Chapter 9: Sidelined [Slapshot!]
Luke hated needing to watch the second match on television. Of course, he couldn’t stand not watching it either, but he cringed every time a Rocket got hold of the puck or near the net, hid his face in the arm of the couch every time the Stars lost a face-off. He tore at his hair when Sebby made a bonehead move, leading to a penalty, leading to a goal with just seconds left in the first. Now they were one down and starting the second on a penalty kill. That was scarcely an ideal way to win the game. And they needed the win badly—the sportscasters were loudly proclaiming that the Stars were 1–5 when they got into a two-game hole during playoffs throughout their franchise history. Which, granted, wasn’t a very long or illustrious history, and stats didn’t mean much—none of the players from those teams were with the Stars now, almost all of them retired—but it was something to tell people and the more they said it, the more it sounded like fact. If the Stars went down two, they would lose the series.
“If you don’t like it, don’t watch it,” Mason advised flatly, reaching for more popcorn. He didn’t make eye contact with Luke.
Luke couldn’t decide what was worse, watching his idiot team on TV or sitting next to Mason, who was still pissed at him from the day before. He supposed the ultimate worst thing was that he was sitting next to Mason, who was pissed, at home instead of helping his team in their playoff quest because of Mason.
Sometimes, he wondered what he’d done in a previous life to piss the hockey gods off so much.
Instead, he tried to ignore Mason, tried to focus on how he was going to watch the Rockets’ plays, their moves, memorize them, and then use that to his advantage when he got back on the ice. Just because he wasn’t on the ice didn’t mean he stopped being a competitor. Just because he wasn’t at the rink didn’t mean he was off the job.
Of course, it was hard to get any useful information out of insipid car commercials narrated by a guy whose balls were dragging on the floor. Luke never wanted to own another pick-up truck in his life. He knew a lot—a lot—of guys who did and they just weren’t the type of people he wanted to hang around with now. It had been a pretty rude awakening when he’d returned after his year at college to find most of his high school friends were now factory workers or office assistants or something like that. Some were working low-paying part-time jobs. Some were studying up to become plumbers or electricians or carpenters. A few were taking over the family farm. Even fewer had moved away to go to school—those who had left were almost universally reviled, their names sneered in conversation. They were traitors, outsiders. They had left the community and they were now suspicious, not to be trusted. They weren’t welcome back.
Of course, nobody said anything to their faces—Luke could only imagine what was said behind his back. They called him “college boy” with insincere smiles on their faces, and he could almost hear derision in their tone. Much as most of them would have given anything to be in his shoes—playing hockey in a place far away, studying on a scholarship—they hated him because they weren’t him. And by being different, by not being like them, he had betrayed them.
Even Mason had smiled insincerely, had called him “college boy” in that snide tone, laughter evident in his voice. Mason had never gone to college—he’d never needed to. When Luke went to college, Mason still had two years left of high school. When Mason graduated, he’d been drafted into the IHA. Luke had been drafted into the league a year after that, despite being two years Mason’s senior.
Mason had no idea what it was like to go to college, and he simply replicated the attitudes he saw around him. And he’d been surrounded by farm boys and manual laborers—good, hard-working, honest men and women. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t corporate fat cats, Wall Street wolves who devoured honest people alive. People who went to school were more likely to be wolves in sheep’s clothing, ready to take advantage of others.
It wasn’t that any of them were bad people; Luke had been friends with many of them, and he tried to stay in touch, even though relations were often strained now. It was the attitudes they espoused—particularly around masculinity and the importance of sexual status. They talked mostly of women and slutty omegas, of going to the bar and making conquests. It was accepted that being an omega was unmanly, that male omegas were practically women, that they had no rights because they were women in men’s bodies. They weren’t “real” men, nor were they women, so they became a kind of undefinable third thing—something that could be used and abused precisely because it didn’t have a name.
