Breaking his leg didn't hurt that much.
Nicky had been going after a turnover by Blackburn's forward, lost an edge, and time had slowed down enough for him to know that he was going to hit the boards at a bad angle. Waiting for it to happen had been agonising enough that it was almost a relief when he hit.
The surge of adrenaline masked the pain long enough for him to get to hospital, where they gave him something good and floaty before putting his leg in a cast, giving him a pair of crutches and sending him home.
That was all fine – interesting, even a bit exciting.
What hurt was waking up the next morning with nothing better than paracetamol.
“You've got the weekend to get to grips with your crutches,” his mum said, and Nicky stared at her in horror.
“I can't go to school on crutches,” he said. “You know how much my bag weighs. And there are stairs all over the place.”
“You're not staying home for eight weeks,” she said. “You've got your GCSEs this year.”
When she looked that determined, Nicky knew there was no point arguing.
Nicky made it through the morning mostly by luck. The bell for the end of lunch found him balanced precariously on one crutch as he tried to get his backpack onto both shoulders.
“You need a hand?” someone said, and lifted his backpack enough for him to get his arm through the other strap.
“Thanks,” Nicky said, and turned round to see, oh fuck, Alexander Ovechkin, upper sixth former, star centre of the Altrincham Aces, and person completely oblivious to Nicky's hero-worshipping existence. “Um,” Nicky said.
“Crutches suck,” Alex said. “How'd you break it?”
“Ice hockey,” Nicky said. “I play for-”
“Trafford Tornadoes!” Alex said, looking at him with sudden interest. “I heard one of their guys broke a leg. Didn't know it was you. Didn't know anybody else at this school played.”
Nicky shrugged as best as he could. “It's only under-20s.”
“Not bad for a little guy,” Alex said.
“I'm nearly six feet tall!” Nicky said indignantly, before noticing the smirk on Alex's face.
“Tiny little child,” Alex said, and held out his hand. “Give me your bag.”
“I can carry it,” Nicky said, but Alex just gestured impatiently.
“I have free period. And us hockey guys got to stick together, right?”
Nicky came out of chemistry to find Alex waiting for him. “Bag,” Alex said, and Nicky didn't bother arguing before handing it over.
“Where are you next?” Alex asked.
“PE,” Nicky said. “Last lesson of the day.”
“Cool,” Alex said. “I'm doing A-level PE with him. He trusts me. He'll let us use the weight room for your physio.”
Nicky tried to keep up as Alex headed off, the packed corridor easily parting before him. “I'm not cleared for physio yet.”
Alex looked back and grinned. “Mr. Trotz doesn't know that. You'd rather sit in changing room and read chemistry notes?”
So, while the rest of Nicky's class went off to play rugby league, Nicky followed Alex into the weight room. “Are you planning on working out?” Nicky said. “Because I'm not going to be able to spot you.” He dropped down to sit on a weight bench, and shook his arms out. “Even if I could stand, I think my arms are too worn out. Crutches are hard.”
When he looked up, Alex had a gleam in his eye.
“You're never gonna make it to NIHL with stringy spaghetti arms,” he said.
“I don't have fucking spag-”
Alex ignored him and carried on talking. “Gonna make you a workout programme, for while you can't skate.”
“I've got a workout programme,” Nicky said.
“Not one by me,” Alex said. “I'm great personal trainer.”
“Really,” Nicky said flatly.
“Sure,” Alex said, and laughed at Nicky's obvious disbelief. “No, really, I am! I work evenings at the leisure centre.”
“Okay,” Nicky said dubiously. “But I haven't got my PE kit.”
“You're already wearing jogging bottoms,” Alex said.
“Only good thing about breaking my leg,” Nicky said, not quite following. “Getting to wear jogging bottoms to school.”
“Take off shirt, tie and blazer, and you're ready.”
It took a moment for Nicky to process that, and a moment more for him to get past the fact that Alex Ovechkin was trying to get Nicky's clothes off.
“Come on,” Alex said impatiently, and somehow Nicky was pulling his tie off and unbuttoning his shirt, and then he was half-naked in front of Alex Ovechkin.
