
They don’t tell men not to cry in Russia. They just tell men to drink while they do it.
Squid comes home lit up and flushed like she'd had a good night with good friends. Zhenya thinks she went out with a few of the guys, actually; she’s getting more comfortable here. "Hey Geno," she says, barely turning as she passes through the living room to the staircase. He can hear the grin in her voice. She doesn't seem to even register the vodka out on the table.
She doesn't notice anything amiss at all, until Zhenya calls, "Sid."
And then she freezes before she can lift a foot onto the first stair.
Zhenya pushes himself up from the sofa where he'd been sunk into the cushions. His steps don't travel quite a straight line to where Squid's halted, but her back is to him, so what she can't see can't hurt her.
But Zhenya needs to see her face, the face she's been wearing as easily as if it were her own. He waits; she turns.
“Sid,” Zhenya croaks. He’s there, practically, his eyes, the smell of him. Zhenya gently presses his palm to the underside of Sid’s chin and desperately, heartbrokenly says, “I wish you’re in there.”
Squid recoils, wrenching herself out of his grip. She stumbles a few paces backwards to the staircase, clutches the rail. “Tell him that,” she sneers, and then she disappears up the steps and around the corner. Zhenya hears her bedroom door slam a few moments later.
It’s not her fault this happened. She doesn’t know why it did.
Zhenya is messed up about it anyway.
A person as you see them isn’t always a person as they really exist. It doesn’t take any soul-switching or bodyswapping to learn that lesson. Sid could never have switched bodies with anyone, and maybe Zhenya would still have taken his face between his palms and asked if he was in there, if he was the person who’d love Zhenya as long as Zhenya wants to love him. There’s no guarantee about these things. Confidence, sureness, any opinion or feeling of your own—it means nothing to someone else’s reality. Five years or none, it doesn’t matter. You can’t make anyone stay, really, if they don’t want to.
Even with his head pounding out of control the next morning, Zhenya manages to get Squid in the car with him to go to the rink. There’s no morning skate, thank God, just a team meeting. Squid won’t say a word to him on the drive, and that’s fine, he probably deserves the frosty silence. Zhenya isn’t sure what he’s doing, from here. Sid definitely doesn’t want to hear from him either, so Zhenya just goes about his business on detached autopilot—drives to the meeting. Sits in the meeting. Talks to the coaches. Talks to the staff writers.
Cully catches him on his way to his car. Squid had gone on ahead with the keys she’d dug out of Zhenya’s bag. She’s probably already huddled up in the passenger’s seat, headphones tucked in.
“Geno,” Cully calls, lightly pulling him aside by the elbow. Zhenya lets him. Cully doesn’t say anything more for a moment while the noise of guys filtering through the hallway buzzes past them and then settles. He’s looking at Zhenya all serious and forgiving like he’s about to do Zhenya a favor, but Zhenya doesn’t know what it could be.
“You can tell me who it is,” Cully says finally.
Zhenya blinks at him, dazed, a little nauseous, head still aching. “Who what?”
Cully gives him a look that’s somehow incredulous and kind at the same time. “You tell me. I know it isn’t Sid in there, for sure. A fifteen minute car ride was enough for me to figure that out, let alone dinner with Phil.”
Zhenya can feel his shoulders drop. They’d put so much effort into bottling this whole thing up, but now that Cully’s shattered that barrier, Zhenya almost breathes a tired sigh of relief. “It’s...still Sid, but. Sid from parallel universe. They’re switch.” Zhenya shakes his head, shrugging repeatedly with every time he can’t come up with words to say. How do you sum up the overwhelming magnitude of everything that’s gone on in the past few days? It’s enough to make anyone stop short.
Cully doesn’t shock like Muzz did at first, though. “Okay, alright,” he placates, laying a hand on Geno’s shoulder, some mild comfort. “So Sid switched with one of his iterations from another world, is that what I’m getting?”
“Are you working on undoing it? How are things?”
He can’t help but spill it all at once. “We’re try—Cully, I’m not know anymore. Nothing’s work. I’m be…too mean and Sid’s mad and no one’s talk and we’re just wait—”
“Hey, hey,” Cully soothes. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? What made you think that you couldn’t trust us with it, all of us?”
