Chapter 33: The News from Steel City [Slapshot!]
It was honestly silly, he thought; Fyodor had been chasing after Aleksandr Volkov for years. Erik knew relatively few of the details—he quite liked it that way, actually—but Fyodor was scarcely subtle. The North Americans were rather stupid about it, but Erik had played against plenty of Russians, had been to Moscow and St. Petersburg a few times. They had fewer qualms about shows of affection, but they weren’t like Fyodor when he was around Aleks.
Not that no one else was ever drama. Some of the young guys …
Like Blake. No one else seemed to have realized it yet, but Blake was drama as well, brooding and silently angsting like some of the goth kids that populated the death metal scene in Gothenburg. How anyone had missed it was beyond Erik—but then, he was used to being the silent observer. Blake would come around, in time. He was a goalie, so he’d be weird about it, probably for longer than anyone had a right to be, but eventually, Erik figured, he’d sort himself out enough to talk about it.
Erik wondered, idly, if this was the fate of Swedes, to be the silent watchers, the observers, quietly sorting out their teammates—if only to distract themselves from their own troubles. It certainly seemed that way; meeting with Nicky had been like looking into a mirror.
Despite all pretenses at rivalry, at competition and enmity, there was always something of an easy comraderie between the IHA’s foreign-born players. It was rare that such enmity, a great rivalry, doused the excitement Finns felt when they landed in a city where two or three of their countrymen played, or the easy hospitality of the Russians toward other Russians, or even the quiet platitudes of the Swedes, such as Nicky, who always offered to meet with Erik in the cozy little café, to speak with him in Swedish, to discuss what was going on in the league.
They didn’t always see eye to eye, of course. But it was comforting, homelike and welcoming. It reminded them that they weren’t alone in the great sea of America, that here and there, there were pockets of places and people who felt like home, sounded like home.
Erik had lived in America for sixteen years now. He wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to it. He had it easy, by all rights—he was white, rich, and existed under a special visa designed for foreign-born athletes. But he shrank when he heard people making comments about speaking English, yelling at people who spoke with an accent. He had an accent; his English was far from perfect. And everything in America was strange to him, so unlike home with its punctual public transit and free music schools and free healthcare. Sweden was not perfect, not by any stretch. But it was different. And it was home.
America was not; his surrogate home that rang with freedom, a strange obsession with religion, with being independent, with showing off. Erik wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to it. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.
That had been Sofia’s reason for leaving. She was so tired of America, of its strangeness. She wanted to go home. She didn’t want the children to be schooled in America, to go through the American education system. She wanted them to take music lessons, but she didn’t understand why they needed to find a private teacher, needed to pay privately for lessons. Where was musikskolan? She worried about the values their children would learn—kindness and compassion? Or a fierce sense of self-reliance? A zealous love of Christianity?
So she went home. But her worries had been for naught, since he’d sued for custody—and won. He had the better income. He was more stable. And he wasn’t fleeing the country with them. All three of them had been born in the US. They were all Americans, whether Sofia liked it or not.
Nicky’s situation was not much different—although he had to live with the knowledge of infidelity. His ex had been so homesick, she’d arranged trips home, even during the season. First it was Christmas. Then it was other times too, and soon enough, Nicky had discovered her filthy secret. She’d even been so bold as to bring her lover stateside, to have her in her own bed while Nicky was away.
Nicky was splitting custody with her currently, but it was hard on the children; they were essentially being shuttled back and forth between Sweden and America. Nicky wanted full custody; he’d inquired, cautiously, about Erik’s lawyer, about the paperwork, the suit itself.
Talk had turned to other things—namely their teammates, and then other Swedes around the league, and Nicky had quirked an eyebrow and said, “Would you believe Gabriel has a thing for Tyler Beckham?”
Erik pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed in despair, because now even the young guys were drama. He felt his age acutely. “I am not sure,” he murmured, clinging to his coffee mug, “perhaps I am too old now. I will retire.”
