Zhenya stepped through the door at UPMC Lemieux and was hit immediately with a wave of newness. The place smelled new. Like lemon. The air was cold as a fridge. Zhenya had spent his entire life in ice rinks, but he felt like he had stumbled upon a different universe.
In the distance, he could hear the sound of chattering voices, the whir of a skate sharpener. A woman came up to him wearing a UPMC branded polo shirt and a cheery smile. “Malkin, right? You’re here to see the coach?”
“Uh, yes,” he said. He just kept looking around at everything. All of the shiny fixtures. The huge walls of glass. Jiri had given him the rundown over the summer with jealousy in his voice. Pittsburgh was state-of-the-art. They treated everyone like a star. It was certainly living up to the hype so far. He held his hand out for the woman to shake. “Evgeni.”
“Crystal,” she replied. “Executive Assistant. Follow me.”
The offices were upstairs and down a long hallway. Only a few people were milling about, none of whom he recognized. Some of them waved upon realizing who Zhenya was and he tried to smile back, feeling not unlike he had at twenty-one, freshly arrived in Raleigh from Magnitogorsk, a fish thrust across the ocean and plopped onto dry land.
“Evgeni!” Coach Johnston said when Crystal deposited Zhenya in his doorway. He smiled a friendly, creased smile, the weirdly fake-looking one that so many North Americans loved, and ushered Zhenya inside. “Sit down, sit down. Welcome. It’s so great to finally meet you.”
“Yes, same for me,” Zhenya said. He had spoken with Johnston briefly in June. A short phone call after the trade was finalized, to welcome Zhenya to the team. Zhenya had been swirling with unspoken emotions then, lying on his couch in Moscow and staring out the balcony door, wondering what the future might bring.
“How are you liking Pittsburgh so far?” Johnston asked. “I’m sure you’ll love it here. The people are great. Very homey vibes. I’m sure it’s not too different from Raleigh, really.”
Zhenya’s home down south was cavernous. Big enough for the family he’d hoped to have. It had a pool to float around in when he got too sore. A backyard full of lush, green trees. His ‘home’ in Pittsburgh was an apartment downtown that overlooked the river. He had four suitcases and a lack of real kitchen utensils. He’d had the entire summer to prepare for the move, but most of his things were still in storage, like bringing them all to a new city and unboxing them might mean the whole thing was real. A new place, a new life after seven long years.
“Here for few days,” Zhenya told him. “Only walk downtown little bit. Airport. I get coffee one morning. Don’t go too far yet.” He was hopeful that his new teammates would show him the ropes eventually. Or else he might just end up finding the nearest sushi spot and ordering delivery to his apartment for the rest of the year.
“Plenty of time to settle in,” Johnston said. He leaned forward with folded hands, flipping through a folder with Zhenya’s headshot clipped to it like they were in a job interview. Zhenya sat up straighter. “Now, let’s talk about the team.”
The rest of their meeting was largely that, endless information about the team composition and Zhenya’s general role. Johnston went over some systems stuff that Zhenya knew he would have to have repeated, probably more than once. He really tried to be good at retaining information, but even after so long in North America, listening to that much English at once just made him zone out.
One wall of Johnston’s office was entirely glass, a window that overlooked one of the rinks, and as their meeting went on, Zhenya’s gaze drifted and his attention caught on a few guys who were huddled in one corner of the rink. Johnston chuckled.
“Informal skate,” Johnston explained. “Some of these rink rats can’t wait until camp starts. If you have your gear I’m sure they’d be happy to meet you.”
Zhenya’s gear bag was in the trunk of his rental car, and he went out to grab it and let Johnston show him around the facility a little until they got to the locker room and the lounge. Even the practice locker room was top notch. When Zhenya had first started in the NHL, he’d been sitting on a folding chair in his stall at Raleigh Center Ice.
“Bench entrance is through there,” Johnston said, thumbing a hand to his right. “I’ll be upstairs for a bit if you need anything, but I’m sure the guys’ll take care of you, eh.” He patted Zhenya on the arm. “Welcome to Pittsburgh, son.”
Zhenya found an empty stall and just kind of stood there for a while until his bag slumped off of his shoulder and onto the floor. He could hear the sound of laughter coming from the corridor that lead to the ice, the familiar smack of pucks. He was so nervous, tongue thick in his mouth, his hands shaky as he stripped out of his street clothes and pulled on his gear. The team had sent him a practice jersey over the summer, but he hadn’t gotten his custom kit in yet. His gloves and helmet were still bright red. He was really here. In Pittsburgh. He was going to meet Crosby.
“Top shelf!” someone yelled as Zhenya walked slowly down the hall to the ice, helmet and stick tucked under his arm. He heard snickering, and someone started shouting loudly in French. Eventually one of the guys involved in the ruckus skated over to the bench and noticed Zhenya’s loitering.
“Boys! Boys!” the guy yelled. He took his helmet off and one of his gloves and tossed them on the bench wall and reached out to shake Zhenya’s hand. “Patric Hornqvist,” he said, shaking vigorously, like Zhenya didn’t know exactly who Hornqvist was: a noisy pain in Zhenya’s ass. “Jesus, look who the cat dragged in, boys.”
Some of the other guys skated over. Fleury, who Zhenya had been trying to go five-hole on for years. Letang, Scuderi, Kunitz. Zhenya had played against them all, and he smiled tentatively at them, hoping they would forgive him for any shit he’d done over the years.
“You gonna skate with us?” Hornqvist asked. He smacked Zhenya with one of the water bottles. “Show us some of that Malkin magic now that you’re gonna use it for good, eh?”
Zhenya ducked his head and laughed. It wasn’t magic. Anyone could learn if they wanted it enough. “Maybe I show you. I don’t tell you all my secrets, though.”
Fleury left the huddle and skated back to the corner where someone was still bent over and stick-handling a pile of pucks. “Sid! Mon ami!” Fleury shouted. And something else in French that Zhenya didn’t understand. Letang snorted. Zhenya froze in place, peering around the glass. And when Fleury returned it was with Crosby on his arm.
Zhenya had known about Crosby for years, longer than he had even been in the NHL. They’d shared the same agent once. A young Zhenya had hovered in front of the television in his parents’ apartment watching highlight reels of Sidney Crosby: teenage phenom until the tape got worn thin and just stopped working.
Zhenya was a little embarrassed to admit that part of the reason he had green-lit this trade to Pittsburgh in the first place was because of Crosby himself: his insane hockey, his wolfish smile, the lingering remnants of Zhenya’s boyhood crush. Zhenya propped his stick against the wall and stuck out his hand to shake. “Hey,” he said, smiling and hoping it didn’t look too stupid. “Evgeni.”
But Crosby didn’t take off his gloves and shake hands like Hornqvist had. He waved his hand in apology, thick inside his dirty glove. “Hey,” he replied curtly. “Sid.” Zhenya’s hand was still hanging lamely in the air between them, like an awkward kid who couldn’t read the room. Crosby’s gaze kept flitting to the side, distracted. Certainly more of an underwhelming welcome than Zhenya had expected.
Zhenya had heard plenty of stories about Crosby. He was competitive to a level of insanity, to which Zhenya could relate. He was friendly, a good teammate. He was hard on his linemates. But most people seemed to agree that he was, all around, a good guy. Zhenya hadn’t ever talked to him much, the times that they’d run into each other at league events over the years. Maybe he was just having an off day. They had plenty of time to get to know one another.
Crosby didn’t stay long after that, collecting his pucks and saying his goodbyes while Zhenya got himself situated and onto the ice. Zhenya tried not to be disappointed. There had been a time when Zhenya had thought that he might go to Pittsburgh, number two overall, but he hadn’t, for whatever reason. It had been difficult, in the years that followed, not to wonder what might have been. Would he have a Cup by now? More scoring titles? Would he and Crosby have been friends?
“Show me how to do that spin-o-rama you do,” Fleury said, pulling Zhenya’s attention back. Fleury spun around dramatically, looking ridiculous in his pillow-y goalie pads.
“No chance,” Zhenya said, pleased with himself when the guys started laughing and laughing. He was funny. He could fit in here. He lunged forward and pressed Fleury with his stick blade until he fell harmlessly to the ice. Zhenya smiled down at him, taking a deep inhale of familiar icy air and putting Crosby’s polite dismissal out of his mind. “I keep my secret.”
“Coming through,” someone said from behind him, and when he looked, it was Crosby. He was carrying multiple cardboard boxes that obscured most of his face. Zhenya stepped aside and watched him turn and press his ass against the door until the scanner lit green and chimed. Zhenya snickered, trying to muffle the sound with the crook of his arm, and Crosby piped up again, sounding not entirely un-annoyed. “Can you get that?”
Zhenya scrambled to be helpful and open the door, pressing himself against it so Crosby could slide past him and into the corridor. He was wearing a dirty white t-shirt, and as Zhenya let the door close behind him, he couldn’t help but notice the way it clung to the thick muscles of Crosby’s upper back.
“Thanks, man,” Crosby said curtly, glancing back at Zhenya with the boxes propped on his thigh. Zhenya looked aside, sipping his coffee some more to pretend that he hadn’t been staring. That kind of thing was only going to cause him trouble. Crosby looked at him expectantly, as if he had given Zhenya some clear instruction that Zhenya was too slow to follow. “You coming? Jen’s probably looking for you. You’re late.”
Zhenya had been getting emails from ‘Jen’ for about a month now. She kept asking him how much media availability he wanted, or which interviews he wanted to greenlight for the local papers, as if the answer was anything more than zero.
Their media handler in Raleigh had been a gruff, old-school guy named Chet who made decisions without consulting them most of the time. Zhenya had done what was assigned to him, because that’s what you did as captain. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t relieved to realize that here he may not have to.
He followed Crosby through the lounge and down into the bowels of the arena. Pretty much everyone said hello to them: the custodial staff, the suits, even the corridor rats. “You popular,” Zhenya remarked, chuckling at Crosby trying to wave to people and hold the boxes aloft simultaneously. He would get Crosby to like him one way or another. “What’s in box, anyway?”
“Props, I think,” Crosby said. He stopped in front of a locked door and set the boxes down on the concrete. “It’s just stuff for the media team. I didn’t ask.” Crosby was jiggling the key in the lock when he looked back at Zhenya with that quizzical eye again, like Zhenya was doing something odd and wasn’t supposed to be. “You don’t need to follow me. The locker room is just up the hall.”
Zhenya flushed, feeling a little dumb just lingering there, trotting after Crosby like a puppy. He scratched at his hair where it stuck out from his hat. “Why I follow you,” he said, defensive. He didn’t need Crosby to think he was an idiot who couldn’t make his way around an NHL rink. “Just think you need help. Boxes heavy. Maybe you can’t handle.”
“Thanks,” Crosby said to him curtly, “but I don’t need help.” And then he disappeared into the office, leaving Zhenya standing alone in the corridor with his coffee cup full of melted ice.
He heard voices growing closer from somewhere along the hall, and eventually Fleury emerged, wearing a Penguins hoodie and slides, laughing about something with Dupuis.
“Evgeni! You checking out the paint job on that cinderblock?” Fleury called, his smile wide and infectious, the kind of smile that laughed with you and not at you. At least someone was welcoming.
“Lost.” Zhenya shrugged.
“C’mon, my friend,” Fleury said, gesturing with a long, gangly arm for Zhenya to join them. “No lost Penguins here.” Zhenya couldn’t help but smile.
Once Jen wrangled him, Zhenya had to suit up for his headshot and an intern handed him a jersey: not just the practice jersey with the skating Penguin in a sea of black, but a real, custom jersey with his name and number emblazoned on the back. He ran his hands over it reverently once he pulled it on, smoothing his palms over the crisp, new stitching. One of the photographers cleared her throat and Zhenya flushed, embarrassed.
“Mr. Malkin?” she asked, gesturing to the green screen and the little wooden stool. Her smile was kind and a little knowing. She put a small hand on his arm. Everywhere in the room was lit up by familiar bright lights. “Can you come sit down, please?”
Johnston went on for a few minutes about their next drill. Zhenya picked at a divot in the ice, running his hand over it until the sharp edges were smooth.
“Malkin! Crosby! Center ice,” Johnston called and clapped his hands to resume practice.
Lining up against Crosby was like breathing. Zhenya knew the exact way Crosby liked to turn his feet to cheat the puck drop because he’d been watching it for years. He knew not to look at Crosby’s dark eyes or his stupid fucking mouth that he was always chewing on. Keep his head down, muscle himself in quick enough to smack the puck back and win.
But Crosby liked to stare people down, and Zhenya looked him in the eye then, trying to see through the steely gaze to puzzle out what was underneath. Most everyone Zhenya had met so far had been friendly enough, and Zhenya had found it easier than he had expected to see them as friends now, not opponents. He was beginning to get a hunch that Crosby didn’t feel the same.
The NHL had been happy to pit Zhenya against Crosby once, back when Zhenya had just broken into the league. They butted heads during the season and on the international stage. Zhenya had honestly been pleased to see that particular media frenzy fade over the years.
It was funny to think that here they were again, two competing centers staring each other down across a face-off dot. As if nothing at all had changed.
But everything had changed.
Zhenya won the face-off back to Lovejoy, who chipped it up to Number 17 to start a breakout. It was still the early days of camp, plenty of kids who would get sent down to the minors still skating alongside the NHL club guys. Zhenya could feel bad for not remembering everyone’s name once the season started.
One thing that hadn’t changed was how annoying Crosby was in the corners. He kept boxing Zhenya in, holding him tight to the boards with his thick, heavy body like it was game seven of the Finals and not just another training camp scrimmage in just another season in the middle of his career. The guy didn’t take a fucking break. Zhenya shouldn’t have been so surprised.
“Move your fucking feet!” Crosby kept shouting. Zhenya’s breath was fogging up the glass. He kicked the puck from his skate to his stick and sniped it back to Kunitz waiting at the side of the net. Kunitz tapped it in behind Murray and Zhenya leaped to his feet, skating into the huddle of bodies, sweaty and overjoyed, his heart beating like a jackrabbit’s.
In the locker room afterward, the guys kept hassling him and clapping him on the back, a wall of the kind of raucous brotherly praise that Zhenya was intimately familiar with from a lifetime of team sports.
“Sick pass, Malk.” Dupuis came over and plopped down in the empty space next to Zhenya and looked aside when Zhenya grimaced. He’d been called Malk for years in Carolina, largely because he’d never thought of a suitable alternative. He didn’t love it. “You don’t like that, eh? We’ll get you a better one.” Dupuis was clearly quick to the draw. He turned to shout at some of the other guys farther down the bench. “Let’s think of a good nickname for the big guy, okay? Gimme your best work.”
Zhenya laughed as Dupuis patted him once more on the shoulder and left. That had been easy. Zhenya had been avoiding it. Trying to control your own nickname at a new rink was just inviting rotten luck.
The gear he was still wearing was starting to get clammy, and Zhenya pulled off everything methodically: his skates, his socks, his chest protector. He threw everything on the bench and inside his cubby, careful not to let it get too far out of the bounds of his own stall, lest he disturb the carefully curated ecosystem of Crosby’s empty one to his right.
Not that Crosby was ever in it while Zhenya was around. They seemed to have entirely different schedules, which served Zhenya just fine. Zhenya liked to spread out. His sticks, his socks, his long legs. He didn’t need Crosby glaring silently at him, too polite to yell at Zhenya while he tried to tie his skates.
Zhenya was usually the first one off the ice and the first to fuck off to the showers, but Dupuis had held him up with his yapping that day, and now Zhenya was barely half-undressed and Crosby was coming in hot, laughing with Fleury as he ambled across the room toward his stall.
Zhenya moved his tape bag from Crosby’s stall to the floor. He got up and started unbuckling the straps of his jock.
“You might wanna move,” Crosby said to him. Zhenya let his jock fall to his feet and turned to look at him sidelong and found Crosby just kind of looking at him, his hard gaze traveling the length of Zhenya’s body. Why did Zhenya have to move? If Crosby wanted his space, perhaps he should have asked them to assign Zhenya a different stall.
“Press guys are coming in soon,” Crosby kept on when Zhenya didn’t answer him or leave. “At least three of ‘em are gonna try to sit in your seat, so. I’m just letting you know.”
“Maybe they want talk to me too,” Zhenya said, mostly just to argue about it. He wasn’t going to talk to the beats until the first game of the season at least, if he had his way.
Crosby just shrugged, taking his helmet off and running a hand through his drenched hair. “Your funeral, bud,” he said. Crosby was flushed red and sweaty from his hairline to the collar of his jersey. Zhenya watched him rub a towel across his sweaty face for a minute before he realized what he was doing and looked away. It was bad enough that Crosby was being so irritating. Zhenya didn’t need to make it worse by going slack-jawed over him like he was still a twenty-one year old with an ill-advised crush.
Zhenya scrubbed his own towel over his face and his neck to wipe the thought away. Whoever had decided to saddle Zhenya with the rookie stall was gonna get it.
“You ready?” Kunitz asked him, plopping down next to Zhenya at his stall and patting his leg through his pants. “They’re gonna scream so loud for you out there, buddy.”
“Yeah,” Zhenya said, even though he wasn’t actually sure. Was he ready? He hadn’t felt this nervous in a long time, maybe not since his first year in the league. If he was still in Raleigh, he would be sharing nachos in the press box with Sema, giving some speech to the guys suiting up and feeling guilty that it was only half-comprehensible. He’d never enjoyed giving speeches. He had plenty to say, but he just wasn’t that kind of captain, no matter how much his coaches had tried to mold him over the years.
And as much as he missed some of the guys back in Raleigh, it felt kind of nice to just blend in here. He didn’t have to talk to the linesmen, he didn’t have to tell the rookies to believe in themselves. All he had to do was go out there and play for the sake of playing, which he probably hadn’t done since he was a teenager going through a painful growth spurt and spanking his brother at roller hockey in the empty lot behind their apartment.
A new kind of Zhenya Malkin could grow here. He liked the thought of that.
