Nick’s always slept a lot. He just figured it was a hockey player thing; he’s good at routines, he’s good at taking care of his body. He’s always thought that was a good thing. Getting plenty of rest, letting himself recover, eating right, working out.
It doesn’t explain how he spends his first couple years with the Hawks constantly feeling like something’s missing, just a little too tired, too cold. And not that he really wants to admit it to anyone, but maybe also a little lonely.
And then they hit the 2012 postseason, and all things considered, it’s not the greatest run, they don’t even make it out of the first round, but all that Nick really remembers afterward is how much better it’d felt to be on the ice with Saader.
They’d talked a little at the beginning of the season, when Saader stayed up even after the first rounders had been sent back to Junior, and Nick had liked him, been immediately comfortable with him, but something clicked into place even more in the playoffs, even if Saad was only out there for practices and one game.
Nick had just figured that they were going to be good friends, and it’d been nice to spend the summer talking to him occasionally, talking about what they thought was gonna happen with the CBA and all.
The lockout wasn’t a surprise by the time it hit, and so Nick had reported back to Rockford as ordered, seen Saader that first day and felt instantly comfortable again. So maybe they weren’t in the NHL, but this was close, this was good enough for now.
He already knew a lot of their teammates, either from being down with the IceHogs in the last couple of years or from the Hawks, considered some of them good friends, too. But for some reason, more often than not he and Saader would just gravitate together, sitting half on top of each other on a teammate’s broken-down couch, or shoved in the back seat of Andy’s too-small car, jammed together in a booth when they’d go out and try to pretend like half the team wasn’t technically underage.
And then one day—a day off, thankfully, in between a stretch of three-in-three and three-in-five—Nick falls asleep on his own shitty couch, tangled up with Saader, some ridiculous documentary about the giant squid playing on Discovery, and when he wakes up…
He has four paws and a tail.
Nick has a moment of complete and utter confusion, blinking hard. The TV is a lot louder like this, and half the room is suddenly a lot taller, towering over him. There’s a low rumbling noise right by his ear, and Nick jerks reflexively, whips his head around to see what’s either a very large dog or a small wolf, curled up on the couch beside him, head tucked under one paw and twitching a little, growling at dreams.
It’s so obviously Saader that Nick doesn’t even need to wait for him to wake up, he just knows. Something about this shape makes it very hard to feel particularly worried about anything, so Nick just noses at the remote until he manages to turn the TV off again, and then he curls up and goes back to sleep, letting his head rest on Saader’s shoulder.
Saader doesn’t even open an eye, he just makes a whuffing noise with the faintest hint of a whine at the end, and sleeps right through it.
The next time Nick wakes up, he feels like he’s had a solid eight or nine hours sleep instead of just an hour or so’s nap. His face is smushed right into Saader’s shoulder, nose pressed into his collarbone, and he’s got a mouthful of cotton t-shirt, so mostly Nick just hopes he didn’t drool obviously on him or anything. It’s hard not to notice how good Saader smells, warm and clean and familiar, and Nick takes his time in straightening up and stretching. He links his hands together and stretches his arms over his head, feeling the pull in his wrists and down along his forearms and hey, he has arms again. Nick blinks again, swallows a yawn, and then thinks to himself, “What a fucking weird dream,” before nudging Saader awake and pointing out they should probably go get dinner.
He doesn’t think about it again for a week or two, caught up in all the routines of his everyday life; playing hockey, looking after himself, hanging out with his friends and half-assedly keeping his apartment clean, or at least clean enough.
He doesn’t look too closely at the couch, not even when Mo sits down and immediately starts sneezing. Mo’s allergic to fucking everything it seems like, including probably dust and almost definitely, like, Rockford in general. Nick gives him an antihistamine from the first aid kit and doesn’t think about it again.
* * *
They’re a couple weeks into the season when Nick gets hurt, and then right after, Saader is too. Nick has to spend a lot of time lying down in the dark, bored out of his mind, and he’s totally over it after less than a day.
Despite the fact he knows he shouldn’t look at the screen, he digs his phone out and invites Brandon over, because if he has to take it easy then at least he can talk to someone. Saader’s a fairly quiet guy, and he’s not going to peer pressure Nick into playing video games or anything; Nick just figures they’ll hang out and bitch about being stuck on IR. If they both take lengthy naps in between conversations, well, they’re just being responsible about their health. Nick can keep Saader company while he’s stuck doing his physio exercises, too, that way they both win.
After an hour or so of being social Nick’s starting to feel a little bit worn down again, so he just says, “Hey, gonna go nap, feel free to watch TV or whatever,” and wanders back to his room, leaving Brandon on the couch.
It must be a lot later by the time he wakes up, because his room—even with the shades drawn tight—is the type of dark he usually associates with twilight, enough contrast to make out the edges of the furniture, but everything’s in shades of blue-black and grey, white light spilling just around the corner of his door.
Something smells fantastic, like the best food ever, and Nick is suddenly starving. He tries to kick the sheets off and roll over, get to his feet, but instead he gets tangled up, and by the time he fights his way free it’s to realize that he’s not the same shape as usual.
He stills, panting, and manages to extricate himself from the sheets at last. This is a very strange dream, Nick thinks. He’s never had recurring dreams before, not that he can remember. Not this vivid.
Just like last time, it’s hard to be very concerned about it, though; Nick’s more conscious of the way his ear itches and that his stomach is growling and that his head feels completely clear for the first time all week.
There’s a creak as the bedroom door pushes open a crack, spilling more light into the room, and a dark shape comes padding into the room, nose low to the ground, claws clicking on the wooden floorboards.
Nick sits up, pricks his ears, and opens his mouth to—he’s not sure what, it’s not like he can speak—but before he can do anything, there’s a blur of motion and then the mattress is shifting under the weight of another body. He’s more awake this time, gets a better look, and thinks, “Definitely a wolf.” There’s a kind of certainty to the thought he doesn’t even think to question.
He’d known as soon as he sensed the other wolf that it was Saader again, didn’t even have to think about it, he just recognizes him. Saader leans heavily into him, shoulder to shoulder, and noses at Nick’s jaw, licking the side of his face affectionately. Nick huffs, but lets him do it, nuzzling at Saader’s fur in turn.
