47

Home Ice Advantages

 

Sebastien Montclair had never been so pleased to see his front door in his life. The trip from Boston to DC was never all that long, but it had felt all the longer this time. It had taken an interminably long time to get Lucy out of the hospital, and then there had been delays at the airport (of course).

 

Lucy had cried—of course—during most of the flight, despite his very best efforts to quiet her. He hated hearing her cry, and knowing he could do nothing to help her was perhaps the worst feeling in the world. Worse than the Bears trading him. Worse than losing.

 

They landed at last, much to his relief—and every other passenger on the flight’s as well, he was sure.

 

Lucy finally quieted, probably because she was tired from squalling for so long. She curled in against him, her head dropping, her tiny fist catching in his sweater. He tugged on her hat—which he’d quickly found out she hated—with no trouble at all.

 

The airport was a mess, but they got through quickly, and then it was a taxi ride back to his house, and struggling with his luggage and the baby and the baby’s luggage. (How did such a small person need so much stuff?)

 

He sighed heavily when he unlocked the door, glanced down at Lucy when he stepped across the threshold. A smile lifted to his lips; he put his hand gently on the back of her head. “Welcome home, Lu,” he said softly, and then the lights flicked on. He winced, blinking.

 

“About damn time.”

 

He glanced to his left. “Mom?”

 

She crossed her arms. “Honestly,” she huffed.

 

“How did you get in?” he asked, glancing about. “I locked up, you don’t have a key–”

 

He hadn’t seen her in years now. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even texted her, talked to her. She didn’t care—she wanted nothing to do with him. He’d texted her a few times, but less and less. It happened when you didn’t get a reply.

 

“Who do you think made up the ‘secret key’ at home?” she asked flatly.

 

Okay, that solved that—she’d figured out where he hid his spare and let herself in. But …

 

“Why are you here?”

 

“To see my granddaughter,” she said haughtily, crossing the floor, closing the space between them. She took Lucy out of her holster, almost expertly, and Sebby wasn’t sure why, but he wanted to grab her back immediately.

 

“Who–”

 

“Who do you think?”

 

He boggled at her as she stood there, bouncing Lucy gently. Lucy, for her part, squirmed a little, then pressed her face against her grandmother’s shoulder.

 

“Your father,” Mom said at last, when the silence had dragged on too long. She turned away. “He thought I should know.”

 

“So–”

 

“So I caught a flight back here, because I know you can’t deal with an infant. Not on your own.”

 

He gritted his teeth, glanced back at all of the luggage sitting in the hallway. He balled his fists. “I was doing just fine!” he barked.

 

Lucy hiccuped, then wailed. Mom glared over her shoulder. “Sh,” she said sharply, “keep it down, Sebastien.”

 

He let his nails bite into his palms. Mom turned back, continued up the stairs. “Bring that luggage in, we’ll have to get something set up—she needs to sleep somewhere. You have a meeting with a nanny in the morning.”

 

“A nanny?”

 

Mom paused on the stairs, lifting her brows. “You’re an athlete,” she huffed, “you have to travel. There’s no way you can look after her all on your own.”

 

“I was–”

 

“No arguments, Sebastien. Do you have a cradle or a crib or a bassinet, or …”

 

He let his mouth fall open. Mom lifted her brows again. “No? Go get one, she can’t sleep in her car carrier.”

 

He glanced at his watch. “It’s like ten o’clock, Mom, I don’t think anything’s open–”

 

“And this is why you need a nanny,” Mom muttered, then disappeared upstairs with Lucy.

 

Sebby fell back against the wall, looked up at the ceiling. Seriously? He hadn’t told her, hadn’t asked her to come here, and now she was here, taking over, treating him like a complete …

 

Failure. Useless. Like he was inept or something. He’d managed to get Lucy here, he was doing just fine …

 

And what was this bullshit about a nanny?

 

His phone was ringing. He blinked a couple of times as that registered, then reached down and plucked the device up. “Hello?”

 

“Y’llo, Sebastien,” Mrs. Sutherland said, “ah heard ya’ll jes got in, and Brenden was wonderin’ if ah should come up and give ya a hand with the little miss–”

 

Sebby glanced toward the stairs. “Uh,” he said. “No—uh. That’s … that’s fine. I’ve uhhhh … got help.”

