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August is so hot and humid in Columbus that Alex can feel it even as he steps off the plane and walks up the jetbridge. It's enough to get Alex that little bit more excited for the season to start—and he was already pretty excited. He booked his flight for a couple weeks before training camp because of that excitement, and it means he’ll have plenty of time to settle in before hockey really begins.

There’s time for that later, though: as soon as he gets to his apartment, he doesn’t do more than open all the windows to let it air out before crawling into bed. He sleeps most of the jet lag off, even if he does still wake up a bit earlier than he normally would.

When Alex starts combing his phone contacts to see who is around, he’s surprised to find that Anton is one of the few that is. Alex promptly invites himself to hang out with him the next day, and they catch up over drinks.

“Once Will and Daniel get in we should have a Swedish Mafia hangout,” Alex declares. Anton raises an eyebrow at him over his beer, but that’s more of a reaction to the nickname than the hangout idea, Alex is pretty sure. “We could go paintballing?”

Anton shakes his head. “What about golfing?”

Not that Alex is opposed to golfing, but it’s definitely something he’s done this summer already. “Maybe we could book the Pedal Wagon?” he suggests. He’s trying to embrace Columbus this year, really get to know it for what makes it special.

“Or we could go golfing,” says Anton dryly.

“Golfing it is,” agrees Alex with a sigh.

After Alex and Anton—okay, it’s mostly Alex, but he did make Anton help a couple times—berate Will and Daniel via text for a good week and change, they eventually drag their asses to the grand state of Ohio, and the “mafia” is finally able to nail down a time and place for this golf game.

Alex catches a ride to the golf course with Anton, and they meet Will and Daniel there. Alex is full of excess energy; it’s always good to see the boys at the start of every season. He greets Daniel in the clubhouse with an enthusiastic hug, then hesitates for a moment when he turns to Will.

He doesn’t know him as well as the other two, and he’s unsure whether Will’s a handshake or a fist bump kind of guy, so he kind of tries to go for both at once by stepping in and extending his hand half-curled into a fist. Will looks at him a little quizzically and bumps Alex’s sorta-fist. Alex tries to recover by doing a little explosion thing as he pulls his hand away, but Will just looks a little confused. Good start, Alex thinks.

Will seems to shake it off, though, so it’s not all bad. “How was your summer?” he asks.

“Oh, good,” Alex says. “How was yours?”

“Good,” Will says, nodding.

Well, that was a fascinating conversation they just had. Alex scrambles for something else to talk about, but Daniel rescues him: “You guys ready to go?”

“I was born ready,” Alex declares, relieved. He picks up his golf clubs and heads for the door, trusting his fellow mafiosos to follow. “I hope you’re all ready to lose.”

Anton snorts. “Keep dreaming.”

As they step out onto the course, Will frowns up at the sky. “Looking kind of cloudy,” he observes.

“Is that an excuse to get out of playing so you don’t have to lose to me?” Alex asks.

Will grins. “No, it was an offer for you to back out before I beat your ass so bad you go crying back home to Sweden.”

“Oooooh,” says Daniel dramatically. Will high fives him.

Alex wants a hype man too, but the only other person here is Anton. He may be excellent at stopping a puck, but being a hype man isn’t really in his skill set. “Oh, you’re definitely in for it now,” says Alex as threateningly as he can. He’ll just have to be his own hype man.

“Stop arguing and let’s go,” Anton says, proving Alex’s thoughts correct. Alex flashes Will a confident smirk, then hops into the golf cart Anton has just commandeered. Alex can hear Will and Daniel muttering, probably plotting his downfall, so Alex turns around in his seat to make a face at them, pointing at them and then down before miming an explosion. Will shakes his head incredulously and turns away. Alex immediately feels kind of stupid, but whatever. He’s going to own it.

Unfortunately, they have just enough time for Alex to take a picture for Twitter, chirp Will about how brightly coloured his shirt is, and absolutely fail to put on a good performance at both the first and second holes before it starts raining. They head back to the clubhouse, Alex desperately trying to defend himself the whole way.

“I was planning on making a comeback,” he says as they duck through the door and out of the rain. “I’m clutch on the later holes, I swear. I just wanted to give you all a false sense of security.”

“You lost,” Daniel says, deadpan. “The game’s over early, and your score was shit.”

“I’m good at golfing,” Alex insists.

“My lie detector is going haywire,” Anton says. “Hear that beeping?”

“There isn’t any beeping,” Alex says, rolling his eyes. “I’m not lying. It’s gonna stop raining and you’re all going to eat your words.”

“Yeah, get back to us when that actually happens,” Daniel says, shrugging.

Alex huffs. Will leans over to him and stage whispers, “Hey, loser.”

“Nope,” Alex says, looking in the other direction. Will laughs and nudges Alex’s arm with his own. Alex keeps looking away, biting his lip to keep from laughing himself. When he’s sure he’s got the laughter under control, he looks back at the table. Everyone is ignoring him entirely and looking at their phones, so Alex gets his out as well. He taps the weather app, wondering if it’ll actually stop raining anytime soon.

“Not sure how long this rain is gonna last,” Daniel says. “Might be awhile.”

Alex frowns at his screen. “Doesn’t look too bad to me.”

“You would say that,” Anton says, glancing up from his phone. “But I’m not sure either.”

“We could stick around for a bit, try and wait it out,” Daniel suggests. “Not that Alex is going to be winning anything today, but he’s pretty funny to watch when he’s losing.”

Alex is offended, but he sighs loudly and pointedly instead of arguing. He’s going to take the high road on this one. Anton nods at Daniel’s words, and Will sits back in his chair and tips it slightly, then lets himself fall forward again. “I hate it when my golf groove gets interrupted,” Will complains.

“Your golf groove?” Anton repeats.

“Yeah, the groove,” Alex says, nodding at Will. “I get you.”

“It’s annoying to be stuck in here when we just got started,” Daniel agrees.

“Can’t argue with that,” Anton says, sighing and looking down at his phone again. They’re all quiet for a bit, dicking around on their phones and periodically looking out the window. Alex exhausts checking his social media after a few refreshes and idly opens the Google app instead.

“Oh, hey,” he says, “football’s on tomorrow!”

Anton and Daniel both groan, which Alex expected from them, but Will nods. “Yeah, against Russia. Should be a great match.”

“Yeah!” Alex says too enthusiastically. He tries to scale it back. “I mean, yes, definitely, Sweden looking for a big win. I’m pretty confident, though. What do you think?” He just barely stops himself from actually holding his breath in anticipation of Will’s answer. If Will’s as into Swedish football as Alex is, Alex might actually be able to talk to someone who cares in person more than once in a blue moon.

“Oh, yeah, same,” Will says. “With Zlatan in the line-up? They don’t have a chance.”

Alex nods enthusiastically. “Yeah, no joke. Did you see his goal against Montenegro?”

Will makes a noise of appreciation. “Hell yes I did. That poor goalie had no chance.”

“Right? When I was watching it, I was like, good God, man, that goalie had a family,” Alex says.

Will starts laughing. “And that celebration? A somersault? Legend.”

“Jesus,” Anton says, rolling his eyes. “Should’ve known you two together would be trouble.”

“No, no,” Daniel says, elbowing Anton. “This is perfect. Now they can bore each other instead of us.”

Alex makes a face at them. “It’s not our fault you don’t appreciate our nation’s second-best sport,” he says. He stretches out his arm and rests it on the back of Will’s chair. “Will’s my new best friend.”

“What he said,” Will says, nodding.

Alex is so busy swearing at his TV when Russia scores against Sweden the next day that he doesn’t see Will’s text until the goal has already been ruled offside. Thankfully, FUCK RUSSIA is pretty much a timeless statement when it comes to sports.

Alex sends him back a string of angry face emojis, and then Sweden needs to pick it up though and some prayer emojis.

Will sends back his own prayer emojis, and they text back and forth through most of the game. They’re both pretty confident Sweden will be able to make a comeback, even after Russia scores a good goal, but then Zlatan goes off with an injury and all bets are off.

The game ends 1-0 Russia, but Alex doesn’t even mind that much. He had at least as much fun picking appropriate reaction emojis and getting Will’s by-the-minute thoughts as he did actually watching the match.

We should do this again, he sends impulsively.

Yeah!! Will responds with a couple happy emojis. Next game? We could hang out in person.

Sure! :), Alex types. He erases the exclamation point, then puts it back and takes out the smiley face, then groans at himself, adds the smiley back in, and sends it before he tries to tweak it again. Mine or yours? he adds quickly.

Is yours furnished with more than a mattress and Ikea boxes? If so…

Alex laughs out loud at Will’s text. He remembers those days from when he was first settling in Columbus well. No worries, he texts back. My place is good with me.

Will shows up early for the game, which would be fine, except Alex wasn’t anticipating that at all. He’s slightly awkward for a minute, offering Will a drink and snacks or whatever he wants, but Will just shrugs and accepts a beer before settling in on the couch.

“Might be in the mood for a snack later, we’ll see,” Will says. “We watching on your laptop, or…”

Alex nods, then shakes his head. “Well, I have it set up to play on the TV,” he explains.

“Sweet,” Will says, nodding approvingly. “Very high-tech.”

“It wasn’t too hard,” Alex says, shrugging and sitting down on the other end of the couch.

“Still,” Will says. “I can’t even put together my furniture.”

Alex laughs. “Do you, like, need some help with that? Because I’m pretty handy, by which I mean I own a drill…”

Will hums around the top of his beer bottle as he drinks. “Yeah,” he says when he’s swallowed. “That would actually be nice. I’ll call you when I get tired of the boxes.”

“For sure,” Alex says. “Anytime.” Will smiles at him. There’s another one of those slightly awkward pauses, where they both want to continue the conversation but don’t have anything to say.

Alex bravely soldiers on through the awkwardness. “So,” he says, “what do you think of Austria’s chances?”

“Well, I wouldn’t bet against Sweden even if I weren’t Swedish,” Will replies. “I’m glad Zlatan’s back in, at least.”

“Good man,” Alex says, nodding approvingly. “Me too. I guess we’ll see what happens.”

“I guess so,” Will agrees.

What happens is a lot of mutual screaming at the TV and loud cheering when Zlatan scores. But unfortunately it’s only Zlatan who scores, and the game ends with a score of 4-1 for the bad guys. Alex and Will lapse into an annoyed silence.

“At least it was a fun game,” Will says eventually, sighing. He’s absentmindedly eating sliced up cucumber from a container Alex had given him near the end of the second half and staring glumly at the now blank TV.

“Yeah,” Alex agrees. He wonders if Will is going to leave now that the game is over and selfishly hopes he doesn’t. Yelling at the game together is the easiest talking to Will has been, and Alex is determined that they’re going to be able to talk about other things as well. Eventually. Maybe Alex should ask if Will wants to stay for dinner or something.

Will finishes the cucumbers and puts the empty container on the coffee table. Alex opens his mouth to suggest dinner, but Will beats him to it. “Do you still have that guitar?” he asks.

“Do I—what?” Alex asks, taken aback.

“Your guitar,” Will says. “Is it here?”

“Uh, yeah,” Alex says. “Why?”

“You should get it out, man,” Will says. “Play us some cheer-up tunes.”

No one ever asks Alex to get out his guitar. In fact, they’re way more likely to tell him to put it away. Alex is not going to let this opportunity pass him by. “Sure, totally,” he says, getting up and going to retrieve the guitar.

By his own admission, there’s nothing Alex loves more than putting on a good show. The feel of Will’s eyes on him as he strums a few practice chords sends a thrill of anticipation up his spine. “What do you wanna hear?” he asks.

“One Direction,” Will says immediately.

Alex was expecting, like, Wonderwall; that’s what people always seem to ask for. “You serious?”

“I’m always serious about One Direction,” Will says solemnly.

Alex shrugs and Googles the chords to “What Makes You Beautiful,” the only One Direction song he knows. He wants them to be friends, and if what Will wants to hear is some cheesy pop music, Alex doesn’t really mind making that happen. He’s gratified when Will immediately goes back to smiling wide and then starts singing. Badly.

Alex stops playing after about three lines. “Good God, shut up, dude. You’re disgracing your favourite band.”

That was supposed to be a chirp, but Will laughs instead, looking unfazed. “1D doesn’t care,” he says. “1D respects enthusiasm. They would, for example, really respect the way you think you’re a good golfer.”

“That game was a fluke!” Alex insists, and Will looks extremely skeptical. Alex has half a mind to suggest they go to a golf course right now to settle this, but then he gets ahold of himself and returns his focus to the guitar.

He goes back to playing—whatever comes to mind, really. A couple more pop tunes, an ABBA song he picked up because it’s his cultural heritage and he’s proud of it. He does feel better when he’s done, and from the smile on Will’s face, he does too.

“You want to stay for dinner?” Alex asks as he puts up the guitar. They’ve been hanging out all day, but—whatever, he doesn’t want it to be over yet.

“Of course I’ll stay,” says Will. “What are we having?”

