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Sidney picked up his phone on the third ring. “Congratulations, Sid!” Alex said. Best to start with the positive.

There was a pause on the other end. “For what?”

“Sid, you remember I tell you sometimes I am salamander.”

“You mean that time I didn’t believe you and then you turned into one and I nearly pissed myself? That does kind of ring a bell.”

Alex grinned into the phone. Granted he’d been a little drunk at the time and also had just had a very passable orgasm, but he’d just wanted to thank Sidney for the unexpectedly nice time. However, it had resulted in sharing certain facts that Alex generally tried to prepare people a bit more for. Sidney’s horrified squawk had been very satisfying, though, especially since Alex still didn’t quite believe Sidney hadn’t been a little afraid of Alex the Salamander. Lots of people had weird ideas about anything even vaguely lizard-shaped, however amphibious.

Alex’s amusement faded. Now for the possibly less positive. “There other part I didn’t tell you.”

After another pause, Sid said, very carefully, “Oh?”

“Actually I am girl salamander.”

These pauses were getting longer. “What? You’re. What?” Sidney took a deep breath. Alex imagined him pinching the bridge of his nose. “You’re a guy.”

“Guy person, yes, but girl salamander. You know this, Sid, if you ever google salamanders! You can tell by my toes. I have very pretty toes. All the salamander say so.”

“...Right. Okay. Why are you telling me this?”

“That what the congratulations are for.” This time it was Alex who paused. He really didn’t know how this was going to go over. “You going to be daddy of two beautiful salamander babies.”

“What the fuck.”

--

So, okay, Sidney was not all that receptive at first. He would liked to have known about this possibility a little sooner, which Alex thought was fair. Alex pointed out that successful human-salamander matings were rare and he hadn’t thought it’d ever be relevant to him and Sidney, which appeased Sidney somewhat.

Still, it took a couple of phone calls for Sidney to start asking questions in which the word fuck didn’t appear several times. Questions like, “Are they always going to be salamanders? Or will they be like you?”

“I am always salamander, Sid,” Alex explained, not for the first time since they’d started fucking. “I just look like person a lot of the time.”

“But will they be like you?”

“Could be like you, maybe,” Alex admitted. “Like I say, not a lot of matings. Not much data.”

“But they won’t be, like, just salamanders that can’t turn into people. Or talk.”

“You have sex with hairy girl, she maybe have chimpanzee baby?”

“What? No!”

“There your answer.”

Another phone call, and Sidney wanted to know if there would be eggs. “Or are there already eggs?” Sidney asked with a certain degree of horror.

“Not eggs. Not my kind of salamander. We carry until babies are born.”

After another one of those pauses, Sidney said, “So you’re pregnant?”

Alex really had no idea where Sidney thought babies were going to come from, if not from Alex or eggs. “Yes. Maybe two months.”

“What about hockey?” Sidney asked, voice sharp with a new and entirely different kind of horror.

“They very small right now. Hard to hurt. Only have to take off last year or so from hockey.”

“The last year?”

--

Sidney skipped an optional skate to fly to Washington and see Alex. Alex wasn’t entirely sure why Sidney chose to come visit him now, when the news was already weeks old, but after almost two years of their off-again, on-again that was mostly on these days, Alex still was not fully omniscient in the ways of Sidney.

Anyway, Alex went to pick up Sidney at the airport without complaining. It’d been a long time since anyone but his right hand had gotten him off. Except that wasn’t all of it. Something internal sunk a little in dismay as he realized that what he really wanted – in addition to the orgasms, mind you – was for Sidney to sit on his couch with him while they watched the trashiest Russian TV Alex could dig up. There’d be takeout. And kissing, to warm up to the sex. And maybe a swim in the solarium afterwards – well, Alex would swim. Sidney would sit on the edge and wrinkle his nose at pond smell.

Absolutely none of that had been on the menu when they started this thing, except for the orgasms.

Alex found Sidney already at the curb, his overnight bag on his shoulder. Sidney looked relieved to see him, which offended Alex a little. Had Alex ever left Sidney stranded at the airport? No. No, he had not. He parked at the curb, got out, and threw out his hands. “Sidney Crosby, you stand there like little lost penguin in great big city.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Sidney said, gaze slicing to either side of him.

Alex ignored this rudeness and pulled Sidney in for a hug. After a moment, Sidney relaxed and put his arms around Alex and squeezed, and somewhere in there it went from a robust hug of public Russian welcome to... something else, which Alex was not going to examine too closely just then.

He stepped back. “Come, Sidney Crosby, I show you new rocks in my pond.”

“Great,” Sidney said flatly, but he wasn’t good at being sneaky; Alex saw the smile he was hiding when Sidney stuffed his overnight bag in the back of the car.

It wasn’t until they were on the couch with the takeout Alex had envisioned when Sidney said, “Two to four years?”

Alex shrugged. He’d already explained this. “It depend on altitude, what the weather like. Lower places, here or Moscow, probably closer to two years.”

“And then you’ll have two salamander babies.”

“Things go the way they supposed to, then yes.”

