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

Chapter 32: Feeling Introspective [Slapshot!]

Chapter 32: Feeling Introspective [Slapshot!]

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Fedya glanced about, spied his teammates in a dark corner of the dive bar, barely illuminated by the rum red lights mounted in the corner. Erik was leaned over the dilapidated pool table, cue in hand as he lined up a shot.

            Fedya headed over to them, hands jammed deep in his pockets. He kept glancing about, hoping that no one recognized him.
            Blake waved at him with his free hand; he was hanging on to his own cue. “Hey,” he said, then turned back to their game as Erik took his shot, the lacquered balls knocking into each other, clattering as they fired off in all directions. They came to rest, then stilled. Erik rolled his eyes, stepped back. Blake hopped up on the side of the table, contemplating his shot.
            “Where is Sasha?” Fedya asked, glancing about the room.
            Erik shook his head. “Left,” the Swede replied evenly, watching Blake like a hawk. “Immediately. He did not talk to anyone, just left.”
            Fedya pressed his lips together; he didn’t need to know any more than that. Erik caught the black look, then turned his attention back to the pool table. “He is an adult,” he said.
            Blake took his shot, groaned when one of the balls teetered on the edge of a pocket but failed to slip in. He switched places with Erik, patting the Swede on the back, then locking eyes with Fedya.
            “Y’know,” he said, “Aleks is an adult. He can make his own decisions.”
            Fedya felt his upper lip curl, glowered at the goalie. “You know nothing,” he sneered—because what could he possibly know of them? Did he know that Sasha had vowed that he was straight, had fooled around with Fedya when they were stupid teenagers? Did he know that Sasha had promised him that he’d be the first, if it ever came to that? Did he know all of the angst Sasha had gone through, did he know about Sergei, did he know all of Sasha’s secrets, all of his fears, the way that Fedya did? Had he been right there, standing right by his side, on the ice, off the ice, as they grew up, as the years passed them by, turned them from mere boys into men?
            No, of course not. Blake knew nothing. He could not possibly know what Fedya knew about Sasha; they had been the best of friends for so long.
            Blake’s eyebrows lifted; he must have seen the storm brewing in the Russian’s eyes. “I’ll get you a drink,” the goalie said, and Fedya supposed that was the least he could do.
            He slumped down on one of the bar stools, watched Erik take his shot, whooping as a couple of the balls rolled into the pockets. “Aw man,” Blake complained, “that’s so unfair–”
            It was hardly unfair, Fedya thought, frowning deeply. Unfair was waiting this long for Sasha, hoping vainly that one day he’d come around, waiting, waiting, waiting …
            And then Symon fucking Tremblay happened, that simpering Canadian bitch, thought he was so good, thought he could even play on Sasha’s level, thought they could be even compared, thought he might have a chance …
            The truth burned, more so than the alcohol Blake offered him. He drank it in order to quell the other fire sitting deep in the pit of his stomach as he watched his teammates play pool, shot after shot, balls slipping into pockets, Blake whooping or groaning as the wheel of fortune turned, Erik smirking every time he took the lead.
            Sip after sip, he sank deeper into his reverie, wondering where, exactly, he had gone wrong, why he’d never managed to convince Sasha to …
            And what Symon Tremblay had that he did not. He wondered why Symon had succeeded where he himself had failed. He could see no reason for it, not even now. Sasha had promised, he had promised …
            “Where are the others?” he asked at last, when he looked at the time and realized they were still the only three Rockets’ players in the bar.
            “We did not invite them,” Erik replied easily.
            “Figured it’d be better,” Blake said, “get you out, instead of letting you sit in the hotel, slowly realizing Aleks wasn’t coming back, where he probably was …”
            Fedya gritted his teeth. Erik flashed a look at Blake, as if telling him to shut up, that he’d said too much.
            Blake sank the final ball, sighed and reached across the table to shake hands with Erik. “Good game, buddy,” he said.
            “Another round?” the Swede asked.
            “Nah,” Blake replied easily, racked his cue. “We gotta roll early in the morning, so we should get back.”
            Erik glanced sidelong at Fyodor. “You good?” he asked, quirking an inquisitive eyebrow.
