Danny let the door fall shut, frowning deeply as he came face to face with his phone. It was right where he’d left it, sitting on the nightstand next to the alarm clock. It was still flashing blue—another request, another message.
He’d left it there for exactly that reason. He didn’t want to be distracted during the game. He still hadn’t called Mat—something he felt a bit guilty about—but he knew that he couldn’t. Whatever Matt had to tell him, good or bad, was going to distract him from the game. He needed to focus.
Not that it had really mattered; he’d been pretty ineffectual. He hadn’t had a chance to call Matt back, and, despite his best efforts, the urgency in Matt’s voice had been clear. It had filtered through the static of the call, twisted through his ears, wrapped around his mind, stimulating. Anxiety and excitement, twin sensations, curled through him, and he was in overdrive.
In some ways, he most definitely should have called before the game. At least then, he would have known exactly what Matt wanted to tell him or had heard. He wouldn’t have spent the duration of the game wondering, wondering, wondering …
But then again, whatever Matt had to tell him was bound to be distracting too. He wished Matt had waited until after the game, at least. It was something the alpha should have understood.
But that meant that whatever Matt wanted to tell him was important, incredibly so. And that worried Danny. Maybe there was more chemo? Maybe it hadn’t worked. Maybe the cancer had come back, maybe they were going to have to do surgery …
He reached for the phone hesitantly. Sure enough, the message was from Matt—another request for a call, as soon as possible. Danny clutched the phone a little harder, pressing his fingers against it in a bid to stop the tremors running through him.
He hadn’t had time to call before the game, not with the screw up with the flight. There hadn’t been time. There simply hadn’t been time.
But he had time now, and he couldn’t put this off forever. He swiped into his contacts, dialed Matt’s number. He pressed the phone to his ear.
The lights outside were glittering, twinkling. He stepped closer to the window, felt the cool of the night creeping in through the panes. He looked down into the streets, the lines of red and white lights crawling along through the street below. He sucked in another breath.
The call connected; there was a click, then static, then Matt’s breath—Danny knew it was him, even though he said nothing at all—and then, “Hello?”
“Hey,” he said, surprised by how soft and sorrowful his own tone was. He swallowed again. His fingers trembled again, like holding the phone was too much, too heavy.
“Hey,” Matt said, and his voice was full of relief. “I called earlier, I–”
“I know, I got the message. We were delayed in Dallas.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Sorry. I didn’t … think, I guess, I just–”
“It’s fine.” Even though it wasn’t. It most definitely was not okay. Danny dropped his suit jacket on the bed, then carefully toed off his shoes.
He really did have to make this quick, he knew. Nicky wasn’t likely to say anything to anyone, but he probably wouldn’t appreciate Danny having a long, drawn-out heart to heart with Matt at this hour. The other forward no doubt wanted to sleep.
Hell, Danny wanted to sleep. He’d done nothing in the game, and he was still tired. He wanted to relax, to forget about this day.
“So,” he said, “what’s up?”
“I saw the doctor today.”
Danny blinked, then released his jaw. He sucked in another breath, then sat down heavily on the bed, willing himself to relax. Even still, his hands curled into the sheets.
Matt’s voice was so quiet, Danny thought he might have dropped the call. But there it was—a whisper, scarcely cutting through the static. “It’s okay,” he said.
Danny bit his lip, closed his eyes.
“I get to start workouts on Monday. It’ll be really light stuff, but …”
Danny let his head roll back, stared at the ceiling. “Then … ?”
“It’s gone,” Matt said. “It’s … fuck, Dan, I’m–”
For whatever reason, Danny was shaking even harder now. He curled in on himself, dragged a hand down his face, hoping to pull himself together.
“It’s gone, it’s gone. It’s over—for now, I mean … they said it could, it might …”
“Right now,” Matt said, and Danny closed his eyes tight, ground his teeth together.
“Just,” Matt said.
“I know.” His throat was tight; speaking hurt. He was raw, so raw. He pressed the back of his free hand to his cheek, felt the dampness there. Inhaling hurt, burned at him, more than the cold had ever bothered him, more than he’d ever believed he was asphyxiating on the ice.
