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Climbing Uphill

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"They're not going to trade you."

Sid said it in a tone trying too hard to be dismissive--fast and breathy. Obviously, the subject had been on his mind since the last time they spoke, and he wanted to make the point again. Zhenya didn't even bring it up. He was merely debating about when he might be back in Pittsburgh in the fall, musing aloud about dates, and Sid pounced on the opportunity to launch into another pep talk.

Sid's first try to pick Zhenya up had been less than half-hearted, over their traditional goodbye-for-summer lunch. Zhenya watched Sid pick at his food with his fork, playing with it more than anything. He ate so joylessly Zhenya was glad they were hidden away at a table in a back corner of the dining room so as not to upset the staff. Sid looked like he hated the food. Zhenya knew he just hated everything. It would pass. It always did.

Only, Sid's problem turned out to be a little more targeted than Zhenya expected when he said, "You shouldn't get on the internet for a while."

Zhenya sat back as the realization settled over him. Sid had been listening to sportscasters calling for Zhenya's head on a pike--or at least an offseason trade. They were blaming Zhenya for the inconsistent season, the four-game sweep out of the playoffs.

Sid kept a closer ear on those things than he let on. He even listened to sports talk radio in his car, which seemed like inviting disaster. Zhenya abruptly turned the radio off every time he rode with Sid and gave him an admonishing glare, which Sid ducked with appropriate guilt. He kept listening, though, alone in his car with the sportscasters' ignorant opinions. Zhenya had a theory he used it as preparation for interviews, so nothing could ever surprise him.

Usually, Sid let the negative commentary bead off of him, irrelevant. He knew about it, but he didn't care. That stuff didn't get to him anymore. If Sid was bringing it up, it was because he was worried Zhenya might have heard the rumors, too. It was sweet, his concern, but Zhenya could handle himself.

"It's just--" Sid cut himself off with a scowl and speared a carrot aggressively like it might try to escape. "There are idiots. Some people--they don't know what they're talking about. People around here, all of us, we just got used to winning, you know? We'll bounce back. It'll all die down."

Zhenya could have told him then, the truth of things, but Sid looked so sad. He had tried so hard to lift the team and carry it all by himself, an impossible task he still blamed himself for failing. Zhenya couldn't be the cause of more grief, not then. Sid wouldn't have anywhere to put it. Instead, Zhenya reached out briefly across the table and touched his wrist. "You eat that vegetables, we can get ice cream."

Amusement pulled at Sid's mouth grudgingly like he didn't want to let it show. "I'm not a toddler," he complained. His petulance was fake. Zhenya could see from his improved posture the lighthearted bribe sparked some life back into him.

"Okay, don't want ice cream," Zhenya said, sitting back with a shrug. He tried not to think about who would pull Sid up when he started to nosedive after Zhenya. Maybe Tanger. Maybe Phil, though it didn't look like he was sticking around either.

Sid gave it a college try to eat his lunch after that. Zhenya figured that was the green light to walk to the local creamery a few blocks away when they exited instead of getting in their cars and going to their houses to pack.

Sid ate ice cream with considerably less ire while they sat outside in the sun. The weather was still chilly enough then for long sleeves, but not cold by any stretch. It felt like spring, playoff hockey weather. Zhenya kept Sid talking, refused to let him stray back into dangerous territory by bringing up baseball and cars and the latest video game he was playing.

It worked for a while until Sid's eyes started to look a little unfocused again, full of thoughts. Then, Zhenya bullied him up. "Okay, come to my house. Get drunk. Forget."

"I don't want to forget," Sid said with frown creases rapidly multiplying on his face. "I want to get better."

"That's not start today. Come to my house, stay all night. You will feel better."

To Zhenya's shock, Sid agreed to follow him back to his house and drink with him for the rest of the afternoon. He wondered what would have happened if Sid stayed, if he hadn't taken an Uber home before midnight. Zhenya wondered what he could have let happen, if he hadn't been afraid.

