Chapter 2

My body shoots off my bed, sweat covering my forehead and my lungs gasping for breath. That fucking dream again. It's been over ten years and I still remember that day as if it happened just yesterday. All the screaming, the sound of the explosion, seeing Greg's broken body, it's all still perfectly clear. I haven't even seen Greg since high school graduation, but if I ever do again, I wouldn't know what I'd do.

I wipe the sweat off my forehead and shake my head out, hoping to get my breathing back to normal when a sudden knock comes at my bedroom door. "Tanner! Wake up! You told me to wake you up at 8:00 this morning so you could get to the gym! Remember, I know how to pick the lock and even if you're butt ass naked in there, I'll still drag you out of bed!"

"You could've stopped at 'wake up!'" I call back through the door.

"Yeah, but it's more fun the way I said it!"

I roll my eyes, holding back a smile, and rub my eyes awake. That roommate of mine can be a huge pain at times, but he's an awesome guy. I stretch my arms above my head, letting my shoulders, elbows, and spine crack back into place, and rouse myself from bed before heading into the bathroom.

After my full bladder is relieved, I walk to the mirror and check my face to make sure nothing's out of place. Looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. Dismissing the conceited remark with a chuckle, I continue to make sure my face is the way it should be. Nose is fairly straight, cheeks only have a few scars on them (sexy scars as people say), fake molar in my mouth (my real one was knocked out a few years ago), my eyes are still the same dark green, and my dark brown hair is still short.

I step out of the bathroom and walk to my dresser and pull out a sleeveless workout shirt, workout shorts, some shoes and socks, grab a t-shirt, cargo shorts, and spare socks to change into after I'm done at the gym, and get my teeth brushed and face washed. Once I get everything done, I walk out of my bedroom and find my roommate in the middle of our living room doing his every day morning workout, and he's been going hard judging by the pool of sweat on the floor.

It still amazes me that someone can actually do handstand pushups without the help of a wall, and it looks like that someone is both my roommate and closest friend. "You almost done?" I ask my inverted friend.

He turns his head toward me and his flushed and sweat coated face smiles. "Just fifteen more. I want to beat my old record of fifty."

"Dude, you're a machine."

"And don't you forget it."

He goes back to his pushups and I walk into the kitchen and grab me an apple and four bottles of water for the both of us when we go to the gym. With a thump, I look back in the living room and find my roommate back on his feet, deep breaths coming and going from his gigantic body.

I grab a bottle of water off the counter and toss it over to him. He snags it out of the air, twists the cap off and takes small sips of the cold liquid. "Ah...thanks..." he breathes out.

"You really can't take a day off from training, can you?" I ask.

"Not if I want to start getting weaker. Professional MMA fighting makes you want to be in the best physical shape you can possibly be."

"You don't ever think that the body can reach a limit to how big it can get?"

He holds his arms up at his sides and flexes them, revealing two gigantic biceps the size of a baby's head. "If these keep getting bigger, than no," he says with a grin.

"Adam Underwood, you really are a fucking machine."

"That's the nickname. Don't wear it out."

I give Adam a slap on the shoulder, which feels like slapping concrete, and laugh a bit. Adam Underwood, although he's a year younger than me, has become my closest friend ever since I graduated college a few years ago. He's originally from Queens, New York, but moved out to California after he graduated high school and attended University of California at San Diego and managed to get a major in sports fitness administration and a minor in management.

After he graduated from college, though, Adam was scouted by UFC and in less than a year, he had risen in the ranks to one of the top fighters, earning the nickname 'The Machine'. Adam and I met when I was looking for a roommate to live with, because living alone in downtown L.A. was pretty depressing. I had been going through a lot of different people that were interested, but I quickly saw that a lot of them just wanted to room with me because of my celebrity sports status.

I was about to give up my search when I saw that I had one more potential roommate left. I thought I'd humor them, so I brought them into my apartment. I damn near crapped myself when I saw Adam walk through the doorway. He almost didn't fit through the door. But I guess that's what happens when you're six foot eight, two hundred and sixty pounds of muscle and skin.

Adam and I really hit it off, but what really sealed the deal for me was what he said when we were talking. 'Oh hey, you're that L.A. Kings player. I didn't even know it was you for a while.' The casual way he said it and how he didn't even recognize me almost made me drop a key to the apartment in his hand. Ever since, we've been the closest of friends.

Adam finishes his bottle of water and tosses it across the room and it lands right in the recycle bin. "Ready to head to the gym?" he asks me.

"You never take a day off, do you?"

"Tanner, you and I have been roommates for almost four years now. I think you should know this by now."

I roll my eyes, quickly devour my apple and grab my car keys off the counter. Adam quickly goes and grabs two white towels for us and a gym bag for the water. He excuses himself one more time to change his shirt and wipe the sweat off him before coming back. Now that my giant of a friend has gotten everything squared, we exit our apartment and head to the gym.

Over the past ten years, my life has stayed very comfortable and easy. College was amazing. The experience, the friends I made, the lessons I learned, it was all worth the four years of education. Not to mention playing with the Wolverines was something I'll never forget, even after all the checks into the boards.

I started with the Wolverines as a backup forward, but I became the starting forward about a year after being on the team. Over the four years I played on the Michigan team, I scored 147 goals and earned 213 points (points include goals scored by you and assists on goals, for those of you that don't know too much about hockey).

Another statistic that I'm not too happy to have is number of fights I was involved in on the ice. I averaged 14 fights a season in college, only 2 of them I started. I don't know why, but people think that the best way to convey a message to me on the ice is by punching me in the face (how do you think I lost my molar?).

After I graduated college with a degree in business administration, I was recruited to play hockey in the AHL for the Manchester Monarchs in New Hampshire. But after just a single season, the L.A. Kings, the affiliate NHL team of the Monarchs, recruited me. I've been with the Kings ever since.

But that statistic about be getting into fights has actually gotten higher. I'm not starting fights, other players just like punching me. But I'm labeled as 'the hot-headed player' of the NHL because I can hold myself in a bare-knuckle brawl and every fight I've gotten into I've won. That and...sometimes, I'm not afraid to admit it, I get insanely angry when my role as captain of the L.A. Kings is threatened by someone who wants to lead my team.

