Chapter 24: Doped [Slapshot!]
Sy hated the way that people stared at him as he stumped into the café where he’d agreed to meet Katya. Someone held the door for him, offered him a tight smile, but for the most part, everyone just gawped at him. He loathed feeling like the center of attention.
He’d never enjoyed being the center of the limelight and he didn’t think he ever would, even though he’d been in the spotlight for so long now. He’d never enjoyed having microphones shoved in his face, cameras flashing in his eyes, reporters asking him frenzied questions. It had been kind of cool, maybe, at some point, when he was about eight, but after that, the novelty had worn off. And the questions had become harsher, more invasive as time wore on.
He made his way to a booth near the back of the café, his crutches skidding only a couple of times through puddles of water and spilled coffee on the floor. He could feel eyes burning into him as he crossed the tiled floor, then seated himself at a table, hoping to be tucked away from prying eyes.
Slowly, activity in the café resumed. Sy fiddled absently with a package of sweetener. Every ring of the bell attached to the door was an alarm as he waited for Katya to arrive.
The Russian model did arrive at last, bustling in through the door, tossing her sunglasses into her oversized purse, snapping a huge, pink bubble with her gum. Sy was amazed none of the pink goop ended up in her long, dark locks. She glanced about furtively, the motion of her dark eyes accentuated by her fierce cateye liner. She looked far too out of place in this rundown little shop.
Firmly convinced she had a captive audience, she sashayed across the floor, her heels clicking against the tiles. She was exaggerating her gait, her hips rolling languidly from side to side, the swing of her arms accentuating her motions. She fixed her gaze on Sy, but she knew all eyes were on her.
She slid into the booth across from him and someone hit play on time again, the café ramping up to its normal level of noise in but a moment. The waiter swung by with coffee in chipped porcelain mugs.
“So,” Sy said.
“So,” Katya replied, “we have little situation with my brother.”
Sy pinched the bridge of his nose. “So, yeah,” he began, “he was still in Boston, with Volkov last night—”
“I know this,” she said sharply. “I do not need you to tell me this, Syoma. I need you to tell me what we do.”
Sy met her gaze, her dark eyes searching his. For once, she didn’t look coquettish or sly. She looked perfectly earnest, maybe a little angry. She was worried about her brother because she hated Aleksandr Volkov with a passion.
Sy hadn’t yet worked the details out of any of the Russians—Katya didn’t want to talk about it, Dima was notoriously tight-lipped, and Aleks … well, Sy had had never thought to ask Aleks, but he had a sneaking suspicion he wouldn’t get a straight answer.
But something had gone down between them, that was for sure. There was no real reason for Katya to hate Aleks with as much vitriol as she did.
“I … don’t know,” he sighed. “I mean, what do you want to do?”
Katya twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “I do not know,” she murmured, and for a second, Sy wasn’t sure if she meant it or was just echoing an unfamiliar phrase. “I want Volkov to go away,” she said at last.
“Okay,” Sy said, “but how do we do something like that?”
“I do not know,” she whined, “you are Dima’s captain, you tell him no, he will listen.”
“Katya, that’s just … I can’t just order him around because I’m the captain. That’s not really my place—what he does off the ice isn’t my concern—”
“He is talking to Aleks Volkov,” she hissed. “That is very big concern.”
He stared at her for a moment, then sighed heavily. “What do you want me to do?”
“Talk to him. Tell him that no, this is bad. He must stay away from that man.”
He found himself looking deep into her eyes, pain evident in her irises, and before he could stop himself, he blurted, “What happened?”
She blinked, tears dissipating. “What?” she asked. Her lips pressed together with the final syllable, sticking because of her lipgloss, soft and pink and shiny.
He shook his head. “Something happened,” he said, “between you and Volkov. Why do you hate him so much?”
She paused, her eyes wide. For a split second, she was vulnerable. Then her expression steeled, and she frowned deeply. “Nothing,” she spat, her accent thicker, “he is an ass. Is it wrong to hate a terrible man?”
Sy bit his tongue. “Okay,” he said, glancing about the café. “It doesn’t matter anyway. It’s none of my business.”
