Nicke got the text at eight in the morning. It read, in order, moon-sleeping smiley-airplane-airplane-sun-clock-phone-smiley blowing a kiss-train-smiley blowing a kiss-smiley blowing a kiss-car-10:45 local-heart. Nicke almost texted back a series of emphatic question marks, but that would have been succumbing to Sasha’s madness and he would not do that. Instead, he drove to Gävle Centralstation at 10:45 with two extra large coffees and waited until a tall figure in a ball cap and navy sweats appears.
Nicke almost didn’t recognize him. Sasha had been traveling in the same hideous and ultra-soft grey sweats for so long they’d become a locker room legend. Also, he had cut his hair and trimmed his beard. He looked like a respectable young father just back from a trip. For a single moment Nicke wondered if Sasha had actually dragged his two Russian hooligans along with him, or, worse, Nicke’s own hooligans, but no, Sasha was alone.
“Did you lose a bet?” Nicke asked when Sasha is close enough to hear him. “What have I told you about gambling without me?”
Sasha grinned and pulled him into a bear hug. Nicke hugged back as best he could with a coffee in each hand.
“Missed you, Backy,” Sasha murmured into his ear, and stepped back. “This for me?” He took a coffee without waiting for Nicke to respond.
“Yes,” Nicke said. “How was your trip?” He wanted to reach out and cup Sasha’s cheek. He settled for sipping his coffee.
Sasha shrugged. “Long,” he said in the same tone he used when forced to spout hockey cliches. “Bad coffee, and airplane serve Pepsi, not Coke.”
“Good,” Nicke teased. “Your caffeine addiction is an ugly thing. They’re going to start using you as an example of what goes wrong with drugs at prospect camp.”
“Was terrible,” Sasha continued mournfully. “And they ran out of peanuts.” He took a large drink of his coffee to fortify himself against such a horrible memory.
“We’ll go get lunch, keep you from wasting away.” Nicke eyed Sasha’s broad shoulders. “Not that there’s much concern for that.”
Sasha stuck his tongue out at Nicke before grabbing up his bags. Nicke bit at the inside of his lip as he watched him settle his duffel across his shoulders and stack his suitcases. He couldn’t tell if Sasha’s leg was fine or if he should be wrestling him for the luggage.
It had felt so good to see Sasha again that Nicke had managed to momentarily forget all the hows and whys and whats that had been plaguing him the last three weeks. Nicke had hoped that the time and distance (and the gold medal, he wasn’t going to forget the gold medal anytime soon, just thinking about it mad his lips curve into a smile and his shoulders straighten) would give him the answers and words he needed to say.
The words didn’t come. Nicke took Sasha to lunch, and then home, and let Sasha chatter about Nicke’s 7 points (“World champion Nicklas Backstrom! Seven points in five games! Best player, obviously”) and Sweden taking Canada (“Highlight of my week, Backy”) and Blake’s new toy (“It’s nice because when I’m tired I can just shoot the ball and not have to throw.” “Having trouble with your shoulder, old man?” “I throw you, see how bad my shoulder is) and didn’t realize Sasha hadn’t mentioned the team or the season or the myriad of unanswered messages on his phone until they were curled up in bed together. Nicke’s head was resting on Sasha’s shoulder. Sasha’s arm was around Nicke’s waist. Nicke thought about moving to check what’s going on with Sasha’s thigh, but it would have interrupted the peace Sasha was building for them, and that was when Nicke figured out what they were doing.
He pinched Sasha’s side and sat up. “Asshole. You aren’t supposed to enable me.”
Sasha hissed but didn’t pull away. “Enable you? What the fuck, Backy?”
Nicke pinched him again. “How’s the leg?”
Sasha swatted at him. “Fine. What? You think I’d risk it?” He pulled his knee up to his chest to show Nicke his hamstring, which did, admittedly, look better. Less swollen, and the bruising was faded and yellow. “I saw the doctors and the trainers before I left DC. Gotta go back next week for next checkup.”
Nicke leaned in and kissed the injury. “You should see someone while you’re here. I’ll make some calls tomorrow morning, get something set up.”
Sasha groaned and straightened his leg. “I’m not gonna screw this up, Nicky. Stop worrying.”
Nicke couldn’t help the snort that came out. “If I could stop worrying about you, I would.” He looked down at Sasha’s face, and leaned into brush their lips together. Sasha tangled his fingers in Nicke’s hair and the kiss lengthened, and deepened, and left them both breathless. When Nicke finally pulled away he stayed close enough they were breathing the same air. He pressed another kiss to Sasha’s forehead.
“Liar,” Sasha said warmly. “You like worrying.”
“I do not,” Nicke said, appalled, sitting back on the bed against Sasha’s hip. “If I had less people to worry about, I would be overjoyed.”
“So it was nice, being with national team, not having to take care of all the rookies?” Sasha asked, mischief all over his face.