“They scream a lot when I score tonight, I hope,” Zhenya said, and smiled to himself, imagining it for a moment. Outside the locker room, he could hear the bench staff chattering, trainers walking in and out. Zhenya put his elbow pads on, his chest protector, his pants. He laced up his skates and wiggled his toes.
When they went out to the ice, it felt a little surreal. Zhenya had been there before, not just in that arena, but in hundreds of arenas. But it felt wholly new: the black and yellow gloves on his hands, the penguin skating determinedly across his chest, just like he had imagined once.
Zhenya stood there on the bench in between two kids he barely knew. He locked eyes with Kunitz over one of their helmets.
He looked up at the stands as the anthem was about to play: all of the people standing and cheering, their arms waving golden towels above their heads. The sound of it was deafening.
“Yeah that’s shit, my friend,” Tanger said. “What about E-man? It’s slick.” He turned to Zhenya and jabbed him in the arm with the butt end of a fork. “Whatcha think? E-man?”
Zhenya just raised an eyebrow. If that was the best they had, he might as well let them stick with Malk and get it over with. Maybe they could just learn to say Evgeni correctly. He’d never gotten the chance to teach the guys in Carolina, really, though Seryoga Samsonov had certainly tried. By the time Zhenya had learned enough English to start bossing people around, the whole thing was a lost cause.
Tanger and Rev went back to chittering between themselves. Someone’s hands dropped down on Zhenya’s shoulders and he startled, nearly choking on a piece of melon.
“What the fuck are you idiots going on about?”
Zhenya looked over his shoulder: it was Duper holding a bagel in one hand, his hairline still sweaty from his morning workout.
“These assholes bugging you?”
“What do you think, Duper?” Rev asked. He picked up an apple and an orange from the center of the island and started gesturing with them. “Ev? Or E-man? What you got?”
“Hmm,” Duper said, reaching forward and grabbing the apple from Rev’s open palm and taking a big showy bite. “Yeah, not loving it.”
Flower came into the kitchen with Crosby on his heels, talking his ear off about something or other. “Morning boys,” Flower said, nudging past Tanger to get to the stash of bagels and then making his way around the counter. “Duper, you smell disgusting.” He patted Zhenya’s head on the way past him. “Morning Eugene.”
It took Zhenya a minute to realize that Flower was even talking to him.
“Eugene?” Duper asked, mouth half full of his own bagel.
“Evgeni. Eugene. It’s the same fucking name,” Flower said. He slathered some cream cheese on his bagel and popped it in his mouth, patting Duper on the cheek like he was a particularly dumb child. “Open a real book sometime, my friend.”
Across the table, Tanger snorted so hard that Zhenya thought his coffee might come shooting out his nose. Zhenya buried his face in the neck of his shirt and chuckled, watching the lot of them fall all over themselves about it. Even Crosby was laughing a little, standing off to the side with a mug of warm coffee, snickering into the lip of it as steam curled in front of his face like a bystander who couldn’t help but overhear. But when Zhenya caught his eye for a moment, he frowned and looked away, turning to rinse his cup out in the sink.
“Looks like that’s it then, eh?” Duper said over Zhenya’s shoulder. He squeezed Zhenya’s arm and shook it like coaches sometimes did, brotherly, familiar. “Big Eugene.” It was kind of a ridiculous name, but Zhenya found that he didn’t mind. It was certainly better than being called ‘Malk Ball’ all the time, which Staaly had made happen years ago and Zhenya detested. If Zhenya never ate another malted milk ball again, it would be too soon.
Duper patted Zhenya on the shoulders once more. “Welcome to the team, my friend.”
Zhenya let the sounds of everyone’s pleasant ribbing wash over him and smiled into his next bite of egg.
Zhenya knew that, objectively, but he was going to wheedle himself out of it for as long as he could manage. The reporters in the locker room were held to a pretty short list of things they could say, most of it related to the current day’s practice or game, but if Zhenya had to sit down with one of them face to face in some conference room somewhere, he knew exactly how annoying it would get. There were only so many ways to say ‘yes, of course it’s weird being on a new team after so long’ and ‘no, I haven’t found my place yet, but I’m hopeful I will soon and everyone seems nice.’
Well, the last one was a little bit of a lie, what with Crosby being so weirdly frosty with him—cordial, but distant, like Zhenya was just some guy he wouldn’t have to see much or get to know. Each time Zhenya interacted with him it felt like he was holding two distinctly different Sid Crosbys in his hands, trying to mash them together into one cohesive person and failing every time.
Zhenya had spent dinner the night before shoving udon noodles into his mouth and combing his memory for anything he might have done in the past seven years to draw Crosby’s ire short of winning a fucking hockey game, which was what they were all there to do anyway. He’d come up short.
“Maybe next week,” Zhenya said. “It’s long summer for me, you know? I forget some English. Need little bit more time.” He was quickly realizing that Jen was a sucker for a good joke. She would roll her eyes at him and add another thing to his upcoming calendar, but Zhenya could tell deep down that he was softening her up.
Jen typed some notes down with one hand. “Sure,” she said, tossing the tablet back into her bag. “While you’re at it, you’re up for a postgame session the day after tomorrow. Don’t run off.”
Zhenya opened his mouth to protest, and then shut it again when he saw Jen’s raised brow and steely-eyed gaze, lest he turn immediately to ash. He tried to smile at her winningly, and was sure it looked ridiculously comic.
“Great,” she said, clearly pleased with herself. “Can’t wait.” And then she clacked off down the hall, the sound of her shoes audible over the noisy hum of the vending machines.
Zhenya was still a little unfamiliar with the layout of the place: which hallways led to which rink, where the restrooms were, which door was a skate room and not a garbage compactor. While he was making his way to the training room, he doubled back a few times and eventually followed a recognizable mural down a long corridor, stopping when he heard familiar voices.
“Maybe Evgeni,” Johnston was saying, in that inoffensive monotone of his. “He’s really showing himself quite nicely, I think. Not that he needed to prove himself, but I’ve really been impressed.”
As a child, Zhenya’s mother always told him not to snoop around so much, or he would end up like nosy Barbara. But he could risk the threat of his nose being torn off just this once. He was a grown man and his mother was none the wiser.
Another voice piped up. It was Crosby. He made some weird noise of consideration, hemming and hawing. “He’s good,” Crosby said after a moment. Zhenya had to resist the urge to preen. Crosby thought he was good. Of course he was. “I can tell why he scores all those goals. Great offensive instincts.”
Perhaps the reason that Crosby had been so businesslike with Zhenya was that he didn’t want him to get a big head. No one needed some hotshot to come in and try to run over established team chemistry. He thought Zhenya was a great player, but it was a team, and he wanted to make sure Zhenya didn’t get special treatment just because he knew how to shoot the puck.
It seemed sensible. Except then Crosby said. “I’m just not sure if he’s what we want as a leader, right now. We need a glue guy, someone who the guys can rally around.” Crosby paused for a moment, and Zhenya’s whole body hurt, his breakfast curdling inside his stomach. “It’s just my take, but I think I’d go with Letang over Malkin. Or maybe Hornqvist.”
Zhenya didn’t hear anything after that. His ears were ringing. Why had he even listened? This was why his mother had always warned him. It would have been better not to know, not to wonder what it was about him that was so—lacking.
He went and ran on the treadmill for a while, pressing the elevation button over and over until his legs burned. He hated running. His knee had been fucked up for a few years and nothing reminded him more of his own mortality than feeling it twinge every time he pushed himself too hard. But fuck it if anything else was going to make him less sad or less angry right now. Less confused.
He wasn’t even sure why he was so annoyed about it. It wasn’t as if he had been subtle about his reluctance to be in the harsh glow of the spotlight over the years. He’d gone on at length about it in the Russian press. Enough of that had surely been translated into English. People knew. Zhenya had been made captain because he was the best at hockey. Nothing else.
And yet he felt cut through by the implication that he wasn’t ‘leader material,’ not good enough to stand at Crosby’s side. Perhaps he had misunderstood Crosby’s words and intentions, but it seemed naive to let himself believe that. He wasn’t a child anymore who saw the best in people and looked the other way.
Of course it was just his luck that Crosby chose that moment to come into the training room, posting up not right next to Zhenya, but just close enough to be aggravating. When Zhenya went to grab some water, it was Crosby lingering behind him in line, warm and sweaty, making Zhenya’s blood boil.
“Sorry about that,” Crosby said when his hip brushed Zhenya’s as they slotted past each other.
Zhenya didn’t even look at him again, or wipe down his machine, or grab his towel. He just left.
“We’d like to ask you to be a part of our leadership group, Evgeni,” Johnston said. There were too many people watching him in the room: Johnston, Tocchet, Agnew, Rutherford. Even one of the team reporting staff was there, smiling with bright white teeth and jotting something down on a tablet.
“I know you’re probably used to wearing the ‘C’,” Johnston continued. “But rest assured that this isn’t any lesser. We know you’re a great player in this league. And a great leader. And we’d like you to bring that here, to our team. There’s no hierarchy here. Our guys work together.”
Zhenya wasn’t sure at all of what to say. He longed for the days of his youth, when he had been able to sit quietly in these kinds of meetings and mumble at Seryoga what he wanted said. Had Crosby changed his mind? Or perhaps the coaches had done what they wanted regardless. It seemed ill-advised to go against their captain’s opinion on who would be made his alternate.
“You’ll be joining Kunitz as an alternate if you accept, and of course Sidney,” Agnew said. “I think you all will make a fine example for the rest of the group.”
Zhenya still felt uneasy, though it was clear to him that being an alternate in Pittsburgh would be nothing like being captain in Carolina. The spotlight in Pittsburgh was bright, but it was Crosby who stood directly in its glare.
Still, Zhenya couldn’t stop thinking about Crosby’s overheard words. Did Zhenya really want to put himself directly in Crosby’s line of criticism? No machine stayed well-oiled if you just dumped some rusty parts in it and hoped for the best.
Maybe it made him weak, but he didn’t really feel up to the task of being Crosby’s alternate and dealing with his sour gaze. After years of hauling a team around on his shoulders, and every painful thing that came with it, he just didn’t want to. He could make himself just another cog, just another helmet in the sea of helmets on this team.
Tocchet held the jersey out like he was waiting for Zhenya to take it. Zhenya’s stomach felt like one big knot. “I—sorry I can’t,” Zhenya said. “I’m not here more than few weeks, you know? Someone else is better choice.”
“Listen, Evgeni,” Johnston said. He had those sad, parental eyes trained on Zhenya, like he was Zhenya’s father trying to help him understand his own worth. Well, Zhenya wasn’t going to budge on this. Not this time. “I understand that it might be odd to be in a new place, but we all really respect you here. You make us better. We want your position to reflect that.”
Zhenya couldn’t think of what else to say except, “Sorry.” He tried to smile at them, a small tight smile that said he appreciated the gesture. And he really did. But it would only make things more complicated. “It’s too soon.”
“Well,” Johnston said after a moment. Tocchet folded the jersey back up and set it on the desk. The team reporter had stopped her typing. It was clear that it wasn’t about to go on the record, not now. “It’ll be here for you when you’re ready, Evgeni.” He stood and Zhenya followed suit. They all shook Zhenya’s sweaty hand and let him go.
The team opened their season on the road in Dallas a day later, where it was still ungodly amounts of hot all the way into October. Zhenya made sure to sit directly under an air vent on the bus to the arena, letting the icy stream blow his hairstyle out of place.
Flower ruffled it on their way inside, coming up behind Zhenya’s left shoulder and giving him a brotherly scrub. “Looking real chic, Eugene,” he said, and then ran ahead to catch up with Murray, who Flower seemed to be taking under his long, gangly wing.
The mood inside the locker room was the same as it had been for every one of Zhenya’s opening games. Guys were excited for the new season, pumped to get back on the ice. Zhenya’s mother had sent him an email before the game like she did every season: good luck this year, zhenechka. score lots of goals for me. i know you will.
Zhenya pulled on his jersey, patting it down with his hands, absent of any letters or designations. It would be easier that way. He pulled his pads on, and laced his skates and sat there in his stall for a while, picking at the stitching on his pants, because he didn’t yet have routines here the same way he always had. Sema wasn’t just to his right, ready to put him in a headlock. Tlusty wasn’t there to chirp him about his choice in shoes.
He went out into the hall to get some water and when he came back, Duper was lingering by the door in his crisp grey suit, out of the lineup for the time being with some lingering injury that Zhenya didn’t know much about.
“That penguin is looking good on ya,” Duper said, bumping Zhenya’s chest with his fist. Zhenya had to admit: it did.
All through Johnston’s pre-game rally speech, Zhenya glanced around the room, surprised that even after his rejection, no one had been handed the A in his place. Johnston had essentially said as much, but perhaps he had thought those were just empty platitudes. He flushed, all of these complicated feelings welling up inside of him. Perhaps the Hurricanes hadn’t needed him anymore, but the Penguins did. They wanted him here. Only time would tell if Zhenya still wanted to be here—and stay here—in return.
He stayed absorbed in his thoughts until it was time to go out to the ice, lingering at the back of the pack because he liked to walk out last. He was so inwardly distracted that when he started ambling forward, he bumped chest-first into Crosby standing awkwardly by the door.
“Oh, uh—” Zhenya said. “Sorry. Wasn’t looking.” He tried to laugh a little, awkward and kind of empty, but Crosby didn’t laugh back or look amused. They just kind of stood there, both of them sizing the other up, waiting for the other to do something. Zhenya wasn’t entirely sure what the holdup was, and he gestured with his glove to get Crosby to go through the door and down the tunnel. Everyone was waiting for them. “You first. It’s okay,” he said, but Crosby didn’t budge. Did he need to talk to Zhenya about something? Zhenya wasn’t sure what was so important that it couldn’t wait and felt freshly irritated. He didn’t want to really look at Crosby at that moment, let alone stand there and talk.
“You go,” Crosby said. He stepped to the side like he was going to graciously let Zhenya step through. “No worries.”
Quickly, the problem here was becoming apparent: Crosby wanted to go out last, just as Zhenya did. Zhenya didn’t think he had too many superstitions, but he had been the last one to touch the ice since the dawn of his professional career in Magnitogorsk. He wasn’t about to stop now and risk the repercussions.
“I’m always go out last,” Zhenya tried to explain. Crosby had already withheld one thing from him. “Ever since I play in Russia it’s like—it’s routine for me.”
Crosby didn’t seem impressed. “Same here.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Captain’s privilege, so.” He gestured like Zhenya was just going to let that be the end of things and tuck his tail between his legs like a rookie with stars in his eyes. Perhaps he might’ve, if Crosby hadn’t been such a pain in his ass these past few weeks.
“Hmm.” Zhenya tried to think about what might convince him, really picking through his brain. “I’m older, you know. Play longer than you.”
“Not in North America you haven’t,” Crosby said, clearly standing his ground. He had this sparkle in his eye like he liked the whole thing, the verbal pissing match they had going on. He was smirking. Zhenya really hated to admit that it looked good on him.
“Maybe we flip to see who win,” Zhenya said, because they needed to leave this room at some point and get to the bench. He wasn’t going to back down on his own merit, but if he had to, he could let the hand of fate decide. “Heads for me, tails for you.”
“How do I know you won’t just rig it?” Crosby asked, eyebrow raised, because apparently he was a petulant schoolboy who thought Zhenya had a rigged coin just conveniently hanging out in his gear bag. Classic.
Zhenya tossed his hands up, exasperated. “You pick then. I don’t care. Let’s go!”
Crosby waddled over to his stall and sifted through his supplies until he found a quarter, and he brought it back to Zhenya with his glove tucked into his armpit and his hand outstretched. “It’s just a regular quarter,” he said, flipping it over from one hand to the other. “We good?”
“Yes, good,” Zhenya said, voice terse. He just wanted to hustle up. They didn’t need Johnston coming to find them playing playground games like they were schoolkids. “I’m heads.”
“Fine,” Crosby said. He looked Zhenya in the eye and tossed the coin. Zhenya followed its path up toward the low ceiling of the locker room and back down into Crosby’s square, sweaty palm. Crosby plopped it onto the back of his hand. It was tails.
Zhenya groaned and rubbed a hand across his face. Really? The hockey gods had it out for him. But the truth was that Zhenya was far too culturally religious to argue with fate. He would just have to suck it up, and maybe they could revisit this in a few months’ time, if Crosby ever stopped being a dick.
“Excellent,” Crosby crowed, tossing the coin onto the bench beside him where it landed in someone’s extra pads. He smiled a big, stupid smile that gave Zhenya a personal view of his gums and his fake front teeth. Zhenya grimaced, and made sure to grimace even deeper when Crosby patted him cheerily on the chest with his narrowed eyes, right in the same spot that Duper had: over Zhenya’s beating heart.
“Fair is fair, eh? See you out there, bud,” Crosby said, standing aside again, grin still plastered across his face, smugly, snidely pleased to see Zhenya walk through.
“Sid seems in a good mood today,” Horny remarked, sitting between Zhenya and Rev on the bench at practice one morning.
Rev just snorted, smacking his stick on the boards. “Guess he got laid, eh.”
Zhenya thought it was probably just because they’d actually won their past three games, after annoyingly dropping the first three. They’d won in overtime the night before, knocking the Panthers down off of Zhenya’s own stick. Zhenya had gotten the warrior helmet and had shoved it theatrically on his head. Even Crosby, sitting in his stall next to Zhenya and stinking of sour sweat, had clapped.
After line rushes were over, Zhenya was usually the first one to exit. But Crosby was still going, stuck in a corner talking Murray’s ear off about something, leaning on the end of his stick. He looked happy, smiling easily at Murray as he spoke. Zhenya saw his chance.
As he skated over, Crosby lined up and took a few shots from a bizarre angle, minutely changing the angle of his stick each time. After a failed third attempt to score, Zhenya watched him rub his gloved hand over his face, scrubbing at it in frustration.
