Volume 2 of the Something in the Water series arrives Tuesday, January 30!

Chapter 11: Crutches [Slapshot!]

Chapter 11: Crutches [Slapshot!]

Mike stopped up short by the boards and frowned down at the brunet seated on the bench. “Really?” he asked, leaning forward.


Two bright green eyes met his gaze, daring him to say more.

“Don’t you have anything better to do, Sy?”

The captain glowered at him, said, “I had to come in here to see the doctor anyway.” Then he turned his attention back to the ice.

Mike looked out at his teammates, some of them skating circles around, others taking part in vigorous scrums. He leaned on the boards, drawling, “You really don’t have anything better to do, huh?”

Mike had been friends with Sy for what felt like forever. They’d known each other as kids. Mike had moved before they hit middle school, though, and they’d ended up playing in different bantam leagues, then different OJL teams, before Sy had gone to a private school in the States to play for an elite team. Sy had been drafted first pick, first round by the Stars when they’d turned eighteen. Mike had been drafted in the fourth round—he didn’t even remember what his number was now, though he knew there was some sports pundit, some database administrator, some stats geek, who knew—by Minnesota. He’d never cracked the big team’s line-up; he’d spent two seasons with their farm team in Nashville. Then they traded him to the Stars, and the Stars brought him up right away, let him play big minutes on the big team.

Mike wasn’t the kind of guy to be bitter, but yeah, he hated Minnesota. They’d never even given him a chance.

Sy had never played in the minors, so he had no sympathy for Mike. He had no idea what it was like.

Of course, that was because Sy was a weirdo who spent all of his free time thinking about hockey. He practiced even when they weren’t scheduled to practice. He didn’t believe in off days. And he trained through the summer the way some of them trained during the season.

Sy didn’t make much time for anything else, really. Which was probably why he was sitting on the bench, broken foot and all, watching his teammates practice. He literally had nothing else to do, could think of nothing else he even wanted to do.

Mike tapped him on the foot. “Shouldn’t you be at home, resting that?”

Sy glared at him again. “Don’t touch,” he said.

“Oh, why, does it hurt?” Mike grinned lazily. “Then maybe you shouldn’t be out where things could happen?” He tapped his friend’s cast foot again.

Sy rolled his eyes. “I have every right to be here,” he said. “In fact, I should be here—it’s important for me to be here. As the team captain—”

Mike’s turn to roll his eyes. “Everyone depends on you, looks to you for leadership and support, you have to be here to show everyone you support us, blah blah blah. Jeez, Sy, you’re so predictable.”

“Well,” the brunet said.

They were silent for a moment, watching the others skate around.

“Where’s Macks?” Sy asked after a moment.

“Mm? Oh. Got suspended.”

Sy frowned. “Suspended? For what, that pathetic fight against Corbin?”

Mike tried not to laugh, but it was pretty bad when Symon Tremblay of all people called your fight pathetic. Sy wasn’t a fighter by any stretch of the imagination, although he’d been known to throw down on more than one occasion. He usually left that to the goons; if anyone was harassing him, his usual answer was to put another goal in the net.

“Nah, team suspension,” Mike said. He considered for a moment, then added, “Back on the oxy, according to Q.”

“Ah, shit, really?” Sy pinched the bridge of his nose. “Y’think it’s cause of the pressure?”

“What pressure?” Mike asked, quirking a brow.

“You know, I’m out, Q moved him up to the top line—”

Mike rolled his eyes. “You have no idea how vain you sound some times.”

“What?”

“Look, we’re all well aware Macks is not you. Macks is very aware of that. So what pressure, Sy? Nobody’s expecting him to suddenly explode and make you look like a rookie third-liner. Macks is solid, but he’s no fifty-goal scorer.”

“I know,” Sy huffed. “Just … you know how he gets.”

Mike shrugged.

“Robinson! What the hell are you doing over there, slacking off?! This isn’t a social tea! Get back to work!”

“Gotta go,” Mike muttered to Sy, then skated away from the bench, grinning at Q as he passed by.

