There were few things that Nina Zenik loved more than the roar of the crowd when she checked some bastard into the boards. Call her narcissistic or whatever but what could be greater than the entire world knowing you could seriously kick some ass? Long gone was that little girl in Ravka getting bullied for her weight. Now, her size was an advantage on the ice, a means to take on the largest men she went up against.
Not that she didn’t love Ravka. She was Grisha, a fierce player trained relentlessly with a graceful and swift style by a controversial Ravkan man who had since landed himself in prison for his training tactics. Sure, they were cruel, but they worked and she loved the family she built in Ravka dearly. When she had played in Os Alta with Zoya and Genya, they had been unstoppable.
But since she was traded to Ketterdam two years ago? Nina now knew she had real power even on her own. The Crows were still a family, without a doubt, but the ruthless nature of the team was amplified by their captain’s focus on their individual skillsets. They each had something of their own to offer and, if they couldn’t bring their best to the table, then there was no way that they could work as a team.
Kaz Brekker was a cold-hearted asshole but also a brilliant thinker, able to manipulate any situation to his advantage. He walked with a limp, some accident from his youth, but on the ice, it was as if it had never been there. He was fast and came down hard on the opposition when he had the chance. His command made him a great center and a captain. Even if he was kind of a dick, Nina respected him a lot, liked him even, and would certainly follow him to hell and back.
Their other center was Inej Ghafa, The Wraith. She had grown up playing as a wing due to her impeccable speed, she was one of the fastest skaters that Nina had ever seen, rivaled only by maybe Dunyasha Lazareva and, even then, she was probably faster. Inej was generally quiet but she was still unafraid to stand up to Kaz and offered a clever mind of her own, a mind which got her moved to center.
Wylan Van Eck and Kuwei Yul-Bo were their forwards, like a pair of extremely fraternal twins on the ice. They were the youngest on the team and the smallest, save Inej. They were fast, though, and each of them clever. Despite their similarities, they weren’t extremely close off the ice but, during a game, they could be an unstoppable team.
Back in goal, they had their most controversial player, Jesper Fahey. He had played for Ketterdam University for about a year before he had to drop out for gambling issues. It was by some miracle that Kaz found him then, recruited him for his new team, one to replace a former team that had been failing to perform. The two of them were attached at the hip and it was clear that Kaz trusted him completely, making him Assistant Captain from the very beginning even though he had no experience in a professional setting. It wasn’t that Jesper wasn’t good, though. He was undoubtedly the best goalkeeper in the world, with an amazing eye for what was happening to the puck and reflexes that only the Saints could dream up.
As for the rest of the team, there weren’t very many people of note. Hell, Nina didn’t even have a consistent partner, which was frustrating seeing as it had never been the case when she played for Os Alta. Still, she stuck with the Crows. They were still new, but Nina knew they were going to be the best in the league someday and, if she stuck with them, they were going to push her to be greater than ever before.
The buzzer sounded off. End of third period. The Crows had beat Shriftport 6-1. It wasn’t surprising; they had a far better roster than them without a doubt. Still, Kaz was going to be pissed at them tonight because none of them were playing at their best tonight, probably because they knew that their win was guaranteed, a sentiment that their captain hardly would agree with.
“Zenik,” Jesper called, as he skated up to her and slapped her on the back. “That was a good hit back there. I’m still in awe of how gracefully you slam a grown man into the glass.”
She shrugged. “It’s my job, isn’t it?”
“I guess,” he replied. “I think Kaz is gonna go easy on you tonight because of it. The rest of us? We’re in for it at practice tomorrow.”
“One hit doesn’t make up for a game of laziness,” she told him. “And Kaz will definitely see it that way.”
Jesper shook his head. “Nah, he’s gonna go easy on you. Especially with the trade and everything.”
Nina raised an eyebrow. “The what?”
“Shit, he didn’t tell you yet,” Jesper said with wide eyes. “I told him it should be a private conversation.”
“He’s not trading me, is he?” she hissed in his ear, to make sure the reporters and fans couldn’t hear her voice.
He snorted. “Please, Kaz isn’t an idiot. You’re one of our greatest assets. You’ll see.”
And then he skated away.
“Jesper!” she shouted, picking up her pace to follow him. “ Jesper Llewellyn Fahey! ”
Kaz had, predictably, called a team meeting after the game and, much to Nina’s surprise, three of their players were missing when he called the meeting to order.
“I think by now you know that all I expect out of any of you is your best,” he started, slowly pacing the room, hand perched menacingly across the crow’s head handle of his cane. “And your best is not what I saw on the ice tonight. There’s no such thing a guaranteed win. When you start believing there is, that’s when you sign your own death warrant.”
“Is that why we’re down a few?” Nina asked. “Decided to knock them off the map?”
A few of the others laughed nervously, but Kaz looked at her with an expression of grim seriousness. “You think this is funny, Zenik?” he asked. “You get one good check in over the course of the entire game and suddenly it’s alright to make jokes in a team meeting?”
“Kaz,” Inej said calmy. “Maybe you should get on with the meeting.”
“Yes,” he said with a nod. “The point is, I expect better from all of you. You’ve noticed that three of your teammates are missing today. There is a reason for that. When people can’t deliver me their best, I have no choice but to find something better.”
“And what’s better?”
Kaz turned back to Nina. “Zenik, I’ve found you a partner. A proper one this time.”
“Really?!” she asked, a smile blossoming on her face. She had gone too long without a partner and had been longing for that level of trust on the ice ever since she’d landed in Kerch.
“You’re not going to like it,” Jesper told her, with a shake of his head.
“It’s Matthias Helvar,” Kaz informed her. “The Wolves struck a hard bargain, taking three of our players for him, but I can tell that it will be worth it. Because he’s the best.”
She felt her face go pale. “Helvar?”
“I understand that Os Alta and Djerholm have a bit of a rivalry,” Kaz told her, which was the understatement of a millennium. “But none of that matters now. You’re both in Ketterdam now and I won’t tolerate petty feuds from past teams in the Crows. You’ll figure it out.”
Nina clenched her first. “Well, I’ll have to try, won’t I?”
And then she turned and marched out of the room. She didn’t have the patience for the rest of this stupid meeting right now.
“Witch,” she heard a man on the street mutter under his breath as she walked by after a particularly bad game against Djerholm.
She chose not to respond and kept walking. It was just bad luck that he had recognized her from the Ravkan team anyway, probably some superfan who was just obsessed with hating the opposition as he was with supporting his own team.
But then she was keenly aware of every eye that might be on here. She didn’t have the stark blond hair and icy blue eyes of the typical Fjerdan and, without even mentioning her far superior sense of style, she stood out. Sure, there were plenty of Fjerdans that didn’t fit the typical mold but it would be obvious that she was Ravkan as soon as she opened her mouth to speak in her heavily accented Fjerdan. Perhaps she should have stayed in the hotel with her teammates. Maybe a minibar would suffice just as much as an actual one in this case.
Still, she shouldered on and forced herself not to give a shit, at least not outwardly. Who cared if she was in fucking Djerholm? If she wanted a drink she was going to get her fucking drink.
Eventually, she made her way into a smaller bar that seemed to be lacking the gameday crowd of some of the others. If she was going to be somewhat anonymous tonight then she was going to have to limit the number of interactions she had with people.
Inside, the bar was just as empty as she had expected. There was a group of men drinking and laughing in a corner booth, probably fresh off a long shift. At one of the tables, there were two young women nervously sipping their drinks and avoiding eye contact, most certainly on their first date. A singular man sat at the bar, leaning over his drink so that she couldn’t quite make out his face. He was quite muscular, though, and his long blonde hair was pulled into a bun at the back of his head.
She decided to sit at the other end of the bar, where she could still get the best service while not bothering the man.
“Can I get you anything?” the bartender asked her in Fjerdan.
She scanned over the menu on the board above the bar. Most of the selection consisted of Fjerdan liquors that she knew to be over-glorified motor oil but they did list Kerch-imported lager. No doubt, it was a cheap watered-down version, but she supposed she had to take what she could get.
“Valter, do you still have that Ravkan stuff that Marthe’s cousin got you?” asked the man from down the bar.
The bartender nodded.
“She’ll have that,” he told the man. “I’ll pay.”
She turned to him in surprise, only to find that she recognized the man as one of the other team’s defenders. One who had been particularly brutal with her teammates throughout the course of the game.
Her expression soured. “Helvar.”
