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(All My Life I've Been) Burdened by the Dreams

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Patrick has two goals for himself when he comes to Chicago:

Win the Stanley Cup.

And don’t let anyone find out he’s a wolf.

He’s pretty confident about the first one. He always has been, of course, but it gets cemented when Jonny catches him after one of their first practices, when they’re heading off the ice. They’d been on a line together in the scrimmage and had lit it up, avoiding the other side’s players as if they weren’t even moving. “We’re going to do it, you know,” Jonny says to him, voice low but serious. “We’re going to bring the Cup back to Chicago.”

Patrick looks at him, remembering the way it felt to have Jonny’s puck sliding straight to his tape. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, we will.”

So he’s feeling pretty good about that one.

The wolf thing is harder. Well, not harder, exactly. Hockey’s plenty hard, pushing himself to be the best every second of every workout and every practice and every game. But that’s Patrick being honest about himself. Wholehearted. He’s pouring himself into every moment on the ice. The wolf thing is about holding back, and that’s always been harder for him.

He’s had practice at it, though. He’s practically been hiding his whole life, from everyone except his family—and the other wolves in Buffalo, of course. Hiding from other wolves is basically unheard of. Not only can they smell it on you right away, but wolves are all about community. No one wants to be without a pack.

When Patrick’s drafted number one overall, though, he knows some things are going to have to change. Suddenly he has a whole lot more to lose than any other wolf he might run into. Outing another wolf is a pretty crap thing to do, so much so that it almost never happens—but Patrick can’t take that risk.

So he makes a few rules for himself. They’re pretty straightforward: don’t act like a wolf. Don’t shift. And don’t be around any other wolves, ever.

The second thing helps with the third one because it cuts his scent way down. Wolves shift all the time. Most don’t go more than a week or two without shifting; almost no one ever goes more than one full moon. Patrick knows from his experience in Juniors that by the time he’s been a few months out of wolf skin, he barely even smells like one anymore. Enough so that he can smell another wolf coming way before they can smell him, and he has time get the hell out of Dodge.

He does worry a little bit about what will happen if he has to play against another wolf. It’s statistically probable that he isn’t the only one in the NHL: wolves love organized sports, as a general rule, and while the prejudice against them is still heavy, some of them have to have made the choice Patrick did. There aren’t any out wolves in the NHL, though, and it’s easier for the world to pretend they don’t exist. Patrick’s not going to be the one to disprove that.

***

Jackie cries when he leaves for Chicago. Well, everyone cries, Patrick included, but Jackie clings to him extra long. She’s the only other wolf in their family, and it’s one of the hardest things about going: knowing he’ll be leaving her alone.

“Not alone,” she tells him the night before, when they’re curled up in her bed. She wanted to do it in wolf form, but Patrick can’t do that—can’t have the smell on him if he’s going to hide in Chicago. The touch is good, though. Wolves need touch, way more than people do. “I’ll have Emily and Dax.”

Emily and Dax are her best friends at school. They’re wolves, too, and are bonded even though they’re only thirteen. That happens sometimes with pre-heat alphas and omegas who are insanely compatible. Patrick’s glad that Jackie’s a beta and doesn’t have to worry about it.

“You, though,” she says, snuggling in. This close, he can smell her anxiety and realizes it’s for him. “You’ll be really alone.”

He strokes her hair. “I’ll be okay,” he says. “I’ll have the team.”

She burrows her face into his chest, and he knows she’s not satisfied with that answer, but she lets it go.

They fall asleep like that: a tiny pack, one beta and one omega who’s about to leave her.

***

It was partly something to tell Jackie to make her less worried about him, but it turns out to be true: the team does feel like a pack, in a lot of ways. There aren’t any other wolves, but they’re working and playing together every day, and it’s only a few days before Patrick feels like he can trust these guys to have his back. Unless Sharpy’s playing a prank, that is.