Sy shook his head and glanced at Q. Given his coach’s face, now wasn’t the time to ask about Macks—the mustachioed man was red from his collar to the tips of his ears, his brow dark and stormy. Sy would be wise to keep quiet. Really, Q could turn on him at any minute—he’d clearly been “distracting” Mike, and what good was he anyway, other than a distraction for his teammates? He couldn’t do much of anything, not with his ankle broken, two pins stuck through it, holding it in place. It was a bit of a task for him to even get around.

He slumped forward and watched his teammates, silently critiquing their work. Ty needed to put more power in his wristshot. Mike wasn’t checking as hard as he should. Leo wasn’t skating as fast as he could. Nicky’s passing was sloppy. Jake was fumbling with the puck, trying too damn hard to stay on top of it.

Sy knew he wasn’t perfect—nobody could be, and he had lots of stuff he could work on. He never denied it. In fact, he was happy to have coaches and teammates call him on sloppy play and bad passes, for being out of position or taking too many risks. He wanted them to do that.

He wanted them to critique. He’d never get better otherwise—and he was always striving, always wanting more. Even if perfect wasn’t possible, he wanted to get as close as he could.

And it wasn’t that he didn’t like his teammates, wanted to cut them down or anything like that. He just wanted them to be better. He wanted them to play at their absolute best, be the very best players they could be. He knew they could, and he wanted them to.

And he saw it, he saw all the little things that they maybe missed or brushed off or didn’t know how to fix. He knew he’d been there too, and he’d done all those stupid things at one time or another, and he had to realize he was doing it before he could fix it. And then, sometimes, he didn’t know how to fix it until someone else told him. So he tried to do the same. He wasn’t being mean. He wasn’t trying to cut anyone down. He just wanted them all to be better.

And they needed to be better. They needed to win this game against the Rockets. They were in an 0–2 hole; they needed a win. If they went 0–3, then every game was a do-or-die situation, and he knew the team didn’t handle that kind of pressure well.

He wished he could be on the ice with them. He needed to be out there, leading them, guiding them. That was his job, after all. He was the captain.

He scanned the ice, a frown tugging at his lips. He waved over the next guy skating by the bench—Nicky.

“Ja?” Nicky asked, quirking an eyebrow, as if to ask him if he didn’t have anything better to do.
Sy wondered why his teammates were so judgmental. “Where’s Matt?”

Nicky paused, then looked out at the ice. “I … don’t know,” he said slowly. He waved Danny over.

“Hm? Oh, hey, Sy. What are you doing here?”

“What do you think I’m doing here?”

Nicky waved a hand. “Where is Matt?” he asked.

“Oh,” Danny replied breezily, “Hamish came and got him a coupla minutes ago, some medical thing or another.”

Sy snapped to attention. “Is he okay?” he asked.

Danny shrugged. “I guess?” he said. “Like, I dunno, he seems fine to me.”

“It’s probably nothing,” Nicky said, reaching over and ruffling Sy’s hair. “You think too much.”

“Shouldn’t you worry about yourself?” Danny asked, glancing toward Sy’s plastered foot.

“Temblay!”

Q’s voice echoed, and they all winced. “What the hell are you even doing here?!” he roared. “If you’re just going to chit-chat, get out! We’ve got work to do, not all of us can break our foot!”

“Harsh, Coach,” Sebby said as he skated by.

“Not like any of us want a broken foot,” Brenden murmured.

“Quit jawin’ and get back to work! Do you wanna beat the Rockets, or are all of you ready to play golf?!”

There was some grumbling, but soon enough, the rink was filled with the sounds of sticks and blades, pucks being rifled off the endboards. Sy decided to take that as his cue to exit; he headed down the tunnel, limping along as quickly as his crutches would let him. It was probably a good idea for him to go, to be honest; he didn’t want to get caught up in any media scrums or be in the way for any of the guys.

Of course, there was another reason he wanted to head out early—not that he’d ever admit it to anyone as motivation. No, if anyone ever asked, Symon Tremblay was never motivated by the off-chance that he might happen to bump into Aleksandr Volkov in the bowels of the arena.

But that was precisely what happened. Aleks was early or late or something—who knew with him—but he was definitely hurrying along, toward the visitors’ locker room when Sy happened across him.

