Most parents tell their children not to play with fire. They shuffle their toddlers away from the stove and warn them to be careful. It always meant something different in the Nurse household, though. Something far more ominous.
“The wind should be careful not to play with fire,” Nursey’s dad would say, the words slow like honey in his mouth. “The fire just gets riled up, and the wind is left with all the smoke and ash.”
Nursey thought he had the advice all figured out when he first met the ocean, when the rush of salt-tinged air curled around his fingers and settled there, waiting to be guided. Nursey thought he understood the first time he walked the city streets in mid-winter and found the bitter, icy air soften for him, greet him like an old friend.
He thought he understood the first time he snuck his mom’s lighter into his bedroom, the posters on his walls crinkling as he clicked the flame and made it dance and stretch and grow with the barest gasp of air from his lips.
“Practicing self-control?” he claimed half-heartedly to his mom.
“First degree burns,” she replied, eyes narrowed.
Nursey could never wrap his head around it entirely, because he knows the opposite is true, as well. There’s a reason it’s tradition to blow out the candles of a birthday cake. There’s a reason that campers shield their brand new, kindling flame from the harshest of winds.
It isn’t until Nursey starts playing hockey on his predominately white team, at his predominately white school, that he understands what his dad was really getting at, and why it was a warning delivered by his dad, and not his mom.
Self-control becomes the name of the game, in more ways than one.
For the most part, Nursey’s magic isn’t very reactive now that he is older. When he lets it loose instead of keeping it tightly contained, he may get some rustling of leaves, some blowing of his curls when they get long.
When it is reactive, though, it is very reactive. And it doesn’t tend to react well to foreign magic.
“My name’s Dex,” the guy says, his arms folded across his chest and his hands balled into fists, tucked into his armpits. Nursey carefully doesn’t voice his first reaction, that the guy clearly needs a joint, like, stat.
“I’m Nursey.” He sticks out his hand, and Dex looks at it for a full ten seconds before he finally reaches out to shake it.
His palm is hot to the touch, but dry. The hair at the nape of Nursey’s neck prickles, and the air around them abruptly warms, a wave of uncomfortable heat that has Nursey sweating under his coat. A gust of wind blows sharp and harsh, the bone-chilling hostility that Nursey knows nature never creates all on its own.
Dex doesn’t even stick his hands in his pockets.
They both stay quiet until the tour guide shows up, stealing glances at the other, uncertain. Nursey knows he has all but committed to Samwell, but he thinks in the very back of his head that maybe it isn’t too late to change his mind. Maybe it isn’t too late to pick a different school, one without this redheaded space heater, who apparently also plays defense.
The wind doesn’t ease until they arrive at Faber. When Nursey looks through the corner of his eye, he swears he sees the air curling away from Dex in wisps of steam.
Nursey would think, by the basic rules of nature, that if wind should stay away from fire, then fire should stay away from water. At least, that is how he justifies the spike of jealousy in his chest, the way his fingers itch to grab at the air and physically push it towards where Dex is sitting with Chris on the couch, laughing at one of his terrible jokes.
Dex looks fond in a way that Nursey has only seen directed his way on the ice, where he still can’t explain why him and Dex actually work inexplicably well together. Jack keeps talking cryptically about balance.
Nursey isn’t going to use his magic, and he isn’t going to lash out, because Nursey knows it isn’t fair, and he has more self-control than that, even with tub juice in his system. But by all the regular rules, Chris and Nursey getting along as well as they do makes perfect sense, and Chowder and Dex getting along as well as they do makes none.
Water douses fire. Water extinguishes fire. Water reduces the fire to ash and soot, makes the wood too wet to light another flame.
If Nursey were to think about it, then he would be able to rationalize it. Chris clearly has a calming influence on Dex; if Dex has been open with anyone, it has been Chris. To some degree, it is dousing the fire, counteracting Dex’s blustering temper in a way that Nursey only seems to rile up.
Chris isn’t much of a dousing kind of person, though. When Nursey thinks of Chris, he thinks of the way the light bounces off the tips of the water as the sun sinks in the sky, reflecting the warm light.
“He really isn’t that bad, when you take the time to get to know him,” Chris tells Nursey earnestly that night as they head back to their dorm building. The late fall air smells crisp and earthy, of dead leaves and impending chill.
“I don’t know how to be around him,” Nursey says as he watches his feet, his tongue loosened by alcohol and by Chris. By the way Chris drifts close to him innately, by the way Chris looks at Nursey like Nursey is someone to be trusted. Someone to be honest with. “My dad. Always warned me to stay away from fire. And he didn’t mean Dex, but he meant… people like Dex. Reactionary white dudes always get you in trouble.”
