46

Idling

Fyodor paused, glancing up as the locker room door banged. A moment later, Aleks shuffled down the tunnel, rocking on his blades, wincing every time he rocked to the left. Fyodor glanced hurriedly at Blake and Erik, ensuring they were seeing this same thing.

Erik’s look of exasperation said everything, really. Blake’s mouth twisted down in a frown, and he looked to Fyodor as Erik skated over to the bench, yelling loudly at their captain.

“Really,” Fyodor muttered, “he knows better than this.”

Blake shrugged. “That’s just who he is,” he said, lifting his hands up. Fyodor curled his upper lip—what the hell did Blake know about Aleksandr Volkov? Nothing, actually. Playing with him on the ice for a few short years did not give him the breadth of knowledge needed to make that kind of judgment.

Although, Fyodor was sometimes unsure of how well he himself knew Aleks.

The captain was skating toward them now, Erik with him every step of the way, face twisted with concern as Aleks hobbled along.

“You come to practice,” Fyodor said flatly.

Aleks looked up. “Hm,” he said, “is thing to do, I think.”

“Your foot is broken,” Blake huffed, pointing.

Aleks shook his foot a little. “Is not so bad,” he said. “Not real break, right?”

“It is real enough,” Erik huffed, clearly exasperated with their captain. “Did the doctor not say to keep it up?”

“No,” Aleks said, grinning.

Fyodor rolled his eyes. “Or maybe you are not listening,” he offered, a little surprised at how waspish his own tone was. “You do that.”

“Ah? Sorry, I did not hear you, Fedya.”

Blake rolled his eyes, then pulled down his mask and skated toward the goal. Soupy was gesturing at him—he wanted out.

“Anyway,” Erik said, “Aleks, I do not think this is a very good idea–”

Aleks waved a hand dismissively. “Da, da, it is fine. The trainers say it is okay, just a little practice.”

Erik pressed his lips into a line and looked to Fyodor, who shrugged. He picked up a puck on the end of his stick and skated off. “Whatever,” he muttered.

Over time, he’d learned that Aleks was Aleks and he would do what he wanted. Trying to dissuade him was usually a fruitless endeavor.

He fired a shot at Blake, which went wide. He grabbed up another puck, firing it at the goalie, who slid across the goal crease and snapped the biscuit out of the air. Fyodor gritted his teeth.

“That all you–”

The next shot pinged off the crossbar, right next to Blake’s head. The goaltender grimaced.

“Nabby! Don’t kill the goalie, we need him–”

“Yeah, jeez, Fedya!”

“Will not kill him,” Fyodor offered coolly. “Perhaps just maim.”

Erik grimaced.

“Jeez,” Halpy muttered, “you have any idea how creepy you are sometimes?”

Fyodor’s face fell. Erik pressed his lips together tightly in an attempt to control laughter. He lifted his gloved hand, but his eyes gave him away. Fyodor huffed and skated off toward the bench.

Beau waved a hand at him. “Heyyyy,” the Canadian said, smacking him in the arm as he passed, “I know you and Sully got a thing going on, but–”

Fyodor lifted his head higher, blinked. He furrowed his brow. “A thing?” he hissed as he turned to Beau.

The other forward cringed and dropped his gaze to the ice. “Uh, well, y’know–”

“No,” Fyodor said, taking a step closer, “I do not know. A thing? What thing?”

“Hey, Snipes! Easy there, Savvy looks like he’s at the wrong end of a firing squad!”

He whirled and glared at Halpy, who waved, grinning broadly. Fyodor gritted his teeth and looked away, clicking his tongue.

His teammates were assholes, he decided idly, then hopped off the ice and headed down the tunnel. It wasn’t even a full practice this morning. He wasn’t sure why he’d bothered showing up.

The locker room was quiet for a few moments at least, even with him banging the locker doors open and shut, dropping his gloves, his duffle with as much force as he could. He was angry.

