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A Tender Word in Touch

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“So, we should go to Winter Screw together.”

Dex only barely avoids braining himself on the kitchen countertop. He feels his face heating up, glares at the still leaking pipe in front of him, and tightens his grip around the pipe wrench in his fist. He forces his hold to loosen when it starts digging painfully into the skin of his palm.

He waits for a couple of seconds, until the initial shock of Nursey’s proposal starts to wear off, before he puts the wrench back in his toolbox and reaches an empty open hand backwards and says, as level as he can, “Uh, no we shouldn’t. Pass me a kitchen rag.”

“Think about it, bro,” Nursey says, his tone aiming for persuasive, as he hands him a dishcloth; their fingers touch, briefly, and Dex can practically feel the heat from his cheeks rising all the way up to the roots of his fucking hair, and all the way down to the base of his throat. He spares a second to be thankful for the relative cover the counter provides, and then Nursey adds, “C already has a date. It’s just us left, and Ransom and Holster are cool guys, but Bitty told me all about his Winter Screw frosh year and I’m not feeling it.”

Dex wrinkles his nose, recalling something about Bitty’s date throwing up on him, and okay, Nursey might have a point there.

“Sometimes I think their definition of ‘fun’ doesn’t really align with the rest of the world’s,” Dex mutters, drying the pipe up with a couple of perfunctory wipes, clucking his tongue when he notices the fittings being a little loose, before reaching back for his pipe wrench.

“They throw some sick kegsters, though.” Dex can almost hear his grin, a little lopsided, amused and fond and playful. He tries to focus on the task of loosening the threaded pipe instead of the clear picture he can conjure in his mind of Nursey leaning against the counter next to him, relaxed and grinning, a little slouched, green eyes fixed on him.

“I’m gonna need some plumber’s tape,” he says when the joint comes loose, in a desperate bid for a distraction, and his sandpaper dry throat warps the words a little, makes them a little raspy, and he feels mortification curling tight inside his gut, solid like a fucking rock.

Get a grip, Poindexter.

“Which one’s that?”

“The white tape on the light blue spool,” he explains, and then sighs, bringing the hand with the wrench up to his forehead to wipe some sweat away. “I ran out.”

He hears Nursey rustling in place a little and then humming. Dex recognizes the sound as one of the ones he makes when he’s deep in thought.

And then he hears something, almost imperceptible, like a disruption in the air flow, a little like a low buzz that’s gone as soon as Dex can make it out as something to hear.

Suddenly, a little dusty roll of plumber’s tape pops out of thin air right in front of his eyes, clattering to the bottom of the base cabinet as Dex stares at it, frozen in place.

“Jesus fucking Christ, Nursey. Warn a guy next time.”

Nursey, the fucking asshole, just huffs out a little laugh and says, “Chill, Dexy. That the one you wanted?”

Dex grabs the roll, and frowns at the amount of dust and grime on the spool.

“Where did you get this?”

“The basement,” Nursey says, like that should be enough explanation for that and any number of additional questions Dex might have, about the tape and probably, like, the meaning of life.

Because that’s the kind of place the haus basement is, really. Dank as fuck, and chock-full of cheap beer and magical residue.

He picks up the discarded dishcloth and tries to wipe some of the grime off the spool with little to no success, and eventually throws the towel. Literally, and in the general direction of Nursey’s feet, who laughs and says “gross, dude.”

They both fall silent after that, and Dex wraps the tape around the threaded pipe once, twice, three times, methodically, and listens to the way Nursey taps the heel of one of his sneakers against the floor in a steady rhythm.

It’s— nice. It’s nice hanging out with Nursey like this, spending time together without being at each other’s throats, without Chowder having to act as a buffer, even if neither of them planned it, even if all they’re doing is— coexisting or whatever. It’s less them on a regular basis and more them on the ice, where they’ve started to get each other on some instinctive level.

He threads the pipe back, slowly, taking more care not to tighten the fitting too much than he normally would.

I’m stalling, he realizes, and his face heats up again in mortification.

When the pipe’s all put together, not leaking anymore, he realizes it’s over. He’s ran out of excuses to stay down here, body half under the sink; and so he’s gonna have to come back out into the world, and the aggressively scrubbed down haus kitchen, and then it’s gonna be back to the way it always is with them, Nursey smirking at him like Dex is nothing but an open book to him, and nothing he can see in him is that impressive anyway, and Dex getting worked up over shit he’ll realize is trivial as soon as Nursey’s eyes aren’t on him, burning.

Get a grip, he thinks again, and really, that’s basically been his mantra since their taddy tour. He should get it tattooed, or something.

Nursey nudges him, and when Dex pulls out from under the sink to glare at him, he’s wearing a lopsided smile, the corners of his eyes a little crinkled at the corners, and the natural light coming from the window behind him frames him like he’s the main focus of a painting and— Jesus, just— who even looks good from this angle?

Derek Nurse, that’s who. Low angles are no match for a guy so ridiculously handsome he once caused a gaggle of fellow freshmen (or at least they’d looked like freshmen to him, Shitty’s voice booming ‘so untainted by the reality of midterms, nine a.m. lectures after a kegster, and fucking Chads playing devil’s advocate’ inside his head as he saw their fresh faces) to almost walk into the pond.

Nursey nudges him again, and he tries to will back a blush when he realizes he’s been glaring up at Nursey for a couple of seconds like a weirdo.

Nursey doesn’t seem fazed by his awkwardness, he just leans further against the counter as he reaches a hand out to Dex.

Dex forces himself to take it, and just— be, for once in his fucking life, chill. It’s just a hand. Like any other hand out there. Warm and large and sun-kissed, with nice, short, even nails that aren’t bitten to the quick like his are sometimes, and really fucking soft.

Just— a hand.

Nursey claps his shoulder when he’s back on his feet, in that way he does after drills sometimes, when they’ve been particularly in sync on the ice, and focuses the whole intensity of his smile on him.

Dex knows what’s coming before Nursey even gets the words out, but he still groans when he hears Nursey’s, “So, about Winter Screw...”

He’s fetching his backpack before Nursey’s even done talking, making his way out of the kitchen and throwing a “See you at morning skate tomorrow, Nurse” over his shoulder.

 

“What changed your mind, Dexy?” Nursey asks as he straightens his tie, his step never faltering as they keep making their way towards the formal, only a couple of blocks away from where it’s being held.

Nursey already looked perfectly put together to Dex when he’d shown up to his dorm, but he also feels all kinds of stiff, uncomfortable and out of place in his own suit, and he barely knows how to do his own tie (and his knot looks clunky and out of place next to Nursey’s sleek one), so what would he know, really. Maybe Nursey looks sloppy for Andover standards, maybe people from Uptown Manhattan aren’t supposed to wear Windsor knots.

He breathes in, fists clenching and unclenching inside his suit pants’ pockets (and he can all but hear his mom complaining about him ‘ruining the line of his suit’, whatever that even means), and the cold air helps soothing his nerves.

The thing is— it’s not really a big deal. Dex can make up any number of excuses— he didn’t like any of the girls Ransom and Holster picked for him (and really, Nursey and Chowder already think he has insanely high standards from their own attempts at screwing him), or he would’ve felt weird going out with a puck bunny, or—

Or he could tell Nursey the truth.

And the truth is— the truth is Dex had reasons for coming to Samwell. The truth is he grew up in straight up nowhere, Maine, surrounded with small-town conservative views, and he’d been a junior in high school thinking about his future, and on Google searches Samwell had come up associated to headlines like ‘Samwell University ranked #1 most LGBTQ-friendly campus’, and ‘Samwell University breaks the mold by extending their non-discrimination/anti-harassment policies to protect people with an Affinity’, and he’d read every single article he’d found, had opened them up and saved them in an encrypted folder buried deep within his files.

The truth is Dex had been sixteen, scared and exhausted out of his mind by all the parts of himself he felt a need to hide and Samwell had looked like a promise.

A promise that he’d made to himself.

A promise that he hadn’t felt ready to start fulfilling until right now.

Nursey slows down to a halt, next to him, and when Dex turns around to see what the hold-up is, he finds Nursey frowning at him, hands tucked into the pockets of his suit jacket.