“He is awful, and that is all.” She blinked, then glanced down at her phone. “Dima is back now.”
She grabbed up her purse, slipping the device inside. “We go now.”
Sy lifted a brow. “Where?”
She was already out of the booth. “To the airport,” she said, “wherever he is. We go to him, talk to him.”
Sy stared at her, then shook his head. He fished out his wallet. “You’re insane,” he laughed. He gave her a sidelong look. “You know that, right?”
He tossed money down on the table, avoiding her gaze. She would read too much into, he knew. After all, it was the first and only time he’d ever paid for anything for her—even if it was just coffee.
The grinding of the lock seemed to echo as the door shuddered open. The condo was dark, silent. Luke frowned as he shouldered his way into the foyer, glancing around furtively.
No one. Just silence, darkness, pervading the space.
He didn’t know why he felt like an intruder in his own home, but he closed the door softly, quietly, then toed off his shoes. He set his duffle down without a sound.
He glanced down again. Mason’s shoes were gone.
There was nothing in the living room; the television screen had been left on, but everything else was powered down and silent. There was no note in the kitchen, nothing on the table or the fridge or even the counter. He checked his phone, but there were no messages there either.
He checked the bedrooms, the bathroom, not really knowing why. Mason was gone; the entire place was deserted. And that should have felt good, should have felt amazing. His space was his own again.
Instead, the silence rang through his hollow being, wrung him out, left him empty.
Mason had left, without a word. Just like always, just like everyone else. No goodbyes, no reasons—just silence and emptiness like the expanse of a desert, lonely and void.
Luke snorted, shook his head. He pressed his forehead to the doorjamb, trying to stymie the incredulous smirk that lifted the corners of his lips, even as he trembled with the weight of the quiet.
Had he really expected anything less? After what he’d admitted, after he’d told Mayday, how could he expect him to stay? People didn’t stick around with guys like him; they never had. He was disposable, useless. As a friend, as a lover, even as a hockey player, he was completely replaceable, and when he broke, he could always be assured that he’d be traded in for the next best thing. Someone who wasn’t so used, someone who wasn’t so broken, so smashed up and shredded.
He clamped down on the yearning ache to nudge the ragged edges of the bond, to reach out and ask Mason where he was, what was going on. Why. That was really what he wanted—he wanted to know why. He didn’t care that Mason had left, didn’t care if he came back or not—just wanted to know his motive. To understand more deeply why this kept happening, why everyone saw him as something that could just be dropped, even when he labeled himself fragile goods, too easily shattered.
He knew why though, and it was stupid to ask. Stupid to try and get an answer. Better to pretend it had never happened, that he hadn’t even noticed. Better to soldier on and forget …
As if he could.
He glanced toward the nightstand. He could at least try.
Danny stumbled into Mel, then Moira, as he stepped into the foyer. The space was suddenly too small, too crowded, even with just the three of them there. They smiled tightly at each other; there were creases at the edges of Mel’s eyes, dark circles around Moira’s.
He didn’t want to know what he looked like; he refused to look at his reflection in the mirror.
“How is he?” he whispered, as though his voice wouldn’t break the silence pervading the house.
Moira pressed her lips together and looked at Mel. The elder Sweeney sister shook her head. She refused to meet Danny’s questioning gaze, focusing instead on the floor.
“He’s not taking the treatment so well,” she murmured at last.
“I gathered,” Danny replied.
“This is only the third one,” Moira said, “it’ll get better. He’ll …”
They were silent for a moment.
“He keeps asking for you,” Mel said, “you can go up and see him. I think he’d like that.”
“Yeah,” Danny said with a sigh, then shuffled to put his duffle down on the bench. He didn’t know why he needed to be invited into his own house, his own bedroom, or why Mel thought she needed to invite him to go see his own mate.
But he was glad she did.
He wasn’t sure he would have taken the initiative, wasn’t sure he’d have the courage to ascend the stairs and tiptoe into the bedroom. Wasn’t sure he would have had the heart to look at his alpha, curled up on his side of the bed, his face firmly pressed into Danny’s pillow. He winced with each whimper, his heart wrenching, as though someone had stuck it in a vise grip, spinning it round and round, the pressure increasing with every turn until he thought it might burst.
