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          “What’s the deal with you and Nurse?”

          The rapid exchange of indecipherable gifs occurring on Dex’s phone ceases at Bully’s question. Dex looks up from the screen to see Bully tapping his pencil against his open notebook, a somewhat bored look on his face.

          “What do you mean?”

          Bully nods at Dex’s phone. 

          A quick look down tells Dex that Nursey’s taken his pause in reply as defeat. He sends three gifs in quick succession to celebrate his victory: a series of puppies dressed as Avengers, an Elmo burning gif, and a minion that looks vaguely disturbing.

          Dex tilts his head. “I don’t know,” he says, and Bully snorts. Dex frowns. “What?”

          Bully shakes his head, turning his attention back to his homework. “Nothing.”

          “Hey.” Dex nudges Bully’s ankle with his shoe under the table. “You’re my waffle, you can’t sass me.”

          Bully pauses reading long enough to appraise Dex with the sassiest eyebrows ever seen before completely ignoring Dex altogether.

          Dex huffs and ignores him back, which doesn’t exactly work but it’s the point of the thing. He texts Nursey back that he didn’t win, Dex just went back to being productive, which makes him a winner in the end. makes you a poindorkster in the end, Nursey replies, which is really, just, terrible. Wholly, completely awful.

          Which is why it’s rather distressing that Dex grins at it like a loon.

          “That.”

          Dex looks up. Bully’s boredom has shifted into amusement. His lips quirk vaguely.

          “That’s what I mean.” He gestures with his pencil. “You’ve been doing whatever it is you’ve been doing with Nurse for like an hour now and you’re still not bored. What’s up with that?”

          “I don’t–” Dex runs his thumb along the edge of his phone. “I don’t get bored of Nursey.”

          Bully hums. “So that’s it, then?”

          “So it’s what?” Dex asks, but Bully’s back to his schoolwork with no indication of being pulled from it. Dex looks back down at his phone. Nursey’s switched to emojis now. The X girl, a dolphin, the heart-eyes one, in quick succession. It could be annoying. It could be amusing. But never, ever boring.

          Huh. Dex wonders what that means for a minute before sending back two lobsters and a random flag. No time to decipher that, now.

 

*~*~*

 

          “Are there any more muffins left?” Nursey asks, walking into the Haus kitchen.

          Dex grunts, handing him a cinnamon muffin without looking up from his code.

          “Thanks, Dexy-poo.” Nursey takes it, nudging Dex in the shoulder. “Maybe next time you’ll even manage verbiage.”

          Dex grunts again.

          “Oh, dude. Have you eaten yet today?”

          Dex ducks his head to block out Nursey and focus on finding whatever the fuck is going wrong in his code. It’s probably just one stupid thing that he stupidly added without stupidly thinking and he’ll never find it now and he’ll fail the assignment and the class and the–

          Next thing he knows, there’s a bottle of water plopped down in front of his nose and a dish with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on it clattering by his hand. Dex is torn between continuing to sift through his code and eating the sandwich. It smells nutty and bready and… and fuck, Dex can’t remember the last thing he ate.

          Dex abandons his keyboard for the food and takes a bite. Nursey used Bitty’s jam from his midterms stress baking pile and the bread isn’t Bitty’s but it’s from the farmer’s market that pops up on the Quad once it gets warm out and all together it’s the best thing Dex’s ever eaten in his life and he may cry.

          Nursey squeezes Dex’s shoulder. “There you go. Eat up.”

          Dex grunts at the condescension but doesn’t stop eating long enough to complain.

          Nursey takes a seat on the other end of the kitchen table, closer to Bully than Dex. Vaguely, through a tunnel of peanut butter and code hallucinations, Dex hears Bully say, “I’ve been trying to get him to eat for hours.”

          “Oh,” Nursey says with a bit of a laugh. “You can’t tell him to do anything. He’ll only eat during a code frenzy if you shove the food down his throat, basically.”