After a couple of minutes of that, Saader flicks his tail at Nick, teasing, and Nick knows exactly how to respond to that, too. They play-fight, tumbling over each other, wrestling, and Nick’s just got the upper hand, teasingly snapping his teeth at Saader’s neck when there’s an ominous tearing sound that makes both of them freeze. Nick looks down to see one of his hind claws has caught in the sheet, ripping along it. He exchanges a look with Saader, and somehow they don’t actually need to be able to speak, instead they just disengage, separating slowly and jumping down off the bed.
Nick’s starting to think about food again, so he trots off to the kitchen just to check whether there’s anything he can get into there. Brandon follows, tail wagging.
The kitchen does smell great, but the door is also firmly closed, and Nick might be able to smell a thousand times better than usual, but he doesn’t have thumbs anymore, so that’s a no go. Even throwing himself bodily at the door doesn’t make it budge, so with a whine he gives up on that and goes to curl up in the living room. Brandon tucks himself into Nick’s side, and the two of them drift off to sleep again like that.
* * *
When Nick wakes up again, he’s not in his room any more, he’s sprawled out on the floor in the living room, Saader lying half on top of him. He fights off the initial moment of confusion—and the worry that his head’s gotten worse—and realizes that, actually, his head feels better than it has done since he got hurt.
Which probably means that—Nick tries to shy away from the thought, it’s ludicrous, things like this don’t happen—but it’s hard not to remember how incredibly vivid that dream had been. He should wake Saader up and ask what he remembers. That’ll be the easiest way to convince himself he’s just having weird, just-had-a-head-injury dreams. Not that he wants to explain them to the team docs, that’s for sure.
He’s just starting to sit up, trying to work out how to shift Saader off him without dumping him rudely onto the floor when there’s a sudden loud beeping noise from the direction of the kitchen.
Saader sits bolt upright, eyes wild, blinking furiously and says, “What?”
Now that he can actually move Nick scrambles to his feet and rushes into the kitchen, shoving the door open and grabbing a kitchen towel to wave frantically in front of the smoke alarm until it stops going off.
“Oh shit,” Saader says from just behind Nick, and when he turns it’s to see Brandon standing there, peering into the oven and looking incredibly sheepish.
“I think it’s still edible,” Saader says, poking at the contents of one of the oven-proof dishes Nick vaguely remembers buying.
Nick puts the towel down on the counter and raises an eyebrow, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “Say what now?”
“I thought we could have some of that stew Marty’s wife sent us home with the other day,” Saader says. “I got it started and I, uh, guess I fell asleep on the… couch?”
Saader gets about halfway through that explanation before looking away from Nick, shuffling his feet awkwardly and looking at the stew like it’s a lot more interesting than it has any right to be.
“Saader,” Nick says slowly. “We woke up on the floor.”
The floor is not the couch, and it’s not Nick’s bed, and he’s never sleepwalked before in his life, so he doesn’t think he’s likely to have started now. Then again, he’s never maybe turned into a wolf before either, so who is Nick to be ruling out brand new experiences?
“We really did, didn’t we?” Saader says. “Uh. Do you remember-?”
Nick really doesn’t want to be the first one to bring up the whole ‘Am I nuts or did you have a tail five minutes ago?’ thing, but it looks like he’s going to have to. Saader sure isn’t going to, not that Nick can blame him.
“I woke up in my room,” Nick starts. “And, uh, you came in—oh, hey, that reminds me,” and Nick heads back into his bedroom without bothering to finish his sentence. This is good, this is something empirical he can look at and judge.
His steps slow as he gets closer to his bed. Part of him almost doesn’t want to know. But the sheets are tangled up much worse than he usually gets them; Nick’s generally a deep sleeper and he doesn’t move around a lot. And when he picks up a corner of the sheet and shakes it out to remake the bed, the inch-long tear in the middle is pretty fucking obvious.
“Holy shit,” Nick says, and he sits down fast. Part of him really had thought this was just some kind of weird, fucked up dream, but it really looks like—
“We did that, didn’t we?” Brandon says, and Nick looks up to see him standing hesitantly in the doorway, leaning against the doorjamb, his eyes on the sheet beside Nick.
“You came in to check up on me,” Nick says slowly, “but you weren’t—you were a wolf. Weren’t you? And so was I.”
“I thought it was just a dream,” Brandon says, looking poleaxed. “I couldn’t figure out how we got on the floor at first,” and Nick has to push away the entirely inappropriate thought that pops into his mind at hearing those words come out of Brandon’s mouth, “but—you’re not just messing with me, right?”
“I’m really not,” Nick says, still feeling more than a little shaken. This is so fucking weird.
“Has this ever happened to you before?” Brandon asks.
Nick shakes his head. “You?”
“No, I’ve never—I mean, I’ve seen shitty werewolf movies,” Brandon says, interrupting himself with a nervous laugh. “But I’ve never even heard of this. Do you think we should, um, tell someone?”
“No one’ll believe us,” Nick says, with some certainty. “I mean, would you? They’ll just put us on IR and give us a ton of concussion tests.”
“Right,” Brandon says, and he slumps a little where he’s standing.
“I guess,” Nick says slowly. “We should just, I dunno, go with it, unless it causes a problem?”
“It’s just happened twice, right?” Brandon asks. “Today and the other week?”
“I didn’t think you were even awake last time,” Nick admits. “I thought I was just dreaming, and even in the dream you slept through it.”
“I must’ve woken up right after you,” Brandon says. “It was kind of nice, though, right? I thought ‘this is weird’ but I was comfortable so I just… went right back to sleep.”
“Fucking typical, Saader,” Nick says, with a grin. “You and sleep, I swear.”
“Like you did anything different,” Brandon retorts. “Maybe it only happens when we fall asleep at the same time?” He frowns as if there’s something wrong with that theory, but Nick can’t place it.
“Guess we better make sure we don’t room together on the road, then,” Nick tries to joke, but part of that falls flat, and Brandon looks away for a moment.
“We weren’t even in the same room this time,” Nick adds, after a moment’s thought. “So it can’t be that. Is it a full moon?”
