Chapter 42: Hold the Phone [Slapshot!]
Sy glared at the screen of his phone, then squinted at the pile of text messages he had.
He never got twenty-two texts in a single night. Most of the people he talked to he was with already, and they knew better than to text him at …
Six in the morning. Or earlier.
He rubbed sleep from his eyes and padded into the bathroom with the phone, careful not to wake Mike as he crept by. He knew Mike had crawled in late last night. Sy had been in bed for hours, glowering at the ceiling and the wall by turn. He wasn’t exactly impressed that his friend and teammate had stayed out until after two. Not when they’d played a game the night before and now had to hop on a plane, get to Denver of all places, and then play again tonight.
Back-to-backs were unpleasant at the best of times. Sy wondered why he was friends with Mike sometimes; they were so different.
He closed the door, muffling Mike’s snoring. He rolled his eyes and clicked into his messages. He leaned forward onto the counter, glanced at himself in the mirror. His eyes were artificially bright in the buzzing florescent light.
He looked down at the screen, then dropped the phone into the sink, his hand nerveless and trembling.
He had twenty-two texts.
He plucked the phone out of the sink, scrolled frantically through his calendar. They weren’t going to Pittsburgh on this road trip. The Rockets weren’t traveling out west. They wouldn’t even pass each other. There was absolutely no reason for Aleks to text him—
Aleks only ever texted him about hooking up.
He had to scroll up quite a bit to get to the start of the chain. It was innocuous enough, a “hey,” followed by a million brackets (Dima did that too sometimes, and Sy had yet to figure out what it meant).
How are you, you do not talk, you say pretty things Syoma but then do not talk, if this is true, why?
Then an apology, and then Sy rolled his eyes skyward and bit the inside of his cheek. Hard.
‘i half stress in ankle,’ followed by ‘it is broke’
Sy plonked down on the edge of the bathtub, hooking his ankles. He skimmed through the messages again, then wrote back, ‘Which ankle, left or right?’
He scrolled through the messages again, then set the phone aside. He dragged his hands through his hair, then ruffled it furiously.
The actual fuck. Aleks had never texted him this kind of crap before. So why was he suddenly telling him this? It wasn’t like he actually believed they were soulbonded. Sy wasn’t that stupid. He knew the Russian man was just trying to prove a point—that Sy was an idiot. He was giving him a chance only to prove him wrong.
The phone buzzed, and he grabbed it up, fumbling with it until he dropped it into the bathtub with a loud thump. It continued buzzing, the vibration louder, echoing in the tiny confines of the bathroom.
He paused, listening intently to the other room. Mike wasn’t the kind of guy you wanted to wake up, not from a dead sleep and not after a long night.
He heard Mike stop snoring for a split second, followed by the sheets rustling. He grimaced.
Then the snoring started again.
Thanking his lucky stars, Sy retrieved his phone from the bathtub floor.
An email. A fucking promo email from Canadiana Air. He pitched the phone aside. What good was technology anyway?
Maybe Aleks had gone to sleep. That was probable, Sy reasoned. He was awake at six in the morning, but why would Aleks be?
Time zones. Right. That was a thing. Aleks was on the east coast still—he flipped through his calendar again, checking the Rockets’ schedule (they played New York tonight), so he was an hour ahead.
Still. It was only seven in the morning. Aleks should have been up, but maybe not, if they didn’t have practice or …
The phone buzzed again.
‘which is this agin? Same as u break in spring’
Sy rubbed at his ankle absently. He considered for a very long time, then wrote back, ‘so?’
Why tell him that? It wasn’t like Aleks had ever believed him about phantom injuries before.
‘how is u ankle?’
Sy peeled his hand away from his foot, slowly uncurling. The tile was cold beneath his toes. ‘it’s a little achy,’ he replied.
He rubbed at it again, then chewed his lip. ‘why?’
The injury had been bugging him. He’d done a lot of physiotherapy over the summer, so he’d hoped that it was okay, but every now and then …
If Aleks had a stress fracture, that might explain the lingering pains. And that begged the question—had Aleks developed the stress fracture as a response to Sy’s own injury, or was it something completely new and different?
The last thing they needed was one another’s injuries blossoming into other injuries. That could mean they’d be sidelined for months.
