Nursey looks up from his spot facedown on the porch to see if Dex has noticed him complaining yet. If he has, he doesn’t let on. He's fixated instead on a drop running from his popsicle down his wrist, leaving a streak of blue raspberry in its wake.
He tries again, flopping onto his back to sprawl, octopus-like, a few feet from Dex. “Uuuuuuuuuggggghh.” When Dex still doesn’t move, Nursey rolls closer and jabs him in the leg. “Dex. My dear beloved Dex. Pay attention to me.”
“Do your homework, Nursey,” says Dex, entirely unsympathetic.
“I can’t,” Nursey groans. “I lack inspiration. Let’s go get frozen yogurt.”
Dex flicks his popsicle impatiently, splattering Nursey’s face with juice. “Listen, you lost beer pong, and that means you’re coming to House of Blues with me Sunday.”
“Because that’s exactly how I want to spend my weekend, completely sober while watching a Billy Joel cover band.”
Apparently, Dex has no time for Nursey’s witty banter today. “Which means,” he continues, “that you’ve gotta get your homework done today so we can go.” He bites the popsicle with his front teeth. Nursey winces. “So either you do your work, or I sit on you until you do.”
“Like your bony ass could do any real damage,” Nursey shoots back, but he knows Dex has a point. “Look, it’s not just one assignment. I’m fucking dead if I don’t come up with a subject for the muse project soon.”
“Muse project?” Dex seems mildly interested, even though he’s still mostly focused on his popsicle.
Nursey cards his hands through his hair and lets out a long breath. “So you know how I’ve been trying to get into Byers’ writing seminar since, like, freshman fall.”
“No, but go on.”
“Shut up. Anyway, Byers does this thing every semester called the muse project, where you pick a person or a subject and your final piece for the course has to focus on them. Then at the end of the semester, there’s this coffeehouse where everyone invites their muse and shares their work. So obviously everyone picks whoever they’re dating at the time, and then they break up halfway through the semester and all the writing turns super angsty. Which would be fine, except I don’t write about people, like, ever.”
That’s a lie. He does write about people, but always in an abstract sense, and never more than once—the curve of a hip under his hand or the promise of a kiss on his neck, nothing you could spend a semester on. Before Samwell, and sometimes still, there never seems to be anyone permanent enough to write about.
A minute or so goes by before Dex speaks. “Does it have to be romantic?”
“Uh, no, not really. Just someone that inspires you.”
“So write about me.”
“About you?” Nursey starts a little at that. It hadn’t actually occurred to him to write about anyone on the team.
“Well, yeah.” Dex shrugs, almost casual. “I mean, we’re d-men, right? That’s as much a relationship as any. Could be something Byers hasn’t seen before.”
Nursey pauses and mulls it over for a second. Dex is one of his closest friends, after all, and that has a much smaller chance of crashing and burning than someone he could date—especially given Nursey’s track record in that field. “That… That could actually work. It’d definitely be something new.” He glances up. “You wouldn’t mind being my muse?”
Another shrug. “Nah, as long as you wouldn’t expect me to dress like the ones from Hercules.” Dex grins, teeth stained a faint artificial blue. “I’m not really a toga guy.”
“They were chitons, you uncultured swine,” Nursey responds, and Dex throws the stained popsicle stick at him.
And really, looking back, that was the moment he absolutely fucked himself over.
He stumbles across the first poem a few weeks later when they’re walking near the pond to find Dex’s favorite duck, the one he insists is named Bruce and Nursey knows is definitely called Sufjan. Somehow in one step, Nursey manages to knock over an entire bike rack and only just manages to stop himself from tumbling headfirst into a muddy stretch on the path. When he turns back, Dex is doubled over laughing, nearly in tears. “Holy fucking shit, Nurse,” he wheezes, “how are you a division one athlete?”
Nursey lunges a little for Dex, who jumps out of his reach. “Hey, I’m way more graceful than your sorry ass.”
“My ass doesn’t have to worry about me falling on it ten times a day.”
“Well, I know for a fact that only one of us is getting any ass, and don’t deny that some of it is my natural elegance.” He strikes a ridiculous pose and ruins it by almost falling again.
Dex snorts. “Huh, that’s funny. I thought it was pronounced arrogance.”
At that, Nursey makes as if to tackle Dex, who sprints in the other direction. Nursey follows hot on his heels for maybe fifty yards until Dex stops midstride. He moves as if to adjust his binder, then freezes, looking a little confused. Nursey skids to a halt beside him. “You good?”
“Oh, yeah.” Dex huffs a laugh. “It’s just—I wore it for so long that sometimes it’s like it’s still there. Like sometimes I wake up in the morning and go to grab it before I remember. Weird, right?”
Nursey remembers it, the few days over the summer Dex had gone oddly quiet over text without so much as a weird meme to remember him by. When the third day of radio silence rolled around, he’d fired off a few frantic texts to no avail, until he finally got an answer in the group chat: a selfie in a hospital bed taken from Dex’s nose to just above his belly button, revealing forty stitches on his chest and a smile that could have split his face in two. At the time, he’d thought that Dex looked more like himself than Nursey had ever seen before.
“Phantom breast syndrome,” he says instead. “Scourge of the surgical community.”
Dex snorts and nearly shoves him into the pond. That night, Nursey’s pen spills words about fraying seams and hands clawing out of cocoons. He fills an entire page with synonyms for rebirth.
