Chapter 34: Blueliner Blues
Brenden had never been one for melancholy. It simply wasn’t in his nature. That said, the loss on home ice sat heavy with him, and he couldn’t shake the feeling as it wrapped itself around him, tight and tighter.
It was strange for him, in many ways. They’d lost plenty of games, games that had higher stakes than the one they’d played tonight. Perhaps it was merely expectation—they’d beaten the Rockets in the playoffs in May, after all. They should have been able to do so much better tonight. Or perhaps it was a deep sense of failure, the creeping knowledge that they’d let each other down, let the fans down—all twenty thousand of them who had been roaring and ready to go when the puck dropped, but who were so mysteriously silent by the time the buzzer sounded to declare Rockets victory.
Or, perhaps, there was something else, something a little deeper. A certain thing that had dug in, deeper into his marrow, his sinew, and now festered there, slowly spreading beneath the surface, like water seeped under fragile ice when the spring melt came on, until it subsumed what was left of the freeze and submerged it entirely.
He knew what it was. He had a name for it and everything. But he didn’t dare say it, because to name it, to know it, was to give it strength. He’d been ignoring it this long. He could ignore it a little longer.
Sebby, on the other hand, couldn’t be ignored. He was anxious, riled. For every emotion that Brenden pushed down below the surface, Sebby allowed three more to crash over him like tidal waves, threatening to take them both under. Brenden was a frozen, placid lake in the dead of winter somewhere in Minnesota; Sebby was an angry river, raging with the spring melt and a sudden storm.
“I can’t fucking believe we lost,” he spat, slamming the car door behind him.
“Mm,” Brenden said, because, well. He believed it. They had lost. It was a thing that happened from time to time.
“To the Rockets!” Sebby continued, turning to him. His eyes were full of righteous anger, bright in the dull glimmer of the lights that scarcely illuminated the parking garage under the Telefira Center. Deep shadows lingered over them as they sat there in Brenden’s I8, taking full advantage of the darkness, waiting for the crowds to die down, for the spiraling line-up out of the underground to dwindle a little more.
“I mean, like, we can totally take them. They’re not so tough—we beat them in May, we’re on home ice, so …”
Brenden shrugged. “You win some, you lose some,” he drawled, glancing into the rearview to see just how bad the line was. Cars were still bumper to bumper behind him. He doubted he could even back up—and not without an angry deluge of horns and obscenities in all likelihood.
Sebby huffed again, and Brenden frowned more deeply. The forward was nervous, jittery—and Brenden didn’t like the loss much more, expected that he’d be upset if he were Sebby too, but …
“What’s going on?” he asked, fixing his friend and teammate with a sharp look. Sebby froze up, grimacing, like he’d been caught.
Brenden wasn’t stupid by any means. Many people thought he was; he was a big guy and he didn’t say too much, drawled with a deep Southern accent when he did speak. He had a reputation as a big brute, a dumb goon, and not much more. And that was despite his gentle style of play, which had earned him the not-so-flattering nickname of BFG in little league, and the more sardonic Killer in juniors, and finally, the epithet Teddy Bear from some of the announcers when he’d finally arrived in the IHA.
All it took was one idiot to make a nickname stick like glue.
Brenden had been called a lot of other unflattering things over the years as well—glue-sniffer, actually—but he lived by a live and let live philosophy. If people wanted to call him names, that was their choice. There was no way he was going to convince everyone on the planet to be his friend or not to call him names, so he might as well accept it. There would be people who mocked him no matter what he did. His energies were better directed to doing what he did best: playing hockey.
Of course, those who knew him well would suggest there were other things he was good at—odd things, mostly, like shooting pool, or darning socks (not too many people knew about that one, and he preferred it that way). And most of them, he knew, would suggest he was very, very good at reading other people.
He was rarely wrong.
Sebby sighed heavily; his shoulders lifted toward his ears. He looked away, scanning across the dashboard instead of holding eye contact.
Brenden waited. Sebby fidgeted a little bit, then finally said, in a very quiet voice, “I think I fucked up.”
