Hockey RPF: Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin. AU. Please note, the timeline for this story is reversed.
I'm so very grateful to beta Doro.


The war is over.


Five Stories in Wartime
Jay Tryfanstone
December 2014

 

October 1944

The hiss of steam and the light click-clack of the wheels of the cattle-cars gathering pace sounds dangerously quiet. In wartime, trains move slowly, the rumble of weighted freight thudding through the frozen earth as material moves to the front. But this train carries men, and here on the bare, windswept platform of the border station Sid can barely feel the rhythm of the wheels under the soles of his boots.

The war is over.

Sid's running.

When the whistle sounded, he was talking his way past the guards. He's days late, boots muddied, uniform hastily straightened, commandeered bicycle flung down behind the stationmaster's outhouse with its wheels still spinning. "Let me through," he insists, breathless, snatching glances at the train with its silent, sullen passengers crowded into the open cars. "Let me through."

When the whistle sounds, when he glances up and the train is juddering into movement, Sid abandons all attempts at persuasion and runs through the gates. He's lost his cap somewhere between gatehouse and platform, his empty dispatch case bangs awkwardly against his thighs, and his voice cracks as he shouts, "Geno! Geno!"

Already the engine is gathering speed, steam hissing. Sid runs, snatching at the rough slats of the cars to drag himself faster, shouting up at the blank, uncomprehending faces of the Russian soldiers peering down at him. "Geno!" he shouts. "Yevgeni! Yevgeni Malkin!" He thumps his fist against the slats. "Geno!" Fear has stripped him of his sketchy Russian. He's lost the words for name, find, look, gone. "Yevgeni!" Sid screams in the faces of men who look back at him with utter indifference. Prisoners of war, they still wear the tattered remnants of Red Army uniforms, their faces unshaven and thin-cheeked and dull-eyed. These are the men Sid fought against, the Russians who survived the war and the Finnish winters.

There is no joy in their faces, only resignation, although the Russian border is only minutes away.

The train moves faster, purposeful. Sid sprints for the end of the platform, his thighs burning, sweat stinging his eyes. He leaps, grabs at the top of the slats of the last car and clings there with splinters digging into the flesh of his palms. "I search!" he screams. "Yevgeni!"

No-one moves. Expressionless faces stare back at him, dark eyed, pale. They remind Sid of the frozen bodies of the dead, stacked like logs on the battlefields where they fell.

Two years ago, in a shellhole at Ladegoda, he'd thought Geno was a dead man.

"Geno," Sid cries out now to the living. "Geno." His eyes are stinging with sweat, blurred. Impatient, he swipes his hand over his face, snatches it away damp and fills his lungs. He's learned to shout above the sound of the guns, the hissing whoop of the Russian Katyushas and the thud of the valiant, outdated Finnish artillery, issuing orders and prayers and exhortations to the living. Sid's held his faith through shellfire and sniper bullets, through the first, triumphant Finnish advance, through the Russian counter-attacks and the living hell of trench warfare and tank battles. He keeps it now. He will not fail. Throat raw, he screams, "Yevgeni Malkin! Malkin! To me!"

At speed, the rhythm of the wheels judders through Sid's bones, and already the train is curving into the long bend of the track. Ahead lies the new border, the guardhouses that so few months ago were in Finnish hands and are now the border stations of Soviet Russia. There will be no coming back from that front line.

"Zhenya!" Sid screams.

In the car ahead, a man looks up. To Sid's eyes he looks the same as every other Russian prisoner, sullen, unfeeling, underfed, underclothed, hollow-eyed under the worn khaki of his badgeless cap. But, slowly, slowly, this man looks up at Sid, and then he turns around and shouts to the next car. In that car, slowly, another man, so far ahead Sid cannot hear his voice, picks up the call. Agitated, the men sway and shuffle, heads turning.

The engine rounds the bend. They are a mile from the border.

Too far away, a man clambers up onto the slats and stands there, swaying with the uneven clatter of the wheels. In silhouette he's sharp-elbowed and startlingly tall, the sleeves of his coat too short for his arms, and the ear-flaps of his felt cap hang loose.

Geno.

He waves, a perilously enthusiastic sweep of both arms.

For Sid, relief and dread and hope burn as sharp as ice.

Cracking across the border, a single rifle shot is an emphatic warning written in a spray of dust. The next volley will not be so sparing. Between Finland and Russia, the old, contested battlefield of the borderlines, the soil is coveted. Soft and rich and dark, it is Karelia soil, the cradle of Finnish poetry and Russian fairytales, tracked now by the slow, crushing weight of tanks and artillery, pitted with shellholes, scarred by fire. Here, in the sheltering cover of the summer grasses or the blanketing snow, a sniper with a rifle can track the sway and thrust of battle, a tank regiment shatter in fire or a battalion rally to a captain's voice. Here two wounded men from different armies can lie wounded and lost in the same shellhole, unsure which country is victorious and which defeated.

The war has been consuming.

Sid has never said to Geno, "When the war is over." Geno has never said it to him. Their allegiences have been unspoken.

Now Sid gestures wildly at his friend his enemy, the man who wears his own winter coat, the man whose wrists are thin and bare beneath sleeves two inches too short, whose hands have saved Sid's life and touched him with such startling tenderness. "Get down!" Sid screams now, too late, "Jump, Geno, jump!"

He is too far for Geno to hear. But just as if they have discussed this plan in every operational detail, Geno swings over the far side of the car and drops from the train into the concealing scrub. Seconds later, a machine gun spits in response from the Russian border, the clamourous, indiscriminate smash of bullets against wood a frustrated acknowledgement.

Sid leaps from the train. He hits the ground running, boots thudding across the torn grass, arms pumping, faster, harder, faster, until Geno is there, a stone wall that he slams into as forcefully as if they were on ice. Geno's eyes are closed, his arms steel-hard against Sid's back, his cheek rough and hot and wet against Sid's face. "Sid," he whispers, the word hidden behind the fading rattle of the train, in the perilous safety of no-man's land, between borders, half-way home. "Sid."

"Geno," Sid says. He can't pull away. He hits Geno on the back, his hand fisted. "Geno. Geno. You promised."

"Never think-" Geno says, "Never - Sid." He's laughing into Sid's shoulder, shakily, uneven. "Wait, jump, but - Sid."

In Geno's voice Sid's name is muffled, warm, deep. Sid lets himself hold onto the sound. It's Geno who pulls away, swiping his sleeve over his face. He's stopped laughing, but his smile is still stupidly wide. His eyes slide away and come back, dark.

"I find you," he says, quietly certain.

"I know," Sid says. He tugs at Geno's scarf, pats his shoulder, fists his hand on the lapel of Geno's coat and rocks him backwards and forwards. "You can't go back," he says.

They both know it. Geno shrugs. "Finland big country," he says.

"Not Russia," says Sid. Behind them, the clatter of the wheels of the train slows for the border. It's the last transport, Geno's last chance to get back to Russia. Only now, when it's too late, Sid realizes what he's done. Now, Geno will never be able to go home.

Geno shrugs. He says, casual, certain, "Build house. Russian house. Get dog." He glances at the Russian border, and then slides Sid a sideways look, sly and amused. "Teach poem. Build blast furnace," he says. Burying his hands in his pockets, he starts walking, nose in the air. He's whistling, the tune faint and sharp and familiar.