So the semester goes on. It takes some negotiation, but after they agree that they should hang out more for the sake of writing material, Nursey spends a few afternoons a week with Dex, chatting at Annie’s or reading in one dorm or another. He finds that he’s more comfortable than he thought with Dex, even without Chowder as a buffer: when they’re not arguing, Dex is actually pretty funny, and they even manage to find Spotify playlists they can agree on. The writing part, however, is much harder than he thought. Nursey manages to churn out a few generic pieces, babbling about teamwork and brotherhood, but he’s still waiting for the lightning bolt to hit.
Despite that, they don’t actually talk about the project for a month or so. The first time either of them brings it up, it’s Dex, sprawled out on Nursey’s dorm floor on and halfway through a Python project. Out of the corner of his eye, Nursey sees him sit up and stretch before asking, “So, what have you written about me?”
Nursey shrugs defensively. “Nothing groundbreaking yet. I’m waiting for the big thing.” He doesn’t mention that Dex rarely opens up enough for Nursey to write something meaningful.
“That’s evasion,” Dex points out, clambering to his feet. “If you’re gonna write about me, isn’t it only fair for me to see?”
“Dex, you’ve gotta understand a lot of this stuff is really personal. What I turn in is hardcore edited, but all this”—gesturing at the book in hopes that it’ll dissuade him—”is raw material.”
Leaning over Nursey’s shoulder, Dex comments, “You’ve never actually showed me your writing.” Nursey shifts a little to block him. “I mean, you heard me sing. It can’t be that different.”
“But it is,” Nursey insists. “When you sing, it’s your voice, but those aren’t your words. These are mine.” He hasn’t let anyone see his handwritten poetry since seventh grade, when Andrew Wilhelm, the boy he’d had a crush on, stole his favorite notebook and read it out loud in the cafeteria. The lines Nursey had so carefully crafted before copying into a worn-out Moleskine had sounded like bad basement punk lyrics in someone else’s voice. Even now, thinking about it, he can feel himself flush with humiliation. Dex, of course, is not Andrew Wilhelm, but he does have a history of giving Nursey shit for being pretentious. Nursey thinks for a second, then flips past pieces with names like Don’t Call Me Jailbait and the tentatively-titled Electrocute Mike Pence Until He Is Gay to a poem he’s pretty sure is finished. “You can read this one if you don’t look at any of the others.”
Dex nods, a quick little agreement, and flops down onto the bed. As he reads, Nursey studies his face, every little lip bite and brow furrow. He knows exactly what Dex will think of it, enough that showing it to him is a risk, but right now it’s the only piece that feels real to him.
It takes a long time for Dex to look up from the page. When he does, he blinks and purses his lips before admitting, “It’s not what I thought it would be. It’s, um…”
“Pissed?” Nursey means it a little as a joke, but that’s the only way Standstill can really come off. “It’s based on the last time I got stopped by the cops in the city. Wasn’t the best day.”
“No, yeah, I get that. I just thought your poetry would have a little more chill, yeah? This still feels like you, but it’s not chill-you.”
He can feel himself bristling before he can stop. Dex is opening a hundred boxes Nursey likes to pretend don't exist. “Dex, I’m a big tatted brown dude in New York. You either stay chill or end up on the nine o’clock news with Bill O’Reilly yelling about how you deserved what you got.” He knows he’s getting angry, if not at Dex’s obliviousness then at everything the poem means. “We used to play this drinking game back at Andover called Trayvon, when the shooting trial was going on, where we’d take shots whenever the anchors on Fox said something racist. And then I’d go back to my room and smoke until I wasn’t angry about it anymore, but that stopped working. I tried other stuff, but it didn’t really help. So I started writing about it, and. You know.”
He gestures emptily at the notebook in Dex’s hands.
“Other stuff,” Dex repeats: not quite a question, but almost.
Nursey shifts, unsure of what to do. It’s not like other people on the team don’t know. The first time Holster had seen, he’d pulled Nursey aside and asked if he needed any help. Lardo knows too, and Shitty knows because Lardo knows, and Chowder knows because there’s still nobody in the world Nursey trusts like him. Dex, though. Dex feels different. But if he’s gonna spend this time getting Dex to open up to him, he should probably be willing to do the same.
He rolls up the sleeve of his tee to expose his upper arm to reveal the scars that dot the skin there. Dex doesn’t flinch, but he blinks hard, like he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. With his free hand, Nursey taps each scar and names them.
“Cigarette, cigarette… mostly cigarettes, actually. This one here was a lighter, and that was sandpaper. And there was just with my nails. Hurt like a bitch at the time. Razors were never really my thing.”
“Why’d you do it?”
Everyone asks that. “Because I wanted to feel something.”
“Oh.” The word hangs heavy between them. And then, “Did you?”
The question catches Nursey a little off-guard. He was prepared for the usual it’s-not-worth-it spiel or something about “you’re still a good person”. People don’t usually ask much beyond why. “Yeah, I guess,” he replies after a moment. “Just not what I wanted to.”
Dex presses his lips together. He doesn’t say anything for a few minutes, long enough that Nursey almost thinks the conversation is over, but finally, he says, “I had a sister.”
“What?” He’s heard enough about the gaggle of Poindexters to know Dex has siblings, but the way he says it is different. Suddenly, the room seems much smaller. “Had?”
Silence. Between them, the notebook is trembling in Dex’s hands. Nursey grabs it and sets it on the desk. Dex grimaces gratefully and wraps his arms around himself, and after a moment, sits on the bed. “Maureen,” he says softly. “Her name was Maureen. I called her Max.”
