Chapter 49: Packing It in [Slapshot!]
Cal stared at his reflection in the mirrored surface of the elevator, forcing himself not to look at Timmo.
It wasn’t working. Against his will, his eyes kept flicking to the left, trying to get a better look at the Finn.
The blond’s face was an unreadable mask, just like always. Timmo wasn’t most expressive of people, Cal had quickly learned. He smirked when he thought something was hilarious, and he rarely laughed out loud. A frown was a sign of deep trouble, and heaven forbid those brows knit together in concentration.
He wasn’t surprised Timmo was known as the Iceman. He was almost expressionless, seemingly emotionless. He played net the exact same way. He wasn’t one for drama or flair, although many of his saves were shocking displays of athleticism and flexibility.
Cal stared at the light around the button, indicating their selected floor.
He had no idea if Timmo had been joking about his Netflix comment. He was pretty sure … The Finn couldn’t not be joking, right? Maybe not about the video games. But Netflix …
Cal snuck another glance at him. Like, he seriously had to know …
But then again, maybe he didn’t. Cal wasn’t sure exactly how old Timmo was, but …
And that made it all the more worrisome that he couldn’t figure out whether the goalie was hitting on him or not.
He eyed Timmo again as the elevator jerked to a halt. He wasn’t sure how he even felt about that prospect. One part of him was telling him he was stupid to even think that; there was literally no way the goalie was hitting on him. Another part of him was virulently opposed. That was his teammate. Timmo was older. And Timmo was a man.
A third part of him was curious.
And that was the part that scared him the most.
“Are you coming?” Timmo asked, and Cal startled.
“Uh?” he asked when the goalie just quirked a brow at him.
“Well, if you want to ride the lift all day,” he said in that vaguely British-accented English of his.
“Oh,” Cal said, shaking himself out of his stupor, “no. Didn’t plan on it, at least.”
“Mm,” Timmo said. He turned away and headed back down the hall.
Then again, Cal thought, maybe it was a good idea. Go downstairs, have another cup of coffee, forget about all this. Timmo wasn’t hitting on him. He was being an idiot, and he wasn’t even sure why he’d think that in the first place.
Could it be he wanted Timmo to hit on him? Was he interested in the goaltender, so he was projecting his own desires onto his teammate in some sick attempt to exorcise them from his own person?
He frowned, then jumped when the elevator dinged and the doors started closing. He jammed the door open button and scuttled into the hallway. He really didn’t want to ride the lift all day; it usually made him a little dizzy, a little nauseous.
He tagged up behind Timmo at the door to their room, glancing about. Why did he feel so nervous? He rubbed his hands together.
He wished Luis were there. Luis had been his anchor in America, holding him steady through virtually everything he’d run into since leaving Australia. He was so lost without him. Maybe …
But then, he didn’t want to bother Luis with a stupid, non-existent problem. He was clearly making this up.
“Ah-ha,” Timmo said, then shoved the door open with his elbow. “Damn cards.”
“They never work, eh?” Cal asked, offering up a tight smile.
The blond lifted a brow at him, but said nothing. Cal grimaced and darted into the room before Timmo had a chance to decide to slam the door in his face.
Yeah, no, he was imagining things if he’d even thought for a second Timmo had any kind of interest in him. There was no attraction there. None. Zero. Zip.
He made his way to his rumpled, unmade bed, plonked down on it, listening to the springs squeal as he did so. Timmo stepped into the bathroom, clicked on the light.
“So, uh,” Cal said, “what kind of shows do you watch on Netflix?”
Timmo paused, head cocked to the side, hand on the door, and yeah, okay, he was kind of cute like that, and how had Cal not noticed his biceps before, the muscle standing out in stark relief as the Finn held onto the door, ready to slam it shut.
“Mm,” Timmo said finally, “mostly BBC shows. Sherlock. Dr. Who. British versions of things, like The Office.”
“Oh,” Cal said softly. “Not the American stuff?”
Timmo pulled a face. “No,” he said, then shut the door.
Cal exhaled, then rolled onto his back. He looked up at the ceiling, tracing the strange patterns in the popcorning with his eyes. You could tell the age of a building, he knew, by the type of ceiling it had in it.
