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there's a cold cold shiver when I touch your skin (if it feels this good it's gotta be a sin)

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Providence @ Baltimore. Final: Baltimore 0 Providence 2.

“Don’t get cocky there’s still an entire season left to go,” Coach had warned when they had started celebrating in the locker room after their first victory of the season. It had also been the first game of the season, and premature celebration was hard to contain. They had ended with a Stanley Cup championship only months before and they were all still riding that high. Then Jack had almost earned himself a Hat Trick, and Dustin had a shutout. And by 10 past midnight the entire team was three sheets to the wind with victory singing in their blood stronger than any alcohol could ever match in a rented house along the Chesapeake Bay.

The world was tilting a little, everything the slightest bit off-kilter in a way that told Dustin that the alcohol was making a valiant attempt to overthrow victory, and he should probably put down the beer in his hand and switch it out for water. He took another sip and told that voice that he had a shutout on his first game after winning the Stanley Cup and this was the closest he would ever come to divinity.

“Who is winning?”

Dustin stumbled as a solid weight settled itself hard across his shoulders, his knees buckling before he caught himself and adjusted to accommodate Tater’s arm slung casually across his shoulders. He didn’t need to turn his head to know who it was. He would recognize the warmth of Tater pressing against his side through whatever haze of drugs or alcohol he could put himself through.

Or maybe it was just the accent. That probably made more sense.

“Winning what?”

Tater’s laugh was something to behold. He laughed with his whole body, head tilted back and mouth open wide as he all but howled. The movement jostled Dustin, but he leaned harder into Tater to keep himself from tipping over.

“You are very drunk, Snowy,” Tater accused.

Dustin might have had a rebuttal, in fact he was certain he had one. And it would have been devastatingly clever, had Tater not pitched forward under his own weight, his feet carrying him into Dustin’s side. Dustin cursed under a laugh, throwing his arms out to hold his much larger friend steady and keep them both upright as his hip slammed against the edge of a folding table. Cups overturned and fell off the floor and were quickly followed by a chorus of cursing and a few ping pong balls raining down on them as Dustin clutched Tater’s shaking shoulders.

Tater’s face was half buried in Dustin’s neck, breath coming in short puffs as he giggled against his skin.

“I’m winning man, don’t fuck me up!” Poots’s angry glare was just visible over the top of the top of Tater’s hair.

“Poots not winning!” Tater declared, straightening back up and turning to point an accusatory finger at the table of what Dustin assumed was beer pong happening next to them. When had that game even started? Had he been watching it?

Maybe he was a little too far gone.

Maybe he needed another beer.

“Damn straight he’s not,” Thirdy agreed, smirking as he threw another ball at the cups. He whooped in victory and Poots groaned, but Dustin hadn’t been able to follow the arch of the ball.

“Thirdy is winning,” Tater told him, his voice somehow very low and yet incredibly loud in the already loud room. Dustin took a long moment to realize it was because Tater was practically breathing in his ear.

“I got that, thanks.”

“Of course,” Tater told him seriously, and despite Dustin’s best efforts -comically weakened by the amount of alcohol he had consumed- he found himself giggling.

“Oh shit, where’s my beer?” He was still giggling, quiet little hiccuping breaths as he checked both hands and realized that he had misplaced his drink at some point. Around them the rest of the team crammed into the basement were hollering in a cacophony of victory and defeat over a game Dustin was not in any way paying attention to.

“I get you another one,” Tater assured him solemnly, patting him on the shoulder with one of his giant hands before disappearing back into the throng of people crowded around the beer pong table.

“Thanks big guy!” Dustin called after him. He gave a wave at Tater’s retreating form even though he had already turned his back.

When Dustin turned back around, there was a woman standing only a few inches from his face. Had his reflexes been working in any semblance of proper order he might have jumped.

“Hello,” he said instead.

She smiled, and through the alcohol buzzing in his head and the exhaustion tugging at his muscles he thought she had a very pretty smile. “Hi,” she said back. And then she was talking at him, her words coming at him a little too fast for him to fully process, but the sentiment was all the same. She was praising his work for the night and telling him how impressed she was by the second save and how number 33 of Baltimore was an asshole. It was everything he had already been told fifty times that night by a hundred other people he had never met before. She was nice and very sweet and he appreciated the praise but he didn’t want to be around fans tonight. Tonight was about the team and he really wished Tater would come back-

And then she was shifting closer as someone passed, pressing her chest flush against his and her delicate hands were resting along the belt loops of his jeans. She turned her head, a curtain of silky black hair falling to the side and brushing along his collarbone as she pretended to be interested in the person passing behind her.

It was a deliberate move, and Dustin was embarrassed he took so long to realize what was happening. Late was better than never however, and he wound one arm around her slender waist and he wanted to breathe in the way she laughed. Her eyes were bright and wide and relieved at his late arrival to her invitation. Her lips were colorful and full and curved prettily around her demure laugh and Dustin felt the exhaustion in his bones begin lighten at the potential in front of him.

He was tired but sleep could wait its turn.

The room was loud and leaning in to speak to her was such a natural move he didn’t even have to think twice before pressing his mouth to the curve of her ear. There was a proposition on the tip of his tongue but before he could offer it up he was being jerked backwards by his hips.

He wasn’t sure if it was him or her that squeaked and he thought it might have been both. She teetered on her heels and he was fumbling for balance as the grip around his waist tightened.

“Fuck!” Dustin hissed as he tried to right himself but found the movement unnecessary as he was held firmly in place by a thick arm around his midsection. When he straightened up he found himself pulled flush back against a familiar solid structure.

“What the fuck?” He tilted his head back and found Tater’s big brown eyes staring down at him. “Tater what are you doing?”

“You start to fall, I stop,” Tater explained helpfully. His grin was taking up half his face and a piece of his hair had flipped forward onto his forehead.

“You’re the one who disbalanced me, uh...unbalanced me. I mean. Fuck.”

Behind them someone was laughing and Dustin thought it might have been at him.

“Shut up!” He snapped just to be safe, tilting his head back so he could glare over Tater’s shoulder at whichever one of his piece of shit teammates didn’t appreciate his English.

Tater’s laugh rumbled against his shoulder blades, sending the vibrations down his spine. He was still being held firmly in place and trying to move against his restraints seemed unnecessary. He let his head flop to the other side, his forehead pressed against Tater’s jaw as he asked. “Where’s my beer?”

Tater shook his head and the catch and scratch of Tater’s stubble against his temple was a prickly sort of pain that sent an unfamiliar shock down his neck. He did not move.

“You’re too much drunk,” Tater chastised. “No more.”

Dustin did not squawk when he was drunk, no matter what his teammates tried to tell him. The noise he made was indignant and definitely not bird like. “You don’t tell me what to fucking do.” For the first time since his capture he turned his eyes back to the woman with the soft hips and the shiny hair. She was still smiling that same bright white smile but Dustin thought there was a crease between her eyebrows that hadn’t been there before.

He was too hot. The weather was too warm for October and there were too many people in the room and Tater’s body heat had to run ten degrees hotter than a normal human. His face was burning as he finally began to struggle in Tater’s grip. “I got a fucking shut out man, let me go.”

The gasp that shook Tater’s chest was enough to make Dustin freeze and in that moment of weakness Tater’s other arm came around so he was being bear hugged from behind. “You did!” Tater exclaimed like he had only just remembered. “Everyone!” Tater's voice boomed, loud enough to be heard in the next room over the music and chatter and laughter. Dustin flinched at the sound, muttering as many curses as he could think at Tater, before he was unexpectedly lifted an inch off the ground in Tater’s excitement.

“Fuck, put me down!”

“Best goalie in all NHL! This one!”

There was a resounding cry from around the house, a mixture of shouted agreement and laughing at either Dustin or Tater or most likely both at once. Despite his struggle to get free and the chance of getting laid that was quietly slipping out of the room and down the hall, Dustin couldn’t help but laugh along as his feet found the ground once again.

“You’re damn fucking right!” He screamed back to the sound of more laughter.

“Tater, let Snowy go. He’s not your cat.”

“He makes so nice to pet though!” Tater emphasized the point by running one hand through Dustin’s hair, thick fingers dragging across his scalp and no doubt making his hair look like even more of a mess than it had before. The sensation sent sparks down his neck again, a strange ticklish sensation he tried to shake off.

“I’m not a cat!”

“No, too loud to be cat.”

Tater released him suddenly and Dustin wobbled on his feet, catching the edge of the countertop as he struggled to stay upright. The clock on the wall was trying desperately to tell him the time, but the hands were swimming in the sea of white and Dustin couldn’t slow his head down enough to read it.

“You doing okay, Snowy?”

He blinked a few times and focused in on Jack’s face, peering at him through narrowed eyes from hardly a foot away.

“I’m fan-fucking-tastic Jackie, how are you?”

Jack laughed, and Dustin thought when he laughed it was the complete opposite of Tater, all withheld and soft. “I’m doing good.”

“I need another beer,” Dustin told him, pointing at him emphatically before he turned to try to locate the alcohol. He figured he just needed another drink to stop the world from shifting around so much.

“Uh-“

“You going to drink yourself dead!” Tater’s arms were around him again, bringing everything back to a grinding halt. He made a noise of protest, but couldn’t stop the way he sunk back against Tater’s chest. The world seemed a little more steady with Tater’s arms wrapped around him.

“I’m not gonna drink myself dead.”

“I’m thinking you are.”

“What are you gonna do about it?” It was an unnecessary question, as Tater’s grip on him was iron tight and definitely not going anywhere.

“I’m thinking is time for sleeping.”

“What-“

Dustin did not get a chance to properly voice his question as he suddenly found himself no longer on the ground.

Dustin was not a small man. According to his latest statistics sheet he was 5’11” and a solid 175 lbs and while Tater had taken him off his feet only minutes earlier, being lifted fully into the air was not a happenstance he was accustomed to.

“Holy fucking shit Tater put me down now!”

The surrounding room exploded into a clamor of noise and commotion as Tater unceremoniously tossed Dustin over his shoulder.

“Jesus, get a room!”

“Holy fuck!”

“He’s our starting goalie Tater, you can’t break him until after the season’s over!”

“Everyone shut the fuck up and get me down!” Dustin hissed. The wind had been knocked out of him from where Tater’s shoulder was digging into his stomach. His hands scrambled desperately for purchase along Tater’s back as Tater curled one arm around his hips and another over his thigh to hold him in place.

Out of the confusion of the bright and swirling room he spotted Thirdy and Marty leaning against the wall. Thirdy had his arms crossed, shaking his head, and Marty was bent over double, nearly crying with laughter.

Dustin tried to straighten himself out but found himself pitching dangerously forward towards the floor. He swore again, but was saved from colliding face first into the ground by Jack’s sudden reappearance.

“Are you okay?” Jack gripped his shoulders, trying to hold him steady from where he was still slung over Tater’s shoulder. His voice was tight, and it took Dustin a moment to realize Jack was trying not to laugh, his jaw tense and jumping with the effort.

“Fuck you!” But it came out on a helpless laugh, a hiccup breaking up the sound and making him only laugh harder.

“Oh shit, you young people are ridiculous. I’m going to bed,” Thirdy announced, pulling out his phone as he made his retreat.

“Bed!” Tater spun suddenly and Dustin might have squawked that time as he was forced to let go of Jack and was whirled around in the air to face the other direction. “That’s what we were doing!”

Dustin finally got a grip on Tater’s shirt and turned his head just in time to see the still fully sober Jack dissolve into hysterics against the counter.

Someone wolf whistled as Tater turned and headed towards the next room.

“Don’t drop him!”

“Please don’t break the goalie in general!”

“Use protection!”

Dustin let out a valiant yell as he tried to grip the side of the doorway, but had to relent as it slipped through his grasp.

Someone yelled goodnight, and Dustin might have told them to go fuck themselves, but he couldn’t fully confirm it.

One moment he was staring at the floor and on the next blink he was falling through the air, a gasp leaving him as his back slammed into a mattress. He had no idea whose room he was in, or if he had even claimed a room before the party had begun. Despite his earlier efforts to escape back to their friends, the moment his body sunk into the mattress he knew he had lost.

“Fuck man, where are we?” He asked of Tater’s form, shifting in the darkness on the other side of the bed. Dustin tried to sit up, but quickly gave up on that monumental endeavour to instead shift himself further up the bed. He let out a sigh as he buried his nose in a pillow.

Across the room he heard Tater stop moving. “Baltimore.”

Dustin snorted, but didn’t elaborate.

The entire bed shifted and Dustin grunted as Tater’s weight forced him closer to the middle. Dustin’s back was to him, but he could still feel the body heat radiating off of his current bed partner. He wouldn’t admit it sober, but he might have scooted back a little further to feel it pressed up against his back. How was it so cold by the bay?

“Hey!” Dustin’s eyes snapped open. The nightstand was shifting back a forth. “I was gonna get laid tonight. You fucking cock blocked me you douche.”

Tater’s laugh was softer than it had been in the other room, a low rumbling sound barely louder than the noise beginning to die off downstairs. “You’re dead drunk. Would have embarrassed yourself. Would be funny, but I save you. I’m good friend.”

Dusin snorted again and said, “Fuck you,” because he really didn’t have much more of a comeback for that.

Tater was quiet for so long that Dustin had thought he had fallen asleep and found himself with one foot firmly in unconsciousness when Tater spoke again.

“Are you mad?”

Dustin’s head was foggy with sleep and alcohol and the inevitable adrenaline crash and he couldn’t fully process Tater’s train of thought. So he answered with the most honest answer he could think of.

“Never at you, man.”

.....

It felt like Dustin had only just closed his eyes when he was blinking them open to the early morning sunrays of dawn. He twisted his neck away from the light with a groan and slowly began to register his surroundings. The bed was definitely not the one he had claimed early the day before, but it didn’t really matter. What did matter, was the fact that he was not alone in the bed.

For a brief moment he remembered dark lipstick and hazel eyes smiling up at him before he realized the body sprawling half across his was not light enough to be the woman from the night before.

“Fuck man, you weigh like a million pounds.” He shoved with his free arm at Tater until his burden finally groaned and rolled over. It wasn’t the first time he and Tater had passed out in the same bed, and presumably it wouldn’t be the last. He had learned the first year into his friendship with Tater that he was a cuddler, and pushing him off with a few insults was usually the best course of action.

With another shove for good measure Dustin finally swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stretched as he made his way back out into the hallway. He was still in his clothes from the night before and his head was pounding and the light was too bright, but he needed to piss so all of that could wait.

He made it to the bathroom with little incident and tried his best not to make eye contact with his own bloodshot gaze in the mirror. Even in the briefest of glimpses he could see the bags under his eyes and wasn’t looking forward to the six-hour bus ride back to Providence.

He was still drying his hands on his shirt with one hand and closing the door behind him when he heard someone talking from what he thought was the direction of the kitchen.

There was a very specific rule about this kind of thing, about hearing what you weren’t supposed to, or maybe it was about hearing what you needed to, at the exact moment it needed to happen. Occam’s Rule or Murphey’s Razer or possibly something else entirely. The name wasn’t important, what was important was Dustin was only half awake and had one hand on the doorknob of the bathroom when he heard one of the rookies speak.

“So what’s up with Snowy and Tater?”

Dustin hesitated. It wasn’t that strange of a question, there was nothing nefarious or particularly hostile about the about it, but something deep in Dustin’s stomach suddenly felt heavy.

It was Poots who answered, his laugh just this side of awkward before he answered. “They’re always like that, at least a little.” There was a clink as something moved on the table. “But it’s a lot more, uh, intense, when they’re drinking.”

“Snowy didn’t strike me as an affectionate drunk.”

“Only if it’s Tater I guess.”

It took Dustin a minute to find the muscle memory to move. He made it halfway down the hall before he realized he was heading back to Tater’s room, not his own. For a moment he had every intention of simply falling back asleep where he had woken up before he even remembered he had his own room to do that.

He changed course and pretended the dampness in his palms was from his inability to completely dry them and nothing else. Because there was no other reason. Nothing Poots or the rookie -Riley, he reminded himself silently- had been particularly troubling or rude. It was nothing he and everyone else on the team didn’t already know.

He and Tater were friends. They’d been close since the first day Tater had joined the team.

There was nothing strange about it.

An hour later when he bypassed the empty seat next to Tater on the bus to sit with Marty instead, no one mentioned it. He could feel the look Tater sent him, the way he tried to catch his eye.

He didn’t look up.

_X_ _X_ _X_

Dustin didn’t mind roadies.

Even if sometimes it felt like he lived his life half on a bus and half in a different hotel room every night, there was still something about being on the road. It always seemed to put everything just a little bit more into perspective, to remind him maybe of how big the world really was.

Maybe he just didn’t like Providence that much. It was difficult to tell.

The game against Milwaukee wasn’t until the following night, but their flight had been moved up a day, giving the Falconers almost 24 hours loose in Wisconsin before Coach wrangled them all back in. Half the team had immediately headed towards the nearest bar, but Dustin had decided the stay behind. The team was long past needing to hear an excuse for why he wanted to be alone, after three years of never getting a straight answer everyone had just about given up on trying to understand.

The coffee shop he had found had been a local chain, advertising three other locations within driving distance, and the music had been quiet and none of the staff had been hockey fans so he had gone unnoticed even in the nearly empty establishment. It wasn’t quite Montana, but Wisconsin was almost close enough that he a bit felt nostalgic for home.

Dustin was still somewhat lost in that vague sense of melancholy, caught between considering calling his parents with nothing really to say and just going to bed at the completely respectable hour of 7 PM when he opened the door to his hotel room. He had made it approximately three steps into the room before he was being violently tackled sideways.

There was a scream in his ear and another scream that may have been him as he was shoved bodily into the hotel mattress. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how dirty the comforter probably was - his mother had sent him that Dateline special - and having his mouth shoved directly into one was not how he wanted to begin his week.

“SNOWY!” Tater, because of course it was Tater, was screaming in his ear as he rolled them over on the bed, giving Dustin a brief breath of clean air before he was shoved back into the mattress, teetering dangerously close to the edge now. There was the distinct smell of alcohol wafting off of Tater’s person. “I MISS YOU!”

“We just got off the plane together like six hours ago, you giant fucking asshole,” Dustin snarled, moving his lips as much as he dared against the itchy fabric.

“Ah,” Tater sighed dramatically as he sat up, allowing Dustin to turn on his side and take a gasping breath. For the first time he realized they weren’t alone in the room. He managed to free one hand just enough to flip Jack off where he sat grinning at him from the other bed.

“Is not same,” Tater told him in a mournful tone. “I miss you.”

“Okay, okay,” Dustin managed to groan out, face still smashed against the bedspread. “I missed you too you fucking yeti, now get the fuck off of me.”

Tater relented, but only partially. When he finally untangled his massive arms from around Dustin, he took the opportunity to lean back on his elbows, trapping Dustin’s legs on the bed under him. Dustin groaned his complaint but knew better than to expect it to help him.

“The fuck are you doing here?” Dustin asked of Jack, reaching up above his head to drag a pillow closer. If he was going to be trapped he was at least going to be comfortable.

“Snowy, always so friendly. Might want to turn it down. Seem too interested.”

Dustin flipped Tater off with one hand, earning another round of laughter that he could feel the vibrations of through his calves. “Stop fucking jostling me.” Before the words were even out of his mouth he knew what the result would be, and braced himself with little avail as Tater violently shook them both back and forth. “Motherfucker!”

In a moment in either brilliance or stupidity Dustin ripped the pillow out from under his head and smacked Tater with it.

On the other side of the room Jack laughed, one hand clutching his chest. “Tater invited me.”

“Jack is my friend,” Tater told Dustin as he wrestled for control of the pillow. “He sitting in own room alone. Very sad. Lowers moral.”

“I’m not sad.”

“Yes you are, Jack,” Tater continued as he managed to secure the pillow from Dustin and proceeded to shove it into his face, forcing him back down onto the bed. “Very sad.”

“FUCK!” Dustin fought for control again, flailing his arms as he tried to blindly grab in the direction of Tater’s face.

Jack’s voice was muffled through a layer of thin cotton and stuffing as it pressed down on Dustin’s face. “And, me sitting alone by myself is worse than me watching you murder our starting goalie?”

“I not murder Snowy.” Tater loosened the pressure he was trying to suffocate Dustin with and pulled back. “Who else going to goalie?”

Dustin took a gasping breath and braced his hands on the pillow, pushing back against Tater as hard as he could. Tater’s face was obscured by the pillow, but he could feel the resistance against his hands. He felt a bit like a child, pushing with a serious amount of effort while he knew Tater was barely humoring him with it.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jack tilt his head like he was considering the question. “Think maybe we could convince the Serpent's to trade with us? Harlow was pretty great last season.”

Without warning the pressure Dustin was fighting against disappeared and he fumbled with the pillow. When it fell away he could see Tater again, but his attention was trained on Jack. “You think we get Harlow?”

