Things were different, after that.
Sidney still didn’t seem completely at ease in Zhenya’s presence, but at home, at least, he was less committed to his disappearing act. The first time Zhenya returned from Seryozha’s to find Sidney sprawled out on the sofa watching TV in the den, it stopped him in his tracks. With the exception of the Crosby family’s visit, he’d almost never seen Sidney actually living in his own house, as opposed to flitting through it like an uneasy ghost.
Sidney looked up at him. After a moment he drew his feet up, making space on the couch.
It was, Zhenya thought, as clear an invitation as he would ever get from Sidney. And he knew, somehow, that if he walked away now, if he dropped his bag by the stairs and went up to his room, there would never be another. They would go back to the way they had been: two strangers in the same house, ships passing in the night.
He sat down. “What you watch?”
“It’s a documentary,” Sidney said. At the expression on Zhenya’s face, he said, “I taped the Rangers game, too. We could watch that.”
“No, is good,” Zhenya said. “I’m not nap yet. Help sleep.”
He did fall asleep, and when he woke up Sidney was watching something else. He looked over at Zhenya and smiled, a little tentative.
Zhenya smiled back.
He was dreaming.
He was at the old Metallurg rink, and Sidney, for some reason, was there with him, skating wide circles around the ice. In the dream Sidney was much faster than Zhenya, and he kept flying past him, calling out for him—not Geno but Zhenya, a name he knew Sidney had never heard, and probably couldn't even pronounce.
In the dream Zhenya was frustrated by his own slowness. Sidney was, too, judging by the way he kept looking back over his shoulder and calling, his voice growing more and more insistent.
Zhenya, he cried out, already at the far end of the ice. Zhenya’s legs felt like lead, but he turned and began trudging towards him. Sidney’s voice was echoing around the empty stands. Zhenya, I need you. I need you—I need you—I need you.
He felt a slight tugging sensation in his chest, as if something had hooked him behind his breastbone, and was pulling him forward. He looked down, but there was nothing there. Sidney had stopped calling out for him, and yet Zhenya could still hear his voice echoing through the rink—Zhenya, Zhenya—and that slight tugging again.
I NEED YOU.
Something yanked Zhenya forward, so hard that he was jerked awake and to his feet, standing up in his darkened bedroom before he had even fully opened his eyes. He stood there for a moment, almost panting for breath, disoriented and alarmed. Whatever force had pulled him here, its hold on him seemed to have slackened slightly, as if whoever was reeling him in had given up. But Zhenya knew, somehow, who it had been.
Sidney opened the door when Zhenya knocked, looking surprised. “Geno? What is it?”
Zhenya blinked at him. He had felt so sure, just a moment ago, that Sidney needed him—that Sidney was calling for him, even, as urgently as if he had shouted Zhenya’s name in his ear. But now that he was standing here bleary-eyed, in nothing but his boxers, his certainty seemed silly. It had only been a dream.
He scratched at his chest.
“Don’t know,” he said finally. “It’s like—I hear. Like you there, in room.”
Sidney’s eyes widened. “Wait, it worked?”
“I was trying something with the bond.” Sidney looked excited now. “I didn’t think it would actually work, though. What did it feel like?”
Zhenya ran a hand through his sleep-rumpled hair, scowling. “Like yell in ear. I'm wake up.”
“Oh,” Sidney said, his face falling a little. “Sorry, I didn't realize how late it was. I won’t do it again.”
Zhenya cast a glance down the hallway, where his warm bed was waiting for him. But he could still feel the echo of Sidney’s—presence, or whatever it had been—in his mind, and the pull of his curiosity was stronger.
“How you do?” he asked. “You show?”
“Yes, you wake up, now show,” Zhenya said, so grumpily that Sidney laughed.
“Sure, yeah.” He opened the door wider. “Come in.”
The room was ablaze with light, so bright after the darkness of the hallway that Zhenya had to blink hard a few times before his eyes began to adjust.
Sidney’s room was a little bigger than his, panelled in the same dark wood as the rest of the house. Here, though, the walls weren’t bare, like in Zhenya’s room, or covered in the drab, tastefully ugly art that filled most of the main floor. There was a large poster of Steve Yzerman in his Red Wings jersey, lifting the Cup over his head, and a couple framed images that, on closer inspection, seemed to be historical maps. Over the desk, thumb-tacked to the wall, were photos of Sidney’s old teams, along with a number of faces Zhenya recognized: Taylor as a small child; Troy and Trina Crosby, standing with Sidney at the draft.
There was no coffin, no exposed rafters from which Sidney might hang upside down like a bat—only an unmade four-poster bed that looked just like Zhenya’s, down to the rumpled sheets.
Sidney crawled onto the mattress and sat cross-legged, shoving a pile of laundry off to make room for Zhenya.
“I was thinking about what you did earlier,” he said. “When I was—when I, uh.”
“You sick,” Zhenya filled in firmly. “Too hungry, make sick.”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “I could hear you, sort of, but I wasn’t all there, you know? I knew you were talking, but I couldn’t really understand you. But then you—I don’t know how to describe it, exactly.”
“I do, like—” Zhenya mimed pulling a rope towards him, hand over hand in the empty air.
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “You pulled me back in. Like I had gone a long ways away from myself, but there was something—tethering me, I guess. And you used it to pull me back. I was trying to see if I could do it again.”
Zhenya thought about this. “It’s—what is word?” He mimed tugging at the imaginary rope.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. “But also—” He held his hands up in front of him, palms facing Sidney, and pressed outwards.
Zhenya nodded. “I do. After, with reporter. I push.” And in the kitchen later that night, he thought, but didn’t say. Neither of them had acknowledged it since, and he still felt a little weird about how raw it had felt, how much of himself he had shown.
“I thought so,” Sidney said. “I mean, I can feel you pretty often, through the bond. Pretty much since the beginning. But I didn’t realize we could do it on purpose.”
Zhenya frowned. “You feel?”
Sidney glanced at him. “Yeah, of course. I mean, not all the time, but when you’re feeling something really strongly, or when I’m touching you.” At the look on Zhenya’s face, he said, “Wait, don’t you?”
“Now, yes,” Zhenya said slowly. “Before, no.”
A horrible realization was beginning to dawn on him.
“So all this time, you haven’t—” Sidney trailed off. “And you didn’t know? That I could read you through the bond?”
Zhenya shifted uneasily. He could certainly feel Sidney now, loud and clear, telegraphing discomfort through the bond.
“I don’t know you feel,” he said finally, though he was all too conscious of how inadequate it was.
Would it have changed anything, if he’d known? Probably not. Probably he would’ve just kept flooding Sidney with his revulsion, his fear, and told himself Sidney deserved it, for forcing this on him, for daring to touch him at all.
Sidney shifted on the bed, tucking his feet up underneath him.
“Oh," he said. "I thought—I don’t know. That you were thinking those things to hurt me. Or to punish me, maybe. For making you do this.”
“I have like, idea, before,” Zhenya said. “What bond is. I don’t know. In my head, it’s like, bond is, um.” He thought carefully about the word. “You want—control.”
Sidney nodded. He had pulled one of the pillows into his lap now, and was picking at a loose thread on the pillowcase.
“I guess that’s probably what I thought, too,” he said. “Before, I mean. If I’d ever even thought about it.” He was quiet for a moment, and then said, “It’s funny. When I met with the bond specialist, she told me that bonds aren’t actually meant to be used this way. She was pretty upset, actually. She said—they’re not about control. They’re supposed to be about trust.”
Zhenya looked at him, curious.
For some reason Sidney seemed a little uncomfortable. “I guess—a long time ago, people used to bond to protect each other. The, um, the vampire had someone they could rely on, and the venom made the human stronger, and healthier. It was good for both of them. You were safer, and stronger, together. So families could bond, or close friends, or—you know, people who were together. People who wanted to take care of each other.”
Zhenya yawned then, a completely involuntary reaction. Sidney startled a little, and looked guilty.
“Sorry,” he said. “I keep forgetting how late it is. You should probably sleep. We can try again with the bond in the morning, if you want.”
“You not sleep?” Zhenya asked curiously. Sidney was in his pajamas, but he seemed wide awake.
Sidney shrugged. “I don’t really need to anymore,” he said. “I mean, I still nap. But a few hours a night is usually good enough.”
Zhenya looked around the room. “What you do?”
“Uh, watch tape, mostly,” Sidney said, and laughed at the face Zhenya made. “What? It’s nice to have the extra time.”
“Now I know,” Zhenya said darkly. “Why so much opinion.”
“I go to the rink sometimes too," Sidney said, like this was any better. Zhenya made an even more disgruntled face.
Sidney laughed again. “No, the trainers get mad at me if I skate too much. I mean, I still do, sometimes. But other times I just—I don’t know. Walk around. Watch the sun come up. I just like being there.”
Zhenya tried to picture it: Sidney skating alone in the dead of night, or wandering the halls of the empty practice facility while everyone else was at home, tucked in bed asleep. It was a lonely image.
“Maybe I come,” he said. “Next time.”
SIdney glanced at him, a little surprised. “Yeah?”
Zhenya pretended to scoff. “Sid do, like, special drill? Make look bad. So I go, I do.”
“All right,” Sidney said, smiling. “Next time, maybe.”
There had been moments, Zhenya thought. When he had felt something and dismissed it, or found some way to explain it away.
He stood in the locker room now, shifting back and forth on his skates as the team lined up to go out. Sidney fell into line ahead of him, and Zhenya thought of that very first game. He could remember it still, so viscerally: the inexplicable misery that had washed over him as he stood there in the tunnel, staring at the rigid line of Sidney’s shoulders in front of him. That feeling of being utterly abandoned, adrift and alone.
That had been Sidney’s loneliness. Sidney’s misery, leaking out of him, too much for his body to contain.
On impulse, Zhenya rocked forward on his skates, bumping his shoulder against Sidney’s.
“Sid,” he said. “Maybe we do new. For luck.”
Sidney glanced back at him. “What?”
“New, like, go last.” God, how did anyone communicate anything in this language? Zhenya gestured between them. “Like—shake hand, maybe.”
“It’s fine.” Sidney looked confused and a little uncertain, like he thought Zhenya might be making fun of him. “We’ve been doing it this way all season.”
Zhenya shook his head stubbornly. “Maybe—bad luck, we don’t do. Hurt shoulder, then you sick. Think we need.”
Sidney hesitated. Zhenya could see his resolve wavering: Sidney was particularly vulnerable to superstitious appeals.
“Okay,” Sidney said finally. “Um, what should we do?”
Zhenya showed him, improvising a bit. It wasn't like it had to be complicated. He had to drag Sidney through it at first—slapping hands, bumping their chest protectors together. Sidney was awkward at first, self-conscious maybe, so much so that Zhenya said impatiently, “No, do real, do real.”
They had drawn the attention of some of the guys ahead of them. Zhenya could tell that Sidney had noticed, and that it was making him slightly nervous. He couldn’t tell if it was the bond telling him that, or the way Sidney’s shoulders had drawn up a little, a self-protective tic Zhenya was learning to recognize.
Zhenya ignored the guys. He made Sidney do the handshake a third time, this time making faces and calling out pointers on his form, until Sidney laughed and shoved lightly at Zhenya’s shoulder.
“This is what you get, okay,” Sidney said, and Zhenya grinned at him.
“Is good, Sid,” he said, and felt the little burst of Sidney’s pleasure through the bond.
The game went to OT. Zhenya was drained—it had been a long, close-checking three periods, battling for every inch of ice—but he managed to slip past the defensemen. He was tearing up the ice on a breakaway, but his legs felt leaden.
Suddenly Zhenya felt the bond flare to life in his chest. A burst of energy flowed through him, sending him flying down the ice. He felt electric with it, dazzlingly bright, dangling effortlessly around the flat-footed defenseman to bury the puck in the net.
He roared with triumph, his teammates crashing into his side. Back at the bench the guys were pouring over the boards. Sidney was beaming at him, holding out his glove for Zhenya to bump.
Zhenya knocked his helmet against Sidney’s instead, smiling back at him.
“See!” Zhenya said. “I tell you, Sid—is good luck!”
He had to do the postgame interview—Zhenya found it deeply unfair, that scoring a goal got you into media duties instead of out of them—so he couldn’t catch Sidney alone again until they got back to the hotel. Zhenya hung back getting off the bus, waiting for Sidney.
“You cheat,” he said in a low voice, delighted.
Sidney ducked his head to hide his smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, but Zhenya felt the surge of Sidney’s happiness, his heart leaping in his chest. “Anyway, it’s not really cheating, is it? They made us bond. So I don’t see why we shouldn’t use it.”
“Smart, Sid.” Zhenya bumped his shoulder against Sidney’s. “Good team.”
He went out with Sidney for the first time in Atlanta.
After dinner Ryan had rounded up a bunch of the guys to go out, and had rather pointedly passed over Zhenya. Zhenya didn’t care much—he’d had nothing to say to Ryan since Halloween—but Sidney had watched it happen, and Zhenya felt him flinch a little through the bond. He wasn’t all that surprised when Sidney sidled up to him a few minutes later and, in a studiously casual voice, asked if Zhenya wanted to go out.
“Flower knows this place that doesn’t card,” Sidney said. “It’s not too far from here.”
Zhenya hesitated. It was one thing to hang around the house with Sidney. Going out with him, though—Genya would hate it. It undercut the narrative they’d spent months constructing, where Zhenya’s proximity to Sidney was a matter of necessity, not choice.
“It’s okay,” Sidney said, immediately backtracking. “No worries.”
Atlanta wasn't much of a hockey town. The chances of them being photographed together were slim, and even if they were, Zhenya thought he could weather a stern lecture or two from Genya.
"Okay, you buy," he said, flicking the brim of Sidney's hat.
Flower wasn’t Zhenya's biggest fan, but it quickly became clear that Sidney had talked with him before they piled into the cab. He was on his best behavior, and limited himself to narrowing his eyes at Zhenya a few times when Sidney was distracted. Zhenya was one hundred percent sure, now, that Sidney had never mentioned the crucifix incident to anyone on the team—the proof was that Flower hadn't yet carved Zhenya’s heart out of his chest with a skate blade and devoured it in front of their teammates.
Colby came, too, which Zhenya found more than a little surprising. Colby was one of the few people who joked around openly with Sidney in the locker room, but Zhenya had never gotten the impression that they hung out much outside of the rink. The only person he’d ever seen in Sidney's house was Flower, and even that was pretty rare.
The place was a shitty dive bar close to one of the college campuses. Flower and Sidney went up to order drinks at the bar, while Zhenya and Colby guarded their booth in the back.
“So you and Whitney, huh?” Colby said. The tabletop was covered in something sticky, but he'd put his elbows on it anyway, seemingly unbothered.
Zhenya shrugged. It was whatever. Ryan was a dick, and liked to remind Zhenya of that on a semi-regular basis. But the snub didn’t sting as much as it would’ve before.
“It’s tough,” Colby said. “I get it. Those guys are chill, but like—you want to keep on Sid’s good side, you know? Some of the guys think he’ll be captain pretty soon.”
“Captain?” Zhenya said, surprised. Sidney had the A, obviously, and they’d been captainless since Mario stepped down, but for some reason it had never occurred to Zhenya that Sidney might be the next choice.
Colby shrugged. “I mean, maybe not. I heard they asked him after New Year’s and he turned it down.”
Zhenya looked over at the bar, where Sidney and Flower were leaning against the bar, talking. He tried to imagine Sidney with the C. Could he hold the room? He’d have Flower’s support, and Seryozha’s, but some of the older guys still exchanged glances anytime Sidney opened his mouth on the ice, even when it was obvious that Sidney was right.
Colby nudged him. “Hey, who knows? Maybe it’ll be you one of these days.”
Zhenya wrinkled his nose. “What you mean?”
“I’m just saying, don’t rule yourself out,” Colby said. “Sid’s good, but you, man—you’re crazy good, too. And like, who knows how long he’ll even play, you know?”
He was grinning at Zhenya, like they were both in on a shared joke. Zhenya couldn’t help but think of Colby that night at Ryan’s: smiling blankly at the TV screen, saying nothing.
That was why it was hard to picture Sidney with the C, Zhenya thought. Not because Sidney wasn’t smart enough for the role, or dedicated enough, but because of guys like Colby, who’d smile to Sidney’s face and undermine him the second he turned his back.
It left a sour taste in his mouth.
“I help Sid,” he said abruptly, and got up.
Colby wandered away from the booth after a while to try his luck with one of the girls playing darts in the back, and Flower slipped out to take a call.
“It’s probably Vero,” Sidney said, watching him leave. “His girlfriend. They call each other every night. It’s kind of sweet.”
Zhenya had a hard time imagining Flower as sweet, given how often he bared his sharp little teeth at Zhenya in the locker room when no one else was looking, but he nodded.
“They’ve been together since they were fifteen,” Sidney said. “Way before the draft. Isn’t that crazy?”
“Crazy,” Zhenya repeated.
They drank in silence, watching Colby attempt to chat up a bored-looking blonde.
“You have girlfriend?” Zhenya asked.
Sidney shot him a look. “Seriously?”
“What? Maybe you have secret.” Zhenya shrugged. “You sneaky.”
“I’m not sneaky,” Sidney said, indignant.
"Most sneaky," Zhenya said. "In house, walk so quiet, I'm like—” He feigned shock, clutching at his heart.
Sidney rolled his eyes. "Sorry we can't all sound like a herd of stampeding elephants. Sometimes I don't even know what you're doing up there in the mornings. I keep expecting the ceiling to fall in."
"Sorry, Sid, my English," Zhenya said, faux-apologetic. He grinned at the face Sidney made, and slung his arm over the low back of the booth, looking out over the bar.
For some reason it was even more difficult to picture Sidney with a girlfriend than Sidney with the C. What would they even talk about? Sidney had an inexhaustible well of opinions about hockey, but he seemed to have decided at some crucial juncture early on that there was no point in cultivating outside interests. Still: he was a good listener, and polite, with none of the swaggering bravado some of the other guys had. Girls might find him sweet. He wasn’t unfortunate-looking, either, with those big eyes and that earnest expression, and a mouth like a girl’s, full and red.
“Do you have somebody?” Sidney asked. “Back home, I mean?”
Zhenya shook his head.
“That’s good,” Sidney said, and then, quickly. “I mean—because it would be hard, I bet. To be so far away.”
Distance would be the least of Zhenya's worries. It was impossible to imagine anyone back home willingly dating him while he was bonded.
Sidney’s expression wavered a little, like maybe he’d picked up on a little of that. Zhenya straightened up, and said, “Is hard here, too. My English—I’m not know, like. How I say.”
“Oh,” Sidney said. “You mean, like, what to say to girls?”
Zhenya nodded. “You know?”
“Me? Uh,” Sidney said. “I mean, I’m not, like—smooth, or anything. But you could probably just tell them who you are. Girls like athletes. And you’re, you know—” He gestured vaguely.
Sidney took a long drink of his beer. “Tall,” he finished. “So that’s—you have that going for you.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said, turning towards him in the booth. “I say, Hi, I seven-one.”
“No?” Zhenya said, feigning ignorance. “Not good?”
“No, yeah, that works,” Sidney said. “Maybe tell her you’re a hockey player first, though. Then you could ask to buy her a drink.”
“Hmm,” Zhenya said. He knocked his knee against Sidney’s under the table. “Buy drink?”
“What, are you practicing on me?” Sidney was smiling at him.
“Cheap date,” Zhenya said. “Easy for me. You not drink.”
Sidney shrugged. “Not really. I mean, I can drink—it’s not like with food. Alcohol just doesn’t affect me that much.”
“Maybe we meet,” Zhenya said, scanning the bar. "Practice."
“Oh—you can, sure,” Sidney said. “I’ll hang out here.”
Sidney shook his head. “Nah, I’m good. But go on, you don’t have to wait with me. Flower should be back soon.”
Sidney wouldn't budge from the table—he kept saying he needed to hold it for them, like it was going to fall down without his support or something—and Zhenya gave up on him, finally. He wandered up to the bar to order another drink. There was a girl there he'd had his eye on—a little older, he thought, than the bar's college clientele. She had long dark hair piled up on top of her head in a precarious-looking bun, big hoop earrings, and an expression on her face that said she was waiting for somebody to impress her, but definitely not expecting it to happen. He kind of liked that in a girl.
“Hi,” Zhenya said to her, and then chickened out on the whole seven-one thing. He had an inkling the hockey thing might actually work against him, here.
She looked him up and down, fiddling with one of the hoops. He had the distinct impression he was being assessed and graded, possibly in a number of categories.
“Gin and tonic,” she said finally. “And one for my friend, too.” She leaned back against the bar, considering him. “You’re cute. Where you from?”
“Moscow,” Zhenya said, because that was all Americans seemed to know, and there was no one here to laugh at him for putting on airs. He could be whatever he liked here: cosmopolitan, cultured, interestingly exotic. “In Russia. Where you?”
“Shitty little nowhere town in Alabama,” she said. “You haven’t heard of it, trust me.” She nodded back at the table. “Who’s your friend?”
“Sidney,” Zhenya said, and hesitated. “You like?”
“Nah, I like tall and foreign.” She winked at him. “But Maddie here thinks he’s cute.” She jerked her chin towards the girl sitting on the stool next to her.
“Fuck off,” Maddie said, not looking up from her phone.
The bartender set the drinks down on the bar.
“Maybe you come,” Zhenya said to Maddie, who gave no indication that she’d heard him. “Meet Sid.”
“Come on, Mads." Zhenya's girl elbowed her in the ribs. “Don’t be boring.”
Maddie flipped her phone shut and sighed. “Fine,” she said, exasperated. “Introduce us.”
Sidney looked up as they approached. “Oh,” he said. “Do you need the table?”
“No, stay.” Zhenya slid in next to him. “Sid, Maddie. And—” He glanced at the girl.
“Ashley,” she said. “Nice to meet you.”
Ashley was funny—bossy and a little mean, but unfazed by his broken English. She called Zhenya honey, and smirked at him when she caught him glancing down the front of her low-cut top. Maddie was quieter, but Sidney might like that, Zhenya thought. He was talking to her, anyway, and listening attentively to her responses, as if he was genuinely interested. Maybe she was secretly a hockey aficionado, and had nuanced opinions on the power play.
They ordered another round of drinks. Zhenya wasn’t drunk, but he was feeling relaxed and easy. It had been a long time since he’d hooked up—living at Sidney’s wasn’t exactly conducive to bringing girls home, unless they were into the whole vampire's lair aesthetic, and road trips were tricky too, with roommates and curfews.
“You wanna dance?” Ashley said after a while, and Zhenya nodded.
He wasn’t much of a dancer, but he liked the closeness of it—holding somebody in his arms, swaying against her. Ashley hooked her fingers through his belt loops and pulled him in. She was tall for a girl—about Sidney’s height, maybe—and Zhenya liked that, liked how easy it was for her to wrap her arms around his neck as they swayed together.
She tilted her face up to him. “You planning to kiss me anytime soon, or do I have to do everything myself?”
Zhenya laughed. “Want so much,” he said teasingly. “Want drink, want dance, want kiss—” but he drew her in close, and did as he was told.
Her mouth was soft, parting easily for him. He could taste the slight tackiness of her lipstick, the faint peppermint of the gum she’d spit out in a napkin at the bar. She felt good in his arms, warm and pressed all up against him, the scent of her perfume filling his nose and mouth. She kissed more sweetly than she talked, though she was bossy like this too, tugging hard at his belt loops, pressing her hips against his.
“Your friend gonna be mad if we duck out?” she murmured against his mouth.
Zhenya glanced back at the table.
“Aw, shit,” Ashley said, following his gaze. “Did he ditch Maddie?”
He found Sidney outside, standing on the curb at the end of the block. Sidney had his hands in his pockets, and he was looking away down the street, like he was waiting for something.
“Sid,” Zhenya called, jogging towards him.
Sidney started, a bit guiltily.
“Oh,” he said. “Hey, G. I was just gonna head back to the hotel.”
“Sid, why you leave?” Zhenya was baffled. “Maddie like you.”
“I don’t know if she likes anybody,” Sidney said honestly. “She didn’t seem like she was having a very good time.”
Zhenya sighed. “Sid, is not, like—get marry. Maybe dance, maybe kiss.”
“Yeah,” Sidney said. “I’m not really—that’s not my thing.”
“Okay, no dance,” Zhenya conceded. “But kiss, Sid? You like?”
Sidney looked off down the street again.
“Nothing’s going to happen with her,” he said.
Zhenya frowned. “Sid, why? You funny, good hockey—okay, you not tall, not everybody tall, but—”
“I mean I can’t,” Sidney said sharply. He turned his head to look at Geno. “I’d have to tell her what I am, Geno. It’s a law here. You can’t—entrap people, under false pretenses.”
Zhenya stared at him, uncomprehending. “You tell—vampire?”
“Yeah,” Sidney said, his voice tight. “So that’s, like. I mean, that pretty much kills the mood, in my experience. And even if somebody says yes—if they know who I am, they could always pretend like something bad happened, after. If they wanted money, or if they just, I don't know. Wanted to be in the news. I'm not going to risk something like that. Not for some girl in a bar who's not even—who doesn't even like me.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, taken aback.
