Symon Tremblay arrived at Toronto Pearson Airport as the draft began. He’d caught a red-eye out of Vegas the night before, not wanting to stick around for the inevitable ragers and generalized insanity of a bunch of drunk jocks with nothing better to do than blow and hookers on a black-jack table usually implied. Sy’s idea of a good time didn’t necessarily involve getting blasted or waking up next to someone he didn’t know. He’d leave his teammates and colleagues to it.
Besides, he knew he’d be busy soon enough—sponsors would come knocking, asking him for appearances and charity games, can you please come out to this event, and his agent would be ringing the phone off the hook. The team would ask him to do promo, no doubt. And someone would want him to shoot a commercial or two. All that would have to be sandwiched in between a rigorous training schedule.
Symon Tremblay took no breaks.
Except for that hot June day, the humidity lying thick on the air, coming in close. The sun burned down on the asphalt, heat rising up to greet his every step.
He was home.
Sy had been living in DC for years now, ever since he was eighteen, but he hadn’t yet come to think of it as home. Oshawa was still the place he knew he belonged, and he longed for the winters, the sickly sound of the GO train rattling through, people complaining about the 401 and assholes from Whitby and Pickering, and all those jerks who worked downtown Toronto.
He missed it. He’d never imagined he would, but that was the truth. It wasn’t the big things, like not being near his family or people in Washington saying he had an accent or used strange slang. It was the little things, the background noises, the familiarity of walking just a couple of blocks and finding Tim Hortons, not Starbucks. Those were the things that made him homesick during the long, grinding IHA season.
He caught the shuttle to Union, then the GO home to Oshawa. He didn’t mind public transport, especially not at this time of day, when the trains were nearly empty and he could sit in relative peace and quiet. He kept his baseball cap pulled low and his sunglasses pushed up high on the bridge of his nose though. It was difficult for Canada’s Golden Boy to go anywhere without being recognized; his face was plastered all around every city, in every coffee shop and sports gear store in the country it seemed. He couldn’t escape his own image in grocery stores even, life-sized cardboard cutouts of him loudly proclaiming some contest near the bakery department.
Red-eyes and midday trains, slipping under the radar of the throngs of people who would recognize him. He made it to his doorstep without being accosted. Nobody knew he was coming, not even his parents. They didn’t know to expect him. If he’d said anything, word would have gotten out and there would be a throng outside the house, waiting for him with cards and hats and signs and jerseys, wild-eyed children who revered him as their hero and worshiped at his skate blades.
There were days he could block it out, forget it. And there were days when he couldn’t stand it. Wanted to scream, wanted to yell at everyone to leave him alone. He wasn’t that great, after all. He wouldn’t be great forever. There were those before him who had been great, and there would be greater after him. The adoration, the fawning was undeserved.
He unlocked the door and stepped into the cool of the house, the familiar scent of laundry soap washing over him. Even though he bought the same brand, it never quite smelled the same in DC.
He kicked off his shoes and headed upstairs, toting his duffle bag with him. In that instance, he was transformed—no longer a jaded twenty-three year old fresh off his sixth season in the biggest league in the world, but a child again, eighteen again, naïve and innocent and fresh-faced to the world.
He dumped his duffle on the floor of his room. Some twenty-three-year-olds would have been ashamed of coming home for the summer, a feeling of failure dogging their heels as they returned from school and independence to parental governance. Sy had never once regretted coming home, never once felt ashamed that, for four months of the year, he was a kid again. Worry and anxiety, the difficulties of being an adult, melted away when he returned home for the summer.
He flipped on the television and sprawled out across the bed, listening to the springs squealing. The whole room smelled musty, the solar system-patterned comforter particularly so. If Mom had known he was coming, she would have washed up.
He flicked through channels, finally stopping on ESPN to see the start of the draft. Speculation always ran high—who would be picked first? Would the team with the first pick be conventional and select the highest-ranked player to add to their roster? Or would they surprise by taking someone ranked lower, maybe someone more suited to their team-building needs? After all, if you needed a center and the top-ranked guy was a winger, did it make sense to nab him up anyway, in hopes of trading him later? If a team wanted to be really unconventional, they could have traded their pick off to another team in exchange for some kind of blockbuster deal involving superstar players.
