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Dex’s heart thuds painfully in his chest as he clutches the letter in his hand. The Samwell crest is in the corner of the envelope, his own name written in beetle-black type just below it. 

For a fleeting second he feels like he’s going to throw up. He can hear his family next door, in the dining room. His mom’s raised voice and his siblings’ loud banter echo in his ears as his shaking hands begin to tear open the seal. He might be getting away from all this, he thinks.

He feels slightly faint as he carefully unfolds the paper inside, trying not to crinkle the letter. He ignores his name and address, scans the first line - We are delighted to inform you - and shakily drops down to sit on the stairs. 

He doesn’t fully trust his legs to keep him upright.

It feels like a breath of fresh air.

 

*

 

Derek Nurse feels like exactly the opposite.

It’s immediate. As soon as Dex opens his mouth, almost, Nursey seems ready to argue with him. Dex doesn’t remember him from the Taddy Tour, which in Dex’s opinion is suspect - he knows how much time he spends mulling over the features of pretty guys that pass him in the street. Nursey, with his bright olive green eyes and cocky smile, fits right into that category.

He does remember Chowder, who bounds up to him with a grin on his face as soon as the team meet up for their first practice. It’s an instant relief when Chowder slings his arm around Dex’s shoulders and immediately begins to talk.

Nursey knows Shitty - a bizarre name, in Dex’s opinion - from Andover. When Dex learns this, he lets out a snort of derisive laughter which earns him a glare. He can’t help it, and he certainly doesn’t mean to, but he thinks for a second that it’s probably what his dad would do, too.

“Something funny, Poindexter?” is Nurse’s immediate reply. 

“No,” Dex retorts. He pushes all thoughts of his father out of his head. 

“Do you have something to say about my school?” Nursey’s annoyed voice is clipped and restrained, jarringly polite. 

Dex shrugs, mock-disinterested. He has lots to say about Andover, opinions he’s inherited from his parents, but he doesn’t indulge Nursey. “Just figures,” he says. 

Nursey heaves an irritated sigh, a more acidic noise than if he were just fed up. “What figures?”

“Andover’s a private school,” Dex specifies. He doesn’t need to specify further. He doesn’t need to carry on and say that private school boys are almost always everything he hates - up themselves, superior, rich, spoilt. He can see from the way Nursey draws himself up that he can probably tell this opinion for himself.

“So?” Nursey snaps, the illusion of politeness suddenly dropping, his Andover smile gone in an instant. Something hot and defensive flares up in Dex’s chest.

“So nothing,” he says coldly. He makes sure to keep his face expressionless. 

Shitty steps in between them. He’s not tall enough to block Dex’s view of Nursey entirely, but it does snap Dex out of his defensive haze. Shitty’s face displays a careful mixture of weary and wary. “Leave it, both of you.”

Out of his weird, Nursey-induced, angry fog, Dex can see Chowder hovering nervously next to them, not saying a word. When Dex meets his eyes, Chowder looks away.

Dex feels a prickle of shame, not unfamiliar, and that’s the end of that, for the moment. 

It doesn’t occur to Dex that day, standing either side of Shitty Knight with balled-up fists, that arguing with Nursey will become part and parcel of life at Samwell, but it does. 

It’s about money, or politics, or something extra stupid and petty. Anything from the way they look at one another, to the way they shoot sarcastic comments between themselves - they argue about everything.

Chowder, three weeks into term, seems ready to tear his hair out. Dex doesn’t blame him for being so frustrated about it - he probably would be too, if he were in Chowder’s position.

The guilt that he feels when Chowder looks at him, though, doesn’t stop him from fighting. 

 

*

 

Naturally, Chowder goes to Bitty. It’s a month or so later when Bitty ushers Dex into the kitchen with promises of the freshly baked pie in the oven.

“It’s chocolate,” Bitty says, which is the only reason why Dex doesn’t make up an excuse on the spot and leave the Haus as quickly as possible. 

Instead of doing a u-turn and sprinting back to his dorm, he sits down at the kitchen table. It’s a simple, harmless action, but it makes his pulse quicken.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Bitty says. He plates up a slice of pie for Dex and sets it down in front of him. Dex can see right through him - he knows it’s Bitty’s way of getting him to sit down and listen, but this is his step forward. 

Staying is harder than running, he tells himself. 

He picks up his fork. 

Bitty beams at him, like he isn’t about to launch into a tirade about Dex’s attitude. Dex takes a bite of his pie, remembers how talented Bitty is, how well he fits in here despite being so unlike everyone else, and tries not to presume.

“Dex,” Bitty begins, his hands criss-crossed in front of him, “are you okay?”

Dex pauses mid-bite, surprised. It’s certainly not what he was expecting. He swallows forcefully. “Um, yeah,” he says. “Why?”

Bitty gives him a disbelieving once-over that he probably doesn’t think is obvious. Dex lets it go. “Are you sure, honey?” Bitty asks again. “Only - and I don’t want you to think I’m being too nosy - you seem very, um...”

“Angry?” Dex finishes for him. It’s what everyone else thinks. It makes sense that Bitty would agree. 

“Isolated,” Bitty corrects. Dex blinks at him, but Bitty doesn’t pause to accommodate his confusion. 

“I’m not captain or anything, but I care an awful lot about this team,” Bitty says earnestly. “It was hard for me too when I first got here.”

Dex doesn’t say anything, because that would mean acknowledging that he is struggling. Adjusting is hard, and maybe Bitty gets it, but he shouldn’t be able to see Dex is out of his depth. Many years at home in Maine have taught him that. 

“Jack, Shitty and, well, all the other boys, really, they’re from very similar backgrounds,” Bitty says, and Dex knows what he’s getting at. “I found it difficult to balance their versions of college life with my own.”

They’re rich, Dex thinks, and Bitty isn’t. The thought relaxes him a little.

“I managed it after a couple months,” Bitty shrugs with a smile. “Samwell has helped me, in lots of ways, and - well, I suppose I want to help you, too.”

“I don’t need help,” Dex says instinctively, the words bubbling up too fast for him to swallow them down. 

Bitty doesn’t look perturbed; maybe he recognises this, this instinct to defend himself, from back home in Madison. Dex doesn’t like that he’s so easy to read, and he really doesn’t like that Bitty is probably right. Maybe he does need help.

Calmly, like he’s aware of Dex’s internal crisis, Bitty cuts him another slice of pie. “Maybe,” Bitty says, “but I’m always here if you need somebody to talk to.”

With that, he covers up the rest of the pie, puts it in the fridge and leaves Dex alone. Bitty’s offer echoes in Dex’s ears, and somehow, for the first time - Dex doesn’t feel like he’s on his own. 

 

*

 

If Bitty is hoping that Dex and Nursey are going to stop arguing after that, he is sorely mistaken. 

It doesn’t get worse, or anything, but it’s a constant around the team, and Dex is entirely aware that the awkwardness sitting in the locker room is his fault. 

They all try, though; it’s not that he’s totally isolated. He gets on really well with Chowder, and he finds it much easier to talk to Bitty now than he did before. 

Jack’s quiet with everyone - he reminds Dex of himself. Shitty’s constant social justice rampage exhausts him, especially because if Shitty were to barge into his family home and start ranting, he would get a nasty shock. Ransom and Holster are hilarious, and Dex rolls his eyes at their weak gags like everybody else. Lardo - well, Dex isn’t entirely sure about Lardo yet, but only because he’s sure she knows exactly what he’s thinking. 

The only hurdle is Nursey. Whenever Nursey steps into a room, he immediately fills it, and it’s overwhelming. Dex can feel it choking him, sometimes.

Dex dresses himself as quickly as possible after practice to make sure he’s first in the library. Nursey was out last night, and his dramatic recounting of his drunken escapades, standing on the locker room benches, is too much to handle so early in the morning. 

He doubles back to the ice for a second, though, and gazed out across it. Dex takes a deep breath, holds it for ten seconds, and then lets it out slowly through his teeth. 

This is why you’re here, he tells himself. This is what you want to do. 

A loud message tone startles him from his thoughts and he claps his hand to his pocket instinctively. It’s the one he assigned to his mom. His heart rate shoots up as he pulls his phone from his jeans and stares at the screen. 

(09:43) Mom:  Hope everything’s ok at Samwell. Let us know when we can come to visit x

His stomach lurches sickeningly and he turns off his phone without a second thought. With one final look across the rink, he sighs and leaves the stands.

As he makes his way down the back corridors of Faber, Dex’s mind spins with something he can’t quite describe. He hates that a simple text from his own mother stirs up something so horrible, so nervous inside him but he can’t help it. 

In a world of his own, Dex barrels past the locker rooms, but as he gets there the men’s locker room door swings open. Somebody, Dex doesn’t catch their face, collides with him. 

Dex trips and braces himself to hit the floor, before he feels somebody wrench him upright. It hurts his shoulder a bit, but not more than it would hurt to faceplant the floor. He looks up to thank whoever is still holding his arm, and sees Nursey looming over him. 

Nursey’s eyes are wide open and if Dex didn’t know him better, he would say Nursey actually looked concerned. 

Genuinely, Dex is about to apologise, to thank him, until Nursey raises his eyebrows dismissively. “Learn to fucking walk, Poindexter,” he says, and that red hot defensiveness lights up Dex again from the inside.