“Whatever you’re paying for us to order in, ‘cause I don’t have any food,” Alex says, and Will throws a pillow at him.

Just as he promised, Will texts Alex a couple days later: I’m tired of the boxes :( What are you up to?

Alex looks around his living room. He’s “up to” scrolling through an ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend’s sister’s instagram, and he’s back in 2011, so it would probably be good for him to get out of the house. Nothing much! he replies, which is a strong contender for understatement of the year. Want me to come help you put some stuff together in a bit?? I’ll bring my drill.

Will responds almost instantly with what looks like every heart emoji in his keyboard. Alex feels a little flattered, which is stupid, but at least there’s no one around to see his pleased expression. So he enjoys being appreciated; that’s not a crime. I’ll take that as a yes lol!! See you in 30 or so he sends with a couple thumbs up emojis on the end.

He starts to pat himself on the back for carrying on a perfectly normal text interaction with Will that had nothing at all to do with football, and then he realizes he’s missing a key piece of information. …btw where do you live??

Alex doesn’t recognize the address, but once he drives up, he remembers the row of condos by sight. Somebody who works for the team knows the landlord and they’re willing to rent month to month to the players, so lots of younger guys end up staying there. Alex has never lived here himself, but he has had dinner at half these places.

Even if he didn’t have Will’s address, he would know which of the condos belonged to him—as would half the block, judging by the volume at which obnoxious pop music that is probably One Direction is blaring out of the open window. It’s actually so loud that Alex isn’t sure Will’s going to be able to hear him knocking, so he tries the door: it’s unlocked.

Alex debates internally for a second, then shrugs and lets himself in. If Will cares, he shouldn’t be leaving his door open in the first place.

Judging by the way he grins and gets up to turn the music down when he sees Alex, Will doesn’t mind. Alex, on the other hand, feels his jaw drop open at the disaster area that is Will’s living room. He’s committed a cardinal Ikea sin and opened three or four projects at once, their unlabelled parts scattered across every available surface. This is going to take hours.

Alex hears some snickering to his left and turns to Will, who looks not at all ashamed and, in fact, mostly amused. Will shrugs at the horrified expression still on Alex’s face, which is a whole new level of appalling. “When I got stuck I just started a new one, you know?”

“You know better than this, Will. Our motherland raised you better than this,” says Alex, disappointment heavy in his voice. He shakes his head slowly, then sets down his drill and rolls up his sleeves. “Let’s do this,” he says grimly.

They start with a coffee table, because that’s the closest box to Alex, and also it seems simple. After the fourth time Will reads one of the steps out loud and Alex can’t find the right piece, Alex is gritting his teeth and preparing for a day of stress. When Will hands him yet another baggie of screws that are not the right kind and then huffs when Alex tells him so, Alex huffs right back. “Maybe if you hadn’t opened four things at once, this wouldn’t be a problem,” he mutters.

“Whoa,” Will says. “I’m looking, it’s not my fault everything looks the same.”

Alex rolls his eyes. “There are pictures,” he points out.

“Yes, I’m looking at those, too,” Will says as he picks another baggie out of a pile. “Here, are these the right ones?”

They are, thankfully, because Alex doesn’t particularly want to know what the next passive aggressive thing out of his own mouth was going to be.

It takes awhile before Will stops trying to jump ahead and give Alex things before he’s ready, but eventually Alex mostly trains him out of it and things start to go more smoothly. They keep bumping hands because Will doesn’t seem to be able to stop himself from trying to get involved, though…except for when he gets distracted by singing along to 1D, that is.

“Okay, I got the legs on, now what?”

Never thought it’d hurt so bad, getting over you-ooh,” Will harmonizes poorly.

“Will,” says Alex, a little louder.

OW! You’re giving me a heart attack, lookin’ like you do-ooh,” Will continues, completely ignoring Alex.

Well, Alex isn’t going to stand for that. In a clearly mature and appropriate response, he scrounges for a packet of screws and throws them at Will. It hits him right in the cheek, and Will says “Ow,” again, right in time with the song. Alex cracks up, leaning on the half-assembled chair for support.

“Don’t disrespect my One Direction jam session, man,” says Will.

“It’s amazing how bad you are at singing for how much you do it. You’d think you’d get better eventually,” Alex says. “Also, you really like them, huh?”

Will raises his eyebrows. “Yep,” he says, giving Alex a hard look.

Alex fights the urge to put his hands up in surrender. “I mean, that’s… fine,” he says.

Will nods. “Anyway,” he says pointedly, “I’ve just gotta keep practising, so when they ask me to replace Zayn as the new fifth member, I’m ready.”

Alex squints at him. “Didn’t they, like, break up, though?”

Will throws the packet of screws back hard. “Never. One Direction is eternal,” he insists, and this time Alex does hold up his hands. “They’re just taking a temporary break, that’s all,” Will adds, utterly confident.

Alex is skeptical, but Will’s got lots more projectiles around him than Alex does, and training camp starts in two days. It would be really difficult to explain to Coach Richards why Alex has, say, a scratched cornea when the story involves insulting One Direction.

 

Alex hasn’t forgotten his goal of trying to get to know Columbus more, he just set it aside for a while. It’s kind of dumb to live in a city for a year and not go anywhere but the arena, his apartment, the mall, and a handful of bars and restaurants. The day before training camp starts, Alex doesn’t have any plans, so he’s half-heartedly googling Columbus, looking for something interesting to do.

This is how he finds the Segway Tours site.

It sounds incredibly stupid, but also like it could be sort of fun with the right person or people. Alex debates who to ask, scrolling through his contacts—whoever he asks is surely going to chirp the hell out of him, but he can handle that. He just needs someone who will eventually say yes.

Before he even gets to the end, he thinks of Will. They bickered for most of afternoon the day before, but they did finish assembling all of Will’s stuff, and Alex kind of wants to hang out with him again anyway. He copies the link to the website and sends it to Will, crossing his fingers once he taps send.

Will replies quickly, with three crying laughing emojis. Great start.

You in or what, says Alex. It’s probably best to get the chirping over with as quickly as possible.

Wait really? Will replies.

Sure, Alex sends back. Idk I just think it might be dumb and fun.

Will sends three thumbs up emojis, and then I’m always up for dumb and fun!

Alex raises his eyebrows at his phone, faintly shocked. He had not been expecting that to be that easy. He swings by and picks Will up half an hour later, because Will doesn’t have a car and Alex is always happy to show his off.

“So what made you decide you wanted to go on a Segway tour of Columbus? Do I even want to know?” says Will as they pull away from his place.

Alex shrugs and keeps his eyes on the road. “I dunno, I just feel like, I’ve lived here for a year now and I don’t know much about it, and I want to?”

“That’s cool,” says Will. Alex isn’t looking at him, but he sounds sincere. “I’ve been moving around all over the last few years, so. I get it.”

Alex remembers the way Anton had rolled his eyes at his suggestions a few weeks ago and feels a little warm all over at Will’s casual understanding. “Also because it’s going to be hilarious,” he says instead of something sappy.

“That part’s really important,” says Will solemnly.

It is, as expected, hilarious. Alex picks up the Segway leaning like he was born to it, which is a weird talent but not one he’s complaining about. Will, on the other hand, keeps overbalancing one way or another and in the ten minutes they have to practice before the tour actually starts, he falls off no less than six times.

By the sixth time, Alex is laughing so hard that he almost falls off. “Oh, shut up,” Will gripes good-naturedly. “We can’t all be the Segway King.”

“Is that gonna be my new nickname in the locker room?” Alex jokes.

“Screw the locker room, I’m gonna get them to call you the Segway King on TV,” Will says as he climbs back onto his poor Segway.

Ultimately, Will’s problem is that he’s leaning like he’s on the ice, which is too much for the Segway. Once he figures that out, he does fine, and the guide only watches him carefully for part of the tour.

The tour itself is actually pretty interesting. It’s focused around the rivers and bridges of Columbus, and there are some really lovely views of the city as well as some interesting tidbits of its history. The tour also stops by Nationwide, and Alex and Will carefully recede to the back of the group.

“Historically, well…they haven’t always been one of the best teams in the NHL. But they’ve got a lot of great young players on the roster these days; I’d say their future is looking bright,” says the guide. It’s actually really nice to hear someone saying something like that not knowing that players from the team are right there; it shows it’s what she really thinks.

It is pretty funny, though. Alex glances over at Will to find that Will is looking at him and trying not to—smile or laugh, it’s hard to say. Either way, Alex winks at him to see if it’ll set him off, and he’s intensely gratified when Will immediately has a coughing fit that does a really poor job of hiding his laughter.

The tour wraps up after about two hours, with the group returning to their departure point and splitting into the twos and threes in which they arrived. Conversation with Will on the ride home is easy: they chat about some of the cooler things they saw, jam out to “I Can’t Feel My Face” when it comes on the radio, and discuss what they’ve heard about training camp tomorrow. It feels like a long time ago that the two of them could barely stumble through a non-football related conversation.

Alex idles outside Will’s place for a few minutes as Will finishes his story about training camp in Anaheim. Will checks the clock when he’s done and says, “Guess I better get going; Anton’s going to be here in an hour.”

“Social butterfly today, huh?” says Alex curiously.

“We’re going to see Taylor Swift,” Will says with a grin.

“How the hell did you convince Anton to do that?” Alex says.

Will’s grin turns the slightest bit evil. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things I know, Wenny.”

Well, that’s mildly terrifying. Alex laughs anyway, because anything’s funny when you’re not the target. Either way, Will looks pleased. He unbuckles his seatbelt and makes to get out of the car, but then stops, his hand on the handle. “Hey, thanks for thinking of me today,” Will says. “It was fun.”

“It was,” Alex agrees as Will opens the door for real this time and climbs out of the car. “I’ll call you again next time I get another fun and dumb idea.”

“Looking forward to it!” says Will over his shoulder.

Training camp goes as easily as it ever does, which is to say Alex is perpetually exhausted in the best way, and it soon gives way to the preseason. With all his focus on getting ready for the season, Alex’s birthday kind of sneaks up on him; he abruptly realizes it’s in a few days when he’s fucking around on his phone one night, trying to wind down before bed. In the exhaustion of the moment, he almost decides to just let it pass by without fanfare, but a moment later he realizes he’s being ridiculous. His birthday is the one day he’s actually allowed to demand everybody shower him with praise, and he’ll be damned if he’s not going to take advantage.

They have a convenient free evening the day after his birthday, and Alex makes sure everybody knows when and where they’re invited to join him for drinks and dancing—no presents required, he tells the team in the locker room, but he won’t turn them down. He follows that up with a wink in Will’s direction just because he knows it’ll make him laugh. He’s not disappointed.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to Alex that Will is the first to show up at the bar, but it is. “Hey, man,” Alex says, pulling him to hug and slap on the back. “You’re early.”

“Better to be fashionably early than fashionably late, my mother always said,” Will says, taking a step back and spinning to show off his admittedly nice dinner jacket. Alex’s eyes catch on how tight Will’s jeans are below that, and he has to look away quickly.

“And your mother picked out your outfit for you, too, huh?” Alex teases.

Will punches him in the shoulder and rolls his eyes, not bothering to reply before leaning across the bar and getting the attention of the bartender.

They have a booth reserved, and Alex heads in that direction once Will’s got his drink. Will settles in next to him, and more of the guys start to arrive, slowly filling up the booth. Alex situates himself near the edge so he can both talk to everyone and jump up to go to the dance floor when a good song comes on.

It doesn’t escape him that Will sticks by his side for most of the night. There are a few times they get separated on the dance floor, but they always end up finding each other again, even if it’s just waving from across the room. Alex is kind of surprised by how much he likes it.

Later in the night, almost the time Alex would be expecting some of the older guys who came to make their goodbyes, a “Live While We're Young” remix comes on, and Alex automatically gets up from the booth before Will can even nudge him. He hesitates once he’s standing, stuck on how quick he’d been to do that, but Will doesn’t let him think about it for long, grabbing his hand and dragging him onto the dance floor.

They’re neither of them great dancers, but they’re always committed. Will steps in closer than they usually dance, and Alex puts his hands on his hips to steady him as he leans in. “I knew you loved them,” Will says loudly into Alex’s ear.

Alex’s heart is beating too quickly. He wonders if Will ever thinks about how attractive Alex is, then pretends he never considered that. “Who?” he says dumbly. Will laughs and points upward, clearly indicating the music. He straightens up, and Alex flexes his fingers, only just stopping himself from gripping tighter. He swallows hard. “You wore me down, I guess,” he says, leaning in himself now.

“Didn’t take long,” Will says, and Alex is still trying to figure out what to say to that when the chorus of the song hits and Will is bouncing away from him, whipping his hair around with abandon. Alex bursts into laughter, barely able to keep dancing himself. He can tell Will is singing, too, and he’s glad there’s no way to hear him here. At a look and a gesture from Will, Alex joins in.

“Those were some moves,” Alex says to Will when the song ends and they’re making their way back to the booth.

Will runs his hands through his hair, pushing it back and out of his face. “They don’t call me Wild Bill for nothing,” he says. “I think I’m gonna go get another drink, actually, you want anything?”

