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Kids don't keep secrets

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Alex put on a clean t-shirt and quickly stuffed all his dirty clothes into his bag. He was the last one left in the locker room, the reporters couldn't leave him alone, asking a bunch of inappropriate questions that had nothing to do with today's game or hockey in general. Therefore, while he was dealing with the media, the others managed to shower and change.

Alex ran the towel through his damp hair one last time before putting it with the rest of his belongings. He bent down to lace up his sneakers as the locker room door swung open and Andre froze as he entered. His frightened eyes darted over Alex's face, and his lower lip trembled as if he was about to cry. Behind him, Tom and Michael also crumpled, as pale and frightened as Andre himself. Alex was about to ask what had happened when the bundle of clothes that Andre was clutching to his chest stirred, and a small head with blonde curls peeked out.

"Did you steal a child ?!" Alex jumped from his stall, overcoming the distance between him and Andre.

A child, a little boy, Alex would give him about three years, reacted to his voice and turned to face him. His light green eyes widened amusedly, and the boy clapped his hands together, smiling.

"Alex!" the child said happily and pulled his hands to Alex.

"Where did you get him?" Alex asked as calmly as possible. The kid continued to reach for him and grabbed his T-shirt, tightly gripping the fabric in his small fist.

Andre looked around for support from Tom and Michael, clearly unable to speak. Alex took the child from him until Andre's trembling hands unclenched and he dropped the boy to the floor. The kid made a satisfied sound, hugging Alex's neck.

“We didn't steal him,” Michael said.

At the same time, Tom said,
"We went outside to wait for you. And then suddenly he fainted and became small!"

"We didn't do anything!" said Andre. "He only said that he was not feeling well, and then suddenly became a child."

"Who?" Alex interrupted the incoherent babbling of the boys.

"Nicky!" all three said in unison.

"What Nicky?" Alex asked, confused. The kid in his arms fidgeted and cupped Alex's face with his palms.

“Jag är Nicke (I'm Nicke),” the boy stammered.

"This child, " Andre nodded his head towards the boy, "is Nicky."

"If you decide to joke, then it's not funny,“ Alex gave the guys a stern look. Of course they loved to play around, but it was almost always harmless (except for the time when they were in jail, and Alex and Nicky had to get them out of there).

"Jag är Nicke, jag är Nicke!" whined the kid, pulling Alex by the collar of his T-shirt.

"Gråt inte, Alex är bara inte riktigt medveten om vad som händer än (Don't cry, Alex just doesn't understand what's happening)," Andre said and gently stroked the child's blond curls. He seems to have calmed down a bit and looked more confident around the boy. But this didn't make it easier for Alex, because he didn't understand what was happening and where the boys got the Swedish child from.

"Now explain in a human way what is happening," Alex demanded and sat down on the bench, making the baby more comfortable in his arms.

The boys again began to speak in chorus, and Alex was sure that the most reasonable here was the kid, who silently watched the guys, putting his index finger into his mouth.

“One at a time,” Alex said sternly. God knows, his captain's self-control will soon not be enough. And the worry that Nicky was somehow involved in this only made it worse.

"Michael, Andre, Nicky and I went outside because Nicky complained that he was dizzy. Then he suddenly fainted and became a child. If you don’t believe us, look at his clothes, they are Nicky's," Tom jerked his chin in a defensive gesture, making it clear that if Alex doesn’t believe him, then these are his personal problems. Michael and Andre nodded, confirming Tom's words.

Alex extended his arms, holding the baby (presumably Nicky) in front of him. He had never seen Nicklas' childhood photos, but had to admit there was little similarity between Nicky - the baby and Nicky - the adult. The same big green eyes, a neat nose and curly blonde hair that adult Nicky had, only redder.

Perhaps Alex would not have believed it if he hadn't heard rumours that this has already happened, at least in the hockey world. The sudden realization that it was true and that it happened to Nicky felt like a sharp punch in the stomach. Alex swallowed, continuing to stare at the baby. He felt comfortable in Alex's arms and smiled, looking trustingly at Alex, like a devoted puppy.

"And what are we going to do with you now?" Alex sighed, getting up from the bench. He handed Nicky to Andre, to the child's disgruntled whimpering. "I need to talk to the coach."

Andre nodded in agreement, rocking Nicky, who continued to whimper and babble in Swedish.

“Be careful with him,” Alex warned.

If Alex thought that the coach would think he was crazy or had a concussion, since he was talking such nonsense about the de-aged Nicklas, then he was wrong. The coach took the news calmly and didn't seem surprised at all.

"I've heard about this. And, unfortunately, more than once. This happens mainly due to serious emotional upheaval that a person can't withstand. This works as a defense mechanism."

Alex blinked, trying to assimilate the new information and understand when the coach managed to get a degree in psychology.

"And how long will he be in this state?"

"It's different for everyone. Maybe a couple of days, maybe a week, maybe more."

Cool, Alex thought and rubbed the bridge of his nose. An unpleasant feeling, reminiscent of fear, spilled into his chest. He won't panic, because it won't help Nicky. He let out a torn breath and pulled himself together.

“Do everything to keep Nicklas safe for this time,” said the coach.

"Maybe he can stay with someone who already has children. Nylander for example?"

Michael had six children, he was unlikely to notice if there were seven of them, given that he always treated Nicky with special care. And on top of that, he knew Swedish.

Crying was heard from the hallway, and Alex' heart skipped a beat for a second. He was certain that Nicky was the one crying. Alex stepped out to the sound and a second later Nicklas bumped into him, hugging his knees and continuing to cry.

“Can’t be left for a second,” Alex growled, looking displeased at Andre, Michael and Tom.

"Lämna mig inte (don't leave)," Nicke cried. He was sobbing and shaking shallowly, death grip on Alex.

“He thought you left him,” Andre lowered his head apologetically.

