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There are probably worse things than having to walk past a giant mural of your ex’s face on your way into work every morning, but if there are, Melanie can’t think of them.

It’s gotten easier with time, at least in theory. She’s a professional. Not as if she doesn’t have enough other things on her mind today – there was traffic heading in so she didn’t have time to get coffee, and she’s still got to finish that powerpoint for her guest lecture on Wednesday, and her mom’s been texting for half an hour about what to wear for Jonathan’s party tonight.

So it’s fine, Melanie’s fully prepared to do her usual power walk-slash-sprint past the big team mural in the entrance, only today there’s a family there. Tourists, by the look of it, two parents with backpacks and a little girl in braids and a Joseph jersey posing for a picture next to Isabelle’s face, front and center on the wall.

“Am I matching her?” the little girl asks, eyes bright. She does this little scowl, mimicking the giant Isabelle glowering down at them all through her visor.

Her dad beams at her while her mom snaps a million pictures. “You look just like her, baby.”

It is, all in all, incredibly wholesome, and probably says some really nice things about women in sports and representation and following your dreams, which Melanie can appreciate; or would appreciate, were it not for the fairly significant issue of said nice things being centred around Isabelle Joseph’s stupid giant face.

On the bright side, it doesn’t take long for Melanie to think of something worse than walking past the mural of her ex’s face, because she gets to her office and sees her actual ex leaning on the doorframe with a bloody towel clutched to her mouth.

“Finally,” Isabelle says; or, Melanie assumes that’s what she says – between her accent and the towel, it’s hard to make out.

Melanie’s momentarily torn between which thing to comment on first, but her training wins out. “What did you do to your face?” she demands, striding forward. “You were at practice.”

“Practice can be dangerous,” Isabelle grumbles, all defensive. She’s still in her gear, bulky with padding and sweaty enough to be more than a little disgusting when Melanie squeezes past her to open the door.

“It is 9 o’clock in the morning,” she scolds, and she can practically feel Isabelle rolling her eyes. “I generally appreciate being able to actually put my stuff in my office before I have to perform surgery, just as a courtesy thing.”

“Not like I’m here by choice,” Isabelle says, which Melanie could have predicted, thanks. She’s seen Isabelle get her nose broken and only come off the ice after getting threatened with being scratched. In a way, it’s nice, Melanie thinks, because it means that Isabelle’s just as unaccommodating in her professional life as she is in her personal one. Kind of validating.

For all her talk, Isabelle trails Melanie into the office without putting up much of a fuss. They’ve done this enough that it’s basically a routine: Isabelle gets the lights and hops up to sit on the examination table while Melanie drops her stuff at her desk and gets gloves so she can gauge the extent of the damage. Today, bloody towels and all, is relatively mild by Isabelle’s standards, just a busted lip, cut deep but not huge. A couple stitches, max.

They don’t talk while Melanie preps and starts sewing up Isabelle’s lip. The place is quiet, most of the team still on the ice, most of the support staff still trickling in. It’s very nearly peaceful, aside from the forced proximity to her ex thing, until Isabelle’s liney comes to check on her.

“’sup, Joey,” Tony says by way of greeting, heaving himself up onto the table next to her. He grins over at Melanie. “Hi, Dr. Rodrigues!”

“Dr. Rodrigues,” Isabelle mimics under her breath, and Melanie tugs the needle, hard, so Isabelle grimaces.

“Hi, Anthony,” Melanie says, and even spares him a smile. He’s a sweet guy, always offers to help carry stuff for the support staff, asks a bunch of questions when he’s getting his physicals. “Your shoulder’s still okay?”

“Oh yeah, tons better,” Tony nods; then, addressing Isabelle, “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. Coach gave me so much shit after you left.” He kind of pouts, and Melanie knows what’s coming before Isabelle even opens her mouth.

“Oh, you want sympathy?” Isabelle demands. “Sorry you hit me with a puck in my face, Tony, let me get my violin.” She’s still scowling, grouchy as anything, but Melanie’s known her long enough to recognize her particularly abrasive brand of affection and, apparently, so has Anthony, because he just grins sheepishly while Melanie knots off the sutures and snips the string.

“You’re done,” she says, back to all-business. “Remember, don’t eat-”

“-anything with citrus, I know,” Isabelle cuts her off, dismissive. She’s pulling faces, moving her lip around and touching the tip of her tongue to the stitches. “These are messier than usual, no?”

Melanie hates her.

“You’re welcome, Isabelle,” Melanie snaps – they both know Isabelle’s trying to get a rise out of her, her stitches are essentially flawless and Isabelle knows it, she’s had them done enough times – and heads over to her desk, powers up her computer to start the paperwork.

“Thank you for doing your job that you are paid for, Dr. Rodrigues,” Isabelle says behind her back. The paper rustles as she gets up from the table, then again when Tony follows her.

“I hope it leaves a scar,” Melanie says, curt, without looking up from her computer. She sees the reflection of Isabelle flipping her off in the screen on her way out.

Tony’s voice carries from the hall. “You guys really don’t like each other, huh?”

This. This is why Melanie needs her coffee.

---

The Isabelle thing was a mistake on every possible level. Literally, every single one.

Melanie is not a person who makes mistakes.

That’s not a platitude. She just- she knows the smart choice, and she makes it, and the evidence for that statement is a lucrative job with the team she grew up watching, and two degrees with honours, and the fact that she’s been valedictorian at every graduation since preschool; and all that should be more than enough to outweigh a single lapse in judgement, except for the fact that said lapse in judgement was a two year relationship with the worst person in the entire world, and that said worst person happens to play for the team Melanie works for.

It’s a miracle they lasted as long as they did, frankly. They’re opposites in every single way, or at least every way that matters. And it’s not as though things were perfect, even when they were together – they bickered constantly, and they were both busy with work, and Isabelle never really did get the hang of not being an insufferable egomaniac.

Still. It was easy to get caught up in her gravity.

To reiterate: Mistake. Mistake the first time they kissed in the supply closet at the rink, mistake introducing their families, mistake to risk derailing everything for the brooding French-Canadian with the most penalty minutes on the team. Mistake to think there was ever even the tiniest chance that they could-

It’s in the past.

The Isabelle stuff is in the past, and Melanie learns from her mistakes, and she’s a professional about it, darn it, even if Isabelle’s not, so she goes about her day, checks in with the rest of the staff and makes sure her team is surviving all the little hurts that pile up over the course of the season. She stays in her office to respond to emails on her lunch break, consults with the trainers to make sure they’ve got a plan in place for rehabbing Deslaurier’s knee.

She leaves late, the way she does more often than not. Only leaves as early as she does because the alarm she set on her phone goes off, Jonathan’s Party.

The street where her mom and stepfather live is lined with cars by the time Melanie arrives. Expensive cars, a lot of them, and a bunch of helium balloons tied to the front porch. One of them is wilting more than the others, a little less inflated.

God, Melanie hates birthdays.

“Mel!” Jonathan exclaims as soon as she gets through the door. He’s beaming, genuinely thrilled to see her. “You made it!”

“I said I was going to,” Melanie says, shutting the door behind her. “Happy birthday.”

Jonathan returns her hug before turning to the crowd of their neighbours and relatives lounging around the room. “Smartest one in the family, this girl,” he announces, all proud, and Melanie waves, too aware of all eyes on her. “Hey, you’ve got to try the devilled eggs, let me get you a plate-”

He’s doing the overcompensating stepfather thing again. “Y’know, I’m good for now, but thank you,” Melanie says, patting his arm. “Do you know where my mom...”

Any disappointment that was on Jonathan’s face after the rejection of the devilled eggs is gone by the time Melanie’s done speaking. Nothing’s that deep, with him. Like a golden retriever’s brain in a human’s body. “I saw her talking to Sophia from parent counsel by the patio doors when I was grilling a while ago.”

“Thanks, Jonathan,” Melanie says again, already on her way toward the kitchen. She tries to make her smile genuine, she does, because Jonathan really does try.

It takes longer than it should to make it down the hall, extended family and acquaintances stopping Melanie every few steps to talk hockey or ask about their kid applying to med school or grill her on if she’s married yet. She doesn’t so much find her mom as walk straight into her and nearly knock over the teetering pile of dirty plates in her arms.