“Maybe you don’t choke up so much on stick,” Zhenya said. Crosby looked at him, curious, his mouthguard sticking halfway out his mouth. “Turn shoulder more next time. Like this.” Zhenya mimed the action with his own stick, swinging through the motion. When Crosby didn’t say anything, Zhenya swerved closer and put a hand on Crosby’s stick, just under where his glove was resting. “Here, let me—”
Crosby yanked his stick away, his good mood evaporating into the icy rink air. “I didn’t ask for help, you know.”
Zhenya berated himself internally. Touching Crosby’s stick had probably been stupid. Zhenya and Sema had swapped sticks a lot back in Carolina, but Zhenya sometimes forgot that most people didn’t like it much. Clearly, Crosby was one of them. “Sorry,” Zhenya said, sliding back a little so he wasn’t so neatly tucked into Crosby’s orbit. “I use my own stick, no problem.” He bent down to grab a puck and lined it up in front of him. “Murray! Ready?” he asked, and positioned himself and took a whack. It missed.
“Yeah,” Crosby commented, standing there with a hand stuck on his hip. “I think I can figure it out myself.” He collected a few pucks in his glove and skated to the opposite side of the net to set them back up, tapping Zhenya dismissively on the pads on his way.
Zhenya just kind of stood there for a minute, grumpy and freshly disheartened, until the sound of the bench door slamming broke him out of his fog.
Zhenya holed himself up in the shower for a long while after that, bullying Bennett into giving him the stall with the locking door. He turned the water to scalding and just let it pelt him, burning his skin until it felt vaguely bruised.
It had been disappointing at first to realize that the Sid Crosby he had once imagined in his head was far away from the one he now knew. In his head, Crosby had been kind, like people told Zhenya he was. He was driven and sweet. Even the polite and professional version of Crosby that Zhenya had crossed paths with over the years seemed different. But Zhenya had felt up to the challenge. Getting Crosby to know him and like him seemed like a game he could try to win. But winning it felt pretty hopeless at this point. It was clear that Crosby didn’t see Zhenya as an equal, as someone worth getting to know.
Zhenya turned the shower off and dressed and drove home, zipping down 79 to downtown. He kept looking out the window at the rolling hills, the warehouses and yellow-green trees dotting the skyline: the place that he had wondered if he could grow to call his home. But maybe it wasn’t meant to be—just a blip to be passed over, a small paragraph in the story of his life.
The big yellow bridges passed him by as he crossed the rivers. He turned off onto Sixth Street and sighed. Perhaps the great Pittsburgh experiment would just be that: a great big experimental mistake.
But he didn’t want it to be.
Zhenya had walked from the hotel with Kuni because it was nice out and he needed the air. When they got there, the table was mostly full. The closest open seat was the one to Crosby’s right. Crosby had one muscular arm thrown over the back of it, laughing at something stupid that Perron was saying to him, his laughter loud and raucous over the general hum of restaurant noise. Zhenya frowned and skirted around to the other end of the table, sliding in next to Plotnikov, who was kind of quiet and always looking at Zhenya like he was intimidated. Zhenya didn’t really care to get to know him, but it was better than the alternative of sitting too near to Crosby and drawing his ire.
Plotnikov asked Zhenya a lot of questions while they ate, which Zhenya mostly nodded at, giving him short, lazy answers in Russian while he stared down the table at Crosby smiling into his drink. Zhenya wondered what it was about those guys that Crosby liked so much. What they had that Zhenya didn’t. He really hated that, even after everything, he couldn’t stop looking.
“What do you think of Nashville?” Plotnikov asked him. Zhenya took another bite of his sandwich and a healthy number of pickles spilled out the side and onto his lap. He dumped some water on it and dabbed at it with a napkin to clean up the spill. “Think we’ve got them in the bag?”
“Nashville sucks,” Zhenya said.
But as it turned out, Nashville wasn’t such a weak and tepid foe. They’d clearly signed a few more bruisers over the summer, and they liked to hit hard, running guys into the end boards. Zhenya was going to have a pretty nasty bruise on his ribs from Ekholm’s rough elbows when he took his pads off later.
They took the Penguins all the way to overtime. Zhenya was dead tired, sitting on the bench between Duper and Bennett and catching his breath. Johnston was diagramming a play with Crosby’s help. Zhenya watched over Bennett’s shoulder, the lines imprinting like abstract art onto his brain. Crosby loved to yap about plays endlessly during the game, but overtime wasn’t about drawing up the perfect play, in Zhenya’s opinion. It was about creativity—kicking your opponent’s ass on all that open ice.
Crosby took the opening face-off as usual. Zhenya stood there on the bench, ready to change places when the coach called. He hopped over the boards with Kuni barreling down the wing. They played tic-tac-toe for a while, passing it around Neal and Arvidsson until Zhenya found himself hovering near the net at an odd angle.
Kuni shouted at him as he sauced Zhenya the puck. Rev was lingering near the blue line. Zhenya looked at Rinne square in the net and thought back to that one morning on the ice with Crosby, slapping puck after puck into the net. His shoulder dropped, he slid his glove further down the shaft of his stick, and when the puck hit his tape he released it and scored.
The buzzer blared, deafening in Zhenya’s ears. He raised his arms up and screamed and before long he was ambushed by the whole team, the lot of them climbing over the boards in black and yellow, tossing Zhenya into the boards.
Nothing felt better.
“That’s right, Eugene!” Horny shouted over the sound of helmet taps and the rush of the crowd leaving their seats. Through the mess of his teammates, Zhenya caught eyes with Crosby, staring at him from the huddle’s far edge. His gaze looked curious. Zhenya held it for a moment, and then let his eyes slide away.
Their flight back to Pittsburgh was directly after the game, and Zhenya showered quickly and only half put on his plane clothes, feeling clammy under the smooth fabric. As they shuffled out to the bus, Zhenya hung around near the back of the line, one earbud in, letting the excited babbling of the young guys pass him by.
As he went to board, someone tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around and it was Crosby, standing behind him with his hands shoved in his pockets, his damp hair and his dark eyes hidden under the brim of his hat. “Nice goal,” he said, just kind of letting the words linger there in the air between them.
“Uh, thanks,” Zhenya said, scratching at the back of his neck where it was still red from the shower’s scalding spray. He climbed the steps and Crosby followed. Zhenya wondered whether it was all some elaborate prank. Crosby was so fucking weird and confusing. Zhenya scored one—admittedly very nice—goal and suddenly Sid decided he was worth the time? But when Zhenya hoisted his backpack into the bin and sat down, Crosby only slid by him, dropping down into the shadow of his own seat.
In Pittsburgh, Halloween was at a bar on the south side of the river, on the third floor of a building with huge industrial beams and floor to ceiling windows looking down at the bustling street below. Zhenya had taken a cab from his apartment, and when he got out he saw Kuni and his wife hovering near the building’s side entrance, his wife decked out in a wild, white wig.
“Kuni!” Zhenya called, waving to him from the street.
Kuni gave him a once-over. Zhenya was dressed as a cop, and half of his costume had regrettably been pilfered from his usual closet. The accessories and the handcuffs had been delivered discreetly to his doorman the week before.
“You here to arrest me, Eugene?” Kuni asked. His wife was laughing, and she stuck her hand out when Zhenya approached.
“Maureen,” she said. “Nice to meet you. I’ve certainly heard way too much about you.”
She was funny. Zhenya liked it. “Evgeni,” he said, smiling.
Zhenya followed them up the stairs to the rooftop bar, where most of their teammates were already mingling. All of the lights hanging from the ceiling were glowing a dusty orange. Zhenya ordered a tequila sunrise from the tall bartender with the nice mouth and let himself be hugged and introduced to a bevy of team wives, smiling at them over and over. By the time he was through, he felt like he couldn’t even remember how to pronounce his own name.
“You bring someone?” Plotnikov asked him, after introducing Zhenya to his wife Masha, who didn’t know much English and didn’t seem too comfortable surrounded by a sea of people she could hardly talk to. Zhenya sympathized.
“Nah,” Zhenya said. The truth was, he never really brought people to these events. He hadn’t even slept with a woman in probably five years, and the last thing he wanted to do was open a can of worms by consistently bringing a boyfriend to team events and calling him ‘my good friend,’ as if anyone would actually believe it. Zhenya was already looked down upon in the NHL because he’d had the misfortune of being born in the wrong country. He didn’t need to add fuel to that fire. “I don’t date in North America.”
“Russian women are much better,” Plotnikov said. He wandered off after a while and left Zhenya lingering by the bar, futzing with the clasp on his handcuffs and contemplating life the way only drunk people could. He finished one drink and ordered another, and because his luck was apparently garbage, Crosby was standing there when Zhenya looked up, his huge forearms resting on the shiny countertop, rearranging the condiments and playing idly with a plastic straw.
“Nice, uh—costume,” Zhenya said, gesturing to the realistic-looking fireman’s helmet on Crosby’s head. “It’s real?”
“Um, yeah,” Crosby replied. He shrugged one shoulder. “Borrowed it from a buddy.”
“Look good,” Zhenya said without thinking, and then bit his tongue before he said anything truly incriminating. It was bad enough that Crosby disliked him for no reason at all. Zhenya certainly wasn’t going to give him a reason.
Crosby grabbed his drink from the bartender, some foamy amber beer that probably tasted like shit. “Well, thanks,” he said to Zhenya, and then left a few soggy bills on the counter and fucked off.
Zhenya felt like he spent the rest of the night looking at Crosby, which was annoying. So what if Crosby was attractive? He was also kind of a dick. Zhenya didn’t want to think about how Crosby’s t-shirt stretched across his biceps or how the suspenders holding up his breakaway pants were snug across his back. But Zhenya was drunk, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to tear his eyes away as Crosby mingled with everyone’s wives and took big foamy gulps of his beer that left his lips shiny when he talked.
Zhenya clearly had awful taste in men. He tried to put it out of his mind by doing some mingling of his own. At one point, he let himself get pulled into a particularly upbeat dance break with Hornqvist to Time Warp and nearly fell over trying to do a complicated spin.
After a while, Zhenya got tired, and wandered downstairs and out to the back patio for some air, leaning against the warped wooden railing and listening to the sounds of neighborhood revelers sifting through.
He was judging a passing car’s choice of radio station when he heard the screen door open and close behind him. He looked back and was surprised to see Crosby coming through, his helmet off and his suspenders half undone. He had another full beer sloshing back and forth in his hand.
“Oh,” Crosby said, looking a little bewildered that he had found anyone else lingering out here. “Sorry. Did you—”
“I can—” Zhenya started to say, motioning like he might leave. Spending time with Crosby out here alone was just asking for trouble. Zhenya couldn’t escape him anywhere, good god. Surely he had been outside long enough. There was plenty more party to enjoy.
Crosby shrugged, his motions looser than Zhenya was used to seeing them, no doubt a product of the drink. “It’s fine,” he said, and came over and leaned on the railing, not that close to Zhenya, but not that far. Was it fine? For a few minutes they just stood there mirroring each other, both of them staring into the dusky Pittsburgh night.
Some rowdy kids spilled out of a bar’s back entrance across the way, shouting and laughing. “Sounds like someone is having a good time,” Crosby commented.
“Yeah,” Zhenya said. He looked down at his hands and his feet in his steel-toe boots. He wasn’t really sure what else to say, or if he should say anything at all. It felt like every time he tried to start a conversation, Crosby left or got pissy with him. Maybe if they just stood here in silence for a while, Zhenya could pretend that things were different between them.
“So,” Crosby said into the din.
Zhenya’s stupid mouth was clearly faster than his brain, because he said, “Why you don’t like me so much? Did I—I know we like, rivals, yes. Okay. But people change teams. New guys is just team. Rivalry is past, you know? Don’t need to—”
“Oh, jeez,” Crosby said, scrubbing a hand over his face. He blew out a long breath. “Listen—I. I don’t dislike you, okay.”
Zhenya snorted. That sounded like the biggest fib he’d heard all year. “Pigs fly,” he said under his breath, a stupid North American idiom he’d picked up years ago from a teammate and still didn’t fully understand. “You always say like five words to me. I see you with other guy, okay—you smile, laugh. I think, oh, maybe he just need to get to know better. But it’s been like—more than month! And still you don’t talk, don’t laugh. What I’m do?”
Crosby’s ill behavior towards him had left him sad and disappointed, but the more he talked about it, the more he realized that what he was feeling under that sadness was anger, lying in wait to rise freshly to the top.
“It’s just—” Crosby started to say. He looked for a moment like he was trying to find a way out of this conversation, but then he set his beer on the ground and turned his body toward Zhenya a little. “This has been a really long year for me. I don’t know. We lost to the Rangers in May and I—I didn’t think Staalsy was gonna get fucking traded, okay? It’s been hard to adjust.”
“So you mad because I’m not Staal.” Zhenya could sense that he wasn’t getting the whole story and felt—a little irritated about it. If Crosby was going to pretend like nothing was going on, the least he owed Zhenya was some semblance of the truth. They all had ‘long years,’ friends got traded all the time. But he was too drunk to really express his feelings on the matter, so he played along. “You good friends?”
“We were pretty good friends, I guess, yeah,” Crosby said. He kept picking at the wood on the railing. If he kept it up for too long, Zhenya was pretty certain he was going to end up with a splinter, which probably he deserved. “He was here for a long time, you know? It’s a big change. I fucking hate change, man.”
Zhenya leaned his back against the railing, looking up at the building, the lights from the rooftop sparkling like small stars. He closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose, imagining that he might expel all of his anger in one big breath. “Big change for me too,” he said, kind of surprised that he had admitted it aloud. “Maybe like, most big change I have since I move from Russia. Crazy.”
Crosby was silent for a moment. Zhenya studied his profile, the strong shape of his nose and his damp curls highlighted by a strip of moonlight. He looked more vulnerable, younger than Zhenya was used to, and it felt like a shock to Zhenya’s system.
“Why’d you do it?” Crosby asked, his voice soft.
Zhenya’s brow knotted, confused. “Let them trade me?”
“Yeah,” Crosby said. “I read that you had a no-trade. So, clearly it wasn’t a—surprise.”
“Last few year in Carolina I know we not doing so good,” Zhenya said. “Team doesn’t have money. And they ask me if I give up my no-trade and I think—I don’t know. I say I go, okay, if they let me go to Pittsburgh.”
“What?” Crosby asked. He looked at Zhenya puzzled, his eyes a little off-kilter from drinking. “Pittsburgh? Why the fuck did you want to come here?”
Zhenya considered his words. How could he explain? Did he even want to? His tongue felt heavy in his mouth with the weight of the past ten years of maybes. Would Crosby even care or try to understand him? Zhenya hated that some part of him still wanted to give Crosby the benefit of the doubt.
“I think,” he said. “Maybe it’s sign, you know? When I’m draft, everyone tells me I go number two, probably. After Ovechkin. But I go to Carolina and it’s like—why Pittsburgh, Chicago not want me? Maybe I’m not ready. But I always think, like, what if? I could play, with like—Mario. I could play you.”
“Wow,” Crosby said, scratching his neck. His eyebrows had practically merged with his hairline. “That, uh—” Zhenya’s body felt jittery all over, his eyes twitching as they tracked Crosby’s movements. “That sure would’ve been something.” He bent to pick up his discarded drink, cupping it in his hands like they were eager for something to hold.
Zhenya tentatively continued. “I’m like Carolina, you know? Team is good to me. I have home. I have friends. But maybe it’s time.” It was complicated and difficult, but there had been something calming about being asked to greenlight a trade, in a way. Like his body had needed the chance for a new start. “Everyone tells me like, Pittsburgh is such great place, you know? Good hockey. They tell me you so nice, you help guys out, make friends. And I think, it’s not sound so bad, maybe.” Crosby was looking at him. Zhenya gave him a small, tentative smile, feeling a small glow of hope inside his body to know that Crosby hadn’t just walked back inside the moment he saw Zhenya standing there.
“You came here—because of me,” Crosby said, more as a statement than a question, sounding out the words like he was trying to see whether he liked the taste of them.
Zhenya just shrugged. He took his hat off his head and crumpled it in his hands. “Maybe,” he said, and caught Crosby’s gaze, trying to gauge his reaction, see inside him even just an inch. “Don’t you ever wonder what it’s like? Play with someone else?”
“I don’t know,” Crosby said. “Not really? I haven’t ever thought about it much.” From the deep line of contemplation between his brows, at least that much seemed true.
“I do,” Zhenya admitted. “I mean, I already tell you I think, but. I think about lots, you know?” He looked from Crosby’s face to the broken boards under his feet. He smashed an unlit cigarette with his toe. “And maybe with you, I have like—little bit crush.”
As soon as he said it, the air around them went quiet. Zhenya listened to the sounds of some animal digging through the trash, mentally kicking himself for his drunken idiocy. Crosby said nothing beside him. Zhenya didn’t even hear him breathe.
How could he escape? “I’m get cold, so—” Zhenya said. He absolutely needed to leave right now, call a cab, and bury his face in his apartment couch until next year. Maybe Crosby would forget by then. “See you.”
“Wait, uh—” Crosby said, as Zhenya put his hat back on and made for the door. “Thanks.”
Zhenya glanced back at him for some reason or another, maybe because he was too dumb to know better. Or too drunk to care. So he had outed himself to his teammate. His teammate who most of the time seemed to hate his guts. Great. Awesome. He couldn’t wait for the small ounce of goodwill that Crosby had been extending to him that evening to shrivel up and fall away. “Huh?” he asked when Crosby’s words registered with him, not sure he had heard correctly.
“I said thanks,” Crosby repeated. He was rubbing one of his fingers over and over across the rim of his beer, his face downturned like the surface of it was terribly interesting. “I don’t uh—I don’t really get involved with teammates, but. Thanks.”
It was perhaps the most awkward encounter that Zhenya had had with him by far, including the ones where Crosby had made Zhenya feel about three feet tall. Zhenya had absolutely no clue what to even say, so he quickly spit out a, “See you Monday. Say goodbye to the guys for me,” and stumbled back through the ground floor and out onto the street, finding the number someone had given him for taxi services and calling for a cab.