“I’m glad,” Matt said after an interminably long pause. “Like, fuck, Dan, you have no idea–”
“I’ve got a good idea,” Danny offered, closing his eyes again, swiping at the tears. He really hoped Nicky would stay away just a few minutes longer.
Another pause. “Yeah,” Matt said, “I guess you do.”
“It’s late,” Danny said, glancing toward the clock. Matt was in a different time zone, at least two hours ahead.
“Yeah,” the alpha agreed easily, maybe glad to change the subject. “I mean …”
“I played a game. Back-to-backs.”
“Nicky will be back soon.”
Danny inhaled through his nose, sat up a little straighter. “Okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Matt said. Danny could practically hear the nod. “Yeah. Thanks … thanks for calling.”
“Sorry I didn’t call sooner.”
“It’s fine,” Matt replied breezily. “I just …”
The pause seemed to go on forever, and Danny sat there, listening to static and the softer sounds of traffic outside.
“I love you.”
The lock clicked, and the door opened, even as Danny was saying, hushed and quick as he could, “Love you too.”
Matt hung up; the dial tone beeped in Danny’s ear even as he turned to face Nicky. The Swede lifted a brow, then pressed the door shut quietly. He averted his gaze, then stepped into the room, glancing back at the door.
“Matt?” he asked when he turned back.
Danny tamped down on the startle; he didn’t think any of his teammates knew, except Luke.
Then again, Nicky didn’t know—or maybe he did. But probably not. Danny could have said “love you” without …
Guys told each other they loved each other all the time. It wasn’t uncommon in the locker rooms. And they meant it; it wasn’t a joke. Team bonds were impossibly strong in the league. Danny knew people who had more epic bromances with guys on their teams, who loved their teammates and friends more than their own spouses. And those guys weren’t gay, weren’t sleeping with each other.
It meant nothing. Nicky had nothing out of the ordinary. He didn’t know.
But the way he lifted his brows said otherwise. “Yeah,” Danny said with a sigh, “yeah. He, uh …”
Nicky waited. His lips were a thin, drawn line—the parental frown. Danny didn’t know how the blond managed it, but he was like everyone’s dad. Danny wasn’t even that much younger than him, just a couple of years.
And somehow, Nicky still acted like he was his dad. Sometimes, Danny had more trouble telling Nicky things than his own father. And that was saying something.
“Good news,” Danny said at last. “He’s cleared to start working out on Monday.”
“That is very good,” Nicky agreed with a nod, and Danny nodded along. They stared at each other; neither of them had anything further to say to the other, but they both felt compelled to fill the silence, to continue giving encouragement that this was indeed a good thing.
“So,” Nicky said at last, “will you ask him then?”
Danny blinked, furrowed his brow. “Huh?”
Nicky bobbed his head once more, and oh shit, he fucking knew—
The blond gave him this strange half-smile, a mischievous glint in his eye. “I think you should,” he said, almost sagely. “Now is a good time, I think.”
Danny wasn’t sure what was on the tip of his tongue—“fuck you,” probably—but Nicky grabbed up a sweater and his sneakers, headed to the door and said, “So, I will step out for a bit. You need to think, ja?”
And then he was gone again, and Danny stared into the darkness, wondering how in the fuck …
Dusty cut the engine of the SUV, then looked over at Mason. Mason didn’t dare look at him. Instead, he stared blankly out the windshield. There were lights, darkness and shadows, but …
He chewed his lip, dug his blunt fingernails into the leather of the door. He could hardly get his breath. Something was wrong.
He felt Dusty’s gaze lingering on him, the question hanging heavy in the air. Mason sighed finally, then pushed open the door.
“Seat belt, bud,” Dusty said, then reached over and unclipped it for him. Mason stared at the belt as it tried to slither its way back up into the holder.
Fuck, he was out of it. He stepped onto the running board, then down to the sidewalk. Dusty slammed the door behind him, then tugged on his elbow, guiding him toward the building.