When Chris looks thoughtful instead of immediately disregarding what Nursey says, the anxiety bubbling up in his gut calms a little bit. “Your dad wasn’t wrong. And you aren’t either. But I don’t think that’s the situation that we’re actually looking at, is it?”
“Uh. Yeah?” Nursey says. “That’s kind of exactly the situation we’re looking at.”
Chris shakes his head. “Sure, when fire and wind are left alone to their own devices, like, okay. One party’s gonna come out of it in bad shape when there are just two. But what if it doesn’t have to be two?”
Nursey almost doesn’t want to meet Chris’ eyes. Almost doesn’t want to see the way Chris is looking at him unbearably softly, knowingly. Nothing Chris said has been groundbreaking, and if Nursey were in the mood to raise a fuss, he could point out that there already have been three of them, that nothing Chris has done so far has been able to balance the three of them. It is too much to ask of him, even if he could.
When Chris’ hand reaches for Nursey’s, a little dry and very cold, Nursey finally starts to realize that maybe Chris has a different kind of together in mind.
“I know how to be with you, but not with him,” Nursey protests gently. “He hates me. I don’t think it will work.”
“Maybe not,” Chris says. “But I would like to see you both, either way. I would, at the very least, like for that to work without you two being at each other’s throats. I don’t believe that you actually hate him, and I definitely don’t believe he actually hates you.”
“Can I think about it?” Nursey asks, even though he knows what his answer will be. He knows that there is no way that he would risk giving up being with Chris out of caution and anxiety and frustration with Dex.
“Of course,” Chris says. “I’m good with being patient for you.”
Nursey knows that it will take a few days for him to voice it, but if asked, he can be patient for Chris, too.
After three months of dating Chris, Nursey could not be happier. With the Chris part of things, at least. He does have to share Chris, even more than he expected, now that Farmer has entered the picture. Chris likes Farmer, though. A lot. Nursey actually kind of likes Farmer, too. She’s a good time at a kegster, and she has a conspiratorial, fun vibe to her that Nursey digs. Chris encourages alone time between the two of them enough that Nursey knows he has something up his sleeve, but Farmer has good taste in movies and gives extremely good cuddles when Nursey is high, so Nursey doesn’t mind where things are going.
Things with Dex have been… less rough than they used to be. Chris frequently calls it progress, although Nursey isn’t sure that that is exactly the right word. If it is progress, it has been halting and inconstant. Nursey has managed to cap the number of “chill”s that he reflexively uses around Dex, which seems to have done a lot of good. Dex no longer looks like his body is undergoing a fight or flight response every time Nursey is nearby.
Nursey’s magic is still getting used to Dex. Nursey’s magic still doesn’t know how to coexist with Dex’s off the ice. Nursey’s magic still overreacts to the way the heat around Dex diverts the wind, like it’s a personal attack instead of an unthinking, unconscious shield.
“But you both do that,” Chris says one night when Nursey brings it up, like he’s just said something profoundly obvious. “You both put up walls. Have you ever seen either of you around Bitty?”
Nursey knows why he does it around Bitty. Most of the time, Bitty is totally chill, but sometimes he says something, and Nursey remembers that he’s from the suburban deep South, and up the walls go. Sometimes it takes a long time to lower them. Sometimes it takes a long time to feel safe.
It doesn’t really feel like the same thing at all, Nursey decides, after the next time he watches Dex interact with Bitty in the kitchen. But he can see what Chris was getting at. Bitty hovers, covered in flour, as Dex unpacks his toolbox and fiddles with the oven, Bitty totally unaware in a way that Nursey can’t be as the air tugs around Dex’s hands while they warm up, reigniting the oven in a way that has nothing to do with the wrench Dex is holding.
“Do you want to stay and help?” Bitty asks hopefully, and for a split second, Dex almost looks torn. Nursey prepares for the joke he has heard from so many other hockey guys to land, that maybe that is a little bit too gay, or too girly. The words that Dex said back on the Taddy Tour come to the forefront of his mind, the expression on Dex’s face when he saw Bitty and said he didn’t think a team led by Jack Zimmermann would be so...
“Maybe… maybe some other time,” Dex says, his hands curling loosely at his sides. “I don’t… need to know how to bake back in Maine.”
“Maybe some other time,” Bitty says, soft with Dex. He profusely thanks Dex for fixing Betsey, and Dex’s ears turn bright red, and he says that this is what he is good at, fixing things, that that was useful back home.
Nursey lays in bed that night thinking about the things that are useful and the things that aren’t. He decides, still, that he and Dex are not the same. That their walls aren’t the same, and that they don’t come from the same place, and that Dex can let his start to fall, here, while Nursey will never get that freedom.
