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1. Dad and Dad - October 4, 2015 - Isles at Home

Justin almost doesn't hear it, he's so focused on taking off his gear and thinking ahead to his cool-down and shower, wondering whether there's an ice bath in his future tonight. And even if he weren't, there's a lot of noise, between all the reporters asking questions and his teammates giving answers, or yelling shit across the room at each other. Plus Carly's not talking too loud. But the moment's just right, apparently: a lull in the noise, a pause in Justin's battle with his sock tape.

So he does hear when Carly says, "Yeah, I guess we do have a lot of dads on the team."

And Justin knows this, that there's just been a minor Caps baby boom; Nicky gets called Papa, Brooks Batya. They're well-stocked on fathers and father-figures - including himself. It's all old news. So he almost goes back to tuning Carly out along with all the rest of it.

But then Carly continues, "Alex and Nicky are definitely the Parents, though, team mom and dad - or dad and dad?"

Justin stops in the middle of getting his fingernails dug further under one particularly stubborn piece of sock tape. Because the fact that Carly even offers the second option, that feels like it means something. Saying two guys are mom and dad is an obvious joke, but calling them dad and dad? That's making it real.

Nobody else seems to be reacting, but Justin's all ears when Carly chuckles and says, "They even could be, now that we've caught up."

He clearly means now that the U.S. has fully bought in on same-sex romantic bonds and marriage - but, like, the way that he says it, completely casually, and the beats laugh and everything just moves on. That leaves Justin wondering…is there something there to know? But only for a moment - then he moves on, figuring that, well, that's just the level of bromance they go in for around here. After all, the team jokes about the rookies being engaged - why shouldn't they joke about their Captain and one of his As getting married?

It turns out that Carly's not quite done, though. "I couldn't do it at all without Gina - though she could probably handle it without me; she does all the hard work. I just take naps with Lucca and make faces at the little guy - and change a diaper here and there. Though it's a good thing I learned to sleep through anything back in Junior."

That gets another laugh - and also provides the missing piece to the puzzle: Carly was just answering a question about playing hockey while being a new parent, with maybe an angle on how there's a lot of new parents on the team right now. But anything else he might have said about the rest of the team was just…context. If it was even anything but Carly talking shit. Whatever else he might have to say isn't anything Justin needs to listen to - he can go back to his post-game routine with no fear of missing something important. After all, he didn't do anything worthy of a media scrum tonight - and he's got kids of his own to get home to.

And a wife - who won't want to reheat his post-game dinner if he's late, soulmark or no.


2. The Cardigan Cover-up - November 17, 2015 - Detroit

The first time he sees Nicky leaving Ovi's room, late, Justin doesn't think anything of it. There's nothing to think, except that they were hanging out, maybe sharing a private night-cap. Probably not talking important team business, since his phone isn't showing any missed calls.

But there's nothing to see, there - these are not the droids you're looking for.

And once he's thought that, it sticks. Sure, he notices it each time he sees Nicky entering or leaving Ovi's room (which happens a lot - pre-game, post-game, the evening before when they get in early), but he doesn't take particular notice of it. Nicky always looks the same, calm and put together, dressed in some variation on his usual Euro-casual, or occasionally part of a post-game suit. And if anything, it turns into a game of trying to spot the differences in his outfits, like… those are the jeans he was wearing after the loss to the Cats, but the shirt's new and the sweater's the same cardigan he always wears when he's tired.

It makes Justin feel like he's becoming more and more a part of the team, that he can tell these things - plus he's always liked working out that kind of observation puzzle, like watching two pieces of game footage side-by-side and figuring out what made the play work differently each time.

So it's both a surprise and not when the day comes that he happens to be walking down the hotel hallway towards his room, just as Nicky's leaving Ovi's room, and after giving Nicky's outfit a once over thinks that's Ovi's cardigan. Because it is. There's no question of it being Nicky's, between the way it fits him and the overall…loudness of it. But it leaves Justin with questions.

Like, where did Nicky's go?

And: why did he borrow one of Ovi's just to walk back to his room?