What had Zhenya been thinking? Clearly he hadn’t been. He remembered being angry—at himself, at Crosby. Crosby had clearly been keeping something from him, but instead of prodding at it, Zhenya started running his big fat mouth. Confessing things, his innermost thoughts. But what he really couldn’t get out of his head was what Crosby had said to him as Zhenya had left: ‘I don’t get involved with teammates.’ Like that was an option, like it was something that he had at one time considered.
Zhenya was still wearing his costume pants. He shucked them off and took a shower and thought about Crosby’s words all through breakfast, and coffee, and a grueling morning run in his building’s gym. He was still stewing on it multiple days later when the team boarded the plane for Washington DC and Crosby sat down next to Zhenya for some inexplicable reason, just dropping his ass down in the seat on top of Zhenya’s open book.
“You smash my book,” Zhenya said, irritated. He looked behind him and in front of him. No one was sitting in Crosby’s usual seat next to Fleury. There was no reason for him to have changed his routine. Zhenya felt on edge. “What you want?”
“Whoa,” Crosby said, throwing his hands up in mock surrender. “I was just—we got off on the wrong foot, okay?”
Zhenya raised one pointed eyebrow at him. He hoped it conveyed the appropriate response of ‘no shit.’
“Anyway I—” Crosby cleared his throat. Zhenya noticed absently that his shirt collar was askew. He had a few stress pimples on the curve of his jaw. “I’m Sid, nice to meet you.” He stuck his hand out like a complete fucking nerd. Zhenya couldn’t help but draw parallels to the day that he had met Crosby—or Sid, rather—on the ice at UPMC. A petty part of Zhenya wanted to leave him hanging.
Sid just kept looking at him, his hand stuck out stiffly, determined to make it happen. Too long looking at his eyes and Zhenya crumpled like a cheap suit jacket. He put his hand in Sid’s hand. It was warm. He had a soft grip, not the rough and firm one that Zhenya had expected.
“Evgeni,” Zhenya said. All of it was kind of hilarious, but it seemed to satisfy whatever end Sid had wanted to meet. He got up as quickly as he had sat down and picked Zhenya’s book up and dusted it off performatively, smoothing the cover.
“What book is this?” Sid asked, flipping it back and forth, like if he looked at it long enough he would somehow become adept at reading Cyrillic.
“It’s classic,” Zhenya said. That was a bold-faced lie. The book was some cheap romantic thriller he’d picked up the summer before in a thrift shop on Pyatnitskaya Street and taken the dust jacket off of. He didn’t care much for the classics, but it always sounded more studious if he pretended to. “Russian book. You don’t like.”
“Yeah, fair,” Sid said. After lingering for a moment longer for whatever reason, he handed the book back and decamped to his own seat. It took a lot of Zhenya’s willpower not to turn and watch him go.
Tanger, standing in the seat across the way, slung his bag under Zhenya’s feet and slid into his chair. “What the fuck was that about?” he asked, like Zhenya had any earthly idea.
“Nothing,” Zhenya said. He had no idea how to explain. It didn’t matter anyhow. Tanger was clearly good friends with Sid. He didn’t need to hear any of Zhenya’s griping. “Crosby’s weird.”
“You just realized?” Tanger asked, laughing and smacking Zhenya on the shoulder as he situated himself. He reached across the table and patted Zhenya consolingly on the shoulder. “Join the club, my friend.”
Zhenya gave him a half-assed smile and shoved his window shade up, peering out at the tarmac and the people bustling around, the great big expanse of grass and concrete that blended into the distant hills. This was where he could call home for now, for better or for worse.
Tanger kicked him under the table. “C’mon, stop daydreaming,” he said, holding a deck of cards in one hand and waggling it around. “I have a game of Hearts to win.”
What he liked less was being forced to go to the Sportsnet headquarters and do press. He and Sid got shoved into the back of a car with Jen at their heels and shuttled to the other side of town after morning skate one day. Zhenya had barely had time to dry his hair.
“You have, uh—” Sid said, starting to reach a hand up like he was going to pull at something on Zhenya’s head before he set the hand back in his lap. “You look like you just woke up.”
Zhenya shrugged. There was no fixing it.
He wanted to say that Sid looked even worse, his hair still half-wet and gelled within an inch of its life, but he didn’t. Sid needed a haircut, and some curls were escaping from the gel at the base of his skull, but Zhenya didn’t want to insult them so much as he wanted to reach over and tuck a finger into one.
Instead, he looked out the window and grumpily kept his hands to himself.
All afternoon they got shuttled around the offices—TV spots, puff pieces, the works—while the rest of the team surely got to dick around as they pleased. By their last interview—a joint effort with Friedman that Zhenya hoped wouldn’t bee too long—Zhenya was so tired that his bones hurt. What he wouldn’t give sometimes to be a fourth-line schlub.
Even Sid looked worse for wear, his crisp dress shirt wrinkled in weird places and his eyes drooping.
“I don’t do interview for rest of year, maybe,” Zhenya complained.
“Good luck with that,” Sid replied, patting Zhenya on the tender crook of his elbow and giving him an honest-to-god smile. Zhenya just kind of stood there for a moment, frozen, until Sid looked back at him, smile still half-spread across his face. “You starting that strike tonight or something?”
Thankfully, most of the questions Friedman asked them were pretty much softballs. Until they got to the last few.
“How does it feel to know that now you have two superstar captains on your team? Are we going to see a lot of duking it out for that 1C spot this year? Some friendly competition?” Friedman asked.
Zhenya wasn’t sure how to answer, and was glad when Sid stepped up to reply.
“Well, I mean. It’s obvious that Malkin is a great player. We’re a better team now, having someone like that on our side of the ice. You obviously want the best team you can have down the middle, and this is certainly something that helps with that,” Sid said. He kept glancing over at Zhenya while he was speaking, just little flashes like he was trying to gauge Zhenya’s reaction. Which seemed weird, but pretty much everything Sid did seemed weird in one way or another.
Zhenya cleared his throat. Friedman clearly wanted something from him on this topic. “Crosby is good player for me,” Zhenya said slowly. He fiddled with the rubber bracelet he was wearing, swirling his finger inside the rim of it. “Good I don’t have to try to win faceoff against him now when he’s always cheat so much. Hard to win.” He smiled a tepid media smile, hopeful that a little bit of humor would be enough. They could drop it and move on.
But Friedman didn’t stop or move on. “Well, what about getting a place in the leadership group, Evgeni? You’ve been a captain in Carolina for a long time—do you think you can bring that to Pittsburgh? Maybe offer your own unique perspective?” he asked. Zhenya hadn’t ever really hated him, but he did in this moment, feeling irrationally angry and fussed up. In his head all he could hear was Sid telling Johnston ‘maybe he’s not what we need in a leader right now,’ see himself sitting across from Johnston, how long Tocchet had held that lettered jersey in his outstretched hand.
Getting into a fight on camera was awful and gauche. He didn’t know how to say anything at all without starting one, and after a long, horrendously awkward silence he just managed a weak laugh. “Maybe,” he said, shrugging one shoulder robotically like he was feeling no kind of way at all about it. “I settle in first though, you know? I’m not come in and take over just like that. Have to earn respect of team.”
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Sid wince just a little. Hopefully he felt bad and guilty about it, because Zhenya certainly did. He was getting sick of knowing this unspoken secret.
They finished with an easy question that Zhenya didn’t even answer and didn’t pretend to hear. They shook hands. When they went out to the lobby they walked together in silence and Jen was waiting there near one of the giant potted plants to dismiss them.
Zhenya took his phone out, scrolling through a few missed texts from Sasha. Sid was still inexplicably standing there when Zhenya was done and he looked over and asked Zhenya, “You wanna grab some dinner?”
Zhenya laughed. It came out a little mean. He wasn’t sorry. “So you talk to me now?” he asked, feeling absolutely no shame for being petty. Sid’s behavior had him all riled up in far too many directions. He deserved to taste a little bit of his own medicine.
“Listen,” Sid said, fidgeting under Zhenya’s gaze. “I usually take new guys out to lunch before the season starts. And obviously I uh—didn’t do that, so. I owe you.”
Zhenya’s stomach growled. “Okay,” he said skeptically, even though he wanted to go back to his room and sleep like the dead. He leveled Sid a narrow-eyed stare. He could tell that his words back there had shaken Sid up in some way, and he couldn’t tell how. Would it be better or worse if Zhenya just gave him the silent treatment? He didn’t know. But he didn’t really want to have to stew in this anger by himself any longer. Sid could stew with him. Let them fight about it. “Fine. I let you buy me dinner.”
They went to some New Canadian place around the corner. The hostess seemed to recognize Sid, and smiled and waved at him from her post, ushering them both to a table tucked in the back. It was clear that Sid was trying, but he still seemed like such a mystery, just a cloudy figure obscuring the person Zhenya had once assumed he would be. Zhenya hoped that the real Sid was worth puzzling out, because some stupid part of him still seemed determined to try.
The waitress came with their waters. “So, how have you been liking it in Pittsburgh so far?” Sid asked, just as Zhenya looked down at his menu and said, “What’s good here?”
“You ask me how I like here?” Zhenya asked, one eyebrow raised like Sid had asked him if he liked going to the dentist. What a stupid thing to ask. “I don’t know, Sid, maybe it’s nice if captain isn’t such a jerk.”
Sid gaped at him, seemingly shocked that Zhenya had gone straight for his throat. “Well, okay,” he said, clearly unsure of how to respond. Zhenya could wait. The table they were sitting at was pretty well out of earshot of the rest of the diners; if they needed to clear the air, they had plenty of time.
They sat in awkward silence until the waitress came to take their orders. Zhenya got very intimately acquainted with the pattern on his napkin holder. He flipped the menu over and over again until his eyes blurred and ended up just ordering a burger, extra mayo, extra pickles. Sid got something that Zhenya didn’t know how to pronounce.
“You want anything to drink?” Sid asked as he handed their menus over.
“What you have?” Zhenya asked, mostly on instinct, and then—remembering the last time they’d been drunk together—thought better of it. “Actually—no, water is fine.”
Once the waitress was gone, Sid sat back and crossed his arms over his chest like he wanted Zhenya to speak first. Zhenya wasn’t going to. He waited in silence until Sid’s resolve cracked. “I thought we,” he said. “I apologized the other day, you know.”
“That’s not apology,” Zhenya said. ‘We got off on the wrong foot’ was just stating the obvious. Zhenya rubbed at his temples. “Listen, Sid—I hear you few weeks ago, okay? Talking to coach. I shouldn’t listen, but I hear anyway.”
“Okay,” Sid said tentatively. Zhenya could tell by Sid’s expression that he had realized what Zhenya was getting at. His neutral expression faded quickly into a guilty frown.
“I hear you talk to him about who is captains, who is alternates,” Zhenya said, swallowing around the growing lump in his throat.
“I—” Sid started to say and then shut his mouth again when Zhenya interrupted.
“No—you listen,” Zhenya said. He didn’t need Sid to just explain this away, brush the dust of it under the furniture and move on. Zhenya couldn’t pretend. “They ask me anyway, you know. Coaches give me jersey, they want me to be alternate. And I think about what you said and I wonder, like—maybe I do it. But I can’t. I already fight with you, and I don’t want it to be more hard all year, so many fights. Not good.”
“You—” Sid said, scrunching his eyes closed. “Shit, I—fuck.”
As if out of nowhere, the waitress returned with their meals and smiled at them. Zhenya could see a tense line in the shape of Sid’s smile and he thanked her and—when she left—took a long, deep drink.
Zhenya watched Sid’s chest rise and fall. Around them, the restaurant bustled with noise, diners speaking, the sound of the kitchen in the distance, the soft ambient music. When Sid finally spoke, he set his fork down and placed one of his hands on the table. “You know how I said it’s been a hard year for me?” he said, as if Zhenya had forgotten. “Well—I was. Maybe I was taking it out on you, okay. I’m. I’m sorry. It was shitty.”
“You right,” Zhenya agreed, crossing his arms. His food was growing cold on his plate, but he didn’t know if he was even hungry anymore. “It’s shitty. When I’m captain? I don’t do.”
Sid groaned in frustration, tugging at his hair with his free hand. “See? That’s why!” he said, his voice a terse whisper. “You’re pretty intimidating, you know.”
“I’m not intimidate you, Sid,” Zhenya said, tripping over the word. “I don’t try. I come here and I want to be like—friends, okay? Like—good coworker. I don’t come here Pittsburgh to fight you, cause problems.”
“Jesus,” Sid said under his breath. He turned his gaze to Zhenya and Zhenya squirmed in his seat. Even angry, he didn’t feel immune to the force of Sid’s eyes on him like that. “I’ll make it right, okay? I’ll—whatever you heard me say—it’s not what I think, okay? I’ll tell the coaches I’ve changed my mind. I’ll petition for you.”
“Don’t need you fight my battles for me, Sid,” Zhenya said. He appreciated Sid’s seemingly genuine remorse, but Zhenya wasn’t a child. “I’m one who says no when they ask, not you.”
“You said no because of me,” Sid said. He moved his hand across the table like he might cover Zhenya’s own with it and then seemingly thought better of it. “C’mon, man. I feel like a real sack of shit right now, okay? I fucked this up. Let me fix it.”
“Maybe you should feel,” Zhenya said sourly. He didn’t like to give in. Maybe his anger was melting away. Maybe he did think Sid was serious. But he wouldn’t let himself get burned.
Silence enveloped them, both of them looking aside. Zhenya studied the wallpaper intensely. When he looked over at Sid, Sid was rubbing his finger around the rim of his beer like he had that night at the bar. Clearly it was a nervous tick.
Zhenya’s stomach grumbled noisily and their silence turned into huffs of soft laughter. “Maybe we should eat,” Sid said, gesturing between them. “Before we sit here all the way through closing.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. He felt like the fight inside of him had evaporated into the air with his laugh. He needed time to think.
They ate in silence for a few minutes, clearly both unsure how to pick up the pieces of the conversation when they were forcibly stuck together in this public place. Usually after an argument, Zhenya would just shut down and leave.
“You, uh—you live downtown, right?” Sid asked benignly. Zhenya paused mid-bite, kind of surprised that Sid knew even that much about him. Clearly he had been paying Zhenya more mind than he had thought. “You get a chance to explore the city yet?”
“Not so much,” Zhenya admitted. He’d found a favorite coffee shop, which was only determined by its convenient location on his direct route to the arena. He knew how to order sushi delivery. “Busy. Hockey.”
“Yeah, true,” Sid said. His expression said that he could relate. Summer was the time for exploring. Zhenya hadn’t truly gotten a hang of even his own neighborhood in Raleigh until he was a few years into his career.
“Maybe I could—” Sid started to say. He was picking at his straw again, futzing with it the same way he had been at the bar on Halloween. “I have a few places I really like. Maybe I could—show you sometime.”
Zhenya’s stomach did a traitorous flip, wondering if Sid would bring up what Zhenya had said the other day about his crush. If he would ask some awkward and polite question about it like he was asking Zhenya to describe the weather. Zhenya really hoped not, because it was pretty embarrassing.
But he didn’t bring it up. Maybe it was a sign that Zhenya should just forget about it. Zhenya worked very hard to focus on his burger, which didn’t have nearly as many pickles on it as he would have preferred, as Sid asked him question after largely inane question about his life, poking and prodding at Zhenya’s surface like he was dipping his toes in the surf. He spoke with his mouth full, which Zhenya found mildly abhorrent in a man.
“How’re you getting along with Johnston?” Sid asked him after the waitress had cleared their plates, still holding an uneaten french fry in his hand and gesturing with it. “He’s pretty different from Muller, I’d wager.”
“He’s okay,” Zhenya said. Johnston was so mild-mannered sometimes that it was hard to be offended by him. “Not sure we agree about hockey—like—he talks so much defense, you know? But soon I convince him offense is better.”
“Oh yeah? Well he uh, seems to like you,” Sid said and snorted. “You have fun with that.”
After they ate, Zhenya still wasn’t sure if he had given himself enough time. He knew what he wanted to say. But he felt foolish for changing his mind.
“You wanna head anywhere else, or?” Sid asked as he signed the bill, clearly just being polite.
“Pretty tired. Think I’m head back,” Zhenya said, yawning over-dramatically into his hand and moving to stand. It was only nine, but he felt older and more decrepit every year. Hockey was exhausting; he needed the sleep. “Thanks for dinner.” He tried to smile, but the foundation of their fledgling attempt at bridge building felt shaky and tenuous, and he couldn’t quite manage it. His smile probably looked more like a grimace.
“For sure,” Sid said, and rose from his seat in turn, gathering his jacket and holding it in his arms. “Think I’m gonna hit the hay too, if you don’t mind?”
Zhenya wondered if Sid was trying to feel out Zhenya’s desire to walk back alone. But what did it matter, really. Zhenya couldn’t run from this.
“I let you talk to Johnston,” Zhenya said as they stepped out the front door and onto the sidewalk. “You want me take A? Okay, I take. But we can’t start over, you know—just pretend it’s not happen.”
Sid looked at him and then back down at the ground. “Yeah,” he said to his shoes. “For sure. I get that.”
“Maybe we friends,” Zhenya said. He looked over to Sid for some reaction. He could feel his heart beating just as fast as it had that night in South Side when he had spilled his guts. “But I don’t promise.”
“Yeah?” Sid asked. He laughed softly. Zhenya liked the sound of it, and thought to himself that he could grow to enjoy hearing it more often. Sid kicked a few pebbles and they went skittering into a wall. “I think I’m up for the challenge.”
Zhenya smiled to himself and let Sid lead them the few blocks to their hotel, listening to the sounds of the passing cars and his shuffling feet. Sid stayed quiet all the way to the elevator, hands stuffed into his pants pockets. He only spoke again when the elevator stopped on his floor and the doors opened with a telltale ding.
“Goodnight,” Sid said, taking one hand out and wagging it in Zhenya’s direction.
Zhenya watched him as the doors slid closed and he disappeared from view. “G’night.”