“Dex?”

He’s worried. Derek Malik Nurse, he who fucking lies on leave piles and acts like a natural disaster wouldn’t shake him, is worried about him.

Dex’s stomach swoops, and before he can even stop to think the words through he blurts out, “I’m gay.”

Nursey blinks a couple of times, and then he says, “Cool, I’m bi.”

He nods.

It feels— weird. He’s read the stories, he’s listened to Bitty’s, but— he didn’t— it’s just weird.

“Coming out not what you were expecting?” Nursey asks, lips stretching into an amused smile, almost as though he really can read Dex like an open book.

Dex nods, and Nursey hums, and then he’s plastered to his side, throwing an arm over his shoulders and almost bowling him over with his enthusiasm. Dex would try to get out of the hold but it might actually be what he needs now, because he feels— untethered, and Nursey is an anchor.

“It can take some time to sink in the first time. And there’s no right or wrong way to feel right now, okay? Just remember that. Coming out is about you and about your own feelings, and they are valid.”

“Did you learn that one from Shitty?” He manages to throw back, and he winces when he notices how scratchy and weak the words sound.

At least I didn’t stutter, he thinks, and gives himself the tiniest of mental fistbumps.

“It’s what he told me when I came out to him back in Andover,” Nursey admits, and the way his lips quirk when he says it, the way his eyes crinkle, the softness to his words— it feels like Nursey’s sharing something with him that he doesn’t give away lightly.

It’s quid pro quo, if quid pro quo was soft, or gentle.

Dex smiles back, and for a second or two they just stay there, staring at each other under the light of the street lamps, the winter air icy and a little cutting around them. Just— being in the moment.

You could tell him, he thinks then, you could tell Nursey everything.

And that’s when the moment breaks, with that thought, sobering and loud, ringing inside of him.

He’s not ready.

Even after— even after this, he’s just not ready.

“We should get going,” he says, and extricates himself from Nursey’s hold, ignoring the confused look on his face. “Chowder’s gonna start blowing up our phones any minute now.”

 

Winter Screw is certainly classier than any kegster Dex has been to, so far. Most of the people attending are at least some degree of wasted, yeah, but he’s only seen two people blowing chunks so far.

He grimaces as a guy from the diving team stumbles past, looking green around the edges.

The guy’s only a couple of steps away when Dex hears the distinct sound of retching.

Yeah, make that three.

A red solo cup appears in front of him, followed by the words, “I could write odes to the bacchanalian nature of college. I’d have to break out the thesaurus for synonyms of ‘puke’ or get seriously creative with the euphemisms after the first couple of stanzas, though.”

“What you could do is ease up on the booze,” Dex shoots back, dry, as he accepts the cup from Nursey. Their fingers brush, briefly, and Dex feels the tips of his ears burn. “We don’t have anyone on Nursey patrol tonight.”

Nursey chuckles, and Dex can feel the weight and heat of his body settling next to him, against the wall. If Dex were smoother, he’d lean into the touch, be casual enough about it that Nursey wouldn’t question it, or confident enough to do it with intent. But he’s still about as smooth as he was back when he was fourteen, lanky and pasty, and not having grown into his feet or hands or ears (not that he’s grown into those last ones since, but at fourteen he’d had hope for days).

Instead, what he does is take a sip of his drink, and almost choke on it when Nursey leans farther into his space, whispers, “What kind of date would I be if I let you deal with my drunk ass, huh?”

Dex takes his time to swallow his beer—classier than regular kegster beer, too (anything’s classier than Natty Light, though, so maybe that one’s a given)—, and to wait for his heart to maybe get its act together, stop beating double time.

“Nurse, I deal with your drunk ass every weekend,” is what he says once he’s gotten himself more or less under control, thankful that the odd little hitch in his words is less pubescent kid with a crush, and more just your regular freshman disaster. It makes him feel bold enough to smirk and add, “In fact, I was the one who had to get your drunk ass down from the rooftop, and I’m still not clear on how you even ended up there in the first—”

“—The kind of tripping that goes up instead of down?”

“That made no sense the first time around and it makes no sense now.” He can’t help the way he leans into Nursey as he talks, the hand not holding his solo cup gesturing wildly and almost smacking Nursey square in the face.

Nursey chuckles again, and this time Dex can feel it with the way they are leaning against each other.

“Magic?” Nursey offers then, and as he says the word, he draws attention with a little nod towards his hand, where his —empty already, Jesus— solo cup disappears into thin air.

Dex’s breath hitches.

A handful of wellies stare, some of them appraising, a couple straight up ogling— but a few of them, and these are the ones that Dex can’t help but focus on, can’t help but let gnaw at him, look inscrutable.

“Why do you keep doing that?” He asks, and he knows as soon as the words are out, louder than intended, ugly, scared, that he shouldn’t have said them at all.

“Why do I keep doing what?”

There’s steel in Nursey’s words, and just like that, the air shifts between them, the night goes from playful and lighthearted chirping to whatever this is, to Nursey straightening up to his full 6’2”, taking a careful step away from him, leveling a gaze at him that is closed off and just this side of disdainful.

Just like that, he can feel them going back to being Nurse and Poindexter, and the night going up in flames.

“I need some cool air,” Nursey says, dry, before he takes off, and for a couple of seconds all Dex can do is stare after his retreating back, bringing sweaty palms up to drag them down his face.

“You should go after him,” one of the random dudes that’d been staring yells at him over the thumping music, from a couple of feet away, in all his infinite drunk wisdom.

It probably says a lot about him, that he just nods, mutters a useless “thanks”, and proceeds to follow the advice of some drunk rando.

 

Nursey is sitting on the seat wall, when Dex finally makes his way outside, legs stretched and crossed at the ankle, hands jammed into his jacket pockets, glaring at a tree.

“Go away, Poindexter, I don’t feel like getting into it with you right now.”

Anger spikes in him, red hot and bitter, but he swallows it down, knowing that Nursey’s righteousness is probably justified this time around.

He sits down, far away enough from Nursey that it hopefully won’t be seen as a provocation.

It takes him a couple of seconds staring at a flickering lamp post to get through the muddled mess in his head and say, “I’m sorry, okay?”

Nursey huffs, and it’s cold enough that he can see the little puff of air coming out, like all of Nursey’s annoyance has taken corporeal form just so he can show Dex without the need to turn to words.

“I am,” he insists, and Jesus, what is it about Nursey that can reduce him to sounding like a five year old. “I don’t—”

I don’t what?

“I don’t what?” Nursey echoes his thoughts, unknowingly, and the way he looks at him is a hundred percent haughty, and at least there’s that— for all his projected chill, Dex gets under Nursey’s skin just as much as Nursey gets under his.

“I don’t know.” It’s the easy road. It’s giving up without even trying, and he knows it, but there’s— he’s— not ready.

“You don’t know,” Nursey repeats, like he can barely believe him, and then he’s shaking his head and getting up on his feet. “I’m not putting up with this tonight. See you whenever, Poindexter.”

And just like that, he’s walking away, a little slouched, hands still jammed in his pockets, clearly pissed right the fuck off, the way only Dex ever seems to get him.

“I—” He tries again, and chokes on the word.

“What?” He asks, turning around suddenly enough that even Dex feels nauseous over it (or would. If he wasn’t already nauseous over this whole fiasco). “You what, Poindexter? You’re sorry that my Affinity makes your Maine born and bred ass so uncomfortable but you just wish I wouldn’t go around flaunting it?”

Dex swallows, spit going down with some difficulty.

That’s not it.

“Nursey, I—” He chokes again, like he can’t get enough moisture to his vocal cords.

Nursey drags a hand down his face, shakes his head again, and makes to turn back and resume his brisk walk away from Dex and his inability to form fucking coherent thoughts when needed.

—Only he makes it as far as taking the one step, before he’s slipping on a frozen puddle and flailing as he goes down, face first.

Dex is on his feet as soon as he realizes what’s happening, but he isn’t fast enough to catch Nursey and he can only wince as Nursey makes the impact, carefully walking over and crouching down, hand hovering sweaty palm down over Nursey’s form.

“Nursey? Man? Are you okay?”

