He saw a vampire once, in Moscow. He was twelve, on a trip with his youth hockey team. The coaches were tired and annoyed, and had set them loose as long as they stuck together and were back at the hotel by dinnertime. Some of the boys had gone to see the Red Square, Zhenya among them, and on the way back Alyosha—the oldest at fourteen, bossy and self-assured and already too slow on his skates to play much longer—had nudged him and said, “Look. He’s followed us all the way from the Square.”
The old man looked no different to Zhenya than any other tramp. He wore a long coat and a broad-brimmed hat; what little of his skin was visible was weatherbeaten from long years living out of doors. He had long fine colorless hair, plaited into a thin braid that draped over his shoulder like a white snake. And he was following them, Zhenya thought: moving from doorway to doorway along the street, keeping a safe distance.
“Hey, piyavka,” Alyosha called in a singsong voice. “Piyavka, piyavka. Come and have a drink.”
The old man moved towards them, more swiftly than his age and stooped back would’ve suggested. Zhenya’s heart leapt into his throat. But Alyosha was quick, and had good aim. The first rock hit the old man in the ribs; the second, when he twisted away, hissing, just below the ear.
“Lyosha,” Zhenya said, shocked and frightened, but no one around them seemed to notice, or care.
The old man lifted a hand to his face. He didn’t come any closer to them, but he didn’t flee, either, only hung back and watched. His eyes were the palest blue Zhenya had ever seen—pale as ice, almost translucent.
Alyosha bent down to pick up another stone, but Zhenya, uneasy now, grabbed his arm.
“Don’t,” he said.
“What?” Alyosha said derisively. “You can’t hurt ’em. Only a stake can, or silver. They haven’t got souls, so they can’t feel pain.”
The old man was watching Zhenya now, his head cocked slightly to one side. Was he blind? Was that why his eyes were so clouded?
“We’re late for dinner,” Zhenya said, and was proud that his voice didn’t waver. He sounded as indifferent as Alyosha. No one could accuse him of being soft, or frightened. “Grisha will eat everything, the pig.”
They won the tournament, and took home a small, shining cup for the Metallurg youth trophy case, a cheap replica of the Gagarin. Zhenya scored five goals in four games, and afterwards, on the long bus ride home, the coach asked him what he thought about playing with the older boys next year.
“We saw a vampire,” he told his mother when he got home.
“Who’s been telling you tales, Zhenya?” she said, unpacking his suitcase on the bed. “There are no vampires in Russia.”
That was the first. Maybe.
Crosby was the second.
Zhenya shaved with care in the cramped hotel bathroom, using the cheap razor Genya had purchased for him his first morning in Los Angeles. At twenty he still couldn’t manage anything even resembling a respectable beard. But the ritual of it pleased him: washing his face, working the cream into a rich lather, and then the slow careful pass of the razor, the rhythm almost meditative.
Genya ducked his head in. He caught Zhenya’s eye in the mirror and grinned, wide and toothy.
“Careful you don’t nick yourself,” he said. “Don’t want to show him the goods yet, eh? Keep something back.”
Zhenya scowled. “Shut up,” he said, kicking at the door until it closed.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” Genya called from the room. “You look like you’re going to your wedding.”
“I don’t know why I pay you,” Zhenya grumbled.
Genya was laughing. “Hurry up, princess. Car’s almost here.”
Zhenya rinsed off the last of the lather and patted his face dry. There was nothing wrong with his suit. It was new: Barry, his North American agent, had bought it for him in Los Angeles. He thought he looked—professional. Grown up. Anyway, he was hardly going to meet Mario Lemieux in jeans, no matter how much Genya teased him.
Pittsburgh in August was almost unbearably humid, the air thick and soupy. Even the short walk from the hotel lobby to the parking lot was enough to make Zhenya break out in a sweat. The expensive bottle of red Genya had bought felt slippery in his hands, and he kept having to surreptitiously wipe his palms on his slacks, his mind swimming with visions of the bottle shattering at Mario Lemieux’s feet.
“Now, I’ll handle the talking,” Genya said as they pulled onto the freeway. “We’ve got the contract details hammered out already, and Lemieux’s team doesn’t seem to think there’ll be any trouble with Magnitka. But they’ll want to see if Crosby takes to you.”
Zhenya stared out the window. “How will they know?”
“Who knows,” Genya said, shrugging. “You just sit there and look delicious. Maybe we’ll offer him a little taste after dinner.”
Zhenya glanced at him, horrified. “Really?”
Genya snorted. “No, I’m pulling your leg. I’m not letting a leech anywhere near you till that contract’s signed, sealed, and delivered. You’re too valuable, kid. I need you in one piece.”
He reached over and flicked the A/C up.
The sudden rush of cold air made Zhenya shiver. He looked down at the bottle in his hands, tilting it slightly so he could see the dark liquid sloshing against the side of the glass. Everything would be all right. They wanted him here, in Pittsburgh. They had wanted him before any of this—the trouble with Magnitka; the situation here. They had chosen him, not for Crosby, but for himself, for his speed and his hands and his ability to contribute to the team. This was where he belonged.
Genya was right: he was overdressed.
Mario—who insisted on being called Mario, thus ensuring Zhenya would nervously avoid calling him anything at all—was wearing shorts and a polo shirt, and looked as if he had just come in from the grill. Inside the house there seemed to be children underfoot everywhere, most of them in swimsuits. Zhenya gathered that some of them were related to Mario, though he was already struggling to follow the rapid pace of the conversation.
Mario’s wife appeared at his elbow to relieve him of the wine.
“Evgeni, I’m Nathalie,” she said, smiling at him. “It’s so wonderful to finally meet you. What a lovely suit.”
Genya was smirking. Zhenya did his best to ignore him.
“Thank you,” he said to Nathalie, pronouncing the words with care. “Nice to meet.”
Mario led them outside, to a long wooden table on the deck. There were trays of food laid out already, with clear plastic covers to keep the flies away.
“What can I get you to drink?” he asked them. “Sid’ll be a few minutes still. We like to sit out here once the sun’s over the hill.”
He and Genya went over to the liquor cart, falling into easy conversation. Zhenya accepted a glass of something from Mario—a vodka soda, it turned out—and drifted over to the railing of the deck, to look out over the backyard. Even in late summer, the lawn was a vibrant green, sloping gently down to a large pool area. The entire property was surrounded by a row of the tallest shrubs he’d ever seen, easily fifteen feet high, and dense enough to conceal the house and yard from view.
“Hi,” said Crosby—because it was Crosby, Zhenya was sure of it; there had been photos of him everywhere, after the attack. He held out his hand. “I’m Sidney.”
He was smaller than Zhenya expected, though he seemed sturdily built. He was very pale, with huge dark eyes and a mouth that seemed too big for his face. He was wearing long sleeves and a baseball cap, the brim pulled down over his eyes.
“Evgeni,” Zhenya said, and shook Crosby’s hand. Crosby’s skin was cool, and Zhenya drew back from the touch as quickly as he could without seeming rude.
“Boys!” Nathalie called. “Food’s ready.”
Dinner was noisy and confusing. Zhenya understood more English than he could speak—he’d spent the last few years watching an awful lot of American TV, and, more reluctantly, attending the private English lessons Genya arranged for him. But the pace of the conversation was fast, especially with the kids talking over each other, and after ten minutes of trying to look politely engaged he gave up on trying to follow the conversation.
They had put Crosby at the opposite end of the table, much to Zhenya’s relief. There was no plate in front of him, though he had a glass of wine, from which he took small, measured sips throughout the meal.
Zhenya studied him surreptitiously across the table. They had never met, though Barry had shown him tape of Crosby playing once, years ago. He had thought about it when news of the attack broke—how fast Crosby had been in that grainy footage, quick and darting and fearless. It was a terrible tragedy, and for several weeks it was all anyone talked about at the rink. North America’s containment laws were shockingly lax, and this was the result: a brilliant young star cut down in his prime.
Crosby had disappeared afterwards, he knew that much. If Zhenya had thought of him at all, he would’ve assumed, like everyone else, that Crosby would never play again. It wasn’t illegal in North America, not anymore, but it had seemed so far outside the realm of possibility no one could believe it when Crosby turned up at the draft.
Zhenya had seen those pictures, too: Crosby in an ill-fitting suit, looking very young and nervous, everyone but his parents and his agent giving him a wide berth.
He’d gone first. Impossibly, unbelievably, he’d gone first.
“Stop gawking,” Genya said to him in Russian, smiling pleasantly. “They’re very touchy about him. I think they’ve told me five times already that he’s practically part of the family.”
“Sorry,” Zhenya said, looking down at his plate. Part of the family? There were children in the home, for god’s sake. What kind of place was America?
After dinner, when the plates had been cleared and the children sent up to bed, Mario invited Genya into his study for a conference call with the team lawyers.
“We’ll let the boys get to know each other,” Mario said.
Genya grinned. “Look edible, sweetheart,” he said in a stage whisper, elbowing him, and Zhenya flushed, staring down at the melting ice in his drink.
Night had fallen, though the darkness brought little relief from the humidity. The deck was lit by soft lanterns, and along the table citronella candles burned here and there, keeping the mosquitos at bay. Zhenya longed to take off his suit jacket, but he had sweat through his dress shirt hours ago, and didn’t want anyone to see.
Crosby said something, and Zhenya startled, glancing sidelong at him.
Crosby waited, staring at him with those huge dark eyes. Then he said again, slowly and rather loudly: “Do you—like—Pittsburgh?”
He was still staring at Zhenya, hardly blinking. Was that a vampire thing—holding eye contact too long? God: what if Crosby was working some kind of spell on him? Zhenya reached up and touched the saint’s medallion his mother had given him, feeling its outline under his shirt.
Crosby’s gaze dropped to where Zhenya’s fingers were resting lightly against his sternum. Something flickered across his expression, too quick for Zhenya to read. Then he looked away, letting out a long breath.
“Okay,” Crosby said, almost to himself. “Okay.”
It was probably only fifteen minutes before Mario and Genya emerged from the house, though it felt like an eternity. Zhenya leapt to his feet, relief washing over him.
“Well?” he said, impatient, and Genya grinned.
“It’ll work, kid,” he said. “If the bond’s verified, Metallurg won’t have any legal claim over you. You’ll be free and clear.”
They celebrated back at the hotel. Mario had invited them to stay for dessert, but Zhenya shot Genya a desperate look, and Genya was in good enough spirits not to torment him further. The thought of sitting back down across the table from Crosby, watching him watch everyone else eat with that hungry look in his eyes, made Zhenya feel slightly queasy. He had a few more days of freedom, and he’d be damned if he spent a second more of them with Crosby than he had to.
Zhenya was too young to drink legally here. Genya laughed and laughed at the expression of horror on his face, before at last producing a handle of vodka from his suitcase.
“To your great escape,” he said, pouring a generous glass for each of them. “And your bright future.”
“Now,” Genya said. “They’ll want to do it quick, you understand, so you’ll both be eligible to play. It’s for the best, eh? Get it over with, and then it’s behind you, and you can focus on your game.”
Zhenya stared at his fingers through the glass. All of this had seemed so comfortingly abstract when Genya had explained it to him back in LA. But here he was, standing on the threshold of a strange new life, a breath away from stepping over.
“It’s for your own protection too, you know,” Genya said. “Once you’re bound to him, it’ll be in his best interests not to damage you. He’ll want you healthy and willing.”
“Willing.” Zhenya’s mouth twisted in disgust.
“Yes,” Genya said. “And you’d better sell it, too, at least till the deed’s done. I get the sense he can be a bit precious about all this. Lemieux didn’t come right out and say it, but I think they’re worried he might get cold feet.”
Zhenya lifted his head, bemused. “Why would he back out?”
Genya waved a hand. “He won’t. He wants to play, badly, and the league won’t let him without it.”
Zhenya flopped back on the bed.
“Tell me again,” he said, trying not to sound pleading. “Tell me why I’ve come.”
“Zhenya, we’ve talked about this,” Genya said. “How many times—for how many years? You’ve come to play in America, to be a star. I won’t watch you squander your talents in Magnitka. This is the stage you deserve.”
Zhenya stared up at the ceiling.
“This is your dream,” Genya said. “This has always been your dream.”
“It’s my dream,” Zhenya echoed, but the wine and the vodka and the exhaustion of the last few weeks were doing their work on him. He felt slow and stupid, and at the bottom of it all was fear, his dread like a lump of lead in his stomach, growing heavier and heavier.
He didn’t realize he had closed his eyes until he felt Genya’s hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t fall asleep,” he said. “Here, drink this.”
He had filled the tumbler with water, though Zhenya could taste the residue of vodka still. He made a face, but sat up and drank it down.
Genya sat down on the other bed.
“Kid,” he said, his expression softening a little. “It’s not so bad. It’s a business arrangement, eh? He needs you as much as you need him. You’re not his prisoner.”
Zhenya looked away, blinking hard. “But I’ll be bound.” The words tasted bitter in his mouth. He might not be Crosby’s prisoner, but he would be his pet. Living all alone with him. Letting him do—that, whenever he liked. “The church says—”
“Oh, come off it,” Genya said dismissively. “You don’t believe in all that religious crap. Leave that to your mother. She can cry to the saints, and light candles for your soul, or whatever the hell she wants to do, and that should cover you. There’s lots of people who’d do far worse than a little bond to have a chance like you’ve got.”
They had spent three weeks in California talking around and around it, Genya explaining how it would work, what they would say, wearing him down by slow degrees.
Now, though, Genya sighed.
“Listen,” he said. “If you want to call it off, we’ll do it. All right? Nothing’s signed yet, in ink or blood. Say the word and I’ll put you on the first flight home to Magnitka tomorrow.”
The thought should have comforted him—did, in an abstract way—but in his heart Zhenya knew it was impossible. Slinking back home with his tail tucked between his legs—disgraced and defeated, unable, as they had all said, to make it on his own?
No. The only way on was through.
“I’ll stay,” he said. “I’ll do it.”
“That’s my boy,” Genya said, his face breaking into a grin. He clapped Zhenya on the back. “That’s my star! Come, come, let’s have another.”
They drank till it was late, until the room was spinning and Zhenya was half asleep, and wholly maudlin.
“Genya,” he said, grasping for his hand. “I’m lucky to have such a friend. I would never have come without you. I would have been too afraid.”
“Ah, Zhenya, you’re drunk,” Genya said, “and I’ll make fun of you for this in the morning. But you’re welcome.” He squeezed Zhenya’s hand and let it go. “Only one season, eh? September, October, November, December—”
“I know what a season is,” Zhenya grumbled. He rolled over onto his stomach, burying his face in the pillow. His head was beginning to ache, the sweetness of the wine wearing off, and the cold lump of dread in his stomach was heavy as ever. But Genya was right. It was such a small price to pay: only a little time, and then he would be free. In a few years he could go somewhere else, if he wanted—away from Pittsburgh, and Crosby, with his red mouth and his dark, hungry eyes. If he played well enough, he could go anywhere.
Genya left two days before camp began, to take care of some business in Moscow. Zhenya stood outside the hotel and watched him put his suitcase in the back, swallowing back the childish urge to plead with him to stay a while longer. This was his life now, the life he had chosen.
“Well, Zhenya.” Genya grasped his shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “Best of luck. You’ll have Seryozha here to look after you, of course. And you can call anytime.”
Seryozha picked Zhenya up at dusk, to deliver him to his new home. Seryozha drove like an American, slow and careful, checking his mirrors twice before switching lanes. He was as quiet as Zhenya remembered, though now his reticence seemed pregnant with meaning. They had played a season together in Metallurg during the lockout, and in Turin for the national team, but Seryozha was older, with a family and his own friends. They had never really been close. Genya assured him Seryozha could be counted on, but Zhenya didn’t know what that meant, really, or how far the man’s tolerance might stretch.
The heavy silence between them felt like an answer. Zhenya stared fixedly out the window and tried not to care. If Seryozha wanted nothing to do with him, so be it. He would find his own way.
“This area is where some of the players live,” Seryozha said at last. “Lemieux, Crosby—a few others. It’s a little ways from the practice rink. Twenty minutes, give or take.”
The car slowed to a stop.
“Here we are.”
Zhenya stared up at the tall iron gates, the bars choked with thick-growing ivy. Beyond he could just make out the outlines of the house itself, set back from the street. Crosby was waiting for him there, in that dark house—lurking in the shadows, hungry-eyed. Eager to claim what had been promised.
A dizzying wave of terror washed over him.
The air in the car felt hot and suffocatingly close. Zhenya’s palms were sweating, and it felt as if an iron band were tightening around his chest, squeezing the breath out of his lungs. He could hear his own heart pounding, blood roaring in his ears.
Seryozha was speaking to him, but his voice seemed to come from a great distance. He would leave Zhenya here. He had delivered Zhenya to Crosby, as promised, and now he would leave, and Zhenya would be alone, all alone, Crosby’s to mark, to claim, to feast upon and bleed dry—
A hand landed on his back.
“Put your head between your knees,” Seryozha said, close to his ear, and Zhenya folded, the pressure bearing him down. “Deep breath. Yes, like that. You’re all right. Let it pass.”
Zhenya felt the rough scrape of denim against his cheek, and the heavy weight of Seryozha’s hand, rubbing slow, soothing circles between his shoulder blades. He sucked in a breath, and then another, each one deeper than the last. Gradually his pulse began to slow, his heart quieting in his chest.
“You’re all right,” Seryozha murmured. “Nothing to fear.”
After a while he drew his hand back. As Zhenya’s terror ebbed away, shame flooded in. He straightened up slowly, unable to meet Seryozha’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Genya is a fool,” Seryozha said. “I told him as much. How can he expect—” He broke off, shaking his head. “Zhenya, if you’d like, I’ll take you home now. You can stay with us, as long as you like. Ksenia will be happy to have you.”
“What?” Zhenya’s head snapped up. He stared at Seryozha, his pulse picking up again. “I can’t. I have to—they’ll send me back.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
But he did. Pittsburgh had no real reason to fight for him—and Metallurg would tie them up in knots, tangled lawsuits that dragged on for years, and Zhenya stuck in limbo all that time, unable to play, useless to the team. His visa would expire, and he would be put on a plane home. Velichkin had told him what they would do to him if he ran. He and Rashnikov were proud men, and Zhenya’s dramatic flight had been a rare public humiliation. The club would take great pleasure in making good on every one of their threats.
“I’m going,” he said, fumbling with his seatbelt. “It’s nothing, see? It’s past.”
He was trembling still, shaky with adrenaline. Seryozha reached out and covered Zhenya’s hand with his own.
“Zhenya,” he said, his voice quiet but firm. “Sidney’s just a boy. Remember that, will you? Whatever else he is—whatever you think he is—he’s just a boy.”
Crosby was waiting for him on the front steps. The door was ajar, but there seemed to be no lights on in the house. Beyond him Zhenya could see only darkness.
“Hello,” Crosby said. “I was afraid you’d gotten lost. Can I take this for you?”
He reached for Zhenya’s backpack. Zhenya jerked away, staring at him.
“Oh,” Crosby said. “That’s all right. Come in, I can give you the tour.”
Zhenya took a steadying breath, fingers tightening on the straps of his backpack, and forced his legs to move.
It was pitch black inside the house. He felt Crosby brush past him and tensed.
“Here,” Crosby said, and light flooded the room, so bright that Zhenya had to blink rapidly until his eyes adjusted. “Sorry. I don’t need the lights, usually, and it conserves electricity.”
They stood in the center of a tall, echoing foyer, the ceiling two stories high. A grand staircase wound its way up to the higher floors, the stairs carved from polished dark wood. He could make out the shapes of high-set windows, but they were shrouded with heavy drapes that blocked out even a sliver of moonlight. After the thick, soupy humidity outside, the air inside was bracingly cold. Like walking into a tomb, Zhenya thought, and had to suppress a shudder.
Crosby was looking around the foyer too, as if taking it in for the first time. “It’s a lot of house for one person,” he said, sounding a little nervous. “It’ll be nice to have someone else around.”
Zhenya grunted. He would spend as little time here as possible, even if it meant wandering the streets of Pittsburgh until dark.
“I can show you around,” Crosby said, and then hesitated. “Or—maybe in the morning? I should let you get settled.”
They ascended the curving staircase in silence, Crosby leading the way. There was a landing at the top of the stairs, and a hallway branching off in either direction.
“My room’s just down there.” He gestured to the right, though he turned left, leading Zhenya down the other hallway. Here the walls were paneled with dark wood. The carpet was so thick it seemed to swallow up the sound of their footsteps. Every door along the hallway was shut.
“This one’s yours,” Crosby said, pausing in front of one of them. He glanced uncertainly at Zhenya. “If that’s—if you like it, I mean. It has the nicest view in the house. You can see the whole backyard.”
He opened the door, stepping aside so Zhenya could pass through.
The room was large, with a high, vaulted ceiling. There seemed to be large windows along the back wall, but the view Crosby had promised was obscured by the same heavy curtains he had seen downstairs. At the center of the room was a massive four-poster bed, neatly made.
That was where it would happen, Zhenya thought, a little thrill of terror shivering down his spine.
Behind him, Crosby cleared his throat. “Well,” he said, and Zhenya’s whole body tensed. He stared fixedly at the bed, blood pounding in his ears. Would it happen now? Was that why they had skipped the tour—rushing through the pleasantries, so they could get to the main event?
But Crosby only said: “You’re probably tired. So, uh, I’ll leave you to get settled.” He hesitatef, then said, “Night, Evgeni.”
It took Zhenya a moment to parse the words. When he turned, Crosby was already gone, the door closing softly behind him.
Was there some mistake? Perhaps Crosby meant to return later. The sun had set, but vampires were creatures of true night. Maybe he preferred to feed in total darkness.
It only took a few minutes to unpack his belongings. Apart from the few things he’d purchased in LA, he had come with only the clothes on his back and the contents of his backpack: a laptop, a jacket, a few family photos tucked into the binding of a tattered paperback. His suitcase had been abandoned along with his gear. For all he knew his sticks and skates were still where he’d left them, circling the baggage claim in Helsinki.
When he had finished, there was nothing left to do but wait. Zhenya went over every inch of the room, looking for—he wasn’t sure what, exactly: false panels in the wall, maybe, or hidden trapdoors through which Crosby might rise silently in the night. But nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Some time after midnight he crawled into bed, still fully dressed. The house was so quiet it frightened him; the thick carpet and heavy drapes seemed to muffle all sound, so that as he lay awake in bed, staring up at the ceiling, all he could hear was the harsh rasp of his own breathing, the ponderous thudding of his heart. Vampires moved silently; even if he managed to stay awake all night, he might not hear Crosby’s approach until he was already upon him. Did Crosby prefer it that way? Did he relish the element of surprise—the blind terror of his prey, thrashing frantically until it was subdued?
He thought he would be too frightened to sleep, but exhaustion claimed him at last, dragging him under. His dreams were fragmented and confused, muddled scenes bleeding into each other. In one he was tearing through a dark wood, rain beating down upon him, thorny branches whipping cruelly at his face and arms. He was bleeding, and vulnerable, and there was something behind him, stalking him through the darkness: a malevolent, laughing presence.
Then the woods melted around him, and he lay naked and paralyzed on a narrow cot. All around him, blank white faces loomed out of the darkness. He recognized his parents, and Velichkin; Pasha Datsyuk was there, and his Olympic teammates, Seryozha among them, all of them staring silently down at him.
“Help me,” he begged, but they only watched: expressionless, waiting.
He felt Crosby’s touch before he saw him. Soft white hands caressed his naked skin, stroking his thighs like a lover.
“No,” he whimpered. “No, no—”
The creature leaned over him. Its face was nightmarish now, twisted in a monstrous grimace, wicked fangs exposed. A strange light gleamed in its eyes.
“Mine,” it hissed, lowering its head to feed. “Mine.”
He jolted awake in the darkness. His heart was pounding, and his sweat-damp shirt clung to him, the air thick with the sour odor of his fear. It was still pitch black in the room, but his head felt muzzy, his thoughts sluggish, in a way he associated with sleeping too long.
He slid out of bed and wrenched the curtains open. Bright daylight spilled into the room. He blinked against it, until his eyes focused. He saw an expanse of rolling green grass, lushly green despite the late summer heat. It wasn’t a lawn, exactly: Crosby’s house sat on what looked like a vast estate, acres of land ringed by tall dark trees in the distance. There must have been other houses nearby—Zhenya thought he remembered passing them in the dark the night before—but from this vantage point, none were visible.
Hunger drove him from his room at last.
The hallway was empty, and the door to Crosby’s bedroom was closed. Zhenya crept past it and down the stairs, straining his ears to catch any sound below.
The house was still shrouded in darkness, every window covered by the same thick curtains. Vampires were sensitive to sunlight, Zhenya knew that much, though Crosby had sat outdoors with them at dusk and seemed unbothered. Perhaps he preferred the gloom? It certainly seemed to match the decor. Room after room was furnished with dark, heavy pieces. He passed through a formal sitting room, full of stiff high-backed chairs with clawed feet, and a windowless dining room, where an ornate chandelier presided over a long gleaming table made of polished dark wood. Zhenya wondered if Crosby had always had such tastes, or if becoming a vampire made one want to live on the set of a high-budget horror film.
There was no sign of Crosby. In fact, there seemed to be no evidence that anyone lived here at all. The air had an oddly stale quality, as if Zhenya were wandering through a museum—the residence of some long-dead historical figure, preserved so that busloads of foreign tourists and bored schoolchildren could be shuffled through it each day.