"Are you sure it's a good idea if he stays with the Nylanders?" the coach asked, looking out into the corridor. He looked at Nicklas with curiosity, and Alex wanted to hide him, because what the fuck? Nicky is not a zoo animal, but a frightened child who doesn't understand what is happening.

“Stanna hos Alex,” Nicky whimpered, wiping his tears with his palm. Alex looked at Andre, silently asking for a translation.

"He wants to stay with you."

"Do you speak English, Nicky?" Alex asked, looking into the child's eyes. Nicky looked at him blankly, frowning slightly.

“Obviously not,” Tom said disappointed.

"I can't look after him if I don't understand anything he is saying," Alex stroked Nicky's back, and he laid his head on his shoulder. Nicky's lashes, wet with tears, tickled Alex's neck. The kid was breathing unevenly, still sobbing softly.

“I doubt he’s going to want to live with anyone other than you,” Michael shrugged vaguely as he watched Nicky calm down in Alex’s arms.

Nicky didn't speak much, and there is a possibility that Alex will be able to understand what he wants on an intuitive level. Moreover, Alex had some kind of possessiveness towards Nicky (not that it was different when Nicklas was his usual self).

"It seems that you have no choice,“ summed up the coach. At this time, Nicky took a deep breath, and Alex moved him a little from his shoulder to look at him. Nicky was asleep. His chubby cheeks were red and glistening with tears, his mouth was slightly open and a drop of saliva was collected in the corner, and the curls stuck to his forehead.

“Angel,” Andre whispered, smiling. And Alex mentally agreed with him.

.....

 

When Alex was left alone with the sleeping Nicky, he realized what a responsibility lay on his shoulders. Alex had no experience with children, but he got along pretty well with them, and now he had to do everything to make Nicky stay alive and well until his return.

“We’ll call Uncle Michael now,” Alex said quietly, steadying Nicky with one hand so as to not drop him. He took his phone from the back pocket of his jeans and dialled Nylander's number.

Alex didn't explain what happened, but simply asked him to come to the arena and not forget to take a baby seat with him.

He and the coach agreed that Alex would stick to the legend that Nicky is the son of Alex's cousin, if photos of Alex with the baby suddenly surfaced.

But Alex didn't want to provoke the journalists and the paparazzi, so he covered Nicky with a T-shirt, in which the adult Nicklas was at the morning, and hoping that nothing would be noticeable in the dark, he quickly sat in the back seat of Nylander's car.

"And why did you need a baby seat?" Michael asked. Alex gently flipped the hem of his shirt to reveal Nicky asleep.
"Nicklas."

Michael's lips tightened into a thin line and he looked worriedly over the child's face.

“The coach said it was from emotional stress,” Alex said. "Do you know what could have happened?"

“So he hasn't spoken to you,” Michael turned away, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. Alex tried to see his face through the rearview mirror, but it was dark and the only light source was the headlights on, which weren't enough to illuminate.

"About what?"

"That, a grown up Nicklas will tell you," Michael sighed. "As I understood, he stays with you?"

"He threw a tantrum about this. He was originally going to stay with you,” Alex said, putting Nicky in the baby seat. The kid opened his eyes, looking around the car, and was already about to cry, but Alex gently stroked his cheek.

“It's okay,” Alex cooed, and Nicky, satisfied that he was there, closed his eyes again.

“No wonder he wants to stay with you,” Michael grinned as he pulled out of the parking lot. "We need to stop by the store and buy Nicke some clothes and something to eat, because I'm sure what you have in the fridge is not suitable for a child."

Alex just shrugged his shoulders, he really had nothing to argue.

 

Who would have thought that shopping is actually quite fun.

By the time they got to Target, Nicky was already awake. He felt great and babbled happily in Swedish. Michael kept up a conversation with him, clearly not going to tell Alex about the details. Nicky sat in the cart, still wrapped in his (now huge) T-shirt, and looked around with interest, like it was the first time he saw living people and the store in general. Alex enjoyed some time in the children's clothing department, lugging around with hangers to show Nicky and Michael.

"Looks like someone is happy to be a mother hen," rolled his eyes Nylander, taking another T-shirt with the words "Mini Boss".

"But it's cool! Right, Nicky?"

Michael is not sure if Nicklas understood the question, but the toddler copied Alex's wide smile, and they beamed at each other like crazy.

As a result, they bought 7 T-shirts (one for each day), three pairs of jeans and three pairs of pants, two hoodies, three jackets, a beanie and five pajama sets with cartoon characters, which Alex liked. Nicky was allowed to choose socks and underwear himself, it only remained to check the size so that everything would fit him. Shoes were handled by Michael. He tried on Nicky several pairs of sneakers, and Nicklas dangled his legs, not helping the fitting process move faster.

With food was much easier. They bought baby food, but one that Alex thought should be tasty, not green puree with spinach or broccoli.

“Jag vill ha juice,” Nicky said and reached for the juice bags on the shelf.

They bought cookies for Nicky, but without additives, because Michael insisted that Nicky should eat normal food. Nylander added milk, cereals and fresh fruit to the shopping list.

 

Alex was sure that he had never bought so much things in his life. Even if all this wasn't for him, but for Nicklas, the number of purchases was impressive. But money wasn't a problem for Alex, so he doesn't give a damn. As long as Nicky is happy.

Nicklas was changed right in the parking lot. Alex, under Michael's supervision, put on a yellow shirt and black pants on Nicky. Nicky put on socks and shoes himself, Alex just tied his laces. While they drove home to Alex, Nicky ate a banana and drank some juice.

 

When they arrived, Michael took Nicklas by the hand, and Alex took all the purchases from the trunk. Although Nicky didn't cry like the last time, he constantly looked around to check if Alex was here.

Michael was telling him something in Swedish, something clearly instructive, because Nicky was nodding gravely.

