As Nico stood under the pounding spray, he carefully avoided stupid English idioms like drowning his sorrows. He was pretty sure that meant alcohol, not hot water. But he had to admit that this was probably his last chance. He’d underperformed for two years. If he didn’t step up this year, the Fuel would lowball him and he’d probably have no choice but to accept. No other team was going to offer-sheet him since they’d have to give up draft pics. If the Fuel didn’t offer, he might be able to sign elsewhere, but it would be humiliating not to get a qualifying offer. He was supposed to be this stupid team’s shining star, and he knew it.
More humiliating than having the team trade him a handler, though? A handler who was—and Nico felt guilty for thinking this, but it was true—not worth what they’d traded to get him? Like, he was sure Wright was a decent person. Nico had done some preliminary googling before he realized Ryan was supposed to be his… crutch. He was outspoken and kind and participated in all kinds of charitable causes. No one seemed to have anything negative to say about him outside of his mediocre on-ice skills.
Then John Rees had called Nico in for a meeting and told him all about the new guy they were bringing in and how they hoped they’d be friends and he’d be a great listener if Nico ever felt like talking to someone. After all, Wright had gone to college, so he had life experience—
Okay, no, he couldn’t do another round on the bike, no matter how his muscles were twitching with thwarted anger. Training camp started tomorrow; he needed to let that go. His inability to keep his shit together was what got him into this whole mess. He needed to prove he was past that.
Which would be a challenge, since he still wasn’t sure what was making him choke.
Nico slammed the faucet off a little harder than necessary and grabbed his towel. A vigorous scrub over his face and hair would have to suffice to take out the remnants of his irritation.
He wrapped another towel around his waist and went back to the locker room, head ducked as he continued to dry his hair with the first towel. He probably had some video left on his tablet from last season. He could distract himself with that while he tried to climb out of this bad-mood spiral. At least it would be productive. He could pinpoint where he was making mistakes—
He walked straight into a wall where there shouldn’t be one and dropped the towel in his hand.
Only, it wasn’t a wall that he’d run into. It was Ryan Wright, who was standing in front of him in basketball shorts and a brand-new Fuel T-shirt, blinking. He was shorter than Nico expected, maybe 172 centimeters—definitely shy of his official 5’9”—with an open, friendly face and brown hair and eyes.
Nico would have been surprised he hadn’t knocked the guy over—Nico had half a foot on him and had spent the off-season gaining muscle mass and apparently becoming an unwitting Instagram celebrity—but the wall comparison also wasn’t totally inaccurate.
“Um,” he said.
Why did he have to run into the guy who was hopefully not his team-approved gigolo while he was naked? He didn’t deserve this.
“Hey,” Wright said, breaking into a textbook professional smile. “Sorry, I was just giving myself a tour. Didn’t expect anyone to be in here.”
“Me neither.” Especially not you.
“I’m Ryan.” He stuck out his hand.
Nico looked at it. It would be rude not to shake it, but the towel situation was precarious. Awkwardly, he grabbed the towel around his waist with his left hand and shook with the right. “I know.”
Would Wright get out of his way now?
Apparently realizing he was blocking the doorway, Wright moved back so Nico could push past him. Nico did so, praying that he was still red from his shower. Wright didn’t need to know that his mere presence pissed Nico off, made his skin feel hot and his shoulders twitchy. Nobody needed to know that. It was bad enough that Yorkie had figured it out.
“You’re not going to introduce yourself?” Wright said, his voice light like a tease.
Nico sat on the bench and looked up, half a breath away from baring his teeth like an animal. He knew he was being a jerk, but he couldn’t bring himself to make friends right now, not with the fires of anger and humiliation burning in his gut. “I was gonna put on some pants first, if that’s okay with you.”
So, fine. That was ruder than he meant to be. His brain was not programmed for social niceties when he was showering. Or at any other time, honestly.
Infuriatingly, Wright only grinned. “It’s cool. Everyone knows who you are anyway.”
Yeah. The First Overall Failure. Nico dropped his towel and yanked on a pair of boxers.
When Nico didn’t say anything else, Wright cleared his throat. “So, Yorkie mentioned he talked to you? I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot.”
Nico’s brain took a hard left turn at getting off, which derailed him until he parsed the rest of the idiom. Stupid English. “Oh?” he said frostily. “Let me guess—you want to be friends.”
Wright grimaced. “I guess Rees gave you the talk too, huh?”
Fuck. Rees had actually asked Wright to be Nico’s buddy. Fantastic. “I’m pretty sure he cannot contractually force us to spend time together outside of hockey.” Thank God.
Wright looked pissed. Whatever. It wasn’t Nico’s problem if the new guy couldn’t do what Rees wanted him to.
“Look, all I ever wanted to do was play hockey. Nobody came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Ryan, do you want to leave the team you love and go be a security blanket for a guy who clearly doesn’t want you there? Oh and by the way, everyone knows you’re not there to play hockey.’” He sounded as bitter and frustrated as Nico felt.
And he was right. Everyone knew Wright was there for Nico. As Nico’s security blanket. That just made everything worse. It felt like the whole league was just waiting for him to lose it.
Nico shut his eyes and took a deep breath, hoping to center himself the way his mom had taught him when he used to get impatient during chess matches. Count to ten, Kolya. Look at the board. Look at the pieces. If he calmed down and tried to evaluate the situation objectively before he spoke, he was less likely to say something he’d regret.
“Okay. So I don’t want you here. You don’t want to be here. Probably best if we just stay out of each other’s way, then.”
Wright watched him for a long moment, brows slightly furrowed in an expression Nico couldn’t interpret. Then he nodded slowly. “Yeah, probably a good idea. We wouldn’t want people to talk.”
Nico understood that by people, he meant the media. And no, neither one of them particularly needed this to become a story. “No.”
Wright said nothing, so Nico stood and kept dressing. He was uncomfortably aware of Wright’s eyes on him. Assessing him. For the first time in a long time, he felt naked in the locker room.
Once again dressed in shirt and pants, Nico looked over to find Wright still staring.
“Did you need something?” Wright snorted and shook his head. “Not from you. See you around, Kirschbaum!”