He turned his head toward the door, studied the thin strip of light peeping out from underneath it. The water was running; he heard the shower curtain being drawn. He closed his eyes tight and turned his head again.
The actual fuck was wrong with him? He’d been hanging out with Timmo pretty much this entire trip, but he hadn’t …
He hadn’t thought about the Finn like this until this morning. Until they were sitting there over coffee. It was stupid, absurd. “Absolutely absurd,” he muttered, mimicking the goaltender’s accent as best he could.
It made no sense. He hadn’t thought about him like this yesterday or last night. And he didn’t know why he was doing it now, thinking about Timmo stripping off his clothes, stepping under the spray of the shower, carefully unwrapping that shitty bar of hotel soap (Timmo, he’d noted, was always careful).
He’d watched Timmo strip and get dressed for the game, changing after practice, showering, and he hadn’t thought a damn thing about it. They were just teammates. That was what teammates did. There was nothing weird or strange or sexual about it, or …
He didn’t want to make it weird. He didn’t want to make it sexual, not over some stupid offhand comment about fucking Netflix and video games of all things. Not over Timmo drinking shitty hotel restaurant coffee with him at six in the morning because he couldn’t sleep, not Timmo coming downstairs to find him because he’d fucked off, because he was upset that he was getting sent back down.
That was all it was. Concern. An elder statesman looking out for the rookie. Cal had done that with some of the rookies on the Hershey team this year. He knew what it was, and it was nothing to make a fuss about. They were teammates. They looked out for each other.
It wasn’t anything more, and he didn’t know why he suddenly, desperately wanted it to be.
Maybe it was just a weird way of dealing with getting sent back down. Maybe it was just an acceptable (maybe, he thought) method of dealing with the rush of emotion that came with that knowledge. He’d known this wasn’t permanent. He’d known he was going to be sent back down, that he could be sent back down at virtually any time.
He had just … hoped it wasn’t going to be so soon.
But it wasn’t on to express that. Playing with the big team was fun, but it wasn’t his place to make a fuss about heading back down to the minors. He was a minors kind of guy. Maybe someday, he’d stick with the big team, but for now, he belonged on the farm. Developing so that maybe someday he could play big minutes in front of a roaring IHA crowd and never have to worry about being sent down.
He’d known this wasn’t permanent. He knew he’d get other chances. Heck, he might get called up again in a week. He might not. He might never get called up again. He might spend his entire career in the minors—some guys did.
And he had to be okay with that. He had to accept it. At least he was still playing hockey, living the dream.
They’d all known his time was limited, that he was going back down. He’d known that when he’d gotten the call. He’d known that when he arrived. And he’d have thought he would be more reconciled to that fact. He’d thought he’d accepted it, that he’d play and try to be the very best he could be, to show why he truly belonged in the IHA, but that at the end of the day, it was just a demonstration, a try-out. A casting call—they’d let him audition, then let him know.
He’d thought he could handle that. It had been the trajectory from the start, but now that it was here, he was completely unprepared for how hollow it made him. Like the life had been sucked out of him. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to go back to playing for the Patriots, not now that he knew what it was like to play on the big team.
Could he be satisfied with that, knowing what happened in these arenas? Could he live with the knowledge that he might never get back here, that this might have been his one and only chance, and he’d blown it? Would he wait in vain to be called back up? And could he handle being called up for a day or two, a handful of games, then relegated back to Hershey?
He wasn’t sure he could. He’d been confident before that this wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle, that he’d grin and bear it, that it would only make him want to work harder. He had to play impressively in Hershey to get the job, he had to keep auditioning every night of his life.
But did he want to? Did he want to put in so much effort? Or maybe …
Maybe he should just quit and go home. Middle America wasn’t for him, the lights of the arenas duller, the crowds quieter and more sparse. He’d been chasing a dream, and it seemed like it was disintegrating between his fingers now.
The door swung open and Timmo padded into the room, dripping wet and clothed only in a towel. Cal colored up, then rolled over quick as he could, staring wide-eyed at the wall.