It sounds stupid, almost childish, now that Cully knows. “You busy, have life, it’s our problem. We’re see Navigator, and he’s say—they say,” Zhenya tries to hedge. He doesn’t mean to throw Muzz under the bus with this, but he’s at a tipping point. “They say we’re not tell anyone, because it’s so weird, and he’s take time, figure out…”
Cully sighs, shakes his head almost ruefully. “I’m not too busy for you guys. Ever, okay? Or too old, don’t even say it.” The corner of his mouth tips up and Zhenya feels it echo on his own face too. “Geno, there are reasons for things like this. Magic works in unbelievable, mysterious ways, but it has a purpose, always. That needs to be understood and addressed before the switch back can happen. That’s all Magic ever does, is help people understand. We’re gonna do that, okay?”
When he says it like that, Zhenya kind of believes him.
“Now,” Cully clears his throat, crossing his arms. “Which one of those little punks was it that didn’t want to come to me with this, Guentz or Muzz?”
Cully sends him home with firm instructions. “Step one is to sort things out with Sid,” he’d said. “No one’s ever gonna get anywhere if you guys are fighting. You go link up with him, and let me handle Muzz. Okay?”
It’s okay with Zhenya, certainly. He doesn’t know what it means that he’s thirty-two years of age and still feels overwhelmingly comforted to be told what to do by a responsible adult who knows what they’re talking about, but that’s why they call Cully Dad, he supposes.
Squid keeps her headphones in her ears for the car ride home, and Zhenya will deal with her too, but at the moment he can think only of Sid. Zhenya feels absolutely wretched about the last time they spoke, and he knows Sid’s feeling the same, if not worse.
Zhenya trusts Sid more than anyone else in existence. If he couldn’t trust Sid to at least hear him out about his feelings and insecurities, his wants and needs, then they wouldn’t have been through half of what they have together. Zhenya can trust him, and do right by him in return.
He goes up to his room, shuts the door behind him, same as always. But before he even brings his hand up, his pendant gets warm on his chest beneath where his collarbones meet. There’s a tug in his gut and in his heart, just lightly. A nudge.
Sid’s reaching out for him. Zhenya reaches back to him, and it feels more essential than breathing.
“Hi,” Zhenya speaks first, heart hammering in his ribcage.
“I’m sorry,” Sid says first. “G, I didn’t mean to explode.”
“I’m act like baby,” Zhenya offers. “Sorry too, Sid. I’m get so lonely here. Make me stupid. But I’m not only one who’s get lonely, I’m know.”
“It’s just—” Sid says, pushing out a rough breath. “Please just listen to me when I say this, okay? Because I’m not saying it to hurt you. I’m asking, so that I can kind of understand more. It’s like, you do this thing, right? Where I feel like you’re holding me so close to you one moment and pushing me away the next, and I can’t keep the thread of when and why it happens. I don’t know what it means, and it makes me feel like…like I don’t even know how you feel about me anymore, sometimes. Am I…do you get me?”
Zhenya had promised Squid that he’d do this after everything was set to rights, but it’s too urgent now. Now that it’s on their doorstep, there’s no turning this conversation away, no passing it by because it’s scary. That fear could never override Zhenya’s deep, consuming instinct to patch up Sid’s heart wherever it cracks, to hold it together until it heals.
“Sid. Sid. I get. And you right. It’s...I’m scared I’m ask for too much, if I’m ask for everything I’m want. Want lots of things, Sid. And I’m scared you’re not want to give.”
“So what do you want?”
“Want you with me,” Zhenya says, because that’s what it boils down to. “Not just right now, maybe. But. For always, forever.”
That’s Zhenya’s entire heart suspended in the air between them, waiting for some sort of response. Whenever he pictured saying things like this, Zhenya always thought it would feel like skydiving, like hurtling toward the ground with some impossible hope that maybe something would slow your fall at the right time. Instead, it just feels like waiting to meet Sid at the rink, or at dinner. Like waiting for him to get home at the end of the day.
