Chapter 41: In the Shadows [Slapshot!]
Sean honestly had no intent of bringing Luke back to his hotel room. Even though the younger man was denying it, Sean was fairly certain Luke was high. Sure, he claimed he’d only taken a couple of pills, that it had been hours ago, that they’d worn off during the game, that he was fine.
But Sean had seen Luke’s habit in action, and he didn’t think he could believe the omega. He wanted to, desperately. But …
He was acutely aware of what it was like to have a problem.
And the thing was, this wasn’t new for Luke. He’d been on painkillers pretty much since Sean had known him. Maybe there had been a period in between—Sean hadn’t seen him, hadn’t talked to him for three years, after all—but after Luke had needed surgery on his back, the painkillers had become a staple.
Sean had suspected for a while—and knew now for sure—that the younger man was using the drugs not just for physical pain, but as an emotional panacea. It was an easy thing to do. Sean understood that. Luke had never thought of it on his own, but when he’d been introduced to the substances that could ease his pain—and not just physically, but the mental torment—he’d been ensnared.
Sean himself had struggled with alcohol abuse for years. Back then, they didn’t dispense painkillers quite the same way, so a lot of the guys had used booze to numb their bodies to the aches and pains that came from a life of smashing other people into boards, fighting, and pushing yourself to the very limit of what you could physically stand.
And then there were the days you hated yourself. It wasn’t always the physical pain; it was the days when you stopped to wonder what the hell you were doing; when you paused to look at where the years had gone; when you thought that, soon enough, it would all be over …
And then you had no idea what you’d do with your life after that. When you were eighteen, nineteen, forty seemed like a lifetime away. You didn’t even think you’d get to be that old. And then you turned twenty-nine, thirty, and forty was suddenly closer than nineteen—or it seemed to be at least.
Retirement became real. And you realized, very slowly, that all you knew was hockey. For years, it was all you’d known; you’d lived and breathed it, professionally, for ten years. And you only had ten years more, and you knew exactly how quickly that first ten had gone …
Some guys threw themselves into training. Some guys took up other hobbies, like golf. Some guys made bad business deals. And still others, other guys like Sean, had numbed those thoughts with the burn of alcohol.
Of course, Sean had also had other things to hide, other guilts that gnawed at him in the night. The fact he was married, but couldn’t keep his hands to himself. The fact that he was supposed to be straight, but he looked at other guys in the locker room. The fact that he used his power and influence on the younger guys to coerce them into deeds they maybe didn’t want to do. The fact that some of the guys were only eighteen, nineteen, scarcely legal, and he was thirty-five and married with two kids, and what the fuck was he doing?
It still didn’t sit right with him. Every time he looked at Luke, he still saw that twenty-one-year-old who was just scarcely legal to drink in the US, who had maybe not been as drunk as Mason, who had looked at his friend with some kind of resignation and then turned back to Sean with resolve in his eyes, even if it didn’t come through in his voice.
Luke was twenty-seven now, he reminded himself. Old enough to make his own damn decisions, old enough to say no if he wanted to.
But he never did, and Sean felt like he was still in that hotel room sometimes, still threatening to turn on Mason—Mason who was unconscious, Mason who couldn’t defend himself, Mason who was even younger than Luke—if Luke didn’t comply with his wishes.
Fuck, he was such an asshole. He couldn’t believe Luke hadn’t refused him after that. He wondered if Luke was still scared of him in some way, wondered if Luke never said “no” because, somewhere, he was still just twenty-one too.
Sean wasn’t quite sure where along the line he’d realized Luke was different than the other boys—even from Mason. Sean had never managed to overcome the guilt of what he’d done to get back with one of the guys he coerced. It was easier to call it a hazing ritual or something. It was easier to write it off as a one-time lapse in judgment and swear he’d never, ever do it again.
But he did. Over and over—just with a new guy, another victim.
Luke was different; Sean kept coming back to him over and over. The guilt of it wasn’t enough to keep him away. He couldn’t call it hazing, and he couldn’t call it a one-time lapse in judgment. Luke was a series of ongoing lapses in judgment.
At first, he’d simply assumed it was because Luke was omega. He’d never known if any of the others were omega—he’d never asked, they’d never told. Mason had told him Luke was omega before he’d even had a chance to decide if he wanted to sleep with him or not.
It had taken him a while longer to work out that it was more than that Luke was omega. That was a huge part of it—Sean wanted to keep Luke safe, out of harm’s way—but there was something more too.