Justin can come up with answers to them, sure: maybe they got room service and Nicky spilled something on whatever he had been wearing. And, well, as Justin has come to find out, Ovi is, literally, the world's biggest mother hen. So he might've bugged Nicky until he borrowed something. But it's nothing close to cold in the hotel - and also he and Nicky are both from cold places. Or maybe they went to the movies and something got spilled on him there…but Nicky isn't carrying a coat - and outside it is cold enough for those. Nothing Justin can think of adds up right.

And, hell, it's probably all overthinking it, but thinking it might have something to do with soulmarks has to be, for sure; it doesn't seem possible that Nicky and Ovi could just be developing one, even a platonic one, at this stage, after knowing each other for almost a decade - even if the arms, and particularly the wrists, are some of the most common places for marks to develop (after the front and sides of the torso - and followed by the legs) - and it would have to be new, of course, since he hasn't spotted either of them wearing a mark guard or anything.

Anyway, Justin's room is down past Nicky's on their shared hallway - as it usually is; whoever handles room assignments seems to like grouping the vets and Nicky together like that - and Nicky's paused in his doorway, staring down at his phone, when Justin reaches it. He's smiling…bemusedly, Justin supposes, would be a good word for it. But he looks up when Justin draws even with him.

And Justin finds himself stopping to ask, "Good night?"

Nicky nods, says, "Yes. It was." He doesn't elaborate, but his smile has turned fond.

It's an infectious smile - that was one of the first things Justin learned about Nicky - and so there's an answering smile tugging at the corners of Justin's mouth as he replies, "Good. Sleep well," and goes on his way. He's still not thinking anything, not really, but he could be. If he were the kind of guy to speculate.

Which he's not, at least in part because that kind of thing never got anyone anywhere good with Cartsy and Rick.


3. Sasa and Nikyusha - New Years Eve, 2015 - Canes at Home

After they play - and beat - the Canes, almost the entire team adjourns to Ovi's. Most of their girlfriends and wives and kids have spent the entire evening there, playing games and drinking and eating - with the kids getting a visit from Father Frost and the Snow Maiden, which are apparently the Russian version of Santa and... his elves - or Mrs. Claus? Justin's a little unclear on that part. What he does know for sure is that Ovi had sounded sad that he didn't get to be there to wear the costume - a shiny fur-trimmed robe and hat, paired with bushy white beard - and hand out presents, though he hadn't seemed to mind scoring the night's GWG.

Or teasing Nicky about how another year he was going to have to help out and wear the Snow Maiden costume.

By now, the team's settled into plowing their way through the masses of food set out buffet-style, catching up to their wives on the drinks front - and generally partying away the last hour of 2015. Justin's working on the first two, but has let the third go by the wayside in favor of people-watching. Or, well, tree-watching. Because Ovi's tree is something else.

As in it's been keeping Justin mesmerized for longer than he'd've ever thought possible.

Given the tree, though, he can't find it in himself to actually be surprised now. It looks like Ovi hired someone to decorate it and gave them only one direction: make it as shiny as you can. The tree itself is a good 16 feet, by Justin's guess, of glitzy, glittery white fake needles - and it's covered in everything from mirrored balls and shiny garlands, to icicles and strands of tinsel, to silvered walnuts and glittery pine cones and sequined animals in a rainbow of colors. There seem to be tiny, twinkling lights everywhere there isn't an ornament. At its base is basically a snowfield of mounded white fabric sprinkled with glitter. And on top is a huge star made of bent wire, woven with lights - and encrusted with yet more glitter.

So: downright mesmerizing - and although it's anchored to the wall, Justin's heard that they've still had to keep shooing children away from it all night.

Which would be the other reason he's currently keeping watch, fortified with a beer and a plate full of food from one of the groaning buffet tables. Jaxon and Jade, last he saw them, had been deep in some card game they've tried and failed to explain the rules of - and Kelly had a vodka cranberry in hand and had staked out one of the many couches with a few of the other wives. But he's a good husband, so he'll make sure they're in the same place at midnight. For now, he's happy to hold up a doorway - and watch his teammates and his captain's friends party.

He might, possibly, be getting old - but even if he is, he's not planning to get in the way of anybody else's fun.