Sidney ducked his head. “It’s fine. It’s not a big deal, honestly. I’m just—I’m tired, so. I’m gonna go back.”
“I go, too,” Zhenya said. “Army, Flower—we go.”
“No,” Sidney said. “Stay here. Seriously, Geno. I don’t—I really don’t want you to come back early.” He glanced up the street again, and straightened. “My cab’s here, anyway. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Zhenya watched him go. He felt floored.
“What did you do?”
Flower emerged from somewhere in the shadows, his phone gripped in his hand. He poked Zhenya hard in the chest.
“Ow,” Zhenya said, stepping back. “What?”
“What did you say to Sid,” Flower said, bristling with suspicion. “Why’d he leave?”
“Nothing!” Zhenya said, annoyed. “I find girl, he not want. Go home.”
If anything, this seemed to make Flower angrier. His English was a lot better than Zhenya’s, but like this, furious and almost hissing in his rage, it was harder to understand his accent.
“You try to make trouble for him?” Flower poked him again. “This is why you come? Sidney felt sorry for you. He says, be nice to Geno, Geno’s my friend. And you try to get him in trouble?”
“I’m not know,” Zhenya protested. “Not know—rule, for tell. I think, like, nice for Sid, meet girl.”
Flower narrowed his eyes at him.
“I’m not know,” Zhenya said again, almost pleadingly.
“Don’t fuck with him,” Flower said. “Or I will make life very unpleasant for you, comprends-tu?”
He jabbed Zhenya hard in the sternum once more for good measure, and turned to go back into the bar.
"Ow," Zhenya said aloud to the empty street, rubbing at his chest. Goalies were fucking crazy.
Sidney was selected for the All Star Game. Zhenya didn’t make the cut for the regular game, but he’d been tapped for something called the YoungStars Game, which seemed to be a kind of consolation prize.
Zhenya was oddly reluctant to go.
“Sasha Ovechkin will be there, won’t he?” Seryozha asked him, and Zhenya shrugged, like he hadn’t carefully studied the list of participants, or spent hours thinking about what it would be like to see Sasha again.
Sasha had texted him about getting drinks after the Pens played the Caps the month before, but schedules hadn’t worked out, and Zhenya still wasn’t sure whether he felt disappointed or relieved. Sasha was his friend, or had been, but there had always been that slight competitive edge to their relationship, too—a certain jostling, a jockeying for position. He wasn’t sure how Sasha would treat him now.
“It’ll be fun,” Sidney said on the flight. “It’s not a big deal, really. It’s just a dumb thing for TV.”
Zhenya cast him a sidelong look.
“Sorry.” Sidney looked back down at the book open in his lap. “I wasn’t, uh, digging, I promise. You’re just kind of—you know.” He gestured vaguely.
Over the past couple weeks Sidney had been trying, without much success, to teach Zhenya how to close his end of the bond, or at least to better filter what came through. He seemed to understand how it all worked much better than Zhenya did—possibly because he had a few months’ head start, but more likely, Zhenya thought, because controlling the bond seemed to require a degree of patience and finicky concentration that Sidney was far more adept at.
“Sorry,” Zhenya said. He leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes, and focused very hard on thinking about hockey. If Sidney had to pick up on his feelings, at least he could make it something Sidney would enjoy.
Sasha was waiting for him in the hotel lobby. He had acquired a large cowboy hat somewhere, and greeted Zhenya with finger guns. Everyone in the lobby was staring, not that Sasha seemed to notice.
“Howdy, partner,” Sasha said, in a terrible affected accent. “Stick ’em up.”
“You’ve been here three hours,” Zhenya said, slowing to a stop with his luggage. Sasha closed the distance between them, slinging an arm around Zhenya’s shoulders.
“Oh, Zhenya, I know you’re jealous of my hat,” he said confidingly. “We’ll get you one too, eh?”
They went for dinner at a steakhouse near the hotel, just the two of them, and decamped to Sasha’s hotel room after, to work their way through a handle of vodka Sasha had managed to procure.
It was all completely ordinary, as if nothing between them, or around them, had changed. Zhenya felt a sense of gratitude so overwhelming it was probably going to make him teary-eyed, if he got much drunker. He would forever be indebted to Seryozha for taking him under his wing, but it was hard sometimes not to feel like a kid brother tagging along. Sasha was just Sasha—obnoxious and overconfident, always good for a laugh.
They talked about home, and about Washington, and a little about Pittsburgh. Sasha didn’t mention any of the things people were saying about Zhenya in the press, and as Zhenya got drunker he started to relax a bit. He felt calm enough that he didn’t even really tense up when Sasha propped himself up on one elbow, looking over at him across the bed, and said, “So how is it, then? With Crosby?”
Zhenya lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling. “It’s not so bad.” It felt a little dizzying, to say it aloud—to admit it to someone who wasn’t Seryozha.
“Really?” Sasha said, skeptical. “To read your interviews you’d think you were being held captive in a tower, waiting for a prince to rescue you.”
“Oh Sasha, you read my interviews?” Zhenya fluttered his eyelashes at him until Sasha groped for one of the pillows and threw it at Zhenya’s face.
“I care for your well-being, Zhenya,” he said, when Zhenya reemerged from under the pillow. “And this is how you treat me?”
Zhenya rolled his eyes. “It’s okay, really,” he said. “He’s different than I expected.”
Sasha studied him for a moment. “Well, I’m glad to hear it," he said finally. "I wondered what it’d be like for you. They’re a little obsessed with it here, have you noticed?”
”What do you mean?”
Sasha shrugged. “All last year, every time we played the Pens, it was—the Russian versus the vampire.” He made a gesture with his hands, indicating a marquee. “Fire and ice, they kept saying. I think they were disappointed he turned out to be so boring. Not really much entertainment value there, is there."
“He’s not boring,” Zhenya said, feeling oddly defensive. “He just has to be careful, that’s all. The media’s hard on him.”
”Well, he doesn’t give them much to work with,” Sasha said. “We did a photoshoot last year, the two of us, with like—a big crucifix in the background, and Crosby all in black. He was stiff as a board the whole time. The photographer wanted him to show his fangs.”
Zhenya could imagine how that had gone over. “What did he say?”
Sasha snorted. “You know how he is. He got all stiff and polite and said he wasn’t comfortable with that. He was so awkward they gave him a hockey stick to hold, in the end.”
Zhenya tilted his glass, watching the liquid slosh gently against the side. “He doesn’t like to draw attention to it, I don’t think. He’d rather people not know.”
“Well, that ship has sailed.” Sasha lay back on the bed, stretching his arms. “There’s one who works for us, did you know? One of the equipment managers. He’s not as stiff about it as Crosby. Says he doesn’t care if we have questions. He showed us his fangs, so we’d stop bugging him about it. But I think he got in trouble for it after.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?” Zhenya studied his pillow, as if Sasha’s answer didn’t matter much to him one way or another.
Sasha shrugged. “Well, I’m not planning to move in with him anytime soon. I wouldn’t want to steal your spotlight, Zhenya.” He stared up at the ceiling for a moment, thinking. “I don’t know. To hear people tell it back home, you'd think you had to arm yourself with stakes and holy water to walk down the street at night. It's not like that, obviously. But they’re odd about it, aren’t they? There are no vampires in Russia, and all that, but you get the feeling people wish there weren’t any here either.”
“Sidney doesn’t hook up,” Zhenya said suddenly. He was a little drunk, but he'd been thinking about it, off and on, ever since that night at the bar. Did you know there are laws here? They have to tell people what they are.”
Sasha considered this for a moment. “Maybe it’s for the best. I mean, imagine you’re in bed with a hot girl, and halfway through she just latches onto your neck with no warning?”
“That’s not how it works,” Zhenya said, a little irritably.
“Is he a virgin, do you think?” Sasha said, and laughed. “That would explain a lot about Crosby.”
“How should I know?”
“I thought you were friends now." Sasha rolled over onto his side, grinning. “You don’t braid each other’s hair at night and tell secrets?”
“Fuck off,” Zhenya said, throwing the pillow back at him. “We’re not—we’re friendly, that’s all.”
”Whatever." Sasha yawned. “Enough about Crosby—I’m going to have to listen to him yap all day tomorrow. Tell me about something else, Zhenya. Have you met anyone in Pittsburgh?”
Sasha kicked him out shortly after midnight, claiming he needed his beauty rest. “You’ll be sleeping for a thousand years, then,” Zhenya told him, and had the door closed unceremoniously in his face.
He wandered down the empty hallway. He was pretty drunk, and listing a little, putting a hand out against the wall to steady himself. It was late, but not so late. Sidney was probably still awake.
Sidney answered on the second knock. He was in his pajamas, and his hair was a little disheveled, like maybe he had been asleep. Zhenya felt a little guilty.
“Nah,” Sidney said easily. “Just watching TV. What’s up?”
Zhenya leaned against the doorframe, and Sidney seemed to take him in fully.
“Oh,” he said. “Did you go out?”
“Ovechkin.” Zhenya made a face. “What you watch?”
“Just some movie,” Sidney said. “There wasn’t really anything on.” He glanced over his shoulder, then back at Zhenya, looking slightly uncertain. “Do you want to come in?”
There was only one bed—king-sized, plenty of room for two. Sidney sat down on one side, and Zhenya took the other.
The movie was boring: something old in black and white, with a pretty actress who had an agitated way about her, like a little bird flitting from branch to branch. She was in trouble: something about money, or a husband, or maybe a husband who’d lost all her money. Sidney seemed pretty absorbed, though, and Zhenya turned his head to the side and watched him watching.
Sidney glanced sidelong at him. “You’re pretty drunk, aren’t you?”
“No,” Zhenya said. Well: he was, but that wasn’t why he’d asked.
“Liar. I can feel it through the bond.”
Zhenya propped himself up on his elbow. “You feel?”
“Kind of,” Sidney said. “I don’t know. You just feel, uh. Looser, I guess. More relaxed.”
Zhenya considered this. “Is good feel?”
“Uh.” Sidney coughed. “I mean. It’s not really—it’s just different.”
He went back to staring at the television screen, apparently engrossed by whatever was playing—a commercial for mattresses, it looked like. Zhenya looked at him in profile: his too-big nose, his full mouth. He wondered if Sidney really was a virgin, like Sasha said. Surely he had kissed a girl, at least. Girls liked athletes, and Sidney, for all his social awkwardness, had been a star on the rise before the attack. Maybe someone had blown him at a party once, or jerked him off in the back of a car.
Was that it, though? Had anyone touched him, all those years since?
Sidney gave him an odd look. Zhenya rolled over onto his stomach, burying his face in the pillow. Sidney’s bed was far more comfortable than his, which didn’t seem fair. All Star perks, maybe.
“Geno—don’t fall asleep here. C’mon, I’ll get you back to your room.”
“You not sleep,” Zhenya mumbled. “Not need.”
Sidney sighed. He got up and went into the bathroom. Zhenya heard the tap running.
“Don’t go to sleep yet,” Sidney said, reemerging. “Sit up and drink this first.”
“Bossy,” Zhenya mumbled in Russian, but he obeyed.
“Good,” Sidney said, and sank to his knees.
Zhenya choked on his water.
“What you do,” he said hoarsely.
“You don’t want to sleep in these, do you?” Sidney was busy unlacing Zhenya’s boots. He was still frowning a little, and it made him look charmingly focused, his full attention concentrated on the simple act of removing Zhenya’s shoes.
That was how Sidney was. He took everything with the utmost seriousness: drills, press conferences, commercials about mattresses. Taking Zhenya’s shoes off; putting him to bed. He had never really seen Sidney cut loose.
A thought occurred to him.
“Sid,” he said. “You drink now—get drunk?”
Sidney tugged his left boot off and set it aside. “I told you, alcohol doesn’t really affect me anymore.”
“No,” Zhenya said. “Like, drink.” He touched the side of his throat with his fingers.
Sidney glanced up at him.
“Oh,” he said. “I don’t know, actually. Maybe.”
For some reason, the question embarrassed Sidney: Zhenya felt it flicker through the bond.
“Uh, no.” Sidney took off Zhenya’s right boot and set it next to the left. “I haven’t, with anyone else. I used to just get blood from the hospital.”
Zhenya stared at him. “What?”
“It doesn’t have to be, uh, direct from the source,” Sidney said. “That’s why bonds aren’t as common these days. You can get by on bagged blood, mostly, if you can afford it.”
“You do last year?”
“Yeah.” Sidney touched the side of Zhenya’s boot, lining it up more neatly. “Ever since—you know. But now I can’t.”
Zhenya wasn’t sure what to do with this information. Instead of responding, he rolled over onto his stomach, burying his face in the pillow.
“Goodnight,” Sidney said, sounding amused, and Zhenya was out like a light.
Zhenya woke up hard and hungover, an unholy combination. He had dreamed about soft hands touching him, sliding up the insides of his thighs, and a heavy, solid weight pressing him into the mattress. The dream slipped through his fingers as soon as he woke, leaving only sensation behind, a simmering, restless arousal.
Sidney wasn’t in the room. Zhenya could feel him somewhere in the hotel, but he wasn’t anywhere nearby.
Zhenya bit his lip, thinking. It was fine, he reasoned. Sidney didn’t even sleep in this bed, so—it wasn’t even that rude, if you thought about it.
Guiltily, furtively, he snuck a hand into his boxers.
He couldn’t really remember the dream—only fragments of it: someone’s mouth, and that heavy weight over him, and a hazy, floaty feeling not unlike the effects of the venom. Zhenya was quiet, and quick—he didn’t tease himself, or draw it out. The sheets smelled like Sidney. Zhenya wondered if it had been one of Sidney’s restless nights, spent wandering the halls, or if he’d slept here too, in the bed beside Zhenya. It was a big bed; they could’ve both easily fit.
He wondered where Sidney was now. Zhenya could’ve felt for him through the bond, but the uncertainty gave the experience a slight edge that made the pleasure even keener. Maybe Sidney had ducked out to take a call, or to get in a quick workout at the hotel gym. Maybe he’d be back any minute now, his key beeping in the lock, Zhenya’s only warning before Sidney pushed the door open and saw Zhenya sprawled out in his bed, sleep-rumpled and flushed with arousal. He’d kicked off the comforter in his sleep; only the thin sheet covered him—Sidney would know, as soon as he saw him, if he hadn’t already felt it through the bond. How would he react? Would he blush and close the door? Or would he freeze in the doorway, stunned at Zhenya’s audacity, staring at him?
Zhenya’s toes curled, his hand moving faster under the sheet. He closed his eyes, picturing the stunned look on Sidney’s face, the pink flush he got when he was embarrassed. He was so close. If Sidney came in now Zhenya might be too close to stop, too far gone to care—maybe he’d just keep going, and Sidney would stand there staring, his mouth gone slack in shock. Maybe Sidney would feel Zhenya’s pleasure flooding through the bond, eyes widening as the tension build and build, until finally Zhenya gasped, hips rocking up into his fist, and crashed over the edge.
He came hard—hard enough that he felt slightly deaf after, his ears ringing a little. He lay there in Sidney’s bed a moment longer—a little dazed, stupid with orgasm—before reality came crashing back in. Jesus Christ. He was in Sidney’s room, Sidney’s bed. Sidney really would be back any moment.
He leapt up, grimacing at the mess he’d made of his boxers, and went to turn on the shower.
Breakfast was a big catered affair in one of the hotel ballrooms. The place was crowded with hockey players, but Zhenya found Sidney easily enough, following the slight tug of hte bond. Despite the hangover, Zhenya was in a good mood, relaxed and happy. Sasha was still his friend. Sidney was—well: he was something. They were on good terms.
He dropped into the seat across from Sidney.
“Morning,” Zhenya said, lifting his hands over his head and stretching, feeling the satisfying pop-pop-pop of his spine cracking.
Sidney’s gaze raked over his chest quickly, and then he glanced down and said, “Morning,” in a mostly ordinary-sounding voice, and it was fine. It was all fine. So what if Zhenya’s subconscious had made a couple of odd free associations. So what if he had maybe, sort of, jerked off in Sidney’s bed. It was all whatever. Everything was completely fine.
They lost a couple times on the road. Sidney was fired up about a missed power play chance in the third period, and talked about it nonstop all the way from the bus up to his hotel room. Zhenya took the key from Sidney’s back pocket while he was still talking and opened the door.
“Sit,” he said to Sidney. “I need eat.”
If he was going to have to listen to Sidney dissect the game all night, Zhenya deserved room service on Sidney’s tab. He ordered a huge meal—two appetizers, two entrees, and a piece of chocolate cake—while Sidney sat on the bed, scowling and flipping through the channel guide, obviously brimming over with opinions he couldn’t express while Zhenya was on the phone.
“Life hard, Sid,” Zhenya said when he hung up. “Sometime win, sometime lose.”
Sidney did not seem to appreciate this attempt at achieving a more Zen mindset toward defeat. His scowl deepened.
“The first unit’s still too static,” he said. “There’s no fluidity whatsoever. They kept us boxed out the whole time, and we’re just out there doing passing drills on the perimeter. Why don’t you care about this?”
“Okay, you need eat,” Zhenya decided, because he was learning that sometimes when Sidney got irritable like this he was just hangry, a useful English expression he had learned from Colby. Zhenya found it a tiny bit charming, but mostly pretty annoying, especially when Sidney decided Zhenya wasn’t taking whatever he was hangry about—hockey, the proper sorting of dirty laundry by color, whatever—seriously enough and got sulky with him.
Sidney grumbled, but he got onto the bed as instructed. Zhenya tugged at his shirt collar a little, and settled onto the bed, making himself comfortable.
He could feel the change in Sidney through the bond almost as soon as Sidney bit down. It was clear Sidney really had been hungry—maybe they needed to be doing this more often, if Sidney was still going without—and Zhenya could feel him relax into it as soon as he got what he needed. Sidney was drinking almost greedily, making soft satisfied little sounds as he fed, and Zhenya could feel his relief and pleasure through the bond.
His calf started to cramp a little, and Zhenya shifted on the bed, trying to loosen it. Sidney made an irritable noise and cupped the back of Zhenya’s neck, keeping him still. His thumb rubbed almost mindlessly over the sensitive, almost ticklish skin of Zhenya’s neck, at the crook of his neck and shoulder.
Zhenya realized, with a jolt, that he was—reacting.
He opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling, shocked and a little horrified. What the hell? He’d never—was he actually—
He was. He was getting hard, and if Sidney looked down, he was going to notice.
Thankfully, Sidney seemed to be finishing. Zhenya felt his fangs retract, and then Sidney bent down to lick over the bite.
Zhenya made a soft, involuntary noise.
Sidney stilled for a moment, as if unsure what he’d heard. Zhenya held himself stiff as a board, hardly breathing.
And then Sidney did it again. The tip of his tongue had barely touched Zhenya’s skin when Zhenya moaned, his head lolling back on the pillow, a breath shuddering out of his lungs. His skin was prickling all over, and there was no fucking way Sidney wasn’t picking this up from the bond. Zhenya was so embarrassed, but against all reason, against all sense, he wanted.
“Geno?” Sidney said, and Zhenya felt the exact moment Sidney registered he was tenting out the front of his sweats.
Someone banged on the door. Zhenya practically jumped out of his skin. He sprang up from the bed, banging his knee against the bedside table in his haste to get away.
Zhenya was hiding in the bathroom.
It was safe in the bathroom. It was a nice bathroom, very clean, with a pretty pattern on the tiling in the shower. He could be happy here for the next few hours, or days, or however long it took for Sidney to give up and go away, so that Zhenya could sneak back to his own room, pack his bag, and get on the first flight back to Magnitogorsk.
There was a tentative knock on the door.
Zhenya ran the tap, splashing cold water on his face. It didn’t seem to help. He couldn’t quite look at himself in the mirror. He looked debauched—flushed all over, his hair rumpled, the bite mark livid against his skin.
He was going to die of mortification.
“Um, Geno?” Sidney sounded like he was standing very close to the door. “Do you—uh. Your food’s here.”
Zhenya took a deep breath. Then he crossed over to the door, and flung it open.
Sidney was standing on the other side, his hand lifted to knock again. They stared at each other, and then Zhenya said abruptly, “Food?”
“Over there,” Sidney said.
Zhenya went to the desk and sat down. His appetite was gone, but he thought the best way forward was to act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Hopefully Sidney would forget it, or think he had been mistaken, and Zhenya would—well, not forget it, probably, but repress it so deeply it only haunted him in his dreams.
Sidney sat down on the edge of the bed and watched him eat.
“Should we—do you want to talk about it?”
Zhenya shot him a look of utter disbelief. Was Sidney insane? Did Zhenya want to talk about it?
“Okay,” Sidney said. “So that’s—right, okay.”
Zhenya put his head down and began to shovel food into his mouth, as though someone had sentenced him to eat everything on his plate.
The silence was incredible—unnatural, really. Zhenya had never, in his life, experienced a silence so silent. Normally Sidney could happily fill any amount of quiet with nonstop chatter, but for the first time since Zhenya had met him Sidney seemed at a complete loss for words.
“Bad ref,” Zhenya croaked out at last, when he couldn’t bear it anymore. Sidney had one million opinions about everything, but Zhenya thought he specialized in complaining about shitty calls.
Sidney gathered himself, with visible effort. “Yeah,” he said. “That slashing call in the third—what the hell was that?”
He reached the end of his sentence, and then, in what was surely another historically unprecedented event, seemed to have exhausted his opinions on the subject.
Zhenya grimly ate on.
“You know,” Sidney said. “It’s not—it’s probably not uncommon. Maybe it’s, um, something to do with how the brain interprets pain signals.”
“My English,” Zhenya said, in desperation.
“I just mean you don’t have to be embarrassed about it,” Sidney said patiently. “I know it was an accident. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Zhenya was pretty sure that there was a difference between getting an accidental boner and ignoring it, and then—whatever he’d just done. Because he had definitely been the one who had moaned, and tipped his head back, and arched into Sidney’s touch.
There was a long pause, as if Sidney were politely leaving space for Zhenya to respond. Zhenya took the silver tray cover off the piece of chocolate cake and, with grim determination, forked a giant chunk of it into his mouth. No one could expect him to speak while he was chewing.
“Okay,” Sidney said after a while. “Well. If it happens again—”
“Not,” Zhenya said, through a mouthful of cake. “Not happen again.”
He spent several days avoiding thinking about it, skirting carefully around the memory like an undetonated landmine in his subconscious.
But it was still there, and—because the alternative was accidentally stepping on it and blowing himself up at some unexpected future moment—Zhenya knew he would have to deal with it.
There were people who liked that sort of thing. Zhenya was well aware of this: he had spent his first months in America worrying about whether or not people thought that about him. But Sidney had said it might just be a reaction. Wires crossed in Zhenya’s brain, maybe, or an effect of the venom. If the internet could tell him what it was, maybe he could figure out how to fix it.
On their next off day, Zhenya locked himself in his bedroom with his laptop and clamped the bond closed like a steel trap.
There wasn’t a lot of information readily available. The Russian sources were almost nonexistent, and, even with the help of his translation software, the reputable-looking English-language sources seemed even more incomprehensible than usual; as best he could tell, they seemed to rely heavily on euphemism and vague allusions, as if the subject was too delicate, or perhaps distasteful, to discuss in plain words. There were a handful of studies purporting to study the venom's effect on aging in bonded pairs, and few articles about unsuccessful attempts to extract venom from living vampires, but virtually nothing indicating that the bite, or the venom itself, would prompt this kind of reaction. Zhenya even gathered, in a vague sort of way, that some people felt suggesting as much was offensive, for reasons he couldn't puzzle out.
He chewed on his bottom lip, thinking. There was another way, maybe. To figure out if his response was involuntary, or if it indicated—something else.
He got up and double-checked the lock on his door before digging his headphones out of his bag.
There were a lot more search results for this new string of keywords. Zhenya scrolled through some of the thumbnail images, feeling queasy with nerves.
The first video was horrible.
The set looked like a dungeon of some kind, with barred windows that admitted no light and what looked like a metal hospital gurney bolted to the floor in the center of the room. A naked woman was shackled to it, writhing and whimpering softly.
Her whimpers grew louder, more pleading, when the vampires slunk into the frame. They were vampires, Zhenya thought: two of them, a man and a women dressed in leather bodysuits, their eyes glowing, fangs fully exposed. On the gurney the woman began to scream and plead, her cries too realistic for comfort.
Zhenya clicked the back button as fast as he could. He felt shaken. Did people actually get off to this?
There was a lot more in the same vein: humans captured by vampires, humans in thrall, humans screaming and shrieking and pleading for mercy. There was a whole subset of the site devoted to what seemed to be slayer porn, too: the still images alone made Zhenya feel so sick that he almost gave up then and there. Whatever was happening to him—whatever was causing him to react to Sidney—he was absolutely certain it was nothing like this.
He was about to close the window when one of the titles at the bottom of the page caught his eye.