"If you need something - call, "Michael slapped Alex on the shoulder. "I talked to him, and said that if he wants something, he must show it. You can try teaching him basic English words. Eat, drink, sleep - something simple."

“Thank you.” Alex couldn't express how grateful he was to Nylander.

Michael smiled and squatted down in front of Nicky.

"Lyssna på Alex, okej? Annars blir han upprörd. (Behave, okay? Or Alex will be upset.)

"Okej. Jag älskar honom," Nicky told him.

Alex wanted to know what Nicklas had said, given Michael's thoughtful and slightly sad expression.

“He promised to obey,” Nylander translated, but Alex knew that wasn't all that Nicky said.

 

***

 

Alex' apartment was large and quite clean, especially for a hockey player. Alex made Nicky sit in the living room and brought him the toys they bought, while he himself changed the bedding, did the dishes, and cleaned up the kitchen. The last time he got so bothered about cleaning was when he was in a long-term relationship and wanted to impress a girl. Now he had to impress baby Nicklas.

Adult Nicklas was easy to impress. First of all, beautiful hockey. Then, funny jokes, making Nicky laugh so hard he threw his head back. Alex liked to watch the fine lines appear around his eyes and bright smile on his lips.

Baby Nicky should have been even easier to impress. And Alex was going to do it.

When he finished cleaning, Alex took a fruit puree out of the fridge to warm it up and went to check on Nicky. He built a tower of cubes in the centre of the carpet and drove the cars around it, making funny sounds.

Alex snorted to himself, who would have thought that someday his three-year-old best friend would play in his living room.

"Lek med mig," Nicky handed him a car toy when Alex sat down on the carpet.

"Do you want me to play with you?", Alex asked. Nicky looked at him blankly. Alex sighed in disappointment. Problems with the language barrier weren't something new in his life, but he hoped that with Nicklas they had overcome this stage long ago. Now they had to do everything all over again, only now Nicky didn't understand a word in English.

"Play," Alex ostentatiously moved the car, and then put one cube on top of the other, from the remaining ones that Nicky didn't use for his tower.

“Play,” he said again and made a gesture with his hand, trying to non-verbally ask Nicky to repeat.

 

When, for the thirtieth time, Nicklas didn't understand what Alex wanted from him, he grunted in frustration and sat down with his back to Alex, sulking.

Adult Nicklas behaved differently when he sulked. In general, this happened quite rarely. But when Nicky was angry, he was incredibly terrifying, even Alex was sometimes scared, even if he did not admit it.

Alex found a compromise in their situation (and how he hadn't thought of that before!); he opened a translator on his phone and chose Swedish. Of course, the translation won't be quite right but Nicky will understand.

"Nicky," Alex called, and when the kid turned around, pressed the button and the translator said, "You wanted to play with me?" in Swedish.

"Ville du leka med mig?" Alex stammered. He had heard Nicklas speak Swedish many times, and he could easily admit that Swedish sounded amazing from Nicky's lips. The very first time, Alex didn't succeed, to put it mildly, but Nicky looked at him as if Alex had read him a poem. The kid stretched out his arms to Alex, hugging him tightly.

"Ja," Nicky replied, and Alex decided it meant yes.

They played for about half an hour, rolling cars and playing with blocks. They practically didn't use a translator, Alex already understood what Nicky wanted.

"När du vill spela, berätta "play", " Alex was trying to pronounce everything correctly, but this time Nicky understood what he wanted from him.

"Play!" said Nicky happily, clapping his hands.

"Yes!" Alex held out his hand to him, and when Nicklas hesitated, he slapped Nicky's hand on his.

 

It seemed that feeding the children wasn't so easy, even if the child liked the food. The first problem was that Nicky was too small for a regular chair and it was uncomfortable for him to eat at the table, because the surface of the table was located just below Nicklas' eye level. Alex brought a pillow from the living room so that Nicky could sit higher. He gave him a teaspoon and opened the jar of apple-apricot puree.

Nicky really liked it, so he not only ate it, but also smeared it on his face, T-shirt and table.

“Väldigt gott (very tasty),” Nicky said, licking his spoon.

“So that I know what that means,” Alex said in Russian. He could just not speak English; Nicky still doesn’t understand it.

He helped Nicklas finish his meal, because the kid could not reach the bottom of the small jar.

"Now we need to remove all this mess."

Alex decided to start with Nicklas. He gently pulled off his shirt and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Having put Nicky on the other side of the table, Alex asked him to sit, and it seems that the child understood him. He sat quietly, watching Alex clean the kitchen for a second time.

Like the adult Nicklas, the baby Nicky was calm, which made Alex very happy, because he was not sure if he could cope with a hyperactive child, as he himself was in childhood.

Bath time came earlier than Alex had planned, but Nicky was completely fascinated by the foam filling the tub. He ran his hands over it, clenched it in his fists and giggled softly. Alex stained Nicky’s nose with foam, and he laughed so brightly that Alex didn't know what to do with the wave of tenderness that suddenly swept over him.

Maybe he should have bought rubber ducks or some other toys for the bath, but for the first time Nicklas had enough with foam.

When the water began to cool slightly, Alex, to the child's dismay, washed off all the foam. Nicky didn't have to be upset for a long time, though. He saw pajamas with Batman-symbols laid for him, and began babbling something in Swedish.

They went back to the bathroom to brush their teeth. And Alex made funny faces to Nicky in the mirror, making the child laugh with a toothbrush in his mouth.

Alex put Nicky to bed and covered him with a duvet.

"I need a shower, " he pointed to the door, and then to himself. "I'll be right back."

Of course, Nicklas didn't understand the last phrase, but nodded. Alex turned off the lamp on the nightstand and went to the bathroom. He had to hurry when he heard sobs from behind the door. Putting on his pants and a T-shirt, Alex opened the door and walked over to the bed, turning on the lights as he walked.

Nicklas sat in bed and cried, covering his face with his hands.

