Chapter 31: Opening Night Lights
It had been an exhausting week on the road, so Sy was glad to be back in the Telefira Center, back on home ice, the roars of the crowd rattling him down to his core. There was nothing quite like it. Much as he’d missed hockey, much as just being back on the ice after the broken ankle, followed by the indeterminate summer, road games just weren’t same.
And of course, there wasn’t much like facing off against the Rockets for their home opener.
Sy licked at his lips, glanced about furtively as he took a couple of warm-up laps around the rink, muscle memory flooding back to him. It had been too long; he’d been waiting for this, craving it. His fingertips twitched with it and he had to remind himself to reign himself in, to hold back. There was no need to get an itchy finger on the trigger. Patience was the name of his game, waiting for the right moment to strike, always waiting, waiting, waiting.
Aleks almost drilled him into the boards when he skated up beside him, stopped short, showering him with snow. Sy cringed, curled in on himself, and he heard the Russian laughing as he took off again, lightning quick on his skates like usual.
Sy gritted his teeth. Fucking Aleks Volkov. Of course he’d pull shi t like that in warm-ups. It was up to Sy to decide what that meant-how to deal with it. Was it a warning, a threat? Was that going to be Aleks’s game plan for tonight—crush Sy? Or was it merely a trick, something to try and throw him off his game, make him impatient, paranoid, so much so that he took the first hit? That he hit Aleks before Aleks could take him down?
It wasn’t unusual, per se—Aleks had always played a physical game. It made sense, after all; he was a force to be reckoned with, a sharp-shooter, a real Russian sniper, and he was quick on his skates. But he was also six-foot-three and well over two hundred pounds. Getting hit by him was like getting hit by a train.
Sy knew. He’d been on the receiving end of those hits more times than he cared to count.
The thing he could never decide was if Aleks played any differently against him as anyone else in the league. Sometimes, he felt like he had a giant bullseye painted on him-–not just from Aleks, but from just about everyone in the league. They knew he was a threat, so they zeroed in on him, tried to shut him down. And Aleks was a shut-down player, so it made perfect sense that he’d target Sy.
But Sy suspected that the Russian player hit just a little harder, a little more frequently, just to have Sy pinned up against the boards, just to hiss something obnoxiously filthy in his ear, then skate away laughing.
Sy doubted he didn’t feel some sort of electric thrill when he did it. Sy was never sure if it was the bond reacting or the force of the hit that knocked the wind out of him. (The hit, he told himself, it was always the hit.)
Both teams played with an edge against each other; the Rockets-Stars rivalry had existed long before Sy and Aleks arrived on the scene. Of course, the IHA had played them up—Sy the super serious, perfectly polite Canadian boy; Aleks the unpredictable firecracker Russian, unorthodox and possibly insane. They were quite the dichotomy, really, and the IHA marketing department loved it. So did the Stars, so did the Rockets. Sy knew for fact that tickets for Rockets-Stars tilts went at least twice the normal selling price. The Stars would be swimming in it if only every match could be a Rockets-Stars match-up.
But it couldn’t be like that, and Sy was glad, because he knew they all got a little torqued up about these games, and they all played with an edge that was notably absent when they were playing a team like the Sharks or the oft-dismal Knights.
It was symbiotic; the fans fed off their energy, and they fed off the energy the fans exuded as they came into the arena, a sea of roaring red, a bloody ocean, their primal cries ringing to the rafters.
Aleks’s would-be hit proved one thing to him and that was that he was scared. Timid. He’d been hurt and he didn’t want to get hurt again. He wanted to be healthy for the season. He wanted to play, not get rammed into the boards, maybe go down awkwardly, re-fracture that ankle—or worse.
He glided around the back of the net, pausing near Timmo. The goaltender’s gaze flicked over to him, and then he shot over to the other side of his net, dropping into the splits with practiced ease, as he deflected a shot off Sebby’s stick. He picked himself back up, sidled back toward Sy, vacating the net for [tktk] to take his turn deflecting shots. He caught Sy’s eye again as he skated over toward the bench.
Stretches provided a good time to talk—or not talk, as the case often was with Timmo. The goalie was a weird one—goalies almost always were, in Sy’s experience—but after a moment, he said, “Volkov is out for blood.”
