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Two for Slashing

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The living room of 307 Downsborough is the perfect place to watch television late at night, its window far enough from the street that intruding streetlights cannot ruin its perfect dark. And tonight, sitting atop its sagging leather couch, wrapped in four blankets and face awash in bright blue light, Laura Hollis takes full advantage. She hasn’t looked away in nearly twenty minutes, and from the speakers comes a jovial voice to clash with the tight ball of anxiety in her gut.

“About to start the third now, Randy,” it says. “And we’ve had a defensive dandy so far tonight, haven’t we?”

“Boy are you right, Craig,” the other commentator joins his fellow. The image flashes from their smiling faces to an overhead view of the teams warming up. “And we weren’t expecting this. You know, these two teams are known for pushing the rush and really trying to play outside their own zone. What we’ve seen so far has been some sloppy offensive play, and a couple of really good performances in net.”

The screen flashes again, this time to a close-up of one of the players: a woman with dark eyes and a mouth slanted so serious it might be angry. Laura’s frantic heart skips two beats and then picks back up in double time. The woman on the screen twirls the stick in her hands twice, the blade whirling in and out of view as the camera follows her brooding glide over the ice. She bites her lower lip, chewing at a bit of dead skin there or out of her own anxiety, maybe. Either way, Laura’s cheeks warm at the sight, and she finds herself very thankful for the dark (her solitude on the couch notwithstanding).

Craig intrudes then, giving commentary to her heart’s embarrassing flutters:

“Only three shots on goal for Karnstein tonight,” he says. His voice lilts up in the middle of the sentence in surprise, though he brings the end of his words back to a lower, neutral register. Laura can’t say she blames him: it is peculiar how little offense the game has seen so far. “Portland has done a good job of keeping her out of the high slot and off the breakaway. We’re used to seeing her take control of games, and there just hasn’t been much opportunity tonight.”

Laura bristles at the implication that she’s failed, sitting up straighter on the couch with a deep frown and a creased forehead. The hot anger in her chest does not abate even when Randy chimes in to defend her with highlights from the first two periods.

“Lack of opportunity is a good way to put it,” he says. “But even when she’s had chances, she’s squandered them. Big players make big plays in big games. The Panthers will be looking for more than what we saw in the first two periods from Karnstein to close things out.”

Laura watches again what she had earlier seen in real time: Carmilla a yellow streak on the ice, jumping up on the attack. An errant pass steals her momentum; she twists herself to her backhand side to catch the puck as it sails behind her, and the delay allows a red-sweatered defenseman to body her into the boards. Laura flinches at the contact, closing one eye, mouth open over her teeth in a grimace. If anything, it looks worse in slow motion, when she can see Carmilla’s frustration and pain evident on her face through the play.

The next clip: Carmilla a half stride ahead of two streaking defenders, the puck on her stick. She drags it from her forehand to the back of her blade and flicks it upward and toward the net. Laura hadn’t seen the manoeuver in real time; it had been too quick. The goalie doesn’t stand a chance – she’s still lunging from the far corner of her crease when Carmilla takes the shot – but the puck only clangs off the post and bounces wide. Carmilla takes another vicious hit from a trailing defenseman for her trouble.

“Toronto hasn’t been able to keep her out of trouble all game – she’s not used to being unprotected like this, Craig,” Randy continues when the television refocuses on the two broadcasters. He turns to Craig and opines further: “I think missing their best enforcer is starting to take its toll. Portland is flying all over the ice, hitting their forwards with impunity.”

Guilt shivers down Laura’s spine, empty and cold in place of her fiery indignation just moments earlier. She pulls her blankets closer around her, and tries with every ounce of her will not to feel as though she’s letting Carmilla down.

“I agree, Rand,” Craig nods in trite sportscaster sagacity. “The Panthers are certainly missing Hollis on the blue line tonight.”

Laura mutes the broadcast. The commentators continue to talk smilingly at each other for the next few minutes, but Laura’s eyes burn and blur with held back tears. She’d been especially weepy since leaving the team to come home. Good reason to be or not, that fact is still embarrassing.

Carmilla’s face flashes on the screen again, then. A chyron under her chin declares a scoreless tie. The camera must be close: before the screen fades to black for the last commercial break, she looks right at it. Her eyebrows lift; she crooks her mouth into a cheeky grin that has Laura grinning back at the TV, and she winks. Heat rushes up Laura’s throat to her cheeks, and not from embarrassment this time. She swallows her grin back down. There will be time for girlish swooning after the Panthers win this game.

The broadcast fades to black, and when the screen lights up again, it shows a commercial for some sugary breakfast cereal. Laura reaches for her mug on the coffee table again, and brings it to her lips. She tips it and her head all the way back before remembering that she’d finished its chocolatey contents during a particularly harrowing bit of game in which Portland seemed to set up camp in the Panther’s defensive zone.

She decides she’ll need more if she’s to survive the third period.

Laura unmutes the TV, so the start of the third period doesn’t take her by surprise, and shucks herself out of her blanket cocoon to shuffle into the dark kitchen for more cocoa. Her dad never keeps the good stuff around anymore: all she finds in the cupboards is a store-brand powder in white little packets. She selects one proclaiming to have twenty percent more mini marshmallows, plucks it from its cardboard home, and dumps its contents into her empty mug. She goes about preparing the milk next, sloshing it into a pan and leaving it to heat on the stove. Alone in the dark kitchen, she takes a frosty swig from the jug before she returns it to the fridge, and wipes the resulting, incriminating mustache off her lip with the back of her hand.

The television moves on to a car commercial. A smooth voice, speaking in an American accent, floats to the kitchen, extolling the virtues of hand-stitched leather seats and climate control. It’s quiet otherwise – Laura’s friends had invited her to watch the game at her local haunt, but she’d feigned jet lag and begged off. They had left without her, and even though she had asked them to leave her be, she remains a bit sad at how easy it had been to make them go.

Feeling abandoned by people she’d told to leave isn’t one of Laura’s finer moments, but no one is around now to begrudge her the indignation. So she lets herself feel it. It’s decidedly easier to feel than the anxiety that threatens to pull her back to the living room before the nice woman on the television is done singing praises to probiotics in banana yogurt.

She leans back against the counter opposite the stove. Its edge digs into her ass just like she remembers it. A fourth commercial strobes on the television, throwing muted, pulsing light across the kitchen floor. There couldn’t be many more before the game came back on, so Laura pushes off the counter and looms over the pot of steaming milk. She squints. It looks like it might be done, but there’s only one way to know for sure. She skims one careful finger over the liquid's surface and finds it warm, if not piping as she’d prefer.

There isn’t time to wait for it to simmer, so she makes do: pours it over the brown powder in her mug and waves off the bit of it that dusts up towards her face. Blobs of sticky brown goo float to the top, the rest of the powder already melted by the milk’s heat. She reaches below her waist and tugs open the silverware drawer – or at least what to her habit should be the silverware drawer.

Reaching inside, her fingers connect with only the sharp edge of a roll of Scotch tape, the rounded curvature of a lighter, and the looped steel handle of a potato masher. She looks down in confusion – the spoons should be in this drawer. Laura throws a glance over her shoulder at the stove, then down again at the contents of the drawer. Confirming her place in the kitchen does not help her confusion. Suddenly, she’s fighting back tears again.

There’s a sob threatening to crest in her throat, but Laura holds her breath and beats back the waves. She grips the round handle of the drawer below her much harder than she should. It strains under her force, its connection to the wood of the drawer creaking and groaning in the dark.

Before anything more dramatic can come of her momentary lapse in spatial awareness, Randy and Craig start bloviating again. She opens the adjacent drawer. The spoons are in this one, nestled in the divider with the other cutlery. She grabs a teaspoon from the pile and drops it into her mug, where it plops to the bottom and sends a small wave cresting over the lip and down her hand. Laura licks up her skin and over the side of the mug on her way back to the living room, and folds herself atop her blankets.

She stirs her cocoa while Randy and Craig go over more highlights from the first two periods, this time some fantastic saves by both goalies. Laura’s brow knots the more she watches her team’s defensemen allow shots from favorable angles, and fail to tip passes into the slot. They’re not taking the body enough on the blue line, leaving the Otters’ defensemen too much time and space to create chances for their forwards. She can only imagine how her team’s locker room must have been during the fifteen minutes between periods. The Panthers’ coach is easily annoyed, and lack of physical play annoys her maybe more than anything else.

“We’re just about ready to get back to the action here, Craig,” Randy declares. He appears to be right: players on the screen are exiting the ice for their respective benches. The ten who remain take their places at center ice. Carmilla is the last to take her position, gliding to a stop and stooping before her counterpart across the red center line. She and the opposing center look at the referee in unison, and he takes a glance at them both in turn.

There’s a moment, then, before the referee begins to drop the puck, when Laura can almost imagine herself there. It’s in the little things that makes her palms itch: the urge to drop her stick from her knees to rest the blade on the ice, and give her gloves one last tug before the action begins. She can feel the way the ice radiates cold in the small absence of movement before the puck drops, can hear her own breathing loud in her ears. She doesn’t like being still on the ice. Especially for a defenseman, motion is the imperative. If you still, you’re lost.

Too soon for her own liking, the moment ends. The referee drops the puck, there’s a violent scuffle of sticks for its control, and the players on both sides scatter away from the center like electrons circling their nucleus.

Carmilla wins the draw: tangles her own stick with the opposing center’s and pushes up against her to hold her in place. Her left winger comes across the red line to scoop the puck out from beneath their feet and they’re off. Carmilla slides back and twists to her backhand side, spinning forward and leaving the other center a step or two behind her to join the attack.

The rubber band ball of anxiety is back in Laura’s chest.

“Here we go, Craig,” Randy says. The camera switches to a wide side angle to capture the Panthers setting up their attack. “First one to a goal wins, you think?”

“I do, Rand,” Craig says. “And if I know this Panther first line, they’re not going to want to leave that goal to the last second. I expect a good sustained attack from this first shift of the period for them.”

The attack comes quickly, and Laura is glad for it. This is much nicer than watching her goalie bail out her defense over and over. The left winger who’d taken the puck, drops it behind the net to a streaking Carmilla. She’s a comet over the goal line, sliding backwards, her head up and on a swivel. Laura has seen her survey the ice so many times, she thinks it shouldn’t move her anymore.

It does, of course: the way she pushes into the high slot like the tide, defenders welling up to meet her. She’s moved with her over the cold surface – stalking over the blue line, stick blade scraping the ice. She’s received the ticky-tack, tape-to-tape flick of a pass Carmilla now pushes to the far defenseman. And Laura has taken the long, angled shot on goal and hoped for a favor of geometry to deflect it home to the waiting twine at the back of the net.

No such luck for her stand-in. The puck sails through defense and forwards all and finds its easy home in the goalie’s glove. She covers it quickly – no room to clear it with so much noise atop the crease and just outside. Carmilla straightens from her circling back and forth to the boards. The frown is back on her face, but set more like steel now than it had been between periods. She holds her shoulders high, tense even from the odd camera angle the broadcast affords. Laura doesn’t recall ever seeing her so uncomfortable with skates on.

The defenseman who took the shot skids over to her. She’s a head and a half taller, and she’s not happy. Carmilla tries to wave her off, and Laura drops her forehead into her palm. They can’t be fighting now. Not when Laura isn’t there to play peacemaker. They’ll need to act like professionals on their own for the next eighteen minutes.

Randy agrees with her: “It looks like we’ve got some difference of opinion between Karnstein and Lawrence before this offensive zone faceoff.”

“Now’s not the time for your best forward and your only blue line sniper to be at odds,” Craig chimes in. “I hope whatever the problem is, they get it sorted out before this puck drop. Toronto can’t afford not to be firing on all cylinders here.”

Laura tries to read Danny’s lips, but picture isn’t defined enough for her to make out more than the angry slant of them. She regrets not going to the bar now – she knows for a fact there’s an enormous HD screen directly over the whiskey wall that she’s sure would have done the trick. Danny finally gets Carmilla to look at her, and Laura can’t see the smaller woman’s face, but the way she whips her head around and stops on her edges tells her that Danny hasn’t exactly defused the tension so much as set it alight.

“Come on, guys,” she whispers, pleading.

Mel comes between them, then. She grabs them both by the scruff and pushes them apart. Danny acquiesces: whatever’s got her mad at Carmilla, she listens to her captain. Carmilla is less obliging. She rips Mel’s hand away and spins back to the faceoff circle. The two defensemen glare after her for a moment before they take their places as well. Mel shakes her head as she bends at the waist to ready herself for the drop.

Carmilla scrapes the inside edge of her right skate against the ice. Twice.

She’s nervous.

And loses the faceoff.

Danny and Mel circle back to their own blue line to meet the rush that follows. Carmilla is slow on the back check. Laura grits her teeth and wills her to move faster, fisting her hands in the blankets underneath her and pushing her toes into the carpet. She’s half a stride behind the puck carrier and not gaining quickly enough.

“Poke,” Laura whispers, urgent. “Come on, Carm!”

She does, and the stick check is not pretty.

The point of a poke check isn’t necessarily to hit the puck: it’s small and any good forward will protect it with her body and her stick. The point of a poke check is to hit the legs or the stick, to stall the forward long enough for her to either lose control of the puck, or pass it to someone else.

So Carmilla, of course, prods at the puck first, lancing her stick around the legs of her mark, and fails to connect. The second poke is better: she taps the blade of the opposing forward’s stick with her own – not enough to be called for hooking or slashing but enough to affect how she handles the puck. The bit of extra effort slows her feet, and Carmilla slashes into her path. Her hips, Laura thinks, are a little high when she turns to skate backwards and hassle the forward further. But she can’t argue the result: she hampers her mark enough that the other girl has to flick the puck back between her legs in the neutral zone to prevent turning it over entirely.

Carmilla is better on the forecheck. As soon as the puck slides over the red line, she’s churned a small circle in the ice and rocketed all her momentum into a forward push to pressure the defenseman who collects it. It’s pressure mostly for its own sake: the puck is sent skittering across the ice to the Otters’ second defenseman before Carmilla can reach for it with her stick. She churns another circle and retakes her place in the neutral zone after that. Laura is proud of the sequence: solid neutral zone play isn’t flashy, but it’s what keeps the other team out of the Panther’s defensive zone. Carmilla may not be a true two-way forward, but she’s lightyears from the beginning of the year, when she hardly bothered to get in front of the puck in the neutral zone at all.

Laura is, in fact, so busy watching Carmilla skate in oblong patterns after the puck like she knows what she’s doing on defense that she doesn’t notice Danny flatten the Otters’ center to the ice on the blue line. The crowd and the broadcasters alert her, the latter hissing through their teeth. The center doesn’t get up again, and it doesn’t take the refs long to stop play so she can be seen to. A hush falls over the crowd then, and the stillness lasts a few minutes before she’s helped off the ice.

Danny goes to the box for charging – “Bullshit!” Laura cries at the TV as she’s led off by the elbow – and the team readies for the biggest penalty kill of the season. Carmilla isn’t on a kill unit – it’s a wonder her plus/minus is as good as it is at even strength, frankly – so she zips her way to the bench and takes her seat to wait. The camera follows her for a moment, and Laura watches her rip one of her gloves off to shoot water into her mouth as she surveys the ice from her seat.

Her friends Craig and Randy are opining about the upcoming power play for the Otters, but Laura is too busy watching Carmilla point the nozzle of her water bottle at her forehead and douse herself to catch exactly what it is they say. She watches water run down her stupid, perfect cheekbones until the picture shifts back to the action on the ice, and then she jolts in place as though there’s anyone around to have caught her staring. She takes a rather large gulp of her cocoa and tries to ignore the heat rising in her chest and settling in her cheeks.

That heat wanes into a shivery-cold anxiety when, a minute and a half later, the Otters put the puck past the Panthers' goalie and take the lead. Danny siddles out of the penalty box with her head down. Laura tips the dregs of her cocoa into her mouth and skims the ridge of her mug with nervous teeth. She has to slap a hand to her right leg to stop it bouncing, and when even that doesn’t stop her heel from tapping the floor in a nervous, broken rhythm, she stands and paces back and forth before the TV.

Two goals are probably too much to hope for, but the way things are going now, she doesn’t exactly have a good feeling about overtime. Carmilla steps on the ice again for the first shift after the power play goal, and instead of taking her place immediately at center ice, she glides over to Danny’s spot in the circle. Laura freezes mid-stride, and Danny on the screen straightens in what she’s sure is the same anticipatory anxiety.

This game will be the death of her, Laura is sure of that.

“Don’t be an ass,” she pleads like Carmilla can hear her through the TV and over three thousand miles away. Like she’d listen even if she could.

But Carmilla smiles – or at least her mouth curls as close to one as it ever does – and she says something that has Danny laughing. She punches Carmilla in the shoulder, the way she hits Laura when she’s approving of something she’s done, and Carm lets the blow push her back to the center of the rink, her grin wider even than before. It doesn’t relieve all of the fear Laura feels – and she starts pacing again – but there’s a little bubble of hope in her belly now, too.

If Danny and Carmilla are getting along, the rest of the period should be very interesting at least.

Carmilla wins the faceoff, but she also takes an elbow to the chin when she turns up ice to join the attack. Laura shouts at the TV again, furious at the ref letting the teams play on in the face of such an egregious assault. Carmilla manages to keep her feet moving, opening her jaw wide as she can to test it as she flies over the blue line to the net. She gets there in time to deflect a pass from the point towards the goal, but her lateness means the goalie has time to set up shop before she shoots. It’s an easy stick save for her, and a rebound taken by the Otters. Carmilla grimaces on screen – from the pain in her jaw or in disapproval in her shot attempt, Laura can’t be sure.

She hustles on the back check, but luckily doesn’t get far. Danny makes a stunning play in the neutral zone, taking the puck from the Otter’s best winger. She skips it across the ice to Carmilla, who’s waiting just onside at the edge of the offensive zone. Laura stops her pacing to lean closer to the TV and watch.

She’ll think later that maybe she should have kept it up. Jinxes and good luck charms are not to be trifled with.

There is an Otter near Carmilla, but she’s at too sharp an angle to poke at the puck or hit her cleanly. So, she grabs Carmilla by the elbow. The ref can’t ignore this infraction – he signals for a penalty – but Carmilla still has the puck, so she keeps on the attack. She wrenches her arm free from the defenseman’s grip, snapping it away. Her sweater sleeve bunches at the wrist: getting free has knocked her elbow pad loose and dropped it from the joint it’s meant to protect.

The defenseman follows her, streaking towards the goalie in a desperate attempt to prevent a penalty from becoming a goal. She panics then, Laura thinks, because she doesn’t look at the puck as Carmilla starts deking from one side of the crease to the other. Instead, she brings her stick slashing across Carmilla’s body from behind. The hook of the blade catches at her unprotected elbow. When the defenseman tries to pull it free, she pulls Carmilla, who already has only one skate on the ice in the middle of her handle, down and backwards.

Later, Laura will watch the replay and realize that Carmilla getting a shot off at all after that slash is a goddamn miracle. But she does one better, even: being dragged backwards to the ice, on one skate, stick held in only one hand, Carmilla manages to score.

Everything happens at once. The puck hits the net, Carmilla hits the ice and then the goalie, the goal horn blares, and the crowd goes off like a bomb.

Laura launches herself into the air, fists raised and howling: “Tied, it’s tied!

Her teammates swarm to the net, where Carmilla and the goalie are still trying to disentangle from one another. Danny gets there first, pushing Otters out of the way with probably more force than is necessary. When she gets to the two-woman scrum in the crease, the Otter’s goalie is already on her feet. And she’s – Laura has to squint to make sure she’s not seeing things – the goalie is waving to the Panther’s bench.

Danny looks to her feet, and makes a face like maybe she’ll be sick. Then she’s frantically hailing the bench, too. The players around her form a loose circle, with Danny, the goalie, and Carmilla in its center. Danny gestures broadly, yelling something now that maybe Laura would be able to lip-read, if she focused.

But her focus is not on Danny’s wild gesticulation. Laura focuses instead on the girl at her feet, laying there on her side with her back to the camera. The trainer makes his way from the bench and shuffle-slides over the ice to her, concern etched on his face.

Carmilla doesn’t get up.

Chapter Text

Laura Hollis was eight years old when her father bought her first pair of hockey skates for her. He gave them to her in secret, on a snowy November morning near the lake behind their house. The skates were their secret from her mother, who had steadfastly refused to let Laura into anything without a toe pick.

That day had been a disaster. The lake ice was rough and uneven, and little Laura had no idea how to start or stop with the edges of her skate blades. Her father had carried her back to the car at sundown, her bottom bruised and her wrists aching from catching fall after fall on the snowy rink. Laura had dozed in his arms, his stubbly beard tickling her forehead.

She had gone to bed that night sniffling from soreness and dreamt of getting back on the ice.

 

[Two Years Earlier]

 

“It’s probably not going to be tonight,” Laura says. It’s the eleventh time she’s expressed the sentiment, and if she were opining to anyone but the redhead seated beside her on the couch, that might be a problem.

“You don’t know that,” Lola Perry pats her knee fondly as she says the words. She manages as always to split a perfect difference between motherly and condescending, pursing her lips and shaking her head. Ginger curls bounce to and fro with the jerky movement.

Laura smiles: “I’m not being broody,” she defends. “I just think the fourth round is a little much to hope for.”

Perry clucks her tongue, and pats Laura’s knee with a little more force, but doesn’t object again.

The pair are alone on the couch but not in the living room. Laura’s father hasn’t sat down in nearly an hour, since before the pre-draft show began and the pundits on ESPN had flashed her name on the screen briefly. She’d been buried in a list of potential fourth round draftees, and they hadn’t even said her name aloud, but her being listed alone had been enough to get her dad off the couch and pacing. He’s since ceased moving, at least, settling for standing cross-armed behind the couch and scowling at the television.

“It’ll be Toronto if you go tonight,” he predicts. When Laura cranes her neck back to look at him, he’s already looking at her. His eyes are steady where his body language is not: he’s as sure of what he says as he is anxious about the whole process.

Laura looks back at the television, and finds the howling Panther’s head logo on the draftboard. They have pick four of the fourth round, behind Portland, Atlanta, and New York, but that’s assuming they won’t trade it away before it comes up. This late in the draft, pick trading and proxy selections are common.

“I don’t know about that,” Laura says. On the screen, Portland’s general manager is at the podium. The Otters select a center from a school in Minnesota. The girl’s smiling face flickers into view, atop a short list of her accomplishments in college. “The Panthers don’t really play like they’d need someone like me.”

“Team chemistry is about balance, sweetheart,” her father says. Laura remains unconvinced. What use could the best offensive team in the league have for an enforcer like her? Her greatest contribution in the offensive zone in her entire college career had been knocking an opposing forward unconscious in a fight just inside the blue line.

Laura’s stomach seizes with dread. So far, her father and Perry – and via text her other ginger friend Lafontaine – have been all but guaranteeing that they’ll hear her name called. Laura wants to believe that – she’d accept an offer from a team on the moon if it meant playing hockey for a living – but tonight is the last bit of the draft that will be televised, and her agent hasn’t sent along any indication that she’ll be selected at all. There’s a very real chance that the playoff game her college team lost three weeks ago will become the last hockey game she ever plays at a competitive level. Laura scrapes a sweaty palm against the jean-clad thigh not occupied by Perry’s hand.

That thought is as unbearable has it has been impossible to ignore. It pounds in the back of her head with her anxious heartbeat. She swears if it gets any louder in her ears, Perry will be able to hear it beside her.

“You’ll get chosen, honey,” her dad says. He puts a hand on her shoulder. Laura knows that he means the gesture to be soothing, but she might as well be vibrating with nerves. Between his hand on her shoulder and Perry’s on her knee, it’s all she can do to stay on the couch. She grits her teeth and tries to focus on what the commentators are saying about the draft.

She realizes with a jolt that New York has already chosen: the team’s general manager is thanking the gathered crowd of reporters and stepping down from the podium. Before Laura can take a full, shaky breath through her mouth, Toronto’s general manager is taking his place.

The Panthers’ GM is something of an enigma in the league. Laura looks at her, and gets the impression of an attractive face that she’d have trouble picking out of a crowd. She’s a white woman, with high cheekbones and a square jaw. Her reddish-brown hair falls to just below her shoulders in glossy, uneven waves. When she stands at the podium, she brings her shoulders back and regards the crowd with a look that Laura thinks wouldn’t be out of place at a royal address. Her dark eyes scan the room before she speaks, her red lips curved into just a hint of a smile.

She doesn’t say Laura’s name.

“Sorry, Laura,” Perry says from her left. Laura shakes her head and then turns to look at her friend.

“We knew it would be a long shot that I’d get to stay so close to home,” she says. She hopes her smile is genuine. The look of cocked-headed concern Perry gives her then makes her think it might not look it.

“Someone else’ll pick you up,” her dad says. And maybe it’s Laura’s imagination, but there’s a hint of desperation in his voice now that her hometown team’s pick has come and gone.

“Sure, dad,” she replies, only because she doesn’t think he’s right, and the words are close enough to possible agreement that she can convince herself they’re not lies.

“You want some more cocoa?” he asks when she doesn’t say anything further.

Laura says yes, because she thinks saying no will arouse too much suspicion.

 

Laura goes to bed that night having sat through the rest of the fourth round and the post-round punditry. Her dad probably would have insisted they watch the Sportscenter recap, too, but Perry had politely excused herself to go home then, and Laura had made enough of a show of yawning and stretching that her dad had allowed her to tromp up to her room as well.

She lays under her covers, her back to her door, and types out a message:

[Laura]: Did you watch the whole thing?

A few minutes go by before her phone buzzes with a reply. She quickly opens it.

[LaF]: Yeah.

A couple of moments pass. Laura considers prodding more, but then another message buzzes into her inbox.

[LaF]: Sorry you didn’t get to hear your name on TV.

Laura laughs, though her throat is so dry from keeping in her anxious, frightened tears all night that it comes out low and hoarse.

[Laura]: That’s me. Always looking for the spotlight.

[LaF]: Are you okay?

Laura’s thumb hovers over the touchscreen. It’s a weird question, mostly because she doesn’t know how to answer it yet. This outcome had not been unexpected – she was most likely not going to be drafted at all, and this was known to her before the college season had even ended. But knowing something is true and being okay with it are two very different things, and Laura Hollis is nothing if not stubborn in the face of unpleasant truths.

[Laura]: I will be.

She hopes that will suffice. Lafontaine is her oldest friend, and has an uncanny knack for sussing out her secrets. They’re also not shy about those unpleasant truths Laura always struggles against.

[LaF]: I know you will be. But it’s okay if right now you’re not.

[Laura]: Thank you, oh fortune cookie master.

Lafontaine sends back a string of fortune cookie and heart emoji, and bids Laura a good day. Laura wishes they were with her tonight. They’d accepted a fellowship at a biology lab in Austria shortly before graduation, and had left the country for it soon after. Lafontaine was happiest elbow-deep in whatever muck needed analyzing, so Laura couldn’t be too upset about the arrangement.

She reads over the short conversation again, alone there in the dark. Her dad is still watching Sportscenter: she can hear muted voices, even garbled through her closed bedroom door. Night bugs make their noise outside, and the neighbors have their sprinklers on. The smell of wet grass and water float through her open window. Laura turns onto her back to stare at the ceiling and clicks her phone’s screen dark. She closes her eyes, but the buzzing behind her lids is loud, and she can feel her heart still pounding in her ears and fingertips. It’s like she’s just back from a run, instead of lying in bed after a night of sitting on the couch.

It takes her several hours, until the sun is starting to paint the skyline a bloody pink, for her to fall into a fitful sleep.

 

Draft disappointments don’t count as emergencies, so Laura finds herself back at work just two days later. Her manager gives her a sympathetic look when she walks in for her shift, and Laura has to endure a full fifteen minutes of platitudes from well-meaning coworkers before the breakfast rush begins and conversation becomes all but impossible.

Laura likes the café – it’s always busy in the mornings and early afternoons with the bustle of customers, the clink and clang of cups and spoons, and the drip and hiss of the espresso machine. Working behind the counter is a lot like working behind the blue line. She keeps herself moving, her hands busy with labeling cups, packing pucks, and pouring cream, and the work is manageable. Just like it is on the ice, as long as she doesn’t still, Laura isn’t lost.

But no café stays busy forever, and the hustle of the morning breakfast rush soon peters out to a slow tickle of walk-in customers and a few regular hangers-around. Laura’s manager gives her a broom and sets her cleaning the floors of the morning’s trash before he leaves for his classes. She takes longer than is probably necessary to sweep the floors, leaving the sparse business at the counter for her only remaining coworker to handle alone. She makes the work last until midmorning, stopping only when the last regular leaves the café and she and her fellow barista are alone in the cavernous space.

“Hey Betty,” she calls to her compatriot behind the counter. The other girl looks over at her, hands still at work cleaning the espresso machine while she diverts her attention. She raises an eyebrow by way of response.

Laura holds up a balled up pastry wrapper between them.

“How about a game?”

Betty rolls her eyes. She goes back to cleaning the machine and says, “We’re supposed to be working, Hollis.”

“Oh come on,” Laura prods. “No one’s here.”

The truth of her words seems to echo off the unoccupied furniture, but Betty doesn’t look up again. And Laura should just stop there: toss the wrapper in the trash and continue with her idle sweeping. But boredom is a stronger force than obligation, especially without a manager to make sure she attends to the latter.

She drops the wrapper on the floor instead, and stoops at the waist, holding her broom with the same sure grip she’d use to hold her hockey stick. The stiff bristles of the dollar-store broom in her hands are hardly as good as the gentle curve of her stick blade for generating lift, but neither is this her first time swiping litter off the floor on a trajectory for Betty Spielsdorf’s head.

The wrapper schluffs off the floor and smacks into her temple with a papery pop. Betty squares her shoulders to fix Laura with a glare that could probably melt ice. Laura wiggles the broom in the direction of the wrapper, now sitting incriminatingly on the counter next to Betty, and cracks a lopsided smile she hopes is charming.

Betty scoots the wrapper off the counter and into a trashcan below, using only the back of her palm. She graces Laura with one long eye roll and goes back to her damned espresso machine. Laura’s smile sinks back into a pursed-lipped frown.

“Okay, spoilsport, we can just,” Laura gestures broadly at the empty café, “take care of all these customers I guess.”

“I’m not going to play your dumb game, Hollis,” Betty doesn’t look up again, having moved on to scrubbing the wash sink. The damn thing is spotless, and Laura knows it.

“Have a little fun, Robobetty.” Her frown deepens. “Robetty.”

“Been working on that one all shift?” Betty asks, and though the remark is mostly sarcastic, Laura would swear on detecting just a hint of tease in it, too. Whether she’s imagining it, or the chink in that patented Spielsdorf armor is real, Laura decides to press.

“I haven’t had much else to do,” she says. “I tend to stop polishing things once they’re clean.”

“We can’t all be professional jocks, Hollis,” Betty deadpans. The light in her tone is gone, replaced by something cold. Laura finds herself flinching before she continues. “Oh, but right. You’re not one either, are you?”

“Harsh,” Laura complains. Then, softer as she puts broom to floor and starts to sweep again: “No need to go all super villain speech on me.”

She doesn’t try to tempt Betty again – no use invoking the ire of the beast twice in one shift – but neither does she continue to sweep the now-spotless floor. Instead, she folds herself into one of the squishy chairs in front of the old, empty fireplace at the center of the space. Laura fishes her phone from her apron pocket and clicks the screen into light.

She has one hundred and four new notifications.

She panics first – has something happened to one of her friends, or (she can barely think of this) to her dad? She opens the conversation at the top of the list – Lafontaine again – and reads through the typo-laden, capitalization nightmare that is their dozen or so messages.

One in the middle catches her attention, and holds it.

[LaF]: TORONTO. SIXTH ROUND. LAURA ARE YOU THERE OH MY GOD.

Laura is already calling them as she races out of the store with little but a backward shout at Betty about being back soon. Betty looks after, her brows slightly raised in condescension – or maybe indulgence. Laura doesn’t have time to care. She’s dialing LaFontaine’s number and has her phone to her ear before she can get the door open enough to slip outside.

Lafontaine picks up on the second ring.

“Finally, Laur, where have you been?”

“Working!” Laura shouts into the phone, indignant. She hears Lafontaine grunt at the volume, and lowers it to continue: “You said Toronto over text?”

“Yeah,” they confirm. Laura can hear their wide, earnest smile in even the single word. “Second-to-last pick of the whole thing. You did it, Laur.”

Laura feels suddenly as though she might float away – or for that matter, be sick with excitement. She finds an empty chair on the patio outside to fall into before her knees give way.

“You get to keep playing,” Lafontaine says next.

Laura marvels at how quickly her friend gets to the heart of things, as always. Because of course she’ll be paid, and she’ll get to travel, and she’ll get to come home to her hometown at the end of the day, but none of those things is the thing.

She’ll get to play hockey, for at least a little while longer.

Laura stays there, jabbering incoherently on the phone with Lafontaine, until a very irritated Betty pops her head out of the café door to ask her, very sharply, to come and help with the afternoon rush.

 

The next few weeks are a whirlwind of paperwork and important phone calls. Laura signs an entry-level contract for the league minimum salary. She doesn’t care. She marks the calendar on her bedroom wall with a countdown to the day development camp begins at the beginning of July, and lets her dad parade around the house and in town in a custom Panthers jersey with her name on the back.

He and Perry see her off on the bus to the city, with her hockey bag and a single suitcase in tow. He hugs her for a bit too long, as he always does when she leaves home. Laura doesn’t begrudge him the affection – she’ll miss him too while she’s away. Perry hugs her, too, but her embrace is much swifter. Before Laura can do more than snap her arms around her, Perry is already pulling away. She pushes a Tupperware container filled with chocolate chip cookies into Laura’s hands, though. Laura makes a mental note not to eat all of them on the bus ride ahead of her.

After promising her dad she’ll call when she gets settled, and assuring Perry that she’ll be responsible with how she consumes those cookies, Laura stuffs her luggage into the bus’s undercarriage compartment and boards to find her seat. She slumps against the window when she finds it, stores her stick blade-down between her legs, and pops her earbuds in. She tunes her iPod to her travel playlist, an airy mix of singer-songwriters crooning about going home or finding adventure. She won’t get through the whole thing before getting to the city – the bus ride is only a couple of hours long – but she closes her eyes and lets the music carry away the anxiety that comes with the prospect of meeting her new teammates.

Laura jerks awake, then, to the voice of the driver announcing their arrival in the city proper. She clicks her dry tongue against the roof of her mouth and tries to blink the sleep away from her eyes. The terminal is crowded, a sea of colors and noise, and Laura grips the handle of her stick in defense against it. The bus comes to a screeching, hissing halt, and passengers at the front begin to disembark. Figuring she can’t just wait on the bus forever, Laura waits her turn and then takes it, shuffling off the bus when an opening appears in the aisle. She takes a moment just at the bottom of the bus’s steps to breathe in the smoggy terminal air and stretch her legs. The trip and her stillness in sleep have left them cramped. She shakes them out on her way to collect her bags from the undercarriage compartment.

There’s supposed to be someone from the team – another player or just a front office representative, the email she got from the general manager’s office wasn’t clear – here to meet her. The email also didn’t indicate where she was supposed to go in the massive bus terminal to find this person. So Laura does the next best thing to knowing where she’s going: she follows the flow of the crowd. It pushes her down the corridor, away from the arrival gate and towards a massive, tile-floored concourse. The smell of street food, greasy and inviting after having skipped breakfast and power-napped on a bus, wafts stronger and stronger as she moves further down. Fewer electric lights dot the walls of the widening hallway, their light replaced by the sun. When she steps through the mouth of the corridor and onto the concourse proper, she sees its point of entry: great windows set high into the wall in front of her, their half-colored surfaces throwing beautiful, patterned light in all directions in the busy station.