"What's happened?" Alex asked worriedly, examining the child. What could have happened in ten minutes of his absence?

Alex went to bed and pulled Nicky close to him, stroking his back and hair. Nicklas held on to his hand as if his life depended on it. When the toddler calmed down, Alex used a translator to find out what had happened. The answer turned out to be pretty obvious. Nicky pointed to the lamp. Leaving for the shower, Alex turned off the light in the room, and Nicky was left in complete darkness in an unfamiliar apartment.

“Sorry,” Alex left a kiss on the top of Nicklas' head.

“Förlåt,” he repeated in Swedish.

“Jag älskar dig, Alex,” Nicky replied.

Alex translated this phrase in his own way.

“Good night, Nicky,” Alex said, covering both of them with a blanket. He didn’t turn off the light until Nicklas fell asleep, snuggling against his side and sniffing softly.

.....

 

He felt like the morning's started too early although it was already eight o'clock. Alex felt like he hadn't slept at all. All night, he woke up abruptly to check if Nicky had fallen out of bed, and sometime in the morning he thought of propping up Nicklas with a pillow on the edge and throwing some on the floor just in case. Maybe he was just paranoid, because Nicky slept peacefully and hardly tossed and turned.

And now Nicklas, who had slept well, was jumping on the bed, trying to wake Alex up, talking again in Swedish (as if he had other options).

"If you were a bit more prudent as an adult, you would teach me a little Swedish and I would understand what you are saying, " Alex lifted his head from the pillow, looking at Nicky. The sunlight pouring from the uncurtained window dyed Nicky's hair red. The kid squinted at the bright light and rubbed his sleepy eyes.

He looked so much like the grown-up Nicklas, who had the same habit of rubbing his eyes when he woke up.

Alex didn't want to think about it, at least not now. He ran his hand over his face and sat down. He needed to feed Nicky and gather himself and him for morning skate.

The breakfast went much better than the dinner yesterday. Alex made a makeshift napkin bib for Nicklas to keep Nicky clean as long as possible. He also liked the cereal with milk, and this time the kid finished it all himself. And while Alex was preparing breakfast for himself, Nicky stole a couple of strawberries from his plate. But when Alex washed a few pieces for him personally, Nicky refused to eat.

"Children, " Alex rolled his eyes, causing wild delight in Nicklas.

***

Alex mentally thanked Nylander a million more times for leaving him the baby seat. Michael's youngest daughter was almost nine and no longer needed the seat, but now Nicky was using it, and Alex hoped that he wouldn't need it for a long time.

 

Satisfied, Nicklas walked down the arena hallway, holding a box of banana juice in one hand and Alex's palm in the other. He was in excellent mood and was almost bouncing, and Alex was a little jealous of his carelessness.

Nicky made a stir in the locker room, although Alex had already spoken to the team and explained the situation.

“Look how cute you are,” the guys cooed, ruffling Nicklas' hair and shaking his little hand.

Baby Nicky made the biggest impression on TJ. He dabbled with Nicklas, and Nicky and Oshie were laughing all over the locker room.

Nicklas squealed with delight when TJ tossed him into the air.

“Hey, hey,” Alex protested. "Be careful with him."

“Ovi, he was with you only for a day and you already have a maternal instinct,” Kuzy snorted. He switched to Russian, so no one except Alex understood him.

"Not that something has changed," added Zhenya and turned away, pretending to be busy lacing the skates and completely oblivious to Alex's murderous gaze.

"Can I adopt him?" TJ tickled Nicky, and he giggled uncontrollably.

“You have your own child and you don’t know Swedish,” Alex said gloomily, taking Nicklas away from Oshie. Perhaps he was a little jealous of him, because before he was the only one whom the baby recognized. And then TJ appeared and all Nicky's attention went to him.

During the skate, Nicky was assigned to one of the assistant couches. Nicklas didn't mind as long as he could watch the others skate. He stuck his nose to the protective glass and closely watched the hockey players. Andre gave him the puck to play, and Nicky twisted it in his hands, continuing to watch what was happening.

Alex tried to focus on the drills and not think about how much he missed Nicklas. The realization that he was here, nearby, only a few meters and a thick layer of glass away did not help. It was Nicky, alive and well, but not that one. Not the one Alex knew over the years, not the one he played side-by-side with, and not the one who meant too much to Alex.

But Alex had to postpone personal worries for later, because now there was a more important question. Tomorrow they were supposed to fly to Boston for the game, and there was a very small chance that Nicky would be back in his previous state by this time, as much as Alex hoped for it. There was no question of leaving Nicklas in Washington, and of course he needed to take him with him. For the media, Nicklas had a knee injury, so his absence shouldn't have been a problem. And there were no articles about Alex with a child either. Or there were, but Alex didn't bother to read them.

 

Alex was the last one to get off the ice, so when he entered the locker room, Nicky was already there. He sat in Alex's stall and talked to Andre. It was evident that he was very happy to talk to someone who understands him. When Nicky returns, Alex will definitely demand him to teach a couple of words in Swedish. Just in case.

 

They took Andre with them to lunch because even if Nicky is now a child, Alex must not forget about his real children.

“You know, I miss him,” Andre said as they sat down at a table in the cafe. They brought a high chair for Nicky and now he was playing with a small spoon, knocking it on the table while waiting for food. “Only one day has passed, but I'm too used to the fact that he is always there."

Andre looked at Nicklas, tilting his head slightly, and received a wide smile of a child in return. Alex understood what Andre was talking about because he felt the same way.

“You’ll still miss the way he chatters all sorts of favours to you in Swedish when he returns. Enjoy while you can," Alex joked.

Andre only grinned wryly in response. Nicklas had a special place in Andre's life, which is not surprising, because Nicky immediately took him under his wing, and the boy quickly became attached to him. It wasn't for nothing that Andre, Michael and Tom called Nicklas "Papa". Well, now they were more likely to be his fathers than he was to them.

