Going Under, the first book in the Something in the Water series, arrives Tuesday, September 5!

 

Chapter 8: Losing Streak [Slapshot!]

Chapter 8: Losing Streak [Slapshot!]

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They lost. Badly. Horribly. Penalty after penalty, shot after shot. The Rockets kept them fairly hemmed into their own zone; they scarcely played any time in the opposite end. Six-nothing wasn’t even a respectable effort. It was laughable. How had they made it to the playoffs again? What a joke, what a laugh. Luke could already see the headlines in tomorrow’s papers in DC, plastered across ESPN and the internet. He could almost taste the disappointment and bitterness of fans.

Or maybe that was his own bitterness, his own disappointment, thick across his tongue and difficult to swallow down. Six-nothing. Six. They were a joke; they didn’t belong in the playoffs. They’d only squeaked in by the skin of their teeth, and they didn’t deserve it. It had been a fluke, no doubt; they didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs.

He didn’t see Sean Flanagan, and when he checked his phone after the game, it was silent. Even Mason hadn’t sent him anything. He stared at the screen blankly for a moment or two, then pocketed the device.

The bus was a silent, somber affair. None of them wanted to talk; they were all too absorbed in their own self-pitying thoughts, wondering what they could have done better, what they should have done differently. If only they’d played this way and not that, if only they hadn’t taken that penalty, had taken that shot …

It didn’t do them much good, and they’d need to snap themselves out of their melancholy right quick; they had another game on Thursday, another chance, and there was no point going in like a team already beaten. A defeatist attitude would do nothing for them. They needed confidence, they needed to act like they could win.

Because they could. And they would.

“That sucked,” Jake complained loudly as he and Ty invaded Luke and Dima’s room.

“Yes,” Dima said.

“Shiiiiitty,” Ty said, sprawling out across Luke’s bed. Luke raised an eyebrow; it was pretty clear the rookie had already had something to drink, even though they’d only been back in the hotel for a few minutes.

Dima opened up the mini-bar.

“What are you doing?” Luke asked sharply.

“Washing away our sorrows,” Jake said, catching the bottle Dima tossed to him and cracking it open.

“Yes,” Dima said, “that.”

Luke rolled his eyes. Kids. “We have another game on Thursday, you shouldn’t be drinking.”

“I think we’re allowed after a blow-out like that.”

Luke grabbed the bottle out of Jake’s hand. “No,” he said, “this is playoffs. You don’t get drinks or pity-parties. Pull it together.”

“Jeez, Mom.”

“You’re no fun,” Ty said. Dima plonked down on the bed beside him, swigging out of a bottle of vodka.

“This isn’t fun,” Luke said, “this isn’t just fun and games, guys.”

“We had a long day at work, Macks, let us have a drink to kick back and relax.”

Luke glowered at Jake. “I don’t think you guys are taking this seriously.”

“You’re taking it too seriously,” Jake countered, grabbing the bottle back. “Seriously, it’s just tonight. We played hard, got our asses handed to us. We’ll get up and go tomorrow, Macks, and be back on the ice for Thursday.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No buts,” Jake said sternly. Dima pressed his bottle into Luke’s hand. Luke stared at him blankly.

“You need drink,” Dima said, nodding.

“No,” Luke said, “I don’t.”

“Yes,” the Russian insisted. “Drink up, feel better.”

“No,” Luke said.

“Hey!” Sebby cried, poking his head through the open door between the two rooms—he was apparently visiting Matt and Danny. “Macks, you didn’t tell me you were having a party, you loser.”

“We’re not having a party, Sebs—”

“Did you ever think we just didn’t want to invite you, Montclair?”

“Oh, shut it, Watson—gimme that.”

“Hey, handsy!”

Sebby chugged most of Jake’s drink. Brenden peered around the corner. “What are y’all up to?” he drawled.

“Apparently trying to have a party without me! Can you believe?”

“I can,” Brenden deadpanned.

“We’re not having a party—”

“Room party with Macks!”

“No.”

“Drinks for all!” Ty cried, nearly spilling his own drink in the process. Luke tipped his arm up so that the bottle was straight, rather than sideways.

Dima passed a new bottle to Jake.

“What about me?” Sebby asked.

“Bar is empty,” Dima said, pointing to the fridge, which was indeed almost empty now.

“Ugh, seriously, losers. Call room service.”

“Matt and Danny have a mini-bar too, we can get booze out of there—”

“What are we getting now?”

“Booze from your fridge.”

Luke rolled his eyes. “Guys …”

“Shut it, Macks, we’re partying.”

“Yeah, go be a Debbie Downer somewhere else.”

