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Feet in the Clouds

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Sid senses something’s up the moment he steps into his classroom. It’s been one of those long November weeks, just on the cusp of the holiday season, cold and grey. Everyone is a bit restless. But the mood inside of Sidney’s eleventh grade history class is unusually agitated.

Sidney’s been teaching high school for a good two years now, at the same school he attended years ago. After graduating with a degree in history and education, it had been the logical choice to live near his family and work. Plus, he’s young enough to have a good rapport with the students and to have a sense of when he can push through the commotion and be seriously listened to. This is not one of those times. He glances over to Tanner Glass, who generally is able to calm the class down, but he’s got a furrow in his brow and is whispering furiously to Kris across the aisle. Sid’s able to catch a hissed, “We’re seriously fucked if no one can replace him--”, before he intervenes.

“Alright, guys, let’s calm down.”

The mumbling abates, but not completely. Tanner looks up, a sheepish expression on his face. “Mr. Crosby, did you hear about Coach Neal?”

Sidney pauses, confused. “What about him?”

Tanner blinks, looking confused. “He accepted a job over at Winchester-Thruston. He’s leaving the hockey team here right in the middle of the season.”

Sidney recalls the email, bolded and starred in his school inbox. He’d been in a hurry, gulping down his coffee and searching for the pile of graded quizzes he had fallen asleep on top of during the night before, and hadn’t bothered to check it, figuring it would hold until lunch break. James Neal, assistant phys-ed teacher and one of the coaches of the high school’s hockey team, one of the best in the state, had always been a friendly smile in the hallway. They had never really hung out, excepting the odd staff holiday party, but Sidney knew that Neal had been part of the reason their hockey team had been so successful. Him, and of course his co-coach, but Sidney tried not to think about him.

Consol High School was not particularly academically rigorous, but had one of the best hockey teams in the state, and the student body took pride in that fact. Sidney, who remembers his own high school years in these hallways, often lamented the adoration paid to sports, particularly as he had been a shy but enthusiastic scholar who had found little companionship in the humanities.

The point was, Sidney knew that the departure of Neal, one of the school’s most outgoing and popular faculty members, would be a blow to the student body. Especially since that left the hockey team without a second coach, and after suffering multiple losses against their county rivals.

Schooling his expression, Sid calls his classroom to attention. He prides himself on an engaging curriculum, delving deep into North American history and pushing his students to do more than they usually attempt. But as he dives into his lecture on identity politics on the frontier, in the back of his mind he can’t help but think about Neal’s former partner: the other hockey coach, and the guy that Sid had spent most of his high-school years loving.

Turns out that high school crushes are harder to shake than you think. Especially when they end up working with you.

---

It’s not like Geno’s a bully. No, Sid’s not as pathetic as that. But Geno wears the C on the hockey team, and saunters around school with a cocky smirk on his lips. But he’s never been deliberately cruel. Not to Sid, at least.

But then again, Sidney’s not even worth bullying. Book smart and socially incompetent, Sid lingers on the periphery of his high school’s student body, notable for his ability to consistently earn an A in Mr. Lemieux’s tough History class and organize the student council’s finances.

But Evgeni Malkin, or Geno, as he likes to be called, has that thing. The thing that attracts everyone to him. He’s loose and funny and athletic and knows how to make people smile. Sid’s spent most of junior and senior year mooning after him, watching in the stands as Geno took his team to semi-finals, and then State Championships. And recently he’s been a complete fool over Geno’s small grins and the way he’s slowly inserted his way into Sid’s life. It would be such much easier if he were a bully. That, at least, Sid could deal with. But this is so much harder.

 

---

Sidney doesn’t spend a lot of time in the teacher’s lounge, because that’s where Geno holds court. The myth of the high school jock evolving into a mediocre, balding buffoon isn’t always accurate. Especially as Geno has the audacity to look even better than he did in high school, ridiculously tall and face still kind of smug . He  and Sid don’t talk much these days, and Sid can’t blame him. Not after the shit show that was senior year.

But with the news of Neal’s transfer heavy on his mind, Sidney finds himself seeking out Geno’s gaze during their lunch break, staring across the lounge where Geno appears focused and serious, looking down at a pile of papers with a furrow in his brow.

Geno eventually looks up, meeting Sid’s expression with one of frustration. Sid’s aware enough know to that Geno and Neal were friends, buddies even. It had stirred a bit of jealousy, their easy camaraderie. Sidney wonders what will happen now with the hockey team.

“Sidney.” Even after all these years, even after he became a colleague rather than a stern authority figure, Mario’s voice still makes Sid a tad nervous, makes him feel like he needs to stand up straight and recite the kings of England.

Instead, he follows Mario to his office. Mario takes his seat behind his opulent desk, his only concession to status. Sid recalls a memory of Mario, then Mr. Lemieux, passionately arguing the virtues of democracy versus the tyranny of British rule. So much has changed, the thinks, as he takes the seat in the demonstrably less comfortable chairs on the other side of the desk.

Mario clears his throat. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now that James Neal has left our school to teach at Winchester-Thurston. It’s a severe loss to our faculty, particularly because he was a dedicated hockey team coach.”

“Yeah. I mean, I know the students really liked him.” Sid shrugs, shooting Mario a confused look.

“What I’m trying to say is that we have a vacancy right now, and until we can formally review resumes and hire a new coach, we’re looking for a faculty member to temporarily help out with practices and making sure the team is prepared for games.”

Sid feels a heavy weight slide into his stomach. “And you were thinking....”

Mario gives him a knowing look. “I understand you were friendly with Evgeni Malkin when you were both students. And while I know that you went your separate ways, the fact remains that you two are the only faculty left who I think can work together and see this team to success.”