It was a relief to reach the kitchen at last. It was a big, open-plan space—surprisingly light and airy, after the darkness of the rest of the house. The big bay windows were still covered, but here someone had taken down the heavy velvet curtains and replaced them with what Zhenya realized, on closer examination, was an off-white bedsheet, tacked up at the corners with rows of push-pins. It blocked direct light, but was translucent enough to let daylight filter softly into the room.
The kitchen itself was well appointed, with gleaming stainless steel appliances that looked as if they had never been used. Zhenya realized, with a sinking feeling, that they probably hadn’t. If Crosby ate no solid food, he had no reason to cook—or indeed, to keep any food in the house.
He opened the fridge, expecting to find it empty. To his surprise, though, the shelves were stocked with enough food to feed a large family. There was fresh produce—leafy greens, fruit, vegetables of every imaginable hue—and several large blocks of cheese. There was a carton of eggs, and packets of ground meat, neatly labeled, and what appeared to be three different kinds of orange juice.
Zhenya stared. Did Crosby often have guests here? Or did he keep the house provisioned for people like Zhenya—fattening them up before Crosby himself fed?
The thought might’ve killed his appetite, if he had been less ravenous. As it was, he set to work.
Zhenya wasn’t an especially gifted cook, but he could manage eggs, at least, and there was plenty of fruit. He was busy slicing strawberries by the sink when someone cleared their throat behind him. The knife slipped, nicking his thumb.
Zhenya swore. The cut wasn’t deep, but it stung, and blood began to well up around his thumbnail.
Crosby was standing in the doorway, wide-eyed and apologetic.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Flower says they should put a bell on my collar.”
“What?” Zhenya said irritably. He drew his thumb back, examining the cut.
“Never mind,” Crosby said. “Oh—you’re hurt.”
He took a step towards him, and then hesitated, his gaze flicking to Zhenya’s hand.
Zhenya realized he was still clutching the knife. Slowly, he laid it down on the counter. Crosby gave him a small smile and edged past him, opening one of the drawers.
“Here,” he said, producing a bandage and a tube of ointment. “I can, if you want—”
“I do,” Zhenya said. He could taste the coppery tang of his own blood in his mouth, and felt wary, suddenly, of letting Crosby any closer.
“Sure,” Crosby said easily, sliding the kit towards him across the counter. He watched as Zhenya cleaned and bandaged the cut.
“I wasn’t sure what you liked to eat,” Crosby said after a moment, glancing towards the fridge. “If there’s anything else you want, just write it down for me and I’ll pick it up next time.”
Crosby didn’t seem to have anywhere else to be. When Zhenya took his plate over to the kitchen table, Crosby drifted after him, and sat down across from him uninvited. He watched Zhenya eat, with a curiously intent expression that made Zhenya uneasy. It wasn’t hunger, exactly, but something akin to it: anticipation, perhaps.
He did his best to ignore it. The eggs were overcooked and slightly rubbery, but Zhenya wolfed them down anyway, too hungry to care. He ate the strawberries, too, and some cheese, and drank two full glasses of orange juice.
“Did you sleep well?” Crosby asked after a while.
Zhenya made a noncommittal sound, keeping his gaze fixed on his plate. He knew, in a vague sort of way, that vampires were born deceivers: that was how they lured humans into willing bondage, with whispered promises of long life, and occult powers, and of course, the perverse pleasures of thrall. Crosby hardly needed to seduce him—Zhenya was his for the season, to feed from as he liked—but Genya had said Crosby wanted him willing, whatever that meant. He thought it best not to look Crosby in the eye too long, or speak to him any more than he had to, in case Crosby took it as encouragement.
“I thought we could go to the rink today, if you wanted.”
Zhenya, forgetting himself, looked up. “Skate?”
Crosby was smiling at him. “Yeah, for sure. I know you don’t have your skates or anything, but there’s lots of extra gear at the rink. I called this morning, to see if they could pull some things that might fit. We can go whenever you’re ready.”
This was almost certainly a temptation to be guarded against, but Zhenya couldn’t quite bring himself to care. Barry had gotten some rink time for him in LA, but it had been almost two weeks since he’d been on the ice.
“Okay, we go,” he said, pushing his plate away.
Crosby drove them both to the rink in his massive Range Rover. In the enclosed space of the car, he seemed oddly twitchy—he kept fiddling with the air conditioning, making small adjustments that, as far as Zhenya could tell, made no appreciable difference to the temperature. He talked almost the whole way there, an incessant stream of chatter about the neighborhood, and the city, and the team. Zhenya tuned him out after a few minutes, when it became clear that Crosby didn’t expect much in the way of response. He looked out the windows again, watching the city pass by.
It was easier on the ice. Zhenya skated a few laps around the rink, getting used to his borrowed skates, and felt the tight ball of anxiety in his stomach start to loosen.
They passed the puck a bit to warm up, then did a few rushes. Crosby was quick and precise, sending zinging passes tape to tape, and Zhenya felt something in him rise to the implicit challenge, his initial reluctance to engage melting away. In the gloomy darkness of that horrible house, he knew Crosby would bind Zhenya’s will to his own—would make him yield, again and again, in ways Zhenya shuddered to imagine. But here, on the ice, Crosby would have no power over him. Here, at least, he would prove himself Crosby’s equal.
“You’re good,” Crosby said, breathless.
The surprised delight in Crosby’s voice irked him. Zhenya hadn’t gone first, but some people had said that he might. And second was nothing to sneeze at.
“Yes,” he said, and stripped Crosby of the puck, darting past him to bury it in the net.
They skated for over an hour before Crosby said, with obvious reluctance, “We should probably call it a day.”
In the showers Zhenya rinsed off quickly, his uneasiness creeping back in. Being naked around Crosby made him feel vulnerable. He thought of the dream again—cold fingers trailing up his thigh—and shivered, reaching out to adjust the temperature of the water.
When he got back to the locker room, a group of guys had taken over the far corner, talking and laughing amongst themselves as they changed into their gear. Zhenya nodded in their direction and went over to the stall he’d chosen to towel off.
After a few minutes, one of the guys got up and came over.
“Hey, man,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Ryan.”
Zhenya stood up. “Evgeni,” he said, and Ryan’s eyebrows flew up.
“Malkin?” he said. “Heard you weren’t gonna make it over this year. So they let you go, huh?”
Zhenya’s English wasn’t quite up to explaining the complexities of his situation. He gave a half-shrug instead.
Ryan’s gaze slid to his left. His grin went sharp.
“Oi, Creature,” he called. “Thought I saw your car out there.”
Zhenya looked up. Crosby was standing in the doorway, his towel knotted around his waist.
“Whitney,” he said, his smile tight. “Good summer?”
“Not bad, not bad,” Ryan said. “Hey, Malkin—anybody introduce you to our Creature yet?”
“Creature?” Zhenya repeated, uncertain.
“Nickname,” Ryan said, grinning at him like they were sharing a joke. He lowered his voice. “Better watch yourself. He likes to latch onto the new guys, if you know what I mean.”
Crosby had finished changing. He slid his shoes on and slung his bag over his shoulder.
“Come on, Evgeni,” he said, mangling the pronunciation a little. “Let’s go.”
Ryan looked at Crosby, then back at Zhenya. Something seemed to click.
“Oh shit,” he said. “Dude, no way. That’s who they got you?”
“Evgeni,” Crosby said in an undertone, touching his arm. Zhenya jerked back from the touch, conscious of the others watching.
“You say wrong,” he said sharply. “Yev-geny.”
Crosby’s eyes were wide, and a little hurt. He drew back.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll keep practicing.”
Ryan laughed. He clapped Zhenya on the back.
“Well, Yev-geny,” he said. “Welcome to Pittsburgh, man.”
Crosby didn’t try to touch him after that, or hurry him along. Zhenya took his time gathering up his things, putting away his borrowed gear. Ryan and the others had gone out onto the ice, and Zhenya wondered what they were saying to each other now. He had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that he might be able to keep his arrangement with Crosby quiet for a little while longer, enough to meet some of the guys first. But what did it matter? The team would find out one way or another. Soon enough the whole world would know.
Finally, without looking at Crosby, he straightened up and walked out of the locker room, in what he hoped was the direction of the parking garage.
Seryozha was standing in the atrium, studying one of the plaques on the wall.
“There you are,” he said, and Zhenya stopped, surprised.
“What are you doing here?”
“Genya is insufferable,” Seryozha said. “He seems to think you need a babysitter, and won’t stop pestering me about it. Come on, come on, I don’t have all day.”
Zhenya glanced back over his shoulder. Crosby was lingering a few steps behind him, pretending to adjust the strap on his gear bag.
“Sid,” Seryozha said. “I’m borrowing this one for the afternoon, if that’s all right. I’ll have him home by dinnertime.”
The atmosphere in the car was a little stilted at first. The relief of seeing a familiar face had worn off, and Zhenya felt a little embarrassed, remembering his cowardly display the previous night. But Seryozha made no mention of it, only talked calmly, placidly, about nothing in particular, pointing out various landmarks to him as they drove, and after a while Zhenya began to relax.
They spent a bewildering hour at the bank, where Seryozha filled out a seemingly endless series of forms in English to open Zhenya’s new accounts. After that he drove them to a large, crowded shopping mall, where he bought Zhenya three suits, a cell phone with an international calling plan, and then, in the large and bustling food court, a basket of something called chili cheese fries.
“It’s delicious,” Zhenya marveled. “How did they think of it?”
“Chew with your mouth closed,” Seryozha said dryly. “You’re an embarrassment to your country.”
Zhenya rolled his eyes. “Sorry, Papa.”
Seryozha snorted. “So I assume you’re all right, then?”
Zhenya’s face felt hot, but he licked his fingers clean and shrugged, aiming for indifference. “I barely saw him. He shut me in my room and disappeared.”
“Hm,” Seryozha said. He watched Zhenya eat for a moment. “Does your family know?”
“I’m thirsty,” Zhenya said. “Can you buy me a Coke?”
“Answer the question first.”
Zhenya ate the last of the fries, now soggy with grease, and pushed the paper basket away before answering. “It wasn’t safe for them to know before. Genya told them when I got to LA.”
Zhenya scowled. “And what? Do you think they’re proud, knowing their son will be a leech’s bloodbag? They hate it, of course. My mother cried on the phone for an hour when she heard, praying to every saint she could think of and begging me to come home. My father still can’t bring himself to speak to me.”
Two girls at the next table were looking over at them now. One of them giggled, leaning forward to whisper something in the other’s ear.
“I see,” Seryozha said mildly. “Well, Zhenya, it’s a difficult hand life has dealt you. How terrible that Genya forced you across the ocean, to live in a mansion and play professional hockey in America.”
“That’s not—” Zhenya started, and then shut his mouth. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Mm.” Seryozha looked at him a moment longer. “You shouldn’t call him a leech. It’s not considered acceptable here.”
“Does he speak Russian, then? I’ll call him what I like.”
He was behaving like a child, but he was irritated now, and spoiling for a fight. But Seryozha didn’t rise to the bait. He gave him that same look: mild, almost sleepy. Zhenya was beginning to suspect it was sharper than it seemed.
“Lemieux likes him, you know,” Seryozha said. “The coaches do, too, when he’s not talking back. He’s the future of this team, Zhenya, whether you like it or not. However you feel about the arrangement, you’d do well not to burn too many bridges here.”
“I’m not planning to stay,” Zhenya said. “I’ll play my three years, and I’ll go somewhere else. Genya says—”
“Gennady is your agent, not your friend,” Seryozha said, sharply enough that Zhenya glanced at him, startled. “The man’s very good at what he does, I’ll grant him that. But this isn’t his home, or his team. You’ll make your own life here, Zhenya, and you’ll be the one who has to live in it. Not your parents. Not Genya.”
He held up his hand. “That’s all I’ll say about the matter, I promise. Now come, we’ll get you your Coke, and then we’ll pick Natasha up from school.”
Crosby’s Range Rover was in the driveway when Seryozha dropped him off that evening, but the house was dark again, and there was no sign of him inside. Zhenya had no interest in hanging around downstairs for long, in case Crosby took it as an invitation, so he scavenged a few things from the fridge and ate in his room, sitting cross-legged on the massive bed. Maybe Seryozha would help him buy a TV for his room tomorrow, and then he could spend most of his evenings here. The room was as gloomy as the rest of the house, but at least it had four walls and a door that locked.
Crosby would come tonight, probably. He tried not to think about it. He did pushups for a while, and then sprawled out on the bed, reaching for his book.
He opened it, letting the photographs tucked inside slip free. His parents’ faces stared up at him.
The first call home had been horrible.
Genya had explained the details to his parents. He had always impressed them, with his quick talking, his flashy cars, his Moscow airs. And he could weave dreams out of thin air; he had that gift. He could show you a vision of the future so bright and dazzling it seemed to be real already—real, and waiting for you, for the man bold enough to stride forward and claim it. To hear Genya tell it, there was something almost magical about the whole sordid tale, almost fated. Crosby had been waiting for Malkin; Malkin, for Crosby.
His parents had been silent, listening. Then Genya had said, “I’ll give you some time to discuss as a family,” and Zhenya was left to face the music alone.
He slid his thumb over his father’s face, covering it.
His mother had wept. Had pleaded with him to turn back, to come home, before it was too late. But he had expected that, and had steeled himself against her tears.
It was his father’s words that stung the most.
“Magnitka was right,” he had said. “You’re not ready. This is a boy’s decision, not a man’s. You would throw away your dignity, and for what? To play hockey in America for one year more? Wait, Zhenya, wait, and when you’re ready, when it’s time—”
But it would never have been time. Zhenya hadn’t understood that, not really, until that long, awful night when Velichkin and his men had invaded their home, bullying and threatening and cajoling him into signing the new contract. Sometime after three in the morning, someone had put the pen in his hand, and as Zhenya traced out the letters of his name he seemed to see the years stretching out before him: a succession of tables in rooms just like this one, where he would sit, year after year, signing his dream away. It would always be one more season. For the fans; for the city. For the club, to which he owed so much, a debt whose balance would never be paid. He would have grown old there, waiting for it to be time.
He had tried to explain himself, fumbling through the words. But he had none of Genya’s eloquence, and his mother was too distraught, his father too angry, to hear him.
“You’ve always been easily led,” his father had said, angrier than Zhenya had ever heard him. “Mark my words, Zhenya. That thing will get its claws in you. It will drain you dry, and what will you be then? What will you have left? Your talent wasted, your reputation destroyed—”
Zhenya slid the photograph back inside the book and closed it, flinging it away. His eyes stung, and he rubbed at them, angry and ashamed. He would prove himself. To his parents, to Magnitka—even to Seryozha, who clearly thought him a child still, too weak to bear the fate he had chosen. They were wrong, all of them. He was ready. Let Crosby come.
But Crosby didn’t come. Zhenya fell asleep waiting, and woke to sunlight, disorientingly bright.
There was a Penguins sweater hanging in his stall.
Zhenya looked at it for a long moment, the noise of the locker room fading into the background. It was only a practice jersey—there was no name on the back, no number, nothing to distinguish it from the other rookie hopefuls milling around him. He hadn’t earned his place yet. But it was the first real step. This was why he had come.
He pulled it on over his gear and looked down at it, smoothing his hand over the logo on the front.
“Pretty cool, eh?” said the guy in the stall next to him. He was tall and blond, with a big grin. “I keep pinching myself, thinking I’m gonna wake up and realize it was all a dream.”
“Yes,” Zhenya said. “Cool.”
His English embarrassed him still. He understood the gist of what people were saying to him, usually, as long as they spoke clearly and there wasn’t much background noise. But speaking was difficult for him, and made him feel slow and stupid.
“You’re Malkin, right? I’m Jordan Staal. Guys call me Staalsy.”
“Evgeni,” Zhenya said, and Jordan laughed.
“I’ll stick with Malkin, if that’s cool. Don’t want to butcher it.”
It was only rookie training camp: not even the real thing, not yet. Zhenya’s heart beat faster as he followed Jordan out onto the ice, but this was familiar, at least. Hockey was hockey, anywhere in the world. Here, at least, he knew who he was.
He threw himself into camp, playing hard all day and coming home exhausted—as much from a day spent deciphering his teammates’ rapidfire English as from physical exertion. Practice was open to the media, and while he tried not to pay too much attention to it, Zhenya knew he was generating some buzz. The bond was still a closely kept secret; people might suspect, but the team wouldn’t confirm anything officially until the season began. So it was Zhenya’s hockey they were here for. He tried not to wonder if this was the last time in his career people would write stories about him without linking his name to Crosby’s.
“Look,” Jordan said on the last day, nudging him. “That’s Crosby, isn’t it?”
Zhenya glanced up. Sure enough, Crosby was sitting a few rows back from the glass. He was leaning forward in his seat, watching the ice intently.
“Dude, I can’t wait to play with him,” Jordan said. “My brother said he’s annoying as hell, never shuts up, but he’s the real deal. He had a monster season last year.”
Zhenya wasn’t sure he understood. “Monster?”
“Oh,” Jordan said, and laughed, a bit awkwardly. “Uh, bad choice of words. He had a great season, I mean.” He glanced up at Crosby again and said, “You heard the league said he’s gotta bond with some guy on the team? I guess they must’ve found some poor sap to do it, if he’s here for camp. Jeez, can you imagine?”
Zhenya wasn’t sure he’d understood every word, but he got the gist of it, and Jordan’s tone communicated the rest. He ducked his head, pretending to adjust his glove. What did it matter? He wasn’t here to make friends. He was here to play hockey.
When he looked up again, Crosby was watching him. Zhenya held his gaze, defiant.
“Malkin, you’re up!” one of the coaches yelled, and Zhenya turned back to the ice, skating off without looking back.
“I’m starving,” Jordan said, slinging his gear bag over his shoulder. “You wanna grab some food? Think I saw a pizza place down the street.”
Zhenya had forgotten a comb, and was busy raking his fingers through his damp hair, trying to get it to lie flat. He was in good spirits. Crosby had vanished from the stands, and his team had won the impromptu scrimmage at the end of the day. He’d scored a goal himself and set up a pretty play for one of his linemates, and he thought the coaches were impressed, or at least paying attention.
“Yes, pizza,” he said, his stomach already grumbling in anticipation. He wasn’t entirely sure how he’d get home. Jordan had a car, but he could always make some excuse to double back to the rink afterwards, to ask someone in the front office to help him order a cab. It wasn’t like he could hide his living situation forever, but there was no need to advertise it. Maybe, for a few days at least, he could just be another rookie hopeful, working his ass off to make the cut.
They left the locker room together and walked out through the atrium. Jordan was busy telling him some story about his juniors team that Zhenya was sort of, mostly following. He was a pretty expressive talker, which Zhenya appreciated: it made it easy to tell when he was meant to laugh.
“So I’m telling him, I’m saying, like—dude, you cannot wake him up, because I actually, like, would prefer to keep my balls attached to my body—”
“Evgeni!” someone called from behind them.
Jordan paused mid-sentence, glancing over his shoulder. His eyes went wide.
“Holy shit, dude,” he said under his breath. “That’s Lemieux.”
Zhenya’s stomach sank. He turned, half hoping that Jordan was mistaken.
It was definitely Mario, crossing the atrium to meet them. And—because that was just Zhenya’s luck, wasn’t it—there was Crosby, too, trailing along behind him.
“Evgeni,” Mario said, smiling. “Just the man I was looking for.”
Zhenya could feel Jordan watching him, his expression curious. Crosby seemed to be making a careful study of the tile floor, as if someone had tasked him with committing the pattern to memory.
“Do you have a few minutes?” Mario asked. “I thought the three of us could talk upstairs in my office.”
Mario’s office was a large, open-plan corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows. He ushered Zhenya in, then went over to the desk in the far corner and pressed a button. Shades began to descend over the glass, blocking out the direct sunlight.
“My apologies, Sidney,” he said.
“It’s fine,” Crosby said, but he came fully into the room now, rather than lingering by the door.
There were two chairs across from the desk. Crosby sat down in one, and Zhenya, with some reluctance, took the other.
“Evgeni,” Mario said. “It’s good to see you again. How are you settling in?”
Zhenya thought about Crosby’s horrible house, and the long nights spent lying awake waiting for him to come, and his mother weeping on the phone, and all the things they were printing about him back home, before they even knew how low he was willing to go.
“Good,” he said. “Is fine, everything.”
“Good, good, I’m glad to hear it,” Mario said. “Now, I wanted to let you both know that the league is flying in a bond specialist later this week. She’ll want to run some tests on the two of you together, and then speak with you both individually before she makes her report to the league. We’ve consulted with our legal team and they have all the paperwork ready to send to Metallurg. That should close off their last legal avenues for bringing you back, Evgeni.” He smiled at them both. “How are you, ah—finding it so far? The bond?”
Zhenya glanced sidelong at Crosby, who was staring down at his hands. Neither of them spoke.
Mario was still smiling, though he was looking between them now. “Sidney?”
“We haven’t,” Crosby said abruptly, still not looking up. “It’s been—there hasn’t been time. Evgeni’s been busy with camp, and—”
“You not come,” Zhenya said. He wasn’t letting Crosby pin this on him. “Six, seven night. I sit, wait. Nothing.”
Mario looked at them both, a slight frown creasing his forehead. “Sidney,” he said. “Is there some problem?”
“No,” Crosby said.
“I know.” Crosby bit out, sharply enough that Mario’s eyebrows flew up. Crosby drew in a long, shaky breath. “Sorry. I know.”
Mario was quiet for a moment, watching him. “Sidney,” he said, his voice gentler now. “I understand that this is difficult for you. But I need to know whether or not you’re able to honor your end of the commitment. Because if you can’t—”
“Then I can’t play,” Crosby said, his voice flat. “And he can’t stay here. I know that.”
He looked over at Zhenya. “I’ll come tonight,” he said curtly. “Around eight. You should eat something before, so you don’t get dizzy. I don’t know how long it’ll take. I’ve never done this before.”
Zhenya’s throat felt dry. He nodded.
“We’ll be ready when the specialist comes,” Crosby said to Mario. “She’ll get her report.”
Mario inclined his head. “Thank you, Sidney,” he said. “And Evgeni—I know it may not be the ideal start, but I hope this will mark the beginning of a productive partnership. The team is counting on you both.”
Zhenya ate dinner in his room that night, and then played games on his laptop for a while, trying to ignore the minutes ticking by. He felt restless and jittery, unable to settle. He kept having to pause the game to get up and pace around the room, or do pushups, anything to burn off some of the excess energy.
It wasn’t the prospect of pain that frightened him. He was a hockey player: he was used to pain, even to violence. But this wasn’t like a fight on the ice—tempers boiling over, hot rage spilling out everywhere—cathartic, necessary, even if it got him sent down the tunnel. This was different. There was nothing here to push back against, no way to assert his own will. In a little while Crosby would come to him, and Zhenya would open the door and let him in. Crosby would feed from him, would take what he wanted from Zhenya’s body.
And then they would be bound.
The knock was soft enough he almost missed it. Zhenya stopped pacing halfway between the bed and wall. He stared at the door.
It came again, a little louder this time. Before he could lose his nerve, Zhenya strode across the room and flung open the door.
Crosby was standing in the darkened hallway, dressed in sweatpants and a faded Pens t-shirt. His hair was still damp from the shower.
“Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”
Silently, Zhenya stepped aside.
Crosby walked a few feet into the room and stopped, looking around as if he had never been inside before. For a long moment neither of them spoke, and then at last Crosby turned towards him.
“We could—on the bed, I thought,” he said, a note of uncertainty in his voice. “If you want?”
Zhenya’s face went hot, his skin prickling with a queasy wash of humiliation and anger. What did it matter what he wanted? If Crosby wanted him on the bed, Crosby would have him there. None of this was for Zhenya’s benefit, or Zhenya’s pleasure. Instead of responding, he crossed to the bed and climbed onto it, lying down on his back. He stared up at the ceiling, gathering his courage. Then he turned his head away from Crosby, baring his throat.
“Oh,” Crosby said, and Zhenya shut his eyes, waiting.
He felt the mattress dip slightly beside him. Cool fingertips brushed against the inside of his arm, and Zhenya bit the inside of his cheek hard to keep from screaming. What little courage he had mustered up before had deserted him, and now there was only terror, white-hot and dizzying. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he wondered if Crosby could hear it—if it excited him, even, awakening his predator’s instincts.
“I’m not—I don’t know if it will hurt,” Crosby said. “I’ll try not to hurt you.”
Zhenya could barely breathe. Crosby’s fingers were at his throat, massaging the skin there. Tenderizing the meat, he thought against his will, and wanted to throw up.
“Okay,” Crosby whispered, and Zhenya heard a soft sound: his fangs descending. Crosby leaned over him, his lips brushing against Zhenya’s skin, and Zhenya felt something razor-sharp pierce his flesh.
Blind instinct took over. He flung his arm up to shield his throat, his forearm connecting hard with Crosby’s chin. Crosby grunted in surprise, or perhaps in pain, drawing back just enough that Zhenya could shove him violently away. Zhenya scrambled off the bed and onto the floor, crouching down on the other side.
Crosby, sprawled out awkwardly across the bed, lifted his head, and Zhenya’s heart seized in his chest. There was no mistaking him for human now. His eyes were a strange, shimmering gold, the pupils shrunk to tiny pinpricks. His red mouth was stretched wide, lips drawn back to reveal two cruelly sharp white fangs.
“Evgeni,” he said, a slight hiss in his voice.