“I think I broke something,” Nursey says, words coming out a little dizzy, a little nasal and distorted, and when Nursey manages to get his hands under him and push himself into a seating position Dex can see exactly why that is.

His nose definitely looks— funky. And there’s blood dripping from his nostrils onto the frozen puddle, and his lip is bloodied too, and shit— that’s just— a lot of blood.

His hands hover next to Nursey’s face and when Nursey hisses in pain, he stops thinking and just cups Nursey’s face and focuses.

“What are you doing?” Nursey asks, that dizzy quality to his voice still there, making him sound younger, a little airy. “I’m still mad at you.”

Dex meets his eyes, asks, “do you trust me?”

Nursey frowns for a second or two, but he sighs and shrinks in on himself a little, and finally nods as much as he can with Dex’s hands on him.

Dex nods back at him, for lack of anything else to say and then slips his eyes closed, focusing, focusing, focusing so hard that he feels the hairs on his arms and the nape of his neck standing up.

He knows it’s happening when Nursey hisses again, this time a little less pained, a little more shocked, and there’s that swoop, the one he associates with being terrified and shaking like a fucking leaf, with being uncertain and losing control—

Focus.

Nursey gasps. Dex feels uncomfortably hot all over, feels his palms tingle, feels the way Nursey’s skin under them grows warmer.

“What is—?” Nursey asks, almost in an exhale, but cuts himself off before he can finish the thought, and Dex thinks he can hear a crunch, and then Nursey wheezing for a couple of seconds before he just whispers, “motherfucker.”

He opens his eyes, and the first thing he sees are Nursey’s own eyes, wide, shocked, and suddenly he’s back in nana Poindexter’s kitchen, twelve and standing next to her, one hand hovering over her bloody hand, her eyes wide so wide as she pats down and feels the skin under the bloody mess is smooth, intact— newly healed.

She’d looked up at him, then, and she’d told him, “We aren’t telling anyone about this, Billy. Okay? Nobody. Not even your pops. Not even your mom. You hear me, Billy?”

And Dex had just nodded along, not really understanding what had happened and why nana looked so shaken, even as she busied herself with picking up the rest of the jagged, broken pieces of glass that she’d cut herself on, throwing them in the trash, and then washing the blood off and instructing Dex to do the same, thoroughly (and supervising him as he did it—yawning all the while—, as though it was crucial he got it right).

“—dexter?”

He comes back to the present time when Nursey’s hands land on his shoulder, hard, and Dex can see the way his nose has set back the right way, and even though there’s still blood on his chin, Nurse’s bottom lip looks fine.

He’s fine.

He’s fine and Dex did this, and Jesus Christ, he’s—

Poindexter.” Nursey grabs him by the side of his face, forces him to make eye contact. “Breathe with me, okay? In through the nose, out from your mouth. Slowly.”

Dex frowns, wants to tell Nursey to fuck off, but his mouth doesn’t seem to be working, and neither do his hands, or his legs, or his anything really, and— fuck. Yes. He’s hyperventilating.

“Good,” Nursey encourages him, after a couple of seconds. “Good. You’re doing so good.”

Dex closes his eyes, breathes, tries to tune Nursey’s words of encouragement out, tries to quell the rising panic inside him. He counts to ten, and when that isn’t enough, to twenty, and then to thirty, and once he gets to forty his heart is almost under control, and the cold, tight feeling of dread curled into a tight ball in his gut isn’t threatening to explode and kill him in the act.

And that’s right when he hears Chowder yelling, “guys!”

“Fuck,” Nursey mutters, “fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

Fuck,” Dex agrees, and when he opens his eyes back, he can see Nursey scrambling to wipe the blood off himself with his tie, frantically, and then trying to take it off and jam it inside his jacket pocket in a sequence of movements that is likely to end up with him somehow knocking himself (or Dex, if there’s anyone watching out for him out there) unconscious with a flailing limb.

“Hey, I heard from one of the guys on the rugby team that you were out here!” Chowder continues, making his way over to them, and Dex’s back is to him, but he swears he can feel him coming closer by how increasingly desperate Nursey is getting to cram the whole tie into his pocket and failing.

Finally, Dex just slaps his hand away, grabs the tie himself, balls it up and jams it into his own pocket.

“Chowder, hey,” he says, standing up on slightly wobbly knees, trying to smile at him and project calm while also covering for Nursey.

Chowder’s smile dims a little when he notices Nursey’s on the ground.

“Nursey, are you okay?”

Nursey gets on his feet then, and Dex can’t really help the way one of his hands finds its way towards him, steadying.

“I tripped,” Nursey says, and Dex really has to give it to him, that chill thing of his? Might be 100% bullshit, but it’s also 110% useful sometimes. “And, uh, Dex was checking on me.”

“Oh,” Chowder says, and he’s maybe a feet away from them and coming closer, and out of the corner of his eye, Dex can see a little dried blood on the corner of one of Nursey’s nostrils and— yeah, there’s no way they’re gonna sell this.

There’s no way, they’re so caught, and Dex can’t— he can’t do this. Again. Twice in one night. He just can’t.

And so he blurts out the first thing he can think of.

The first thing he can think of, because his brain won’t ever give him a break, is, “I just asked Nursey out.”

It’s possibly the dumbest thing he could’ve said—and the second most anxiety inducing, only after ‘I have an Affinity’, because even though he hasn’t said it in so many words, he’s just outed himself to Chowder, pretty effectively—, but it does stop Chowder in his tracks.

“So, uh.” Dex scratches his chin, tries to project something other than I am lying my ass off and I’m three seconds away from a full blown panic attack.

“I said yes,” Nursey says, and when Dex turns to look at him with furrowed eyebrows, he just shrugs, adds, “I thought it was a romantic setting, even if the execution lacked finesse.”

Nursey, this isn’t a poetry workshop, you fucking dweeb, he wants to spit out, but this was all Dex, really, he got them into this mess and Nursey’s just— playing along, really, having his back, going above and beyond what any other d-man would do.

When he turns back to face Chowder, he can see his jaw drop, slightly comically, and for a second there he looks frozen, but soon he starts vibrating somewhat worryingly and then he’s upon them, arms thrown over both of their shoulders.

“I knew it,” he basically yells into Dex’s ears, beaming. He pulls away from them only long enough to give them a toothy grin that’s full of braces and, like, innocence and cheer and good things, before he’s back to squeezing the life out of them.

“Chill, C, it’s just a date. It’s not like we’re getting a marriage license.”

Dex knows that the panic has somewhat subsided because he can feel himself blushing up to the roots of his fucking hair from that comment, and he finds himself glaring at Nursey over Chowder’s head, who just smirks at him, lopsided and charming, and full of shit.

Chowder squeezes them one last time before letting them go, and when he does he’s got one of those smiles on him that’s deceitfully sweet, the kind that accompanies the odd chirping that always takes (other) people by surprise.

“I’m gonna be best man at your wedding, right guys?”

Before either of them can say anything back, Chowder is gasping and off again towards the building, throwing a “I told Caitlin I’d be right back” over his shoulder, and then it’s just them again.

As soon as chowder’s back inside, Dex tenses up, hunches a little. He’d put his hands in his pockets if he didn’t have Nursey’s bloodied tie in one of them.

“So,” Nursey begins, and the casual tone of that single word is almost enough to send him back into an anxiety spiral.

If Nursey wants to talk about his Affinity right now, Dex might— do something stupid, and dramatic. Like run away, or faint. He might do that want anyway, with the way he’s starting to feel the drain from healing Nursey, all bone-weary and heavy and a little drowsy.

“We’re going on a date, huh?”

That’s not what he’d been expecting, but it’s somehow almost as anxiety producing.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? It was— it was the first thing that came to mind, and—”

“Hey, chill. It’s fine.” Nursey shrugs, puts his hands in his jacket pockets, and the way the fabric stretches makes Dex notice the few drops of blood that made it onto the lapels, and there’s this twinge of something in his gut. “We’ll just go hang out at Annie’s or something. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. No one other than C has to know, and then we can tell him there was no spark or whatever.”

He takes a deep breath in, lets it out slowly.

