Chapter 43: The Air Up Here [Slapshot!]
The horn sounded before Luke had a chance to catch his breath, or so it seemed. He closed his eyes and followed his teammates blindly down the tunnel.
He’d done it every other time he’d had to face Jack. There was no reason he couldn’t do it now.
Except he forgot how difficult it was. It never got any easier; he suspected that he could face Jack a hundred thousand times and still feel exactly the same. His heart raced. His mouth went dry. His grip slid down his stick, as though his hands were soaked with sweat, already bleeding through his mitts.
He was weak-kneed and shaking, even as he tried to convince himself to keep breathing, even as he tried to steady his muscles.
He could do this. He’d done it before.
He wished it at least got easier, but it didn’t. It hadn’t.
He stood on the bench as they played the American national anthem. He caught Dima’s eye during the song; the Russian had no love for the tune either. Luke tried not to wince when the singer tried to hit the high notes. Sebby and Brenden both had their heads bowed; it was impossible to tell if they were ashamed of the singer butchering the anthem or if they were just being patriotic.
And there was Jack on the ice, on the opposite side of center, kicking out his feet as he stared up at the rafters, watched the animation of the American flag waving across the Jumbotron. He had one hand over his heart; it was clear he was a patriot.
He’d done that at every game they’d ever played in college—Luke could still see him there, in the U Mass sweater, one hand over his heart, next to the C emblazoned on his jersey. Kicking his feet like that, chomping away on his mouthguard, just like a horse champing at the bit.
He’d done it that night too, the last game Luke had ever played with him.
He hadn’t changed, it seemed, and Luke hated that, because it took him right back to that night. Sure, Jack wore a different uniform now. He had an “A” on his sweater, not a “C.” But he was still Jack, still the same old Jack.
And that hurt. That cut deep, through scar tissues, digging at wounds that Luke thought had closed. The wounds he’d hoped had closed.
But no, they were still there, buried under the surface.
If he wanted to be perfectly honest with himself, it was worse tonight than it had been in a long while. He knew why, but he didn’t want it to be true. New wounds shouldn’t have affected the old ones …
And yet, they had.
The players drifted to the center line. The ref dropped the puck; sticks clashed, and the chase was on. Luke closed his eyes, inhaled deeply through his nose.
He could get through this. He had to.
He tried to ignore Jack. He tried to zero in on their own players, to focus on Stars sweaters, on what they were doing.
But Jack was in every frame somehow, in the thick of the action. He drilled Sy into the boards. He stole the puck. He poke-checked Mike. He tripped Sebby, and nothing was called.
Worst of all, his eyes kept finding Luke’s, like he was searching him out, seeking him. Like he wanted to be sure Luke was paying attention.
They’d used to look for each other on the ice. At one time, it had been so natural, so normal. And now …
Luke didn’t want to think about it.
The only reprieve was that he wasn’t on the ice when Jack was. Jack was top line; he was second line. Right now, the coaches were playing the two top lines against each other, trying to shut each other down.
That changed when the Stars went on the powerplay. Jack was on the ice as part of the penalty kill for the Colts, and he smirked at Luke, but did nothing more.
They didn’t score, but the Colts didn’t get a breakaway either. They remained tied at nothing as they headed down the tunnel after the horn sounded.
Water, rinse, change. Ten minutes was scarcely enough time to recover, but it was all they had.
The Colts were mixing things up in the second period. Their fourth line was out to start the period. That lifted a few brows along the Stars bench, but Q looked impassive, gazing out at the ice. His mustache didn’t even twitch.
He was waiting to see how this would play out. He probably thought it was a miscalculation on the Colts’ part, but …
It was always so hard to predict these things.
The Colts’ fourth line had been surging. They didn’t hear everything about it in the east, but the names that had been scoring for Colorado weren’t the big guns.
The trend held; some fourth-liner stripped Sy of the puck and broke for the opposite end of the ice, banged it home to open scoring in the game.
Luke saw Sy swearing; he was pissed that he’d let someone take the puck from him, never mind someone on the fourth line.