Zhenya made an embarrassing noise, a whimper of pure terror. He closed his eyes and clutched his saint’s medallion in his fist, but every prayer he’d ever known had vanished from his head. God had forsaken him here. There was nowhere he could run, nowhere to hide. They were alone here, in this horrible house, and even if he could escape this room Crosby knew this place, this city. He could track him easily, hunting him down in the night. They could see in the dark, could smell their prey’s blood three kilometers away—
“Evgeni,” Crosby said. “Look at me. Look at me.”
Crosby had slid off the other side of the bed, keeping the full width of it between them. He looked human again. His skin was too pale still, but the gleaming fangs were gone, and his eyes were wide and dark, no longer shimmering with that strange golden light.
They stared at each other.
“I won’t touch you.” Crosby looked shaken, but he spoke slowly and clearly, his gaze fixed on Zhenya. “I’ll leave. Call Sarge—Sergei, okay? He’ll come get you. I’ll have someone bring your things tomorrow.”
It took Zhenya a moment to translate the words.
“Bond,” he said hoarsely. Crosby grimaced.
“I can’t,” he said, and then, a note of despair creeping into his voice, “How can I—I can’t.”
“Please,” Zhenya said, his panic rising. “Please, need stay—”
But Crosby was shaking his head.
“You need,” Zhenya said, desperately, because it was clear that his plight didn’t move Crosby. But Crosby needed this too, maybe even more. “Need play. Bond, for play hockey.”
“I can’t,” Crosby said again, and sat down on the edge of the bed, his back to Zhenya. He covered his face with his hands and made a low, wordless sound.
Zhenya forced himself to move, though his legs still felt like jelly. He circled the bed, coming to stand before Crosby.
“Please don’t ask me to do this,” Crosby said, his face barely more than a whisper. “Please—I can’t. It’s horrible.” Like this, he looked smaller: his shoulders hunched, his face hidden in his hands.
It was an act, Zhenya thought, but a convincing one. Perhaps this was a different kind of game. He had assumed Crosby relished his fear, but maybe there was something he craved more than that. Maybe it was his submission Crosby wanted: Zhenya docile and willing.
In movies there was always a swooning blonde who threw herself at the creature’s feet, practically begging to be ravished. Zhenya wasn’t sure he could sell that kind of performance. But he could be—inviting, maybe. He could try.
He sat down on the bed. Crosby stiffened.
“Do again,” Zhenya said. He hesitated a moment, and then reached out, fingers encircling Crosby’s wrist. Crosby’s skin was cool to the touch, but not as cold or as obviously lifeless as he had feared. Gently, he drew Crosby’s hand away from his face and brought it to his own throat, pressing Crosby’s limp fingers against his pulse.
Crosby stared at him. Up close Zhenya could see Crosby’s eyes weren’t black, like he had thought, or the shining gold of a few minutes ago, but a light hazel, flecked with green. He had dark, thick lashes, long as a girl’s.
“I hurt you,” Crosby said.
“No, not hurt,” Zhenya said. “First time, not—” He had to think about the word. “Prepare. Now, prepare. We do again.”
He was still holding Crosby’s fingers to his throat. Crosby’s gaze flicked down, and back up again.
“Please,” Zhenya said. He shifted on the bed, stretching out again. He tried to look approachable. Edible. “I’m ready.”
Crosby watched him for what felt like a long time, his expression uncertain. Then he drew in a breath.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s—this is where the bite will be, okay?”
His fingertips brushed against Zhenya’s throat. Zhenya caught Crosby’s hand and held it there, looking up at him.
“Yes,” he said. “I want.”
Crosby swallowed. “I’ll try to be careful. Once I, you know—it’s supposed to get easier.”
Zhenya had no idea what that meant, but he wasn’t inclined to ask questions. The longer they dragged this out the more his nerves ramped up again. He nodded.
Crosby hesitated. “You don’t have to look at me. Just close your eyes, okay?”
Zhenya obeyed. He felt Crosby shift onto the bed, stretching out beside him.
“Okay,” Crosby murmured, his mouth brushing against Zhenya’s throat. Zhenya held himself rigidly still. He could feel the warmth of Crosby’s breath against his skin. The revelation that Crosby breathed—like a human, like something still living—was profoundly disturbing.
The bite hurt.
Crosby’s fangs were razor-sharp, piercing the skin with an almost surgical precision. Zhenya’s eyes flew open. He felt a flare of panic—a frantic, animal fear—but Crosby slid a hand down Zhenya’s shoulder: soothing him, or holding him still.
And then Zhenya felt it: the rush of what must have been Crosby’s venom, heady as a powerful drug. A sudden warmth spread through his body, the pain of the bite melting away. He began to feel as if he were drifting, suspended in the hazy limbo between dreaming and waking. He was distantly aware of the physical sensations of Crosby feeding—the softness of his mouth, the gentle pulling sensation at Zhenya’s throat—but they seemed less disturbing, somehow, almost peaceful, no longer a painful violation.
His eyes had slipped shut again. Zhenya was conscious of his surroundings, still, and yet he seemed almost to be dreaming, strange images swimming before his eyes. He was in the midst of a dark forest, surrounded on all sides by ancient, close-growing trees. He seemed to be moving deeper into the woods, drifting slowly through the murk.
There was a curious ringing in his ears, and as Zhenya drifted onwards the sound grew—not louder, exactly, but more distinct: a high, eerie singing. It seemed to emanate from everywhere and nowhere at once, from the woods itself. He understood, without knowing how, that the singing was why he was here, why he had come. He was searching for the source—for something, or someone, waiting in the dark heart of the woods.
Zhenya was no longer conscious of his body: the stiff muscles, the slight ache in his throat. Untethered, he drifted, drawn onwards by the woods’ lovely, eerie song.
Something soft brushed against his cheek: a silvery tendril of—something, something bright and shining, so indescribably beautiful it brought tears to his eyes. Another tendril touched his chest, just over his heart, and as Zhenya watched the seemed to pass right through him, weaving itself through and around his ribs. He felt a slight tugging behind his breastbone, and his heart leapt in his chest, not with fear but with a sudden, exultant joy. How grateful he was, to be touched by something so wondrous, to take it into himself. It was Zhenya’s now, this beautiful and shining thing. It was part of him, woven into the very fabric of his being.
Evgeni, a voice whispered from somewhere far away. Evgeni, come back.
He felt a hand gently cup his face, a thumb stroking over his cheekbone. His face was wet with tears.
“Evgeni,” the voice murmured again. “Can you hear me?”
Slowly, slowly, he opened his eyes.
Crosby was gazing down at him, his expression soft and open. Zhenya blinked up at him.
“Evgeni,” Crosby said again. “Are you okay?”
For a moment Zhenya couldn’t speak. His head felt too full, and oddly fragile, as if sudden movement might shatter something delicate inside him. The sound of that high, inhuman singing was still ringing in his ears, and as he gazed up at Crosby’s worried face he felt an echo of that strange leaping joy, that quiet awe.
“What happen,” he said hoarsely. “Hear—song.”
“You heard it too?” Crosby was gazing down at him in something like wonder. “I thought I was imagining it. It must have been the bond.”
It seemed impossible that Crosby could have heard the song, or beheld the same beautiful, shining thing. Zhenya grasped for the memory, but the harder he tried to recall it the quicker it seemed to dissolve, flowing through his fingers like water.
“It’s work? Bond work?”
“Yes,” Crosby said, and then hesitated. “Can’t you feel it?”
Zhenya closed his eyes. What was he supposed to feel? The bright, effervescent joy he had felt only a few moments ago seemed very distant now, and the warmth of the venom had long since faded. The bedroom was freezing cold, and Zhenya would have to sleep here, tonight and every night after, in the bed where Crosby had made him beg to be touched, and bound, and fed from. Zhenya felt nauseated, and wished with all his heart that Crosby would leave him. It was over now. He had given Crosby what he wanted.
A strange sensation rippled across the surface of his mind—a flinch, almost: there and gone again.
Crosby drew back. Zhenya opened his eyes, but Crosby had turned his face away.
“It's over now,” Crosby said. “I’ll tell Mario it’s done.”
They met the bond specialist two days later, in Mario’s office. She was a small woman with delicate features and large, owl-like glasses. She shook Crosby’s hand first, then Zhenya’s, her grip surprisingly firm.
“I’m Dr. Hsu,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both. Please, have a seat.”
Seryozha was picking Natasha up from school, so the team had provided a middle-aged Russian woman called Yulia to translate for Zhenya as needed. She sat in a chair to Zhenya’s right, stern and unsmiling.
He had to hold Crosby’s hand. The bond specialist sat in front of them for a long time, her eyes closed. Crosby’s hand was cool in his, and Zhenya stared at the weave of the rug beneath his feet until his vision began to blur at the edges.
At last she opened her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “There is a bond.”
Crosby breathed out, a rush of air. Even Zhenya felt something loosen in his chest. It had worked. He could play now; they couldn’t send him back.
But Dr. Hsu was frowning slightly. She turned her owlish gaze on Zhenya and looked at him for a long moment, her gaze searching.
“Evgeni,” she said. “Do you understand how the bond works?”
Zhenya stiffened slightly. He could feel Yulia watching him, her eyes hard.
“He not drink anybody,” he said. “Only me.”
The doctor nodded. “Yes, that’s right. The bond binds Sidney to you, and only to you. He will be totally dependent on you to stay healthy and strong.”
Zhenya tried not to scowl at that. Dependent: as if Sidney were the powerless one here.
“You will experience benefits, too,” she said. “A vampire’s venom has a fortifying effect on any human source, but between bondmates the effects are considerably amplified. You will become physically stronger. Your reflexes will be quicker, your senses sharper. And the more frequently Sidney drinks from you, the more quickly you will recover—from feedings, but also from injuries and fatigue. In longtime bonded pairs, the human partner’s rate of aging seems to slow. We don’t know exactly why this happens. These bonds are very old magic, but they are still poorly understood.”
She spoke clearly and slowly, but some of the words were unfamiliar. Zhenya glanced at Yulia, unsure.
“She says you’ll get something out of it, too,” Yulia said. “They don’t know why, but you’ll feel stronger and heal faster. I assume that’s why you’ve done it, unless of course you enjoy it. I’ve heard some do.”
Her tone was as searing as a slap. Zhenya dropped Sidney’s hand as if it had burned him. He stared down at the ground and said nothing.
Dr. Hsu glanced at Yulia, her expression troubled.
“Evgeni, do you know anyone else who has bonded like this? Like you and Sidney are, now?”
“She wants to know if you’ve met anyone else foolish enough to bind themselves to a leech.”
Zhenya’s face was hot. Crosby shifted in the chair next to him. He seemed to be trying to catch Zhenya’s eye.
“Evgeni?” Dr. Hsu said gently, and Zhenya shook his head.
“No,” he said, with some difficulty. “No vampire, Russia.”
“And even if there were, such a thing would be illegal,” Yulia told the doctor, her voice freezing. “Are we finished here? I have another engagement.”
Dr. Hsu seemed taken aback, but she glanced at Zhenya again and nodded.
“I’ll file my report with the league,” she said. “I’ve left some pamphlets for you, and my card, of course. Sidney, Evgeni—a new bond is a fragile thing. You’ll want to take special care with it until things stabilize. I’d recommend brief nightly feedings for at least a week, and then you can step down the frequency as needed. Physical touch will help, too, and of course proximity.”
She went on for a while longer, but Zhenya was no longer listening. His cheeks were still flushed, but the rest of his body felt cold and strangely numb, as if someone had plunged him into an ice bath.
When it was over Yulia gathered her things and left without a word. Zhenya stood, too, though his legs felt like jelly.
“Evgeni,” Dr. Hsu said, looking at him with concern. “Perhaps you’d like to—”
But he owed her nothing. He had done what he had promised, and now he could go. He was no one’s prisoner.
He took the back stairs down to the parking garage, holding onto the railing. The first level was nearly empty. He began to walk without any sense of where he was going. He wanted fresh air and open sky, an endless expanse of blue. He wanted to crawl into the earth, to burrow deeper and deeper into darkness, crushed beneath its weight.
He heard footsteps behind him, echoing in the empty structure.
“Evgeni,” Crosby called, and Zhenya began to walk faster. “Evgeni, wait.”
But Crosby caught up to him. He planted himself bodily in front of Zhenya, barring his way.
“What did she say to you,” he said. “That woman—what did she say?”
“Nothing,” Zhenya said. “Is nothing.”
“I’ll tell the front office,” Crosby said. “We won’t hire her again. Gonch can translate. You like him, don’t you? He’s your friend.”
His friend. Why—because they spoke the same language, ate the same foods, called the same land home? Sergei barely knew him. A season together; a tournament here and there. Who knew what the man really thought of him. When the news broke back home, things would change between them; how could they not? Maybe it was better to keep his distance. He could only rely on himself.
His hands were shaking. He was breathing too quickly. Crosby’s white face blurred before him.
He turned away, but Crosby moved towards him, his fingers wrapping around the bare skin of Zhenya’s wrist.
Calm washed over him, sudden as a wave breaking over his head. It flooded his body, overwhelming his panic, drowning out the roaring in his ears. Suddenly Zhenya was aware of his body again: his frozen limbs, his face, began to thaw, feeling rushing back into them.
He stared at Crosby.
“What did you do?” he said in Russian, and though Crosby couldn’t possibly have understood him, he looked earnestly at Zhenya and said, “Did it help? I thought—”
Zhenya tore his hand free of Crosby’s grasp.
“Get out,” he hissed. “Get out of my head. You’re not welcome, do you understand? I’m not your puppet. You don’t control me.”
Crosby took a step back, his eyes wide.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t—I can’t understand you, but I’m sorry. I thought it would help. I won’t do it again. I swear.”
News of the bond broke during the second week of camp. There was a voicemail from Genya waiting for Zhenya when he left practice.
“Don’t read anything,” Genya said. “Don’t think about it. Focus on your hockey, and I’ll take care of the rest. We’ve put out a statement already.”
The statement was what they had agreed upon: Magnitka had pressured him, threatened him, exploited his love of his city and his country to coerce him into signing. Pittsburgh had approached them with an offer, and Zhenya had been in no position to refuse. It was a business arrangement, unfortunate but necessary, and Zhenya looked forward to finishing his rookie season and leaving all of this behind him.
He skimmed a few of the articles, against Genya’s advice. A handful of columnists seemed to feel sorry for him—forced into an unholy union by Magnitka’s machinations—and Zhenya half wondered if Genya had paid them to write those things. Mostly, though, the reaction ranged from disgusted to gloating. None of his Metallurg teammates had consented to be interviewed, but Velichkin had given the national press a long, vitriolic quote, saying that news of the bond disgusted him but came as little surprise. A man spineless enough to betray his team, his country—of course such a man would debase himself like this, selling his dignity, his pride, so cheaply.
Zhenya stopped reading. What good would it do? He put his feelings about it in a box and locked it all away, and tried to do what Genya had told him: focus on his hockey. He had to make this work—had to make it worth it, had to prove himself—because he had done the irrevocable. Every door was closed, every bridge burned behind him.
He played hard all day, working himself to the point of exhaustion. It made it easier, when Crosby came to him at night, to let himself drift, the venom carrying him away from himself—away from his worries, and the mess he’d made of his life; away from his prone body on the bed, and Crosby leaning over him, close as a lover, drinking his fill.
Ryan was kind of an asshole. But Zhenya was a hockey player—he’d played alongside plenty of jerks, and hanging out with Ryan and his friends had the added benefit of Crosby giving him a wide berth in the locker room.
“You play video games?” Ryan asked, a few days into camp. When Zhenya nodded, he said, “Cool. Some of the guys are hanging out at my place tonight. I’ll text you the address.”
He took a cab over. Seryozha had helped him buy a car, but Zhenya still got nervous driving in the dark, even with the fancy GPS system. It felt weird to show up empty handed, but he couldn’t buy beer here, and he didn’t know what else to bring.
He rang the buzzer at half past. There were lights on inside, but nobody came to the door for a long time, long enough that Zhenya started to worry that he’d gotten the wrong house. It was getting kind of late, and he felt stupid calling. If Ryan asked at practice, Zhenya could just pretend he’d gotten confused about the day.
He went down the steps, and heard the front door open behind him.
“You running away, man?” Ryan said, amused. “Come on in.”
He led him through the kitchen. A skinny blonde woman in neon spandex workout gear was sitting at the table reading a magazine.
“G, this is my girl, Amanda,” Ryan said, tugging at her ponytail. “You want a beer?”
“Okay,” Zhenya said. The blonde looked up, making a face like she’d smelled something bad. He couldn’t tell if it was a reaction to him or to Ryan.
“You’re Geno?” she said.
Someone in the front office had come up with the nickname—a marketing strategy, Seryozha had told him, though he’d been at a loss to explain what the nonsense word Geno had to do with Zhenya’s actual name. Much to Zhenya’s chagrin, it seemed to have stuck.
“Yes,” Zhenya said. “Nice to meet.”
The guys were in the den, most of them sprawled out on the giant sectional couch or on the floor, in front of a huge flatscreen TV that took up most of the far wall. Zhenya wasn’t great with names, and it was even more confusing in the locker room, where everyone seemed to answer to at least three or four stupid nicknames. Still, he recognized Max, who they also called Talbo, and Jordan, and Colby, who sometimes played on Crosby’s wing. There was a general mumbling of hellos, though everyone seemed pretty absorbed in the game.
Ryan tossed him a controller. “You any good?”
“Kick your ass,” Zhenya said, with more confidence than he felt, which earned him a snort from Max.
He was glad to have something to do with his hands. Nobody seemed to expect him to contribute to the conversation, so he could focus on listening. Mostly they seemed to be bitching about Therrien, who Zhenya was learning was considered a hardass, and discussing their fantasy football league.
He was kind of zoning out when he realized someone was saying that stupid nickname.
“What?” he said, looking over.
“Dude,” Ryan said, laughing. “You wasted already? I said your name like five times.”
Back home, Zhenya would’ve rolled his eyes and pointed out how idiotic it was to expect someone to respond to a series of nonsense syllables that sounded nothing like their actual name. But here he was Geno: good-natured and easygoing, one of the guys.
“Sorry, what you say?”
“I asked how it was shacking up with Crosby.”
He must’ve looked nonplussed, because Ryan sighed and clarified: “Living with him. What’s it like?”
Zhenya shrugged. What was there to say? He’d mostly gotten used to the house. He didn’t find it creepy anymore, just depressing. Sidney was barely around.
“I can’t believe you have to live with him,” Max said. “Like, it’s one thing to play with him, you know? But it’d freak me out, like, knowing he was just hanging around all the time.”
“Yeah, well, we all know you’re a pussy,” Ryan said. “Geno’s a tough guy, yeah?” He was sprawled out on one of the sofas, his big socked feet dangling over the armrest, watching Zhenya with a grin on his face. “They asked pretty much every guy on the team, you know. Practically begged us. Offered big bonuses and everything, but nobody bit. Lucky they found you.”
Zhenya looked away. “Yes,” he said, staring at the screen.
“So c’mon, tell us. How does it work? Does he just, like, latch on whenever he wants it?”
Zhenya’s face felt hot. He had the distinct sense that Ryan was making fun of him, but nobody else was really reacting. Jordan seemed to be totally absorbed in his phone. Colby was smiling kind of blankly at the screen, like he was listening politely to someone repeating a joke he’d heard before.
“No,” Zhenya said. “He come, like, night, sometime. Is fast. Just, like, sit on bed—”
“You do it in a bed?” Ryan said, sounding almost gleeful. “He ever ask for a little extra?”
Jordan looked up finally. “Dude, come on. He doesn’t understand you.”
“What? I’m just curious. You know Crosby’s not getting it anywhere else.”
Ryan talked pretty fast, and used a lot of idioms he didn’t understand, but he had an expressive face and an extensive repertoire of rude hand gestures, one of which he was using now. Instead of answering, Zhenya maneuvered his avatar into position and shot Ryan’s soldier four times in the back of the head.
Max whooped. “Attaboy, G!”
“Oh, fuck off,” Ryan said, annoyed. “Sensitive much?”
“Need beer,” Zhenya mumbled, and got up. He could feel Jordan’s gaze on him as he made his way to the kitchen, though he made no move to follow.
Amanda’s magazine was still open on the kitchen table, but thankfully she seemed to have vanished somewhere upstairs. Zhenya found a glass in the cupboard and filled it at the tap, forcing himself to drink the whole thing down. He felt flushed all over, his skin prickling with humiliation. Did the rest of the team think that, too? That he and Sidney were—that Sidney expected that of him?
There were words for people who liked that sort of thing: Zhenya had read plenty of them in the past week, in the stories they were printing about him back home. But he’d somehow managed to convince himself that on the team, at least, everyone understood what the bond was: a business arrangement, nothing more. A means to the end of playing professional hockey.
He heard a noise behind him, and almost jumped out of his skin.
Colby gave him a bashful smile.
“Hey, man,” he said. “Sorry about Whitney. He’s just messing with you.”
“Whatever,” Zhenya mumbled. He turned back to the sink and filled his glass again, afraid that his face might give too much away.
“Nobody thinks any less of you, you know? We all heard what happened with your team back home. It was a shitty situation.” Colby opened the fridge and rummaged around for a minute. “You want one of these?”
Zhenya took the offered beer.
“And hey,” Colby said, his expression earnest. “Sid’s my friend, you know? Runs his mouth too much, but he means well. Kid takes a lot of shit for the whole vamp thing. I think it’s great you’re helping him out.”
Zhenya pressed his thumbnail against the side of his beer, digging into the damp label.
“Why you not do,” he said.
Zhenya nodded towards the den. “He say, team ask. You Sid friend. Why you not do?”
Colby laughed awkwardly. “Aw, man,” he said. “Sid’s a good kid. But I’m not, uh, you know. That’s a different kind of thing.”
Their first game was across the state, in Philadelphia. Zhenya spent most of the flight staring out the window, watching wisps of white clouds drift lazily across a brilliantly blue sky. He was sweating in his suit, even in the air-conditioned cabin of the team’s charter plane. He had barely slept the night before, tossing and turning in his too-big bed.
His parents had called to wish him luck, and for the first time since his arrival in America, everyone had carefully sidestepped the subject of the bond. There had been no tears from his mother, no stony silences from his father. It had felt normal, like he had traveled back into the past, or been granted a glimpse of his future free of the bond: his parents who loved him, who were proud of him, wishing him luck.
His first game in America, in the NHL. It wasn’t a real game, he knew, just an exhibition, but even so he was almost trembling with the shaky excitement he felt at the start of each new season: nerves and anticipation and that hungry yearning, almost a desperation, to prove himself again. That desperation was stronger than ever now. It would be a long, hard-fought effort to prove to the world he was something more than a leech’s thrall.
At the arena he went through his usual routines, which steadied and grounded him. He was far from home, but nothing was so different, really. He had been a hockey player in Russia, and he was a hockey player here: that was what defined him. The rest was only noise. He taped his sticks, and retaped them, and watched the other guys go through their own routines, keeping quiet and watchful.
At last it was time. Zhenya shifted restlessly back and forth on his skates, waiting for the rest of the team to file out the door. Finally there was only Crosby left, sitting in his stall fussing with his stick, checking the tape for what must’ve been the hundredth time.
“Oh, you don’t have to wait for me,” he said to Zhenya, who almost snorted. Did Crosby really think he craved his company that much?
“You go,” he said, jerking his head towards the door. “Okay?”
Sidney looked at him, his face blank. “Oh,” he said. “No, sorry, I go out last.”
Zhenya shook his head, pointing at his chest. “Last.”
“Sorry,” Crosby said again. “But I have to. I’ve always gone last, ever since I was a kid.” He hesitated, and then added stubbornly, “Anyway, I’ve played longer than you. Professionally, I mean.”
Zhenya felt a hot spike of irritation. Why should he have to change his routines? Crosby owed him. Zhenya was the only reason he was even allowed on the ice.
He squared his shoulders. “Me three years Superleague.”
There was a muffled snort from somewhere behind him. The noise in the hall outside had died down a bit, and Zhenya could tell at least some of the guys were watching now, listening in.
Crosby seemed to realize it too. His face was as pale as ever, but Zhenya could read his expression loud and clear. If Crosby had been human, his cheeks would’ve been flushed with anger.
“You—” he said, and then broke off. Zhenya lifted his chin, defiant, every muscle in his body tensed. Even from here he could hear the muffled roaring of the fans, the distant bass of the arena music thudding against his ribs. It sparked something in him, lit him up inside. He realized suddenly that he wanted Crosby to fight him—to snarl, and push back, to give him some reason to snap.
“Let’s go, boys,” somebody called, and Crosby’s gaze flitted over Zhenya’s face and away, resting for a moment on some point over his left shoulder. He chewed on his lip, visibly wrestling with his response. Finally he nodded, the gesture jerky, abrupt.
“Fine,” he said. “You go last.”
Zhenya felt a hot surge of triumph—electrifying as a sharp-angle goal banked in off the post, the horn blaring in the last seconds of regulation time. He bared his teeth in a grin, and stepped aside to let Crosby pass.
They lined up in the tunnel, waiting for their signal. Zhenya rocked back and forth on his skates, shaking himself loose. Ryan, a little further up, caught his eye and smirked.
Crosby stood in front of him, his broad back to Zhenya, his shoulders a rigid line under his pads. The tunnel was crowded and noisy, the roar of the crowd filtering in from up ahead. All up and down the line guys were joking around, elbowing each other, laughing. No one looked at Crosby, or spoke to him. It was as if he was an island, the current of noise and conversation flowing and eddying around him.