He didn’t like Halpern to start—never had. Guy was a dick, and Fyodor was still pissed that they’d traded with LA to get him. Oh, sure, he was a decent enough player, and perhaps he was nice enough, but he just …

Well, there was something about him that didn’t sit right with Fyodor. That whole LA team was something else, some vaguely bro-ish vibe. It shouldn’t have mattered with Halpern—he was a veteran, married, with kids. He should have felt like a dad figure, a leader, not an immature douche.

And what the fuck did Beau even mean, he and Sully had a “thing”? Fyodor didn’t claim to grasp all of the nuance of English all the time, but he knew enough to know a thing was a thing, and he was pretty sure he and Sully didn’t have one.

Unless Savvy meant a … friendship?

And screw Aleks too, thinking he should practice on a broken foot. He’d been told it was broken. He should have been out, off the injury, resting it.

Sometimes, Fyodor felt like he was nothing more than a glorified babysitter, a second Russian hired to run around after Aleksandr Volkov and keep him out of trouble.

Not that it worked. Ever. Aleks was stubborn and pigheaded; he always had been. Fyodor was older, smarter, wiser, but Aleks rarely—if ever—listened to him. It had always been that way, even when they were children, even when they were in school.

If he’d been hired as Aleks’s babysitter, he was doing a piss-poor job of that.

He knew he hadn’t been, of course; he was an elite player in his own right. Although other people questioned that. A lot. It was a favorite topic among the hockey pundits in Pittsburgh and elsewhere around the league—what the hell was wrong with Fyodor Nabokov?

He’d never been the player that Aleks was going to be. That was fine. He’d known that. He’d always known that. Hell, when they were juniors, playing in Moscow together, getting ready for international tournaments, he’d known that. Aleks had known that. Everyone in Russia had known that.

Volkov first, Nabokov second. It was just the way things worked. And really, Fyodor was happy with that. He didn’t want to be a superstar, not like Aleks. He hated the press. He hated the media. He hated interviews, in English or Russian. He didn’t like talking. He didn’t want to be captain, to be looked to for leadership.

And he most certainly hated pressure to perform. He hated the way the press talked about him—why wasn’t he scoring goals, he could never score enough goals, why was he such a streaky player? When he was on, he was on, but as soon as he needed to perform, when the team needed him, he went silent, disappeared. He was finicky, a Russian diva, the sportscasters and journalists of Steeltown announced. He wanted everything just so. Coaches hated him; he was uncoachable. He had a bad attitude. He was surly, unlikable.

An asshole. That was what they thought he was.

Really, he’d taken up sport because it was soothing. As a child, he’d longed for nothing more than ice time. Never mind school, never mind the long, hazy days of summer. Never mind the gangs of kids on bikes in the streets in the summertime, never mind sledding. Never mind the gaggle of kids who chased after the puck on the pond when it froze over.

He’d spent hours and hours by himself; he didn’t even really enjoy playing the game—not the way someone like Aleks did. For him, the joy of hockey was in that silent time he spent alone, focused on nothing but the puck. Winter days of his youth had almost always ended with the sun slowly sinking below the horizon, the wind howling around him as he took just one more turn on his skates, watching the puck, predicting its movements over the ice and keeping his stick perfectly attuned to it.

To him, that was the most perfect moment there could ever be. That was why he loved hockey.

He didn’t understand why the press, why the pundits—even some coaches, even some players—wanted him to be something he wasn’t. He wasn’t a superstar. He wasn’t a leader. He wasn’t a posterboy. He was an amazing puckhandler with an incredibly soft set of hands and great on-ice vision. He could pick a defenseman’s pocket or find an opening, a shooting lane, where no one else could.

But he couldn’t do it when there were people yelling at him. He couldn’t focus when he worried about what the newspapers would say tomorrow if he happened to miss or the goalie robbed him of a highlight-reel goal.