It wasn’t that Luke revered him like a god (that had quickly faded away). There were plenty of rookies, plenty of people who did that. He was Sean Flanagan, after all. He’d had a stellar career. Every time they talked about next year’s Hall of Fame class, his name was among the potential inductees. There were plenty of people who worshiped the ground he walked on.
It wasn’t even that Luke understood him, understood hockey life, in a way that Megs never could. She’d tried, of course, but she could never understand the bone-grinding exhaustion of double overtime. She could never understand how he just didn’t have time to take the kids to their doctor’s appointment. And she definitely didn’t understand the guilt of being away from his family so much. He felt so guilty; he missed Cil’s birthday almost every year, because it was January 15.
Luke understood maybe a little better—he understood being on the road, but he sure as shit didn’t understand kids—but Sean was of a different era. There was no such thing as double overtime during the regular season now. And a hundred thousand other insignificant changes made Sean’s IHA and Luke’s IHA worlds apart.
But it was maybe some strange combination of understanding and reverence, of being an omega, of being so pliant and somehow forgiving, that made Luke irresistible.
Maybe it was the fact he called himself gay—in private, of course, never in public, never to the media. Maybe it was the fact he said things like “Sean, I’m gay,” in that exasperated tone, and Sean felt at ease for the first time in forever. And that Luke’s hesitation always dissipated; there was always a silent nod of approval. Luke wouldn’t have answered him if he didn’t want to do this. Luke would have said no if he didn’t want to do this.
Sean convinced himself of that, at least, and it eased his guilt. The other rookies, the other guys—they likely weren’t gay. Sean didn’t even know if he was. He didn’t really care to figure it out, either. He didn’t think he could be labeled—if he identified himself as gay, did that mean Megs had just been a beard all those years? And if he didn’t say he was gay, if he was straight—then what the hell was he doing forcing boys half his age to sleep with him?
Maybe he was more straight-ish or more gay-ish, or maybe he landed somewhere in the middle. He didn’t know.
What he did know was that whatever the hell he was, Luke seemed to accept that, quietly, unquestioningly. He didn’t make bones about whether or not Sean was gay or straight, if what they were doing was gay or just kind of quasi-queer.
Perhaps that was all it was, in the end: Luke precipitated no existential crisis, no deep soul-searching. Luke didn’t ask for identification; he elicited no questions about who the hell Sean was, or what he was.
He just was. And that was fine.
It was the first time Sean had felt fine with himself in a long, long time.
It hadn’t been all roses and rainbows or anything stupid like that, of course. He’d still had to ask himself some hard questions, do some digging. Was he happy with his life, was he happy in his marriage to Megs? If he was, why did he keep cheating on her? And why did he go after guys?
He’d asked himself a lot of harder questions when Megs found out.
He’d had three years to sort himself out, though, before he came crawling back to Luke. The divorce had imploded his life; he’d had to sell off business assets left, right, and center. He’d had to quit his job; he’d been working for the Bears in Boston, but the divorce had taken up so much of his time, he’d deemed it better to simply go and sort things out.
And then he’d wanted out of Boston too. Change of scenery, change of pace. The kids were adults, starting their own families; he had no job, no house, no ties to Boston any more.
He’d started talking to various teams about six months ago, just scouting out possibilities. He’d disappeared, he knew, and who wanted a washed-up hockey player to do anything? But that was the thing about the league—they hired their own. Coaching, scouting, management—whatever he wanted.
He’d thought a lot about going back to LA—but it was full of painful memories, those last few years of pretending to be blissfully wedded and diddling with the rookies on the side, the last few years of Cil and Cian’s rebellious teenage era.
Someone wired over to Washington that he was looking.
Of course he’d known Luke was there. But he would have gone anywhere at that point—New York, Dallas, Chicago. All seemed like decent enough choices. Hell, he probably would have picked Cleveland or Miami if someone offered him a job, even though the teams were shit. He wasn’t going to demand to work with the best of the best. He just wanted something—something normal.
Hockey was as normal as anything had ever been in his life.
It would have been easy to blame the divorce and everything else on retirement. It was a huge life change, one he’d dreaded and one he couldn’t have possibly anticipated.
But, in the end, that wasn’t really what had precipitated the divorce. It had been his infidelity, his confused sexual desires.
He should have left Megs long before he did. He was a coward, in every sense of the word.