“Did you take something?” the other man asked when Mason looked up at him. “You are really out of it.”
Mason shook his head. He hadn’t taken anything in a while. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe he was just coming down, withdrawal or …
His stomach knotted around the lie. He knew it had nothing to do with that. “Let’s get up to your place,” Dusty said, glancing around.
Mason went without a fight. Maybe he’d feel better once he got into his own space.
They were about to get in the elevator when his pocket vibrated. He plucked out his phone, then frowned at the screen.
Sean? He hadn’t even known he had that fucker’s number programmed into his phone. In fact, he shouldn’t have. Between losing contact with the guy after the trade, not talking to him for years on end now, new phones …
He glanced nervously at Dusty, then swiped to answer. “Flanny?” he asked, feeling the snarl curl his upper lip in distaste around the word.
Dusty did a double-take, then mouthed, “Flanny?” at him.
Mason knitted his brows together. The call was ninety percent static, but he could still hear Sean’s rich, rolling baritone.
And, unfortunately, every syllable was wound tight with tension, resonating with everything Mason felt. He glanced toward the ceiling, the cement beams, tried to think about breathing long and slow.
“Greenie, are you—“
He cut out. Mason whirled around, stuffed a finger to his ear. “Hey,” he said, “you there? Sean?”
He headed back toward the entrance of the car park, hoping that it was just underground that was causing the call to be so shit.
Dusty landed a hand on his shoulder, turned him back toward the elevator. “Let’s get upstairs,” he hissed.
Mason looked at him for a moment, trying to process the words, the hissing syllables, the concern in the other man’s dark eyes.
And Sean cut out again. Mason whipped around, charged for the exit. He couldn’t wait to get upstairs. He couldn’t wait for an elevator, he couldn’t risk dropping the call, needing to call back.
“What about Luke?” he asked, unable to help the concern in his voice.
Luke, this was all Luke. He could feel it now, in his bones, in the bond. Every cell was awake now, honing in on the bond that was holding them together. This emotion, this unease, the tension, the sickness—it was all Luke.
“Don’t,” Sean said sharply, and Mason paused. He stared out the exit of the parkade, blinked a couple of times.
“Don’t what?” he asked.
“You’re prodding at the bond,” Sean accused. “Don’t—or make it softer, don’t jab at him, that’s the last thing he needs–”
Jab? Mason didn’t know that he was jabbing at anyone. “How?” he asked. He wasn’t trying to or anything, he didn’t know how to … make it softer. Make it so it didn’t hurt.
“Just … relax,” Sean advised. “You can leave it open, but don’t push on it. Don’t force it open.”
Mason swallowed nervously. He didn’t know what to do—or what not to do. What Sean was suggesting should have been easy, he supposed, but it …
So he stood there, until Dusty turned him about again and marched him back toward the elevator. “Can I … call back?” Mason asked, wincing as more static cut through the call.
“I’ll call back when I get in. I just gotta get outta the car park, underground.”
“You’re breaking up—hello?”
He hung up, then glanced up at Dusty, who lifted his brows. “Luke, huh?” he asked, and Mason pressed his lips together tightly to keep himself from saying anything more.
Dusty clapped his shoulder. “Let’s get upstairs,” he said. “Then we can call back.”
“Yeah,” Mason murmured, watched as Dusty hit the call button for the elevator. Mason stared at the red light listlessly, listened to the rumble and rattle of the car, then the cheerful ding of the doors.
Dima glanced about, then tucked himself carefully into the corner of the lounge. It was dim and dark, the corner nearly swallowed by shadows. There was soft jazz playing, occasionally drowned out by the clink of glasses and the buzz of conversation, and if it weren’t for the neon lights, he would have sworn he was in another era altogether.
Instead, he dropped down into the chair and pulled out his phone, a glowing reminder that this was the twenty-first century. His fingertips hovered over the keyboard before he selected his voicemail. A couple more buttons, and he sank back into the chair, listening to that smooth voice again.