"Okay," says Sid, shocked, because Geno has thought about after the war. Geno has plans.

"With Sid," Geno says. Behind them, the machine gun starts up again, probing, insistent. They walk faster, zig-zagging between patches of cover. Like Sid, Geno is looking ahead, heading for the empty road beyond the Finnish station. The guards on the border are, ostentatiously, not watching.

Geno is not the first Russian to jump from the trains.

Sid has faith. He takes a deep breath and lets it out, and says firmly, "Hockey first." He can see the curve of Geno's cheeks, the rounding of his slow, wide smile. He's learned Geno always likes to have the last word.

The small ice is already crackling underfoot, a promise, the first frost of winter.

"Da," Geno says. "All."

 

 

June - November 1943


Geno! Sid writes, in the back of his field notebook. He chews the end of his pencil, and contemplates the logs bracing the trench wall for a precious, still moment. Seconds later, a machine gun shatters the silence, bullets spattering across the marsh. Teemu shouts, wordlessly defiant, from the bunker roof, and the battalion mortar opens fire.

Sid snatches up his rifle and runs. There are no reinforcements for the defensive line. They cannot fail.

A week later, in the light of a setting sun, Sid picks up his pencil again. He writtes, Geno!

The marsh is quiet.

Sid adds, The newspapers are full of negotiations and prisoner exchanges. The Germans - he crosses that out. He cannot tell Geno that in this unequal and uneasy alliance, the Finns are desperately short of anti-tank weapons, that most of their artillery dates to the 1918 war, and their German allies are driving hard bargains for outdated material. The Russians are supplied with American Jeeps and tanks driven straight out of the factories to the front. It is possible, Sid writes, that the war -

I wish the war was over, Sid writes. It is early summer, and clouds of mayflies swirl and eddy above the long grass on top of the bunker. The sky is a pale, cloudless blue, tinged with pink and gold, and at home, trout will be rising in the little lake below the farmstead, where Sid leaned to skate. He writes, We would have met in Helsinki. But here on the front line the cancelled Olympics are a threadbare dream and Geno does not wear a stranger's face. As Sid writes, he can remember the turn and shape of the bones in Geno's wrist, the sparse, spiralling pattern of dark hair on his forearms, Geno's slow smile and his dark eyes. Sometimes Geno moves as if he's not quite yet grown into the length of his limbs, coltish and awkward, and at times he is so unconsiously sure of himself Sid burns with envy.

He rips the page from his notebook and crumples it up, stuffing it into his pocket for kindling. It will be winter soon, Sid writes on the fresh page, and to Geno he does not have to say he longs for ice. The Norweigians experimented with an expanded defence line, but Mario says a strong offence should be able to -

Sid fills two pages with hockey plays and seals the letter. Geno does not write back, but Mario says all is well. Later, he sends a package. Geno has not written. Instead he has sent a meticulously carved tinderbox, tin-lined and already full of dry moss, small enough for Sid to keep in his pocket.

He does.

He writes again, snatched notes between the minor engagements of an uneasy front. Russians and Finns alike stall in confrontation along the new frontier, waiting for a counter-attack they both know is coming, thunderstorm heavy. The wind smells of ash and cordite.

Sid does not discuss the war. Instead he sends scribbled diagrams of hockey plays, team formations and goal strategies, an imagining entirely separate from the tense, looming reality of the war. Once or twice, Mario sends him back his own letters with Geno's annotations in scrawled Cyrillic that Sid has to ask their interpreter to translate. Mario sends, too, clippings from outdated Russian newspapers, terse accounts of years old hockey matches in which Geno had played. Sid learns to recognize Geno's name, the words for goal, assist, penalty, win. He digs trenches and reinforces bunkers, calculates the field of fire across marshes and fields and woodland, sights in his own rifle and his scavaged Red Army scope. Like most Finns, Sid hunts, and in wartime as in peace he shoots to kill.

Half the army rotates on harvest leave. Sid, too. He leaves late, guilty, but the weather stays dry and afterwards, after the harvest is in, Sid goes to the logging camp where Geno is imprisoned. He's snatching the last few days from his leave, and already snow nips at his heels and frost sharpens the air. Sid's breath clouds even in the light afternoon mist, and although the forest loam is still soft under his boots, in a month his footsteps will ring against frozen soil as if he walked on iron. But the track has been layered with branches before the frost sets in, and the camp huts are sturdy and insulated against the cold, and while the fence is high the gates are open and woodsmoke from banked fires trickles from the stove pipes.

This time, he's prepared, his knapsack stuffed with his mother's black bread and spiced New Year sausage. He has a spare knife no longer than the span of his hand, extra socks, soap, matches, a chipped tin mug.

Beyond the camp, the heavy thud of an axe reveberates through the trees, and with it the sharp whine of a bowsaw. When Sid gets closer, he can smell sawdust and hear someone singing a tune he knows from the trenches of Karelia. He's heralded by the warning clatter of startled partridges in the undergrowth, but the singer does not break off, and Sid walks into the clearing to find an young boy stirring soup in a stockpot and two quiet ponies hitched to a lumber wagon. A guard sits on a stump skinning rabbits, his rifle at his side, and men in Red Army uniforms are loading timber.

Geno is talking to the ponies. He's wearing Sid's old winter coat, although the sleeves are too short for him and his wrists are wrapped in strips of cloth. He has a felt cap pulled down over his ears, and he's smiling, a slow, soft smile Sid has never seen before. His gloved hands are very gentle, and one of the ponies nudges him fondly, eyes half closed.

He looks well.

The guard coughs. Startled, Sid spins on his heel, stumbles, and says awkwardly as he pulls his papers out of his pocket, "Captain Crosby. I'm here to see Yevgeni Malkin. Colonel Lemieux signed the paperwork, I have copies."

The guard shakes his head. He's an older man, heavily whiskered, and the laughter lines around his eyes are deep. "The Colonel wrote," he says, and his accent has the same rough lilt as Mario's. "Zhenya!"

When Geno looks up and sees Sid, only his hands move, his fingers tightening, a white-knuckled grip. His face does not pale but flushes, his eyes are wide, and his mouth hangs open. He's still, until the pony huffs and shuffles, protesting, and then he uncurls his fingers one by one and takes a single step forward. Then he runs, loping across the clearing, arms wide, grin widening, eyes bright. He hugs like a Russian, hard and long, walloping Sid's back with great powerful slaps, perilously close to lifting him off his feet. "Sid," he says. "Sid!"

Sid doesn't have much breath left. He manages a wheezing "Geno."

"Sid come!" Geno yells, kisses him on both cheeks, pushes him back and looks him over. "Look good. Not dead?"

Startled into a snort of laughter, Sid has to acknowledge that he is indeed not dead. Geno, too, looks very much alive. His face is still flushed pink, alight with pleasure, and he looks well-fed and healthy, tanned by the summer sun. Sid opens his mouth to say, "You look..." - better? good? - but is interrupted.

"Zhenya!" Sharp and worried, one of the Russians shouts across the clearing. They've stopped work. The guard looks up, reaching for his elderly hunting rifle.

"Eto Sid!" Geno shouts back, arms wide again, expansive. He still has a hand on Sid's shoulder.