It scared Luke a bit. Then again, everything had scared Luke in those days. His first summer at home, he’d scarcely left the house, much preferring to be safe inside, away from prying eyes. He only visited with friends and teammates in the kitchen, with one of his parents nearby. He only went to one party and left early because he’d been choking on his heart. He’d been so sure he was going to have a heart attack if he spent one more minute on that crowded patio.
The second period started. He slid down the sofa a little further, grimacing. Sebby was back in the box; the Rockets were starting with the man-advantage.
“Seriously,” Mason groused, tossing a handful of popcorn at him.
“If all you’re gonna do is make dumb faces at the TV, I’m gonna turn it off.”
“It’s my house, I’ll choose what I wanna watch.”
“Not if it’s gonna make you all jumpy and shit.”
“Don’t touch the remote—Mason, you dick, I was watching that. I need to support the team!”
“You need to calm down,” Mason retorted, setting the remote down on the coffee table. “You think you’re doing anyone any favors like that?”
“Like you’d be cool and collected,” Luke huffed.
Mason gave him a shove. “Lookit,” he said, “you’re all trembly.”
“Trembly isn’t a word, Jarhead.”
“Don’t try to distract me. The point is that you’re all worked up—over nothing.”
“A playoff game is not nothing.”
The brunet held his hands askance. “What can you do, Luke? You’re here, in DC, not on the ice in Pittsburgh. Literally nothing you do will have any bearing on the outcome of the game—so why are you letting yourself get so nervous?”
“Because!” Luke spat. “Why do you think?!”
Mason shook his head. “Just … relax.”
“Which is why I shut the tube off.”
“That’s not going to make me relax any sooner.”
The brunet raked a hand through his hair, giving a long-suffering sigh. “What will get you to relax then?”
Luke regarded him silently. Mason pressed his lips together until they were a thin, white line. He bobbed his head, as though nodding to some inaudible beat.
“Okay then,” he said after a moment, sucking at his teeth. He glanced at Luke. “I have an idea.”
“You can take something,” Mason said solemnly.
Luke stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. It was somewhat shocking that Mason’s solution wasn’t sex. It was perhaps even more shocking that he’d suggested that Luke should actually take something to calm his nerves.
Of course, Mason didn’t know the extent of Luke’s … issue. He hadn’t been around much, hadn’t been in DC, and they had definitely kept it quiet that Luke had been in rehab in upstate New York for part of last summer. Luke would have been more worried if Mason did know about it, in fact. It wasn’t something he’d broadcasted to a lot of people.
“I mean,” Mason said, his tone edging on defensive. Luke blinked, sitting up straighter, shaking his head. He must have been giving the alpha a look like he’d grown a second head.
“No,” he said, “no, it’s fine, it’s just … that’s not what I thought you were going to say.”
Mason frowned at him. “Not everything has to be about sex all the time.”
“Anyway,” Mason continued, “I just thought maybe, y’know, you wouldn’t be so twitchy then. Maybe you could calm down and watch the stupid game like a normal human being.”
Luke wanted to point out that neither of them were exactly normal human beings, but decided it was better to be silent on that subject. Instead, he said, “So, what were you thinking?”
“Oh, not much, just like maybe a T-1 or something like that, or a muscle relaxer or … well, something stronger, if you’ve got it, if that’s what it’ll take.”
“I have T-2s,” Luke admitted. It was stronger than anything Coach would have liked him to have on hand—but he had them all the same. Anything less just didn’t effectively kill pain for him anymore.
“Cool,” Mason said. “Go take one, then come back here and chill.” He turned the game back on.
Luke considered him for a moment, said, “Is that like, Netflix and chill? Hockey and chill?”
“No,” Mason said as he sank back onto the couch, “it is literally chill. I don’t want to do anything.”
Luke watched him for a moment more. “Are you high?” he asked.
Mason grinned dopily. “Maybe,” he drawled, sinking further into the plush couch.
Luke sighed. “Seriously?”
“Why wouldn’t you just ask me to get high with you?”
“’cause I smoked, dipshit, and you’re gonna be back to work in like … three days or something. So you can have some painkillers instead.”