Not that it had ever happened. Most teams just went the conventional route and selected the top-ranked draft pick. It was almost expected.
When Sy had been eligible for the draft, there had been no speculation about what the Stars would do with the number one pick. In fact, in the run-up to the draft that year, the excitement had been more around who would win the lottery to get the first pick—who would win what the pundits had popularly nicknamed the “Symon Tremblay lottery.” After all, Sy had been ranked number one for his year for a while; teams had been scouting him hard. Even his junior days had been colored by teams lobbying to get him—come play in this league, come play for our team instead. Even though he’d been drafted into the Ontario Junior Hockey League, it hadn’t stopped others from trying to steal him away, to play in the West, in the US, in Europe. He’d only been sixteen, but they were offering him contracts for gobs of money, nefarious clauses about exclusivity and rights lurking in the fine print of the documents.
He’d had to engage lawyers and agents pretty early on. He’d never signed a contract until he hit the IHA, despite the offers on the table.
The lottery had happened two months before the draft. With the season in the books, the worst teams of the year were decided and now they were in the running for something else—not the Cup, but something that could be as big a prize. The Stars had been pretty far down the list; the San Diego Wolves were in the running too, as were the dismal Miami Sharks. None of them were teams that anyone wanted to go to, so once the lottery was over, so was the excitement. Sy had known in April where his future lay and he’d had two months to reconcile himself to the fact.
He’d always dreamed of playing maybe for the New York Americans or the Boston Bears, legendary teams in the league. The Nighthawks had been strong, and the Longhorns were doing well in Dallas. Denver was a perennial contender, and Detroit had their ups and downs.
He’d been following the standings and he knew the top five picks were going to the Sharks, the Stars, the Wolves, the Firebirds, and the Rams, in some sort of order. Any team he’d ever admired, ever dreamed of playing on hadn’t been in the running—they were too good.
Lottery day had been more exciting for him than any other day of the year, and when the governor had pulled the little ball out of the lotto machine—like the ones at the bingo hall—he had been biting his nails, knowing this would seal his future.
The Stars won the first pick. The Rams were next, followed by Phoenix and then the Wolves. The Sharks got fifth pick, and Sy knew he wouldn’t get that deep—even if the Stars left him, someone else would pick him up.
The reaction from the Stars organization had been ecstatic, overjoyed. Lots of applause, lots of hugs and claps on the back. Big smiles. The announcers joked that there would be champagne in the Stars’ suite that night, because they’d just won the lottery for the best damned player anyone had seen in a generation. Someone whispered that the Stars had thrown their season just to get in the running for this momentous contest.
Sy had struggled to keep his face neutral when the camera zoomed in on him, watching from the back row. No joy, because he couldn’t show favoritism—and he felt none. But neither could he have rage or anger or sadness. No disappointment could wend its way across his face for the TV audience to see. Let them speculate—was he excited? Happy? Disgusted? Disappointed?
Let them guess.
He was going to Washington; he knew it, deep down. The Stars wouldn’t let him slip through their fingers. They needed a player of his caliber. They wanted him to lead them to Cups and championships. They would give him whatever he wanted, so long as he signed on the dotted line with them. They would pick him first overall and send him a contract.
Two long months had played out in a blur. He’d scarcely paid attention during school, even into exams. He skipped prom because he didn’t want to go. He stayed home instead, brooding about DC, researching the Stars.
In the end, all he could do was accept it. It was fate, after all; the Stars had their lot chosen and Sy was the prize.
Draft day had arrived and he’d been flown to Dallas, who was playing host that year. Some of the other draft hopefuls tried to talk to him, but most of them kept their distance. Mike was the only guy he knew in any depth, and the blond hadn’t shut up most of the way there. For that, Sy was grateful; he appreciated the sound of Mike’s voice, his inane chatter, distracting him from his thoughts. Even if he didn’t remember half of what the defenseman said, even if he’d only paid partial attention, he appreciated the noise keeping him anchored to the real world.