“Zenik,” he replied. “From what I’ve heard of you, I’d have thought you’d be in a much bigger bar than this one. Train to the point of death and party like tomorrow will never come because you aren’t certain it will. The way of the witch, is it not?”
“Buy me a drink and then insult me?” she asked. “If you want to fuck me, just say so, Helvar.”
He made a show of wrinkling his nose but there was a faint blush on his cheeks. “I just felt bad for you after a nightlike that. Djel knows that getting destroyed in a game that badly means one can use a drink or two. And I know people like you can’t stomach real Fjerdan liquor.”
She snorted. “I can stomach it, alright. I just prefer a little bit of flavor on my tongue. It’s more a question of taste than tolerance”
“As if that stuff you drink is any better,” he replied, just as the bartender returned from the back with a bottle in hand and poured some in a glass for her.
She took a long sip with a smile, ignoring the burning down her throat. This was actually some pretty good shit, rivaling the kvas at some of the bars in Os Alta.
He rolled his eyes at her and turned back to his own drink.
But Nina wouldn’t have it. Sure, he was her enemy, but he also was kind of cute and probably easily flustered. She moved down the bar to sit on the stool beside him. “So, why are you here? Shouldn’t you be out celebrating with the team after such a big win?”
“Wolves don’t celebrate,” he replied like he was reciting something from memory. “We only prepare for the next battle so we may emerge victorious once again.”
“So you’re not supposed to drink?” she asked. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”
“I wouldn’t say that. More that there’s no excess and we keep the future in mind,” he explained. “Besides, nobody wants to be hungover when we’re running drills tomorrow.”
“Meh, you get used to it,” she said with a shrug.
“I don’t care to find out,” he replied. “But the others, they do drink a bit more than me. I don’t do well in large groups.”
“Yet you play a team sport,” she pointed out. “There has to be some bonding there otherwise you wouldn’t work on the ice.”
“We work hard and run the same drills every day. That’s how we bond.”
Helvar shot her an icy glare. “I don’t see your friends here either, Zenik.”
“Well, it’s not a celebration kind of night for us, is it?” she snapped. “I’ve come here to drink my sorrows and speak to pretentious Fjerdan boys.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Is that our reputation?”
She shook her head. “Just an observation of you personally.”
“Many thanks,” he grumbled before taking a swig of his drink.
“You really are a monster on the ice,” she said after a moment. “Not even Alina could get past you tonight and, well, she’s Alina Starkov.”
“It’s what I do. Maybe you should be more concerned with how my people kept getting past you,” he replied. “Or how Safin can’t guard a goal to save her life.”
“You say that now,” she replied. “But next time I see you, we’ll kick your asses and you’ll be sorry you ever uttered a word against us.”
He looked at her seemingly unimpressed. “From what I saw tonight? Doubtful. Even Ketterdam could wipe the floor with you. That criminal pushes you beyond human boundaries for years and yet you still have nothing to show for it. It’s pathetic, really.”
She stood up and fished a few bills that she’d got exchanged a few days ago out of her pocket and shoved it across the bar toward him.
“For the drink,” she said before marching out the door.
Getting drinks with the team was always a good time. Sure, they had their ups and downs, as any team would, but when they were drinking and laughing everything was just laid back and fun. Even Kaz seemed slightly less on-guard than usual when he was sitting with the rest of them, sipping on lager.
Things were still tense between him and Nina after he’d blindsided her with that trade but here, at the Crow Club, the tension took a backseat to team bonding and general enjoyment of the night.
Besides, Jesper was wasted, and that was something that they both could enjoy.
The boy in question was sprawled across the booth at the table Nina was sitting at, limbs out in every direction with his left arm slung awkwardly around an amused Wylan’s shoulders. What’s more, he was singing.
The song was in his native tongue, Zemeni. Nina knew a little of the language but, between her limited knowledge and the fact that he was heavily slurring the words together as he sang in a loud and horribly offkey voice.
Nina wasn’t sure if she was delighted by the display or horribly embarrassed to be seen sitting at the same table as him. At least this was Kaz’s bar and, therefore, most of the clientele were already fairly familiar with them.
Wylan seemingly had settled on the second and was terribly flustered, cheeks burning a deep shade of red as he refused to make eye contact with anything that wasn’t the plate of fries in front of him.
“Jesper, people are watching ,” he hissed. “They probably think you’re a lunatic.”
Clasping a hand to his chest as if he were deeply offended, Jesper gasped. “People here are judging me for passionately serenading the lovely Wylan Van Eck ? They think I’m a lunatic ?”
“And they’re certainly right,” Kaz said with a small, amused smile.
“My own boyfriend and my best friend, banding together to tear me down.” Jesper shook his head and turned to Inej, who was sitting on his other side. “Can you believe this, Inej?”
“Truly unbelievable,” she said with a playful grin.
“I think one more verse will serve them well,” Nina suggested. “If they’re so offended by this amazing song.”
“Nina Zenik, you are the smartest woman I’ve ever met and I’m sitting next to Inej,” Jesper told her before breaking into song once more.
Wylan gave her a pleading look, which she chose to ignore.
Inej stood up after a few moments and nodded toward the door. “I’m going to get some air.”
Kaz started to get up, but she stopped him and looked to Nina instead. “Nina, would you like to come with?”
“Uh, sure,” she said, standing up and following the smaller girl out the door.
“Are you and Kaz alright?” she asked her once the door had shut behind them.
“We’re fine,” Inej told her, ducking into an alleyway and leaning against a wall. “I just wanted to check in with you.”
“About the Fjerdan,” she concluded.
“Yes, about Matthias,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What’s your problem with him, anyway? He isn’t even here yet and you’ve already thrown a fit, marching out of the team meeting like you did the other night.”
“He’s a fucking Wolf, Inej,” she spat. “They’re all assholes, every one of them. They hate me for who I am because I’m Grisha and even just because I’m Ravkan.”
“You don’t play for Os Alta anymore, Nina. And he doesn’t play for Djerholm,” Inej reasoned. “I get that there’s history there but Kaz is right. You can put it aside for the team, especially with a heart as big as yours.”
“There’s no room in my heart for bigots,” she told her harshly. “He hates me because I was trained differently, because my entire culture is different than his. You wouldn’t understand?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked. “I was born in Ravka, same as you.”
“It’s not the same and you know it. You were born in Ravka, but you don’t consider yourself to be Ravkan and you don’t carry our feuds with you.”
“Well, what about here in Kerch? The people here believe that the Suli are something to be paraded around and sexualized, something exotic and interesting rather than just people,” she pointed out. “And yet I’m out on the ice night after night, playing for a team that represents the heart of that very culture.”
“I’m not obligated to like Matthias,” Nina said. “I just have to play with him.”
Inej shook her head. “Fine, but there’s more too it than that. He’s not just any Fjerdan to you. I can tell and, somehow, Kaz probably knew.”
“Inej, it’s not that deep,” she lied, clenching and unclenching her fists. “He’s a Fjerdan and therefore I hate him.”
“Well, then you’re no better than him, are you?” she said before ducking back into the Crow Club.
Nina hated that she was kind of right.
Matthias’ first day with them was the following Sunday, a morning practice just a few days before they were set to play in Os Kervo. Kaz said he’d be playing that night if he felt that he was ready, at least for a little bit, but Nina doubted his performance would be sufficient enough to actually see the ice during a game for a while.
Kaz may have traded three of their players for him but, in her opinion, he wasn’t worth a single one of them, and not only due to her personal dealings with him.
The fact of the matter was that Matthias Helvar had been out due to an injury for over three years. Sure, he had been a stellar player before getting hurt, that much was an objective fact. But being out for so long would make anyone rusty, both on their feet and in their mindset during games. There was no way that he was going to jump on the ice with the Crows for a few practices and then be ready to face anyone, much less the likes of Dunyasha Lazareva.
But Kaz simply wouldn’t listen. He said that Matthias was ready and that they’d all see it at practice.
And, from what Nina saw when he walked out onto the ice from the men’s changing room, that clearly wasn’t the case.
He no longer had his rich golden locks of the past, his hair instead being cropped much closer to his scalp. His skin was paler than before, almost making him look sickly if he weren’t still so muscular. The worst part, though, were his icy blue eyes, which were somehow even more frozen than before, like any semblance of life had been stripped from them. When those eyes fell on Nina, there was no warmth or fire or emotion of any kind. They were just dead.
“This is Matthias Helvar,” Kaz said to the team. “He’ll be playing defense with you from now on.”
Matthias nodded respectfully but didn’t say anything.
And then they got to running drills, the same ones that they always ran.