Brandon glances over at the window as if he’s trying to look; the blinds are drawn and there’s a streetlight right outside the window which ruins Nick’s night vision every time he’s tried to look up at the night sky anyway, so that doesn’t get him very far.
“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “Maybe?”
Nick raises an eyebrow at him. “Google it?” he suggests, and Brandon gives him a dirty look, but does pull his phone out of his pocket and type something.
“Apparently not,” Brandon says, after a couple of seconds.
“Weird,” Nick says, and then he can’t think of anything else to say. “You wanna sit down and eat now? I guess maybe we have to wait and see if it happens again and then see if we can work it out?”
“Sure,” Brandon says, with a shrug, and Nick’s not sure whether that’s in reply to his first question or the second, or maybe both.
They go back to the kitchen and dish out the stew—it’s a little overdone, but still good—and eat in near-silence, sitting around the kitchen table awkwardly. Normally they’d just eat on the couch in the living room, but Nick’s feeling a little weird about everything, and if he’s any judge so is Brandon, so it seems easier to just stay put.
“I should head out,” Brandon says a little while later. “Uh, Smitty’s got a key to your place, right?”
“Yeah,” Nick says. “Oh, you’re thinking, like. Backup plan if this happens again?”
“Yeah,” Brandon says. “Just, like. I guess tell him to come check up on you if you’re late for practice?”
“What about you?” Nick asks, and Brandon rolls his eyes and reminds him, “Roommate.”
“Right,” Nick says. “So. I guess we’ll see?”
“Later, Leds,” Brandon says, and then he lets himself out, the door closing quietly behind him.
* * *
They don’t exactly talk about it, or even really do it on purpose, Nick thinks, but he and Saader kind of avoid being alone together for the next couple of days, just in case, and life goes on as normal.
Nick passes his baseline test at their next scheduled practice, and talks the docs into checking him over and letting him get back on the ice then; he really does feel like just like normal again. So score one for apparently turning into a wolf sometimes. Brandon’s back on the ice too, and the IceHogs are starting to get a nice point streak going, things clicking all over.
Nothing weird happens for about a week, and Nick’s starting to think it must have been a wildly bizarre one-off, or something, and he puts it firmly in the rear-view mirror and goes back to his usual routines. He and Saader share a look the next time they have to cram in the back of Clendo’s shitty car so that Hayesy can pretzel himself into the front seat while complaining non-stop about it, but nothing changes, and Nick can feel the way the tension goes out of Saader’s shoulders when they get to the bar and nothing bad has happened.
They hang out together like usual on their next off day, and nothing changes, although Nick can’t help but notice that both of them are leaving doors ajar just in case. All that they do is set another couple of course records on his MarioKart, so it’s basically like nothing ever happened.
Of course, thinking that is just asking for trouble, Murphy’s Law in action.
Or so Nick thinks a few days later when he shakes himself awake for the second time. He’s not on the couch this time, or even on the floor; this time he’s in Brandon’s bed, and when he sits up it’s to see Brandon already wide-awake, sitting with his back against the headboard, looking at Nick and frowning.
Nick has fuzzy memories of chasing him around Saader’s place, playing a mutated version of tag with a pair of Brandon’s socks that are now stretched out beyond any hope of repair. God only knows what the apartment downstairs thinks was happening. Nick’s not great at thinking about consequences when he’s a wolf, it seems like, and he’s pretty sure they got loud.
“So that happened again,” Nick says carefully.
“Yeah,” Brandon says. “Do you feel better now?”
Nick stretches, carefully tries not to think about how he’s in Brandon’s bed, and shakes out his wrists, cracks his neck. “Actually, yeah.” He’d had a bit of a headache earlier, more the edges of a hangover than anything else, and he’d been tired—they’re always tired—but now he feels like he could play a whole game. It’s like a pregame nap times ten.
“Me too,” Brandon says. “I think something about this helps, you know. It’s like extra health points.”
“Or a healing thing like, uh, Wolverine,” Nick agrees, because that fits, that works with what few facts they’ve been able to put together about this thing. It’s kind of cool. Maybe movies and comics and all those kinds of stories were onto something, if this happens to other people, which it probably does.
Nick doesn’t think he and Brandon are that unusual.
“My head was fine after last time, too. Cool.”
Brandon gives him a crooked smile, the corner of his mouth twitching up. “It is, isn’t it?”
“And like, it doesn’t seem to last all that long, right?” Nick says. He hasn’t exactly looked at a clock or whatever, but he’s pretty sure whatever time they’re spending wolf-shaped, it can’t be all that long.
“I don’t think we should worry about it too much,” Brandon agrees. “Like you said, it’s going away fast, we feel better afterwards—fuck, let’s just enjoy it, I guess.”
“Sounds good to me,” Nick says, and he grins back at Brandon, the two of them in perfect accord.
“Secret wolf time, awesome,” Brandon says, and reaches over to fist-bump Nick, and that’s it; they’re golden.
* * *
Nothing much changes after they decide to just roll with the whole spending a couple hours a week wolf-shaped thing. Nick kind of half-heartedly looks some stuff up on the internet but none of it seems helpful and half of it just straight-up doesn’t fit their circumstances, so he gives up on that as a bad job and goes to just working off first principles.
What they’d figured out early on seems to be correct: it doesn’t happen often, it never happens for very long, and it usually happens if one or both of them is hurt, or tired, or just plain worn out. And it never happens with other people around, either. It’s like whatever extra senses they get the benefit of in wolf shape can tell if there’s someone else close enough to see them, and then whatever switches them over just—doesn’t.
Nick works that out the hard way, waking up with an aching hip from where he’d blocked a shot, and vague headache that’s either dehydration or a slight hangover from the shots he’d earned at the bar afterward for the shot blocking, or maybe just tension. He drags himself out of bed, texts Brandon that he’s coming over, and only bothers to throw on sweats and a hoodie. He’s planning on sacking out on Brandon’s couch until he can fall asleep again, waking up for some wolf-time and then by dinner time he’ll be back to normal and one hundred percent healthy again.