The Russian gives a perculiar, dismissive huff, but he turns back to the wagon, and the guard relaxes.

"Zhenya?" Sid says.

Geno shrugs. "Russians many names," he says. "For Sid, Geno." He's still smiling.

"Oh, I forgot!" Sid says. He fumbles at his pocket, unbuttoning. "Letters," he says. He has a small stack, picked up from the post station. The envelopes are over-written in Finnish, the flaps clumsily re-glued, and Sid cannot read the names of the men for whom they are intended. He passes over the whole handful.

When he takes the letters, Geno's hands cup their weight as if he holds something far more precious than paper. His face, looking down, is suddenly closed and blank, the face of a stranger.

Sid shifts his weight from one foot to the other. His fingers creep to check that his tinderbox is still buttoned into his breast pocket, his matches well wrapped, and his belt correctly hung.

It's a long time before Geno looks up. He has two letters in his hand, tightly held. "Spasibo," he says, and this time his smile is small. "Wait," he says. He takes the rest of the letters to the guard, who frowns over them for a minute or two, and then hands them back. Geno turns and shouts at the men at the wagon, a flood of urgent Russian. Instantly, work stops. Men run across the clearing, already shouting out names. Geno's surrounded.

"Crosby? Sidney Crosby?"

Sid had been taking off his pack. He straightens. "Yes."

"I saw you play in Helsinki, years ago," says the guard. "A good game."

"What's your name?" Sid asks, "I'll send you tickets." He has a list.

"After the war?" The guard spits, for luck. "Usko Jalkanen. You can reach me through my cousin, Sanni. She had the draper's stall next to the railway, on Hakaniemi Square."

"My mother will know it," Sid says. He nods with a confidence that is only half assumed, but cannot help glancing up at the splintering group of prisoners. Geno is easy to spot, the tallest man there. He's still thin for his height, but he's young. Sid's broadened and hardened, in the last two years.

"They're not bad lads, for Russians," Usko says. "Hard workers."

"Hockey players," says Sid firmly.

"Reds play hockey?" Usko's face is all sceptical lines.

Sid untucks Geno's picture from his wallet. It's soft now, the newspaper shredding at the edges and the cyrillic print blurred, but it's unmistakably Geno, with his hockey stick in one hand and a silver cup in the other.

"Ah," says Usko, a slow, wordless hum. He's frowning.

Only now does it occur to Sid that most soldiers carry photographs of their sweethearts, not of hockey players. He itches to fold the clipping out of sight.

"I fought with Colonel Lemieux in '18," says Usko. "But my brother was with the Reds." He shrugs. "Today he has a factory in Tampere. I tell him, you are one of us now. Hungry?"

"Yes," says Sid.

Usko nods. "Jyri!" he shouts. "Food! Break!"

Here, men line up easily, slowly, talking to each other as they produce bowls and spoons from their pockets. Sid pulls his mess tin from his pack and polishes his spoon with his handkerchief. When he looks up, Geno is waiting for him. "Good food," he says. "Deer." He mimes shooting. "Sid eat. Then chop wood. Make quota!" He's grinning again.

Sid eats, and chops wood. He's always felt out of step on the farm, clumsy, unsure, a moment behind everyone else. But with Geno he works smoothly, without words, a team. The Russians had logged this clearing in spring: now they are loading the seasoned timber and cutting fresh, to stack over winter. The wagon leaves and returns twice, carrying logs down to the camp. "Truck come," Geno says. "Bring bread, take wood."

At first, Sid is wary. But it's hard to distrust men who stop work for a woodchuck, frozen into terrified immobility, and cosset the ponies with rough gentleness, and the songs the Russians sing are the songs of the trenches. Sid does not know the language, but he knows the tunes, familiar, melancholy songs of love and longing.

The shadows lengthen, the setting sun striking through the trees, and cold comes in with the night. "Sid come to camp?" Geno asks.

"Yes," says Sid.

The Russians had built the camp. "First..." Geno's hands, pointed, describe a tent. "Then...wood." He casts for the right words and fails.

"We had lumber and nails. Good tools. Food." Sergei's Finnish is better than Geno's. "Coats and blankets. Better than army," he says, dry and quiet.

"What did I tell you?" says Usko.

They're gathered around the stove in the biggest hut, warm, the old storm lanterns smokey but golden against the dark. There's a flask passing hand to hand; Usko, politely, does not notice. He's the only guard, but he says as they walk back to camp, "Where would they run to?" The Russians are in the heart of Finland, surrounded by forest. "And this is not a camp for officers," Usko adds. "No politics." He chuckles. "Maybe hockey players."

Sergei plays, Sid discovered that afternoon. Geno knows Ovie from the Russian League, and a few others as well. "In winter, hockey," Geno says. His hands describe flat ice, then paddle, skittering flat-palmed. He has big hands, strong, calloused. "No skate. But make work."

"Make from bone, like Sami," Sergei says.

"Skate slow, like Sami," says Ovie.

"Best start work then, lads," says Usko, "Winter's coming."

"I never thought to bring skates," Sid says quietly to Geno. They're sitting shouder to shoulder on the edge of a bunk bed, Sid's army boots and Geno's varanki warming by the stove.

Geno snorts. "Sid bring socks. Food. Good food," he says. "Pack, rifle, ammo. Enough. Food best."

"Good," says Sid. His mother's sausage has not outlasted twenty Russians, but he knows there is venison and plenty of game hanging in the smoke hut. Geno is not going to go hungry, this winter.

"Sid worry too much," says Geno. "Winter not kill, Finns not kill, Army not kill. All good." He adds, "Sid not kill," and slants a sideways look at Sid through dropped eyelashes.

"I didn't know you played hockey!" Sid protests.

"Sid end war," Geno says. "Hockey Army. Stop for match." He looks so innocent, boyish in the low light, joshing Sid as if they've never faced each other over a loaded rifle. One of the Russians has produced a harmonica, another is darning socks. A couple of them are standing under the storm lantern, re-reading letters. Usko has broken out his pipe.

Every soldier has their own loyalties. Sid has killed for his country before and he will do again, but it's hard to think of the Russians as barbarians when he's eaten their food and shared their stove. And, there's Geno.

"Did you get my letters?" Sid asks.

"Yes!" Geno says. He tugs out a battered tabacco tin, opens it up, and takes out the top two envelopes. He shows Sid the small stack of his own letters. "All hockey. Sid right most times," Geno says. "Not always."

"Huh," says Sid.

"I show you," says Geno, with absolute confidence. "Winter come. Sid come?"

"I don't know," says Sid. He shrugs uncomfortably. "If I can."

Geno's looking at him. Sid looks away, checks his tinderbox is in his pocket and his matches are still in place, and then Geno's shoulder leans against his, solid and warm. Sid lets his hands lie quietly in his lap.

"Write," Geno says quietly.

Sid nods. He leans back.

Geno says, "Mama write." He shows Sid the two envelopes. "Work in factory. Father in army. Brother in army." His mouth twists.

"Worried?" says Sid.

Glancing at him, Geno raises an eyebrow. Sid mimes crying. "No!" Geno says. "For Russia!" His chin goes up. "No v mire net lyudey besslezney!"

Sid blinks. Geno stares at him, fierce, expectant, but Sid does not understand. Then Geno sighs. He measures out a space between his thumb and forefinger. "Small," he says. "Not say." The gap widens.

