The sound of sticks slapping the ground and skates sliding against the ice echoes around the rink, along with some cheers and gentle jeers from some of the women on the ice.
Azu leans back against the boards and closes her eyes, tilting her head up as she takes a deep breath. The cold, icy air sweeps through her, and she feels at home.
It’s funny, really, how someone from Kenya who’s always relished the feeling of the sun on her skin can love being in the rink this much. But she does; loves how smooth her skates glide over the ice, loves the way her heart pounds and how the adrenaline courses through her veins.
She’s all kitted up, pads and gloves and facemask, and she knows she cuts an intimidating figure. She’s one of the larger women on the ice, but that only serves to make her look more awesome - plus, people always underestimate how quick she can be, even if Azu isn’t the most skilled puck handler out there. The point is, she can see the way some of the other players are looking at her and sizing her up, and she can’t help but preen a little bit.
(Off the ice, Azu thinks she might make them all brownies, just for being so welcoming on her first day. They all seem very nice, and she wants to be their friends even if she doesn’t make the team. Plus, there’s always local leagues she can play in. But on the ice, well. It’s a different story.)
Azu’s been waiting for this moment for a while.
She knows she’s a good player, knows that she has the skill necessary to get chosen for the team. Everyone else is impressive to watch; Azu’s worked hard to get where she is, and she thinks she has a real shot at being at least second line. Kenya only had a few teams around, but she was easily the best player in the league, and won a number of awards in her town. So, it stands to reason that she’s excited to show what they can do.
It’s only the first day of tryouts, and they’ve already done the fitness test (which Azu passed), the strength test (which Azu passed with flying colors ), and then the accuracy and speed test (which, honestly, Azu did a passable job on). Tomorrow, they’ll be doing more intricate handling tests for the coaches to see what everyone can do, which Azu is slightly worried about. It’s why she needs to do well in this scrimmage - to show them that she would be a valuable member of the team.
The coaches call for everyone to get lined up, and separate out the girls into two different squads. Azu follows her team, holding tightly onto the stick in her hands.
“Nice to meet you all,” their assigned captain says, pulling her mouthguard out and smiling at them. “I’m Cleo, and I’ve been on the team for two years. I’ll be stepping in as goalie so that you all can show what you can do. Quick round of introductions before we get started?” She points to the woman on her left and gestures for her to go first.
They all go around quickly - there are about 15 of them on each squad for the scrimmage, and after introductions Cleo gets right to assigning lines. Azu gets picked to be on the second line, and skates off to the bench with the rest of the girls who will be hopping in in about two minutes. One of the coaches dons a ref’s jersey and skates onto the ice while the other waits in the stands, clipboard at the ready.
The puck drops and they’re off as the two forwards battle for possession. Azu’s team wins it and it shoots back to a defenseman, who drives it forward, and then everyone’s off, skating hard as they make their way to the goal. One of the forwards loses it and the other team counters, but the defense puts on a strong show and then the puck is being sent back into the middle as players battle for it.
It mostly goes on like this, a quick back-and-forth as the players call for the puck and sticks slap against the ice and the boards, as everyone strives to send the puck into the back of the net. Azu gets into it, calling encouragement from the bench, and even directing a few chirps at the other team anytime they come too close to their bench.
Time moves fast in hockey, and scrimmages are no exception. They call for a line change, and Azu hops over the wall with the others, thankfully not faceplanting, and skates into position, crouching down as she evaluates the game. Her team has the puck, so she skates up, trying to find an open passing lane and successfully losing her defender. She calls for the puck, but it goes off to another teammate who loses it. The adrenaline is already coursing through her veins as she skates back, angling herself off the teammate who challenges the forward coming at them, blocking off the other forward who’s almost scarily speedy as she comes up on Azu’s left.
The puck is sent by Azu, only just out of her reach as the forward nabs it. Azu chases her down and slams into the forward’s side and knocks her into the boards as a crashing sound reverberates around the ring. The puck slips loose again, luckily sliding along to one of Azu’s teammates, who starts to skate down the ice, eyes on the goal. Azu’s not paying too much attention, though, focused on the player who she just hit and who hasn’t skated off yet.
“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry!” Azu says, clapping her hands over her mouth. “I hit a bit harder than I intended, are you alright?
The player she hit gets up with the help of the boards, and Azu can see her sweat-slick forehead even through the face mask. “I’m fine,” she says, sounding only a bit winded, so Azu’s certain that the pads cushioned most of the blow. She does look fine, and then skates off to go help her team, but Azu can’t help feeling bad still, even though checks are part of the game. But she can’t focus on that now - they have a game to win.