Sidney stared down at his pork fried rice. “Did you want kids?”

“I didn’t not want.” Alex shrugged again. “Want sometime. I didn’t plan for now, but I have two years to get used to the idea, you know?”

“Is it, you know.” Sidney stopped.

Alex did not know. “What?”

“Aren’t you, like, anxious at all?” He waved his chopstick in the air. “I’d be fucking terrified.”

“I think it like that for all new parents, Sid.”

“I guess,” Sidney said, still looking disturbed. Alex distracted him from it by kissing him, which made Sidney squawk and complain about the sweet and sour sauce making Alex’s lips sticky, and then he forgot to complain at all.

--

After that, Alex stopped thinking about the babies for a while. He did spend more time in his pond – the only thing that could have any hope of hurrying the process along – but it wasn’t even a conscious decision most of the time. The pond was just where he wanted to be. He’d come home after a game, and he’d feel so dried out from the ice that he couldn’t get out of his clothes fast enough.

His mama, when she visited, forced him to think about the babies a little more. She took all his vodka away, shaking her finger at his nose, and he stood in his empty, boozeless kitchen and considered the prospect of two entire years spent dry.

It was enough to drive a person to drink. Damn it.

--

After the Caps lost game seven to the Rangers – fucking Lundqvist – Sidney flew down to Washington from Nova Scotia. They didn’t talk about the Rangers or about Philadelphia. They spent a lot of time in bed.

Alex woke the second morning to find Sidney propped on his elbow and staring at Alex’s chest. Or, no. His stomach. Alex huffed. “There nothing to see yet.”

“I noticed,” Sidney said. His eyes didn’t move. “When...?”

“Long time yet. When babies start to show, that when I have to stop hockey.”

Sidney flung himself down on his back and heaved a huge sigh. “I can’t imagine giving up hockey for a whole year.”

Alex had been spending a lot of time lately not imagining it, thank you. “Yeah, Caps, they not going to be happy.”

Sidney rolled over to look at Alex. “Do they know? That you’re a salamander?” He managed the word with only the barest hesitation, which was progress. Alex leaned down and kissed him for it. Sidney hummed into his mouth. So much for hockey.

Later, though, over breakfast, Sidney asked again. “What are you going to tell the Caps management?”

Alex wrinkled his nose at his plate. Maybe he wasn’t in the mood for eggs. Maybe, more depressingly, his stomach wasn’t in the mood for eggs. He wasn’t supposed to be having those kinds of symptoms yet. He scowled and took a swig of orange juice. “You know our goalie coach, Prior?”

“I guess? I’ve heard of him.”

“Sometimes he is toad.”

“Ah.”

“So, you know, Caps know there are people sometimes who turn into water animals. They know about me. They not really expect me to need IR for having babies, but...” Alex shrugged. He didn’t have a good follow-up to that.

“That’s going to suck,” Sidney said. “And God, the media is going to eat you alive.”

Alex didn’t have a good answer for that, either.

"So, Alex," Sidney said. “Is Prior a guy toad or a girl toad?”

--

Alex went home to Moscow for the summer. The lockout loomed, and then it was certain. Alex signed on with Dynamo. His mama was ecstatic. She had another indeterminate number of months to stuff him with all the family recipes for the health and growth of salamander babies.

Dynamo was perfect, of course. They were going to win the Gagarin. Moscow’s days were beautiful and its nights full of strobe lights and pulsing music Alex could still dance to, even if he couldn’t drink to it anymore. He had an entire team, an entire league of people to speak Russian with and go clubbing with. There was nothing in the world he could possibly want.

After two months of Sidney’s casual, infrequent texts, Alex stopped lying to himself and started bugging Sidney for a Skype date. In text, of course, Sidney’s skepticism was hard to interpret. It didn’t help that Sidney did not believe in smilies of any kind. srsl? you want to skype?, his first response said. The second time Alex asked, though, Sidney agreed. Then scheduling was nearly impossible, between the time difference and Alex’s games. But finally Alex had Sidney on the other side of a grainy Skype image.

Alex held up his mother’s latest vitamin suggestion. “Dried lake weed,” he explained.

Sidney made a sympathetic face. He looked tired after another day of meetings and makeshift practices and no hockey. Alex wanted to reach through the screen and smooth out the tired lines in his forehead. Instead he said, as he had in multiple texts, “Come play for Dynamo. Real hockey. I play on your wing, we light up the whole KHL, and you have Gagarin Cup to go with Stanley.”

“Not that that isn’t appealing, but.” Sidney shrugged.

“Maybe I come steal you, hold you for ransom. I tell Bettman he can’t have Crosby until he give us hockey again.”

“That sounds like an awesome idea,” Sidney said, which told Alex exactly how the lockout negotiations was going.

“Or you could just visit,” Alex wheedled. “Come watch Dynamo play, we take day off and go watch Zhenya play, you eat this lake weed stuff for me when Mama isn’t looking. Perfect vacation.”

“Sounds pretty great,” Sidney said. “Except for the lake weed.”

