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Love of Hockey

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Alex wasn't super surprised to discover it was Bäckström who had rung his front door bell. He grinned, wide, genuinely pleased to see any of his teammates, but it was always nice to see Nickläs because he rarely showed up with problems of his own for Alex to help fix.

“Nicke!” Alex flung the door open and moved forward to hug him, tight and close, both because he was happy to see him, and to check to see how much Nicke was going to tense up under Alex' embrace. Too tense and it was somebody else's serious problem, not at all tense and it was just that he'd been driving near enough by that he decided to stop to say hello. Or that he'd come to steal two of Alex' dogs for a bit because his daughter was enamoured.

As she should be, they were wonderful dogs and they loved her as well.

Nicke was a tiny bit tense, which meant problems, not serious. Alex let him go, thumping him on the back a little, grinning some more. Nicke just rolled his eyes a bit, which meant problems not serious at all. Alex laughed. “Come in, dogs probably not jump, who knows.”

They did not jump, Alex was proud and a tiny bit relieved to see, but they did crowd around Nicke like they thought he'd brought them treats. Alex shoved at their heads, reminding them that it was Alex who was the treat giver, not Nicke, and besides when was it ever Nicke and not his girlfriend who cooed over them and gave them table scraps when she thought Alex wasn't looking?

The dogs ignored him, like always, but let Nicke move enough to follow Alex into the kitchen, where he started making tea. Nicke politely waited until the tea was done and served, before saying why he'd come. “I had a meeting this morning,” he said, then stopped and drank more of his tea.

Alex waited. It was everyone's day off, game tomorrow and two days after that, so management usually left everyone alone, unless it was important. To management.

He drank his own tea and waited patiently because it was no good trying to hurry Nicke up, and watched as Nicke looked around the room, like he thought Alex had borrowed something and hadn't returned it. Which – had he? Okay, yes, he'd carried off one of Nicke's travel mugs, two years ago. Nicke had five of them and hadn't ever seemed to care even when Alex drank out of the stolen one right in front of him.

Another sip of tea, then Nicke got up and went over to pour himself a second cup. Alex watched him look through to the dining room, the large formal one they hadn't crossed through to get here.

“They think I steal mascot head again? Hide here?”

But Nicke turned and gave him a little smile. Alex laughed, because whatever was going on, Nicke thought it was ridiculous.

“So what management want with you?” Alex asked him. He wondered if he should offer to make them a snack, but Nicke knew as well as he did where everything was. If it was time for food, he could feed himself just as easy.

“Not management. A group of concerned rookies – plus Tom.”

Alex' eyebrows went up, and a lot of his amusement died away – briefly. Nicke was still smiling at him, so. What on earth.

“They're very happy about your success rate of late,” Nicke explained. “But apparently someone – they wouldn't tell me who – told them it was because you had made a deal with the hockey gods. Or maybe someone else's gods. I couldn't get that part out of them. But they seem to think you're doing something...suspicious. I promised to look around for signs.”

Glaring, Alex found he was not at all amused. “They think--”

Nicke held up a hand, then stepped forward and laid it on Alex' chest and said very seriously, “They know, I know, it is because you work very hard, are incredibly talented, and that you are just getting everything you've worked for.” Then Nicke smiled again, tiny and secret. “But they wanted me to be sure, so they can do the same, if it helps.”

Alex felt his jaw drop and he stared at Nicke for a moment. “They sacrifice chickens if they think that's what I do?” Nicke shrugged as if to say, rookies. Hockey players. What can you do. Then Alex blinked. “That not so bad idea, actually. Hey, you want some chicken? I call Benny's, they deliver.” He got his phone out and scrolled through for Benny's restaurant app.

“You can't sacrifice with fried chicken,” Nicke told him.

Alex looked at him with horror. “Says you? Who wants to sacrifice a live chicken? You think Hockey Gods want dead live chicken, instead of fried with potatoes and cornbread?” Who would want a dead bird with feathers and beaks and entrails, when you could have a plate all fried up?

