Chapter 18: Winners and Losers [Slapshot!]
“They all seem like that,” Katya huffed, tossing her file away and sitting up straighter. “Men are always like that, you must be more careful. He is poison.”Linnea rolled her eyes, sighing. “Katya …”
The door slammed, startling both women. Dima frowned at the two of them, eyeing them warily.
“Hello,” Katya said.
“Just because you have had one bad experience, Katyushka,” he said, “does not mean all men are evil.”
Katya scoffed. “You will not blame me for thinking so.”
He rolled his eyes and walked into the kitchen. Katya stuck her tongue at him behind his back—brothers were the worst. She looked back to Linnea, who was shifting uncomfortably.
“Why do you stay with him?” Katya asked sharply.
The Swedish beauty started. “I like him,” she said simply.
“What do you like about him?”
The blonde shrugged. “He is fun,” she said, “for now.”
Katya hummed low, disapproving of that answer. Linnea looked side to side, then leaned closer to the other woman, whispering, “He says he keeps a male omega. I think this is the one he fought with at the party.”
Katya frowned. “So?” she asked, her voice tart. “What does that mean to you, you have him, but he has another?”
Linnea blushed, glancing down. A soft smirk lifted to her lips. “I would like to play with this omega,” she purred, “and he says he will let me.”
Katya shook her head. “I do not understand,” she said, “why not go find your own omega? Why worry about his?”
The Swedish girl sighed heavily, kicking up her feet on the coffee table. “Oh,” she murmured, “it is easy to find an omega, but all the good ones are taken or gay.”
“That sounds like men in general,” Katya murmured.
Linnea turned to her, her lips pressed together in a thin line. “You do not understand,” she said, “because you are beta. But a good omega is so difficult to find. You find one who is nice, but not hot, one who is hot, but not nice. And then you find one you think is good and someone says, ‘Oh, he is already taken’ or ‘he does not like women.’”
“You are still not making sense.”
The Swede sighed again, frustration evident in the exhalation. “So Mason, you see, he is bi. He likes both. So it does not matter if the omega is gay; he will do what Mason says. So I can have some fun, since Mason likes me too.”
“Oh,” Katya said, then frowned. “So you cannot have fun with gay omegas because their alphas are gay too?”
“Yes!” Linnea cried. She looked ready to tear her hair extensions out. “That is exactly the problem.”
“So now you have found a gay omega, but an alpha who likes both.”
She nodded enthusiastically.
Katya thought for a moment, then said, “He is still bad for you. You should find your own omega.”
“You are both ridiculous,” Dima said, and they whirled on him, peering at him over the back of the sofa. He leaned against the doorframe, sipping a glass of water.
“What did you hear?” Linnea was instantly defensive.
Katya stuck her tongue out at her brother again. “Do you have another idea, Dima?” she sneered.
“If it is only about playing, what does it matter—alpha, beta, omega? Just find someone to play with. And there are many.”
“This is fine for you to say,” Linnea huffed, turning back around. She slouched lower on the sofa.
“Wait,” Katya said, frowning. She looked to Dima.
He stared at her over the rim of his glass, raising one questioning eyebrow.
“This omega,” she said, “he is your teammate.”
Dima pulled a face, set down his glass. “We have no omegas,” he said. “No omega can play hockey.”
“He plays hockey,” Linnea said, sharing a glance with Katya.
“Maybe in little league,” Dima sneered, “not in IHA.”
“He is your teammate,” Katya insisted. “Yes, I have seen him before—he says he was in Pittsburgh, then comes to the party and says it is his house. He knows all of the people there, they are all hockey players.”
Dima shook his head. “Then he is not omega, I tell you.”
“Luke,” Katya said, “that is his name?” She looked to Linnea for confirmation.
“Yes,” the Swede said, “that is his name.”
Dima looked at them, a long, scrutinizing look, as though he were trying to discern what they were making up. “Luke is not omega,” he said slowly.
Katya shared a glance with her friend. “Oh,” she said, turning back to her brother, “I think he is.”