They didn't talk after. Zhenya left for Moscow to prepare for Worlds. Sid went wherever he disappeared to for the first part of summer before he started to focus on training. It wasn't too weird, not hearing from him. Sometimes they went a few weeks over the off-season without a text.

More than a month was pretty weird, though.

Russia didn't win Worlds, and Zhenya didn't want to talk about it. He sulked back to Miami and ignored his phone a lot. A month without speaking to Sid grew to two months. Sid started appearing in MacKinnon's Instagram stories, well into full summer training, around the time the Blues skated the Cup. That's when Zhenya figured it had been too long. He hadn't gone that long without speaking to Sid, at least exchanging memes over text, in a decade.

Zhenya figured Sid was probably waiting for him to make the first move, so he worked up the nerve after a long morning run in the Miami humidity. He thought about calling while he was still sweaty and gross before the endorphins died down and anxiety crept back in, but he wanted to see Sid. He wanted to know by his expressions and gestures where they stood. Sid was a master of keeping his tone neutral. Zhenya needed visual cues. So he showered and put on a nicer shirt than he would generally lounge in and collapsed on his couch while he hit the Facetime app.

Sid answered right away even though he was in the middle of doing dishes, a little wide-eyed like he couldn't believe Zhenya was calling, but he smiled when he said hi, and Zhenya relaxed. They were okay--the problem was fixable.

Well. It would be fixable until Sid found out Zhenya was impliedly lying to him. That would be a more significant rift, for sure, and one Zhenya was not looking forward to opening up. Not now, when they were already on shaky ground and trying to recover.

That was why, instead of responding to Sid's naïve assurance that he wasn't about to be traded, Zhenya jerked a shrug. The issue would resolve itself one way or another. Either Sid would burn himself out talking about it, the trade would never go through, and they would move on without Sid ever knowing how close things got. Or, Zhenya would be a coward and Sid would find out through the news. Zhenya shuddered at that option.

"This is why you shouldn't have Twitter," Sid continued, like he didn't have a burner account of his own. "It does nothing but stress you out."

Zhenya couldn't deny it, but Twitter wasn't the whole problem. Zhenya tried to be like Sid and put no stock in the opinions of wayward fans and armchair centermen who had never had an elbow crushed into the back of their neck until it popped. Let them say he had a temper--who wouldn't?

But the complaints weren't all about his temper this time. Accusations of anger problems followed him throughout his career, but they had always before been balanced with the knowledge that his goals and assists outweighed his penalty minutes. Zhenya couldn't deny the numbers--this season, he hadn't produced like he should have.

Sid was still keyed up and charged on. "If Jim wanted to trade you, he would have to get you to waive your no-movement clause. And you're not going to do that, right?"

That got Zhenya's attention snapped right back on Sid. He hadn't known what to say or how to break it to Sid, but he hadn't planned to lie. He just--didn't say anything. It had worked so far, so he decided to try it again. He jerked another shrug, thinking Sid would interpret it however he wanted.

Sid slowly stopped moving around his kitchen and stood with his eyes fixed on the phone.

"G, he didn't, right?"

Well shit. The game was up. Zhenya sighed. "Just. He only ask. I don't sign yet. But if he can get Barrie or--"

"Fuck that," Sid said. He looked angry. "Why didn't you tell me this? Jesus, Geno. I'm hanging up."

"No!"

"I'm calling Jim. This can't happen."

"Sid, no," Zhenya said firmly. He didn't need Sidney fucking Crosby swooping in to make demands that would almost certainly be granted on his behalf. He hadn't leaned on Sid his whole career, and he wasn't starting now. "Is my contract."

"Well, you're my--"

Zhenya's ears perked up. He held his breath while Sid released his slowly.

"So," Sid said evenly, clearly schooling his tone. "You want to leave?"

"No," Zhenya said firmly because he definitely didn't. He wanted to be a Penguin forever, as long as they would have him. But-- "If I can help the team, Sid--I have to. I have bad time with hockey right now."

"Slumps are temporary. Don't make a permanent decision based on one season. You can train different this summer, try new things--"

"Press is call me old."

