Chapter 50: Unrequited [Slapshot!]
The word was soft, almost a whisper, almost lost amid the rumble and laughter of his teammates leaving the locker room at last. Brenden paused, glancing over his shoulder.
Sy looked back at him, and Brenden swore under his breath. He hated their captain’s big, green stare. It was unnerving.
And it usually meant he wanted something. With a soft sigh, Brenden turned right around, his bag swinging too. “Yeah?” he asked, hoping to look nonchalant and easy going. Laid-back. A real cool Southern boy, never flustered ‘bout nothin’.
Even if all he wanted to do was race over to Sebby’s and see how his best friend was settling in with his daughter.
Sy’s brow knitted. “You know you can talk to me, right?”
Brenden groaned inwardly. Sy was quite literally the worst when it came to team drama. He was unfathomably perceptive and, as their captain, he took it as his personal responsibility to look after all of them.
The problem, of course, was Sy wasn’t incredibly intuitive about social situations, so his advice usually sucked. If all you needed was an ear or a shoulder to lean on, Sy was great. Beyond that, he was useless.
Didn’t stop him from trying though, and Brenden supposed that had to count for something.
“’course,” he said, pivoting toward the door to demonstrate his impatience. He felt bad enough that he hadn’t been able to help Sebby move Lucy, that he hadn’t been around for his friend during the first couple of weeks. The transition was enormous, and he regretted not being right there for Sebby.
He’d worried about the forward pretty much the entire time they were on the road. But Sebby hadn’t said anything, hadn’t really texted him. Oh, sure, he’d sent pictures of Lucy, and damn, she was cute. But he hadn’t said anything about trouble or anything, hadn’t asked for advice.
Still, Brenden couldn’t shake the feeling he should have been around, should’ve been more helpful.
“So,” Sy said as they took their first steps toward the door. He glanced up at Brenden with those enormous eyes. “Anything you wanna talk about?”
Brenden frowned in mock thought. “Nah,” he said finally, “nothing’ ah can think of anyway.”
He met Sy’s questioning gaze again, nodded. The captain nodded back slowly. “Well,” he said as they approached the doors, “you know. If you ever need to.”
“’course,” Brenden said easily and pushed through the door into the tepid afternoon sunshine of another blustery November day.
He shared another glance with the brunet, then pointed toward his car. “I’m gonna go,” he said, “I’d like t’ get home.”
“Of course,” Sy replied, and it took everything Brenden had not to break into a headlong dash for the vehicle.
He tossed his shit into the back of it, slammed the door, jammed the key in the ignition. Damn, that had been close. He’d almost got stuck in a heart-to-heart with Sy.
It wasn’t that he disliked their captain—far from it. It was just … he wanted to see Sebby. Make sure his friend was okay. That was all.
He put the car in gear and headed for the parking lot exit. He glanced in the rearview to see if Sy was watching him. If the brunet was—and he could be creepy like that—then he’d have to take a more roundabout way to the highway to avoid getting caught out in his lie.
Sy was engrossed in his phone—maybe a text. Brenden breathed a sigh of relief and made his escape.
Timmo stared up at his ceiling for a very long time after he lay down on the bed. It was good to be home, good to be in his own bedroom, nestled in his own sheets with the familiar scent of the laundry soap he purchased. He’d drawn the blinds, and only a little gray light from outside seeped in. It was a dull and gray November afternoon.
He couldn’t stop thinking though. He hated losing. The losses—all of them, even the ones he hadn’t played—ate at him. There had been relatively little he could do; his team had effectually hung him out to dry. None of them had been very good, and his D hadn’t supported him the way he needed them to.
But he couldn’t help but feel if he’d just been a little bit better, if he’d played just a little bit harder …
His visit with Kyosti had rattled him. He didn’t know why, really. It was such a stupid thing, really. Things changed. He knew that. What would he have done if Kyosti had been traded? Little Helsinki would have disappeared from the Dallas landscape just the same.