Jack shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”

“Harrlow is a fucking amatur!” The shout was possibly a little louder than it should have been, as emphasized by the knock on the other side of the wall. Jack and Tater each dissolved into their own forms of hysterics, Tater cackling loud enough that Dustin was certain they were going to receive a noise complaint, and Jack with his slightly louder than usual snickers. He grabbed the discarded pillow and lobbed it at Jack’s laughing smirk with more force than was necessary. There was a heat in his face as he momentarily considered the thought of Harlow replacing him on the Falconers.

“Aw, I would miss Snowy though,” Jack teased as he caught the pillow easily. He clutched it tight in his hands with the obvious intent on keeping it on his side.

Tater gave an exaggerated shrug. “Eh.”

“Fuck you!” Dustin twisted to try and see if he could grab another pillow to hit Tater with. “You’re more disposable than I am.”

“I feel like this fight is going to get ugly.”

“Tater makes everything ugly by default,” Dustin chirped, stretching as far as Tater’s weight still pressing on his legs would allow him to grab the other pillow.

Tater made a sympathetic sound deep in his throat. “I know you being mean because I hurt you, and I’m sorry, Snowy. Love you very much.”

Behind him Dustin heard Jack laugh, and that was the last thing he was able to register before he finally grabbed the other pillow and turned with full intentions of smacking Tater in the face with it.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Tater was a sloppily affectionate sort of guy, and Dustin had horrible timing off of the ice.

Dustin turned to enact his not-so-surprise attack, just as Tater leaned down and before Dustin could register anything happening, Tater’s mouth was pressed against his. The entire world seemed to slow down for a moment, and Dustin couldn’t remember why he had a pillow in his hand or what he had been mad about a second before. Tater’s nose bumped against his, a hard knock that took him off of his elbows and flat on his back as their lips slid against each other. Everything in Dustin’s body seemed to shut down at once, frozen in place as his brain tried to catch up to what was happening.

He had no idea how long they stayed like that, it might have been a couple of seconds or maybe it was just a lightning quick brush, but it didn’t matter. Tater moved first, snapping his head back and staring down at Dustin with eyes that would have been comically huge if Dustin had the capacity to find anything funny at the moment.

“What-”

Tater said something quietly but harshly in Russian, panic etching into every line on his face as he continued to loom over Dustin. Dustin couldn’t ever remember ever seeing Tater, who always embraced life so jubilantly, look embarrassed but his face was red enough that he looked like he had just gotten finished with a work out.

“What was that?” Dustin continued when it became apparent Tater wasn’t offering any answers. He only had enough thought process to be mildly embarrassed about the way his voice cracked.

“Sorry.” When Tater breathed out his response, Dustin could feel it against his lips. His wet lips. Lips that were wet because Tater’s lips had been pressed against them. His head was spinning and he didn’t think he could move if he tried. “I try to kiss your hair,” Tater said as if that explained it all. He sounded so desperate though, that Dustin wanted to tell him it was fine, but he couldn’t find the breath. “I’m sorry.”

“I...Okay.”

“Uh.”

Both of their heads snapped so quickly back to Jack that Dustin thought they must have looked hilarious, eyes wide and faces burning red. Tater moved back from Dustin as if he had been burned, finally releasing Dustin’s legs as he stumbled off of the bed.

Jack looked more uncomfortable than Dustin had ever seen him, which was saying something for a guy who’s default expression was ‘please, God, leave me alone.’ The pillow Dustin had thrown at him was still clutched in his hands, now pressed against his chest hard enough that it looked about to burst. A moment of absolute silenced held them all frozen, before Jack shook his head, blinking quickly and gave an awkward laugh.

“Well, now that you two have made up, I guess I don’t have to worry about us replacing the goalie, eh?”

Dustin was 90% sure he had added the ‘eh’ on the end in nervousness rather than because the sentence actually warranted it.

Jack was standing up then, brushing imaginary dirt off of his jeans as he did so. “I should, uh, probably get back to my room.” He rubbed the back of his neck and was looking anywhere but at either of them. Dustin had no idea where Tater was looking, because he was focusing very hard on staring at Jack. “Coach says we have to be at the rink at 7, so should probably get some sleep.”

“I walk you out,” Tater announced, his voice even louder than normal in the tense silence of the room.

“Bye Snowy,” Jack called, and Dustin couldn’t recall if he said anything back before the door was closing and both Jack and Tater were gone.

Jack’s room was right across the hall, it was a ten second walk but the seconds ticked by and Tater didn’t come back.

When he wasn’t back in the following ten minutes and Dustin grew tired of staring at the ceiling, he moved through his bedtime routine. He focused on literally everything and anything except the static feeling on his lips that wouldn’t dissipate no matter how hard he brushed his teeth.

It was an accident, a dumb thing that should have been a joke, should have been a chirp, should have earned Tater a punch in the arm and a lifetime worth of teasing for both of them from Jack. It should have been all of that and nothing more but they had both frozen, both stared at each other in something akin to horror. Dustin wondered belatedly if they had offended Jack by being so distraught over the idea of kissing another man.

Not that Dustin had ever had a problem with that in the past but as much as he loved Jack and was proud of his coming out, he didn’t feel the need to share that information with the team. He liked who he liked and if the price of being in the NHL was making sure that someone was a woman, then he could pay that. It wasn’t like there had ever been anyone that had made him care enough to reconsider his lifelong dream.

So kissing a man wasn’t that outrageous and maybe he should tell Jack that to sooth over any unintentional damage he may have done. But admitting that would have meant admitting why he was so upset.

Which of course was no reason. Because there was no reason. There was nothing to get upset or unnerved about. Nothing at all.

Dustin wanted to tell Tater that when he opened the door again two hours later. He wanted to make a dumb joke and throw a pillow again. He wanted to ask what time they were going to breakfast tomorrow.

He wanted to and he wanted to and he wanted to, but in the end he didn’t say anything as he laid on his side in the dark. He closed his eyes and listened as Tater moved around as quietly as he could to get ready. They would talk about it in the morning, he would make a joke and they would both move on.

.....

In the morning, he woke up to the sound of Tater swearing as he slammed his foot into the edge of Dustin’s bed and Dustin did end up throwing that pillow. They walked to breakfast together and Tater made fun of his bedhead.

They didn’t talk about it.

_X_ _X_ _X_

Two Falconers were approached for the ESPN body issue their year after winning the cup.

Jack had stammered for half the day, face red and eyes averted as he had turned them down as gently as he could. Dustin, however, had never backed down from a challenge in his life. He had rarely thought of that as a failing before, but it left him alone in the hot seat when the issue finally hit the press.

The team was on their way back from an away game in Seattle - 2-3 - Providence - and someone found the issue in the airport’s bookstore just before they boarded.

Kismet, Dustin supposed.

Marty had wolf whistled as he turned a page and Dustin closed his eyes as he tried to fight down his mildly embarrassed smile. He was a hard guy to rattle, or at least he had tried to cultivate an air of confidence around himself that told everyone he was. He had agreed to do the shoot, had taken off all of his clothes and gotten in front of a cameraman and three lighting technicians he had never met and posed however they told him to. He didn’t regret his decision but being teased in the confines of an airplane mid-flight by his entire team was enough to make his face feel a little warm.

He cracked one eye open and sent a stern look at Jack who was grinning at him ear to ear. Some days Dustin thought he liked Jack better when he was quiet and awkward in the corner. “Better you than me, eh?” Jack teased, head tilted back against the seat.

“Hell yeah better me than you,” Dustin agreed with a matching grin. “We all know who the best-looking member of this team is.”

“Damn right, Snowy,” Thirdy agreed, exaggerating his movements as he turned the magazine sideways in a way that Snowy knew very well he had not been photographed. Three more guys were crowded around behind him, turning in their seats to ogle the spread with as much exaggerated fanfare as they could muster.

“I don’t know, you’re looking a little cold on that ice there...”

“Oh fuck off, Marty.”

Dustin sighed as another round of laughing and whistling started up again. They were still three hours from Providence and he needed to sleep.

“You’re all children,” he accused as he stood, grabbing his bag and heading towards the back of the plane.

“I don’t think you should be letting children look at these pictures Snowy.”

“I said fuck off.”

Tater sat a few rows from the back, crowded against the window with his bag on the seat beside him. Dustin didn’t miss a step as he removed the bag and tossed it on the floor, piling his own on top before planting himself next to Tater.

Despite the ruckus Dustin caused beside him, Tater didn’t look up. He had the issue in his hands, turned to the same page as everyone else. Dustin remembered the shoot, had posed for every photo with a grin and a laugh and yet it was still strange to see it all laid out in paper and ink like that. There were two photos that had made it in, two from a two-hour shoot and Dustin tried not to feel offended.

The first was him on the ice, wearing nothing but his goalie mask perched on the top of his head and his gloves on his hands. He was leaning against the boards, head tilted back and a cocky grin on his face with one glove covering the only part of him ESPN wouldn’t let him show. They had asked him to wear his on ice eyeliner for it and he had exaggerated the lines, making them darker than he usually did to stand out on camera more.

The second picture was the one he found harder to look at though he couldn’t explain to even himself why. It was a shot of him in the shower, barely even posing and turned at a slight angle so the full swell of the side of his thigh was on display for the camera. His head was down and his face half obscured by the angle of his arm as he ran his hands through his soapy hair.

There was something about it that almost made him feel uncomfortable to look at it. The first picture had him just as bare, but there was something comical about it, with his mask and gloves still on. The shower picture seemed more intimate somehow, more like he was trying too hard to be sexy. He averted his eyes to the front of his seat instead.

“I look like such a fucking prick in the second one.”

Tater startled, almost tearing the magazine in his haste to close it as his shoulder slammed against the window. Dustin swore, flinching in his seat and stubbing his toe on Tater’s bag. “Jesus, take it easy big guy, you’re gonna take the whole plane down.” He leaned down, twisting his foot back and forth like he could assess the damage through his sneaker.

“Ha! Maybe.” Tater’s laugh was so fake it was almost funny, but the tight lines around his forced smile put Dustin on edge.

“What’s up man, you’ve been acting weird since Seattle.”

“Am not,” Tater insisted, eyes shifting to the side as if the serving tray on the back of the seat in front of him was suddenly fascinating. Dustin followed his line of sight in the hopes of gaining some insight. He found none.

“I’m just tired,” Tater said.

Dustin raised his eyebrows as he sunk further down into his stiff and slightly stale smelling seat. “You’re tired?”

“We just having game!” Tater told him, punctuating his point with a wild hand motion that made him sit up straighter in his seat. The fake smile was gone, replaced by a scowl. “Can I not be tired? Is that allowed from you?”

Every team member snapped at everyone else eventually. Or more accurately, everyone told everyone else to go fuck themselves and followed it up with some uncalled for things about each other’s mothers at one point or another. The 23 of them spent more time together in close quarters under high pressure than any human being should reasonably be expected to handle. Explosions happened and at the end of the day everyone eventually got over it. A harsh tone and a frown weren’t really anything to get upset by.

Maybe Dustin was just tired too.

“Jesus man, fuck me then, sorry.” Dustin threw his hands up in surrender and grabbed his bag off of Tater’s. “I’ll leave you be, shit.”

He was being childish, and he knew it, which only seemed to further his needless aggression. They had just won but they still had two more games left in the week and Tater had every right to be tired.

He moved to the other side of the plane to toss his carry-on down once again and flop into the open window seat. The entire journey consisted of about three feet and took ten seconds and it only ended up making him feel more foolish than he already did. Purposefully he kept his gaze out the window as they passed the night sky by, refusing to look back at Tater and make their spat any more ridiculous than it already was.

On the bus he could never quite get the hang of letting his head fall against the glass, could feel the vibrations of the wheels and the engine rattling his skull, but on a plane the rumble was softer, almost soothing. So he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep for the remainder of their journey, trying to let his embarrassment and needless agitation seep out as they passed over the Mid-Atlantic.

When they landed in Providence, it was raining.

“Why is it always fucking raining?” He heard someone lament and was only annoyed because he had been about to ask the same thing.

Or perhaps raining was being kind, because what was currently pelting the sides of the small plane was closer to the hurricane, with droplets big enough that Dustin mistook it for hail at first. Someone made a comment about a Tropical storm with a name that Dustin immediately forgot, and someone else made a joke about swimming to their car, and he did his best not to roll his eyes.

“I have umbrella,” Tater told him, his back to Dustin but the words unmistakably directed at him anyway. “I can walk you to your car.”

“Swim!” Someone shouted. Dustin thought it might have been Poots but he didn’t care enough to look.

“I don’t know if I can swim you to your car.” Tater hoisted his bag over his shoulder and gave Dustin a grin that was just a little too hesitant to be a trademark Tater Smile. Dustin didn’t like it. But it was as close to an olive branch as any of them ever came and Dustin was relieved to accept.

“Ah, of course you could big guy. Your feet are basically flippers already, you’d be great.”

“Fuck you,” Tater spat back, his grin wider and easier.

“If you two are done flirting, I think they want us off the plane!” Marty called from the front.

“I want to make an old joke, but honestly I’m too tired so just pretend I said something clever,” Dustin called back as he led the way down the aisle.

“I would if I had any past cleverness from you to go on.”

“Devastating, Marty. Truly.”

The stairs were a dangerous affair, slick with the pouring rain and dark enough that telling where one began and next ended was an endeavour in itself. His hair was plastered to his head by the time he reached the bottom and he could feel the water pooling in his sneakers and making his socks moist and heavy.

Tater’s umbrella was more over Dustin’s head than Tater’s but it was high enough above him with their height difference that it didn’t much help him with how hard the rain was pelting against his sides. If Dustin were the anthropomorphizing type he might have said the umbrella was just making the rain angerier, more hungry to soak them both to the bone. But he never claimed to be a poet in his life so instead he turned his head closer to Tater’s shoulder and proclaimed, “Fuck!”

He spotted his Mustang before he could find Tater’s SUV and it helped him to not feel so guilty for making his friend stay out in the rain for longer than necessary.

Tater crowded against him as he fumbled with his key and he resigned himself to a soaked interior before he even opened the door. “Thanks man, see you Tuesday,” he tried to say over the howl of the rain as he opened the door and threw himself into the driver’s seat as fast as he could. There was already a puddle of water on the floor and the leather would need cleaned after this.

He threw out a hand to close the door and nearly punched Tater in the thigh from where he had moved into the space.

Twice Dustin tried to blink the water out of his eyes to look up at him but most likely only succeeded in looking like he was having a seizure as the water just replaced itself with the door still open.

“Dude-”

“You’re not looking like prick,” Tater said. All at once Dustin felt it was desperately important to know what Tater’s face looked like but it was dark and the water was still running in rivers down his forehead. “You look beautiful.”

“What-”

But Tater was moving back, and he slammed the door hard enough that Dustin wanted to give him shit later for nearly taking off his fingers. The thought only lasted a moment before the rest of the statement settled itself in Dustin’s head.

Inside the car the rain was even louder than it had been on the plane and without the engine running he could see his breath as it rose in front of his face. The steering wheel was ice under his hands but he gripped it tight enough that his knuckles went white.

It was a confusion in translation, Dustin told himself as he finally pushed the start button and adjusted his seat as Metallica blared through his speakers. Tater mixed up English words all the time. It was a nice sentiment, just a compliment gone slightly awry. Tater was a more observant guy than people gave him credit for, and he was just trying to sooth over any left over tension and make Dustin feel a little better about looking like a fool in front of the entire sports world.

Dustin needed to tell him that men don’t call other men beautiful in that context.

He meant to tell him, he really did. But Tuesday came and Tater pretended to shove him in his stall for insinuating that whiskey was better than vodka, despite everyone knowing that Tater preferred gin, and Dustin thought it maybe wasn’t important.

So he didn’t mention it and life moved on.

_X_ _X_ _X_

There wasn’t anything quite like being in one place and then suddenly and violently waking up in another. It wasn’t so much missing a step on the stairs as it was falling down an elevator shaft, and when Dustin hit the bottom he was lying on his back on the ice, staring up at the ceiling of a packed stadium.

Dustin groaned as the impact of his time lapse swan dive hit him full force. Every part of him ached, and there was a throbbing pain coming from the back of his head. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his head, trying to understand what was happening. The last thing he could remember was walking into a bar that had just opened down the street from his apartment with Jack at his side. Tater had been right behind them, trying once again to convince them both to watch some show Dustin could never remember the name of. He remembered pushing open the door and then without warning he was lying on his back to a screaming crowd.

He turned his neck to the side, craning to try to understand what was going on, but nothing was making sense. The world was fragmented and he realized something had damaged his helmet, the shield across his face cracked partially off. A new helmet wasn’t something he took lightly, he had been using the same one all season. It had been decorated personally by one of Jack’s college friends and his anger momentarily suspended his confusion. Filing away that information he continued to take stock he realized he was almost all the way against the wall. The goal had been knocked from its posts and was askew a few feet in the other direction. People on the ice were a blur of motion, just blue and black forms slamming into each other, throwing punches and curses as the crowd screamed a war cry in every direction with dozens of hands pounding against the glass. Dustin squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t remember the crowd ever being so loud. The colors were all swarming together and his chest felt tight. All of his gear felt like it was a size too small, suffocating him where he lay as the pain in his head continued to rage against his skull.

He blinked again and someone was crouching in front of him. For a moment he assumed it was Tater, or maybe Jack. It was always one of the two of them that was on him as soon as another player so much as breathed too hard in his direction.

It wasn’t Tater, however, who was hovering a few inches from his face. The eyes behind the plastic screen were a startling blue-green and Dustin could just see a curl of blond under his helmet. Kent Parson, asshole extraordinaire, was so close to Dustin that if neither of them had helmets on it might have been considered indecent.

Dustin snarled and tried to find the right curse word to call Parson, and another to call every single one of his teammates for allowing this to happen. Up close Dustin thought Tater had been on to something, he did look like a rat.

But when the rat opened his mouth, Dustin couldn’t hear what he said.

“Fuck off,” Dustin tried to growl, but it seemed to come out as more of just a guttural sort of sound of anger instead.

Parson said something else and Dustin felt his anger giving way into pure confusion. He could hear the wordless roar of the crowd but Parson, whose mouth was moving slowly and exaggeratedly, was mute. Parson turned from where he was kneeling and was motioning wildly with a gloved hand. He then turned back to Dustin and Dustin didn’t understand what he was seeing.

Because Parson was looking directly at him and he looked scared.

Dustin tried to sit up then, realizing all at once he had been laying on the ice for far too long, but Parson reached out a hand and held him down by the shoulder.

Once more, Dustin tried to swear, tried to swing his other arm to shake the rat off, but his mouth and his arm didn’t seem to want to cooperate.

Parson’s hand was only on him for a moment before two hands appeared on his shoulders, yanking him back and away from Dustin so violently that Dustin had to close his eyes as the world began to spin again. He wasn’t quick enough in closing them to miss all the red staining Parson’s shorts.

Had Parson cut his leg? There was so much blood. He needed a medic and fast.

Dustin opened his eyes and maybe more time had passed than just a blink because now it was Tater kneeling on the ice. His helmet was gone, his hair standing up in all directions. His eyes were as wide as Parson’s had been and there was a silent panic etched into his features that made Dustin’s chest ache. Or maybe it wasn’t so silent because his mouth was moving but all Dustin could hear was the scream of the crowd. When he turned his head though, he couldn’t see anyone pounding on the glass, could only see the few people closest to them dressed in Falconer blue and yellow standing in silence.

He tried to ask what was going on, tried to ask how they had gotten here and what had happened between now and the bar and why was Parson bleeding and Jesus Christ were those tears in Tater’s eyes?

The other Falconers were crowding behind and around Tater, creating a circle around him that he knew was more than five men. When had they gotten here?

He blinked again, and it wasn’t Tater’s hand on his cheek anymore it was a woman. She had a Caduceus on her blue uniform and his brown ponytail was tight and severe. She was moving her mouth in the same slow motion that Parson had done, but he still couldn’t understand her. He blinked again, and he was on a stretcher, being carried off the ice by more people he had never met before.

Blink and he was in an ambulance. Blink and there was a doctor in a lab coat staring down at him behind her owlish glasses. Blink and it’s Thirdy. It’s Marty. It’s Jack. It’s Tater.

The last time he blinked his way in and out of time, he was alone.

The hospital room he was in was white and sterile, but there were jackets and bags draped over almost every available surface and he wondered for a minute if he was actually just back in the locker room. There were a few vases of flowers crowding the window ledge and a menagerie of cards were scattered across the far counter where a space had been cleared. When he closed his eyes he half expected to be transported somewhere else, but the room stayed the same. The cards, the flowers, the bags.

He shifted and it was then that he finally noticed the bird. There were wires and tubes hooked up to his arms, and one running under his nose and there was a machine beeping next to him, but it was the bird that confused him the most. It was a stuffed animal, barely bigger than his hand, and it was nestled in between his elbow and his side.

He was in the process of turning it over in his hands, running his fingers along the soft fabric of the wings, when a nurse appeared in the doorway. She was young and pretty, with curly blonde hair and dark bags under her eyes and she smiled a million watts when they made eye contact.