            Fedya stared down into his empty glass, then set it on the bar. “Yes,” he said at last, even though it was a lie.
            He was not good, not at all, and even going back to the hotel would not improve his mood—although it was preferable to sitting here and stewing, knocking back drinks until he could no longer feel in order to numb that jealousy, that anger roiling away in him.
            He was not going to feel better going back to his empty room, knowing where Sasha was. He wasn’t going to feel better if Sasha was already back, if he came in when the clock struck two or three, or even if he didn’t come back at all. He was going to be up all night; the storm told him so.
            “Cool,” Blake said, “we’ll head back then. I’m gonna hit the can first.”
            He pointed in the direction of the washroom, then headed off. Erik glanced at Fedya, who looked back at him, shook his head. “I do not understand what he says sometimes,” he offered, because honestly, there were no cans in there.
            “This is true,” Erik said, “I do not think you understand him very well sometimes.”
            And Fedya caught his eye again, frowned deeply. But Erik offered nothing more, and Fedya was left with yet another crosswind fueling the storm.
*
Danny stepped into the foyer, tiptoeing into the house, closely the door quietly behind him.
            There was a faint, yellow glow from the kitchen. He toed off his shoes carefully, put his jacket away. He stole into the kitchen.
            Matt was pulling pizza out of the oven. He dropped it on the waiting pan, lifted his head to grin at Danny. “Hey,” he said cheerfully.
            Danny exhaled softly, grabbed a seat on the stool at the breakfast bar. “Hey,” he said, leaned forward to steal a kiss from the younger man. “You’re up late.”
            “Mm,” Matt agreed. “I fell asleep during the game, but figured I could wait for you. I, uh, figured you might be hungry.”
            Danny thumbed at his cheek. “Good guess,” he said. He couldn’t have been more delighted that Matt had picked up their post-game ritual. True, he wasn’t playing himself yet—but it was a sure sign the alpha was on the mend.
            And it was so much better than the way things had been in May, when Matt had been so sick, so weak. When he’d been falling asleep early in the evening, barely watching games, forgetting to eat at all, until Danny got home late and forced toast on him.
            “So that sucked,” Matt said, “I saw the final score, shitty …”
            Danny sighed. “Yeah,” he muttered. A loss to the Rockets was never easy to take, but it was a tough pill to swallow for their home opener. It didn’t bode well for the rest of the season. He bit into a slice of pizza, chewed thoughtfully.
            “Eh,” Matt said, leaning over the counter, “it’s only one game. Sy’s still shaking off the rust, yeah? And you guys haven’t got your greatest asset on the ice yet.”
            Danny snorted. “I wonder who that would be,” he muttered.
            Matt grinned cheekily.
            “Anyway,” Danny said, reaching for a napkin, “how’d today go? Sorry I had to miss it–”
            Matt waved a hand in dismissal. “It’s cool,” he said, then paused. “I mean. I would’ve liked you to be there, but y’know. The team needs you sometimes too, and I’ve more than had your support over the last coupla months.”
            “You’re my mate,” Danny replied. “You were sick. Of course I’m gonna be there for you—fuck the team, fuck hockey, fuck everything else.”
            “Hmm, I’d really rather you fuck me, but okay.”
            Matt snickered at his own joke, and Danny rolled his eyes. “All right, wise guy,” he said, “but tell me—what’s the report? What did the doctors say?”
            Matt nodded. “Well,” he said, “I’m in remission.”
            How long had they been waiting to hear that? Danny clutched a little at the napkin, crumpled it up a little more than he had too. “Good,” he said, casting his eyes down at his plate, “good.”
            “Yup. So—I’ve got some more tests in a coupla weeks, but they think … maybe. We’ll have to see.”
            Danny nodded, pressed his lips together in a thin line to keep from saying anything. He didn’t trust his voice.
            “So, I just gotta wait, then maybe I can start some physio, light training. Y’know. Start getting back to it.”
            He gave Danny a genuine smile. “Maybe I can get back for like, January or February. I mean, sooner if I can, but I’m … not gonna rush it.”