Laura hitches her hockey bag higher onto her shoulder. It’s impossible to see the entrance to the station through the wall of people in front of her, but she makes her way toward the glass wall in the hope that it’s the right direction for her to go. She tries to keep her eyes open for anyone looking for her, but navigating the sea of bodies as it swells and pushes her quickly has her moving away from her destination. She gets turned around, the sun at her back, and curses her luggage and her tiny frame.

It’s then that a strong hand grips her by the shoulder, tugging her backwards into the waves. She looks back and then up – into the face of a redheaded girl who makes quite a good lighthouse. Or so Laura would say, if she was given to that sort of metaphorical fancy.

(She very much is, of course.)

“Are you Hollis?” her beacon asks. Laura has to squint up into the sun to see her face.

“That’s me,” she confirms, holding a hand to her forehead to act as a visor against the glare.

Not a lighthouse, of course, greets her gaze, but a woman: tall, with eyes like the sky, like a calm ocean, blue and true.

That’s overdramatic, Laura, she thinks to herself.

“I’m Danny,” the lighthouse shouts over the din of the crowd. “I’m a Panther.”

Laura knows that. She does. Danny Lawrence is in her second year with the team, now. She’s arguably the best blue-line sniper in the league, and coming off winning the award for the league’s best defenseman in her rookie year. Laura watched her play on weeknights when her homework was light last year, and wished for a slap shot half as strong. Seeing the woman on TV, and standing beneath her gentle blue gaze in a sea of swarming people are two very different things, though.

“Let’s get out of here,” Danny suggests, tugging at Laura’s elbow to lead her to the doors. “I can barely hear myself think in all this noise!”

Laura follows her, dragging her suitcase behind her as Danny parts the ocean of people ahead. It’s decidedly easier to move through the crowd with Danny as her snowplow – people seem to try to get out of her way, where they had seemed to press in on Laura from all sides before. Laura chalks it up to the difference a few inches can make, and decides to be grateful for the assistance.

They emerge from the terminal to a beautiful sunny afternoon. It remains loud, but without the glass walls and ceiling of the terminal to enclose them, the noise seems to dissipate into the air rather than intensify. Laura sighs in relief.

“Yeah, this is much better,” Danny agrees beside her. She looks down at Laura with a smile as warm as the summer air around them. “I’ve been sent to pick you up and take you to the team’s facility. If that wasn’t clear before.”

Laura smiles back: Danny’s grin is as infectious as it is attractive.

“It was, but thank you,” she says.

“Welcome to Toronto,” Danny says. She motions for Laura to follow her into the parking lot before them. “We’re in the day lot, this way.”

Laura lets Danny walk a few strides ahead of her before she follows – just because she doesn’t know the way, of course.

“Is this your first time in the city?” Danny asks as they move together over the asphalt.

“No,” Laura says. “Nationals for club hockey was always here or in Ottawa. And my university team had a few playoff games here last year.”

“Ever get here for anything other than hockey?” Danny amends with a laugh.

“No,” Laura admits. “I guess the big city has always kind of meant hockey to me.”

“There’s a lot more to it than the rink,” Danny says. They’ve entered a covered parking structure, and being out of the heat is welcome after the sticky sleep of her bus ride and wading through the crowds in the terminal.

“I’m sure I’ll have time to explore after mini-camp,” Laura speculates. She frowns before continuing. “If I’m still with the team, then. I might go to development league for the year, according to my agent. They’re based a few hours away, right?”

Danny turns her head back to look at Laura, “Yeah, that’s right. But you’ll have time to get to know the city during camp, too. We can only practice and watch film for so many hours every day.”

This isn’t something Laura had considered. She’d prepared for development camp with nothing but hockey on her mind. Exploring a major city on top of that is exciting – and daunting.

“Any recommendations for where I should start?”

“Are you asking me to show you around?” Danny quips, and throws a cheeky smile over her shoulder. Though she’s sure Danny is just kidding around, Laura feels her cheeks flush. She grips the strap of her hockey bag a little tighter in her fist, until the knuckles go a little white.

“I – uh,” she says, very smoothly of course, in response.

Danny doesn’t let her suffer for long, and Laura is grateful for that.

“I’m kidding, rook,” she says. “There will be some team outings and stuff like that. And you’ll be rooming with an older player while you’re in camp. She can show you around, too. Coach thinks it makes the transition for the new rookies easier.”

“Does it?” Laura asks. Rooming with another rookie would at least afford her the comfort of knowing she and her roommate will be on equal footing. Rooming with a veteran is a more daunting prospect.

Danny shrugs. “None of your first camp is easy. But a good roommate can go a long way to making it more comfortable. I roomed with our captain last year, and I found it to be a nice thing.”

They’ve climbed most of the parking structure by this point. The cement structure radiates coolness, but Danny leads them back into the sun on the roof. Laura squints into the new light; the heat of the day washes over her again.

“So is that why you came to get me?” she asks next. “Are we rooming together for camp?”

She tries to keep the hope out of her voice, and knows she isn’t successful. Danny doesn’t make comment on that, instead giving her a sympathetic look as she shakes her head. It’s disappointing. Laura wants to know more about her new Amazonian teammate, who saved her from the terminal crowds and seems eager to make her feel welcome in the city. She’s also very cute, though it’s not generally good policy to let those thoughts fester when they’re about teammates. So Laura hides her disappointment behind a smile and a shrug.

“We’ll get to see each other at practice and stuff, too, anyway,” she says. “But if you’re not –”

“There you are, Xena,” another unfamiliar voice interrupts her question. Laura turns her head sharply to the left to find its source.

This woman is about Laura’s height, and she’s wearing the tightest pair of black leather pants Laura thinks she’s ever seen. They hug her thighs so well it’s almost indecent. Above them she wears a white cotton tee shirt. Its sleeves, rolled partially up her biceps, strain with the flex of her folded arms. Her hair falls in midnight waves just below her shoulders, and her eyes are obscured behind big aviator sunglasses. But her mouth is open in an impatient grin over her teeth. She makes no move to push off the door of the car she’s leaning on: a red Mustang convertible that looks about as dangerous as she does.

“Did you stop for ice cream along the way or something?” she asks, grinning wider.

“Give it a rest,” Danny says. Laura isn’t looking at her anymore, but she can hear the eye roll in Danny’s voice. There’s an unspoken but palpable tension between Danny and this new woman, and Laura wonders what the story is behind it.

“Are you on the team as well?” she asks.

The woman licks her lips once, slides her glasses down the bridge of her nose, and looks at Laura with dark eyes, the way she imagines a panther might look at a deer. Then she smiles wide enough for Laura to see her teeth. The smile is as inviting as it is unsettling.

“I’m Carmilla,” she says simply, then continues before Laura can take a breath to respond: “I’m your roommate, sweetheart."

Chapter Text

Laura Hollis stopped growing at the age of thirteen, when she topped out at a towering five feet, four inches tall. So when she told her high school coach she wanted to learn how to hit, he laughed in her face.

She spent the next month with her nose stuck to the screen of her father’s tablet, watching highlights of professional defensemen: how they hit, how they created leverage without drawing charging penalties, and what situations they chose to take their biggest chances.

Then, she enlisted her friends for help: she and Perry stuffed Lafontaine into an old set of hockey pads, and fortified that by duct taping blankets around their arms and middle. They strapped two helmets to their head, and snuck into the local rink after dark. Lafontaine let Laura knock them down until the sun started to creep in through the front doors, and the morning attendant came in to shoo them out, threatening to call the police if they were caught again.

Two weeks later, when Laura flattened a girl twice her size with a hip check that cracked the glass along the boards, her coach stopped laughing and started teaching.

 

[July]

 

The stands are empty, a poppy playlist echoes loudly off the rafters, and Laura Hollis is doubled over along her defensive zone boards, trying to catch her fleeting breath before play resumes. Someone bumps the blade of her stick against Laura’s hip. She turns her head to see the culprit: Danny.

“Head up, rook,” she says, smiling. Laura straightens, and tries to breathe through her nose. Her head spins a little. At center ice, their coach stands with her arms crossed; her face is a regal knot of impatience.

They’re divided by position and then again in half: in each offensive zone, opposite each other along the boards, is a row of defensemen and, on the other side, a row of forwards. A black mass of pucks sits, patient, on either side of the neutral zone between them. The coach clears her throat loudly and waits a beat to make sure everyone is paying attention.

“Here’s the drill,” she begins. From her line’s position cattycorner to Laura and Danny’s, Carmilla snickers at the pun. The coach turns to glare at her and Laura could swear the rink gets ten degrees colder. Carmilla doesn’t meet her eyes, but neither does her wide grin fade from her face.

Laura, for her part, has no desire to antagonize their coach. She’s a tall, unapproachable woman who radiates wisdom and danger in equal measure. Far between and few are women who can remain imposing despite the swishing of a team tracksuit, but Matska Belmonde manages not only imposition but intimidation. She flicks her eyes to Laura, and the hairs on the back of Laura’s neck stand on end. The coach is smiling before her gaze leaves again, but there’s too much razor in the curve of her lips over her sparkling teeth for the gesture to soothe Laura’s unease.

“Here’s the drill,” she repeats. “One defenseman and one forward at a time, on each side. Defensemen, take a puck from the neutral zone, circle back to your defensive zone, and pass up to the forward at center ice. Then, remain in your defensive zone for a one-on-one with the forward receiving the pass from the other side. We’ll keep score. A goal is a point for the forwards, and a no-goal, a point for the defensemen.”

“What’s the prize?” and that’s Carmilla again. This time, her head is up and her eyes are flashing. Laura can see, even from across the rink, the excited lilt of her smile. Several of her fellow forwards turn to look at her, and Laura knows that hers is not the only gaze Carmilla is capable of holding.

“Keep it in your pants, Karnstein,” Danny shouts back. “It’s not like you’ll be winning anyway.”

Carmilla’s smile widens, and sharpens. Not for the first time, Laura gets the distinct impression that her development camp roommate might be a Panther in more than just uniform.

“I must have missed the hockey episode of Xena,” she taunts. Laura hears Danny huff behind her, but before she can fire back her own insult, their coach intervenes.

“Enough,” she says. Her voice seems to echo off the rafters, even over the thumping music. Danny is silent. Carmilla’s smile falters just the tiniest bit. “First team to ten wins, but you must win by at least two points. And the winner skips sprints at the end of practice.”

“What if no one wins?” Laura finds herself asking, before her nerves can overcome her exhaustion and stifle her curiosity.

“What’s that?” the coach asks, turning to face her fully. She arches an eyebrow, evaluative.

“If we get to ten, but we aren’t ahead by enough,” Laura clarifies. “What happens if no one wins?”

Coach waits a beat before responding, enough time for a song to end and for the silence to fill with the soft scrape of skate blades. The intro to the next song begins before she answers.

“Hockey games don’t end in ties, and neither will this drill.”

Something in the way she says it perks Laura up, her intuition triggered and waiting, like there’s some mystery before her. The coach doesn’t elaborate.

Carmilla does.

“I hope you’re ready to pump, Lawrence,” she shouts from across the rink. Danny does her best to flip her off despite the restriction of her glove.

Their coach glides across the rink to observe from the far corner, and says, “Begin.”

Laura digs her blades into the ice, and pushes off the boards to give herself a boost. She hooks a puck from the pile in front of her and twists her hips sharply as she enters the defensive zone, squaring her body toward the rest of the rink in front of her. She leans onto her back skate, letting the puck glide just in front of her stick blade, and then pushes forward to sling it into the neutral zone. It hits the waiting blade of the forward’s stick with a clap, and she surges into the offensive zone to engage the waiting defenseman there.

In front of Laura, Carmilla takes a pass of her own. She angles her hips square to Laura before she has the puck on her stick, so once it clacks against the blade, she’s already gaining speed. Laura leans on her inner edges, balancing herself to meet Carmilla’s advance, and finds that it’s been a mistake to slow herself in the process. Carmilla is fast, faster than Laura had seen in the team’s warmups. She needs only two strides to fly across the blue line, and Laura skates backwards in frantic paces to try to match her speed. Realizing that she won’t be able to make up that speed in time, Laura grits her teeth and braces hard against the ice behind her, forcing all of her weight forward.

If she can’t beat Carmilla to the net, she’ll make sure the forward doesn’t get there at all.

Sprinting forward while Carmilla speeds toward her closes the gap between them before Laura can take another breath. She only has a half-stride of steam built up before they meet, but Laura puts her whole body into a check that should bring her speedy roommate to a very swift halt.

A good body check uses all the best focal points for force on the human body: shoulder, upper arm, elbow, and hip hitting the other player with enough power to knock them either off the puck or to the ice. The easiest checks to perform are along the boards, where a defenseman can corral the opposing player between themselves and the sides of the rink and cut off any avenue of escape from the hit. Open-ice checks are more difficult. Building enough momentum to hit players effectively is not a subtle process, and without the barrier of the boards to assist in herding the target towards the check, it’s easy for alert players to avoid contact.

Carmilla proves very alert. While Laura lowers her shoulder to deliver her check, Carmilla spins to put her back to both her and the goal. She flicks the puck between her legs, and Laura, who has already committed her weight forward, can do little but watch it sail between her own skates as well. Carmilla completes her spin, Laura’s check catches nothing but air and the sleeve of Carmilla’s jersey, and Carmilla speeds off to collect the puck and flick it easily into the top corner of the net.

Laura stumbles out of her check attempt and wobbles to a stop around the blue line, cursing to herself under her breath. The forwards waiting in line clack their stick blades on the ice and cheer as Carmilla makes a loop behind the goal on her way back to the queue. Laura looks right at the scratchy skate lines in the ice on her own way back into line.

“Don’t feel too bad, rookie,” Carmilla shouts from across the rink. Laura looks up to find her grinning, her cheeks rosy with exertion. Laura scrunches up her face, angry at the flutters in her stomach at the sight. Her roommate is cute, but she’s also an ass. Her anger overcomes her attraction, rising like bile in her throat.

Laura counts the forwards and then the defensemen, shuffling up in line as she needs to, and surmises that she’ll get at least two more cracks at stopping Carmilla before either team amasses enough points to win. Then she clenches her teeth and grips her stick a bit tighter and tells herself in her head over and over, until she’s all but whispering the words aloud, that she’ll win two out of three and put her smug, speedy roommate in her place.

The next thing she registers is Danny shoving her towards the puck pile.

“Come on, rook, go,” she pants, and then doubles over, pressing her stick into her thighs and trying to catch her breath.

Laura stumbles from the push, but finds her balance again and swipes another puck from the pile. She tries to be simpler in her pass forward this time, not gliding quite so far toward the opposite side of the rink before she slings the puck across center ice to the forward awaiting it. Then she scrubs hard over the ice to get back to the center of the defensive zone.

She makes it back into position just as Carmilla crosses the blue line under a full head of steam. The difference between their movements is stark. Carmilla slices over the ice in long, quick strides that make it hard to tell where she plans on moving next. Laura, on the other hand, scrubs clumsily to her right and left, her skating jerky. She should force Carmilla to the boards, where her angle to the goal will be extreme and difficult to navigate. Instead, she wavers, allowing Carmilla too much room to maneuver.

Carmilla takes advantage of her hesitation. She turns her skates parallel to the goal line, showering the ice in front of her with snow and bringing herself to a stop. Laura pushes back hard on her own toes, but by the time she can lean forward to move towards Carmilla again, it’s too late. Carmilla jerks her stick behind her and brings it back down hard, slapping the puck toward the net. It pings off the crossbar and ricochets down into the goal.

The defensemen groan in unison in their lines along the boards. So much for taking two of three.

The defense is down now by three points, and the forwards only need a couple more goals to win the game. Laura’s lungs tighten in anticipation of the sprints they’ll have to do at the end of practice.

“What’s going on up there?” Danny says from behind her, while they wait in line for their next turn. She taps a gloved hand on top of Laura’s head. Not for the first time, Laura feels pleasantly small next to her. Danny shines a smile at her in between pants to catch her breath. This drill is a cardio-fest, sprints afterward or not.

“What do you mean?” Laura asks back. She hopes the heat in her cheeks isn’t burning through the color already there from the cold.

“She’s good, but she’s not that good,” Danny says. And maybe it’s that she has a year less experience than her fellow defenseman, but this is not convincing to Laura. She doesn’t speak her disbelief, but Danny addresses it anyway.

“Carmilla is quick and she’s crafty, but if you catch her, she won’t get away,” she says. “Don’t throw away what you’re good at just because it didn’t work right from jump.”

There isn’t time for Laura to respond: it’s her turn again, with the game – and the sprints – on the line. She pumps harder this time, churning her legs hard to build as much speed as possible before she hits the blue line with the puck. A twist of her hips has her squared to center ice, and half a beat later has the puck off her stick and sailing towards the forward at the opposite end of the neutral zone.

She’s done this faster than before. Carmilla is only just receiving her own pass when Laura slices back to the middle of the defensive zone. So she’s well into position when Carmilla takes the puck over the blue line at full speed. Laura glances up from the puck, only for a moment, and finds Carmilla staring back at her, the ghost of a grin on her lips and something hot and formidable in her gaze.

One-on-ones are rare during games. Usually, a defenseman can make do with forcing a forward to one side of the net or the other, helping her goaltender by forcing the forward to take a shot from as wide an angle as possible. With an empty net behind her, and no help flying to the rescue, there isn’t an option to diffuse Carmilla’s rush into a low-percentage shot and rely on her teammates.

So Laura relies on herself.

She waits first, for Carmilla to choose side, letting herself list backwards and keeping her hips low, so she can push off in whatever direction she needs. Carmilla nudges the puck to her left, but Laura watches how her weight stays on her right side. So she leans hard on her left skate, pushing to the right and staying with Carmilla when she drags the puck back over to her forehand. Carmilla makes a noise between a whine and a grunt, and she puts on another burst of speed, but Laura has remained in front of her, and she has nowhere to go.

They collide, briefly.

Laura tucks her elbows in out of habit – nothing worse than a good check ruined by an elbowing penalty – and stops as hard as she can on her edges. Carmilla seems to realize her mistake when Laura doesn’t move with the contact. She’s too close. There are a million ways now that Laura can take the puck from her, so Carmilla tries to finesse her way back to the middle of the zone. She saucers the puck behind Laura’s back, and leans hard on her left skate to try to follow it.

Forwards who are off-balance are easy forwards to topple.

Laura drops her shoulder into Carmilla’s chest and shoves as hard as she can. Carmilla grunts as the air is forced out of her lungs. Her chin snaps forward and clips Laura’s helmet. And then she’s on her ass, the puck skittering across the rink to thump harmlessly against the boards.

Carmilla rolls back to her feet, and slams the blade of her stick down onto the ice. She fixes Laura with a searing, angry gaze that the defenseman doesn’t see for having her back turned. The defensemen clack their own sticks on the ice as they stand in line, a hockey player’s applause. Laura retrieves Carmilla’s puck from the far boards, and flips it up into her hand.

She smiles at it for a small moment before returning it to the pile.

 

The defensemen still lose.

 

Laura slumps against their shared door and lets her hockey bag fall to the floor. The cool wood feels good against her forehead when she leans against it. She’s still overheated from practice, her face greasy with dried sweat. She huffs a quick breath in and out, working up the will to fish her keys out of her pocket. The key to her father’s house doesn’t fit in the lock. It takes her trying jam the wrong key into it half a dozen times before she curses under her breath and switches to the right one. The door swings open easily after that, revealing their dimly-lit room.

Carmilla is already lounging on the couch, awash in the flicker-glow of a black and white movie she isn’t paying attention to. She’s showered: her hair shiny and sticking to her bare shoulders. There’s a book open in her lap. She thumbs the bottom of her page impatiently, as though impatient with herself for not having finished reading it. When she finally does turn the page, and turns her gaze upward to the top of the next one, Laura catches her eye.

“Don’t get up on my account,” Laura huffs. “I only had to lug this crap –” she slings her bag against the base of the couch “—on the train the whole way here because someone didn’t wait around to give her roommate a ride home from the rink.”

Carmilla quirks an eyebrow upward during the rant, mouth open in silent amusement at the scene. Laura pants and seethes quietly when she’s done. Carmilla seems to know that. Her lips curve into a smile that stands the hairs up on the back of Laura’s neck. She swallows. Carmilla speaks.

“How could I know it was you?” she asks, flicking her eyes back to her book but keeping her smile in place. “For all I know it was some kind of psycho trying to break in with the wrong key.”

Laura kicks her bag, hard. Something in her foot crunches, but she ignores the pain.

“We live in a fucking condo complex owned by the fucking team we both fucking play for,” she shouts, punctuating each curse with another kick to her bag. By the end her chest and neck are stained with angry heat, and she’s pushing her breath through her teeth. Carmilla looks up from her book again. She wets her lips and smiles as she speaks.

“You can never be too careful, cupcake.”

Laura makes a sound somewhere between a shout and a groan. She gives her bag one last kick for good measure – and to stop from launching herself over the arm of the couch at her smug roommate. She stalks down the hall to her room then, with Carmilla’s soft laughter haunting her steps. Her skin crawls with rage. Laura has never been an especially angry person. Being a good defenseman is as much about knowing when not to react with aggression as it is unleashing that aggression on an opponent, and Laura is good at making that distinction because she’s slow to anger generally. Carmilla is under her skin, though. Laura mutters to herself as she digs in her dresser for a clean pair of underwear and a nightshirt.

Her anger fades a bit the longer she’s away from Carmilla in the living room. Clothes in hand and towel flung over her shoulder, she closes herself off in their shared bathroom and turns on the tub’s faucet. Steam quickly fills the small space. Laura pulls the pin to turn on the shower before shucking out of her clothes. Anticipation of the hot shower lifts the rest of the anger out of her chest; it dissipates into the steam with the long breath she sighs out once she’s under the showerhead.

Laura stands there facing away from the tap, letting the water pelt her back, until the setbacks in practice and the strife with Carmilla don’t make her skull buzz with anxiety. Only then, when she can start to feel the usual fatigue that follows a hard practice begin to pull her eyelids downward, does she wash herself quickly.

When Laura finally exits the bathroom, clad in a pair of athletic shorts and a tank top, Carmilla is still in the living room. Laura can just make out her face in the grayscale light of the TV, though it’s hard to tell if she’s still awake or not. Her chin rests on her chest, rising and falling with her breathing. Laura pauses at her bedroom door.

If it was Laura out there, she’d rather be woken now than have a cramped back in the morning from a night on the couch. So she looks into her darkened room, but only to thrown her dirty clothes into her hamper just inside the door. Then she pads back down the hall to the living room.

Carmilla must indeed be asleep, because she doesn’t stir as Laura approaches. The movie she had been watching is over, the chapter selection screen of the DVD offering stagnant grey light by which Laura can make out Carmilla on the couch. Her eyes are closed, her book open but laid face down on her lap. She swallows in her sleep as Laura approaches. Her jaw flexes when her throat moves, its line sharpened by the glow from the TV.

Laura shakes her head, drags her eyes up to Carmilla’s closed lids, and reaches out to shake her shoulder gently.

“Hey, Carmilla?” she says. Her roommate doesn’t stir. “Carm?”

Carmilla tenses before she opens her eyes. Laura feels the muscles in her shoulder go taut, her bicep flexing beneath it. She pulls her hand away, worried she’s frightened Carmilla out of a nightmare. When Carmilla does open her eyes, she does so slowly first. She seems to get her bearings for half a beat, and then cranes her neck to look up at Laura.

Her eyes are big and brown, and warm with sleep. Laura swallows, alone there in the dark with her.

“What do you want, cupcake?” Carmilla asks. Her voice is a gravely whisper, rough with sleep. Laura leans towards her without realizing it.

“Uh,” Laura begins. Carmilla raises her eyebrows at her stammer. “I, um. Sleeping on the couch can’t be as comfortable as your bed, so I figured –”

Carmilla cuts her off with a laugh in the back of her throat, short and unkind. It snaps the spell of the moment just before, and something hot flares in Laura’s chest again.

“I’m just trying to be nice,” she says. Carmilla scoffs again.

“Waking me from a good dream is nice?” she asks. She sits up, swinging her feet to the floor and rubbing at the back of her neck. When she finds the spot that’s ailing her, she digs at it with her fingertips, sighing. The sound gives Laura the shivers, which is annoying when she’s trying to be indignant.

“Keeping that from happening to the rest of your spine is nice,” Laura says. She leans away from the couch and crosses her arms.

Carmilla looks up at her, smiling. It’s a ghost of her grin on the ice: all feeling but no razor, open. Laura wonders if she’s really awake, or if the softness of waking sleep has tempered the look.

“Well aren’t you just a peach,” Carmilla says. She pushes up on her knees to stand, and claps Laura on the shoulder as she brushes by her towards the hallway. Even half asleep she’s strong; Laura rocks back onto her heels and grips the back of the couch to keep her balance.

She thinks she hears Carmilla chuckle from the darkened hallway before she closes her door behind her.

Chapter Text

In the early Fall of her senior year, Laura and her father sat at the kitchen table, across from a middle-aged woman in a pantsuit. Her school was the only one to have sent an emissary to court Laura into a commitment. She was an assistant coach. The school was looking for toughness, she said. They needed someone to look after their crop of small, speedy forwards.

If Laura was willing to bloody her knuckles and otherwise stay out of the way, she’d have a spot on the team and a partial scholarship waiting for her.

Her father didn’t approve, but Laura Hollis would finish a thousand fights and sit for a thousand major penalties to keep playing hockey for just a few more years.

 

Carmilla slashes towards the boards, hard. Laura can see the angle of her hips, though. She eases up on her edges to follow, skating backwards, her stick held out to her right in anticipation of Carmilla’s deke back towards the center of the zone.

“Stick her, Hollis!” their captain yells from the neutral zone boards.

“Nah, fucking smoke her, Carm!” a forward yells beside her. In the corner of her eye, Laura catches Mel shove the offending forward, smiling. She encourages this kind of intra-team rivalry.

And she expects her defensemen to win it.

Carmilla does deke back to the other side, and even though Laura is anticipating it, Carmilla is much quicker than she is. She’s too quick, in this case. Laura tries to swipe her stick around to poke check, but by the time she’s through the movement, Carmilla is almost past her towards the goal. Laura’s stick catches the tops of Carmilla’s skates, slashing the forward to her knees. The puck skitters slowly towards the goal, where the goalie sticks it aside.

“Shit,” Laura curses under her breath.

It’s a bad mistake. She should have taken advantage of Carmilla’s loose handle on the puck, and shoulder or hip checked her as she came around to meet it on Laura’s right side. Instead, Laura committed what would have been a tripping penalty. And power plays are a lot more likely to result in opposition goals than letting her goalie do her job.

“What the frilly hell was that?” Carmilla shouts, back on her feet now. Laura looks at her, sees the anger roll off her shoulders, her teeth bared.

“An accident,” Laura says. It’s unconvincing, and Carmilla is incensed.

“It’s sloppy stick control,” their coach chimes in from her place at the blue line. Laura can’t look away from Carmilla, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. An enforcer knows when a fight is brewing. But then, Matske again, louder, unyielding: “Back in line, both of you.”

Carmilla acquiesces, glowering still as she slides backwards towards the far boards. She doesn’t look away from Laura before Laura takes her place in line with the other defensemen, and the string of players along the boards breaks their line of sight to each other.

“You’re gonna get your ass kicked, pulling shit like that with her,” Danny says, nudging Laura’s shoulder to get her attention.

“Yeah,” Laura says. Her voice sounds far away to her. It was a stupid mistake. And she won’t dwell on it. So she quips instead: “And she knows where I sleep.”

Danny laughs. Laura likes the sound: rich like good milk chocolate. It buoys her mood a bit.

“I’ll get her good next time, and no tripping,” she says.

Another skater nudges between her and Danny in line: their captain. Laura looks up at her impassive face, and waits for more admonishment. It doesn’t come.

“Keep the butt of your stick closer to your left armpit next time,” she says instead. “And when she tries to cut around you, dig your toes in and cross-check her hard. No ref is going to catch it if you’re already tangled up because she’s trying to muscle by you.”

She winks, a cheeky grin blossoming on her face, and slips back to her original place in line. Laura looks blinkingly after her. Her captains in college had been student-government level verbal leaders and coach’s pets. They’d have yelled at her for effect after a trip on the team’s best forward in practice, preferably where the coach could overhear them displaying their leadership abilities. Clearly Mel had a different philosophy.

Danny chuckles darkly behind her. “Just don’t take anyone’s head off, rookie.”

 

July turns to August, and camp starts to drag on for everyone. The older players are eager to be out of camp and onto the preseason. The younger players, their numbers dwindling as cuts begin and minor league contracts are doled out, grow increasingly tired as the weeks pass and the pace of practice and play does not relent.

Laura is no exception. She finds herself exhausted constantly: between the early conditioning sessions, skills practices, and team scrimmages, by the time the afternoon rolls around she finds it hard to keep her eyes open in the dark video room. More than once she slumps against Danny's shoulder on the couches there, and has to be jostled awake. Danny gives her a sympathetic look each time.

"I remember how much of a whirlwind this can be," she says when Laura gives her bleary-eyed thanks.

Her crush on Danny has not abated, and that makes these film-room naps all the more embarrassing. It’s one thing to be so tired she’s fighting unconsciousness for two thirds of her day. It’s quite another to wake up half in the arms of the girl she likes and can never have. She starts drinking coffee before the sessions midway through the month, bringing her mug with her to the film room and taking small sips between video clips to stay awake. It keeps her from falling asleep on Danny, but it also keeps her from sleeping well at night.

She knows she is not doing well. The pace of practice and play at this level is another world from her college experience, and she doesn’t have the time with the demanding schedule – let alone the energy – to fit in extra conditioning practice to catch up to everyone else. The training room becomes her second home after practices, where she spends hours icing and stretching, trying to force recovery into her aching muscles.

It doesn’t help that she’s not receiving anything in the way of mentorship from Carmilla. Danny is willing to be supportive, but she has her own young defenseman to mentor, and she’s only in her second year of play herself. What with that and her schoolgirl crush, she starts seeing less and less of Danny on purpose. Avoiding her after practice solves the two problems at once, but it also makes for a very lonely camp.

As the weeks go on, full contact scrimmages become more frequent. The goal is to acclimate the new players in camp to the demanding pro schedule, but in practice, the three-on-three format is a natural hunting ground for Laura’s speedy roommate to make her look silly. As a defense-first blue-liner, Laura’s job is to make sure there’s always a defenseman between any streaking forwards and her goalie. More often than not, that finds Laura frantically scrubbing backwards while Carmilla gains enough speed to deke her out of her skates.

Carmilla isn’t fighting for a spot on the team, but Laura failing to stop more than one in five rushes isn’t helping her chances of remaining in Toronto for her rookie season.

When she’s not embarrassing her on the ice, however, Carmilla becomes a ghost. After finding her on the couch that night, Laura hasn't seen her relax in more than a month. She's never in her room - at least not alone. Girls love goals, Danny says, her voice tight, when Laura hedges a question about the parade of guests that tromps in and out of their living space during the week. But on weekends her roommate is a fixture: reading at their kitchen table or the small balcony that overlooks the city, and blaring rock music while she does, until the late afternoon when she dresses in sinfully tight leather and tromps out to paint the town.

She never comes home alone.

Laura spends most of her weekends trying to let her body heal from the week's abuse. Normally an early riser, she sleeps until the late morning on Saturdays, only to hobble to the bathroom for a shower hot enough to burn her soreness away. She eats three pain pills with her eggs for breakfast, and sits at the kitchen table until they kick in and her legs don't shake when she stands. By that time, Carmilla has usually awoken. She doesn't comment on Laura's evident distress - in fact they hardly speak to each other at all. Instead she opens her book and reads, silent except for the small sips she takes of a glass of orange juice.

In the middle of the month, on a particularly sunny morning, Laura ventures to ask Carmilla how her night had been.

“Fair,” is Carmilla’s response, her gaze never leaving the book in her hand. But she grins as she continues: “Though, brunette below the waist.”

“Cheese and crackers, Carmilla, really?” Laura says, dropping her fork to the table. Carmilla shrugs, still not looking up from her book.

“You asked,” she points out.

“I was referring to whether you might have done anything fun, you know, an activity or person you’d enjoyed?”

Carmilla fails to stifle a laugh. Laura isn’t sure what she imagined Carmilla’s laugh would sound like, but the gravely, sweet sound she hears certainly wouldn’t have been her first guess. She also can’t remember another time she’s pulled a laugh from Carmilla that wasn’t just a loud scoff. The sound does something wobbly to her gut. Carmilla puts an end to that quickly, though.

“Cupcake, that question isn’t much better if you’re not looking for a dirty answer,” she says.

Laura goes a bit red, and pouts: “You’re impossible.”

Carmilla’s smile wanes, hollows out to the half-bored twist of lips Laura knows best. The change is fast and jarring, like she’s deked Laura right out of her skates for the millionth time. Laura opens her mouth, not quite sure what she’s going to say once her tongue gets its act together.

Her phone saves her, blaring an alarm she’d set the night before. She hastily shuts it off.

“I’ve gotta, um,” she pauses long enough for Carmilla to arch one delicate eyebrow at her. “I’ve gotta go. Um.”

“Don’t let me stop you, sweetheart,” Carmilla says. But she doesn’t look away from Laura’s face. Laura is the one who has to turn away, getting up from the table and brushing past Carmilla toward their bedrooms. Carmilla watches from over her shoulder as Laura retreats. It’s not until Laura has disappeared into her room that the forward shakes her head and returns her attention to the book in her hands.

In her room, Laura takes a moment to collect her thoughts before going about getting ready. She’s being silly, she reasons silently. She and Carmilla have eaten breakfast together every day for the last six weeks. There’s no reason to be flustered over her stupid brown eyes and her dumb, sexy laugh, and –

“You okay there buttercup?”

Laura’s feet leave the floor when she startles. She whips her neck around to glare at Carmilla, who leans against the frame of her door, orange juice in hand and smirking. Her bicep flexes with the strain of keeping her propped against the door, and Laura stares for probably too long at the way it slopes to meet her shoulder.

“What do you want, Carmilla?” she says, harsher than she probably needs to be, she thinks. Carmilla’s eyebrows lift. Laura can’t tell if she’s impressed or just amused.

“You were standing so still, I couldn’t tell if you were having some kind of silent fit or just practicing your on-puck defense.”

Laura huffs out a breath. It’s like being back at the café with Betty all over again, only this time she gives a crap about her job. And about losing it.

“Woah, don’t go postal on me,” Carmilla says then. Laura glances at her again, but Carmilla isn’t looking at her face. She’s looking at her hands, which are currently ripping the bottom hem of the shirt Laura had picked to wear.

“At least let me get you a phonebook, she-hulk,” Carmilla laughs.

“You’re impossible,” Laura says, quieter than her outburst before. Carmilla’s smile slips from her face. They look at each other for another moment before Carmilla shrugs and walks back to the kitchen table.

Laura looks after her, pensive. They don’t know how to talk to each other, that much is abundantly clear. Laura can’t tell if Carmilla just doesn’t like her, or if she’s trying to connect and they’re just too different to mesh. Laura doesn’t like conflict, and least of all does she like the sort of passive aggressive conflict that she can’t solve by being direct and open. She clenches the shirt in her hands again, listening to the strain of the fabric.

Hockey arguments are so much easier to solve.