“Oh, you’re awake again!” She chirped, approaching him and making herself quickly busy with checking machines and adjusting the myriad of tubes going into his body. “How are you feeling?”

“I don’t remember being awake a first time so that’s probably not a great sign. Also I feel like I got hit by a fucking truck.”

She laughed, a tittering sort of sound that he might have found attractive had he not been wearing a hospital gown and poked full of holes.

“Yeah, we lowered your pain medicine, so you’re a little more coherent than you were before.”

“What happened?” He finally asked, gripping the stuffed bird a little harder than necessary. “I remember going to a bar, and then next thing I know I’m on my ass on the ice and bleeding out half my body weight.”

The nurse laughed again though it was softer and more sympathetic. Dustin thought maybe he didn’t like her laugh so much after all. “I don’t know about the bar, but you hit your head very hard on the ice. Or maybe it was a puck? You’re going to have to talk to your team and the doctor, but you hit your head hard and suffered a minor skull fracture. You have a concussion, and needed some stitches, but head wounds bleed a lot and the ice made it look a lot scarier than it was.”

“I cracked my fucking skull?”

She nodded, curls bobbing. “Just a hairline, but that can be serious in a skull. You’re going to be fine, but it’s not surprising that you can’t fully remember it. Sometimes concussions can cause amnesia. The memories might come back or they might not, but you should be alright with remembering things from here on out.”

Outside he could see the beginning rays of sunlight peeking through the hospital blinds. “Have I been here all night?”

The nurse gave him a soft and pitying smile. “Sweetheart, you’ve been here since Tuesday. It’s Friday.”

“It’s fucking Friday-”

“SNOWY!”

Both Dustin and the nurse jumped as Tater’s voice boomed in the tiny hospital room.

“Mr. Mashkov-” The nurse tried to say, but Tater ignored her as he struggled to put a McDonald’s bag and coffee down on the counter as quickly as possible before he all but elbowed her out of the way to get to Dustin’s side.

“Watch it dude, she’s like four fucking feet tall, you’re gonna kill her.”

“You’re back!” The relief in Tater’s voice was palpable, if confusing. For all Tater’s bulldozing about, he was gentle as he leaned over Dustin, one hand resting on the pillow beside his face as the other touched the side of his head as light as a feather.

Dustin’s mouth was dry and he couldn’t remember if it had been like that when he woke up. The sterile smell of the hospital room was overpowered by the smell of sweat and lingering Irish Spring. He didn’t know if it was him or Tater. He also didn’t know if he was more unsettled by the possibility that he hadn’t bathed in three days, or the more likely scenario that some nurse had been doing it for him while he was unconscious. When he finally found his tongue his voice came out far softer than he had meant for it to. “Apparently I broke my head, so I don’t know where you think I went.”

“I’ll give you two a moment,” he heard the nurse say from behind Tater and something about her wording made his stomach twist.

“Do you know when they think I can play again?” Dustin asked in the quiet that her fading footsteps left behind.

Tater’s delighted grin faltered. “What?”

“I mean, how fucked am I? Like is this a two-day thing or are they gonna try to drag it out.”

He only had a moment to register the shock on Tater’s face before he was snarling something in Russian that Dustin had definitely heard him call other players on the ice before. “Who gives care about playing? You broke your head and there was so much blood and-” Tater caught himself, his voice hitching in a quiet and painful gasp that made Dustin feel a surge of guilt, but he wasn’t exactly sure for what.

Tater’s hand moved from the side of his head -it was bandaged he now realized, a layer of gauze had been stopping Tater’s fingers from touching his skin- to his face, the backs of his knuckles grazing gently, far too gently, against his cheek. “You were talking,” Tater breathed. He couldn’t remember Tater ever being so quiet in all the time he’d known him.

Tater swallowed, and the sound and the movement in his throat drew Dustin’s rapt attention. “You were talking,” he repeated, his voice unsteady, “but you make no sense.” The hand on his face was gone then, as Tater shifted away from him just enough to discreetly run his hand over his face and take an unsteady breath that Dustin felt in his chest. He pretended not to notice. “Thought I’m just not understand, at first. But no one else understand either.” He shook his head and Dustin wasn’t sure who found whose hand, but their fingers were laced over the thin sheet. “There was so much blood, Dustin.”

Snowy had no idea when the last time anyone on the team had called him Dustin out of anything other than anger. It sounded strange, said so softly and shaped around Tater’s accent.

“Hey.” He jostled their hands lightly, enough to get Tater to look at him. There were no tears in his eyes but they looked shinier than usual and Dustin almost couldn’t look at him. “I’m okay,” he assured. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears or he thought he could before he realized it was possibly just the heart monitor giving him away. Tater didn’t comment on it, only offered him a shaky smile.

“At least I fucking think I am.” He turned his head to look at the monitors, as if he could understand half of what they said. “Nurse said I wasn’t gonna fucking croak anyway. Where is everyone else by the way? Why’d I get stuck with just you?”

He tugged gently on the end of the one tube that disappeared under a bandage on his arm, and Tater swatted his hand away. “Stop touching. They eating. Went to get breakfast.”

“Why didn’t you go with them?”

Tater pulled at Dustin’s sheet, adjusting it slightly higher on his chest and Dustin let him fuss. He knew it was simply for something to do. “I’m not leave.”

“Yes, I got that. I’m asking why.”

Tater sighed and straightened up. His eyes were everywhere but on Dustin and for the first time Dustin let himself take in Tater’s appearance. He was wearing a tee shirt that had seen better days and a pair of sweats that Dustin hated that he knew were Tater’s favorites. There were bags under his eyes and his hair was in even more of a state of disarray than usual. “I’m not leave, at all.”

Dustin frowned, trying to keep up with that information. “You haven’t left the hospital for three days?” He asked, trying to keep the incredulity out of his voice.

Tater shook his head and then glanced back at the McDonald’s bag on the counter. “Jack dropped off food before he went to join the others.”

Dustin looked over at the stained brown bag as if that would explain what was happening. “Why?”

“I like hash browns.”

“No.” Dustin resisted the urge to call the man who had sat by his bedside for three days an idiot. “Why didn’t you go with them?”

Tater shrugged, glancing up at the ceiling. “Couldn’t.”

It was an admission. A confession of guilt that Dustin didn’t know he was ready to accept just yet. He closed his eyes as he tried to get comfortable among his clutter of pillows and forced the thoughts creeping just on the edge of his mind back whence they came. He had a cracked skull and absolutely no time to consider anything else. “That explains why you smell so bad man, take a fucking shower.”

Beside him Tater laughed and he sounded so much more himself that Dustin didn’t even try to fight his smile.

“You much sweeter when you’re on drugs.”

“What?”

The world was hazy and soft around the edges, but Tater’s face was tinted pink. Instead of responding he beamed again suddenly, pointing at the bird tucked against Dustin's side. “You find DB!”

Dustin watched Tater’s face for a second before giving up and looking down at the small stuffed animal, still sitting against the crook of his arm. “Yeah, it was just kind of on me when I woke up.”

Tater patted the bird’s small head affectionately. “I know. I’m find him in gift shop. He help keep you company.”

For a moment Dustin felt like he had fallen down that proverbial elevator shaft all over again as his stomach swooped and his heart caught in his throat. “You bought it.”

“Him,” Tater corrected, looking deathly serious for someone discussing a stuffed toy. “And his name is DB.”

Dustin’s tongue was too big in his mouth and the bird was too soft against his skin. He swallowed hard. “Why?’

“Stands for Dustin’s Bird,” Tater told him, raising his eyebrows like that was obvious. “Named him Dustin’s Falcon first, but then Mackie try to tell me I should name him Dustin’s Treatment Falcon and I’m not know why, but I know he was making fun. So I call him Dustin’s Bird instead.”

Dustin snorted, running his thumb over the bird’s head. “Thank you for not letting Mackie name my bird name DTF. I appreciate it. But I’m pretty sure this is a like, a robin or some shit. Not a falcon.”

Tater gasped, reaching out to cup his massive hands over the tiny bird’s head as if to cover its ears. “How dare you? DB be whatever he wants to be.”

Dustin laughed, letting his head fall back against the pillows as he surveyed both Tater and DB. “My apologies.”

Tater removed his hands. “He doesn’t forgive you, but is start.”

Once more Dustin found his fingers tracing along the plush sides of the bird. It was just a dumb toy, and he probably should have been more annoyed that the entire team let Tater place foreign objects on him for days at a time while he was too unconscious to do anything about it. Instead, all he could feel was a softness that was at once too much and too little.

“You owe me so many goddamn birds for what you let fucking happen,” Dustin informed him when they lapsed into silence.

Tearing his gaze away from the bird he glanced up at Tater, but his next comment died on his tongue.

Tater had frozen in place, eyes wide and face ashen as he stared blankly at Dustin’s bedsheet. Dustin watched in mounting confusion as Tater swallowed thickly, audible in the quiet of the room. When Tater met his eye, kowtowed and miserable, Dustin realized his mistake.

“For letting Kent Parson touch me,” he rushed to clarify. “After I went down that fucking rat was all up in my face. It’s in your contract to specifically keep him from touching me and you failed.”

“Oh.” Tater’s shoulder sagged as he sighed, the beginnings of a smile, still hesitant and guilty, were returning to his face. “Yes. Sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t going to get rid of the Hepatitis he definitely gave me.”

Tater’s hand was warm and heavy where he placed it on Dustin’s shoulder. When he moved closer he did it slowly, giving Dustin more than enough time to readjust or to push him away. Dustin didn’t move as Tater’s other hand touched the bandages again, light as air.

Their foreheads were touching, the barest trace of contact and he could feel it on his skin when Tater breathed. “I’m not let happen again. I promise.”

Dustin was frozen in place and was reminded unbidden of the incident months ago. Of a pillow fight gone wrong and the buzzing feeling on his mouth that had taken hours to dissipate. If anyone walked into his room in that moment, he knew what it would look like.

“I know.” One of his hands was on Tater’s arm, squeezing gently in reassurance. “You always got me.” He knew Tater wasn’t talking about Parson anymore, and as much as he wanted to say something else, to assure Tater that his accident was not somehow his fault, he couldn’t find the words.

Between one breath and the next Tater was letting go of him and leaning back out of his space. “But really, I’m thinking we going to need to set you on fire. Is only way your skin will ever be clean again after Parson touched it. Going to need to start over. Need new skin.”

“New skin, right.” Dustin ran a hand through the part of his hair not covered in bandages and smiled. Beside him his heart monitor was spiking treacherously. He ignored it to close his eyes, crossing his hands over his chest with DB nestled between his fingers. “Okay do it, we’re ready.”

“He not touch DB, he doesn’t need new feathers. Just you,” Tater challenged. Their argument continued and slowly Dustin was able to breathe again.

Tater drove him home on Sunday, helping him up to his apartment. He made a big show of placing DB on Dustin’s nightstand, his stupid pudgy bean bag legs dangling over the edge. Dustin had rolled his eyes as Tater had said goodbye to him, and then given a much more drawn out and personal goodbye to DB until Dustin finally closed the door in his face.

When Tater texted him later that night asking him to tell DB goodnight he hadn’t responded. He told himself it was because Tater was an idiot. He told himself it wasn’t out of embarrassment that DB had migrated to the pillow beside his head and he hadn’t been able to sleep yet, still staring at the stupid stuffed bird and trying to tell himself the ache in his chest was because of his injury and nothing else.

Dustin didn’t mention DB again, and Tater didn’t bring it up.

_X_ _X_ _X_

A fractured skull was enough to take Dustin out for three weeks before the doctors told him he could play for a period. Rainy and Scott had been alternating as backups, but watching from the sidelines while two amateurs let in goals he would have caught in his sleep had to be against something in the Geneva Convention. His stitches were almost healed, and even though his hair now looked horrible no matter what he did -luckily he’d always looked good in hats- he felt perfectly fine and was ready to go.

All of which he repeated to Brian for the tenth time that week. For the ninth time all he received was a heavy sigh in return.

“You’re going to be back on soon,” Brian told him in that long suffering way he had. “But the doctor said you’ve one more week to go.”

“Fucking Scott let six goals through last game. He’s somehow getting shittier the longer he’s on the ice.” Dustin made zero attempt to keep his voice down and Brian had learned long ago not to try to keep him quiet.

“Be nice,” he chided mildly as he washed his hands in the training room sink.

“I’m always fucking nice.”

“Mhm.” Brian shook his hands dry before he finally made his way to the table Dustin had set himself up on. ‘Snowy’s Table’, as the rest of the team had dubbed it. Which he felt was a bit dramatic. He wasn’t in Brian’s room that much. “Of course you are.”

Dustin leaned back on the table, stretching out and getting as comfortable as was possible on the hard vinyl plastic and bent his leg at the knee when Brian tapped his calf. “I’m always nice to you,” Dustin told him, keeping his voice low and batting his eyes.

Brian breathed out through his nose as he tried to act annoyed, but Dustin saw the red rising high on his cheeks under the shadow of his Falconers hat. When he grabbed Dustin’s calf, he dug in just a little harder than Dustin felt was entirely necessary. He did his best not to react, but he wasn’t sure he succeeded at the faint twitch of a smile that graced Brian’s usually stoic features.

Brian’s fingers relaxed quickly after, feeling for the lump that had formed just below his knee ever since his stint in the hospital. Dustin swore the EMTs had given it to him in the ambulance but given that he still couldn’t remember the trip, he wasn’t entirely sure.

“Quit flirting, I’m trying to see how your leg is.”

“You’re the one feeling me up.”

“Snowy, we having whole seminar on workplace harassment and still you bother poor Brian.”

Dustin craned his head back over his shoulder to spot Tater, decked out in his post workout sweats and a tee shirt that only just barely fit.

“Jesus man, you better not flex or you’re gonna Hulk right out of that.”

Tater shrugged, looking all too pleased with himself. He cast one of his ridiculously long arms out in a careless gesture that nearly took out a row of spare water bottles. “If happens, then happens.”

“What happens?”

Brian’s room was overall a calming sort of place. It wasn’t so much decorated as it was well used and abused, with extra pads of every variety and Brian’s supplies littered across every counter in a haphazard organization. Maybe it was just Brian himself, who for all his stilted awkwardness and his stoic expression still always made everyone feel welcome. There wasn’t much outside of grave injury that could darken the trainer’s room, but the cold voice that spoke from behind Tater had always had a way of dampening any mood.

Dread curled low in his stomach as his eyes locked on Tater’s face. He saw his friend’s eyes go wide as the easy grin sliped sideways into a panicked grimace.

In his haste to clear the doorway he did bump into the rack beside him, a few water bottles tipping over and rolling to the floor as Tater scrambled to pick them back up. Dustin shifted on the table, planning on helping his suddenly bumbling teammate but Brian gripped his knee and held him in place.

“Easy,” Brian whispered, just loud enough that only he could hear it.

“I’m not a horse,” Dustin hissed back.

Tater was backing up from the doorway, with an armful of stray water bottles and a nervous laugh that made the hair on the back of Dustin’s neck stand up. “Sorry,” he said as his hip knocked into the cabinets. “Was just joke.”

With the doorway clear, Michael Wagner stepped into the trainer’s room, with his nose held high and his brow furrowed in clear displeasure. He moved one hand from where he had been keeping it behind his back and pinched his thumb and forefinger together in the air. “It was just a joke,” he enunciated.

He was nearly a foot and a half shorter than Tater, but the way Tater’s shoulders slumped at the correction made him seem so much smaller. “Right. It was just a joke,” Tater parroted back, his voice much quieter than Tater should have ever been capable of.

“Jesus Christ,” Dustin growled, low enough that he knew Wagner’s hearing aids wouldn’t pick up on it.

Michael Wagner was, quiet possibly, Dustin’s least favorite person on the entire planet. From his expensive Italian suits that everyone had to know were one of a kind, to his bad combover and his pointed leather shoes, Dustin was counting down the days until he just keeled over under the weight of his own pomous high horse.

The fact that he owned the Falconers was irrelevant.

“Don’t drop the articles, they’re important,” Wagner told Tater before turning his attention fully on Dustin. “I heard that you had a bit of a spill.”

Dustin wished more than anything in the world that he could roll his eyes and not get kicked off the team. “That’s what they tell me.”

“Scott’s been struggling a bit in the net, when are you cleared to go back in?”

“Next week.”

Behind Wagner, Tater was putting the water bottles back as silently as he could. Dustin did his best not to look at him. It felt a bit like he was in a staring contest with a grizzly, trying to keep its attention on him and away from his injured friend.

The stakes didn’t feel much lower.

“Good.” Wagner nodded, glancing around Brian’s shelves. He didn’t once look at Brian. “How are you holding up, your injury notwithstanding?” The words were friendly but his tone was disinterested.

“Fine,” Dustin bit out when Brian tapped his leg again.

“I was just checking on a leg injury he had in the fall,” Brian clarified when it became apparent that Dustin wouldn’t.

“Hm. And what are you doing in here, Mr. Mashkov?” His hands were behind his back again, and Dustin thought he looked like a shitty Batman villain.

Tater froze where he was trying to condense all 6’4” of himself against the far cabinets. Dustin had once made the joke that if you stood perfectly still, Wagner might not be able to see you.

Like Jurassic Park,” Tater had nodded sagely at the time.

Exactly like Jurassic Park.”

Tater seemed to take that joke a little too seriously as he stayed silent and frozen for a beat too long, long enough that Dustin was scrambling to make something up for him, but Tater found his voice before he could.

“I’m come to see Snowy,” he explained. He smiled then, wide and bright, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

Wagner sighed. “I...”

Tater kept his smile in place and Dustin saw him fight to keep the confusion off of his face. “Yes?”

I…” Wagner repeated, one hand held out in front of him again.

Dustin caught on a second before Tater did and through a combination of the humiliated flush burning across Tater’s face and Dustin’s barely controlled rage, all he could see was red.

Tater straightened his back, squaring up to his full height with absolutely none of the bravado that should have accompanied it. “I,” he repeated back.

Came…

“Came.”

To see Snow.

“To see Snow,” Tater finished quietly.

Wagner nodded, pleased with himself. Before he could turn, Brian moved himself, leaning dramatically over Dustin to look at his other, uninjured leg, blocking him from view. Out of the corner of his eye Brian shot him a glare. He knew he was trying to save him, trying to block the scowl he couldn’t tamper down from Wagner’s gaze, but he couldn’t appreciate the effort.

Dustin wanted to tell Wagner that Tater wasn’t his trained pet and that he could go fuck himself. If a glare was all he got, Dustin felt he was getting off light.

“How long have you been in America?”

Brian smacked discreetly at Dustin’s hand where it had balled into a fist.

Dustin laid back, closing his eyes as he tried to control his breathing. Tater was an adult, he could handle Wagner’s xenophobia for two minutes on his own. It wasn’t going to help either of them to piss off the owner.

“Three years, sir.”

“Hm.”

It wasn’t even a full word, just a hum. A dismissive and condescending inflection to his already disinterested demeanor as he scanned the shelves of Brian’s office like he was looking for something else to tear apart. Not a single word, but everyone in the room understood what he thought of Tater’s English.

Maybe Dustin could have handled it. Wagner was an asshole after all, and everyone knew it. He owned a team because he had more money than he knew what to do with and his wife who was younger than Dustin had liked the Rangers but he couldn’t get them to sell. Maybe Dustin could have cursed under his breath and moved on, but when Wagner turned his back he finally looked back at Tater.

Tater, all 200 plus pounds of him, was still crowded against the wall like he might be able to disappear into it if he stood still enough. The tension in his shoulder was gone, and instead they slumped downwards in such a painful imitation of his usual carelessness that Dustin felt something in his chest contract. Wagner was asking Brian something, but it was just a buzzing noise on his peripheral as he watched Tater lean his head back against the wall, his eyes moving skyward in such a look of pleading before he closed them that Dustin couldn’t take it.

Все в порядке?” Dustin asked, eyes still locked on Tater.

Tater’s eyes snapped open wide and the defeat that had left him boneless was replaced instantly with fear. He shook his head so subtly that Dustin didn’t think he would have seen it if he hadn’t been looking.

Блядь ему,” he pressed on anyway.

The look of absolute horror that passed over Tater’s face was enough to temporarily make up for the anger creeping through his blood. He flashed him a grin before Wagner could turn back to them.

“What?”

Dustin tried to drop the grin but it didn’t want to go anywhere.

Ты ебля грубый,” Dustin told him, butchering the pronunciation of every syllable on his inexperienced tongue.

Wagner’s frown deepened in his already incredibly deep frown lines, but he said nothing.

“Sorry,” Dustin continued. Behind Wagner now Tater looked like he was about to pass out. “I assumed you spoke Russian.”

“Why would I speak Russian?”

Dustin shrugged as Tater violently shook his head and Brian looked to be evaluating the fastest evacuation route out of the room. “Figured you’d have to be fluent in a couple different languages to have such preferences over grammar like that. I mean, Tater’s only fluent in two, you’ve gotta have like...six. Right?”