The day was like nothing Sy could have imagined. There was a nervous energy in the air, excitement snapping as reps from each team filtered in. Some of them had thick briefcases full of notes; others were toting laptops. Some were playing on their phones, getting the latest strategy from the HR department.
That, of course, was nothing compared to the energy animating the draftees themselves. They were wide-eyed, anxious, excited, utterly floored by the fact that they were standing there, ready to be drafted into the IHA. It was the moment so many of them had dreamed of.
Sy had dreamt of it once, but now he’d only had nightmares for two months. He’d stopped dreaming; it was time to start living.
The league treated them well; they had chartered the flight, and the hotel was a five-star affair. They were given a huge buffet brunch while reps of the IHA and the teams gave them pep talks about the day and told them how things would work.
Every detail was meticulously planned.
After, there would be a banquet, and then draftees would be given the opportunity to schmooze with the representatives of their new team—usually senior management, often the coaches, maybe a player or two if someone had been interested in coming out to welcome the new blood. The draft would continue on Day 2, with much less pomp and circumstance, although draftees were expected to remain in the city until the draft was officially closed, so that all of the new members of the organization could go out for dinner together. Someone cracked a bad joke about a team-building exercise that no one found funny, but they all laughed anyway.
Then came the moment they’d all be waiting for. They were in the hall, the air conditioner rattling away on the ceiling, the breeze ruffling the skirt around the stage and the tablecloths draped over the long, bench-like tables where the teams positioned themselves, row on row, laptop screens glowing and someone hurriedly scribbling away at a pad of paper.
Ned Eastman took to the stage and gave them a speech, before he allowed the Stars to come up on stage. Sy folded his hands in his lap, fussed with a crease in the pant leg of his suit. Then he’d looked up, wincing with the rest of the crowd when there was feedback from the mic.
Blood rushed through his ears. He scarcely heard what the president was saying, until he called his name.
“Symon Tremblay.” He said it strangely, with a faux French accent, not at all how Montrealers pronounced his name and not at all how Torontonians would say it. Nonetheless, it was his name, so he stood, amid clapping and the snapping and flashing of cameras. He straightened his jacket, then headed to the front of the room. He jaunted up the steps, shook hands with Coach Q, the GM, the president, and then someone handed him a jersey—the Stars uniform, with his name and his number emblazoned on the back of it. He tugged it on, surprised how easily it seemed to fit. Someone handed him a ball cap and he slicked back his hair, then settled it firmly on his head. He stood there with the Stars upper management, all of them smiling, beaming, as the cameras flashed and the television crew danced around.
Somewhere in the confusion, Sy saw Aleksandr Volkov, a sinister smirk on his face. Sy kept smiling, although he could feel his eyes narrowing, his brow knitting together as he held Aleks’s gaze for a moment.
The applause subsided, and they took a quick bow, then cleared the stage. Q clapped a hand on Sy’s shoulder, pointed to the seat at the end of the Stars’ row. Sy sidled between chairs, plonked himself down at the end. Q sat down beside him as Eastman took the stage again, ready to introduce the second pick.
Sy glanced over his shoulder, straining to get a good look at Volkov. The Russian sniper had his head down, leaned in close to one of the team reps for the Rockets.
Volkov had never attended the draft before, Sy knew. He’d been captain for almost two seasons now, and he hadn’t gone. And yet, here he was.
It didn’t bode well, especially not when Aleks glanced up, a glint in his eye, and caught Sy’s gaze. His smirk exploded across his face and he turned away again to keep from laughing.
Sy turned back to the stage, the second pick. He didn’t need to worry about Aleksandr Volkov. If the Russian sniper had suddenly had a change of heart and decided he ought to come to the draft and welcome the new prospects, then that was his prerogative. It was none of Sy’s business.