"The newspapers say prisoner exchanges are being negotiated," Sid says. "You could go home. Back to Russia," he adds, not sure if Geno understands.

Geno sighs, leans closer. "Go home, no. Go army." He struggles for the word, frowning. "Shtrafroty. You have?"

"I don't understand," Sid says.

"Like prison. Only army."

"No?" says Sid, confused.

Geno puts his hand on his heart. "Die for Russia," he says. "Live for Russia...prisoner. Bad." He stands up, one hand on Sid's shoulder, and calls to Sergei. They talk for a minute or two, rapid-fire Russian Sid cannot attempt to follow. Then Sergei says, reluctantly, "Zhenya means, good Russian soldier die in battle. Bad Russian soldier surrender. Prisoners go back, go to shtrafroty, punishment battalion. Fight hard. Die quick."

"All of you?" says Sid.

Sergei shrugs. Geno says, fiercely, "Russia home."

When Sid reaches to check his pocket, Geno catches his hand and holds it still. Geno's fingers are warm. His skin is calloused, the pads of his fingers hard with work, but his palm is soft. He has big hands, hockey player's hands, and his grip is powerful and gentle.

Sid's seen men hit by bullets, the shocking, instant violence of death. He thinks, faintly, this must be how it feels. His blood seems to pool in his feet, his stomach feels tight and acid-sharp in his belly, he's light-headed. His pulse sings faintly in his ears, the aftermath of a silent cataclysm.

"Sid?"

'Oh,' Sid thinks. 'So this is it.' Curiously, he feels unsurprised, although his body has shattered and reformed, fundamentally changed.

He curls his fingers around Geno's, and looks up.

Geno's eyes widen, darkening. He says something to Sergei, although he does not look away, and then they are alone and Geno is pulling Sid upright. Shielded for a moment, he presses a kiss onto Sid's knuckles. His mouth is soft and warm, and then hard.

Sid's a little unsteady on his feet, his legs as stiff as if he's finished a day-long tournament. He has to clear his throat before he can ask, "Geno?"

"Sleep now. Bunk?" Geno asks. "Okay? Okay, Sid?" His mouth is a little open, his voice anxious.

Sid nods. He puts his boots on in a daze, and Geno finds his coat and scarf in the pile on the stove and Sid struggles into them. Geno picks Sid's pack up with one hand and pushes him forward with the other. "Spokoynoy nochi!" he calls. Ovie shouts something back Sid doesn't catch, but Geno is shaking his head as they duck out into the damp chill of the night.

There are two bunkhouses. Geno heads for the furthest, and has to push at the door. Sid stops on the threshold, blind in the dark and suddenly alone, but in moments Geno has a lantern lit and is crouched by the stove. It must be already laid; kindling flares, and in moments the dry pine has caught. Geno turns, his smile anxious. "Okay, Sid?"

Two of the bunks have blankets, hastily piled up. In this hut, leaves have drifted into the corners and spider's webs shimmer by the lantern. They're alone, him and Geno.

"I..." Sid says, and stops, confounded.

Geno rises to his feet. "Sid?"

"I don't know," Sid says.

"Take boots off," Geno advises.

Sid finds that he does know how to take his boots off, although he'll keep his socks on, wary of the splintered plank floor. As he tugs at his laces, Geno heaves two tick mattresses over to the stove, gathers up the blankets, and spreads them out. He rolls one for Sid's pillow, but he's using his own coat, Sid's coat, on his side of the mattresses. Geno's no better at smoothing blankets than Sid, but he rolls himself into his own anyway, fully clothed, and points his nose to the ceiling just as if he's not watching Sid from the corner of his eye.

Clumsy and numb, Sid stumbles to his knees on the makeshift bed. When he looks down, there's a gap between the mattresses, but Geno's arm is casually crooked, an unspoken invitation. If Sid - Sid strips off his uniform with stuttering fingers and folds it as neatly as he can. In his own undershirt and drawers, breathing hard and trying not to show it, he rolls into the curve of Geno's body, dragging the blankets with him and tugging them up to his chin. He's still wearing his socks, and when he peers sideways Geno's eyes, looking back at him, are crinkled at the corners. "Sid...? Sid okay?"

Sid is shaking. But he nods, although he's holding on to the blanket so tightly he can see the white of his own knuckles.

"Close eyes," Geno says. The blankets heave, and then Geno's hand cups Sid's face. The stroke of his fingers is light, but when Sid turns his face into that touch, Geno leans into him. Geno's cheeks are faintly stubbled, his nose cold, but his lips are soft and warm. He kisses, light as a snowflake, butterfly kisses, hesitant on Sid's forehead and his closed eyes, the tip of his nose and the point of his chin. Then the curve of Sid's upper lip, lingering, and a little firmer, the swell of his lower lip. "Okay?" Geno whispers, against Sid's mouth.

Sid makes a grab for Geno's shoulder and finds it, gripping tightly, pulling Geno down. He can feel the surprized huff of Geno's breath. Geno's holding his weight on one elbow, carefully poised, as if he's expecting Sid to run scared. Sid's not frightened. He's still got his eyes closed, and he's shaky, energized, the way he is after a great goal or when he puts his gloves back on, but it's Geno he's focussed on. Geno's hands, his arms, the curve of his bicep against Sid's shoulder, the sheer animal warmth and smell of him. Sid kisses back. He asks for more, harder, and Geno's mouth firms against his, opens, shockingly hot. Sid's amazed when Geno's tongue touches his own, startled into gasping, but the intimacy is electrifying. Geno's kisses: the war could stop in its tracks, and Sid would not notice.

It's Geno who keeps his hands above the waist and his touch careful. Sid has mapped and measured their course and found himself impatient, committed, certain. He's pulling Geno's shirt open and fumbling at his drawers - "Careful!" Geno yelps. But Sid might only have one chance, ever, now. He wants everything.

He nearly comes when Geno's hips roll against his, damp heat against heat, an intimate and electric touch. Sid has to hold Geno still and pant into his shoulder for minutes, not daring to move, and then Geno's hand snakes down and takes hold of both of them and moving is the only possible option. Fumbling, Sid looses the rhythm and gains it again, and then he feels as if they're on smooth ice, utterly in tune, he and Geno rocking together. There's a moment when they could go on forever, and then Geno stiffens, his jaw clenching, and he jerks and spills over Sid's belly as if he can't stop himself. Sid, accustomed to the mild pleasure of his own orgasms, tries to hold Geno through the momentary spasm, and instead discovers himself racing helplessly to a climax devastating in its force. Teeth clenched, head bowed into Geno's chest, Sid shivers and jerks his way to the certain realisation that this, this man, Geno, is as right for him as the feel of a hockey stick in his hand.

Sid quietens first. Geno shudders against him, one last tender aftershock, and drags Sid even closer. His breath, warm and damp, smells of onions. His body, relaxed, still thrums with life. They're naked, sticky with sweat and seed, a physical intimacy Sid had never imagined. On ice, sometimes, Sid finds a transcendent harmony, body and mind in perfect alignment. For the first time in his life, Sid knows what that perfect alignment feels like shared. He reaches up a hand and clasps Geno's, where it lies over his heart, and turns his head into the nuzzle of Geno's nose and chin. They breath in unison, dirty, heated, exhausted, but Sid clings and Geno's wrapped around him in an immovable mess of blankets and arms and legs.