Amateur couple—real bond
Zhenya hesitated for a moment, then clicked.
There wasn’t a set: just an ordinary-looking bed, with a cheerfully patterned yellow and white bedspread. The couple was lying together on the bed: a woman and a man, their limbs tangled up together. He couldn’t tell which one of them was the vampire and which one was human. They both looked pretty normal.
The video was twenty-five minutes long, but for the first five minutes all the couple did was kiss, lying down on the bed together. He watched as they slowly undressed each other, the man unhooking the woman’s bra and sliding the straps off her shoulders, his hand cupping the soft swell of her breast.
Zhenya skipped forward a few minutes.
The woman was sitting in the man’s lap, her hand curled around her neck. They were both naked, and the man was hard—she stroked him a few times, before settling just over his lap. When she turned her head a little, Zhenya caught a flash of her fangs, and saw that her heavy-lidded eyes were a soft, glowing gold.
The man said something to her. Not in English, Zhenya thought, though he didn’t recognize the language. She said something back, and then she lowered her head, drawing him towards her.
The camera caught his face at what must’ve been the moment of the bite. Zhenya saw him react—not a flinch exactly, but a sort of shudder, a tremor of pleasure. At almost the same moment, the woman sank down into his lap, taking him fully inside.
Zhenya couldn’t look away. The man’s eyes were closed, but his expression was one of pure bliss, his mouth half-parted. Zhenya thought he could tell when the venom took effect, from the way the man seemed to relax even further, melting back into the pillows. The woman slid her hand up to the back of his neck, holding him close—steadying him, Zhenya realized: so as not to jostle him when she began, a moment later, to slowly roll her hips, grinding into his lap.
It was the strangest porn Zhenya had ever seen. There were no exaggerated cries of pleasure, no writhing, no slapping of skin against skin. There was a candle on one of the nightstands, and a glass of water; the one on the other side of the bed was bare. He wondered if they had cleared it off to take the video—the man unplugging the alarm clock, the woman setting aside the books she liked to read before bed: evidence of a whole domestic life, just outside the frame.
The man murmured something, too quiet for the camera to pick up. He touched her back with his fingertips, stroking up and down the length of her spine. She laughed softly, the sound muffled against his throat, and then she drew back, pressing her thumb against the bite. She kissed him on the mouth, slow and unhurried.
Zhenya closed the tab before the video ended. He shut his laptop too, for good measure, shoving it away from him on the bed. He felt, if anything, more unsettled than before.
At least the dungeon was obviously fake: the cheesy set, the low-budget special effects. It was easy to separate that from anything Zhenya had experienced—though he could admit now, with some embarrassment, that the whole setup wasn’t all that far from what he’d expected the bond to be like.
The bedroom, though?
Zhenya stared up at the ceiling. It wasn’t like that, what he and Sidney did. There was a bed, yes, and Sidney lay down beside him, and put his hand on the back of Zhenya’s neck—but there was nothing inherently sexual about it, nothing like what Ryan used to imply. Usually they’d come home from a game, or a night out, and had changed into sweats and t-shirts. Sidney liked to shower at night, and sometimes his hair was still damp, smelling faintly of the apple-scented shampoo he used. It was intimate, Zhenya supposed: the two of them lying in bed together, Sidney’s hand cupped gently around the back of his neck. But it wasn’t titillating, just—familiar.
Zhenya could imagine how it might be, though. Not with him, obviously, but: if Sidney had a girlfriend someday, Zhenya could imagine them doing—that, together, if they both liked it. Sidney would be careful, like the woman in the video had been. He had always been gentle with Zhenya, gentle and conscientious—checking, with his hands and through the bond, to make sure that Zhenya was all right. It had driven Zhenya crazy, those first few months, all that checking; he had assumed it was an act, or some deliberate manipulation, Sidney forcing him to ask for it, over and over again.
But he was beginning to realize, now, that someone, at some point in the future, might ask Sidney for it and mean it. Someone who knew and trusted Sidney, a person Sidney knew and trusted in return, both of them craving that deeper closeness. Someone—Sidney’s girlfriend, or—his person, whatever—might want the intimacy of caring for each other like that, being quiet and close together, in the peaceful stillness of their shared bedroom.
Except Sidney couldn’t, Zhenya thought: not if he was playing, and bonded to someone else. Those parts of his life would always be separate.
Genya would have said it wasn’t Zhenya’s problem, and maybe he was right. Maybe it wasn’t any of Zhenya’s business, either. But Zhenya couldn’t help but think about it—for a long time that night, and the morning after, too, the knowledge burrowing deep into his brain.
Sidney didn't mention what had happened in the hotel room again, though once or twice Zhenya caught Sidney surreptitiously studying him across the locker room, a slightly worried expression on his face.
He came to Zhenya's room four days later, late at night after a home game. Zhenya had felt weirdly nervous the whole night, guilty and twitchy with anticipation, and when he let Sidney in he found it impossible to look him in the eye. Despite his resolve to leave well enough alone, he had watched the video of the bonded couple twice more: both times late at night, cocooned in his nest of blankets, eyes straining a little in the darkness. He had strictly forbidden himself from jerking off after, or even adjusting himself in his boxers, though it was becoming increasingly difficult to cling to the illusion that this was purely research, a fact-finding mission and nothing more.
Sidney seemed to pick up on Zhenya's unease. He was particularly careful, as he lay down on the bed beside Zhenya, to leave a few inches of space between their bodies.
"I'll just—here," he said, touching the spot on Zhenya's throat where he would bite. "If that's okay?" He sounded uncertain, as if they hadn't done this countless times before.
"Yes, okay," Zhenya said impatiently, and shut his eyes, bracing himself for the bite. Sidney still seemed unsure, and Zhenya tried to subtly urge him on through the bond, hoping it didn't come off as eagerness. The quicker Sidney was, the less time there'd be for Zhenya to embarrass himself. Maybe the venom would help, too: if he surrendered to it maybe he could just drift away from his body for a little while, detaching himself enough not to react.
Sidney hesitated a moment longer, but finally, finally, he sank his fangs into Zhenya's tender flesh.
Only a few minutes. Zhenya could tough it out—even though he felt hyperaware of every sensation, his skin prickling all over. He felt a soft rush of air against his skin as Sidney sighed a little, in relief and pleasure, as he often did when he first began to drink. Zhenya squeezed his eyes shut even more firmly, hands balled into fists at his side. He could hear the soft wet sounds of Sidney’s mouth working, could feel the pulse of Sidney's contentment through the bond. Sidney’s hand curled loosely against Zhenya’s side, fingers twitching a little, reflexively, and Zhenya felt arousal stir low in his gut.
Zhenya’s eyes flew open. He stared at the ceiling, his heartbeat picking up in his chest.
Sidney’s leg was right there. But if he just—he could angle his hips away a little, just enough to avoid detection. Zhenya began to squirm a little, hardly breathing as shifted on the bed. Beside him Sidney made a disgruntled noise, opening his eyes.
Zhenya panicked. He tried to shift away on the bed, and felt a tearing sensation at his throat. Sidney made another noise, louder and more warning, and rolled almost on top of Zhenya, pinning him down with the weight of his body. To his utter mortification, Zhenya felt his dick twitch his shorts—right where Sidney’s thigh had slipped between his legs
They both froze.
A second later, Sidney was rolling off of him. “Sorry,” he gasped out, his face bright red. “Sorry, I just didn’t want to hurt you, you wouldn’t stay still—”
He broke off, shock and something like horror rippling through the bond. It was obvious he had put two and two together.
Zhenya curled in on himself, though he knew it was no use: even if Sidney had somehow missed his erection, there was no way he'd missed the hot arousal sparking and shivering through the connection between them. Zhenya put his hands over his face, too embarrassed to look at Sidney, or be looked at. He ought to apologize, or make some excuse for himself, but what could he possibly say? It was obvious what was happening here.
“You—you’re bleeding a little." Sidney's voice shook a little. “Let me close it, at least.”
But Zhenya didn't want to find out how he might humiliate himself further if Sidney licked his neck. Nor was he especially eager, after that first flicker of unadulterated horror, to feel Sidney forcing himself to touch Zhenya when the whole situation clearly disturbed and distressed him. He shook his head, still hiding his face in his hands.
Beside him Sidney took a steadying breath. It was plain that he was trying—and failing—to tamp down the intensity of his reaction. Somehow that made Zhenya feel even worse: Sidney was so repulsed by his arousal that he didn't want Zhenya to feel the extent of his revulsion.
“Geno, it’s just a reaction. It doesn’t mean anything.”
"Don't," Zhenya croaked miserably. He couldn't bear Sidney's clumsy, well-meaning attempts at kindness. He rolled over onto his stomach and pressed his hips into the mattress, trying not to think about how good the slight pressure felt against his aching dick. And there was the pulse of Sidney's horror through the bond again, even stronger than before.
The silence was excruciating. Zhenya, his face hidden in the pillow, tried to will himself soft. Why wouldn't Sidney go? Why wouldn't he just leave, so that Zhenya could wallow in his embarrassment alone?
“I'll go,” Sidney said, so quickly it was clear he'd caught something of it through the bond. He sounded shaken, still. “I’ll just—I’m gonna go, okay?”
Sidney drove them both to practice the next day. Zhenya was still so mortified he couldn’t look directly at him, or even really in Sidney’s direction. He stared out the window instead. The snow had been melting slowly for days, and the streets were awful, a mess of muddy slush.
They drove in total silence, because Sidney was weird and didn’t seem to listen to music, and had instituted a ban on Russian techno before ten in the morning.
In the parking garage Sidney turned off the engine.
“Let me call the bond specialist,” he said. “She said if we had any questions—”
“No,” Zhenya said. He didn’t want anyone to know.
Sidney took a deep breath, the kind that meant he had prepared some kind of speech. “Geno—”
But Zhenya didn’t have to listen to it. He was a free man; he could go where he liked. He opened the door and got out of the car, fleeing to the safety of the locker room.
Things were awkward between them again.
Zhenya went home with Seryozha, and spent the evening watching cartoons with Natasha in the den while Ksenia cooked dinner. Seryozha dropped him off at home after, and Zhenya walked up the long drive, his heart in his throat.
Sidney wasn’t home. All the lights were out, and there was no trace of his presence in the house, as if he were avoiding Zhenya as studiously as Zhenya had avoided him.
Zhenya’s heart sank.
He took dinner up to his room. God, was it going to be like before? The two of them tiptoeing around this huge house, avoiding each other, staying in their rooms—everything stilted and awful and ruined, all because of Zhenya?
He kept thinking about the flash of Sidney’s horror through the bond, too strong for Sidney to control it, or tamp it down. It was one thing for Sidney to be flustered, or simply uninterested; Zhenya could handle rejection. But the horror and revulsion he’d felt from Sidney—that stung. It felt like an echo of Zhenya’s own disgust, in those first months, and some small, ungenerous part of him wondered if maybe Sidney had shoved those feelings through the bond on purpose. Maybe Sidney hadn’t really forgiven Zhenya. Maybe he’d wanted Zhenya to feel just as small as Zhenya had made him feel.
Zhenya was huddled under the duvet, feeling sorry for himself, when someone knocked on the door.
He could pretend to be asleep. Maybe he could pretend to be asleep for, oh, the next three months, and then the season would be over, and he could escape back to Russia, to lick his wounds in peace.
The door opened slowly.
Zhenya closed his eyes, forcing his breathing even. Sidney sighed.
“G, I can feel you’re awake,” he said. “Come on.”
He came into the room, though he didn’t sit on the bed—Zhenya heard him pull out the chair from the writing desk instead. Clearly Sidney wanted to keep as much distance between them as possible.
“Can we just—let’s talk about this, please.”
Zhenya didn’t move. Sidney could talk all he wanted. He could tell Zhenya exactly how repulsive he found the idea of Zhenya—responding the way he had. But there was no reason Zhenya had to look at Sidney while he did it.
“Geno,” Sidney said. “Okay, listen. Obviously—this is horrible, and I hate that this is happening. I never would’ve—I would never, okay? I would never.”
He drew in a shaky breath.
“I was thinking it over, all day,” Sidney said. “And I thought—maybe we can have somebody else here, watching.”
God: was it not enough to reject him? Did Sidney want to humiliate Zhenya in front of a witness, too—as some kind of twisted retribution?
“We could do it at the rink,” Sidney went on. “Maybe—in one of the trainer’s rooms, if you’re comfortable with that. And we can ask whoever you think is best, whoever you’d like to be there.”
Zhenya could bear it no longer. He threw back the blanket and sat up, blazing with anger. “You want watch?”
The sight of Sidney’s face drew him up short.
Sidney’s face was very white, almost ashen, and he felt strange through the bond. It was as if his usually ironclad grasp on it had slipped, and now his emotions were leaking everywhere: a complicated sludge of guilt and roiling shame, and something sticky and awful that Zhenya couldn’t identify, oozing sluggishly through the bond.
“Sid?” Zhenya said, more tentatively.
“I’m sorry,” Sidney said. “I know you’re obviously—you must be angry, and upset, and I understand. I know this must be really scary for you, and I’m just—I’m trying, okay? I’m trying to make it okay.”
Zhenya stared at him, perplexed. This didn’t feel like a rejection.
“Sid,” he said again, slowly. “Sid, why you say—I’m scare?”
“Geno, I know this is like—this is the number one thing you were afraid of,” Sidney said. “And I can feel how much you’re freaking out, I could feel you all the way across the house. I thought—if we had someone else here, at least you’d know for sure I wasn’t going to—touch you, or force you, or—”
“Sid, what?” Zhenya was rapidly moving from confusion to frustration. Sidney wasn’t making any sense. “Sid, you feel—bond is like, I can’t—”
Sidney took a deep breath, and then, with visible effort, clamped down on his side of the bond. Instantly, Zhenya’s head felt clearer. The iron band around his lungs loosened. He could breathe again, a full, deep breath.
“You’re having a reaction,” Sidney said. “Your body’s having an involuntary reaction to the venom, and that’s—it’s fine, it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t mean anything. But obviously you don’t feel fine about it. And I know when you first got here, you thought I would—influence you. Make you want things you didn’t want, or—make you do things, to me. But I swear, Geno, I wouldn’t. I would never do that to you. And we can have someone here, if you want. So you know they’d stop me, if I—if I tried anything.”
He said all of this slowly and clearly, though it was obviously costing him real effort to do so—it was clear he wanted Zhenya to understand him. Zhenya understood the words just fine, or enough of them to get the gist of what Sidney was saying. It was the combined meaning of the words that he found completely incomprehensible.
“Sidney,” he said.
“I can go,” Sidney said. “I’ll—I can find a hotel, or stay at Mario’s—”
Something in his tone made Sidney pause. Zhenya blew out a breath. He looked up at the ceiling, because it felt impossible to actually look Sidney in the eye.
“I’m not scare,” Zhenya said. “I’m, like—embarrass.”
He felt a hot flush creeping up the back of his neck, but he forced himself to keep talking.
“Is not—react, okay? Not— an’t help. I’m like—I think about. Have like, picture, in head.”
Silence. Sidney said, very carefully: “G, I don’t, uh. I’m not sure I understand.”
Zhenya’s face was on fire. Was Sidney really going to make him say it?
“I like,” he said. “Okay? I like. It’s feel good, for me. I’m—ah, get excite, turn on, because I think about, like, what if—” His voice faltered for a second, and then he finished in a rush: “—what if Sid touch, what if Sid want.”
Another silence, this one so long that Zhenya finally forced himself to look at Sidney.
Sidney didn’t look relieved. If anything, he looked even unhappier than before.
“Geno, you don’t have to lie to me,” he said. “I can feel how miserable you are. You’ve barely been able to look at me all day.”
Zhenya scowled. “Because you not like! I feel, Sid! Bond is like—Sid think, oh, Geno, so gross, get turn on. Bond is like, you feel—”
He made an exaggerated grimace of disgust.
Sidney opened his mouth, like he was going to argue further. But Zhenya was tired of talking. They would talk in circles around this all night if Sidney had this way, in this stupid language that gave Zhenya a headache, and the sun would set and rise again on them still fucking talking.
He opened the bond, summoned up all of his confused, tentative feelings of—what if, and would I like it, and would he like it, and if we tried it—and shoved them in Sidney’s direction, with as much force as he could manage.
Sidney made a noise in his throat, fingers white-knuckling the arm of his chair.
“Jesus, Geno,” he said. “Give me some fucking warning, would you.”
“It’s work?” Zhenya said impatiently. Sidney made a face, and touched his left temple with his fingertips, like he was prodding gingerly at a bruise.
But Zhenya could tell from Sidney’s expression that it had.
“Sid,” Zhenya said. “If you not want, not like—fine, okay. We not do. But I’m not, like, scare. I know you not hurt, not—” He didn’t know the English for take advantage. “I’m not scare.”
Sidney was quiet again, and Zhenya’s heart sank.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, you not want.”
“I didn’t say that.” Sidney blew out a breath. “I just—Geno, it’s a lot. I need to think about it, okay?”
Which meant no. Zhenya could read between the lines here. Sidney would go off and think about it—namely, about all the reasons Zhenya wasn’t someone he wanted to touch, or be touched by, or share any kind of intimacy with—and then he would come back, and knock on Zhenya’s door, and politely tell him no.
But Zhenya had had enough of baring his soul tonight. He lay back down, and pulled the duvet over his head again. It was fine.
He heard Sidney get up. Instead of leaving, though, he came over to Zhenya’s side of the bed, and sat down on the edge of the mattress.
Zhenya didn’t move. The air under the duvet was hot and close, and he felt weirdly close to tears, which was so stupid—so what if Sidney didn’t want him? So what if Sidney assumed the worst of him, still, and didn’t want to touch him, and would try to let him down easy, probably in a painfully kind way. Embarrassment hadn’t killed Zhenya yet. He could survive this too.
He felt Sidney’s hand touch his head, then drift down to his shoulder. He could feel the gentle thrumming of the bond in his chest, the way his heart leapt a little, instinctively, when the bond sensed Sidney was close.
“I didn’t say no,” Sidney said, and then, very carefully, Zhenya felt him open the bond, releasing a little stream of feelings. There was fear there, and worry, but also a sort of cautious hope, and the slow stirrings of something Zhenya thought, hoped, might be arousal. Mostly it was feeling and sensation, but he caught flickers of images too, sense memories. There were certain recurring themes.
Zhenya drew the covers down a little. The fresh air felt good against his flushed face.
“Sid,” he said, a little slyly. “You like mouth?”
“Shut up,” Sidney said. He was definitely blushing now. “I’m showing you that to be nice.”
“You like,” Zhenya crowed, and Sidney pulled the duvet up over his head again, holding the corners down.
“Let’s just think about it,” Sidney said. “Okay? Let’s just take some time, and think. And then we can—if you want, we can try again.”
Zhenya woke up the next morning feeling like he’d won a gold medal. It was raining outside—a good, heavy, cleansing spring rain, the kind that would wash away the last of the muddy slush. He could feel the bond humming quietly, happily in his chest, and he knew that Sidney was downstairs in the kitchen, drinking his coffee and reading the newspaper, or pretending to read it, because he thought that was something adults did.
Zhenya stretched luxuriously, then settled back into his nest of warm blankets, sliding his hand down to cup himself loosely through his boxers. Sidney had told him to think about it. Well, fine. Zhenya would think long and hard about it.
When he sauntered into the kitchen twenty minutes later, Sidney was sitting at the kitchen table, his coffee untouched, looking delightfully flustered.
“That’s—you’re cheating,” Sidney spluttered.
Zhenya grinned at him.
“Sid so smart,” he said. “Is good, we think. Think, like, how we do, how it’s feel.”
“Agh,” Sidney said, and Zhenya, laughing, opened the fridge, which was filled to bursting with the food that Sidney had procured for him. He would eat his delicious breakfast here in this kitchen, in the big beautiful house where they lived together, the house where—Zhenya was pretty sure now—Sidney was going to touch his dick, and maybe even let Zhenya touch his.
Life, Zhenya thought, was pretty good.
They played the Isles at home the next day. On the way to the rink, Sidney said, without looking at Zhenya, “Maybe—maybe we could, um. Tonight, if you wanted.”
Zhenya turned to look at him, grinning. “Sid—you hungry?”
Sidney’s cheeks were faintly pink. “Don’t think about it at the game,” he said.
“Sid, you say—”
“I know what I said,” Sidney said, and he was definitely pink now. "But I won’t be able to focus.”
“I’m distract?” Zhenya said innocently. He had been thoroughly enjoying himself for two days now, lightly tormenting Sidney in team meetings, and during practice, and once while Sid was doing media availability, which had earned him an earful in the car on the way home.
“Don’t think about it,” Sidney said again. “And I—I’ll give you something to think about, tonight.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, in shocked delight. “Now I’m distract.”
Zhenya played brilliantly. He could feel Sidney watching him from the bench, and though Zhenya was very good, and refrained from vividly imagining all the things they might get up to that evening, he could feel the flare of Sidney’s arousal through the bond, a jolt of electricity that sparked and crackled between them, lighting them both up.
Sidney disappeared into his room as soon as they got home, closing the door behind him. Zhenya could feel his presence through the bond, but Sidney was shielding pretty well, and he couldn’t pick up much else. He made himself a sandwich in the kitchen and ate it standing up over the sink, waiting for some signal from Sidney.
None came. Zhenya rinsed his plate and put it in the dishwasher—mostly to appease Sidney, who seemed to feel that Zhenya’s standards of cleanliness left something to be desired. But Sidney wasn’t even here to see it, or to admire the thoughtfulness of the gesture. He was upstairs somewhere, hiding. Maybe he had changed his mind, and was hoping Zhenya would get the hint.
Zhenya went up the stairs. He stood on the landing for a moment, wavering. Then he turned and went down the hall.
SIdney answered the door immediately, as if he’d been standing there waiting.
“Hi,” he said, and Zhenya felt Sidney’s nerves crackle through the bond.
“Hi, Sid.” Zhenya hesitated a moment, and then stepped closer, so that they were standing almost flush together. He reached out and touched Sidney’s arm, curling his fingers loosely around the bare skin of Sidney’s wrist.
The effect was instantaneous. He felt Sidney’s whole body relax. His shoulders curved in towards Zhenya, as if instinctively seeking closeness.
“Good,” Zhenya said, his voice a little rough.
Sidney swallowed hard. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m kind of nervous.”
Zhenya made a soft noise.
“I haven’t really, in a long time,” Sidney said, looking down. “And not, um. Not much, even before that. So I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
Zhenya’s throat felt tight with emotion. He stroked his thumb over the delicate skin of Sidney’s inner wrist, the place where Sidney’s pulse would have beat.
“Is for feel good,” he said. “Is fun, you know? We try, see. Maybe you not like.”
Sidney was pink again. “I think I’ll like it,” he said. “I liked everything you thought about.”
“Yes?” Zhenya watched him. “What you like, Sid?”
“You—I don’t know.” Zhenya felt a flare of Sidney’s nervousness again, but he stayed quiet, listening, rubbing slow circles over Sidney’s inner wrist. Sidney swallowed, and said: “It wasn’t, like, pictures, or anything. Just feelings, and you imagining things. I liked—you were thinking, um. About me touching you, while I—while we, you know.”
“Mm,” Zhenya said. “You want try?”
In the bedroom, Zhenya took off his shirt, and then his sweatpants, though he left his boxers on. Sidney didn’t take off his own clothes, and Zhenya didn’t say anything about it. He could tell Sidney was a little anxious still, and maybe it made him feel better, more secure, to be fully clothed.
Zhenya stretched out on the bed. Slowly, his gaze fixed on Sidney the whole time, Zhenya slid a hand down to cup himself through his boxers. He was mostly soft still, but the anticipation was delicious; he didn’t think it would take much to get him there.
“How you want, Sid?” he said, letting the slow simmer of his arousal flow through the bond between them. “How you think about?”
Sidney licked his lips. “On—on your side,” he said, and Zhenya obeyed, shifting on the bed. He felt Sidney crawl onto the bed beside him, shuffling in closer, spooning up behind him.
Sidney laid a cautious hand on the swell of Zhenya’s hip. Zhenya made an affirming noise.
“I thought like this,” Sidney said. “That way you can just—you can say stop, and push me away.”
“Not say,” Zhenya said. His pulse was picking up a little anticipation. He wondered if Sidney could hear it, feel it.
“But if you change your mind,” Sidney said stubbornly, and Zhenya rolled his eyes, and wriggled back against Sidney, so their bodies were flush together.
It took them a moment to work out the angle. Zhenya had to roll over a little onto his back, leaning against Sidney’s chest, to give Sidney access to his throat. He shivered a little when Sidney’s fangs sank into his throat, and then let himself relax fully, melting against Sidney.
It felt good. The actual sensation itself was a curious one – not painful, after the initial sting of the bite, but not especially pleasurable in and of itself. The pleasure came, Zhenya thought, from the rest of it: the closeness, and the easy, familiar way their bodies fit together. The bond specialist had told him that Sidney would be wholly dependent on Zhenya, and that was part of it, too. Not Sidney’s dependence, exactly, but the knowledge that he needed this from Zhenya, and only Zhenya. No one else could do this for him.
