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in Chinatown, howling at night

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Alex is doing his best to hang onto the dregs of his post-practice, pre-roadie-departure nap, but his goddamn cell phone won't stop buzzing with an unknown number; he ignores it through seven straight calls, and then there's a voicemail he's going to delete unheard out of nap-disturbed spite, but he's thumbing at the phone screen with his eyes half-shut and accidentally plays it instead. It's lengthy and in English, an elderly woman's voice, and she just hates to be bothering him like this but she lives next door to that nice young man Mr. Semin, and his big dog seems to have escaped the house because she can see it wandering around in his front yard, and Mr. Semin is always so careful about the dog that she knows he must not be at home, and this is the emergency contact number he left for if anything happened, and could he please let her know if she should do something because she knows that Mr. Semin's dog is very important to him, and he's such a nice boy, and so handsome, always brings over a Christmas gift and everything; she would hate for anything to happen to his dog, and she would try and catch it herself, but her heart is bad, and the dog is probably quite valuable and usually so well behaved, and on, and on.

By the end of it, Alex is grudgingly more awake than asleep and trying to remember if Sasha told him about getting a new dog, because, what the fuck, Alex is Sasha's best friend and he should be more in the loop about important things like new dogs. Alex tells Sasha about all of his dogs.

Alex yawns and stabs at Sasha's name on his contact list, fully prepared to give him shit for it. He's probably just napping. But all it does is ring and ring; no one answers his call, or the second one, or the multiple texts Alex sends him.

thx gonna kill u for give my number to old lady ?? nice!!

Im not mad ))))call me

sema did u get a dog??? Gr8!!)))

its time to go Pitt soon….

where the fuck r u! ???!

He listens to the voicemail on his own phone one more time, concedes today's nap is getting cut short, and calls back. Yes, this is Alex, Sasha's friend, yes, Mr. Semin's friend, no, he does not know where Sasha is right—yes, yes, Mr. Semin, no, not—yes, yes, he will come over and do something about the dog. Yes, he will come now. Right now.

Sasha's never mentioned his neighbors much, and though Alex spends more time at Sasha's house than any of his other teammates, he has no real lasting impression of them either, except for a vague admiration and relief that they had tolerated the Halloween Party of 2008 with its accompanying streaking episode and hadn't called the cops on them. He'd worry a little more that Sasha is apparently just giving out his number to his neighbors without bothering to mention it to Alex, but whatever; his neighbor likes dogs and Sasha, and that's enough for Alex. He should encourage and nurture this display of positive neighbor interaction; Alex puts on his finest sweatpants in deference to the occasion.

Driving to Sasha's house doesn't take long, though Alex has to turn around in the driveway when he remembers that he's supposed to be dealing with a dog, and he goes back to cram a couple dog biscuits in his pocket and grab a leash. Pulling up to the house and getting out of his car, he doesn't see anything unusual at first. Then, a small elderly woman in an eye-searingly purple house dress comes hobbling over from the house next door followed by—

Jesus fucking Christ. The dog is enormous. The woman is small but the dog would already be huge next to her anyway, as it trots alongside on all fours; it's practically pony-sized. The fur is mostly a light gray and tawny color, shading darker by its face and legs and down its back, and lightening to white on its throat and chest. A long snout, lolling tongue, ears pricked up, and—Alex holds his ground, but, Jesus, it has teeth, like, well. A wolf. There is a huge fucking dog that looks way more like a wolf, or maybe something out of the Lord of the Ring movies walking right towards him, slow and steady, and apparently Sasha has invested all his home security measures as his new pet.

The little old lady reaches out and clutches her fist in the long fur of its ruff, and it slows down even more under her hand. It must've been trained before Sasha bought it, because it almost looks like it's escorting her, like a service dog. Going by its looks, maybe Sasha bought it off the FSB.

"Uh, hi," Alex says as they both approach. "We talk on phone, and I come for Sasha's dog?"

"Oh, hello, Mr… Ovenchicken?" she says carefully, stressing all the wrong syllables. "I'm Betty, and I'm so glad you came. I just couldn't bear if something had happened to him! Him with no collar, and all. You just never know, he could have run out in the street and be hit, or someone could think he's lost, or God forbid, think he's one of those awful coyotes and get in a panic. You naughty boy," she says affectionately to the dog, who just wags his tail. "I don't know how you escaped the house, but I better never catch you doing that again." It pushes its nose against her leg, and then sits down on its haunches and looks at Alex. Alex fishes in his pocket for a biscuit.

"Nice boy," he says, offering the biscuit, which is sniffed, mouthed at, and then dropped and ignored. Alex looks at the lady, who has somehow attached herself to Alex's arm without Alex being quite sure of how it happened. "You know his name?"

"Oh, he's told me before, but I'd butcher it terribly. He's laughed terribly when he hears how I try to pronounce any of his Russian words." She leans down and pats the dog. "Such a nice young man, really. He brings us a Christmas present every year, never fails."

"Oh," Alex says, and glances at the house. "You sure Sasha not home? I can knock on door?"

"Would you be a dear and do? I did try," she says, "but maybe it wasn't loud enough, and no one is picking up his phone, and I called because I know, I told myself, the only time he lets that dog go out alone is in the backyard, so something must be wrong. And he told me, he gave me your phone number to call if anything ever happened, and he was so set on you being the first one to call in that case, he absolutely insisted…"

Alex lets the flood of words wash by him as he makes "hmm?" and "hmm!" noises at appropriate intervals, while he cautiously walks at a snail's pace with her (Betty? Alex had been more focused on the fact Sasha has apparently bought a huge fucking wolf) still latched onto his arm up and onto the porch. He gets her seated in one of the chairs out front, and then pounds on Sasha's front door for all he's worth. No one answers, and he can't see anything through the glass on the front and sides of the door.

"You're right, I guess no one home," he says. "I guess I take the dog to my place until he calls me, or comes back?"

He can't think of much else to do. Sasha's bound to turn up sooner rather than later; they're supposed to be on a plane to Pittsburgh this evening. He has no idea who Sasha had intended to take care of his dog, but there's probably someone, and Alex can always ask Goose or Misha to come over and watch the dog for the night until they get back tomorrow.

"Thank you, I'm so glad you're taking care of it," Betty says. "You're such a kind friend, and really, that's so thoughtful of you. Now, you tell Mr. Semin to knock on my door and bring you by for tea next time, and I'll make some banana bread for you as well, he does love my banana bread. I've told him, you know, the secret ingredient is just to include a little bit of orange juice when you're mixing the batter. And of course, you have to fold in the chocolate chips, you can't just drop them in there and stir…"

Alex is actually beginning to see why Sasha probably likes this woman; she seems perfectly content to do both sides of the talking in a conversation, and Sasha would naturally gravitate towards someone with whom he could socialize but still not be required to use English. Plus, free baked goods, apparently.

The wolf-dog, who had been sprawled out on the grass, gets leisurely to its feet, shakes itself, lopes over to Alex and Betty, and sits down next to him. Alex fishes in his pocket for a leash, realizes there's no collar on the dog to attach it to, and shrugs.

"Here, boy," he said, pats the side of his leg, and takes a few steps towards his car. "C'mere."

The dog yawns and leisurely follows him. Encouraged, Alex opens the door to the back seat, but the dog just sits its ass down on the driveway and looks at him. "Come on, boy," Alex says, and leans in and pats the back seat. "Up, right here."

The dog remains sitting.

"Oh for fuck's sake," Alex mutters under his breath, spares his best everything is fine smile for Betty who is still tottering her way over to them from Sasha's porch, and walks back over to the dog. "I'm not lifting you, you have to get in by yourself. Come on."

The dog growls, barks once, and then trots up to the car and completely ignores the open backseat door, going to the front passenger door instead. It once again sits down, head cocked expectantly.

"Come on," Alex says, but he opens the front passenger side door just to see, and the dog immediately leaps in, clambering all over the seats and probably doing horrible things to the leather with its nails before Alex can even shut the door. "You should be in the back." The dog ignores him.

Alex jogs back around the car and awkwardly waves at Betty, who's finally made it to the car. "Anyway, I bring him back when I talk to Sasha," Alex says as Betty bears down on him with focused geriatric determination, and then leans past him and waves to the dog through the window. It barks.

"Now you be good," she tells Sasha's dog, and then she pats Alex's chest (which is about as high as she can reach), and unexpectedly gives him a hug as well. She has the same smell he associates with his grandmother, powdery and fragile sweet, like dried lavender, and it gives him a weird and unexpected pang. "And if Mr. Semin comes back soon, I'll call you right away and let you know. And I mean it, you come over for tea. Any friend of Mr. Semin's is a friend of mine."

"Yes, okay, thanks," Alex says, and escapes to the front seat, where the dog is waiting. It takes up most of the front seat space that Alex isn't in, and a fair amount of the space that Alex is in. He opens the window for it, and it immediately sticks its head out.

"Don't fall out," Alex warns it, though how could it, with its size. It looks back at him and he could swear it rolls its eyes before continuing to pant and stare out the window.

"Whatever, fine, do what you want," Alex says, and he starts driving back to his place, Betty waving goodbye and Alex waving back in the mirror until they turn the corner. The dog keeps its head out the window for the first few minutes, making ecstatic grimaces into the wind, but eventually it pulls back inside and noses at the dashboard.

"Music?" Alex says, and pushes a button. He doesn't have his phone hooked up, so all he gets is some local rock station, but the dog huffs and folds itself into a slightly more manageable enormous mass on the front seat. There's already fur floating through the air like thistledown as Alex turns the air conditioning on as well, and he sneezes.

They make it back without incident, and still no word from Sasha which is weird. They usually drive to the airport together anyway, and even though it's just a quick overnight roadtrip, Alex needs to pack his shit. He'll have to call Misha as well as soon as he gets into the house, explain the situation to him. He wonders if he has dog food somewhere in the back of the pantry, or if the dog would be happy eating leftover chicken cutlets.

"Okay, here we go," Alex says, and ushers the dog inside, shutting the door. It's a good thing Ghera is back in Russia right now, or he'd have to worry about keeping them separate.  

They're barely through the family room and to the kitchen when it happens: Sasha's dog stops, goes rigid, and then falls to the floor in convulsions, and holy shit, Sasha's dog is dying, he killed Sasha's dog, this is a fucking disaster, this is terrible. He's grabbing for his phone, and dropping to his knees alongside the dog, and reaching out without being sure of what he can even do, when—

It happens so quickly, within the space of a few seconds. Alex can barely trust his eyes of what he sees. The dog's fur ripples, his jaw yawns wide open, and he curls into himself in a ball, and with a gutted-out noise that changes from a howl to a groan, it's someone, it's Sasha who's now lying on his floor, completely naked and breathing heavily.

Alex, quite reasonably in his opinion, yells, "What the fuck!" as he backpedals across the floor on his ass, reaches out, and throws the closest thing he can grab at Sasha, which turns out to be a lamp. Sasha, in the process of sitting up, ducks it and it smashes against a wall.

"Uh," Sasha says, and sits up fully, still wincing. "Hi. Surprise."

"What the fuck!" Alex yells.

"So, I'm going to need to borrow some of your clothes," Sasha says, and scratches his ass.

"What the fuck!"

***

The thing about Sasha is he's not actually enigmatic at all; almost everything he does or says, or doesn't say or do is for very obvious reasons, at least to Alex, and Alex has no idea why this is apparently so hard for people to grasp. And it's not even all that complicated—most of the shit Sasha does or doesn't do is because of what he likes and doesn't like. Sasha is one of those magic pictures in a book that after you stare at it for a while, you see something else, and then you can't figure out how you never saw it in the first place.

Alex told Sasha about this comparison once, after a particularly shitty game against Buffalo, where Sasha got benched after taking three different offensive zone penalties in the first period, Alex wasn’t much better, and Bruce's face had been a shade of red not usually seen in nature. Sasha, already sullen and morose from the post-game ream-out had looked at Alex without smiling for a few seconds, and then he broke, and said, "That is so gay," and they giggled in the locker room together before going out to run the press gauntlet and deliberately ignore all of Slava Malamud's questions just to piss him off.

Sasha is Alex's best friend. They tell each other everything. So, Alex is sure if he tries hard enough, he can figure this out. Probably.

"Seriously, why were you a dog just now," Alex asks, sitting on his bed while Sasha roots through his closet. "And naked."

He looks around the room, trying to preemptively identify other things he might be able to throw if he needed to have an emotional outburst; he probably shouldn't break any more lamps. (Though if he plays his cards right, he could probably get a lamp off Nicky for free. Nicky sometimes drives to the Woodbridge Ikea and furtively skulks around the showrooms when he's homesick for Sweden; he then comes to Kettler with a car trunkful of extraneous furnishing bits, and politely but insistently offloads them on anyone in the locker room. Everyone on the team has at least one Nicky-provided Ikea piece; Brooks calls it the Umlaut Encroachment, and Mike Green had dibsed that for a band name.)

"I wasn't a dog," Sasha says, muffled. "I was a wolf. And I was naked because I was a wolf and wolves don't wear clothes, and then I turned back into a human. Ugh, all your suits are so terrible. Do we have enough time to go back to my place before the airport?"

Alex valiantly ignores the question and the insult to his fashion sense and regroups. "Why were you a wolf just now?"

Sasha emerges, still naked, with a heap of Alex's clothes draped over his arm. "Because I'm a werewolf. Which drawer is your underwear in?"

"Over there," Alex says and points. "Also, werewolves aren't real."

"Okay, you win, they're not real," Sasha says, and picks fussily through Alex's underwear. "These are all clean, right?"

"Do I have a concussion?" Alex asks. "You'd tell me if I had a concussion, right?"

"You don't have a concussion," Sasha says, and sighs. "Are you even packed yet? Can we talk about this later?"

"No," Alex says.

"Well, pack while we talk," Sasha says.  "I don't want to be the last ones there. That's why—" and then he stops talking abruptly.

"Why what?" Alex asks, and shuffles over to the bathroom to make a half-assed attempt at fitting most of his toiletries into a kit neatly.

"Nothing," Sasha says. "Would it make you feel better to watch me, you know, transform?"

Alex thinks it over. It might not make him feel better, but he'd feel a little less crazy and like he was going out of his mind. "Are you going to maul me if you turn into a werewolf?"

"No," Sasha says, looking annoyed as he shakes out one of Alex's t-shirts and pulls it over his head. "I didn't in the car, did I? It's still me. Just, you know, as a wolf."

"Wear something different, I think I wore that shirt yesterday," Alex says, giving up on neatness and just forcing the zipper closed before dumping his toiletry bag on the bed. "And grab my blue suit for me. Yes. Okay. Do, you know, the thing, be a wolf."

Sasha grunts. "Hold on." He takes the shirt and underwear off that he'd just put on, tosses them aside, breathes deeply, and without any other fanfare, transforms into a giant fucking wolf.

Alex doesn't shriek this time, but it's a near thing.

The wolf huffs, hunkers down, and then is Sasha again, hair somewhat disheveled.

"Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. One more time," Alex says, inching around the bed and closer.

"Oh my God," Sasha says, breathing heavily. "I just did."

"Just—can you do it, and stay a wolf for just a few minutes," Alex says. "Please."

"We're going to be late," Sasha says, but he crouches down and—it happens so fast, each time; Alex's brain can barely even begin to comprehend what it watches as skin sprouts hair and muscles flex and everything changes in front of his eyes.

Alex takes a deep breath. "So, prove you're still Sasha," he says, staring at the wolf. The wolf looks back at him. It has Sasha's eye color. The lighter tawny parts of its fur are the same color as Sasha's hair. It—Sasha—definitely rolls his eyes this time, and then trots over to the closet, disappears for a few seconds, and after a clatter of clothes hangers and a few thuds, re-emerges with Alex's blue suit jacket gripped in his teeth. He drops it at Alex's feet, and then flops to the ground, and changes back to human.

"Don't get used to that," Sasha says, looking disgruntled. When he stands up, his joints all pop loudly, and he winces.

"Oh my God," Alex says numbly. He picks up the suit jacket. Sasha managed not to leave holes, but there are a few damp patches of saliva. Alex looks into the closet. "You knocked, like, half my shit down. Thanks."

"Cry more, I didn't have thumbs," Sasha says. "Jesus, we're not going to have time to go to my place, I'm going to have to wear one of your suits to the game. Get the gray Dolce one out, I guess that isn't as horrible as most of them."

"Sasha, I," Alex says as he passes him the suit and a shirt, without exactly knowing what he wants to say, and what he decides on isn't How did this happen, or How long have you been able to do this, or Why didn't you tell me before, or Why did you just tell me now, or You're a fucking werewolf seriously what the fuck, or anything that would remotely make sense. "Does it hurt?"

"What?" Sasha says.

"You just—" Alex makes a circling motion with his hands to try and indicate either turned into a wolf or something close to it. "You're moving funny. Did it hurt to do that?"

"It's not so bad," Sasha says after a long enough pause that basically confirms for Alex that it probably is that bad, and he'd been thinking of lying about it in more depth, and probably doesn’t want to deal with Alex's response. Alex knows Sasha. Except for him being, well, a fucking werewolf.

"It's easier to do when the full moon is actually out," Sasha says. "I guess, anyway. I almost never change during the daytime. I haven't experimented much. I try to ignore it, really."

"How long have you been… experimenting?" Alex asks.

Sasha shrugs. "I got bitten in Vancouver, so. What's that, a year and a half?"

"Vancouver, like—what? What?" Alex says, and boggles at him, trying to remember what happened at their last game there, and who's on the Canucks roster and most likely to be a werewolf. Shit, it's probably Alex Burrows.

"No, the Vancouver Olympics, right near the end," Sasha says, working his way down the buttons on the dress shirt and frowning. "Eric Staal. He was drunk. And a werewolf. And a total dick, I guess he was still mad about the fight with me and his brother in New York."

"You got bitten by a werewolf at the Olympics and you haven't said anything?" Alex hisses. Some of that catches up with him. "And it was Eric Staal?"

"A lot of things happened at the Olympics," Sasha says flatly. "I didn't even know it was—here's this dog that comes out of nowhere and goes for my arm, and I thought I was going to get rabies, and then he turned into Staal, and I thought I was drunk. And then, a month later, I turned into a fucking wolf when I got home after the Sens game."

"I'm going to kill him," Alex says calmly.

"Who, Staal?" Sasha looks surprised in a vaguely unflattering way, like he hadn't expected Alex to immediately offer to kill inter-divisional rivals for him. "You probably shouldn't. I'm going to have to talk to him at some point. Maybe he'll know how to fix this."

"Maybe killing him will fix it," Alex says. "I could have done it at the All Star Game last year. Or at least I could have punched him last week. Oh my fucking God, Sasha, you've been changing into a werewolf every month for the past fucking year, this is really kind of important."

"Well, I thought it might go away on its own," Sasha says, still fussing with his shirt's cuffs.

"It's not like the flu!" Alex yells.

"How the hell would you know?" Sasha says. "Are you going to change out of your sweatpants, or what?"

Alex stares at him in despair, because Sasha is a werewolf and not even wearing pants right now, and somehow Alex is the one without any argumentative high ground; for lack of better dramatic exit options, he grabs his suit, throws it over his shoulder, and stomps off to change in a guest room because he can at least slam a door that way.

Sasha is waiting for him in the kitchen when Alex finally stops freaking out and comes downstairs, eating some of Alex's leftovers directly out of the Tupperware with his fingers. Alex walks in just in time to see the last of last night's chicken disappearing.

"Did you bring my bag down?" Alex asks, since he hadn't bothered going back to his bedroom. He's just going to deal with this one issue at a time.

Sasha nods without speaking, mouth jammed full, and points to the hallway where Alex can see his overnight bag dropped by the front door. Alex nods back, and putters around, collecting his earbuds, charger, phone, and all the other random minor crap that a one night away trip calls for. The routine is calming.

"You got stuff for you too?" he calls over his shoulder; it's not the first time one of them has lived out of the other's suitcase on a trip.

"Yeah. We should leave, like, now," Sasha says, and directly contradicting his own words, opens Alex's fridge again and starts poking around.

"I'm starting the car," Alex says, and goes outside to toss his bag in the back. There's fur all over the front seat.

Sasha comes out through the garage after the second time Alex honks the horn; he has an enormous, sloppily assembled sandwich in one hand, which he won't even put down while fastening his seatbelt. It's already three-fourths gone by the time Alex gets to the end of his neighborhood's drive. "There'll be food on the plane," Alex says.

"I missed lunch. I spent almost the whole afternoon outside," Sasha says, and then tenses up and glances over at Alex like he's not sure what the boundaries on discussion are going to be.

Alex decides he has absolutely no time for that, and grunts. "Why were you outside, anyway? What happened?"

Sasha doesn't say anything at first. "I locked myself out," he finally says.

"On two legs or four?" Alex asks, because might as well hit this head on and running. He keeps watching the road though, and only sees Sasha looking at him from the corner of his eye.

"I don't…" Sasha starts, and then trails off. "I only go out in the backyard, usually," he says. "Actually, I stay in the house. If I go outside, I only go in the backyard. And usually only at night. And I don't… have to. It’s not like movies, I don't suddenly change every time there's a full moon or whatever. It was only the first time that happened. Now, I can, like, I feel it and I could if I wanted to, but I don't have to."

"Okay," Alex says. The drive to Dulles usually takes about half an hour to forty minutes, so there's plenty of opportunity for waiting out Sasha's silences. He lets another short stretch of road go by. "So, why this afternoon?"

"When it's the full moon, or close to it, like I said, I don't have to. But it feels… different. Than the rest of the month. Stronger."

Alex sneaks a look at Sasha, who is now staring out the window like there's something utterly fascinating there. His cheeks are dull red.

