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The Rising Tide

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Zhenya could tell things were getting bad back in Pittsburgh when Sid started calling to talk to him about the weather. It hadn’t concerned him when Sid was calling to discuss strategy for when the season started back up or to relay a message from the team or even to outright commiserate about the pandemic. He worried when, two months in, Sid began calling to talk about nothing at all.

“It’s sunny today,” Sid said through the receiver. He didn’t sound happy about it or sad—more like a weatherman at three in the morning giving an exhausted report for an audience of one. Lounging on his balcony in the bright Miami morning, Zhenya could only hum an acknowledgment.

“Here, too,” Zhenya said, squinting out over the turquoise water. “It’s nice. I’m outside since I wake up, before it get too hot.”

“Same, I’m out by the pool. I’m thinking about going swimming later.” Sid said it with a groan in his voice like getting into the pool was an unavoidable obligation.

“Hot enough for swim already?” Zhenya asked. He had been in Pittsburgh in May before, but they had always been going through a playoff run. He’d never had the chance to swim at Sid’s until fall when things were less tense.

“Sure. I’ve been trying to get in a few dozen laps a day, something to keep me busy.” He sounded mournful at the idea, but Zhenya was glad he was finding ways to occupy his time. Sid was not a good homebody. He lived for going places, seeing people. Zhenya could only imagine the mental toll being stuck at home could take if Sid let it.

“How fast you go?” Zhenya asked, idly encouraging Sid’s attempts to keep himself busy.

“I don’t time the laps—how could I? Swim with my phone? Ask the neighbor to watch me through the fence with a stopwatch?”

“Get really big clock. One for both end.”

“Yeah, well. It’s not like it matters. I’m not training for swimming, just trying to keep my cardio up for when hockey comes back. If hockey comes back.” Sid said the last part petulantly, a kid kicking rocks because he didn’t get his way. They both knew the league was working on getting hockey back. It was only a matter of time before they played again, but Sid was clearly losing his patience.

Zhenya chuckled and stretched his legs out. “I never see you like this.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, like—whine.”

Sid didn’t lighten up at the jab, laugh like Zhenya thought he would. At first, he didn’t say anything at all. The silence stretched on so long Zhenya started to worry, flipping through his lexicon of English words trying to figure out if he had used the wrong one. Maybe he had called Sid something nasty.

Finally, Sid sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. You just—don’t know what it’s like. I’m fucking bored.”

“Sure, I understand,” Zhenya said, eager to grasp onto a common complaint. The national quarantine measures had everyone feeling pretty stir crazy.

To his surprise, Sid struck back at him. “No, you don’t. You have someone there with you. It’s different alone.”

Zhenya deflated at the reminder that he had convinced Nikita to quarantine with him. “I think you want Nikita to move in. You say before—”

“I know what I said.” Sid’s tone sounded strained. He breathed out for a long time. When his voice came back, it contained a sheepish little smile. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Zhenya said. The words sounded automatic, and he knew Sid could tell.

“I’m happy, G. Really. I wouldn’t want you in my shoes. I don’t think you could handle it.”

Zhenya snorted, glad to hear the hesitant teasing making its way back into Sid’s voice. “I can handle fine. I like to live alone.”

“Says the man who never has.”

Zhenya scoffed, but it wasn’t untrue. He owned a house in Pittsburgh, but he always had people there—friends, family, teammates, whoever. And now he had Nikita, taking up his space, leaving hair products on the bathroom counter, and drinking all the pineapple juice. If Zhenya wanted someone to talk to or show something on his phone or pick a fight with, all he had to do was walk through the condo and find Nikita.

The best Sid could do was Facetime.

Sid continued. “I guess I never realized how little time I spend working out. It seemed like a lot before. I’m on two-a-days—Andy’s restricting me and—it feels like it takes a couple of minutes, you know? And then there’s nothing again.”

The most alarming thing was how matter-of-fact Sid sounded about his plight. Zhenya almost preferred his earlier complaining.

“You can go to park, still?” Zhenya said, scrambling for something to say. “Maybe rent ice.”

“There’s no ice. They melted it all,” Sid groaned. Undoubtedly, he had called every rink in the city. “I got kicked out of a school parking lot for rollerblading.”

Zhenya barked a surprised laugh. “When? You don’t tell me.”

“Yesterday. I didn’t want to tell you.”

“What, why?”

“I was embarrassed, getting told off like a teenager.”

“Go to my house. You know code. You can skate there.”

“Yeah, I might just do that. Kill another three or four minutes a day.”

“You can jerk off, too,” Zhenya said, leering at the ocean as though Sid could see him.

Sid’s laugh sounded clipped and caustic. “Yeah, well. Any more of that, and my dick will fall off.”

Zhenya perked. “You do a lot?”

“I’ve been living here alone for two months. Figure it out.”

Zhenya adjusted his dick through his sweatpants. It really wanted to take an active interest in imagining Sid stripping his cock six times a day, and he wasn’t inclined to talk it down.

Before the season paused, whatever that meant. Before the pandemic became an unavoidable roadblock in everybody’s lives, things had begun moving along for Sid and Zhenya. After they left Tampa, they had gone on a real date in Miami, as promised. It had ended with Sid shyly kissing him in a hotel elevator before sucking him off in his room. Sid had even stayed until Zhenya dropped off to sleep, ducking out quietly sometime before dawn without waking him.

Things had changed even more when they got back to Pittsburgh. At first, Zhenya had assumed Sid’s new romantic steps had more to do with one-upping Nikita. Once he was satisfied that his position was secured and their long-established connection would continue, Zhenya thought Sid would back off, retreat into his old habits. To his surprise, Sid did the opposite.

On Valentine’s Day, Sid came over after practice with a fancy box of candy and shrugged defensively when quizzed on it. “I don’t know. I thought you might like it. If you don’t—”

Zhenya definitely did and proved it by popping a candy into his mouth with an exaggerated moan of delight. When he looked, Sid was watching him with a smile creeping out from under his mask of indifference.

And the candy was just the start. Suddenly, Sid wanted to take him to the movies and cook him dinner and just generally be around him. It was overwhelming to realize the closeness that they perhaps always could have had, but Zhenya basked in it. He had spent the month after Tampa touching Sid whenever he wanted—once even called him in the middle of the night to come over and fuck him.

After all that, Zhenya thought as he squeezed his dick, surely Sid wouldn’t be too shy to talk about jerking off. Sid wouldn’t mind—might even like it—if Zhenya got off on the stories.

“You do it same place every time?” Zhenya asked. It could be an innocent question, not leading. If Sid laughed or deflected, Zhenya could play it off like he wasn’t touching himself through the soft fabric of his pants, playing idly with his balls.

“Not exactly,” Sid said, sounding delightfully guilty. “It’s just—whenever the mood strikes.”

“Let me guess all the places. Shower—I know you do it in the shower. That’s your favorite.”

“It took you twelve years to figure that out?”

Zhenya charged on past the teasing, determined to get through the hairline crack Sid had left in the door. “Also on couch, I think. Second favorite.”

“Not the bed?”

“No, you sleep in bed. Maybe when you wake up, you do it, but not always.”

Sid huffed a laugh. It managed to sound more aroused than amused. “Okay, yeah. You got me. I’m on the couch a lot watching stuff, playing games.”

“In kitchen?”

Sid snorted. “That’s gross. But—yeah, once. Shut up.”

Zhenya cut a glance around. He knew his balcony was fairly private, particularly with most of his neighbors not taking their regular vacations. The majority of the condos were vacant for the time being. Where he might once have risked something, he knew he could push his shorts down and pull out his dick with impunity. He shoved the shorts artlessly with one hand until they stretched around the tops of his thighs.

“You do it outside?” Zhenya asked—a targeted question. Sid had said he was outdoors, and he would pick up what Zhenya was suggesting. With a hand cupped around his dick, Zhenya held his breath and waited to see if Sid would follow his lead.

Sid didn’t say anything for a long stretch, then, “Well. I hadn’t.”

Zhenya’s body zapped to life with excitement. He had him. Sid was going to jerk off with him outside by his pool. Zhenya tugged his cock victoriously, coaxing it up. “I like to do it outside.”

“Fucking degenerate,” Sid chirped, even though Zhenya could hear the breathy quality of his voice as all of his blood and attention gathered in his dick.

“It’s nice outside. Warm,” Zhenya said, spreading his knees more comfortably. He took his hand off his dick to spit in his palm and heard Sid inhale sharply.

“That’s the problem, eh? No lotion on your porch.”

Zhenya pumped himself a couple of times and spat again. “I don’t mind. But it’s okay if you don’t want. You say you do it enough—all day. You can just listen.”

“Yeah, right,” Sid said in a rush. “This is the closest thing to sex I’ve had in months. I’m not passing it up.”

“You can call me anytime. We can always do it together.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Where are you?” Zhenya asked, circling his thumb over the head of his dick.

“Outside, I told you—”

“No, tell me where.”

Sid paused to understand what Zhenya was asking him and then spoke. “My back porch. I’m sitting at the table. I have the umbrella open—some shade.”

Zhenya's eyes fell closed as he imagined it. He could see the expanse of Sid’s backyard, his pool, the cozy deck. Near the railing, Sid sat on the bench of his picnic-style table, the one everyone sat at when Sid cooked out. Zhenya had eaten at that table a bunch of times when Sid hosted. He knew it well enough to envision the grain of the wood under Sid’s elbows.

“Feet underneath table?” Zhenya asked.

“Well—yeah. That’s how most people sit at a table, G.”

“Turn around.”

Zhenya heard the shuffle of movement as Sid turned, leaning back against the table instead of facing it. “Done.”

Zhenya put his head back and stroked his dick. “Open your legs.”