The moon must be setting when Geno sighs and whispers, "Priyatnykh snov, Sid." His hands relax, his body suddenly heavy.

Sid doesn't think he'll sleep, but he does. It's harder to wake into the early morning, to disentangle himself from Geno's long limbs and his sweet, sleepy smile, to drag on his uniform and his boots and pick up his pack. Worse to clasp Geno's hand, awkwardly formal, and then let it go.

He's almost out the door when Geno says, "Sid. I wait."

Sid knows the words to that song. He doesn't trust his voice. He nods.

Late that afternoon, he finds himself on the east-bound platform, and does not remember how he got there. Dazed, he looks up at the station clock, and discovers eight hours have passed. His boots are muddy. His tinderbox is still in his pocket, his matches dry, his belt straight. There is a train due, and a girl wearing a Lotta Svärd uniform smiles tiredly at him as she clears cups and saucers from the canteen tables. It's a small station, but there are five or six soldiers on the platform, like Sid. Harvest is over, and the sky is already a dull grey, harbringer of winter storms.

Sid feels raw, scoured, made new, a stranger to himself, although if he closes his hand he can still feel the perfect echo of Geno's touch.

The whistle of the train startles every nerve. Sid scrambles for a empty seat, heaves his pack onto the rack, and hunches by the window. The train shudders into motion, heavy with wagons and crowded with soldiers returning to the front. Sid's battalion has orders for Valkeasaari.

He is at war again.

As they pass the valley head, for a moment Sid, startled, thinks he hears shellfire, but it's only thunder. The rain starts, hammering on the carriage roof, and in the back of his field notebook Sid writes, Geno!

 



October 1942

"And this is our kitchen!" says Emil. The heavy rain hasn't damped his gap-toothed smile. Emil's sixteen, too young for the army, not too young for the Civil Defence conscripts recruited for the camps.

"Great!" says Sid. He peers doubtfully at a long row of sleek canteens and cooking pots, glad that the kitchen, unlike the exercise yard and the guard towers, is under cover.

"On Mondays," Emil says confidentially, "We have stewed apples. The prisoners too," he adds, mindful of Sid's remit. "Today it's just soup. But good soup!" He urges Sid over to one of the pots. It's bubbling comfortably, a thick barley broth with recognisable vegetables and chunks of meat. "And bread," Emil says. "Did you want to try?" He doesn't wait for Sid's answer, but hurries away to find bowls and spoons.

Sid glances at the Russian prisoners portioning loaves at the tables. They're well fed, their uniforms clean and their boots in good repair, but the man nearest to him scowls when Sid tries to catch his eye. Abashed, Sid stares into the camp yard. The bunkhouses are solidly built, the canteen well-equipped and the guards amiable, but the solid fence with its rolls of barbed wire looms over all of them.

Rain has made the yard a morass of muddy puddles.

"Here," says Emil.

In his dispatch case, bundled and strapped as tightly as he can manage, Sid's got a package of dried meat and berries, soft cheese and bread and a small pat of fresh butter, carefully wrapped: anything he can think of which is small and useful.

The stew's good. Sid nods, although he passes his half-finished bowl to Emil's waiting hands and cannot help thinking of the Russian prisoners who did not survive the Finnish winter.

Geno lived.

"I'll make sure to let Colonel Lemieux know," Sid says to Emil. He has already, as requested, spoken to the Camp Commander, inspected the offices and the bunkhouses and the stores, checked the register and the account books.

"Colonel Lemieux!" Emil says. He's wide-eyed. "You know him? Is he as tough as they say he is?"

Sid has been eating dinner at Mario's table since he was fifteen. "Yes," he says. A day ago, he had shrugged his rifle from his shoulder and put it into the hatstand at Mario's front door. The hall had been bare of children's toys and hockey kit, the house uncomfortably unfamiliar, silent, and smelling of boot polish and gun oil.

"My brother served with a man who served with the Colonel," Emil says.

"He's a good man," Sid says. "Honest. Demanding." He pauses. "He'll ask everything you can give, and then more."

"How long do you have?" Mario had asked, although he must have been as aware as Sid that end of course leave was mandated at two days. Sid had been testing the new M/30, target shooting on the training grounds, uncomfortably aware that every day he spent training was a day away from the front. "I have a mission for you," Mario had said. His desk had been piled with paperwork. There had been three messengers and a council member waiting in the hall.

Sid had nodded. He'd thought he'd be oiling his boots and sharpening his blades, snatching rink time if the air-raids allowed, but instead he's standing in a field in the rain, taking notes on blankets and average speed of processing.

He'd asked. "Mr Lemieux," Sid had said as if he was fifteen again before he'd snatched at the structured formality of Colonel, and then on a deep breath "I know a man in the camps". No. "I have a friend in the camps."

"I know," Mario had said.

"What do you want to see next?" Emil asks.

"The Colonel suggested interviewing some of the prisoners," says Sid, and runs his fingers over his pockets to check all is as it should be. His shoulder twitches, where the strap of his rifle should pull. "I have a list."

"The Penguins have always been an international team," Mario had said.

The driver was waiting and Sid had been getting up to leave, papers in his hand. He hasn't yet looked at them, hasn't yet caught his breath on seeing Geno's name. Then, he'd asked, "Sir?" Jágr was Russian. Nathalie had nearly taken the photographs down, in '39, when the Red Army invaded, but Jágr's shirt still hung in its frame in the study.

"Bear it in mind," Mario had said.

Sid asks to see Geno last.

The room is small, four paces from window to door, and the battered desk takes up most of the space. There are two chairs, and a carafe of cold, weak coffee. Outside the barred window, the rain is still falling. Sid tugs his belt straight and checks his pockets, taps his fingers on his paperwork and fiddles with his pen, and then there are footsteps outside and the key rattles.

"Malkin!" Emil announces.

Every other prisoner has shuffled in the door, head bent, cautious. Geno's chin is up, his hands in his coat pockets - Sid's coat pockets - and Sid's on his feet, gripping the edge of the desk. He can't say anything until Emil's gone, but he can't look away from Geno's face, either, Geno's dark eyes and the beginnings of his slow, wide smile. He's still too thin, but his shoulders are filling out and the hollows in his face look natural. There are raindrops in his hair.

The door slams shut, and Sid says, blurts out, "Geno - Geno, I have, you - it's me, Sid."

"Know," Geno says, and his smile is broadening.

"It's better?" Sid says, "It's okay? You're okay? Your knee? You look better, you look good, I'm sorry, last time I-"

"Sid," Geno says. He catches Sid's hands in his. "Sid. Is okay. Is good. Sid fix."

"Good," says Sid fiercely, and finds he's pulling Geno in, hugging him as if they're on ice, back slaps and Geno's weight heavy against Sid's own, unexpectedly warm without the padded armor of the arena. He should - there is paperwork to do, questions to ask, he has food - but Sid lets himself hold on to Geno, alive, and closes his eyes. Geno smells of rain, of the acrid musk of unwashed bodies and overworn uniforms, familiar and solid as earth.

"Sid?" Geno says in his ear. "Okay?" He's pushing Sid away, looking him up and down, grip tightening. "Hurt?"