She turned to Linnea, grabbing up the other model’s hands. “Dima can help you get this omega.”
Linnea’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
“Of course! They are teammates—Dima knows him. He will talk to him for you.”
“I will not,” Dima spat. “Luke is not omega, there is no point. You are both wrong.”
Katya grinned. “Dima,” she said, lifting her brows.
He looked away, huffing, clearly distressed. He looked back at her. “Fine,” he said, “fine. I will do this thing. But I will not like it, and I do only this.”
“Of course,” Katya said, smirking. “Only this one thing.”
“Right,” Dima said, but even he sounded like he didn’t believe it. Which he shouldn’t have—Katya was never going to let him live down his most embarrassing moment. There were some things he wanted kept secret, and to keep them secret, he was going to have to comply with Katya’s whims.
And right now, that included making her friend happy—and getting the girl out from under the thumb of that Mason character. Katya had been with enough men to know a rotten apple when she saw one—and this Mason most definitely was.
She smiled tightly at Linnea. “Let’s go upstairs,” she said, “it is late. We have early morning with the shoot.”
Linnea nodded. Katya glanced back over her shoulder as they headed to the stairs. “Good night, brother,” she said, smirking.
He glowered at her.
She turned the corner at the first landing, sighing heavily. She trotted up the rest of the stairs, smiling at Linnea when she found the other girl waiting for her. Katya pushed open one of the doors. “You can sleep here,” she said.
“Varsågod,” Linnea said, returning the smile almost shyly.
“Good night,” Katya said, and Linnea nodded, closing the door quietly.
Katya waited a moment, then headed further down the hall, frowning deeply. She stepped into her own sanctuary, closing the door gently behind her, locking it. Tonight, she was melancholy.
Perhaps it was because she was tired. Maybe she was a bit hungover (although she would deny it to the end of time). But, whatever the reason, there was a peculiar weight to her desire to protect Linnea from the worst that men had to offer.
After all, she hadn’t been able to protect herself. Time and time again, she had been lured in by false promises and flowers, whispered nothings in the night and hopeless dreams of forever after. She had played the fool one too many times; she had allowed herself to be used, abused, lied to.
And yet, every time …
That was why she liked Syoma. He had never really lied to her—half-truths, yes, half-falsehoods. But he had never told her he loved her when he didn’t, never said things like he could see them together. He had never promised her things he couldn’t deliver, except maybe the occasional date that he sometimes bailed on.
If he didn’t love her, if he never loved her, she could handle that, because he would never lie to her about it. He would never tell her things that weren’t true just to please her, just to get her to put out.
She had always been a pretty girl, but the boys took notice when she was in her teens. Pretty face, tiny waist, big tits. It was a combination men couldn’t seem to ignore, even when she wanted them to.
Dima had defended her, but only to a certain extent. He couldn’t save her from herself, after all.
She sighed heavily, sitting down on the edge of the bed, kicking her feet across the carpet. No, nobody had been able to save her in those days—she was too head-strong, stubborn. She still was in a lot of ways.
She looked to the nightstand, contemplated the brass knob on the drawer for a moment. With a sigh, she swung herself into bed, putting away thoughts of sadness and broken hearts. She needed to sleep if she wanted to look good tomorrow, to not be yelled at for the bags under her eyes. And she did so hate to be yelled at.
There were times when Dima hated his sister. He especially hated her right in that moment, as he stepped onto the plane and saw no empty seats except for the one beside Luke. His heart knotted; his throat twisted. Breathing became an exercise in futility, but he sank down into the seat gingerly, glancing at the dark-haired man.
Luke glanced at him, but said nothing; he had his headphones in. His foot was swinging to the beat, occasionally connecting with the back of the seat in front of him, earning him a dark glare from Sebby, who turned in his seat, glowering over the edge of it, only his eyes visible. Luke was oblivious. Sebby turned back about.
Dima watched them repeat this play several times over. He was glad neither of them were demanding him to make conversation; he didn’t know if he could. Katya’s words were ringing in his ears.
Luke was an omega. An omega playing in the IHA.
