Luke stared up at the ceiling, curled his fist. He inhaled, then exhaled, deep and slow as he could.
It wasn’t slow enough. His heart was racing, his pulse thundering through his own ears.
Slow. Rhythmic. He just needed to keep breathing. It was so easy, so, so easy, all he had to do …
His fingers twitched. He clenched his jaw, blinked twice to force away the sensation pricking at his eyes. This was insane. It had been days now. He needed to get a grip, to calm down, to …
To forget about everything that had happened to him. To forget Jack, to forget Jake, to force them from his memory, erase them entirely.
If only he could. If only he could force it down that far, lie, pretend that it had never happened to him. He dreamed of that—it would be some kind of freedom. Freedom from fear, from the anxiety that dwelt deep down in his bones, burrowed there, blooming to life every time he saw Jack, every time he remembered, every time he closed his eyes.
Sean sleeping in the other room didn’t help. He was glad it wasn’t right beside him—he didn’t think he could handle that kind of vulnerability, to go to sleep right next to someone else (after all, wasn’t that how this whole stupid thing had started? With Jack thinking it was his right, it was just a little touch …)
Vulnerable. That was how he felt, and he hated every second of it. He wasn’t in any danger—or at least, he didn’t think he was. Sean, for all the terrible and questionable things he’d done, had never hurt him like that. Yes, it was dubious, yes it was unethical, yes a hundred thousand times—
But he’d always agreed. There’d always been some semblance of even asking for his consent, and even though Sean had always seemed to know that Luke would simply say yes, it seemed that no was always a viable option.
Maybe. He might have been conjecturing on that. He’d never really taken the chance.
Because he’d said no to Jack, and look at what had happened. He’d said no to Jake, and look at what had happened. “No” wasn’t a word omegas were supposed to say, not to an alpha. It was only supposed to be yes, yes, yes, screamed at the top of your lungs.
He’d said no to Jack. He’d shoved him off, laughed him off, made jokes about it, turned him down flat. He’d done everything he possibly could to tell Jack he wasn’t interested. The only thing more he could have done would have been moving. Dropping out, switching schools, going home. Something. Anything.
Sometimes, he wished he had. But he hadn’t. He’d trusted that Jack would take no—maybe, finally, even after he’d said it a hundred times, even after he’d wrestled him off when he’d tried pinning him to the bed, even after he’d decked him for touching him on the ice in practice (and gotten suspended for it, because really, Macks, what the fuck was that?).
Jack was smart, he’d reasoned. Jack would get the hint. He’d back off.
And then he’d said no and no and no, over and over, until he was sick of the word himself, and …
Jack broke. But he was angry about it. Angry about an uppity little omega with a filthy fucking secret, and he wouldn’t let it go. Where did Luke get off thinking he could say no to an alpha? Where did he get off thinking he could reject someone like Jack?
Jack, he should have known, was the most dogged, determined person on the face of the earth. If they gave out prizes for persistence, Jack should have won gold, silver, and bronze. Luke should have known Jack wouldn’t take no—ever. It was never final.
Not even that time, not even the time it seemed to be final, when they fought in the dorm and busted up the closet doors so that housing was pissed, and both of them had bruises and black eyes.
Nobody even questioned it. And, even if they had, Luke knew he wouldn’t have told anyone. In his mind, being outed as an omega was still worse, still more dangerous than anything else he could fathom. He couldn’t tell the team he was an omega and that their captain was harassing him.
He wondered now what would have happened if he had told them. He wanted to think that maybe, maybe it wouldn’t have happened, maybe it would have played out differently.
But they’d been just as complicit—the guys who took part, the guys who stood by and watched. The guys who left the room, knowing something was off, some vague uneasiness settling in their stomachs before they left the arena for the evening, and they were blissfully unaware until the next morning.
They weren’t really guilty, but Luke blamed them too. What would have happened if one of them had hung around even five minutes longer? Maybe they would have left. Maybe someone would have taken pity on him.
