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“It’s just disappointing, y’know?”

 

The young woman on the screen runs her hand through her hair, smudging the Velas Sailors face paint on her forehead a little. Around her, people are streaming out of the stadium, similar expressions of disappointment on their faces.

 

“You want them to win so much and then they just…” she makes a face at the camera. “They just lose like that .”

 

The footage cuts to another person - they don’t have face paint but are dressed head to toe in the blue and gold of Velas team colours.

 

“It really sucks to see it happen this way every year,” they say, “and, y’know, you don’t want to say it’s any one person’s fault, because it’s a team, y’know? Win together, lose together, but…” They sigh, pushing up their Sailors cap to scratch at their head. “Maybe it’s time for a shake up, y’know? Give someone else a chance in coaching, or the captainship?”

 

The footage cuts again to a different person, a man this time, clearly mid-rant. His face is red, and he waves a Velas Sailors sweater in his hand as he speaks. The grey underarmour shirt he’s wearing is rumpled - he’d obviously been wearing the sweater over the top of it until recently.

 

“-just trade him, or fire him, or something , god. He’s not getting any better, and he never will-”

 

The person behind the camera says something, indistinct. Closed-captioned text helpfully supplies their words.

 

Why is that ?

 

“Because he’s too old!” says the man, “Hadrian’s one of the oldest players in the league, which, there’s a reason for that: other teams have more sense than our guys in charge do-”

 

The footage cuts back to the first woman, who lets out a long sigh.

 

“I don’t know,” says the woman, “it’s a tough decision, I mean, he’s been with the team longer than I’ve been following them, and he’s still my dad’s favourite player, but…” She sighs again. “I don’t know. He seems like a nice guy, but maybe that’s not what the team needs.” She pauses, glancing back towards the arena. “God, that game just sucked to watch, though. I can’t even imagine how the team feels right now. I mean, how do you even come back from a game like that ?”

 

The footage cuts again to archival film this time, game video of Hadrian. It’s clearly training clips from his rookie days - there’s no grey in his hair. He glides around on the ice easily, laughing as he lazily passes the puck to Red Jack, a player long-since retired.

 

“It’s difficult to know at this time what the Velas Sailors final call will be,” says the narrator, his voice carefully neutral, “To let go of one of their legacy players, or continue to hope that experience wins out over youth?”

 

The footage fades to a tracking shot of Hadrian as he walks to the locker room. He looks tired, his hair sweaty as he takes off his helmet. He sighs as he spots the camera, clumsily changing course to walk towards it in his hockey gear.

 

“Tonight was a big loss for you guys,” says the interviewer without preamble, “another year without making it to the playoffs.”

 

Hadrian’s shoulders slump a little further. “Yeah, we’re not making it to the playoffs this year. It’s, y’know… you can only do so much before the game, and on the ice, y’know, our guys tried really hard, but I guess Alcyon were just the better team out there tonight.”

 

“I know it’s still early days, but any idea of what the strategy might be for next year?”

 

Hadrian huffs a laugh. “Well, y’know, I’ve been listening to the fans tonight and I’ve decided to take their advice.”

 

“And what advice is that?”

 

“Well, I’m going to try not to suck so bad next year.”

 

“Hadrian,” says Samot, sweeping in from the side, “there you are, the team’s looking for you.” He smiles at the camera, and only a trained eye would notice the way it looks forced, the edges of his expression too cold to be genuine. “Sorry for cutting this interview short.”

 

“Yeah, sorry,” says Hadrian.

 

“No problem,” says the reporter from off-camera, “I’m sure we can schedule something more formal, later.”

 

Unlike Samot, Hadrian’s expression is all too easy to read. Clearly, he’s not looking forward to the weeks of interviews that will follow this loss.

 

“I’ll have to check our team schedule,” says Samot smoothly, “but for now, duty calls.” He takes half a step away before looking back over his shoulder. “And don’t forget about dinner at your grandfather’s place tomorrow.”

 

“I won’t, dad,” says the reporter from off camera. As Samot guides Hadrian away, Maelgwyn sighs. “We’re probably going to have to cut that last part.”

 

Aubrey shifts the camera on her shoulder to nod. They both watch as Hadrian and Samot disappear into the locker room.

 

“Do you really have a family dinner tomorrow?” asks Aubrey.

 

Maelgwyn sighs again. “Yeah. My grandfather said he was going to ban all sports talk this time, so I guess we’ll just eat in silence.”

 

Aubrey makes a sympathetic face at him before she leans down to start packing her camera away. Maelgwyn scrubs a hand over his face, taking one last look at the door before he bends down to help her.

 

Maybe he’ll see if he can trade with someone to cover Castille’s game in the women’s league. She hates him watching her games, but getting into an argument with her is definitely preferable to being trapped in a room with his fathers this week.



--



It’s dark and quiet, the way the neighbourhood gets after midnight, only the occasional car driving along the connecting street to break the silence. Hadrian had left the lights off, letting the room get dark around him as he watched the game tape on mute. Just because he can’t sleep doesn’t mean he should keep Rosana or Ben awake. He doesn’t need to hear what Snitch Nightly is saying on commentary anyway. He’s got a pretty good guess.

 

He watches himself, small on the screen - he misses a pass, sees himself turn, too late to intercept the puck as the Alcyon player easily catches it, hitting it to a teammate in a textbook play. He watches himself move - too slowly - towards them, as they score again to make the final score five to two.

 

Hadrian pauses, rewinding the video. The puck speeds out of the net, back towards the Kanton player, then back towards him. He pauses it, watching the video frame by agonising frame. There had to be something he could have done. Moved faster, had better awareness of where his team was, practised more so that stopping that puck would have been instinctual rather than a too-slow three second decision.

 

“Hadrian.”

 

He looks up, blinking towards the doorway. The image of himself on the ice dances in front of his eyes for a moment before his vision clears - it’s Rosana, leaning against the doorway, her smile tired but warm.

 

“You said ten more minutes four hours ago.”

 

Hadrian sighes, scrubbing a hand through his buzzed-short hair. “I know, I know, I just wanted to… figure it out, I guess.”

 

“Figure what out?”

 

Hadrian glances back at the screen. The puck looks so close to him, much closer than it felt on the ice. He could have reached it, if he’d thought quick enough. It wouldn’t have been enough to win but it might have been enough to even the score, at least get them to overtime.

 

“What I keep doing wrong.”

 

Something flickers over Rosana’s face, and she steps forward to slide her arms around his shoulders. Hadrian leans back into her arms. His back protests at the movement after being hunched over the screen for so long.

 

“I know you,” says Rosana. “You played as well as you could, like you always do.”

 

“That’s what I’m worried about,” says Hadrian. “If this is as well as I can do…”

 

He sighs, tipping his head back to look at her. She kisses him, a light press of her lips, and then leans her forehead against his.

 

“So you’ll just try again next year,” says Rosana.

 

Something twists in Hadrian’s stomach. “I don’t know if anybody wants that.”

 

Rosana huffs a breath. “That’s it, up-” she leans back, tugging at his shoulders. “Up, up! You’re going to bed.”

 

“Rosana-”

 

“Well, you’re being ridiculous,” says Rosana.

 

“Not that ridiculous,” says Hadrian, “the fans don’t exactly love me right now.”

 

“They’re looking for someone to blame.”

 

“And neither do Samot and Samothes, probably,” Hadrian continues.

 

He bites his lip, looking away. The twist in his gut turns icy. He hears Rosana take a breath in, stepping in front of him. She puts a hand on his cheek, forcing him to look up at her.

 

“They’re not going to trade you,” says Rosana.

 

“Of course they’re not, what team would take me?” says Hadrian, “I haven’t won a Stanley Cup for Velas since I’ve been captain- we haven’t even made the playoffs the last six years. I’m too old to be any good even as trade material.”

 

“They’re not going to trade you because you’re a good player,” says Rosana, “they’re smart enough to know that a team not winning doesn’t mean the players are no good.”

 

“They could … they might just let me go,” says Hadrian, his voice small. “My contracts up at the end of this season.”

 

“They’re not going to do that, either,” says Rosana.

 

They stay like that for a long moment before Rosana draws him up into her arms. Hadrian presses his face into the crook of her neck, taking a steadying breath in.

 

“Come to bed,” says Rosana quietly, “Get some sleep, spend the day with Ben before you start training again.” She pauses. “He misses you, during the season.”

 

Hadrian feels a different twist in his gut at that, an old, familiar guilt. He misses Ben during the season too, especially when he’s on the road for games. He knows he’s missing things, milestones and the small, everyday moments. He lets out a long breath.

 

“Okay,” says Hadrian, “Okay.”

 

Even with Rosana curled against him it takes him a long time to fall asleep, the image of the puck sliding past him playing behind his eyelids.



--



He and Rosana had met playing ice hockey, actually. Hadrian had been trying to show off, skating backwards and attempting goals from behind the net. Rosana had sped up beside him, checking him and stealing the puck, leaving him stunned and a little embarrassed and a lot impressed.

 

He was sixteen at the time, so of course he tried a lot more showing off before he actually managed to work up the nerve to talk to her. Rosana generously tells it as asking her out for hot chocolate, although in Hadrian’s memory it was more of him mumbling something about sharing the hot chocolate he’d brought from home in a thermos.

 

The rest, as they say, was history.

 

History, in this case, being twenty-odd years of sneaking into her dorm room in college and her sneaking out to watch him play, the arenas getting bigger and fancier as more people got word that, hey, this kid was pretty good. Twenty-odd years of changing cities and commuting and more time away from each other than either of them would have liked. Twenty-odd years of Hadrian rushing from the airport to catch the end of Rosana’s first lecture, of Rosana carefully choosing a lucky-numbered seat to watch the game from. Twenty-odd years of trying to be there for as many of Ben’s firsts as possible. Twenty-odd years of doing their best to stop the game from coming first, and mostly succeeding.

 

All because Rosana checked him on the ice when they were sixteen.

 

Twenty-odd years later, and honestly, Hadrian still feels impressed by her.

 

“I don’t think I could do it now,” says Rosana, “You’re a little more in practice than I am.”

 

“I think you could,” says Hadrian, and he means it.



--



They last about ten minutes of eating in silence before Samot looks up at Maelgwyn.

 

“I was surprised to see you at the game.”

 

“No sports talk,” says Samol.

 

“This isn’t sports talk, this is talking to my son about his work,” says Samot.

 

“I work in sports,” says Maelgwyn.

 

“You work in sports journalism ,” says Samot.

 

It’s an old sore point for both of them, even if Maelgwyn had never actually been good enough at hockey to make it as a professional player.

 

“Well we can’t all be coaches,” says Maelgwyn.

 

“Nothing wrong with coaching,” says Samol.

 

“Then how come you never did it?” says Maelgwyn.

 

“Oh, you know,” says Samol, “I hate to tell people what to do.”

 

Samothes laughs, quickly muffling the sound and trying to disguise it as a cough.

 

The corners of Samot’s mouth twitch upwards. “That’s not all coaching is, it’s guiding players to be their full potential, it’s strategy, it’s-”

 

“Wasn’t saying it wasn’t,” says Samol. “I just never had the temperament for it. I like it much better on commentary where I can share my opinions freely without having to worry about everyone scrutinising everything I say. Had enough of that when I played for Velas.” He pauses. “How’s Hadrian holding up?”

 

“I thought you said no sports talk?” says Samot.

 

Samol waves a hand. “Right, right.”

 

They eat in silence for a few long minutes. The food is as good as ever, but Maelgwyn’s pretty sure none of them are really enjoying it. Samothes has been cutting part of his meal into smaller and smaller pieces for most of the time they’ve been seated at the table.

 

“Hadrian is… He’s okay,” says Samot, breaking the silence. “I think he’s worried that we’re not going to renew his contract.”

 

“And are you?” says Maelgwyn.

 

“Discussions are ongoing,” says Samot, his voice clipped, slipping easily into soundbite mode.

 

Maelgwyn looks down at his plate.

 

“Ongoing huh?” says Samol slowly, “Not going to renew him before the draft?”

 

“We plan to-”

 

Maelgwyn’s not looking at him, but he can feel Samot’s gaze go to him as he falls silent.

 

“I’m done,” says Maelgwyn, “I’ll just-”

 

“You don’t have to leave just because your father can’t get out of press mode,” says Samol.

 

Maelgwyn wants, so badly, to do just that - walk out the door and get in his car and leave . He sighs. 

 

“I’m not leaving, I’m just going to put my plate in the kitchen,” says Maelgwyn, “I’m being polite.”

 

He deliberately makes as much noise rinsing his plate as possible, although he can still hear their conversation easily. Samot must know he can - he’s spent enough time in this house after all - but he starts speaking again.

 

“So,” says Samol, “you are keeping him on?”

 

“I didn’t say that,” says Samot, “I said we’re still in discussions about it.”

 

“If you were going to get rid of him you’d have done it already,” says Samol, “So, you’re keeping him. And as captain too, I’d think.”

 

There’s a pause.

 

“You don’t think we should?”

 

“It’s not my team any more,” says Samol, “You do whatever you think is the right thing.”

 

“So you don’t think we should keep him,” says Samothes.

 

“Didn’t say that either,” says Samol. “I got no opinion on it.”

 

Samot huffs a laugh. “Then you must be the only person in Hieron who doesn’t.”

 

There’s a faint clink of Samol putting down his cutlery. “You’re both getting a lot of pressure about it, I’d imagine.” There’s a pause, and Samol sighs. “It’s not going to get any easier.”

 

“I don’t care,” says Samot, the stubborn tone Maelgwyn knows well coming into his voice. “He’s a good player and a good captain and Samothes agrees with me.”

 

“Well there you go,” says Samol, “That’s what matters.”

 

Samot sighs. “It’s just everyone else we have to convince.”

 

Samothes makes a sound of agreement. “We’ll get it done before the draft. Makes more sense to do it that way, give Hadrian a chance to look at who we pick, help shape the team.”

 

“You boys got your eye on anyone yet?”

 

“A few,” says Samot, “hopefully some we can actually get, given how terrible our position is in the round.” He pauses. “Have you seen anyone you think we should go after?”

 

Samol laughs. "No, no. You have to pick your own team."

 

"Come on, no hints?" says Samot, "No players catch your eye?"

 

Samol smiles. "Trying to get me to do your drafting?"

 

"Just asking my wise old father his opinion."

 

"Well, there's one or two I've had my eye on in my travels," says Samol.

 

"But… "

 

"But I'm not going to tell you, " says Samol. "It's your team now. Besides, I'm on commentary. Gotta stay impartial."

 

Maelgwyn takes that as his cue to come back in, the mood a little lighter than it was before. Dessert, while not pleasant, is at least easier to sit through.



--



"What are you doing?" asks Samothes. 

 

Samot looks up, a curl of hair falling out of its tie so artfully that Samothes would think his husband had planned it, if he weren’t surrounded by piles of paper and player guides, the computer on and laptop perched on the chair next to him. 

 

"Looking at potential draft picks," says Samot. 

 

Samothes leans over. Samot doesn't quite manage to change the tab of Samol's travel schedule fast enough. 

 

"Trying to figure out which players Samol thinks we should draft?" 

 

Samot sighs. "I know, I know, it's our team, and there's a reason he didn't tell us, but… I still want to know. I was going to ask Primo to get me tapes of the potentials tomorrow, but first I have to figure out who they are."

 

He looks back towards the computer screen, tabbing back to Samol’s travel schedule. Samothes scans his eyes through it - some places have teams they were already looking to draft from, others have teams he would never have considered in a million years. Seeing Rosemerrow on the list for consideration on the list is a surprise. Still, his father has good judgement.

 

He convinced management to trade for Samot, after all.

 

"Alright,” says Samothes, “Move over, let me see where he went."

 

Samot looks up. "Really?"

 

"I know you will not rest until you feel you have all the information you possibly can," says Samothes, "and I would truly love you to get some sleep."

 

Samot smiles, tired but still the most beautiful man Samothes has ever seen. “I will. After we figure out the teams.”

 

Samothes huffs a laugh, pulling up a chair next to Samot. Samot leans against him, and Samothes presses a kiss to the top of his head.

 

“So,” says Samothes, “Where are you at so far?”

 

“Well,” says Samot, switching the screen to a complicated-looking spreadsheet

 

It’s going to be a long night.



--



The arena is quiet as Hadrian skates onto the ice. He’d come in deliberately earlier to get some time to himself before he had to meet with Samothes and Samot. He wants at least one last skate on the arena as a Velas Sailors captain before… well. Before they make the decision that they have to make.

 

The sound of his skates echoes off the walls. Hadrian looks up at the empty seats, stretching high above him. During the last game, they’d been mostly filled by people who looked disappointed.

 

He hears the gate to the ice click open and he turns, quickly wiping at his eyes.

 

“Ephrim? Practise doesn’t start for another two hours.”

 

“And yet you are also here,” says Ephrim, gliding out onto the ice.

 

“I was just… checking the ice.”

 

“Mmhmm,” says Ephrim, “and what’s the verdict?”

 

Hadrian taps a skate on the ice. “It’s doing okay.”

 

“That’s good to hear,” says Ephrim. “I wouldn’t want to ice getting too in its own head about our last game.”

 

Hadrian lets out a breath. “Yeah, well. I haven’t exactly been able to get away from the replays.”

 

Ephrim is close enough now that he can nudge Hadrian’s shoulder as he skates by. “New season coming up. New chance to show everyone what we can do.”

 

“Yeah, maybe,” says Hadrian.

 

Ephrim stops, gracefully spinning around to face him. “ Maybe ?” He frowns, skating closer. “What did you hear?”

 

“Nothing,” says Hadrian, “Nothing, I just…”

 

“So you’re just making yourself worry over stupid news coverage,” says Ephrim, “they know that stuff doesn’t matter.”

 

“Doesn’t matter!” says Hadrian, “Ephrim-”

 

“It doesn’t! They know you’re a great player,” says Ephrim.

 

“Yeah, but it’s not just their decision,” says Hadrian.

 

Ephrim lets out a long breath. “There’d be a lot of people upset if you got pushed out.”

 

“A lot of people happy, too.”

 

Ephrim shakes his head. “They’re not going to listen to that. They like you too much.”

 

“Hadrian!” calls Primo from the sidelines, “Samothes and Samot are looking for you!”

 

“Thanks!” Hadrian tries to smile at Ephrim, but he isn’t sure if he quite makes it. “Guess I’m about to find out which one of us is right.”

 

Ephrim puts a hand on his shoulder as they skate together towards the gate, letting go only to push it open in front of them. As he does, Hadrian catches Ephrim’s wince. It must show on his face, because Ephrim’s expression immediately clears. He waves the hand at Hadrian.

 

“I’m fine,” says Ephrim, “Trust me, I’ve had enough doctors look me over since I fell, and they all said I’m fine to play.”

 

“Fine to play is different than actually fine,” says Hadrian.

 

“And I’m both ,” says Ephrim. “Seriously, don’t you have enough to worry about without making up injuries for me?”

 

“As long as you’re actually alright,” says Hadrian.

 

“I’m fine,” says Ephrim. “Good luck with the coaches.”

 

Hadiran feels the icy twist in his gut. “Yeah. Thanks.”

 

Hadrian wrestles off his boots, following Primo down the corridor, his heart in his throat. He only hopes they’ll make it quick.

 

They both stand as he enters, their expressions unreadable. Primo shuts the door behind him, muffling the ambient noise of the arena. The room feels smaller than the other times Hadrian has been there, chairs and whiteboard crowding Hadrian as he holds himself as still as possible.

 

“Please, sit down,” says Samot. “We have much to discuss.”

 

Hadrian sticks his hands in his pockets. “I’d rather stand, if that’s okay.”

 

Samot blinks. “Okay, but this might… take a while. Samothes?”

 

Samothes steps towards the table, tapping at something on the laptop. “We’ve narrowed it down to a handful of players-”

 

Hadrian’s heart sinks. “You want… you want me to pick them?”

 

His replacement, of course. It’s kind of them, in a way, to let him choose who it will be. 

 

“Of course,” says Samot.

 

They go through each player carefully. They all seem so painfully young to Hadrian - Zacktrak from Marielda, Lem King and Fero Feritas from a Rosemerrow juniors league, Fentil from the intergender league, Frond, now he was at least a little older than the others, but…

 

“What?” says Samot, “You don’t like them, I can tell.”

 

“They’re fine, they’re just... “ Hadrian presses his lips together. “Don’t you think they’re all a little young to be captain?”

 

Samot blinks. “I- yes?”

 

“Oh, yeah, no, obviously,” says Hadrian, “I mean, I’ve been saying for years that Ephrim should be the captain after me, or Fantasmo-”

 

“But you’re the captain,” says Samot.

 

“Yeah, but not anymore, I mean-”

 

Samot pales. “You’re quitting ?”

 

“No,” says Hadrian, frowning, “you’re not renewing my contract.”

 

There’s a long pause.

 

“Hadrian,” says Samothes, “We are renewing your contract.”

 

“Oh,” says Hadrian, reaching out for the back of a chair to lean on. He swallows, looking down at their list again. “Then who are these guys?”

 

“Draft picks,” says Samothes, ”Or potential ones. We wanted your opinion on them, how you think they’d fit on the team if we got them.”