Yes, I still believe in my philosophy and I've followed closely to it to this day. I still don't like people that are physically weak or give off the impression of being weak. Don't get me wrong. If someone is physically incapable of getting stronger due to genetics or something like that, then it's fine. But if they're weak because they're too lazy to get stronger, then I despise them.

It's just a lifestyle choice. I feel that the body should be a temple that needs to be taken care of. If your temple is plagued by things like obesity caused because you don't take care of yourself, then I don't like you as a result. Give me a reason to like you, such as you being the nicest person in the world, and I'll think about it. It may sound pretentious, but hey, there's always some kind of person a person doesn't like.

Hehe, I ramble sometimes. Thankfully, I've rambled enough for the drive to the gym to be over. I pull into the parking lot and Adam and I climb out of my car, a black 2024 Audi Z4, and gaze up at our gym: Rock's Gymnasium. Rock's Gymnasium is a three-story gym with state of the art training equipment, a pool, rock climbing walls, you name it, and it's there. The membership fee is insanely steep, but this gym is worth it.

Adam and I walk inside and I breath in the smell of metal, plastic, rubber, and a whole lot of sweat. "I had a feeling you two would be coming in today."

We look at the counter by the entrance and see Rock, the founder and owner of the gym. "I haven't come by in a few days and I wanted to get a workout in," I say. "Good to see you, Rock."

Rock is about three inches shorter than me, about six foot one, with coffee colored skin and a clean-shaven head. Seeing as he's the owner of the gym, he needs to be an example to everyone who comes here, so he keeps his body in the best shape possible. "You too, Tanner," Rock says. "Time off from the Kings treating you well?"

"I needed some time off, so the off season for me is a blessing. But training starts back up in a little over a week, so I'm going to need to enjoy it as much as I can."

"And you're gracing my gym with your presence before you go back to work? I'm touched..."

Rock places his heads over his heart in a very theatrical style, making me and Adam laugh. "So what's the turnout for this morning, Rock?" Adam asks.

"So far, there are about thirty people here, including yourselves but not including my staff, so there's plenty of room to workout. I need to get a bit of paperwork done, the part of my job that I hate, but I can't avoid it. You two go and work up enough sweat for the three of us, though."

"Can do," I say. "Thanks, Rock."

Rock gives both Adam and me a pat on the shoulder before going back behind the counter and into his office. Adam and I continue walking through the gym, both of us taking a look around at what we want to do first. "I need to work on my chest a bit," I say. "Can you spot me?"

"No problem, as long as you spot me afterword."

We make our way to one of the bench presses and I start adding weights to the bar while Adam heads to the gym locker room to store our gym bag. As I'm loading the weights, I hear something grab my attention. I look over toward the treadmills and see a guy using one to the fullest. This guy's in a full on sprint and it looks like he isn't going to let up any time soon.

And this guy is fucking jacked. He's not at the size of Adam, but he's got an insanely impressive body. He looks to be about six feet tall with medium-short black hair that's matted to his forehead, lightly tanned skin, and a determined scowl on his face. He's shirtless, showing off a perfectly proportioned hairless torso that's coated in a light layer of sweat.

I finish getting the weights on the bar, a solid two hundred and forty pounds, and I lie down on the bench. I see Adam walking back over to me in my peripheral and he sets our bottles of water and towels next to us. "Ready?" he asks.


He helps me lift the bar off the stand and carefully lowers it to my chest. I secure my grip on the bar and start my presses, Adam keeping a grip on the bar but not helping me in any way. "Hey, Adam?" I say as I get to my seventh press.

"What's up?"

"Who's that...guy over on the...treadmill?" I ask between presses.

Adam glances over in the direction of the guy, who I can still hear is going at it hard. "Oh, I'm not sure," he says. "I saw him in here two days ago when I came in here last and a few times before that and he was going as hard as he is now. Rock told me he just joined the gym a few weeks ago, but he's put enough work in to have been here for a few months."

I glance over at the guy again, who's still running as hard as he was when I last looked over at him. I go back to focusing on my bench presses and stop when I get to twenty, resting for a minute. "So..." I say, catching my breath a bit. "When am I ever going to meet this brother of yours? You've mentioned him a few times."

Adam's brother, Nate, is a person of mystery to me. Adam talks about him in a very high regard and I hear him talking to his brother over the phone at least four times a week. I talk to Allie and Ethan about once a week just so I can make sure my younger siblings are doing okay, and Keith's still working with the Navy so I talk with him every once in a while, and I call or visit Mom and Dad once every two weeks, but four times a week? I love my family, but damn.

Adam hasn't said too much about Nate except that he's the head of the marketing team for the Dodgers. I've heard the name Ryan come up a few times, but I don't know who that is and I haven't asked about the name. Adam promised me he'd have Nate come over to our apartment so we can meet sometime soon, though. "Soon," Adam says, answering my question.

Adam and I get back to our workout, working out our chests, arms and legs. I don't like working out at all (the buildup of lactic acid in my body is what I hate the most), but I like the results it gives my body. So I choose to suck down the pain and get my workout done with all of my effort.

By the time Adam and I are done, we're both dripping with sweat and carefully sipping our waters. "Want to grab some breakfast?" Adam asks.

"Sounds good. I'm going to grab a shower then we can get some food."

"I'll take one too."

Adam and I grab our empty bottles of water and sweat soaked towels and make our way for the gym's male locker room. Adam and I dump our stuff into our gym bag, grab two of the gym's provided towels and strip down. We walk to the showers and step into two adjacent shower stalls and let the warm water wash away the sweat and tense muscles.

As I wash myself off, I hear a body press against the stall next to me and I see a soaked Adam leaning against the stall divider, resting his arms on top of it. "Hey, by the way, I forgot to mention during our workout that my brother's coming over tonight to have dinner with me. It slipped my mind earlier. You don't mind, do you?"

"Not at all. I'll finally get to meet him."

"Great. He's going to be bringing two other people, including his son."

"You're an uncle? You never mentioned that."

"You didn't hear me talking in a higher pitch voice whenever I was on the phone?"

I think back and the sound of a higher pitch of Adam's deep voice does come back to me. "Actually, yeah I do remember hearing it. So are you planning on ordering food?"

"No, I was going to cook something. Would you like to join us?"

