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in front of the same small bathroom mirror

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Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space...shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them!”

Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

 

 

The first six or so hours of cohabitation actually go okay.

 

Dex has spent most of the summer at the Haus, which has been a blessing in more ways than he’d expected. It’s been surprisingly quiet--Bitty’s at Jack’s, now with a security team that sometimes puts a bit of a tense edge to his smile, and Chowder’s home for the summer. Ollie and Wicks had shown up for a whirlwind two weeks in late June, redecorated the attic, and disappeared just as quickly as they’d arrived.

 

(Dex had poked his head once in out of curiosity and made an immediate decision not to ask questions. The chandelier is pretty cool, though.)

 

He and Nursey haven’t spoken much one-on-one since the end of spring semester and the clusterfuck of their flip for Lardo’s--now their--room. Obviously they’ve hung out--they’d gone to all the graduation kegsters together, Dex has pictures of them grinning together with Chowder between them; and of course there had been the Falconers’ Cup run and the madness that had come out of that. But not just the two of them, and not a real conversation.

 

It’s not that Dex doesn’t know that they need to talk--to really talk. He’s not an idiot. But they’ve never been good at it, and the coiled lines of tension that have been taut between them since the Flip have only tightened the longer the silence has gone on.

 

(The closest they’ve gotten to a casual interaction was when Dex had absentmindedly sent a text about the bunk he’d managed to install under Lardo’s lofted bed, and that had almost been a disaster for reasons all on its own:

 

Dex (2:07pm): hey top or bottom

Nursey (2:08pm): ...for the sake of my blood pressure and potentially some money, please give me some context

Dex (2:09pm): i just got the bunk beds set up

Dex (2:10pm): what other context

Dex (2:10pm): oh

Nursey (2:10pm): ahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

Dex (2:11pm): are you done

Nursey (2:12pm): ahahahahahahahahahaha

Nursey (2:12pm): now i’m done

Nursey (2:14pm): i think we all know that i should be on the bottom bunk or i’ll probably die

Dex (2:15pm): noted

Nursey (2:17pm): “what other context” jfc poindexter u fuckin goober

 

Dex hadn’t thrown himself into a cold shower, but he had taken several very slow, very deep breaths, and forced himself very firmly not to think of what the answer to the question might have been in--in a different context.)

 

Silent summer or not, the first few hours are okay. Nursey turns up in the late morning a week before practices are due to start, his mom behind the wheel of an SUV that’s not as fancy as Dex would have expected. He greets Dex with a hug that’s warm, if brief, and Dex knows Nursey well enough to know that he doesn’t feign physical affection--if he offers it, it’s genuine.

 

Nursey’s mom is another matter. Dex has met her twice before--she came to Family Weekend their frog and sophomore years--and she’s always struck him as imposing, even though she only comes up to about his chin. She shakes his hand firmly and doesn’t offer a hug, and even though she asks after his summer and his family and seems genuinely interested in the work he’s done around the Haus, he can sense a slight chill in her voice. He glances at Nursey, who’s pulling a box of what’s probably books if the way Nursey grunts slightly at the weight is any indication, but there are no answers that way.

 

Still, she has a good eye for spaces. She purses her lips when she walks into the room, narrowing her eyes, and then looks at Dex. “Are you married to the desk being against that wall?”

 

Dex blinks. “Uh. No?” Mostly he’s nervous about sharing the desk at all, but there isn’t room for two. They’ll have to make a schedule for it.

 

She taps a finger against her lips. “Derek, put that box down and come help your friend.”


Under her direction, they swap the desk with one of the dressers, and move the other dresser into the closet. Credit where credit’s due, it does make the space look bigger.

 

“I can take the one in the closet,” Nursey offers, and Dex startles a little. He’d kind of expected Nursey to want to spread out as much as possible. “I’ll have a nightstand next to the bed if I need easy access to stuff, so you should be able to keep stuff on top of your dresser if you want.”

 

“Okay. Uh, sounds good.”