In his fantasy of this situation, this would be where Wagner realized he was beat. Maybe he turned red and gasped in WASPish shock, clutching at where his heart would be if he hadn’t replaced it with what Dustin assumed was a cartoon bag with a dollar sign on it. Tater would be vindicated and eternally grateful and Brian would be in awe at Dustin’s audacity and finally appreciate his flirting.

In real life Tater looked even closer to throwing up, Brian looked like he might smack him, and Wagner’s expression never shifted from his bored and ever displeased frown.

“He hit head hard,” Tater explained, his voice was so high and rushed and accent thicker than Dustin had heard it in a year that Dustin only barely understood him. Wagner did not look at him.

“Get better soon, Mr. Snow,” Wagner said instead of responding to either of them. “Scott is taking this whole team down.” And then as horribly as he had appeared, he was gone. The sound of his expensive leather shoes clacked on the linoleum as he headed down the hall to the coach’s office.

Brian and Tater let out a long and suffering breath in tandem. The former slumped himself over the table Dustin wasn’t currently occupying, and the latter advanced until he was close enough to Dustin to strike out a hand and hit him on the knee.

“What wrong with you?” Tater demanded, his voice a loud whisper and eyes still darting back to the door. “Why you talk to Wagner like that? Get us both cut!”

Dustin shoved Tater away as he swung his legs to the floor. “Wagner’s not gonna fire one of his top defensemen and the number one goalie. He’s a cunt but he’s not a complete moron. It’ll be fine.”

Tater and Brian both tensed at the language, glancing back at the door like Wagner would suddenly reappear and fire them all. Dustin rolled his eyes and retrieved his hat from where he had left it on top of his bag and set it firmly on his head.

“You both lived, he’s got a room waiting in Hell for him in the next year or so, and everything’s fine.” Dustin grabbed his duffle and cast a wave back at a very unhappy looking Brian. “See ya next week Bry.” He added a wink for good measure.

“If you’re still here.”

Dustin rapped the back of the door with his knuckles as he left in lieu of a response.

He was halfway down the hall by himself before he heard the rapid footsteps rushing after him.

Tater smacked him hard in the back of the shoulder when he finally reached him, and Dustin swallowed down the grunt of pain. “You going to get traded.”

“He hates me but he hates Scott more, it’ll be fine.”

Tater sighed again. Dustin kept his eyes straight ahead on the long hallway. The walls between the trainers room and the officers were lined on one side with jerseys and signed photographs in cases that were probably almost as expensive as their contents. Along the other wall was nothing but windows, looking out over the Providence skyline. It wasn’t the prettiest city in the country, probably not even really pretty by any standards of anyone with any sort of taste, but Dustin had grown used to it.

He might, on occasion, go so far as to say he liked it. Maybe.

Beside him Tater shifted again, and then it was Tater’s arm brushing up against his instead of his duffle.

Silence had never bothered Dustin. He was a guy of few words and he prefered to get by without interacting with everyone he passed if he could. Other people called it standoffish or cold, but he preferred calling it being comfortable just existing in the world and not needing to fill it with bullshit 24/7. That was the point in the explanation where Tater would roll his eyes, and it was the specific reason Tater had learned the English word for ‘pretentious’.

Tater could sometimes be quiet around him, every now and again he would run out of his almost never ending stream of banter and comments and could just exist next to Dustin. It was a nice feeling, one that Dustin didn’t take for granted.

This was not that feeling.

He leaned too far to his left on the next step to knock himself against Tater. “What?”

“I not say anything.”

“That’s the problem, you never shut up.”

Tater was silent for another few steps before he sighed again. “You get in trouble because I’m idiot.”

“That’s not-”

Dustin made it two steps before he realized Tater wasn’t beside him. The sound his sneaker made on the floor as he turned was obnoxiously loud in the quiet of the empty hall. Tater was standing in the shadow between two windows, his big hands too tight on the strap of his bag and his shoulders were slumped too low again. He didn’t meet Dustin’s eye as he glared at the floor.

“No,” he said quietly, a look of steely determination crossing his face. “You get in trouble because I’m a idiot,” he corrected.

“An,” Dustin corrected automatically without thinking and immediately wished he could punch himself in the face.

Tater broke his staring contest with the ground to look up at Dustin under his lashes. “What?”

“Ah, fuck. It’s ‘an’ not ‘a’ when it’s in front of a word that starts with a vowel.”

For a long moment Tater didn’t blink as they just stared at each other, before he broke off abruptly and dramatically to throw his head back with a yell. The shout echoed off the empty halls and Dustin winced in sympathy.

“I’m AN idiot who can’t even say it right.”

Dustin was very familiar with the dangers of approaching Tater when he was worked up about something, those bears paws he called hands flapping about dangerously with no care for what damage he might cause. He kept his hands up then, as he approached, ready to take the brunt of an accidental slap to his forearm rather than his face.

“You’re not an or a idiot and I shouldn’t have said shit. Sorry.”

Tater’s hand flopped to his sides just as Dustin got within striking range. “Not your fault I’m bad at English.”

“You’re not bad at English,” Dustin assured him. His own hands wound themselves around the strap of his bag. Part of him wanted to reach out and touch Tater, but there didn’t seem to be any easy way to approach that. Now, however, he was just a little closer to Tater than he probably should have been, almost pressed up against him in the shadow of the pillar. Before he could think of a way to shift himself back, Tater crowded himself even closer.

Dustin set his jaw to try to keep his expression neutral as he tilted his chin back -and back and back- to look at Tater again. “Your English is fucking amazing. Your French is what’s terrible.”
It didn’t make Tater laugh like it usually would have, but the corners of his mouth turned up in a phantom of a smile.

“Your Russian is terrible.”

“Oh yeah, I’m really fucking bad.”

“Why did you do that?” They had the entire hall to themselves, probably the entire east side of the building judging by the way the sun was disappearing over the skyline. There was no need to whisper. There was definitely no need to stand so close.

Dustin shrugged and adjusted his hat, giving himself an excuse to look at the ground. “Didn’t think about it,” he said. “Just got pissed and said it.” It was a lie and though Tater wasn’t always the most observant guy on the planet, he had to be able to see through it. Dustin’s Russian was horrible, a garbled mess that probably would get him beaten up in Moscow if he ever actually attempted it to anyone other than Tater. He didn’t know many phrases off the top of his head and even the brief insults he had run through in front of Wagner had taken way more thought than they should have.

“Besides, I don’t give a shit what Wagner owns. He can’t treat us like his fucking race horses. Like we’re property, you know? God, I actually feel kind of bad for those goddamn horses. Poor bastards would probably tell him to go fuck himself too if they could.”

“You speaking Russian was like little kid,” Tater told him after a moment. “Trying to learn swear.”

Dustin couldn’t quite meet his eyes, didn’t feel like craning his neck back again, so he focused instead on the curve of his bottom lip as it twitched again in that weak imitation of a smile. Tater had a big mouth, Dustin thought somewhat absently. He was still thinking it as he watched that mouth turn down into an even deeper frown.

It was like a little kid,” he corrected himself. The inflection on his vowels didn’t sound right, his consonants not the right sort of soft that they usually were. It was an imitation of an American accent, a real one, nothing like the drawl he liked to put on when he tried to make fun of Dustin. It was Tater with an American accent, looking ill for the effort.

Something like disgust curled in Dustin’s stomach, hot and fierce before he could stop it. “Don’t do that.”

“Don’t talk right?” Tater threw his hands wide in exasperation, just nearly missing slapping Dustin on the chest.

“No, don’t...you sound weird with an American accent.”

“Sound stupid with a Russian one.”

“No come on, your accent is-” He stopped himself just in time. Slammed on the break just an inch short of disaster as the next word out of his mouth froze on his tongue like a deer on the side of the road.

Your accent is sexy.

For a moment Dustin could see the carnage that could have been, and it tripped him up when he tried to speak again. “I-I like it.”

Dustin couldn’t remember the last time he stuttered, couldn’t even begin to reel in his out of control embarrassment.

Tater’s eyebrows arched towards his hairline and his eyes went wide.

“I mean, like-”

“I like your accent too.”

There was room for at least 25,000 people in the Falconers stadium, and there were probably less than a dozen currently occupying it. They have all the room in the world, and Dustin could feel Tater’s breath on his face when he exhaled.

“My accent is the exact same as over half the team,” Dustin told him. He kept his face as carefully blank as he could. His fingers flexed on the strap of his bag but he tried to loosen them. There was no point in being nervous. There was nothing to be nervous about.

His eyes were still on Tater’s mouth when it curled into a soft smile. Tater’s smiles were always so wide and unbridled. They took up half his face and even if he wasn’t always the tallest person in the room, that smile could take up an entire room alone. This wasn’t that though, this was a gentler sort of smile. It was a quiet thing, the difference between being shouted at from across the room and having something whispered in your ear.

“Yours is different,” Tater insisted. “Nicer.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and Dustin fought to keep his eyes straight forward. “I like listening to you.”

At that Dustin blinked and couldn’t stop his eyes from jumping back up to Tater’s. He wasn’t sure if he just imagined the way Tater’s eyes shifted as well, like he had also been looking down.

“I...I like listening to you too, Big Guy.”

“Even if I sound stupid in English?” Tater smiled as he asked, his voice low and teasing. Dustin couldn’t handle the way his stomach was twisting. It was mid-February and he was in shorts and a tee shirt and felt like he was going to sweat to death.

“Okay, but be honest, do you really sound any smarter in Russian? Because I feel like you probably don’t and you don’t even have the excuse of it being your second language.”

“Is my fourth language,” Tater corrected.

“Show off.”

Dustin’s first instinct was to retreat as Tater took an unnecessary step forward, but then there was a huge hand curling around his hip and holding him in place. Tater leaned forward until his forehead was touching Dustin’s, and Dustin forgot how to breathe. His thumb was resting on Dustin’s hip bone, burning through the elastic of his shorts. He thought of his time in the hospital, of them being in almost this exact position, and he wondered if this was just a thing now, if this was just something they did.

“Thank you,” Tater whispered. “You’re stupid, but you’re good friend.”

Tater’s nose was almost touching his and Dustin didn’t remember closing his eyes, but he couldn't pry them open if he tried. He knew he ran a little colder than most other athletes, but Tater was like a furnace, pouring heat off until Dustin felt like he was about to melt into the floor.

“You’re the one who’s stupid in four languages.”

Tater’s laugh was a huff of air against Dustin’s mouth and Dustin didn’t mean to part his lips but he was fairly certain he had lost all control of his actions at that point.

“Hey, Tater did you-”

Tater’s loose grip on his hip tightened for a fraction of a second, a painful vice grip that make Dustin gasp and stumble back out of Tater’s reach.

Both of them turned and for the second time Dustin and Tater found themselves rounding on a speechless and wide eyed Jack.

“Um,” Jack ran his tongue over his bottom lip, obviously panicking over what to say. “Hey, Snowy.”

Dustin had been told one time that he had the eyes of a poker star, and there were at least thirty ongoing jokes of him being made of ice among the Falconers alone. Even with all of that in mind Dustin was still terrified of anything on his face giving him away.

Giving him away what exactly he actually had no idea.

“Hey Jack.”

“Hi.” Jack was looking between them, and Dustin didn’t know what he found. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Tater and he was reminded with painful intensity of that slip up in their hotel room all those months ago.

He wasn’t sure how he had managed to push it to the back of his mind for so long only to resurface while he was in a hospital bed, and now again in a lone corridor of the stadium, but now it felt like it had just happened. Like Jack had just caught them twice in this compromising position and Dustin didn’t know what to do with that.

“I was just looking for Tater-”

“Right, I’ll leave you guys to it then,” Dustin interrupted as smoothly as he could, keeping his tone bored and his expression closed as he turned his back to both of them. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” He was reminded of being a child and turning off the lights, of that prickling fear that something was definitely lurking in the dark but if he ran or walked too fast it would notice him and attack. He could feel their eyes on the back of his neck as he walked away as quickly as he dared.

His car was freezing when he finally managed to slide behind the wheel. The radio came on and Queens of the Stone Age was blasting louder than he remembered leaving it, but he didn’t make any move to turn it down. Instead he finally let his poker face slip, felt his hands shaking against the wheel as he breathed in deep through his nose. His forehead was still burning where Tater’s face had been pressed against his, and he tipped forward until he could feel the freezing wheel pressed against it instead. It was like a shock to his system, an icy spike that rushed through his burning blood.

Everything was going to be fine. They just wouldn’t talk about it, and everything would be fine. Because they had never talked about it before, and that seemed to be working out great for the year.

Dustin made it home and Tater texted him a picture of a cat he saw outside his building.

Dustin kept his job but the team physician informed him solemnly the next that day that he actually needed two more weeks off the ice. He wanted to fight back against the caged look he was being given, against the avoided glances that he knew the meaning of. But he remembered Tater’s hand on his hip and he couldn’t find it in himself to be as mad as he wanted.

_X_ _X_ _X_

Attempting to define the start of something was often easier said than done, and Dustin had never been one to get himself hung up on semantics. The only thing he knew, in that sideways sort of way he did when he wasn’t trying to know it, was that there was something happening. Something was lurking just on the edges of what he was willing to acknowledge and it was slowly creeping closer, tunneling in his vision until he found himself on the verge of going blind if he didn’t look at it soon.

It was highly possible he was just too drunk and this bar was too loud and he was way too pretentious. The only thing he was certain of, through all his frightened denial and drunken stupidity, was that for some reason Jack always seemed to be around whenever that darkness began to creep a little closer.

Jack, beautiful, glorious and the only reasonable man on the team Jack, was stone cold sober the night the tunnel finally closed.

The rest of the Falconers that had decided to go clubbing that night were not nearly as intelligent, and were all way too drunk for a group that had a public image to maintain. At least, Dustin was fairly certain the rest of the group was, though it was difficult to judge the sobriety of the rest of his teammates through his own alcohol induced haze.

All he could really take in was the pounding bass of the club, the sway of bodies against him as he made his way to and from the bar, and the burn of a sickening amount of shots he had pounded back. At one point he was dancing with a woman, he thought her name might have been Christina.

She had red hair when she let him push her up against the darkly lit hallway that led to the bathrooms. Her hair had been soft under his hand, and she had sighed against his mouth when he tightened his grip. She had been blonde when she gripped his thigh under the table of the crowded booth they had been crushed into, and she had smelled like fruity cocktails as she pulled herself into his lap to give Poots more room on his other side.

In hindsight, there might have been more than one woman, but Dustin couldn’t be bothered with the details.

Everything was spinning and the music was humming through his veins and he couldn’t remember how he had lost either of his partners throughout the night. He couldn’t find it in himself to care as he leaned up against Jack’s shoulder at the bar.

“Jack, get me another whiskey.”

Jack’s arm was wound around his back, holding him steady as they found an open space at the bar.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”

Before Dustin could articulate a response to such an asinine question, both he and Jack were pitched forward into the unforgiving wood of the bar, gasping at the sudden impact.

“No such thing!” Tater told them, voice rising easily above the music. He unhooked his arm from around Jack’s shoulders to curl it around Dustin instead, dislodging Jack as he pulled Dustin back against his chest.

Get the fuck off of me,” was what he meant to say. It was his default, the reaction he gave Tater every time he tried to bodily throw him around.

“You fucking get me, Tater,” was what he said instead. Leaning back on his heels made it easy to rest his head back against Tater’s very warm and very broad shoulder.

“I do my best.” Tater’s voice was so close in his ear, loud enough to drown out the sounds of the club around him. The arms around his waist tightened, pulling him closer.

The music was different and louder and it was more crowded and he couldn’t smell the salt air of the Baltimore coast, but he was drunk and Jack was laughing at him and Tater was standing way too close, and all of it felt very strongly of the best kind of deja vu.

Jack turned to the bar, raising a hand to get the bartender’s attention and Tater hooked his chin over Dustin’s shoulder. Their cheeks were pressed together and Dustin could smell the cologne Tater always wore whenever they went out. He felt like it was burning in his lungs, filling his mouth and drowning him in it. He couldn’t count the number of times he had made fun of Tater for wearing it, and now he couldn’t remember why he had thought it was so funny.

Tater turned his head, the cold tip of his nose bumping against the skin behind Dustin’s ear, and that tunneling vision he had been trying to avoid closed in all at once and with very little warning. Tater was warm and solid behind him, his arms thick and tight against his chest, and Dustin’s heartbeat was in his throat. It wasn’t really much of a substantial moment, they had better moments to look back on and consider the Beginning of a terrible idea, much more romantic thoughts than the heat and drunken stupor of a club. However, it wasn’t so much stupidity as it was willful ignorance, and the alcohol flowing through his veins was not allowing him any more excuses.

Jack’s back was turned and Dustin was way too drunk and every single one of his very carefully constructed barriers he put up to keep himself continuously calm, cool, and collected crumbled under the weight of intoxication and one very attractive Russian.

His hand found Tater’s and unwound his fingers from around his arm. “I want to dance,” he announced, just loud enough for Jack to hear and know where they were going before he was tugging Tater’s hand free and dragging them back towards the dance floor.

Dustin had no idea of what time it was, had given up on time entirely as a concept somewhere around six shots ago, but he knew it was late. The club was incredibly dark, the kind that lended itself well to people who had any sort of fears about pictures or videos of their antics being leaked to the media. It was why they had chosen this particular club, tucked away in a part of the city they weren’t supposed to be in, and in the morning Dustin would thank God for their foresight.

The floor was sticky with alcohol, and the bodies pressing in on either side of them were drunk and disoriented and paying them no attention. So Dustin took advantage of the brief window of anonymity they were granted and let his hands press against Tater’s stomach, fingers spread wide as he moved them upward. His hands skirted over the muscles of Tater’s abs, and then up over his pecs on their journey to find hold on his broad shoulders.

It was too much and not even Tater could have brushed it off as a platonic. He thought he could feel Tater’s heartbeat under his fingertips, could hear the catch in his breath as he touched him, but he knew, somewhere down in the back of his head where logic still existed, that he couldn’t. All he could feel was the pounding of the beat and all he could hear was the thrum of whatever electronic sound was coming from the speakers.

Maybe if he had looked Tater in the face he might have be able to discern anything from him, but even in his haze he couldn’t stomach it. Instead he focused his gaze on his hand, looking stark and pale even against the white of Tater’s button up. The lights of the club were catching every third beat on Tater’s stupid gold chain, and Dustin thought maybe he could blame the way the room was spinning on that.

The shirt and the chain and the cologne and the way Tater slicked back his hair whenever they went out was just all so stereotypically Russian and Dustin chirped him savagely about it every time. He wondered then if this was some Slavic deities’ way of punishing him for it. If it was, Dustin had to hand it to the old gods, because Tantalus’s punishment had nothing on the way Tater felt this close to him, on the way the sweat on his neck was catching the light, or on the way Dustin wanted to move and couldn’t.

He couldn’t and he couldn’t and he couldn’t.

None of which stopped him from the fact that he did. He felt a little powerless, a bit like his bones didn’t belong to himself anymore as he pitched forward, pressing his face into Tater’s neck, lips just barely parted against the column of his throat. He could taste the salt on his skin, and he knew he should pull back but one of his hands was moving up the other side of Tater’s neck until it wound through his hair, catching and pulling at the product holding it in place. It should have been gross, but it only made the fire in his stomach grow hotter.

Dustin waited, his mouth somehow too wet and his throat too dry, for Tater to pull them apart. For Tater to laugh at how drunk he was and to steer them back to their teammates before Dustin pushed them further than what they could reasonably return from.

Dustin counted on Tater for a lot of things, but being the more reasonable one of the two of them was rarely it. It shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was then, when Tater grabbed him by the hips, his fingers finding the same spot they had when he had held him in the empty hall not two weeks ago, and pulled them impossibly closer. They had to shift their positions, Dustin pulling himself closer and sliding one thigh between Tater’s.

Neither of them could dance, not really. It had never stopped Tater from attempting, no matter his level of intoxication, and Dustin didn’t really care what he looked like after about three drinks. Not that it really mattered, because what they were currently doing would hardly be considered dancing even in the broadest sense of the word.

He had danced with at least two other people over the course of the night, had kissed both of them at different times and pressed himself close against them. Three wasn’t even a record for him, but this was different. A professional athlete hooking up multiple times in a night was cause for eye rolling and a few errant high fives. A professional athlete rolling their hips against their teammate’s in public the way Dustin was currently doing would have earned a far bigger feature on Deadspin.

Any lingering doubts Dustin had about mistaking Tater’s physically affectionate nature for something else were out the window as one of Tater’s hands slid into his back pocket, cupping him hard as he pushed them roughly together. He could feel Tater’s cock through his jeans and the thought of it was monumental enough to make him even stupider than he already was.

“You alright there big guy?”