The thought was absurd, insane, ridiculous. Omegas were too naturally submissive, weak and timid, to play a rough sport like hockey, to play at the level demanded of the IHA. It was common knowledge that omegas lacked any kind of competitive drive, that they avoided conflict and would happily roll over and show their bellies just to maintain peace. Omegas didn’t belong in the public eye, in the public sphere; it was dangerous for them. No, the proper place for an omega was at home, taking care of the domestic and private affairs of a household, being cared for and protected by an alpha.
The world was a cruel place for omegas; it didn’t treat them or their personalities kindly. Too many people were unscrupulous manipulators, cheerfully abusing the submissive nature of omegas in order to get what they wanted.
Omegas needed to be placed in the home, where they could be controlled and monitored. The world was too big for one lone alpha to protect his or her lone omega; if the omega were to venture out, eventually, he or she would be used, abused, violated, rooked. Whether it was financially by some shark at the bank or at the marketplace by a wheedling old woman or by a professor in a bathroom at school, omegas would wind up being hurt by other people who took advantage of them.
There was simply no way an omega would last in the IHA. There were hits, fights, face-offs, scraps for the puck and chippy play that required digging in the corners—all very physical. An omega wouldn’t dish out hits, wouldn’t drop gloves, wouldn’t muscle another guy off the puck. An omega wouldn’t win face-offs or poke-check opponents or race them to the other end of the rink to avoid an icing call. They simply didn’t have to drive to compete, not against alphas and betas.
But Katya and Linnea insisted—this was the omega that this Mason fellow was talking about. Luke was an omega, they said, and now, it was up to Dima to convince him to sleep with Linnea, because she wanted to have him.
His mind swirled like a snow globe, flurries of questions whirling around. How could he convince Luke to sleep with Linnea? What could he say, what could he do? How did he even start that conversation? Did he accuse Luke of being an omega? And what if Luke wasn’t an omega—what if Katya was wrong? It was considered a great insult to suggest someone was an omega, unless you knew for a fact they were.
Dima had always thought of Luke as a beta; that was what he claimed to be. And Dima found the omega status harder to accept, because he had always respected Luke. They hadn’t played many seasons together, but Luke had always seemed wise and calm, a steadying influence for the younger players like Dima. Sy was a good captain, but he could be too serious, too strict. His words were sometimes harsh, and he often didn’t understand that it stung to have their idol criticize them; Dima had watched a couple of the rookies wince when Sy “helpfully” gave them pointers. They had failed, they had disappointed him. Perhaps their dreams of playing with him, of setting foot on the ice and impressing the greatest player of their generation had been shattered by his criticism.
Luke’s demeanor was far less intimidating, much more gentle—but there was a firm confidence there. He knew what he was doing. There was no room for arguing or excuses. Luke was calm and judicious, but he wasn’t going to coddle them. Surely, if he was truly an omega, he would have taken any excuse, made up any excuse.
Luke worked hard and he ground in the corners and he had jump in his play—competition motivated him.
But there were Katya’s words again, haunting: He is omega.
Dima wasn’t sure how he should feel if Luke was an omega. He didn’t want to believe it, because he didn’t want to second-guess everything about Luke. If the other player was indeed an omega, he couldn’t respect him the same way. His kind words would become coddling; his calm demeanor, a desire to avoid conflict. And he shouldn’t have been there, on the ice, in the locker room, with them, when he was so vulnerable and weak. He belonged at home, safe from others, with an alpha to take care of him. If he was omega, Dima had to wonder why this Mason character didn’t keep him locked up.
“Electronics off,” Q barked at them. “We’re taking off.”
There was some grumbling, a few sighs, as they powered down their games, their phones, their music players, laptops, and tablets. Luke popped his earphones out, sighing as he tucked the iPod away.
Dima looked at him curiously.
“Nervous?” he asked when he caught the younger man’s eye.
“Mm,” Dima said, nodding slightly.
“Just another game,” Luke said with a wink.