          “You could tell he hadn’t eaten from a grunt?”

          Dex finishes one half of the sandwich and grabs for the other.

          “Uh. Well. Yeah?”

          Bully hums.

          Dex, too absorbed in the sandwich, doesn’t notice the way Nursey fiddles with a napkin, or how he glances briefly at Dex for the next several minutes without saying anything.

          Sandwich done, Dex says, “Thanks, Nursey,” and returns to his code. No time to wonder about anything other than where the fuck his mistake is.

 

*~*~*

 

          Dex clicks submit and a little green check appears on his screen. Assignment completed. It’s problematic that the amount of backlogged dopamine Dex’s body’s refused to produce since he started mid-terms week all rushes in at once just at seeing those two words. Eh, whatever. He grins so much it nearly hurts.

          Then he looks at the time and sees that it’s been literal hours since he’s looked away from his screen. He can taste the air, all electric and fizzy, and it’s not exactly appetizing. The table is littered in muffin wrappers and crumpled up Post-It notes, Nursey is asleep on his end of the table, and Bully seems to be playing solitaire.

          Dex cracks his eyes into a squint. “Shouldn’t you be doing something productive?”

          Bully glances up before putting a stack of hearts on a king, which then filters into a full stack in the bottom left corner of his screen. “Like what?”

          Dex shrugs. “Studying. Or finishing assignments.”

          “I submitted my last paper at noon.” Bully frowns mildly and hits undo to re-free up a space.

          Dex’s squint intensifies. “Why’ve you been here all afternoon if you haven’t had anything to do?”

          Bully shrugs. “S’fun to watch you two.”

          “Who two?” Dex’s eyes flicker to Nursey’s, cheek squished against his forearm as he drools onto the back of his palm. The saliva is smearing a note Nursey’s written on himself in pen. Dex tilts his head to read it. It’s a reminder to pick up the short stories for the class Nursey’s TAing. Dex grabs an un-crumpled Post-It note and copies it, sticking it to his laptop when he’s done.

          Only once it’s stuck does he remember Bully.

          Bully stares at him with raised eyebrows, but whatever expression Dex gives him makes Bully huff and laugh and turn back to his game. “If you weren’t so oblivious I’d think you were doing it on purpose.”

          “Doing what on purpose?” Dex almost whines. He’s tired, he’s code-fried, and all he wants to do is help Nursey up to bed before collapsing in the bottom bunk because he can definitely not make it all the way down the basement deathtrap stairs in this state.

          Bully shakes his head. He may be smiling. Dex’s eyes have begun to cake over as if the sandman is sitting in front of him throwing fistfuls of sand saying dude, you should’ve been out hours ago, go the fuck to sleep.

          “You know, my mom’s got this big stress job,” Bully says, quiet, looking at Dex with all this softness and amusement that Dex has no idea what to do with.

          “Okay,” Dex says, to this complete non-sequitur. It’s like five in the morning. Things not making sense is kind of the baseline.

          Bully gestures vaguely and keeps talking in that quiet way. “She loves it, don’t get me wrong, but every once in a while she’ll be up day and night finishing a project. She’s an engineer at this developmental tech place.” He shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter. Point is, she’d always lose herself in her work. Wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t sleep, hardly left her office to say goodbye before we left the house.”

          “O…kay.” Dex thinks there may be a connection to him in here– he’s self-aware enough for that, at least– but he’s not really good at the whole inference thing when he’s not sleep deprived and hallucinating code floating in front of his eyes, so trying now’s a bit of a lost cause.

          Bully sighs, pushing his laptop halfway closed. “My dad never knew how to deal with it. He’d let her be, alone and working, until she crashed, and then berate her for wearing herself out. Maybe that’s part of the reason they divorced.” He shrugs. “I don’t know. But my step-dad,” Bully begins to smile, “my step-dad is the complete opposite.