"I got home from practice. I saw a rabbit in my front yard," Sasha says. "I… wanted to chase it. Don't laugh at me."

Alex is biting the inside of his cheek, and it takes him another chunk of I-495 to get it under control. He shouldn't. He shouldn't.

"Did you catch it?" he asks. Sasha turns and glares at him full-on. "Okay. So. You went outside, you turned into a wolf, the door locked. Why didn't you just, you know, change back and break a window?"

"I didn't know," Sasha grits out. "I chased the rabbit for a while. Then I got back, and I realized, and of course if I changed back, I wouldn't have any clothes on, and then I'd be locked out of my house naked and not any better off."

"Betty seems nice, you could have just gone over there and asked for help," Alex says. "Told her you were taking a shower or something stupid, someone knocked on the door, you stepped outside, no key."

"Naked? In front of Betty?" Sasha says. He looks genuinely horrified at the thought. "I could never, she has a bad heart."

"Yes, well," Alex says, and decides not to bring up the Halloween streaking for the moment. "So you just waited outside."

"If we weren't going to travel tonight, it would have been okay," Sasha says. "I could just let it get dark, sneak back inside. But I was running out of time, I knew I'd need to get to the airport or I'd be missed and then… fuck, I don't even know. I told my neighbors months ago if they saw my dog running around without me to call you. I didn't think I would ever need them to."

"You gave them my number," Alex says. "You wanted them to call me?"

Sasha shrugs and goes back to looking out the window. "I knew you'd come, probably," he says, quietly.

Alex doesn't say anything as they hit the stretch of the Dulles toll-road. He reaches over and lightly punches Sasha on the shoulder, before he taps his knuckles behind Sasha's ear. Sasha's face is turned away, but Alex sees him smile in the reflection of the window.

They are indeed the last ones to get to the airport, and by the unwritten team rules, they get second to last pick on seats. (Rookies go last. Rookies always go last.) Pittsburgh flights are so short, everyone does their own thing anyway.

Alex fiddles with his phone, looking things up. He waits until they've taken off and everyone's either engrossed with their own devices or off in the card huddle, before he nudges Sasha, who's now polishing off one of the steak entrees that the flight attendance crew brought around.

Alex shows him his phone. "So, next month," he says. "We don't have a game on the tenth."

Sasha looks momentarily blank, and then shakes his head. "We'll be in New Jersey already for the back to back." He lowers his voice. "I already told you, it doesn't have to be on the exact day, if I need to do it. I don't need to do it," he adds, quickly.

"Okay, after tomorrow's game, then," Alex says.

"No," Sasha says. "It makes me tired. Just let me—we'll talk about everything after tomorrow, but I'm not—" he stops to give the entire plane cabin a suspicious look, even though they're speaking to each other in Russian and no one's paying attention to them at all. "—changing for at least a week. Two weeks. You're making a huge deal out of this. You don't even have to worry about it because it's not even a thing most of the time."

"I'm making a huge deal—" Alex starts, and then swallows it down with effort. "Okay. We'll talk later. And I'm still punching Staal." He elbows Sasha. "You can fight his brother."

"You can shut the hell up about that," Sasha says grumpily, and elbows Alex back.

"Okay." Alex settles back in his seat. "Everything's okay," he says again, and lets the rest of the plane ride go in silence. A day or so. Two weeks. Simple.

***

It wasn't a day, or two weeks, or even a month, and it sure as hell wasn't simple. As it turned out, Sasha dealt with dropping revelations of life-changing events like he did with all the things that he didn't really like: in an ironically adversative way, by no longer mentioning and actively ignoring the hell out of it, with much more effort and determination than it probably would have taken to actually confront it.

After winning the Pens game, there was a moment when Alex thinks they could have slid back into talking about it, but he's tired, and thinking about who the game was dedicated to, and Sasha looked tired too. And he missed his chance because Sasha doesn't mention anything about it again, and he just looks politely blank and changes the subject whenever Alex makes anything that could remotely be a reference to the situation. All Alex has to make him sure he didn't hallucinate the whole thing is the fact his front car seat is still covered in fur.

Later, Alex looks back at the front half of the season as something excessively fucked up, even by his standards. His uncle dies, and Alex flies back and forth from Moscow. There's Loko, for another thing. It creeps up him at odd times; he thinks about Sasha Galimov, remembers random things like the way he taped his sticks, and how he practiced drawing his autograph using his finger in the steamed-up mirrors of the locker room at the 2005 Worlds. It hurts to think about it. There's a night where he and Sasha call Senya just to check in and see how he's doing in Colorado, and they talk around the fringes of it because they're all thinking about Senya's name being on that list of the dead, if McPhee hadn't decided to make the trade.

Vokoun feels it badly, and Nicky does too. And most of the team is stricken to some degree, but it goes away from most of them more easily. The ones who've never been involved with the KHL, the ones from Canada or America. Or so it seems to Alex, anyway; he knows he's probably being unfair to them, thinking that. Not all of them had friends or connections, and there's no reason for them to have it linger. It would be different if it was an NHL team, if it was the Ducks, the Habs, or something. Then there's the win streak, which is great when it happens, but streaks of any kind tend to build the pressure.

And, of course, Sasha's… issue. Which, the more Alex thinks about it, the more seems like a potential explanation for why Sasha can't stop taking penalties and being weirdly over-aggressive whenever anyone strips the puck off him.

It doesn't explain why Alex's play is all kinds of fucked up, either. Bruce benches Alex for the final moments of the Ducks game, and they win, but the camera catches him swearing, and suddenly everyone in the world is a lip reading expert and has a wonderful time dissecting everything Alex might and might not have said while pissed off, and isn't that just a fun time, isn't that just the best. Nothing is going in the net for him, either. He's played through worse distractions and worse luck; he's had hot and cold streaks before. This is something different, but he can't explain or figure out why, and the worse thing is Alex can sense Bruce has no idea how to fix it either, which means they're both fucked and he's just going to have to hope it fixes itself.

And then, a day after LipReadGate, Alex is eating a post-practice banana for his potassium levels and feeling confused and maybe angry (it might be more hangry than angry, hence the banana) about the state of his life, when he has a brilliant fucking idea.

Sasha is the reigning champion of sneaking away first from practice or post-game press scrums, so it takes several cunning diversions to make sure Alex beats him getting away from Kettler for once, in the form of stolen pants, reminding Sergey to waylay Sasha to remind him he's got a school visit tomorrow, and several small, adorable children strategically posed in front of Kettler's doors to beg loudly and specifically for Sasha's autograph. Alex even teaches them how to yell it in Russian.

It all works out, because by the time Sasha gets away and returns home, Alex is already firmly ensconced on his porch. With Betty. And banana bread.

"Why hello, Mr. Semin!" Betty absolutely trills as Sasha pulls into the driveway. "Your friend, Mr. Ovenchicken said you'd be a little late, but I'm so glad you're finally ready to have some tea. Now, you go in and leave your things and then come right back out here and join us. If you want to let your dog out while we're all here, I brought over some treats for him too, I made them myself this morning off the recipe my grandson sent. They have pureed pumpkin and whole wheat flour and chamomile tea in them, and I made some with peanut butter to see if he'd prefer those. Goodness, you can find anything on the internet these days, can't you?"

Sasha is doing his best to give Alex some absolutely murderous side-eye while at the same time awkwardly smiling and nodding at his neighbor, with the entertaining result that he goes almost cross-eyed. And so they spend an absolutely lovely afternoon tea out on the porch, with Betty doing about eighty percent of the talking, Alex filling in another fifteen percent, and Sasha making occasional muttery noises about yes Halloween was very nice, or more tea please, or how his dog can't come outside because of allergies to leaf mold or something. Good times.

Alex cheerfully volunteers Sasha to walk Betty back over to her house while Alex carries the dishes, because he's not sure Sasha won't just sprint back to the house and lock Alex out, and he gets two hugs from Betty for not only eating the most banana bread but also for making Sasha promise to tell her which of the treats his dog prefers. As soon as they get back into Sasha's house, Sasha gives him the pissiest, most betrayed look ever.

"What the fuck was that all about?" he asks.

"You just seemed like you needed to talk about your dog," Alex says. "Since, you know, you've been refusing to talk to me after you said you would."

"I don't need to talk," Sasha says. "I don't need to do anything."

"Don't be fucking stupid," Alex says. "You're not. I'm not stupid. You can't pretend that it's not something. I can tell, fuck, you can tell. You're moody as hell, even for you, and you play different now."

Alex isn't stupid. He knows when it's better to appear that way, because it's valuable for surprising people, and maybe he wasn't the best student in school, but he hadn't needed to be a genius to pull up their past schedule, check it against a calendar, and figure out some kind of relationship between that and when Sasha went on his own hot and cold streaks, and his ongoing crusade to collect all the penalty minutes in the NHL.

"This is my life," Sasha says, going from pissed to super pissed in about five seconds flat, which Alex figures kind of proves his point about Sasha's mood swings. "Not yours. You don't get to tell me what to do."

"You're my friend," Alex shoots right back, and grabs Sasha's arm before he can storm off. "My best friend. And teammate. Either one means, yeah, I do get to tell you when you're doing something stupid that I can help with. Because I want to, and that's what friends do. And I care."

He can feel Sasha tense under his grip, and he's not sure if he's going to be holding his friend or his friend as a giant wolf in the next few seconds, but then Sasha takes a deep breath, sighs, and shakes his head at Alex. "I don't know if you heard about it, but I don't care about anything, apparently," he says. His smile looks way more like a grimace.

"Brads was stupid to say that, and he was wrong anyway," Alex says. He sighs also. "Fuck, Sasha, this is really fucking weird and I wish you'd told me about any of this, but it doesn't matter because I know now and we can… I don't know, make it better. Because whatever you're doing right now isn't working," he adds before Sasha can interrupt him. "And, I mean, at least we can talk to Staal because maybe he'll know a way to fix it and if he doesn't, you should get to yell at him for being such a cock anyway. I'm going to."

"I was going to talk to Staal before," Sasha says. "I was. Don't make that face. I talked to Babchuk on the Canes, you know, because I wasn't sure how to ask, but then he got traded and I just. I don't know. Didn't want to try again. I thought maybe I could ask Samsonov to talk to him, but now he's gone too."

Refusing to acknowledge or research being a werewolf simply because it would involve prolonged awkward conversations in English with someone he wasn't comfortable with is both very weird and very Sasha, and Alex can immediately see how it would have happened.

"Okay," Alex says. "We play them next. I'll talk to him for you, if you don't want to."

"God, no, I can't think of a worse idea," Sasha says. "Fine. I'll talk to him then."

The next day, Sasha does get in contact with Eric Staal, but for whatever reason, after a complicated phone tree to coordinate a quick meeting before the game (Sasha lets Alex calls Zhenya in Pittsburgh, and then Zhenya talks to the younger Staal, who's supposed to pass it along to the older Staal) he changes his mind about letting Alex tag along, no matter how much Alex argues. It's maddening.

Also maddening is that Sasha doesn't fall for Alex's (much less cunning this time, but he was working under time restraints) diversion of room service sushi and a phone call from a bored-back-home, chatty as hell Mike Green, and instead rudely intercepts Alex in the bowels of the RBC Center in the middle of Alex's noble and righteous quest to question and maybe also murder Eric Staal with extreme prejudice.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Alex says. "I'm just here for Poni. We're going to catch up about Dynamo Moscow."

"I told you that I was going to talk to Staal by myself and you were not going to interfere," Sasha says. "I told you this. And you promised, and what do I find but you sneaking around like some kind of idiot." He frowns. "Did you dress in all black on purpose?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. What time is it?" Alex asks, almost desperately. "Didn't you say you were going to have Greg look at your shoulder around four?"

"What?" Sasha takes a look at his wrist. "Oh, I guess it's five past I don't give a fuck, now let me do this the way I said I was going to."

"I wasn't going to punch him that hard," Alex sullenly protests, but Sasha doesn't even let him eavesdrop when he meets with Staal for a grand total of sixteen minutes and forty nine seconds a couple hours before the game. Alex lurks outside the door of the training room they briefly disappear into, but all for nothing. Staal is already inside, and Sasha shuts the door in Alex's face, so Alex just keeps an eye on the time and thinks dark thoughts about sod farms and how fucking stupid they are. Sasha finally emerges looking unscathed but with poker face firmly in place. "I'll tell you all about it later," is all he says, towing away Alex, who is denied even the chance to glare viciously at Staal, and then they have to go play.

They do win, 5-1, and Staal plays and looks like warmed-over shit during the game, which is at least somewhat satisfying, but not as satisfying as Alex thinks it would have been to punch him. It's a punch-happy affair in any case, though, with Staal giving Ersk a shot to the family jewels, and Knuble going after Ruutu for going after Wideman, and Skinner outdoing everyone with a full scale rage-meltdown over his disallowed goal. Also, Eakin scores his first goal, so Alex gets to pie a rookie, which is never a bad thing. In the locker room, Alex preps the towel and shaving gel while listening to Brooks and Wardo ribbing Sasha about the set-up assist for Squeaks.

"No, it was great," Wardo says. "Sasha was, like, 'do it, kid'."

"Put puck in net. I be right here in case you miss," Brooks adds, in a pretty good imitation of Sasha's voice.

Sasha is laughing as well. "Fuck off, Brooksy," he says, still sweaty and half-dressed. "Brooks only score deflection and tip. Sasha score beautiful goal."

He looks okay, Alex decides. He seems less tired, less frustrated. Maybe Staal actually had something useful to tell him, or nothing as horrible as Alex had been imagining, anyway. Maybe things are getting better, and they've turned a corner. All he needs is a good game like this one, something to kickstart his scoring and get things rolling in the right direction. Alex could use some of that as well.

They fly to New York that same night so they can play the Isles the next day, and they don't get in until late because of a problem with the shuttle bus that takes them to the hotel. Sasha dozes next to him, and he's probably just dreaming, but he looks worried as he sleeps; his eyes are faintly screwed up and there are flickers of movement beneath his closed eyelids, like sleep is something he's working at or maybe against, even when he's passed out on Alex's shoulder. They sit thigh to thigh, and every few minutes, he can feel Sasha's leg jerk or shift against his, like an aborted kick. Alex wonders if he dreams as a wolf or a human.

When it happens the third time, Alex presses his own left foot down on top of Sasha's right foot. And it must do something, because Sasha sighs, and stops moving as much. When they finally get to the hotel, the door to their room is barely shut before Alex shucks his jacket, drops his luggage, and starts asking questions.

"What did he say? Did he have any ideas about what to do? Did he get bitten by someone too? Can I punch him?"

Sasha flops down on his bed. "He apologized first," he finally says, more to the ceiling than Alex, after not saying anything for a few seconds. "He didn't know he bit me and it took. Apparently it's kind of like an STD. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't. He said he would have talked to me if he'd remembered biting me, like, if he'd actually known. Told me things. More things, anyway."

"He gave you werewolf herpes?" Alex says. "Seriously, can I hit him?"

"You wanted me to tell you what we talked about, so shut up," Sasha says. "He said, like, it's not the same for everyone. Like, you can be born with it, or you can get it from someone else. And it affects people differently, like, some of them don't have any control over changing, and some of them do but they can only do it at certain times of the month, and some of them can do it all the time, and—it's just different."

Alex sits down on his own bed and starts toeing off his shoes. "What else?" he asked.

Sasha takes his time answering. "A lot of other things from stories and movies aren't really true. The silver stuff is bullshit. No crucifixes or holy water either." He lifted his own necklace up with one finger and let it drop again. "Good thing for me."

"I thought that was vampires," Alex says. He'd been the one holding Sasha's necklace when it broke the first time against—huh, the Canes. Weird.

"Whatever," Sasha says. "Anyway. It makes me a bit stronger, faster sometimes. I already knew that, I could tell. And it takes a lot of energy to transform, so, more protein and eating a lot. But it's hard on the body sometimes, especially the joints, so I have to watch out for injuries. High blood pressure. Muscle tears." Sasha arches his back and stretches his arms up over his head. "All of his brothers are werewolves too," he adds, casually.

"Wait, what?" Alex asks. "All of them?"

"Except the youngest one," Sasha says. "I know, it's weird. Apparently they're the kind who're born with it."

Alex thinks this over, adjusting his world view. "If they're werewolves, they should be able to grow better beards," he finally concludes. "Wait, will you be able to grow a real beard now?"

"He said it's important to figure out and keep a schedule," Sasha says, ignoring Alex's very vital question.

"For beards?" Alex asks.

"For changing," Sasha says impatiently. "He wanted to know how often I transformed. That was, like, the second thing he asked. And he said, you can't let it go too long without changing, or change too much, because…"

He lets it trail off, but Alex waits him out. "It needs balance," Sasha finally says. "Or you can get stuck. Like, you won't be able to control it. Or, you change and then you can't change back. I think that's what he said, anyway; he was freaking out a lot during the whole thing after I said I only was a wolf once in a while. So, now I have to transform on a schedule, and that should make me feel better. It's supposed to make it less painful to do, too."

Sasha is leaving out or holding something back from the conversation, and Alex knows it. Part of it is simply that he's been around Sasha long enough that he recognizes a lot of Sasha's tells, and more importantly, he recognizes when a total absence of them is a tell on its own. It means something more significant and deliberate in play; excessive placidity is rarely a good sign. He should have realized that back when Sasha first dropped this on him.

"What else?" he asks again.

"Not much else," Sasha says.

Alex waits him out once again. There's an art to it, which Alex has been working on scientifically perfecting, pretty much as long as he's known Sasha.

"He asked about the team," Sasha says after some of Alex's most concentrated staring and refusal to blink.

"What about the team?" Alex says, caught off guard. "Like, for hockey?"

"No, I don't think so," Sasha says. He pulls his right arm over his eyes, hiding his face in the crook of his elbow, and then rolls over on his side, away from Alex. "It's not important. Anyway, I'll change when we get home, since it's so important. If you want to come, you can."

This is another classic Sasha maneuver: the abrupt swerve away from the subject matter and offer of a different piece of personal information as a distractor; Alex uses it all the time himself, usually on the press. But this is really kind of what Alex was aiming towards getting, so he takes the offered bait, even while remaining suspicious as to what Sasha's not saying. He's a little afraid that some extremely significant moment just passed by over his head.

"Okay, yeah," he says, and lies down. "I can come to your house? What day are you going to do it?"

"Fine, my house," Sasha says. "Not tomorrow night. I already did it tonight—" Alex makes a questioning grunt. "—in the training room, I changed so I could show him, so I've already done it tonight. In a couple days. After the Stars game, before the Devils games."

"Okay," Alex says, hesitates, and maybe he should wait until they turn the lights off, because some conversations just go better in the dark, but if he stops now, there's no guarantee Sasha won't just putter endlessly in the bathroom and wait for Alex to fall asleep in an attempt to end the all discussion. So he rolls over to face Sasha, who still isn't looking at him, and launches his question blindly at the thing he thinks Sasha might be holding back. "He said it can't be fixed, can it?"

Long, long silence, and fuck, that wasn't the right thing, or it wasn't the exact thing. He miscalculated.

"He said I have to live with it," Sasha says finally, flatly, and then he gets up and goes into the bathroom, and that's the end of talking about it. Fuck. Alex should have waited; he should have given Sasha the protection, slight as that was, of saying it in the dark.

Fuck. He really wishes he'd had the chance to punch Staal.

***

They lose to the Isles. They lose to the Stars. Bruce calls out Sasha after the Stars game. Sasha looks miserable and fidgety and distracted at the morning practice after the Stars loss, and then mumbles, "Come by at five," to Alex on his way out to the parking lot.

There'd been an express couriered delivery for Sasha from Staal when they got home from Long Island, requiring Sasha to sign roughly three million times before they'll release it to him, along with a cover sheet that says SECRET SECRET SERIOUSLY TOP SECRET DO NOT SHARE WITH ANYONE all over it in red 72 point font. It ends up being a sheaf of photocopied papers full of handwritten notes, mostly consisting of journal-like entries about werewolf behavior, but also with a handful of what almost look like mugshots, which bear a suspiciously familiar resemblance to whom Alex suspects are members of the extended Staal family over a couple generations. But there are photos and even some much older looking drawings of people who are definitely not the Staals, all kinds of different people. No names, but there are locations and statistics written alongside, in nearly incomprehensible English shorthand, which both of them puzzle over, and then give up on for later.

STRAIN OCCIDENTALIS

ORIG NAT BORN

DOB 9/22/1985

STRAIN LYCAON

ORIG NAT BORN

DOB 11/02/1950

STRAIN OCCIDENTALIS

ORIG TRANS VIA NAT

DOT 18, 12/26/1972

STRAIN PAMBASILEUS

ORIG TRANS VIA TRANS

DOT 34, 2/15/1901

There's also something that looks like a survey, questions that start out simple and get rapidly weirder and more detailed.

Do you change during the day? Night? Is the compulsion stronger or weaker in correspondence to lunar cycles? How fast can you run as a human? As a wolf? What is the maximum height you can leap from a standing position? Crouching position? In human form, are you able to hear past thirty kilohertz? Thirty five? Forty? In wolf form, can you register color? Do you record caching or hoarding behaviors in both forms? Scent marking?

Who the fuck even comes up with the protocols for testing werewolf behavior, Alex wonders, while he sits at Sasha's kitchen table, leafing through the papers. It doesn't seem like the handiwork of any of the current Staals, but who knows, maybe at least one of them has hidden depths. Maybe they all sit around at night during the off-season, talking about sod and hockey and coming up with werewolf transformation scenarios.

…Scent marking, Jesus.

"You haven't pissed on anything weird, have you?" he asks Sasha, who's been refusing to sit down and prowling around the kitchen restlessly, looking out the window every five minutes to measure how dark it is. "Like, here, it's your house, I guess, but you haven't pissed on your locker stall in Kettler or anything? Because that would be gross."