And then we can tell him there was no spark or something, like it’s the easiest thing. And like it’s just— the foregone conclusion, because of course there wouldn’t be a spark, because Nursey is a nightmare in cashmere sweaters who writes fucking sonnets while lying on piles of leaves because benches are passé and he wants to be one with mother nature, and he drinks expensive weird teas and thinks Dex is some uptight asshole like twenty percent of the time, and an active raging douchebag with backwater town beliefs probably even more often, and he’s objectively hotter than God, with the face, and the curls, and the—

Of course there wouldn’t be a spark, even with— even with Nursey knowing.

And Jesus, he needs some time to process that, preferably alone, somewhere he can just scream into a pillow or maybe stare at a wall until the huge knot of feelings inside of him unravels or starts making sense or until whatever power that be up there takes pity on him and lets him take the day back. Or at least the last couple of hours. That’d be enough.

He swallows, realizing he’s been in his thoughts too long, and nods. There’s nothing to object to, rationally—this is easiest out, really. Then he mumbles some bullshit excuse about getting a headache, and a less bullshit one about having an early lecture the next day and needing to crash.

Nursey’s eyebrows are drawn as he nods, and for a second there Dex fears he’ll want to talk about what happened after all, and he’ll have a breakdown outside his Winter Formal, but all Nursey does is bid him good night, words laden with so much meaning that just trying to read into them makes the headache excuse a little less bullshit-y.

Dex’s good bye is muttered under his breath, a little shaky.

 

When he makes it back to his dorm he has a handful of texts from Nursey. For a moment, he just stares at the screen, contemplates deleting them without reading them, claiming that he never got them if Nursey ever brings it up, but even he can tell that’s juvenile, and the walk to the dorm helped calm him down some, go back to some semblance of rational thought.

He’s still reeling, but he’s not panicking anymore, and really—at the end of the day there was a reason he came out to Nursey about being gay in the first place. Yeah, it might’ve been spur of the moment, and he still might not be completely sure he was actually ready to do it, but the thing is, when he’d lain in bed in the past, thinking about the hows and the whens and the whos, it had always been Chowder and Nursey first, in every single scenario, regardless of the words, or the place, or the time.

He trusts Nursey, is the heart of the matter. Even when he’s being infuriating, or a total hipster, or an insufferable rich Manhattanite, Dex knows that Nursey always has his back.

It’s probably the only thing standing between him and a full blown meltdown, now that he’s alone in the relative privacy of his room, his only company his passed out roommate who sleeps like the dead.

He sighs and sits down on his bed, thumbs the phone unlocked, taps on the notification.

From: Nurse

we dont have to talk about what happened tonight if youre not ready bro

From: Nurse

for what its worth? im grateful

From: Nurse

im not sure i could rock the deviated septum look

From: Nurse

text you tomorrow about our date

From: Nurse

its gonna be lit

He rolls his eyes at Nursey’s attempts at being casual about things, but he can’t quite bite back a smile that’s one part amusement and about three parts sheer fucking relief.

His roommate starts snoring then, loud grunts that startle Dex from his staring contest with an inanimate object.

His thumb hovers over the screen for a couple of seconds before he just brings himself to bite the bullet.

To: Nurse

Thanks Nursey.

It’s all he can really manage, but Nursey is the words guy between the two of them, and if there’s anyone on campus who can read the hidden wealth of meaning behind two six letter words, then that’s Derek Nurse, no contest.

 

Nursey is already at Annie’s when Dex walks in on Sunday, sitting in a booth with a coffee mug and a book, a fashionable gray beanie resting next to the mug. Like that, Nursey looks every bit the smooth, cultured English lit major people who don’t know he has a loogie spot assume he is.

He looks like he belongs right in one of those artsy movies where everyone is obnoxiously gorgeous and nothing happens that drive Dex up the fucking wall.

Nursey, who seems to have a sixth sense that alerts him to Dex’s mood swings— just so he can bait him into losing his temper more effectively, probably—, looks up from his book just then and catches his eyes, lips turning up into a laidback smile.

Dex’s own lips twitch, he feels the blood rushing up to his cheeks, and tries to kill the incoming flush before it takes over his entire face.

“You moving any time soon, bro?”

The only thing that stops him from flinching at the disembodied voice behind him is the lilt to it that screams lax bro. When he cranes his neck to look at the guy, one eyebrow raised, he recognizes him as one of the Chads, wearing ugly khaki shorts and a backwards snapback like some kind of trust fund kid cliché come to life.

He steps to the side and nods to the guy and then inside, and he just rolls his eyes and makes his way in, steps cocksure and thumbs stuck into his short pockets.

Fuck the lax bros, really.

He shakes his head and walks over to Nursey’s table, where Nursey is grinning at him, chin held on the palm of his hand, elbow resting too close to his half-empty coffee mug for Dex’s comfort.

When Dex drops his bag on the booth, Nursey says, “Making friends with the Chads?”

“We have a date tomorrow,” he deadpans, as he gets into the booth. “Told him to wear his formal snapback and the nice loafers.”

Nursey chuckles, but then he purses his lips in an exaggerated pout, before saying, “What, you’re not even giving us a chance? Stone cold, Dexy.”

The flush tries to make a comeback, blood hot and tingly, and Dex makes fists under the table, clutching the fabric of his jeans.

“You said there was no spark.” He shrugs, tries to make it casual, and probably fails miserably. He doesn’t know if Nursey catches on, because he’s avoiding his gaze, looking around for someone to take his order instead.

“I said we could tell C that,” Nursey corrects, as though that makes all the difference in the world.

Dex hums and catches the eye of one of the waiters, raising a hand and smiling what is hopefully a nice, polite smile that doesn’t have any lingering traces of— anything.

“C texted me like ten times this morning.”

He chances a glance at Nursey, and finds him still smiling, his free hand curled loosely around his phone.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, he’s mad excited for us.”

“Sounds like Chowder.”

He doesn’t say Chowder texted me too, mostly because Nursey’s smile is easy and his shoulders are slumped in the way they don’t get very often, the way they get in the den after Bitty’s pies, with everyone piled up on the couch; or when it’s just the three frogs in one of their rooms, watching movies into the morning and bickering about plot holes and character motivations.

His own conversation with Chowder wasn’t as lighthearted as Nursey’s seems to have been. It wasn’t— there wasn’t anything wrong with it. Chowder was enthusiastic, nice. But his texts had been careful, full of unspoken reassurances and other things that Dex probably needs, but doesn’t really know how to want.

The waiter comes over then, and Dex orders a coffee. Nursey asks for a refill of his, and almost knocks his mug over in the process, which ends up with Nursey and Dex reaching out for the mug at the same time, righting it in a joint effort, fingers brushing before Dex lets go.

 

Dex’s mug is half-empty, and when he holds it between his hands it feels lukewarm.

Nursey’s going on and about the anthology he was reading before Dex came, and it’s all bright eyes, big words, and even bigger smiles when Dex shows he’s actively listening, when he picks up on symbolism or when he remembers some concept or another from his high school English lit classes.

It’d probably feel at least a little patronizing— the encouraging smiles, the nods, the explanations, if it was anyone other than Nursey in this situation with him; hell, it’d probably have felt patronizing even with Nursey, just a couple of months or so ago.

The thing about Nursey is that he’s a fucking dork. There’s no ulterior anything when he’s this deep into his poetry business. There’s him and some words and a wall of meaning and subtext and narrative techniques, and a lot of genuine excitement that more often than not he doesn’t bother to water down.

It’s the most honest and open he ever is, outside of the rink.

Dex likes it.

His hands tighten around the mug at that, and his chest feels— tight.

Jesus, he can’t do this.

There’s a lull in the conversation and when Dex glances up from his coffee (still lukewarm, still half gone, smooth on the surface and reflecting part of his face back at him), Nursey’s eyes are on him, narrowed, focused like they get out on the ice, when it’s the third period and they’re done by one point.

“What?” Dex snaps, hating the way Nursey’s eyes boring into him makes him feel vulnerable, exposed.

Nursey’s eyes narrow further, and Dex can already see this whole thing going down the drain in a matter of seconds, his fuse just ready to be lit by one wrong word.