‘is not so bad,’ Aleks wrote back, and Sy heaved a breath.
‘just look after it,’ he returned, then padded back to the other room.
Mike peeled open an eye, tracked him as he made his way around the bed; Sy could feel the defenseman’s gaze pinned to him. He ignored it, collapsing back onto the bed. He lifted his phone to his face, hoping he looked engrossed in the screen.
He didn’t want to talk to Mike at this hour.
He frowned deeply. In fact, if he thought about it, he didn’t really want to talk to Mike at all. He was tired of the blond’s insistence that …
Well, that Sy didn’t know himself. That Mike somehow knew him better. Mike had been telling him for years it was just a phase, that he couldn’t be soulbonded to Aleks Volkov, that he wasn’t gay …
“What are you doing?” Mike asked, sleep slurring his voice.
Sy glanced over at him, then glued his gaze to his screen again.
“You were banging around in the bathroom, now you’re on the phone—what time is it?”
“Six,” Sy replied churlishly, the response automatic. He didn’t want to talk to Mike, but he was going to, apparently.
Pause. Sy looked at the wall.
“Are you sexting someone?”
The phone missed Mike’s head, but it was a near thing. “Jesus!” Mike spat. “It was just a question, Sy!”
“Sounded like an accusation,” Sy returned, turning away with a huff. It wasn’t the best move he’d ever made, truth be told. Now he was without his phone—and without a distraction.
“Seriously,” Mike retorted. “I don’t care—do what you want, but like … not in the bathroom while I’m sleeping, yeah?”
Sy lifted a brow. “You want me to do it while you’re awake?”
Mike turned crimson. “No!” he cried. “Not—Jesus, Sy, do what you want, but like, not while I’m around.”
He paused, narrowed his eyes a little. “I was out until like three, why didn’t you do it then?”
“Because I came back early and went to bed, like a professional athlete?”
Mike rolled his eyes. “I swear,” he muttered.
“You’re the absolute worst sometimes,” the blond continued as he rolled out of bed, the sheets rustling loudly. “A real tyrant. But passive aggressive. Like–”
He slammed the bathroom door shut, cutting himself off. Sy shook his head. The water turned on, drowning out anything else Mike might have wanted to say.
He looked up at the ceiling, then to the corner where his phone had fallen after smacking into the wall. He scanned the wall for dents—there didn’t appear to be any, but …
Well, the team would cover it, and they’d likely blame Mike.
He plucked the equipment up from the floor gingerly, the flashing blue light informing him he had another text message. He picked his way back across the room, on his tip-toes, careful not to jar his ankle.
He swung himself back into bed, flopping back as he skimmed the latest message.
The phone went sailing across the room again. Sy clapped his hands over his face.
He wasn’t sure what was worse: Aleks blatantly ignoring him, calling him a liar, or Aleks playing along and telling him to kiss it better.
Gabe glanced around at the houses that lined the street, sprawling, massive mansions. It reminded him of a couple of the older parts of town in Gothenburg, the places just outside the city limits that had been manors once, castles, great sprawling estates.
These looked more British than the ones at home, and they were closer together. But they were massive houses seated on large lots, with sprawling lawns and ancient trees growing up around them. Their worn bricks were coiled lovingly with ivy, which was now turning brilliantly red.
Gabe had only met Lucian Montclair a handful of times, despite playing with Sebby and despite being on relatively good terms with the younger Montclair. He’d only been to Lucian Montclair’s house once, and that had been because Sebby needed to pick something up from his “old man.”
Sitting there on the street, waiting for Sebby to acknowledge his text, was a bit nerve-wracking. He kept glancing up the walkway, waiting for either Sebby or his father to appear.
He felt like he was sixteen again, a shithead teenager who’d gotten a hold of his parents’ car, who was out for a joyride, waiting for his friend who’d gotten shit from his parents to escape. Then they’d ride off for shenanigans when they should have been studying, because they were young and immortal.
Sebby was in some kind of trouble, Gabe had gathered, but getting caught drinking underage and telling your parents you were adopting the child of a woman you knocked up by accident were two very different kinds of trouble.
That was why he half-expected Lucian to show up at the side of the car, telling him Sebby wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while yet, he’d better leave.