He wanted to think, deep down, a lot of the guys had harbored deep guilt over it. He wanted to think they regretted it now, that they had nightmares about it too. He wanted to imagine that, sometimes, they woke up with a sinking dread dragging on their innards—guilt chewing at them for what they’d done.
He wasn’t sure they did. He didn’t think Jack did at all.
He didn’t know if any of them felt guilt. He didn’t know if they regretted it. He didn’t even know if they remembered it. Maybe, maybe, they were able to forget, a hazy memory of one night in a locker room long ago, and they pushed those memories down to the deepest pits …
But if they did remember, perhaps they regretted it. Luke … couldn’t blame them entirely. Jack—Jack he could blame. But the rest of the team—maybe not as much. Not when there’d been a slurry of inducers and pheromones acting on them all, each and every one of them under the influence …
Jack had given him the inducers, he knew. The way Jack had smirked at him when he took a swig of his water in practice that morning had more than confirmed it for him. He still didn’t know the exact details—how Jack had got the inducers, when, how strong they were, anything—but he’d suspected that the bastard had dissolved them in the water, then swapped out Luke’s water with his—they were all identical bottles.
Or maybe he’d laced the entire damn team’s drink, Luke had no idea. All he knew was the bastard had done it.
If Luke wouldn’t comply with him, he’d make him. He’d out him to the team, he’d crucify him in front of all of his teammates—and he’d get them to help in the process.
Luke wanted to think that, in the absence of all those drugs, the pheromones, if they’d all had their heads on straight, nothing would have happened. If he’d told his teammates earlier that he was omega, maybe some of the guys would have protected him.
Maybe he would have been safe. Maybe they would have recognized what that asshole Jack was doing, maybe they could have saved him …
Or maybe not. Maybe nothing would have happened any differently. He could imagine that too, just as easily. The things they’d said had told him all he needed to know about what they thought of him, of all omegas, playing in the higher leagues. Of doing anything outside the home.
Sometimes, he thought Sean was right. It was usually an idle thought, a fleeting one at best. But if he’d never aspired to play hockey, if he’d just stayed the fuck home, then none of this would have happened.
He would have been safe. He would have been free.
He inhaled again, curled his fingers in tight to his palms, let his nails bite half-moons into them. He could hear Sean stirring in the next room. He closed his eyes again. He wasn’t sure he wanted to deal with the older man just yet.
He wanted to get his heart rate back under control before he did anything else.
It wasn’t to be, of course. Sean slipped into the room; the mattress dipped under his weight. “Hey,” he said, and Luke bit his lip, then forced himself to relax as much as he could, lifting his lids to meet the older man’s gaze.
“How’d you sleep?”
Luke shrugged, glanced away. He’d slept, sure, but fitfully. Sleep wasn’t restful these days, that was for sure.
He didn’t know why he felt so guilty about that.
“Hmm,” Sean said. He didn’t look away; he just went right on staring at Luke. The omega cringed a little.
“Should I go?”
That was unexpected. Luke looked up, then at the alpha. “Uh,” he said after a moment, unable to process. “I … don’t know?”
Sean nodded. “All right,” he said softly. “Maybe it would be better.”
“Maybe,” Luke mumbled, letting his gaze drop again. He clutched at the sheets a little harder than he had to.
“It’s early,” the alpha said lightly. “Just make sure you get breakfast, right?”
“Wait,” Luke said, closing his eyes and screwing up his courage.
Sean paused in the doorway. Luke studied the pattern on the bedspread—worn with use, a mix of intricate Arabesque designs, both rich and exotic.
“Um … I … you don’t have to go,” he mumbled, rubbing at his arm. He still couldn’t look the alpha in the eye.
Fuck, he was pathetic sometimes. Most times, actually.
“Are you sure?” Sean asked slowly.
Now it was Luke’s turn to nod. “Uh … actually, it’d be good if you stayed. I think.”
Another long pause from Sean’s end. “All right,” he said finally, pivoting to face Luke again. Luke kept his gaze pinned to the ground as the alpha approached the bed again, this time venturing even closer.
Luke was almost startled when he looked up, Sean almost nose to nose with him now. Those cold, gray eyes were calculating, reading his reaction.