What he didn’t realize was that Clendo was actually home instead of hanging out at his girlfriend’s like usual, which meant Nick rolled in looking like shit and had to put up with getting mocked hard for it, and even when Clendo went to his room to take a nap, Nick and Brandon both stayed stubbornly human-shaped.
“Sorry man,” Brandon said, wrapping an arm around Nick’s shoulders while he grumbled, and digging his thumb and forefinger into the muscles either side of the nape of his neck, massaging out some of the tension. “Guess it’s just not happening today.”
“That’s what she said,” Nick grumbles automatically, but his heart’s not really in it. He does fall asleep in the end, but when he wakes up it’s to find he only feels a little better, and that’s probably got more to do with the neck rub he gets from Brandon than anything else.
It could’ve been worse, he figures; they could’ve had to explain to Clendo where they’d gone and why there were two overly friendly wild animals in a third storey apartment.
* * *
Nick wonders if maybe this whole thing will go away as quickly as it started when they finally get to go back to Chicago, the season on at last and games crammed in as tight as they can manage, the toughest schedule Nick’s ever seen or played.
They don’t spend quite as much time wolf-shaped in Chicago, but that’s just because they spend more time playing, or practicing, or hanging out with the rest of their teammates. Brandon gets an apartment by himself when the front office tell him that he’s staying up for good, and so any time he or Nick is feeling run down they just camp out there.
Nick’s never felt this good while playing this much hockey, and he’s never played this much hockey in such a short span of time before, either. It’s almost intoxicating, in a way, and the streak they start putting together is also heady stuff, the kind of charmed life that Nick’s not sure he can quite believe in now that it’s happening and knows he’s probably never going to experience again.
Mostly, they just hang on and try to enjoy the ride.
The playoffs are a slog, the hardest Nick’s ever worked in his life, but they manage to make it through, and then they win the Cup, and Nick loses a couple days in the haze of euphoria and alcohol and exhaustion and lack of sleep.
He crashes hard after the parade, and isn’t remotely surprised to wake up wolf-shaped. When he jumps down from the bed and pads through the apartment it’s to find Brandon passed out cold in the guest room, sprawled out in the most undignified pose imaginable, tail twitching with whatever he’s dreaming about. Nick huffs a laugh under his breath, his jaw hanging open. He’d never stopped to think before about wolves having a sense of humor, but seems like they do.
In what he later thinks might be the most human-shaped thought he’s had in this form he wishes for a moment that he could get a camera out and take a picture; it’s hilarious and adorable all at the same time. Also, Brandon would probably like to know what he looks like as a wolf and Nick’s never been able to answer him satisfactorily. His coat is dark, two-toned brown, longer and shaggier around his head, which Nick thinks might have something to do with the mullet, or maybe not. But wolf Nick doesn’t think of Brandon in colors he can’t see, or even really in any kind of human metric; he’s a collection of textures and layers of scent, familiar in how he smells and feels and tastes, and as a human Nick can’t do justice to that. He can’t put into words what he recognizes when they tussle on the living room floor or chase each other around the apartment, or when Nick pins Brandon down and grooms him until he wriggles away, yipping a challenge before leaping right back onto Nick.
Nick wouldn’t mind knowing what he looks like, either, but despite the fact he means to he never remembers to look in the mirror until he’s human-shaped again. He can see his coat’s lighter than Brandon’s, guesses they’re about the same size given how evenly matched they are when they play-fight, but that’s about it.
Nick’s wolf is a lot more laid back than he is, he thinks sometimes. It’s kind of a nice vacation from reality that way.
He and Brandon stay wolves a lot longer than usual that time. Nick’s pretty sure it’s the first time he’s gone to sleep a wolf and woken up the same way, and he kind of wishes they were out in the suburbs, somewhere they could get outside and really run around. They make do with turning the apartment into a kind of unofficial obstacle course, and taking increasingly ridiculous loops through it that keep them occupied for long enough for the sun to start going down again.
Nick figures out how to get the tap in the shower running so they can get some water, but by the time he wakes up with hands and feet instead of paws he’s absolutely starving. He’s made it back to his bed, at least, and miraculously he’d apparently even got his phone plugged in on the charger before passing out the first time, so without even getting out of bed Nick calls in an order for enough food to feed four or five starving hockey players. He’s pretty sure he can account for half of that by himself, which means Brandon won’t be much better off.
Brandon doesn’t surface for another hour or so, but he falls on the food that Nick’s left over like he’s ravenous, too.
“That was awesome,” Brandon says, and he could be talking about dinner, or the extended time playing hooky from human shape, or—more likely—the whole thing where they won the Stanley Cup, holy shit, and no, Nick’s still not over that either.
“Yeah,” Nick agrees, beaming back at him.
* * *
Summer is short, but a lot of fun. Nick manages to get Brandon out to Minnesota to visit for a couple of days, to meet his brother and friends properly, to just get some down time away from hockey before they have to start working on getting into game shape again.
They manage to steal a couple of hours to themselves, staying in a friend’s lakeside cottage, the fridge stacked with steaks and beer and with a boat waiting by the dock for if they get really ambitious and decide to fish for dinner instead.
While they didn’t exactly discuss it in so many words, Nick’s thrilled to wake up from a nap to find Brandon standing over him impatiently, teeth bared in a vulpine grin. They race each other through the woods, darting from sunlight into dappled shade. Brandon chases Nick all the way back to the cottage and around it, and it’s fun to see how fast they are, now that there’s actually room to run. They trade off who’s chasing whom for a while, racing through the cottage and outdoors again, tracking mud and leaf litter all over. They’re finally starting to slow down a little when Brandon manages to corner Nick by the cottage, and then in a slightly-more-human than usual piece of strategy, Nick retreats to the floating dock, plants all four feet and gives Brandon a challenging bark.
Human Brandon wouldn’t have fallen for that, but wolf Brandon is more impulsive, so he leaps, and Nick ducks, scooting forward low to the ground, and Brandon goes tumbling over him in a mess of paws and fur and an enormous splash as he tips off the side of the dock and into the lake.
He has to swim back to shore and trot along the edge of the water to get back to where Nick is, but he gets his revenge by shaking out gallons of water—and the pondweed that’d stuck in his coat—onto Nick while he’s stretched out in the sun dozing.