            “Good,” Danny replied with a nod, unable to look away from the younger man, his bright brown eyes all but shining in the soft yellow glow of the stove light. “Good.”
            They leaned forward, their hands entwining instinctually. Matt’s eyes slipped shut, and Danny pulled a hand away, smoothed the bandana Matt had tied over his head down. “I’m so happy to hear it,” he whispered.
            Matt’s eyes were wet when he opened them again; his smile had fallen away. He tried to blink away the tears, unsuccessfully. His breath came short, and Danny gripped his hand harder, used his free hand to rub across his back, his shoulders.
            “I was so–”
            “I know, I know …”
            “—fuckin’ scared, Dan. You have no idea.”
            Danny did know. He’d been scared too. He stroked a hand down Matt’s cheek.
            The younger man heaved another breath, bit his lip. He stared at Danny, his eyes boring into his, searching, searching.
            Then the alpha opened his mouth and said, “Let’s have a baby.”
            Danny froze. Matt did too. He stared Danny, his eyes so wide, and Danny knew his own must be a similar size; they were straining in their sockets.
            “Uh,” Matt said.
            Danny just gawped at him some more. “What?”
            Matt laughed nervously, drawing back. “Ah, I mean—”
            Danny grabbed him by the biceps, squeezed so hard it hurt. “Are. You. Serious?” he ground out, almost shaking Matt as he did so.
            “Uh—wha—no, like, Danny, seriously, I just kinda … blurted it out, I don’t know why I said that.”
            He paused, stared at the older man. There was something devastated in his eyes. “Y’know,” he stuttered, “I just … we’re both pretty messed up right now, like I haven’t even been cleared—let’s not make decisions right now.”
            Danny considered that, his grip relaxing, his fingers falling away. “I just …”
            “Forget it!” Matt laughed. “Forget it, Danny—I got … caught up. In the moment, my head’s not on straight. Maybe I’m drunk, I’m probably high, neither of us is thinking right.”
            Danny quashed his hands against the alpha’s cheeks again, holding him in place. “I would love to have a family with you.”
            He was surprised by his own sincerity, the earnestness laced through his words, and he felt it down to every syllable.
            Matt reared back, stumbled away from the counter. He shook his head slowly. “Dan, I’m sorry, forget I said anything, Danny—”
            They stared helplessly at each other for a moment. There was fear in Matt’s eyes. Danny looked down at his plate again.
            Inhale. Exhale. “Okay,” he said. “O … kay.”
            Matt nodded minutely. Danny stared at the plate for a moment more, then pushed it away. He slid off the barstool. “Can you clean up?” he asked, hated how tight his throat felt.
            “Sure,” Matt replied easily.
            “Thanks,” Danny said, “I’ll see you upstairs.”
*
Sean dropped his cufflinks onto the polished top of the entryway table, kicked the door shut behind him. He glanced about as he loosened off his tie. He left his jacket a crumpled mess on the tabletop, kicked off his shoes.
            The lights in the kitchen and the living room were on, but he hadn’t heard anyone stirring yet.
            He made his way cautiously down the hallway, peering into the living room, then into the kitchen, and found them both deserted. He sighed heavily, draped his tie over the back of the sofa, then clicked off the lights.
            He flipped the switch in the kitchen as well, made his way further into the recesses of the condo, clicking out the bathroom light on his way. He paused there, frowning, then closed the door a little and headed into the master bedroom.
            Luke was dead asleep, apparently, curled up in a tiny ball (or, well, at least as small as a man his size could possibly be). The blankets were half off the bed already, pooling on the floor. Sean closed the door silently behind him, already unbuttoning his shirt.
            Luke didn’t even stir.
            Still, Sean crept about the room quietly. He hung up his shirt, swore at the dry cleaning bag when it crinkled too loudly. He tossed a glance at Luke, but the younger man remained stubbornly asleep.
            At last, Sean crawled to bed, checking to ensure Luke was indeed still breathing. He caught sight of yet another open pill vial on the nightstand, cap off, a couple of capsules scattered about on the tabletop.