Rustling on the line. Zhenya imagined Sid’s huge thighs parting, spreading with his unbelievable flexibility to open up and let someone in. He could let Zhenya in. “Okay,” Sid said.

Zhenya breathed. There was no way Sid didn’t hear how it shook on the exhale. He ran his tongue across his bottom lip. “Now I can sit there, on my knees.”

Sid swallowed audibly. “Yeah, you sure can.”

“You say you jerk off too much. Maybe instead, I can suck on you.”

“That would be really nice.” Sid sounded relieved at the prospect, sinking into the fantasy.

“While I do it, I can touch you,” Zhenya charged on eagerly. He wanted to make Sid feel good, to forget about the weather and the season and everything except Zhenya’s mouth and hands on his body.

“You going to touch my balls?”

“Sure, they big. Heavy. I like how it feel.”

Sid swore under his breath.

“Maybe I also touch your asshole.”

“No lube.”

Zhenya brushed aside his annoyance at Sid for being so literal with a fantasy. “I will go get. You stay right there.”

“Quick, or I’ll come before you get back.”

“No, you want my mouth,” Zhenya said.

“Yeah, I do. So bad.” Sid almost sounded like he was pleading, which sent a new shock of arousal through Zhenya. He sounded desperate.

“Okay, I bring lube and put in you with my fingers. I will suck on your balls while I do it, so you don’t come yet.”

“Oh, I don’t think there’s anything stopping that at this point.”

Zhenya smirked but kept his eyes closed, the vision of Sid’s splayed thighs and wet asshole painted on his eyelids. “Okay, so maybe I let you. Suck your dick while I put two finger in. You like it a lot, hmm?”

“Yeah,” Sid said, clipped and breathy. Zhenya could just hear the rhythmic beat of his hand jerking his dick. He was not just ramping up—he was going for it. “You can do another one.”

“I will do them all. Then maybe put my dick in, too. You like that?”

Sid made a punched sound when he came. Zhenya squeezed his eyes tightly shut and pumped himself a couple more times to follow Sid over.

“Fuck,” Sid breathed. His panting turned into laughter. “Jesus Christ, Geno.”

The swell of affection in Zhenya crested over into an unexpected wave of sorrow when he opened his eyes. Nothing was in front of him but the ocean. Sid was a thousand miles away, untouchable. Alone. Zhenya’s throat felt tight, imagining Sid jerking off—what had felt so hot a moment ago now seemed unbearably sad.

“Okay,” Sid interrupted his melancholy thoughts. “I gotta go. Clean up.”

“Sure. Me too. But Sid?”

“Yeah?”

Zhenya opened his mouth to say what he wanted to say, what he had wanted to say for weeks, since before he even left Pittsburgh. And, as he had every time, he chickened out. Instead, with an intentional leer in his voice, he said, “Call anytime.”

Sid snorted a laugh and hung up.

Zhenya jumped a mile when the slow clapping started. “Very nice,” Nikita said. Zhenya craned his head back to look at him, leaning with one shoulder against the door frame. Nikita was smiling, but the way his eyebrows arched made Zhenya suspect he wasn’t entirely pleased. “Outside, really? You want the world to see you?”

Zhenya’s eyes wandered down from Nikita’s face to the bulge in his shorts. “You look like you don’t mind.”

“Mind?” Nikita said, deadpan. “My boyfriend disappears on me and I find him jerking off on the phone with some other guy—why would I care about that?”

“Aw, baby. Are you jealous? You need a little loving, too?” Zhenya patted his thighs, waggling his eyebrows back at Nikita.

Nikita inspected him thoroughly, eyeing him up and down with narrowed eyes like there was a chance he wouldn’t come over and let Zhenya take care of him. They both knew better.

Sure enough, Nikita detached himself from the doorway and strolled across the balcony to swing a leg over Zhenya’s lap. He didn’t lower down, though, leaving his crotch on the level with Zhenya’s face. Most importantly, his mouth, which Nikita touched with his thumb in the world’s least subtle gesture. When Zhenya grinned up at the blatant request, Nikita shrugged shamelessly.

“It’s what you wanted from Sid, right? His dick in your mouth.”

“You fucking treasure,” Zhenya growled, clutching both hands onto Nikita’s hips to bury his face against the solid column of his trapped dick. “That’s what you’ll do for me? Make all my fantasies come true?”

“I’ll let you suck my dick,” Nikita said wryly. “The rest—we’ll see about.”

Zhenya clawed open Nikita’s shorts only enough to get his dick out and sucked him down eagerly. The fabric and zipper brushed against his cheeks like annoying insects while he worked, but he didn’t stop to rectify the problem. From Nikita’s ragged breaths and quiet groans, he knew he wouldn’t have to put up with it long. It filled Zhenya with smug satisfaction that Nikita had gotten so worked up watching him jerk off with Sid.

Nikita tensed up at the end and went boneless after, sinking to straddle Zhenya’s thighs before the taste of him faded from Zhenya’s mouth. He offered a short kiss before he continued melting down and finally stopped with his head on Zhenya’s shoulder.

“Did that make it up to you?” Zhenya asked, unable to hold back his teasing.

“It’s a start,” Nikita replied, yawning. “How’s Sid?”

Zhenya wished he could see Nikita’s face to gauge whether he actually wanted to know. “I thought you didn’t care.”

“I don’t.” Nikita rolled his head on Zhenya’s shoulder before he managed to pick it up, then flopped over to sit next to Zhenya on the padded seat. “He’s calling a lot,” Nikita said, picking at a thread on his shorts like it had all of his focus.

“Give him a break. He’s bored out there by himself,” Zhenya said, then amended, “He’s lonely.”

“Hmm.” Nikita kept picking at the thread. He was quiet for a minute, then said, “Why don’t you ask him to come?”

“Come here?”

Nikita shrugged. “If he’s lonely. You’ve been tested. Me too. He’s isolated. What’s the problem?”

Zhenya could think of so many problems he didn’t know where to begin. Before he could start listing them, Nikita continued.

“Don’t act like you don’t want him to. You almost asked him in the beginning.”

It was true, but Zhenya hadn’t told Nikita that. “How do you know?”

“Because you’re not subtle, darling. I could tell you were sniffing around the idea when we first started talking about coming down. Were you hoping I would suggest it? Bring Sid, we’ll have another threesome.”

Zhenya craned back away from Nikita to see his face, to see what he might be feeling. A smile tugged at Nikita’s mouth, which meant his sarcasm was only joking, not bitter. Which also meant he wasn’t scornful of the idea of Sid coming to Miami. A painful bubble of hope rose in Zhenya that it might be possible.

“I don’t think he would come,” Zhenya said, cautiously floating the idea that he might ask.

“He’s practically here already, as much as you two are on the phone. Why on earth wouldn’t he come?”

“Well,” Zhenya said, grimacing. He didn’t want to say it, but Sid would say no because he didn’t want to intrude. No matter what Zhenya told him, he would worry about Nikita’s disapproval.

Nikita picked up what Zhenya meant without being told. Instead of backing down, he looked determined.

“Okay, well. What if I ask him?”

Zhenya snorted. “Then he would definitely not come.”

“Want to bet?”

Nikita’s stubbornness on the subject surprised Zhenya. He wasn’t entirely sure how to react. While he appreciated Nikita’s sudden interest in offering to bring Sid to Miami, he wasn’t sure why Nikita cared so much.

But the temptation was too great. Zhenya couldn’t resist the possibility that Nikita might actually talk Sid into coming. Zhenya worked his mouth, contemplating, and finally said, “How much?”

Nikita didn’t blink, but there was a definite smugness in his expression when he named his wager. “Two hundred dollars.”

Zhenya whistled. “Steep. You sure you can afford it?”

“I won’t have to,” Nikita said, utterly confident.

“Okay, fine. Two hundred. You bring him here, and I’ll shower you with ones. Like a stripper.”

Nikita looked at him then with a glint in his eye—stubborn and calm. It reminded Zhenya of something. Once, during a game in Tampa, the ref had kicked the Lightning center out of a faceoff after a warning, and Nikita took it as his replacement. It was the only time Zhenya had ever faced Nikita across the dot. He had grinned up, thinking they would share a private moment of amusement before they got back to business, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Nikita had looked at him, stubborn and calm, unconcerned with Zhenya’s opinion of how things would go. And that one faceoff, Nikita won.

*****

Sid arrived a week later. Nikita collected his payment before allowing Zhenya out the door to go pick him up at the airport. He smirked as he tucked the money into his pocket but tipped his chin up for a kiss. “Happy?” Nikita asked, smug beyond measure.

“Very,” Zhenya replied, because he would have paid so much more to get Sid to come.

Zhenya’s joy magnified when he pulled up to the airport pickup spot and discovered Sid had brought a suitcase. Over the years, Zhenya had learned Sid’s travel habits. On roadies lasting less than five days, Sid would only pack a small, black duffel bag. For longer trips, Sid brought a whole suitcase. It seemed he planned on staying at least a week. Maybe more. Maybe—Zhenya could hardly dare to think—until the NHL announced the return of the season.

Zhenya had to refrain from kissing Sid when he jumped out to help with the bags. His kiss would have landed on a plain, black mask instead of Sid’s lips if he’d tried. He diverted at the last second for a hug instead. He had thought in the car about what he might say in the moment. He had thought he might tease Sid about getting fat in quarantine or brush against his overgrown beard and giggle about it. But something about the way Sid held him, just shy of too tight—Zhenya kept quiet and buried his face into Sid’s shoulder without a word.

“Hi,” Sid said, voice soft and just for him.