He starts to soften on the idea, though, that maybe Dex is learning to be better.
It is May, and final exams are over, and Nursey is pleasantly drunk.
He has sobered up considerably as the night has gone along. Ransom and Holster tried to egg him into dancing on the kitchen table at one point, but Bitty frantically intervened before the kitchen could become more trashed than it already is. They don’t really have a budget for a new kitchen table for the Haus, especially when they all just forked out for a new oven, after even Dex’s magic and his mechanical knowledge failed to keep Betsey alive.
Chris is sitting on Dex’s lap on the floor in the living room, a sight that Nursey is now actually used to, after a semester of their new, unconventional arrangement. Nursey no longer has to suppress the feeling of an iron stabbing his gut at the thought that maybe Chris would decide that he liked Dex better, that maybe Chris would decide he didn’t need Nursey.
If Chris were going to dump Nursey for Dex, he would have done it a long time ago. But he hasn’t. He’s been careful, and he’s balanced the two of them, and Nursey can be totally honest in saying that Chris has never made him feel like he was less important than Dex.
Chris is a fucking angel, honestly. Nursey decides he urgently needs to tell Chris that.
Chris gives him a kiss when he settles down next to them, nice and slow, and for probably the only time ever, Nursey forgets that Dex is right there watching. It feels good, him and Chris. It feels nice, kissing him like this, buzzed and warm, his thoughts slow.
They both pull away, and Nursey smiles, and Chris smiles back, and Nursey is reminded that Chris is an angel.
Nursey is jolted from the moment when Dex coughs loudly, his face twisted up in mock disgust, and Chris blushes, a bit sheepish. He kisses Dex’s cheek and sits down on Dex’s other side, which Nursey thinks is far too far away from him.
Chris has only just settled in when Dex abruptly asks, “Chris, can you go grab Nursey some water?”
Chris shoots Dex an expectant look and squeezes his leg, but drags himself up off the ground to head to the kitchen. Nursey weighs whether he should get up and follow him, because, in all reality, he can get his own water, but Dex is staring at him like he doesn’t want Nursey to get up.
“Is everything okay?” Nursey asks slowly. “Is this like. Family talk time or something?”
Dex’s foot taps nervously, his leg nearly pressed against Nursey’s. There are moments, especially on the ice, when Nursey is reminded of how big Dex is, how much space he takes up. He’s so used to seeing Dex hunched over a computer or a desk that when he sees Dex stretched to his full size next to Nursey, it always makes Nursey very, very aware of him.
“I don’t hate you,” Dex says carefully. “I’m not… I thought I did, maybe, for a while. Chowder told me you told him that. A lot was changing all at once, and Samwell is a… very different place. Than back home. You were always telling me to chill, and I… thought you were trying to piss me off, or mock me, or. Whatever. Like, who gets someone angry and then tells them to chill? You do that less now, and all, but, like, Chowder keeps telling me we should talk about it, and… you… weren’t doing that in the first place, were you? Trying to piss me off.”
“I… wasn’t trying to piss off anyone,” Nursey says slowly, his brain trying to process the mood whiplash. “You were literally always angry with me, and I didn’t know why. It’s…” Nursey is a little too tipsy to be afraid of being honest, especially with Dex looking at him, after being as cautiously and calmly frank as Nursey thinks he’s ever heard Dex. “Do you know how sometimes, you tell yourself something so many times that when you get scared or upset or hurt, it’s what you always come back to?”
Dex nods. “Yeah.”
“Right,” Nursey says. “That’s… that’s what chill is, to me. I didn’t mean for it to come off as like. Invalidating or whatever. I wasn’t trying to tell you you can’t be upset. But you were always upset, and I was scared and frustrated. I know, like. There are some inherent incompatibilities.” Nursey blows the faintest breeze in Dex’s direction, watches in surprise when the air seems to reach Dex’s skin, setting off goosebumps. “I just… never felt like I could reach you. Without pissing you off. And I don’t get to be pissed off, most of the time. Can I stake out a stupid position on, like, Oxford Commas? Sure. Can I go back and forth with Holster about shitty TV? Yeah. But as soon as I get mad, as soon as I get carried away, I’m suddenly a threat. So you get practiced. You learn to choke it down when things are upsetting. You learn to chill out, on the outside, at least. Clearly it wasn’t the best thing to say to you. And I probably should have figured that out way sooner. But I also think we just kind of got off on the wrong foot in general, with…”
Dex’s palms pulse with the barest flicker of light, and Nursey nods.