Tater’s answer was a growl that Dustin felt vibrate through his chest more than he heard it and his other hand slid under Dustin’s shirt, calloused fingers catching on the skin along his spine. Dustin’s head was still tucked against Tater’s and he felt their stubble catch when Tater shifted enough to get his mouth next to Dustin’s ear.

Dustin,” was the only response he got in return, a low and possessive growl that Dustin had never heard him make and it was enough to shut down what was left of his rational thought processes. He had never been fond of his name. He had always wished it had been something more sophisticated sounding or more interesting. Dustin was the name of the manager of a hardware store, or of a guy who did nothing but hang out at bar’s all day, or of an accountant living in a dead end town.

The only other time he could remember Tater calling him by his name was in the hospital, weary and vulnerable after three nights of sleeping on the uncomfortable hospital arm chair. Dustin thought, for the first time in a very long time, that maybe it wasn’t such a bad name after all.

The thought only lasted a second, before he felt the unmistakable feeling of teeth grazing against the shell of his ear, and he didn’t think about much else again.

It sent the fire in his veins into an inferno, burning hot enough he thought it was going to collapse right there on the dance floor, held up by Tater’s arms wound around his back and nothing else. His hands shook where they gripped at Tater, and he couldn’t stop the shaky exhale he breathed on to his skin. Desperation was running thicker than the alcohol he had downed, and he didn’t think he was going to make it out alive. Everything was too hot and too bright and too much and tried to remember where the bathrooms were, where the back exit was, anywhere, absolutely anywhere he could drag Tater off to and where they could quickly and at least semi-privately make the biggest mistake of their lives. Because he didn’t care what the consequences of tomorrow were, all he knew was that he was already doomed so there was no point in delaying things any more. He didn’t even know what he wanted, couldn’t articulate far enough past drunken need and want and desire.

Alexei.” Later, after half a gallon of Gatorade and a bottle of painkillers, Dustin would be humiliated at how wrecked his voice had sounded in that moment, how desperate and pleading that one word had come out. Tater’s grip on him tightened enough that he thought he would have bruises tomorrow. “Please-”

Before he could incriminate himself any further, there was an extra hand gripping his arm.

Dustin gasped at the shock of it, like a douse of cold water sending a flair of panic straight through his nervous system. They were still very much in public, in full view of anyone deviant or malicious enough to turn their attention to the two full grown men grinding against one another. He was half braced for a fight, too many hormones in his system trying quickly to redirect their path from where they had been heading a moment ago, and pulled his face away from Tater’s neck.

There, as he always seemed to be at the worst possible time, was Jack.

His hand was still on Dustin’s arm as he leaned close enough for them both to hear. “Poots is sick, we gotta head out.”

Tater’s hands were still on his bare back beneath his shirt and tucked into the pocket of his jeans. Dustin’s leg was still slotted between Tater’s, hands still gripping at his hair. They were both panting and sweaty and Dustin was praying that at least the club was dark enough that Jack couldn’t see that they were both hard in their jeans.

Dustin had no idea if Jack really just was that stupid, or if his Poker face was way better than Dustin has ever given him credit for, but he didn’t even blink at the scene he had interrupted.

“Fucking lightweight,” Dustin snarled. He felt it when Tater laughed.

Jack jerked his head back the way he had come, and it was all the encouragement Dustin needed to let go of Tater, turning abruptly and following Jack through the crowd. His head was pounding and he was still painfully hard, but the continuous buzz of alcohol turning slowly nauseating and the way his shoes stuck to the floor with each step was helping with at least one problem..

Tater’s hand brushed against his shoulder blade as they walked, but Dustin didn’t turn around or bother to acknowledge it. The rest of the trip was a blur. Someone was pushing a water bottle into his hand and then he was being maneuvered into the SUV Jack had driven in, smashed up against Tater’s side in the back as Poots dry heaved into a bucket in the front seat.

Jack said something low under his breath in French, and Dustin didn’t have to understand the language to know they were being admonished for being the giant messes that they were. He closed his eyes as the lights of the city passed them by, losing himself in the rumble of the engine as they headed for Poots’s building first.

It was echoing in his head, his own voice as he leaned into Tater and spoke against his skin.

Alexei, please-

‘Please what?’ was ringing loud in his ears, an unfinished request that would have been the end of the best friendship he ever had, and quite possibly the career he had worked his entire life towards if anyone else had seen. Because he knew how that sentence would have ended if Jack hadn’t dragged him back to reality.

I’ll do anything you want.

His stomach lurched as Jack closed his car door. Dustin hadn’t even seen him or Poots get out, but the passenger seat was now vacant and Jack was turning those big concerned eyes on him. “Do you need the bucket?”

Dustin shook his head and closed his eyes again as he leaned his head back against the headrest. He couldn’t make his mouth move to form the words. There was a long pause before they were turning back onto the street, and then Tater’s thumb was drawing circles on the back of his wrist. It was the most he had touched him since they had stepped into the cool night air, and Dustin didn’t return the gesture. He didn’t pull his hand away either.

The words were still swimming in his head, logged down with alcohol and regret, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it. About what would have happened if Jack hadn’t interfered. Maybe it would have been in the alley behind the club, with his bare back against the jagged and filthy brickwork. Maybe it would have ended up in the coat closet with a fifty discreetly tucked into the attendant’s pocket and Dustin on his knees on a stranger’s jacket. Or maybe in the bathroom, with the door locked and Dustin’s hands gripping the dingy sink and being forced to look his reflection in the eye and convince himself it was worth it.

He made it all the way until his building to throw open the door and heave his stomach out onto the sidewalk.

Someone -presumably Tater- was holding the back of his shirt to keep him from toppling forward, and he heard Jack swear again as he turned off the car and slammed his door in his haste to make it to Dustin’s side.

He was being passed then, from Tater to Jack and trying to remember how to keep his legs underneath him as he stumbled unsteadily into his friend’s side.

Jack said something to Tater, who said something back, and Dustin wasn’t entirely sure they both weren’t speaking French and Russian respectively. It was a nicer thought than him being too drunk to process English.

Jack was a great friend, Dustin thought, as he helped him past his bemused doorman and into the elevator.

“You’re a good friend too, Snowy.”

Dustin didn’t know he had spoken out loud, but he did know Jack was lying. He chose not to respond to either thought.

At his door, Jack produced his keys from somewhere and was in the process of opening it when Dustin found himself speaking again.

“I fucked up, Jack.”

“You didn’t,” Jack assured him with more patience than a single member of the team deserved, let alone Dustin. “You just didn’t eat a lot today.”

Dustin snorted, face pressed against the doorframe as the door finally swung open and Jack tried to nudge him through. “Not what I meant.”

“Whatever it is, you can deal with it tomorrow.”

Dustin snorted again as he gripped the wall and hauled himself into his own apartment.

Jack was close behind, and then he was brushing past him and Dustin didn’t much care where he was headed. Instead he stumbled his way through his dark living room, knocking over something that sounded breakable before face planting on his couch.

“Whatever you did, or said, Tater will forgive you.” Jack was beside him, placing a glass of water on the coffee table, before gently pushing his head to the side so he wasn’t suffocating. “I don’t think there’s anything you could do that Tater wouldn’t forgive you for.” There was something unusual in Jack’s voice, but Dustin was too far gone to even begin to analyze it.

“He called me Dustin,” Dustin told him, cracking his eyes open just enough to see Jack’s silhouette, lit from behind by the kitchen light but his face was in darkness.

Jack tilted his head. “That is your name.”

Dustin narrowed his eyes, but couldn’t make out anything of Jack’s face in the shadows. “I guess.”

Dustin had another point to make, another question to ask, but when he turned his head to continue, Jack was gone and there was light filtering in through the curtains his sister had insisted he put up. The clock above his TV said that despite his body telling him he had only laid down a minute ago, that it was 9 in the morning. His mouth tasted like something had died in it. He hadn’t thrown up again in his sleep, and as the memories from the night before began to pour in, he tried to count his wins where he could.

When he finally managed to find his phone, he had three texts waiting for him. Jack and Thirdy had both asked that he text them when he was awake, so he sent back his hasty replies before taking a deep breath and opening the one from Tater.

Tater: did you die???
Snowy: Yeah. Tell Jack he’s gotta give my eulogy and if Poots doesn’t throw himself on my coffin I’m haunting all of you.
Tater: im not know what eulogy is but I will tell him
Snowy: You have google. You are currently holding a phone that has that.
Tater: why you try give me homework when all I do is care for you ((((((
Tater: i could be dead too you know. you not even ask.
Snowy: are you dead
Tater: yea
Snowy: cool
Tater: 8)

Dustin could still feel Tater’s hands against his skin, his obvious erection grinding against Dustin’s as his teeth nipped at his ear, and he did his best to reconcile it with the ridiculous emoticon staring up at him from his phone. He spent five minutes on that, before he gave up and tried to go about his Sunday as if his world wasn’t falling apart around him.

For all his denial and trying to ignore the facts he couldn’t push it off any longer. He felt like he might as well have gotten it tattooed on his chest for how obvious and permanent it felt.

Because he had feelings, of every conceivable and humiliating form, for Alexei Mashkov.

.....

Practice on Monday began with more chirping than Dustin was ready for, but he took it all in stride. He ducked his head as some of the older guys gave him a hard time, and tried to laugh along and roll his eyes at the appropriate moments. No one mentioned anything involving Tater, confirming that Jack had been the only one to at least partial witness their mistake. Another miracle arrived when Poots finally walked in and all attention was shifted off of him. Poots was bright red under his orange hair and Dustin might have felt some sort of sympathy if he wasn’t so relieved to be able to change in peace.

If anyone noticed the bruises on his hips, no one said anything.

Dustin miraculously didn’t see Tater until they were both back on the ice, and then it was easy to ignore everything that had happened. Being in the crease had always been a way to clear his head, to focus on nothing but the puck and the career he’d been training for since he was in middle school.

Throughout practice he was slower than he would have liked, leading to another round of chirps. Tater sunk a goal just to the right of his leg and Dustin snarled as he smacked his stick against the post. Tater shot him a dazzling grin, free of any sort of strain or internal panic that Dustin had found himself facing, and skated on one leg as he turned away to make another lap.

The locker room was almost as uneventful. The weight of the weekend was feeling less and less strenuous on his shoulders, but he still considered going to see Brian before he left. At some point in the night he had pulled something that was still tingling every time he raised his left arm, and it was always better to get that sort of thing looked at sooner rather than later.

He had his shirt off and was working on his pads when he felt finger tips brush against his shoulder. There wasn’t even a moment of speculation, he knew who it was.

“We going to dinner after we leave, Thai place down on corner, you coming?”

He had one pad halfway off when he looked up at Tater, and suddenly wished he hadn’t. Saturday night had been nothing, he decided with a shocking clarity. Tater in his stupid gold chain and white button up had been child’s play next to the look of open affection Tater was giving him in the middle of the locker room. His eyes were cast down, like he was struggling to meet Dustin’s eye but doing his best to power through anyway. There was a redness in his cheeks that Dustin didn’t know if he could blame on practice or not. His smile was soft and vulnerable and Dustin felt like he was being handed something very delicate and important, something he and his clumsy fingers had absolutely no business holding and were definitely going to shatter.

“Uh, sorry. Maybe next time, I gotta go talk to Brian.”

Tater’s smile didn’t shift, but the crease between his eyebrows deepend. Dustin averted his eyes to return to fully take off his remaining padding.

“Okay. Maybe next time,” Tater parroted back after a tense silence.

“Yeah, have fun.”

“Yeah, get home safe.”

When Dustin finally chanced another glance up, he saw Tater’s retreating form, walking past Jack as he held the door open. Jack was looking right at him, something strange on his face before he was also gone, following behind Tater as the door swung shut.

Dustin considered, for the first time since Jack had pulled them apart at the club, that maybe Jack wasn’t really an idiot, and maybe he wasn’t that great of an actor either.

Maybe he just hadn’t been surprised.

....

It was 11 at night when Dustin’s phone buzzed with a text.

Tater: when you want to talk, let me know. I’m not make you.

It was 3 in the morning when Dustin finally fell asleep, phone still on his chest and nothing to say.

.....

A week of uncertainty and mild awkwardness turned into two, and then three, and then the Falconers were in the playoffs again, and there wasn’t really any time for any feelings that didn’t relate to hockey, so Dustin didn’t let himself have them.

Tater kept his promise and the world kept turning.

Until it stopped.

_X_ _X_ _X_

When they won, they won as a team.

That, Dustin could understand. Even a shutout wasn’t all about him, no matter how much praise he received for it. It was a culmination of his skill as a goalie and the defense’s ability to hold a line and the forwards to score on the other team before they could sneak one past him. Every win they earned was a team effort.

But when they lost, it was a different story.

On the ice the team had swarmed him as the final horn had sounded, blocking the celebration happening on New Orleans side of the rink. They had knocked helmets against his mask in silent solidarity and in the locker room everyone had touched his shoulder or knocked a fist against his arm. No one had said a word, everyone knew the drill well enough.

He had been assured time and time again that they shared the wins and they shared the losses. Deep down he knew that was true, but in actual practice it was Dustin who let the final goal go through in OT. It was Dustin who didn’t move fast enough as the Serpents Center scored just above his left knee.

It had been a half second mistake but it had knocked all 23 members of his team and all of their hopeful fans out of the possibility of a second Stanley cup win. New Orleans was going to the next round of the bracket and Providence was not.

It had been a close game, but the last two hadn’t been and that had been on Dustin too. 5-2 and 7-3 and the media was having a field day with the incompetence of one Dustin Snow. Not that Dustin had listened to any of it. He knew better than to tune into any sort of social media or sports broadcast during the playoffs, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know. He could feel it pushing in on him from all sides like the walls closing in, crushing him in his own inability to do his job.

Someone brushed their hand against his hair as they passed but otherwise he was left alone in his stall, elbows on his knees and his face in his hands as he slowly walked himself through how to keep his breathing steady. Outside of the small bubble he had created for himself he heard the locker room door close, and then there was nothing but him and his thoughts in the empty space.

Had he been able to think of anything except the puck hitting the net behind him, he might have had the foresight to realize he was never left alone after a loss.

As it was, he couldn’t consider things like decorum and past precedent as his hands began to shake where they were gripping his hair, and he was powerless to stop the burning in his eyes from pushing forward. He was alone and there was nothing to stop him from wallowing, if only for a minute, on his own personal failures.

“Oh, Snowy.”

He jerked his head up in shock, and found himself eye to eye with Tater. Either Tater had learned not to throw his body weight around as often as he liked to or Dustin had really been too deep in his own self pity to hear him kneel down in front of his stall. When he blinked he could feel the moisture on his eyelashes and Tater’s face, only inches from his, got even blurier.

“Fuck,” he hissed, running his knuckles roughly under his eyes. When he pulled it back he could see the dark black smudged across the back of his hand. “God fucking damnit.”

He knew with 100% certainty that the eyeliner helped him see better on the ice. It reduced the glare and let him find the puck better, but it was the media’s favorite thing to go after when his performance wasn’t up to par.

Even without the eyeliner his critics called him pretty and effeminate in ways that were not meant to be taken as compliments. Dustin knew the terms that got thrown around when he lost. He didn’t want to consider what they would say if he showed his face in public with makeup smudged across his cheeks.

“Hey,” Tater whispered, his voice almost lost in the empty stalls around them. He reached up, taking Dustin’s hand in his before he could rub anymore at the inky black lines. “Is okay, you’re okay.”

Dustin wanted to push him away, wanted to rip his hand out of Tater’s too gentle grip but he curled his fingers around the ones holding his instead, tightening his grip as he leaned forward, further into Tater’s space.

He wanted to apologize, wanted to say he was sorry to the entire team for letting them down, but he knew they wouldn’t allow it. He would have been hushed and yelled over until he had broken down in front of them all if he had tried. But here, where it was just the two of them and he was already halfway to a meltdown, he didn’t see the harm.

“Tater, I’m so sorry-”

“No.” Tater didn’t raise his voice, but the one word was enough of a command that Dustin swallowed the rest of his sentence. Which one of them moved first wasn’t important, what was important was the warmth of Tater’s forehead pressed against his and the way he could feel Tater’s breath on his mouth. Tater was still gripping one of his hands and his other hand was on Dustin’s cheek, scratching against the stubble that was slowly turning itself into a real beard.

“We’re sorry. All of us,” Tater continued. “You are best goalie in whole league. We let you down. We let too much past us.” He could hear the strain in Tater’s voice. He hadn’t missed the redness under his eyes before they had gotten too close to look at one another. Dustin wasn’t the only one in pain and he wasn’t the only one who was blaming himself.

Dustin tried to shake his head, but Tater’s gentle hand on his face turned into a grip, stopping him from moving. He made a noise of protest in the back of his throat, but didn’t try to dislodge him. He spoke as fast as could, trying to get the words out before Tater could stop him again. “You got hurt last year, you weren’t with us and you should have been and we had this year to do it again with you and-”

He had made it farther than he had anticipated really, before Tater was shushing him again, one thumb pressed against his lips to get them to stop moving. Dustin huffed in defeat, head pressing harder against Tater’s as he slouched.

“I wasn’t there last year and got chance again this year. Then I blow it.” Tater sighed and pressed his thumb harder against Dustin’s mouth when he felt him try to retaliate. “I want win Cup for you this time.”

Dustin laughed, the sound a little hysterical as it echoed around them. When he spoke his mouth moved against Tater’s finger. “You were trying to score on Harlow for me, specifically?”

When Tater shifted his head it rubbed the tips of their noses against one another and the tenderness of the gesture was enough to leave Dustin’s stomach feel hollow. “Every time I score, is for you.”

It wasn’t true of course, Dustin wasn’t so far gone to believe that. Tater’s life, just like Dustin’s, had been focused on hockey for as long as either of them could remember and there was nothing more important. The idea that Tater would think to say something so cheesy and cliche and romantic - Dustin couldn’t take it.

He shook himself free of Tater’s grasp and reached up between them to cup Tater’s jaw with both hands, relishing in the way his stubble felt under his fingers, before turning his head and fitting their mouths together.

Tater gasped into his mouth and Dustin couldn’t stop the sound he made at the feeling. It only took a second of hesitation before Tater’s hands were on him, pulling him down out of his stall and onto the floor so he could change the angle, kissing him like it would be the last time. Dustin slid his hands into Tater’s hair, pulling gently and going weak in the knees at the growl it elicited from Tater. When he felt Tater’s tongue press imploringly along his bottom lip he opened his mouth and responded in kind.

It was a fierce and desperate kiss that tasted like sweat and tears and Dustin’s knees were aching where they were ground into the hard floor of the locker room. When Dustin had allowed himself think about this moment, it had never been like this.

They broke apart after a few more frantic exchanges, foreheads pressed together again as they breathed against each others mouths.

Tater swallowed hard and spoke first. “You didn’t text me,” he accused, sounding far more confused and uncertain than he did angry, and Dustin let out a shaky breath.

“I know. I’m sorry.” He ran his thumbs along Tater’s jawline. “I was scared.”

Tater shook his head hard enough that Dustin almost lost his grip. When he opened his eyes, his chest tightened at the ferocity in Tater’s eyes. He had less than a second to process it before Tater was kissing him again, tilting his head back to angle him right and kissed him so hard that Dustin couldn’t stop his gasp or the way he tightened his own grip. When Tater was satisfied with his work he pulled back, panting harder than he had been a minute ago. “Don’t ever be scared of me.” It wasn’t a demand so much as a plea, desperate and quiet and horribly honest against Dustin’s kiss swollen mouth.

Tater leaned forward, one arm coming behind Dustin’s back to push him backwards until he was leaning back against his stall and Tater was shifting higher on his knees to tower over him. “I’m never hurt you,” he promised, pressing delicate kisses to the sides of Dustin’s mouth and down his jaw. “Never you.”

The laugh that bubbled up over his tongue wasn’t expected, but Tater didn’t seem to mind as he continued his onslaught of affection across Dustin’s cheekbones. Dustin felt his responding laugh as a rumble against his throat Tater began pressing fluttering kisses there, and Dustin gasped again. He felt Tater’s mouth move against his skin as he went a little boneless in his arms.

“You like that?” Tater’s voice was lower than a whisper, hardly a breath in the quiet still of the locker room and Dustin felt it move through his body like a spark. There was a thickness in those words, an implication that he couldn’t handle on the floor of an empty locker room.

He was spared the indignity of having to answer so obvious a question as footsteps signaled someone approaching down the hall. They had only just managed to detangle themselves, Tater rising to his feet and Dustin sliding back onto the seat of his stall, before the door opened.

“Hey.” Brian’s usually worried expression looked somehow even more pronounced than usual. His gaze shifted between the two of them, but Dustin had no idea what he found. They were both out of breath and disheveled, but Brian had found them in much worse conditions already. “I was just coming to find you,” he told Dustin after a pause.

“Yeah, sorry, I’m coming.”

“No worries.” Brian shrugged, obviously uncomfortable with how to proceed. Dustin hoped it was because of the tense loss and not for any other reason.