 

“You want… my opinion?” says Hadrian faintly.

 

“Yes,” says Samothes, “You convinced us to draft Ephrim, and he’s been great for the team.”

 

“That’s all him,” says Hadrian, “He works hard, he’s got great player awareness-”

 

Samothes smiles. “Yes, we know. But you knew it first.”

 

Hadrian ducks his head, trying to hide his blush. Samot puts a hand on Hadrian’s arm, making him look up, his face feeling even hotter at the contact.

 

“Hadrian…” says Samot softly, “of course you’re still our captain. If you’ll have us.”

 

“Of course,” says Hadrian. His throat feels tight. “There’s no one else I’d rather play for.”

 

Samot’s hand tightens slightly on his arm before he lets Hadrian go.

 

Hadrian clears his throat. “Can we uh. Can we run that footage of Frond back again?”



--



Ephrim grins at him as he comes back out onto the ice.

 

“You knew,” says Hadrian.

 

Ephrim shrugs. “Maybe.”

 

“You knew !”

 

Ephrim grins, skating past him and dodging Hadrian’s attempt to check him. Hadrian laughs, skating after him.



--



Hadrian tries not to pay attention to the playoffs, not that it makes a difference - he feels like there’s coverage everywhere, followed by an update about Velas, about him .

 

Rosana glares at the screen. “These people don’t know what they’re talking about. They would never fire you.”

 

“They might,” says Hadrian, “plenty of time until the next season for them to change their mind.”

 

Rosana leans forwards, grabbing the remote and switching off the tv. She turns towards him, her face serious.

 

“Samot and Samothes wouldn’t,” says Rosana. “They’re smart enough to know how valuable you are.”

 

She puts her hand on his arm as she says it, which warms him as much as her words do. He lifts a hand to cover hers, basking for a moment in her smile. She leans up, pressing a quick kiss to his lips before she curls against him. Hadrian leans towards her, sliding his arm around her waist to pull her close.

 

During the season he’s often too busy or too tired for slow night like this, so he’s come to treasure them in the off season, nights when they’ve put Ben to bed, where they can relax into each other.

 

Hadrian lets out a long breath. “It’s going to be a tough season I think. Especially if Heat and Dark win the cup. Them being the new team, having that momentum of winning… that’ll be hard to beat.”

 

Rosana hums. “So you’ll just have to be harder to beat.”

 

Hadrian huffs a laugh. “Okay dear, I’ll just do that.”

 

“Well, you did tell Maelgwyn that your technique this year would be to not suck.”

 

“I guess I did,” says Hadrian. “Not sucking and being hard to beat. I guess there are worse strategies.”



--



Coral adjusts the lapels of her blazer slightly, taking a small sip of the tea she kept under the newsdesk. The blinking light of the camera tells her they’re back in three… two… one...

 

“Moving on to our top sports news tonight: The Velas Sailors are using the extra time granted to them by losing out on the playoffs to start their training early, but can any amount of training truly help this faltering franchise? We go now to correspondant Snitch Nightly, down on the ice- how’re the Sailors looking, Snitch?”

 

“Rough as always, Coral,” says Snitch, speaking too close to the microphone and making her wince. “Despite all the good sense in the world, the Velas Sailors have chosen to keep Hadrian on, and as captain too, and he looked just the same in training as he did during that last game: old.”

 

Coral does her best to school her face into a pleasant expression for the camera, always difficult with Snitch yelling into the mic.

 

“They’re supposedly looking at their draft picks for next season, but no confirmation on who they might be going after,” says Snitch. “Honestly, it almost makes me look forward to the next season to watch the disaster unfold, since a bunch of new hires will make Velas a team consisting of a bunch of rookies, a couple of old men, and a former figure skater-”

 

Coral taps her finger on the side of the newsdesk, a predetermined signal to her producer, Juno, any time Snitch does a segment for them. Coral can only be polite to him for so long, especially when he starts talking about Velas.

 

“Anyway,” says Snitch, “Looks like we’re shaping up for even more disappointment next season. This is Snitch Nightly, signing off.”

 

“Thank you Snitch,” says Coral, “We’ll be right back with the weather after these messages.”

 

She waits until she’s absolutely sure they’ve disconnected the call and gone to commercial before she lets herself let out the breath she’s been holding. “Asshole.”

 

“He’s probably right,” says Juno, in her earpiece.

 

“That doesn’t mean he has to say it,” says Coral, “They could- Well. You never know, is all I’m saying.”

 

“I always forget you’re into hockey,” says Juno, “maybe next time Chrysanthemum’s out sick we’ll get you to do sports.”

 

Please ,” says Coral.

 

Juno hums. “We’ll talk about it later. Back in three… two… one-”



--



Lem’s nervous about the draft. Obviously, they’re all nervous about the draft, but Lem hasn’t stopped pacing for like twenty minutes. Honestly, it’s kind of giving Fero a headache. 

 

“You’re giving me a headache,” says Fero, “Can you sit down?”

 

“No,” says Lem.

 

“Really?” says Fero. ”You can’t sit down for even five minutes?”

 

“No,” says Lem again, “I think if I sit down I’ll throw up.”

 

Fero stands up, gets a bucket from the bathroom, pushes it into Lem’s hands, and flops back down on the couch.

 

Lem stops pacing. ”Very funny.”

 

Fero grins. ”Thanks.”

 

“Are you really not nervous at all?” says Lem, “What if we get drafted somewhere terrible ? What if we don’t get drafted at all?”

 

“So we’ll just play in juniors for another year.”

 

Lem collapses onto the couch next to him as though that’s the worst outcome of all. Fero rolls his eyes. It’s not like that would be unexpected. They’re not exactly first round picks, after all, that’s the reason they chose not to go to the draft event. At least this way no one will be looking directly at them when they don’t get drafted.

 

Lem continues to pout, sighing dramatically.

 

Fero lets out a breath through his nose. “Okay, so, just think positively, or whatever. Where do you want to play?”

 

Lem blinks. “Oh, I-” He blushes.

 

Fero has about five seconds to get caught in how charming he still ( still !) finds Lem’s blush before Lem finds his voice again and ruins the effect.

 

“Nacre,” says Lem.

 

Fero rolls his eyes again. They’d done a charity game with Nacre their first year in junior league and Lem had spent most of it staring at one of the players.

 

“They’re a good team!” says Lem. “Why, where do you want to play?”

 

Fero swallows what he really wants to say ( wherever you’re playing ), and shrugs. “Doesn’t matter.”

 

“Doesn’t matter ?” splutters Lem, “It’s the whole rest of our lives, it’s-”

 

Fero shushes him, turning towards the tv. He skips quickly past the channel showing the draft. It’s on a delay, anyway. They’ll know if they’re going anywhere before they show it on tv.

 

“I can’t believe you don’t care about this,” says Lem.

 

Fero ignores him, pretending to focus on the screen and not on the way Lem’s leg bumps against his as Lem bounces his leg. He settles on an infomercial about sports sunglasses, mostly because he can tell it’s annoying Lem, and tries not to think about what draft round they’re probably up to right now.

 

Lem sighs. “Can we at least watch something decent?”

 

“You don’t want to learn about the power of anti-UV coating?” says Fero.

 

Lem makes a face that says he very much does not want to, to Fero’s delight. Fero’s about to double down on the channel and why they absolutely should keep watching (who knows how many more kinds of sunglasses this guy has to sell!) when his phone rings.

 

He and Lem look at the phone, and then each other, and then the phone again. It continues to ring, and Fero fumbles to answer it.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hello, is this Fero Feritas?” says the smooth voice on the other end of the phone.

 

“Yeah, is this, uh-” Fero tries to match the voice to the thousands he knows from watching endless hockey games and interviews. “Who is this?”

 

The person on the other end of the phone laughs. “This is Samot, coach of the the Velas Sailors.”

 

Lem grabs his arm, pointing frantically at the screen. He’s changed the channel to the draft, of course, and there’s Fero’s terrible hockey ID photo, surrounded in Velas Sailors colours for a moment before the screen fades to a borderline-incomprehensible chart of the draft picks so far. Fero looks at Lem, his eyes wide. Lem looks back at him, a similarly stunned expression on his face.

 

“I’m not sure if you’re aware, but we’ve drafted you, and we were wondering if you’d like to come in to speak about a contract with us?”

 

Fero stands up and Lem follows him, his hand still holding tight to Fero’s arm.

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, “yeah, absolutely, I- when?”

 

“We’ll email you the details,” says Samot, and hangs up.

 

He’s only just set the phone down when Lem’s phone starts ringing. Lem stares at his phone.

 

“Answer it!” says Fero.

 

“Ahh, oh my god, okay,” says Lem. He takes a deep breath in before he swipes across the screen.

 

“Hello, this is Lem King?” says Lem, “Oh, from- the Velas Sailors yes.”

 

Fero’s heart leaps into his throat and stays there, making it hard to breathe.

 

“Yes, that would be wonderful,” says Lem, “I’m, uh, obviously this is very exciting. Yes, looking forward to meeting you too.”

 

They stare at each other for a long moment and then Fero grins and Lem grins back. They pull each other in for a hug. Fero can feel Lem shaking, just a little. He guides them both back down to the couch, laughing as he presses his face to Lem’s shoulder.

 

They’re going to the same place, they’re going to play for the same team, they’re going to stay together. Fero feels light.

 

“Wow… wow that’s- oh.” Lem’s face falls.

 

“What?”

 

“Oh, nothing,” says Lem, “I mean, I guess it’s… they’re not that far away from Nacre, aren’t they? And I suppose we’ll play them, at some point.”

 

Fero groans, shifting away from him to switch off the tv.

 

“What?” says Lem, as Fero stomps back to his room.

 

“Nothing,” says Fero, “I’m going to go pack.”



--



Hadrian watches the new players from the side for a moment, considering them. Some seem more promising than others - the two players they got out the Rosemerrow juniors league seem to have good chemistry with each other on the ice, which would be great as long as they can transfer that to other players. It’s a good start at least.

 

He swallows down the fluttery-hopeful feeling. No use building things up just yet, before they’ve seen how everyone works as a team. That’s the purpose of this training session, after all. It’s not even really a training session, more an opportunity to give the team a chance to feel each other out, see where their strengths and weaknesses line up.

 

On the ice, Fero checks Lem into the glass, a little harder than Hadrian would expect from a friendly warm up, a feeling supported by Lem’s indigent sound at the impact. Fero cackles.

 

The fluttery-hopeful feeling dissipates. Hadrian sighs. That’s a more familiar feeling to head into the season with.

 

He hears Ephrim approach, clacking towards Hadrian in his gear, long before Ephrim reaches him.

 

“How’re they looking?”

 

“Young,” says Hadrian.

 

Ephrim bumps his shoulder with Hadrian’s. “So was I, and I made it through okay.”

 

Hadrian makes a non-committal sound. When he thinks of Ephrim’s first game, he thinks of the pre-season charity match they played together, veterans vs rookies. A huge, veteran player had checked Ephrim hard, sending him bouncing into the glass. In retrospect, the hit looked (and sounded) a lot worse than it actually was, but at the time, he hadn’t known that. At the time he’d seen Ephrim go down, a player bigger than even Hadrian standing over him.

 

He’d surged towards the player, pushing them out the way to help Ephrim up. Ephrim had mostly waved off his help on the ice, but he’d smiled at Hadrian, and after the match he’d accepted Rosana’s offer of dinner, which easily turned into him staying with them for almost all of Ephrim’s first year there. They’re played together and trained together, and somewhere in there Ephrim had become Hadrian’s right hand on the ice.

 

“Sure,” says Hadrian. He takes a deep breath in and lets it out slowly. “Let’s go see how the kids are, I guess.”

 

Their first training session as a team isn’t as terrible as it could be. Devar apparently knows Lem from some Archivists juniors competition back in the day, and Fero gets along with their backup goalie Calhoun well enough that it at least stops Fero and Lem from checking each other every five minutes. He’s glad to see Calhoun getting along so well with someone too - he’s a friendly enough guy, but Hadrian’s always gotten the feeling that he has mixed feelings about being traded away from Nacre.

 

Ephrim nudges Hadrian’s side, grinning. “Looks like we’ve got another magician on our hands.”

 

“What?”

 

“Fero,” says Ephrim, “he’s convinced he can make a shot from behind the net.”

 

Hadrian looks over. Fantasmo’s back in goal, head turned to watch Fero speed around behind the net as he easily stops Fero’s shot. Fero’s shoulders sag slightly before he’s racing off again, trying for the other side.

 

“It’s tough to do,” says Hadrian.

 

The next shot very nearly goes in - Hadrian’s played enough games with Fantasmo to know the tense line of his shoulders when he almost doesn’t stop a puck. Fero’s sees it too, looping around the goal before he tries again.

 

Hadrian can’t keep an eye on him for the entire session, but he sees enough to know that Fero keeps trying until Calhoun and Fantasmo leave the ice, at which point he convinces Devar to get into the goal, a feat in itself. Devar’s a great defenceman, but he’s not usually one to get into goal, even during practise.

 

Fero doesn’t manage to score on him from behind the next either, but he keeps trying until they’re all called off the ice.

 

That’s another reason why today’s training session is looser than usual. The Velas women’s team had it booked already for the afternoon. Hadrian likes their first actual training session to be a full day affair.

 

Hella waves from the side, then does a double-take at Fero, who’s waving at her from behind Hadrian.

 

Fero skates up to Hella, passing Hadrian and managing to make Hella laugh before Hadrian gets to her side.

 

“Hey,” says Hadrian, “I see you already know one of our rookies.”

 

“Yeah,” said Hella, “we played this charity game thing against Nacre last year, and both sides had some Rosemerrow juniors in it.”

 

“We kicked their ass,” says Fero, “obviously.”

 

Hella grins. “And now you can do it on a professional level.”

 

Fero laughs. “Can’t wait!” He looks past Hella. “I didn’t think public were allowed in this early in the season.”

 

Hella glances behind her. “Oh, that’s not public, that’s my girlfriend.”

 

Hadrian waves, and Adaire waves back. He wouldn’t have thought it would be possible for a wave to be sarcastic.

 

Fero nods and then narrows his eyes, looking at Adaire. “Isn’t that… is she the one that got busted for selling counterfeit merch?”

 

“They never busted her, that was only suspected,” says Hella, “But yeah, that’s her. That’s sort of how we met.”

 

Fero nods again, his gaze wandering to where Devar is helping Lem off the ice.

 

“I’d better go get changed,” says Fero, “I’m supposed to go look for apartments with Lem.”

 

“Oh, Lem’s here too?” says Hella.

 

Fero shrugs. “Yeah. He says we can’t live in a hotel the whole year so.”

 

“Well, you’d better get going, I guess,” says Hella. After Fero reaches Lem she adds. “I can’t believe you took both of them.”

 

“Why?” says Hadrian, “They looked like they played well together.”

 

“They do but…” Hella makes a face. “They fight a lot, I guess. Maybe they don’t anymore, I mean, the charity game thing was years ago.”

 

Hadrian can hear Fero’s cackle at checking Lem earlier echoing in his ears.

 

“Yeah,” says Hadrian, “they’ve probably sorted whatever the problem was out by now.”



--



Transcript excerpt from The Chime podcast, episode 65:

 

Aria: So whoooo’s ready to get their spirits crushed by the Velas Sailors again this year?

 

[laughter]

 

AuDy: Me, I suppose.

 

Cass: Sure, can’t wait.

 

Mako: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t wait!

 

[laughter, the sound of someone shuffling paper]

 

Aria: But before we get our hearts smashed to pieces, let’s look at our new rookies, and specifically let’s look at my personal favourite thing: rookie housing.

 

Mako: Oh my god, yes, did you see-

 

Cass: [crosstalk] Did you see the thing about that one little guy who’s going to be staying with Hadrian?

 

Aria: He’s so little!

 

AuDy: His profile on the Velas website says he’s 5’7 but-”

 

Aria: [crosstalk] He looks tiny - I mean, everyone does, next to hockey players but he’s like… like…

 

Cass: I could fit him in the palm of my hand! He’s shorter than Mako!

 

Mako: Hey!

 

Aria: [laughter] Exactly! They won’t even need a room for him in the Nurmacher household, they can just put him in a little teacup and he can sleep in there, like Thumbelina.

 

AuDy: I must say, it kind of surprised me that he’s staying with Hadrian, because normally when you get two rookies drafted in from the same place they tend to live together-

 

Aria: [interrupting] Oh my god, yes! I totally forgot!

 

Cass: Yeah, apparently they were like, best friends and they used to live together and they got drafted together-

 

Aria: [clapping in time to the words] Best friends! Best friends! Best friends!

 

[laughter]

 

Aria: I mean, it’s a great fit for the Sailors, like, the past few years they’ve really been building that good friendship energy, you know? And I feel like it’s made them a stronger team.

 

Cass: Sure, yeah. I mean, it hasn’t helped them win , but-

 

Mako: They’ve won in our hearts.

 

Aria: [laughter] Yeah, exactly. They’ve won in our hearts.

 

Cass: I’d love it if they could focus that into winning the actual game though.

 

Aria: Oh, no, yeah, I would love it if they could do that too.



--



It’s weird to live with someone who’s not Lem. They only lived together for like two years, and Fero feels kind of mad at himself for getting so used to it, but still, it’s weird. It’s weird when no one uses up all the hot water. It’s weird not having to fight over what cereal to get. It’s weird having someone drive him to training.

 

It’s nice though. He likes getting to training early with Hadrian, skating around the ice as fast as he can without worrying he’s going to run somebody over. He likes getting deep into whatever soap opera is on while he helps Rosana with dinner. He likes looking after Ben, too, running him around the garden and getting him tired enough for bedtime.

 

He still sees Lem, of course. They’re still friends . They hang out after training and on rest days at the apartment he lives in with Devar. It’s a nice place, high above the city and only a block away from the Velas Public Library. Devar’s fun to hang out with too, calm where Lem is anxious, balancing Lem out as they head towards the season. It’s a perfect fit for Lem, just like Hadrian’s place is a good fit for Fero.

 

He tries not to linger too much when he’s over at Lem’s though, makes sure he has a hard out time (even though he always ends up staying longer than he means to). Sometimes, they argue what feels like the whole time and it’s easy to leave. Other times, Lem falls asleep on his shoulder half-way through the movie and Fero doesn’t want to move, scrolling through his phone with one hand while the room gets dark around them.

 

“Oh…” says Lem, blinking up at Fero. “What time is it?”

 

“It’s only seven,” says Fero.

 

He actually meant to leave at six, but Lem’s head had slid against his shoulder, warm and heavy and comfortable, and it had felt easy to relax back into the soft couch and stay a little longer.

 

“Sorry,” says Lem around a yawn, leaning away from Fero to sit up.

 

Fero’s side feels oddly cold without Lem pressed against him. “S’fine. You seemed pretty wiped today so I figured you needed it.”

 

“I guess I must be,” says Lem.

 

Even though he’s sitting up now, Lem is still very close to him on the couch, their thighs pressed together. Fero curls his toes into the carpet, and tries not to think about it.

 

He should go - Lem’s awake now, so there’s no reason for him to stay on the couch. He opens his mouth the tell Lem he’s leaving but he can’t quite make the words come unstuck from his throat.

 

“We’ve got our first real game soon,” says Lem.

 

“Yeah,” says Fero.

 

Lem looks down at him, lines of worry creasing his forehead. Fero curls his hand around his phone to stop himself reaching up.

 

“Do you think we’ll, uh. I mean, we’ve been training so much, but there’s only so much that can really do, you know?”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero.

 

Lem looks at him expectantly. “So?”

 

“So, what?”

 

Lem gestures widely. “Do you think we’ll win?”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, “Of course.”

 

Lem blinks. “You do?”

 

“You don’t ?”

 

“Well, this team isn’t exactly known for… you know.”

 

“We were never on it before,” says Fero.

 

“Oh,” says Lem, “I guess I… you really think we’ll make that much of a difference?”

 

“Yeah, of course,” says Fero, his voice holding far more confidence that he feels. “We’re great and we’re gonna win.”

 

Lem lets out a long breath. “Well, that’s… you know, I do actually feel a little better now.”

 

Fero laughs.

 

(He ends up staying there until eight).



--



Hadrian likes getting to the arena early for practise, especially as they get closer to the season. A week before their first preseason game is very close and so he gets there proportionally early, a still half-asleep Fero in tow.

 

Fero yawns his way through pulling on his gear. He usually perks up once they’re on the ice and he can speed around. Ephrim’s been half-seriously trying to teach him some old spins from his figure-skating days, which Fero hasn’t quite got but has managed to master better than Hadrian ever has. Fero spins lazy circles around Hadrian before he heads towards the box of hockey pucks on the side of the rink.

 

Hadrian circles the rink slowly to warm up, watching as Fero starts shooting at the goal. He starts from the front, making the shot easily, before he skates a little more to the side, and a little more, and a little more with each shot. The further around he gets, the longer he takes with each shot, missing one or two before he gets it.

 

“You want me to be goalie until Fantasmo gets here?” says Hadrian.

 

Fero shrugs. “Nah, I’m just messing around.”