            He dragged a hand over Luke’s shoulders, watched him sleeping. He wished he could do something more for the omega, but …
            He had no idea what could be done. He’d forced him into psychiatry sessions when camp resumed in early September, but he wasn’t sure it was helping. It certainly hadn’t stopped Luke from self-medicating whenever he felt anxious or panicked, or when he couldn’t sleep.
            He’d thought about taking the pills away, about throwing them all out, flushing them—even just taking them all to his office and locking them in there so Luke couldn’t get at them. He’d already sent down orders to the team doctors that they weren’t supposed to be issuing any more prescriptions for this stuff. But Luke was still getting his hands on it—whether through a complicit teammate or another doctor or a friend, Sean didn’t know. He needed to find out.
            But work had kept him busy thus far; true to form, he was home later, much later than Luke had gotten in. They’d both been at the game, but Sean had paperwork to finish, phone calls to make. Tomorrow, he had to be in at eight; he had a presentation to make, followed by a couple of meetings.
            He wasn’t sure why he’d taken this job. Maybe he would have been better off coaching or scouting or something. He missed the ice, he missed the frenetic energy of hockey, the camaraderie of practice. He still had to travel, he still had to be at games. But he felt so far removed from hockey sometimes, it wasn’t fair.
            He leaned over and kissed Luke’s cheek, let his hand linger on the younger man’s shoulder a little longer.
            He wished he had more time to spend with Luke, looking out for Luke. He was clearly struggling, and Sean didn’t know that there was anything he could do to help. He was doing everything he could with what little time he had.
            Still, he felt acutely responsible for the omega’s well-being. Yes, he knew he was only Luke’s legal alpha—a position that afforded him legal right, but not one that guaranteed an emotional or physical connection to the omega. That didn’t mean he didn’t have those connections.
            It was true that his relationship—if one could even call it that—with Luke wasn’t necessarily the best. It had started through blackmail and manipulation, continued through coercion and dubious consent, been halted for three years while he’d ended his marriage, and then resumed only a few weeks before Jake Watson had …
            He rubbed his thumb absently over the scars on Luke’s neck, one silvery and fading, the other fresh and red.
            He should have known he’d never compete against Mason Green. Luke had been hopelessly in love with Mason for years. It had been how Sean had even manipulated Luke into that first time.
            He regretted it so much now; the situation sounded so … ungainly, so borderline illegal. He felt like a goddamn criminal about it most of the time. But the fact remained that he’d played chaperon to nineteen-year-old Mason at the IHA Awards in Vegas, had fed the younger alpha a steady stream of alcohol and inducers, had been angling to get him into bed later that evening.
            Mason had been so willing—he was high on being in Vegas, on getting alcohol illegally, on being drunk, on reaping awards for his stellar season with the Knights. He was still starstruck by Sean, and it wasn’t like it wasn’t something Sean hadn’t done before—taking younger men to bed, often with a liberal application of alcohol or drugs to lower their inhibitions, to get them to say yes.
            And then they’d met Luke in the bathroom during intermissions and Mason had growled, grabbed Luke, felt him up. Luke had been completely mortified, but Mason had been drunk enough to think it was a good idea, had grinned at Sean and growled, “This is my omega bitch.”
            Luke was a rookie too, even though he was two years older than Mason—just twenty-one, and Sean had played him twice, once in DC, once in LA, and he hadn’t thought anything of him then—he wasn’t a notable player, not a threat—but he was something out of his hockey gear.
            Mason wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but Luke’s was almost innocent-looking, the way his pale skin turned bright pink with embarrassment, the way his bright blue eyes widened, the way his dark brows knit together as he yelled at Mason.
            And he was omega.
            He seemed both embarrassed and aghast that Mason told Sean, but Sean shrugged. He’d been around the league long enough to know there were omegas in the ranks. He’d seen enough of it that he knew when he saw one—and he knew Mason wasn’t lying.
            They sat on opposite sides of the theater, since Luke played in the Eastern Conference and Mason and Sean were part of the Western. Sean had to present a couple of awards, and when he was on-stage, he found himself scanning the audience for those blue eyes, always startled when he found them.
            Mason managed not to make a fool of himself during his speech, and Sean ensured that he had another glass of champagne during the second intermission, offered Luke one as well. The omega was distrustful, unsure, but he took it.