“Uh,” he said when Sean held him captive too long.
“Only if you’re sure,” the alpha said softly, and Luke nodded again.
“It’s fine,” he said.
“Lie down,” Sean said, and Luke obeyed, but he couldn’t help the whimper that escaped him as he did.
“No,” Sean said. “Shush. You’re fine. We’re fine.”
“Are we?” Luke blurted before he could stop himself. Then he bit his lip hard and glanced nervously at the alpha.
“We will be,” Sean replied easily, breezily, as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Luke swallowed jealousy at the very thought.
It was his tenuous grasp on Luke that gave him away though, the hesitancy of the touch, as though Luke might break. Some kind of tension there, just beneath the surface …
It was all for show. Underneath it all, Sean was just as worried, just as scared. Neither of them were free.
“It’ll be fine,” Sean repeated, his voice falling to barely above a whisper, the quiet of the early morning pressing in all around them, as they tried to convince themselves of the future, of the truth in those words.
Luke had believed them for a long, long time, but now he was beginning to wonder. Would he ever be all right again? Would it ever be okay? He wanted to heal, but he wasn’t sure he knew how any more.
He didn’t know what normal felt like any more.
Timmo glanced at the clock, then sat up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. He glanced around, slowly gaining his bearings.
The room was deserted. He lifted a brow; Cal wasn’t much of an early riser, or so he’d gathered. He’d practically had to kick the rookie out of bed a couple of days ago.
If it had been Nicky, he wouldn’t have questioned it—the Swede was strange and got up at weird hours. Did things like go for a run. Weirdo. As if they didn’t exercise enough. As if any of them had energy enough for that.
Cal wasn’t that kind of guy, however, and it worried Timmo a little. He rolled out of bed and padded to the washroom.
He didn’t think it was time for breakfast yet either, but perhaps Cal had headed down early. Strange, but a possibility.
He stumbled through his morning rituals, tripped over his clothes as he tugged them on. Then he headed downstairs, doing his best impression of wide awake. It was difficult without having any coffee.
He should have made a coffee before he left the room. He was so stupid sometimes.
He found Cal alone in the hotel restaurant. The Australian was simply sitting there, sipping on a coffee. (Apparently, great minds thought alike or fools seldom differed. Timmo wasn’t sure just which it was as he approached the table.)
Cal glanced up at him over the rim of the mug, his thick eyebrows nearly disappearing into his hairline. “G’morning, mate,” he said, setting the mug back down.
Timmo took the chair without waiting for the suggestion. He glanced about, looking for the server. He needed caffeine.
There was no one in sight. That about figured.
Cal took a long draught of his coffee, as though mocking him. Timmo narrowed his eyes. “So,” he said.
“Mm,” Cal replied around a mouthful of coffee.
“You’re up early.” Timmo eyed him warily, weighing his reaction in order to determine his next move.
“Mm,” Cal said again, set his mug back down. He kept his eyes pinned on it as he spun it around. “Couldn’t sleep, yeah? Figured ya wouldn’t appreciate me traipsing about the room at all hours of the night.”
“Considerate,” Timmo said, then glanced up as a shadow fell over them.
“Good morning,” the waitress said brightly, her Midwest accent reminding him he wasn’t at home, much as he desperately wanted to be. “What can I do ya for?”
Timmo lifted an eyebrow; that turn of phrase had always caught him off-guard. “Mm,” he said, “just a coffee, please.”
“What’ll ya have in it?”
She waltzed off again, her ponytail swinging behind her. Timmo watched her go, then slowly shifted his gaze back to Cal. “So?” he asked.
Cal shrugged. “It’s nothing, really,” he mumbled, looking down into his mug again. He was hylätty. That was the word for it. (Timmo didn’t know the English word, and he wasn’t sure he cared to. He found most translation lacked the meaning and nuance of his native tongue.)
“Mm,” Timmo replied. He folded his arms and leaned forward onto the table.
Cal was silent a moment longer. Then he sucked in a breath and sighed, “I don’t want t’ go back down.”