“Nah, I’m good for right now,” Alex says.

Will nods. “See you in a minute.”

Alex slides into the surprisingly empty booth next to Cam, who looks up when Alex nudges him. “How’s it going?” Alex asks, always worried to see someone alone when he’s supposed to be sure they’re having fun. “Did everyone else leave?”

Cam shakes his head. “Nah, they’re somewhere here,” he says. “Nobody wanted to leave without saying goodbye to you.”

“Right, right,” Alex says.

“Where’d Will go?” Cam asks.

“Getting a drink,” Alex says.

Cam nods, spinning his own almost-empty glass on the table a couple times. “Surprised you came back without him. You two have been attached at the hip all night,” he says, tone taking on a teasing tone that Alex is pretty sure spells trouble.

Alex shrugs it off. “Swedes, you know,” he says, conscious of trying to be casual even though there’s no reason to not be casual.

“Uh huh,” Cam says, raising his eyebrows doubtfully as he finishes off his drink. “Is that all?”

“Yes?” Alex says.

Thankfully, Ryan and Boone choose that moment to come back. “Dude,” Ryan says to Cam, “Dubi looks like he’s about to fight this one guy.”

“Seriously, it’s looking dangerous,” Boone says, nodding.

“Ah, shit,” Cam says, already moving to get up. “I’d better go deal with that. Wenny, happy birthday and goodbye in case I don’t see you again.”

“Thanks, man,” Alex says.

“And tell Will I say bye, too,” Cam adds, waggling his eyebrows at Alex before he turns to go, following Ryan and Boone to wherever Dubi is getting ready to throw down.

“Uh,” Alex says to the empty air, “okay.”

Alex is still waiting for the day when he’s going to get sick of Will, but he has yet to see any sign of it. Two days after his birthday party, Will grabs him after practice. “Hey, Anton doesn’t have any food in his apartment and wants to go try this new restaurant. Do we have any plans?”

Alex’s heart stops, just for a second, at that “we”. And then his brain turns back on, and he remembers that he’s Will’s ride everywhere, so “we” makes sense.

“Nah, that sounds good to me,” says Alex, mostly casually.

Will beams at him, then cuffs his shoulder gently. “Then hurry up and get your shit together, Wenny, I’m starving.” Naturally, Alex takes that as a cue to re-organize his things as slowly and methodically as possible.

When they do eventually get to the restaurant, the waitress smiles at them and grabs two menus without asking about the size of their party. “We’re meeting a friend,” Will clarifies, and she looks genuinely surprised for a second, which is long enough for Alex’s stomach to twist itself into a knot. He wishes he could stop this new habit of reading into things so much; he’s going to drive himself insane at this rate.

Anton raises an eyebrow at them as they approach the table. “Will texts me to say you’re gonna come, and then forty minutes later you show up? What, did you get lost on your way out of the arena?”

“Will tried to rush me,” says Alex with a smirk, dropping into the seat on the empty side of the table. Anton stands so Will can slide in next to him, which he does, then rolls his eyes.

“So he was a drama queen about it, ‘cause of course he was,” Will says.

“Wenny, a drama queen?” says Anton, faking shock.

“Hmph,” says Alex, as dramatically as he can muster, and opens his menu to block them from his view. All three of them crack up.

As it happens, the restaurant is pretty good. Alex is happy with his steak, Anton’s salmon looks great, and Will’s so delighted by his fancy mac and cheese that he insists they both try it. It’s tasty, but Will obviously enjoyed it more, judging by the way he’s now leaned back in his chair, hands folded over his stomach, eyes closed against the sun.

“You look like a cat,” says Anton. Alex scrunches his nose reflexively, which Will opens his eyes just in time to catch.

Naturally, he starts laughing. “I still don’t understand why you hate cats so much,” says Will.

“They’re the worst!” says Alex emphatically. “They don’t like us, they just use us for food and shelter. They’re mean.”

“What you mean is they don’t like you,” says Anton.

“No! I mean, no, they don’t, but also, they’re objectively the worst,” Alex insists.

“Hmmmm, I don’t know, kittens are pretty cute…Will, you heard of the Kitten Academy livestream?” says Anton.

“Is that as cute as it sounds like it is?” says Will eagerly. Anton immediately pulls out his phone, and in short order, both he and Will are cooing at the screen.

“Cool, glad we went out to dinner so you two could watch cat videos,” says Alex, rolling his eyes.

They completely ignore him. “Oh my God, look at that one,” says Will in a hushed, awed voice.

Alex hates being ignored even more than he hates cats, so he pulls out his own phone, but it doesn’t look like there’s anything happening on Twitter. Or Instagram. Or anywhere, apparently, other than the fucking Kitten Academy. With nothing else to distract him, he pulls up his camera app—and considers taking a selfie, but then has a better idea.

‘Let’s go to dinner and hang out they said. It’ll be fun they said… #social’ he captions the picture he takes across the table. The likes and retweets start rolling in immediately, and Alex feels gratified. All’s fair in love and social media, after all.

The rest of the preseason passes in the comfortable routine of practices and games. The team is looking good, even as the roster is narrowed down to what it'll be on opening night. Alex is feeling good about it, looking forward to the season starting more and more each day.

After practice the day before their home opener, the team starts talking about game day suits. Because it’s them, it quickly devolves into ragging on Ryan for his terrible fashion sense and trying to berate him into buying something that actually fits.

“Seriously, go today so you don’t look like a mess tomorrow. We have the afternoon off, and you can take the Swedes with you,” Nick says. “They have actual fashion sense.”

“Yeah, I’ll go with you,” Alex says immediately. He hadn’t been looking forward to trying to occupy himself for the rest of the day, anyway.

“No, I—” Ryan starts, but Will interrupts him by clapping a hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll come, too,” he says. “Really, dude, it’s for the best.”

Ryan rolls his eyes. “I could pick something myself,” he mutters, but he doesn’t protest further than that, and they make plans to meet at the mall in an hour. Alex is, as ever, Will’s ride, so he refuses to take him home and drags him out for lunch instead—though it’s not like Will complains about it at all.

They get to the mall considerably before Ryan and quickly get tired of waiting, so they wander into the closest store to entertain themselves. It’s one of those stores that seems to be comprised mostly of random things, and Alex amuses himself by picking everything up and either trying it on or doing something stupid with it to make Will laugh. Will starts doing it as well, and when he picks up a small lobster figurine and pretends to be afraid of its claws, Alex nearly falls over laughing.

“Hold that pose,” he tells Will, holding up his phone. Will does so with gusto, looking absolutely terrified, and Alex has to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing too hard to take a steady picture.

“Let me see,” Will demands, putting the lobster down, and Alex tilts his phone screen toward him. “Oh, perfect.”

“My new lock screen,” Alex teases, and Will laughs, rolling his eyes and walking away. Alex abruptly wonders if that sounded too sincere.

Regardless, Alex is considering actually setting the picture as his lock screen, or at least posting it somewhere, when his phone vibrates with a text from Ryan, telling them where to meet him.

When they finally catch up with Ryan, it’s to find him looking through a rack of suit jackets. He pulls a grey one off, studying it, and when he notices them, turns and holds it up. “Yes?”

“Boring,” Alex proclaims.

“I think the question is more whether that’s your size,” Will says.

“Sure it is,” Ryan says. “This is the size I always buy.”

Will and Alex both say no at nearly the same time. “You’re going to get properly measured right now,” Alex says. “Let’s go find a salesperson.”

They don’t have to look very hard; one seems to just appear, as salespeople often do, and they leave a disgruntled Ryan in his capable hands for now. Will takes off his snapback and hands it to Alex, who gives Will an unimpressed look, then balances it on top of his own hat and raises his eyebrows.

“You look stupid,” Will says, but he’s grinning. Alex grins back and leaves the hat where it is.

Will starts trying on various hats, looking at Alex for approval after each one. Alex nods at most of them, mostly because he thinks Will looks good in basically anything, but his face must betray him when Will turns and looks at him from under the brim of one in a way that makes Alex’s stomach flip strangely, because Will looks satisfied with himself and goes off to buy the hat.

By the time he’s done that and Alex has given Will back his original hat, Ryan is trying suits on, so they go hang around the dressing room and make him turn around and walk back and forth like a model whenever he comes out for an opinion.

“It’s so weird seeing you wearing something that fits,” Will marvels, teasing.

“And in a colour scheme that doesn’t make me want to fall asleep,” Alex adds. “Damn, Murr, you’ll be beating them off with a stick looking like that.”

“Oh, shut up,” Ryan says. “It’s just a suit.” He tugs on the lapels as he looks in the mirror, then shrugs. “I guess it does look good, though.”

“There you go, buddy,” Alex says approvingly.

While they're waiting for Ryan to pay, Alex wanders over by the door, then realizes the light is right for the window to serve as a pretty good mirror and adjusts his hat.

"Oh, come on," Will says in Swedish, tugging him away from the window, "you're hot, we all know."

"I was just—”

“Besides,” Will interrupts, “there’s an actual mirror over here.” He pulls Alex to the other side of the cash register and holds up his phone. “Let’s take a selfie.”

There has never been a time that Alex has said no to that, so he leans against the counter and poses, waiting until Will tells him he’s got it and then insisting on seeing the picture. He’s making a stupid face in it, and he shakes his head. “Take it again,” he says.

“Why?” Will asks. “You look good.”

“Shut up, no,” Alex says, turning Will’s shoulders to face the mirror again. “Again.”

He schools his face better this time, and he declares it good when Will shows him. “Thank God,” Will says. “I wasn’t going to stand here all day just so you could look the slightest bit different on Instagram, you drama queen.”

Alex huffs. “I was making a face,” he complains. “Just because you looked good—”

“All right, all right,” Ryan interrupts. “Stop flirting with each other in Swedish and speak a language I actually understand, huh? I feel a little left out, boys, honestly.”

“Yeah,” Will says, in English this time, looking straight at Alex and raising his eyebrows the slightest bit. “Don’t flirt with me in Swedish, Wenny.”

Alex blinks. What is that supposed to mean? Alex stands still, trying to figure out a good response even as Ryan and Will head out the door. He doesn’t come up with anything, and besides—Will had to have been just continuing Ryan’s joke. He shakes it off, hurrying after them before they can get too far away.

The morning of the season opener dawns bright and crisp, the first bite of fall in the air, and Alex feels on top of the world. The Jackets had the whole hockey world talking last spring with their late win streak, they traded for Saad this summer, and they played well all preseason. It feels like everyone’s watching them; it feels like this could be their year.

The only thing he feels bad about is that Will’s watching this game from the press box. Will keeps a smile on his face, because he’s Will, but before Alex goes off to get dressed he bumps his shoulder into Will’s. He’d say something, but probably that would just make it worse—and anyway, he’s sure it’s temporary. Will is too good not to draw into the lineup sooner rather than later.

A few hours and about six shifts later, as Alex is heading off down the tunnel with what he’s sure in his bones is a concussion, he can’t help but think that he didn’t mean this soon.

They lose the game, and then the Jackets head off to New York without him. Alex can’t watch the games, but he makes his mom give him updates when she calls to check on him.

“The game…wasn’t good, gubben,” she says Sunday morning. “So you need to be patient and get all the way better, because they need you at your best.”

“I know, Mom,” says Alex, barely keeping the eye roll out of his voice. He knows she’s just trying to help, but this isn’t his first concussion. He knows the drill by now.

After he hangs up with her, he’s not expecting any other human contact for the rest of the day, which is a depressing concept, but probably for the best. For one thing, he hasn’t showered today, and for another, non-concussed people are usually interested in more light and noise than Alex can handle at the moment.

So it’s a surprise, then, when his phone vibrates an hour or so later. Will’s picture grins up at him from the dim screen, and after a second of confusion, Alex scrambles to answer it.

“Hey,” says Will when he does. “How’re you doing, man?” His voice is naturally on the softer side, but Alex can tell he’s making an effort to speak quietly and that’s—really nice of him.

“I’m all right,” says Alex honestly. “It’s not too bad. Bored, mostly.”

“Thought you might be,” says Will. “You up for some company?”

“Uh—yeah, if you’re offering,” says Alex, probably too quickly. It might not be the best idea, strictly speaking, but he’s bored.

“Cool!” says Will, and he sounds excited but doesn’t raise the volume of his voice. “Then I’ll get an Uber and be over soon.”

“I’ll leave the door unlocked, just let yourself in,” Alex says, then hangs up.

It’s a supreme effort to drag himself out of bed, but once he washes his face and puts on a hat, he does feel marginally more human. He wears sunglasses inside while closing all the living room blinds, unlocks the front door, and then collapses on the couch. That’s enough effort for one day; anything else, Will will just have to deal with.

Will arrives not long after that. He lets himself in as he was instructed, toes off his shoes, and joins Alex on the couch. “Hey,” says Alex, turning slowly to look at him.

“Man, you look pathetic,” says Will, never one to mince words.