 

“Oh do ya now? Would’ve been nice if ya could’ve said, y’know? ‘cause we’ve drove all the way up here–”

 

He gritted his teeth again, closed his eyes. “Uh, well, I have—help right now. But, uh, maybe you could swing by in the morning? I could … probably use some more help then, I’ve got some things to get and, uh, I dunno how long …”

 

“Well …”

 

He inhaled deeply. “It’s fine, I’ll pay for a hotel if you need somewhere to stay, just … let me get the credit card—actually, no, go to the Crowne Plaza, they’ve got my card on file–”

 

A howl from upstairs. Sebby grimaced, then glanced toward the stairs. Lucy had apparently woken up.

 

“Are ya’ll sure you got this under control?” Mrs Sutherland asked sharply.

 

“Yes—I’m fine, thank you—yes. Please, if you head over to the Crowne, just tell them to give me a call. Thank you. I really appreciate it—I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

“All right,” Mrs. Sutherland said slowly. “But if ya’ll need anything—anything—you just call me, y’hear?”

 

“Yes, Mrs. Sutherland.”

 

“Oh fer—fer the last time, Sebastien, ya’ll can call me Martha.”

 

“Yes, Mrs. Sutherland.”

 

A sigh. “All right, you, we’ll git the hotel t’ call ya.”

 

“Thank you again,” Sebby said, then pulled the phone away from his ear and ended the call with a click.

 

Lucy was still crying. He grabbed up some of the bags and headed upstairs.

 

*

 

One thing Timmo didn’t like about Minnesota was their team. Much as they were stuck out in the middle of nowhere, often unable to attract any kind of real talent, their fans were absolutely rabid, which fed the team something awful. They were one of the better teams on home ice—they truly had a home ice advantage.

 

That, of course, made his job harder. It rattled the defense. Even veteran guys like Mike and Leo couldn’t always drown out the echoing boos and taunts of the fans in St. Paul. People took their hockey seriously here.

 

Timmo could respect that, at least. The place looked and felt like home, and the hockey fanatics were true fanatics. Hockey wasn’t just a sport; it was a way of life. And the people, he thought, sometimes felt a bit neglected, a bit forgotten. There were other, bigger cities in America—cities that got all the attention. New York, LA, DC, Miami, Chicago, Boston—he could rattle them off. He’d never even heard of St. Paul, of Minnesota, before he’d set foot in the city.

 

(Okay, that was a lie—he had relatives who had emigrated from Finland to the United States generations ago, and he knew they’d settled somewhere in Minnesota. More than that, he’d watched IHA games, when he could get them, at ridiculous hours in the morning, fawning over his favorite players. It was a fond memory, those dark winter mornings, the light of the television, all blue and strangely washed out, the only illumination. Ah, memories.)

 

St. Paul, Minneapolis, he thought, probably had more in common with home than he liked to think.

 

That didn’t mean he appreciated the fans chanting his name, attempting to break his concentration, taunting him. He didn’t appreciate the fact that they could actually pronounce his surname correctly, when almost no one in the US could, and he certainly hated that the D were falling apart in front of him and no-name third liners, rookies who had just  been called up from the minors for the first time, were jeering at him, jawing at him, scoring goals on him.

 

To say it was an off night for him was an understatement. He let four goals in during the first thirty minutes of play, and Oaks swapped out with him. He got to sit on the bench for the remainder of the second, just glaring at the ice, trying to recenter himself, to focus.

 

Oaks didn’t fare much better, and now the score was five-one. Fuck, they needed this win. They didn’t want to get back to DC empty-handed.

 

The locker room was full of glassy eyes, dazed looks, like they couldn’t believe what was happening to them. Timmo didn’t know why it was so surprising any longer; the Saints always thumped them when they played in St. Paul. It was ridiculous.

 

He snuck a glance over at Oaks, who also had his head down, staring intently at the floor. Oaks was a weird character like that—mouthy until a game was at hand. Then he was silent, so quiet. It was almost unnerving, almost like he was two different people sometimes.

