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one word frees us from all the weight

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“One word

Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:

That word is love.”

(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus)

 

 

The uber pulls up to the curb outside the Haus, and Nursey braces himself for the chaos he’s sure’ll be waiting for him inside.

 

Three cracked ribs and some bone-deep bruising, the medics had told him at the game, and the doctor at the ER had confirmed it. Coach Murray had gone with him to the hospital from the game, stayed until pretty late, but Nursey had eventually convinced him to leave, that he could get home on his own.

 

“You need to call someone to help you?” his driver asks him.

 

“No, I think I’m okay.” Nursey tries to reach for the door handle, but the twist sends a sharp spike of pain through his chest. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he hisses, and then, guiltily and because he was raised not to curse around people he doesn’t know, adds, “Sorry.”

 

“Shit, bro, I’ve heard worse.” The guy turns in his seat to look at Nursey, his face concerned. “You need a hand?”

 

“No, thanks, I’ll--I’m gonna call someone.” He’s got his phone out anyway, he flips to his favorites and hits Chowder’s number.

 

C picks up on the first ring. “Nursey? Are you okay? What did the hospital say?”

 

“I’m--” He doesn’t say yeah, but he has to cut himself off to keep from it. “I’ll live,” he says instead. “Uh, I’m outside the Haus but I’m kind of, um--”

 

“We’ll be right there,” Chowder says immediately, and hangs up.

 

Nursey blinks at his phone, flashing call ended at him. The meds he took at the hospital are starting to make him feel a little groggy. He’s pretty sure Chowder wouldn’t have hung up on him.

 

There’s a sharp tap on the window, and he looks up to see Chowder and Dex there, looking anxious. “Here,” the driver says, and hits the unlock button. The external locks click as they disengage, and Dex opens his door.

 

“Hey,” he says, and there’s a weird tension in his voice Nursey doesn’t like. “How are you doing?”

 

“Hurts,” Nursey says, because talking much more than that feels like way too much work.

 

Dex purses his lips into a thin line. “Right,” he says. He scans Nursey briefly, then looks critically at the car, and sighs. “I don’t think there’s a way to do this that won’t make it worse.”

 

Nursey nods. He’d figured. “Yeah. I can deal, I just need a hand.”

 

“We got you,” Chowder says.

 

It takes both of them and sucks a lot. He’s gasping by the time he’s out of the car, leaning hard on Dex’s shoulder while Chowder steadies his other side and rubs his back. The uber driver gives a sympathetic wave and drives off while Nursey blinks back tears and tries to catch his breath.

 

“Okay,” he chokes out, after more time than he feels comfortable with and less time than is probably smart. “Okay, let’s--let’s get this shit over with.”

 

Dex wraps his arm more securely around his waist. He looks pale and drawn and normally Nursey would try to figure out why, but he’s focusing on not throwing up. “Can you get an arm over either of us? It’ll keep you steadier.”

 

Nursey laughs and immediately regrets it. “Absofuckinglutely not,” he says. “Maybe my left arm, but--”

 

Chowder shakes his head. “It’ll pull the muscles and make it worse. Just let us hold onto you, okay?” He takes hold of Nursey’s left arm, his grip strong and secure, stabilizing. “You ready?”

 

Nursey gauges the distance between the sidewalk where they’re standing and the front door to the Haus, considers the porch stairs and the stairs that he’ll need to climb to get to his and Dex’s room, and wants to die. “Alternatively,” he offers, “you guys could just bring me a blanket and I could live here for the next few days. Right here on the grass. There’s a nice pile of leaves over there. Could be cool. Peak aesthetic.”

 

Chowder snorts. “Not even for you,” he says.

 

Dex’s voice is gentler, but still firm. “We’ll go slow, you can take as many breaks as you need. But you gotta get inside.”

 

The urge to whine, cry, or call his mom is overwhelming. Nursey shoves it down. Get to bed, he tells himself. Get to bed, and everything’ll be fine. “Okay,” he says. “Don’t judge me if I throw up.”

 

“We won’t,” Chowder promises. He pauses. “But, like. Try not to.”

 

It’s the longest walk of Nursey’s fucking life. He doesn’t throw up, but he comes close a couple times, and he’s pretty sure the stairs have a personal vendetta against him.

 

They make it, though, and Bitty opens the door for him. He’s wide-eyed with worry, and reaches out, but Dex says “Don’t touch him” in a voice so sharp that Bitty actually blinks and steps back, hands raised in a placating gesture.