“Oh, Melanie, thank god.” She kisses Melanie’s cheek, hands her the stack of plates and walks past, chattering in Spanish, “Your cousins left their food sitting right on the stairs, I almost tripped and broke my neck, this is why I said we should cater but Jonathan insists that he likes grilling- but listen, I need you to pick up more forks and knives.”

“I asked on the way here if you needed anything,” Melanie says, incredulous, sliding the plates onto the nearest counter.

“I didn’t check my phone,” her mom says, like that’s a reasonable excuse, then looks over Melanie’s shoulder, distracted, and switches to English. “Ava, honey, come say hi to your sister.”

Stepsister, Melanie corrects mentally, but she doesn’t have the heart to do it out loud because Ava’s already hugging her around the waist, nearly knocking her over and already halfway through her sentence. “Mel, guess what guess what, I got perfect on my math test plus the bonus mark!”

“That’s great, Ava,” Melanie says, and means it, squeezing her back. “Really good.”

Ava beams at her, and there’s nearly twenty years between them but it looks like more, for how much of a kid she is.

Their mom is smoothing down Ava’s hair, looking Melanie up and down. “Sweetie, you know that dress needs a belt.”

“Mom,” Melanie says, flat.

“Get the ones that don’t look like plastic, okay?” her mom asks, and it takes a second for Melanie to realize she’s switched back to Spanish, and then back to talking about cutlery. “The expensive ones, just bring me the receipt.”

“I don’t need you to pay me back for disposable cutlery,” Melanie says, instead of any of the myriad of other potential responses, but her mom’s already waltzing back into the living room, and Melanie can see Jonathan beam at her when she walks in, like she was across the world instead of in a different room.

Melanie looks away, reaches into her bag to get her keys with a sigh.

“Can I come to the store?” Ava asks, hopeful. “I’m allowed to sit in the front now.”

“Sure, Ava.” Melanie lets herself get tugged back the way she just came, back down the street to her car. It’s sort of a relief that Ava invited herself along – she rambles about school as she buckles her seatbelt, talking about some field trip to a museum, and it’s impossible not to feel a little less frazzled, to forget at least temporarily about anything related to-

“How come you didn’t bring Isabelle?”

Melanie’s cursed. That’s the only possible explanation for Isabelle fucking Joseph invading every nook and cranny of her life and ruining each and every one.

“Why would I bring Isabelle?” Melanie asks, flat. “You know we’re not together anymore.” And haven’t been for six and a half months-

Ava sighs, looking over at Melanie reproachfully. “She was so cool though.”

Melanie makes a face. “I mean, functional relationships are absolutely not dependent on how ‘cool’ either party-”

“Mom says you should put yourself out there more,” Ava says, swinging her feet happily. “She says you focus too much on work.”

Melanie bites her lip, adjusting her mirrors. Their mother married and had a child with her IT guy, if there’s one of them who could stand to focus a little less on work it is almost certainly not Melanie.

“Focusing on work got me a medical degree and a stable career,” she says after counting to ten inside her head, because she may as well take an opportunity to impart some valuable life lessons. “Those are way cooler than fighting during a hockey game, right?” She smiles her best cool, hip-with-the-youth role model smile.

Ava looks skeptical. Ten year olds shouldn’t look that skeptical. “I guess,” she says, and Melanie gets the very distinct impression that she’s being humoured.

So. Whatever.

Coolness doesn’t matter, and even if it did, Melanie works for a professional sports team. She’s cool, regardless of what Ava thinks, and comparisons to Isabelle are irrelevant, as always. Ava’s ten. She doesn’t know cool.

The engine stalls when Melanie tries to start the car.

Melanie doesn’t quite know how, but she’s certain that that’s Isabelle’s fault as well.

---

The crowd’s reaction is the first thing to get Melanie’s attention, a couple weeks later when everything goes completely and miserably to shit.

The hit is behind the play, but Melanie’s been around the game long enough to put the pieces together once the ref’s whistle goes: last she saw, Isabelle was in a shoving match with one of the Pens defenders until she fished the puck out and sent it up the ice, and now she’s lying in a heap by the boards behind her net. Conscious, is the first thing Melanie notes, which is good, but she’s also not getting up, and if Isabelle’s not forcing herself up, it’s because she literally can’t.

“He barely touched her, c’mon!” The visiting coach is yelling at the refs, while the bench next to Melanie is hollering for a penalty. Melanie tunes them all out, is already halfway onto the ice when the trainers beckon her over.

It’s still a bizarre thing to get used to, thousands of people watching her get escorted across the ice, like some sort of warped operating theatre. It’s not like practicing in a hospital or a clinic, where her presence is a relief, a chance for answers: here, in the middle of a game, she’s an interloper, a sign that something has gone wrong.

The players from both teams are all milling around, the one who laid the hit hovering especially close. Isabelle’s half-sitting up, her mouthguard dangling from her mouth, stray curls plastered to her forehead with sweat. She looks up when Melanie kneels down next to her.

“Two women on NHL ice, this is a win for feminism,” Isabelle quips, breathless. Unbelievable.

“Stop trying to be tough,” Melanie orders, fully focused on doing her job.

“Or what?” Isabelle asks, all bravado, but then Melanie touches her thigh and she hisses out a string of curses in French, face contorted in genuine pain.

It’s bad, though Melanie didn’t need Isabelle’s reaction to confirm that – her leg is crumpled underneath her, twisted at an impossible angle. Melanie can’t see blood, but there’s also a lot of gear in the way, so that’s not saying much.

“I need a stretcher,” Melanie says, not even to Isabelle, to one of her trainers, Greg, but Isabelle’s the one who responds anyways, because of course she is.

“No stretchers.”

Melanie glares at her. “You’ll make it worse if you put weight on it-”

“Carts,” Isabelle calls toward the cluster of her teammates watching, completely ignoring Melanie. “Help me up.”

Carter skates out from his net, followed by Brooks, and they get their arms around Isabelle, tugging her up and supporting her weight. It looks like it takes effort for Isabelle to get up, and her hand’s shaking where it’s clutching her teammates’ jerseys.

“Should we... do something?” Greg asks, and Melanie leans on his shoulder to stand, scowling.

“She can be an idiot if she wants,” she says, because she can’t technically force Isabelle to use a stretcher if she doesn’t want one, even if it’s a blatant middle finger to anything resembling respect for medical best practice. “Anthony, come help me off.”

It’s the most pathetic procession in the world, Melanie clinging to Tony’s arm so she won’t slip as she follows behind Isabelle and the team. They’re moving painstakingly slowly, but Isabelle’s got her one good leg on the ice, does this snarky little half-salute, and that’s enough for an appreciative cheer from the crowd, claps on the back from the guys they pass on the bench, a chorus of, “Atta girl, Joey” and “Fuckin’ right”.

Isabelle makes it a couple hops into the dark of the hallway to the room before she’s holding herself up on the wall, and the lighting’s just enough that Melanie can see the way her face is twisted, ashen.

“Stretcher,” Melanie says, and this time, without the crowd watching, Isabelle doesn’t argue.

---

Anyone with half a brain could predict what the headlines were going to be about Isabelle’s injury, but it’s still irritating when they come out.

Joseph Likely Out for Months with Broken Leg, are the better ones. What Does Isabelle Joseph’s Injury Say About Women in the NHL?, are the more common ones by a lot, and Melanie saw it coming, because there are certain angles people don’t get bored of and questioning whether women can handle the physical stress of playing in the top men’s league is apparently one.

Melanie would be more righteously indignant about it if it was anyone but Isabelle. As is, mustering up any kind of pity is a big ask, because Isabelle’s injury means that she’s both forced into proximity with the medical staff and in maybe the worst mood Melanie’s ever seen.

Melanie tries to be patient. She really does. She’s got a duty of care and all that, and she can recognize the difficulty in having your season altered by a sudden injury, but after two weeks of Isabelle sulking around with a full cast and a foul mood, snarling at anyone who has the audacity to come within five feet of her, patience is a big ask. Isabelle even snaps at Tony for trying to help her carry her stuff from the locker room to make room for the guy who’s called up to fill her spot. It’s entirely uncalled for, and it leaves Tony mumbling like a scolded little kid, which is demoralizing enough that Melanie brings it up at the end of their next appointment.