Sidney closes his eyes, because ‘went your separate ways’ doesn’t even scratch the surface of how much of an idiot Sid was, and that long-ago night, standing in the muted light of a street lamp looking at Geno’s earnest face, spilling out his stupid heart, still plays an Emmy-award-winning guest starring role in his nightmares.

“Can’t anyone else help out?” He whispers, slanting a pleading look at Mario.

But his teacher-turned-principal looks unfazed, almost a bit pitying. “You’ll get paid over-time. And you’ll be able to spend more time with the students. Consider it a promotion.”

Sid considers it a fuck-you. But he’s a good Canadian boy slash Pittsburgh transplant, so he just nods and scurries out of Mario’s office.

---

While Geno definitely isn’t a bully, he’s definitely a jock. He has biceps and triceps and skates around the rink like his thighs couldn’t quit. And when Sid watches him, he studies his body like a textbook. The curve of his deltoid, the dimple sinking into his cheek like a punctuation mark; the way his eyes, dark and heavy, follows the figures of passing students, evaluating and appreciative.

And it isn’t like Sid’s ugly.  But Sid is as close to a nerd as one could get, and he knows the score. But it doesn’t stop him from going to games just to watch Geno knock his opponents into the wall and throw himself onto teammates when he scored a goal.

And then, like something out of his cliched fantasies, Geno comes to him for tutoring, grinning sheepishly over his terrible English grades. Sid’s been happy to spend a few lunch periods a week going over reading exercises and discussing Faulkner, but to his surprise a genuine friendship begins to grow between them, each of them learning to joke with the other and discovering shared interests, like cheesy sci-fi tv shows and waffles.

Anyone in Sid’s position should be content with that. Too bad Sid doesn’t realize it.

----

He can do this, Sid thinks, pulling into the parking lot of the coffee shop near the school. The mornings are getting almost too cold now, and Sid shivers as he gets out of his car, tugging on the sleeves of his oatmeal-colored sweater.

It’s early, before Sid needs to be in his classroom for homeroom, so there aren’t too many people inside. But Sid could probably pick Geno out of a crowd of hundreds, he’s so tall. He’s in line, hands tucked into his pockets, when Sid clears his throat behind him. Geno swirls around and gives him a grin.

“Was going to buy coffee for both. You want to grab table?”

“I can pay for my own,” Sid insists, feeling for his wallet, but Geno puts his hand up and shakes his head.

“Made you get up early, so my treat.”

Sid frowns but does as Geno asks, setting down his messenger bag at one of the less comfortable-looking wooden tables near the window.  He shouldn’t relax, not when he feels so unsure.

Geno sets down his coffee along with a couple of packets of sugar. Sid wonders if he remembers that he’s kind of lactose intolerant, and then chides himself for reading too much into it.

They doctor up their drinks in silence, and Sid shifts awkwardly. Finally, Geno sits back and gives Sid an unreadable look.

“Mario says you will be temporary coach until new one is hired. This is okay for you?”

Sid shrugs. “I guess it has to be. I mean, I’m happy to help out the team.”

“I know we really not talk since...” Geno trails off, looks uncomfortable. Sid squeezes his eyes shut, and wishes he could fall into the floor. “Please,” He says. “Let’s not. It’s in the past, and it’s fine.”

When Geno doesn’t reply, Sid opens his eyes to find him staring at his coffee. Finally he says, “When I come back to Pittsburgh to teach, I never think I see you again. But then, first day, there you are. I not know what to do, or say.” He looks up, his gaze intent on Sid. “Maybe we can forget about past. Start again and be friends. Coaching means long time spent together.”

Sid inhales, pushing down his anxiety. Forgetting about the past is easier said than done, but Geno seems to think it’s simple. It probably is, for him. Geno probably didn’t think about Sid when he went to college, or to play junior hockey, or when he had the career-halting injury that sent him back to Pittsburgh and back into Sid’s life. Sid wishes he could say the same about Geno.

But before they were...what they were, Sid and Geno were friends. Sid thinks he can do that again, if anything for the benefit of their team. At least, he hopes he can.

He puts on a smile, and tells Geno, “That sounds good, no worries. I’m happy to coach with you.”

Geno’s answering smile looks relieved, and Sid prays that Geno didn’t think he was going to throw a hissy-fit or anything. Averting that thought, Sid asks about the team.

Geno is more than happy to discuss his boys, bringing out a legal pad covered in diagrams and line combinations. Sid’s glad that he did some research beforehand, and he nods along when Geno points out areas of weakness.

“Goalie needs more confidence, and defense need better puck possession. We work on this next few weeks before big games start...” Geno continues, and Sid lets his coffee grow lukewarm as he listens. He had always liked Geno’s confidence when it came to the sport he played. Even when he had known nothing about hockey, he enjoyed hearing the other man recap games and talk about his training regimen.

---

Sid looks up as Geno plops down in the seat across from him, sweater pulled tight across his chest as he leans back to dig through his bag. Sid fights a blush at the sight.

Geno makes a triumphant sound and takes out a pile of comics, returning them to Sidney with a pleased look on his face. “Finished series last night--understood it all too. Have more Batman?”

Sid laughs, “Of course! What did you think of the final battle?”

“Almost think Joker will win, but know better. Batman always win.”

When Geno had told Sid that there was virtually no access to comics back where he lived in Russia, Sid’d seen it as his mission to expose the hockey player to the wonders of the DC universe. Luckily, Geno had proven to be a fellow superhero junkie, and had taken eager advantage of Sid’s immense collection. It had the surprising benefit of improving Geno’s reading comprehension, as he had only been living in the US for about a year.

