The first indication that something is off with one of the new freshmen comes during warmups of the season opener.
The Wellies have their first game on the road this year which is disappointing because there’ll be no kegster to kick off the season, but, then, this just means the party after the home opener will be that much bigger.
Holster grins at the thought, finds his d-man across the ice, and flings a puck at his shins. They practically share a brain these days, so Ransom smoothly accepts the pass even though he hadn’t been looking in his direction, and he glances up, mirroring Holster’s smile.
“One-T’s?” Ransom mouths, nodding to the puck on his stick.
Holster’s grin widens. “Hell yeah!” he shouts.
He sets himself up at the blue line and raises his stick, admiring his partner’s perfect saucer pass and relishing in the drag of the blade on the ice as he sends the first puck toward the net. It goes wide.
He fires two more shots on goal before Johnson bothers to look at him, grumbling so quietly Holster isn’t sure he hears correctly, “I know this is a vital plot device, but holy fuck, Holtz.”
He takes that as a compliment on his shot speed, grinning wickedly, and keeps firing off perfect passes from his partner. He’s on his seventh or eighth miss when someone breaks his focus.
He turns to see one of the frogs frowning at him and, okay, he knows his shots weren’t all on net, but they were still rockets, and he will not tolerate chirping from a freshman.
“Hey, Poindexter. Can I help you?”
He stops in front of Holster, blocking his shot lane, and asks, “Want to take it easy on those One-T’s?”
Holster raises an eyebrow. “Why would I do that?”
“Because it’s warmups and you’re firing like we’re in the playoffs,” Dex replies shortly.
Ignoring the tone, Holster preens at the praise. “Practice how you want to play, kid.”
Dex shakes his head. “No, I mean, the guys aren’t paying attention. Someone could get hurt.”
He scoffs. “Dude, it’s hockey.”
“Right, we already play a dangerous sport. No need to make it more dangerous by being reckless.”
Holster bristles at that. “I’m sorry, reckless?”
Ransom skates over, no doubt reading his body language from across the ice. “Looking for slapper tips, Dex?” he asks innocently.
Before he can answer, Holster says, “Actually, Dex here has an issue with my warm up routine.”
Pointdexter rolls his eyes. “You can warm up without shooting rockets, Holtz. It’s unnecessary. What if someone skates in front of one of those shots?”
“They should be aware of what’s going on,” Ransom counters.
“It’s warm ups, we shouldn’t have to be on high alert until puck drop.”
He looks like he’s set to continue, but then Jack slides to a stop in front of them with his patented laser-focused frown in place. “Is there a problem here, boys?” he demands.
“No--” Ransom starts, but Dex cuts him off.
“Birkholtz and Oluransi are teeing up slapshots like this is a fucking skills comp while half the guys don’t even have their buckets on right.”
Jack’s frown deepens as he looks at Holster, then back at Dex. “They’re warming up.”
“They’re recklessly showing off,” Dex counters.
“Come on- ” Holster shouts.
Jack holds up a hand, halting his outrage. “If you have an issue with the way a member of this team is conducting themselves, you come to me. I don’t want you starting confrontations on the ice, got it?”
Dex gives a sharp nod. “Got it. I have an issue with the way Birkholtz is conducting himself.”
Jack briefly shuts his eyes and lets out a weary sigh. “Fine, noted. Go run those passing drills with Nurse and let me be the judge of who is and is not being reckless.”
Dex frowns, considering Holster like he wants to say more, but makes the smart decision to follow his captain’s order and skates away.
“Shit,” Holster blows out a breath. “Can you believe the balls on that kid?”
Jack tilts his head and the corner of his mouth ticks up. “That kid kind of has a point. Pull back on those slappers a bit, let's save the good stuff for the game, eh?”
He taps Ransom with his stick, pats Holster’s helmet, and skates off.
Holster blinks at his d-partner, processing the exchange that just occurred. “Did I just get bossed around by a rookie?”
Bitty has been playing contact sports since he could walk.
His sophomore season marks his seventh year as a hockey player.
He knows that hockey is a contact sport.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t do everything in his power to avoid said contact.
He’s one of the fastest players in the ECAC (there, he said it), so he can skate away from almost any collision--much to the frustration of his opponents and the delight of his teammates--but not this one.
The Cornell defenseman isn’t any bigger than Holster--who he’s more than used to being checked by--but Bitty still gulps when he sees him closing in out of the corner of his eye. There’s nothing he can do, he can’t protect himself without giving up the puck, and Wicky is perfectly positioned in the high slot…
Bitty makes the pass and takes the hit.