“Dude, did you just call him a Debbie Downer? Like, for serious? Who says that.”

“Shut it, Watson.”

Luke sighed heavily, and then Dima sat up suddenly, his phone in hand. He waved at everyone excitedly, staring at the bright screen.

“What?” Jake asked.

“It is Sanja, he wants us to go out!”

“Who now?” Brenden asked, frowning.

“Volkov,” Jake clarified.

“Aw, what? That jackass is texting you?”

“Uh, yeah, Sebby, they’re kind of friends,” Ty said. “Y’know, Russian.”

Dima glowered at the rookie. “Not like that,” Ty said, though no one was quite sure what he meant.

“He invited you out?” Matt asked. Luke boggled at him; he now had a drink in hand. “What?”

“You’re drinking too!” Luke cried.

“So?” Matt asked.

“Somebody get Macks a drink. A stiff one!” Sebby yelled.

Matt stifled a giggle. “What?” he asked when Luke glared at him.

“Danny’s mixing,” Brenden said, and Luke wasn’t sure if that was supposed to reassure him or not. Danny mixed incredibly strong drinks.

“Here,” Danny said, offering Luke a cup of something. Luke stared at it, then raised an eyebrow at Danny, who grinned.

“Bottoms up!” Sebby cried, knocking into Luke, who ended up slamming the drink back, choking on it.

“Ha!” Matt cried, nearly spilling his own drink.

“Jesus, Macks, swallow, don’t spit,” Danny quipped, before easily sipping on his own drink.

“Other way around,” Jake said, twirling a finger, “I mean, you gave him the blowjob, right?”

Matt snorted into his own drink, then yelled, “Oh god, ow, burning!”

“Serves you right!” Danny huffed.

“Macks’s glass is empty, get him something else,” Sebby demanded.

“A quick fuck!”

“No, an orgasm!”

“Sex on the beach!”

“All three!”

“Oh my god, I hate you all.”

“I’m outta booze,” Danny said regretfully.

“I guess that means we need to get this party to the bar, stat,” Sebby announced, then high-fived Jake, because at last they agreed on something.

“We are not going out,” Luke groaned. “Please.”

“Sanja says to meet him at Flö,” Dima announced to the room.

“Where’s that?”

“Downtown, not far, I think.”

Shoes and jackets were being pulled on, drinks gulped down hurriedly. “Here, here,” Sebby was saying as Ty held Luke captive, forcing him into a sweater.

“I’m not going with you assholes, I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to party with the Rockets—”

“C’mon, it’ll be fun!” Jake said cheerily, and Luke hated the way he looked at him. He evidently hadn’t forgotten what he’d scented.

“No.”

“Come. On.”

Ty and Sebby were pushing him toward the door. Matt and Danny were strolling behind them. Brenden was herding Jake and Dima.

“I’m not—”

“You’re going,” Sebby said and shoved him into the elevator.

Two black SUVs were already waiting outside for them. “Sanja sends his regards,” Dima explained, opening up one of the doors and clambering in.

They squished into the vehicles, Luke sandwiched between Brenden and Matt. Sebby hopped into the front.

“See you there!” Danny called from the other car. Jake gave them a wave as he slammed the door shut.

“Should we really be doing this?” Luke asked, his voice pinched. “I mean, it’s playoffs, we have a game on Thursday, against the Rockets, and …”

“Will you relax already?” Sebby snapped, turning about in his seat. “We’re all professionals here, Macks, it’s fiiiiine.”

Luke looked helplessly at Brenden and Matt. “Are you guys gonna agree with that?” he asked finally.

“What’s wrong with a little fun?” Matt asked with a shrug.

Luke sighed heavily.

They rolled up to the club, and they stared out the tinted windows at the long line out front. Luke frowned, pointed

“University town,” Sebby reminded him gently. “They’re all in exams now, so they’re just like us—bombed a test, strung out, stressed out, worrying about the next final, if they’ll flunk it.”

“Great analogy,” Luke sniped.

“Shut up, get out.”

“Ride’s paid for,” the driver said, waving his hand when Brenden offered his credit card.

“Volkov’s a good guy. Have fun.”

Matt slammed the door, and the car took off. “A good guy,” Luke snorted.

“Helllo, Starfuckers! So nice you come out to party with real famous people!”

Luke looked at Matt and Brenden as Volkov waved enthusiastically at them from the front steps.

“They with you, Aleks?” the bouncer asked.

“Hm? Oh, yes, they are ours. They lost, they are buying drinks.”

Dima, who was standing beside Volkov, straightened up. “Sanja,” he hissed, “you never said this to me before.”