He was very quick to pick them up, even though some of Kaz’s drills were unconventional at best and she knew that convention was all his former team had been about. She had been wrong about him being rusty in his physicality. He was still just as strong as he always had been, maybe stronger. He wasn’t the fastest guy on the ice; often Wylan was able to slip past him when they scrimmaged near the end.
But when he landed a hit on Wylan? He crumpled against the wall and Jesper looked like he was about to start crying. Kaz gave Matthias a dirty look for the hard hit during practice, which he didn’t respond to in any way, but after that, he let up a little. Still, it was clear to all of them that maybe Kaz hadn’t been a total idiot for getting some more muscle on the team, even if it was muscle in its worst form.
Nina made sure to give him a hard time during practice. She purposely overshot him to make sure he had to push himself to get the puck and she checked him hard against the boards at every opportunity. Kaz seemed fairly annoyed by her display and Inej perhaps more so. But Matthias never reacted, not even once.
By the time they hit the showers, it was clear to Nina that this was not the same Matthias Helvar that she had known a few years back. Sure, he had always been uptight and cold. But he was also a tiny bit awkward and extremely easy to set off. It was like someone had snuffed out the fire that used to burn deep inside his heart.
Logically, it should make Nina happy. He wasn’t going to bring up their past or the rivalry in general. That meant less conflict and that it would be easier to ignore him and just do the best she could independently do on the ice.
Instead, it made her fucking angry. How dare he not respond when she was trying to get a rise out of him? How dare he just see through her like she was nobody, like she was nothing ? How dare he inhabit the body of the man that had managed to find her kvas in that Fjerdan bar on the night they met?
One more question echoed in her mind, louder than the rest.
Who did this to him?
Nina had assumed that her dealings with Matthias would be strictly on the ice once she had left that bar in Djerholm but, only about a month later, she was proven wrong.
This game, taking place in Os Alta, was much closer than the last. Nobody had scored in the first two periods and then, mere minutes before the end of the third, the Djerholm had scored. Zoya then landed a buzzer-beater right at the end, sending them into overtime, which was also without any goals. In the end, they went to a shootout, which was fantastic for Nina’s team. How could anyone win a shootout against Alina Starkov and Zoya Nazyalensky, regardless of who their third was?
After the game, the team was set to go to the Little Palace, Nina’s favorite bar in all of Ravka. And their coach would be paying, which was even better. It was bound to be a fun, raucous night of celebration, which was just what Nina needed after stressing to prepare for a game like this.
Except, when she walked out of the locker room, a muscular man was leaning against the wall and looking down, baseball cap pulled low as to cover his face. Still, long blond hair fell from below the cap and into his face.
Nina grabbed Matthias by the arm and yanked him down another hallway. “What are you doing here?” she hissed in Fjerdan. “If the others saw you, they’d skin me alive just for even speaking to you in the first place.”
He looked up and she caught a glimpse of his eyes, the color of a frozen sea. “I was waiting for you,” he replied in shaky Ravkan.
She decided to keep the conversation in Fjerdan, as they both spoke that fairly well. “Why? To offer your congratulations? Hardly seems like a Fjerdan to go out of his way to make a Ravkan feel good.”
“I-” he started, taking a breath. “I wanted to get a drink but I don’t know of any places in Os Alta.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Drowning your sorrows, Helvar.”
She thought back to the various bars in the city and tried to think of one where the clientele wouldn’t give him a super hard time for being Fjerdan. Most of the bars she and her teammates were in the rich part of the city, where they were celebrated by the rich people that frequented their games.
But there was one bar, one that Nina went to when she didn’t want to be recognized, on the other side of Os Alta, but not in the extraordinarily shifty part of it. It was a hipster bar, so the thought of Matthias navigating it alone was kind of frightful. Sure, she could go with him but that meant abandoning her team on a night of fantastic victory.
“I might know of a place,” she said finally. “But I’m supposed to celebrate with my team tonight, not that you would understand that.”
“I’ll buy,” he offered with a nervous smile.
It really shouldn’t have changed anything. She was going to be getting free drinks no matter what tonight and, with her team, it was sure to be a wild time in the best way. But Matthias seemed so earnest and she couldn’t just leave him to navigate Os Alta alone. Or, shit, maybe she just wanted to know more about him, deep down.
Either way, she smiled softly. “Sure. I’ll just tell Zoya that I’m sick or something. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
The hipster bar that she brought him to wasn’t very big and didn’t advertise itself that freely, being situated just down an alleyway rather than on the main street. Still, it had a fairly regular clientele that kept it in business. The people here knew Nina by name, without actually knowing who she was, which was kind of perfect for a secret getaway when you were one of the most famous athletes in Ravka.
When they walked into the bar the owner, who was shaking up some cocktail, looked Matthias up and down. “This one is interesting. He certainly doesn’t know his way around a closet.”
She laughed. “I’ll take him to a thrift shop one of these days and get him some real Ravkan clothes.”
“I thought I looked fine,” he said quietly.
Nina slapped him on the back. “You’re fine. Now let’s drink.”
They sat in a booth this time, rather than at the bar, which was a bit occupied since it was a Saturday night. Maybe it was better this way, sitting across from one another and actually talking. Or perhaps that would be worse.
“What’s good here?” he asked her, glancing at the drink menu in the middle of the table.
She snatched it from his hands. “I’ll order for you. If you want an authentic Ravkan bar experience, you’re drinking kvas. End of story.”
He wrinkled his nose. “I’ve tried it before and it’s just not that good.”
Nina shoved her hand in his face. “I won’t hear it! I’ll order us cocktails so you don’t have to drink it straight. At least not yet. One day you’ll see the light.”
“I don’t think I will,” he replied, extracting her hand from his face.
“Don’t you trust me?” she asked him with a wink.
Matthias glanced over her for a moment, as if he were contemplating whether or not to say yes, but then shook his head. “It’s not as if I have much of a choice. You’re quite persuasive and I barely speak Ravkan.”
“Good enough for me,” she told him before waving down the owner and ordering two of some absurdly sugary drink that would most certainly be just a little bit too sweet for Matthias.
“So, you couldn’t get enough of me that night in Djerholm, could you?” she asked with a teasing smiled, leaning toward him. “Just had to come back for more, huh?”
His cheeks flushed red, just as she had hoped they would. “I just wanted a drink.”
“A drink with me,” she amended.
“Seemed like the most viable option,” he muttered.
“Couldn’t coax Coach Brum into shots tonight?”
“Not a chance,” he replied. “He’s as angry enough as it is.”
“Drama?” Nina asked him, wiggling her eyebrows dramatically.
He shook his head. “Not drama. Jarl Brum is strict. That’s what makes him the best coach in the league. And no, Morozova doesn’t count. He’s in prison for his coaching.”
“I don’t agree with it either, you know,” Nina said quietly. “Am I a better player because of it? Maybe. But he was a manipulative man concerned only with his own power in the world. Things are far better with Alina at the helm, as our captain and our coach in one.”
“Even if your performance isn’t,” he added.
She sighed, but he wasn’t exactly wrong. “Even is our performance isn’t.”
Soon, the bartender arrived with their drink and set them in front of them, winking at Nina as he did so before making his way back to the bar.
The drinks were a bright pink near the top which bled down onto the stark white at the bottom and were served in mason jars with oversized straws.
Matthias made a face. “Are you sure that you didn’t order off a children’s menu?”
She took a sip of the delightfully sweet concoction and felt a faint burn down the back of her throat. “Definitely big kid drinks.”
He let out a sigh before taking a sip, wincing as he did so. “That’s a lot of sugar.”
“And yet, it’s still alcohol,” she pointed out. “It’s good! There’s strawberry in it!”
“If you say so,” he replied, but seeing as his next sip was larger than the first, he was just being grumpy about it.
“So, Matthias Helvar, what do you do when you’re not losing hockey games and sneaking around with Ravkan girls that are too pretty for you?” she asked him.
She thought he would snap at her but instead, he just shrugged. “I have a dog. Other than that, just hockey. It is my job, you know.”
“Dog?” she echoed curiously.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket and scrolled through a few pictures before holding it up toward Nina, showing a photo of a large husky that was clearly mid-tail wag. “This is Trassel.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Troublemaker?”
Matthias smiled. “He’s quite a scoundrel. I don’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have me to keep him in line.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think you’re more trouble than initially meets the eye.”
“Well, I’m here, aren’t I?”
It was then that Nina decided to snatch his phone out of his hands and switch to the contacts app, creating a new contact and entering in her information before handing it back to him.