Brenden wasn’t the kind of guy to pry, so he waited. He was never sure quite what it was, but people tended to open up to him without any coaxing on his part. Perhaps it was that they thought he was too stupid to really pass judgment or listen properly. Or maybe they felt assured by his silence. Whatever it was, he didn’t really care—he was happy to be the closest confidant for most of his teammates. He appreciated their trust.
Except for right then and there, when Sebby sighed again, grimacing as he stared out the window. “I, uh … heard from this girl.”
Brenden nodded. It was no secret to him that Sebby had plenty of one-night stands under his belt. Even if he hadn’t been a sports star in his own right, he would have been wheeling because of his father. It was amazing how far people could get on someone else’s reputation, something that never ceased to fascinate Brenden.
Sebby chewed at his lip, considering. He glanced at Brenden a couple of times; the flash of his eyes in the dark gave him away. “Uh, so, like. She’s in Boston, and like, she’s pretty sure it’s mine, at least that’s what she says–”
That thing—the thing that sleeps under his skin—roared to life, his muscles twitching as it stretched through him, claws its way into his throat and he could scarcely swallow. He stared at the cement wall of the garage. His hand was limp on the gearshift.
Sebby’s gaze flicked his way again—another flash in the dark—and he whispered, “B-man, I dunno what to do, like–”
Brenden blinked a couple of times, trying to dislodge the thing as it clouded his vision, swirling up through him like a fog. He turned to Sebby at last, wondering what he saw reflected on his visage. “When did this happen?” he asked.
Sebby shook his head. “I guess March or something, last regular season game against the Bears.”
Brenden thought back on it, but it was a blur. March had been so long ago, playoffs and the heady days of summer wedged in between. Even preseason was fading into a pleasant dream, although it had only been a month ago that they’d been in camp.
“And she’s just telling you now?” he asked, his brow furrowing.
Sebby sighed. “Yeah, I know—like. It seems really … weird. Like, I don’t quite believe her—why didn’t she tell me before now? I mean, if she’s so sure. And y’know, yeah, she could’ve told me sooner, y’know, like, if she just wanted to be sure or like not talk about …”
He paused. “Not that I’d even suggest it,” he said, and Brenden nodded, because he understood. Sebby wasn’t religious, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have his values or beliefs.
He sighed for the umpteenth time, shook his head. “But … what can I do, right? I dunno, it seems like she probably went through all the other guys she’d been screwing before she finally got to my name—and am I dumb enough to be on the hook for that?”
Brenden pursed his lips. On the one hand, yes—Sebby was that dumb. After all, he was the one who was even in this situation.
On the other …
“I don’t know,” Sebby said, and silence settled between them.
There was a break in the line of cars behind them at last, so Brenden put the car into reverse, cutting off a guy in a sleek, blue sports car, who flipped them the bird and laid on the horn. Brenden waved, although it might not have been visible through the tinted glass.
Sebby’s phone dinged, and he laughed as the screen lit up. “Dude,” he said, glancing over his shoulder, flipping the driver behind them off, “you just cut Mike off.”
Brenden grinned. “Serves him right,” he said, then frowned. “Why is he texting?”
“He’s not,” the forward replied, “Dima’s in the car with him, he’s texting me—Mike’s pissed man, ha, you’re gonna get it–”
Brenden slammed on the brakes, listened to the squealing tires behind him, the horn. Mike had his window down and was screaming at them now. Sebby rolled down his window, slipped out of his belt, waved at the blond defenseman. “Hey-o!” he called cheerily.
“Watch what the fuck you’re doing, B-man, you frickin’–!”
Brenden just faced steadfastly forward, a stupid smile plastered to his lips, even as Mike rolled alongside him. He left his window up, even though he knew Dima’s window was down and both he and Mike were glaring at him.
Instead of a response, he revved the engine. There was a break in traffic to get into the spiraling line that would take them back above ground; he glanced over at his teammates, just before he gunned it, making a break for it.
“Fucker!” Mike hollered after them. Sebby laughed, waved, then sat back and rolled up his window as they climbed the incline toward the exit. He rubbed his hands together. “Frig,” he muttered, “it’s cold out there.”