            After, they ended up in the hotel room, Mason groping Luke, prepared to show Sean that Luke was his omega bitch, but the teen was too drunk, and before things went very far, he’d passed out, face-down, on the bed.
            That had left Luke and Sean in each other’s company, Luke particularly wary. With good reason, now that Sean reflected on it—he’d wasted no time propositioning the omega, who had bluntly refused, until Sean had shrugged and told him he could go, but that it would be Mason on the line then.
            He’d never intended to carry through on that threat—an unconscious partner wasn’t all that appealing to him. But Luke didn’t know him, didn’t know if he was sincere or not. So Sean had shrugged, told him it was his choice.
            And Luke had given in, allowed Sean to have him, if only to keep Mason from coming to any harm.
            Sean hadn’t really expected to want anything more from Luke after that—after all, he’d been bringing younger men to bed for years, one-night stands, never anything more.
            At first, it had just been sex however. And Luke would prove a little resistant, so he’d slip him some inducers, and Luke would be gone.
            Guilt gnawed at him when he did it, but having Luke was compulsion. He’d stop at nothing to have him.
            He’d been elated when Luke finally agreed, no drugs needed. By that time, Sean had moved to the east coast, so they saw each other more frequently, and they hooked up whenever Sean was in DC and whenever Luke was in Boston.
            He hated that Luke was so hung up on Mason. Hated that everything Luke did was controlled by thoughts of the alpha, that he’d never let himself get in deep with Sean because he was holding out for Mason …
            Sean had quietly toyed with the idea of ending his marriage, of leaving Megs. She didn’t know about any of it—it had been going on for years under her nose. But he’d never thought of ending it before. Never thought of leaving her. It had always been enough, to be with her, to have boys on the side.
            It wasn’t that way with Luke at all. He wanted to be there full-time for Luke, he wanted Luke to be his omega, wanted to buy him a big house, keep him at home, pamper him with nothing but the finest, come home after work and have him—
            He didn’t know how Luke would react to the idea. So he’d said nothing, kept it quiet. But the idea had grown more and more insistent, whispering to him even when he was lying beside his wife.
            So he’d left her. It had taken three full years to get all the legalities settled, but he’d done it.
            He’d known Luke would resist. Luke had always resisted. And he knew Luke was still tied to Mason; it wasn’t as though the omega was going to give that up. And in some ways, Sean didn’t want him to. Yes, he wanted Luke. Yes, he wanted to own him—wanted to keep him for his own.
            But he also wanted Luke to be happy. And if having Mason would make him happy, if that would please his omega, then Sean was more than willing to reel in the other alpha for him.
            Not that he particularly minded—after all, there had been a time when he wanted Mason as well.
            Perhaps it was selfish, perhaps it was greedy. But if he could have them both, if that would keep Luke happy, then so be it. He could be happy with that arrangement—with the three of them together in some sort of triangulation. So long as it made Luke happy.
            Right now, nothing seemed to make Luke happy—not even Mason. Perhaps there was fleeting relief when he encountered the other alpha. Maybe there was a momentary sense of calm when they were together. But in the remaining moments, Luke was sullen and anxious, seemingly teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown. Drugs and distractions, nightmares and nausea, hockey and hopelessness; the omega kept pushing, pushing, pushing, striving to be normal, but the edge was so razor-thin as he traipsed along it, and Sean could do nothing but watch him fall.
            He’d give everything to convince Luke he was safer to just stay home, give up hockey and mind the house. That was an omega’s role in life; that was where they belonged. Sean could keep him safe if he stayed home.
            Luke refused, of course, and, well, Sean couldn’t blame him. He was unsure how an omega had ended up with the drive, the will to compete, but he saw shades of himself in Luke—his anxiousness off the ice, the restlessness that consumed him when he wasn’t playing. The almost utter relief that washed over him when he plied his blades to the ice.
            Alpha or omega, it didn’t seem to matter—they were cut from the same cloth in the end. They were competitors, driven to do what they did. Some would call it insanity, and maybe it was. But Sean understood this particular brand of insanity, and he had to let it go. He wanted Luke to stay home. He wanted to keep him safe. And he knew it would be better, knew it was only right and natural.