“I don’t need your help,” he snaps back. 

It’s not an immediate regret that fills him, but he does feel a tiny bit guilty. Nursey did help him, after all, but they don’t do that. They don’t thank one another. The closest thing they get is not yelling.

Nursey drops Dex’s arm so fast it’s like it was burning him. “Fine,” he says icily, “next time I’ll let you break your nose on the floor.” 

“Great,” Dex glares.

“Great,” Nursey glares back - just for a second, then he turns around and leaves. Dex has to force himself not to heave an irritated sigh.

His arm is alight. He can still feel where Nursey’s fingers had gripped him so tightly, as if they were still there, wrapped around his forearm like flames. 

For a second, he lets his mind drift to Nursey’s eyes as soon as Dex looked up at him: soft and unguarded. Any concern Nursey had accidentally shown had vanished instantly, but it’s the fleeting worried expression that Dex can’t get out of his head. 

Dex rubs at his arm vigorously and scoffs at himself, setting off at a walk towards Faber’s exit and feeling slightly ridiculous. The day Nursey cares about Dex’s wellbeing is the day the world turns upside down. 

All good! Is Dex’s reply to his mom later that evening. I’ll get back to you. 

 

*

 

(14:56) Bitty: chocolate muffins fresh out of the oven !! :)

Dex gets Bitty’s text as he’s leaving the library. He knows it’s a way of drawing him in: whenever Bitty wants to talk to him he gets a text like this. 

It’s weird, though. Since Bitty had sat him down and offered his help in the kitchen over chocolate pie, Dex can’t help but feel bad about turning him down. Bitty wants, so badly, to help him. It’s Dex’s fault that he can’t acknowledge that he needs it.

Plus, whenever Dex sits down in front of Bitty and lets him talk about anything and everything, it feels like a small act of rebellion. He never really says anything, but it still feels forbidden. 

It feels like he’s helping himself, tearing himself away from whatever he had in Maine and fitting himself into the Haus at Samwell, and it’s nice. It’s a comfort. 

This time, Bitty has chocolate muffins out on two plates at the kitchen table, and Chowder’s there, too. Chowder looks up from his notes and beams at him, and it feels like a hot bath.

“Hey, Dex!” he gushes. Dex can feel the Californian warmth in his greeting. “How are you?”

“Fine, thanks,” Dex defaults without thinking. “These look amazing, Bitty.”

Bitty laughs. “You’d say that about anything if I stuffed it with chocolate, William,” he says, but he piles three onto a plate and sets it down in front of Dex. 

“How’s your arm?” Chowder asks.

Dex looks at him, surprised. “Huh?”

Chowder smiles. “You‘ve been rubbing your arm a lot the past few days,” he says, and demonstrates the action on his own arm. “I thought maybe you’d injured it.”

“Oh.” Dex looks down at his arm. He feels it burn, briefly, like Nursey is still holding tightly onto it. “No,” he says. “It’s fine.”

“Fine like Dex fine or actually fine?” Chowder asks, unwrapping a muffin over his plate. He doesn’t specify the difference. All three of them know what he means.

“Actually fine,” says Dex truthfully. “I haven’t injured it.”

“Okay,” Chowder grins, seemingly satisfied. Dex doesn’t know whether he likes that Chowder notices so much about him, but at least he trusts him with it. He just hopes Chowder doesn’t notice how often Nursey’s wide, worried eyes - along with his entire face - have replayed in his head recently. 

“You did well in practice this morning,” Bitty compliments Dex, who doesn’t say anything. Bitty doesn’t really notice - he’s used to Dex not taking his compliments. 

“Yeah!” Chowder agrees, quickly swallowing his mouthful of chocolate muffin. “You and Nursey worked really well together today!”

That’s the bizarre thing, Dex thinks, about his life at Samwell so far. Nursey is not his friend. They don’t get on and everyone knows it. Yet, somehow, their performance on the ice is exceptional. 

They can read each other’s actions like clockwork. Yeah, they mess it up sometimes, and when they do it’s a fierce argument and it takes Jack and Shitty several minutes to calm them down. Despite this, though, Dex knows they work well together, and it’s the most frustrating thing in the world. 

He doesn’t reply. Neither Chowder nor Bitty call him out on it. 

“Some of those passes!” Chowder makes an appreciative gesture with chocolate round his mouth. 

Dex laughs, and Bitty looks round at him and grins from where he’s standing at the sink. Dex doesn’t laugh very often, ever, even at home. He knows Bitty likes it when Dex laughs.

“You don’t plan any of that before practice, Dex?” Bitty asks him as he packs the dishwasher. 

“Pfft,” Dex snorts. “As if Nursey and I could hold a civil conversation long enough.”

Bitty and Chowder don’t laugh. Dex didn’t really expect them to. He bites into a second muffin. 

“You could try?” Chowder suggests, like he hasn’t suggested it a hundred times already. 

Dex shakes his head. “Doesn’t take just me to try,” he says, and even as he’s saying it he knows it sounds like something his dad would say. He swallows the sour taste in the back of his throat. 

Chowder sighs. “Dex -“

“I’m going to class,” Dex interrupts before Chowder can launch into another spiel about how much he wishes his two fellow Frogs would get on. Dex likes Chowder, a lot, but sometimes he just doesn’t know when to stop pushing. 

“Don’t,” Dex hears Bitty say to Chowder as he leaves, and he’s grateful. He doesn’t know how Bitty knows where his line is, but Dex is glad he knows not to cross it. 

Nursey is on the green couch as Dex shoulders his bag and leaves the Haus, well within earshot of the kitchen. He’s leaning his chin on his fist and twirling his pen in his hand absently, all interest seemingly on his notebook page. He looks like a model in a candid. Dex ignores him.

 

*

 

Dex can feel it brewing. 

Nursey and Dex fight in bursts, small and short. They get more aggressive and fiery, though, leading up to something big. Dex knows something huge is brewing, and the way the rest of the team are on the defence, he can tell they feel it too.

Whenever Nursey and Dex are both in the room, all of the boys watch them attentively. They try and make it subtle but it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Nursey can probably tell, as well, but he doesn’t let on.

It makes Dex feel sick to his stomach. He’s under scrutiny, and he knows it. It’s like Maine - every move is watched by someone. He’s bound to slip up eventually. 

Nursey doesn’t seem to care. He goes through life as normal, upbeat and jovial with everyone except Dex. Dex he ignores. 

At least, not until it finally happens.

Dex is already in the kitchen when Nursey walks in. His smile doesn’t quite die on his lips as soon as he sees Dex, but it’s a near thing. Dex can almost see the way he goes rigid, ready to defend himself.

“About time!” Chowder beams at Nursey. Nursey’s cold exterior melts for a second as Chowder attacks him in a bear hug.

He hates that it’s Nursey’s first reaction to tense up around him. Dex isn’t a moron; he knows that’s probably Nursey’s go-to reaction when faced with a straight white Republican with anger issues.

Maybe straight. Dex’s chest jolts in terror and he shakes his head to clear it. 

His reaction to Nursey is the same. That kind of wealth in a person unsettles him, how somebody can be so perfectly set up for life, so excited and cheerful and ready, but still spit words so coldly. Nursey must have an idea of how hard Dex has it, but he doesn’t seem to care. 

Nursey throws himself down onto a chair, the furthest corner away from Dex. It’s the most dramatic way to sit down Dex has ever seen, but then again, Nursey is probably the most dramatic person Dex has ever met, like him or not. 

It’s halfway through brunch when somebody notices them: the hickeys trailing from Nursey’s jawline to beneath the fabric of his jersey. The whoop that Shitty lets out is so loud and so sudden Dex drops his fork. 

“Who’s the lucky fella?” Shitty prods, grinning wildly, “or gal? Or non-binary pal?” 

Nursey’s face is amused, a mask of fake nonchalance. His reddening cheeks give away how staged his disinterest is. 

“Some guy from my Latin study group,” Nursey says. “Name’s Fabian.”

The snort of laughter has left Dex before he can even feel it bubbling up inside him. Half of the team don’t even acknowledge it - maybe they didn’t hear - but Nursey’s eyes flick straight to him. 

“Is that a funny name to you, Poindexter?” Nursey asks accusingly, his face slowly slipping into his Andover politeness. 

Dex can feel the team collectively tense up around him, but he can’t help himself from opening his mouth and responding. 

“Sounds a bit like a Disney character,” he says coolly. “What kind of a name is Fabian?”

Nursey opens his mouth, probably to bite back with a retort, but Ransom jumps in. “Are you gonna see him again, Nursey?” he asks, not even looking at Dex. 

“I don’t think so,” Nursey shrugs, allowing the change of conversation. “He’s a nice guy, but I didn’t really like him that much.”

Dex drops his fork and it clatters on his plate. He doesn’t mean it as a rude gesture; his brain is simply working double time. How Nursey could hook up with a guy for only one night, a guy he’ll obviously have to see again for Latin study, and it be so cool with it is a total enigma for Dex. It makes his head hurt. 

“Problem?” Nursey asks him, clearly annoyed.

“No,” Dex bites back defensively. Then, he rethinks. “Why sleep with him if you don’t like him?”