Volkov laughed wildly, madly, and clapped the younger man on the back. “Dimitry! You are so young still, of course losers buy drinks.”

Dima bristled at him, grinding his teeth.

The bouncer waved them in. “I don’t care who’s buying drinks, just be sure to settle up tonight, yeah?”

“Of course,” Volkov said, grinning, and slipped the guy a couple of Benjamins. They ducked inside the club, ignoring the outraged cries from the line-up behind them.

“I still don’t think we should,” Luke said as they approached the bar.

“Shut up and drink,” Dima ordered, shoving a drink into his hand. Luke stared at it.

Volkov nudged Luke in the ribs. “Dima wants to give you orgasm! You must accept.”

“This is not funny,” Luke growled.

“Au contraire,” Sebby chortled, “it is hilarious.”

“Drink drink drink,” Jake chanted.

Luke sighed and sucked the alcohol down, much to the amusement of the merry band of drunks.

“Get him another one, Dima!” Sebby cried.

“Get him one yourself,” Dima fired back.

“Orgasms for everyone!” Volkov shouted. Nabokov, who had just wandered into earshot, rolled his eyes.

“Sanja,” he said.

“Two for Fedya here,” Volkov said, leaning across the bar, motioning to the bartender. “He does not get many these days.”

“Sanja!” Nabokov turned scarlet all the way to the tips of his ears.

“What’s going on, Aleks?” Blake Sullivan was hard to miss, with his fiery red hair and bright green eyes. He eyed the Stars players worriedly. “Are you … fraternizing with the enemy?”

“Huh?” Volkov seemed lost.

“Yes,” Luke replied, then downed the drink Matt set in front of him.

Blake rolled his eyes. “Maaaaacks,” he said, “how they’d drag you out here? I was pretty sure you’d become a crazy cat lady and taken up knitting.”

“Hey, I still get out, thanks.”

“Only when we drag him,” Jake clarified, placing a shot glass in Luke’s hand.

Luke tried to protest, but Danny handed him another, grinning broadly.

“Are you guys trying to get me drunk?” he snapped.

“Not drunk,” Brenden drawled.

“Absolutely wasted,” Sebby clarified.

Luke rolled his eyes. “You guys …”

“Bottoms’ up!” Jake hollered, and Ty—damn rookies, so impressionable—tipped Luke’s left

hand up, spilling tequila down his arm. Luke leaned forward and wrapped his mouth around the shot glass, swallowing the bitter liquid, choking on it. He dropped the glass on the counter behind him, licked tequila off his arm. “Christ, Tyler,” he snarled.

Ty grinned at him.

“Oy, you still have another shot to finish.”

Luke glowered at his teammates, then up-ended the second shot. No sooner had he set it down than another glass was handed to him.

“How long are you guys gonna keep this up?” he asked.

“‘Til you start having fun or pass out, whichever comes first.”

“I hate you all so, so much.”

“Well, you can either have fun or drink up,” Jake offered, grinning like a cat that got the mouse.

Luke sipped on his new drink thoughtfully, wondering if he could be charged with assault if he smashed Jake’s stupid, smirky face off the bar.

“Sully, did you get the drinks yet?”

“Oh, hey, Bergie, no, I got distracted—the Starfuckers are here.”

“Oj då,” Erik Bergstrom said, frowning at them. “Who invited you?”

They pointed at Volkov, who shrugged at the Swede. Bergstrom shook his head. “You are the worst, Aleks. Really.”

“Well, we are all here,” the Russian said, holding his hands askance, “we might as well party.”

Bergstrom seemed rather unconvinced, just glowering at his captain as though his head might implode if he tried hard enough.

“Did I hear someone say party?”

Luke stared into his drink, wondering if his night could get any fucking worse.

“Mayday! What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Mason fuckin’ Green, why the hell are you in Shitsburgh, man?”

“Hey.”

“Oh, what, like you’ve never heard anyone call it that before.” Sebby rolled his eyes. Blake sneered at him.

Mason waved a hand breezily, hopped up on one of the barstools. “Oh, y’know,” he said. “Just passing through.”

“Huh,” Blake snorted.

“Little out of the way, is it not?” Erik asked cautiously.

Mason shrugged. “Not like I have anything better to do,” he said, grinning. “Not like I’m in the playoffs. Hey, let’s have a round over here for these guys, champs of the post-season.”

“We’re only one game in,” Jake said flatly.

Mason leered. “Well, one of you is going to move on to the next round, right? I didn’t say who.” He picked up a glass. “Cheers!”