Alex laughs, and then there’s a bit of a lull in the conversation. It’s not that awkward, it’s just that the usual things they do all involve screens or the outside world, and neither of those options are available at the moment. It’s silent for a minute or two before Will sighs, swings his feet up into Alex’s lap, and says, “So in New York before the game, right, Jack and Joey got into an argument about—God, I don’t even know, I wasn’t paying attention. But then Boone steps in to referee, says they’ve got to solve it with best of three arm wrestling.”

“Uh oh,” says Alex, laughing already. “Let me guess, Jack wiped the floor with him?”

“No contest,” Will agrees. “And of course he told anybody who would listen that the table was uneven, but that was basically just Cam. It was hilarious.”

Will fills Alex in on what he missed, and when he’s done, it’s a little easier; the topic changes easily into locker room stories from various teams they’ve played on, including a few “remember whens” from World Juniors. It’s an hour later before Alex realizes he’s barely in any pain because Will’s being such a great distraction.

When they run out of stories, Will looks thoughtful for a moment, then says, “Hey, do you think playing guitar would make your head worse?”

Alex considers it. It’s possible, but it also seems like it could be a good distraction as long as he doesn’t try to do anything too hard and plays quietly. “One way to find out,” he says with a shrug.

Will goes to get the guitar without needing to ask where it is. When he comes back, he sits a little closer on the couch to hand it over, and then stays there, his knee brushing Alex’s thigh.

Alex plucks at the strings, not really trying for any song in particular, just—noodling, sort of. But even though it’s just messing around, it’s something to do, and Will is watching his hands like he’s a little mesmerized, which is a powerful feeling. “When you’re better, you should teach me,” Will says.

A couple images of that flash through Alex’s brain, and he fumbles his next chord. “Yeah, sure,” he says, his throat suddenly dry. He thinks Will might be smirking, but it’s hard to tell in the darkness.

They wile away the afternoon like that: Alex plays guitar for a while, they tell some more stories, and at one point Will pulls out his phone to read Alex some news articles. It’s nothing very exciting, but it makes the day pass a lot quicker than it would have otherwise.

Will calls his Uber after dinner, because he’s got practice in the morning and he needs his rest. When he gets up to leave, Alex catches his wrist and says, “Hey.” Will turns around and tilts his head, inquisitive.

“Thanks,” says Alex, “for—” and sort of gestures around the room. Will grins at him and nods.

“What are friends for, huh? You say that like I’m doing you a favour hanging out with you,” Will teases him gently. And then he’s gone, and Alex—

Alex feels a little better than he did this morning.

It’s both the fastest and the slowest injury recovery Alex has ever had: the Jackets have yet to win a game and November is looming, which makes every minute he’s not out there helping seem like it lasts for a year, but on the other hand, Will’s over at Alex’s house all the time, distracting him and helping him pass the time. Alex still isn’t sick of him, not at all, and that’s still strange.

Alex finally gets back on the ice about two weeks after the season opener, and he feels like he’s flying. The sensitivity to light and noise is gone; his head is fine; he’s not rusty at all. The doctors check him out after practice, and he’s given a clean bill of health to play in tomorrow’s game. He can’t stop smiling; he knows his face is the big dorky grin he hates, but making it do anything else just now seems impossible.

When he gets back to the locker room, Will takes one look at him and throws up his hands. “Wenny’s back!” he cheers, correctly interpreting Alex’s expression

There’s a couple guys still mulling about the locker room, they congratulate him and slap his ass, clap him on the shoulder. Will messes up his hair and proclaims they’re going to go celebrate, which is pretty bold for a guy who’s not his own ride, but it is a month into their friendship and Alex has yet to tell him no, so: fair enough.

Somehow, “celebrate” means they end up at their usual Starbucks, ordering the same things they always order. Alex would point this out if it bothered him even a little bit. Instead he just keeps grinning as they slump into the lawn chairs outside, soaking up the crisp fall sun. Will tugs his hood up against the cold and rests his feet on the bench between them; Alex mirrors him and sets his cup on his lap to take a picture for instagram.

He actually likes the picture he takes on his first try, miracle of miracles. He starts swiping through filters, trying to figure out how to adjust the square crop so it’s framing the cup attractively—and then he hears Will laughing, so he looks up.

“I know keeping your Instagram followers up to date on your life is really important, but if it’s bothering your head you should put the phone down,” Will teases gently.

Alex rolls his eyes, adds an emoji, and sends the picture off into the void of social media. “Admit it, you only want me for the ride to practices and games.”

“It’s true,” says Will at once, grinning at Alex over the top of his cup. “Real Uber drivers cost too much, and none of them have a 1D Sirius station saved in their favorites.”

“Because you put it there!” Alex squawks.

“Yeah, but you kept it, and I heard you singing ‘Kiss You’ when you were doing dishes last night,” Will fires back, his eyes glittering with mischief.

Alex flushes instantly; he’d thought the TV was up too high for Will to hear him. “That’s your fault,” he tries, but Will is already singing—no, screeching, “I just wanna take you anywhere that you’d like.

It’s dumb and it sounds just awful, but Alex laughs anyway. He can’t help it—he’s happy. He’s going to be back tomorrow night playing the sport he loves, the sun is out, and Will is sitting across from him singing terribly, laughing and teasing him. Alex feels bright, almost effervescent, and when Will finishes his serenade and takes a mock bow, a fondness wells up in Alex’s chest.

And then Will grins at him again, and Alex is struck by just how much he likes him, and—and then the bottom drops out of his stomach, because fuck, Alex doesn’t just like him. He’s not just a good friend and somebody Alex enjoys flirting aimlessly with—Alex has feelings for him. Loves him, maybe.

Fuck.

Alex struggles to keep a smile on his face as he forces his brain to calm down. It’s—such a big, dumb, dramatic thought, but it’s loud enough in Alex’s brain to drown out everything else. He feels his face flush, and he knows he needs to say something because this silence is dragging on too long, but the only words he knows right now are ones he definitely should not say. “Yeah,” he manages, weakly, nonsensically, and Will furrows his eyebrows at him in confusion, but lets it slide.

Alex firmly tells himself to calm the fuck down. Maybe it’s just post-concussion syndrome?

It’s not post-concussion syndrome. Fuck. Fuck. What is he supposed to do with this?

The days that follow do not in any way, shape, or form help Alex figure out what he's supposed to do with his feelings about Will. It doesn't help that any time Will says anything to him, or looks at him, or exists, Alex wants to blurt out that he thinks he's in love with him. It's only pure force of will and intense concentration on trying to actually win a hockey game that stops him from doing it.

He's also kind of terrified of Will's reaction, but he's trying not to think about that too much.

Management finally does what everyone's been holding their breath for and fires Richards, and then they've got Tortorella up their asses. It'll remain to be seen if his methods stick, but when they finally, finally break the losing streak in Colorado, the entire team breathes a sigh of relief—and immediately makes plans to go out.

It can be a bad idea to go out on the road, but Denver is reasonably chill, and the team finds a nice, quiet bar to liven up a bit. Alex loves this feeling—the camaraderie that comes from losing together so many times that winning means that much more.

It also means Alex is very, very aware that one of his reasons for not telling Will about his feelings is, in this moment, entirely gone, and the rest of his willpower is slowly slipping. But really, if he thinks about it—it’s better if he slips here than in the middle of the locker room. It’s less embarrassing, for one thing, and for another, Alex knows how it works in bars. He’s comfortable here. He can do this.

Once he makes that decision, it's not hard to find Will: he's sitting up at the bar, chatting with the bartender. Alex heads toward him, a tentative plan formulating in his head.

Of course, as soon as Will spots him and turns his wide grin on Alex, every heartfelt confession Alex has outlined in his head over the past few days disappears. Shit. This is probably the worst idea he's ever had. Will is going to—well, he doesn't know what Will is going to do, but it's probably not going to be good. Alex should just—

But no. He has to know for sure.

"Hey," he says, leaning on the bar next to Will.

Will is still smiling. “Hey,” he says back.

“How’re you doing?” Alex asks. Will doesn’t immediately answer, and Alex barrels on. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Uh… sure,” Will says. Alex nods and gestures to the bartender, asking him for another of what Will is drinking. His heart is beating too hard in his chest, and he can’t stomach looking back in Will’s direction. Did he stop smiling? Is Alex fucking this up?

The bartender finishes making Will’s drink and puts it down on the bartop. Out of the corner of his eye, Alex can see Will looking at it. He doesn’t touch it for a long moment. “What’s with the sudden generosity?” Will asks, his smile slightly coming back. “Not that I’m complaining, I guess.”

Alex can’t read Will’s tone at all, and it’s freaking him out. He shrugs minutely. He clears his too-dry throat and pushes the drink closer to Will, turning to look at him again and flashing his best charming grin. “What, a guy can’t buy a guy a drink because…?” The last few words get stuck in his throat, and he can’t make himself finish the sentence. Fuck.

“Of course,” Will says quickly, finally picking the drink up and taking a sip. He still looks slightly confused, though. Alex desperately needs to save this.

He closes the gap between them and puts a hand on Will’s arm before he can overthink it. Will glances down and then back up at Alex, eyebrows raised slightly. “Have I ever told you,” Alex says, trying for conspiratorial, “that I like your hair like this?” He carefully tucks a bit of Will’s flow that had come loose back behind his ear.

Will stares at him for a long moment. Alex thinks he might faint for how hard his heart is beating now. There’s no way Will can be misreading Alex’s intent. He could swear he sees Will glance down at Alex’s lips.

“Freshly washed?” Will asks, and Alex is struck by the urge to laugh. He bites his tongue. This is serious, he can’t laugh at Will right now.

“Long,” he says. “I think the way it curls at the ends is”—he almost says cute, then abruptly changes his mind and finishes—”sexy.”

There’s a pause as Will continues to stare at him, and then Will is moving away, pulling his arm out from under Alex’s hand. Alex’s heart drops. He feels like all his worst nightmares about this are coming true. “I mean—” he starts, but he doesn’t know what else he means, so he doesn’t say anything. That was about as clear of a rejection as Will could have made.

Will is frowning at Alex now. “You know, you don’t have to…” He trails off, looking like he’s not sure what to say.

“No, it’s fine,” Alex says, not wanting to listen to Will try to let him down easy. “Don’t strain yourself, it’s okay.”

“Is it?” Will asks.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Alex says. He forces a short laugh. It’s not really fine at all, but he can’t let Will know that. He got what he wanted—now he knows that Will isn’t into him. He can’t force anything that Will doesn’t want, so it has to be fine.

“Alex,” Will says, and his voice is so soft that it makes Alex want to cry.

“No,” Alex says again, already backing away. “I’ll see you later, dude.”

He doesn’t wait for Will’s response; he just turns and heads straight out of the bar. Fuck, he’s stupid. Here they all were, having a great night after finally winning a game, and Alex had to go and ruin it.

Then again, he thinks as he opens the Uber app, it’s not like he ruined it for anyone but himself. He definitely made it weird for Will, but they can get past that weirdness as friends no problem, Alex is sure. So maybe his heart got a little hurt here, but it was just his heart. That's a relief, and really—he's fine. Or he will be. Everything will be.

Because this is Alex's disaster of a life, things don't immediately go back to being fine. He's decided to play it cool and not spend too much extra time with Will, because he's not sure he can without flirting with him, and that is not a good idea when Alex needs to get over Will as soon as possible. The worst part of that, though, is that Alex knows he’s not being subtle about avoiding Will, but Will doesn’t even protest. Sometimes Alex even thinks that Will looks relieved when Alex cuts a conversation short. Alex can’t believe how much he fucked this up.

As if all that wasn’t sufficiently terrible, Alex manages to fuck up his foot badly enough that he’s forced to watch the game against San Jose from the press box. Even worse than that, they’re playing in Anaheim the following Friday, and Alex might be avoiding Will right now, but leaving him alone when it’s the first time he’ll be back there after being traded—that just seems like a dick move. What if the fans are mean to him? What if the Ducks are mean to him?

No, Alex has to play in that game. His foot isn’t that bad anyway, and he’s going to tell the trainers so until he’s blue in the face if he has to.

He plays against the Kings on Thursday, and…it hurts, but he manages it. One of the trainers gives him a suspicious look when he winces coming over the boards, but Alex waves it off. If he tells them, they might make him miss Friday’s game.

The Honda Center is loud and full of orange, which has always been Alex’s least favourite colour. He battles with himself over how much to avoid Will all day, but he finally gives up when they go out for warmups and skates over to start stretching next to Will.

Will, for his part, looks focused but fine, practicing his stickhandling until Alex showers him with snow, at which point Will looks up at him with a grin. It’s a little breathtaking and God, maybe Alex isn’t doing so well at this whole “getting over Will” thing. Before Will can read that off his face, Alex drops his head and steals the puck out from between Will’s legs. Will huffs, hip checks him, and steals it back.

“How’s it feel to be back here, huh?” says Alex as he tries to poke the puck off Will’s stick.