“Hi,” Zhenya echoed, clinging to Sid like the late morning humidity. He knew he had to let go. They had to get in the car and drive, but Sid seemed so content to stay, hugging at the airport forever. He had to force his arms to let go and immediately start walking away from Sid’s magnetic pull. “Come on, slowpoke,” he called over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Sid chuckled and followed him to the car, and then they were driving away from Miami proper and toward the privacy of Zhenya’s condo, where he didn’t have to worry about restraining himself.

Zhenya didn’t let Sid get two steps beyond the front door before he attacked. He slid his hand against Sid’s to take his suitcase smoothly away, then dropped it out of the way where it couldn’t come between them. When Sid turned, Zhenya pulled him close and kissed him like he had wanted to at the airport.

At first, Sid’s lips felt alarmingly unfamiliar—a consequence of their weeks apart. After so many seasons of training camp reunions, Zhenya was used to the shock of not anticipating every one of Sid’s movements. Unlike his younger self, he no longer grew anxious at the awkward dance, a bump of noses as they tried to find a rhythm together. They would smooth the edges out in no time, as always.

Only, just as the old familiarity began to shine through, Sid abruptly ripped away. “Nikita,” he said as though he had just remembered.

“He’s fine,” Zhenya said, tugging on Sid to get him back. Sid didn’t budge. “Really. He don’t mind. He can catch up.”

“I should at least say hello,” Sid said, propriety guiding his actions even with an obvious erection straining down one leg of his stretchy jeans.

Zhenya wasn’t interested in a charade of politeness. He grasped Sid’s hand to stop him from moving and leaned into the condo to call Nikita’s name. When silence answered him, he shrugged. “See? Gone. Probably gym—he go this time a lot.”

As Zhenya talked, he sauntered close to Sid and pressed his body back against a wall. Sid let himself be manhandled and pinned, happy for the moment following Zhenya’s lead. When Zhenya nosed in close, hovering over his mouth instead of kissing him, Sid closed the gap. Clearly, his resolve to hold off until he greeted Nikita was crumbling.

Sid confirmed his eagerness by sliding his hands around Zhenya’s body and down to his ass. He got a firm grip to yank his hips forward, giving himself something to press his dick against. Zhenya grinned against his mouth.

“You want to stop?” Zhenya asked, squirming a hand between them where he could cup it around Sid’s dick through his pants. “Want go to gym, see Nikita? Say hello?”

Zhenya reared back to look at Sid through his eyelashes. He had already won, and they both knew it. Sid swallowed while Zhenya stroked his dick lightly through the denim. Zhenya could practically see Sid’s control snap before he pushed on Zhenya to get him moving away from the wall.

They didn’t make it to a bedroom, landing on the nearest soft surface where Zhenya could shove Sid down and suck his dick like he had promised to on the phone. Sid came fast, unsurprising considering his months-long monogamy with his hand. Zhenya got so worked up from Sid’s noises that he didn’t make it off his knees, just jerked himself off between Sid’s massive thighs and came in shuddering waves.

Sid touched his hair in the stillness afterward, tugging it lightly while Zhenya rested his cheek against Sid’s knee. He heard when Sid breathed out a long sigh—a release—and finally settled. Without a word between them, Zhenya knew Sid was happy he had come.

*****

Nikita didn’t return to the condo for a long time—long enough that Zhenya knew his absence must be by design. Even his longest cardio days didn’t take two hours.

Unfortunately, restless from travel, Sid didn’t let Zhenya take full advantage of Nikita’s gift of time to nap and recharge and maybe go another round. He pushed Zhenya for a tour of the condo as if he wouldn’t have figured out where the bathroom was on his own. When he had explored every inch of the place, Sid dropped his suitcase in one of the guest rooms and turned with his hands on his hips. “Well. Should we figure out lunch?”

“Sure, have plenty freezer meals here—me and Nikita. You can try how Lightning eats.”

Sid wrinkled up his nose reflexively, probably both at the idea of trying something new and eating lunch out of a freezer.

“Okay, picky. Maybe we also have tuna.”

Zhenya turned Sid loose on the kitchen, where he rummaged up some vegetables and a head of lettuce Zhenya was sure neither of them had ordered.

“Salad okay? You sear the tuna while I do the vegetables?” Sid asked. He had a way of making questions sound like orders. He was lucky Zhenya was in a compliant mood, though he made a face and stole a kiss as payment before he got to work on the fish.

And that was how Nikita found them when he returned, predictably sweaty from the gym and the jog back. His shirt clung to his body like a second skin, the swell of his shoulders and pecs looking more obscene than if he’d simply gone shirtless. If Zhenya wasn’t very much mistaken, Sid was having trouble keeping his eyes up, locked on Nikita’s face instead of his nipples. They were hardening in the air conditioning, peaking under the wet fabric of the thin shirt.

“Hi Sid,” Nikita said casually, a little breathy from the jog. If he noticed Sid’s struggle, he didn’t acknowledge it.

“Hey, good to see you. Sorry I missed you earlier. Geno said you were at the gym.”

“Yes, I was thinking I have lots of time. I think Zhenya will take you out for lunch, maybe. Not make you cook.” Nikita made a disapproving sound while his eyes glimmered evilly at Zhenya.

“You liar,” Zhenya scolded him in Russian. “I told you we were coming right back. Besides, what restaurants are even seating people?”

Nikita shrugged and stopped by Sid’s cutting board to snag a piece of carrot. “You owe me,” he said in Russian, and winked.

A soft blanket of fondness wrapped around Zhenya. He had known, of course, that Nikita was giving them time together. But the confirmation touched his heart, particularly knowing Nikita had somewhat mixed feelings about Sid’s visit. He looked pleased with himself—like Zhenya’s happiness fulfilled his own needs as well. Zhenya nodded subtly and said, “Thank you.”

Sid looked between them, obviously clued in that their conversation meant something important. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, everything is good,” Nikita said in English before Zhenya could talk. “I’m going to shower.”

Sid’s eyes trailed after Nikita when he pulled away and continued his journey to the shower. Zhenya grinned privately when he turned back to the stove, pleased to see Sid enjoying the view Nikita provided. It was one of the many perks of living in Miami.

Without prompting, Sid assembled salad on three plates like he knew Nikita would be joining them. Zhenya topped them with slices of pan-seared tuna. By the time he carried two of the dishes to the table, Nikita was reappearing, hair wet from his shower. He nearly bypassed them before realizing there was a third place setting. He looked a little taken aback but joined them with an uncertain smile.

“This looks really good. Thanks, Sid,” Nikita said in his obnoxiously seamless English. “I don’t know you can cook.”

“I don’t know if salad is cooking,” Sid chuckled, but he looked pink and happy about the compliment. “Veggies are doing most of the heavy lifting.”

“Whatever, it taste good. If this how you cook for him, I see why Zhenya like you so much. He need someone to cook or he just eat eggs every day.”

“Hey,” Zhenya complained when Sid snorted a laugh and nodded.

“Yeah, I’m familiar with the ‘every meal is breakfast’ plan—he’s been on it for years.”

“Who make the fish today?” Zhenya asked hotly.

“That is fair,” Sid said with a shrug. “Geno grilled the fish.”

“See?” Zhenya said, smugly right in the face of their wrongness.

Nikita’s eyes glinted meanly up at him, his sharp tongue undoubtedly spooling up some insult. But the sarcasm never came. Instead, Nikita let his lips curve fondly. “If two chef live here now that’s not good for me. I’ll be fat when hockey comes back.”

Nikita’s praise felt like a soothing balm over so many cuts from his daily loving insults. Zhenya basked in it.

“It would be in our interest,” Sid mused around a bite of spinach and mushroom. When he realized Nikita and Zhenya were both staring, he offered the opposite of an apologetic shrug. “To make you fat. When we leave here, we’re still rivals.”

A drop of delight spread rapidly across Nikita’s face, welling up in his eyes and pulling at his mouth. Nothing ticked his boxes like petty threats, and realizing he could insult Sid with impunity put him on familiar footing. “It’s okay if you need cheat to beat my team. I understand.”

Zhenya darted his eyes between them, too tense about Sid’s reaction to get defensive of the Penguins on his own. He watched Sid absorb the challenge in Nikita’s words and take it with an easy grin, unworried.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Sid said, which would sound amiable to anyone who didn’t know him well. Zhenya knew better. If they played the Lightning in the playoffs, Sid would use Nikita’s teasing as fuel to play him hard. Zhenya could only hope that, if that happened, they would come out the other side not hating each other.

Nikita’s eyes glinted at Sid like he had passed some kind of test. “I think we’re going to get along just fine,” he said in Russian.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that,” Sid said, grinning around a bite like he was so pleased with himself.

“I say we should swim,” Nikita lied. “At pool. After lunch.”

Sid’s smirk said he didn’t believe Nikita’s translation, but he said, “Sure, I wouldn’t mind doing a couple of laps.”

“You just get here, and you want to work out?” Zhenya asked.

“It’s not working out—it’s swimming,” Sid replied. “We can race. For fun.”

Zhenya watched them exchange a challenging glance and vowed to fall asleep in the sun instead of getting into the water. There would be nothing fun about their contest—two overly competitive men trying to drown each other instead of losing. And Zhenya knew he would only add to the chaos if he joined.

Besides, he thought with a smirk down at his salad, he would only embarrass them both when he won.

*****

Despite the fight over who finished first in a tight race between Sid and Nikita, swimming turned out to be pretty fun. Even the bickering was mostly good-natured, if only because Sid’s legitimate fury amused Nikita instead of baiting him. Zhenya hid behind his sunglasses on a pool lounger pretending to be asleep until the squabbling simmered down, just to be safe. He only woke up when he heard Sid laughing. Then he dove into the pool with them.