They toasted, and Luke tried to remember what drink that was—five? Or six? Was he counting shots or not?

The night became a blur; there was always a glass in his hand, sometimes one in each, and as soon as one was finished, there was another in hand. Bodies ground up against him on the dance floor—some male, some female, mostly girls who all looked like they were way too young to be drinking, to be in a club, to take home. Then shots at the bar, choking them down, and then maybe Jake or Sebby or Dima. And then the world spun, and then he was dizzy, so dizzy, and he spilled his drink all over some huge goon who looked like he was a football line backer, and there was fight and broken glass, and then he was outside in an alley, puking until it hurt.

And then they were back in the club, because Aleks had sweet-talked the owner, and Jake handed him another drink, and Sebby made him pound it back, and then someone had the sense to take him back to the hotel. He almost fell asleep in the car, his head banging painfully off the cab window, but he couldn’t sit straight, and Matt and Mason were helping him to the elevator, and he collapsed against Matt, and oh, shit, Mason looked pissed, Mason had caught Matt’s scent and knew he was the alpha Luke had banged, and fuck, that was still weird to think about—

“I can handle it from here,” Mason said, and closed the door to Matt and Danny’s adjoining suit, and Luke went to puke in the bathroom, hating his teammates. He was gonna hurt tomorrow.
He crawled to bed at last, creeping across the floor, and Dima was back now, passed out, face-down on his bed. There was a glass of water and painkillers on the nightstand next to him.

“Wanna get out of here?” Mason whispered to Luke, and Luke shook his head. He didn’t want to move.

Mason considered that, then said, “Well, we can’t bang here.”

“No banging,” Luke croaked, then dragged the covers over his head. Seriously, he wasn’t even horny. He didn’t know if he could get it up—whisky dick had likely settled in.

Mason sighed heavily, then said, “Well, what? Do you want to explain why we’re cuddling in the morning?”

They both froze as Dima twitched, then sighed and rolled over, muttering into his pillow.

“Not really,” Luke murmured.

“Then c’mon,” Mason said, tugging on his arm. “We can make up an excuse later.”

Luke sighed, allowed himself to be pulled into a sitting position. The world spun more, and he clutched at Mason, trying to steady himself.

“Besides,” Mason said, “you clearly need someone to look after you, and Ivan isn’t much help.”

“Dima,” Luke murmured.

“Huh?”

Luke shook his head. “Never mind,” he said, slowly clambering out of bed.

They cabbed back to Mason’s hotel, which was outside of the downtown core. Luke stared out the window of the car as they drove over one of the many bridges, trying not to puke as the scenery whizzed by. It was a tall task.

He passed out shortly after they got to Mason’s room, simply collapsing onto the bed and falling into an alcohol-induced coma. He didn’t move for the next ten hours, missed practice, and woke up to the sound of his phone shrilling in his ear, splitting his head in half.

“Oh god,” he groaned, then pulled a pillow over his head and turned over.

“Agree,” Mason mumbled from face-down in the pillow. “Shut your phone up.”

“It’s all the way over there.”

“Seriously!”

“I can’t move.”

“Ugh.”

They laid there, listening to the phone’s incessant beeping. Luke dragged a hand down his face. “I haven’t been this hungover in a long time,” he said.

“’cause yer old,” Mason drawled.

“Shut up, it’s only two years.”

“Ollllld.”

Luke sank deeper into the pillows. “I should have never gone out,” he murmured.

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“Where’s the fun in this?” Honestly, he’d never seen the point in being blackout drunk. You hurt in the morning and didn’t remember what, if any, fun you’d had the night before. It seemed pointless.

“What, you didn’t have fun last night?”

“Not really,” he muttered, staring at the ceiling. A ray of sunshine was creeping between the curtains, crawling across the ceiling, wavering back and forth as the drapes fluttered in the air conditioning’s stream of cold air.

“Not even a little bit?”

“No.”

“I knew I should have stepped in sooner.”

Luke blinked, then slowly turned to face Mason. “Huh?”

“Should’ve met you outside the bar. Or maybe in the car. Or maybe …”

Luke considered him for a moment, then said slowly, “You engineered that entire clusterfuck?”

Mason grinned at him.

Luke closed his eyes, groaning in dismay. “Oh my god, Mason, what the fuck.”

“Well, I knew you wouldn’t come out on your own, not if I invited you myself,” the alpha huffed. “And I knew you weren’t going to let me show up at the hotel.”

“So what did you do?”

“Told Volkov I was in town. That guy is a riot,” Mason explained breezily. “Always up for a party.”