Sid outright sneered, a reaction he would usually control, contain, but his politeness was momentarily bullied out of existence.

"I feel old. All season. Yes, maybe I can train. But maybe nothing change. I still get hurt, get mad, can't move like a young guy. Then what? I don't want hurt Penguins again."

Sid slumped forward and leaned on his forearms on the counter. His eyes looked past the phone. By the lighting, it looked like he was staring out a window. At least he didn't deny it like he had all season. At least he wasn't pretending he didn't see the stupid penalties, the frustration, the injuries.

"I don't know if I want to play hockey without you," Sid said flatly.

"Don't be stupid. You play always without me."

"Was I at Worlds?" Sid asked, his voice terse.

He wasn't. He wasn't at Worlds.

"It was hard enough losing Flower. If you go--"

"What, you retire?" Zhenya scoffed. "You so young, that's crazy."

Sid cut his eyes down at the phone again. He looked distressingly sober, even worse than he had over lunch two months back. "I know to you it doesn't matter--"

"Don't say that."

"It doesn't, Geno. It doesn't matter as much."

"Why you say this?"

"You've thought about trades before. It's always been an option for you--to move on."

Zhenya groaned and dropped his head. He wanted to scream. He thought this subject was dead and buried, the interview he wished he'd never done.

It was rare for them to be interviewed together, but somehow they both got scheduled to do a sit-down, side by side, during press day before the season started. Zhenya felt more relaxed with Sid there, less like someone from the media might try and trick him into saying something regrettable. They were always looking for something to blow way out of proportion.

And, sadly, with Sid sitting right there, Zhenya gave it to them. The interviewer asked if he'd ever thought about leaving the Penguins. Zhenya answered honestly that he had, of course, because every player thought about their options. He hadn't meant he ever tried. He had never even let his agent talk to another team.

When Zhenya answered the question, Sid's head snapped up. For a brief, unfiltered moment, Sid looked deeply wounded before he slid his presser mask back into place and laughed. Zhenya could tell it would be bad between them for a while before they even left the room.

Afterward, Zhenya tried over and over to explain, but Sid brushed him off with the same fake smile, the same placating tone. "It's okay. Just business, right?"

If his hockey career were just business, Zhenya would be somewhere with a C on his chest and a tiered bonus structure on his contract. Playing in Pittsburgh was absolutely not just business. But Sid never let him get that far into the explanation, and eventually, Zhenya grew too frustrated to keep trying. They both dropped it, settled into the season, and let it slowly fade into memory.

Now, so many months later, Sid was bringing it up again. Not for the first time, Zhenya wanted to strangle the interviewer for the question and kick himself for answering it. All he had to do was avoid it, laugh and obfuscate until they moved on.

"Sid," Zhenya said, lifting his head back up to look at his phone. "I tell you before--I don't want to go."

Sid's eyebrows drew down like they were losing in the third, getting less likely to tie the game. "It's fine. I know--"

"You don't know! You never let me say. I want to stay in Pittsburgh."

"Geno, come on. Be real with me."

"Real?" Zhenya grasped at words--did Sid seriously think he was lying?

"It's not just that you wanted to go before. You still say, all the time, that you want to retire in your hometown."

For a guy telling Zhenya to stay off social media, Sid sure put a lot of stock in what he heard through the press. Zhenya thought back to the last time he said it--an interview during practices for Worlds. The interview was in Russian. Sid must have tracked down a translated copy.

Zhenya couldn't deny it. "Yes, okay. I say that. But I don't mean now." He meant when he got too old to keep up in the NHL, which he sure hoped wasn't happening already. He just wanted to go back to Magnitogorsk one more time; a thank you of sorts to his birthplace. Lots of people did it, and they didn't manage to offend Sid deeply.

"No, first you want to go play for a different team in the NHL, right?" Sid said it harshly, not looking at his phone. He never talked like that to anyone, let alone Zhenya.

"I'm sorry," Sid breathed before Zhenya could formulate a response. "That wasn't fair."

"No, it's not fair," Zhenya agreed.