“He doesn’t always win. I mean, it’s awesome when he does, but it would be too predictable if he could defeat everyone. You need to shake things up sometimes,” Sid argues.

Geno smirks, “Not think Sid likes to shake things up. Not too excite?”

“I’m not that boring,” Sid defends, thrilled nonetheless at the teasing tone in Geno’s voice. “If I wasn’t so uncoordinated, I’d be playing hockey with you guys.”

Geno looks interested, “You want to play?”

“Nah, I mean, I love watching hockey. But I have way too much on my plate to really commit.” It’s true, at least. Sid has applications and volunteer work and student council responsibilities. But he also likes the idea that Geno thinks he could play.

Geno huffs, “Always time to play hockey. Is what I am here in America to do. Get scholarship and play professional.”

“You’ll totally make it. You’re the best player on the team,” Sid tells him, and watches as Geno flushes, a pleased expression on his face.

“Not always think I’m good enough,” He admits quietly. “But if Sid say so, I believe. Too smart to make up lie.” He meets Sid’s gaze, lips curled up.

Sid’s such a goner, it’s not even funny.

---

Beau Bennett is undisputably the the captain of the hockey team,  Sidney can tell that at a glance. The kid is blond and irrepressible, moving through the school like nothing can bring him down. He radiates leadership.

The first day that Sid joins practice, Beau skates up to him, helmet tucked under an arm.

“Mr. Crosby, thanks for helping us out.”  He says, grinning

Sid returns the smile. “I don’t know how much help I’ll actually be. I always enjoyed watching hockey, even though I never played it.”

“Sid very good at coaching,” speaks Geno from behind Sid, startling him. Geno looks pleased, wearing a black and gold zip-up, the school’s colors. He leans over to tell Beau, “He tutored me in high school. Never let me be lazy, so I had to be best.”

Beau blinks, looking surprised. “I didn’t know you two went to high school together. That must be so weird, coming back and teaching.”

Sid shrugs, not knowing what to say. He’s aware of Geno’s proximity, the way he can feel the other man’s gaze on his shoulder.

Rob Bortuzzo skates up alongside Beau, spraying him with a bit of ice. “Sucking up to the new coach?” He teases and Beau elbows him in the side, laughing.

It’s clear that Sid’s role on the team is very much playing glorified babysitter while Geno commands drills and goes over technique with certain players. He watches as Beau plays the part of Captain well, chatting with some of the newer players and practicing face-offs with Olli, one of their more recent exchange student prodigies. Where Beau goes, Bortz isn’t far behind, quick with a joke but who takes his defenseman role seriously. When they scrimmage, Sid feels a flutter of excitement in his chest. Their team’s really good. Geno surveys them like a proud father, but is unafraid to blow the whistle and bark orders. Watching him, Sid can tell he’s good at his job. There’s also a pang of sadness for Geno’s lost opportunity to seriously play. He knows a bad injury practically ruined his chances of making it to the pros, but he seems content with coaching, and it suits him.

After practice, Geno and Sid put away the extra equipment and walk to the faculty parking lot. Sid’s got grading at home, and a few episodes of Top Chef on his DVR that he’s been looking forward to. But he’s strangely reluctant to part from Geno, who looks pleased and slightly pink from the chill as he goes over some minor details about each of the players.

“It’s a good team,” Sid offers, when there’s a break in the conversation. Geno grins, looking like a proud father.

“I think we go all the way this year. You’re good coach, and I am best.” The statement is tossed off effortlessly.

“I’ve only been to one practice. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Sid reminds him, and when he turns to meet Geno’s gaze, it’s unusually serious.

“Have faith in Sid. Always cheered loudest in school, knows a good player when he sees one.” Despite the joking nature of his words, Sid can’t help but feel a pang, a sort of bitter longing. He doesn’t want to be reminded of the past, but Geno seems to always want to bring it up.

He makes his excuses and leaves, watching Geno in his rearview mirror until he turns the corner out of the parking lot.

----

Halfway through December, right before Christmas break, Geno plays a terrible game of hockey. Objectively, it’s just bad, but Sidney, watching in the stands, feels awful watching Geno’s face sink further and further into frustration and sadness.

Afterwards, Sid watches as Geno lingers by the school doors, watching his teammates leave with their parents. He didn’t see Geno’s folks in the stands tonight, but he knows that they sometimes are called out of town to help Geno’s extended family, Russian immigrants scattered around the state. Geno never seems very concerned about being left alone, but tonight his face looks drawn and pale. Sid walks over without even thinking about it, putting on a smile for Geno’s benefit.

“Sorry about the game,” he says, and Geno shrugs, a but sullenly.

“Not best. Just glad no scouts come tonight.”

Sidney hums his agreement and shifts awkwardly. “Are you waiting for a ride home?”

“Have to walk. Parents in Scranton tonight.”

“I can give you a ride,” Sidney offers, blushing and trying to hide it by burrowing his face into the scarf wrapped around his neck. And then, because apparently he has no self-control, he adds, “We can get hot chocolate or something on the way. It’s freezing out.”

To his surprise, Geno doesn’t laugh in his face. Instead, he gets a small smile and a shaky nod.

The car ride is a study in exquisite torture. Geno is so close, and the heat coming from the vents makes the inside feel cozy. The blackness outside gives the air between them an intimacy that’s almost too erotic for Sid’s teenage mind. He pictures, for a second, Geno reaching over and placing his large hand on Sidney’s knee, and the way its warmth would seep through the layers of his jeans...

They hit the drive-through at McDonalds, and Sid orders two large hot chocolates, brushing aside Geno as he reaches for his wallet. “My treat,” he says, hoping that it comes off as a gesture of sympathy for the poor game played, and nothing more.