“This is so you don’t have to lurk outside my locker room like a creep when you want to hang out,” she told him. “Serious, Helvar. Anyone else would think you’re trying to steal our plays or just sneak peeks at girls changing. If it’s the latter, you know you only need to ask.”
His cheeks managed to turn redder than ever before. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Maybe later then,” she said with a wink.
“You make this difficult,” he told her. “I’m supposed to hate you.”
She shrugged. “Guess I’m just too damn likable.”
He met her eyes then, icy blue locked on bright green. “I guess that you are.”
Their game against Os Kervo was kind of a mess. They had won, but just barely. And even that was largely thanks to Wylan having a particularly great game, earning him his first hat trick of the season.
It was pretty clear to everyone watching that the defense was the problem. Independently, Nina and Matthias were both playing pretty well. That was the problem, though, they weren’t playing as a team, or communicating at all, really.
Nina wasn’t really passing to Matthias in an attempt to goad him because she liked him better with that fire that he’d been noticeably lacking. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t react to it at all.
He wasn’t passing to her either, though. In fact, he was barely acting like she was there at all. It was like she was invisible, even when she was the only open player on the ice. And, fine, maybe she deserved it, but that hardly made for good gameplay.
Any passes between them, which were still few and far between, went through an increasingly annoyed Jesper or one of the centers, which was worse. Kaz was angry and Inej was disappointed.
Nina longed for her string of short-term defensive partners back, even if some of them were amateurs.
Eventually, Os Kervo figured out that 90% of the time that either of them got the puck, it was going straight up the ice to the forwards and they started stealing the puck pretty much every time, nearly costing them the lead that they had built up earlier in the game.
When the game ended, Nina felt nothing but fear. Kaz was going to fucking kill them for this. He had already warned her about bringing their drama to the ice and, even if he didn’t understand the half of it, she kind of knew better.
Instead of calling a team meeting, he just pulled them aside after the game and informed them that they would be joining him in the hotel rather than going out for celebratory drinks with the rest of the team, which didn’t seem to bother Matthias all that much. Nina begrudgingly agreed and slipped Jesper some cash to pay for some of Wylan’s celebratory drinks.
Kaz brought them straight back to the hotel and brought them up to his room. It seemed eerily empty in there, his bag still packed on the desk and the sheets neatly made despite the do not disturb sign still hanging from the door handle. Nina knew that he didn’t like to be touched, he made that much clear to her fairly quickly, but she never considered that he’d be such a neat freak as well.
He motioned for the two of them to sit on the bed but remained standing himself, no doubt to assert his authority as team captain.
“What happened tonight was completely unacceptable,” he told them, even though that much had already been obvious. “I understand that there are issues between the two of you but this is completely intolerable. You are both Crows now and crows are adaptable, which means the two of you need to resolve this conflict as soon as possible.”
“And how are we supposed to do that?” Nina asked him, crossing her arms over her chest. “These things don’t happen overnight, Brekker.”
“Jesper told me that I should lock you two in a closet for a few hours,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s the best way to go about this. Frankly, I don’t care about your personal lives. I care about how you perform. So, until this gets resolved, you both will be showing up an hour early to every practice to work together, just the pair of you. And neither of you will be playing in any games until I see noticeable improvements.”
“What?!” she exclaimed. “You can’t do that!”
Matthias nodded and spoke the first words she had heard him say since he showed up in Ketterdam. “If that’s your order, Captain.”
Nina sprung up off the bed and shoved a finger toward Kaz’s chest, which he dodged with calm grace. “You need us, Kaz Brekker. None of the others play defense like we do.”
“None of the others bring their drama onto the ice,” he stated. “This is the only feasible way that I see to solve your problem.”
“This is unbelievable,” she said, clenching her fists tightly at her waist.
Kaz ignored her in favor of pulling out his phone. “The rest of the team is taking the bus over to Kribirsk tomorrow since we play them on Monday, but I’ve had Jesper get tickets back to Ketterdam for the two of you. You’ll be completely solo until Tuesday. Perhaps that will kickstart things. The plane leaves early tomorrow morning, so I think it’s for the best that the two of you get back to your rooms and sleep.”
Obediently, the two of them filed out of the room. As soon as the door closed behind Kaz and they’d made their way down the hallway a bit, Nina shoved Matthias into the wall. “What the actual fuck?” she hissed in Fjerdan.
He looked at her, seemingly unimpressed. “The captain said we should get some sleep.”
“I’m not invisible,” she snapped. “Stop treating me like I am.”
“You’re not,” he agreed. “But I also don’t want to play your games any longer. I’ve come to Ketterdam to play again, not to spend time with a witch.”
He gently pushed her off of him and continued down the hall, still acting as if he wasn’t bothered.
The plane ride was awkward to say the least, not that either of them acknowledged it as such. Jesper had booked them next to each other in economy which meant that, since neither them were exactly small people, they were smushed together. At least Nina had been in the window seat, which meant that she didn’t have to deal with a stranger on her other side. Not a word was spoken between them during the entire trip nor when they caught a taxi back to the rink together.
It wasn’t until they were both standing on the ice later, neither of them moving to suggest where to begin, that day that they were forced to acknowledge one another.
“This isn’t gonna work,” Nina said finally. “Maybe if I beg enough, Os Alta will take me back.”
“That would be foolish,” he replied. “Ketterdam is much better for you as a player.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugged. “I pay attention and I know you, Nina.”
“You don’t know me.” Nina shook her head. “Not anymore.”
“And whose fault is that?”
She went silent.
“I don’t want to get into this again. I’ve come here for a fresh start,” he said finally. “So can we not just play?”
“Easier said than done. You were there last night,” she pointed out. “Even if you thought that I wasn’t.”
He paused for a moment, a thoughtful expression on his face. “How about we make it a game? You’ve always enjoyed turning everything into games and competitions.”
She nodded. “I’m listening.”
“We’ll fool Kaz,” he suggested. “On the ice, we function as teammates. We communicate as needed and pass to one another when the situation calls for it. As soon as we step off it, back to silence.”
“And how do I win?” she asked.
“Don’t break the rules,” he told her. “We keep our drama off the ice and leave each other alone otherwise. No real conversations.”
“And no kissing?” she teased.
He grimaced. “Certainly not.”
She skated close to him and held out a hand for him to shake. “Well, Helvar, I think that you have a deal. Now let’s get this practice over with.”
The next time Nina played in Djerholm, it was a day game, which meant they were done before dinner. Sure, the bars would be pretty empty, but it wasn’t really practical to go out drinking, despite her team having emerged victorious. She was flying home early the next morning anyway.
So, as an alternative, she went back to Matthias’ apartment after the game where he was going to make her dinner and they would hang out without any risk of being recognized. Of course, not until after a meeting that she had with her team and a small victory celebration in Alina’s room.
They had planned this out over a week ago, but it wasn’t really a huge deal. Just two sort of friends hanging out and having dinner together. And she was going to get to meet his dog! That was perhaps more exciting to her than the dinner itself.
Still, she had to take a breath to regain her composure before knocking on the door of Matthias’ apartment, which was in a building that seemed much nicer than her own. Or maybe it wasn’t nicer, just more spacious and modern.
When he answered the door wearing an apron all her worries faded away. It’s not like it was pink or frilly or anything, just some thick brown cloth, but still, the image of a huge, muscular man in an apron was absolutely hilarious to Nina and she fought to bite back a giggle.
He raised an eyebrow. “Is something funny.”
“No, it’s just-“ She couldn’t contain her laugh any longer and it began to spill over the surface and into her words. “Apron.”
Matthias looked down at his apron and frowned. “I didn’t want to dirty my clothes while I was cooking.”
“It’s not that funny,” she lied. “I just didn’t expect-“
Nina paused as a furry head peered at her from behind Matthias’ legs. It was the dog from the picture he had shown her, Trassel.
“Saints!” she gasped, shoving him inside to get to the dog. “Aren’t you just the cutest animal I’ve seen in my life.”
She scratched behind his ears as he nuzzled into her touch. They were instant friends, something that could not be said of many other Fjerdans.
“Did you only agree to this to spend time with my dog?” Matthias asked as he closed the door to the apartment.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied, not looking up from Trassel. “The free meal was also an important factor in my decision to come over.”
Matthias rolled his eyes but smiled fondly. “I’ve just got to finish things up. I’ll leave the two of you to continue this introduction. Feel free to turn on the TV if you’d like.”