Luke shook his head. Sometimes, it was easier not to follow Mason’s logic. He headed down the hall, to the bathroom. He opened the cupboard—it was where he kept all of his meds, all of his salves and creams and whatever else might be necessary for his health.
He pulled the little orange bottle out of the cupboard, turning it about in his hand, reading his name and the directions stamped on the label, the bold black ink jumping out at him.
He wondered, could he really do this? He wondered if it was okay, if he could handle it. Could he take just one, could he do this once and then leave it alone, shove the pill bottle to the back of the shelf to be forgotten? Or was he opening a proverbial Pandora’s box, unleashing a horde of miseries upon himself?
He’d been down this road once before, and some of the things he had seen had shaken him. He wasn’t sure if he was ready to come to terms with those haunting images, never mind face them again. It might have been cowardly, but he was willing to be called a coward if it meant he never had to look those haunts in the eye again.
He was shaking; the pills rattled in the bottle. He took a deep breath, popped the lid off the bottle. It was only one pill, just one little, itty bitty pill …
But one pill was just the start, he knew. He didn’t know if he’d be able to stop once he started. It was a risk. He might be strong enough now, maybe, but he was unsure …
He stared at the pill, held it between his forefinger and index. Then he tossed it into his mouth, clapped his hand on his jaw, forced himself to swallow it.
He’d never know if he was stronger now if he never tried, if he never tempted fate. He had to take some risks.
He put the bottle away and headed back to the living room. He slumped on the sofa beside Mason, still trembling. Mason barely even looked at him, then turned back to the game. “Give it time,” he said.
Luke knew he was right. In a few minutes, his heart rate would slow; his breathing would become more even. He wouldn’t need to try; the drug in his system would force him to relax. Even if it was just one pill, it would have an effect.
He stared at the television, unfocused and glassy-eyed, waiting for the oh-so-subtle drug effects to slosh their way into his system.
He sank deeper into the sofa, finally allowing himself to focus on the television. He watched his teammates skate back and forth across the screen. For a disinterested moment or two, the game was a blur of color, whirling and swirling as players from both sides danced around each other.
He glanced up at the scoreboard, then lowered his gaze again. They were trailing, two to one now. He stared at the coffee table. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to watch any more.
He didn’t say anything when Mason leaned against him, wrapped an arm around him. He exhaled softly instead, letting his eyes slip shut. Mason was warm and solid, something real and tangible as he started to float away from the world. He curled his hand against Mason’s side, trying to focus on the softness of his sweater, smooth, velvety fibers against the pads of his fingers. He was too light, simultaneously sinking deeper into the sofa and lifting up off the ground, drifting away into the doldrums of his high.
He barely cracked open his eyes when Mason started buzzing.
The alpha sat up sharply, grabbing at his phone. Luke stared at him blearily.
“Shit, man, I gotta take this,” Mason said, getting to his feet and striding into the hall. “Linnea is gonna be so pissed—”
“Who the hell is Linnea?” Luke shouted after him, then pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth, trying to dislodge cottony dryness from his tongue. He listened to the door bang shut.
He slouched back into the sofa, turning back to the television. He tried to follow the game, but the images made no sense, big smears of color across the screen. He looked to the ceiling, then the window, and then back to the television again.
He stretched out across the sofa, laying his head down on the arm, closing his eyes again. He kept nodding off, catching a flash of bright uniforms before slipping back into darkness.
The game was over when he woke up again, Mason shaking him. He drowsed, struggling to surface from the shallows of sleep. He could see stress on Mason’s face, the way his eyebrows pinched together, the way the corners of his mouth were turned down, but it didn’t make sense. What was there to be upset about? There was nothing wrong in the world, everything was warm and soft, hazy and blurring at the edges, and Luke wanted to stay right there, right there where no one had ever hurt him, where he was safe and sound, awash in some great calm, knowing he was nothing and it didn’t matter, nothing did in the end—and somehow that was comforting.
“Quit babbling,” Mason snapped, giving him a shove, and sharp pain shot up the back of his shoulder, shattering his illusory world, bringing him back to the harsh realities.