 

Ollie and Wicks are on the couch, a few of the other guys sitting around as well, and there’s a chorus of “bro you’re back!”s and “that check was fucking brutal dude holy shit I can’t believe you’re moving”s and one “he’s aliiiiiiiiiive” from Macksy, but Nursey barely hears them. He chokes out “break please,” and Dex snaps his fingers at Ollie and Wicks.

 

“Move,” he says, and they scramble up so that Dex and Chowder can help him sit down. It’s almost as slow and halting a process as getting him up had been, and Nursey knows he’s just gonna have to get up again in a bit to go upstairs, but he honestly can’t even contemplate that right now. He sinks back against the cushions, trying to breathe, and feels the couch dip as Dex sits down next to him. “Nursey,” he says. “I know you need to breathe, but I need you to tell me ice or heat?”

 

“Ice,” Nursey bites out through gritted teeth--that was what they’d told him in the ER; intermittent ice for the first two days to reduce the swelling, and heat only after that to relax the muscles.

 

“I got it,” Bitty says, and Nursey hears his footsteps, but is really too busy trying to find the fine line between enough air to refill his lungs and not so much air that his chest hurts more.

 

A firm, gentle hand rubs over his back, close enough to his shoulders that it doesn’t hurt. It’s still Dex, he realizes, and that’s weird, the closeness and the hovering--it’s not bad, but it’s not really like them. He’s not sure what he thinks about it.

 

Bitty’s footsteps come back, and then Dex is gently pressing what feels like a bag of frozen peas against Nursey’s chest, a little higher than where the fractures are. “This right?”

 

“Little lower,” Nursey rasps. The ice moves and oh, fuck, that’s better. He takes a few more breaths, and then opens his eyes to find half the team gathered around him. Okay, that’s unsettling. He does his best to smile. “Sup?”

 

Nursey,” Bitty says, and he looks near tears. He opens his mouth, then closes it, then hesitates. “What’d they tell you?”

 

Nursey swallows. He wants to shift around, to sit up better so he’s not slumped while he says this, but moving is not in his repertoire right now. “Three ribs fractured,” he says, and a hiss goes around the room. Ollie and Wicks look ready to go commit a murder, and even Whiskey, who’s usually impassive in situations like this, has something vaguely furious flash across his face.

 

Dex is silent, but his grip on Nursey’s arm tightens. Nursey doesn’t dare look at him. He doesn’t know what he’ll see on his face.

 

Chowder sits down on the arm of the couch next to him, puts a hand on his shoulder. It’s gentle pressure, careful. “Do you know how long you’ll be off the ice?”

 

Nursey closes his eyes. This is the part that sucks. “Six weeks of no contact,” he says. “Maybe back on the ice after eight.” He’ll miss almost the whole rest of the season, unless they make the playoffs.

 

“Oh, Nursey,” Chowder says, and his voice is thick with sympathy. And that’s not really right, Nursey thinks, cracking his eyes open to look at him. Chowder’s the captain and he should be thinking about the team, which just lost half of the first line defense pair, but he only sounds sad, looks sadder. “I’m so sorry.”

 

I’m sorry,” Nursey says, the guilt that’s been twinging through him all night surging back to the surface. “I should’ve seen that fucker coming, I--”

 

“Nursey,” Dex says firmly, and Nursey glances at him before he can stop himself. Dex’s eyes are blazing, but there’s something underneath the look that Nursey still can’t place. “He fucking crosschecked you, okay? There’s no way you could’ve seen it.”

 

Nursey nods. He’s too tired to argue. “Okay,” he says.

 

Dex regards him for a moment longer, and then presses his lips together again, like he’d done outside, and looks at Chowder. Chowder nods and stands up.

 

“Alright,” he says. “You’re all great for staying, and you did an amazing job on the ice tonight. But go home. We’ll start working strategy at practice on Monday.”

 

For all the ways the team babies Chowder (gotta love that subtle racism, Nursey thinks, and yeah, the meds are definitely making him woozy), they know not to fuck with Captain Voice. The Haus clears out pretty quickly, well wishes and fervent promises to fuck Union’s shit up the next time they play and a few gentle got your backs, and then there’s sweet, blessed quiet.

 

Nursey closes his eyes and breathes. The ice is helping, but he still wants to curl up and die. The whole fucking rest of the season. Fuck.