He retreated back into the kitchen as Nina gave Trassel one last pet and walked over to Matthias’ couch, picking up the remote and turning on his massive flatscreen TV, somehow even bigger than hers even though she didn’t think of Matthias as someone who watched much TV.
She began to flip through the channels, only to find that the terrible TV at the hotels was no fluke. Fjerdan TV was just straight-up bad. It was all poorly lit and most everything seemed like it was some gritty show about going to war against the villainous country of Ravka or about an alcoholic detective trying to figure out who the person who’d been killing innocent women was. None of this really interested Nina at all. She tried to think of who else might be playing today, but then she remembered it was Ketterdam and Weddle and she really had no desire to watch that either.
Eventually, she settled about a documentary about polar bears in Kenst Hjerte that, while not being something that she would typically watch, seemed interesting enough. She patted the cushion next to her and Trassel jumped up and settled next to her, laying his head on her lap.
“Trassel, I know you’re not up on the furniture,” Matthias called from the kitchen.
The dog looked up, alarmed at the sound of his voice, and moved to jump off the couch, but Nina grabbed him before he could to settle him down.
“Of course he’s not on the couch,” Nina called back. “He’s a very good boy!”
“Nina, I can see both of you,” he told her and, sure enough, he was watching them from through the kitchen pass-through.
She stuck her tongue out at him and turned back around, hugging Trassel closer to her chest.
“If you let him sit on the couch then I’ll have to train him not to do it all over again after you leave!” he pointed out.
“Stop being so mean to him,” she said. “He just wants to sit down!”
“He has his own bed for that! I don’t need hair all over my couch.”
“He’s so grumpy,” she said to Trassel. “I don’t know how you put up with him.”
“I heard that!” Matthias called.
“I know!” she replied, turning toward him once more.
Matthias smiled and shook his head. “You’re going to be the death of me, Nina Zenik.”
Dinner was great. Matthias had made chopped steak with mushrooms and this hearty sauce, serving alongside asparagus and mashed potatoes. He was a great cook, better than her for sure. It was nice having an actual homecooked meal for once rather than going out or eating something quick before training.
With dinner, they also had drinks. She expected him to serve him something disgusting and traditionally Fjerdan after she’d ordered something far too sweet for him in Os Alta but, instead, they drank wine. It was a bitter red that paired well with their meal, no doubt imported from Eames Chin and likely quite expensive.
It was lovely. Nina hadn’t had a proper meal with anyone like this in years, maybe ever. She knew that it had to mean something, that this was probably a date, but she didn’t want to say anything at risk of ruining it all. Much to her dismay, she genuinely liked Matthias. Sure, she was Ravkan and he was Fjerdan and they were on rival teams. But when they were alone, none of that really mattered. They were just Nina and Matthias.
“I want to show you something,” he told her after they’d finished eating. “Grab your coat.”
She opened her mouth to protest because she didn’t particularly want to go out into the biting cold but she decided to comply instead. If Matthias wanted to show her some surprise, she was going to allow him to.
Rather than leading her out of the apartment, he led her further through it, eventually leading her into his bedroom.
“Isn’t it a bit early to take a girl to bed?” she asked.
His cheeks flushed red as he rushed across the room and opened a glass door. “The balcony,” he explained.
She walked outside and, once she saw the view, her breath caught in her throat.
It was beautiful, despite all the slush from the especially horrible Fjerdan winter. Snow blanketed the rooftops of other buildings and the city lights glowed brightly against the night sky. Nina had always thought of Djerholm as an ugly industrial city. Seeing it now, from this new angle, she knew that maybe her original assessment had been wrong.
“I’ve never seen Djerholm like this,” she told him quietly.
“I hadn’t either. Not until I moved here,” he replied. “I’ve always loved my country but I didn’t grow up here in the city. It always intimidated me. All these people. I always knew that I’d get lost in it. That I wouldn’t be able to find a community in it. But I come up here and I see the lights and the homes and I know that, even when I’m lonely, I’m not truly alone.”
“Do you feel lonely often?” she asked him.
He shrugged. “It’s a big apartment for just me and Trassel. I’m not that close with my teammates, not personally. Coach Brum doesn’t encourage personal relations within the team as he places professionalism so highly. I’ve considered moving. This apartment is expensive anyway, even if I do have the money, but it always comes back to the view. But, yeah, I feel lonely most of the time.”
“I do too,” she confessed. “Yeah, sure, I have friends in my team, but sometimes it feels more like they’re friends with the team than friends with me. We’re so focused on being a unit that sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s anyone who actually knows who Nina Zenik is. Hell, sometimes I don’t even know who I am outside my team and my training.”
It was a truth that she’d never shared with anyone, one that she rarely even let herself consider but somehow, here under the watchful light of the moon with Matthias, all the words just came tumbling out.
“If you’ll let me, I’d like to know you,” Matthias said quietly, not looking up to meet her eyes.
A part of her heart jumped at his words but at the same time, she knew it would be foolish of her to love him. If anyone ever found out… She didn’t even know how the others would react. What’s more, she wasn’t even sure that she could trust him. She wanted to, that much was for certain, but he was still a Fjerdan. And, as a woman, she had a lot more to lose in terms of reputation if things ever did go further.
“Tell me something that could ruin you,” she said finally. “A secret that you would never want in the hands of any enemy.”
He furrowed his eyebrows. “What? No!”
“Then I’ll share a secret of my own,” she continued. “If this is ever going to work, we need to know that we can trust one another and I think the best way to go about that is if we both have something that could utterly take the other down.”
“Mutually assured destruction,” he muttered. “Are you sure that’s the best plan?”
“Do you have a better one?”
He shook his head. “Just let me think about it. I’m not sure exactly what to share. Something about hockey?”
“Just something that someone could use to take you down,” she said. “I won’t, though. It’s just to prove our trust.”
“Alright,” he said, taking a deep breath before continuing. “I always check fairly high. Always, without fail. I’m a pretty big guy but even when up against someone of a comparable size, the hit is probably coming to the shoulders rather than the chest. If someone just went down a little, they’d probably be able to dodge my checks. Coach gets on me about it often, but every time I’m under pressure I go high, even though a lower hit would be more impactful and harder to dodge.”
“That’s your big secret?” she asked.
“It would ruin my game if someone knew, Nina,” he told her. “If this got out, anyone would be able to dodge my hits and then I wouldn’t be much of a defenseman, would I?”
She nodded. “No, that’s a good secret. You’re right.”
“And what’s your secret?” he asked her.
Nina sighed. “I think my teammates are holding me back. I love playing for Os Alta and I’d never want to go anywhere else, but the way we do things isn’t letting me grow. But if my teammates knew, fuck. They’d probably have me traded to the worst team in the league. Then my career really would be over.”
Matthias reached over and squeezed her hand.
“One day, the others will see how you can shine,” he told her. “I can see it, and I’m supposed to be the enemy.”
She smiled softly. “I’ve come to realize that assuming someone is the enemy just because of where they’re from may be foolish.”
“Indeed,” Matthias agreed, and then started dragging her toward the door. “Now let’s go in. I’m starting to get cold and there’s dessert to be had.”
This little game between Matthias and Nina, it actually worked . They were allowed to play in games again by the end of the week and, by the end of the month, they had a synergy that was absolutely unstoppable. Matthias was strong and ruthless on the ice, something that she’d noticed before they had gotten to know one another but almost had forgotten. Combined with her swift but mighty grace, they were a hard pair to get past.
It was exhilarating, knowing that she was kicking ass on the ice without having to make up for a shitty partner, and it almost made her forget about everything else. It was a cruel mirror of what they had, the companionship that gave them both so much individual power, but she forced the comparison from her mind. Because talking about the past would lose her the game and every time she thought about it she wanted nothing but to hit him or kiss him or, more often, just to ask him why he never returned her calls.
The worst part was probably going out for post-game victory drinks. Often to celebrate Nina and Matthias. The whole team was trying to draw them together but, as soon as they off the ice, they returned to being worlds apart.
After beating Os Alta, the best team in the league since the year Nina had won the championship with them, Nina took the team out to the Little Palace. She had refrained from taking them there in the past as it was still Os Alta’s bar of choice after a good win and Nina wasn’t sure the Crows had ever beaten them when they weren’t at home before. This was a special occasion, though, so that’s where they went.
Predictably, Matthias sat on the opposite end of the table and refused to look at Nina, which in turn made Inej look to her with a mixture of worry and curiosity. Luckily, Wylan took a liking to kvas and clearly couldn’t handle his liquor, distracting the others from Nina’s drama.