Zhenya approached cautiously, like Sid would crumble into ash if Zhenya touched him or said the wrong thing.
“Bus leaves soon,” Zhenya said, reaching up into his stall to grab his hat and his phone. “You—okay?”
Sid looked up at him, eyes kind of glassy and far away. His face was still red from exertion. “Yeah,” he said. It didn’t sound very convincing. “I’ll catch up, don’t worry.”
Zhenya was of half a mind to insist he stay and—what? Sit here and babysit Sid while he stewed in whatever feelings he was having? Zhenya wasn’t sure where they stood after the other night. And anyway, they weren’t really friends.
“See you,” Zhenya said, grabbing his backpack and heading out to the bus.
He and Sid didn’t say much to each other for the rest of the trip that didn’t involve in-game play. Sid seemed surly and subdued, even by his usual standards. Zhenya resolved not to touch it. He had done his share of chasing. Sid wanted the challenge? Sid could come to him.
By the time the team got together for a charity event the following week, Duper was back in the lineup and the crooked, easy smile was back on Sid’s face. Zhenya watched him standing at the front of their huddle, talking to the Salvation Army organizer with big, animated hand gestures. The jeans he was wearing looked practically painted on. Every time he raised his arms a little, his jersey rode up and showed off his ass.
Zhenya got paired with a particularly picky kindergartener named Malia. He was supposed to help her pick out winter gear, but mostly he spent a lot of time being dragged around by her small hand.
“I need turquoise gloves,” she told him. Zhenya didn’t even know how to say turquoise, let alone what it was. While they sifted through glove after glove, Sid and the little boy he was assigned to wandered over, hands already full of gear. Sid was bent down and talking to the kid in a soft, calm voice, laughing with his head thrown back when the kid told him a joke.
When Sid caught his eye, Zhenya was pretty desperate and tried to communicate a message of ‘help.’ He was decent with kids, but they were on glove number ten and still nothing had worked.
“You like this one?” Zhenya asked. Malia considered it for a moment and then tugged it off, planting it back in Zhenya’s hand.
“Not really,” she said. Zhenya was crouched down near the ground and she sat down next to him and started sifting through the racks herself. “You’re not very good at this.”
Never let it be said that kids didn’t speak their mind.
Sid came over while they were stuck in indecision. “Need some help here?” he asked, bending down to their level, looking to Zhenya to make sure it was okay.
Zhenya nodded. Malia looked over at Sid, her hair ties bobbling as she turned. “Yes please,” she said.
“Who’re you?” Sid’s little boy asked, his voice loud and kind of abrupt in Zhenya’s ear. Zhenya snorted. He could see why this kid was funny.
“That’s Evgeni Malkin,” Sid explained. He gave his kid a little wink and a nudge like they were sharing a secret, which was lethally cute. “He’s a pretty good hockey player, but don’t tell him I said that.”
Over Malia’s head, Zhenya caught Sid’s eye again and smiled.
Once the kids had been shuttled out to their charter bus and the photo ops were over, most of the team was just lingering in the lobby and glad-handing with the staff. Zhenya was standing a ways back, letting people come to him if they wanted. At some point, Sid meandered back his way by force of human current. Zhenya nudged him with a tentative elbow.
“Pretty good hockey player?” Zhenya prodded, letting his lips slide into a slow smirk. He couldn’t deny that the words had made him feel a puff of pleasant pride. He knew he was good, and he didn’t need anyone to remind him, but sometime it felt nice to be reminded anyway.
“Yeah,” Sid said. He scratched at his neck and looked down at his shoes like they were interesting instead of just the same black pair he wore every day. “Well, you are good, you know.”
“Yeah?” Zhenya asked, really just being kind of a tool now. He could see from Sid’s pinked cheeks that he wasn’t just buttering Zhenya up. Whatever issues still lingered between them, Sid clearly didn’t think Zhenya was totally useless. “I think you think I’m like—schlub, you know? Just some guy, not as good as Sidney Crosby,” he said, really dragging out the words.
Sid laughed, then, and the unflattering snort vibrated its way through Zhenya’s body. “Yeah, I uh—” he said after he’d stopped falling all over himself. “Yeah, I don’t think you need to worry about that, bud.” He patted Zhenya’s arm and let his fingers linger a little near the crook of Zhenya’s elbow.
Jen came over to grab Sid for something or other and Zhenya just stood there against the railing watching him with an inquisitive eye, the same way he’d been watching him since that night on the back porch in South Side. He knew that it was stupid and futile, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. Was that the way a man who was interested in other men walked? Was that the way they spoke with you, or buttoned their shirts or did their hair?
Zhenya could admit that it had been harder than he wanted to let go of the lingering vestiges of his old crush. It had been easy to forget about when Sid was just some asshole massively underperforming Zhenya’s high expectations. But Zhenya felt sliced through by this new Sid, each day a little more like the Sid he had thought existed in his head. The way that Sid had shut him down drove Zhenya mad. He felt like he was analyzing Sid the same way he had looked at his teammates on Metallurg’s junior team as a gangly, awkward teen and wondered.
What did it mean when Ilyusha touched Zhenya on the back, his huge hands like dinner plates on Zhenya’s spine? What did it mean when Sid looked at him—dark eyes on Zhenya through the crowd of bodies like Zhenya was a puzzle he wanted to unlock?
But Ilyusha’s touches had faded away. And Sid had said it plainly: he didn’t mess around with teammates.
Zhenya needed to stop getting any ideas, honestly. It didn’t matter who Sid was interested in, because he’d made it clear that that group didn’t and wouldn’t include Zhenya. And anyway, Zhenya knew the rules. You didn’t just shit and eat in the same room.
So it could mean nothing.
“You want to see me?” Zhenya asked, fiddling with the back of the empty chair.
“Sit down, sit down,” Johnston said. Zhenya sat tentatively. It felt like being called into the teacher’s office, like he had done something wrong. But he knew what it was about.
“I had an interesting conversation with Sidney this morning,” Johnston continued. “He wanted to personally advocate for your assignment to the leadership team here. I know you didn’t feel you were ready, Evgeni, but we really do feel that you are.”
“I—” Zhenya said. His cheeks were hot. He felt probably a thousand things, but none of them felt like they would come out in English if he tried to voice them.
“We’d love it if you’d suit up in this for the game against Minnesota tomorrow,” Johnston said.
Zhenya had known this was coming since that night in Toronto, but he still felt bowled over by it. The jersey they’d shown him in October was sitting there folded next to Johnston’s arm, the A white and shiny, sitting crisply on top. Zhenya reached out a hand to touch it.
Zhenya could see Sid watching him from the corner of his eye with a soft, sincere smile. It was the kind of smile that Zhenya had always seen Sid sporting at events early in their careers, the kind of teen-magazine smile that had jumpstarted Zhenya’s blooming crush. “Looks pretty good, eh?” Sid asked.
“It does,” Zhenya said and cleared his throat. “It does look nice.”
Zhenya skated out the next night with the same crisp, white A on his chest. Johnston let him line up for the opening face-off. He stood there shifting from skate to skate and said a prayer and looked up at the flag as the anthem played.
When they won, they swarmed Fleury at the goal, and—just like they did every game—they filed off the ice one by one, skating past Sid’s lingering form by the bench door.
When it was Zhenya’s turn, Sid turned that same soft smile on him. And instead of punching Zhenya’s raised fist, Sid tapped him right on his bright, white ‘A.’
Zhenya nodded. He was half-dressed and pretty much ready to go. And he felt awash with adrenaline. The Avs weren’t the best, but Zhenya always got up for a good matchup. It had been especially thrilling to show that kid MacKinnon that they hadn’t been surpassed by his generation of stars.
Sid seemed similarly revved up. He had been gabbing at his stall with Tanger for a good twenty minutes before he even took off a single skate. His face was split in a lazy, self-satisfied grin. Zhenya knew that Sid and MacKinnon were friendly, and it was clear that Sid had enjoyed the rout. MacKinnon had been held to no points. Sid and Zhenya, on the other hand, had both scored.
“I’ll catch up with you guys later, okay?” Sid told Bones. He was in his suit pants and tapping away at his phone. His hair was still wet from the shower. Zhenya tracked the path of a water droplet sliding down the bare plane of his chest.
“Dinner with your boyfriend, Croz?” Horny asked, grinning. “MacKinnon is a little young, no?”
“Ha. Ha,” Sid replied. He pocketed his phone and flicked Horny off. Zhenya looked aside as he stood up to tug on his shirt.
All the way to the bar, Zhenya kept thinking about it. Sid didn’t sleep with teammates, but maybe he was sleeping with MacKinnon. Part of it seemed farfetched. MacKinnon was basically a child, totally unbaked. Zhenya didn’t even think he was very cute.
The bar they went to wasn’t really Zhenya’s speed. He liked to dance, or at least he liked the vague anonymity of a dance floor and flashing strobes. The place they ended up in had cozy leatherette booth seats and a lot of worn steel. The beer menu was at least four pages too long. Zhenya had no idea what half of the things on it even were and would probably end up ordering a Heineken and calling it a day.
“You idiots wanna look at the draft list?” Bones asked the table at large. Grumbling ensued. Someone called him snooty. Most of them ordered Bud Light. Hockey players had notoriously bad taste. Honestly, Zhenya preferred wine.
All told, it was actually kind of fun to sit there and shoot the shit, knowing that once the night was through he could walk back to his apartment with ease. He planted himself in the corner next to the coat pile and smiled and laughed and made more and more jokes as the night went on and he felt more at ease. Rev wanted to congratulate him on his ‘A,’ and then Horny did too, and Duper, and Flower. Zhenya drank more shots in quick succession than he had drunk in a solid month.
“Have to piss,” he announced to the table at large, hoisting himself from the booth. “Move, move.” His legs felt like liquid as he strode to the back of the bar, pushing past sweaty bodies, his feet sliding across the concrete.
The bathroom was blessedly empty. He took a leak and shook himself off, but when he went to pull his zipper back up, it got all bungled and wouldn’t budge. “Fuck,” he cursed to himself Russian. “Listen you bastard, I—”
The door slammed open as he was fighting with it, the raucous sounds of the bar beyond rushing into the small room, echoing off the tile. Zhenya rushed to cover himself, hiking the waist of his pants up and hoping the zipper looked somewhat closed.
“G?” slurred whoever it was that had walked in, clearly someone Zhenya knew. He relaxed his posture and glanced from the wall to the door, where Sid was lingering.
“I thought you at dinner?” Zhenya asked.
“Yeah, I was,” Sid said. He came over undeterred and unzipped himself and pulled himself out and started to piss, merely one single urinal separating them. Zhenya absolutely was not going to look at his dick. “Said I’d come over after, though, didn’t I?”
He lobbed Zhenya a lopsided smile, which was absolutely not a thing you did to other guys in the bathroom unless you wanted to get punched. Well, clearly Sid knew that he wasn’t getting punched.
“You have nice time?” Zhenya asked, eyebrow raised. Sid seemed more than a little drunk, his cheeks flushed an easy shade of red, his hairline sweaty.
“Yeah.” Sid moved to wash his hands at the sink. “Always nice to see Nate.” Zhenya hadn’t moved, nose stuck facing the tiled wall. Sid furrowed his brow at Zhenya through the mirror. “You okay?”
“Yes,” Zhenya choked out. Could he leave the bathroom without Sid noticing? Probably not. Sid had eagle eyes; nothing was too far out of range. “No.” Sid’s glassy gaze trailed down over Zhenya’s neck and chest, all the way down to his hand shoved conspicuously in front of his crotch. “Stuck,” Zhenya said.
“You,” Sid started to say, his hand twitching where it was wrapped around the faucet handle. “You want some help?”
Zhenya wanted some help over his dead body. Just imagining Sid’s hands that close to his dick made him hot and itchy in so many uncomfortable ways.
“I can just leave you in here,” Sid suggested, smiling like he knew he was being funny. “I heard the floor is pretty comfy.”
Zhenya gave up. “Fine,” he said, turning slowly around. Sid stepped into his space and Zhenya pulled his own hands behind his back so he wouldn’t try to touch.
“Lemme just,” Sid said, crouching down in front of Zhenya, his knees splayed wide. Zhenya slammed his eyes shut, and tentatively reopened them only when Sid started talking to him again. “This is cool, right?” Sid’s fingers hovered inches from Zhenya’s fly, his face upturned to check Zhenya’s reaction. He looked so sweet like that, with his big eyes and his shiny mouth hanging open. If things were different, Zhenya would—
“Sure,” Zhenya croaked, trying to sound nonchalant even though he absolutely wasn’t at all. Sid pulled at one side of Zhenya’s fly, unbuttoned the top button. Zhenya could feel the shadow of Sid’s fingers brushing against his briefs as he tugged at Zhenya’s zipper, jiggling it around until it broke free.
The sound of a quick zip ricocheted off the walls. “Jesus, you had that thing bunched up in there,” Sid said, scrunching his nose up and climbing to his feet, wiping his hands off on the thighs of his pants.
Zhenya let out a long, slow breath. “Thanks,” he said, scratching nervously at the back of one hand. “Save my uh—ass.” When he looked over, Sid’s face was flushed red, his nose still scrunched on one side.
“Yeah, for sure,” Sid said, still standing dangerously close, swaying in and out of Zhenya’s personal space. “No problem.” Why wouldn’t he move? Zhenya could hear voices behind the closed door and he didn’t want to have to push Sid out of the way, but he was about to.
“Sid,” Zhenya said in warning. Sid’s eyes roamed all over. One of his hands was braced against the cool tile of the sinks.
Sid reached over and touched Zhenya’s hip, and Zhenya froze. “Hey,” Sid said slowly, his voice like warm syrup. He just kept looking. There was no mistaking what that kind of look meant. No wondering.
The voices beyond the door had grown louder. Zhenya tensed, pulling back and shoving his hands under the sink.
“Shit,” Sid muttered as someone walked in. He tugged some paper towels out of the holder and pretended to dry his palms. “Um.”
Zhenya didn’t look up to watch him leave, his pulse still plummeting back to earth. He was so—confused, and drunk. He looked at himself in the mirror to try to see if some part of him looked different, if he had changed—but the face that looked back was his own. He was only a man.
Zhenya had been so good. He’d kept his glances to an absolute minimum. And Sid had just—for a moment, Zhenya wished to go back to September, when he thought that Sid was just some straight guy who was disappointing his expectations. It hadn’t been pleasant, but maybe it had been easier.
He left the bathroom with his hands still dripping, meandering past patrons until he reached the gaggle of teammates still lingering. Horny greeted his arrival with a loud shout. When Zhenya looked around, Sid was nowhere to be seen.
Tanger leaned over Horny’s shoulder and asked, “Did you see Sid? I thought he just got here,” with an artfully furrowed brow.
“He’s not feeling good,” Zhenya lied. Though maybe it was a little bit of the truth.
Zhenya had sour flashes of the way they had begun their season. No matter what he had thought in his desperation last night, he didn’t want to go back to that.
Something weird was going on with the power play. Johnston seemed to think they were shooting too much from risky angles. Zhenya heartily disagreed, but resolved to keep his mouth shut for now. But then they dropped a game to San Jose at home and scored exactly one goal out of five chances on the man advantage: their only goal of the night. In the locker room afterward, Zhenya could see the general smear of frustration on everyone’s faces. As he sulked to the shower, he could hear some of the beat guys asking Sid: “What do you think the solve is—when things are going so stale?”
The next time Zhenya arrived early enough to the rink to eat breakfast before skate, he ended up cornered in the lounge by Horny. “Just the man I wanted to see, Gene,” he said, clapping Zhenya on the back and guiding him over to the couch where Tanger and Sid and some of the other guys were huddled around the coffee table talking shop.
“Maybe we should switch it up,” Tanger suggested. “I’ll do Horny’s garbage collecting in front of the net, set someone else up at the point. Give us some fresh vibes.”
“Oh, you think it’s easy?” Horny laughed, his loud friendly guffaw that never failed to get Zhenya out of a bad mood. “My job takes precision, boys.”
“Maybe I play goalie,” Zhenya joked, miming the butterfly from his seat. “I let in soft ones. You score every time.”
Everyone laughed, their voices drowning out the sound of the microwave humming and the morning news. Across from Zhenya, Sid looked less amused.
“Can you guys take this seriously?” he asked, rubbing at his temples. “Like, maybe even a little bit? We’re gonna have to run this shit at practice today and I really am not in the mood to get my ass chewed.”
Tanger let out a long low whistle. “Someone take a dump in your oatmeal this morning, my friend?” He laid a friendly hand on Sid’s shoulder, but Sid shrugged it off, grabbing his bowl and standing. He looked at each of them with mild disdain, and Zhenya could feel his eyes lingering.
“I’m the only one who is taking the shit for this, okay?” Sid said, waving the bowl around with his hand. “Just me.”
Zhenya kept his eyes on his sneakers as Sid left. He had certainly been at the other end of Sid’s anger before, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen him this riled at anyone who wasn’t wearing a sweater for the opposing team. He hoped that whatever was going on between them hadn’t contributed, but honestly, Zhenya had no clue. Sid was as see-through as a brick wall. Zhenya had a sick feeling in his stomach. Suddenly, he wasn’t feeling very hungry.
“I’m go stretch,” he said, excusing himself and wandering off down the hall in the vague direction of the training rooms. He wasn’t really planning to do any stretches, but when he walked past the gym, the door was cracked open and he could see Sid lying on one of the benches, pressing up a pretty aggressive amount of weight.
Sid probably wanted to be left alone. Zhenya certainly would. Whenever things got too intense he loved to fuck off somewhere and sulk. Other people could talk to him at their own risk. But for some reason, his idiot brain kicked into high gear and he pushed the door open and opened his big mouth. “You need a spot?” he asked, tentatively approaching where Sid was breathing heavy on the bench with the weight re-racked.