The room the tree's in has three entrances, so even if he were taking up a significant portion of the doorway he's staked out, he wouldn't be keeping people from entering, overall. As it is, he's barely visible to anyone using either of the other entrances - or so he assumes when Ovi and Nicky wander in, drinks in hand, and head straight for the tree, taking no notice of him. He wonders for a moment if he should let them know he's there, but he's a curious kind of guy - and he wants to know what they came there to do. It's probably going to be entertaining, given that Ovi's wandering around in a fur-trimmed, embroidered satin hat.

Just then, beneath the tree, he's telling Nicky, "You have to find it first." And that sounds like confirmation of Justin's complete and utter rightness.

He can't see Nicky's face, but based on Nicky's tone when he says, "I have to guess where, amongst the million and one glittery things on this tree, you might have hidden a gift," well, there might be some eye-rolling going on. So, yep, Justin's sticking around to watch this play out, for sure.

Ovi says, simply, "Yes," smiling wide and proud the whole time Nicky's standing there, probably pulling a face.

But the two of them descend into silence soon after, when Nicky starts walking slowly back and forth in front of the tree, observing it from what seems like every possible angle. Watching Ovi watch him is the real fun, though, because Ovi is watching Nicky search avidly, even anxiously - like he can't wait for Nicky to find whatever it is that he hid amongst the decorations and, knowing Ovi, react. He almost seems worried.

And the longer Nicky takes to find the thing, the more and more tightly wound Ovi gets.

It's not entirely surprising - Ovi isn't exactly a patient kind of guy. But the extra interesting thing is that while Ovi's eyes follow Nicky, with the ridiculous hat above them pointing the way, they somehow do it without ever once looking at any specific part of the tree. It's as if Ovi is certain that he musn't, if Nicky is to find whatever he hid all on his own. And apparently, despite being so eager for Nicky to find his present that he's almost jumping out of his skin, that still matters to Ovi.

Or perhaps it's just that - despite preferring gifts be simply handed to him - it matters to Nicky.

Justin's just settled in for the long haul of watching the scene unfold before him and thinking about what it all means - it's definitely an interesting situation - when Nicky's hand closes over a…something, and plucks the whatever-it-is off the tree. That the whatever-it-is is shiny, well, that's a given. But beyond that, Justin can't determine, except that there are hints of gold peeking through Nicky's fingers. And then even those vanish from Justin's line of sight, as Ovi moves even further into Nicky's space.

He sounds completely cheerful as he tells Nicky, "See, I knew you would find it! Just as sharp-eyed off the ice as you are on it, Nikyusha," but his body gives the lie to that, its tense anticipation evident in every part visible to Justin.

Nicky, on the other hand, just sounds relaxed and fond and good-humoured as he says, "Well, you haven't gained a reputation for subtlety any time recently - once I spotted it, I couldn't have any doubts. You as good as put my name on it." He's clearly unworried by the prospect of an Ovi giving gifts.

Ovi sounds cheerfully smug when he says, "But I didn't have to," but he's still practically quivering with anticipation of Nicky's reaction to opening his gift.

He doesn't have much longer to wait; just then there are the sounds of a catch being worked and a hinge opening - and Nicky says, voice rough and almost too quiet for Justin to catch it, "No….oh, Sasa."

And for a moment Justin does think he misheard - or that Nicky had somehow gotten drunk enough for slurring between one sentence and the next (he can almost hear Ovi saying Drunk on my greatness) - but then Ovi tucks Nicky into his side, under his arm, and replies.

And all he says is, "Nikyusha," so he clearly thinks Nicky was making sense.

Nicky's practically normal sounding when he replies, "You just had to play Father Frost, huh," but Justin can still hear a little bit of emotional roughness around the edges; whatever Ovi has given Nicky must be particularly meaningful…or thoughtful, or sentimental.

Or all of the above - Justin still hasn't gotten even a peek at it, or its wrappings.

It doesn't seem likely he's going to, either - Ovi's protesting, "Only a little - just for you. And I didn't even wear the robe," which earns a snort from Nicky - and then they're leaving the room, Ovi's voice becoming a rumble too low for Justin to make out his words.

That's the hat explained, anyway - Ovi's clearly gone and stolen it from whoever was wearing it earlier, so he could dress the part while giving Nicky his New Years gift. But the gift itself remains a mystery, beyond Justin's general understanding that this is the big Russian gift-exchanging holiday (Kelly had brought their contribution with her earlier). He certainly can't claim to even begin to understand all the things not being said under the tree.