Zhenya was aroused, but in a lazy, relaxed sort of way—he could have floated like that for a long time. But then Sidney passed a cautious hand over Zhenya’s bare chest, fingers brushing against his nipple, and Zhenya drew in a startled breath. His nipples had never been especially sensitive, but suddenly his skin was prickling all over, hypersensitive. Sidney paused, and then touched him again, thumb stroking over Zhenya’s nipple, coaxing it into a stiff little peak.
“Sid,” Zhenya gasped out, and Sid’s hand slid lower, fingers splayed wide over Zhenya’s belly. He sucked hard at Zhenya’s throat, and Zhenya felt the pull of it low in his gut, under Sidney’s hand, as if Sidney were slowly drawing the arousal from somewhere deep within him. He was hard now, tenting out the front of his boxers. He arched into the touch, or tried to, Sidney’s hand on his belly holding him still.
“Sid,” he groaned. The house was as freezing as ever, but he could feel sweat beading on his forehead, his upper lip. Sidney was a warm, solid weight against his back, and Zhenya wished fervently that Sidney was shirtless too, that they were pressed together, skin to skin. He touched himself through his boxers, rubbing the heel of his palm against himself.
Sid caught his wrist, holding his hand still. Zhenya swore in Russian, fingers flexing.
“Sid,” he pleaded. “You—touch, please.”
It took a few moments of fumbling for Sidney to push Zhenya’s boxers down around his hips. Zhenya was so hard, his dick flushed an angry red, and he groaned, a low pained sound, when Sidney curled his fingers tentatively around him.
It was like watching himself jerk off, almost, except that it was Sidney’s hand on him, Sidney controlling the pace. Sidney was a little clumsy at first, uncertain. He touched Zhenya differently than Zhenya touched himself—his grip looser, the pace almost torturously slow—and Zhenya wondered if he was seeing the way Sidney jerked off, if Sidney lay here in this bed and touched himself just like this: biting his lip, maybe, keeping quiet in the dark, while Zhenya slept peacefully down the hall. The thought made Zhenya’s toes curl.
He felt Sidney’s fangs retract. Then Sidney began licking at the bite—not the quick, perfunctory way he usually did it, but slow and deliberate, tongue laving over the tender skin.
Zhenya was shivering now, fine little tremors running through his body. His mouth was wet, and half-open, as he watched Sidney stroke him with growing confidence. He had Sidney warm against his back, Sidney’s arms around him, pinning him still.
“You were so good tonight,” Sidney murmured, nosing at his jaw. He kissed the soft skin behind Zhenya’s ear, ticklish and sweet. “God, G, I love watching you play. You’re so good, it’s so hot.”
“Sid,” Zhenya whimpered, and Sidney murmured, “So good, G. You can come—I want you to. I want to make you come,” and that was it: Zhenya groaned, and clutched at Sidney’s arm, and came, spilling hot into Sidney’s cupped palm.
He drifted for a little while after, still clinging to Sidney’s arm. He felt Sidney kiss the nape of his neck, soft and sweet, and then, gently, Sidney disentangled himself from Zhenya’s grasp.
“Shh, it’s okay,” he said, at the disgruntled noise Zhenya made. “Be right back.”
Zhenya’s eyelids felt heavy. He tried to stay awake, but the post-feeding lassitude combined with the drowsiness of orgasm was too potent. He was drowsing lightly when he felt the mattress dip.
“You want to go back to your bed?” Sidney asked softly, leaning over him. Zhenya groused a little and tugged at Sidney’s arm, till Sidney finally took the hint and stretched out behind him, his arm wrapped around Zhenya’s waist, forehead resting lightly against the nape of Zhenya’s neck.
“Is good, Sid,” Zhenya mumbled.
“Yeah?” There was a touch of uncertainty in Sidney’s voice, and Zhenya roused himself just enough to flood the bond with his satisfaction, his smug contentment, the drowsy after-sweetness of his pleasure.
“Oh,” Sidney said softly, and Zhenya felt the shape of Sidney’s smile against his skin, sweeter even than the waves of tenderness still drifting through the open bond.
They had practice the next morning. Zhenya woke up alone in bed, and was grumpy and a little apprehensive until he came downstairs and found Sidney in the kitchen, heating up one of the frozen breakfast burritos Zhenya liked, a thermos full of coffee ready and waiting. Sidney was even more delightfully awkward than usual, and kept blushing every time Zhenya looked at him: a heady sort of power that made Zhenya want to back Sidney up against the fridge and kiss him all over his pink face, kiss him till he was breathless and giggling. But Sidney hadn't seemed interested in kissing last night, not even after when they were cuddling in bed, and Zhenya was trying to take Sidney's cues. He wasn't entirely sure, yet, what the parameters of this new arrangement were. Maybe kissing was too intimate for Sidney, too much like something this wasn't.
At the team meeting he sat in the back with Seryozha, half listening to Therrien drone on. The bite mark itched a little; that was why he kept rubbing at it, pressing his fingertips lightly against his throat.
He had been worried people would be able to see it on him, somehow: what he and Sidney had done. But nobody looked at him differently, or said anything. Nobody knew. And he trusted Sidney not to tell.
Zhenya glanced over at Sidney now, a few rows up and to his left, and caught him looking back. He tugged at the edges of the bond, just a little, and Sidney looked down at his lap, hiding a smile.
“You're too cheerful,” Seryozha said suspiciously. "What's the matter with you?"
“Nothing,” Zhenya said, and sat up straighter in his chair, pretending to be absorbed in studying the diagram on the board.
Mario Lemieux was in the kitchen when Zhenya got home.
Zhenya had come in loudly, dropping his bag on the floor in the lobby and kicking his shoes off by the door. He sauntered into the kitchen, humming to himself, wondering if Sidney might be up for fooling around a little after dinner.
“Hello, Geno,” Mario said, and Zhenya stopped dead in his tracks.
“Hello,” he said, politely he hoped, because even hearing Sidney call Mario Mario for months hadn’t made it seem any more feasible for Zhenya to do the same.
“I was just leaving,” Mario said, nodding. “Nathalie’s sent a lasagna over, Geno. Sidney—look over those files and let me know what you think, all right?”
Sidney got up to see Mario out, and Zhenya dug out the promised lasagna. Nathalie brought them over a few times a month, which had confused Zhenya—did all the rookies receive homemade food from the team owner’s wife?—before he realized it was Nathalie’s covert way of checking in on Sidney. It was definitely rarer to see Mario here, though: usually Sidney went to their house for Sunday dinners, every other week.
“What he want?” Zhenya asked, when Sidney came back in.
“Nothing, really,” Sidney said, gathering up the folders Mario had left on the table. “He’s just having me look at some people for next year.”
Zhenya wrinkled his nose. “For trade?” Even if Mario was grooming Sidney for the captaincy, it seemed odd for the team owner to consult a nineteen-year-old on roster decisions.
Sidney gave an awkward little shrug.
“Yeah, maybe,” he said. “It’s just—since they have to live with me, and everything.”
Zhenya got it, finally. Sidney was looking at prospective bondmates.
He cut out a big hunk of lasagna and forked it onto a plate.
“You talk?” he asked. “You, Mario, talk about?”
“Well—yeah,” Sidney said. “I mean, he started looking pretty much at the start of the season. So he’ll send me stuff, when he gets a good lead.”
Zhenya went over to the microwave and put his lasagna in. For some reason it made him feel weird to think about Sidney sitting at the kitchen table with Mario, or up in Mario’s big office, discussing Zhenya’s replacement. But of course they would have to start the ball rolling early, so that there was plenty of time to arrange for a trade, or lock someone down in free agency.
He would have to start thinking soon about where he was going to live next year. Maybe Seryozha would help him look for a house.
He turned back to face Sidney, sticking the fork in his mouth to lick it clean. Sidney’s gaze dropped to his mouth, lingering there for a second before he looked away.
“I see?” Zhenya nodded at the files in Sidney’s hand.
“Oh.” Sidney looked down at the files. “Um, sure, if you want.”
Zhenya settled down at the table. “I’m pick,” he said confidently. “Find best.”
He reached for the first folder and flipped it open. Some guy on the Panthers—Zhenya didn’t recognize the name, or the face in the team photo. Thirty-four years old, a fourth-line winger. Not an especially good one, either, judging by his stats. Zhenya wrinkled his nose.
“No,” he said.
“He’s fine,” Sidney said, a touch defensively. “He’s got a second cousin who’s, you know. Like me. So maybe he’d be open to it.”
“Sid, he old,” Zhenya pointed out. “Play one year? Two?” He reached for the next one.
This one wasn’t much better. A guy from the Ducks organization, though it looked like he’d spent most of his career playing for their AHL affiliate. The guy was a big, toothless bruiser, with a shaved head and a hard look in his eyes. Zhenya felt a little intimidated just looking at his photo. He couldn’t really imagine Sidney living with this guy, much less curling up next to him on a hotel bed. And what use would a guy like that be to the team? Dead weight on the roster, probably.
Zhenya flipped through the next couple of folders, and felt his stomach start to sink. It was clear Mario had put the best prospects on top, because the stats got steadily worse. There were only eight in all, and the last couple didn’t look promising: one had a note scrawled on top that said Religious? and the final folder said Ask about political views, the words underlined twice.
Not a single one of them was good. Most were lifetime AHLers, or old guys signing year-to-year contracts, clearly hanging onto their careers by their fingernails.
Zhenya closed the last folder. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“Mario’s still working on it.” Sidney practically snatched the folders back from him, restacking them neatly. From the look on his face, it was clear he knew what Zhenya thought. “It just takes time, that’s all.”
“First guy okay,” Zhenya said. He felt bad now, for being so dismissive. “Play NHL, you know? Have cousin—is good.”
“Yeah,” Sidney said, his voice tight. “We’ll see.”
The microwave beeped. Zhenya leapt out of his chair, glad of the distraction.
“Okay, come eat,” he said. “Watch TV.”
“You know I can’t eat.” Sidney still sounded a little tense.
“Yes, perfect,” Zhenya said. “Sid look so hungry, it’s make food taste better.”
That startled a laugh out of Sidney. “You’re such a dick,” he said, but he trailed after Zhenya into the den anyway, settling down on the opposite end of the sectional.
They watched SportsCenter for a while. Sidney was bored by the football replays, but immediately transfixed by the brief highlights from a recent Red Wings game. He had a lot of extremely detailed opinions about their penalty kill, which Zhenya disagreed with mostly because it was funny to watch Sidney get all worked up about it.
It was a good way to distract himself, too. Every time they went quiet, Zhenya’s thoughts started drifting back to the folders on the table.
He kind of wished he hadn’t looked. It was one thing to know, in an abstract way, that Sidney would form a new bond after theirs ended. But now, having seen Sidney’s pool of prospects, Zhenya had to imagine Sidney bonded to one of those guys—feeding from some washed-up has-been, or some guy who was grasping for his last chance at the show.
He had looked up the details of the league’s ruling, after the Crosby family’s visit. Zhenya knew the bondmate had to be someone on the active roster, a player who traveled with the team and sat on the bench—ostensibly so they’d be readily accessible in case of emergency. Sidney’s lawyers had appealed that part of the ruling, apparently: they’d wanted to expand it to anyone who traveled with the team. But the league, for reasons Zhenya didn’t fully understand, hadn’t budged.
Sidney would be bonded to a teammate for as long as he wanted to play. But if that stack of folders was the best Mario could do, it was clear Sidney would be cycling through new bonds at a pretty regular clip. Zhenya had experienced the healing powers of the bond firsthand—minor sprains and strains seemed to mend much faster than before, and he could get by on less sleep than usual without seeing much effect on his play—but it was hard to imagine the bond could counteract the more serious side effects of aging, given the long-term bodily wear-and-tear of a professional hockey career.
He shook off the thought, and glanced over at Sidney, who’d slumped down against the side of the sofa, hugging one of the cushions against his chest as he watched the TV.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, putting his plate down on the coffee table. “You want eat?”
Sidney glanced quickly at him, and then back at the screen, his cheeks slightly pink. He knew what Zhenya was really asking.
“Um—yeah, I could,” he said, in an obvious attempt at casualness.
Zhenya sprawled back against the cushions.
“Can?” he said, mock-concerned. “Not need? Maybe not hungry?”
Sidney always tried to act casual, like it didn’t matter to him one way or the other, and Zhenya loved to tease him until Sidney got all pink and flustered about it. Sidney blushed a lot these days—because of Zhenya’s teasing, but also because he fed more often now, every couple days. They’d discovered that Sidney only needed a little each time, if they did it that way, and the change in him was pretty remarkable. Sidney’s skin had lost that slightly waxen quality it used to have, which Zhenya only now realized must be what Sidney looked like when he was chronically undernourished.
Sidney looked alive now—happy and strong. He was having an incredible season, and Zhenya felt smug watching him from the bench, knowing he had some role, however small, in fueling Sidney’s success.
“No,” Sidney said, tongue darting out to lick his lips. “I’m, uh—pretty hungry, yeah.”
Zhenya let his thighs splay open a little wider.
“You hungry,” he said. “Come get.”
Sidney rolled his eyes, but he was flushed, and Zhenya could feel Sidney’s amusement, lightly tinged with embarrassment. “What, no delivery?”
“No deliver,” Zhenya said, closing his thighs, and Sidney laughed, and crawled across the couch towards him.
Sidney settled half in his lap, Zhenya’s arms wrapped loosely around him. He kissed the underside of Zhenya’s jaw. He had never kissed Zhenya on the mouth, and the one time Zhenya had tried Sidney had turned his face away, and kissed Zhenya’s throat instead.
“Maybe after,” Sidney said. “I could—my mouth.”
Zhenya shivered a little. “You want?”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Sidney said, his breath warm against Zhenya’s skin.
Zhenya had been thinking about it too—jerking off in the mornings sometimes, half-asleep still and warm in his bed, thinking about Sidney’s soft mouth, his fat tongue, his clumsy eager willingness to please.
He pressed his thumb against Sidney’s full lower lip, feeling the plush give of it. Sidney’s lips parted, his mouth opening easily for Zhenya. Zhenya slid his thumb inside, rubbing gently at Sidney’s tongue.
Sidney was watching him, his eyes wide and dark. Slowly, a little clumsily, he sucked at Zhenya’s thumb, looking up at Zhenya the whole time.
Sidney pulled off. His cheeks were pink.
“I’ve done it before,” he said. “In juniors, once. I liked it. I don’t know if I’m any good at it, though. So you—you might have to help me.”
Zhenya felt a jolt of arousal sizzle all the way down his spine, mixed with a strange, slightly bewildering sense of tenderness. Yes, Zhenya would help him. He would show Sidney how he liked it—Sidney’s mouth warm and soft around him, his eager clumsy tongue, Zhenya’s fingers tangled in his curls. And then, after, Zhenya would slide down Sidney’s body, and take him into his mouth, and let Sidney learn how he liked it.
He cupped Sidney’s face in his hand, stroking his wet thumb over Sidney’s cheekbone.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. “I teach.”
They played the Flyers at home a few days later, and won it in a shootout. Both Sidney and Zhenya were held off the scoresheet. It was a frustrating game all around, despite the win, and in the locker room after Sidney was more upset than Zhenya had ever seen him.
Zhenya wasn’t sure if it was obvious to anyone else. He’d seen Sidney lose his cool on the ice a few times—usually when the refs failed to call an especially egregious penalty—but he didn’t seem angry, now: if anything, Sidney seemed quieter and more self-contained than ever, his movements jerky but almost viciously controlled.
“Keep an eye on him,” Seryozha said to Zhenya, stripping off his gear.
“Sidney?” Zhenya said. “Why? What happened?”
Seryozha shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They said something to him, I think. I didn’t hear it, but he seemed shaken up. Just watch him.”
Across the locker room, Sidney’s head was down, his fingers working the laces of his skates loose. His end of the bond was clamped down tight, but Zhenya could read the tension in the stiff line of Sidney’s shoulders, the rigid set of his jaw.
Flower said something to him, and Sidney shook his head.
Zhenya didn’t go over to him. He was pretty sure most of the guys knew he and Sidney were, if not friends exactly, at least friendlier than they had been. But Sidney gave him a wide berth off the ice still, and Zhenya felt a little guilty about how relieved he’d been, not to have to navigate that. There were always people around—the guys, obviously, but staff too, and the press, and sometimes visitors. It was easier to keep the lines clear.
They met in the parking garage after.
Sidney didn’t usually let Zhenya drive, which Zhenya thought was dumb—“You dead, Sid,” he pointed out, to which Sidney usually replied, “I’m undead, actually, there’s a difference, and I can die again,” and things usually devolved from there. Tonight, though, Zhenya held out his hand for the keys and Sidney surrendered them without protest.
Sidney was silent on the way home, which wasn’t like him: the power play had faltered twice in the third period alone, which was usually more than enough to carry them all the way home and halfway into the next morning. Tonight, though, he just stared out the window, absorbed in his own thoughts.
Zhenya said nothing. He drove a little more carefully than usual, though, checking the mirror before changing lanes.
“I hate the Flyers,” Sidney said suddenly, when they were a few blocks from home. “The stuff they say—I know it’s just to get under my skin, but I hate it. I hate that it works.”
Zhenya glanced at him. “What they say?”
“It was like—they’d coordinated it,” Sidney said, and once he started talking it was like a dam bursting, the words pouring out of him, almost too fast for Zhenya to follow. “It wasn’t even the usual crap, about how I shouldn’t be on the ice. It was just—We’re watching you. Over and over, every time one of them got me in a corner. We’re watching you.”
“Watch?” Zhenya asked cautiously.
“I know what it means,” Sidney said. “It’s—people used to say it to me all the time, after I got drafted. Just to freak me out. It means—they’re watching me, all the time. Waiting for me to fuck up. Because they can’t—the league can’t kick me out, not without a reason. It means they’re waiting for the reason.”
Zhenya thought uneasily about what Genya had said, months ago: There’s plenty of people in the league who’d jump at the chance to see him gone. Aloud, though, he said: “Sid, they just talk. What they know?”
Sidney leaned his head against the window.
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s what I used to think. After the draft people used to call my parents in the middle of the night, or when Taylor was home after school, and say shit like that. We’re watching you, we know what your son is. But my dad said it was just talk. If I didn’t do anything wrong, the league couldn’t stop me from playing. We’d sue the hell out of them if they tried. Even if they had to mortgage the house, and use up Taylor’s college fund, they’d make sure the league couldn’t get away with it.”
He blew out a breath.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I know I didn’t. I was so fucking careful that first year. But they just—there was a petition, I guess, and a bunch of people signed it. The lawyers wouldn’t tell me who. Just that they were important people. Respected players. They said—it wasn’t right, asking guys to risk their lives every time they stepped onto the ice.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, low.
“I try not to care,” Sidney said. “I try not to let it get to me. But I just look around, every game. I look at those guys—I look at my own team—and I wonder: did you sign it? Did you? Is that how much you hate me?”
He looked out the window again.
“I just want to play hockey,” he said. “I don’t care what else I have to give up, as long as I can have this. As long as I can play.”
“Sid, you play,” Zhenya said. “Mario find good bond, best bond.”
“Thanks, Geno,” Sidney said, but it sounded hollow.
Zhenya didn’t know what else to say, or do. Sidney was quiet the rest of the drive home, and went inside without speaking.
“Sid,” he said inside, dropping the keys in the bowl. “Watch TV, okay?”
Sidney paused, his hand on the railing. He looked pale and drawn, and the idea of letting him go upstairs like that, to lock himself in his bedroom alone, was unbearable. Zhenya wanted Sidney close, so he could look after him, and distract him, maybe.
“Yeah, okay,” Sidney said finally, and Zhenya exhaled in relief.
Sidney sat down on the far end of the sofa, his legs folded up under him, staring blankly at the screen. Zhenya flipped through the channel guide, looking for something suitably boring for Sidney—something about war, or how planes were made, or something.
“You like?” Zhenya said, picking something at random. It looked like it might be about trains in Europe. They used trains in wars, didn’t they? He was pretty sure about that. Maybe they’d show clips of the trains transporting the soldiers to the battlefront. Sidney would know which war it was, probably, and then he could tell Zhenya about it at length, and Zhenya could pretend to be enthralled.
“Sure,” Sidney said, without much enthusiasm. “You’re gonna hate it, though.”
“No, I like.” Zhenya settled down on the sofa a few feet from Sidney. “I’m so interest, you know? Train, like - war train.”
“I don’t think this is about war,” Sidney said doubtfully. “It looks like it’s about engineering.”
Well, damn it. Zhenya would have to figure out some other way to make him feel better.
Sidney shifted on the sofa, reaching for one of the throw pillows. Zhenya had a sudden idea.
He reached for the pillow, making grabby hands. Sidney, a little bemused, surrendered it.
“Okay, put head,” Zhenya said, gesturing towards his lap.
Sidney straightened up, still confused. Then something seemed to click.
“Oh,” he said. “Do you—yeah, I can. If you want.”
It took Zhenya a moment to realize what Sidney thought.
“No, no,” Zhenya said quickly, his face hot. Did Sidney really think Zhenya would ask him to suck his dick, when Sidney was so obviously upset?
Zhenya pulled the pillow over his lap and patted it. “Put head,” he said. “Okay? Watch movie.”
“G, it’s okay,” Sidney said, but Zhenya pretended not to understand, and patted the pillow again, until finally Sidney shifted over on the sofa and lay down his head in Zhenya’s lap.
Zhenya raked his fingers through Sidney’s curls, scratching lightly at his scalp with his nails. Zhenya’s mother had done this for him when he was a child, when he was sick or upset, and it had always soothed him. He kept the touch gentle, alternating between light scratches and deeper pressure, massaging Sidney’s scalp.
Sidney was stiff at first, but he let Zhenya touch him, moving his head gently here and there on the pillow, fingers working at his scalp.
“That feels good,” Sidney mumbled, and Zhenya felt him begin to relax by slow degrees, the tension bleeding out of his body.
It soothed Zhenya, too. There was something almost meditative about it—the slow, gentle touches, the soft sound of Sidney’s breathing. Like this, Zhenya could focus only on the work of his hands. Everything else—the frustrations of the game, the sense of helpless impotence he’d felt in the car—receded into the distance. There was only Sidney: Sidney, who needed him, not only for the blood that made him stronger, but for this, too—this comfort, this soothing.
He felt Sidney fall asleep through the bond, drifting peacefully off. Zhenya stroked Sidney’s hair back from his forehead, watching the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest. He thought about what Sidney had told him, weeks ago: that the bond should be founded in trust.
There would be no one to do this for Sidney, when Zhenya was gone.
There would be a succession of strangers, instead: a new face every season or two. They would live in Zhenya’s old room, maybe, and at night Sidney would walk down the hall to that room and knock softly on the door, so that someone could reluctantly give him what he needed to survive. Sidney’s family would come for Christmas, and every year, maybe, his mother would hope, and hope—bringing thoughtful little gifts for a stranger; taking photos in front of the tree. Sidney would haunt his own house like a ghost, making space in his home, in his soul, for someone who wanted the money, or a couple more years in the show.
Zhenya saw it now, watching Sidney sleep. He had never before felt the full horror of the league’s ruling. Had never let himself feel it, maybe. It had been easier to think of it as a business arrangement; for Zhenya, that was all it had to be. But for Sidney—
Maybe they could keep the bond a little while longer. For the summer, maybe: long enough for Mario to find someone who was good enough to bond with Sidney, someone who would be good to him. The kind of person Sidney wouldn’t have to lie to his parents about.
Zhenya could stay here a bit longer. He missed home, but it might be okay, not to spend the whole summer there. To wait until the fuss over the bond had died down a little. He and Sidney could stay here in Pittsburgh, or maybe—maybe Zhenya could go home with him. Sidney had bought a place for himself in Nova Scotia, Zhenya knew: Sidney talked about half-longingly, half nervously, all the time, as if he could hardly believe it was real.
The Crosbys would be happy to see him again, Zhenya thought. And this time Sidney wouldn’t have to lie. They were friends now. They were—something more, maybe, even if it wasn’t forever.
Sidney stirred a little in his sleep, his brow furrowing, as if troubled by some dream. Zhenya smoothed a hand over Sidney’s curls, sending a quiet stream of peaceful contentment through the bond.
“Sleep now,” he said softly. “You can sleep now. I’ll watch over you.”
Genya was waiting for him after practice the next day. Zhenya stopped so suddenly Jordan ran into his back.
“What,” Genya said, at the look on Zhenya’s face. “Didn’t you miss me?”
They went for a late lunch. Genya had reservations at a fancy steakhouse in the city, and drove them there in the sleek black Mercedes he’d rented for the occasion. He was in good spirits, full of news from Moscow, and kept up the conversation without seeming to notice Zhenya’s silence.
The hostess cast a sidelong glance at Zhenya’s sweatpants and beat-up trainers, but ushered the two of them back to a small table set aside for them on the top floor. Genya ordered for both of them, and had a bottle of red brought to the table for his inspection.