“Eh,” says Will. It sounds like he would’ve shrugged were he not currently involved in a game of keep-away. “Didn’t play here that much really. I was up and down, and it’s not like Norfolk was next door, you know?” Will decisively takes control of the puck, flips it into the air, and starts bouncing it on his stick, turning the stick over between bounces.

So Will is totally fine, basically. Alex feels a little stupid for worrying, but then, as the last few days have showed him, he’s generally a little stupid where Will is concerned.

“Looks like you’ve been missed, Wild Bill,” says Dubi as he skates by. Both Alex and Will turn to look at him, and Dubi jerks his head to the right. There are a couple of girls in Ducks jerseys holding signs on the glass; one says “Welcome back #25”, the other says “#25, tonight let’s get some!” which—

“Isn’t that a One Direction lyric?” says Alex.

“Yep,” says Will, laughing.

“I’m glad the whole world knows how embarrassing you are,” says Alex ruefully.

“Hey, you recognized them too,” Will points out, and then he skates away.

Well, that was—almost fine for a second, but now Will’s over talking to a couple of the Ducks. Alex grits his teeth and takes the puck Will left behind to go put a shot on net. Alex is a professional. He doesn’t have time to mope about this: he’s got a hockey game to win and a foot injury to ignore.

They lose the game, and Alex goes directly back to the hotel afterwards and fills the tub with ice for his foot, which is now throbbing so bad that he can barely put weight on it. Fuck.

It feels a little better when he wakes up, and they’ve got a couple days off anyway. He begs off the team outing—gets a few concerned looks, but thankfully nothing more than that, and then they’re back in Columbus, where it’s even easier to grit his teeth through practice and avoid everyone in favor of resting his stupid foot.

He plays against the Canucks, but it wasn’t enough rest time—he’s in enough pain that the trainers pick up on it for real, and Alex’s minutes are cut pretty severely. Torts yells at him after the game, but the gist of it is “Quit being an idiot and hiding your injury; we need you playing your best, not spending an entire game skating like you just blocked a shot.” For Torts, that’s actually pretty nice. Alex will take it, mostly because he hasn’t got a choice: he’s missing games again, doctor’s orders.

Being out indefinitely makes the dismal state of Alex’s friendship with Will seem even worse, and it only takes a couple more days of easily avoiding him for Alex to decide he can’t go on like this. If there’s ever going to be a hope of things being normal, he’s going to have to make it happen himself.

The team has a game on the same day as Sweden’s Game 1 of the first playoff round for the Euro Qualifiers, so Alex records the game from a stream and invites himself over to Will’s the next afternoon. (He considers just showing up, but then thinks about Will’s relieved expression all those times Alex backed off and texts him to make sure it’s fine first. Thankfully, Will says yes, because Alex doesn’t want to think about how upsetting it would’ve been to hear a no.)

Will looks cheerful enough when he answers the door—as he should, considering he scored two goals in the 5-2 win the day before. “How are you feeling?” he asks.

Alex shrugs. “Hurts, but I’ve got painkillers,” he says. “Nice game last night.” It’s an understatement, but Alex isn’t about to tell Will how many times he rewatched Will’s goals.

Will nods. “Pretty good win,” he says brightly.

“Beauty goals,” Alex says, unable to resist.

“Thanks,” Will says, grinning.

His smile is so disarming that Alex just stares at him for a moment. Ugh. He holds up his laptop. “Uh… football?” he says weakly.

“Absolutely,” Will agrees.

They get the laptop set up with Will’s TV and settle on opposite ends of the couch to watch. It’s a pretty uneventful game for most of the first half, and Alex is tired and medicated and made the mistake of lying down, so he keeps catching himself drifting off in between particularly good shots on goal. He’s jolted into wakefulness when Forsberg scores right as the first half comes to an end.

“Hell yeah,” Will says, holding out a hand for Alex to high five. “That was good.”

“Seriously,” Alex agrees, having at least caught the replay. He leans up to slap Will’s hand, not wanting to leave him hanging.

“Should I fast-forward the recording through the break?” Will asks, but he’s already getting up to do so, so Alex just shrugs. Will skips forward a bit and then pauses the recording. “Gonna go to the bathroom, though.”

“Okay,” Alex says. He settles farther down into the couch now that Will’s not there, and he’s on the brink of falling asleep again when he hears Will come back into the room and then stop.

The sounds of the game come back on, but there’s a pause before Will sits back down, and then Will asks, “Do you need anything?”

“Ugh, yeah, someone to cuddle with,” Alex says without thinking, and then he opens his eyes wide and wishes he had the ability to stuff the words back into his mouth.

Will is still standing, looking at him thoughtfully, and for a second, Alex thinks he’s going to ignore it—but then Will is jumping on him and getting his elbows everywhere. “Cuddling, huh? You want cuddling?”

“Oh my God,” Alex groans, trying—admittedly not very hard—to fight Will off. “I’m broken, and you’re the worst.

“You asked for this,” Will teases, digging his elbow into Alex’s side once again.

“But what did I do to deserve it,” Alex complains, though he’s secretly glad Will still feels comfortable enough with him to joke around like this.

Will pauses in his tactical flailing, holding himself up and looking down at Alex appraisingly. Alex doesn’t dare move, caught in Will’s gaze, and in the next moment Will flops down carefully, half on top of Alex. His head is resting on Alex’s chest, eyes fixed on the TV.

“Uh,” Alex says.

“Shhhh,” Will says. “We’re cuddling.”

Alex had, in fact, realized this, even if he doesn’t really know where to put his hands. He eventually just lets them settle on Will’s back. Distantly, he can hear the commentator saying that Forsberg is being awarded a yellow card, but he can’t really process anything except how nice this is.

But—this is not the kind of going back to normal activity that Alex had planned for them. This is… not normal at all. Sure, he said he wanted someone to cuddle with, but Will didn’t have to do anything about it. Is he just trying to make Alex feel better about being rejected? Is this a pity cuddle? Alex couldn’t stand it if it were, and if it’s not, he doesn’t know what it is.

Regardless, he’s definitely enjoying it too much, especially since Will rejected him not that long ago. The more he thinks about it, the more tense he gets, until Will finally looks up at him, frowns, and moves to sit up at the other end of the couch.

“Sorry,” Will says. He’s not looking at Alex.

“No, I’m sorry,” Alex says, feeling like an idiot.

Will shrugs. On the TV, Zlatan is lining up for a penalty kick. Alex sits up and forces himself to watch that instead of Will, and when the ball goes sailing past the goaltender’s hands and into the net, he cheers. “Nice,” he says. This time he holds his hand up for the high five.

Will looks at him for a moment that feels longer than it is, then smiles and high fives Alex. “God love Zlatan,” Will says.

“What a man,” Alex agrees. He feels much better now that the tension is broken. Maybe he didn’t fuck up their friendship as badly as he thought he did.

Things feel…a little better after that. Alex is still injured and not seeing Will as much as he usually would, but they text, and it’s all pretty normal. Alex hates a little that he has to watch the next Sweden game on his own, but the Jackets have a home and away back to back, and he can only wait so long.

Really, the hardest thing he has to deal with over the next few days is how bored he is. He can only play so much guitar alone in his apartment before he turns into a stereotype. On Thursday, which is game day in Ottawa for the rest of the team, Alex takes to scrolling through pictures of their last few games where he played, looking for something he can put on social media to show a little support.

What he stumbles across is a shot from Anaheim: him and Will smiling, probably at those girls’ signs, since the caption says “during warmups.” When Alex ignores how anxious he was during that game, it’s a pretty nice picture of both of them, so he sends it out with a caption of his own—not one relevant to the actual picture, but to something he and Will have talked about a handful of times. When you don’t understand what’s going on so you just smile, it says, with a sheepish emoji at the end.

He didn’t even tag Will in the picture, but Will must be on twitter too, because he retweets it almost instantly. Either that or he has notifications set up to tell him when Alex tweets, but that would be ridiculous, so: definitely just on twitter at the same time. It makes Alex smile either way.

Alex has vague ambitions of hobbling to the kitchen and assembling some food, so he sets his phone down and stands up. Of course, the minute he does, his phone buzzes at him, so he picks it back up. It’s a text from Will, which contains just a single red heart emoji and nothing else.

Alex sits back down. What does that mean? Is it like a bro heart? That’s a little bit strange—including a heart on the end of a text is one thing, but just a heart on its own?

And especially after rejecting him in Denver and whatever that cuddling debacle was the other day during the Sweden match…Will’s a lot of things, but he isn’t cruel. Alex is definitely overthinking this by trying to read anything into it. It’s an innocent heart, nothing more, nothing less.

Crush em today, he sends back, accompanied by a flexing bicep emoji. His thumb hovers over the heart for a few seconds, but then he presses send without it. Just in case.

It’s only a few days later that Alex gets cleared to join in with practice again—and thank God, too, because he got so bored sitting around that he actually bought himself a new car. He was kind of thinking about it before, just needed the time to go do it, but nobody believes him—okay, Will doesn’t believe him—when he says that. Alex isn’t ever going to admit it, but Will is probably right.

Regardless, he’s back out on the ice and feeling good. He and Will go out shopping after practice, and it’s a far cry from the awkward tension that Alex felt was following them before. They window shop and crack jokes at each other’s expense, and nobody freezes up awkwardly when they touch each other.

“Hey,” Alex says as they’re walking across the parking garage back to his car. “Look, this lighting is cool. And like—new car, old parking garage.”

Will gives him a confused look, eyebrows raised. “Okay?”

“Shut up,” Alex says. “It’s a cool juxtaposition. Come on, take a picture of me for Instagram.”

Will snorts a laugh. “All right,” he says, opening the camera on his own phone and waving Alex’s offering of his own away. “I’ll text the picture to you. Give me your best boy band member pose. You’re definitely dressed for it.”

“I’m going to take that as a compliment,” Alex informs him. He poses with a hand on the car door, looking away.

“Too brooding,” Will says. “Smile like someone just said something funny.”

That’s not exactly hard, considering Alex immediately laughs at Will.

“Perfect,” Will says. “Just like that.” He makes a show of taking a bunch of pictures from different angles.

“Okay, stop, stop,” Alex says, trying to grab Will’s phone from him. Will jerks it out of the way, grinning at Alex.

“You know, I think I’ll just post this myself, hm?” Will teases. “I think my Instagram could use some juxtaposition or whatever.”

Alex makes one more grab for the phone, but Will evades him, and Alex rolls his eyes. “It probably could, if I’m honest,” he says. “So you go right ahead.”

“I am,” Will says. “In fact, it’s done. There it goes.”

“You’re welcome,” Alex says, pretending to sniff haughtily. He catches Will’s eye, and they both burst into laughter.

This is the first time they’ve hung out and it’s been totally normal since Denver, and Alex can barely stop smiling, he’s so relieved. He doesn’t think he’s totally over Will by any means—his heart still skips a little too much in his chest when Will smiles at him for that to be the case—but he’s starting to think it’s not impossible to let those feelings go. Lord knows he appreciates Will’s friendship exactly how it is, and today is just confirmation that they’re on their way back to normal.

Alex gets to take the trip to Jersey with the team, and he’s never been so happy to get on a plane in his life. They even win the game, and then it’s back to Columbus for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving isn’t a thing in Sweden, but it’s a great day here—the entire team crams themselves into the Folignos’ place and there’s an absolutely incredible amount of food. Also, Will looks really cute in his dark red sweater and Alex doesn’t even have a breakdown over it. He’s so proud of himself.

He and Will are fine in general, too: more or less back to where they were in September, except nothing is awkward. It’s exactly what Alex was hoping for—well. Not exactly, but the second best option, and he’s fine with that.

It’s announced on Twitter that Will’s going to be doing a Q&A, and Alex…he could say he doesn’t plan his day around being online when it happens, but that would be a lie. He’s glad he is, too—one of Will’s first questions is “if you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life which teammate do you want with you?”

I’ll take Wenny…anything he does, he’s always good at it…singing, soccer, dancing, Will says, complete with a sunglasses emoji. Alex’s heart is in his throat, reading that—he remembers the time they danced at his birthday, and soccer before games, and singing One Direction in the car to make Will laugh. And the idea of spending the rest of his life alone with Will? He can’t unpack that too much or he’ll destroy this fragile equilibrium they’ve built, so instead he texts Will some cryptic emojis of his own: a palm tree, a wave, and a heart. So there.

Will compliments Alex’s style on Twitter before replying with two hearts, because he’s a competitive asshole or something, Alex doesn’t know. Alex refreshes his Twitter over and over, looking for anything else Will’s going to say about him—but there’s nothing, and then the Q&A is over.

But he’s got all this nervous energy now that he needs some kind of an outlet for, or he’s going to do something he regrets. He allows himself one tweet: confirming that Will’s singing voice is terrible (because seriously, that’s just a fact), and then he goes to play guitar for a while, because that requires both hands and means he can’t be on Twitter.

A couple days later, the Jackets do their annual player day of service. Everybody has the choice between assembling furniture or packing crates of food, and Alex and Will don’t even need to look at each other before both volunteering for the furniture.