Sid looked up at him, his face tomato red from exertion and his brow furrowed. He didn’t look particularly happy to see Zhenya there, and Zhenya thought he might get a nice “fuck off” for his trouble, but instead, Sid wiped the sweat off his face with a corner of his shirt and plopped back down. “Yeah, sure. Can you load some tens on there for me?”
Zhenya loaded the bar and positioned himself, helping Sid hoist the weight off and then keeping his arms at the ready in case Sid’s ascent started to falter. It was strangely therapeutic: the in and out of Sid’s labored breaths, the up and down of the bar. Zhenya watched the tension in Sid’s face dissolve until he was a liquid pile on the bench.
“Thanks,” he said, opening one eye to peer up at Zhenya, who was still just kind of hovering over him with nowhere to go. “That was—I needed that.” Sid hoisted himself off the bench, slinking over to the water station and filling a cup.
“You pretty mad,” Zhenya said, like it needed to be stated at all.
“Yeah? No shit.” Sid crumpled the cup and tossed it at the trash, laughing. The sound of his laugh was empty.
“You want talk about it?” Zhenya prodded.
“With you?” Sid asked. He picked up a dingy yellow towel and scrubbed it across his face and then under his sweat drenched t-shirt. Zhenya’s eyes trailed over his body, feeling terribly foolish. How stupid had he been to think that he was someone Sid would confide in? Whether Sid wanted to fuck him or be friends with him was still up for debate, but what did it matter if Sid didn’t trust him?
Sid clearly saw Zhenya’s pinched expression, because he grimaced and dropped his hands to his sides. “Sorry,” Sid said. “That came out wrong.”
“I think it come out exactly how you mean,” Zhenya said.
Sid crossed his arms over his chest. Zhenya found that he was so irritated that he didn’t even notice the way the stance highlighted Sid’s swollen biceps. “And how’s that?” Sid asked. God, Sid was hot-headed. Someone needed to give this man a good rimming and a vacation so he would slow the fuck down for a second.
But Zhenya knew hot-headed. He’d tried some to tamp down on it over the years, but he could still fire himself up without fail. “How you think?” he asked. “You apologize, fine. But you don’t trust me. You think I don’t know how it’s like to be captain, Sid? It’s not easy.”
“Raleigh isn’t exactly Pittsburgh,” Sid sniped, the words acrid in his mouth. Like Raleigh was some dirty word. “You don’t understand, okay? I’m under a lot of pressure.”
Zhenya walked over to him, not shy about using the full head he had on Sid to his advantage. “You think it’s not pressure for me? There’s reason I leave Hurricanes, okay? Pressure. It’s too much! Just me all the time!” His hands twitched and he scratched one angrily through the back of his hair, mussing it out of control. “Just because it’s small market doesn’t mean be captain is less hard, Sid. It’s hard. You think no one asks me in Raleigh what it’s like not win Stanley Cup? They ask. Every year. Just like you.”
“Yeah,” Sid said. He looked aside, staring into the wall like it might bring him escape. It was clear that this had struck a painful nerve. “Don’t fucking remind me.”
They stood in silence for a moment, Sid just looking at him, panting a little. Zhenya looked back at him, really looked. He had always seen Sid’s bravado as stubborn overconfidence, but it had become increasingly obvious that Sid had let himself become deeply uncertain. Zhenya knew how pressure could beat down on you, year over year, article over article. He’d run away from it. Sid was still kicking at it like a door that wouldn’t budge.
Zhenya sat down on the nearest plyo box. “You know,” he said. “I never really want to be captain so much. I think it’s like—it’s next logical step for me. I’m superstar—why should I say no?” He laughed darkly, remembering being so young. When they’d made him captain, he had felt like he was on top of the world—the Hurricanes would become his, they would win the Cup every year without fail. Naive. “But it’s not like I think. I kind of hate it, you know? I’m not teacher. Hard to make friends with team when I’m not know English so well.”
“I—” Sid looked kind of bewildered by Zhenya’s admission. He stared at Zhenya for a moment and then tugged another box over and sat down on it, legs folded under himself like a pretzel. “Weren’t you captain for like—five years? You hated it?”
Zhenya shrugged. “What I say? Oh, maybe you kick me out, just change captain to someone else. Stupid. I can’t do.”
“Fair,” Sid said. He took his hat off and scratched through his hair, scrunching his nose up, which Zhenya thought made his face look kind of sweet. “I like it. It’s hard, but—I like it a lot. I don’t know if half of those guys even want to listen to me, but—I like wearing the C, you know? I like that it’s my team.”
“Sidney Crosby’s Penguins,” Zhenya said. Sid clearly needed some puffing up about this.
“Yeah,” Sid said. He laughed, but didn’t smile. “For now at least.”
“You think they replace you?” Even the idea of it seemed kind of ridiculous. Sid was the Pittsburgh Penguins. Zhenya had rarely heard them spoken of apart. “Sid, c’mon—”
“What? It’s not impossible!” Sid kept fidgeting in his seat, unfolding his legs, picking at the chipped paint on its surface. “I hear some of the guys talk when they think I’m not around. I’m not stupid.” He lobbed Zhenya with a heavy glare. “I feel like every summer the same article comes out: Crosby’s Reign Over? Maybe The Penguins Need A Big Shakeup.” He laughed bitterly. “And then you come along. Shakeup granted.”
Zhenya laughed a bit without thinking, because it was pretty laughable. “Sorry,” he said, biting down roughly on his cheek. “I didn’t—not funny. But Sid, you can’t believe that. You know how many times they say I’m not deserve to be captain? Stupid Russian, not real leadership. If I listen to them, you know, like—maybe I just go back after one or two year, don’t even play in NHL now.” Zhenya looked at Sid’s downturned face and dragged his seat over until it was touching Sid’s. He still didn’t feel totally certain of the length of his rope here, but he knew one thing. “I think you’re good captain, Sid.”
“Yeah?” Sid asked. His expression looked brighter when he lifted his face. His face that was unbearably close. Zhenya could see the mottled color of his irises and the blemish on his nose. “Even though I’ve been kind of a dick?”
“Even though you huge dick,” Zhenya said, leaning into Sid’s space to bump their shoulders together. Zhenya could see the uncertain boy lurking underneath the mirage of the man. He knew those sinking feelings of frustration and self-doubt.
Neither of them moved apart. Zhenya could feel the hot wash of Sid’s breath fanning out between them. It felt like they were stuck in the bar bathroom all over again, except now they were both stone-cold sober. There was no excuse for it, and Zhenya couldn’t stop and didn’t want to.
Sid’s leg was touching Zhenya’s all along one side. Zhenya could feel it, every inch of his sweaty skin there as Sid leaned in and put his mouth on Zhenya’s, his terrible November mustache tickling Zhenya’s upper lip.
Zhenya sank into it for a moment, feeling his body overflowing with sensations: his hands shaking, his blood pumping, the scratch of Sid’s skin, the slide of his tongue.
Behind them, someone knocked on the door frame, the sound of it like a snapping rubber band, startling them apart. It was Alexi, sipping from a protein shake and waving a wary hand. “Everything cool in here? I’m about to start some of the guys on some laps in like—five?”
“It’s fine,” Sid said too quickly, wiping his mouth and scratching at his neck, just as Zhenya croaked out, “Yeah, cool.” Zhenya hoped that Alexi hadn’t been standing there for long. The last thing he needed was to get caught cozying up with his captain and get ratted out to management about it.
Alexi came in and started fiddling with the stereo system while Sid gathered up his shit: his towel, another cup of water, his phone.
A few of the young guys filtered into the room. Sid went out the side door and Zhenya followed, shuffling down the hall to the locker room in a shell-shocked haze. Zhenya knew that there was so much left unsaid—the ‘why do you keep’ and ‘what are you thinking’ of it all—but the words felt like they died every time they reached the tip of his tongue.
Zhenya tried. “Sid, can we--” he said. He tried to convey it with his eyes. He kept fumbling. “Back there, when we--”
“Listen,” Sid said to him after a long silence that felt like a thousand years. This was it, Zhenya thought. But he just nudged Zhenya with an elbow in the soft spot below his ribs. “It, uh, means a lot to me. That you have my back. I haven’t always had that.”
“Yeah,” Zhenya said. He shuffled his feet a bit longer, listening to the squeaking sound of rubber hitting the glossy cement. Was Sid really just going to kiss him and leave it like that? Just refuse to talk about it? Zhenya thought it was pretty cowardly, but he wasn’t willing to push the issue now. “You good captain for me. Maybe you have my back too, you know? Then I earn guys’ respect.”
Sid looked at Zhenya briefly, and his smile was small, but it was warm. “Okay,” he agreed. “I think I can do that.”
Zhenya was tucking into a third dinner roll and only half listening to Plotnikov telling Bones a story when Sid plopped down in the empty chair to his left.
“Hey,” Sid said to the table at large. “Good spread, eh?”
“It’s good,” Zhenya agreed, slathering some jam on his roll.
“So, listen,” Sid said. “I had a few thoughts about some of the breakout drills we were running at practice. I wanted to run them by you.” Zhenya stopped chewing with half of a roll still stuck in his cheek, giving Sid the evil eye. Apparently Sid was taking Zhenya’s request for more on-ice authority to heart. Part of Zhenya wanted to be pleased, but he still felt pretty shaken up and was having trouble mustering as much pleasure out of the gesture as he might like. Dinner was no time for this anyway. Zhenya was busy eating his feelings.
Sid had brought his plate over with him and it was laden with stacks of turkey breast and stuffing and sweet potato. Clearly he was here for the long haul. Zhenya swallowed his lump of soggy roll, certain that he might as well give up on finishing his meal.
“Yes, okay,” Zhenya said, prompting him so he would get on with whatever it was he wanted to say. “Tell me what you thinking, I give you better idea. Good plan.” He smiled and patted Sid’s shoulder through the soft fabric of his half-zip and then pulled his hand back, uncertain that he was allowed.
Sid had way too much to say. Truthfully, Zhenya barely listened. He was full of food and kind of tired, and he spent most of the conversation zoning out and staring at the movement of Sid’s mouth like a creep and berating himself for it. That mouth that had been on his mouth. God, how would he even deal with this now?.
It didn’t matter if he listened anyway; Sid would surely re-hash the entire conversation the following morning while they laced up for morning skate, running through the same steps as if they were brand new.
“You think that’ll work?” Sid asked, but Bones saved Zhenya’s bacon by shouting across the table, reaching over to snatch one of the hard candies Sid had sitting by his water bottle.
“No shop talk, Croz,” Bones said, laughing and popping the hard candy into his mouth. “Eat some dinner. Keep it to the rink.”
“Don’t blame me when you assholes can’t skate for shit tomorrow,” Sid said, sour, and started shoving forkfuls of sweet potato into his mouth.
They could not, in fact, skate for shit. Playing Columbus always sucked. Zhenya hated the rink’s ice, and the stupid blast of the cannon, and their noisy, drunk fans. He took a few ill-advised slashing penalties out of frustration and then got so fucking irritated about it that he let himself get in an even more ill-advised fight with Jack Johnson of all people mere seconds from intermission.
His knuckles hurt coming into the locker room. He sat in his stall with a sweating bag of ice on his hand and felt wholly pissed at himself. The team was clearly mired in a slump. And what was he doing to help? Not fucking much.
Sid sat in his stall in silence for a few minutes and the room was so quiet that Zhenya could hear him breathing.
“C’mon, boys,” Sid said after a while. “Score’s still even. No long faces.” Zhenya could hear him trying to rally them as he spoke, but when Zhenya looked around the room at everyone, they mostly looked tired. The game was still tied at zip. But everyone looked as grim as they would have after a garbage loss. Even Sid’s face was pinched, his eyes drilling holes in the carpet like he was trying to convince himself.
Now that Zhenya had seen a few glimpses behind the curtain, he could imagine the kind of captain Sid could be if he let himself. And maybe they needed each other a little. Zhenya had been no good at teaching; he loved to lead by example, but he had little patience, really. Years of fumbling had taught him how to keep things light. Sometimes when things felt grim, the guys needed someone to laugh at. Zhenya had put himself through a lot of nonsense over the years in the name of a good time, and maybe things with Sid were fucking weird right now, but Zhenya could do this.
“Guys, guys!” Zhenya said, jumping up from his seat and leaving the ice discarded in his place. “Who wants fight? C’mon.” He swirled his hands around like he was setting up for a boxing match, really hamming it up, revving himself into gear as much as he was them. “You all afraid?” he asked, and then smirked at them and added in Russian: “Even my grandmother would fight me, you pussies.” A few of the guys started snickering. Zhenya elbowed Horny a few times and goaded him into scrapping a little, wrestling pitifully for show, Zhenya still in all of his gear and Horny stripped to his pants. Zhenya knew shit about fighting, but who cared. All that mattered was that it got everyone going.
Everyone was noisy as shit on the way out to the ice for the third, laughing and yelling. Someone ran by and smacked Zhenya on the back with a raucous. “Atta boy, Gene!”
When Zhenya went to follow Tanger into the tunnel, Sid held him back by the crook of his arm. “Thanks for that,” he said. He smiled at Zhenya, a sweet private smile. Zhenya’s heart took one heavy, thumping beat. “They needed it.”
“No problem,” Zhenya said. He thought about leaving it at that, but he couldn’t resist the urge to lean tentatively into Sid’s orbit, smiling his own private smile in turn, and bump their helmets together. “Any time.”
Zhenya read a book, and when the plane touched down he went straight to the hotel and sacked the fuck out, naked on top of the covers with the air conditioning on high.
The chatter about the team’s missteps earlier in the season had largely flown under Zhenya’s radar, but now that he had his footing, he could see signs of it everywhere. He knew the marks of a frustrated team.
Sid had scored all of three goals since October, which even Zhenya knew was atrocious. When they creamed the Sharks on their home turf the following night off the back of not one, but two of Sid’s goals, the guys were so rowdy that Zhenya thought they might get slapped with a noise ordinance.
“Speech! Speech! Speech!” Duper kept shouting, shaking Sid by the shoulders to rile him up. Sid was smiling at his socked feet, his cheeks pink like he was a little embarrassed to be pleased with himself.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sid said, shrugging Duper off. “Knock yourselves out, eh. Don’t get too high on it.”
“Nice goals,” Zhenya said quietly, once the guys had mostly decamped to the showers. He found himself sticking around longer and longer, sitting with Sid in their twin stalls sometimes instead of hustling off to change, like maybe his constant presence would make Sid talk to him about anything that mattered. “Backhand? It’s sexy, I like.”
Sid raised one dark eyebrow, choking a little on his own words. “Sexy?”
Zhenya flushed. “It’s okay,” he joked, picking uselessly at a seam on his pants to avoid showing Sid his red face.
Sid laughed a little at Zhenya’s lame joke. His smile was so infectious. Zhenya hated it and needed to get the fuck out of the room before he did or said anything. “Last goal you score all year, probably, Sid,” he said. He gave Sid a brotherly, totally platonic shove for good measure and grabbed his shower shit and left. “You enjoy!”
A short plane ride to Los Angeles and sleeping in until eleven didn’t make things any easier. They all got dragged to the beach for the afternoon. Zhenya dumped a healthy glob of sunscreen on himself and camped out under a sunbrella with his hat pulled down over his eyes until Sid came over and crouched next to him.
“I’m sleep,” Zhenya complained. “Shh.”
“Sure you are, bud,” Sid said. He patted Zhenya’s bare shoulder. His hand was so warm, the spaces in between his fingers caked with drying sand. “We need one more for our team. You in?”
A bunch of the guys had been playing some uber-competitive game of volleyball for the better part of an hour. Zhenya was not usually one to volley. But when he peeked out from under the brim of his hat, the pale, soft expanse of Sid’s chest and his huge fucking legs made Zhenya sweat. He wanted desperately to say no, but felt helpless to do so.
“Fine,” Zhenya said, situating his hat and climbing to his feet. He brushed some sand off of his legs. “I play. But you owe me.”
Sid laughed, his face pink from exertion, crinkling up in delight. God, he was a menace. “Yeah,” he said, his eyes flashing with the same competitive fire that Zhenya felt down to his bones. “That’s fair.”
Zhenya found Sid so unnerving. It was clear that he wanted something from Zhenya. You didn’t look at a man, you didn’t kiss him, if you didn’t. But maybe he thought he didn’t deserve it, or wasn’t supposed to. Well, whatever; Zhenya didn’t need to be the guy who got a rep for baring his ass for the captain anyway. It was better if they left it alone.
Their team won the best-of-three, but it certainly wasn’t Zhenya’s doing. He might be amazing at hockey, but he was a mediocre volleyball player at best. Mostly he stood in the back and used his long arms to smack the ball just over the top of the net. By the time they won the third match, Zhenya had the image of Sid’s wide, bare back imprinted in his mind. His shorts weren’t even that short, but they clung. Zhenya did not hate it.
The bus back to the hotel smelled like salt and Banana Boat. Zhenya sat in his window seat by himself and watched the freeway fly by outside the window, the endless sun and green-topped trees. He had a whole evening to himself to look forward to. He would probably wander down to the hotel steam room and just soak for a while in his own sweat. The afternoon, honestly the whole season, had taken it out of him; socializing could wait.
But when he rushed to the elevator, Sid stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“You up for dinner later? I was trying to get some of the guys together,” Sid asked. The t-shirt Sid had thrown hastily on was damp in more than one place. There was some sand still stuck to his arm. The last thing Zhenya wanted right now was to sit with him for a few hours, so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But Zhenya didn’t particularly want to forage for his own dinner. He was fine with using their teammates as a buffer of normalcy.
“Uh, sure,” Zhenya said. He walked into the elevator when it slid open and pressed the button for his own floor. Sid followed shortly behind. “You on eight, right? What time? Maybe we meet up after I nap?”
“For sure,” Sid said. “I’ll text you.” He pulled his shirt up by the hem and sniffed at it, like that was a normal thing to do. “I’m gonna shower some of this sand off. I’m pretty ripe.”
“Smell so terrible,” Zhenya joked half-heartedly. He focused on the wall where some of the faux wood panelling was peeling off of a steel beam. Hilarious.