They sit in the parking lot and sip their drinks in silence. Sid thinks of a million and a half things he wants to say, but he knows that to speak would somehow tarnish the specialness of this moment. Instead, he contents himself by warming his hands around the cup and watching Geno out of the corner of his eye.

Eventually, Geno breaks the silence by stating, lowly, “Play terrible tonight. I think, what if someone see, and I don’t get scholarship?”

“Geno...” Sid begins, and bites his lip, wondering how far he’s allowed to go.

Instead, Geno continues, “Sid knows what he wants to do--very smart, will get into good school, have good future. All I good at is hockey. And maybe not even good at that.”

“That’s not true!” Sid interrupts (although he feels tingly over the idea that Geno thinks so well of him--but that’s something to linger over later on), “You had one bad game, and everyone’s allowed that. No one in this school thinks you’re a bad player. You’re the captain,and that means you’re the best!”

Geno looks at him, wide-eyed, and Sid can appreciate that this is probably the first time Geno’s heard him get worked-up over something.

And Sid just can’t shut up. “You work harder than anyone in this school, and you always try your best, even when it’s learning English. Don’t doubt yourself.” He clears his throat, embarrassment heating up his face.  

Geno is quiet for a few moments, and then says, “You are a good friend, Sidney. Always know what to say.”

Sidney feels something clench in his throat, and he wants to say so much more. It’s enough, he tells himself, it’s enough that he thinks you’re a friend. It’s not in his nature to be selfish, but sitting there next to Geno, snow gently falling outside his car window, he aches with wanting.

---

As predicted, the team plays well, winning the first two games that Sid helps to coach. Less predictable is how much Sid enjoys coaching, working with Geno on developing player strength and figuring out defensive strategies.

They head into December cheerful and optimistic, only to stumble a bit with a particularly brutal loss to Thurston, the academy they lost Neal to. Sid watches as Geno scowls across the the way at his ex-coaching partner, who looks sheepish and holds his hands up. Sid can’t blame him for seeking better opportunities, but the bite of anger he feels over Geno’s hurt feelings feels equally as justified.

There’s been a noticeable shift between them, that’s obvious enough. Geno and Sid will linger after practice more to discuss strategy and, increasingly, what the both of them have been up to in the years since high school. Thankfully, neither of them go near the incident that resulted in their falling out, but it’s strangely cathartic to piece together what he remembers of Geno with the man he knows today. Geno’s still quieter than he leads people to believe, but he also has the same dry sense of humor.

After-practice conversations slowly bleed into the following morning, Sid running into Geno more often as he grabs coffee at the cafe. Geno asks if Sid still reads Batman comics, and from there they find themselves rehashing favorite moments from the canon. After that,  Sid finds himself checking the teacher’s lounge during lunch breaks to see if Geno’s eating on the couch, and more often than not will join him.

The team is a bit down in the dumps after their loss, but they manage to pull one more win before Christmas break begins.

Sid doesn’t expect a text from Geno as he arrives at his parent’s house. It’s filled with random emojis and happy xmas Sid))))) and makes him smile, warmth rushing through his chest. That night, however, when he texts back something similar, he has to examine his feelings.

He thinks that having this friendship back is a good thing. It’s certainly not as though Sid enjoyed avoiding Geno for the past year. But they well they had left things in high school...well, that is to say, they didn’t really leave things at all. As Sidney remembers, it was like they had been placed in some sort of alternate universe where they had never been friends, had never spoken to each other. And while Sid can admit that he didn’t do anything to seek Geno out after their confrontation, he had always held out a sliver of hope that maybe Geno would be the one to approach him, to apologize for what had come between them.

But, like always, Geno’s focus had been on hockey. And Sid had been aware even then that there probably wouldn’t be a place for him in Geno’s life. As a casual acquaintance, sure; as a once-in-a-while ride home, maybe; but not as anything more.

Sid just wishes he hadn’t learnt that the hard way.

----

The realization that the captain of the hockey team might be gay is a gradual one. Of course, Beau and Rob spend a lot of time together, but that’s what best friends do. It’s not until Sid spots them chatting under the stairs during the break before practice begins that he starts to see a different picture. Beau’s head is tilted up, lips pulled into a soft smile and Rob seems to be unable to angle his body any other way but towards him, face rapt with attention. It looks totally innocent, but Sid has played this game before--he knows how to communicate attraction with a glance.

It makes something tighten in his chest. He wonders if they’ve admitted their feelings to each other, or if they’re dancing around the situation, full of unspoken longing. Both, he remembers, can be agonizing.

That week, the team travels to face their rivals across the county. It’s raining hard, a sullen February weekend, and the mood on the bus is subdued. Sid sits across the aisle from Geno, and sneaks glances out of the corner of his eye towards the other man. They’ve texted back and forth more frequently, and Sid definitely feels more comfortable around him these days. But still, sometimes he’ll see Geno, and feel like he’s seventeen all over again.

He watches Geno fiddle with his phone, long legs folded against the seat in front of him. Without warning Geno huffs out a laugh and then turns to meet Sid’s eye with a sly smirk.

“Was just remembering time we took trip to visit college in Philadelphia, and car broke down in the rain on the way back.”

Sid can’t help but grin at the memory: another car ride full of charged silences and hot chocolate.  “Yeah, and you thought you knew how to change a tire.”

“I didn’t think would be so hard,” Geno protests, “You stood over me with umbrella, and was too small so you got wet.”

Sid does remember shivering and knowing he should be miserable, yet just feeling so stupidly happy to have more time alone with Geno.

“Always wondered what would happen if we went to same school,” Geno continues, and the mirth dries up in Sid’s throat.

