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Open Ice Hit: Chapter 2


There were moments in life when Noah was absolutely certain there was something wrong with him. Like when summer rolled around and he was honestly and literally surprised Brooklyn got hot and humid in spite of it happening every year he’d lived there. He’d step out of his building each morning at seven fifteen and feel personally offended at the wave of warm, sticky air that brushed along his skin as he began his run.

Maybe it was damage to his brain after years of playing hockey. Getting slammed into the boards, his head knocked around, his face scraping along the ice as he slid a few hundred feet after some massive Russian bear had knocked him off his skates didn’t exactly do wonders for his cognition.

But then again, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe his father was right: he’d been born fucked up and broken in ways that couldn’t be fixed. Damaged to the point it made him reject a perfectly comfortable life in politics for a brutal game that consumed every waking moment of his life.

And for what? Because hockey could only last so long. He’d end up retired with maybe a few trophies to his name and a busted-up body that even modern medicine couldn’t repair.

Of course, Noah’s mood could also very well be from the fact that he was still reeling from the Phantom’s brutal loss of the Cup. And not just that, but from watching one of his best friends and best players on the team almost lose his career thanks to a dirty fucking hit.

Noah had seen his fair share of injuries over the years, but something about that hit felt different. Granted, he was a little more protective of Zed than he was of other players, and he was trying not to be, but Zed was made of sunshine and smiles.

He was the kind of person who lit up a room and made Noah want to stick around, just to enjoy the moment…and he wasn’t used to that feeling at all. So watching that smarmy little shit from the Sea Dogs take him down filled him with a rage he didn’t know how to control.

He’d been hearing all damn summer that it wasn’t personal—that the hit was clean—but there was no way in hell Noah was going to believe that. He’d watched the tape over and over, but unfortunately, none of the cameras had been able to pick up an angle good enough for a clear shot.

Noah didn’t need one, though. He’d been watching Tommy Tremblay all season. Yeah, he was a decent player, but he was aggressive at the best of times and a smart-ass in ways that crawled under Noah’s skin and made him want to make the little shit taste ice until he begged him to stop.

The only thing that had really calmed him down was watching Zed progress through his injury. Hearing he was probably going to be back on the ice by the end of preseason, if not sooner, was enough to bring Noah’s focus back to their preseason routine and made it possible for him to move on.

They’d be facing the Sea Dogs soon enough, and he’d just have to deal with the fact that a dirty fucking hit had cost Zed months of practice time.

And, of course, cost them the Cup.

Which was a fucking bitter pill to swallow.

Shoving those thoughts aside, Noah pushed harder into his morning run, breezing past the small clusters of New Yorkers who meandered along the streets like they had nothing better to do. Not that he minded, though. They were his everyday people. At least, that’s how he’d come to think of them. He wasn’t exactly social, but they were his little world now that he was comfortably settled in Brooklyn with no plans to go back to Sweden and no current risk of being traded to another team.

It was a little lonely in the off-season when everyone went back to their respective countries for the long summer stretch, but Noah would have rather chewed glass than head back to Stockholm. The only thing worse than impotent rage over dirty hockey hits was dealing with his father’s passive aggression where he didn’t even bother trying not to say the quiet part out loud.

When he’d first been drafted, he’d attempted to spend his off time at home visiting with his sister and his nephews, but he’d realized early on nothing was going to change. His sister had ambushed him with an awkward family dinner where he was forced to sit through his father’s judgment and skepticism. He’d been too polite to fake an emergency and escape.

His father didn’t hold back in telling him he thought Noah was a fool for choosing hockey over a respectable career. “What’s it going to get you?” he asked, not pausing to wait for Noah’s answer. “You think being in the NHL is going to get you fame and riches? Well, don’t come crawling back here begging for a job when you realize you’re mediocre at best, and in five years, no one will remember your name.”

Noah liked to think of himself as a strong person, so it shouldn’t have gotten to him. Professional hockey required him to take both physical and verbal hits and keep going, but something about his father’s softly spoken insults made his bones feel like they were hollow and on the verge of snapping.

It felt pathetic, and he knew hiding in Brooklyn made him nothing more than a coward, but it was easier that way. At least he could keep his focus on the game. Hockey was his life. Hockey was the only thing that mattered. If he couldn’t prove himself there—prove his father wrong—then it meant the old man was right, and there was no point to the long years Noah had spent defying the order to let his dream die.

As he rounded the corner on Fulton, his stomach cramped, and he came to a skidding halt in front of a little café. His diet plan was a little less rigid in the first few months after the season, and the temptation the scent of freshly baked croissants wafting through the air offered was almost too much. He closed his eyes and pictured the epic bitch face their team doctor, Takuya, would give him if he said he’d denied himself a little bit of self-indulgent breakfast.