She marks the forward for nearly the rest of her shift, and they seem to be pretty even head-to-head. The other woman is quick and agile, but Azu has an easier time reading her than others, and can get her stick in the way of enough shots that she’s right pleased with herself. She also doesn’t check her again, even when the opportunity presents itself.
When the line changes again, Azu and the woman both head off around the same time, and find themselves both on the end of the bench with the penalty box in between them. Azu still feels a little bad for the hit, but she knows that that will be something she needs to get over if she wants to make it onto the team. She doesn’t like checking people, is the thing - unless they’ve hurt one of her teammates, and even then she doesn’t want to go too far.
She gets a few more shifts on the ice, sometimes playing against the woman and sometimes not, but they seem to always be evenly matched. Azu does her best to shut off the parts of her brain which overthink things, and focuses on showing the coaches how skilled she is. She blocks shots,
sends the puck up the ice to give her team time to change, plays with it behind the net to kill time, and thinks she does a good job on the ice.
Azu’s team ends up losing, but only by a point, and both of the coaches look a mix of surprised and impressed as they speak to each other on the opposite side of the rink. Cleo comes by and claps Azu on the shoulder, giving her a reassuring and proud grin.
“You did amazing out there,” she compliments, and Azu can’t help the shy smile that takes over her face.
“Really?” she asks.
“It was incredible. You stopped a lot of shots on us, Azu,” she says, and then takes a step back. “I’ll see you in the locker room.”
Azu watches her go, and then the rest of the women begin filing off as well. Azu ends up all the way in the back, which is just as good, since she proceeds to have a mini freak out about Cleo’s praise the second no one is looking directly at her. She’ll have to call Emeka when she’s back - he’s been after her for days to actually try out for the team, and he’s always been in her corner from the moment she decided to start playing.
Her parents will want to know too - her mama has been texting her little heart emojis every day since Azu has been gone, and seeing them when she wakes up in the morning has been the best part of Azu’s time here. Maybe she can convince Emeka to go over to their parents house and set up a video call when he’s free; their parents still aren’t the best at figuring out technology, so this would probably be easier than Azu trying to explain via phone.
With rough plans made, Azu follows the rest of the girls into the locker room. Before practice started, everyone had claimed a random spot, apart from the seniors, who already had small name badges above the locker they’re using. A few of the newbies start to change, but some of the veteran players shake their head, and then there’s a knock on the door as the coaches file in, clipboards gone.
They’re not in there for long, trading off with each other and each gives them a quick spiel about how well they played, how impressive some of the plays were, and then explains what will be going on tomorrow before thanking them and heading out. The locker room explodes into a cacophony of noise the second they leave, with women complimenting each other on their skills and some veterans on the team laughing (good-naturedly, of course) at how the newbies are scared of the coaches.
Azu finds herself standing next to the woman she checked earlier, who’s busy fiddling with the laces on her gloves as she starts to pull off her gear.
“Oh, hello!” Azu says, and the woman turns to give her a slightly confused look, which fades the second she recognizes Azu.
“Hey,” she greets, and then continues pulling her gear off.
“You’re an incredible player,” Azu says, unable to keep the admiration out of her voice.
The other woman nods. “Cheers. You, er - you’re good yourself. Haven’t had - well, it’s been a while since I had as much trouble getting past a defenseman as I had with you today.”
Azu can feel herself blushing, and redirects her attention to getting out of her pads so that she can go take a shower and get rid of all the sweat.
“Plus,” the other woman says, casual as anything, “no one’s knocked me down like that recently.”
Azu can’t help but start sputtering, trying to find the words. “I - I am very sorry,” she says, but the other woman shakes her head.
“It was a good hit, mate,” she says, with a bit of a crooked smile that’s gone nearly before Azu can even see it. “No need to apologize again.”
Azu still feels a bit abashed, but she’s not one to beat a dead horse when it’s asked you to stop, so instead she just sticks out her hand to the other woman. “I’m Azu. It’s my first year here.”
“Sasha,” she gets back, and then Sasha shakes her hand, albeit seeming a little hesitant. “And me as well. Just got dropped off by my cousin last night.”
She pulls her helmet off, and Azu can feel the warmth rising in her cheeks. She’s got close-cropped black hair, and a bit of a crooked nose where it’s clearly been broken in the past. There’s a strange scar stretching down her neck from her jaw, nearly faded against her pale skin. She has almost an ethereal quality about her, something hard and tough that’s tempered with… Azu isn’t sure, and she isn’t the best at metaphors anyway. Regardless, she’s very pretty, and Azu can’t help that her heart skips a beat when she looks at her.
“Er - I’m gonna go shower?” Sasha says, raising an eyebrow, and Azu nods, averting her eyes as she realises she’s been staring.