When he hears the refs’ whistles blow, he’s sure it’s because they scored, and he does his best to shake off the hit so he can go celly with his boys, but he turns to see the refs are busy breaking up a scrum.
Bitty didn’t black out, did he? What’d he miss?
He does his job, skates over and grabs the jersey of one of the Cornell forwards to keep him out of the pile (though he looks bored with the whole exchange) and tries to figure out the cause of the chaos.
“It’s hockey!” the defenseman who hit him is shouting, “Not my fault you’re all a bunch of--”
“Go ahead, finish that sentence,” Poindexter growls, ignoring the refs and shoving their opponent against the boards, “give me another reason to fucking destroy you!"
Bitty baulks a little at the venom in his tone. He’s proud of his frogs’ passion, always, but this is a bit much, even for Dex who tends to be the most fiery on the ice.
(There’s a joke about his hair in there somewhere. Nursey wouldn’t have missed that opportunity.)
Currently, Nursey is trying to pull Dex off a red jersey.
“Chill, Poindexter, it was a clean hit.”
Dex whirls on his partner, as he so often does, and yells, “He’s half his size--”
“Tell him to eat his wheaties,” the Cornell player chirps.
Dex shoves him again. “Back off my forwards you piece of fucking trash.”
The player shoves back. “Grow the fuck up--”
“That’s enough ,” one of the refs finally snaps. “Twenty-four in white to the box.”
Dex whirls on the linesman. “Are you kidding--”
“Poindexter,” Jack says lowly, “don’t escalate. Go.”
The freshman’s eyes flash with fury, but he turns for the penalty box without another word.
“I can’t have players attacking each other after every clean hit,” the referee is explaining to Jack. “I need to give him something for that. He’s lucky he’s not getting unsportsmanlike, too.”
“And Daners isn’t getting a minor for those comments?” Jack demands.
“Don’t push it, Zimmermann.”
Jack sighs and shakes his head in frustration as the man skates off to announce the penalty.
“Samwell, number twenty-four, two-minute minor penalty, roughing.”
Bitty angrily turns toward the bench, the hit forgotten as he seethes over the unfairness of this penalty when they’re already down 3-1, but he forgets that too when Jack bumps his arm.
“Took that check like a champ, Bits,” he says with a soft smile.
Bitty blushes furiously. “Guess those early mornings are paying off after all.”
More shouting draws their attention away from each other, and Bitty looks across the ice to find Dex still chirping Daners through the glass.
He sobers, then, nodding toward the penalty box. “You gonna talk to that boy before he gets himself thrown out of a game?”
Jack sighs. “Suppose I’ll have to.”
Bitty pats him on the arm. “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown, Mr. Zimermann.”
Jack pulls the freshman aside in the tunnel before the start of the third.
“Poindexter, I will never have an issue with you standing up for your teammates, ever.” He lets that sink in before he continues, “But, you need to be smart about it. You can’t take avoidable penalties when we’re down by two in the second; that’s not helping your team.”
Dex clenches his jaw, clearly still angry, and bites out, “That fucker crushed Bitty for no fucking--”
“I didn’t like it either,” Jack assures him, “but it was a clean hit.”
“It was intent to injure,” Dex argues.
Jack pauses, frowning. “It didn’t look that way from my angle.”
“He charged at a guy half his size! How is that not--”
Jack shakes his head. “Dex, it was a standard shoulder check. He didn’t aim for his head, he didn’t leave his skates, there was nothing illegal about it.”
“He should have eased up,” he insists.
“I don’t disagree with you,” Jack says placatingly, “but it’s hockey. You can’t start a fight after every hit.”
Dex’s face hardens further and Jack can practically hear him thinking yes, I can.
Jack sighs. “Like I said, I love seeing you stand up for the guys, especially for Bits.” He shakes his head, letting his expression go flat before he can reveal too much. “But be smart about how you do it, eh?”
“Sure, Cap.” He agrees flatly and, with that, the freshman turns for the ice.
Jack stares after him in dismay. He has a feeling this won’t be the last time they have a conversation like this.
“Go fuck yourself, Nurse.”
Derek scoffs. “What, like I’m wrong?” He sits heavily on the bench next to his defensive partner, dragging in gasping breaths after a brutal shift. “If you hadn’t lost your man, that pass wouldn’t have happened.”
Dex slams his shoulder against Derek’s as the bench moves down. “And if you weren’t so fucking slow on your skates, you could’ve gotten back in position.”
“I can’t cover every one of your mistakes--”
“We’re in pairs for a reason--”
“Enough, you two!” Holster snaps, leaning around Ransom to glare at them. “If I have to listen to you bitch at each other for the rest of the game…” he lets the threat trail off.