"I do what I want," Sasha says, distracted. "You don't think it's going to rain, do you?"

"We don't have to go outside," Alex says for the third time. "You said you used to stay inside, so. Do whatever you feel like. Change wherever you feel—best," he says, swapping that in for safe at the last minute because Sasha will just bristle and glare.

"I don't know," Sasha says. "It wants—I want to run. But not in the rain."

"Watch out, rabbits," Alex says.

"You know, I've never liked you," Sasha says, and starts playing with his phone to check the weather forecast again.

It does start to rain, and Sasha gets so irritated and anxious that he's practically vibrating out of his skin, so Alex dips deep into both his leadership and friendship reserves, and uses a combination of charm, flattery, and excessive tipping to get Sasha Gusev, who's downtown tonight, to wheedle a ridiculous spread of food from Russia House, even though they don't do takeout. Goose comes through and brings it by in record speed, no doubt by breaking all the speed laws in between DC and Arlington, so Alex gives him his share of the kulebiaka in thanks, and a promise to connect him to the guy who does the artwork for Neuvy's mask.

Placated with most of his favorite foods, Sasha is eventually lured into the basement entertainment center, where there are no windows, so he can stop looking outside and fretting. Alex finds Sasha's guilty pleasure on DVD (Flightplan, for reasons Sasha has never volunteered, except Alex thinks he has a crush on Jodie Foster), gets it set up, and waves an arm vaguely at the room. "So, go ahead. We can hang out until the weather is better, and then you can go out if you want."

Sasha grumbles, but he's already halfway out of his shirt and sweats. And in a much more anti-climactic evening than Alex had expected, they spend the next couple hours watching movies. It's not unlike most of their other evenings in at each other's places; it's just that Sasha is a huge fucking wolf and they spend it on the floor instead of the couch, because he doesn't fit comfortably on the couch.

It's fine, if a little surreal.

"How long are you supposed to do this?" Alex asks around eleven, and then elaborates, "I mean, tonight, like, did Staal say you should do it for a couple hours, or a day, or what?"

Sasha just blinks at him, and rolls his head to one side. Alex has been talking to Sasha just as he would if Sasha were human; Sasha has been surprisingly effective at responding non-verbally when he wants to (or ignoring him when he doesn't; not unusual for Sasha), with a variety of huffs, grumbles, growling, whining, flattening or pricking up his ears, rolling his eyes (also not unusual from regular Sasha), wagging his tail (though he deliberately stopped doing it after Alex got too delighted by it), and head-butts.

Sasha had gradually acquired all the blankets from the couch for himself so that he can poke just his head and muzzle out from the mound, den-like. Ten minutes into the movie, Alex joined him out of self-preservation; when he walked into the house earlier, it was at least ten degrees cooler than usual. Sasha's head has been resting on Alex's thigh, and Alex has been scratching him behind the ears for the last half hour. Whenever he stops, Sasha turns his head just enough to look at him with half-slitted eyes, and Alex eventually just keeps on scratching.

Now, though, Alex's bladder is making it too difficult to stay in the blanket heap, and he nudges Sasha off his leg. "Come on, move. I have to go to the bathroom."

Sasha just yawns, showing off rows and rows of sharp teeth, and eventually begrudgingly lets Alex scramble up from underneath him. When Alex comes back, wiping his damp hands on his jeans (and trying to get fur off them because, Jesus, Sasha sheds a ton), the blanket nest is empty.

"Sasha?" Alex calls as he heads upstairs. He's not in the kitchen; Alex can tell and doesn't even bother to flip on the light, but something sends Alex over to the door to the backyard anyway. It's a new door now, which Alex is willing to bet Sasha got installed the day after they got back from the Pens game. It has one of those pet access panels, which is so large it basically takes up the entire bottom half of the door. He goes outside.

In that backyard, Alex doesn't see Sasha at first. It must have stopped raining, because everything is cold and wet, but the sky is clear enough that he can see the moon up above. Almost full, the perfect curve just off at the side, like someone smudged a finger along its edge. He thinks he hears rustling off to his left, and Alex steps off the deck and into the wet grass despite his bare feet, wincing at the cold. "Sasha?" he calls out again, hushed. Sound doesn't seem to travel far in the dark, and he's going to get frostbite and lose his feet and never skate again, while who knows what the fuck Sasha is doing right now.

Sasha appears out of the dark, ghost-like, and nudges up against Alex's hip, shoving him; Alex nearly trips from the surprise and the force, though he does manage to swallow his yelp down. Sasha huffs at him; he's damp all over and there are dead leaves and grass stuck to his back, like he's been rolling around on the lawn.

"There you are, asshole," Alex says, and rubs his knuckles against the ruff of Sasha's neck. "What the fuck, huh, you did that on purpose. You’re not funny. You're not funny at all."

The trees have dropped nearly all their leaves. The air smells clean and damp and just a little frosty; someone must have decided it was cold enough for a fire, because Alex can smell wood smoke as well. This is what fall nights smell like now; he's never in Moscow at this time of year any more, and it feels like he's lost a little part of his city.

Sasha is warm against his hip. Alex winds his fingers deeper into his ruff and breathes deep, looking up at the moon.

This isn't so bad, he thinks. Weird as hell, but—he can handle this. He says it out loud, because it's important that Sasha knows this, recognizes it as well. "This isn't so bad," he says.

Sasha huffs again, and then rumbles; then he pulls away from Alex and heads back inside, his nails clicking softly against the wood of the deck Alex follows him inside, shutting the door behind them. By the time he's used one of Sasha's dish clothes to dry his feet off, Sasha has disappeared into the basement, from where he emerges just a few seconds later, naked with his clothes bundled carelessly under one arm.

He wrinkles his nose at Alex. "Don't hang those back on the hook when you're done, I don't want them anywhere near the stove after you've touched them with your feet."

"Maybe put some clothes on so your junk doesn’t touch anything in here," Alex retorts, and then feels vaguely hypocritical about condemning kitchen nudity because he's definitely been there before, so he drops the dish cloth on the floor. He wonders if Sasha went into the basement first because he didn't want Alex to watch him change back. "You have leaves in your hair," he says, looking closer.

"I do?" Sasha asks, and runs a hand through his hair, making it even messier.

"Hold still," Alex says. He reaches over and picks out a couple of fragments. "How do you feel?" he asks, concentrating on teasing out a piece that's close to Sasha's temple.

"Mm," Sasha says, and hums a little, leaning into Alex's hand, just like he did when Alex was scratching behind his ears in the basement. "Good. Fine." He wrinkles his nose again. "Things smell weird for a while when I switch back."

"Weird how?" Alex asks.

"More," Sasha says, and then waves his hand vaguely. "Intense. Like, it's different as a wolf, it's strong. I want to talk in smells, kinda."

"Seriously, if you piss on anything of mine," Alex threatens, and Sasha just laughs, loopy and almost high enough to be a giggle. Apparently being a werewolf for an extended amount of time does something for him.

"I'll piss on you," Sasha says, still giggling, and he's naked and kind of muddy and also kind of looking at Alex from beneath his eyelashes while threatening to piss on him, in a way that shouldn't be attractive at all but is. Kind of. Alex decides not to think about it right now.

"If you do, I'll never drive you anywhere again," Alex says. "Also, I'll tell my mother never to make extra pelmeni for you again, too."

"No, don't, I like hers best," Sasha says, a little dreamily. "Wait, I'm hungry right now, is there anything to eat?" He pulls away from Alex and heads towards the refrigerator with single-minded focus, staggering a little as he goes, like he's not quite used to being back on two feet again. "Did you get dessert from them too?" Sasha asks, rooting among the leftovers.

"No," Alex says, watching Sasha, and more specifically, Sasha's ass, and trying to remember what Staal had said about eating afterwards. "Actually, maybe yes, but Goose might've eaten it."

"I'll kill Goose. Wait, no, I have ice cream," Sasha says, and switches his search to the freezer. He hums some more as he pokes inside, and emerges with a quart of coffee ice cream. He pries the top off and sniffs it; Alex doesn't wait to see if he's going to just start eating with his hands, so he reaches into a drawer and finds a spoon, which he pokes into Sasha's side.

"Come on," he says. "You're not an animal right now."

"Right now," Sasha echoes, and digs into the ice cream, levering out a puck-sized chunk, eyeing it with consideration, and then somehow unhinging his jaw enough to swallow it whole.

"I'm going home," Alex says, and leans against the counter. "When should we do this again? Did you make a schedule?"

Sasha looks up and frowns, rubbing his thumb against his forehead. "You want to come again?" he asks, and then makes a hideous grimace. "Ow. Brain freeze. Ow."

"Well, yeah," Alex says. "You don't have thumbs, you'll never be able to work the DVD remote control on your own."

"Oh," Sasha says, stabbing his spoon back into the ice cream again. "I don't know. Staal said, um. Start out once a week, try changing the day before games, and then try the day after, to see which one feels better. Like, get used to it, get built up. Then, hopefully, it'll feel natural enough that I can figure out the best rhythm and do it whenever. It's like training. Stretching muscles."

Alex pulls out his phone once again. "We have the back to back with Jersey, and then the road trip," he said, squinting at his screen. "If you want to keep doing it at home, it better be after the second game, before Nashville."

"Will you buy me dinner again?" Sasha asks with another sidelong glance, a little amused. He tilts his head, licks ice cream off the spoon, and there's that thing again, that interested look of—well, Alex knows what it is.

The Vancouver Olympics were a shitshow of epic junk-kicking proportions and a strong contender for one of the top five worst experiences of Alex's life, and that was before he found out Sasha apparently got a werewolf STD from Eric Staal. It was also the first time he and Sasha had ever managed to overlap in terms of being drunk enough to lose most of their better judgement and inhibitions, but not so drunk as to to lose the conviction they could fuck their problems away, and it was just the most convenient to do it with each other. It was a perfect storm of emotional baggage, adrenaline spillover, the weird Stockholm side effect of being jammed in close quarters with a lot of other attractive and emotional athletes that it was impossible to get away from, and the whole lack of boundaries he and Sasha have anyway, after several years of being road roommates and best friends.

Alex hasn't thought about it a lot, because neither of them like to think about Vancouver—well, he doesn't, and he assumes Sasha doesn't either. But the Olympics are different; they feel removed. Normal rules didn't apply there.

Near the end, with Nikulin out and in the relative privacy of his room in the Olympic Village, Alex had closed the door, taken off all his clothes, gotten into bed naked, and pulled the sheets and blanket over his head as the last line of refuge and defense against the world. He remembers how after just a few minutes, he'd been too warm and barely able to breathe, but he hadn't bothered to do anything. He remembers it as an almost animal comfort; like being a bird in a shell, or wound up in the sheets as he'd been, maybe more like a caterpillar, like he should be working on becoming something else. Anything other than what he'd been, which was heartsick and humiliated and angry. And just—tired.

And Sasha had shown up, apparently in exile from his own room with Grebeshkov; he banged on the door long enough that Alex finally unwound himself, let him in, went back into bed, and didn't give a shit that Sasha climbed right in with him, only that for a while both of them could stop thinking about everything else. Different place, so different rules; it didn't matter. It didn't count.

Everything they'd fumbled into felt like it happened in a different country, something further away than Canada usually was. And then they'd gone back to the regular season and life resumed. Alex didn't regret it, he didn't think Sasha had either; it was just that it belonged somewhere else, and they put it away.

And now here is Sasha, in about as different circumstances as possible, looking pretty much as ridiculous as possible: naked, muddy, clutching a melting tub of ice cream, and now openly staring at Alex like he'd like to eat him instead of the ice cream. It shouldn't be attractive at all. It's not a good idea at all. Sasha was a different species, like, twenty minutes ago.

And yet.

"I'll call you tomorrow, we can go to the airport together," Alex says. He takes a step closer to Sasha.

"Okay," Sasha says, and he puts the ice cream down. His fingers are cold against Alex's hip when he slides them under his shirt.

"It's late," Alex says, and Sasha says, "Okay," again, while he runs his hands up Alex's sides. They're still cold and it tickles a little, which seems like a very good reason for Alex to take his shirt off. And then it seems somehow very unfair for him to have pants on while Sasha doesn't, and so he takes those off as well, and he's gone that far, so does he really need his underwear, and then Sasha finds a very warm spot to put his hands on.

There's maybe one moment where he thinks about stopping, and it's when Alex is flat on his back on the kitchen floor and he can see the moon through the window, bright and almost perfect and caught in the bare branches of the trees. Sasha is not himself; Sasha's probably not thinking straight; Alex is his friend and he needs to help, he needs to be the one thinking clearly—

Sasha's eyes glow bright in the dimness of the kitchen; his teeth gleam in the crescent of his smile. He straddles Alex and eclipses everything in Alex's vision; Alex reaches up, and pulls him down against him quite easily. It's all right; nothing about this is normal, so it must be all right. It's allowed.

In the morning, Alex has to borrow clothes from Sasha to go to practice, and the forgotten ice cream has melted all over the counter. Sasha dumps the whole soggy mess into the sink to deal with later, though Alex catches him covertly licking the spoon dredged up from the container when he thinks Alex isn’t looking.

"I think it's going to be nice out today," Alex says as he waits at the front door for Sasha, who's cussing and fumbling with his keys. They overslept past the alarm, and they're going to be late if they don't hurry.

"Yeah?" Sasha asked, distracted, and Alex takes the opportunity to really look at him, looks at his unshaven chin, his tragic hair, the smudge of coffee ice cream residue on the corner of his mouth, and the fact his shirt is on inside out; he feels such an incredible wave of fondness wash over him, warm and bright, it's like he's already stepped through the door and into full sunshine.

"Yeah," Alex says, and then he gives in to his worse instincts and leans forward to lick Sasha's cheek where the smudge is; he bolts out the door to his car, tasting coffee and sweetness and laughing, while Sasha yells indignantly and gives chase.

***

Apparently the trick to maintaining a friendship despite constant bouts of lycanthropy and unexpected sexual hijinks is to have so much other shit going on in life, that it's difficult to get hung up any one thing.

Bruce is out. Dale Hunter is coaching. 2012 rolls in. The team is still struggling to figure out what the fuck they're doing, but there are occasional signs that they aren't completely fucked yet when they manage to string together a few wins. Alex has a new house guest, after Dmitry Orlov gets called up, and Alex can't just let him be a lonely baby rookie in one of the apartments that the Caps arrange; he gives him rides to the games, has him out for dinner with Sasha (Sasha wants steak more often than sushi now, and he changes his order from medium to rare), and over to his house for just hanging out and playing video games whenever possible. Alex is still on pace for his lowest goal totals ever; Sasha is still racking up penalties like it's going out of style; together, they have watched three different Batman films and the entire extended Lord of the Rings trilogy in Sasha's man-cave, and had some kind of shared or mutual orgasm on eight different occasions. Which, Alex guesses, means they've probably gone well past the expiration date for being able to legitimately calling it a one-off or fling, especially since every single one has happened on Sasha's transforming nights.

On the nights Alex goes over alone and comes back late or not at all with fur all over the pants that might not be the pants he went over in, Dima thinks Alex is helping Sasha train a dog as a present for Sasha's parents, or at least he pretends to think that, which Alex appreciates and rewards with more FIFA throwdowns and dinners out.

Honestly, Alex should probably be more concerned about the fact he's having semi-regular sex with his best friend who's also a werewolf, but seriously, there's a lot of shit going on and he just can't be bothered. He came to terms a long time ago with the fact it's just not worth getting worked up over from who or where sex comes from, as long as it's abundant and enthusiastic for everyone. And it's very enthusiastic.

There's one afternoon where he stays behind after practice because it's one of the rare occasions Hunter actually wants to talk to him (well, it's more like Alex sort of makes questioning noises, and Hunter sort of grunts back at him, and between Jim Johnson walking by now and then to supply actual syllables for Hunter, and Alex occasionally yelling across the rink for Sergey to give him the English for a word, they make some kind of communication between the four of them that is almost seventy five percent understandable by all parties) and Alex can't figure out why Hunter keeps staring at him oddly.  Alex has been trying to figure out some way of classifying Hunter's frowns; it's not like he doesn't get the opportunity to try because Hunter's face is nearly always set in some kind of mildly disgruntled expression. The subtleties, though; Alex is working on those. It's a mystery to him what's causing this particular one, until he catches a glimpse of himself in the reflection of the rink glass and realizes that there's a hickey the size of a baby's fist on his neck.

He puts a hand up to it out of reflex, and Hunter raises his eyebrows. "You keeping enough energy to play well?" he asks. "That's all I give a shit about."

"I have fun," Alex says. "I still play. That's first, always."

Coach Hunter looks unwillingly impressed and amused; when he smiles, it's a little like cement cracking. "Damn, son, get some," he says, shakes his head, pats Alex on the shoulder, and walks off. Alex exhales without realizing he'd been holding his breath, though honestly, Hunter seems to trigger that in him a lot of the time anyway, not just when he's staring at the leftover signs of post-werewolf sex with Sasha.

Sasha and Dima are both waiting for him at the car, the sight of which makes Alex happy just because of how they both look, how them they are. Dima's standing next to the back seat passenger side; he hasn’t lost that slightly alarmed and amazed look all the rookies have when they first come up, impressed by all the things Alex has stopped noticing as much. Alex keeps catching him hoarding all the complimentary hotel soaps.

Sasha is all experience in comparison, smoking a cigarette and not hiding it very well; the only attempt he's made is to turn the collar of his overcoat up and hunch his shoulders, which means he looks like a cross between a hipster and a half-assed secret agent on stakeout. He's pacing a short distance away while on the phone with someone. The weird thing is he even seems to be speaking in English. Alex checks for fans, then strolls up to catch the end of the conversation, not that there's much to hear.

"Yeah," Sasha says, in the mumbly voice he always uses for people he doesn't necessarily like but has to be polite to until a better alternative presents itself, which includes but isn't limited to beat reporters, PR event staff, and the overly intense bartender at Russia House who's always pestering them to try some of the weirder homemade vodka infusions. "Yeah. Okay. Nothing. Yeah. No, three times. Okay. Yeah." He glances over and sees Alex. "Sorry. I need to go."

He hangs up without saying goodbye.

"What’s up?" Alex asks.

"Nothing," Sasha says. "Let's go to lunch."

Alex lets Sasha pick because he wants Sasha in a good mood; he's been meaning to broach something for a while now, and he's going to have to find the right window. He doesn't want to do it on a game day, because that seems like it's asking for trouble, but it's getting to the point where he might have to.

"Who was on the phone?" he asks idly, after Dima has been safely delivered back to his apartment for the day, loaded down with pasta and trashy American magazines, which Alex has assured him are the best ways to practice learning English. Even if he doesn't have the ability to do an interview without Sergey at his side for a while, at least he'll know Crotch Crisis: 5 Scary Things Gynos Tell You and Why You Shouldn’t Wig Out, which is useful advice for anyone.

"Mm," Sasha says. "Staal calls sometimes."

"What? Oh no, you don't, asshole," Alex says, and then stomps on the gas as soon as the light turns green because he's pretty sure the Honda Accord next to him is going to try to ride up the right turn only lane to the next light and then cut over in front of him at the last second, and fuck if he's going to let that happen. "Why? You talk?"

"He asks how things are," Sasha says. "Makes sure I haven't gone on a murderous rampage or something, I guess. Maybe he still feels responsible for it."

"He is responsible for it," Alex says, and glances triumphantly at the Honda Accord driver who's sulkily eased back in behind Alex. "Fuckhead," Alex adds, for both the driver and Staal.

"I know, right. I should ask him for help so I can lure him out here and then eat him," Sasha says casually, but Sasha does a lot of things casually, from scoring wrong-footed on wrist shots at impossible angles to turning into a gigantic wolf capable of biting through a moose femur like a drinking straw, so. Alex tries to keep a gauge on the degree.

He's not going to get a better opening than that for what he wants to bring up, though, so he goes with it.

"I was thinking," Alex says. "How's your hip doing? Are we still on for tomorrow?"

Sasha gives him a quick look; he must sense something's up. "Sore, a little," he says. "And yeah."

"Okay," Alex says, and he's about to make his pitch when Sasha's phone goes off.  Sasha glances at it, and then frowns.

"It's Gandler, I should take this," he says, and answers. "Hello?

Alex isn't about to get between someone and their agent, so he shuts up the rest of the drive and drops Sasha off, who's still on the phone. He climbs out of the car and covers his phone briefly to say, "I don't need a ride tonight, I'll see you down there," before waving and trudging off towards the house. Through the window of the house next door, Betty waves; Alex waves back.

So he has a relatively unencumbered afternoon to nap and then take off for Verizon around four. Traffic is weirdly light for a DC evening and he gets in around twenty minutes earlier than he expected. John Carlson's just beat him into the locker room, sitting in front of his stall in his suit jacket still. He has his iPad propped on his knees and is intently two-finger pecking at it.

"Hey Ovi," he says, without looking up.

"You and Alzy still fight about Tim Hortons versus Dunkin?" Alex asks, wandering over.

That had started weeks ago—an argument that had actually originated on twitter and then somehow jumped to an email that was copied to everyone on the team, and Eric Belanger too, who occasionally replies to alternately threaten or plead for them to remove him from the goddamn cc list already. It went back and forth furiously in one or two line replies that mostly consisted of profanity, sometimes dormant for over a week, and sometimes pinging back and forth wildly on the average of every couple minutes for hours on end. Alex has a special email folder reserved just for it, and he sometimes reads the running thread of their replies at night to help put himself to sleep. It's like watching a tennis match that's always on the verge of turning into a slap fight.