Maybe not the Hockey Gods, but Alex' dogs knew the word 'chicken' and were suddenly all pressed around both of their legs. “Like you ever get chicken, bones bad for you,” Alex admonished them. He had beef bones in the freezer for them, maybe he should get some out. He glanced down at his phone. “Hey, you staying? I make two orders.”

Nicke shook his head. “Make three and a child's plate, and tell them to deliver to my house.”

“Baby not eat fried chicken yet?”

“He only has two teeth, how is he supposed to eat fried chicken? No, don't, just bring them over,” Nicke said as Alex began trying to herd his pack of dogs outside. “Haley can play with them and maybe they'll wear her out enough she'll sleep.”

“She wear them out, for sure,” Alex nodded, and instead began gathering up leashes. The dogs liked that almost as well as the word chicken, as they lined up nicely to let Alex get leashes on each of them. He handed two of the leashes over to Nicke, because nice and polite they may be, but they still got underfoot when it was time to get out of the door and into the car.

Nicke just laughed at him again, which was rude and not at all helpful when he stood close enough his two could get across Alex' feet and trip him.

“I'm going to give Haley a puppy,” Alex warned. “Then for Vinushka and for every new baby you get new dog.”

It was horrible, but not surprising when Nicke just ignored him as he helped get the dogs into the back of Alex' car, then waited patiently while Alex locked everything up. Alex noted that Gera had opted to climb into Nicke's front seat where she could enjoy the breeze and scenery without anyone jostling her out of the way. And probably Nicke had snacks in his glovebox, from the way she was nosing around at it.

Well, she was the smartest one, and it wasn't Alex' fault if Nicke caved to her whining. She'd run it all off being chased by a four year old.

He did hope Nicke called to warn Liza, because the last time Alex descended on her house with dogs in tow, she'd glared at him for half an hour until he'd agreed he would vacuum up all the dog hair before he left. If they made Haley worn out, he might not even have to vacuum this time. Anyway, it was Nicke's idea and he was to blame, so he could do the vacuuming.

As Alex slid into the driver's seat of his car, getting a brief ear-licking from Blake, he glanced back towards his house. Where would he even sacrifice a chicken inside his house? Who would want to clean up such a mess?

He was going to have to find some feathers, though, to leave in his locker “by accident” and he could google some links to accidentally leave in his browser history for Tom to find.

Serve them right, though he did briefly feel bad for any chickens if they really fell for it. Unless they knew someone who could clean it after, and cook it. Alex didn't need to be that much involved in the preparation of his food, but if the team's babies wanted to make a chicken sacrifice to help them with their game, Alex could absolutely help them with it.

To a point. Then he'd just come back when it was time for eating.

~

When Alex got home he had to cajole his dogs out of the car, dragging themselves exhaustedly into the house. Most flopped right down in the living room, not even trying to find their beds or hop onto the couch. Alex let them be, smiling at how Liza had carried Haley upstairs to her bedroom, sound asleep a good hour before her bedtime.

Alex carried the bag of leftovers in through to the kitchen. There wasn't much, between him and Nicke they'd demolished almost everything, including the rest of the pecan pie. Alex grabbed a paper plate and tipped the piece of chicken he'd saved and took it out back.

He knew perfectly well the raccoons got it. He wasn't stupid or naïve. He didn't think gods were visiting, or demons would beset him if he didn't leave an offering. But he arranged the plate carefully behind the detached garage, near some tall grass. Then he took a picture with his phone and sent it to Andre.

Fried just as good, he texted.

He laughed. Someone would steal Andre's phone sooner or later, and then there would be a suspicious amount of requests for fried chicken from the team's cafeteria. He'd get those unimpressed looks from Nicke, but that was all right. Nicke appreciated him anyway, and if the rookies started leaving plates of fried chicken outside at least the local wildlife would enjoy it.

And, of course, if anyone wanted some of the chicken before the raccoons got to it, well, that was nobody else's business but the gods'.

Alex went inside and grabbed one of his practise sticks, rounding up a tennis ball and giving it a flip into the air. None of the dogs even stirred to chase it, so Alex wandered through the house, juggling the ball and turning out the lights.