Nursey sits next to him, barely even breathing in case he ruins whatever’s happening here. He can’t remember if he and Dex have ever had a conversation like this. Dex’s voice is shaking. “She was, like, crazy beautiful. I wanted to look just like her when I was little. And she always wanted everything to be pretty—like she was always dressed nice and her side of the room was always the cleanest and stuff.” He’s pale beneath his freckles, completely still except his voice. “But this one day, she was late to breakfast, so my ma sent me up to get her, and she was still in bed. And I remember thinking she looked so fucking pretty, you know. like something out of a fairy tale. So I said her name, and then I shook her, and she, um. Didn’t get up. OD’d on aspirin the night before.”
And now Nursey has no idea what to do because shit, how do you react to that? After a second’s hesitation, he puts his hand on Dex’s shoulder. Dex leans gratefully into the touch, squeezing his eyes quickly shut. “I’m sorry,” Nursey says softly.
Dex scrubs a hand over his eyes. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dump that shit on you.” He stands up and reaches for his laptop. “We should get back to work.”
There it is again: Dex always deflects at the last minute, always closes before he can open up. Nursey watches him open his laptop and stare at the equations without seeming to really see them. He closes the laptop. “You never really talked about this, did you?”
Dex’s eyes are still fixed on the space where the screen was. He shakes his head slowly. “Catholic. She couldn’t be buried with the family, so we had the funeral, but after that, it was like she never existed at all. We just didn’t mention her.”
“Sometimes I get that.” Dex glances over, surprised, and Nursey nods just slightly. “You know I love my moms, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like they wanted a kid. I think Mama made it to two parents’ weekends since ninth grade, and Ammi hasn’t even made one. When I'm home, I’m a visitor in their little jetsetter fantasy, where they act like we spend every dinner together instead of maybe making five days a year.”
Beside him, Dex is staring at his hands. “It's easier,” he whispers. “To be invisible. When I came out, it was like everyone saw everything I didn't want them to, everything I…” He trails off and shakes his head. “We should work.”
“No, we shouldn’t.” After something like that, there’s no way either of them is getting anything done. Leaning over to open his mini-fridge, he grabs the bottle of Captain Morgan inside and tosses it to Dex. “You and I are gonna celebrate your ability to talk about your feelings like only spoiled rich kids can. We’re gonna get drunk off our asses, watch Bob’s Burgers, and pretend our childhoods were marginally less fucked up than they actually were.”
When Dex smiles this time, it’s real. He scoots up on the bed a little as Nursey loads up Netflix, and Nursey rests his arm along the bunk railing so they’re almost-not-quite cuddling. Dex’s head falls between them until it’s almost on Nursey’s shoulder. The situation isn’t exactly tense so much as tentative: contact between them is usually reserved for games or friendly bro-type touching, never really anything this gentle. As the theme song ends, though, Dex mumbles something unintelligible and drops his head onto Nursey’s chest, mumbling “’s cold,” when Nursey looks down in surprise.
Actually, it’s fairly warm for late fall, but neither of them acknowledges this. “Alright,” he replies with some semblance of his earlier chill, as his arm moves around Dex’s shoulder. It occurs to him that this is new territory between them, and the skeleton of a line floats through his head: this is our own manifest destiny, never moving mountains but finding paths between. He almost likes it enough to grab his notebook from the desk until he catches sight of Dex again. The concerned wrinkle in his forehead has completely smoothed out, even if his eyes still look a little hollow. Somehow, impossibly, he seems lighter.
Nursey knows this is one of those moments he had been looking for, just like he knows he can’t possibly use what just happened for the muse project. The conversation with Dex was more than information for an assignment, and no matter how good the poem could be, he could never really write it.
Or at least, if he does, he’ll keep it to himself.
When he does find the right poem, it’s born from a kegster.
Contrary to popular belief, Nursey doesn’t actually just like dancing as foreplay. It certainly helps him get laid, but it’s more about the sensations, about losing himself entirely in someone else’s body. Tonight it’s Dylan, a girl Nursey knows from art history, and her arms around his neck plus her tongue in his mouth are exactly what he needs right now. Nursey probably won’t write poems about her, but it’s the kind of kiss he’ll think about for days. They’ve both had enough drinks that they’re happy without being stupid, so he’s about to suggest they leave the party when a shout of “Back off, asshole!” rings out from near the stairs, followed by a different voice, this one yelling, “You little bitch!”
Nursey reacts without thinking, shoving across the room to find Ransom and Holster tugging Dex and some guy from the rugby team away from each other. Rugby guy—who’s easily got three inches and twenty pounds of muscle on Dex—’s split lip is dripping down his chin. Dex’s eye is swelling and he’s panting, but under the rage, Nursey notices, he looks visibly shaken.
A small and very inappropriate part of Nursey’s brain thinks, This is Dex. We call him that because he decks people.
Dylan acts before anyone else watching, immediately approaching Dex with a “Sit down and let me look at it.” Dex does it wordlessly, and Dylan kneels next to him to examine his injury. She turns to Nursey, who’s still frozen in place. “Derek, can you grab me some ice?”
People part around him as he maneuvers his way to the kitchen. When he returns, Dylan has one hand rubbing slow circles on Dex’s back. He passes her the ice pack without comment, and she dabs it gently against Dex’s face, keeping up a soft running commentary. “Okay, so it doesn’t look like there’s much damage, just a bruise. Did he hurt you other than this?”
Dex shakes his head. By his sides, Nursey’s fists unclench a little. He hadn’t even noticed they were.