When the season started, it had made its move into the locker room and quickly escalated into petty warfare. There were the usual things to start with: Icy-Hot in a jockstrap (Carlson), sticks sawn almost all the way through, (Alzner), iPod sabotage (Carlson, backfiring because he used weird French hiphop obtained from Matty Perreault, and Alzner just blasted it on the locker room sound system to annoy everyone), and equipment bag sabotage (Alzner, and also Matty again, whom Alzner somehow convinced to cram himself into Carlson's bag and pop out at the right moment). It died down a little in the beginning of November, when everything had started getting terrible and there was no real time to be focusing on pranks, but had recently had three fairly major reprisals in the forms of a car filled entirely with popcorn (Alzner, with an assist from Wideman), everything in Alzner's locker stall getting superglued down (hard not to know it was Carlson when he ended up accidentally gluing three of his own fingers together as well, and briefly gave the Caps medical staff fits), and culminating with a streaking episode down a Marriott hallway involving the both of them that had ended when Coach Hunter had come out of his hotel room at exactly the wrong (or right, depending on how you looked at it) moment.

Both Alzner and Carlson got a closed door meeting with Hunter and McPhee after that, and currently, the fight is back to being mostly online. They generally restrict it to endless rounds of retaliatory emailed unflattering pictures—Alzner has apparently been taking and stockpiling pictures of Carlson when he's been asleep on either the charter plane or in hotel rooms, usually with his mouth open and drooling, and almost always with something weird placed on him or nearby: a handful of nickels on his face, two bagels on his chest, a sockmonkey on his crotch, a copy of 50 Shades of Grey—and covert, spiteful Wikipedia editing.

"Yup," Carly says, without looking up from his iPad.

Alex leans over his shoulder to see him industriously changing Karl Alzner (born September 24, 1988) is a Canadian professional ice hockey defenceman, currently playing for the Washington Capitals to Karl Alzner (born September 24, 1988) is a Canadian professional ice hockey defenseman, currently playing for the Washington Capitals who picks his own nose and eats it when no one is watching.

"Really?" Alex asks.

"Nah," Carly says. "But after that interview where he said that thing about sticking his tongue in his nose, I figured it sounded good."

"I can do that too, watch," Alex says, and does it.

"You guys are freaks," Carly says, delighted, and promptly opens up Alex's Wikipedia page on his iPad and starts trying to change it as well.

The rest of the team filters in, and they all go through their pre-game routines. Alex keeps an eye on Sasha during the soccer, and he seems fine, not favoring anything, nor giving any kind of mood awareness about whatever progress Gandler has or hasn't made with McPhee on figuring out his next contract. And then they're out on the ice for warmups, and the Flyers are on the other end, and the puck drops; Nicky cheats his faceoff, and they're off.

It's a grind. The game with the Flyers goes scoreless through the first and into the second. Brouwer mis-times a hit and gets called for boarding Schenn; Brooks get hit in the face with a stick again, by Briere this time, and it opens up a gash on the bridge of his nose. Alex rings pipe twice which is really fucking annoying, and worse when Talbot (who has a special place of honor in Alex's shit-o-meter measurement standard, ever since that radio interview back in 2010; Alex doesn't necessarily mind someone calling him a douche but coming from Max Talbot, who is a grand douche supreme, possibly the Holy Roman Emperor of Douche, it seems hypocritical) picks off Alex's pass and takes off down the ice for a breakaway. He nearly slips the puck past Neuvy, but Neuvy comes out of the net in a surprisingly aggressive move and somehow manages to get his stick out and pokecheck it away. So Alex won't be killed by Hunter just yet, but something's going to have to happen soon—a goal or a fight, and one probably resulting from the other.

And then it does. Hendy is a big freak who actually keeps a black book and reviews team rosters before games and writes down lists of potential insults for chirping use during the game, both general and personalized. Alex likes keeping abreast of these, because sometimes Hendy will practice them with him and it's always worth hearing. Hendy usually refuses more often than not, claiming that the best ones have to spontaneously come from a natural state of game play to truly work. According to him, it's a delicate blend of psychology and extreme violence.

Hendy's been quiet, but near the end of the second period, Alex has the perfect seat on the bench for when Hendy casually skates up to Hartnell and tells him he has to stop going down on his sister when she's on the rag because he's got red shit all over his chin again, and it's not even that great of a chirp, but Hartnell, who probably would have laughed it off or just chirped back four times out of five, goes apeshit and swings at him.

It must be the tension of the game itself, because it's a fairly active and distinct line fight that erupts, rather than the usual kind of half-assed scrum where everyone just mills around angrily in a cluster: Giroux goes for at Schultz; Wideman grabs Carle; and Hartnell and Hendricks are at the center of it, locked up together and swaying like a drunk couple on the dance floor.

Poor Matty Perreault loses the fight partner match-up terribly, and gets bodily dragged around the ice like a goddamn zamboni by Bourdon. By the time Mike Knuble (who had been engaged in a relatively staid shoving match with Jagr, both of them wearing identically disgruntled I'm too old for this shit expressions) rescues him, he's lost his helmet, is dusted all over with ice, and looks distinctly ruffled and the worse for wear. Jeff Schultz looks completely horrified to actually find himself in a fight, but he's holding his own against Giroux basically by just keeping him at fully-extended arm's length; Giroux is raging but not actually connecting on his hits, thanks to Schultzy's freakishly long arms. Wideman and Carle managed to trip each other in a very special display of grace and coordination, and are down on the ice wrestling to stand back up again; Wideman is nominally on top, but Carle's pinning down one of Wideman's legs, so every time Wideman tries to yank it out, he basically humps Carle's hip, and Carle throws his elbow back into Wideman's side, and it's a disturbing cycle of punch-hump-swear-elbow-punch-hump-swear-squirm, like bad porn.

After a minute or so, Hendy and Hartnell are the only real fight still going at it in the middle of the ice. Alex leans over the boards with the rest of the team, banging his stick and howling encouragement at him. This one is going to merit five stars on the team's whiteboard. The referees and linesmen gradually break it all up—one of the linesmen actually trips over Wideman and Carle and lands on top of them by mistake; Alex wonders if the clip will inevitably be on SportsCenter's blooper reel tonight, which is nice because at least some hockey will be on ESPN for once—and eventually they even manage to finally stop Hendy and Hartnell by making a three-man-deep wedge between them.

"That kind of night," Coach Hunter says from where he's standing behind Alex, arms folded over his chest. Alex looks up to see if this is something he's required to reply to, but Hunter doesn't seem like he was addressing it to anyone in particular. He's just standing there, chewing his gum and watching them sort out the penalties on ice with a mildly interested look of professional assessment. Or possibly contemplating the deeper mysteries of Hartnell's hair and what it could potentially be hiding—a dozen pucks, at the very least.

Alex actually suspects that Hunter is privately critiquing all the fighting on display, and more likely than not, finding it inferior to his own standards; Alex has the impression Hunter's idea of a fight is that anything and everything goes, including using the stick like there's a knife fight going on. He's seen the clips of Hunter, years ago with dark hair and less wrinkles, and unabashedly gooning shit up to an amazing degree.

Alex respects that. There may be a lot of other shit he doesn't like, including how he's apparently viewed as too fucking defensively incompetent to be out on the ice when they're sitting on a one goal lead, but even if Hunter hadn’t been able to score goals and collect teeth simultaneously, he's been where Alex hasn't. Someday, Alex is going to get to get past the second fucking round of the playoffs, and if Hunter can make that happen, Alex is willing to do goddamn near anything.

The teams eventually settle, while the referees sort out who's going in the box and who's staying. Brooks is still bleeding, Hunter is glaring, and Jason Chimera is leaning over the boards and yelling shit at any Flyer who skates by, most of whom yell right back. They don't have a ton in common, but Alex likes Chimmer, despite the whole injury thing from when he was with the Blue Jackets. Chimmer is fun. Chimmer can grow facial hair like an angry goat, he swears creatively, and he has absolutely no tact or filter. Alex finds this both endearing and occasionally hilarious, especially when Chimmer is leaning over the boards and howling at Briere to ask his mother how much she liked him waving his stick around in her face last night.

All set, and Alex goes over the boards for his shift; time to see which way the momentum is going to swing. Jojo dumps the puck deep and Alex chases it; he crosses the blue line flying and circles behind Sasha, who's skating just the next thing to interference on Grossmann. Ilya goes behind the net to play the puck and hand it off to the other d-man; both of the defense have their backs turned, and Alex is going in, starts to accelerate. The right Flyer defenseman has his head down. He's swinging behind the net, and here comes Alex; he's tensing to make the hit, when Grossmann catches wind of what's going on and yells, "Reverse, reverse!"

The right d-man backhands the puck safely away to Grossmann, and tries to pivot but Alex is already on top of him, catches him in the left shoulder, and sends him spinning. Grossmann almost manages to clear to the blue line but Jojo tips it on the way, and Alzner keeps it in, tosses to Carlson, who winds up and shoots, though Ilya makes the save easily. Grossmann gives Alex a light slash with his stick when he swings by, the usual hey watch it buddy warning tap which isn't weird, but Sasha comes up behind Alex towards the faceoff circle in order to give Grossmann a harder than necessary shoulder jostle back, which is.

"The fuck?" Grossmann says, raising his hands up, and Sasha glares. Alex waves him off, and the refs are coming over, so no one wants to get into it again so soon, but Alex turns around to face Sasha as they line up.

"What the hell?" Alex asks Sasha, who just—growls, there's no other description. "Don't go crazy," he says. "They're gonna call it tight now."

"Fuck him," Sasha says under his breath, and gets into position, still glaring. It's weird, and not like Sasha; Alex is usually the one running over people on Sasha's behalf. And it kind of fits with the theory Alex's been mulling over and trying to broach, which means he's going to have to talk to Sasha tonight whether he wants to, or not.

They lose in a shootout, which is always kind of a pisser. In the locker room, Alex answers questions for Tarik while feeling Sasha's eyes on them which turns the weirdness up to eleven; Sasha should be long gone from the locker room by now, adroitly fleeing all the press. But no, he waits until the very end, when Alex and Nicky (who's been watching from the press box because fuck Rene Borque with a rusty spike, and came in to make his weekly I'm-not-dead-just-still-concussed appearance and quotes) are the last ones set free, and then stalks alongside them to the garage, still scowling at random things. Alex notices, and notices Nicky noticing as well, though Nicky keeps his thoughts to himself on the matter.

"Come to my place," Alex says to Sasha, after Nicky has said goodbye and gone off to be inscrutably Swedish by himself. "I want to try something."

Sasha raises his eyebrows, but makes a not-disagreeing, "Hnnm," noise, and Alex peels off to I-66. He beats Sasha to the house by eight minutes, and has time to yank his suit off in the bedroom, grab an extra pair of sweats and a shirt, and be back in the foyer to meet Sasha coming through the door.

"Change into these, we're going out," he tells Sasha.

Sasha frowns. "Dressed like that?"

"We're going to the dog park," Alex says. "It's not far."

"They're closed," Sasha says, suspicious.

"You need to do your thing outside," Alex says, not willing to beat around the bush. "You said before, on the first night, it wants to run. You want to run. You're not—you're still taking dumbass penalties, and you looked like you were going to bite Grossmann's throat out tonight. Just try," he says, as Sasha gets a mulish look on his face. "If it's no different, big deal, we come back and watch a movie. If someone sees us, you just stay like you are; I'll just pretend I brought you out there at night. There's trees and a stream. Rabbits. Stuff."

He expected more of an argument, but he's right, and it must've been bad, because Sasha just stares at him, and then abruptly grabs the clothes out of Alex's hands and says, "Okay."

So, after a brief argument over whether to wolf out at the house and let Alex drive them there, or to drive over and do it then, Alex sits on the hood of his car in the darkest corner of the park's parking lot, and watches Sasha first slink out, and then lope across a field still dotted here and there with patches of leftover snow. He covers so much ground that it's only a few strides before he disappears into the dark lacework of the trees at the edge, and Alex is left to play with his phone and hope his theory actually pans out.

A couple hours, his phone battery is down to nine percent, he's retreated into his car so he can run the heater, and still no Sasha. Alex is just beginning to wonder if how he can explain to Coach Hunter that he lost Sasha in the wild uncharted depths of an Arlington dog park, and how badly Hunter will kill him for it, when something erupts from the tree-line, a pale explosion hurtling across the grass, and Sasha finally comes running.

He makes a beeline to the car and doesn't stop—"Jesus fucking Christ!" Alex yells –and Sasha launches himself over the car, almost clearing it entirely but for the scratch and scrabble of claws against the roof, and the thud when he lands on the other side. He barks, dashes about in a tight circle, tail waving frantically, and then takes off again towards the field. Alex opens the door and leans out to watch. "Are you coming back?"

Sasha just runs a few steps away, barks, and waits. His bark is harsher, sharper than a dog's. Alex stares at him. Sasha dances around in a quick figure eight, came back and stares back at Alex just as urgently, tongue lolling out.

"Did you actually catch a rabbit?" Alex asks. "Do you have to show it to me or something? Good job if you did. It's seriously cold out, can you get in the car?"

Sasha growls, dashes up to Alex and butts against him, trying to shove him towards the field. Alex grabs at him, but Sasha darts away, comes back, and gets a mouthful of Alex's coat, yanking.

"No, what the hell, come on, come back," Alex says, following so it won't rip. Sasha lets go, tips back his head and gives a short howl. "Oh my God, fucking stop, you’re going to get us arrested, and Bettman's going to be such a prick about it at the next media tour—"

Sasha flops down and sprawls flat on the grass with his legs going every which way, like he just can't bear the crushing weight of Alex's idiocy and his own sheer annoyance. Alex glares. "What the fuck, I don't fucking speak wolf so just switch back and tell me if it's that important!"

Sasha shudders, jerks, and is suddenly human again; without missing a beat or even standing up completely, he launches from all fours at Alex's waist and brings him down to the grass in a tackle. Alex has just enough time to think, Oh, when Sasha is mouthing at his shoulder, licking his neck, and has his thighs splayed out over Alex's hips, his hands holding down Alex's shoulders. Alex grabs his ass out of instinct and holds on for the ride.

Alex knows and has experienced enough about adrenaline and endorphins for when to recognize when someone's currently rocking the fuck out on a tidal wave of them. Sasha after one of the movie night transformations was tactile and dreamily pleased by any physical contact, riding a high like after a good workout, which made for excellent sessions of sex. This is more like the high after winning a game in overtime in the playoffs, something wilder, less predictable. Sasha isn't wearing a stitch and he doesn't even seem to feel the cold. They roll back and forth across the grass a few times, first one of them on top and then the other, though Alex is more aware than he'd like of who exactly is in control, and that the noises he's making under Sasha's hands and mouth are probably going to undermine his authority as team captain someday.

This isn't actually the first time Alex has had sex outdoors, and so he knows that despite all the hype, there's really very little to recommend about it that isn't just as enjoyable or even better in a bed with sheets, as well as thermostat-controlled temperatures, and curtains and walls to keep any random passerby from strolling along and catching a glimpse of Alex's ass (which is for their own good, as its magnificence is as blinding as the sun, and he knows it; even Sasha grudgingly admits it's very nice.) The field where they are has very little cover and they're not at all being discreet. Alex thinks vaguely he should be more worried about someone coming out to investigate, as well as parts of him potentially freezing and falling off, but hell. It would at least make for a more interesting crime than just loitering in a dog park.

Anyway, once enough clothes get shoved aside or just plain ripped, there's a lot of broken pieces of words on Alex's part, in the vein of, "Yeah, c'mon, c'mon, okay, more, Sasha, more," and a lot of aggressive growling and licking on Sasha's part, and no one makes any real communication for a couple of minutes. In fact, the only reason they don't eventually succumb to either frostbite or public indecency arrest turns out to be Dima, who calls Alex's cell phone in the second best timing of his life just when Sasha's almost conquered Alex's belt (the clasp is giving him trouble; he doesn’t seem to remember yet he has thumbs, and he spent at least a minute attacking it with his teeth) to say he drank too much Coke, and now he can't fall asleep, and will the team trainers be able to tell if he takes one of the sleeping pills they gave him from the last West Coast swing, and if so will they yell at him.

"What? The white ones? No," Alex tells him, gritting his teeth and shoving at Sasha, who doesn't want to go. "Hang on, Dima, just one—"

Alex covers the phone with one hand. "Get off me, get in the car," he hisses at Sasha, and rolls away from him. Sasha fucking snarls at him, and Alex smacks him hard on the shoulder. "Dima, take one pill, drink some milk, and I'll call you right back," Alex promises, and hangs up. "Up, up," he says to Sasha, and yanks him up by the arm; he only manages to get Sasha moving in the right direction by wrapping one arm around his waist and actually grabbing his dick with the other hand, steering him thusly, with Sasha making very interesting noises the whole way. Somehow they stumble back to the car, Alex just barely managing to keep his wits about him enough to look for and avoid any broken glass or whatever on the pavement as he tows Sasha over.

It’s a bit touch-and-go when Alex has to free up a hand to get the car door open, but he eventually shoves Sasha into the passenger seat with the experience that comes from a career that involves dealing with physically uncooperative people a lot, even if he's usually dropping them to the ice instead. He shrugs out of his coat, drops it over Sasha's lap, and belts Sasha in because he doesn't trust Sasha not to jump him in the driver's seat during the drive home; then, he climbs into the driver's seat, adjusts himself with some discomfort, and makes the fastest drive home ever. Somewhere along the way, Sasha gets his words back, because he starts complaining about why Alex can't drive even faster.

"Well," Alex says about two hours later in the middle of some truly ruined sheets and every single muscle in his body feeling enjoyably sore and fucked out, "the important thing was that I was right and you should always listen to me about this shit."

Sasha makes a mumbling sound that's not too much like the growling earlier, but enough to make Alex's dick twitch a little in reflexive interest. "You never called Dima back," Sasha mutters.

"He'll be fine, he's too scared to take more than one pill," Alex says. Sasha shifts, like he's about to get up from the bed, and Alex reaches out to grab his arm. "No, stay, it's too late to drive back."

Sasha gives him a wary look that Alex can't completely read, though he could guess. No matter how close of friends, no matter what they've already done, there are still lines, and Alex imagines they crashed right over a couple of them tonight. He's always gone home before, after all of Sasha's change nights.

Everything in the NHL is riddled with unwritten rules of varying severity and specificity; they're ironclad and yet they have exceptions, and the exceptions have exceptions; sometimes they contradict each other completely. They're known, but no one's supposed to talk about them. Sometimes it seems so pointless to Alex, having all these rules. Rules in general have a purpose, even he can agree with that. But it seems so strange to get in the way of one's own ability to do anything, let alone be happy or productive.  Necessary for something, he supposes; they are what they are.

"You can sleep wherever you want," he says, trying to walk it back a little.

Sasha just shrugs, and collapses back into the bed. "I'm too tired to move," he says, then lies still for a few minutes, and Alex is just beginning to drift off when Sasha speaks up again. "It did feel better, being outside. Running."

"Okay," Alex says. "So we can do it again. You're fixed. Stop trying to kill people during games, and everything's good."

His yawn swallows the last of the words, and if Sasha says anything in reply, Alex falls asleep before he hears it.

The next morning there's no practice, but he gets up early and reciprocates for the night before the only way he knows how without involving more sex or saucer passes: by making a proper breakfast, with the black bread he hoards in his freezer, fried eggs, ham, tvorog, properly brewed tea, and everything else. Alex is only a shade less than terrible when it comes to cooking, but even he has a hard time ruining the relative simplicity of breakfast. Sasha eventually lurches his way into the kitchen, wearing nothing but a pair of Alex's sweatpants and an expression of bleary, hopeful pleasure, and Alex gives him the biggest sandwich and the eggs he managed not to burn.

"This is nice," Sasha says with a mouth full of egg.

"Yeah," Alex says, "it is."

Because it kind of is.

***

It's working.

Sasha starts to plateau with his penalty minutes, which is good, and the team as a whole starts winning in longer streaks and looking like the playoffs are an actual possibility, which is better. Finding local places for a large and not-inconspicuous wolf to run around for a couple hours without being seen is not without its challenges, but Alex is up for it.

"Maybe after the games, we can just go on the metro and I can use the key to the city to get into the zoo," he suggests. "They have a wolf exhibit there, right? You can make new friends."

Sasha is not terribly amused.

Most of the parks close after dark, though that's not the biggest hurdle. It's more than Alex worries about getting caught fucking around in a national park after dark will somehow land him with a federal crime charge of some kind, and he'll never hear the end of it from the talking heads. Golf courses and athletic fields don’t have enough cover; for the time being, they rotate between the two dog parks that have enough land to them that Sasha can do whatever it is he does under cover of darkness, and Alex can either skulk in the parking lot or drive a short distance away and walk back.

Alex's life is a series of routines, and he has them all mostly timed down to the exact minute, based on what he needs. He has five different morning routines based on how much he wants to sleep in; these are in turn changed up based on if he's home or on the road, has a game, has practice, has a PR event, or what.  Routines are different from rules, because he can change them as he sees fit, unlike some superstitious fuckers who, by the dint of their birthplace, have managed to make the media think organizing their life around a number and wearing the same jock for years is somehow charmingly delightful and not at all weird.

And now, with Sasha and his furry little problem dropped in his routine like a stone into a river, Alex re-arranges accordingly. It's beginning to feel natural, and it doesn't occur to Alex until after the fourth or fifth time he's buying extra dinners to go and stocking up on the horrible purple Gatorade Sasha prefers so he can have it ready in the car, that he hasn't even asked if Sasha ever sneaks out on his own. He probably could, the potential of being arrested naked in a park notwithstanding. The car keys might be an issue. He doesn't bring it up; he doesn't want Sasha to think he's gotten tired of going, or give him any excuse to tell Alex not come along.