Of course, right when Nina felt that she was safe from being coerced into a serious conversation by Inej, Zoya Nazyalensky came walking through the doors.
She let out a sigh of relief when she saw Nina. “Thank the Saints that you’re here. We need to talk.”
Jesper raised an eyebrow. “Don’t give away any trade secrets, Zenik.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be right back,” she said, grabbing her coat and following Zoya outside.
“You were fucking phenomenal today,” Zoya told her. “So was he. Seems that he’s trained himself out of his little problem.”
“Thanks,” she said. “But I have a feeling you’re not here just to congratulate me.”
Zoya nodded. “You’re right. I’m here because I want to know what the hell you think you’re doing. Are you sleeping with him again?”
“I’m not sleeping with him,” she promised her. “Trust me, neither of us want that. We don’t even talk to each other off the ice.”
“It’ll never work,” Zoya continued. “I get that you’re teammates now, but you’re still Ravkan. You’re still Grisha. And he’s still a fucking Fjerdan. As long as that much is true, there will always be too much baggage for it to work.”
“Why do you even care?” she asked.
“Then stop treating me like a child,” she snapped. “I can make my own decisions and I’m certainly not going to make the same mistakes all over again.”
Zoya’s expression softened. “Just don’t get yourself hurt, Nina. Me and the team, none of us want to see that. Especially after we were so distant last time.”
“I’ll be fine,” she promised her. “I’m not stupid and I have people that have my back.”
“Well, for what it’s worth, the rest of us have it too,” Zoya said, hugging Nina tightly. “Enjoy celebrating. By the Saints, if you keep playing like this, I guess we’ll pay you back when playoffs come around.
As Zoya walked back down the street, Nina turned and looked at her team through the window, looked at Matthias. She still didn’t know what to feel with him. Should she be angry? Sad?
Mostly, Nina just felt regret.
In Nina’s opinion, bus rides were the worst part of being a professional athlete. Sure, she loved her teammates and she loved spending time with them but being trapped in a sweaty bus with them for hours as her ass cramped up and she slowly got hungrier was miserable. She should be used to it by now, as Ravka had the most teams in the league which meant she bussed a lot when she was with Os Alta, but she never really adjusted.
It was worse with the Crows, solely because most of them weren’t used to long drives and therefore complained about it every thirty minutes. Notably Wylan, who had never even been out of Kerch before joining the team.
“Are we almost there?” he groaned after one hour of a five-hour drive from Shriftport to Cofton.
Jesper snorted. “Never thought that my boyfriend would be so excited to see my dad.”
“He’s a nice guy,” Wylan replied. “Besides, it’s not about that. It’s more that I’m sick of sitting on this bus.”
“We’ve only just left,” Matthias said from the seat in front of her, gaze fixed out the window on the fields of jurda rolling by.
“It doesn’t feel like it,” he groaned.
“Sorry that we can’t fly everywhere in your dad’s private jet,” Nina grumbled, immediately regretting it when she saw Wylan’s face go pale. She had gone too far by bringing up his dad and she knew it.
“You know, I appreciate a good visit from mean Nina, but you’re supposed to save that for the ice,” Jesper snapped before turning back to comfort Wylan.
“That was too much,” Inej said quietly. “I don’t like how angry you’ve become lately.”
And then she stood up and went to the front of the bus to sit in the empty seat next to Kaz.
“I take it that he isn’t used to driving this long,” Matthias said in Fjerdan, so nobody else could understand.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to talk,” she reminded him. “Did I just win the game?”
“I said no real conversations, not no speaking,” he clarified. “We’re trapped on this bus for the next few hours and my phone is already half dead. I need to talk to somebody and, for some reason, you seem like the best option right now. My Kerch is nearly as bad as my Ravkan.”
Nina laughed. “Your Kerch is much better than your Ravkan unless you’ve been taking classes over the years.”
“You wound me, Zenik.”
“To answer your question from before, the Kerch aren’t exactly used to large car rides,” she explained. “Since their country is so small.”
She saw him nod through the seats. “That makes sense.”
“You should speak more with them,” she told him after a moment, at the risk of sounding like she was starting a real conversation. “They won’t judge you for being different. It would probably be good for you.”
“It is difficult to speak with people who think they know me with a glance, even if they don’t mean to,” he said. “If it was any easier for me, I wouldn’t be speaking with you.”
She felt a pang in her heart. “Well, I never asked you to.”
The rest of the ride passed with a silence hanging heavily between them.
“Did you lie to me?” Inej asked her in the changing room before their game the next evening.
“Lie to you?” she asked as she pulled her shirt over her head.
Inej nodded. “Outside the bar a while back. I said there was more about your distaste for Matthias and you said it was only because he was Fjerdan.”
“Can we not do this right now?” Nina said. “We have to be out on the ice in a few minutes.”
“Then when Nina?” she asked. “You’ve been ignoring me since he got here because you knew I was going to say something about it. I thought we were friends.”
“We are,” she said with a sigh. “But the drama with me and Helvar is in the past. We’ve patched things up.”
“What about when you were just arguing on the bus? That’s things being patched up?” Inej pointed out. “Or about how you ignore each other every time we go out.”
Her eyes widened. “You speak FJerdan?”
She shook her head. “That’s the thing about arguing. You can recognize it from tone of voice alone.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter if we don’t get along personally,” she reasoned. “We can perform on the ice, can’t we?”
“You can, but that’s not what concerns me. I’m not Kaz,” Inej reminded her. “I want you to be happy. Both of you.”
Nina sighed and sat down on one of the benches. “The first time you saw Matthias, what did you think about him? Just your first impression of him.”
“Tall and muscular,” she replied. “Closed off but hardworking.”
“The first time I saw him in Ketterdam, I thought he looked broken,” Nina said quietly. “And, deep down, I knew that I was to blame for it.”
Inej frowned. “Nina, whatever happened, you’re not to blame. Even if you two have a history-”
“You don’t understand and I can’t get into it now,” Nina said, cutting her off. “But I’m the one who did this to him. So he has every right to avoid me or hate me or whatever.”
“I don’t think he hates you,” she said softly.
“Well, he should.”
Not a week later, they faced off against Djerholm for the first time since Matthias joined their team. It was a huge game for all of them because, although there would still be a few more chances before the regular season ended, winning this game would secure them a spot. Sure, there would be no sitting back afterward, win or lose, but just having a spot was excitement enough to motivate that last push through the regular season. Winning this game could be everything for their momentum and everyone was a mix of nervous and excited.
Well, other than Matthias, who had been particularly closed off ever since the plane to Fjerda took off. She couldn’t really blame him. The first few times she’d faced Os Alta after being traded, she didn’t know what to feel. She couldn’t imagine how it would be for Matthias, who had always had a somewhat tense connection to his former team and had yet to form one at all with his new one, not for the others’ lack of trying. Hell, even Kaz seemed to be making an effort with him, though she wasn’t sure if that was really just coming from Inej or maybe him seeing that a more involved Matthias could benefit the team.
All efforts seemingly were to no avail, though. Matthias wouldn’t drink Jesper or join Kaz on his errands or go to a concert with Wylan. The only one he seemed to have any interest in approaching was Nina and, even then, that interest was or the begrudging variety.
And, as the game against Djerholm grew closer and closer, Matthias seemed to have little interest engaging with any of them at all. He hadn’t even come with the rest of the team to get drinks a few nights prior, a tradition that even he had been previously willing to uphold.
When they stepped on the ice, Nina felt anxious for him. She didn’t know him like she used to and there was no telling how he might react. She realized that he had never once mentioned how he felt about the trade to any of them nor said anything about his time out due to injury. She suddenly wished she had asked Kaz for more information when he was traded instead of marching out of the meeting because perhaps there was more to it than she understood.
That much was clear when she looked to him before puck drop only to see that his emotionless mask had finally been lifted and replaced with an expression of pure anger.
“What did they do to you?” she called to him in Ravkan, a language only a handful of them understood and certainly nobody from the other side of the ice.
“No speaking, Zenik,” he snapped, but clearly the answer was nothing good.
Nina shifted her stick and cracked her knuckles. If Matthias was going to play angry tonight, as his partner on the ice, she was willing to do the same.
They both played with fire that night and, as fires do, it spread beyond just them. They had their most fights of the entire season, including one started by Kuwei , who was never much someone to instigate something. Nina got kicked off the ice for an illegal, but very enjoyable, check in the third period. And Jesper, well, he didn’t often have a chance to defend the goal that game with Nina and Matthias so fired up, but he didn’t let in a single shot.
The Crows beat the Wolves 7-0.