Though, if it had been Kelly and him rather than Nicky and Ovi playing that out, he guesses it would've counted as romantic.


4. Ovi's Got the Good (Bad) Touch - February 11, 2016 - Minneapolis

Nicklas Backstrom has a very clear bubble of personal space that he maintains. Justin notices this the first time he meets him. Nicky allows the usual handshake, but there's no question of going in for a hug or a backslap, not on this little acquaintance.

There's nothing rude or, or mean about it - he's just…not a toucher.

It's not that weird a thing in a hockey player, particularly in a guy who didn't play in the CHL. But there's still a moment where Justin wonders, idly, if, maybe, just maybe, he's a little soulmate shy. Not that a handshake won't do the trick - Justin has first-hand experience of that.

See, when he first met his wife, Kelly, they'd both been out at this club, Shampoo, each there with their own group of friends. One glance had made it obvious that she was pretty much exactly his type, looks-wise, but Justin had already been too annoyed at her to care. And why? Because she'd had the audacity to corner him and tell him that Sharpy had been a dick to one of her friends - and he'd better rein him in. After that, there'd been some eye-rolling, Justin had protested - sure, Sharpy was a dick, but he wasn't Justin's responsibility - but, in the end, she'd stood her ground and Justin had found himself agreeing that maybe Sharpy was drunk enough that it was time to pour him into a cab and send him home. For the good of his ability to practice the next day if nothing else.

And somehow that had led to them shaking on it - and Justin suddenly being awash in positive feelings for her, which, what?

They didn't do anything about it that night - she refused to since they'd both been drinking and he was still too annoyed to want to - but when they met up again over the holiday break, the reaction had been just as strong, albeit not as shocking. And sitting in a Philly Starbucks, on a cold December day, she had, indeed, turned out to be exactly his type, on all fronts - and equally not put off by him. Of course, he'd been traded to the Canes a month later - and they didn't get married for two-and-a-half years after that - but they've been together ever since. And who knows how long it would've taken them to meet if not for that somewhat sarcastic handshake? He certainly wouldn't have chosen to seek her out based on the rest of their interaction.

After all, it may be his type, but small, blonde and fierce isn't exactly an uncommon combination.

Point being, Justin's life aside, handshakes, on average, tend to already involve relatively positive feelings. And when they don't, in a hockey player's life, they can easily involve hockey gloves. So limiting bare-skinned touch to shaking hands would be a relatively good strategy for putting off meeting your soulmate.

And Justin would wonder about this, in Nicky's case, if it weren't for the fact that he has a clear and obvious Ovi exception.

It was obvious that first day, when Ovi wandered up while Justin was shaking Nicky's hand and got right up into his space, slinging an arm around him and resting his hand on the cap of that far shoulder - while resting his chin on the other side and smiling that famously wide, gap-toothed grin. And saying, "Hello, new Cap - shouldn't Nicky always smile?" While Nicky made a fondly put-upon face, but didn't shake him off.

And it's become even more obvious as the season has worn on - Ovi inserts himself into Nicky's space whenever and wherever possible, as though sucked in by Nicky's personal gravitational field, and is rarely rejected.

This particular night, they've taken over one of the VIP areas of Epic, a Twin Cities club some of the guys had been to before - and Ovi has set himself up at the center of the large circular booth that takes up most of it. Ovi likes to dance - with plenty of enthusiasm, not so much skill - but Nicky mostly doesn't, not even if you load him up with vodka. And the way he's planted himself behind his beer says he's clearly foregoing the dance-floor tonight.

Unsurprisingly, Ovi also seems to be staying in.

It seems that way through a half-dozen rounds of drinks, a conversation that meanders its way in and around a dissection of the game they'd just played, some discussion of what various of their teammates are planning for Valentine's Day that devolves into stories of Valentine's Day disasters past - and then onto general dating failures and horror stories. Ovi and Nicky stop contributing as much when things move away from hockey, though they never go completely silent - Ovi can always be counted on to offer up a chirp at the perfect moment.

They're not having a separate conversation; they're listening - and yet watching them is a hell of a lot more interesting that paying attention to most of what their teammates are saying.