He spoke for a long time about a set of endorsement deals he’d been working on, while Zhenya folded and unfolded his napkin in his lap.
“Now, nothing’s formalized yet,” Genya said. “They’re reluctant to put anything in writing at the moment, given your current entanglements. But that’ll be behind you soon enough, and then we can set things in motion. And of course, we’ll want you to do a nice long intimate sitdown with someone sympathetic, at one of the major publications. An exclusive look into a year under thrall.”
Zhenya looked up, startled. “No one wants to hear about that.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Genya said, waving this away. “There’s a certain, ah—romance to it, if you’ll pardon the expression. A brilliant young star, driven into a leech’s lair, bound in servitude for a year? They can feign disgust all they like, Zhenya, but really they’re fascinated. We’ll cook up something suitable—a few salacious details here and there, a few things you simply can’t speak about—and we’ll have them eating out of our hands.”
The waitress returned with their entrees—steak for both of them, rarer than Zhenya would have ordered for himself—and retreated.
“It’s not very professional, is it?” Zhenya said. “They have all my interviews translated, you know. Whatever I say will get back to the team eventually.”
Genya cut neatly into his steak, pink juices oozing out. He lifted his fork to his mouth and chewed slowly, his eyes closed, his expression faintly rapturous.
“Oh, that’s good,” he said. “And if Lemieux’s people were worried about that, they should’ve thought to have you sign an NDA. I reviewed the language quite closely. You’re free to give whatever account of the year you like.”
Zhenya prodded at one of the small roasted potatoes with his fork. His own appetite had vanished.
Genya sighed. “What, Zhenya? You’re sulking.”
“I’m not sulking,” Zhenya snapped. Genya had known him since he was practically a child, and had a way of making Zhenya feel as if he was still that same thirteen-year-old boy, wide-eyed and provincial. “It’s just—it could make it harder, you know. For him to find someone else.”
“Who, Crosby? Well, that’s hardly your concern.”
“He’s the only reason I could play this year,” Zhenya said. “Without him I’d still be stuck in Magnitka. Don’t I owe him something for that?”
“You do, of course,” Genya said, inclining his head. “And you’ve given it to him. He’s enjoyed you for the better part of a year, hasn’t he?”
His voice was light, relaxed, but there was something knowing in his tone. Heat crept up the back of Zhenya’s neck. If his expression so much as twitched, Genya would spot it: he had always been able to read Zhenya like a book.
“He’s good,” Zhenya said. “He deserves to play.”
“Oh, Zhenya,” Genya said. “Is that what this is really about? I saw the two of you at practice today, you know. It seems you’ve grown—close.”
Something in his voice made Zhenya bristle.
“It isn’t like that,” Zhenya said forcefully. “We’re teammates, that’s all. It’s simpler to get along. The coaches like him. Lemieux likes him. I have to play two more years here, even without the bond. There’s no sense in making enemies.”
The waitress, approaching their table, hesitated. Genya waved her over.
“She can’t understand us,” he said, his voice blandly pleasant. “None of the people can. Though I wonder what they would think.”
“I told you it isn’t like that.” Zhenya forced himself to look up, to meet Genya’s eyes like a man. “I’m thinking of the team, that’s all. If he can’t find someone else, he can’t play. And he’s good, Genya—he’s the best. We need him to win.”
Genya leaned back in his chair, considering him.
“Perhaps it was a mistake to leave you here alone,” he said. “Seryozha did try to warn me, you know. He said no good would come of leaving you and Crosby in that house unsupervised. Maybe I should have listened to him.”
“He said that?”
“In stronger language, yes.” Genya shrugged. “We talk, you know, every few weeks. He’s made his feelings on the matter quite clear.”
The words stung more than Zhenya would’ve anticipated. Seryozha had never said.
Genya leaned forward. “You got yourself into this mess, Zhenya. I told you not to sign, and what did you do? You let that idiot Velichkin get into your head, with his cheap threats and his patriotic bluster. Well, fine: I rode in to the rescue. Put you on a plane and brought you here, and convinced Lemieux you’d make a good little blood-bag, all so Magnitka couldn’t claw you back.”
He settled back in his chair, picking up his knife and fork again.
“I’ll get you out of this,” he said. “But we’ll do it my way, do you understand? No more deviations from the plan. Crosby was the perfect solution to a temporary problem. He’s served his purpose. You’ll win without him, if you have to. If I were you, I might even hope for that outcome. Harder to shine on a crowded stage.”
Zhenya stared down at his plate and said nothing. Genya picked up his napkin and dabbed delicately at the corner of his mouth.
“Now then,” he said. “If we’re finished with that bit of unpleasantness, I have a little surprise for you. What do you think about bringing your parents over?”
They left early the next morning for an overnight. Sidney sat with Flower on the plane, and Zhenya sat by himself, with his headphones in so no one would try to talk to him. He fell asleep leaning against the window, and woke feeling vaguely queasy from the faint vibrations of the plane.
They went straight to the rink, to get in a short practice before they dispersed for dinner. Zhenya stayed on the ice for a little while after, shooting pucks into the empty net. By the time he hit the showers the visitors’ locker room had mostly cleared out. Seryozha was still there, though, sitting in one of the empty stalls. He looked up when Zhenya came in.
“There you are,” he said.
“Here I am,” Zhenya said, and went to his own stall. He changed quickly and toweled his hair dry, raking his fingers through it to make it lie flat. Seryozha said nothing more, though Zhenya could feel him there, a watchful presence at his back.
Finally he could bear it no more. “Well?” he said, turning. “What do you want?”
Seryozha’s eyebrows went up a little, though otherwise his expression didn’t change.
“You’re a ray of sunshine today,” he said. “Come, let’s get dinner.”
“I have plans,” Zhenya said, and shouldered past him.
He went back to the hotel and lay facedown on his bed. Max was out, and the room was empty.
His phone buzzed a few minutes later.
Are you feeling okay?
I’m with Flower and Army
Do you want me to bring you some food?
Zhenya stared at the text for a moment, conflicted. The thought of seeing Sidney made him feel vaguely nauseous with guilt. But Zhenya hadn’t done anything yet. He had only listened to Genya talk.
Sidney brought him a double cheeseburger, a bag of greasy fries, and a chocolate milkshake. The food was waiting for Zhenya when he arrived, laid out on a tray on the extra bed.
“Trainer yell,” Zhenya said, though his stomach rumbled in approval.
“I thought you might need it.” Sidney sat cross-legged on the other bed, watching Zhenya eat. “You were pretty quiet today.”
Zhenya licked ketchup off his fingers.
Sidney hesitated. “Is, uh—is everything okay?”
He finished the burger and reached for the bag of fries.
“Is fine,” he said. “Genya say—Mama, Papa, come soon.”
“Oh.” Sidney sounded relieved. “That’s great news, G. You must really miss them.”
Zhenya made a noncommittal sound.
“You want eat?”
“Oh—I’m okay, actually,” Sidney said, and Zhenya felt a sense of despair totally out of proportion to the situation.
“Maybe you need.” He shoved the paper wrappers into the greasy bag, pushing it away. He couldn’t look Sidney in the eye. “Little bit.”
There was a pause, long enough that he thought Sidney might turn him down. But Sidney only said, “Sure, G. That sounds good.”
Zhenya lay down on the bed, on his side, facing the far wall. He heard Sidney moving around behind him, and wished, suddenly, that Sidney would turn out the lights. But of course he wouldn’t—why should he? It would only take a few moments.
Sidney lay down on the bed beside him, so that they were face to face.
“Hi, G,” he said quietly, and Zhenya felt his heart clench painfully in his chest.
Sidney’s eyes were very dark. His mouth was red and full, his lips slightly parted. Zhenya had never kissed him, though probably someone had.
For some reason the thought made him feel tired. He was so tired—exhausted, really, an exhaustion that seemed to have sunk into his bones, so deep that sleep could never touch it.
“Let’s take a nap first,” Sidney said softly. “Okay?”
Zhenya closed his eyes. He felt Sidney’s breath against his cheek.
“Stay,” he said, though it came out like a question—a child’s plea, fearful and needy. He was too tired to feel ashamed.
“I will,” Sidney said. “I’ll stay.”
Zhenya reached out blindly, curling his fingers in the front of Sidney’s t-shirt. Sidney shifted closer, until their bodies were almost flush together. He put a tentative arm around him, drawing him close, and Zhenya exhaled, a long shuddering rush of air, as if he had been holding his breath without realizing it.
“That’s it,” Sidney murmured. “Rest for a bit, yeah? I’ll be here.”
His parents arrived on a Wednesday afternoon. Zhenya drove to the airport after practice, and waited for them at baggage claim.
He saw them coming through the security doors, a moment before they saw him. They looked older than he remembered, and smaller. His father had a hand on his mother’s back: protective, or guiding. Looking at them, Zhenya was overcome by a wave of homesickness so intense that for a moment he could hardly breathe.
His mother looked up and saw him.
“Zhenya,” she called out, and he went forward into her arms. She hugged him so tightly he thought his ribs might crack.
“Hello, Mama,” he said, and felt her begin to weep.
“Oh Zhenya,” she said. “Oh, my son. How I’ve missed you.”
They were quiet on the drive home, looking out the windows—a little overawed, maybe, or tired from the long journey. He drove them to the townhouse Ksenia had helped him rent and carried their luggage up the stairs.
“It’s perfect,” his mother said. “Look, there’s plenty of room. You’ll stay here with us, won’t you?”
“I don’t have any of my things,” Zhenya said. “It’s easier if I stay there.”
“Nonsense,” his father said. “Go and pack what you need. Why have we come all this way, if not to see our son?”
He had laid out his suitcase on the luggage stand, and was already starting to put his things away. Zhenya watched him line up his rolled socks neatly in the dresser: preparing for a long stay.
“I’m only a few minutes away,” he said. “I’ll be here every day.”
His mother came towards him, taking his hands in hers.
“Please, Zhenechka,” she said, looking up at him. “Stay here with your family. Surely he won’t be angry with you, not for that. How could he? You have the right to see your parents.”
Her eyes were wide and full of fear. It was the first reference either of them had made to Sidney.
Zhenya drew his hands back. He said, more sharply than he meant to: “Of course he won’t be angry. He doesn’t control where I go, or who I see.”
His father paused over his open suitcase. He looked at Zhenya for a long moment, his gaze unreadable. Then he reached into the case and drew out a folded shirt, briskly shaking it loose.
“Then there’s no trouble,” he said. “You’ll go now, while we rest.”
They played the Capitals at home, three days later. Sidney scored a power play goal off Zhenya’s assist in the second. He slammed into Zhenya’s arms behind the net, beaming.
“Fuck yeah, G,” he said. “What d’you think, one more?”
Zhenya looked down at Sidney: his flushed face, his radiant smile. They were on the big screen, probably. His parents were watching in the stands.
“Score two more,” he said, recklessly, “three more,” and Sidney’s laugh was a bright and wild thing, fluttering higher and higher in the air between them.
But Zhenya didn’t score again, and neither did Sidney. Still, they won. They had clinched a playoff berth.
Zhenya showered and dressed quickly, while Sidney was doing postgame media. He felt guilty about it, but he wanted to usher his parents out before Sidney finished. There was plenty of time for them to meet. There was no need to rush things.
His parents were waiting for him outside the locker room, though when Zhenya came out he saw they weren’t alone.
“Sasha,” he said, slowing. “What are you doing here?”
“No manners at all,” Sasha said to Zhenya’s mother, shaking his head in mock surprise. “I know you didn’t raise him this way. These children, they come to America—”
“Careful, or I’ll tell your mother tales,” Zhenya said, scowling. “Mama, let’s go.”
“It’s so nice to see a familiar face,” his mother said, smiling at Sasha. “Oh, Sasha, I wish you were closer.”
“Maybe you’ll go to Washington next,” Zhenya’s father said. “What do you think, Zhenya? There are plenty of Russians on the team.”
Sasha looked surprised. “Leaving Pittsburgh, Zhenya?”
“I pray for the day he leaves this awful place,” Zhenya’s mother said. “Oh, Sasha, you have no idea how much we worry. Bound to a leech—” She broke off, shuddering.
“He should have the decency not to play,” Zhenya’s father said angrily. “What kind of place is America, to let him into a locker room?”
Sasha glanced at Zhenya. Zhenya stared at the ground.
“Let’s go,” he said again, touching his mother’s arm. “We shouldn’t keep Sasha. His bus is waiting.”
He was silent on the drive home. It was raining outside, a light mist, the traffic lights blurring in the darkness.
“What’s the matter, Zhenya?” his mother said, touching his arm. “You’re so quiet.”
“Mama,” he said. “You shouldn’t say that word here.”
“Leech.” He stared out the windshield. “It’s not appropriate here.”
His mother gave him a strange look. “Does he speak Russian? I don’t see why it matters.”
Zhenya lay awake in bed for a long time that night, unable to sleep. Finally he fumbled for his phone.
Sid picked up on the second ring.
“Hey,” he said. “Everything okay?”
At the sound of his voice Zhenya felt instantly better, if also a little foolish. He had seen Sidney an hour ago, if that—there was no reason to call him.
“Sid,” he said. “Make playoffs.”
“Yeah, we did,” Sidney said, and Zhenya could hear the quiet happiness in his voice. “Did you see Ovechkin after? Was he upset about losing?”
“Sasha?” Zhenya scoffed. “Sasha is use to lose. I beat, every time.”
Sidney laughed at that, and Zhenya felt warmed by it. He was okay. He was fine like this—joking with Sidney, where everything difficult seemed very far away.
“So,” Sidney said. “Do I get to meet the parents?”
Zhenya fell silent.
“Not that—I don’t have to, obviously,” Sidney said, too quickly.
“Sid,” Zhenya said heavily. “Maybe it’s not, like—good idea.”
“Right,” Sidney said. “Yeah, of course.”
There was a long silence, and then Sidney said, “Well, I should—”
“Sid,” Zhenya said. “Is—Russia. They not know.”
“Geno, it’s okay,” Sidney said. “Honestly, if I got upset every time someone didn’t think I should be playing, I’d never have time to actually play.”
It was clear Sidney was trying to make him feel better. Zhenya felt like the worst person in the world. He would work on his parents. He could—keep trying, as long as they were here. He could do that for Sidney.
Sidney hesitated for a moment. “Are we still—if we need to cancel tomorrow night—”
“No, we do,” Zhenya said quickly. He had been looking forward to it all week. He didn’t know what he would tell his parents to explain his absence, but he’d think of something. He had to see Sidney.
He snuck out after dinner, while his parents were in the living room watching television. He imagined saying something to them, casual and offhanded: I’m heading over to Sidney’s—don’t wait up, but his nerve failed him, and instead he slipped out of the house like a teenager breaking curfew. Probably they would fight about it when he got back. There was no point in doing it twice.
Zhenya let himself in the front door. It was strange, to step into the familiar gloomy darkness of the house and experience a wash of relief so intense it left him weak in the knees. Sidney was in the living room, sprawled out on the sofa watching tape of their last game.
“Hey,” he said, looking up. “How’re your parents?”
“Fine,” Zhenya said, lacking the English, or the energy, to offer anything further. Some part of him doubted Sidney would understand even if he tried. Family, for Sidney, meant the Crosbys at Christmastime: a house full of laughter and noise, carols on the radio and cookies baking in the oven. It was hard to imagine Sidney sitting down to a dinner like the one he’d just had: Zhenya’s father’s strained silences, and Zhenya’s own evasions, and his mother’s slightly nervous prattle running over it all, attempting to smooth over the potholes in the conversation.
Sidney must have caught something of that through the bond. He frowned.
“Hey,” he said. “We don’t have to tonight, if you need to get back to them. I can get by for a few more days.”
Zhenya shook his head. “No, it’s okay. We do.”
Sidney looked at him a moment longer. “All right,” he said. “You wanna come here?”
He moved his feet off the sofa, clearing space for Zhenya at the end. Zhenya walked around the sofa, and then pretended to stumble. He made a big show of falling on top of Sidney like a felled tree, draping his body over Sidney’s.
Beneath him Sidney laughed, squirming in mock protest. “You’re crushing me,” he said, though he made no move to push Zhenya off.
“Sorry, I fall,” Zhenya said, voice muffled in the crook of Sidney’s shoulder. Sidney was warm and comfortingly solid underneath him. He smelled faintly of laundry detergent, the fresh lavender scent they both used. Zhenya, breathing him in, felt something loosen in his chest.
Tentatively, Sidney touched Zhenya’s back, fingers tracing the line of his spine.
“Hey, bud,” Sidney said softly. “House feels kinda quiet without you.”
Zhenya drew in another lungful of air and held it until his lungs ached. Do you miss me, he wanted to ask, but instead he said: “You scare?”
He felt Sidney’s laugh, a soft exhale of breath.
“Yeah, for sure. Keep thinking the chairs are gonna come alive in the night and attack me.”
“Claw,” Zhenya said gravely, and made claws of his own hands, scratching up and down Sidney’s arms.
Sidney shifted, smiling. “You’re in a funny mood.”
Instead of answering, Zhenya turned his face into the hollow of Sidney’s throat. It was funny like that: like Zhenya was the vampire. He tested his teeth lightly against Sidney’s skin, and felt him react, a long, slow shiver that ran the length of his body.
Zhenya did it again. Then he pressed his mouth against Sidney’s skin and began gently to suck at his throat, trying to mimic the pulling sensation he felt when Sidney fed.
“Don’t—no marks.” Sidney sounded a little breathless, and Zhenya, reluctantly, stopped.
Sidney fed from him on the sofa, tucked in like that: Zhenya’s back against the cushions, Sidney warm and solid against his front, one of the soft throw blankets drawn up over their bodies. Everything felt close and warm and safe. He let himself drift on the dreamy rush of the venom: sheltered by Sidney’s body, anchored by the soft drawing pull of his mouth. Afterwards Sidney slid his hand into Zhenya’s boxers and stroked him until he came, and that, too, felt like a kind of drifting, safe in this quiet sheltered place they had made.
It was after midnight when Zhenya pulled into the driveway. There was a light burning in the kitchen window, and Zhenya sat in his silent car for a moment, looking up at it. Then he took the keys from the ignition and went up the stairs.
His father was standing at the kitchen table, gripping the back of his chair with one hand. His face was very white, and Zhenya, standing in the doorway, saw how tense he was, tense and almost trembling, grasping onto the chair as if it were the only thing holding him up.
They stared at each other in silence. Zhenya stared at his father’s ashen face, his instincts warring within him—some part of him wanted to rush to his father, to put a hand on his shoulder and help him into his chair. But the greater part of him knew the distance between them was far greater than it seemed—a yawning chasm into which even the slightest movement might send him stumbling. He held himself back, held himself still, braced against what was coming.
“Where were you, Zhenya?”
“I went out.”
“This is my home, Papa,” Zhenya said. “I can go where I like. Do I have to tell you everything I do?”
He spoke quickly, and angrily, far more sharply than he had ever addressed his father.
His father stared at him, and then, slowly, his gaze dropped to Zhenya’s throat—wavering for a moment, as if afraid of what he might find there.
His fear—his timidity—infuriated Zhenya.
“Ask me,” Zhenya said. “Ask me again where I was, Papa. I’ll tell you, if you want to know. Ask me what I was doing, and who I was doing it with.”
“Zhenya,” his father said, shock and revulsion evident in his voice.
“Look at me,” Zhenya said—snarled, almost, his hurt and discomfort boiling over into rage. “Look at me, Papa.”
“Stop it,” his father cried out. “Stop it. How can you ask such a thing of me? You make us wait for you all night, your mother crying herself sick—and then you come here to me, your father, and say these things? Is it not enough, Evgeni, for us to know what you reduce yourself to? Must you make us look, too, and hear you speak to us like this—mocking our grief for you, our shame?”
The words struck Zhenya like a physical blow, rocking him back on his heels. He felt a wave of nausea so intense he could hardly breathe, acid eating away at his insides.
“I’m sorry you feel this way, Papa.” He was fiercely proud of his own steadiness: his voice shook, but held. “I’m sorry to have caused you pain, to have caused Mama pain. But I’m not a child anymore. I have my own life here, my own responsibilities. I signed a contract. I made a bond—a promise.”
His father made a harsh sound in his throat.
“A promise? Zhenya, you made that promise to break another one. Everything you have today, every part of this new life, is because of Magnitka. They gave you everything, Zhenya, and all they asked in return was a few more years. Just a little more time, that’s all. But you were too impatient. Too impulsive—too selfish, thinking only of your own desires.”
“That’s not true,” Zhenya said hotly. “That’s not—”
“Let me speak.” His father’s knuckles were white on the back of the chair. “You broke your promise. You fled to America, and here you have a new life. It’s your mother and I who must live with the consequences of your choices. Everyone knows, Zhenya. Our friends, our relatives, the people in the street—they look at us and they know we have raised a son whose word means nothing, less than nothing. A son who left behind his family, who betrayed his team, his city—and for what?”
Zhenya swallowed hard.
“To play in the NHL,” he said. “My dream, Papa. To play in America.”
“To bind yourself to a parasite. To let him have you—keep you, like a pet in his home. Everyone asks us why you left, why you broke your word. And what are we to tell them, Zhenya? Our son betrayed his team, his country, to be a leech’s plaything?”
“Don’t call him that!”
He had never shouted at his father before—had never so much as raised his voice. Both of them froze, and for a long moment they simply stared at each other: Zhenya flushed with anger, almost lightheaded; his father ashen, looking at Zhenya as if he were a stranger.
At last his father exhaled, and as the breath left his lungs he seemed to age ten years before Zhenya’s eyes—his shoulders sagging, his expression collapsing into weary resignation. He looked stooped and tired, defeated even: an old man.
“This is what we feared,” he said quietly. “Already he separates you from your home, your country. Will he take you from your family, too?”
Zhenya’s eyes stung. “It’s not like that, Papa. He’s not like that. He would never ask me to choose.”
His father sank down into the chair. He covered his eyes with his hand, as if the light pained him.
“Zhenya,” he said, his voice trembling. “My son. You’re so far from us—you’ve gone so far away. How can we protect you here? How can we—”
“I don’t need you to protect me!” Zhenya said. “I’m not a child, Papa! Don’t you think I can look after myself?”
His father was silent for a long moment, his hand over his face. Finally, he said, “Zhenya, please. Don’t go to him again. For your mother’s sake.”
“Papa, he needs it,” Zhenya said. “He gets sick without it.”
His father drew his hand from his face and stared at him.
“Do you honestly believe that?” he said. “They lie, they trick, they deceive—it’s in their nature. He must know he can get what he likes from you.”
Something in the way he said it drew Zhenya up short.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he snapped.
His father took a shaky breath. “Genya feels—he feels that the boy has some power over you. That he’s warped your mind in some way. Changed you. Made you—feel things.”
Zhenya felt numb. He couldn’t look away from his father’s face—his eyes wide, his expression a mixture of fear and earnest supplication.
“Papa,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“This isn’t you, Zhenya,” his father said, almost pleading. “I know this is not my son.”
Zhenya was a mess at practice. He had hardly slept, tossing and turning on the lumpy mattress in the second bedroom, alternately hot with anger and cold with shame. He was slow and distracted, making foolish mistakes, and he must have looked so wrecked that when Therrien called him over he didn’t even shout at him, just peered at Zhenya’s face for a long moment and sent him to the back of the line.
He knew Sidney must be able to feel him through the bond. He felt too raw, too flayed-open, to summon the concentration required to tamp down his end, and even at his calmest he had never quite mastered Sidney’s trick of closing it off completely. He was conscious of Sidney’s gaze on him, but Sidney kept his distance, and said nothing, and Zhenya was too swamped by the mess of his own emotions to carefully sift through them, feeling for the delicate threads of Sidney’s thoughts.
Seryozha was another matter. Zhenya managed to avoid him on the ice, and hit the showers before most of the guys were back. But Seryozha was lying in wait at the door of the locker room, and caught Zhenya by the elbow.
“Zhenya,” he said, his voice unusually serious. “Has something happened?”
Zhenya felt a hot rush of shame. He hated the expression on Seryozha’s face: concerned, and kind, and—now Zhenya knew—patronizing, the face you might show to a child. “It’s nothing.”
“Natasha misses you,” Seryozha said. “Come home with me. We’ll have lunch, and talk.”
Zhenya wrenched his elbow free. “Why?” he snapped. “So you can make your little report to Genya? Or has he asked you to babysit me again, is that it?”
“Zhenya,” Seryozha said, surprised, but Zhenya shoved past him, and out into the hall.
He spent most of the afternoon at the rink. When most of the guys had cleared out he went down to see the trainers on some flimsy pretext—a slight twinge in his shoulder, nothing concerning—and then lay around on the mats in the empty weights room for a long time, halfheartedly rolling the stiffness out of his back and shoulders. He felt Sidney in the building for a long time, a presence hovering at the edges of his awareness, but Zhenya could pick up nothing else from him, no indication of what he might be doing or feeling. Probably he was talking to Mario upstairs, or working with Jen; whatever it was, Sidney left without coming to find Zhenya.