Except that it was, because he knew Aleks kept looking at him. Throughout the rest of the day, he would shudder, then turn, but Aleks had turned away. Nonetheless, he could feel eyes on him and he knew Aleks was watching him.
Aleks became even more of a concern when they finally wrapped for the day; the last selection happened around midnight, and almost all of them were drowsing in their chairs—except the prospects who had yet to be claimed, who were still vibrating with anxious energy. Were they good enough, would they make it? How long would they have to wait, just to go home disappointed?
They were all bused back to the hotel and it was nearly one in the morning, but there were cocktails and light fare, so they mixed and mingled—except for those still waiting to hear their names called, who were sent upstairs to another conference room, away from the teams and management. No need to let them schmooze; they needed to make this league on their own merits.
Not that anyone ever did.
Mike hadn’t been called yet, so he was sent away, and Sy was faced with a bunch of management and players, all of whom wanted to talk to him, and a bunch of prospects who were just as excited about maybe talking to him too.
It had been a long day though, so he went and hid in the corner and buried his nose in chocolate milk, because he wasn’t legal to drink—even if the cocktails did look inviting.
A shadow fell over him; a familiar presence radiated from the fellow who plonked down beside him at the bar. Sy gritted his teeth.
“Congratulations,” Aleks said, the word rolling off his tongue, stressed strangely, like a foreign language. “You are first overall.”
“Not really that much of a surprise,” Sy murmured.
Aleks considered that for a moment, then said, “You join very exclusive club.”
Sy straightened up. Aleks refused to look at him, instead fixating on the menu behind the bar. That same mischievous glint was in his baby blues, reflected even in the dull lights of the room. His tongue peeked out of the corner of his mouth, his lips still curled upward with that self-assured smirk.
Sy really wished they weren’t soulbonded, because there were definitely times when he wanted to knock Aleks’s teeth down his throat. It wasn’t really advisable, however, not when he shared Aleks’s injuries through the bond.
Aleks’s gaze flicked toward him, then darted about the room before he leaned in close, whispering, “I welcome you, Syoma.”
Sy’s stomach knotted with desire at the husky note in his voice, the promise of pleasure thick on the air between them. His knees felt weak; the room seemed to spin with each inhalation.
He wanted to whimper, to nod and say yes.
Instead, he narrowed his eyes and said, “What do you mean by that?”
Aleks held his gaze this time. “What does you think?” he asked.
Sy knew what he thought, but he wanted to know that Aleks thought it too. He studied the older man for a moment, scrutinizing every pore, every hair on his face.
Aleks grinned so broadly that his face seemed to split in two. He slid off his stool, landing both sneakered feet on the ground with a thump. “Come on,” he said, and Sy needed no more coaxing.
He trailed Aleks through the room, a few paces back to make it look less like they were going together, but there were still suspicious looks, knowing faces. Sy swallowed a lump in his throat—he’d been drafted, but that didn’t mean he was in. It didn’t mean he was safe to come out, not by a long shot.
The hallway was almost empty, and their footsteps echoed loudly. The air was cooler, a slight breeze running through the cavernous space. Aleks slowed down, then turned to his right, toward the washroom. “The eighth floor,” he said, then disappeared behind the door.
Sy frowned, but walked to the elevators. They’d played this game before.
He punched the up button, then waited calmly for the car. He was still waiting when Aleks emerged from the washroom. The Russian startled, then smiled and gave him a wave. Sy scowled, watched him disappear up the stairs.
The elevator dinged and Sy whirled about, watching the door slide open. He stepped into the empty car, then pressed the button for the eighth floor.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aleks had beat him and was waiting for him by the elevators, slouched low against the wall, his hands hooked in his pockets.
Sy glowered at him, pretended to kick him in the shin as he approached. Aleks lifted a brow. “You think you can beat me up?” he asked.
Sy grinned raucously, allowing himself to respond to the adrenaline surging through his veins at last. “Sure,” he said with more bravado than he felt, “you’re not so tough.”