The door opened at last, and Gabe’s heart stalled. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
Sebby slammed the door shut and trotted down the stairs, then down the walk. He opened and shut the gate; he didn’t hop it, not like the last time Gabe had been here.
Things had changed a lot since then.
Sebby met his questioning gaze when he peeled open the door. He slid into the car wordlessly, slammed the door. He said nothing, just buckled himself in, dropped his hands in his lap, and stared ahead blankly.
Gabe peered at him cautiously, then put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb. He wasn’t the kind of guy to pry, and it wasn’t any of his business. He could tell, he could guess just how well that had gone.
He dropped Sebby off at a hotel. The other man was still ashen, still silent, but he slowly extricated himself from the car. Gabe watched the seat belt slither back into its slot.
“Thanks,” Sebby said, then slammed the door shut and turned away.
Gabe watched him go, then turned back to the road in front of him. He sat there a moment longer, hands tight on the wheel. He sighed again, then put the car in gear and pulled away.
Brenden drowsed, letting the ceiling come in and out of focus. The drapes were drawn, but the sun still filtered in, dappled across the ceiling and shifting softly.
It was peaceful, almost soothing, but there was a sharp ringing somewhere in the background, something shrilling out for attention. He knit his brow, frowning. What could that possibly be?
He rolled over, intending to settle back into his pillow. Maybe that would make the ringing in his ears stop.
He cracked open an eye and glared at his phone, which was vibrating and ringing and glowing brighter than a red hot poker someone had just taken out the fire.
He plucked it up, fumbling to answer. “Y’llo,” he mumbled as he rolled onto his back.
He blinked; the connection was crap. All he could hear was static hissing in his ear; then a muffled, “Hello?”
“Hey! Sebby, can you hear me?”
More static. He winced, then sat up and turned. “Where are you?”
“Oh hey,” Sebby said, now loud and clear. “Where are you?”
“In the hotel room,” Brenden replied, glancing over at his sleeping roommate. He slid out of bed and ducked into the washroom, closing the door as quietly as he could. “You still there?”
“Mm,” Sebby replied. “Yeah. How’d the game go?”
Brenden sighed heavily. “I’d rather not talk about that.”
“That good, huh?”
“You sound glum,” Brenden said, gently steering the conversation away from the game. Sebby had called for a reason, and whatever that reason was, he was clearly upset.
The pause at the other end was so long, he thought he’d lost him.
Finally, there was a sigh, and Sebby said, “I told my dad about Lucy.”
“Oh,” Brenden breathed. He tried not to make it accusing or even amazed. It just was.
“Went that well, huh?”
A snort. “Yeah.”
Brenden didn’t know Lucian Montclair. He’d never met the man. He didn’t come on the fathers’ trips like the other dads did. He’d never shown up to watch one of Sebby’s games, not even when Sebby was in Boston, playing for his own team. Brenden himself had never had a reason to meet with Lucian. He wasn’t old enough to have played during Lucian’s career, and he would have certainly played on an opposing team. He might have got chirped or ground into the boards, but that would have been the extent of his “meeting” with the man.
So he didn’t know much about Lucian, but from what Sebby said—and what he didn’t say—Brenden couldn’t figure that Lucian was going to take the news he was a grandfather very well. Especially not the way it had happened.
But he wasn’t going to pry. Sebby would tell him what Lucian had said and done when he was good and ready, and not a moment before.
Besides, it felt like a conversation to have face-to-face.
“How’s the little lady?” he asked instead, shifting the phone to his other ear. He closed the lid on the toilet, then sat down, felt the cheap plastic buckle under him.
“She’s doing really good.” Sebby perked up instantly; his voice was clearer, energized. Brenden couldn’t help the smile that spread across his lips. Sebby’s enthusiasm was something hard to match. “I swear, she’s bigger every time I see her.”
“Growin’ like corn in July,” Brenden murmured, echoing something he’d heard at every family function ever.
“I think she recognizes me,” Sebby declared. The tiniest hint of pride crackled in his voice, through the receiver. “When I come into the room, if I’m talking, if she hears me, she opens her eyes.”
“Yer pretty loud,” Brenden said, tamping down on the snicker. “Obnoxious.”
“She’s so cute. The way she looks at me …”
Brenden shook his head, Sebby’s wistfulness almost too much for him. Babies were cute and all …
“Ya’ll just ain’t had to take care of ‘er on yer own yet,” he said.