“Two minutes,” somebody yelled down the tunnel, and something clenched low in Zhenya’s gut.
He was still flying high on the adrenaline of his victory, but something else was starting to seep in, too: a dark, oozing misery that seemed to well up from somewhere deep inside of him. It felt nothing like his usual pregame jitters, and the more he tried to tamp it down the more it seemed to leak into everything, bleeding through everything it touched. More keenly than ever before he felt how alone he was, here in a strange land, cut off from everyone who loved him. A yawning chasm opened in the center of his chest, and Zhenya felt, for a brief moment, a sense of utter desolation.
I’m not alone, he told himself. I have my team. I’m here, in America, playing hockey.
The horn blared. The line ahead was moving now. He was moving, too, racing after them, following Crosby out into the light.
I’m not alone, he thought fiercely, and as his skates hit the ice the chasm inside him began to fold in on itself, growing smaller and smaller, until all that was left was the cold bite of the air and the roaring of the crowd and the fast, triumphant pounding of his own heart.
He never saw it coming. A minute gone in the second period, LeClair went down hard behind the net, skates tangling with Zhenya’s, pitching him violently into the boards.
Pain exploded through his shoulder. He lay facedown on the ice, too terrified to move, or even to breathe.
One of the trainers knelt down beside him, asking him questions, but the pain and his growing distress made everything sound jumbled. He couldn’t listen, couldn’t concentrate as hard as he needed to to make sense of the noise.
They helped him off the ice and back to one of the trainers’ rooms, and then there was a flurry of activity, people talking to him, or at him, as they tried to help him take off his sweat-drenched gear. His right arm hung uselessly at his side. Every movement was agony, and in the end they had to cut the sweater off him to get at the pads.
By the time Seryozha appeared, they had given him a shot for the pain. Seryozha spoke to one of the trainers in English, too quickly for Zhenya’s sluggish brain to follow.
“Zhenya,” Seryozha said, turning to him. “They’re going to take you to the hospital to do some scans on your shoulder. They don’t have the equipment they need here.”
Panic clawed at his throat at the thought of braving the hospital alone, unable to communicate, but he couldn’t voice it. He wasn’t a child; he was twenty years old, a professional hockey player—
If he was even that. Surgery would sideline him for months, maybe even the rest of the season. Would they even keep him here? Would he be worth the trouble? If they did, it would only be for Crosby’s sake—and what would he be then but a blood bag, a thrall, good for only one thing?
His courage broke.
“Please,” he said to Seryozha. “I don’t want to go—can’t you come with me?”
He was ashamed of himself, and covered his face with his hand. He didn’t want to cry, not here, with the trainers gathered round watching.
Seryozha put a gentle hand on his good shoulder.
“It will be quick,” he said. “Someone from the team will be with you the whole time. You’ll come home with us tonight, Zhenya, I promise. I won’t let them leave without you.”
It wasn’t surgery, thank god: only rest and physical therapy. Zhenya sulked a bit, and then gave himself over to the familiar monotony of PT.
Crosby spent the first week hovering, his expression pinched with worry, as if he thought a shoulder injury might impair Zhenya’s ability to fulfill his obligations. But it was easy enough to avoid him. Zhenya spent his days at the rink, working with the trainers and watching practice, and his evenings at the Gonchars. He tried to be helpful there: helping Ksenia make dinner, and looking after Natasha when her parents went out in the evenings. Sometimes Zhenya let himself imagine what it would be like if he’d come to America and lived with the Gonchars instead, surrounded by the comforting sounds of his own language and the warmth of a lived-in home.
“Maybe I could just stay here,” Zhenya said to Seryozha one night, as they cleared up after dinner. “If the bond’s settled, I don’t see why I have to live in Crosby’s house.”
“I think Sidney would prefer if you called him by his first name,” Seryozha said mildly, loading the dishwasher.
“Fine,” Zhenya said, because he was making a concerted effort to show how agreeable he could be: a consummate long-term houseguest. “I don’t see why I have to live in Sidney’s house.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s so dark,” Zhenya said, shuddering. “And cold. It’s like a crypt.”
Seryozha made a hmm sound under his breath.
“And the furniture’s weird,” Zhenya added. “It looks like it might come alive in the night.”
“He hasn’t lived there long, you know,” Seryzoha said. “He used to live with the Lemieuxs.”
“I wish he still did,” Zhenya said darkly. He leaned against the counter. “Well?”
“Ksenia and I will have to think about it,” Seryozha said, which sounded an awful lot like no.
Injury meant sitting in the owner’s box in his gameday suit, watching the team play. It was excruciating to be out, but it was different, watching the team from this angle. They weren’t good exactly—that was why they’d drafted so high, two years running—but there was potential there.
And there was Sidney.
The tape Zhenya had seen years ago hadn’t done him justice. He was as good as they said—better, Zhenya thought: all that raw talent, and the brains to use it, too. He was a smart playmaker, and so quick on his skates it made Zhenya’s heart beat faster, watching Sidney tear up the ice on a breakaway.
He couldn’t help thinking, sometimes, about what might have been—if Crosby hadn’t been turned. If Zhenya hadn’t signed with Magnitka. If they had been drafted here together and played as peers, as equals. But that was impossible now—and besides, that life bore little resemblance to the one Zhenya had imagined for himself, through all those long years spent planning and dreaming with Genya. Zhenya was confident in his own worth, and knew he would only get better. But Seryozha was right: it was obvious that Sidney was heir apparent here, Mario’s chosen successor. And Zhenya hadn’t come this far, hadn’t risked this much, to play in another man’s shadow.
In the end he only missed four regular season games. The medical staff cleared him on a Tuesday morning, and he was back in the lineup Wednesday night, a home game against the Devils. They lost in regulation, but Zhenya scored the team’s only goal off Ryan’s assist. In the locker room afterwards everyone came up to congratulate him, and he ducked his head and tried to hide how pleased he was.
Sidney came up last, when most of the guys had already filtered out of the room.
“That was great,” he said, his eyes wide and bright. “D’you want—we should celebrate. There’s a couple good bars around here.”
He was saved from having to reply when Ryan came up behind him, slinging a friendly arm around Zhenya’s shoulder. “Oi, Creature, save some for the rest of us,” he said. “You ready, G?”
“Oh,” Sidney said, glancing uncertainly between them. “Are you guys going out?”
“Yeah, man,” Ryan said. “Gotta celebrate his first goal, right?” He paused for a moment. “You coming with?
No, Zhenya thought, with a fierceness that startled him. He was still riding the buzz of his first real game, his first goal, and he wanted to savor it, to get recklessly and ecstatically wasted with the guys. He didn’t want to spend the night looking across the table at Sidney, an ever-present reminder of the price he’d paid to get here.
Sidney’s smile slipped a little.
“Uh, not tonight,” he said. “Kinda tired.”
Fall came to Pittsburgh. The air turned crisp, and then, almost overnight, bitterly cold. Zhenya bought the puffiest coat he could find, at great expense—financially, and in the sheer volume of chirping he received from the other guys, most of whom seemed to equate Russianness with a native passion for below-freezing temperatures.
He was starting to—not fit in, exactly, but in the locker room he could fade into the background a bit more, as the novelty of staring openly at Sidney Crosby’s imported meal service apparently wore off. His English lessons sucked, but they kept him out of the house for a couple hours each week, and he could grudgingly admit that Genya had been right: they were helping, even if the only people he really spoke to in English at any length were Seryozha’s five-year-old daughter and Jen from PR.
And there was hockey.
Whatever they were saying about him in the media, the crowd in the arena loved him—and he drank it in, the roar of their enthusiasm and approval—as they chanted that stupid nickname: Geno, Geno. It lit him up, every night. It made everything worth it: Sidney’s weekly visits, the strained phone calls home, even the tense interviews with the Russian press, where Zhenya stared down at his hands and repeated the bland nonanswers he and Genya had practiced ad nauseum.
He could do this. September had already slipped past, and most of October, too, and then it was only November, December, January—
What was a season? A small price to pay. And then Zhenya’s life, his real life, would begin—a life that would carry him so far from this place that Pittsburgh would someday be nothing more than an obscure footnote in the dazzling biography of Evgeni Malkin’s career.
“It’s party?” Zhenya said dubiously.
It was their first overnight of the season, a quick there-and-back jaunt to Carolina. Some of the younger guys had camped out in Ryan’s hotel room after team dinner, to watch an action movie Zhenya was only half-following.
“Yeah, you dress up,” Ryan said. “What, you guys don’t do Halloween?”
“It’s a big deal here,” Max said, from where he was sprawled out on the other bed. “Mario rents out a place downtown and everybody dresses up. Some of the guys go all out.”
Zhenya must have looked apprehensive, because Ryan nudged him with his socked foot.
“Hey, man, I got you,” he said. “Come over to our place before the party, yeah? We’ll hook you up with a costume.”
Zhenya’s phone buzzed on the bed.
Hey just wondering if you were coming by?
Sidney had caught him in the hotel lobby after dinner to hand over his spare keycard. Zhenya had snatched it out of his hand, though not before he’d seen some of the guys exchanging looks behind Sidney’s back.
He glanced at the clock on the nightstand—almost ten. He couldn’t put it off much longer.
“I go,” he said reluctantly. Ryan glanced over at him.
“Creature calls?” he said, and Zhenya made a face.
“Dude, that sucks,” Ryan said, a rare moment of sympathy, and then ruined it by snorting. “Get it? Sucks?”
Zhenya had heard enough of the Crosby sucks chants to pick up on the innuendo. He flipped Ryan off and rolled off the bed, looking for his shoes.
Sidney’s room was at the end of the corridor. Zhenya slid the keycard in and pushed the door open without knocking.
Sidney was sprawled out on the bed nearest the door, watching TV. The other bed was neatly made: he didn’t room with anyone on the road.
“Hey,” Sidney said. “Sorry, I hope I didn’t interrupt anything.”
Zhenya made a noncommittal noise, and said: “We do?”
“Oh, sure. Here’s good.” Sidney sat up, making room for him on the bed.
Something in Zhenya recoiled. It was bad enough, lying awake in his own bed, waiting for Sidney to settle onto the mattress beside him. The thought of crawling into bed with Sidney of his own volition, making himself comfortable on the rumpled sheets where Sidney had been lying, was almost intolerable.
He crossed over to the other bed and lay down without a word. Let Sidney think Zhenya had misunderstood, if he wanted. Let Sidney challenge him, even: Zhenya might even welcome it.
But Sidney didn’t comment. He got up and came to Zhenya, stretching out on the bed beside him. Zhenya was used to the position now—Sidney came twice a week, always at night, and lay down next to him like this—but it still took a concerted effort to hold himself still, so as not to flinch away from Sidney’s proximity. Tonight, for whatever reason, Zhenya felt even more uncomfortable than usual. At home Sidney usually wore sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt, but tonight he was in gym shorts and a ratty old t-shirt, far more of his skin exposed than Zhenya was used to.
He felt Sidney’s fingertips at his throat, and couldn’t suppress a shudder.
“Sorry,” Sidney said, stilling. “Your shoulder. Am I hurting you?”
“No,” Zhenya said shortly, and Sidney lowered his head again.
Zhenya stared up at the ceiling, his skin prickling. He felt hyper-aware of Sidney’s body beside him—Sidney shifting on the bed; breathing against Zhenya’s skin. Sidney didn’t seem—interested, but Zhenya had no idea, really: maybe it turned him on, preying on Zhenya like this, feeding from him.
He waited for the bite, but it didn't come. Instead Sidney drew back, and said: “Is, uh. If tonight’s not a good time—”
“No, we do,” Zhenya said impatiently. It drove him crazy, how hesitant Sidney was, how apologetic. He hadn’t made Zhenya beg for it again, not after that first night, but Sidney was always asking, always fussing. It was somehow far worse than if Sidney just took. It was as if Sidney enjoyed making Zhenya complicit in his own debasement. Was that comfortable? Did that feel good? Did he want it this way, or that way—now, or later?
“Okay,” Sidney said, though he still sounded uncertain. “I’ll just—I’ll be quick.”
The sting of the bite was familiar, now, as was the heady rush of the venom that inevitably followed. Sometimes Zhenya let himself drift, but tonight he felt agitated, instinctively fighting the venom’s effects. Back in Ryan’s room they were probably talking about him, the movie forgotten—speculating, maybe, about what Sidney was doing to him, about what Zhenya was letting Sidney do.
What had Ryan said? A little extra. What would that even mean? What might Sidney demand from him? Images from his nightmares swam before Zhenya’s eyes, and he squeezed them shut, trying to block them out. But he couldn’t forget the dream sensations—that awful feeling of being naked and vulnerable, while Sidney touched his helpless body with cold, clammy hands.
Zhenya shuddered with revulsion.
That was why he hated it—the fussing, the solicitous questions. It was obvious how much Sidney craved Zhenya’s willingness. It wasn’t enough for Zhenya to simply tolerate it: Sidney wanted him to want it, too. And while Sidney had never again tried to enter his mind like he had in the parking garage, Zhenya was uneasily aware, all the time, that Sidney could. If Sidney wanted to, he could use the bond to infiltrate Zhenya’s mind, influencing what Zhenya thought and felt. What if he grew tired, eventually, of coaxing Zhenya into submission? Could he make Zhenya thrill at his touch, the way thralls did in movies—falling down at their master’s feet, their eyes vacant, as they offered up their life’s blood, their pliant bodies, for the vampire’s enjoyment? With a sick twist of horror and disgust, Zhenya imagined himself yielding—begging for Sidney’s touch, Sidney’s bite, his mind frozen inside a body he no longer controlled.
Sidney drew back, so suddenly that it was clear his fangs hadn’t fully retracted. Zhenya shrank back instinctively on the bed.
Sidney put a hand over his mouth.
“Go,” he said, his voice trembling. “Just—go.”
“You finish?” Zhenya said warily, but Sidney didn’t answer. He slid off the bed and went into the bathroom without looking at Zhenya, closing the door behind him.
Zhenya lay there for a few uneasy minutes, wondering if he’d misunderstood. But Sidney didn’t seem to be coming back out, and finally Zhenya got up and left. He could hear the guys down the hall still, but he went to his own room instead, slipping inside.
The room was too cold. Zhenya cranked up the heat, and then went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. His throat was bleeding, just a little. Sidney closed the puncture wounds after, usually—something in his saliva seemed to accelerate the healing process.
Zhenya stared at himself in the mirror. He touched the wound gingerly with his fingers. Sidney’s reaction had confused him. But what did he know of vampires? If Sidney wasn’t hungry, Zhenya wasn’t complaining.
They stomped the Flyers, 8-2, in a Saturday matinee game the day before Halloween. The whole locker room was abuzz, flush with victory and excited for the party that evening. Someone passed a flask around, and Therrien, in an uncharacteristic show of indulgence, turned a blind eye to it, though he announced that anyone who showed up hungover to afternoon practice was getting bag skated.
Zhenya showed up at Ryan’s just after seven. Max and Ryan were working their way through a six-pack on the couch, watching a horror film.
“Geno, my man,” Ryan said, looking up. “Where’s your costume?”
Zhenya looked at him, suddenly uncertain. Ryan laughed.
“Nah, man, I’m just fucking with you. Bag’s on the kitchen table. C’mon, get changed. Car’s coming soon.”
In the bathroom Zhenya dumped the bag out on the counter. There was a thick bundle of black fabric—a robe, maybe?—and a thin white circlet of some kind, made of a stiff fabric. He picked up the robe and shook it out. Something heavy, wrapped in the folds, fell to the floor.
Zhenya bent to pick it up. It was a crucifix, he saw: large and heavy, about the length of his palm, made of dark wood plated with some kind of metal. It hung from a chain.
Ryan had bought him a slayer’s costume. A priest’s cassock, a crucifix—all that was missing was the stake.
Zhenya stared down at the crucifix. What was he going to do? He had nothing else, just the black shirt and jeans Ryan had told him to wear over.
Max looked over when Zhenya came out of the bathroom, and snorted. “Dude, you’re such a dick.”
Ryan smirked at him. “It’s from that movie,” he said. “Slayers. It’s perfect, yeah? ’Cause the priest’s Russian.”
“I think he’s Romanian, bud,” Max said from the sofa, his attention already back on the movie.
Ryan shrugged. “Same difference. Anyway, you’re welcome, dude. It was fucking expensive, too, so you owe me.”
In the cab Zhenya wound up in the front seat next to the driver, with Ryan, Max, and Amanda crammed in the back bickering about something Zhenya couldn’t follow over the radio. It was way too hot, heat blasting out of the vents, and Zhenya was already sweating profusely under his heavy black robes.
The party was at a bar downtown. Everyone spilled out of the cab as soon as they pulled up, but Zhenya got stuck, the stupid crucifix necklace tangled in his seatbelt.
“You gonna pay, or what?” the driver said, the first words he’d spoken to Zhenya.
The other three had already disappeared inside. Zhenya fumbled for his wallet, straining to see the tiny numbers on the bills in the dark. The streets were packed downtown, cars honking in the street behind them.
“Sorry,” he said, and shoved a handful of bills at the driver, hoping it was enough.
The club was large and dimly lit, already about half full. Someone had decorated the walls and the DJ table with fake cobwebs and crepe streamers in black and orange. Zhenya didn’t recognize anyone—almost everyone seemed to have masks on, or wigs and heavy costume makeup.
He didn’t see Ryan anywhere, and fought down a wave of panic. If Ryan was there, he could explain the costume to whoever they ran into. It was just a joke, a funny prank the guys had pulled on Zhenya, because—because Zhenya was bonded to a vampire, and—well. The joke wore thin pretty fast.
Zhenya skirted the dancefloor and made his way back to the bar. One of the bartenders, a redheaded woman with heavily pierced ears, was ladling out big cups of frothy orange punch into clear plastic glasses. Zhenya snagged two of them, so he could at least pretend he was taking one over to somebody else.
“Geno!” someone called.
Zhenya’s heart sank. He clutched the glasses to his chest, still facing the bar, pretending he hadn’t heard.
“Hey, Geno,” Sidney said behind him, and finally Zhenya turned.
Sidney was dressed as Superman, in bright blue tights and a long red cape, a giant S emblazoned across his chest. He was smiling, flushed and happy, his eyes bright. He’d scored a hat trick against Philly that afternoon, and had been unusually popular in the locker room afterwards, ducking his head and blushing as he accepted the winner’s helmet.
“Thought I saw you come in,” Sidney said. “What’re you supposed to be?”
Zhenya saw the second it registered. Sidney’s expression went completely blank.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s—it’s from those movies, right?”
Zhenya took a long drink from his punch glass. “Ryan give,” he mumbled.
Sidney stared at him a moment longer.
Zhenya gestured vaguely at the costume. “Guy is like—Russian.”
“Romanian, I think.” Sidney’s gaze lingered on the crucifix. “That’s. It’s really—yeah.”
Zhenya’s chest felt tight. He drank more punch. It was just a costume. It was a joke.
“I should,” Sidney said abruptly. “I think—Flower.”
When Sidney had gone, Zhenya finished his first glass of punch, drained the second one, and turned back to the bartender.
“You have vodka?”
Seryozha found him a while later.
“You’re an idiot,” he said, by way of greeting. “I hope you know that.”
“It’s a joke,” Zhenya muttered. He tugged at the scratchy priest’s collar to loosen it.
Seryozha picked up the drinks he’d ordered. “Well, I wouldn’t quit your day job. I’m not sure comedy’s your calling.”
He got pretty drunk. Nobody was asking for ID, and the redheaded bartender kept sliding drinks down to him whenever he looked up. A few guys came by and said hi to him, introducing him to wives or girlfriends, but nobody stuck around for long. Nathalie Lemieux gave him a long look, but picked up her glass of wine and went away without saying anything.
The robes were hot, and the stupid necklace was heavy. Zhenya wanted to take it off, but he was afraid he’d lose it, and Ryan had said it was expensive. Besides, it felt worse somehow to back down. It was just a stupid costume. He didn’t have anything to be ashamed of.
Finally, around ten-thirty, he conceded defeat. He slunk out of the bar without saying goodbye to anyone, and walked six blocks till he could finally hail a cab.
Sidney’s house was dark—it was always so fucking dark, and freezing cold—as Zhenya stumbled up the stairs, stripping off pieces of his stupid costume. He yanked off the crucifix necklace and threw it down on the landing, then tore the cassock off too, dropping it in a heap. Fuck it. He’d pick up after himself in the morning—Sidney barely seemed to live in the house as it was.
Someone was screaming. Someone was in the house, screaming.
The sound wrenched Zhenya out of muddled dreams. He had passed out facedown on the bed. He was drunk still, and profoundly disoriented: his alarm clock said it was only midnight, barely an hour after he’d gotten home.
His first confused thought was that Sidney had brought someone home from the bar, brought them home and—done what? Sidney couldn’t feed from anyone but Zhenya; the worst he could do was scare someone witless, with those glowing eyes and horrifying fangs. The scream Zhenya had heard wasn’t a scream of terror, but of pain. It had sounded like an animal being killed, or caught, maybe: a fox shrieking, its leg caught in a steel trap.
His bedroom door was ajar. Zhenya got up and picked his way cautiously across the dark room, his heart pounding in his chest. He peered out through the gap.
There was a dark, huddled shape on the landing. It was making a low, hurt noise, rocking back and forth, clutching something to its chest.
Zhenya took a step out into the hall, and then another. A slant of moonlight fell across the landing, and as he drew closer, he realized who it was.
“Sidney?” he said.
Sidney’s head snapped up. At the sight of Zhenya, his eyes went wide and fearful.
“Don’t—don’t,” he said, breathless and terrified.
When Zhenya moved towards him, Sidney cringed away from him, moving back until he had the wall at his back. He was breathing strangely, in frantic shallow gasps, as if he couldn’t draw a full breath. He seemed to be cradling his left hand to his chest. His shoulders were hunched, drawn in, his whole body curled in on itself, as if he were shielding some kind of injury.
“Sid, what happen,” Zhenya said, frustrated. “Is hand? Hurt hand? Show.” He was worried, but also a little irritated. What could Sidney possibly have done to it? Cut it on something? And why on earth had he screamed like that, as if someone were torturing him? He caught Sidney by the wrist, ignoring the way Sidney gasped, and dragged him forward a little, so that he could inspect Sidney's hand in the moonlight.
He drew in a startled breath.
Sidney's hand was burned. The wound was hideous, ugly and raw, the skin like half-cooked meat. He only caught a glimpse of it before Sidney jerked his hand back, clutching it to his chest. He was staring at Zhenya, his dark eyes huge in his white face.
“You didn't—you didn’t have to do that,” Sidney choked out. “You didn’t—” He broke off and squeezed his eyes shut, shuddering through a fresh wave of pain.
Zhenya was beginning to feel frightened. “What happen?” he said sharply, seizing Sid by the shoulder. “Sid, what happen?”
"You," Sidney said, "you," and then the words seemed to die in his mouth. He was trembling now, shaking like a leaf, his eyes still closed. Zhenya stepped back from him, frightened. He didn't understand what was happening.
His gaze fell to the bundle of clothes on the landing. There on the floor, half-hidden beneath the black robes, he saw the heavy crucifix, gleaming in the moonlight.
Zhenya let go of Sidney and strode over to the heap of clothes. He reached down to pick up the necklace.
Behind him Sidney cried out, cowering back. When Zhenya turned to look at him, Sidney was half crouched against the wall, staring up at him with pleading eyes.
“Please,” he begged. “Please no, please, I won't—Geno, please—”
Zhenya flung the crucifix away from them both, into the dark recesses of the hallway. He felt sick.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said in Russian. “I won’t hurt you, I swear.” He switched to English. “Sid—how fix? Hand—how fix?”
But Sidney wouldn’t, or couldn’t, speak. He was cradling his wounded hand to his chest again, making a low keening sound in his throat.
“Come here,” Zhenya said, reaching for him. He caught Sidney’s shoulder, and though Sidney struggled against Zhenya's grasp at first, the terror and the pain seemed to have weakened him. It was easy enough for Zhenya to manhandle him up and into the hall bathroom, where Zhenya flicked on the lights and turned the faucet on full blast. That was what you did for burns, wasn’t it—cold water? Would it work the same, for this?
He turned Sidney’s hand over, making an effort to be gentle in spite of his growing panic, and gasped aloud. Under the bright lights of the vanity, the wound looked even more horrifying. The flesh had blistered horribly, as if something were bubbling up under the skin. One long burn ran the entire length of Sidney’s palm, and then there were smaller burns on the joints of each finger, where Sidney must have curled his hand around the crucifix before dropping it.
Sidney stared down at the raw mess of his hand, his face drained of color. He began to cry.
“I can’t play,” he said. “I can’t play.”
Zhenya called Seryozha. He didn’t know what else to do. He was too drunk to drive Sidney to the hospital himself, and too frightened. What would they do to him? Arrest him? Deport him? It had been an accident. A terrible accident. How could he be blamed?
"I'm coming now," Seryozha said, and hung up.
Zhenya paced up and down the hallway, glancing periodically into the bathroom.
Sidney was curled up on the bathmat, his back against the tub, his wounded hand open in his lap. His eyes were open, though Zhenya wished he would close them: there was something profoundly disturbing about how empty they seemed, as if someone had wiped away all feeling, all expression, all personality. Sidney had stopped crying at some point, and then he had just—stopped. Stopped speaking, stopped responding, stopped resisting. He had let Zhenya drag his hand under the faucet, and though the cold water must have hurt him, or soothed him, or done something to him, Sidney hadn't reacted. It was as if he had retreated deep within himself, or perhaps gone a long ways away, leaving the empty husk of his body behind.