 

Normally Hadrian doesn’t push, just lets Fero work through whatever thing he’s working through by trying to make a goal from behind the net, but it’s a week until their first game. As great as it would be, he doesn’t really want Fero to be attempting this particular move all season.

 

“You sure?” says Hadrian. He pauses, letting himself drift to a stop. “It’s, uh, it’s kind of a tricky maneuver you’ve been working on there.”

 

“I know that,” snaps Fero, “but I can get it.”

 

“Sure,” says Hadrian, “but, y’know. Doesn’t mean I can’t help with it. That’s kind of what being on a team is about.”

 

Fero looks up at him, poking the puck in front of him back and forward with his stick. “Have you ever, y’know. Have you ever gotten it?”

 

Hadrian thinks for a moment. He’s scored a lot and taken even more shots at goal in his career, in his life. “I don’t think so. Feels like something I’d remember doing if I’d done it.”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero.

 

He hits the puck in front of him into the goal, fast enough that Hadrian sure it would have gone in even if there had been someone there.

 

“I’ve seen it done a couple times,” offers Hadrian. “I saw Samothes do it once, my first year on the team.”

 

Fero stops scowling at the goal to look at him. “Yeah?”

 

Hadrian nods. Samothes had tried to teach him, after, but it had never really stuck. Hadrian was more built for slamming into people to clear the way for a goal, not boardline-impossible trick shots.

 

Fero flips the puck up to balance on his stick, tossing it in the air before he hits it into the goal. If anyone was built for trick shots, it’s this kid.

 

“He talked me through how to do it a couple times,” says Hadrian. “I could show you what I remember, if you want?”

 

Fero passes his stick from one hand to the other for a moment. “Okay, sure.”



--



“And now we go to our first preseason game with our sports correspondent Coral - not a great start to the season for the Sailors, what’s the mood like there at the Buoy?”

 

Coral swallows around her own disappointment before she answers. “Pretty muted on both sides Juno, it feels like the Wayfinders and the Sailors both expected this outcome tonight. The Sailors started strong in the first period but the Wayfinders just came out in the second with more energy and focus and swept the rest of the game, really tough to see for those Sailors fans who came all the way from Velas tonight.”

 

“Obviously this is just the start of the preseason, but how did the new players look out there on the ice?”

 

“Well Juno if there’s one thing you can say about the Sailors, it’s that they’re really good at gelling their team together, I have to say, watching the game it felt a lot closer than the score would have you believe. I wouldn’t count Velas out just yet.”

 

“Neither would I,” said Juno, “Thanks Coral. And now, let’s take a look at the weather.”



--



There’s something that always made Hadrian feels wrong-footed about starting the season with an away game and having two in a row doesn’t help, especially when they have to go all the way to Auniq for it. It’s harder to keep to your own routines on the road, harder to find the time to do your own little before-game superstitions.

 

“Wish your dad luck,” says Rosana, her voice staticy through the speakerphone.

 

Ben waves, wriggling a little on Rosana’s lap. The time difference means that it’s probably well past his bedtime.

 

“G’luck dad,” says Ben.

 

“Thanks kiddo,” says Hadrian.

 

“Don’t lose,” adds Ben, very seriously in only the way children can be.

 

Hadrian presses his lips together, trying not to laugh. “Alright, I won’t.”

 

Ben nods. “Good.”



--



They don’t lose.



--



“Obviously, it’s just one game,” says Samot, “but I think it shows how our team can come together, really work together. That’s always been our strength.”

 

His gaze is off-camera, focussed on the reporter, and he can’t seem to stop smiling. The smile only grows wider as Samothes comes into frame. His eyes flick to the camera before he smiles at Samot.

 

“There you are,” says Samot, “I was just explaining why we won.”

 

“We had the better team today,” says Samothes.

 

Samot laughs. “Yes, I suppose that’s a reason too. But I was saying that it was the team working together that really did it, assisting one another, really using the scope of the rink to get it done, even our newer players did great out there today.”

 

Samothes smiles down at Samot. “Yes.”

 

Samot laughs again. “You must excuse him, my husband is a man of few words.”

 

Samothes nods seriously. “I am.”

 

Samot shakes his head, still smiling. “Obviously we’re really proud of our guys, and we hope we can bring this momentum home with us to show the fans.”



--

 

They lose the next four games in a row.

 

By the third loss, people boo Hadrian as he gets in his car to drive home. Fero almost turns, stopped by Hadrian’s hand on his shoulder. He bites the inside of his cheek, letting Hadrian guide him to the car.

 

Fero bounces in his seat. He manages to stay silent until they’re out of the parking lot.

 

“You should have let me yell at them.”

 

Hadrian shakes his head, his eyes fixed on the road. “It wouldn’t help.”

 

“It would have made me feel better.”

 

“In the moment, maybe,” says Hadrian. “But later-”

 

“I’m still going to be mad at them later,” says Fero. “I’m going to be mad at them all year, especially if they’re going to boo you every time we lose. It’s not fair .”

 

Hadrian says nothing.

 

“I mean, I’d like to see how they’d do out on the ice,” says Fero. “I bet some of them can’t even skate !”

 

The corner of Hadrian’s mouth twitches.

 

“If they were on the ice I’d check them straight away, I don’t even care if we got put on the same team, I’d take the penalty!” continues Fero, “Actually what I’d like to see even more is them at practice, Samot and Samothes yelling at them and you doing your, like, thousandth drill-”

 

“I don’t do a thousand,” says Hadrian, “I only do a hundred at a time.”

 

“Oh, sorry , only a hundred at a time, well, that’s easy then, I’m sure any of those bozos could do it-”

 

Hadrian laughs. “Fero-”

 

“What, it’s true!” says Fero, still bouncing a little in his seat.

 

“Maybe,” says Hadrian.

 

Fero waves a hand. “Oh, maybe , sure.”

 

Hadrian pauses. “Listen. Those guys… don’t worry about them. Most of our fans are great, but some-”

 

“Are shitheads?”

 

“They’re just passionate,” says Hadrian, “and they get upset when we don’t win, y’know, same as we do, the same thing happened last year-”

 

“You got booed all last year?” says Fero, shocked. “That fucking sucks .”

 

Hadrian blinks, his gaze flicking to Fero. “Yeah. Yeah it kinda did, but-”

 

“No, Hadrian, listen, it sucks, you’re allowed to say it sucks,” says Fero.

 

“It was… I didn’t enjoy it, obviously, but-”

 

No ,” says Fero, “say it sucks.”

 

“Fero-”

 

“It sucks! Say it sucks!”

 

“Fero, it’s just-”

 

“If you say it’s just part of the game I’m going to start yelling.”

 

“You’re already yelling,” says Hadrian.

 

“I can go louder,” says Fero.

 

“Fero…”

 

“Come on Hadrian,” says Fero, “if someone on our team, me, Ephrim, whoever, if we were walking somewhere and we got booed, what would you say?”

 

Hadrian sighs. “I’d say that it sucks.”

 

“Yeah!” says Fero, “Exactly!”

 

“It’s different though,” says Hadrian, “I’m the captain, y’know, I’m supposed to be the, y’know, the focal point, or whatever. When we win people cheer me so it’s only fair that they boo me when we lose.”

 

“When we won you spent entire interviews saying how each person on the team deserved praise for like, every single movement of their body or whatever,” says Fero.

 

“Well, people should know,” says Hadrian, “Everyone on this team works really hard-”

 

“And so do you ,” says Fero. He leans forward a little to see Hadrian’s expression a little better. “You don’t deserve to get booed like that, Hadrian.”

 

Hadrian swallows once, twice. He’s quiet for a long moment. “Thanks Fero.”

 

Fero pats him on the shoulder. ”You’re welcome.” He sits back in the seat, making a face in the window. “We’ll just have to figure out a way to stop people from doing that.”

 

“I think the only way to do that is to win,” says Hadrian.

 

Fero shrugs. “Well, we’re going to do that already.”

 

Hadrian’s gaze flicks to him again. “Yeah?”

 

“Dude, of course,” says Fero, “We’ve got all our losses for the year out of the way early, and now we’re just going to win the rest of the time.”

 

“Very smart of us to do it in the preseason,” says Hadrian dryly.

 

“Well that’s us,” says Fero, “We’re a great team and we’re very smart.”

 

Hadrian doesn’t laugh, but he does smile for a moment, so Fero counts it as a win.



--



It’s sickeningly close for the first two periods, with Twinbrook in the lead as they head into the third quarter. They’ve been holding their own but they’re tired, Hadrian can tell they’re tired. He’s tired.

 

Hadrian looks around the locker room at the group of slumped shoulders. Calhoun’s head is tipped back against one of the lockers, eyes closed. Fero and Lem are sitting at opposite end of the bench to one another. Ephrim’s is staring down at his hands, and beside him Devar is staring into the middle distance. He can just see the edge of Fantasmo’s skates, where he’s in the hallway talking to Samot, a sure sign that Samot is feeling anxious about the game.

 

Hadrian swallows and stands up. “Listen, uh. Hey-” He stutters to a stop as they look towards him. “Look, I’m not a great speech guy and I know we’re- Okay.” Hadrian takes a deep breath in and lets it out slowly. “Okay. So we’re down by one, and I know you guys- you’ve been giving it your all out there today, I know, and it would be easy to go out there and just… but we’ve got it in us to do more than that, I think.”

 

He thinks about the certainty in Fero’s voice in the car ride home from their last game and he focuses in on that feeling. He’s not a speech guy, not by any means, but the team deserves to know how he feels.

 

“I look around at all of you guys, and I know what you can do. I know what we can do” says Hadrian. “We’ve got it in us to go out there and win .”

 

The room is quiet for a moment.

 

“We’re not going to suck this year,” says Ephrim quietly.

 

Hadrian laughs. “Yeah, exactly! We’re not going to suck this year. So let’s go out there and not suck.”



--



In a shock to the commentators, reporters, fans, and the team themselves, they do actually win their last preseason game, four to three.



--



Samot studies the whiteboard in front of him for a moment before frowning, leaning forward to erase Devar’s name and writing Calhoun’s in its place. He stands back, tapping the whiteboard marker on his chin, then sighs, erasing Calhoun’s name and rewriting Devar’s.

 

Samothes looks up from where he‘s watching footage of their preseason loss to Warfhurst. He opens his mouth, then shuts it again, looking back at the screen.

 

Samot sighes flopping dramatically back into the chair opposite the whiteboard. Samothes presses his lips together to suppress a smile, pausing the game footage.

 

“I know what you’re going to say,” says Samot.

 

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” says Samothes, “You can write whatever you’d like on that whiteboard.”

 

“I’m working through the on-ice configurations,” says Samot, “I want them to gel together. That’s our strength, I want to play to our strengths.”

 

Samothes hums, turning back to the game footage. On it, a Wurfhurst player checks Lem into the glass only to get checked themselves by Fero, who’s moving so fast he seems to fly in out of nowhere.

 

He’s sent to the penalty box, of course, although he seems absolutely unrepentant about it, even going so far to stick his tongue out at the referee when they turn their back to him. Samothes suppresses a smile. They’ll have to watch that sort of behaviour, even if Primo says it does play well with the younger fans.

 

Lem seems to play slightly worse without him on the ice, too. Not badly , he’s still a solid player, there’s just something missing. He’s a little slower, and he keeps looking over his shoulder. It’s taken Samothes about five solid hours of gameplay footage to realise that that’s the position Fero would be, if he were on the ice. He’d feel like a worse coach, but he’s fairly certain that Lem himself hasn’t realised that yet.

 

They’ll probably need to watch that, too.

 

Samot taps the whiteboard marker on his palm. “Should we do a team-building focussed training day before the season starts?”

 

“If you think it’ll help.”

 

Samot twists in his seat to look at Samothes. “You don’t?”

 

Samothes shrugs. “I’m not sure what trust falls would do that normal training wouldn’t.”

 

Samot huffs, turning back to the whiteboard. “Fine.”

 

“I’m not saying it’s a bad idea,” says Samothes, “but it would depend on what kind of thing you want to do. They’re hockey players, not a group of office workers.”

 

Samot taps the whiteboard marker on his palm for a few moments, thinking. Samothes turns his attention back to the video. Samot will think up something , he’s certain of it. For the moment he may as well focus on breaking down the pattern of assists in this game.



--



“We’re going to do something a little different today,” says Samot. He smiles. “There’s no need to look so worried , I’m fairly sure you’ll enjoy it. We’re going to divide you into two teams, and we’re going to play hockey.”

 

“That’s it?” says Fero.

 

Lem shushes him.

 

Samot grins. “That’s it. We’ll be playing first to three goals, just as a quick warm up. Hadrian, Fero, Calhoun, you’re on my team - Lem, Devar, Ephrim, you’ll be on Samothes’s team. Fantasmo will be serving as referee.”

 

Fantasmo nods slowly.

 

Beside him, Fero goes very still. Lem looks down, but Fero is staring very intently at his stick. Lem’s hand twitches, half moving towards Fero’s shoulder before he thinks better of it.

 

“Don’t expect me to go easy on you,” says Fero suddenly.

 

Lem blinks. “Well, I- don’t expect me to go easy on you !”

 

Fero grins, skating off in Hadrian’s direction. Lem shakes himself, following Devar over to where Ephrim and Samothes are already standing toward on the ice.

 

“This is going to be fun ,” says Ephrim.

 

“That’s the idea,” says Samothes.

 

“You don’t seem particularly convinced,” says Ephrim.

 

“It wasn’t my idea,” says Samothes.

 

Ephrim grins. “Ah.”

 

They sketch out a loose set of plays, variations on stuff they’ve used for games, which Lem guesses is kind of the idea. Fero’s laugh pulls his attention away from Samothes for a moment. Devar taps his elbow and Lem flushes. Hopefully nobody besides Devar noticed. Fero just has a loud laugh, that’s all. It’s always distracted him, ever since they met at the tryouts for the Rosemerrow junior league.

 

Fero had been in line ahead of him to get onto the ice, scowling up at him when Lem accidentally bumped into him. He’d gone after him during tryouts, checking him against the glass, and then, oddly, doubling back to help Lem up.

 

“Sorry,” Fero had said, “I kind of- I wasn’t doing it as payback or anything.”

 

“Payback?”

 

“Yeah, you know, for before?” said Fero, “I didn’t think you’d go down that hard, but I guess you are kind of huge.”

 

Lem had frowned. “I’m pretty average height for a hockey player.”

 

“Oh, so, what? Like ten, eleven feet tall?”

 

“No,” said Lem, “I’m- wait, that was a joke, right?”

 

Lem blinked and then Fero had laughed, loud and bright.

 

He’d grinned up at Lem. “Yeah, it was.” He paused. “Obviously, because you’re definitely at least fifteen feet tall.”

 

Lem huffed a laugh, and Fero’s grin widened. Something uncurled in Lem’s chest at the sight, strange and unfamiliar and warm. He still got that feeling sometimes, when Fero’s grin was turned towards him.

 

It isn’t turned towards him today, although Lem has no idea why. They’d had an argument the other day, of course, but that was just Fero’s usual unfounded hatred of Nacre, not a serious argument.

 

Fero easily dodges around him to score the first goal, not looking at Lem in a way that feels deliberate.

 

Well, thinks Lem, two can play at that game. He makes sure to keep the puck away from Fero. He and Devar pass the puck quickly between them before they pass it to Ephrim to score.

 

Hadrian gets the puck before he can get to it, passing it to Calhoun, who passes it to Fero, who easily scores. He sometimes forgot how fast Fero is, especially when he’s feeling spiteful. Well, he won’t forget this time, and he can be pretty fast on the ice too.

 

“Get it to Ephrim,” says Devar quietly, “He’s got a plan.”

 

Lem nods. That makes sense. Fero grins at him from across the centre line, sharp. He taps his stick on the ice. Lem tries to ignore him.

 

Actually, what would make even more sense, thinks Lem, is to surprise Fero by scoring himself. Fero thinks so highly of himself, he’ll never suspect Lem stealing the puck from him. And it’ll have the advantage of wiping that smug grin off his face.

 

Fero gets the puck, dodging right, then left, which Lem knew he would, following his movements, not quite checking him, more like just a bump of the shoulders, enough to jostle the puck out from Fero’s control.

 

Ephrim is in position by the goal, looking straight at him, but Lem moves in the opposite direction, out of Fero’s reach. Fero follows close behind, closer and closer, other bodies crowding in and then-

 

He slams against the glass. Or, not exactly the glass. There’s something else in his way. Some one in his way.

 

“Fucking ow ,” says Ephrim, holding his wrist.

 

“Oh, Ephrim, I’m-” Lem begins to say.

 

“Shit,” says Fero over the top of him, “Sorry-”

 

“You should be,” says Lem.

 

You fell into him!” snaps Fero.

 

“Because you checked me!” says Lem.

 

“Hey,” says Hadrian, “Ephrim are you alright?”

 

“I’m fine,” says Ephrim, “It just needs some ice. I’ll be fine.”

 

Fantasmo clears his throat. “I ah. I believe this could be called a draw?”

 

“You could play in Ephrim’s place,” says Samothes.

 

“No,” says Samot, “We don’t want any more injuries before the season even starts.”

 

“He’s not injured, he’s fine,” says Samothes, “He said so himself.”

 

“Right,” says Samot, “because all players are also medical professionals-”

 

“Players know their own bodies,” says Samothes.

 

“And sometimes they put them on the line when they shouldn’t,” says Samot, “because of their coach’s expectations-” He takes a breath and looks around, seemingly remembering that it’s not just himself and Samothes in a room together. “I think- We should take a break, say, half an hour? Then we’ll get into training.” He pauses. “Hadrian, before you go - a word?”

 

Hadrian hangs back as they skate towards the entry gate. Lem glances over his shoulder. All three of their faces look strained.

 

“I wonder what that’s about?” says Lem quietly.

 

Fero shrugs. “Probably whether or not Ephrim’s okay to play.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Fero slows to let Lem catch up to him properly. “Do you not pay attention to anything that’s not Nacre related?”

 

Lem frowns. “Will you just tell me?”

 

Fero rolls his eyes. “You remember when Ephrim got hurt last season, right? Against Wistful Peaks?”

 

“Um. Sort of?”

 

“Well, he hurt his wrist,” says Fero, “not enough to keep him out for good, but like-” Fero lowers his voice. “Hadrian says he hurt it before, when he played for Kanton back in the day, so any injury to it is like, worse than normal.”

 

“Oh,” says Lem. He pauses. “Oh, shit .”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, “I think we’re probably going to be in trouble for this.”

 

Ephrim’s in the locker room when they come in, a compress already on his wrist.

 

“Ephrim…” says Lem.

 

Ephrim waves his uninjured hand. “Don’t worry about it. I should have been wearing this thing anyway. Can you get me some ice? There should be some in the office.”

 

Lem clumsily walks as fast as possible to the office and back. He probably would have been faster if he’d taken his skates off first, and he definitely damages the office carpet with his skates.

 

When he gets back, Ephrim and Fero are sitting next to each other, talking quietly. They both look up as he enters.

 

Ephrim gives him a tight smile as he hands over the ice. “Thanks.”

 

“It’s the least I could do,” says Lem.

 

“Literally,” says Fero.

 

“Not, the literal least I could do would be to just sit here while someone else got the ice,” says Lem.

 

“I was providing emotional support,” says Fero.

 

“Right,” says Lem.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

“Just that you’re not exactly the most supportive person, are you?”

 

“Just because I don’t think you should run away to Nacre-”

 

“That’s not what I said -”

 

“You’re leaving for Nacre?” says Devar.

 

“No!” says Lem.

 

“He wants to,” says Fero.

 

“I do not!” says Lem, “I just- I met a player from there a while ago, and I was thinking about him the other day, you know, just wondering what he was up to-”

 

“Thinking about getting on a plane to go visit him,” adds Fero.

 

Lem feels himself flush. “I didn’t- okay, yes, I did say that but it wasn’t a real plan, I wasn’t really going to do that.”

 

“You looked up flights !” says Fero.

 

“I was just curious!” says Lem, “I’m allowed to be curious!”

 

“Ah, hey,” says Hadrian, poking his head through the doorway, “back on the ice for training in five? Ephrim if you need longer, you can take it.”

 

“Maybe fifteen extra minutes?” says Ephrim, “I’ll, um, I’ll come out with you guys though. No point sitting here on my own.”

 

“Right,” says Hadrian. He pauses. “Is everything else… okay in here?”

 

“Yeah, we’re fine,” says Fero.

 

Hadrian looks at Lem.

 

“Yes, just fine,” says Lem, “just, you know, keen to get back to it.”

 

“Sure,” says Hadrian.

 

They make it back out onto the ice without incident. Fero avoids his eyes the rest of the afternoon, sticking close to Calhoun’s side in a way that makes him practically hidden from view. He doesn’t speak to Lem either, waving a hand in the form of a goodbye as Lem leaves.

 

When Lem looks back over his shoulder, Fero is already skating away from him, his body turned towards the goal. Lem watches him for a moment from the doorway to the arena, as Fero takes a shot from behind goal, missing by a mile. Fero’s shoulders slump and something twists in Lem’s gut.

 

He forces himself to walk out the door. It’s not like anything he says has any impact on Fero anyway.