She also doesn’t have time for this. Throwing the ruined shirt in her hands to the ground, she instead grabs a tank top from her top drawer and pulls it on. She brushes her teeth, not quite for two minutes. But then, she’s already flying by the seat of her pants professionally, so she might as well do so dentally, too. She waves a quick goodbye to her roommate before she leaves, hastily closing the door behind her without bothering to lock it.

Carmilla watches the door close behind Laura as she leaves. When the bolt clicks home in the jamb, and the room is sealed from the muffled noise in the hall again, she fidgets. It’s a small thing: a squirm of her hips in her chair. She glances at her book again, but the words don’t catch her gaze. That’s annoying.

She only chews on the inside of her cheek for a few seconds. As soon as the book had no longer sufficed to hold her interest, Carmilla knew what she was going to do. And so she does it: rises from her place at the table (orange juice of course left out and forgotten), and stalks back to her bedroom to dress.

 

When Laura arrives at the rink, she finds herself alone. It’s an eerie feeling, a hockey stadium devoid of people. Her footsteps echo off the walls of empty hallways, her shadow spinning around her as she walks beneath fluorescent light after grainy, fluorescent light. Everything is on display at the rink: the player hallways brightly-lit, the locker rooms flush with the same white light. And of course the rink itself: spotlighted and shining, from the glow of the ice in the ceiling lights to the pulsing LEDs in the overhead scoreboard. There’s such a rush of noise and activity during game days and scheduled practices that it’s normally easy to tune out, or build off of. The silence that reigns on an off day, however, compresses the air and becomes impossible to ignore.

Laura heads to the locker rooms, ducking inside quickly and burying her head and torso in her locker space as quickly as she can. She still feels out of place here, like she’s some visitor at a camp instead of a professional trying to make a pro squad. She tries to push those thoughts away as she pulls on her pads and laces up her skates. They stick, though, until she hears the locker room door swing open again, revealing a very disheveled-looking Danny Lawrence, still in her sweatpants and yawning.

“Late night?” Laura jokes. She can feel her chest buoying already in Danny’s presence.

Danny waves a hand in her direction, still yawning, and slouches over to her locker across the room. Laura trills a laugh at her slothful appearance.

“You gonna be okay to go today?” she asks, returning her attention to her laces.

She hears Danny cough, twice, and then the sound turns into a laugh.

“I’m good to go,” she says, turning herself. That familiar, soft confidence is back in her face now, and Laura almost startles at the difference. She hides her surprise with a smile as best she can. It’s still easy to smile when Danny’s around.

They walk together to the practice rink with Laura taking two steps to every one of Danny’s to keep up. She can’t bring herself to be annoyed at the extra work for her tired legs. Being around Danny makes her feel light, like she could run a marathon while floating several inches off the ground. But even Danny has to bring her back down to earth today.

“I wanted to run you through your odd man rush defense.”

Laura can’t help the groan the leaves her mouth. Danny isn’t as fast or as crafty as Carmilla, but she’s still an offensive powerhouse, especially when she’s crossing the blue line with a six-foot head of steam.

“Relax rook,” Danny laughs, holding the rink door open for Laura to walk through. “You wanna make the team? You better get comfortable with the odd rush.”

Laura holds the bench gate open for Danny in turn.

“No, I know,” she says. “I’m just…”

She trails off, stepping onto the ice after Danny. Her blades hit the smooth surface and she takes a few scrubbing steps to pick up some speed.

“I’ve never been asked to do anything but fight,” she continues. “Maybe throw a check or two when the situation presents itself. I’ve never really been asked to take on a team’s best skater for more than a shift or two. And now everyone is the other team’s best skater, because everyone is the best skater. And I’ve…”

She stops. She’s never been the best skater. She says so, and that makes Danny, who’d previously busied herself setting up a net blocker, turn to face her again. Laura is intently studying her laces, and twirling her stick nervously in her hands.

“It’s really not that complicated,” she says. Her voice is light, like sunshine. Too light. It’s too light for the pressing anxiety in Laura’s chest. Laura grimaces before she looks up at the sun.

“Let’s just get to this,” she says. She pushes off in Danny’s direction, setting her mouth in a determined scowl and charging, as she always does, headlong into her task.

 

Carmilla pulls her hair up on the way to her car. She drops the soft top so she can vault into the driver’s seat and speed out of the condo’s lot. Going after the rookie is a thrill, and those are rare during training camp. She hasn’t had to fight for a spot on a team since her peewee days, so these training camps are really a chance for her to get the rust out of her legs and spend a few weeks prowling the hot summer nights in downtown Toronto. She grabs her aviators from the cup holder, flipping them on for the short drive to the rink.

She has some time to kill with annoying the rookie before another night begins.

She takes the short route to the rink, parking in the player’s lot and not bothering to fold the top back up after she jumps back over the door and onto the pavement. The guard at the player’s entrance buzzes her in before she finishes her trot to the door, and she slips in with a nod in his direction.

And she doesn’t slow from there. Carmilla shrugs out of her jacket before she’s in the locker room, and quickly undresses on her way to her locker, strewing her clothes behind her on the floor of the wide space: her white tee shirt on the Panther’s logo in the center, her boots like two breadcrumbs after that. She hops the rest of the way to her locker, trying to get out of her jeans.

She’s out the door again before she even pulls her sweater on over her pads.

 

“Shit balls!” Laura slams her stick into the ice, watching from the middle of the defensive zone as Danny flips another puck up and over the net blocker.

“I’m coming right at you,” Danny says, pity on her face that makes Laura’s stomach turn.

“I know, I know, it’s just,” Laura can’t even finish her thought. Her legs are like jelly. She’s still not in good enough shape to handle her regular work, and this extra practice is taking its toll. It doesn’t help that she can’t stop Danny any easier than she can Carmilla.

She thinks of home, then, and her father. How proud he was the day she left home. And how she’ll be sent down to the affiliate in Montreal in just a few weeks, and dash his hopes of seeing her in a Panther uniform.

“Shit,” she curses again. She takes her place at the blue line again and gestures to the pile of pucks at center ice. “Again, come on.”

“Look, Laura,” and she hates the way Danny’s voice wraps around her name now, so full of the sort of gentleness normally reserved for a child. “We can call it a day, there’s no reason we can’t come back next week and keep trying. You don’t have to conquer the world in a single day.”

“It hasn’t been a single day,” Laura says, not making eye contact as Danny skates by her. “Just once more, please.”

“Okay, rook,” Danny says. Laura can tell she’s just humoring her now. She doesn’t care. She bends her knees and slices little wobbles into the ice beneath her, readying herself for Danny’s attack.

Danny is tall, and it takes her several long strides to get going. When she does, she’s a freight train bearing down on the blue line and far too big to stop. She’s big enough to body by Laura, but that’s not the point of this exercise. She’s less direct than she could be, and Laura helps her out, rushing up to meet her just inside the blue line and shunting her to the boards, creating a harsh angle for any shot she might want to take. Danny does her best to mimic Carmilla’s signature move along the boards: a quick deke to the board side, then a quicker, jarring stop and swipe of the puck across her body and back towards the middle of the zone.

Laura is, at least, better at diagnosing the move now. When Danny dekes across her body, Laura sees the opening to crosscheck her. Part of her wants to take it. Mel had been right in her advice earlier: it’d be a quick, hidden check that would make any forward second guess her decision to leave her body so open again.

She lets it pass, going for another poke check. Danny muscles by her, and scores again. Laura curses, again. She keeps her stick aloft, at least, half afraid it’ll snap if she slams it onto the ice again. Instead she spins a little circle in the ice. Her legs are still wobbly, and the extra centrifugal force from the spin throws off her balance, sending her down to one knee. She yelps in surprise when her leg gives way, and hears the beginning of the laugh that Danny can’t quite keep from escaping. Laura feels her cheeks burn when she discerns another laugh, from the opposite and decidedly not in Danny’s voice.

She turns, red-faced, to watch Carmilla climb over the boards and glide over to where she and Danny have set up shop, helmet in hand and stick crutched under one arm. Carmilla is still chuckling as she comes to a halt just outside the blue line. Danny scoffs behind Laura, the air between her and Carmilla already thick with dislike.

“You oughta just take cap’s advice and cross-check her next time,” Carmilla says, smiling wider than Laura’s ever seen her. Anger curls in Laura’s chest, cold and grasping. It’s bad enough that Carmilla makes her look like a fool every time they face each other. She doesn’t need the pointers, too.

“Not everyone wants to cheapen the game with cheap shots,” Danny responds for her. Her voice is low, and angry. The cold in Laura’s chest dissipates, like a crack in lake ice on a spring morning. There’s a fight brewing, and she never goes into a fight angry.

“Don’t talk to me about cheapening the game,” Carmilla fires back. “Not everyone is blind to your Ben Johnson routine.”

“You want to go there, Karnstein, we can go there,” Danny yells. She’s already thrown her stick to the ice, and is ripping off her gloves by the time Laura gets to her. She grabs fast hold of Danny’s wrists. Danny struggles, and finds with wide-eyed surprise that she can’t break Laura’s grip.

“Let go, Hollis,” she says. Her voice is even lower than before, meant for only Laura to hear. But with as firm a hold as she has, Laura safely ignores the implied threat. Instead, she turns to stare daggers at Carmilla, squaring her shoulders while holding a still-squirming and very much still towering Danny Lawrence.

Carmilla’s eyebrows lift, just as they had that morning in Laura’s bedroom. New, gentle heat blossoms in Laura’s throat, threatening to burn up into her cheeks, as she realizes that Carmilla had been impressed. Is impressed. She pushes that aside, keeping her face neutral and her jaw set.

“What in hell and Hogwarts is going on with you two,” she asks. Danny gives a particularly vicious tug to free her hands, and Laura lets her go, satisfied that she’ll not try rushing their teammate absent the physical restraint.

“You’re constantly bickering and you’re at each other’s throats over nothing,” she continues. Danny huffs again behind her, but Laura ignores her. She raises her voice, her eyes never leaving Carmilla’s.

“You want to tell me what’s so damn rotten between you that you can’t be on the same rink together without trying to kill each other?”

“You have no idea what you’re asking for,” Carmilla says. She doesn’t elaborate. That makes Laura angry.

She swallows the bile rising in her throat before she opens her mouth, “Enlighten me, then.”

Carmilla looks from Laura’s face to Danny’s very quickly. Then she shakes her head.

“This was a mistake,” she says. And then she turns, back towards the bench, leaving a very annoyed, very pent up Laura Hollis behind her.

Her legs are like jelly. Danny is behind her, already picking up her stick, and Laura knows only the stubborn, singular need to stop Carmilla from leaving and ignoring her question. She pumps hard, both hands on her stick, to catch Carmilla before she can reach the bench gate and leave the rink.

“Hey!” Laura yells, catching Carmilla’s elbow and spinning her around. It’s Carmilla’s turn to yelp her surprise, though she keeps her feet.

“What?” Carmilla yells back. “What do you want, you lunatic?”

“What is going on?” Laura asks again.

Danny slips behind them and leaves the rink. Laura hardly notices. She and Carmilla are an inch and a half from touching noses. She can smell the lavender in her hair, still uncovered by the helmet she never had the chance to put on. Something not quite anger shines in her dark eyes.

“Just drop it, cupcake,” she says. It’s as much a plea as it is a command, and Laura feels a tug to obey, or acquiesce. She isn’t sure. But she ignores the impulse.

“I’m not exactly the type to let things go,” she says. “I just want to help. What could be so terrible?”

Carmilla’s face hardens. Her jaw snaps shut and her lips press into a thin, angry line. Laura watches her jaw flex and knows Carmilla is clenching her teeth. When Carmilla speaks, it’s in a hiss.

“You’re a child,” she says, all but snarling and dangerous. “And you understand nothing.”

She steps closer to Laura, making the most of their small height difference. Laura looks up at her, defiant.

“Drop. It.”

“I’m not going to do that,” Laura says, and she could swear Carmilla growls in response. They’re so close now, Laura can almost feel the heat rolling off of her there in the cold.

“Why not,” Carmilla demands to know.

“Because this isn’t hockey,” Laura says. Carmilla scoffs, but she continues unabated: “Because this team deserves better than being at each other’s throats. Danny deserves better. I deserve better. Hell, even you deserve better.”

Carmilla blanches. She exhales sharply through her nose, pursing her lips. But her eyes are shining. Laura swallows, her eyes flitting between them and Carmilla’s lips. She wets her own with her tongue.

Carmilla opens her mouth to speak –

“Hollis.”

They turn together, facing the new voice still chest to chest. Their coach comes into view from the darkened hallway behind the bench.

“Coach,” Carmilla and Laura say together. They glance at each other, and for a moment, Laura thinks she sees a smile on Carmilla’s face. It’s gone by the time they both look back.

“With me, Hollis, if you please.”

Laura looks at Carmilla again, but her roommate is staring blankly at their coach. Laura can’t tell if she’s thinking, or just bored again. But she slips by her and follows Matska back into the breezeway.

“Is there a problem, coach?” she asks.

“No,” Matska says.

When she doesn’t elaborate, Laura falls silently in line behind her. The walk together passed the locker rooms, along the rubber-floored hallway to the coach’s office. Matska’s heels make no sound on the spongey floor, and Laura’s blades sink soundlessly in and out of the surface as well.

“In,” Matska says simply, when they’re at her door. “Sit.”

Laura does, trying to get comfortable in the fancy chair with her pads still on. She slots her stick between her legs and peels off her gloves. And she waits.

Matska sits opposite her, behind an ornate desk of dark wood. It’s far too ornate for a hockey coach, Laura thinks. But then, she went to a small school with a small budget. Her former coach’s desk was thus simply small. Even in her bulky equipment, Laura feels small right now, too.

“The GM and I have just spoken with your agent,” the coach says. Laura swallows a hard bit of saliva. Her throat doesn’t seem to be working properly.

“The team has decided to sell your contract to our minor affiliate in Montreal.”

Chapter Text

Matska pauses after her reveal. Laura thinks she’s waiting for a response, but words are suddenly difficult for her. She touches the handle of her stick, staring blankly at the tape around the knob. After several silent moments go by, Matska sighs to regain Laura’s attention.

“Call your agent,” she says. “They’ll have the details on your new contract and your travel details.”

“Okay,” Laura says. That should be easy. “Okay, thank you.”

She doesn’t know why she’s thanking the woman who’s just delivered the news that her dreams have been shattered, but she does it anyway. Later she’ll find time to be embarrassed about that. For now, she shakes Matska’s hand, and lets her lead them both back to her door.

When coach opens the door, Carmilla is there.

Laura startles back to her senses, almost knocking into her roommate. Carmilla is still in her pads, too, and though she didn’t actually partake in any drills earlier, the hair at her temples is shiny, and stuck to her skin with sweat. Her jaw is still clenched. Laura looks up at her face, but Carmilla isn’t looking at her.

She’s looking at their coach, with a pinched expression that seems to be anger and doubt at once. Her brow is furrowed, but her eyes are wide. Carmilla doesn’t seem to even notice Laura is there, even when she siddles to the side of her to leave the room.

“Can I help you with something, Carmilla?” Matska sounds amused, drawing out the soft consonants in her words. Laura looks back, from a few steps into the hallway, and sees her smiling. She can see Carmilla’s jaw still set, pulling at the tendons in her neck.

“Can we talk?” Carmilla asks her. She glances very quickly behind her, where Laura waits, and then returns her gaze to their coach. “In private?”

Matska follows her line of sight to Laura and back, her smile faltering just enough for Laura to notice. Her intuition flares again. Something is weird with this team. Everyone’s always on edge, but instead of yelling, or fighting, or hitting each other a few times in practice like normal hockey players, they bottle everything up. They make sure no one outside the circle knows what’s happening within it.

It’s annoying as hell. Laura doesn’t like secrets, least of all when they affect the things she cares about. She watches Matska allow Carmilla into her office, and give Laura one last glance before she shuts her door behind her. And then Laura Hollis turns her back on that office, and stalks back to the locker room.

Those secrets won’t stay secret for long.

 

She texts her dad on the second day after receiving the news of her demotion. He calls her immediately, barking into the phone in his standard form of comfort. And normally she would meet that energy. They’re more alike, she and her father, than she would readily admit: very direct, unsatisfied with pleasantries, and utterly uninterested in anything but the raw truth of things. It makes him overprotective.

It makes Laura too independent for her own good.

They talk twice more before she’s set to leave for her new city. He promises to visit when he can get the time off work, and to come to her games when the team travels to the Toronto area to play. It’s really not so different from being in college, Laura reasons to herself, as she lets her father prattle on about road trips with Perry and whether he can ship a jersey directly to LaFontaine or if he’ll need to send it to the university in Austria to give to them.

But the day before the preseason is about to begin, she receives a call from her agent: plans have changed, and she’ll be remaining in Toronto through the first game of the preseason. When Laura asks him the reason for the delay, he doesn’t have an answer. She gets the distinct impression that he never asked for one. Laura isn’t exactly his most important or prestigious client, and he’s probably just happy to be getting a cut of her much larger league salary for a few more days. Her pay will be cut by two thirds when she goes to Montreal, after all.

She takes the call on the balcony of their condo. When she walks back in, Carmilla is in her usual place at their kitchen table, glass of orange juice in front of her and a thick book in her hands. She doesn’t look up from it when Laura closes the sliding glass door behind her.

“Good call?” she asks. Laura clicks into her phone to check the time. Carmilla is up far earlier than usual, by her estimation.

“You could say that,” Laura says. She turns her phone a few times in her hand. “I’m not leaving until tomorrow.”

“Oh?”

The simple response makes Laura suspicious. She stares at the back of Carmilla’s head as it turns with her reading from one page to the next. Carmilla hasn’t exactly been a good host, and she certainly doesn’t make polite trills to encourage conversation.

“What did you want to talk with coach about, the other day at the rink?” Laura asks.

Carmilla’s head stops moving. Her elbows dig into the table a little harder than before, the old legs groaning very softly under more of her weight. But as soon as she stills, she starts moving again. Laura isn’t fooled, either by her attempt to hide her discomfort or by what she says next.

“No idea what you’re on about, creampuff. I just had some questions about the game tomorrow.”

“You’re so full of it,” Laura says, not unkindly. Carmilla turns to smile at her, doe-eyed with faux innocence. Laura feels a grin of her own creep into her jaw. She shakes her head to lodge it loose.

“Was it about whatever’s going on between you and Danny?” she asks.

Carmilla’s smile falters, and her eyes narrow a bit. She turns in her chair to face Laura more fully.

“You’re not going to like what you find,” she says, warning but coy. Laura can’t tell if she’s trying to warn her off, or subtly egging her on. Not that it matters.

Before Laura can respond, though, both their phones buzz: Laura’s in her hand and Carmilla’s on the kitchen table behind her. Laura clicks her screen to life, swiping into the message. It’s a series of numbers and dashes, in four rows of three. Then, as quickly as she can scan that, another message flashes through: more numbers and dashes, this time in three pairs.

In almost all sports, most of the players who start a game will also finish it. In baseball, soccer, and football, personnel changes are rare, happening mostly following injury or only for specific positions and situations. Even in basketball, substitutions happen only when play stops, allowing everyone time reorient themselves under new lineups.

Hockey is very different. Teams organize themselves into four lines of three forwards each, and three pairings of defensemen. Each of which is its own unit that always comes and goes from the field of play together. And although lines can be changed at most stoppages of play, they are for the most part rotated on the fly, players climbing the short boards lining the benches and jumping from the rink gates to fly into play as quickly as possible. Aside from the goalie, who stays in net for the entirety of the game unless pulled for performance, injury, or to grant the team an extra skater, players take their ice time in shifts ranging from fifteen to sixty seconds. And for the most part, the best skaters populate the first lines and pairings, starting most games and playing the most key rotations.

“First pairing, huh?” Carmilla says. Whether she’s impressed or just teasing, Laura doesn’t care. Because she is in the first pairing, her number three just a dash away from Mel’s nineteen.

“I didn’t think I’d be playing,” Laura says, squinting at her screen as though the change in focus will also change the numbers. “I thought I was just here until they could file my paperwork and book a cheap flight.”

Carmilla rises silently from her seat at the kitchen table and walks over to where Laura still stands. She stops close, and dips her head as she speaks to catch Laura’s eye.

“And now you’re with me,” she says. It’s like a flashback to their conversation on the ice earlier in the week. Carmilla searches her face with probing eyes the longer Laura stares without speaking, the smile on her face so soft that Laura isn’t sure if it’s there at all.

“Yeah,” Laura says finally. Carmilla seems to suck the heat from the room, concentrating it in the small space between them. Laura wants to shiver. She flexes as many muscles as she can remember she has to keep herself still. “Guess I am.”

She raises her chin, finally looking Carmilla in the eyes. Her roommate smiles wide once they’re looking at each other properly, a laugh bubbling behind her teeth that Laura can hear even before she opens her mouth to let it out. And she’s embarrassed to find herself proud of eliciting the sound.

“It’s only a hockey game, you know,” Carmilla laughs. Her grin remains as she continues, and Laura knows her well enough by now that she has an idea what’s coming: “Though I suppose every girl’s first time should be special.”

Laura rolls her eyes. The ghost of the heat between them remains, but the old annoyance she knows from all these weeks living with Carmilla is back, too.

“Why are you like this,” she isn’t really asking, and Carmilla doesn’t have an answer for her regardless. She just stands there, still grinning like the cat that caught the canary and leaning close enough to feel even without touching. There’s an itch in Laura’s fingers to do so regardless, but she can’t be sure if giving into it would end in a hug or in assault.

“You’re going to Quebec regardless of how tomorrow goes,” Carmilla says then. Her body shifts, her shoulders hunching in as she leans towards Laura as though imparting a secret. “So you might as well bang one out.”

Laura glares at her, but doesn’t step away. She can guess at what Carmilla has in mind.

Laura is an enforcer. Her job is to act as security for her teammates, ensuring that they can pay attention to keeping on the attack without worrying about taking big hits from the other team. As the team’s premier forward, Carmilla is her most important charge. Laura thinks that’s probably why she’ll be on the first pairing in the game tomorrow. Carmilla is flighty and slick on the ice, and opposing defensemen don’t take kindly to being made to look silly.

“Just don’t get into trouble I can’t pull you out of,” Laura asks her.

Carmilla’s smile doesn’t falter. She rakes her eyes up and down Laura’s frame before she speaks again, and Laura fights the urge to cross her arms in defense. But doing so would feel like losing, so she stays still. Even when Carmilla reaches up to gently brush a bit of Laura’s hair away from her face. Her fingertips leave a tingling trail of heat on Laura’s forehead as they go. Laura hopes she can’t hear how her next breath shakes out of her lungs.

“Now how could I ever let anything happen to you?” Carmilla finally asks. Laura frowns at the sickly sweetness of the question. The closest thing to sweet Carmilla has been before now, was the morning she stood in Laura’s doorway and called her she-hulk.

This game is going to be a freaking nightmare.

 

Laura wakes in the morning after a night of fleeting, fitful sleep. She slaps her blaring alarm into silence as soon as it sounds, since she’s already been awake for a half hour. Her fingers tap out a nervous rhythm on her stomach.

“Come on, Hollis,” she says to herself. She swings her legs down to the floor, sitting up and breathing very slowly to stop the room from spinning as her exhausted brain tries to keep pace with the movement.

Professional hockey players dress in business formal attire for travel to and from games, and Laura had laid her clothes out the night before in preparation of her first game day. She hasn’t started receiving paychecks, so she had to pick from what she’d brought with her from home. The outfit itself is the same one she wore under her college graduation robes: a sleeveless yellow blouse with a decollete neckline, and a black pencil skirt. Yellow and black are the Panther’s team colors, so it made sense to reuse the outfit.

She manages to get as far as pulling on a yellow slip before her phone rings on her dresser. She checks the caller ID, and then swipes to accept the call.

“Hey LaF,” she says. “You’re up…early?”

Her friend laughs, “It’s two in the afternoon here, Laur.”

Laura tries to do the math in her head, but she must have the conversion wrong. She picks up her phone, planting it on her desk to continue the conversation while she takes the rest of her clothes from their hangars on the back of her desk chair.

“Your dad told me you have your first game today,” LaFontaine continues. “I had some time between meetings so I figured I’d call. It’s a big day, really very major.”

“I’m nervous as hell,” Laura says. She’s grateful that LaFontaine chose to call rather than text. It’s been difficult to speak with anyone about her nerves. Her father is unfailingly supportive, and that’s unhelpful when she needs her anxieties to be heard rather than pinned down and forced into hiding. And goodness knows she hasn’t even entertained the thought of asking Carmilla for help.

“You’re going to do fine,” LaFontaine says. “But it’s okay to be nervous. I get a little squirrely around the rarer compounds here too, when I work with them for the first time. But everything’s got its own way that it needs to be worked, and that’s what being a professional is, really: just figuring out how to work all the little bits of your job.”

While LaFontaine is speaking, Laura hears her door open behind her. She turns to find Carmilla backing quietly into her room, carrying two cups of coffee. She’s already dressed in crisply pressed black slacks and a black dress shirt. Her black tie swings against her chest, unbound as of yet by her brilliantly yellow waistcoat. Laura slips her skirt up to her waist, making sure the slip is tucked into it how she wants before zipping it closed. Carmilla places one of the mugs on Laura’s desk, and then she leaves, just as nonchalant as she came. Laura looks after her, into the empty hallway, until LaFontaine calls her name and asks if she’s hearing them okay.

“No, you’re good,” she says, snapping her attention back to her phone. “And I know you’re right.”

“I know you know,” LaFontaine says. “So now, you know. Act like it.”

Laura laughs. “You got it, LaF.”

“Good,” LaFontaine says, as though that closes the matter. “Now give ‘em hell, would you? I have several brags of your prowess to back up, and I could really use some professional war stories to regale my colleagues.”

They end the call there, and Laura focuses back on the coffee on her desk. She peers at it, narrow-eyed with suspicion. There’s a wooden stir stick poking out of the liquid, with a hastily scrawled “4S” on the side of it. Four sugars is how she takes her coffee, but she can’t remember ever telling Carmilla that. Laura hunches her shoulders forward as she brings the mug to her lips for a small, cautious sip.

It’s fucking perfect.

She takes a larger swallow, and shivers when it burns down her throat. Laura closes her eyes and lets the heat spread through her chest for a few seconds before placing the mug back on her desk. She still needs to finish getting dressed.

Half an hour later, she emerges from the bathroom, hair properly coifed and not a stitch out of place. Carmilla is waiting for her in the living room, vest buttoned and jacket over her shoulder. Now that she’s buttoned herself up, it’s apparent to Laura just how devastating the suit is. The waistcoat is double breasted and clearly tailored. It presses over Carmilla’s breasts, only to cinch at her waist. It ends in a flattering flair at her hips. Drawn tight over her black shirt, and brilliant yellow besides, its overall effect is to suck the moisture from Laura’s mouth and sent it straight southward.

“You ready, cupcake?” Carmilla asks. There’s a hint of impatience in her voice, but nothing to give away whether she can tell that Laura is suddenly ‘ready’ in two very different and contradictory ways.

“Yeah, of course I am,” Laura says. She watches Carmilla pull on her fitted black blazer, some of that brilliant yellow disappearing beneath it. As Carmilla shrugs it over her shoulders, Laura has the stupid, possessive urge to stop her.

Instead she swallows, or tries to. Something thick seems to be stuck in her throat. She tries to clear her throat, and focuses on the wall behind Carmilla’s head to keep from ogling the thin strip of yellow she can still see.

“Let’s go then,” Carmilla says. She spins her keys in her palm, nonplussed and apparently unaware of the distress she’s put her roommate in.

Acutely aware of both that distress and how inappropriate it is, Laura forces her feet to move her past the suited roommate and out into the hall. Carmilla locks the door behind them, and they’re off.

“You look good, rookie,” she says as they walk.

Laura has to stifle a groan.

 

Carmilla keeps the soft top on the Mustang up, on their trip to the rink. It’s a rare sight and sensation for Laura, who up until now has only seen the car covered when Carmilla parks it in the condo’s garage. They ride in silence for most of the trip, Carmilla’s normally blaring rock music reduced to low background noise. It leaves Laura alone with her pre-game jitters. She fiddles with one of the buttons on her blouse, rehearsing defensive plays in her head.

Her thoughts return again to Carmilla, this time on the ice, laying waste to all her carefully laid defenses. Laura hazards a glance to her left, where Carmilla sits steering easily with one hand, her sunglasses perched delicately against her sharp cheekbones. Her jaw flexes with a swallow, and she shifts in her seat. Panicked, Laura looks back out to the road before them, defenses laid waste to again.

 

When they finally turn into the player’s lot, Laura is grateful for the barrier of the soft top. The press is out in force. The first game of the preseason isn’t enough of an event to draw much national or international press, but the first competition of a new year is enough to have brought out a throng of regional and local reporters. Carmilla’s cherry red Mustang is a familiar site to them, but Carmilla turns down an aisle to the back of the lot before they can swarm the car. She parks in one of the last spots and cuts the engine.

“Just keep walking,” she says. She stores her sunglasses in a cup holder and removes the key from the ignition. “They’ll get their pictures and they’ll move on. It’s just part of the gig.”

“Just part of the gig,” Laura echoes. She hopes it’s convincing, but she isn’t even convinced herself.

“They’re here to do a job, just like we are,” Carmilla says. “I promise that’s all it is.”

They look at each other. With the car no longer running, the air inside heats gradually, until Laura can feel the almost-shiver of starting to overheat, creeping up her spine. She swallows, and Carmilla’s eyes dart to her throat, just for long enough to watch the movement. Heat blooms in Laura’s chest.

It’s just from the car heating up, she reasons.

The buzz of Carmilla’s phone in the cup holder between them breaks the spell of the moment. Laura looks at her lap, a bit breathless as she smooths out the already-immaculate fabric of her skirt.

“We’re late,” Carmilla says, clicking her messages closed and tossing Laura a cheeky smile before she opens her door. “Let’s go, sweetheart.”

Luckily for Laura, Carmilla draws most of the clicking from the press as they make their way through the parking lot and into the stadium itself. When they’re through the player’s door, though, there’s another cacophony waiting for them. Staffers, trainers, and rink personnel crisscross their way through the hallways, preparing in their own way for the coordinated spectacle of a hockey game. A few of them wave or smile to the two players as they make their own way towards the home locker room, but they have jobs to do, too. So it’s not long until Carmilla is opening the locker room door for Laura, and they’re able to shut themselves away from the noise.

Inside the room is quieter. Players sit or stand at their locker spaces, or mill about close to the entrance to the trainer’s room, adjusting pads, taping sticks, and threading skates properly. Hockey players are a superstitious lot, and each has a set of pre-game routines that stave off bad luck and invite the good. So when they enter, Laura and Carmilla go their separate ways. Laura watches her roommate start undressing even before she’s halfway across the wide space, shrugging out of her jacket. She takes the opportunity to steal a few more looks at Carmilla’s brilliant yellow waistcoat before she turns to her own locker.

Laura dresses quickly, strapping on her pads and imagining them armor. There’s a mindset to being an enforcer that doesn’t allow for timidity. So she tries her best to set her anxiety aside: about her pending move, about how weird Carmilla has been acting the last few days, about not speaking to Danny since their scuffle on the ice. None of that can matter now. She has to become someone to be feared in her directness, no chinks in her armor apparent.

She sits on the bench in front of her locker to put on her skates before pulling on her sweater. She’s pulling the laces on her second skate as tight as she can, when the light above her goes a bit dark, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. Laura looks up to find Danny hovering over her, rocking back and forth in discomfort. She looks back down at her skates. She can’t let the conflict between them mess with her preparations.

“I’m sorry,” is what Danny leads with. Laura gives a tug on her laces to tie them, and maybe it’s a bit stronger than it needs to be. The extra strain of the laces can’t be heard above the soft conversation around them.

“I shouldn’t have let what’s come between me and Carmilla come between us, too,” Danny continues, unfazed by Laura’s lack of response. And Laura is surprised to find that annoying. She’s interrupting Laura’s pre-game rituals to sate her own guilt. It’s selfish. More than annoying, it makes Laura angry.

She takes a deep breath, and feels the dam of her self-control break behind her teeth as she opens her mouth to speak.

“Laura,” because it’s not Danny’s voice she hears, Laura whooshes her breath out through her mouth without any of her angry words to adorn it. She and Danny both turn their heads to look in the direction it came from, and find Carmilla sitting in front of her own locker. She’s staring a little too intently at them for her interruption to have been happenstance.

Laura also thinks this might be the first time Carmilla has ever said her name.

“Mel wanted to talk to you,” her roommate continues. She holds Laura’s gaze gently but firmly, and Laura doesn’t look away. “I forgot to tell you when we got here.”

“Right,” Laura says. She finishes cinching her laces and stands quickly. Danny backs away from her just as fast, shooting daggers at Carmilla before she goes back to her own locker. Laura grabs her sweater from its hangar before she goes, pulling it over her head as she walks into the training room to meet with their captain.

When Laura finds Mel, the captain is reclining on one of the trainer’s benches as their head trainer wraps black, oblong strips of kinetic tape around her right elbow.

“You wanted to see me?” Laura asks, coming to a stop at the foot of the table. Mel laughs.

“I’m your captain, not your boss,” she says. “We’re paired today. We should talk about what we’ll both be looking to do out there.”

“Oh,” Laura says, dumbly. She hasn’t given this much thought, which in retrospect was probably a mistake. So she tells the truth: “I didn’t even think I’d be here. So I’m not really sure.”

“What did you do in college?” Mel asks. Laura laughs. She holds up her fists, showing off her knuckles, bumpy with scars from connections with helmets and skin and bones.

“I fought a lot,” she says.

“No,” Mel says. “That’s like saying I hit a lot last year. If they’re expecting the hit, you’ll see forwards get too tentative with the puck. So what I did was create opportunities for turnovers. What did you do.

Laura thinks about that. She thinks about speedy forwards with room to maneuver, of blood on the ice and benches full of smiling, howling teammates clacking their sticks on the sideboards. She thinks of the view from the penalty box when goals are scored.

She thinks about Carmilla, fast and out of balance and attacking the net.

“I keep her safe,” she whispers. Mel narrows her eyes.

“Come again, rookie?” she says. Laura tamps down the fit of embarrassment threatening to creep up into her cheeks. Purpose will do a lot for a nervous hand in a hockey game.

“I keep us safe.”

Chapter Text

 


We're goin' down, down in an earlier round. And sugar, we're goin' down swingin'. 

Fall Out Boy // Sugar, We're Going Down


 

All professional sports have their own brand of pageantry, and hockey is no different. Perhaps more than any other sport, though, hockey acknowledges the work of those behind the scenes just as much as those on the ice. When the team emerges from the dressing room, the long, wide hallway to the rink is lined with back office and rink-side personnel to cheer them on. Laura bumps her gloved fist along a gauntlet of outstretched hands as the line of players inches its way to the rink doors at the end of the hall.

There’s a nervous sort of vibration in Laura’s ribs, like a cornered cat has moved into the space. She stares at the number 30 on Carmilla’s jersey as they make their way down the hall, trying to focus on the squeak of her skate blades across the rubberized floor. She can’t hear them over the din, which she isn’t used to. There are a lot more people just here in the tunnel, than ever came to see her play in college.

Laura is near the back of the line, so when they’re stopped just before the final portal to await the announcer’s timing, she bumps into Carmilla in front of her.

“Easy, sweetness,” her roommate says, tossing a glance and a smile over her shoulder. “Save some for the other team.”

“Screw you,” Laura says, smiling despite herself. Carmilla winks at her before turning to face the front of the line again.

The vibration in her chest lessens, curling into a tighter knot of pre-game jitters. They’re familiar, and therefore reassuring.

Just part of the gig.