“Vicki,” he’d say in that low voice he used every time one of his players started getting a little too far in their heads, “is that croissant going to kill you?”

He’d be forced to say no because Takuya was more than the team doctor. He was basically their dad—to the point Henny had started calling him Yaya the moment he found out what it meant in Japanese.

And the Phantoms didn’t lie to their team dad. Ever.

“Is it going to throw off your meal plan for the day?” Takuya would ask.

Noah would have to sigh and tell him no again, and then listen to a soft lecture full of the fatherly love he never got growing up. And it would hurt a little, but it would make the food taste a lot better.

This imaginary Takuya helped ease some of the tension in him as he reached for the door handle and let himself into the café. There wasn’t much of a line, which was odd since this was peak time for people to be traveling to work, but he was taking it as a gift as he queued up behind a woman in a violent purple pantsuit talking loudly on her phone, the call on speaker.

Noah tried not to wince, but he never understood why people insisted on sharing with the entire room. He took a single step back, then dragged his phone out of his pocket and flipped through Instagram.

His feed was mostly just Zed posting his abs covered with glistening pool water, his face half-covered with designer shades, pointed toward the sun. He double tapped a couple of the photos, then he jumped half an inch when his phone buzzed and a text popped up in his notifications.

Zed: Y u up

Noah: Morning run. Why are you up?

Zed: Never went 2 bed lmaoooooo

Noah: Aren’t we supposed to meet up today?

Zed: Bring me 2 red bulls I’ll b good2go!

Noah sighed and didn’t respond, but he already knew he would do whatever Zed asked. Not that Zed didn’t have a stocked fridge. He was pretty sure the kid’s blood was at least thirty percent bubbling caffeinated beverage at this point, but Takuya didn’t seem overly concerned about it, so Noah wasn’t going to say anything.

Still, his concern made him feel like an old man sometimes. In normal years, he was a twenty-six-year-old adult with an entire lifetime ahead of him, but in hockey years, he was reaching middle age—showing grays and wrinkles, aching joints, and losing patience for those damn kids playing on his lawn.

He shook himself out of that little spiral and shoved his phone back into his pocket as the line moved.

The woman in front of him finished her call before she got to the counter, then she walked up to the barista and spoke in slow, loud, deliberate tones which crawled under his skin. “One. Coffee. Room. For. Cream. Did. You. Understand. That?”

Noah narrowed his eyes at her, but it made sense a second later when he heard the barista respond with a Deaf accent—all rounded vowels and muted consonants just like Zed’s. “I’ve got it, ma’am. Please slide your card.”

Irritation prickled up his spine. He’d done his fair share of unlearning bad stereotypes after meeting his Deaf teammate. It hadn’t taken him long, though—and it sure as hell didn’t take a genius to remember to speak to a Deaf person with the same respect you’d speak to anyone else. But he’d seen shit like this before on roadies whenever they ate out, or in the summer whenever Zed wanted to go brunch hopping.

The woman brushed past him without looking up, and he met the barista’s tired gaze first, then looked down at the large, round badge pinned to their apron. Cassie. They/them. I am Deaf, please be patient while I get your order right.

He hesitated, then lifted his hands. ‘Do you sign?’ He moved through the motions, probably a little more formally than was normal, but he’d been working with his tutor since the season had ended, and he was stuck in classroom mode.

Cassie’s eyes widened, then they lifted their own hands. ‘Wow. Hey, yeah.’

Noah managed a smile, which felt a little foreign on his face, but it was genuine. ‘Can I please get a nonfat latte with two pumps of sugar-free vanilla and a croissant?’

Cassie rang him up, then he slid his card through the machine. As he was tucking it back into his wallet, he saw their hand waving in his periphery, and he looked up. ‘You’re on the Phantoms, right?’

Noah had learned early on that being a famous hockey player wasn’t the same as being famous like most celebrities. America lived and died by football, reality TV, and YouTube. He could still walk into a Trader Joes and buy his nectarines, red wine, and Bamba without being accosted in the aisles.

But every now and again, when he was buying coffee and a croissant, someone knew who he was.

‘Yeah, I am.’ He spelled his name for Cassie who nodded sagely like they knew his stats, which was possible.

‘I got into hockey after reading about Levi Zedner,’ they spelled his name with an almost reverent care, then they blushed. ‘One of my friends writes fanfic about him, Davesh, and Kevin.’ Their hands stopped abruptly, and their cheeks went so dark he wondered if they were dizzy from the blood rush. ‘OMG, I wish I hadn’t told you that.’

Noah couldn’t help a small chuckle, and he shook his head. ‘I won’t tell him.’