“You’re not injured,” Nicky offered. “You still play well.”
“Yes,” Erik sighed, “but I am not sure I can handle all this. These young guys—they are so full of energy, nervous energy, they work themselves into a frenzy over this or that, these secrets, these affairs–”
Nicky sat up straighter; Erik glanced away, coughed into his hand. “Of course,” he drawled, “I do not have energy for it. I am so old.”
Nicky smirked. “If you are old, I must be also,” he said softly, leaning into his hand. “I do not understand them. And I worry. Soon enough, my oldest, she will be a teenager. What will I do then?”
Erik laughed. “I will let you know how it goes with Ulrika. She is twelve now.” He sighed again, stared down into his mug. “I feel so old when I think that. She too has all this angst—does this boy like me, will my friends like my hair?”
Nicky closed his eyes, said sagely, “I wish they would focus more on school. Never mind about boys or girls, think about your grades.”
“This,” Erik said, shaking his finger at Nicky. “This. Ulrika, she is so smart. I hope she does not lose her head.”
Nicky laughed into his drink, then paused, his gaze drifting toward the door, where the bell had just rung. A frown tugged at his lips, and he sank a little lower in his seat.
Erik glanced over his shoulder, and Nicky hissed, “Get down, don’t look—it’s Macks and one of your teammates.”
Erik lifted his brows and swiveled just enough to catch sight of Halpy, striding alongside Luke Mackinnon. He whirled about, gaze narrowed at Nicky. “What are they doing here?”
Nicky shook his head, his long locks exaggerating the motion as they swayed to and fro. “Don’t know,” he murmured, cautiously peering around Erik’s bulk. “I don’t see Flanagan anywhere–”
Erik lifted a curious brow. Nicky caught his gaze. His eyes widened a little. “You may not have heard,” he said, his voice falling low.
“I have heard some things,” Erik confirmed. “I heard enough—we had all suspected it, yes? Mackinnon is omega.”
“Yes,” Nicky replied without hesitation. “There is no question. He has not said so much—but we know. There is no denying it now.”
“Dangerous,” Erik murmured. His gaze darted to his left, but he could see nothing in his periphery. “Is he going public?”
“I think he must,” Nicky murmured, still straining to see around the other Swede. He dropped his head suddenly; Erik felt the woosh of air as the two other players passed them by, on their way to the very back of the café. Nicky glanced up furtively as they passed, his eyes locked on them and following. “Everyone knows now—if not, rumor rumbles. And with the trial …”
“Mm,” Nicky said, his lips twisting in distaste. “It would be a nicer thing if Macks could just go public on his own. But he must because he will testify against Jake.”
“Watson?” Erik had known the American player was suspended indefinitely, that there was something to do with charges and an arrest, but …
Against his own teammate?
Nicky pressed his lips together tightly, dropped his gaze into his empty mug again.
Erik exhaled, glanced toward the back of the café. “That is …”
“Like I said,” Nicky murmured, “it would be best if Macks could make this statement for no other reason than he wants to. But he can’t.”
Luke sat down across from Adam Halpern, not entirely sure what to expect. But he needed news about what was happening in LA, and he knew Halpy had both been in the City of Angels more recently than he had been, and he had the insider edge—his ex-teammates were unlikely to have given him the cold shoulder during his first post-trade visit.
So he’d reached out, asked the guy to go for coffee with him. He wasn’t under any illusion—Halpy knew what he was after, what he wanted. He had to have known; after all, he doubted that Mason kept it quiet. The secret was slowly becoming a known quantity—that Luke was omega, and that he and Mason were mated. Soon enough, it would be out in the open, and then, he’d have to confirm or deny it.
There wasn’t much point in trying to hide it any longer, even if part of him did want to hide, even if he did shirk from the thought of being an out-and-out omega.
It was a terrifying thought. How many Jake Watsons were out there? How many more would come after him?
He didn’t want to know.
What he did want to know was how Mason was, and there was nothing that could quiet his curiosity—even the thought of outing himself as omega couldn’t stop him from inquiring about his mate.