Well, more like Aleks happened across him—straight across him, bowling him over. They went down in a heap, crutches and at least one hockey stick clattering across the floor, all tangled up in each other.

Aleks sat up, blinking in confusion. “Syoma?” he asked, as though he’d been dumbstruck.

“Owwwww,” Sy groaned as Aleks all but sat on his leg.

Aleks glanced back, then slowly, gingerly, disentangled them. “You are broken,” the Russian said, looking to Sy for confirmation.

“Uh, duh?”

“I did not do this.”

Sy heaved a sigh and shook his head. “No, Aleks,” he drawled, “I’ve been broken for a bit, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Aleks grinned wolfishly. “Oh,” he said, “you did not play? Did not even notice—don’t miss you much.”

Sy pursed his lips, then decided trying to get back to his feet was a better plan than saying anything. He glowered at Aleks. “Asshole,” he grunted, noting that the Russian was picking up his hockey stick and ignoring Sy’s crutches.

“Hm?”

“Could you at least pass me one of the crutches? I kinda need them.”

Aleks considered for a moment, then relented. He passed over one of the crutches, glancing at his watch as he did so. He pulled a face. “I am late,” he said.

He didn’t move to leave, though. Instead, he stood there, watching as Sy propped himself up on his crutches again.

“What?”

Aleks hesitated; the flinch was unmistakable. “Nothing,” the Russian muttered after a moment, his gaze darting away, flitting anywhere and everywhere but Sy. “Just wonder … why they let broken player come here.”

“I’m still part of my team,” Sy huffed.

Aleks’s mouth twisted, like he disagreed, like he thought that was funny. He looked at his shoes, then his watch again. “I am very late,” he said.

“Then go,” Sy spat. “God, you’re holding me up. I’d be home already, if you hadn’t bowled me over like that—”

They fell silent, each watching the other warily.

“Well,” Sy said.

Aleks shuffled his feet.

Sy pushed forward, hating the way the crutches clicked. “I have shit to do,” he sneered as he made his way by Aleks.

“Hm,” Aleks said, then turned away. Sy kept swinging forward, heading for the exit. He could scarcely hear Aleks’s receding footsteps over the clicking of the crutches—a noise that was going to drive him mad before this was over, he was sure.

He paused, then glanced back. The hallway was empty; Aleks was already gone.

Not that it mattered or anything, he thought as he continued his slow path to the doors, fighting back the small, secret smile that threatened to overtake his face.

And just as suddenly, it faded away, the corners of his mouth falling. He’d never understand how it was so easy for Aleks to just walk away. It seemed to get harder every time, and yet …

Not that it really mattered anyway.

***

Matt sighed heavily, looked at the clock again. The doctor was late, as per usual. He shouldn’t have been surprised, really, but he’d thought that maybe, today was important.

Then again, maybe the doctor was late because it wasn’t important—the results were normal, par for the course, nothing to see here, everybody go home.

Matt pressed his lips together, looked at the ceiling tiles.

The doctor bustled into the room, clipboard in hand. “Matthew,” he said stiffly, the door closing behind him. He held his hand out. Even his handshake was stiff.

He took a seat on the stool in front of the computer. “So, how have you been?”

“Okay, I guess,” Matt said. The clacking of keys filled the room in the silence that followed.

“We got your test results back,” the doctor said.

“Uh, yeah,” Matt said, fidgeting a bit in his seat. He knew that already; that was why the doctor had even called him in. Apparently the results needed discussing.

The doctor spun about to face him. “So,” he said.

Matt couldn’t manage a reply.

He nodded, then looked down at the clipboard. “It’s not good,” he said, flipping through the pages.

“Doc …”

“You have treatment options, but we need to do some more tests, just to verify what we’re working with, but …”

Matt closed his eyes. “What is it?”

The doctor hesitated, then said, “Leukemia.”

Matt didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath. “Leukemia,” he said slowly.

The doctor nodded. Matt stared at the floor, letting his vision blur, then snap back into focus. Everything felt a little hazy, gossamer, like a dream.