So why did it feel so wrong? Why did he feel like he’d been betrayed? Kyosti was allowed to live his life. Hell, Timmo had moved apartments a couple of times already. Kyosti had never complained. And even if he had, Timmo would have told him he had no right.
So why did he feel like he had a right, some kind of claim to Kyosti’s life?
It had all been irksome and out of sorts. And then with Sebby staying behind, and that annoying rookie coming up from the farm team, actually having to room with someone.
He sucked in another breath, narrowed his gaze. He hated change. He hated difference. It was well and fine when he did it, but for anyone else …
Well, it was scarcely a wonder why they’d lost the bloody game. Cal had just been so … so …
He didn’t even have an English word for it. He didn’t even know if he had a Finnish word for it. Part of him wondered if he should try talking to Nicky about it, but he rarely confided in his Swedish teammate. Nicky was such a papa bear to most of the team, but he treated Timmo almost as an equal. Timmo was not a child, not like Mike and Leo and Sebby—especially Sebby—were.
Nicky always made it very clear he would listen to Timmo if Timmo chose to open up the discussion. But Nicky wasn’t going to pry, and Nicky wasn’t even going to initiate the conversation. Nicky was quite content to allow the two of them to stand there, side by side in practice, watching from the sidelines in complete and utter silence.
Timmo had always appreciated that. It was respectful. But it also made it feel like opening up a conversation was pathetic, like admitting weakness or something.
Further, the idea of talking to the Swede sometimes rubbed him the wrong way. No matter how nice or respectful Nicky was, he was still Swedish. They got on well enough, but Timmo had heard him talk smack about other Finnish players in the league.
Timmo didn’t even know if Nicky knew that he knew Swedish. Not incredibly well or anything; they learned it in school, a fact that still rankled. He had never been very good at it, and his parents had never encouraged him to be. As far as they were concerned, the Swedes could learn to speak Finnish or meet them on equal ground by speaking English.
And he’d always dreamed of playing in the IHA, of moving to the US to play hockey, so he’d focused all his efforts on learning English and learning it as well as he could. Swedish was useless to him.
But he still knew just enough to know when Nicky was saying something rude about Finns. The Swedes did that a lot. It was something of a joke, but it went deeper, back to the old days—a long history of oppression and repression.
So there was definitely a part of him that resisted being anything more than co-workers with Nicky.
There was a part of him that resisted being anything more with any of his teammates.
Which was probably why Cal rankled him so very much. There was … something … about the rookie. He wasn’t sure what. Maybe his brash attitude. Maybe his big, brown eyes or his perfect tan or his filthy blond hair.
Or … maybe it was his accent. Vaguely British. It reminded Timmo a little bit of home, where almost everyone spoke English with a vaguely British accent after a steady diet of BBC to supplement what they learned in school.
Cal wasn’t British, he knew. But it was the similarity, he supposed, and that was good enough.
Maybe it was just that he’d seen a bit of himself in the rookie, in how disheartened he was to be sent back down. Too much change in too short a time. He wanted it to last. He’d wanted to stick with the big team. He’d wanted his call up assignment to go on and on forever, to never change …
Timmo didn’t want things to change either. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes.
“Syoma!” Aleks had texted, and Sy stared at his phone even as Brenden walked away. “Come meet me in philly”
He jerked his head up as he heard tires squeal, but there was nothing but dry leaves and the scent of rubber on the wind. Brenden was gone. He glanced around the empty parking lot, then glanced down at his screen again.
Philly? Really? Aleks expected him to jaunt all over the world after him? “y should i?” he returned, then pocket his phone and headed for his car.
He slid into the driver’s seat, pulled the device back out as it buzzed.
“is fun” Aleks had written back. Sy rolled his eyes.
“sorry just got in bit tired”
He shoved the phone in the glove compartment and started the car.
He didn’t really want to think about it. Aleks texting him out of the blue like that was nothing new, really. How many times had he texted for a booty call? Even Philly wasn’t unheard of. Sy had gone once or twice, because he was weak like that. It was difficult to say no to one’s soul mate.