He just didn’t perform under pressure. He didn’t understand why no one else saw that. And he didn’t understand why they weren’t content to put the pressure on Aleks—someone who performed that way—and leave him to the secondary scoring. It was how they worked best, of course.

“Fedya.”

The locker room door banged shut, almost drowning out Aleks’s soft call. Fyodor inhaled through his nose, closed his eyes. He pivoted, ever so slightly, so he could glare over his shoulder at Aleks as he approached.

“Sanja,” he said evenly, stiffly.

Aleks rolled his eyes and plopped down on the bench. “You’re so temperamental,” he said, grinning ear to ear. “Did Savvy bother you?”

Fyodor shrugged. “It does not matter,” he replied and ducked down to fuss with some of the things in his bag.

Aleks was still grinning that ear-to-ear grin when he lifted his head again. The younger Russian quirked a mischievous brow at him.

Sometimes, Fyodor wondered why he was even friends with Aleks. Instead, he pointed to the other forward’s foot and said, “You. You need to stay off this foot, it is broken!”

“It is not so bad,” Aleks said with a roll of his eyes.

Fyodor lifted his brows. “I will call your mother,” he threatened, watching the other Russian pale a bit. “I will tell her how stupid her son is, he plays with broken foot.”

Aleks’s grin was forced; there was fear and anger in his eyes. “She will tell you that Russians don’t break, Fedya.”

He scoffed in return. “I think they do,” he huffed. “And your mother, she knows this well.”

He paused, then continued, “You know this well.”

The smile was gone entirely now. Aleks’s voice was low, edgy, when he said, “That is another matter.”

Fyodor shrugged, then turned away. “I am just saying,” he murmured.

A silence settled over them, uncomfortable and angry. Finally, Fyodor said, “Practice is not over? You have come off the ice early.”

He glanced back at Aleks in time to see the younger player stick his nose in the air. “I am not so stupid as you think,” he retorted. “My foot pains.”

Fyodor almost sighed. Sometimes, Aleksandr Volkov was too much for even him.

He clapped the other Russian on the shoulder. “This is good,” he said, “I had thought you hit your head, not your foot.”

Aleks frowned deeply as he watched him continue with packing up his things. Fyodor kept his gaze pinned to the black abyss of his hockey bag.

“You know,” Aleks said slowly, and Fyodor lifted his head, glared at the open locker before him, its scratched paint and dented sides.

‘Here it comes,’ he thought.

Aleks glanced about, then leaned forward over his knees. “Syoma, his foot pains too,” he whispered, low enough that Fyodor had to strain to hear him.

He slammed the locker shut and whirled on the younger man. “So?” he snapped. “What does this mean, what does this have to do with anything–”

Aleks’s face was so serious, and Fyodor felt his eye twitch at the younger man’s grave expression. He looked ten years older, weathered and hardened by years of rough and tumble play, of keeping some pressing secret. He looked tired.

“It is same foot,” Aleks offered.

“So?” Fyodor echoed, derision clear in his voice. “This means nothing, you are making some big deal about it–”

“Same foot,” Aleks repeated, “and I know his pained before, after injury. It is still not quite right. And now, mine is broken. He feels this too.”

“You are crazy,” Fyodor muttered, zipping up the bag, hefting it over his shoulder. “So what? You think no one else has ever had broken ankle? Syoma hurt his foot—of course it still pains! But you think you break yours because of this? Now you are being stupid—are you sure you did not break your head?”

Aleks didn’t smile, didn’t laugh. Fyodor’s stomach twisted unpleasantly, violently. “I’ll see you later,” he muttered, then took three huge strides toward the door, putting as much distance between himself and Aleks as he could with each footfall.

Seriously. Aleks had never, ever believed Tremblay about the Canadian’s strange theory before. Tremblay had maintained the story for years—that he and Aleks were soul-bonded, that it had happened spontaneously, instantaneously when Aleks was just fifteen, playing at some tournament in Canada, and they’d touched hands.