As Dustin collected his things and made to follow Brian to the door, Tater grabbed him gently by the wrist.

“Text me later.”

“I will.”

Tater held fast and gave him a stern look that Dustin had to fight down a smile against. “This time I mean it.”

Dustin shook his hand free with a snort. “Me too, I promise.” With his back to Brian he dropped a wink before he could think better of it, before turning abruptly so he didn’t have to see Tater’s answering expression.

Brian put a hand on his shoulder as he passed, the only acknowledgment of wanting to give any sort of comfort, and Dustin found himself so grateful it almost hurt. Dustin knew, deep down, that he never appreciated Brian enough. He spent almost as much time with him as he did any of his teammates, and he had no right to not consider him just as good of a friend.

It was highly possible that he just never counted himself half as lucky as he should have in multiple aspects of his life.

He was already on Brian’s table by the time his phone buzzed and for once Brian didn’t say anything as he pulled it out of his pocket.

Tater: <3 <3 <3

Dustin tucked it away before Brian could see, but there was nothing he could do about the way his face was burning.

Brian kept his eyes down but there was a hesitant smile creeping across his face. “Maybe it wasn’t all a loss today then, eh?”

It didn’t go unnoticed that he was just out of striking range at the risky comment. Dustin sighed as he leaned back, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes and he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to start laughing or crying again.

“Yeah, maybe not.”

_X_ _X_ _X_

Dustin thought it would have been easy from there. They’d made out on the locker room floor after grinding against each other three sheets to the wind in a dark club. Tater had sent him a string of emojis. Actually, Tater had sent him multiple strings of emojis, which had grown increasingly more confusing in meaning. Dustin wasn’t sure if the shrimp, maple leaf, and triple eyes emojis were supposed to be romantic or sexual or if had just wanted to send Dustin some more symbols for the hell of it.

Regardless, it was supposed to be easy.

Getting knocked out of the finals had been a brutal blow, but it meant the team had a longer summer stretching out in front of them. Which inevitably led to everyone’s family wanted them home as soon as possible, and for a longer visit than usual. So instead of finally settling the buzzing under his skin and giving into the 3 AM thoughts he’d been repressing for almost two years, Dustin ended up spending the next three weeks in Montana. Stuffed between his siblings on their parents old plaid couch and listening to how the farm was holding up and how eight neighbors he couldn’t even remember were doing and having his mother berate him for daring to not take a third helping of everything she made was not the summer he had anticipated, but he found himself stuck.

Three weeks of being trapped in the middle of absolutely nowhere with his multitude of siblings, nieces, nephews, various pets, and an inappropriate number of Snow related puns. It wasn’t that Dustin didn’t love his family. He was the outlier of the bunch, the only one to move more than ten miles from the homestead and even if he sometimes felt like an outsider in the house he grew up in, it was always good to be back.

He had his treasured family time for about four whole days, and then Tater had texted him.

To be fair, Tater had texted him almost nonstop since they had parted ways to opposite sides of the world. But it was 2 in the morning and Dustin was letting the harsh light of his phone burn into his eyes as he laid on his back in his childhood bedroom. In the hall someone was walking to the bathroom, and on the other side of wall someone was watching the television, and outside the wind was howling, and all the way from Nizhny Novgorod Tater was sending him a shirtless picture.

His mother had warned him the house was getting draftier, and despite his multiple attempts to pay for repairs she had steadfastly refused. Since he first stepped foot in the house he hadn’t understood what they were all complaining about, didn’t feel the cold as acutely as they said he could. But now he felt like he had just swallowed a lungful of freezing air as he stared at the image on his screen.

He had seen Tater shirtless more times than possibly anyone. They shared a locker room for over half the year and their stalls were next to each other. It wasn’t like Tater was ever shy on his instagram either. Everyone knew Tater loved finding excuses to post shirtless pictures where anyone could lose a solid chunk of time secretly memorizing the lines of his bare muscles under his skin.

Anyone at all.

This time was different, because it wasn’t in the locker room where Dustin’s thoughts were so zeroed in on hockey it was hard to think of anything else. It wasn’t on Instagram where he was posting to the public and faking dumb at not knowing how many people were following him just for those pictures alone. This was a picture sent specifically to Dustin and no one else.

Tater was in a hot tub, submerged to his hips as he sat on a step. His elbows were propped behind him as he leaned against the side, a bottle of beer in his hand. He still had his gold chain on, draped just above the hard line of his collarbone, clinging to his skin with the water running down his chest. His hair was almost black with the water weighing it down, plastering it to his forehead. He was staring directly at the camera, eyes half lidded in what Dustin could only describe as arrogance.

It was an incredibly obvious display of peacocking. Dustin had gotten dick pictures that were less obvious in their intent. He looked like the front runner of the latest boy band Hollywood was trying to crank out to teenage girls. He looked like he was about to star in a low budget gay porno. He looked like an asshole.

Dustin couldn’t breathe through the pressure on his chest because he had never wanted anything more in his life than this cheesy Slavic asshole who was sending him bait pictures in the middle of the night.

Dustin wrote and deleted three separate texts all asking if it was illegal to drink anything other than vodka in Russia before he changed his mind.

Snowy: Who took that picture?
Tater: Dmitri. he say i need send picture to american girl I wont stop texting.

The dots saying Tater was typing appeared and disappeared so many times that Dustin thought he might have been having an issue with his phone until it finally sent.

Tater: he say is only way ill get her to send photos back
Snowy: I’ve been sending you snaps since the fucking second I got here.
Tater: not what i mean

He followed that text up with a string of eye emojis and Dustin pressed his fist against his mouth to keep from laughing out loud.

Snowy: You can look as much as you want as soon as we’re back in Providence.

Tater sent another string of eye emojis and Snowy had called it a night at that, finally flipping over his phone and settling in to the sound of I Love Lucy playing through the wall. He didn’t read the next text until morning.

Tater: youre beautiful

…..

That had been three weeks and two days ago exactly, to when Dustin found himself standing lost in the middle of his kitchen in Providence. His plane had landed hours ago with enough time for him to get home and take the longest shower of his life and change his outfit twice before deciding he was being ridiculous and designating himself to sitting on the couch watching Hulu to calm his nerves. He had made it through half an episode before he changed his shirt again and finally texted Tater.

Snowy: I’m back, do you want to come over

The dots appeared below his text almost immediately.

Tater: yes! Im coming now if thats ok
Snowy: yeah that’s cool
Tater: ))))))))

Dustin made it through two more episodes of something, he was barely even paying attention to the genre but he thought it was supposed to be a comedy, before there was a knock at the door.

Without meaning to he felt his hands tighten on the edge of his chair reflexively and when he managed to pry them off he was horrified to find his palms were damp. He was pushing 30 and felt like he was 16 all over again, trying to ask his billet sister’s friend out on a date.

There was nothing to be nervous about, he reminded himself, and tried not to get lost in the deja vu that mantra caused. It was Tater, and there was nothing to be nervous about around Tater. But it had been difficult to try to convince himself that his extra time in the shower and his multiple clothing changes had been for anything other than the fact that it was Tater he was trying to impress. That he was worried Tater, his best friend and teammate for the past three years, might find something physical about him that he didn’t find appealing.

Thinking about that was easier than considering that he had never been self conscious about his looks. It was everything else he had to be scared of.

He was determined to play it cool, however. But when he opened the door and found himself face to face with Tater for the first time in three weeks, he felt a little like there was one less stair than he thought there had been.

Tater’s attention had been somewhere down the hall but as Dustin opened the door it slid easily back to him, an enormous and earnest grin spreading across his face. Dustin remembered the first time he had seen him, he remembered thinking very distinctly that Tater had been kind of a goofy looking guy with all of his features over exaggerated like a cartoon character.

Dustin still maintained his initial assessment was correct, he had apparently just made an egregious error somewhere along the way about what he found attractive. Because there was a heat settling low in his gut and a fierce fire in his chest that was a confusing mixture of affection and pure want that left him dizzy.

Tater’s eyes flicked down for a second before coming back up. As if he was shy. Like Dustin made him nervous. As if that was possible. “Hi.”

“Hey,” Dustin greeted after too long of a pause. He leaned against the door, using his shoulder to push it open further. Tater was wearing a button up, the kind he always wore when there was a chance of getting laid in his future. It was tight exactly where it needed to be and was open just enough to show of a glimmer of gold and the beginnings of dark hair on his chest. Dustin took too long to reconcile what Tater’s wardrobe choice meant right now. “You coming in?”

“Yes!” Tater nodded enthusiastically and Dustin couldn’t help his snort of amusement as Tater brushed past him.

It wasn’t until he followed Tater into the kitchen that he realized what he was holding.

“Did you bring me wine?”

Tater jumped at the question, looking like he had also just remembered he had the bottle. When he looked back at Dustin though, he only grinned and held the bottle to his chest. “No, I bring us wine. Don’t be greedy.”

Dustin laughed but moved to retrieve his corkscrew and two glasses. “We’ll see.”

Tater moved to the other side of the counter, leaning across on his elbows so he and Dustin were eye level. “I..I remember you like Rieslings, yes?”

Dustin ducked his head to open the bottle, but kept his eyes on Tater a moment longer. “Yeah, I like Rieslings.”

Tater breathed what might have been a sigh of relief at that and Dustin couldn’t hold back the smile forming at the corner of his mouth.

He managed to pour both glasses before he couldn’t take the stretching silence anymore.

“You only wear that shirt when you think you’re gonna get laid,” he challenged, leaning back against the cabinets to buy himself the appearance of being casual. “It’s half past midnight man, you got plans after this I don’t know about?”

Dustin had only had the privilege of seeing Tater blush a handful of times, but it was just as gorgeous spreading across his cheekbones as he remembered. Embarrassed but not put out, Tater sent him a grin that made everything go a little dizzy again.

He shrugged, pretending to think about his answer. “I’m having some plans tonight,” he admitted, as if it were a great secret. “But I’m not thinking I have to go anywhere else.”

Dustin’s poker face was excellent, but there was only so much he could do about the heat he could feel rising in his cheeks. He looked down at his glass as he took another drink for a distraction. “Fuck man, you can’t look at me like that without buying me dinner first.”

“Buy you whatever you want.” It came out in a rush, all on one breath like Tater couldn’t stop himself from saying it. There was a hitch in his voice that sent a spark straight through Dustin’s spine.

He finished off his glass in one go, far too fast for what was probably an expensive bottle, and looked up at Tater from under his lashes. “Fuck, I missed you.” It wasn’t what he had meant to say but it was the only thing he felt like he could in that moment.

Tater’s own glass still had some wine left in it, but he copied Dustin and threw it back like cheap whiskey. His eyes were dark when they met Dustin’s. “I missed you so much, Snowy.”

It was like a dam, Dustin thought. He had put too many thoughts and feelings and emotions behind that wall and trusted his own resolve to hold. But Tater was staring at him like that, like Dustin was something important and desirable and like he wanted to devour him all at once, and he felt the first first crack in the levy.

“Fuck,” was all he managed to say before he was crossing the space, hands reaching out until he grabbed Tater’s face between his palms and dragged him down.

Tater was ready this time and met him halfway, parting his lips against Dustin’s as he grabbed hold of his hips.

Dustin never thought he would have such a thing for someone’s hands on his hips but life had a tendency to lead him places he didn’t expect. Like making out with his best friend against his kitchen counter like his life depended on it.

Tater tasted like the wine and his hair was softer than it had any right to be and he smelled like the cologne he wore when they went out. Dustin was hit with a spike of arousal or affection or maybe it was both, at the idea of Tater putting it on to impress him.

When they broke apart for air, Tater kissed his mouth fleetingly once more before moving to his neck, peppering kisses just beneath his ear.

Dustin’s breath was ragged in the otherwise quiet of his kitchen and he clutched at Tater’s broad shoulders like a lifeline. “Bedroom.”

“What?” The word was spoken against his skin, a movement of lips and a rumble of breath that made him shiver.

“Bedroom. We are not having sex in my kitchen.”

“Is that what we’re doing?” Tater asked with a nip to his earlobe.

Fucking shit.”

Tater’s laugh was a rumble against his skin, burning through his henley down to his chest.

“Tater,” he breathed, unable to care about how much like a whine it sounded.

Tater nodded, nose bumping the column of his throat with the movement. He dug his fingers into Dustin’s hips once more, forcing Dustin to bite down on his lip to keep in an unseemly sound. Tater then slid his hands around to squeeze at his ass before moving down to the backs of his thighs and in one fluid movement, lifting him up against him.

Dustin scrambled for a second, thrown off balance as Tater picked him up, grabbing at his friend’s shoulders for purchase. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“You said bedroom,” Tater told him, his obliviousness hilariously faked as he walked them only marginally awkwardly to Dusin’s bedroom. “I’m taking us to bedroom.” With that matter of fact statement he dumped Dustin less than gracefully onto his mattress.

Dustin blinked up at him a moment, unable to keep up with his own thoughts. “I’ve...never been carried before.”

Tater tilted his head to the side, still staring down at him. “I’ve carried you before.”

Dustin rolled his eyes. “Okay, I’ve never been carried to bed by someone before.”

Tater’s smirk only grew. “I’ve carried you to bed before.”

The growl of annoyance he gave only seemed to delight Tater more. “You’re such an ass.” He reached up again, twisting his fingers in Tater’s shirt and pulling him down onto the bed with him.

Tater went willingly, letting himself be pulled into another hard kiss. It was a dangerous power trip, an ego boost he would never be able to overcome as he felt Tater become pliant and gentle under his hands. There was nothing he wouldn’t do if Dustin asked, and Dustin had no idea how or why he had been given that key but he refused to let go of it. His hands were in Tater’s hair, on his face, running across his shoulders. Tater’s hands were everywhere all at once, rubbing circles against his hip bone and squeezing his ass and musing through his hair.

“Take your fucking shirt off,” Dustin demanded against Tater’s mouth, slipping the top buttons free with one hand until he couldn’t manage any further and settled on sliding his hand through the gap he had made. Tater’s skin was soft over hard muscle and burning hot beneath his fingertips.

Tater laughed against his cheek, a breathy and hopeless sound that Dustin wanted to drown in.

“Okay, okay, I’m going.” Tater sat up, his knees bracketing Dustin’s thighs as he undid the rest of his buttons and shrugged his shirt off his shoulders. Like everything Tater did, it was obviously meant to be a show. He let the shirt slip off his shoulders, grinning down at him in that same cocky look he’s had in the hot tub picture. Dustin felt his jaw clench as he stopped himself from biting his lip, forcing an eye roll instead. Not to be outdone he reached behind him, pulling his henley up over his head in one motion.

The second he was free he was back on Tater, hands in his hair and pulling him back down into another kiss. The feeling of their bare skin touching was electrifying and he shivered involuntarily as Tater pressed him back down into the bed. Tater’s hands were warm where they rested on his sides, his thumbs burning a path over Dustin’s ribs. Something in their kiss shifted, turning more reverent than feverish as their tongues slid against one another and Dustin tried to commit every corner of Tater’s mouth to memory.

Dustin managed to get his hands between them, palms tracing the same path from Tater’s stomach to his pecs that he had done the night they had gotten drunk at the club. Only this time there was no shirt in the way and no alcohol to dilute the feeling of Tater’s muscles jumping under his touch. He thought he could spend hours just like this, half clothed and just making out on his bed. If it was all he got from Tater he wouldn’t have complained.

Every muscle in his body tensed, his head falling back against the mattress with a groan as Tater’s hand was suddenly between his legs, palming him hard through the fabric of his jeans.

One hand gripped Tater’s hair and the other the sheets as he dug his heels into the mattress and did his best not to thrust up into the pressure like a teenage virgin. He had lost count of the number of people he had slept with in the last year alone, but this was different. Because Tater’s hand really was ridiculous huge and he could feel the heel of it stroking his cock through his pants as they made eye contact. Tater’s eyes were dark and the raw affection he found there was almost too much to handle.

It was all always almost too much with Tater and Dustin still hadn’t learned how to deal with it.

So he shut his eyes and focused on not moving his hips as Tater worked him harder, the bed shifting as Tater swooped in to press hasty kisses along his jaw. Dustin kept his hips still but shifted as much as he could to press their chests together, to feel as much skin against skin as possible.

The realization of where they were was settling in hard. They were behind locked doors, safe and sober in Dustin’s apartment. There was no Jack or Brian to interrupt. No alcohol or drugs to pull either of them under and away to safety. There was nothing save a disaster to stop them and neither of them had ever been good at backing off when they should have.

So when he felt Tater’s thumb press against the button of his jeans, his breath hitched in something between fear and relief.

“Is okay?” Tater asked against his ear, punctuating it with a nip that made him let out another breathy groan.

“Yes.” He nodded. He found the effort to release his death grip on his sheets and to cover Tater’s hand with his own, unable to stop himself from moaning again as he felt Tater tighten his grip under his hand and over his cock simultaneously.

Tater’s mouth was moving against the sensitive spot where his ear met his jaw and stopped trying to control the soft sounds he made at the attention. He could feel it when Tater smiled.

“I always know you would be loud.” Teeth grazed his ear and Dustin bit down on his lip as Tater popped open the button of his fly. “Always moaning for Brian and he not even touch you here.” When Tater pushed his hand down the front of Dustin’s pants, the answering noise he made was more indecent than anything else currently happening. “Always know I could make you even louder.”

“Always?” Dustin managed to pant out, no longer bothering to stop himself from shifting his hips up into Tater’s warm hand. “How long you been thinking about this?”

Tater’s bite to his neck was harder than before, his tongue following quickly after to sooth the mark. “Too long. Feel like bad friend, having not friendly thoughts about you.”

Everything was heat and pressure and it was mounting fast but through all of it he could hear the lament in Tater’s words, the nervousness still there.

He found Tater’s face with his hands again, framing his face as he brought him in for another slow and burning kiss. Tater still tasted like the wine forgotten on the counter.

Their lips brushed when he spoke. “I don’t know big guy, I think this is pretty fucking friendly.” He rolled his hips to emphasize his point and bit down on his lip again to control the sound he made.

The heat of Tater’s hand was gone then, withdrawing from his jeans and pushing down on his shoulders to lay him flat on the bed once again. Tater was on his knees beside him, both of his hands curling in the waistband of Dustin’s jeans and then his boxers. When he tugged on them the meaning was unmistakable, but he still paused, big brown eyes looking up at Dustin beneath his lashes.

“Fuck, Tater, fish or cut bait here.”

Tater’s eyebrows drew down in his confusion. “What?”

Dustin snarled at the hold up, and he didn’t miss the way Tater’s eyes darkened at the sound. He lifted his hips, pushing at Tater’s hands with his own. “Take my fucking pants off.”

Tater breathed out a laugh and complied with the demand. “Always so bossy. Just push me around.”

Dustin couldn’t remember the last time he was nervous to be naked around someone.

He knew he was a good looking guy, had known it long before ESPN had asked him to take off his clothes for a series of cameras. He hadn’t been embarrassed that day, and he hadn’t been embarrassed any day since. So there was no reason now, not with Tater who had seen him naked at least a hundred times a year for the past three years running.

Dustin reminded himself of that fact as firmly as he could as the cool air his his skin and he heard his jeans hit the floor.

He ducked his head as Tater leaned back on his knees, taking his time letting his eyes roam over Dustin’s body. He could feel his gaze like needles against his skin, a ghost of a touch that he knew wasn’t there that was making his chest rise and fall faster than it should have been. It was making his face burn and his hands curl into fists in the sheets as he tried to keep his composure.

“Fuck,” his hissed, cursing as little more than a reflex as he ran a hand over his face to try to regain his composure. His hands were trembling slightly again, his palms too sweaty against the soft slide of the sheets. He forced himself to look back at Tater.

Tater was looking at his face now and with the bedside light behind him it was harder to make out his expression.

“This is happening.” Tater whispered, and Dustin saw his throat move as he swallowed.

Dustin balled his fists in the sheets, still feeling the heaviness of Tater’s gaze, moving up and down his body. “Yeah. Looks like it.”

Tater’s hand was on his face, tilting his head until their lips met. Dustin gasped against his mouth as Tater’s other hand traveled down his chest, burning a path slowly downward with his fingers spread.

“You want this,” Tater breathed against the side of his mouth. It wasn’t a statement so much as a question.

Despite the nerves fluttering in his stomach, the creeping worry that something was about to go horribly wrong, he smiled against Tater’s jaw. “Yeah. I really fucking do.” Before he could stop himself or rethink his actions, his hand was between them, undoing the button on Tater’s fly and sliding beneath the waistband of his jeans. He wasn’t wearing underwear, and Dustin didn’t know whether he should commend him for the foresight or make fun of him for being so easy. In the end he did neither, keeping his mouth shut as he wrapped his fingers around Tater’s cock and began to stroke.

Tater pressed his mouth against Dustin’s hair but he heard his choked off gasp all the same. His hand found Dustin’s hip and squeezed hard enough to hurt, a spike of pain that only fed the fire burning inside of him. He swore as Tater’s grip turned hard enough to bruise and his hips pushed him up into Dustin’s slow hand movements.