"Sounds good. But I need to be at Staples Center this afternoon at 4:30. My owners called for a meeting with all the staff and players."

"But training for the next season doesn't start until next week, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, it doesn't. But the owners said in an email there's a big announcement for all the players and staff. So I'll be out for some of the afternoon."

"Okay. Nate should be over at about 6:00 tonight, so be prepared."

"Can do."

Adam and I finish up showering and get back to the locker room and change into our casual clothes. As I finish slipping on my t-shirt, out of the corner of my eyes I see something black. I turn to my left and see the guy that was on the treadmill earlier on the other side of the locker room, wearing a white t-shirt and dark jeans and is lacing up his boots.

With a shirt on, his body seems even bigger than it already is. His black hair looks freshly cleaned and is slicked back, not a hair out of place. He reaches into the backpack next to his foot and pulls out a pair of thick-framed rectangular glasses and sets them on his face, the lenses covering the burning amber color of his eyes.

He rises off the bench he's sitting on and grabs his backpack and throws it over his shoulder. I turn back to my locker and finish getting my stuff out and when I turn back, the guy's gone. When I think about the guy again, I feel something...familiar about him. I can't put my finger on it though. "Hey, Tanner," Adam says. "You ready to go?"

"Yeah, I just thought I saw someone I recognized..."


A few hours later, I drive through the streets of downtown L.A. and pull into the private parking garage underneath Staples Center and find a spot among the cars that are already here. I step out of and unlock my car and make my way for the elevators. Once I step in, I ride up to the ground floor of Staples Center.

I step out of the elevator, only to be met by a hulking man. "Hello, Tanner," says a deep, slightly accented voice.

"Hey, Vladimir," I reply.

Vladimir Abramov, one of my closer friends on the L.A. Kings. Vladimir is of Russian descent and moved to the United States when he was a teenager. He joined the Kings about seven years ago as a winger and has stayed with us ever since. He's about six foot three, two hundred thirty pounds, with dark brown hair he chooses to keep in a shaggy style, has one of his front teeth missing, always has a thin beard, and is 31 years old.

I walk out of the elevator and step by Vladimir's side. "Do you know what this meeting's about?" I ask.

"I do not," Vladimir replies. "But I feel that it is going to be very important."

"I got that feeling too. But I also got the feeling that it isn't going to be a good one."

"Me as well, droog."

Droog is Russian for friend (I can't spell it for my life though), and Vladimir's called me it ever since I joined the Kings. As we're walking, we see another fellow player. "Gunnar!" I call. "Wait up!"

The man I call to, Gunnar Lindberg, stops and looks back at us. "Ah, Tanner and Vlad," he says. "Good to see you two again."

"You as well, Gunnar," Vladimir replies.

Gunnar is a two-way forward for the L.A. Kings, standing at six foot four and two hundred and twenty pounds, and is another one of my close friends. He has bright blonde hair he often keeps in a spiked style with bright blue eyes and is of Swedish descent, having been born and raised there for his first ten years. Gunnar is probably the most respectful player on the team, the first one to break up a fight, and the first to try and resolve a situation.

He's also got this incredibly suave air about him that makes people to listen to him, even though he's only 23 years old, one of the youngest players on the team, and has only played with the Kings for about two years now. He's also the only person on the team that Vladimir allows to call him Vlad. "Shall we head to the meeting together?" Gunnar asks.

"Sounds good," I say.

We continue walking through Staples Center until we walk into the team meeting room. In there, we find about fifteen other players and a few members of the Kings' staff. As I walk in, I greet everyone in the room by first name and give a few slaps on the back as I pass by my fellow teammates, who welcome their captain.

I take a seat on one of the available benches and continue to talk with my teammates. When I first joined the Kings, I saw that the team wasn't as close as I would've liked, mainly due to the old captain caring more about his own paycheck than the wellbeing of the team and its players, and that pissed me off.

So I competed for the captain's spot with him and won the 'C' on my jersey easily. My old captain announced his retirement from the game a few days later and fell under investigation for intentionally throwing games, which only helped to tarnish the name of the Kings. Although it pissed me off even more, I wanted to show people that the new captain was even better than the old one.

I started to connect with my teammates, showing them that I could be both a friend and a teammate. This, in turned, helped to show them that they could be friends and work together on the ice. And a season later, we almost made it to the finals of the Stanley Cup and the Kings were once again a force to be reckoned with.

Ever since, I've made it my mission to keep my team in perfect working order and make sure nothing's changed the well-oiled machine that I've come to create. About ten minutes later, the last of the players and staff come into the meeting room and take a seat or stand around the large room, conversations echoing off the stone walls.

Two more people walk into the room and immediate quiet hushes over the room as the owners step into the room. They walk to the front of the room and stand directly in front of all of us, their faces stern and serious. "Hello, everyone," Mr. Presley says.

"Glad you all could make it," says Governor Leif.

Yes, the two owners of the L.A. Kings are Mark Presley, founder and C.E.O. of Presley Tech, and Shawn Leif, governor of the state of California (thanks to a law that was passed a few years ago, politicians in office are allowed to own professional sports teams as long as they don't give the team special treatment or pass any laws that benefit the team). Apparently the two went to high school together and we're best friends.

Mr. Presley and Governor Leif are both 28 years old, the same as me, and are the two youngest owners in the NHL. Mr. Presley is about six foot one with blonde hair (not as bright as Gunnar's, but still pretty bright), a very in shape frame (his arms rival the size of Adam's), a thin light brown beard, and is wearing a pale blue suit with a plaid vest and a white collared shirt open at the neck.

Governor Leif is about five foot ten (eleven in shoes) with brown hair he often has slicked back, a lean frame from him trying to stay in shape, and is wearing a light grey suit with a white collared shirt and a gold tie. The two men standing in front of me may be my age, but they both have so much more influence than I do. And together they look like they can take down anyone they want (both literally and figuratively).

Mr. Presley takes a step forward and all eyes are on him. "I'm afraid we have a bit of sad news for all of you," he says. "It came to Shawn's and my attention six days ago that Coach Barker, your head coach, has decided to retire from coaching the L.A. Kings."

An audible hush of silence washes over the room. Walter Barker has been the head coach of the L.A. Kings for the last eight years and was very well respected and liked. He always greeted us by name whenever he arrived and always helped us get better with our training. News of his retirement is like news that a family member has passed away.