It was his own cowardice that made him want to punish guys like Jake Watson. Nobody had called him on it, nobody had punished him for what he’d done. He’d been getting away with it for years. No one had ever complained, no one had ever pressed charges. It just went on silently. Nobody had stopped him, even though he knew he needed to stop. He couldn’t stop himself. He’d been out of control, but no one had stopped him from committing crimes over and over again. He’d wanted to stop, so many times, but he was weak, cowardly …
So somebody had to stop Jake. Maybe Sean wasn’t as bad as Jake. Maybe he’d never been violent, not like Jake had been. But he’d committed the act all the same, knowing full well what he was doing, and sometimes trying to deny it, justify it to ease his guilty conscience. Even when he knew that he needed to stop. Even when he knew he was wrong.
He wanted to tell Luke that, but it made no sense to say it out loud. “By punishing Jake, I’m punishing myself—the me that committed all those crimes, that harassed and assaulted and raped all those other guys.”
He’d never even told Luke that him and Mason weren’t the only ones. He wasn’t sure how to say it. It made him sound awful …
And he was awful, obviously. Even he knew it was stupid to try and punish himself for his transgressions by punishing another person.
But he also saw shades of himself in Jake—and he knew that he’d wanted someone to stop him because he couldn’t do it himself. And no one had.
He didn’t think Luke would much like the “saving Jake” narrative either.
And looking at Luke, right then and there, he couldn’t say he blamed him. The younger man was a nervous wreck; he had been for months now, and Sean hated it, with every fiber of his being. He hated that Luke had slipped back into the clutches of his addiction instead of dealing with this in therapy or …
Well, in any other way, really.
And it was getting worse. Much as Luke was trying to tell him it was getting better, that he was actually taking the pills as prescribed—for pain—that he was just trying to get through a game …
He knew it was a lie.
Which was part of the reason he felt so guilty as he let Luke drag him in by his tie, kiss him sloppily. Sure, they’d finished a bottle of wine between them, but …
He pulled back, looked down at the dark-haired man, who watched him with equal intensity, something brewing in those crystalline orbs of his. And guilt ate Sean up, tore at him as he ran a hand down the omega’s cheek. Luke closed his eyes and turned into the touch.
He’d done this to Luke. Maybe he hadn’t given him the bruises, maybe he hadn’t made him bleed. But he’d broken him up, he’d coerced him and threatened him, held him down under his thumb and made him subservient …
Luke looked up at him expectantly.
He pressed his lips together, then leaned in and kissed him again. He traced the scar on Luke’s neck.
The omega pulled back, inhaling sharply, as though he hadn’t expected that. “What are you doing?” he whispered.
Sean considered him, then pressed his fingers to the mark again.
Luke shoved him away. “What are you doing?” he repeated.
Sean allowed the smirk to take over his lips. “Sorry,” he chortled, “it’s just … shocking, really. That Mason actually manned up and mated you.”
Luke said nothing.
Sean pulled his hand away. He clapped the omega on the shoulder. “Well, guess we should get some shut eye—you wanna go back to your room, make sure no one misses you?”
“I mean, it’s fine if you wanna stay here, but you may have to do a walk of shame, and then …”
Luke rolled his eyes. “You seriously thinking of going to sleep on me, old man?” He landed his hands on Sean’s cheeks, dragged him in for another kiss.
“Your choice,” Sean said, pushing him away, “about whether you go now or later. But I am going to hit the hay. You should too—you had a game tonight. We have a flight tomorrow afternoon, then a game in Colorado at seven.”
Luke sighed heavily. “Back to backs suck so much,” he muttered.
“Get some shut-eye, bucko.”
He slid off the bed, loosening his tie as he strode into the bathroom. He glanced into the mirror, watched Luke roll around on the bed, finally curling up on his side, his back to the door. He clicked the lights out, and Sean flipped the switch in the washroom, wincing at the lights buzzed to life. He let the door fall shut.
To say Timmo was not impressed was an understatement. He stared pointedly at the wall and wished there was something he could do about his hearing as Cal emptied the contents of his stomach in the toilet—yet again.
Babysitting an alcohol-poisoned rookie was not really how he wanted to spend his night, even on nights when they’d won. When he hadn’t allowed three goals, when his D hadn’t failed him so miserably.
In short, he was already a little ticked off with his teammates, and now they’d left him to babysit the drunken rookie.
He sighed heavily, then pushed away from the wall. He collapsed onto the nearest bed, then called down to the desk for room service. He flipped idly through the menu, grimacing as Cal continued to puke.
“Hello,” he said when he got a mumbled “room service,” “can you send up some ginger ale?”
“Sure,” the guy replied, and there was more mumbling, which was conveniently drowned out by Cal puking. Timmo glared at the wall in exasperation.
“Anything else?” the guy asked.
“No, that is all. Thank you.” He hung up abruptly, then meandered back to the washroom.