He’s coming. He’ll be there.
“I looked for you, you know,” Sid says. “I’ve been looking for you, the whole time I’ve been here. I looked you up, I signed up for a million ancestry websites and confusing Russian population databases.”
Zhenya asks, even though he feels like he already knows the answer. “You find?”
“No,” Sid rasps. “I don’t think you’re in this one, G. And I need, need to be in one where you are. Forever, yeah? It’s you and me. We’re gonna make this happen. We’re making a plan now and getting it done. I’m with you. I’m with you, okay?”
If life threw this incredible, crazy test at them because there was something they needed to understand and address, then this is their part in it. The Magic, the Navigation of it, they have help for—and they’ll need it. They’ll need as much as they can get. But they’re going to come out the other end together, a team. That’s love. That’s partnership.
With that, they can get to work.
Only say what’s important, Zhenya remembers. They’re far too practiced now to need to rush that much, but. “I love you,” Zhenya says, realizing that they haven’t said it to each other once since the switch happened. “I love you. And I’m see you soon.”
Planning gets a lot easier when they start using their real critical thinking skills. Things are almost never straightforward with Magic, Muzz had said. Magic has a purpose, Cully’d told him. Understand and address. Zhenya keeps that in mind as he knocks on Squid’s guest room door.
Step one was to sort things out with Sid. Here’s step two.
Squid answers the door with her face carefully blank. “What’s up?” She doesn’t look pissed anymore, which is a start, but she doesn’t look happy either.
Zhenya leans his hip up against the door jamb, so she couldn’t close it on him if she tried. “We have game tonight. Need go soon.”
She nods. “Right. I’ll meet you at the car.” Then she moves to close the door, which Zhenya’s already thought of, ha. She has to stop just short of hitting him with it.
Zhenya sighs, laying one palm on the door to push it back open just a smidge. “Kalmarchik. Baby squid. Let me in?”
“You don’t get to just give me adorable little Russian nicknames and hope it makes up for the fact that you threw like three tantrums yesterday,” Squid lectures, but she’s opening the door anyway.
“I’m here apologize,” Zhenya insists, although secretly he thinks ‘three tantrums’ is a bit of an exaggeration. “For real. It’s rude, what I’m do yesterday. I’m not mean it.”
“What, getting shitfaced and all but telling me that you wish I’d just go away? Sorry I bother you so much.” She looks down, goes to take a seat on the bed so that she can avoid Zhenya’s eyes. “Believe me, I wish I could just go away, too. I miss my home, and my…people,” she says. Her eyes drift over to the nightstand, and Zhenya traces her gaze to the framed photo of Sid’s family she’d commandeered, one of the first things she’d done in this universe.
This is step two.
“You’re miss Taylor?” Zhenya prompts. The way Squid had scampered off when she saw this universe’s iteration of Taylor had been so odd. There’s something more there, and Zhenya just needs to get to the heart of what it is.
Squid shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. We haven’t talked in forever anyway.”
Squid brings one hand up to her face and rubs it over her forehead. “We grew up playing hockey together, you know?” she starts, which doesn’t make sense as a complete answer, so Zhenya waits for the rest. “36-96, our birthday. Mom drove us to every practice together, all the games. Hockey was our thing then, not my thing, right? But, we grew up, and like.” She swallows. “I started getting invited to all these camps, and. And got granted exceptional player status to make the senior national team early, and it was the Olympics from there. And Tay went to college, kept playing there, but—it just. You know. It didn’t happen for her? She gave it up, like, when she graduated. And our parents are so proud of me, they can’t shut up about it. And Taylor just started calling less, and I—even before that I kinda stopped picking up the phone.” Squid’s voice breaks on the last word. “Everything’s fucked up with us. It’s been months since I’ve seen her, and we just haven’t even acknowledged it. I don’t want to hear her say how hard it is to be around me.”
It was only so long ago that Squid had listened to Zhenya detail why he’d never solidified a future with Sid. She’d related to it, she said. Not wanting to talk to someone because what they say could change everything. The instinct to leave things bad because trying to make them better might end up making them worse. That was one of the first things they had in common, after hockey.