Sid closed his eyes. His breath shuddered when he pulled it in, and he ducked down like he wanted to hide his face. "Sorry," he repeated softly.

"Sid."

Sid's eyes slid open. They looked a little wet and very apprehensive. "Was it because, you know-- Is it because of me? What I did?"

It knocked the breath out of Zhenya to see Sid looking so insecure because of him. He should never have let it go for two months without speaking.

They had been four beers into their drunken afternoon before leaving Pittsburgh when Zhenya became acutely aware of how close Sid was on the couch. They were watching their second movie, some over-the-top comedy Zhenya couldn't remember nearly as well as Sid's knee brushing his. Zhenya had his arm slung over the back of the couch, not exactly around Sid's shoulders, but effectively. When he looked at Sid, he found Sid looking right back at him. Their eyes met and didn't waver. Zhenya's heart jumped into a staccato beat at the warmth in Sid's gaze.

"What?" Sid asked. He looked the exact opposite of how he did at lunch, sweet and happy, a teasing little grin playing around his eyes and mouth.

There had been moments between them, over the years--Zhenya wasn't ignorant of that. In fact, when they stood on the edge of this deep pool of stuff they didn't talk about, Zhenya was usually the one that yanked them back, made a wisecrack or shrugged or got mad and stormed off. Sid would relent, back off for a while until Zhenya missed him and started buddying back up to him, and they would dance this dance again. It had been like this for a while, beginning in the back-to-back Cup seasons. The two of them just got so close then. It seemed like anything was possible.

There, on Zhenya's couch with the movie they weren't watching playing in the background, the idea of kissing Sid made him feel like he did during the start of their attempt to three-peat, like nothing could ever stop them. Zhenya made an abortive move to lean in, heart ramping up even more. Sid wouldn't stop him if he leaned all the way in and kissed him. He knew Sid would kiss him back.

Before he could decide what to do, Sid chose for him and closed the narrow gap until their lips just touched, an offer. Sid wouldn't go further without Zhenya's involvement, but he'd crossed the barrier. He'd made the boldest move. All Zhenya had to do was reciprocate.

Zhenya could have just let it happen. He'd kissed people for whom he felt almost nothing, pretty girls in bars, handsome men in clubs--sometimes he never even got their names. His affection for Sid was practically boundless; it just kept growing every year. He could kiss Sid back and then take him to bed, keep him there for days. It would be all too easy.

Except for the Penguins and Russia and the league. Sleeping with Sid would be easy until it wasn't. People would have opinions; everyone would talk. Their public lives would become about something other than hockey. Zhenya could handle that. He wasn't sure Sid could.

The complicated, practical parts, were what always made Zhenya back off before they got to the point of kissing before. He could lose Sid completely, if things went wrong, if they broke up. They might not even be friends after that.

With that in mind, Zhenya dragged himself away from the pull of Sid's temptation and breathed, "Sid. I think it's not a good idea."

Sid sat back without an argument, obviously disappointed but accepting. He left shortly after, and they hadn't spoken since.

They usually moved on, when things like that happened. They'd never actually kissed before, but there had been long hugs, lingering looks, dinners that felt more like dates than friendship. This time, Sid apparently thought he'd offended Zhenya, enough to move his dastardly plan of abandoning the Penguins up on the timeline.

It was time to come clean. Zhenya couldn't live with himself knowing he let Sid feel guilty over something he had nothing to do with.

"No, it's not because kiss." The word made Sid flinch and hunch down like the memory was painful. "I know before then. Jim ask before. I want to tell you, but then you look so sad at lunch and I think--you know, maybe it's not even happen. Why I'm say and make you more sad?"

"Because you should be able to trust me with that. We're a team, you and me."

"And Dumo and Tanger and Muzz--"

"No." Sid sounded dead serious. He wanted to get this message across. "It's different with you and me. We're different."

Zhenya nodded. There wasn't much denying it.

"I want you with me."

"Why?"

It was a reactive question, not one he considered deeply before asking, and it made Sid jerk back. "What do you mean, why?

"Why you don't want me to leave Penguins?"