“Of course not,” Timmo said, then leaned back, smiling up at the waitress as she slid the mug of coffee across the table to him. “Thank you.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, then waltzed off again.
Timmo would never get that one. He plucked his up his mug, allowing the heady scent of coffee to fill his nose. He closed his eyes. There was nothing better than the first sip of black coffee in the morning. He looked forward to it, savored it.
He pressed the mug to his lips, allowed the dark liquid to enter his mouth, rolling over his tongue. He grimaced and swallowed it down hurriedly, his eyes watering.
It was burnt. The moment was ruined.
“Uh,” Cal said, and he blinked, remembering the Australian was sitting there, staring at him.
“Hi,” he said.
“Are you okay?” the rookie asked, tipping his head in concern. “You … uh, looked really out of it.”
Timmo sighed. “They burnt the coffee,” he murmured.
Silence rose up between them again, settling heavy on the air. Timmo stared down into his mug, wondering if he should take another sip. On the one hand …
But then …
Cal broke the silence as he took another drink, slurping loudly at the end. “Sorry,” he said, his shoulders scrunching up around his ears.
“You apologize a lot,” Timmo said.
“You apologized to me last night too,” the Finn said, and Cal glanced about. His cheeks were flush.
“You did,” Timmo said. “About the goals.”
Cal sighed. “Yeah,” he muttered.
“I meant to apologize too,” Timmo said, pausing as the rookie tossed him a confused look. “I said things wrong. I did not mean you do not belong here, that you are not a good player. I just meant you are not IHA-level yet.”
Cal frowned deeply. “Is that supposed to be comforting?” he muttered, dropping a spoon into his coffee and stirring.
Timmo shook his head. “Not really, no. But—I did not mean you do not belong on an ice rink.”
The rookie glanced up again. “You don’t think it’s weird?” he asked, blinking. “That an Aussie plays hockey?”
Again, the goalie shook his head. “No,” he said. “It is not weird for anyone to play hockey, I think. As long as you love the game.”
Cal was quiet for a very long time after that, so Timmo went back to drinking the horrible, burnt coffee. He sipped on it quietly, contemplating how someone could ruin coffee so completely. He rolled his tongue across the roof of his mouth, but the taste lingered.
“So, uh,” Cal said finally.
Timmo jumped, nearly spilling what was left of his drink. He’d forgotten Cal was there. The rookie drummed his fingers on the table. His gaze flicked up again, then dropped back to the tabletop. “Uh. What … do you do for fun?”
Timmo clutched at his cup a little more. “What do you mean?” He narrowed his gaze.
Cal scratched the back of his neck. “Well. Just. Like, I don’t know much about you or anyone else on the team, so I just …”
“Hmmmm,” Timmo said, taking a long drink from his mug. He set it down, letting it clink like it had a purpose. He cracked his knuckles. “Well.”
Cal glanced up again. Timmo pressed his lips together to keep from smirking. “I like video games. And Netflix.”
Sy grimaced, then rocked back to his other foot, gritting his teeth as he tried to cross the floor without a sound. His ankle was killing him; he needed to get some painkillers for it, but he didn’t want to wake Oaks up.
Poor guy had a shitty night last night. He’d been so pissy that Sy hadn’t dared to talk to him. A seven-one blowout was hard for a goalie to take, even if he’d only been responsible for half those goals. Oaks hadn’t spoken to anyone; he’d merely followed them , silent and ashen-faced.
Silent on the bench, silent in the locker room, silent on the bus, silent all the way back to the room. And the kind of silence Sy knew better than to touch. It was better to let Oaks stew for a bit, then try a very gentle approach in the morning.
Or maybe the day after, depending on how Oaks seemed. Goalies sometimes took longer to work themselves out.
He cringed again, then paused when he heard the bed springs squeal, the sheets shifting on the other side of the room. He relaxed fractionally, then lifted his foot to take another step forward.
He slammed his foot down. Pain shot up through his ankle, and he bit his tongue to keep himself from screaming.
He whipped about, plastering on a grin. “Oh, hey. Sorry, did I wake you?”
“Are you limping?” Oaks inquired, lifting a brow.