When they walked off the ice, all of the anger melted away and was replaced with pure euphoria. Each of them had truly played their best, just like Kaz always wanted them to do, and it had paid off. Ketterdam was going to be in the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade and they had been the ones to rebuild the team from the floor up, to make that happen.
The bar that they chose to celebrate in after, some overpriced touristy place, didn’t know what hit it.
Nina was still buzzing with excitement when she got back to her hotel room that night. A quick glance at her phone showed congratulatory texts from all of her former teammates. This game had been proof that she didn’t near her Grisha to thrive, as so many people had presumed when she was traded. Nina Zenik could hold her own.
She started typing up a reply to the text Genya had sent her, but a knock on her hotel room made her put her phone down. It was probably Inej wanting to chat or Jesper, wasted and locked out of her room.
Instead, she opened the door to see Matthias, wringing his hands nervously.
“Can I come in?” he asked her, his bright blue eyes meeting hers straight on.
She nodded and let him enter.
“You had my back tonight,” he said. “Thank you.”
“We’re partners,” she reminded him.
“There’s more to it than that,” he asserted. “Nina, I-”
She held up a hand to stop him. “Matthias, we’re not supposed to talk about this. The game, remember?”
Matthias nodded. “We don’t have to talk. I didn’t come here because I wanted to talk.”
He took a step forward, looking her up and down, just like he used to.
Nina chewed at her lip. “We also said no kissing.”
He reached out for her hand. “We don’t have to do that either.”
It was a terrible idea. There was so much history between them that could never truly be resolved. And their flow was so good on the ice, something like this could screw up their energy.
And yet, everything in her screamed yes. Maybe it was because they both were still a little tipsy or because it had been a while since she’d had sex with anyone or just because they both still so amped up by the victory, but the next thing Nina knew they were both tumbling into the bed, kissing just about everything but each other’s lips.
The All-Star Game was by far the worst game of the season. Sure, it was an honor to qualify. But playing a friendly game alongside people that weren’t your teammates and not being able to actually hit anyone sucked. And for what? Bragging rights? Not even the fans enjoyed it all that much, save for children that were really into the sport.
This year, Nina had been selected to represent Os Alta. Along with Alina, of course, who had played in every all-star game for the past few years. Neither of them seemed all that invested in the game, even though it was fun to play with the other Ravkan teams for once and cool to see so much talent on the ice. It was intimidating too, and at times Nina didn’t feel like she deserved to be there but she earned this through her hard work all season long.
The best part was that Matthias had been selected too. He wasn’t on her team, of course, but he was there, staying in the same Zemeni hotel as her, just two floors up.
Nina didn’t get much use out of her room that weekend, instead spending her nights in his room, talking and kissing and more.
They were laying together cuddled close to each other in sweaty sheets on Sunday morning, just a few hours until their respective flights were due to leave, taking them both back to their own countries and their own real teams.
“I don’t want to go,” Nina told him. “I just want to lay here with you until the end of time. Is that too much to ask?”
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “The season will be over in just a few months. Then you can visit me for a week or something. Take some vacation time.”
“A week isn’t long enough,” she replied. “Maybe we should just run away. Start a farm here in Novyi Zem. There’s quite a bit of money in jurda.”
“I don’t think I would be able to handle the summer heat,” he said with a laugh. “I’m far too used to the cold winters and moderate summers of Fjerda.”
“The Wandering Isle, maybe,” she suggested. “We could do whatever Kaelish people do for work.”
“That’s a wonderful train of thought but I don’t think either of us could leave hockey behind,” he said. “As much as it tries to tear us from each other’s arms.”
She sighed. “You’re right. Maybe after we retire.”
He hummed in agreement. “After we retire, we’ll travel the world together, just you and I.”
“We’ll try out all the worst bars in every city,” she added. “And drink disgusting cocktails under the sun before going back to our room and enjoying each other’s company.”
She looked up at him to find him smiling fondly down at her.
“I’m going to say something foolish,” he told her.
He took a deep breath before speaking. “Nina Zenik, I know that the world would have us as enemies and find the sight of us beside one another absolutely frightful, but here is the truth: I am completely and utterly in love with you.”
“Then we are both fools,” she told him. “Because I love you too. The only thing that gets me through our time apart is the knowledge that one day we’ll be together once more.”
“I know that we can’t tell anybody but will you be my girlfriend? Officially?” he asked.
Nina leaned up to press a kiss to his lips. “Of course I will, Matthias Helvar.”
As far as bad decisions went, sleeping with Matthias was probably the worst one yet. She couldn’t even write it up to a drunken mistake anymore because they’d done it three more times since getting back in Ketterdam, all without talking about it or even any actual kissing.
She loved it and she hated it. Sex with Matthias was great, just as it always had been. They had a connection like no other, for better or for worse, and they were always on the same wavelength in the bedroom, just as they were on the ice. But the entire emotional aspect was missing, which was torturous. There was no pillow talk, no cuddling, not even goodbyes.
And, well, Nina wasn’t exactly a stranger to casual sex. Ketterdam was a bustling city full of interesting people to have fun with but, with Matthias, it was different. Their history meant that nothing they did could ever truly be casual.
Besides, sleeping with your coworker was always a stupid decision. Sure, it had worked out alright for Jesper and Wylan, but they played on different ends of the ice and pursued a relationship the traditional way. Nina and Matthias were partners and screwing each other had the potential to ruin everything they had built up on the ice.
Except, it didn’t. It had the opposite effect, actually. Somehow, they were even more in sync than before. It was like they’d found their chemistry of old and were now bringing it to the ice. It was kind of funny in a fucked up way. Last time they were together, they were enemies on the ice. But now that they weren’t actually together other than physically, they had an undeniable chemistry when on the ice.
She longed to speak to somebody, anybody, about it but she knew some things were best if they were kept secret. Even with Jesper, who called it from the beginning, or from Inej, who wouldn’t judge her for it at all. Because telling other people made it more real, which meant she would have to deal with it.
Surprisingly, someone else ended up approaching her about it.
“Zenik. My office, please,” Kaz said after practice one afternoon.
“Oooh, you’re in trouble,” Jesper teased, earning him an exhausted look from their captain.
Once she was in Kaz’s office, he closed the door behind them and sat them down. This was going to be a serious chat, which meant that either she was getting traded or she was going to wish that she was.
“Helvar,” Kaz said. “You’re sleeping with him.”
The latter then.
Her eyes widened. “Kaz, how-”
He shrugged. “I have my ways of finding things out. Observation, mostly. Both of you have been acting differently since Djerholm.”
“Everyone has been different since Djerholm,” she pointed out.
“Not like you two. You both seem simultaneously happier and more emotionally frustrated,” he observed.
“Look, Kaz, it’s just sex,” she told him. “And we’re playing better, so I don’t see why any of this matters.”
He hummed in agreement. “Yes, you’re playing better now . But too much strain makes the strongest branch crack. You need to talk to him about it.”
“About what?” she asked, eyebrow raised. “The fact we’re sleeping together? I’m pretty sure he already knows.”
“About your history,” Kaz corrected. “I understand that there’s a lot to it but ignoring it won’t make it disappear and, frankly, I thought you would have worked it out by now. I can’t have the two of you fighting again by playoffs.”
“Kaz, I don’t think you really understand-” she started.
“That you dated?” he cut in. “That you had a catastrophic breakup that you won’t even tell Inej about even though anyone could put it together with just a bit of digging?”
She blinked. “You knew.”
He nodded. “Since before I traded for Helvar. I had to properly assess my risk when I traded away three players for him. Did you think I picked a player off of Fjerda’s injury list just because he was a bit of muscle? I knew that the two of you could ignite each other.”
Nina closed her eyes, trying to process all of this. Kaz had known what happened and used it to benefit his team, uses them . “Are we just a game to you?”
“You’re pawns in my game,” he corrected. “Don’t take it personally, I’m merely a pawn as well. I want my players to play at their best and I had an inkling Helvar would make your best even better.”
“Well, you poorly assessed the risk,” she snapped, standing up out of her seat. “I broke him, Kaz. There will be no mending things between us.”
Kaz raised an eyebrow. “You really believe that? You think you were the one to break him?”
“If you truly know all that you claim to, then you know it’s true,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Fjerda broke him, Nina,” Kaz said quietly. “Not you.”
“If they broke him, then it was because of me,” she said with a shake of her head, trying to hold back the tears welling up at the bases of her eyes.
“You need to speak with Matthias about it,” he told her again. “That’s why I’ve brought you in here.”