“Only gonna get colder,” Brenden replied, sneaking a peek at his teammate, ensuring he was still smiling. The heaviness of their words seemed to have melted away with the deep shadows of the garage; bright florescent light washed over them now as they passed post after post on their climb.
They had to halt at the gate, and Brenden rolled down his window, slid the card easily into the slot. Sebby rolled his eyes; he never had the reach, always had to lean out of the car or pull up real close.
Brenden lifted a brow at him, then watched the arm lift. They rolled forward over the final incline, then the dip in the asphalt as they nosed out toward the street. One of the attendants was standing there, waving on cars as they exited the garage into the flow of traffic, attempting to guide them through the sea of pedestrians still flowing out of the arena.
They cleared the final speed hump and pulled into traffic, creeping toward the first traffic light—red, of course. Brenden knew they were going to have to wait a few cycles; trying to get out of the Telefira Center after a game was always a gong-show.
He glanced over at Sebby again. The forward had leaned back in his seat now, his arms above his head. His gaze was hooded, almost lazy. He looked indolent, smug, but he had no reason to be.
He said nothing, though, not until they were on the 395, heading toward Alexandria. They crossed the bridge without a word, but as soon as they were on the other side, Sebby said, “I guess I should, uh, ask for custody.”
Brenden held the wheel tightly. “Yeah?”
“Mm,” Sebby replied with a nod that Brenden caught only out of the side of his eye. “I mean, like. I’ll ask for tests—make sure … But, y’know. I … I don’t think she’s lying. ‘cause, like she … she was applying to law school when, y’know. And I think she said she got in, so, like, maybe that’s why she didn’t tell me?”
“Maybe,” Brenden offered cautiously. He still didn’t like it—it seemed suspect to him.
He knew Sebby’s eyes were on him, knew that indolence had evaporated from his expression. The energy had changed; Sebby was being sincere now.
“You’ll help me, right B-man?”
Brenden frowned. “Wha–”
“’cause,” Sebby said quickly, “I don’t know like the first thing about kids, right? But you’ve got younger siblings, you–”
“Don’t know much ‘bout babies,” Brenden huffed. He signaled, took the exit ramp, guided the car around its tight turns, then sped up as they straightened out onto the strip. “And if ya’ll don’t know much ‘bout them either, maybe ya shouldn’t.”
He held the other man’s gaze as he geared down, the engine sputtering a bit as they rolled up to a stoplight. Sebby wilted a little. Brenden waited a moment more, then turned back to the road, letting the engine whine while he waited for the light to turn green. They peeled through the intersection.
Sebby said nothing more to him until he’d parked the car in the driveway. “Look,” he said turning to the forward, but Sebby shook his head and let himself out of the car.
“It’s fine,” he said, leaning back in and picking up his stuff. “Don’t worry about it. You’re right. It’s … I should think about it more.”
“That’s all I ask,” Brenden said, and he meant it, from the bottom of his heart.
Sebby checked the door shut with his hip and started up the drive. Brenden watched him, then heaved a sigh and put the car into reverse.
He stewed about it all the way back to Arlington, the engine and the highway whine the only noise overtop of the cacophony of his thoughts. The thing was with him the entire way, clawing at his throat, choking him. He swallowed it down as best he could, but each new thought seemed to strengthen its hold on him.
Sebby had knocked up some chick in Boston, and now the bitch was back—what the hell for? Brenden wasn’t stupid; he knew, even in his hometown, girls didn’t just accuse a guy of being the baby-daddy without a motive. In most cases, they were right, but there were always the few cases where you wondered if a girl had gone after someone for another reason …
And why had it taken this woman so long to tell Sebby then? It didn’t make sense to him, not at all. He didn’t know her, of course, so who the hell knew what she’d been thinking. He didn’t. He couldn’t imagine someone waiting—he counted—almost eight months to tell their partner they were having a baby.
Christ, he thought, that meant she was likely due soon. That in a month or two, Sebby might have a baby to take care of.