They spent the whole afternoon outside together. After swimming, Sid decided he wanted a tour of the island, which Nikita jumped on as an excuse to drive one of the condo golf carts. Zhenya dangled his leg out the side of the cart, pointing out interesting things while Nikita sped them around in the little, battery-powered car.

By the time they swam and toured and returned to the condo for a shower, it was time for dinner. Nikita put Sid on vegetable duty and baked some chicken. To Zhenya, he said, “Pick wine.”

Sid clearly fought to contain a smirk that Nikita wouldn’t let Zhenya cook. He never thought bringing Sid down might result in them ganging up on him. But Zhenya couldn’t exactly complain about his lot. With no obligations, he could lazily prop himself against the kitchen counter, sipping wine while he watched Nikita bend over to check the chicken in the oven.

Of course, he paid for it after dinner, when Nikita left him to do the dishes. “Cooks don’t clean,” he explained in English, undoubtedly so Sid would be on his side. “I’m going to find a movie.”

Sid stayed seated at the table while Nikita wandered off, then levered himself up. “I’ll clear the table if you want to start washing.”

“You don’t have same rule? You cook, too.”

“Nah, I’ll help you. It’ll get done twice as fast that way.”

When Sid had brought him the plates and glasses from the table, he got busy scrubbing down the kitchen counters and putting up spices. By the time Zhenya closed the dishwasher door, the kitchen was sparkling. The cleaning service would never even know they’d used it. He watched Sid take a final glance around and give a satisfied nod before he put away the spray bottle of cleaner.

“There, that didn’t take long,” Sid said. “And now you can catch up on the movie. He can’t be more than five minutes in.”

“You come watch, too,” Zhenya said without wiggle room for Sid to say no.

“I can’t promise I’ll make it all the way through.”

It was no surprise to Zhenya that Sid might fall asleep. If he was tired enough, Sid would pass out as soon as his body was still. Zhenya had once caught him sleeping in a hard locker room chair with a towel around his neck to support his head and freshly-baked skates on his feet. If nobody had come along to wake him, he would have slept comfortably like that for hours. And after a day of travel, swimming, and a little too much sun—Sid was a goner.

But Zhenya didn’t say that. Acknowledging Sid’s exhaustion would feel too much like agreeing that Sid shouldn't come watch a movie. If he said it, Sid might reluctantly agree and realize he should go to bed, then wander off to the guest room instead.

“No, I think you stay awake. We put on loud, so you don’t sleep.”

Sid made a little grimacing gesture that clearly meant, “You can try,” but followed Zhenya’s footsteps through the condo. When they passed the den, Sid balked momentarily. “Isn’t this where you watch movies?”

“No, Nikita don’t like it,” Zhenya replied over his shoulder. Nikita never wanted to watch anything in the den where the high-end video projector could provide the best quality. Instead, he preferred to stretch out on the king-sized bed and put the movie on the wall-mounted TV in the bedroom. “He say couch is too soft. It eat him.”

Sid clearly didn’t grasp where they were going to watch the movie until he was frozen in the doorway of Zhenya’s bedroom staring at Nikita on the bed. Nikita dragged his eyes from the TV over to Sid, then flicked up to Zhenya for confirmation that they were really doing this. Zhenya had a moment of uncertainty. It hadn’t really occurred to him that Nikita might not let Sid join them in the bedroom. He thought Nikita’s invitation, his insistence on Sid coming, must mean he was all the way on board.

His hesitation eased when Nikita returned his gaze to Sid. “You can’t see TV from there.”

Sid grinned, clearly relieved, and ducked his way inside the room. Zhenya climbed over Nikita onto the bed, dropping a grateful kiss onto his mouth on the way.

They were barely past the opening credits of the movie before Zhenya looked over and found Sid lying beside him with his eyes closed. Nikita noticed, too. He started to reach across Zhenya to touch Sid’s shoulder, but Zhenya intercepted his hand.

“It’s no use,” Zhenya said, speaking Russian because it didn’t matter anymore. “He’ll wake up long enough to apologize and then fall back asleep in three seconds.”

Nikita chuckled and dropped a kiss on Zhenya’s shoulder. “Zhenya, you’ve been holding out on me. How many times have you talked him into sleeping over at your place?”

“He hasn’t been staying at my house. I know because he sleeps everywhere: buses, planes, hallways. It’s his main hobby.”

“Hmm,” Nikita said. He sounded a little troubled, like he had discovered a problem he needed to fix—but not right away. Instead, he settled against Zhenya’s side and put his head on his shoulder.

The movie was long, taking a while to get past the character introductions, but it wasn’t bad. Zhenya found himself engrossed in it. Nikita’s hand up his shirt helped, rubbing circles higher and higher on his belly. When the fabric was hiked up around his nipples, Zhenya awkwardly removed it and tossed it across the room to let Nikita explore as much as he wanted. Sid stirred a little at the movement but didn’t wake.

An hour in, just as the plot was starting to get tense, Nikita nudged Zhenya. “Turn.”

Zhenya obliged distractedly, rolling onto his side with his eyes still on the TV. He was face to face with Sid in this position. Their knees were nearly touching. He tore his eyes away from an action scene to glance at Sid. Affection spilled over inside him at Sid’s slack face, open-mouthed and turned slightly into the pillow.

And then a cap clicked open, and his ears perked. He craned to look back over his shoulder, eyebrows raised. Nikita shrugged shamelessly, holding a bottle of lube. “Get your shorts.”

“Sid is right here.”

“I don’t want to fuck you. I just want you to hold me for a while.”

Zhenya felt hot all over at the prospect. It was something they had only recently started, having never before had so much free time. Nikita did it sometimes while they watched TV, putting his dick inside Zhenya and just—staying there. Sometimes, he waited for ten minutes and then jerked off on Zhenya’s ass. Once, he had held still inside for half an hour, growing sweaty with need before his resolve broke. Then he rolled Zhenya onto his front to rut into his body until he came with a punched sound.

It was always a prelude to sex, though. It was never just holding.

Still, Zhenya thought, dick twitching as it began to firm up in anticipation, Sid wouldn’t mind. He pushed off his shorts and kicked them down to get lost in the sheets.

Nikita wasted no time getting his slick fingers between Zhenya’s ass cheeks, rubbing lube generously over his hole and dipping inside. When Zhenya was nice and wet, Nikita slicked up his cock and shuffled forward.

Zhenya shuddered out a breath at the slide of Nikita’s dick entering him. His body lit up, anticipating getting fucked. Instead, Nikita got all the way in and stopped.

“Oh, fuck. Zhenya,” Nikita said. He hooked an arm around Zhenya’s chest and used him as leverage to get even closer, to push his dick as far in as it would go. “You’re so warm.”

“Shh, watch your movie,” Zhenya replied. If he let Nikita get too worked up, it would be all over.

Nikita curled around Zhenya like a shell, his muscles rigid with tension at first before he slowly began to relax. His fingers returned to exploring Zhenya’s stomach and chest, circling his nipples. Every once in a while, he pulled his dick out just a little bit and pushed it back in, a flex of hips that reignited Zhenya’s body.

“I thought you wanted me to hold you,” Zhenya said, amused.

“I do. I’m just keeping it up for you. You don’t want a soft dick inside you, do you?”

Zhenya didn’t think that sounded bad, actually—a soft, warm intrusion in his body. He pushed his hips back reflexively, and Nikita took it as an answer.

“I didn’t think so,” Nikita said smugly.

They managed to stay like that for a long time, locked together and barely moving, before Nikita started to lose his patience. Zhenya could tell it was coming. Long before he broke, Nikita began mouthing at the back of his neck, nosing into his hairline, and just generally squirming around behind him. When Nikita rose up on his elbow, Zhenya knew it was time.

“Zhenya,” Nikita said, breathless and asking.

“Yes, do it,” Zhenya said. His dick had been gaining interest for a while, and he wasn’t much better off than Nikita.

Nikita stayed in the same position, his body curled around Zhenya as he locked a hand onto his hip for leverage to pull back and thrust in. The bed was moving with their bodies, but Zhenya didn’t care. He closed his eyes at the slick intrusion of Nikita’s cock, enjoying every spine-tingling moment until—

A hand closed around Zhenya’s dick, and his eyes snapped open. He found Sid looking back at him, searching his face for something. Zhenya pitched forward and kissed him, which was enough of an answer. Sid started moving his hand, jerking Zhenya off.

“Here,” Nikita said, puffing air as he tossed Sid the lube.

Sid’s newly-slick hand nearly made Zhenya come immediately. He groaned into Sid’s mouth, which must have tipped Sid off because he moved to cup Zhenya’s balls instead. His thumb moved in a light massage over each one, carefully cradling them as Nikita rocked inside Zhenya. Zhenya didn’t think he’d ever been so hard in his whole life.

When Sid’s hand returned to his dick, it only took a couple of pumps before Zhenya spilled so hard his stomach hurt from clenching. Nikita followed him over, beard dragging against Zhenya’s shoulder while his hips twitched helplessly.

“Wow,” Sid said. He looked awestruck when Zhenya opened his eyes. Nikita flopped a hand over Zhenya’s hip and groped until he found Zhenya’s wrist. He pushed it toward Sid.

“Take care of your husband,” he said. He sounded gassed after so much buildup and coming so hard. His dick was still inside, seemingly intent on staying in Zhenya’s ass while Zhenya slid a hand across the sheets to gauge Sid’s interest through his boxers—high, as it turned out.

“Want me to suck you again?” Zhenya asked against Sid’s mouth. Nikita would move for it, let him up to shimmy down Sid’s body.