If this wasn’t real, it was a goddamn nightmare.

“Matthew? Matthew. Look at me.”

He blinked and inhaled sharply, looked up at the doctor. He stared at the man, wondered how many times he’d had to deliver bad news, how many people had died on him. How many people had he watch wither away?

He felt sick. Violently sick, his entire digestive system knotting up in revolt, overthrowing the Ancien Regime with knives and pitchforks, the guillotine chopping up the pieces of his being that were no longer working.

He opened and closed his mouth a few times, then managed an undignified squeak, his breath hissing past his lips. He felt tears burning at the edges of his eyes.

He didn’t know what to say. What could he say? He was going to die. He was going to goddamn well die.

The doctor put a hand on his shoulder as he crumpled in on himself.

“Matthew.”

“I’m gonna die.” He practically vomited forth the words, then choked up on bile. The doctor shoved him toward the sink, and he lurched over the basin, his reflection in stainless steel, terror etched into every inch of his face.

He trembled, then collapsed to the floor, sliding down to his knees.

“Matthew, get up,” the doctor ordered. His voice was stern. “Listen—we don’t know that. Many forms of leukemia are very treatable. We still have to run more tests and determine what strain you have, exactly, but—”

“Can I still play?” Matt asked, well aware he sounded like an idiot. He had leukemia. He had fucking cancer, of course he couldn’t play hockey. But he looked at the doctor, silently pleading—

“No,” the doctor said. “You’re going to need to do these tests, and we want to get you into treatment right away. And—”

He grabbed at Matt’s arm; Matt winced as his fingers rolled over bruises. “You don’t need any more of these. This isn’t normal, even for someone in your sport.”

Matt had nothing to say to that; he knew that the bruising wasn’t normal. It had never been like that before—deep, dark marks that took weeks, even months to fade. And because he was playing, he was covered in them, fresh bruises piled on top of old wounds. Everything hurt and he was confused; he’d never hurt like that before.

It was one of the reasons he’d asked for tests. Some of the trainers had been concerned, even months before he was, but he’d fluffed it off until mid-December or so. That was when he realized a bruise he’d gotten in September hadn’t gone away.

That was wrong, and he knew it.

He hadn’t really thought much of other “symptoms,” but the doctor was running through them now. There was weight loss—and he had lost weight, which he most definitely shouldn’t have; he should have been gaining muscle mass, if anything. At the start of the season, he’d been in really good shape—his body fat had been down under ten percent for the first time ever, and he’d felt good. He hadn’t noticed, but he had definitely lost weight—maybe five or ten pounds by the time he went to the doctor. He thought maybe it was the stress of the season. The hard, physical play and the night-after-night grind wore them down, kind of like pop stars on tour.

He’d felt like a slug for most of the season though, and it had just been getting worse. Practice and games wore him right out. Again, he’d chalked it up to the season itself, the wear and tear on the body. Of course it got more trying the more he did it.

Danny had complained about it, though, and Matt was a bit embarrassed to admit he was right. Aside from the night they’d banged Luke, they hadn’t had sex in months. Matt was too tired, fell asleep on Danny more often than not. Danny was beyond frustrated, and Matt couldn’t blame him. But he was so tired, all the time. Getting out of bed was all he could do some days.
He didn’t like it; he’d been off more days this season than any other.

The final straw had been the random, unexplained fever. He’d had it off and on for months, couldn’t seem to shake it.

He was severely anemic, the doctor was informing him, which contributed to his fatigue. His white blood count was elevated, which was one of the reasons he didn’t have an infection—but partially why he felt like shit.

He sat there, half-listening, half-wondering how he was going to tell the team. How he was going to tell his family.

How he was going to tell Danny.

He curled in on himself, sinking deeper into the quagmire of his turmoil. He was sick. He had leukemia. How did you tell someone you were dying?

He wasn’t sure he could.

“And here you go,” the doctor said, handing him a ‘script. “Take that down to the lab, they’ll get more bloodwork done. We want this treated asap. I’ll put the note in to the team, telling them you’re on IR, effective immediately.”