They wake up again as the sun’s going down, sleepy and sunburned enough that Nick thinks they turned back to human a fair while ago. He wonders idly what anyone watching would’ve seen; whatever it is that makes them change doesn’t hurt and never seems to leave any evidence he can find. They always seem to come back in the same clothes they’d been wearing, too, which doesn’t make sense in any werewolf mythology that Nick’s been able to find.
It’s probably for the best he hasn’t spent the last year waking up various degrees of naked with Brandon, although that is a thought that Nick keeps very private and quiet in the back of his mind.
* * *
The season after that doesn’t go quite so well.
Nick doesn’t think he’s spending more time with Brandon than he had done previously, but something’s changed, because everyone else seems to have noticed now. They get chirped pretty hard, the guys riding them for how much time they spend in each other’s pockets, but if Brandon minds he doesn’t show it, just leans harder into Nick and smiles back at Bicks or Smitty or whoever’s running their mouth that day.
Nick tries occasionally to act like they’re not so comfortable with each other that personal space is a foreign concept, but he forgets too easily, and Brandon doesn’t even try, so by the time they hit the playoffs again he’s spending as much time at Brandon’s apartment as his own.
It’s just easier to leave clothes there and a spare shaving kit and a phone charger; if he wants to be in the best possible shape for the playoffs then he needs to rest. And the whole level-up effect of having an hour or two on four feet instead of two is still holding true, still giving them an edge; they’d be stupid not to take advantage of it.
Unfortunately, whatever edge the L.A. Kings have is better again, maybe just by the thinnest razor’s edge, but it is, and game seven of the conference finals sees them heading home instead of back to defend the Cup. It fucking sucks, Nick thinks, but does not say.
He sort of suspects he’ll be seeing the puck deflecting off his stick and behind Crow in his nightmares for the rest of the summer, reliving the impact as it hits the composite and the frozen, impotent moment when all he could think was “Oh, shit.”
Crow tells him not to worry about it, and the other guys all punch his arm or give him sympathetic nods, they’ve all been there at one time or another, although maybe not with quite these stakes. It still sucks, and he maybe spends a day after they clear out their lockers sulking in his room, until Brandon drags him out for dinner and drinks.
He shakes it off after that, starts thinking about summer plans, forward momentum, and he’s still thinking about that when he automatically follows Brandon home. He kicks his shoes off beside the shoe rack by the front door, and hangs the jacket that it’s starting to get too warm for next to Brandon’s coat.
He stops for a moment then, trying to identify what’s wrong with that picture, what feels different, and he doesn’t get it until Brandon growls—a distinctly wolf-like noise even though he’s perfectly human-shaped just then—and reaches over, getting a fistful of Nick’s shirt, knuckles pressing hard into Nick’s collarbone as he hauls him closer.
Nick opens his mouth to ask what’s going on, but he doesn’t get any further than that before Brandon’s lips meet his, rendering the whole question moot.
He’d like to say he’s totally cool about it, but what Nick actually does is make one shocked sound and then close his eyes and concentrate on kissing Brandon back, open-mouthed and hot and eager.
He pulls away long enough to ask, incredulously, “Are you sure-?” and Brandon growls again.
“How long have you wanted to do this?” Brandon asks, untucking Nick’s shirt from his pants, and yanking at his zipper. “Because I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of waiting.”
Nick moves his hands out of the way to give Brandon easier access, starts tugging on his shirt in turn. If Brandon’s getting him naked, he wants to get Brandon naked just as fast, thanks.
“A while,” Nick admits, because they’ve always been honest with each other, it’s just that a while ago Nick decided it was safer not to tell Brandon everything.
That was clearly a terrible policy, because if he’d known Brandon wanted this too then they could have been doing it months ago.
“Thought so,” Brandon says, and then he kisses Nick again, and it’s a very pedestrian kind of magic that makes Nick feel like he’s hardly blinked and yet they’re both naked.
“Can we move this to your room?” Nick asks, although realistically it’s not like he’s going to say no to sex with Brandon anywhere. The hall next to the coat rack lacks a certain ambiance, though, he has to admit.
“Fuck yes,” Brandon says, and they do just that.
* * *
Secretly, Nick is a little relieved the first time they go all wolfy after they start sleeping together.
He’d wondered, a little, in the back of his mind, if maybe this was some kind of inverted fairy tale logic, if all the potential and possibility that was coalescing between them was what let them change shapes, and that once they’d acted on that everything else would go away.
Kissing the frog prince in reverse, maybe, he’d thought, although trying to have thoughts like that when he was wolf-shaped was like trying to hold onto melting ice; slippery whenever he thought he was starting to get a grip on it, running away from him faster the tighter he tried to hold on.
It was easier to just keep rolling with it, to curl up with Brandon whether they were wolf-shaped or human, and take everything as it happened.
And then Nick gets a call from Stan Bowman letting him know that he’s been traded to the New York Islanders, days before the start of the season.
That’s maybe a problem they should have seen coming sooner.
* * *
Nick goes, of course, because he’s a hockey player and this is what he does, it’s who he is. And he knows New York is a good fit, that Chicago is hard up against the cap, that this is his chance to be in at the beginning of something really great.
It just sucks that he has to leave Brandon behind to do it.
They don’t get much of a chance to talk before Nick has to be on a plane; the Islanders have him booked to fly out that afternoon, want to get him there in time to practice at least, even if they’re done with their preseason schedule same as the Hawks are.
There’s just enough time for Nick to stumble over his words and ask if Brandon wants to try long-distance, to see if they can. Nick can’t bring himself to let go of everything, and he thinks they’re solid enough. Brandon kisses him, which is as good as a yes, Nick hopes, and there’s also just enough time for them to fall into bed one last time before Nick has to race around his apartment to finish up his last-minute packing.
* * *
It’s been a few years since Nick had to join a new team, since he was the new guy on the roster. Joining the Islanders is the same and different all at once; this time he’s a veteran, a guy with a Cup ring, who’s been there, who knows what to expect. He knows a few of the guys already, Minnesota natives he’s grown up playing against, and of course he’s played against the Isles a few times. It’s a challenge, and he’s looking forward to that, into stretching out into a new role.