--



Samothes lies awake that night, staring up at the ceiling. When he can’t sleep before a game he usually takes himself down to their basement, so he won’t disturb whatever sleep Samot is able to get. Tonight though, his limbs feel too tired to move. His knee aches sharply and he lets out a long breath, as quietly as possible.

 

Samot shifts slightly, turning to face him. “Can’t sleep?”

 

“Sorry,” says Samothes, “I’ll go downstairs-”

 

Samot puts a hand on his shoulder. “No, it’s- stay, please.” He huffs a laugh. “I can’t sleep either, you may as well keep me company.”

 

Samothes covers Samot’s hand with his own. “Worried about the game?”

 

“No,” says Samot, “Well, yes, but- I’m more worried about Ephrim.”

 

Samothes presses his lips together. “You think he’s not good to play?”

 

“No, it’s not that,” says Samot, “he’s fine for the moment, but… well. You and I know how fine the line between fine and never again is.”

 

Samothes let out a breath. “That was different. That was a bad hit.”

 

“A bad hit on an injury you already had,” says Samot.

 

It’s an old wound, literal for Samothes and figurative for Samot. Ironically, Samothes thinks his has healed better. He shifts closer on the bed, easing the pressure on his knee and pressing a kiss to Samot’s forehead.

 

“There was no way you couldn’t have known,” says Samothes.

 

“I know, I know,” says Samot, “But it was still a bad hit.”

 

“Well, we were rivals at the time,” says Samothes, “I’m sure if I could have managed it I would have done the same to you.”

 

“No, you wouldn’t have,” says Samot. “You always held back, with me. I could feel it.”

 

“Perhaps,” says Samothes, “but only a little. I didn’t want you getting the idea that I in any way looked forward to seeing you. It would have gone straight to your head.”

 

Samot must have heard a version of this story a hundred times over, but he smiles. “Oh, really?”

 

Samothes smiles back. “It wasn’t every day that I met my match on the ice.”

 

Samot huffs a laugh. “Your match…”

 

“In every way,” says Samothes.

 

They’d had the same jersey number, ninety nine, which is where the rivalry had begun. Samothes had checked Samot (or, Samot had checked Samothes, depending on who you asked), a friendly teasing thing for having the same number that had turned into a game long brawl, that turned into a season long sparring match, sniping at each other in the press when they couldn’t get to each other on the ice.

 

Attendance at games between Velas and Marielda spiked - the teams were at their peaks, but people came to see the game as much as they came to see the fight between Samot and Samothes.

 

What Samot didn’t know - what nobody knew - was the hit Samothes had taken the season before was much more serious than he’d led the press to believe. The hours of physical therapy Samothes went through before and after every game remained a secret to even members of his own team.

 

So when Samothes went down in the playoff game between Velas and Marielda, and stayed down, the crowd was stunned, and Samot even more so. They’d brought a stretcher to help him off. Samot would remember, later, Samothes trying to refuse it and being forced to accept it, because he couldn’t stand on his own.

 

Samot had made it to the end of the period, and then he’d taken himself to the locker room to throw up.

 

Marielda won, four to three. They went on to the finals, and won, and Samot couldn’t enjoy a single minute of it.

 

The night they won, he was in his hotel room. The team was out celebrating, as they should have been, but he couldn’t bring himself to go with them. He kept picturing Samothes’ face, pale and strained, as he’d made his way off the ice.

 

His phone had rung, not an unexpected thing after their victory. The voice on the other end of the line, however, was.

 

“You should be out celebrating,” said Samothes.

 

Samot had laughed, but there was no joy in it. “How do you know I’m not?”

 

“Because I just called your hotel room, and you answered,” said Samothes, “and also, every time I see you on tv you look like someone just told you that your dog just died.”

 

“My dog is fine,” said Samot. He paused. “I did end a man’s hockey career though.”

 

Samothes paused for a long moment. “No, you didn’t.”

 

“It was a bad hit Samothes,” said Samot, “I don’t care what the ruling was, I know what I did.”

 

“It could have been anyone, at any time,” said Samothes, “It could have even been me knocking it against a table at home.”

 

“What?”

 

“Shit, uh,” said Samothes.

 

Hearing Samothes flustered startled a laugh out of Samot, the first in weeks.

 

“Oh, it doesn’t matter now, does it?” said Samothes, and told him - about the hit last year, about the physical therapy, about the layers of secrecy.

 

“I won’t tell anyone,” said Samot, “I swear-”

 

“Tell anyone you want,” said Samothes, “I’m finished now anyway.”

 

“I thought I was supposed to be the dramatic one?” said Samot.

 

Samothes laughed. It was strange. Before it had always been such a grating noise, but now Samot found the sound of it made him smile.

 

He’d started visiting Samothes the next day. The management at Marielda didn’t mind it - apparently they thought it was great PR, hockey victor magnanimously visits former rival and all that - and so he kept going, and every time he went he stayed a little longer. When the season started up again and away games kept him from visiting, he called. When Samothes finally got out of the hospital, he brought Samothes food - lunch, and then dinner, and then staying the night to cook him breakfast.

 

Samothes had looked over at him, across the table from the terrible burnt toast he’d made, and laughed his charming laugh, and Samot had no choice but to kiss him.

 

Six months later, he moved in with Samothes. A year later, he got traded to Velas.

 

Samothes tilts his face to kiss Samot properly. Samot sinks into it for a moment, letting the heat of the kiss chase away his thoughts.

 

Samot leans back. “I’m still worried about Ephrim.”

 

Samothes sighs, kissing a trail along Samot’s jaw, down his neck. Samot’s breath hitches.

 

“We can’t do much about future accidents to Ephrim’s wrist,” says Samothes. “So I’d at least like to try to distract you a little, if I may.”

 

He feels Samothes smile against his skin, mouthing over Samot’s pulse point. Samot’s mind goes pleasantly fuzzy for a moment.

 

“Oh, I suppose,” says Samot, “Try, then-”



--



Excerpt from Snitch Nightly’s Nightly Forecast, episode 3:

 

“You just gotta look at the statistics of it,” says Snitch, looking unnervingly into the camera, “it’s all well and good to feel all warm and fuzzy about Hadrian as captain, but you gotta face facts: he’s just not good at it.”

 

Snitch slaps his palms down on the desk in front of him for emphasis. The table wobbles a little.

 

“They need fresh blood in there, and a rookie or two from Rosemerrow just ain’t gonna cut it!” says Snitch. “When you get a bad apple, you chuck the apple out, you don’t renew its contract to stay in the barrel! Well, you don’t if you got sense .”

 

He sits back, the top of his head going out of frame for a moment before he reaches forward, adjusting the camera. He’s still clearly unused to doing any kind of show on his own.

 

“Anyway, the point is, Velas deserves a championship team, and they deserve someone who can take them there. And Hadrian Nurmacher ain’t it.” Snitch pauses. “Uh. And if you agree with me, and, if you got any sense, you should, leave your opinion in the comments below, and share this video to your friends, let them hear some good hockey sense for once.”



--



Hadrian wakes before his alarm. He stares up at the ceiling for a while, listening to Rosana’s deep, even breaths in the hope that it will lull him back to sleep. When that doesn’t work, he gets up and pads as quietly as he can to the kitchen. He feels too nauseous to eat anything, but going through the process of making a cup of coffee will at least give him something to do with his hands.

 

He’s a little surprised to see Fero already in the kitchen. There’s a plate of plain toast in front of him but instead of eating it, it appears that Fero has just been tearing it into smaller and smaller pieces.

 

Fero blinks at him. “Uh. Morning.”

 

Hadrian glances at the window. The sun hasn’t even begun to even think about rising yet.

 

“Yeah,” says Hadrian, “Morning.” He pauses. “Couldn’t sleep?”

 

Fero shrugs. “Didn’t feel tired.”

 

Hadrian nods, and sets about making coffee as quietly as possible.

 

“Uh. So,” says Hadrian, “first game of the season today.”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero. His voice sounds strained.

 

Hadrian remembers his first proper game. He’s pretty sure he threw up at least twice before he got on the ice.

 

“It’s normal to be nervous about it,” says Hadrian, “even Samot and Samothes get nervous about it, y’know? Tensions are high all over.”

 

“I’m not nervous,” says Fero, tearing the tiny square of toast in his hands into tinier crumbs.

 

“Sure,” says Hadrian, “but, if you were, that’d be normal, is what I’m saying.”

 

The kitchen is quiet for a long moment. Hadrian watches the coffee drip slowly into his mug.

 

“Are you nervous?” says Fero.

 

“God yes,” says Hadrian, with feeling.

 

Fero laughs, muffling the overly-loud sound with his hand. Hadrian huffs a laugh.

 

“I guess I am kinda nervous, maybe,” says Fero, “It feels like a big deal.”

 

“It never really stops feeling that way,” says Hadrian.

 

Fero nods, looking down at his pile of shredded toast.

 

“You should try to eat something before we leave,” says Hadrian, “No good playing on an empty stomach.”

 

Fero makes a face. “I know. I’m kind of waiting for my body to get hungry.”

 

Hadrian smiles. “We are up pretty early. Our stomachs are probably still asleep.”

 

“We’ve got time before we leave though, right?”

 

Hadrian huffs a laugh, looking at the clock on the microwave. “Yeah, we’ve got time. You want a coffee?”

 

Fero nods enthusiastically. “A green mug please, if you’ve got one.”

 

“Green huh?” says Hadrian, hunting around. There’s a mug right at the back of the cupboard, a souvenir from the Twinbrook National Park.

 

“It’s my lucky colour,” says Fero.

 

“Huh,” says Hadrian, “mine’s yellow.”

 

He holds up his mug, the bright yellow sun cheerfully giving a thumbs up on the side. Ben painted it a few years ago, a father’s day present. It would be Hadrian’s lucky mug even if it wasn’t yellow.

 

Fero laughs. “Double luck!”

 

“I guess it is,” says Hadrian.

 

He hopes it holds true for the game.



--



Their first game of the season is… well. It’s been a while since Hadrian’s had a game like this . It’s been even longer since he won a game in a shootout, and in overtime no less. He gets a hat trick in the final period. He feels like he floats home. For once, the post-game calls for him to be fired are barely audible over the memory of the crowd cheering his name.

 

It carries over to the next game too, and they defeat Kanton. The home-game crowd’s cheers are deafening.

 

And then they go on the road, and promptly lose the next two games.

 

“Well,” says Samot, smiling thinly at him after their second loss in a row. “We’re two for two. It’s not bad , as a start.”

 

Hadrian would almost prefer that Samot yells at him.

 

They win the next game, but it's close, it feels too much like a struggle for Hadrian to feel anything other than exhausted , especially since they’re still on the road. They lose two more, crushing, embarrassing losses, before they head home to win by the skin of their teeth in overtime, and then they lose two more in front of a home crowd.

 

It’s a strange way to start a season. Ephrim looks pale as he comes off the ice, but Hadrian’s pretty sure he just feels as nauseous as Hadrian does when he looks up at the crowd. Still, he keeps an eye on Ephrim’s wrist as they go on the road for the final two games of the month. He doesn’t want to take any chances.

 

Ephrim wears his wrist brace during the next few training sessions. Hadrian doesn’t know enough to judge whether that’s a good or bad sign, and Ephrim cuts short any conversation he tries to have about it.

 

Their next game’s a victory but the team is quiet in the locker room after. Even Fero seems tense. It might be the fast travel time to their next game. They practically head from the arena into the bus so they can get to the Nacre with enough time to shower and sleep before they have to head to the arena.

 

Lem bounces his leg at they take the bus from the hotel. Hadrian half-braces himself for Fero’s loud annoyance at him before he realises that Fero’s sitting right at the front, talking loudly to Devar. Hadrian thinks it might be the most noise he’s heard Fero make all trip.



--



They’re in Nacre.

 

Fero hates Nacre.

 

He hates the buildings, he hates the palm trees, he hates the stadium, he hates the Nacre Pirates and he really hates the stupid look that Lem gets in his eye as they get closer to the city.

 

“Do you think Emmanuel will be playing tomorrow night?”

 

Fero doesn’t turn around, pulling back the bedcovers. “Why don’t you look it up? The rosters probably online.”

 

“Oh, I didn’t think of that,” says Lem, “Thanks Fero.”

 

Fero’s stomach twists. “You’re welcome.”

 

When they take the bus to the Pirates Arena the next day, Fero makes sure to sit absolutely nowhere near Lem. Devar blinks at him when he sits down next to him, but thankfully doesn’t say anything.

 

“It’s so beautiful here,” sighs Lem from somewhere behind him.

 

Fero scowls out the window.

 

“I guess,” says Devar, “if you like palm trees. Kinda makes me miss Velas forests though.”

 

Thank you,” says Fero, “Finally someone with sense .”

 

Devar laughs.

 

He ignores Lem rapsing poetic about the city behind him and talks to Devar instead. Nacre’s a tough team, but their record against them is mixed enough that Devar seems calm.

 

“So we’re gonna win, is what you’re saying,” says Fero.

 

Devar laughs. “I mean, not exactly. I just meant to odds aren’t totally against us like they are with some other teams. Then again, hockey’s a wild game. There’s a lot at play, you know? Anything can happen.”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, and turns to look out the window.

 

Fero’s never been to Nacre before, but he has played them, sort of. There was a charity game once, when he and Lem had just started with the Rosemerrow junior team. A bunch of Nacre rookies came down to play them. On top of being a charity thing for the local children’s hospital, it was supposed to be good for them, learning from other players with different experiences, thinking about what you wanted from your career.

 

It was a transformative experience, in a way. It was the first time he’d seen someone score a goal from behind the net. He got to talk to other players who’d just gone through the process of being drafted and playing a few games for the league. He scored two goals, made a good enough impression on his coach that they put him on the roster to actually play, not just be a backup in case of injury.

 

It was also the first time he saw Lem in love. That was also transformative, for both of them.

 

Lem, in that his eyes softened when he spoke about Emmanuel, talented, kind, wonderful Emmanuel, who’d offered to give him a private lesson about scoring after their game.

 

Fero, in that he learned that any time Lem mentioned it, his stomach twisted itself into knots and he wanted to yell at Lem about everything all the time.

 

This time around is no different. They get to the arena earlier than expected. Nacre are still warming up on the ice, and Lem quickly seeks out Emmanuel, waving to get his attention. Fero mumbles something to no one in particular about getting some water and hides in the bathroom until Calhoun comes to get him, looking as grim-faced as Fero feels.

 

“You came from Nacre, right?” says Fero.

 

“Yeah,” says Calhoun, “I, uh. Not a lot of good memories here though. Too much legacy happening for me to really be me out on the ice, y’know?”

 

Fero doesn’t know, but he nods anyway. It feels good to have Calhoun agree with him, anyway.

 

“Hey,” says Fero, as they walk towards the locker room, “I really, really want to kick their ass tonight.”

 

Calhoun laughs. “Me too.”



--



The game is… well, it’s a real mixed bag. They lose, by a single point in overtime, so the loss at least doesn’t feel so crushing. Not to Hadrian, anyway. Fero and Calhoun seem to take it pretty hard. Lem, by opposition, springs back from defeat in record time.

 

“I actually, um, have plans tonight,” says Lem to him, voice quiet, “Do we… I mean, obviously if there’s stuff we have to do as a team, I can move things, but…”

 

“No, there’s nothing that can’t wait,” says Hadrian, “Enjoy your night, I guess. Just make sure you’re back here to get on the bus tomorrow morning.”

 

Lem beams at him, disappearing quickly out the door.

 

Fero scowls at the spot Lem had been standing in, struggling with his skates. Hadrian’s a little worried he might cut himself on them with how aggressive he was on the ice during the game. He keeps an eye on Fero until it’s time to go. Fero’s notably quiet, especially in comparison to how loud he was on the drive there.

 

Ephrim frowns as they gather in the hotel lobby, waiting for the elevator. “Hey, where’s Lem? Did we leave him behind?”

 

“He said he has plans,” says Hadrian, “he’ll be here tomorrow.”

 

Fero snorts. “Sure.”

 

“Well we’re hardly going to leave without him,” says Hadrian.

 

“Maybe we should,” snaps Fero, “Serves him right for being a traitor!”

 

“I don’t know if having dinner plans is a traitorous act,” says Devar.

 

“Whatever,” says Fero, crossing his arms.

 

He glares at the ground until the elevator arrives, and then he glares at Ephrim’s shoes. He stomps out of the elevator as soon as it stops, not waiting to say goodnight. Ephrim and Hadrian exchange looks.

 

“I’ll go see if he’s alright,” says Hadrian.

 

“Better you than me,” says Ephrim, “Night.”

 

“Night,” says Hadrian.

 

He pauses outside Fero’s room, knocking lightly. “Fero?”

 

“I’m fine,” says Fero, voice slightly muffled through the door, “Go away.”

 

“Can I come in?” says Hadrian.

 

“Fine.”

 

Hadrian can hear Fero stomp to the door, slamming it open. Hadrian is very careful to hold himself still, making sure not to give any reaction to Fero’s red eyes or damp cheeks. Fero steps back to let him in, stomping his way back to his bed.

 

“I don’t want to talk about it!” says Fero, “I’m fine! Everything is fine! I don’t care!”

 

“Okay,” says Hadrian slowly, “I was just coming to ask- y’know, after games I find it hard to unwind sometimes, and I was going to see if you wanted to watch a movie or something? If you’re up for hanging out.”

 

“Of course I am,” says Fero.

 

Hadrian carefully chooses the blandest action movie he can find to put on. Behind him, Fero very unsubtly wipes at his eyes. Hadrian hands him the box of hotel tissues from the table.

 

“It’s so pollen heavy here,” says Hadrian, before Fero can insist he doesn’t need them, “It does a real number on you if you’re not used to it.”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, “Yeah, it, uh. It really does.” He pauses, fiddling with the tissue box for a moment. “Thanks.”

 

“No problem,” says Hadrian.

 

Fero falls asleep on Hadrian’s side about half-way through the movie. Hadrian very quietly switches it off, covering Fero with a blanket and setting out water for him before he leaves.

 

He has two missed calls, both from Rosana. He hits redial before he checks the time, and almost hangs up, but Rosana is faster.

 

“‘Lo?”

 

“Sorry,” says Hadrian, “didn’t realise how late it must be there.”

 

“S’okay,” says Rosana. “Must be late there too. Were you celebrating?”

 

“We lost honey,” says Hadrian.

 

“I know that,” says Rosana, “but you scored your twenty-fifth goal of the season. Half-way to beating Samothes’s record.”

 

“I... honestly didn’t even realise it.”

 

“So humble,” says Rosana.

 

Hadrian laughs, pushing the door to his room open with his shoulder, flipping on the lights. “Really, I- oh .”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“I uh.” Hadrian swallows. “I just got back to my room and Samot and Samothes left this, uh. They left a card for me, about the twenty five goals thing.” He swallows again, blinking until his vision clears.

 

It’s a big novelty card, shedding glitter onto the hotel coffee table and sticking to his hands. Hadrian swallows again, his throat tight.

 

“That’s nice of them,” says Rosana.

 

He can tell she’s drifting back to sleep and he smiles into the phone, closing his eyes for a moment.

 

“We’re back home tomorrow,” says Hadrian, “And our next few games are home games.”

 

“Good,” says Rosana, “We miss you.”

 

“I miss you too,” says Hadrian, “See you tomorrow. Go back to sleep.”

 

“You too,” says Rosana.

 

Hadrian smiles at the phone for a moment before he looks back at the card.

 

Congratulations on your 25th goal!

 

Half-way to making my husband even more jealous that he is now - Samot

In all honesty, there is no one I would rather beat my record - Samothes

 

Hadrian looks at the card for a long time before he finally, finally, gets into bed, a strange feeling swirling in his chest.



--



Lem is whistling as they gather up everything into the team bus the next morning, smiling to himself. Devar wouldn’t mind - hey, great for Lem to be in such a good mood after they lost - but every time Lem says You know, Emmanuel did that or that’s so funny, Emmanuel was just saying that to me last night Fero looks more and more miserable.

 

As soon as they get on the bus, Devar motions Fero to sit next to him, handing over his headphones. Fero frowns, looking up at Devar.

 

“I know you lost yours in Twinbrook,” says Devar.

 

“But what are you going to listen to?”

 

“I guess I’ll just hear Lem’s Ted Talk about Emmanuel.”

 

Fero’s laugh is a little watery, but it’s warm enough to be real. “We can share if you want?”

 

“Now that you mention it, Emmanuel was just telling me about that,” says Lem to Ephrim from behind them.

 

“You know, I would really appreciate that,” says Devar, “thanks man.”



--



The games at home seem to bring them good luck - they surprise everyone by winning the next three games in a row. Samot glares at the headline.

 

I’m not surprised. We’re a good team, why are people so shocked that we won?”

 

Samothes kisses the top of his head, leaning around him to pour coffee into Samot’s mug. “Because being the better team doesn’t always mean you win.”

 

“Well this time it does.”

 

Samothes huffs a laugh. He pauses, looking at Samot out of the corner of his eye. “How are Marielda doing?”

 

“Holding their own,” says Samot, “They’re already tipped as going into the playoffs.” He looks up at Samothes. “I’m not worried about it.”