For years, they’d mocked the Canadian in hushed tones in bars, drinking to the idiocy of the theory. Oh, they’d laughed so hard about it. It was like a running joke for them.

But now Aleks was going to take it seriously? Now he thought it wasn’t a joke? Now he believed Symon Tremblay, the moron they’d been making fun of forever about this? He couldn’t …

It was hardly believable. After all, they’d been laughing about this for so long now. More than ten years. And Aleks suddenly changed his tune?

Fyodor was livid. How long had he been telling Aleks that Tremblay was just a nutcase? That he’d be better to ignore him? That …

He tossed his duffle into his car, slammed the door shut.

He knew one thing—and that was that he wasn’t going to take Symon Tremblay any more seriously than he ever had before.

 

*

 

Minnesota, really, was Timmo’s favorite. Other guys liked the sun and sunshine, the heat, of southern destinations like Florida or California. Timmo didn’t. Much as he like the warmth and appreciated the sun (the winter could be so dark and long), Minnesota was his favorite.

They never saw much of it, that much was true. But even flying over it, he felt at ease. At home.

The lakes, the trees—even the frozen wasteland it became in the dead of winter—all of it reminded him of home.

And that was even more so than Dallas, than visiting with other Finns around the league. If he had to live somewhere in the US, he’d pick Minnesota in a heartbeat. If he ever had to be traded, he’d pick Minnesota.

Not that DC was the worst, but …

It was nothing like home, that was for sure.

They landed about ten in the morning, and Timmo was glad that they had a late afternoon practice and a game tomorrow. It wasn’t an ideal schedule, sure—they were starting to get a bit antsy on the road, and some of the guys wanted to get home—but it gave them some breathing room. Dallas and Denver had been whirlwinds of disappointment. They were sore and angry about two losses, and they were tired from traveling so much in two days, playing so much.

They needed the rest. Timmo was already dreading what the rest of the season would bring; it was only October, after all.

St. Paul was bright and cold, autumn already in full swing. Frost was in the air, and Timmo loved it. He loved the way it tingled in his fingertips. He loved the colors that had burst onto the scene. He loved the way the sky seemed clearer, a deeper blue than it was in Texas, and somehow even more open—like there was no ceiling.

“Fuckin’ Minnesota,” Oaks grumbled, hugging his jacket tighter around him as they waited for the bus to the hotel. Timmo gave him a sidelong glance, but said nothing.

The other goalie turned about, frowning at Cal. “You doin’ okay, rookie?” he asked.

“Fine,” Cal replied, although they could both hear the chatter in his voice. “I’ve been playin’ in Pennsylvania, after all.”

He paused, glancing at either of them in turn, then said, “And it does get cold in Australia, we do get winter.”

“Huh,” Oaks huffed. “Yeah, but like, what? Like a Texas winter, I’ll bet—it ain’t summer, but it ain’t cold.”

“Minus forty,” Timmo offered, a slight smirk pulling to his lips. He always loved comparing winters with his teammates. It delighted him that Oaks, from Texas, and someone like Brenden, from the Carolinas, had no concept of what minus forty was, never mind what it felt like.

Sure, maybe he was guilty of exaggerating a little bit—he wasn’t from Lapland, after all—but …

It was fun to fuck with their heads.

Dima wasn’t one for nonsense, however; the Russian would simply lift a brow whenever Timmo’s stories got a little too wild, a silent signal to tone it down. If Timmo persisted, he would say something like, “I do not know, I have been in Helsinki many times. Is never that cold.”

Of course, that would usually devolve into an argument about who’s winter was worse—Moscow or Helsinki—and that often ended in far too many shots. More than once, they’d woken up in a heap together, in the middle of one of the hotel beds, often with a friendly note from Leo or Mike, explaining that they’d been too damn drunk to deal with.

Once, Mike had left a note saying he’d left them cups of water on the nightstand. Except he’d filled the cups with vodka.