Even if Aleks had never believed him before. And even if Aleks claimed he … kind of believed him now, even if he claimed he wanted to give this a try.
Still. It felt … different, somehow. It wasn’t, he knew, and he railed against even thinking it was. Aleks would bug him until he caved and he’d drive up to Philly. Aleks would invite him up to his room or sneak them out—some shady motel somewhere—and then Sy would blow him, and Aleks wouldn’t touch him back.
That was how it always went.
He put the car in park, then hung his head on the steering wheel. Nothing had changed.
He slid out of the vehicle, grabbed up his gear. He headed inside.
The house was quiet, empty. The maids had likely gone; there wouldn’t have been much to do since he’d been gone for almost two weeks. They would have done up the laundry, then cleaned the house. One of them might have been in sometime in the last couple of days just to freshen things up, maybe put some fresh food in the fridge or something.
He dropped his gear on the floor with a thud, listened to it echo through the cavernous house. He slammed the door shut.
Normally, the emptiness of the house didn’t get to him. He’d basically raised himself. He was an only child, and between his parents working and his travel for hockey, he’d hardly ever seen them. Sometimes, he felt like he hardly knew them. He wasn’t really the kind of kid to invite people over and have parties—that was Mike’s domain—and while Sy had always been liked well enough, he’d never really …
Been the cool kid. Nor had he been the ultra-popular jock. He was a jock sure, and he’d gotten by on that mostly. He was, for all intents and purposes, something of a nerd, and he had the social skills to back it up.
Someone else was always hosting the party, someone else was always inviting him. Half the time, he was turning them down in favor of staying in and studying on a Friday night, even though his parents weren’t home.
Being bonded to Aleks had made high school infinitely weirder. Any longing crush had felt like a betrayal. He’d kissed a few girls, a few guys, and each time had left him sick on guilt.
Like he was cheating or something. Like Aleks would give a shit if he wasn’t chaste, like Aleks Volkov even knew or cared they were bonded.
Like Aleks wasn’t running around, bedding half of teenage Europe during those years.
Sy regretted it a little. They hadn’t been playing the same game, and the playing field had obviously never been even.
He tugged out his phone. Of course Aleks had texted him back. He rolled his eyes.
“no????” the Russian sniper had replied and he’d sent a picture of some restaurant with purple table cloths on the tables and ornate paneling on the walls. “i make us reservation”
Sy snorted. “dont bother”
“ok” Aleks replied, then, almost as an after-thought, “i will come to DC?”
“don’t u have a game???”
He pitched the phone on the counter and hauled his gear upstairs instead. He sorted through the laundry, tried to ignore the rank scent of hockey gear that had sat in the bag for a little too long.
He had a vague hope Aleks wouldn’t bother texting him back, would just leave him alone.
He had two missed calls, one new voicemail, and about fifteen new text messages. “syoma i try to date u is this not what you want?”
Sy stared at his phone until his eyes clouded over. He gnawed at his lip. Finally, he dropped the phone, then dropped his head on the counter. He tore at his hair.
He wanted to say no. He wanted to tell Aleks to fuck off, because he knew how this ended.
He picked the phone back up, scrolled through the rest of his messages.
“i will come after game,” Aleks had written, “is train here i travel all night 4 u syoma”
“i have called my brother he will help”
“syoma why are you not talking to me now? i think this is what you want???”
Syoma. Syoma. Syoma.
And finally, “syoma i have made us reservation @ vanna late dima says he will help with train just meet me there”
Sy gritted his teeth, then whipped his phone across the room. God, he couldn’t take Aleks sometimes.
Mike tried to be as casual as he possibly could as he strolled up the sidewalk to Dima’s quaint, nondescript brick bungalow. It wasn’t what he expected from his Russian teammate; he had this idea that all of the Russians in the IHA were like Fyodor Nabokov and Aleksandr Volkov—Euro trash, effectively.
He’d expected Dima to live downtown, in some swanky, trendy condo building. Maybe renting one of the suites at an old hotel or something. That seemed to fit more than this modest American-looking place.