Nursey doesn’t say anything, however. His eyes soften after a moment of his intense staring, and he grabs for his mug, taking a swig of his own lukewarm coffee as he maintains eye contact over the rim. It’s a deliberate something, and Dex doesn’t really feel like trying to figure it out, but it makes his palms start sweating around his own mug anyway.

When the mug’s back on the table, Nursey finally breaks eye contact and that’s deliberate too, like some kind of allowance, like Nursey saying see? I can back off. This is me backing off, and that’s just— a great summarization of Nursey, really. Just— the guy who he can get into screaming matches with over pretty much anything, from politics to innocuous stuff like whether the toilet paper should hang over or under the roll, but who also sits next to him on the bus whenever they are on roadies and always offers an earbud, and even allows Dex to pick songs; the guy that claps him on the back whenever they suffer a loss and Dex is beating himself up over not having skated harder, not having been better.

The guy who’ll sit with him when his lectures are stressing him the fuck out and he’s snarky and short and generally unfit for human consumption and will only roll his eyes at his provocations while he does his own thing until Dex is back to normal levels of asshole and will then chirp him relentlessly until Dex feels lighter.

His chest burns uncomfortably, and his skin feel ten sizes too small on his frame, and Nursey’s a brilliant goddamn tactician, really, because if Dex had any idea how to put all the fucking weirdness inside of him into words to share with him right then, he probably would.

What he says, instead, is, “Look, Nurse, I’m sorry.”

It’s a compromise between honesty and all the jumbled up shit he can’t put to words.

Nursey blinks a couple of times at him, confused, and Dex scowls for a second as he feels the warmth of a blush creeping up his cheeks.

He knows he probably deserves the confusion, on a rational level. He doesn’t have the best track record with apologies, he doesn't do that well with them.

It still smarts.

He’s about to say nevermind and go for his backpack and maybe— maybe fucking take off and throw himself into coding so he can maybe forget the past fifteen minutes or so, or something, when one of Nursey’s hands lands on top of his, soft like feathers.

“Hey, it’s cool. I’m just lost here, Dexy.”

Dex deflates, the fight or flight knocked right out of him by the easy honesty of Nursey’s words and the openness in the tilt of his lips and the look of his eyes.

Dex scratches the back of his neck with the hand that’s not under Nursey’s (and that’s something to freak out about at some other point in time, really), and tries to organize his thoughts into some semblance of coherence.

After a few beats, he gives up and decides to wing it.

“For Winter Screw.” Nursey’s hand briefly squeezes his, and Dex fixes his gaze on the point of contact, and tries to keep the words coming. “I— I know you are giving me some leeway because— because. But it wasn’t— it still wasn’t cool.

“I knew it as soon as the words were out of my mouth.” He pauses for a shaky breath. “I’m— not ready. The way I grew up, the kind of stuff I saw on the news, the way people talked— I wouldn’t be able to do what you do. And I— I get why you do it, I think? And it’s really brave, but I don’t think I could. Not now, at least. And, yeah, I know here at Samwell it’s better than it was at home, it’s why I’m here. But—”

“But you aren’t ready.”

“No. But I know that’s my thing to work on, and I shouldn’t project that onto you. Or anyone else. So… sorry, Nurse. For being a dick about— about y’know.”

Nursey’s hand leaves his, and Dex feels the loss stupidly keenly for a moment, before he makes himself look up, and finds him holding onto his mug in the same way he is, kind of like clutching a lifeline.

The gesture is puzzling until Nursey meets his gaze and says, voice strangely soft, “Wanna know a secret?”

Dex raises an eyebrow, thrown.

“Uh, sure?”

“Summoning and banishing objects is not my Innate.”

Innates, Dex hears, in the clinical voice of the weary looking health teacher that had been in charge of the one seminar in his entire high school education that had even mentioned magic, are magical abilities that come to people with an Affinity naturally, without the need for training or education. They generally manifest during puberty. It's advised to disclose Innates to medical professionals after becoming aware of them. Dex remembers the little speech almost exactly word for word, the rehearsed quality to it, how it had made his palms sweat as he sat at his desk, bouncing one of his legs nervously, convinced that any minute then one of his classmates was going to turn around and look at him, knowing, condemning.

He pushes the memory back into the recess of his mind where it belongs, and focuses on Nursey, on his words, on their meaning.

He frowns.

“What?”

Nursey sighs, and Dex catches him rubbing a thumb over the rim of his mug, back and forth, back and forth.

“When I came into my powers I fried every single computer in Andover’s lab.”

What?

Nursey shrugs, but Dex can read the tension in him, the way it wafts off him.

“So I’m a freshman in a boarding school full of stuck up, rich white kids, right? And I’m in one of my computer applications classes, feeling antsy and restless as fuck. Leg bouncing, fingers drumming against the desk. And then, as soon as I put my hands on the keyboard, I get this feeling of… something coursing through me, and then, all of a sudden, it’s pandemonium, every single computer on the lab smoking and every single guy in the room freaking out. Including our very straitlaced and charmingly curmudgeonly teacher.”

“That’s…” Every single nightmare I ever had as a high schooler rolled into one perfect disaster.

“Yeah.”

“So— what’s— what do you—?”

“I store energy inside me that I can channel into amplifying my magic, or that of other people.” He smiles, lopsided and aiming for chill, and falling a little short of it. “Pretty dope, right? I mean, when it doesn’t build up until I’m frying people’s electrical devices just by standing next to them.”

“Is that why you didn’t want to take intro programming with us?”

The question startles Nursey into a chuckle, and the sound lightens the mood considerably, makes Dex relax his grip on his mug.

“Nah, man.” Nursey shakes his head a little, and the grin on him is a little more real, a little more him. “I found an outlet, y’know?”

“All the summoning and banishing,” Dex guesses, and Nursey nods. He goes back to frowning. “Then why—”

“—I really am more of a poetry guy at heart, bro,” Nursey interrupts before Dex can even finish the question, and there’s a playful glint in his eyes, like he knows exactly how annoying Dex finds it when he does that.

“Wow,” he deadpans. “You really are insufferable.”

Nursey laughs, and for a while they just— share in the lightened mood, Nursey turning a little to look out the window, and Dex looking around the diner to find it emptier and quieter than it had been when he’d come in as he takes everything Nursey just shared with him in.

It takes him a couple of minutes to put the puzzle together, and when the last piece falls into place he grimaces.

“You didn’t choose it. You didn’t choose to tell everyone.”

“No,” Nursey says, and turns back to look at him, and he’s still smiling, a little more subdued, but still real. “And if the choice hadn't been taken out of my hands, maybe I wouldn't have. I had enough on my plate back then, being a black muslim kid from a non-traditional family in a place like Andover.”

Dex tries to picture a fourteen year old Nursey, awkward like all fourteen year olds are— even when they try to play it cool—, less confident than he is now, maybe with some baby fat still clinging to his cheeks, amidst a sea of teenage rich white assholes who’ve probably never had to face consequences for anything in their lives.

“Dex, it's okay to be scared. And it's okay to do your own thing at your own pace, y’know? There’s no timeline. And I'm not really the gold standard here. I'm just doing my best, and getting stuff right about 50% of the time.”

“Did you learn that one from Shitty too?”

“Nah, this one's a Derek Nurse original.”

The smile Nursey gives him then is sunny and blinding, and Dex feels the corner of his lips twitching slightly upwards in response, which only makes Nursey’s smile grow into full-on beaming.

It’s ridiculous. And it makes his stomach flutter.

“So,” Nursey says then, dragging the word for a second too long, “Now that we’ve talked this out and shared our feelings like the mature young men we are, wanna hear some hot gossip from my Intro to Poetry Writing class?”

“Not really.”

“Too bad, man. I’m in a sharing mood now.”

Dex groans, but he’s smiling a little as he does it, and Nursey’s smiling back, broad and bright.

 

Dex squints at the Facebook event page.

“They really did invite a thousand people,” he marvels, scrolling around the list of people who confirmed they’d be going. “How did they even find all these people in the first place? Do they even attend Samwell?”

Nursey shrugs from where he’s sprawled on the other side of the couch, legs a little bent, book open and abandoned on his chest as he thumbs through his phone.

“I’m 100% sure I don’t wanna know, y’know?”