“You should apologize to Tony,” Melanie says, once she’s satisfied that the swelling’s gone down.

“I didn’t ask,” Isabelle says, grabbing her crutches as she gets up.

“See, the good thing about me being right is that I’m right regardless of whether you want me to be,” Melanie says, and it’s not even to be a jerk, it’s genuine advice. “Just in general, alienating your entire team probably isn’t-”

“How are you more annoying as a doctor than as a girlfriend?” Isabelle demands. “I didn’t think this is possible, then-”

Melanie rolls her eyes. “Funny, you’re exactly the same amount of intolerable in all aspects of your life, so points for consistency, I guess.”

Isabelle makes this scornful sound, teetering on her good leg. “Vas te chier, Rodrigues.” Which is just-

“I know what that means!” Melanie says, indignant. “And, for your information, insulting someone in a language they don’t speak is, frankly, cowardly. Just so you’re aware.”

Isabelle draws herself up to her full height. “I can insult you in English also,” she says, loud. “I can say that you’re bossy and annoying and a sexually frustrated, anal-retentive b-”

Melanie glares at her, right in her face, because anything involving her sexual frustration that may or may not exist stopped being Isabelle’s business a long time ago. “Oh, don’t you dare start with me, Isabelle Joseph-”

“You sound like my mother,” Isabelle says, utterly dismissive, because she’s always so fucking dismissive, even here with her season and maybe her career in Melanie’s highly capable hands, and Melanie snaps.

“I’m trying to help you!” she says, maybe a little more pitchy than she’s intending. “That is literally my sole professional purpose, which you’d see if you could stop wallowing in your own self pity for more than ten seconds! You think I want to see you like this?”

Isabelle laughs. It’s this harsh, bitter sound, nothing humorous about it. Maybe a little bit sulky. “You don’t give a shit.”

“About you, no,” Melanie snaps. “About one of two female players in the league, Isabelle, and as the literal only other person of colour involved with this team, and as your physician? Yes, I give a shit, on principle.”

It’s hard to be self-righteous when loudly scolding someone nearly a foot taller than you, but Melanie thinks she manages, because Isabelle meets her eyes but doesn’t cut her off. Doesn’t say anything, just kind of stares, like whatever Melanie said, she caught her off guard.

Melanie doesn’t back down. Tries to keep her voice calmer. “The sooner you’re better, the sooner I don’t have to deal with you hanging around here, alright?”

Isabelle blinks. And then she nods.

Melanie waits for the sarcastic follow-up, for the snide little ‘Doctor Rodrigues’ or eye roll.

Nothing comes.

“Alright,” Melanie repeats, a little out of breath without being entirely sure why. Maybe she’s coming down with something.

“Alright,” Isabelle echoes.

Score one, Melanie.

---

The season goes mostly the way that Melanie expects it to, by now: travelling for games, meeting with the trainers to discuss rehabilitation for everyone injured and pretending not to be and thinking the medical staff don’t notice. She colour-codes her calendar to distinguish between consults and games and waiting around during team conditioning, which is a fun way to spend an evening; and then the sports medicine program at the closest college invites her as a guest lecturer, same as last year, so that’s another few dinner’s worth of things to prep for.

Tony pokes his head into Melanie’s office, after one morning skate. “Me and Jakey were going to go get sushi with Jenna from media, want to come?”

“No,” Melanie says, automatic, then remembers her manners. “No, thank you.”

“We could wait, if you’re busy,” Tony wheedles. “It’s for Jake’s birthday? Also I’m like, eighty percent sure he’s trying to wheel Jenna and I don’t want to third-”

“Birthdays are for elementary schoolers,” Melanie cuts him off, and his face falls. She doesn’t let herself feel bad. “You have fun, though.”

She only realizes after that it could’ve been interpreted as passive aggression. Doesn’t think Anthony’s the type to have noticed, in any case, because if the constant, clumsy attempts at attempting to spend time with her are any indication, he hasn’t realized yet that she’s both a lesbian and far too old for him, so he’s clearly not that observant.

It’s not personal. Melanie just- she has a very full life, schedule-wise if not socially, and really, there isn’t all that much difference between the two, because if she has to decide between pursuing her dreams and facilitating the dreams of others or going out for sushi with her coworkers as if they’re friends, the social thing isn’t that much of a sacrifice. She doesn’t need it.

She re-colour codes her calendar. The green was making her nauseous.

On Friday, the staff meeting runs long enough that Melanie’s rushing out afterwards, looking through her cue cards for her lecture and avoiding looking at the giant mural of Isabelle and at very imminent risk of being late, so of course she crashes head-on into Isabelle in the foyer. The flashcards fly up into the air then scatter across the floor. Because of course.

“Woah,” Isabelle says, over Melanie’s “Crap” as she crouches to pick up the cards, which are all entirely out of order now. Isabelle can’t kneel down to help, with her crutches, and ends up just standing there, because of course she’d choose now to start being a polite Canadian.

“Look where you’re walking, maybe,” Melanie suggests, but it’s only half-hearted, because she’s a big enough person to admit that this was mostly her fault. Just not out loud.

Isabelle ignores her, peering at the one card she caught before it fell. “You still make these?”

Their eyes meet for the smallest moment, and Melanie knows they’re both thinking of the same thing, her sitting at the kitchen table writing out her notes while Isabelle drank her godawful protein shakes and watched tape. Melanie doesn’t know how many nights they passed like that, neither talking, just both doing their thing.

She clears her throat, drops Isabelle’s gaze. “It’s helpful,” Melanie says, gathering the leftover cards and getting to her feet. “Writing longhand helps me remember my lectures.”

“You don’t still need to work two jobs,” Isabelle says, frowning.

“It’s not about needing,” Melanie says, momentarily forgetting who she’s speaking to. “Education is important. The world of pro sports is historically not great about women and queer people, let alone the world of sports science, and I know I personally would’ve found it valuable to hear from someone…” She trails off. This is about the point where people start doing the ‘Melanie is being annoying and bossy’ look. “Forget it.” It’s belated, lands awkwardly.

“That was the plan, yes,” Isabelle says, but it doesn’t have the same bite it’d usually. Seems more like habit than anything else.

She hands Melanie the one flashcard, abrupt. Maybe a little awkward, too.

“Thanks,” Melanie says.

“Whatever,” Isabelle says.

For a moment, this strange, stretched-out second, they both hesitate, standing there under the ferocious gaze of giant 2D Isabelle as if they’re going to walk out together. As if that’s something they do, after one hardly even friendly half-conversation.

“I’m going to be late,” Melanie says, then, “Bye.”

“Bye,” Isabelle says, and Melanie gets the hell out, doesn’t stop to check if Isabelle’s watching her leave. She really is going to be late, if she doesn’t hurry.

Still gets into her car and thunks her head on the steering wheel, overwhelmed.

Isabelle’s leg better get better, fast. Melanie needs to go back to ignoring her in good conscience.

---

“Are these their real sticks?” Ava asks, practically buzzing. She’s been begging to come visit Melanie at work forever, and with the team away on the father’s trip, Melanie figured today was a good opportunity.

“Why would they have fake ones?” she teases, smiling, and Ava laughs, keeps darting down the hall and staring reverently at everything vaguely hockey-related. “Wait up, I’m not as fast as you-”

“You’re slow,” Ava giggles, but she stops before turning the corner to head toward the practice pads, and so Melanie gets a perfect view of Isabelle rounding the corner.

Of fucking course.

“Isabelle!” Ava’s off like a shot before Melanie can stop her, hugging Isabelle so forcefully she teeters on her crutches. “Isabelle, I haven’t seen you in so long, hi!”

“Hi, Ava.” Isabelle shoots a look at Melanie, kind of deer in headlights, like she’s asking what she’s supposed to do, but she hugs Ava back, quick, and smiles at her when they pull apart. Isabelle hasn’t seen her in nearly a year, Melanie realizes, with a pang of something like sadness.

To Isabelle’s credit, she makes a valiant attempt at normal, by her standards. “You’re tall now, eh?”