But Sid shook his head. “No, like this,” he whispered, pushing his boxers down to give Zhenya access. After two months of jerking off as his only relief, Zhenya was surprised he would prefer a handjob, but he could immediately see the perks. They could kiss, for one thing, mouths moving against each other, sloppy and semi-distracted on both ends. Zhenya also got to keep Nikita inside him for as long as possible, which he always liked. He held the jostling to a minimum as he got Sid off with sharp, efficient strokes.

When Sid came, Zhenya aimed his dick so it rained onto his skin in hot droplets. If he hadn’t already come so spectacularly, he would run his hand through it and use it to jerk off. His dick gave a valiant pulse at the fantasy. He must have also clenched down because Nikita groaned in response and moved to pull out.

Sid broke the peace and stillness of them panting in the afterglow by saying, “Sorry about the late start, boys. I think I fell asleep.”

Nikita snorted a laugh. “No problem, you wake up just in time.”

They lay together in the ambiance of a CGI fight scene on the TV until, abruptly, the clamminess leaking down Zhenya’s butt cheek became unbearable. Zhenya groaned as he pushed himself up to crawl off the bed.

While he showered, Zhenya was dimly aware of Nikita and Sid moving into the bathroom, one of them rummaging around in the closet, then leaving. He was pleasantly surprised to find them both cleaned up and the sheets changed when he returned. They were even lying in approximately the same positions so he could clamber over Sid to settle between them again.

This time, it was Nikita who passed out, leaving Sid shoulder to shoulder with Zhenya against the headboard asking questions about all the plot points he had missed in the first two acts. Normally, Zhenya might get annoyed with the quiz. After all, he had been busy at the time with his mind only half on the movie. But Sid was lying with him in bed chatting about inane things before sleep. It felt so intimate, so hopeful, he had a hard time getting irritated when Sid asked who the love interest was and why they wanted to storm the castle in the first place.

Zhenya let himself go so far as to hope—briefly—that Sid might fall asleep again. That he might not leave.

But instead, the movie ended, and Sid sat up, stretching. “That was good.”

“You don’t even see most of it,” Zhenya teased. Disappointment settled in as he watched Sid swing his legs over the side of the bed and stand up.

“The last part was good. That’s the best part anyways, eh? The big fight.” Sid was grinning. His hair was messed up from rubbing against pillows. He looked soft and rumpled, and Zhenya wished he would stay. Instead, Sid offered an awkward little wave like he was departing a team event. “Night, G. See you in the morning.”

Zhenya nodded. “See you.” It was okay, he told himself as he watched Sid shuffle out of the room. They had always kept parts of their lives separate from each other—big parts. Significant parts. If Sid wanted to sleep alone, maybe that was just one of the things Zhenya couldn’t have from him.

When Sid was gone, Zhenya turned his back to the space where Sid had been and faced Nikita instead. He shuffled close enough to feel the warmth from Nikita’s body radiating against his, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the bed was a lot bigger than usual.

*****

Zhenya woke up with a heavy body draped against his back, and his arm stretched out across an empty expanse in front of him. At some point in the night, he had turned over. He pulled his arm back, annoyed with himself for reaching for Sid when he knew better.

Nikita shifted in response to Zhenya’s movement. His beard tickled the back of Zhenya’s neck when he kissed there. His kisses journeyed down Zhenya’s neck and up the slope of his shoulder until he reached the peak, which was apparently when he opened his eyes. He stopped moving. “Where’s Sid?”

“Guest bedroom, I imagine. He’s fine.”

Nikita reared back to squint at him disapprovingly.

“What? He needs his space. You’ll get used to it. Get back to kissing me. I like it.”

Nikita flopped down with his chin hooked over Zhenya’s shoulder. “You give him too much leash, darling. It’s no wonder he runs away.”

“He’s not a pet, Nika. He’s my friend.”

“Friend,” Nikita said, the word coming out as a derisive snort. Zhenya winced. He knew it wasn’t right, but he hadn’t put a word on whatever Sid was to him now, hadn’t dared to think. They were more than friends, no doubt, but they weren’t exactly boyfriends. Boyfriends slept together, talked about the future together. Sid wouldn’t plan anything with him but the next Cup run.

Lacking a sufficient label to put on his and Sid’s relationship, Zhenya lightly shoved Nikita’s head off his shoulder and grumbled, “You know what I mean.”

Nikita laughed, but he let it go after that, opting instead to continue dropping light kisses on every part of Zhenya’s skin and dip his fingers into Zhenya’s underwear. Zhenya had no complaints—stretching in the morning sunlight while Nikita played with his dick sounded like a perfect way to start the day.

By the time they got up, the sun was fully risen and brightening the day. Zhenya followed the smell of coffee and found Sid on the balcony, quietly enjoying the view of the light dancing on the water with a mug in his hand.

“Morning,” Zhenya said, joining him on the patio lounger. Sid turned a grin on him, looking so pleased to see him that Zhenya decided to try something he never had before. He scooted closer and pecked Sid on the lips—not a prelude to anything, but a comfortable greeting.

Sid looked a little flustered when Zhenya pulled back. After the dates they’d been on, the romantic gifts—most of all, after Sid had agreed to come to stay with them in Miami—Sid seemed surprised by an innocent kiss. Maybe Nikita was right about Zhenya needing to push Sid a little.

“That’s okay?” Zhenya asked, challenging Sid to acknowledge and accept another step in their progress.

“What—yeah. Of course.” Sid closed the gap to kiss him again to prove it, then settled back against the cushions with an arm stretched along the backrest. Zhenya scooted down and slung his legs across Sid’s thighs, which made Sid grin at him while protecting his coffee from the jostling. “Is this what it’s like living with you? You need attention all the time?”

“I think you know already that’s true,” Nikita said from the doorway. Sid jerked around to look at him, maybe guilty about getting caught snuggling with Zhenya in the daylight. Finding Nikita not bothered, calmly sipping the coffee he had snagged before joining them, Sid relaxed.

“You should stay next time,” Nikita continued, coming around to ease himself into a chair. “See how he is when he sleep. Like a hot blanket—so needy.”

Zhenya’s knee-jerk reaction was to sneer that he woke up with Nikita wrapped around his back, not the other way around. But uncertainty caught the words before they could form. Why did Nikita care so much if Sid stayed in bed with them? Pestering Zhenya about it privately was one thing. That could be easily explained away by Nikita’s love of teasing Zhenya mercilessly on every subject. But to bring it up with Sid seemed more like insisting than teasing.

“Yeah, sorry,” Sid said, pulling Zhenya from his thoughts. “I’m used to sleeping alone. Creature of habit, I guess. Besides, you guys have your routine. You don’t want me to mess it up.”

Nikita made a sound that Sid might have interpreted as acceptance, but it wasn’t. As he took a drink of his coffee, his eyes cut over Sid’s body, determined. Zhenya could tell it was far from the end of the discussion, even if he let it drop for the moment.

“I was thinking about hitting the gym here in a bit,” Sid said, changing the subject. “You guys want to go?”

“Not me,” Zhenya said. The last thing he wanted was to go to the gym with the two perfectionists watching. Sid would probably have Andy on his phone, too—a video call. He shuddered at the idea of listening to all three of them criticize his form. No, he would go later when the gym was empty and do his own thing in peace. “My legs is too tight. I need to walk first, go to gym later.”

Nikita leered at him, utterly not fooled by his excuses. “Old man.”

“Hey now,” Sid said, laughing. “I’m not far behind.”

“It’s okay, don’t worry,” Nikita said, his tone forgiving while viciousness shined in his eyes. “Old isn’t bad. You slow down, but you get smart.”

“Come to the gym with me, and I’ll show you old.” Sid said it like a joke, but he was far from kidding. He would push himself to the limit to show Nikita up after that kind of challenge.

“I’m okay with being old,” Zhenya said in Russian to avoid Sid roping him into some kind of Penguins pride offensive. “I’ll stay here and be lazy. You two have fun.”

Zhenya maintained his resistance to their cajoling through breakfast until they reluctantly accepted that he wasn’t going. He felt full of himself for standing his ground as they changed into gym clothes and went out the door and spent the first half an hour happily puttering around.

But the quiet got to him. He felt like he couldn’t settle in without the sound of distant footsteps or a TV in another room or just the presence of someone else sharing his space.

Rolling his eyes at his own weakness, Zhenya dragged himself to the bedroom to get changed and follow them. He would just get on a stationary bike at the gym until they were done with the weights. They couldn’t chirp his pedaling form.

Zhenya didn’t make it all the way to the gym before he found them. As he approached the tennis courts, Zhenya could hear laughter—familiar laughter. He walked up to the fence and peered through. Sid was grinning, pink and thrilled, on one side of the court. On the other side, Nikita twirled a racket in his hand. He was also smiling, shark-like. Zhenya watched him serve. Sid dove for the ball and barely got it, lobbing it back to Nikita, who spiked it out of bounds and swore.

“Okay, you have one point. Only because I mess up,” Nikita chirped.

“It’s early,” Sid said with a cocky grin. “I’ll come back.”

They were unaware of Zhenya’s presence, absorbed in the competition. He felt as irrationally ashamed as if he had snuck up on them fucking. Watching them prowl across the court, sweaty apex predators vying for position—he had to adjust his shorts to appease his rising dick.

As he had casually promised, Sid scored three points in a row and—judging by Nikita’s barely-joking temper tantrum—pulled ahead to win the game.

“Again,” Nikita demanded, retrieving his racket from where he had flung it.

Sid looked like he had no objection, smugly bouncing a ball on the ground. “Sure, bud. We can go again.”

Zhenya stepped away, sweating from more than the heat. Objectively, he knew they must be using tennis as a cardio warm-up before lifting, but it did all kinds of things to him. He couldn’t join them, not with the tent in his shorts, showing them how their competition affected him. No, he would go inside the gym where it was nice and cold and not sexy. Hopefully, he could talk his dick down by the time they journeyed indoors.