Matt heaved a sigh, looking down at the paper, the doctor’s messy scrawl across it. He might as well have written a death sentence, the bold black ink marring the bright white of the paper.

“Matthew.”

He looked up.

“Just stay calm,” the doctor said with a soft smile. “We don’t even know what we’re looking at yet. Rest up.”

“Thanks,” Matt murmured slowly. He waited until the door had swung closed, then crumpled the paper up and jammed it in his pocket.

He stormed out of the room, shaking. He could scarcely get his breath. He needed to get away, somewhere far away from the medical unit, with its bright lights and sterile scent, the scent of death and dying, sickness—

One of the nurses put her hands on his shoulders. “Matthew?” she asked.

“I’m okay,” he spat, “I swear, I’m okay, I swear—”

“Dr. Gilvray said he’d written you a ‘script for more bloodwork—can I see it?”

Matt shook his head. “No—he didn’t give me anything, I don’t have a ‘script—”

She held out her hand. He stared at her for a moment, her sympathetic eyes, her mouth downturned at the corners in pain—pain for him. He gritted his teeth and grabbed the sheet out of his pocket. He shoved it into her hands.

“Thank you,” she said softly, uncrumpling the ball. “I know you’re scared, but we really do have to treat this right away.”

Matt heaved a sigh. “I’m not scared,” he said. He wasn’t. He was terrified. He was mind-numbingly frozen, unable to do anything. He was suffocating; he needed to go somewhere he could breathe.

Instead, the nurse led him down the hall to the lab, where they drew more blood from him. The needle flashed silver, pricked his skin. He watched his blood gush into vial after vial, dark red. It spurted from the vein until he felt sick, felt weak. He had to look away. His vein ached.

They pulled the needle at last. Cotton swab, bandage. He covered his eyes with his hands.

“Just sit there,” the nurse said. “As long as you need—we took a lot of blood. Do you want some juice?”

He stifled a sob. He wanted to go back in time, wanted the doctor to tell him nothing was wrong with him, everything was okay. He wanted to wake up.

“Matt?”

“No,” he croaked, “I don’t want any fuckin’ juice.”

She patted his arm. “Just sit there,” she said. “Don’t try to move, just relax.”

He wanted to know how he could relax when he was going to die. He wanted to know how anyone could be calm in the face of death.

She came back a minute later. “Is there someone we can call?” she asked, and he hated her. He didn’t want to be logical, rational. He wanted to be scared, because he was scared. He didn’t want to think about things like leaving or going home or who could give him a ride.

“Nicky,” he said at last.

He should have said Danny, he should have asked for his omega so he could collapse in the older man’s arms and cry. Danny wouldn’t judge. Danny would just be there for him.

But he couldn’t, he couldn’t ask for Danny. He couldn’t let Danny see him like this. He didn’t want to see Danny, didn’t want to worry him, didn’t want to hurt him. He wasn’t ready to face this; he wasn’t going to make Danny face it when even he couldn’t bring himself to terms with it.

Nicky seemed confused—rightfully so, Matt supposed. “I need a ride home,” he said to the Swede, proud of how he kept his voice from shaking.

Nicky quirked a brow. “Shouldn’t—”

“I just got some blood taken,” Matt said evenly. “So I just need someone to drop me off.”
The blond considered that for a moment, then said, “Okay.”

They were silent on the drive. Matt didn’t know what to say, what he could say. He kept chewing his lip. He had no idea what he was going to do. He wanted to tell someone, anyone.

But he didn’t even really know what he had, how bad it was …

“What is going on?” Nicky asked at last, glancing over at him.

“I don’t even know.” He dragged his hands through his hair, brushing his bangs off his forehead.

The Swede was silent, watching. Then he turned his attention back to the road, turned down Matt’s street. Matt bit his lip hard when he saw Danny’s car in the driveway.

Nicky stopped short of the driveway, turning to Matt. “It … it’s not Danny, is it?” he asked.

Matt stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. “No,” he said softly, “no, Dan’s got nothing to do with this.”

They stared at each other for a moment more, Nicky’s eyes darting back and forth as he tried to read Matt, searching for truth in the depths of his irises.

“Okay,” the Swede said, ducking his head.