Derek shrinks a little in response, but Dex, in true form, doesn’t quit.
“That chance was Nurse’s fault!”
“Hockey is a team sport,” Ransom says. “We don’t play the blame game around here.”
“You’re partners,” Holster adds. “Start acting like it.”
Dex makes a face, but, mercifully, shuts up.
For all that Dex is an incredible hockey player, his work ethic rivaling only Jack’s, for all that he brings to the ice, he really is a pain in Derek’s ass sometimes.
His shoulder is tapped a few moments later and he’s throwing himself back over the boards, exhaustion taking a backseat as he jumps into the rush. Bitty flips the puck in and Derek chases (because he is not slow on his skates, fuck you very much Poindexter), closing in on a Harvard d-man. They’re battling for the puck against the boards when Derek gets checked.
It’s not a bad hit. He’s had much, much worse in his twelve years of playing hockey, but when the Harvard player presses him against the boards, he also takes his feet out from under him.
Derek’s head breaks his fall.
The wind gets knocked out of him and he rolls to his front, trying to prop himself up on his elbows to get the pressure off his chest because he can’t fucking breathe, and ow, fuck, my head--
“Hang on, hang on.”
A pair of skates slides to a stop in front of him and, huh, the play must have been blown dead. He wonders how he missed the whistle.
“Stay down for a sec, Nurse.”
It’s Dex, Derek realizes belatedly, sounding more gentle than he’d ever thought his partner was capable of and putting a gloved hand on his back.
“Just take it easy, man,” Dex is saying, “Davey is coming.”
Derek scrunches his face up, partly because he hates the training staff fussing over him and partly because, “I’m fine.”
He starts to shift to his knees.
“I said I’m fine, Dex, chill,” he growls, successfully getting to one knee, and heavily leaning on his stick once he’s there because oh, shit, spotty vision .
“Your head bounced off the ice, don’t chill your way out of this,” Dex snaps and if Derek’s head wasn’t spinning, he’d snap right back because the last thing he needs is getting a reputation around the league for being a baby who can’t take a check.
It’s hockey. Hits happen. Head injuries happen. He’s fine.
Davey finally reaches him, escorted by Jack, and he leans down, putting a hand on his back just under Dex’s which is still, for some reason, there.
“How’s the head?” Davey asks bluntly.
“Not too bad,” Derek lies through his teeth, using his stick to drag himself to his skates as his vision continues to swim.
He roughly shrugs off Dex’s hand, but lets Davey start guiding him toward the bench because his brain is incapable of sending the correct signals to his feet right now. He’s halfway there when his knees buckle.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Nurse,” Dex, appearing out of nowhere, yells sharply even as his gentle hands prevent Derek from hitting the ice for a second time. “I fucking told you to stay down, you stupid fucking--”
“Shut up, ” Derek moans as his partner’s voice adds to the pressure in his head and nausea sweeps through his stomach.
Dex must sense how close he is to puking on his skates because he stops his tirade, all but carrying Derek to the bench, making sure the trainers have a good grip on him before he lets go.
“Idiot,” Derek hears Dex mutter quietly as he heads for the tunnel.
Derek looks up to tell him to fuck off, regretting it immediately as his knees threaten to give out again, but something in Dex’s face stops him from opening his mouth.
It might be the growing black spots in his vision, but Derek could’ve sworn he saw genuine fear on his partner’s face.
He must’ve hit his head harder than he thought.
After some indiscernible amount of time spent in the dark room with an ice pack pressed to his head, dragging in shallow breaths so he doesn’t puke again, Derek hears a soft rustling from the doorway.
He cracks an eye open, groans at the sharp ache that causes, and wills his vision to focus.
Dex is standing halfway in the room, shifting awkwardly on his skates, helmet still on his head.
“You gonna live?” he asks quietly.
Derek would roll his eyes if he felt up to it. As it is, all he can do is huff a breath that could almost be a laugh.
Dex’s face does something complicated, emotions flickering too fast for Derek’s swollen brain to process, before it settles on indifference.
He turns to head toward the locker room.
“Wait,” Derek calls, closing his eyes as the effort of speaking sends waves of pain behind his temples.
There’s a pause, then, “What?”
“Thank you,” Derek says. He’s not sure if he’s thanking Dex for helping him to the bench, for being worried about him, for caring enough to come check on him, or for assisting on two goals after Derek got hit so that the team at least won the game that’s going to take him out for weeks. “I just...thanks.”
The reply is immediate. “Got your back, Nurse.”
Derek opens his eyes just in time to see Dex’s soft smile.
The sharp pain behind his eyes is worth it.
There are a few unwritten and unspoken rules in hockey that most players follow without question.