“And then …”

“He invited his friends—which included your roommate buddy Ivan there—”

“Dima,” Luke corrected sharply.

“Whatever. Anyway, and then he got Watson and Becks in on it, and then Volkov ordered the cars, and then … well. You got drunk.”

“Yes,” Luke said, “drunk.”

“Really drunk.”

“I hate you, you know.”

“Oh, c’mon now,” Mason sighed. “Luke, you know I only did it because you wouldn’t have it any other way, and I just want to hang out with you, buddy …”

“I didn’t want you to come here for precisely this reason. Mayday, I need to concentrate, I need to work on hockey—you’re off for the season, you can go golfing or party or whatever, but I’m still at work.”

Mason turned over to glower at him. “Oh, I see,” he huffed, “it’s all well and fine for me to help you out when you need it, but you’re all serious and shit and I’m just screwing around.”

Luke stared at him for a minute. “Well,” he said at last, “you are.”

“You’re not any better than me, you’re not any more important, Mackinnon.”

“The fuck,” Luke snapped, “who said I thought I was better than you?!”

“Just ‘cause your stupid team made the playoffs, it doesn’t mean shit. You’re acting so serious, so important because suddenly it’s the playoffs, like hockey never matters that much—and guess what, Luke? It doesn’t matter now.”

“Oh my god,” Luke spat, “you’re jealous.”

Mason reared back. “What?” he snorted. “No, I’m not—you’re an idiot.”

“You’re jealous, you’re so fucking jealous.”

“I’m not jealous! I’ll be jealous when you win the Cup, but not before that, okay? I’m pissed because you’re acting like a self-important jerkwad ‘cause you made it to the playoffs.”

“You’re a little green, Mason.”

“You’re a little dense.”

 

“You know—”

They glared at each other for a moment or two, before Mason sighed. “Get the fuck up,” he said, swinging himself out of bed.

“No,” Luke huffed.

“Yes, we need to get out of here.”

“Why?” Luke asked, flopping back against the pillows.

“’cause check-out is noon.”

A sock hit him in the face. He groused a bit, but got up, started dressing. Mason sighed heavily, wrapped his arms around him. Luke froze, waiting, hating the vulnerable feeling that crept over him as Mason nuzzled his neck. “I’ll go,” he said softly, then pulled away.

He patted Luke on the shoulder, held his gaze. Luke didn’t know what to say to him. He pulled away.

They were silent as they finished packing up, tying shoes and grabbing jackets. They said nothing to each other as they made their way down the hall. Luke stared at the elevator, tried to decide if he felt well enough to take it or if maybe he needed to opt for the stairs.

Mason swung around the corner, down the stairs, nearly taking Luke out with his duffle. “Jeez,” Luke muttered. “No lift?”

“I can’t stomach it,” Mason said, and Luke regarded him for a moment when they got to the bottom of the stairs. He obviously felt worse than he was letting on; deep circles ringed his eyes and his expression was drawn, his skin pale. Luke didn’t feel so bad about being hungover.

They waited outside in the brisk breeze. The day was overcast; the sky threatened a storm. There was still a chill in the air, something that said winter was perhaps more than a bad memory, something more real and tangible. Even though it was mid-April, snow wasn’t yet unseasonal.

Mason clapped him on the back as a sort of goodbye when his cab rolled up, then clambered into the car and departed for the airport. Luke watched him go, wondering why in the hell he was still friends with him.

He shouldn’t have come to Pittsburgh at all, and he most definitely shouldn’t have come if he was only going to stay to cause havoc for a night.

Nonetheless, Luke breathed a sigh of relief. If Mason had stayed any longer, no doubt he would have caused more trouble—in one way or another. It was kind of his modus operandi. Wherever Mason went, shenanigans were sure to follow.

He might have relaxed too soon he thought after he got back to the hotel, noting the frowning faces and stormy expressions of his teammates. Mason apparently wasn’t the only thing he needed to worry about.

Of course Q was pissed. He should have figured as much. They lost, everyone was hungover and sloppy—it was pretty evident they’d been partying. And even with all the reprimands, all the threats, Luke had still missed practice. Even after a shitty game, he’d missed it entirely.

Q threw up his hands and said, “You’re suspended. Nothing I can do; we have rules here, Macks.”

“I know,” Luke said softly.

Q shook his head. “I warned you,” he said. “I told you. I warned you.”

“I know,” Luke repeated, keeping his head bent, his gaze down. He had been warned. And he knew better.

“Two games right now,” Q said. “You might as well fly on home. We don’t need you around if you’re just gonna cause trouble. We need to focus, we don’t need distractions.”

“What,” Luke huffed. “Distractions?”