“You got good definition,” Alex said approvingly, and Nicky tried not to blush. “Best using weight machines, not free weights,” Alex continued. “Easier to keep stress off your leg that way. Come on.”
And Nicky found himself half-carried over to the pull-down machine, his arm around Alex's shoulders, and Alex's arm around him, his hand on the bare skin at Nicky's waist, and this was just blatantly unfair of the universe.
He spent the next half-hour with Alex fussing around him, adjusting the weights, questioning him about where he was feeling the work, fucking touching him to adjust his position or demonstrate where he should be feeling it. Alex's hand was dry and calloused against Nicky's increasingly warm and damp skin, and finally Alex stepped back.
“Good,” he said, and grinned. “You gonna come back stronger than when you broke.”
Nicky smiled back. “Well, I've blown this season. Might as well get ready to take next season by storm.”
“You got to come skate with me over summer,” Alex said, handing Nicky his shirt. “I'm gonna make you best you've ever been.”
“So is this what you want to do?” Nicky asked, pulling on his shirt. “Coaching, personal training?”
“I'm gonna play pro hockey,” Alex said confidently. “Sign with Storm next season, maybe Europe after.” He grinned. “Maybe NHL.”
“So aiming low, then,” Nicky said, and Alex laughed.
“Work hard enough, you can do anything. You want to be NIHL next season? I can get you there.”
“Really?” Nicky said.
“Sure. I've seen you play, you've got talent. Team's just not pushing you enough.”
“You've seen me play?” Nicky said. “When?”
“I watch baby teams,” Alex said, and pretended to duck the tie Nicky threw at him. “Little tiny baby teams.”
“Half the team's older than you,” Nicky said.
“So they're not pushing you,” Alex said. “They think playing with people so old is pushing you enough, but you can work harder. Do better.” He held his hand out. “What you say? Gonna let me help you?”
Like Nicky could say no to Alexander Ovechkin. Like Nicky would even consider saying no to something that would make his hockey better. “Sure,” he said, and took Alex's hand.
“Good,” Alex said. “Now let's get you home.”
“Shit,” Nicky said, glancing at his watch. “I've got to rush or I'll miss the bus.”
“You can't go on bus with broken leg,” Alex said.
“My parents can't get off work,” Nicky said. “It's not too bad. Besides, it means I actually get a seat for once.”
“I'll drive you,” Alex said.
There were maybe five sixth formers with cars, and permission to park them at school. Of course Alexander Ovechkin was one of them.
The car in question was a 15-year-old Vauxhall Corsa that stank of hockey gear and had an old pair of skates in the passenger footwell.
“Sorry,” Alex said, tossing the skates – and Nicky's backpack – into the back seat to join the pile of jerseys, pads, t-shirts and various detritus. “Careful sitting down. Sometimes the seat falls back.”
The seat managed to stay upright as Nicky carefully lowered himself with Alex's help.
Alex drove exactly as Nicky had expected him to, and he spent most of the journey hoping that, when they inevitably crashed, the seatbelt would work. It seemed that nothing else in the car worked, because the radio just let out a constant low-grade crackle of static.
Finally, Alex pulled up in front of Nicky's house with an alarming squeal from the tyres.
“Thanks,” Nicky said, and tried to open the door. It didn't open. “Um.”
“Yeah, sorry, got to open from outside,” Alex said, but didn't move to let Nicky out. “Thing is.” Alex looked at Nicky, and Nicky felt his breath shortening. Because this felt like- But it couldn't be. Because Alex was upper sixth and a hockey star and Nicky was year 11 and not a hockey star.
But then Alex lunged forward and his mouth was on Nicky's and, oh, fuck, yes.
Nicky didn't even have to think, his hands coming up to hold Alex's head, to angle him better, and they were fucking kissing, he was kissing Alexander Ovechkin, and finally Alex pulled back, grinning hard enough to split his face in two.
“You didn't punch me,” he said gleefully.
Nicky laughed. “No,” he agreed. “No, I didn't.”
“Cool,” Alex said, and leaned back in.