Nursey rolls his eyes exaggeratedly, yet again the most dramatic person Dex knows. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, Poindexter.”

“Not asking you to,” Dex says, although sometimes he wishes Nursey would unravel the mystery behind his actions. “You asked if I had anything to say.”

“I asked if you had a problem,” is Nursey’s immediate reply, “which apparently you do.”

Dex flicks him an angry glare. Ransom and Holster exchange a weary look, but Dex is talking before they can intervene. “I never said that,” he defends. 

“You didn’t have to.”

“What’s your problem?” Dex asks, clearly and openly annoyed now.

Nursey ignores the question and asks one of his own instead. “Is it because it’s a guy?”

Dex rolls his eyes too. “That’s one hell of a leap you just made,” he snaps. He can feel that defensive fire rekindling inside. 

“Is it?” Nursey says coolly. “The Republican sticker on your laptop says otherwise.”

The defense, the anger, almost rips Dex apart.

“What the hell?” he says loudly. “I make a joke about a fucking name and as soon as you get pissed you bring politics into it?”

“I don’t know, Dex,” Nursey snaps back, “I’m not the one nearly throwing up my waffles when Shits points out a dude kissed my neck.”

Hot anger whirls in Dex’s brain as he feels himself shoot up to his feet. “You don’t know anything about me, you conceited fuck!” he lets his voice climb in volume. His chair clatters to the floor behind him. 

Dex sees out of the corner of his eye as everyone else in the room recoils in shock. He doesn’t let the guilt touch him, doesn’t let it grate away at the anger inside him by making him feel things. 

He doesn’t meet Bitty’s eyes.

Nursey stands too, slower, more calculated. 

“I’m pretty sure I can guess,” Nursey replies icily, his voice dripping with cold rage. “Poor white kid from a remote little town in Maine, right? He thinks the whole world is up against him because he can’t afford to go out like the other kids, or buy books like the other kids.”

Dex seethes. Every word hits him like a bullet to the ribs but he refuses to flinch. He knows Nursey is right, in a way - there are things he’ll never understand fully, things he can’t, not from his perspective. He says nothing.

Nursey’s voice is the same cool anger, but it’s rising in volume. Nobody else is speaking. “The world doesn’t fucking revolve around you, Poindexter,” he says. “Maybe it’s time you open your god damned eyes for ten seconds!”

“You don’t get to say that,” Dex bites back. “You have no idea what my life is like. You don’t get to - to fucking, swoop right in and write my biography!”

“Like you did when you heard I went to Andover?” Nursey almost shouts. Dex barely hears him over the blood pounding in his ears, because really?

“I‘m allowed to have opinions, you ignorant brat,” Dex spits, swiftly recalling how embarrassing it had been. “You keep pushing me to say shit I try to keep to myself.”

“Please,” Nursey scoffs nastily. “You’re dying to rant about rich private school kids and how spoilt they are. As if you aren’t privileged too.”

“Stop,” Dex feels his eyes burn with rage. “Stop thinking you’re above me because you always know right from wrong or how act or how to feel,” he snaps.

Nursey laughs loudly, his eyes still thunderous. The sound is hollow and terrifying. “As if I have half an idea what’s going on all the fucking time!” he argues. 

“Nobody does,” Dex counters instantly. “I don’t either.” That’s life, he thinks. He learnt to deal with that a very long time ago. 

“I can tell,” Nursey says coldly, “when you stand in the corner of the room and every time I bring up anything remotely non-heterosexual I can see your fists shaking with barely contained anger.”

The comment almost doubles Dex over. It’s the opposite of being found out, really, but it still feels like being exposed. It feels like somebody has tattooed his biggest fears on his forehead for all to see.  

Maybe he is a homophobe. He seems to hate himself enough most of the time, Dex thinks.

“Speak like a normal fucking person,” Dex hisses after he realises it’s been too long since he last spoke. He hates when Nursey turns up the English major to make him feel stupid. It’s an easy comeback to make. 

Nursey’s eyes flash. “You’re a homophobe,” he snaps. “Normal enough for you? Easier to understand? Shall I write it down?”

Dex balls his hands into fists. He’s going to either punch Nursey or be sick.

“What did your Republican family say when you got accepted into Samwell?” Nursey asks spitefully. “There’s gay people here, Dex. Scary.”

“Boys!” Bitty interrupts shrilly. Maybe he feels the argument’s gotten too far - Dex would say that happened a while ago. Maybe it just hits a bit too close to home. 

He snaps out of his haze for a second to see everyone staring at them, paused in eating their meal, stunned. 

As anger still swirls in his chest, joined by something worse, something nauseating, he flicks a quick glance at everyone else. Ransom’s eyes are bugging out of his head, Lardo’s hand is hovering over her plate, and Chowder looks like he’s about to cry. Jack is levelling him with a very hard stare. All of them are judging he and Nursey. Judging him. 

He storms out and slams the door behind him. Nobody follows. 

 

*

 

So, Dex likes boys. It’s not a totally new development; if Dex is honest with himself, he would say he’s known for a while. If he’s being pedantic, he’d say it’s all Nursey’s fault, forcing him to think about things. 

It’s not a big deal. It would be, if he ever said it out loud, or if it only existed outside his head. It never has, though, and it never will.

Sometimes he imagines what it would be like to go home one day with a guy, and have his mom welcome them with open arms and sit them down to dinner and ask about their days. He knows it’s unrealistic, but it’s difficult not to daydream. 

He knows what happens to gay kids back home. He’s seen people bullied at school, kids not even confirmed to be anything other than entirely heterosexual. Kids that have a slightly higher voice or wear a pink shirt once or show no interest in dating anyone at all. It disgusts him, and it scares him shitless.

He knows what people think of him when they see the Republican sticker on his laptop, especially at a campus like Samwell’s. Maybe he’s protecting himself. If people see him like that, the chances of anybody knowing he’s - well, not straight - are slim. The angry side effects are just that. Side effects. He has to deal with them the same way he deals with everything else. 

It’s shit. But it’s shit he can put up with.

He can imagine the cold look he would get from his dad if he came out. The tears that would brim in his mom’s eyes if she learned what Dex had been hiding from her. They would ignore it, pretend it never happened, pretend it wasn’t real. Pretend that next time they see him, he’ll walk in with a pretty girl who minds her p’s and q’s and they can see slotting perfectly into their family with no questions asked. 

Dex has always thought he might as well do the same. 

 

*

 

(22:41) Bitty:  hot chocolate

The lack of punctuation or explanation in Bitty’s text tells Dex all he needs to know. He knows Bitty is upset and disappointed. 

Bitty’s really the last person Dex wants to talk to right now, which means he’s probably the person Dex should talk to the most. He sets off for the Haus just as it starts to rain. 

Water drips off the hood of Dex’s sweater as he stands on the porch. He doesn’t own an umbrella, and he’s soaking wet from the walk, but he’s there. He’s going to try.

He can smell Bitty’s hot chocolate as soon as he opens the door. There’s nobody downstairs; Dex thinks fleetingly that maybe Bitty asked them all to stay out of the way. Dex isn’t mad about it. It’s probably a good idea, and he doesn’t think he could deal with their disappointed faces as he walks in. Bitty is in the kitchen already, finishing off two mugs of hot chocolate with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. It occurs to Dex that he didn’t even reply to the text message, but Bitty made two mugs anyway. 

The quiet confidence that Bitty has in Dex to try, to do better, is undeserved. It makes Dex feel like he’s worth it, though, and he steps into the kitchen without a look back behind him. 

Bitty’s face doesn’t light up when he sees Dex like it often does, but he does smile, looking tired, and push the second mug towards him. 

“Thanks,” Dex mumbles. 

“Of course, honey,” Bitty says. He washes his hands and then sits down opposite Dex and doesn’t speak. 

Dex takes a sip of his hot chocolate for something to do. Bitty still says nothing, but Dex doesn’t feel awkward like he feels he should. He takes a deep breath. 

“I’m an asshole,” Dex admits. Bitty blinks at him a few times, looking surprised at Dex’s bluntness, but doesn’t answer, so Dex barrels on. “I spend most of my time with other people trying not to speak in case I say the wrong thing.”

He doesn’t say anything else after that, his heartbeat fast. This feels dangerous, he thinks. If he’d said any of this at home, opened up like he is now - well, he doesn’t want to think about it. 

“My mama used to say that the first thing that comes to mind is what you’ve been conditioned to think,” Bitty says absently, swirling his finger in his whipped cream. “The first thing you say says more about the person you are.”

Dex nods. He’s heard that somewhere too. “I guess,” he says, “but I feel like blaming what I think on my parents is just an excuse.”

“What do they think?” Bitty asks. Dex’s gaze flicks up at him. “Lay it on me,” Bitty says, looking partly amused. “I’ve heard it all before.”

“They’re not horrible people,” says Dex. “They’re just... conservative.”

Bitty nods. “I get that.”

“I think they’re the kind of people that you read about on the news,” Dex admits. “The ones that would rather sit by and do nothing than do something right.”

“Hypothetically,” Bitty says, “if you were to take me to visit them, and tell them I was gay, what would they say?”

Dex sucks in a quick breath, which probably says more than he wants it to. “They wouldn’t kick you out, or anything,” he says. “They’re not as bad as some people are. They would probably ignore it, and pretend you weren’t.”