They settled at the table. Coffees were ordered. And Halpy looked at him and said, “What do you want to know?”
No pretense, no small talk. They knew why they were there. “How was LA?” Luke asked.
“The same,” Halpy replied with a wave of his hand. “Warm-ish. Full of celebrity stalkers and basketball fans.”
Luke nodded. “And … the team?”
Halpy frowned. “Eh, the usual there as well,” he said, glancing up at the waitress as she set their mugs down. “Y’know. Duncs got married, so I guess that’s a bit different–”
“I know that,” Luke replied. He’d been there.
“Other than that, they’re the same old guys. Trev and Cam have been doing a lot of dumb stuff, trying to pick up chicks, I guess? Dusty is trying to keep Duncs in line—guy still thinks he can party. And Mason …”
Luke couldn’t help that he leaned forward a little, straining to hear about his mate, even though they were right there in the quiet café.
Halpy considered, before finally saying, “I guess he’s well enough.” His brows knitted together as he lifted his mug, took a long sip.
He stared down at the tabletop for a moment, jaw moving side to side, as though shifting under the weight of various syllables, testing them out. “A little weird, actually.”
His gaze flicked up toward Luke.
“How so?” Luke couldn’t even contain his curiosity. Mason was acting weird?
Halpy sighed. “Well, first and foremost, he says hi—and he said you need to stop choking off the bond, it’s pissing him off.”
Luke nearly spat coffee all over the table. “What?”
He stared at the other player, but Halpy just looked away, toward the counter. “He told you?” Luke ground out, his heart thumping in his chest. Who else had Mason told? Was he just telling everyone? Should Luke even try to hide it?
“Mm—you two are obvious, okay? I mean, I essentially guessed when we were at Duncs’s wedding, and if I hadn’t, Trev pretty much knew …”
Luke swallowed whatever he was going to say next. He tightened his grip on his mug. “So–”
Halpy sighed heavily. “Look,” he said, his voice notching down lower, “I don’t know much about alpha-omega relationships. But he seems pretty upset about you just cutting off the bond.”
He paused. His tongue darted out as he wet his lips, and then he continued, “And he seems … down. In general. The guys wanted to go out, and it was like pulling teeth to get him to go. He went, but I don’t think he had any fun. Called it in early too, left before one.”
Luke didn’t know what to say. Mason was the kind of guy who was always ready for a party, who stayed until long after last call, when the sun was coming up and the staff were kicking him out. For him to go home early …
“Maybe he wasn’t feeling well,” Luke offered, knowing that it sounded stupid and pathetic.
Halpy gave him a look that said “no shit.” “I’m pretty sure he wasn’t,” he agreed flatly. “I mean, he sure wasn’t feeling like Mason if he went home early, if he wasn’t up for partying.”
He heard the bell and swiveled just in time to see Halpy go. He watched the door fall shut. Very slowly, he turned back around. From across the way, he caught a startled blue gaze. His own eyes widened in recognition.
Aleks was uncharacteristically quiet on the ride out of DC. Sy was loathe to leave his car at the Telefira Center overnight, but they’d both been drinking, and Mischa had insisted on calling them an Uber.
Sy didn’t like it—there was a huge chance they’d be recognized, that the driver would know at least one of them, or worse both of them. What if their driver was a fan, or knew someone who was?
Neither of them were unimportant enough for this to go unnoticed. Hell, it was dangerous enough for them to walk down the street together, hop on the subway or a bus. It would have been bad if they’d gone back to the arena and both of them got in the same car …
They should have gone separately, really, and Sy realized he was nowhere near plastered enough if he was still thinking this way, if he was worrying about them being seen together, found out.
He glanced about when their ride arrived, a sleek silver car. There were people everywhere in the streets, a group of them right outside the bar, some streaming onward to other bars or late-night restaurants in the area. He couldn’t tell if anyone recognized them, couldn’t tell if anyone saw them. Ducking his head, he realized his best bet was simply to get in the vehicle as quickly as he could.