 

Timmo didn’t mind. He wasn’t really one for talking. He drew his attention back to his own skate blades. They had to be better than this.

 

He didn’t start the third, taking up residence on the bench again. In some ways, he hated that more. He was so used to spending sixty minutes on the ice, watching every move, every play like a hawk, tracking the puck, yelling at his teammates, communicating with the linesmen, watching the clock.

 

The bench was alienating. He had to work harder not to drop out, to tune out. It was so tempting, especially with the asshole banging on the glass behind him. He watched a replay on the Jumbotron instead, tried to concentrate on the play going on before him.

 

Oaks let another goal slip by him. Six-one. He checked the clock, wincing. They had twelve minutes.

 

Even Sy was useless to them, getting shut down at every turn. Frustrated, he slammed one of the Saints into the boards and took a stupid penalty for it.

 

Seven. One. Q glanced over at him, and he sighed heavily, hopping back over the boards. It wasn’t usual for goaltenders to switch back once they’d swapped, but Oaks should have had all three of those goals. He looked shaken, scared.

 

Timmo tapped him with the butt of his stick on his way by, then skated out to the net. He stretched out as quickly as he could; he was still fairly warm from having played at least part of the game. He couldn’t imagine how Oaks felt sometimes, getting pulled in completely cold.

 

He signaled to the refs, who took puck drop to his left. Sy lost the face-off, of course. He’d been losing them all night, which was unusual for him.

 

Very unusual, and Timmo frowned. He wondered if the captain’s foot was bothering him again.

 

He couldn’t dwell on it, however, because the puck came hurtling back at him, forcing his attention to the little black biscuit. His world narrowed to that tiny disc, even as a crescendo of smacking sticks and shoving players swelled around him. Someone went sprawling over him, but he snapped his arm up and snatched the puck out of the air, clamping his glove around it.

 

They were not going down eight to one, and not in fucking St. Paul, of all goddamn places.

 

The whistle went and one of the Saints was headed to the box for goalie interference. That meant they were on the powerplay—maybe they could make some effort at looking like they were in the game, like they were trying to win this.

 

Like they actually knew what they were doing.

 

Timmo sometimes wondered if they had any clue. Sometimes, they looked like a team. Most of the time, they looked like they were falling apart, a bunch of amateurs whacking away at a puck, frantically trying to get it to the goal.

 

The Saints killed the penalty successfully; the Stars didn’t score. Timmo wasn’t sure they’d even registered a shot on net.

 

The Saints came back with a vengeance after that, and it was all Timmo could do to keep it seven-one, to keep that puck out of the net, even with all the bodies in front of him, the swinging sticks, the pushing and shoving.

 

The buzzer sounded at long last, and the game was over. The score was seven-one, seven to one. They’d lost again—the worst one of this trip. They were headed back to DC without a single road win.

 

He could shake off a bad game or two. But this was starting to feel like a slump, and a certain dread crept over him. Maybe it was nothing yet. Maybe nothing would happen.

 

But if they kept up like this …

 

He tried to focus on Sy instead, wondering if their captain was limping more or less than usual. It hadn’t exactly been a secret that Sy came back from his injury too soon. Even with all of the rehab he’d done on his ankle, it was still a work in progress.

 

He couldn’t get a good enough of a glimpse to tell.

 

They crowded onto the bus, sullen and silent. Timmo hated that too, the silence that settled over them after a loss. He wished someone, anyone, would crack a joke and lighten the mood.

 

But they were probably all wrapped up in the same dark thoughts, the same gut instinct that told them change was on the way. They were waiting for Q’s berating, Sy’s lecture. Then someone would crack a joke.

 

It was formulaic. It happened every time.

 

Except tonight, Q didn’t yell at them. Sy didn’t try to give them some sort of pep talk that involved ridiculous theories about strategy. And nobody cracked a joke. The silence stretched long between them.

 

For once in his life, Timmo hated silence. He hated it all through that drive, all the way back to the hotel. He hated it as they unloaded what they needed to take with them, and he hated it as they took the elevators up to their respective rooms.

 

And he most certainly hated it when he crept into the room with Cal, whose face was long, drawn, his eyes wide as he stared down at the the bedspread.