There’s a rush of new sound when the rink doors open: the crowd, whipped into a raucous frenzy by the pre-game light show, and the rink music playing the team’s usual hard rock introduction. Laura’s heart jumps into her throat, and she bounces on her blades.

She hears the announcer, above the din, herald their arrival.

The line moves quickly after that. The closer Laura gets to the rink, the louder the crowd gets. Carmilla hunches in front of her as they come through the doors, and by the time they’re moving through the bench gate and onto the ice, she’s already flying. She overtakes two of their teammates as they circle their side of the rink, before Laura has even taken a stride.

Laura pushes after her into the strobing light, and into her first professional game.

 

“Get in here, Hollis,” Mel  growls, tugging Laura closer to her by the scruff of her sweater. Laura takes a couple of stumbling scrubs toward her, but manages to keep her feet. When she looks up, she can see that their captain has Carmilla in her other fist.

“This game is already out of hand. Can we please just get through the second period without any more incidents?”

She isn’t wrong. The game has been fast and chippy. The refs have swallowed their whistles, and small penalties that would normally be attributed to pre-season rustiness, and duly called and put to rest, have instead been allowed to fester between the teams. The result has been a pair of game misconducts for each side, and a smattering of minor injuries that have left both benches depleted. Carmilla is sporting a developing bruise on her left cheek from an elbow in the first period, and Laura is halfway convinced that she herself has a cracked rib from a particularly enthusiastic hip check she took not long afterward.

Mel’s jaw is set impassively, but her brow is knotted anxious. Laura feels again like she’s failing. If the referees won’t police the game, it falls to Laura to do it for them. So far, she’s gotten a few hits in, but that hasn’t stemmed the steady tide of penalty-worthy cheap shots from the opposition.

“That means no heroics, okay?” Mel continues. “Let’s take this faceoff and get the fuck off the ice.”

Carmilla frowns deeply, hand over heart in self-righteousness. Laura rolls her eyes.

“I’ve been called a lot of things, cap, but heroic isn’t one of them,” she says, dipping her words serious, as though Mel has insulted her mother.

“I don’t doubt that,” Mel fires back. “But I’d really like to get out of this period with more than 80% of the roster intact, if you don’t mind. So please just win the fucking faceoff.”

Carmilla wrenches herself out of Mel’s grasp, scoffing in earnest this time. Mel looks balefully after her, but doesn’t stop her from moving to her place at the faceoff dot. Instead she turns her gaze to Laura.

“Just stay out of trouble for the next fifteen seconds, and we can regroup in the intermission.”

She doesn’t give Laura a chance to respond, leaving her at her station behind Carmilla and gliding over to her own just to the net side of them both. The faceoff is in their own defensive zone, the result of an icing call against the Panthers on the opponents’ previous possession. When icing is called, the offending team isn’t allowed to change personnel before the ensuing faceoff in their own zone, and Carmilla had iced the puck at the end of a long shift. They’re all exhausted.

The other team has been allowed to make a shift change, though. Fresh players in crisp white and blue uniforms take their places in a faceoff formation. Carmilla stands upright at the center, stick held loosely at her hips. She’s chewing on her bottom lip, and not paying attention. But Laura sees what happens next almost in slow motion: the opposing forward circles to get into position, and slides her stick blade, surreptitious, between Carmilla’s skates. When she moves to right herself facing the referee, she yanks her stick up, catching Carmilla’s foot and pulling it out from under her.

Carmilla falls on her ass, hard.

It’s like a match hitting a powder keg. Laura can hear their coach barking obscenities from the bench. Mel surges across the faceoff zone to argue angrily at the referee for failing to make a call on the blatant trip. Carmilla’s eyes widen angrily, and then narrow. Laura sees her set her jaw, the tendons in her neck pulling taut, as they had outside Mastka’s office earlier that week. Carmilla punches down hard against the ice to regain her feet, and when she whips around to find the other center before her, the moment snaps back into game speed for Laura.

A cool ease tempers her nerves, even as she pelts forward towards the two of them at the center of the zone. She slides between them, her back to Carmilla, and brings her stick up to crosscheck the opposing center. The hit forces the other woman back, and Laura moves with her, putting more ice between them and Carmilla. The center curses, holding her stomach where Laura delivered the hit.

Laura grips her stick, ready to throw it and her gloves to the ice when the center swings back to accept her challenge.

She doesn’t notice the defenseman lining her up for a charge until her shoulder sticks into Laura’s side, stealing her breath and slamming her to the ice.

What was going to be a fight between two enforcers, devolves into a brawl. The benches clear, players crashing into each other, swinging wildly and pulling each other to the ice. Laura tries to get to her feet, but a strong hand on her back keeps her down. She turns to take a swing at her assailant, but finds her roommate there, looking at the fray with worry wrinkling her brow.

“What the fuck?” Laura complains. She shoves up hard, managing to get one knee under herself.

“Just stay down,” Carmilla orders, pressing harder on Laura’s back.

It’s harder for her to leverage Laura down to the ice, now that Laura has one of her feet back under her. She shoves her back against Carmilla’s hand, sitting up sharply to stare daggers at her from below.

That’s when the pain hits.

There’s a grinding, like rocks scraping against each other, in her chest, and accompanying it is sharp, stabbing pain that drops her knees back to the ice. Laura doubles over, dropping her stick to clutch at her ribcage with both hands, forehead on the ice in front of her. Carmilla removes the pressure she’d placed on Laura’s back, but keeps her hand there. Laura breathes shallow and quick, trying not to make any audible pain sounds.

“I told you,” Carmilla says, running her fingers nervously over Laura’s back. Laura can barely feel the touch now through her pads and the laser focus her brain maintains on her ribs. She wishes Carmilla would bear down a bit again, if only for the distraction.

Around them, the referees are slowly restoring order, dragging players apart from each other and ordering them back to their respective benches. Mel and the other team’s captain remain at the center of the rink with the head referee, barking over one another still as the ref holds her hands out in defense, trying to calm them both. Boos rain down from the stands, as hometown fans and the other team’s traveling cohort voice their displeasure at the spectacle.

“I got her,” is the next thing Laura hears. Carmilla doesn’t answer their head trainer, but she does step back from behind Laura to let him kneel beside her.

“Can you hear me, Hollis?” he asks. Laura cranes her neck to the side to look at him, and finds him calm as ever. It’s comforting.

“Yeah, I’m good,” she says. “I think I broke a rib.”

She hears Carmilla laugh behind her, the sound too high to be at her expense. The trainer smiles at her. He’s an older man, in his mid-forties. His eyes crinkle at the edges with concern, just like her dad’s do when he’s worried about her. He huffs out a tight chuckle of his own at her words.

“Well let’s try and get you up,” he says. “Easy does it now, it ain’t a race.”

Laura nods and slowly unwinds her arms from around her body. She plants both fists on the ice and gentles herself up onto her knees. There’s more grinding in her ribcage, and the pain is still sharp and stinging, but it’s manageable as long as she doesn’t move too fast. She lets the trainer crook his hands under her elbow to help her to her feet.

“Wait,” she says then, putting a gloved hand over his as he starts to lead her to the benches. She turns to look at Carmilla behind them, half over her shoulder. She grimaces as another sharp grind thumps through her ribs.

“Don’t worry about it, cupcake,” Carmilla pre-empts her. There’s a hard set to her brow, cast in the shadow her visor throws over her eyes. Her mouth slants angrily, lips taut over her teeth. Laura can feel the rage ripple off her shoulders.

They regard each other there for a long moment, the space between them a cold, silent eye in the swirling hurricane of noise around them. Laura swallows, and turns to reach across that divide.

“Just don’t get into trouble I can’t pull you out of,” she says finally.

Carmilla barks out a laugh, the silence between them broken. Warmth blooms again in Laura’s chest, and there’s no heating car for her to rationalize it away with this time. Carmilla tilts her head back slightly when she laughs, light from the rafters finally revealing her shining brown eyes behind her visor. Laura grins at the sight. There’s still a tight anger in Carmilla’s shoulders, and her smile is more razor than joy. But at least she doesn’t look like she’s going to murder someone if Laura leaves her alone with the opportunity.

“Take good care of my enforcer, doc,” is all Carmilla says in response. Laura looks away at the words, the heat in her chest burning up into her cheeks now.

If their trainer notices the subtext of the exchange, he’s polite enough to ignore it. Laura nods to him after a beat, and this time she lets him take her back to the bench, leaning on him to take the small step up and off the ice.

They walk back together through the now quiet player’s hallway, back to the team’s dressing room, and through there to the training room in the back. It’s quieter now than it had been before the game, the loudest noises the hum of a mini freezer in the corner and the faint buzz of fluorescent lights above them.

“Go ahead and have a seat, and let’s try to get those pads off. See what we’re working with,” the trainer says. He helps her up onto one of the long, raised beds occupying the space.

“I don’t think I can lift my arms that high,” Laura says, skimming the hem of her jersey with nervous fingers. She knows the alternative to taking the jersey off herself, and she doesn’t like it.

“We’ll just cut it away, no problem,” the trainer responds as she knew he would. His voice is as light as the hand wave that accompanies it. It’s routine for him.

But Laura doesn’t know when she’ll get to wear this jersey again. That day may not ever come. She fights her face muscles to hide a grimace as the trainer approaches with a crooked pair of bandage scissors, glinting threateningly in the harsh light.

Before he can take more than a step back toward her, though, the dressing room doors open with a loud bang. Most of the noise evolves quickly into low conversation, and the thumping of players sitting on their locker benches to rest between periods. A pair of footsteps, though, approach the training room door with the bump-and-squeak of skate blades on rubber.

It’s Danny who bursts through the door a moment later, head on a frantic swivel until she sees Laura sitting on her bench in the middle of the room. She’s the picture of beautiful worry: long red hair flowing behind her, lit from above by the bright lights of the training room, and padded up for battle like some warrior queen.

Laura is surprised to find the sight has little effect on her, except to make her brace for being fussed over.

“There you are,” Danny says, voice saturated with relief. Laura offers a small smile and half a wave from her seat, and that’s all the invitation Danny needs to take two long strides to her side and begin said fussing.

“Are you okay? You were down for so long,” she cuts off when Laura doesn’t react to her bloviating by consoling her. But just like before the game, Laura finds herself annoyed that Danny’s only reaction to conflict is to seek comfort from her. She does try, belatedly, to smile a bit wider, but the damage is done. Danny drops her hands from hovering over Laura’s shoulders, hanging them limply at her sides. There’s a pinching around her eyes that Laura reads as disappointment, and guilt flares in her chest.

“I’m okay,” she says, lilting her voice chipper in an effort to diffuse the sudden tension between them. “Just some rib pain. Doc was just about to take a look, but I can’t seem to raise my arms high enough to get my jersey off.”

Instead of engaging with Laura, Danny turns to the trainer. Laura frowns behind her back as she speaks, guilt melting again into annoyance.

“Can’t you just cut through the jersey?” Danny asks, voice heavy, concerned. Ridiculous.

Laura opens her mouth to protest, but a loud scoff from the room’s entrance grabs everyone’s attention before she can get the words out. She turns to see Carmilla striding through the doors, sporting not just a shiner but a massive gash below her left eye. A now-drying streak of blood runs over her sharp cheekbone and down her face. She’s smiling, as she had on the ice, all teeth and sharpness, catlike. Her laugh is low, and definitely at someone’s expense this time.

The air in Laura’s lungs tightens at the sight of her: bloodied, smiling, commanding the room. Laura’s mouth goes dry. She fidgets in her seat, suddenly very aware of her own body.

“Quite a cut you’ve got there, Karnstein,” the trainer says, still jovial. Laura looks at him, incredulous that he can remain so chipper despite the tension in the room. Laura feels like she could vibrate right out of her skin. “Take a seat, I’ll be with you just as soon as I can get Hollis looked at here.”

Carmilla walks between Danny and Laura to the next bench in line, hopping up easily and turning back to look between them.

“What’s this I hear about cutting Laura’s clothes off?” she teases. “Seems like I got here just at the right time.”

“Her ribs might be broken, the trainer needs her pads off,” Danny says. The corners of her mouth are turned down into a scowl.

“Right but why, uh, you know,” Carmilla says back, miming scissors with the fingers of her left hand. She looks at Laura, and there’s a softness in her eyes that belies her sarcastic words. Laura opens her mouth, suddenly too aware of her own breathing to do it without effort.

“She can’t lift her arms to take it off because of the pain,” Danny says.

Laura squeezes the edges of the table. Anger shivers through her. She whips her head sharply to stare at Danny, rebuke all but on her lips.

“She’s a hockey player, not a porcelain doll,” Carmilla pre-empts her again. Laura snaps her teeth closed, keeping her angry words inside for the second time that afternoon. She flexes each of her fingers loose from their grip on the table’s edge, one at a time, until the anger dissipates enough for her to speak without it coloring her words.

Carmilla hops down from her perch while she’s decompressing, stepping again into the space between Laura and Danny. When Laura’s last pinky is untethered from its death grip on the table, Carmilla is practically pressed against her, standing between her legs.

“I’m sure she just needs a hand,” she says, dipping her head to catch Laura’s eyes. She smiles once Laura looks at her, and Laura runs her tongue nervously over her lips.

“God, you’re such a dog,” Danny complains from behind Carmilla. “What, have you run out of drunk coeds to chase in town and now you’re starting on our teammates?”

“Jealousy isn’t a good look on you, Clifford,” Carmilla says back. She throws Danny a saucy smile over her shoulder before turning her attention back to Laura. “Can I give you a hand, cutie?”

“Don’t care how it gets done, but let’s get it done quick,” the trainer chimes in. He puts down the bandage scissors, and Laura sighs in relief.

“I could just use a little help,” Laura tells Carmilla. The way Carmilla’s smile widens at her consent sends her stomach flipping over itself, but Danny’s words echo in the back of her head, and she suppresses a smile of her own.

She lifts her arms, one after the other. Carmilla holds the edges of her sleeves so she can bend her arms out of them without aggravating her ribs. She keeps her gaze, just out of the corner of her eye, on Carmilla’s face. Blood is still running from the gash below her eye, sliding shiny down her face. The longer Laura stares, the less subtle she gets. Carmilla catches her looking when she moves from Laura’s right to her left to grab her other sleeve. She returns Laura’s glance with a crooked grin, and though the smugness shines from it like light, there’s something else there, too.

Just there, at the edge of Carmilla’s lips, too soft to be gloating, and not sharp enough to be triumph. Laura squints and it’s gone.

Danny scoffs behind them when Carmilla drops the second sleeve to grasp at the hem of Laura’s sweater. She rucks it up her chest quickly enough, but Laura’s undershirt rides up as well with the movement, and Carmilla’s knuckles brush over her stomach. The touch leaves hot trails on Laura’s skin behind her fingers. Laura bites her lip to stifle a gasp, and it thankfully goes unnoticed when Carmilla helps her sweater over her head. She makes quick work of the Velcro bindings on Laura’s pads and lifts those over her head as well, leaving her in just her undershirt from the waist up.

She’s sweaty, after almost two periods’ worth of shifts on-ice. The cool air of the training room wafts over her damp shirt, chilling her skin. Carmilla leans forward to deposit Laura’s pads behind her on the trainer’s bench, and when she pulls away, her arm brushes against Laura’s. A shiver blitzes down Laura’s spine, and she’ll be damned if she can tell if it’s from the AC or the contact.

“If you’re done molesting our teammates, can doc take a look at her now?” Danny asks, arms crossed, staring at Carmilla.

“I’m all set,” Laura says, beckoning to the trainer, but keeping her eyes on Danny. Danny at least has the good sense to look away sheepishly once Laura wrests her gaze away from Carmilla.

The trainer moves in quickly after that. Laura finds that she prefers the dotted pain of his palpating her ribs, to navigating the tension in the rest of the room. Danny leaves after the trainer begins, at least, which sees Carmilla relax. She lays down on her own table, but keeps her head angled to watch the trainer’s progress with Laura. Through the crunchy discomfort of the trainer assessing her, Laura can feel Carmilla’s gaze at her back. Goosebumps fizzle on the back of her neck, and she hopes against knowing that they’re just from the trainer’s hands being a little bit cold on her overheated skin.

“If you have a fracture, it’s just a hairline,” he says finally, pulling Laura’s shirt back down her torso and stepping away from her. He continues talking as he washes his hands in the sink on the opposite wall: “I’m still going to pull you from the rest of the game. I’ll need x-rays to confirm the damage, but if they are broken, another hit could break off a chunk of bone, or push a rib too close to your lungs. Not worth risking for a preseason game.”

This news, too, is not unexpected. If this game was more important to the team’s season, Laura might argue with him about it. But there’s no argument to be had here. He’s sitting her for a single period of a preseason game. It shouldn’t be enough for Laura to be biting the inside of her lip to stave off stupid, angry tears, but it is. Laura doesn’t wait for the trainer to finish with Carmilla, instead gathering her sweater and pads and stalking back to the locker room.

She does wait until everyone has filtered out to the rink for the third period to punch the wood at the back of her locker as hard a she can. She blames the throbbing pain in her knuckles for the pricking at the corners of her eyes.

 

The game ends up tied. Since it’s only a preseason game, there’s no overtime period or shootout to decide the winner. It’s just as well: things did not simmer down after Laura’s departure.

Matska makes some kind of speech after the game, but Laura doesn’t pay attention. She’s already in her street clothes by the time Carmilla emerges from the training room afterwards. Her roommate sports a large white bandage under her eye, covering the three stitches that the trainer had given her before the third period.

Carmilla doesn’t approach Laura in the locker room, simply waving to let her know when she’s packed up and ready to go. She’s also quiet on the drive home, even turning off the radio when they start the short journey. Laura thinks back to earlier that afternoon, and their conversation in the car before the game. She wonders if it’ll ever be her job to walk past a wall of reporters with Carmilla again.

Carmilla goes to bed early that night – earlier than Laura had thought her capable, and alone to boot. Laura finds it difficult to want to go to sleep, despite her soreness and fatigue from the game. That leaves her alone in the living room by ten o’clock. She has a flight tomorrow, but it doesn’t depart until the afternoon. And the condo is too quiet, too cold; the air is too still.

Laura opens the patio door, and the fresh air is a welcome change. Sounds of traffic waft up on the warm summer breeze, from the street below. It’s a clear night, the moon a waxing crescent in the cloudless sky. She flops down into one of the patio chairs and allows herself to sulk about the day. Her ribs still ache, a ghostlike pain that only makes itself known at the apex of her every breath.

Leaning back in the chair, she turns her face to the wind, and closes her eyes.

“That can’t be comfortable.”

Laura jerks awake with a snort. She tips back in the chair, her stomach flipping as the front legs leave the ground.

And then Carmilla is there, propping up the back of the chair – staring down at her, face backlit by the sparse moonlight. Laura swallows past the sudden dryness in her mouth, willing her frantic heart to slow. They look at each other there in the dark for a long moment, before Carmilla slowly tips her forward again.

“I got up to get a drink and noticed you out here,” she says, already backing away by the time Laura can turn to face her. “I just – I figured your bed would be more comfortable than being out here.”

Laura has to laugh. The sound comes out gravely, her throat still thick with sleep. Carmilla’s eyes snap to her throat for a moment before she looks away again.

“Thank you,” Laura says. She walks towards and then past Carmilla, heading back into the house. Carmilla closes her eyes as she passes, and Laura hears her hold her breath until there’s distance between them again.

“I’ll see you in the morning?” Laura says. The end of the sentence lilts up into a question of its own accord.

Carmilla takes another beat before she turns to answer, but when she does, that familiar hard line is back in her jaw. Her eyes glint in the half-light. Laura recognizes the look: it’s the same one she flashes just before putting the moves on some poor defenseman on the ice.

“Yeah,” she assents. “Sweet dreams, sugar.”

Chapter Text

She doesn’t sleep much, but she does oversleep.

Her alarm for the flight never sounds, but the holdover from the game does, and jars her awake. The afternoon pops into her head: sun blaring through her curtains, or is that the music streaming in from the patio? Either way, it scares Laura upright in bed, heart pounding and eyes frantic to find her phone and the time.

Finding both, she finds as well that her flight leaves in an hour.

“Shit!” she yells. She twists to jump out of bed, gets twisted in her sheets, and slams face-first to the floor. “Fuck!”

Her shoulder throbs unpleasantly from the impact, but she ignores it in favor of clawing the sheets and comforter from around her waist. It takes longer than maybe it should.

“No one should make this much noise waking up unless they’re doing something a whole lot more fun than…whatever this is.”

Laura groans, “I’m late as fuck, Carm, can you please wait to roast me until I’ve made my flight at least?”

She leans back, huffing frustration through her nose, at the Gordian knot her bedding has become around her lower half, and stares upside down at Carmilla in her doorway. There’s a mix of amusement and pity on her face, the former threatening to pull her mouth into an unkind smile. Laura has to consider it progress that Carmilla resists the urge to let it.

“Maybe I could use your help, too,” she admits.

Carmilla does not resist the urge to quip: “I’m usually not in the habit of helping pretty girls out of bed,” even as she crosses the threshold to yank the offending sheets down Laura’s body and free her to stand. She even helps her to her feet, which Laura probably should have known was a trap.

Carmilla pulls Laura up to her feet, but they’re so close together that they practically bump chests. The chill of fear at being late dissipates down Laura’s spine, chased away by a now-disturbingly familiar warmth creeping between her ribs. She licks her lips to dispel the shake in her breath, and that’s the exactly wrong thing to do, because the movement draw Carmilla’s eyes and they linger there, on her mouth.

Laura fears that if she closes it now, she won’t be able to draw the breath to keep standing.

“Don’t you have a plane to catch?” Carmilla asks. She tilts her chin up, smiling down at Laura like they’re sharing a secret joke.

Maybe they are.

“Yes, shit,” Laura steps away quickly, leaving Carmilla with her hands in her own back pockets.

She grabs her last opened duffle from the floor at the foot of her bed, and shoves it against Carmilla’s chest until Carmilla indulges her and holds it up. There isn’t much left to pack – just her morning toiletries and a few pieces of dirty laundry. She pings around Carmilla like an electron, throwing her stuff in the duffel in Carmilla’s arms as she’s done with it.

“Where was this urgency in the game the other day?” Carmilla quips lazily, leaning against Laura's bed now, and still cradling her bag.

“I heard that,” Laura grouses from the bathroom across the hall, toothbrush working away in her mouth all the while. “And I don’t recall you having such a wonderful time, either.”

She spits, rinsing her brush and then popping it in its plastic cap. Looking up, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and grimaces. Her hair’s a mess, sticking up every which way on one side and decidedly flat on the other from where her head had rested on her pillow in the night. She grabs her brush from its perch on the top of the toilet tank and runs it under the tap next, resigning herself to untangling the mess before moving on.

“Speaking of which, how’s that shiner?” she quips when she doesn’t hear Carmilla tease her back. When they started bantering, she can’t recall, but doing it comes naturally even as she’s yanking knots out of her hair.

“Seven stitches,” Carmilla brags back. Her voice moves closer as she continues: “Maybe I’ll get a scar out of it. You know how women love the intrigue of a mystery scar.”

Laura snorts: “Because you need all the help you can get to pick up women.”

She catches Carmilla’s eyes in the mirror as her roommate leans against the door frame. Carmilla is contemplative for a moment, considering Laura’s reflected gaze as though watching a rush develop. As though waiting for the right time to break for the blue line and yet remain onside.

“Pick up?” she asks. “Maybe not. But a little mystery never hurt in keeping one around.”

Laura laughs in earnest this time: “Keeping? That’s not really your style, is it?”

Carmilla shrugs, the graceful lines of muscle in her shoulders momentarily drawing Laura’s gaze before she speaks again.

“Style is always changing,” she says. Laura looks back up from her arms to her face, and finds that Carmilla has caught her staring. Carmilla raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth in a downright lascivious grin. Laura manages an eye roll, but heat is burning once more through her chest and up into her cheeks, and only a little of it, she can tell, is from embarrassment.

“But you aren’t,” she jabs, aware that the conversation, much like this morning, has gotten away from her. Her hair is, by now, as smooth as if she’d just conditioned it, but she keeps her brush moving through it, afraid to still in Carmilla’s presence as much here as she is at the rink.

If she keeps still, she knows she’s lost.

“I hope you don’t think this means I’m giving up on finding out what happened between you and Danny,” Laura says before Carmilla can quip back at her.

Carmilla’s scintillating smile flees her face. She tucks her chin, chuffing and pursing her lips. She mutters something under her breath that Laura doesn’t quite catch.

“What was that?” she teases.

“You don’t want to know,” Carmilla says. Her voice is quiet and earnest, and a stark contrast to the last time Laura had tried to pin her down on the topic. Laura looks at her again in the mirror and meets nervous, imploring brown eyes. The look tugs at something in her gut, and it steals the bravado from her tongue.

“I’m going to find out,” she says, gentle as she can. Carmilla doesn’t exactly flinch, but the flirty air between them has dissipated back into their usual standoffishness. Laura presses on: “Wouldn’t it be better for me to hear it from you, rather than find out piecemeal behind your back?”

“Be best if you left it alone altogether,” Carmilla says from between her teeth. Laura turns back to the mirror, rolling her eyes. Carmilla makes a strangled sort of angry noise in the back of her throat, like she’s trying to clear gravel from it.

“Can’t always get what you want,” Laura teases, sing-song.

“No,” Carmilla agrees. “No I can’t.”

She says it quietly, so quietly that Laura knows she isn’t meant to hear it. And maybe she wouldn’t have, if Carmilla’s voice hadn’t started to catch in her ears like water and leave everything around them muted to near silence.

Carmilla turns from the bathroom threshold.

“Get your shit,” she says, louder but not unkindly. “I’ll drive you to the airport.”

 

Laura is spectacularly late as it is, and the traffic on the way to the airport doesn’t do her any favors. It’s another scorcher, the heat wafting visibly off the cars and pavement in front of them as they sit in bottlenecked traffic. Carmilla keeps the soft top on the Mustang up, the air conditioning humming the inside of the car into a pleasant chill. The manufactured breeze disturbs the raven waves of her hair, and her left hand guides the wheel surely, but she is otherwise still. Her mouth cuts a pensive line into her face, her jaw square and unmoving.

Laura steals small glances at her from the corners of her vision as they inch down the freeway, trying to suss out Carmilla’s mood from small peaks of an unchanging picture. It goes about as well as that can, which is to say, it does not go well at all. Laura keeps at it for ten minutes and another fifty feet of road before her nerves get the better of her desire to remain surreptitious.

“You okay?” she asks. She doesn’t look at Carmilla while she speaks, instead staring ahead at the unmoving traffic in front of them in an attempt to appear disinterested.

“Fine,” Carmilla says. She puffs out a breath and rolls her shoulders impatiently. “Traffic sucks.”

Laura looks at her phone.

“My flight left four minutes ago.”

Carmilla laughs: “We might as well just drive there at this point.”

Laura can’t tell if she’s kidding or not. It’s a five hour drive from Toronto to Montreal, and that’s after they get through this hellish traffic. Carmilla taps the sides of her fists against the roof of the car, standing on the brake pedal and arching her back to stretch it out. Her t-shirt rides up just a bit, and Laura, her eyes having been drawn from the road by the movement, fails not to gawk at the narrow strip of her stomach that the movement reveals.

Carmilla settles back in her seat and Laura looks away again. Laura flushes, this time without the excuse of a warming car interior as cover. The AC hits her face again and she can only pray that it drives the red from her cheeks in case Carmilla looks at her.

“It’d be better than waiting at the airport on standby for hours,” Carmilla prompts. If she can see the red in Laura’s cheeks, she doesn’t comment on it.

Laura laughs, sure Carmilla is making sarcastic conversation and nothing more. When Carmilla doesn’t join in, and instead fixes her eyes on Laura’s face with a bemused grin, Laura’s laughter dies on her tongue. She fixes her brow high in incredulity.

“Are you serious?” she asks. “That’s like half a day’s trip for you.”

“Where do I have to be?” Carmilla laughs. “We don’t have practice today, and the next preseason game isn’t for two days.”

Laura isn’t stupid. She knows what Carmilla is doing to her. And, infuriatingly, there’s a small but resolute voice in her brain that pipes up now.

Technically, the voice says, Carmilla isn’t her teammate anymore.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” she says over the voice’s objections. Carmilla chuckles again in response.

“Afraid to be alone with me, sweetness?”

Laura looks over again and finds that Carmilla is still looking at her. Her brown eyes are stained gold at the edges in the early afternoon sun. Laura swallows, and watches those eyes follow the movement of her throat unashamedly.

The question is meant to bait her, and she knows it. But the words are out of her mouth before she can stop them.

“Should I be?” she asks. Carmilla smiles at that, teeth flashing jovial in the sun, and Laura finds her own mouth twisting into a grin to match.

“Probably,” Carmilla admits. “I think we could get up to all kinds of trouble together.”

Laura shakes her head to clear it of the thought, but her smile remains as she declines Carmilla’s invitation again.

“Uh, definitely,” she says, trying to be magnanimous before she lets Carmilla down. “But maybe it’s not such a great idea for me to kidnap the Panthers’ best player on the eve of the season beginning.”

“It’s only kidnapping if I don’t go willingly, cupcake,” Carmilla quips, but looks ahead at the traffic in front of them again.

Laura breathes a little deeper now that Carmilla’s gaze has lifted, but that doesn’t stop her chest from filling with nervously happy flutters at her words. That voice is back in her head, willing her to turn back to her former teammate and acquiesce to her request for an adventure after all. It’s the kind of silly, ill-advised move that Laura has never had the courage to undertake. She attended barely any parties in college, and certainly never deviated from a team-mandated travel itinerary.

It ought to disturb her, how willing she is now to break that streak for a relative stranger now. Instead, the prospect excites her, and the declination feels like a loss.

Carmilla lets her sit with her discomfort. Traffic begins to loosen up in the next couple of blocks, and after they pass its source – a fender bender wherein the drivers have opted to shout at each other in the street rather than move their vehicles out of the flow of traffic – Carmilla can step on the gas firmly again to speed them off towards the airport. The speed does nothing to draw Laura’s conflict away from the forefront of her mind. The silence and her own solitude with her thoughts get the better of her soon after that.

“Any tips for me, before I’m gone?” she asks.

“Tips?” Carmilla asks back. Laura shakes her head, realizing that, in her zeal to break the silence between them, she’s asked a question that only she has the context for.

“I mean for my game,” she clarifies. “We’ve been playing together for over a month now. You’re supposed to be my mentor or whatever, right? So I’m asking for tips.”

Carmilla snorts. Laura starts at the harsh sound. Indignation flares in her throat, warm and comforting after the airy feeling of her stupid crush on her stupid roommate.

“Sorry,” Carmilla heads off her rebuke, not sounding sorry at all. “Sorry, I am, it’s just...what are you expecting me to say, exactly?”

Laura’s heart sinks, and she digs her toes into the floorboards to keep from sinking in her seat as well. For all her flirty ribbing, Carmilla clearly doesn’t consider her a peer. Maybe, given Laura’s play in camp, that shouldn’t be a surprise, but that doesn’t stop the realization from stinging.

“You don’t have a problem with your game,” Carmilla says, oblivious to Laura’s inner turmoil, it seems. “You have a problem with your spindly little chicken legs.”

“Fuck you, Carm,” Laura snaps. Carmilla makes that impatient, frustrated noise in the back of her throat again, like she’s growling with a mouthful of gravel.

“Will you let me finish?” she demands. “You’re not a bad player, you’re just new. You need conditioning before you can play at pro speed, that’s all.”

Laura opens her mouth, sighs, and closes it again. She looks out her window, looking pointedly away from Carmilla to hide her chagrin at jumping to conclusions. That evaluation is more glowing than any she had received from Danny or the coaches in camp. She drops her shoulders and sighs.

“I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions,” she begins.

“As always,” Carmilla interrupts.

“As usual,” Laura amends. “But you don’t usually give me reason to expect…”

Praise is the right word, really. Laura doesn’t finish her sentence aloud.

Carmilla lets her sit with her thoughts without interrupting the rest of the now-short trip to the airport. Soon enough, they’re snaking their way up the winding road to the departures terminal. Laura glances at her phone again. Her flight left over half an hour ago.

“Guess it’s standby time for me,” she opines, mostly to herself, as Carmilla brings the car to a stop by the loading zone curb. Her phone buzzes in her lap, and she flicks it to life.

It takes a moment for the email from the airline to make its way into her scattered brain, but when the words “Flight delayed to 4:25 PM” do make it through to her, she bolts upright and smacks her head on the roof of the car.

“Easy, spaz,” Carmilla laughs. She runs a hand over Laura’s stinging scalp once before they both realize what she’s doing. Laura freezes then, and Carmilla draws her hand back, gripping the steering wheel  hard enough to lighten the skin around her knuckles.

Laura’s phone buzzes again, and she snaps back to freaking out.

“Shit, I gotta go,” she curses.

Laura kicks the door open and turns quickly to fold her seat forward, grabbing her luggage from the back seat and throwing them onto the curb behind her. She narrowly misses hitting some American tourists with her hockey bag, and ignores their scoffs of indignation to gather her things from the ground and haul them towards the curbside bag check.

Laura thanks every goddess she can think of that she’d printed out her luggage tags the day before. The agent takes them easily enough and they’re soon disappearing down the conveyor belt and off to Montreal ahead of her.

“Now, if you’ll present your ticket, I can print your boarding pass,” the agent says. She holds a scanner gun in her hand, ready for Laura’s e-ticket. Laura reaches into her back pocket. Nothing. She shuffles her weight and reaches into the other one. Still nothing. Panic flashes down her spine.

“Forget something?” Carmilla says from behind her. Laura turns to see her propped up against the Mustang, sunglasses perched high in her hair and a thin-lipped grin on her face. She palms Laura’s phone, screen out, and wiggles it teasingly. Relief seeps into Laura’s chest, and she whooshes out a breath through her mouth.

“Thank fuck,” she says, loping back to the car.

In her head, she’s already plotting the heel-turn to take her back to the curb agent and on to security. So, clumsily, unthinking in her haste, she plucks her phone from Carmilla’s fingers, plants a swift, firm kiss on her opposite cheek, and hops back to the kiosk without so much as making eye contact with the other woman.

The gate agent prints her passes and wishes her a comfortable flight, and Laura races off to security and beyond there to her gate, leaving a still-stunned Carmilla by the car.

Fifteen minutes later, still panting from her jog through the terminal, Laura finds her seat on the plane and sinks into it. She listens to the quiet hubbub of passengers seating themselves and flight attendants attending to the overhead bins and last-minute requests before takeoff. Her breath returns soon after, and in a moment the captain’s monotone comes over the intercom to give the details of their departure.

Laura snaps her seat belt into its buckle and takes her phone out to deaden the signal for the flight, and finds a notification on the screen. She flicks her thumb over the screen, brow furrowing.

[Carm] Maybe I was wrong before. That was a pretty slick move.

Chapter Text

The next month is as much a whirlwind as the previous one, if for different reasons. Laura moves to Montreal and finds an apartment there. It’s small – Montreal is less expensive a rental market than Toronto would have been, but her league-minimum salary isn’t exactly a trust fund. She manages a one-bedroom near the stadium that has a view of a park, and counts herself lucky to have found it.

Minor league training camp isn’t as intense as being with the big club had been. The game is a little bit slower, and the focus of the coaches is more on development than competition. It’s good for Laura, at first, allowing her to tamp down her career anxiety and focus on bettering her game.

She fumbles her way through a response to Carmilla’s text about a week after getting to Montreal, and they settle into regular communication. Carmilla is flirtatious bordering on inappropriate as always, but Laura finds that easier to deal with given the physical distance between them, and soon she’s shooting off her own jokingly suggestive responses.