"No, no, I'm fine," Sid says. "On leave."

Geno understands that. He flicks at Sid's new chevrons, awkwardly bright against the faded khaki of his jacket, tugs his lapels straight. "Captain Sid?"

Sid nods.

"Good soldier," Geno says, with satisfaction. "Report? Camp?"

"For Colonel Lemieux," Sid says. "I have to be back at the front in two days." He stops himself. Sid can't say where he's going.

Geno nods. Then he says, "Colonel good man. Good hockey player."

"It was Mario who spoke to the Council about the camps," says Sid. "He's promised, more food, work - you'll be leaving soon." Geno's due to be transferred in a couple of days. Sid might have been too late.

He might have been too late ten months ago.

"Know," says Geno. "Go chop wood, build hut, all good." He shrugs. "Say to Colonel, all good, not die. Say..." he looks sideways, shifty, leans in. "Say, here, no politics. All politics officer camp. Better."

Sid's never understood the paired command of the Red Army, political and military officers working in tandem. He says, "I'll tell him." He's sharply reminded of the questions he should be asking. "What about food?" he says. "The guards?"

"All okay," Geno says, dismissive.

"Geno!" says Sid.

Geno shrugs. "Same army," he says.

"But you were-" Sid stops himself, snatching his case from behind the desk. Hurried, he fumbles the straps. "I brought you-" He's pushing packages into Geno's hands, the heavy weight of the cheese and then dried fish and dried apples and the packet of salt, small light things Geno can put in his pockets. "Keep this dry, soak these first-" He's pulling out his mother's fingerless gloves when the orange tumbles out of the case and wheels across the desktop.

Geno catches it. In his hands, the bright round of the fruit looks absurdly small, but Geno's staring down in complete bemusement. He strokes the skin with an investigative thumb, rolls it in his palm and sniffs, holding the orange to his nose. "What? Sid?"

Sid had got two, one for Taylor, hustled for them on the dockside market. "Orange," he says. He mimes peeling. "Fruit."

"Orange," says Geno, the word slow and accented, felt out. "In Russian..." He has to think. "Apel'sin." Smiling, he's looking down. When he looks up it's under his eyelashes, but no girl Sid's ever talked to, stumbling and uncomfortable, has had Geno's heavy, direct stare.

Sid puts out a hand, flat and hard on the desk. His knees are unaccountably weak.

"Eat?" Geno asks, one eyebrow rising.

He has to swallow before he can answer. "Yes," Sid says.

Geno splits the orange skin with his thumbs. He has worn down nails and battered knuckles, and the juice wells up between his fingers as he pulls the segments apart. When he holds out one half, Sid takes it, biting into the bitter sting of the pith and the sweet flesh. Geno watches him eat. His eyes are shielded and deceptively mild, as intent under his eyelashes as if they're facing off in the last minutes of a desperate match. It's only when Sid's done that Geno tears into his portion, segment after segment. His teeth are white and strong, and he eats everything, peel, pith, flesh, licks his fingers afterwards and scrubs at his mouth with his sleeve.

Sid wants to say that his family always used to have oranges at Christmas, dried and studded with cloves. Sid's mother preserved the peel. The sharp, sweet tang of the smell means home. He says, "Geno." There are heavy footsteps in the corridor. Keys jangle. Sid pulls his hand back. He looks at it for a moment, empty.

"Write," Geno says under his breath, silently stacato, emphatic.

"I will," Sid promises.

 

 

6th January 1942


When Sid looks up, he realizes the snow has stopped. It had been a light flurry, tumbling against the train windows and leaving the black steel of the tracks criss-crossing the goods yard bare above the white. He can make out, now, the hunched warehouses and the rows of empty coal wagons, although the heavy gray of the sky promises more snow.

There's a stove at the end of the carriage but the wind slicing through the windowframe is glacial. Sid shivers under the worn fur of his own coat. He's got a new winter jacket rolled and strapped on top of his pack, but Sid's never liked change and the comforting familiarity of his own clothing has served him well.

"Crosby!"

"What?"

"You want in?"

Half Sid's battalion are playing cards, crowded onto the benches by the stove. In wartime, a journey that should have taken four hours has taken ten, their train shunted into sidings as material is hurried to the front. Even more than men, the army needs guns and ammunition. Sid, like every other sniper, is using a captured Russian scope on his rifle, and he's still waiting for a full uniform.

"No," Sid says.

Teemu shrugs. "Suit yourself," he says.

Outside, a black cat crosses the tracks, leaving a fastidious trail of paw prints. At the embankment, it stops, tail twitching, looking up. Then it scuttles sideways, for three awkward, startled bounds until it remembers dignity. There's a wire fence above the embankment, barbed wire stretched between sturdy posts, and behind it a man is standing, bare hands curled around the wire. Sid winces, thinking of the sharp burning cold of the metal.

The man at the wire wears a Red Army uniform in the thin gray cotton of summer. His boots are stuffed with newspaper and his felt ushanka is pulled down over his ears, the cords hanging loose. The bones of his face are starkly prominent, his eyebrows darkly delineated over the hollows of his eyes and cheeks. His hands are little more than bones crowded under ice-white skin.

Then he looks up.

He's Geno.

Notebook, pack, orders discarded, Sid's spinning out of his seat, snatching at the bench backs as he runs along the aisle, slamming out of the door and leaping from the couplings. The chains rattle: snow slides and sprays under his boots. He's shouting, swearing as he slips on a rail and nearly falls, stumbling up the embankment. "Geno! Geno!"

Geno's already turning away, shoulders hunched.

"Geno!" Sid screams. "Geno, it's me, Sid!"

He can hear Teemu calling his name.

"Geno!"

The fence rattles as he slams into it, snow tumbling from every shaken link. Geno's stopped walking away, his head rising to the sound of Sid's voice.

Now he's stopped running, Sid can see his breath cloud, puffs of ice. Cold seizes his feet and burns his nose, freezes his throat and stings his fingers. On the other side of the fence, Geno's standing on packed ice, stained and filthy.

He turns around.

"Geno," Sid breathes.

Closer, Sid's shocked into wondering if he's mistaken. His Geno is warm, solid, arrogant, joking. This man's little more than a walking corpse.

Then he says, "Sid?" His voice is hoarse and weak, but it's the voice of the man Sid shared a shellhole with in Ladegoda, six months ago.

Sid nods, staring.

Geno shuffles when he walks, a listing, old man's gait. His hands hang loose by his sides and his eyes are deeply shadowed, but Geno's dragged up a smile for Sid, unnervingly toothed. Even his mouth is thinner.

"What happened?" Sid asks. He's holding so tightly to the fence that six hours later he'll still bear the marks on his hands. "Geno, what, how, you look-" Geno's starving. "Ill." Sid finishes.

His smile's already gone, as if it was too much effort to sustain, but Geno's eyes are the same. He says, "Sid?"

"What is this?" Sid demands. "What the fuck is going on here? What's wrong?"

Geno shrugs.

"Are you-" He can see Geno's cold, he doesn't need the words. Sid's already dragging off his coat, bundling it up, stepping back to make sure his throw arches over the razor wire topping the fence. The cloth unravells as it falls, sleeves flaring, and Geno reaches up a hand, both hands, and nearly falls under the weight. He stares down, frowning.

"On!" Sid demands. "Cold? Hungry?"