“You noticed, huh?” Sy asked, leaning into his calf stretch a little more, wriggling his toes in his skate as he felt the familiar pull of muscles, all the way down into that fragile ankle. He’d done everything right, he’d done all the rehab, everything they said …
But it still felt weak.
“Kind of hard not to,” the Finn replied, “when he makes such a show of snowing the captain.”
“Mm,” Sy replied. He deadpanned at Mike as the defenseman hopped over a rebounding puck, then stumbled on his skates. “Seriously,” he muttered.
Timmo sighed. “Watch him,” he said, “keep your head up.”
Sy snorted, laughed silently to himself. Sometimes, Timmo sounded exactly like the little voice in his head that sounded exactly like Q.
Still, it was prudent advice; Sy rarely distrusted that little voice as it rarely proved wrong. It was very, very right tonight; Aleks proved that almost as soon as the horn went, lining Sy up for a hit almost right off the dot. Sy might have missed it if he’d been more intent on the play, watching the puck as it drifted back into their zone, on the end of Ty’s stick. Sy was about to call for the puck, but a quick glance to his left told him Aleks was coming at him like a bull, so he danced out of the way, doubling back to provide Ty the opportunity for a drop-pass after he gained the attacking zone.
He didn’t get that far; Fyodor Nabokov stripped him of the puck cleanly and neatly, turned the play around and sent them back into their own zone, on their heels within the first minute of play.
Nabokov took a shot, which deflected wide, and the puck bounced to Mike, who hurled it down the ice, neatly getting them their first icing call of the game. Sy glared at the blond, who offered him a shrug and a sheepish half-grin as they circled in on the dot deep in their own zone, to Timmo’s left.
Sy took the draw with ease—Nabokov wasn’t great at face-offs, not by a long shot. If anything, he was dirty—good at getting penalties called, but otherwise a bit of an outlier.
He had an amazing shot, which made him a perennial threat—but more often than not, he deigned not to use it. Instead, he’d dish to Aleks—which was almost as bad, and which was how the Rockets ended up with their first goal of the night at 10:21 into the period.
“You gotta watch Nabby for that,” Sy told Ty when they were back on the bench. “Always look to see where Volkov is, chances are he’ll dish it–”
“I know,” Ty all but growled at him, “I ain’t a fuckin’ rookie anymore–”
“Then quit makin’ rookie mistakes, eh?” Sebby’s lip was curled up in a sneer, and thank God, Q yelled for his line to hit the ice, so he swung a leg over the bench and was gone.
Ty chomped on his mouthguard more vigorously. He was clearly pissed.
They went down two-oh in the first, which wasn’t great, but Sy refused to brood. The team was looking to him; he could feel it. Coach berated them for it, called Leo out on a bad penalty, told them to stop fumbling the puck like a bunch of teenage boys who were getting too excited, and Sy knew he couldn’t be mad. He had to be the level head. He had to be the guy who believed in them, that they could do it. It wasn’t arrogance, it wasn’t ill-placed optimism. It was just quiet confidence that they were all talented guys, that they could manage to take down the Rockets.
After all, they’d done it in the playoffs—and without him on the ice. How hard could it be now?
Apparently it was very difficult, and Sy couldn’t help his temper when another scoring chance slipped by him; he put too much torque on the puck, rifled it up high, heard it ping off the crossbar, and he swore, because someone upstairs hated him. If any of those idiots in marketing who painted him as quintessentially polite could hear him then—
He slammed himself onto the bench, chewed at his mouthguard, glared out at the ice, at nothing in particular, until Aleks was in his line of vision, grinning, and shit—
He swung his leg over the bench, yelled at Q. They were losing the match-up—the Rockets were switching their lines, trying to get the Volkov line out when Sy wasn’t on the ice.
“Let ‘em go, Tremblay,” Q huffed, “sit your ass down on that bench—you think you can’t score against their fourth line? ‘cause our second line can hold their top line, no questions asked.”
Sy watched Luke fumble the faceoff, the puck sliding back to Eric Bergstrom. He glanced over his shoulder at Q, pressed his lips firmly together.