It was mind-boggling—he couldn’t see it. Sebastien Montclair, single father? Sebby had just turned twenty-two in August, and he was still immature, a party-boy. He belonged at every frat party ever, not taking care of an infant.
Which made the fact he was even considering it more terrifying. He meant it when he said he wanted Sebby to consider it—perhaps more seriously than he had. On the one hand, he could understand entirely: it was a child, a human life, and potentially Sebby was the father. What was he supposed to do? Stepping up, taking responsibility—that was the right thing to do.
But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it wasn’t right because Sebby was too young, too immature. Maybe he just wouldn’t be a good father. Maybe, much as it seemed like the right thing to do, it wouldn’t be in the best interests of anyone, most especially the child. Sebby had to think about that. Maybe he felt guilty, maybe he felt responsibility—but was he ready for it? Could he handle it? If the answer was no, then no matter how bad Sebby felt, how guilty, he needed to do something else.
Brenden wasn’t sure if he should be offended or flattered that Sebby had asked for his help. That he thought he could do this because Brenden could help. Brenden hadn’t helped with his two younger siblings; he hadn’t been allowed. He’d been too young and it was considered girly to do. So he knew about as much as Sebby did when it came to babies. Which was nothing at all.
On the other hand, he was proud that Sebby would ask for his help. That Sebby trusted him enough to talk to him about this, to ask him for help.
And that quieted the thing a little, made it loosen its grip until he could breathe again, exhaling relief through his nose.
He pulled into his driveway, nosing the car around the back, into the underground garage. The door lifted automatically and the lights were already on for him.
He paused, choking the engine and yanking on the e-break. He pulled out his phone, scrolled through until he found their schedule. He frowned deeply at the screen, brow knitting together.
Next game was against the Bears, in Boston, on Tuesday night.
To say Ty was excited was an understatement. He was almost vibrating with the sensation. He should have been down, out, dejected following that loss on home ice, their season kicking off as roughly as it had.
But it was tough to mope when he knew he was going to see Gabe on Tuesday night. He’d put it from his mind before the game, during the long preseason, but now he was allowed to think about it. Now he was allowed to be excited about it because it was so imminent.
It would be the first time he’d seen Gabe since August. They’d played the Bears once during the preseason, but Gabe hadn’t taken part in that game. Ty had looked for him, maybe in the crowd or in a box, but he was nowhere to be found.
And he certainly hadn’t come out to meet Ty before or after the game. They’d agreed that it was best not to meet up at the arena. Of course, there would be times when they would see each other there—they did have to play against each other sometimes, after all. But as far as meeting up, whether for drinks or something more, they had agreed it was better to meet as far away from their work venue as possible.
He wasn’t quite sure where that would be just yet; Gabe had yet to send him any details. But he was quite certain it would be fantastic. Gabe had taken him all over when he’d visited in the summer. Sweden was strange but exciting. Ty closed his eyes, imagining he was on the train with Gabe now, on their way from Gothenburg to Stockholm.
The robotic voice announcing—in English—that they were arriving at the next station shattered the illusion and he sighed heavily, glancing around the dilapidated and desolate train. DC’s public transit was shambles. He kicked at a stray newspaper page, listened to the doors chime.
He had another three stops before he’d be home again. Then he could start packing. They wouldn’t leave the District until Monday afternoon, which meant he had all day tomorrow to pack, and then most of the day Monday. He needed to head out for practice on Monday of course, and he’d skate tomorrow with the team, do a bit of training. Maybe a run if the weather was nice.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket with the intention of checking the weather. Instead, he opened up his contacts, lingered over Gabe’s name. He clicked into the conversation, flushing at their exchanges.
He let his fingers hover over the screen, debating whether or not he should text. He’d checked the scoreboards earlier and knew the Bears had won their game—they were on the road, though. Gabe didn’t have any points on the night, but that was fine. There were still eighty or so games in this young season.
He read and re-read their last few messages, slowly letting his hand relax, slowly letting his lips tug down into a frown.
Gabe hadn’t responded to his last text, which he’d sent almost a week ago now. It was just a good luck, probably before a game, but …
He’d said nothing for a week. That was weird.