He slid silently to the edge of the bed, hesitating there, hovering over his sleeping mate. He wanted to see Matt, but he didn’t want to see him like this. It hurt, so much more than he had imagined.
He all but collapsed into bed with the shivering alpha, wrapping his arms around him—tight, but not too tight, wary of bruising him—choking back a sob at how wasted he was already.
It seemed like treatment was making things worse, not better.
He raked a hand through Matt’s hair, screwing his eyes shut, biting his lip, trying to ignore the brittle quality of it, how thin it seemed. He shook loose strands off his fingers, nearly gagged as he did so.
Matt was literally falling apart before his eyes, in his arms.
He held him tighter, listened to him whimper. He forced his voice past the lump in his throat, rasping, “Hey, shhh, hey. It’s okay, I’m here, it’s okay now, Matty …”
Matt buried his face against his chest, inhaled deeply. He curled his fingers into Danny’s ribs, pressing bruises into his skin. Danny raked his hands through the alpha’s hair again, ignoring the loose strands that slid between his fingers as he did so. “Shhh, shhh. It’s okay, you’re gonna be okay.”
“Danny, issat you?” Matt mumbled. “Are you really here?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Are you really here? ‘cause sometimes, I think you’re here an’ I’m actually dreamin,’ but it feels so real, an’ I can’t tell anymore, what’s real, what’s a dream … it’s all dreams, but it feels so real, you feel so real—”
“I’m really here, I’m right here with you.”
The alpha’s grip tightened. “Don’t leave me.”
Danny sighed. “I’m not going anywhere right now, Matt—”
“Melly said you were still playing, playing for the Cup, and—”
“We’re not playing for the Cup, not yet.”
“—and I want you to win, so bad, ‘cause you could bring it home, and we could have like, a day with it, and that’d be it, Danny, that’d be so good, ‘cause I think I can hold on that long, just to spend a day like that, and then I could die happy—”
Danny froze. “Don’t be stupid,” he hissed after a moment, when his heart started slamming in his chest again, doing double-time for the beat it had missed, “you’re not gonna die, Matt—you’re gonna be just fine, you’re just being melodramatic—”
Matt was shaking his head, just slightly. “’m not like you, Danny, ‘m not that strong, it’s got me, I can feel it, I’m not gonna make it—”
Danny gritted his teeth, then grabbed the alpha by the shoulders and shook him. “Shut up!” he roared. “Just shut your fucking stupid mouth, Matthew! Don’t talk like this, don’t talk like you’re defeated, you’re fine, you’re gonna be fine, Matt—”
Matt was like a doll in his arms, already lifeless as Danny shook him harder. He dropped the alpha suddenly, rolled away from him.
“You’re not gonna di—you’re gonna be okay, Matt. Just … think positive, you can get through this. You are strong, you’re fine, babe, please—“
He clapped a hand over his mouth, then looked over his shoulder. Matt had opened his eyes at last and was looking up at him, his expression glossy and fevered, his eyes too bright.
Danny choked back a scream, looked away again. He stared at the floor. He couldn’t even fathom what Matt was saying.
A knock on the door. Mel peered in. “Everything okay in here?” There was an edge in her voice.
Danny dropped his hand, dropped his head. He nodded, slapped his thighs a couple of times.
“Yeah,” he breathed at last, “yeah, we’re fine.”
Matt just kept looking at him. Mel considered them for a moment before nodding herself. “Okay,” she said, “let us know if you need anything.”
Danny managed a tight smile. “For sure,” he said.
She closed the door again, leaving him alone with Matt and his fever-bright gaze.
He lifted his head, but looked at the wall. He wasn’t sure he could face that gaze.
“Do you love me?”
It was like being slapped; his breath left him. He gawped like a fish, then whirled around. “Of course! If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t be here!”
Matt was quiet, evaluating him. “Even like this?” he asked after a studied moment.
Danny stared at him. “Yes,” he breathed finally, “yes, Matt, God, yes.”
Another silence, and then there was a challenge in Matt’s eyes, in his voice.
“I don’t even know why you bothered coming up here—you had to know the team was leaving. And besides, I told you, I have everything under control.”