“Patience,” Q admonished, and like Sy had forgotten.
Patience was his game. But it only worked when he could find the back of the damn net, and that apparently wasn’t in the cards tonight. He could already hear the newspaper headlines tomorrow—the Post was going to be ruthless. Symon Tremblay was over, he was done. He’d lost his magic touch—hockey’s golden boy was through because he couldn’t score in one game, his first game back.
He knew they were wrong. But it didn’t mean it didn’t piss him off, didn’t make it easier to wait for the rust to come off.
They were down three-zip going into the third. The crowd was silent; the roar had died away, the seeming inevitability of defeat muting them. Sy could hear the blood rushing through his ears as he put his head down, lowered his gaze to the ice, preparing for the draw at center ice.
Sticks snapped against sticks; he won it cleanly and sent the puck to Sebby, who rifled it cross-ice to Brenden who was—shockingly, traveling over the blue line, through center ice, toward the offensive zone.
He toed his way across the line, carefully slowing up to enter the zone ahead of his teammates, but ensuring that Sebby and Sy both tagged up with him. Brenden’s not the kind of guy to go in deep.
He slid the puck across the line, a neat pass if there ever was one, and it bounced against the tape on Sy’s stick, seemed to stick there as he skated in deeper.
A flash of gold; he flung the puck up ice, banked it around the boards, hoping it would pop out the other side, land on Sebby’s stick and not a rocket stick—
A second later, he crumpled into the boards, Aleks’s full weight barreling into him –a shoulder pad driving into his side, the rest of Aleks up tight against him. He exhaled all the air in his lungs, watched the play spin, wondered where the hell the whistle was on that, ‘cause that was definitely, definitely interference, he’d gotten rid of the puck, there was no need for Aleks to hit him—
He shoved back against the older player, desperate to extricate himself, and Aleks was holding him thee now, the prick, and where were the goddamn refs, were they fucking blind?
The play must have turned, he surmised, because Aleks drew no penalty, no whistle, and Sy gritted his teeth, prepared to shove him back, when the Russian leaned in, all but laughed, “If you score goal tonight, you get a blowjob.”
Sy stopped struggling; his brain ground to a halt. He blinked in stupefaction—had Aleksandr Volkov seriously just offered to …?
And before he had time to register that, before he had time to reply, Aleks laughed and danced away, tagging up with the rest of his line—play had been whistled down behind the other net—an offside called against the Rockets, calling back their fourth goal of the night.
Sy gritted his teeth and skated toward center ice, fiddling with his chinstrap as he went. Friggin’ Aleks, thought he was so clever, so smart …
He whirled about, crouched into position, hiking his stick up over his thighs. He glanced at the ref, tightened his grip on his twig. Bergstrom was better at taking faceoffs, that was for sure. He had to concentrate on this, not on—
They both leaned into it, sticks grinding against each other, and Sy ground his teeth, jammed his elbow into Bergstrom’s side as he started to turn; their skates lodged together, and they pushed at each other, trying to dislodge the other, to make the puck pop free the way they wanted. The official was yelling at them now, telling them to move it along or he’d whistle play and they’d have to start again—
Sy dove after the puck when it squirted free, bouncing toward the bench, somehow snapped it up on the end of his stick and he gained the zone. The Rockets’ D came at him, but he darted into the corner, the guy trailing him, and he put his arm out, just barely fending the lug off as they curled about the net. Blake was sliding from post to post, stopping up and crouching as they came around the corner.
He swiveled his hips, turned himself so he was facing the net as he came off that corner; the D was wide. He wound up and smacked the puck—he saw nothing but net to the goalie’s left,, high up over his shoulder, and—
He’d been so patient, for so goddamn long—
The puck zoomed over the net, and both he and Blake followed its trajectory into the netting. It bounced into the dark web over the glass, then dropped harmlessly back to the ice.
Sy could have screamed. He’d been so patient, for so long.
And so it went for the entirety of the period, a grinding, grueling fifteen minutes from that first abortive scoring attempt. Crossbar, netting, boards, the goalie’s frustratingly properly positioned pads—anywhere and everywhere but the back of the net.