“Telling the boys it was okay to go out, egging the rookies on … that’s not professional behavior. I thought you knew better. You’ve been around this league long enough.”

Luke shook his head. “Who said that? Who told you I said it was okay to go out? I didn’t say that, I told them we needed to focus, I said no! I tried to get them to stop, Coach, I said no, but they—”

He took a breath, then squared his shoulders. “Okay,” he said, “it’s not like it matters. I still missed skate, I fucked up.”

“Two games,” Q reiterated.

Luke gathered his shit up from the room and took a cab over to the airport. He could scarcely believe his asshole teammates had pinned it all on him—he supposed it was easy enough to blame the guy who wasn’t even there.

It didn’t matter in the end though. Whether he’d egged them on or tried to stop them, he had still ended up at the bar, still gotten drunk and missed practice. He’d still set a bad example.
He slept most of the way from Pittsburgh to DC, trying to fight down the nausea that brewed when they took off and then resurfaced when they landed on the runway in the District.

He took the train back to his place instead of a cab, figuring it was cheaper and just as quick. He strolled back to the condo from the station, breathing in fresh air, hoping it would settle his stomach.

The elevator ride undid any good the walk did him; he rested against the wall on the top floor for a moment or two before finally making his way to his door.

It was unlocked. He frowned.

Had he forgotten to lock it on his way out? No, Mason had still be there. Then … maybe Mason had forgotten to lock it before he left?

“Hey! I was thinking Chinese for dinner, how do you feel about that?”

Luke stared at Mason for a moment, then said, “Why the fuck are you in my house?!”

“What?” Mason asked, looking up from the take-out menu.

“I thought you were going home!” Luke cried, dropping his bag on the floor. “Why are you here?!”

“Who said I was going home?” Mason huffed. “I just said I was leaving Pittsburgh. I figured you’d be back in a coupla days.”

Luke rolled his eyes. “And still in the playoffs! What made you think it was just being in Pittsburgh? I don’t want you around right now, period.”

“Why not? It’s just Chinese, not a big deal—”

“This isn’t about the food, Mason! I need you out of my life, I need you away so I can concentrate on what I need to do, on me—”

“Soooo, Indian?”

“Mason!”

“What, it’s just a question!”

Luke gritted his teeth. “Can you listen to me? Like, actually listen. For five seconds. Can you appreciate that this is the biggest goddamn game of my life? I’m not you. I don’t get to go to Worlds or the Olympics or whatever when I damn well please.”

Mason bristled. “Neither do I,” he huffed. “I have to be selected. I have to play well.”

Luke sighed. “That’s not—my point is that I don’t get to go to those things, Mason. So playoffs might not seem big to you, but they are huge for me. And when you went to Worlds, when you went to the Olympics, you told me to go away. That you needed to focus. So …”

“So I can’t hang out? So you think we can’t just hang out and be friends?”

Luke stared at him for a moment. Then he said, “Mason, we haven’t been able to do that in a long time.”

The younger man’s shoulders sagged. “I know,” he said softly, dropping his head so that Luke couldn’t see his expression. He didn’t need to; Mason’s tone was enough.

Luke chewed at his lip. “I guess you can stay,” he said after a moment. Damn, how did Mason always manage to make him feel so goddamn guilty?

“Cool,” Mason said. “Now, Indian or Chinese?”

“Ughhh, really?”

“Yes, really, I’m starved and you probably could use some food too. Have you eaten today?”

“No,” Luke said slowly.

“Indian,” Mason said and dialed the number. Luke sighed. He wasn’t sure he felt like eating, really.

“Fifteen minutes,” Mason said, hanging up. He flipped on the television. “CoD?”

“I guess,” Luke murmured, plonking down on the sofa with Mason.

There had been a time, of course, when they were friends and nothing more. He wasn’t lying when he’d said that had been a long time ago—it had been nearly ten years now. They hadn’t been “just friends” since the first time Luke had gone into heat. Mason had been his first.

In some ways, he was glad that it had been Mason with him through that first time. In other ways, he’d wished he’d had an experienced alpha who knew what he was doing to guide him through it. He’d been eighteen; Mason had only been sixteen, both of them young and inexperienced and caught up in the throes of fever-induced passion.

He didn’t really regret it, because Mason had long been one of his best friends; he trusted Mason with almost everything. They’d grown up playing hockey together, and when they’d hit high school, they’d finally been in the same school. They were both drafted to the provincial league team when they turned sixteen. Luke had expected that he’d play with them until he was nineteen or twenty—he didn’t expect to be drafted high into the IHA, if he got drafted at all in the first year he was eligible. He wasn’t wrong—he didn’t get drafted into the IHA, but he did receive a scholarship to play hockey in Massachusetts, so he’d left the provincial system the year after Mason was drafted up.