About a month after settling in with her new team, just as the last vestiges of the pre-season are ending, Laura gets a text from Carmilla that’s different from the others. It’s short and not flirty, containing just a video link and a question:

[Carm] [[link]] What do you see?

Laura clicks into the video. It’s a 30-second clip of the Panther’s first regular season game the night before. Laura watches it twice before she realizes that it’s Carmilla using the same move she’d pulled on Laura so many times in practice. A fake to the boards, followed by a lightning-fast deke to the net side. The video ends with Carmilla sniping a goal off the crossbar and down into the net.

[Laura] A flashback to my professional failures?

And then, to stave off the eye roll she can practically feel through her phone:

[Laura] You dressing down another hapless defenseman in a desperate attempt to impress me?

Carmilla sends back a winking emoji before answering more seriously.

[Carm] I meant what do you see in the play?

Laura scoffs, remembering how many times she saw this exact move in practice. But she decides to humor Carmilla, and so she clicks back into the video. Maybe it’s the new angle, but Laura does see something she hadn’t in all those times Carmilla had juked her out of her skates.

[Laura] Her stick’s off the ice. The defenseman – if she’d had it swiping in front of you, you’d never have been able to cross over her.

[Carm] Very good.

Something about the praise settles hotly just below Laura’s ribs. She swallows against the feeling as it makes its way up her chest and tightens her throat. She shakes her head and shoots back a sarcastic response – “I have my moments” – before clicking out of her messages and trying to ignore the stupid way she almost wants to preen at those two little words, but Carmilla isn’t done yet, it seems.

[Carm] You defensemen are always so focused on staying between me and the net, you forget that I’ve gotta get there anyway.

Laura feels the truth of that settle in her bones, remembering the first few times Carmilla had pulled that move on her. She remembers the scrubbing of her own skates, and the lack of confidence she had with her stick. The only time she’d ever stopped Carmilla was before the deke to the middle entirely, when she’d pushed up into her space to check her towards the boards.

[Laura] Anything to get close to you.

She hits send before the words get all the way through her brain, before she can realize that Carmilla doesn’t have the context for the statement, and furthermore, that it’s the first time Laura has initiated this kind of flirting. She can’t tell if she panics too much or not enough when Carmilla responds immediately and with yet another suggestively winking emoji.

[Carm] That’s my girl.

 

 

A week later, Laura starts her first regular season professional hockey game. It’s mostly uneventful, though she does narrowly miss being the second assist on the team’s lone goal of the game when it takes an extra pass for one the forwards to flick the puck into the net. The Cubs lose, and the weight of it hangs heavy in her gut the way losses always have. The little club isn’t expected to be good this year – a lot of its players, like Laura, are in their first or second years in the pros, still developing as athletes and hockey players. They’re in for a slog even if the big club is expected to make a playoff run.

 

Laura’s first fight comes in the following game, when a mammoth of a woman sets a clearly illegal pick in the neutral zone that flattens one of Laura’s teammates to the ice. On their next shift together, Laura nods at the offending player before a faceoff, and they come immediately together once the puck is dropped.

She loses, but it’s closer than she thought it’d be. She does manage to land a couple of hits to opponent’s torso, just below her pads, before being wrestled to the ice and then pulled upright by the linesmen. She loses four more fights in her first month. By the time she’s nursing a bloody nose in the penalty box at the conclusion of the fourth one, the frustration at losing constantly starts to border on depression for her.

 

The human skull can take a lot of abuse, relative to how big it is. Unless something cracks through the skull, the worst thing to worry about with blows to the head is a concussion. And those usually manifest much later, when the brain swells from being knocked around inside the head. The real weak point of the head is the neck. A hard blow to the chin can swivel the head around until the neck cracks just a bit too far, and the brain shuts the whole body down. Literally.

That’s all a glass jaw is: a weak neck with a tendency to twist just a bit too far.

Laura Hollis’s first professional fight win comes two months into her tenure with the Montreal Cubs. Her opponent does not have a glass jaw.

Laura does win, though, popping the other woman twice in the nose until it’s bloody. She comes away with blood on her hands, too, that smears over her knuckles and down her wrist when she keeps punching. Her opponent doesn’t go limp, but she does fall to her knees after the third punch that connects, this one to her cheekbone. The linesmen pull them apart quickly after that.

The first thing she does after being shown to the penalty box is to slow her breathing on the short bench there. The gate attendant sits at the other end of the short space, his attention on the linesman in front of them as he delivers Laura’s penalty details. Behind him, the referee skates to center ice to parrot that information to the crowd:

“Number seven of Montreal, and number fourteen of Quebec. Both players: five minutes each for fighting,” she says, making the “put up your dukes” motion to signal the major penalty for Laura and her compatriot in the other team’s penalty box.

Laura hazards a glance in the other player’s direction as she pulls her gloves off and deposits them on the bench next to her. The Quebec player isn’t alone with her gate attendant: a team trainer is there as well, fretting over the bloody nose Laura had given her a few moments ago. The adrenaline from the fight is leaking out of Laura now, and her knuckles begin to throb in kind with her box-mate’s bleeding face. She flexes her fingers a few times against the feeling, finally looking away from the other girl. It should elate her, the first win. It doesn’t, though, her mind stuck on “one-and-four” as her professional fight record, playing her earlier losses on a loop that she cringes almost physically away from.

Across the frozen expanse of the rink, Laura’s Montreal teammates are still standing in the bench well, clacking their stick blades on the boards in applause at her victory. Her new captain, a spry but spindly girl named Hop, grins across the faceoff circle at the opposing center, and Laura finally feels a familiar thrill crackle over her skin.

Winning the fight has sent a waiting sort of electricity into her teammates, it seems. Hop wins the faceoff easily, flicking the puck back to one of the defensemen behind her, who in turn rockets it up to their left winger as she streaks up the boards towards the blue line. Fifteen seconds later, their captain backhands a rebounded puck into the top corner of the net from just outside the crease.

Her teammates spill over the boards to celebrate the overtime game-winner, but Laura makes a much more subdued exit from the penalty box. She nods at the defenseman she’d tangoed with before, a curt lift of her chin that the other woman returns, and skates only to the blue line to watch the spectacle of her team’s celebration. The PA system is playing some raucous sort of house music in honor of the win, the stands awash with energetic movement and delighted clapping.

A year ago, in college, this would have had her blood singing triumph in her veins, blistering her skin with goose bumps and pumping energy into her legs for the short skate to her team. Now, two months into her first regular season, the slog and pace of minor league hockey has her taking in the spectacle with the sort of polite boredom that makes her think of Perry’s patient, motherly smile when Laura regales her with her billionth piece of hockey minutiae.

“Get in here, Hollis!” one of her fellow defensemen says, finally noticing her standing outside the fray.

And though her heart’s not quite in it, she allows herself to be dragged by her sweater into the swarm of her celebrating teammates.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

She waits after the game is over to let the rest of the team filter out of the locker room. She hasn’t undressed from the game: still in her pads despite having discarded her sweater into the team laundry. When everyone is gone, Laura grabs a practice sweater from her locker, slips into it, and makes the long walk back to the rink.

There’s a smattering of rink employees still in the stands: clean up crews, lighting and sound people, and a few front office big-wigs who appear to still be in their swanky suite that hovers over center ice. None of them spare Laura a second glance as she climbs over the boards and back onto the ice with her stick and a bucket of pucks.

She dumps the bucket at center ice and skids it back towards the benches, where it clatters against the boards. Some of the rink-side personnel in the stands turn toward the sound, but this is old hat for them by now: just Laura Hollis out after another game for more work, as she has been for the last two months. Laura pops in her wireless headphones and presses play on a workout playlist, a mix of pop and synth pop that pumps energy into her legs.

It’s turned out that Carmilla was right: extra conditioning and some bag work to improve her punching has resulted in her play during games improving dramatically. Laura scoops a puck from her pile and speeds towards the net at one end of the ice. She puts a fancy juke move on for fun: passing the puck back to her own skate and kicking it forward before backhanding it solidly into a top corner of the goal. It’s not a legal move in a real shootout, but the stick tricks for her are still just that. All this extra work hasn’t changed the D next to her name on the lineup card into something else, after all.

Laura skitters a few more pucks into the net via imaginary penalty shots, but soon settles into the real work she’s stayed to do. Half the rink, running longways, she’s left open for sprints. The other half, she arranges pucks in a complicated maze of alleyways and obstacles.

And she puts herself through her paces. Her legs are a bit sluggish despite her playlist blaring loud in her ears, but she forces the tiredness out of them with a series of sprints between the zone lines, punctuated by pushups. Only after she’s completely exhausted herself does she work on her stick handling, forcing her tired brain and muscles to steer puck after puck through her self-made maze of obstacles.

Rinse and repeat, Laura dekes and spins among the pucks with surer hands than she ever had in college. The product of two months of extra work, to the detriment, frankly, of her own enjoyment of the games that come before it. Her world narrows to the swerve and rhythm of her stick work, even the music in her ears seeming to mute itself in favor of the blissful scrape of skates and stick on ice.

Laura gets so caught up in it, she doesn’t notice the social media intern cleaning up the rink-side press box taking out her phone to record a video of Montreal’s standout enforcer putting in extra skate time after a double overtime win.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

She calls her dad on off-days, putting him on speaker phone while she does simple morning yoga to soothe the ache from her muscles after a hard practice or game.

“I saw your fight last night,” he says the morning after the overtime win. Laura can hear the pride warring with the concern for her safety in his voice. He’d never liked that she literally had to fight to have a place on a hockey team, but even he couldn’t deny she was good at it.

“No big deal,” Laura says back, shifting her knees down into a Warrior pose to stretch her hips and thighs. They still burn a little from her extra skating after the extra periods.

Sherman scoffs on the other end of the line, “It gave your team the boost it needed to score that goal at the end, Laura. Don’t sell yourself short.”

Laura rolls her eyes, rolling up her back into a new pose in kind.

“It was hardly my giving someone a bloody nose that let Hop scoop in a garbage goal after ten extra minutes of play. Someone had to score eventually.”

“Laura,” her dad warns.

“All right, all right,” she says, moving into Warrior II and staving off a circular argument she knows she can’t win. “It was entirely my perfect punches that led us to victory, even though I was sitting in the penalty box when the game ended.”

Her dad sighs audibly. Laura is about to take the bait and rise to his needling, when her phone dings with a new message. She drops out of her yoga sequence to swipe it into view, smiling at seeing Carmilla’s name flash on her screen.

[Carm] Looks like your moves are only improving.

[Carm] We’ll be in Montreal next week to play the Wanderers, if you want to try any of them on me after work.

Attached is what looks to be a video link. Laura squints at the truncated title: MONTREAL CUBS DEF--

The sentiment in the text itself is clearly meant to be flirty, and the clarity of that twists something in Laura’s chest that makes it hard to breathe through her nose for a moment, as it always does. A thin chorus of not technically your teammate echoes in the back of her head. Her thumbs hover over the keyboard.

“Laura?” her father asks, suddenly. Laura startles and nearly drops her phone.

“Yeah, sorry, I’m here,” she says quickly. “What were you saying?”

Carmilla’s text glows back teasingly at her as her father repeats himself. Laura sets her jaw and closes her messenger app.

“Yeah, we’re here in Montreal until the end of next week,” she affirms to her dad’s question about when the team will next be in Toronto. “We’ll be in town a few days after that.”

“Any time to come see your old man in between your hockey heroics? I’ll try to get time off to make it to the game, if I can.”

“I’ll see what the schedule looks like next week,” she hedges. Her dad has been itching to see her, but Laura doesn’t yet have the words to explain to him how her passion for playing has dwindled, replaced by a singular need to work. What was once a respite has become a chore. It’s embarrassing.

“Well you let me know,” Sherman says. “I love you, sweetie.”

Guilt runs up Laura’s spine, turning her rigid bones slightly to liquid. She gentles her spoken affection back to him as softly as she can before hanging up.

She tries to go back to yoga after that, but her father’s earnest wish to see her play in person is still warring with her unreasonable guilt about her lack of personal enthusiasm for her favorite sport. Laura can’t tell if her apathy is just manifested exhaustion or something deeper, yet, and the thought that it might be permanent scares her more than the prospect of failing to advance past her current stint with the Cubs.

In the back of her mind, too, Carmilla’s written words needle at her resolve to remain focused solely on work while she’s in Montreal.

Against her better judgement – and to the delight of that stupid voice in her head – Laura re-opens Carmilla’s message and clicks the link she included.

Her first reaction is a grimace at the full title that pops into view with her video app: MONTREAL CUBS DEFENSEMAN WORKS OUT AFTER DOUBLE OVERTIME WIN. The second is to be a bit stunned. She looks – a hot shiver of vanity flares across her skin – she looks good. Her strides in her sprints are long and powerful, even at the end of them, when she’s clearly gasping for air. Laura ghosts her fingers over her ribs on one side, remembering the stitch that had settled there during her last few laps. It doesn’t seem to have slowed her down at all.

Another text from Carmilla buzzes over the video, and Laura blushes all the way down her throat as though her (ex) roommate is there to have caught her admiring herself. She clicks back into her messenger app.

[Carm] Let me know, sugar.

There’s a winking emoji after the sentence, and Laura has to exhale a smile through her teeth to burn off the nervous energy in her gut at the sight of it. The residual flutters in her chest have her swiping an answer before she can think better of it:

[Laura] Text me when you get in.

And then, because that sounds too eager:

[Laura] I’m more than willing to spend an off day handing you your own ass :)

She groans at herself, because that’s worse, and it’s already sent, and Carmilla’s going to think Laura’s actually into her.

(She is, but that’s not the point.)

[Carm] Hope your defense has improved more than your chirps.

[Carm] Duster.

[Laura] I’ve at least graduated to pylon.

She’s smiling again, her worry ebbing away, because this is easy, and more than that, it’s fun to toss ribs back and forth with Carmilla.

[Carm] I’ll be the judge of that.

Laura smiles and sets her phone face down, chest lighter than it’s been in days. Foolishly, stubbornly, she attributes it to the prospect of seeing her father again. But it’s Carmilla’s cheeky grin she imagines as she slips back into her yoga sequence, smiling too.

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Minor league hockey teams, depending on the league, carry more active roster players than their major league counterparts. Where national hockey league team rosters are capped at twenty-three, there’s no limit to how many active players a minor league team can have on its roster. This is done mostly to make sure injured or otherwise sidelined major league players can jump into a minor league lineup for tune up games when necessary, but a big side effect of the expanded rosters is that some teams keep rotations of players rather than set twenty-three or twenty-five player lineups.

And this is why, when the Panthers come to town to play the Wanderers and end up at a Cubs game the night before, Laura spends it not on the ice, but in the weight room.

She’s four miles into a planned five-mile run, headphones blaring an aggressive metal playlist in an attempt to drown out the stadium noise above her. It’s not quite working – every so often a roar of the crowd will leak through the music, and Laura’s foul mood worsens every time it does.

When Carmilla had texted her later in the week with the big club’s travel itinerary, Laura had been surprised at just how eager she was to play before an audience that included the whole team. She’d felt a few droplets of her old enthusiasm sluice through her again. Maybe she’d even pick a fight to show off, if the opportunity arose.

But no, instead she was a healthy scratch from the game, and another young defenseman was taking her place tonight. Laura had been expected to show up at the rink regardless, and she had. But she much preferred to burn off her disappointment with a run than to watch the game from the televisions in the locker room down the hall.

Another great cheer erupts above her, and Laura hits the speed button on the treadmill, willing herself just a little faster. Her legs and lungs burn with the strain, and it works to distract her from her discontent, for a time. The crowd seems to quiet down for the next few minutes, allowing Laura to finish her run at least. When she stops the treadmill and doubles over, though, some of the ambient stadium noise filters through again.

Laura curses softly and starts throwing weights around instead.

She’s so engrossed in her angry workout that she doesn’t hear the buzzer announce the end of the game. There’s a bustle after that passed the closed door of the weight room as her teammates file down the hallway to the locker room, but she doesn’t hear that either. In fact, if a particularly cymbal-heavy track hadn’t ended at just the right time, she probably would have missed the weight room door clicking open, too. But it does, and she doesn’t, and so Laura is able to at least sit up from the bench when Danny and Carmilla enter the room.

Danny notices her first, having come in ahead of the much shorter Carmilla and thus blocking her view. When she stops at the noticing, Carmilla makes an impatient sound behind her, sideling between Danny and the doorframe as she speaks.

“Walk into rooms much, Clifford?”

Laura lets a laugh hiss through her teeth at Carmilla’s obvious annoyance, and it draws Carmilla’s gaze to her. Something in Laura’s chest goes a bit liquid when recognition flashes across Carmilla’s face, followed closely by a smile just barely too soft to be predatory.

Of course, Carmilla does then give Laura’s body a once-over, and Laura remembers suddenly that she’s both very sweaty and wearing nothing but a sports bra and her team sweatpants. Carmilla’s smile slips into something more suggestive as Laura’s blush blooms down her throat.

“Hey, Laura,” Danny hazards then, breaking the spell of the previous moment. “Didn’t know you’d be here.”

Laura shrugs, tossing her a smile to ease the tension she can see in the set of Danny’s shoulders.

“I was a scratch today, so I figured I’d get some work in before we head to Toronto tomorrow.”

Danny hums affirmation, looking away almost guiltily. Carmilla lets out a sound that might be a soft laugh, slinging her bag against the wall and stepping further into the space between them and Laura.

“Sasquatch here wanted to get away from the cameras,” she says.

“Then why are you here?” Laura asks. It’s a bit too pointed, and Carmilla arches an eyebrow at her swiftly before putting a hand over her chest and scoffing in mock offense.

“And here I was thinking you’d be happy to see me,” she says. Danny finally snorts derision behind her, and that sound is much more familiar than the nervous set of her shoulders from before.

“No one’s ever happy to see you,” she says, and folds her arms over her chest. She says it a little too sharply for the words to be congruent with the teasing air in the room. Laura’s eyes flit between Carmilla and Danny, curiosity flaring again at the tension between them. But Danny sighs a moment later and drops her arms.

“Look, can I just get the stuff you were talking about so I can get the hell away from you?”

That does exactly nothing to alleviate Laura’s confusion, but Carmilla doesn’t miss a beat.

“Just take my bag,” she says. “You can return it later.”

“Thanks,” Danny says. She picks up the bag and slings it over her shoulder before backing up towards the door with a sheepish half-wave at Laura. “It was good to see you, Hollis.”

“Uh, yeah, you too?” Laura says, the question seeping into the words without her consent. Danny closes the door behind her, leaving Laura and Carmilla alone again.

“So you look good,” Carmilla says as soon as the latch clicks into place. Laura rolls her eyes.

“You’re not going to pretend that wasn’t the weirdest fucking encounter in the history of human communication,” Laura tells her.

Carmilla laughs. She saunters over to a pullup bar and rests her palms casually on the bar above her head, facing Laura. She’s not dressed for a workout, wearing those maddeningly tight leather pants tucked into a pair of combat boots, and a matching black tee-shirt with the Panther’s logo over the chest. Laura tries her best not to notice the way her stance reveals the line of muscle along her biceps, determined to remain focused on whatever she and Danny were really up to.

“You going to tell me what that was about?” Laura continues, keeping her focus pointedly on Carmilla’s laughing brown eyes.

“Nope,” she says, popping the end of the word like bubblegum and grinning widely.

Laura sucks at her teeth, something just shy of anger settling in her chest at Carmilla’s smile. Carmilla tilts her head, and Laura knows – she just knows – that Carmilla is aware that the side of her face she turns toward Laura is the one she’d kissed outside the airport two months ago.

“I am interested in those moves I saw in that video, though,” Carmilla continues. “My offer stands to put you through your paces, if you’d like.”

And Laura thinks back to that kiss she’d pressed against Carmilla’s cheek, to the stunned face she’d made at the contact. She thinks about Carmilla looking at her in the dark, in their shared apartment during camp, a determined, predatory look on her face. In college, she might have shrunk from this moment, let it pass and walked out of the weight room with her cheeks flushing under Carmilla’s gaze. She’d have made some excuse about needing to get back to the locker room with the team, and outright fled the building altogether, probably.

But now, with Carmilla looking more than interested in raking her eyes down Laura’s body, appraising quite a bit more than her professional development, Laura decides to use the moment instead to her own advantage. She pushes up from the bench and strides easily to where Carmilla is still leaned against the bar. She keeps an easy flex in her stomach on the way, letting her sweats fall just a bit farther along the ridges of muscle she has now near her waistline. Carmilla doesn’t tear her eyes away from the movement around her hips until Laura is standing right in front of her, but Laura waits until Carmilla looks her in the eye before continuing.

She takes Carmilla’s chin gently in her hand, holding her head in place. Carmilla holds her breath, and Laura tamps down a stab of real, honest-to-god arousal at the feeling of Carmilla going still under her touch.

Carmilla smells like lavender and citrus, and Laura doesn’t resist pulling a long breath through her nose as she leans in and presses her lips firmly to Carmilla’s cheek. She hadn’t intended the first kiss, so this one feels new. Her lips tingle with the contact, and Laura has to scrunch her own eyes shut to keep them from lingering too long on the warm, soft skin of Carmilla’s face. She can hear, faintly, the twist of Carmilla's fingers around the bar above her as she clenches her fists around it to keep still.

Carmilla breathes again when she completes the kiss, but Laura stays close for just a second longer to husk at her in a voice that comes out low as liquid all on its own.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

Chapter Text

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

Carmilla breathes out through her nose easily enough, but she shivers just enough for Laura to notice, enough for her to feel it in her fingertips still on Carmilla’s chin. And suddenly the moment seems too big, too close, too much for Laura. She darts her eyes around looking for an escape, as though she’s not the one with Carmilla’s face in her hand.

All Laura’s frantic looking finds when she steps back are Carmilla’s eyes, looking right back at her and looking anything but frantic themselves. Carmilla doesn’t answer her right away, instead looking at her with an appraising expression. Like she could drink Laura in physically from where she stands, still gripping the bar above her head, but also like if she does more than look Laura will skitter away like a deer from a snapping twig.

Maybe she’s right.

“I’m sorry,” is all Laura can think to say.

“I’m not,” Carmilla’s response is immediate and sure, and Laura’s gut churns in response. “You’ve got a deal, cupcake.”

It takes Laura a second to remember what she’s offered in the first place. She swims through the rising haze of self-consciousness in her head.

“Just like that?” she can’t help but ask.

“I’m not expecting to lose,” Carmilla shrugs and finally swings her hands down from the bar to stuff her thumbs in her pockets. Her hips jut forward in the movement and she splays her fingers out over her thighs.

Her cockiness lifts Laura’s chin in response to the challenge, and she feels her chest loosen as the anxiety leeches out of her. She smiles back.

“But what do I get when I win?” Carmilla asks, and Laura surely does not miss how Carmilla gives her body another rakish once-over.

“The satisfaction of a job well-done?” Laura hedges, fighting the urge to cross her arms over her chest under Carmilla’s gaze. Carmilla snickers at that.

“I was thinking something a little more satisfying than that, sprinkles.”

“Sprinkles, really?” Laura can’t help but smile. Carmilla’s flirty energy is infectious, and Laura feels the pull to match it, like a string connecting the two of them across the room.

“My favorite topping,” Carmilla winks.

“You’re unbelievable,” Laura says with a scoff and a roll of her eyes. Carmilla doesn’t look bowed in the slightest, still grinning at her.

 

They don’t end up having the opportunity during the Panthers’ stay in Montreal to have their competition. The next night, the Panthers play the Wanderers, and Laura’s coach gives the Cubs the night off to go see the game. The whole team gets tickets in the upper bowl to watch. Laura sits next to Hop and they share a tub of popcorn bigger than either of their heads.

For all their bickering off-ice, Danny and Carmilla are quite a pair on it. Danny has a heavy-enough slapshot from the point that she’s a priority for backchecking forwards, and Carmilla is like a ghost behind the net until she decides to surge forward for tips and rebounded pucks. They end up with five points between them including a goal each.

It’s not enough, though. Laura is displeased but not exactly surprised that Carmilla isn’t very stout on the backcheck. She hovers mostly close to the blue line in the defensive zone, and doesn’t take part in any of the cycling the rest of the team does on defense. The few times she does turn the puck over, she doesn’t use her speed to make up ground on the thief. It leads to several good scoring chances and a goal for the Wanderers, which ends up being the difference in the game. The Panthers lose 4-3.

“Man, that was a close one,” Hop says as they’re making their way out of the stadium after the final buzzer. Laura has to shrug.

“I don’t know, I feel like there were some missed opportunities there,” she says, diplomatic.

“Their defense could use some tightening up for sure,” Hop agrees easily. “More room for you to try and work in, if that continues.”

She says it jovially enough, but Laura blanches at the sentiment a bit. She wants to get back to the big club, more than almost anything. But coming to grips with the fact that she’ll be taking another player’s place is a different calculus, and it feels strange to want someone else to do poorly just so she might get her own chance.

She hums noncommittally at Hop before they part ways on the sidewalk outside the stadium.

 

Laura picks up takeout from a new restaurant she’s been meaning to try on her way home. She stuffs her face with potstickers on her small couch and flips on ESPN to catch the late-night highlights when she gets there. Carmilla’s goal from that night, a deflection off of one of Danny’s jet-fueled slapshots, makes the Top 10 reel, even coming in a loss. The clip plays through her pumping her fist up close to her chest in celebration before she’s mobbed by the other four Panthers on the ice.

Before Laura knows it, she’s opening her phone.

[Laura] Your celly game needs work.

Carmilla’s answer comes almost immediately.

[Carm] I’ll be sure to flop around next time for you.

[Laura] See that you do.

Laura puts her phone down then and starts clearing her coffee table of takeout boxes. She’d ordered way too much food, as usual. Between leftover rice and sesame chicken, she’s able to fill three days’ worth of Tupperware containers. Living alone has its perks – like being able to shower with the door open so the bathroom doesn’t get too steamy, or not having to move laundry out of the dryer right away – but the downside is there’s no one to eat Chinese with on lonely Saturday nights.

There’s a text waiting for her when she plops back down on the couch, though.

[Carm] Have you eaten yet? We just got let out and a few of us are gonna grab something before curfew.

Laura has eaten, of course, but the pull to fib for the chance to go out with the Panthers is too strong to ignore.

[Laura] I could eat.

[Carm] Great. Text me your address and we’ll swing by.

Laura does, and then panics. She looks down at the team sweats she’d never changed out of after attending the game. Probably the Panthers won’t be in anything too different, but Laura resolves at least to put a pair of pants on that don’t have an elastic waistband. She ends up settling on a pair of dark washed jeans and a plain white tee-shirt, and snags a sweatshirt from the hook by the door, too. The chill of fall has settled over the city now that October and hockey season have come around.

A buzz from the intercom interrupts Laura just as she’s tying her hair up into a messy bun. She trots over to the door, grabbing her wallet and keys on the way.

“Carm?” she asks, thumbing down the intercom button.

“Yeah,” comes Carmilla’s garbled voice back to her.

“I’ll be right down.”

When she gets downstairs, she finds Carmilla just inside the entry door, leaned up against the post with her hands in the pockets of her black leather jacket. She pushes off the wall when Laura comes into view, giving her a quick once-over and breaking into a soft smile.

“Someone let me in,” she explains.

Laura hops down the last two steps and bounces to a halt in front of her, suddenly giddy.

“I should have a word with the tenant board about people letting suspicious individuals into the building at night,” she says.

Carmilla gruffs out a laugh and shakes her head. They’re close enough in the small entryway that Laura can smell the lavender and leather on her. Her jacket looks soft under the fluorescent light above them, and Laura has the sudden urge to run her hands over it. She stuffs them in her pockets instead, unconsciously mirroring Carmilla’s stance.

“I’ll let you know if I see any,” Carmilla says, faux serious for a moment before nodding in the direction of the door. “You up for diner food?”

“Always,” Laura replies.

 

They end up at a greasy spoon that one of the Montreal-natives on the team swears by, filling a booth in the back of the restaurant with their small group. Laura orders decaf coffee and sips it slowly as the group falls into chirpy conversation that she can tell is familiar.

“If Karnstein knew how to backcheck, maybe I wouldn’t have been stuck doing two jobs tonight,” Alice Crocker says. She’s a forward on Carmilla’s line, known for being a grinder. Crocker isn’t as fast as Carmilla, but her game is played in the trenches along the boards, fighting for loose pucks and creating scoring chances for her linemates.

“Fuck you, Crock,” Carmilla laughs. “I’d have had time to backcheck if you’d ever been in position to keep pucks deep.”

Crocker rolls her eyes at that and takes a stab at a sausage on her plate before continuing.

“Please, if I wasn’t winning pucks all night, you’d be pointless just like the team is. You should be thanking me.”

Laura snickers a bit at the pun – teams gain points for wins during the season but no points for losses in regulation, while players gain points by scoring and assisting on goals. Carmilla shoots her a wounded look.

“Not you too, Hollis,” she says, leaning back in the booth a bit. “I bring you out for a nice time, and you join the pile on.”

Laura does her best to shrug casually. She takes another sip of her coffee and looks across the table at Carmilla over the rim of her mug with her best impression of a sly smile on her face.

“Don’t blame the rookie just because she knows I’m right,” Crocker saves her. Carmilla rolls her eyes dramatically.

“This is why I never come out with you, Crock,” she says.

“Because I’m so insightful about the holes in your game?”

“Because you wouldn’t know good forward play if it bit you in the ass, you glorified blueliner,” Carmilla fires back.

“Hey,” Laura says before she can stop herself, indignant at her position being used for the dig.

Crocker and Carmilla both laugh at her interruption, the former snorting into her juice. It’s the first time Laura’s seen Carmilla laugh when it wasn’t at someone else’s expense. She uses the few seconds it takes for the two of them to compose themselves to memorize the way the laughter cuts its lines into Carmilla’s face.

 

Crocker and the rest of their group head straight back to the hotel after dinner to make sure they’re back in time for curfew. They pile into a cab and Laura watches it pull away from the curb before she realizes that Carmilla is still there on the sidewalk with her, sucking on a to-go milkshake.

“Hey,” Laura says. “You’re not, uh. You’re not going back with the rest of the team?”

Carmilla quirks an eyebrow at her and takes another pull of her milkshake.

“I will,” she says. “After.”

Laura tries for a wry smile.

“Do they always leave you alone with the girl after the meal like this?”

Carmilla doesn’t smile back at her, but her voice is soft when she says, “I don’t bring girls out with the team.”

That familiar warmth is back in Laura’s chest, a feeling she’s come to expect when she’s around Carmilla for more than a few minutes. It’s intense now that they’re alone, crawling up her throat and drying out her mouth. She has to lick her lips before she speaks again.

“What does that make me then,” Laura says, trying and failing to laugh afterward. “I’m not your teammate, either.”

“You will be,” Carmilla says. She tosses her cup into the trash on the curb and stuffs both hands into her jacket pockets. “Come on, Hollis. Let me walk you home.”

 

When they’re a block away from Laura’s apartment it starts to rain, water pouring down in thick, icy sheets. It’s not cold enough for snow yet but the rain is freezing. They run the last street together, laughing at being caught. Carmilla slips her jacket up off her arms and holds the back of it over the both of them while Laura fumbles for her keys on the stoop of her building. It’s decidedly harder to complete fine motor skills like slipping a wet key into a lock when Carmilla is practically plastered to her back. When she finally gets the door open they stumble inside still stuck to each other.

“Shit,” Carmilla says, still laughing. She shucks out of her jacket and flaps it a couple of times to snap the water off the leather.

“Hey, easy,” Laura says. She wipes some jacket rainwater off her cheek and looks at Carmilla in what would be indignation if she weren’t laughing, too.

“Sorry, sorry,” Carmilla says. She starts to shoulder back into her jacket and turns to regard the rainy street through the window in the door. “Looks like hell out there.”

“It does,” Laura agrees, coming to stand next to her at the door. The rain pelts down onto the street in big, visible blobs. The sound of it hitting parked cars along the street is audible even through the door.

Laura doesn’t realize how close they are until Carmilla makes the final shrug to put her jacket back on and their shoulders brush. The contact startles Laura’s attention away from the rain, but she doesn’t move away from Carmilla. Their eyes meet as Carmilla flicks the jacket’s collar down and smooths out its lapels.

“Hey,” Laura says. It comes out breathy, and her eyes flick down to Carmilla’s mouth. Whether it’d still taste like strawberry milkshake suddenly pops into her head.

Laura leans forward.

Carmilla starts to move with her, and a scuff of her boot makes a loose board creak underneath them. It’s enough to break Laura away from the moment. She places a palm flat against Carmilla’s chest, just beneath her collarbones.

“Wait,” she says.

Carmilla stills under her touch for the second time in two days, but asks: “What for?”

Laura pushes back gently, happy when Carmilla takes a half step away from her in acquiescence. Her brain doesn’t seem to work at its normal speed when Carmilla is so close, and Laura stumbles through the mental haze of her to find the words she needs.

“We can’t do this,” Laura says. She hopes it sounds like she believes it, because she certainly doesn’t. Carmilla laughs like she doesn’t believe it, either.

“Of course we can,” she says. She doesn’t step closer again, but she does lean into Laura’s palm a bit more. Laura can feel how warm Carmilla is beneath her shirt, can feel the faint thrum of Carmilla’s heartbeat beneath her fingertips, even.

Shouldn’t, then,” Laura amends. “We’re colleagues. This is a bad idea.”

“You’re not my teammate,” Carmilla reminds her.

“I will be,” Laura says.

It’s very, very hard to pull her hand away. Carmilla’s eyes shine in the half light spilling in from the street, the fluorescent bulbs in the entry having long since been turned off. This close, Laura can see how the brown in them is flecked with gold. Carmilla’s skin is still damp from their romp through the rain, shining just slightly over her cheekbones.

Laura closes her eyes and takes a breath, half hoping that Carmilla will ignore what she’s said and close the gap between them for her. Carmilla doesn’t, of course, even when Laura finally drops her hand from her chest.

“You’re making a mistake,” Carmilla says. She’s sure enough that Laura bristles a bit at the arrogance of it. But it’s hard to snap back at her when Laura’s fighting the surety in her own gut that Carmilla is right.

“I’m making a career decision,” Laura insists. “For both of us.”

Carmilla snorts, “I hardly need you to make those for me.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do,” Carmilla says. “And yet it’s still a mistake.”

“You can’t know that,” Laura says, sounding feeble even to herself. “If we get into something, and it doesn’t work out – what then?”

“Cupcake, I’m not asking you to marry me,” Carmilla says, smiling not unkindly. Laura frowns, put out by the insinuation that she’s being dramatic about all this. Her very serious objections are fleeing in the wake of Carmilla’s smile, though, and she doesn’t voice her displeasure.

Carmilla takes a slow, fluid step back into her space. “I’m only asking to kiss you goodnight.”

Laura uses both her hands this time, grabbing fistfuls of Carmilla’s jacket to stop her advance. Or to pull her in, she hasn’t decided yet. Carmilla is so close now, lavender and leather and rainwater swirling in Laura’s head like a flash flood. It’d be so easy, she thinks: so easy to tug Carmilla forward and kiss her parted lips.

She uncurls her fingers from the leather.

“Please go home, Carmilla,” she says, and is proud when her voice manages not to wobble.

Carmilla, for her part, hides whatever disappointment she’s feeling well enough. The huff of her soft laugh ghosts between them before she shrugs her shoulders and looks away from Laura’s face.

“If that’s what you want,” she says.

It’s not, not really. A very loud part of Laura still wants to grab Carmilla again, to fist her hands in her shirt or that damn jacket. Wants to pull until they’re pressed together, until Laura can feel that warmth in her chest goddamn everywhere.