“We’re gonna crush this,” says Alex, and Will nods emphatically. They do, too—they’re basically just attaching table legs to tables, but Alex and Will have become a well-oiled machine, jabbering in Swedish as they hand each other parts or call for an extra set of hands to steady something. They get a whole table assembled in the time it takes Clarky and Saader to get one leg on.

Clarky comes over to autograph the bottom and shakes his head. “How are you two so good at this?”

“Team IKEA,” says Will at once, extending his fist to Alex. Alex bumps it without looking. They’re that good.

Of course, there’s team media people buzzing around everywhere and that hashtag makes it to twitter, so Alex is responsible for contributing to the stereotype of Swedish people as being obsessed with IKEA, but…honestly, it isn’t all wrong.

Somewhere near the end of assembling their second-last table, Will nudges Alex and waits until Alex looks at him before asking, “You busy later?”

Alex shrugs. “No, what’s up?”

“I haven’t even started working on my basket for that auction thing and they’re due Friday. Want to get food and then work on it together?”

Alex laughs. “Okay, sure,” he agrees. “Haven’t started mine either, honestly.”

Will looks thoughtful. “I wonder if we could just do one together? I’m gonna ask,” he says, and then he wanders off to look for one of the media people. Alex is pretty sure everyone else is doing one with their wife or girlfriend, since it’s presented by the Lady Jackets, but he’s gonna—not point that out.

Will comes back with an affirmative, though, so it must be fine to have a different kind of partner, at least in the eyes of the team. They take off and grab some lunch, then head back to Alex’s for some Amazon shopping.

“It’s supposed to be things we like or that represent us in some way,” says Will, reading off the email they’d received a month ago when they were supposed to start this. Alex feels like he’s back in school, procrastinating on homework.

“We both like…” Alex pauses, thinking through ideas. “Coffee?” he suggests.

“Sure, we can get a Keurig,” Will agrees, and they add one to their cart, as well as a carousel for the k-cups. “Wonder what happens if you type in fika?”

The first result is a cookbook for Swedish desserts called Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. “That’s Swedish, and so are we, so…good enough,” says Alex, adding it to their cart as well.

“Are we just buying Swedish stuff now? Type in Marabou then,” says Will. They buy a frankly ridiculous amount of chocolate, as well as a tin of cookies that have nothing to do with anything except that they both think the tin is pretty, and Alex decides that’s good enough.

“We like football,” says Alex.

“True, but we can’t get Swedish national team stuff or they’re gonna think we’re totally one dimensional,” says Will. “Man U?”

“Sure,” Alex agrees. They pick up a scarf and a football. “We need, like, one more thing,” he says, frowning at the cart.

“We both…have iPhones?” Will points out.

“Most people have a phone, though.”

“But we could get an iPad? And, I dunno, get a case with a picture of us to put on it?”

It’s dumb, but Alex isn’t any better at saying no to Will now than he was before Will rejected him. “Got one in mind?” he says instead.

“What about that one you tweeted from the game in Anaheim? That’s a good picture of both of us,” says Will. It’s a little suspicious how quickly he came up with that, but Alex is determined not to make this weird, so he just nods.

Once they get the iPad and the case ordered, the total in their Amazon basket is up to a respectable number. “We can sign some stuff we use in a game and we’re set,” says Alex as he checks out.

“Nice,” Will says. “You know, we…”

He trails off, and Alex looks up from the final screen before the order confirmation. “What?” he asks. “Did we miss something?”

“No, nothing like that,” Will says. “I was just thinking that we make a good team.”

Alex has the feeling that wasn’t what Will was thinking at all, because there’s no reason for him to not just say that, but the look on Will’s face doesn’t invite questioning. Alex smiles at him instead. “Of course we do, dude,” he says. “We’re awesome.”

The smile Will flashes back at Alex is so sincere that Alex almost thinks he made up Will’s hesitance entirely. “The most awesome,” Will agrees.

Mid-December sees the Jackets on a Western road trip, swinging from Edmonton to Calgary to Vancouver. They have practice in Calgary and the rest of the day free, and a bunch of the guys decide to find something to see in Calgary. Alex is contemplating if he’s bored enough for that to actually sound like a good idea when Will gets his attention. “You know what you still haven’t done?” Will asks.

Alex frowns. “No?”

“Taught me to play the guitar,” Will says.

“Oh!” Alex says. He honestly had forgotten that he said he would. “You want to… now?”

“Why not?” Will asks, and considering Alex had been debating the merits of going out to sightsee in Calgary in December, he has a point.

“Right,” Alex says. “Sure, let’s do it.”

Alex has his guitar in his hotel room, so they head right there. Alex gets the guitar out of its case and settles on the edge of the bed. “Let’s just start with the basics,” Alex says to Will.

“Sure,” Will says, rocking back on his heels. “I’m probably going to suck, just warning you.”

“Nah,” Alex says, “it’s not so hard.” He pats the empty part of the couch next to him. “Sit down here,” he adds. Will obeys, and Alex holds the guitar out to him. Will takes it awkwardly, and Alex laughs at him. “Just hold it like I was. Resting on your lap, yeah. Here’s the pick.”

“This is weird,” Will says, taking the guitar pick from Alex.

“You’re fine,” Alex says. “Let’s do E. That’s like…” He tries to think of how to explain it, but he’s suddenly very aware of how close to Will he’s sitting and—no. He is not going to let this be a problem. He’s come too far for there to be a problem here. “Let me just…” He takes Will’s hand and carefully maneuvers his fingers so they’re on the right strings. “Press down.”

“Like this?” Will asks.

“You got it,” Alex says, staring resolutely at Will’s fingers. “Now just strum with the pick.”

Will plays a perfect E-chord. “Good?” he asks.

“Perfect,” Alex says. When he looks up, Will is looking straight back at him. Neither of them look away for a long moment.

“What next?” Will asks.

Alex blinks, shaking himself out of it. “A-chord,” he says. “You move that finger…there, and that one…” He quickly realizes from Will’s blank expression that his attempt to not touch Will’s fingers is futile, and he gives up and moves them. Will’s skin is soft, and Alex resolutely does not care. He clears his throat. “Try that.”

Will strums the guitar, the notes coming out just slightly wrong. “Press down more, I think,” Alex says. Will must, because his next attempt is much better. “There you go. See, you’re a natural.”

“Or I just have a good teacher,” Will says, looking up at Alex through his eyelashes. Alex’s heart takes up residence in his throat.

“Nah,” Alex manages. “Okay, one more—B.” He arranges Will’s fingers again, careful not to linger, and Will doesn’t need to be told to strum once Alex is done.

“So do those three a couple times,” says Alex. Will does; he needs a couple corrections here and there, but it’s not bad, especially for a novice, and Alex can see him picking it up.

Once he can shift between them fairly smoothly, Alex says, “Okay, play E twice, then A twice, then B three times.” As Will follows instructions, Alex starts to sing, “You’re insecure, don’t know what for.”

Will stops playing because he starts laughing instead, and Alex joins him. “Seriously, except the na-na-na part, that’s the whole song. You can do the whole thing, now.”

“Move over Niall,” says Will, running his hand through his hair. “There’s a new guitarist in the band.”

The 20th is their last day mostly off before they both go home for a few days for Christmas, and Will invites himself over to Alex’s after practice. It’s easy for him to do, considering Alex is still his chauffeur, so all he has to do is tell him to just drive back to his place.

“Let’s pick up some Chinese food on the way, and then we can watch a sappy Christmas movie,” he tells Alex, grinning, and there’s no way Alex can—or would ever want to—say no to that.

It’s not hard to find a dumb holiday movie marathon on Lifetime, and they settle onto the couch with their Chinese food. Alex is winding noodles around his fork and shaking his head at the protagonist of the movie making a stupid decision when Will puts his feet in Alex’s lap. Alex looks over at him, eyebrows raised, and Will raises his right back.

It’s funny, Alex thinks. Even a few weeks ago, sitting on a couch with Will would have him thrown into a fit of paranoia, wanting to sit closer but thinking that would be too much of a come on. He thinks, ruefully, of Will trying to cuddle him when they were watching football and Alex ruining it. Now, though, he feels like they’ve really settled back into the easy days of their early friendship—only better, because they have months of friendship to back it up. It feels… comfortable.

Sure, Alex is still sad that Will rejected him; he’s mostly given up on that ever not being a slight stab in his heart when he thinks about it. But it’s nothing he can’t handle, and his friendship with Will is nothing he would ever trade.

He lets Will’s feet rest in his lap, and when he finishes eating his noodles, he doesn’t hesitate before letting his hand rest on Will’s ankle.

The end of the year is, for a lot of reasons, much better than the beginning of the season. For one thing, they play their last game on the 29th, and it’s a decisive 6-3 win over Dallas, which feels amazing. Then they just have a bunch of team stuff over the next few days: bartending, an interview with a local news station, and the New Year’s party. Alex is fine with all of those because Will has to go to all of them too, so at least they’re together.

The interview, in particular, is pretty fun because it’s about the two of them. Will tells the interviewer that Alex is teaching him guitar, and Alex mock-complains to her about driving Will around everywhere. “Buy me dinner or something,” he says with a grin, knowing that Will can hear every word he’s saying. He wouldn’t have been able to make that joke without freezing up a couple weeks ago; he’s come so far.

When they’re getting changed in the locker room after—and it’s weird being in here alone with Will, not because of anything between them, but because Alex is used to being in here with twenty other guys in various states of undress—Will tosses a ball of used sock tape at him. “Do you actually mind driving me around?” he asks, and he’s smiling, but Alex can tell he’s serious.

Alex picks the ball up and tosses it back. Will catches it. “Nah,” says Alex. He pauses a second, then adds, “But if you wanted to buy me dinner out of gratitude, I wouldn’t say no.”

Will tosses the ball up in the air and catches it, then grins at Alex. Something about his expression is almost sly. “Maybe I will.”

The party is a team thing, players and significant others only—they rented out a bar, and the guys are all getting dressed up and drunk to celebrate the new year. Rather than drive and have to deal with tracking down a ride at the end of the night, Alex and Will decide to go in on a limo rental with a few of the other guys.

The driver picks up Ryan and Boone first and Will second, so the three of them are already in the car by the time it gets to Alex. When he opens the door, everybody greets him—and then Ryan and Boone scoot over without being asked so he can sit next to Will. Alex is not complaining, because Will looks way better than anyone in a bow tie has a right to look, and he includes himself in that.

And also because Will’s his best friend and he’s happy to sit next to him. Almost one hundred percent that one.

“Happy New Year,” says Will when Alex slides in next to him, and then he immediately passes Alex a full champagne flute.

Alex accepts it, a little bemused. “We starting the pregame already?” he says to the limo at large.

“Why rent a limo if you aren’t going to get drunk in it?” says Ryan, which is a great point. Alex has no argument, so he tips his glass in Ryan’s direction and takes a long drink of the champagne.

They grab Cody next and then head to the bar. It’s been decorated for the occasion, but classily—there are a couple Jackets logos here and there, but mostly fireworks-esque red, white, and blue decorations that Alex is pretty sure are left over from Independence Day, but it works. And more importantly, there’s both food and booze in excess.

Alex feels just a little heady from the two glasses of champagne he had on an empty stomach on the way here, and from Will’s flushed cheeks, it looks like he’s feeling much the same way. Alex steers them towards the food—literally, after Will stumbles a little. It’s just with a hand on his back, in the same easy, casual way Alex would touch Nick or Matty, but he can feel Will lean into it and he reminds himself to steel his resolve.

“Already stumbling? It’s a little early for that, no?” he teases. Will grins at him. His face is a little closer than Alex expected, and Alex swallows hard. He can do this.

They load up their plates with tons of fancy appetizers, including Swedish meatballs, which are obviously an attempt to include the two of them. Alex appreciates it; they’re delicious, after all. The two of them grab an unoccupied table and soon after they go back for seconds, they’re joined by Boone and Ryan.

Just as they exchange greetings, the song playing changes from an upbeat club tune to something a little slower and older. Boone and Ryan grin; they obviously recognize it, especially as Boone starts miming chords in the air. “Murrs just taught me how to play this on guitar last week,” he explains.

“Alex just started teaching me a couple weeks ago! Maybe we should start a band,” says Will.

Alex laughs. “Yeah, for sure, mashing up—who is this?”

Ryan’s expression is so affronted, it’s borderline disgusted. “Boston?”

“Yeah, Boston; mashing up Boston with One Direction. What a band,” says Alex.

“You taught the guy One Direction as his first song?” says Boone.

Alex can feel the judgment from across the table, and he frowns. “It’s his favourite band!”

“Right, I forgot they don’t have good music in Sweden. It’s not their fault, Boone, they were raised on ABBA,” says Ryan, faux-mournfully. Alex kicks Ryan under the table even though he’s right.

As the Boston song ends, it’s replaced with one Alex would know anywhere: the Cupid Shuffle. All four of them groan, because they know what’s coming: this is Cam and Dubi’s favorite song to dance to, and they will force the entire team to join them—bodily, if necessary. Matty always tries to hide, and that invariably ends with Dubi carrying him onto the dance floor fireman-style. Alex is good at learning from other people's mistakes. They might as well just get up now and save the trouble.