Nonetheless, Dima was there. He was standing in the window—it looked to be the kitchen; Mike thought he could see the faucet peering up over the sill—with his head down. He glanced up suddenly, gazed almost wistfully out the window, and Mike frowned, because Dima never looked wistful.
He usually just looked like …
Well, Dima. He had this certain Dima look about him that was difficult to describe, but it suited him so well.
Dima caught sight of him and did a double-take. There was the Dima look—this expression of half consternation, half concern, muddled up with something like anger.
Mike paused and grinned at him, waved. He wondered if the Russian could see the small bouquet of flowers Mike had behind his back. He had no idea how he was going to explain that if he did.
Dima frowned more deeply at him, then turned away from the window, shaking out his hands. A second later, he appeared at the side door, leaning out of it, suspicion all over his face. “Mischa,” he said, because Russians could never use anyone’s proper name, had to always give everyone these cutesy nicknames and Mike just did not get it.
He already had a nickname. And Mischa, as far as he knew, was a girl’s name. He could never quite figure out if the Russians were mocking him or something. They always said it so affectionately. And they did it to everyone.
“Uh, hey, Dima,” Mike said, jaunting up to the door, his hands firmly behind his back. He glanced left and right, like ninjas might leap out of the bushes and attack him.
He had no idea. Maybe Dima’s neighbors were ninjas.
Dima glowered up at him, this perfect stink-eye that was magnified by the angle. Normally, Dima was only a little shorter than Mike, but he was leaning—Mike could see inside just a tad, and Dima was standing on the last stair down to the foyer, which put him on this ridiculous angle.
“What do you want?”
Mike rolled his eyes. “God, can’t a guy come visit his teammates. I thought we were friends, Dima.”
“Hnnnn,” Dima said, and honestly, Mike expected this shit from Timmo, ‘cause Timmo was anti-social as fuck, but Dima …
Well, he supposed Dima wasn’t much better, really. None of the Russians were, to be honest. Except Aleks Volkov. And Volkov seemed more and more like the exception to the rule.
“What is behind your back?” Dima asked.
Mike started and, without really thinking about it, pulled his hands from behind his back. “What? Oh—uh …”
Dima’s eyebrow went up, and Mike felt his cheeks turn bright pink. He hated being blond sometimes. He colored so easily.
“I did not know men bring their friends flowers,” Dima said as he glanced up at him. “Is this Canadian custom?”
“Uh,” Mike said, and then because he always had to put his foot in his mouth, “you betcha! We do it all the time. We ain’t afraid of it like the pussy Americans. They’re so concerned about their small dicks, they gotta run around in pick-up trucks with these giant guns and–”
He stopped himself. Dima was just looking at him, that one eyebrow arched so perfectly.
Fucking Dima. Guy was such a jerk sometimes.
He shoved the flowers at him. “So, uh, like! You know!”
Dima took the bouquet with something akin to disdain, and Mike debated just running away as fast as he could. His plan had never been very good and now it was just going straight to hell.
The cellophane crinkled in Dima’s powerful grip, but there was something almost gentle, almost ginger about the way he held the bouquet. Mike was just glad he hadn’t been dumb enough to get anything bigger or showier.
Well, he would’ve felt like an idiot if he’d showed up with this huge bouquet and Katya rejected him.
Dima was headed up the stairs now, so Mike wedged his shoulder against the door and stuck his head inside. “So!” he called after his teammate. “Uh, is … like. How’s your sister?”
The noise Dima made was absolutely indescribable. If disgust was audible, that was the noise it made. Mike blinked a couple of times, even as Dima turned back about and marched down the stairs. “I see,” he said as he handed the flowers back to Mike. “This is not at all Canadian custom. I will tell you again, Mischa: Katya does not want to date you.”
“How do you know?!” Mike cried.
Dima glared at him. “She tells me things,” he said.
Mike took the flowers limply, curling his hands back around their stems. He glanced down at them, then back up at his teammate. “Well, couldn’t you at least … let me ask her? Let me find out on my own? Let her crush my little ego and my heart on her own?”