Mason glared at Sean. “Do you?” he snarled after a moment. “Do you really? ‘cause it doesn’t seem to me like you do.”
Sean rolled his eyes. “Really, Mayday—”
“No! You listen to me, Flanny—while you’re up here with your fingers stuffed in your ears, nose buried in contracts, Luke is being threatened by his own goddamn teammate.”
Sean scoffed. “You don’t know that. You’re basing it on one comment you read in a magazine one time—”
“He said omegas don’t belong in the league, in public, anywhere—they belong at home, collared and mated! You really think he’s just magically gonna be okay with Luke? That he’s totally cool with an omega playing on his team, playing in this league?”
Sean scowled at Mason, who glowered back. “Maybe,” the older man snarled, “omegas should be at home. Especially if their uppity alphas think they need to jet all over the country to keep them safe and out of trouble.”
Mason’s upper lip curled into a sneer. “You would say that,” he fired back. “But I wouldn’t have to run around after Luke if you’d just do your goddamn job—”
Sean held up his hands, his eyes widening. “Whoa there,” he said, “that would imply that I’m Luke’s alpha—that I’m responsible for him. And you don’t seem to agree with that, so here we are.”
Mason growled, bared his teeth. It was the only response he had.
Sean shrugged, shook his head. “If Luke were my omega, he would be at home—collared and mated, as you say—so there wouldn’t be a problem. But some people don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I can’t believe I ever looked up to you,” Mason spat. “Fuck. Luke’s in danger and you’re arguing with me about who’s responsibility he is—don’t you care about him at all?”
“Luke’s a big boy, Mason, he can take care of himself. I’m just telling you my opinion—and that if it were up to me, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Omegas should stay home, where they can be safe, and no one needs to worry about them. But, if Luke insists—”
“Dammit, Sean!” Mason barked, balling his fists. “Give him a little bit of consideration, think about looking out for him—even if he is a stupid fucking omega who insists on being out and about—”
“Why should I? It’s his choice, if he puts himself in these situations—”
Mason could scarcely remember a time when he’d been angrier. If they’d been on the ice, he would have grabbed Sean by the front of his shirt, jersey’d him, and started smashing his stupid face in with his fist—over and over and over again, until he heard bone crunch, until he felt blood, warm and fresh, over his knuckles—
Instead, he ground his teeth and snapped, “Dammit, Sean, he’s been raped, he doesn’t need that again—”
Sean blinked, but didn’t miss a beat. “Serves him right then,” the older alpha said.
Mason saw red. “What?!”
Sean shrugged. “If he’s been raped and he still insists on being out in public … if he hasn’t learned how to protect himself—”
Mason scoffed. “Are you serious?” he spat. “I can’t believe you, that you’d say something like that—that he deserves it?!”
“I told you, omegas belong at home, where they can be safe. An omega that chooses to go out in public—like Luke—invites that kind of behavior, and he needs to know how to protect himself—”
“Fuck off! Just fuck right off, Flanagan! Luke doesn’t deserve that—that’s like saying you or I deserve to get punched out just for being outside, that—”
“I’m just saying, Mason—omegas have to look out for themselves. If they don’t wanna get hurt, it’s pretty clear how they can do that—”
“What are you saying?! How are you okay with this? You want Luke, right?!”
“Maybe not,” Sean murmured. “I mean, if he’s so loose …”
Mason shook his head. “For fuck’s sake! How can you even say that? Luke’s hurt—he’s hurt so bad, and you’re just like, what? He got what was coming to him, he deserves to be hurt, it’s perfectly fine for someone else to go ahead and hurt him, for him to get gang-raped in a locker room and left for fucking dead—”
Sean paused. “What?”
Mason took a breath, swallowed nervously. He’d said way too much now, but he was in too deep. “Yeah,” he spat, “bet ya didn’t know that. Bet Luke never told you, he spent three weeks in a hospital, punctured lung, broken ribs, bleeding out everywhere—”
“What’d he do, go to a game while he was in heat?”