Bitty doesn’t say anything. Dex has probably said the wrong thing. He knows he’s wrong for defending them, for speaking about them like they’re not that bad. He can’t help it. 

“They don’t think that kind of stuff is real,” Dex says. “They see it on the television and talk about it like it only happens in other places. Like it’s weird and foreign and, they just can’t understand it.”

“But they’re not nice about it,” Bitty adds, because they’re both thinking it. 

“No,” Dex says. “They aren’t.”

“What about if you took Ransom home?” Bitty asks. “Or Nursey?”

Dex blanches slightly. “Probably the same,” he says, which isn’t enough, but Dex can’t bring himself to think about it. He’s allowed himself, maybe a couple times, to think about taking Nursey home.

“Hmm,” Bitty nods and takes a heavy drink from his mug. He definitely notices Dex’s unsubtle flinch, but he doesn’t bring it up. “I see.”

“I don’t know what to do,” admits Dex. “I’m... lost.”

Bitty hums again. “I think you should apologise to Nursey, first.”

“Oh,” Dex breathes, because that’s the most stupidly obvious thing, and yet he didn’t think of it at all. “Yeah. Of course.”

 

*

 

Dex catches Nursey that evening. He doesn’t want to stew in his conversation with Bitty for any longer, and Bitty retires to his room early with a very purposeful look over at Dex.

Nursey returns to the Haus at 11:30pm, casts one look at Dex alone on the porch and goes to move past him without a word. Fair enough, Dex thinks. It’s not like Dex has given Nursey many reasons to like him.  

“Nurse!” he says, “wait!”

Dex doesn’t really expect him to pause at all, but Nursey looks so surprised that he stops in his tracks, hand stalled over the door handle. 

“What do you want?” Nursey says, not warmly. Dex lets it go. 

“Can you just... maybe sit down?” Dex asks him. The surprise stays on Nursey’s face and he doesn’t move. “Please?” Dex adds. 

It takes an awkwardly long stretch of time for Nursey to make up his mind, but it’s a huge flush of relief when Nursey finally sits down next to him, albeit not close. It’s quiet for a minute.

“I’m sorry,” Dex says, simple and easy like it didn’t take all of his energy and a massive hit to his pride to say it. 

Nursey doesn’t say anything. 

Dex just carries on. “I’m not sure why I get so angry all the time,” he says, and then backtracks. “No, wait. I don’t - that’s an excuse.”

He never speaks like this. He never lets his words flow out like it takes no effort at all. He barely even spoke when he was at home, never contributed full sentences to family conversations. He spoke to his sisters, sure, but never really about anything that matters.

He sighs. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”

Nursey snorts, then frowns like it was an accident. “Nobody does, Poindexter.” It’s too similar to their fight to be a comfortable topic, but Dex needs to get it out there. 

“I really don’t know,” Dex says. “I never do anything right.”

“Hmm.” Nursey scuffs up the ground a little with his heel. 

“I’m definitely not a good person,” Dex admits, and it hurts but it feels good, too, because for the first time he’s saying it out loud rather than thinking it to himself. 

“Oh,” Nursey sighs. He starts speaking like it pains him to do so. “Dex, you’re not -“

Don’t,” Dex interrupts, “don’t try to defend me. I know I’m not.”

Nursey tries again. “You’re not a bad person,” he says. He sounds like he means it, even if they don’t get along. “You just have moments. Lots of... moments.”

“Hah,” Dex laughs unkindly, self-deprecating. Nursey quirks an eyebrow, looking slightly amused despite himself. “That’s a very understanding way of putting it,” Dex says. Nursey shrugs, nonchalant, unaware of the nervous backflips happening in Dex’s chest.

“There’s not much point in me shitting on you, dude,”  he says. “That’s not gonna help.”

Dex’s hand stills where it’s tapping on the ground. “...Help?” he asks, tentatively. 

Nursey looks sympathetic, and the expression looks so foreign on his face that Dex immediately feels like he’s said the wrong thing. “You’re trying to change, Dex,” Nursey says. “I can’t do it for you. We’re not gonna Pygmalion you. This shit’s about you, but I’m also not going to make it hard for you on purpose. Not if you actually mean it.”

“Okay,” Dex says, softly. He’s not sure what Pygmalion means. 

“Chill,” Nursey says, and Dex glares at him for a second before catching himself. He looks back down at his feet and rests his chin on his knees. 

“I’m sorry,” he adds, repeating it because he feels like he needs to.

With a fleeting huff of air that sounds almost like laughter, Nursey grabs his bag from beside him, stands up and leaves. For the first time, that eternally raging defensive fire inside Dex, the one he’s so scared of letting take over, fades a little.

 

*

 

Dex has had panic attacks before, he thinks. He has Google - he knows the concept. The first time it happened his mom told him to stop making such a scene, and the fourth time his dad told him to man up. 

This is the first panic attack that Dex hasn’t had to lock himself in a bathroom and be as silent as he can. It’s the same this time - Dex feels like his chest is about to burst. He folds in on himself, breathing heavily, gasping for air.

Instead of locking himself in the bathroom, Dex sits down on the Haus’ kitchen floor and lets himself cry. He hears noises from upstairs, but he doesn’t know what they are, and he can’t bring himself to listen. He could, in theory, get somebody to help him. Maybe that’s what people do.

“Dex?” comes the noise. 

He doesn’t want to drag anyone into it. Dex’s phone chimes in his pocket but the vibration can’t pull him from his panicked thoughts. He holds his shaking hands up to his face and tries to breathe. 

The light switch is flicked on and warm yellow light floods the kitchen. “Dex?” the person says again, confused. Dex ignores them.

“Shit.” Nursey drops down on his knees next to Dex, his hands hovering over him with worry. Dex is relieved to see Nursey, he knows he is, but he can’t feel it. “Fuck. Dex?”

In the middle of another deep, ragged breath, Dex tries to talk. “Panic attack,” he manages to get out before a sob rips through the back of his throat.

”Okay,” Nursey says, mostly to himself. “Okay. Right. Okay. Dex, dude, you gotta breathe, okay, I’m gonna sit, that cool?”

Dex doesn’t reply, he can’t, but Nursey sits down across from him anyway on the kitchen floor and grabs Dex’s hands in his own. Dex’s brain isn’t working well enough to register what’s happening and to protest.

“I’m gonna breathe in and out and you’re gonna breathe with me,” Nursey instructs him. “Dex, can you hear me?”

Dex nods. He watches Nursey, albeit through tears, as he breathes deeply, and tries to match the pattern with his own breathing. 

“Great,” Nursey encourages. “Okay, good. Can you feel this?”

He pinches the tips of Dex’s fingers hard. It hurts, but not enough for Dex to react. He nods, still breathing heavily.

“S’wawesome,” he says. He turns Dex’s left hand palm-up. “Right. Let me know what number I’m tracing.”

He runs his finger across Dex’s palm in sweeping motion and draws a six. Dex doesn’t respond. Eight. One. Seven. Three. Dex’s breathing slows. 

They sit in the middle of the cold kitchen floor in the soft light, Nursey tracing numbers into Dex’s left palm, Dex still curled into himself defensively. 

The first time Dex moves is when he pulls his right hand from Nursey’s to wipe his tears from his cheeks. Nursey grins lopsidedly at him.

“Decidedly not chill,” Nursey says, matter-of-fact but not insensitive.

“I hate you so much,” Dex lies.

Nursey snorts disbelievingly and drops Dex’s other hand. “Sure.”

Dex doesn’t say anything - not thank you, like he probably should, but Nursey doesn’t call him out on it. He’s grateful. 

“Why are you hiding out in here?” Nursey asks, tentatively, like he hasn’t just been holding Dex’s hands and dancing his fingers across his palms. 

It takes Dex a minute to answer. “I’m not sure,” he says. It’s a lie.

The slight furrow in Nursey’s brow tells Dex he knows it, too. “You know Bitty would jump straight up to help, bro,” Nursey says, and Dex hates that he’s that transparent these days. “He’s in his room,” Nursey adds. 

“He shouldn’t have to,” Dex says. “It’s not his problem.”

The look Nursey gives him is indecipherable. “It isn’t anybody’s problem,” he snaps. He seems to realise, after a second, how frustrated his words sound, and forces himself to settle. “Anyone in the Haus would help, Dex. You know that.”

“I don’t -“ Dex catches himself. “I’ve never...”

Nursey doesn’t wait for Dex to find the words. “Just because everybody back home is an asshole, it doesn’t mean everyone here is, too,” he says.

That defensive fire ignites in Dex again, the kind that he knows has been conditioned for him to feel, and is face instantly contorts into a glare. His hands jump up reflexively but Nursey grabs them and pushes them back down.

“Don’t,” he says, and Dex doesn’t.

He does, however, take a deep ragged breath, and decides, fuck it. He’ll trust Nursey with a rare moment of honesty. “I keep thinking I can deal with all of my - all this shit on my own.”

Nursey’s eyes flash with something odd and unrecognisable. “Yeah, but you don’t have to, you idiot,” he says.

“I know,” Dex snaps without thinking. “I know,” he tries again, softer. “I’m not used to that. I don’t know how to ask for anything.”