Sid's expression flickered briefly, pleading with Zhenya not to make him say it until it evened back out into flat despair. "C'mon. You know why."

"Tell me."

"Are you asking me to convince you to stay?"

Zhenya shook his head. That would be too much like a test, and Sid wouldn't put up with it. "No. I just want to know. You want me to stay for hockey?"

"Yes. Of course."

"Even if I play like last season?"

"Yes, Geno. For god's sake, you make it sound like you spent the season scoreless. You averaged over a point a game."

Sid saw the bright side in most situations, but this was a stretch even for him. He saw what he wanted to see--Zhenya contributing to their team.

"I think you don't care if I play bad."

"I--" Sid trailed off, but his hesitation did nothing to rebut the accusation.

"You don't care I'm not helping team. So why? Why you want me?"

Sid leaned down and breathed out slowly. "Why are you asking me this?" He said it like he suspected and feared the answer.

Changes were coming, big ones, one way or another. Either Zhenya was going to another team to start over, or he would need to make some serious adjustments to his game over the summer to keep up with the Penguins. Maybe he couldn't stop the trades, but he could take the misery out of Sid's face. Perhaps it was time to stop being afraid of what might happen.

"Sid, tell me."

Sid swallowed, looked past the phone, and said, "Are you suggesting I only want you around because of how I feel about you?"

"Maybe. I think you want kiss me."

"G--"

"I want kiss you."

Sid blinked. He looked stunned, unable to speak.

"I only stop because-- I don't know. Maybe I'm scared." Zhenya laughed sheepishly at his own admission. "Twelve years is long time to just say, okay everything is different now."

"Sometimes, different can be good," Sid said it softly, a careful offer, pushing his heart back out for Zhenya to reject again.

Zhenya nodded. "Yes, I think so."

Sid thought for a second, and his face got pinched again. "Not different teams, though. I'm only talking about us."

Zhenya broke into a teary laugh at the idea that Sid needed to clarify. "I know. I say already, I don't want trade."

"You'll tell Jim no if he asks again? If you have to waive?"

Zhenya hesitated. He had already agreed to do it, and while his word wasn't legally binding, he wanted to be honest. "Maybe he won't ask. If he call about trade, I tell him--sorry, Sid say I have to stay, score fifty goal this season."

It was such a relief to watch Sid's frown crack apart at that, like all the strain he felt just washed away all at once. "Next time I see you, I'm definitely going to kiss you."

"Maybe I do first. Come to Canada, find you under snow."

He got a chuckle out of Sid with that one. "It's June."

"So maybe only little bit snow? That good. Bring only one shovel."

Sid's eyes crinkled up as his smile grew. He shook his head like he thought Zhenya was so ridiculous. He picked up the phone and his face faded in and out of the frame for a few seconds before he set it down again. His shirt filled the screen until he stepped back and sat down on a metal chair, clearly on his back porch. The green expanse of his back yard stretched out behind him, manicured like a golf course. "Funny looking snow, eh?"

Watching Sid in his natural habitat, putting his feet up on a second chair, Zhenya's well of jokes ran dry. It looked like an advertisement--Visit Nova Scotia. "Beautiful," Zhenya breathed.

"Yeah, it's a nice day for sure. Clouds are looking a little heavy, though."

Zhenya's eyes snapped back to Sid's face. Sid looked nervous, but also hopeful. Behind him, the blue sky contained only a few small, white puffs that didn't seem capable of spitting more than a few drops of rain.

"Maybe you should bring that shovel," Sid suggested. "Just in case."

Zhenya took it for what it was--an invitation, one he would not refuse. He agreed, babbling about getting on a plane right away while Sid laughed at him. Sid might not think he was serious, but Zhenya wanted his do-over kiss. He wanted to go to Canada and crawl into Sid's lap in his green back yard and never let him go. He wanted to go all-in, consequences be damned.

Maybe while he was up there, Zhenya could sneak in on Sid's summer training, see how he liked it. He tended to think Sid did too much strength training for his tastes, but he was willing to try anything. As Sid said, sometimes change could be a good thing.