Besides, it is kind of fun.

They gamely go to the right, to the left, kick, and walk it by themselves for the full duration of the song, but then the DJ starts playing the first few notes of the Cha-Cha Slide, and that is just too much coordinated dancing in a row. Alex catches Will’s eye; Will nods, and they both sneak out back to the patio. Alex grabs a couple champagne flutes off a platter as they pass.

“Smart man,” says Will when he accepts the flute from Alex. “Think they’ll find us out here?”

It’s cold outside for sure—bracing, after the oppressive heat of the bar, but also kind of refreshing. It’s also very, very quiet. Alex takes a drink and considers the question. “I think they think they got everybody, so we’re probably safe for right now,” he decides.

“I think you think that sounded wise,” Will jokes, bumping his shoulder into Alex’s.

“You called me smart two seconds ago,” Alex points out.

“I changed my mind,” says Will lightly, and they both laugh.

A quiet settles over them after that, but it’s easy, comfortable. It reminds Alex of the afternoons when he was injured and Will came over so he wouldn’t be alone and bored. He leans against the brick wall of the bar, drinks, and says, “We’ve had a year, huh?”

“You can say that again,” says Will.

“We’ve had a year, huh,” Alex repeats dutifully.

Will rolls his eyes. “Yep, definitely changed my mind.” There’s a pause, and then he continues, “But yeah, we have. I got traded, you got injured, we got a new coach…”

Alex drains his champagne flute, sets it on a table, then says, “I’m glad you got traded.” It’s maybe a little rude—or a little too honest—but it’s true.

He’s expecting no response at all, or an ‘If I had to get traded I’m glad it was here,’ but instead Will looks up at him with a smile and just says, “Me too.”

Alex chuckles and looks down. If he didn’t know better—if he hadn’t spent the last month teaching himself better—he might think—

“Hey,” says Will, softly. Alex looks up again, and wow, Will is a lot closer than he was before. He blinks, surprised, as Will reaches out to cup Alex’s face gently, and then leans in to press their lips together.

Alex is shocked, he’s overwhelmed, he’s—really glad he set down his champagne flute, because he immediately gets both of his hands in Will’s hair, something he’s been dying to do since, oh, September. It’s just as soft as he’d imagined, but more importantly Will makes this incredible noise against his lips when he does, and Alex opens his mouth more out of reflex than any conscious thought.

But what a beautiful reflex it is: now Alex is seeing fireworks, and not just because it’s New Year’s. Will shifts even closer to him, pressing Alex into the wall, and quite honestly, Alex could just live here in this moment forever.

Which, of course, is when the door from the bar bangs open, the noise of the party pouring out with it, and Saader’s soft voice says, “Oh.”

Will steps away—not far, there’s no hiding what they were doing, but far enough that Alex gets a little air, which kicks his brain into overdrive. Distantly, he can hear Saader stuttering out an apology, but all of Alex’s brainpower is focused on figuring out why the hell Will just kissed him when he turned Alex down in October and has been nothing more than friendly with him ever since.

“I can just—I’ll just—” says Saader, turning around. Will is shaking with silent laughter, which Alex can feel because Will’s arm is still around his neck. But then Saader stops, his back still to them, and he says in a rather higher voice than usual, “Actually, I, uh. I came out here to look for you, Alex, because Hartsy’s trying to find you? But I can, uh—I’ll tell him you’re, um. Busy.”

Alex looks down at Will. All of his instincts are screaming at him to stay right here, with Will in his arms, and kiss him some more—but his brain is fogged a little bit by the liquor and mostly by the confusion. What he can’t handle, no matter what, is another November, a month of intense awkwardness with Will where they barely even talk. If they’re going to do this, they need to do it right: talk about it first, and figure out what they’re doing here, instead of just making out outside a bar on New Year’s Eve.

So, no matter how much he doesn’t want to, Alex gently pushes Will away and peels himself off the wall. “It’s okay, Saader, I’ll come,” he calls out. Saader stops in the doorway, clearly surprised, but still does not turn around. They may have scarred him a little bit, Alex thinks, and wants to laugh.

He also wants to look at Will, but there’s a larger part of him that desperately does not, so. He doesn’t. He just adjusts his tie and follows Saader back into the party.

Alex wakes up the next morning intensely hungover and just as confused as he was after Will kissed him. It turned out that Hartsy just wanted Alex to dance, which Alex was all too happy to do—anything that would occupy his mind. After that, he went straight for the alcohol, and he didn’t really stop from there. The rest of the night is fuzzy, but he has the vague memory of Will trying to get his attention and Alex deliberately pretending he didn’t see him.

Alex lies in his bed for a long time, praying for his head to stop throbbing and replaying the kiss over and over in his mind. He’s got every moment of that committed to memory—Will’s soft voice, his lips, the press of the wall against Alex’s back—and not one bit of it makes sense.

His head doesn’t stop hurting and the kiss doesn’t explain itself to him, but at least he knows how he can probably kill two birds with one stone. He rolls over and picks up his phone from where he plugged it in when he got home and opens his text convo with Will.

I’m so hungover I want to die, he texts. Let’s go get mcdonalds.

He drags himself out of bed and to the bathroom, and when he comes back, Will has texted him: OK.

“Well, that’s something,” Alex mutters to himself. Be right there, he sends to Will.

Will more grunts a hello than says it when he gets in Alex’s car, and Alex responds in kind. He does want to talk eventually, obviously, but that can definitely wait until after they’ve actually acquired food.

They go through the drive-through, since there’s no way they’re dragging their sorry asses inside, and then Alex parks the car, because there’s also no way he’s not eating immediately. For a few minutes, there’s only the sound of wrappers crinkling as they eat. If Alex tries hard, he can almost pretend nothing is weird.

He can only maintain that for so long, though. “Okay,” he says. Will looks up from his food. Alex takes a deep breath and tries to figure out how to word this. “That… last night. What was that?”

Will looks at Alex appraisingly for a long moment. “Well,” he says eventually, “I like you.”

Alex stares. He supposes that’s the obvious conclusion when someone kisses you, but he’s spent months telling himself Will never thought of him that way. “You… what?”

“I’ve been flirting with you forever,” Will says. He sounds remarkably calm.

“I—yeah, okay, sure you have,” Alex says. “But when I flirted back, you rejected me. You can’t tell me that wasn’t a rejection, because I was there, and I’m not stupid.”

Will winces. “It was just… weird,” he says. “Too much, too fast, you know? So I took a step back.”

Alex opens his mouth, then closes it again. He doesn’t even know what to say to that. All this time, these weeks on end of holding himself back, of telling himself no—all that, and his feelings for Will weren’t unrequited at all? Will thought it was weird? How does that even make sense?

“I thought it would be better to ease into it,” Will continues when Alex doesn’t say anything. “Just let it happen naturally. I thought you were on board.”

“You—on board?” Alex says, his voice cracking unattractively. “Yeah, I was on board, except I’ve been telling myself I can’t have this at all because I thought you didn’t want it! Why would you do that to me?”

“You kept flirting with me,” Will says, defensive, and that just—Alex is angry.

“You never told me,” Alex says. “Why wouldn’t you—”

He cuts himself off and looks away. He was going to ask why Will didn’t want to take a chance on him, but he doesn’t think he actually wants to know the answer to that.

“I thought it would be better this way,” Will says.

Alex snorts. Yeah, better for Alex to feel like he got his heart bruised and drive himself crazy for months. Sure. “Just stop,” he says, turning the key in the ignition. “I’m taking you home.”

“Alex—”

“Please don’t,” Alex interrupts.

Will doesn’t. The drive back to Will’s condo is possibly the worst few minutes of Alex’s entire life. It’s certainly the most awkward. “Look,” he says as he stops outside Will’s place. “I need a couple days, because I’m mad right now, and I don’t want to say something I’m going to regret. Okay?”

Will unbuckles his seatbelt and gets out of the car without saying anything. The car door shuts heavily enough that Alex flinches back from it.

Fuck.

It’s not a good few days for Alex. Their first game back is okay, thanks to Anton’s heroics, but then they lose, and they lose—and then they lose Joey.

Well, they don’t lose him—Alex knows where he is, he’s in Nashville. And Seth comes back to them in return; he’s crazy good and seems like a nice guy too, but Joey and his stupid hair and his bad taste in music were a huge part of the team. It feels like there’s a gaping hole in the locker room with him gone, and that on top of everything Alex is already feeling? It’s not pretty.

Once he calms down a little, he’s…well, still pretty mad at Will. He kind of understands why Will did what he did, backing off and trying to go more slowly, but what he doesn’t understand is why he let Alex suffer instead of talking to him about it. He would’ve talked to Will if the tables were turned. It’s confusing and frustrating, and turning things over in his head just makes Alex angrier, so he tries not to.

They lose in Carolina on Will’s birthday, Seth’s first game with the team. Then they come home for the back to back and Alex gets a goal, his first in a little while. The play’s already over, puck flying past the net and crowd already ooohing disappointedly, but Alex thinks: maybe. He whacks at it, and it goes in.

They lose in overtime anyway, though.

Despite that, everyone’s going out for Will’s birthday. Alex doesn’t want to but figures he has to, and then in the locker room he sees Will laughing and joking around with Matty and Saader like nothing’s wrong, and—

Maybe he doesn’t have to. Alex dresses quickly and is the first one out of the locker room, and he makes it home without incident. Sure, his phone starts buzzing about 20 minutes later, but he ignores it. He should probably at least let somebody know he’s not dead in a ditch somewhere, but playing darts instead sounds much more cathartic.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Alex was right: it is satisfying to watch the sharp little things embed themselves in the cork over and over. He does eventually run out and have to go dig them out of the target, though, and that’s when he hears the knocking on his door, which could have been going on for a while (he has a lot of darts).

He thinks about it for a minute. Whoever it is, he doesn’t want to let them in. But it’s January, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for frostbite. And also, he should probably continue to be the bigger person if he wants to keep this comfortable little patch of moral high ground he’s been enjoying.

With a sigh, Alex sets the darts down and goes to open the door. He’s completely unsurprised to see a furious Will on his doorstep.

A part of Alex wants to shut the door in his face, but he knows Will better than to think he’d give up that easy. Might as well let him in and get this fight over with. Alex steps aside and Will storms in, and the minute he closes the door, Will is up in his face. “What the fuck, Alex.”

Alex does not want to have this conversation—well, ever, but especially not in the entryway. He shoulders past Will and into the living room. “I just didn’t feel like going out tonight, it’s not personal,” he says, as blasé as possible.

Will, behind him, scoffs. It’s kind of impressive how much disdain he manages to pack into a simple exhalation of air. “This is exactly what I was afraid of,” he mutters—and there it is, now Alex is mad too; he knew it wouldn’t take long.

“No, you were afraid of me making it weird because I liked you too much,” Alex spits, turning around to face Will. He’s expecting Will to look—guilty, maybe, but instead he mostly looks confused.

“No! I mean—the first part, yeah, but not the second part,” says Will. “I was worried about it being weird because I like you too much.” He looks away and runs a hand through his hair; he seems agitated but also a little lost. “When you started flirting back, it was like you were Cool You, not Actual You. I don’t even care—well, I have a preference, of course, but I don’t care whether we’re dating or not. I just want you around all the time, putting my furniture together and teaching me guitar and making me take pictures of you for Instagram.”

He’s not looking at Alex when he says this, which is good, because Alex doesn’t know what his face is doing right now. But then Will puts his hands in his pockets, squares his shoulders, and lifts his head to look Alex right in the eyes. “That’s the thing I was afraid to lose.”

Alex can feel all the fight go out of him. He slumps, leaning against the back of the couch because it’s the nearest surface. “And you didn’t say that last week because…”

“Because I’m as bad at communicating as you are at flirting like a normal person, I guess,” says Will with a wry grin.

Alex starts to laugh, and after a long moment, he opens his arms. Will takes two steps forward, then three, and then he’s hugging Alex tight, his legs bracketing Alex’s, his face buried in Alex’s shoulder. Alex splays his hands over Will’s back, holding onto him just as tightly.

The way Will fits into his arms is kind of amazing, and Alex doesn’t ever want to move. Fortunately, Will seems to agree; he shifts to get more comfortable, but doesn’t move his arms from where they’re firmly locked around Alex’s waist. After a couple minutes of silence, Will says into Alex’s shoulder, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” says Alex at once. Will makes a protesting noise, but Alex just squeezes him a little tighter. They both messed up here, and it doesn’t matter now anyway. He doesn’t want to think about all the time he spent uncomfortable around Will anymore; he wants to move forward instead. “Hey,” he says quietly.

Will looks up at him. Alex’s shoulder feels a little cold. “We should go on a date or something,” says Alex. “Not like a big—you know, just—” he starts, trying not to go too far again and make things weird.