Zhenya was afraid to touch him, or even speak to him. Instead he paced, blood pounding in his ears. At last—an eternity later—he heard the doorbell ring.
“Get out,” Seryozha said in a hard voice, when he came upstairs and saw the scene, and Zhenya fled.
Seryozha stayed with Sidney in the bathroom for a long time, talking to him in a low voice. At some point he came out and retrieved a laptop from Sidney’s room without so much as looking at Zhenya, who was lurking in the hallway by his own bedroom. He closed the door firmly behind him.
Zhenya went and lay down in his bed. He was still drunk, muddled and confused, and so frightened it was almost impossible to think straight. His mind was racing, churning through nightmarish possibilities. Would they take him to prison, or just put him on the next flight home? It wouldn't be so bad for him, surely, if Sidney didn't—if he was only—
Silver could kill a vampire. But Seryozha was here, and he was an adult, capable and responsible. If he thought that Sidney might die, he would have called an ambulance straight away, or driven Sidney to the hospital himself. So it must not be—Sidney would be okay, and that meant Zhenya would be okay. He wasn't a murderer. It had been an accident. He couldn't be held responsible.
He heard a noise in the hallway, and sat bolt upright in bed. Seryozha was standing in his doorway.
Zhenya had never seen such an expression on Seryozha's face. The man was mild, usually, and so even-tempered it sometimes made Zhenya want to pull his own hair out in frustration. He had never heard Seryozha raise his voice off the ice, and even when he was upset he rarely showed it.
Now, though, there was no mistaking the cold fury in his eyes.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself, Evgeni,” Seryozha said, his voice flat. “You could have ended that boy’s career tonight. I imagine that should be enough, shouldn’t it? To impress those spineless idiots you call your friends?”
Zhenya gaped at him. “I didn’t—”
“Spare me your excuses,” Seryozha snapped, with such vehemence Zhenya felt the words like a slap. “It’s three in the morning and I’m going home to my family.”
Zhenya shut his mouth.
“You had better pray to every saint in the canon that boy doesn’t go straight to Mario Lemieux and tell him what happened here tonight. I have half a mind to do it myself.” Seryozha shook his head, disgust written all over his face. “I've never been so ashamed to know you, Zhenya. I knew you were foolish. I knew you were ignorant, your head full of nonsense. But I never would've expected you to be so cruel.”
Zhenya caught Ryan before practice, in the parking garage outside the rink. He seized his shoulder, shoving him up against the nearest car.
“Why you give,” he said furiously. “Why you give?”
Ryan shook him off, cursing. “What the fuck, dude," he said. "Get your hands off me.”
Zhenya stumbled back. He had barely slept, and was so brutally hungover he felt as if he'd been hit by a semitruck and left for dead by the roadside, every inch of his body aching. “You give,” he said helplessly. He didn’t know the word for crucifix in English. “Silver. You give. Sidney—”
Ryan’s eyes went wide.
“Oh shit,” he said. “Did he touch it? Shit, he’s not, like—he’s not—”
“Fuck you,” Zhenya spat, and shouldered past him, into the practice facility.
He was a mess all practice. Therrien spent a long time in his office before they went out onto the ice, talking with one of the medical staff. He was frowning, but neither of them looked Zhenya’s way, and he forced himself to look down, lacing up his skates with numb fingers. He felt a stupid, childish impulse to burst into tears, crying out his rage and fear and helplessness.
Ryan looked white-faced and terrified all practice, trying and failing to catch Zhenya's eye. He lay in wait for Zhenya outside the locker room after practice, yanking him out of the hallway and into one of the empty trainer’s rooms, slamming the door shut behind him.
“Come on, man," Ryan said in a low voice, glancing towards the door like he half expected Mario and Shero to burst through it at any moment. "I thought they could, like, sense it, or something. I just wanted to freak him out a little.”
“You know?” Zhenya said, incredulous. “You know is silver? You give?”
Ryan ran a hand through his hair, tugging at fistfuls of it. He looked at Zhenya, panic written all over his face. “Dude, he’s not gonna tell, is he? Come on, you can talk to him, right? You're, like—his mate, or whatever. You can convince him, right?"
"He's not talk," Zhenya said. "I'm not see." Sidney's bedroom door had been closed that morning, and though Zhenya had stood outside of it, listening hard for any signs of activity within, he had heard nothing. He had been too frightened to knock.
Ryan made a despairing noise. "Fuck," he said. "I don't wanna fucking move, dude, I've got a house here, and a fucking girlfriend. I can't get traded. And you know Lemieux's so far up Crosby's ass he might as well be his fucking thrall. If he finds out—Jesus. What the fuck are we going to do?"
Zhenya almost snarled at the we. There was no we. Ryan had set him up. He had been laughing behind Zhenya's back, probably. No, not even that—he'd been laughing in Zhenya's face, and Zhenya had put up with it for the better part of two months, because he wanted to be liked, and accepted. He wanted to be Geno, just one of the guys.
He was so tired of this. Tired of this fucking team, this city, this whole fucking country. It wasn't anything like what he'd expected—what he'd imagined, and yearned for, all those long hard years of work. His father was right. He had ruined his reputation, and for what? He had sold his dignity for a false dream, and now even that dream was going up in flames, leaving behind only ashes.
"Fuck you," he said to Ryan, lacing it with all the disgust he could muster. "Don't talk to me ever again. Don't come near me. I don't want to know you."
Ryan's brow furrowed in confusion. "What?"
But Zhenya was done with this conversation. He was going home.
They flew out to California for a seven-day road trip the next morning. Sidney wasn't on the plane.
Zhenya spent the first two days waiting for the coaching staff to pull him aside and tell him he was being scratched, or sent down, or sent home. It was only a matter of time. He went through the motions, his heart heavy in his chest, trying not to think: This is the last time I'll put on this sweater. This is the last time I'll lace up these skates. He was playing like shit, and knew it, and could hardly bring himself to care. Seryozha wasn’t speaking to him, and Zhenya had no way of knowing what Sidney was thinking. Two months of living together, and he didn’t even have Sidney’s number in his phone.
On the third day, Zhenya couldn’t bear it anymore. He broke down and called Genya in an empty stairwell at the arena. He was exhausted, and sick all the time with dread, and he needed badly to confess, to tell someone, the whole sordid story spilling out of him.
Genya listened without speaking. He seemed to be outside somewhere, on a busy street—Zhenya could hear the sound of Moscow traffic in the background.
“What do I do,” he said when he had finished. He kept his voice low, though no one could understand him here but Seryozha, and Seryozha hadn't come near him in days. “Should I tell them myself?” He had lain awake for several nights now, thinking that maybe if he confessed before Sidney told, things would go easier for him. In his more paranoid moments Zhenya had even wondered if the coaches already knew, and were waiting to see if he'd come clean, letting him measure out the rope from which he'd hang himself.
“What? Tell them what?” Genya sounded distracted. “Zhenya, I don't see what all the fuss is. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Zhenya's eyes felt red and scratchy. He rubbed at them with his fist. “He can’t play,” he said. “He’s out for God knows how long, because of me. And it could have been worse.”
He had stayed up late the previous night, hunched over his laptop reading in the dark while Max snored in the next bed over. He’d found a Russian-language survivalist forum, with an active subcommunity of self-styled vigilante slayers. Most of the posts were obviously bullshit, from guys who’d played too many video games and got off on bragging about their imagined kills online. But some of it had felt disconcertingly real. He'd spent the better part of an hour reading through a long, multi-page thread discussing the effects of silver on vampiric flesh, where users gave detailed descriptions of burns that sounded an awful lot like what Zhenya had seen with his own eyes.
Some of the more serious posters had strings of dates in their forum signatures: 17.8.87—24.12.98—2.6.03, and so on. It had taken Zhenya a while to realize they were records of alleged kills, like notches on a belt.
Now, though, Genya scoffed. “Zhenya, don’t be a fool. Crosby touched something that belonged to you. It’s hardly your fault.”
“I shouldn’t have had it in the house,” Zhenya said.
“Why not? Why shouldn’t you have it? You live alone with a leech, Zhenya—you have the right to defend yourself. Sounds to me like he was lurking around outside your door in the middle of the night. Who knows what he wanted, eh?”
“That’s not—” Zhenya said, and faltered. “I don’t think he would. I've been living there for months, and he’s never tried anything before.”
In the background someone was leaning on their horn. Genya swore fluently at them, and then said into the receiver, sounding irritated: “Well, who do you think they’ll believe? Trust me, Zhenya, there’s plenty of people in the league who’d jump at the chance to see him gone. It wouldn't take much.”
“What do you mean, gone?”
“The bond was a precautionary measure,” Genya said. “To keep players safe, eh? But if there are credible rumors the kid’s been preying on his own bondmate, outside the terms of your agreement—that changes things. You're a player too, Zhenya, and you've put yourself in more danger than anyone else, to keep him off the rest of them. The league would be very concerned, I'd imagine, if they knew Crosby still wasn't properly contained.”
Zhenya stood stock still in the stairwell, staring at the concrete wall. “You want me to lie?”
“Now, now, I’m not saying we’ll need to go there,” Genya said. “That's worst-case scenario, if the kid gets Lemieux on his side. I’m just saying it’s good to keep all options on the table. It’s leverage, eh? If they come after you—well. We’ll let them know we’ve got the upper hand.”
The road trip was a bust: three losses in a row, and a red-eye back to Pittsburgh. Zhenya drove himself home from the airport, his hands shaking a little on the wheel. He hadn’t been able to sleep on the plane, exhausted but too restless to settle. Genya’s confidence should have heartened him, but if anything Zhenya had felt uneasier after the phone call than he had before. It had never occurred to him that he might have that kind of power over Sidney: the power to lie, to blackmail him—perhaps even to prematurely end Sidney’s career. Surely it wouldn’t come to that. Zhenya didn’t particularly like Sidney, but he kept remembering Sidney’s ashen face, the anguish in his voice.
I can’t play. I can’t play.
In the driveway it took Zhenya ten minutes to get out of the car. He spent another five standing at the front door, his key in the lock, before finally working up the nerve to turn it.
Sidney was waiting for him in the foyer.
Zhenya froze in the doorway, fingers tightening on the handle of his suitcase.
Sidney looked awful. His skin was even paler than usual, with a strange waxen sheen to it that gave him a corpselike pallor. He seemed—not thinner, exactly, but diminished somehow, his cheeks oddly sunken. His left hand was wrapped in a thick white bandage.
“Sid,” Zhenya said, and faltered.
“Gonch called.” Sidney’s voice was flat, almost expressionless. “He said you’re an idiot, and an assohle, but he doesn’t think you meant to hurt me.”
Relief washed over Zhenya, so intense he thought his knees might buckle. “Not mean, Sid,” he said, and took a step forward.
Sidney moved back, keeping distance between them.
“Don’t,” he said, a slight tremor in his voice. “I don’t want you anywhere near me.”
Zhenya’s heart sank.
Sidney would tell. He would tell, and then Zhenya—Zhenya would have to—
“I’m not going to tell the team,” Sidney said, as if he’d read Zhenya’s mind.
“Thank you,” Zhenya said fervently. “Sid, thank you—”
“It’s not a favor,” Sidney said, so vehemently Zhenya fell silent. “If I send you back, it fucks me over, too. The league won’t let me play without a bond, and I don’t know how long it would take them to find somebody else.”
He shook his head. “But you knew that, right? You know I can't fucking do anything—you and fucking Whitney, and whoever else was in on it. I'm sure you all had a good laugh about it on the trip. Did you tell them I begged, Geno? That was pretty funny, right? That was a pretty good joke."
Zhenya was stunned into silence. He opened his mouth, and then closed it again, unsure of what to say.
Sidney was breathing very quickly, shallow fast gulps of air, as if he were about to cry. When Zhenya said nothing, he swallowed hard and looked away.
“You know, I was so excited when they told me you were coming," he said. "I’d seen tape of you skating, and you were so good. I wanted to play with you so bad. I knew you were Russian, and it’s not—it isn't great there, for people like me. But you’d said yes, when they asked you about the bond. So I thought maybe you didn’t care about all that. Maybe you were just as excited to play with me. It wouldn't be so bad then—the bond, and living together. Maybe we'd even be friends."
Zhenya's throat felt tight. He couldn't bring himself to speak, or even to look at Sidney.
After a long moment, Sidney spoke again. His voice was flat now, emotionless.
“We have to see each other at the rink. And we—I have to drink from you. That’s non-negotiable. But that’s it. I know you hate it when I’m here, so you won’t see me anymore. I’ll stay out of your way. We get through the season and then we can break the bond, and you won't ever have to come near me again.”
Sidney kept his promise.
No matter what time Zhenya woke up in the morning or came home in the evening, Sidney never seemed to be there. In the first months of the season Zhenya had done his best to keep their paths from crossing any more frequently than they had to; still, he had grown used to the little signs of another person living in the house: a coat slung over the back of a chair; someone else’s shoes lined up neatly beside his at the front door. All of that was gone now, as if Sidney had meticulously scrubbed himself out of existence.
Zhenya was alone now, truly alone, in that huge, cold, utterly empty house.
Sometimes, as he drove home from practice, he resolved to fling open the curtains and turn on every TV in the house, filling that awful, cavernous emptiness with light and noise. If Sidney had abandoned the place, surely the house was his now, to do with what he wanted. Why should he be cowed? But each time he turned his key in the door and stepped into that hushed darkness again, he was cowed. The silence was so heavy it felt almost palpable: a dark, brooding presence that lurked in the shadows among the claw-footed chairs, or behind the heavy drapes, watching him pass. When he dropped his keys in the bowl by the door, or kicked his shoes off by the stairs, the silence seemed to rush in around him, hungrily swallowing up the noise.
He started eating his meals in his room, watching Russian soaps on his laptop, and sneaking down the next morning to rinse off the plates. Slowly the fridge emptied out, and then the cupboards: Sidney had stopped ordering groceries. Zhenya ate at the rink when he could, and at night brought home bags full of cheeseburgers or Chinese takeout, or pizza boxes that by morning made the whole room reek of stale grease.
Ryan gave him a wide berth at the rink now, which was fine with Zhenya. More painful was having to pretend he didn’t notice Ryan muttering under his breath to one of his friends, both of them eyeing Zhenya like he was some kind of wild and dangerous animal. The goalie, Flower, spent a lot of time watching Zhenya too; when Zhenya looked back, Flower’s face broke slowly into a razor-sharp grin, more threatening than a snarl.
Sidney didn’t even look at him. On the ice, in the room, his gaze slid over Zhenya as if there was nothing there at all: only empty space, a meaningless void.
They lost, and lost, and lost again. In the end Sidney was out for two weeks, returning to break a five-game skid with a victory over Philly at home. Zhenya scored the game-winning goal off Sidney’s assist, and the locker room was raucous afterwards, somebody cranking up the music after the press had cleared out. Therrien shook his head and left them to it.
Zhenya stripped off his sweaty gear in his stall. He kept glancing over at Sidney, who was deep in conversation with Flower. He thought Sidney looked okay. His hand was still bandaged, but lightly, and it didn’t seem to be causing him as much pain. He’d been in unusually fine form that night, playing a tight, controlled game.
He passed Sidney’s stall on his way to the showers.
“Good game,” he said.
Sidney didn’t look at him. Flower did, though, a hard look in his eyes. He said something to Sidney in French, and Sidney snorted.
Zhenya shifted his weight. Some of the guys were definitely watching them now, their curiosity piqued.
“It’s good pass,” he tried again.
This time Sidney looked up. “Sorry,” he said. “Did you need something?”
The conversation around them had died down now, though the music was still cranked up high, the bass thudding so loudly Zhenya could feel it in his chest. He was suddenly and acutely aware of how naked he was, with only his thin towel slung around his waist.
Mutely, he shook his head.
“Cool,” Sidney said, and turned back to Flower.
Six nights passed. On the seventh, he heard a soft knock at the door.
Sidney walked into the room without so much as looking at him, as if a draught had blown the door open. He stood in the middle of the room, surveying the paper wrappers and the greasy takeout bags littering the bedspread with a blank, bored expression on his face.
Zhenya hurried to clear them away. Then he took off his shirt and lay down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
“Sit up,” Sidney said, the first words he’d addressed to Zhenya in more than a week.
Zhenya looked uncertainly at him, but obeyed, sitting cross-legged on the bed facing the desk. He felt the mattress dip as Sidney climbed onto the bed, kneeling behind him.
Sidney didn’t speak again, though he pressed two fingertips to Zhenya’s throat, roughly massaging the skin there. Like this, unable to see him, Zhenya felt hyper-aware of Sidney’s body, the solid bulk of him looming behind him—close but not touching, as if Sidney were grimly determined to limit unnecessary contact between them. Zhenya stared straight ahead, gaze fixed on the blank wall.
He was tense, and fearful: of what, he didn’t know. Perhaps that was why the bite, when it came, burned so much more than he expected. He felt Sidney’s fangs sink deep into his flesh, and had to swallow down a whimper of pain, holding himself rigidly still.
He waited for the sweet, heady rush of the venom. But it never came. Nothing numbed the pain of the bite, or dulled the edge of his fear. Without the dreamy, floating lightness he had grown accustomed to, he was acutely aware of the various pain points: the stiffness in his neck, and a slight cramp in his leg; the tender soreness of the bite itself, which throbbed with each long, greedy pull of Sidney’s mouth.
He wanted to ask, but something held him back. Surely Sidney knew. Perhaps he controlled the venom somehow. He had decided that Zhenya no longer deserved any pleasure, or solace—only this fear, this discomfort bordering on pain. It would be like this from now on: Sidney silent and cold; Zhenya trembling, and trying not to, forcing himself still.
The thought made him feel suddenly, foolishly close to tears. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe through the wave of anguish.
When he had finished, Sidney gave the bite a cursory lick to close it. This time he made no move to help Zhenya settle back on the pillows, only stood and turned to leave.
“Sid,” he called weakly. “Feel little bit—”
He gestured vaguely, in a way he hoped conveyed dizzy. Sidney frowned, looking torn between irritation and concern.
Concern won out.
“Lie down,” he said. “I’ll bring you some food.”
Some part of him still doubted Sidney would even come back, but Zhenya took advantage of his absence to arrange himself in what an appropriately pathetic tableau—sprawled out on the pillows, his eyes closed as if he’d lost consciousness. Sidney hadn’t managed to fully close the bite: Zhenya could feel it oozing blood still, and he touched it with his fingertips, smearing red across the bruised skin.
Sidney returned a few moments later. Zhenya, his face turned away, heard him make a soft sound of dismay, crossing the room to the bed.
“Geno,” he said, sounding alarmed. “Geno—wake up. Please wake up.”
He touched Zhenya’s face hesitantly, and then Zhenya felt fingertips press against his throat, just above the bite, feeling for his pulse. He blinked slowly awake, as if emerging from a deep stupor.
Sidney was staring down at him, his expression pinched with worry. When Zhenya’s eyes met his, he let out a breath.
“Geno,” he said. “Oh, thank god.”
“Sid?” Zhenya said thickly.
Sidney sat down on the edge of the mattress. “You scared me for a minute there.”
“Sorry,” Zhenya said, trying to ignore the twist of guilt he felt at deceiving him.
“That’s okay.” Sidney’s voice was gentle. “Do you think you can sit up? There’s—I couldn’t find much, but I brought you some juice.”
He watched Zhenya drink the whole glass, still looking worried. When Zhenya had finished, he took it from him and handed him a cracker with a slice of cheese on it. Zhenya saw that he’d somehow managed to scrounge together a whole tray of options, scavenged from what was left in the fridge: the soft cheese Zhenya liked, and a few strawberries that hadn’t molded, and slices of what looked like rolled-up deli meat.
Zhenya ate the cracker, chewing slowly. He swallowed.
“Sid,” he said, a little hoarsely. “Need talk.”
“Shh, it’s okay. You should rest.” Sidney was busy preparing another cracker, his brow furrowed in concentration. “I’ll go get some more food, and you just sleep for a bit.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said again, a little desperately. “Need talk about party. I’m not know. I’m—drink lots, come home, take off costume. Not think.”
Sidney stilled. For a moment he said nothing, and then, slowly, he put the cracker back down on the plate.
“You’re not actually sick, are you?”
“Ryan give costume,” Zhenya said. “I’m not know is silver.”
It hadn’t been his fault. Surely Sidney could see that. It had been an unfortunate accident, that was all. There was no point in punishing him further, in making him miserable.
“Okay,” Sidney said, in a carefully neutral voice. “So you decided you’d, what—lie to me? Let me think I’d hurt you? So you could tell me this.”
“You not talk!” Zhenya said angrily. “How I’m talk to you?”
Sidney looked at him, his eyes hard. “I thought I’d made myself clear. I don’t want to talk to you. Jesus, Geno, you’re not even apologizing. You’re just trying to pin the blame on someone else.”
“It was just a stupid costume,” Zhenya said. “It was just a stupid joke, and it wasn’t even my idea, and it’s not my fault, what happened, and it’s not fair—”
“You know I can’t understand you,” Sidney said coldly. “But sure, Geno. You didn’t know it was silver. You didn’t know that if I touched it, it could burn right through my hand. Fine, I believe you. But you knew what that costume was, didn’t you? Ryan gave it to you, but you put it on. You wore it to that party, so everybody there would know just how much you hated me.”
Zhenya’s face felt hot. He said nothing.
Sidney stood up and faced him.
“Congratulations, Geno,” he said. “It worked. It’s not like it was some big secret before, but now everybody knows for sure. I know for sure. You hate me. You hate what I am, and what I do to you. What more do you want from me? Do you honestly think I enjoy this? Touching someone who thinks I’m a monster? Who looks at me and wishes somebody would just—just stake me through the heart and set me on fire?”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, stunned. “Sid, I—”
“You’re my—I’m bonded to you,” Sidney said, and then snapped his jaw shut, as if he regretted speaking. “You know what? Forget it. Enjoy your fucking snacks.”
Seryozha was on the exercise bikes after practice the next day. He glanced up when Zhenya came in, and watched him make his way towards him across the weights room, his expression unreadable.
Zhenya took the bike next to his. He had planned out a whole speech in his head, driving into the rink that morning, but in the end he was too ashamed to look Seryozha in the eye, and addressed the handlebars of his bike instead.
“Please,” he said. “Could I—if you, um.”
“Come for dinner,” he said. “And bring dessert. Natasha likes chocolate.”
Zhenya braved the Giant Eagle that evening to pick up a chocolate cake, and left feeling only a little shaken—if the groceries never came back, he thought he could probably manage it, if he plotted out his course in advance and stuck to his plan. Otherwise he’d be doomed to wander the aises forever, trapped in the bewildering labyrinth of breakfast cereals and towering displays of canned sodas.
At dinner Zhenya was so nervous it was difficult to focus on the conversation. Seryozha was still barely speaking to him, and Ksenia kept giving them both worried looks. Zhenya thought they were all grateful for the presence of Natasha, who had worn a tutu to dinner and spent much of the meal regaling Zhenya with long, slightly confusing stories about her ballet class.
Ksenia took Natasha upstairs to bed after dinner, leaving the two of them alone in the kitchen.
Seryozha stared at him across the table, his expression impassive. Zhenya felt as if he were facing judge, jury, and executioner.
“Well,” Seryozha said, after a long silence. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Zhenya looked down at the table.
“It was just a stupid joke,” he said. “Ryan said he would take care of the costume. I didn’t know until I showed up, and then it was too late to do anything about it. I swear I never knew it was silver. And then—I was drunk, and I took it off, and threw it on the floor. Cros—Sidney must’ve been tidying up when he touched it. It was a mistake, that’s all. Genya says—”
He broke off. He felt uneasy, saying it aloud.
Zhenya shook his head. “It’s nothing, really. Just—they can’t blame me for it, not when it was a mistake. They can’t send me home.”
“Well then,” Seryozha said. “I suppose Genya knows.”
He got up and began to clear the table, as if the conversation was over. Zhenya sat in stunned silence for a moment, and then twisted around in his chair to look at him.
“That’s all?” he said. Seryozha looked up from the sink.
“What do you need from me?” he said. “Gennady has solved it for you.”
Zhenya’s face felt hot.
“You were angry with me,” he said. “You’ve barely spoken to me in weeks.”
“I see now I was mistaken,” he said. “You’re an innocent, Zhenya. Wrongfully accused on every count. And even if you weren’t, if perhaps you bore some responsibility for what’s happened—well, there’s nothing to fear: Gennady will take care of you. I’m sure he’s written something into your contract that makes it impossible for Sidney to cast you out. What good is it being angry with you, Zhenya? Everything is somebody else’s fault.”
He wiped his hands on the dishtowel.
Zhenya felt a spike of irritation. “So you want me to say it’s my fault, is that it? You want me to say—what? That I meant to hurt him?”
“Zhenya, I haven’t asked you to do anything.” Seryozha came back to the table and sat down across from him. “You came to me, though I admit I’m not sure why. It’s smooth sailing for you, as far as I can tell.”
“That’s not—” Zhenya started, and broke off in frustration. “He won’t speak to me. He won’t even look at me. In the house he’s like a ghost. I hear him sometimes, but I never see him.”
“Sidney?” Seryozha seemed surprised. “But isn’t this exactly what you wanted? Isn’t that what you’ve been after for months?”
“No,” Zhenya said. “Yes. I don’t know. Not—like this.”