Normally, they responded to each other almost instantaneously; he scrolled up through their messages and looked at the time signatures—each message almost minutes apart, none more than a few hours. Maybe there was a day when they didn’t text—but that was rare.
There was nothing like this, a whole week without a text.
How hadn’t he noticed?
He debated texting now, putting an end to the drout. Then he pocketed the phone, listened to the bells chiming. Two more stops now.
He’d deal with Gabe tomorrow. He was likely on his way back to a hotel or the airport now, getting ready to either go to sleep after a hard effort or to travel back to Beantown. Either which way, he likely wouldn’t respond. And Ty didn’t want to look … desperate. He didn’t want to look like a needy omega or something. He was very proudly beta, and he was perfectly fine not texting Gabe for a week. He was independent. He didn’t need an alpha to send him orders, not like omegas.
Except that he was worried now, his stomach twisting and knotting in strange ways, and he chewed his lip, clutched at the handle above his head a little harder as he swayed on his feet. What did it mean that Gabe hadn’t texted him for a week? Did he not want to talk to him? Alphas were so hard to read sometimes …
There was a reason most betas ended up dating, marrying other betas.
The doors slid open again. One more stop until he was home now. He glanced around, found the car deserted. He pulled out his phone again.
‘hej ;)’ Gabe had written.
Relief flooded through him, washing away all his nervous fretting. ‘hey,’ he wrote back, ‘just thinkin bout u’
‘hahaha,’ Gabe returned, ‘is good, u come to boston soon’
‘to long but not so long, I think’
Ty shook his head a little. ‘good game 2nite’
‘not so much for you’
Ty bristled a bit, his face scrunching up. He didn’t want to be reminded about the loss. Just because he’d gotten over it rather quickly didn’t mean he hadn’t felt it. A loss was a loss, and it was a blow to his pride as a player, a competitor, to lose like that to their rivals on home ice in front of their fans.
‘u flying home?’
‘ja, airports suck’ That was followed by a selfie on the tarmac. Ty enlarged the image, smiling brightly. Gabe was pulling a face in the picture, but his eyes were bright with humor. Or maybe that was the flash reflecting in them.
He glanced up, listening to the mechanical voice again, announcing the Capitol Heights Metro station. He’d missed his stop.
He jammed his phone into his pocket and darted out of the train, onto the platform. He drifted to the other side to wait for the next train, taking him back toward the city. It was only one stop down, but he’d missed it all the same.
He couldn’t resist. He pulled his phone out again. Gabe had sent him another Snapchat, this time with Wardsy in the background.
It was a stupid photo, harmless fun, but there was … something.
Ty wasn’t sure what it was, but it made him frown. He rapped out a reply—something like ‘having fun?’ then put the phone back in his pocket and boarded the train.
He slumped down in one of the seats, letting his head hit the wall behind him. He closed his eyes. Maybe he still needed to worry after all.
Mason yawned and stretched, slowly rolling into a sitting position, wincing as every one of his vertebrae popped with the action. He blinked once or twice, then glanced around the living room.
Cam was passed out on the sofa. Trev was nowhere to be seen, although Mason recognized one of his shoes dangling from the balcony. Dusty’s feet were dangling out of the bedroom doorway; the rest of him was presumably laid out across the floor.
Duncs, now their resident Old Guy since Halpy had been traded over the summer, was sitting at the kitchen table, eating Lucky Charms. Mason raised his eyebrows at him; the redhead reciprocated.
Old habits were had to change, Mason supposed, then hauled himself to his feet. “Dude,” he said as he meandered into the kitchen, “what did we do last night?”
“What do you think we did?” Duncs asked, glancing up at him from his marshmallow-laced confection.
Mason rolled his shoulders, grabbed a glass of water. “Club. Drank. Got wasted. Did coke. Got strippers? Passed out.”
Duncs nodded, then said, “Fairly on, except no coke, and definitely no strippers.”
“Ugh,” Mason offered, clearing his throat, “what? That sounds like no fun at all.”