Ovi has his right arm wrapped around Nicky, which is pretty much situation normal - and Nicky has his left arm, well, under the table, anyway. Probably resting in his lap - there's nothing to really suggest otherwise. And they're using their free hands to handle their drinks. That's not what's holding Justin's attention. No, that would be the looks they keep giving each other, the private reactions they're sharing - and how they seem to generate this magic insulating bubble in the middle of all this that once again keeps them from noticing him watching them.

Still, it's all just another perfectly ordinary evening of observing his teammates in the wild - until the song changes one more time and, well, Ovi's ears practically swivel in the direction of the DJ booth.

It's nothing Justin recognizes right away, at least not in what, he's guessing, is a club remix. Parts of the underlying original seem like they should possibly be familiar. Ovi clearly knows exactly what it is, though - and same with Nicky, seeing as how he just says, "Yes, I know - this one I will always have to dance to," and then, "Well, are you coming?" as he stands and starts making his way through the rest of their teammates on the way out of the booth and VIP.

Ovi doesn't need asking twice - and by the time they've disappeared along the balcony to the stairs to the dance-floor, Justin knows exactly what's being remixed and is having to shut down his automatic impulse to sing along; the rest of the guys probably wouldn't mind - hell, some of them would probably even start singing along - but Justin's feeling benevolent and doesn't see a need to inflict that on the world.

He manages to keep the urge tamped down for about half the song - it being a remix helps some - but then his beer runs out, and while he knows their server will be back with new pitchers any time now, he finds himself wanting something different, enough to consider fighting his way to the bar for it. He's made it out of VIP and onto the balcony that overlooks the dancers, and is almost all the way to the stairs when he spots - or, well, has his attention arrested by - Ovi and Nicky dancing below him. And if he'd thought he'd seen Ovi get all up in Nicky's space before, well, now he can say, definitively, that everything prior to now had been, comparatively, nothing.

What they're doing definitely isn't just Ovi's usual jumping around.

When he tunes in, the bass is thumping and the Bloodhound Gang is singing I wanna get down in your South Seas and Ovi's getting low, low, low on Nicky. He comes back up like he's got springs in his legs and moves right into grinding to the motion of your ocean and doing a partial backbend complete with flailing arms for small craft advisories. That's followed by more grinding, Nicky getting down much less dramatically to sunk your battleship, and then yet more grinding to turn me on I'm Mr. Coffee with an automatic drip.

By that point Justin's given up on not singing - he needs some sort of distraction from really thinking about the performance he's watching his captain give and this particular set of lyrics wormed its way into his head in high school and…just never went away.

They separate for some…mirror dancing? That's the best way Justin can think of to describe it, the way they're displaying themselves to each other, for show me yours I'll show you mine, which, well, all Justin has to say about that one is that he's not going to be able to forget the hip-thrusting involved any time soon. Ovi grinding up on Nicky's ass for do it doggy style is enthusiastic, but almost unremarkable by comparison. And he turns away before he's forced to see what they might do to accompany do it like they do on the Discovery Channel - though, he thinks, hell, hopes, it can't be much worse than he's already seen.

Anyway, that beer is really calling his name, now.

By the time he's reached the bar, he's almost convinced himself that he…well, not hallucinated the entire thing - he's sure he saw them dancing. But blew it all out of proportion, maybe. Thought things about it that didn't make any sense. Like, okay, yes, he definitely didn't make up the song they were dancing to and it's a pretty suggestive song. So maybe he just let it influence his thoughts a bit. It was probably all a joke.

He'd think so, if it weren't for New Years - and so, when the bartender finally gets to him and asks him what he's having, Justin asks, "What's the strongest thing you have on tap?"


5. That's Certainly…Something - March 27, 2016 - Two Game Home-stand: Blues, Jackets

It has Ovi's prints all over it. That's all Justin can think when he catches sight of Nicky's stall in the Kettler locker room. He'd come off the ice, in the middle of practice, to deal with an unexpected skate blade issue and run into their junior equipment guy, Dave, outside the room. And when he'd seen the armful of shiny things Dave was carrying - and where he'd been headed - well, he'd had to see for himself. Now he's standing in the doorway, staring at the profusion of …stuff decorating what had once been plain wood. It's like the second coming of Ovi's New Years tree.