*****

It was a week into Sid’s visit before they heard anything about the NHL. By then, they had settled into a comfortable routine of mostly relaxing with workouts and sex sprinkled in—an ideal vacation, in Zhenya’s opinion. He got into the habit of tagging along with them to the gym, if only to spy on Sid beating Nikita at tennis. It never got any less hot and gave Zhenya ample opportunity to get his own workout in while they played.

In the afternoons, when the day’s chores and workouts were done, they all settled beside the pool or—on ambitious days—at the private beach half a mile up the shore. They spent the nights in bed, lounging with the TV on until somebody put a hand down someone’s shorts, and off they went. In that week, Zhenya found that he barely thought about when the NHL would return to play.

Until one morning when Nikita picked up his phone from the nightstand and froze. His eyes sharpened on the screen of his phone, looking serious enough that Zhenya thought it might be a family matter.

“You okay?” Zhenya asked.

Nikita turned the screen toward Zhenya, revealing an NHL Russia article detailing the league’s proposal for a return. Zhenya took the phone and skimmed the article. They were thinking about coming back as early as July.

“Try not to look so excited, darling,” Nikita said, his own surprise at the news overthrown by Zhenya’s gutted expression.

“This isn’t true,” Zhenya said. “I mean, it’s not finalized.”

“No, but it’s a start. I thought you wanted to play again?”

“I do, but—” he cut himself off. It would sound bad, what he wanted to say. Nikita wouldn’t understand. “Just don’t tell Sid yet, okay?”

Nikita cocked his head like he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the request. “Zhenya, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but your husband out there is Sidney Crosby. I don’t have to tell him anything. The whole world will beat me to it.”

Not my husband,” Zhenya said, teeth grinding. Nikita’s teasing on the issue of his relationship with Sid was getting relentless, and Zhenya was growing tired of it. “Maybe the English press isn’t on it yet. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to get his hopes up.”

Nikita watched his face pensively as he spoke. “Because you think he’ll leave.”

Zhenya couldn’t deny it.

“It’s just a proposal. He’s not going to hop the next flight because of a rumor.”

“You don’t know him. He’ll want to be in Pittsburgh, so he’s prepared for anything.”

“Even if it’s another three months before we actually return to play?” Nikita asked skeptically.

Zhenya shrugged and nodded.

“That’s ridiculous. Just go talk to Sid, get ahead of it. Tell him he should stay put until the league finalizes things. They won’t schedule us to start the next day. There will be time to travel back.”

“It’s not that simple with him. If he knows about it, he’ll want to go—just in case.”

“Okay, fine. I’ll go talk to him if you won’t.” Nikita swung his legs off the bed and nearly stood up before Zhenya could lunge and grab his arm.

“No, don’t. You can’t just—”

“What? Communicate with him?”

“There are lines we can’t cross, Nika. He’s got limits. If you push him, I’m afraid—”

Nikita cut him off with an irritable snap of sharp words. “You’re afraid of everything when it comes to Sid.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Zhenya wasn’t afraid of Sid. He just wanted to avoid giving him news that would make him prematurely travel back to Pittsburgh.

Nikita huffed out a sigh and pulled out of Zhenya’s grip to stand out of his reach, arms crossed. “I used to think Sid must be the biggest douchebag, the way you avoided him with anything important. But I get it now. You’re not scared of him. You’re protecting him. Keeping this one thing in his life, this relationship, simple for him. Easy. It’s sweet, Zhenya, honestly. But it’s not real.”

“What do you mean it’s not real? I’ve been with Sid for years, and everything’s been fine.”

“Really? How many of those years did you think what you had was nothing more than fuckbuddies? And from what I’ve seen, it’s not because Sid didn’t want you. It was because you wouldn’t push the issue. Just like you’re doing now—and who did it help?”

Zhenya gaped at him, grasping for words without success. Nikita took his silence for an opening to continue.

“You can’t protect him from having to make difficult choices to be with you. Real love is heavy and complicated, and if you want him, you have to let him see everything. Otherwise—what are we even doing here?”

“Are you talking about Sid or yourself?” Zhenya snapped. He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth, doubly so when he saw the stricken look that flashed over Nikita’s face before he replaced it with a sneer.

“If you have to ask that, maybe we have bigger problems than Sid going back to Pittsburgh early.”

Nikita huffed off to the bathroom after that, and Zhenya let him. The door fell closed softly, leaving Zhenya in the silent room feeling like he’d been hit by a shovel. He heard every rustle of the blankets as he dug himself out of bed. It felt like a retreat, leaving the room.

Only, when he opened the door, he found that there was nowhere to retreat to. Sid was there, hovering outside. He looked worried. “Hey, I was just coming to get you guys. I made oatmeal.”

“Good, I’m hungry,” Zhenya said. His voice echoed hollowly in his ears. If he were a dog, he would have his tail firmly tucked between his legs when he scooted past Sid to get away from the bedroom. Sid stayed with him, followed him to the kitchen on his heels. Zhenya could feel him spooling up a question before he asked it.

“Hey, I don’t mean to pry, but—is everything okay? I thought I heard you guys fighting.”

“No, not fighting,” Zhenya said—fighting was too strong a word for the one-sided knock-out punch Nikita had delivered. “Nika is just little bit upset. It’s okay.”

“It sounded pretty serious,” Sid said doubtfully.

“How you know? You don’t know Russian words,” Zhenya said as he grabbed a glass and poured it to the brim with orange juice.

“That’s true,” Sid admitted. “Could you just.” He cut off with a grimace before finding the fortitude to say the words. In a fast jumble, he spat out, “You’d tell me if it was about me, right? If I’m coming between you guys or—”

“No,” Zhenya snapped. He felt his heart beating, thrumming in his ears. “You’re fine. We’re happy you here.”

“I heard my name. A few times. Nikita sounded pretty mad.”

“Mad at me, not you. It’s fine, don’t worry.”

Sid continued looking pretty grim. “I don’t know if that’s better, him being mad at you because of me.”

“Sid, no. You don’t understand. He think I don’t tell you what I want. He think that’s a bad thing.”

Sid listened carefully and then huffed out a breath, a sound of sudden understanding. “Well. What do you want?”

Zhenya leaned back against the counter and studied Sid for a long beat, sipping his orange juice to stall. Then he set it down and took a breath. “NHL is making plan to go back.”

“Yeah, I know,” Sid said. “It’s just a proposal.” So Nikita was right—Sid knew about the proposal before they did. He had probably already started planning his return to Pittsburgh.

Zhenya’s eyes burned every time he looked at Sid’s face. Instead, he locked onto Sid’s bare feet—high-arched and long. They were elegant, his feet. The only part of Sid not best described as beefy. There was something incredibly intimate about Sid’s bare feet padding around the condo, propped up on the table outside while he sipped coffee in the morning—a caveman sense of vulnerability, of letting his guard down because he was comfortable.

“I want you to stay,” Zhenya said. It came out quiet and mush-mouthed, but he was surprised he could squeeze the words out at all. He was used to facilitating Sid in doing whatever he wanted. “Until we have real plan for playing, stay here. It’s very safe here. We have private gym—you can work out. Maybe we can find ice, too. If you want to start skating.”

A painful glance at Sid’s face didn’t put Zhenya at ease. His expression was unreadable, blank but for a vaguely perplexed frown pulling at his mouth. “That could be a long time,” he said. “I’m not sure Nikita would appreciate it if I stay another month.”

It wasn’t an outright no. If anything, Sid was searching for an excuse to say yes. The crushing feeling of anxiety on Zhenya’s chest loosened. “He will. You can ask him. I promise.”

After an eternity of not responding, Sid nodded. “Okay.”

“You stay?” Zhenya asked, heart in his throat.

“I’ll talk to him,” Sid said, a warning in his voice that he would need Nikita’s approval before he committed, but hopefully that would be no problem. If Nikita hadn’t changed his mind, he would definitely tell Sid to stay.

If Nikita was staying himself.

Zhenya shook off the thought. It wasn’t an option. Nikita was mad at him, but they would work it out. He would make it up to Nikita, apologize for whatever wrongs he had been unknowingly committing. Anything Nikita wanted, especially if he convinced Sid to stay.

*****

Thankfully, Nikita gave his approval. Zhenya watched Sid and Nikita leave the condo in heavy silence to play tennis, feeling like his life was in their hands. They could say anything to each other. A whisper of paranoia inside him said they might even convince each other that Zhenya wasn’t worth the trouble. They might both leave.

Zhenya forced himself out of the condo, trailing after them toward the gym. He almost didn’t stop by the tennis courts, too afraid of witnessing something painful--the two of them engaged in a deep and quiet conversation or, worse, an empty court.

But when his feet turned inexorably toward the courts, he found them happily and comfortably chirping each other, as usual. If it weren’t for the residual knots of unease inside Zhenya, he could be fooled into thinking everything was fine. Clearly, whatever tension had existed between Nikita and Sid was resolved. Otherwise, Sid would never have cheered so heartily when Nikita botched a serve into the net. More importantly, Nikita never would have responded with a wry, self-deprecating smile.

So that much was fixed. Now for the hard part.

Zhenya cornered Nikita in the bathroom after they returned from the gym. Nikita was getting undressed, down to his underwear before Zhenya shut them in. His guarded eyes scanned over Zhenya, thumbs hooked in his briefs like he might be reconsidering taking them off. Like they were armor he might need.

“Don’t worry. I talked to him,” Nikita said in clipped words, finally removing his underwear. “He’s staying.”

“Thank you,” Zhenya said with all the sincerity he could put into his words. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you, earlier. It came out wrong.”