Cassie sagged forward. ‘It’s just cool, you know? The last professional sports player wasn’t’—they made a sign Noah didn’t recognize, but he read the word Deaf from their lips and could tell it was the capital D sort—‘and I mean, that’s great too, but this is different.’

He nodded, sort of understanding. Zed was open about what he’d gone through in order to be allowed to join the national Junior team. The surgeries, the speech therapy, constantly being under the microscope, even now.

It was maybe—just maybe—why Noah was a little more protective than he should have been.

‘I’ll tell him he has a fan here,’ Noah offered when Cassie came back with his coffee and croissant.

They blushed harder and nodded, and Noah almost signed something else when he heard the purple-suited woman behind him start screeching about her order being first. Cassie rolled their eyes, and Noah quickly shoved a couple bucks into the tip jar, then made his way out.

It was maybe one of the strangest starts to his day, but it wasn’t the worst. It was, he supposed, just summer.

So he’d take it.

After that, summer just got hotter and weirdly busier when his agent kept sending him ridiculous jobs like modeling underwear and sniffing cologne samples so he could put his name on one. It infuriated him because it was one of the reasons his father relentlessly mocked his job. Yes, he made money from hockey, but he also made money from endorsements.

It was why he could afford his brownstone. It was why he’d be able to retire comfortably as an old man and not have to stress about work when his body gave up on him—because in the hockey world, thirty-five was ancient, and he knew he’d be lucky to get that far.

But it did feel a little bit like selling out. And every time he took one of those jobs, he could hear his father’s voice in his head telling him all the reasons why he should have done something respectable with his life.

On those days, it was easy to drive over to Zed’s and let himself exist in the company of his friend. If it was closer to the preseason, the house would be full of Phantoms. Or, at the very least, Kevin and Davesh would be puttering around making Zed blush and sneaking kisses when they thought Noah wasn’t looking.

He liked being part of that, mostly because he knew that sort of life would never be for him. He was a simple man, and he only had space for one all-consuming thing in his life. Maybe when he was old and retired, he’d find someone who could settle the raging disquiet in his bones. Someone who could put up with the fact that his dark moods far outweighed the moments he felt like he could smile.

Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d just live with who he was and settle in as the weird Swedish interloper in love stories like Zed, Davesh, and Kevin’s.

“You look like someone pissed in your Wheaties,” Zed told him as he swung the door shut. He didn’t invite him to sit and have a drink, instead marching through the house and through the back door where he had clearly set up for the afternoon by the pool under his little wooden cabana.

Noah didn’t bother answering him. He always looked like someone had pissed in his Wheaties. Instead, he grabbed a White Claw from the little cooler Zed had by his lounge chair and took the high road of not chirping at him over his choice of white lady liquor.

“I went by that café you told me about,” Zed told him as he stretched back out. He grabbed his shades by one of the arms, lifting them up so they rested against his brows. “That barista was adorable as hell. I gave them a jersey.”

Once upon a time that might have felt arrogant. Now, Noah kept a handful of signed jerseys in the back of his car for those just-in-case moments. “I bet that made their day.”

Zed snorted. “We went to the same school, and my old math teacher—this ancient old fuck who I think literally fought in the Civil War—is still there.”

Zed continued to ramble on about his school days, and Noah continued not to correct him on his misuse of literally.

“Seriously, though, why are you all bitch face today?” Zed asked, waving his hand toward Noah.

Batting him away, Noah sighed, took a long drink, then rested against the wooden back of his chair. “I got cornered into doing a ridiculous Calvin Klein ad for boxers.”

Zed leaned toward him. “The what what?”

Noah spelled it all on his fingers, knowing Zed sometimes had trouble with his accent, though not as much trouble as he had with the Russians.

“Oh my God, you can be such a little bitch sometimes. I did a thing for Versace, and that shit paid for this pool.” He had a little twinkle in his eye as he did jazz hands in the direction of his water feature. “Go buy a Monet or something when you’re done.”

Noah scowled. “I don’t want a Monet. I just hate how many of these things they want us to do.”

Zed shook his head. “Yeah, well, they only want bodies like this.” He dragged the palm of his hand between his pecs, then over his abs. “Can you imagine if they wanted Mayo?” He laughed so hard he snorted, and Noah realized he was talking about the Sea Dogs’ new third line center, who’d had his front teeth knocked out so many times before he’d even been drafted he stopped bothering to get them replaced during the season.

Noah ran his tongue over his own—most of them caps thanks to stray hockey sticks and flying pucks—and sighed. He understood, it just seemed so reductionist. They were celebrities, sure, but they were athletes. He should be running drills, not prancing around in barely there fabric, covered in baby oil.

