& Chapter 3: Cartwright
Their success at practice hadn't been a fluke, they really played together like they were born for it. It wasn't just that it took a player a certain speed to be able to handle Carry's during a busy game, or even that Avali was an instinctive strategist but also a good improviser. Carry had played with men suited to his own abilities before, and he had clicked with people before... He had even played with alphas, and he knew the way scent translated into being able to track each other on the ice more easily, which helped a lot when it came to passes, sure, but it didn't give you a precise location. It didn’t explain how Carry just knew. Or could he even call it that? Was it still knowing if he didn’t even have to think?
Avali smelled nice enough, he supposed, but being attracted to an alpha he played with had never done anything except fuck up his life. No way was doing that again and— It still didn’t explain anything.
He couldn’t explain it
If it had a name, Carry hadn't got far enough into his sports science to know it. But he didn't just have a general idea about where Avali was, he felt almost like he could predict where Avali would be. Telepathy was bollocks, obviously, even bonded partners only had empathy but... Carry knew they would win the moment Avali had won the face off and slid the puck over to him without even looking. He made a point of skating around the Desert Snakes' winger before returning it just as Avali reached a perfect angle to shoot from. Avali caught it and turned, slotting it into the goal like it was nothing, like he hadn't even seen the Desert defence. The crown roared and Carry felt like his heart would explode in his chest. He loved playing home ice.
The next goal came equally easy, only Avali couldn't shoot so he sent it back to Thomas, who pretended to aim for goal and slid it smoothly to Carry instead. Carry didn't even remember aiming, it was like his arms had planned and executed the play without consulting his brain. He loved that feeling, being just a body, perfectly trained for a task he could replicate with precision again and again.
He took the time to skate to Thomas and give him a solid pat on the back in thanks. As he skated past Avali, the thought crossed his mind to touch him as well, but then the game was on again.
They had destroyed the Deserts. They weren't a great team to start with, but, all loyalty aside, neither were the Flames. They weren't mean to dominate so thoroughly when playing another team in the league. Even once their line went to sit out the next shift, the Flames were... well, on fire. By the time the game was over Carry was sure he was only standing because he was too stiff to bend his limbs. Well, that and the celebratory group hug made it even more hazardous to let gravity win the eternal fight.
He leaned into his new team, enjoying their warmth, and even, perversely, the sweaty mass of bodies. It was ridiculous, but he'd missed it.
& Chapter 4: Keenan
“Ugh, I completely forgot,” he admitted, gut twisting with guilt. “Is she…?”
His mother shushed him. “It’s fine, we know it’s work. Tzeera won’t... Well, she’ll understand.”
Keenan didn’t doubt that his sister, the precocious workaholic, would accept his excuses for missing their parents’ anniversary dinner. “No, I know, but I wanted to see her. See you guys.”
“We’ll plan ahead next time, sweetie,” she told him kindly, as if she’d moved the date somehow this time. “It’s fine, we’ll have dinner with your sister, then have a nice weekend to ourselves. It is our anniversary, after all,” she added with a teasing lilt.
Keenan snorted out a laugh. He supposed she was right, even if normally all four of them went to dinner together to celebrate. His parents were the kind of married and bonded that made people ask them if they were a one true pair. Not that Keenan could blame them, with the way her dad would sometimes glance up as if he could hear his mum across the house, or how she’d smile out of turn in the middle of a conversation as she got a spike from something pleasant happening him elsewhere.
Bonded couples were always a little out in their own world, sure, but mostly when they were in the same room together. His parents… well, Keenan was equally charmed and jealous. He had no problem admitting that; he loved them both and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that they loved him, but he wasn’t the centre of either of their worlds. He didn’t want to be, not really, he wanted— He wanted what he couldn’t have.
He rubbed his forehead, leaning against the hotel bathroom countertop—she’d caught him in the middle of washing his face after his pre-game nap—and apologized one more time. “I gotta go, I only have...” He glanced around for the time only to be reminded the French considered timepieces in bathrooms in poor taste.
“Go!” she said. “Love you, sweetie.”
She hung up on him; in her habit of being cruel to be kind. Keenan took a couple minutes he probably needed to lace his skates to text his dad a congratulations—he knew the apology would not be needed, or desired—and his sister a promise to treat her to a meal of her choice next time they were both in London.
"What's wrong with you and Johnson?" Sven demanded as soon as they were alone in the hotel bar. He must have been thinking about this for a while because there had been nothing wrong with Johnson and him on the ice today; they’d just wiped the ice with the Flickering Fireflies.
Keenan shrugged. He knew he had messed up at practice when he hadn't got around to telling Johnson he'd done well. It was Keenan's place to hand out praise as the older, more experienced player and he couldn't deny it. But Johnson had made it very clear he did not want to be anywhere near Keenan off the ice. "I wouldn't know, I haven't exchanged a single word with him," he told his captain.
"What? Seriously?" Sven's English sounded strangely young when he was annoyed, like he had never learned how adults fought in the language. It wasn't that strange, his mate was Swedish too and it didn't look like they argued much anyway. "He's pretty shy, but... I don't think it's the alpha thing, he's been fine with me."
Keenan winced. If it wasn’t an alpha thing... then it was Keenan in particular Johnson had taken issue with. “I just... he keeps his distance."