Cal had sat up now. He was leaned against the wall, breathing hard. Timmo swallowed down his disdain. “I ordered you ginger ale,” he said.
Cal looked at him, a mixture of shock and confusion on his face, as though he’d forgotten he wasn’t the only person in the room. “Uh, thanks,” he said at last, perhaps realizing the silence had dragged on too long.
“Welcome,” Timmo replied.
Cal heaved a huge sigh, craned his neck to look up at the ceiling. “Sorry about this,” he mumbled.
Timmo waved a hand, not that the rookie saw it. “We all make mistakes.”
“No, I just—I don’t know what it was, I usually handle my liquor better than this, yeah?”
“Of course,” Timmo said easily. It was easiest just to agree with drunk people. He wondered idly if that ginger ale would arrive any time soon. It wasn’t like they had to make it from scratch or something.
Maybe he could get the rookie to bed now. He shifted his gaze as Cal got back to his feet, sighing heavily.
“I owe ya,” he said, and looked pretty guilty. Not that Timmo hadn’t seen drunk people be remorseful and guilty and oh-so-willing to make it up to you before.
Timmo wasn’t new at this game, not by a long stretch.
Cal clapped him on his shoulder as he shuffled by, making his way toward the bed. Timmo sighed heavily, then clicked off the light and followed. He watched Cal faceplant into the bed on the far side of the room, lifted a brow.
And the rookie maintained he hadn’t had that much. Timmo didn’t believe him in the slightest.
A knock on the door drew him away—the ginger ale, at last. Of course it was late. Of course.
Sebby had decided to take the bus over to his father’s house from the hospital. He had new pictures on his phone; he’d been left with the warm memory of holding Lucy. His resolve was steeled, even against the frosty morning, the chill in the wind. The day was bright and clear, however, and the brilliance of the autumn foliage was even brighter against the pale blue sky.
The neighborhood seemed much friendlier than the last time he’d been here, when he’d stood in the kitchen and listened to the kettle, listened to his father offer to bring him back to the Bears, like he was some kind of charity case. Like he needed Daddy to hold his hand for him.
He wasn’t exactly looking forward to talking to his father—he imagined there would be a lot of “you fucked up” in this conversation—but he’d already dragged his feet about it for three days now.
He needed to tell his father that he was a grandfather. And maybe he should see if Dad knew where Mom was, had her contact info, or if maybe he knew where Michel was.
Sebby wasn’t really the greatest at tracking his family, keeping in touch. When he had to interact with any of them, he couldn’t say that he blamed himself. It was usually obvious to him, at least, why he stayed away.
He was determined that Lucy’s life was not going to be like that. He wasn’t going to make her embarrassed or ashamed. He was not going to be his father.
He marched up the steps to the house, knocked on the door. He’d been expecting some sort of text or phone call, after the whole social media thing—but that had died away rather quickly, and Sebby supposed that, at the end of all things, nobody really cared all that much. His private life was his private life, and sure, there were a number of posts or whatever, but it wasn’t like anyone had actually seen the baby. It was a weird thing for him and Gabe to be in the baby section of Target in Boston, but it was a sort of …
Non-news item, ultimately.
Which was good, because Sebby didn’t really want his parents to find out from reading some tabloid article about how he’d gone to Target to get clothes for their granddaughter. Seemed like a bad way to break the news.
He knocked on the door.
Truth be told, this didn’t seem like a much better method.
Isabella blinked, then smiled tersely. “Oh, Sebastien. What a surprise.”
“Hi,” he said, stepping into the foyer. “Is Dad home?”
“Hm, no. He should be back shortly, though. Come in?” She closed the door, gestured to the kitchen. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Coffee would be good,” he said, toeing off his shoes. He glanced down at his phone. He stared at the picture of Lucy for a moment, then tucked the device back in his pocket.
He made his way to the kitchen, his socks sliding across the floor. Sunlight splashed in through the windows.
Isabella gestured to the kitchen table. “I was just about to make a fresh pot,” she lied; he knew she never drank coffee. “I expect your father will be home any time now. Your team was in Boston a few days ago, no?”
She hit the start button on the machine. It whirred and clicked, coffee dripping into the pot. Sebby perched on one of the chairs. “Yeah,” he said, over the clatter of her setting down the sugar and cream, a spoon tinkling to the tabletop as she laid it there. “We were.”
“I thought you went on?” she asked. She glanced at him quickly.
He’d never made it a secret he didn’t really like her. She wasn’t Mom, that was for sure, and it had been hard for him to accept a twenty-six-year-old as his father’s new wife when he himself was just ten years younger than her. He’d been sixteen and thought he knew it all.