Timmo now knew for fact that Dima and the other Russians were no more immune to vodka than anyone else on the face of the earth. It was something he’d known for a while, of course, but he’d had proof that morning, since he’d spent more than an hour patting Dima’s back as he puked.

The wind picked up. Both Oaks and Cal hugged their jackets in tighter, shuddering. Timmo resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

“Man, Oaks,” Mike drawled, “you think this is cold? You gotta try a real Canadian winter–”

“Where?” Leo huffed. “In Toronto?”

“Oy, shut up,” Mike scowled back at him.

“Canadians think they are so tough,” Dima murmured.

Oaks waved a hand. “Whatever, y’all think yer special ‘cause it gets cold sometimes? I don’t measure a man on how well he puts up with a little bit of wind or snow.”

“No,” Timmo murmured, “because no Texans would be real men then …”

“Oy!”

Cal shook his head. “Maybe I should’ve taken up surfing …”

The bus roared up at that second, then squealed to a stop. All of them grimaced, glanced at each other, as if to say, ‘We have to ride that?’

The bus seemed to sigh with relief when it was put in park, and the doors gasped open. Q grabbed up a couple of bags from the sidewalk. “All right, let’s go, let’s see some hustle.”

“C’mon, cut us some slack,” Oaks whined, “we played two nights in a row–”

“And you dropped both games—what’s your point? On the bus, chop chop.”

“Such a slave driver,” Mike muttered as he clambered up the steps, Leo shoving at him, all but laughing, “C’mon Mikey, hurry up, let’s hustle–”

“See? Harrison’s got the right idea.”

“He’s mocking you, Coach …”

They trudged aboard the bus, their feet smacking the stairs, scuffing their shoes against the floor before plonking down into the seats.

Timmo perched beside Oaks near the back. It was what they always did. Cal slid into the seat across the aisle. Timmo glanced at the rookie a couple of times, then back to the front.

Cal seemed sullen this morning, if nothing else. He’d seemed that way on the plane, and despite his joking, he didn’t seem much more cheerful now. Timmo couldn’t claim that he knew the guy well or anything, but …

It felt off, somehow. Wrong.

Timmo wasn’t going to pry, though. It was something he was learning from Nicky. The Swede had the most ridiculous way of just making guys open up to him. But he never pried.

Timmo wasn’t nosy or anything; he didn’t want to master the art of making guys spill their secrets because he liked gossip. He just wanted his teammates to feel comfortable coming to him.

After all, he figured Nicky couldn’t be the only dad on the team.

And sometimes, he knew, Nicky himself needed someone to confide in. Timmo knew more about Nicky’s divorce than virtually anyone else on the team. Not that he’d asked or pried or even wanted to know, but because Nicky spent so much time caring about everyone else on the team that he often left himself out.

It had surprised Timmo that no one really … bothered Nicky. Nobody had asked him. He’d pressed Mike on it, once or twice; the blond D-man had just shrugged and said Nicky was a private person. And Sy had agreed, suggested that they all needed to give Nicky his space.

But as time had worn on, it had been clear to Timmo that Nicky just wasn’t going to talk about it. He was going to bury whatever bothered him under concern for his teammates. It was a different kind of deflection than the one that Timmo usually faced on the ice, but he knew it to see it.

So he’d tried to be the guy there for Nicky. Something as big and messy as a divorce had to be affecting him. And it had been bothering him, much more than he’d let on.

Timmo was still a bit annoyed that his teammates hadn’t pressed Nicky harder, that no one else had jumped up to help. And yet, he was also secretly satisfied that he was Nicky’s most trusted confidante—the confidante of everyone else’s confidante.

The bus ride to the hotel was virtually silent, most of them gritting their teeth as they bounced over some of the worst potholes St. Paul had to offer, the bus squealing and groaning the entire way. Not only was it loud, it was terrifying, and none of them really wanted to talk.