 

“Hey,” Dex says. Nursey forces his eyes open, blinks hard until Dex isn’t watery and blurry anymore, and then focuses on his face. Dex, because he’s had immense character growth since freshman year and honestly thank God, doesn’t comment on the tears Nursey’s sure are still visible. “You ready to tackle the stairs?”

 

“No,” Nursey says, meaning it. “But I wanna go to bed.” He hesitates. “I don’t think I can lie down flat.”

 

Bitty gets to his feet. “I’ll go on a pillow hunt,” he says. “You two, come help,” he adds to Ollie and Wicks, and Nursey feels a pang of gratitude that at least there will be fewer witnesses to how bad this is gonna suck.

 

“Come on,” Dex says gently. He hands the frozen peas to Chowder, and Nursey instantly misses the sensation. “Sooner you start, sooner it’s over.”

 

“Easy for you to say,” Nursey says, but slowly leans forward so that Dex can put one arm around him, hold onto Nursey’s left forearm with the other, and carefully get him up to his feet.

 

Dex gives a hollow laugh. “Probably not by much,” he says, and Nursey’s not totally sure what he means by that, and doesn’t have the brainpower to wonder.

 

It probably takes him fifteen minutes to get up the stairs, with Dex at his side and Chowder at his back, ready to catch him if he falls. He feels like an idiot and it’s dumb and humiliating and he’s starting to wish he’d taken some of the guys up on their offer to go do a revenge murder for him, because this sucks.


The pile of pillows waiting for him in his bed is the most gorgeous thing he’s ever seen, but Dex holds onto him before he lets him sit down. Nursey makes a sound that’s probably pathetic before he can stop himself, glaring at him in protest, and Dex gives him an apologetic look. “You oughta change first,” he says. “Then you can stay in bed.”

 

Nursey wants to argue, but honestly, he’s right. “This undershirt’s staying on,” he says.

 

Dex nods in understanding. “Fair enough.” He glances at Chowder. “Sweats are in the bottom drawer,” he says.

 

“Got it.” Chowder turns to Nursey’s dresser, and Dex looks at Nursey.

 

“It’ll go faster if I help you,” he says, and Nursey nods tiredly. It’s not like Dex has never taken his pants off him before, though the circumstances are usually a lot nicer.

 

From the look on Dex’s face, he’s thinking the same thing, but he’s quiet as he unbuttons Nursey’s pants one-handed and holds him steady with the other, shoving at his waistband gently so that they fall. Chowder comes back with Nursey’s Andover sweatpants, and the two of them help him wrangle into them, then carefully get him down onto the bottom bunk.

 

“Good thing you’re not top bunk, Nursey, huh?” Chowder says, gently teasing. He rests a hand on Nursey’s shoulder as Nursey leans back into the mountain of pillows Bitty or Wicks made for him (it’s way to structurally sound to be Ollie’s work), breathing carefully and trying to figure out the position that’ll get him the closest to comfortable.

 

Dex snorts. “If he was we’d just put him in my bed,” he says. Nursey glances at him just in time to see him go faintly pink, and Nursey closes his eyes again. He knows Dex blushes at the drop of a hat, that it’s not any embarrassment over the fact that Dex is regularly in his bed these days, but he can’t help but get...whatever, antsy about it.

 

Jesus. The extent to which he does not need to be worrying about Dex’s shit when his body is just trying to focus on breathing without puncturing something is not even fucking quantifiable. He takes a careful breath and opens his eyes. “Can the ice come back?”

 

His voice comes out in a rasp, but no one comments. “I put it back in the freezer,” Chowder says. “I’ll be right back, okay?” Nursey nods, and Chowder disappears down the stairs.

 

Dex sits down on the edge of Nursey’s bed. His hands fidget in his lap for a second, and then he puts one on top of Nursey’s thigh, squeezes briefly. Nursey can feel the tremble in his fingers, and thinks briefly about reaching down to take his hand.

 

He decides against it. Too much movement.

 

Chowder comes back with the frozen peas, wrapped in a towel, two water bottles, and the prescription bag Nursey’d gotten at the hospital. “So you don’t have to get refills in the night,” he says, handing the peas to Dex and then putting the bottles on the nightstand. He leans against the bedframe while Dex helps get the peas in the right spot against Nursey’s ribs again. “What’s the protocol for icing them?”

 

“Twenty minutes on every hour I’m awake for the first two days,” Nursey says tiredly. “Hopefully I’ll pass out soon, though.”

 

“We’ll take care of it,” Dex says firmly. He nods to the bag. “What about meds?”