“It is not that I worry about,” Dima blurted, then wished he’d said nothing at all. He didn’t know what he was going to say next.
But Luke pressed him, even as he settled back in his seat, awaiting the plane slamming into gear and rocketing down the runway. The engines were roaring, nearly deafening now.
“I worry about you,” Dima said, then frowned, because that sounded awkward, even to his own ears.
Luke’s brows knit together.
The plane was shaking as they tore down the airstrip, bumping along, the plane bouncing into the air, struggling for lift. They caught at last, one final bounce, and they were in the air, the nose tilting up as they rose higher and higher into the sky.
Dima’s ears popped, and he winced. He looked at Luke again, then said, “Katya tells me something worrisome about you.”
Luke’s expression fell, right as the plane leveled off and they seemed to drop. Dima’s stomach leapt into his throat—by force of gravity or anxiety, he wasn’t entirely sure.
Dima glanced about furtively, then leaned in close, whispering, “She and Linnea tell me you are omega.”
He pulled back, waiting for some reaction. Luke was frozen, like a statue; the blood had drained from his face and he looked much like a Greco-Roman sculpture, alabaster and cold.
“Linnea?” he asked, frowning. “Who’s Linnea?”
“Tall, blonde. Swedish. Very pretty girl—a model. She is Katya’s friend.”
Luke looked more perturbed, but he shook his head. “Never heard of her,” he said. “Maybe they were talking about someone else?”
“Maybe,” Dima said slowly. He wanted that to be true, but they’d been so sure—a hockey player named Luke who lived in DC and had been in Pittsburgh just two days before. He didn’t think there would be another one.
But maybe. Or maybe they were wrong.
“I’m not omega,” Luke said. His eyes were full of fear.
Dima swallowed thickly. “No,” he said, looking away, “no, of course you are not. They are wrong.”
“Sorry,” Luke said.
“No, I apologize,” Dima said. “They are wrong. I should not listen to them.”
They sat there in silence for a moment or two, before Luke put his headphones back in. Dima waited a moment, then pulled out the supplied headphones and plugged in to the in-flight entertainment system.
The landing was rough, jolting them from side to side. Blake glanced over at Erik, who stared straight ahead. He didn’t move, didn’t even blink, until the plane came to a complete halt. Blake had always admired the Swede’s ability to stay calm under pressure.
He turned around and looked at Fyodor and Aleks, who returned the gaze, dull and drowsy. They’d just woken up. Blake wondered if he was the only one who got scared on these flights any more.
A shuttle took them from the airport to the arena, where the trainers unloaded their equipment. They headed into the locker room, ready for one last practice ahead of Game 7. They didn’t normally practice at the arena itself, but it was empty today and Coach had thought it would be good for them to practice on home ice, not at the Iceplex up in Cranberry. The arena was strangely quiet though, almost eerie, with most of the lights off, the laser light show absent and the stands empty and silent. The sound of hockey—clattering sticks, skate blades slicing across the ice, players hitting the end boards, pucks bouncing off crossbars—all the soft whumps and shuddering thuds echoed through the cavernous arena.
“Can’t believe they’re making us play back-to-back,” Blake complained, leaning on his stick as he watched the forward practice their shots. Erik grunted, leaning over his knees, concentrating on lining up his shot. You could always tell when he was calculating: his gaze was sharp and quick, a keen intelligence showing on his face, but he was somber and silent, his body tensed, ready to respond at a second’s notice.
“It is little strange,” Fedya said, plucking at a loose bit of tape on the blade of his stick.
“Like, it’s the playoffs,” Blake complained.
Erik wound up and fired the puck. It tinged off the goal-post, caroming into one of the corners. He grimaced, then skated off to the side. Fedya put his blade to the ice and readied his shot.
“They could have given us a day off,” Blake continued.
“They want it over,” Erik said calmly. “The second round, it starts tomorrow. The West has been won for two days now. Boston waits. We are slow.”
Fedya hauled off, whacking the puck so hard his stick snapped in half, shattering all over the ice. The puck rocketed into the back of the net, rippling the twine. He straightened up, looked Blake dead in the eye. “No more complaining,” he said, “or I will aim at your head.”