“That’s good,” Dylan murmurs. “I think Justin’s getting rid of him. Look at me, honey. You’re on T, right?” Nod. “That means you’ll bruise a little easier. It might look bad for a while. Okay, I know it stings, but you’ve just gotta keep the ice on it.” She turns his face to look directly at her. “Will, listen. He’s gone. You’re safe. Do you understand?”
Nursey watches with baited breath until Dex nods slowly. Dylan smiles. “You should probably go lie down. Derek, can you take him back to his room?”
For a second, Nursey hardly even registers that she’s talking to him. He blinks, shakes his head, and manages, “Yeah, definitely, but, like, I thought you were a design major. Where’d you learn all that?”
Dylan shrugs. “Guess my dad was right, Boy Scouts did come in handy eventually.” She helps Dex to his feet and, throwing her shoulders back, turns toward the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, that boy and I need to have some words.”
She strides away, the crowd parting like the Red Sea around her. Beside Nursey, Holster whispers, “I think I’m in love.”
“Yeah, you and half my CAD class,” Dex groans.
That’s the first time he’s spoken since punching rugby guy. Nursey turns to him instantly, unsure of what to do here. He doesn’t think a hug is the right response, but there’s a part of him, however drunk and queer and ridiculous, that just wants to touch Dex, to make sure he’s still there. So he puts one hand on Dex’s shoulder, as carefully as if he’s made of glass, and is almost shocked to see Dex relax into it, biting his lip. Over Dex’s shoulder, Holster mouths, You got this?
Nursey nods quickly. Dex doesn’t seem quite like he could handle a lot of people right now, and the way he grips onto Nursey when Nursey draws him in for a hug confirms it. They don’t mention the way Dex is trembling. After a moment or so, Nursey steels himself enough to ask, “For real, though, did he touch you?”
Dex shakes his head into Nursey’s collar. “He was just really big. I was freaked—you know, backed against the wall, and he wanted to get me to come home with him and I wanted him to fuck off and he. Well. Didn’t.” He shrugs brokenly. Nursey holds him a little tighter. “And I just got so scared about what could happen that I snapped.”
“Are you gonna be okay?” He doesn’t ask “are you okay”, because of course Dex isn’t okay after something like that; nobody’s just okay right away.
Dex sighs a little. “I’ll be fine tomorrow. Chowder’s not using his room, so I think I’m just gonna turn in for the night.” He starts to head for the stairs. Again, Nursey’s overcome with the urge for contact—not even to hug him, just to see if he’s still there. Belatedly, he wonders how much Dex tries to repress things like this.
When Dex reaches the landing, on the verge of disappearing around the corner, it occurs to Nursey that he's being an idiot. Grabbing a bottle from the kitchen, he jogs up the stairs after him and catches Dex’s arm, stepping back quickly when Dex damn near jumps out of his skin. “Hey,” he starts, unsure, and then the words pour out. “Look, I know you said you were okay, but that was super fucked up and it could've gone bad, so, like, anyone would be shaken and I don't think you should be alone right now.”
“So,” Nursey clarifies, “considering that I have some really terrible liquor here and I know where C keeps his snacks, we have enough for at least a full season of something.”
A slow smile spreads across Dex's face. “You're giving up a party to watch Bob’s Burgers with me?”
“I was thinking Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
The smile turns into a grin, a real one now. “Sounds like a plan.”
They don’t actually say anything else as Dex pushes the door open and grabs Chowder’s pretzel stash, even though he takes the whiskey bottle gratefully when it’s offered. Nursey keeps his distance when they curl up on the bed, but after barely five minutes of passing the bottle back and forth, Dex scoots over and leans on his shoulder. “Nursey.”
“Thanks for staying.”
“No big deal, dude.”
“No, like—” Dex looks up at him. “You were probably gonna hook up with Dylan, and if not her then someone else, and instead you’re here with me. Means a lot.”
“Dude,” Nursey repeats. “I’ve got your back. That’s what we do. I’ll get laid another night.” He wraps his arm around Dex’s shoulders. “But, you know, if you wanna put in a word with Dylan about my kind and loyal nature—”
Dex jostles him a little, but he doesn’t pull away. “You’re a dick.”
“Well, you are what you eat.”
“Explains why I’m such an asshole.”
“Ooh, self-burn! Those are rare!”
“Would you just watch the damn show?” Dex asks, snuggling a little deeper against Nursey and taking a long swig. “I like this episode, dude.”
Despite the claim, it isn’t long until his breathing evens out against Nursey’s chest, a whisper of hair falling over his bruised face. Nursey thinks for a second about Max, the beautiful, sleeping sister, and how she must have looked a little like Dex does right now. Which is a little too dark a path to be going down right now, especially with the comfortable burn of whiskey in his stomach. Instead, he concentrates on the little bit of flush in Dex’s cheeks. He looks so damn un-mathematical right now, so unlike the Dex who’ll spend hours keeping track of budgets and equations, every decision calculated to be the right one. Nursey idly traces over patterns in Dex’s freckles like he used to do in clouds as a little kid, finding a rabbit, a chair, the letter K.
Onscreen, Andy Samberg scolds a corgi as Dex lets out a soft, snuffling snore. It’s difficult to tell which one is cuter. Even with the bruise around his eye streaking fuschia and violet, he looks soft, and if Nursey could save this moment in time, he would.
“Hey, Dex?” Nursey nudges him a little as the credits roll. “C’mon, sunshine, let’s get you to bed.”