Because truth be told, Alex doesn't hate the change in routine; it's the opposite, even. Up until now, he's done things the same way, and now everyone apparently hates that. His hits are dirty; when he shoots the puck he's selfish, and when he passes he has no hockey sense. Milbury had a ten minute rant (and what Alex suspects was a prolonged orgasm beneath his desk) going over how predictable his moves have become, how fast he's gone downhill, how his leadership is a crumbling tower of shit and enigmatic Russian cockjockery.

The suspension and the All Star Game are the last straws. Fuck them for their inconsistent bullshit, basically carting him out into the middle of the of the town square to be burned at the stake for boarding Michalek, and then expecting him to attend the All Star Game anyway, to smile and shake hands and eat all the shit they hand him. Fuck Michalek for getting pissed and going off to ram his elbow into Hendy's head in the same game, and getting nothing. And it's not even the suspension that makes him want to howl like Sasha; Alex made the hit, and he'll take his punishment for it, even if they won't always enforce on someone who has a different jersey. It's that they're never going to stop, or let him out of the stupid fucking adversary role they wanted him in from the very beginning: the other, the show-off Russian, the dirty trespasser on their game who has the nerve to think he's better than he is.

It's pointless to fight it and he's not going to win, so why bother, why even try?

Alex doesn't. He sits in the press box to watch his team play without him, badly startles half the press in the box with him with his yell when Mathieu Perrault finishes his hatty, then sprints down to the locker room as soon as it ends so he can smash another shaving-cream pie in Matty's face. He goes to the beach in Florida instead of the All Star Game in Ottawa; afterwards, he presses his fingers against his tan so he can watch the pale spots appear and then fade, to remind him what he did and why. He plays hockey again when he's allowed to, feeling Nicky's absence on his line like a missing limb; he sits on the bench in the last minutes of a game and yells instead of actually being on the ice.

He drives Sasha to the dog park at night, waits in the car like a really shitty drug dealer whose only goods are high protein snacks, has mind-blowing and increasingly athletic sex with Sasha in a variety of places—thank God for his car's tinted windows—and then staggers home with a mortifying sex limp, scratches all down his back, and bruises in weird places that he rediscovers at odd times, like behind his knee during video review. It results in a lot of ill-timed boners. And Alex is pretty sure Sasha is undergoing some kind of stealthy scent marking campaign, because Sasha's accidentally ripped, like, nine of Alex's t-shirts in the process, and then sent him home wearing one of his own instead. Or he steals Alex's, and then Alex never sees them again unless they’re on Sasha. It's probably better than him pissing on anything in the locker room, so Alex rolls with it.

Sasha is calmer during games, but whenever he changes back, there's a definite period where Alex sees… not less Sasha, exactly, but more of the wolf overlaying Sasha. It's a little like Coach Hunter, actually. Hunter's more coach than player now, but every now and then, Alex sees the player overtake the coach, in his facial expressions and stance: usually when the ref is calling something that Hunter doesn't agree with, or Hendy's out punching someone on the ice.

"What does it feel like?" he asks Sasha, driving back one night. "Like, I know you understand people talking to you and all, but is it—" Alex wave his hand vaguely "—I dunno, different? Are you at one with the forest?"

Sasha's been staring out the window. He licks his lips and frowns.

"It's me," he says. "And yeah, I still understand people, but it's also different from human thinking… like I told you before, I can hear more, smell more. But it's not thinking, it's more feeling. Things feel, like, less..." Sasha gropes for the word, scratching at his temple like he can physically dig it out. "Less complex. Like, intense but you can only focus on one thing."

"That's very helpful," Alex says.

"No, but then when I change back, it's better, you know?" Sasha says. "It just gives me better feelings. I can get away."

"So what do you think about?" Alex asks. "Uh. Feel about."

Sasha shrugs. "Stuff."

"No, seriously, do you manage to catch animals, things?" Alex asks another night, when Sasha's less hungry than thirsty; he polishes off three bottles of Gatorade in ten minutes, and casually drops that the squirrel he ate is giving him heartburn.

"Rabbits are easy. I like rabbits. Squirrels are harder," Sasha says.  "I ate a groundhog, but I didn't like how it tasted."

"Ew," Alex says.

"So I was online," Alex says two weeks after that, and ignores the alarmed look Sasha shoots him; you find and forward a website that's all about how to create the perfect dick pic once, and no one ever trusts you again. "And I was reading."

"It must have been very hard for you," Sasha says, and Alex reaches out and efficiently clips him on the ear without taking his eyes off the road.

"I was reading about werewolves," Alex says, and Sasha tenses up again.

Actually, the progression of events had been Alex googling what do werewolf eat, losing two solid hours to browsing in fascinated horror on the wide world of werewolf erotica, including ebooks, full body costumes, and a website that makes dildos shaped like animal dicks, both real and mythological. Alex may or may not have bought the chimera one, and has it stashed away for the next time Chimmer hits a significant milestone.

"Oh?" Sasha says in a colorless voice.

"There's lots out there," Alex says.

"A lot of it's bullshit," Sasha says. "I asked Staal about some of it. Some stuff, it's different anyway because there are, like, differences with werewolves in countries. It's not the same in Canada it is in America, or even other parts of Canada. Like, he bitched forever about how the loup-garou are weirdos. And some of it is fake stuff they put out on purpose to keep people from figuring it werewolves are real, and trying to dissect them in a secret government lab or whatever."

"Oh my God, so there's werewolf culture," Alex marvels, temporarily diverted. "Do they fight with vampires? Please tell me there are vampires and they fight them."

"I dunno, maybe," Sasha says. "I zoned out during the French Canadian thing."

"Anyway, some of the websites," Alex says, getting back on track. "Some of them, they say there are ways to be cured."

"Also bullshit," Sasha says. "I told you that already."

"Staal said so," Alex argues. "What if he's wrong? Or lying?"

"Then he probably would have done it and not be a werewolf anymore, don't you think?" Sasha snaps.

"Maybe," Alex says. "But, you know, some of the stuff, maybe it works, you know? Maybe enough people say it because there's truth to it."

"I'm not letting you hit me on the head with a knife, and I'm not eating poisonous flowers," Sasha says. "Forget about it."

"Don't you want to be cured?" Alex asks. "Maybe just try, like we did with running—"

"I'm fine," Sasha says. "Leave it the fuck alone."

And then he clams up, spends the rest of the drive scowling out the windshield, and no one ends up getting off that night. Alex goes back to the fantasy dildo site and buys three different werewolf models (Big Bad, Little Red, and The Jack London) and puts them away for later use in either annoying Sasha or contributing to the Alzner-Carlson prank war.

Spring makes several false starts in DC: a hesitating one step forward and two steps back, a week of eighty degree weather that teases buds on the cherry trees, a backslide into icy sleet storms like an alcoholic falling off the wagon, and then a mass eruption of pollen that leaves every car coated in sticky yellow and Nicky muttering morosely under his breath about his allergies.

But Nicky is back, and Alex would sing for joy about it, despite his dwindling ice time. They clinch their playoff spot on the second to last game of the season against the Panthers, and it feels good; everyone's happy for a few days, and then it's off to Boston for games one and two against the defending Cup Champions. There's no way to change there, even though Alex suggests the hotel room.

("They have a no pet policy," Sasha says.

"You have the weirdest hangups," Alex tells him.)

He's expecting the usual night trip, but Sasha's shaking his head almost before they're even off the plane and home for game three. "I can't do the usual change. I've got, there's something with my wrist and I don't want to risk it, maybe making it worse."

"Are you sure?" Alex asks. If there's any series where Sasha might need the factor of the change to help him keep off the aggression, it's one where they have Brad fucking Marchand and his particular brand of ass-clownery.

"Yeah," Sasha says without his typical lie-hesitation. "Hey. You know something?"

"What?" Alex asks.

Sasha looks at him solemnly. "I think we're going to win."

And they do. Against last year's Cup champs. On game seven, in overtime, on Boston's ice, and Alex screams, the team screams, Wardo would scream but he's buried under all of them and everyone's trying to hug him and it's amazing, it's great, it's so fucking great. Even Hunter cracks a smile.

So of course, just like the beginning of the season, it all goes wrong after seven games.

***

"We'll get in trouble," Sasha says.

"No, I talked to Brooks about it, he's been hiking there," Alex says. "The park rangers go through, but it's easy to stay out of their way. If we go to the Maryland side, you don't even need to go in by the main gates; we can sort of park in a different area and then hike in, and as long as we don't make a lot of noise or start fires or whatever, we probably won't run into them."

Sasha hasn't been a wolf for the entire playoffs—what started with trying to keep his wrist from any undue stress had turned into superstition once they'd won the first round. It felt like it had been working, and Alex has done weirder things when he's been on a scoring streak. But now Sasha looks terrible, face all drawn and sunken, shadows under his eyes. Alex doubts he looks much better himself.

And in the end, much later what he looks back on it, it's all Alex's fault. Because once the New York series was over, once they were eliminated, once there was only a single day left before breakdown and their flight to Worlds, he's the one who'd said, "Fuck it, let's try somewhere new."

Sasha still looks vaguely skeptical. "The dog park is fine."

"You were bitching about it last time," Alex reminds him. "You said all you could smell were yappy little purse dogs and it annoyed it. You said you could barely find any part that smelled like real animals."

"How big is it?" Sasha asks.

"Over eight hundred acres," Alex says, and then plays his trump card. "Rabbits, Sasha. So many rabbits."

Sasha's smile is bruised and slow to form, but real. "Okay. Why not. Let's get in trouble."

Great Falls is a longer drive. Alex follows the directions across the bridge, parks in the lot he found out online; it’s near a restaurant and a trail that the kayakers use, so there's less chance of getting noticed. When the sun starts to set, they both walk down the path to an area that gradually thickens into real woods. It's beautiful, and if Alex is telling the truth, a little creepy as well.

"You gonna go?" Alex asks.

"You're just staying here?" Sasha asks. "Not in the car?"

"No, I'll walk back," Alex says. "Besides, we can't stay too late anyway. Just go for a little run, then we'll go home, get Five Guys for dinner."

"What about my clothes?" Sasha asks.

"Take an hour," Alex says. "I'll hold them. Go run. Catch me a rabbit. Or a bear."

Sasha mutters something under his breath, but he pulls his shirt off, kicks off his flip-flops, and skins out of his pants. No underwear again, Alex notes. Apparently it chafes right after changing back. Alex gathers up all up and wads it under his arm, watching because he never quite gets used to it. The leaves rustle and Sasha now blinks up at him silently, before padding away, nose close to the ground and busily sniffing. All of a sudden, his ears prick up, he freezes, and then goes bounding off into the forest.

"'Why thank you, Alex, for finding me this nice place to run around and piss on and kill rodents in. Oh, no problem, Sasha, you know I only live to serve your every wish'," Alex says under his breath, and then kicks at the dead leaves on the ground. He starts the walk back to the car. It's a pleasant May evening, mild enough that he's comfortable in just his t-shirt.

An hour later, the walk back looks much less inviting. The park trail breathes before him like some vast dark mouth; there are dozens of subtly unnerving and unidentifiable noises layered over the night, and his flashlight's beam is just a single slice of light which barely illuminates a couple feet in front of him.

There are no bears in this park. Alex checked google.

The leaves crunch under his feet, and Alex hopes there are no park rangers either, because he sounds loud enough to alert anyone without a mile radius. He's concentrating so hard on where he steps, and wishing he'd just done the regular park instead when there's an even louder crashing noise to his left, and before he can do much more than turn stupidly in its direction, a dark blurry mass rushes towards him. Alex catches a glimpse of brown fur, antlers, and then a large paler animal comes barreling out behind it, springing through the air with a snarl and colliding, bringing it down.

The deer is thrashing and making a terrible high pitched noise, but the wolf has it by the throat and there's a wet, ripping noise. The deer's legs kick convulsively and then still, and the wolf begins to feed.

It all takes place in under twenty seconds. Alex stands there, heart hammering against his ribs and completely frozen on what to do. He hears more than sees; the flashlight barely catches the whole scene, but it's loud in the sudden silence of the rest of the night. He can't think. He can't move.

The wet sounds stop. And when Alex raises the light, two gleaming eyes stare back at him.

"Sasha," he says, because he can't think of anything else. "Sasha."

The wolf is coming towards him.

"Sasha, it's me."

The wolf is growling, a low rumble.

"Sasha, please."

Fighting every instinct in his body screaming to turn his back and run, Alex crouches down, arms stretched out and hands held out in front of him. "Sasha, come on. Sasha, listen. Come back. Come back, Sasha."

The wolf mirrors his crouch, haunches tensing, and Alex has just enough time to think he maybe has one chance if he can hit the wolf hard enough with the flashlight, stun it maybe, when he's going down, he's pinned to the ground under a great weight with hot breath mouthing at his face and neck. He can't breathe. It crushes his chest. He can't breathe. The growl fills his ears, fills his head—

And then the weight lessens and Alex rolls away as much as he can, still pinned down but free enough to suck in air.

"I want—I want—" Sasha pants and gasps on top of him. It's almost like the first time at the dog park, but neither of them are fumbling for the fastenings of their pants. Thank God, because if Sasha really wanted to fuck him, to tear and rut and bite indiscriminately, Alex doesn't think he could stop him. Sasha's breathing is ragged, like it hurts to fill his lungs, and Alex can hear his heart pounding, pressed against his own chest. "Fuck... hurts so bad."

"Sasha, you can make it stop," Alex says. "Come on. You're all right." Alex relaxes his body as much as he can, feeling every sensation in his scraped over nerves. There's a rock in the small of his back.

On top of him, Sasha's breathing is shaky. "Did I hurt you?"

"No," Alex says. "I'm okay," he says, because there's really not any alternative at the moment, so he has to be; he is.

"Don't," Sasha's voice cracks and breaks. "Don't, don't lie. I can tell."

"Sasha, no, Sasha, c'mon," Alex says, but Sasha jerks away from him, scrambling backwards.

"I could have hurt you," Sasha whispers, horrorstruck, and Alex doesn't know how to make this better for him. For either of them. How did this go wrong so quickly? "I hurt you, I didn't ask, I, I didn't, you didn't stop me, I couldn't think, I could have, and I hurt you—"

His eyes are flicking back and forth, and so wide that Alex can see the whites all around. He knows instinctively that if he doesn't do something right now, he's going to lose Sasha, either to the flight part of his fight or flight response, or some more fundamental mental collapse. So Alex doesn't think about it, he just takes a page from the same playbook, lunges and tackles Sasha the same way Sasha had brought him down. Sasha thrashes and howls, but the misery is all human, and Alex has him now, using his weight and Sasha's uncoordinated flailing to pin and restrain him as much as he dares.

Sasha keeps on fighting him, but unlike before, there's no focus, none of the relentless intent; Alex thinks he's fighting himself more than anything. Alex clamps his arms and legs onto and around him until he can hitch their bodies closer, and put his mouth close to Sasha's ear.

"It's all right," Alex says. Sasha shivers in his arms. "No, shut up. It's all right. You're fine. I'm fine. It's all right."

Sasha's breathing is still jerky and erratic. "I'm going to throw up," he says, choked.

"I think you ate, like, twenty pounds of a deer," Alex says, distracted. "But whatever, go ahead. Don't get it on your clothes."

"Let me go," Sasha says, and Alex does, prepared to leap right back at him if he has to. Sasha crawls, then staggers, and throws up in four painful-looking convulsions. He settles back and sits there, hunched over for a few minutes. Alex leaves him be, because he can't think of anything else to do and Sasha doesn't look like he's going anywhere. He starts looking for the scattered pieces of clothing that had fallen out of his arms and gathers them up, one discovered piece at a time. He checks constantly to make sure Sasha is still there, flicking the light over to him every few seconds. Sasha never moves. Beyond him, Alex can see the carcass of the deer, and the way its eyes shine blank and flat and dead when the flashlight hits them.

The details of getting home are something Alex will lose. He'll think back later and come up with only a handful of random impressions: kicking leaves over the area where Sasha threw up. Feeling a twig caught in the waistband of his pants and putting up with the way it jabs because he doesn't want to remove it until they get to the car and Sasha won't see. Getting into the car, turning on the engine, and seeing the dashboard clock read 10:08, feeling like so much more time had passed, like it should be much later.

Sasha's back, walking away from him, into his house. Alone. And worst of all, the relief of that flooding Alex, wanting to get away just as badly to his own home, where he chases two Ambien with a glass of vodka. It's only his second worse decision of the night, but he can't be awake any longer; the shock is beginning to break away in pieces, and he can't think about anything so he won't think. He has only enough wherewithal to set his phone before he's sucked down into black.

The alarm spears into his brain and he has about five minutes of perfect morning amnesia before everything comes back. It's Monday morning, it's Breakdown Day, and he's bruised, tired, and thanks to mixing his pills and alcohol, rocking a hideous hangover. He's still several hours and a scalding shower away from any state that could approach even the most generous definition of together.

Alex wishes he was less hungover, so he could think. Or, alternately, that he was still drunk, so he would care less about the fact he can't think.

He gets out of bed. He takes his hot shower, and then douses himself in cold at the end. He puts on clothes; he tries to shuffle things into piles so he'll be able to pack quickly for Worlds. He eats breakfast on auto-pilot and forgets what he ate five minutes later; he searches in his fridge until he finds a can of Coke and drinks it all in four gulps; he drives to Kettler, and then he relives and talks for several hours about nearly all the worst and most painful things that have happened to him over the past week, because that's how the job works. And then he's on a plane to Finland and Worlds, and Sasha still hasn't said a word to or made direct eye-contact with him.

"Come on," he says finally, when they've gone through security and are headed to camp. "Are you going to do this forever? We have to play."

"No." Sasha glances up. He still looks awful. "I know. But I need something. From you."

"Okay…?" Alex asks.

"I don't want to talk about—" Sasha hesitates. "Anything. For until Worlds is over, it doesn't exist. It doesn't matter. For now, that's what I want. It's what we need so we can focus on winning. So, when we finish talking now, it's gone, it's off limits. No mentions. Not even jokes. If you can't do that, I'll tell them I'm injured from the playoffs, and I'll pull out. So. Okay?"

Alex nods. Sasha's right, in a way. They need to just focus on the national team, try to salvage something. And later, when he's skating across the ice, it seems to be the right move. Their passes connect; Alex scores; Sasha scores; everything seems charmed to work out, and he can't be too upset that they're just going to play the shit-never-happened game.

So they play. And they don't talk. And they win.

Alex remembers that. He doesn't have a lot of perfect moments in his life, but he skates across the ice with Sasha at his side while they wave the Russian flag and they pour champagne over each other in the locker room, and he laughs at the way Sasha accidentally hits himself in his face with his own medal.

It's a good one. He carries it with him. He thinks about it all the time, especially when Sasha calls him to tell him that the Caps aren't making him an offer, but that it didn't matter anyway because he's talked to Staal and he's decided to join Carolina.

"Staal thinks we'll be on a line together, that we can play well together," Sasha says.

"I can have other wolves who can help me figure this out," Sasha says.

"I think I'm going to need some time to settle in, so maybe we shouldn't see each other this summer, it would be easier. I'll call you when I can," Sasha says.

"It's for the best," Sasha says.

***

Maybe it would have been different if they'd gone straight back into the regular season, a clean break from how things used to be. But they don't, and Alex trades a red jersey with a C for a blue and white one with a D; harangues Nicky day and night with a three-pronged attack via phone, email, and skype; and then he steps onto the ice in Moscow for an opening night rather than DC.

The lockout is another strangely island in Alex's life—the sense of being removed, like the Olympics, but also different, simply because now he's in his own country and it loves him. This is vastly different from the Vancouver Olympics, and even from Washington DC, a little. DC loves him, and Alex loves it back; he wants it and misses it even when he's home in Moscow, but Moscow is home. Moscow will always be home. Russia is his home, and for all its flaws and frustrations, for all what he knows is broken or badly done, he loves it fiercely anyway, unable to stop.  Being at home induces more moments like these where he tends towards the philosophical. Nicky takes the brunt of these and patiently endures them all. That's why Alex pestered him relentlessly into joining him at Dynamo Moscow; that's why Alex loves him. Which he tells Nicky, in the middle of his dramatic monologue.

"You love lots of things," Nicky says dryly. "This morning you loved Komarov because he loaned you some toothpaste, you loved your new skate laces, you loved your omelet at breakfast, you love Moscow, and now you love me."

"Well, I do," Alex says.

"More or less than the omelet?" Nicky asks.

Alex clicks his tongue against his teeth. "It was very good omelet," he says, considering, and then ducks when Nicky throws a glove at him.

Nicky has super powers that extend beyond having a face that never ages and always knowing exactly just where Alex is to give him the puck, because a full week later when they're waiting to be allowed to board their airplane to the latest game, he doesn't bat an eye when Alex says, "It's not so bad, anyway, why should it be bad?"

"It's not," Nicky agrees. "I know."

"I'm not gonna stop," Alex says.

"I know," Nicky says.

"Are we talk about the same thing?" Alex asks. Nicky reaches over and pats his hand.

"I'm your center, I know what you do before you do it," Nicky says. He's not wrong.

"I'm talk about love," Alex says a week after that, this time in a club where he has alcohol and loud music and therefore plenty of chances to pretend he's not talking about what he is if he needs to. You should never fully trust someone until you've gotten completely drunk with them; he and Nicky took care of that a long time ago and are far beyond that now, but the person Alex doesn’t trust in this setting is himself. "Like, it's not so bad to say it, you know? Everyone says, say it a lot but don't mean it, but I do. I do." He picks up Nicky's glass, and fills it; the bottle, sitting in the hollow of a rapidly melting ice sculpture, is so cold it numbs his fingers.