“It is,” she says instead. Her voice does wobble a bit this time. Carmilla looks for a moment like she might comment on that, but thankfully she thinks better of it.

“In that case,” she says instead, wrenching the door open and letting the sounds of street and rain into the bubble they’d been sequestered in. “Have a good night, Laura."

She flips the collar of her jacket up for what little protection it’ll give, tosses Laura a two-fingered salute, and steps out into the storm.

Chapter Text

Carmilla is on a tear.

It goes on for long enough that it becomes the topic of gossip in the Cubs’ locker room. More than once over the next month and a half, Laura comes into the room after her time with the team trainer to find some of her teammates huddled around a cell phone or tablet, one of Carmilla’s highlights playing on it. Laura peeks over to watch herself, sometimes. There’s an edge to Carmilla’s skating lately that Laura thinks is new.

The best skaters in hockey aren’t always the fastest, but the most agile. Skating effectively in a game is as much about how quickly you can accelerate and decelerate, or turn on the edges of your skate blades, as it is how much speed you can generate.

And Carmilla is usually a crafty skater, using precision-timed bursts of speed and lightning quick direction changes to weave about defenders and create her own scoring chances on breakaways. But not lately. No, lately she’s skating more like a grinder than a playmaker, opting to shoulder past defenders rather than deke around them, and crashing to the net rather than ghosting around it during long stretches in the offensive zone.

“She’s gotten a lot more physical,” Laura overhears a couple of forwards discussing the latest highlight.

“Yeah I’ve never seen her bruise like this. She’s more of a finesse skater usually.”

Both of the women hiss at something happening on-screen, and Laura can’t resist a look over their shoulders to see what happened. Seeing her, the one holding the tablet rewinds the video a bit.

Laura watches Carmilla try to split two defenders near the offensive zone blue line. She doesn’t quite have the speed to cut through the gap between them before they close, and the smart thing for her to do would be to deke to one side or the other and let the trailing forwards behind her catch up. They could set up shop in the offensive zone and get some sustained pressure on the opposing goalie.

Instead, she tries to body by both defenders at once, and is immediately overmatched. The closer of the two defenders hip checks her, and Carmilla loses an edge. She drops to one knee just in time for the other defender to catch her head with an elbow. The puck skitters away between them for the goalie to corral behind the net.

Carmilla looks shaken up by the hit, at first, and Laura’s chest tightens. Carmilla covers her eyes with a gloved hand, still kneeling on the ice. The video ends as she starts to get up with a shake of her head.

“Shit, that was a hit and a half,” one of the forwards says.

“Absolutely Kronwalled on that one,” agrees the other.

Laura watches the video loop back around automatically, and turns away before she sees Carmilla taken to the ice again.

 

Laura doesn’t hear from Carmilla again, and part of her is glad for the reprieve. If Laura’s going to keep things friendly and casual with her, refraining from texting her every flirty thought that floats into her head is a good start.

That all gets thrown out the window one night in late November, though. Laura scores her first professional hockey goal, a slapshot off a perfect pass from the slot that clangs off the sidebar of the goal before zipping into the net. She gets mobbed by her teammates when it goes in, and then for a second time when the final buzzer sounds and her goal is the difference in a 1-0 game.

She’s riding high on the adrenaline of accomplishment and victory even after she’s showered and heading out of the stadium. Practically skipping, she flicks her messages open and thumbs a text to Carmilla without thinking about it, eager to share the feeling.

[Laura] Bow down, Karnstein, ya girl just got her first GWG!!!

She blanches once the message is sent, remembering that they haven’t spoken in almost two months, and that the last time they had, Laura had pretty soundly rejected Carmilla. Maybe the excited boast is too familiar, she thinks, anxiety rising in her throat like bile.

The message flashes ‘read’ but no response from Carmilla comes. Laura tries not to read into the disappointment she feels.

She walks the few blocks back to her apartment texting with LaFontaine instead, who is a much more ready conversation partner. It’s near midnight in Montreal, so her friend has just begun their day in Austria. LaFontaine is effusive with their praise as always, promising that they’ve DVR’d the game and will watch it that night. By the time Laura is setting her phone down on her bedside table at home, she’s smiling and happy again.

She wakes up to a text from Carmilla.

[Carm] Helluva shot, cutie.

 

December follows, and the all-star break looms like a guillotine. It’s the deadline for players in the minors to secure a major-league contract, if they want to be eligible for a playoff roster spot come the spring. The Panthers can have twenty-three players on their active roster for games, but up to fifty on contract overall, who can be moved up and down between the leagues as needed throughout the season.

The tension in the Cubs’ locker room is palpable every time lineups are posted. Their coach receives word from the Panthers each morning, and players expected to be contracted often have to be scratched from games to fly to Toronto for contract signings. Suddenly, Laura finds that seeing her name on that night’s lineup engenders disappointment rather than excitement. Having just begun to feel her old passion for playing return, the change is not a welcome one.

The all-star break is the week before Christmas, and even the minor league takes the break to allow the players a chance to take in the spectacle of the major league festivities. Laura books a flight to Toronto, planning to stay with her father and commute into the city for events. At the last moment, though, he tells her that he hasn’t been feeling well, and won’t be up to coming with her. So she books a hotel instead, wishing him a speedy recovery over the phone as she makes the reservation.

 

The last game before the all-star break is an important one, with the Cubs surprisingly jockeying for a wildcard spot in the minor league playoffs. Laura sees her name again on the roster the day before, in the first defensive pairing, and the meaning of the game is enough to temper her disappointment that she’ll most likely be stuck with the Cubs for the rest of the year. She snaps a picture of the lineup on her phone and sends it to Carmilla with a sad face attached.

[Laura] Guess I’ll be waiting a little longer.

Carmilla’s response takes a few minutes to come through.

[Carm] Que sera, cupcake.

[Laura] Very motivational.

Again, it takes a few minutes for Carmilla’s next text to ping into Laura’s inbox.

[Carm] How’s this then?

Attached is a photo. It’s not risqué or even particularly sensual, but Laura feels a blush curl up her throat to heat her cheeks nonetheless. The picture is a selfie, Carmilla sitting in front of her locker at the stadium in Toronto. She’s pulling a face, winking and grinning for the camera. She looks to still have her shoulder pads on without a jersey, her hair pulled back into a ponytail complete with adorable flyaways near her temples that make Laura’s fingers itch. The faint sheen of drying sweat is still apparent over the one side of her face and neck Laura can see. The Panther’s logo is visible on the wall of her locker behind her.

Laura clutches her phone a little tighter. It’s been a few months since she’s had Carmilla’s face this close, never mind that it’s through a phone screen this time. It should be disconcerting that seeing it hasn’t lost its effect on Laura, but really all the picture engenders is relief that Carmilla doesn’t seem to have been fazed by Laura’s rejection. Counter-intuitive as that might be, Laura can’t deny the soft sort of arousal that creeps into her belly the longer she traces the lines of Carmilla’s smiling face with her eyes.

[Laura] That’s more like it.

[Carm] Are you coming to the break in Toronto this year? I know they give you peewees the week off, too.

Laura rolls her eyes, the arousal from just a moment ago rapidly fleeing her senses as she gears up for another sarcastic chirping match with Carmilla.

[Laura] Well I was, but you’re sending me pictures now, so why bother to make the trip at all?

It’s not a great start to keeping things professional between them, but Laura can’t seem to remember why that was ever important. Not when she can almost hear the suggestive snicker in Carmilla’s next reply.

[Carm] There are certain advantages to seeing in person.

Laura tries and fails to stop recollection from building back into her brain. The way Carmilla had looked at her in the soft light from the street, the feel of her jacket twisted in Laura’s hands as she fought not to give into the urge to kiss her. Laura shivers at the memory.

[Laura] Yeah, definitely not a good idea.

[Carm] We have such different definitions of good.

[Laura] You know what I mean.

Carmilla confirms that she does, and something clicks into place in Laura’s head. Carmilla does know what she means, almost always. Even when she needles at Laura until she wants to pull her own hair out.

Laura thinks briefly of the mortifying ordeal of being known as this new realization sinks into her chest and threatens never to leave.

 

Laura gets into Toronto on the Sunday night before the all-star week festivities are set to begin. Everything from the airport, to the streets, to even the façade of her hotel are decked out in banners and flashing advertisements for upcoming hockey events. Toronto is a large city, but it seems entirely consumed with good hockey energy. Laura lets herself get swept up in the spectacle, and it feels good to let herself be a fan for a week.

Her hotel room is modest, but the bed is a California King, a leg up from her double in the apartment in Montreal. Laura takes a few minutes to luxuriate in all the extra space before unpacking her suitcase for the week. When she’s done putting her clothes away and her toothbrush on the sink, she checks out the packet the Cubs had provided with an activity schedule.

There’s not much happening on the first day besides some player media appearances. Carmilla and Danny have both made the All-Star team, and Mel and Crocker will join them and some of the other Panthers for a peewee hockey clinic in the afternoon on Thursday. The all-star game itself is scheduled for Friday night, and each night before then is filled with skill challenges and mini competitions. The week is supposed to be a fun romp in celebration of the best of hockey, and Laura can’t wait to dive in.

 

Laura wakes to a phone call buzzing her phone nearly off the bedside table. She scrambles for it in a post-sleep haze, squinting to see the caller ID and then swiping to accept the call.

“I hear congratulations are in order, sweetheart,” comes Carmilla’s voice on the other end of the line.

Laura is still foggy-brained from sleep, and the endearment settles warmly in her chest. She doesn’t have the wherewithal to be embarrassed about the dopey smile that spreads across her face. Or to think twice about giving an unfiltered response in kind.

“Such a sweet talker,” she says, settling back against her pillows.

“Well you know me,” Carmilla chuckles back. If Laura had been more awake, she might have caught the bashful slant to Carmilla’s hedging.

“I do. You try to be all dark and mysterious, but I know better.”

“Do you?”

“Mhm,” Laura says. “You’re really just a big softie.”

“Only for you though,” Carmilla whispers back. There’s a crack in her words that Laura, still sleep addled and being lulled back to slumber with each pass of Carmilla’s voice into her ear, doesn’t hear.

“Yeah,” Laura sighs, near sleep again. “I know that, too.”

“Call your agent when you’re actually awake, okay? Then text me. You’ve got some celebrating to do.”

 

When Laura’s alarm finally sounds, it’s two inches from her head. Her phone slips down her pillow with the vibration, and she squirms like an angry octopus to catch it and cut off the beeping. She looks at it in confusion, her sleepy brain having erased her early-morning conversation with Carmilla.

There’s a message from Perry waiting for her. In lieu of her father, Perry had agreed to accompany her to some of the festivities this week. She isn’t half the hockey fan Sherman is, but Laura is looking forward to spending some time with her friend.

[Perry] I’ll be at your hotel around noon. Very excited to see you :)

Laura checks the time – it’s just after 10 AM – and sends a message back for Perry to meet her at their chosen lunch spot instead. She’s too giddy with anticipation to wait around the hotel for two hours.

She grabs some complimentary coffee from the hotel lobby once she’s downstairs, pouring her four sugars while blissfully unaware of the judgmental stare she gets from the coffee attendant for it. The lobby television is broadcasting some of the player interviews from that morning, live from the media room at the stadium. And since she has some time, Laura finds an empty armchair and watches for a bit.

It’s a forward’s panel interview, she realizes after a while. Carmilla is there, sitting at a long table along with the other forwards who made the Eastern Conference all-star team. Their Western Conference counterparts are at a table across the room from them, also taking questions.

“Question for Megan Riley,” a reporter stands up. Megan, a power forward who plays for New York’s team, nods her head at him. “Your front of net presence is markedly improved this year. Anything you attribute that to?”

It’s a softball question, like most of the presser will be. The all-star game is a celebration of hockey and the women who play it, and reporters are more interested in puff pieces than in hard-hitting exposes right now.

“I put on a few extra pounds of muscle this offseason,” Megan says. “I think the extra weight and strength helps me establish position better, and I’m a bigger visual obstacle for goalies now.”

“She hits like a freight train on the backcheck, too,” Carmilla says from her seat next to her. When the camera pans to her, she’s smiling. It lights up her face like it so rarely does in Laura’s experience, and Laura stutters a bit over her coffee at the sight. The rest of the table laughs along with her, Megan included.

“Keep your head up next time, Carm,” she says, shrugging innocently. Carmilla cocks her head as through considering this for a moment, but Laura knows her too well to fall for that. And she remembers the play, how Carmilla had flicked a pass back to Danny at the point before getting absolutely crushed by Megan. How Danny had slapped the puck home for a goal. She smiles to herself before Carmilla even opens her mouth to respond.

“We got the goal in the end, so I suppose it was a fair trade.”

Megan laughs again, prompting the others to snicker as well. Laura’s never seen Carmilla in front of the press before. She seems to be in her element, grinning and joking with her colleagues. It doesn’t take much for Laura to imagine herself there next to her, grinning right along, too.

“Question for Carmilla,” comes the next reporter then. “You’ve had a great first half, but the Panthers have struggled at times to put together consecutive wins. What do you think the team needs to do better in the second half to gain in the playoff standings?”

“We could use more what Riley’s having,” Carmilla jokes. Megan shoves her in the shoulder, scoffing. “No, I mean it. I think if we tighten up more on the puck and take the body a bit more, I think that solves most of our issues. We’ll make the adjustment.”

Laura nods her head from her seat in the hotel lobby, as though she’s in the audience with the reporters. Several more people have stopped with her to watch the press conference, the lobby filling up slowly as the morning wanes. By the time the broadcast cuts to commercial so the defensive all-stars can take their places from the forwards, Laura’s coffee has gone cold and she needs to hurry to be on-time to meet Perry at the restaurant.

She does just get there in time, Perry only shaking her head a little bit when Laura trots breathlessly up to the bench she’s perched on. She hugs Laura swiftly before they’re seated out on the patio, and lets Laura tattle on about hockey while they wait for their lunch to arrive.

“So this, what did you say her name was? Carmilla,” Perry asks, just as Laura is taking a too-large bite of her sandwich. Laura chokes and chews and manages to swallow. Perry smiles patiently while she does. “You’ve mentioned her quite a few times.”

“Did I,” Laura asks, frantically replaying her incessant blathering over the last few minutes. She thinks maybe if she wasn’t able to speak so quickly it’d be easier.

“I don’t want to dampen any professional relationships you’re cultivating,” Perry says. “But I just think you should be careful. You seem quite taken with her, is all.”

Laura knows what Perry means, and thinks immediately of how close she’d come to pulling Carmilla bodily into a kiss in her building lobby. The memory has her flushing, so of course her own brand of nervous babbling kicks in.

“No idea what you could mean,” she says, her voice too high to be convincing even if Perry could be put off the trail with a simple denial anyway. “She’s just a colleague. No forbidden gay pining here, no sir.”

“Laura,” Perry says, a little less gently. She puts down her chicken wrap, and it absurdly adds a bit more gravity to what she says next. “I’m not admonishing you for having a crush. I just want you to be careful with how you deal with it. This woman is your colleague, and she deserves a professional environment free from unasked-for advances.”

That gives Laura pause. Perry’s blue eyes bore into her, but Laura is back in her building lobby again, warring with her own uncertainty and Carmilla’s maddening confidence.

I’m only asking to kiss you goodnight.

“I don’t think you need to worry about that,” she says slowly. She isn’t sure how to describe her dynamic with Carmilla. How they exist in this weird, liminal space of wanted but unwanted advances.

“I have full faith in your ability to navigate any situation professionally and gracefully,” Perry says primly, going back to her lunch as though that settles the matter. Laura makes a noise of ascent and returns to her sandwich, too, though her stomach is roiling a bit with now-familiar unease.

 

Perry stays in Laura’s hotel room that night. They buy a movie from the hotel’s pay-per-view, make overpriced microwave popcorn from the minibar, and raid the hallway vending machine for candy. Like on so many of their long nights in college, they end up falling asleep together under a shared blanket. Laura wakes up with a terrible crick in her neck, feeling happier and more settled than she has in months.

They grab a quick breakfast of fruit and cereal from the hotel’s continental offerings, and head out into the city again for the second day of festivities. Tuesday is when the skill challenges begin, and they start early in the afternoon with the slapshot contest. Danny is participating, of course, and is expected to win the thing.

They get to the rink early. Danny and the other competitors are already on the ice, taking their warmup shots and generally fooling around to kill time. When Danny sees Laura next to the boards, she waves her over to the rinkside gate.

“Hey, Laura, I was hoping you’d show!” Danny enthuses, holding the gate open for her. Perry very gingerly follows Laura onto the ice. “Who’s your friend?”

“Oh, right, Danny, this is Lola Perry. She’s one of my oldest friends,” Laura says. Perry extends a shaky hand to Danny, her other hand clenched around the short boards to keep herself upright. “She’s, uh, not at sure as I am on the ice.”

Danny laughs at that, but offers Perry her arm to skate her over to the bench.

“Nice to mee you, Lola,” she says. Perry waives her off.

“Perry’s fine, everyone uses it.”

Once she’s done depositing a very grateful Perry on the bench, Danny turns back to Laura.

“Did you bring your skates?” she asks.

“No, sorry,” Laura says. “I didn’t even know if they’d allow me to get down to rink-level without a pass.”

“I’ve got a pair you can use,” Carmilla says from behind her. Laura is unable to hide her startle and she whips her head around to the sound.

“Carm,” she says. Carmilla raises an eyebrow at her.

“Didn’t think you’d be here until later, Vampirella,” Danny says. Her voice has gone hard, and Laura catches Perry looking at her appraisingly from the bench, assessing the change.

“I had some time to kill,” Carmilla shrugs. “Might as well kill it on the ice.”

“Isn’t about now when you’re trying to break your record for most groupies in a single all-star week?”

Carmilla looks at Danny hotly for a moment, and Laura feels sure that she’s about to spit something equally fiery back at the defenseman. Instead, she takes a breath a hair deeper than normal, and shrugs again, schooling her face back into indifference.

“Not everyone is as obsessed with my pickup prowess as you are, Lawrence,” she says. Danny scoffs and does her best to stomp as she skates away.

Carmilla turns back to Laura.

“You’re what, a seven? My spare skates should fit well enough for you to glide around anyway.”

“You’re doing it again,” Laura says by way of answer.

“Doing what, cupcake?” Carmilla says. There’s a sweet edge to her voice that Laura doesn’t trust, saccharine like she’s speaking with a child.

“Completely glossing over how you and Danny can’t be in the same ten-foot bubble without arguing about nothing,” Laura says. Behind her, Perry watches the whole ordeal with the same appraising expression she’s had since she sat down.

“It’s not my fault if she flies off the handle at absolutely nothing,” Carmilla says. Her voice is still sweet, but there’s a crack of annoyance in the icing now. “Now do you want my spare skates or not? A few of us were going to play a quick pickup game of three-on-three, and you’re welcome to join if you want to stop giving me the third degree for once.”

“I’m sorry,” Laura says, and means it. Carmilla takes a breath like she’s ready to argue some more, but deflates at the sincerity in Laura’s tone. “I can get, uh.”

“Incessant and rude?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s fine,” Carmilla says, curt and turning away so Laura doesn’t see – is she blushing? “Now do you want to play or what?”

The truth is that Laura isn’t going to stop pressing her. And she can’t give Carmilla a lot of what she’s ever asked of her. But she can give Carmilla this. The more she stands there, the more the need to give in, just a little here, pulls at Laura’s chest.

“You’re lucky I decided to wear my sweats.”

Carmilla spares her a small smile, and tells her where to find her bag under the bench. Laura hops the boards and sits next to Perry to lace up the skates.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” Perry says, nudging her shoulder. Laura looks up from her laces.

“What do you mean?” Laura asks, trepidatious. She replays the interactions she just had with Danny and Carmilla, trying to sus shout where she’d been unprofessional or even predatory. Nothing comes to mind.

“You didn’t mention she likes you, too,” Perry says. Laura’s eyes go wide, and she loses her grip on her laces. Fumbling to pick them back up, she ducks her head to hide the blush she can feel raging up her neck to color her cheeks. Perry laughs beside her.

“You’ve got it bad, Laura,” she says, sympathetic but still chuckling. “I’m so sorry.”

Laura rolls her eyes good-naturedly, “Thanks for the sympathy vote, Per.”

Perry gets a page, then.

“Sorry, it’s the hospital, I’ll need to call in,” she says, already rising. She wobbles out of the bench gate and onto the ice, slowly making her way back to the opening where the boards meet the stands to exit. Laura hadn’t known that Perry would be on-call while they were here, but she decides not to worry about it.

 

She yanks the laces as tight as she can, but Carmilla’s skates are still just the slightest bit too big for her. It’s not a big difference, really, but Laura has become accustomed to custom-fitted skates in her short time as a pro, and while Carmilla’s skates aren’t by any means on the same level as rentals, the fit just isn’t quite right around her feet.

Laura uses the rink gate rather than jumping the boards again to get back on the ice, taking a few easy steps to get a feel for the blades. Carmilla uses slightly thinner blades than Laura does, but the difference isn’t too noticeable, at least at a slower speed.

Carmilla glides up next to her, spinning to skate backwards and face her, holding a spare stick in her hands.

“The curve will be off, but it’ll do for a no-contact game,” she says. Laura grabs the stick and gives the curve a swipe with her ungloved hand before dropping it to the ice.

“Thanks, Carm,” she says.

Carmilla gives her a laugh and a smile before hopping back forward to speed away from her. Laura grins herself, and digs her edges in to follow.

Carmilla and Megan Riley – who is also here early for the slapshot competition – fasten net guards over each of the goals while the others pick teams. Laura ends up on a team with Carmilla and a lumbering defenseman from St. Louis named Sahar Amry.

“Rules are simple,” Megan says when she and Carmilla rejoin the group. “No hitting, and you’ve gotta score high. Lift the puck to lift the Cup, ladies.”

The group laughs at the joke. The net guards block off the majority of the goal, so scoring won’t be easy even though there are no goalies among them. There are four holes in them, one in each corner of the net, and only a upper-corner goal will count here.

“First team to three goals, wins,” Carmilla follows up. “We’ll flip a coin for first possession.”

She produces a quarter and turns to Megan before flipping it. Megan calls for tails as it spins back down to the ice, skittering a small distance. Carmilla follows it, squatting down to see what it’s landed on before picking it back up.

“Heads! We’ll take the puck first,” she says, grinning. Laura can feel the competitive energy starting to roil off of her now. There’s an edge to the way Carmilla turns to skate back to her and Sahar, picking up more speed than necessary before edging to a swift stop with a little snow shower.

She’s attractive like this, a few flyaway strands of hair already poking out of her loose ponytail, cheeks just a bit pink from the small amount of exertion she’s undertaken. When she takes Sahar and Laura by the shoulders and leans them both down into a secret huddle, Laura’s chest blooms with naked affection.

“Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” Carmilla says. Laura and Sahar both lean in a bit to catch her intense whispers. “Amry, you keep Riley out of the slot. If she gets position, they’ll feed her the puck the whole time and we’ll never get it back. Laura, you patrol the blue line on offense, and try to get the puck to either of us when you draw Lawrence out. If we can play keep away and pick our shots well, I’ve got enough speed to stretch the ice for us a bit.”

Carmilla is fast, Laura sees. It’s been months since they’ve been on the ice together, and they’ve played all of a period and a half of real hockey on the same side. With fewer skaters on the ice and no checking to worry about, Carmilla really lets herself go, edging around their opponent and getting herself open for flashes of scoring opportunity that Laura struggles to keep up with at first.

She can see the frustrated set in Carmilla’s jaw as Laura passes the puck to her in the slot, again just a bit too late. Carmilla swings to her backhand, trying to lift the puck around Megan Riley just behind her, but the shot gets mangled in the webbing of the net blocker and Carmilla lets out a low curse at being stymied.

She jostles past Laura on her way back into the neutral zone, as Megan gathers the puck from in front of the crease and the other team starts moving up ice.

“Quicker than that, cupcake,” she says. Laura pushes her back, but doesn’t reply.

At least on defense Laura is a bit more sure of herself. Megan drops the puck off to Danny at the blue line, and Laura surges up into the high slot to meet her. Danny eyes her, appraising, and tries to deke around her like she’d been able to do in practice all those months ago. But Laura isn’t the same player she was in the preseason, and Danny isn’t quick enough to get by her. Laura pokes at her stick, leaning hard on her edges to force Danny to the boards. She’d normally finish the maneuver with a hip check, to keep Danny out of the play for a few more moments once she’d relinquished the puck. But she’s not allowed to hit here, so instead she pokes at the puck between Danny’s feet, and it skitters away behind her and back into the neutral zone. Laura turns on her unfamiliar edges just fast enough to beat Danny to it.

Carmilla has anticipated her steal better than Laura had foreseen her moves earlier, and is already past her, streaking towards the other blue line with Megan Riley desperately trying to keep pace with her. Laura saucers the puck over Megan’s flailing stick. It lands with a clack on Carmilla’s blade just as she’s crossing the blue line, and by then Megan is too far behind her to do anything but watch as Carmilla flips the puck through one of the holes in the net blocker with an easy wrist shot.

“That’s one,” Carmilla taunts Megan as she spins a quick circle around the goal and back towards center ice. “Keep up if you can, ladies.”

Megan rolls her eyes but smiles good-naturedly at the ribbing. Behind her, though, Danny slams her stick into the ice with so much force that Laura worries she’ll snap it.

Laura and Sahar meet Carmilla in the middle of the rink for celebratory hugs and head pats. They’re not as exuberant as they’d have been in a real game, but Laura lets herself feel the mirth of them just the same. It feels good to be on the ice with Carmilla and Danny and the rest of the pros again. It feels right.

And more than that, Laura is finding that she can hold her own.

They score again, this time when Sahar finds Carmilla in the slot with better timing than Laura had. Laura watches her flick the puck towards the goal, Carmilla materializing almost out of nowhere to receive it and fire it home into a top corner of the net. She replays the move Sahar had made in her head, the timing and strength of the pass, filing away for future use that the defenseman hadn’t aimed for Carmilla’s stick so much as for a space in the slot that Carmilla had moved to fill.

While she’s assessing, though, Carmilla and Sahar are fist bumping and Carmilla is rubbing their two-goal lead in the other team’s face. High on the adrenaline of even a meaningless victory, breathing hard from her play and calling out her boasts like some proud conqueror.

Neither of them see Danny come from just behind Carmilla’s right shoulder until she’s already checking her, launching her shoulder-first into the ice. Carmilla grunts with the impact, cursing low and harsh as she bounces back to her feet. She gains her footing again in the same instinctive roll all forwards are taught, letting her momentum swing her knees back under her so she can push back on her edges to stand again. But she sways, just a bit, after she’s righted, and falls back down to one knee.

Laura swallows reflexively, worried that Carmilla’s hit her head on the ice, unhelmeted and thus unprotected from the hard surface.

And then the rink gets loud with shouting.

“Fucking get up,” Danny yells at Carmilla. “Not so high and mighty now, huh?”

It’s a cheap shot after a cheap shot. None of them are wearing pads or helmets – it was the reason for the no-hitting rule – and all of them are having seasons too good to risk over a pickup game of three-on-three. The other three women advance on Danny.

“What the fuck, Lawrence,” Sahar shouts, pushing Danny back from where Carmilla is regaining her balance.

“Poor form, Dan,” Megan agrees. “It’s just pickup, calm down.”

“Fuck this,” Danny spits, anger rolling off her shoulders.

But Laura doesn’t have eyes for Danny, or for the others. She’s already at Carmilla’s side, touching her shoulders gingerly, feeling for injury.

“I’m fine, cupcake,” the woman beneath her says. “She just caught me off guard is all.”

“Did you hit your head,” Laura asks anyway. “I saw you sway, like you –”

“I said I’m fine,” Carmilla says with a bit more force. She ushers Laura’s wrist away from her head and grips at her shoulder, leaning on Laura to help herself up. Laura doesn’t believe her, can see a slight lack of focus in Carmilla’s gaze when she fixes it just over Danny’s shoulder.

“Can you even see straight right now,” Laura all but hisses at her.

“I never see straight,” Carmilla jokes. Laura feels her frown set harder into her own jaw. This isn’t funny.

Carmilla shouts at Danny before Laura can respond, though, “Didn’t take you for a sore loser, Lawrence. Cross checking a girl over a game of pickup, really?”

“Sore winners get popped,” Danny snarls back, taking a quick stride in Carmilla’s direction.

Laura puts her body between Danny and Carmilla without thinking about it, scooting Carmilla behind her with an insistent hand at her elbow. She needn’t have bothered – the other three girls hold Danny back from even getting close again, two of them grabbing for her shoulders while Megan Riley stands obstinately in her path, arms folded over her chest.

“Think it’s time you left to cool off, Lawrence,” she says. Danny huffs, and wrenches out of the hold the other two have on her.

“Whatever,” she spits, stalking away.

Megan sighs, “I’ll go see about getting her back here for the comp. We’ve still got some time.”

She turns to face Carmilla, and finds Laura still set in front of her. Megan gives Laura a once-over, her face breaking into a smile too knowing to give Laura anything but discomfort. But she looks over Laura’s shoulder to Carmilla without comment.

“You good, Karnstein?”

“I’m fine,” Carmilla says. Laura can hear the eye roll in her voice, and she hears Carmilla straighten behind her. A ruffle of clothing that’s probably Carmilla crossing her arms over her chest a bit petulantly reaches her, too.

“Good. See you at the show, then,” Megan says, skating backwards and then flipping around to go headlong after Danny down the player’s tunnel.

The other two players skate off as well, to start their own preparations for the slapshot competition that’ll be starting in a couple of hours. It leaves Laura and Carmilla alone at center ice.

“Please do not fuss over me when you turn around,” Carmilla says.

Laura does turn, and the spark of indignation in her belly threatens to stoke right into righteous anger. There’s definitely some kindling in the way Carmilla is absolutely still petulant and defiant in her stance, arms crossed and hip jutted out.

She looks stupidly, awfully attractive, too, wearing that scowl and that attitude, but that’s beside the point.

“What, I’m not allowed to care about my friend,” Laura asks, and it’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Because Carmilla sneers at her like she sneers at Danny before she answers.

“Is that what we are,” she challenges. “Friends?”

“I – yes,” Laura says, feeling off balance. She’d expected Carmilla to fuss over being fussed over, a victim of obstinate hockey player pride and what was probably a mild concussion. She mulls over the word, though, and finds it doesn’t sit quite right when she’s looking at Carmilla and the hard lines of disapproval drawn into her face.

“Maybe,” she hedges, then. Carmilla’s shoulders sink.

“You should know, I’m no good at this part,” she says. “This in between, whatever we have here.”

And that’s not fair, Laura thinks. Their conversation the other morning is lost to her, a fleeting dream she can’t recall with any sort of clarity without prompting. And so she speaks with the surety of someone who has been very clear about where she stands.

“We’re not in between anything,” Laura says. “I told you what I want.”

“You have,” Carmilla agrees. “And then you pick up my call and sigh when I call you ‘sweetheart’ and call me a big softie. What am I supposed to do with that?”

Laura lets her confusion play across her face and bring her brows together. Carmilla laughs, humorless.

“You don’t remember, do you? Just my luck,” she says, voice sharp with bitterness. “Look, forget I said anything.”

And Carmilla skates past her, careful to twist her body so it doesn’t make contact with Laura’s as she goes by. But Laura grabs her arm before she can pass completely, and Carmilla jerks to a stop with a surprised grunt. She looks at Laura’s hand, clenched on her upper arm, before lifting her eyes to Laura’s own.

“We can go back to pretending there’s nothing here,” she says. She’s giving Laura an out, and Laura knows she should take it. Say thank you, even.

But suddenly the dreamy morning is coming back to her. The same sweet contentment seeps back into her brain as she thinks of how Carmilla’s voice had lulled her back to sleep. How syrupy and light she’d felt, trading unguarded affection with her.

And she aches for it.

Laura moves her hand from Carmilla’s arm to stroke the backs of her fingers softly over her cheek. Carmilla breathes deeply, but her gaze stays true to Laura’s eyes, and she doesn’t lean into the touch. Laura’s heart pangs at the guarded look, the statuesque stillness of her. Her fingers feel electric where they’re touching Carmilla’s skin, like she’ll leave marks when she’s done. She wonders if Carmilla can feel that, too.

“We should,” she says, and the way Carmilla can’t keep a flash of hurt from her face crunches pain into Laura’s chest. “But I don’t want to.”

She really does have it bad.

 

Chapter Text

“It’s your call,” Carmilla says. Laura’s fingers are still on her cheek, unmoving but soft.

“I don’t think I’m very good at this, either,” Laura admits. Carmilla tilts her neck so her face breaks contact with Laura’s hand. They both take a bit of a shuddery breath before looking back at each other.

“You’re probably right, in any case,” Carmilla tells her. “Especially now.”

“Especially now what,” Laura laughs. “Now that I’ve told you outright that I should have kissed you that night in my foyer.”

Carmilla’s eyes flash with something akin to victory, for a moment. She shakes her head and the look fades, but Laura is faster now at reading her, and a little thrill runs up her spine at the sight.

“You missed more than you outing yourself when you fell asleep this morning,” Carmilla says. “Before you tell me you want to make out in the middle of this stadium, you should call your agent.”

“I never said –” Laura starts, stops once Carmilla’s words actually register in her speeding brain. “Wait, why my agent? What do you know?”

Carmilla opens her mouth, and then closes it with a grimace.

“I’m not sure I’m supposed to be the one to tell you. Just call him, okay? And let me know once you talk.”

But Laura is already skating back to the bench, leaning over the boards to nab her cell phone from the pine. She’s dialing her agent’s number before Carmilla is done speaking. Carmilla, for her part, seems to know better than to insist Laura make this call after she leaves. She skates leisurely over and props herself up on the boards next to Laura, facing away from the bench.

It takes a few rings before Laura’s agent’s receptionist picks up. And she tells Laura that her agent is in a meeting and won’t be able to get back to her for another half hour.

“Come on, Jess, give me a break here. Can’t you just look in my file for any updates,” Laura pleads with her, clutching her phone rather more dramatically than the situation calls for.

Jess tells her no, with her usual professional apologetics but no honest sympathy, as far as Laura can tell. Laura huffs and thanks her anyway and hangs up. She flips her phone to the floor of the bench, where it bounces off the rubberized floor and out of sight under the bench itself.

“What’s with the wounded puppy look,” Carmilla laughs. “It’s only a half hour.”

“Eavesdropping is incredibly rude, Carm,” Laura says petulantly, knocking her forehead against the top of the short boards.

Carmilla pushes off the boards next to her to close the distance between them. Laura sinks farther into the boards, forehead first, letting her neck support her head and drooping her shoulders. Carmilla gives her a ginger pat on the back.

“You don’t have to do that,” Laura says. “I know I’m being dramatic, just give it a minute.”

Carmilla laughs behind her, just loud enough to be audible and closer than Laura expects. The sound sends a shiver down her spine, and she clamps down on as many muscles as she can remember she has to stop the stupid shudder that threatens to follow.

That’s also a little dramatic, she thinks.

Carmilla doesn’t push her, though, and Laura is able to sigh a little in relief and a little to calm herself down. When she pushes back off the boards, Carmilla is still next to her, scrolling through her phone as though she’s got nowhere better to be.

“Who’s your agent,” Laura asks. Carmilla hums back in question, pulling her gaze up to Laura’s eyes as she finishes reading whatever is on her screen.

“Your agent,” Laura repeats.

Carmilla chews on the inside of her cheek for a moment, considering.

“A friend of mine from college, actually,” she says.