He still didn’t know how Katya had figured it out; he’d always thought he kept things under wraps. He’d never spoken about the man publicly, always erased his search history and ensured that it was in secret browsing tabs on his own devices. He even switched WiFi networks and accounts so that it was even more difficult to trace.
He didn’t follow any of his social media accounts. He’d never even met the man. He didn’t keep anything on hand, except a few tangentially related pieces—but they were all related to each other, so it was just as easily assumed he was a really big fan of science fiction.
He had no idea how Katya had found out. In some ways, he didn’t want to know.
Worse, he had no idea how she’d managed to get in touch with a man who was virtually a recluse. Petrin was a genius, admired in the wider world for that genius, but he did not like the spotlight.
Someone like Katya shouldn’t have had any sway, any way to get near him. Petrin rebuffed everything that looked like fame, even though the media tried to make him a sensation. He wanted only to do science and write scientifically sound fiction.
Dima had first read some of Petrin’s research when he was in high school. He’d stumbled across a lone lecture that had been posted online—the man had once been a university professor, he thought—but it was grainy footage from forever ago. Nonetheless, he’d loved the man’s voice, the confidence of his assertions.
He was a genius, as far as Dima could tell, and since that time, he’d wanted to have a conversation with him. Or perhaps even just listen to a private lecture.
There was nothing truly admirable or attractive about Petrin—he was a bad stereotype from 1980s American films. He had unruly hair and enormous glasses. He was skinny and frail, which made his voice—deep, smooth, almost booming—all the more impressive. But Dima did not care about any of that.
The man impressed upon him with his ideas, with his words. He seemed to hold all of the secrets of the universe in his mind, and Dima was awed every time he put his pen to paper or delivered a rare lecture.
He didn’t know how many times he’d re-watched that lecture. He did creep the man’s social media every now and then, but Petrin’s posts were few and far between.
And now, Katya had somehow managed to contact him, convinced him to call Dima and leave him a message. A message that had a request for Dima to call him back.
The prospect was terrifying. Dima knew he’d never been the smartest student. He had struggled by, truly. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand, but he had never bothered to apply himself. But that hurt him now—he scarcely recalled high school physics, and he knew that his understandings of the mechanics of the world were shaky at best, even as he had read Petrin’s treatises over and over again.
What would he say? There was nothing he could say to such a man. Even “hello” would sound stupid and unsophisticated.
Besides, he mused, it was late in Colorado—and even later in Moscow. Or early, if he thought about it now; it would probably be seven or eight in the morning. Was that too early or too late to call someone like Petrin? He didn’t know.
What if the man picked up? What if he had to speak to him? What if he didn’t answer, what if it went to voicemail and he had to leave a message? What if he made himself sound foolish, stupid? He didn’t want to look like a twit.
He listened to the message again, over and over again. His drink was forgotten on the small glass table in front of him.
He wondered what Katya would say if he never called. She would mock him, surely. She would call him a coward. And he was, he was being a coward. Petrin had called him on Katya’s advice, had asked him to call back. Surely, he could call back? Even just to leave a message, even just to say hello …
And Katya would never let him live it down. She would be so mortified that she’d gone to such lengths for him. She had clearly pulled many strings to get Petrin to call him. She would be miffed that he did not return the call, that he didn’t take up the offer she had worked so hard to put before him.
He wondered, briefly, what Sanja would say to him if he knew he was waffling like this. He would likely mock him too.
He hit dial and listened to the phone ringing. He wished he could have texted or emailed. Or perhaps never talk to the man. He wanted to admire him from afar, to daydream about the conversations they would have if they ever did meet.
How many times had he imagined that? Being in a club or a lounge in Moscow, bumping to him. Buying him a drink, talking to him all night, such fascinating discussion holding him rapt. Or maybe attending a lecture, maybe being singled out to perform a demonstration or answer a question—and he sounded so smart in these daydreams, he was able to hold his own.
There was fumbling, then a click, and then a very curt, prickly, “Privet.”
Dima almost winced. He resisted the urge to hang up. “Privet,” he replied, hating the tremble in his voice. He was so nervous.