“We spend a lot of time in bed,” Alex added. It coaxed a smile from Sidney, which was Alex’s immediate objective.

Midway through the call, Alex’s mama let herself in his front door, which meant certain of the activities Alex had planned had to be postponed. Instead he gave Sidney a few more reasons for why Sidney should come to Moscow, and he hung up. He came out to his kitchen to find his mama unloading a grocery sack, full of, he was sure, more pregnancy remedies exactly as appealing as the one he had left unfinished next to his laptop.

“Was that Sidney?” his mama asked neutrally. Alex assumed she used that same tone on Olympics officials whose treatment of her basketball team disappointed her.

“Yes,” he said cautiously.

“Are you going to marry him?”

Alex slid onto a bar stool and folded his hands very deliberately on the counter top. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Hmm.” That hum was full of judgment, probably for him and Sidney both.

“You know things are different today, Mama. Lots of people live together and raise kids together and don’t get married.”

She turned the full brunt of her gaze upon him. “Is that what you and Sidney are going to do?”

He fixed his gaze on his folded hands. “I don’t know.”

Her next words came softer than he might have expected. “Is that what you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” he repeated. This time it was a lie. He shrugged against the pity with which she was surely looking at him. “I don’t know what Sidney wants.”

“You could ask him.”

“I don’t want to scare him off,” Alex explained. His caution was very reasonable; he didn’t know why his mother was shaking her head at him. “He’s already struggling with the fact that I’m a salamander. And pregnant.”

“Hmm,” his mother said again. She leaned up and kissed his hair and then smoothed it back down. She didn’t say anything else about Sidney for the rest of the visit.

--

Despite his confidence in his superlative sales techniques, Alex didn’t really expect anything to come of that Skype conversation, and yet a week and a half later he got a text from Sidney: can i come before xmas?

Alex’s brain immediately cluttered with so many possible responses to that phrasing that it took him a moment to recognize what Sidney was really saying. Then he had to go lean against the counter for a moment. Eventually he wrote back, b4 xmas si fine!!! )))). Because he was feeling generous, he added, u come many times as you want!! )))) hahaha!!!)))

Two hours later, Sidney emailed him a flight schedule.

--

Alex met Sidney outside customs. He brought a sign with Sidney’s name on it, and he stood and waved it back and forth, although a couple of times he had to stop to take a picture with people or give his autograph.

It was as he finished a last photo and waved goodbye to the most recent group when he became aware of someone new at his elbow. He turned, and there was Sidney, looking exhausted and a little manic. “Sidney Crosby,” Alex said, grinning so hard he felt his face splitting in two. He snatched Sidney into a hug. After a moment, Sidney loosened his grip, but Alex didn’t feel like letting go yet. Maybe Sidney missed him some, because it took him another half a minute before he started wriggling in protest.

When Alex finally did let go, Sidney noticed the sign. “Have you been holding that and taking pictures with people?”

“Is great honor, Alexander Ovechkin hold sign with your name on it,” Alex told him loftily. Sidney kept squinting at him, though, and Alex finally relented. “No, I don’t take picture with sign. I know you so private about that stuff.”

“And yet you stood here in the airport holding it,” Sidney said, but a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

Once they were in the car, Alex said, “What you want to see first in Moscow? You never come here before, right?”

“Yeah. I mean, I haven’t.”

“We got great museums. Lot of history. Very pretty buildings, too. Little early for ice festival but we have ice sculpture museum now all year. And ballet, very Russian. You like ballet?”

Sidney blinked at him. “Do you?”

“Eh.” Alex waggled his hand. “Clubs are better. You want to go to the clubs? We have to go to the clubs. I’ll get some guys together—”

“That sounds great,” Sidney said. “But, like, tomorrow? Because I want to go to bed and not leave for ten hours. To sleep,” he added, when he saw the look on Alex’s face.

“Sid, you ruin all my hopes and dreams.”

Sidney flipped him off and settled back in his seat. Once his eyes were closed, he said, “If you crash this car and end my career, half of Canada will murder you. Just so you know.”

--

Despite certain logistical difficulties – like the fact that Alex had to show up to practice sometimes – he showed Sidney the town over the next few days. They did visit the ice sculpture museum, where they chirped each other for being cold. Alex showed Sidney the Kremlin, and Sidney was suitably impressed. He got Sidney a prime seat for Dynamo’s next game, and afterwards he and a bunch of the guys introduced Sidney to Moscow’s nightlife. Sidney obligingly – foolishly, some might say, but Alex would have ignored them – drank everything Alex put in front of him, and they danced until Alex was too turned on to even think straight, and then Alex dragged him home to bed.

“So how are you?” Sidney asked one morning, at least an hour before reasonable people were awake.

Alex hummed and pressed his morning wood against Sidney’s ass. “That how I am.”

Sidney scooted away and rolled over. Alex opened his eyes to find Sidney looking at him very seriously. “I mean, with the pregnancy.” There was barely a pause before the last word. Alex wondered if Sidney had been practicing.

Alex shrugged the shoulder he wasn’t lying on. “I’m fine. I feel kind of barfy sometime. My mama say her back hurt around this time when she pregnant with me, but I can’t tell.”