“Yeah. That. I don’t think it helped.”
“I’m not always… the greatest with my words,” Dex admits. “You are. With your... poetry stuff. Chowder told me you were really good. But I’m not. It’s easier with Chowder. And I am trying. I don’t know how to do anything else. But I wish we could reset. Try this again.”
A wild impulse strikes Nursey, and he sticks his hand out to Dex.
“Hi. I’m Derek Nurse, and I can be hypersensitive to other people’s anger, because sometimes it can be a real danger to me. I am in love with Chris Chow, and also maybe a little bit with Caitlin Farmer, and I really don’t hate you. I am a little bit drunk, but I will definitely not regret any of this in the morning, and Chris will definitely have some great sex with us for making ‘progress’. Not that that’s the only reason for doing this. I do want to get along better with you. I think everyone would want to be around us more.”
Dex laughs, an abrupt, soft noise that has Nursey grinning. Dex doesn’t hesitate to reach out and grab Nursey’s hand to shake. “I’m William Poindexter. I don’t like being told to chill. I have trouble… managing my feelings. I’m not used to… addressing them, I guess. I told Chowder that I love him, though. It made him happy, and I liked knowing I did that. We probably won’t have sex if he is happy with me, though, because I’m ace. Sex-repulsed, not, like. Demi or whatever. Which was a hard thing to admit to him, and a… harder thing to admit to you. But I guess that is how this… dating multiple people thing should work. Chowder shouldn’t have to portion up his life for us.”
Nursey squeezes Dex’s hand, which is cooler than Nursey has ever felt it. “Thanks. For telling me. I’m not gonna spread it around or anything. Or think less of you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I couldn’t tell anyone before Chowder,” Dex says. “The guys are always talking about banging chicks. I feel like I should want that. I don’t want either part of it.”
“You don’t have to,” Nursey reassures him. “I’m glad you’re starting to figure that out.”
The two sit in companionable silence until Chris finally finds his way back, one hand holding a bottle of water, and the other wrapped around Farmer. Farmer settles in next to Nursey, and Chris plops back down on the other side of Dex.
Nursey has a lot to think about. But mostly, looking at their little cluster of relationships, he feels settled. He thinks maybe this will work, after all. Maybe it will work in ways he didn’t expect.
When he walks back to his dorm in the morning, the wind smells of rain and of change, and Nursey sends just a little bit of energy into the springtime bluster.
Nursey doesn’t think his dad was wrong when he warned him to not to play with fire. Nursey thinks that it has been true more often than not, and that Nursey was told over and over again so that Nursey would protect himself, where no one else would. Nursey doesn’t forget the advice, and he works to still heed it. To still be careful.
But Nursey thinks that maybe the rules shift when he isn’t alone. When he is in a space where maybe he is a little bit safer.
He thinks that maybe Chris is onto something, with this whole progress thing. He is willing to put in a little bit of effort to bridge the gap, if Dex is willing to do the same.
“He says he’s here!” Chris practically shouts to the whole Haus. “Nursey, come help me unpack his stuff.”
A semester ago, Nursey would have passed on that offer, or would have gone begrudgingly. The summer air is wet and sticky and clings to Nursey’s skin unpleasantly, and even a breeze is too hot to make things more pleasant.
Nursey had an interesting summer, though. A lot of Skype sessions with Chris, and a lot of group texts between the three of them, and chirps about Dex’s freckles and Chris’ beach abs and Nursey’s crop top collection.
A lot of late night calls from Dex.
When Nursey gets outside, Dex is standing there with his luggage. Chris’ grin is illuminating as he walks down the stairs and squeezes Dex in a tight hug, giving him a quick kiss and telling him he missed him.
Nursey hangs back on the top step outside the Haus for a second to let them have their moment. It doesn’t take long before Chris and Dex both notice.
“Hi,” Dex says as Chris pulls away. “It’s. Good to see you in person.”
Nursey’s face breaks into a soft smile in spite of himself. “You too.”
Chris gives Dex a peck on the cheek and nudges him forward, Dex taking a few small strides that Nursey matches, meeting him in the middle.
Nursey’s breath catches as Dex leans forward. Nursey’s heart pounds out of his chest as he closes his eyes and closes the gap, their lips pressing together in the most tentative first kiss Nursey thinks he’s ever had.
When Nursey writes about this later, he will take some poetic license and claim that Dex’s kiss tasted like cinnamon and ash.
In the moment, all Nursey can think is that after everything, after all the back and forth and stilted conversations, after all the careful attempts to explain themselves, after all the halting attempts at genuine affection and warmth, this finally fits.
Kissing Dex feels right, and good, and warm.