“Owww,” he groaned, clutching at his shoulder. “The hell?”
Mason was definitely tense; every muscle in his face was taut. He looked so serious. Luke wanted to laugh. “I said, Linnea is here and she is on her way here, and we need to act cool about this, like, we’re just friends, y’know, and—”
Luke shook his head. “Who is Linnea?” he asked again, gritting his teeth. The name caromed about his head, ricocheting off his skull. He still felt light-headed and now, a bit sick.
“Linnea Sjogren,” Mason said.
Luke shook his head again, signaling to Mason he had no idea. The brunet sighed loudly. “The model,” he said. “Y’know, works for Vanessa’s Secret.”
Luke considered him for a moment, then said slowly, “Did you seriously invite some two-bit underwear model to my house so you could bang her.”
“No!” Mason gasped. “Not me, I would never do such a thing—”
“You prick. You unrepentant, selfish prick—”
The buzzer rang. Mason grinned at him. “Just pretend we’re like … friends. Roommates. Buddies.”
He gave Luke a punch in the arm, then darted off.
A moment later, he returned with Linnea. She was a tall blonde beauty, with stunning blue eyes—eerily similar to his own, Luke thought. Mason’s eyes were more of an electric blue, whereas Luke knew his own to be more crystalline—the same as Linnea’s.
“Hello,” she said, smiling shyly.
“Hi,” Luke said curtly, wondering if there was any way he could kick her out of his home without Mason going with her. He sincerely doubted it.
She must have felt uncomfortable, because she shifted a bit, then looked at Mason. “Hm, snygging?” she asked, tugging on his arm.
“Hm? Oh, yeah, in a minute,” the alpha said. “Macks, you cool?”
Luke gave him a long-suffering look, knowing full well that there wasn’t much he could do to stop Mason. There wasn’t much one could do once the alpha got an idea in his head.
He broke eye contact and turned off the television. “Sure,” he said, “I was gonna get some shut-eye anyway. I was falling asleep out here.”
Mason was very plainly annoyed with him, but Luke didn’t give a shit. If Mason wanted to be an asshole, Luke would play the game too. “Keep it down, yeah?” he said as he stepped into the hall, his lip curling up in a sneer.
Mason’s jaw tightened, but he managed to keep from saying anything. Luke was mildly impressed.
“Night!” he called, then closed himself in the master bedroom, locked the door. He fished earplugs out of his travel bag, rolling his eyes at himself. Seriously, he wished he had more of a backbone sometimes. This was his house; there was no reason he needed to put up with Mason banging some stupid bimbo model. Even if it was difficult to argue with Mason, even if he was kinda obstinate, Luke still had every right to put up a fuss, to tell Mason to bugger off and find a hotel room somewhere.
Luke stuffed the plugs in his ears and collapsed onto the bed. He stared up at the ceiling for a moment, then decided he had a better idea.
He went into the closet, pushing his way to the back of the space. He fished around a bit, and sure enough, right where he’d left it—
He plucked up the bottle and sauntered back out of the closet, popping the cap off the bottle and dumping a couple of pills into his hand. He wouldn’t hear anything Mason did. And best of all, he wouldn’t feel anything about it—not rage or jealousy or self-pity, like why wasn’t he enough, why was it okay for Mason to go and sleep with other people, but not Luke?
He considered, then added another pill to the mix. He had no idea how long Mason would be at it, how long this … whatever her name was, would be in his house. He wanted to be out. He didn’t want to wake up until she was gone, until it was over.
If he really thought about it, he didn’t much feel like waking up at all, but that was a dark thought that he shoved down as quickly as it surfaced. He tossed the pills back and crawled into bed.
Thoughts like that didn’t like to stay down, of course; they kept clawing their way to the surface, over and over again, struggling to make their presence known, felt.
Luke was no stranger to feeling that black. He’d thought about dying a lot, probably way more than your average eighteen-year-old. But he didn’t think he could really be blamed for it; it was something that happened to omegas when they were abandoned, neglected, cast out.