          “He brings Mom food and sits with her while she eats it, telling her about his day and distracting her for a bit. He can tell from the songs she’s humming whether she wants a sandwich or a piece of fruit, it’s bizarre. And Mom still crashes at the end of her work sessions, but it doesn’t take her days to get back on her feet. And my step-dad’s always there to help her through it.”

          Dex nods. He’s listening, but his eyes are also beginning to sting. Also this is probably the longest Bully’s ever spoken to him without much response and Dex’s drowsy state finds his voice quite soothing. “That’s nice,” he says.

          Bully shakes his head, smile dipping a little. “Really? You still don’t get it?”

          Dex lists to the side in his chair. “Your step-dad is really awesome?”

          Bully reopens his laptop. “I’ll put it this way,” he says, shifting around cards. “I’ve missed being around that kind of love since I’ve been away from home.” He stacks a pile, a black one this time, and it filters into the bottom of his screen. “That’s why I’ve been here all afternoon.”

          “But you’ve been around me and Nursey all– oh.”

          Bully’s lips quirk. He moves an ace onto a two.

          “Oh.”

          Bully’s smile goes full, pleased and smug. Dex doesn’t notice. He’s a bit busy reworking his understanding of most things in his life. Bully doesn’t interrupt. These things take time, even if that amount of time is ridiculous and annoying and all around too long for frustrated waffles to endure.

 

*~*~*

 

          Bully finishes his solitaire game and closes the lid of his laptop. “I’d better be getting back,” he says, beginning to pack up.

          “You can crash here if you want,” Dex says, staring fixedly at Nursey’s ear, too tired to blink.

          Bully snorts, zipping up his bag. “Thanks for the offer, but after all the stories y’all tell about that couch I’d rather not.”

          “Take my bed.” Dex’s voice catches, probably from the lack of sleep. “I changed the sheets like. The other day.”

          “You sure?”

          Dex hums.

          Bully stands still, maybe watching Dex– Dex isn’t looking to tell– for a minute. Then he picks up his bag and his hand settles on Dex’s shoulder. “Good luck,” he says with a squeeze before leaving the room.

          Dex continues to stare at Nursey’s ear. It looks small, surrounded by Nursey’s buzzed hairs. He needs a haircut. They’re growing in more than Nursey usually lets them. Dex bets they’re soft to run fingertips over, and warm. Nursey’s ear looks soft and warm, too. Bizarrely, Dex wants to touch it. The longer he stares at Nursey sleeping, the more he wants to touch him.

          It isn’t like Dex’s been completely unaware. He notices how Nursey and he interact. It’s an extension of how they are on the ice, really. They’ve never needed much to be able to know where the other was, see them through the forest of legs and sticks, make a connection. Jack once joked, in the way he jokes, that he only had to teach the plays to one of them and they’d both have it down without a hitch.

          Even when Dex thought of Nursey as a mere annoyance, always poking and prodding at things he’d rather leave be, it was easy as anything to understand the guy. S’why the whole “chill” thing always pissed Dex off so much, really, because he could see it in Nursey’s twitching hands, curled-in shoulders, how the anxiety he held twined around his body, tight and cold. Dex knew, mostly, because he usually felt something like it, even if it manifested differently.

          And Nursey was the same way. Maybe that’s how he’d always known what to poke at to get Dex riled up. He still does that, though now usually with more care, at the very least with less malice.

          Dex can’t remember when barbs turned to chirps. When understanding anxiety became making it better. When mild annoyance became enjoyment, appreciation.

          Love.

          “Nursey,” Dex says, loud in the silent kitchen. “Nursey, wake up. You’ve gotta go up to bed.”

          Nursey stirs but doesn’t wake up. He’s the worst at waking up. When Dex gets back in from his runs in the mornings, Nursey will be just waking up, stumbling down the stairs with his eyes closed, which doesn’t help the clumsiness. He’ll shuffle into the kitchen and take Dex’s mug of coffee, downing it regardless of the way it burns or tastes. He’ll make a face, say, “What the fuck, Poindexter, how do you drink this,” because Nursey only likes coffee that’s two parts sugar to one part liquid. 