Dima chuckled and Mike nearly shuddered. “She will like that too much, I think,” he said, clapping Mike on the shoulder and guiding him toward the door. “No, Mischa, I protect you both like this. Is better.”
Mike stumbled back onto the stoop, into the cold. “At least let me find out for myself!” he cried. “I don’t need protecting!”
Dima lifted a brow, then shook his head and shut the door. Mike heard him actually lock it, the fucker.
He stood there for a moment in stunned silence. Like, how were you supposed to react when your teammate locked you out of his house, suggesting he was protecting you by not letting you talk to his sister?
Finally, the cold began to nip at his hands, so he turned away from the door and headed back down the driveway, back toward his car. He’d just have to figure out another way to ask Katya.
Dima leaned forward, peered out the window. He watched Mike get in his car, shut the door. He watched his teammate sit there for a moment longer, then finally drive off. He sighed heavily, closing his eyes.
He didn’t even like Mike, so he couldn’t imagine why his heart had been all aflutter when the blond had offered him the flowers, when he’d said they were for him. Of course Dima had suspected Mike was lying through his teeth—he often did. The blond was brash and mouthy and not always too bright.
He supposed he was in a weird space. He was still waiting to hear back from Petrin. Each day, his hopes grew slimmer and slimmer, but still …
He knew he was an idiot, but he was delighted to talk to a man he’d thought of as an idol for so long. Petrin was just as sharp as he’d thought he would be, just as witty. Brilliant. Dima could read whatever he wrote for the rest of forever. He could listen to him speak for hours, and he didn’t think he’d ever get bored.
He closed his eyes again. He’d felt like this before, and he knew how it ended. In some ways, he was glad Petrin hadn’t replied in a few days now. It would be easier to end this, to just let it go.
Still, the hope compelled him to check his phone, to check his email. Maybe he’d missed a call. Maybe there was a message. Maybe Petrin had just been working on the perfect email for several days and Dima would be able to spend the rest of the afternoon reading over the man’s perfect words, imagining the way he’d pronounce every syllable, letting the noise roll around in his head, so pleasing and perfect, and he’d never want anything else in his life.
He was an idiot, he knew. It would only end in heartbreak. Petrin was perfect and wonderful, and Dima should never have talked to him. He should have been content to listen from afar, to admire from a distance. Honestly.
He’d had a crush on Petrin before, but now he was fairly certain he’d stupidly allowed himself to fall head over heels. It wasn’t something that happened to him often, but he knew it when it happened.
The thing was, it could only ever end one way. He’d known that for years. He fell hard, he fell deep. And sometimes, occasionally, the other person did too. And then it was wonderful, for a little while. A sort of amazing bliss, where everything was perfect and wonderful.
And then it would fall apart.
The other person could never understand why he didn’t want to go further, why he didn’t want more. Physical intimacy, somehow, was the pinnacle of any relationship. “Don’t you want to be intimate?” they’d ask him, and they’d push and push and push, demanding this “next level” of commitment, of intimacy. They wanted to own his body. It wasn’t good enough to have his heart, his soul, his mind.
He couldn’t understand. It seemed so backwards to him, so stupid, and he never felt it would make their relationship better. He never wanted, and that was enough to end it. They couldn’t understand him. Did he think they were ugly? Unattractive? What was it?
He didn’t know. It just wasn’t …
He didn’t feel it. That was all he knew about it. And it wasn’t that he didn’t love them—oh, god, no. It was …
Perhaps a different kind of love than they were looking for. Than what they wanted or thought they needed.
And they could never be happy like that. So it could only ever end one way. And he tried to be careful, he truly did, because it was stupid to fall in love when he knew how it would end. It was stupid to set himself up for heartbreak and it was cruel to set someone else up for it as well.
So he tried to be careful.
He wasn’t disgusted by it, and he … worked … just fine. It was just … the desire wasn’t there. Other people spoke of sparks and flames, burning desires, and he had never felt it. He’d read books, he’d watched TV, he’d listened to others describe it, this mad, burning lust, but …
It didn’t exist for him. And that he accepted. He didn’t miss it. He didn’t want it. He didn’t need it. Katya had asked him if he didn’t feel he was missing something, some part of himself, but he couldn’t say he did.