He forces himself to look nonchalant. “I guess I would have watched you play hockey. We probably wouldn’t have had much time to hang out, anyway.”

After a long pause Geno replies, “I think I would want to still see you.”

Sid wonders why Geno keeps pushing, when feels like scratching at a still-healing wound.

He replies, a tad sullenly: “Well, it’s not like we’ll ever know. I mean, teaching together is strange enough, right?”

Before Geno can say anything, there’s a commotion at the back of the bus, something to do with a water bottle and exhausted teenagers. It takes both Geno and Sid to calm things down, and by the time they get back to their seats the rain is too loud to hear low voices.

Sid’s phone buzzes, and when he turns it on he sees a new text from Geno, this time: was glad to see you again though, when I come coach. I think maybe we should talk sometime.

He feels a hitch in his chest and he stubbornly does not look at Geno, instead writing back, There’s nothing to talk about.

Because there isn’t, anymore. Because what else needs to be said?

----

The kiss, when it comes (and finally, finally!), is awful and sloppy and perfect. It’s too much tongue and Sid’s nose pokes Geno in the cheek, and they do a little face-dance to figure out the right angle, but then Geno basically grabs Sid’s head and holds it in place, and yeah...perfect.

And Sid feels like he could explode, because it’s Geno, who smells like Irish Spring soap and tastes like the starbursts he was snacking on before and is slowly, exquisitely sucking on Sid’s bottom lip. No one’s sucked on Sid’s anything before.

He moans, or maybe Geno moans, but it doesn’t matter when Sid’s able to reach his own arms up grasp at Geno’s biceps, feeling the muscle underneath.

A noise in the hallway wrenches them apart with a slick popping noise that excites Sid like almost nothing else. He’s panting, and takes viscous satisfaction in the fact that Geno is too, cheeks ruddy and eyes glazed.

Sid thinks he should say something. Mostly he’d like to get back to kissing. But then Geno seems to come back online and his eyes widen and he whips his head around, as though they might have had an audience or something.

“Geno...”

At the sound of Sid’s voice, Geno takes a step back, swallowing and rubbing his face with his hands.

“Have to. Have to go.”

And with that, he practically sprints out of the empty classroom, leaving Sid alone.

----

He can’t remember which of them decided to go to the bar after their most recent game, and which of them decided it would be a good idea to do shots.

Sid gets tipsy very easily and Geno claims his Russian genes make him invulnerable to tequila, which doesn’t account for the slight slur in his voice. Mostly, it’s Sid cracking up like a loon every time Geno makes a joke, which only spurs him on to make more.

“Sidney not drink in college?” Geno asks, teasingly biting into a lime.

“Uh, shut up, I totally drank. But I’m a responsible adult and shit now, so...” Sid trails off, blinking at the table as though it holds some sort of secret.

“Sidney always responsible adult.” Geno informs him, raising his hand for another round. Sid groans, letting his head fall into his hands, messing up his hair. When he blinks up blearily, Geno’s face looks kind of fond, but that’s probably the alcohol talking.

It’s not like seeing Geno again, or being in his company has completely derailed him. And while Sidney had been fine with letting them operate at a distance, seeing him up close is terrible in the best way. Because now Sid knows how kind Geno can be with the kids they coach, or how funny he is when tipsy, or how serious he takes his job. The memories of Geno the Jock, ambivalent and hastily smothered, can’t compete with this new Geno, so familiar yet so different.

They shoot the shit for another half an hour, until Sid informs Geno that he’s totally being the designated driver and that it’s a goddamn school night and they’re idiots.

The car ride, like most of their car rides, is spent in silence, although Sid is feeling buzzed and relaxed and kind of turned on by Geno’s proximity. It’s neverending, he supposes. He’ll always feel a little bit attracted to this man next to him.

When they stop at Sid’s house, Geno gets out with him, escorting him to his door. When Sid turns to thank Geno, he’s confronted with a strange look, kind of anxious.

“Sid,” Geno begins, and clears his throat. His cheeks are a bit flushed, but there’s nothing else to prove that he just knocked back some shots.

Sid leans against the door, blinking slowly and smiling up at him. “Yeah?”

“Sid, you ever think about me after high school?”

Sid thinks that such a question would normally undo him, but he’s too sloshed to feel that familiar mixture of pain and longing. Because the amount of time he spent purposefully not-thinking about Geno should speak for itself. And it’s not like he’s spent the last several years celibate--a  handful of semi-serious relationships has given him some perspective.

So he answers truthfully: “Sometimes, yeah. I mean, there wasn’t much to think about. We were friends once, and I wanted something more, and you didn’t.”

“Do you blame me?” Geno asks, stepping closer to Sid, practically bracketing him against his doorway.

“Geno,” Sid sighs, because what is he supposed to say? ‘I wish the you at eighteen had been brave enough to risk everything on a high school romance?’ Sid’s a lot of things, but he isn’t that selfish. “No, of course not. Come on, let’s not do this.”

“Think about you a lot, when I graduate. Think about this,” And Geno leans in to kiss him, softly.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Sid thinks that Geno got better at this whole kissing thing, but the rest of him is consumed with the sensation of Geno’s lips against his, the warm body pressed against his.

They break apart, breathing shallowly, and Geno whispers, brokenly, “Sidney...”

Sid kisses Geno again, holds him by base of his neck as they stumble against the side of Sid’s house. Their mouths are hot together, hungry and open. And it feels like Geno is trying to crawl inside of Sid’s skin, using his hands all over him, tugging and pulling and touching. Geno rests  his hands on the back of Sid’s hips, widening his knees and pulling Sid forward against his body. He dangles an arm off Sid’s shoulder, the other hand in his hair, and kisses him slow and deep.