          Dex, who doesn’t like sweet coffee, has taken to adding some sugar to his first cup of the day. When Nursey doesn’t mind the taste, he’ll hand back the mug and try to fall back asleep on Dex’s shoulder. Dex likes it.

          Dex stands, moving around the table to shake Nursey gently. “Nursey,” he says again, “you have to get up.”

          “You have to get up,” Nursey mumbles, frown wrinkling up his face. He’s 6’2, got the beginnings of stubble on his face, and yet the only word Dex has to describe him is adorable.

This night is bizarre.

          “Come on.” Dex tucks his hands, one at the top of Nursey’s ribs and the other around his bicep. “Up you get. Time for bed.”

          Nursey, thankfully, moves with Dex’s hands so he isn’t just dragging dead weight. Once standing, he lists into Dex’s side, nose catching on the tendons in Dex’s neck. Dex inhales sharply.

          “Y’alright, Dexy?” Nursey says into Dex’s skin.

          “Yeah,” Dex says, and moves them forward.

          Going up the stairs with a half-asleep Nursey isn’t exactly easy, but Dex has had an unbearable amount of practice on Nursey Patrol. Nursey is a handsy drunk, but in unexpected places, like the inside of elbows and bottom of ribcages. He’ll drag his hands across Dex’s sternum and whisper sloppy poetry, things Dex doesn’t get. Sometimes he wonders if it’s original, or if he’s quoting. Sometimes he’ll go home and Google bits he remembers, just to see.

          One time he actually found the original. An Emily Dickinson poem that made him sad in ways he couldn’t articulate. I cannot live with you, it would be life. And life is over there behind the shelf.

          They reach the top of the stairs. The floorboards creak until they get in Nursey’s room, where Dex replaced the boards after the seventh time Nursey tripped over that one loose one and nearly brained himself.

          “Come on, up, up, up.” Dex guides Nursey into the top bunk. “Careful.” He catches Nursey around the waist, not taking his hands away until Nursey is well and truly in the bed. He wriggles around until a blanket is over him and Dex guides it up and over his shoulder.

          “Thanks, Poindoodle,” Nursey mumbles into his pillow.

          Dex stares at his soon-to-be-sleeping face. The way his eyelashes curl. The way his cheek crashes against the pillowcase. The curve of his lips.

          “You’re in love with me,” Dex says, mostly to himself. The disbelief is a bittersweet taste on his tongue.

          Nursey blinks heavily until his eyelids settle, open. His lips curl, a smile, but sad. “Took you long ‘nough.”

          Dex stares at Nursey mouth. “I think I’m in love with you too.”

          Lips part, a soft little “o”. “Really?”

          Dex nods.

          “Oh.”

          Dex sways, further back and then closer. “Didn’t figure that out?”

          “Uh-uh.”

          Dex curls his fingers around the edge of Nursey’s bed. “You’re kinda dumb too, then.”

          “Hey–!” Dex swallows the sleepy protest from Nursey’s lips, pressing delicately, warmly, into Nursey’s mouth.

          When he pulls away Nursey is smiling with his eyes closed. He looks exhausted, and happy. Dex can somehow tell by the little wrinkles next to his eyes.

          “Go to sleep,” Dex says, and he’s suddenly whispering, as if he spoke at full volume he wouldn’t be able to contain himself. “We’ll talk in the morning.”

          Nursey keeps his eyes closed. “Okay,” he says. He tightens his grip on his blanket, pulling it closer to his chin. “Sleep well.”

          Dex presses his fingertips into Nursey’s mattress and then releases. “You, too.”

          He gets into the bottom bunk. He stares at the slats of the bed above him and wonders what tomorrow will look like, contentment lulling him to sleep soon after. No need to wonder, really. He knows it’s going to be good.