Sid and Squid switched because they needed each other. They needed to see the things that each other's universes could teach them. And Zhenya'd needed Squid even more, maybe. The least he can do is give her the same help she'd given him, hold her to the same expectations. After he does, after she goes—Zhenya will miss her.
Zhenya sits down next to Squid and pulls her in tight for a hug. He wipes her eyes for her, helps her get her shit together for the game, and later they get in the car to leave for PPG. After he gets his seatbelt on, Zhenya thumbs off a text to Taylor, tucks his phone into his pocket, and throws the car in drive.
Cully and Muzz are waiting when Zhenya and Squid get to the arena, but it’s not just them. Guentzy’s with them too, grinning impishly and waving at Squid from afar. “Nice to meet you!” he calls, hands around his mouth to project his voice even though they’re not that far away. “This is kinda sick, eh?”
“That’s right, I rallied all the troops,” says Cully when they get within reasonable speaking distance and Zhenya looks at him with eyebrows raised. “Which is what you guys should’ve done in the first place, you know that?” That’s thrown largely at Muzz, who rubs the back of his neck, wincing. At least Cully’s the most benign person anyone could possibly be scolded by, and the reprimand is given in a fun-loving dad sort of way. Cully turns his attention back to Zhenya and adds, “Especially once you hear what fuckin’ Jakey can do. You’re gonna like this. Did you get everything sorted out?”
“Sorted out?” Squid squints.
“Hey,” Taylor says from behind them. Her appearance makes Squid just about jump. “I came as fast as I could. Geno, you said there was something important?”
Squid jabs Zhenya hard in the side with her elbow. “I can’t fucking believe you, you—”
“Stop, just look,” Zhenya insists, slapping Squid’s hands away from where she tries to smack him. “She’s work here, she’s have good job, she’s still love hockey, just different way. Taylor’s happy, yes? Ow—”
“I have no idea what’s happening,” Taylor says. “But Sid, I’m fine.”
That makes Squid stop slapping at Zhenya, actually. She turns to take Taylor in for a prolonged moment, the first time they've met each other's eyes in this world. “Fine?” she repeats. “You’re not…sad? Or angry, or I don’t know, bitter about anything?”
“Bitter?” Taylor scratches her head. “I don’t think so. What’s to be bitter about? I like my life, I like doing what I do. I like being here and hanging out with you all the time, regrettably.” Her mouth turns up in an unsure smile. “I haven’t seen you enough recently, now that I think about it. That’s the only regret I can think of.”
Taylor only means over the last few days, but Zhenya doesn’t have to look at Squid to know she’s tearing up. Those words carry a whole other weight for her. Zhenya couldn’t have worked it out any better if he had scripted it.
“Thanks, Taylor.” Squid says softly, a little hoarse.
“Sure, anytime, I guess. Well if that’s it, I should get back to work.”
Squid looks right at Zhenya when Taylor walks away. Then Muzz, then Cully, then Jake. “I’m ready to go,” she whispers. “If you think you know how to make it happen.”
Step three is easy, compared to the first two.
Well, really it'll be kind of a clusterfuck, but Zhenya craves the lighthearted havoc that trying to execute a theoretically impossible soul-switch in front of an entire team of Constants is going to wreak. Emotionally, he's at a point where he's ready and willing to accept it as a sort of bizarro catharsis.
Cully stands up on his stall bench to get the room’s eyes. “Alright, listen up, guys. There’s something we gotta take care of real quick while the time is right. It’s gonna look weird to a lot of you, but it needs to happen now, so.” He pauses, gestures for Squid to stand up. “This is Sid,” Cully introduces, and a chuckle rumbles through the room. Everyone knows Sid.
Aside, Zhenya’s attention is held by Guentzy a few feet to the left of the action. “You kidding me?” he demands.
Jake snickers. “Not at all, man. Guess you should’ve come to me first when you woke up with lady-Sid from another universe in your bed, right? ‘Swatcha get for not believing in me.”
Those would be Guentzy’s words of comfort, right after explaining that his unique Navigation abilities are practically custom fit to fix the Sid-Squid debacle. Zhenya turns to Muzz for support.