He was glad he’d shattered his stick on the shot when one of the D got his stick on the puck, just barely flicked it back out of the net before the puck trundled over it.
He couldn’t buy a goal to save his life and Aleks was laughing at him as the clock counted down the final seconds of the tilt. It was panicked, scrambly in front of the net, all of them banging away at the puck, because they couldn’t go down three-nothing, they couldn’t let Blake have that shut out, not in front of the home crowd, not on opening night—
The world contracted, and Sy stared at the puck, saw nothing but the puck, and he slapped at it, but there was nothing he could do. The horn sounded and his blade was in the air, the puck slowly rolling free of the net, snow flying up all around it, and that was it, that was all.
Aleks caught his eye from across the way, winked at him, and he just stared.
Where was his clutch, where was his execute? He normally performed under pressure …
But then, Aleks Volkov had never offered to blow him before either.
He sleep-walked through the media scrum after, found himself searching for words more often than usual, staring at a reporter for a long second after the question was asked, slowly trying to comprehend—
Aleks wasn’t inconspicuous, not by a long shot, and Sy hated him a little. They weren’t far enough from the arena, Stars fans still streaming by them, and someone was bound to recognize at least one of them.
Aleks glanced up at him at last, his gaze flickering between Sy and his phone. Gone was the raucous laughter from the arena; he looked sullen, serious, and Sy shifted from side to side, glancing around as the crowd streamed around them, seemingly oblivious. He was so sure they stood out in stark relief; they clearly didn’t belong.
Aleks pushed away from the streetlamp he was leaned against, pocketed his phone.
“So,” Sy said.
“You did not score,” Aleks said.
Sy inhaled, steadied his breath. Like he needed the reminder. “Yet you still called me out here,” he countered, doing his best to glower at the Russian.
The older man’s lips quirked upward into that characteristic smirk; his eyes were like blue fire, dancing in the rum light. “I scored,” he said, and this time, Sy did twitch.
“Oh no,” he huffed, “ you jerk, I didn’t agree to that, those odds weren’t on the table, you’re the one who offered–”
“Fair is fair,” Aleks said, but it sounded like a question.
“No,” Sy snapped back. “you said if I scored. But I didn’t. There was nothing said about if you scored.”
Aleks considered that for a moment, then said, slowly, “But it would be fair to offer.”
Sy rolled his eyes. They had this argument almost every time they met up. Sy glanced about, then grabbed the older man by the wrist, dragged him in a little closer, hissed, “It stopped being fair about six years ago, from the first time–”
“—cause if you want a tally, I’ve been keeping track and you’re ahead in this scoring race, jackass.”
Aleks grinned broadly. “Oh, Syoma,” he purred, and Sy hated that his knees threatened to buckle, hated that he could practically feel his resolve eroding. “Such harsh words—come, Syoma, we will teach you pretty things to do with pretty lips–”
Sy pulled back, almost stumbled into a passerby, narrowly avoided the collision. He glanced over his shoulder, then stood up straighter. “No,” he told Aleks firmly.
Aleks frowned. “I am just talking about drink, Syoma. You have rough night.”
Sy felt his upper lip curl in disdain. “Oh, so what? I get a consolation prize, is that what this is?”
“Hush,” Aleks said, “you talk too much.”
Sy gritted his teeth. He wasn’t going. How many times had he told himself that, promised himself that he wouldn’t bend, he wouldn’t break …
Not when Aleks looked at him with those baby blues, not when he orangey light of the streelight hit him just right, not when the empty promise hung on the air between them, and how many times had Sy been tricked, how many times had he played the fool?
He didn’t want to give in any more. He wanted to stop chasing himself in hopeless circles, a wish, a whim, a daydream that would be shattered the second they were alone together …
But Aleks gripped his wrist, held his gaze—steady, firm, commanding—and Sy gritted his teeth, zig-zagged after him through the crowd, hoping against hope that no one knew them, no one saw them.
The crowd had died away while they were arguing, and now they headed three or four blocks over, to the vodka bar, all lit up with black lights, and full of Russians, and Sy always forgot how DC was crawling with them until …
Aleks led him up the winding staircase, and Sy glanced about furtively—did he know anyone here, did anyone here know him?—and he saw blurred faces, immaculately made up women, men whose faces he didn’t recognize, but their eyes flashed with recognition and his heart sank a little.