 

“Of course,” says Samothes. “But perhaps we should invite Hadrian around for a small strategy session before the game anyway.”

 

“If you think it’s best,” says Samot.

 

There’s not a lot of time between their last game and their next one. Hadrian looks like Samot remembers feeling, trying to be a captain and a father at the same time.

 

“I dunno,” says Hadrian, “I guess my strategy was just to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

 

“And what is that?” says Samot.

 

“Playing well?”

 

Samot huffs a laugh. “Hadrian. This isn’t an interview, you’re not being graded on this. We want to know your honest opinion.”

 

Hadrian pauses. “I mean, we’ve been doing some solid plays, getting better at working as a team on the ice, and that’s… I mean, you need to work on it, obviously, but it mainly comes from just playing together, and that’s just time.” He fiddles with the mug in front of him, turning it around in his palms. “I guess… I guess the only real differences are Lem and Fero.”

 

Samot sits forward a little. “Yes?”

 

“They’re both working great in the team,” says Hadrian, “So this isn’t, like… I don’t want you to think there’s something wrong.”

 

“We understand,” says Samothes.

 

Hadrian nods. “Lem… he’s been playing kind of loose - it’s not a bad thing, he seems more relaxed on the ice, and I think he’s not in his head so much about the game, and Fero… I mean, you must have noticed he’s kind of more aggressive on the ice lately.”

 

“I had,” says Samot. “Do you think it’s something to watch?”

 

“Maybe, I- he’s kind of going through something right now, I think,” says Hadrian. “I’m keeping an eye on it.”

 

Samot raises his eyebrows. “Anything I need to be aware of?”

 

“It’s just a personal thing,” says Hadrian, “It, uh. I think it’ll work itself out. Maybe.”

 

Samot leans forward to press for details, but Samothes cuts him off.

 

“Well, alright,” says Samothes, “If it doesn’t, you need to let us know, okay? We can only help with what we know about.”

 

Hadrian nods, his face serious.

 

They move on to Marielda, rewatching old game footage as Samot speculates on what plays they’re focused on right now. He’s pretty sure he understands the team, even if things have changed since he was a part of it. They send Hadrian back home to get some rest before the game, and Samot feels like their fourth win in a row is right around the corner.



--



“A crushing home game defeat tonight for the Sailors,” says Snitch gleefully, “What do you think went wrong out there tonight?”

 

Samol hums. “Hard to say.”

 

“Oh, come on now,” says Snitch, “Don’t let favouritism get in the way of the truth.”

 

“The truth is that games are more complicated than they appear from the seats,” says Samol, “although you have to have actually played to understand that.”

 

Snitch splutters, and Samol’s lips quirk upwards.

 

“Could be that they were a little less cohesive as a team than they have been for the past couple of games,” says Samol, “Fero getting sent off twice in the last period definitely hurt them as well.”

 

“Yeah he was really giving it to them,” says Snitch.

 

Samol hums. “Much more aggressive play than we’ve seen from him previously.”

 

“Wonder why that is,” says Snitch, “You think we could be seeing another Arrell situation here?”

 

Someone taps on the glass behind them. As Samol turns, the top of Fero’s head comes into view. He waves.

 

Samol laughs. “Well it looks like you have a chance to ask him yourself.” He motions to Fero. “Feel like an interview?”

 

“Sure,” says Fero, his voice muffled through the glass, “Give me a sec.”

 

His head disappears, and Samol turns back to Snitch, who looks a little paler than he did a moment ago.

 

“We’re not, uh. We’re not really set up for an interview,” says Snitch.

 

“I’m sure Fero doesn’t mind.”

 

“I don’t!” says Fero, from off camera.

 

“We don’t have a mic for you,” says Snitch.

 

“There’s a handheld one over there,” says Samol.

 

“Thanks,” says Fero, “Is this thing working?”

 

“It is,” says Samol, “We were just talking about your aggressive play out there on the ice tonight.”

 

“Yeah, kinda got in trouble for it this time around,” says Fero, “I guess I’m going to have to work out a different way to be intimidating.”

 

“You could try being taller,” says Snitch.

 

“Nah,” says Fero, “Most players seem pretty scared of my current height. They’re worried I’ll take out their knees.”

 

“You very nearly did that tonight,” says Samol, his voice serious.

 

Fero straightens in the chair. “Yeah. Yeah, I know, and I’m- I’m glad Hitchcock’s okay.”

 

“So am I,” says Samol.

 

“Might be a good idea to keep the aggressive play for at least one more game,” says Snitch, “you’re up against the Liches next.”

 

Fero makes a face. “I guess, but I don’t want to win like that.”

 

“You could,” says Snitch.

 

“Wow,” says Fero, “You know, you’re making a way better case for not hitting guys on the ice ever.”

 

Snitch grins. “Why’s that?”

 

“Because I don’t want to ever agree with you in my life ,” says Fero.

 

Samol smiles. “A common response to my co-host.”

 

Fero grins up at him. “Well, if you’re ever looking for a new one, you can give me a call. I can talk just as much [BLEEP] and I’m way less obnoxious.”

 

Snitch splutters again.

 

Samol laughs, putting a hand on Fero’s shoulder. You can just make out, in the footage, the faint flush on Fero’s cheeks under his grin.



--



The game against the Liches is a rough one, even before Fantasmo goes down in the second period. He manages to limp his way off, hand pressed to the side of his face. Hadrian doesn’t know what happened until he watches the footage later, the Lich player slamming him into the goal.

 

Concussion. He’ll be out most of the season.

 

Calhoun goes on in his place. Fero circles around the goal, as if daring the other team to try it again.

 

They win, but it’s close.

 

The mood in the locker room after the game is sombre. Hadrian gets changed quietly, trying to ignore the pit in his stomach as he tries to think of something to say when he inevitably gets asked about Fantasmo.

 

“We’re just glad he’s alright,” is what he settles on, in the end. It’s the closest to how he feels.

 

Lem’s mood is the first to pick back up. It doesn’t take Hadrian long to figure out why. Their next game is against Nacre.

 

“I just had so much fun playing against Emmanuel last time,” says Lem, “He’s just so talented .”

 

Behind him, Fero wacks a puck into the net.

 

“You want to practise shooting from behind the net again?” asks Hadrian.

 

“Nah,” says Fero, slamming another puck into goal. “I think I just want to hit this as hard as possible.” Whack . “Thanks though.”

 

“Sure,” says Hadrian.

 

Probably a good idea to keep Calhoun out of the goal, at least for the first part of their training session.



--



Oh !” says Snitch, “And that’s another Velas goalie down for the count!”

 

Samol leans forward in his seat, trying to get a better view. It doesn’t look as bad as Fantasmo’s injury at least. Not as much blood.

 

“I guess he and Brandish have always had that rivalry,” says Snitch, “You know, people have been telling me that this was going to be the Sailors year for the cup, but it looks like it’s actually their year for injuries, yikes.”

 

Samol says nothing, still looking out at the ice.

 

“Uh,” says Snitch. “Well.” He clears his throat. “It’s going to be a difficult third period for Velas now.”

 

“They are in the lead with ten minutes to go,” says Samol.

 

“Ah but a lot can happen in ten minutes!” says Snitch, grinning.

 

“I guess we’ll see,” says Samol.



--



They lose, in overtime.

 

As soon as they get off the ice they go to where Calhoun is miserably sitting in the medical office, his arm strapped tight.

 

“They said at least four weeks off before I can ever do training ,” says Calhoun, “Guys-”

 

“Don’t be sorry,” says Fero, “it wasn’t your fault.”

 

“It wasn’t yours either,” says Calhoun. “You’re fast but even you can’t be everywhere at once.”

 

Fero nods, looking away.

 

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to do it,” says Lem.

 

Devar snorts. “Right.”

 

“Emmanuel would never play for a team that was like that,” says Lem.

 

Calhoun puts his uninjured hand on Lem’s shoulder. “I played for them and I can tell you, they are exactly like that.”

 

“Emmanuel’s not like that!” says Lem.

 

“Well then maybe he’ll get himself traded,” says Calhoun, “that’s what I did.”



--



In the coach’s box, Samot and Samothes exchange a glance.

 

“I’ll call the emergency back up goalie,” says Primo.



--

 

Throndir can hear the phone ringing from the shower, unusual for how late it is. He feels tired out after watching the game, and he’d just been in the stands.

 

The phone rings again and he sighs, shutting off the water. He pads to where his phone is charging, towel around his waist, still dripping water from the shower.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Is this Throndir?”

 

Throndir frowns. “Yes? Who is this?”

 

“This is Primo, of the Velas Sailors,” says Primo. “You’re our backup goalie, correct?”

 

“Well, emergency backup, but yeah.”

 

“Good,” says Primo, “We need to to go on in our next game.”

 

There’s a ringing in Throndir’s ears. “You need… what?”

 

“Fantasmo and Calhoun are both out with injuries,” says Primo, “You’re our emergency back up. This is an emergency.”

 

Throndir sits down on the couch. “I- Okay, yeah, sure. When, uh, the next games in a couple of days, right?”

 

“It’s in two days,” says Primo, “but we’d like you to come by the arena as soon as possible tomorrow, just to run through a couple of things.”

 

“Yeah, sure,” says Throndir faintly, “Yeah, I’ll… I‘ll be there.”

 

He hangs up and stares into space for a long moment.

 

He’d signed the tryout contract half as a joke, really. It hadn’t been for any money, and really what it meant was that he got a free ticket to every Velas Sailors game. After all, what were the chances they’d ever be down two goalies?

 

Better than he’d thought, apparently.

 

It takes him a long time to fall asleep that night, rechecking his phone every few minutes to make sure he hadn’t imagined the call, and that his alarm was still set.



--



“Who’s the new guy?” says Fero.

 

“Huh,” says Hadrian, “New goalie maybe? Samothes said they were calling in our emergency backup.”

 

Fero looks him over. He seems pretty steady as he circles the goal, if a little lost. He’s older than Fero thought he would be, closer to Hadrian’s age than to Fero’s.

 

“He knows you’ve gotta stand in the same place, right? Like in the goal?”

 

Hadrian huffs a laugh. “Come on, let’s say hi.”

 

“Hi!” yells Fero as Hadrian opens the gate.

 

It’s sudden enough to make Hadrian startle. The new goalie slips on the ice, righting himself before he can fall.

 

Jesus !”

 

“No, I’m Fero,” says Fero, grinning up at him.

 

The new goalie runs a hand through his hair. He doesn’t seem annoyed at all, which Fero thinks is a good sign. Fantasmo always said to be a good goalie you needed patience, and that he was an excellent test of that.

 

“Hi, I’m Throndir.”

 

“I’m Hadrian,” says Hadrian, holding out his hand to Throndir.

 

“Yeah, I, uh. I know,” says Throndir.

 

He shakes Hadrian’s hand anyway, which Fero also thinks is a good sign. Calhoun told him once that to be a good goalie you needed to adapt to your circumstances, in this case how much of a big manners nerd Hadrian is.

 

“How are you feeling?” says Hadrian.

 

“Honestly? Anxious as hell,” says Throndir.

 

Hadrian laughs and claps him on the back. “You’re going to do just fine. Let’s see what you got.”



--



Throndir is good enough that Hadrian stops going easy on him after about five minutes. He doesn’t even blink at Fero trying to shoot from behind the net, either. Both are good signs.

 

He and Fero do loops around the ice before the rest of the team arrive, criss-crossing paths on the ice. Fero does a small spin and Throndir laughs, clapping his hands.

 

“Where’d you learn that ?”

 

“Ephrim,” says Fero, “He could teach you too, if you want. Probably.”

 

Throndir makes a face. “I dunno, I’m only here for a couple of weeks.”

 

“Oh,” says Fero, “yeah. He could still teach you though.”

 

“We should probably wait until he gets here before you commit him to teaching me,” says Throndir.

 

Fero shrugs, spinning away before he speeds up, whizzing past Hadrian as he moves towards Throndir.

 

“Wow he’s fast,” says Throndir, “I mean, you see if from the stands but seeing it up close…”

 

“Yeah,” says Hadrian, “he’s a good kid.”

 

Throndir nods. He drifts slightly on the ice.

 

Hadrian puts a hand on his shoulder. “You’re gonna do fine.”

 

“I just… I don’t want to be the reason you guys lose, y’know?”

 

“You won’t be,” says Hadrian, “come on, the rest of the team’s almost here.”



--



The day is a blur of new faces and tired muscles. Throndir really hopes he won’t be too sore to move for the actual game.

 

He takes a moment to himself in the locker room after everyone else has filtered out, looking around. It feels like hallowed ground.

 

It’s only after he starts to take off his skates that he realises he has no idea how Hadrian helped him get them on. The laces snarl and tangle in his hands. Throndir has visions of him having to stay in his uniform until game time, already half-forming excuses as to how he got there so early.

 

“You still here?”

 

“Yeah, just, you know, taking it all in,” says Throndir, “Um. Ephrim, right?”

 

“That’s me,” says Ephrim.

 

His eyes drift down to Throndir’s skates. Throndir feels himself flush.

 

Ephrim smiles, not unkindly. “You need a hand?”

 

“I, uh.” Throndir huffs a laugh. “Yeah, I do. Hadrian helped me get them on.”

 

Ephrim rolls his eyes. “Yeah, he ties his laces in a weird way. Here-”

 

He drops to his knees beside Throndiir, bending to undo his skates. Throndir feels his cheeks flush hotter.

 

Ephrim smiles up at him, dazzling him for a moment. He’s seen plenty of photos to the team, but he never knew that Ephrim had dimples, or that he had a scattering of freckles across his cheeks.

 

“So, Throndir,” says Ephrim, “What do you do when you’re not saving our asses?”

 

“I, uh. I work at a daycare centre.”

 

Ephrim blinks. “ Seriously ?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Wow, that’s… not what I was expecting.”

 

“What were you expecting?”

 

“I don’t know,” says Ephrim, “like builder, or a mechanic, or something, because you’re-”

 

Ephrim breaks off, his cheeks pink.

 

Throndir grins. “Well, y’know. Running around after kids all day is a pretty good workout.”

 

“Yeah...” says Ephrim. He blinks, clearing his throat. “Uh, there, that should do it.”

 

Ephrim’s hand lingers on Throndir’s knee for a moment before he stands.

 

“I’ll, uh. I’ll leave you to get changed,” says Ephrim.

 

Throndir nods. He can still feel the heat of Ephrim’s hand on his knee.

 

“Hey, Ephrim?” says Throndir.

 

Ephrim turns, one hand on the doorway as he looks back over his shoulder.

 

“Do you, um. I mean, I’ve never been back here before and I really don’t want to get lost on my way out, would you mind…”

 

“Oh, yeah, of course,” says Ephrim. He turns to go and then looks back again. “You know, I’m kinda hungry - there’s a good diner we go to sometimes after training that’s a couple blocks away. Y’know, if you’re hungry.”

 

“I definitely am,” says Throndir, “absolutely.”

 

Ephrim tucks a stand of hand behind his ear. “Good, I’ll- um. I’ll wait out here.”

 

Throndir’s not sure how long it normally takes to get out of hockey gear but he’s sure he makes it out in record time.



--



The first game with Throndir, Hadrian hangs close to goal for the first period, stopping anyone who even looks like they’re approaching goal.

 

“It’s an effective defence strategy,” says Samot during the break, “but we need to score points too.”

 

“I know,” says Hadrian, “I just…”

 

Samot put a hand on Hadrian’s arm. “I know. But you have to trust in him like you would any other member of the team.”

 

Hadrian lets out a long breath. He nods.

 

Samot squeezes his arm. “Good.”



--



“Well, it’s not something you see everyday Juno, that’s for sure,” says Coral, “to see this guy come onto the ice and just - I mean- it was one of the most incredible games I’ve ever seen.”

 

Juno laughed. “Think you can hold it together to be professional in sixty seconds?”

 

“No,” says Coral.

 

Juno laughs. “Well I’m going to need you to try. Thirty seconds, by the way.”

 

“I don’t see why I have to be professional and Snitch got to say whatever garbage he liked.”

 

“He didn’t,” said Juno, “That’s why he got fired, and I like you too much to let that happen to you.”

 

“God, okay.” Coral takes a deep breath in, letting it out slowly.

 

“Three… two… one-”

 

“Hi Juno,” says Coral, perhaps a shade too brightly to be professional . “What an incredible scene here at the Velas arena here tonight, with emergency back-up goalie Throndir really coming through for the Sailors and helping them clinch victory over the Alcyon Paladins.”

 

“I imagine the mood down there is a lot higher than the last time we had you reporting from the field,” says Juno.

 

Coral can hear the smile in Juno’s voice. She beams at the camera, she can’t help it, she feels so light .

 

“It certainly is, Juno. After Throndir made a save in the closing minutes of the game, the crowd was on its feet - a level of engagement from Sailors fans that we haven’t seen for a long time, and what must be an incredible feeling for their new goalie.”

 

“I understand he’s going to be sticking with the team for a while?”

 

“Yes,” says Coral, “Yes, we got word moments ago that he’s signed a temporary contract, so he’ll be on the ice while Calhoun’s in recovery, although it’s not certain at this time if he’ll be kept on permanently.”



--



Transcript excerpt from The Chime podcast, episode 87:

 

AuDy: Don’t say it.

 

Mako: You don’t know what I’m going to say! And don’t tell me you’re that superstitious too!

 

AuDy: I am not, but Cass is. I would prefer that you did not upset them while we are in such a tenuous position in the rankings.

 

Cass: Yeah, Mako, don’t-

 

Mako: [interrupting, leaning away from the mic to speak loudly] I think they’re going to-

 

[Shushing noises]

 

Mako: They are! They’re playing really well and-

 

Cass: Mako-!

 

Aria: Don’t tempt fate Mako.

 

Mako: [sighs] Okay.

 

[Pause]

 

Aria: So in actual hockey news-

 

Mako: [crosstalk] But I do think they’re going to get into the playoffs this year.

 

[Groaning from the other hosts. Mako laughs]

 

Mako: Guys, my belief in the team is strong enough to beat any weird superstition, you’ll see.



--



“I mean, I don’t know,” says Throndir, “I’m not exactly rookie age.”

 

“Because you’re not a rookie,” says Ephrim, “No rookie has the save percentage you brought tonight.”

 

Throndir laughs, shrugging on his shirt. “I bet some rookies do.”

 

“They don’t,” says Ephrim, “trust me, I know the stats.”

 

“You know the stats, huh?”

 

Ephrim steps forwards, batting away Throndir’s hands to slowly button up Throndir’s shirt.

 

“I do,” says Ephrim. He pauses. “You really were incredible tonight.”

 

Throndir feels himself flush, half at Ephrim’s words and half at how close their bodies are,  Ephrim’s hands resting on his chest, toying with the buttons on his shirt.

 

“Hey!” says Fero, leaning around the doorway.

 

Ephrim springs back and Throndir stumbles, sitting down heavily on the bench.

 

“Are you guys coming or what?”

 

“Yes!” says Throndir, hoping he didn’t look as red-faced as he felt. “I’m- just have to finish getting dressed.”

 

Fero makes a face. “Well hurry up! I want to eat!”

 

Ephrim steps forward again, his cheeks pink. “Sorry, I- he’s just kind of a gossip, and I don’t want- I mean, not that it matters , but I don’t your time here to be difficult-”

 

Throndir reaches up, squeezing Ephrim’s hands for a moment before he buttons the rest of his shirt. “Hey. It’s okay.”

 

“I don’t normally do this,” says Ephrim. “So I kind of don’t know what I’m doing right now.”

 

“No stats for this?” says Throndir, grinning.

 

Ephrim laughs, ducking his head a little. “No. No stats for this.”

 

Throndir stands, leaning forward to kiss Ephrim. He keeps the kiss soft, resting a hand lightly on Ephrim’s waist.

 

“That’s okay,” says Throndir, after they break apart, “We’ll make some up.”



--



Hadrian catches Fero before he gets back to his hotel room after the team breakfast.

 

Fero crosses his arms. “What?”

 

“We play the Liches tonight.”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, “So?”

 

“I just wanted to make sure that you remember that you’re just one guy,” says Hadrian, “and that even if you could, you shouldn’t try to take out the entire Lich roster.”

 

“Like you don’t want to,” says Fero, “After what they did to Fantasmo?”

 

Hadrian’s hands flex at his sides. “That’s not… you know that stuff comes from Arrell. Those guys aren’t any better or worse than us.”

 

“Yeah, maybe,” says Fero. He pauses. “I guess it’s probably against the rules for me to check their coach, right?”

 

Hadrian nods.

 

“So, what?” says Fero, “you’re saying I can’t check anybody ? Because they’re definitely going to be doing it to our guys.”

 

“I’m not saying don’t do it at all, I’m just saying…” Hadrian pauses. “Look, I know you do it to get under the other team’s skin sometimes, and it definitely works , but I don’t want to lose you from games just because you wanted to annoy someone.”

 

Fero looks up at him for a moment. “So, what you’re saying is, if I found a way to annoy people that wouldn’t get me a temporary ban, you’d be okay with me doing that?”