"Anyway, I can stop," Alex says, and puts the glass down. "Enough?"

Nicky reaches over and takes the glass, sipping from it. He eyes Alex, considering. "I don't think," Nicky says. "I don’t think anyone can. If you do, it's not really that."

"That," Alex says.

"Love," Nicky says, and the strobe of the lights flashes red-green-blue over Nicky's face. He looks the same as always, calm and thoughtful. "You can't just decide one day, 'oh, no more.' You can't turn it on and off. Like water. Or a lamp. Like, if you could, no one would have a problem when, you know, people die. Or break up." He laughs a little. "No books, no movies, no songs about it. It would be very boring."

Alex grunts in non-committal acknowledgment and runs a finger around the edge of his glass, concentrating. He can feel Nicky watching him.

"It doesn't stop," Nicky finally says, after giving Alex ample time to respond. "It changes, maybe."

"I guess," Alex says.

"It's not bad that it doesn't stop," Nicky says, gently.

Alex loves Nicky, and part of him wishes he could be in love with Nicky, or rather, be more in love with Nicky than anyone else. They scream at each other every now and then, and Nicky listens to country over techno, and Alex can feel him constantly judging Alex's driving skills and blasting internal disapproving commentary; but, he also makes gorgeous saucer passes and has nice hair and is signed with the Caps for a ridiculous amount of time, which means there's less danger of him leaving Alex and refusing to be in real contact with him. Alex wants to spend all his time skating next to Nicky, likes him, trusts him, thinks the world of him, will happily stand in his skates on the throat of anyone who looks at Nicky cross-eyed.

But he's not Sasha. And Alex knows quite a lot about being the lesser wanted of two things, and he's not doing that to anyone else if he can help it.

They'd seen Sasha almost two weeks after Nicky first joined him at Dynamo. Alex is still fairly sure the fact Nicky was with him is the main reason Sasha agreed to meet up, not wanting to make it seem strange. It hadn't been strange; it had been disconcertingly normal. They'd had laughed and talked and eaten together like they were all back in Washington again. It's dangerous for Alex to think that way, dangerous to let himself pretend things aren't different now. Because they are; they'd never been alone together, Nicky a careful barrier between the two of them. Nicky probably noticed. And Alex had gotten sick right after that visit, which had given him plenty of time to brood over his mortality and his dumbass feelings and why he can't control them, without arriving at any satisfactory conclusions. Nicky probably noticed that too, which is why they're even having this conversation.

"Drink more," Alex says, because he can't get much right or away with anything, but he can at least be a good host.

Nicky gives him a distinct you're not fooling and I am only doing this to humor you look, complete with single raised eyebrow, but he sips. And later that night, he doesn't try to say anything at all when Alex says abruptly in the cab on their way home, "I wish I could stop."

Nicky just sighs and hooks an elbow around Alex's neck. Nicky is understanding that way.

And they go on playing. Dynamo wins most of their games, and it doesn't feel quite real, but Alex enjoys it anyway. He's always tried to find pleasure where he can. Being at home makes him think of being young again, everything overlaid with a film of nostalgia. There's a push-pull inside him, the familiarity of being at home versus knowing he should be somewhere else. It feels like playing house, like it doesn’t count.

He soaks it, saving it up for later. Alex is loved by his country, his city, his current team, and even though he doesn't have everything he wants, he makes do. It is what it is. It seems selfish to want more, but that doesn't stop him. The NHL will open again eventually; he'll go back. For now, he shows his city off to Nicky; he eats the foods he likes; he listens to everyone around him speaking his language, and lets the city pulse around him in a heartbeat that matches his own.

And just like that: the lockout is over and they're on a plane back to America and it's full speed ahead for the shortened season. New faces (and old ones; Alex finds it comforting that Fehrsy is still losing his hair way faster than Alex is going gray) in the locker room, a new coach. A new wing side to play. Every day, Oates covers whiteboards with scrawling flurries of five different colors of marker, and in a way it's exactly like last season: just without the magical seven win start because they bypass that, and go straight into sucking out loud for the first couple weeks. Awesome.

Sasha's doing well in Carolina. Alex is browsing through his twitter feed and it's weird  and kind of hurts to see him as a Cane for the first time in an NHL highlight tweet, but not the way Alex had expected: he thought it would be sharper, like a knife, getting stabbed and then having it twisted, but instead it’s more of an ache, angry. Maybe this means he prepared himself well enough after all. Or maybe it's like back when he first found out about Sasha being a werewolf because once again, there's just too much shit overall to worry about to give proper attention to it.

In fact, the Caps are so terrible to start with, Alex is pretty sure it's what actually prompts Sasha into calling him the night before Carolina comes to DC for their first matchup of the season. The call is unexpected and more than a little surreal, because they're not sure of how polite or familiar to be with one another yet, and they circle each other with pointless back and forth niceties before getting down to the more important questions.

("What's Ribeiro like?" Sasha asks.

"He has crazy eyes, kind of a dick," Alex says. "Great car, though. How's Corvo?"

"Still kind of a dick," Sasha says. "He has this ridiculous hair thing going, though. I should send you a picture."

"I can't believe you got the jersey tuck penalty, I thought for sure it was going to be me," Alex says. "Stop stealing my penalties. You ruined a bunch of bets.")

It takes a while but it comes, slowly. He and Sasha cautiously ease into a comfortable bitch session for a while then, with Alex expounding at length on how Corvo resembles a shaved ape on skates, and Sasha counters with a screed on how Brouwer has a face like a rabid opossum, both of them gradually circling closer to the eventual intended topic.

"How are things in Carolina?" Alex asks, muting the television and getting comfortable on his couch. He decides to take the plunge. "How is Staal? Is everything… good?"

"Staal invited me to a barbecue at his house," Sasha says, a little dubiously. "I brought a pie. The younger one was there, too. Both the younger ones, I mean.  But not the New York one. The one from the Pens, and the other one who's down with their baby team."

"Did you have a good time?" Alex asks.

Sasha hums. "It was fine. Awkward. They smile a lot, and when they think I don't understand something, they just say it louder. Tlusty was there too, that made it a little easier."

"Huh," Alex says. He tips his head back and lets his neck muscles pop, staring at the ceiling. "It's good. You're bonding and shit. Good stuff."

Sasha just snorts. "What?" Alex asks, defensively.

"You're so transparent," Sasha says. "But it's nice that you care."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Alex says.

Alex can hear Sasha rolling his eyes over the phone.  "Stop being jealous. You don't need to pout."

"What the fuck, I never pout," Alex says. "Who says I pout?"

"Sulk, then. Whatever." There's a rustling sound, like Sasha getting settled on a bed or couch. Alex wonders where he's staying, what it looks like. Sasha hasn’t sold his house in Arlington yet, and he's not renting it out to anyone either. Alex is paying way too much attention to what Sasha is doing and not doing, but he checks the points standings and Sasha's doing well. More than well; his line with Staal and Tlusty is getting more points, less penalties, praise from even the more grudging NHL media.

"Did you…" Alex hesitates. "…you know, with them?"

"Did I what?" Sasha asks.

"You know," Alex says.

"Well, yes," Sasha says. "All three. That's one of the reasons I'm even here."

"All three?" Alex chokes, and a series of horrifying images swarm behind his eyes. Pasty white Staal asses prancing everywhere, a mating dance on display and punctuated with a trio of waving erect Staal dicks, all emerging from gingery-blond crotch thatches as Sasha looks on in consideration, deliberating his choice. Do wolves do mating dances? Probably not, but now it's all he can think of. Alex could have gone his whole life without trying to envision multiple Staal junk at the same time, but here he is, and he will never be the same. "Holy shit," he says weakly.

"Well, not so much with the youngest one. I think I told you, he wasn't born like the others—but never mind," Sasha says.

"Oh," Alex says. He can't think of anything to say to that. "It's good to have standards."

"Are we talking about the same thing?" Sasha says, after a short pause.

"I'm not really sure," Alex admits.

"I'm talking about being wolves," Sasha says. "The barbecue was to talk about some team stuff, and then later that night we went for a run because Staal has access to some wildlife preserve so it's safe to run around after dark there."

"Yes. I am also talking about that," Alex says. "Which you did. With the Staals. But not the youngest one."

Alex can definitely hear Sasha mulling that one over, and then clicking things into place. "You were not," Sasha says, outraged.

"I was!" Alex insists. "Do they look like the same kind of wolf as you?"

"Oh my God," Sasha says, refusing to be distracted. "What the fuck is wrong with you, what the fuck do you think I am?"

"A werewolf?" Alex ventures. "Staal is—you talked to him on the phone, and you went to join his pack-thing. You're part of his thing. I'm sure he's very—wolfy."

Sasha heaves a tremendously put-upon sigh. "For fuck's sake, Sasha, I've seen him picking his nose and then sitting on his brother's chest and threatening to wipe it on his face," he says. "We're not fucking, and we have no plans to."

"Okay," Alex says. He can't help it; he puts a hand over the stupid smile spreading across his face, even though Sasha can't see it.

"I went to Carolina because it was the best option for me for a contract," Sasha says, a little more calm. "They wanted me. And yes, I needed to… handle the wolf thing. And Staal is the best option for that. It worked out well with his brother getting traded there too because it's very… it's easier to be in a group. There's only a few teams that it would have worked with."

He bit you and fucked everything up in the first place, Alex doesn't say.

We were making it work, it could have worked here on this team, Alex doesn't say.

I wanted you and I figured out I probably love you and now you’re on a different team and running around naked and bonding with a bunch of overly blond Canadian weirdos even if you're not fucking any of them, Alex doesn't say.

"Are there more werewolves in the NHL?" Alex does say, because that kind of seems like something he'd really like to know.

"Not really. It's basically the Staals, and just a few others. Desharnais? And there's someone in Phoenix," Sashsa says. "It's private, no one talks about it much. There could be more I don't know about."

"What's it like?" Alex asks. "Is it different being with, you know, other wolves?"

"Yes," Sasha says, and then hesitates. "We hunt, mostly. It's nice not to worry about getting shot, or getting caught by someone who thinks I'm, like, a stray dog or something. When we hunt together, there's this—feel. That helps on the ice, too. Makes me work off more instinct, not to overthink things."

"That's good. So…" Alex says, and casts about for something reasonable, and remembers something Sasha mentioned. "The youngest one, the one from the AHL. He comes along?"

More hesitation. Same old tells. Something there that Sasha isn't saying, though Alex suspects he knows what it is. The youngest Staal, if he wasn't born a wolf, probably has some kind of role in whatever the hell werewolf packs do. Surely there are things that are necessary to have someone around to be the token human.  

"Yeah, he does his thing," Sasha says. He clears his throat. "The good thing is," Sasha says slowly," that doing all this with other wolves is—safe. I don't have to worry about hurting anyone. I know—I was grateful for everything you did. But we were stupid. I mean, no, not you. I was stupid. I could have hurt you, I should have thought of that. And I dragged you into it, which wasn't fair."

"What? No," Alex says. "You didn't do anything wrong. I wanted to help."

"You helped," Sasha says. "But you shouldn't have to. And I don't want to hurt anyone."

"You didn't hurt me, stop thinking that," Alex says. "Sasha, seriously, you didn't, I get worse hits on the ice, just please—"

"This is hard," Sasha interrupts him. His voice is low, wracked. "I'm trying. I'm working on it, but it's just better this way. I'm sorry. It's selfish. That’s why I can't see you, or talk to you all the time. I have to make it work, being in their group. Their pack. I have to try. And if I keep spending time with you, I won't. I need—I didn't want this, to be this. I didn't choose it. I just want to be safe. I don't want to hurt anyone. I want to fit somewhere. I need to do that, and that's how you can help, that’s the only way, I'm sorry."

He takes a breath. "You wanted me to be cured," Sasha says quietly. "This is the closest thing I can have. So, let me."

Silence, then. Miles and miles stretch between them. Alex's whole face feels tight and hot, too much blood rising too fast under his skin. He scrubs his hand down his face, shoves his knuckles against his mouth.

"Okay," Alex says after a few seconds. There's nothing else he can say, or offer. "You're right. Okay."

"Just," Sasha says. "It's not—fuck."

"No, you're right, it's important. You're doing good there now, you have to be—happy," Alex says. He can't bring himself to say safe. "That's good. It's important."

"Look, I don't mean like we can't ever do anything at all. Like, if you can wait after the game tomorrow, then we can meet, talk," Sasha says. "We can do that, after games, that's okay. Maybe get dinner some of the times."

"Okay," Alex says. Neither of them hang up. It feels too awkward. Alex's phone pings against his ear with an alarm notification; when he pulls it away to check, it's the full moon reminder he set. That's tonight, apparently. He'd forgotten.

"So, I'll see you tomorrow," Alex finally says. "I should sleep. You should sleep."

"Okay," Sasha says. "I'll see you there." He sighs into the phone. "Everything will be okay," Sasha says, and stops at "okay," his inflection indicating that the words are the first half of a qualified statement: everything will be okay if.

If what? Alex thinks. If Sasha achieves some weird level of werewolf zen that he obviously thinks he needs. If Alex does whatever it takes to let him do that. If they play against each other tomorrow and prove that they can do their jobs and box up their feelings for later like any reasonable human being and human being who sometimes becomes a werewolf can do

"Yeah," he says. After he hangs up, Alex dismisses the full moon notification. He had it set for the entire year; he thinks about deleting it, but instead he goes to bed.

They next day they finally play, and they actually win. It feels amazing, even if they’re still at the bottom of the standings, and Alex feels different, maybe even better. Things are coming together under Oates, he just has to be patient. He still doesn't quite trust Sasha not to bolt on him, so after the game, he immediately wraps a towel around his waist, walks down the hall, plants his ass on an equipment crate right outside the visitors’ dressing room and waits. It takes almost half an hour but then Sasha comes out, already dressed in his postgame suit and walks over to him. Alex looks up, and Sasha looks down, and neither of them says anything at first. There are a couple of press members at the end of the hall, watching them with interest.

"You couldn't find pants?" Sasha finally asks.

"I only wear pants when I meet important people," Alex says, and then Sasha's face cracks into a real smile, and Alex stands up, and they hug. Alex feels Sasha's muscles flex under his hands; he breathes in the clean smell of Sasha's hair, still damp and curling at the ends.

They can do this. Four to five times a season. He can meet Sasha before games whenever possible, or after if they're not leaving right away. No one will think it's strange for the two of them to take dinner or coffee together. Alex can give up phone calls and stick solely to texts, where Sasha is more responsive anyway. Sasha's words about how he'll never fit in if he keeps returning to or being with Alex implies some kind of desire on his part. Wanting safety over anything else—he doesn’t trust himself anymore, if he ever did. That much is clear.

No one thinks Alex is patient, but he can be. He's able to control himself, to wait. And he knows about living with guilt. Eventually Sasha will get past what happened in the woods; give it enough time and the memory's edges will be smoothed over enough for Sasha to stand, all blurred and blunted along the edges. Sasha's contract is for this season only, and while Alex thinks it's not likely he'll re-sign with the Capitals, it's not impossible either. Who knows what will happen next season? Maybe then they can find a better way to be in love with each other, assuming Sasha is in love with Alex as well in the first place.

Alex isn't sure if he is, but he thinks there's a possibility he could be, which is better than nothing. Better than a kick to the teeth.

Which is what their next game against Carolina feels like, when the Canes return the favor with a 4-0 shutout, given its start by an awful goal from Corvo, with Sasha getting the primary assist and the oldest Staal getting the secondary.

"Not so much fun, yes?" Sasha says, more than a little smug.

"Shut up," Alex says, and then makes an effort. "Good game. Good goal."

It's a home and away, so they're jetting right back down to Raleigh the next day, and at first it looks like it's going to be more of the same, with Sasha opening the scoring himself, this time with Tlusty and Staal, but Alex gets the last laugh with the equalizer from Bouwer and Nicky, and then doing everything but actually scoring the game winning goal. He'll let Ribs have it, though; Ribs does have serious crazy eyes.

"We should have had a bet," he tells Sasha. "Who scores more. Who wins the season series." It wasn't a joke he could have made earlier in the year, but he's trying, he really is.

Sasha just looks sour, and Alex hugs him because he can't help it. It's different now, and he's trying to embrace that. Alex can wait. Alex has spent his whole life waiting for various things, some of which he doesn't know if he'll ever get. He has to be careful, though. He has to keep his anticipation and hope in check; love and feelings are their most intense and volatile before actually being reciprocated, if they end up being reciprocated at all.

And then two things happen.

One is something he's been ready for: something finally clicks and the Caps are winning, and Alex is scoring. The other is something he didn't expect: he's taping sticks at Kettler the day after a win against the Rangers, when Dima wanders by and says, "Look, Sasha, Sema signed another contract with Carolina," holding out his phone with a freshly released NHL update on it.

Five years. Thirty five million. So, it must be working. He must've figured out the team and the pack and everything else.

It's good. It's what Sasha wanted, and therefore what Alex wants as well. He tells himself that as he finishes wrapping tape on his stick, and reaches for a blowtorch.

Their next game against each other comes just over a week later. Sasha is all over the ice, and Alex is there to match him; with fifteen minutes left in the second period, they both race for the puck along the boards. No friends on the ice, and Sasha is leaning, Alex is just ahead and lunging with Sasha practically crawling up his back, and well—

"Fuck you, fuck your stupid ass, you almost broke my fucking dick," Sasha grumbles afterwards. "My cup cracked from that, did I tell you that."

"You've told me that four times," Alex says. And then, before he can think it’s a bad idea, "you used to love my ass."

Sasha blinks at him, nonplussed.

The Caps are climbing up the standings and within stabbing distance of the playoffs, and Alex had two goals and an assist in the win. It's the adrenaline, probably; he feels like his blood is champagne fizzing inside him. There's no one around to hear, but he puts his hand against the hallway wall and leans in anyway. "It's okay, I liked it when you did," he says, and licks his lips. It's hard to be much more obvious without either grabbing Sasha's crotch or dropping his own pants.

The Caps won; Alex is happy; Sasha's wearing the stupid pink dress shirt that Alex secretly loves on him. Any of these would be reason enough for Alex to flirt, but mostly he wants to know.

If there's any room or possibility for this at all in the limited amount of time together they're going to have. And more importantly, if Sasha wants any of it without whatever the wolf stirs up inside him with the change. If Sasha is going to keep the wolf away, Alex wonders if there's anything in Sasha that wants him at all.

Sasha just keeps looking at him, head tilted. They're not touching, but they're close. Alex can feel the heat of Sasha; Sasha can probably smell the cologne Alex put on, the one he remembered Sasha mentioning offhand that he liked. They're not touching but they're close; they're not touching but Alex leans in just a little more; they're not touching yet but—

There are shouts at the end of the hallway, footsteps pounding and coming rapidly closer. They jerk apart without ever touching, just as Jeff Skinner and a Canes player Alex doesn't recognize come pelting around the corner, pulling up short when they see Alex and Sasha.

"Um," Skinner says. "Hey."

The next game, Alex is going to hit the hell out of that damn kid. "Hi," he says.

When he turns back to Sasha, Sasha's retreated without actually moving, and is fumbling his phone. There's a light but definite flush of pink on his cheeks; Alex is almost sure of it. "Nicky just texted, he's looking for you," Sasha says in Russian, eyes flicking over at Skinner and his teammate. He holds out the screen for Alex to see.

Cockblocked from all sides, Alex inwardly shrugs. He reaches over and slaps Sasha on the shoulder. "See you in two weeks," he says. "Before or after the game?"

"After," Sasha says. "That's better."

"Okay," Alex says. He smiles his best and toothiest grin at Skinner and the other Cane—Riley Nash? He's also gingery. What is it with this damn team and that hair color? "Good game," he says, and walks off, refusing to hurry.

The Canes win kicks off the best kind of streak, and they win four more straight up. The last game against Carolina will be at home, and Alex knows for a fact that neither of them play the next day, and the Canes won’t fly home until morning. So they'll have time for dinner afterwards, and time for… anything else afterwards. As soon as the game in Montreal is over, Alex shoots Sasha a text

Back to dc!!!! see u soon for nice diner with boys )))) my house???

He doesn't hear back from Sasha, but he knows Carolina's been losing and tonight they were playing—he checks on his phone, ew, the Pens.

Last game against Carolina, and it's a slow start, no fucking shots on goal at all for the first ten minutes and the Canes taking an early lead off Skinner soring on the powerplay. They claw back and stop getting bottled up in their zone so much, but it's always annoying to go into the locker room down on the scoreboard. Then in the second, Brouwer scores with a monster shot from the slot on the power play, and Greenie roofs it far side on Peters about two minutes later, and just like that, they're out of the hole and into the lead, and it gets punchy very quickly.

Blanchard and Hendy go at it, but that's frankly just the appetizer for the final minute of the game, when Ersk shoves the everliving shit out of the oldest Staal, Staal shoves back, falls over, and then everyone started grabbing whoever's closest to them. The younger Staal goes for Ersk, but gets Carly; Nicky tries to reach Carly and the younger Staal but can't get around the flailing older Staal. Alex has an armful of Tlusty to contend with, and Ersk somehow gets bumped right out of the fracas and ends up next to Sasha, who simply wraps an arm around his waist and leans into him like they're best friends.

And then everyone on the ice stops and watches, appalled and amazed as Jojo and Skinner put on a scene and basically try to pull each other's hair to death. Jojo's nominally got the upper hand and gets almost enough leverage to try and yank Skinner's jersey over his head, but not quite enough; Skinner is hunched over and still trying to blindly headbutt Jojo to death until the refs wrench them apart bodily and end the spectacle. It's unbelievable. Alex and Tlusty catch each other's eyes in the process, and can't even.