It was true that he had spent months complaining about Sidney’s eagerness, his inability to take a hint, his incessant attempts to butt into Zhenya’s life. He couldn’t explain what distressed him so much about what was happening now.
“I wanted him to leave me alone,” he said. “But the way he looks at me, Seryozha. The way he looked at me that night. Like—”
Like I was the monster.
“Like what?” Seryozha prompted.
Zhenya drew in a breath.
“I picked up the—the crucifix.” He couldn’t meet Seryozha’s eyes. “Only to look at it! I didn’t understand what had happened. But he—”
He faltered. He hadn’t let himself think about it. He had tried to put it out of his mind, to focus on Genya, and what might happen with the team if they found out—and, and, and.
But Zhenya remembered it now: the naked terror in Sidney’s eyes. The way he had tried to curl in on himself, to make himself smaller, as Zhenya stepped towards him.
“He thought I’d come to hurt him,” Zhenya said slowly. “To—to finish it, even. He begged me not to.”
“He was frightened,” Seryozha said quietly. “And in pain. I doubt he was thinking clearly.”
Zhenya put his hands over his face. He let out a shuddering breath.
“They’re not human,” he said. “They’re not even alive.”
“Is that what you believe, Zhenya?”
Seryozha didn’t sound angry, or accusatory: merely curious.
Zhenya thought about Sidney flying across the ice, his eyes bright with joy; Sidney smiling at him on the bench, hesitant and hopeful. Sidney sobbing in the bathroom, staring in grief and horror at the raw burned mess of his hand.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’—”
He broke off, and put his head down on the table, his forehead resting on his folded arms. He breathed in, and out again, in that close dark space. His mind was a jumble of confused images and sensations, fragments of memory—Genya’s voice in his head, his parents, his teachers. Alyosha, fourteen years old and already a swaggering bully: They haven’t got souls, so they can’t feel pain.
What did it mean, to be human? You could be human, fully human, and still do terrible things, monstrous things. You could be human and hurt someone, or humiliate them, or make them cower back in terror, pleading for a mercy they didn’t expect to receive.
He thought about Sidney leaning over him on the bed, his expression tense with worry. Zhenya could still hear the gentleness in Sidney’s voice, still feel the tender concern in his touch—tenderness, for someone who had hurt him. For someone who thought him a monster.
“I hurt him.” Zhenya lifted his head, staring at Seryozha. “And I can’t—I don’t know how to fix it. He won’t talk to me.”
Seryozha was quiet, watching him.
“Talk is cheap, Zhenya,” he said. “You’ve shown him that you can’t be trusted. I suppose you’ll have to show him something else. But it’s his business, you know, whether or not he forgives you.”
Everyone knew that North America was dangerously tolerant. Without formal paperwork, or identifying marks, or containment laws, you never knew when you might meet a vampire. You might pass one on the street, unsuspecting, or meet one in a dark alley. Children might be taught by one, with no one the wiser.
But everyone knew about Sidney.
Zhenya lay awake in bed for a long time after he got home that night. Finally he dug out his laptop and propped it up against his knees in the dark, the screen casting its sickly blue glow over the room.
Sidney Crosby vampire, he typed into the search bar.
He ran a few of the English language articles through his translation software. Some of it was gibberish, but Zhenya could understand the gist of it.
No one said leech. They wrote about player safety and distractions in the locker room, about the possible effects on TV viewership. They fretted about TV viewer ratings, and debated the ethics of requiring religious players to play alongside a vampire, and worried aloud about the children who were watching: what they might think, what they might inadvertently witness.
He watched a video of Sidney, soft-spoken and serious, on what appeared to be a late night talk show The host played a clip of fans burning their jerseys outside Mellon Arena, and Sidney sat very still in his chair and watched it without reacting. When it was over, he said he hoped to work very hard in Pittsburgh, to win over the fans who had doubts.
Zhenya clicked on the next video.
He had watched the draft live, on a stream back home; he knew the Penguins had won the lottery, and he was curious to see who they might select. There was Mario at the podium, and the former GM standing behind him, holding the sweater.
The Pittsburgh Penguins select…
A hush fell over the room.
No one applauded. The camera panned over the faces of the audience: some stunned, some disgusted. At the Crosbys’ table, Sidney’s agent stood up and shook his hand, and then a man who must have been Sidney’s father stood up and hugged him for a long moment, murmuring something to him.
Sidney made his way to the stage, the room silent around him. It was a long walk. He kept his gaze fixed straight ahead.
Mario shook his hand at the podium. They posed for a photograph together. Sidney pulled the sweater over his head, plucking nervously at the fabric until it settled. Then he looked down at his chest. Slowly, almost reverently, he smoothed his hand over the logo.
Zhenya closed his laptop.
He lay awake that night for a long time, staring up at the ceiling.
He had come here for one reason: to play hockey. To become the star Genya promised he would be. Why did it have to be complicated? Zhenya didn’t want to think about bonds, or the press’s vicious euphemisms or the tense line of Sidney’s shoulders in his ill-fitting suit, as he walked up to that stage in silence, all alone. All Zhenya wanted was to play—without all the distractions, the stress, the noise.
Sidney wants that too, a little voice in his head said. Doesn’t he?
It sounded suspiciously like Seryozha: mild and nonjudgmental, asking simple little questions that somehow knocked Zhenya’s entire world off its axis.
Zhenya rolled over onto his stomach and pulled his pillow over his head, as if he could hide from the thoughts that way, or shut them out. Even so, sleep was a long time coming.
He started eating breakfast at the rink in the mornings. It was a pain to get there early, but the groceries were really and truly gone now, and it turned out he was pretty hopeless at fending for himself. Most mornings he sat at one of the high tables in the back, shoveling food into his mouth and glowering at everyone who walked past. No one tried to sit with him, but at least he could tell himself it was because he looked so unapproachable, so obviously not a morning person.
He was sitting in the lounge one morning, steadily working his way through a breakfast burrito, when Sidney walked in.
Zhenya became suddenly absorbed in studying the contents of his burrito. Eggs: scrambled, and silkier, somehow, than the ones he made at home. Fried potatoes. Little bits of something green—peppers? Sausage.
Sidney stopped in front of him.
“I need to talk to you,” he said. “After practice.”
He didn’t look angry, or irritated—just blank, like someone had wiped the expression right off his face. Zhenya couldn’t read anything from him.
“Okay,” he said, and Sidney nodded curtly, and walked away.
He was distracted all through practice, fumbling the puck so badly during one of their passing drills that Therrien gave him a hard look and called him back to do it three more times, until he got it right.
His hands felt sweaty inside his gloves. What did Sidney want? Had he changed his mind about telling the front office? He had said it’d be too difficult to find a new bondmate halfway through the season, but there were always trades—maybe they’d found someone suitable, and Sidney was doing the courtesy of telling Zhenya first. Maybe they were trading him, sending him away at Sidney’s request.
Sidney was on post-practice media duties, so Zhenya hit the showers after, and then spent some time messing around on the mats in the weights room, using one of the foam rollers to massage the stiffness out of his shoulder. After a while he gave up all pretense of stretching and just lay on his back on the mats, scrolling through old text messages.
He dropped his phone directly onto his face.
Sidney stood over him, arms folded across his chest. He looked—not angry, exactly, but grimly determined, an expression Zhenya had come to associate with painful losses and any mention of the city of Philadelphia.
“Sid,” he said, sitting up and rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
“My family’s coming,” Sidney said, without preamble. “Next week, for Christmas. I tried to tell them not to, but they insisted. They’re going to be here for a week, and they’re staying at the house, because I have room and I’m not going to make my own parents get a hotel.”
Zhenya blinked. “Okay,” he said cautiously.
“They’re going to want to meet you,” Sidney said. “I can tell them you’re staying with the Gonchars for Christmas, but I’m sure they’ll want to see you after one of the games.”
The prospect didn’t thrill Zhenya, but after a game seemed safe enough. If it was horrible, he could pretend not to understand English and escape to the showers.
Or maybe not. If it was horrible, it was probably what he deserved. Maybe he would stand there and face it.
“Okay,” he said. “I meet.”
Sidney nodded. Then he opened his mouth, and closed it again, seeming to waver. At last he said, “I don’t care what you think of me, but I’d appreciate it if you’d leave my family out of it. They’re not like me, they’re just—they’re normal people. Good people. I’m asking you to please not do or say anything that’s going to upset them.”
It took Zhenya a moment to parse that.
“Sid,” he said, a little stunned. “You think I’m—I do—”
“I don’t know,” Sidney said. “I don’t intend to find out, either. I’ll tell them you have plans all week. You’ll meet them for five minutes, and that’s it. Okay?”
Zhenya swallowed. “Yes,” he said. “Okay.”
Sidney went to pick up his family from the airport at three in the afternoon. Zhenya was picking through the laundry scattered across his bedroom floor, trying to determine which shirts were clean enough to throw into his duffel bag, when his phone pinged.
He read the text in horror.
K and N have flu
Sorry Zhenya - have to cancel
I’m sure Sid will understand
Zhenya lurked by the front door, pulling the drapes back to peer anxiously out the windows. He saw the Crosbys pull up, all four of them spilling out of the car. There were Sidney’s parents, and a blond girl of maybe eleven or twelve, who was hanging onto Sidney’s arm and chattering away at him, her face turned up to him. Sidney was laughing at something she was saying, hoisting a suitcase in each hand.
The front door swung open. Sidney stepped through, calling something over his shoulder, laughter in his voice. He put the suitcases down and turned.
The smile slid off his face.
“Sid,” Zhenya said quickly. “Seryozha call. Everybody sick.”
Before Sidney could answer, his sister ran up the front steps and into the house. She stopped dead, staring at Zhenya.
“Ohmigod,” she said. “Are you Geno?”
“What’s that, Taylor?” Mrs. Crosby said, stepping into the house behind them. Her eyes widened. “Oh my goodness. Oh, you must be Geno.”
Zhenya gave a strained smile. It was the best he could manage, given that Sidney seemed to be attempting to bore a hole through Zhenya’s skull with his eyes alone.
“Mom,” Sidney said. “Why don’t you guys get settled upstairs? I need to talk to Geno for a minute.”
Sidney dragged him into the pantry, shutting the door behind them.
“What the hell,” he said in a low, furious whisper, “are you still doing here?”
“Ksenia sick,” Zhenya whispered back. “Baby sick.” He mimed vomiting.
Sidney stared at him. “If this is some kind of trick—”
Zhenya felt a hot spike of irritation. He could think of better ways to spend their time off than tiptoeing around this gloomy house, trying to avoid a family who almost certainly hated his guts. But he was trying to be agreeable, Zhenya reminded himself. He was trying, as Seryozha had suggested, to show Sidney that he could be a trustworthy person.
“No trick,” he said. “See, is text.”
He tried to show Sidney his phone.
“I can’t read that,” Sidney said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Listen, can’t you go somewhere else? Don’t you have any friends you can stay with?”
Zhenya looked down at his phone. “I stay in room,” he said.
“Fuck,” Sidney said, staring at the neat rows of cans on the shelves. “You seriously can’t—there’s honestly nowhere you can go?”
Zhenya felt himself flush. He put his phone away.
“I find,” he said. He could get a hotel. He could just—spend the week alone. “I go.”
Sidney stared at him. Then he made a frustrated noise.
“Agh,” he said. “I’m not going to—you can stay here, it’s your house too. But I swear to God, if you do anything to upset them—”
“I stay in room,” Zhenya said. “Whole week, you not see. Okay?”
“Geno, it’s Christmas,” he said. “There’s no fucking way my mom’s going to let you spend Christmas all alone in your room.”
Sidney was right, of course. Zhenya crept upstairs while the Crosbys were still unpacking, but within half an hour, there was a knock on his door.
He opened it to find Sidney’s sister staring up at him. She was blond and square-jawed: not quite Sidney in miniature, but the family resemblance was strong.
“I’m Taylor,” she said. “Mom wants to know if you’ll eat chicken for dinner tonight,” she said. “We’re going to the grocery store now. There’s like, nothing in the house.”
Zhenya stared at her. “Is okay,” he said. “Uh—not hungry.”
“You’re not hungry?” she said, skeptical. “You’re a hockey player and you’re like seven feet tall.”
“Taylor.” Sidney came out of one of the other bedrooms, looking acutely embarrassed. “Leave Geno alone.”
“Mom said to ask him,” Taylor said, before turning and yelling down the hall, at ear-piercing volume: “MOM! GENO SAYS HE’S NOT HUNGRY!”
From downstairs, Mrs. Crosby called back, “He’s a hockey player, dear, they’re always hungry. Does he want something special? We could make something Russian for him, if he can find me a recipe.”
Behind Taylor’s back, Sidney was glaring daggers at him.
“Chicken good,” Zhenya said hurriedly. “Tell mama thank you.”
He stayed in his room, as promised. It was agony: he was nervous, and found it difficult to settle. It was probably just one of those twenty-four hour viruses, or food poisoning, maybe—the Gonchars would recover quickly, and then he could make his escape. He could survive one dinner.
The house had always seemed to swallow up noise, but its gloomy atmosphere was no match for the Crosbys. Zhenya kept his door closed, but even so, he kept hearing Taylor’s swift footsteps running up and down the hall, and Sidney’s mother calling to her children from the kitchen, and the faint sound of Christmas carols drifting in from the radio in the kitchen.
Soon the house was filled with the aromas of Mrs. Crosby’s cooking. Zhenya had briefly considered feigning his own sudden and catastrophic illness, but when Taylor came to fetch him for dinner he slunk down the stairs and into the kitchen after her, guiltily avoiding Sidney’s eyes. He had promised Sidney he would stay in his room. But was he supposed to starve?
They ate in the kitchen instead of in the formal dining room, whose gleaming dark wood table had always reminded Zhenya rather unpleasantly of some kind of sacrificial altar. The sun had long since set, and someone had taken down the bedsheets that usually hung over the bay windows, so that the light from the house spilled out onto the dark lawn below.
They had given him the seat next to Taylor, directly across from Sidney. Zhenya took it, keeping his gaze fixed on his plate. He had devoted a long, agonizing portion of the afternoon to imagining what Sidney might have told his parents about him, and it was hard to know what, exactly, to expect. Maybe it would be an interrogation: all four Crosbys staring at him with accusing eyes, demanding that he answer for himself. At best, Zhenya had braced himself for a long and uncomfortable meal, punctuated by stilted silences and more of those looks from Sidney, whose murderous expression suggested that he would delight in throttling him if Zhenya so much as breathed wrong in Taylor’s direction.
Mrs. Crosby turned to him, smiling warmly. “Geno, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you. Sidney’s told us so much about you.”
Zhenya didn’t quite dare meet Sidney’s eyes.
“His, uh,” Sidney said awkwardly. “His English, Mom.”
“Oh, we’ll speak slowly.” Mrs. Crosby was still smiling at Zhenya. “Will you tell us if you need us to repeat anything, dear? I remember how hard it was for Sidney, learning French. But he says you’ve been working so hard with your tutor. I’m sure you’re making wonderful progress.”
Zhenya was almost too taken aback to respond. The Crosbys watched him expectantly.
“Thank you,” he said, a bit stupidly. “Nice to meet.”
He cringed inwardly, but Mrs. Crosby only smiled at him, then turned back and said, “All right, everyone—dig in.”
There were generous helpings for everyone, and Zhenya couldn’t help but notice that Sidney’s mother had loaded up Sidney’s plate, too. He wasn’t eating, of course, though he seemed to be leaning forward slightly, drawing in deep lungfuls of air. Zhenya watched, fascinated, until Sidney caught him looking and glanced away, frowning.
“We’ll get a tree tomorrow,” Mrs. Crosby said. “And decorations, too. You boys have practice in the morning, don’t you? We can pick you up after.”
“Mom, we really don’t have to,” Sidney said.
“It’s your first Christmas in your own house,” Mrs. Crosby said. “Of course you need your own decorations. And it’ll cheer this place up a bit, won’t it? I still can’t believe that woman you hired. What on earth was she thinking?”
“Mom,” Sidney said, but Mrs. Crosby ignored him, turning to Zhenya.
“It was perfectly nice when he bought it,” she said. “Then he hired an interior decorator, and my goodness—I think she must have watched too many of those awful movies. Have you seen those chairs in the sitting room? They have claws. And that dining room is too depressing for words. It looks like something out of one of those mystery novels where somebody’s murdering the dinner guests one by one.”
“It’s just a house,” Sidney said. Zhenya got the feeling this was a well-worn argument. “I don’t care what it looks like.”
Mrs. Crosby pursed her lips. “Well, what does Geno think? It’s his home now, too.”
Zhenya felt suddenly nervous, and took a giant bite of mashed potatoes. He had resolved to speak as little as possible. Sidney couldn’t be angry with him if he said nothing.
“I think the house is cool,” Taylor said. “It’s like a haunted mansion or something. But it’s freezing in here, Squid. Do you not believe in central heating or something?”
Zhenya promptly forgot his resolution.
“Too cold,” he said, and mimed shivering violently. He and Sidney had been engaged in a silent war over the thermostat ever since the weather turned.
Sidney glared at him. “It’s—I’m being energy-conscious.”
“Well, I wish you still lived with the Lemieuxs,” Taylor said, reaching for the potatoes. “Why’d you have to move, anyway? You and Geno could’ve stayed there, and then I could hang out with Stephanie and Alexa.”
“There wouldn’t have been room for both of us,” Sidney said, not looking at Zhenya. “And it didn’t look right, not with—they have kids. People thought it wasn’t safe.”
Trina pressed her lips together in a tight line. “It’s ridiculous, the things people will believe. To think that you would ever endanger a child—”
Sidney said nothing. He was staring down at his untouched food.
“Trina,” Mr. Crosby said quietly, the first time he’d spoken since they sat down. “Let him be.”
Mrs. Crosby looked as if she wanted to argue, but after a moment she shook her head and picked up her fork again. A stilted silence fell over the table.
“Food good,” Zhenya said at last. “I like. Thank you.”
Mrs. Crosby turned to him, her smile a shade too bright.
“So polite,” she said. “You’re very welcome, Geno. It’s the least we can do, after how much help you’ve been to Sidney.”
Sidney reached for his glass of water and took a long sip. It felt a bit pointed.
“We’re just glad you were able to join us. It must be so hard for your parents, to have to spend the holiday so far away from you.”
“Mom, I told you,” Sidney said. “They don’t really do Christmas in Russia.”
“What?” Taylor sounded genuinely dismayed. “Not at all?”
“We do like—late,” Zhenya said, his knowledge of North American customs faltering a little. Seryozha had explained, but he still wasn’t exactly clear on the difference. He wondered how Sidney had known.
“It’s New Year’s, right?” Sidney wasn’t quite looking at him. “That’s the big holiday in Russia.”
Zhenya nodded. “Yes. Big party, lots food. Family, friend, everybody give gift.”
“How fascinating,” Trina said. “Well, then, I suppose we’ll just have to give you your first real North American Christmas.”
“Geno’s probably going to be busy.” Sidney sounded a little desperate now. “He might have plans.”
“Like what?” Taylor asked.
All four Crosbys turned to look at Zhenya. Sidney looked like he was trying to bore through Zhenya’s brain with his eyes, which wasn’t exactly conducive to inventing a brilliant excuse.
“Uh,” Zhenya said. “Video game?”
“Oh my god, you really are all the same,” Taylor said. “Hockey, video games—please tell me you don’t play golf.”
Zhenya made a completely involuntary face of disgust.
“He can be saved!” Taylor said, and Mrs. Crosby, who was visibly trying not to laugh, said, “Now, Taylor, don’t be rude.”
He and Sidney were put on kitchen cleanup duty—“Crosby family rules,” Taylor informed him, dropping her plate in the sink with a clatter—while the others went into the den to pick a movie. The den was, in Zhenya’s estimation, the only other normal room in the house. It had received the same makeshift bedsheet curtain treatment as the kitchen, and was equipped with a big, comfortable sectional couch that could easily fit seven or eight people, not that Sidney seemed to do much entertaining.
Sidney had planted himself directly in front of the sink, his broad back boxing Zhenya out completely. Zhenya was reduced to hovering behind him, clutching a damp hand-towel and trying to look useful.
“You not tell,” he said in a low voice, when Sidney’s family was safely settled in the den. “About party.”
Sidney’s only response was to dunk a plate into the soapy water. So they were back to stony silence, then.
“Thank you,” Zhenya said. He couldn’t understand why Sidney had done it—he was under no illusions that he deserved a blank slate with the Crosby family. But he was grateful all the same.
“Don’t thank me.” Sidney squeezed out the sponge and began to scrub viciously at one of the plates, as if he were intent on scraping the glaze clean off. “It has nothing to do with you. They have to put up with a lot as it is, and I don’t want them to worry. It’s easier if they think—you know.”
Zhenya thought he could fill in the rest. Easier if they thought their son’s bondmate was kind to him.
He felt conflicted. It was obvious that Sidney cared about his family, and equally obvious that Zhenya’s presence was forcing him to live an uncomfortable lie.
“Sid,” he said, hesitantly. “Maybe I—say sick. Feel bad, need stay in room.”
“Right, yeah,” Sidney said bitterly. “So then my mom will spend the whole week fussing over you, making you chicken noodle soup and checking your temperature and calling the doctor. Just how I want to spend Christmas.”
Zhenya didn’t know what to say. He reached out to pat at one of the dishes with his damp towel, but Sidney shifted to the side, blocking his path.
“I’ve got these,” he said, his back to Zhenya. “You don’t have to hang around. I’m sure you have things you’d rather be doing.”
They had practice the next morning, their last before the holiday break. Mrs. Crosby had offered to drop them off while she and Taylor went shopping, but Zhenya, lying awake in bed listening to the Crosbys laughing at the movie downstairs, had formulated a plan. He’d set his alarm clock for six-thirty, a full two and a half hours early.
Six-thirty was, as far as Zhenya could tell, indistinguishable from the middle of the night. When his alarm went off it took a herculean effort to drag himself from the warm nest of blankets, but he forced himself up and out. He could nap in his car at the rink, maybe, or sneak into one of the trainer’s rooms.
He crept down the stairs, avoiding the creaky step. There was a light on in the kitchen, and he froze for a second, before quietly sitting down on the bottom step. He reached for his shoes.
Mrs. Crosby was standing in the hallway, dressed in a fuzzy robe and slippers, and cradling a mug of coffee.
“Ah,” Zhenya said. “Mrs. Crosby. I’m—ah. Run.”
“Call me Trina, dear,” she said, sounding concerned. “Is that safe? It’s very dark out. And I think it’s sleeting. You won’t be cold?”
“Russia,” Zhenya said weakly, making a vague gesture that he hoped conveyed his people’s eagerness to undertake punishing feats of athleticism in arctic weather.
“Hmm,” Trina said. “Well, why don’t you come and have some coffee first? You can go when the sun comes up. There’ll be plenty of time before practice.”
In the kitchen Trina took a mug down from the cupboard.
“I’m surprised to see you up so early, Geno,” she said to him. “Sidney makes it sound like he’s always having to drag you out of bed.”
Zhenya wasn’t sure he followed. He almost never saw Sidney in the mornings, even before Sidney had committed to his disappearing act.
“Yes,” he said, hoping that covered his bases. He wandered over to the kitchen table and looked down at the magazine open there.
“Sit down, sit down.” Trina came around to the table, pressing the mug into his hands. “Now, tell me, what do you think of these chairs?”
Zhenya sat beside her, and made appropriately affirming noises as she flipped through the pages, showing him the furniture she’d circled in blue pen.
“We’ll have to do something about those drapes, too,” Trina said. “He’s sensitive to light, of course, but this is just ridiculous. I don’t know how you two have managed all these months.”
She stared down at the page a moment longer, then closed the magazine with a sigh.
“Well,” she said. “Enough of that. I’m glad I caught you, Geno—I’ve been hoping to talk with you alone.”
Trina’s expression had turned serious now, and Zhenya felt the first faint stirrings of dread. He wrapped his hands around the mug, feeling the heat bleed through against his palms. Maybe Sidney had changed his mind after Zhenya went to bed, and told his parents the truth.
“I know this can’t be easy for you,” Trina said. “All the attention this year, and the trouble with your old team. I don’t think I can ever tell you how much we appreciate it. You’ve given him the chance to play. And that’s—for Sidney, that’s always been the most important thing, through all of this. To keep playing.”
Zhenya’s heart sank. He looked down at his coffee. Somehow, this was worse.
“He was so upset when the ruling came down,” Trina said. “He’s been so brave, through everything else. He tries not to let it bother him. But that was just—I don’t think he expected it, not from the people he played with. He was devastated.”
“Ruling?” Zhenya said cautiously. When she looked at him, he said, “He’s not say.”
For some reason, this only made Trina look sadder.
“Oh—I thought you must’ve known. Some of the players filed a complaint last year, saying they didn’t feel safe with him on the ice. The league couldn’t ban him from playing, not without a lawsuit, but of course they’re allowed to require reasonable accommodations, to protect the other players.” There was an old bitterness in her voice. “I’d like to know what the league does to protect Sidney, but of course he’s the dangerous one.”
Zhenya digested this in silence.
“We were so worried when we heard it would be you,” Trina said, and then added quickly: “It was nothing personal, of course, it’s just—I know the situation is complicated, in Russia. We were afraid that you’d—well. I hoped you’d give him a chance. And we’re so happy, really. Sidney says it’s all worked out perfectly.”
“He say?” Zhenya couldn’t help but ask, and Trina smiled at him.