He almost can’t believe how quickly he feels at home, how easily he fits into the room, the polar opposite of his first year or two in Chicago. He chalks it up to age and experience at first, being surer of himself and better able to speak up these days, but that analysis also seems like it’s missing something. He misses Brandon, of course, although they talk regularly enough, spend more than enough time talking via phone or text or Skype.
The first few weeks are a whirlwind, and most of Nick’s free time goes to trying to finish getting his apartment set up. It seems like they’re on the road more often than not, which adds a layer of difficulty too. He spends some one on one time with Boych, goes furniture shopping with him one free weekend and they both drop far too much money on making sure they can get beds and couches and all the other necessities actually delivered to their respective apartments some time before Christmas.
The off-ice time translates just fine into a connection on the ice, and Nick finds himself able to anticipate Boych when they’re out there just fine, relishes the top line minutes and the consistent partner that he hasn’t really had since winding up on the third pair in Chicago. The points that he starts accumulating are pretty nice, too.
He also finds himself spending more and more time with Clutter and Marty, finding enough in common that it’s easy to find himself drifting to their end of the table at dinner, spending free nights getting dinner with them and their families, starting to learn his way around the Island. Nelson and Lee are both guys he’s known forever, who he’s played with and against countless times over the years, and they click back into place in his life, too; even if Brock’s been with the team a while now and Lee still technically counts as a rookie. He seems comfortable enough, though, and Nick forgets more often than not that he hasn’t been up in the NHL all that long yet.
The biggest difference from the Hawks is probably one he sees on ice as much as he does off; he’d thought the Hawks were a tight group, casual and comfortable with each other the way any successful team has to be, but the Isles seem to take that to another level.
Nick loses count of the number of times he gets an affectionate face-wash in a post-goal hug, the number of pre-game superstitious fist-bumps and chest-bumps in the tunnel, and whatever the hell it is that Stromer does with de Haan most games. It feels good to fit in that way, too, and Nick finds his hands lingering when he reaches over to pat a guy’s shoulder on the bench, slouches into a teammate’s space on the bus and on the plane without even thinking about it.
The other thing Nick does pick up on that doesn’t seem to make any sense at first is how some of the post-game conversations in the locker room dry up or change tack immediately as soon as he walks past. It’s not even the same guys every time, sometimes it’s the other side of the room, or a couple of guys a few stalls down, just often enough that he notices.
He’d think he was maybe overreacting or imagining it, but the sideways looks he gets from Lee once or twice, and Hammer a couple times more than that make it hard to deny. Even Boychuk gets drawn into it a month or two in, which is unfair, Nick thinks. Boych is just as new to the team as he is, even if the fact he’s come from the Eastern Conference means he’s more familiar with the other guys than Nick was.
He keeps telling himself he’s imagining it for a while, that maybe he’s picked up paranoia with his move east, but the little bits of weirdness keep adding up.
He tries to to tell Brandon about it when they’re sprawled in bed early in December, the Hawks in town early enough for them to get a day together, even if the boys give them both shit for ditching out on any other plans. Nick stares up at his ceiling, idly petting Brandon’s hair while they try to catch their breath and makes another attempt at answering his “So how are you, really?”
Nick’s still not sure what to make of the way he thinks Stromer might have been sniffing his neck when they’d crashed into a hug back when Nick scored his first goal, or any time since. The fact there’s conversations he’s shut out of doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than that he lacks the history, or that sometimes people are just cliquey, he knows all that. Put into words, it doesn’t add up to a whole lot. It’s a sensation more than anything, hovering in his subconscious, and Nick’s still not great at turning what he’s feeling into words. He never has been.
Even more than that, he doesn’t know how to say, ‘sometimes I wake up on the charter and miss you so much I can’t breathe’, or how to add ‘but I’m so happy here, I never want to leave’. Instead, he settles for kissing Brandon again, going skin-on-skin and hoping that the desperation guiding his hands translates.
Given the way Brandon kisses back he’s pretty sure they’re on the same wavelength.
It’s not a surprise at all that afternoon when they wake up as wolves, the first time in months, and Nick feels muscles he’d forgotten he even had relax. Brandon sniffs at him and makes a disgruntled growling whine, before pinning him down and grooming him thoroughly, and Nick just lies there and submits to it, content and valued.
They wrestle afterward, tumbling around Nick’s apartment in a blur of teeth and fur and chaos, and Nick’s glad somewhere deep down that he’d remembered to put anything breakable away; he’d been guessing this would happen. Wolves have a good grasp of cause and effect—chasing Brandon’s tail will make Brandon chase Nick—but anything that involves planning for the future is a bit more of a crap-shoot. The time they’d left food out and made an almighty mess of Brandon’s kitchen had been a salutary lesson in a couple of ways.
The sun’s just starting to go down when Nick blinks awake again, back in bed, where they’d apparently worked themselves halfway under the covers at least, just warm enough in the early days of winter. He stretches out his arms and legs and rolls his head around to get his neck to click, pressing his cheek into the pillow. Nick’s pillows are much fancier these days, memory foam covered in soft cotton, because after they’d destroyed a couple of feather pillows Nick had decided the effort of cleaning up afterward wasn’t worth the fun of hunting them down while wolfed out.
Nick hasn’t woken up feeling this good in a long time, and he plans on making the most of that. Brandon is already awake, beating him for once, and to prove it he trails his fingertips down Nick’s chest, slides them under the blanket, gets Nick warmed up and thoroughly awake in the most fundamental way possible.
They don’t do a whole lot of talking after that and before Brandon has to make it back to his hotel for curfew.
* * *
Christmas comes and goes, followed by the New Year, and Nick’s feeling ever more in sync with his team, building a nice little record, glorying in proving the naysayers wrong. JT scores a beauty in Newark early in the month and echoes the chant Nick’s been hearing from the stands at Nassau all year in his celly, and the reaction from the fans is off the charts. It reaches fever pitch until they’re all doing it, conglomerating at center ice after a win to give it back.