Aleks stopped abruptly, spoke to a hostess, who smiled pleasantly at them, her voice, his voice, lilting and rolling with hushed Russian tones, and Sy wondered what they were saying. It sounded so secretive.
She gestured them into the backroom; a curtain fell shut behind them, and Sy wondered that he’d never been back here before. Aleks gestured him into one of the private booths without a word; everything was so hushed, so silent. The thud of the bass beat from the club seemed miles away, even though it was right in the next room.
He peered round the curtain and startled when he was greeted by another pair of electric blue eyes.
The man looked strangely like Aleks, but Sy had never met him before. He had the same nose, the same eyes—even the curve of his lips was the same. But his hair had gone gray; he was wearing a suit. He looked like Aleks maybe fifteen years in the future.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing across the way, to the opposite side of the booth.
Sy swallowed tightly, but forced himself to take up the offered seat. He noticed the shot glasses on the table.
Aleks sat down next to him, nodding to his doppelganger. “Mischa,” he said, nodding.
“Sasha,” the other man replied without glancing up from the shots he was now pouring. “and you must be Syoma.”
He did glance up now, pointedly at Sy.
“Uh,” Sy said, very gracefully.
“This is Mikhail,” Aleks said, “my oldest brother.”
“Oh,” Sy said.
Aleks very rarely talked about his family—maybe he’d mentioned he had a brother (brothers? Aleks had said he was oldest …) at some point, but Sy had never seen any siblings, never talked to them. He knew Aleks’s mother, but only because Aleks was a Mama’s boy of the highest caliber. He’d never really talked about brothers or sisters.
To be perfectly fair, they didn’t really talk a lot.
Sy didn’t know what to make of this—Mischa eyed him warily, pushed a shot his way, and it was clear the feeling was mutual. Sy took the glass hesitantly. Aleks picked up his cup, and the Russians toasted silently—not even clinking their cups, just rocking them forward, then tossing back the burning liquid, and Sy hastily followed suit.
“So,” Mischa said, “we meet after all this time.”
Sy pressed his lips into a line to keep himself from saying anything stupid. He didn’t know what to say to that.
Mischa leaned forward. “Sasha talks about you a lot,” he said, his startling gaze flicking upward to meet Sy’s. A slow smirk spread across his face, and apparently that expression was a heritable trait—the amusement, the vague excitement of the smirk. It was almost pure Aleks, except written across someone else’s visage.
“Uh,” Sy said. Should he tell Mischa he hadn’t even been aware that he existed?
“Mischa lives in DC,” Aleks offered, and now Sy felt even stupider. There was another Volkov brother, living right under his nose, in the same city?
“I—um, I’m sorry we weren’t introduced before,” Sy managed.
“It is okay,” Mischa said, “I live here, yes, but travel lots.”
“Mischa is ambassador,” Aleks said.
“Oh,” Sy said, eyes widening. “I—uh.” He probably should have known that.
Mischa frowned. “You are bad at talking,” he surmised, poured another round of shots. “Here, drink. It makes this easier.”
“I have another game,” Sy protested.
“In three days,” Aleks said, forcing the cup into his hand.
Sy glowered at him. “Why do you know my schedule?” he snapped.
Mischa snickered, then waved a hand when Sy turned his glare on him. “No,” he said, “it is no matter.”
“You should be nice,” Aleks said sternly; his gaze was pinned to his brother. “After all, Mischa does you favor.”
Sy knitted his brows together, frowning deeply. “A favor? Really? How?” He hardly considered getting trashed with the Volkov brothers in a private booth in a restaurant/club a favor.
Mischa’s eyes flashed brighter, a wicked sort of look. “I had talk with Sasha,” he said. “Sasha—you know he is stupid, yes?”
Sy knew exactly what shade of pink his cheeks were at that moment as he gawped at Mischa.
The elder Volkov leaned back against the plush backing of the bench. “So I talk with him. I tell him he cannot be quite this dumb.”