“It wasn’t,” Duncs sighed, “but you insisted.”
Mason frowned into the sink, then looked out the kitchen window at the dull sky. Looked like they might actually get rain. Or it might blow over. LA was weird like that.
“And they call me old,” Duncs muttered into his cereal.
“What?” Mason snapped, whirling about. Water sloshed over the side of his glass and they both stared at the spill.
Duncs snorted, then grinned. “Oh, you don’t keep secrets very well, Mayday,” he said. “I’m the guy who got hitched over the summer, but from last night, I’m pretty sure you managed to convince everyone you’re married.”
Mason frowned, rearing back a bit.
Duncs’s grin got even wider. “I can’t go to the strip club,” he teased, “Luke’ll have my head.”
Mason sipped at his water slowly.
“Man, that omega’s got you by the balls,” his teammate said, then dropped his spoon into the empty bowl with a clatter. He pushed away from the table.
Mason scoffed. “Like hell,” he growled, “I’m the alpha, he–”
“—has you wrapped around his little finger, Mayday, don’t even kid yourself. Luke said he wanted you to blast off for Mars tomorrow, you totally would.”
“Would not,” Mason spat back, if only because he didn’t have a better reply.
Duncs laughed again. “Sure,” he said, “and that’s why I can go to the strip club and you can’t, even though I’m married and you’re just mated.”
“Oy,” Cam said as he dragged himself into the room, “don’t even joke, Duncs. I mean, only one of you will die if you break up.”
“Wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Dusty muttered, elbowing past Cam, who started. Dusty was a big guy, but he moved silently when he wanted to. “Pretty sure that feisty little thing Duncs married might have his dick on a silver platter.”
“Ha, so maybe it’s a good thing Mayday didn’t let us go to the club last night?”
Cam threw his arm across his forehead, stumbled back into the wall. “Heaven help us!” he cried. “Mayday’s become our voice of reason!”
“What’s the temperature outside?”
“’cause it’s a cold day in hell,” Duncs said with a grin, and they all laughed again. Mason rolled his eyes.
“Seriously,” he huffed.
“So,” Cam said, slinging himself down in a chair. “Mayday, you got yourself bonded to a dude—does that mean you’re finally, finally, finally accepting that you’re gay?”
Mason straightened right up, glared at Cam over his shoulder. “I’m not gay,” he spat. He finished refilling his glass, then turned about, sipping on the water, still glaring.
Cam looked at their teammates. “Two dudes,” Cam said when he turned back, “seems pretty fuckin’ gay to me.”
Mason rolled his eyes. Hard. “I’m bi, dipshit.”
“Gaaaaay,” Cam taunts, and Mason contemplates throwing a knife at him. There’s one within reach.
“Gay or bi or whatever, I think we can all agree he’s no fun,” Duncs said. “Mayday has been tamed! He’s settled down.”
Cam grinned raucously. “Yeah! You’re boring now,” he said, “pretty soon your parties are gonna be Tupperware parties.”
“Tupperware?” Trev asked, blinking blearily as he stepped into the room, wincing at the light.
“Book club,” Duncs shot back, “and instead of booze, there will be tea and scones.”
“And knitting,” Cam said.
“Oh fuck you,” Mason spat. “If I ran book club, it would be the manliest fucking thing—we’d read about hunting and lumberjacks and, like, Fight Club and Ernest Hemingway, and we’d definitely drink scotch and smoke cigars.”
They were all silent. Mason sneered at them. “I’m not boring just ‘cause I paired up with someone, jeez.”
“Tell that to the guy who whined that we couldn’t possibly go to the strip club ‘cause his mate”—Cam dragged on the word—“has his balls locked in a jar on the other side of the continent.”
“Screw you guys, I can do whatever I want! Just ‘cause I’m mated, it doesn’t matter—I’m the alpha, Luke doesn’t have any say over me.”
All of their eyebrows are lifted, and Mason could feel it, the familiar tingle at the base of his spine, the familiar itch of his lips pulling back from his teeth in a raucous grin.
After all, this was how all of his bad ideas started.