“Mom says I’m going to be taller than her and Melanie by grade six,” Ava says, proud. “I might be as tall as you.”

“Probably taller,” Isabelle says – she’s not wrong, Ava’s already past her stomach – and Ava laughs.

“Maybe,” she says; then, “I was watching on TV when you hurt your leg, it looked like it hurt.”

“Wasn’t that bad,” Isabelle shrugs, nonchalant, and Ava’s still looking up at her in utter awe. Melanie can’t quite bring herself to be annoyed by it.

“You didn’t travel with the team?” she asks, clinging to whatever strand of professionalism she has left.

Isabelle shakes her head. “More x-rays.”

“They were saying you might not even play again maybe ever,” Ava says, hushed.

“They’re idiots,” Isabelle says, blunt, then messes up Ava’s hair, almost playful. “I have to stay until you make it to the league to play on my line, you know?”

“Right,” Ava nods; then, gently, like she doesn’t want to hurt Isabelle’s feelings, “I think I’ll probably become a doctor like Melanie, also, though. And a teacher vet fashion designer, part time.”

“Those are good ideas,” Isabelle says, very seriously, and Ava beams at her, and Melanie’s heart does a stupid, traitorous little flutter. She just- she’s a fan of kindness. That’s the extent of that.

It’s relatively painless, all things considered, just Ava chattering and Isabelle nodding along, only then Ava laces her hand with Isabelle’s and asks, “Do you want to come get frozen yogurt with us?”

Isabelle blanches. Melanie’s going to die.

“She’s busy, Ava,” Melanie says, because they’re not dating, and it’s not the kind of thing where they go out all three of them. Not the kind of thing where Melanie socializes with Isabelle on purpose at all.

“Oh,” Ava says, and drops Isabelle’s hand. Her face falls, just a little.

Isabelle glances at Melanie, just for a second, then pats Ava’s shoulder, bracing. “Maybe another time, yeah?”

And Ava’s smile is back and brilliant, and frozen yogurt sans-Isabelle goes off exactly the way it’s supposed to, and it bothers Melanie the entire time. She can’t shake the feeling of- of owing Isabelle, somehow, which is ludicrous, but irritating enough that she brings it up the next time Isabelle’s in her office.

“Thank you,” Melanie says, as she’s noting today’s developments in Isabelle’s records. Only slightly begrudgingly, which she thinks is very big of her. “For being nice with Ava the other day.” And she’s not even being sarcastic, just genuinely saying thank you, but Isabelle has the audacity to scoff, shaking her head all derisive.

Melanie sees red. She can never do a single thing right, apparently.

“What?” she asks, sharp. “I was thanking you, what could I possibly have said?”

Isabelle’s pouting, churlish, her whole face crunched up. “You don’t have to sound surprised,” she says, clearly offended. “You think I’m going to be rude to a little kid just because you’re-”

“Because I’m what?” Melanie cuts her off, defiant, and Isabelle looks at her, hard, then rolls her eyes like Melanie’s not even worth arguing with.

“I don’t know,” she says, folding her arms in front of her. “Go give a lecture about it.”

“I just think it’s a little presumptuous for you to disparage my work while you chase a puck around all day, some of us enjoy helping people change a regressive and frequently hostile environment-”

“Oh my god!” Isabelle says, with this humourless laugh. “No, please, Dr. Rodrigues, explain for the black francophone woman in the NHL how hard it is for women in sports, please.”

“I- that’s not what I was doing,” Melanie says, and she feels herself flushed red, defensive, even though- it’s not what she was doing, certainly not on purpose, and even if she was, it’s not- not what Isabelle’s implying. “Although maybe if you weren’t so dismissive of everyone’s experiences except your own-”

“Because you know everything, I forgot.”

Melanie pushes her chair back, lets it screech on the floor as she stands up from her desk and heads for the door. She can’t argue when she’s this flustered, it’s not fair. “I don’t have time for this.”

“Of course.”

Don’t turn around, don’t turn around-

“I can’t believe you,” she says, turning around in the doorway. “That’s the route you’re going to go, here, Isabelle, I’m the one who doesn’t make time-”

Isabelle gapes at her, swinging her legs over the side of the exam table and grabbing her crutches to stand. “You think I’m wrong?”

“I think that’s an incredibly hypocritical thing to imply, from someone who tried to ghost her last girlfriend who works in the same building as her-”

Isabelle cuts her off. “No, no, don’t lie, I didn’t ghost-”

Melanie jabs at her chest. “We had a fight and you packed your things and ignored me for a week, that’s the literal definition of-”

“You were embarrassed to be near me, oh, Isabelle, I have to work seven days a week, twenty-four hours, don’t be around me, we can’t be unprofessional-” She does this whiny little voice, the worst American accent Melanie’s ever heard.

“You think I didn’t want to be around you?” Melanie demands, fixating on the most ludicrous part of a wholly ludicrous argument, and Isabelle throws her hands up.

“Did you?”

“Obviously!” Melanie snaps, loud, and then they’re nose-to-nose, Melanie leaning up and Isabelle leaning down, close enough that the surprise is obvious on Isabelle’s face, like she wasn’t expecting what Melanie said, and Melanie waits for a comeback but it doesn’t arrive.

Melanie’s too aware in increments of Isabelle’s chest moving up and down as she breathes, of the wrinkles in Isabelle’s t-shirt, of Isabelle’s everything. There’s a whole lot of height between them, and Melanie feels the difference now, every inch of it; this is exactly how their first kiss happened and they both know it.

“Move, please,” Melanie says, stiffly, far later than she should.

Isabelle moves.

Neither of them speaks as Melanie crosses the room gathers her things, shrugs into her coat and doesn’t waste time doing it up.

This time, when Melanie leaves, she doesn’t look back.

This time, she doesn’t have to wonder if Isabelle’s watching her go.

---

Melanie counts down the days without meaning to. She always does.

The thing about her birthday, when the countdown hits zero – because it always does, no matter how much she wishes she could just skip the day – is that it’s also her dad’s anniversary. It’s not the kind of thing Melanie talks about. Not with anyone. It’s no one’s business, firstly, and she doesn’t need pity for something that happened when she was twelve, and very literally nothing sounds less appealing than visiting her dad’s grave with her mom and Jonathan, so Melanie goes to work the day of the Panthers game and does everything she normally would.

She’s always glad when today falls on a game day. More distractions, less time for thinking too much.

No one gets hurt, which is good, probably, if inconvenient, and the team wins, which is also good, but annoying, because it means that everyone is cheerful as they leave the arena. Melanie times things wrong, ends up getting stuck walking through the parking lot with Jenna from media and a few of the video staff.

“All I’m saying,” Jenna says, “no, listen, all I’m saying is we don’t have a game tomorrow, I don’t have to be in ‘til the evening, if you’re ever going to come hang out with us, tonight’s the perfect time.”

“Tonight’s not great for me,” Melanie hedges, but Sam from video elbows her, all playful.

“C’mon, don’t be a buzzkill,” he teases. “You know we’re all going to have a million questions about, like, dissections and stuff.”

Jenna rolls her eyes, still walking right up close with Melanie as if they’re friends. “Doctors don’t dissect people, oh my god.”

“Okay, whatever, my point is, Doctor Rodrigues is coming to get smashed with us and tell us war stories-”

“Rodrigues.”

They all look behind them, and Melanie doesn’t know what it says about her that all she feels is relief at the sight of Isabelle stomping out the doors, off-beat in her new walking boot. She looks as grumpy as ever, doesn’t even stop as she passes their group. “I have a question about painkillers, let’s go.”

She keeps walking without waiting to see if Melanie is following her.

“Lovely as ever,” Jenna mutters, but Melanie seizes the excuse.

“I’m going to go,” she says, trying to look like it’s even vaguely upsetting. “You- have fun.”

She leaves before they get a chance to stop her, jogging to catch up with Isabelle. The parking lot is chilly, the wind picking up, and for a few moments, they walk in silence. It’s that feeling again, the one of owing, and Melanie is so, so sick of needing to be rescued by Isabelle Joseph.

“Thanks,” she mutters anyway, eventually. Isabelle waves it off, just looks at her, intent.

“Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Melanie,” Isabelle says, for once not being sarcastic. She looks nearly earnest, exactly as young as she is. It’s a rare thing.

Melanie didn’t expect her to remember.

“I’m fine,” is all Melanie says, anyways, because this isn’t- the last thing she needs is Isabelle pitying her out of some misguided sense of obligation just because neither of them has many friends.

Isabelle doesn’t take the hint, keeps pace with Melanie as she walks to her car. The lot is quiet, just the wind.

“Did you visit your mom?”

Melanie shakes her head. “I called earlier.”

Isabelle shoves her hands in her pockets. “What are you going to do now?”

Melanie looks over at her, debates how honest to be. Not like she has anything left to hide, from Isabelle. “I,” she says, with as much dignity as she can muster, “am going to go home and get drunk watching the Riveters game.”

They stop at Melanie’s car, and Isabelle looks at her, almost tentative, if tentative was the kind of thing Isabelle was capable of being. “Can I come?”

So.

So, Melanie ends up in her living room with her ex-girlfriend and the Riveters getting their asses kicked on her TV. Rosé is one of the few things they can agree on, even if Isabelle won’t drink it around the team because men don’t know how to appreciate good wine, so Melanie opens a bottle and they make steady progress through it as the game goes on.

The team’s not as good as they used to be. Melanie never missed a game, when she was a little girl, watching them with her dad with the TV on mute and the Spanish radio broadcast playing, when there was one. The sound was always a few seconds off, timing-wise, and her mom would roll her eyes and tease them, calling them the Colombian Ice Hockey Club and complaining about the noise and usually ending up cuddled up and watching with them by the third period.

Melanie safely in the armchair, wrapped in her favourite throw blanket, while Isabelle’s got her legs stretched out on the couch, cussing out the refs in a steady stream of French. Her accent gets strong when she’s drunk, same as it always has.

“This is so stupid,” Melanie says, because she’s three glasses in and fully faced up to the pathetic reality of her current situation and, frankly, not loving it. “I’m thirty and I’m spending the evening at home with my asshole ex.”

“It’s not that bad,” Isabelle says, and it’s nearly comforting for about a second and a half before she continues, “Look, alors, if you want, we can cry about your daddy issues, have regrettable drunk sex, then you go back to ignoring me tomorrow, yeah?”

Melanie gapes at her, stunned and then, once she gets over that, just as offended as she can ever remember being. “You always do this!” she says. “You always fall back on this condescending crap-”

I’m condescending?” Isabelle snorts. “Yeah, okay, Melanie.”

“You are!” Melanie says, gathering steam. “And- and arrogant, and really just overtly confrontational-”

“And you’re controlling and passive aggressive, there, it’s a tie,” Isabelle retorts.

“You’re rude.”

“You’re too short.”

“You’re too tall!” Melanie snaps, affronted.

“Okay, and you’re-” Isabelle breaks off, brow furrowed, and there’s a couple seconds of anticipation before she makes a disgusted sound. “Bah, fuck, I can’t think in English when I’m drunk.”

They glare at each other a second longer, just until it sets in how utterly stupid this entire thing is, and Melanie’s not sure who breaks first – not her, probably – but then they’re both laughing, reluctant spluttering at first and then just helpless, the kind of laughter that only happens when she’s been drinking, that leaves Melanie clutching her stomach. Ridiculous. Completely fucking ridiculous.

It takes ages for Melanie to quit giggling enough to realize that Isabelle looks proud of herself, and it makes Melanie frown, confused, as she knits the pieces together. “…Did you just try to make me mad on purpose to distract me from being sad?”

Isabelle shrugs a shoulder, all cocky. “It worked,” she says, and she doesn’t even have the grace to pretend to feel bad about it. She’s so- she’s so Isabelle when she does something like this, and Melanie wants to scream with it sometimes, the way that Isabelle manages to be so many things at once, the unfairly hot hockey player at work who Melanie either had to kiss or kill, the arrogant rookie who was convinced she was indestructible and ended up getting patched up by Melanie almost every game and bitching about it the whole time, the woman who asked Melanie out by saying “so we’re girlfriends, yeah?” like saying no wasn’t an option; the person who manages to be all those things and maybe break Melanie’s heart and still end up on her couch like it’s where she belongs.

Melanie knows everything, mostly, but she has never once known what to do with Isabelle Joseph.

Melanie stares up at the ceiling, listens to the announcers calling the game. She stopped paying attention a while ago. “We’re going to die alone, huh?”

Isabelle’s lips quirk up, and she shrugs. “I’ll take you back if it gets to that.”

“Maybe I’ll take you back,” Melanie retorts, mostly automatically.

“Say the word, Dr. Rodrigues,” Isabelle drawls, lazy, and there’s the briefest moment of eye contact, some kind of a spark, before she’s leaning back onto the arm rest, hands behind her head, and shutting her eyes.

Melanie blinks.

She’s too drunk for this, probably.

Melanie doesn’t make stupid decisions and she doesn’t make mistakes so she doesn’t now, just keeps her mouth shut and curls up in her chair, tugging her blanket close. She tries to pay attention to the game instead of Isabelle. It only mostly works.

---

(Then-

Melanie wanders into her kitchen in the morning, hungover and hungry, only to find breakfast and coffee already prepared. Isabelle, Melanie realizes, and then she realizes that Isabelle still knows where everything is, and she doesn’t let herself realize anything about the jolt that gives her.

Melanie clears her throat, announcing her presence, and Isabelle looks up. She’s sitting at the table eating a stack of pancakes, and she slides another full plate towards Melanie when she sees her.

Melanie stares. “You made breakfast?”

Isabelle’s cheeks are bulging with food, and a couple crumbs fly out when she says, a little awkwardly, “Birthday present.”

“It’s not technically my birthday anymore,” Melanie informs her, as dignified as she can, considering that she’s currently wearing polka dot pajamas and has hair like a troll doll. “You’re nine hours late.”

“I hate you,” Isabelle says, very matter-of-fact, and she’s wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and Melanie knows her enough to know that it’s mostly to hide a smile. Just a small one, and it’s gone fast, but there’s something very nearly friendly about it. Something nearly familiar.)

---

A consequence of working around hockey players is that, at any given moment, most of the people around Melanie are ridiculously tall. She’s mostly used to it. Still doesn’t see it coming when Tony hugs her big enough that her feet leave the ground, and she lets out an incredibly undignified ‘eep!’.

“You didn’t say it was your birthday, Doc!” Tony’s scolding, smiling too big for it to have any weight. “I can’t believe I missed it!”

Melanie smooths down her dress once her feet are back on the ground. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Tony just grins and hands her this birthday card with a hockey player on the front. It looks like the kind of thing marketed toward six year old boys, all block letter fonts and primary colours; then, scribbled on the inside, From Your Friend Tony (Anthony Fiorelli from work haha). There’s an Amazon gift card tucked inside.

“Okay,” Tony says, before Melanie can speak. “So I wasn’t sure what smart people like so I asked Coach but he wasn’t helpful, so then I asked my girlfriend and she said books, but then I was like- how am I supposed to pick out a book? I don’t read.” He says it like the suggestion is the most ludicrous thing in the world. “So like, I know that gift cards are impersonal and whatever, but I figured you could probably pick a book you’d like more. Not that you have to buy a book! Amazon has tons of stuff.”

Melanie stares. His girlfriend, he said. But if he wasn’t trying to hit on her this whole time-

“Are you mad?” Tony asks.

“Why would I be mad at you getting me a present?” Melanie asks, still looking at the card. Your Friend, he wrote, in messy printing, like it’s that simple. Like Melanie’s likeable enough to make a friend intentionally, let alone by accident.

If this jock child makes her have an emotion at work, Melanie swears to god-

“Dunno,” Tony shrugs, hands in his pockets. “Do you like the card?”

Melanie huffs out a breath, closes the card and tries to summon up her professionalism. “Yes,” she says.

“Sick,” Tony beams, and, fuck it, this time Melanie’s the one to hug him, and Tony beams and hugs her back.

---

Things change, sort of, and not in the ways that Melanie expects.

She’s on the plane, sitting near the front like she usually does, trying to read a chapter of her novel, and she can’t focus because Tony’s in the seat next to her, playing on his phone. She doesn’t usually sit with people.