Suspicion leaked in. “Where are you going with this?”
“You know I get lots of texts since you been gone,” Sasha informed him. “All the children, wondering why Papa is ignoring them. Stick asking if you have new phone. Alzy and Carly asking if you’re okay.”
Their teammates were very, very nosy, but it was possible Nicke had been a little out of touch these last few weeks. “I was in the middle of a tournament.”
“And then there was Lundqvist. ‘You and Backis okay?’ he ask.”
Nicke flopped over and tried to smother himself with a pillow. He said, “I thought you were letting me avoid talking about this.”
“I can’t hear you when you talk to the pillow, Nicky.” Sasha was laughing at him. If Nicke could see him, his eyes would be clear and bright, his harsh features softened by the grin on his lips. It was a look Nicke liked to see, and a look he’d be hard pressed not to bury in the bedding if he saw right now.
Nicke pulled his head back enough to say, “I hate you. And Henke. And whoever else is butting their nose in.”
That brought Nicke back upright. “Greenie? Greenie texted you?”
“I think he try you, first, and then he worry.” Sasha leaned over the edge of the bed to find his pants and phone.
“I don’t believe you,” Nicke said, even though he hadn’t talked to anyone other than Swedish teammates and reporters in what felt like - what was, Nicke realized, what actually was weeks. He hadn’t even talked to Sasha until that moment at the train station, though Sasha had kept up a string of cheerful one-sided texts. He was suddenly terrified of his inbox. He could just delete everything and start fresh, right?
“‘Ovie, are you and Nicky ok? There’s shit going down in the group chat,’” Sasha read. “‘Ovie, seriously, is everything good? Blah blah bad luck blah blah you get through this blah blah blah.’”
“Give me that.” Nicke snatched the phone out of Sasha’s hands. He scrolled through Sasha’s messages and - there were a lot of them. Sasha was social, and enthusiastic, and somehow had half the league chatting with him on any given day, but even for him, his inbox was ridiculous. “This is ridiculous.”
“It probably wouldn’t be this bad, but then you not talk to anyone for weeks. And the media say true love match with Nylander…” Sasha shrugged.
Nicke paused his scrolling through Greenie’s concerned texts about postseason blues and the value of working through problems. What the hell, Greenie? “Seriously? That worried them?”
Sasha had a terrible poker face. He did his best, but the laughter was leaking through his smiling eyes and quivering lips. “For some reason, Whip thought Burt might know if Toronto was on your list.”
Holy fucking hell. “I’m going to murder all of them,” Nicke said, switching over to Whatsapp and the team chat for the first time since Game 7. He scrolled up, and up, and up, a seemingly endless blur of ‘but what does this mean?,’ and ‘will Nicky ask to go to Vegas?,’ and ‘Ovi you guys aren’t actually splitting up, right, I don’t want to have to pick sides!’
“Did you do anything at all to keep this from getting out of hand?” Nicke demanded, looking at the Sasha with the kind of death glare he usually saved for after Sasha’s third penalty of the night. He scrolled a little further up to see a message where Burt claimed Nicke would prefer San Jose or Tampa, and one from Jojo trolling with a, ‘New York seems more likely, you know how much Nicky likes playing with Lundqvist,’ comment that he was willing to bet blew up like a car in a James Bond film.
“Nope,” Sasha said happily. “Gets everyone talking, people working through things. Better than before. We got shit to fix, Backy, but we gotta have a team to fix it for.”
Nicke stopped looking at an argument between Shatty and Els and looked at Sasha, leaning back against the white pillows. His hair was a mess of silver strands, his skin was gold and scattered with fading bruises, and he was smiling at Nicke like they were 20 and 22 and the entire world was theirs. He was so damned clever, and so damned strong, and Nicke-
Nicke had wanted to with the Stanley Cup with him. He swallowed, his eyes burned. “We will fix it,” he promised. “I’ll be here to help you fix it.”
Sasha’s grin turned gentle and he reached out to pull Nicky into his arms. The phone dropped, forgotten amidst the blankets. “You think I ever doubt you?”
Nicke kissed him. “No,” he murmured between breaths. “No, I never thought that at all.”
It was maybe an hour later when Nicke rolled out of bed and found his own phone to order dinner in. Sasha was in the shower, and it was time to start thinking about eating. They were both old enough that they should have something other than pizza, but they’d been apart for weeks; they deserved a little celebration. Then he opened the group chat on his phone. There were over 600 messages waiting for him.
Nicke hesitated, but he figured his team was full of nosy assholes who deserved it, and sent out the selfie he and Willy Nylander had taken after the gold medal game. Not the one with Willy and Lindy, but the one he had forbidden from ever being posting on social media. The one of him in the hot tub with Willy hooked over his shoulder, both of them grinning at the camera.
‘Back from Worlds. Had a great time,’ he wrote. ‘What’s everyone else been doing?’ Then he shut off his phone and went to join Sasha in the shower.