Zhenya did not, in fact, take a nap. He turned the lights off in his room and pulled the blinds closed. He dug in the bedside drawer for one of those hotel-branded face masks, but even that didn’t help him fall asleep. He lay awake on top of the sheets in his board shorts for a while. And then got up. Lay back down again.
Eventually, he just bit the bullet, pulled up Sid’s contact in his phone and sent him a text. dinner soon??? can’t sleep((
He went to wash his face. There was a little bit of sand caked on his inner thigh. Maybe he should have showered, but there wasn’t time now, and he wet a washcloth and rubbed it over the spot until it was clean. Why would Sid care, anyway? Or notice at all? Well, probably he would notice.
Sid had replied by the time he emerged from the washroom. you okay with room service? i don’t want to put on pants.
your room? Zhenya sent, lips creasing into a frown. who else for dinner?
Sid didn’t text back right away. Zhenya saw the dots appear and disappear. everybody bailed on me. just us. And then another one. i could just come to yours.
Oh good god. If Sid was going to come to Zhenya’s room in his underwear, Zhenya was going to deadbolt the door.
ok Zhenya sent. If Sid wanted to come over and buy Zhenya overpriced hotel food, well—fine. Zhenya could eat and then kick him out. It was his room, so it was his right. wear pants.
“You planning to eat in the doorway?” Sid asked and Zhenya stepped reluctantly aside to let him in. Sid seemed to make himself at home. He plopped down on the end of Zhenya’s unmade bed and peered around nosily. So much for the days when Sid gave him a wide, cautious berth. “Your room is pretty messy, you know.”
“You come here to make fun of me?” Zhenya asked. He stood there just kind of staring Sid down with a hand cocked at his hip. “I kick you out. Be nice.”
“Uh huh,” Sid said, but he was already onto the next thing, leaning over to dig through Zhenya’s drawers for the room service menu. He spread the menu out on the bed, making annoying commentary while he perused the options and repeating what he wanted under his breath. Eventually, he glanced over at Zhenya still lingering in the walkway like a dope and asked, “You wanna look?”
“You pick for me,” Zhenya said. He didn’t know if he could eat. Maybe he just wouldn’t. Maybe he would pretend to be sick and Sid would leave. Zhenya wanted to ask him so many things, like: ‘why were you so afraid of me?’ and ‘why the fuck did you kiss me?’ and ‘why are you in my room?’
Zhenya made Sid order fries, because it was aggravating to be nearly thirty and feel like a teenager again and that was a good excuse. “So tired from volleyball today,” Zhenya lied when Sid raised an eyebrow at him about it. “Need carbs.” But Sid happily dug into them: their fries and sandwiches, Sid’s side of fruit, Zhenya’s sushi all spread between them on the bed. A feast.
Zhenya tried to calm down and eat his food. Maybe they could just keep things light. Between friends. Teammates ate together on the road all the time and it was fine. Zhenya could absolutely handle it.
Sid helped a little with his prattling. “Did you see that article in the Trib about Johnston being on the hot seat?” Sid asked him, mouth half full of sandwich.
Zhenya had learned the names of the local papers only because Jen insisted he talk to their reporters once every few weeks. “Trib? Why you read?” He didn’t see the point in reading anything they wrote. Who cared? It was all bullshit anyway.
“I don’t know,” Sid said, clearly feeling a little defensive about it. “I like to stay informed.”
“If paper says ‘Sidney Crosby Eat Bear For Lunch,’ you believe?” Zhenya asked. His own masochistic curiosity had been saved largely by the fact that reading in English was hard and painful and Zhenya couldn’t bother. Nothing good ever came of it except more stress on the ice. Thank god that Sid didn’t have twitter, because the replies were brutal.
“Okay,” Sid said. “Point made.” Sid sat there considering the wallpaper over Zhenya’s head for a minute or two. Zhenya watched him; it was clear that Sid had more he wanted to say on the subject.
“You like him?” Zhenya asked. “You want him to stay?”
“Not really,” Sid said, and it was clear that he felt bad admitting it. Well, Zhenya agreed. Johnston was nice, but horribly dull. Zhenya didn’t think he was a very good coach. “But Jesus, they’re gonna go nuts if it happens, you know? They blamed me the last two coaches and like—three? Coach Killer Crosby, I’m sure.”
Zhenya frowned. “Sid,” he said. “Maybe he gets fired, you know? But it’s not your fault.”
Sid kept watching Zhenya while they ate, that same concentrated gaze that felt hot and confusing. Zhenya could tell that he was trying to be stealthy about it, but still he could see Sid looking out of the corner of his eye. When Zhenya shifted his leg closer to his body, Sid’s foot moved into the space he had vacated. Zhenya was most of the way through the pile of fries before he gummed up the nerve to ask what was really on his mind. “Sid?”
“Yeah?” Sid asked, wiping mayo from his fingers with a damp napkin.
Zhenya shoved a few more fries in his mouth, curling his leg under himself, like his body was a protective shell. “Why you—” He flicked his eyes obviously up and down Sid’s body, sizing him up, and then groaned. “Why you kiss me?”
“I—” Sid said. He set his sandwich gingerly down on the paper without taking another bite. Maybe it was just the tint of the lamplight, but Zhenya thought he could see Sid blushing. “Listen—”
Zhenya raised one judgmental eyebrow. He was listening. They were grown. If Sid wanted to pitch a fit for being called out, well—Zhenya had dealt with worse.
“I’m sorry, okay?” Sid said, clearly feeling the heat of Zhenya’s gaze burning a hole in him. “I didn’t mean to. You can just--we can just forget about it. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t mean to,” Zhenya said, monotone and thoroughly unimpressed. “You always do things you don’t mean?” It was pretty frustrating to think that even after everything, Sid resorted to the same stupid excuses.
“No, I--” Sid said. He stopped and looked down at his lap.
Zhenya took his opening. “I see you look at me, Sid. You so confusing! I think maybe it’s just friends, and I see what I want see, but no. It’s not fantasy. It’s not accident.”
Sid ran a hand through his hair, tugging on it. “I’m not,” Sid said. “I’m not supposed to do this kind of shit, okay? I like guys, fine, whatever. I’ll get over it. But you don’t just sleep with your fucking teammates, okay? It’s not cool.”
Zhenya knew how that felt. He had always kept his shit thoroughly under wraps for much the same reason. What did it say about you, to be a man who liked men among other men? Probably a lot of things. But what good had it done him, in the end?
“Yeah, Sid,” Zhenya said. “You tell me. But you do anyway.”
“Well I shouldn’t have, okay?” Sid said. His voice cracked a little. “I promise I’m not gonna like, take it out on you or whatever, okay? You don’t have to worry about that.”
“I’m not worry.” Zhenya picked at the bedspread. He felt kind of bad for Sid, in a way, clearly still mired in some kind of soul searching about his place in the world. “But can’t just forget.”
“Yeah,” Sid said. “I guess not.” He sifted through the remaining fry scraps and picked one up, but didn’t put it in his mouth. “You can finish this if you want. I think I might--maybe I should just go to bed.”
Sid started to climb off the bed, shifting around awkwardly. Zhenya reached out to grab his wrist.
“Sid, wait,” Zhenya said. He felt like he was going at this all wrong.
Sid just looked between them, down at Zhenya’s hand holding him in a tight grip. Sid’s wrist was warm under Zhenya’s fingers; he could feel the thin pulse of Sid’s heartbeat.
For the barest second, Zhenya could swear that Sid was going to lean down and kiss him again. But instead Sid pulled his arm away, yanking it out of Zhenya’s hold and making a quick beeline for the door. Zhenya flopped back on the bed and groaned, and then picked himself up when he felt a squirt of ketchup cooling under his neck.
“I told you,” Sid said, biting into an apple. Zhenya and Sid were sitting alone in the lounge at UPMC waiting for Kuni to arrive for a meeting, presumably about the coaching change, and what slack they would have to pick up in the interim. Sid was eating. Zhenya was looking pointedly at the floor.
“Yeah,” Zhenya said. Privately, Zhenya was kind of glad about it. Johnston had not been as receptive to Zhenya’s ideas as he had hoped. They were always sitting back, blocking and waiting. Zhenya hadn’t come to the Pittsburgh Penguins to play defense.
Their new coach, Sullivan, was some guy who had been coaching the farm team out in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania. The team met him the next day, already suited up in his Penguins tracksuit at practice, the jacket zipped all the way up like a turtleneck.
“Boys!” Sullivan yelled. His voice carried so far that he didn’t even need the whistle that Johnston had loved to abuse. “Huddle up, c’mon.” They all skated over. Zhenya drifted to somewhere near the front, dropping to one knee and keeping his gaze straight ahead when Sid tried to catch his eye.
Practice that day was faster than it had been in months. Zhenya wasn’t sure he had ever skated so hard outside of a game. Sullivan was firm, and Zhenya wasn’t sure he had seen him smile yet, but he laughed when Bennett cracked a puck through a water bottle on the bench and sent it flying, and Zhenya was a little hopeful that Sullivan would be the change they needed.
In the locker room afterward, the guys were rowdy, yelling and singing along to the stereo, gossiping like grandmothers about the new coach.
“New blood in here, boys,” Cole said, grinning under his thick beard.
“Maybe we’ll get a full shakedown, eh?” Scuds joked. “New coach, new system—watch out for your job, eh Croz? Anything can happen, now. I’m coming for you!” He smiled as he said it, laughing and miming. Zhenya could tell it was in jest, but he could see Sid’s hackles going up out of the corner of his eye.
Zhenya stood up without thinking, brandishing his elbow pad in one hand like a weapon. “Don’t joke. No new captain,” he said, matter-of-fact. “You do what new coach says, do what Sid says, maybe then we win more games.”
“Someone’s got a new hype man, eh?” Bones said, laughing and patting Sid on his arm on his way past. “Watch out, boys. Eugene means business.”
Zhenya sat in his stall and glowered. He wasn’t afraid to use intimidation to his advantage.
He and Sid walked out to their cars together after practice, pacing the halls after everyone had come and gone. “You didn’t have to do that,” Sid said to him. “Stand up for me or whatever.”
Maybe Sid didn’t need Zhenya to stand up for him, but Zhenya wanted to. “I like to,” he said, defensive and feeling a little embarrassed that he had so quickly rushed to Sid’s aid. He was supposed to be mad, but a dumb part of him just wanted Sid to apologize and kiss him again, relevant concerns be damned.“No one mess with you, okay?”
Sid smiled in the firm direction of his shoes. Zhenya saw his cheeks flush and had to look away, secretly pleased.
“Yeah okay,” Sid said.
Sid wasn’t in the locker room after, or at practice the following day. Zhenya tried not to worry about it, but he was a lifelong worrier. It was in his blood. Against his better judgement, he sent Sid a text that evening while he was lying on his couch. you okay?
Zhenya didn’t see him or hear from him until a few hours before puck drop against Columbus. Sid slid onto the stool across from Zhenya in the lounge, dangling his injured leg as Zhenya was slathering jam on his toast. No one else was in the room, because Zhenya liked to wait until the rest of the guys had gone off to start on sewerball to eat his snack in peace.
“Hey,” Sid said. He picked up a sugar packet and started batting it around between his fingers idly.
“You dead?” Zhenya asked. He had been pretty annoyed to get radio silence in response to his message of concern, after all that. “You don’t answer my text.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Sid said, grimacing. He scratched guiltily at his neck. “I’m uh—not very good at being injured. Sorry.”
Zhenya laughed darkly and shoved a corner of fruity toast into his mouth. Understatement of the year.
Zhenya was trying hard not to be mad and it wasn’t working. Sid wanted them to be friends, but how could they really be friends when all Zhenya could think about was the soft way Sid’s mouth had moved, the way he had stood there in Zhenya’s hotel room looking at him like it was taking everything he had not to kiss Zhenya again. But Sid looked sweet and kind of defeated, sitting there in his suit with his hair gelled down and his nose scraped from falling. Zhenya could try to be civil. They would go on vacation soon anyway, and Zhenya could lie outside and let the hot sun bake Sid from his skin.
“How’s leg?” Zhenya asked, coming around the side of the island and nodding to the thick shape of stability wrap under Sid’s pants.
“Eh, it’s okay.” Sid shrugged. “I’m going back to my parents’ place for Christmas, so. I’m sure my mom will fuss over me the whole time and I’ll be good to go come Saturday.”
“Good,” Zhenya said. “Tell your mom you don’t move whole time, okay? Sit on couch. Eat pie. Get fat.”
“Oh yeah?” Sid asked, clearly amused at the idea. “You think I’m gonna be able to sit still that long? I’m gonna come back and get yelled at for being overweight.”
That shocked a laugh out of Zhenya. He wanted to imagine it, but it was probably more likely that Sid would try to take the brace off and play mini-golf or something. He had far too much energy.
“You try, okay,” Zhenya said, reaching across the counter to grab the remains of his toast and downing them in one bite. He patted Sid on the chest with his crumb-coated hand, thinking pointedly about how he could absolutely do this. He could pretend to be just friends, teammates, coworkers. It was best for everyone, really. “Work hard. I know you can.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sid said. He smiled at Zhenya and his eyes went soft. He wouldn’t stop looking and it took all of Zhenya’s willpower to look away. “Win the game tonight for me, okay?”
His apartment in Pittsburgh was still too small for his fiberglass shark or his ping pong table, but he could bring his favorites: his first professional Metallurg jersey, his Calder, the map of Japan that his mother had found him at an open-air market years ago for his twenty-third birthday, all of the things that made a house a home.
He took a picture of his findings to text to Sid, but then thought better of it. He deleted the text he had drafted. And the picture for good measure. Sid didn’t need to care what kind of decor he had in his home.
A few weeks before, Zhenya had thought a lot about how he might buy a house in Pittsburgh that summer, something to fill with all of his things, a place to put down roots and invite his new friends. Maybe his parents could visit. He could buy new drapes for the place. He could get a pool.
Maybe it would still happen. A lot of things could change in a single season. So much had changed already. But Zhenya wanted it, he thought, as he hoisted another box into his trunk. He wanted to stay.
Their plane didn’t leave until morning. Some of the rookies wanted to go out, but Sid pulled Zhenya aside outside of the change room. “Drinks in Tanger’s room, okay?” he asked, smiling slyly like he was telling Zhenya a secret. The heat down south had done nothing to rid Zhenya of Sid’s taste, and this wasn’t helping. But Zhenya was weak, and had too many fond feelings about New Year to say no. “I think he finagled some bubbly for us old guys.”
Tanger’s room turned out to be about seven of them sneaking upstairs to the rooftop bar in their sweats. It was December in the Rust Belt, the bar closed for the season, but with quiet footsteps and an unlocked door, they all piled out onto the deserted stone terrace. The chairs and tables were all chained together, the potted plants covered in tarp.
The air on the roof was frigid, worse than it had been on the ground. And Zhenya was a notorious baby about it. He pulled his arms around himself, wrapping his sweatshirt tighter around his body. “You cold, Eugene?” Flower asked, already halfway drunk and clearly amused. Flower was wearing nothing more than a t-shirt for some reason. He looked like he was at a party in July.
“No shit,” Zhenya said. He held out his hand to swipe the champagne from Flower’s hand. “Give to me.”
Zhenya downed a few gulps, letting it fizz through his body like a sparkler as he leaned against the stone walls of the roof looking down at the city below: the noisy pedestrians, the lights flashing in the distance.
Sid came over and stood next to him, not close enough to touch, but close enough that all of Zhenya’s nerves felt pulled taut. Maybe he should have just stayed downstairs to drink the New Year away in his own room.
“Hey,” Sid said. He kicked a little at the wall, peering over it to see what Zhenya was seeing.
“Hi,” Zhenya replied. What could he say? He wanted to be chill and cool enough to be over Sid by now, wanted to laugh and move on, but he couldn’t. Sid was infuriating and bull-headed and insecure, but Zhenya liked him, and didn’t know how to stop liking him in any way at all.
“Can I have some of that?” Sid asked, nodding his head at the bottle clutched in Zhenya’s fist.
“They out?” Zhenya asked kind of sharply, nodding back to where everyone else was huddled up together, their stash arranged like a campfire between them. “Why you need steal from me?”
“Why are you drinking alone?” Sid was so annoying about asking Zhenya exactly the question he didn’t want to answer.
“Maybe I like,” Zhenya snapped at him, shoving the bottle in Sid’s direction, twitching a little when their fingers brushed, “Don’t have to share.”
Sid took a long sip, his head tipped back to bare the thick shape of his throat, back lit by the city beyond. Zhenya forced himself to look away, clutching his empty, anxious hands against the stone wall.
“You didn’t have to come up here with us, you know,” Sid said quietly, so quiet it almost felt like he didn’t want Zhenya to hear. “If you’re gonna be like that.”
Zhenya felt pretty incensed. He turned himself so he could look Sid in the eye. “I come up here because we friends, Sid. We just friends, like you say. Normal Zhenya is just teammates, and when you ask him to hang out, he says okay. It’s not weird.” Zhenya grabbed the bottle back. “You tell me forget? You tell me we move on from it? Fine.”
“Jesus,” Sid said, rubbing at his forehead. Zhenya hated that he couldn’t get over it. It would be so much easier. But it wasn’t in his nature. “You’ve been thinking about this the whole time, haven’t you.”
Zhenya snorted, turning back away. “Yes, Sid. I don’t want to, but I think about.”
The seconds that Sid stayed quiet dragged on and felt like hours, days. “I’ve thought about it too, you know. Kind of--a lot.”
“Then why you do this?” Zhenya asked. “Why it’s like ‘oh, I don’t mean,’ ‘oh, we can’t’?”
“It’s not a good idea.” Sid blew out a long breath. “Just because I want something doesn’t mean I get to have it.”
So Sid wanted him. Zhenya could have told him as much. And maybe it wasn’t a good idea. Zhenya knew that. Word might get around. People might talk. But Zhenya had been hard-pressed to truly convince himself. Sometimes he did stupid, ill-advised things. Maybe he shouldn’t, but fuck it, he wanted to.