“Cheer up, buttercup,” Zed told him, smacking the side of his leg. “Tommy got locked into a six-month ad campaign for Speedo last winter that went up on billboards in France.”

At the sound of that name, Noah’s face dropped into a furious glower, and he ignored the way Zed rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re still talking to that little shit.”

Zed let out a sigh and swung his legs around. He touched his knee, and Noah wanted to put his fist through the wall. “Look at me, Ma. No crutches,” he murmured.

“It could have been so much worse,” Noah hissed. “He could have ruined your career with that dirty hit…”

“It wasn’t a dirty hit, and he didn’t ruin my career. He just gave me an excuse to lie in bed and let Davesh give me blow jobs for a few weeks.” He winked, but when Noah didn’t relax, he sighed again and leaned back. “We’ve been over this a billion times. You need to let this shit go.”

“Why? So he can feel like the rest of the world excused his dirty play and he can go back to it?” Noah snapped.

Zed turned his gaze away, and Noah realized that it wasn’t really his issue to push, but he didn’t trust that guy. He was never going to trust that guy. “When are the guys back?” he finally asked. It was a small olive branch, but Zed grabbed it with both hands and held on.

“Kev’s back next week, but then he’s leaving again, and he’ll be gone until a few days before our first practice. His sister’s about to pop, and they’re having some…baby whatever it’s called. I don’t know. Penis or vagina party?”

Noah rolled his eyes. “Right.”

Zed waved him off. “And he promised to stay and help build the addition for the baby’s room. Davesh will be back that week too, and I can’t wait. My dick is sooo looonely,” he drawled.

Noah felt his cheeks go pink in spite of himself. He was used to that kind of talk, but something about the way Zed said it was more intimate. It was real. And Noah wasn’t exactly celibate. He had no trouble heading out to clubs and hooking up whenever he felt like he needed to unwind.

In fact, he had plans to do that the following week, after the godforsaken photoshoot. But he wondered what sex would be like if there was intimacy involved. If there were feelings beyond the buildup and release.

Zed had once called it a dick sneeze, and Noah had had trouble shooting off without hearing that word for weeks after.

But it was more realistic than anything because it was just hands and mouths. It was a stranger in a tight shirt and skinny jeans. It was the smell of cheap lube and latex. And then it was over.

“You want to go get ice cream?” Zed asked in the silence that had fallen between them.

Noah looked down at his can of White Claw—just a few sips missing—then he nodded. “Yeah. Let’s calorie load.”

Zed whooped and was on his feet, only limping a little as he hurried toward the house.

Noah’s mood was less toxic by the time he made it to the arena, but he still wasn’t in the best headspace as he let himself in and checked in at the desk. He was glad the shoot was at a location he was familiar with. A few times they’d dragged him out to some random location—twice to a forest and once in New Jersey on a crowded beach with so many people watching he wanted to dig a hole in the sand and bury himself.

So, this was a nice reprieve from that, and he was a little less frustrated and nervous as he made his way down the cold, almost industrial corridor. A set of two doors led him into the large arena, and he breathed in the sharp, clean scent of fresh ice. Home, he thought quietly to himself. The rink was always home. It was also a mess, though. There were lights, backdrops, PAs running around with coffee and smoothies, and a woman pushing a snack cart.

He felt entirely out of his element until someone called his name, and he turned to see a flustered woman with red curls piled on the top of her head, held together by a single number two pencil. “Noah Viklund,” she repeated.

He nodded, and she marked something down on her clipboard. “You speak English?”

He bristled. “Yes, obviously.”

She gave him a look that said it was most definitely not obvious, and he decided not to argue because there was no real time for it. “Head through the locker room doors for makeup and wardrobe. You’re five minutes late, but Ricardo already has everything laid out, so you should be good to go.”

He knew for damn sure he wasn’t five minutes late because he had never been five minutes late to anything in his entire life. But he didn’t have time to argue with her about that either, so he brushed past her and headed for the door.

His heart was beating a little faster than normal, and he was ready to just get this over with.

It’s just a photoshoot, he told himself. It’s just some silly poses in some silly clothes, then you can go home and spend the rest of the day watching tape.

The mantra had calmed him a little, but that only lasted until he pushed through the doors and his gaze fell on the man in the chair next to the empty one meant for him. He was pretty sure he’d never forget that face or those big, doe eyes. Or the smirk that he almost permanently wore.

Because it was the face of the man who had almost ruined Zed’s career. It was the face of the man he wanted to punch but never got the chance to get a good hit on.

“Hey, sunshine. I was starting to think you weren’t going to show,” Tommy said.

He took a step back, feeling like the floor beneath his feet was going to crumble. “Tremblay.” His voice was ice cold. “What the fuck are you doing here?”


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