Like every fairy tale in the world, Dex’s eyes flutter open and focus on him. “Hey, did I fall asleep?”
Nursey grins. “Yeah, you must love this episode.” Even though he means to be sarcastic, his voice still comes out too warm, too gentle.
Dex makes as if to smack him on the chest and ends up just brushing lightly against his shirt. It’s as if they’re acting out their usual behavior, but neither of them can quite bring themselves to do it right.
Slowly, so slowly, Dex moves his hand up to Nursey’s shoulder. “Hi,” he murmurs.
This is unfamiliar territory, not even close to usual. “Hi,” Nursey repeats, transfixed.
Dex keeps staring at him. His gaze moves slowly over Nursey’s face as if he wants to memorize it. “Why do you look at me like that?”
“Like what?” Nursey has no idea where this is going, but Dex could recite the alphabet in Greek and he would listen, just as long as Dex would keep looking at him like this.
“Sometimes when you look at me, it’s like you want to see me. Actually see me, not just whatever I show people. It makes…” He pauses, as if fumbling for the right phrase. “It makes me feel genuine.”
He could have taken the words right out of Nursey’s mouth, how Dex cuts through whatever bullshit persona he presents himself as. Dex skims his hand to the side of his neck. Nursey hears himself say, “You know you’re beautiful, right?”
“And you’re drunk.” Nursey would argue, except he’s so caught up in the feeling of Dex’s skin that he can hardly move. “And so am I.”
“And tomorrow..." He lightly runs one finger over the delicate bones in Dex's wrist. "I’ll be sober, and you’ll still be beautiful.”
Dex smiles with the same sleepy softness as before. He looks like he wants to say something important, but instead, he moves into Nursey’s space, close enough that they’re breathing the same air. If Nursey leaned forward another half inch, they could kiss. Fingers trace up to his law, soft and devastatingly tender. Before he can think it through, Nursey touches his forehead lightly against Dex’s. His voice barely comes out above a breath. “You are the most genuine person I have ever met.”
The hand jumps away as if burned. Nursey reaches for him, but Dex folds in on himself. “This is a bad idea.”
“This is a bad idea,” he repeats more firmly. “We’re drunk, and I should sleep.”
Seeing his face shut down hurts Nursey to the core. “But tomorrow, we should…” Should what? They should do something, but the something isn’t clear. All he knows is that the timing is wrong. They're drunker than they should be, Dex doubly vulnerable after the nastiness of the incident downstairs, and still, he wants this so much.
“You probably won’t remember this tomorrow,” Dex replies. “Shut the light off when you leave.”
Nursey does it without question. Back in his dorm, he picks up his notebook, stops with the pen poised just above the first blank page, and stops. For once, he has nothing to say.
Unfortunately for both of them, Nursey does remember it, and in much greater detail than he’d like. When Dex comes down the next morning with an absolutely glorious shiner, he laughs when Ransom eagerly regales them with how Dylan had taken down the rugby player, “that punk-ass motherfucker”, with a few choice words and one quick, stiletto-heeled kick. But he carefully doesn’t look at Nursey, who can only notice the faint smell of Dex’s Old Spice left over from the night before, the same one that had filled Nursey’s brain as he trudged back across campus. Dex’s smile makes Nursey touch one hand lightly to his mouth, remembering how close Dex’s lips had been. He aches for Dex to touch him or even look at him, anything to say that it’s going to be okay.
Afternoon scrimmage is a mess. They’re not connecting at all, missing shots until Holster makes the whole team skate suicides for twenty minutes. Even Ollie and Wicks glare at them after that. And then there’s the locker room, which, well. Presents new challenges. Challenges that mean Nursey hauls ass back to his room after a shower does nothing to loosen his muscles, among other things.
He still can’t relax once he gets back. Everything reminds him of the almost-kiss now: he can’t even see Dex taping his stick without thinking of how gentle his hands are, like even years of lobster traps and hockey gloves couldn't take that away. The wicked little grin he shoots Chowder after a tricky shot from Bitty is nothing like that smile Nursey had witnessed the night before. Dex had been so soft then, nothing like he’d been when he arrived at Samwell, but maybe the softer Dex is the real one. Because so much of Dex, he’s seen, is this tenderness he tried to kill for so long that he’s only just starting to let out again.
And then he has to stop, because where the hell did that come from?
Except he knows. He's known it for a while, really, long before that day on the porch watching Dex lick popsicle juice off his fingers. Maybe since freshman year, after they'd stopped butting heads all the time. Somewhere along the line, he'd fallen horribly, disastrously, ass-over-teacups in love with Dex without realizing it.
Unrequited love, he thinks, is a terrible feeling, but it’s a fairly universal human experience, like loss, or humiliation, or particularly nasty ear infections.
Writing anything after that is impossible. Halfway through a sentence he wants to rip his spine out over, his phone chimes. Thankfully, it’s Chowder. hey. you around?
The lack of exclamation points is concerning in itself, enough so that Nursey’s already up and getting his shoes on as he texts back, bad day?
very, replies Chowder within seconds.
on my way, Nursey types, pulling his sweatshirt on a little too fast. The Haus is a five-minute walk away, but he takes a second to grab some gummy worms from the vending machine on his hall, Chowder’s favorite.
He doesn't bother knocking on the door once he gets inside. Chowder is facedown on his bed, one arm swinging back and forth against the carpet, next to a janky old cassette player midway through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. His hair is sticking up all over the place, but his face looks half-dead. It’s been a while since Chowder had a day like this.