 

Timmo shut the door quietly.

 

Cal glanced up quickly, then dropped his gaze again. The silence continued, as though it couldn’t be broken. It was too strong for either of them, and Timmo shifted nervously even as he shuffled to the bed, feeling the weight of the quiet settling over him.

 

“I fucked up, didn’t I?” Cal asked at last, his voice soft, yet harsh on the stillness.

 

Timmo didn’t know what to say. Instead, he just stared at the rookie. And stared. And stared, until Cal finally looked away. The rookie plucked at a couple of threads on the bedspread. “I always wonder,” he mumbled, “if I’m fucking up. Y’know? It’s difficult. I feel like I don’t belong.”

 

“You don’t belong,” Timmo said, then startled at himself. What a shitty choice of words. He knew English better than that, so he opened his mouth to correct himself.

 

Cal glanced down again. “You’re right,” he said before Timmo could get a word in edgewise, “I don’t. I’m not from … We don’t play hockey, right? Not like you guys do. Not like … Well. And I’m the only one here.”

 

“I mean,” Timmo said.

 

Cal shrugged. “Maybe I’m not good enough,” he said, then laid himself out on the bed, before curling back up into the fetal position. “Anyway.”

 

He rolled over and clicked out the light. Timmo wanted to protest, but as he stood there in the dark, he couldn’t find anything more to say.

 

*

 

Sean had seen blow-outs before, but it was usually a shitty team going down to a good team, not the other way around. They were going to have to be more careful about Minnesota in the future.

 

He was acutely aware of one reason they’d played like shit, however. Luke was still glassy-eyed, even now, even after he’d played hockey for however long. Q had cut Luke’s shifts and his ice time, sure, but even that wasn’t going to save them. Luke was so out of it. There was no way he was of any use on the ice, not even when he was playing reduced minutes.

 

Tonight, though, Sean didn’t think it was the drugs. He’d been keeping a fairly close eye on Luke over the past few days, and he was fairly certain Luke hadn’t taken anything.

 

No, Luke was still wrapped up in the past. Sean had hoped getting out of Denver would help, but it hadn’t. He had hoped that getting away from Jack would help, but it hadn’t. Everything had bubbled to the surface, and Luke was having a hard time pushing it all down again.

 

Sean wished he knew what to do to help. He wasn’t sure there was anything he could do. He wasn’t sure what help was for this situation. Luke didn’t seem to be providing any answers, either.

 

The only thing he could think to do was keep Luke even closer, to keep a better watch over him. He’d already made sure Luke was rooming alone. He wasn’t sure if that had helped or hindered. On the one hand, Luke didn’t need his teammates or anyone else barging in on him, aggravating him. And he certainly didn’t need to become an aggravation for a teammate.

 

Sean was pretty sure any of the other players, understanding as they were, sympathetic as they were, would be frustrated, confused, or worried about Luke’s behavior. Nightmares weren’t pleasant things to wake up to, no matter if you were the person having them or a mere bystander.

 

He didn’t want Luke to be alone tonight, however. Much as nightmares were bound to worry his teammates, interrupt their sleep, Luke waking up alone was a much worse prospect. Sean wasn’t sure what the omega would do if he was left to his own devices.

 

He slipped down the hall, carefully armed with the extra keycard to Luke’s room—given to him with consent by the omega—and an alibi should he be caught by one of the team members. He was fairly certain their relationship was all but common knowledge, but he didn’t know just how much of the details were known to anyone.

 

He thought everyone knew that he was Luke’s legal alpha for six months, at least. He wasn’t sure how much more they knew—if they knew Luke was omega (he thought it was obvious, although betas sometimes needed legal alphas), or if they’d realized the relationship had crossed lines between legal and friendship a long time ago.

 

He didn’t know, he didn’t care, and he didn’t particularly want anyone to find out something they didn’t already know. If anyone asked, he was simply checking on Luke, because Q was aware that the forward was hitting the pill bottle again.

 

The alibi was useless; he discarded it as soon as he was in the door. He’d encountered no one, a fact he was grateful for as he closed the door with a soft click, then locked it.