Slowly, Geno lets the coat drop out, looks at it, looks at Sid. For a moment Sid thinks he's going to let it fall, and then, agonisingly slowly, Geno drags the the fur over his shoulders.

Sid's left his gloves in the pockets. He'll need to find more. He shouts, gestures, until Geno pulls them out and holds them so awkwardly Sid has to rattle the fence and demonstrate. Only them does Geno force his fingers into the fur-lined leather. "Geno," Sid says. "Geno, what happened? What is this? What the fuck-"

"What the hell are you doing?" Teemu shouts. His voice carries in the cold air, thin and sharp. "They're Reds!"

There are huts behind the wire and men in them. Behind them, guard towers. It's a prisoner of war camp. Sid's never seen one before. He hadn't thought it would be anything like this.

"Sid!"

"Sid," Geno says, wondering.

"Don't," Sid says. "You're - starving." Horror holds him frozen to the earth, hands curled around the fence. The thin soup and black bread of his long-past lunch is sickeningly heavy in his stomach.

"Hurry the fuck up, we're leaving!"

"This isn't right, I have to-"

"Sid!"

"Go," Geno says.

"I'll fix this," Sid shouts, "I'll sort it out, I'll - Geno!"

Geno's turning away.

The train whistles. Sid can hear the first huff of the wheels, the faint squeal of metal straining against metal. The front is quiet, but they're expecting orders to press forward to Murmansk, to cut the last Russian railhead and close with the German army beseiging Leningrad. Everyone knows the Germans are pressing Mannerheim for greater military committment, and behind the lines men are expecting a second advance, beyond the old frontier, to face the Red Army on their own ground.

Sid's fighting his war over Finnish soil, not Russian.

"Hang on!" he shouts to Geno. "Hang on! Wait for me!"

There is no telephone until Salla. There in the burnt out remains of what had been, in June, a schoolhouse, Sid rattles the field receiver and says, harsh, dry-voiced, furious, "I need to speak to Colonel Lemieux. Now."

 

 

10th - 12th July 1941


It's the dull thunder of the guns that wakes him, shaking the loose topsoil, spraying sand and grit across Sid's face, tumbling the cold, damp crumbs of the shattered permafrost. His forearm is over his eyes, but sunlight spears through the cloth and slams into the dizzy, ringing, space where Sid's mind used to be. Pain, encompassing, leaves a wasteland in its wake.

Sid blacks out.

When he wakes again he still hurts, and the guns are further away, far enough to distinguish the singing whoop of the Russian missile launchers from the sharp short bursts of the Finnish artillery. Every barrage thunders through Sid's ears in cruel shocks, leaving him unsteady and nauseated, stranded in a morass of soil and pain. When he pulls his arm from his eyes and blinks at the sky, it swims in and out of focus, a generous darkening blue so far above Sid could almost reach up and sweep his fingers through the stars. Strange, he wonders, that above the smoke they are so bright, this night of all nights, when he is dying.

When the guns fall silent, Sid feels the air heavy with anticipation, like the moment in the rink before the lights go up. 'What?' he thinks. 'What now?'

When the sun comes up, he is still alive.

There is a tree on the edge of the shellhole. Branches pattern the sunrise into crazed shards, black on red, tilted into broken and dizzying angles. Under the shredded stump of its roots, soil falls away into the hollow eye of the pit. From where Sid lies, his shellhole could be the whole world, and here in the safe shadow of the soil the war is irrelevent.

Somewhere out there, his battalion is fighting without him. Teemu, Arvi, Janno, Ilkka with his set grim grin and his gold tooth, Hannu who screamed like a draugen when they saw their first Red tank. Sid feels for his rifle, rolls into mud, and has to lie in it panting as he swallows back vomit. His ears are ringing. His joints are stiff and aching, his skin sensitive under the coarse cotton of his uniform. He's got concussion, worse than he's ever had it before, but familiar. "Shit," Sid curses silently, eyes squeezed shut against the pain of the acid burning in his throat. "Shit, shit."

He has to get up. He has a war to fight. He pushes up onto an elbow, shaking, washed out, weak as a bloodless fish. When he opens his eyes, the tree branches splinter and fade in keleidoscope disarray.

Someone says, "Govno."

The word's dirty, ground out, hoarse. Sid's startled "What?" is a raw mistake.

"Chto?"

Sid startles upwards, can't get any further, shakes his head and hisses with pain. His world drifts in and out of focus before it steadies.

He is not alone. On the other side of the shellhole, crumpled under the roots of the tree, a Red Army soldier stares back at him. He's filthy, mud streaking his face and splattering his uniform, and one of his knees is twisted and bloody, but he's alive. He looks dazed, his mouth hanging open and his cap askew, but lying across his belly is Sid's own rifle.

Sid puts his hands in the air. "No!" he says.

The Russian blinks at him, and somewhere, a long way away - sixteen hundred metres, Sid thinks with perfect clarity - the guns open up into the new day.

Sid stares at the Russian, and the Russian stares back. He's oddly intent, but he's not reaching for the rifle.

After a few minutes, Sid's arms start to shake. He's going to be sick again.

They must be about the same age, Sid and the Russian, although Sid feels so much older now than he did three months ago. Three weeks. A lifetime, on the front.

When Sid lets his arms fall, nothing happens. He lets his eyes drift closed. His uniform's wet. Mud puddles under his hips, soaks his left puttee and seeps down into his boot. It's summer - the soil should be dry. Then Sid feels the rain on his face.

When the Russian moves, soil shifts and falls. He swears under his breath, something harsh and gutteral. Then he moves again. Cloth rips.

When Sid opens his eyes, the Russian is trying to bind up his knee with a bandage torn from his uniform. Blood has already soaked the weave, and his hands are unsteady, but the frown on his face is fiercely concentrated. It occurs to Sid that this man intends to live.

He can do nothing less.

He is still nauseated. His head aches and his ears ring faintly. It's nothing more than he's already lived through. Sid swallows, tasting blood, and says, "You need to brace that knee."

The Russian glances up.

"No, brace," says Sid. He gestures at his own knee in explanation.

The Russian rolls his eyes and tries to tighten the bandage with one good hand and his teeth.

"Stop!" Sid says sharply. He stabs his finger at the shattered tree branches. "Brace." It's how things should be done. He's seen it done, on ice and on the battlefield.

"Nyet," says the Russian, short and harsh. He looks up again. "No."

"Idiot," says Sid.

"Filthy Finn," says the Russian.

"Kill yourself then," says Sid. "See if I care." He concentrates on sitting up. It doesn't go badly. If he can get himself upright and onto flat earth, he'll find his battalion, or someone will come for him.

Standing does not go well.

In the afternoon the Russian too tries to leave the shellhole. He'd done something to himself with the bandaging, had lain back grey-faced and breathing hard. Blood oozes, bright in the rain, through the bandage. When he moves, he drags his leg. He can't stand, although he tries, dragging himself upright with both hands wrapped around the roots of the tree. Then he collapses, slowly, swearing as his knee buckles.

Sid doesn't bother to look away. Flat on his back, the Russian sweeps up a handful of mud and throws it at him. It's just frustration. That, Sid understands. It had been a brave effort, more than Sid's managed.

He says, "Rus. What's your name?"

"What?" snaps the Russian.