But what a year it had been. They’d been closer than ever, sharing rooms on the road, sitting beside each other on the bus. Mason used Luke as a way to get into parties, to get booze; Luke used Mason as leverage with girls and some of the guys who wouldn’t give him the time of day since he was the less-talented player.

They’d spent so much time together, it was insane. They did homework together, they shot the shit together. They showed up to parties together, sometimes passed out in the other’s bed after a hard game.

Luke hadn’t really had any inkling he was omega until he dropped into heat on prom night, which was probably the worst time for someone to go into heat, so he was thankful that it was just Mason with him when it happened. He was thankful that Mason had taken him home, thankful that it had been Mason with him through the painful hours of that night.

He’d been much less thrilled that Mason had bit him in the thick of it, left an ugly mark on his neck that wouldn’t heal up no matter what he did, and they spent the summer trying to untie the knot that Mason had foolishly made between them. It had been painful and not something Luke wanted to repeat. Breaking bonds could kill a man; he’d heard rumors, but never believed them until he’d felt that pain himself.

The thing that had surprised him most had been the fact he didn’t really want the bond to be broken. It had made him panicky and scared, so he’d agreed to break the bond when Mason suggested it, but sometimes, he felt sad about it. Like he wanted it to go on. Like he wanted to be mated to Mason.

It was a thought that sometimes surfaced—what if they hadn’t broken the bond?—but it was stupid. They lived on opposite sides of the country, played for different teams. They’d rarely see each other, except in the off season.

It was better like this, really, if he thought about it.

Well, that and Mason was … hardly mate material.

“I still can’t believe you had a threesome,” Mason was saying as they slipped on their headsets. “I mean, like you. Of all people.”

“I didn’t really plan it,” Luke grumbled. “I mean, it’s not like …”

“Did I ever tell you about the time I had a threesome?”

Luke sighed heavily. “You’re going to tell me about it now, aren’t you?”

“Shit, man, but it was with these two really hot lesbian chicks—well, they said they were lesbians, but y’know, more like bi-curious or whatever, so I gave ’em a little bit of the d, and well, yeah, they were into that. I think I still have their numbers.”

“Good for you,” Luke murmured. Yeah. Not mate material. Sometimes, he couldn’t believe that he had been mated to Mason at one point. Stories like this made him glad they’d broken it off.

“—they’d totally be down for a foursome, y’know.”

Luke gave him the side-eye. “And what makes you think I have any interest in that?”

Mason grinned broadly. “Just putting it out there, y’know. Offer’s on the table.”

His phone buzzed. “Food, yes, sweet!” Luke sighed and shook his head. Sometimes, he couldn’t believe he liked that.

Mason returned with food, and they spent the evening playing video games and eating.

“So, why are you back here anyway?” Mason asked at last.

“Huh?”

“Don’t you have a game in Shitsburgh, like, tomorrow?”

Luke sighed heavily. “No,” he said. “I got suspended.”

“What? Why?”

“For breaching team rules one too many times. My asshole teammates pegged me as the ringleader of last night’s shindig, and I missed practice.”

Mason was silent.

Luke shot his character in the head. “A ‘sorry’ would be nice,” he said.

“Well,” Mason said.

Luke canceled the restart. “You know, I’m gonna go to bed.”

“Okay,” Mason said.

“You can sleep on the couch. Or in the spare room. Or on the floor.”

“Not with you?” Mason asked cautiously, earning himself a glare. “Okay, no. Fine. Couch for me.”

“Night,” Luke said, then padded down the hall. He passed out almost as soon as he hit the mattress. It had been a long night and a stressful day. He was glad to sink into oblivion so he didn’t need to think about Mason or playoffs or anything.

He woke in the morning to the scent of bacon frying. He frowned, then crept out of the room, poked his head into the kitchen.

“Hey,” Mason said from the table. He was reading the morning paper which was weird, because Luke didn’t subscribe to the paper.

“Hi,” he said cautiously, sitting down at the table across from the brunet.

“How’d you sleep?” Mason asked, folding up his paper.

“Okay, I guess.”

“Want some breakfast?”

“I … guess,” Luke replied, eyeing the stovetop warily. Mason went over to the stove and started flipping pancakes, turned the bacon.

They were silent as Mason plated up food, then set it in front of Luke. “Dig in,” he said, then disappeared down the hall.

