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Love is in the Air

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Even before he hit his growth spurt Evgeni knew he was too big for this town. From his Father’s wracking cough to his Mother’s dry and cracked hands he saw his life ahead of him and decided he wanted more. Working in the mines or a factory would not bring him fulfillment at all and so with one last look around their dingy apartment he leaves for flight school and doesn’t look back.

He starts out working in the back cabin of commercial flights, heating food, laying out baskets of peanuts, folding blankets and stocking ear plugs. His eyes grow larger every time they land in a new city, taking in as much as he can. The vibrancy of each place leaves him spellbound, the different cultures, food, scenery and people all make their impact, even if the different languages give him a headache.

He hops around Europe for a few years before moving to an airline that deals mostly long-haul flights and while the places he visits are truly wonderful the jet lag does not agree with him. Domestic flights in America just put him to sleep, landing in one bland place after another but at least they only speak one language here. He’s almost ready to head back to Europe until one of his co-workers mentions charter flights and how the schedule is less intense and the money’s a little better.

He’s sold on it right away, wanting to slow the pace a little and his parents could always do with a little extra than the standard ₽50k he sends them monthly. He’s not sure what he had envisioned as to the type of people who charter flights, rich businessmen flying to important meetings, celebrities flying to their second homes, oligarchs flying just cos they can. He didn’t consider sports stars, let alone a team of them.

Which is how he finds himself greeting the Pittsburgh Penguins onto the flight on a blustery Tuesday morning in October.

The team is simultaneously the best and worst type of passenger to fly with. They’re loud and rowdy, sprawling across aisle making Evgeni struggle to tiptoe over them. But at the same time, they’re never rude or impatient like most first-class flyers. Anything he does for them always get an appreciative glance and a quick thanks before diving back into the card games, books and Mario cart tournament going on.

The schedule although seemingly random is a lot less intense and he soon gets used to sleeping in his own bed more often than not. He’s also starting to learn the players, coaches, staff and media’s preferences, coffee orders and who like the quiet in the back for sleeping and reading and whose part of the boisterous card games. (He secretly reckons he could give them a run for their money but refrains at the last minute) cos he really doesn’t want to lose this job that’s fast becoming the best one he’s had.

As he’s going down the aisle turning lights off, closing windows he spares a look for the Captain screwed up uncomfortably in the back corner. He wants to go over and nudge him awake, coax him into stretching out, get him to lean on Evgeni’s shoulder while he strokes his hair and tells him stories of his mothers cooking to send him off to sleep.

He settles for handing over a blanket with tight smile.

Evgeni has never really struggled to find company when he wants it, there has been both men and women and he can charm them in easily enough. They stick around for a few weeks, sometimes even a few months and that’s always been fine because it’s been exactly what he’s wanted at the time. But now, looking at the Captain and wandering what it’s like to wake up next him, those sleepy eyes and full lips. Messy bed hair and scratchy voice first thing in the morning, squinting against the sun. Even after travelling all over the world, he can’t help but feel like this is exactly where he was supposed to end up.

There’s a homestand for a few weeks and while the break is nice, he finally gets to explore the city properly. Even buys a ticket for the Pens game against the Rangers. Stays away from the warm-ups lest he gets recognised by the team. But he sits high in the stands, takes in the surroundings, the atmosphere and of course, the game. He’d known the basics beforehand, even caught a few games in bars and at home. But that pales in comparison to the spectacle in front of him.

It’s just so fast, so intricate and at time completely brutal. He finds the Captain’s jersey and tracks him throughout the game and he’s just so good, streaks ahead of everyone else. Transfixed just doesn’t cover it so he buys an 87 jersey on the way out and sneaks it onto the plane for the next road trip.

Admittedly it takes 3 more flights to work up the courage to speak to the Captain. In the meantime, he carefully selects the individually wrapped Reese’s cups to leave on his seat, the Captain won’t open a big packet but will sneak few ones on their own. An extra big, fluffy blanket for the late-night trips back home and a good novel Evgeni has read several times squished into the front cabin trying to stay awake.

He decides to finally approach the Captain on a late-night flight when most of the team is asleep or locked into books and games. He’s spotted him reading the book he left and thinks that might be a cushion to fall back onto if he makes a fool of himself with the jersey. He clears his throat quietly and bends down so he’s not towering over him.

“So sorry to disturb you Mr. Crosby but I came to see you play the Rangers and I was amazed at how good you were. Would it be possible if you could sign my jersey please?” He rushes out all at once.

The Captain looks a little shocked but smooths it over quick and reaches out for the jersey.

“Absolutely, of course. Wait… the Rangers?? That was weeks ago, why wait till now? I’m always happy to sign things. Also please don’t ever call me Mr. Crosby again, that was just horrifying! Sid, just Sid is fine.”

Evgeni is just smiling so much his cheeks hurt.

“um.. Sid, then. Thank you so much, I really appreciate this. I didn’t really know Hockey till I go this job but I saw that game and it was just so good, you made me a fan! I wait to work up courage”

Sid smiles back too, maybe even a hint of pink in hi cheeks but it’s dark so the light is obviously playing tricks.

“Wait…I don’t even know your name”

“Evgeni. Evgeni Malkin” he replies.

Sid looks a little blank for a second before he tries repeating his name back but butchers it completely.

“Um…ahem.. er.. could you spell that please?” Pen poised above the jersey.

“’s here” Evgeni points to the book cast aside next to Sid. Opens up the inside cover and points to the inscription inside. Except it’s all in Cyrillic because his mother had written it. Of course. A gift sent in the post while he was in far flung places, it always reminded him of home, even if the book was in English.

“” He stutters, colouring quickly. “er.. maybe can use nickname, Geno..G-E-N-O.
Good for North Americans.”

“Wait.. this is your book? You left this for me? Geno, this is so thoughtful. It’s such a good book as well. I just got to the bit about bear living on the roof and he squashes the house flat and I have to find out what happened to all the animas inside and what they’re going to do now the house is gone. I promise as soon as I finish, you can have the book back, I just have to find out what happens first.”

Evgeni just smiles back “Of course, but you keep after. Is gift from me, for thanks for being such good hockey player!”

Sid laughs at that, eyes closed with a wide smile.

“Thank you so much, I’ll take good care of it.” Already imagining co finish the book curling up under the blanket to finish the book off when “wait… the blanket, was that you too? And the chocolate as well?”

Evgeni is so glad the cabin lights are dimmed as he turns a delightful shade of dark pink at the mention of this.

“Just saw you uncomfortable one flight, thought you might like some extra coziness and chocolate is for treat. Need to have sometimes. So sorry if I went too far. Can stop if you like.”

“No not at all, don’t apologize I loved them. Thank you for thinking of me, you’re so kind. Wow I owe you far more than an autograph.” He scrawls something on the jersey and hands it over. “I hope this begins to cover my gratitude for your thoughtfulness”

Evgeni takes the jersey just as the Flight Captain announces 10 mins to landing and now he has to go back to work. With a final thanks, a shy smile and a shoulder squeeze Evgeni heads up front to prepare for landing.

It’s not until he gets home, exhausted at 3am that he looks at the jersey and see what Sid had written.

Geno, I’m so grateful to be in your care while we fly. Your second Captain, Sid Crosby 87.