“Evening,” the driver said, glancing up into his mirror. “Good night, boys?”
“Pretty good,” Sy replied, looking over at Aleks, who merely nodded. He was going to keep his mouth shut.
“Awesome,” the guy replied, “where ya going?”
“Alexandria,” Sy offered, typed out his address and turned his phone toward the driver.
He nodded his assent. “Cool. You two Stars fans?”
Another quick glance between them. “Something like that,” Sy murmured.
“’cause you got Tremblay’s number on your hat,” the driver said, pointing, making eye contact with Sy through the mirror again.
Shit, shit, shit, he’d completely forgotten about that. “You a fan?” Sy asked cautiously.
“Nah,” he said, “I’m a football fan. But, y’know, Tremblay’s something. DC’s not a hockey town, but man, you’d think we were after that guy showed up.”
Sy caught Aleks’s gaze, almost sighed in relief. “Yeah,” he agreed, “it’s pretty crazy.”
“How’d the game go?”
“Ehhhhhhhh,” Sy said.
“Well,” Aleks offered, grinning, “if you are Pittsburgh fan.”
“Shits … burgh?”
“Where you from, man? You got a funny accent.”
“Russia,” Aleks replied.
“Oh, shit, cool. You’re not, like, a diplomat or a spy or something, are you?”
“If I am spy, why would I tell you?” Aleks frowned deeply. He wasn’t following the guy.
“Ha, good point, I guess.”
The driver was quiet when they hit the freeway, speeding across the bridge, over the calm, moonlit waters of the bay. They felt and heard every bump, the tires whirring against the cement.
They hit the other side, entering into Virginia, still whipping along the waterfront, then banking deeper into the city. They spiraled down the off-ramp, came to rest at a red light. The car idled away. It was quieter here, on this side of the bay. The streets were deserted.
The light turned green and they took off, the tires squealing a little. Aleks grinned broadly, and the driver glanced into the rearview, his eyebrows lifted as he laughed. “Sorry, not supposed t’ do that on duty. Cool?”
“Is fine,” Aleks agreed with a nod.
Sy frowned, but said nothing. If they wanted to be idiots, he’d prefer to be left out of it, but fine …
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, they made it back to Sy’s place without incident. Aleks paid the guy—he always carried cash on him, unlike Sy who only had his credit card. The driver made some smartass comment about Sy’s house—the gates were a pretty dead giveaway that he lived in an upscale neighborhood, and Sy rolled his eyes as he punched in the code, let himself and Aleks in as the silver car performed a three-point turn and headed back DC-way, headlights washing over them.
They walked in silence up the driveway, their shoes crunching over gravel, Sy glancing over his shoulder. “Do you think he figured it out? Do you think he knew?” he asked at last, his brows knitting together. The driver had seemed clueless enough, but maybe he just hadn’t been letting on …
Aleks’s laughter rang out in the darkness, bold and light. Sy wondered if his cheeks were red from the cold; he hadn’t looked that drunk when they left the restaurant.
Aleks sobered a bit, his mouth twisted in some pitying smile. “You worry too much, Syoma,” he said.
Sy scowled at him. “I have to, since you don’t worry about anything at all.”
“Why worry?” the blond asked him. “Is pointless. Worry, worry, worry, and then we all dead anyway. So what use is it?”
Sy jammed his hands into his pockets. “Aleks,” he said, rocking back on his heels, “you know the rules.”
“Of course! I make them, did I not?”
“Then what if he figured it out? What if he tells someone, blabs it to a friend or a paper or something?”
“Let him tell. I already told my whole team,” Aleks replied brightly, and Sy curled his fingers into his pocket lining, wishing, for a moment, it was Aleks’s throat.
“What did you tell them?” he managed, smile pulling tight across his features. Someday, he was going to murder Aleksandar Volkov.
“That I was going to visit Mischa,” Aleks replied.