 

Luke was laid out across the bed, listless and limp as he stared sightlessly at the wall. There was that glassy look again, the one that said the omega was a million miles away, somewhere out in the darkest reaches of space. It was up to Sean to drag him back down to earth.

 

He made his way gingerly to the bed, perched on the edge of it. He didn’t want to startle Luke or get too close to him before the omega gave his consent to it. He’d tried that last night, and the end result had been disastrous. He wasn’t keen to try again.

 

He had bruises on his shins, and he was grateful he didn’t need to strip down in front of a number of goons day in and day out. He probably wouldn’t have lived it down.

 

Luke inhaled sharply, then blinked. He shifted a bit, finally turning to look at Sean. “Hey,” the older man said softly.

 

“Hi,” Luke replied, then frowned. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Thought I’d check in on you,” Sean offered. “You seemed off during the game.”

 

Luke shrugged. “We sucked tonight.”

 

“You did.” Sean inched closer. “But I’m talking about you personally.”

 

“So I sucked a little harder than the rest of the guys—sue me.”

 

Sean sighed. “Luke …”

 

The blue-eyed man looked at him sharply. “What do you want?”

 

Sean sighed. “Luke, you’ve been acting weird for days now. What’s wrong?”

 

The omega pressed his lips together in a thin line, then looked away. He shook his head a little. “Nothing,” he muttered. “Nothing’s wrong.”

 

Sean was sorely tempted to call bullshit—it was perfectly clear that things weren’t fine. But, with age, that combative part of him was slowly disappearing. Instead, he dropped his gaze, clapped his hand on Luke’s calf—about all of him that was within easy reach—and said, “Do you mind if I stay then?”

 

Luke looked torn, a multitude of emotions flickering across his face as he studied Sean. Perhaps he wanted to read his intentions. Sean wondered if he could.

 

He lifted his brows. “Mm?”

 

“I guess,” the dark-haired man said finally, then sat up a little straighter, pulling his legs away.

 

“Great,” Sean said and moved to clamber the rest of the way onto the bed.

 

“Uh,” Luke said, and he paused.

 

The omega glanced about the room, his eyes moving frantically. A hesitant smile lifted the corners of his lips. “Could … could you sleep on the sofa? I uh …”

 

“Want to be alone?” Sean surmised, and Luke nodded, ducking his head in guilty admission.

 

Sean sighed, then heaved himself up off the bed. “All right,” he said. “But—I’m staying. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Luke echoed.

 

“I don’t want you to be alone. Not like this.”

 

“I’m fine,” the omega almost snarled at him—the most emotion he’d showed all night. “You don’t need to babysit me, I can take care of myself–”

 

“Didn’t say you couldn’t,” he offered. He didn’t want to turn this into a fight. “Seriously. I’m just in the other room—I feel better knowing I’m there in case anything happens, okay?”

 

He held Luke’s gaze for a moment, as though driving the point home. Luke returned the gaze, then finally buckled, averting his eyes, lowering his head. “Fine,” he mumbled, but the invective was gone now.

 

Sean nodded, then headed out into the small living area of the suite. He stared down at the sofa for a moment, then pulled the cushions off of it, hauling out the sofa bed. It was going to be a long fucking night, he had no doubts.

 

*

 

Matt stared at the calendar, tried to remember when Danny was coming back. Was it tomorrow or the next day? He couldn’t pull the date out of the mental junk drawer in his head.

 

He contemplated it a little longer, wondering. He didn’t have to wait for the team to be back to start workouts. In fact, he probably wouldn’t be joining the team for an on-ice workout for a while yet, and it would be even longer before he was cleared for practice. And then he’d have to wait even longer to be cleared for contact, and then finally, finally added to the roster for a game.

 

It was a long haul. But he was ready for it.

 

It was a difficult feeling to describe, really. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and he knew he was going to have to work hard. But he wanted to work that hard. He wanted to challenge that mountain, to scale it and reach the summit. He was motivated. He was ready.

 

And, in some ways, after what he’d been through, he couldn’t help but feel it would be easy. Nothing seemed impossible now.