 

Working together, they get all of Nursey’s stuff--mostly books, and Dex has no idea how they’re going to fit them on the small shelves already in the room, unless Nursey’s going to keep some under the bed--up into the room. He thinks Nursey’s mom is going to stay, but apparently she has an early meeting the next morning, so Nursey walks her out. They spend a long time downstairs, saying goodbye, and Dex watches her give him a tight hug from the window before she gets back into the car and drives away.

 

“She gave me some cash for pizza,” Nursey says when he comes back upstairs, but his voice is a little tenser, like without a third party there he’s not sure where they stand. “Want to get dinner? I’ll treat--seems only fair, since you did all the work in the room. I probably owe you more than one pizza by now.”

 

There’s something in his tone that Dex can’t place, and Dex can feel the spring between them beginning to coil again. He swallows against his instinctive reaction anytime someone offers to spend money that he wouldn’t spend himself. He did do a lot of work in the Haus this summer. “Okay,” he says. “Sounds good.”

 

The tension is back, though, and neither of them can ignore it. It hangs between them like a stormcloud, two years of overdue apologies and explanations, and Dex knows he should have the bulk of it--Nursey is an instigator and no mistake, but it’s always been Dex’s own insecurities that have taken Nursey’s playful jabs and twisted them into something that Nursey never meant, and have made him lash out in response. Nursey instigates but Dex escalates, and that’s where it goes wrong.

 

It’s still there when they go up to bed, but worse somehow, with the summer night stuffy and dark around them. Dex opens the window, but there isn’t much of a breeze. Nursey plugs in his phone and sets it down next to the small set of drawers he’s using as a nightstand.

 

They’ve shared rooms on roadies, so he knows Nursey’s bedtime routine--teeth, face, moisturizer, white noise app, ten minutes of journaling in low light, usually at least a few minutes with a book. Nursey had brought a lamp to put on the little set of drawers as well, so Dex turns off the overhead light before he climbs into the top bunk.

 

He lies there for a few minutes, uncertain, listening to the sound of Nursey’s pen in his journal. He’s slept in this room for most of the summer, but it feels different now. He clears his throat. “Goodnight, Nurse.”

 

There’s a beat of quiet, and then, “’night, Dex.”

 

Dex isn’t sure how long it takes him to fall asleep, but it’s still dark when he startles himself awake out of some odd dream, dry-mouthed and sweaty. He sits up with a cough and digs around in the gap between his mattress and the bedframe where he’d managed to wedge his water bottle before he went to bed, unscrewing the cap and draining what’s left in the bottle.

 

It helps, but his throat still feels dry. Moving as quietly as he can so as not to wake Nursey, he climbs down the ladder, and then reaches back up to grab his water bottle. He slips across the floor to the bathroom, trying to avoid the squeakier floorboards, and then nearly gives himself a heart attack tripping over Nursey, sitting on the bathroom floor with his back up against the tub.

 

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he says, actually stumbling back a step and catching himself against the doorframe. “What the fuck are you doing in here?”

 

Nursey picks his head up from where he’d been pressing his forehead against his knees. The bathroom light is off, but even with only the moonlight coming in from the bedroom window, Dex sees him blink slowly, as if he’s trying to make sense of what he’s seeing. “I’m having a panic attack,” he says, enunciating every single syllable slowly and clearly.

 

Dex blinks. “Seriously?” He’s had panic attacks before, and seen other people have them, and they don’t usually look like this. But Nursey doesn’t respond, just swallows and tightens his arms around his knees, and something about that makes it real enough that Dex says, “Oh, shit, okay,” and steps fully into the bathroom.

 

He puts his water bottle down on the counter and, uncertain, sits down on the floor next to Nursey. This close, even in the dark, he can see how tense he is, the tremors running through him. His phone is on the floor between his bare feet, still playing the soft cityscape white noise he’d put on when they’d gone to bed. Dex hesitates, then asks, “Can I do anything?”