“Da,” Aleks said, “he lives in town, not far from here. Or did you forget this?”
Sy wanted to stay mad, but he was exhausted. The game had been rough, the loss brutal, and the ache was settling deep in his bones. His shoulders slumped; the tension that had been holding him upright slid down his spine, receding like the tide. With a reluctant sigh, he started up the porch steps.
Aleks watched him, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Sy slotted his key in the lock, twisted it. The tumblers turned; the lock clinked and yet, Sy hesitated, frowning.
“Mischa’s the only one who knows about this?” he asked.
“Da.” Aleks bobbed his head, just once, and Sy wished he could trust him, but there was still something like doubt swirling in his stomach.
He pulled the key out of the lock, pushed the door open. It liked to stick when the weather got colder. He stepped into the dark foyer, bits of dead leaves crumbling off his shoes onto the thick mat in the entryway.
Aleks crowded in behind him, probably glad to get out of the cold. They fumbled about in the dark for a moment or two, tripping over each other as they shrugged out of coats, kicked off shoes. Hats and gloves were tossed by the wayside.
Sy clicked on the lights. Aleks padded into the kitchen, as though he owned the place. “I didn’t actually invite you in,” Sy called after him, but he turned the lock anyway, trapping them both inside for the night. He knew Aleks wasn’t going anywhere.
They had been doing this for almost as long as Sy could remember now—or, well, since he’d got to the under-20s. It had been Aleks’s last year in that tournament; the next season, he’d moved up.
For a while, that was all it had been, scant meetings at international tournaments, once or twice as juniors, because Sy was so much younger than Aleks, because Aleks was so much older than Sy. It was only three years, true, but that was a monumental difference when you were just barely sixteen.
That had changed when Sy turned nineteen, when he was finally drafted into the pro league. Aleks had gone, predictably, three years earlier, had already spent three years playing top-tier hockey.
Sy had been ready for the league. He’d been ready for that level of competition. He’d been ready for the speed, the pace, the brutality, the level of skill.
What he hadn’t been ready for was seeing Aleks so often, being so near to him, on such a frequent basis. They’d lived oceans apart before, for years after that chance soulbonding. Even being on the same continent on a full-time basis had thrown Sy for a loop.
If Aleks had felt it, he’d never said anything about it, never acknowledged it. Deep down, Sy knew that he had to know—how could he not? The way he looked at Sy, called him “Syoma,” the way they seemed to be pulled together like opposite poles … Aleks had to have noticed or at least had some inkling of what was going on, of why they couldn’t seem to stay apart.
But he’d never said anything. He’d just let it go on; their attraction to one another didn’t seem to have bothered him all that much, really, and it hadn’t slowed him down at all in the dating game, which—
“Uh.” Sy lifted his gaze to meet Aleks’s.
“Drink,” the blue-eyed man said, nodding toward the glass. “You think too much.”
“Uh,” Sy said, wrapping his nerveless hand around the stem of the glass, “thanks. But didn’t we have enough earlier?”
Aleks nodded, then touched the rims of their glasses together.
Sy twisted the stem in his hands, rolling the glass back and forth between his palms. “Say,” he started, “Aleks, do you ever–”
A finger on his lips, shushing him. He lifted his gaze again, looked deep into Aleks’s eyes, so bright and blue, shining with lust and something deeper, something somewhere between respect and affection. Almost tender, but not quite.
Aleks was never tender, never had been. Sy didn’t think he had it in him.
A hand across his cheek; he felt Aleks’s callouses, the spots that were rough and worn, chapped from sweating day in and day out. Sy let his eyes flutter shut, let his lips fall apart and he tried to wrap his tongue around Aleks’s name, but the word was gone.
“Talk later,” Aleks advised, “don’t waste this.”
The glass was lifted out of his hand. Then there was pressure on the back of his head, light yet insistent, pushing him down, dragging him under.
His lips would be bruised in the morning, he knew, but Aleks had never kissed him once yet.