“You think I don’t know it’s not good idea, Sid?” Zhenya asked him. “I know. No one says it’s smart, fine. But I want anyway, you know? You think it’s work like this? Always awkward, always fight. Maybe it’s better if we try.”
Zhenya felt wrung out. What more could he say? He leaned his head against the edge of the stone and watched Sid look out into the dark sky, his expression shifting. Sid ducked his own head, putting his forehead against the cool stone.
“It’s okay to want, Sid,” Zhenya said. He reached his foot over to bump Sid’s foot companionably. “You don’t need like--maybe it’s not easy, you know? It’s not best thing. But it’s okay to let yourself have.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Sid said, shaking his head a little. “It’s hard.” Zhenya heard him sigh. He felt like Sid was a deep-sea fish that he was reeling in inch by inch, stubborn and heavy, determined to stay put. “There’s so much stupid shit I could do, but I’m always thinking, like, what’s better for the guys, right? Who cares what I want for myself.”
“You think I’m stupid?” Zhenya asking, only half-joking. He knew it was stupid. Stupid could be good for you sometimes. Stupid was freeing. It was real.
“Nah,” Sid said. He smiled back at Zhenya from over the curve of his arm, and the sight of it warmed Zhenya from toe to crown. “You’re not.” Sid pulled his hands back through his hair, fidgeting around until he was leaning back against the stone with his face tipped to the sky. “God, are we really doing this?” he asked Zhenya, blowing a long shaky breath out through his lips.
Zhenya’s whole body was a live wire. Everything about this felt illicit: the breaking and entering, the champagne, Sid. “I don’t know, Sid,” he said, hoping, wanting. He’d put himself out there; he needed Sid to give him the all clear. “Are we?”
“Yeah,” Sid said, sounding almost like he couldn’t believe it. He laughed a little, soft, and caught Zhenya’s eye. “I think we are.”
A voice came out of the din. “What are you boys scheming about over there?” Horny shouted. He was swinging a bottle over his head.
Zhenya looked over at Sid and then back at Horny. He gave Horny a tentative smile.
“Stop it, eh!” Horny put his arms around both of them, shaking them a little and leading them away. “Get over here and have another drink with us.” .
Zhenya sat down between Kuni and Tanger. It felt nice to be a part of something, Zhenya thought, as he looked around at everyone, all these guys who had been here for so long, these guys who trusted each other and played together night in and night out. Zhenya wanted to be part of that, not just right now, but for good. He had always been a bit of a lone wolf in Carolina. He knew everyone, he laughed with them, he played with them. But he had kept himself locked tight enough that barely any of them had truly seen inside.
As midnight approached, their stash ran dry. “I think that’s about time for me to turn in, boys,” Sid said, stretching his arms above his head dramatically to the sounds of everyone’s chirps and jeers. Zhenya watched quizzically from the other side of the circle, staring at the revealed strip of Sid’s pale skin as his sweater rose. Sid looked at him, his eyes growing bolder by the minute. Zhenya knew what that look meant.
Zhenya made a split-second decision. “We need more booze?” Zhenya asked the group at large, clamoring to his feet and stumbling only a little. “Downstairs? I get.”
No one would know or remember that he didn’t have a key to Tanger’s room anyway, all of them too toasted and high on the win. If they did, maybe they would assume he just wanted a good excuse to go the fuck to sleep. Future Zhenya would deal with the ribbing for it, not him.
Zhenya followed Sid down the stairwell and into the elevator, down the hall to Sid’s room. “I see that you’re following me,” Sid said, turning around to walk backwards down the hall, shaking his head and just kind of looking at Zhenya with his alcohol-pink cheeks and his amused eyes. He still had a bit of a green bruise on his nose from his fall.
“You tell me to come, I think,” Zhenya said. He blushed in the direction of his feet. Feeling was returning slowly to his fingers and toes in the warmth of the central heating.
“Did I?” Sid asked, as they reached his door. “You read my mind?” He fumbled with his keycard a little, tugging it out of his snug pants pocket and jamming it in until the door clicked. Zhenya could see that he was nervous. The hallway was quiet, and Zhenya pressed himself to Sid’s back, warm all over where they touched. How young Zhenya would have relished in this moment, he thought to himself.
“Don’t tell me you don’t mean later, okay?” Zhenya said to him, breath fogging against Sid’s neck. Fuck, he really hoped Sid wouldn’t. “If we do, you don’t take back.”
“Yeah,” Sid said to the door. He pressed himself back against Zhenya, tentatively exploring the bounds of what was allowed, what he wanted. “I won’t. I’m serious, G.”
“You don’t tell me forget,” Zhenya said. He turned Sid to face him, cupping Sid’s chin in his hands. “Don’t tell me we just be friends.”
Sid’s breath was fruity with booze, blowing across Zhenya’s face as he breathed. Zhenya could feel the quick, rabbiting beat of his heart. “I don’t think we can just be friends,” Sid said, the sound of his voice like a laugh. Zhenya leaned in to capture the soft curve of Sid’s upper lip between his teeth, tugging at it a little, the same way he’d always thought about so many years ago.
“Good,” Zhenya said. He leaned their heads together and reached behind Sid’s back to open the door. “Don’t want to be.”
Zhenya tripped after Sid through the doorway, biting at the back of Sid’s neck once they were firmly behind the closed door. Sid turned around in Zhenya’s arms again, kissing his chin and his jaw, sliding his tongue into Zhenya’s mouth. His big, square hands were on Zhenya’s face, those hands that Zhenya kept thinking about without end. Sid scraped his nails under Zhenya’s sweatshirt, palming over the line of Zhenya’s cock that was rapidly growing hard inside his pants.
“You think I can read your mind?” Sid asked him, biting at Zhenya’s collarbone with his shirt collar pulled to the side. The wall was hard and cool against Zhenya’s back. Every time Zhenya tried to put a hand on Sid’s body, Sid gained the upper hand and laughed. Zhenya was sweating. He felt delirious. He wanted this so badly. “Fuck, why did I think I could stop myself from doing this?”
“You stupid,” Zhenya said, mostly to be petulant. “Stupid reasons.” It was dark in the room, the lights all off. The switch was just out of Zhenya’s reach.
Sid kissed him again, quick and impatient, and climbed to his knees. Zhenya could hear the sounds of Sid’s breath, and his own breath. He could hear the shuffle of Sid’s feet digging into the scratchy hotel carpet. When Sid finally took Zhenya into his mouth, Zhenya could hear and see the flashes of fireworks outside, the flare and the dying embers floating down into the river.
He looked down at Sid’s upturned face, his pale skin glowing blue and then yellow in the far-away light. Sid grinned at him around his mouthful of cock, his eyes wild. Zhenya wanted to look at his face like this for a long time. He would make sure he could.
Zhenya smiled back at him, rubbing his thumb down Sid’s cheek, the line of his mouth. “Happy New Year.”
“Morning,” Zhenya grumbled, and went into the washroom to piss before he wet the bed. When he emerged, Sid was just staring at him like a weirdo. The sheets were pushed away now. He wasn’t wearing underwear. It was the most carefree that Zhenya had ever seen him, and the most attractive.
“You start something?” Zhenya asked. He couldn’t resist the urge to climb in and crawl over Sid’s warm body and kiss him, tangling their legs together. He loved the feeling of Sid’s dick rubbing against his stomach, the wet, sour taste of his mouth.
“Maybe,” Sid teased. He kissed Zhenya again, and rolled them over and gave Zhenya a hickey low enough on his stomach that maybe he could stop people from noticing. Zhenya let himself be manhandled until they were both spread out at an odd angle with Zhenya’s head hanging half off the bed.
“Can’t believe you,” Zhenya said. They kissed until Zhenya’s mouth felt like a raw wound. He had beard burn dotting his jaw. “Make us late to plane.”
“We’ll catch up,” Sid said, smirking at Zhenya from where his head was propped on Zhenya’s chest and then ducking his head lower and lower until Zhenya groaned.
“You remember when I found you on the back porch at that place in South Side?” Sid asked him after they had come, lying there like lazy sea creatures on the ocean floor. Zhenya looked over and found Sid’s face flopped to the side, his smile small and secret, hidden in the pile of sheets.
“Yes,” Zhenya said, the memory only fond in hindsight.
“I wanted to kiss you, then,” Sid whispered, his morning breath washing over Zhenya’s face.
“Oh?” Zhenya asked. He seemed to remember differently. “I think you lying.”
Sid laughed, loud and uncontrolled. “Okay, maybe so,” he said. God, he was sweet sometimes. No wonder Zhenya had been unable to resist. He leaned in closer to Zhenya and his voice dropped so low that Zhenya could barely hear it even in the quiet room. “But I should have.”
“Yeah, okay,” Zhenya said, poking fun. “Romeo.” He pinched the soft skin on Sid’s hip until Sid squirmed away from him, laughing still.
They got dressed and packed Sid’s things up. It took Zhenya a while to find his underwear and one of his socks that had been discarded and made it all the way under the darkest recesses of the bed.
Before they left, Sid took his backpack from Zhenya’s hands and leaned into him. “You were right, you know,” he said. His mouth twitched a little like it was hard to admit. “About--this.” He gestured to Zhenya and then himself. “I tried not to, but I want it. I don’t regret it. I want to try.”
Zhenya ducked his chin into his shirt collar and smiled, bashful and happy. “I’m always right,” he said, and turned his smile on Sid, scrunching his nose up and running his fingers down the side of Sid’s cheek. “You learn.”
“All-Star lists are out,” Jen said, as they boarded the bus, turning around in her seat, tapping away at her phone. “Don’t make plans for the break, okay? I’ve got you and Letang on a flight to Nashville on the evening of the 29th. Don’t get your ass hurt.”
Zhenya just kind of sat there and gaped at her. He had been to the All-Star Game a handful of times before and didn’t even care that much about it, honestly. It was kind of fun to phone it in and dangle other guys in circles for a couple of days, even though he could do that all summer at the training rink in Moscow with the young KHL rookies who wrongly thought they could strip him of the puck. But it felt like more, somehow. A sign of good change. Injuries and bum seasons had left a larger gap between being named to the team than he had liked. It felt nice to be recognized. “Thanks, Jen,” he said after a moment of fly catching.
Jen just kind of laughed at him fondly. “Congrats, kid,” she said. “You deserve it.”
Zhenya felt pretty high about it until he thought about telling Sid, who had been having a shit season so far by his standards, mired in frustrations and an offensive slump. Zhenya thought that perhaps things had been looking up for him lately, but he knew that in any other season, this spot would have been Sid’s without question, no matter his stats. And now Zhenya had taken it from him. A shakeup. Things had been so nice since the turn of the New Year, but now—
But Sid came up behind him in the hotel lobby where Zhenya was lingering with his bag. “Hey, G,” Sid said, smiling brightly in Zhenya’s direction, like he alone had gotten any sleep. Zhenya’s chest tightened with panic. Sid held a coffee cup out, pressing it into Zhenya’s side. “You want it?”
Zhenya took it wordlessly and sipped at it until his throat was damp, smiling into the styrofoam, warmed by the drink and the gesture.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” Sid prodded. He was rocking casually back and forth on his feet, always fidgeting. He raised his eyebrows. “Nashville is awesome. Eat some hot chicken for me.”
Zhenya slurped more coffee and hissed when it burnt his tongue. “Sorry,” he said, grimacing. “You not—mad?”
Sid furrowed his brow. “No?” he said slowly. “Should I be?”
Zhenya’s cheeks flamed, he tucked the coffee close to his face, embarrassed. “No,” he said. “I just think—I know usually it’s you, you know? You go to game, everybody cheer. But now I’m here and it’s me. Don’t want like—”
“G.” Sid put a hand on Zhenya’s arm to shut him up. He looked Zhenya in the eyes and spoke slowly and honestly. “I’m not kidding. I’m proud of you. You think I would’ve gotten sent to some new team and flourished like you have? C’mon. It’s your win this time. Celebrate it.” He nudged Zhenya with a pesky elbow until Zhenya cracked a smile. He tilted his head into Zhenya’s orbit. “Maybe I’ll take a vacation this year, eh?”
“You get sunburned,” Zhenya said, smirking. Sid had been pink across his cheeks and his shoulders for weeks after they got back from California, and judging by the team’s chirping on the subject, it seemed to be a common occurrence.
“Never said it was going to be a warm vacation,” Sid said, grinning that shit-eating grin that turned his face crooked. He hoisted his bag on his shoulder and walked backwards with Zhenya following him, the same way they had that night in Detroit. “C’mon. You don’t get your stuff upstairs soon you’re gonna make us both late. Don’t wanna piss off the new coach and get your minutes docked.”
Most of the partying happened in between the Skills Competition and the games, so after the games, Zhenya excused himself to his hotel room and stripped out of his smelly base layers and called Sid on Facetime.
“Are you naked?” Sid asked incredulously when he picked up the call. He was swinging his phone around wildly. Zhenya could see all the way up his nose. “How was it? Jesus, let me go upstairs.”
Zhenya watched him wander through his house and set the phone on his bedside table, plopping himself down on the bed. He was wearing running shorts and a white shirt that looked like it had grass stains on the shoulder, but Zhenya thought he looked cute. “I saw you score,” Sid said, smiling and bending his face down into the frame. “Pretty hard shot, eh?”
“Can’t beat Weber,” Zhenya said, rolling his eyes. Why they even had that competition was anyone’s guess. Weber won every time.
“It’s true,” Sid said, laughing so hard it shook the bed and the screen started wobbling. “Dude is a monster.”
“Take off your shirt,” Zhenya said, smiling and lying down on his belly so Sid could see the full shape of his round ass, lovingly highlighted by the light of the hotel lamps. “Tomorrow you come over, okay? Congratulate me.”
“Oh yeah?” Sid pulled his shirt off from the bottom up, slowly revealing his soft pink belly, his thick chest without a single smattering of hair. Zhenya wanted so badly to put his hands on it. “You want a cake? Flowers?”
“Bring me,” Zhenya said, laughing.
He wanted everything.
“Gonna give us the intel, Gene?” Flower asked, sliding his gangly limbs into the chair next to Zhenya’s during the morning meeting. “I expect a full scouting report in my stall by tomorrow.” Zhenya laughed, feeling a little weird that he didn’t feel weird about it. He had thought a lot about this day over the summer. What would it be like standing across from his old friends? Putting on a new sweater and seeing all that red reflected back on the other side. He had thought that perhaps he might feel somewhat out of his own body, like a spectator watching his life happen.
But his closest friends in Carolina had left in free agency. He wouldn’t have to try to battle with Sema in front of the net, thank god.
The night of the game, Zhenya got called out of the locker room into the hall while he was only half-dressed. Staaly and Nasher were waiting for him at the door, standing there next to an amused-looking Horny, who was probably the worst and least threatening bouncer that Zhenya had ever seen.
“Just came to say good game, Malk,” Nasher said, smiling brightly and patting Zhenya on the shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on us, eh?”
“No chance,” Zhenya said, laughing. He would go as hard as he wanted, and what he wanted, selfishly, was to win. He wanted to show them, the whole organization: this is me, this is what you didn’t need anymore. Your loss.
Staaly leaned in for a hug. He was tall and blond and as genial as ever. The typical Canadian guys’ guy. “Did ya see I got the ‘C,’ buddy?” he asked, slapping Zhenya on the back. “Job’s not as easy as you made it look.”
“You do good job,” Zhenya said. It was true. He could admit Staaly would probably be a better captain than he had ever been, in time.
When Zhenya went to follow Tanger down the hall to line up and wait for their cue, Sid tugged him back with a hand on the tender crook of his elbow, right between his pads. “Wait up a sec,” Sid said. He looked oddly bashful, standing there against the doorframe all suited up.
“I forget something?” Zhenya asked, patting himself to make sure nothing was out of place.
“No, no, just—” Sid said. He guided Zhenya back into the room by the arm and slipped past him into the hall. “I’ll go first, okay? You can—follow me.”
Zhenya raised his brow so high he thought it might merge with his hairline. “You. Let me go out last?” He put a hand to Sid’s head over his visor. “You okay? You sick? Dying?”
Sid chuckled at him and ducked away. “I’m not dying, c’mon,” he said, and then gestured impatiently for Zhenya to stay put. “This is your one chance. I’m not offering again. Take it or leave it.”
Zhenya leaned against the doorframe that Sid had vacated, smiling at the sight of Sid’s cheeks aflame under the plastic visor. “You let me go last every time?” he teased, feeling a whole kind of way about it, like each fight and frustration, every mistake had been worth it, in the end. Nothing good came without hardship, and Zhenya knew that he had found that here: his own good thing.
“Maybe,” Sid said, and narrowed his eyes when Zhenya’s smile turned wide and smug. “I’ll think about it.”
Zhenya stood there and looked at Sid for a moment, memorizing the shape of his face, the stubborn set of his jaw. He was so unlike the cardboard cutout of himself that Zhenya had once thought him to be: the heated rival, the magazine cover, the small grainy figure skating across Zhenya’s mother’s television. Zhenya could admit privately that he liked the new model much better. He hoped to keep it.
“We gonna go?” Sid asked, looking down the corridor where their teammates awaited them, the crowd, the slick, shiny ice.
“Walkout in thirty seconds, boys!” one of the assistants shouted, pacing up and down the hall.
“Yeah,” Zhenya said. He gave Sid a small pat of private thanks and understanding through his chest protector. “C’mon, Sid. Let’s go.”
Sullivan had Zhenya in the starting line-up. Zhenya stood there at center ice with his old teammates at his back and his new ones beside him, holding his chains in his fist. When he looked up at the crowd, the sound of their singing melted away.
In his bones, Zhenya could feel it. He was a Penguin now: a new system, a new captain to follow, new colors to brandish on his chest. He wasn’t a boy stuck in Magnitogorsk anymore, too scared to make the next leap. When he skated out to face Staaly and they dropped the puck, it was this city he was playing for, this chance, his team.