He’d probably use it as an excuse to go even harder at practice. After all, if the fourth-liners were beating him, he was clearly off his game.
Luke hopped the boards and skated to center ice. He tapped Sy’s stick on the way by, glanced over his shoulder at the other center. Sy hadn’t even looked; he’d simply leapt over the boards, settled himself on the benches. He still looked like a storm cloud.
Luke turned his attention to the face-off dot, squatting down, his stick over his thighs. He glanced up at the ref, the puck in his hand. Then he glanced over at his opponent.
The ref deked them out; he made to drop the puck, and the Colorado player jumped forward. Luke met him, their sticks clattering together as they fought over a puck that was still firmly nestled in the ref’s hand.
The whistle went, loudly. “Get out!” the ref snapped at the Colts player, who reluctantly skated out of the circle.
Luke swallowed his heart as Jack skated in to take his place. He hadn’t realized Colorado had put their top line out.
Jack didn’t smirk now though; his eyes were cold and serious, focused on the puck.
He was going to be professional about this. All right. Luke could do that too. He shifted his gaze toward the puck.
The ref dropped it; their sticks collided, and Luke gritted his teeth, dug harder as he tried to push Jack out of the way, get his blade on it. Their shoulders were wedged together, and their feet slipped; they went down in a heap, the puck shooting off toward the Stars zone.
Luke let out an undignified yelp—not because it hurt, not because he was surprised, but because this was the closest he’d been to Jack since …
Jack didn’t seem fazed. He scrambled back to his feet and shot off after the puck.
“You okay?” the ref yelled at Luke, who pushed up into a lunge, then forced himself to his feet. He shoved off and pushed deep into his legs, determined to tag up on the rush.
He slammed into the boards, rattling some Colorado player as he did so. The puck squirted off the end of the guy’s stick, caromed into the corner. Dima grabbed it up, fired it over to Mike, who rifled it toward the blue line. It hopped over Danny’s stick, kept sliding.
The whistle went. They’d iced it.
They skated slowly, like vultures circling the face-off dot in the defensive zone. Jack was chewing on his mouthguard again. Luke tried not to think about taking another face-off against him.
He knew it was going to happen, though. He knew it had to happen.
The ice crew skating the length of the ice, shoveling up the snow created by skate blades, only prolonged the inevitable. He glanced up at the clock—16:06 left to play. They were barely in four minutes.
Luke hunkered down on the dot, mentally preparing for another battle with Jack. Since he’d won the last one, he might take this one as well.
Sure enough, Jack came straight to the circle—not the centerman. It was a little strange for a winger to take the face-off when the center was right there and available, but not unheard of. Jack was certainly better on the dot than some centers Luke knew.
Again, Jack’s cold, calculating gaze met his, then drifted up to the puck. Luke’s stomach knotted.
Again, they locked sticks. Again, they went down in a heap, and Luke could have sworn that, this time, Jack’s hand met with his ass—a quick, nothing pat before Jack was on his feet skating away again.
Luke gritted his teeth and tagged up on the rush. He tried to think about how he’d lost two consecutive face-offs, how his stats on the night were zero for two—failure rate one hundred percent.
That was easier to think about than Jack’s hand on his ass, how queasy the thought made him.
He tagged up on the rush, headed into the corner after the puck, and this time, Jack drilled him into the boards.
This time, Jack definitely smacked his ass before he darted off again. Luke set his teeth, locked his jaw, and tried to breathe.
Something was aching now—he wasn’t sure if it was muscle or memory, wasn’t sure if it was physical or emotional, but it throbbed now, louder, incessantly, demanding his attention.
He peeled off for the bench, trying desperately to catch Q’s eye. Coach was still watching impassively, calculating his next move, pondering how to counter the other team’s offensive.
Luke glanced at Sy, who was sitting on the other side of Nicky. Nicky glanced at him first; his visor was still spotted with water and sweat, a little condensation on the other side of the fiberglass. “Hmm?” he asked.
“Uh,” Luke said, and Nicky frowned deeply.
“You do not look well,” the blond said.