“You don’t have to,” says Nursey. “You can just let people in. You let me in today. Not really out of choice, I guess, but still. It’s easier if you don’t do it on your own.”

Dex sits on that for a moment in silence. He’s always hated pity, something driven into him time and time again by his parents. Somehow this doesn’t feel like pity. This feels like caring. Dex knows it’s bad that he’s never really felt that for real.

“I don’t want everyone to think I’m gonna shatter,” he explains, quiet and soft, like it’s a secret. “I’m not like glass.”

Nursey’s gaze doesn’t soften like Dex thought it might. Bitty’s would have. Nursey’s hardened expression was that of a person that knew what Dex meant - knew what it was like to have to hold yourself together for so long that it always feels like the ties are going to break. 

“No, you’re not,” Nursey says firmly. “You put up with them for so long. It’s better here.”

Dex doesn’t ask who they are, but they both know who Nursey means. Dex can see them all sitting round the dinner table, laughing and talking, like the mere thought of them doesn’t rip Dex apart from the inside. He refuses to miss it, and Nursey keeps going. 

“Even if you do shatter, you’ve got us to piece you back together. That’s what we’re here for. You don’t always have to hold it. Sometimes you can just let go,” he says, and then his determined stare melts. “You’re stronger than you think, Poindexter.”

Dex sniffs. 

“Want some tea?” Nursey asks. 

“Gross,” Dex says. Nursey stands up and flicks on the kettle, his laughter trailing behind him as he goes to pour out two mugs anyway. 

 

*

 

Dex spends the entirety of Winter Screw not talking to Nursey at all.

He’s fully aware it probably seems rude. They’re friends now, he supposes, even though it took this long to get to that point. There’s more of an ease to the way Nursey slings his arm around Dex to walk in the street and the way they sit in silence to study in the library. 

So standing in the corner, clutching his beer and trying desperately to not look in Nursey’s direction, probably looks like the opposite.

“Nursey thinks you’re ignoring him.”

Of course Chowder has noticed. He notices everything, and he’s currently standing in front of Dex with a pointed stare that looks very accusing, but in that Chowder way that makes you feel guilty.

“No, you think I’m ignoring him,” Dex corrects him. It’s true - Nursey is probably too drunk to think much at all. Dex is certain Ransom and Holster got the tub juice recipe wrong.

“Hmph,” grumbles Chowder, not appreciating being called out. “Well, you are.”

Dex doesn’t reply, because Chowder’s right, as usual. He takes another sip of his beer for something to do.

“I’d ask why, but I think I already know,” Chowder says, and this time he doesn’t look annoyed. He looks a little bit smug.

Dex feels that defensive feeling tugging on his strings again but pushes it down. Not here, he thinks. Chowder wouldn’t do anything to call him out, to push him to the edge.

“Stop,” he says, as an unwarranted warning. “Please.”

Chowder stops. He nods, squeezes Dex’s arm and leaves him to his beer. He appreciates that Chowder has learnt when to stop pushing, doesn’t want to know more than he already suspects. Perhaps he knows that Dex isn’t ready to think about it himself. 

It’s not Chowder’s fault that Dex can’t seem to hide anything from him. His poker face works on the other boys on the team, so blank that it stops them from asking questions. Bitty, maybe, can see through it a little better, but he doesn’t ask questions either. Maybe he knows what Dex is thinking - maybe he sees a little of himself in Dex. Dex hates it. At home nobody can tell. 

He’s grateful that Chowder has left him alone, but he still feels exposed, somehow. Like his thoughts are being broadcast to the entire room. Like he’s been thrown onto the cliff’s edge, balancing frantically, heart pounding in his ears. Behind him on safe ground is his family, his house, his life as he knows it; beneath him, with a fall of miles and miles, is Nursey. 

He takes a deep breath through his nose. The air feels very thin on the edge.

 

*

 

It’s not perfect. Dex resigned himself a long time ago to having a life that wasn’t perfect, but he feels this might be the closest he can get. What with him and Nursey working well together on the ice, Bitty slowly teaching him cooking and other things, too, things that feel like secrets. Time is passing without him having to think about it, and he’s understanding more and more every day. 

He and Nursey are trying, too, off the ice. It feels refreshing, not having the constant tension in the air that makes his chest tight and his hands shake. That reminds him too much of home. 

Home is slowly changing for him, too. When people asked of home he used to feel that same tension - he used to square his shoulders and talk about his family, his job on the boat, his plans for the future. 

Now when somebody mentions the word he thinks of the soft glow Betsy 2.0 gives off in the evenings, the constant but faint sound of Broadway cast albums drifting down the stairs, the smell of acrylic paint and pie mingling in the air as soon as he shuts the Haus door behind him.

It makes him feel braver. He likes that.

 

*

 

Returning to Maine after a year at Samwell is like a punch in the face.  

He doesn’t want to talk to his parents at all. Dex knows it’s wrong, but he refuses to go backwards. He feels better about himself, almost more every day, and that’s something he’s not allowed himself to do before.

His oldest sister, Rhea, meets him on the driveway when he gets to the house, arms open wide. In fact - his entire family give him short hugs, warm greetings, and it’s bizarre to Dex that whilst he’s been away learning so much, everything in his hometown has stayed exactly the same.

It’s not until he puts his laptop on the kitchen table that something shifts. The Republican sticker is gone, along with a few other random ones; in their place, the faint remnants of glue.

“Hey, you took the stickers off your laptop,” Rhea remarks. It’s an innocent enough comment, but the speed at which his mom’s head whips round to confirm it is the opposite.

“Why?” his mom asks.

She sounds less bothered than Dex knows she is. He shrugs. “I just wanted a clean laptop,” he says. His mother holds his gaze for a moment before looking away.

“Your uncle has room on the fishing boat again this year,” she says. It’s not a yes or no offer. 

“Okay,” Dex says. He’s not sure he wants to spend much time in the house this year anyway. 

“How’s your school work going?” Dex’s dad asks. It’s not like Dex expects them to ask about friends, or life outside of hockey and classes, or how he’s doing personally, but he fights the urge to sigh anyway. 

“They’re going well,” Dex says. 

“Good,” his dad nods. “You need to keep your grades up if you’re going to keep that scholarship.”

“I know, Dad,” Dex says. 

“Don’t say ‘I know’ like that,” his father says. “It’s rude.”

Dex ducks his head, cursing himself for slipping up. He’s too used to being able to say whatever he wants at Samwell - well, almost - and it’s made him lazy. “Yes, Dad.”

Seeing his two sisters and his older brother is bittersweet. Rhea and Hope sit him down to a game of Monopoly and Elijah joins them halfway through when he gets back from work. He loves his siblings, of course, with a bond only made through growing up together, but Hope teases Elijah about his fiancée and asks Dex about girlfriends and there’s something not right. Rhea lands on Dex’s Mayfair, though, and he can forget about it for now. 

Ignoring his parents in the next room, Dex can almost sit at ease. 

 

*

 

Dex returns for his sophomore year and taking his first steps back into the Haus is a huge comfort. The summer of slinging seafood around, dodging risky questions and losing at Monopoly has exhausted him more than it should. 

“We’re having a kegster tomorrow,” are Ransom’s first words to him. “Gotta drink those finals blues away before your professors start mentioning them.”

Nursey’s laughter comes from the kitchen. “Sounds great,” Dex says. “Count me in.”

“As if you have a choice,” Holster says from where he’s precariously balancing speakers in the corner of the lounge. A year ago, that would’ve choked Dex, made him feel trapped. This year he laughs it off and goes to find Bitty.

Chowder, Nursey and Bitty are all sat at the kitchen table. They greet Dex warmly as he walks in and the casual way that Chowder slings his arm around Dex’s shoulders isn’t even something he’d had in Maine with his real family.

“Hi, guys,” he says.

Nursey and Chowder look relaxed, like one should after returning from vacation. Bitty looks nothing of the sort - alert and with slight bags under his eyes, like he’s spent all summer in a similar way to Dex. Dex remembers that Bitty’s not out at home and such a strong feeling of empathy overwhelms him that he has to sit down.

“Have a nice summer, Poindexter?” Nursey asks. 

“It was okay,” Dex says. “Same as last year, really.” Except it wasn’t, because last summer he’d never been to Samwell. Last summer he’d been an entirely different person. “You?” he asks.

“Aw, it was perfect,” Nursey says, gesturing with his arms as if to illustrate his words. “We went to Europe. Did you not see it on Instagram? I posted, like, daily. You have an Instagram, right?”

“No,” says Dex, amused.

Nursey’s look of horror makes the other three laugh. “Dude, you need to get Instagram,” he says. “Purely to look at my photos alone. My account should be the only one you follow.”

“Hey!” Chowder protests. 

“Maybe you should get one, Dex,” Bitty suggests. “It’s probably a good idea to see what people are up to all summer! Team building wise, perhaps.”

Dex makes eye contact with Nursey. “Yeah, okay,” he says. “I’m not posting anything, though.”

“Boo!” Nursey choruses with an exaggerated thumbs-down.

“You don’t have to do anything,” Bitty says diplomatically, slapping Nursey’s hand lightly. “It was just a suggestion.”

“No,” Dex says. “I mean, I want to. It’s a good idea.”

“Ooh, can I set it up for you?” Chowder asks. “What username do you want?”