He could almost hear the snarl. “Who is this? How did you get this number?”
Dima shrank back in his chair a little. “I am sorry,” he offered, then cleared his throat. “Is this a bad time? This is Dima.”
He glanced about the room. He knew, almost for fact, no one in this room spoke Russian. Even if he said his full name, it was unlikely anyone would be able to decipher it from the rest of his sentence—it would sound like nothing more than noise, strange syllables. Even the way he pronounced his name was different than the way the announcers in hockey arenas said it. English had been unintelligible to him when he’d first started learning it.
Still. He didn’t want anyone knowing who he was, that he was sitting there. He wanted to be left alone.
“Dima who?” Petrin snapped.
“Mironov,” he replied. He’d known this was a mistake. Stupid Katya and her stupid, stupid ideas.
“Mironov …” A pause, a strange sound. “Mironova’s brother, the hockey player.”
It wasn’t a question—or it didn’t sound like one, at least. But Dima nodded and said, “Da,” because he was compelled to say something.
Petrin didn’t say anything. “Is this a bad time?” Dima asked. He watched the ice cubes in his drink—they had already melted so much. “I am sorry—”
A sigh. “I forgot I had called you,” Petrin said, his tone no less aggravated, but much softer, as though his anger was melting away. “It has been a long night.”
“I am sorry,” Dima repeated. He hated that he had nothing more intelligent to say.
“How could you know that? You are miles away, across two continents and an ocean. It is only eleven for you, and you are a hockey player. You do not keep strange hours, not like writers.”
“I’m sorry. Did I wake you? I can call at a different time, if this is—”
“This is fine. I have been up all night. Inspiration strikes at strange hours. I am seeing now, I cannot see my screen well. It is time to sleep. If you had not called, I would not pull myself away from this work.”
Dima hesitated, then said, “What are you working on?”
A snort. “It is secret.”
“All right,” Dima replied. Fuck, he was being so meek and …
Boring. He was boring to talk to. Where were all his questions?
“Your sister asked that I call you. Is there some reason for this?”
Dima opened his mouth, inhaled sharply. Then he deflated. “No,” he said, “there is no reason for this, I think. I am a … fan. But I do not think—”
“A fan?” He sounded skeptical, and despite the gulf of space and time between them, Dima was still embarrassed. He flushed. “A fan of what? Likely this nonsense I write. Are they going to put you in the movie too?”
Dima blinked. “Movie?” he asked.
“Mmhmm.” Petrin sounded annoyed again. “They are making a movie of one of my books. Your sister will act in it. If you are such a big fan, why did you not know this?”
Dima paused again, then said, “I do not so much like the books. They are all right, I suppose. Katyushka did not tell me they were making a movie, though.”
There was a pause. “I suppose it is a big secret still,” Petrin replied. “Your sister has not acted yet, and this is a big film. Big studio production. From Hollywood. English translation, del Gado is directing it.”
“Oh,” Dima said. He wished he had something more to say to that.
“I am surprised she did not tell you this. I am surprised they did not cast you as well—I thought you two worked together?”
“Only sometimes,” Dima replied. “I do not like it much—I am a hockey player.”
“And this is why I am surprised you say you do not like the books so much. What are you a fan of then?”
“The science,” Dima said, then shut his eyes tight. That was the stupidest thing he could have said. He sounded like an absolute moron. “The papers and … yes, the science. The ideas.”
“The ideas,” Petrin echoed.
Dima glanced about nervously. The phone slid between his hands. He was sweating, he realized belatedly, adjusting his grip. “Yes,” he replied. “It just … makes so much sense, when you say these things. The world … the universe. It is so fascinating, and when you explain it, I understand it.”
There was a very long pause at the other end of the line, before Petrin finally said, “You realize we do not understand anything at all.”
“No,” Dima agreed readily, “but—it makes me think. It makes me wonder about how things work or could work. About how small we are, how little we know. These ideas, these big ideas … things I could not think of on my own.”
“Of course not,” Petrin scoffed.
Dima wasn’t sure how to take that. He took a sip of his drink. “I know so little,” he said. “But I like to think about it.”