God, he was a mess. He needed to get hold of himself. This would never do. He needed to be calm and collected as they went back to DC, needed to say goodbye to the team, say it was a good run, pretend like he was confident he’d see them all again soon. That this wasn’t over, it wasn’t permanent.
And then he couldn’t look back. He’d get on another flight and head back to Pennsylvania. And then he’d have to put on a show, tell the guys all about how great it was to make it to the IHA, to pretend like his heart was still in it.
Like this whole stupid experience hadn’t utterly gutted him.
“Rookie,” Timmo said, and Cal cringed—did the Finn not even know his name? How quickly he was forgotten! Or maybe Timmo had never even bothered to learn it, knowing him to be but another transient, just another body on the ice. “You packed yet?”
“Mm?” Cal said, then rolled over slowly, rubbing at his eyes. “Wha? Huh? Oh. No.” He swung himself off the bed cautiously, tiptoeing around the Finn, grabbing up his suitcase. He kicked it open with his foot. “Guess we gotta pack, huh?”
“Yeah,” Timmo replied, but there was something edgy in his tone. Subdued. Strange.
Cal glanced up, but the blond had his head down in his own suitcase, neatly layering in clothes. Like it was nothing at all.
And it wasn’t anything. This was just another trip for him, another lost game, another flight, another day in the life. He didn’t have any fears about getting sent back down. He was almost a fixture on the Stars these days; he wasn’t going to get bounced around.
Timmo glanced up, locked eyes with him, those icy blue orbs drilling into him. Cal resisted the urge to coil back.
“I understand,” the Finn said, and Cal frowned, knitting his brow. He opened his mouth to reply, but the blond continued, saying calmly, “I bounced back and forth a bit at first. It’s frustrating. Annoying. Up and down and up and down–”
Cal fought the blush on his cheeks as hard as he could, but it came on anyway. Lucky for him, Timmo had closed his eyes, even as he finished folding up another shirt. “And it went on like that, and finally, I made the IHA. So. I understand.”
Cal pressed his lips together and contemplated the carpet for a dragging sixty seconds. “Thanks,” he said finally, daring to glance up again.
Timmo shrugged. “Just thought you should know,” he said, and Cal nearly sighed—a strange mixture of relief and frustration, because there was nothing there. Timmo was just being a concerned teammate. Nothing more, nothing less.
And Cal wasn’t sure why he cared anyway.
The dull morning light of an overcast day crept across the bedroom floor. Sebby peeled open one eye, then the other, squinting in the light. It was almost like Boston, but then again, it was nothing like it. He glanced about, brow furrowing as he orientated himself.
He was in his room, at home, in DC. He’d brought Lucy home last night.
He couldn’t hear any crying.
He leapt out of bed, struggled into a tee and a pair of shorts, then charged down the hall to the makeshift bedroom they’d put together for the infant last night. He all but clattered into the door, then froze.
“Sebastien,” his mother said sharply, glancing up from the baby carrier where, contrary to his mother’s insistence, Lucy had spent the night because he couldn’t find a place to buy a crib open late enough.
She wasn’t holding Lucy though, nor was Lucy in the carrier. Instead, she was cradled in the arms of the young man standing beside his mother.
“Uh, hi,” he said, shaking himself back to life as he realized they were waiting on a response. “Uh.”
“This is Topher,” she said, gesturing to the man holding his child. “The nanny.”
Topher grinned somewhat sheepishly. “Or manny,” he said.
“I prefer not to make distinctions,” she said sharply, then turned back to Sebby.
“I told you,” he said sharply, “I don’t want–”
“You need help,” she said.
“Lu and I are doing fine–”
“You’ll need a nanny sooner or later, and there’s a three-week waiting list at the agency, so you’re lucky they were able to send anyone on such short notice, and–”
Sebby gritted his teeth. “I–”
Topher glanced between the two of them, then offered Sebby a somewhat apologetic grin. “There’s a trial period,” he said, almost reassuringly. “You know, if you’re not happy after that, then we don’t have to continue, or you can look for alternate arrangements or …”
Sebby considered the nanny—manny?—then frowned. The look on his mother’s face told him exactly how this was going to go. “Fine,” he spat. “I’ll try it.”
