& Chapter 1: Cartwright
He felt better as soon as the door closed behind Diego. The cold air felt almost like a separate world, a world in which none of the stupid rules and protocols that governed his life on solid ground applied. In hockey, there was only one rule: win. Well, there might have been something about penalties in the book as well, but Carry was fast enough and small enough that most referees tended to decide he had startled his rivals into falling on their arses even when he had got too close. Not that he was trying to; sometimes he just forgot how slowly other people moved. And he needed the silver linings too much to even feel bad about a few penalties from which he had got off scot free. He was a small guy, for one thing, in a sport where it was common to try to bulk up as much as possible even if you were a giant so you could get on top of other players and force their play.
Size wasn't such a major factor, though, the real deal breaker was that Carry was an omega and according to popular belief, he should have been dreaming of babies, nurseries, and worrying about colour schemes. When he had been drafted for a professional team; people had congratulated him on using classic omega stubbornness to accomplish a goal as different from parenthood as a contact sport. That was stupid enough, but it was only the beginning of throwaway comments and off-colour jokes about omegas craving physical contact, about how the Trinity Titans had taken him in because they had an alpha captain Carry would instinctively do anything to please.
Still, Carry had known to count his blessings: the Trójcy Tytanowi were mid-listers in the league, but more importantly, they’d made it clear right away they’d recruited him for his exceptional speed and stuck to it. There had been stupid questions the couple times it’d been his turn to talk to the press, but nothing unusual—it hadn't been a publicity stunt like he had been warned might happen. The Titans wanted him, Cartwright Johnson, the fastest forward in the youth league. By the end of training camp, he was called up to play with the team. It was probably because the Titans didn't have any alphas in their management, even though alphas 'naturally' excelled at a sport as aggressive and domineering as hockey and tended to enjoy it so much that they hung about after their glory years as players were over.
Even with how common alphas were, most players—like most people—were betas, and betas tended to assume omegas were one of them unless told otherwise. Alphas—who were told to be domineering and assertive—were harder to overlook, but people who were raised to be quiet and unobtrusive weren't a particular concern in if you were anosmic and couldn't smell they were possessors of a very particular genetic variation. Carry liked betas just fine. Sometimes he thought being surrounded by them was a bit like being alone. But that suited him fine. Alphas tended to assume they had to take care of him, and he didn't want anybody's protection or pity. If the alternative was being alone, he'd take it.
Of course, that had only lasted so long because the Titans did have two alphas on the team itself. Unsurprisingly, one of them was Captain Jack Lerroux, a thirty-five-year-old veteran. The guy exuded such a strong air of self-confidence that Carry had barely kept himself from flinching the first time they had shook hands—a modern take on protocol he’d have rather not participated in and couldn’t get out of without looking like a prude. Lerroux turned out to be alright, though, maybe because he was so sure of himself he felt the least he could do was be a real gentleman about the fact that he was a hockey superstar, adored by both his team and the public, and happily bonded and with his third kid on the way. People who were that lucky didn't have any bones to pick, Carry had guessed. He'd never had any issues with Lerroux, but then again, a bonded alpha might think an omega who wasn’t his mate was easy on the eyes, but they wouldn’t be affected by the omega’s pheromones.
Not that Carry thought Lerroux had given his existence outside the ice a single thought—in all likelihood, the wouldn’t have been compatible even if Lerroux had been unbonded. Carry figured his genetic make-up had to be quite particular because it was rare for him to find an alpha whose scent he was enticed by.
Of course, he hadn’t needed scent to notice Ali Pucio.
At twenty-four he was already one of the Titans starting defenders and he wasn't shy about announcing his goals or ribbing his teammates. Carry hadn't felt anything but the usual apprehension when they'd first met, but he hadn't counted on how charming Ali could be.
He wasn’t obvious about it, of course. He couldn’t be, protocol demanded that he let Carry initiate any non-professional interaction between them, for one. But protocol was a set of guidelines, not laws. Ali didn’t speak to him first, but he did choose a chair across from him when the team went out to dinner, and he did glance his way as he told a joke, as if to check Carry’s reaction. At first, Carry had just watched him slant smiles his way and sneak looks and pretended he didn’t catch his scent flaring with interest.
He wasn’t meant to respond, not when he had no intention of following through—and when following through would have meant formal courting and a bond in the near future that would almost certainly prevent him from playing… Well, it was a simple choice. But it was hard not to notice how dark and thick Ali’s eyelashes were, or to miss the lines of his back when he walked by half-naked in the changing room.