“You don’t have to sit with me because we’re friends now,” she informs him, matter-of-fact.

“I like sitting with you,” Tony says. “The guys always give it to me for doing Sudoku.”

Melanie truthfully could not care less about Tony’s Sudoku habit, so, just like that, for this trip and the next and even the one after that, she’s got a plane buddy. It’s not as annoying as she was expecting – Tony’s surprisingly quiet, once he gets focused on his puzzles, and he’s got conveniently large shoulders for napping on.

He only really makes conversation during takeoffs or landings. Melanie gets the feeling it’s to distract himself from the movement of the plane, so she humours it, lets Tony ramble about whatever team they’re playing next, some gossip about his girlfriend’s job, and once, about Isabelle.

“Joey’s cool,” he says, eagerly. He’s been going through every linemate he’s had, ticking them off on his fingers. “I thought she was really mean when I first got here? ‘Cause I mean, you read about that time she punched the guy on her own team, back in college, and then she’s all grumpy, and it’s like- y’know, it’s intimidating.”

Probably only intimidating if you’re a varsity jock who doesn’t know how to keep his hands to himself, Melanie thinks, but if Isabelle hasn’t told her teammates the story, Melanie’s not about to do it for her.

“But then you get to know her and like, she’s still kind of mean?” Tony continues, thoughtful. “But she like, came with me to talk to management when I had to ask to miss practice for family stuff, and she helped me find an apartment near the rink, and- oh, she taught me how to punch better!”

“Great use of your time,” Melanie says, dry.

“It’s the game,” Tony shrugs, easy enough. He settles back into his seat, more relaxed as the plane gets to cruising altitude; adds, almost as an afterthought, “She’s actually the one who mentioned it was your birthday.”

Melanie stares.

Isabelle told him. It doesn’t make any sense at all, except for all the ways it does – she’s the only one who knew it was Melanie’s birthday, she was there that night. She would have known that Tony would be excited about it, too.

Melanie doesn’t know what to do with that. With any of it. She hates not knowing, hates that Isabelle can be the kind of intense where she teaches rookies how to punch and regularly rip reporters new ones when they say nonsense about her being too good for a women’s league, while also being sweet with Ava, with any kid, really, Tony probably included, and making pancakes for her ex’s birthday, and, fuck, singing Killer Queen at karaoke and getting embarrassingly into it every time. Melanie can’t reconcile it, the different pieces of Isabelle’s personality, the way that making herself hate any of them, even the bad ones, is infuriatingly difficult.

They’re not friends. They’re not anything, really, coworkers at best, and Melanie keeps telling herself that as the days and the games go by, as the team clings to a playoff spot and, after a couple more weeks, when Isabelle’s got her cast off.

Isabelle’s been going hard with her conditioning, moreso now that getting back on the ice by playoffs is a legitimate possibility, and she’s all pent-up energy when she ends up in Melanie’s office, even without scheduling any kind of appointment.

“It’s a fucking conspiracy, you know?” She complains, perched on the corner of Melanie’s desk as Melanie works. “Coach still doesn’t let me practice with the guys.”

“You’ve been able to walk for maybe a week,” Melanie reasons. She’s right and they both know it.

“Still,” Isabelle says, grumpy enough that Melanie has to laugh, and that makes Isabelle crack a smile too, all reluctant, and-

Fucking hell, Melanie thinks they might be friends.

---

Melanie doesn’t think of herself as a particularly shallow person. The combination of med school and working with a group of excessively confident manbabies with no concept of shyness around nudity have mostly desensitized her to all things body-related, and even in general, she’s far more of a personality person.

All that to say, really, it’s for purely aesthetic reasons that she ends up getting mildly, slightly distracted at Isabelle working out with the team again. Very, very slightly, just at the sheen of sweat on Isabelle’s arms and the planes of her back shifting under the fabric of her sports bra as she moves on the rower, the way the tendons on her neck look sharp enough to trace out, possibly to bite.

Dude,” Tony says, and Melanie jumps, startled, then regrets everything she’s ever done.

“What- I’m getting towels,” she blurts. She… has no towels. That’s why she’s here. Towels.

Tony’s covered in sweat too – Melanie wrinkles her nose and steadfastly Does Not Look At Isabelle – and he trails after Melanie as she heads for the shelf with the clean towels.

Tony’s sneakers squeak on the floor. “Doc, you just checked her out.”

“I did not,” Melanie says, and she lands the righteous indignation thing pretty well, in her opinion, but Tony’s practically jumping up and down, almost giddy.

“Yeah, but you for sure did, though.”

“I’m the team physician,” Melanie retorts. “It’s my job to be concerned with her body.”

Wrong choice of phrase. “Her body, eh?” Tony waggles his eyebrows.

Yes,” Melanie says as she stacks towels, firm, because this is apparently the hill on which she’s going to die. “And, for your information, I resent the implication, as- as a medical professional, that I would ever objectify one of my patients. Which is what Isabelle is. So.”

And she thinks she states her case pretty well, but that is evidently not the case, because Tony’s grinning so big it reaches his ears. “Oh my god, you like her,” he gushes. He looks thrilled, scooting closer and doing this ridiculous little dance like they’re kids gossiping at a sleepover. “This is so cool, my hockey moms could actually date!”

Melanie gapes at him. “I am not old enough to be your mother.”

“Like a really hot young mom,” Tony says, placating, and Melanie swats at him with a towel.

“I’m barely a decade older than you, oh my god,” she says, aiming for his head, but she’s laughing mostly in spite of herself, and Tony’s ducking out of the way.

“But you do like Joes, though?” he asks, wheedling.

No,” Melanie says, to no avail, because Tony’s still looking entirely too happy about whatever imagined conclusion he’s reaching, and she can feel herself going red, so it’s past time to cut her losses. She shuts the cupboard door. “Go do hockey things, Anthony.”

Tony sighs. “Yeah, I should,” he says, reluctant, and drags himself toward the equipment. “Sorry for making fun of you.”

“Good.”

He adds, like an afterthought, suddenly looking concerned, “Please don’t tell Joey I said she’s my mom.”

“Go!” Melanie throws the towel at him, laughing, and Isabelle glances over at her and pulls a face and then Melanie can’t stop smiling, and her ex girlfriend and a twenty year old athlete apparently deeply in need of adult supervision were not who she was thinking of when she thought about making a friend, and she still doesn’t need any of this, but it’s still-

Stupid. It’s entirely stupid.

Nice-stupid, maybe.

---

It’s just barely snowing, the day of the family skate. It’s the kind of vaguely sickening, ultra-contrived team bonding event that Melanie’s fairly certain is more for PR purposes than anything else, but sitting on one of the benches in borrowed skates, watching people skate by laughing, Melanie has to admit it has it’s own charm.

Isabelle’s hair is escaping out from under her hat in a poof, vaguely halo-esque, as she stands across the ice, speaking rapid French with her mom and dad. Mrs. Joseph peers around her husband to see Melanie and waves cheerily, mostly obscured behind her pink knit scarf and hat with an objectively adorable matching pompom.

Melanie waves back. The friendly Canadian stereotype was probably made about the Josephs, sans-Isabelle. As Melanie watches, Isabelle says something else to her parents, grins at something her dad says, then turns and makes a beeline right for Melanie.

There’s a thud as she comes to a stop, leaning on the boards. “Tell me my parents didn’t say anything embarrassing to you before,” she says.

“I would love to,” Melanie says, bemused. “It’ll be a lie, but-”

Isabelle swears under her breath, wincing. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Melanie shakes her head, and means it. “Your mom was just telling me how dumb you are for letting me get away. They’re sweet.”

“Go back to lying,” Isabelle says, dry. “This was better, I think.” She’s making a show of sounding annoyed, but they both know she adores her parents. It’s mostly impossible not to, Melanie thinks. It makes Isabelle softer around the edges, being with her family.

The coach and his wife skate by, and Isabelle scoots over to get out of the path of the skaters. The weather’s good for an evening like this, cool enough for the outdoor rink but mild enough not to be miserable.

“It must be nice, being out on the ice with everyone again,” Melanie offers, conversational.