“Why do I put up with you?” Sy asked. He really wished he had an answer that wasn’t “soulbond.”
Soulbonds were stupid. Most inconvenient thing that had ever happened in his entire existence.
“Mmm,” Aleks said. Sy wished Aleks didn’t make him feel like this. Didn’t make his heart pound. He knew the other man had to feel it.
Aleks leaned in close, bumping their noses together. “Because I’m hot,” Aleks said.
“Ugh, you’re so full of yourself,” Sy grunted, shoving Aleks off him and sitting up. “Don’t you ever get sick of being so … you?”
“No?” Aleks asked, lifting a brow in query. “I am perfectly happy being me. I think it is pretty good thing to be.”
Sy tried to make his exhale as exasperated as he could, but he wasn’t sure Aleks got it. “Why are you still in my house?” he asked at last.
“Mm, because Syoma has not told me to leave yet.”
“Don’t you have practice in the morning or something?”
“Who needs practice?” Aleks asked, almost playfully, stretching his arms up overhead, pulling all his muscles taut. Sy watched distractedly for a moment, then tore his gaze away.
“Syoma should speak for himself,” Aleks countered, wry smirk still on his lips. “My team won tonight; yours did not.”
Sy scowled. “If you lose next time, will you suck my dick?” His tone was sour, he knew, but he was starting to get sick of this ridiculous charade. Aleks had never returned the favor. Ever.
“This is not a bet, Syoma,” he chided. The playfulness was gone; there was a hard edge in his voice, something flinty like fear in his eyes. “That is not how we play this game.”
“I know,” Sy replied, his voice just as sharp. “I’m pretty sick of this game. The odds are always in your favor. And besides, you totally said it was a bet tonight.”
Aleks shrugged. “Not my fault,” he said.
“It is so. You’re the one making the rules.”
“You have problem, I do not.”
“’cause it’s always a one-way street with you, ‘cause–”
Honestly, they had this fight every time, and it always ended the same way. How had Aleks not yet realized that they were soulbonded? Even when they kept having the same stupid fight over and over again, even when Aleks wouldn’t give Sy anything at all, after almost ten years, Aleks had to realize there was a reason …
“Well?” Aleks asked.
Sy heaved another heavy sigh. “I wish,” he said, “for once, you’d do me a favor.”
“This is favor,” Aleks replied, and there was some kind of sharpness in his tone, like a blade, and Sy’s mouth went dry. His eyes widened as he met Aleks’s gaze, stared at him, tried to remember how to breathe, because Aleks knew, he goddamn well knew, he’d known all this time. He wasn’t just guessing, wasn’t just testing it out, like he’d led Mischa to believe, like he’d said in the restaurant. He knew.
Or did he? There was no understanding, no knowing glint in his eyes, just the same kind of predatory haziness he watched rivals with on the ice.
Sy hesitated a moment more, then relented to the gentle hand on the back of his head, guiding him down again.
Someday, someday …
He fumbled with Aleks’s jeans, hated the familiarity of it as he sank down to his knees on the cold tiles of his kitchen floor, pulling Aleks out of his underwear. How many times had he done this? How many hotel rooms, how many clandestine meetings, how many years?
But it was a bad habit, an addiction he couldn’t break. He leaned forward, licked his way up the shaft, flicking his gaze up to Aleks’s face, watching him as the Russian watched him wrap his mouth around his head. He hollowed his cheeks as he did so, sucked on the tip a little harder, watched Aleks’s eyes widen.
If nothing else, reaction was satisfying. He held Aleks’s gaze, wrapped his hand around what he couldn’t fit in his mouth and squeezed, jerking him in time to the bob of his head. Fingers tangled in his hair, and Aleks’s breathing filled his ears, rough and ragged.
He watched as the Russian’s eyes slipped shut, then as he tilted his head back. That grip got tighter, yanking on his hair, and Aleks lifted his head again, gritted his teeth, and Sy went down deeper, swallowing as Aleks came.
It never took long enough anymore.