“Hey, come over for dinner?” Okposo asks him one day, after they’re done with practice right on the heels of a three-in-four that has Nick’s legs feeling like lead, his reflexes slower and just a little shaky.
He considers declining; he could just stay home and get some extra sleep, maybe check in with Brandon for the first time in a few days too, but it feels important, more so than Kyle’s letting seep into his tone, and Nick wrinkles his nose but claps him on the shoulder and says, “Sure.”
“Couple of the guys are coming,” Okposo says, “But we’ll make it an early night, you know. Gotta get the kids to bed on time and all, too. Especially you, Stromer,” and he directs that joke over his shoulder at Ryan who just sticks his tongue out and then goes back to re-taping his stick.
That’s one other change for Nick, too; so many of the guys in New York have young families, want to spend more time at home than going out, and that suits him too, means that mostly he doesn’t get questions about picking up or the lack thereof. It’s less stressful.
* * *
When Nick gets to Okposo’s place that evening it’s to see a bunch of familiar cars in the street; JT’s and Boych’s SUVs, the ridiculous car Stromer bought with his entry level deal, and if Stromer’s there then de Haan’s probably tagged along too, plus Clutter and Marty and Zeeker. Couple of the guys seems like an understatement, really.
Johnny’s on door duty, apparently, and he’s prompt to let him in, doesn’t leave him standing outside in the cold too long, although Nick’s enjoying the weather for the most part. Enough snow to keep things interesting, the fresh fall making the city look cleaner for a couple of hours, and cold enough that he can bundle up in a couple of layers. He’s always been better with the cold than the summer heat.
JT presses a cold beer into his hand just about the moment Nick sits down, and he gets halfway through that, carbonation tickling the back of his throat before he sets it down, involved enough in a conversation with Cal that he forgets all about it.
He's more tired than he realizes, though, because after Cal holds up a hand to say, "One sec?" and heads to the kitchen to grab himself another drink, Nick leans back in the couch, and almost without his conscious decision, he falls asleep.
After two years of this, Nick's pretty used to waking up a wolf.
He's not used to doing it without Brandon, and the absence of that familiar shape, no hint of his scent, not even on the coat that Nick had bought since the last time he saw him makes him whine sadly, confused and a little lonely.
There's an excited bark then, and Nick raises his head from his paws to see a group of wolves racing into the room, the darker, smaller one skidding on the tiles and nearly going ass over teakettle. Nick gives a vulpine laugh at that, because trust Stromer to get ahead of himself like that, and then he shakes his head and thinks, ‘wait, what?’
One of the larger wolves cuffs Stromer upside the head with his paw, before padding over to Nick with much more dignity, lifting his head to sniff at Nick politely; friendly without being submissive in the slightest, and Nick thinks ‘oh, Kyle', and jumps down onto the floor so that they're on the same level.
Kyle gives him a look which Nick reads easily enough as 'Worry about it later', so Nick does, just lets himself get folded into the group. There’s maybe less rough-housing than he and Brandon usually get up to, although the younger guys chase each other around the yard for a while and come back in to shake the snow off. Nick’s tempted to join them; they look like they’re having fun, but both Johnnys are hanging out in the kitchen, and there’s a pile of steaks set out which Nick is definitely just as interested in.
He whines an inquiry in Boych’s direction and gets back a low noise that Nick has no trouble translating as amusement, so Nick just helps himself. The other guys wander in and out, grab food for themselves and settle in groups in the living room, curled up on and around the couch. Nick’s warm and comfortable, and even if he’s not entirely sure what’s going on or how he fits in yet, he can pick up enough of the collective mood that it’s difficult to get too wound up about that.
He’s had a good day, busy and challenging, and now it’s time to be lazy and enjoy being with his teammates. He makes a slow circuit of the room before curling up with Marty and Cal, dozing with his eyes half-open. It seems like the right choice, and JT gives a satisfied yip and nuzzles him affectionately as he trots past, checking in with everyone before he settles down himself. It’s cozy and domestic and maybe if Nick was human-shaped he’d feel weirder about it, but everything smells right for the first time in weeks, and he’s lulled to complacency by that, drifting back into true sleep before he quite realizes it.
It feels later than usual when Nick wakes up again, more comfortable in his own skin than he’s been since before Christmas. He isn’t entirely sure where he is at first, an occupational hazard of traveling as much as they do, but the memories trickle back fast enough and Nick thinks, ‘Right, team dinner,’ and then, ‘wait, what?’ He’d fallen asleep in the middle of a room full of other wolves, and now he’s—
Not quite alone, but it’s certainly disconcerting.
Okposo’s sat in the armchair, equally human-shaped, glasses sliding low on his nose while he reads something on his phone. Nick hasn’t moved yet, but Kyle seems to realize he’s awake, looking up and giving him a reassuring smile.
“Hey,” Kyle says, and Nick scratches the back of his neck, tries discreetly to sit up a little straighter. Just because he’s talked about this with Brandon doesn’t make it easy to talk about in general.
“Hi,” Nick says. Too many questions to even pick a starter are crowding on his tongue, fighting to get out.
“We thought it would be less overwhelming if there was just one or two of us still here after,” Kyle says. “Boych was gonna, but he’s also on bedtime story duty tonight, so you just get me.”
“Right,” Nick says. “Uh, where is everyone?”
“Most of them went home already,” he says. “JT said he thought you needed the sleep, you pulled a ton of minutes this week, so.”
Nick’s not sure whether that’s because JT is—in charge? The boss of them?—or just because he’s a giant nerd who tracks everyone on the team’s stats obsessively, but it’s not like he can really argue. He has been tired, although he feels a lot better now. Not quite as good as he usually does, though, which is—
“So, you guys do this a lot?” Nick jokes, knows the awkwardness is bleeding through into his tone.
Kyle shrugs. “Pretty often. When we can make time. We weren’t sure you were going to change, not everyone does. But Ryan said he thought you would, and JT agreed, but—you know, you’re taking this really well. Usually people freak out more.” He gives Nick a speculative look.
“You never thought it might be easier to warn people first?” Nick suggests, hoping he’s not overstepping. It seems logical, at least.
Kyle snorts. “Right, cos that doesn’t sound like a really strange hey-new-guy prank.”