When it ends, and they’re gasping into each other’s faces, Sid thinks about how screwed he is. Geno makes a humming noise, angling in for another kiss, but Sid pushes him away.

“No. I can’t--you can’t do this to me, Geno.”

“Sid.” His name from Geno’s lips sounds pained and a little lost, and Sid, ever the chump, fights the urge to comfort him.

“I’m not going through this again.” Sid informs him, fumbling with his keys to unlock the door. He doesn’t look back at Geno, pushing the door open a bit harder than usual and shutting it in his face. He stands, chest heaving, for a long moment, listening to hear Geno shuffle around a bit before heading back to his car.

Sid doesn’t let himself do anything more than drink two glasses of water, set his alarm to remind him to pick his car up the following morning, pop an aspirin and tuck himself into bed.

He doesn’t fall asleep.

----

Sid spends that weekend alternatively jacking off and anxiously pacing, interspersed with glances at his email. There’s been no word from Geno, and Sid doesn’t know if it’s too pushy to write him first, ask if he’s okay, or maybe if he wants to come over and hang out.

It isn’t until Monday morning that dread sets in, punctuated by Geno meeting his gaze in the hallway and then snapping his head hurriedly to the side to say something to Ovechkin, who throws his head back in laughter.

Lunch period is spent in sullen eternity, with Sid barely listening to Marc-Andre and Jack joking around. Instead he sneaks glances over to where Geno is sitting, watching to see if he looks up. He doesn’t.

Was he that bad a kisser, Sid wonders, or maybe Geno’s so overcome with lust that he can’t even look at him for fear of ravishing him in the lunchroom?

When he finally confronts Geno, his worst fears are confirmed.

“Not...” Geno hesitates, feels around for the words he needs, and each second that goes by feels like another weight dropped into Sid’s stomach.  He finishes with, “Not like you like that. Was a mistake, what we do earlier.”

“Have to focus on hockey--is the only reason I’m here.”

“But you can’t just ignore me!” Sid exclaims, pleading with Geno, because this isn’t supposed to be how it goes.

“Can’t be what you want, Sid. No more tutor, no more car rides...can’t be like this with you and want other thing.”

And that’s how it ends. Not with a bang, but with a pathetic whimper. Sid can’t find it within himself to be angry; hurt, yes. Numb, of course.

Because the truth was, Sid has always been good at deluding himself. His fixation on Geno, reading into every look and gesture--it had been like how he obsessed over his favorite comics. And whatever attraction Geno had maybe felt back, obviously Sid wasn't worth Geno changing his plans to accommodate him. He hates that he hates himself for knowing how selfish he’s being. He wishes he could be blindly accusatory, maybe lash out at Geno with his hurt feelings and threaten to go public with the kiss.

But one look at Geno and Sid shoves every emotion, every impulse, down as deep as it can go.

“Fine. I understand,” is all he can say.

And with heartbreaking ease, Sid and Geno slip out of each other’s lives. Geno continues to train and the school flips out when he gets his hockey scholarship, and he stops meeting Sidney’s gaze in the hallway. And Sid studies, and gets his acceptance to UPENN, and eventually stops seeking that gaze out.

It’s almost a comfort to think that he’ll never have to see Geno again.

---

When Sidney remembers those final days, he recalls some of the furtive angst he felt, knowing how close he came to being with Geno and how quickly it all fell apart. Knowing what he knows now about Geno’s career doesn’t change much. Geno had his fears, his own logic about the situation, and Sidney had no place in it. Even when he wishes that he had gotten angrier, maybe fought for himself more, it’s futile. He’s glad, at least, that they got their kiss. It’s the only proof he has that Geno wasn’t entirely indifferent to him.

But it’s like Senior Year all over again, Sid thinks darkly, except this time he’s the one doing an  about-face and walking in the other direction he sees Geno in the hall.

The kiss they shared only days ago is fresh in his mind, uncolored by teenage hormones and bittersweet nostalgia. He remembers vivedly the weight of Geno’s hand on the back of his neck, and the way his cheeks had a bit of scratchy stubble--something teenage Geno hadn’t cultivated yet.

He hates the way his mind keeps running through possible scenarios, as though sourced from some cheesy romance novel. Was it just a drunken impulse? Does Geno feel bad about what happened all those years ago and want to make amends? Does he feel something, now, that he hadn’t felt before?

Sid knows it’s stupid to play this game again. And this time, he’s not going to repeat the same mistakes. Being brave never got him anywhere, and he shouldn’t count on Geno thinking any different.

Sid’s so caught up in his ruminations that he doesn’t hear the knock at his classroom door until a throat noisily clears right next to him. “Mr. Crosby?”

It’s Beau, fidgeting awkwardly with his winter coat on. It’s not a practice day, so Sid had decided to take advantage of his now-precious free time to get some long overdue grading done. Beau’s interruption makes it clear that Sidney hasn’t actually done any grading whatsoever.

He puts on his professional teacher smile and asks, “What can I do for you, Beau?”

“Um.” Beau looks down, blush staining his cheeks and shifts from foot to foot. “Can I talk to you about something personal?”

Sidney blinks. While it’s true that he’s grown closer to the team this year, seeing them almost to the end of their season, he and Beau have never actually spoken one on one before. “Sure, of course. Is it about the team?”

“No, I mean, kind of?” Beau takes a deep breath. “I know that you’re one of the younger teachers here, and you’ve always been really good and nice to us, so I guess I thought I could say something to you. But, I mean, it’s kind of a big thing, so if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine too, I guess.”

“Beau,” Sid says, puzzled and a little concerned, “What’s wrong?”

“I think I’m gay.” Beau blurts out, and then freezes.