“Awesome,” Topher said, then glanced down at Lucy. “Ms. DiDomenico told me you’ve got a busy morning, so you just leave Luciana to me.”
“I,” Sebby said, but Mom was already steering him out of the room.
“Thank you, Topher,” she said sweetly, glancing over her shoulder, “Sebastien can certainly use the time.”
She shut the door to the room tightly, then hissed, “Not another word. I saw your schedule, your agent called. You have a charity event this afternoon, and Lucy needs a crib and other essentials.”
“I want to look after my kid,” Sebby protested, staring at the shut door. This was ridiculous.
“And you’ll get plenty of time to interact with her—positively, and–”
“What,” he snapped, “like you and Dad did? Here’s your toys, now fuck off? Where’s the nanny? The second we started crying or making a fuss–”
He shook his head, pulling away from her. “Forget it,” he grumbled. “I’ll … try it for now, but …”
Mom lifted a brow. “What else are you going to do?” she asked, and he wished he had an answer.
“I’ll figure it out,” was the best he could come up with though, and he knew she was smirking triumphantly as he walked away.
She thought she’d won.
Worse, he knew she had.
Luke waited and watched as Sean fixed coffee. He fussed with the water in the machine, then hit brew, but nothing happened. Grumbling, he got more water. Then he checked the pod again. He watched as finally, the green light turned on and the machine began to gurgle.
Was this normality? Luke wondered as he watched. Was this what normal was? Waking up every day, fussing with a coffee pot, getting breakfast?
He knew, in a lot of ways, his life wasn’t normal and never could be. Most people didn’t hop a flight every few days. Even fewer people had grueling practices and workouts nearly every day of their lives. And even fewer were professional hockey players.
He was abnormal in a lot of ways.
Sean handed him the cup full of steaming liquid, the heat burning through the paper. Luke stared down into it, watched his breath ripple across it.
Even fewer people, he knew, would go to court about what he was about to go to court for. Fewer omegas would testify. And very, very few people would ever do time for this kind of crime.
He glanced up at Sean. Very few people, he knew, would ever feel so powerless, so helpless. Right now, he wasn’t sure he was in control of his own life, his destiny, his fate. In fact, when he looked into Sean’s eyes, he was almost sure he wasn’t. His life rested in the hands of other men—alphas—who would make decisions about him.
Mason, who was his mate. Sean, who was his legal alpha, his lover. People like Jack and Jake, who would make decisions about to do with his body. The league, full of powerful alphas, who would make decisions about whether or not he could keep his job when this all came tumbling out through the courts. The police who would determine if he was telling the truth. The courts, who would determine his guilt or his innocence. The doctors and nurses who tried to determine fault, who judged him.
His life was not his own. It was a surreal feeling, to be so owned by others, to be moved about like a pawn in a chess match, bending unto the whims of others, yielding when they told him to yield, even if he didn’t want to.
He hated it.
He set the cup aside, even as Sean fussed with the machine again, trying to make it work a second time.
Trying to make it bend unto his will.
Just like he did with everything. Just like he always did.
Luke rose to his feet, crossed the space between them. He didn’t want to be passive. He didn’t want Sean or Mason or anyone else to decide what was right for him, what he should do, what he shouldn’t do.
Where had his independence gone? He’d been so self-sufficient for so long. He’d dreamed of making it to the IHA, and he’d done it, even after knowing he was omega, even after …
Was he really this pathetic?
“Sean,” he murmured.
“How is it?” the older man asked, then leaned in closer to the machine, squinting.
He landed his hands on the older man’s shoulders, dug his fingers in.
Luke screwed his eyes shut and mashed their mouths together with as much force as he could stand, as though the harder he kissed Sean, the further he could drive Jack from his mind.
If only it worked that way. He clamped his hands on Sean’s cheeks, dragging him in deeper, desperate—
Sean pulled back, shoved him away. “The fuck?” he spat.
Luke tensed. The look of anger and confusion on Sean’s face was one he’d seen before, one he’d seen other alphas wear, and …
He clenched his jaw as tight as he could, dropped his gaze to the floor. Holy crap. What the hell had he been thinking? He’d been way too forward and now Sean was pissed at him and that only meant trouble—
“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head furiously. He dragged his hands down his cheeks. “I … sorry. I dunno what I was thinking.”