 

He was excited to get back to it. He felt like his life had been on hold for the last six months, like someone had hit a giant pause button. He couldn’t even remember half of it; it was difficult to remember if it was real. Maybe it had been a dream, a nightmare …

 

He shuddered. It had been real, oh-so real. And life hadn’t just paused; it had nearly ended. Maybe he was melodramatic—he’d never really been in grave danger, at least not from what he could glean from various medical reports—but it had felt that way. Every moment, death had seemed imminent.

 

Maybe he’d just been thinking about it a lot. There was good reason to contemplate one’s own mortality when one had been diagnosed with what could be a terminal disease. Even if they said it was unlikely …

 

It could still happen. They hadn’t said impossible. He could have died. And that knowledge hung over him, even now as he prepared to go back to the daily grind of exercise and hockey.

 

He’d had a lot of time to think—although much of his thinking had been in fever dreams and hallucinations—over the last little while. And he’d wondered, both in dreams and in wakefulness, what exactly he wanted out of life.

 

He had his career, playing a sport he loved at the highest level and getting paid a disgusting amount of money for it. And he had Danny, his mate, the love of his life. He had his family, who had supported him every step of the way.

 

So what else was there? What more did he want to do?

 

It was an uneasy sort of thought. There had been times when he’d thought he’d be okay with dying. After all, what more was there to accomplish? If he died today, he’d be a happy man.

 

But when death crept round, fear was still near at hand, and he didn’t want to die, oh god, he didn’t want to die. He wasn’t done, he still had so much to do. He didn’t want to leave Danny, he wanted to live forever …

 

It was an odd sort of thing, to vacillate between those two positions so easily. They were such polar opposites, and he couldn’t seem to find the middle ground between them. He’d be okay with dying, but he didn’t really want to—but that wasn’t it. Sometimes, he was fine with the thought, and at other points, he’d fight down to his dying breath.

 

He was ready to leave those thoughts aside for now. He’d had enough of that for a long, long time—he was going to enjoy life as much as he could.

 

He finally got a text back from Danny. He’d missed the game; he was too busy getting ready for tomorrow morning. It was going to be so good to hit the gym. He almost missed the scent of his gym bag (although he’d been right back to hating it the second he’d hauled it out of the closet).

 

Apparently, he hadn’t missed much; the team had sucked hardcore. It wasn’t really surprising; the Saints often blew them right out of the water, even though they were supposedly the better team.

 

He frowned at the next message. ‘u heard from sebs?’

 

He hadn’t—and that ticked him off a little. He recalled now that Sebby had been injured, so he’d probably been kicking around DC this entire time, and he hadn’t bothered to text him? Call him? Meet up with him? He doubted the other forward’s injury was that bad.

 

‘yeah hes gonna be back next game, sending the rookie back down’

 

And clearly it hadn’t been that bad, not if Sebby was getting back on the ice so soon. ‘nah,’ he replied, ‘guy didn’t call or txt, jackass’

 

‘he just got back’

 

Matt lifted a brow, as though his screen could tell he was being skeptical. ‘from where????’

 

‘beantown.’

 

That was worrisome, Matt thought. What the hell did Sebby have to do in Beantown? He hadn’t heard anything about Lucian …

 

And if Sebby was injured, he should have been sent back to DC immediately. He shouldn’t have been tooling around in Boston. Matt could only think the other forward was trying to engineer his return to the Bears—and even then, the Stars shouldn’t have granted him the time off.

 

‘he just got in last night w/ lucy’

 

‘who the fuck is lucy?’ He was so out of the loop. He’d missed six months of gossip. Sebby picking up a girlfriend—a serious girlfriend, a girlfriend he’d bring back from Boston, that he’d mention to the team—was something he would have known about if he were playing.

 

‘his daughter’

 

Matt stared at the phone for a good, long moment. He blinked a couple of times, which made the words bounce, but they remained the same otherwise. They didn’t disappear. He clicked out of the app and looked away. He drummed his fingers on the countertop. He swiped his tongue over his lips.

 

Right. That was enough gossip for one day, he decided. He left the phone sitting there; he didn’t want it anywhere near him. Danny would figure out he’d gone to bed—maybe fallen asleep—soon enough.

 

In the meantime, he could figure out why the fuck that message bothered him so damn much.

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