Aleks growled low in his throat, and Sy’s nerve endings sang with pleasure. “We will see,” the Russian said, “just how tough Syoma is.”
Sy just kept grinning.
Aleks led him through the winding corridor, across the plush carpet, to the room marked 808 with curly brass numerals. Aleks swept them in, smashed into the door with his back, pushing into his heels to hold the portal open. Sy followed him in, crowding him into the foyer of the suit, their gazes locked.
The door banged shut and Aleks pulled the chain across it. He yanked his shirt over his head. “So,” he said, “you think you are tough guy.”
Sy responded in kind, pitching his shirt across the room. “Bring it,” he said, “I can handle anything you got.”
Aleks quirked that inquisitive brow again. “Is this so, Syoma?” He threaded his belt through the loops on his slacks, then dropped trou.
Sy glanced up, meeting the challenge in the Russian’s eyes.
He knew it was a trap, just like most of Aleks’s banter. He was an idiot, he knew, for hoping against hope that this time, things would be different …
He dropped to his knees in front of the older man, gazing up at him. Some things never changed, he supposed.
Aleks watched him with predatory interest, his gaze lazy and half-lidded. He cupped Sy’s cheek, brushed his thumb against his lips. Sy turned his head, devoured those digits, sucking on them enthusiastically, even as he glanced up at Aleks again, promise and threat and mischief in his own eyes now.
“Hmmm,” the Russian hummed, “you can do better than that, Syoma …”
Sy drew back, nipping at Aleks’s fingertips, fumbling as he stripped the older man of his underwear. He stared at his prize for a moment as it stood there, saluting him, liquid already pearling at the tip.
He looked up at Aleks again. The Russian tangled a hand in his hair, guided him down until his nose was buried in a nest of wiry curls. He exhaled against the older alpha’s skin. “Go on,” Aleks purred, “show me what the great Syoma can do.”
Sy nosed Aleks for a moment more, then pulled back and parted his lips over the blue-eyed alpha’s head, swallowing him down in one smooth, easy motion.
Two hands in his hair now, fingers threaded tight and pulling. “Yes.” Aleks’s voice was low, husky, like smoke or the coming twilight—hushed and dark, a whisper tinged with a dangerous promise of things to come. “Show me why Syoma is best.”
Those hands pressed him down tight, so Sy closed his eyes and hollowed his cheeks, sucking for all he was worth, sliding up and down Aleks’s cock with practiced ease.
This wasn’t the first time they’d done this, after all. Nor would it be the last; Sy knew that in his bones.
Aleks leaned against the wall, his knees buckling as he shifted position, simultaneously melting to the ground and leveraging himself to pump into Sy’s mouth with strong, steady thrusts. Sy raked his teeth down Aleks’s shaft, nipping at the head because he knew it would draw a throaty moan from the Russian, a noise that made his own cock jump with excitement.
He glanced up at Aleks. The Russian had his head tipped back against the wall, the long line of his throat exposed, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he fought to breathe.
He must have felt Sy’s gaze because he looked down to the younger alpha, ruffling Sy’s hair almost fondly. His cheeks were pink, glowing even in the darkness of the room; his lips were cherry red and bitten, shining with saliva and slightly parted as he panted. His eyes, so electric blue, were half-lidded and he looked down at Sy from beneath those heavy lids, watching, waiting, calculating.
“I see why you are number one,” he purred and Sy nipped at him, drawing another breathy moan from the Russian sniper.
His fingers curled around Sy’s ears, tugged viciously. “You want play rough, yes?” he huffed, his voice, his words breaking on the edges of pleasure.
Sy hummed in reply. Aleks gritted his teeth and forced Sy down, holding him there. He thrust up once, twice—long, languid strokes—and then he drilled into Sy’s mouth, slamming into him with each unrelenting push. Sy focused on breathing through his nose, relaxing his throat as Aleks pounded into his mouth, fucking his face with abandon, almost choking him on the head of his cock over and over again.