A day passes without Dex even realising. The Instagram app sits on his screen just under his banking app, and he finds himself tapping it. He follows everyone on the team, and Farmer sends him a follow request whilst out with Chowder that evening. Nursey had grabbed Dex’s phone and done something behind Dex’s back, and later on when Nursey posts a photo, the notification pops up on Dex’s locked screen. Dex leaves the feature on, and after a second of thought, also applies it to Chowder’s account. 

Dex knows the routine of afternoon kegster prep, slinging fairy lights around the lounge and the kitchen, Ransom and Holster scratching their heads at that dubious tub juice recipe Shitty left behind whilst Bitty bakes, somewhat frantically. It’s part and parcel of life at Samwell, particularly life in the hockey team. 

The random tidbits, too, are a comfort. He doesn’t think about it at the time, but when Bitty gets an assignment and rushes into the Haus in a whirl of panic, and people rush to help, he knows he can join in. When Ransom is studying and everyone checks on him at certain intervals to make sure he’s still okay he’s trusted to do the same. When Lardo needs models for an art assignment and everyone in the Haus thunders down the stairs to snatch up the opportunity, he laughs at them, but Lardo extends the offer to him as well. 

He likes it. He likes being part of something, knowing that whatever the outcome of the next game is, he’s always got somewhere to return to. He admits to himself that it took longer than he thought it would to fully accept that, but he‘s getting there in the end. Dex knows now that Samwell’s one in four catchphrase seems to hold up on location, and he feels safer. Like he belongs.

Not that he’s been entirely open. He spent so many years among the boys in the hockey team back home, listening to them sling around slurs, like nobody among them could possibly be anything close to what they’re obviously prejudiced against. Those years took their toll on Dex. It was easy then, to hide, but at Samwell it feels more difficult.

Maybe Dex is weird, or maybe there is more pressure to come out now he’s somewhere that would - hopefully - accept it. Back at home he could just ignore that part of him, because there was no way he was going to get anywhere near coming out. Samwell feels like a lot, and if he comes out there, he knows he can’t stay in the closet at home.

It seems easy when Ransom and Holster jokingly suggest boys to set Bitty up with, and Bitty just rolls his eyes and waves them off instead of exploding with rage. There’s other things, too: like how Nursey can stumble into the Haus the morning after a kegster in the same clothes, covered in hickeys with that stupid grin on his face, and Ransom and Holster can holler and chirp him about that boy he spent the night with.

It makes Dex feel sick - not because it’s a boy, Dex realised that wasn’t why a while ago - but because it’s so simple for Nursey. Dex doesn’t have two mothers, happily married and growing old together. He doesn’t have an artsy gay cousin with his photography displayed at the MoMA. He doesn’t live in NYC, where it seems, to Dex, that it might not matter at all who you like or who you date.

Maybe it’s time, though, he thinks. Maybe he should start being a little bit braver. 

“Bits?” he asks, knocking twice on Bitty’s bedroom door. “Do you have a minute?”

“One second, honey!” There’s a clattering and the noise of several books falling on the floor, and two minutes later Bitty swings open his door and beams at Dex. “Hey! Come in!”

Dex does as he’s told, and perches on the end of Bitty’s bed. His leg is jiggling by himself, and he can almost hear his mom telling him to stop it. He watches as Bitty casts a look at Dex’s leg, turns to his desk and throws Dex something. Dex stares down at it.

“It’s a fidget cube,” Bitty explains. 

“Oh,” says Dex. A memory of his mother ripping a stress ball from his hands and telling him to stop being childish flashes in his head.

“What did you want to talk to me about?” Bitty asks, and Dex is so relieved he doesn’t carry on talking about the fidget cube. He sits down on his desk chair with one leg up.

Dex doesn’t say anything for a minute, absently clicking the switch on the top of the fidget cube. Thoughts whir in his head, a mile a minute like always. Bitty just watches him, waiting for him to talk but not even moving. Dex shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“I’m gay,” he says quietly. 

It hangs in the air for a second and Dex’s heart drops into his shoes as Bitty doesn’t say anything. Dex looks up at him, and Bitty’s beaming. 

“Oh, Dex,” he says. He sounds genuinely happy.

“I’ve known for ages,” Dex barrels on. “Even at home I knew, I think.”

“Why now, then?” Bitty asks, his chin resting on his knee. 

Dex sighs. He’s so unsure on how to do all this. “I think it sounds shitty, maybe, but... I’m just - sick of people thinking I’m an asshole.”

“Nobody thinks you’re an asshole, Dex,” Bitty says reasonably. “You just say the wrong thing sometimes. I don’t think you really think before you speak.” 

“I know I don’t,” Dex admits. “The whole team thinks I’m homophobic. I don’t know how to act around everyone. I’m sick of everyone thinking I’m terrible because I don’t know how to function properly.”

“That’s okay, though,” Bitty says. He speaks so well on the topic. He knows all this, yet Dex can’t help but think he hasn’t necessarily applied all of this to himself - especially concerning coming out at home. “Their opinion of you shouldn’t force you out if you aren’t ready.”

“I am ready,” Dex says, so quick to respond that the words tumble and trip over each other. “I’m so ready. I want people to know.”

Bitty nods, and then smiles at him, so warm it makes something shift inside Dex. Maybe it’s that defensive fire out, once and for all. Dex doesn’t even think about it. 

“Well, I’m happy you could trust me,” Bitty says, looking at him thoughtfully, “and Dex?”

“Hmm?”

“It’s such a relief to me that you feel comfortable enough around this team for them to know this about you,” Bitty says earnestly. “You’re opening up. It’s lovely to see.”

Dex doesn’t answer and looks back down at the fidget cube. Bitty doesn’t press him, but the fact that Dex’s ears begin to go red is enough of an answer on its own.

 

*

 

It’s about a week later when Chowder texts Dex.

(23:37) Chowder:  Can you run by and check on nursey please? X

Dex texts him a quick yeah, okay, even though he has no idea why he of all people is being asked to do it. Surely he’s not the right person for the job, but he does it anyway. He’s trying. 

He drops by the Murder Stop-N-Shop first, buying a bag of chips and some popcorn, before setting off to Nursey’s dorm. He stops in front of the door and knocks, three sharp raps with his knuckles. 

There’s no answer.

“Nurse?” Dex calls through the door. “I have chips.”

“It’s open,” Dex hears faintly from the other side. Dex feels weird about letting himself in, but he does so anyway, and Nursey is lying on his bed bundled up in his duvet. 

Dex blinks at him. “Are you cold?”

“No,” Nursey says. 

“Chowder asked me to come and check on you,” Dex tells him. “I think he’s in class.”

Nursey doesn’t reply. Dex throws the grocery bag onto his bed. 

“Do you not want to open a window in here?” Dex asks. “It’s so warm.”

“I can’t be bothered to get up,” Nursey admits. Dex crosses the room and opens the window for him without asking. Nursey doesn’t protest. “Why did Chowder ask you to check on me?” asks Nursey.

The shrug that Dex does is automatic. “I really don’t know.”

Quiet falls over both of them as Dex finishes putting the window latch on and stuffs his hands into his pockets. 

“I’m depressed,” Nursey says, and it sounds like too simple a statement for such a complex thing. 

“Oh,” says Dex.

Nursey falls silent again. Dex supposes he hasn’t really offered anything worth replying to, so he rips open the bag of chips and eats one.

“I saw you panic, now you’ve seen me depressed,” Nursey says. “An eye for an eye.”

“Shut up, Nursey,” Dex says without any bite, and it’s weird how the defense inside isn’t defending him this time. “Nobody wants to see you like this. Least of all me.”

Nursey pulls down the duvet a little and eyes him curiously. “Why not you?”

Dex ignores him and hovers over Nursey’s kettle. “Tea?” he asks, and without waiting for a reply he flicks the kettle on. He’ll never understand Nursey’s dumb obsession with tea.

“Is it magic tea?” Nursey teases in monotone. He’s still buried half under the blanket, despite the warmth in the room. Dex can feel the breeze coming in through the window now, though.

“I don’t know. Is it?” Dex counters, studying the box. 

Nursey snorts at Dex’s quick deflection. His eyes flick back up to the ceiling. “It’s never cured my depression, so I doubt it,” he says, nonchalant. 

“I’m not an expert, but I’m pretty sure you can’t just cure depression,” says Dex.

Nursey just shrugs at him and continues staring at the ceiling. 

Dex sighs. He can’t avoid it, and he doesn’t want to either. “I don’t know anything about this, Nursey. I can’t - I can’t help you,” he says. “If you need it. I can’t be that person for you.”

“Do you want to be?” Nursey asks. Dex doesn’t reply, and he can feel his skin crawl with a million unanswered questions. 

They let a silence settle between them for a few minutes, the only sound the kettle boiling, somehow way too loud. Dex feels terrible that he can’t just - talk, like a normal person. 

“I think your shattering like glass thing is a good way to describe it,” explains Nursey, once it’s clear he’s not going to get a response from Dex. “I feel like somebody’s been hitting me, with a sledgehammer, and I’m one hit away from being smashed into a million tiny pieces.”

Dex knows exactly what Nursey is talking about. The glass in Dex’s windows had been smashed into smithereens years ago, but he understands the metaphor. He’s on the same cliff’s edge, breathing the same thin air. 