            But he also wanted Luke happy. And that meant giving him Mason, letting him play hockey.
            He wanted, more than ever, for Luke to quit and stay home. The league wasn’t safe for omegas. He’d known it before, but the incident in May had proven it to him. Jake Watson wasn’t the only person in the world who believed that, as an alpha, having an omega was his right. He wasn’t the only person in the league who believed that, and he most certainly wasn’t the only person to act on the idea.
            There were more Jake Watsons out there than anyone cared to admit. Sean knew—he was one of them. He’d always believed that it was his right as an alpha to do whatever he wanted to his mate. It was his responsibility, his duty, to take care of omegas—whether that meant protecting them or putting them back in line when they got too uppity for their own damn good.
            Luke was an uppity omega, that was for sure. He believed he had rights outside of belonging to an alpha. He believed he should be treated like a human being—not a status, not chattel. And he certainly believed he had a right to determine his own destiny, to make decisions about what happened to him.
            Sean didn’t want to deny Luke’s humanity, didn’t want to reduce him to his status. But the fact of the matter was that omegas were wired a certain way, alphas were wired a certain way, and social convention was what kept things civil. Omegas needed to be protected. Alphas gave them protection. Omegas that weren’t bound by an alpha were fair game; omegas that ventured outside their circumscribed social roles were tempting fate. They were too submissive for their own good, too willing to be swayed by an alpha, to be ordered about, put down on their knees.
            The social convention of keeping omegas cloistered, bound to an alpha and at home was designed for their own protection.
            And guys like Jake Watson saw omegas who stepped outside that role as fair game, targets that needed to be put back in line. Who did Luke Mackinnon think he was, playing in the IHA while being omega? Luke was so far outside an acceptable role, it wasn’t funny.
            Which was why the suit would be so tricky. Seeking lawsuit damages—monetary compensation—was one thing. Getting criminal charges pressed against Jake was another. But it was important, Sean thought. The law said rape was illegal, and despite Luke’s objections to the use of the term, that was what had happened. Jake was a criminal for that.
            The question was if it really counted as rape, and that meant proving that Luke hadn’t led Jake on, hadn’t taken inducers to incite him. It meant proving Luke hadn’t been flirting, hadn’t made any advances or encouraged Jake’s advances, that he had rejected Jake at every turn. It meant proving Luke wasn’t a whore, wasn’t the kind of omega that ran around with everyone, spread his legs for anyone. And it meant proving Luke hadn’t just had a change of heart—that he hadn’t just regretted sleeping with Jake.
            It would be difficult to prove that, even without Luke’s history. All they had was Luke and Jake’s own testimony about the event—and Jake no doubt saw events unfold very differently than Luke. At the end of the day, the court was likely to value an alpha’s testimony over an omega’s.
            And that would be especially true in Luke’s case—since Luke had a record already, since there was a prior incident where he’d been accused of taking inducers to incite an alpha. The court was likely to write him off.
            So that was where Sean had stacked his hand. He’d made himself Luke’s legal alpha. But he’d also allowed Luke to run around with Mason—and it was definitely allowing it to happen. Luke and Mason thought they were clever. They thought they were sneaky, sly in avoiding him, but he knew Mason too well.
            Mason would have never assented to bonding Luke if he’d merely suggested it. Instead, he’d made it taboo, made it so they weren’t allowed to be together. And, predictably, they’d bucked the system, they’d undermined and broken the rules.
            And Mason had bonded Luke.
            Or rebonded, to be perfectly accurate. It had been a bit of a sucker-punch to learn that Luke had technically been mated to Mason for ten years, but that the bond was half-broken, incomplete and fragile.
            But that meant Jake hadn’t been fucking with a free omega. He’d been fucking around with a mated omega. And if the court would write off Luke’s own testimony, they’d certainly listen to an alpha like Mason, put a little more stock in his word over Jake’s.
            At least, that was what he hoped. Only time would tell if the gamble would pay off—but Sean knew he’d put the pieces in place, aligned them on the board where he needed them. It was all he could do.

 


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