 

Nursey presses the ice a little harder against his ribs to try to numb them out faster, regrets it instantly, and loosens his grip. “Uh, every six hours on the painkillers. Supposed to take them with food. And Zofran if I get nauseous from them anyway. They gave me an Oxy in the ER.”

 

Dex opens the bag, studying the labels on the bottles intently. “Can you take another one soon?”

 

“What time is it?”

 

Dex glances at his phone. “Almost two.”

 

Nursey resists the urge to swear. “Not for another two hours.” And if he’s still awake in two hours he might literally die.

 

“We’ll see how it goes,” Dex says. He puts the bottles back in the bag and puts them next to the water on the nightstand. “Hopefully you’ll be out way before then.”

 

“Inshallah,” Nursey mumbles. Fuck. He should call his mom. “Where’s my phone?”

 

“Still in your pants.” Chowder digs it out. “You’ve got like four percent battery.”

 

Screw it, he’ll call in the morning. “Can you get in the groupchat with my family and let them know I’m fine and I’ll call tomorrow? I just.” A lump forms in his throat and he swallows around it, hard. “I can’t, right now.”

 

Chowder nods. He taps at Nursey’s phone for a moment and then puts it on the nightstand, plugging it in. His face is gentle. “Can I do anything else?”

 

Nursey shakes his head. “Just wanna crash,” he admits.

 

“Okay.” Chowder gives him a small, wry smile. “Consider this an emotional hug,” he says. “Since I honestly think you’ll scream if I try to give you a real one.”

 

“I will die,” Nursey agrees, but manages to smile back. “Thanks, C.”

 

“Got your back,” Chowder says. He glances at Dex for a moment, then back at Nursey. “I’ll keep my phone on tonight, okay? Text if you need me for anything.” Dex nods, and Chowder puts a hand on Dex’s shoulder, squeezes briefly, and says, “’Night, guys.”

 

“Night,” Dex says. Nursey wriggles his fingers in a wave. Chowder goes out through the door to the hallway, closing it gently behind him.

 

Dex lets out a soft sigh. He turns to Nursey, and his face is soft. Nursey doesn’t usually see him like this when they’re not in bed, vulnerable and open, no walls in place. He can see the stark worry now, the exhaustion, the hesitation, and something like guilt. Nursey carefully brings the knee closer to Dex up and bumps him with it.

 

“Hey,” he says. Dex startles a little, blinking at him. “What is it?”

 

“Are you serious?” Dex’s voice snaps up at the end of the question, and Nursey flinches. It hurts, but not as bad as he expected. “Nursey, you’re--you’re out for the rest of the season, that guy fucking nailed you, you could’ve--” He drags in a breath. “Fuck,” he says, and takes his hand off Nursey’s leg so he can put his face in both of his hands. He’s quiet for a moment, and then he lifts his head.

 

“I saw him coming,” he says, hoarsely, giving Nursey a wrecked look. “It was only out of the corner of my eye, and it was half a second, but I should’ve warned you, Derek, I--”

 

“Stop,” Nursey says, before he can stop himself. Dex snaps his mouth shut, looking at him with guilt and worry, and Nursey swallows the lump in his throat, takes a cautious, rattling breath. Crying would be the worst thing right now, probably only second to throwing up, but he’s too close to tears listening to Dex talk. He’s too raw, too tired and in too much pain.

 

When he’s gotten himself under control--it’s a solid two minutes of silence, of his careful breathing, of Dex so rigid beside him Nursey can feel the tension coming off his body. “I can’t right now,” he says. “I know you care and I know you’re worried and I’m sorry you feel like you should’ve done something, but you didn’t, and it’s not helpful to hear you say it. So just...Please stop.”

 

It’s too much all at once, and his breathing is shaky again by the time he finishes, but Dex’s face changes, gentles, clears. He swallows visibly and then puts his hand back on Nursey’s leg, closer to his knee than his groin. “Okay,” he says quietly. “Okay. Nursey, okay. Please breathe, baby.”

 

“I’m trying,” Nursey manages, but it takes him a few more minutes to get it together again, and fuck his ribs really hurt. He gropes, eyes closed, and find Dex’s hand, locks on. Dex’s breath hisses--yeah, whatever, Nursey’s grip is strong, Dex had better suck it up--but he squeezes back, rubbing his thumb gently over the back of Nursey’s hand.