“He said it’s the best he could’ve hoped for.” She reached across the table and squeezed Zhenya’s hand. To his acute embarrassment, he saw that her eyes were bright with unshed tears.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” She drew back, wiping at her eyes. “Don’t mind me. He tells us he’s all right, that he’s happy, but—well, I’m sure you’ve seen how it is. I’m just glad he’s found a friend.”
It was clear Zhenya needed to say something—to offer her something, some reassurance, or comfort. He fumbled for something genuine.
“Sid is good,” he said. “Good hockey, good—lead team.”
It was a pathetic effort, so obviously inadequate that Zhenya’s face felt warm with embarrassment. But what else could he give her? He knew nothing about how Sidney spent his time, or who his real friends were, much less anything about his inner life. Zhenya had never been curious enough to ask.
It seemed to comfort her, though. “Thank you,” she said, dabbing at her eyes again. “Thank you for saying that, Geno.”
One of the floorboards creaked, and Zhenya drew back guiltily. Sidney was standing in the doorway of the kitchen watching them, his forehead creased in a frown.
“You’re up early,” he said to Zhenya, his tone neutral.
“Geno was going to go for a run,” Trina said. “But I asked him to sit with me and have coffee first, just until it was light.”
Sidney’s eyebrows flew up at that. “A run?”
Zhenya coughed. “Maybe, ah. I skip.”
“Oh, no,” Sidney said. “You should definitely go. I know how much you love your morning runs.”
“Is like—rain, little bit,” Zhenya said.
“The colder the better, right?” Sidney turned to his mother. “Geno’s really tough. He always says nothing wakes you up like a nice long three-mile run in the rain.”
Trina laughed. “That’s why you boys are professional athletes and not me, I suppose. Well, Geno, I don’t want to keep you. Enjoy your run, and we’ll have breakfast ready when you get back.”
“Yeah, G.” Sidney smiled at him, in a way that showed all his teeth. “Enjoy your run.”
They went to the Christmas tree lot after practice. Sidney wore a big coat and a hat pulled low over his eyes, though Zhenya wasn’t sure if he was trying to ward off the weak winter sun or avoid being recognized. A few people stopped and stared, but the Crosbys ignored them, and Zhenya, trailing along behind, glowered fiercely at anyone who looked like they might be thinking about approaching.
It gave him a chance to study Sidney covertly, thinking over what Trina had said.
Zhenya couldn’t make sense of it. She had seemed certain that Sidney was upset about the league’s ruling. But bonds were what vampires wanted, weren’t they? In stories they were always seducing humans into accepting the bond, promising them long life and superhuman strength and, of course, the perverse pleasures of being in thrall.
Cold feet, Genya had said of Sidney, months ago, but Zhenya hadn’t understood it then, and it made no more sense to him now. The whole business with Magnitka aside, Sidney stood to benefit far more from a bond than Zhenya did. He had a readily available food supply just down the hall, no farther than a well-stocked fridge.
It was true Sidney had seemed distressed, that first time. But surely that had been an act, an attempt to manipulate Zhenya into begging for it. It had worked, hadn’t it? He’d gotten Zhenya to lie down for him willingly, and plead for the bite—Zhenya hating himself for it all the while, and hating Sidney more.
Up ahead Taylor stopped and gasped. “Oh my god. That one.”
The lot was pretty picked over, this close to Christmas. But there was one absolutely massive tree left, in the very center—a gorgeous Douglas fir that must’ve been somewhere close to twelve feet tall.
“Sid, it’s perfect,” Taylor said, grabbing his coat sleeve. “We can put it in the foyer, so it’s the first thing you see when you come into the house. The ceiling’s definitely high enough in there. Oh my god, how has nobody already gotten this one?”
Zhenya, craning his neck up at it, thought it was probably because nobody could figure out how to transport it home.
“It’s kind of big,” Sidney said doubtfully. “What’s wrong with this one?” He poked at a woebegone little balsam fir.
“That’s a sad tree, Squid,” Taylor said patiently. “You can’t put a sad little guy like that in a haunted mansion, it’ll die of fright.”
“It’s not a haunted mansion.” Sidney poked at the little tree again. “I like it. It’s a nice size. Not too big.”
“That’s because it’s lost all its needles,” Taylor said. “Because no one loved it as a child. It’s the most depressing tree in the world.” She turned to Zhenya, who had been lurking at a safe distance, beyond the range of Sidney’s dagger stares. “Geno, which one do you want?”
Zhenya looked at Sidney, who was busy ignoring him, pretending to study the scraggly little tree. The massive tree was obviously the right choice—Zhenya felt strongly that major events should be celebrated with as much excess as possible—but he was loath to offend Sidney.
“Maybe—two tree?” he hazarded. “One kitchen, one—big room?”
Behind Taylor’s back, Sidney broke off a tiny branch and snapped it between his fingers, his mouth a tight line.
“Ugh, of course you’re siding with him.” Taylor rolled her eyes. “Fine, we’ll take Sad Tree too. I guess somebody should love it. It’s Christmas, right?”
It took two professional hockey players and one of the big burly Christmas tree lot attendants to successfully wrestle the gigantic tree to the top of Sidney’s Range Rover. Sad Tree went in the back with Zhenya. It was a tight fit, and he spent most of the ride home being pricked in all sorts of uncomfortable places by what seemed like uncommonly sharp little needles.
At home, Trina had made good on her threats: she seemed to have spent the morning buying up all the remaining Christmas decorations in Sewickley. There were bags of stuff all over the house, bursting with ornaments and tinsel and large wreaths.
“You help me,” Taylor said, grabbing Zhenya by the arm and steering him into the foyer. “I need somebody to decorate the top of the tree. Squid’s too short.”
Zhenya was immediately put to work draping seemingly endless strings of Christmas lights around the massive tree. Taylor was an extremely bossy taskmaster, and seemed to have zero compunctions about criticizing the quality of Zhenya’s decorating work. It was kind of charming.
“So,” she said, after she’d supervised Zhenya climbing all the way up the stairs and leaning out over the railing to settle a light-up angel on top of the tree. “What do you think of Christmas?”
Zhenya shrugged. Mostly he was happy to be safely back on the ground.
“Is good,” he said. “Nice for family.”
“It’s Sid’s favorite.” Taylor started ripping open a box of assorted ornaments. “He didn’t want us to come this year, though. He got into a big fight with Mom about it, and she cried for like, three days.”
Zhenya adjusted a strand of lights, for something to do with his hands.
“Don’t mess with that,” Taylor said. “It was perfect before. Look, now it’s all uneven.” She watched him put it back.
“I think he was worried about you,” she said. “Like maybe you wouldn’t like us or something.”
She said it casually, her head bent over the box, but Zhenya could hear the question in it.
“I like,” he said.
Taylor was quiet for a moment. She inspected one of the ornaments—a chubby baby angel—and offered it to him.
“Dad says Russians don’t like vampires,” she said. “But I’m not supposed to ask you about it, because it’s rude.”
Zhenya felt uncomfortable. Carefully, he hung the angel from one of the boughs.
“In Russia—no vampire,” he said.
“That’s impossible,” Taylor said. “Mom got me a book last year, and it said there have always been vampires, in every human society. Maybe you just haven’t met any.”
Zhenya thought of the old man in Moscow. But what did Alyosha know? He had been a tramp, probably: a poor old man who schoolchildren pelted with stones.
“Is rule.” He couldn’t remember the word for law. “For long time. Rule say, every one go.”
Taylor frowned. “They made them leave?”
“Give money, for go away.” Zhenya was hazy on the details—he had never been an especially dedicated student of history, or indeed any subject that wasn’t hockey—but he thought he remembered that. They hadn’t been turned out with nothing. “Is for—make safe.”
“Make who safe? The rest of you?” Taylor had abandoned the wires now, and was looking at him with deep skepticism, as if Zhenya had drafted the expulsion laws himself, and had really failed to consider the finer details. “It doesn’t sound very safe for them. What about their families? Did they have to leave too?”
Zhenya wasn’t sure how to explain that the idea of a vampire having a family—the kind of family who might grieve their leaving, or even go with them into exile—was about forty-eight hours old for him.
“My English,” he said, after a long moment.
Taylor shot him a suspicious look, but she didn’t press him on it. They worked in silence for a few minutes, hanging ornaments on the tree, and then Taylor asked, “Do you want to skate later? Sid said we could go to the rink after dinner.”
It was an olive branch, and Zhenya seized it gladly. “You play?”
“Yeah,” Taylor said. “But I’m a goalie.”
“Goalie crazy,” Zhenya said, and Taylor grinned at him.
“Hey, look,” she said, digging around in the bottom of one of the bags. “Mom got candy canes. You want one?”
“You really don’t have to come,” Sidney said to him under his breath that evening, as they loaded up the car. “I’ll tell her you changed your mind.”
Zhenya shrugged, avoiding Sidney’s eyes.
“Fine,” Sidney said, slamming the trunk shut.
In the car Sidney and Taylor got into a heated argument about something that continued all the way to the rink. Zhenya sat in the backseat staring out the window, not even attempting to follow the rapidfire pace of their conversation. He was feeling kind of overwhelmed.
They had the ice to themselves. Taylor was as fiercely competitive as Sidney, though significantly more gifted at chirping. Within the first twenty minutes Zhenya had had his hair, his outfit, his slapshot, and his homeland dragged over the coals.
“Stop, stop,” he said, laughing as he skated away from the net, Taylor mocking the way he tied his skates. “You kill, I’m dead, stop.”
Sidney was unusually quiet on the ice. He wasn’t actively glaring at Zhenya, not in front of Taylor, but he didn’t seem happy, his jaw a tight line.
Zhenya was teaching Taylor how to curse a forward’s ancestors in Russian—“Good word for goalie,” he told her—when Sidney said abruptly: “Guys, come on. Let’s go home.”
“Aww, Squid.” Taylor shoved her face shield up. “You’re no fun. Just a little bit longer.”
“It’s getting late,” Sidney said, his voice tight, and skated off to the benches without another word. Taylor glanced at Zhenya, who shrugged. It was possibly the first time he’d heard Sidney express a desire to leave the ice. Usually the trainers had to cajole and sometimes threaten him off, to the tune of a lecture about how moderately accelerated healing didn’t mean Sidney was immune to muscle strain or injury.
Taylor went off to change in one of the single-occupancy stalls. The second they were alone in the locker room, Sidney rounded on Zhenya.
“Stop acting like this,” he hissed. “What are you trying to do here?”
Zhenya eyed him warily. “You say—be nice.”
“I said leave my family out of it,” Sidney snapped. “Not act like you’re my mom’s long-lost son, or my sister’s new best friend. It’s just going to make it harder on them.”
Zhenya felt thrown off-balance. “I like Sid family.”
“Yeah, well,” Sidney said in a hard voice. “Maybe I don’t want them to like you. Especially when you’re not—when you—”
He trailed off. He looked confused, suddenly, as if he had lost the thread of what he was saying.
Zhenya looked closely at him. “Sid?”
“You’re not—” Sidney repeated, sounding a little dazed. “You—I feel—”
He swayed where he stood. Then, almost in slow motion, his knees buckled beneath him.
Zhenya was moving before he’d fully registered what was happening. Sidney collapsed into his arms. He was heavy, startlingly so, and it took Zhenya a moment to accept that he wasn’t actually strong enough to lift Sidney up, or even lower him gracefully to the ground. Instead he just held on, his arms wrapped tightly around Sidney’s middle, suspended in an awkward embrace.
Luckily, Sidney was already beginning to stir. He leaned heavily against Zhenya’s chest, blinking slowly back into consciousness.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Felt dizzy.”
It seemed to take him a minute to register where he was, and who was holding him up. Sidney stiffened in Zhenya’s arms, and then shrank back from him, staring at Zhenya as if he suspected some trick.
“Sid,” Zhenya said urgently. “What happen?”
“I’m fine,” Sidney said. “I just stood up too fast, or something.”
“Not sit,” Zhenya pointed out. He peered worriedly at Sidney. His skin was even whiter than usual, with an oddly waxy sheen to it, and the circles under his eyes were so dark the skin looked almost bruised. Sidney looked unwell, and Zhenya had an uneasy inkling he knew why.
“Sid,” he said. “You think—maybe need?”
“What?” Sidney snapped.
Zhenya tapped two fingers against the side of his throat. Sidney’s gaze dropped to where Zhenya indicated, lingering there for a moment. Then he shook his head.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I don’t need it.”
Zhenya hesitated. “Sid, it’s long time.”
He tried to remember when Sidney had last visited him. Not on the overnight: Zhenya had spent that evening alone in his room, watching a fascinating television show where Americans brought pieces of junk from their attics to a man who told them if the junk was worth thousands of dollars or no money at all. It had been two weeks at least, if not longer.
“I said I was fine,” Sidney said, a stubborn set to his jaw. “My family’s only here a couple more days. We can do that after they’re gone.”
Taylor woke them up at eight in the morning on Christmas Day, shrieking about presents. A huge pile of wrapped gifts had appeared, as if by magic, under the tree. Zhenya was lightly mortified to discover that some of them were for him, though no one seemed bothered that he hadn’t bought any of his own.
“It’s your first North American Christmas, dear,” Trina told him. “We wanted you to have something to open, too.”
They had gotten him a video game console for the den, and two games he’d been eyeing, and a very soft sweater that fit him so perfectly he thought someone—Sidney, or Trina maybe, had checked his shirts in the dryer. Taylor was beside herself with excitement, and kept tearing gifts open and shrieking over them, as if she had never in her life received such wonderful presents. Everyone was laughing, and there was plenty of coffee, and Mr. Crosby made pancakes with chocolate chips in them for everyone when they’d finished with the gifts. Zhenya took a picture of the Crosbys together in front of the giant tree, and then, at Trina’s insistence, posed for one with Sidney.
Finally, around eleven, Zhenya put his plate in the sink and slipped quietly upstairs to his room.
He was feeling overwhelmed again, and needed some space to think. He felt guilty, too, for barging in on so much of Sidney’s time with his family. Standing next to the tree, smiling for Trina’s camera, Zhenya had felt how rigidly Sidney was holding himself, as if he was loath even to brush against Zhenya on accident.
He crawled back into bed. The curtains were tied back, and in the snowy yard he could see Sidney and Taylor building a snowman—or Sidney was building one, with the same degree of focus and intensity he brought to everything he did, while Taylor seemed mostly interested in karate-kicking it down when Sidney turned around to gather more snow. As Zhenya watched, Sidney, feigning anger, started chasing a shrieking Taylor around the yard. Finally he caught her around the waist and dragged them both to the ground, where Taylor, unfazed, began shoving snow down the back of Sidney’s coat.
People didn’t really touch Sidney at the rink. Nobody punched his shoulder in the locker room, or messed with his hair as a joke, or smacked his ass when he went past to the showers—as if he were off limits, somehow, set apart from the easy physicality of team friendships. Zhenya had thought of Sidney as stiff and reserved. But here, with his family, Sidney melted into his father’s hugs, and wrestled gleefully in the snow with Taylor, and leaned his head against his mother’s shoulder while they looked through magazines together on the sofa, picking out furniture that didn’t look like it might bite you in the dark.
His family wasn’t afraid of Sidney. And with them, in their warm and easy company, Sidney didn’t seem frightening, not in the least. He seemed like a teenage boy: a little silly sometimes, a little sulky, but boyish and happy, vibrant and alive.
They’re not even human, he had said to Seryozha, not two weeks ago. They’re not even alive.
Guilt ate at his stomach like acid. How would the Crosbys look at him if they knew? He pictured their faces: Taylor, stunned and dismayed; Trina’s hopeful expression crumbling. He wondered if Mr. Crosby would be surprised—of the three, he seemed the wariest of Zhenya, less eager than the rest to welcome him in.
It was early afternoon, but Zhenya crawled into bed anyway, pulling the duvet over his head, wanting the close dark space. His head felt too full. He wished he could talk to Seryozha now, but what would he even say?
I was wrong, he thought, and it was—terrifying, somehow, to even think it aloud, to let himself look at the truth head-on.
They played the day after Christmas, a home game against the Devils. The Crosbys were there, though Sidney, for mysterious reasons of his own, refused to speak to them before the game. Zhenya waved to them during warmups and flipped a puck over the glass for Taylor, who was wearing Flower’s jersey. Sidney had promised to introduce her to him after the game, and Taylor had been beside herself with excitement all day.
Zhenya skated out last, as usual, though for the first time he felt self-conscious about it. He wondered what lie Sidney had told his parents to explain the change in his rituals.
The game was a disaster almost from the start. Nothing seemed to be clicking. Brodeur was always tricky for them, but tonight he was a brick wall, effortlessly blocking the handful of shots they managed to get on net. Therrien shuffled the lines midway through the second, throwing him and Sidney on a line together in a desperate bid to generate some offense, but it was useless.
Their chance came in the last minute of the second period, when Colby took a high stick to the face. He came back to the bench with a four-minute power play and a truly impressive nosebleed.
“Jeez,” Max said, staring. “You gonna need a transfusion or something?”
Colby grinned, a towel pressed to his nose. “Always been a good bleeder. Four minutes, boys. Let’s get ’em!”
“First unit,” Therrien barked out, and the guys poured over the boards. Zhenya got up, but Sidney, sitting a few feet away on the bench, didn’t move.
“Sid,” he said in a low voice, just as Therrien shouted, “Crosby, let’s go.”
But Sidney was still frozen, hunched over on the bench. Zhenya glanced at his face, and then, with a little jolt of alarm, looked closer.
Sidney’s nostrils were flaring. He was staring, as if transfixed, at a drop of blood on his glove.
“Sid,” Zhenya hissed, more urgently, and finally Sidney looked up. His lips were pressed tightly together, though there was something strange about his face; his mouth seemed distorted, somehow, stretched too wide. His terrified eyes met Zhenya’s.
Something flared to life in Zhenya’s chest. He took a step towards Sidney, and then another. Sidney stared wordlessly up at him, his eyes wide and almost pleading. A dizzying wash of terror flooded Zhenya’s body, so sudden and so strong it almost sent him to his knees.
“Sid,” he said in a low voice, hardly aware of Therrien shouting from down the bench, or of the other guys watching them, murmuring to each other. “Sid, is okay. We go. Now, okay?”
Another wave of fear. Sidney was trembling now, and Zhenya understood without knowing how that Sidney was too petrified to move, terrified of what might happen, of what he might do.
Zhenya crouched down beside him, so they were at eye-level.
“I take care,” he said quietly. “Okay? You not do. I take care.”
Sidney inhaled through his nostrils. Slowly, he nodded.
“Okay, we go,” Zhenya said, and grabbed Sidney by the elbow, hauling him up and yelling, “Move, move!” as guys scattered before them.
Therrien shouted after them, cursing, but Zhenya ignored him. His focus had narrowed to a single point: Sidney, and what he understood now was Sidney’s fear, wave after wave of horror and fear crashing over both of them like surf breaking on the shore, eddying and flowing between them, from Sidney to Zhenya and back again.
In the tunnel they passed one of the assistant trainers, carrying a bloody towel that must have been Colby’s. Sidney snarled and lunged, held back only by Zhenya’s grip on the back of his sweater.
“No, Sid,” Zhenya said firmly, yanking him back hard enough that Sidney stumbled against his chest. Sidney’s eyes were shining now with that strange light, the golden iris swallowing up his pupils. His lips were drawn back in a snarl, revealing his fully descended fangs.
The trainer screamed, dropping the towel, and Sidney began to struggle fiercely against Zhenya’s grip. He was strong, stronger than Zhenya would have anticipated.
“Get out of the way,” Zhenya snapped in Russian, pushing past the trainer. He pushed Sidney ahead of him, still holding onto his jersey. In the brightly lit arena hallway he hesitated, unsure where to go. People were starting to come towards them—arena staff, he thought, and a security guard—and Sidney’s terror, washing through the bond, felt less and less human, more like the vicious panic of a trapped animal.
“Get back, get back,” Zhenya shouted, English failing him. Jen was sprinting down the hallway in her bare feet, as if she’d kicked off her heels to run.
“Geno!” she called. “Geno, get him to the weights room, okay? Down the stairs, first door on the left. I’ll keep everyone back.”
Zhenya sagged in relief. “Okay, okay,” he said quietly to Sidney, wrapping an arm around his waist to secure him. Sidney thrashed in his hold, a flash of animal fear, but Zhenya, flying on a surge of adrenaline, was stronger. “Be good,” he said firmly, shaking Sidney a little, and with some effort he managed to manhandle Sidney down the stairs, skates and gear and all. Behind them Jen was shouting, “Move back, move back. Everything’s fine. Everything’s okay.”
The door to the weights room was open. He pushed Sidney through, releasing his hold on him, and slammed it shut behind both of them, sliding the deadbolt in place.
“Jesus,” he breathed out, leaning his forehead against the door in relief. His heart was pounding in his temples, and he felt shaky and scared, though his fear felt like a faint trickle compared to the raging current of Sidney’s.
He turned away from the door.
Sidney was lurking behind one of the machines. His gaze was fixed on Zhenya, eyes shining with a fierce golden light. He snarled again, baring his fangs.
This was bloodlust, Zhenya knew. This—the snarling, the lurking, those shining eyes—this was what the movies showed seconds before the carnage, before the screaming began.
Sidney wasn’t Sidney anymore. It was no use trying to speak to him, to reason with him. There was only the monster now, and its sick, insatiable thirst, and—its terror.
Zhenya closed his eyes. He took a breath, and reached out with his mind, sending out a tendril of—something. Curiosity, maybe: a gentle wondering.
What are you? What do you need?
The answer, when it came, was like a dam bursting, a tidal wave of feeling flooding his senses. Images and sensations flashed through his mind, his body: not like pictures on a movie screen, but—sense memories, almost, overwhelmingly visceral, thought and feeling and sensation all twined together. There was the terror, that frantic thrashing panic Zhenya had felt before, but beneath it there were other feelings too, horror and worry and a grief that felt like a voice screaming in the darkness, unbroken and unceasing. But stronger than all of that, stronger even than the fear, was the gnawing hunger, which seemed to fill every cell of his body—a great devouring emptiness that expanded without limits, swallowing everything up: an annihilating hunger.
Zhenya wrenched his mind free, his eyes flying open, the effort rocking him back a step.
“Sidney,” he said softly. “Think you hungry, yes?”
Slowly, so slowly, he grabbed a fistful of his jersey and pulled it off over his head, dropping it onto the floor. Next came his shoulder pads, his chest protector, each piece removed with the same painstaking care. Sidney was still half-crouched behind the weight machines, though he tracked Zhenya’s movements with gleaming gold eyes.
“Okay,” Zhenya said, stripped down to his sweaty base layers. His heart was pounding, but he forced himself to stay calm. He took a single step forward.
Sidney hissed, baring his fangs, as if warning him to keep back.
“Sidney, Sidney,” Zhenya said, his voice light. “You cat now? Gonna scratch?”
Sidney cocked his head to the side, like an animal listening intently without understanding what it was hearing. Zhenya took a cautious step towards him, and then another, until he felt a fresh wave of terror flood the bond.
This time, though, it didn’t overwhelm him. Zhenya breathed in, and out: a long slow breath. He pushed back gently: an answering wave of calm steadiness.
“That’s all right,” he said in Russian, slowing. “That’s all right. Come to me, if you like. I’ll wait here for you.”
Sidney slipped closer, creeping towards him, though he kept the row of machines between them. Zhenya could feel the conflicting instincts warring within Sidney, hunger and fear.
“I’ll help,” Zhenya said to him, quietly. “I know you're frightened. I’ll help, if you let me.”
He closed his eyes again, and reached for Sidney, feeling the bright flare of Sidney’s presence in his mind’s eye. In the room Sidney was so close to him, and yet in Zhenya’s mind it felt as if Sidney were a long ways away, as if Zhenya had to stretch out a great distance to reach him. But he could still reach him. Without knowing quite how, or why, Zhenya knew he was the only one who could.
He took a deep breath, steadying himself. Then Zhenya pulled.
Sidney made a low, distraught sound, and then he was on him, the full weight of his body colliding with Zhenya, brutal as a hard hit along the boards. Thrown off balance, Zhenya caught at the front of Sidney’s jersey and tugged hard, bringing them both tumbling down onto the heavy mats. Sidney crawled on top of him, pinning him down. He was still in full pads, bulky and awkward as he snuffled at Zhenya’s throat, nosing at his racing pulse.
“Yes,” Zhenya said in Russian. “It’s okay, I’ve got you now. I’ve got you.”
He felt the sharp bright points of Sidney’s fangs at his throat, and closed his eyes. But the bite never came. Instead Sidney made that low, pained noise again.
Zhenya opened his eyes, staring up at him. Sidney’s fangs were bared, as cruelly sharp as ever, but his face was twisted in an awful grimace. He seemed to be struggling with himself—against himself. Zhenya touched his shoulder, and then, hesitantly, slid his hand up, touching the nape of Sidney’s neck as gently as he could. In the face of Sidney’s distress, he felt a sudden surge of protectiveness, an instinctive desire to soothe.
“Sid,” he murmured. “Is okay. You need—take.”
Sidney keened, a heartbreaking sound, and then he sank his teeth into Zhenya’s throat.
This time, Zhenya didn’t fight the venom’s effects. He let himself drift, fingers still idly stroking Sidney’s soft, sweat-damp curls, the drawing pull of Sidney’s mouth at his throat lulling him deeper into that hazy, dreamlike place. Every time a fresh wave of Sidney’s fear washed over them both Zhenya pushed gently back, flooding the bond with yes, you need, take. Through the bond he could feel the shape of Sidney’s mind growing gradually stronger and more distinct. The transformation startled him: he hadn’t realized how weakened Sidney had become, how diminished.