It was early evening when he finally returned home. His mother was in the kitchen, making pelmeni. She looked up at him and gave him a small, uncertain smile, as if she were unsure of her welcome.
Zhenya felt a pang of guilt. He had left early that morning, and though he had heard them talking quietly in the bedroom, he hadn’t rapped on the door to say goodbye. He put his bag down and crossed the kitchen.
“Hello, Mama,” he said, touching her cheek. “You have some flour, there.”
“Oh, Zhenya.” She put her arms around him and held him tightly for a long moment, leaning her forehead against his chest, before she let him go. She brushed at the smudge of flour on his cheek. “Will you help me finish dinner? Your father’s gone for a walk.”
It was familiar work, and comforting. They were quiet together, rolling out the dough.
“Mama,” Zhenya said. “I’m sorry, for last night. I didn’t mean to make you worry.”
“It’s in the past,” she said, her voice gentle. “I know you’ve spoken with your father. We don’t need to talk about it.”
Zhenya pinched the edges of the dumpling together.
“I wish you would meet him,” he said. “I was afraid, too, when I came here. I thought—terrible things, Mama. But I know him now. We’re teammates, you see? We’re—” He couldn’t make himself say the word friends, and told himself it was because it would only alarm her. “We’ve come to an understanding, for the good of the team. And he’s different than I thought. The bond is different. If you met him, maybe you’d see.”
She was quiet. He could hear her working behind him. It was a listening silence, he thought, and felt a sudden surge of hope.
“I met his family, you know,” he said. “They came for Christmas and stayed at the house. I couldn’t believe it at first: how they were with him, how normal everything felt. Like he was just an ordinary boy. He’s my age, Mama—a little younger.”
He heard her breathe out: a soft sigh.
“Zhenya,” she said. “Why do you tell me these things?”
She sounded a little weary, but there was no anger in her voice, no accusation. He turned to face her.
“I want you to know him,” he said. “To give him a chance. I want you to see for yourself what he’s like.”
She paused in her work, her hands stilling on the dough. The late evening light slanted through the window over the sink: Zhenya could see dust motes swirling and dancing in the air. The nights were growing longer, now. Spring was coming, stretching on towards summer.
Zhenya’s mother wiped her hands on her apron. She turned, and took both of his hands in hers, squeezing them gently.
“I know what makes you say these things,” she said, her voice heavy. “Oh, Zhenya. How can I blame you? You are so young, and you’ve been so alone here, all these months. He has whispered his poison in your ear.”
She held his hands tighter, looking searchingly at his face. He saw fear in her eyes: fear and worry, and a grief that made his heart catch in his throat.
“This will pass,” she said. “This shadow will lift, Zhenechka. Your father and I are here now, and we won’t leave you alone again. We’ll bring you home with us, and you’ll get better there, I promise.”
“I’m not sick, Mama,” Zhenya said, stung. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
She shook her head. “Oh, Zhenya,” she said. “You have a soft heart—you always have, even when you were a little boy. My sweet child. I know you want to believe the best of him, but they have ways and ways. Zhenya, he has looked into your heart. He knows how to speak to you, what to say, so that you see something else when you look at him.”
He drew back again, and this time she let him go, though she watched him with that same expression on her face, full of sorrow and fear. His ears were ringing, so loudly he could barely hear his own voice.
“I spoke to his father,” he said. “He told me—when it happened, when Sidney was attacked, the hospital called them and told him he had died. But then they came to claim his body—to bury him, Mama. And they saw that he was alive.”
He thought of Mr. Crosby’s face, and the still quiet of the winter’s night around them, the world hushed and sleeping beneath a thick blanket of snow.
“It was a miracle,” he said. “I see that now. I look at him sometimes and I think: what if he had died? What if he was dead now, and life had gone on without him, and everyone but the people who loved him had forgotten he ever lived? I think—how empty, the world would be. I wouldn’t even know he was gone. But everything would be different.”
He could feel it in his teeth, in his bones, the dull ache of that strange grief. The pang of a loss he would never have registered.
“Mama, if it was me,” he said. “If it was your son.”
“It would never happen to you,” his mother said. “I thank God for that. There are no vampires in Russia.”
“But if it did,” Zhenya pressed. “If something happened to me. Wouldn’t you pray for me, Mama? To come back, even like that?”
“Oh, how can you ask me such a thing?” She put a hand to her face. “How can you ask such an impossible question?”
“Mama,” he said, shaken. “Wouldn’t you?”
“What kind of life would it be, Zhenechka?” she cried out. “How could any mother want that for her child? I would pray that your soul found peace.”
Sidney ran out of the house in sweatpants and bare feet, the front door swinging open behind him, before Zhenya was even out of the car.
“Geno,” Sidney gasped. “Are you hurt? I can’t—I felt you, I’ve never felt you from that far away before—”
He was hovering a few feet away, his hands outstretched, as if he wanted to come closer but was unsure of his welcome. Zhenya probably blasted him with his desire to be held and soothed, but Sidney’s face went slack with relief. He moved towards him, touching Zhenya’s shoulders, drawing him close.
“Let’s get you inside,” Sidney said.
They wound up in the den, where Zhenya made a real effort to calm himself. He felt guilty for frightening Sidney, for overreacting, maybe, but it was too much, all of it: his mother, and the fight with his father, his anger with Seryozha, and two weeks of barely sleeping: all of it welling up inside him at once.
“Sorry,” he said, taking huge gulping breaths. “Sorry, Sid, sorry, I’m scare you—”
“I’m not scared,” Sidney said. “Just worried. Geno, what happened? Are your parents okay?”
Zhenya shook his head. “No—hurt, no hurt,” he said, which wasn’t quite right, but his grasp on English felt even more tenuous than usual. Still, it seemed to relieve Sid, who let out a breath and said, “Okay, good. That’s good.”
Zhenya realized, as he came back to himself a little more, that Sidney was holding his hand. For some reason this embarrassed and comforted him all at once. Sidney moved as if to draw back, but Zhenya squeezed his hand tighter.
“Sorry,” he said again. Sidney’s politeness was clearly rubbing off on him. He took a breath and blew it out.
“You want to talk about it?” Sidney asks quietly.
Zhenya turned his face into Sidney’s shoulder. “Is family problem.”
“You fought with your parents.”
Zhenya nodded. He scrubbed at his eyes with his free hand.
“Was it—did something happen?”
Zhenya didn’t know how to explain. He hated this stupid language, hated how little he could express in it—no complex feelings, no nuance, only these clunky, simple sentences, like a child banging blocks together, noise without meaning.
“Sid, I’m—my English,” he said, frustrated, and Sidney nodded.
“What about—could you, with the bond?”
Zhenya was still holding Sidney’s hand. He could feel how much the skin-to-skin contact amplified the connection, his awareness of Sidney burning brighter in his mind.
“Maybe,” he said, a little doubtfully. He wasn’t as good at controlling the bond as Sidney was—he had none of Sidney’s precision, or his ability to filter and shape what he sent through.
“Try,” Sidney said, squeezing his hand.
Zhenya felt for the edges of the bond. As gently as he could, he pushed.
Sharing the feelings again, feeling Sidney feel them, seemed to amplify everything. Zhenya began to feel overwhelmed again, but Sidney’s hand in his anchored him, steadied him.
He opened his eyes. Sidney was staring back at him, his eyes wide, and in that brief moment Zhenya felt something flutter across his awareness. But it was gone in a moment, and then there was only the same steady flow of comfort and understanding.
“Sid,” he said, a bit raggedly. “Maybe—bed?”
Sidney hesitated. Then he said, “Yeah, of course, G. Of course.”
Zhenya’s room upstairs was just as he’d left it. Sidney drew back the covers for him, and Zhenya crawled gratefully into his bed. It was strange how comforting he found it now—this room with its bare walls and depressing curtains.
Sidney was hovering near the doorway. “I’ll just—if you need me,” he said, and Zhenya lifted his head and stared at him, disbelieving.
“Sid, you leave?”
Sidney’s expression did something complicated.
“No,” he said quickly. “Not if—I’ll stay.”
They lay curled up on their sides, facing each other. Zhenya found Sidney’s hand again in the dark, and held it. It had been a long day—a long season. He was allowed.
Tentatively, Sidney reached up and stroked his hair, as if imitating the gesture Zhenya had used to soothe him. Zhenya could feel him sending soft currents of tenderness through the bond. He was looking at Zhenya, his eyes wide and dark, and Zhenya felt something catch in his throat.
Zhenya kissed him.
He felt Sidney still in surprise, blank shock coming through the bond.
For a second Zhenya felt as if the bottom might drop out of his stomach. And then Sidney curled his fingers around Zhenya’s neck, and kissed him back: sweet, a little tentative.
Zhenya’s heart leapt.
Sidney’s mouth was soft against his. He kissed Zhenya again, more confidently this time, and Zhenya surged up to meet him, rolling them both over, covering Sidney’s body with his own.
“Geno—” Sidney said, and Zhenya kissed the words out of his mouth, sliding his hands up SIdney’s sides, feeling the warmth of him. It had surprised him at first, the way Sidney’s body held warmth. He wasn’t cold, like Zhenya had thought: only when he hadn’t been touched, or held close.
“Sidney,” Zhenya murmured, kissing him over and over, kissing Sidney’s mouth, his face, as he rocked gently against him. Sidney arched beneath him, gasping, and Zhenya felt his heart expanding in his chest.
“You can,” Sidney said, sounding dazed, “you can, Geno—”
It wasn’t clear what he was giving Zhenya permission for. Maybe for all of it, Zhenya thought: permission to feel what he felt, to want the things he wanted.
There was no one else here, no one else between them. It was only the two of them, alone in Sidney’s big empty house. No one knew, and no one would know, and Sidney had been right, that first time: it didn’t have to mean anything. It could be easy. It could be—fun, and sweet, a thing that didn’t matter.
But it did matter. It did mean something. He understood that now. It meant something about Zhenya—about who he was, and what he wanted; about the kind of person he wasn’t yet, but hoped to become. It meant something, because it was Sidney, and Zhenya loved him.
Sidney stared up at him, his eyes wide and dark. His mouth was half parted, impossibly red, and the things Zhenya wanted startled him, shook him.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, and Sidney curled his fingers against the nape of Zhenya’s neck, and let himself be kissed.
He dreamed someone was touching his face, so lightly Zhenya could barely feel the touch. He felt fingertips trace over his eyebrows, his jawline, his mouth, like Sidney was learning him by heart.
“Sid?” he said, groggy and confused, and Sidney stilled, his fingers resting lightly on Zhenya’s cheekbone. Zhenya felt him draw away.
“Shh,” Sidney murmured. “I’m sorry. Go back to sleep.”
Sidney was gone when Zhenya woke up the next morning, but that was okay: they had a game later, and Sidney was a creature of routines—he wouldn’t disrupt them for his own family. Zhenya lay in bed for a while, and let himself drift, remembering. He felt a little embarrassed, still, and fragile, at the knowledge that Sidney had seen him like that, cracked-open, vulnerable. But Sidney had comforted him, and held him, and kissed him back.
Sidney had kissed him back. Kissed him—and held Zhenya all night in his arms—and Zhenya had felt him through the bond, wave after wave of warmth and sweetness.
Zhenya’s phone was dead, and he didn’t bother to charge it. He would see Sidney at the arena later, and he was in no rush to find out whether his parents had called, or worse, not called. He went through his own gameday routines, feeling like he was floating on air, buoyant as a balloon.
At the arena he sent out a little feeler out through the bond, but Sidney must have been busy, or distracted: there was no response. When Zhenya saw him in the locker room, finally, Sidney was busy talking to Flower. Zhenya couldn’t get a moment with him alone until they were actually in the tunnel, face to face.
“Hi, Sid,” he said, a little shy.
Sidney gave him a small, tight smile. “Hey, G.”
Something in his voice made Zhenya still.
“Sid,” he said, a little uneasy now. “Everything okay?”
“Sure.” Sidney didn’t meet his eyes. “Let’s talk after the game, yeah?”
They went through their pregame handshake by rote. Sidney was moving away from him almost before they finished, his back to Zhenya, and Zhenya, watching Sidney walk down the tunnel, felt the bond unspooling between them, a painful tugging in his chest.
The game seemed to last forever. He couldn’t wait for it to end, restless and irritable through three periods, but when the horn finally sounded Zhenya found himself dragging his feet, taking forever in the showers.
It was fine. It would be fine. Sidney had kissed him back. He had felt Sidney—how surprised he was, surprised and happy, a sweet light feeling that Zhenya could still feel fluttering against his ribs.
Sidney was downstairs, cooling down on the bikes in the front of the room. Zhenya wove his way towards him.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, and Sidney glanced at him, then back up at the television screen.
“Hey, Geno,” he said. “What’s up?”
A couple guys were over in the far corner, stretching on the mats, but otherwise the room was empty. Zhenya looked over at them, then said, “Maybe I stay at house tonight.”
Sidney was still watching the television: a news segment about fires somewhere.
“I think I’m gonna head over to Flower’s for a bit.”
Zhenya touched the handlebar of the bike. There was a curious leaden feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Okay,” he said. “Maybe I see you when you home.”
Sidney’s pedaling slowed, and then stopped.
“Let’s talk outside,” he said.
The hallway was deserted. Sidney turned to face him.
“Geno,” he said. “Listen. I think it’s probably best if we don’t spend as much time together anymore.”
The words felt like a bomb going off in Zhenya’s brain.
Sidney was still talking.
“—makes sense. Things are going to be pretty busy, the next couple weeks, and we both need to be focusing on the playoffs. We’ll play better without distractions.”
Zhenya’s ears were ringing. He felt numb, stunned, stumbling through smoke and debris.
“Sid,” Zhenya said hoarsely. “You want stop?”
He felt something ripple across the bond. Sidney looked away, and said, in a quick, clipped voice: “I just think it’s getting confusing. It was—I liked it, Geno, it was fun, but I think we want different things. So it’s best if we don’t, anymore.”
“Sid—you kiss,” Zhenya said, a little helplessly. “You—”
Sidney’s jaw tightened.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “I’m sorry. You were obviously upset, and I—I’m sorry.”
Zhenya must have said something. Distantly he was aware of his mouth moving, saying words—something appropriate for the situation, judging by the way Sidney nodded, briskly professional.
He had thought Sidney’s side of the bond was shuttered. But now, looking at Sidney’s face, Zhenya wondered if perhaps this was what Sidney really felt: this blank nothingness. There was none of the tenderness of last night—what Zhenya had taken for tenderness, anyway. This Sidney was a stranger to him.
His parents were sitting on the living room sofa. The lights were on, but the television was dark; they were sitting there in silence, his father holding his mother’s hand. At the sound of his key turning in the lock, his mother leapt to her feet.
“Oh, Zhenya,” she said, and burst into tears.
Zhenya stood motionless in the doorway. He felt shell-shocked still, numb. He didn’t have it in him for another fight, but he let her draw him over to the sofa.
“Zhenya,” his mother said, and he saw that her eyes were red-rimmed from crying. “Please—please forgive me. I’m so sorry.”
She grasped for his hand, and held it.
“As soon as you left,” she said, “as soon as you left, I stood there thinking—my god, what have I done, what have I said? I tried to call you—we both did, but you weren’t picking up—and all night I lay awake thinking, what if something happened to you? What if you were in an accident, and the last thing your mother said to you was that I—that I would wish you dead.”
She broke off, a spasm of grief wracking her body.
“Mama,” Zhenya said, startled out of his own stupor. “Mama, don’t cry.”
He moved towards her on instinct, and put his arms around her, feeling the sobs shuddering through her body.
“My baby,” she said. “My son. Of course I would want you to come back to me. Of course I would love you—how could I not?”
She was sobbing now, the front of Zhenya’s t-shirt wet with tears, and Zhenya was crying too, helplessly, and even his father, sitting in the chair across from them, was looking at them, his eyes bright with unshed tears. He held his mother in his arms, and felt something clenched in his chest loosen.
After a long time, she drew back, wiping at her eyes. Zhenya’s father had brought out a box of tissues, and passed it around so everyone could blow their noses and wipe their eyes. His mother laughed, a half-sobbing laugh of relief, and Zhenya felt it too, the sense that some great storm had raged through their lives and passed them over, and here they were together: safe, the walls still standing, the damage real but not beyond repair.
Zhenya’s father cleared his throat.
“Zhenya,” he said. “Your mother and I—we’ve been talking.”
He looked at Zhenya’s mother, who nodded.
“We’re still not entirely comfortable with all of this,” his father said. “I want to be honest with you about that. But we know it’s important to you, and we—that means it’s important to us, too.”
He took a breath.
“We’ll meet him. Your—Sidney. We’d like to meet him. If that’s something you still want.”
Zhenya stared at them both for a long moment. Then he covered his face with his hands and made a sound in his throat: an awful, choked sound, not a sob, not a laugh. He was so tired. He had never felt so tired. He wanted to crawl into the awful lumpy bed in the guest room and sleep for a thousand years.
“Zhenya?” his mother said, worried.
She touched his arm, light and tentative.
“Zhenya, has something happened?”
Zhenya moved through the playoffs in a daze, feeling detached, almost, from his own body. His parents spoke to him, in gentle, worried voices, and exchanged looks behind his back. Therrien told him where and when to go, and Zhenya went.
Sidney fed from him one last time, after the third game of the series. They met in one of the unused trainer’s rooms. Zhenya was still in his sweaty base layers. He sat on the edge of the exam table, staring at the poster of human on the back of the door. He had been afraid that he might embarrass himself somehow, but the whole thing was so clinical, so impersonal, that he felt nothing: no involuntary reactions, not even the faintest stirrings of interest.
“I have some stuff for you in the car,” Sidney said after.
It was a box of Zhenya’s remaining belongings. Most of his clothes were at his parents’ rented house, but Sidney had brought him the console the Crosbys had given him for Christmas, and some of his shoes, and the battered paperback Zhenya had brought from Magnitogorsk, the photos still tucked into the binding.
They lost in game five, and that was it: Zhenya’s rookie season over.
He sat in the locker room afterwards, staring at the ground while Therrien spoke to the group. Sidney was upset—he kept his head down and said nothing, but Zhenya could feel it leaking through the bond. It was the first flicker of emotion he’d felt from Sidney in days. Losing, apparently, was more painful for Sidney than anything that had happened between them.
Zhenya went through the motions of locker cleanout. He spoke to the media in monosyllabic replies that Jen would no doubt be frustrated with him for. Well: it was summer. She would have forgiven him by fall.
They broke the bond in Mario’s office upstairs. Mario was there, and Dr. Hsu, who would verify for the league that Sidney was now unbonded. Zhenya’s parents waited in the hall outside.
They held hands again.
At first Zhenya felt nothing. There was only the soft hum of the air conditioning, and the expectant silence of the assembled witnesses, and Sidney beside him, breathing slowly and evenly. Zhenya could feel the shape of his mind through the bond, but Sidney seemed to be screening well—or else, Zhenya thought bitterly, Sidney wasn’t feeling anything at all. He was sure his own misery must be leaking out of him: awful and sticky, black and viscous as tar, clinging to everything. He couldn’t contain it, couldn’t scoop it back into himself—and what did it matter? Sidney would only have to put up with Zhenya’s messy feelings a few minutes longer, and then it would be done.
“Sidney,” Dr. Hsu said gently. “Are you ready?”
Zhenya closed his eyes, and saw the woods.
He felt Sidney’s presence at his side. They were joined here, too, as surely as their hands were linked in real life. He could hear the dark woods humming around him, the sound emanating from everywhere and nowhere. The trees leaned against each other, their limbs tangled together.
The humming grew louder. Zhenya could distinguish voices now—the same high, eerie, inhuman voices, singing all together: not in harmony exactly, but not cacophony either. The sound grew louder and louder, filling Zhenya’s ears, his mouth.
The blow struck him without warning. It came out of nowhere—a force like a shockwave. Zhenya took the full weight of it square in the chest. He couldn’t gasp, or cry out: there was no air left on his lungs.
The singing grew higher, weirder. Zhenya could feel the vibrations in the delicate bones around his eyes sockets, thrumming against the back of his teeth. The dark wood seemed to be closing in around him, the trees crowding in, bending low. The high singing grew louder and louder, until it turned into screaming: a thousand inhuman voices shrieking in his skull.
Zhenya clutched at his head. It would shatter him. His skull would explode—
The bond snapped.
That was it, Zhenya thought numbly. It was over.
The cab driver kept looking at Zhenya in the rearview mirror.
He hadn’t said anything yet, though Zhenya knew it was only a matter of time. Four weeks back home, and already Zhenya was intimately familiar with the pattern these interactions took. In a minute or two, the driver would ask if he was Malkin—that Malkin, the one who’d gone to America. There would be silence after that: a long, pregnant pause. And then the questions would begin.
Genya was right. People might have been disgusted, but their curiosity was stronger. And Zhenya’s year in America had apparently turned him into a kind of D-list celebrity, a semi-regular fixture in the tabloid gossip pages.
Zhenya stared out the window. His head pounded, though it was hard to tell if it was a new headache threatening or the lingering effects of last night’s hangover, which at ten pm was only just beginning to dissipate.
His phone buzzed in his jacket pocket.
Zhenya where are you !
We miss you ! Everyone’s asking where you are !!!
Zhenya rolled his eyes. 10 minutes, he typed out, and received a string of smileys in response. Sasha was so obnoxious, but he had stuck to Zhenya like glue all through Worlds, his cheerful exuberance dispelling any awkwardness or hostility in the locker room. Sasha had persuaded Zhenya to stay on in Moscow afterwards, and invited him out night after night, to dinners and concerts and noisy, packed clubs with Sasha’s large entourage of friends and hangers-on.
The cab driver glanced up at the mirror again.
“Say,” he said. “Are you—”
“Here, on the left,” Zhenya said abruptly. “Yes, right there.”
He was still five blocks from his destination—a good twenty-minute walk—and then he spent another ten minutes waiting in the long queue, before Sasha saw his text and came out to wave him in.
“Zhenya!” Sasha said cheerfully, clapping him on the back. He had to shout in Zhenya’s ear to be heard over the thumping bass. “I told everyone you must’ve been mugged and left for dead in a ditch. You’re so punctual otherwise.”
It was a little quieter upstairs. There were VIP booths overlooking the floor of the club, but Sasha drew back a heavy curtain and ushered Zhenya into a smaller room with a private bar. People were clustered around the room, talking and drinking. Zhenya recognized a couple of Sasha’s old Dynamo teammates, but that was it: Sasha seemed to have an inexhaustible rotating cast of acquaintances.
Sasha ushered him over to one of the small tables. He put his hand on the back of one of the occupied chairs and said, smiling, “Ah—Dima. How kind of you, to hold Zhenya’s chair for him.”
The man didn’t look pleased, but he took the hint and cleared out, leaving open a chair next to a tall, athletic-looking blond woman. Zhenya glanced at Sasha, who gave him a beatific smile. Well: no one had ever accused Sasha Ovechkin of subtlety.
The woman was called Sofia. She worked in television, apparently, and Zhenya could see it. She was very beautiful, with an expressive face and wide blue eyes that widened with interest every time Zhenya spoke.
It might have been gratifying, if Zhenya were saying anything even remotely interesting. Mostly he was offering the kind of monosyllabic responses Jen would have scolded him for. He was pretty focused on drinking—there was a sweet spot he was trying to hit: drunk enough to convince himself he wanted to go home with her, but not so drunk that he would pass out or otherwise embarrass himself as soon as they got there.
“I was hoping you’d be here tonight, Zhenya,” Sofia said. Under the table she rested her hand on Zhenya’s thigh. She was smiling at him, her teeth so white and evenly shaped Zhenya found himself wondering if she’d ever played hockey.
“Well,” Zhenya said. “Here I am.”
“I wanted to ask a favor.” She was tracing his inseam with her fingertips. “Maybe we could talk about this somewhere more private?”
Zhenya closed his eyes for the barest moment, and opened them again. He felt exhausted, suddenly, at the thought of all that would happen next—the precise series of choreographed steps that would lead them from this table to the lobby downstairs, and into the back of a cab, and up the stairs to her well-appointed flat, until they tumbled at last into her bed. And at each stage Zhenya would have to say the right words, and do the right things, waiting for his foolish heart to catch on—to remember at last how to want things that were possible, things that he could have.
“Yes, all right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
She picked up her clutch and smoothed her dress down over her thighs. Zhenya offered her his arm and she leaned heavily against him, the delicate floral scent of her perfume filling his nose and mouth. He moved towards the stairs, but Sofia’s fingers tightened on his arm, her grip surprisingly strong.
“This way,” she said.
The VIP washrooms were significantly nicer than the sticky, crowded toilets downstairs. There was a separate powder room, with a chaise lounge in the corner and a long counter running along one wall, for women to put their purses down and touch up their makeup.
Sofia locked the door behind them. Then she turned and backed Zhenya up against the counter, her hands already working at his belt.
Zhenya kissed her. She let him, though she seemed rather indifferent to it, and after a moment he stopped trying.