To be honest, Justin isn't sure that some of the stuff in there isn't just reused pieces of the tree decorations.

It's also unclear what the purpose of the decorating is. It's not Nicky's birthday, nor is there any other obvious reason to be celebrating him. At least not that Justin can think of. And while Ovi likes a good prank just as much as any other hockey player, he doesn't often go after Nicky when he plays them - and particularly not in this kind of attention-getting, show-stopping way.

He may not completely understand Nicky's desire to fade into the background, but he does generally respect it, except when Nicky becomes the man of the hour - so Justin is going to assume a good surprise, to be explained later.

For now, Dave's not talking - though his expression confirms Ovi's involvement - and Justin needs to get his skates sorted. When he gets back on the ice, well, he guesses he'll help Ovi out and warn any of the other guys who might go back to the dressing room to keep their mouths shut. After that, he's withholding judgment until he sees what Ovi has planned.

There're drills to run - and probably, after that, some scrimmaging to do - but the point is that practice comes first.

Their captain has long since left the ice by the time Justin returns to the room in the middle of a pack of his teammates - minus Nicky, who stayed back to talk to Trotz, and the usual group of call-ups and almost scratches looking for extra ice time. When Justin steps out of the tunnel and into the room, everybody else is standing around staring at Ovi's handiwork.

"It's like Ovi's tree threw up all over Papa's stall," Willy is saying, providing the kind of truly charming - but accurate - commentary the kid's known for.

It gets him some snickers from the rest of the team, but Ovi just grins and says, "Yes! I saved all my decorations - and then I think, what better use for them than this? To celebrate my Nicky!" He sounds extremely proud of himself for coming up with this creative re-purposing - and not at all put out at the way it's just been described.

He still hasn't explained why Nicky is being celebrated - though, Justin supposes, Ovi would say that celebrating Nicky is an act that needs no reason beyond Nicky's existence - but if Nicky can be said to belong to any one person besides himself, it's certainly Alexander Ovechkin. That much Justin is absolutely sure of, even if there aren't any soulmarks involved. It's plain for anybody with eyes to see.

Just as plain to see as the way Ovi's attuned to the end of the tunnel, waiting impatiently for Nicky to appear - and the moment when he comes even more to attention, focused entirely on Nicky's apparently imminent arrival.

They can all hear Nicky coming a moment later - and moments after that he's entering the dressing room. And Justin would not have missed seeing the look on his face when he sees the transformation of his stall for anything. It's a whole sequence - first uncomprehending (what? Who?), then dawning understanding (Ovi), then a return to confusion (but why?) - and then it’s over, in only a matter of moments, replaced by an expectant silence.

Ovi fills it like he was just waiting for his cue, saying, "Last night went down in record books. My record book, anyway. Nicky did a great thing. But nobody notice but me. So I tell you today. And give him trophy."

Nicky's got that look on his face, the one that means he appreciates the thought behind whatever you're doing, he really does, but the first chance he gets he's vanishing into the woodwork because applause is for people other than him. Honestly, Justin wouldn't be surprised to find out that Nicky actively campaigned against people voting for him for awards. Too bad for him Ovi wouldn't've been swayed by any of that if he'd known there was a campaign to be mounting.

Anyway, Ovi is saying, sounding as serious as he ever does, "We celebrate today because Nicky earned his 150th penalty minute as Mean Lars, defending my honor."

And Justin hadn't really noticed the laundry cart being positioned a little oddly until Ovi rolls it away and reveals a low table, covered in a shiny tablecloth printed with little American flags - topped by a huge cake and flanked by a…trophy. Though depicting what, Justin couldn't say. It's probably a person - most sports ones go that route - but…are those wings?

Maybe that's a dumb question - it's Ovi; of course they are.

So a winged person, doing something inexplicable, mounted on the biggest, shiniest, red-white-and-bluest base Ovi could, presumably, find. It's a marvel of terrible wonder, like if one of the participation trophies his kids have collected over the years decided to eat all the others and mutate into one mega-monster trophy. And then someone went after it with a Bedazzler.

Nicky's staring at it like he'd like to think that if he blinks it'll disappear and the locker room will return to normal, but he's known Ovi for almost a decade and therefore knows better.