Sy was never sure if it was just translation issues or if all Russians always necessarily sounded cagey. But his curiosity was getting the better of him, so before he could think better of it, he said, “What did you tell him?”
Mischa chuckled again. “That he is idiot,” he said.
“I know that,” Sy replied, but Mischa held up a hand.
“Russia is not the same,” he said, looking Sy dead in the eye. “You, who are grow up in Canada, you think different. You are told different things. In Russia, we say alphas must be with omegas, men with women. You understand—it is different.”
Sy pursed his lips, considering.
“But,” Mischa went on, “we know this is not so. We says these things, but we do not think them. Not always. Because—we know.” His words became halting and he stopped short at last, just watched Sy for his reaction.
“Are … you talking about bonding?” Sy asked at last when it was clear Mischa wasn’t going to continue.
“It is hard to believe,” Mischa said, “when you are told these things do not happen—can not, must not.”
Sy glanced at Aleks, but he wouldn’t look at him. He glanced between the brothers, eyes darting back and forth, as though calculating, before finally saying, “Is that what you talked about? Bonds?”
Mischa grinned. “Sasha will not shut up,” he laughed, “it is always ‘Syoma this, Syoma that.’”
He paused again; a hasty look at Aleks, but Aleks was impassive. Mischa poured himself another drink. “So,” he said, “so Sasha comes to Moscow in the spring. He is in very bad mood—all black looks, we think he will kill a man.”
Another hasty pause. “So we know something happens, something while Sasha is in DC. He will not tell us—but Dima will.”
Sy plonked back against the seat. “So Dima’s figured us out, huh?”
“No,” Aleks said sharply. “He does not—he knows I am angry with Katyushka.”
“But he does not know why,” Mischa offered. “He says Katyushka thinks you are her boyfriend. And ah-ha, we think this is the problem. Syoma has been stolen by Katyushka, of course this makes sense.”
Aleks’s expression wanted so desperately to be stony, impassive, but there was rage in his eyes, the set of his jaw. Sy could see it, plain as day. Mischa tossed back his shot. “So I ask Sasha, what does this matter to you? You do not want Katyushka, you have had her.”
Sy frowned. He still wasn’t over that.
“And he says–”
“It is not Katyushka,” Aleks mumbled, then reached for the vodka bottle, apparently ready to drown his embarrassment.
“Of course not,” Mischa snorted. “It is Syoma. And I laugh. Because Sasha is so stupid—of course Syoma will not wait forever, of course he will go with someone else.”
“Not Katya,” Sy said. He spared Aleks another glance, but it didn’t seem to fizz on him.
“And Sasha is so angry, he yells, ‘But Syoma says we are bonded, how can he do this thing if we have bond?”
Sy snapped. “You’ve always denied it!” he barked, whirling on Aleks. “You’re the one who says we don’t have a bond—I’ve told you over and over again, and every goddamn time–”
“It is difficult,” Mischa said calmly, “to know this. When all your life, you are told it cannot be like this.”
Sy closed his mouth with a click. He stared at Aleks, unable to bring himself to speak.
After all this goddamn time …
Aleks wouldn’t look at him. He took his shot, then cleared his throat and said, “I feel it. When you break your foot, I feel this.”
He hesitated, then turned to face Sy. “I know,” he said, “without watching, without seeing. It hurts—it still hurts you, yes? Tonight, it does not feel so strong, you are careful. You do not skate as fast as you can. You are scared.”
Aleks couldn’t look him in the eye now. “I feel it longer than this, yes,” he admitted. “For so long now, Syoma—but I think, this cannot be true. I am alpha, Syoma is alpha. This is not right, it cannot …”
“Moron,” Sy snarled, “you absolute fucking moron–”
Aleks sighed heavily. “I know, But this is truth, I did not think it could be true.”
Sy leaned toward him, his hand tensing around the edge of the tabletop. Part of him wanted to strangle Aleks or punch him or something, so, so badly. “One question,” he ground out, his voice low and threatening, like a rumble of thunder in the distance, promising a storm.
Aleks turned those eyes on him, clear and surprised.
Sy had to hold the smirk back. “Does this mean you’ll blow me now?”