Sy perked up, glancing over to them. “Macks?” he asked, lifting his brows.
Shit. Sy didn’t look well either. His face was drawn and almost gray, like all the life had gone out of him.
“Are you okay?” Luke asked, leaning over Nicky. He landed a mitted hand on Sy’s.
The center withdrew almost immediately. “Fine,” he said, then grimaced. There was a flash of pain in his eyes.
Luke stared at him, then said, “Did you get hit or something?”
“It’s fine,” Sy said, and Luke caught the roll of his ankle beneath the bench.
“Your foot bugging you?” Luke pressed. Sy was an idiot; he’d try to play through an injury—and they didn’t need to lose him, not when they were slumping, not so early in the season.
“It’ll be fine,” Sy said this time, looking back toward the ice. He stood up, swung a leg over the boards as their third line prepared to come in.
Nicky followed him up, hopped over the boards with him, and Luke watched them, watched the way Sy shook his foot.
He shuffled down the bench, looked up at Q. Now his coach looked at him, that same impassive look in his eyes—but he knew. He saw. He was watching their star player like a hawk. Twenty seconds later, Sy went down awkwardly into the boards—feet first as one of the Colts players hauled him down. He got back to his knees almost instantly, but the pain was obvious from his expression.
Luke glanced at Q again, who flicked his gaze toward him again. “Go,” he said, and Luke hopped over the boards. He didn’t need to be told twice.
He passed Sy on the ice, smacked him on the arm as the other center limped back in. “Get it checked,” he said, and Sy glared at him.
Now he really had no excuse, Luke thought as he watched Sy gingerly hop over the boards, into the waiting arms of one of the trainers, who helped him hobble down the bench, to the tunnel.
He had to finish this game now—and he’d have to play more minutes. They were down a guy, no way they were getting anyone else in to take Sy’s place. All he could hope was that everything was okay, and Sy would be back for the third period.
He skated to the dot and took the face-off. Jack wasn’t on the ice right then and there.
Again, though, they couldn’t convert on the powerplay, and Luke tried again to focus on breathing. It was so difficult; his lungs were on fire. He wondered if it was because of the thin air.
Maybe it was the thin air, maybe it was the air in the mountains that was making him feel so ill.
Sy didn’t return for the third period, which meant that Luke and Cal were splitting shifts. Their lines became shambles—one shift, Luke was with Ty and Nicky, then he was with Cal’s usual linemates, then Ty and Nicky again, then he stayed on for a double shift and played with Danny and Dima.
He should have been so tired, so exhausted that he couldn’t have been worried about Jack. He should have been so utterly exhausted that he couldn’t care about Jack.
But he wasn’t. Adrenaline flowed through him for all the wrong reasons, and his heart pounded harder, even when he knew Jack was on the bench.
His gaze pinned to Luke, boring into him.
He couldn’t leave the game though. He had to battle through this. But every step, every breath felt more difficult. With every passing second, the memories were becoming more vivid, more real, and he fought it, tooth and claw, but still it came on, crashing over him like a tsunami, threatening to drag him under.
The arena faded away. The locker room became louder, and everywhere, he could hear Jack’s voice, Jack’s laughter, echoing all around him. He hardly heard the buzzer when the Colts scored their second goal.
Finally, the horn sounded to end the game, and Luke scrambled for the tunnel, before the memories enveloped him entirely. He scuttled to the locker room, as quickly as his skates would take him. He threw himself down on the bench, started unlacing his skates. He trembled everywhere.
Jack hadn’t even really done anything. But the ache in his neck was very real, the nausea that was rising in his throat was all too familiar. He tossed his jersey over his head.
He heard his teammates filtering into the room, and he was going to lose it. It was just like that night, just like when they’d lost and Jack had been so angry, and they’d all filtered into the room, and …
A hand on his shoulder nearly startled him, and he looked frantically up at Sean, who simply met his gaze and nodded. He tightened his grip, said, “Let’s get out of here,” and Luke nodded only once, then grabbed his gear, his jacket.