The line went dead silent again. He pulled the phone away from his ear, stared at it a second to make sure it was still connected.
“Uh, when do you guys get back?”
“Hmmm,” Brenden drawled, “ya’ll better ask the captain ‘bout that one. I know we’re stopping in Denver tonight, then we’re off to Minnesota. I dunno after that.”
He paused. “Why?”
“They’re gonna let me take her home,” Sebby all but squeaked.
“Really?” Brenden cried, then winced. He cringed, hunkering down. He glanced at the door, but nothing stirred in the other room.
“Really,” Sebby said. “They’ve got a lot of paperwork to do, and, like, it’s gonna be a pain in the ass, but …”
He paused again. “I need a lot of stuff. I don’t have a goddamn clue about babies.”
“No, you don’t,” Brenden agreed readily. He’d seen that one coming from a mile away.
“And, uh. I was kinda hoping you guys’d be back, ‘cause …”
“Yer dad ain’t no use, huh?”
“No,” Sebby agreed quietly. “He’s not.”
“When are they gonna let ya take her home?” Brenden asked.
“Probably a coupla days, from the sounds of things.”
“Mm. I’ll ask Mama if she’ll—”
“No,” Sebby snapped. “No—Brenden. That’s not why I called you, I’m not asking for help, I don’t want your mother—”
“You need help,” Brenden retorted. “You said it yerself—you don’t know nothin’ about babies.”
“You don’t need to call your mother—”
“I’ll call Mama,” Brenden said. “She’ll either come up t’ DC and help, or she can tell us some things.”
“No if ands or buts, Seb. Yer my friend and you need help.”
“Lucy needs you to get help,” he said. “You want what’s best for yer little lady, right?”
“Well … yeah,” Sebby mumbled. “I do. I wanna do what’s right for her.”
“Then ya’ll need some help, and yer folks ain’t much help, so I’ll call my folks. It ain’t too far for Mama.”
“It takes a village to raise a child, Seb.” God, he sounded like his mother sometimes. “We’re friends. This is a big thing, an’ I’m happy to help anyway I can.”
The pause dragged on, and then Sebby said, slowly, “Thanks.”
They landed in Denver in the late afternoon sunshine. The shadows were already growing long, which meant they were cutting it close in terms of being ready for the game. The flight had been delayed in Dallas, due to difficulties with the plane. Management was on the phone with IHA officials, trying to get game time pushed back to eight, rather than seven. The fans wouldn’t like it, and the arena staff would have to scramble to get something together to entertain the restless crowd for a whole hour before puck-drop, but they needed that time.
Nonetheless, even as they listened to Sean and Q arguing with the officials on the other end of the line by turn, they were still rushing. Until the delay was approved, they were going to have to pretend they needed to be ready for seven.
Danny glanced at Luke, who said nothing. He looked pale, almost sick. Danny imagined it was the air; Denver’s air was noticeably thinner, something he was pretty sure he’d never get used to. It walloped him every time they stepped off the plane, the sudden breathlessness.
His phone buzzed. He pulled it out of his pocket, frowned at the screen. Matt had sent him a message.
Leo bumped into him, jostling him forward. “C’mon, Dan my man, let’s see some hustle. Ain’t none of us got time—”
“Don’t say it,” Sy growled somewhere behind them, and Danny practically felt Leo’s grin.
“For dat,” the defenseman finished. He might as well have stuck his tongue out at Sy.
Danny pocketed his phone. “Sorry,” he said, then started down the tunnel. Mike had paused at the turn. He was looking back at them, confusion and annoyance intermingling on his face.
“Hurry up,” he admonished, “Coach says we got ’til seven-thirty.”
“Half-an hour?” Leo spat. “They gave us thirty fuckin’ minutes when the plane’s delayed two motherfuckin’ hours. And they give us thirty minutes.”
“I know,” Mike replied. “Shitheads in head office ain’t got a goddamn clue what they’re doing …”
“Enough chit-chat, ladies,” Q barked at them. “Robinson, get a move on. O’Neill, what’s the hold up?”
“No hold up, sir,” Danny said, picking up his pace and joining Mike. They headed up the ramp together, passing through a set of doors, then heading down an escalator toward baggage claim. They didn’t need to claim any baggage; they just needed out of the airport.