The goalie frowned, glared at him. “If your ankle is bothering you, don’t stump around on it, idiot. Get it looked at, get off of it, stay off it—was it bothering you last night?”
“Uh,” Sy said.
Oaks gave him a critical evaluation, running his gaze up and down him. “It was bugging you last night,” he surmised, “and the night before that, and the night before that. In Denver, in Dallas, right back to …”
He stopped short. He fixed his gaze on the wall. “Right when Volkov limped off the ice after taking a puck to the skate.”
It took everything Sy had not to gape at him. “What?” he asked finally, crinkling his nose. “What about Volkov?”
Oaks snorted, shook his head. A broad grin broke out across his face, growing wider as he lifted his gaze again. “You prick,” he said, grinning and blinking and shaking his head. “You absolute prick.”
“What? Oaks—did you get hit in the head last night? You’re not making any sense—”
The goalie shook his head. “No, no, no—your ankle was okay, maybe a little weak, but then Volkov takes a puck to the skate, has to be helped off, ‘lower body injury’ they say, probably broke something, and it’s the same foot as you—and your ankle gets worse at the exact same time.”
Sy furrowed his brow. “Are you trying to suggest there’s some kinda … connection?” he sneered.
Oaks’s lips were twisted up in a curious smirk. Sy squinted at him. “You sure you didn’t hit your head? Do you hear yourself right now, Adri?”
The goalie laughed, a sharp and disconcerting sound. Sy glanced toward the door nervously. He did not like where this was going.
He knew he was a shitty liar. Oaks had hit the nail on the head, and it was only a matter of time before Sy slipped up, revealing the truth—that the goalie was completely, one hundred percent correct.
It was a horrifying notion, really. That someone—anyone—other than him and Aleks would know about this, and believe it.
Mike knew, after all. Fyodor Nabokov knew. Other people knew. But no one really believed it.
Oaks’s eyes were alight with a mischievous look. Sy shrank back before he even realized what he was doing. He squared his shoulders, huffed a breath. “I have to go,” he said sharply, then pivoted toward the door, ignoring the pain that shot through him as his ankle twisted yet again.
Oaks just cackled. Sy gritted his teeth, grabbed his shoes, and stepped into the hall, slamming the door behind him. He glanced back over his shoulder, Oaks’s laughter ricocheting around in his head.
He dropped his shoes to the floor, then carefully, carefully toed them on.
Matt couldn’t say he hadn’t been expecting it to be hard, but he was still surprised by how breathless he was. How fatigued. How weak.
He exhaled long and slow, then grimaced as he tightened his arms, digging deeper, straining for the strength he’d once had. Perspiration dribbled down his forehead, dripped into his eyes, stinging.
He brought the bar in close, his forearms, his biceps screaming with the effort. It was so damn heavy. He released it as slow as he dared, jerking forward a bit as gravity got away on him.
“Careful,” TJ said. The trainer’s face was an impassive mask. Matt heaved a couple more breaths, then gripped the bar again. “Watch your form—you don’t want to hurt yourself right after getting back.”
“Easy for you to say,” Matt muttered, wiggling his fingers. The grip felt wrong. He adjusted it, then lifted again.
“You’re just getting back,” TJ said sagely. “There’s no way you’re getting back on the ice today, or tomorrow, or probably next week, even. Take it easy, do it right.”
Matt dropped the bar again, gasping for breath. TJ considered him, then said, “You wanna drop down?”
“No,” Matt spat.
The trainer’s mouth twisted down in a frown. “Think ya should,” he said, then bustled by Matt and pulled one of the weights off the end of the bar. Matt glared at him. The other man shook his head. “Seriously. You’re in no rush.”
“I can do this,” Matt replied tartly.
“You could do this,” TJ retorted. “Before. It was easy. But that was then, this is now. You need to do what’s right for you now. You’ll get there, trust.”
Matt looked away. TJ crouched down on the other side of the bar, loosening off the weight, evening it out again. Matt could feel his gaze trained on him, waiting for him to look at him. “Okay? Just relax. Look, I know it’s tough. You haven’t done anything for months, you know what you can handle. You’re just itching to get right back at it. You wanna go hard.”