He still felt violated, vulnerable. Normally, a mated omega was supposed to rely on their alpha to alleviate those feelings—to feel safe again. But he’d been abandoned by whoever had bit him, left to deal with it on his own. He’d been angry and hurt and scared and confused, and then he’d had to break a bond on top of it, from an unresponsive alpha. An alpha who didn’t care about him, didn’t care if he lived or died.
Breaking bonds was painful, excruciating. Some bonded people died, especially if their significant other had passed away suddenly. More often than not, a severed bond broke people.
Luke had managed to get through it, but it hadn’t been easy. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be whole again; he still felt like there were pieces of him missing, and he still struggled to find himself worth anything at all.
Luke had managed to get through it, but it hadn’t been easy. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be whole again; he still felt like there were pieces of him missing, and he still struggled to find himself worth anything at all.
After all, he’d been thrown away. His alpha didn’t want him. He was nothing to the one person who was supposed to take care of him, care about him when he couldn’t care about himself. An omega’s self-worth was built on pleasing an alpha and—
Luke couldn’t please his alpha. He was so disgusting, so infuriating that his alpha had just thrown him away. Couldn’t be bothered to get mad at him, couldn’t be bothered to hit him or hurt him physically, or even yell at him. Just left him. Forgot about him. He was beyond help—no amount of training or correction would make him pleasing to his alpha.
The need to please was hard enough to fight against on a day-to-day basis with his teammates, his co-workers, and even friends who held higher status. The urge was almost impossible to ignore when it existed in a pair-bond; mated omegas were supposed to take direction from their alphas on just about every facet of their life. And, for the most part, they were happy to do so. They liked to do what was pleasing to the alpha. By turn, what was pleasing to the alpha should have been with the omega’s best interests in mind, so that the alpha was making decisions that benefited the omega, and the omega was in turn pleased to carry them out because they pleased the alpha.
Of course, that was rife for abuse—alphas often made decisions that jeopardized their omegas’ health and safety, their well-being. Sometimes, omegas’ well-being was a secondary consideration; only after the alpha’s needs were satisfied would the omega even be considered.
Omegas often didn’t recognize abuse when it happened, though, because they were supposed to trust their alphas to make the best decisions for them. Even when an omega did realize something wasn’t right, they had a hard time admitting it and an even harder time doing anything about it. Anything that went against the alpha’s wishes was seen to be bad—even when the omega knew it was necessary or better for them.
That was why he couldn’t say no to Mason. Even when he knew it was his right, even when he knew it wasn’t in his best interests, it was so much easier to just capitulate to Mason, because it made the alpha happy. And that was all Luke wanted, really.
The big problem was that Mason didn’t seem to reciprocate. He was too self-centered for it, thinking only of himself. Mason was, for all intents and purposes, an unscrupulous alpha. He didn’t hold up his end of the bargain in taking care of omegas.
It wasn’t really a surprise or anything; Luke had known that was what Mason was like long before either of them knew if they were omega or alpha or whatever else. Mason had always been out for Number One.
He knew he shouldn’t have capitulated, especially not in this case, but he was damn desperate to please. He had the absent alpha to thank for that; since he couldn’t please that alpha, he overcompensated and tried to please others in order to feel like less of a failure.
It never worked, but he did it anyway. It was an insidious feeling, not being good enough, and it crept up at the worst times, left him second-guessing himself, on a date, with his friends, on the ice. Was his date just being nice? Did his friends even really like him? Could he even make that shot?
It was a struggle to put those thoughts away, and they were never truly gone. They always came back to the fore—like right now, as he wondered why, why, why Mason felt the need to fuck someone else, why he thought he had to get someone else when Luke was right there …
The answer was simple, of course—Luke wasn’t enough to make Mason happy. He wasn’t pleasing enough. He was probably revolting to Mason, really, a stupid, useless omega who couldn’t please anyone. His own mate had abandoned him. Who wanted an omega like that?
