1. ROBBIE — IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING
The last time Thunder defenseman Robbie Rhodes met Paul Dyson off the ice, they ended up naked in Robbie’s bed. The last time they met on the ice – which had been the night after – Paul punched Robbie in the face and called him a faggot.
Third time’s a charm, Robbie thought as he slammed Dyson into the boards with a vicious and highly illegal check.
Luckily, this wasn’t a game so Robbie wouldn’t get penalized.
Unfortunately, it was a team practice, so Robbie was definitely going to get yelled at by anywhere from three to five people, depending on who noticed the hit. If he were really unlucky, he’d get pulled from the game tomorrow.
Totally worth it.
Robbie’s blood had been boiling since his first glimpse of Dyson on the ice that morning.
Not that it was a surprise. After all, he’d found out at Thanksgiving at Bryce’s new house that Dyson had been brought up to fill in the slot left open when Rasmussen broke his leg in two places during a snowmobiling accident. He wouldn’t be back this season.
But apparently knowing Paul Dyson was going to be there was different from actually seeing it.
Robbie tried not to let Dyson get to him. He ignored his stupid southern drawl and avoided looking directly at his sky blue eyes with their frankly embarrassingly girly fan of sandy brown eyelashes.
The rebel yell Dyson had given after nailing an admittedly difficult passing drill had been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
“Rhodes! What the fuck was that?” Assistant coach O’Reilly yelled from across the ice. The tall redhead looked pissed off. That was a look Robbie tried really hard not to have directed at him. A third-generation Irishman from South Boston, Liam O’Reilly had the stereotypical Irish temper and a way with words Robbie envied unless he was on the wrong end of a tongue-lashing.
Robbie reached quickly for a believable lie, but, as usual, his brain failed him, providing him with a jumble of words in no particular order.
Before he could panic, Paul hopped up from the ice and skated up behind Robbie. He put a heavy hand on Robbie’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Coach. I deserved it. Last time we met, I was a dick to him.”
He turned to Robbie. “We even now? You feel better?” His blinding grin didn’t reach his eyes and showed teeth instead of the dimples Robbie knew popped out when Paul was actually smiling.
Robbie stared at him, looking for something that would let him know what Paul’s angle was here.
Paul brought his closed fist up and without losing his smile rotated it across his chest in the ASL sign for sorry.
At least that’s what it looked like. But it couldn’t be. It had to be a mistake.
Dropping his smile, Paul looked him in the eye and mouthed the word as he repeated the action.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Robbie asked.
“Nope. I’m just trying to apologize.” He reached out a hand. “Truce?”
Robbie ignored the outstretched hand. He slid his stick between Paul’s skates and twisted.
Paul crashed to the ice.
Robbie’s gloves hit the ground before the other man could get his breath back. “Get the fuck up, Dyson,” Robbie snarled, hands curling into fists.
The startled yells of his teammates echoed in the empty stadium. “Rhodes!” barked Jake Donovan, the captain of the Seattle Thunder.
Paul stared up at Robbie as if he had never seen him before. Red flared up behind Robbie’s eyes, and he threw himself onto Paul. Paul took the first few hits without defending himself.
Robbie vaguely registered hands grabbing his shoulder as Paul finally started to fight back. Fists flying, Paul landed a solid hit on the side of Robbie’s head.
With a roar, Robbie rained hits down onto the other man, unleashing two years of rage he hadn’t known he’d been carrying around.
“Rhodes! Stop it! Get the fuck off the new kid.” Jake hauled Robbie off Paul, flinging him backward.
Like the backstabbing son of a bitch he was, Paul took the opportunity to nail Robbie in the stomach with a knee.
Sergei Progav, the starting goalie, shot out of the net and grabbed Paul, manhandling him up and pinning his arms behind his back. Paul struggled, but the veteran goalie had arms of steel. Paul wasn’t going anywhere.
From the look in Dyson’s eyes, Robbie wasn’t sure if the guy wanted to fuck him up or just fuck him.
Robbie knew the feeling.
Head coach Williams was on them in a heartbeat, skidding to a stop in front of them with a fan of ice crystals. “What the hell is going on?”
Robbie wrenched his arm out of Jake’s grip. Yanking off his helmet and shoving his sweaty hair out of his eyes, he jerked his chin in Paul’s direction and struggled to find the words. “Him. He’s in the way. The whole freaking practice.”
“Maybe you just need to learn how to skate better, then you can stay the heck out of my way,” he drawled in that Bubba Gump Alabama accent Robbie knew he could turn on and off at will.
“Bite me, Dyson.”
“Hey,” the coach shouted. “Rhodes, you’ve had a chip on your shoulder since Dyson showed up. I don’t know what the hell your issue is, but you had better work it out before the game tomorrow.”
Paul snorted, and the coach wheeled on him. “Cut the shit, Dyson. I’ve got my eye on you, too.”
“Yes, sir,” Paul said, looking down at the ice. “I mean, I will, sir.”
The coach looked at Jake. “Get everyone into the room. I want to watch some video. Whatever is going on with these two clowns, make them work it out. If they can’t keep it together on the ice, they’d better be fucking satisfied with sitting on the goddamn bench for the rest of the season.” He skated away.