“Can’t tell baby pain from hockey pain?”

Alex made a face. “I tell her that one time, and she start tell me about what it like when she give birth to me.” He shuddered, and Sidney grimaced sympathetically with him.

“How much longer?” Sidney asked.

“Hard to tell. Babies still so small, probably at least a year.”

“Fuck,” Sidney said, very quietly. Then, “You’re not. You’re not leading me on, right? Telling me you’re having my kids? I swear to God, if this is a prank—”

“You think I lie about this?” Alex sat up to stare at Sidney. He wasn’t sure quite what he was feeling, but he was feeling it very strongly.

Sidney sat up, too. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I’m just saying, if it were a joke...” He paused, and then he soldiered on, “It’d be a pretty epic one.”

Alex thought about that for a little while. Eventually, he started to chuckle. “Once you know I’m salamander, you believe everything I say. You know, salamander babies when they born, they have wings. They hop out of the water, like flying fish, and they sleep in trees until they get bigger.”

Sidney started to giggle helplessly. “They do not!” he managed to say.

“How you know?” Alex demanded. “Are you salamander?”

“I—” Sidney hiccupped and tried again. “I read a lot about salamanders. And baby salamanders. There were definitely no wings.”

“You read about me?” Alex was oddly touched. So touched, in fact, that he really wanted to touch Sidney in return. He rolled over on top of Sidney, who was still giggling, and ground down onto Sidney’s dick. “Bet your books not tell you everything.”

Somewhat later in the morning, after they’d caught their breath, Alex said quietly, “I’m really pregnant. I wasn’t joking.”

Sidney inhaled, long and deep, and he wedged a little closer into Alex’s side. “I know.”

“And they really yours.”

Sidney didn’t say anything to that, but his grip around Alex’s waist tightened.

--

Alex played another game. The next day, he and Sidney flew the two hours to Magnitogorsk. “It’s ugly,” he warned Sidney on the plane. “There’s lot of smoke from the steel works, and there not so many pretty buildings.”

Sidney only shook his head. “I don’t know why you think I came to Russia to look at buildings.”

“You come for hockey players,” Alex agreed.

“Fucking right,” Sidney said, and he flashed Alex a grin so bright and open that Alex could only helplessly grin back.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk was playing Traktor. “It gonna be a good game,” Alex said. “They both pretty good teams.” And it was. In the third Zhenya tied up the game with a goal, and then Kolya Kulemin popped one over the Traktor goalie’s glove, and that was the game.

Afterwards, they met up with Zhenya and Seryozha for drinks. Sidney spent the night grinning and drinking and laughing until he cried, and Alex spent a lot of it watching him.

“You have the sappiest look on your face,” Zhenya told him in Russian. Alex shrugged. Zhenya only shook his head indulgently. They were, thank fuck, well beyond the stage where Zhenya thought Alex’s relationship was some kind of trick for spying out plays or throwing Sidney off his game or, as Zhenya had accused Alex once in a fit of self-importance, a means of annoying Zhenya.

Zhenya propped both elbows on the table and leaned in closer. “You’re not drinking.”

Alex lifted his beer and his eyebrows.

“That’s the same one you bought when we came in, and there’s still some left.”

Alex scowled into his, yes, one lonely drink. The internet said he was allowed, as long as it was only the one. He’d hardly expected Zhenya of all people to notice. But Zhenya just kept looking at Alex, and finally Alex broke down and said quietly, just for Zhenya, “I’m pregnant. It’s a—” He lifted his mug again, and the beer sloshed in it. “A salamander thing.”

Zhenya nodded like he expected this. Maybe he did. He’d known about the salamander thing a lot longer than Sidney, after all. “Did you tell Sid?”

“What the fuck. Of course I told Sid.”

“Is that why he’s in Russia?”

Alex rolled his eyes. “He’s in Russia because I told him to come.”

I told him to come, and you see how that went.”

“He’s here in Magnitogorsk, isn’t he? Of course if he’d known what Magnitogorsk was like...”

“Fuck you,” Zhenya said companionably, and drained the rest of his beer.

--

They spent more time in bed. “Have to save up,” Alex told Sidney. “Who know when I get to have this again.” He pinched Sidney’s ass.

Rather than squawking or pinching back, Sidney just lay there for a moment before he said, “We should Skype more.”

“We should?” Alex idly took a handful of Sidney’s ass and rubbed his thumb over the skin.

“Yeah.” Sidney rolled out of Alex’s grasp and looked very seriously at him. “We should. And you should, you know, keep me updated. About the babies.” He reached over to trace a circle around Alex’s belly button with his finger.

“I can do that,” Alex said.

“Because,” Sidney said, frowning as though Alex had disagreed with him. “Because they’re mine, you said. Too.”

Alex feels like he’s sneaking up on a rabbit and hoping it won’t hop away, like it might startle if he so much as breathes. “Can be. If you want.”

Sidney squinted at him. “Did you think I didn’t want?”