Matt spared him a glance, a hesitant flick of his eyes toward the trainer. Then he looked away again.
“But,” TJ continued, completely undeterred, “you think you just started lifting—whatever? Nah man, you trained for years to get there. When did you start weights?”
“Fuck,” Matt spat, “forever ago.” He couldn’t even remember now. He did remember wanting to, badly, when he was younger, when he’d first hit high school. He remembered arguing with his parents that he needed to start weight training, that it would help him develop into a better player. He’d been maybe fourteen, scrawny, gangly. He was getting pulverized on the ice by the fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds.
He’d been told no, very firmly, by everyone. His parents, the doctor, even his coach. They all said it wasn’t a good idea. He’d hurt himself, stunt his growth, something.
That had been the year he’d started hanging out with Garrett a lot. Garrett was two years older than him, and he went to the fitness center after school. He didn’t say no to Matt. He let Matt into the gym if Matt was late. He told Matt’s parents they’d be at his place, playing video games.
“Video games” had been code for a lot of things in those days, especially when it came to Garrett. Smoking up, going to parties, making out—all of it fell under the sweeping category of “we hung out and played video games.”
Exciting times, Matt thought ruefully, straightening up as TJ rose back to his feet, clapping his hands together. “Okay,” the trainer barked, “let’s go, let’s see what you got.”
Matt glared at him, but it was short-lived; he had to put all his effort back into lifting the weights. “You’re gonna hurt tomorrow,” TJ promised, “act like you want it. You wanna get back on the ice, right?”
“Fuck. You,” Matt ground out, because of course he did. He wouldn’t be standing there if he didn’t.
He dropped the bar again, collapsed to his knees, huffing and puffing. TJ clapped him on the back. “Hey, buddy, it’s okay. It’s your first day back.”
Matt looked up at him. He grinned broadly. “We’ll get you crushing it in no time, okay? Just have a little faith.”
Matt sighed, then pushed back to his feet. TJ clapped him on the shoulder again. “Cool?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Matt breathed, nodding slightly.
“Awesome,” TJ said, pointing across the room, “we’re gonna go do some ropes—”
Matt groaned, let his head fall back. “Seriously?” he cried.
TJ cackled. “Yeah man, I told ya! We’ll have you back in shape in no time, don’t you worry. I mean, I’m telling ya to pace yourself ‘cause I’ll push you to breaking if you don’t.”
“Sadistic bastard,” Matt muttered, following him as he practically skipped across the room.
“Hey, nobody becomes a personal trainer ‘cause they like people,” TJ offered, plucking up the ropes. “Right? I like pain, and I like suffering.”
Matt took the ropes from him. “I think you get off on this,” he said.
TJ quirked a brow, grinning a little. “Maybe I’m a little sick, yeah,” he agreed. “But I don’t think you’d mind. I mean, you keep coming back for more.”
“Anyway—enough chit-chat. If you can yak at me, you ain’t working hard enough. Let’s see what you got, show those ropes who’s boss—”
“You are so weird,” Matt muttered, lifting one rope, then the other. He’d forgotten how heavy they were.
Actually, had they always been that heavy? He couldn’t remember. He didn’t think so, but …
They were heavy now, his arms told him, especially after having lifted that bloody weight. TJ really was trying to murder him.
It was still better than the cacophony of his thoughts, though. He didn’t mind the screaming pain in his muscles; it was much better, in so many ways, than a screaming mind. He’d been wound up since last night, since Danny’s last text.
The physicality, the immediacy of the pain he was in now was much better. Distracting. He could focus on it, zero in on it. He didn’t need to think about anything else except pushing himself to lift his arm one more time, dragging those heavy ropes up, making them sway with the effort.
It was meditative, soothing. He’d missed this. He really, really had. His head was clear for the first time in months. Sure, there’d been the murk of drug-induced hazes, and yes, he realized he hadn’t been all that lucid for the last little while, but …
He finally felt like himself again. Like a human being.