“There’s a bus waiting outside,” Q told them. “Tell the others.”
“Will do,” Sy said—ever the little keener. He should have saluted. It wouldn’t have looked out of place.
Q dropped back, apparently to yell at more laggards. Danny was glad they weren’t in that group—any stragglers were going to be in for it.
Ty was waiting for them at the baggage carousels. “Jeez you guys are slow,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. “Dima’s already outside.”
“Hey!” Oaks waved to them from the doorway. “Let’s go, bus is waiting!”
“How’d you get down here so fast?!” Mike cried.
“Goalie powers,” Timmo offered as he hefted his bag and boarded the bus.
“Oh, fuck you, goalies aren’t magic—”
“Shhhh,” Ty said, pressing a finger to Mike’s lips. “Shh, sh.”
“Yeah, Mikey, even if they ain’t, I’m gonna pretend they are,” Leo huffed. “Then I can blame ‘em when the puck goes in the net, ain’t my fault. Where was your goalie powers at?”
“He said powers, not magic, Leo.”
“If we need magic to save our D, we’d better go sacrifice a goat or something.” Cal elbowed Ty in the ribs. Ty grinned back at him, almost halfheartedly—it was hard to say if he didn’t like the joke or if he just didn’t understand Cal’s accent.
They clambered onto the bus. Danny slung himself down in one of the seats, fished out his phone again. Sy plonked down next to him. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, Sy was likely to leave him alone …
On the other hand, it probably meant that the captain wanted to talk shop with him. Sy usually had his pick of where he sat; it wasn’t that any of them really disliked him. He was earnest, he was smart, and he worked hard. He was inexplicably talented, and they took his advice to heart—because he knew what he was talking about more often than not. He was great with the rookies. He was great with fans. He did more than his fair share of media, and he was always ready to step in and save any of his teammates from embarrassing press; he’d do the post-games, the mid-games, the pre-games if someone else wasn’t feeling it.
He was just overbearing sometimes. And all he ever wanted to talk about was hockey. It was like he never thought of anything else.
Danny had more important things to worry about. Matt’s text just said “call me”—there was no context, nothing. Danny’s stomach knotted nervously. He had no idea if that was good or bad.
“So,” Sy started, but the seats thumped and rocked as Mike landed his forearms on the headrests and peered over them.
“Sy, I’ve got an idea.”
Both the captain and Danny rolled their eyes up toward the blond, who peered down at them with his bright blue eyes. “Why don’t we just focus on hockey. Like, I heard this great new idea, it’s called let’s score more goals than the other team.”
Sy frowned deeply, and Danny pinched his nose. “Michael …”
“I’m serious! We all know how to play the game, Sy, so—”
“And so does the other team. We’re all in the IHA for a reason, Mike. We have to talk strategy, we—”
Mike sighed. “We don’t need to do anything!”
“We’ve lost the last three times we were in Denver, and we lost last night. I think we need to—”
“Yo, ya ever think maybe Mikey’s right? Maybe we lost last night ‘cause we thought too hard ‘bout it.”
Sy glowered at them. “Fine,” he huffed finally. “Have it your way.”
Mike and Leo grinned at each other.
“And when we lose …”
“Relax!” Leo cried, ruffling the green-eyed center’s hair. “We ain’t gonna lose.”
“Not without a fight, at least,” Mike said.
Sy continued glaring.
Danny waited a moment, then glanced back at his phone. Matt had messaged him again, asking if they’d landed yet.
Mike happened to glance down. “Ooo, texting your secret lover?” he asked, and Sy seized right up, snapped, “No!” and him, and Danny, Leo, and Mike stared at him.
“Dude,” Mike said finally, “I was talking to Dan.”
“You don’t even have your phone out,” Leo said.
Sy colored up to his ears.
“I’m talking to Matt,” Danny informed them flatly.
“Oh,” Mike said.
“Any news? The team don’t tell us shit.”
Danny shook his head, pocketed the phone again, swiveling to face the front as the bus pulled away from the curb. Mike cuffed him half-heartedly. “Seriously,” he said, “the second you know something about Matty, you tell us, got it?”
“Got it,” Danny replied, glancing back at the blond, who gave him a dopey smile. Danny frowned.