 

“Fero…” Hadrian sighs. “Look, just, please don’t do anything, okay? Let’s just go out there and play the game.”

 

“Sure,” says Fero, his tone breezy, “I’ll just go out there and play the game.”

 

If anything, Hadrian leaves the conversation feeling more sure than ever that Fero is going to get his ass kicked on the ice. He just hopes he can move fast enough in the moment to stop the worst of it.



--



“We go now to Samol and Blake Bromley in the commentary box for tonight’s game,” says Coral, “How are Velas looking tonight?”

 

“Very high energy going into tonight’s game tonight Coral,” says Blake, “They’ve just finished their pre-game warm up and I’d say the Liches have their work cut out for them- Samol?”

 

Samol nods. “Their season’s been a little scattered, but it looks like they’re really finding their feet here in the back half of the season.”

 

There was an excited sound from below them.

 

“Sounds like they’re still a little high energy down there,” says Coral.

 

Blake peers over the edge. Behind them, you can just make out the figure of Fero, zooming in a circle around the goal.

 

Blake grins. “They certainly are Coral, and Fero especially seems in high spirits going into tonight’s game. He’s a stocky little fire hydrant of a man, and he’ll certainly be one to watch.”

 

"He's a stocky little something," says Samol. 

 

Blakes eyebrows shoot up as they glance back at Samol.

 

Although he cannot possibly hear them down on the ice, Fero blows a kiss up towards the commentary box. Samol laughs.

 

“Uh,” says Blake, “Back to you Coral.”



--



Lucius has been harassing Lem all game. He’s always been that kind of player, focusing in on the rookies, poking at perceived weaknesses. He used to do it to Hadrian all the time.

 

He keeps jostling Lem, even when the puck’s nowhere near him, and every time he does it Fero looks like he’s barely restraining himself from starting something.

 

Fero’s willpower lasts until the second period, when Lem actually does get checked into the glass. Fero is by his side in an instant, getting up close to Lucius. He leans in, glowering up at Lucius, both of them spitting words at one another.

 

Hadrian’s heart lodges in his throat, and then-

 

Fero licks him.

 

Lucius splutters, flailing backwards.

 

Fero laughs, and turns, putting a hand on Lem’s arm, speaking to him quietly. Lem smiles down at him, and Fero smiles back.

 

Lucius skates half a pace forward.

 

“If you want me to do it again you’ll have to shower first,” Hadrian hears Fero say, “You taste disgusting dude.”

 

Hadrian suppresses the urge to put his face in his hands.

 

Fero grins as he skates past him. “It’s not against the rules. I checked.”

 

“Great,” says Hadrian.

 

They win, four to three, which Hadrian’s pretty sure will only encourage this behaviour.



--



Hadrian always has mixed feelings about facing off against Ordenna. It’s not that he has any particular fondness for the team itself, or the city, but… it’s Hella’s city.

 

“I always feel kind of bad when we win,” says Hadrian.

 

Hella laughs, the sound of it warm through the phone. “You know I don’t actually play for Ordenna, right? I don’t even play for the women’s team there anymore, so- you’re absolved, or whatever.”

 

Hadrian laughs. “You know what I mean. It’s your hometown. If I ever changed teams, I’d feel bad about facing off against Velas.”

 

“As though you would ever change teams,” says Hella.

 

Hadrian huffs a laugh. ”I guess you’re right about that.”

 

Velas is the only team he’s ever played for. He’d been in the junior league for a while, but it had always been his goal, his dream , to play for the same team as Samothes. The day he’d been drafted had felt like a miracle. It still felt like that, sometimes.

 

“Well it should,” says Hella, “you’re on a winning streak right now.”

 

Hadrian shushes her.

 

Hella laughs. “Oh, right. Forget I said anything about streaks.”

 

Hadrian shushes her again, louder. “ Hella !”

 

She laughs again, sounding delighted.



--



They end their winning streak by losing spectacularly to Marielda.

 

“They’ll be the ones to beat, I think,” says Samot.

 

Samothes hums, scrolling down a long, complex-looking spreadsheet. “What about the Stars?”

 

“They’re too new,” says Samot, “they’ll be more of a threat next season, after they find their feet.”

 

“Their chances at the playoffs are almost identical to ours,” says Samothes.

 

“We still have a few months to go,” says Samot, “I wouldn’t count us out just yet.”



--



They close out the year with two wins in a row, and spirits are high enough that their New Year’s Eve party actually feels like a party . Samothes and Samot’s house is packed, people spilling out onto the balcony and into the small courtyard that leads off their elegantly-decorated lounge room. The entire team is there, plus their partners and friends, and partners of friends.

 

Fero’s having a good time. He normally doesn’t like parties, too many people and too much noise, but he likes this one. It’s fun .

 

It’ll be even more fun if he can find Lem in time for midnight. 

 

Normally, he’d have talked himself out of it by now, like he has every other year, but he’s just done a bunch of shots with Hella so he feels pretty invinceable right now. 

 

Lem’s nowhere to be found on the ground floor so he makes his way upstairs, squinting at his phone for the time when he gets to the landing. 11:56pm. Plenty of time.

 

He’s not on the balcony, or in the sunroom, or even in the bathroom. Fero thinks very hard for a moment, finally focusing on the only closed door his hasn’t gone into yet. He puts his ear to the door, trying to focus. He’s pretty sure that- yes, that’s definitely Lem’s voice.

 

“I miss you too,” says Lem. He pauses, sighing loudly. “I wish I was there with you. This party is okay, but it would be so much better if you were here to kiss at midnight.”

 

Fero stomach twists. Suddenly doing a bunch of shots feels like a horrible mistake.

 

He stumbles back from the door, slamming open the bathroom and closing the door behind him, sliding down until he’s sitting on the floor.

 

Finding Lem before midnight. What a stupid idea.

 

Through the door, he hears the countdown, people cheering, the distant sound of fireworks.

 

Fero shuffles forward and throws up, leaning his forehead against the cool porcelain and hoping that this whole night isn’t actually predictive of how the next year is going to be.

 

Someone knocks on the door.

 

“Occupied,” mumbles Fero.

 

The door slides open, and Fero looks up, ready to yell at whoever it is. He probably would have too, if it hadn’t been Hella.

 

“Hi, happy new year,” says Fero weakly.

 

Hella makes a face, moving to sit next to him on the floor. She glances behind her. “Babe, can you get us some water?”

 

Adelaide sighs, but steps away, letting the door close behind her. The sounds of the party become muted again.

 

“You didn’t tell him,” says Hella.

 

“He was on the phone to Emmanuel,” says Fero, “Felt like bad timing.”

 

“The first time Adelaide told me she loved me I’d just broken my leg in a game against Marielda,” says Hella, “I don’t know if there’s such a thing as good timing.”

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, “but you were kind of already dating at the time.”

 

“But we didn’t realise it though,” says Hella, “if you’d asked I probably would have said we were rivals.”

 

“Rivals that kissed ,” says Fero.

 

Hella huffs a laugh. “Very intense rivals.”

 

“Lem and I aren’t rivals, we’re friends.” Fero makes a face. “Sort of. It’s complicated.”

 

Hella nods. Fero knows that she gets complicated. She’s got a wife on an opposing team and a girlfriend who doesn’t even like hockey. Hella is adept in complicated .

 

Adelaide opens the door without knocking, handing Hella two glasses of water before she perches on the edge of the claw-foot bathtub.

 

“Well?” says Adelaide.

 

“It’s complicated,” says Hella.

 

“Love always is,” says Adelaide.

 

Hella puts her hand on Adelaide’s knee, looking up at her for a moment before she hands a glass to Fero.

 

“Drink,” says Hella, “It’ll help tomorrow.”

 

Fero sighs. He’d rather it help tonight, but he guesses there’s only so much water can do, unless he pours it on Lem’s phone, which he shouldn’t do.

 

“No,” says Hella, “you shouldn’t.”

 

Fero sighs again. “If you say so.”

 

He doesn’t feel any better the next day, but he doesn’t feel any worse either.

 

He also doesn’t pour water on Lem’s phone, even though Lem leaves it in the lounge where he absolutely could.



--



The year starts off well with a winning streak, broken the first time they have an away game against Alcyon. Fero can tell Hadrian’s anxious about the loss, because he spends a lot of time talking to Ephrim after training, the two of them skating in a slow circle around the rink together.

 

He makes Hadrian a cup of tea at the team breakfast the morning after, and wishes that he was better at comforting people, talking to them like Ephrim or Throndir do. He feels like his words always come out too fast, before he’s had a chance to realise what they are, the meaning of them never what he meant for them to be in his head.

 

Hadrian smiles at him as he takes the tea, so maybe Fero’s getting better at the helping thing. He’s just got to find more ways of doing it without words.

 

He’ll have to, if they keep losing.

 

He tries not to let it get to him, but on the morning of their game against Nacre he wakes up well before his alarm. He looks over at Lem in the dim light coming through the hotel curtains, still fast asleep. Fero watches Lem’s chest rise and fall for the space of a few breaths before he sighs, getting up and pulling on clothes as quietly as possible before he creeps out of the room.

 

He sends a text to Hadrian, who’ll be the one to worry if he can’t find Fero at the hotel, and pulls on his coat as he heads out of the hotel. It’s only a few blocks to the Nacre arena, and he feels like moving around anyway, rather than sitting in an uber to get there.

 

There’s a service door open, the catering staff getting ready for the game, and Fero slips inside, wandering the labyrinth of corridors until he gets to their locker room. He doesn’t bother changing into his full gear, just straps on his skates and makes his way to the rink, picking up a box of pucks on the way.

 

When he gets there, there’s someone already on the ice.

 

“Hello,” says Emmanuel.

 

Fero very nearly turns around and walks back to the locker room.

 

“Hi,” mumbles Fero.

 

“I, ah. Sorry,” says Emmanuel, “I didn’t realise your team had the ice booked.”

 

“We don’t,” says Fero. “Wait, we have to book?”

 

Emmanuel laughs. “Well, as long as neither of us are intruding- did you want to share?”

 

Fero shrugs. “Sure, whatever.”

 

Emmanuel nods, and turns back to making tight circles around a series of cones.

 

Fero heads straight for the goal, dropping the container of pucks next to him. He starts out in front of the net (so easy he could do it in his sleep, backwards), to the side (difficult but still fun), until he’s shooting from behind the net.

 

Puck after puck hits the side of the rink instead of the goal. It’s something about the angle, he thinks. It needs more curve to it. He just has to curve it. He just has to curve it-

 

The puck hits the back of the net. Fero blinks, staring down at it.

 

“It went in,” says Fero. He breaks into a grin, waving his arms. “It went in! I did it!”

 

Emmanuel claps, and Fero grins at him before he remembers that he doesn’t like this guy.

 

“That’s a tough shot to do,” says Emmanuel, skating towards him.

 

“Yeah, I know,” says Fero.

 

“No, I mean, that was impressive,” says Emmanuel, “I was watching you do it. Have you done it before?”

 

“First time.” Fero pauses. “I’m kind of glad someone else was here to see it, because no one would believe me if I said I did it.”

 

“I will back you up,” says Emmanuel. His voice is serious but he’s smiling down at Fero

 

Fero laughs. Okay. Maybe this guy’s not so bad.

 

“So what are you doing?” says Fero, peering around Emmanuel to the cones.

 

“Our coach says I need to be faster,” says Emmanuel, “My turns are too slow.”

 

“You should watch figure skating,” says Fero, “that’s how I learnt to be faster.”

 

“Are- is that a joke?”

 

“It’s true! I mean, they use different skates but- listen, Ephrim, he used to be a figure skater and he’s super fast at turns.”

 

Emmanuel nods. “Maybe I will look this up.”

 

“You should,” says Fero, “Also, because then you can learn to do this .”

 

He backs away from Emmanuel, spinning in a circle. It’s not as graceful or as fast as when Ephrim does it, but Fero always feels pretty cool doing it. Emmanuel grins.

 

“Figure skaters huh?” says Emmanuel.

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, “Trust me-”

 

“Emmanuel!”

 

They both look over. Fero blinks in surprise. He didn’t think Lem would be awake for hours.

 

“Lem,” says Emmanuel, “What are you doing here?”

 

“Well, you said you were going to do some early training, and I thought perhaps we could get breakfast together after,” says Lem.

 

“Hadrian wants us to do breakfast as a team,” says Fero.

 

Lem glares at him. “He won’t mind.”

 

“I kind of think he will,” says Fero, “It’s game day.”

 

“You should have breakfast with your team,” says Emmanuel, “I would not want to get you into trouble.”

 

Lem deflates a little. “Maybe we can do something after the game?”

 

Emmanuel smiles. “I would love to.”

 

Ferp resists the urge to roll his eyes, skating away to pick up the box of pucks.

 

“Sorry about him,” says Lem, “I know he can be a bit much.”

 

Fero scowls at the pucks.

 

“He seems alright,” says Emmanuel, “You didn’t tell me he knew figure skating.”

 

“What?” says Lem.

 

Fero laughs, spinning around in a circle with the puck box. He does a little bow in their direction, and Emmanuel laughs. Lem frowns at him, although he looks more confused than upset.

 

“I’ll watch out for that in the game,” says Emmanuel, “and your trick shot skills.”

 

Fero grins. He’s definitely had this guys all wrong.

 

“I promise to only use them for the power of kicking your team’s asses,” says Fero. “And I’ll have to watch out for you too, now that you know my secret weapon.”

 

Emmanuel laughs, lighting up his whole face.



--



“The Velas Sailors are making a comeback on the road this week, winning against Nacre,” says Maelgwyn, “But that wasn’t the only upset on the ice this week.”

 

The stock footage of the Velas game cuts to a slow-motion replay of Fero and Brandish pushing each other on the ice. Brandish gets close to Fero, very close, clearly yelling in his face, and then- Fero licks his cheek. Brandish rears back, losing his balance and falling backwards on the ice. In the footage, Fero laughs. So do several people in crowd.

 

The video cuts to an after-game interview with Brandish, looking sweaty and extremely annoyed.

 

“It’s disgusting behaviour,” says Brandish. “He should be penalised for it, and Velas should be too.”

 

The video cuts to Fero, equally sweaty but grinning widely at the camera. “He was getting right up close and personal so I thought, y’know, what better way to get to know each other?”

 

The footage cuts again, Emmanuel this time. He smiles easily at someone off-camera.

 

“It was not so bad,” says Emmanuel. “Better that than a hit in the face.”

 

“There’s no official word yet on whether there will be any penalty associated with Fero’s conduct in the game,” says Maelgwyn, “Although it’s hard to say if de Salle would be so relaxed if it had happened to him.”

 

Maelgwyn leant back from the microphone, playing back the edit. Privately, he thought Emmanuel probably would have been that relaxed. He and Fero had stuck very close on the ice during the game, laughing with each other after the siren.

 

Something to keep in the back of his mind, just in case it became a story down the line.



--



Samot cheers for their win in the coaches box, letting Samothes pull him towards him. Samot’s laugh turns into a gasp so sharply that for a moment Samothes is worried he’s hurt him somehow.

 

Samot waves him off. “It’s- I’m okay, I just, I want to check something-”

 

He leans away, bending to pull up one of his many tracking spreadsheets. Samothes looks out over the ice. The team is piled together in a clumsy group hug. He can spot Hadrian’s grin from here, warm and bright.

 

“Oh my god,” says Samot.

 

He gropes behind him, grabbing onto Samothes’ arm.

 

“Look, Samothes, we’ve- we’re-” Samot covers his mouth with his hand.

 

Samothes bends, reading through the list of numbers, frowning as he makes sense of what’s on the page. It’s a list of their wins and losses, the points that add up together to mark their ranking in the league, and from the looks of things they’re-

 

“Oh my god,” says Samothes.

 

He looks up at Samot. Behind his hand, Samot is grinning, a laugh bubbling out of him. Samothes stands, wrapping his arms around Samot and spinning them around in a circle. Samot laughs, pressing his face into the crook of Samothes’ neck.

 

“We’re going to the playoffs!” says Samot.

 

Samothes slows, setting Samot back down in front of him. “We’re going to the playoffs.”

 

“I always knew we would, of course,” says Samot.

 

“Of course you did dear,” says Samothes.

 

“I did!” says Samot, “Of course I-”

 

Samothes cuts him off with a kiss.



--



Hadrian’s reaction is a little different, especially since he doesn’t realise it until after he’s asked about it during an interview.

 

“I mean, I guess I’m looking forward to it?” says Hadrian, frowning, “I try not to get too ahead of where we’re at though.”

 

“That’s very zen of you,” says Maelgwyn.

 

“Thanks,” says Hadrian. He pauses. “I think. It’s pretty far away though, so- what?”

 

“No that far away,” says Maelgwyn, “The league just put out a release on who’s qualified.”

 

Hadrian feels a streak of ice go through him. “Oh. How’d, uh. How’d we do?”

 

Maelgwyn stifles a laugh. “Congratulations - you’re in.”

 

“We’re in?” says Hadrian.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“We made it to the playoffs?” says Hadrian.

 

“Yeah, you- are you okay?” says Maelgwyn.

 

“Yeah, no, I’m fine,” says Hadrian, “It’s… wow. Wow!” He laughs. “This is, uh. That’s great to hear! I uh. I’d better go tell the guys the good news, huh?”

 

Maelgwyn laughs.

 

Hadrian hopes he walks away casually enough that no one notices that he walks in the direction of the bathroom instead of the locker room. He barely makes it to the stall in time to throw up, although it’s mostly bile. He can never get himself to eat much on game day.

 

It’s Ephrim who finds him a few minutes later. He pushes open the stall door without knocking, folding himself elegantly next to Hadrian in the cramped space.

 

“I guess you heard,” says Ephrim.

 

“Yeah,” says Hadrian, “It’s great news. We deserve this.”

 

His stomach rolls. He swallows hard, turning his face away from Ephrim. Ephrim puts a hand between Hadrian’s shoulderblades.

 

“Yeah, we do,” says Ephrim.

 

Hadrian stays like that until his breathing settles. He moves back, sitting across from Ephrim, his back pressed against the toilet stall wall, their legs pressed together in the small space. Ephrim looks as pale and shaky as he feels.

 

“The playoffs,” says Hadrian.

 

Ephrim smiles thinly. “The playoffs.”

 

“Nothing to do but to do it, I guess,” says Hadrian.

 

“Do it and try not to suck at it,” says Ephrim.

 

Hadrian huffs a laugh. “Right.”



--



Fero ends up trailing home with Lem after their games on the road instead of going back to Hadrian’s. He figures Hadrian and Rosana could use some actual family time after four weeks away and the playoffs in their future.

 

Lem, for his part, doesn’t seem to mind.

 

“Devar’s actually going to stay with his dad this weekend,” says Lem, “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you slept in his bed.” He pauses. “And I could sort of use the company.”

 

Fero nods. He knows the feeling. The idea of being in the playoffs feels impossible.

 

Lem’s eyes flick to him and then flick away. He’s been doing that since the game against Narce, and Fero is really trying not to let it annoy him. He fidgets with his phone as they ride the elevator up to Lem’s place in silence.

 

They both dump their stuff by the door as they come in, Lem heading into the kitchen. After a moment, Fero follows. The kitchen is spotless, although Fero suspects it’s more from lack of use than from Lem’s cleaning habits. He’d always done most of the cooking, when they’d lived together.

 

“I, uh,” says Lem, hurriedly closing the fridge, “Did you want to get pizza or something?”

 

Fero shrugs. “Sure.”

 

Lem takes so long to decide what pizza to get that Fero orders for him. He ignores Lem’s complaints as he places the order, turning in a circle as Lem waves his hands in front of Fero’s face.

 

“How do you know I wanted vegetarian?” says Lem, sulking.

 

“Because that’s what you always get,” says Fero.

 

“Well how do you know I didn’t want something different?” says Lem.

 

Did you?”

 

Lem makes a face. “... no.”

 

Fero makes a broad there you go! gesture, heading into the lounge. He’s halfway through setting up the games system before he looks up at Lem.

 

“Uh, did you want to play something?” says Fero.

 

“Yeah, sure,” says Lem.

 

Fero sets up Smash Brothers, their old post-game favourite, and they play until the pizza arrives. Fero goes to get plates out while Lem looks for a movie to put on while they eat. It feels strangely comforting, to redo their old junior league routine.

 

The movie isn’t particularly good, some drama about an amnesiac hitman falling in love with their target, but they keep watching it even after they’ve finished eating, relaxing back onto the couch. Fero shifts around during the movie, trying his best to keep his body from touching Lem. Lem, apparently, has no such concerns, letting his arm slip from the back of the couch to Fero’s shoulder.

 

Slowly, Lem’s head slides to Fero’s neck. Fero’s breath catches in his throat. He can feel his face burn, and he lets out a slow breath.

 

Lem, half-asleep, nuzzles Fero’s shoulder.

 

“Lem,” says Fero quietly, trying to keep his voice steady.

 

Lem hums, pressing a kiss to Fero’s throat. The touch of his lips is light, but there’s no mistaking it.

 

Fero goes very still.

 

The lack of movement must wake Lem. He blinks up at Fero for a moment, sleepy smile fading from his face.

 

“Uh,” says Lem.