Matt reached for the door. “Uh, thanks,” he said softly.

“Hang on,” Nicky said, and wheeled the SUV around, so that they were sitting at the end of the driveway. Matt sighed heavily.

“Thanks,” he mumbled.

“Varsågod,” Nicky said. “You just had blood taken.”

“Yeah,” Matt drawled, an uneasy smile breaking across his lips. He felt strained, like he was cracking at the edges. He was pretty sure he was going to shatter the second he saw Danny.

He let himself out of the vehicle, stood at the end of the driveway with his hands jammed in his pockets, waiting until Nicky pulled away—reluctantly. He waved, watched the car disappear around the corner. He kicked at a stone.

He didn’t want to go inside.

The door creaked open, and he winced.

“Matthew.”

He stared at the cracked asphalt. He didn’t want to face Danny, not when he took that tone of voice. Like he was a child that needed to be chided. He gritted his teeth.

“What the hell,” the omega asked after a moment.

Matt pinched the bridge of his nose, then turned around. He rocked on his heels, forced a smile to his face. “Hey,” he said.

“What is going on? Why did Nicky drive you home—I was waiting for you, what the hell took you so long, why are you standing at the end of our driveway like a lunatic instead of coming inside like a normal person?”

“Maybe I’m not a normal person,” Matt said, his voice cracking over the syllables.

There was fear in Danny’s eyes. He shifted slightly, clearly uncomfortable. “Matt,” he said, his voice still calm and even, “please come inside.”

Matt hesitated a moment more.

“Please,” Danny all but whispered.

“Sure,” Matt said, kicking at more gravel. He strutted up the driveway, feeling loose, unhinged. His knees seemed to bend more than usual, his body unfamiliar and strange. Beyond his control.

He paused when he reached the stoop, standing in front of Danny. The omega clutched at the door handle a little harder, and they locked gazes, Danny’s fear a mirror image of everything Matt felt.

“Dan,” he said, then clenched his jaw, shook his head.

“What?” Danny asked, clutching at his shoulder, trying to turn him back. “Matt, what is it? You’re tense as fuck, will you please come inside and tell me what’s happening?”

He squeezed Matt’s shoulder a little harder, enough to leave bruises under normal circumstances. Matt winced.

“Please,” the brunet omega all but begged him, “Matt, I can feel everything, but you’re walling me out—I don’t know what’s happening. You’re scared, and it’s scaring me.”

“Fuck,” Matt breathed, letting his head fall back. He’d completely forgotten about the bond. It was a miracle that Danny didn’t know what was going on. Matt’s frazzled state and their physical distance had probably kept him from working out the details, because Matt hadn’t been trying to block him—not consciously at least.

He would have blocked more of what he was feeling if he had been trying. The last thing he wanted was to project these emotions, this tumult, onto his omega.

He let his shoulders fall as he exhaled, defeated. Danny already knew how he was feeling. He just didn’t know why—and it wasn’t right of him to let the omega suffer such intense emotion with explaining the situation.

“C’mon,” he said, stepping inside. He stared down at his feet as he kicked off his shoes, wondering just how he was going to explain. The words still didn’t make sense to him; he wasn’t sure he could explain it to himself in a way that seemed logical, rational.

Danny grabbed his hands, held them tight. “Matt, please—”

He shook him off. “I’m trying,” he said, “I … Danny, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Please,” Danny said for what felt like the millionth time. “Matt, please—what’s going on? Is there … is there someone else?”

“What.” Matt blinked stupidly. He hadn’t seen that one coming. Someone else?

“I mean, I just—”

He shook his head. “No, Danny, it’s not—”

“Did you get traded, are you moving to another team?”

“Danny!” Matt snapped, then regretted it as the omega recoiled. “We can’t trade right now, my contract isn’t up in the summer, so no one is looking to sign me right now. Just … can you let me talk?”

Danny took a breath, nodding.

Matt chewed at his lip for a moment, then said, “I …”

He paused, staring at the omega—his omega, his mate, his bond-mate—at the fear and impatience in his eyes.

“It’s not someone else,” Matt said, “there’s no one else, Danny.”