Nikita leveled an unimpressed look at him. “I’m literally stepping into the shower right now. Can this wait?”

Zhenya watched him get into the shower and shut the frosted glass door. After a brief internal fight in which he gauged the likelihood of getting kicked out, he stripped out of his own clothes and followed Nikita into the shower.

“What are you doing?” Nikita asked. His head was bowed under the showerhead, his shaggy hair straightened out from the water rushing down it and over his face.

“You can’t run away from me.”

“Is this a deep fear of yours? People running away. Were you abandoned as a child?”

“You know I wasn’t,” Zhenya said. He was chilly, standing naked near the spray but unsure about approaching Nikita to warm up under it. “Nika. I’m sorry.”

“For invading my shower?”

“For being an asshole earlier. For not being open, not just with Sid—with you, too. You were right. I need to work on it, talking about stuff. I want this to be real, whatever it takes. And, yeah, also for invading your shower.” He said the last part wryly, hoping to coax some humor out of Nikita.

Nikita went very still while Zhenya talked, listening. Then he lifted his head out of the spray and wiped his hair back to study Zhenya pensively. He didn’t smile, but his mouth pulled out of a scowl before he shrugged. “Well, you’re here now. Don’t just stand there.”

Zhenya gratefully put himself under the warm waterfall. His skin prickled with the temperature change and made him shiver. When Nikita reached for him, he gratefully followed the pull of his forgiving hands into a hug.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Nikita said with his face hidden over Zhenya’s shoulder. It was okay if Nikita wanted to reserve that much, keep Zhenya from seeing whatever emotions were playing out on his face. Zhenya was grateful to have his forgiveness and assurance, whatever form it came in.

By sundown, everything felt settled again. Sid was barefoot on the balcony with a glass of wine, looking so cozy Zhenya couldn’t help snapping a picture. Sid’s eyes flicked to him, full of a warning he didn’t need to say out loud.

“Only for me,” Zhenya assured him. They were not at the Instagramming intimate pictures stage of their relationship—probably would never be, if he was honest with himself.

“Creep,” Sid said, but he smiled into the rim of his glass after. He drained the rest of the wine and sighed. “Well, I’m beat. I think I’m going to hit the hay.”

For some reason, Nikita smiled up at him beatifically. Alarm bells went off in Zhenya’s head. He only looked that happy when he was up to something. “Okay, we will come soon.”

Zhenya’s suspicion doubled at the phrasing. Weirder still was Sid’s reaction, a significant looking nod before he backed away. As soon as the door closed behind him, Zhenya turned on Nikita.

“What was that about?”

Nikita’s glance was full of mischief. “We should probably also be heading to bed. We wouldn’t want to leave Sid alone.”

“Leave Sid alone where?” Zhenya asked, but he got up with Nikita and followed him through the house to the bedroom. He could hear the guest bathroom shower running when they passed it, Sid washing off the day before he collapsed into bed.

Nikita turned on the TV as soon as they got into the bedroom, flipping to some action movie. Apparently, he wasn’t ready for sleep. Zhenya eyed him suspiciously while crawling into bed with him. Nikita was definitely up to something. It was evident in the way he wouldn’t meet Zhenya’s stare, watching the TV like he cared what the aging action star was shooting at halfway through a film he’d never seen.

The truth came out with rapping on the door. It swung open. Sid was there in only his boxers, apparently ready for bed. Hope jumped up eagerly inside Zhenya before he could tamp it down, watching Sid cross the room to hover next to his side of the bed.

“Going to make me crawl over you?” Sid asked, eyes bright and teasing on Zhenya’s undoubtedly dumbstruck expression.

Zhenya eagerly jolted backward to make room and watched Sid slip under the covers. “You’re staying here?”

“If that’s okay.”

“Sure, of course. If you want. But why—”

“Because I told him you wanted him to, obviously,” Nikita interjected in Russian. “I’m not going to play middle man for you two forever, but you needed a push. Another one. You were moping. Besides, he kept asking me why I wanted him to stay here, so I told him I wanted to double team you a couple more times before the playoffs. Easier to do that if he’s in here.”

Nikita’s mouth was barely winning the fight not to smile when Zhenya looked. He lurched over to tip the scales, kissing Nikita’s face all over until he was shaking with laughter. Sid smiled along with them though he had no idea what they were saying—happy with the infectious mood.

When they settled, any latent tension felt immediately resolved. Satisfied with his victory, Nikita promptly dropped off to sleep. Sid took the opportunity to switch off the TV. Zhenya wondered if that was always the main issue. Maybe Sid wanted to sleep in the dark and quiet.

Zhenya closed his eyes and listened to the breathing of his two men. He felt so satisfied he could hardly sleep.

He jumped when Sid moved, scooted closer, and wrapped carefully around his back like he wasn’t sure he was allowed. Zhenya moved to grasp his hand against his chest, and kept him there, firmly endorsing his decision to cuddle.

“You’ve got your hands full with this one, eh?” Sid said quietly next to Zhenya’s ear, referring to Nikita sleeping in front of them.

Zhenya nodded with a smile twitching onto his mouth while his eyes roamed over Nikita’s slack expression. His fingers played over Sid’s, where they curled against his chest. “Need backup.”

Sid chuckled. He was starting to sound tired. “Good thing I’m here, then. To lend a hand.”

Zhenya’s heart felt full to bursting at that. He shuffled around as carefully as he could to face Sid without waking Nikita. Despite Nikita’s help making it happen, he wanted this moment between him and Sid. “Very good thing. I’m really happy you come.”

“Me too,” Sid said. He looked deeply genuine, soft in the dim moonlight through the curtains.

“I know you are happy. You come for blow job, I give—”

Sid cut him off with a kiss, chuckling against his mouth. Zhenya didn’t let him move back, comfortably kissing him in bed in the ambience of Nikita’s soft snores. They kissed until they grew too tired to do it properly, just sloppily moving their mouths together in obscene comfort until they settled, both heads on a single, large pillow.

Sid’s eyes were asleep when Zhenya thought of one more thing he needed to say. “Sid?”

“Yeah?” Sid asked, slurry with sleep. He didn’t open his eyes.

“Wake me up when you get up, okay?” It sounded desperately clingy, he realized, and raced to find a real reason. “I don’t set alarm.”

“You can now. I’ll get your phone.”

“No, it’s okay. I just get up with you.”

Sid’s eyes cracked open suspiciously at that. Zhenya felt terribly exposed under the sleepy gaze, vulnerable. Sid could see inside him, see the reason behind the question. He knew Zhenya wanted Sid to wake him up so he could prove to himself that Sid had stayed in bed with them all night, not slunk out as soon as he knew they were both sleeping.

If Sid could read the complex fear in Zhenya’s face, he chose to be kind about it. He fumbled around to find Zhenya’s hand under the covers and held it while he closed his eyes again. “Sure, G. We’ll get up together. Make breakfast.”

Zhenya settled, satisfied. Though, right before dropping off, he nudged his foot back until he found Nikita’s, touching him as well as Sid while he floated off into dreams.

*****

Zhenya woke up curled around a body with his dick hard against the swell of a hockey ass. He pushed his hips forward before he opened his eyes, an unsubtle suggestion about what they could do with the morning. When he didn’t have anywhere to be, Nikita was usually amenable to a round before breakfast.

Only, Nikita didn’t wear boxers to bed, the loose fabric sliding between Zhenya’s fingers when he reached down to move his hand to the front. Which meant—

“G?” Sid whispered. “Why’d you stop?”

Zhenya opened his eyes to find Sid half turned, looking at him curiously. The night rushed back over him, Sid’s agreement to stay.

“Morning,” Zhenya said, feeling giddy with the discovery of Sid in bed with him. Sid seemed to realize his surprise and slowly grinned.

“I said I was staying. You didn’t believe me?”

“No, I do. I believe.”

Sid’s hand found Zhenya’s where it had frozen, resting on his hip. “How about you show me the benefits of sleeping with you guys, eh? So I have an excuse to come back.”

Sid dragged Zhenya’s hand down toward his cock while pushing back against Zhenya’s dick, resting between his warm cheeks.

“You come for sure,” Zhenya said, feeling silly and joyous even as his dick twitched with need. “Come every night.”

Sid let go of Zhenya’s hand, leaving it to press along the hardening length of his dick, and arched back. “We’ll see about that. You planning to make me?”

“You are the corniest people I’ve ever met,” Nikita mumbled in Russian behind Zhenya. Sid froze, which made Zhenya stop.

“Sorry,” Sid said. Zhenya wasn’t sorry at all. “Did we wake you up?”

Nikita raised his head. His hair was everywhere, a fluffy mess. “I’m awake now,” he said in groggy English, the switches in his brain slowly turning on. “You going to fuck?”

“Ah,” Sid said with a hesitant glance back.

“Yes,” Zhenya said, flexing his hips forward. “Want in?”

“Maybe. Let me watch for a minute, then I decide.”

Zhenya chuckled and went back to his work on Sid’s dick.

Sid pushed down on his boxers until they were stretched around his thighs. Zhenya took it from there, kneeling up to guide the boxers down and off. Sid was naked, stretched out on his front with his ass curved out. Zhenya’s journey with the boxers had brought him down to Sid’s calves. He squeezed the thick muscle of one of them while he contemplated the feast in front of him. Sid wasn’t often so pliant when they slept together. It felt like Zhenya could do anything.

When Sid flexed his thighs and shifted them apart, a lightbulb went off in Zhenya’s brain. He knew exactly what he wanted.

Sid complied with the nudging of Zhenya’s hands and opened his legs more, sprawled on the bed like a frog. Zhenya cupped his hands around Sid’s ass cheeks, spreading them to reveal his soft little hole. He manscaped here, too, like ESPN might just ask for a new angle during a photoshoot, and he had to be prepared.