Mason lifted his shoulders, almost to his ears, as though trying to protect himself. “The captain,” he said softly, “slipped him something. Inducers, likely. The cops blamed Luke, said he was trying to incite everyone so he could press charges—”
“Maybe he was. That’s not unheard of—”
“Do you really think Luke’s like that?! Christ, how many times have you fucking induced him, drugged him against his will? I know you gave me something at the awards that year—so what’s to stop you from getting Luke all fucked up too?”
Sean actually looked a bit embarrassed. Mason was ashamed that he felt so relieved to see the look of consternation on his former captain’s face. “And has he ever even tried to press charges? He just fucking takes it, Sean.”
The older alpha wouldn’t look at him. Instead, he fixed his gaze ahead of him, staring at the wall. Finally, he said, “Why do you think it was the captain?”
His cold gaze darted to meet Mason’s.
“They were roommates.”
Sean considered that for a moment, then said, “Does Jack really strike you as a rapist?”
Mason stopped short, his hands falling to his sides. “Jack … ?”
Sean paused at last, turning back to face him. “You didn’t know?” he asked. “Luke and Jack were roommates when Luke was at college. Jack was the captain of the team.”
Mason frowned. “That … can’t be right,” he said. Jack played for Denver, and any time Mason had hung out with him, he’d been completely awesome. In fact, they’d hung out during the summer a few times; Jack had come down to LA to do some sponsorship stuff, and he’d crashed at Mason’s. Hell, he was probably gonna spend a week in LA mid-July this year, and Mason had been pumped about it. Training in the dead heat of the summer, in the middle of the off-season, was just so much better when Jack was around.
He stared at Sean, speechless.
The older alpha shrugged. “Your choice,” he said, “about who you believe. Maybe you should ask Jack about it next time you see him.”
Mason dropped his gaze to the ground, stared at the scuffed soles of his sneakers. That just couldn’t be true. He felt sick even thinking about it—that Jack could do something like that.
That Jack would do something like that.
But … did that mean Luke was lying? That didn’t seem right either—why would Luke lie about something that horrifying, that traumatic? Mason had known Luke a long time, and that just wasn’t in the omega’s nature.
“Oy! Jarhead, hurry up! We’re gonna miss our flight!”
Katya unlocked the door and kicked it open, bursting into the darkened foyer of the house. “Dimitry!” she yelled.
Sy stumped in behind her, his crutches clicking.
“He is not here,” said a smooth, rolling voice, one that cascaded down Sy’s spine like honey. “He has left for the arena by now.”
Katya slammed the door shut. “What are you doing here?” she snarled.
Aleks slid off the sofa, jamming his hands in his pockets. He was wearing that self-assured smirk, his eyes lit up with mischief. “I ask you the same thing, Katyushka.”
She balled her fists, gritted her teeth. Aleks paused in the doorway, his gaze landing on Sy.
“Syoma,” he breathed.
“Uh, hey,” Sy offered.
“You get out of my house, Volkov!” Katya shouted. “You are not welcome here, you are bad influence! Just stay away from Dimitry—he does not need you.”
Aleks laughed. “He is one who asks me to come here, Katyushka. Also, this is not your house, I think.”
“Go,” she snarled. “Or I will make you.”
Aleks shrugged. “I think your brother will not like this very much. So I will stay—he asked me to come to his house, to wait here, so I will not go.”
Katya looked ready to strangle him.
“Uh,” Sy said, “why don’t we just go to the arena? We can talk to Dima, we can get this all sorted out then, and—”
“Syoma,” Katya hissed.
“Syoma,” Aleks breathed, and his fingers lighted under Sy’s chin, tilting his face up.
His touch burned, his gaze bored into Sy. The moment lasted too long and ended too soon. He pulled away, leaving Sy aching for contact, but it had been long enough for Katya to realize, for her brows to rise into her hairline.
“Dima did not ask for your help,” Aleks said sharply. “I will do nothing until he says.”
Sy looked helplessly at Katya. She had looked away, her hand over her mouth. She glanced up at him, then back to the floor just as quickly. Bile rose in his throat.
They’d given themselves away; she knew.
Aleks waved a hand, seemingly oblivious. “You can do what you want. I will stay here.”