 

Nursey doesn’t answer, but he doesn’t ask him to go, either, and now that he’s seen him it doesn’t feel right to leave him sitting there. Dex shifts to sit more comfortably, his back against the tub and his shoulder just brushing Nursey’s, and tries to keep his breathing slow and even. After a few moments, he closes his eyes, listening to the city sounds from Nursey’s phone and trying to hear if there’s a pattern in the track.

 

He’s not sure how long they sit there, listening. Long enough for Dex to lose track of time--the soft chirping of birds, the rush of wind, the low sweeping noises of cars, they all tangle together, and if the track does loop back around, it’s seamless enough that Dex misses it. It’s long enough that his butt starts to go numb on the tiled floor, that his knees ache a little from being scrunched up, that he starts to regret not bringing his own phone with him just to have something to do.

 

Finally, Nursey lifts his head. “Could you get me some water,” he says quietly.

 

“Sure,” Dex says immediately, grateful for the excuse to get up and stretch. He muffles a swear when he stubs his toe on the cabinet in the dark, but he manages to find the water bottle he’d abandoned by the sink and fill it. “Here,” he says, holding it out, and waits until he’s sure Nursey has a decent grip before he lets go.

 

Nursey takes a few long sips and then breathes out, a long, shaking exhale as he tilts his head back against the tub. “Thanks,” he says.

 

“No problem.” Dex hesitates, not sure what to do now. “Are you...like, okay?”

 

“Yeah.” Nursey scrubs a hand over his face.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” He winces even as he says it, and he’s gotten used to the dark enough that he can see Nursey raise an eyebrow at him.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

Dex tenses, ready to respond on the defensive, but he makes himself wait, take a breath, actually listen to what Nursey’s voice sounds like--tired, resigned. It’s Dex adding the snap to it, making it bitter. He breathes out, then sits back down, on the floor.

“I think,” he says carefully, “that we haven’t done a good job talking to each other.”

 

Nursey snorts. “Understatement,” he says, but Dex listens this time, and it’s still that soft, tired tone, the laugh short and humorless. But then Nursey sighs, and rubs his eyes. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s talk, Poindexter.”

 

It’s an invitation, but clearly one that implies Dex is going to have to work for it, and that’s--fair, honestly. He knows himself well enough to admit that it hasn’t usually been Nursey shooting down bids for genuine conversation between the two of them over the last two years. “That didn’t,” he begins, and then stops. That didn’t look like a panic attack is almost definitely not the way to get this off on the right foot. He tries again. “Do you get those a lot?”

 

“Not as often as I used to.” Nursey unscrews the water bottle cap and takes a few more sips. “I’m usually pretty good about the whole anxiety flag thing, but they--I don’t know. It crept up on me.”

 

Dex looks down at his hands. The summer sun actually tanned him a little, so his skin isn’t straight-up glowing in the dark. He rubs his thumb over the scars on his knuckles. “I got panic attacks when I was a kid,” he says, before he can stop himself.

 

They’re sitting close enough that he feels Nursey’s slight jump of surprise. “You did?”

 

“Yeah.” Dex rubs his palms back and forth, then laces his fingers together, lets his hands dangle between his knees. “Summer before fifth grade we were out swimming, and I got caught in a rip tide. Forgot all the rules about swimming with the current and freaked out. I almost drowned.” He shivers. Even ten years out, the memory makes his throat tight. “My dad pulled me out and I was fine, but for months after that, every time anything scared me, or even surprised me the wrong way, it was like going under the water again.”

 

Nursey doesn’t say anything, and for a minute Dex thinks he’s overstepped, that he wasn’t supposed to make this about him--he gets it backwards, sometimes, when it’s empathy and when it’s self-centered. But then Nursey shifts a fraction closer, his skin warm against Dex’s as their shoulders touch. “You didn’t have to tell me that.”

 

Dex shrugs. “Seemed only fair.”

 

Nursey is quiet for a moment, and then he says, “We haven’t really been great at being fair to each other.”

 

Dex’s instinct is to frown, or disagree, but something in Nursey’s voice makes him pause, and then he thinks, and--

 

Oh.