He turned himself about in a circle, tipped his head back to stare at the ceiling. Fuck. He had so miscalculated that. His heart was thundering harder than it had been before. He’d just undone all of the calm he’d spent so long gathering up.
Sean’s hands landed on his shoulders, shoved him down into the chair. “Stop it,” the older man said. “Take a deep breath, and just … sit down and enjoy your coffee.”
His face fell. “Well, as much as you can, anyway, it is shitty hotel coffee and–”
“I can’t,” Luke gasped, then hunched over, pressing his fingers into his temples.
“You’re fine,” Sean drawled, but there was impatience there, creeping behind the lazy syllables.
“No,” Luke muttered, clawed at his arms. “No, I’m not okay–”
“That’s progress,” Sean mumbled, and Luke glared at him for it.
“I haven’t been okay for a while,” he ground out, “in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I had,” Sean offered dryly. “It’s … pretty obvious, Luke.”
He pressed his lips together, then glanced down. Luke kept glaring as the seconds ticked by, slowly, slowly realizing that he was rocking back and forth. His eyes widened and he stopped, planting his feet firmly in the carpet.
Sean met his gaze again. “You’re wound up about going home.”
“No,” Luke replied.
Sean’s mouth twisted in that half-smirk that meant he didn’t believe him. Luke gritted his teeth. Sometimes, Sean pissed him off. A lot.
“I’m not,” he snapped.
“I know you’re wound up about Colorado,” the alpha offered, “but that was days ago now–”
“These things don’t just go away, disappear!”
“And when we get back, you know we have preliminary hearings, and.”
Luke closed his eyes. “And I already told you, I’m not going to be a part of this in any way, shape, or form, Sean, I just …”
He paused. “Look at me,” he muttered, slumping back in the chair. “I’m a fucking mess. You think I can get up there and look him dead in the eye and tell a whole room full of people—strangers—what happened?”
“No,” Sean said flatly. “A few months ago, maybe I thought that. But I don’t think it now. Why do you think I brought Mason into this? Because you can’t do it.”
Luke cringed. Much as it was the truth, the words cut deep. “I wish I could,” he said softly, “fuck, Sean. I wish I was braver. I wish …”
“And I wish you weren’t so fucked up,” Sean snapped, “but we can’t all get what we want.”
“The point of the matter is forcing you on the stand isn’t going to help anything. That’s clear to me now.”
Luke resisted the urge to haul off, break the asshole’s nose. “Why wouldn’t you just believe me in the first place?” he snarled. He dug his nails into the arm of the chair, hoped he tore it to shreds. “Why did you drag this on for … months! Insisting! Even when I said I couldn’t, I didn’t want to, because–”
He grabbed Sean by his shirt, reeled him in. “Just because you’re the fucking alpha! You think you know best, you think you can just—decide what’s best for me, what I need?!”
Sean removed his hand, dropped it to the side. “Luke–”
“If you’d just listened to me!” he snapped. After all this time, after all of this … idiocy, all the stress, the sheer frustration, the fear, the—
He kicked at the alpha, shoving him away again. “Why would you do this to me?!” he barked. “You’re just as bad as them! Think you can boss me around just ‘cause of what I am, just ‘cause I’m omega!”
Knocking sounded through the room, echoing in the silence that followed his outburst. They were frozen there for a moment more, staring at each other, Luke heaving with the force of his anger.
“Fuck,” he muttered, finally dragging his gaze away, scrubbing at his face.
Sean headed for the door. “Don’t!” Luke barked at him.
But Sean never fucking listened anyway. He pulled back the door, and was met with a stuttering Mike. Luke could only imagine the look on his teammate’s face as the defenseman stumbled his way through, “Uhhhh, hey, uh—Flanny—Sean. Mr. Flanagan. Mr. Vice-President, uh—”
“Out with it, Robinson,” Sean said flatly.
“Nobody’s seen Macks yet and we’re getting ready to go, so—uhhhh. I, um.”