“Food,” Nursey says by way of greeting, tossing the gummy worms in the general direction of the bed. Even something like this can’t quite quell goalie instincts, and Chowder’s hand shoots up to snatch them before they hit the wall.
“Thanks,” he mumbles a second later through a handful of candy. Nursey doesn’t bother asking what’s wrong—they both know—so he sits next to Chowder, one hand rubbing his shoulder. They’ve just gotten to Christmas, always Nursey’s favorite part of the book, so it’s easy to lose himself in the plot for a while.
After a few minutes, Chowder speaks, muffled by pillows and gummy worms. “Gilderoy Lockheart would be a Chad.”
Nursey stifles a snort. “Shitty would be Hagrid. All that hair.”
“Nah, man,” says Chowder, rolling onto his back. “Shitty and Lardo would be Dean and Seamus, ‘cause you know they’re together but, like, nobody talks about it?”
“True.” Nursey thinks for a second. “I’d totally be a Ravenclaw, but, like, the ADHD kind. The ones that wouldn’t believe in grading systems or the imperial school system.”
“I’d be one of the dead chickens.”
He bumps Chowder’s shoulder a little, trying to get him to smile. “Hey, dude, don’t be like that. You’d obviously be Neville Longbottom, secret badass and hero of Gryffindor. Look at you.”
“Yeah, well, you know. Sorry I’m depressing. It’s the depression.” Chowder laughs, but it isn’t a real laugh. This isn’t something they like to acknowledge, the way nobody mentions Nursey’s affinity for tees over tanks or Dex’s angry flush when his voice cracks too high. Chowder’s perpetually sunny attitude would be unbearably annoying if it were anyone but him, and it just makes days like this that much worse.
They lapse into silence, just Jim Dale in the background and the faint hum of a space heater. After a few minutes, Chowder hits the stop button and curls up on his side, offering the bag of gummy worms to Nursey. “You’re freaked out about something?”
Of course Chowder can tell; he can always tell. Nursey pops a blue and red worm into his mouth, steadies himself, and asks, “How did you know you loved Cait?”
Chowder stays quiet for a long time, but his eyebrows furrow in thought. “My first bad day,” he replies eventually. “After we started dating. She had never really seen one, but she just came in and lay here with me for a couple hours. She just told me about her day and stayed with me and and, like, didn’t even try to get me to talk or anything, just hung around until I could get out of bed, and it was just what I needed and I didn’t even have to tell her that, and I was just kinda like, oh, wow, I’m in love with you. Like, you know, not one moment but everything she did all at once.” He cracks a little bit of a smile, just a hint of his usual sunshine, before his eyes refocus on Nursey. “Why?”
“I think I’m in love with Dex.”
“Oh.” Chowder ponders the worm in his hand. “Is that all?”
“Is that all?” Nursey echoes incredulously. “Dude, I only realized this, like, an hour ago. What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Well, dude, you aren’t exactly subtle about it. You practically turn into a heart-eyes emoji every times he speaks. I honestly think at this point you and he are the only ones who don’t know.”
He grimaces, focusing on Chowder’s map of the Great Barrier Reef above the desk. “Something happened at the kegster.”
Nursey shoots off the pillow and stares at Chowder. “You know?”
“Dex told me.”
Of course he did. “Jesus, C, what else do you know?”
“I know he likes you,” Chowder says matter-of-factly, as if what he’s saying isn’t the most important thing in the world right now. “So much that it scares him. And I know that he thinks you said whatever you said because of the poetry project thing, and I know that he’ll never tell you this stuff because that’s just what Dex does.”
“But it’s not just the poetry project!” Nursey protests. “It’s, you know, other stuff too. The project just kind of set it off.”
If Chowder could raise one eyebrow, he probably would. Instead, he just gives Nursey the spitting image of Lardo’s “you already know what I’m thinking” look. “How do you really feel about him?”
He twists his hands into the blanket. “I—like, I don’t know. When I look at him, it’s like instead of all the thoughts and anxiety and stuff, my brain goes quiet, and it’s just him.”
“That’s pretty gay, Nurse.”
Nursey hits Chowder with a pillow. “I'm pretty gay, Chow.”
Geno, Chowder’s stuffed shark, is sitting on the pillow. Chowder picks him up and runs a finger along the 20 on his jersey. “You would be good for each other, I think,” he says softly. “You really make him happy. If you can, tell him.”
For just a second, Nursey is overcome by exactly how much he loves Chowder. Because he loves Dex and Lardo and Ransom and Holster and Bitty, but god, not a single one of them knows him the way Chowder does. “Hey, C. You know you’re my best friend, right? Like, my best-best friend.”
“Still gay,” Chowder mumbles, with something resembling a smile. “But, like, same, dude. Can I turn the tape back on?”
“Shit, yeah. I could use some Dumbledore.” Chowder is almost as good at emotional deflection as Dex at times like this, but as profoundly irritating as it can be, Nursey knows he needs this right now. He settles back and lets the story carry him away.
Recitation night rolls around quiet, with a sky like black silk, but Annie’s buzzes with energy. Nursey’s whole seminar has turned up, spilling into the aisles and filling the air with the scent of fair-trade mocha. All over the room, writers and muses mingle and gossip about who brought whom. Nursey arrives alone, nods a quick hello to Dylan, who turned up for moral support, and takes a seat without a drink. He doubts he could even stomach tea right now. When Byers steps up to the mike, the room falls silent with a tension you could cut with a knife. Byers may be old, with a Margaret-Atwood-esque shock of silver hair and cat’s eye glasses, but her presence still feels like seeing Titania hold court.