Jake shook his head at Robbie, disappointment clear on his face, then skated towards the gate.
Paul followed him, then turned back to Robbie and signed I’m sorry again before heading down the tunnel.
What the absolute fuck?
Sergei put an arm around Robbie’s shoulder. “You really hate that guy, eh?” he asked in his heavily accented English.
Sergei had been twenty-two when he’d been drafted to the NHL. He’d spent a few years with the Habs up in Montreal before getting traded to the Thunder. As a result, he spoke a weird mixture of Russian, Quebecois, and English. English was his third language. Most of his televised interviews aired with captions.
He didn’t mind that Robbie didn’t talk much. Sergei talked enough for both of them.
Robbie sighed and took a long pull from his water bottle. “I don’t hate him.” It wasn’t quite a lie. He searched for a quick way to explain his feelings for Paul Dyson that Sergei would buy.
If only he knew how he felt.
He didn’t think he would have been so pissed at Dyson’s presence if the timing hadn’t been such shit. Paul may have been an asshole, but it wasn’t the first hard hit Robbie had taken, and it wouldn’t be the last. Robbie came out of every game feeling like he’d been a bar fight.
But it really sucked having to see Paul so soon after he’d been dumped by Drew, and right after watching his hockey idol and former teammate Bryce Larson fall in love and come out. The last thing Robbie needed was a reminder of another guy that had loved him and left him.
Not that it had been love. But he’d liked the guy well enough that he’d been considering hooking up again next time they were in the same town.
Sergei watched Robbie’s face as he thought. He was very good at giving Robbie as much time as he needed to get his thoughts out. He never jumped in and tried to finish Robbie’s sentences for him.
“He’s from Huntsville. University of Alabama in Huntsville.” Robbie forced a smile. “I went to Bemidji State in Minnesota. College rivalries, you know? It’s hard to let go.”
Sergei gave Robbie a loving smack on the shoulder that almost knocked him down again, and shook his head. “You have to let that go, bratishka. In this profession, you may oftentimes find yourself playing with one set of teammates and then, poof, two days later, you are on another team, facing your former brothers across the ice.”
He stepped onto the rubber walkway, graceful despite the pounds of padding he wore. “You have to put it all aside. Leave the animosity behind and start every day like it is a new slate.”
“How?” Robbie asked. “What if someone was, had been, well, mean?” God, he sounded like an idiot.
Sergei turned and tapped Robbie on the chest with the blade of his stick. “You be the bigger man. You talk it out. Maybe the meanness is not directed at you, in particular. Maybe they are fighting battles inside that you cannot see.”
Robbie quirked his lips. “Maybe,” he said doubtfully. “Doesn’t make it hurt me less.”
“Only you can do that, my friend.”
“You forgive them,” he explained as if it were that easy. “If this Paul was mean to you in the past, leave it in the past. Or talk to him and ask him why. Or forgive him without asking. It’s up to you.”
Robbie sighed and followed Sergei to the locker room. He knew Sergei was probably right; he was going to have to have it out with Paul. But he wanted to hold on to his righteous anger a little while longer, was that so wrong?
With a sigh, he headed off to the locker room for a nice post-practice soak in the hot tub and a massage. Both of those things would make him feel better.
Robbie managed to avoid fighting with or talking Paul to for the rest of the morning. He kept people between them in the locker room, rushed through his work out, and waited until Paul was done to hit the shower room.
His luck ran out after practice. Dyson lurked against a pillar of the parking garage as if he’d been waiting for Robbie to come out. Great.
“Rhodes,” he called out as Robbie passed him on the way to his car. Robbie ignored him, but Paul followed him as he walked to the brand new Prius that was the first, and so far only, thing he’d splurged on with his hockey money.
“This your car?” Paul asked in disbelief, leaning close to look inside. “Or did you borrow it from your meemaw?”
Robbie was used to being teased about his Prius. Most of the other guys drove sports cars or SUVs more suited for the Serengeti than the streets of Seattle. Maybe he should have gotten something cooler, more fun. He could admit to a little envy when Jake roared by in his Porsche.
But it seemed so wasteful, so needlessly showy. Sure, Jake must be making a ton of money, but it seemed tacky to flaunt it. It didn’t seem fair to spend eighty thousand dollars on a car when there were children starving right here America. His parents used to have that conversation at least once a week.
“It gets good gas mileage,” Robbie muttered, trying his best to ignore how good Paul smelled as he leaned close. His blond hair was still damp at the ends from his post-workout shower.
“You’re a wild man, Rhodes,” Paul said.
“Still driving a pickup truck? Some other kind of penis-mobile? Oh, wait.” He held up his hand to forestall Paul’s objections. “You’re not gay, so no penis metaphors. Sorry.”
“Screw you,” Paul said.
“That’s a pretty gay thing to say.” Robbie’s smirk slid off his face at Paul’s pained expression.
Paul groaned and ran both hands through his hair. “Why are you bein’ such an asshole?”
Robbie whirled on him, getting right up into his personal space. They were pretty much eye to eye. “I don’t know. Maybe because the last time we met, you called me a faggot and then slammed me into the boards so hard I broke my nose. Maybe that. What do you think?”