“Yeah,” Dex mutters, even as he keeps scrolling. “Bitty says they have a spreadsheet.”

“Well, that boosts our chances of ending up in The Swallow by about a bajillion percent.”

Dex nods, and as he keeps scrolling (and seriously, he’s been at this for maybe a minute, and the names just keep coming, this is crazy) he feels something jabbing against his thigh.

It’s Nursey’s big toe, and as Dex glares at it, Nursey wiggles it and the rest of his toes, and proceeds to bury his feet half under Dex’s thighs.

“Those better be clean socks, Nurse.”

Nursey just grins at him, wicked, and Dex scrunches his nose in distaste.

“So,” Nursey starts. “‘s everything cool?”

Dex frowns and stops scrolling through the list, starts tapping a fast beat against the laptop’s wrist rest area.

“Why wouldn’t everything be cool?” He blurts out, and represses a wince at how fucking transparent the words are.

“Gee, I don’t know, Poindexter.” He raises an eyebrow at him and then casts a pointed look at Dex’s hands on his laptop, where his index finger is still tapping away, fast and loud in the relative silence of the haus. “Just call it a hunch.”

“Shut up, Nursey.”

“That’s just sad.” He smiles, lopsided and shit-eating, and wiggles his toes under Dex’s thigh.

Dex just frowns at him. It only makes his smile grow bigger and brighter.

The toe wiggling goes on until Dex puts a hand around Nursey’s ankle and squeezes, light but pointed. Nursey stops almost immediately, and the raised eyebrow makes a reappearance, higher and a little haughty, and Dex has to swallow a comment about Nursey’s inner Manhattanite showing.

He keeps his hand on Nursey’s ankle for a second longer than needed, but lets himself off the hook because he doesn’t have the mental energy to deal with his Nursey weirdness.

“What if I don’t wanna talk about it?” He asks, finally.

Nursey shrugs, and the book slips a little down his chest, Nursey placing the hand that’s not holding his phone on it, splayed and protective as if the thing were something living, breathing, and fragile, instead of a bunch of paper held together by some stitches between two slices of fancy, dressed up paperboard.

“If you don’t wanna talk about it we don’t talk about it, bro. I can always catch you up on some juicy Intro to Poetry Writing gossip. Or you can keep stalking everyone who’s coming to the Epikegster.”

Dex snorts, but feels the tightness in his chest that he sometimes gets around Nursey, that weird thing when Nursey’s being thoughtful or just— particularly himself. It’d been disorienting at first, annoying after a while, and now just— a thing. A part of his whole Nursey weirdness that he just stuffs into a corner of his mind so he won’t spend hours lying in bed, ruminating over every single interaction until he’s a tight ball of stress and anger issues.

He leans back on the couch, closes his eyes.

Maybe he does want to talk. Maybe it’d help.

What would he say, though?

I made a split-second decision to come out to you (and Chowder) a couple of days ago and then I outed myself as a magic user, and even though nothing has visibly changed, everything has and I have no idea what I’m feeling? And oh yeah, I fucking hate one of my TAs and I’m pretty sure the feeling’s mutual. And my brother brings up the hausgiving picture every time he calls because he’s an asshole.

And then there’s you.

He huffs.

Yeah, that’s not— that’s not going to happen.

He ends up casting Nursey a sidelong glance and going with, “I just have a lot on my mind right now.”

Nursey hums.

There’s a second or so of silence, and then Nursey says, soft and quiet, “Well, if you ever wanna talk about what’s on your mind, you have my number. And my skype username. And we live in the same dorm building. So, y’know. I’m here if you need me.”

The tightness climbs all the way up to his throat, clawing at it, making it feel raw when he swallows spit.

He’s about a second away from making a complete fool out of himself when the front door opens and in walk Bitty and Jack, bickering and leaning into each other’s space.

When Bitty notices them on the den he blushes and takes a step away from Jack, apparently realizing how close they are standing, and says, “Oh, hi there!”

Nursey throws them a lazy wave and Dex says hi back.

“How do y’all feel about some pie? I’m personally craving some caramel pear.”

“Sure,” Nursey agrees, and stretches, closed book in one hand. Dex tries to avoid looking at the exposed sliver of skin when his shirt rides up with the motion. “We’ll help.”

Dex’s face feels warm but he rolls his eyes as he reaches for his bag to put his laptop away.

I’ll help, and you’ll stay away from the knives. And the oven. I don't feel like taking your ass to the ER.”

“Careful now, Poindexter, or people will start thinking you care about me.”

My life’d probably be easier if I didn’t, so much, he thinks.

“Perish the thought,” he says.

 

“Do we wanna know what’s in the kegster punch Lardo and Shitty are brewing in the tub?” Chowder asks, in a hushed voice, as he helps Dex carry a keg into the kitchen.

“Other than maybe twenty different FDA and sanitary code violations?” Dex deadpans.

“Ignorance is bliss, man.” Nursey adds, carrying a cooler full of bagged ice through the front door.

Dex makes a vague noise of agreement, and for a while Chowder just beams at him. He frowns at him in confusion, but Chowder only shakes his head a little, still beaming and Dex lets it go.

 

“I cracked the mystery,” Nursey shouts over the music and the noise later that night, as he makes his way over to him through a crowd of wellies, already a little tipsy, loose and smiling and looking unfairly good.

“What mystery?” He asks, and tries not to lean embarrassingly into Nursey’s touch when he reaches his side and puts an easy arm around him.

Nursey is a touchy guy, and an even touchier drunk.

Dex tries to stay out of of Nursey’s way when he’s in that stage of friendly, touchy, happy drunkenness. He’d rather deal with him when he’s three sheets to the wind and doing dumb shit like climbing his way up the haus roof, than have him rub his stubbled chin over his shoulder—kinda like a cat on catnip—, the way he’s seen him do to Chowder.

It’s just better for his mental health and overall well-being.

“The kegster punch mystery, Poindexter, keep up.”

Dex rolls his eyes, but can feel a smile tugging on the corner of his lips.

“Oh, yeah?”

“There’s sriracha in it.”

Dex frowns down at his cup.

“What?”

“Yeah, there’s a subtle note of garlic to my belching.”

“How can a guy so—” He waves half-heartedly at Nursey, both trying to encompass all he is in the gesture and trying to show his resignation,“—be so disgusting.”

“You say that as though I’ve never smelled your farts in roadies, Poindexter.”

Dex resists the urge to bury his face in his hands and just elbows Nursey, which ends with Nursey’s hand on his elbow as he doubles over a little against him and laughs, like Dex has told him the funniest joke he’s ever heard.

“You’re a weirdo, Nurse.”

“Takes one to know one,” Nursey says when he’s gotten his laughter under control, because deep down he’s twelve years old. He smiles at Dex, and squeezes his shoulder. “Wanna dance?”

Dex looks down into his half-full cup of kegster punch, then up at Nursey’s eyes, crinkled at the corners as he smiles at him, and the wisest move here would probably be to turn Nursey down, and send him on his way to charm the pants off someone else, someone who’ll be able to keep up with him, that he’ll probably have more in common with, someone who’ll probably be on the same level as him in the looks department.

Someone not him.

The thought leaves a sour aftertaste on his tongue.

Around them the haus thrums with the energy of everyone cramped inside it, with the slight tingly feeling of magic that always follows a crowd; it’s the kind of energy that makes people do reckless things, reckless things like nodding at Nursey and following him into the throng, holding the hand he offers, tightly.

 

They’re dancing and Nursey’s arms are around his waist, one of Dex’s hands lingering awkwardly over Nursey’s hip, as he holds a near empty cup with the other. There’s more swaying to the beat than anything else, and Dex is equal parts grateful and flustered, with Nursey’s front plastered against his, and his lips on his ear, murmuring lyrics when he knows them, and making some up when he doesn’t (which is more often than not).

Nursey bumps against his cup, and makes a grab for it. Dex knows what he’s gonna do when he reaches for it and just watches, takes the chance to really look at him while he uses his Affinity, the way he hasn’t before, taking in the way he gets a little dip between his eyebrows, the way he purses his lips.

It makes heat coil deep in his gut.

When the cup’s gone, Nursey meets his gaze, and for a second they’re still, staring at each other, the air between them charged, meaningful.