Ali's fellow defender Harry Villiers had been happy to watch them flirt over dinners with the team and video games marathons and nobody else had said anything. There wasn't anything to say, really. Ali was an alpha and Carry was an omega, but they were professionals and they were on hormone suppressants that would prevent Carry from going into heat. They were just relieving tension, reminding themselves there could be something not because they wanted there to be, but because they wanted the option to be there when they decided they had had enough of hockey.
Except maybe it hadn't been quite like that: Carry had been only eighteen, in a new city far from the English countryside state where he’d grown up and farther still from the Italian reserves team that’d taken him on when he’d been not yet sixteen but decided not to offer him a place in their actual line-up once he was of age.
He’d been having heats for three years, but he’d never had sex before—not even with a beta. And he’d wanted to. He’d wondered what someone else’s hands on his skin would be like, what a kiss could turn into if he followed through with it, whether the weight of a body on top of his would feel as right as everyone promised.
Pucio had only told Villiers, but Villiers had told someone else. Less than a week after losing his virginity, Carry had got the call about getting traded. His agent hadn't said it in so many words, but the message was clear: no team wanted to bet on an omega that would risk getting publicly shamed—and drag his team through the mud in the process.
He could play, so he could play. Why the fuck would it matter what he did off the ice? What he did in bed? It wasn't like he—
Patel failed to score off Carry's next pass, and Carry had to grip his stick hard to keep himself from actually smashing it against the floor, or the defender. Or Patel's head. This was only his third game with the Hell Flames and he had only scored once. He had to prove he was doing good work here, or they might decide to send him back to the reserves. Or trade him. He couldn't handle another move; he had barely made it through this one.
Their line was called out and Avali's sent in. Carry kept his gaze and attention firmly on the empty bench, where at least he could rest a little.
It took him a moment to process that Patel wasn't cursing the referee for stopping the game.
Carry actually looked away from the game to stare at him. “What?”
“That pass was a beauty,” Patel commented ruefully. “But you are just so freaking fast, man. Sometimes it's like you teleport or something.”
“Thanks,” Carry told him, feeling like he was letting him down by not teasing him somehow, but he didn't know Patel that well and he was very much not ready to joke about Patel wasting his shot. If he had seen it was beautiful, why hadn't he used it to score? “Next time,” he added, trying to be friendly.
Patel seemed to take his awkwardness in the spirit in which it was intended, and they both went back to watching the game. The Northern Winds had just loss possession to, who else, Keenan Avali. He sped through the ice, a fast player in his own right even if he was not quite as fast as Carry, and the puck stuck to his stick as if magnetically attached. His handling was impressive even in practice, during a game it was like he didn't even have to think about where the puck was for his stick to find it, for his body to follow, putting itself between the puck and his rivals as if out of some protective instinct. Journalists talked about Avali's protective posture, but when they called him a typically possessive alpha, there was always some sign that they were joking and they thought it was kind of cool that Avali was using his instincts to win.
And win he did. He scored another goal, the last one of the game and the fourth the Northerns' goalie had let through. Avali had scored twice, Bauer and Kiau once each. And Carry not at all. Of course neither had Patel or Diego, both more experienced players. It was obvious their line wasn't working, but the coaches hadn't wanted to mess with the perfect formula that was Keenan Avali, Siuf Bauer, and Thomas Kiau. Carry knew he was in no position to make demands of the Flames. He was new and he hadn't earned it, but it was driving him crazy—it was torture to play a team sport with a line who couldn't read you. It wasn’t their fault, they were both good players, but they’d lost their centre to an injury and it’d been decided Patel could do it instead.
Carry respectfully disagreed.
He closed his locker and threw his uniform onto the rapidly growing pile in the corner of the changing room while trying to come up with something on TV he really wanted to watch. But he’d run out of episodes of Spinning during the hellish month of trade negotiations. He’d needed it too badly to ration it. Sadly, fiction couldn't keep up with the awfulness of Carry's reality any more than he could.
“You coming out with us?” Patel asked from where he was pushing something into his own locker.
Carry glanced his way, already shaking his head. “Nah, just—" He waved his hand around to give some weight to his rather poor excuse. "Just tired, you know.”
Patel nodded. “You will get used to it soon,” he promised with a sympathetic smile.
Carry shrugged, unable to come up with anything to say that wasn't offensive or dismissive. He didn't need to get used to hockey: he had taught himself to play until his body couldn't hold him upright a long time ago, and a month off hadn't changed that. He had kept up with his training, in fact, he had been so antsy he had added reps to the point where he had ended up having to take a day off for fear that he had pulled a muscle on his right arm. Anyway, it wasn't stamina that he was low on, but spirits.
He wanted to feel like he belonged on the ice, like he was meant to be there. He knew he was, but when he wasn't scoring, surrounded by a team that wasn't really his, it just got hard to remember, to believe.