Road trip roommates also help, and moving in with the Bowmans. Patrick doesn’t know what he would do if he had to go into a hotel room and sleep alone every night on the road. He hasn’t slept alone on a regular basis since Jackie first presented at age seven: it’s always been at least the two of them, often with Emily and Dax and any other wolves in their loose pack whose parents aren’t too frightened or repulsed to admit what their kids are. Having Gags around in London helped a lot, and now, knowing Jonny will be coming back to their room and stretching out in the bed by the door is the only thing that makes all the strange rooms and strange smells bearable a lot of the time.

It’s still not the same as sleeping in a bed with someone else. Sometimes when he’s at home, he lets the Bowman kids snuggle up to him while they’re all watching TV, and they all fall asleep that way for a few hours. But then he has to go to his bed alone, and it almost feels worse for having had that contact.

On the road, he doesn’t get any of that. Jonny seems like a decent-enough guy—they’re getting along really well, when they aren’t screaming at each other on the ice, and even that Patrick secretly enjoys—but he knows better than to go up to this new teammate of his and ask if he wants to snuggle. So he keeps his hands to himself and spends a lot of time looking across the gap between beds and wishing that he were on the other side of it.

***

No one seems to guess, on the team. Patrick doesn’t really expect them to: none of them are wolves—Patrick is a hundred percent certain of that—and none of the humans he’s ever met has had any kind of functioning wolfdar. But still, it’s a relief when the team starts chirping him for a million things and none of them is his ability to grow four legs and a tail.

It’s also a relief when he starts having interviews, and none of the questions are about what it’s like to be a wolf in the NHL. It’s two weeks before he realizes he’s still tensing for that question every time, and then he makes himself put it out of his mind. It’s not like they can tell.

There’s one time, though, that the door opens to let a few reporters in, and Patrick catches it. The unmistakable scent of a wolf.

An unbonded alpha, from the smell of it. That’s the worst, because it means Patrick’s omega scent will be way more obvious to him. The guy is still in the hall. Patrick’s just gotten out of the shower, but he turns around and goes right back in.

He stays in there and tries not to freak out. He knows that he doesn’t smell much, that no one would be able to pick up his scent from the next room when he hasn’t been a wolf in a year and is currently under a stream of water, but if anyone could do it, it would be an alpha. Hell, Patrick can smell him from in here, and he’s trying to pretend it doesn’t have an effect on him. He turns the water to cold and doesn’t touch his dick.

After a while, maybe half an hour, footsteps come into the showers. Patrick tenses until he realizes it isn’t the alpha reporter, but Jonny.

“Are you trying to drown yourself in here?” Jonny asks. “We won, you know.”

Patrick turns the water off. The alpha scent is faint now, just lingering traces, and he thinks the coast is clear. “Yeah,” he says. His heart is still beating faster than normal. “Just got distracted.”

“You’re not dwelling on stuff, are you?” Jonny asks.

“Asswipe.” Patrick wraps a towel around his waist. “Got nothing to dwell on. I played like a champ.”

“Sure you did,” Jonny says, but he claps him on the shoulder, and it feels like he means it.

***

Jackie calls him at least once a week. Patrick talks to the rest of the family too, but the calls with Jackie are special. Sometimes they’ll just put each other on speaker phone and lie there and breathe next to each other, and it’s almost like having a wolf there with him. He needs that.

They do talk a lot, though, because Patrick’s a talker and so is Jackie. “How goes the love life, bro?” she asks him at least every other week, because she’s decided that the solution to him being alone in Chicago is for him to get into a relationship with someone. “Meet any hot chicks?”

Patrick scowls. “You know it’s not that easy.”

“You’re saying you’re not that easy?” she says, and he regrets the day he ever thought it would be okay for her to enter high school.