Don’t fight a guy half your size.
If your liney is on hatty watch, get him the puck.
And don’t, under any circumstances, fuck with the goalie.
That means don’t snow the goalie, don’t shoot the puck at the goalie after the whistle, and don’t ever run over the goalie.
Chowder gets run over six minutes into his fourth college start.
He doesn't see it coming, laser focused on the puck, aware there's a two on one developing, but not realizing just how intensely the Union forward is gunning for his crease until he's in it and, consequently, barreling into Chowder's knees.
Later, Chowder will be embarrassed that this happened on home ice, but right now, he’s grateful for the seven-thousand Wellies in attendance because the outrage from the stands is as instantaneous as the outrage on the ice.
He knows he's okay before they stop sliding into the boards--the force of the collision knocked the goal off its posts--so any fear of injury instantly turns to fury because that guy should have been way more careful.
Dex, it seems, shares a similar sentiment.
Before any whistles have a chance to blow, Dex is grabbing the forward by the back of the jersey, hauling him off Chowder until he's upright, and throwing a punch that would probably knock the guy out if he didn't still have his helmet on and jesus, Chowder thinks a little hysterically, Dex is going to break his hand because of course he dropped his gloves.
“Dex, you fucking moron,” Nursey shouts, trying to shove off the Union player who holding him back, “Chowder is fine! ”
The refs don't give the players any time to work things out between themselves, immediately getting arms around Dex and dragging him to the nearest exit. All the while, Dex is screaming obscenities at the Union player, face bright red, and trying to shake free of the restraining arms.
As the guys help Chowder to his skates, he feels a deep sense of belonging, a confirmation of how important he is to this team that someone would stand up for him so vehemently like that.
But he's also a little afraid of Dex right now.
This wasn’t the first...meltdown of Dex's that Chowder has bared witness to on the ice, but it was the most violent. And while he appreciates being protected by his d-men (it is their job, after all), he's worried about his friend's willingness to drop his gloves; they all know that's a one-way ticket out of a game.
Chowder shakes off the training staff’s concern--he’s fine and all he wants now is to win this game--and the whole incident is over in less than five minutes. He lets his focus return to the puck, but one thought lingers.
The coaches are going to be pissed .
Dex suppresses a flinch when a thick stack of papers is slammed onto the desk in front of him.
He frowns up at Coach Hall who is standing behind his desk, arms crossed, and jaw tight in a way that he is all too familiar with.
“Do you recognize that document, Poindexter?” the man finally asks after several long moments of stifling silence.
He flicks his gaze down. “It’s a player’s agreement.”
“It’s your player agreement, the one you signed five months ago when you were offered a spot on this team. Do you recall?”
Dex gives a sharp nod, pushing down the flare of anger at the way Coach is talking down to him.
“Can you flip to page seventeen, section four, and tell me what it says?”
Carefully not rolling his eyes, he does as asked, reading robotically, “A player shall not fight an opponent or participate in a fight, on or off the playing surface. A punch thrown may be considered fighting. Penalty: disqualification.”
“Excellent. Now read section five.”
Dex clenches his jaw. He knows the rules. He knows he broke several of them. This is a waste of--
“Section five, Poindexter!”
He raises his voice to match Coach’s and reads, “A player shall not resist an official or persist in continuing or attempting to continue an altercation after the player has been ordered by any on-ice official to stop. Penalty: misconduct, game misconduct or disqualification, at the discretion of the referee.”
He tosses the contract back onto the desk and only just manages to avoid crossing his arms with a huff. He’s not actively trying to get kicked off the team.
“During the seven years that I’ve been coaching here, my players have only been given disqualification penalties on two occasions,” he reports sharply, “and you somehow managed to rack up two in less than thirty seconds.”
Dex says nothing which seems to anger his coach even further.
“What in the hell were you thinking?” he demands and, god, Dex is so tired of having these conversations.
“I was thinking that my goalie just got run over by some reckless moron who needed to be reminded about exercising caution--”
“You are not an enforcer, Will!” Coach is full on shouting, now, and Dex is painfully aware of the open door behind him. “You are on this team because of your hockey skills, not your ability to throw a punch.”
“So I should’ve just let that guy get away with--”
“He was getting a minor--”
Dex scoffs, throwing his hands up. “Great, two minutes for almost paralyzing--” he snaps his mouth shut before he damns himself with the rest of that sentence, but a glance at Coach’s face tells him it’s too late.
The man’s face softens and pity replaces the anger in his eyes.
Dex drops his gaze to the floor as Coach lets out a weary sigh and comes to sit on the chair next to him, not wanting any part of the conversation that he knows is about to happen.