I glance around the room and I see that there's depressed expressions all around the room. "We know this announcement is very sudden," Governor Leif says. "We too are saddened by Coach Barker leaving, the team, but it's his choice and we can't stop him."

"However," Mr. Presley takes over, "we've managed to recruit a new head coach for the Kings. He was the head coach of the Providence Bruins for two years and he led the team to two consecutive regular season championship wins and two playoff championship wins. He would've been the head coach of the Boston Bruins, but their head coach still had a few years left in his contract."

"So we called him a few days ago and gave him an offer to be head coach of the Kings," Governor Leif says. "We expected there to be a bit of wait for his decision, but he accepted right away and we learned that he had resigned as head coach of the Bruins about a month ago and had moved to Los Angeles."

"This is a very fortunate opportunity for us and we hope you accept him into the Kings family quickly," Mr. Presley says. "We understand that it's going to take a bit of time to adjust, but trust us when we say he knows what he's doing. So please give your undivided attention to your new head coach."

Mr. Presley gestures to the door to the team meeting room and the door opens. The room is completely silent as we see a shiny black shoe step in the doorway. A pure black suit with a white collared shirt open at the neck that covers a very large, muscular body follows. And when I see my new head coach, I feel my eyes widen a bit.

It's the same guy form the gym earlier! He's the new head coach?! The man continues to walk into the meeting room, his footsteps echoing as he walks into the still silent room. He steps to the side of Mr. Presley and Governor Leif and looks out at the players and staff. "Would you like to introduce yourself?" Governor Leif asks.

"In a minute," the man replies. He gazes around the room and sighs audibly. "I'm getting the impression that many of you don't trust in my ability to coach," he says with a fairly deep voice. I look around and see a lot of looks of distrust and uncertainty. "Very well. I'll give you a little information about myself.

"I attended University of California, Santa Cruz for a year before I transferred to Stanford University in my second year and I graduated with a degree in sports management and a minor in physiology. I acquired a job coaching minor league hockey after I graduated college and I got a job coaching the Providence Bruins after four years.

I worked with the Bruins for two years and we had a very successful two years. In case some of you didn't know, the Bruins were ranked close to last in their division two years ago. But after just a year with me, they were ranked first and had a new division title and a playoff championship under their belt."

"They managed to repeat those accomplishments under my coaching. However, due to certain circumstances of the personal kind, I chose to resign as the Bruins head coach and I moved out to Los Angeles to get away from my job for a while. I had been living here for about a month before I found out that I missed coaching and I wanted to get back into it.

"I got a call from Mark and Shawn here a few days ago and they offered me the head coaching position and I accepted it. Does that satisfy anything?"

The room continues to be silent as we all watch our new head coach, his stoic face not showing any emotion. "Does anyone object to our new head coach?" Mr. Presley asks.

Everyone looks around the room looking for anyone that raises an objection. "I just have one thing," says Bradley Crompton, our starting goalie. "Do you have a name we can call you?"

The corner of the man's mouth smirks upward. "Sorry," he says. "I forgot to mention that, didn't I? During practice and games, please call me Coach Natick. Outside the rink, you can call me Gregory."

My heart stops at the name and I shoot off my bench. "GREG?!!" I say.

The room turns to me and Greg and I stand in silence, just looking at one another. "Hello again, Tanner," he says without any emotion in his voice.

"Tanner," Mr. Presley says, "do you and Gregory know each other?"

It takes me a second to look at Mr. Presley, but Greg speaks for me. "Tanner and I attended the same high school over ten years ago. We had a few classes together too."

"Will that affect how you two interact with one another?" Governor Leif asks. "Mark and I may be best friends, but we always put our work before our friendship."

"Well, we always have fun together over the weekends when Shawn's still in town. The genius can't seem to take a break on his own without my help."

"Shut up, Mark."

The two men laugh with each other for a second. "It won't be a problem," Greg says. "We never really interacted too much except for one time during our senior year where we talked for a little while then we never really spoke after that."

"Well, we hope you two can work well together in the upcoming season," says Governor Leif.

"Thank you," Greg says. As I take my seat again, Greg looks back at Mr. Presley and Governor Leif. "May I please say one thing to the team?"

"Go ahead," Mr. Presley says.

Greg looks out at all of us. "I'm going to say this right now: the team needs a lot of work. And by a lot, I mean much more than you think."

Wait, did Greg just...insult my team? My fingers clench into tight fists. "What do you mean by that?" asks Gunnar.

"I mean that this team has played the same hockey for years. It's pretty amazing how no one has caught on yet. I may have only been coaching for about six years now, but I've been analyzing sports teams and their plays and patterns ever since I was a kid. And within a day of watching all of your games, I learned all of your routines.

"The Kings currently run a primarily offensive pattern, trying to score as many points in a short period of time to try and distance themselves away from their opponent in order to help the lacking defense, which often has as many holes as Swiss cheese."

I gaze over at the team's defensemen and see a lot of them look incredibly pissed off. "Also, our goalies need to work on becoming better," Greg says. "The average goals per game allowed for our two goalies on the team last season were 3.67 goals. That is unacceptable and it makes the Kings seem like an easy target."

Bradley and the backup goalie, Chad Densely, get expressions that match the defensemen. "The offense needs work too," Greg continues. "While they may be strong, passing is a huge issue and it's difficult for many of you to shake off defenders. Some of you are also knocked down too easily and we need to fix that as well."

The locker room is now filled with angered looks, all of them directed at Greg. "And one more thing," Greg says. "Those of you think that because you were starters last season means that you're guaranteed a spot this season are dead wrong. I'm creating an entirely new roster when we begin our training and some of the starters from last season may become backups if I feel they aren't as good as others."

On that note, a second body today rises off their bench, but they push themselves to the front of the room. That body is that of Alex Yezhov, a defenseman and one of the largest people on the team at six foot seven, two hundred and forty-six pounds. He walks up to Greg and stares down at him, his face fuming and his nostrils flaring.

I see the veins on his large arms bulging out of his skin. "You think you can come onto this team and tell us what to do?" he asks Greg.