His jaw ached by the time Aleks panted, “Yes, yes, Syoma, just like that—
He shoved Sy down further and pinned him there. Sy swallowed reflexively, drinking him down.
Aleks’s grip slackened at last; he slid down the wall, all of his limbs shaking as he collided with the floor. His breathing was still ragged, his pupils still blown. Sy swallowed a few more times, licked his lips.
They regarded each other for a moment, Aleks stupefied and Sy questioning.
“So,” he asked at last, gauging the older alpha, “is it my turn now?”
Aleks stared at him for a moment longer, failure to comprehend clear in the glassy surface of his icy eyes. Then he smirked; his breath was a snort, then a laugh—breezy and scarcely there.
He laughed harder, his shoulders shaking with the effort. “Syoma,” he admonished a moment later, “how long we play this game?”
“Too long,” Sy replied, heat in his voice; he was angry now. Mostly with himself for allowing himself to get too hyped up, to think Aleks could have possibly meant something else …
“So when is it my turn?”
Aleks’s smirk was strained; he was scared beneath his arrogance. “Syoma, is not … we do not take turns.”
“But I want to. Because that’s not fair.”
Aleks shoved him away, refusing to look at him. “Syoma …”
“You said I’m part of the club,” Sy pressed, clambering back into the other alpha’s lap. He rocked his hips, driving home his point. “So initiate me.”
Aleks shoved him off again. “No,” he said, a dark look crossing his features, “I think you are not ready for this.”
Sy gritted his teeth. “Aleks …”
The Russian glowered at him, then said, “Not tonight, Syoma.”
Sy gritted his teeth, growling low in his throat, but Aleks turned away from him, got to his feet. He towered over Sy, smirking down at him, his cocky self-assurance firmly back in place. “Maybe when you win Cup,” he said, and that desire to deck him was back.
Aleks offered him a hand. He glowered at it for a moment, then accepted, allowing the older man to lift him back to his feet. “Sleep now,” Aleks said, his voice falling lower, “it was exciting day …”
That Sy couldn’t really deny. Then again, most days he happened to bump into Aleksandr Volkov tended to be exciting.
Applause filled the room, returning him to the present. He blinked a couple of times, then focused on the TV, the flashing cameras, the clapping executives in their suits. He watched the young man—just eighteen, likely—walk up to the stage. He shook hands with the Rams’ execs, all of them beaming about their selection. A jersey was handed to him with his name stitched on the back; he tugged it on, then took the ball cap, fitting it onto his head. Then they stood facing the crowd, smiling, still smiling, all the teeth, as cameras flashed and the applause went on and on.
Sy inhaled. He wanted to see who the Stars drafted, but it was also bringing back memories—memories of a day he couldn’t believe had happened six long years ago already. Six more number ones had joined the club.
Handshakes all around, and then the team cleared off the stage, making way for Commissioner Eastman to make another speech, introduce the next team. The Stars were pretty far down the list this year; they’d traded up to get the tenth pick, but that was the highest they had, unless George and Coach Q were brokering back-door deals in the eleventh hour. ESPN had been quiet, though, no rumblings about guys on the trading block. That would be next week, when free agency started.
Sy frowned, then did a double-take at the screen. The draft was in Detroit, apparently. And there was Aleks Volkov, sitting at the Rockets’ table—a space he hadn’t been in for six long years.
The Russian paused, then glanced toward the camera, and Sy felt a jolt—as though Aleks had known he was going to be there, watching in that particular moment. Sy swallowed his breath, the sensation of strangulation surrounding him.
He glanced at his phone. Sure enough, Aleks had texted. ‘u come here?’ it read. Simple, straight-forward.
Sy considered the screen for a long time, until the words began to blur to together.
‘no,’ he wrote back at last, ‘u come here.’
He paused, his finger hovering over the button for a split-second before he mashed his thumb down.
He glanced at the TV, but the camera crew had moved on. Sy looked down again, just in time to see the message crop up: ‘sure after draft’
His heartbeat was thunder in his ears as anticipation filled him. He could hardly wait.