Isabelle shrugs. “It’s okay. Maybe more fun if we could hit, but too many kids.” She says it like it’s a personal insult, and Melanie has to duck her head to hide a smile.

“Remind me never to leave this bench,” is all she says, and that turns out to be a mistake, because Isabelle frowns, curious.

“When’s the last time you skated?”

Melanie thinks about it. She’s usually pretty good at opting out of this stuff. “I… I guess when you took me, that time?”

Isabelle gapes at her. “Our first date?” she demands, incredulous. “Like almost three years?”

Melanie stands up and teeters a little on her skates, even just walking along the boards on the rubbery ground. “I don’t skate!” she says, firm. “Also, for the record, taking a girl skating on a first date is the single most cliché hockey player move you could’ve pulled-”

Isabelle glides along beside her on the other side of the boards, skating backwards and keeping pace. “What person works for a hockey team without knowing how to skate?”

“I understand the theory behind it!” Melanie protests. “And- see, no, it’s not like you were exactly Casanova. If I recall correctly, you said, and I quote,” she does her best Isabelle voice, “‘Wow, you are really terrible at this, eh?’”

Isabelle laughs, at the impression or maybe just at the memory. “You were.”

“Very romantic, Isabelle,” Melanie says, pursing her lips to hide a smile.

“It was!”

“I fell on my ass and you laughed!”

“Yeah, it was funny!” Isabelle says, grinning, and she skates a few feet ahead of Melanie, stands there and waits for her to catch up. There’s this look on her face when Melanie does, nearly thoughtful. “I was so nervous,”

It takes Melanie a moment to make sense of that. “You were nervous?”

They’re both moving again, Melanie walking and Isabelle skating. “I had no idea what I was doing,” Isabelle says, and she sounds unembarrassed, but too deliberately for it to reach her usual levels of confidence. “Never dated before.”

“Right, but you’d been on dates,” Melanie rationalizes, and Isabelle shakes her head. “What- no one?”

“There was never time,” Isabelle says, simple. “I hooked up, like that, you know, pointless things, but everything was about getting here. Hockey. I couldn’t afford distractions.”

Melanie looks at her, thrown. “I was a distraction?”

“You’re-” Their eyes meet, and Isabelle breaks off mid-sentence with this laugh, sort of wry. Melanie doesn’t know what it means.

They reach the door, a gap in the boards just looming there, waiting for Melanie to lose her balance. “You never told me that,” she says, quiet.

Isabelle shrugs, nonchalant. “It’s embarrassing.”

And it makes something in Melanie ache, a little, thinking back to the way Isabelle acted around her when they were together, whiplash-fast switches between being an overconfident asshole and eager, almost clumsy attempts at showing affection, always hanging around the medical offices and poking fun at Melanie being a nerd.

She thought Melanie was embarrassed of her.

“I get it,” Melanie says, quieter than before. “I think it’s an admirable thing, being dedicated to achieving a goal without wasting time on other things.”

“Me too,” Isabelle says, matching her volume. Her grin is forced, a little, but not insincere. “We got here, eh?”

“Win for feminism,” Melanie quotes, and they exchange smiles.

Isabelle makes a little pile of snow in the doorway with the edge of her skate. Melanie watches, doesn’t know what to do with the sudden lump in her throat. As if anything involving Isabelle is allowed to be endearing.

“I wasn’t embarrassed to be around you,” she says, summoning up all her nerve. Isabelle stares at her. “I wasn’t- I don’t do impulsive things, and you were my coworker, technically, and I had barely graduated and I somehow lucked into the actual job of my dreams, and we were both focused on our careers and I wanted to do well and not get fired and I was just. Stressed.”

“You? Stressed?” Isabelle says, dry. Melanie swats at her and Isabelle skates backwards, dodging easily. She skates back in close right away, and Melanie stays where she is, clinging tight on the other side of the boards.

“I don’t think you were a waste of time,” Isabelle says, serious. “I never thought that.”

“You said it,” Melanie says, not arguing, exactly, but- they had that fight. She was there.

“Because I knew it would make you mad,” Isabelle admits; then, “Sorry.”

Melanie swallows. “It wouldn’t have worked, anyways,” she says. Tries to keep her voice light. “You were such a hothead, like, more than now, which shouldn’t be possible-”

“You fell asleep on your laptop six nights a week!” Isabelle protests, but there’s no malice there, just teasing. Not even the mean kind. “Watching video of fucking- cutting open bodies, like a horror movie!”

“I’m a visual learner!” Melanie tries, and she can’t help but laugh too, staying put as Isabelle leans back, elbows on top of the boards. They stand there like that, next to each other, looking out at all the couples and families skating around, Tony doing spins while his girlfriend laughs at him, Carter getting chased by his small army of children.

“It’s very bullshit, right?” Isabelle says, nearly pensive. “This idea that we need someone else to be happy?”

“Very bullshit,” Melanie agrees. “I’m perfectly happy.”

“Me too,” Isabelle says, and they’re just looking at each other, the moment strung out thin, like all Melanie would have to do to snap it would be-

“Okay,” Isabelle says, all decisive and entirely out of nowhere. She pushes off the boards, and for a moment Melanie thinks she’s going to skate away, but then Isabelle stops right in the open door and holds out a hand. “Come skate.”

“Did you miss the part of the conversation where I can’t do that?” Melanie asks. “Because I know listening isn’t your strong point, but that was very much a key point of the discussion-”

“Mel,” Isabelle interrupts, and she’s doing that earnest face again, the one that Melanie has never once in her life been able to turn down.

“If you let me fall I’ll murder you,” Melanie says, getting a vise grip on Isabelle’s arm.

“I won’t,” Isabelle promises, and shakes her arm free just enough so that she can take Melanie’s hand in hers instead, helping her onto the ice. She’s as good as her word, keeping them both upright, steady and surefooted as they make their way around the edge of the rink, the slowest duo by far.

“Don’t let go,” Melanie says. Part nerves, part something else.

“I won’t,” Isabelle says, again, and she keeps this promise, too.

---

Melanie’s mom badgers her to visit on the next off day, and Melanie’s been putting it off for long enough that she actually does. There’s no big party this time, at least, just the house back to its usual levels of lived-in messiness, Jonathan and Ava signing along to some karaoke video game in the basement. Melanie stays upstairs with her mom, curled up on the couch while her mom paints her nails.

“You can do yours too,” her mom says, in Spanish, her tongue poking out as she focuses on painting her thumb.

“I always ruin them two days in,” Melanie says, without moving from her corner of the couch. Her mom just nods towards the bottle of reddish-pink polish in her little wicker basket.

“Do that one, it’s a good colour for you.” She doesn’t wait to see if Melanie listens, just goes back to chattering about parent council and her coworker’s baby shower and whatever else occupies her life, only pausing for breath when Jonathan screeches out a particularly high note from downstairs.

They both wince.

“He sent me a link to an article, the other day,” Melanie’s mom says, thoughtful. “About some actress. He was very excited to bring it up with you.”

Melanie frowns. She doesn’t follow any actresses. “Why?”

“He said it’s lesbian culture?” her mom says, rolling her eyes, fond.

Melanie laughs in spite of herself, stunned. “Oh my god.”

“He tries,” her mom says, and it’s maybe trying to be exasperated but it mostly just comes out in love, this soft smile on her face, and it puts the same feeling in Melanie’s stomach that it always does.

It’s childish. Jonathan is a good man, sincerely, and Melanie’s glad her mom is happy the way she wasn’t for years, she is, it’s just-

It doesn’t feel like a home she recognizes, this new house in this WASPy neighbourhood with a family that Melanie can’t convince herself belongs to her. She doesn’t know who this place belongs to. She hates not knowing.

“I can do your right hand, if you give me a minute,” her mom says, clueless.

“My hands are steady, I don’t need help,” Melanie says, automatic, and she doesn’t mean to sound dismissive, but her mother deflates, a little, her lips tightening. She doesn’t say anything.

“Sorry,” Melanie says, in English. It would be mumbled, if she was the kind of person who mumbled. “I didn’t mean...”

Her mom is looking up from her nails, right at Melanie. She doesn’t look annoyed, not really. “You don’t need anyone,” is all she says, light. In English as well, even though Ava and Jonathan aren’t up here. “I don’t think you’ve needed anyone since you were twelve.”