Nick has to give him that one.
“I would’ve believed you,” Nick says, figuring he should level with them, especially since they seem to know a whole lot more about this than he’s been able to work out so far. “It’s, uh. Not the first time.”
Kyle gives him a much more intense look. “Really.”
Color rushes to Nick’s cheeks, and he hopes he’s not giving away more than he wants to as he tries to explain. “Couple years now,” he mumbles, and hopes they don’t want too many details until after he’s had a chance to talk to Brandon first.
Kyle looks intrigued. “Gophers?” he asks, and Nick shakes his head.
“After that. Uh, in Rockford.”
“Huh,” he says, but he doesn’t pursue that. Instead, he moves onto checking Nick over a little more carefully, asking questions rapid-fire enough that it’s clear they’re working down some kind of checklist. After a little longer, Nick also gets the impression he’s getting an abbreviated version simply because he’s not freaking out. Not much, anyway.
“You feel okay now?” Kyle wraps up with, and Nick stretches out more carefully, considers his response.
“Better than this afternoon,” he says, and Kyle’s nodding before Nick adds, “Not quite as good as usual, though.” He’s still got a few aches and pains, the lingering ones that stick around for a day or two normally, the kind that usually vanish any time he and Brandon go wolf for a while.
“How so?” Kyle asks, very delicately, and Nick wonders if he should have asked, if he should have admitted to this.
“There’s usually more of, um. A health bonus?” Nick suggests, woefully aware of his lack of vocabulary. They probably have proper names for everything to do with this. “We pretty much wake up feeling like a million bucks, you know?” Maybe it’s because there’s so many of them, Nick thinks; maybe the benefit is spread out over more of them. He wonders if they’d all change if Brandon was visiting, or if they actually have to be team.
“Ah,” he says, like that answers more questions than Nick was aware were even on the table. “That’s rare, finding a bonded pair who changed spontaneously. Usually at least one of you is already part of a group, it’s, uh. Less confusing that way, I’ll bet.”
“That’s for sure,” Nick mutters, probably not quietly enough given the way Kyle grins. He’s not even going to touch what Kyle was saying until he’s got time to think about it in private.
“Yeah, I figured. Anyway, uh, welcome to the team.” Kyle gives him a friendly shoulder punch as punctuation, just like any other day in the locker room.
“Do the other guys know?” Nick asks, because he hadn’t exactly stopped to count in human or wolf form, but they definitely hadn’t had the whole team there.
Kyle gives him a short nod. “The ones who’ve been here a while do, we don’t read in the Bridgeport guys until we need to, though; too likely to get traded before they get a chance to really get it and know who they can talk to and who they shouldn’t.”
“Guess I’ve got some catching up to do,” Nick says, wondering if maybe there’s a manual. Maybe there’s a clause in the CBA even, god knows hardly anyone really reads the whole way through it. Surely someone in the league has to know when it’s this common, even if it’s the sort of open secret that Nick knows very rarely gets put down on paper.
“We’ll give you the rest of the info dump another day,” Kyle says, taking pity on him. Nick doesn’t think he looks too overwhelmed, but maybe Kyle’s just better at reading him than Nick’s used to getting from anyone but Brandon. Maybe that’s a wolf thing too.
He’s definitely not thinking about that whole bonded pair thing until later.
“Sounds good,” Nick says, and then he finds himself yawning, even though it can’t actually be all that late.
“Go home,” Kyle says. “Get some sleep, talk to your partner. You can at least attest that none of us bite,” and he laughs, grinning easily. “Mostly not, anyway. JT has his moments, even though he’ll pretend he doesn’t get sulky after a couple losses.”
Nick can see the attraction easily enough; going wolf when he’s down or tired has always made him feel better. Being able to do that when the season starts really grinding you down without having to also spend the energy to work on stealing away the time must be nice. More than anything, not having to explain it must be great. That’s something to look forward to for sure, even as he’s also worried about Brandon, who doesn’t get any of this yet. Nick feels obscurely responsible, like this is something he’s done to him, although maybe it’s something he got from Brandon. They’ll probably never know for sure.
“Is it just us?” he asks after a moment, too curious to wait for that one. “I got the impression Boych, uh. Wasn’t surprised.”
“Boston’s close enough they hear stuff,” Kyle says, which isn’t actually an answer. “He already knew about us, but the Isles have pretty much always had more of the guys this happens for, don’t ask me why.”
“Huh,” Nick says.
So maybe they’re not all that much better informed than he is after all. He’s not sure how to feel about that. Kyle’s probably right about how he should get moving already, think about all of this new information after he’s had a chance to sleep on it. “Yeah, I should get going, thanks for, uh. Dinner?”
“Any time,” Kyle says, and stands up to walk Nick out. “This crowd’s easy to please, you just pick up raw steak in bulk. Definitely easier than the summer cookouts where we have to actually cook for the other half of the team and any of the kids who don’t change first. Beer’s better then, though.”
“Right,” Nick says. “See you tomorrow, yeah?”
“Sure thing,” Kyle says. “Call me or JT if you have any other burning questions, anyway,” and he pauses with his hand on the door, just before he turns away. “Actually, there are a few other guys in the league, you know, just not as many. Games get a bit heated sometimes, even when we only play ‘em twice a year.”
“Oh,” Nick says. “Let me guess, the Yotes?”
He’s never particularly enjoyed playing them, but that might just be hangover from a playoff series that had gotten ugly even by NHL standards.
“You’d think, right?” Kyle says. “Nah, the Preds, actually. Few guys with Columbus, too. Lot of the Minnesotans, really. Ask your buddies on the Wild some day too, I guess?”
“This is not where I expected my day to go,” Nick says finally, digging his keys out of his pocket.
“Well, now you know,” Kyle says, shrugging philosophically. “Still happy to be here?”
Nick thinks about it for a second, but he doesn’t need much more than that, not really. There might be a lot of things he doesn’t know yet, but he is at least now sure exactly where and how he fits into this team. It’s where he’s supposed to be.
“Yeah,” he says. “I really am.”
It’s not what he was expecting when he signed his first pro contract, or even when he’d left Chicago, but it’s good enough.
They’re going to be great.