Once the refs sort everyone out and send the wayward children to the locker room, there's still another heart stopping thirty seconds to kill, but Brouwer comes away with the puck and races up the ice towards the empty net with Sasha slashing at him the whole way. As soon as it's in the net, Brouwer turns and yells furiously at Sasha, who looks surprised. Alex can't tell what's being said, but it's not cordial.

Game over. No star of the game delay, no excessive interview this time. Alex showers as quickly as possible and dries off. He bolts out of the locker room and over to the visitor's area, but there's no one there but the dispersing staff, one of whom sees Alex hanging around and probably being very obvious. "He left, Ovi," the staffer says.

"He left?" Alex asks blankly. Sasha wouldn't leave. That's impossible. They have plans.

"'Fraid so," the staffer says, and goes back to pulling down some papers taped to the wall. "He left a bag for you, though!" he calls over his shoulder. "It's over by the wall there, I said I'd make sure you got it."

It's one of those reusable cloth grocery bags, from a place called Piggly Wiggly. There's a smiling cartoon pig logo on the outside. It's filled almost to the top with cloth, and Alex reaches in to pull out—a t-shirt? A familiar one, black, the one that says SEX AND LOVE ARE THE FUTURE. He loves that shirt, he'd been wondering where it had gone. He digs beneath it, puzzled, and grabs another swatch, a gray one with the Dolce logo. White Barca shirt. A Dynamo Moscow, dark blue. At least a dozen of them, maybe more. They're all his, or were at some point. Every single shirt Sasha has ever borrowed or outright stolen from him, now given back.

"Okay," he says. "No message?"

"That was the only thing," the staffer tells him. "He showed up, told us it was for you, to give it to you, and then he took off again."

Okay. There's probably an explanation. Sasha could be getting trainer treatment; the Canes could be having a team meeting; Sasha could just be coming directly to his house after whatever's holding him up. He'll call and see.

It goes to voicemail, and that's okay, that's fine. Phones are off during meetings. Sasha forgot his charger again, and has no battery. There are any number of reasons for this. The smart thing to do is just go home and see if Sasha is there already.

He's not.

u forget we supposed to meet??? Im home now

have pelmeni my mom make.. )))))mmmm….saving some!!!

Call me when u an come???

Call me

sema what the fuck wher r u??/

Alex's chest is a bruise with fingers pressing down on it, not a sudden gut punch, but a deep ache that starts in his throat and spreads relentlessly downward, slowly pressing all his breath away. The bag of shirts is on the car seat next to him. He can picture Sasha, (who was always shitty at doing his laundry which therefore spurred most of his clothing thefts from Alex), with his clothes scattered all over the room, tossing piles and sorting through them in order to weed out all traces of Alex. 

It's pretty much as blatant an answer as he's going to get. But he has to try. He has to know for sure.

Alex has Staal's number—well, he has a Staal's number, and since it's with a bunch of other numbers that he picked up at the 2011 All Star Game, there's a fifty percent chance it's the Staal he needs to talk to. So he texts, hey its Ovi from caps call me need 2 talk to u right now thx )).

He's expecting to get a standard Prove it in return, and has already taken a selfie of himself (he might or might not be throwing the finger in it) to shoot back, but instead his phone rings, like, thirty seconds later.

"Staal?" he asks, more than a little surprised.

"Ovechkin?" Eric Staal asks warily, and it is the one he needs to talk to, good.

"You guys go back to Carolina tonight?" he asks.

"No?" Staal says. "We're all at our hotel. Why?"

"Sasha and me, we're supposed to have dinner," Alex says. "He doesn't show, so. I just want to know if he's good? Not hurt?"

"Oh," Staal says slowly. "Um. Hang on." Alex can hear muffled voices in the background, no one he recognizes.  There's some back and forth, and then Staal comes back on the line. "Look, he's—tired. He said he left you a message back at Verizon. Did you get it?"

Yes. Well. It's hard to get a confirmation any more straightforward than that. 

"Oh," Alex says. "Yeah. I got, I just make sure, you know. Last game against. Wanted to say hi. Thanks."

"No problem," Staal says. "So you're set, you're okay?"

"Yeah, I'm gonna be fine," Alex says. He will.

He hangs up and gets out of the car and goes inside alone; he'll figure it out from there.

***

The thing is, Alex knows the whole general theory of dog years and human years is off. He loves dogs, has and does own enough of them to know it’s not one year to seven years. It's just a convenient if somewhat inaccurate way to estimate and evaluate development.

Months ago, he'd asked Sasha about that, probably when they were both fucked stupid after a run. "So, how old are you in wolf years? How does that work?"

"Idiot," Sasha had said, and pinched him hard.

"No, but you're twenty eight," Alex insisted. "So, you're an ancient wolf, right? Or are you a wolf cub because you've only been a wolf for a while? Ow!" he added, and preemptively covered his nipples from further assault.

The thing is, it's not accurate, Alex knows that. But the thought of it catches at Alex's mind and stays there, tumbling around like a pebble. The idea of time and life somehow expanding and contracting in a smaller or larger space. Seven years crammed into one, one year spread out and stretched thin over seven.

Sometimes it feels like he's living first one, then the other. A week of games drags on in an endless trudge, and then he's frowning at his calendar and realizing he never turned the last two months over. Maybe it's from the shortened regular season, the shortened playoff season, the shortened run at Worlds. All that time is going somewhere.

September is usually a good month in DC. The weather usually decides to stop being so psychotically hot and humid and gives way to blue skies, gold-tinged trees, and the last breath of summer blending seamlessly with the first notes of autumn. It's a much smoother transition than spring. It's also the only thing that goes smoothly, but that's fine.

There are some good times. Before the season starts, Brooks throws a party to show off his house and for everyone to have an excuse to get to know everyone, vet to rookie. He orders an ungodly amount of pizza, has an even more tremendous amount of beer, puts on some terrible country music, and lets everyone do their thing. Everyone wanders in and out of the house, little groups breaking off to play pool and poker, a couple of people always clustered around the PlayStation. There's another television with some movie on that he watches until they get to the villains and they're Russian, of course. Always Russians. Alex drifts from room to room, floating in and out of conversations and arguments. He watches Wilson sneaking beers with an unbelievable lack of subtlety and chill; he mercilessly crushes Fehr, Carrick, Oleksy, and Beagle's asses in Mario Kart, all in succession.

It's nice. It's a good evening, Alex thinks. Something worth holding onto, that will make a good memory later. He can keep it in his mind to unfold and look over on bad days.

Sometime late, Brooks claps his hands briskly and says, "Okay, in the immortal words of Semisonic, you don't have to go home but you can't stay here. Or you can, because I don't give a shit, but once the guest rooms fill up, you have to sleep on the couch or the floor because I'm gonna be in my bed and I'm not sharing. None of you guys are pretty enough."

There's some grumbling as everyone starts the process of going home: finishing or dumping out the last swallows of their drinks; the half-hearted attempt to gather all the bottles in one spot, if falling short of actually doing anything else with them; coats being dug out of the closet or from the floor, wherever discarded. Nearly everyone is fine to drive, though Ward has Wilson's keys and a firm grip on his arm.

"I didn't even drink that much," Willy argues, bottom lip stuck out and pouting.

"Shut up, kid, you shouldn't have even had anything in the first place," Wardo says amiably. "C'mon now."

Alex drove Grabo over, but he cabbed it out already to go meet his wife, something about the children and their school plans. Carlson is holding Alzner's coat for him to slip into, like an old married couple. Nicky and Jojo are talking quietly by the door. Alex watches from the couch; he feels too drunk to leave and not drunk enough to stay. He has company, at least. Mike Green is slumped on the other end of the couch with the vague, middle-distance stare of someone who is still in the process of metabolizing a substantial amount of tequila.

Brooks is picking up pillows from the floor and tossing them back on the couch. "Coming or going?" he asks Alex, and then squints at him. "Okay, you're definitely staying. Unless you want to beg Nicky for a ride. Gimme your keys."

"You prettiest, Brooks," Alex says, and tips his beer bottle at him. "Can't compete. I got shirt, you can wear."

"Yeah, okay." Brooks laughs and shakes his head. "Keys, Ovi."

"I'm good, I'm great," Alex says, even as he tips his head back against the couch. "I'm great eight. Oh, bad. Bad, Brooks!" Alex yelps as Brooks gets up close and personal, shoving a hand into Alex's jeans pocket and rooting around. "Help! Nicky!"

Nicky breaks away from the dispersing cluster at the door, and comes over. He touches Alex's sleeve. "I can drive you," he says, and then looks over to Brooks, emerging triumphant with Alex's keys. "I can drive him home," he repeats to Brooks.

"No, I'm gonna call cab," Alex says. "I can go."

"Nah, I'll keep him," Brooks says, talking over his head to Nicky. Alex finds this very rude, rude enough to hug Brooks around the waist and rub his cheek against Brooks's stomach. That will show him. "Ovi and me and Mike, it'll be a sleepover."

That will be nice; Alex likes that idea. He should make Nicky stay too, so it can be him and Nicky and Greenie and Brooks. Young Guns again. Brooks can be a Young Gun, since Sasha's fucked off to Carolina forever and ever. They should have made Brooks a Young Gun from the start. He should apologize to Brooks about that. And make Nicky stay.

But Nicky just nods and says something to Brooks too quiet for Alex to hear. He pats Alex on the head, and then he's gone. Everyone leaves; they always leave. Brooks is levering Greenie off the couch, one arm pulled over his shoulder. "Hang on, I'm getting Mike his room," he says to Alex. "Don't go anywhere."

"I'm sign here," Alex says. "Thirteen years. DC."

He dozes for a little while then, because when he opens his eyes, the lights are turned down low and Brooks is going around the room collecting the rest of the wayward bottles and glasses. "I see Chimmer put bottle in trash," Alex informs him. "No recycles."

Brooks laughs and puts down the glass he's holding—on a coaster; of course Brooks owns and actually uses coasters. "I got you some water," he says. "Hey, how are you, anyway? You okay?"

Alex blinks at him, and wonders what he should say to that. He's okay, of course, everything is fine. He's scoring again, and it's a whole new season. The Olympics are coming soon, and he'll be on the biggest stage in the world, playing for his country. He has family and friends, a home, he plays the game he loves for a living every day.

"Yeah," Alex says, because it's the right answer, and when Brooks sits down next to him to take his empty bottle away and give him the water, he says, “No,” because it's the true answer.

"Oh, buddy," Brooks says, and Alex is about to tell him something he'll no doubt find hideously embarrassing in the morning, and possibly also apologize for not pushing for Brooks to be part of the Young Guns advertising campaign back a couple years ago, when there's a thud from upstairs, and the sound of glass breaking, and Mike Green singing in a loud, off-key monotone, "HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE."

"Jesus Christ," Brooks says, and gets up from his crouch and starts moving in not-quite a run. "I'm coming right back, we're not done here."

"No problem," Alex says to the empty room, and settles in.

He listens to the quiet mutter of Brooks trying to sort Greenie out, and Greenie occasionally repeating "DANGER ZONE," which seems to be the only part of the lyrics he knows. It's almost comforting, even if Brooks is going to come back and make Alex talk about his feelings. Or, well, Alex will probably talk about his feelings even without Brooks, because he's drunk and sad and a terrible teammate, a terrible friend, a terrible captain, probably a terrible boyfriend except he'd never gotten to the point where he and Sasha were that to each other and in fact, he thinks it sounds kind of lame. A terrible fuck buddy, then. And that just makes him more depressed because he's not even that anymore and by the time Brooks comes back, Alex has decided achieving verticality is just too much effort, and he's going to live his entire life in a horizontal position. On Brooks's couch. It'll be fine.

"Can you believe it, he puked in my washing machine. Doesn't that just break your heart," Brooks mutters, dropping down beside Alex once again, rubbing at his forehead.

"You got broken heart, Brooksy?" Alex asks. His tongue feels thick and clumsy in his mouth.

"Doesn't everyone get their heart broken every now and then?" Brooks asks, and Christ, Brooks is maybe the third least subtle person Alex knows. Greenie fights Alex for the crown; they flip flop in and out of second place with each other.

"Not me," Alex says.

"C'mon, we've been teammates forever, Ovi. I've seen you through some shit," Brooks says, cracking one eye open to peer at him. "Otherwise, I kinda have this feeling you wouldn't be on my couch tonight, looking like someone shot your dog."

Alex can believe that hearts get broken, but he doesn't think his is. It sounds like too much of a cliché, and it doesn't feel broken. He doesn't have the right words for it in English; he might not even have the words for it in Russian. It just feels—gone, like it had been scooped from his chest and taken beyond his reach to feel properly all the time. Cold and remote. He feels it from over a distance or beyond a shadow, like the moon in eclipse.

Probably he's just being melodramatic.

"I don't break," he tells Brooks. "Russian machine never break."

"It's just a part, buddy," Brooks says, smiling. "All you need is some maintenance. Get in the game again."

That's not entirely wrong, Alex supposes.

The first game against Carolina comes early in the season. They fall behind, and they're pressing with the extra attacker at the end. Time ticking down, and they can't fucking get into the zone. When Green bobbles the puck at the blue line, Sasha gets it and skates up ice, looking for the empty net and Alex doesn’t think, he just crosschecks him in the face with a two-hand punch. Sasha goes flying and the whistles screech.

He finally feels something then, a jolt. His heart flying back into his chest, or snapped back with a rubber band. It's too intense to be recognizably pleasure or pain, and it knocks his breath away, though not as badly off as Sasha probably is. Alex gets the roughing call, and Sasha gets nailed for diving, even though he probably didn't deserve it. They don't look at each other on the way to their locker rooms.

"You got him pretty hard," Nicky says to Alex after the game, when they're in the locker room dutifully explaining to the press about how they didn't execute well and the bounces didn't go their way that night. Alex shrugs.

"Important to give a message," he says.

***

Alex dreams sometimes. He dreams that night. He dreams about Sasha, going back to Carolina from DC.

He feels like he's aware, almost telepathically, of every mile of Sasha's journey home: shifting his weight back and forth on the shuttle, gazing blankly at the advertisements opposite, while the airport lights flash past. The garage of gray cinderblock and rows of cars stretching away in long aisles. Turning up his collar against the cold and wind. Sasha gets into his car and he pushes his ticket into the exit parking gate, which spits him out him into a night of thin cold rain, of orange light smeared over wet streets and highways and red tail-lights in the distance, away from people and noise. He drives into a development of imposing houses, winds his way down a long drive way. He gets out of his car and walks towards a house, key in hand. He unlocks a door, and steps inside.

And there, in the darkness of the shadows thrown by the trees and a house that Alex has never seen or stepped foot in, Alex loses him altogether.

***

Sochi happens, and his father happens, and there's the rest of the season but it doesn't matter. Scoring over fifty goals again doesn't matter. The months between February and May are a dry and hollow place in his memory. An empty space that very little sticks out from, the whole swath of time is like a scar healed over on the outside, the gap from a pulled tooth: too painful but unavoidable to keep touching.

Zhenya Kuznetsov finally joins the team. Alex gives him as much support as he can, though it makes him think of when Dima first joined, and it was he and Sasha introducing—but no, no good to think of that.

At least he's married, which means Alex can skip the required speech which Ted normally makes him give, to make sure it was understood about using condoms with no language barrier excuses. (Alex's version had always contained a few modifications of his own, including advice on when and when not to film private encounters, dancing moves, tattoos, and to always open every stall door in the bathroom before having a hookup because only checking for feet is a rookie mistake.) Alex helps them find an apartment, a new car, and instead of easing Kuzya into the joys of DC traffic by driving him around, he dabbles in the previously untried pleasure of making Kuzya drive him around instead. Kuzya's only had the car for a week but he's already put a new sound system in, and every time he turns it on or changes a song, he sneaks quick looks over at Alex to gauge his reaction. He's a good kid.

Alex has no idea whether it was Nicky or Brooks at the root of it, but there's a month where everyone on the team takes turns at taking him out and doing their best to cheer him up in a variety of ways that ranged from subtly helpful to horribly awkward but still kind of enjoyable. He lets them, because it seems to make them happy.

Wardo gives him complete reign over the locker room music playlist. He lets Chimmer invite him over for dinner a couple times, plays floor hockey with Cale in the living room, and they break a lamp. Greenie and Brooks Laich find all the movies he wants to see and doesn't have the time for, and drag him to matinee showings in deserted theaters when they're on the road. Holtby lets Alex practice trick shots at him with much more patience than usual, though he'd yelled and hurled his blocker at Alex after the third time Alex tried and failed to baseball-swing the puck into the net and nearly hit him with his stick instead. Kuzya and Dima orbit him constantly and anxiously, trying to anticipate his every emotion and need; for a while, it feels like he couldn't turn around without tripping over one of them, and the servers at Mari Vanna started making remarks if they didn't show up more than three times a week together. Nicky is the only one Alex trusts himself to get drunk with, the only one who Alex thinks had a worse Olympics than he did. It's an invaluable gift, and Alex doesn't actually use it.

They don't lose in the playoffs because they don’t make the playoffs. That's at least a change from the usual.

They go into the offseason quietly where Oates is fired, McPhee is fired, and Alex joins the national team for the Worlds in Belarus. Sasha's not there.

Russia goes undefeated and wins gold. It doesn't make up for anything, not Sochi or the season or the Cup, but it's better than nothing, and even though he started the tournament off feeling like nothing would ever break him out of the gray slog he was skating through, it's a glimmer, a crack that he gladly throws himself at to escape. For a while, he's happy.

June comes. Alex considers blowing off the NHL Awards, but apparently Barry Trotz, as newly hired coach, wants to meet and talk to him. Alex wears his blue suit and shows up at dinner having no idea what to expect.

It goes… well. Trotz just talks, doesn't try to intimidate him or be his friend. He's small and round, but has a disconcertingly deep and gravelly voice. He says he's glad he's going to be working with Alex; he has a lengthy, detailed list of questions but he listens when Alex answers and doesn't pick it apart. Usually he just repeats it back and say, "Was that what you meant or was it different?" and then he listens to that, and they end up talking for a couple hours which don't feel very long at all.

"We talked about lots of good things, lots of bad things," Alex says to a reporter on the carpet. "He see what he can change with the team and what he can change with my game. It’s the first talk. When you have first conversation, of course it was kind of nervous, you didn’t know what to expect. But at the end of all, I feel pretty good."

Smile, camera flash, camera flash, move on.

They don't try to do it as often any more, but it's a point of pride for Alex to make it as difficult as possible for the photographers to catch him and Crosby together in the same shot at any NHL events, whether it's the awards, the media tour, or whatever. He doesn't have to worry about it as often with the All Star Game because it's the one event where fate has conspired to help him and rarely make their paths cross.

The thing is, Alex doesn't entirely blame Crosby for being the architect of nearly all the most painful hockey-related moments of Alex's life, at least not very much. (It's mostly spite-based. Alex doesn't want to give Crosby any extra or undue credit; it's not like there won’t always be people flocking to give it to him anyway). It's not entirely under either of their control, and if their places were switched, Alex wouldn't lose any sleep about being the one who gets to win.

And at any rate, Alex and Crosby have never had much to talk about outside of hockey, though they can usually manage about ten minutes of conversation between the two of them before they both start fidgeting in place and trying to get away from each other without being too obvious about it. Which is fortunately just about the time it takes to finish one drink, leaving a built-in excuse for them to bail on each other as soon as is politely possible. In the meantime, Crosby stands almost exactly two feet away from Alex, sipping his drink every thirty seconds and smiling vaguely at a fixed point over Alex's shoulder. Crosby socializes at NHL events with mathematical and entirely unnatural precision, approaching it like he watched a film about it once, and took the same refinement process to it that he used on shooting pucks into the dryer. It's both awful and fascinating to watch, like the Discovery Channel special Alex once saw at two in the morning about some weird psychology experiment with baby monkeys and wire mothers.

(He'd run into it because he'd been watching a documentary about wolves, which was analyzing the theory over whether wolves mated for life or not. As it turned out, they didn't, really. Alex had laughed and laughed, so hard that he ended up giving himself a nosebleed somehow and freaked the everliving hell out of Goose, who'd been over for the evening. Goose was convinced Alex had either taken something or somehow concussed himself, and made him stay awake long into the night so Goose could monitor him, with Alex still erupting randomly into laughter and having to clamp the wad of tissue tighter to his nose every time.

The next morning, he'd gone rummaging through boxes in his closet until he found the still unopened werewolf dildos, and he'd mailed all three of them anonymously to Eric Staal in an old Amazon box.)

The weird thing is, Alex knows Crosby is fully capable of socializing like a normal human being with people he likes—he's seen it happen, it's not just a myth—but this is his routine, something that's probably as natural to him now as putting on gear. It’s just one more protective layer. Alex can appreciate and even sympathize with that. Maybe someday they'll actually be at a non-hockey-related setting and find out that they can be friends and like one another. Maybe, maybe not.

Alex considers this every year, usually around the same time, and usually when he's trapped in the same awkward situation, clutching a beer bottle and watching Crosby do the same. He's done nearly ten years of this, and he could have ten more years in front of him.

In the end it's Pierre McGuire actually making them break out of their usual cycle, because when Alex is standing there yet again, waiting to see if Crosby wants to leave first or if he should, Alex spots McGuire making his way to them across the room and he just can't deal with him tonight. Crosby spots him at the exact same time Alex does; they lock eyes, and for once, they have a mutual goal and entirely identical interests that align perfectly.

"This way," Crosby says, and grabs his sleeve. Alex follows him, mostly out of surprise that Crosby is taking him along, and hands his half empty bottle to a startled Erik Karlsson on the way. They escape just in time, and duck into a short hallway area. Crosby flattens himself against the wall and tries to peer around the corner. "Check and see."