Luke stared at the pancakes for a moment, trying to decide if Mason was trying to apologize or trying to kill him. Either was likely.

Hesitantly, he nibbled on the bacon. He waited, then got up to see what Mason was doing.
He peered into the living room, but the brunet wasn’t there. He headed down the hall, but both the door to the spare bedroom and the bathroom were open. He frowned, then stepped into the master bedroom.

“Mayday, what are you—”

He stopped and stared at Mason, who ran his hands across the bedspread a couple of times, smoothing out any wrinkles. Then he picked up another blanket, shaking it out. “What?” he asked.

“Why are you putting those blankets on my bed?” Luke asked flatly.

Mason looked down at the blanket in hand. “Doesn’t it go there?” he asked.

“No,” Luke said. “Where did you even get it?”

“I dunno,” Mason tittered, clapping a hand to the back of his neck, rubbing anxiously. “I guess … I just want you to be comfortable? I dunno, it’s weird.”

Luke pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’re fucking nesting. In my house. Stop it.”

Mason turned beet red. “I am not!” he spluttered, whirling on Luke. The blanket landed in a heap on the floor.

“Yes, you are,” Luke insisted.

“Why would I do that?! I wouldn’t want to make a nest for you, not in a million years, you goddamn jerk!”

“Then why are you making me breakfast and putting extra blankets on my bed and saying you want me to be comfortable?!”

“I have no idea, but it’s not because I’m nesting! God.”

They stared at each other for a moment or two, each daring the other to say something more on the subject. “Nesting” was a pretty colloquial term for the behavior of an alpha that was looking to woo an omega into mating—so-called because it was a bit like a male bird building the female a nest. Lots of behaviors fell under nesting, but it usually meant the alpha was treating the omega exceptionally well—presents or home updates or paying off loans or anything like that, really, which showcased the alpha’s ability to “take care” of the omega was considered nesting behavior.

Alphas were usually aware that they were engaged in the practice, but not always. Sometimes it was a subconscious desire to mate an omega, not a conscious decision on the part of the alpha. Mason seemed to be pretty firmly in the latter camp.

And of course he would deny it when called on it. That about figured.

“I’m not nesting,” the brunet repeated.

“Good,” Luke sneered, “you’re like, the last person I’d ever want to be mated to.”

Mason looked stung; his eyes got wide, and then he snarled, “Uppity omega, what’s wrong with me? You should be flattered if a guy like me ever considers mating you.”

Luke rolled his eyes. “Been there, done that,” he retorted, letting his head loll to the side, emphasizing the scarring on his neck.

Mason shrugged. “We all make mistakes,” he said smoothly, baring his teeth again.

Luke had never been particularly good at knowing when he, as an omega, needed to stand down. It came from years of training himself to act like a beta, being forced to hide what he really was every night on the ice. With Mason, he almost forgot that Mason was an alpha and he was an omega sometimes; their friendship always obscured the roles for him. For a long time, Luke had been older, wiser, more powerful, and it was hard to shake habits like that. So, he thought, he really had to be forgiven for missing Mason’s signal to stand down, to roll over and show his belly.

“I guess,” he huffed, “biggest mistake of my life is standing right in front of me.”

Mason’s teeth were blindingly white, especially against his flushed skin. His eyes were wide. His nostrils flared. He was very clearly incensed. “Mistake?” Mason snarled. “Mistake? Asshole, I’m probably the best goddamn thing that ever happened to your sorry ass—who took you to parties, who got you in with the cool kids? Who got you hooked up with the agent that got you signed? Do you really think I’m that big of a mistake, Luke Mackinnon? Would you really have rather somebody else at prom taken you in the field, known about you being an omega? Or maybe went home by yourself, got raped in an alley by a stranger?”

He glowered at Luke. “I mean, if you wanna talk about mistakes …”

Luke was silent. What could he say? Mason was right, in some ways—things could have turned out much, much worse for him that night. And Mason was the one who had put him in touch with Gary, who had eventually got him signed with the Stars—first in the NACHL, then with the big team proper. Mason worked with Barry, who had recommended Gary to Luke—Mason wasn’t directly responsible for Luke’s career, but he’d had a hand in it.

That didn’t mean that Luke didn’t regret some of the things they’d done, the choices they’d made. Like being bonded, and then breaking the bond. It didn’t mean he didn’t sometimes wish he’d never slept with Mason, never been friends with him.

Then again, there were a lot of things Luke wished had never happened to him.

He bowed his head as Mason passed him. Their shoulders brushed as the younger man stepped into the hall. Luke kept his gaze pinned steadily on the floor. The argument was over; Luke had been subdued. Mason had won.


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