“You don’t know what could have triggered his ... de-aging?” Alex asked. He turned to Nicklas in time, catching the spoon that he threw. Nicky smiled charmingly in response to the stern look, and Alex sighed. Arguing with the grown-up Nicky was much easier.

Finally, food was brought to them, and Nicklas occupied himself with dinner.

"He didn't tell you?" Andre's brown eyes followed Alex closely.

“If I knew that there was something wrong, it wouldn’t have come to this,” Alex protested, waving in the direction of Nike. If only he knew what bothered Nicklas so much that he was now a fucking three-year-old. And most of all it was a shame that he didn't tell anything to Alex, although they were best friends.

"Varför är Alex arg?" Nicky tilted his head to the side and stuck his finger in his mouth. Andre's eyes darted from Nicklas to Alex, but he was in no hurry to answer.

"What did he ask?"

"Why are you angry."

“I’m angry because my best friend, who didn’t tell me about his problems, is now a child, and now I need to deal with the consequences,” Alex snorted. He rolled the peas on a plate, suddenly lost his appetite.

“För att han saknar dig,” Andre told Nicke.

Alex's eyes widened in horror.

“I hope you didn’t translate what I said?”

Andre grinned and shrugged.

"I said you miss him."

"Men jag är här," Nicky reached out and touched Alex's shoulder, they sat close enough that he could easily reach.

“Ja, Nicke, du är här,” Andre nodded, smiling reassuringly.
Alex groaned and rubbed his face with his hands.

"I need a lesson in Swedish. I don't understand a word."

Andre laughed, and the atmosphere became less tense.

“He said he’s here, so you don’t need to miss him.”

Alex just chuckled in response.

***

In the evening, when Alex was packing up a bag of things for Nicklas, the kid ran around the apartment, choosing which toy to take with him. They agreed that he would take only one, maximum two. After dinner, saying goodbye to Andre, they drove into the store to buy Nicky a small backpack that he could take with him on the plane. Alex put in cookies, a bag of juice, a bottle of water, and a pack of tissues. Nicky put two cars, a red and a black, into his backpack, and zipped it up with a serious look.

The flight was early in the morning, Nicky didn't get enough sleep and was cranky. He didn't get off Alex's arms and whimpered, no matter how they tried to distract him. Even Andre's chatter in Swedish didn't help. Nicklas hid his face in the crook of Alex's neck and continued to whine. Alex tried to stay calm, he was already worried about how Nicky would endure the flight.

On the plane, Nicklas couldn't find a place for himself. The leather chairs were uncomfortable for him, and he was constantly tossing and turning. But then he climbed into Alex's lap, lay down on his chest and fell asleep. Only then was Alex able to breathe out calmly and relax a little. Nicky's curls tickled his chin, and Alex gently ran his palm over the kid's back, fearing that if he stopped, Nicky would wake up and start crying again.

"I could watch him, so you could rest a little?"

TJ was sitting across the aisle from them. He leaned over the armrest, reaching out to pick up Nicky.

"Thanks but no. If he wakes up, he will throw a tantrum."

TJ smiled knowingly and nodded, not insisting on helping.

Alex covered Nicky with his jacket and settled down more comfortably in the chair, hugging him with both arms so that he wouldn't accidentally slide off him in his sleep, and closed his eyes.

......

Nicky ran around the tables in the dining room, charming everyone present with his cute little face and compassionate eyes. It seemed that the guys treated him to something delicious from their plates. Finally, he got tired, and after taking a piece of cherry pie from Kuzy, he returned to the table where Alex was sitting. Nicky unceremoniously climbed onto Alex’s lap and fell silent, taking tiny bites of the pie.
After sleeping on the plane, Nicklas felt better and was no longer capricious, much to the relief of Alex and everyone else.

"Vill du ha en paj? (Would you like a pie?) ", Nicky turned in Alex’s arms and raised the pie to his lips. Alex took a bite and nodded gratefully, earning a child's happy smile.

"It's so cute, it hurts."

TJ, sitting opposite Alex, brushed away a nonexistent tear with an obnoxious grin. Tom and Michael giggled.

“Envy in silence,” Alex snorted, brushing Nicky's curly strand of hair behind his ear. Nicklas was embarrassed under the gaze of three pairs of eyes and hid his face on Alex’s chest. His sticky fingers, stained with cherry filling, left marks on Alex’s white T-shirt.

***

Alex was taking apart a box given to him by a staff member. There were clothes that were meant for Nicky - two jerseys and a hat. The jerseys came in two versions, with the number and surname of Alex and Nicklas. Turning jersey number 19 in his hands, Alex put it back in the box and picked up number 8.

Nicky ran there immediately when called, and happily pulled on the jersey. There was a narrow full-length mirror in the corner of the room, and the kid ran up to it, examining himself in the reflection. Alex also put a hat with a red-blue-white pompom and an eagle patch on the fold on him. Nicky looked adorable. The jersey was a little too big for him and the sleeves were long, light curls peeped out from under the cap, and Nicklas himself smiled, putting his fingers into his mouth.
Of course Alex could not resist and took a couple of photos on his phone.

For the duration of the game, Alex had to find a temporary babysitter for Nicky. No one was going to take him to the stands so as not to draw too much attention to the mysterious child who appeared from nowhere. The babysitter was a Swedish boy from the staff, whom Alex was fortunate enough to find so that Nicky would not get bored.

It was one of the few games that Nicklas wasn't around. A strange, unpleasant feeling settled in Alex’s chest, but he brushed it off. He had a game to play. But Alex’s thoughts constantly returned to Nicky. He exhaled and dried his face with a towel. Andre gave him a knowing look and nudged him with his shoulder.

"I think Papa would appreciate a victory in his absence."

Yes, they’d have to win for Nicky.