It wasn’t an empty threat, after all. Blake straightened up—he wasn’t whining—but Aleks’s laughter cut him off. “Fedya!” he chuckled. “Looks like you got NFG stick!”
“They’re all NFG,” Blake said hotly. He was annoyed now. “Not for game—we don’t use game sticks in practice—”
Aleks stopped up short beside him, towering over him on his skate blades. “NFG—no fuckin’ good, Sully,” he said, looking down the tip of his nose.
Blake rolled his eyes. Like Aleks had never made that joke before.
Fedya tossed the broken pieces of his stick to a trainer, skating back to the bench to get a new one. Blake glided over to the goal, preparing to switch out.
“You are slow,” Aleks grumbled, shouldering him out of the way and proceeding to fire off shots. Both goalies ducked out of the net, barking abuse at them. Aleks just laughed.
Blake wanted to hit him sometimes. There were days that Aleks made him wish it was acceptable to smash your teammates into the endboards.
“C’mon!” Coach hollered. “Everyone off the ice, let’s get some lunch, and then everyone’s taking a nap! This is a big game tonight!”
“As if we forgot,” Blake grumbled, scooping up pucks, tipping them into the bucket that Fedya handed him.
They cleared off the ice a few minutes later, banging the bench door behind them. Fedya set the bucket down with a thud that seemed to echo through the entire arena.
A few minutes later, the Zamboni lovingly polished the ice and the nets were taken off the ice, stowed away until game time. The Zamboni went back to its garage; the doors were closed. The lights were flicked off, immersing the arena in darkness, waiting for the throngs that would soon come cascading in.
The lights went on in the arena late in the afternoon, and the air was soon filled with a restless energy as people began to trickle in. First came the ice crew, the fast-food workers, and bar tenders. Then came the security guards and the ushers, soon followed by a flood of fans.
The arena was buzzing by the time the Stars arrived. Even in the bowels of the building, tucked away from the growing crowd and the buzzing horns, the locker room was still infected with a nervous energy.
It was do or die time.
They hit the ice for warm-ups, the sound of the crowd roaring through their ears—cheers and jeers, all at once. Dima caught sight of Sanja, who lifted his brows and gave him a stiff nod. The younger Russian looked to the ice instead.
Someday, he promised himself, he wouldn’t be intimidated by Aleks. Someday, he would wear the same number—lucky number 8—and no one would say it was a tribute to Aleksandr Volkov.
And the first step to that was winning this game, taking another step toward inscribing his name on hockey’s ultimate prize.
He caught Luke’s eye as they came back off the ice, heading down the tunnel to the locker room. The dark-haired man looked at him, seemed almost to look through him. Dima frowned.
He wanted to say something, but Luke had already shuffled on, down the tunnel. Jake was right behind him, and he met Dima’s gaze unabashedly, his electric blue gaze piercing.
Dima knew that look.
He froze, one hand on the boards, unable to move further even as Jake went on his way, followed by Ty and then Mike, Leo, and a stream of others.
Timmo was the last one off the ice, landing his glove hand on Dima’s back. The Finn peered at him, the shadow of his goalie mask obscuring his expression a little. “Come on,” he said.
Dima liquefied again. “Yeah,” he said, and the two of them headed down the tunnel.
The snow-globe feeling was back, except this time, Dima felt like it was a blizzard inside his head. Katya and Linne hadn’t made a mistake; they were right. Luke was an omega.
And Jake seemed intent on trying to claim him.
That made Dima frown. Linnea had said that this Mason—whoever he was—owned Luke. Mated omegas usually smelled off-putting to other alphas, and even if they didn’t, they’d usually put up a bigger fuss about a strange alpha trying to move in on them.
And there was the fact that Luke’s alpha was apparently in DC—why wouldn’t he put Jake in his place?
Unless he didn’t know, and Luke was carrying on some sort of twisted affair with Jake and—
Dima shook his head, tossed his gloves to the trainer, and hustled to the locker room. He resisted looking at either Jake or Luke as he entered.