"Actually, yes, I do. Mark and Shawn gave me the liberty to make all the plays and decisions regarding positions and what goes on during games and practices. So please return to your seat, Alex, or you're going to regret your next action."

Alex's face turns a bright red and I see one of his fists clench tightly, the signs of a punch coming any second. And that second happens just three seconds later. Alex picks up his large, meaty hand and brings it back behind his head and fires it at Greg's head. While I expect Greg's nose to be broken, what comes next shocks me to the core.

Greg moves out of the way of the punch and moves faster than I even knew he could move. He grabs the front of Alex's shirt and turns his back to him. With a powerful lunge forward, Greg hoists Alex up and off the ground and flips him over his head, sending Alex to the floor with a very loud smack.

The room is absolutely quiet, save for a few groans from Alex. Greg sighs to himself and looks down at Alex. "I half-expected a reaction like this from one of you, but I'd advise all of you to refrain from doing it again. I've been practicing judo for more than eight years, so I can take people of your sizes down with little to no effort. So unless you don't want to end up like Alex here, I suggest you don't do anything like this again."

Everyone continues to sit in shock, but no one is more surprised than me. What the hell happened to Greg? He was such a weakling when I last saw him. Now he looks like he can kill someone without even touching them. "Now, I sincerely apologize if I came off as too harsh," Greg says. "But these are the facts that you all need to understand. I'm here to both help you become the best players you can be and turn this team into the best in the country.

"So if we can work together, we'll turn this middle of the pack team into a Stanley Cup worthy one. I don't care if none of you like me. You all will listen to every word I say. If I tell you to do pushups for no reason, the answer is not 'why?' it's 'how many?'. If you give me a reason to, I'll put you on the bench for the rest of the season.

"First practice begins next Friday at 9:00 in the morning. I don't mean you get to the locker room at 9:00. I mean you're in your gear and practice uniforms and on the ice by 9:00. For every minute you're late, it's five suicides from one end of the rink, to the blue line, to the middle of the ice, to the other blue line, to the other side of the rink. Are we clear?"

Greg's questions gets more than a few unenthusiastic nods. "I thank you for your cooperation," Greg says. "I hope we can work well together this season. I'm going to be bringing in a few guests to help with our first practice, so be ready. I'll see you all next week. Enjoy the rest of your time off."

Greg exchanges a few words with Mr. Presley and Governor Leif before turning and leaving the room. My teammates start talking with one another, but I don't join them. I rise off my bench and quickly leave the meeting room and look around for Greg. I see his broad frame walking in the direction of the elevators.

I quickly jog to catch up with him. "Greg!" I call to him. I don't get a response, so maybe he didn't hear me. "Greg!" I call a little louder. Still nothing. Maybe... "Gregory!"

He stops and turns back to me, his face the same stoic expression from a few minutes ago. I catch up to him and stand a few feet away from him. "Yes, Tanner?" he says. "How can I help you?"

It takes me a few seconds to get myself to say something. "Um...h-how have you been?"

Wow, that was incredibly stupid. I really do need to think things through before I say them. "I've been okay," Greg replies. "You seem to be doing pretty well, Tanner. I know you've been with the Kings for almost five years now and are the captain of the team."

"Y-Yeah, I am. I've been captain for four seasons now. But on a different note, holy crap, Greg...ory. You've really changed since I last saw you."

Greg glances down at himself before looking back up at me. "Yeah, I guess I have."

"What happened, if I can ask?"

He sighs to himself for a second. "After high school graduation, I saw that it was time for a change. I started working out several days a week and when I first enrolled at UC Santa Cruz, and I gained a bit more muscle as time went on. I transferred to Stanford in my second year thanks to a scholarship I managed to get.

"I spent the next three years at Stanford and I've already mentioned that I majored in sports management. I started learning judo in my second year at Stanford after I met a guy who introduced me to martial arts. I've practiced it ever since. By the time I graduated college, I was about this size and I've maintained my muscle tone ever since."

"Well...damn. You were really committed, weren't you?"

Greg just shrugs. "I wanted to get stronger, I wanted to change from the weakling I was, the one that was bullied mercilessly in high school by this asshole who damn near killed me one day in my senior year."

That nauseating feeling in my stomach is back and I feel myself looking at the ground. "G-Greg...I'm still..."

"Gregory," he interrupts. "Ten years later and you still don't get it."

"Gregory," I correct, "I'm still so sorry about what happened. But it honestly was an accident."

"I know the explosion was an accident, Tanner, but you still put the air canister in Mrs. Haunch's podium. You intended for something to happen to me, even though the end result was something that you didn't expect. You and I may be working together now, but know that I won't let something that happened when we were in high school affect my choices.

"You're going to have to work just as hard as everybody else on this team if you want to remain a starter. You're going to do the same drills as everybody else, work in the weight rom just as long as everybody else, and you're going to need to do some learning."


"Yes, learning. What I mean by that is you're going to need to learn all the new plays I'm going to come up with, learn how to anticipate the moves of your opponent, and most importantly, you're going to need to learn how to pass the freaking puck. Do you know how many times you passed the puck to an open teammate last season? Twenty-seven times. The rest of the time, you took the puck to the goal yourself and you didn't score every time.

"That isn't being a captain, Tanner. That's being selfish and caring more about yourself than the team. I know you've turned the Kings into a family, and that's great, but if you keep hogging the puck, that family you've built up will fall apart."

I feel my hands ball into fists at listening to Greg, feeling my anger increasing with ever passing second. "Are you threating my team?" I angrily ask.

"I'm not threating your team at all, Tanner, which is now my team. You're second in charge and you're mainly going to be helping with team morale, telling everyone that makes a mistake that they'll get the next one. You're the one that's going to keep the team together in times of uncertainty, but I'm the one that's going to be calling the plays, making the team roster, and calling the shots from now on."

My rage boils over at learning that my team will be in the hands of Greg. Before I know it, my fist flies at Greg's face, just like Alex did before, but this time the end result is different. I feel my fist connect with the side of Greg's face and he flies backward a good few feet before landing on his ass with a thud.

For a few seconds, there's complete silence before Greg slowly rises off the floor and back to his feet. He takes his thumb and wipes the corner of his mouth with it, leaving a small trace of blood on his thumb. "It's nice to know that you haven't changed since high school, Tanner," Greg says with venom in his voice.