“And he does okay,” Laura says. It’s not a question. She knows what Carmilla’s contract looks like – it’s public knowledge she’d googled months ago.

“My situation is a little unique,” Carmilla says, frowning. She seems to make a decision, then, tilting her chin up before she speaks again. “He’s always in my corner, though.”

Laura has grown up with a strong support system, despite the death of her mother when she was in elementary school. Having people in her corner isn’t momentous to her. But it feels momentous when Carmilla says it.

Sadness pulls at Laura’s throat for a moment.

“Can I have his number,” she says with a laugh, trying to pop the bubble of import suddenly encasing them.

Thankfully, Carmilla laughs too.

 

Hockey players aren’t particularly vengeful. Scrums and conflicts, even physical conflicts, happen in practice all the time. Players need to blow off steam, or there’s unspoken animosity between some of them, and suddenly there’s a quick scrap that settles the score. Danny’s antics from the pickup game prove no different. Even from her and Perry’s perch in the upper bowl, Laura can see that Danny is back to her usual sunny self, jostling her compatriots and laughing amongst the waiting players while others take their shots.

Laura’s agent gets back to during the event, when she and Perry are sitting in the stands and watching Danny fire absolute missiles into the net. Danny shatters her own record for the hardest shot in league history, easily winning the competition, but Laura misses the shot that does it, because she’s huddled in the stairwell with a hand clamped over her free ear as her agent’s secretary delivers the news.

She has a meeting the next morning at 9:30 with the general manager. Her contract is being bought by the Panthers.

 

Perry takes her out for drinks to celebrate, despite Laura’s insistence that this doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll get to play at the highest level this year.

“You should take time to appreciate accomplishments as they happen,” Perry counsels her when Laura rebuffs her initial suggestion. And Laura doesn’t have an excuse good enough to voice after that.

It’s how they end up at a swanky downtown club around midnight, already buzzed from several drinks at dinner. Clubs generally aren’t really Laura’s scene, but this one at least isn’t thumping and loud so much as it’s pulsing with relaxing energy. Semi-private booths line the walls, surrounding a small wooden dance floor, and the whole space is awash in muted reddish light. Perry sends her to reserve a booth for them and heads for the bar, leaving Laura to skirt around the dance floor looking for an open seat.

She finds one near the back, across the floor from the bar, and slides in. The soft piano in the corner mutes the farther she slides into the booth, and the quiet is welcome to the throb of alcohol running through her head. She leans her head back against the plush backrest of the booth and closes her eyes.

“Tapping out already,” Perry’s voice rouses her. She’s back from the bar, carrying two drinks and a stand for a table number.

“Just resting my eyes,” Laura says. She takes Perry’s offered drink and swallows a bit of it to wake herself. It’s fruity, with vodka, she thinks.

“I got you mozzarella sticks,” Perry says next, sliding into the booth next to her. Laura lights up at that, smiling a bit lopsidedly with drink but no less earnestly for it.

Perry checks her phone, smiling when she sees the time.

“Lafontaine should be up now,” she says, a happy tilt to the words. “Have you told them yet, or should we facetime?”

Laura responds enthusiastically for the latter, scooting closer to Perry so they’ll both be in frame. Lafontaine picks up on the second ring, looking somewhat groggy from sleep. They perk up noticeably when Perry’s face comes into view, smiling at the pair of them sleepily.

“Hey, Per, Laura, what’s up,” they say. They look behind them to their bedside table and frown. “Isn’t it like after midnight there? What’s the occasion?”

“Laura has had a professional breakthrough, and we’re celebrating her great success,” Perry says. Laura is rolling her eyes to hide her bashful response to the words before Perry is even done with them. Lafontaine laughs fondly, their voice a bit garbled in the connection.

“You wrap up MVP already, Hollis,” they ask, turning their gaze finally from Perry’s flushed, pleased face to Laura’s redder one.

“Nothing that important,” Laura says. “The Panthers signed me to the 50-man roster. I have a meeting with the GM’s office tomorrow morning – uh, later this morning, I suppose.”

“Hey, Laur, that’s great,” they enthuse.

“And there’s more,” Perry says before Lafontaine can say anything else, her voice so thick with innuendo that Laura really should have seen the next bit coming. “Laura’s got a beau.”

“Oh my god, Per,” Laura says. She snatches the phone from her loose grip and turns her back to Perry so she can have a word with Lafontaine without any more buzzed add-ons from Perry. She can feel the heat rising in her cheeks. And worse, Lafontaine is laughing.

“I do not have a – ” her voice chokes off around the word. And maybe it’s the alcohol, but her thoughts go right back to Carmilla in her suit before their one preseason game together, looking distinctly beau-ish and walking into the arena with Laura at her side.

“You finally get up the nerve to make a pass at that Carmilla,” Lafontaine says, chuckling either at Laura’s drunken insistence or Perry’s buzzed reaching for her phone. Maybe both. Laura doesn’t have the brain space to parse that around the hot embarrassment she can feel rising in her throat again. It’s a goddamn wonder she can breathe around it.

Lafontaine, the only sober one of the three of them, seems to recognize the impending panic attack building in Laura’s body, and de-escalates as best they can from four thousand miles away.

“Perry, hold off a minute,” they say. Perry seems suggestible enough that she acquiesces, leaning her head on Laura’s shoulder to stay in view of the screen but ceasing her incessant grabbing for the phone.

“Laura, I was only joking. I know you’ve been sweet on this woman for a bit, I thought that was all Perry was on about. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

Their voice is calm and steady, the apology genuine, and Laura does relax a bit.

“It’s fine, Laf,” she says finally. “Perry’s just drunk and she found out Carmilla likes me too, and honestly I’m surprised this is the first you’re hearing of that.”

Lafontaine laughs again, less mirth and more self-consciousness in the sound this time. Like they’ve been caught at something.

“Look, Laura,” they say, clearly avoiding Laura’s last statement. “It doesn’t surprise me. You’re not really one to pine after an unrequited attraction for this long. But, man, do you want my advice?”

“Advice about what,” Laura asks. In her own head, there’s nothing to be advised. She and Carmilla have some kind of attraction, that’s clear. But it’s also very clear to Laura that the option to act on it really isn’t available to her.

“About what to do to get over your hot colleague,” Lafontaine says. Perry snickers a bit on Laura’s shoulder.

“Go for it,” Laura says. Lafontaine is a safe place, for her. Always in her corner. She thinks of Carmilla again. But the safe feeling drains from her at what Lafontaine says next.

“I think you should ask her out.”

“Excuse me?”

“Hear me out, Laur,” Lafontaine puts a hand up, and Laura clamps her mouth shut to indulge them. “Interoffice relationships are a bit fraught. You’re in close enough proximity to each other, even in different provinces, that any little compatibility can feel like it could lead to something more. But it can’t. You’ll go on the date, and it’ll be so awkward the two of you probably won’t speak for a week afterwards. And then it’ll be over, and you can go back to being just colleagues.”

Laura turns the information over in her mind, trying to put her interactions with Carmilla into the context Lafontaine has laid out. It’s true that their relationship started more intimately than any Laura has had with a teammate before – roommates before they were even acquaintances. Maybe outside of the stark light of a hockey arena and in the harsher tones of the real world, she’ll discover that they don’t have much in common but the sport after all.

“So I should go out with her,” Laura parrots back, “because the date will be bad?”

“It’ll be horrible,” Lafontaine confirms. “You’ll make a couple hours of strained small talk, it’ll be awkward for a bit, and then you can get back to kicking ass and taking names on the ice without all the gay dramatics.”

“Huh,” Laura says. Lafontaine knows her better than to press the issue farther than that, letting Laura’s mile-a-minute brain run through everything a couple hundred times instead of speaking again.

Laura’s mozzarella sticks arrive then, and Lafontaine bows out of the call to get ready for work. Perry is far gone enough that she even helps herself to a cheesy fried morsel while Laura contemplates her newly-unlocked options between fruity sips of her drink.

 

She manages to drag herself out of bed in time to meet with the GM’s office the next morning, though she does enlist the help of several Advil before leaving the hotel room. She throws her hair into a messy-chic bun to keep it out of her face, and Perry waves her goodbye from the kitchenette’s counter where she’s trying to chase away her hangover with a mug of steaming tea, looking a bit green but smiling nonetheless.

The Panthers have a headquarter office near the stadium in the middle of the city. It’s a short train ride from Laura’s hotel before she’s standing in the lobby of the enormous, glass-walled building and waiting in line at reception in her Sunday best. She smooths out the light blue button up she’d put on, checking the waist of her black dress pants to make sure the shirt hasn’t come untucked during her journey.

“Laura Hollis,” the receptionist greets her by name when her time comes, smiling brightly. She seems to gloss over how Laura startles at being recognized. “Mister Vordenburg’s office on the seventh floor, just take the elevator straight up and make a right. You’ll find his liason in the conference room at the end of the hall.”

The still-smiling woman hands her a visitor’s pass with a metal clip attached, and Laura affixes it to one of her belt loops on her way to the elevator.

No one gives her a second glance on the elevator, or off it once she’s on the seventh floor and padding down the righthand hallway. The moment ought to feel momentous, she knows. This is her first major-league contract, after all, even if it’s not a guarantee of play time at the highest level. But all Laura feels is trepidation and a sort of terrifying loneliness as she continues down the unfamiliar corridor and peers into unfamiliar conference rooms to find the right one.

She’s so busy looking morosely for the right room at the end of the hall that she smacks right into a door when it opens abruptly in front of her.

“What – oh shit, I’m sorry,” comes a man’s voice from the other side of it. “I didn’t see you there, are you okay? Oh jeez, you didn’t break anything did you?”

Laura looks up with watery eyes, and then keeps looking up and up again, because the man the voice belongs to is at least a foot taller than she is. He’s wearing a smart black suit and tie, his kind blue eyes pinched half shut under his strong knitted brow in clear concern. He’s got a shock of silky-looking brown hair that has become disheveled in his haste to come around the door, and he looks less professional than he probably aims to as a result.

Laura doesn’t care, though, because she’s too busy being fucking mortified.

“No, you’re fine!” she says, rubbing gingerly at her nose and trying to stop the sympathetic tears that threaten to squeeze down her cheeks from the sensation. It doesn’t hurt, not compared to some of the hits she’s taken on the ice at least. But there’s an embarrassing burning around the edges of her eyes just the same.

“It looks worse than it is,” she continues. “I’ve had worse, is what I mean. You don’t have to – ”

“Shit, Kirsch, you’re making girls cry just looking at them now?”

Laura takes a quick look around for an escape and wonders stupidly if she’d be able to break through the window of the conference room and hurtle herself down to the ground, because that’s fucking Carmilla’s voice laughing about her getting decked in the face with a door.

And then Carmilla comes around Kirsch’s back and into the hallway, hands fisted in the pockets of her signature leather jacket.

“Oh,” she says. Laura is so used to Carmilla’s voice filling up a room that the quiet way she notices her is almost heart-stopping. It’s so unbearably soft, the recognition, and Laura feels it like a stab in her chest, warmth blooming there like it always does.

But Carmilla catches herself quickly, pins her brow indignant, and slaps Kirsch on the upper arm none-too-softly.

“Can you maybe not injure my teammates, Brody?”

“It was an accident, Carm, I swear, I just opened the door and there she was,” Kirsch says, wounded and so clearly apologetic that Laura actually laughs even through the warmth in her chest and the burning that still lingers around her eyes.

“It really was my fault,” she affirms. Kirsch looks at her with a puppy-dog grin at being defended.

“Always taking sides against me,” Carmilla says, rolling her eyes in what Laura knows is affection rather than derision.

“If you don’t like it, you should try to be wrong less,” Laura says. Kirsch guffaws loudly next to her, and Laura feels a blush splatter into her cheeks. It’d been an off-hand chirp, but they’re not on the ice now. Their GM’s office isn’t really the place for fond bickering.

But Carmilla just smiles at her, like she’s happy at the challenge, the twist of her lips reaching her brown eyes so clearly that Laura can’t help but smile back.

Kirsch looks between them quickly, his eyes narrowing in thought. His eyebrows jump into his hairline with almost comical speed when he comes to the correct conclusion some moments.

“Wait,” he says. He looks back to Carmilla, who is shooting him a look that should absolutely shut him up but doesn’t, before rounding on Laura again. “You’re Laura, aren’t you?”

“Uh,” Laura says, very intelligently of course. “Last time I checked?”

“This is her,” Kirsch whips around to Carmilla again, who only rolls her eyes at him.

“Yes, this is Laura. You might want to give her your number, seeing as how her current agent couldn’t even be bothered to send an emissary to her signing today.”

“No I mean she’s – ” Kirsch starts.

Carmilla’s words sink into Laura’s gut then, and she feels the sudden need to double over as though to catch her breath.

“What do you mean they didn’t send anyone,” she says, cutting off whatever Kirsch is starting to say with a shaking voice. She clenches her hands into fists at her sides to stop them shaking too.

Her chest is lit up with panic now, the feeling blitzing through her limbs the longer she thinks about a solo contract negotiation.

“Don’t worry, little ho – Laura,” Kirsch says, straightening his tie and running his long fingers through his hair to tame it. “I’m your man, we’ll knock ‘em dead in there.”

He looks to Carmilla for approval, and she nods back at him, seeming satisfied.

“You don’t have to do that,” Laura protests feebly.

“Of course he does,” Carmilla says. “Why else would I have brought him here?”

“Any friend of Carm’s is a friend of mine,” Kirsch confirms, ignoring Carmilla’s barb about his presence in her own meeting just a few minutes ago.

“Okay,” Laura says, voice a bit wet with relief. “Okay, thank you.”

A man in a suit with a tight crew cut pokes his head out the door then, looking at Carmilla and Kirsch in turn before turning to Laura.

“You’re Hollis,” he says. It’s not a question, but Laura nods at him anyway. “Come on, we’re five minutes late getting started, and you’re my last meeting before lunch.”

“Could you at least try for professional decorum,” Carmilla says then. Laura starts a bit at the familiar tone she uses with the man, but he just waves a hand toward her as though buzzing an annoying fly from his vision and laughs.

“Yeah, sure,” he says. He opens the door a bit wider and beckons Laura inside again. Kirsch goes before her, grabbing the man by the shoulder and steering him into the room.

“C’mon Willy,” he says. “You’re getting a double dose of the ol’ Kirsch magic today.”

“I can hardly wait,” the man laughs.

The door closes and leaves Laura alone in the hallway with Carmilla. The world seems to have tilted on its axis, and she thinks that if she moves just yet, it’ll only be to stumble embarrassingly.

“Don’t pay him too much mind,” Carmilla says. She steps closer to Laura until they’re very much close enough to be out of place in a professional setting. But the warmth in Laura’s chest at her being so close is chasing away her nerves, the lavender and leather scent of her seeping calm into her brain with every breath Laura takes, and she can’t bring herself to step back.

“Who?” she asks instead. “Kirsch?”

“No,” Carmilla says. She smiles, and there’s a spark in Laura’s warm center that feels at once risky and thrilling. A bonfire waiting to happen. “I mean Will. He’s an ass, but he’s not cruel. And Kirsch will get you through it okay. There’s not much negotiation done on a first contract, usually.”

She’s being overtly comforting. On purpose, even. And Laura finds herself drifting into it, what it’d be like if they weren’t just colleagues sharing a supportive moment. If she could lean up and kiss a little more comfort from Carmilla before she has to brave the meeting ahead of her with nothing but a new stranger for an agent and a hopeful wish to the wind.

That’s a slippery slope of thinking, and when Laura looks up at Carmilla’s eyes and finds them pointed squarely at her own mouth, she knows it’s also dangerous.

Carmilla’s eyes find hers then, her cheeks coloring prettily at having been caught staring. She holds Laura’s gaze, though. And she pulls her left hand from her jacket pocket and slowly, like she’s approaching a frightened animal, skims her fingers over Laura’s right temple to tuck a bit of stray hair behind her ear. The touch sends a zing of sensation that ripples over Laura’s scalp and down her neck.

Laura swallows, and doesn’t shake her off.

“You’re gonna be fine,” Carmilla says quietly. Her fingers hover there near Laura’s ear, as though she’s contemplating whether to move them away or back to her face. As though she’s scared to make the wrong choice.

And Laura is afraid too, of so many things. She’s afraid of walking into this meeting that will decide her future for the next year at least. She’s afraid of letting a stranger, even one that Carmilla ostensibly knows, help her navigate it. And she’s afraid of crossing a line here with Carmilla that she can’t uncross.

That last thought doesn’t register until she’s already stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Carmilla’s waist under her jacket.

Carmilla makes something like a squeak of surprise, but Laura cinches her arms to pull them closer together and burrows into her collar. That maddening lavender is in her clothes, Laura finds, and her nose is buried in it now, there between the collar of Carmilla’s jacket and the soft tee shirt underneath it. But the citrus is in her hair, and it wafts down to Laura when Carmilla finally moves to hug her back. She wraps her arms around Laura’s shoulders and squeezes, huffing a little bit into Laura’s hair, lips close to her ear.

And she’s warm. As warm as Laura had thought she’d be and then some. Laura shuffles the last half-step between their lower halves, and their thighs touch.

“Is this okay,” Laura husks into her neck. She knows her own answer, can feel it in the way her arms slot effortlessly around Carmilla’s waist like they were made to be there. But in the new stillness between them, the need to be sure grips her so tightly that the question bubbles up like it’s being squeezed out of her.

Carmilla’s answer is an immediate, breathy, “Yeah.”

Her lips brush the shell of Laura’s ear as they part to form the word, and Laura tips her chin down just a bit, away from the ticklish sensation and deeper into Carmilla’s embrace.

And this warmth isn’t like fire at all. The warmth in her chest isn’t roaring, it’s simmering. Laura breathes in deeply, fills her lungs with Carmilla and lets the breath warm her like hot chocolate in the snow. How she could ever have thought this safety to be dangerous seems utterly silly, now. As does Lafontaine's absurd suggestion that this could be anything but what it is, which is wonderful.

“You should go,” Carmilla whispers next. Only her arms don’t move from around Laura’s shoulders, and her stillness wars with the sentiment.

“I don’t want to,” Laura admits. That draws a laugh from Carmilla, and it jostles them both, shifting where they’re joined and making little sparks along the seam between them. Laura smiles against Carmilla’s collarbone.

“I’ll be here when you’re done,” Carmilla promises. And she does move back to look Laura in the face then, though they stay touching from belly to knee, Laura’s arms still slung around Camilla’s middle.

“You’d better be,” is what Laura comes up with to say before she takes a shaky step away from Carmilla and turns back to the door beside them.

As she slips into the room finally, she hears Carmilla laugh behind her, voice strained but decidedly delighted.

“You’re killing me, Hollis.”

Chapter Text

Carmilla ends up being right: the meeting with Will is mostly a formality. Kirsch takes her through some of the standard language in her contract while Will sits back in his chair, clearly bored and watching the clock. It takes all of twenty minutes before Laura is signing on the dotted line.

Her pay scale changes, with her salary more than doubling if the Panthers call her number up to the majors anytime this year. There are standard performance incentives for starting a certain number of games, or playing a certain number of minutes. It’s unlikely, Laura thinks, that any of them will come into play before she’s back here again to renew her rookie deal in the offseason.

Carmilla is also, true to her word, waiting for her afterwards.

Laura and Kirsch come down the hall and into the lobby area of the floor to find her sitting in a corner, one leg up on her chair with an elbow propped on her knee. She doesn’t see them at first, looking over the street below, worrying her bottom lip softly with her teeth. The cloudy sunlight throws her profile into sharp contrast, and Laura lets herself look at the elegant line of her nose, the contour of her lips.

Carmilla looks soft, and small, and Laura’s chest constricts with a feeling she can’t name. She has to push a breath out through her mouth to release the pressure of it.

“Carm!” Kirsch’s shout makes her jump, and she raps her knuckles on the window when she startles. She brings the thumb of her other hand to run over her smarting knuckles, shooting Kirsch a pointed look that he pointedly ignores in favor of striding to her and lifting her bodily from her seat.

“Fuck, Brody, we’ve been separated for all of fifteen minutes,” she whines. Laura finds it sweet, the way Carmilla ragdolls in Kirsch’s embrace for a moment before kicking back in earnest. How he drops her as soon as she does, stepping back with a big grin in response to her ruffled huffing.

She must have a dopey smile on her face, because the next thing Carmilla does is notice her.

“What are you staring at, Hollis?” she challenges.

“A couple of dorks,” Laura says, laughing when Carmilla pulls an indignant frown and pushes away from Kirsch by a few more steps.

“You saw nothing,” she says, stepping to Laura and pointing a finger at her chest.

“Don’t worry,” Laura says. She places a palm on Carmilla’s chest, just below her shoulder. Carmilla goes slack against it. “Your secret softness is safe with me.”

Carmilla deflates at the softness in her voice and leans a little more into her touch. Something feels shifted between them, and the new freedom Laura feels to touch Carmilla so casually is like a stiff breeze, setting her skin alight with buzzing possibility.

Kirsch makes a squeaky kind of sound, and both of them turn to look at him. Laura had forgotten he was even there, so engrossed in how easy touching Carmilla suddenly is. How her index finger slotted in the little curve of muscle at the front of Carmilla’s shoulder feels like lacing a skate: snug and sturdy at the same time.

“Not a word, Brody,” Carmilla warns.

“I didn’t say anything,” Kirsch says, frowning.

Carmilla lets herself laugh at him. Her shoulder shakes against Laura’s palm, and Laura cracks a smile at the feel of Carmilla’s happiness against her, so close she can feel it filling her lungs.

“Be nice,” Laura tells her finally. Carmilla huffs, standing apart from her again and crossing her arms over her chest. Laura turns back to Kirsch.

“Do you have time for me to take you two to lunch?” she asks. “As a thank you?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Kirsch says, almost before Laura is even done speaking. It’s easy to smile around Kirsch, so easily radiating earnestness and casual affection like he does. She’d thought his friendship with Carmilla something of an oddity at first, but it’s easy to see how he would have remained undeterred by her more broody tendencies.

“’Fraid Kirsch is forgetting something,” Carmilla says. There’s regret in her voice that has Laura bracing for a let-down. “He’s got a flight in about an hour, back to Calgary. He only flew out for the day, for my meeting this morning.”

“Ah well – wait,” Laura stops mid-thought. “You stayed for my meeting even though your flight is so soon? You could have missed it.”

She looks to Carmilla, who is blushing a very distractingly pretty pink and suddenly looking anywhere but back at her face. Kirsch saves her before Laura can accuse, chuckling a little laugh that’s full of pleasant patronization.

“Of course I did,” he says. “’Milla would have kicked my ass if I didn’t help you out.”

“Oh would she now,” Laura says, swinging her attention back to Carmilla again. She’s still blushing, the red of her cheeks staining brighter the longer Laura stares at her. But she’s also looking daggers at Kirsch, indignant and embarrassed.

Laura doesn’t let her off the hook.

“And why, Carm, would that ever be the case?” she says, putting on her best quizzical expression for when Carmilla rounds on her, still red-faced and flustered.

“Kirsch,” Carmilla says, sharp now. “I’ll meet you downstairs, yeah?”

“Oh right!” he straightens up, and pulls on the lapels of his suit jacket to flatten the fit over his shoulders. “Good to meet ya, Laura. I’ll be in touch about anything Will sends my way from the team!”

He claps Laura on the shoulder hard enough that she has to bend into the blow, but his entire face is lit up with such genuine affection that she just smiles back at him as he leaves. When he’s in the elevator, she turns back to Carmilla.

“Listen, I didn’t mean anything by –”

“Have dinner with me,” Carmilla interrupts her.

“Oh,” Laura says.

“Sorry, I meant that to come out more enticingly,” Carmilla looks away from her, runs a hand through her hair and takes a deep breath. When she turns back, her eyes soft and searching, Laura answers her before she can try to ask again.

“Okay,” she says, very eloquently of course.

Carmilla is close now, and Laura doesn’t fight the urge to run her hands up the front of her shoulders. The leather of her jacket smooths easily under Laura’s palms, well-worn enough that Laura can feel the muscle in the rounds of her shoulders. Laura bites her lip, squeezes just a little to let herself feel, and Carmilla takes a sharp breath.

The breath jerks Laura out of the spell of Carmilla’s stupid muscular shoulders, cutting through the haze of lavender and interest fogging her brain.

“Okay?” Carmilla asks. Laura isn’t sure if she’s talking about dinner or how close they are again, but either way:

“Yeah,” is her answer.

 

They don’t end up with the opportunity to see each other until Thursday, and then only because Laura drags Perry to the peewee clinic the Panthers are putting on.

“You want to go to a peewee clinic?” Perry says, even as she’s affixing her earrings and gathering her phone and keys from around the hotel room.

“Yes, Per, it’s the last event the team is putting on before the game tomorrow.”

“And could this have anything to do with the fact that you haven’t seen Carmilla in over thirty-six hours?” Perry is smiling, teasing. Usually, this is Lafontaine’s domain, making Laura’s personal life the butt of a million well-meaning jokes just to see her blush and stammer. But Perry takes to it now with frankly concerning alacrity.

“What happened to ‘she deserves a safe work environment, Laura,’” Laura whines back.

“That was before I saw you two together, in my defense,” Perry laughs. She holds the door open for Laura to slip through, and closes it securely behind them once they’re both in the hallway. “But if she’s amenable, that’s kind of a different matter.”

Laura isn’t sure if she thinks that’s true, but she doesn’t say so to Perry. Carmilla may want to pursue something now, but some lingering thing at the back of her skull is still nervous about a fling gone wrong, about bad press for her and for the team. About Laura’s most private aches splashed across gossip magazine pages and sports blogs.

“You know you also don’t have to do anything at all, right?” Perry asks her when she doesn’t speak again. “I know I’ve harped on how you should make things right for others, but it’s also okay to do what’s right for you.”

Laura rolls her eyes. There’s truth to what Perry says that she can’t and doesn’t want to deny, though.

“You’ve been spending too much time with Lafontaine,” she complains. “You both sound like fortune cookies.”

“I prefer Tarot, if I’m allowed to pick,” Perry laughs. “And you could do worse than a hot hockey superstar.”

Laura bumps her hip into Perry’s as they wait for the elevator, blushing from her neck to her cheeks as Perry laughs and laughs.

 

The clinic is being held at a smaller rink across town. It’s snowed in the last day or so, but the roads are clear now, paths beaten into the well-traveled sidewalks. When Laura and Perry emerge from the subway, they’re only a few cold blocks from the building.

“We’re a little early,” Perry says, checking her phone and then blowing on her cold hands. “You want to stop off for a coffee?”

She gestures to the couple of cafés along the street, on opposite sides of the intersection they emerged at. Laura shrugs.

“Sure, I could go for a warmup.”

They choose the closer one, slipping in the door quickly so they don’t let the cold in. The inside of the shop is warm and bright, lit up more by the bright winter sun outside than the fluorescent lights dotting the ceiling.

They hop in line, Perry taking off her gloves to rub her hands together. Laura’s phone buzzes in her pocket.

[Carm] Are you free tonight?

She’s not, really. Perry’s still here, and Laura is the only reason she came to the city in the first place.

[Laura] Why, you have something in mind?

[Carm] I might.

“Your secret lover texting you from work?” Perry says, nudging her shoulder into Laura’s. Laura rolls her eyes.

“She wants to know if I’m free tonight.”

“Are you?” Perry asks. They move up in line and she raises her eyebrows.

“I’m not going to abandon you to the city just to go on a date, Per.”

Perry chuckles. They’re almost to the front of the line, the pastry case near the register now in view. Laura takes a peak at the various confectionaries, getting stuck on a chocolate croissant the size of her forearm.

“That’s very chivalrous of you,” Perry says. “But I can get on by myself for one night.”

Laura looks away from the sweet layers of puff pastry and back at Perry. There’s no reticence in her face. All she sees in easy mirth and encouragement. She sighs.

“Well, if you insist.”

“You should get her a coffee, too,” Perry continues. They’re next in line. “I’ll even let you treat me, as payment for the great idea.”

It’s Laura’s turn to laugh. She does pay for Perry’s drink – a cappuccino with cinnamon on top – as well as her own pumpkin spice monstrosity to go with the big chocolate croissant. And when the cashier asks if she needs anything else, and Perry gives her a knowing look and a carefully raised eyebrow, she pays for a black coffee for Carmilla, too.

Perry is nice enough to hold Carmilla’s coffee on their short walk to the rink, so Laura can cram the comically big pastry into her mouth. She finishes it with a block to spare.

“Carmilla is a lucky woman,” Perry laughs at her once Laura has licked the last of the chocolate and croissant flakes from her fingers.

Laura takes Carmilla’s coffee back from her with a huff.

 

They’re still a little early to the rink. There’s no glass at this rink – it’s a rec center rather than a hockey facility. There are some kids already there, huddled in clumps with their parents in the stands, being helped into their skates. A few Panthers are on the ice, milling about and waiting for the kids to get ready. Laura spots Carmilla easily, standing a head shorter than Mel as they both lean on the boards across the rink to talk. Perry gives Laura an encouraging smile and goes to find a seat in the stands.

Laura waves to get Carmilla’s attention, and Carmilla smiles before she excuses herself from Mel. The captain catches Laura’s eye with an appraising sort of smile on her face. Before Laura can frown at it, though, Carmilla is already stopping in front of her.

“Hey, you made it,” she greets, resting her hands on the boards to lean forward a bit. Laura doesn’t step back, but she does bring the coffee she’d brought up between them.

“I did, and I come bearing gifts,” she says. Carmilla perks up immediately, standing again and stowing one of her gloves under her arm so she can grab the cup with her bare hand. She takes a sip and sighs happily.

“You’re a lifesaver,” Carmilla says, eyes closed. Laura can’t help the smile that spreads over her face. Carmilla props the cup against her elbow so she can get her other glove off, and then clutches the cup in both hands.

Laura lets her enjoy the coffee for a few more uninterrupted moments. The view is nice, Carmilla looking comfortable in her team sweats and clutching her cup like a lifeline. It’s easy to imagine her slightly rumpled in the morning, and Laura lets her imagination run wild enough to plant very cute, sleep-ruffled Carmilla at her kitchen island back in Montreal, sipping from one of Laura’s novelty mugs and casting sleepy, brown-eyed gazes at her across the tile counter.

“So,” Carmilla says then. “How about tonight?”

She takes the lid off the top of the cup and places it on the boards next to them, where it comes into precarious balance. Laura takes it from its perch before it can fall to the ground. And she looks up at Carmilla through the steam that rises now from the cup. Finds her smiling.

“I have some free time,” Laura says. And that little admission, that acquiescence, coupled with Carmilla’s fond smile over the rim of her coffee cup, has her heating up too. Right in the center of her chest, where she’s half sure Carmilla just lives now.

Mel calls the team to order then. Carmilla hands her coffee back to Laura and pushes off the boards.

“Text me where you’re staying, I’ll pick you up at seven,” she says, skating backwards towards the group. Laura raises her drink in agreement.

Before she turns to find Perry in the stands and settle in, she sees Mel pull Carmilla aside. The captain whispers something to her that makes Carmilla’s face go taut, drawn into something like anger. Her eyes flash up to the stands, and when they find Laura, they bore into her. Mel claps her on the shoulder a moment later and jostles her gaze free again.

Carmilla shakes her head to clear her face of the brooding look on it before any of the kids catch it.

“What was that about?” Perry asks Laura as she scoots over to let her sit.

“No idea,” Laura says.

Carmilla doesn’t let whatever Mel said distract her once the clinic begins, in any case. The kids in attendance are old enough that most of them have started specializing as either forwards or defensemen. The few goalies in the group are banished to the other end of the ice, where the Panthers’ two goalies await them, but after a short skating warmup, the defensemen and forwards are split by their positions and sent to different stations.

Carmilla gets a small group to herself, being the only center in attendance. Laura watches her teach the gangly pre-teen skaters her various faceoff moves. A warm fondness creeps into Laura’s chest at the sight. One of the girls beats Carmilla in a draw, and all Carmilla does is beam at her like a proud parent and slap a congratulatory gloved hand to the top of the kid’s helmet.

“Hearing the pitter patter of little feet already, are we?” Perry snickers next to her.

“Shut up,” Laura chides. She tears her eyes from Carmilla, who is now zipping among pairs of young skaters to check their form, as nimble as ever, to stare at Perry.

Perry just laughs a little louder at that, her red curls bouncing in her mirth. Laura rolls her eyes. She’s doing that a lot today.

“I fucking hate you,” she says.

Perry keeps laughing until her phone goes off in her pocket, but she sobers quickly at the message she finds on it.

“Shit.” The cuss gets Laura’s attention in a less irritating way. Perry never curses. “I have to take this, Laura, I’m sorry.”

She gets up without waiting for an answer, bounding down the bleacher steps and out of sight. Laura looks after her in concern until she hears Mel call for a break. The parents seated around her start to travel towards the rink, their collective movement shaking the cheap bleachers and jarring Laura’s focus from where Perry had disappeared back towards reception.

The clinic itself lasts for about two and a half hours, and Perry only returns to the bleachers in the last half hour of it. Laura gives her a concerned look when she settles back down next to her, but Perry waves her off and insists everything is taken care of.

“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to be on-call while I’m here,” she says. “But I don’t always get to make that decision. I’m sorry for running off so suddenly.”

“As long as everything’s okay,” Laura says. Perry gives her a motherly smile that tells her it is.

Kids and parents have started packing up around them: tiny skates and helmets put back into bags, and juice and snacks taken out. There are a handful of older kids still on the ice with the team. A gaggle of a half dozen or so huddles around Carmilla in specific, in a loose circle at center ice.

“Did I miss anything important?” Perry asks. Laura rolls her eyes.

“It’s a peewee clinic, not the Cup Final.”

“Of course, of course,” Perry chuckles.

They watch Carmilla take a shootout run at a goal, ending with a fancy deke and a top shelf shot. A little cheer of awe goes up from the gathered skaters at center ice. Carmilla skates back to the group and pantomimes the deke for the kids. And one by one, they all try the move on net. A few of them come close – one gets it almost exactly right but misses the shot – and they can hear Carmilla’s praise for each attempt growing louder as the rink empties and the ambient noise diminishes.

“So,” Perry says, and it takes a moment for Laura to remember she’s there and tear her gaze away from a smiling, laughing Carmilla on the ice. “Are you seeing her tonight?

“I think I am.”

“Do you need me out of the room?”

“It’s just dinner, Per,” Laura says. She tries to roll her eyes, but she’s been staying in that room for a week, and it’s very easy to imagine Carmilla in various stages of undress throughout the familiar space.

“Just text if you need me to be occupied for a bit, that’s all I’m saying.”

“Right, yeah, of course,” Laura says, less sarcastically than she wants to. It feels odd, maybe even wrong, for anyone to know about whatever is blooming between her and Carmilla. Even if it’s just Perry, who Laura tells everything anyway.

Dating a teammate just seems like the sort of thing she needs to cover with a tarp at all times, like she’s hiding a body. Best just to bury the whole thing.

But now, looking at Carmilla play keepaway with several pre-teens at a hockey camp, the naked affection burrowing a home in Laura’s heart seems like the kind of thing that will seek the sun regardless of what she wants.

 

Chapter Text

“I didn’t pack for this,” Laura says. Perry is standing behind her, both of them appraising Laura’s date outfit in the full length mirror on the back of the hotel bathroom door.

Her hair is done: freshly washed and conditioned, dried and straightened until it shone. And so is her makeup: a barely-there hint of eyeshadow and pale reddish lipstick she’d borrowed from Perry. But the outfit is another matter: jeans and a gray Henley that doesn’t feel special enough for a first date that’s been several months in the making now. She hadn’t expected to be taken on a date, so her suitcase is a mass of casual pants and sweats. She can’t very well wear the same slacks and shirt she had on last time Carmilla saw her, at the team’s front office headquarter building.