“Welcome, all of you, to the annual muse project reading. I’d like to thank everyone for making it out tonight. Does everyone remember the spots they signed up for on Thursday?” She pauses for answers. “If you don’t, I’ll be calling names before every reader. I look forward to everything we’ll be hearing tonight.”
She takes her seat in a billow of lilac chiffon, and the night begins. Most of the readers, as Derek expected, are writing about their significant others. A few stick out; he makes a mental note to compliment Nimah on her series of limericks to her boyfriend, all of which begin “There was a young man from Nantucket…”
By the time Nursey’s name is called, he’s almost forgotten why he was here in the first place. Byers’ call of “Nurse!” makes him jump a little, but he manages not to trip on the way to the mic. He’s fine. This is fine.
Until he looks up to find Dex sitting a few tables back.
It’s been about a week since he talked to Dex. A week of staying up way too late writing and rewriting until his roommate forcibly took his notebook away; of hunching over tankas and Petrarchan sonnets and even a short and regrettable stint into acrostics; of every fucking comparison that could be made between star systems and freckles. If Nursey types “c” into Google, his computer autofills it with one of six different searches starting with “constellation that looks like…”, all to produce the slightly sweat-stained paper he’s holding. But he’d spent every second of it counting on Dex not showing up tonight.
He knows he can’t back down at this point, the points off his grade aren’t worth it. Chowder did say to tell Dex how he felt. Nursey isn’t entirely sure this is what he had in mind.
“Um, hi, guys,” he begins. “I’m Derek, but I guess most of you already knew that.” Light chuckles from a few tables. “The title of this is, um.” He licks his lips, looks quickly around the room, and locks eyes with Dex. “Well, it doesn’t have a title yet. But the person I wrote it about knows what it means.”
The audience buzzes a little. Nursey, trying his best not to look up, starts to read.
“The first time we kissed the flowers in every window box in Brooklyn burst into bloom, finger-painted the city with pollen. Two hundred miles away, every cell in my body suddenly understood photosynthesis.”
Even across the room, he can’t help but notice the color drain from Dex’s face. Other students are looking around, probably confused since he never mentioned a significant other. The ones who know he wrote about Dex whisper unintelligibly. Byers scribbles something in her notes; numbly, Nursey wonders if audience reaction is part of his grade.
“Do you remember? We were back in the stacks, air heavy with outdated words as I traced Orion into your skin;
You said, most stars are dead before we see them.
You asked me, do you ever forget something is terrifying because it’s so beautiful?
I looked at you and said, I do.”
Someone in the back the back lets out a low whistle. From a couch in the corner, Dylan frowns at Nursey and mouths What?, and then something he doesn’t quite make out. The inside of Nursey’s head has gone very, very quiet, so much so that he can hear the rush of blood in his ears. The paper crumples a little in his hands.
“The first time we kissed you leaned in like our connection might break, this tenuous radio signal from me to you. At first that I barely touched you; you were gold dust on my fingertips, but you grabbed my collar and suddenly every talk we’d had about mythology meant nothing because god, Midas didn't have shit on us.
The first time we kissed a butterfly flapped its wings in South America and a tornado hit my spine. If I could I'd whisper your name into every storm to hit the east coast because the first time we kissed, I christened you a hurricane, I thought,
How glorious, to be destroyed by you.”
He has to keep reading. He knows he has to keep reading. But god, Dex is starting to look so shattered, and Nursey doesn’t know if he can do it.
“And even though I told you once I didn’t have a favorite color, the second you pulled away, i saw the flush on your cheeks and I knew. You laughed, turned to me with a smile like July,
And I woke up.
The next time we kiss, though...”
Nursey trails off. Hears the whispers crescendo. Makes direct eye contact with Dex, and musters every ounce of courage he has left.
“Well. You’ll be there too.”
Dead silence. After a moment, he mutters “Thank you” to the slow chorus of snaps and steps back from the mic. At the same time, Dex stands up, leaving his coffee untouched at the table. The door thuds closed behind him, and Nursey, ignoring the stares, sprints after.
When he catches up, Dex turns to him wild-eyed and pissed as hell. The white in his face is gone, replaced by an angry, blotchy flush. “You wanna tell me what the fuck that was?”
Dex paces back and forth on the path, frantically pulling at his hair. "I can't believe you went up there and—in front of everyone—our personal business—what were you thinking? Were you thinking?”
“What was I thinking? You suggested this, Dex, or were you too busy avoiding me to remember that?”
He flinches like Nursey slapped him. “That wasn’t fair,” he says softly. “You know that wasn’t fair.”
Nursey opens his arms, a little helplessly. “Dex…” The word comes out the same way it had that night in Chowder’s room, halfway between desperation and despair.
All Dex says is “Jesus, Nurse,” before he starts to turn around.
And of course Nursey can’t let him do that because if Dex walks away from this, he walks away from everything. He grabs Dex’s arm and spins him around. “Dex. Talk to me.”
Dex throws his hands up. “I can’t do that when you’re being so goddamn insufferable.”
“How am I insufferable?”
“Because I'm so fucking into you and I can't decide whether to punch you or kiss you right now!”
Nursey, who apparently has no sense of timing whatsoever, says, "Kinky."
Apparently, that makes the decision somewhat easier, because Dex punches him in the arm and starts to turn away again. In the same moment, Nursey realizes exactly what Dex said, and a little wisp of hope rises in his chest. “Do you like me?”