The thing is, it’s really not that easy. Forget the relationship thing—just picking up is complicated. He can’t get too close to other wolves in bars, or they would know, so a lot of times he has to leave a club suddenly to avoid being caught out on the dance floor. When he does manage to pick up—girls only, because he doesn’t need the story to get out that he’s a wolf who also likes dick—he has to work hard not to let any wolf behavior show. Which means he needs to be more sober than he wants to be, which also means it’s harder to be into the girls.

He picks up one girl in early December: tall, stacked, maybe not conventionally beautiful, but pushy in just the way he likes it and with a great smell. She smells familiar, almost, like sweat and padding, and he wonders if she’s an athlete.

He goes down on her to get more of her smell, and after she rides him, it’s all he can do not to rub up under her chin to get her scent all over him.

“Cuddly, aren’t you?” she says, laughing a little, so he guesses he didn’t do a great job curbing that impulse. But she doesn’t guess the reason, and she lets him curl around her as they go to sleep. That night, at least, Patrick doesn’t have to sleep alone.

***

All in all, Patrick feels lucky that hockey players touch each other a lot. Contact with other wolves is best, but human touch is good, too. It calms something in his wolf when Jonny grabs him around the shoulders and taps their foreheads together after a goal, or when Sharpy lets him slump into his side on the bus. The taps and noogies and half-hugs of the locker room are a language his wolf speaks: team, pack.

It also makes it easy to forget, sometimes, that he’s supposed to be hiding.

Tonight it’s Jonny’s side that he’s snuggled against, in the bar. It’s a couple months into the season, and he’s done this enough to know that Jonny won’t get pissed off and shove him away. Especially not when he’s like this, alcohol-warm with his arm slung over Patrick’s shoulders, thumb rubbing little circles into Patrick’s skin and soothing something deep within him.

“The group of girls at the bar,” Burs says across from them. “Ranking, one to ten.”

Jonny makes a disparaging sound. “Classy.”

“I am all class,” Burs says, slurring. “Peeks is on board, aren’t you, Peeksy?”

Patrick is drunk. He got a goal and two assists today and has his head on Jonny’s shoulder and doesn’t care about anything else right now, really. “That’s what your mom said last night.”

Sharpy laughs. “Weak. And a lie. Burs’ mom told me I was the only man in her life.”

“I hate you all,” Burs says. “A lot.”

Seabs crashes into their table, a little wild-eyed and a lot drunk. “Jonny! Need a wingman.”

Jonny grumbles a little but detaches his arm from Patrick’s shoulder. Patrick doesn’t quite realize what’s going on while it’s happening—just feels the loss of warmth, and that’s not okay. Jonny was touching him. He got a goal and two assists today and Jonny was touching him and he deserved it, okay, so Seabs can just step off and find someone else to bother.

He doesn’t realize he’s growling until everyone at the table is staring at him.

He stops right away. Seabs has backed up a few steps and is looking at him like he’s deranged.

“I, uh.” Patrick’s at a loss. How do you explain why you were growling at your teammate?

Fortunately, Sharpy starts laughing. “Had one too many, Peeksy?”

The others all kind of relax at this. “Seems like it’s time for our little Peekaboo to go home,” Burs says. “Before he scares the locals.”

“Your face does that anyway,” Patrick mumbles. His cheeks feel hot.

“You are so drunk,” Jonny says, but it’s fond. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

Then it’s all right, because Patrick gets to lean on Jonny all the way out of the bar and in the cab on the way home. He knows he shouldn’t, not after what he just did—doesn’t deserve it, anyway—but his head is hazy and Jonny feels so good. Jonny drops him off at his door and goes away, but first he ruffles Patrick’s hair, and Patrick knows that means it’s all right.

***

The next morning he’s horrified with himself. He wakes up with a pounding headache and the memory of himself growling at Seabs. Growling. He doesn’t think he’s ever done that at anyone before, even as a wolf.

He finds Seabs before practice and makes a stuttering apology, which Seabs laughs off. “Whatever, Kaner. You were drunk,” he says. “I’ve done weirder shit than that drunk.”