“Oh.” Jesus, Sid thinks. No one trained him for this. He recalls seeing Beau and Rob under the stairs and realizing, but never in a million years did he think that Beau would choose him to come out to.

Seeing Beau’s face fall, Sidney hastens to add, “Beau, listen to me. It’s completely fine. You know that whatever you say to me is between us.”

Beau nods gratefully, and Sid asks, “Why are you telling me, though?”

“Oh, um.” Beau bites his lip, and Sidney has a flash of panic that he’s about to be confessed to, “I guess I saw the way you and Coach Malkin were around each other, and thought...”

Fuck. Sid resists the urge to slam his face against his desk. “Coach Malkin and I are not together, if that’s what you’re asking. So I don’t know how much help I can be.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that...um. Okay, so then maybe you can help me with a problem I have? I like this guy and we’re really good buddies and I want to tell him that I like him as more than that? Do you think I should?”

This is way above his paygrade. And more than that, Sid honestly doesn’t think he knows how to give good advice about this. Because if his suspicions are true, and Beau wants to tell Rob how he feels, and Rob rejects him...

“I can’t...I can’t say I’m the best authority on the situation. But, Beau, you’re so young. And in high school it’s easy to mistake friendship for something more. I don’t doubt that you really care about this guy, but maybe think about how your relationship would go if he said no?”

Beau swallows and nods, and Sid gets the feeling that he’s failed a test. It’s a feeling he hates. He knows that his situation was nothing like Beau’s, but Beau is a bright, happy kid, if not a tad sensitive. Heartbreak would stunt him.

“Don’t...please don’t think that I’m saying that you shouldn’t tell people you care about who you really are. But, just be cautious, okay?”

“Yeah. Uh, thanks.” Beau gets up, not meeting his eyes and leaves.

“Shit.” Sid whispers to himself at the empty doorway.

----

As spring approaches, so does the end of hockey season. Happily, their team has flourished and has made it to the championship round. It’s a big deal, of course, that their school has made it this far. It’s a testament to Geno’s skill as a coach, and Sid takes a bit of pride in himself as well.

The mood in the school is electric, and no one can stop smiling. Sid even gets swept up in the fervor, accepting cheers and high-fives from the team as they spot him between classes. He starts letting Geno catch his eye again, letting him sit next to him in the teacher’s lounge during lunch and lobbing softball statements about the team’s chances, about the cold spring they’re having, or about an upcoming superhero movie.

Sid accepts his renewed attention with a pitiful kind of grace, because he gets it. They’ve always been both a little sad, and maybe a lot lonely. And, deep down, he can admit that all he’s ever desired was Geno’s attention; his eyes on him and his voice laced with friendly warmth. It’s gratifying at least to think that maybe Geno desires the same, if nothing more.

By the time the day of the big game arrives, Geno is a visible mess of nerves and anxiety.

“Don’t want to let them down,” he confides in Sidney the evening before, as they pack up gear.

“You’ve brought them this far, Geno. You’ve done a great job with them,” Sid tells him, shrugging on his jacket and bracing himself for the chill of the evening.

“We, not me.” Geno tells him seriously, taking a step a bit too close to Sid. He swallows, and watches the way Geno follows the movement with his eyes. So much unsaid, between them. Sid wonders what they’ll do next year, if thing thing isn’t resolved. Can Sid truly deal with spending the next few years as they used to be: friendly, if distant, acquaintances and colleagues?

All he can say in reply is, “Yeah, definitely Geno.”

The next morning Sid is actually feeling kind of worked up about the game. Five months as the temporary coach and he really, really wants them to win.

The bus trip to the arena is dead silent, the team seemingly paralyzed with nerves. Only Beau tries to snap them out of it, cracking a few jokes and trying to mess with Rob, sitting next to him. Rob rolls his eyes and elbows him back, and Sid catches the unblemished, shamelessly pleased smile Beau levels at him before turning away, feeling a little guilty to have observed that moment.

Geno makes a speech in the locker room, genuine and heartfelt words about their progress this year, how they’ve worked hard and have earned their success. He then turns and thanks Sidney for being a fantastic addition to the team, and Sid blushes as a dozen teenage boys applaud. After that, the atmosphere is noticeably more pumped.

Sid is too busy fetching gear and water bottles to see Beau lead Geno off into the hallway, but he almost stumbles upon them on his way to the restroom. They’re speaking quietly but intensely to each other, and Sid leans in to listen to what he assumes is a last minute pep-talk.

He hears Geno’s warm deep voice saying, “...brave, not like me.” and Beau makes a sound of protest. Geno shushes him, continuing, “Take chance, and if he smart, he tell you yes. If he ignore, then he scared. And the scared ones don’t win.”

Beau nods and Sid feels something tighten in his chest. He doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to even speculate, but Geno...

A rush of noise from the locker room breaks through his thoughts and Sid hurries back in to supervise, hearing Geno’s words echo in his head. But he needs to focus. It’s game time.

----

They win. Of course they win. But Sidney can’t stop screaming it, jumping up and down in the stands as the team leaps onto the ice to throw themselves on Olli, who scored the game winning goal in OT. Sid feels euphoric, and without thinking tugs Geno to him, wrapping his arms around in torso in celebration. Geno grabs back at him, laughing and maybe crying a bit in his year, repeating, “Did it, Sidney!” over and over.

Sid thinks he hasn’t felt this happy in a long time, and lets himself have this moment.