“Nursey, I—I mean, shit—Are you gonna make me say it again?”
But Dex doesn’t step back when Nursey steps toward him, and he doesn’t flinch when Nursey puts his hands on his waist. “You like me,” Nursey says.
“You’re such an idiot,” Dex mumbles. But it doesn’t stop him from wrapping his arms around Nursey’s neck when they kiss (such a soft, small thing, but it makes Nursey’s head spin). It doesn’t stop Dex’s soft smile when Nursey pulls away, or laughing when Nursey peppers kisses over his nose and forehead and the planes of his cheekbones. He presses his face into Dex’s neck and breathes in (home), inhales the warmth that seems to radiate from every part of him (safe). It makes Dex laugh.
They’re still laughing as they stumble through Nursey’s door, into the somehow blessedly empty dorm room. Dex is nearly in tears as Nursey falls into a wall getting his sock off. As they tumble onto the bed in a flurry of hands and mouths, Nursey starts to push Dex’s shirt up and feels Dex's hands freeze in his hair.
He pulls back. “Hey, what's going on?”
Dex shrugs without meeting his eyes. “It's nothing.”
“You wanna stop?”
“Fuck, no!” Dex’s eyes widen almost comically. He lets out a quick puff of breath. “No, I haven't. With anyone. Since the surgery. The scar is still kinda, you know, there.”
“I've seen it before,” Nursey points out. Dex scowls.
“It's different. Just… don't freak out.”
As Nursey shifts to give him room, Dex pulls his shirt off almost tentatively. In different context, one could have called it a striptease, but this isn't different context, so Nursey waits until Dex is bare-chested in front of him. The scar is prominent, not nearly as raw but still a sharp pink against the starry white of Dex’s skin. He traces it gently, once with his fingers and again with his lips, and pulls back to look Dex in the face. “Jalaluddin Rumi. ‘Stay with it./The wound is the place where the light enters you.’”
“You're a fucking idiot,” says Dex, which Nursey is realizing may be his version of “as you wish”. He muffles a snort into Dex’s chest and hauls himself up to kiss him again, only to find Dex grinning into it. They shed clothes faster after that, Dex throwing Nursey’s shirt across the room like he has a personal grudge against it. The only other hitch comes when Dex runs his hands down Nursey’s sides to grab his ass and Nursey shrieks with unexpected laughter.
Dex smirks. “Ticklish?”
“You asshole,” Nursey says instead, shoving Dex’s arms down onto the bed. Dex lets out the tiniest moan that means Nursey just has to kiss him all over again, and they end up skin to skin, kissing slow and dirty in between smiles. And he loves that this is something they can do—being with Dex is heady, electric, sparks from every place they touch, but it’s also funny. He loves that he can ugly-laugh and fall over himself and Dex will still want him. That’s new.
By the time they’re both in boxers, Dex has relaxed entirely as Nursey mouths soft kisses against his hipbone. Hooking a thumb into Dex's waistband, he looks up to confirm.
“Are you okay with this? Because, like, I really want this but if you’re not sure—”
“Nurse, if you don't get my pants off soon, I swear to fucking God I’m gonna leave.”
In the same motion, Nursey pushes down Dex’s underwear and leans up to kiss him breathless. “Damn, Poindexter, you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“If you’re thinking about my mother at a time like this, we’re obviously doing something wrong.” Dex smirks again, eyes dark, and curls his hand around the back of Nursey’s neck. “So, you wanna see what I can do with my mouth, or…?”
Nursey stops thinking.
Tangled up in his soft yellow sheets, Nursey can’t help but think how much better sex is when you get to wake up next to someone. He smooths one hand over Dex’s back, feeling the satisfied hum as Dex arches into his touch. “Hi, baby.”
“Baby,” Dex echoes, moving his mouth as if tasting the word. “I like that, I think.”
“Baby. Sweetheart. Darling. Beloved. Gorgeous. Light of my li—” He’s cut off when Dex covers Nursey’s mouth with his own. Nursey lets his thoughts be drowned out by sleepy early-morning kisses for what’s either five minutes or ten hours and doesn’t pull away until Dex’s knee nudges his apart a little. Dex’s lips chase his and he can’t help but think of the kegster, of the brokenness on Dex’s face, so he pecks him one more time for reassurance. “Hey.”
“We—” He doesn’t exactly know how to say this without sounding like an eighth-grader. “Are we dating?”
Dex smirks. “Actually, I thought I’d just get dressed and pretend none of this ever happened. See you later.” His tone is light, but when he actually sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bunk, Derek panics. He lunges to wrap his arms around Dex’s waist, hauling him back onto the bed, and Dex flops next to him with a delighted laugh.
“Don’t go.” Nursey hates the petulant note in his voice. Incredibly, Dex’s face softens, that same smile that turns Nursey’s bones into goo, and Nursey remembers what Chowder said a million years ago: oh, wow, I’m in love with you. From the way Dex immediately leans into him, it must show on his face.
“Nursey,” Dex whispers, and then, “Derek.” His hand skims lightly down to the small of Nursey’s back and rests there. Nursey’s pulse beats wildly against Dex's fingers. “You know I love you, right?”
He feels everything at once—surprise, delight, contentment, a little bit of fear. He wants the world with Dex, and right now, he thinks they could have it.
What he actually says is, “You asshole, I wanted to say it first.”
Dex presses his forehead against Nursey’s, the softest smile playing on his lips. His breath tickles Nursey's nose. “You already did.”