He didn’t know how long it lasted. At some point Sidney’s thirst must have been sated: Zhenya’s eyes were closed, but he felt Sidney licking slowly, sluggishly, at the bite to close it. Then Sidney slumped against him, exhausted, his face buried in the crook of Zhenya’s shoulder.
He wasn’t sure if they dozed off. He was distantly conscious of Sidney’s breath against his skin, of Sidney curled warm against his side, but some part of his mind—or was it Sidney’s mind? It was difficult, like this, to tell the difference—seemed to be dreaming. They were together again in a dark forest, and that high eerie singing, emanating from everywhere and nowhere at once, filled Zhenya’s ears, his mouth, the hollow places in his chest. In the room Sidney shifted against him, restless, and in the heart of that dark wood Zhenya took his hand, and held it, and felt that strange leaping of his heart again.
Someone was pounding on the door.
Zhenya groaned. He blinked, and blinked again, bewildered and disoriented. The lights were too bright. A heavy weight blanketed him, half suffocating him.
“Geno,” a voice shouted. “Geno, can you hear us?”
Zhenya groaned again, and this time the weight on top of him shifted.
“Sid,” he mumbled. “Sid, wake.”
Through the bond he felt Sidney come back to himself, a violent lurching sensation. Sidney made an awful sound, a kind of choked cry, and scrambled to his feet.
The pounding at the door grew louder. Sidney’s eyes darted around the room, wild-eyed and frantic.
“Oh god,” he said. “Oh god, no.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said, or tried to say: his voice came out as barely more than air. He felt sluggish and slow, though he could feel the venom doing its work, strength ebbing back into his exhausted muscles in slow degrees.
Sidney stared at him, his face a mask of horror.
“Geno,” he said. “Geno—oh god, no.”
“Sid,” Zhenya said again, and this time his voice worked, if a bit hoarsely. “Is okay. All—okay.”
Sidney moved towards him, and then caught himself, stumbling back.
“I won’t—I won’t,” he said. “I didn’t—I won’t, I—”
“Geno,” a new voice called at the door, and Zhenya saw Sidney start violently. It was Jen. “Geno, we’ve got a lot of worried people out here, and I can’t keep them out much longer. I need you to say something, okay? Tell me you’re okay.”
“Everything okay,” Zhenya shouted back, and there was a brief pause, and then Jen said through the door, relief evident in her voice, “Okay, good. That’s good, Geno, I’m glad to hear it.” Another pause, and the murmur of voices outside. “Geno, can you tell me—we have some people here, if—if we need them. I don’t think we need them, but—”
Fear sliced through the bond. Sidney’s face had gone very white.
“Sid, what,” Zhenya said, and Sidney shuddered, and drew back.
“It’s containment,” he said. “It’s—for me.” He wrapped his arms around himself, and Zhenya felt images flicking through Sidney’s mind, more rapidly than he could parse them. A white room. A nurse in a full hazmat suit, accompanied by two guards. Doorknobs that burned to the touch: silver.
“Geno,” Jen called, and Zhenya shuddered free of the—memory? Nightmare? He pulled himself to his feet, and crossed to the door. He could feel Sidney behind him, though his presence in Zhenya’s mind felt like a collapsing star, folding in on itself, as if trying to disappear.
He opened the door, just a few inches, and put his foot behind it, so no one could force it open.
Jen was standing just on the other side, her hand on the door handle.
“Oh, thank god,” she said when she saw him.
“Everything okay,” Zhenya said. “Jen. You—make go. Not need. Sid, okay. Not need.”
“Thank god,” she breathed again. “Security called them in. I told them—I knew he’d be fine. I knew he wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Make go,” Zhenya said again, but softly. “Sid scare. Make go.”
She nodded. “I’ll get them out of here. Give me five minutes. Geno, his family’s here, too.”
“Yes, okay,” Zhenya said, though he didn’t open the door any wider until he saw Trina’s stricken face, and Mr. Crosby behind her.
Zhenya stood guard at the door. He trusted Jen, but he wasn’t sure who else was out there, and he had no intention of letting anyone near Sidney right now.
Sidney was sitting on the mats, his knees wrapped around his chest. Taylor and his parents had surrounded him, and Zhenya thought it was on purpose, as if they could shield him from view behind the protective wall of their bodies. Mr. Crosby had helped Sidney take off his sweaty gear, removing it piece by piece, murmuring to him the whole time. Now the four of them huddled together, Trina rubbing Sidney’s back as he trembled and shook, Taylor nestled against his side.
Jen came back to the door. “It’s just me,” she said through the gap. “Everyone else is gone. I told them we need a few minutes alone.”
Zhenya let her in. She handed over a bottle of Gatorade, a large bar of chocolate, and two energy bars from the trainers’ stash.
“Eat all of that, okay?” she said, and then went over to the mats, still barefoot, and knelt down a few feet from the Crosby family.
“Sidney,” she said quietly. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”
Sidney’s face was still ashen. “Jen,” he said. “Are they—will they—”
“No, no,” she said. “Mario’s gone down to the station to handle it. There won’t even be an official report. Geno did everything exactly right. He took good care of you. That’s what a bondmate’s for, Sidney.”
Sidney’s gaze flicked to Zhenya, then back to Jen.
“I have to talk to them, don’t I,” he said, so quietly Zhenya could barely hear him.
Jen sighed. “You don’t have to,” she said. “You don’t, Sidney. I can put them off till tomorrow. But the longer we wait—”
Sidney closed his eyes. “I know,” he said. “I know.”
“He can’t possibly,” Trina said, angrier than Zhenya had ever heard her. “How can they expect that? He needs to rest.”
“We can wait,” Jen said, but Sidney sat up, shaking his head.
“She’s right, Mom. It’ll be worse. It’ll be twelve hours for them to come up with their stories, no quotes, no sources, and then they’ll say I’m refusing to talk, or the team’s hiding something. It has to be tonight.”
“Sidney,” Mr. Crosby said gruffly.
“Dad, I have a responsibility to the team,” Sidney said softly. “They took a huge risk on me. I owe it to them, not to be any more of a disruption.”
He looked at his father for a long moment, something wordlessly communicated between them. Mr. Crosby sighed, and nodded.
Sidney looked up at Jen. “I’m ready,” he said. “I should probably—I should change, right? My suit?”
“No,” Jen said firmly. “It’ll look like you have something to apologize for. You’re doing it just like this, okay? You’re a hockey player, Sid. I want them to remember that. You’re a hockey player, and you’re allowed to be here. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Jen pulled him aside in the hallway, when Sidney had gone to change.
“Sid’s going to talk to the press,” she said. “But I think it’s probably best if you don’t.”
Zhenya gave her a questioning look.
“I meant what I said in there,” Jen said. “You did everything right, Geno. You kept him safe. But we need to present a unified front. It’s important for us to communicate that the bond worked exactly as it was supposed to, and that the team has absolutely no concerns about safety issues on the ice. We can’t—I understand that there are certain things you have to say, to make all of this okay back home. But we need one message tonight. Okay?”
Slowly, Zhenya nodded. He felt a gnawing guilt, but also an undeniable sense of relief.
“I thought you could stay outside the room with Taylor,” Jen said. “His parents will go in with him, but she doesn’t need to hear this. And that way people will see you, at least. So they can confirm that you’re okay.”
He waited with Taylor in the hallway outside the press conference. She had been almost completely silent for the past hour, but Zhenya could see how tense she was, and felt unsure about what to do, or say.
He could see Sidney through the windows. He sat at the table in the front of the room all alone, his shoulders slightly hunched. Jen had taken his hat away from him, and without it Zhenya thought he looked vulnerable, and very young: a child facing a firing squad.
“I hate this,” Taylor said suddenly, and hit the wall with the side of her fist, hard enough that Zhenya winced in sympathy. “I hate it.”
Zhenya watched her in silence.
“They put horrible things about him in the paper, all the time.” She struck the wall again. “It’s all lies, but nobody makes them stop. And then kids say stuff at school, or people call the house, and we have to pretend like we don’t hear any of it, like it’s not even happening. We have to act like everything’s fine, because Dad says it makes Sid upset knowing we’re upset.”
She lifted her hand again, but Zhenya caught her wrist. She turned on him, her eyes blazing with anger.
“Let go,” she said fiercely. “Let go of me. You’re not even—why aren’t you helping him? He’s in there all alone, and you’re just standing here. You could tell them, and you’re not—”
“Taylor,” he said, but she wrenched free of his grasp, and went across the hallway. He watched her slide down the wall until she was sitting on the ground, knees drawn up to her chest, her face hidden from him.
Zhenya looked through the window again. Sidney was listening intently to a reporter’s question, his expression politely blank, but Zhenya felt the flinch ripple through the bond.
“You stay,” he said to Taylor, who lifted her head, her face streaked with tears.
“Where are you going?” she said, but Zhenya was already jogging down the hall.
The game had been over for a while now, but the locker room was still unusually full: everyone waiting, probably, for some word about what had happened. Zhenya paused on the threshold, and then strode in.
A hush fell over the room. Everyone was staring.
“Geno,” Colby said. “Man, are you okay?”
Zhenya ignored him. He crossed the room, to where Seryozha was sitting in his stall, fully dressed.
“I need your help,” Zhenya said. “Please, it’s important. Can you come with me?”
“Geno,” Jen whispered. “Geno, what are you—”
Zhenya shouldered past her, Seryozha in tow. Sidney was answering a question at the front, his eyes downcast, but he broke off when he heard them coming. Zhenya felt the pulse of his terror through the bond.
Zhenya took the chair next to him. After some furious whispering, someone produced a third chair for Seryozha.
“Sorry am late,” Zhenya said into the mic, and watched the reporters lean forward en masse, a hungry gleam in their eyes.
“Geno,” Sidney said, in an urgent undertone.
Zhenya turned towards the assembled crowd and flashed his toothiest, most insincere American smile.
“You have question?”
There was a brief pause, and then suddenly everyone was clamoring at once, talking over each other. Jen shot him a look, and then turned back to the crowd, calling out a name.
“Dan Wright, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Geno, after what happened in the second period, a lot of people are calling for the Department of Player Safety to review tonight’s incident. As someone who was, ah—directly affected, do you believe that disciplinary action should be taken?”
Sidney was sitting very still next to him, hardly breathing. He could see Sidney’s parents standing at the back of the room, their faces pinched and anxious.
Zhenya leaned into the mic. “Sorry, English not so good. Sergei help.” He turned to Seryozha then, and whispered something in his ear.
Seryozha blinked at him, though his expression didn’t change. Zhenya nudged him.
“Evgeni says—he’s very upset,” Seryozha translated. “And of course he hopes there will be disciplinary action taken.”
Sid stiffened beside him, his spine ramrod straight.
“There were thirty seconds left in the period,” Seryozha went on. “In that time he could have scored five—no, ten goals, easy. But now he will lose the scoring race to Ovechkin, and will be forced to buy Ovechkin a terribly ugly car.”
Zhenya leaned forward. “Yellow,” he said into the microphone, deadpan.
There was a ripple of startled laughter. Zhenya whispered something else to Seryozha, who added, “This is obviously a terrible crime, and the guilty party must be held accountable. Sidney should apologize for the headaches this car will cause every driver in Washington.”
More laughter, less startled this time. Zhenya glanced at Jen, standing behind the cameras. She had a hand over her mouth, hiding what he hoped was a smile.
He leaned into the mic again. “Everything okay,” he said. “Everybody face—so serious. Why? No hurt. Sid okay, Geno okay. Bond is—make fix. Easy. So I’m think, okay, okay. You sad for car. Maybe—Sid say sorry.”
He turned to Sidney. Sidney was staring back at him, wide-eyed and startled. Gently, very gently, Zhenya felt for the edges of the bond, and pushed his feelings through it, as he had before: acceptance, and permission, and traces of smug delight at the reporters’ slightly shocked expressions.
“Sid,” he said. “You sorry? For car?”
Sidney hesitated a moment. “Yes,” he said. “Geno, I’m sorry.”
His voice was too serious, too sincere for the joke. Zhenya despaired of him, but he clapped Sidney on the shoulder anyway.
“Okay, you buy,” he said. “Then I forgive.” He turned back to the crowd of reporters, grinning widely, though his heart was pounding in his chest. “Maybe now you ask power play?”
Afterwards, Jen threw her arms around him and hugged him for a long minute. “I should yell at you,” she whispered in his ear. “That was way off script. But you did good, kid.”
And then he was face to face with Sidney.
Sidney, who was looking at Zhenya like he’d never seen him before.
Zhenya opened his mouth, and then closed it again. He had no idea what to say.
Sidney didn’t seem to know either. They stood staring at each other for a moment, and then, a little uncertainly, Sidney said, “We were going to pick up pizza. It’s sort of tradition, the day after Christmas. I know the Gonchars are feeling better now, but—”
“Pizza?” Zhenya said, perking up, and Sidney laughed, the sound bright, startled out of him.
“Yeah,” he said. “If you want.”
They ate around the kitchen table: the Crosbys and Zhenya, who had secured an entire large pepperoni pizza and was defending it against Taylor’s efforts to swipe pieces of it for herself. Sidney was sitting across the table between his parents, laughing at Zhenya’s increasingly dramatic efforts to defend his rightful property. His face had lost that pale, pinched look, and the difference was marked: his eyes seemed brighter, and his cheeks were slightly flushed, from the warmth of the room and from laughing.
I did that, Zhenya thought, and for the first time the thought filled him not with horror but with something like pride—or joy, maybe, his heart lifting. I gave him that.
He thought maybe Sidney could feel it—through the bond, if that was what this thing was, this strange new awareness between them. Zhenya could see Sidney sitting across the table, smiling, but he could feel him, too, as if Sidney’s presence were a radio playing softly, almost inaudibly, in the background of his mind. Now and then, when Sidney laughed, or said something to Taylor, it was as if someone had turned the dial up, and Zhenya could hear him—no, could feel him: a sudden flash of happiness, or relief, or uncomplicated joy, flaring through him, his own and not his own; his own, and somehow Sidney’s.
Sidney kept looking at him across the table, like he was trying to figure Zhenya out. He kept looking, his eyes bright, and Zhenya kept looking back, and it was—it was a lot. It was making Zhenya’s head spin.
He made some excuse and got up from the kitchen table, taking his plate into the kitchen and setting it down in the sink. He felt almost feverish, his skin too-warm and prickling all over with sensation, and while he could feel the bond beginning to settle, Sidney’s dial in his head turned down a little lower, he thought it might help to get a little more distance, just enough to clear his head. He slipped into the side room off the kitchen and put his slippers on, and after a moment’s hesitation, Sidney’s coat, which was hanging on the nearest hook. Then he ducked out the side door, out onto the back patio.
It was a bracingly cold night, the temperature hovering somewhere below freezing, but the chill felt good against his flushed face. He stood there looking out over the snowy expanse of the yard, at the dark white-capped trees huddled together here and there in the distance. The kitchen was ablaze with light. Sidney’s presence in his mind was quieter out here, but the coat held his scent, and Zhenya, breathing it in, felt that strange doubleness again, that sense of being—himself and something else, someone other, and he wondered if Sidney, up there in the warm kitchen with his family, felt it too.
The door to the house opened softly behind him. Zhenya heard the crunch of boots on snow, and straightened up, feeling oddly caught out.
Mr. Crosby crossed the icy patio with care, stopping a few feet away. He nodded at Zhenya, before turning to look upwards. It was a clear, cold night, and the winter constellations seemed to burn with unusual ferocity above them, clean white pinpricks of concentrated light shining through the deep purple velvet of the sky.
“News said it might snow again tonight,” Mr. Crosby observed.
It was hard to imagine: there were no clouds visible, as far as Zhenya could see. But stranger things had happened.
They were quiet together for a long moment.
“I wanted to thank you,” Mr. Crosby said. “For what you did tonight.”
He was still gazing up at the stars. In the moonlight he looked tired and older than he had seemed to Zhenya before, the lines of his face carved deep.
“Is nothing,” Zhenya mumbled.
“You and I both know that’s not true.”
It didn’t sound like a rebuke: just an observation. Zhenya said nothing.
“What you did tonight—Sidney won’t ever ask for that kind of help.” Mr. Crosby’s voice was steady and calm. “He doesn’t expect it. Doesn’t think he’s got the right to it, maybe. He’ll take on the weight of the whole world, and you won’t ever hear him complain. But I don’t mind telling you, Geno. It hurts me sometimes, the way he thinks he has to carry it alone.”
He turned to look at Zhenya then. There was something uncomfortably keen in his gaze, and Zhenya felt, for the first time, as if he were being seen, truly seen: not the fairytale version of Geno that Sidney had constructed for his family, but the real Zhenya, who had done and thought and felt so many shameful things. He fought the impulse to squirm, or look away.
“I’m grateful to you,” Mr. Crosby said. “I’m grateful he’s got somebody here who’ll help him shoulder the load.”
“Mr. Crosby,” Zhenya said, slightly choked. It was too much: how kind they were to him. How clearly they wanted things to be good between him and Sidney, and how little they understood the way things really were.
But Mr. Crosby shook his head, his expression softening.
“It’s all right, son,” he said. “I’m not Trina, hoping for something that won’t ever be. I know it’s not forever, and you’ll be moving on. But I want you to know I’m grateful to you, for what you did tonight. That’s all.”
He looked back up at the night sky, squinting.
“You know, when he got hurt—the hospital called and told us he hadn’t made it. It takes a while, I guess, for the turning to take. Nobody knew he was going to wake up. We flew all the way to Quebec thinking we’d be bringing our son home in a box.”
He cleared his throat.
“I always think, there’s two things I’ll remember, as long as I live. First time I held him in my arms, when he was just born. And then—what it felt like, walking into that hospital room and seeing him there, sitting up and talking. Asking the nurse how long it’d be till he could play again.”
He turned to Zhenya then, and Zhenya saw there were tears in his eyes.
“He’s a good boy,” Mr. Crosby said. “My only boy. His mother and I—we’re so damn proud of him. I just wanted you to know that.”
Zhenya couldn’t fall asleep that night. He lay curled up in his bed, hugging one of the too-soft pillows to his chest, staring into the darkness.
He thought he understood, now, why the Crosbys touched Sid so much—why they stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head and held him close on the sofa. They had lost him forever, and then he had come back to them. To the rest of the world, what had happened to Sidney was a tragedy. For them, it was a miracle.
He went downstairs. The lights were off, but the kitchen was awash in moonlight. Sidney was sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the bay windows. Just as he’d had known Sidney would be, Zhenya realized now, the bond drawing him closer.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Sidney asked.
Zhenya shook his head. He filled a glass of water at the sink and took it over to the table, taking a chair facing the yard.
“There’s all kinds of animals out here.” Sidney was still gazing out the window. “They come out at night, when it’s quiet. Deer and raccoons and foxes. I saw a coyote, too, a few times. I think it was the same one.”
“How you know?”
“It was all by itself,” Sidney said. “Like it’d lost its pack, maybe.”
They were quiet for a long time, looking out into the darkness.
“Sid,” Zhenya said. “What happen today—”
Sid nodded, as if he’d been waiting for Zhenya to bring it up.
“You not eat,” Zhenya said. “So you sick.”
“Yeah,” Sidney said, and then was quiet for a moment. “We can break the bond.”
Zhenya could understand each of the words Sidney had said separately, but together, their meaning baffled him.
“I’ll talk to Mario in the morning. I don’t think Metallurg will come after you now, this far into the season. But if you’re worried, we—I’ll go on IR, and we can pretend we’re still bonded. That way you can still play.”
“Sid, what?” Zhenya said. “Why you say, break bond?”
“I put your life in danger tonight.” Sidney’s face was blank, the expression Zhenya was beginning to recognize as his media face. “I could’ve really hurt you, Geno, all because I stopped—managing my condition, like I was supposed to.”
“Manage—?” Zhenya said, unsure.
“I stopped feeding,” Sidney snapped, and then flushed, like even saying the words aloud embarrassed him. “I stopped doing what I’m supposed to do, and I put other people in danger because of it.”
It took Zhenya a moment to parse this. He frowned.
“Sid, it’s happen because I fuck up. You not want eat, because I’m hurt you, lie. I know.”
Sidney shook his head. “That’s not an excuse. I mean, that just makes it worse. This is my responsibility, and I let my stupid—my feelings get in the way. Geno, I don’t think you get it. I could’ve killed you. I could’ve turned you.”
Zhenya said, shaking his head. “You not do.”
Something in Sidney’s expression shuttered.
“You don’t have to try to make me feel better. I was there, Geno. I know what I did.”
Zhenya made a frustrated sound. “Sid, I’m there also, okay? Yes, you hungry. But not—want hurt, want kill. I feel you. You so scare. Like—like—” He broke off, then said, all in a rush: “I could feel how afraid you were. You were terrified, hurting. You didn’t want to come near me, but I knew what to do. I knew what you needed from me, and I gave it to you, and I wanted to do it. I wanted to take care of you.”
Sid frowned. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
Zhenya sighed in exasperation, steepling his fingers against his temples. He had felt such clarity before—clarity, and a sense of calm peace, as they lay tangled together on the mats, Zhenya’s fingers curled against the vulnerable nape of Sidney’s neck. He had seen the woods again, had felt Sidney’s hand in his. But everything was getting muddled now, confused, his own poor English skills and Sidney’s foolish bullheaded certainty muddying the waters.
He closed his eyes. He ignored Sidney sitting there at the kitchen table, mulishly sure, and reached back, for the Sidney he had held in his arms: frightened, and scared, and needing what only Zhenya could give him. He reached for the memory, and drew it towards himself, feeling it settle over him again—that calm he had felt, that sense of total trust, and with it those strange feelings of tenderness: his worry for Sidney; his instinct to protect. Breathing in, he gathered the feelings around him.
Then he pushed. Too frustrated by the language barrier, too tired to be careful, or subtle, or strategic, Zhenya took what he had felt and shoved it through the bond at Sidney, with all the force that he could muster.
He felt it connect. Sidney rocked back in his chair, as if physically knocked back by a wave.
“What,” he said, wide-eyed.
“I feel,” Zhenya said simply. “Today. I feel.”
He pushed his chair back and stood. Sidney was still staring at him.
“You not want hurt,” Zhenya said. “You scare. Hungry. I feel. Now I’m know what happen. You need eat, so we do. I’m take care. Okay?”
Slowly, Sidney nodded. “Okay,” he said, a little dazed. “Yeah. Okay.”
“Good,” Zhenya said, and then paused, his hand on the back of the chair. “Sidney. Maybe—I ask one thing. Like favor.”
Sidney sat up a little straighter, his expression grave. “Anything.”
Zhenya pointed towards the fridge. “Maybe you help with put food.”
Sidney looked confused.
“Put food,” Zhenya said again. “Like—in fridge.”
Sidney’s eyes widened. “Oh,” he said, a little guiltily. “The groceries, you mean?”
“Store too big,” Zhenya said. “I don’t like. Very confuse.”
Sidney glanced at the fridge, and back at Zhenya. Slowly, he started to smile.
“I could show you how to do it,” he said. “You should probably learn how to grocery shop, if you’re going to be here for a while.”
“No,” Zhenya said firmly, because it was important to nip that idea in the bud. “I feed, you feed. It’s deal. Yes? Okay, goodnight.”
Sidney was laughing.
“Okay, Geno,” he said. “Goodnight.”
The Crosbys flew home two days later. Sidney drove them to the airport alone, and when he came home he shut himself up in his room for the rest of the evening. Zhenya let him be.
He spent New Year’s Eve with the Gonchars. Zhenya and Natasha sat on the floor in the living room watching one of the Russian satellite channels, peeling tangerines and making a pile of sweetly fragrant rinds on the coffee table. At midnight they bundled up against the cold and went out to watch the distant fireworks from the city, Zhenya balancing a sleepy Natasha on his hip. He was a little drunk, but he held her carefully, and pointed out each shimmering burst of light, bright streamers cascading through the darkness.
Ksenia brought out flutes of champagne for the three of them. Natasha was fast asleep now, her head heavy on Zhenya’s shoulder.
“To the new year,” Seryozha said, his breath visible in the cold.
“Health and happiness,” Zhenya said, and they drank.
Inside, he helped Ksenia clean up in the kitchen while Seryozha took Natasha up to bed.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” Zhenya said, and Ksenia smiled at him.
“What do you mean?”
“Weren’t you—you were ill,” Zhenya said, frowning.
Seryozha, coming down the stairs, clapped him on the shoulder.
“Poor Zhenya,” he said. “Too many pucks to the head. He gets confused so easily.”
Zhenya glared at him, but Seryozha only laughed. “Sleep here tonight. The guest bed’s made up, and we’ll have breakfast in the morning.”
“Fine,” Zhenya said, and then hesitated. “I should probably tell Sidney.”
Seryozha’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh?”
“Shut up,” Zhenya grumbled. “Do you—I don’t have his number.”
He called from the guest bedroom, a little tipsy still and already half asleep, curled up under the duvet. The phone rang three times, and then, on fourth fifth ring, Sidney said, “Hello?”
“Sid,” Zhenya said. “Is Geno.”
He heard Sidney draw in a breath. “Everything okay?”
“I’m stay here. Home tomorrow.”
“Oh,” Sidney said, surprised. “Thanks, Geno. Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year, Sid,” Zhenya said in Russian, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
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.”