Sean glanced at Luke, who was still dripping sweat, still in his sweat-soaked gear—his shirt and his tights, the shorts overtop of them. His feet were jammed in his dress shoes; there was a wet patch forming under his armpits as he soaked through the suit jacket.
He hadn’t showered; he’d needed to get out of that room. He could shower when they got back to the hotel.
Sean had watched him all but run off the ice, and he’d known exactly what was happening. Luke wasn’t tired from playing the extra shifts. He didn’t feel nauseous or woozy because he’d had to play so many more minutes tonight.
No, Luke was freaking out. Sean didn’t know what exactly was going on, but he had a guess—and he’d guessed that Jack had something to do with it.
Luke said nothing as they headed back to the hotel. He stared straight ahead, hugged his arms around himself tight. He was still trembling, and Sean watched him from his peripheries, willed him to calm down. To blink. To breathe.
They said nothing until they were in the hotel room, the door shut safely behind them. Sean grabbed the younger man by his shoulders and started peeling him out of his gear. Luke heaved a huge breath, this shuddery cry of protest, and Sean pulled away.
“Luke,” he said.
“Don’t,” Luke croaked, wrapped his arms around himself tighter. “Don’t, please–”
“Luke, it’s just me. Sean. It’s me.”
“Don’t touch me,” Luke whined, and he looked pathetically at Sean.
“Okay,” Sean replied, nodding his head. “Okay. Can you get out of your clothes for me?”
“No,” Luke spat in that same desperate tone.
“No, Luke—you need to take a shower. Get changed into some clean clothes. You’ll feel better.”
Luke bared his teeth at him as Sean took a step toward him. The younger man curled away.
Sean sighed. All right. This was going to be a bit more difficult than he had anticipated.
For once in his life, he wished Mason was there.
He placed his hands gently on Luke’s cheeks, holding his head steady, even when the omega whimpered and tried to pull away. “Sh,” he said, leaning in, “Luke, sh. It’s me. Sean.”
“I want you to take a shower,” Sean said, “and get changed out of these sweaty clothes. Can you do that for me?”
Luke’s lips were trembling, even as he pressed them together. Sean pressed his hands against his cheeks a little harder. “I won’t follow you in,” he said. “I’ll stand outside, keep guard. Keep you safe, okay?”
Luke nodded minutely. “O-okay,” he stammered.
Sean nodded in kind. “Good,” he said, “okay. Go.”
He turned the omega toward the washroom. “Go. Take your shower, get cleaned up. Take as long as you need. What room are you in? I’ll call down and get someone to bring up your clothes.”
“Six-forty-four,” Luke replied, then shut the bathroom door.
Sean dialed down to the front desk. He glanced out the window, the glittering lights of the city outside. He frowned deeply.
It was going to be a long night.
Mason tipped his head to the side, frowning deeply. He wasn’t even looking at the ice; his gaze drifted out of focus, until Cam smashed into the boards just in front of him, the Detroit player grinding into him. Mason blinked, rearing back as he did.
Fuck, he was out of it. He touched a hand to his neck absently.
Coach was watching. He fussed with the chain around his neck, rubbed his nape, like maybe he was scratching an itch or something.
He pressed his lips together. The ache was a weird sensation; the bond had never hurt before, not like it did now.
He glanced at Coach again, who met his gaze and nodded. Mason sucked in a breath and tossed his leg over the boards, getting ready for the change. Trev came with him, glancing at him.
“What?” Mason all but snapped.
“Nothing,” Trev said with a quick shake of his head.
Mason frowned at him, but the whistle had gone, and they were up next. He slipped over the boards, gliding across the ice as soon as his blades hit the surface. He curled about to the face-off dot in the offensive zone.
He turned his head to the side. His neck didn’t crack—and it didn’t really feel like it needed to crack either. It just ached.
A strange sensation of panic began to settle through him, tingling down to his fingertips. He licked his lips and tried to concentrate on the face-off, puck-drop. He focused on the ref’s hand, glanced across at his opponent.
He exhaled, long and slow, but that wasn’t enough to stop his heart from pounding. He gripped his stick a little tighter.
