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‘Haha, okay, little Bits. Ready?’

Bitty really doesn’t have time to respond with more than a nod, before he’s hoisted up into Tater’s arms in an unmistakeable bridal carry. Tater shifts around a little, bucking Bitty further up in his arms once or twice for levity and then with a big, wide smile at him that Bitty returns – if a little nervously – steps out onto the ice with the smaller man in his arms.

‘Tater, be careful!’ There’s a chorus of warnings behind them – Marty and his wife, Snowy, and particularly Jack. Tater makes to throw an unconcerned hand up – although, when Bitty grasps his neck in alarm, clearly thinks better of it.

‘Okay, he’s fine,’ Tater calls cheerfully to the half a dozen anxious-looking faces and the collection of perfectly synchronised raised eyebrows he gets in response doesn’t really ease Bitty’s confidence – though it’s touching, all the same, to be the object of so much open concern, especially after worrying about this weekend so much. He seeks out Jack’s furrowed eyes – his boyfriend is tense, one hand on the rink-wall as though braced to run across and intervene (again) and grins quickly, reassuringly at him – I’m fine – before Tater moves away.

‘Better this than you carry me, huh?’ Tater comments cheerfully as he skates slowly, step by step, avoiding Thirdy’s kids with a telltale ease; the pace of his legs is humming under Bitty’s own. ‘No worry – you easy, B. Like carrying a cake!’ he cheers, bouncing Bitty in his arms slightly and he just manages to bite back a yelp. Being picked up is far from an alien feeling, not after his many exertions with the boys back at Samwell, many different pairs of arms hauling him around in celebration or just for the hell of it – all in all, Bitty’s had a pretty good university career as a dumbbell. Not to mention all the times that Jack has lifted him into his arms…

Still, there’s a difference between that and this: being carried in the arms of a happy-go-lucky six-foot Russian who’s apparently adopted him during family weekend. And sure, Tater is a good guy, open and friendly and just a tiny bit zany – okay, a lot – but Bitty can’t help feeling a little too aware of the fact that if he falls, well. It’ll be a hard drop.

Tater, however, doesn’t drop him; presses his hands more firmly into Bitty’s shoulders and under his knees, in fact, meets his eyes, his own crinkled kindly.

‘No worry, B. I have you.’

‘Okay,’ Bitty manages, shrugging. Tater stops on the ice, looks him over, his face gentle.

‘I drop you, B, I am getting murdered by Zimmboni. Help from Marty, Thirdy and George, too. Much blood on ice; slow, painful death. Bury me, no honours. "Here lies Tater, twit and clumsy Bits-dropper." No more hockey.’ He gasps a little, eyes widened comically. ‘No more pie.’

Now that does make Bitty laugh. Tater, it seems, has well and truly taken him under his wing this weekend, eating his pie and slinging an arm around his shoulders, rather in the same way he slung his arms around Jack, as darling and cautious and awkward as he was when he first started with the Falconers and then asking for jam (‘Blueberry, B! Blue! Berry! Please!’). He treats Bitty with such a wonderfully blinding normality that it’s taken his breath away; completely wrenched the carpet back out from under his feet in a way that only the Samwell hockey team and then Jack on his own managed to do before him. He already liked the guy from second impressions, from the behind-the-scenes segments, found something reassuring in the way the man just seemed to shrug off all the chirps sent his way, his eagerness to reach out to the rest of the world through a welcoming window. Add his inclusive, all-compassing attitude towards Jack – always stopping to talk to him, calling him Zimmboni right off the bat – which Jack had been mystified by, but rolled with (‘It’s… different,’ he had admitted to Bitty during a Skype call, embarrassed but clearly pleased about it) – and, well. Bitty’s been all too aware of how terribly Jack’s been missing Shitty and his constant zingers, his reassuring yet somehow respectful way of breaking down Jack’s boundaries. Tater isn’t…unlike him, really.

Still, though, the fact had remained – as much as Bitty resents himself now for jumping to conclusions – that Russia has sadly grown notorious in its attitudes towards gay people, particularly in recent years and he knew Jack had been thinking the same thing, was probably dwelling on it even more than he was. It had made Bitty hold his breath just that little bit too tightly, staring at his phone on the night Jack had come out to the others, not sure what news to expect – no more arm-slinging? No more Zimmboni? Being unable to look Ransom in the eye with the very private knowledge that his hockey hero, his beloved #7 Falconer, wasn’t exactly heroic?

…A breath that he had expelled, with far more relief than he realised, when Jack told him about Tater’s assurances – about Tater being the first one to come across and pat him on the shoulder, mouth full of pie and demands for a dinner invitation, nothing more.

‘He wanted to know why it had to be a secret,’ Jack beamed up at Bitty later, from his computer-screen, ‘he literally asked who would care. He really said that, Bitty. And he wants you to come to the family skate.’