Sid was just starting to squirm when Zhenya ducked down and buried his face between the firm pillows of his ass.

“You dirty fucker,” Nikita said breathlessly when Zhenya got his mouth on Sid. His interest had risen with his consciousness, and he was settled with his back against the headboard, palm against his dick through the fabric of his underwear.

Zhenya ignored him in favor of lolling his tongue sloppily against Sid’s hole and listening to Sid’s aborted little noises. He was never very loud in bed, but the cut-off moans were enough to know he was really into something.

When Zhenya raised up, he found Nikita staring at him, mouth slightly agape. “Lube,” Zhenya demanded, hand out, and Nikita jolted out of his trance to rummage in the nightstand.

“You going to fuck him, Zhenya?” Nikita asked, eyes cutting down to gauge Sid’s face as he handed over the lube.

“I’d like that,” Sid piped up before Zhenya could contribute.

Nikita forgot to speak English, overwhelmed by the reply. “Oh my god, can I film this? Would he let me?”

“Absolutely not,” Zhenya said, as firm as he could so Nikita wouldn’t think there was any wiggle room. None of them could afford a sex tape scandal, but Sid would be the first to break the phone that tried. “You can watch.”

To his surprise, Nikita acquiesced, settling back against the headboard with bright, interested eyes locked on Zhenya’s hands as they opened up the lube.

Zhenya licked across Sid’s hole a couple more times, relishing the twitch of Sid’s hips in response before he slipped a couple of lubed-up fingers into him. He angled his fingers so he could continue lapping around them, a move which had Sid squirming to keep still.

“That feels really good,” Sid said—practically moaned—into the pillow. Zhenya felt puffed up like a bird at the praise.

“More like this?” Zhenya asked, barely lifting his face out of Sid’s ass enough for words. He glimpsed Nikita, underwear removed, watching them with hot eyes and his hand wrapped around his hard cock. Nikita’s eagerness bolstered Zhenya. “Or you want my dick now?”

Sid sounded needy when he said, “Yeah, get it.”

Zhenya’s blood pulsed hot at the familiar phrase—get it. It was the same thing Sid said when he wanted Zhenya to go score on the ice.

Zhenya slotted his thighs in behind Sid’s and lined his cock up with his hole. It took a few shaky breaths and slippery misses before he managed to slip inside.

“You look sexy together,” Nikita said, his English more stilted than usual as his mind was occupied elsewhere. “So hot.”

Zhenya flexed his hips forward, a slow, deep thrust into Sid until his hips were resting against his ass. “You want see more?”

Nikita jerked his head in a nod.

“Come here.”

Nikita scrambled up and knee walked over, settling beside Zhenya to watch his dick disappear into Sid. “Holy shit,” he said in Russian, apparently giving up on English. His hand wrapped around his cock, pumping slowly, almost delicately. Zhenya recognized he was trying not to come. “I’m not going to last. I want to come on your ass while you fuck him.”

“Yeah, okay,” Zhenya said, breathless with the swoop of renewed arousal.

“What are you guys saying?” Sid asked blearily, head half turned out of the pillow. A glimpse of his ruddy face gave Zhenya an idea. While Nikita positioned behind him, Zhenya patted Sid’s flank and pulled out.

“Turn over,” Zhenya said. To his delight, Sid moved to obey him without question. Zhenya settled in the cradle of his thighs and pushed back inside. With Sid on his back, it freed up his hands, one of which he immediately wrapped around his cock with a relieved sound.

“Oh yeah, that’s it,” Nikita said, panting. Zhenya could hear the rhythmic sound of his hand on his dick. “I’m going to come so hard. I don’t think I can hold off. What are you fuckers doing to me?”

Zhenya snorted, but he wasn’t far off himself. “Just do it, come on my ass.”

Sid’s face was scrunched up in concentration while he jerked himself off. He didn’t care what language they were speaking now that he could get a hand on himself.

Nikita lurched forward with a curse. His free hand clutched onto Zhenya’s hip while he frantically stripped his cock with the other. “Fuck, Zhenya. I’m going to come so much. I’ll paint your ass white. It’ll drip down and get on Sid, too. It might even get inside where you’re fucking him.”

Nikita’s fingertips dug in hard as he stopped talking. Drips of hot come rained down on Zhenya’s ass and lower back.

Predictably, Nikita’s dirty talk worked Zhenya up to the breaking point. He doubled down on fucking Sid, driving into him without trying to hold back.

“You close?” Sid asked, and Zhenya could tell from the breathy quality of his voice and the speed of his hand on his cock that it was because he was. Zhenya nodded. “Okay, I’m probably going to come.”

“Do it,” Zhenya said, rolling his hips so he could maximize Sid’s pleasure.

Nikita’s fingers were a surprise on Zhenya’s ass. He drove forward harder than he meant to in reaction. In turn, Sid gasped and swore, obviously into the rougher treatment. Nikita wasn’t swayed to stop, running his fingers through the cooling semen on Zhenya’s skin. Without a word, Nikita used his other hand to pull one of Zhenya’s ass cheeks out, exposing his hole.

“I know you always like to have a little in you when you come,” Nikita said, a smirk evident in his tone. Zhenya’s sex-dumb brain didn’t catch on until Nikita pushed his fingertip inside Zhenya, using his release as the only lube.

Unexpectedly, Zhenya’s orgasm crashed over him. He collapsed on Sid, hips jerking as he helplessly fell over the edge. He could feel Sid’s come stripe up his stomach between them before he finished.

“Christ,” Nikita said. The first to move, he crawled up the bed and collapsed in his original spot against the headboard, then grinned over at Sid. “When will you let me do that?”

“Why? You want to compare notes?”

Nikita shrugged, but the competitive gleam in his eyes said he thought he would win that contest.

“Beat me at tennis,” Sid said, grinning. “Then we’ll talk.”

Dread rushed through Zhenya’s body at the idea, and he spoke up. “New rule. No sex bet.” It would be the end of him if he let Nikita and Sid make sex into a competition.

“Don’t be mean,” Nikita said, swatting him. “I like it. Sex bet.”

From the look of Sid’s grin when Zhenya raised his head, he liked the idea, too. Zhenya’s opinion on the matter had been voted out. He rolled aside with a groan but internally didn’t mind the idea of their escalated tennis rivalry. Maybe he would start recording their matches, claiming it was for video review. They wouldn’t buy it, but he could have the videos for his personal use later. It would be worth the chirping.

*****

Sid didn’t end up staying another month—though, in fairness, none of them did. The Penguins sent out a group text about opening up the practice facility for optional skates in June, and the decision was made without much discussion.

“We should get back there,” Sid said, looking at Zhenya like he wanted to say more. “You and me. Tanger, too.”

Zhenya nodded. Sid was right. They needed to get to Pittsburgh, lead by example as they entered Phase Two of the league’s plan. “Sure, I know. I come with you.”

Sid breathed out audibly, relieved—as though he had worried Zhenya might resist him, hold out as long as possible. He should have known better. Zhenya wanted ice time as much as Sid. Besides, he didn’t want to field another round of pitiful phone calls if he stayed and let Sid return by himself.

Which only left Nikita.

Zhenya approached the matter gently, sidling up to Nikita in the kitchen. He was texting furiously—they all had been since the league announced returns. Between teammates, management, agents, and social contacts, everybody wanted to reach out. Zhenya hooked his chin over Nikita’s shoulder to see what top-secret Lightning business he could spy on before Nikita pushed him away.

“What’s this about jet skis?” Zhenya asked. The group chat was in English and moving fast, so he only caught half of the conversation, but it was definitely not about hockey.

Nikita smirked over his shoulder at him. “Team stuff. You’ll see. I’m heading back to Tampa on Thursday.”

Which was a full day earlier than Zhenya and Sid, so—problem solved. Zhenya couldn’t even pretend to pout about it.

They enjoyed a few more days in the sun together, but it felt like winding down. Each of them had so many phone calls and messages, it hardly felt like a vacation anymore.

On Wednesday night, they gathered for the final time on Zhenya’s balcony, watching the moon on the water with a bottle of wine.

“Next time we’re all here, somebody new will be Stanley Cup champion,” Sid said. His voice sounded a little awed. He couldn’t believe they were returning to play, starting the playoffs. There was also a little touch of something else, something vaguely worrying in his tone that said he didn’t think it would be the Penguins bringing the Cup home, but maybe it was nothing overly troubling. Sid was always a jumble of nerves for a few days leading up to the playoffs before they started their games, when he settled into the routine of it.

“It will be me,” Nikita said. He sounded utterly confident, without any doubt.

“We’ll see about that,” Sid replied, chuckling.

Nikita sat back and put his feet up on the table. He looked utterly untroubled by the prospect of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Zhenya was just happy Sid was making plans to come back.

“After playoffs, we come back here,” Zhenya said. “No matter what happen, yes?”

Nikita snorted. “Tell your man anything goes if we play each other,” he said in Russian, the coward.

“Tell him yourself,” Zhenya said in kind before switching back to English. “All of us back here. Promise.”

“I’m in,” Sid said. “The border will be a huge pain to get across anyways. Might as well stay stateside.”

“Yes, okay. If you both want so bad,” Nikita grumbled, a grin pulling at his mouth.

Zhenya sat back and sipped his wine, satisfied that they had a plan. He didn’t want to leave Miami without a direction for them. It would feel like opening themselves up to backslide, deteriorating the seedling relationship they had managed to cultivate in their weeks in Miami. With a plan for the future, they felt firmly planted. The return to hockey was only a momentary break, not an end. It felt like they had hope. Sitting between his two men in the cooling salt air, Zhenya couldn’t ask for more.