Dex’s lungs hurt. 

He shakes his head. “Glass is a bit of a predictable metaphor.” He doesn’t know why he’s saying it at all, but it clears his breathing slightly. 

Nursey laughs stonily. “You used it first, bro.”

“Yeah, but I’m not an English major,” Dex says as the kettle flicks off and he pours out the water. “You’re more like - I dunno. Something more descriptive. Stained glass.”

“Stained glass,” Nursey echoes quietly. He laughs again, and it sounds more real this time. “I like it. Yeah. Poetic. Maybe you should switch to English.”

“Nah,” says Dex. “Then you wouldn’t be top of the class any more.”

“We can’t have that,” Nursey says. He kicks off the blanket and it looks like it takes a lot of effort, but he smiles at Dex weakly. “Is that tea ready yet?”

 

*

 

Bitty sits Dex, Chowder and Nursey down on the questionable green couch at lunchtime on a Tuesday and starts to pace in front of them.

Chowder looks across Nursey at Dex, confused, and Dex just shrugs. He certainly spends a lot of time with Bitty, just talking, but this is new. Nursey clears his throat beside Dex like he’s about to say something. 

Bitty gets there first. “Jack and I are dating.”

“Woah!” Chowder says, throwing his arms out in delight and hitting Nursey in the chest. “You and Jack?”

“Ow,” Nursey says, wheezing slightly, “cool!”

“Wow,” Dex breathes. 

Chowder bounds up, launches his arms around Bitty and squeezes him tight. Nursey stands up, pushing himself off Dex’s shoulder, and does the same. 

“That’s awesome, Bits,” he says. 

Bitty beams at them. “Really?” his eyes slide over to Dex.

“Really,” Dex confirms. He gets up and gives Bitty a hug as well. “It’s amazing.”

It makes total sense once it’s confirmed for them. Of course they’re dating. It surfaces that Shitty, Lardo, Ransom and Holster already knew, and Dex isn’t totally surprised. Bitty went to Providence so much it was silly to think otherwise. 

After their confession, it only takes Jack and Bitty a few days to adjust to not being totally private. Dex watches out of the corner of his eye when Jack hesitates, just for a fraction of a second, before pulling Bitty into an embrace. Bitty has no such hesitation: it’s like second nature for him, using pet names and gently chirping his boyfriend to calls of “Fine!” and the jingling of coins in the Sin Bin. It’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t like that. He envies the easy way Jack can drop kisses on the top of Bitty’s head in the sanctity of the Haus. 

Dex gets a quiet, pie-tasting moment with Bitty after Jack leaves for the airport a week later. “If I’m being honest,” Bitty tells him. “I don’t think I’d have said anything if you hadn’t come out to me.”

Fork mid-way to his mouth, Dex stares at him in disbelief. “What?”

Bitty laughs. “You knocking on my door one evening and telling me outright was very brave, Dex,” he explains. “I haven’t been brave in a while. I phoned Jack five minutes after you left.”

“Oh,” Dex says bluntly, because apart from that he’s speechless. Bitty laughs again and checks his phone.

“I need to go to class,” he says. “I’ll see you later?”

“Of course,” Dex says, and as Bitty leaves with a relaxed smile, Dex is left to his thoughts.

He thinks he can identify the niggling feeling in his chest as jealousy. He’s insanely happy for Bitty and Jack, but he wants the knowledge that they have - they’re accepted and loved. He knows it’s dumb; if they were to come out publicly, who knows what the backlash would be. They’re not totally safe either, and Jack’s in the NHL, for God’s sake. There’s always going to be idiots in institutions like that, and some of the so-called NHL fans can be ruthless.

Dex is fully aware. Yet somehow, when he can watch them laugh and dance to Beyoncé in the kitchen and look at one another with stars in their eyes, Dex realises that stuff doesn’t matter. They can overcome anything if they do it together. Dex wants that.

 

*

 

Unsurprisingly, the newfound willingness Dex has to make himself better also translates into hockey.

He’d always thought he could do this on his own. Never mind the fact that hockey is a team sport; at high school, he’d gotten by and gotten good by trying as hard as he could to apply himself to everything. It never occurred to him that applying himself to liking the team also made an effect.

The effect, of course, is incredible. Although he and Nursey are awkwardly attempting civility outside Faber, working out boundaries, on the ice it’s a different story. 

They’re like one and the same. Dex knows what Nursey’s about to do before he does it. They’re lightning-fast and they’re really good. Ransom and Holster are so relieved they don’t have to deal with what Jack did, last year, that they aren’t stingy with their praise. Dex doesn’t think he’s ever been in such a positive space as Faber after a practice. 

Obviously, there’s things to work on. There are teams so much better than theirs, but Dex is determined and he knows Ransom and Holster are too. 

“Great practice, guys,” Ransom gushes in the locker room afterwards. “We’ll write up some notes and speak to Hall and Murray.”

“Sounds good,” Dex says. He’s so exhausted he sits for a minute before undressing. 

“Dex and Nursey?” Holster says, and the two of them look up, Nursey stumbling where he’s taking off his socks. “You two were great today. Same again tomorrow, please.”

Nursey flicks him a salute and Dex nods, and Holster winks at them before retiring to the showers.

“Look at us,” Nursey says with a dramatic sigh. He throws his dirty socks into his bag and they disappear, maybe never to be seen again. “Playing hockey. Doing it well.”

Dex rolls his eyes. “It’s almost like we’re in a Division I collegiate ice hockey team,” he says dryly. 

“Who’d have thought it?” Nurseys carries on almost as if Dex hadn’t spoken. 

“You’re an idiot,” Dex tells him.

Nursey puts a hand to his head and fake swoons, still ignoring him but clearly putting on a show. Dex snorts and pulls off his shirt.

 

*

 

The thing is about being open, is that Dex can’t do it selectively. Now Bitty knows, Dex needs everybody else to as well. Stepping out of the closet once felt wonderful - doing it again, Dex assumes, must feel the same.

“I need to talk to you,” Dex says, sitting down in front of Nursey in the library.

Nursey puts his finger to his lips with a twinkle in his eye. “No talking in the library,” he whispers theatrically. 

Dex looks around. There’s a couple of soccer girls behind him, bent over their notebooks studiously. Behind Nursey there’s a guy twirling his pen expertly, but apart from that the library is pretty empty.

“I really need to talk to you,” Dex reiterates, not smiling. 

“Okay,” Nursey says, his own smile fading, obviously realising Dex means business. “Um. Gimme a sec.”

He packs up his books as Dex waits, not patiently, flicking his leg. He watches Nursey’s face, his hands, his movements, for a second, before tearing his eyes away. 

“You okay, dude?” Nursey asks.

Dex doesn’t answer. They start walking out of the library, shoulder to shoulder. Nursey leads them to a bench by Samwell River and sits. Dex follows suit. 

“Okay, shoot,” Nursey says. “Hit me.”

It’s so different from the way Bitty sat across from Dex and let him open up in his own time. Nursey doesn’t push him into talking, but his wide eyes and leaning stance show Dex he’s not being patient.. Dex has never had this many people that he trusts so openly, that allow him to be better in such different ways.

“I’m gay,” Dex says - simple, just like he did with Bitty. The same rush of relief follows, but he doesn’t let Nursey react this time. “I’m sick of people seeing me as some shitty guy, I don’t - I have no idea how to act.”

“Woah, Dex, bro,” Nursey says when Dex doesn’t say anything else.

“Yeah,” Dex says.

“Not to be like... straight, but how long have you known?” Nursey asks tentatively.

Dex laughs. He sounds more scared than amused. “Oh, fuck, forever,” he says. “Since always, I think. I didn’t even think about it at home. No point.”

“That’s shit,” admits Nursey.

“Yeah,” says Dex.

“I’m glad you can trust me, dude,” Nursey bumps his shoulder to Dex’s and Dex tries not to overbalance. “Look how far we’ve come.”

Dex nods. “Yeah,” he repeats. “I never even - I didn’t want to think about it at all until I got to Samwell. It’s not the same back at... well. In Maine.”

“It’s good, right?” Nursey nods. “It’s like a different world out here.”

“The people here are so, uh, nice,” Dex continues. “I’m not really, um. I’m not used to that.”

Nursey sighs, his gaze soft and pitying. It strikes Dex that he really doesn’t mind that expression on Nursey. A while ago he would’ve thrown a punch. It’s odd how much he’s changed without even noticing. 

“I want to tell everyone else,” Dex says firmly. 

“Oh!” Nursey says, and he sounds genuinely surprised. His features light up. Dex is still not used to surprising people in a good way. “Yeah, dude. That’s awesome. Whatever you want.”

Dex laughs at him quietly. “Thanks for, I dunno. Being so nice about it.”

Nursey rolls his eyes dramatically, and Dex is reminded of what Nursey is like as a person. Worry can distort one’s expectations, but Dex realises he’d never expected Nursey to treat him any differently. “Like I’d be a huge dick about it, Poindexter.” 

“Yeah, I know,” Dex says. “I’m just... shit at words. It means a lot that you - like, you specifically. Are so nice about it. Just you.”