“Yeah,” Will interrupts. He feels relaxed in Alex’s arms, and he’s smiling. Alex smiles back, like he always does, and then Will’s expression gets a little…well, there’s no other word for it but devious. “Let me plan it,” he says.

Alex blinks. So much for not making a big thing out of it. “Um…okay, sure,” he says, trying not to smile too widely.

Will isn’t curbing his grin at all. “You just sit back and let me treat you right,” he says. His voice is teasing, but his eyes betray the gravity of his words.

“Okay,” Alex says, a sense of happy anticipation rising in his chest.

The next week isn’t all that different from usual—there are still practices and games and planes—but in comparison to how Alex was feeling before, everything is incredible. He can’t stop smiling every time he sees Will, and the best part is that he doesn’t have to stop at all, because Will is smiling right back.

Will tells Alex to be free the next Thursday evening—as if Alex would make any plans at any time when he’s waiting on tenterhooks for this date—but he won’t tell Alex what they’re going to do. Alex protests multiple times, needling him about needing to know what to wear and how to prepare, but Will won’t budge.

“Just wear date casual,” Will tells him the day before, after rolling his eyes approximately one hundred times. “And don’t try to tell me you don’t know exactly what that is.”

He’s right, so Alex doesn’t.

Will shows up ten minutes before he told Alex to be ready, wearing slightly better than date casual—which is fine, because so did Alex. He’s pretty sure that they’re going to be the best looking couple no matter where they’re going.

“Your chariot awaits,” Will says dramatically, gesturing to the cab parked on the curb.

“Are you really not going to tell me where we’re going?” Alex asks as they’re getting in the car.

Will shakes his head. “Absolutely not.”

“You’re awful,” Alex says, but he can’t stop his smile.

When the cab turns into the parking lot of a community centre, Alex raises his eyebrows at Will. “What are we doing here, working out? That’s romantic.”

“Shush,” Will says.

Alex keeps ragging on him all the way to the doors, but as soon as they step through, it’s apparent what they’re here for. He falls silent for a moment, looking at the sign, then looks at Will. “A paint and drink night? That’s—” He stops short. It’s actually… really thoughtful. It’s unique and chill and special all in one. Alex is impressed.

“I thought it would be fun,” Will says. For the first time today, he looks a little uncertain.

“You bet your ass it’s going to be fun,” Alex says quickly. “Where are the drinks? We have to get this party started.”

They do, indeed, get the party started. The painting they’re doing is a kind of abstract colourful sky with black trees in front of it, which both Will and Alex agree kind of reminds them of Sweden. Alex turns out to—well, he wouldn’t say he’s awful at it, but Will keeps glancing over at his painting and looking slightly incredulous. Alex doesn't get it; how are you even supposed to stop the colours from blending weirdly? And it’s not his fault that his trees look kind of deformed.

“I can’t believe we found something you’re not good at,” Will says.

Alex huffs and puts down his paintbrush so that he can finish off his drink instead. “There are lots of things I’m not good at,” he mutters.

Will laughs. “Yeah, you’re a regular disaster,” he says sarcastically, adding a couple branches to one of his perfect trees.

Alex wants to protest, but he’s too happy. Instead, he picks up his paintbrush and paints a line of orange onto Will’s cheek. Will jerks away from the brush and rolls his eyes. “I’m an excellent painter,” Alex says. “Look, you’re gorgeous.” He pretends to frame Will with his hands.

That has nothing to do with you,” Will says, laughing.

“All right, true,” Alex concedes. “Remind me to send a thank you note to your parents.”

“I’ll get right on that,” Will says, shaking his head.

By the end of the night, they’re both tipsy, they’ve taken a ton of pictures, and Alex is a little more in love with Will than he was a few hours ago. Alex takes Will’s hand while they’re waiting for their cab to pick them up, and Will squeezes Alex’s back. They don’t let go until they need to get in the car, and when they’re sitting, this time Will reaches for Alex’s hand.

Alex is reluctant to let go when they arrive at his place, and Will must agree, because he slides out of the car behind Alex, asking the cab driver to wait, and walks with him to the door. Alex hesitates, wondering if kissing Will is moving too fast, then decides he’s being an idiot. Will’s already kissed him before. This is the easy part.

It turns out that kissing Will is somehow even better than Alex remembers it. It feels like the answer to a question the entire night has been asking: are they doing this? Yes, says the way Will pulls Alex in closer. Yes, they’re doing this.

By the time they stop kissing—it’s longer than Alex had intended, for sure—he feels lightheaded. “So… you want to come in?” he asks before he can stop himself, then freezes up slightly, wondering if he just pushed his luck too far.

The worst Will could say to that is no, though, and he doesn’t look like he’s going to at all. “Yeah,” he says. “Just let me—” He gestures toward the cab.

Alex laughs, giddy, and lets Will’s hand go so he can go pay the driver. He leans against the door to wait, head still spinning slightly. He’s not sure he’s ever been quite this brand of happy.

Things only go uphill from there, which Alex would not have thought possible. Alex keeps half-expecting to wake up and find out that it’s all been a dream, and he’s perpetually surprised that he hasn’t.

Ordinarily, Alex waits a little while before bragging about his relationships—it’s just safer that way. But this thing with Will feels almost too big to contain; he wants to shout it from the rooftops.

Also, his father’s coming to Columbus next week to go on the dads’ trip, so he’ll definitely find out, whether Alex tells him or not. There is also that.

He broaches the topic of the dads’ trip with Will after practice one day, when they’re lazily hanging around his apartment. “My dad’s not coming,” says Will, playing some game on his phone. “He’s got a work thing,” he explains.

“Oh,” says Alex. “Well, um, my dad is,” he starts.

“Uh huh,” says Will, not looking up.

“And, um.” Alex stops talking.

Will pauses his game and raises his eyebrows at Alex over the top of his phone. “Are you trying to ask me if it’s okay to tell your dad?”

Alex winces, then nods. Will rolls his eyes, then flops over so his head’s in Alex’s lap.

“Duh,” he says easily, going back to his game.

So Alex writes his father an extremely casual email about their itinerary. At the end of one paragraph, he mentions in a throwaway line that they’ll get dinner on Wednesday after Alex’s dad gets in and maybe Will, whom Alex is dating, will join them. The next sentence immediately goes on to talk about the charity match on Thursday and the necessary prep for it, and it’s all very laid-back and Alex is proud of it.

His dad responds with one line: Will, huh? Looking forward to it. See you soon.

“So, Will,” Niclas says once they’ve ordered, and Alex thinks, Oh, shit. “Alex tells me—well, honestly, almost nothing, he mentions you in the middle of an email like he thinks I won’t notice,” he starts, and Alex is already regretting this entire dinner.

“Does he,” says Will, raising an eyebrow at Alex. “He was probably afraid I was gonna tell you some really embarrassing stories about him, like the time he made me take pictures of him for fifteen minutes until I got one that was pretty enough for Instagram.”

Niclas laughs, surprised. “Only fifteen minutes? I remember when he got a bad haircut right before Christmas when he was twelve, he opened the back of the camera so we couldn’t get the pictures developed,” he replies, exchanging a conspiratorial grin with Will.

Alex buries his face in his hands.

The rest of the dinner goes similarly—if the metric is how well his dad gets along with Will, then it goes very well; if the metric is how much of Alex’s carefully cultivated cool image manages to survive it, then it goes very poorly. Not that his dad or Will thought he was that cool to begin with, anyway.

Afterwards, Alex drives Will home first, complaining to his dad the entire way about how Will refuses to buy a car for no reason. Niclas smirks. “I think it’s pretty smart, actually. If he can get you to drive him around all the time, why should he? I wouldn’t.” Will reaches forward from the back seat to high five him.

When they get to Will’s, Alex walks him to the door, because he’s a good boyfriend, and also because he wants a goodnight kiss. “I like your dad,” says Will cheerfully when they’re at his doorstep.

“You two get along way too well; it’s the worst,” says Alex gravely. Will laughs, and pulls Alex in by his lapels to kiss him good night.

It goes on probably longer than it should, considering Alex’s dad is waiting in the car, but finally they disentangle themselves from each other and Alex tells Will he’ll see him in the morning. As the door shuts behind him, Alex briefly considers checking himself out in his phone camera to make sure he doesn’t look too thoroughly kissed, but, well. His dad isn’t stupid.

When he gets back, Niclas raises both eyebrows at him. Alex shrugs and starts the car, and they drive in silence for a couple minutes.

“So?” says Alex, failing miserably at not sounding nervous.

“He’s a good one, Alex,” says Niclas, and Alex feels warm all over. He exhales; his shoulders drop. “And your mother is going to be very offended that you didn’t tell her first.” Shit.

They have an outdoor practice on Friday before they head to Boston, and Alex can’t even handle how cute Will looks in his little hat. They only wear them for the walk from Nationwide to Winter Park, but Alex keeps sneaking glances at Will as they walk together. He doesn’t really have to be subtle anymore, but there’s something thrilling about doing it anyway and catching Will doing it back. After all, love makes you stupid—at least, that’s Alex’s excuse, and he’s sticking to it.

They change into their skates and—sadly—helmets in the locker room tents and then head out to the ice. Will hip checks Alex out of the way at the door to the ice, and Alex makes an affronted face and hip checks him back. Will is grinning as he shoves his way past Alex again, and Alex shakes his head, mock disbelieving. Even so, he lets Will step out on the ice before him.

Will turns around and skates backward, looking at Alex. "I know you're sad because you looked so cute in that hat, but that doesn't mean you can ignore safety," he says, skating closer to Alex. He steadies himself by grabbing a fistful of Alex's practice jersey and flips the undone end of Alex's helmet buckle with the end of his stick. "Do this up."

Will's face so close to Alex's still takes his breath away, and he can't do anything other than nod slightly before Will lets go and skates away. Alex stares after him, wondering with despair if he'll ever be able to keep his head where Will's involved.

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Bob looking at him from over by the goal. When he turns toward him, Bob gives him a knowing look. “Very cute, Wenny,” he says, voice raised so Alex can hear him as he gestures with his stick from Alex to where Will now is across the ice.

Alex can feel his face flushing, and he busies himself doing up his helmet. “Thank you!” he calls back to Bob.

It’s not a rare occurrence, really, that someone on the team teases him and Will, and Alex is glad that it doesn’t seem to be a big deal to anyone. He’s not sure if they realize how serious it is now, but it’s early days yet. Alex is content to just let everyone figure it out in due time, because he has a feeling they haven’t opened the floodgates on the teasing by any means.

It’ll be fine no matter what, though, Alex thinks as he skates over to join a group of the guys. Alex would weather a lot worse for Will, and besides—teasing is how the team shows their love.

Alex has gotten used to going to his or Will’s place to hang out in between games and practices now, so it’s no surprise when Will says, after practice the day before the first game of their five-game homestand in February, that they should go to Will’s.

“I have that bookcase to assemble,” he adds, and that’s a bit of a surprise, albeit not an uninvited one.

“I’ll get my drill on the way, then,” Alex says with a smile.

They’re old hat at this by now: Alex is pleased to see when they arrive that Will left the bookcase neatly in its box. “I know you have a system,” Will says when Alex mentions it, shrugging.

“That I do,” Alex says, starting in on unpacking it. Will helps him organize everything based on the steps, and halfway through, the quiet starts to get to Alex. “Why don’t you put on Take Me Home?” he asks, and Will pauses, hand outstretched toward a shelf, and raises his eyebrows at Alex. Alex rolls his eyes. “Just do it, we both know that’s their best album.”

“You said it,” Will says, grinning as he gets up to do so.

With the peppy tones of One Direction in the background, everything goes smoothly—Will reads out the directions to Alex, hands him things as he needs them, and sing-screeches along to the music. Alex can’t help but think that it’s a far cry from the last time Alex was at Will’s place assembling IKEA furniture. He’s proud of how far they’ve come.

Halfway through, Alex looks up from where he’s lying on the floor drilling in a screw to see that Will is holding Alex’s phone and taking a selfie. “You’re supposed to be reading me the next step,” Alex teases, getting up and going over to him.

“Oh, please, I knew you’d want a picture,” Will says, holding out Alex’s phone to show him. “Tweet that, and then we can do the next step.”

Alex takes his phone and stares at the picture. Apparently Will was angling the selfie to get Alex in as well. It’s basically a perfect Team IKEA picture. Alex abruptly feels overwhelmed with feelings; Will’s tiny smile is adorable, and he thought to take a picture even though Alex didn’t ask, and—fuck, Alex loves him. He’s never going to be over how much that’s true.

He looks up from the phone and kisses Will. Will seems a little startled at first, but he immediately relaxes into it, kissing Alex back thoroughly. They’re both a little out of breath when they break apart. “Thanks,” Alex says.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of that,” Will says. He looks thoughtful. “It’s a bit scary sometimes.”

“I know,” Alex says. He’s never been so sure he’s on the same page as someone. “Me too.”

They grin dumbly at each other for another long moment, and then Will socks Alex in the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get this thing done.”

“Yeah, okay,” Alex says. “Let’s do it.”