“You never say. I think maybe salamanders and babies and pregnant man, it’s all too weird for you.”

Sidney propped himself up on his elbow. “You did?”

“Or maybe you not want kids,” Alex said. “You only twenty-five. You have career. You live in Pittsburgh and me in Washington.”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“And everything gonna change when they’re born. I’ll find person to take care of them for road trips, but maybe I can’t always spend day in bed like this anymore.” Alex spread his hand over the sheet. “Not everybody want boyfriend with kids.” He fisted his hand in the sheet and closed his eyes. He hadn’t meant to say any of this now. He was going to save it, for when he was showing and near term, when his salamander weirdness and impending fatherhood were undeniable - if Sidney hadn’t already bowed out by then.

“Alex,” Sidney breathed.

“Anyway, we not really even serious boyfriend. We never say anything like that. So it’s okay if you...” He swallowed. “If this too much for you.”

“What the fuck, Alex.” The bed shifted, and Alex opened his eyes to see Sidney sitting up, staring at him. “Are you trying to break up with me?”

“No! I just understand if you want to.”

“Do you want to?”

Alex took a deep breath. “No.”

“Are you sure?”

Alex allowed himself a small smile. “Pretty sure.”

“Then what do you want?”

After a half-second’s thought, Alex said, “Breakfast.” He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

“Alex.” Sidney gripped his arm, but Alex shook him off and kept going. He hid in the shower for twenty minutes, and when he got out Sidney was gone – to take his own shower in the guest bedroom, presumably – so Alex escaped to the kitchen. He consulted his stomach, and his stomach informed him with a lurch that this was a porridge day and not an eggs day.

Sidney walked in a few minutes later, and Alex immediately began outlining all the possible ways to spend the day. They had a lot left to see, with Sidney leaving the day after tomorrow, after all. Sidney went with it and didn’t say another word about their conversation in bed.

Alex left Sidney at a shopping mall on his way to practice. It took a lot out of him today, which he was beginning to suspect was a sign of the times. He wasn’t thinking about that yet. His belly was still flat, so he was still going to play hockey. Nonetheless, he felt dried-out and itchy by the time he finished, irritable with discomfort and other things he wasn’t willing to put names to. He picked up Sidney and warned him, “I’m not very good for talking today.”

Sidney shrugged. “That’s fine.”

When Alex pulled up to his house, he said, “I think I’ll go sit in my pond for while, if you not bored.” That last bit was for politeness; unless Sidney was bleeding out on his living room floor, then Alex was going to have pond time. Now.

Maybe Sidney sensed some that. “I’ll manage,” he said.

Once they got in the door, Alex walked straight through the house to the solarium, pulling off clothes as he went. He dumped them inside the door and stepped into the pool. At this point in the pond, the water came just to his ankle. The edges of the pond were green with ferns and moss and algae, and rich fragrant moisture hung in the sun-warmed air. He exhaled, closed his eyes, and let himself collapse. When he opened them again, the water was above his head.

A salamander’s perspective was a simpler one. In this form he couldn’t quite remember what he’d been so upset about earlier. Here, he had safe water heated to just the right temperature and nice rocks to hide under, and there might still be a water beetle or two to eat.

He paddled lazily around for a bit, savoring the taste of the water as he breathed, and then he went to a favorite shady spot in the shallows, and he dozed.

He woke to tremors in the water. He opened his eyes, and a shadow skirted the edge of the pond. Sidney. He sat down on one of the benches at the edge of the pond. Alex couldn’t work up the concern to go and see what Sidney wanted. He went back to dozing. After awhile, Alex was dimly aware that Sidney had gone away. Sometime later, he was back again. He was quiet and he didn’t move around much; he could’ve been another piece of the scenery.

Finally, Alex began to feel like a person again. That is, he felt so thoroughly soaked in pond water and salamanderness that he could bear to step out of it and be upright again for a while. He swam over to one of the shallow places, where there weren’t many rocks nor much growing. He took his last breath of water. Then he thought about the shape and balance of being human, and his body filled the space his mind remembered.

When he opened his eyes, he was sitting on his naked ass in eight centimeters of water.

“Hey.”

Alex pushed to his feet and stepped out of the pond. Sidney handed him a towel from the stack by the bench. “I thought you hate pond smell.”

“Yeah, well.” Sidney shrugged. He had his laptop on his knees.

After Alex had dried off, he wrapped the towel around his waist and sat next to Sidney on the bench. He liked being near Sidney, was the thing. He liked having Sidney around. He liked to make Sidney’s eyes crinkle into crescent moons at his dumb jokes. “I’m gonna miss you, when you leave.”

Sidney turned to look at him. “You mean when I go back to Canada?”

For starters. “Yeah.”

Sidney closed his laptop. “Alex, I don’t want to break up with you.”

Alex folded his hands around his towel. “That’s good.”

“I don’t know what I’ve ever said to make you think I did, but I don’t. Okay?”

“Okay,” Alex agreed.