“Yeah,” Patrick says, like it really isn’t a big deal. And he guesses it isn’t, if they haven’t figured things out. But he remembers the way he clung to Jonny on the way home, and he doesn’t sit next to Jonny on their flight to Dallas that night. It just feels safer.

***

Patrick goes home for Christmas, even though they only have a few days off. It’s been months since he got to spend any time with his family. He hugs them all for a long time. His mom strokes his hair, and he can feel something in his equilibrium shifting back into place.

He spends most of the first afternoon curled up with Jackie in her bed, napping. It feels like he’s soaking up something he’s missed. At one point she tries to get up, and he tightens his arms instinctively, half asleep.

“Jeez, Pat,” she says. “I just need to go to the bathroom.”

“Oh. Sorry.” He makes himself let go and tries not to look like he misses her touch. It might not work, though, because she comes back a couple of minutes later and curls up with him again.

“Lonely in Chicago?” she whispers.

“No,” he says. And he’s not. He’s with the team all the time—hell, even when they’re not playing, he’s having brunch with Sharpy or Burs or over at Seabs’ place, playing video games with Jonny and chirping the hell out of each other. So he’s not lonely. He just wishes he got to do this kind of thing more: curling up on a bed with someone and touching.

“I still think it would make it better if you started to date someone,” Jackie says.

It probably would—if he could date them without them finding out about him. “Maybe I’ll have a spontaneous bond,” he says.

“Yeah, right, old man,” she says. “Like you’d be willing to put up with any alpha telling you what to do anyway.”

She has a point. He probably wouldn’t. But he’s successfully steered the subject away from dating, and she lets it go.

***

He feels better when he heads back to Chicago after Christmas. Better balanced, maybe.

Jonny notices. “You look good,” he says when they’re in their hotel room on the first post-Christmas road trip.

“Thanks, asshole,” Patrick said. “You saying I don’t usually?”

“No,” Jonny answers seriously. Of course. “You just—I don’t know. You look happier than usual.”

Patrick wonders just what vibe he’s giving off to make Jonny say that. Whatever it is, he should probably quit it. “It was good to see the family, is all.”

Jonny nods like Patrick’s said something profound. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he says, though Patrick knows he couldn’t possibly. Jonny’s not a wolf living without a pack.

***

There are a couple of awkward things that winter.

The first is when he and Jonny are out at lunch after practice, and Patrick has no sooner sat down at the table than he realizes the waitress coming towards them with menus is a wolf.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s almost more of a surprise that this is the first time it’s happened. But wolves don’t generally like the city, and there aren’t that many of them in Chicago.

It’s the kind of thing that, if things were different, would have made him nod at her in solidarity. He still wants to: wants to make that connection, is surprised at how strong the desire is. But he can’t. He can’t let her know at all. And if she keeps coming toward them, she’s going to find out in about ten seconds.

“Um, I’m going to go to the bathroom,” Patrick says, standing up a little too fast. “Get me a Diet Coke?”

“Sure,” Jonny says, all casual. He obviously has no reason to think anything’s wrong.

Patrick goes to the bathroom and locks himself in a stall. He puts his hands against the wall and just breathes, in and out, until his heart rate slows. She hasn’t noticed anything. Won’t notice anything. And at least she’s not an alpha. She’s an omega, like him, smells unbonded. He wonders if she has a pack, if there’s anyone she might bond with. If she feels like he does sometimes, where—

He doesn’t wonder anything. He only cares about her not finding out about him.

He’s in the bathroom long enough that his phone beeps: Jonny, wondering if he’s all right. It’s cool, he texts back. Order me a burger?

?, Jonny types in return, then, I don’t think that’s on your meal plan, because he’s a tool like that. Patrick doesn’t respond.

“Sorry,” he says when he gets out of the bathroom. “Just feeling kind of weird.”

“Okay,” Jonny says. He looks like he wants to ask more, but doesn’t.