The locker room was noisy. Joyful exclamations, laughter and congratulations. Alex felt nothing but relief and pride for his team, and a little more sadness, because Nicky wasn't here. Well... he was here. He ran among the guys, climbed to their laps and bubbled in Swedish.

Alex sat and stared at the blond boy, thinking that it wasn't his Nicky. He hasn't yet had time for shutting himself up in the bathroom and crying over what had happened, because there was no time, taking care of the child and hockey was taking every minute. And it seems that this moment, which Alex was trying to delay, has come now.
He would give anything now for the locker room door to open and Nicky to walk in, wearing his favorite blue hoodie with the Capitals logo on the chest and a grey stretched cap that actually belonged to Alex. He would hug Alex and say that everything is back to normal.

"Alex!" Alex flinched as Andre's hand came to rest gently on his shoulder. Concern showed on his face, and Alex blinked, recovering. "Everything is fine?"

"Yes," Alex threw another glance in the direction of Nicky, who was sitting on the shoulders of TJ and drumming his palms on his helmet.

"Nicky's mom called several times,“ Andre handed him the phone. Nicklas' personal belongings - wallet, phone and keys were kept by Andre for the time being, just in case to explain the situation in Swedish, which Alex isn't good at.

"Text her that Nicky caught a cold and ... " Alex tried to come up with a plausible lie on the go (not that he did it for the first time). He didn’t want to tell the truth to Mrs. Bäckström, because firstly, he didn’t know how to explain, and secondly, if Nicky wanted to, he would tell her himself, after all, it’s his mother.
"And he lost his voice."

Andre nodded, picking up the phone.

“Just text on behalf of Nicky,” Alex warned, just in case, taking off his jersey. Andre gave him an offended "I'm not an idiot" look. Alex just shrugged.

****

Alex’s hotel room had two beds, which Nicklas really didn't like. In the evening, when he had to go to bed, he shook his head and constantly repeated "Nej". Then, Alex requested someone bring them a folding playpen, but Nicky continued to stand his ground. He even explained the reason he doesn't want to sleep in the playpen, only Alex didn't understand him.

“So stubborn,” Alex snorted, opening the door that led to Andre and Braden’s room. Andre was lying on the bed on his stomach and swinging his legs in the air, scrolling through something on the phone.
"Go translate what he says."

With a heavy sigh, Andre slid out of bed. He walked over to Nicky, who was sitting on the floor, looking like he was about to cry. His lip quivered a little, his eyes were red and his cheeks flushed.

“He wants to sleep with you,” Andre finally said after a five-minute conversation with Nicky from which Alex understood only “yes”, “no” and “Alex”.
Alex swears that when Nicky returns to his previous state, he will give him a boycott or speak only Russian, and now Nicklas will be the one to wonder what Alex wants from him.

“Drama queen,” Alex rolled his eyes and ruffled Nicky's hair. He folded the playpen to carry it back and say they wouldn't need it.
Nicklas was left waiting for him, lying in bed, smiling contentedly.

As soon as he fell asleep, Alex got out of bed and went to the bathroom, quietly closing the door behind him. He lowered the toilet lid and sat down, taking his phone out of his pocket along the way. He flipped through his contacts and pressed the green button. It was eleven o'clock in Boston, like in Pittsburgh, so Zhenya had to answer.

“It better to be very important,” Zhenya muttered into the receiver. On the other end of the line, there was another voice and some sort of fussing.

"Do you remember when you turned into a child?" Alex asked immediately. He was not going to waste time on the prefaces.

"Yes, I remember everything. Why?"

“I’m asking for a friend,” Alex replied reluctantly.
Silence, and then a chuckle.

"Come on, Sasha. Is Bäckström a child?" Zhenya giggled. "Does he still have that murderous look?"

“Shut up,” Alex growled warningly.

"Okay-okay".

"Tell me as much as possible about this."

“The fact that this happened to me does not mean that I am an expert in this area,” Malkin said. But then he sighed and began to talk. "This whole nonsense was due to stress. Sid and I had a big fight and I suddenly turned five years old kid. It lasted a little less than a week."

"Did you perceive everything as an adult?"

"No. Like a child. But the memories remain."

"And how did you get back?"

"When you feel safe. The body calms down and realizes that there is no longer any point in the defense mechanism. On this depends how soon you will return to the previous state," Zhenya fell silent, and Alex heard a whisper. "Sid says that for some people it goes away quickly, in two days."

Alex pondered this, resting his chin on his palm. It's been a full three days since Nicky suddenly decided to take a break from adulthood and become a toddler.
"How to make it come back faster?"

"I don't know."

“Wait and keep him safe,” Crosby's voice came over the phone. "Do everything to make him feel good and he understands that he has nothing to fear, that you are always there and will always help."

Alex rubbed his forehead with his palm and sighed. Everything that Sidney listed, he always tried to do. He was always there for Nicklas, and let him know that he would always be on his side, no matter what. And Alex just doesn't know how to make it clearer.

“Okay, I got it, thanks,” Alex lost the last enthusiasm in his voice.

“He'll be fine,” Crosby assured him, and hung up.

Alex put the phone back in his pocket and stood in front of the mirror. It hung over the sink, and Alex washed his face with cold water, bringing himself to his senses.
He went back to the room and sat on the edge of the bed. Nicky was asleep, the dirty yellow light of the lamp fell on his face and a shadow fell on his cheeks from thick light eyelashes. Alex leaned over and kissed Nicky lightly on the forehead. Nicklas took a deep breath and rolled onto his side.
Alex turned off the light and lay down next to him, hugging Nicky and burying his nose in his curls. If Nicklas didn't believe that he was ready to do anything for him, then Alex will find a way to convince him.
......