The trip home is predictably loud and chaotic, but Sid and Geno let it slide, basking in the glow of victory. In the parking lot outside of school, most of the team splits into groups to head to a party, but Sid notices that Beau and Rob stay behind, lingering a bit by Rob’s car. They are standing close to each other, eyes locked, and Sid holds his breath as Beau reaches out a hand to take Rob’s. Rob says something, shock mingled with something kind on his face, and squeezes Beau’s palm. The pleased smile on Beau’s face is all the confirmation Sid needs, and there’s something bittersweet in his chest as he watches them come together, seemingly unaware of their small audience.

Sid glances away and finds Geno staring at him. It’s a look of concentration, not unlike the one given when explaining a difficult drill.

Sid, still warmed by residual adrenaline, takes a step towards him, listening as Beau and Rob call out a farewell and stumble into the car. Geno doesn’t look away from him once.

“Time we talk now, Sid.”

Yeah, he figured it would come sooner or later. The definitive let-down, the final reminder that whatever may have happened in the past is firmly there, a foreign country that Sid’s can’t stop booking flights too, no matter how much it’s been costing him.

Sid’s been down this path before; he knows where it goes. The days of pining over Geno are etched in his memory, like a well-loved shoe that lives in the back of his closet but he can’t bear to throw away: The soles are ragged and the leather is falling apart, but just the sight of it conjuring up feelings of nostalgia. Sid knows that he’s grown up. He’s had years to figure out just who the hell he was and what he wanted, had time to explore other people, their wants and needs. Coming back to Pittsburgh was meant to be a victory: Sidney Crosby all shiny and accomplished and secure.

Basically, Sid’s not anticipating Geno to say, plainly and boldly. “I love you.”

Sid’s pretty sure he makes a gurgling sound. “Um, what?”

Geno nods solemnly. “Have to say it now, when I feel brave. I’m a coward, most of the time.”

“I don’t understand,” Sid sputters, “You don’t love me, you barely even--”

“Was stupid.” Geno tells him, “The way I act in high school--treat you like shit. Know I hurt you, and hurt myself too.”

Sid barely breathes, half-believing any kind of movement would break whatever’s happening here.

Geno steps closer and continues, “I thought I couldn’t have both. Love hockey, want for my career. And then I meet you, and suddenly everything’s confused.”

“I never asked you to choose.” Sid chokes out, feeling tiny pricks of annoyance in his chest. “You barely spoke to me after that. I thought I had embarrassed you.” He can still remember the way Geno had stopped looking at him in the halls, the way he eyes would always skirt somewhere else, as if he could deny Sid’s existence.

Geno reaches out a hand to place on Sid’s shoulder, but Sid backs away. Geno looks hurt, lips tightening in something like pain, before he says softly, “Wish I could do again. Wish I had been brave, had told you that I like you back. So much.”

Sid shakes his head, wonderingly. “I gave you every chance, Geno. You know I was crazy about you--my feelings were practically visible from space.”

Geno nods, smiling like it pains him. “I knew. You were only one who understood me. And I was afraid of loving you back, knowing we would go to different schools. I thought would hurt more to have you and then lose you.”

Sid shakes his head. “Well, you didn’t. And maybe it’s too late now. I mean, we’re both different people.”

“Is true. I’m not person I was in high school. Neither are you. But the way we are with each other, the way I feel about you--is still the same.” This time, the hand that extends reaches it’s mark, and Sidney feels Geno’s warmth through his jacket. “Still think about kissing you. Think about everything with you. Tell me it’s not too late.”

It’s that warmth that makes the annoyance melt away, replaced by a familiar fluttering feeting. Because while Sidney’s tried so hard to act like he didn’t care anymore, he’d known from the moment he met Geno’s eyes across the teacher’s lounge years ago that whatever he claimed was patently false.

Maybe their coming together again is a mistake, and the impressions they had of each other has become distorted by nostalgia. But getting to know Geno again, all the same things that Sid fell in love with in high school: Geno’s warmth, his humor, his leadership and perseverance, those things are still there.

And if Sid wants to spend the rest of his life building walls of bitterness and regret around his heart, then how can he claim to be a grown-ass adult as well?

Therefore it makes perfect sense to reach his own hand up to place on top of Geno’s, and smile shyly back at him and say, “It’s not too late.”

And it makes even more sense to stand on his tippy-toes and lean forward and trust that Geno will catch him, fold him into his arms and kiss away the cold of an early spring morning.

And he does.

----

It feels like deja-vu when Sid steps into his classroom on a too-warm September morning to the sound of gossipy and excited teenagers. This time, however, the noise noticeably quiets when they realize their teacher is present.

Sid can admit to being a bit flustered. He’d gotten a late start and had spilled a bit of coffee down his jeans, which he had tried to ineffectually mop up in the restroom.

But he puts on his teacher face and stands up straight, surveying his class.

A loud knock halts him from starting, and he turns his head around to see Geno in the open doorway, grinning slyly. He holds a brown paper bag and a set of keys out, and says, “Mr. Crosby, you forgot these.”

Sid ignores the whispers and blushes as he walks over to retrieve them, hissing at the other man, “This is how you wanted to inform the school?”

“Is better than official announcement. News be all over by lunch.” Geno grins and seems to visibly hold himself back from leaning into kiss him. That would be going a bit too far.

Still, Sid looks up at him from under his lashes and whispers, “See you in the backseat of your car at 12:10?”

The look on Geno’s face is victory enough as Sid closes the door on him and walks back to his desk, feeling two dozen pairs of eyes on follow his every move.

If someone had told Sidney this time last year that he’d be happy, and in love, and gloriously fucked by his high school crush, he’d have thought them insane.

Yet, it’s a new year, and Sidney’s looking forward to meeting the new hockey team after classes and cooking dinner for Geno tonight, and waking up with him in the morning. It’s a new year, and it’s theirs.

Sid clears his throat and begins.