He turns to his right and presses his thumb to the elevator button, which opens almost immediately. "First practice," Greg says, "you're starting out with fifty laps around the rink. For every minute you're late, I'm adding another ten laps in addition to the suicides, which you're going to do ten of instead of five."

Greg steps into the elevator, but I move toward the door and press my hand next to the door of the elevator, keeping it from closing. "This is my team!" I shout. "I'm not going to let you and your faggot ass take it away from me. It's not fair!"

"Life isn't fair, Tanner," Greg replies with no emotion. "Sometimes you're dealt a royal flush, like you have for your entire life, sometimes you're dealt shit, like I have more times in than I can count. Now, your lucky streak is ending and you're going to have to fold at some point. Know your place on my team by the time we have our first practice."

Greg picks up his foot and presses it to the middle of my chest. With a hard shove, Greg sends me back and I land on the floor, just like Greg did a minute earlier. I look back up in time as the elevator doors are closing to see Greg's fiery amber eyes looking down at me with pure contempt in the irises, which disappear as the doors close.

As soon as the doors close, a shiver shoots up my spine. Am I actually afraid of Greg? I never thought it would be possible. But when I think back to those amber eyes of his, I get the same chill up my spine and I feel my heart skip a beat. Holy crap I'm actually afraid of him, of Greg.

I feel my face is flushed from my nerves and I shakily rise up to my feet, my heart racing. I try to get my heart to calm down, but it won't stop. Images of Greg flash through my head and my heart seems to race even faster. Why can't I get Greg out of my head? Am I actually even more afraid of him than I thought?

I shake my head out, getting my face to get back to its normal pigment, and press the button to the elevator, hoping my racing heart will slow down.


About half and hour later, I arrive back at my apartment building and ride up to the top floor. I step out of the elevator and walk over to my apartment and slide my key into the lock before turning it. I welcome the smell of my apartment, but I also smell the fragrance of cooking meat. Feeling my mouth water a bit, I walk further into my apartment and toward the kitchen.

Standing at the counter is Adam, who seems to be in a frantic state and has left our kitchen in a state of disarray. "Everything okay, Adam?" I ask.

Adam snaps his head to me, the apron around his waist moving with him. "Tanner! Thank God you're here! I need your help. When the oven timer goes off, just pull the roast I have in there out and set it on the stove so it can cool a bit. That white steaming bowl on the counter is filled with mashed potatoes, so just sprinkle a bit of salt and paper on it and cover it with tin foil.

"There's broccoli on the stove too, which should be ready in five minutes. Pull the top pot off the other pot, shake it out over the sink and pour the broccoli into that empty bowl next to it and cover that with tin foil too. Nate's going to be here in about twenty-five minutes, and I need to take a quick shower, shave and change before he gets here. Thanks, Tanner!"

He takes off his apron and tosses it to me before jogging to his room, leaving me with the messy kitchen. I may as well help him make the place look presentable for his brother. I walk around the kitchen and grab various dishes and utensils and throw them in the sink before wiping the counter down.

I walk to the broccoli pot and shake the top colander out over the sink and pour the broccoli into the bowl Adam mentioned and cover it with tin foil. I make my way for the mashed potatoes and give them a sprinkle of salt and pepper and mixing it in a bit before covering that too.

As soon as that's covered, the timer of the oven goes off and I grab a pair of oven mitts and pull the roast out of the oven and set it on the counter. Felling I have a bit of extra time, I take the dishes I put in the sink and throw them in the dishwasher and run it. I look back at my kitchen and see it's spotless.

Feeling a sense of pride and a bit of exhaustion, I walk over to the fridge and pull out a beer and pop the top off and take a long swig from it before taking a seat at the counter. I hear loud footsteps and I see Adam coming out of his bedroom in a black polo shirt (that's so tight, it pretty much hugs his torso like a second skin), khaki shorts, and sneakers.

I see his hair is still a bit damp, but sticking up in the front, and his face is clean-shaven. "Wow," I say. "Even The Machine can clean up well."

Adam rolls his eyes and looks around the kitchen in surprise. "How the hell did you clean my shit up so fast?"

"Adam, I've lived with you for four years. I can clean up one of your messes in a heartbeat."

"I owe you one, Tanner. Nate's going to be here in few minutes and I was worried I wouldn't get the place cleaned up in time. At least I got the table set for the five of us to eat beforehand."

He goes to his roast and pulls out a cutting board and takes his slab of meat and starts slicing it into large cuts. He places his cuts on a large platter and within a minute or two, he's cut the large roast into long, thin slices, which make the smell of the roast waft around the apartment, making my stomach grumble.

I take in a deep breath of the delicious-smelling air. "Damn, Adam. Those cooking classes you took in college really helped, didn't they?"

"More than you know," Adam replies. He covers the meat with tin foil and takes all the parts of dinner and places them on the kitchen table before grabbing a beer and taking a seat at the counter next to me. After a minute, there's a knock at the door and Adam jumps up from his seat. "He's here!"

"Adam, calm down before you get a hernia," I say with a smile.

"I haven't seen my older brother in person in months, Tanner! I have the right to be excited!"

He sets his beer down on the counter and quickly walks to the door while I stay in the kitchen, casually nursing my own beer. I hear the door open followed by a lot of laughing. "Nate!" I hear Adam call. "I've missed you!"

"I missed you too, Adam!" says an unfamiliar voice. "You look even bigger than the last time I saw you!"

"Uncle Machine!" says what sounds like a younger voice.

"How's my favorite nephew?" Adam says.

I hear more laughing and a few footsteps walk further into the apartment. They walk into the living room and I turn from the counter and see Adam with a young boy in his arms along with a man who seems to be about four or five inches shorter than him. "Nate," Adam says, "this is Tanner White. Tanner, this is my older brother, Nate."

I rise from my seat and walk into the living room, extending my hand toward Nate. "It's nice to finally meet you, Nate," I say. "Adam's talked about you a lot."

Nate smiles and takes my hand. "I hope the things he's saying are nice. It's nice to meet you too, Tanner. I'm a fan."

I get a better look at Nate. He's about my height, maybe a bit shorter, with blonde hair in a fairly short buzz cut, lightly tanned skin, bright green eyes, a lean body frame and looks to be a few years older than me. He gives me a sense of sophistication that I like a lot. "You're that hockey play I see on TV a lot!"