It was still difficult to take her seriously. He wasn’t sure how he should tell her about Lucy.
She set a cup of steaming coffee in front of him, smiled. He took a sip. “Thanks,” he said, then set about fixing it with cream and sugar.
“So, you didn’t go with the team?”
“No,” he replied, “I, uh, kinda got waylaid here …”
She frowned. “By who? Or what?”
He didn’t know what to tell her. He really wanted to tell his father—not her. And he didn’t really want to have to tell it all over again when Dad returned from … wherever he was.
But he wasn’t sure what else to talk about, how to distract Isabella. And if he lied, if he told her anything else, well …
He’d get outed when his father got home.
He shifted uneasily in his chair. “Um, well …”
He pulled out his phone and drew up a picture of Lucy. “I actually have some pretty big news. I got stopped here by this little lady.”
Isabella’s eyebrows lifted as he turned the phone toward her. She stared at the screen for a moment, her eyes widening. “A baby?” she asked at last.
He nodded, took the phone back. “Luciana,” he said, “Lucy. She was born the other night, while I was here in Beantown.”
He showed her another picture. “She’s a preemie, but …”
Isabella frowned, glanced at him, then the screen, then him again. “She’s …”
“My daughter, yeah.”
Isabella took the phone from him, swiped through the pictures. “Oh, Sebastien,” she said, and he wasn’t sure how to take that, not when she closed one of her hands over his wrist, patting his hand.
“She’s adorable,” she said, handed him back the phone. “We didn’t know you were seeing anyone–”
“I’m not,” he said sharply.
Her face fell. “What do …”
He sighed, took another sip of his coffee. “It was a one-night stand,” he mumbled, slumping forward. He couldn’t look her in the eye.
“Oh,” she said softly, pressed her fingers to her lips. She glanced around, then said, “Are you sure she’s yours?”
Sebby sat straight up, stared at his stepmother. “What,” he snapped finally.
She flushed. “Sebastien, I just–”
“Do you think I’m an idiot? Do you think I didn’t think of that, that–”
“Did you get a DNA test done then?”
He stopped. He had nothing more to say—he hadn’t gotten one done. He’d considered it, briefly.
He didn’t think it mattered now.
“I mean,” Isabella said, “it is just, some girls, they will try to do things, like …”
“I’m not paying her child support,” he said. “Luciana is mine. I’m taking her home, I’m gonna raise her.”
“By yourself?!” Isabella cried. She banged her knees off the underside off the table; coffee splashed out of Sebby’s mug.
“Of course by myself,” he returned, grabbing up some napkins out of the caddy sitting in the center of the table. “Of course, how else—I’m single, she’s my daughter!”
“Sebastien, you don’t even know that–”
“I don’t care!” he barked. “I don’t care, she’s mine! Even if she’s not, she’s my daughter!”
He froze, his father’s voice cascading through his ears, that smooth accent striking fear into his nerve endings. Isabella looked up at Lucian, almost apologetically, almost terrified.
Sebby relaxed his shoulders, exhaled. “My daughter,” he said, turning to face his father at last.
Dima yawned, blinking sleep from his eyes. “Mornin’,” Danny said, pitching his phone at him. “’bout time you got up—late night?”
Dima caught the phone deftly, glanced at the blinking light informing him he had a message. “No,” he replied, “not very late.”
He signed himself in. He had voicemail. Weird.
Probably Katya, bored and lonely in DC, trying to taunt him with this mystery date of hers.
“Mm,” Danny said, “well, you sleep like a rock. That thing’s been buzzing and ringing and carrying on for the last hour.”
Dima rubbed at his eyes, then looked back at the screen. He frowned.
He didn’t know the number that had called him.
“Anyway,” Danny said, “you and Sy get the rookie in okay? Oaks didn’t give you too much trouble?”
“Hmm? No, not too much trouble. We gave the rookie back to Timmo.”
“Probably a wise choice,” the older man surmised. “I’m heading downstairs now—don’t forget, skate this morning at ten.”
“Got it,” Dima replied, then dialed his voicemail. It would probably take a minute to get to the message. He very rarely checked his messages.
Danny took a minute to put his shoes on, but then he was headed out of the room. The door banged shut, and Dima was alone.
He hopped through his messages, deleting all of them—most of them were spam anyway. Sometimes, the phone was useless, as far as he was concerned.
The final message. There was a click, then a smooth, rolling baritone slid through his ears, wrapping his senses up in auditory silk, caressing him.
He ended the call, pitched the phone across the room. He glared at it, curled his knees to his chest.
How the hell had she known?
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