The hotel was nice, if nothing else, and they were all thankful to be off the bus. Then it was time for naps before heading over to the arena. They hadn’t been joking about being tired, being sore. Playing back-to-backs was exhausting. But they still needed to practice, to get used to the ice.

To get their heads on straight so they didn’t drop three in a row so early in the season. They were in danger of going on a losing streak, which was never really how you wanted things to start off.

Q handed out their room assignments, and Timmo frowned when he realized that Cal had the matching key. He glanced quickly toward their coach, but he had his back turned.

So what, Timmo had babysat the rookie one night and now he was his responsibility? He looked around for Oaks, wondering who the other netminder had gotten paired with and if someone would be willing to switch.

Much as Timmo could take or leave the Texan, they were both goalies, and they both got that. The forwards, even the D-men, didn’t quite understand them.

But Oaks was already gone. Timmo sighed, tucked his card in his pocket, then joined the next crowd in the elevator. It must have looked strange, he thought, to see so many guys travel in a pack. A gaggle of hockey players.

“Guys, Timmo’s smiling,” Leo said with a faux grimace. “I’m worried.”

“I feel bad for the other team,” Mike replied.

“Yeah,” Brenden drawled, “Timmo only smiles when he knows he’s gonna stand on his head.”

“Defy physics.”

Timmo rolled his eyes.

“Absolutely criminal,” Mike cried in his best impersonation of certain hockey commentators that drove them all mad, “he’s going to commit highway robbery!”

Leo shoved the blond into the wall of the elevator. “Goddammit,” he huffed, “we hear enough of that prick, you ain’t gotta …”

“Aw, c’mon, you know he’ll say it.”

“Don’t mean we gotta hear you say it.”

The elevator jerked to a halt, and they all straightened up just a touch, readying themselves to emerge as the doors slid open.

Mike whirled about and walked smack into the mattresses that were piled up against the doorway.

“What the fuck!”

“Goddammit,” Leo spat, “those fucking jerks.”

“They beat us up here!”

Brenden jammed his finger on the door close button, then hit the next floor up. “How much you wanna bet they didn’t block the stairs?”

“Ha, good thinking B-man!”

“We’ll get ‘em from behind!”

“Who even has time for that?” Sy muttered, rolling his eyes skyward.

“Probably Oaks,” Mike said, nodding.

Leo shoved him again. “Like you ain’t ever done anything like that–”

“Hey, when I do it, it’s funny!”

“It’s not,” Sy said, perfectly deadpan. “Mike, you’re never funny.”

“I dunno, I think he’s pretty funny-looking …”

“Oy, shut you face, B-man.”

The elevator halted again, and then the doors slid open. No mattresses or other barricades greeted them. Brenden stepped cautiously into the hallway, peering about.

It was deserted. They crept down the quiet corridor, then down the nearest stairwell. They weren’t all that quiet—their footsteps rang out loudly, and they all but slammed doors behind them. They were closer to a herd of elephants than a pack of hunting wolves.

Brenden grabbed hold of the door handle, glanced back at Mike, who nodded. He balled up his fists, lifted a leg.

Brenden tore the door open, and Mike slammed his foot into a mattress, which toppled over with a satisfying thump.

“Rah!” Mike bellowed, and Leo and Brenden all but leapt into the hall behind him.

“Guys,” Sy all but sighed, exasperation clear in his tone, “guys, let’s not–”

Laughter rang out. “You pricks!” Mike roared. “You’re gonna pay for that!”

“Get back here!”

Their footsteps echoed through the hall. Sy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Seriously,” he muttered, and Timmo patted the captain on the shoulder.

“Cowards!”

“Robinson! Harrison! Sutherland! Oakley! Mironov! Beckham! What the hell are you idiots doing?!”

“Uhhhh …”

Timmo shared a coy glance with Sy as Q tossed his hands up. “I thought I told you numbskulls to take a nap!”

“We ain’t in kindergarten!” Leo protested.

Q lifted a brow. “Really?”