He was soft, though Sofia didn’t seem to mind. She palmed him through the front of his briefs, her mouth against his ear.
“Zhenya,” she said softly. “You have such an interesting story to tell, don’t you?”
Zhenya said nothing. Her lips brushed against his throat, and arousal jolted through him, as sudden and electrifying as a bolt of lightning.
“Oh, you like that, don’t you,” she murmured, and kissed his throat again, squeezing him loosely at the same time. Zhenya shut his eyes, breathing out through his nose. “Zhenya—you must know how many people are dying to hear from you.”
Zhenya was more than a little drunk, but something in the words still gave him pause. He opened his eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“I’d love to talk with you,” Sofia said. “An intimate little chat in the studio—just the two of us. Nothing sensationalized, just an intimate account of your experiences. People are dying to know, Zhenya. How many people in this country have even met a vampire? And you’ve spent months living in his home—bound to him, body and soul—”
Zhenya jerked away, staring at her. “Where did you say you worked?”
“We’re a reputable show,” Sofia said. “We take a lifestyle approach to current issues, and our shows reach millions of viewers each week. Think of it, Zhenya—the chance to tell your side of the story.”
Anger seared through Zhenya, white-hot. He fumbled with his trousers, doing up his belt again with trembling fingers, and went over to unlock the door.
“Don’t come near me again,” he said sharply. “I have no interest in talking to you.”
Sofia followed him out of the bathroom. “Take my card, at least,” she said, fumbling with her clutch. “We can help you rehabilitate your public image, Zhenya. The rumor mill is vicious. You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve heard—”
She shoved a business card into his hand. Zhenya tore it cleanly in half.
“I won’t come on your show,” he said. “Get your gossip somewhere else.”
Sofia’s pretty mouth twisted with anger. She reached out and grabbed his wrist, nails digging into his skin.
“So it’s true, then?” she said, in a low, dangerous voice. “You know what they're saying. That you must have enjoyed it, letting Crosby use you like that. They’re saying your parents had to come all the way to America, to drag you out of a leech’s bed—”
“What’s going on here?” someone said sharply.
Sasha was standing at the top of the stairs, his hand on the railing.
Sofia let go of Zhenya’s wrist at once.
“Sasha,” she said, her tone conciliatory. “Zhenya and I were just having a little talk.”
“Yes, I heard,” Sasha said, his voice hard. “Get out of here, Sofia Ivanova, and don’t let me see you here again. You aren’t welcome any longer among my friends.”
Sofia stared at him for a moment. Then her expression hardened, and she lifted her chin.
“I was just leaving,” she said. “And believe me, Sasha Ovechkin, I’m not eager to count myself among your friends, if this is the company you keep.”
She turned on her heel and went out.
“Are you all right?” Sasha asked, looking at Zhenya.
“I’m fine,” Zhenya snapped. “It was nothing. A disagreement.”
“I’m sorry about her,” Sasha said. “That was stupid of me. I should have realized.”
“Where do you find these people, anyway?” Zhenya said, his voice shaking a little with anger. He couldn’t bring himself to meet Sasha’s eyes.
Sasha shrugged. “Here and there.”
“You know they only like you for your money.”
“And here I thought it was my chiseled good looks,” Sasha said lightly. “You wound me, Zhenya.” He watched Zhenya for a moment, and then said, “Come on, let’s get some air. There’s a balcony around here somewhere, I think.”
Outside Zhenya crossed over to the railing and leaned against it, his back to Sasha. It was clear from the look on Sasha’s face that Sasha wanted to talk—that he had, perhaps, been working his way around to this conversation with Zhenya for weeks now. Zhenya felt tense and sick with dread, but there was a kind of relief in it, too. Sasha—the only person in Moscow, it seemed, who hadn’t asked—would ask now, and Zhenya knew he would tell him the truth.
And that would be it: their friendship ended. Sasha would realize that the person he had spent weeks defending, and cheering up, and shielding from the censure of others, was in fact guilty as charged.
Zhenya closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe. He felt Sasha come over and lean against the railing next to him, so close their elbows touched.
“You could make all of this go away, Zhenya,” Sasha said softly. “Tell them what they want to hear, and get on with your life. Put all this behind you.”
Zhenya shook his head.
“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t say the things they want to hear.”
He waited, tensed, for Sasha to ask him why. But Sasha didn’t. He was watching the people milling about on the street below.
“Zhenya,” he said. “I have a confession to make.”
Zhenya glanced at him, wary.
“My first year, in the fall, they came around asking if we’d put our names on something,” Sasha said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, you know? I barely knew Crosby—I only knew what he was and what we were told about his kind. So I didn’t give it a second thought. I signed where they told me to, and forgot about it.”
“What are you talking about?” Zhenya said, more sharply than he meant to. Sasha looked at him, his expression unusually grave.
“You know what I’m talking about, Zhenya,” he said. “So you see—in a way, I feel responsible. It’s partly my fault, the situation you’re in.”
Zhenya thought about Sidney, staring out the car window, his face a mask of grief and helpless, impotent anger. Important people, Sidney had said bitterly. Respected players.
“Why are you telling me this?”
Sasha was quiet for a long moment.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’ve been thinking about it, that’s all. Since Dallas. I was nervous, you know, about seeing you. Your interviews made the arrangement sound so—and I felt guilty, because I was partly to blame. But then I saw you, and you didn’t seem distressed. You seemed—I don’t know. There was something in the way you spoke about him. I started to think, maybe—”
He trailed off.
“I thought you’d be happy, you know, when you came back. You’d told me it wasn’t so bad, that he was good to you, but I thought—surely when you came home, you’d be relieved, and happy, to put all that behind you. But you’re not happy, Zhenya, are you? These past few weeks—it’s like watching a man sleepwalk through his own life. You say the right things, and you show up at the right places, and the whole time you sit there with this look on your face, like someone’s carved the heart right out of your chest.”
Zhenya turned his face away.
“Ask me, then,” he said, his voice tight. “Why don’t you? I’m sure you’re dying to know.”
But Sasha shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I’m not a reporter, Zhenya, or a gossip columnist, digging for a story you don’t want to tell. I’m you friend. If you want me to know—if you trust me with it, you’ll tell me. I hope you’ll tell me, someday. But that’s your business.”
He straightened up, resting a hand on the balcony railing.
“I want you to know I regret it,” he said. “Signing that petition. I didn’t think about it then—why would I? I was confident I knew what was best, what was right. But I’ve thought about it since. It’s cruel, isn’t it? What they’ve asked of him.”
There was a lump in Zhenya’s throat. He swallowed hard.
“Yes,” he said. “It is. I don’t know if he’s unhappy. But I think—it’ll be a hard life for him, Sasha. And lonely, too.”
Sasha looked at him for a long moment.
“You have a good heart, Zhenya,” he said. “You’ve always been loyal to the people you love. I don’t understand it, maybe, but I think Crosby’s lucky to have a friend like you in his corner.”
He smiled faintly, and then said, in a lighter voice, “Ah, but what do I know? I hear my friends only like me for my money.”
Zhenya wiped surreptitiously at his eyes. “Not all your friends,” he said, a little grudging.
Sasha grinned at him, and slung an arm around Zhenya’s shoulders.
“Aha! I knew it, Zhenya,” he crowed, squeezing the back of his neck. “You like me for my chiseled good looks.”
He arrived in Toronto the day of the awards ceremony. Jen met him at the front desk of the hotel. Zhenya heard her coming before he saw her, her heels click-clacking on the tile as she crossed the lobby.
“You couldn’t have RSVP’d?” she said, exasperated. “We thought you weren’t coming.”
Zhenya clutched the handle of his suitcase and tried to look appropriately contrite. He’d listened to the voicemails, of course: Jen had called several times, as had Therrien, and there was even a short message from Mario, expressing his hope that Zhenya would consider representing the organization at the awards. But Zhenya had ignored them all, even after he’d bought his ticket. Some part of him hadn’t really believed he was coming until the plane was actually in the air.
It was only upon arriving at the hotel that Zhenya had realized there might be a few small snags in his plan. In his experience booking hotel rooms was a thing that just happened, presumably by magic, and then other people showed up to give him keys.
“Everybody call,” he said to Jen now, wide-eyed. “So many time. I’m think, okay, very important.”
“Don’t play innocent with me, mister,” Jen said. “We left that message in Russian too, with specific instructions.”
But the magic worked. Fifteen minutes later, Zhenya was the proud temporary owner of a suite on the thirty-second floor.
“I even got you a view,” Jen said, as she handed over the key. “Now let’s go enjoy it while we write your acceptance speech. I’ve got an hour before Sid’s next interview.”
“Maybe you do,” Zhenya suggested, sinking down into a nearby armchair. “My English—”
“Nope,” Jen said cheerfully. “You’re here, kid, and you’re going to give me a minimum of three nice sentiments I can use. Up, up, let’s go.”
Jen left him forty-five minutes later, with a speech printed in her neat square handwriting and strict instructions to be ready for dinner no later than five-thirty.
Zhenya took a long, hot shower, scrubbing the stale odor of the long flight off his skin. Then he shaved carefully at the sink. He had slept a long time on the plane, but he looked tired still, his eyes red-rimmed, the bags under his eyes heavier than usual. Jen had gone to supervise one of Sidney’s interviews, which meant that by now Sidney knew Zhenya had come.
Zhenya had been too distraught and confused, at the time, to ask further questions. The agony of not understanding what had happened, or what he had done wrong, had gnawed at him almost as painfully as the sudden and abrupt withdrawal of Sidney’s affection.
In the intervening weeks he had cycled through any number of possible explanations. Sidney had used him, for the bond and then for sex. Sidney had wanted to hurt and humiliate him, as punishment for how Zhenya had behaved in the first months of the bond. Sidney had found Zhenya’s clinginess, his need for comfort, too much. Sidney had manipulated him, as vampires did, and then cast Zhenya off when he grew bored of him.
But none of them rang true. Zhenya had never been as adept at Sidney at using the bond, but he knew in his bones that he hadn’t been wrong about what Sidney felt for him, that last night. When he closed his eyes Zhenya could still feel the warmth of Sidney’s tenderness, the sweetness of his surprise and happiness when Zhenya kissed him. Something had changed, in the twenty-four hours between that night and the next evening: Zhenya understood that, and thought he could accept it, painful as it was. But he wished fervently that Sidney would tell him what had shifted, and why, and whether there was anything Zhenya could have done or said to shift it back.
It wasn’t that Sidney owed him an explanation. But Zhenya hoped that they were friends, still, or that they could be. He hoped that if he asked, if he laid all his cards on the table, that Sidney might give him one.
He had seriously misjudged how awkward it would be, seeing Sidney for the first time at a televised event.
There were a lot of cameras, and people everywhere.
Sidney and Zhenya were seated at the same table, along with Jen and Therrien and the Lemieuxs. Sidney’s face was frozen into an expression of bland politeness. When he saw Zhenya, he held out his hand for Zhenya to shake.
Zhenya’s heart sank.
“I didn’t expect you to be here,” Sidney said, and let go of Zhenya’s hand as if it’d burned him. “Jen said you probably weren’t coming.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said, stupidly, but by then Sidney had moved on to shake hands with someone else.
Sidney didn’t speak to him again. He talked with Mario and Nathalie for most of the meal, his face turned away from Zhenya.
Zhenya didn’t speak to anyone. Mostly he drank, and gave a few monosyllabic responses when Therrien addressed him in English.
Sidney won the Hart. He went up to the stage and gave an earnest-sounding speech. Zhenya didn’t listen to a word of it. He downed another glass of wine.
Jen leaned over the table.
“Buddy,” she said. “You’re gonna have to give a speech soon. In English.”
“Maybe I’m not win,” Zhenya said, a little snarkily.
He did win.
Someone ushered him up to the stage. The lights were blindingly bright, and when Zhenya looked out over the crowd he couldn’t make out anyone’s faces, only an impression of an assembled group, staring at him.
He looked down at his notecards from Jen. He was—okay, he was pretty drunk, enough so that it was more challenging than usual to sound out the English words. Sidney had sounded so polished, and while Zhenya didn’t think Sidney would ever judge him for his poor English, he would certainly judge Zhenya for getting drunk at a professional event.
He got through the speech somehow, mumbling most of it, conscious of how stupid he must sound to all of them. Afterwards he was shuffled off to pose for the requisite photos on the side stage. It turned out he didn’t actually get to keep the award—it had to go somewhere to be engraved—so Zhenya handed it off and headed straight for the doors at the back, without pausing at the table. The thought of spending the rest of the ceremony sitting across from Sidney, watching Sidney look everywhere but in Zhenya’s direction, that stupid frozen smile on his face, was unbearable. He would go somewhere else. He would—get drunk, probably, very drunk, and then tomorrow he would get on the first flight back home.
He was still sweating in his suit from the bright lights of the stage. He loosened his tie, and then yanked it off, stuffing it into his jacket pocket.
Why had he come? He had told himself he only wanted to remind Sidney that they were friends, that Zhenya would be his friend still, even without the bond. But it was painfully obvious, now, that he had lied to himself. He understood, now, that some part of him had still hoped it was a misunderstanding, or that Sidney, upon seeing Zhenya again, would be overcome by feeling, and would, as if by magic, suddenly feel all the things Zhenya felt, and want all the things Zhenya wanted.
Hot tears pricked at the corners of his eyes.
“Geno,” someone called out behind him.
Zhenya pretended not to hear. He walked faster. The hotel complex felt like a sprawling labyrinth. Where had Jen led them in? He couldn’t remember how to get back to his room.
“Geno,” Sidney called, louder this time, and Zhenya turned blindly, almost jogging down the hall.
It was a dead end. He came face to face with an emergency exit.
Zhenya slowed, and stopped.
“What, Sid,” he said, his voice hoarse.
He heard Sidney slow behind him.
“Are you okay?”
Zhenya turned to face him.
The blank mask of earlier was gone, at least. Now Sidney looked worried.
“You’re upset,” he said. “Can we—should I get someone? Jen, or—”
It was obvious Sidney didn’t want to be here. Someone had sent him after Zhenya, probably, or Sidney had felt it was the right thing to do, the responsible thing.
“Is fine,” Zhenya said, his voice tight. “I’m not need.”
He moved to slip past Sidney, but Sidney stepped into his path. He had that stubborn set to his jaw Zhenya recognized, and Zhenya was too jetlagged, too drunk, too—fine, heartbroken, he was heartbroken—for any of this.
“Geno, something’s obviously wrong.” Sidney hesitated. “Do you—we can talk, if you want.”
“Not need,” Zhenya said, with a sudden, vicious flare of anger. “Not want. Go away, Sid.”
Sidney’s eyes went wide with shock and hurt. He took a step back.
“Okay,” he said. “I won’t—I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone.”
Zhenya felt like the worst person in the world.
“Sid,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” Sidney said. He looked a little lost. “It was wrong of me, to push. It’s none of my business. I’ll just—I’ll leave you.”
Zhenya took a deep breath. He reached out, and gently touched Sidney’s wrist.
“Sid,” he said heavily. “I’m little bit drunk. Little bit—feel stupid. Sorry I yell.”
Sidney glanced at Zhenya’s hand on his wrist, and then away.
“You shouldn’t feel stupid,” he said. “Or upset. You won the Calder, Geno. That’s so amazing.”
“I win,” Zhenya acknowledged. “But I come for other thing, and it’s not happen.”
He shook his head.
“I’m want see you, Sid. I think maybe we talk. But you so—” He broke off. “You not want, I know. Is okay, Sid. I’m not push.”
“Wait,” Sidney said, his brow furrowing. “You’re upset because of me?”
Zhenya found it difficult to look at him. How could Sidney possibly make it more obvious, how little everything between them had mattered to him? He had thought he knew how Sidney felt. He had been wrong.
Sidney made a frustrated noise.
“Geno,” he said. “I’m trying to help you. I know you need to distance yourself from me. Now that we’re not bonded, it’s not—we probably shouldn’t interact very much in public.”
Zhenya stared at him. “What?”
“There are cameras,” Sidney said. He hesitated for a moment, and then said, “So if—if you wanted to talk, we shouldn’t do it here. Not where people can see us.”
There had been drinks before the ceremony in the rooftop garden, an event for the nominees and league officials to mingle. Zhenya had skipped that part—he’d been too nervous about seeing Sidney, and he had zero desire to spend any more of his summer speaking English than he had to. But the hotel staff hadn’t broken down the event space upstairs. There was still seating scattered around, tables and sofas, and a few bottles of champagne here and there, in buckets of melting ice.
Zhenya led them to a sofa near the back, behind a large potted fern. It would provide some cover, if anyone came looking for them.
Sidney sat down on the opposite edge, a safe distance from Zhenya. He had been quiet all the way up to the roof, and now he looked down at his hands. He seemed more remote from Zhenya than ever before. Zhenya had no idea where to start.
“Sid,” he said. “Before, you say—need stop. But I’m not know why. Think maybe I’m push. Maybe you not want. Not like. Bad—to kiss.”
It hurt him to say the words aloud. Kissing Sidney was one of the sweetest memories of his life. But that was where it had all gone wrong. Before, Sidney had wanted him. After—
Sidney looked up at him, his eyes wide.
“Oh,” he said. “Geno, no. It wasn’t that.”
But he trailed off then, and offered nothing more.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, forcing the words out, even though it was painful. “Please. Say to me.”
Sidney took a deep breath.
“Geno,” he said. “That last night—I could feel how miserable you were. It was making things impossible with your family. I felt it, you know? When you showed me through the bond, but—all week, really.” He winced, as if recalling it. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like, if my family—if they couldn’t accept me anymore. If I thought I might lose them. I couldn’t do that to you. It wasn’t worth it, not when we were going to break the bond anyway.”
Zhenya was silent for a moment, parsing this. “Sid—you do for me? For family?”
It was an easy answer. It might’ve been a satisfying one, even, or one Zhenya could have accepted. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that Sidney was holding something back.
“It wasn’t just that.” Sidney sighed, and rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. “I mean, the family stuff was important, but—”
He broke off.
“Geno,” he said. “I don’t know how to say this, exactly. I don’t want you to think I was digging around in your mind. It’s just—you were feeling a lot, and not shielding much, or at all, and I could—I was getting a lot of it, that last week.”
Cold dread coalesced in the pit of Zhenya’s stomach. He hunched forward a little.
Sidney said nothing for a long moment.
“Geno,” he said. “When we started, it was just—it was fun, you know? Obviously it made the bond easier for you, and—I liked it, too. I wanted it. But it wasn’t supposed to be anything more than that.”
Zhenya understood, then.
“You know,” he said heavily. “How I’m feel. You not feel.”
“I know how you felt,” Sidney said. “And I—Geno. You had to know, right? I’m good at shielding, but I’m not—I know you felt it, that night.”
Zhenya shook his head. “I’m not know,” he said. “I’m think, like—you feel same, maybe. But I’m wrong.”
Sidney swallowed hard.
“No,” he said. “You’re not wrong. Geno—I did feel the same. I do.”
Hope leapt in Zhenya’s heart.
“Sid,” he said, his eyes widening. “Sid—you feel?”
Sidney looked at him, his gaze steady, and Zhenya saw the truth in his eyes.
Sidney felt the same way. There was no trick, or punishment. They had wanted each other. They wanted each other still.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, moving towards him on the sofa.
But Sidney drew back.
“Geno, we can’t,” he said. “I know what you’re thinking, and we can’t. That’s why we had to stop. We were getting in too deep.”
Zhenya didn’t understand what depth had to do with anything, but it didn’t matter. Sidney had some small objection—something noble, probably, and ultimately foolish—but the small obstacles were easy to clear away. They wanted each other, and they could make it work. They could figure it out, somehow.
“We do,” Zhenya said. “We do again, like—secret.”
But Sidney was shaking his head, his expression grave.
“I can’t,” he said. “Geno, I’m going to bond with whomever Mario finds for me. I’ll do it every year if I have to. Whatever it takes to keep playing.”
Zhenya was prepared for this. “No bond, okay, but it’s good, Sid. Still okay. Still—happy, you know? We happy.”
“Maybe,” Sidney said. “Maybe we would be. But Geno—I don’t think you get it. There’s always going to be somebody else in my head. Somebody who can see parts of me I don’t want them to see. And I’m good at controlling the bond, but I’m not perfect. When I’m upset, or—even when I’m happy, really happy—things slip through. I can’t protect a secret like that forever. And what if it’s someone we can’t trust? What if it’s someone who hates me, or uses it to hurt you? I felt how bad it was, with your parents. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if they knew we were together. If everyone knew.”
Zhenya couldn’t think about it. Why worry about the future, when the present was right here, perfect and shining, right within his grasp? They would figure it out. Sidney would get better at shielding. They could be careful.
“Sid, maybe we try,” he said. “I want try. Maybe it’s not problem.”
Sidney stood up. He walked a few steps away from the sofa, smoothing his hands over his jacket, a nervous restless tic. Then he turned and walked back, sinking down onto the sofa.
“Geno,” he said. “Before I say this—I want you to know that I understand, okay? I know why you have to say the stuff you do to the press. I know that’s what you have to do to make things okay at home. I’ve never blamed you for it, and I don’t now.”
Zhenya looked at him, his gaze searching. Sidney’s expression was serious.
“I don’t blame you.” Sidney took a deep breath. “But I can’t—Geno, I can’t be with someone who hates me in public, and lo—likes me only in secret, only when we’re alone. Please don’t ask me to do that. Because if you ask, if you keep asking me, I’ll say yes. And maybe it’ll be okay at first. Maybe we’ll be happy. But eventually, I—I’ll hate myself for it.”
Zhenya couldn’t meet Sidney’s eyes.
He had no defense for himself. He had spent the better part of a year telling people how much he loathed the bond—a bond he had never wanted, and barely tolerated, and couldn’t wait to be rid of. It had made his life easier. It had made Sidney’s harder, every time Zhenya opened his mouth.
And he knew that Sidney was right. If Zhenya wanted to, if he really wanted to, he could press, and prod, and coax him into it, the same way he’d talked Sidney around to doing this in the first place. But what kind of person would that make him?
“So it’s—Geno, you get it, don’t you? You see why we can’t—why it has to be this way.”
Zhenya closed his eyes for a long moment.
He wanted to fight it. If he were braver—if he had been a nobler person, a more courageous person, someone who didn’t care what others thought of him—maybe that Zhenya would do it. That Zhenya would take Sidney’s hand now, and look him in the eye, and promise to change. He would convince Sidney to take the risk.
Talk is cheap, Seryozha had told him, and Zhenya thought he understood, now, what Seryozha had meant. Here on the rooftop, removed from the world, he could promise Sidney anything, everything. He could spin dreams out of thin air, the way Genya always had, dreams so beautiful you longed to believe in them. But when push came to shove, when reality came crashing back in, would Zhenya himself be brave enough to change? He cared for Sidney deeply. But he wasn't sure it was enough. How could Zhenya ask Sidney to hide, to be his dirty secret, when he himself wasn't sure if he'd ever be ready to make that leap, over the chasm between who he was now and the kind of person Sidney deserved?
Maybe Zhenya would be ready, someday. Maybe he wouldn’t. But it wasn't fair of him, to ask Sidney to wait.
“Sid,” he said heavily.
He didn't need to say more. He knew, from the look on Sidney's face, that Sidney understood
Sidney looked away, swallowing hard. "I'm sorry," he said. “I really am, Geno. I wish—I wish it were different.”
They were quiet together for a long time. It was a beautiful night, the air warm and almost balmy, for Toronto in June. It felt peaceful up here, removed from the noise and bright lights of the event below, as if here the two of them existed in a bubble all their own, protected from the outside world.
Sidney stirred after a while.
“We should probably go back down,” he said reluctantly. “They’re expecting to see us.”
Zhenya didn’t want him to go. Everything would change, as soon as they left this rooftop. Sidney would wear that mask again: blandly polite, and painfully remote, impossible for Zhenya to reach. They would go back to pretending they hardly knew each other, avoiding each other in public, and this time there would be no intimacy to bind them together, no quiet private space where the two of them could be something else, something different, to each other. As soon as they left this rooftop and rejoined the party below, the arcs of their lives would begin to diverge, Zhenya’s future bearing him further and further away from Sidney—until one day, ten years from now, they would meet again at an event like this one, and be strangers to each other.
“Stay,” Zhenya said. “We win, Sid. Celebrate here.”
He plucked one of the bottles of champagne out of the melting buckets. They drank, passing the bottle between them, and talked. Zhenya told him about Worlds, and a highly edited version of his time in Moscow; Sidney told him about the house projects he was starting in Nova Scotia, and about Taylor’s summer vacation. Zhenya put his arm over the back of the sofa, and Sidney leaned in a little, watching Zhenya’s mouth.
“And, um,” Sidney said. “They haven’t announced it yet, but—they made me captain.”
“Sid, what?” Zhenya said, delighted. “Why you not say?”
“Mario wants to make sure everything’s taken care of first, with—you know,” Sidney said. “But they asked me again, and I said yes.”
Zhenya watched him. “Again?”