“Mom,” Melanie says, stricken, and her mom shakes her head.

“That’s not a bad thing,” she says. “You know I’m proud, how hard you’ve worked. You don’t need anyone around you. Do you know something, though, Melanie?” She waits until Melanie looks her right in the eyes. “It can be nice to have people around, anyways. Because you want them to be there.”

It’s not exactly scolding. Not not, either.

“If this is a subtle way of getting me to date again,” Melanie says, some slightly-sad attempt at humour.

“No, smartass,” her mom says, switching back to Spanish. Giving Melanie the out, because Melanie knows how to push herself, knows how to make the right decision. She hasn’t needed anyone to do that for her in a long time. “If you need advice, though, ask Jonathan, he knows lesbian culture-”

Melanie can’t help laughing, still a little flustered, and her mom smiles at her, quick, before turning her attention back to her nails. Melanie can hear Jonathan and Ava laughing from downstairs. They’re all easy together, the way loving people is supposed to be.

Melanie doesn’t need easy.

She could want it sometimes, maybe, she thinks.

And she’s capable of doing it on her own, of course she is, but she reaches into the basket of nail polish, holds out the pink to her mom; and when she asks, “Can you do my right hand, please?”, her mom smiles like Melanie just gave her a gift, and there are worse things than this, Melanie decides.

---

Isabelle’s already outside of Melanie office when she arrives for the day, sitting on the ground with her legs stretched across the hall.

“You’re early today,” Melanie says, light, stepping over her to unlock the door. “Who shot a puck at you this time?”

“No one,” Isabelle says, rolling her eyes as she gets up. “When are you doing a class again?”

“Uh,” Melanie has to think about it, the question coming a little from left field. “I think- the girl guides, they’ve been doing a bunch of sports things, they wanted someone to talk at their fundraiser. Why?”

Isabelle shrugs, comes into the room just enough to lean on the doorframe while Melanie goes to put her stuff away. “I might come,” she says, casual.

That’s new.

“Really?” Melanie asks, and Isabelle nods. “Good. I mean- thank you, that would mean a lot to them.” Isabelle shrugs again, but it’s not sarcastic, not giving Melanie shit for working two jobs or anything like that. “If- I have a lot of ideas, for what I’d say, to make it interactive and age-accessible but still informative, you know, so if you wanted to get together at some point and really plan out an agenda-”

Isabelle is smiling, small and secretive. “Yeah, okay,” she says. “Just not tonight, I’ll probably be tired from the game.”

It takes Melanie a second, and then she leaps at Isabelle and hugs her, tight, and Isabelle laughs when she catches her. “You’re back in?”

“I’m back in,” Isabelle beams, unguarded and as in love with hockey as she’s ever been, and it’s something almost radiant, how excited she is.

“Okay, this is good,” Melanie says, forcing herself to calm down – she loves getting people better, it’s the best kind of performance report – and then she switches to planning for the worst case, because that’s what she does. “But listen, you need to be careful because you’re absolutely not allowed to get injured again, and you have to tell Tony to watch your back because Copeland plays incredibly dirty and they just lost three straight, so they’ll be desperate-”

“Mel,” Isabelle says, bemused, and Melanie finally slows down enough to realize that she very much is currently standing in Isabelle’s arms, lecturing her like it’s her place to be lecturing her, because it hasn’t been, they both decided it’s not, and they’re friends now and Melanie’s not going to fuck that up too.

She steps back, chastened. “I’m doing the thing I always do,” she says. “I- sorry, I’m being bossy and annoying-”

“You aren’t annoying,” Isabelle says, and Melanie tries to laugh, doesn’t really manage it.

“You forgot bossy.”

“Yes, because you are incredibly bossy,” Isabelle says, even, and she laughs when Melanie punches her arm. Doesn’t step back. Steps closer. “You care about people,” she says, certain in the way she always is. Maybe challenging, too. “You care about me.”

Melanie doesn’t bother denying it. “Don’t be flattered by that,” she says instead. “I can assure you that it is not by choice.”

“I like it,” Isabelle says a little clumsily, and Melanie looks up at her to see if she’s teasing, but she looks sincere. Maybe a little flustered, from the excitement of getting back in a game, probably. “I like it, that you care so much.”

Melanie frowns, a thought occurring to her. “Was that flirting?”

“So what if it was?” Isabelle asks, defensive, and just like that, they’re back on familiar ground, both dug in.

“If it was,” Melanie says, “then I’d tell you that we’re grown adults and you could definitely afford to be more direct-”

“How are you- I was being romantic,” Isabelle splutters. “How are you still so uptight?”

“I’m not being uptight! I was just offering some constructive criticism-”

“You couldn’t wait until after I kissed you?”

Melanie blinks. “You were going to kiss me?”

“Yeah, obviously,” Isabelle grumbles, which-

Oh.

“Oh,” Melanie says faintly.

Oh.

Her office suddenly feels very small. “Are you still going to?” she asks, and her voice is more tentative than she’d ever let it be, which would be more embarrassing if Isabelle didn’t look just as hesitant, pouting and shifting her weight back and forth.

“Do you want me to?”

Melanie sighs, long-suffering. “I mean, I’m not going to complain, if that’s what you’re asking,” she hedges, and then Isabelle’s snorting a laugh, because of course she is. “What?”

“Nothing,” Isabelle grins, her eyes crinkling up. “Nothing, just, we are grown adults and you can definitely afford to be more direct-”

Isabelle Joseph is the most annoying person on the entire planet, Melanie decides, and that’s not changing any time soon and maybe not ever, so she doesn’t try to make it, just grabs Isabelle’s shirt and tugs her down and kisses her, hard.

It’s familiar, is the first thing that Melanie thinks, Isabelle’s lips hungry on hers like a dare, like everything that’s been driving Melanie crazy for years and maybe a little bit like being home, which is a ridiculous thing to think, but it feels like that kind of kiss, the ridiculous, mind-rearrangingly important kind; and then they’re pulling back and their eyes meet and there’s half a second of stunned silence, and then they’re giggling and Melanie thinks that maybe it might’ve been that kind of kiss for Isabelle, too.

“Sufficiently direct for you?” Melanie asks, and even manages to keep her voice mostly normal.

“Language barrier,” Isabelle says, without missing a beat, and her hands are up at either side of Melanie’s face, very nearly gentle. “Try again, I think.”

And Melanie’s laughing again, helpless, as Isabelle ducks down to kiss her, and- and she’ll win this argument later, Melanie decides, but for right now, she’s got better things to do.

---

---

---

There are worse things, probably, than having to stitch up your girlfriend’s face while thousands of hockey fans cheer down the hall at a playoff game, but if there are, Melanie can’t think of them.

“I’m not going to say I told you so,” she starts.

“Good,” Isabelle says.

“But, for the record-”

“Brougher was talking shit with Tony, Mel,” Isabelle cuts her off, impatient. She doesn’t even have the grace to look ashamed of herself. “He’s playing like an asshole all game.”

“So the solution was to get an elbow to the nose?”

“I hit him in his nose first!” Isabelle protests, all insulted, as if who injured who is the debate, here.

“You are incorrigible, Isabelle Joseph,” Melanie informs her. “You’re going to get suspended and you’re going to deserve it, that’s what’s going to happen.”

“Fine,” Isabelle scowls.

“Fine.”

“It’s great.”

“It is,” Melanie snaps; then, content that nothing’s broken. “You’re done, get out.”

“I told you so,” Isabelle says, and Melanie rolls her eyes, but stands up on her toes as Isabelle leans in to steal a kiss on her way out. It’s just quick, but Melanie tugs her back in before she can leave, kisses her properly, because if they’re going to waste time, they might as well do it right.

“You’re really sweaty,” she says eventually, a little out of breath. “Very gross.”

“I’ll shower,” Isabelle offers, still up close.

“You’ll get back out there and win,” Melanie says, inclining her head ever so slightly. “Brougher’s been playing like an asshole all game.”

Isabelle grins at her, kisses Melanie’s cheek one more time before heading out, and Melanie fights a smile, changes her gloves, and gets back to work.