 

“It’s fine,” says Fero quickly, “I mean, I licked a dude last game.”

 

Lem makes a face. “How is that the same?”

 

“I just mean, y’know, it’s fine,” says Fero. In what feels like a stroke of genius, he adds, “Emmanuel said the thought it was no big deal.”

 

Lem blinks, leaning back. “You licked Emmanuel ?”

 

“What, no!” says Fero, “I mean, he was talking about it to some reporter guy after the game and he said it was fine.”

 

“I can’t believe he said it was fine,” says Lem, “it’s not fine, it’s, it’s-”

 

“That’s what he said! Ask him if you don’t believe me!”

 

“I will!” says Lem, getting out his phone.

 

He dials and hits speakerphone. Fero rolls his eyes.

 

“He’s probably asleep,” says Fero.

 

“Hello?” comes Emmanuel’s voice, “Lem?”

 

“Ha!” says Lem, looking triumphant, “You’re wrong twice .”

 

“What?” says Emmanuel.

 

“No, not you, it’s- uh. Fero’s here with me, and he said you’d be asleep.”

 

“I was asleep,” says Emmanuel, amusement curling through his tone.

 

“Oh, sorry,” says Lem, “But I wanted to ask- Fero said that you said that him licking people wasn’t a big deal.”

 

There’s a pause before Emmanuel speaks again. “What?”

 

“I uh- We were- Fero said that you said you thought the-” Lem makes a wide gesture “-licking thing was okay.”

 

Another pause. “Did you really call me at 11pm at night to ask me if I think Fero licking people is okay?”

 

“Well do you?” says Lem.

 

There’s a rustling sound on the other end, staticy through the phone’s speaker. “What is this actually about?”

 

“Lem kissed my neck,” says Fero.

 

“It was an accident!” says Lem.

 

“You accidentally kissed Fero?”

 

“His neck!” says Lem, “I kissed his neck!”

 

“I wouldn’t have thought it was a big deal,” says Emmanuel.

 

Exactly ,” says Fero.

 

“After all, I’m sure it’s hardly the first time it’s happened.”

 

“What, no,” says Fero.

 

“I- it absolutely is ,” says Lem, at the same time.

 

“Oh,” says Emmanuel, “were you not… I always assumed you had dated, with how much Lem speaks of you. And you lived together.”

 

“As friends!” squeaks Lem, a blush high on his cheeks.

 

“Yeah,” says Fero, trying his best to ignore the heat in his own cheeks, “We’ve never- I mean, maybe like, a couple times, but that was just, uh…”

 

“Blowing off steam!” says Lem.

 

“Yeah!” says Fero, “Yeah exactly! It was just steam!”

 

“I do not think steam comes with so much jealousy,” says Emmanuel.

 

“I’m not jealous!” says Fero.

 

“I was speaking to Lem,” says Emmanuel.

 

“I am not ,” says Lem, “When have I ever been jealous of Fero ?”

 

“Hey!” says Fero.

 

“After our last game,” says Emmanuel, “although I do not know if you were more jealous of Fero or of me. You certainly would not stop asking after him.”

 

Lem looks up at Fero, face flushed, and then looks away. Fero looks down at his feet, curling his hands in the edge of the couch cushion. The room is very quiet.

 

“I did not mean to cause any upset,” says Emmanuel.

 

“No, you didn’t,” says Lem, “Everything’s fine.”

 

“There is no need for either of you to be jealous,” says Emmanuel, “perhaps next time our teams face each other we can all go out for dinner.”

 

“What,” says Fero, “All of us?”

 

“Yes,” says Emmanuel, as though it is the simplest thing in the world.

 

Lem wets his lips. “Is that- if you’d like, I mean, I suppose that doesn’t sound- ah, it would be fine.”

 

“Fero?” says Emmanuel.

 

Fero swallows. He can’t quite make himself look up at Lem. “Sure.” He pauses. “But what about the neck kissing?”

 

“I wouldn’t think anything of it,” says Emmanuel, “but I suppose if it’s truly bothering you both, you could kiss Lem’s neck and make things even.” He yawns. “Perhaps when I see you both I will even it out on my side of things too.”

 

Fero swallows again, stomach twisting. “Even?”

 

“Yes,” says Emmanuel slowly, “one for one. I-” He yawns again. “I’m going to hang up on you now, before I fall asleep.”

 

“Goodnight,” says Lem, “We’ll, uh. I suppose we’ll make things even, then.”

 

“Good,” says Emmanuel, and hangs up.

 

They both stare at the phone until the screen shuts off. Fero’s stomach is still twisting, making his body flush with heat.

 

“So,” says Lem. His hands flutter up and then settle in his lap.

 

“Yeah, okay, fine,” says Fero, “We’ll do this, and then we’re even, right? And then we can forget about this whole thing.”

 

“Right.”

 

Lem sits back, holding his arms loosely at his side. Fero makes a face, trying to lean in close without touching any of Lem’s body. His hands feel sweaty, where he’s bracing himself on the couch as he leans down, touching his lips to the skin of Lem’s neck.

 

He means for it to be quick - just a light peck and then get out of there, leave the apartment, even - but the moment he makes contact he can’t help but lean forward. He lingers, his lips brushing over Lem’s pulse point. Lem’s breath catches in his throat, his skin moving under Fero’s lips as Lem swallows hard. Fero leans back slowly, trying to keep his breathing even. Lem’s hand is on his leg, burning hot on Fero’s skin.

 

“There,” says Fero, his voice rough, “now we’re even.”

 

Lem licks his lips. “That, uh. That went on a lot longer than the one I did to you. I think I- to make things actually even-”

 

He ducks his head, kissing along Fero’s neck. His teeth scrape slightly against Fero’s skin and Fero shudders, his hands coming up to grip the fabric of Lem’s sweatshirt. Lem shifts, angling his body to get better access to Fero’s skin, tugging at the collar of Fero’s top to nip at his collarbone.

 

“Wait,” says Fero, “Wait, wait-”

 

Lem stills.

 

“That’s way more than I did,” says Fero, “You’ve made things uneven again.”

 

He pushes at Lem’s shoulders until Lem’s back against the couch, swinging his legs over to straddle Lem. Lem gasps, his hips rolling upwards sharply. Fero can feel him, hard through the fabric of his sweatpants, and he grinds down.

 

Lem shudders. “That’s not- that’s not even.”

 

“So even it out,” says Fero.

 

Lem twists, clumsily flipping their positions so that Fero is pinned underneath him. Fero’s hands clutch at Lem’s top, tugging him down, finally, into a kiss. Lem opens under him instantly, groaning as Fero slides his hands under the fabric of his sweatshirt.

 

“S’uneven again,” says Fero against his lips.

 

“You’re right,” says Lem, “here, let me-”



--



Fero doesn’t actually end up sleeping in Devar’s bed.



--



Hadrian stumbles slightly as he reaches their bedroom. Four straight weeks on the road, and even the thrill of winning can’t compare to being able to climb into his own bed. His feels his muscles uncoil, relaxing into the mattress.

 

Rosana makes a soft sound, rolling towards him, and he clumsily slides an arm around her, pulling her close.

 

“You’re home,” mumbles Rosana.

 

Hadrian presses a kiss to the top of her head, his eyes sliding closed. “I’m home. Fero’s staying with Lem.”

 

Rosana hums, already falling back into sleep.

 

It feels as though he’s only been asleep for moments before Ben’s diving onto the bed.

 

Oof ,” says Hadrian.

 

“Dad! You’re home!” says Ben, throwing his arms around Hadrian’s neck.

 

Rosana laughs, putting a hand on Hadrian’s shoulder. “He missed you.”

 

“I did ,” says Ben, “you were gone for ages .”

 

Hadrian feels a stab of guilt, trying not to let it show on his face. “I was, but now I’m going to be home for ages. You’ll be sick of me!”

 

“Never!” says Ben.

 

Hadrian laughs. “Come on then, breakfast time! How about some chocolate chip pancakes?”

 

Ben cheers, pulling at Hadrian’s shoulder until he actually gets up.

 

“Bribery,” says Rosana sleepily.

 

“Absolutely,” says Hadrian.

 

Rosana laughs, following him out to the kitchen to watch as he slowly re-remembers where everything is and tries his best to stop Ben from dripping pancake batter on the floor while he’s helping.

 

Ben chatters to him while they eat - he wants Hadrian to come to the park, he wants Hadrian to see the cool new toy he got from aunt Hella, he wants Hadrian to help him make a treefort he saw on youtube.

 

“I dunno if we’ll have time for all that today,” says Hadrian, “the treefort might have to wait.”

 

Ben makes a face. Rosana says he gets that from Hadrian - his thinking face .

 

“Okay,” says Ben, “But we’re going to go to the park, right?”

 

“Absolutely, we’ll go after breakfast-” Hadrian laughs, putting a hand on Ben’s arm. “Slow down there, the park’s not going anywhere.”

 

“But you will!” says Ben.

 

Hadrian’s stomach clenches. “Not today though, okay? Today is all you.”

 

Rosana ruffles Ben’s hair, sitting down next to Hadrian. Their hands touch, fingers tangling together.

 

“You busy today?” says Hadrian.

 

“Cleared my schedule,” says Rosana, “I heard about a very exciting trip to the park, and I didn’t want to miss out.”

 

Rosana laughs at both of them after they get dressed.

 

“What?” says Hadrian.

 

“If I didn’t know better I’d say you were both colourblind,” says Rosana.

 

Hadrian looks down at his own bright orange leggings and bright blue puffy coat, and then at Ben, his body almost swallowed up by a huge bright yellow rain jacket.

 

“At least you won’t lose track of us,” says Hadrian.

 

“Very true,” says Rosana.

 

There’s a few other family groups in the park by the time they get there, taking advantage of the unusually sunny day. One group in particular catches Hadrian’s attention - it’s larger than the rest, Ben’s face lighting up as he catches sight of them.

 

“Blue J!” says Ben, running towards them.

 

Hadrian waves to the group, and the crowd of children wave back. Hadrian can hear Red Jack’s booming laugh clear across the park. He always expects Red Jack to look older than he does, but if anything the longer he’s retired the more energy he seems to have.

 

“Look who’s back in town!” says Red Jack, “Team, this is Hadrian. He’s captain of my old team, and from what I hear he’s been taking pretty good care of it.”

 

The kids give a chorus of hellos.

 

“I’ve certainly been trying to,” says Hadrian, “how’s your season going?”

 

“These kids are champions!” says Red Jack.

 

“Almost!” says Blue J.

 

Red Jack laughs. “That’s right, almost. Our little playoffs are next week. Gotta get them in before yours or no one would be there! Ha ha!”

 

Hadrian pushes down the rolling feeling in his gut at the mention of the playoffs. “So what are you guys doing out here today?”

 

“Training!” says a kid in a bright red hat.

 

Ben tugs on Hadrian’s leggings. “Can I play with them?”

 

“If you want to buddy,” says Hadrian.

 

“Blue J’s playing,” says Ben.

 

Rosana smiles, crouching to help Ben tug off his rain jacket. “We might have to head back before they’re practise is over, okay honey?”

 

“Okay,” says Ben, his attention already on where Blue J is getting hockey equipment out of a big tub.

 

Hadrian waits until Red Jack has finish guiding the organised chaos of the field before he steps closer to him.

 

“Retirement looks like it’s still going well.”

 

Red Jack laughs. “It is! It’s good to be able to see the kids all the time, no traveling, no worrying about them worrying about me getting hurt…”

 

Hadrian nods.

 

He remembers the hit Red Jack took in his last game, the way he’d gone down unconscious, Blue J’s face, pale and tight, under the hospital lighting. It had turned out to be less serious than they’d thought - Red Jack going unconscious in the air made it look heart-stoppingly terrible but had probably helped him not break anything major.

 

“Being captain looks like it still suits you.”

 

Hadrian sighs, rubbing the back of his neck. “I don’t know, I… I feel like I’m mostly making it up as I go.”

 

Red Jack laughs, clapping him on the back. “That’s all it is!” He squeezes Hadrian’s shoulder. “This is your year, I can feel it.”

 

Hadrian feels the stab of it again, icy in his chest. He forces a laugh. “I hope so.”

 

They watch the kids practise together for a while, running this way and that on the field.

 

“What’re you doing for the rest of the day?” says Red Jack.

 

“Nothing much, I think,” says Hadrian, “Why?”

 

“Blue J’s been keen to have Ben over,” says Red Jack, “We got this treehouse put in last weekend and they want Ben to be there the first time they go in.”

 

Hadrian laughs. “That explains why Ben wants me to build him a treefort.”

 

Red Jack laughs.

 

The house is quiet without Ben in it. Rosana pushes him towards the bedroom almost as soon as they’re through the door.

 

“What-”

 

“You need some actual rest,” says Rosana.

 

“I’m fine, I want to help you with-” Hadrian breaks off with a yawn.

 

Rosana smiles and Hadrian grins back sheepishly.

 

“I guess maybe I’m a little tired,” says Hadrian.

 

He feels it more the moment he sits down on the bed, tugging Rosana down with him.

 

She laughs. “I was going to do things today.”

 

Hadrian rolls towards her, pressing his face into the crook of her neck. “Do ‘em later.”

 

She smiles. “Alright, you’ve convinced me.”

 

They putter around the house a little after they wake up. It reminds Hadrian a little of when they’d first gotten married, crowded together in a tiny apartment with a leaky shower and neighbours that constantly played big band music. Peaceful.

 

Red Jack drops Ben off later in the afternoon, leaning out of the window to greet them.

 

“Remember,” he says, before he leaves, “keep hydrated!”

 

Hadrian laughs. “I will.”



--



Transcript excerpt from The Chime podcast, episode 104:

 

Cass: So. Who’s ready for the playoffs?

 

AuDy: I am not.

 

Aria: Super not me!

 

Mako: [leaning away from the mic to yell] I am! I told you they were gonna do it! I’m a genius!

 

Cass: I’m so glad we’re recording this episode in the same place so I can do this-

 

Mako: Ow! You-

 

Cass: Hey!

 

Aria: [speaking softly into the mic] For the listener, Cass and Mako are throwing pillows at one another.

 

Cass: He started it!

 

Mako: You threw the pillow at me !

 

AuDy: I am taking away both of your pillows until the season is over. [Pause] This podcast may not survive the playoffs.



--



Hadrian does a pretty good job of holding it together until he gets them home after training, smiling through Rosana and Ben’s enthusiasm for the win and the playoffs. He puts Ben to bed, which takes a lot longer than it normally does thanks to Ben’s excitement. He pokes his head into the kitchen after - Fero’s doing the dishes, chatting to Rosana as she sips her tea.

 

“I think I’m going to turn in,” says Hadrian, “Unless you need me for anything?”

 

Rosana smiles at him. “We’re fine. Get some rest love.”

 

He waits until he gets all the way upstairs before he lets his shoulders slump, dragging himself through his before bed routine and flopping down on the bed. After a few moments he turns over, letting out a deep breath and closing his eyes.

 

It’s much darker when he opens his eyes again. The alarm clock’s numbers burn bright on Rosana’s bedside table. Hadrian blinks at it a few times before his tired mind registers the numbers. 3am.

 

Hadrian lets out a slow breath. He’s aware now of Rosana asleep beside him, her breaths deep and even, one hand curled a little on the pillow. The house is silent apart from the faint ticking of the clock downstairs.

 

He gets up as quietly as he can, creeping out of their bedroom and downstairs. He flicks on the kitchen light, blinking at his reflection in the kitchen window. He’s not even sure why he came down here, he’s not even thirsty, he really should be sleeping with the playoffs coming up.

 

The playoffs.

 

Hadrian’s mind whirls. The playoffs. Velas hasn’t even made it into the playoffs in six years. So that’s six years worth of people’s hopes, all riding on their next handful of games. One loss and they’re out, and people will say it’s his fault, he’s the captain, he’s supposed to guide them during this, he’s supposed to make sure they win, he’s supposed to-

 

“Hadrian?” says Fero from behind him. His voice sounds faint under the ringing in Hadrian’s ears.

 

Hadrian swallows. He opens his mouth but he can’t quite breathe properly to form words.

 

“Hey,” says Fero quietly, “Hey, how about we sit down?”

 

Fero puts a hand gently on Hadrian’s arm, and Hadrian immediately slides down, sitting on the floor.

 

He hears Fero’s huff of laughter from somewhere above him. “Not what I meant but okay, sure.”

 

Fero sits down next to him, their shoulders pressed together. Hadrian stares at the dent in on one of the table legs. Ben had ridden a scooter into it when he was little, and they’d never gotten it buffed out. They’d never had the time, between work and hockey and trying to raise Ben between them. Hadrian swallows hard.

 

Fero puts a hand on Hadrian’s arm again. “You okay?”

 

“Fine,” Hadrian manages to say.

 

“Okay,” says Fero. He keeps his hand on Hadrian’s arm, warm and grounding. “We’ll just hang out here then.”

 

Hadrian nods. He can’t really manage more than that, his breathing ragged. Fero squeezes his arm, then releases, squeezes-two-three then releases-two-three. Hadrian breathes along with it, the buzzing in his ears subsiding.

 

He lets out a long shaky breath. “Sorry.”

 

Fero shrugs, letting go of Hadrian’s arm but bumping their shoulders together. “Don’t worry about it. It’s the playoffs, you’re allowed to freak out a little bit.”

 

“I shouldn’t,” says Hadrian, “I’m the captain.”

 

“So?” says Fero, “You’re still, like, a person.”

 

Hadrian huffs a laugh. “I guess.” He shifts a little, wincing. “I think I’m too old to be sitting on the floor.”

 

“We have been here a while I guess,” says Fero.

 

He unfolds himself with ease, offering Hadrian a hand up. Hadrian glances at the clock as he stands. He’s been down in the kitchen almost an hour. His chest feels tight.

 

It must show on his face, because Fero grabs his hand. “Hey.”

 

Hadrian takes a deep breath in and then lets it out slowly. It helps, a little. “Let’s get back to bed. Long day of training coming up.”

 

“Ugh,” says Fero.

 

Fero lets himself be led back upstairs. Despite his distracted state, Hadrian doesn’t miss how Fero makes sure Hadrian is back into their bedroom before his own door closes.

 

Hadrian smiles as he gets into bed. That kid’s going to be a good captain someday.



--



“What would winning mean to me?” says Throndir, “That’s kind of a big question. I mean, I just got here.”

 

“Take your time,” says Maelgwyn, “Everyone’s interviews are getting cut together, so your answer can be as long or as short as you like.”

 

“Proving people wrong,” says Calhoun, “Everyone who said we’d never make it, everyone who’s [BLEEP]-talked Hadrian, and me, and the team, they’d all be wrong. Maybe that’s kind of petty, I don’t know. But it would feel pretty great.”

 

“It would feel like a great start to me, I think,” says Lem, “This is our, my, first year out of the juniors, and we- I mean, I… I mean, I wasn’t even sure we’d get drafted, let alone… Well. It’s all been very unexpected. So, um. Winning would be unexpected, I suppose? Or, no, that’s not quite right.”

 

“I’ve only been part of the team for a couple years,” says Devar, “but it’s… we’re close, you know? And we feel close to the fans. Winning would be something good, for all of us.”

 

“It would be awesome ,” says Fero, “You know me and Lem, we were like, eighth round picks or something, and we get drafted to this team, and it’s like, no one thinks we can do anything right, all people do is yell at us- I mean, Hadrian got booed , which is like- anyway the point is, it would be great to win, and to rub it in people’s faces.”

 

“Calhoun said something similar,” says Maelgwyn.

 

“That guy gets it,” says Fero.

 

“I suppose what I mean is,” continues Lem, “is that it would feel magical in some way, to win. Not in the sense that we would need to have a miracle happen to win but… I mean, who expects to win the cup in their first year?”

 

“It would feel miraculous,” says Fantasmo, “I would agree with that sentiment.”

 

“It’s… Okay. When we’ve lost, and god knows we’ve done that a lot in previous years, we’ve done it together,” says Ephrim, “Winning would be just a better version of that. An extremely much better version but still. We’ll do it, and we’ll do it together.”

 

“I-” Samot laughs. “You know, I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it.”

 

Samothes bumps their shoulders together. “Don’t lie to our son.”

 

Samot laughs again, giddy. “I’ve thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot, the work it would take to get us here, and I-” He clears his throat. “It’s something I’m very much looking forward to, for our fans, and the team, and myself-” He reaches out, tangling his fingers with Samothes’. “And my husband.”

 

“Winning would be…” Hadrian takes a breath. “Honestly I can hardly even think about it. It would be everything. Winning would be everything.”



--



Game One: Velas Sailors vs Alcyon Paladins

 

Hadrian swallows around his dry throat as he looks at the others seated in the locker room. The rest of the team have finished changing, waiting to go out on the ice, all focussed on their own small pregame rituals, and all of them look as anxious as he feels.

 

He clears his throat, and they all turn towards him. Hadrian swallows again.

 

“Okay.” Hadrian clears his throat. “Okay, first game of the playoffs.” He can feel his palms begin to sweat. “I don’t need to tell any of you how important these next few games are, I’m sure you’re as aware as you’re ever going to be about that.”