He didn’t even know who had mated him, and he still wished he could have been more pleasing. Still felt like he wasn’t good enough. He was a failure, he was a fuck-up, and that was why he was left. He deserved it, deserved to be treated like garbage. He deserved to be used and abused, tossed out when he was used up.
He deserved to be broken and lonely.
He’d spent eight months in counseling trying to overcome those thought patterns, telling his therapist about how he thought that, if his alpha didn’t want him, then maybe he should die. Clearly, he was dead to his alpha. His alpha thought he was worthless. And maybe he was. Maybe he should die, because that would please his alpha. His life was worthless, and he’d do anything to please the alpha.
And there were never any directions, which made it difficult to do things like get up or go to sleep, to eat or bathe. The therapist had told him they saw that a lot in omegas—their thought patterns spiraled when they were neglected by an alpha. They’d start by thinking something simple, like that their alpha just didn’t like talking to them, that not talking to them made the alpha happy. And it went from there—eventually, the omega stopped participating in the basics of everyday life, in self-care, because they thought their alpha wanted them to do that. If their alpha had wanted them to eat or sleep or bathe, they would have sent instructions. They would have told the omega to do that. Since there was no instruction, the alpha didn’t want it done.
It was an easy trap to fall into, Luke knew; he hadn’t been able to do anything for about six weeks, which was how he ended up in the hospital, which was how they got him into any kind of therapy. He’d just shut down entirely, wondering why his alpha didn’t want him, why he wouldn’t send him something, anything. He needed to be told what to do, and since he wasn’t being told to do anything, he did nothing.
He knew it was stupid to wait for instructions from a guy who had …
He knew it was stupid to want anything from a guy who could do that …
But instinct was strong, and he waited, wanted, needed directions that never came. His alpha hated him, so he hated himself. His alpha hated him for being so weak, for spreading his legs, for being so used up, just like the cops and the nursing staff had hated him for being a slut, for coercing and forcing alphas to do his bidding …
Of course his alpha hated him. Of course his alpha found him repulsive. Who wouldn’t? Nobody wanted anything to do with an omega who would spread his legs so easily, who would be so careless as go into heat in the middle of a locker room with a hockey team around him after a game.
He’d quit therapy after eight months because it wasn’t helping. The doctor told him there was nothing more they could do.
Most of the time, he managed. But it was always difficult. And managing around Mason was even more difficult.
Because he actually cared what Mason thought, he actually wanted to please him, wanted to be …
It was too painful to think about what he wanted. He’d never get it anyway. Mason’s romp in the next room over was proving that to him with every moan and gasp, every punctuated thrust.
Luke dragged a pillow over his head. Damn, they were loud; there was still a lot of thumping and gasping and groaning filtering through the earplugs. He just hoped that the drugs kicked in soon—that he didn’t need to take more than he already had.
He just wanted to block it out, to forget, for a moment or two, that Mason, that the rest of the world even existed. To feel that hazy sort of peace, the only time he really got any relief from the dark feelings twisted up through him. Hockey had helped once; the physicality of it had let him focus on his body, on physical pain, rather than the turmoil that threatened him constantly. But more and more, it didn’t help as much as it used to.
The same thing had happened with the drugs—they had been so effective at first. Then, little by little, they hadn’t worked quite the same, and he’d had to take more and more to get to that same high, to reach that place where nothing hurt any longer and he transcended the mortal plane where stupid things like hurt and pain and omega identity existed.
He gritted his teeth. He’d been hoping that his tolerance was down, that he wouldn’t need to take any more. But he could still hear Mason and the model, and instead of feeling drowsier, he felt more and more awake.
His phone buzzed right off the nightstand, clattering to the floor, making him jump. He stared at it stupidly for a moment or two, then slowly picked it up. It flashed red at him, so he swiped.
His heart sank. His mouth went dry.
And then an idea, an evil little idea, rooted in his mind, and it wouldn’t let go. It grew as he read the message over and over again, whispering that he ought to take action.
If he couldn’t make Mason happy, well, he sure as hell could make him jealous.