Three more days passed. Tomorrow will be a week since Nicky became a child. The team played two away games and came back to Washington. Alex rolled the suitcase behind him and led Nicky by the hand. Nicklas didn't walk but skipped, he was in a wonderful mood, because Alex bought him a stuffed toy in one of the shops at the airport. And now Nicky didn't let go of his sheep for a second, lovingly clutching it to his chest.
Alex, however, didn't feel very well, and looked even worse. The last days, he had slept badly, thinking what could have provoked Nicky's de-aging and how to help him.

“You look shitty,” TJ remarked, examining the blue circles under the eyes on Alex’s pale face. "If you turn into a child like he did, you will not be able to help him in any way."

“I can't do it anyway,” Alex snapped. TJ sighed, looking down at Nicky.

"Do you want me to watch him for a while? He'll play with Lyla. I'll take him home by the evening. You will rest a little."

Alex weighed the pros and cons. It wouldn't hurt him to be alone for a few hours, but didn't want to leave Nicky.
"Are you sure? "

“Absolutely,” TJ smiled broadly. “Lauren won't mind too, and Lyla will have a company."

“You don’t know Swedish,” Alex reminded him.

TJ clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes.
"You neither".

Alex asked Andre, whom he has been using as a communication tool for a week, to explain to Nicky that he will go to visit TJ. Nicklas was not very happy about this and squeezed Alex’s palm harder. Andre managed to persuade him, and he reluctantly, but still agreed.

"What did you tell him?" Alex asked in surprise.

"I know his soft spot,“ Andre answered and looked at him in a strange way.

They went out into the parking lot near the airport, where Lauren was already waiting for TJ. Lyla was sitting in a child seat and nibbling on a rattle. She was a little over a year old, and to be honest, Alex had no idea how Nicky would play with her.
Nicklas hugged Alex tightly, as if he will never see him again, and TJ helped him to get into the car with him.

At home Alex took a shower and went to bed right away. Exhaustion fell on him sharply and only his head touched the pillow, he fell asleep.
Alex was woken up by a call. Without looking, he fumbled for the phone on the nightstand and brought it to his ear.

"Yes?" he said hoarsely, without opening his eyes. He was still somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, not quite understanding what was happening.

“I'm driving Nicky home,” TJ said, Alex heard whimpering in the background. "We're going home, buddy, it's okay, don't cry".

Alex sat up abruptly, sleep vanished.

"What's happened? Is he okay?"

"Yes. He apparently thought that you left him for forever. We tried to distract him and calm him down, but he continued to cry. I think he is most comfortable with you."

They arrived five minutes later, and Nicklas threw himself into Alex’s arms with a loud cry. Alex hugged him, rocking him while Nicky sobbed into his shoulder.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” Alex muttered, kissing the top of the baby's head. "I will never leave you again."

TJ watched them with a pitying expression on his face.
“I'm sorry,” he said, handing Alex the backpack and Nicky's toy. " I wanted to give you a rest, but it didn’t work."

“Thanks anyway, you really did help,” and Alex really meant it.

"Will you both be okay?" asked TJ, shifting from foot to foot in the hallway. Nicklas had already calmed down, but he was still lying on Alex’s shoulder, clenching the fabric of his T-shirt in his fists, as if he let go, Alex would run away. He sobbed periodically, which was self-evident after a tantrum.

"Yes, we will", Alex assured TJ.

Nicky kept Alex in sight for the rest of the day. He sat with him in the kitchen while Alex cooked dinner, and drove the car-toys across the countertop. He also refused to eat on his own, but ate everything when Alex fed him.
They settled on the sofa in the living room, and Nicklas climbed into Alex’s lap, hugging his neck and pressing his cheek against his shoulder. Alex stroked his back, feeling guilty that Nicky was upset with him. He promised to always be there, but in the end he left him, throwing off responsibility.

“Jag älskar dig,” Nicky suddenly said, lifting his head and looking at Alex. Alex ran a hand through his hair and smiled.

“I don’t understand you, kiddo,” he said.

Nicky kissed him on the cheek in response.
Alex wanted to howl. No one had ruffled his nerves so much, and he simply could not stand one more day.

"You know? " he declared. Nicky blinked in confusion. “I'm not sure you understand, but it doesn't matter."

Alex took a deep breath and continued.

"Come back. Please come back. We really need you. The team and me. I don't know what happened, what caused your de-aging, but I promise to be better for you. We'll be better together.” He closed his eyes so as not to see Nicklas' gaze. “I miss you very much, Nicky."

The feeling that Nicky understood him bloomed in his chest. Maybe Alex was just stupidly hoping, but what if it works. He meant every word he said and even more.

In the evening, when they went to bed, Nicky said again:
"Jag älskar dig," and smiled. Alex kissed his forehead and Nicklas giggled, burying his face in the pillow.

"I love you," Alex covered Nicky with a blanket up to his chin.

He took the phone from the nightstand and opened the translator. On the keyboard, he typed "I love you" and pressed "translate." When the translator spoke these three words in Swedish, Alex froze. There was a familiar phrase that Nicky had been saying from the very first day.

“Jag älskar dig (I love you),” Alex repeated, addressing both toddler and adult Nicklas. Nicky’s eyes shone happily and he moved closer to Alex.
This was the first night Alex had slept well.

....

Alex woke up alone. At first, he was terribly scared that Nicky had escaped or was stolen, but the second was definitely impossible, because the door was closed, and the probability that a child barely a meter tall could reach the latch or get the keys from the cabinet was small.
Alex checked every corner of the apartment, every closet, and looked under the bed. In the course of his search, he noticed that a T-shirt and trousers were missing from a stack of clean clothes, and Alex’s sneakers weren't in the hallway.

Also, there were no personal belongings of Nicklas, which Alex had recently taken from Andre for safekeeping, placing them on the cabinet in the hallway. All this meant only one thing, Nicklas became an adult again and instead of waking Alex up and sharing the great news, he silently left. Alex thought that this only happens after a one-night stand, but then he wouldn't have thought to worry about it.