Patrick is jumpy as hell the rest of the meal. When the waitress comes with their food—a burger, like Patrick requested—he leans so far away from her that Jonny gives him a weird look. Fortunately, it’s busy enough in the restaurant that the waitress doesn’t seem notice.

When she comes up behind them to check on their food, though, he scrambles out of his chair like it’s on fire. “I, uh,” he says. “Dropped something.”

“Um…” Jonny says, but the waitress is talking to him, asking if everything’s all right in that food service way that’s really just making sure she gets a good tip.

“It’s all fine,” Jonny says to her. Patrick doesn’t say anything, because he’s under the table, pretending to have dropped something and trying not to hyperventilate.

He gets up as soon as she’s gone. Jonny is glaring at him. “Want to tell me what that was?” he asks.

Patrick’s hands are shaking. He really, really doesn’t. “Actually,” he says. He puts his napkin on the table and pulls a couple of twenties out of his wallet. “I’m not feeling too well. I’m going to take off, okay?”

Jonny opens his mouth, like he wants to ask more or maybe just like he’s really confused. But Patrick can feel his own heartbeat slamming in his neck, and his nose is full of wolf smell, and he just needs to get out of there.

“See you later,” he says to Jonny and doesn’t wait for a response before he flees for the exit.

***

He apologizes to Jonny next time he sees him, makes up some excuse about food poisoning. It seems to go over okay, and things are fine. Until the next week when they play the Oilers.

Patrick’s been excited to see Sam again—won’t shut up about it, if you listen to Jonny’s side of things, which Patrick makes it a rule not to, because Jonny is ridiculous—and he catches up to him outside the locker room and leaps on him a little, because Sam gives good hugs, okay?

Sam laughs. “Nice goal today.”

“Thanks.” Patrick lets go and grins in the way that he knows is annoying. What does he care when he just won them the game and got a Sam hug as a bonus?

Sam cuffs him on the shoulder. “Meet any other wolves lately?” he asks, and Patrick drops his Gatorade all over the floor.

“I didn’t know the whole time,” Sam says later, when they’re sitting across from each other at a restaurant. Patrick’s not sure which restaurant, but he knows his hands are shaking too badly to cut his steak. “I just saw a text you got from Jackie once, and I figured it out.”

Patrick nods. He’s still breathing, and that feels like an accomplishment.

“It’s not like I’m going to tell anyone,” Sam says.

It’s ridiculous how much of a relief it is to hear that. Patrick manages to cut off a piece of steak without stabbing himself in the hand. “So no one—” He coughs and swallows. “No one else knows?”

“Not that I know of.” Sam leans in, looking a little worried about him. “Like I said, I haven’t told anyone. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Patrick nods again. He puts another piece of steak in his mouth and tries to chew through the rubbery taste. “And you’re—okay with this?”

Sam looks at him for a second that lasts for a year. “You’re one of my best friends. Of course I’m okay with this.”

Patrick sets down his knife and takes a shaky breath. There’s an alarming feeling behind his eyeballs that might be incipient tears. “Thanks, man.”

“Hey, anytime you want me not to act like a lupophobic asshole,” Sam says with a laugh. “How are you doing with it, though?”

“Fine,” Patrick says. “No, really,” he says when Sam gives him a skeptical look. “I have the team, and I have hockey. That’s what matters, right?”

“’Course,” Sam says.

Patrick changes the subject after that. They talk about the Oilers for a while, and the Hawks, and how difficult rebuilding is. Patrick’s on the alert for Sam treating him differently now, but it doesn’t feel any different from the hundreds of other conversations they’ve had about hockey over the years.

Sam even hugs him when they leave. Patrick isn’t expecting it, and he’s stiff for a moment, but then he sinks into it. It’s good to be hugged by someone who knows.

“It’s going to be okay,” Sam says, before they leave, which is a little annoying, because Patrick already told him it’s okay. Patrick’s okay.

When he goes home that night, he changes his phone settings so that texts don’t display on the front screen.