The only time he hated it was when he saw someone he loved in tears, so upset because they couldn’t understand—
He wished he understood it better himself. But he knew what he knew, and that was that. He could only explain so much as he understood, and it was up to them to try to understand it. And if they couldn’t, then that was all there was to be said.
And it was stupid to fall in love with Petrin, with anyone, for that reason, because they would never understand. They would never be able to stay with him once they knew. There would just be the endless litany of questions, the suspicion, eventually becoming hate and regret and …
It was the only time he regretted what he was. Otherwise, he was content. There was no missing piece, no lost self to be found. Even if there was, he wasn’t sure he wanted to find it.
There was only the regret of not living up to expectations, of hurting those he loved.
His heart sank a little when he saw Petrin had emailed him. In so many ways, he’d been hoping he wouldn’t.
He clicked open the message. He expected some screed about how it had been nice to chat to him the other day on the phone, but Petrin was a very busy man and didn’t have time for idiots like Dima.
Instead, he leaned over the counter to steady himself. He read the words over and over again, unable to believe, to comprehend.
“Hello,” Petrin had written, “I am coming to DC to give lecture very soon. I will need somewhere to stay. Can you help.”
He was going to kill Katya.
Mason frowned as he stepped onto the ice, squinting under the glare of the lights reflecting off the smooth, polished surface. Cam gave him a sidelong look, lifting a brow.
Mason inhaled, then took off to skate some warm-up laps. He hadn’t seen Jack yet, and that was probably a good thing. Maybe the idiot had stayed home tonight.
Mason hadn’t texted him like he usually did. He couldn’t bring himself to talk to his former friend. He couldn’t …
He couldn’t believe Jack would do that. But he’d felt it, he’d seen it—glimpses and flashes through the bond, and, murky and muddled as Luke’s memories were, there was no mistaking it. Jack had been there. Jack had been involved.
Mason couldn’t believe he’d been friends with the guy. He couldn’t imagine how Luke had felt knowing that. He felt like such an asshole, like he was personally responsible for what Jack had done.
Like he’d been …
Like he’d been there, like he’d held Luke down and egged Jack on. He hadn’t, but that was how friendship felt now—like he’d been … enabling Jack to hurt Luke.
He honestly didn’t know what he was going to do if he saw the fucker here tonight on the ice. Maybe he was the one who should have stayed home. He didn’t think he could be responsible for his actions.
He took another breath, looked out at the crowd as he whizzed by, pushing deeper into his legs. The entire arena felt like it was spinning, swirling around him. He knew he was the one moving, but he felt like he was standing still.
He looked up at the clock, then stopped up next to Trev, showering him with snow. Trev glared at him. “Asshole,” he spat.
Mason grinned at him. He needed the distraction. Trev snorted, then slid down to one knee, stretching. Mason shifted his weight from skate to skate, surveying the ice. “You seen Jack?” he asked, scanning, scanning, scanning …
“Over there,” Trev said easily, pointing, then dropping down and stretching wide. Mason glanced in the direction he’d pointed, then down at his teammate, swallowing bile.
Trev looked up at him. “You feeling okay?” he asked, lifting a brow.
“Great,” Mason said, grinning broadly, “never better.”
“You look at little green,” Trev offered as Cam skated up.
“’cause he’s worried you’re gonna take out a hamstring doing the splits like that,” he said, and Mason glanced between the two of them, frowning.
That was new. Man, how out of it was he?
“Splits are like this,” Trev huffed, and Cam whistled and Mason grabbed at the sophomore’s jersey ties.
“All right,” he said, “no need to injure yourself showing off for Cameron there, Trev, of all people. Save it for someone else–”
“Like you?” Cam sniped, and Mason glared back at him.
Cam snorted, then skated off as the horn blasted, heading down the tunnel. Mason twirled, frowning after him.
Tonight was going to be a weird night.