It was weird. So weird.
But he couldn’t relax. He swallowed and tried to zero in on the puck. Ignore everything else, filter everything out.
It wasn’t working. He crossed sticks with his opponent, watched the puck shoot off toward the blue line.
He could hardly catch his breath, even as he bowed his head and skated as quick as he could.
“Mayday!” That was Dusty. He slapped the puck back, into the corner. Mason whirled about, dove back after it. He buckled into the boards as one of the Detroit players rattled him. The glass shook. He listened to a fan screaming at him—a kid, by the pitch of the voice—cheering him on or yelling at him to do better, it was impossible to tell. The glass kept rattling as the kid smacked it with both palms, yelling the entire time.
Mason fired the puck around the endboards. Trev grabbed it up on his stick, fired it toward the net. Mason curled in close, hoping to catch a rebound off the goalie—he was bad for it, Mason knew.
Apparently, he knew Mason was standing there and smothered the puck. Mason sighed and shuffled over toward the other side of the net. The ref was pointing to it. They weren’t gonna get a change; Coach didn’t want one either.
Mason queued up outside the dot this time, shoulder to shoulder with the Detroit player—a big goon. Mason couldn’t look at him, but he knew it could only be one person on the Warriors.
“Hey,” the guy boomed in his ear, “what’s this?” His breath all but ghosted across Mason’s neck.
Mason’s eyes widened.
“Looks like ya got a little something there,” Derreck sneered at him, a nasty grin plastered over his face.
“None of your damn business,” Mason snapped, then turned as the puck shot past them both.
Derreck gave him a shove. “Looks like something more than nothin’,” he sneered, then scooped up the puck and fired it out of the Warriors’ zone. Mason turned on his heel and gave chase; he was the fastest skater on the ice when he wanted to be, and Derreck had likely just iced the puck.
Moron. Mason shouldn’t have let himself be distracted by him. He pushed harder into his skates, tried to stop up short, but Aaron Pariser smashed into him, knocking his skates out from under him.
To no avail, of course. The whistle had already gone; Mason had touched the puck.
The second ended without any scoring from either side. Mason sent Cam to do media; he didn’t want to talk to anyone, and it wasn’t like anyone had anything interesting to say. They hadn’t scored, after all.
“You okay?” Dusty asked, cornering him near his stall. The big lug glanced over his shoulders, then curled a little closer.
“Fine,” Mason retorted, pitching a towel into the bin. He was fine. He would be fine.
His fingers twitched with the need to touch the ache in his neck.
“You don’t seem fine,” Dusty said, almost warily. “You seemed off out there.”
“That asshole Rubens was talking trash,” Mason offered with a shrug.
“Eh, don’t let him get at ya,” Cam said as he re-entered the room. He heaved a breath, shook his head. “Hm?”
Mason shrugged. “Not gonna let him,” he said. “He caught me off-guard.”
“Hmm,” Dusty said, frowning deeply. He clearly didn’t believe him, but that was his problem, not Mason’s.
They still didn’t score in the third, making for one of the most boring tilts in Mason’s recent memory. He glanced out at the fans as he leaned on the boards, waiting for Coach to outline their overtime plan. The crowd apparently agreed with him—there were a lot of empty seats, a lot of bored faces. A few people were actually asleep.
Just a typical evening on LA’s home ice, Mason thought bitterly, knitting his brow.
He needed out. Did he ever need out. The arena, the team was starting to feel claustrophobic. He needed to go somewhere that could actually play with his level of talent.
He’d spent too long mucking around in LA. They had excuses piled on top of excuses, but nobody ever seemed to take active steps toward this “better” they kept talking about. Every time he talked to management, he was told to hang on just a little longer, just another year, they were still in a rebuilding phase …
He was running out of patience.
He rubbed absently at his neck.
He paused, noticing both Coach and Dusty watching him now. He lifted his hand away slowly, glancing about.
He swallowed another nervous breath.
They went to overtime. There was no break between the periods any more, just a time-out. Then it was three-on-three for five minutes.
They couldn’t break the tie that way either, so then it was on to the shoot-out.