“I’m gonna look butch as hell, whatever we pick,” she says.

“In that case, we should go without the lipstick, really lean into the look,” Perry says, handing her a folded wad of damp toilet paper. Laura presses the lipstick off her lips gently and then frowns at herself. Perry goes to dig in her suitcase again, as though they haven’t emptied it and laid everything out on the bed already.

“What about these?” Perry asks. Laura looks over to her, finds her with a pair of crumpled olive-green chinos in her hands.

“I don’t,” Laura squints. “Oh jeez, those have been in there for a while.”

She remembers packing them for a roadtrip once, only to think she’d lost them. They should be relatively clean, but they’re horribly wrinkled.

“These with that navy shirt would be great,” Perry continues. She’s already reaching inside the closet for the little clothing iron there, unspooling the cord.

“I only have black shoes,” Laura says. “That doesn’t go.”

“They’re Chucks, they go with everything,” Perry insists. She’s got the iron and the little ironing board out of the closet now, already laying the wrinkled pants out over the board and starting to stretch the wrinkles out of them.

Twenty minutes later, and Laura is back in front of the mirror in the now warmed and ironed chinos, tucking the navy button-up into them with Perry stalking behind her in assessment.

“Wait, I’ve got it,” Perry says. She unbuckles her own belt, a thin, dark brown affair with a shiny silver buckle, and slips it out of its loops. Laura takes it from her when offered, and, after slipping it on and cinching it tight, is pleased to find that she doesn’t look half bad.

 

She’s also dressed far too early. She texts Carmilla the address for the hotel, and when the text goes through with the timestamp, she finds that it’s still only 6:30 and she has thirty full minutes to worry.

“You’re gonna sweat through that shirt if you don’t calm down,” Perry says, very helpfully, when Laura continues to pace between the room’s little living area and the door.

Laura unbuttons and untucks the shirt in response, throwing it over a chair to continue pacing in just her pants and undershirt.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Perry says. Laura shoots her a helpless look from across the room. Perry just smiles and pats the seat on the couch next to her.

Laura’s shoulders slump, but she sits next to Perry and leans into her side.

“I’m nervous,” she says.

“I noticed,” Perry laughs, but she slings an arm around Laura’s shoulders to squeeze her. “But you’re going to be fine.”

“Easy for you to say,” Laura insists. She’s frowning into Perry’s shoulder now, feeling a bit like a child with a skinned knee.

“It is,” Perry says. Laura looks up at her, surprised. She finds Perry’s blue eyes and has to smile at the motherly softness she finds in them. “Laura, I’ve seen you two together over the last few days. This girl is head over heels for you. It’s going to be fine.”

“I know that,” Laura says. And she does. She might be worried about the implications of the relationship, but there’s no doubting the tension between her and Carmilla. It’s there in her chest every time they see each other, and lately, the more time they spend alone, the more Laura can see it in Carmilla, too.

“Then what are you afraid of, exactly?” Perry asks. It’s gentle, the way it needs to be right now. Laura sags against her a little more, relaxing into her friend’s embrace.

“What if everything goes terribly and it ends up plastered all over some tabloid or something?” Laura says. “What if it goes well and then one of us gets traded a year from now and we’re bitter rivals on either side of a hotly-contested playoff series but we’re also secretly dating and it gets out then and it’s a big scandal that rocks the league and the country and I’m the center of it, and it’ll all be because I agreed to a dinner date with Carmilla over the all-star break when I know we’ll just have to be apart again in two days.”

“That’s a lot of pressure to put on dinner,” Perry says. There’s no judgement there. Perry has known her since freshman year of college, knows Laura is profusely verbal even at the best of times and how that ratchets up to eleven at the worst of them.

“I know I’m being dramatic,” Laura says. She sits up, putting some space between them. Even if Perry won’t judge her, she’ll certainly judge herself.

“I’ve heard that before,” Perry eases over to her. Their knees touch, a little island of contact meant to soothe. “You say it every time you think you’re feeling too much.”

“Don’t shrink me, Per,” Laura grouses, but relaxes her leg into Perry’s.

“I’m not even that kind of doctor,” Perry laughs. “I’m just saying, maybe it’s okay to feel overwhelmed without adding anxiety about being anxious on top of it.”

“I’ll let you know when I figure out how to do that,” Laura says. She relaxes further, sinking into the couch. Perry pats her knee and lets the silence stretch between them.

 

She doesn’t figure it out by the time Carmilla texts her from the lobby. But at least she hasn’t sweat through her shirt: Laura tucks it back in, re-cinches Perry’s belt around her waist, and grabs her coat before heading out. She bounces her fist against her hip on the elevator, needing a release for the nervous energy still fizzling in her chest.

Reaching the big lobby is better: she can move about, scan the room for wherever Carmilla has parked herself. Laura finds her easily, because Carmilla is in the first place she looks: near the big windows that separate the lobby from the snowy street outside, leaned up against the wall with her hands in her pockets.

She’s not wearing her usual leather jacket, opting instead for a duffle coat in a muted green. Her slouched beanie matches it. It must be snowing outside: Laura can see the shine of melting ice on her shoulders and the darker green of dampness on her hat. Nice hotel lobbies have a way of casting everything in a golden sort of luster at night, and Carmilla is no exception. Laura has to breath for a few moments, looking at her – colleague? Girlfriend? Who knows. – silhouetted in light against the dark wood of the wall, before she can start toward her.

Laura catches her eye from across the lobby, but Carmilla lets her walk across the cavernous space without pushing off the wall.

“Waiting for someone?” Laura asks when she’s in earshot.

“Not anymore,” Carmilla says. And now she does push off the wall. They’re close after that, and Carmilla is smiling down at her, chin tilted up.

And for a moment, Laura’s arms twitch to dig her hands into her pockets, to stop herself from reaching out for the toggles on Carmilla’s coat. But then she remembers that she doesn’t have to do that anymore, that not resisting the hold Carmilla has on her is kind of the whole point of the evening. So she reaches out, takes one of the wooden toggles of her coat between her fingers, fumbles with it a little bit before looking back up at Carmilla through her eyelashes.

“Might let me take you to dinner before you start giving me bedroom eyes,” Carmilla says. There’s a laugh in her voice, but Laura feels her cheeks heat just the same.

“I’m not – jeez,” she stammers. Carmilla laughs aloud. She slings an arm around Laura’s neck and pulls her into a hug, pressing her cheek into the top of Laura’s head for a moment.

“Relax, cutie,” she says. Laura can feel her laughing still, with her forehead pressed against Carmilla’s collarbone. She winds her arms around Carmilla’s middle, squeezes a bit, breathing in the cold snap of fresh snowfall that’s clinging to her coat.

“You smell like winter,” Laura hums, taking a breath deep enough to be audible.

“Well I did come from outside,” Carmilla tries to tease, but the words come out a bit broken, like she’s had to force them past something solid in her throat. Laura smiles into the rough fabric of her coat and unwinds her arms from around her waist.

“Come on,” she says. “Someone offered to take me to dinner, and I’m starving.”

 

Laura thinks she’s probably too nervous to eat until their waiter places a steaming bowl of noodles in front of her and she all but melts at the smell of roast pork and dashi.

“The way to my heart is definitely through good noodles,” Laura groans. Carmilla snorts into a spoonful of broth.

 “That easy, huh?” she says. Laura watches her sip slowly to check for temperature before taking a larger mouthful.

“I’m a simple girl,” Laura says. She hoists a heap of noodles up to her mouth, chews through the dripping strands. They are good noodles, toothsome and starchy.

“This is one of my favorite spots in the city,” Carmilla tells her. Laura takes a swig of spicy broth from her bowl, lets the chili burn down her throat. “Mostly because I never seem to get hassled here. But the ramen is definitely a big plus.”

“You played in Japan for a year, didn’t you?” Laura asks. Carmilla quirks an eyebrow at her.

“Been reading up on me?”

“I may have skimmed your Wikipedia a few times,” Laura says. It should feel like a confession, but it doesn’t. Not with Carmilla smiling at the admission and ducking her head to take another bite.

And that’s how the meal goes: snippets of banter between the two of them slurping their way through a bowl of ramen each. Laura learns that Carmilla only played in Japan for seven months while the player’s union was on strike two years ago, but that she’d developed both a halting, tentative fluency in Japanese in addition to a love of ramen. She learns that Carmilla is from a small town in eastern Europe where the only two exports are disaffected teenagers and hockey players, and that she was a little bit of both when she first came to Canada with just her hockey bag and a stammering sort of accented English. She learns that Carmilla speaks four languages, but that German is her favorite because it’s the first one she learned on purpose.

And she learns that for all her bravado on the ice, Carmilla doesn’t like to talk about herself, can’t quite meet Laura’s eyes while she answers personal questions. So Laura gets to look at the sharp line of her chin in profile, the elegant curve of her neck, while Carmilla rambles. Under the coat she’s wearing a soft-looking sweater in a woody brown. It hugs her shoulders when she shrugs in a way that draws Laura’s eye.

“You look good in earth tones,” Laura says. Carmilla cuts off from a story that Laura honestly wasn’t listening to anyway and fixes her with an interested stare, brown eyes flashing in the soft light.

“Do I?” Carmilla asks. She leans back in her chair, throws an elbow over the back of it to recline. Her eyes glitter, appreciative, preening. Laura smiles at her.

“You know you do,” she says. Carmilla chuckles lowly and looks away, grin still spread out on her face.

“I like hearing you say it,” she says. Something in Laura’s chest clenches, and she has to fist her hands closed under the table to dissipate the happy sort of power she feels radiating from the middle of her.

“Carm,” Laura says. She waits until Carmilla looks at her across the table, and feels that power crawl up her throat to color her words low and firm. “You’re beautiful.”

And this time she watches. Watches Carmilla’s face go a little slack before she clenches her jaw against a blush that rises up her cheeks anyway. Watches her shift in her seat, tilt her chin up, and let the praise wash over her instead of turning away from it. Heat pools languidly Laura’s middle.

Beautiful doesn’t really cut it, she thinks.

But the gut punch of arousal she gets at watching Carmilla preen under her praise is a little heavy for a first date, so Laura is the first one to look away and say, “You wanna get out of here?”

 

They meander under the streetlights after that, walking the grid together as the night waxes. It’s cold and clear, the snow having stopped falling sometime during dinner, and they nudge closer and closer to each other as they walk. It’s Laura who finally wedges her hand into the crook of Carmilla’s elbow to keep them close. Carmilla smiles down at her and shuffles to match her strides to Laura’s.

Laura thinks, then, of Lafontaine’s sage insistence that this date would go wonderfully wrong, and puffs out a snicker into the cold air.

“What’s funny?” Carmilla asks. Laura looks up at her, then shakes her head and taps her temple against Carmilla’s shoulder for a moment.

They’re on the edge of a park now, mist filtering through the darkened tree line and onto the sidewalk. A few curious fingers of light stretch out towards the street from deep inside, and Laura tugs Carmilla in their direction.

“I’m just thinking about how nice it is to be wrong, sometimes,” Laura says.

“Wrong about me, you mean?” is the reply, and Laura can hear the trepidation there, in the question. And she has been wrong about Carmilla, but not for months now.

“About me, I think, actually,” Laura says. Carmilla doesn’t ask her to elaborate, but there’s a little stiffness in her arm against Laura’s side now, and so she does anyway. “I’ve spent a long time this year worrying about what happens when this goes wrong.”

The light brightens the deeper they walk into the park, finally revealing the bright white of an outdoor skating rink. There’s some cheesy, crooning love song warbling over a cheap speaker system, playing over the couples lazily circling the ice. Laura and Carmilla come to a stop just outside the brightest ring of light from the overhead spotlights.

“Do you still worry?” Carmilla prods after a quiet moment between them.

“Oh, all the time,” Laura says. Carmilla barks out a laugh. “But I worry about everything, you know? Hell, I worry about hockey for at least eight hours every day, but that doesn’t stop me from playing.”

“Being up there sounds exhausting,” Carmilla says, tapping Laura’s forehead with a gloved finger.

“Sometimes,” Laura says. She unwinds her arm from Carmilla’s and turns to face her with a smile she hopes is cheeky rather than wobbly-soft as she feels. “You wanna rent crappy skates and break an ankle on some bad ice with me?”

Carmilla tilts her head and looks down at her. Laura can see some sort of calculus racing behind her eyes. And she looks so good there in the half-light, hair falling from her cap and over her shoulders, her cheeks rosy with the cold. Laura reaches up to fiddle with one of the toggles on her coat again, looks at Carmilla’s mouth as the air between them thickens.

“Would you stop me again?” Carmilla asks, her breath carrying the words visibly between them.

“No,” Laura breathes back, tipping her chin up. She presses her palm to Carmilla’s chest, just under her collarbones. “I don’t think I would.”

She starts to burn before Carmilla even leans down to kiss her.

The first kiss is a breath on the smoldering tinder in Laura’s chest. Carmilla’s mouth slots against hers like it’s sliding home, and Laura welcomes her: fists her hand in the material of Carmilla’s coat, groans somewhere in the back of her throat and kisses back, hard.

And then Carmilla is everywhere: hands on her face, tipping her head up gently to kiss her again and again. Laura lets her, stokes the heat between them with a swipe of her tongue into Carmilla’s mouth. And Carmilla only has about two inches on her, but she bears down, tips Laura’s head up until she can feel the stretch in her neck. She bites Laura’s lip just hard enough to make her groan again, licking back into her mouth to swallow it down.

God,” Carmilla breathes between kisses. “I love that sound already.”

Laura laughs, a low and terribly breathless sound, and Carmilla’s next kiss lands on her teeth.

She keeps grinning through Carmilla’s subsequent pecks to her lips, floating on the delirious thought that she may not ever be properly cold again.

Chapter Text

Turn out these lights; they’re too damn bright. I need the moon tonight, so let me walk outside.

East Love // Walk Outside

 

Perry asks her if she had a good time, when she returns to the room that night. All Laura can do is nod a bit dreamily, lips still buzzing from Carmilla’s please-just-one-more parting kisses in the lobby. Perry smiles happily at her.

“Lafontaine owes me twenty bucks,” she says.

“Remind me to be angry later that you’re making bets on my love life,” Laura says. She’s shucked out of her coat and button-up already, hanging the former up to dry by the door, and now toes out of her shoes.

“You’re not angry now?” Perry asks. Her voice is sly, and smug, and Laura can’t bring herself to care.

“Nope,” she says, drops her borrowed belt next to Perry on the couch, and saunters into the bathroom to shower.

 

Carmilla texts her the next morning, a simple I had a great time that leaves Laura feeling light all through breakfast with Perry.

“You going to leave me alone again today?” Perry pokes at her, poking also at her eggs. Laura shakes her head.

“No, the game is today. She won’t have time.”

Perry laughs, but not at Laura’s expense. If anything she sounds delighted, basking in Laura’s distraction.

[Laura] I did too.

“It’s actually going to be the other way around tonight,” Perry hazards after another quiet few minutes.

And that gets Laura to tear her eyes away from her phone.

“Wait, what, why?” she asks. Perry smiles apologetically, leaning back in her seat with her coffee cup in hand.

“Work is calling me back in,” she says. “I was hoping they’d let me have the whole week, but turns out the whole place falls apart when their chief resident is gone for more than a few days.”

She says it flippantly, waving a hand and taking a gulp of her coffee when she’s done. But Laura has known Perry for a long time, and she doesn’t doubt the grain of truth there for a moment.

“Can you stay until the game at least? It’s the highlight of the week.”

Perry shakes her head sadly.

“No, I have to catch a ride home in a couple of hours here if I want to be on-time for the overnight shift.”

Laura frowns, a little pinprick of disappointment puncturing the happy bubble she’s had wrapped around her since last night.

“Well damn,” she says. “If I knew you’d have to go, I would have rescheduled with Carmilla, Perry. You know that.”

“I do,” Perry assents. “But I didn’t even know before this morning. And when I encouraged you to go out with her, I meant it. I’m glad it turned out.”

Back in college, when Laura was more interested in making sure she was being understood as a good person than in actually being one, she would have pushed again. Now, she only swallows her disappointment and smiles at Perry over her own coffee cup.

“I owe you, Per,” she says, widening her smile as she translates into a joke to change the subject. “That belt of yours really completed my look last night.”

Perry laughs, and Laura continues to grin. And she sits with how lucky she is all the way through the rest of breakfast.

 

Laura sees Perry off to the bus station and tromps back through the snowy streets back to her hotel room alone. It feels newly empty without her friend and her things. Laura’s button up from the night before is still draped over a chair. And the shirt pops the night before back into her head, plastering a smile on her face. She digs in her pocket for her phone.

It’s still early enough in the afternoon that Carmilla probably hasn’t left for the rink yet.

[Laura] When do you have to be there for pregame?

She clicks the message away and puts her phone face down on the counter. And she stares at it for a few seconds before the silence in the room starts to buzz in her ears and she forces herself to turn away.

It buzzes almost immediately after she stops watching it, and Laura lunges back to the counter to grab at it.

[Carm] Soon, unfortunately.

[Carm] Where are you sitting?

[Laura] Upper bowl, section 212 at the west blue line.

[Carm] I’ll look for you.

Laura smiles at that. It’s a little cliché, she knows, the star player looking for her paramour in a crowded stadium after a big win or what have you. It doesn’t tick all the boxes, but it hits enough of Laura’s rom-com trash buttons that she warms at the thought anyway.

[Carm] [Image Attached]

The picture is of Carmilla in her white shirtsleeves, a black tie undone around her neck. Laura follows the column of her throat until it disappears beneath the button of her collar.

[Carm] What do you think? Waistcoat or no?

[Laura] Only if you brought the yellow one.

A few minutes pass, and Laura taps her fingers impatiently on the tile as she leans over her phone. Maybe that was too forward. This thing with Carmilla still feels somewhat fragile, like she’s holding fresh snow in her palms that threatens to melt away if she cups her hands too closely over it.

But Carmilla returns, as ever, to take what Laura’s started and skate away with it almost faster than Laura can follow.

[Carm] This one?

[Carm] [Image Attached]

The first thing Laura notices is that there is indeed, in this picture, that flash of brilliant yellow she remembers from their first game together.

The second thing Laura notices is that both the waistcoat and the white shirt under it, are now unbuttoned wholly.

Instead of disappearing under her collar, the smooth skin of Carmilla’s throat now gives graceful way to the jut of her collarbones. There’s a hint of her breasts below there, peeking out just so from the open button line of her shirt. Below even that is the beginning of her abs, cut off by the bottom of the photo and marred by a large, vertical scar that runs from her belly button to her sternum.

Laura has seen Carmilla in more complete states of undress, of course. They shared a locker room and an apartment for months during training camp, after all. But the barrier of them being teammates is thinner now, near non-existent. And so, Laura feels free to imagine running her hand down from the notch between Carmilla’s collarbones all the way to her waistband, arousal pooling languidly in her belly all the while. Her fingers itch at the thought, and she squeezes her fists together for a moment before replying.

[Laura] You sure you don’t have time for me to drop by?

[Carm] Wish I did, cutie.

[Carm] We have media after the game, but then I’m all yours.

Laura reads over Carmilla’s last message a few times, biting her lip. Something strong and fizzing roils in her middle, crawls up her throat and makes her bold.

[Laura] You are, aren’t you?

[Laura] Mine.

[Carm] I’d like to be.

She wants that too, Laura realizes. Of course she wants Carmilla – to be her peer, to be her girlfriend. To kiss her in the snow and in hotel lobbies and in her apartment, early in the morning before the day begins. But underneath that, wrestling to the surface now that the possibility is real, is something else. Something baser.

She wants Carmilla spread out beneath her, flushed and pretty. Wants to see her open and wanting. Wants to run her fingers over her soft skin and find all the places that will make Carmilla pant and squirm.

[Laura] I’d like that too.

 

They banter until Carmilla tells her that, no, really this time, she needs to get ready to leave for the rink. Laura lets her go and stalks restlessly around her hotel room until it’s not too early to head to the stadium herself. She goes over their text conversation probably more times than is healthy, letting the tingle of arousal at the exchange mellow a bit.

But she leaves far too early anyway, unable to put up with the silence and emptiness of her hotel room for very long after that.

The city is blanketed in snow again, more of it falling by the hour. Laura has to stamp through a fair amount of slush on the sidewalks, the salt turning the new snow an unattractive gray as it melts. But the rest of the city is pleasantly white in the cool winter sun as she trudges to the subway.

A flurry of activity greets Laura at the arena when she arrives. It’s still a bit early for fans to have made their way inside in any meaningful numbers, but stadium personnel are busy putting the finishing touches on the all-star spectacle. Barricades are already set up into switchbacks to herd the crowd inside, and Laura has to follow one of their winding paths to get to the entrance. It feels silly with hardly anyone else there, but soon enough she’s flashing her ticket for a gate agent to scan.

There’s a misconception about attending a hockey game that says the seats down near the rink, at the glass if possible, are the best ones from which to watch a game. And that’s true if you’re looking for an up-close view of some of the play. But the best seats in any rink are in the upper bowl, where the entire rink is visible at once. That way the action can be followed from end to end and seen as it was meant to be. The delicate violence flowing from goal to goal in great waves and short bursts.

Laura finds her seat there quickly, slotting into it to view the pre-game warmups happening on the ice. They’re more subdued this early before a game than they will be closer to puck drop, and even more so now since the all-star game is just an exhibition. Carmilla is near the center line, on her hands and knees to stretch out her legs one at a time. Next to her is Danny, also down to a knee in a lazy stretch. Whatever had been between them the other day seems to truly have blown over, Laura notes with satisfaction. They converse idly while they stretch at least, and Danny even gives Carmilla a playful shove. In the nearly empty stadium, Laura can hear Carmilla’s laughter float up to her seat.

There’s about half an hour before the crowd is expected to start to swell, and about an hour until puck drop. But instead of feeling restless, Laura finds it soothing to watch warmups. The winter break from the grind of the season has been nice, especially since it’s given her time to get square with Carmilla, but she misses playing. And there’s something inspiring about being here, where the best hockey players in the league have gathered to exhibit their skills. Laura lets herself daydream a bit, imagining herself on the ice with them, warming up lazily for a showcase of skill with peers.

Someday, she tells herself. Someday.

 

When the crowd is finally seated and the spectacle truly begins, there’s more fanfare for player introductions than normal, with each skater getting a fully announced intro regardless of whether they’re on the starting lines. Laura stands and cheers with the rest of the crowd, whistling loud with her fingers in her mouth when Carmilla and Danny are announced. Carmilla is the center on the starting line of forwards, but Danny is in the second defensive pairing, so they’ll have limited time, if any, on the ice together once play starts.

Carmilla takes the first faceoff, flicking the puck back to a waiting defenseman, the other players scattering like marbles over a tile floor to begin play.

The first period is fairly uneventful, and there’s not a lot of defense played in terms of hits. The game is an exhibition and no one wants to risk injury. And defensemen tend to make the all-star roster for their offensive prowess than their heavy checking. But there’s some fun, Laura has to admit after a few minutes, to watching the forwards deke and sprint over the ice to pull off trick shots and set up pretty passing plays.

Carmilla scores her first goal in lacrosse style, standing behind the net and scooping the puck up onto her stick blade with a twirl. She tucks it over the goalie’s shoulder and into the net, careful not to raise the blade over the crossbar to avoid the high sticking penalty. When the lamp lights for the goal, the goalie throws up her hands and Carmilla is already being swamped by her laughing linemates for a celebration.

It’s a flashy goal that in a real game would earn her a hard check into the boards behind her, but Laura leaps to her feet along with the rest of the stadium as the horn sounds. Carmilla skates lazily to the bench after her linemates disentangle from one another, throwing a little salute to the crowd with the last three fingers of her right hand.

She still needs to work on her celly game, clearly, is what Laura thinks as she settles back down into her seat.

But Carmilla does it again when she scores in the second period. She one-times the puck from the high slot and the goalie doesn’t stand a chance. The puck rips into the net before the netminder can lift her glove high enough to catch it, and this time Carmilla is already lofting those three fingers when her teammates get to her for hugs and head pats. She looks around the upper bowl for a moment, finding Laura quickly and pointing at her. And this is when it hits Laura like a punch straight to her chest.

She’d worn number three in training camp.

It’s not apparent to the casual observer who Carmilla is gesturing to, of course, what with the stadium packed with screaming fans as it is. But Laura feels the gesture as though it’s a magnet that’s found its twin in her chest. Affection pulls against the back of her sternum and towards Carmilla on the ice.

Carmilla pulls the same move after her hat trick goal, and Laura rises from her seat to leave a hockey game before the final buzzer for the first time in her life.

[Laura] Come to me. Rm 207.

[Laura] Wear the waistcoat.

Carmilla doesn’t answer her.

Laura paces in her hotel room, still in her jeans and sweatshirt from the game. She shoots daggers at her phone on the kitchenette’s counter on every pass, willing it to vibrate. Her socks are picking up static from the carpet, and every time she goes to pick up her phone to check it, she gets a little tingling electric shock. It does not persuade her to stop taking nervous laps around the room for the next hour.

But Carmilla doesn’t answer her even then, and Laura starts to worry in earnest. And worry exhausts her, so she strips of her sweatshirt and her socks and lays propped up against the headboard in bed, arms folded and phone pointedly facing down on the side table. And she starts to doze, slumping down farther and farther until only her neck is propped up in a position that’s probably compromising her spine.

That’s when her phone vibrates.

[Carm] I’m here, sugar.

When Laura opens the door, it’s barefoot with her hair in disarray from being smushed against the pillows. Carmilla still takes a big breath that spreads into a smile when she does.

“Hey,” Carmilla says, slipping her hands into her trouser pockets. Her jacket is slung over her the crook of her elbow, putting the bright yellow of her waistcoat on full display.

Laura isn’t worried anymore.

She grabs Carmilla’s wrist to pull her into the room, whipping her past the threshold so Laura can close the door securely. When she turns back around, Carmilla is laughing. She tucks her jacket over a chair and saunters back to Laura by the door.

“Hi,” Laura finally says. Carmilla is in her space now, shirt still cuffed and tucked into her slacks. Her waistcoat is buttoned smartly over her flat stomach.

“I feel a bit overdressed, I’ll admit,” she says, pinching a bit of the bottom hem of Laura’s tee shirt between her fingers. “You trying to throw me off my game, Hollis?”

Laura hums. This close, she can see that the waistcoat is subtly patterned. Yellow flowers made of neat stitches that she wants to run her fingers over. So she does, tracing out a flower just below Carmilla’s left breast.

“I think you’ve probably got game to spare, Carm,” she says. It comes out a little breathy, and Carmilla huffs out a throaty laugh that sets Laura’s skin on fire.

She tips Laura’s chin up with two fingers, brushing her knuckles back down her throat once Laura looks up at her. Presses her lips solidly to Laura’s and kisses her softly. Laura leans back into the door and Carmilla follows her, the hand at her hip squeezing to keep them together. Her thumb slips beneath Laura’s tee shirt and skims lightly over the skin there.

“I’ve been thinking about this for months,” Carmilla admits, finally breaking from Laura’s gasping lips to trail kisses across her jaw and down the side of her neck. Every one feels like a hotspot on the sun, stoking the smoldering bank of coals in Laura’s middle back into flame.

“Months, huh?” Laura tries to tease, intent on at least faking being cavalier for as long as possible.

Carmilla stops and brings her face back level with Laura’s then, and the last vestige of frothy swagger dies on Laura’s tongue. Replacing it is a dryness aching to be wetted.

“I know I have a reputation,” Carmilla says, earnest as she ever is. Laura watches her lips move. “But I haven’t even thought about anyone else since that preseason game against Ottawa.”

Laura bites her own lip and sees Carmilla watch it pop free from her teeth again after a moment.

She slides a hand up Carmilla’s chest, settles her fingers on the knot of her tie. And she looks to Carmilla’s left cheek, searching for the little scar there from the stitches she’d received between periods in that game. It’s a small thing, from only three stitches, but Laura runs her thumb over it, cupping the side of Carmilla’s face with the rest of her hand.

“How’d you get cut in that game, anyway?” she asks. Carmilla laughs, a pained, short sound.

“That’s what you took away from that?”

“I suppose not,” Laura says, leaning up to kiss her again. Carmilla seems grateful for the return to form, kissing back and opening with a sigh when Laura swipes her tongue along the seam of her mouth.

And it’s like the night before: there’s no fumbling between them for space, no hazardous negotiation of noses. They just fit. Carmilla holds her by the hips, pressing her fingers into the skin just above her waistband, her hands warm. There’s a callous on the side of her left thumb, where she grips her stick, that strokes over Laura’s side roughly enough to pebble her arms in goosebumps. Carmilla’s tongue is all strong softness in her mouth, and Laura feels every swipe of it right between her legs.

She reaches up to tug at Carmilla’s hair with both hands, holding their lips apart. Carmilla bumps her hips into Laura’s, pinning her against the door, and tries to lean forward again. Laura holds her fast.

“Ah-ah,” she breathes, smiling. She likes this, Carmilla eager and pushy against her. “I’d envisioned you in my bed the first time, but I do insist on a bed at least.”

“Bossy,” Carmilla says. But she’s smiling too. And Laura really should know by now what that means. “You know, though. I never pegged you for a puck bunny.”

“Oh my god,” Laura groans. “Shut up.”

She shoves against Carmilla’s chest and Carmilla staggers backwards, laughing. She keeps retreating even once she regains her footing, and Laura follows her back through the suite’s little living area to the bedroom. The sun is starting to set now, the red-gray late winter sunset spilling through the curtains. Laura leaves the light off as she crosses the threshold, content with the dying light cast over the space like a shroud.

It feels warm. Carmilla looks warmer still, when she bumps into the foot of the bed and takes a seat there. She leans back on her hands, still in her vest and tie. When Laura finally catches up, Carmilla sets her feet wider so Laura can settle between her legs.

“You’re lucky you’re pretty,” Laura says. She runs the fingers of one hand into Carmilla’s hair again. It’s soft and smooth, and scratching at her scalp makes Carmilla close her eyes and hum deep in her throat.

Carmilla leans farther into the touch the longer Laura continues it. She presses her forehead into Laura’s sternum and sides her hands up Laura’s back under her shirt.

“That feels incredible,” she says. A little pang of guilt ricochets between Laura’s ribs. She cards through Carmilla’s hair with both hands, once, and then presses her fingertips into the back of Carmilla’s neck to prop her gaze back up to her face.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks, gentle as she can be. “You played nearly forty minutes today; it’s okay if you’re tired.”

“You’re sweet,” Carmilla says with a little chuckle. Her hands slide lower on Laura’s back, until she’s hovering just north of her ass. She grips the hem of Laura’s shirt, rubbing the fabric between her fingers. “Can I take this off?”

“You can,” Laura assents. It’s a strange bit of déjà vu, Carmilla skimming her hands up Laura’s sides to help her shirt over her head. Different, and not, to that day in the training room. Laura’s ribs aren’t broken, and there’s no audience now. And Laura doesn’t have to stifle the gasp that leaps from her throat when Carmilla’s hands skim up to her chest.

“Sports bra? Sexy,” Carmilla laughs. Laura holds her teasing gaze with an even look of her own.

“I told you,” she says. “You’re not bedding some puck bunny tonight. I’m a goddamn hockey player.”

Carmilla’s answering smile is blindingly beautiful.

She barks out a laugh, too. Grips Laura suddenly under her thighs and stands, lifting her off her feet. Laura yelps and throws her arms around Carmilla’s neck to keep her balance. She keeps them there when Carmilla spins them to press Laura’s back into the duvet.

Carmilla slots a thigh between hers as they kiss, pressing up and grinding down until she finds the right angle to make Laura groan into her mouth. The longer they kiss, the more Carmilla runs her thumbs over Laura’s ribs in time with grinding her thigh in between Laura’s legs, the more frustrating the barrier between them becomes. So Laura, breathless and flushed, tugs at Carmilla’s hair to look her in the eyes and deliver an order.

“Take my pants off, Carm.”

“Say please,” Carmilla says, sing-song.

“No.”

Carmilla laughs again, delighted, and Laura can’t help her own answering smile as Carmilla kisses down the side of her neck, giggling all the while. She cuts off laughter to suck harshly at the junction of Laura’s neck and shoulder, and the bite of her teeth there opens Laura’s smile into a moan. She’s wet enough to slick up an elephant, and though Carmilla’s thigh is pleasant against her covered crotch, it’s long since stopped producing enough friction.

“Carmilla, please,” she finally says, exasperated and not a little bit desperate.

“There, was that so hard?”

“You’re insufferable,” Laura says. Carmilla hooks her fingers into her waistband and chuckles. “Awful, you’re a menace, you’re – fuck –”

She chokes off. Carmilla, having abandoned getting her pants off in favor of slipping a hand into them, slides her fingers sloppily over her. She props herself up with a hand by Laura’s head for leverage, stares down at her with an infuriating, punchable grin as she maps her slick folds with two confident, probing fingers. She finds Laura’s clit after only a little exploration, grins wider at the breathy gasp that jumps from Laura’s throat when she does.

“There you are,” Carmilla whispers. She swipes her fingers with more purpose and Laura breathes out another moan. “Tell me what you like, sugar.”

Shit,” Laura says. Carmilla circles her clit slowly, leaves lingering, open mouthed kisses against her jaw. And she waits for an answer rather than teasing further, which is the only reason she gets one. “Harder. And – fuck – get my fucking pants off, Carm. I want –”

“Okay, okay,” Carmilla soothes her, kisses her mouth softly. She’s breathless too, Laura realizes, sucking air between kisses like she’s just run a mile. The knowledge throbs through her pleasantly.

They get Laura’s sweatpants and underwear down her hips together, and while Carmilla tugs them all the way down her legs, Laura peels off her bra too. When she’s done, she grasps at Carmilla’s skinny tie to pull her back down. Carmilla goes willingly, kissing her before they’re settled down again. Carmilla’s suit slides against her bare skin, but her tongue is soft in Laura’s mouth.

Laura doesn’t have to tell her to put her fingers back to use. She just bends one of her legs up around Carmilla’s hip, and Carmilla takes the invitation. Slots her shoulder against Laura’s hamstring and drags her fingers through her from cunt to clit once she’s opened up. Laura can’t kiss her in this position, but how it bares her for Carmilla’s touch more than makes up for it. She’s so wet that Carmilla has trouble finding friction on her clit until Laura grabs her wrist and presses.

“I’m not gonna break,” she huffs, clenching her core to stay upright while she grips Carmilla’s wrist. Carmilla obliges her, scrubbing harder, and Laura’s abs tremble. She bites her lip to keep in a moan, and Carmilla presses harder still.

“C’mon, Hollis,” she goads. Her brown eyes are blown black with arousal, her voice a low husk. Laura sucks in a ragged breath and closes her eyes. “Let me hear.”

She gets her wish, eventually. When Laura finally comes she has to snap back down to the mattress, to suck in enough air to breath around the pleasure. And as soon as her mouth opens, she’s moaning. Carmilla noses into her leg and groans right along with her, as though the sound alone has undone her.

It’s silent excepting their heavy breathing after that, just for a moment.

“My turn,” Laura says once she’s caught enough breath to move again without shaking. She tucks a finger between the knot of Carmilla’s tie and her collar and tugs to loosen the tie. Carmilla leans forward on her palms to kiss her, already groaning, and Laura smiles against her lips.

And by the time they fall asleep tangled in the sheets and in each other, the night has waned into black and waxed again into the faded blue of morning.