“We’ll be down,” Sean said, then slammed the door. Luke dashed his forehead off his palm.
“Get your shit together,” Sean muttered, grabbing the paper cup of coffee from the table beside Luke. He grabbed the other one off the machine, then disappeared into the washroom, presumably dumping the contents of both down the sink.
Luke waited a moment, trying to steady his breathing. He couldn’t, so he shoved to his feet and headed into the washroom anyway, trembling. He started shoving socks into his case.
Danny knew. Matt knew. Jake knew. Really, it was only a matter of time before all of his teammates knew anyway. It was like an open secret; hell, he wouldn’t be surprised to know everyone in the fucking league knew anyway.
He slammed the suitcase shut, zipped it up. Then he glanced across the way—fuck. His suit. He grabbed that, shoved it into the case. Didn’t matter if it got wrinkled, got wrecked. He’d take it to the cleaner’s when he got home. Press it. Iron it out, clean it all up, come clean—
His dress shoes. Shit. He’d nearly forgotten about those too. He dragged them out from under the bed—he supposed he’d kicked them off in a stupor last night, when he’d stumbled in.
Hell. How high had he been? How out of it? He tried to remember anything about last night, other than he …
He was pretty sure he’d played. It was hazy. They’d lost. Badly. He knew that much. He remembered Sean arriving here, in the room. Or, well, he thought he did. Maybe. He couldn’t be sure.
He sat back on his haunches, hands on his thighs. The carpet blurred in and out of focus.
He turned to Sean, forced him to come into focus. He shook his head a little, almost involuntarily. His lips twitched the urge to smile, but it was frantic and scared. He wasn’t happy. Not at all.
Horrified was a better word for it.
“Are you okay?”
“Does he know?” His voice was so quiet, subdued. His syllables slurred together until the words were scarcely recognizable, even though he could see them behind his eyelids.
“Huh? Does who—”
“Does he know?!”
“Does who know what?!”
“Does Mike know?!” He whirled about. “Does Mike know, does he know what I am, what you are, what we’re doing, what—”
Sean crinkled his nose, furrowed his brow. He shook his head slightly; he didn’t understand. Of course he didn’t understand.
Luke slapped a hand on his bag, forced himself to stand up. “Never mind,” he muttered, “never mind, it’s not like it fucking matters.”
“The fuck’s gotten into you this morning?” Sean asked, frowning deeply.
Luke shook his head, shrugged. “Not like it matters,” he muttered, shoved past the alpha into the other room.
“What in the …”
He slammed the door behind him, stared at the empty hall leading toward the elevator. He wasn’t sure what was the most intimidating—facing the team or the prospect of facing the team. In some ways, the empty hall was worse, the empty elevator was even worse, allowing him to meditate on all scenarios.
In the end, things were never quite as bad as they seemed. He stepped out of the elevator, and found small groups of people in the lobby, huddled here and there. A couple of his teammates were standing near the desk; a couple more were at the doors.
Dima waved to him, and Nicky nodded, perhaps quirking a brow.
He glanced about frantically for Mike, but couldn’t see him anywhere. Maybe he was already on the bus.
An arm wrapped around his shoulders, and he froze. Brenden grinned down at him. “Heya Macks,” he drawled, “ready t’ go, slowpoke?”
“What are you so cheerful about, eh?” Leo asked, giving the other D a playful shove.
“Mm,” Brenden said, “’m just glad this horrible roadtrip is over. Can’t wait to get back to the District.”
“Me too,” Oaks said, grinning broadly as he tucked his hands behind his head. “First thing I’m doing is heading over to—”
“The Iceplex, for practice,” Q said as he strolled up behind them. His shoes clicked on the floor one final time as he came to a stop.
“Eh, yeah,” Adrian said, “yeah, exactly what I was gonna say, Coach.”
“Of course,” Q said, his mustache twitching with the hint of a smirk. “Because you like your job, right?”
The goalie grinned at him as he walked by, then deflated. “Jeez,” he muttered. “Sometimes.”
“C’mon,” Brenden said, clapping Luke on the back. “We got a bus to catch.”
Sometimes, Luke mused, sometimes, things weren’t nearly as bad as he anticipated they were going to be.