Sidney made a noise in his throat. “You’re right, we never said anything about being serious. I guess it’s been pretty serious on my end for a while, though. I mean, I don’t fly all this way for a booty call.” He nudged Alex with his shoulder, and Alex smiled a little. “But, uh.” He looked down at his laptop. “I really didn’t know where you were at.”

Alex elbowed him. “Still in Russia.”

“I mean, I didn’t know if you, you know. Wanted me to stick around, or wanted me involved. With the babies. You never said.”

“I’m try not to make it too weird for you.”

Sidney huffed a laugh. “Alex, every day, you’re the weirdest person I have ever met. Your tweets are ridiculous and your five dogs are ridiculous and your barn of sports cars is ridiculous. And I’ve never...” He trailed off, and he slid his hand over Alex’s wrist. “I’ve never seen you try to be less weird before. Ever.”

Alex didn’t know what to say to that. He shrugged.

Sidney’s curled his fingers around Alex’s. “I’m not saying I’m not still getting used to things, but you’re not too weird. I swear.”

“You wait until I have stomach this big—” Alex held out his free hand to demonstrate. “Or when your kids have tails sometime.”

“And if I do?”

“If you what?”

“If I wait, and if I manage okay having kids that turn into salamanders sometimes, are you going to want me around?” Alex stared at Sidney, words caught in his throat. Sidney ducked his head. “Just, like I said, this is pretty serious for me. I need to know if, you know. If you feel the same way.”

Alex exhaled. He squeezed Sidney’s hand. “It pretty serious for me, too.”

“Yeah?” Sidney looked so nakedly hopeful, and Alex wondered if Sidney had been looking at him this way all along and he never noticed.

“Yeah.” There was more, but Alex didn’t know how to say it. Part of him still didn’t trust Sidney not to spook, even though it was turning out that maybe Alex was the one who was scared. Instead, Alex leaned in for a kiss to seal the words.

For an instant he had Sidney’s lips, and then Sidney pulled back, sputtering. “God, Alex, you taste like a ditch. I am not kissing you.”

“Then you come help me wash it off,” Alex told him, and towed Sidney to the shower.

--

Sidney went back to Nova Scotia in time for Christmas. He and Alex Skyped more often and texted more in between. Dynamo kept winning games. Sidney kept having no games to play at all.

And then he did, and Alex, too. The lockout was over; let the NHL season begin.

“Are you sure you can still play?” Alex’s mother asked as he packed. “You’re almost a year along now.”

“And I might have three years more to go.”

“You know that four years is well outside of average.”

“Mama.” Alex stuffed the last of his toiletries into his duffel so that he could give her all his attention. “I’m not going to stop playing hockey until I have to.”

“You have more in your life now than just hockey,” she said.

That was too big a thought. Alex didn’t quite know how to fit it in his brain.

That didn’t stop him from trying. He thought about it all the rest of the winter and into the spring. He found himself checking less and trying to avoid checks more, which he got a fair amount of flack about in the locker room.

His papa came over from Moscow for a month. He brought a lot of home remedies for Alex’s nausea, which was a regular occurrence now, and he came to all the Caps’ practices, and if he had opinions about Alex continuing to play hockey, he didn’t mention them. On a morning in April, he and Alex woke up early to cheer Dynamo on as it won the Gagarin Cup. The next week he went home, and Alex missed him.

One morning Alex looked at his stomach in the mirror and saw softness. He sucked it in and told his babies to stop growing. “Just wait until the playoffs are over. Then you can get as big as you want.”

But then the playoffs were over, sudden and disappointing, again. It was all Lundqvist’s fault, again.

Alex spent a day nursing his sorrows over a single beer and a lot of really terrible reality TV. The next day he called his agent, and his agent talked to McPhee, and then they were all in a room together and Alex had the joy of explaining in excruciating detail why he wouldn’t be playing next year. A trainer was called in, too, and then Prior, who of course had nothing whatsoever to do with any of it and could only attest that yes, he did have a sister who was sometimes a male toad.

After it was all done, Alex went home and took a picture of his stomach in profile. It was definitely bigger than it had been three weeks ago, and he felt a flash of gratitude - spiked with fear - that he was fine and the babies were fine. It occurred to him, suddenly and much too late, how he’d have felt if something had happened to them during the season, and he had to sit down for a minute and breathe.

After he’d recovered from that small crisis, he sent the photo to Sidney with the caption, no more hockey! ((((( only diapers!!! hahaha

Ten minutes later, his phone rang. “Holy shit, Alex.”

“Yeah.”

“Holy shit.”

They traded a couple more variations on that theme, and then, into a pause, Alex said, “You gonna come to Washington soon?”

“Playoffs, man,” Sidney said, in what he probably meant to be a kindly tone. “We’re up against Ottawa next. But hey, you should come down here.”

“You think so?”

“You totally should. We can hang out between games, and nobody here’s going to stick a mic in your face.”

“You should have been car salesman,” Alex said, as though no mics wasn’t a major point in Pittsburgh’s favor.

“I mean, I don’t have a pond...”

Alex heaved a gusty sigh. “I guess I manage without a pond.”

--

When it came to it, though, Alex kept finding reasons not to go to Pittsburgh.