“Sorry.” Tater’s breath was ragged against Dustin’s hair, almost panting even as Dustin kept his grip loose. “Am I not moving fast enough for you?”

Dustin bit down on Tater’s shoulder at the teasing. Tater huffed out a sound that might have been an attempt at a laugh. “Maybe I’m fucking tired of waiting here. I know I’m fucking hot but you can look later.”

Tater’s hand around his wrist stilled his movement in surprise, and then Tater found his other hand and locked it in the same soft grasp. Suddenly Dustin found himself pushed onto his back once again, with both of his wrists pinned above his head on the pillow. He felt the air leave his chest, leaving him hollow and dizzy at the soft sound his hands made as they hit the pillow.

“You say I can look as long as I like, so I’m going to look.”

When Tater moved to straddle his hips, he hissed through his teeth at the feeling of Tater’s pants brushing against his erection.

“I think you’re wearing too many clothes.”

Tater pressed his wrists harder into the pillow as he kissed him again. “You are so beautiful,” he said instead of responding. “You pose for ESPN just to try to kill me, da?” He trailed kisses over Dustin’s cheekbone, before landing on his ear, dragging teeth, tongue, and lips over the sensitive skin. “You know how beautiful you look? You know how hard I try not to think about those pictures?” When he rolled his hips the drag of his pants against Dustin’s bare skin made him shudder.

“Well now you got the real fucking thing, so what are you gonna do?”

Tater let go of his wrists and he could only lament the loss for a second before Tater’s hand was wrapped around his cock and he all but shouted in his surprise.

“You going to wake up your neighbors,” Tater teased as he tightened his grip and Dustin moaned.

“Fuck Craig, he’s an asshole anyway.”

Tater’s laugh was a vibration against his collarbone as Tater continued to map his skin with his mouth, moving over his shoulders and down the column of his neck. His other hand gripped his hip, holding him down as he shifted over Dustin’s body.

Dustin realized what was happening as Tater’s lips moved over his abs and a hint of teeth grazed against his skin. “Holy shit, Tater.”

When he had imagined this scenario in his head, the roles had always been reversed, with him on his knees and Tater with his pants undone. But as Tater licked the first long and filthy stripe up the underside of his cock, he couldn’t for the life of him understand why he hadn’t considered this.

FUCK.”

Tater hummed against him and then he was taking him in fully and Dustin was gone. One hand found Tater’s hair, and he couldn’t ignore the way Tater sighed every time he pulled just this side of too hard. His hips wanted to move, but Tater was holding them solidly in place with one hand while his other dragged teasing fingers down his shaking thigh.

“Tater, fucking shit. Goddamnit.” He was rambling, babbling nonsense and every swear word he could think of. As Tater’s mouth did absolutely filthy things to him he was having trouble caring that he sounded like an idiot. Not when Tater’s mouth was warm and wet and his hands were wide and strong and Dustin had been waiting for this for over a year.

But this wasn’t what he was waiting for, he reminded himself sharply as he felt the familiar pressure starting to build.

“Tater,” he managed to breath out on a moan, tugging hard on his hair. “Tater, come on.” He shuddered as Tater squeezed his thigh harder but didn’t relent. “Alexei.”

It was the magic word apparently, as Tater gave one final pornographic swirl of his tongue before he was sitting up. He wiped his mouth of the back of his hand and the grin he gave Dustin was nothing short of prideful.

“Yes?” He asked, tongue darting out to lick his swollen lips. “You not like?”

Dustin couldn’t find the breath to speak for a moment, too caught up in the sight he was looking at. Tater with his red lips flashing that cocky smirk and his hair sweat slicked and that stupid gold chain still hanging around his neck. It always made Dustin think of a 70s porno, and he wanted to scream at how endeared he was by it. He was being belittled in bed by a grown man who wore a gold chain and unironically went by the name ‘Tater Tot’ and Dustin had no idea how his life had led him to his point.

When they kissed again he could taste the salt on Tater’s tongue. “Take your fucking clothes off,” he snarled, putting as much of a command into his words as he could muster.

For once Tater complied without comment, moving off of Dustin and shifting to the side of the bed to undo his pants the rest of the way. Dustin kept his gaze focused on the ceiling as he heard Tater’s clothes hit the floor, and then the bed was shifting and there were those hands on his sides and he was cupping Tater’s face again and it was nothing but the soft heat of skin on skin and Dustin couldn’t think of anything else.

When Tater got his hand around both of them at once, Dustin groaned into his ear.

“Tater, Alexei, I want-”

“Da?” Tater worked his hand over them both, his own breathing going shallow and quick. “What you want?”

“I want you to fuck me.”

Tater’s hand slipped and his grip on Dustin’s hip tightened. “What?”

Dustin blinked, using one hand to push his sweat damp hair out of his face so he could meet Tater’s eye. “I mean, if you want to.”

Tater’s eyes went wide, his mouth slightly slack before he nodded so aggressively that Dustin couldn’t help but laugh. “Da. Yeah. Yes. I want. I just...you want?”

“You keep fucking asking me that,” he teased, running the tip of his nose along Tater’s jaw. “The answer is always gonna be yes.”

“I’m just...I wait so long for this. Keep thinking I’m dreaming.” The kiss he planted on Dustin’s jaw was far too soft for what was happening and Dustin ran his hand through Tater’s hair.

“Like your imagination could ever make me this fucking good looking.”

Tater laughed, but shifted them further up on the bed. Dustin swore under his breath, trying to keep his breathing even as he was reminded of how easy it was for Tater to move him.

“Where…”

Dustin reached out a hand, rapping his knuckles along the nearest bedside table in answer to Tater’s question.

Tater leaned over him to open the drawer and Dustin tried to resist the urge to just lay back and watch the way his muscles moved under his skin when he stretched. He had seen Tater naked thousands of times, but never before had he been allowed to look. Now that he gave himself the chance, he found he couldn’t stop. Dustin couldn’t remember why he had ever found Tater goofy looking. Maybe he was just biased now but Tater was gorgeous, with his dark hair dusting over lean muscle.

When Tater closed the drawer Dustin shut his eyes, like he had been caught doing something he shouldn’t. “Do you want me to turn over?”

Tater pressed a kiss to the underside of his jaw. “Nyet,” he chastised gently, nuzzling in against the joint of Dustin’s neck and shoulder. “Stay like this. Want to see you. Please.”

“Fuck,” Dustin breathed out, though he wasn’t sure if it was out of nerves or arousal. He opened his eyes. “You sure?”

Tater snorted and Dustin told himself it wasn’t endearing. “Most beautiful man in all of America, want know if I’m sure I want to look at him,” he teased, trailing kisses over the side of his neck and up his cheek.

“Only in America?” Dustin asked in between the hurried brushes on their lips. “There some fucking Canadian you’d rather be with right now, or am I stand in for some boy back in Russia?” Tater’s thighs were warm and solid where they were pushing his further apart.

Tater’s laugh tapered off into a gasp as their cocks lined up and Dustin bit back a whine as Tater reached between them to get his hand around them both again.

“No one in Russia, no one in Canada, no one anywhere else,” Tater assured him as he stroked. “Just you.”

Dustin could barely remember what they had been talking about, let alone form a coherent reply so he only swallowed and managed to say, “okay.”

They had been sharing a locker room for three seasons now, so it wasn’t exactly news to Dustin that Tater was a big guy. He had just under half a foot in height on him and at least 50 pounds of muscle. Dustin had chirped him about having hands the size of a catcher's mitt before, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember why he had once thought that was such a funny thing. Not when one of those hands was pinning down his hip like he weighed nothing and the other was working along his cock in the way that it was.

Tater leaned back and Dustin kept his eyes on the ceiling as he heard the condom wrapper tear. He clenched his fists in sheets at the quiet sound Tater tried to repress as he worked it onto himself.

And then Tater was leaning down over him, forcing his legs obscenely wide so he could press their chests together and trap him in a fierce kiss. Dustin ran both of his hands through Tater’s hair, holding his face close to his so he could deepen the kiss, like he could put everything he was too chicken shit to say out loud into the movements of his tongue and his lips.

It was Tater who finally broke them apart, kissing Dustin’s nose when he tried to pull him back in again. He turned his face into Dustin’s grasp, kissing along the thin skin of his wrist. “You sure?”

Dustin nodded, only minimally embarrassed at how hard he was breathing despite hardly anything happening yet. It was the most sober he’d been during sex in far too long, but he felt drunk on anticipation. “Yes, stop fucking asking and fuck me.”

“I stop if you want, Snowy, any time. You just say, and I stop.”

Dustin groaned in annoyance, “Tater-”

Dustin.”

It was harder than it should have been, meeting Tater’s eyes. They were naked and hard and Dustin was bracing himself to get fucked into the mattress, but the look Tater was giving him was raw and open. Tater felt things so viceraly, so close to the surface and never seemed to try to hide anything. Dustin was realizing now that maybe he hid more than he let on, because this was more. This was Tater with his already generous walls completely down and staring down at Dustin with nothing short of adoration, something akin to worship, and Dustin didn’t know what to do with it.

He wanted to tell Tater to knock it the fuck off, that he didn’t need anyone looking at him with that dumb expression.

He wanted to commit every inch of that look to memory.

“Okay,” he answered quietly, his breathing too loud in the otherwise silence of his bedroom. “I’ll tell you if I need you to stop, I promise.” He swallowed, his mouth dry when he tried to speak. “Alexei.”

Tater arched off of him, his mouth still pressing kisses along his jaw as his hands disappeared from Dustin’s body. “Like the way my name sound when you say.”

“I love it when you call me Dustin,” he confessed, startling himself with how easily the words spilled out without his consent.

Tater made a sound like a whine and Dustin jumped when he felt his fingers, now cold and wet, brush against his inner thigh.

“You know, when I think about this, I usually picture us other way,” Tater confessed, looking almost guilty in his admission.

Dustin’s felt like he had been spinning, the room going slightly out of focus as he processed that information. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Tater echoed, leaning down for another quick kiss. “Maybe next time.”

Dustin swallowed hard. The news that Tater had thought about them having sex wasn’t exactly groundbreaking at this point. The thought of Tater touching himself while thinking about Dustin fucking him required more scrutiny than he was currently capable of. “Definitely.”

“Have you done this before?” Tater asked.

“Fuck dude, a little late in the game to be asking, don’t you fucking think?” He drew in a shuddering breath as Tater’s palm was pushing against his balls and his fingers were moving lower. “Yeah, it’s been a while. But yeah. I’d ask you the same thing, but no one sucks dick like that on the first try so I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you’re not about to lose your fucking virginity here either. Which is gonna be a story I wanna hear later, by the way.”

Dustin was rambling and Tater was still looking at him with that obnoxiously soft smile as he pushed a finger in.

Dustin gasped, head falling back and his rant cutting itself off abruptly as he adjusted to the feeling.

“I think you lie to me,” Tater said after a moment of hesitation. “You do this more than you tell me.”

Dustin grinned back at him, relieved or something like it at finally being the one to be a step ahead. “I didn’t lie. Just had some time and too much optimism before you got here.”

Tater’s entire body froze, eyes going wide and hands stilling all at once. If they were anywhere other than where they were Dustin thought he would have laughed.

Tater blinked at him, the same look on his face he always had when he was trying to remember a word in English. “You...Before I get here?”

Dustin rocked his hips, trying to remind Tater of the original plan. “Yeah, like I said, optimistic.”

Despite his movements it took Tater another moment to come back online, to shake off his shock at the situation, and then he was moving all at once. Tater’s tongue was in his mouth and another finger was joining the first.

“Like I say, you going to kill me,” Tater whispered against his mouth, echoing Dustin’s groan when he twisted his fingers.

“Yeah, yeah, fuck man, I’m good just-” Dustin let his head fall back, choking on a gasp as Tater moved. “Fuck, Tater, I’m ready just do it.”

Tater’s mouth was pressed against his ear, his breathing ragged and almost pained. “I’m not want to hurt you-”

“Holy fucking shit, do you want me to beg? Is that what you want? Because my fucking dignity went out the window like six weeks ago so I fucking will if that’s what it take to get you to quit dicking around and fuck me.”

Tater’s laugh was breathy and loud amid their previously hushed tones. “Okay, okay, stop complaints. Make me think I’m not do good job here.”

“I’ll stroke your ego in any direction you want, you fucking asshole.” It was more of a grumble than a real complaint, something to keep himself occupied as Tater withdrew his fingers and shifted at the edge of the bed. This time Dustin heard the cap of the bottle pop and he couldn’t stop the shiver that ran the length of his spine.

“Shh,” Tater hushed, running his clean hand across Snowy’s thigh, rubbing circles into the muscle with his thumb. “Relax. I take care of you.”

“God, you’re like something out of a fucking porno. Are you trying that? It’s ridiculous.” Despite his snark he reached for Tater when he leaned back over him, pulling him down in a soft kiss as their chests brushed again and Tater’s warm weight settled down on him, pinning him to the mattress once again.

“You like it,” Tater told him with a cheeky grin, unphased by Dustin’s chastisement.

Dustin tried to keep his breathing even, tried not to embarrass himself anymore than he already had as Tater kissed his cheek and then paused.

And then did not move again.

“What are you doing?” Dustin finally asked.

“Hm?” Tater hummed, and pulled back just enough that Dustin could see the look in his eye and narrow his own in response. “Oh, well, you say you beg, so I wait.”

Dustin blinked at him, eyes widening as he understood what Tater was asking. “Are you fucking serious right now?”

Tater grinned, a wicked looking sort of smile that Dustin refused to admit he found attractive. “You offer.”

Dustin closed his eyes for a moment, biting down on the inside of his cheek to gather his strength before he met Tater’s gaze again. Tater was still grinning, looking far too entertained. When Dustin bit down on his lip he saw that look slip as Tater’s eyes followed the movement.

Dustin squeezed his thighs around Tater’s hips and relaxed back into the sheets beneath him. “Please,” he sighed, barely above a breath. “I want you to fuck me, Alexei, please.”

The smug grin was gone from Tater’s face between one blink and the next, and what color was left in his eyes was lost to the black of his pupils. Dustin brushed a thumb against Tater’s temple, pushing back the sweat slick hair he found there, and then Tater was moving forward to crush their lips together.

It was a foreign feeling, one he hadn’t experienced in years and he had to close his eyes and tilt his head back against the pillow at the feeling. Alexei asked only once if he was okay, just at the beginning of things when the pain was just the wrong side of too much mixing with the edges of pleasure and Dustin groaned. Instead of responding, he had shifted his hips down when Alexei wouldn’t and dug his fingers into Alexei’s back when the edges of his vision went white.

Alexei hadn’t asked again.

In his nearly 30 years of existence, Dustin had more sex than he could remember, with more partners than he cared to count. There hadn’t been nearly as many men as women, and even fewer still where he found himself in the position he currently did, but it was still far from his first time.

But it had never been like this.

Maybe it was the first time in far too long since he’d been completely sober with someone, or maybe it was just because it was Tater. Because it was Alexei Mashkov groaning his name as he rolled his hips and Alexei who was refusing to break eye contact with him as sweat rolled down the straining muscles of his neck and Alexei looking down at him with so much raw affection that Dustin felt like something inside him was breaking.

When Dustin had imagined this he had always imagined Alexei talking to him in Russian. He had fantasized far more than was healthy on the way it would sound, growled against Dustin’s ear as Alexei fucked him hard into the bed. He had always thought it would be something dirty, a harsh snarl echoing in his skull, promising every filthy thing Alexei wanted to do to him, all said in a language he couldn’t understand but in a tone that he did.

But it wasn’t anything like that at all.

Because Alexei was panting against his skin and whispering Russian in an endless stream like his life depended on it, like he couldn’t stop himself. Dustin couldn’t understand a single word, but he could understand the meaning behind it as clearly as he always thought he would. Despite Alexei’s hands, gripping his shoulder and his hip in a bruising grasp, and the raw strength he was in no way holding back as he slammed his hips forward, there was no growl in his voice. It was desperate and passionate and Dustin was all at once incredibly thankful that he couldn’t understand any of it because the pure adoration in his tone was already making his vision go blurry around the edges without understanding the words themselves.

Dustin grabbed at his hair, pulling him down into a sloppy kiss just to stop him from talking in that tone, from looking at him with that half lidded wonder, like Alexei was the unworthy one in this situation. Like Alexei wasn’t the greatest human being on Earth with a heart three times larger than everyone else’s and like Dustin wasn’t the luckiest son of a bitch alive for tricking him into liking him.

Their kiss wasn’t so much a kiss as it was just breathing against each other’s mouths as they tried to keep up their rhythm and Dustin couldn’t find it in him to care. The walls of his apartment building were thick but he knew there was no way Craig wasn’t going to know what was happening and who it was happening with, because if Alexei looked like he was out of a bad porno, Dustin sounded like it.

It had been a problem all his life, not being able to talk when he wanted to, and not being able to shut up when he needed to. He had never been able to keep quiet in bed either, and the combination of sex and words of praise he couldn’t understand and just Alexei himself was enough to push Dustin over the edge.

Alexei’s name in every variation he had ever said it, every curse word he had ever learned, and every unbidden plea and affirmation were ripped from him in between moans and gasps and whimpers and Dustin couldn’t reel himself back in from the spiral he was on.

Fuck, God, Tater, please, shit, Alexei, yes.

He was babbling and he knew he sounded like a disaster in motion, but Alexei’s hands stayed where they were. His mouth stayed soft and his words gentle as he pressed open mouth kisses along Dustin’s collarbone when he arched off the bed.

He couldn’t stop himself from talking, but he could at least keep it nonsense, could just barely restrain himself from saying something he couldn’t come back from. Because he didn’t have the luxury of another language to hide his affection in, so when he slipped there was no hiding it from Alexei.

You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

It was humiliating and too much but everything was already too much, every feeling and emotion he tried to suppress pushing its way to the surface. And at least it wasn’t the three words he could taste on the back of his tongue, threatening to ruin him once and for all.

Dustin had mistakenly thought it was in the kitchen the dam had broken, but that had only been the first cracks. This now was the levy breaking, the flood that he was powerless to stop as everything hit him too hard at once.

Alexei groaned close to his ear, biting down hard where his neck met his shoulder and making him cry out again. He was talking again, a confession Dustin could only begin to understand but still couldn’t process.

Dustin.” Tater tugged at his hips then, pulling him up just the slightest bit to find a new angle, and Dustin saw stars on the edges of his vision as he somehow got even deeper than he had been. Dustin stopped caring then entirely about anything other than the weight of Alexei on top and inside of him, pushing him down and deep and he thought he might float away into nothing if Tater ever let him go.

Dustin wanted to warn him, tried to form his mouth around the words to let him know he wasn’t going to last much longer, but Alexei didn’t let him. One hand was suddenly between them, wrapped around his cock and stroking hard with every thrust of his hips, and Dustin dug his fingers into the meat of Alexei’s shoulders as he cried out.

It only took a few strokes before he was arching off the bed, his thighs tightening around Alexei’s hips as he came between them. The edges of his vision were fuzzy with the beginning of tears and over stimulation and he clung to Alexei tight enough that he felt it when his shoulders tensed and his hips stuttered in tandem.

They collapsed back on the bed in a heap, Alexei’s weight pressing him down hard enough to make breathing deeply difficult, but it was impossible to move either way. For what may have been a few seconds and what may have been much longer, they both just lay there, Alexei on top of Dustin with his face pressed against his chest. Their breathing was out of sync, both of them nearly panting as Dustin tried to bring himself down from the high of his orgasm.

He had just had sex with his best friend. With his teammate. With Tater.

Dustin let his eyes fall closed as Tater finally pulled himself up and off of him. He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes, wet with sweat and something a little too close to tears, and tried to ground himself. Regret was useless and panic would only dig him in further.

When the bed dipped again with Tater’s weight he dropped his hands, unsure of what to say but certain that he had to say something. Tater was still naked, because of course he was, but he was holding a washcloth in his hands, holding it a few inches from Dustin’s bare stomach with one eyebrow raised in a question.

Dustin just stared at him, unsure what was happening before it all clicked. “Oh,” he breathed out as he shifted up onto his elbows. “Uh, yeah. Sure. Thanks.”

The smile Tater gave him, whether at his floundering or just at him at general, was laced with every ounce of affection he had whispered in his ear that night. Dustin found himself tentatively returning it.

The washcloth was warm when it touched his skin, and he sighed at the feeling. When Tater leaned in to kiss him he let his eyes fall closed. It was a gentle kiss, just a tender brush of their mouths and Dustin felt his heartbeat in his throat.

“Good?” Tater asked.

Dustin didn’t know whether he meant the sex or the washcloth or Dustin’s mental state in general but he smiled against his mouth. “Yeah. I’m good.” He swallowed down the lump threatening to cut him off. “Are you good?”

Tater brushed their noses against each other in such a sickeningly sweet gesture that Dustin couldn’t help his laugh. “Best,” Tater assured him with a contented sigh.