Honestly, Justin bets that he's just being thankful that there isn't confetti. Or a special musical guest. Or, hell, a parade. Or that he was thinking that until, well…

Out of nowhere, 'We Will Rock You' comes blasting out of all the locker room speakers, Ovi starts singing along - and someone gets Nicky with a can of silly string.

While he's still recovering from that, Ovi steps forward, hands behind his back - and then whips out a jersey, like a magician producing a rabbit or a string of scarves, or, fuck, a coin from behind your ear. It reads 'Mean Lars' on the nameplate - the equipment guys were really all in on it - and instead of a 19, there's a 2. Of course.

He chivvies Nicky out of his practice jersey and into the new one - Nicky appears to have decided that the better part of valor is letting Ovi play out his scene with a minimum of fuss - and then declares, "Now candles - and then cake. But nobody can have any until they get their stinky gear off!"

Ovi's already lounging around in just his UnderArmour and a Caps hoodie, the fruit of being one of the first off the ice - and there are a few other guys who managed to start changing before the room descended into chaos. But, overall, most of the guys have only lost their helmets and gloves. The promise of cake motivates most of them - aside from the Brookses - into getting a move on.

At least Ovi seems aware that they can't just sit around all day celebrating Nicky, Justin thinks as he starts stripping off his own gear.

There's a team meeting and lunch and conditioning and video review all to get through. And sometime soon reporters are going to want to get in here and ask them questions - about the Blues and the Jackets, what they think about the proposed rule changes regarding marks, how various injuries are doing. And while there's no way Ovi's latest shenanigans won't get at least a few words devoted to them, they can at least be over and done with when the hordes descend.

That's Justin's goal, anyway - he appreciates a good photobomb, but he prefers to keep most of his pranking off-camera; it's usually better in the moment than it ever will be later.


+1. It's A Soulmark! - May 13, 2016 - New York, Madison Square Garden

If you add it all up, Justin's spent more of his career on the east coast than not. And yet it's his time with the Kings that got him the reputation that's landed him a spot on the Caps' roster. Sometimes hockey's just like that.

And, yeah, he meant what he said at the beginning of the season, that he was coming to play on a championship team and would be happy to lose the 'Mr. Game 7' nickname, but it still feels real good to be able to deliver on that reputation for being clutch, and finally, finally help the Caps beat the Rangers in 7 - in less than 7, even.

He doesn't get the series winning GWG, but he gets them on the board, leaves the door open for Ovi to knock one home. And in the aftermath, once they've swarmed Holts and shaken hands with the Rangers, it hits him that we all want the Cup Final and the Cup, but I'm almost the only one who's ever even been here before, on the way to a Conference Final series. He has three Cup rings, has had at least one for more of his career than not. He can barely remember what that felt like, to not know just what it took to go all the way.

So he sits back and smiles - and watches as they take this one night to celebrate; he's tired, feeling his age, knows he doesn't have a lot of leeway when it comes to doing all the little things that add up to better performance, not if he wants to play the way he needs to, they way they need him to, to go all the way, or even level up another round.

It's a good celebration. No champagne - nobody wants to chance jinxing things by breaking that out too soon - but there's plenty of beer and somebody had hats made. They crank the music. And, since they're keeping the party pretty contained due to being in enemy territory, the energy just keeps getting amped up higher and higher as they start bouncing off the walls of the confined space. It's probably just as well that they're sticking around, giving the Rangers' fans time to cool off.

Justin spends a while hanging out with the Brookses and TJ, lets some of the younger guys vent their excitement at him, nurses a single beer - and eventually wanders out of the locker room and into the rest of the visiting team facilities, thinking maybe he'll get his phone out of his bag, put in a call to Kelly.

He's not sure, later, what caught his attention - maybe a funny-sounding noise, maybe nothing at all - when he was passing the training room with the not-quite-shut door. But whatever it is, he ends up pushing the door open, getting an eyeful of Nicky on his knees for Ovi, Ovi's flailing leg, and, there, really high up on his inner thigh, a flash of two crowned lions. It vanishes again as Ovi's leg comes dropping back down. But this combination of new information has already got Justin frozen in place.