Maybe it’s too risky, but Dex isn’t thinking about the words that are coming out of his mouth. It’s been a while since he can just - talk, without having to guard his words in conversations. Without tiptoeing around things. It’s for the best.

“Oh,” Nursey says again, softer this time, still kind of surprised. 

“Don’t say anything,” Dex says before Nursey can run off on some long spiel about feelings and self discovery, or even worse, reject him outright. Dex isn’t sure he’d live with that embarrassment, even if he’s not said anything overly incriminating. 

Nursey cocks his head at him, smiling somewhat mischievously. “What if I want to say something, though?” 

“You say stuff all the time.” Dex smiles. It’s little, but it’s a genuine smile. “Just don’t do that for a minute.”

The laugh that erupts out of Nursey makes Dex jump. He doesn’t say anything else, though, but sinks in his chair and rests his head on Dex’s shoulder. Dex ignores the way his heart rate shoots up or how his arm tingles softly. 

It’s very quiet. Dex can hear the faint noises of life at Samwell echo around them. 

 

*

 

Coming out is exhausting, in Dex’s opinion. He’s not sure where he’d heard it, but he does know that once you decide to take that first step out of the closet, you have to come out over and over again. His previous assumptions were right - it does feel more reassuring each time - but that doesn’t mean it takes no toll.

Bitty and Nursey had been fine. Emotional and slightly traumatic, definitely embarrassing, but fine. The team, on the other hand, are terrifying. 

A lot of he and Nursey’s arguments are based around sexuality. Religion, wealth, race and politics always factor in somehow too. Revealing that he’s the opposite of a huge homophobe is a huge sigh of relief, but also, it’s nerve-wracking.  

Dex had thought about having the conversation in the locker room, but it felt weird. Too open. He knows none of the teammates would be odd about it - maybe because it’s him, perhaps, and such a drastic change in their opinions of him might be a shock. None of them has ever given Bitty grief for being gay, though, and Nursey and Jack aren’t straight either. 

So he gathers them in the lounge. Ransom and Holster sit entwined on the armchair, Chowder, Lardo, Shitty, and Jack all on the green couch. Bitty and Nursey stand behind them with thumbs-ups and looks of encouragement, respectively. He doesn’t feel the need for the Tadpoles to know from him, not just yet, anyway.

Dex scratches his elbow awkwardly. “Um, hi,” he says. Ransom raises an eyebrow. “Look, I’m shit at this kind of thing,” Dex says, “but I wanted to say something. Uh, control how it gets out.”

Chowder looks from Dex to Bitty to Nursey. “How what gets out?” he says. Dex can see his brain working double time, theories whirling behind his eyes. 

A big breath in, a big breath out. 

“I’m gay,” Dex says, and the room is deadly silent. 

It was silent before, but now the weight of Dex’s words hang in the air and everyone can feel them. The ferocity of Chowder’s grin almost splits his face in half but he manages to stay put on the couch, for now. Dex has more to say. 

“I wanted to apologise,” he says. “I know I’ve said some shitty stuff. I’ve been terrified for a really long time,” he glances over the couch and locks eyes with Nursey, “but I’m learning.”

Ransom shakes his head, overwhelmed. “Bro...” he trails off, speechless, but smiling. 

“Sorry it took so long,” Dex finishes. 

“We’re really proud of you, Poindexter,” Holster says loudly, and the others chorus their agreement. 

Chowder finally bounds up on the balls of his feet and throws his arms around Dex, squeezing tightly. Dex doesn’t feel like he’s falling apart anymore, but if he ever does again he knows these hugs will help hold him together. Not just those, either, but the way Ransom and Holster sling their arms around him and rub his shoulders, the way Lardo winks at him, the way Bitty grins and wipes a tear from his eye. The way Dex looks up at Nursey and for once, Nursey’s eyes are on him, smiling back. 

These are the people Dex can trust with anything. The people Dex knows will greet any of his future partners with just as much respect and warmth than any imaginary girls with good manners.

The thought makes him feel sick with relief. 

 

*

 

He calls his parents. It goes badly, of course, but Dex isn’t expecting much else. It’s almost a relief to know he was right. Not quite, but almost. 

As soon as he gets the two words out, his mother is ready with solutions, ideas for help, girls to set him up with instead. He counts to ten and puts the phone down on her, mid-sentence, without another word. 

He doesn’t even bother to ask what his father’s reaction is. He doesn’t want to know and he doesn’t care. 

Chowder’s bear hugs are like bandaids, Bitty’s pies like stitches, Nursey’s soft, encouraging smile like anaesthetic. Bitty helps him apply for a bank loan to go alongside his scholarship - he’s not sure if his parents will cut him off, but it wouldn’t surprise him if they did. It shocks him to know that he doesn’t care either way. Last year it would have felt like the end of the world. It’ll take him longer to pay off, sure, but he finds himself struggling to care.

He can do this, he thinks. He’s not sure why he ever thought it was a bad idea. He thinks back to a few months ago, when the idea of settling down with a nice girl and forgetting he’s gay wasn’t pushed totally out of his mind. 

As Dex finishes the application, Nursey flashes him a grin again over his mug, bright and wide. Dex’s chest flutters and he banishes that imaginary smiling girl, with the future she holds, out of his head for good. 

It feels like a breath of fresh air. Dex can’t believe how far he’s come. 

 

*

 

“I don’t get it,” wails Bitty. “I don’t think I understand any French, ever.”

Nursey laughs. They’re sitting in the kitchen. It’s eleven in the evening, and they’ve decided to sit together and study. Dex would never have done it a couple of months ago, but it feels nice. Comfortable. 

“We is too informal,” Nursey points at Bitty’s French paper. “You need to use nous, really. Nous avons.”

“I hate this damn subject,” Bitty mutters darkly but corrects his mistake anyway. 

Dex sits across from them, his Comp Sci notes neatly stacked in front of him. “Should’ve got your parents to get you a languages tutor, Bits,” he says. 

“Ha ha,” Nursey says sarcastically with a roll of his eyes. He’s told them many tales of his childhood languages tutor that contributed to his pansexual awakening. “Funny.”

“Mmm hmm,” Dex says.

The last week had been surprisingly normal. Dex didn’t have a huge black cloud hanging over him like he used to, but life went on. The schedule was the same. Practice and classes were the same. The only difference is Dex can smile a little wider and breathe a lot easier. 

“I can put some music on, if it helps,” Nursey suggests to Bitty. “Different study methods help different people.”

“You’d have thought I’d have found which ones help me by now,” Bitty sighs, and then waves his hand dismissively. “Go at it, then.”

Nursey’s eyes light up and in turn so does Dex’s chest.

Dex had received a text from Rhea: a love you lots, bro. It’s not much, but it’s a feeble tie to the home once Dex knew, and it’s a relief to know Maine isn’t full of bigots. He didn’t used to like thinking of the people Dex grew up with, grew up respecting, hating him. He’s glad to know he was wrong. 

He supposes Elijah thinks the same way his parents do by now. He prays Hope doesn’t follow in his footsteps, although she’s not really old enough to know. 

“Who’s hooked up to Debbie?” Nursey asks, referring to the Bluetooth speaker resting on top of the microwave. He and Bitty eye it. “It’s not me,” he adds after a beat. 

“Me,” Dex volunteers, abandoning all thoughts of his brother. “Holster made a coming out playlist on my phone the other day. I was forced to play it out loud at dinner.”

“Oh, yeah,” Nursey says, a laugh in his eyes as he remembers. He eyes Dex’s phone as it rests on the table in front of him. Dex doesn’t give him express permission to take his phone, but he doesn’t put it away, either. 

Bitty shakes his head disappointedly and uncaps his highlighter. “There was not enough 90s pop on that playlist.”

“There was quite enough,” Dex counters, raising his hand aloft in a stopping gesture. Bitty laughs.

“Let me see!” Nursey snatches Dex’s phone up from the table and thumbs through the Music app, and he does it so comfortably that Dex almost reaches across the table and hugs him. It’s crazy, Dex thinks, that they’ve managed to salvage their fierce rivalry into something delicate, but it’s there. 

“You have four ABBA albums saved to your phone and you thought you were straight?” Nursey snorts, interrupting Dex’s introspection. “Jesus H. Christ.”

Dex snatches his phone back from Nursey and pockets it, cheeks warming rapidly. “Shut up,” he says without meaning it. 

He likes this, he thinks, as Bitty giggles. The gentle teasing that feels more like acceptance than alienation. 

Nursey sticks his tongue out cheekily. It takes all of Dex’s willpower to drag his eyes from Nursey’s amused mouth. “What’s your favourite?” he asks. “Mine’s Fernando.”

The Winner Takes It All, if you must know,” Dex says, all bark but no bite, and Nursey’s face lights up with joy. Bitty snorts loudly with unabashed laughter as he underlines something twice on his French paper. 

Dex knows that if he goes upstairs and pushes Bitty’s door open, there’s two ABBA posters on the wall, between one of his several Beyoncé posters and the signed Falconers jersey. Dex knows that at least one of Holster’s playlists boasts the entirety of ABBA Gold. Dex knows that Ransom frequently belts Chiquita in the locker room showers after practice, as the rest of the team both laugh and join in with a deafening harmony.

This is acceptance, Dex confirms to himself. This is what it feels like to belong.