I look toward Adam, more specifically the boy in his arms. He looks like he's maybe 6 or 7 years old with dark brown hair, light grey eyes that seem to have a sparkle in them, and a very cute face. "Sorry about him," Nate says. "He gets a bit star-struck when he sees someone he's seen on TV before. This is my son, Cole."

Cole continues to stare at me wide-eyed. "Hot-head!" he says.

And there's the name of my reputation that I hate. "Cole," Nate says sternly. "Remember what we talked about. You're supposed to call adults Mr. or Mrs."

"Or he can call me Tanner," I say, stepping in front of Cole. "Hi, Cole. I'm always happy to meet a fan."

Cole smiles wide at me, showing me a smile that's missing a baby tooth in the front of his mouth. "Hey, where's Ryan?" Adam asks. "I thought he said he was coming with you."

"He's parking the car," Nate replies. "He'll be up in a few minutes." There's a sudden knock at the door. "Or now."

Adam walks over to the door and opens it. "Ryan!" I see Adam's hulking body bend down and I see two arms reach (or almost reach) around his body. "God, it's been forever!"

"I know!" says a hidden voice. "Did you get bigger?"

"A bit," Adam replies with a laugh. "C'mon in!"

Adam opens up his body and standing behind him is a man who appears to be the same age as Nate with somewhat shaggy dark brown hair, an impressive body, light grey eyes, and seems to be about half a foot shorter than Adam. "Tanner, this is Ryan," Adam says. "Ryan, this is Tanner White, my roommate and best friend."

I step over to Ryan and offer my hand. "Nice to meet you, Ryan," I say. "I haven't heard too much about you from Adam."

"Mostly because Adam likes to talk more about Nate than me," Ryan replies with a smile. "Sorry I'm late to the party. I kept circling the block to find a parking spot when one opened up just across the street."

"No worries," I say. "Nate and Cole just got up here."

"Great. You have any beer? Nate and I finally got a break off work and I need to kick back and relax a little."

"Got a few bottles in the fridge. Nate, you want one too?"

"Sounds good," he replies. "You wouldn't happen to have any milk, would you? I want to make sure Cole's getting the calcium."

"I just bought some today specifically for tonight," Adam says. "Fat free, right?"

"Perfect," Nate says. He takes in a deep breath through his nose. "Dinner smells great. Adam, next time you and I head home to visit Mom, Dad, Ryder, and Riley, you're going to cook the meals."

Adam laughs a bit before leading us all into the kitchen and to the table before going to the fridge and pulling out a carton of milk and setting it between Nate and his son. Adam sits at the head of the table with Nate on his right and Cole on his left and Ryan takes a seat to my left while I sit on the other end of the table.

Within a few minutes, we're all eating the food Adam cooked and enjoying conversations with one another. I learn that Ryan works with the Dodgers along with Nate, but as the team doctor instead of being on the marketing team. Cole's going to be starting first grade soon and seems to be really excited for it.

Dinner is quickly devoured, dishes are washed and stored and we move the party into the living room and flip on the TV. Immediately, the channel's set to ESPN, and there are some sports highlights on the screen. It looks like's we're going through top plays and are at number one. The pictures shifts to a caged octagon and two men stand on both sides of the ring.

One is immediately recognizable by his large hulking figure. Adam stands on the left side of the octagon while his opponent, a man who looks like he's a half-foot shorter than Adam, has his face covered in blood and bruises and looks to be on his last leg. Adam, on the other hand, doesn't have a scratch on him and only seems to be sweating a little bit.

Adam charges across the ring toward the man and starts to wind back for a punch. But the man ducks out of the way at the last second, Adam's fist missing him by maybe an inch or two. When it seems like the man's going to come for a counterattack, Adam continues toward the side of the octagon.

He jumps up and plants his large foot on the metal cage, turning himself around as his foot sticks. Adam jumps off the cage and brings his right foot forward, straight for his opponent's face. The man doesn't even have time to react as Adam's foot connects with the side of his jaw.

The man goes flying, blood, sweat, and saliva splashing off his face, and lands on the mat of the octagon with a loud thud. The living room fills with pained moans at seeing the man fall to the mat, unconscious. "I actually felt really bad after the fight ended," Adam says. "I broke the guy's jaw and two of his ribs."

"That's what he gets fighting in the ring with you," Nate says.

"At least he was a good sport about it," Adam continues. "He couldn't talk when I visited him in the hospital, but he managed to write that he'd get at least a good punch in during our next fight." Adam sets his second beer down on the coffee table and falls back into the couch. "So, Tanner. How'd that meeting go this afternoon?"

I fall back into my chair with a dejected sigh. "Horribly," I say. "Coach Barker retired from being head coach of the Kings."

"Really?" Ryan says. "He's only been coaching the team for, like, eight years, right?"

"Yeah, but he's been coaching for almost twenty years now, so I can accept and see why he'd want to retire, but it still hurts. He was a really nice guy and everybody on the team liked him."

"Have Mark and Shawn managed to find a new coach?" Nate says.

"Yeah, they...wait. You know Mr. Presley and Governor Leif?"

"Oh yeah," Ryan says. "Mark and Shawn go way back with us. I remember when the two were having little brawls in my family's backyard when they were kids with my little bro watching them with a smile on his face. It's amazing how far those two have come."

"Wow," I say. "Anyway, yeah, they managed to find a new coach, but...but he's not the coach I want to work with."

"What do you mean?" Adam asks.

"I suggest you cover Cole's ears for this part," I say. Nate takes Cole in his hands and sets him down on his lap before covering his ears with both hands. "The guy's an old high school classmate of mine and is a complete asshole. He just comes into the team meeting room and announces that he's changing the way the team has run for years. My fucking team!

"I'll be damned if I let that jerk and his faggot face take over my team."

I take a long swig from my beer and look back at everyone. "Adam, how about you show me your bedroom really fast?" Nate says, with a bit of force in his voice and taking his hands off Cole's ears.

"Sure, "Adam says, with a look of worry on his face.

Nate and Adam rise off the couch and Nate hands Cole to Ryan before he and Adam head off in the direction of Adam's bedroom, leaving me, Ryan and Cole. I set my beer down on the coffee table and rise from my seat. "I need to go plug in my phone," I say. "I'll be right back."