“Okay.”

Tater moved the washcloth over his stomach and up his abs, moving almost up to his neck before he pulled away and returned it to the bathroom. When he came back he sat next to Dustin still lying on the bed and offered a tired but fond smile.

“We need talk.”

Dustin blew out a breath and nodded at the ceiling.

Tater was silent for a long time before he spoke again. “We need talk, but...is long day. This,” he gestured to Dustin’s still naked form, lying on the bed beside him, “big. Much to say.” He cut himself off with a frustrated groan that Dustin was familiar with, but hadn’t heard in a while. It was the sound he used to make their first year knowing each other, when it was late and the game had been long and he told him one night ‘too tired, can’t translate anymore.’

“Yeah, I don’t really have the words in one fucking language right now, I can’t really begin to comprehend trying to work it through two.” Without thinking he ran one hand down Tater’s bicep, squeezing gently until Tater looked back down at him.

“Yes. Sleep now. We talk tomorrow.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Tater nodded, and Dustin forced himself to move, dragging his body to the other side of the bed to turn off the light and give Tater room to get under the covers with him.

Under the blankets they found each other easily. Dustin could have lied and said Tater sought him out, but it was both of them, arms entwining as they settled in against each other.

“You the best thing to happen to me too,” Tater told him as he pulled their chests close together again, and Dustin felt his breath catch. He didn’t know what to say, too exhausted and worn out both physically and emotionally, so he squeezed Tater’s elbow again and hoped he understood.

Tater nodded, his mouth brushing Dustin’s forehead when he spoke. “Goodnight, Dustin.”

“Goodnight, Alexei.”

It should have been impossible, falling asleep with everything running through his head. Everything around him was Tater. His body and the taste of his sweat and the phantom echos of his groans replaying themselves in Dustin’s ears. It should have been the hardest thing in the world, to press his cheek against Tater’s chest and let himself be dragged down into sleep.

It was so easy.

_X_ _X_ _X_

Sleeping on planes and buses and in strange hotel beds and the occasional locker room bench had prepared Dustin for sleeping pretty much anywhere at any time if he needed to. He could pass out in the middle of turbulence and be ready to go in an hour if necessary. But there was nothing quite like finally sleeping in his own bed. His own covers were soft and warm against his bare skin, and the mattress was firm and soft in all the places it needed to be to leave him boneless and content.

Even better yet, was the ability to wake up when he felt like it, instead of whenever his alarm screamed at him to get his ass moving to whatever practice or interview or charity event he had agreed to do. There was always a moment of trying to remember if maybe just this once he’d forgotten his alarm and was about to get scolded into oblivion by Coach for not being where he was supposed to be at 7 in the morning. A few lazy blinks at the soft blue light of his alarm clock left him awake enough to remember that no, he definitely had nowhere to go. The season was over and he didn’t have practice again for another month and a half, and his next children’s hospital visit wasn’t until next week.

He had nowhere to be except the warm luxury of his too expensive sheets and the familiar and personal comfort of his own apartment.

When the bed shifted beside him, he found himself decidedly more awake than he had been a moment ago. Wide eyed he stared at the blurry numbers again, like they would help him determine was was happening. He was in his own bed and he couldn’t taste the foul remains of last night’s vodka or whiskey on his tongue. Dustin couldn’t remember the last time he had a hookup sober - or when he had brought someone back to his actual apartment for that matter.

His partner shifted again and a large hand found his bare hip beneath the sheets, a familiar warm presence pressing up against his back with a soft hum.

Tater. Because Snowy would recognize Tater in any form even if he couldn’t see him. All of his panic, realization and subsequent breath of relief took about three seconds to unfold, and just as he relaxed back into the pillow, the rest of reality came crashing back down on him.

One eye was still pressed against the pillow where he had attempted to bury himself deeper, but the other was open wide, staring in silent panic at the far wall. Not for the first time Tater had spent the night in his bed. It was however the first time Dustin was waking up fully sober, completely naked and still sore from the happenings of the night before with Tater pressed fully against his back.

Because he had fucked Tater last night. No, Tater had fucked him, which seemed like an important distinction to make.

Tater shifted again, his hand moving from Dustin’s hip to wrap around his chest and pull him back snuggly against Tater. He could feel the coarse hair on Tater’s legs when they brushed against his thighs and he was reminded once again, startling bluntly, of the fact that they were both still naked.

“Good morning,” Tater murmured, his tone unbearably soft and heavy with his accent and Dustin felt himself melting back into the touch despite his mounting anxiety. Tater hummed his approval, pressing a wet open mouthed kiss just below his ear. He nosed along the curve of Dustin’s ear. “How you been awake so short of time, but you already think so much.”

“I didn’t fucking say anything,” Dustin shot back, voice muffled by the pillow. It was still dark in the room thanks to the heavy curtains over the window, but sunlight was peaking around the edges. Dustin could just see the outline of his furniture enough to know that if he turned around in Tater’s arms he would be able to see the expression on his face. He dug his fingers harder into the mattress, like that would keep him grounded where he was.

Behind him Tater shifted again, and in the low light Dustin could see him out of the corner of his eye. He guessed he had propped himself up on one elbow, just enough to look down at Dustin. Dustin didn’t move, not even when Tater’s hand brushed against the side of his face and up through his hair. “Don’t need to talk, that’s how loud you think,” Tater teased gently. He raised one hand and made a talking gesture by flapping his fingers and his thumb against each other. “That your head. That what it do all the time. Never stop.” He moved until he was almost touching Dustin’s nose. “Blah, blah, blah, that’s you.”

Dustin made an ugly sound in the back of his throat in lieu of a laugh and freed one hand to shove Tater’s arm away. “Fuck off.”

“See, is annoying, yes?”

“Not as annoying as 400 pounds of morning breath and night sweat trying to slap me in the face at 7 in the goddamn morning.”

“400 pounds?!” Tater echoed, caught between indignant and delighted at getting a rise out of Dustin. He leaned over him then, purposefully laying his chest across Dustin’s side and throwing his weight onto him.

“Oh, fuck man, get the fuck off,” Dustin hissed as he was pressed into the bed, the air in his lungs leaving him in one hard breath as he scrambled against the mattress.

“Why you always so mean to me, Snowy? All I do is say nice things and be nice to you and you say such mean things to me.” He pushed Dustin’s shoulder down so he was flat on his back, and let his weight settle on his chest. “I make love to you so good last night, get you to make so many pretty sounds and now you insult me.”

Dustin’s breath caught in his throat for an entirely different reason as Tater continued to push him down, and for the first time since waking up, they made eye contact. Tater’s smile took up half his face, bright even in the low light, and there was that same fond look in his big dopey eyes as he looked down at Dustin. His chest was bare, nothing but a smattering of dark hair and that stupid gold chain. He spoke about the night before like it was so easy, like they hadn’t just destroyed and rebuilt every aspect of their relationship over the course of one night.

It had been years in the making, but last night had been the burning of Rome and the rise of whatever had come next. He had lost control of the metaphor and it was probably too dramatic anyway.

“Please don’t fucking say make love,” Dustin said instead of any of the 500 questions he wanted to ask. “It’s so fucking corny.”

Tater raised his eyebrows but shifted his weight back onto his side so he was no longer crushing Dustin underneath him. “What you want me call it?”

Dustin arranged his hands under his head in as casual of a display of ease as he could muster. Despite his heart threatening to beat its way out of his chest. Despite the way he could feel every inch of Tater’s naked body pressed along his. Despite the way Tater’s fingers were tracing his ribs in increasingly distracting patterns.

It was like Tater didn’t want to stop touching him, like he couldn’t get enough of the feel of their skin pressing against each other. Dustin wasn’t sure if that was true, or if he was just projecting and too much of a coward to act on it. Tater had always been the braver of the two of them.

“We had sex,” Dustin told him. Tater had said it so easily, so he could to. It wasn’t that difficult. He swallowed hard and told himself it had nothing to do with the strain of maintaining eye contact.

Tater shook his head as his palm wandered across Dustin’s side. “Can’t say ‘had sex’,” he mocked in a terrible American accent. “Sound like you talking to doctor.

“Fine, then we fucked, or whatever. Making love sounds so…” He scrunched up his nose and pretended he didn’t see the way Tater’s smile grew. “Mushy.”

Tater’s laugh was almost too loud in the otherwise softness they had created, a barking sound that echoed against the walls and made Dustin smile against his will. “We not fuck last night.”

“We didn’t?” Dustin asked, taking his turn to raise his eyebrows. “Because if not we have a major language misunderstanding here.”

“Can you walk?” Tater asked.

Dustin frowned at him. “Like...right now? Like you want me to get up?”

“Nyet.” Tater shook his head and pressed his hand against Dustin’s side to hold him in place. “Don’t get up. Just want to know if you can.”

“Uh,” Dustin stared up at him, feeling more confused by the second. “Yeah, I can walk.”

Tater’s answering smile was more contained, a thin pull of his lips that was bigger on one side than the other and Dustin bit down on his bottom lip at the sight. “Then I didn’t fuck you.”

It was such an unbearably cheesy line, one that Dustin should rolled his eyes at and not entertained in the slightest. As it stood he tried to keep his breathing even, but the soft sound that he made on his next exhale was embarrassing and unavoidable, as was the way he pressed his chest up into Tater’s hand when he tried to move it away.

Tater was still staring at him, that smug smirk still firmly in place and growing only more confident in Dustin’s stunned silence. Dustin cleared his throat, and was horrified at the nervous laugh he didn’t mean to let slip. What else was there to do though, when he’d just had sex with his best friend and subsequently realized he was deeply and embarrassingly invested in all of his corny pillow talk?

Before Dustin could even begin to figure out how to recover his dignity, Tater was leaning in close. “Can I kiss you?”

Dustin blinked up at him, feeling like he was being whipped in a different direction each time he thought he had managed to get his footing.

“You fuck my ass last night and now you’re asking for a kiss like a gentleman? Who do you think you are Alexei Mashkov?”

Tater laughed as he leaned in, their noses brushing and one hand coming up to cup Dustin’s face. “I made love to your ass,” he corrected. “We went over this, Dustin Snow.”

Dustin turned his head so Tater’s mouth pressed against his cheek instead of his lips. “Nevermind, that’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to me. You can’t kiss me anymore, I take it back. I take everything back.”

Tater’s laugh was too loud in his ear, and his elbow was digging into his stomach as they wrestled for control of the situation. He was reminded starkly of the impromptu wrestling match in a hotel room in Canada almost a year ago that had ended in an accidental kiss.

This felt drastically different.

Their scuffle only lasted a few seconds before Dustin gave in, running his hands through Tater’s hair as he let himself be pulled in close. Tater desperately needed to brush his teeth -or more likely both of them did- and despite Tater’s attempts to clean them both up the night before, Dustin needed a shower. It didn’t matter though, not when Tater’s body was so large and warm and solid where it was pressed against his and Tater was making such soft sounds against his mouth.

When they pulled apart again, breathing in each other’s spaces and staring at each other through half lidded eyes, Tater gave him that blinding smile once again.

“You have a pretty smile,” Tater told him, pressing a kiss to the side of his mouth. “Is selfish, but I like that you give me it more than anybody else.”

“You-” Dustin wanted to say something, say anything in response to that as Tater moved his mouth across his cheek in a gesture so sweet in made his chest ache. The words caught in his throat, a jumble of everything he wanted to say mixing together and making him doubt himself until he couldn’t. So he closed his mouth and turned his head until he found Tater’s again and kissed him in what he hoped was a good enough substitution for what he couldn’t say.

After a minute or two Tater leaned back again, blowing out a long breath between his lips as he put a few more inches of distance between them. Dustin wanted to tell himself he didn’t try to follow him, but it was a lie.

“We-” Tater began, a thought half formed before he stopped, eyes moving from Dustin to the side of the bed. Dustin couldn’t read his expression, and tilted his head back to follow his line of sight, and immediately felt his anxiety resurfacing at what he found.

DB, the little stuffed bird Tater had placed in his hospital bed months ago, was still sitting on his bedside table, tiny little legs dangling off the base of the lamp.

“You kept DB,” Tater said, the awe in his tone making it apparent that he had expected Dustin to have kept it.

Dustin swallowed, eyes still on DB. “Yeah man, of course.” Gathering what little courage he had left he told himself he was already in the deep end, no need to fear the jump at this point. He looked back at Tater. “You got him for me,” he explained, letting his fingers scratch lightly at the back of Tater’s neck. “You told me he’s supposed to look after me when you’re not here. He’s just doing his job.”

Tater’s expression was, for once, unreadable. There was a muscle in his jaw twitching as he stared down at Dustin with wide eyes. The silence between them continued for a second too long, but before Dustin could think to say anything more he was being kissed again. Tater’s hand was under his jaw, pushing his head back as he deepened the kiss until Dustin almost forget about DB entirely.

When Tater pulled away again it was with a wet sound and a heavy breath.

“We need to talk about this.”

Dustin didn’t groan, but it was a close call as he ran his hands over his face. “Do we? I hate talking about shit.”

“You love talking,” Tater challenged. “You never shut up, but that’s not important. Because I like you, and I don’t want,” he struggled for a moment frowning at the far wall as he considered his words. “Was awkward, before. You were awkward. I’m not want that again.”

Dustin bit the inside of his cheek but didn’t say anything.

“I like you,” Tater continued once it became apparent that Dustin had nothing to add. His hand was creeping back over Dustin’s chest. The movement was slow, like he was waiting for Dustin to push it away. “Like you more than friends, more than sex.”

Dustin had thought it a million times over the course of their friendship, and a million more over the course of whatever it was that was currently happening, but Tater was the braver of the two of them. Dustin kept all of his emotions locked down deep inside of him, kept behind solid walls with passcodes and intricate locks where no one could judge or interpret them. Tater was the complete opposite. Everything he felt was laid out on his sleeve, open and bare for the world to see and conclude what they wanted, and Dustin had no idea how he did it.

Dustin had always been the first person to avert his eyes when someone started displaying more emotion than he was comfortable handling. He always just felt like it was the polite thing to do. For once, he found himself unable to look away from Tater’s face as Tater took his turn to be the one unable to meet Dustin’s eyes. There was the barest hint of a tremor in his voice, an uncurrent of nerves as he tried to speak plainly and Dustin couldn’t stop himself from reaching up, one hand sliding up the back of Tater’s neck as he listened.

Tater closed his eyes at the touch, a smile cracking through the nerves that had drawn his face tight, and turned into Dustin’s hand to kiss his palm. When he opened his eyes again, he met Dustin’s. “You’re so beautiful,” he told him, voice barely above a whisper in the stillness of the bedroom. “You’re so smart and so funny and so kind and I want this. Want you.”

He turned over Dustin’s hand in his grasp to kiss his knuckles and Dustin struggled to find the air to breathe. One day he was just going to pass out from the force of all of Tater’s open honesty.

Dustin could remember the night before in almost perfect clarity. He could remember the taste of Tater’s sweat soaked skin, and the feel of pure muscle beneath his fingers, and he could remember every stupid thing he had confessed.

You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’

He hoped Tater could remember that too, that his humiliating moment of honesty would stay with him. Because when he wanted to say something profound and equally earth shattering back to Tater, all he could manage was; “Okay.”

For all the in-eloquence of his nonchalant response, Tater’s eyes went wide and his chest went still at the single word. “Da? Yes?”

Dustin nodded. “Yeah.”

Their teeth clashed when they tried to kiss again, both of them trying to be the first to move, but Dustin refused to be deterred by the less than romantic outcome. He pushed back at Tater’s shoulders as he moved, flipping their positions until he was straddling Tater, hands tight on either side of his face as he tried to kiss him senseless. One sheet was wrapped almost painfully tight around his leg, but he couldn’t move with Tater’s hands big and gentle on his bare back, keeping him steady as everything around him felt like it was shifting.

“Let’s be fucking boyfriends or whatever,” he spoke against Tater’s mouth. “Fucking...hold hands and meet my parents and make me watch all your shitty Netflix shows and all that goddamn shit.”

Tater nodded, nearly knocking their foreheads together in his enthusiasm as he confirmed his interest repeatedly in all of the above in Russian and English. “We be like Zimmboni and Little B.”

Tater had meant it as a good thing, Dustin knew. It wasn’t quite a bucket of cold water on his mood, more like a flick from a spray bottle, an uncomfortable reminder that while they were isolated in the safety of his apartment, they would eventually have reality to face again. A reality that included Jack and Thirdy and Marty and the rest of the Falconers and the League and their fans, and the swooping sensation in Dustin’s stomach was no longer a pleasant one. Dustin wasn’t even out to anyone in the hockey world and he still had insults hurled at him like he was. He was called too small, too delicate featured, and too feminine for the sports world as it was, He could already hear the echoes of jeers in his head if they went public.

But that wasn’t today, it wasn’t even this week. So Dustin brushed it off as he kissed Tater again and said instead; “I’m shit at baking and you really don’t want to hear my southern accent.”

Tater laughed, and wrapped his arms low around Dustin’s back until he could sit up, effectively pinning Dustin in place in his lap. “Wrong. I do want to hear that. But maybe I be Little B,” he challenged. “You and Jack more similar anyway. Both always so-” Tater cut himself off to make a face, a sort of scowl with his eyes half lidded and his bottom lip protruding.

Dustin poked at his face until he stopped making it. “Stop fucking talking about Jack in my bed. I don’t want to be thinking about his stupid face while I’m trying to get off.”

“Is that what you trying to do?”

“No.” Dustin managed to untangle himself enough to slide off of the bed and head towards the bathroom. “Right now, I want a shower. I’m fucking disgusting and it’s your fault you goddamn animal.”

When Dustin stopped in the doorway to look back over his shoulder, Tater was looking back with dark eyes and rapt attention. He looked good, sprawled out on Dustin’s rumpled bed, hair in disarray and half hard.

“Can do both.” The offer was gentler than Dustin thought Tater had meant it, more reverent. He watched as Tater swallowed and shifted so he was sitting on the edge of the bed. “Been thinking about you in shower since those pictures.”

Dustin rolled his eyes to try to hide his own nerves at the return to that particular topic. “You still on about those fucking pictures? That was months ago, man.”

Tater licked his lips, hands twisting together for a moment before he made his decision and stood up, crossing to the doorway to tower over Dustin. He planted both of his hands on either side of the doorframe and Dustin knew he thought he was going for seductive, but it just seemed shy. “Was rude of you, really, to make me see those pictures. We have to shower together all the time, all week, but I’m so good. Never look. Then you take picture for me to stare at whenever I want and ruin everything.” Tater slumped against his own arm, burying his face in his bicep with a dramatic sigh. He cracked one eye open to make sure Dustin was watching.

He rolled his eyes in response. “The picture wasn’t for you, you entitled asshole.” Dustin turned his back to turn on the shower, hoping the heat he could feel rising in his face could be blamed on the water temperature. Behind him, he heard Tater close the door.

“No,” Tater agreed. When Dustin turned around, Tater was leaning back against the sink, bottom lip between his teeth as he stared unashamedly at Dustin. “But real thing is.”

“Fucking douche,” Dustin told him through his own grin, reaching out for his arm to pull him towards the shower. “You gonna stand there chirping till the water gets cold or are you getting in?”

They fit together so easily even standing, and though the feeling of having to crane his neck back to look up at a partner was new, Dustin thought he could get used to it. If only for the brilliant smile Tater gave him when he made the effort. Or maybe for the way Tater’s hands were tracing in warm circles on their way down his spine. They had been together as closely as was possible just last night and had wrestled across the bed only a few minutes earlier, but there was something decidedly more intimate about standing pressed naked against one another under the harsh light of his bathroom.

“Want to-” Tater began in English before finishing off in something in quick Russian, a smirk turning his smile a little more nefarious.

“Can’t really help you out if I don’t know what you’re asking for there, Alexei.” It was an awkward place to say his name, and it wasn’t strictly necessary, but Dustin found he liked saying it. The way Tater’s grip tightened on his back told him he felt the same.

“You not have to do anything, Dustin,” he assured him as he bumped their noses together. One of Tater’s hands dipped lower on his back to run his wide palm over Dustin’s ass. “I good boyfriend, I take care of you. Just trust me.”

“Oh Jesus now I’m scared.” Dustin laughed, the sound foreign even to his own ears as it echoed off the bathroom walls.

But he didn’t protest as Tater pushed him back, stepping into the shower and tugging Tater along with him and allowed himself to be pressed up against the tile wall as the water warmed his skin and Tater’s mouth left a trail of fire down his neck.

As his boyfriend kissed along his shoulders.

The world outside was going to be a nightmare to navigate, and neither of them could pretend that this thing between them would be as easy out in the world as it was behind closed doors. But for now Dustin was the happiest he could remember being in years, as his boyfriend pulled close against him under the spray of the shower, and just for now that outside world didn’t matter.

Because Dustin Snow was in love with Alexei Mashkov.

And maybe one day he would be brave enough to tell him.

And that was enough for now.