Alex risks a quick look out, and immediately pulls back because Pierre is standing by the open door, looking sad and bewildered. Alex isn’t sure which of them starts snickering first but eventually they both are, trying to muffle it and failing utterly.

"Like robot," Alex says, giggling, and Crosby actually understands and picks it right up.

"I know, like the Terminator. Except, I mean, that movie would be awful if it was him, and he started out naked, like, like," he says with a flapping hand, and then they’re both imagining a naked McGuire and the hallway fills with more choked laughing.

"I guess we'll have to get back eventually," Crosby says after they calm down, and then sighs. "I hate these fucking things, don’t you?"

"Yeah, gonna need vacation after this," Alex says. He leans back against the wall. "You gonna win," he adds, and doesn't bother to specify if he's talking about tonight.

Crosby glances over at him. "Maybe," he says after a few seconds, and shrugs. Oh, so humble. Such a good Canadian boy. McGuire is probably getting an erection somewhere out of instinct.

"Yeah, you gonna win," Alex repeats. It doesn't hurt to say it, or maybe, if he says it often enough, it'll stop having the ability to hurt.

"Thanks?" Crosby's looking at him carefully now, like he's trying to figure out if Alex is being drunk or Russian. "I mean," he says, after a few more seconds, "well, maybe. You never know. But look at you."

"At me?" Alex asks.

"You've got the Richard, so you've already won that, everyone knows it," Crosby says. "That's. You know. Cool. It’s nice to know in advance. I mean, the votes are votes but things like the goals and points, they just are. You can't argue with them." He laughs a little. "Like, every year, they could just give that award to you at the start of the season to save trouble. I don't think anyone else has a chance."

It's Alex's turn to shrug. "Can't count on things. Never know."

"Yeah, well," Crosby says, and rubs the back of his neck. "We'll see."

"I don't hate you," Alex says suddenly. It's a very strange moment. He thinks he's having a revelation, or maybe an aneurysm.

"Uh," Crosby says. "Okay. I don't hate you either?"

"Good, good," Alex says distractedly. He doesn't hate Crosby. He might even like him. And if he can stand being in the same vicinity of Sidney fucking Crosby—Crosby, who's had almost everything Alex has ever wanted and been held up as the measure against whom Alex has always and inevitably been found wanting—and manage to be friendly with him, then. What the hell is keeping him from making it up with Sasha?

At one point in time, before everything went to hell, he and Sasha had been friends. Best friends, even, with too many embarrassing drunk stories, a secret handshake, and thousands of inside jokes, who knew how to order each other's drinks or dinners, who shared clothing, who roomed together, who argued over which movie to watch, who went on vacation together and played stupid pranks on each other. Like the time they'd been in Turkey with hands coated in sunblock, subtly patting each other's arms and backs and chests to leave inconvenient and unflattering marks that emerged only after hours in the sun. Years ago, Alex had lain on his bed in the coolness of hotel air conditioning, and watched Sasha's hands appear all over his skin, the ghosts of past touches.

And now, Alex is standing around with the NHL's drunkest and finest, to get a trophy that identifies him as part of that group, and it's good to be back, to shove it in the face of everyone who thought he was washed up, and he's realizing, well. Things might feel like they're returning to normal for Alex, or what he thinks of normal, but no, not really.

Things don't truly revert; they just change. He can't have some things back. Not Sasha at his side in a Capitals jersey, or without the scar on his forearm where the wolf's teeth had broken the skin. Not himself in 2010 or 2009 or any year before that when he hadn't known what it was like to do his best and still lose. It's strange how often he's had to come to terms with the same thing over and over: the only way things work is in one direction; the only way to go is forward.

So that's where he'll head.

And fuck, now he does owe Crosby credit for something. He'll send him a penguin-modeled dildo or something.

***

Over a year later, there's a day after practice when he catches himself driving home a way he hasn't gone in a couple years, to where he used to live in Arlington. And then he keeps on driving until he gets to Sasha's house. As far as he knows, no one's bought it yet. Sasha apparently didn't want to pull the usual move of renting it to whoever was passing through at the trade deadline. It's been kept up, and when he shamelessly goes up to peer into the windows, he can see it's been staged, but none of it is Sasha's stuff; it all just looks generically nice.

Alex is wondering if he should take a picture, or do something needlessly sentimental and borderline stalkerish, like dig up a shrubbery and take it with him, or do his own version of scent marking, when someone starts calling at him in a high, indignant voice.

"You! You there! I know very well that's not your house, young man, and you'd be smart to step away and not do whatever it is you're thinking about! I'll come right over there if I have to!"

Alex turns around, shades his eyes from the sun. "Mrs…Betty?' he asks. He's never actually heard her last name.

"Oh! Mr. Ovenchicken!" Betty is on her porch, squinting at Alex from her white wicker throne. "I didn't recognize you at all! How wonderful to see you again, I'm so sorry. There's been some very naughty children around lately, and they broke a window on Mr. Semin's house just last month, throwing their balls around. I know he's moved away and he's not living there right now, but I do feel like I need to keep an eye on it for him, such a sweet boy. He'd have done the same for me."

"Ah. Yes," Alex says, approaching. "Sasha, he live in Carolina—no, Montreal, now. Selling this place. I hear, so I come out to see. I moved too," he adds unnecessarily.

"Well, that would explain why I haven't seen you around," she says, like a three year disappearance is nothing at all. "And Montreal! Another country, oh my goodness. But of course you'll sit down for a few minutes for some tea, and you can tell me all about what Mr. Semin is up to. You're still friends, of course," she says with supreme confidence, settling back and wrapping her (lime green this time) housecoat around her.

"Uh," Alex says.

Two hours later, Alex has eaten eight cookies, three pieces of banana bread, two cups of tea, and is on his fifth delicate goblet of cream sherry, filled from a bottle that Betty had produced from beneath the flowered seat cushions on her porch furniture the second that the hour hand hit five. "Go ahead, dear, you can pour for both of us," she'd said, and had knocked back two and a half glasses before Alex had even gotten through one. The taste is overly sweet and syrupy, but it's growing on him.

"And does he have his dog still?" Betty asks, sipping primly at her glass. She reached over and tapped the rim of Alex's. "Keep up, dear."

Alex knocks it back, and pours himself another while obligingly topping off Betty as well. "Za vstrechu!" he says, and then, "Um," as he decides how to answer. His brain is pleasantly gold and shimmery with sherry and thank God there's no game tonight. Betty is showing no effects from it at all, unless it's that she's actually talking less. "Yes. Still has it. But he gives it much training and now dog's good, dog doesn't escape."

"I'm so glad," Betty says, and sighs. "I did so like him. Such a nice boy. I do miss him, but I suppose we all have to go where we can find work."

"I miss him," Alex slurs a little, and puts his sherry carefully down on the table before he can spill it. "You know, like, we use be so close, and then he says no, can't do this, but he does different. And Sasha is best, so great, and I thought he's happy but I don't know. I want him happy but he won't do it and that's stupid."

Betty nods sagely at all this, and then pats his hand. Her fingers feel like a little bunch of twigs. "We have to let people live their lives, dear."

"He can live his life!" Alex protests. "Just, with me. But not because he thinks, I dunno, he gonna hurt me?"

"Well, maybe you should ask him why," Betty says. "He probably has a perfectly good reason."

'If I do, and he don't wanna talk, then I feel bad," Alex says, and sighs. Somehow, the glass he had set on the table is now empty again.

"You won't know unless you do," Betty counsels. "You know, I think there's a little song that you should hear. I think it has a very good lesson you could take to heart. I used to sing it to my students when I was still a teacher." She puts down her sherry glass and clears her throat. "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other's gold," she recites in a slightly sing-song rhythm. She peers at him expectantly. "Well?"

Alex wrinkles his brow. "Um," he says. "Sasha is… old friend. And gold? Or silver. Gold. I like gold."

"And he can be a new friend again!" Betty says, and claps, then clasps her hands together. "You should keep him as your old friend and make him your new friend."

"Hmm." Alex mulls this over. It doesn't really make sense or apply, but Betty seems so expectant, he can't think of a way to say that. And he's having a very good time; a small, possibly dotty, probably tipsy old lady is giving him diabetes via sherry and advising him on his impossible love for Sasha, but that seems like a very good way to pass an evening, oddly enough.

"But how can I get him to even listen, know what I mean?" Alex finally says.

Betty laughs, a high, dry sound. Alex laughs too, because it’s contagious. She leans over to him and pats his hand again. "Oh, you young people," she says. "You just don’t think. That's easy. Whenever he was upset, I'd just cook my John a good dinner to get him back in the mood. And whenever I was upset, he'd buy me a little present. Just something thoughtful, you know. Find out what he wants, what he needs, and give it to him."

What Sasha wants. What Sasha needs. And isn't that the million dollar question.

"I have to go," Alex says abruptly. When he stands up, he checks his balance and and kisses Betty on both cheeks. "Betty, you the best, your banana bread much better than Chef Gary. I'm give you free tickets to Caps game, you sit in my Crazy Eights section. Your own jersey, too."

Later that night, Alex checks the schedule to make sure the Canes aren't playing, and then he pulls up the number he'd never deleted out of his phone, hoping it still works.

Hi it’s Ovi from hockey call me now plz

This time Staal doesn't call right away. Alex leaves a voice mail, and then he leaves another voice mail, four more texts, and he's just working himself into a really good snit when the phone rings.

"Ovechkin, is that you?" Staal asks. "Is this important?"

"Hi," Alex says, and decides to get right down to business. "Why the fuck you let Sasha get bought out? He's pack, why don't you help him?"

"…what?" Staal says.

"Pack," Alex says. "You know, werewolf. Him and all Staals. Except, um, the little one. Jared."

"He told you?" Staal says, strangled. "About us?"

"Uh, yeah?" Alex says. "You bite him in Vancouver—fuck you, also—and then he's werewolf and he changes."

"When did he tell you? How long have you known?" Staal asks. "Did he change in front of you at some point?"

"Well, yeah," Alex says. "Of course. I—" he grimaces, fights off a memory. "I make sure he's okay during change, hold his clothes, get him food, take him home."

"He didn't attack you?" Staal asks, still sounding like a slackjawed junkslut who probably isn't fit to lead a squirts practice, let alone a pack of werewolves.

"Well, once, but he stop," Alex says. This conversation is not going at all how he envisioned. Plan 1A had been somewhere along the lines of financially bribing Staal with whatever it took to start a global werewolf war to support Sasha; plan 1B, once he'd sufficiently sobered up, was to just grovel shamelessly and ask him what it took to cure or help. "It was very tough time for him, Sasha, he's not mean to," he hastens to add. "Right after playoffs end, season over. Like, most times we just fuck, but, you know. Probably my fault too, I bring him to park and he kills a deer, and he's hungry, and he didn’t change for like weeks before, so kinda crazy."

Long silence.

"Staal?" Alex asks. "You still there?"

"Oh," Staal yells furiously, "that son of a bitch!"

***

A week later, Alex is in Montreal. He shifts his bag from one hand to another, checks his phone, and sees several texts from Staal.

Have you talked yet.

Tell him Im sorry I didn't figure it out I don't have his new phone thanks.

Don't fuck it up

seriously don't fuck it up

lol u mad, Alex texts with one thumb, which should be sufficiently confusing for Staal to stop texting him for a while to mull over what Alex means, and shove his phone back in his pocket. He clears his throat and bangs on the apartment door, and as soon as Sasha opens it, he sticks his foot in to keep it from closing.

"Hey," Alex says to Sasha's startled face. "Let's get dinner."

 

(When Staal had said, more embarrassed than anything else, that Sasha wasn't in his pack, had never officially joined his pack, and no, they'd never had sex, he promised, and now Sasha is off talking to some of the loup garou in Montreal because that's the only other NHL-adjacent pack he might be able to sync with, Alex's response had been to cuss, accidentally hang up the phone because his hands were so unsteady, call back in a hurry, cuss some more, and finally finish with, "You gotta be fucking with me."

Alex isn't even supposed to know about half the shit that Staal had ended up spilling to him over the phone, a whole mess of ancient werewolf secrets and details that any mythologist, anthropologist, or maybe just a zookeeper would have been stabbing colleagues left and right for. Alex doesn't care about that. He suspects Staal told him most of it out of a sense of mate-slash-homewrecking guilt

Alex ended up begrudgingly revising his opinion of Staal, who, to his credit, got past his anger pretty quickly and seemed to be much more concerned about Sasha and upset with himself for not figuring things out sooner.

"I asked him," Staal said wretchedly, over and over. "Before, and then when it wasn't working out, I asked him, like, all the time if he'd already imprinted or fixed on someone, that I'd help him make it work. That my family's done this before, for years; we know how to explain things to people and get them used to it slowly and all that. It's what we're doing for Jared, since he was the only one of us who was born without it. He said no, there wasn't anyone."

"Imprinting?" Alex asked.

"It's, like, um," Staal said. "Look, did you ever see the last Twilight movie?"

"No?" Alex said.

"Good, don't," Staal said. "It's nothing like that. Well, it's sort of like that."

"What the fuck," Alex said. "Unbelievable. Do you actually fight vampires?"

"Look, I don't have time to give you the complete rundown on the rich tapestry of my people's culture," Staal snapped which Alex figures is as good as a yes. "Here's the crash course.")

 

Sasha lets him inside where he's apparently already eating dinner. Instead of going out, he just dishes a plate up for Alex. He hasn't asked again what Alex is doing here, which is good, because Alex hasn't really prepared a statement on such.

"This is good," Alex says, indicating his pasta.

"Yeah," Sasha says. He taps his fork against the plate. "I don't know the city very well," he says. "I haven't really—I'm working on fitting in."

 

(So, number one: Werewolves need packs and wolves don't mate for life exactly, but werewolves do. Werewolves have mates and they fucking soulbond.

"It's not a soulbond," Staal said irritably. "Seriously, that book and movie were full of shit. Imprinting is just—look, it depends on the kind. For those of us who're born with it, it kicks in once we're older and it's just a feature of what we already have going for us, the sense of smell and the reflexes and all that. It's not bullet proof, it's just you can sorta sense someone who’s a good match for you, that you're attracted to with chemicals and hormones and whatever. You're a little more sensitive and better with your instincts.

"And eventually, if you spend enough time close together, and you like each other, and you… make love," Staal said awkwardly. Alex sniggered, he couldn't help it. "Shut up, Ovechkin. Anyway, you spend enough time together, and you bond. It's hard to explain."

"And Sasha?" Alex prompted.

"God," Staal sighed. "Transfers, you know. Bites. People who get it from being bitten, it's a little different. In the beginning, their whole body's going haywire because it's spreading, so when they start getting attracted, everything's all sped up. You guys apparently got in the sack right after he changed, his body says 'hey, he's the one', and now his body thinks you're his mate. Congrats."

"Can he… stop imprint on me?" he'd asked. Staal sucked in his breath, and Alex struggled to clarify. "No, I don't mean that I don't want it, I just mean, if it what he really want to stop, can he do it?"

"Not really," Staal said. "The thing is, the longer an imprint goes on without, like, both sides settling into a bond, it just becomes one side fixated on the other and it's… not good. Imagine trying to, um, play hockey with only one skate on and one bare foot, it'd be sort of like that. Like, at best, maybe if he had enough aversion therapy, he could break his fixation. I'm not gonna lie, though. It would be pretty fucking brutal for him, and there's no guarantee he won't just burn himself out trying."

Except Alex was pretty sure Sasha's been doing that, and he's already at the point of collapse. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

"So Sasha needs a pack, and he needs mate, and you're suppose to be his pack, and I'm suppose to be his mate. He never work with your pack when he's in Carolina because he's miss his mate—me. Even though I'm not werewolf," Alex said. "I got it all?"

"Yeah," Staal said. "And he—he tried really hard. I wanted him to join us. I wanted him to be okay. He was my responsibility, it was my fault he ended up like that."

"No, it's my fault too," Alex said. "I thought. I  dunno, there's message and this is what he wants, and so I don't stop him from it. I try to help him all the wolf things, but I just make it worse."

"...No offense but I get a very Gift of the Magi vibe off you guys," Staal said after a few seconds.

"What does that mean, I don't care. I'm still gonna punch you sometime," Alex said. "Okay. So. Here's plan.")

 

"I'm going to be bought out pretty soon," Sasha says conversationally. "I'm on reserve right now for my wrist again."

"I bought you a steak but I left it at home," Alex says.

Sasha looks confused by having his own conversational whiplash tactics turned on him. "Uh, we just had dinner."

"No, I bought you a steak back in DC," Alex says. "I was going to give it to you here, but I accidentally left it in my room. Don't worry, it'll be fine; it's dry-aged."

"Okay…?" Sasha says, still baffled.

"I was trying to be creative," Alex admits. "Like, you know with proposals? The ones they put online and all? I almost made Dima and Zhenya and Stasik be a flash mob, but they're really bad at it. So I thought I'd give you a present and make a nice speech and hopefully that would work."

"Work what," Sasha says.

"Betty says hi, by the way. And she hopes your dog is still doing well. I think you always thought I didn't like it, that I was bugging you about a cure and trying to make you run and hunt rabbits because I don't like you being a wolf, I think you have to be fixed, and no. That's not why."

"You don't...?" Sasha says.

"I don't care if we don't play on same team, and I don't care about moons and stuff. I only wanted you to feel better. You can be a werewolf, a vampire, whatever you want. I'm gonna do it too."

Sasha is staring at him with his mouth slightly open, and Alex realizes he's giving what might be the most important speech of his life, outside anything that might happen in the locker room at the overtime of a game seven in the Cup finals, and he's botching it horribly. Somewhere, Staal is probably feeling vaguely pissed off and has no idea why.

"You dumbass, I'm telling you I love you, I made Staal tell me everything about werewolves and you need a pack so here I am, but I have to be back in DC by tomorrow morning so maybe you can say you love me back now," he finishes, and Sasha is still frozen in horror, so Alex leans across the table and then grabs his shirt and kisses him. He puts his elbow in the pasta by mistake.

 

(So, number two.  If Alex wants to be a werewolf and do something about the currently half-functioning soulbond thing-- "It's not a soulbond!" Staal hisses, enraged-- all he has to do is ask nicely. Apparently Jared, despite being born human, has been running with the pack since two years ago, when his brothers finally consented to turn him after enough rounds of So You Actually Want To Be A Werewolf family therapy.

"The lone wolf dies without its pack," Staal said ominously, and Alex said, "You steal that from Game of Thrones," and Staal said, "Yeah, but it's true."

"So, pack have bond and support each other all the time," Alex said.

"It's hard," Staal said.

"You asked about team in DC," Alex said. "Long time ago."

"Human and single wolf team interactions as a pack substitute can work in special cases, and even long term mating is on the table if someone's willing to get hormone supplements, but it's really better if there's at least one other werewolf," Staal said. "Packs are flexible. But he needs, well. Something. It didn't help that he developed a different strain from us, but I guess that's the continental genetic background."

"Your werewolf pack is racist?" Alex said. "Dicks."

"No, God," Staal said, horrified. "But it's like, look, sometimes you just work and the bond doesn't come."

"Sasha is best and your pack is stupid," Alex said. "How can't anyone bond with Sasha? Like, his wrister is sick, unbelievable."

"Look, getting back on topic, it's a big step," Staal said. "You have to be sure you want it. But that's the important thing. There's the people who're born with it, and grow up learning about. And there are the ones who choose it, and they usually have to think about it for a long time too. It's easier when you've had time to prepare. It's a choice."

"I want it," Alex said.)

 

"I didn't want it," Sasha says.

"I know," Alex says.

"I didn't want it, and I wanted you, but I knew if I did, you'd have to change too and I didn't want to make you, I didn't want you to have to choose that," Sasha says.

"I know," Alex says. "But I want you too."

"I can't do that to you," Sasha says, low but with his eyes fixed on Alex, something growing in his face, a blaze.

"I will get every single Staal in the NHL and even the one who isn't to bite me until it takes if you won't," Alex says. "I can do it, all I have to do is wear lots of denim and hold Tim Hortons coffee. I want it. You didn't get to choose, but I am, I'm choosing, and I want it, and I want you, and—please. I want both of us. Even if you get bought out, we can still make it work. I talked to Staal, he says the distance thing doesn't matter as much when the bond gets made properly."

He reaches down into the bag at his feet, and then reaches across the table. "Um, the steak was the first gift. These were all supposed to build to a theme, I had music planned too. But I also got this for you," he says. "Hold out your hand."

Sasha does automatically. Alex puts the second present he bought (express delivery) in Sasha's hand, who looks down, makes a startled squawk, and promptly drops it on the table.

"Is that…" he asks.

"It seemed more meaningful when I bought it," Alex admits. "But I'd had a lot of sherry at the time. Betty is a dangerous woman. I'm not sure she actually has a weak heart, you know."

The werewolf dildo rolls back and forth a little on the table, still settling.

"Anyway, they have other models—" Alex starts to say, when Sasha knocks it off the table as he hauls Alex over to him, standing up too, reaching for him. "Is that a yes?" Alex asks as Sasha cups Alex's face in both his hands and was kissing him, on his mouth, his face, his neck, hard and almost desperate, until Alex grabs Sasha back around the waist to steady himself, to bring them together.

"We can't," Sasha say hoarsely, still kissing him. "We can't, you know we can't—"

"Yes, we can," Alex said, as he stares Sasha in the eyes, grinning uncontrollably and feeling happier than any championship win or goal scored, more powerful than any hit, more hopeful and ready than any first skate onto a clean sheet of ice, or a first run onto a snow-covered field, stretching away all shining-white and perfect, an endless expanse of opportunity. "Sasha, we can. Both of us. Together. We can do anything."