He met with some of the guys before they left town, to tell them he wouldn’t play the next season. There was a lot dismay all around, which was flattering and also churned up some guilt in Alex’s chest, although that might have just been heartburn. That was a more frequent occurrence these days. He assured them he’d be back and that he wasn’t dying, although he managed to avoid specifying exactly what he was doing instead. And after the others had left, he drank coffee in Backy’s kitchen and told him everything, and Backy nodded and talked about his best friend growing up, who was sometimes a newt. Alex sort of wished he’d known about that sooner.

He ate at his favorite restaurants and dragged Grabo along to his favorite clubs. He talked to his agent a few times about sponsorship deals made newly complicated. He spent a lot of time in his pond, regaining his salamanderness after the short but still exhausting season.

He texted Sidney about all of these things, and Sidney seemed to understand. He didn’t ask again about Alex coming to Pittsburgh.

Ten days after game seven, his mama called. “When are you coming back to Russia? I want to know when I can expect to see my grandchildren again.”

“You haven’t seen them yet,” Alex told her. “And I don’t know when I’m coming home.”

“You always come home after the season ends. Your papa mopes in between visits, you know. He wants to see you again. And the babies.”

Alex ignored that last bit. He was confident his papa had no interest whatsoever in communing with Alex’s stomach. “I thought I might stay in America for a little while, Mama. I was going to go see Sidney. The Penguins are still playing, you know.” Fuck them, and fuck Sidney, too.

“Oh? What a good idea,” she said with a warmth that Alex found embarrassing. “You should go see Sidney. We’ll be glad to see you whenever you can come, but don’t rush.”

After the call was over, he sat on his couch and scowled at ESPN for a while. Then he went and bought a plane ticket for the next day. When he texted Sidney about it, Sidney texted back Great. :) Alex looked at the smiley until his screen dimmed.

--

When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he rented a car and drove out to Sidney’s house. Sidney was at practice, but his housekeeper let Alex in, on Sidney’s instruction. Alex poked around in the kitchen, finishing off a steak he found in the fridge. By then travel weariness and babies had caught up with him. He went up to Sidney’s room, crawled into Sidney’s bed, and fell asleep.

He woke to the click of a light switch. He rolled over and blinked at the light streaming in from the bathroom. “Sid?”

“Yeah,” Sidney said. The toilet flushed, water ran in the sink, and then Sidney walked out drying his hands. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Alex sat up and blinked some more. He wondered how long he’d been asleep.

Sidney tossed the towel on the end of the bed and then sat next to Alex. The side of his mouth lifted in that lopsided smirk Alex had tried so hard at first not to be fond of, and then he cupped Alex’s jaw and kissed him. Alex was just waking up enough to respond properly when Sidney pulled back and dropped his hand to Alex’s arm. “I’m glad you could make it.” He was grinning again, although it had softened somehow.

Now that he was here, Alex knew that smile was half the reason he’d stayed in Washington so long. He’d been afraid that he’d made up the affectionate curve to Sidney’s mouth, that he would come here hoping to see it again and be disappointed. And yet here Sidney was, looking at Alex like Alex had won gold, the Stanley, and the Gagarin all in one night.

Of course, the other reason Alex hadn’t wanted to come was that the Caps had gone out in the first round, and fucking Pittsburgh had just sent the Sens home in five games. Even Sidney had flaws.

Alex didn’t say any of that. He said, “I know you miss me a lot.”

“I did,” Sidney solemnly agreed, never taking his eyes from Alex’s face.

“You gonna show me how much?” Alex slid a hand over Sidney’s thigh.

Sidney made a face. “I’d love to, man, but I’m fucking starving. You want to come downstairs and eat something?”

Alex realized with a sudden, sharp ache that yes, he wanted that even more than he wanted sex. “Later,” he warned. “You show me later how you miss me, or I’m gonna think you’re lying and go home.”

Sidney giggled as he pulled Alex to his feet, and if Alex had had any doubts before that Sidney was glad to see him, that joyous laughter swept them away. He followed Sidney downstairs and ate the sandwich Sidney put in front of him.

Then they ended up back in bed, where Sidney sucked Alex off and Alex stroked Sidney until he came, and then they lay catching their breath in a mess of sweat and tangled sheets. After a little while, Sidney started kissing Alex, beginning at his neck and then working his way down. When he got to Alex’s navel, he propped himself up to turn on the bedside lamp. Then he leaned on one elbow and stared at Alex’s softened, rounding stomach.

Alex felt an absurd mixture of pride and self-consciousness. “They still small, but they’re growing.”

Sidney traced his fingers across the rise just below Alex’s navel. “Holy shit, Alex,” he said softly.

“Sid,” Alex said. Sidney looked up, fixing his sweet dark eyes – which Alex had also spent some time trying not to be fond of – on Alex’s face. He waited. Alex licked his lips. “Sid, I have sort of scare the other day.”

“Yeah?” Sidney’s eyebrows peaked in concern.