Muzz rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “I’ll break it down in clearer terms. You already know how linked tokens work, right? A Navigator tailors a piece of Magic so that it can be temporarily harnessed by Constants. It's like a little workaround that enables Constants to access Magic that they normally couldn't. We all know that. What I didn’t fucking know about Guentzy is that he can do the same type of thing with Navigation across universes, especially with familiar people or objects. Which is some insane cosmic shit, but I guess I should’ve pegged him for it.”
Guentzy makes a face. He's probably resisting the urge to go, haha, pegged me. “Sid’s my linemate, and you're linked up with his soul through the token, kind of. That's like a double whammy,” he chirps instead. “This’ll be no sweat.”
Dumo clears his throat from his stall on the other side of Guentzy. “Wait, so was anyone going to tell me that fucking Jake n' Bake is more powerful than all of us put together, or was I just supposed to find that out from overhearing this conversation about Sid having a vagina?”
Meanwhile, a few feet away, Cully’s directing the locker room like an orchestra. “Everyone say, ‘Hi, Sidney!'" He leads the room through this greeting as if they're all middle schoolers at their first day of summer camp. “Alright, cool. Now everyone say, ‘Bye, Sidney!’”
The guys are a lot more confused at that one. No one says it. Rusty’s the first to raise the question. “Where could he be going?”
Where, indeed. Guentzy takes that as his cue, and he sidles up next to Squid to take her arm. “This isn’t the Sid you know, boys! There’ll be time to explain later. Right now, you can just watch me work.”
“A positive overall mindset in the room really helps,” Muzz interjects.
“Sid is a girl!” Dumo shouts, and all hell breaks loose in a clamor. “I mean in another universe, but holy hell, that's her. Guentzy’s gonna do a soul-switch!” Dumo follows up, but only half the room hears him over the cacophony, probably. Guentzy is lighting up from the inside out, closing his eyes and gripping Squid like the Navigator had gripped Zhenya and Sid’s pendants all those years ago. He's going to help her do the impossible.
Nothing's impossible, Zhenya should probably have learned by now. They're just doing the improbable. Zhenya already has long experience with that.
He catches Squid’s eye before she leaves him forever, feels a fierce surge of affection for her. She looks right back, gaze challenging as it ever was. “I’m out,” she mouths, but Zhenya gets it. Her eyes soften. “Thanks.”
“Thank you,” Zhenya says back, and then she’s gone.
Guentzy too. Like background noise, Zhenya can hear the sound of Cully walking anyone who can still hear a damned thing through the situation. Mainly, he just stands there, holding his pendant in both hands and reaching for Sid with all his might like he could pull Sid back into this world single-handedly. That’s just what love feels like, he realizes.
Sid pops back into their world to a chorus of applause and a whole lot of that love. The boys don’t really get what’s going on, but from what they've heard in the past few minutes, they can gather that it's a homecoming for the ages. A feeling of triumph like that is contagious, universal. Beyond universal.
“Hi everyone,” Sid says over the celebration, looking only at Zhenya. “I think I’m here to stay.”
They get swept in the first round of the playoffs, but that’s just the way it goes. Sid had been recovering, resettling into a shape he’d been on leave from, and no one else really picked up his slack, try as they did. It’s alright. They’ll only get stronger from this.
Zhenya thinks about Squid sometimes, hopes she’s well. He thinks about whether she's talked to her sister, and feels certain that she has. He wonders whether she’s figuring things out with hockey, helping to make a difference in some way. Sid seems to know more about it than Zhenya does, seeing as he’d actually lived in her shoes. He recounts stories for Zhenya about the people he'd met and the general feeling of some sort of plan coming together amongst them. Still, he stays primarily mum about anything specific until a couple weeks after the Pens get knocked out of the postseason, at which point he shoves his phone under Zhenya’s nose. The page is up on an article, breaking news from ten minutes earlier, according to the timestamp.
200 of the world’s elite women’s hockey players band together to sit out all professional North American games for an entire season until demands are met for a sustainable league. #ForTheGame.