He may not be able to make his feet move, but he can not look and his brain's still ticking over; he knows that symbol - it's part of the international soulmark code for Sweden - and combined with the enthusiastic blowjob Ovi's getting from his very Swedish center, Justin's willing to bet it's not platonic.

After all the telling himself it wasn't possible he'd done over the course of the season, well…of course it'd turn out to be true. And even more so than he'd ever suspected. Which, Justin can now say with some authority, is just goddamn typical of the Caps and their captain.

That thought finally gets him unfrozen - so fucking typical, for serious - but it also makes him snort; he can see the humor in the situation, okay?

But apparently it's loud enough to get the attention of Ovi and Nicky - so when he looks up, ready to turn and leave the room, he's faced by the pair of them staring at him, looking comically surprised. He'd almost laugh at the looks on their faces if the situation was a little less intense - the surprise on Ovi's face is melting into consideration, while Nicky simply blanks his expression. Ovi hasn't made any move to cover himself - no surprise there - but they're clearly bracing for Justin taking this as badly as possible.

(Not, he hopes, because he's given them any reason to expect that, but just because he theoretically could; he knows as well as they do what guys in the league can be like.)

So he figures he'd probably better set the tone of this conversation, but he only gets as far as saying, "I'd say I was surprised…"

And then Ovi's cutting him off, talking over him to say, " going to have to get celebratory blowjob from your wife," and then, when he apparently registers what Justin said, " not surprised?" sounding greatly confused.

Justin shrugs, says, "Not really," because it's mostly true. He'd spent the season discounting all the evidence, but he had noted it for what it could be. So walking in on them was a surprise, but he wasn't surprised.

"But we careful - keep it secret!"

Ticking his evidence off on his fingers as he lists it, Justin says, "Nicky has a private pet name for you. You dance dirty like you mean it. He willingly wore one of your cardigans. He seems to like you in his space…," and trails off with a gesture to where Nicky is still sitting between Ovi's legs, legs angled in a way that suggests hiding a bulge in his gym shorts. "I mostly just thought soulmarked, though."

Nicky's the one to answer him - no attempts at denial, just saying, straight to the point, "You're the first person to guess since Alex's Mama. But, yes, we're soulmarked - and this." And then he's pushing one leg of his shorts up, pulling the material in towards his groin, revealing a mark, set high up on his inner thigh. It's a double-headed eagle carrying a lamb in its talons, flying above the traditional crossed hockey sticks.

After all the sheep jokes at the beginning of the season, Justin can do the math on that one just fine.

Clearly not about to be outdone, Ovi shifts his leg so his mark is once again visible, revealing the two crowned lions Justin had already spotted, plus the stream curving around a hill they're lying beside, the third crown they each have a paw resting on - and, once again, the traditional crossed hockey sticks. There's also a lot more of Ovi on display, still fully aroused, than Justin had ever particularly felt a need to see. But, well, Justin knows his captain; of course he'd play this one naked and unashamed.

He's probably just waiting for the moment Justin gives them their privacy back to go back to where he and Nicky left off.

And, yep, right on cue, there's Ovi asking,"You won't tell anyone?" He sounds a little urgent, a little anxious, like the answer matters but he's ready for this conversation to be over, just as predicted.

Justin, who's feeling like a little payback is called for, here, starts out saying, cheerfully,"Welllll, I was thinking this was the kind of thing that deserved a celebration - cake, Backstrom-Ovechkin jerseys, presents…," and then trails off because he's a jokester, but not that kind of dick - and he can see just how much Ovi, particularly, would love to be able to have exactly that. He finishes lamely, "...yeah, I'll keep my mouth shut."

Nicky smiles at him, a little lopsided, says, "If we ever have that party, you'll be invited…"

And Ovi follows on with, " go back to the other one. I bet the team's missing you."

It's clearly an order and a dismissal - which Justin is happy to roll with - whether or not the last bit is true. Honestly, the team's probably missing them more than they're missing him, but he'll accept the polite fiction and go run interference, herd the drunken kids a little - after he gets his phone and calls Kelly. So, with a cheeky, "Be careful, kids," he's out the door, shutting it firmly behind him. Nobody else needs to be gifted with the knowledge of just what they're getting up to in there.

The way the NHL deals with soulmarked players, it's as much necessity as it is politeness.