 

Slowly, slowly, his heart slows down, the can’t breathe it hurts it hurts panic fades from his throat. He swallows and opens his eyes. “Water?” he croaks. Dex leans over to get one of the bottles from the nightstand, starts to pull his hand out of Nursey’s to open it, and then seems to think better of it, holding the bottle between his knees to unscrew the cap and then holding it up to Nursey’s lips.

 

“Don’t chug it,” he says, like Nursey could even if he wanted to, and tips the bottle gently so Nursey can take a few small, careful sips. Nursey squeezes his hand again, and Dex lowers the bottle, and puts it back on the nightstand. He’s quiet for a moment, then he says, “What can I do? What’s helpful?”

 

“I…” Nursey thinks about that. He doesn’t really want Dex to talk, he thinks he’ll lose it, but he doesn’t want him to go. And that’s a weird blurry thing, because they’re friends and they’re friends with benefits but they’re not boyfriends, this hand-holding thing is new, the gentle care in Dex’s expression is new, the way Dex’s touch is tender on his skin is new.

 

It’s new, but it’s not...it’s not bad. You like it, a small, not very useful voice in his head says. You like him.

 

He can examine that another time, he thinks, when he’s not pain-dizzy and exhausted.

 

“Just stay,” he says. “Put on a movie, maybe? I just…” He licks his bottom lip. “I don’t wanna…”

 

Be alone, he can’t say, but Dex nods. “Okay. Let me get changed, alright?”

 

Nursey nods, and Dex pulls his hand away, getting up. He watches through half-lidded eyes as Dex swaps his jeans for sweatpants, tosses his flannel onto his dresser, puts his t-shirt and socks in the hamper. The slow, methodical movements are almost comforting to watch.

 

Dex brings his laptop and the desk chair closer to the bed, then sits back down on the edge, putting his computer on the chair and opening Netflix. “Okay,” he says, glancing at Nursey. “Comfort movie, but not a comedy because you don’t wanna laugh right now...Spirited Away?”

 

“Dude,” Nursey says, surprised and a little touched. “Yeah. Perfect.”

 

“It’s like I know you or something,” Dex says, fondness spilling into his voice, and Nursey’s chest twinges in a way that has nothing to do with his ribs. He pulls the movie up on Netflix, starts it, and then pauses, looking at Nursey. “I think you should shift over so you’re on the inside,” he says. “That way I don’t have to climb over you to get you more ice. It’ll suck now but it’ll be better later.”

 

Nursey grimaces but nods, and it only strikes him after Dex has gotten him carefully tucked into the corner of his bed, all the pillows still propped behind him, that they’ve both assumed without discussing it that Dex is staying down here with him. Dex climbs in next to him, repositions the chair so it’s closer to the end of the bed and Nursey won’t have to twist to see it, and then hesitantly reaches for Nursey’s hand. “This okay?”

 

“Yeah.” Dex laces their fingers together, his palm warm and dry against Nursey’s, and Nursey squeezes his hand. “Thanks,” he says. Fuck, he’s tired. “Sorry I snapped at you.”

 

Dex shakes his head. “You didn’t snap,” he says. “And you--Jesus, Nursey, you’re allowed to tell me what you need from me, you know?” He smiles, faint, and lifts his other hand to touch Nursey’s cheek gently. “It’s better when you do. For both of us.”

 

“I know,” Nursey says. “I know, I just…”

 

He doesn’t know how to put I just don’t wanna make you sad either into words, especially when he thinks it’s okay that he makes Dex a little sad in the interest of making sure he doesn’t fall apart himself, but he can’t do phrase that right now, so he just looks helplessly at him, and Dex’s eyes go soft.

 

“It’s okay,” he says. He leans over and kisses Nursey’s forehead, pulls back to look carefully at him, and when Nursey nods his permission, comes back and kisses his lips, just as gently. Nursey’s eyes sting at the tenderness of it. “I’ve got you.”

 

Nursey takes a shaking breath. “It really hurts,” he admits, quiet and miserable.

 

“I know.” Dex says. He squeezes Nursey’s hand. “I’m here. Okay? Whatever you need. I’m here.”

 

“Just stay,” Nursey says.

 

Dex is quiet for a few seconds. “For as long as you need me,” he says finally. Softly. His hand doesn’t tighten, but it shakes for a moment in Nursey’s, and then steadies once more. “As long as you want me.”

 

Nursey closes his eyes. “Okay,” he says. He squeezes Dex’s hand, and Dex squeezes back.

 

He breathes.