 

Calhoun, Fero and Ephrim laugh a little at that, and the others smile.

 

“So it would be stupid to tell you to go out there and play like this is any other game, because it’s very much not.” Hadrian takes a breath in, letting it out slowly. “All I can say to you is… we’ve proved that we can win, even when no one thought we would. I believe that we can prove that again tonight.”



--



Two notable things happen during their game against Alcyon. The first is that Hadrian scores his fiftieth goal of the season, which he has never managed to do before.

 

They put it on the screens around the arena when he scores the goal, and the crowd cheers. Tabard, the captain of the Alcyon team, even nods to him from across the ice. Hadrian gets hit in the side with a puck right after, but he barely feels it. 

 

The second thing is that they win.

 

They pile onto each other after the buzzer sounds, clambering to hug each other all at once. That energy stays with them even when they get to the locker room, pulling Fantasmo in despite his protests.

 

“I wasn’t even on the ice!”

 

“You’re still part of this!” says Throndir.

 

“Yeah,” says Hadrian, “We couldn’t have gotten here without you!”

 

“Oh,” says Fantasmo.

 

If he looks a little damp-eyed, no one mentions it. They all look a little damp-eyed themselves.



--



Samot and Samothes give him a card for this milestone too. It’s a fiftieth birthday card, except that they’ve crossed out the word ‘birthday’ and written ‘goal’ underneath in fancy calligraphy.

 

Can you believe they don’t make a hallmark card for this? 

Congratulations Hadrian, on reaching 50 goals. We couldn’t be prouder to have you as our captain.

 

Hadrian walks to their office with the card still in hand, his vision a little blurry. He knocks, and then walks in, not waiting for them to call out to him as he normally does.

 

Samot and Samothes spring apart. Hadrian covers his face with the card.

 

“I, uh. I got the card.”

 

“I can see that,” says Samot.

 

“I just, um, I wanted to say thank you?”

 

“Hadrian,” says Samothes.

 

Hadrian lowers the card, feeling himself flush. Samothes hasn’t bothered rebuttoning his shirt, half-standing in front of Samot as Samot rights his clothing.

 

“Sorry,” says Hadrian, reflexively.

 

“Don’t be,” says Samot. “And I’m glad you liked the card.” He steps out from behind Samothes, flushed and artfully dishevelled. “We wanted you to know that we celebrate your victories too.”

 

“I just…” Hadrian looks down at the car again and, for a moment, he forgets to be embarrassed. “Thank you, for keeping me on this year. For believing that I could do this.”

 

“Hadrian…” says Samot.

 

Samot steps closer, putting a hand on Hadrian’s arm. Hadrian looks up.

 

“You did it all yourself,” says Samot.

 

Hadrian pulls Samot into a hug before he can think better of it. Samot freezes for a moment, then returns the embrace. Samothes steps forward, putting a hand on Hadrian’s shoulder. Hadrian looks up at him.

 

“No matter what happens now,” says Samothes, “You’ve made us both very proud.”



--



Game Two: Velas Sailors vs Nacre Pirates

 

“These two teams have been facing off all year, in a season long back-and-forth rivalry for the ages,” says Blake, “Both teams have winning streaks on their side, with Nacre having the home-game advantage over Velas - we’ll have to see if this time it makes a difference.”

 

“Thanks Blake,” says Coral, “we’ll be right back after these messages.”

 

“And we’re off,” says Juno in her earpiece, “back in ninety seconds.”

 

“Do you really think it’ll be that close?” says Coral.

 

She can hear Blake’s shrug through the feed. “Probably, I mean, they’re pretty evenly matched.” They pause. “Why, who do you think’ll win?”

 

“Velas,” says Coral.

 

“No point in asking her,” says Juno, “She’s biased.”

 

“I just think they deserve it, that’s all,” says Coral, “Nacre won it like three years ago.”

 

“Yeah,” says Blake, “But that doesn’t mean Velas is gonna win.”

 

“It should though,” says Coral, with feeling.

 

“Can’t argue there,” says Blake.

 

“Back in five,” says Juno, “Blake, we’ll see you for the next live segment in an hour or so.”

 

“You got it,” says Blake.

 

“I’d better,” says Juno, “This is one of our highest rating weeks all year.”



--



Brandish is out for them from the jump. Samol’s watched a lot of games through the years, and even he’s surprised how quickly someone’s personal aggravation turns to violence on the ice.

 

Fero’s clearly his target, but Fero’s also too fast on his feet for Brandish to check him, so Brandish has been going after anyone he can get. Velas is a resilient team, and most of the players have cottoned onto the fact that Brandish seems to be going out of his way to cause harm and are taking evasive measures when he gets close to them.

 

Unfortunately, not all players are good at being evasive. Lem certainly isn’t.

 

Even though Samol knows how fast Fero is on the ice, has commented on it many times this season in fact, even he’s surprised at how fast he gets to Lem’s side from the opposite side of the rink before Brandish can check Lem. Lem slips a little on his skates, easily righting himself. Brandish gets slammed into the glass so hard it rattles.

 

Brandish, in response, takes his gloves off, a time-honoured invitation to fight. Fero starts to take his gloves off too, looking ready as ever- But, no, Lem puts his hand on Fero’s shoulder, taking off his own gloves.

 

Even from high up in the commentary box, Samol can see Fero’s eyes widen.

 

Lem is about as good as his fighting record would suggest, which is: not very. As soon as he goes down, Fero throws himself enthusiastically into his place. It takes two referees minutes to pulls them apart.

 

All three of them are sent to the box, watching the rest of the second period from behind the glass. Lem picks up his and Fero’s gloves, his shoulders held straight as he skates to the box. Fero grins wide at the referee, waving cheerfully at Brandish as he goes. Brandish, for his part, looks like only the referee’s promise of longer time sitting out is keeping him from leaping at Fero’s throat.



--



While they’re in the box, Fero leans his head against Lem’s shoulder to watch the game.

 

The picture, taken by someone sitting above the box, is retweeted over twenty million times before the game is even over.



--



“So,” says Adelaide, “who do you think you’ll face in the finals?”

 

“I think it’s a little early to think about that,” says Hadrian.

 

“Not so early,” says Adelaide, “After all, you’ve won two out of three. Only the Liches to go, and then you’re on to the finals.”

 

“If we get that far,” says Hadrian.

 

“You will,” says Hella, “this isn’t just a post-game dinner celebration, this is also a pre-victory celebration dinner.”

 

“That seems like it might be tempting fate,” says Hadrian.

 

“I’ve always found that the best way to go about things,” says Adelaide. “Fate can often be tempted your way, if you try hard enough. After all, that’s how we’ve ended up at dinner together tonight - fate brought your game here, and it brought Hella here to me.”

 

“She says that as though I haven’t been planning the trip out here for months,” says Hella.

 

“So fate had a little help,” says Adelaide, “there’s nothing wrong with prompting her in the right direction now and again.” She gives Hadrian a look. “So, who do you think it’ll be in the finals with you? Kanton? Ordenna?”

 

Hadrian takes a drink, mostly to avoid having to reply right away.

 

Hella’s lips quirk upwards, watching him. “You don’t have to say. Adelaide just being nosy.”

 

“It’s okay,” says Hadrian. “I, uh. We think it’s most likely going to be either the Stars or Marielda.”

 

Really ?” says Adelaide.

 

“Yeah, I- no offence Hella,” says Hadrian.

 

“None taken,” says Hella, “I told you, Ordenna’s not really my team any more.”

 

She and Adelaide smile at each other across the table.



--



Fate must have been listening to their dinner conversation and decided to call his bluff: Marielda lose to Ordenna in an upset victory in overtime.

 

“So,” says Samot, grim-faced. “We’re either going to face off against Ordenna, or the Stars.”

 

“If we win the next game,” says Hadrian, stomach churning as his watches the Marielda-Ordenna game footage.

 

Ordenna, as always, are playing a brutal game. A couple of the Marielda players will be out for at least some of the next season.

 

“We will,” says Samot. He looks up at Hadrian, reaching out to squeeze Hadrian’s shoulder. “ You will.”



--



Game Three: Velas Sailors vs Wistful Peak Liches

 

“And so Velas head into what might be their toughest challenge,” says Maelgwyn, “The Liches, a team known for brutality and missing teeth-” He clears his throat. “Sorry Aubrey, cut that, please? Uh-” He clears his throat again. “And so Velas head into what might be their toughest challenge yet: The Liches. Their hard-play style has come under criticism in recent years, but their coach insists it’s the critics who have it wrong.”

 

Footage of Arrell plays, a talking-head interview from a few months back.

 

“There’s nothing wrong with the level of contact in our games,” says Arrell. “That’s part of the sport, it’s always been part of the sport. You’d have an easier time trying to remove pucks from the game.”

 

The footage changes to a more recent interview with Hadrian. It’s clearly in the post game, Hadrian’s hair is slick with sweat.

 

“I don’t think it has to be that way,” says Hadrian, “Yeah, it’s physical, it’s a physical game, but it’s- that kind of thing, setting aside time in a game to throw down, that’s fazed out of the game, and I think that’s for the best, y’know? People come here to see hockey, not boxing.”

 

“Two very different views on the sport, coming to a head this Saturday night at the Wistful Peaks arena,” says Maelgwyn. “Whatever the outcome, you can be sure hockey fans of all types will be tuning into this one.”



--



It was always going to be a brutal game. The Liches are vicious players and Arrell in particular has had what feels like a personal vendetta against the team ever since his former captain Alyosha negotiated to trade himself to Velas back in the day.

 

Alyosha calls, surprisingly, to wish Hadrian well. Hadrian wishes him well right back. Alyosha doesn’t reach out much since he retired, but Hadrian does miss him, sometimes. Especially in games against the Liches. He used to feel like they took it easy on them, actually, when Alyosha still played for Velas. That is not the case in the present day, and he tries to be as prepared for it as possible.

 

Even so, when Ephrim goes down, Hadrian feels like time stops.

 

It’s his wrist, of course. On anyone else it would have been a minor sprain, but with Ephrim’s wrist - Hadrian hears the crack .

 

As soon as he can get his legs to move, he’s by Ephrim’s side. Ephrim can stand, giving Hadrian a tight-lipped smile as he skates off the ice. Calhoun comes out to replace him, looking stony-faced.

 

Hadrian sets his jaw and gives himself one last look at where Ephrim is making his way towards the medics before he gets back to it.



--



They win in overtime, seven to six.



--



Excerpts from Critical Hit , Hieron’s longest running hockey publication:

 

It’s been a long time coming for the Velas Sailors and an even longer time coming for their captain, Hadrian Nurmacher.

 

It was a year that started with critics outraged over the decision to keep Hadrian on as captain but long-time coaches Samot and Samothes, and it’s a decision that’s paid off for them in spades, as they head into the final.

 

 

Even tragedy couldn’t keep the team down for too long. When long-time goalie “The Great” Fantasmo went down, followed by replacement goalie Calhoun Triste’s injury, their emergency goalie stepped in and proved to be a hidden talent of the second half of Velas’ season.

 

...

 

“It’s a team effort,” says Hadrian. He pauses, gathering his thoughts. “It’s always been a team effort. If we win, it won’t be because of me. It will be because every person on the Velas Sailors gave it their all. That, and a bit of luck.”



The Velas Sailors will play in the championship final next Saturday night. At the time of publication their opponent in unknown.



--



Hadrian books a private room for a group team dinner, which turns out to have been one of his better ideas. If they were in the restaurant they would have been kicked out hours ago for rowdiness. As it is, one of the waiters simply closes the door, startling a laugh out of Fero.

 

“Another round!” says Samot cheerfully.

 

“Another round!” echos Fero, laughing.

 

Ephrim leans back in his chair, his arm cast resting easily on Throndir’s shoulder. ”Go ahead without me, I have to stick to lemonade anyway.”

 

Hadrian smiles at them, relaxing back into his own chair.

 

“You don’t have to get all your celebrating out now you know,” says Samothes, leaning forward to speak quietly.

 

Hadrian gives him a crooked smile. “I just- I want us to celebrate now, just in case… well. Just in case.”

 

“That’s not what you’re doing,” says Samothes,”I know because I did the same thing before my championship game.”

 

“I was there you know,” says Hadrian.

 

Samothes’ eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. “At the party?”

 

“At the championship game,” says Hadrian.

 

He pauses. Samothes waits, his eyes fixed on Hadrian.

 

“I… I got tickets, a late birthday thing from Rosana and Hella - they’d saved up for ages to get it for me, and I was so excited,” says Hadrian. “They were terrible seats, all the way up in the nosebleeds, but it… it was incredible to see, and you…” He looks down, his cheeks flushing. “Seeing you play in the game was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”

 

Samothes is silent for a long moment, so long that Hadrian starts thinking of excuses to leave, he’s clearly embarrassed himself-

 

“Hadrian,” says Samothes slowly, “that’s… you’ve never told me that before.”

 

Hadrian shrugs, pressing his shoes against the legs of his chair under the table. “You must get people telling you that kinda stuff all the time.”

 

“Sometimes,” says Samothes, “but you have never been the one saying it.”

 

Hadrian looks up. Samothes’ gaze is still fixed on him, his eyes serious. Samothes reaches out, covering Hadrian’s hand with his.

 

“I’m very glad you’re our captain, Hadrian,” says Samothes.

 

Hadrian swallows, his throat tight. “Thank you.”



--



Hella calls him while he’s in the uber home. He almost misses the call - Fero’s half-asleep on his side and Hadrian has to wriggle an arm around him to reach his phone.

 

“Did you see the game?” says Hella.

 

It takes him a moment to process her words - on top of his own hazy mind it’s very loud wherever she is.

 

“No,” says Hadrian.

 

“Ordenna lost,” says Hella.

 

Hadrian feels suddenly, painfully sober. “What?”

 

“Ordenna lost,” says Hella again, “You’re against the Heat and Dark Stars for the cup.”

 

Hadrian carefully keeps himself still. No need to freak out their driver, or wake Fero.

 

“Are you sure?” says Hadrian.

 

Hella laughs. “Am I sure ? Hadrian I watched the game just now. I’m very sure.”

 

Hadrian presses his lips together.

 

“Hadrian- hang on.”

 

He can hear Hella moving through the loud space, a door opening and then, suddenly it’s much quieter.

 

“You’re at a party too?”

 

“Sports bar,” says Hella, “Adaire’s. She put the game on for me.”

 

“How…” Hadrian swallowed. “How did they play?”

 

“Ordenna? Okay,” says Hella. She pauses. “They kind of got crushed.”

 

“Oh,” says Hadrian faintly.

 

He feels his stomach twist, and twist again as the car turns.

 

“Hey,” says Hella, “You’re not Ordenna.”

 

“I know,” says Hadrian, “Ordenna’s a much more solid team than us.”

 

“Yeah but-” He knows Hella well enough to hear the roll of her shoulders in her tone. “You’re still gonna win.”

 

Hadrian sighs. “If we’re facing the Stars you and Rosana might be the only people who think that.”

 

“That’s not true, your team believes in you,” says Hella, “So you’d better believe in them right back.”

 

Beside him, Fero makes a sleepy sound, his hand curling in the fabric of Hadrian’s jacket.

 

“I do,” says Hadrian.

 

“Then you’ll win,” says Hella.

 

Hadrian wishes he had her certainty.



--



Final: Velas Sailors vs Heat and Dark Stars

Period One

 

It’s hard, of course, it’s hard. It wouldn’t be a final if their opponent wasn’t just as good as them but it’s difficult not to feel like the Stars are unbeatable, especially when they finish the period down by two.

 

None of them look at each other in the locker room as they come in. Hadrian sighs. He should think of something, some inspirational speech before Samot and Samothes come in to talk strategy.

 

He takes a deep breath.

 

Nothing comes to mind, so he lets the breath out again.

 

The others look at him anyway.

 

Hadrian wets his lips. “We… I know we can do it.”

 

It’s a funny thing. The moment he says it, he does feel it. By all outside metrics, it makes no sense, but he knows they’re going to win.

 

He straightens his shoulders, gripping his stick in his hand. “We’re going to win.”



--



Final: Velas Sailors vs Heat and Dark Stars

Period Two

Ephrim and Fantasmo take their seats in the crowd during the second period. As soon as the crowd spot them, they get on their feet, applauding. From the ice, Hadrian can see Ephrim’s cheeks flush pink, and he waves with his uninjured arm. Fantasmo nods to the crowd, leaning towards Ephrim. Whatever he says makes Ephrim smile.

 

Whether it’s because of the magic of Hadrian’s words, from knowing that Ephrim and Fantasmo are watching, or some other mysterious hockey force, they finish the second period with the score tied.



--



Final: Velas Sailors vs Heat and Dark Stars

Period Three

 

Hadrian can tell they’re exhausted. The only thing that makes him feel better about it is that the Stars actually seem to be tiring. Not by much, but any kind of flagging energy in the Stars is noteworthy. They just have to keep pushing.

 

The score keeps as close as they game does, each team keen to keep things level, tied eight to eight. Samot calls a time out with five minutes left on the clock.

 

“Don’t let them go to overtime,” says Samot, as he passes Hadrian a drink bottle.

 

Hadrian nods. He’s too tired to ask questions he already knows the answer to. There’s not a game that went into overtime with the Stars that the Stars didn’t win.

 

“Do whatever it takes,” says Samot, as the buzzer for play to resume sounds, “Get creative.”

 

Creative. Okay.

 

Hadrian’s eyes flick from player to the player. Creative.

 

His gaze lands on Fero.

 

“You take the next shot,” says Hadrian to Fero, keeping his voice low.

 

Fero looks up at him, his eyes wide. “What?”

 

“You take the next shot,” Hadrian repeats, “You know, the one you’ve been practising.”

 

“The one- okay,” says Fero, “Okay, get me the puck and I’ll make the shot.”

 

Hadrian nods.

 

It’s not an easy thing. The Stars are fast, barreling through the Velas defensive line like it’s nothing. Throndir gets the puck and loses it and gets it again.

 

Hadrian glances at the clock. Two minutes.

 

Throndir passes to Lem, who passes to Hadrian. Hadrian skates forward with it, dodging, by some miracle, the Stars player coming at him. Fero is just in front of him.

 

Hadrian passes.

 

Fero spins with the puck, a clumsy copy of the figure skater move that Ephrim favours but unexpected enough that he slips between the two Stars players flanking the goal, skating just around it, and he takes the shot-



--



Aria: I couldn’t believe it, I just - I couldn’t believe it.



--



High in the commentary box, Samol and Blake fall silent for a moment.

 

“Oh my god,” says Samol, his voice barely audible on the sound recording.



--



Maelgwyn grips Castille’s hand so hard he’s probably bruising it, but she’s gripping his shoulder just as hard. He squeezes his eyes closed until he hears Castille’s gasp.



--



“Holy shit,” says Coral, grabbing Juno’s arm.

 

“Holy shit,” says Juno.

 

“I hope you don’t expect me to be impartial after that ,” says Coral.



--



Snitch Nightly, alone in his room, swears loud enough for his neighbour to bang on the wall.



--



In the coach’s box, Samot’s on his feet, holding Samothes’ hand tightly. As the puck moves, he turns away from the ice to press his face into Samothes’ chest.

 

Samothes tips Samot’s face up to his, kissing him as the buzzer sounds.



--



Hadrian doesn't actually see the puck go in until he watches the footage later. In the moment, what he sees is Fero's arms going up in celebration and he knows .

 

Behind the goal, the clock ticks down to nothing.



--



Lem’s the first to reach Fero on the ice. 

 

“I made the shot,” says Fero, his voice hoarse, “Told you I could do it.”

 

Lem huffs a laugh, grinning down at Fero, his eyes wet. There’s a piece of confetti caught in his sweat damp-hair.

 

“You did,” says Lem, “You did.”

 

Fero reaches up, gripping the front of Lem’s jersey tight to pull Lem down into a kiss. Lem’s hands go to his waist as though he wants to lift him, which would be a terrible idea with the skates, and Fero leans back to tell him so and then he’s promptly hit by multiple Velas players.

 

“You did it!” shouts Throndir.

 

Fero laughs, and laughs, and laughs.



--



Hadrian looks up at the cheering crowd above him, blinking at the camera flashes.

 

“I told you guys our strategy was not to suck this year,” says Hadrian.

 

The crowd laughs, and Hadrian grins up at them. He holds his hand out to the assembled group of Velas players behind him, clearing his throat.

 

“These guys. It- we’re a team, which seems like a dumb thing to point out, but it’s really… this whole season, I couldn’t have done it without them.”

 

Someone behind him prompts him - he’s supposed to take the cup around the ice.

 

“Can I bring someone with me?”

 

The official person behind him blinks. “Uh. Sure.”

 

Hadrian nods, turning back to the team. He waves a hand. “Come on.”

 

The team glances at each other.

 

“Come on,” says Hadrian.

 

Fero and Ephrim are the first to skate forward. Ephrim takes the cup’s other side with his uninjured hand, and they hold it up together, skating in a slow circle around the rink, holding the cup high, followed by the line of Velas players.

 

The roar of the crowd is enormous, rattling through his body. He smiles so wide he feels like his face might split but he can’t stop it, doesn’t want to, even if he could.

 

They won .