“Burn,” Timmo said, and everyone turned to stare at him, before finally dissolving into laughter. Even Q was smiling, simply shaking his head.

“Get this cleaned up,” the coach huffed. “This shit is a fire hazard—if I catch anyone doing this again, I don’t even care what the hotel policy says–”

“Right-o, Coach.”

“And anyone involved is going to do some laps of the ice when we get down to practice.”

The miscreants shared a worried glance. Q’s mustache twitched, probably with satisfaction. Timmo wasn’t all that convinced that their coach wasn’t a sadist. “So I expect you to rest up.”

“Understood,” Mike said, saluting their coach, because even when he was already in shit, Mike couldn’t risk digging himself in a little deeper.

Timmo glanced at Sy again. “Who are you rooming with?” he asked.

“Oaks,” Sy replied, then returned his look. The green-eyed forward knew what was up, and there was no arguing with it.

Coach figured Oaks needed to get his head on straight, and Sy was the captain.

Timmo nodded, then held up his hand as he moved to the door marked ‘601.’ Sy held his gaze. “You’re starting though,” the captain offered, his voice hushed.

Timmo shrugged and unlocked the door. “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “we both have to be ready for anything.”

Sy nodded once, even as Cal brushed by him. “Hey roomie,” he said to Timmo, offering up a grin. “D’ya suppose Coach thinks we’re something like the odd couple, or …”

Timmo snorted and lifted a brow. Cal grinned a little wider, then shut the door, dropped his shit. “Not that it matters,” he said, more quietly, almost subdued. “I’m heading back down to the Pats straight away.”

Timmo lifted his brows. Ah-ha.

“Right when we get back to DC, I heard Montclair’s coming back.”

“Really?” Timmo asked, lifting a brow. “He has his baby situation sorted then?”

Cal blinked. “Baby situation?”

Timmo nodded. “Surprising,” he said, “but not surprising.”

Cal’s face twisted in confusion. Timmo held up his hands. “Not surprising he has an accidental baby,” he clarified, “but surprising, perhaps, that he has taken custody.”

“Oh,” Cal said, still blinking like he’d been struck.

Timmo shrugged again. “It is what it is,” he said.

“Mm,” Cal said. “I thought Montclair was single.”

“Very single,” Timmo replied instantaneously.

Cal pulled a face. “Well then,” he said, pitching his duffle on one of the beds—the one closer to the wall. Timmo’s eye twitched, but he deigned not to say anything.

“I s’ppose we all make mistakes,” Cal said, pitching some socks onto the bedspread, then across the room toward the dresser. “Be a dear and put those away fer me, ah?”

Timmo sighed heavily. “I am not a maid,” he retorted. “And I do get tired of cleaning up other people’s messes.”

Cal flushed. “Oy,” he said, “I already apologized to you—what more do you want? It was a bonehead move, and I didn’t get back quick enough—what more do you want?”

“Just saying,” Timmo replied easily, picking up the socks, opening the drawer, and pitching them in. “Mm?”

Cal eyed him warily, then finally ducked his head. “Fine,” he muttered, “fine.”

Timmo closed the drawer again. Cal sucked in a breath, lifted his head. His mouth was open, like he wanted to say something, anything. But he hesitated, then dropped his gaze again, shaking his head.

Timmo knew it was harsh; Cal had already apologized to him for his mistakes on the plays—expensive mistakes, mistakes that had cost them goals and ultimately the game. Timmo was a good goalie, but he needed support from his team.

And it wasn’t just Cal, but he was the rookie. He was the one making rookie mistakes—over and over again. And he was the one who was standing there with him.

Besides, Timmo reasoned, it was likely better than the reprimand Q would give him—and certainly better than a talking-to from Sy. Timmo had given him a couple of barbs and now he was content to let the subject lie. Cal was aware that he needed to do better.

So they’d see what he’d do on the ice tomorrow evening. After all, words were words, and promises to do better were good. But actions were better.

 

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