Nicky didn’t answer the calls, and Alex began to get angry. Firstly, he was worried about Nicklas and his well-being, and secondly, he deserved at least some explanation.
They were supposed to be at a morning skate in two hours. And Alex was almost completely sure that Nicky would appear, no matter how he felt.
To fully get ready and have breakfast, Alex took twenty-five minutes, which can be called his personal record.

Alex burst into the locker room, slamming the door behind him. He looked like he was being chased by a pack of rabid wolves, in a way. His eyes darted around the room, looking for a specific face.
Alex didn't even notice him at first. Nicky was surrounded by kids (their kids) who literally hung on to him. Andre turned around to see who had come, his smile was so bright, you could go blind.

"Papa is back!" he said happily.

Alex watched them in silence. His brain slowly understood that it was over, that Nicky was finally here and an adult again. A wave of relief swept over Alex’s head, and he let out a long breath.

"Are you okay, Nicky?" he asked.

Nicklas twitched, lifting his head sharply, and stopped smiling. His gaze turned cold and closed, and Alex grimaced, wondering why he deserved this treatment.
Anger began to boil inside again, and Alex stepped closer.

"We need to talk."

"Not here," Nicklas hissed, casting a glance at the rest of the team. Tom and Michael watched them, and judging by their expressions, they knew that something was wrong.
Throughout the morning skate, Nicky stayed as far away from Alex as possible. Alex gritted his teeth and kept silent. Even though he tried to concentrate on drills, his gaze was always focused on blond curls, now covered by a helmet.

After the skate, Alex was the very first person to shower and change. He decided that the best option would be to wait for Nicky in the parking lot, next to his car, to be sure. He doesn't need a repeat of this morning, he doesn't want Nicklas to run away again.
Nicky left the arena only twenty minutes later. He noticed Alex immediately, and walked over to him, crossing his arms over his chest. He frowned and looked at him with his piercing gaze, from which Alex still had no immunity.

“We need to talk,” Alex said, looking anywhere but Nicklas.

"I already understood that."

"Come to mine?"

"I'm driving my car, you are driving yours."

"But...."

Nicklas clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes. He unceremoniously pushed Alex aside, opening the front door of the car and stuffing his bag there. He slammed the door demonstratively and turned back to Alex.

“See you in fifteen minutes,” he said.

Alex had witnessed Nicklas behaving this way too many times, but rarely was it directed at him. And it wasn't something that he was used to.

Nicklas got to Alex’s apartment first. In his bunch of keys was also the key to Alex’s door, so he had no problems entering. Alex appeared five minutes later, and found Nicky sitting in the kitchen with stuffed toy in his hands. The same toy he never parted with when he was a kid.

"Do you remember anything?" Alex asked, leaning against the door frame. He looked at Nicky from afar, thinking that if there was more distance between them, it would be easier to talk.

"I remember everything,“ Nicky didn't even look at him. He simply put the toy aside and stared at his clasped hands.

Well, Nicky has never been easy. Alex knows.

"Why did not you tell me?"

"About what?"

"That something bothers you."

Nicky snorted.

“As if you would help,” he turned his head, finally looking at Alex.

Alex’s palms curled into fists.

"I'm your best friend! Of course I would help,” he muttered, and then added, “and you wouldn't turn into a fucking child!"

"Oh, sorry!" Nicklas yelled, rising from his seat. A second later, he was already standing in front of Alex, trembling with anger. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that I’ve been in love with you for ages, so as not to endanger the team. Because if it is not reciprocal, the atmosphere in the team will no longer be the same, and I will be the one to blame! For example, Michael, Tom, Andre. They look at us as we're something incredible, they believe that we are perfect, and our relationship as well. I don’t want them to be disappointed in you or me, just because I can’t keep my mouth shut!"

He paused, breathing heavily. His eyes flickered across Alex’s face in panic, waiting for an answer.

"Why do you think that I did not reciprocate? I said that I love you yesterday."

Nicky looked at him as if he was crazy. He exhaled slowly, clearly trying to contain his inner hysteria.

"You said that to the child. You know that kids talk about everything. They have no filter between their mouth and their brain. You couldn't be serious about it."

"I said that I love you. And I meant it."

Alex was calmness itself.

"I’ll say it again. You said that to the child! Not me," Nicky pointed at himself. "But to the adorable little boy who followed you everywhere."

“In case you don’t understand yet, last week wasn't the best of my life. You were certainly a very cute child, but it wasn't you. At least not you, whom I have known for many years, and not you, whom I love. I love you as an adult, with all your manners, terrifying eyes and the most beautiful smile in the world. You are an inalienable part of my life, and that week without you was very difficult for me. I'm used to you around all the time. But taking you for granted is also wrong. You may not know, but I really cherish you."

Great. Alex didn't expect such a touching speech from himself, but he meant every word.

"You're such an asshole," Nicky sighed. And this is not exactly what Alex wanted to hear. But Nicky took a step forward, hugging Alex. He was breathing unevenly and his grip was so tight that Alex thought Nicky would strangle him.

"Why didn't you say earlier?"

"So after refusal you would give me your icy looks every day? No thanks,” Alex chuckled, hugging Nicklas back. Nicky was so warm and he smelled good, of mint shampoo and himself.

“Told you, an asshole,” Nicky chuckled.

Alex rolled his eyes and leaned over to cover Nicky's mouth with his. Nicky's lips were dry and soft, and Alex seriously wondered why he didn't do it earlier. The kiss was gentle and light, Alex practically melted from Nicklas' touch.

"Jag älskar dig,” Nicky whispered, pulling back a little. He smiled broadly, and Alex wanted to kiss every millimeter of his face, which he did.

“Jag älskar dig,” Alex stammered, while Nicklas giggled.

He definitely had to ask Nicky to teach him Swedish.