“I see,” Petrin said very slowly.
The line went silent again. Dima set his glass down with a clink. “I just … it makes me imagine so much. About what we do not yet know. About what we could learn. I begin to think a little more of things, and then I think of what more I could learn after that.”
“Idiots listen and think they understand,” Petrin replied tartly.
Dima allowed his gaze to fall to his hands. Wasn’t that what he was afraid of? That he’d sound like an idiot? That Petrin, genius that he was, would think he was so stupid, so insufferably moronic …
“I enjoy your work,” he said, “I hope I will get to read more soon.”
He paused again, then said, “Thank you for your time. I appreciate it—my sister is very bad, that she asked you to talk to me. You did not have to, and please, do not listen to her again.”
Petrin was silent. Then, slowly, he said, “She is difficult to say no to.”
“She is,” Dima agreed. Katya was headstrong; when she got an idea, it was almost impossible to dissuade her. He hoped he didn’t sound too disappointed; he’d known all along that Petrin had called him on account of Katya. There was no other reason.
“Thank you,” he repeated. “Have a good day. I will leave you alone now.”
“Thank you,” Petrin replied, and there was something hesitant about it. Something strange, but Dima didn’t know what.
Instead of trying to discern it, he hung up. He’d already taken up enough of the man’s time.
He pitched the phone onto the table, then slumped back in his chair. He sipped at his now room-temperature drink, swilling it around in the glass, letting it wash over his tongue.
Sometimes, he mused, sometimes, it was better to stay far, far away from people.
Ty frowned at his phone, trying to make heads or tails of another typically cryptic Gabe message. He was never sure if it was just a breakdown in language, or if Gabe was purposely speaking in riddles.
Sure, they were really just talking about Sebby—a subject that annoyed Ty more and more every time it came up (and it had been coming up a lot lately)—but …
Gabe had said Sebby was heading back to DC with his daughter. The thought of Sebby Montclair with a baby, of all people, still scared Ty a bit. Sebby was only a couple of years older than him, and way more irresponsible. Ty couldn’t imagine having a kid.
He couldn’t really decipher how Gabe felt about it, what he thought about it. Again, he wasn’t sure if it was just language …
Or if Gabe actually meant he wanted kids. It sure seemed like his text could be taken that way, but …
With a sigh, Ty pitched the phone aside, letting it clatter across the polished wood of the nightstand. A moment later, the bathroom door squealed open, and Cal stepped into the room. They locked gazes for a split second, then looked away again.
“Done chattin’ with yer Sheila?” Cal asked as he made his way around to the other bed. It was meant to be lighthearted, an easy, offhand comment.
“Sure,” Ty said, “something like that.”
Cal quirked a brow. “Yer bloke?”
Ty frowned. “No,” he scoffed. “I just wouldn’t call her a … it’s not really a thing.” He turned to face the rookie.
Cal shrugged. “All right, mate,” he said. “I ain’t here t’ judge.”
Ty shrugged as well. “It’s just one … it’s not a thing.”
“Fun,” Cal supplied.
“I guess,” Ty murmured. Was Gabe fun? It had sure felt fun at the start. But was it still? He didn’t know.
Cal quirked that brow again. “If ya ain’t havin’ fun, mate, what the hell are ya doing?”
Ty turned his attention to the ceiling. “I dunno,” he said. “It was fun when we started.”
“This sounds like some sort of serious convo,” Cal offered as he turned down the sheets. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Ty glanced toward him, shifting just slightly. “Sebby’s gonna be back soon, they think.”
It was a low blow, he knew, but he didn’t want to think about unpleasant things, and Cal had forced him to. So now it was his turn—he would remind Cal that he was only on the big team for a limited span of time, until Sebby came back from his sojourn.
He watched the color drain out of Cal’s face with deep satisfaction. He looked at the ceiling again.
“I guess things happen,” Cal said. The sheets rustled loudly, and then he reached over and clicked out the light.
They said nothing more, both of them evidently wrapped up in their own thoughts.