“Will,” Coach starts, and now he sounds sad , and Dex is not going to lose it, “I can’t even begin to imagine what you went through last season.” He sees him shake his head out of the corner of his eye as he still refuses to look up. “Watching something like that happen...it’s gotta be scary.”
He almost laughs. The gross understatement of the worst day of his life is somehow hilarious in this context given Coach was screaming at him less than a minute ago.
“I know you don’t want to see that happen again, but you can’t single-handedly stop the game from being dangerous.”
Dex has to bite his tongue until he tastes blood because he’s not trying to change the game, he just needs to keep reminding other teams that they’re playing against people, breakable, fragile people, because when players stop seeing each other as people and start seeing them as opponents they get careless and when they get careless, tragedies happen--
He finally looks up and immediately wishes he hadn’t. The sorrow on Coach’s face is almost enough to break him and when he adds a solid hand on his shoulder, it’s all Dex can do to keep from bursting into tears.
“I’m sorry about your teammate,” Coach says quietly, and Dex wants to scream because he wasn’t just his hockey bro-- “and I understand if you’re struggling, but there’s a time and place to deal with that and it’s not out on the ice. We don’t tolerate fighting here, am I understood?”
Seizing the opportunity to escape, Dex nods quickly. “Yes, sir.”
As if reading his mind, Coach’s hand tightens on his shoulder. “One more thing before you go.”
He walks back around his desk and rifles through one of the drawers for a moment, emerging with a single sheet of paper and a business card.
“Here.” He hands them to Dex. “These are a few resources I want you to look into. I think you’d better talk to someone about this before you get into some real trouble with the league.”
Taking the warning for what it is, Dex nods again. “I will. Thanks, Coach.”
Without waiting for another word, he flees, mind reeling over the fact that his coach just asked him to talk to a shrink because of how bad he’s been fucking up on the ice and now instead of being pissed, the whole coaching staff probably just feels sorry for him which is absurd because he’s not the one who almost--
“Where’s the fire, Poindexter?”
Dex startles so hard at Nursey’s words that he nearly stumbles back through the doorway he just ran out of.
"Fuck, Nurse, what are you still doing here?"
He gives a casual shrug that Dex sees right through (and, huh, he wonders when he learned to read his partner so well). "Wanted to make sure Coach didn't actually follow through on his threat to kill you."
Dex grimaces. "I think I'd have preferred if he did."
Nursey's lips twist. "Yeah, that, uh, that didn't sound fun."
He feels the color drain from his face. "You...you heard that?"
"Yeah," he rubs the back of his neck awkwardly, "uh, the door was open."
Dex swallows hard and pretends that his chest doesn't suddenly feel too tight and the walls haven’t started closing in. It's fine, He and Nursey are...something. And this is fine.
"I knew you were from Maine, but I didn't know..." Nursey shakes his head, "I had no idea that was you."
"But it--it wasn't me," he has to clear his throat when his voice catches, "I'm not the one who got hurt."
"But it's still something that happened to you, Dex. You're allowed to be affected by it."
Dex finally meets Nursey's eyes because, god, does he want to believe him, and what he finds there is what finally breaks him. There's none of the pity that Coach looked down at him with. Instead, Dex finds understanding, sorrow, yes, but also empathy. Support.
And he breaks.
His lip starts to wobble and his vision blurs with tears but he can still see Nursey startle before a sort of determination takes over and he grabs Dex's arm, pulling him deeper into the locker room, away from Coach's still-open door.
He's talking, Dex realizes eventually, but it's hard to hear over the ringing in his ears.
“-got you, c’mere, it’s okay,” he’s muttering softly as he herds Dex into his stall where he’d sat less than an hour ago, stomach churning in anticipation of being reprimanded by his coach.
But now, as Nursey sits next to him, hand on his knee and thumb rubbing back and forth, it feels comforting instead of terrifying. It’s enough that he’s able to take full breaths, release his lip from between his teeth, and sheepishly wipe away the few tears that managed to escape.
As soon as he’s able to, he talks.
He tells Nursey about the incident that made him question if he’d ever return to the sport, describes the images that play in his head when he can’t sleep, the fear that chokes him when a teammate is hurt, the way he’s really not coping with everything and how ashamed he is to admit it.
And then he listens.
He listens as Nursey tells him that it’s okay to be struggling, that it’s to be expected after the trauma he went through because “yes, Dex, you were traumatized, too” and it doesn’t fix him, it’s not enough to undo the months of self-loathing, to erase the fear that’s threatening to destroy his hockey career, but it’s a start.
When Nursey’s hand lingers in his long after they stop talking, Dex thinks it might be the start of something else, too.