Patel wished him a good night and a couple other guys nodded, Kiau gently patting his shoulder as he walked by. Carry hated the gentleness; nobody had been gentle with him in the Titans, not even the alphas. Did they forget he played the same contact sport where people ended up concussed and with broken bones all the time? Players had died on the ice; why did Carry need gentle pats instead of the rough noggies and pushes everybody else got from teammates?
He didn't, of course, but it hasn't like people ever listened to what Carry told them he needed. If he wanted something, he had to take it for himself. And right then, what he needed was to be alone with a beer and a show and decompress. At least nobody expected him to talk to the press anymore.
Chapter 2: Keenan
For a second Keenan thought he must have drunk too much the previous night and this was an alcohol fuelled hallucination, then he blinked and Coach Hernandez was still standing there looking expectantly at him. He nodded, gaze firmly planted on the wall opposite and nowhere near the cloud of lemon tinged sweetness that was his least favourite teammate. Linemate. At least for this practice. The coaches wanted to try them out together, as if it wasn't obviously a bad idea, as if they hadn't asked Keenan if he could handle having an omega on the team before making an offer for Johnson.
Keenan, damn his pride and his principles both, had said yes. He didn't know why the kid was getting traded, but someone that talented and that young shouldn't go to waste. He deserved a second chance.
He wasn't naïve not to know a lot of alphas wouldn't give it to him. But whatever Johnson thought, not all alphas were the same. And, after all, Johnson was a man and Keenan was only interested in women. It'd been easy to be generous.
And now karma was laughing in his face because not only did Johnson's scent mean that they were compatible to some extent, but the coaches were considering breaking their best line to give the new kid a chance to shine. It was criminal that Mike and Diego were wasting most of Johnson's passes, sure, but that didn't mean Keenan could play on the same ice as Johnson and perform. He didn’t see how he could deal with the distraction of Johnson's subtly shifting scent when he was trying to do his job and score.
Like right now, Johnson's scent was going from unpleasantly surprised—acidic—to the cold determination that characterised him on the ice. It was even more unnerving because he looked so bloody innocent—his blond hair flopping messily over his forehead as he tilted his head to the side to listen to Coach Hernandez’s instructions—a sweet faced angel, really… until one looked and saw the cold fire in his eyes. But most people must not have been looking.
And then they were on the ice together facing Mike, Diego and Siuf. Keenan tried and failed to fake a right—Mike knew him too well to fall for it and took the puck from him. The guy was a sweetheart off the ice, but his bulk, more befitting a defender than a centre forward, kept Keenan straining to keep up even with speed on his side. Somehow, though, in the next thirty seconds, Johnson zoomed past on his left and stole the puck from Siuf.
Keenan had imagined he'd lose track of the puck if he was focusing on Johnson, but his body had been trained to follow that little piece of rubber around as if his life depended on it for too long. In any case, for a lot of the game, Johnson had the puck and he was usually passing it to Keenan. Easy and smooth and coming exactly from where Keenan was expecting it because in a matter of minutes Johnson had become the easiest linemate to track in the history of his career. It was uncanny. He scored for a second time. Thomas’s assist, except it had been Johnson's play. He had met Keenan's eyes for a nanosecond and determined he was too well covered by the opposing defence to receive and moved on to their linemate without breaking stride. It had given Keenan a few seconds to get rid of Bobby and Morgan, just fast enough to get Thomas’s pass and push the puck into the net. It had almost been too easy.
The coaches shouted something complimentary, words Keenan didn't quite catch. Or need. They were on fire. There were no words for what was happening to him... to them. He had never played like this with anybody before, not even with the linemates he had played all the way through school.
Except there were some words: a lot of praise and then what they had all been thinking, what Keenan knew was true. They had to take this to the next game.
He hesitated before leaving the ice to get changed. If it had been a good game, he'd have said so. But how could he tell Johnson it was the best he had ever clicked with anybody on the ice in his life? Thomas knocked his gloved hand against his shoulder just hard enough to be felt through the padding. "Wow, man. What even!"
Keenan nodded and only then noticed he was grinning like a maniac. "Wow indeed." He returned Thomas’s friendly punch, then added, "Great pass." He braced himself to repeat the comment to Johnson, whose brief glances during the game had been the longest they had shared in the months of knowing each other. But before he had a chance, the rink's door clicked shut and he turned to see Johnson had walked out and closed it behind himself. The subtlest fuck you, but a clear one nonetheless.
Thomas raised his eyebrows at Keenan. "Bit of a temper, huh?"
Keenan shrugged. He didn't know what the guy's problem was, Keenan had just been taking a moment before thanking him as well. Couldn't he give him a minute before he started to slam doors and act like a total teenager?