“Good! Er - good idea, yes, that sounds… ideal. I should - I will do the same,” Azu says, and then closes her eyes and sighs. “Not - my apologies, that… came out wrong.”
“... All right,” Sasha says, seeming more confused that offended or… well, weirded out, which Azu takes as a good sign. “Er. I’ll just. Go.”
“Right,” Azu says, and then Sasha takes a few steps away, giving one look behind her before heading off to the showers. Azu leans her head against her locker, cold metal pressing in to her forehead. “Gods, you’re hopeless ,” she mutters, and then stands up straight again, tossing a few more things into her locker before she heads off to the showers as well, eager to get the sweat off her skin.
When Azu gets out of the shower, feeling clean and fresh and dressed in a loose skirt with a button-down tank top, Sasha is sitting on the bench and finishing toweling off her hair, but she looks up when Azu approaches. They’re the only two left in the locker room, nearly everyone else having opted to take showers back at their flats.
“Oh! Hello, again,” Azu says, and Sasha nods.
“Hey,” she says, and Azu rocks back and forth on her feet, silence in the air between them.
“What dorm are you staying in?” Azu asks, mostly just for something to say, and Sasha pulls the towel away from her head, tossing it into the nearby laundry bin.
“Langley,” Sasha says, and grabs her bag, slinging it over her shoulder. “You?”
“I’m right next door! Harrison for me,” Azu says. “Would you like to walk back together?”
Sasha considers it for a moment and then nods, gesturing for Azu to follow her. Azu grabs her bags and heads out, jogging for a bit to catch up with her as they step out of the field house.
It’s a nice walk back; it’s still warm outside, one of the last nice days, and the leaves are just starting to turn a burnished gold. A cool breeze sweeps across the quad, stirring up the grass and the edges of blankets where students are sitting and studying before exams.
“What are you going for?” Sasha asks eventually, and Azu preens.
“Medicine. I want to become a doctor someday. I’ve always wanted to be able to help people,” she says, and Sasha laughs. “Don’t laugh, it’s true!”
“Azu, I’m not laughing at you, mate,” Sasha says, and smiles. “Just… haven’t known you for very long, but somehow that’s - dunno, the exact answer I expected. It’s good. Suits you.”
“Oh,” Azu says, feeling her cheeks flush again. She shakes her head slightly to clear it and bites her lip. “What about you? What are you going for?”
“History. Not really sure what I’m going to do with it yet,” Sasha says, shoving her hands into her pockets and turning her face up toward the sun. “Think I might go into antiques. Always been a fan of them.”
They spend the rest of the walk talking about nothing of particular importance; Azu learns that Sasha’s cousin is a few years younger than her. although she doesn’t get a name. She tells Sasha about her own brother, Emeka, and then they discuss what feels like everything, from their classes to favourite professors to best campus food to… well, everything. Azu gets so lost in the moment that she doesn’t even realise when they get to the fork in the path that separates their two dorms, not until Sasha speaks up.
“This is me,” she says when they get back to the residence area, pulling up to a stop outside an older looking building and glancing back at Azu.
It doesn’t take long for Azu to realize that she doesn’t want to have to say goodbye.
“Er - would you like to get some coffee, sometime?” Azu asks in a rush, heart in her throat. Sasha doesn’t say anything back for a moment, just staring at Azu with her head tilted slightly to the side. “I - if you don’t -“
“Yeah, sure,” Sasha says finally, cutting her off, and it must be the exercise that’s left a dull flush on Sasha’s cheeks. “Er, let me -“ She pulls out her phone and hands it over to Azu with the contact page open. “I’ll… text you?”
Azu keys in her information quickly, adding a smiley face next to her name, and then hands the phone back to Sasha. “I’d like that,” she says with a soft grin, and Sasha tucks her phone away so quickly that Azu can’t even track which pocket it’s ended up in.
She gives Azu a small wave as she walks backward toward her dorm, and Azu waves back, watching her leave. Her hand stays up long after Sasha’s gone, finally falling back to her side. Her cheeks feel like they’re on fire, and she can’t hide the smile on her face. The phone in her hand buzzes, and she fumbles to unlock it, staring down at a message from Sasha asking what time.
She does a little fist bump in the air. If the people around her look at her a little strangely, she doesn’t much mind. She even almost doesn’t care if she makes the team, now, not when she’s got a coffee… date? Outing? Hangout? with a very pretty freshman who Azu really thinks she’ll get on with. (Honestly, she will be devastated if she doesn’t make the team, but right not, everything seems so… distant.) She nearly skips off to her dorm after that, sending a quick message off to Sasha to plan for something in the evening, after their classes are up.
There’s so much for her to tell Emeka about.