He glanced at Luke furtively, wondering. If Luke was omega and Mason was his alpha, was he actually mated? Or were they in a more casual relationship? Or maybe this Mason was a lying sack of shit.
And what about Jake? What did Luke see in him? A quick fuck? A way to get revenge? A thrill? Or maybe the other alpha had sanctioned it, maybe …
There were too many possibilities, and it was too awkward to simply ask about.
He needed to focus. Focus.
The buzzer sounded; he needed his head back in the game now.
His blades hit the ice. He forced himself to look for the puck, not for Luke, not for Jake, to see if they were making eyes at each other.
Why did it matter to him, he wondered. He didn’t care who Luke was doing and who he wasn’t.
Although it did concern him that Luke was an omega. That still didn’t make any sense. How could an omega be playing in the IHA?
More importantly, how had he missed that Luke was omega?
He watched his teammate grinding in the corners as he sat on the bench and contemplated, trying to discern something, anything—some dead giveaway in his movement, his body language, something that marked him as an omega.
There was nothing. He looked, he acted, he skated just like the rest of the guys out there, and Dima began to wonder who else was an omega. Was Luke the only one who had managed to sneak in, or were there more?
Anger flared through him, hot and painful. He didn’t know why, but the thought that there might be more than one omega playing in the league pissed him off. They were lying to everyone. They were hiding there, probably dragging down the quality of hockey with dodgy plays and more sick days because of their ridiculous heat cycles. How many times had he leveled an omega, how many times had he decked an omega in the face? That was inappropriate behavior—but how could he know when they were hiding, pretending to be alphas and betas?
It pissed him off so much. His focus spiraled away from the game; he fanned on a shot, got poke-checked, created an icing, and lost the puck, then turned about and slashed the guy in the face.
Blood dropped onto the ice; Beau Savard clutched at his nose and stared at Dima, anger in his eyes. “Fucker!” he spat, and blood was everywhere.
The ref shoved Dima into the penalty box, and he skulked there for four minutes, even after the Rockets scored the first goal of the game. Four minute majors had to be served, even if the other team scored.
That only riled Dima more. He’d lost his focus, he’d done something stupid and created penalties, scoring chances. And the more he thought about it, the more it was Luke’s fault.
Coach yelled at him during intermission, and he put his head between his knees, desperately trying to reel himself in. He needed to focus on the game. Not on Luke. Not on maybe-omegas and liars and deceivers in their midst.
He took another penalty in the second, and the Rockets scored again. Coach benched him after that. Dima wanted to tell him, tell him that Luke was an omega, that he was violating so many rules, so many protocols, and they were probably surrounded by omegas, each and every one of them a liar, a deceiver, and …
He didn’t really know why he was so mad about it. Luke was a good enough player, their second-line center, and he worked just as hard as anyone else. And Dima respected him. Or had respected him. And obviously, being an omega didn’t change any of that, but …
It did. And that made Dima angry, so angry.
Mike tallied late in the second to make the score 2–1. That meant they were only trailing by one—a respectable loss, a surmountable obstacle to a win. Dima just needed to get his head back in the game and focus.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jake press up against Luke, swat at the omega’s ass. His anger surged back, boiling over.
Nicky got the equalizer within twenty seconds of the third. Dima remained benched, even as the long minutes dragged on, the clock counting down the seconds.
Neither team scored. Turn-overs and icings seemed to be the story of the period. The coaches were frantically strategizing; Q was doodling on the whiteboard, then erasing it just as quick.
Jake tapped the puck in when it rebounded off the Rockets’ goalie; there was a huge scramble in front of the net, and then Jake’s stick just happened to be there, a little forward motion, and the buzzer rocked the arena, then entire Stars bench leaping to their feet and celebrating.
The home crowd fell silent, watched in horror as their team scrambled through the final two minutes of the game, but all the chippy play in front of the net couldn’t save them, because the horn sounded, and they’d won—they’d won!
They were going to the second round, this time to face the Boston Bears.