Dex licks his lips, and thinks, fuck it, putting his now empty hand on Nursey’s other hip, dipping his thumbs under the fabric of his shirt, rubbing at the warm, smooth skin there with soft motions, back and forth.

Nursey’s eyes drop to his lips, and Dex leans into his space, his mind mostly silent for once, for the exception of a low buzz, like white noise, drowning everything else, the music, the crowd, the—

—the asshole that crashes into them, and takes off after a slurred sorry, dudes.

The moment shatters just like that, with Nursey breaking into a bright peal of laughter, and Dex joining him after a couple of seconds, dropping his forehead to Nursey’s shoulder.

“Wanna go out to the Reading Room?” Nursey asks, and the words sound like so many promises, like so many things that Dex would’ve thought himself a dumbass for wanting just a couple of hours ago.

“Yeah,” Dex replies, and it’s the easiest choice he’s ever made.

 

Only, because the universe seems to get its kicks by fucking him over, they don’t end up anywhere near the Reading Room.

It all starts with a fucking douchebag on the way to the stairs, who Dex overhears telling some other douchebag, “I just wish they’d keep their freaky magical shit to themselves.”

And it freezes Dex on the spot, hand squeezing Nursey’s, who turns around to throw him a questioning glance.

He could ignore it.

He could do what he always did back home in Maine. He could keep his head down, follow Nursey up the stairs, let the whole thing be.

He could, yeah.

But this is Samwell, the place he dreamed of as a kid, the place where he’d be free to be himself, where he’d learn to be himself.

And fuck, but he’s tired.

Just, fucking exhausted.

So what he does is send Nursey a look that is probably only half as apologetic as he means it to be before he whirls around and says, loud enough to be heard by the entire cluster of assholes they’d just passed by, “Wanna say that again?”

And, before Dex knows it, they’re on the front lawn, Nursey trying to hold him back from the douchebag, whose friends are trying to carry away.

And as soon as the guy’s gone, Dex knows the mood is too, and he’s too something—too keyed up, maybe— to even care about it, and apparently so is Nursey, because he throws one of his arms around Dex’s shoulders and, with a gravitas he generally reserves for shit like denouncing the wrongness of literature syllabi mostly comprised of dead white guys, says, “We’re getting wasted.”

Dex sighs, says, “Yeah.”

And that’s that, really.

 

They don’t get to talk about what happened, after the kegster.

Nursey’s off to New York for the holidays, and Dex spends most of his days in the haus with Bitty and the other guys that stayed, and he tries not to drive himself crazy with everything that’s been left unsaid between Nursey and him.

It’s a constant reel of Dex convincing himself that he read every single thing about that night wrong, and then taking his anxiety out on his code.

He could text Nursey, he could even call him. He knows Nursey would pick up, but then what?

What if Nursey tells him he did read everything wrong? Worse, what if Nursey tells him he didn’t, but he’d been drunk and making bad life choices?

What if Nursey wants to act like nothing happened?

What if he doesn’t?

… What if Dex gives himself a heart attack before he hits twenty?

And so Dex doesn’t reach out, and Nursey doesn’t either, and he spends the whole Holiday Break stress coding (and stress debugging), and eating more pies than he probably should.

 

The first thing Nursey says to him when he comes into the haus kitchen, shiteating grin in place, is, annoyingly enough, “You miss me, Poindexter?”

Bitty’s back is turned to them as he works on a batch of cookies, but Dex can tell he’s listening in on them, so he flushes a little.

“No.” There’s a little more bite to the word than is probably warranted, he knows, but he’s been— he’s been driving himself half mad over Nursey, and he just walks in like he doesn’t have a fucking worry in the world, like everything is perfectly chill, and Dex is just— not in the headspace for that.

Nursey’s smile falls a little, and Dex grinds the guilt rising inside his gut into the metaphorical dirt.

“You’re always free to Skype me,” Nursey says, a beat too late.

The guilt resurfaces, sharp and bitter, and Dex refuses to meet Nursey’s gaze.

Bitty keeps their back to them, but from the corner of his eye, he can see him shake his head, his shoulders following the motion with a fine tremor of their own, as if holding in amusement.

Dex’s flush deepens, and he ignores them both, burying himself in an assignment he’ll probably have to redo later, when he’s less of a jittery mess.

 

They’re up by two points and going into the third period when Coach Hall sends him and Nursey out, Ransom and Holster coming up to the benches sweaty and loose and ready to offer backslaps and encouragement.

They’ve been getting more ice time, lately, which is a testament to their personal growth and the way they’ve been clicking on the ice, becoming an actual partnership. They’re nowhere near Ransom and Holster’s level of symbiosis, but they’re a solid enough d-pair that they’re no longer collecting dust on the bench; they’re syncing up when needed, quick to pick up on each other’s cues, getting good stats.

—That’s not how they’re playing this game.

It’s not as abysmal as their first scrimmages had been back when they’d first gotten on the team, but that’d probably have taken them dropping gloves to fight each other or something. It’s still bad. Bad enough that he catches Jack furrowing his eyebrows at them a couple of times, in the middle of a play. It’s all missing connections and stunted reactions.

Focus, Poindexter, focus, he thinks, don’t bring your— your fucking whatever it is with Nursey into the rink. You’re better than that.

Somewhere around the ten minute mark, the other team gets control of the puck and almost scores one off them after a clean breakaway that could’ve been avoided if Dex’d had his head in the fucking game, the way he is supposed to. There was no loafing, and not exceptional shows of prowess, no nothing. Just the other team exploiting a distracted pair of d-men and them getting their ass saved by Chowder dropping to a butterfly and catching the shot like a champ, and shit. That’s— that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

He casts a glance Nursey’s way as the play goes on, and when he catches his gaze he nods, firm, not even knowing what he’s trying to communicate (a temporary ceasefire? A concession? Something else entirely?), but knowing that he needs to. Hockey is— it’s his thing, in the way even coding isn’t; he doesn’t want to risk losing it, not over bruised feelings, of all things.

Nursey’s eyebrows shoot up at his nod, but soon enough he’s nodding back, eyes narrowing in concentration as he turns to face the other team with a smile that promises trouble for the other team.

Dex doesn’t bite back the smile that bubbles up inside of him at that.

The difference from that point onwards is almost a palpable thing, with both of them skating hard, keeping with each other, leaving no open spaces for the forwards to slip through, assisting their own forwards on some near misses that get the home crowd excited.

They’re somewhere around the eighteen minute mark and still up by two points when the other team’s d-men start getting a little too rough, a little too reckless. There have been no skirmishes so far, but Dex’s caught himself clenching his teeth at least a couple of times already, when he noticed the burliest of the pair going after Bitty a little too hard.

Nursey skates by him at a point and when they make eye contact he sees Nursey’s on edge too, seeing the same things he is, and liking them about as much as he does.

Nothing happens until the last minute, when two things do, at once.

Bitty’s cycling one of the d-men, skating circles around him, and he dekes a shot at goal, instead passing to Jack, who scores a beautiful buzzer beater, glove side.

And the moment he gets his assist, Bitty gets boarded by the d-man who’d been on him.

Faber seems to hold its collective breath for a second as Bitty falls on the ice, hard, and then it’s a cacophony of yelling, whistling, booing, and the erratic beating of Dex’s heart in his ears.

Get up, he thinks, get up, get up, c’mon Bitty, you’re stubborn as they come, get up.

But a couple of seconds go by and Bitty doesn’t, and that’s when Dex notices the way he’s sprawled, the unnatural way his leg is twisted, and his blood runs cold.

 

The paramedics have Bitty on a stretcher, with Coach Hall by his side, and Jack close behind, face closed-off, and all Dex can think of is how often injuries like this cut people’s careers short, and then it’s a spiral of everything that can go wrong, and then it’s calm.

It’s calm and Dex looking over his shoulder to find Nursey, knowing exactly what needs to happen.

Nursey seems to know what he’s thinking of the moment their gazes meet, back on that shared wavelength they’d found on the ice, and there’s worry and anger and a million other things on his expression, but above it all there’s a question in the furrow of his brow.

Are you sure? It asks.

Dex nods, thinks trust me.