"So you have tried to talk to him and he's refused to answer?" Sven asked, clearly sceptical.
"Well, no... He didn't seem like he wanted me to. You know how it is, I didn't want to..." He gestured because that was about as useful as anything he could say to the other alpha about how difficult it was to figure out what they could and couldn't say to an omega without breaking protocol. In school, they'd just told them to err on the side of caution. If an omega avoided you, you let them have their space.
Sven huffed, sounding like the eight years between them were twenty. “Keenan, you didn't get that A for your goals. You are a cool dude. Could you possibly act like it around this guy you like?"
"What?" Keenan asked. It came out too loud and he gritted his teeth to hiss the rest, "Because he's an omega I have to have the hots for him? I'm monosexual."
Sven was an alpha himself, so it was a pretty stupid thing to say. Alphas weren't attracted to all omegas and Sven—even eight years bonded—knew it perfectly well. But, like most people, Sven didn't take Keenan seriously when he said he was only attracted to women.
"Great," Sven said, and actually clapped his hands together. "Then you have no reason to treat him differently."
"No," Keenan conceded.
It was an effort to give way in front of another alpha that way, but he trusted Sven, and he couldn’t really argue that he hadn't. It hadn't been his brightest move to assume leaving his omega teammate alone would make him feel safer. He should at least have reassessed the situation when Johnson hadn’t warmed up to him a single degree even after he’d been moved to Keenan’s line permanently.
He wasn't too much of an alpha to admit he'd made a mistake. He was a professional hockey player, he knew it took hard work to improve and he wasn't afraid to put in the time.
"I'm glad to hear," Sven replied smugly. "You better hurry up and shower or he'll leave us to celebrate alone again."
"Johnson," he said.
In the crowded changing room Johnson was always the first to leave, so he couldn't wait until later. The guys glanced his way, but he couldn't blame them much, he was talking from halfway across the room. He hadn't felt he could walk any closer without Johnson acknowledging him first. Alphas weren't meant to touch omegas uninvited, or even look like they might. But he could have stood closer without breaking protocol. If he hadn't been feeling so self-conscious around Johnson since he had first scented him and got a shock of... well, an emotion, something too strong to feel for a teammate. Johnson looked up at him, eyes clear as blown glass and just as cutting, his dark eyelashes making them seem even lighter.
"Good game," Keenan said clumsily. Johnson kept staring until the door closed behind someone and he seemed to be forcefully awaken from his trance.
"Same," was all he said, so short Keenan couldn't even describe his tone. And then Thomas dropped next to him on the bench like it was nothing, Johnson turned to him, clearly startled and Keenan was equally surprised even though Thomas was half undressed and clearly couldn't have approached that stealthily. "Are you guys for real? Good game? Same? That was fucking amazing!"
He shook his head, then put his massive paw on Johnson and shook him as well. Johnson was a great player but he must have been literally half of Thomas’s weigh; so he looked like a doll in the hands of an excitable child. That is, he did until he turned around and gave Thomas a serious shove.
"Quit it, I don't want to lose any more teeth," this was gruff but not mean and the hit obviously hadn't hurt through the pads.
Thomas ribbed, "Oh, you mean someone hit someone as pretty as you in the face?"
Johnson turned to him and opened his mouth, signalling to the right side before closing it to explain, "Half of that row it's porcelain."
"So you still need to brush them," Keenan heard himself say and Johnson gave him such a weird look he couldn't tell which of them had made Thomas snort with laughter.
"What the hell?" Johnson asked. "You still need to clean fakes, it's not like you stop eating!"
Keenan shrugged, hoping to avoid saying something else stupid.
"Now I'm really hoping you don't have any," Johnson added, still looking horrified. So much so that it made Keenan crack a smile.
"He does!" Bauer chipped in from behind him.
"Just a molar," Keenan said.
"Yes," Thomas agreed, dropping his pads. "But do you brush it?"
Keenan rolled his eyes and stepped away, pulling his jersey over his head as he went. "It's in the middle of my mouth, what do you think?" Pulling his pads and undershirt off was a mistake, though, because it got the whistling started.
"You are purple, man," Morgan commented from besides him on the bench farthest from Johnson. He might have needed to change in the same space with an omega, but he was willing to find into the most comfortable spot for that. Even so, he could feel Johnson's alarm—a little tinge of sourness in the sweet caramel of his natural scent—and knew he must have looked.
He waved off the comment and the unspoken concern both. "I bruise easy. Too much Caucasian," he explained. It was more like too many hockey accidents: he'd had a broken arm last summer so he hadn't bothered finding anywhere sunny for his holiday—he'd learned sand in a cast was a bitch as a child and never forgotten. It didn't look great on skin meant to be exposed regularly to the sun like his, that was all. He was still darker than Thomas—white blonde hair and eyelids almost transparent and laughing uproariously at this. "If that's what you have to tell yourself..."
"Oh, you shouldn't tease him about his delicate skin," Johnson said then, and Avali thought he was perfectly in earnest until he turned and saw the wicked curve of his reddened lips. Did he bit on them? “You might bruise his ego.”
The rest of the guys got it about then, too, because after a shocked silence—Johnson never joked in the locker room—laughter erupted throughout the room. Johnson's smile turned pleased, and Keenan had to turn his face to hide his own.