Ryan just nods once and plays with Cole in his lap. I turn and head for my bedroom, passing by Adam's room as I walk to mine. I get my phone into the charger and start to walk back to the living room when I hear a voice come from Adam's room that makes me stop. "You haven't told him?" says a voice I recognize to be Nate's.

"N-No..." says Adam's voice.


"I'm sorry. I...I just don't know how he would've taken it."

Who would've taken what? Are they talking about me? I lean a bit closer to the door. "I understand not telling him for a few months, Adam. But you've been living with Tanner for almost four years! You couldn't have mentioned to him that I'm gay?"

My breath stops short. Nate' I feel my blood start to boil. "I know I should've told him when I first moved in," Adam says. "But he has this stupid philosophy that makes him think that all men should be completely masculine. I was afraid that if I told him you were gay, it would make him think less of you."

"Has he showed any anger or hatred toward gay people since you've been living with him?"

"I mean, he's said 'fag' a few times, but it wasn't really directed toward anyone and I told him to layoff the word every time too."

There's a soft sigh through the door. "Adam, I know you were scared for me and I really appreciate you looking out for me. But you have to know that Ryan and I are stronger than that. We've been married for ten years and we've gotten our fair share of looks and comments. I don't think one more close-minded person will upset us."

Ryan's gay too? He and Nate are...married?! I feel acid filling my throat and my teeth start to grit together. "Maybe you're right," Adam says. "If Tanner has a problem with you and Ryan being gay, then something's going to have to change. C'mon. We should get back to the living room before Tanner suspects something."

I push off the wall and quickly and quietly make my way back to the living room, feeling my stomach churning and my fingernails digging into my palm. I walk back into the living room, seeing Ryan and Cole haven't moved from the couch, and I fall back into my chair and grab my beer from the table, taking another long drink from it.

Adam and Nate walk back in a few seconds later and fall back into their seats. I see Nate glance at Adam, who nods once. "Tanner," he says, "there's something I need to tell you."

"What?" I say. "That your brother and Ryan here are both faggots?"

Adam's face blanches, but Nate and Ryan's expressions stay much the same. "Yes," Ryan says. "Nate and I have been married for more than ten years now and Cole is our son. And frankly, I don't appreciate your choice of words toward us."

"Too bad," I say. "People like you should know their place in the world, and I think the word 'faggot' is a good reminder that you and Nate over there aren't good in my book. Now, get the hell out of my apartment."

I take another drink from my beer and look back at the muted TV. All of a sudden, I feel a small presence in front of me. I look down and see Cole standing in front of me with an angry look on his face. "Don't make fun of my dads," he says. "I thought you were a lot nicer, but you're just like the man I see hurting people during hockey games."

Cole takes his small hand and balls it into a fist and punches me in the knee. Unfortunately, he hit my knee right on the exact spot doctors hit to test your reflex. My leg lightly kicks forward, but it has enough force to knock Cole off balance and send him back toward the coffee table.

Cole's head hits right on the edge of the coffee table and he falls to the floor. There's a second of silence before Cole sits up and another second before he starts crying at the top of his lungs. Streaming down the side of his face is a fine trail of blood that leads to the spot of his head where it hit the coffee table.

Dear God, I just hurt a kid! I start to stand up to try and calm Cole down, but something that feels like a freight train hits me and sends me flying back. I fall backward in my chair and the beer in my hand sails out and I hear it crash into the wall. My head hits the hardwood floor with a solid smack and it takes me a second for my vision to focus again.

What I see makes my heart stop. Straddling my hips with his large hands on my shoulders isn't Adam, but The Machine. His face is a mask of pure rage and it scares me to death. "YOU HURT MY NEPHEW!! I'LL KILL YOU!! I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU!!"

Adam brings his fist behind his head and I clench my eyes shut and wait for my face to be destroyed. But after a few seconds, I don't feel any pain or hear the sound of my facial bones crunching. I slowly reopen my eyes and see Adam's fist is still in the same spot, but a smaller hand is resting on top of it.

Nate stares down at both of us, his face a look of concern. "Adam, calm down. Hurting Tanner will only make the situation worse."

Adam stays motionless for a few seconds before slowly unclenching his fist. He takes in a deep breath and rises off me. "How is he?" Adam asks Nate.

"He's going to need a stitch or two," Ryan from around the chair, a quietly sobbing Cole near him. "He's more scared than anything."

"C'mon," Nate says. "Let's get him to the hospital and get that cut closed up. Adam, you want to come with us?"

"Absolutely. I'm not leaving Cole's side."

I hear Ryan lift Cole off the floor and I see him walk next to me with Cole in his arms, his head resting on Ryan's shoulder and Ryan pressing a tissue to Cole's head. Ryan glances down at me for a second, contempt in his face, and walks in the direction of the door. Nate and Adam follow behind him and the door closes a few seconds later.

I'm left lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling with my heart racing. I fucking hurt Cole, I almost got punched by The Machine. Thoughts race through my mind, time passing by quickly. By the time I finally get up, it's past 11:00. I quickly pick up the pieces from my shattered beer bottle and get the living room back in order.

Once I throw away the shards of glass, I'm suddenly exhausted. I walk through my apartment and get to my bedroom. I walk in and shut the door behind me and fall into my bed. My hand reaches for my cell phone and I look at the screen. Sitting on it is a single text message from Adam.

'Cole's fine. He needed two stitches thanks to you. I can't fucking believe you, Tanner. You insulted my brother and brother in law, hurt my nephew, and, frankly, insulted me too. I thought you were better than that, but Cole was right. You're the exact same guy off the ice as you are on the ice.

'I'm staying with Ryan and Nate for a while and I'm moving out of the apartment. I can't live with someone who's a close-minded jerk that insults and hurts my family. I'll get my stuff out when you aren't there and I've already paid for half of next month's rent. I swear to God, if you ever get close to my family ever again, Tanner, I'll fucking end you. Find yourself a new roommate and best friend. Goodbye, asshole.'

I stare at the text message in silence for several minutes, reading it over and over again and feeling a tightening pressure in my chest. My body shoots off my bed and my fist flies at the wall, leaving a large round hole in the center of it.



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