“I told you salamander babies are tough. If they not, they never live through two, three years of pregnancy. So I don’t worry about hockey. But then after game seven with New York I wonder, what if they got hurt? What if there’s accident, and I hurt them because I play hockey?” He swallowed. “So for a little while I was scared. And Sid, then I realize I’m scared for them because they gonna be my family. I’m gonna have my own family.”

“Yeah,” Sidney said. He curled his fingers around Alex’s. “Yeah, you are.”

“I don’t really think about it before. Like that. And.” Alex paused. He pulled Sidney’s hand over his belly, and then flattened his own hand on top of Sidney’s. Sidney looked up at him with wide eyes. The words that had been sticking in Alex’s throat for months, even before Sidney came to Moscow, shook free. “And I want this be your family too. I want to do this with you. If you want.”

Sidney stared at him for a moment that stretched out long and taut, like a rubber hand about to snap. Then he said, “Fuck yes, I want.”

Alex found himself grinning in sheer relief, and he was still grinning when Sidney rolled onto him – carefully – and kissed him like he had a quota to fill. When Alex’s mouth was finally free again, he added, “And if I have girl, we name her Sidney.”

“The hell we will,” Sidney said.

--

This time, Sidney picked up Alex at the airport. He told Alex about training camp, about getting stirring speeches from some ex-military guy and carrying a rock up a hill. “It was dumb. It was fun, though.”

Alex was content to sit back and let Sidney talk. Travel definitely wore him out these days, and he was looking forward to a nap. Outside the window, Pittsburgh rolled by. Alex supposed it was a sight he’d get used to – for another eight or nine months, anyway.

“Here were are,” Sidney said unnecessarily as his front gate swung open. He was all grins as he helped Alex get his luggage out of the back. There’d be more than this before it was over – a guy did not temporarily move in with his boyfriend with only three checked bags and a carry-on. That could wait until next week, though. Sidney would drive Alex out to Washington this weekend, and they’d bring separate cars back with enough for Alex to be getting on with for a while.

“Come on, I’ll give you the tour,” Sidney said.

Alex blinked at him. “I already know your house, Sid.”

“Not all of it.” Sidney just stood there in his foyer looking smug until Alex rolled his eyes and shooed Sidney on in. He followed Sidney up stairs that he’d been up dozens of times before, and at the end of the hall they took a left into a guest bedroom Alex had only stayed in once.

It wasn’t a guest bedroom now. It was painted a cheery pale yellow, with white decals of birds and a tree over the yellow and a mobile bright as stained glass hanging from the ceiling. “I don’t have the furniture yet,” Sidney said.

“That’s okay,” Alex said, a little dazed. “I don’t have babies yet, either.”

“Yeah.” Sidney casually bumped shoulders with him. “It’s for, you know. When you visit.”

Of course Alex was going to visit after the babies were born, and of course they’d need a place to stay. He didn’t know why he was surprised. He traced the white molded trim with his finger. “It very nice. More finished than in my house.”

“Come on,” Sidney said. He took Alex by the hand and tugged him back out the door. Once they were downstairs, Sidney folded his fingers more securely around Alex’s and led him through the house to a door that used to lead onto a covered porch. Now Sidney opened the door onto a room much larger than the porch had been, with windows all along the back wall, a low platform raised above the floor, and set in the platform, a pond. The beginnings of one, anyway: it was a foot deep, forlornly bare, but with dirt where plants could grow. Already the place smelled of mud and organic things.

“Do you like it?” asked Sidney, looking suddenly uncertain. “Geno helped me talk to your mom so she could get me started, but we can do whatever you want to it.”

“It need some plants,” Alex said blankly.

“Yeah. I figured you’d know better than me what to plant.” Sidney slid his arm around Alex’s waist and stepped in close. “But it’s okay? I swear, whatever you want to change, my feelings won’t be hurt.”

Alex felt his eyes getting a little moist. He blamed it on the babies. On Sid, too, for exceeding every one of Alex’s expectations of, well, humanity – at least, that large majority of it that wasn’t amphibious. He twisted in Sid’s arms and kissed him so fast and so hard that Sidney squawked in surprise. Once he got his footing, though, Sidney was very obliging, looping one hand around Alex’s neck, pulling him in close. He snuck the other under Alex’s hoodie and pressed it to his rounding belly. He made encouraging noises into Alex’s mouth.

Finally Alex pulled back. Sidney blinked up at him, flushed and bright-eyed. “That mean I like it,” Alex told him.

“Good,” Sidney said, breaking into another grin. “Good.” He patted absently at Alex’s stomach. Alex had been feeling ever so slightly self-conscious about the weight he’d put on since he’d seen Sidney last; now, suddenly, he wanted to strip and show him just how much the babies – and Alex – had grown.

Not right this minute, though. “So, what you have to eat?”

“The best delivery money can buy,” Sidney promised him. “Come on, the menus are in the kitchen.”

He stepped back into the main house, but Alex stayed a moment longer, looked at the pond, unfinished but begun with so much hope. “It’ll be perfect,” Alex told the babies. “It’ll be the best pond in the world.” Then he gave his stomach a final pat and followed Sidney inside.

[end]