Did Mike know?
It was a rush to get to the hotel. They scarcely had time to throw their shit into their rooms and change into their suits.
“There’ll be food in the locker room,” Q assured them, “the league wouldn’t delay the game any longer, so you guys’ll have to make do.”
There was something in their steps as they disembarked at the arena, all of them hurrying, rushing, racing against the clock, even though they knew they had some time at least. The clock that mattered hadn’t started running yet.
Still, they rushed through pre-game media and pre-game rituals. The assistant coaches had to actively reminded them not to simply scarf down their food, to eat like rational human beings. They didn’t want to hinder their play any, just because they’d been a little crunched for time. It was a delicate balance.
Luke knew he needed to eat, but he had no appetite at all, no desire to eat. He simply stared at the pasta on his plate, the chicken, as his stomach tied itself in knots. He knew he had to go out there. He knew what happened next.
He got like this every time they were in Denver. But it seemed more raw tonight, fresher and painful. The memories were closer to the surface than they’d ever been before, vivid and bright. He closed his eyes.
He hated Denver. Facing the Colts was always made for the roughest games of the season for him. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth, wished he couldn’t still hear Jack’s voice, that gritty laugh, wished he couldn’t see him smirking the way he had in the locker room that night.
It was a miracle Luke had ever managed to set foot in a locker room after that. He’d had to take so much time off, and on nights like tonight, he was hyper-aware of the motion around him; every move he caught in his peripherals was enough to send his heart racing, his breath sticking in his throat. He glanced at Mike, who ignored him completely as he reached up into his stall and grabbed down his bucket.
He caught Danny’s eye from across the way; the bearded omega quirked a brow. Luke looked away.
It was nothing. It shouldn’t have mattered.
He shoved the plate aside, set about lacing up his skates instead. His hands shook.
He wished he could call in sick every night they played Denver. He wished he never had to come here.
He stood up, grabbed his jersey and tossed it over his head.
It had been so long, but seeing Jack made it seem like it had been just yesterday. He hated it, but he couldn’t escape it.
He followed Sy down the tunnel when the horn went, signaling the start of warm-ups. He hit the ice with a strong stride, tried to focus on that, the motion of his muscles, the burn, the strain—
Not the burn, not the pain, not the blood—
It was like this all the time. He’d been playing in the league long enough to have faced Denver more than ten times, and every time it was the same. It never got better. He didn’t think it ever would.
A flash of blue to his left caught his eye, and he turned to meet Jack’s smirk.
He was so sure his heart could shatter bone, it was beating that hard.
“Hey,” Jack said, lifting his brows.
“Hey,” Luke managed, nodded once, and then tried to skate off.
But Jack had always been the faster skater of the two of them. “Good summer?” he asked.
Luke wanted to scream, ‘Don’t talk to me!’ at the top of his lungs, but he couldn’t find his voice. He nodded instead.
Jack bobbed his head, then said, “Heard some interesting stuff about you and Mayday.”
Luke stumbled over a chink in the ice, scarcely caught his footing to right himself. Jack laughed—that same gritty, grating laughter, and Luke swallowed down bile.
“Heard he finally manned up and bit you,” Jack sneered, “made you his bitch.”
Luke looked at him, unable to discern his tone. Was he … angry?
Jack sneered at him, his upper lip curling away from his teeth, revealing his bright green mouthguard. “Yeah,” he laughed, “that true, Macks? You let that diva bitch bite you?”
“No,” Luke replied automatically. “I—I didn’t let anyone bite me.”
Jack’s smile was particularly nasty, and Luke’s stomach flip-flopped. He caught himself against the boards, wondered why the fuck Jack wouldn’t just leave him alone.
“That’s good,” the other forward said. “Real good. Gotta be careful about those things, huh?”
Luke gritted his teeth, grabbed up his stick; it was a flimsy barrier between them, but it was something, more than he’d had that night so long ago now …
“Real careful,” he echoed, glaring at Jack. Like he didn’t know Jack is the fucker who bit him. Like he didn’t know that Jack was the asshole who abandoned him, left him to deal with a broken bond.
The horn sounded, recalling them. Jack’s gaze lingered on him, and then he skated away. Luke gritted his teeth and hurtled down the tunnel.