And, well. Frankly, anyone who had ever put such a shimmering, relaxed expression on Jack’s face as the one he wore just then is most certainly a friend of Bitty’s. Honestly, he was never truly ready for the reality of the man that is Alexei Mashkov, someone who, it seems, is constantly smiling – even if his strength, his concentration on the ice, is something else altogether, glazing that warm expression with severity and a very real look that says he’s ready to swing both ways with a bat, never mind a hockey stick. The difference is utterly startling and Bitty’s been very quick to see why Tater’s such a popular player; he takes no bull on the ice and yet his hold on Bitty here – his arms firmly anchored underneath him and the careful, cautious way he skates – tells Bitty that he’s being carried in the arms of the Falconers’ gentle giant. A gentle giant who finishes his pies.

It helps that Tater doesn’t like Kent Parson either: ‘Little blonde rat,’ he had chuntered furiously, ‘next game, I tell him what I think of his haircut.’

‘Spin, B?’ Tater asks then, blithely, dragging Bitty from his thoughts and Bitty immediately clings on to his neck. ‘Okay, here we go…’

He surges forward, picking up speed and Bitty only has time to murmur, ‘Oh, Lord,’ before the world whirls around them. It’s a slower spin with the two of them, but Tater clearly has control of the ice and Bitty just lets everything blur, shutting his eyes and giggling into Tater’s chest. It doesn’t last long and Tater’s control is glorious – he comes to a halt slowly but surely, winking at Bitty whose head is spinning beautifully. A moment later, he finds himself being placed, very gently, back down onto the rink and they grasp each other’s hands to steady themselves, panting and breathless and grinning.

‘Too much pie.’ Tater looks delightedly unapologetic of the fact, seizing Bitty’s other hand and they both lean backwards a little, lazily supporting one another as they skate slowly, in a circle. ‘Can’t go so quick today.’

‘That was a good spin, though,’ Bitty compliments; Tater shrugs, modest.

‘Started off figure skating,’ he explains and Bitty blinks, utterly astounded. ‘Then went into hockey – more me. But Mom, she taught me many tricks. Oh!’ he hunches forward, suddenly struck, ‘I can introduce you one day, B – she very good, like you. Zimmboni, he once showed me pictures.’

‘Oh, Lord!’ Bitty gasps, torn between flattered and downright horrified but Tater simply beams.

‘He talk about you all the time now,’ he winks, looking frankly delighted. ‘You have him lovestruck, B. Love. Struck. So incredibly cute. He has heart-eyes in his heart-eyes - aaaaaaaayyyy, Zimmboni!’

He raises his voice across the rink at that last part to give Jack a huge wink and Bitty has to muffle his terrified giggle in his shoulder because Jack, standing with Marty and Thirdy, is a solid pillar of Hell No; his eyes, far from carrying romanticised vital organs, are piercing as glass, firmly fixed upon them and Bitty flushes at the obvious lingering. Protectiveness – it’s something that Jack can’t seem to shake, even now and it’s something that Bitty can’t quite shake liking.

It’s nice to know someone’s got your back, after all.

‘Little Bits,’ Tater says suddenly, looking serious, like a curtain switching from one scene to another as he swoops back around and Bitty swallows; wonders, from that lowered tone if this is the look-after-Jack-or-we’ll-kill-you talk he’s been anticipating. ‘I crazy guy. I know this. No, I am,’ he adds, as Bitty begins to feebly protest; he was raised with good Southern manners, after all. ‘I crazy, but people – they like me. Hard to slow down, sometimes,’ he admits then, with a shrug and Bitty blinks, listens, as they relink hands and start going counter-clockwise. ‘This job? Hard work. Not just on ice – in relationships. You know this.’

Bitty nods slowly, unsure where this is going. ‘No, I know, Tater. It’s…hm.’ He focuses on their joined hands, feeling as though he’s about to shed a skin by saying this out loud. ‘It’s not been easy, I have to admit.’

‘Definite,’ Tater agrees. ‘Okay, so – hard to put in extra-hard work, keeping someone else happy, so on my own. Is fine,’ he shrugs, and it doesn’t seem like a lie. ‘Good to be alone sometimes, no? No fuss, no bother – can leave toilet seat up. Good to be yourself.’

‘Well…’ Different strokes for different folks, as far as Bitty’s concerned, although he’d love to meet the singularly talented individual who may, one day, be able to keep up with the man in front of him. ‘You’re not wrong.’

Jack, though,’ Tater turns them so they’re looking directly at him and Bitty bites his lip at the sight of his boyfriend, arms folded and going nowhere. Bitty truly hopes it isn’t envy that Jack’s feeling right now, although he can’t deny the fact that that idea makes him feel just a little excitable on its own – dating, it seems, has made him just a little bit scandalous.

‘Jack is – very serious at times, you know?’ Tater muses, ‘Is good,’ he adds hastily, looking worried for the first time, as though afraid he’s caused offence – but honestly, he’s only just scratched the surface there and it’s true, so Bitty only shrugs, smiling reassuringly. ‘He good on ice, so good, he has your back. But he very… He is worrier, okay? He cares so much – so, he worry. He needs someone. Needs you,’ he adds with a gentle squeeze of Bitty’s fingers that matches the squeeze of laughter lines at the corners of his eyes and Bitty really, really doesn’t know what to say.