Sidney nodded. “They asked me before,” he said. “After Christmas. But I didn’t think I was ready yet.”
He looked down at the bottle in his hand, reflective.
“I think I’m ready now,” he said. “I mean, I’m not naive. I know it’ll be hard—really hard, maybe. There’s always going to be guys who don’t like me, or don’t think I should be playing, or whatever. But I think there’s lots of guys who don’t know, you know? They have some idea of me that isn’t really me. And maybe that could change, if they gave me a chance.”
He looked at Zhenya then, and ducked his head, a little shyly. “I mean—I won you over, didn’t I?”
Zhenya felt his heart constrict and expand in his chest.
“Yes, Sid,” he said. “You win.”
He reached out impulsively, and tucked a stray curl behind Sidney’s ear, fingers lingering at Sidney’s temple. Sidney looked at him, his eyes widening a fraction.
“Sid,” Zhenya said. He touched the delicate shell of Sidney’s ear. “You say—you not make bond?”
Sidney looked confused for a second.
“Not yet,” he said. “Mario’s got a couple good leads, though. I’ll figure it out.”
“So you not—?”
Zhenya tapped his fingers lightly against the side of his throat.
Sidney licked his lips, a little nervously.
“No,” he said. “I just—I buy it from a hospital.”
Zhenya still had his arm slung over the back of the sofa. He touched the back of Sidney’s neck lightly, just the pads of his fingers, and felt a long slow shiver run down Sidney’s spine.
“Maybe you want,” Zhenya said quietly, watching him.
He wasn’t drunk anymore. He felt—sober, serious.
But Sidney only looked sad.
“Geno,” he said. “We talked about this.”
“No, no,” Zhenya said, straightening up. “Sid, I know. Only tonight. For last. For—say goodbye.”
Sidney looked at him, and then away, though not before Zhenya saw the flicker of hesitation in his eyes.
“Sid, before—I’m not know, is last.” Zhenya touched the soft, wispy curls at the nape of Sidney’s neck. He said: “I would have made it count, if I’d known. I would have stayed up all night kissing you, so I could remember it later. I would have said goodbye.”
“What are you saying?” Sidney asked. He had turned towards Zhenya now, tucked under Zhenya’s arm, his face tilted up towards him. It was a kind of power, Zhenya thought: not control, not some nefarious influence, only the magnetism of two people wanting each other.
Sidney would say yes.
“You drink,” Zhenya said. “Then—we see, maybe. One more. Last.”
“We shouldn’t—here,” Sidney said, but his gaze kept dropping to Zhenya’s mouth as if magnetized. He seemed a little dazed, overwhelmed maybe, like he was waiting for Zhenya to tell him what to do, what came next.
“Nobody here,” Zhenya said. “See?”
The rooftop was deserted. Nobody would come back up here, either: the ballroom was full, and would be for an hour or two yet, and then there was an afterparty somewhere else, a place the league had rented out downtown. It was a beautiful night, and some part of Zhenya wanted it like this. They had only ever done it behind locked doors: in anonymous hotel rooms, or hidden away in Sidney’s big, lonely house. Here, for the first time, for the last time—they could be alone, out under the stars, unashamed and unafraid.
“Come here, sweetheart,” Zhenya said in Russian, and it felt perfect, inevitable, when Sidney moved into his arms.
“You’ll watch?” Sidney said. “If there’s—if anyone comes?”
“Nobody come, Sid,” Zhenya said, stroking his hair. “
It was different without the bond.
He held Sidney in his arms, Sidney curled up in his lap, his hand on the back of Zhenya’s neck. Without the bond, Zhenya couldn’t sense the waves of Sidney’s contentment. He could only listen for it—for the soft sounds Sidney made, the little sighs; could only feel it, in the way Sidney’s fingers curled against the back of Zhenya’s neck.
Sidney drank for a long time. Zhenya let himself float, one last time, on the sweet rush of the venom, his eyes slipping closed. He held Sidney close, one hand resting in the small of Sidney’s back. Sidney drank, and drank, and Zhenya gave himself over to Sidney, gladly, wishing only that there was more of himself to give.
When he was finished, Sidney licked at the bite mark, slow and careful, soothing the slight hurt. Zhenya tipped his head back on the cushions and gazed up at the night sky, at the far-flung constellations, as Sidney licked at his throat first, and then kissed the skin: a sweet, chaste kiss.
Zhenya’s breath caught.
Sidney drew back just a little. He was sitting in Zhenya’s lap, looking down at him, and they were alone, the two of them here. They were the last two people in the world.
“Geno,” Sidney murmured softly. Zhenya felt Sidney’s breath against his cheek.
“Sidney,” he said, and Sidney took Zhenya’s face into his hands, so gently, and kissed him on the mouth.
It felt like a dream.
They slipped into the hallway without speaking, and down the stairs. In the empty stairwell Zhenya pressed Sidney up against the wall and kissed him breathless, tasting the faint coppery tang of his own blood on Sidney’s mouth. Zhenya had given him that. He had put the color back in Sidney’s cheeks, so that he could see the way Sidney flushed when Zhenya kissed him, and kissed him, and kissed him, till Sidney tipped his head back against the wall, breathless, laughing, and tugged him onwards.
It was strange, Zhenya thought, that you could feel so happy, in such a simple, uncomplicated way, even as they both knew, and waded through, the dark undercurrent of sadness that swirled and eddied around their ankles. You could be happy, knowing you were sad; you could be happy, knowing sadness would rush in, later, the dark waters rising higher.
He wanted it to be happy. He wanted it to be sweet, so that later, Sidney would remember this, remember Zhenya, as lightness, and laughter, untinged by bitterness.
He took Sidney to bed.
They kissed on the rumpled sheets, and kissed some more, and in between kisses Zhenya undressed Sidney with care, fingers loosening his tie, slipping button after button free. He drew back the coverlet, and lay Sidney out on the sheets, and Sidney looked up at him, wide-eyed, naked in a slant of moonlight, and Zhenya had never wanted anyone or anything more than this.
“Geno,” Sidney said, clutching his arm. “I haven’t, before. I—” and Zhenya had known, had half known it, but it was different to hear it like this, to know what it meant.
“Can stop,” Zhenya said. “If—not want—”
“I want to,” Sidney said, heartbreakingly honest. “If that’s okay. I want it to be you.”
Zhenya’s heart was too full to speak. He bent down to kiss Sidney again. He would be careful. He would be so careful with Sidney, as careful as Sidney had always been with him.
He opened Sid up on his fingers, slow and careful. Sidney was flushed all over, and so responsive, his breath hitching in his chest as Zhenya made him ready. He was staring up at Zhenya with that dazed, awed look on his face, and Zhenya gazed down at him. He knew how to hurt Sidney, and he knew now that he never would, and the painful sweet certainty of that knowledge infused everything with a new tenderness.
“Sid—is okay?” he said, and Sidney nodded, his mouth half-parted.
Zhenya pressed slowly inside, held in the cradle of Sidney’s hips, watching the expressions flitting across Sidney’s face. Sidney was so tight, and he kept making these soft little sounds, his brow furrowing a little.
“Sid,” Zhenya murmured, and kissed Sidney’s face—his forehead, cheekbones, the sweet parted bow of his mouth. He was overwhelmed by tenderness. He wanted to cover Sidney with his body, to shelter him here, to make him feel safe and cared for and held. “Say when—is good.”
Zhenya felt Sidney slowly relax, tension easing from his body. “It’s okay,” Sidney said at last, “it’s good, you can,” and he made a soft sound as Zhenya moved inside of him, slow and careful, rocking gently into him.
Zhenya was hardly aware of his own body. He was wholly focused on Sidney, on the dazed look in Sidney’s eyes, on the way he trembled and shook beneath Zhenya. No one else had ever seen Sidney like this. No one had heard the soft little noises Sidney made, or knew the way he bit his bottom lip.
Sidney put his arms around Zhenya’s neck—tentative, uncertain—and Zhenya wished, with a physical ache, for the bond. He wanted that feedback loop of happiness and pleasure and stunned delight, both of them feeling the same way, wanting the same things. He wanted his pleasure to be Sidney’s, and Sidney’s to be his, and for the two of them to be each other’s, bound together, body and soul.
“Oh,” Sidney said, and Zhenya rocked into the cradle of his body, Sidney’s thighs tensing around him, holding him inside. He was inside of Sidney, so deep inside of him, and it wasn’t enough, and would never be. It was all Zhenya would ever have.
“Oh,” Sidney said again, as Zhenya’s fingers curled around him, and this time when Zhenya moved inside him, Sidney breathed out, a long rush of air, and came apart in his arms.
Zhenya woke slowly, alone in a darkened room. He had slept deeply and well, his dreams unremembered. His body ached, and his heart did too, in a different way. The bed was empty beside him, and that, Zhenya thought with a pang, was how the story ended.
There was a sound by the window.
He drew a hand over his face, puffy with sleep, and propped himself up on his elbows. His heart did something strange in his chest.
Sidney was still here. He hadn’t gone. He was here, fully dressed, sitting at the desk in the far corner by the window with his back to Zhenya.
“Sid?” Zhenya croaked, half-convinced he was still dreaming.
He saw Sidney register the sound of his voice: a flinch, there and gone again.
Sidney twisted in his chair.
His face was ashen. Zhenya had never seen him so white.
“I swear, Geno,” he said. “I swear I didn’t know. I thought we were alone.”
Zhenya sat up straighter, the sheets pooling around his waist.
“Sid,” he said, and Sidney shifted, so that Zhenya could see, on the desk behind him, an open laptop.
“I didn’t know,” Sidney said again, his voice beseeching. “I didn’t know, Geno.”
Genya had called thirty-five times, beginning shortly after four in the morning Toronto time.
His parents had called. Seryozha, too. Jen, twelve times, and then she had texted: Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t leave your room.
Zhenya stared down at his phone. Sidney was sitting at the desk still, his head in his hands. He had kept saying those words—I didn’t know. I didn’t know—as if something had broken inside of him, some integral function shutting down, and finally Zhenya had taken the laptop out of his hands and told Sidney that he knew, and he believed him, and Sidney had to stop now, so Zhenya could think.
Everyone knew. Everyone had seen it, or would see it.
The video was a minute and thirty seconds long, filmed on someone’s cell phone. The quality was grainy, the light awful, but the images were unmistakable. Sidney in Zhenya’s lap, his mouth at Zhenya’s throat. Zhenya’s head tipped back against the cushions.
Sidney kissing him, slow and gentle. The only two people in the world.
Genya was calling again. Zhenya ignored it. He knew what Genya would say. There was no going back from this. It would follow him, all his life.
And Sidney. Oh, god. Sidney.
Zhenya remembered what he had thought last night on the roof: that there was a kind of power in it—knowing Sidney wanted him; knowing Sidney would let himself be persuaded. Zhenya felt a wave of nausea. He had wielded that power carelessly, recklessly, without sparing a thought for the consequences.
He was the one who had pushed. He was the one who had ridden roughshod over Sidney’s hesitation. And now—in ten minutes, fifteen minutes, in a minute and thirty seconds—Zhenya had laid waste to years of painstaking work, to Sidney’s earnest, diligent efforts to be so careful, to do everything exactly right.
“Geno,” Sidney said, a while later. “I know how to make this go away.”
Zhenya looked up. Neither of them had spoken in a long time—half an hour, maybe. He felt a little stunned, as if he’d received a powerful blow to the head, and now everything hurt: light, sound, motion.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Sidney said. “And I think it’s best if you say that it was an aftereffect of the bond. Or the venom—whichever. Nobody expected you to come to the awards anyway, so that’s—it makes it more believable.”
Zhenya stared at him, uncomprehending. What did this have to do with anything?
Sidney took a deep breath.
“I took advantage,” he said. “You were vulnerable, from breaking the bond, and I used that. So it’s not—it wasn’t you, not really. That’s what you can tell them. Your agent can write the statement, and then I’ll—I’ll confirm it, whatever you say. Whatever you need to say.”
Zhenya stared at him.
“You want—I’m lie?”
Sidney shook his head. “It’s not like that,” he said. “You don’t have to think of it like that. It’s just a way to make all this go away.”
“Sid, what?” Zhenya said, frustrated.
His head hurt. Sidney wasn’t making any sense, and Zhenya didn’t have a clue what he was thinking—there was nothing, no bond, to guide him.
“Geno, come on.” Sidney got up and came over to the bed, sitting down on the edge of the mattress. He seemed weirdly calm—detached, almost, like he’d gone a long way away from himself, or deep into himself, to a place where Zhenya couldn’t reach him. “I’m not—we both know I won’t be able to play, after this. There’s no way. It was already almost impossible to find someone to take on the bond. Nobody’s going to do it now, not for any amount of money.”
“You find, Sid,” Zhenya insisted. “You find—good. Good for play, good for bond.”
Sidney looked at him for a long time.
“Geno,” he said. “When we—when the bond broke, it hurt me. It felt like somebody carved out a piece of me, and took it away, and now it’s gone forever. I can’t ever get it back. I can feel where it used to be, I know it’s missing, but I don’t remember what it felt like to have it. To be—whole, I guess.”
Zhenya’s throat felt tight. Sidney was still looking at him, his expression calm, his gaze clear.
“I always thought hockey was the most important thing,” Sidney said quietly. “I thought I could give up everything else, if they’d let me play. But I keep thinking about all those pieces I won’t ever get back. I’m going to live a long time, probably. I keep wondering—will there be any me left, at the end of it?”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, his voice choked.
“I know it doesn’t feel that way right now,” Sidney said. He reached up and touched Zhenya’s face, smoothing the hair away from his eyes. “But maybe—maybe it’s good, Geno. Maybe this is just—the universe taking it out of my hands. I don’t know what I’d choose, if it were just up to me.”
Zhenya felt sick. He remembered how he had felt the previous night: sure that he could take care of Sidney, that he could look after him. So sure that he would never hurt Sidney again.
It felt so far away now, like something in a dream.
“Let me do this for you,” Sidney said. “Okay? I want to, Geno. I can make this right for you. And then it’ll have been for something, at least. It’ll mean something. It won’t be because somebody filed a complaint, or because they finally found some loophole that lets them get rid of me for good. Whatever people say, whatever they believe—I’ll know it was my choice.”
He was serious. Zhenya could see it in his eyes, in the fine lines of his expression. Sidney’s calmness wasn’t shock, or detachment, but a quiet, steady certainty. He had already turned his face away from Zhenya. He was looking towards what was coming.
Zhenya was silent for a long time. He stared at the laptop screen until the images blurred.
“You confirm, Sid?” he said finally. “What I say happen, you say is true?”
Sidney began to nod, and then hesitated. “There’ll probably be an inquiry through the league,” he said. “But if you could just—if you could say you don’t intend to press charges, or anything, I’d appreciate it. I don’t want to make this any harder on my family.”
Zhenya swallowed hard.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, Sid.”
Sidney nodded, and then stood. Zhenya got up too, and Sidney met his eyes. He had his media face on—as if in his mind, in his heart, Sidney had already left the quiet intimacy of this room behind him. He held out his hand, and Zhenya took it.
“Take care of the team,” Sidney said. “Win for me, yeah? I know you will. You’re so—”
He broke off, and for an instant Zhenya saw—felt, almost, through their joined hands, a flicker of something else beneath that steady certainty: a flash of yearning, maybe, and a grief so raw Zhenya’s heart ached. Then Sidney looked at Zhenya, and smiled, and let go of his hand.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “I mean that—I’m not just saying it. I lived when I should have died, and that meant I got to live my dream. Two years. Most people don’t ever get that.”
He held Zhenya’s gaze a moment longer.
“I was right, you know,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to play with you, to know you. And it was good, Geno. It was so much better than I dreamed.”
The door clicked softly shut. Zhenya stood there in the silence of the empty room, unmoving, for a long time. He looked at the bed, at the rumpled sheets where they had lain together, and thought of Sidney beneath him, looking up at Zhenya, his eyes wide and trusting.
He found his phone, buried in the blankets. Genya had called three more times since Zhenya hung up.
Zhenya stared at the screen for a moment. Then he took a deep breath, and dialed.
The phone rang three times.
“Seryozha,” he said. “I need your help.”
Jen sat him down in the studio first, before the lights went on, or the cameras started rolling. It was just the two of them. She had come in on her day off.
“I just need to do my due diligence here,” Jen said. “Do you understand what we’re doing? What this means?”
“Yes,” Zhenya said, and Jen looked at him for a long moment.
“This isn’t a few nice words in a press conference,” she said. “This is going to change the rest of your life. Everything will be different.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. He knew she understood. He had asked Seryozha to call her and explain, after the two of them had talked—for hours, late into the night in Moscow: Seryozha patient and kind, never hurrying him along.
It would be different than before—worse—because now Zhenya would have chosen it of his own free will. No one was pressuring him, or backing him into a corner, or forcing his hand. People would say things about him—to his face, and behind his back, and in the papers, all the time. For a while it might be hard to go home, and even when the dust settled, things would be forever changed. The fragile peace he had negotiated with his parents might be threatened, at least at first, though on that front Zhenya felt cautiously hopeful. He had video called them too: early morning in Magnitogorsk. His mother had wept, but Zhenya thought now of what she had said to him, words he knew he would hold in his heart like a talisman, protection against harm.
“If it were you, Zhenya,” she had said through her tears. “I would pray that you had someone to look after you, to take care of you, even if it was hard.”
And it would be hard. It would be painful, in ways Zhenya knew he couldn’t predict or anticipate. No one would ever think of him apart from Sidney again. All their careers—all their lives, maybe—this choice would bind them together.
Zhenya was nervous, even after practicing on the call with Seryozha. In front of the camera his hands shook so badly he almost dropped his notes. But he got through it, and when he reached the end he looked up.
Jen was standing behind the camera. She was crying.
“It’s okay?” Zhenya said, nervously.
“Geno,” she said. “It’s perfect.”
He taped one in Russian, too. That was harder, for a thousand reasons, but Seryozha had helped him write it over the phone, patiently helping him find the right words to say it.
“Zhenya,” Seryozha said, before they hung up. “Whatever happens, you won’t be alone. Remember that. You will always be welcome in our home.”
Zhenya couldn’t speak for a moment, his throat too tight.
“I’m proud to know you, Zhenya.” Seryozha’s voice sounded suspiciously thick, too. “I’m proud to call you my friend.”
They released the statements to the press in the afternoon. Five minutes before, Zhenya texted Sasha.
I’m about to do something stupid
It was late in Moscow, but Sasha texted back a minute later.
you text me every time? your thumbs will wear out
And then, a moment later:
he’s lucky to have you. good luck, zhenya
Zhenya smiled down at the screen.
“All right.” Jen turned from her computer. “Last chance, buddy.”
Zhenya had thought that when the time came to be brave—when something was asked of him that felt bigger than anything he had ever done, or knew himself capable of doing—he had thought that he would be a different person by then: someone older and wiser, more capable of selflessness. But he was here, now, on the threshold of what had seemed impossible. He was no different than he had been then, and yet everything was changed.
Sidney needed him. There was something Zhenya could do for him that no one else in the world could. And Zhenya understood, for the first time, that the decision he was making wasn’t now, or here. It lay somewhere in the past—in a choice, a series of choices, maybe, that he had made without realizing it. The choice to change. To be something other than what he’d been.
Calm settled over him. He felt a great sense of relief, and something like gratitude. What had Sidney said? The universe had taken it out of his hands. Zhenya didn’t have to be exceptionally brave, or noble, or a different kind of person. He could be himself: ordinary, afraid. All he had to do was meet this moment.
He looked up, and met Jen’s eyes. “I’m ready,” he said. “I’m ready.”
He stayed on in Pittsburgh after. The Gonchars were back home in Russia, but Seryozha had made him a set of keys, and Zhenya was learning how to do things, like shop for groceries, and cook his own food, and fend for himself in a world that was no different for anyone else, really, and yet for him felt forever changed.
He watched a lot of television. He spoke to his parents on the phone, twice a day sometimes, when they were waking up in Moscow, and when they were going to sleep. Seryozha called, too, to make sure Zhenya hadn’t burned the house down, and also to remind him—because Zhenya needed reminding, sometimes—that the people who loved him still loved him, and always would.
On the fifth day, the doorbell rang.
Sidney was standing on the front steps, his hands in his pockets. He was wearing jeans in the summer heat, and a long-sleeved shirt that Zhenya had always thought looked nice on him, and a look on his face that said he expected to be executed by firing squad at dawn.
“Hi, Sid,” Zhenya said, holding the door open.
Sidney turned and stared at him, as if he had never seen Zhenya before in his life.
“We had a plan,” he said.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. “I say what happen. You say, okay, it happen.”
Sidney stared at him some more.
“That was so stupid,” he said. “That was so unbelievably stupid, Geno, I can’t—what were you thinking? Why would you do that?”
Zhenya stood there, his hand on the doorframe, watching him. He had waited five days. He could wait Sidney out a little longer.
“How could you do this?” Sidney sounded almost despairing. “Geno, it’s never going to let up. You’re going to—and then you’ll hate me, for putting you through it, and I can’t—I don’t want you to hate me.”
“Family not hate,” Zhenya said quietly. “Mama, Papa, Taylor—”
Sidney floundered for a minute. “They’re—it’s different,” he said. “They love me, they have to—”
Zhenya looked at him without speaking, until Sidney floundered, and went silent.
“Sid,” Zhenya said. “You say—can’t be with person who love you secret, but say hate you when reporter ask.”
“I didn’t mean—” Sidney said, but at the look Zhenya shot him, he went quiet again.
“Can’t be with,” Zhenya said, nodding. “Sid—I can’t be. Can’t be—person who think thing, feel thing, but lie, lie, lie. Whole life, lie. I can’t.” He stopped, and shook his head. “Won’t, Sid. Won’t be.”
Sidney turned and went down the steps, so suddenly that Zhenya’s heart began to race. But a moment later Sidney turned around and came back up them again.
“Geno,” he said. “You can’t—I can’t let you do this for me.”
“Okay,” Zhenya said, shrugging. “I’m not do for you. I’m do for me.”
Sidney stared at him. Zhenya saw the moment his expression began to change.
“Geno,” Sidney said. “You—in the video, you said—you were going to ask me something.”
“Hmm,” Zhenya said. “I’m not remember. You remind?”
Sidney was flustered for a moment. He stepped down a step, and back up, and then he said in a rush: “You said—if I wanted—”
Zhenya looked at him. Sid took a breath.
“You said you wanted to bond with me,” he said. “If I wanted that, too. And even if I didn’t—you said you hoped you’d stay here in Pittsburgh and—and play with me for a long time.”
“Win Cup,” Zhenya put in. “I say, play with Sid, win Cup.”
“I can’t say that,” Sidney said, scandalized. “It’s bad luck.”
Zhenya laughed. “Okay, okay. Play with Sid, maybe win Cup.”
“Now if we don’t, it’s your fault,” Sidney said, but he was smiling. He was smiling at Zhenya, and his eyes were so bright, and Zhenya loved him. He loved him.
“Sid,” he said. “You stay?”
Sidney glanced over his shoulder, as if expecting a crowd of paparazzi to leap out of the bushes. He still looked uncertain.
“We watch tape,” Zhenya said, coaxing. “Watch war TV. Eat pizza.”
“You know I can’t eat,” Sidney said, almost by rote, and Zhenya raised his eyebrows.
Sidney’s cheeks were faintly pink. Zhenya was delighted, but he could do better than that. He wanted to see Sidney blush all over, embarrassed and pleased, flushing crimson red.
“Okay, we go,” Zhenya said. “Wait, wait.”
He went back into the house and slid his shoes on, fishing the keys out of the bowl. Sidney was watching him from the steps, bemused.
“Aren’t you staying here?”
“No,” Zhenya said. “It’s long summer. Claw miss us.”
Sidney laughed—a bright, startled sound.
“You like my house,” he said. “You like my haunted mansion.”
“Like Sid,” Zhenya said, and when Sidney went pink again, he added, “Claw, best. Sid, okay.”
He closed the Gonchars’ door behind him, and turned the key in the lock.
They would bond again, if Sidney wanted to. And later—when Sidney was drowsy, maybe, and less prone to startling, Zhenya would tell him about what he’d been discussing with Sasha, about the letter they were writing to the league. And they would win a Cup, Zhenya thought: maybe two, maybe three—
But all of that could wait—for tomorrow, or the day after, for the many days Zhenya knew would come. For now, tonight, they would watch television on the sofa, and eat pizza, and then Sidney would crawl into his arms: letting Zhenya hold him, letting himself be held. They would go to sleep, and they would wake up, and it would be a new day, the first day, of their lives together.
This was Zhenya’s life. It was his own life—the life he had made; a life that had chosen him, and that he in turn had chosen. He wasn’t sure it was a life he deserved yet, but Zhenya knew, with a sweet certainty, that he would work hard to be worthy of it, for as long as it took. He would become the man he wanted to be, one day, one choice, at a time.
Zhenya went down the steps, to where Sidney was waiting. He took Sidney’s hand in his.
“Sid,” he said. “Let’s go home.”