It wasn’t reassurance; Danny’s face told him that much. He wrung his hands. “I, uh, talked to Dr. Gilvray this morning.”

“I know.”

Matt swallowed nervously. “I … had some bloodwork done a couple weeks back, and they wanted to talk to me about the results.”

“I know. We talked about that, we thought you needed to go.”

“Yeah,” Matt continued, pressing his lips together after. “About the bruising and the exhaustion and all of that. And …”

Danny nodded, encouraging him to keep going.

He opened his mouth, but the words wouldn’t come. His voice failed, ran and hid on him. He stood there, slack-jawed, willing the words to come, but there was nothing.

He felt the tears on his cheeks, hot and burning. Danny grabbed his hands again, squeezed tight.

He shut his eyes, unable to look Danny in the eye when he said it, unable to bear witness to the reaction in those mocha irises.

“I have cancer,” he managed at last, “I’ve got leukemia.”

Danny made a low noise, somewhere between a gasp and a grunt, but no words came. Instead, he dragged Matt into an embrace, crushing them together.

Matt lifted his head and Danny kissed him, furiously, tilting his head up more, holding him there. He pulled back, panting.

“Fuck, Matty,” he whimpered, then pressed his face to Matt’s neck, his scruff scratching at Matt’s skin.

The alpha pulled back, extricating himself gently. “Careful,” he murmured, “I bruise easy.”

Danny blinked, then slowly released him. He kept one arm loosely wrapped around Matt’s waist, holding him steady. He guided Matt to the living room, forced him to sit on the sofa.

“They took more blood,” the alpha murmured. “They want to start treatment soon—the sooner, the better.”

“What are they gonna do?” Danny asked, tipping them into a horizontal position. He rested his head on Matt’s chest, letting Matt tangle his hands in his hair.

“I dunno. They didn’t tell me—said they need to figure out what kind of leukemia it is. I guess that determines the treatment?”

Danny clutched at him a little harder, but said nothing.

Matt looked to the ceiling. He didn’t know what to say either. He wanted to say it was okay, but he didn’t know if it was. He didn’t believe that it was. And he knew that, even if he said it, Danny wouldn’t really believe him either.

“I’m glad,” the older man said at last. His nails dug into Matt’s ribs, even through his shirt.

“Huh?”

They turned to each other. Danny still looked scared, worried, but there was something earnest, something sincere in his expression. “I’m glad,” he repeated, “that we found out. That we know. That we know something’s wrong, that we can do something about it …”

“Maybe,” Matt said. “Maybe we can do something about it.”

The ghost of a smile graced Danny’s lips. “I didn’t say succeed,” he all but whispered. “But they’re gonna get those results and start treatment, and that’s better …”

He paused. “That’s better than anything else,” he said.

“I could … not be sick?” Matt offered. He started at how bitter the words were on his tongue. He was angry, he realized. Angry that he was sick. Why him? Why did he have to get sick? He was only twenty-four, in the prime of life, young and talented and good-looking and—

Danny sat up, pinning his legs to the couch. He grabbed Matt’s wrists, held his hands. “If you have to be sick,” he said slowly, “it’s better to know about it now.”

Matt knew he was right, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. “I don’t know why I have to be sick,” he spat. “I take good care of myself—I’m an athlete, I have to take good care of myself. I exercise and I get lots of sleep and I eat right and I don’t smoke or anything like that, so—”

He pulled away from Danny. “I don’t get it,” he said after a moment. “Why me? I shouldn’t get sick, I’m like the last person who should get sick, and I don’t—”

“It doesn’t have to make any sense,” Danny said almost sternly. “Of course it won’t make sense, Matty—shit like this doesn’t happen for a reason. It just happens. That’s life.”

“But it could’ve been anyone else—”

“Yeah.” Danny’s face was grim. “It could have been anyone else. And if you were anyone else, well, maybe you couldn’t afford treatment or maybe you’d have bowel cancer or something, or maybe it would make more sense ‘cause you smoked or worked in a mine or something. And maybe you wouldn’t know, maybe you wouldn’t find out until it was too late, you were gasping out your last breath, days to live—”

Matt stared at him.