Then he’s off, throwing the helmet on the ice, following the stretcher, with Nursey at his heel, neither bothering to pick up guards from the bench.

 

They’re on the hallway when Coach Hall notices they’re following them, and he gives them a brittle smile, tells them to go to the locker room, be with their teammates, they’ll call when there’s news.

Dex throws one last look Nursey’s side, takes a stuttering breath, and says, “I can help.”

Coach Hall’s eyebrows raise, and he starts saying, gentle as he can make his voice go, “Listen Poindexter, that’s a nice sentiment—”

“—I can heal him,” he interrupts, noticing they’re nearing the doors, and seeing his window of opportunity closing. “I’m— I—”

He looks at Bitty on the stretcher, still passed out.

“I have an Affinity. Healing people is my Innate. Coach Hall, I can help.”

The paramedics shoot each other glances that Dex can’t quite read, so he keeps his eyes on the older man, who’s frowning at him, confused.

“I can attest to this,” Nursey says then, voice level. “I broke my nose a couple of weeks ago, he healed it.”

Coach Hall looks to the paramedics then, who all look as lost as he does, and eventually he seems to make a call, dragging a hand across his weary face.

“Can you do it on the move?”

He almost stops right there, but Nursey puts a hand on his lower back, keeps him going.

“I, uh— I can try?”

“Then I guess you’ve got until we reach the ambulance, kid. Give it your best shot.”

And he does.

He puts his hand above Bitty’s leg, and he focuses, focuses so hard, but it’s— he can feel the power build in him and get dispersed, like it has so many places to go at the same time that it ends up nowhere fast.

And just as he’s growing frustrated with himself he feels it, emanating from Nursey’s palm on his lower back.

It’s— it’s like an electrical current rushing through him, only less destructive and infinitely warmer, like standing next to a fire on a camping trip, and it’s all over him until Dex starts focusing again and feels the power going where it needs to, off to Bitty’s leg, up to Bitty’s shoulder, to his head, like so many arrows.

He burns all over, and he focuses.

There are gasps around him, mutters, but he blocks them all out. All he feels is the heat, the tingling, Nursey’s hand on him, and the way his power surges, doing things he’d never imagined he could, doing what he asks of it, going where he needs it.

When he’s done, he opens his eyes, and finds Bitty blinking his own open, slowly.

And that’s when his own vision goes dark.

 

He comes to to the sound of Nursey’s voice, quiet, almost crooning, next to him.

“—You are a euphemism beyond my myna bird. You are a unit beyond my mileage. You are—”

“—Incredibly pretentious,” he rasps out.

“—a Yugoslavia beyond my mind’s eye,” Nursey completes, before closing his book, and looking at him with a smile that’s too relieved to even try to be chill. “Hey, man. Glad to see you back in the land of the living.”

“How long’ve I been out?” He asks, turning his head one way and the other, slowly, taking in the white walls, the cheery flowers on his bedside table, and the closed blinds on the window of the room. “Where are we?”

“Take a wild guess, Poindexter,” Nursey says, leaning back on his chair, and gesturing at their surroundings.

Dex blushes and glares at him.

“You were out for six hours or so,” Nursey continues, smoothing a hand down the tattered looking cover of his book. “They’re keeping you for observation.”

“Bitty?”

Nursey’s smile turns soft, and one of his hands comes to rest on Dex’s bed, just a few inches away from his own.

It makes him want to curl his fingers around it, tight.

He thinks about the day he’s had, and about the days before, and decides that he deserves a break, even from himself, and so he reaches for Nursey’s hand, warm and callused from holding a hockey stick day in and day out.

Nursey’s eyes drop to their hands for a second, and then they’re up again, and he’s squeezing Dex’s hand, even as he says, “Bitty’s fine. Not a single scratch on him. Jack’s driving him up the wall a couple of rooms over.”

The thought of Jack sitting at Bitty’s bedside, much like Nursey’s sitting at his, is enough to make him snort, which makes Nursey snort in turn, and then their gazes meet and they are laughing, soft chuckles that don’t travel far but still fill the entire room.

When they both quiet down, Nursey squeezes his hand again, says, “You did it.”

And it could mean any number of things, but Dex knows as he looks at him that he means every single one of them. It’s the proudest anyone has ever been of him barring his mom when he got into Samwell.

It’s a puzzle piece, again, falling to place just a second too late.

But it does fall, as he gazes into Nursey’s soft eyes.

He swallows.

Nursey follows the motion, down to the bob of his Adam’s apple, and when his eyes lift up to meet Dex’s again, there’s that same warmth in them, that same softness, only with that hint of heat, of meaning that they’d held at the kegster, and Dex can’t fight the blush that overcomes him, doesn’t feel like he has to. Doesn’t even really want to.

“Why didn’t you text?” He asks, fighting down the embarrassment that rears its ugly head at the idea of just— sitting down and putting feelings to words.

Nursey’s hand squeezes around his and for a second his eyes drop and Dex catches him smoothing his hand over his book again.

“Why didn’t you text?” Nursey asks, finally, meeting his gaze again, and the dip between his eyebrows, the twitch of his nose, the tick in his jaw, the hand on his book, it all paints a picture for Dex.

“Wow,” he says, and looks up at the ceiling, blinking a couple of times. “We’re really bad at this.”

Nursey chuckles, and Dex’s eyes fall back to him.

His gut clenches at the sight of Nursey like that, looking happy and carefree, holding his hand, wanting him back.

“Kiss me,” he says, because he can’t hold it back.

And Nursey does, bending over him, cupping his face, sighing as their lips touch, seemingly melting into the kiss.

It’s soft, pliant, and all those things that Nursey would probably be able to describe better, like a tender word in touch, or something. It’s the way Dex’s gut tightens as he opens up to Nursey, and the way his heart beats overtime with the first slide of Nursey’s tongue.

It’s probably the best first kiss Dex will ever have. And it’s so like Nursey, to ruin him for anyone other than him.

He’ll just have to keep kissing me forever, then, he thinks, irrational, and light like a fucking feather.

When they part, Dex notices a nurse standing by the door, smiling at them, and he can’t even find it in himself to be embarrassed.

 

The nurse closes the door behind her as she’s leaving when it suddenly occurs to him.

“Isn’t it past visiting hours?”

Nursey nods.

“... So, how are you still here?”

At that, Nursey’s face breaks into a grin.

“Chowder and Shitty used their combined powers of persuasion to convince the nurses to let me and Jack stay the night.”

He pictures the combined power of Chowder’s face with Shitty’s… everything, and huffs out a laugh.

Then, he frowns.

“... Why you, though? I can— well, I can get Jack, since he’s the captain, and—” He waves a hand.

“And,” Nursey agrees, with a nod. His smile turns playful before he adds, “Turns out Chowder still thinks we are dating.”

“Didn’t you— after Annie’s?”

Nursey shrugs, runs his thumb over the back of his hand—and makes his heart stutter like he’s a sixteen year old virgin—, says, “I thought you would.”

Dex covers his face with his free hand, mutters, “Wow.”

“I’ll have you know I’m a catch, Poindexter,” Nursey says, mock offended.

“I know,” Dex replies, before he can think better of it, and then he swallows the urge to groan.

“Oh,” Nursey says, and Dex parts his fingers to see him through them, and finds him staring down at the book on his lap, a pleased, soft smile on him. “You too, y’know?”

“Poetry,” Dex blurts out, as his hand goes down to fiddle with the light material of his gown, feeling like there’s— too much inside him, too much air, too much light, too much of whatever it is he feels for Nursey, just— too much. “That’s— you were reading to me. Poetry. What, uh, what was that?”

Nursey looks back up at him, and the smile’s still there, even as he rolls his eyes at Dex, telling him without words that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he thinks of it.

He still says, “Any Lit, by Harryette Mullen. We were on Rumi before.”

“What’s it about?”

Nursey hums.

“Well, there’s rarely just the one meaning to a poem, y’know?”

Dex smiles at the way Nursey’s expression goes thoughtful, the way his eyes narrow a little.

“What do you think it’s about?”

Nursey grins, and starts talking about love, relationships, race; about meta-poetry, and semantics; about huckleberries over persimmons.

Dex listens.