“Why don’t you tell him the same?” she asked. “I apologized a long time ago and he still hasn’t forgiven me.”
“Talking with Helvar is like talking to a brick wall,” Kaz said. “At least I know you’re taking my words to heart.”
“So it’s up to me to do all the work?”
“It’s up to you to start the conversation. I don’t think it will go as poorly as you think,” he told her. “But, Nina, I think you’re going to have to forgive yourself too at some point.”
She nodded tearfully and walked out of his office. Kaz Brekker was right, just like he always was, and she hated it. She had all the power to talk to him, to begin to fix things between them, but she was too fucking stubborn that she was comfortable with just living with the guilt instead.
Talking to Matthias was easier said than done and, although their arrangement continued, Nina found it difficult to garner the courage she needed to speak with him at all. It wasn’t until after they’d crushed it in the first round of playoffs against Kribirsk that she summoned the strength to bring up any of this to him.
“Let’s put a pause on the game for just a moment,” Nina told him as they laid in bed together, breathing heavily.
“Are timeouts allowed?” he asked, with an eyebrow raised.
“Certainly, I just need to talk about one little thing,” she told him. “Just out of morbid curiosity.”
“Alright,” he said, nodding for her to continue.
“How were things in Fjerda after you got hurt?” she asked. “You were out for injury for a long time even though you were probably ready to come back sooner.”
Matthias sighed. “I was never going to come back,” he said. “Not as a Wolf.”
She looked to him with surprise. “But Kaz traded away three people for you.”
“Kaz saw something in me that Brum didn’t. At least not after I got hurt,” he told her. “Brum was punishing me. He wanted me to quit of my own accord. He isolated me from the team, made them treat me like garbage, and gave me a ridiculous amount of strength training. There was a test to get back on the ice, one of his creation. And he made it impossible for me to beat. So, to the world, I was just another injured player. Who would want to trade for someone like that? Only a true madman.”
“Kaz,” she said with a nod.
“And Brum didn’t just let him take me,” he said with a sigh. “He wanted to drive me over the edge, make me quit hockey forever. But, in the end, Kaz Brekker knows how to close a deal.”
“He hurt you,” she said quietly. “He hurt you because of me.”
Matthias shook his head. “He hurt me because of him.”
“But it was because-” she started.
He raised an arm to cut her off. “I think that’s enough of a break. I should be getting back to my room.”
And then Matthias left the room, leaving Nina alone with her thoughts, alone with the truth . Their breakup had put a target on Matthias’ back and Jarl Brum had driven his sword right through it.
She really had been his ruin, and he didn’t even blame her for it.
They were playing in the championships against Djerholm because the world had a funny way of working that way. And, of course, it came down to game 7, 2-2 with a minute and a half left of the third period. Nina was getting tired, they all were, but this was the biggest game ever.
“We can do this,” Alina said during the timeout, clearly exhausted. “You guys have been putting everything into this game all night. All I ask of you is two more minutes. If I need to ask for a few more, I will, but for now, let’s focus on these two.”
“I can’t get past Helvar. He’s a fucking monster,” Zoya panted. “He’ll pin me every single fucking time and they know it. There’s no way we can break through their defense without a miracle tonight.”
Nina looked across the ice where Matthias was in a huddle with his own team, a team of people that spat the worst words at them as soon as there wasn’t a referee in earshot. A team of assholes that didn’t fucking deserve to win another championship.
“Go low,” she told Zoya. “Matthias always checks high, so if you duck a bit last minute you’ll be able to slip away. Like, don’t trip him or anything, but you’ll probably be able to slip out.”
“Matthias?” Genya asked, eyebrows raised.
“Look, if I didn’t know where my real allies were, would I be sharing that with you?” Nina asked.
Zoya slapped her on the back. “You better be right about this, Zenik.”
And then the ref was blowing her whistle and they took their positions once more, puck starting again from where it off.
When Zoya got possession, she sped down the ice, not far from the boards and, sure enough, Matthias came in for the check. She ducked down, just a bit, and slipped through. Half a second later, the buzzer was sounded with a shot landed against Djerholm.
But, just as she slipped through, Matthias, not expecting it, barrelled into the boards and lost his balance, legs slipping out from under him as he fell with a sickening crunch, dark red blood sliding across the ice.
He looked up at Nina with a look of utter betrayal and hurt. She had sold him out for her name on a cup.
Nina immediately regretted it, even if she walked out of that night victorious. Even if her teammates saw her as their savior.
Because there was only one person in the world who truly knew Nina Zenik and she had betrayed his trust in an unforgivable way.
This was the best season Ketterdam had probably have ever and the first one in ages where they found themselves going into the championships. They were playing Os Alta, what was a challenge even without so much on the line, but the entire team had this momentum barrelling forward and they weren’t going to roll over and take a beating. They could hold their own and they were going to prove it to everyone. They were going to show the people that called Kaz a fool for trying to rebuild Ketterdam from the ground up how foolish they were to doubt him. They were the Crows and they were unstoppable.
Nina knew that she couldn’t go into this championship with the guilt of her last championship still weighing so heavily on her conscious, so she knocked on the door of Matthias’ hotel room the night before their first game.
He answered the door with a look of surprise. “I didn’t know you’d be coming by tonight. I assumed you’d save it for our first win.”
“I forfeit,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I can’t do this stupid game anymore. If we’re going to win this shit, then we have to talk about what happened.”
She expected him to slam the door in her face but instead, he stepped back to let her into the room and closed the door softly behind her.
“I’m sorry,” she told him. “For everything. I’m the reason you got hurt, both on the ice that night and afterward. And I called you, but I never really tried . I never came to Djerholm to check on you.”
“Nina-” he started.
“Let me finish,” she said. “Look, Matthias, when I proposed mutually assured destruction, I never intended to actually destroy you. And, fuck, I regret doing it every day.”
He frowned. “Nina, you hurt me that night in more way than one. My life changed because of you for the worst and, even then, I still loved you.”
“I loved you too,” she said. “I was just greedy and stupid and I’m so sorry .”
“I made my peace with all of it a long time ago,” he told her. “When I saw you again, it hurt, but I didn’t ignore you because I hated you. I ignored you because I still loved you and I knew that I couldn’t make the same mistakes all over again.”
“We’re terrible for each other, aren’t we?” she asked.
He shook his head. “We were perfect for each other, Nina. It was the circumstances that tore it all down.”
“I think a part of me still loves you after all of this,” she confessed.
“All of me still loves you,” he replied. “Even though I know I shouldn’t. Because you’re still charming and funny and beautiful and smart. You’ve grown stronger in the years, but you’re not the one of us who has changed.”
“I don’t know if we can do this again,” she said quietly, even if she wanted to. “Things are different, but so much has happened that I just don’t know if I can handle it.”
He nodded in understanding. “Well, if you change your mind, I’ll be here.”
This championship wasn’t nearly as close as Nina’s last. Os Alta was as formidable as they’d always been, sure, but Kaz and his Crows were unstoppable this time around. They won the series in five games, with a singular loss right in the middle.
The last game was the best of the series. Only one shot got through Jesper and Inej got a hat trick. It was probably one of the best games that they’d ever played, save that game against Djerholm and, in the end, both teams were smiling. Because, while they had bested Os Alta, it was in her former teammates’ nature to know when they had been fairly beaten. After the final buzzer sounded, a handful of them skated right over to Nina to offer their congratulations.
“You did it,” Zoya said with a grin. “You won your second championship, no dirty tricks this time.”
“Saints, don’t remind me,” she said with a smile.
“For what it’s worth, I was wrong about him,” she told her, nodding toward Matthias. “I let my biases get the best of me. I think the Fjerdan might actually be good for you after all.”
And, well, Nina didn’t even really have time to process that because soon enough Jesper was pulling her back toward her current team, where they were currently enveloping Inej in a massive group hug as Kaz watched from the side, a proud smile on his face.
During the celebration, as they all took their turns raising the cup and celebrating as friends and family flooded the ice, Nina found Matthias and pulled him aside.
“We did it,” she told him.
He grinned. “We really did.”
“I think I was wrong,” she told him. “I think the only thing that’s holding us back now is me.”
His eyes widened. “Are you sure?”
She nodded. “I love you, Matthias, and I want to be with you. There’s nothing foolish about being with the one you love.”
Nina reached up with two gloved hands and grabbed his face, dragging it down so his lips were meeting hers in a kiss that was a long time coming. A kiss for the entire world to see.
Mutually assured destruction was a given. If they were going to go down, then it would be together.