Mason’s stomach knotted. He hated the shoot-out. He was a sniper, an excellent shot, tricky with his stick, so slick with his hands. But his shoot-out percentages told another story, spoke volumes about a different player.
A guy who couldn’t find the net if he tried. A guy who bungled every shot.
He hoped they didn’t call on him. He lifted his eyes to the rafters, hoping against hope …
He swung a leg over the boards, hopped down to the ice. The Knights had little in the way of offensive scoring prowess, so of course he was called. Shit as he was in the shoot-out, he was still the person they relied on most.
He skated to center ice and waited for the whistle. He stared down the ice at the goalie. He tightened his grip on the stick.
The whistle went, so he picked up the puck on his stick. He pushed against his blades, faster and faster, streaking down the ice.
Forehand, backhand, forehand, backhand, wind up, release.
The puck shot up, over the net. Mason watched it hit the netting in front of the glass, then drop harmlessly back to the ice.
Coach’s face was a thundercloud, and Mason grimaced. He hopped over the bench and hunched his shoulders as he plonked down on the bench.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Dusty whispered in his ear. Trev was queuing up, one leg over the boards as they watched the Warriors first shooter pick up the puck and drive for the net.
He missed too. Trev hopped onto the ice, and Mason turned to glare at Dustin. “I’m fine,” he huffed.
Dusty shook his head. “You don’t seem fine,” he retorted. “In fact, you seem nervous about something. Or maybe …”
He paused, and Mason wondered when Dusty had become such a drama queen. He narrowed his eyes further, hoping his teammate would take the hint and shut up.
“Scared,” Dusty finished, his mouth twisting down into a frown as he evaluated Mason. Mason blinked a couple of times, then shifted on the bench, glancing over his shoulder, then out toward the ice.
He couldn’t look his teammate in the eye. What the fuck.
Dusty glanced toward the tunnel, then leaned over and hissed, “We’re talking about this when this is over.”
The horn sounded, loud and angry. The bench erupted in cheers; Trev had deked out the goalie while they were arguing. Mason hopped to his feet, adding his own voice to the chorus, intent on cheering on his teammate, their victory, and not—
Dusty tugged on his jersey, yanking him back to the bench hard. He gritted his teeth, then turned to the other man. Dusty, for his part, just lifted his brows like a warning.
Dusty knew where he lived. There would be no escaping this conversation, not even if he wanted to.
The Warriors scored on their second shot too. Cam held up his hands for a high-five. “Wish me luck!” he said, then swung himself over the boards, onto the ice. Mason turned back to Dusty, shaking his head.
Cam missed, the shot pinging off the crossbar as it shot up and over the net. Mason shut his mouth with a click, glowering at Dusty, before turning away.
Cam had skated back to the bench, shrugging his shoulders sheepishly. Coach looked ready to murder him. If the Warriors scored on their next shot …
They didn’t, which meant the next shot was sudden death. If the Knights scored, they won; if they didn’t, then the Warriors could take it. That would continue until one of them finally scored.
“Dustin!” Coach barked, and the burly man stood up. He glanced down at Mason, as if promising to resume their conversation when he got back.
They both knew he was good in a pinch—so it made perfect sense that he’d be called on now. Mason popped his mouthguard out, gnawing at it as he pulled off his gloves, thumbing at his lip. He tried to decide if he was more nervous about the outcome of the game or the prospect of having a seemingly serious heart-to-heart with one of his teammates when it was said and done.
Probably the latter. He wasn’t the most honest person out there. He hadn’t even really …
Well, he’d guessed that most of his teammates had guessed, or at least noticed something was different. He definitely hadn’t been partying as much lately. He didn’t … really want to go out or do anything. It was eat, sleep, work, repeat—he got up, went to the gym, to practice, to whatever … and then that was about it. He preferred to be at home when he could.
He’d definitely raised eyebrows when he’d refused to join Cam’s bar-hopping entourage. If Dusty didn’t take this opportunity to grill him about his behavior, he was an idiot.
Mason wished some of his teammates were as stupid as he was.