‘I…’ He swallows, aware that he’s just been given a solid blessing by a leading NHL player. ‘Thanks, Tater.’

Tater chuckles softly, before pulling him forward on his skates and enveloping him in a massive bear-hug right there on the ice. Bitty returns it, realising his hands are shaking a little, swallowing hard.

He’s been keeping this part of himself closed off from so many people; from his family for one, devout Georgian church-goers every single one, who still don’t know about his and Jack’s exact relationship. He’s endured years of taunts, of bullying, comments in school hallways from people who sensed who and what he was, even if he never said it aloud. His night in the utility closet still haunts him occasionally, in the evenings where he can’t sleep for the memory of taunting laughter as it faded away on the other side of the door, leaving him alone in the dark. He and Jack haven’t been able to hold hands down the street like a normal couple, not unless they want a media storm to follow.

...And coming here, away from the safety of the Haus, well. Even with the assurances and acceptance of at least most of the team, even with the knowledge that there would be wives and partners and children: Bitty hadn’t been able to deny, even to himself, that it had still felt quite alarming.

They don’t need permission to be together, he and Jack, but all the same, it feels like some sort of satisfied tick off a list, being held in Tater’s arms like this, completely secure, with nothing less than supportive intent. He rubs his face roughly with one hand and Tater reaches up to ruffle his hair.

‘Tater, are you torturing him?’ someone yells across – it may be Poots, or Snowy, Bitty can’t quite tell. Tater yells back something that sounds incredibly rude in his mother tongue and there’s a burst of laughter from the edge of the rink, scattered applause as he and Bitty separate.

‘You worried I was right-wing Russian?’ he asks, very gently, with a glance at Bitty’s face, ‘Not accepting? Is why I came over here for hockey,’ he explains, as if Bitty’s suddenly guilty expression, his crimson cheeks and inhaled breath to feebly protest is all the answer he needs, ‘Mom and Dad’s parents – too severe, okay? Too,’ he makes a shape in the air with his palms, trying to find the right word, ‘Tight. Not tranquil. Very annoying; no thanks. So I left,’ he shrugs, like moving from his home country thousands of miles across the world was no big deal. ‘Better here; I’m get to hang with these guys. Now, I eat your pies and hang with you too!’ He gives Bitty a little nudge; nods over to Jack.

‘You relax him,’ he tells Bitty. ‘You, little Bits, you relax Zimmboni. He take everything waaaaaaaay,’ he punctuates this with a sudden, moonwalking slide backwards and a single, nifty spin on the ice, finishing with jazz-hands that Bitty can’t help but applaud, ‘too seriously. Good to see. Anyway, he look ready to come and get you,’ he adds blithely and turning, Bitty can see that he’s not far wrong – the whole rink might burn up with the speed in which Jack looks prepared to skate across to them, ‘So here, one more carry!’

He scoops Bitty up once again and this time, Bitty hangs on readily, beaming at Tater as he’s skated back across towards his boyfriend, feeling rather like a prince being transported inside a big-hearted chariot and so very, very safe.

‘Having fun?’ Jack asks, arms folded as they skate in to join him and Bitty meets his eyes, firm on his.

Are you okay?

I’m marvellous, honey.

‘All yours, Zimmboni!’ Tater declares and Bitty gives a yelp as he’s tossed – then caught securely – by Jack’s own strong arms. Jack’s face is contorted; he looks disapproving, but also like he wants to laugh as Tater ruffles Bitty’s hair.

‘Love this boy, Zimmboni. Take care of him, right?’ he turns to Jack, points his index finger at him, his chestnut eyes suddenly stern as he leans close, the merest flash of something from his time on the ice suddenly crossing his face. ‘You do not – B comes with me, cooks for me instead. I give him spare room and lots and lots of butter. You got that, Zimmboni?’

‘I got you, Tater,’ Jack proclaims calmly, meeting his team-mate’s eyes, his beautiful, blue ones as sharp as arrows and Tater nods, apparently satisfied.

‘I know he is telling truth,’ he adds, slightly more mournfully to Bitty, as Jack kisses the top of his hair. ‘I told you, he is good guy. Too good, though, I know this. So, no extra pies for me; my spare room, very empty. But offer there, B,’ he winks at Bitty, takes his hand and squeezes it. ‘Always offer there, if you need it.’

Jack hums, faux-disapproving as Bitty stretches happily in his arms, genuinely touched.

‘There’s always going to be extra pies for you, Tater,’ he promises and it’s so worth it – and extremely flattering – to see the dreamy, awestruck look that comes over the Russian’s face, lighting up those warm, welcoming features even more. Jack even bursts out laughing as his team-mate bends his head and presses the most reverent of kisses to Bitty’s knuckles.

‘Is the right answer! Bravo!’ He reaches up and grasps a grinning Jack’s neck briefly. ‘You great boys! Okay, question, B – you show me, how I do double axel jump? Can land right on Parson, next Aces game!’

*