“Sorry,” the omega said quickly, ducking his head.

Matt didn’t know what to say. Danny was clearly angry about something—someone—but Matt had never heard this story before. Danny was a quiet kind of guy, kept mostly to himself. He was usually so calm and collected. Matt was the emotional one of the two of them.

Danny glanced up at him, his big, brown eyes sorrowful. “Sorry,” he said again, “just. My Grandpa …”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter anyway. He died a long time ago now.”

Matt was silent, watching him. He never knew what to say in these situations. He especially didn’t know how to handle Danny opening up to him like this.

“He was a miner,” Danny said, “ended up with lung cancer. They thought they got that … but they missed it everywhere else. He died just a few days after they diagnosed liver cancer.”

“Oh,” Matt said.

Danny shrugged again. “Like I said, it doesn’t matter. It was forever ago—I was, like, maybe fifteen. I just … I know he suffered a lot, they didn’t catch it in time.”

He brushed Matt’s hair out of his eyes. “So I’m glad,” he murmured, “that they caught this. That you went to them, that you asked.”

“I had to,” Matt said, “these bruises are ridiculous. I’ve had some of these for months, they just won’t go away.”

“I know,” Danny murmured, caressing Matt’s wrists, over his forearms, the discolored spots dotted along his limbs. “I’ve seen them, I’ve counted them. “

He ran his hands down Matt’s sides, then lifted his fingers to Matt’s cheeks, stroking his skin softly. “I’ve been worried about you for months, Matt, I knew something wasn’t right. Shit. I wish I’d made you go sooner, maybe this could be all behind us—”

“Shshsh,” Matt said, mirroring Danny’s hold on him. Danny’s skin wasn’t near as smooth as his own, stubbly in places, scruffy across his jawline. He had a cut on one cheek that wasn’t healing well.

“I’m sorry, Matty,” the omega said, “I should have said something sooner, I should have—”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Dan,” he said, and he meant it. “We both ignored it—but …”

He fell silent, just gazing at the omega, memorizing his every feature. Panic set his heart pounding again.

This could be the last time he looked at Danny like that, the last time he saw him, held him. He hadn’t realized, he hadn’t known how close death could stand to him, hadn’t felt its chill touch so acutely ever before.

But now he saw how easily everything could be ripped away, saw skeletal hands wrapped around everything he held dear, like jail bars in front of his vision, imprisoning him away from them.

The other side of the grave felt nearer than Danny, even as he was so intimately entwined with him, their limbs wrapped around each other, their fingertips pressed to each other’s skin—heartbeats and breath.

Danny’s hand on his forehead. “You’re running a fever,” he said.

Matt shuddered, leaned in against him. He wasn’t sure it was fever that was making him cold, but knowledge of impending death freezing his blood in his veins.

Danny wrapped his arms around him, held him tight. Matt choked back a sob.

“I’m so scared,” he whimpered when he could make his voice work again.

“I know,” Danny murmured. “I know.”

Matt shut his eyes tight, clutched at Danny as he trembled. He’d never been so scared in his goddamn life. It was crushing, immobilizing.

“Let’s have a nap,” Danny said softly, helping him to his feet. “I think we both need to rest.”

“O-okay,” Matt stammered, following him upstairs.

They paused on the landing, Danny catching Matt up in his arms, pressing him back against the wall. “I guess you won’t be playing, huh?”

Matt shook his head.

Danny considered that for a moment, then dipped his head and captured Matt’s mouth, fleetingly. “I love you,” he whispered when he pulled back.

The afternoon shadows were long; the sunshine was bright, burning in through the skylight—a herald of the long summer days that lay ahead. Clouds scudded by overhead, spring zephyrs shuffling them along, allowing them to mar the bright blue sky for only a moment, their shadows but passing worries that dissipated and all was light in the hallway again, sunshine playing against the walls. The shadows came and went, passing across Danny’s face, but the sun was bright, reflecting in his eyes.

There was a drawn silence, a moment that seemed to stretch to eternity. It started as a slow hiss, and then, Matt collapsed against Danny and cried.


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