“Fine,” Katya spat before Sy had a chance to reply. “We will go to arena. We will talk to Dimitry—without you.”
He laughed. “This is fine. Do what you want.”
She looked at Sy again, then glared at Aleks. “We go now,” she sneered, “but you will leave when we come back. I will make sure of this.”
Aleks waved at them. “Goodbye,” he said, “we will see, Katyusha, if you can live up to these words.”
“I will!” she sneered, shoving Sy out the door ahead of her.
“Whoa, hey, watch it—”
She slammed the door shut and whirled on Sy, eyes blazing. “Now,” she snarled, “you will tell me about Aleksandr Volkov.”
Dima was looking at him strangely, but Luke couldn’t bring himself to care. He was floating. The lights were burning down on him, glaring into his eyes as the anthem started. The projection of the American flag across the ice seemed to make the surface waver and Luke watched it, fascinated as it swam before his vision.
He felt unsteady, rocking from side to side on his skates. His ankles were loose, but he felt good, better than he had in a long time.
He gave Dima a loopy grin, which made the Russian frown more, his brows knitting together darkly.
“You okay?” Danny asked as they came to the face-off dot.
“Fine,” Luke drawled, aware that he stuttered the initial “eff.” He almost giggled—eff.
Danny seemed just as perturbed as Dima, glanced about, but said nothing.
Luke blinked a couple of times, then focused his attention on the dot, zeroing in on it, even as it telescoped toward him, then shrank away.
It was almost too easy to hit the puck. Everything was loose, lucid, fluid, and he passed the puck seamlessly across the ice to Danny, who shot away with it, over the blue line, into the attacking zone.
He wondered why he didn’t play high more often.
He remembered during intermission, when the world was spinning and he couldn’t lift his head from between his knees, and the floor was opening up beneath his feet, an empty void opening into the starlit cosmos that no one else saw.
He shook his head to clear the cobwebs, met Jake’s questioning gaze. His stomach churned.
Just another twenty minutes, then another break. Then they’d be done.
The second period was something from hell, the world washing away into a nightmarish illusion. The red lights were suddenly bathing everyone in blood, and the music screamed through his skull. He could scarcely catch his breath; his chest was tight. Jake kept looking at him and once, he thought he saw Dima lean over, whispering something to Jake.
He shouldn’t have taken so many damn pills. He was hallucinating.
The Bears scored early on and the crowd went silent, the arena deathly quiet except for the swishing of skate blades against the ice, the clap of sticks against the boards as they struggled on. Someone was yelling—maybe Coach, maybe Mike—but the sounds melted like wax before they hit Luke’s ears.
He was pretty sure he was going to die. Danny clapped him on the back during second intermission. Luke ignored him in favor of trying to block out the pain screaming through his calves.
Two-nothing a minute into the third. Things were spiraling out of control, and there was nothing Luke could do. The night seemed like an endless montage of shitty face-offs, loss after loss after loss—
Then the horn went, and they lost the game. The crowd was miserable and silent, even as the Bears celebrated on ice, sticks and gloves all over the surface. Luke barely hobbled off the ice, barely made it back to the dressing room.
And Jake was there, clapping him on the back, saying, “You sure you don’t need a ride home,” and the way he slurred ride made Luke feel sick, so sick, and Dima was still frowning at him, so he closed his eyes and tried to block it all out.
He didn’t know how he made it to his car, only that the world was spinning wildly and he knew he shouldn’t drive. He pocketed his keys and headed back to the elevator, exaggerating his stride to seem more sober.
He went to the train station, waited for the subway to screech into the station. He rode in silence, all the way home, trying to get his mind back under control, trying to ignore the crystal Ferris wheel spinning across his vision, but every time he glanced to the left, it crawled back, followed his gaze.
His stop. He stumbled off the train and headed home. He was pretty sure some people thought he was drunk, but he didn’t care.
Maybe he was drunk.
He stopped outside the door, shaking too much to really enter the code to let himself into the building. How pathetic, he thought, to get locked out of his own house.
A hand on his shoulder and he nearly startled out of his skin. “Hey. You sure you’re okay? You don’t seem okay.”
He choked on bile, closed his eyes. His heart dropped into his stomach.