"Name," says Sid. He tries to think. He knows the Russian for beer, hockey, kill. "Your name." He points.

"Yevgeni," says the Russian, reluctantly.

Sid can't manage the hard G. His tongue stumbles on the guh, clumsy.

"Zhenya," says the Russian. He looks at Sid's face and hisses in exasperation. "Geno."

"Geno," Sid manages, fishing for the one word he can lunge at pronouncing. It still sounds off, too soft, not hard enough, odd, although his ears are still ringing. "I'm Sid."

"Know."

"What?" Sid says.

"Know." Geno says it impatiently. "Crosby. Hockey. Know."

"What?" Sid says.

"Big man," says Geno. "Big hockey. Finn." He spits through his teeth, eyes on Sid's. "Sidney Crosby.

"You play," Sid says. He sits up. "Forward? Defense?" He looks at Geno's hands. Big hands, comfortable on a hockey stick. "Who for?" He's talking too quickly. "Team Moscow? Petrograd? Kiev?"

Geno glares at him, but Sid's lit up now, remembering conversations between Mr Lemieux and Mr Jágr at the dinner table. "You play for the army? And with a..." he holds his hands up, circled. "With a ball, not a puck? Bigger ice? Does that mean-"

"Puck," says Geno. "No army."

"Then who?" says Sid. "Do you know Jágr? Joromir Jágr, he played in Helsinki?"

"Capitalist traitor," says Geno.

"What?"

"Good hockey," Geno adds.

"What's hockey got to do with politics!"

Geno blinks at him.

"It's sport," Sid says. "Hockey." He looks at the crumbling, muddy shell hole and the shattered tree, the bloodstained bandages strapping Geno's knee and his own dented helmet, half-buried in soil. "Not war."

"All war," says Geno.

"No," says Sid.

"Yes!" says Geno. "Big. Win. Kill. Best!"

Sid finds he has nothing to say to that. He sits in silence, wishing the ringing in his ears would stop. Whe he reaches up to check his pockets, to make sure everything is ordered and in its place, his fingers are shaking.

Geno says, "Magnitogorsk."

"What?" Sid asks.

"Play hockey," says Geno. "Magnitogorsk. First team." His fingers outline a horizontal bar, the shape of a name on a hockey shirt. "Malkin." He pauses. "Good hockey." His chin is up, as if he expectes Sid to doubt him, but the words have the confidence of a man sure of his game.

"Okay," says Sid.

"Play you," Geno says. "Win."

"You can try," says Sid. He thinks - he thinks it would be a match worth playing. He'd like to face this man over a puck. He'd like to be on the ice with this man.

"Win okay," says Geno. Mutters.

"If you want to win, you ought to brace that knee," Sid says.

"Fine!" Geno says. "Okay! Crosby boss!"

"Okay!" Sid says, glaring.

Stiffly, one-handed, Geno picks at the bandages. Blood blooms heart-red over the dull dried stains. Sid watches until he can't stand it any more, and then he drags off his jacket and starts ripping into his shirt tails. He's less dizzy than he was, but he still has to steel himself for every tear.

Geno stops to watch. "What?" Sid says. "What?" He's lucky it's summer. The rain has stopped. He's thirsty, but the thought of food makes him nauseous. "Get a piece of wood. Straight. That piece." Sid points. "And that one." He gets Geno to put the braces either side of his knee, and then Sid throws over the ragged-edged bandages he's torn from his shirt. "Tie them tight," he says, demonstrating.

Grumbling, Geno does. "Boss," he mutters. "Fix furnace, make quota, win game, kill Finns, fix wound..." When he tightens the knots, he swears in Russian, low and gutteral. "Fuck Finns," he says.

"None of that," Sid says.

"With gun," Geno snarls. He's breathing hard, lets himself collapse back against the earth.

Sid watches his breathing steady and color come back into his face. "Okay?" he asks. Geno doesn't answer, but Sid can see him relax as the pain eases. "Okay, Geno?" he asks again.

"Okay," Geno says. After a moment, he says, "Sid okay?" He touches his head. "Wound?"

"Concussion," Sid says. Acting dizzy and sick becomes dizzy and sick, but Geno's sharp acknowledgement means he understands. "Like hockey," Sid says eventually, ruefully.

"Want?" Geno offers.

Sid had not realized how thirsty he was until Geno holds up a canteen. He doesn't even have to say anything, and Geno flips the canteen into his lap. Sid drinks half. When he throws it back, Geno taps his fingers on the casing. "In Russia," he says. "Russia hockey. Magnitogorsk hockey. Know Sid. Best hockey player. Shoot! Goal! Win! Always..." he says, "Always...want."

"Want hockey?" Sid says."Me, too." It's an unexpected fellow feeling. He says, "On ice everything makes sense."

Geno sniggers. "No politics," he says, mocking.

"Maybe in Russia. Not in Finland," Sid says firmly.

The way Geno looks at him this time is considering, thoughtful.

"You should play with us," Sid offers. "With me."

Geno looks away. He swallows. Sid, watching, is struck by how pale the skin of his throat is, in the dip of his shirt, the strong rise of the bones of his collarbone. Geno's sleeves are rolled up, his forearms strongly muscled and patterned with short, dark hair. Blood and dirt smeaar his hands, but they're strong hands, skilled. "Mr Lemieux-" Sid starts.

"Sh-sh," Geno says, holding up a hand.

"-and-"

"Sh."

The sound of guns had faded during the afternoon, and in the cool gold of the evening the battlefield had been silent. Now, a low mutter, Sid can hear men's voices.

"Russian?" he asks.

Geno shrugs. He frowns down at his bandaged knee.

"They'll look after you," Sid says. "We should shout."

"Wait," says Geno. "Wait for..." he mimes shooting.

"We don't shoot prisoners!" says Sid.

Geno cocks an eyebrow at him. Deliberately, he reaches for the rifle, Sid's rifle. He sights down it and chambers a round, swift and efficient.

"If it's us," Sid says, and then, "If it's yours-"

Head bent over the rifle, Geno slices his hand across his neck, viciously explicit.

"Today is not the day we die," Sid says.

"Na miru i smert' krasna," Geno says. He's smiling, the shape of it there in the curve of his cheeks, and then he ducks his head, looking up, and his grin flashes boyish and defiant. "Sid. Live. Hockey."

"Both of us," says Sid firmly. He struggles to his feet, clinging to the crumbling soil banks of the shell hole. The voices are closer. Then he hears a word - and Geno throws the rifle at him, raises his hands and cowers back, so theatrically terrified Sid has to choke back both terror and laughter and for the first time in his life cannot steady his aim.

Boots ring against steel. "Christ!" someone exclaims. "It's one of ours!"

"Don't shoot!" Sid shouts. He swallows, and then calls again, "Hold your fire!"

Too late, the words locked in his throat, he wants to say to Geno, 'I'll look for you, you'll be okay. Wait for me, I'll find you.'

Geno winks.

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

Na miru i smert' krasna - With company, even death loses its sting.

"No v mire net lyudey besslezney" is a quote from Anna Akhmatova's "I am not one of those who left the land..." (Trs. 1990, Hemschemeyer)

No v mire net lyudey besslezney,
Nadmenneye i proshche nas.

We are the people without tears,
straighter than you ... more proud...