 

“Nursey,” he says carefully. “Is this--was that about--” He makes himself stop and take a breath. “Was this because of how I acted about Dibs?”

 

Nursey’s silence is answer enough.

 

Dex pulls his knees up, wrapping his arms around them. His tantrum--there really isn’t a better word for it--last semester has been hovering over him like a cloud of shame ever since Lardo had taken him aside at graduation and given him one last managerial Come to Jesus talk, and he’s known for weeks now that he needs to man up and apologize. When he’d admitted the whole thing to his mom during the two weeks he’d spent back in Maine, she’d almost made him call Nursey on the spot.

 

(“I did not raise you to be the kind of person who acts like that with your friends,” had been her exact words, and she’d only backed off when Dex, cringing under her glare, had promised he’d apologize as soon as Nursey got back to campus.)

 

He opens his mouth, but Nursey talks before he can say anything. “Look,” he says, quiet and tired. “I get that you...that you weren’t excited to room with me. And I’m okay with that, you know, like--we’re never gonna be Rans and Holster, I get that. And I kind of spent the summer, like, telling myself that it was going to be fine, that we’d just be roommates and teammates, and it’d be chill. Whatever. But I got here today, and it was just--it was weird, and tense, and I just started thinking, like, is it gonna be like this all year, am I going to feel this shitty every time I come back to what’s supposed to be home, and--”

 

His breath catches and he swallows, looking away, and the heavy rock of shame in Dex’s gut gets heavier. “Fuck,” he says, which isn’t eloquent or right or what Nursey deserves to hear, and he bites the inside of his cheek, breathing out. He rubs a hand over his face.

 

“I’m sorry about last year, Nursey,” he says, and it doesn’t feel like enough, but what else can he say? “I acted--I was entitled, and shitty, and I thought the work I was doing mattered more than yours, and none of that was fair to you. I was a dick and I hurt you, and that--that wasn’t okay, no matter what was going on for me.” He swallows. “I’ve been trying to be--to be better about not just taking my reactions as the only thing that matters. I know it’s not going to fix what I already did, but I want to be better. Not just as your roommate, but as your friend, too. Today was awkward because I knew I had to say something, and I…” He shakes his head. He’s getting off track. “I’m really working on it, and I want this to be home for you. You deserve that.”

 

There’s a beat of silence, sharp as a knife’s edge, and then Nursey lets out a soft laugh. “Did you just three-part-apology me?”

 

His voice is gently teasing, and relief courses through Dex’s veins like a flood. He shoves at Nursey’s shoulder. “Fuck off,” he says, trying to keep it out of his voice. “I wanted to do it right.”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Nursey shifts to look at him, his grin flashing in the cool dark of the bathroom. “Did you have it written down somewhere? Are there notecards?”

 

No,” Dex says firmly. There’s a bunch of bullet points in a saved draft in his email, but Nursey doesn’t need to know that. He nudges Nursey again. “Are we okay?” He pauses, then amends, “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m okay.” Nursey rolls his shoulders, shifting. “We’re…” He shrugs. “I guess we could both try to be nicer to each other.”

 

Dex can’t help it--he snorts out a skeptical laugh. Effort or not, nice isn’t a word most people would use about him or Nursey, even on their best days.

 

“Alright, fine.” Dex can hear the smile in Nursey’s voice, though, and that helps. “Kinder, then. Maybe try not seeing the worst in each other all the time. Actually have an occasional conversation about our shit instead of just screaming at each other.” He nudges his shoulder against Dex’s. “What do you think?”

 

It’s not a forgiveness, but Dex knows an olive branch when he sees one. “Yeah,” he says. “I think we can do that.”

 

He’s tempted to try to add something else to that--another apology, an insistence that he knows he needs to do better and that it’s not just lip service, some kind of promise that if they can’t get their shit together, he’ll be the one to find a different room or take the drop to second line or whatever other consequence has to come for it.

 

But none of that feels right, so instead he says, “Okay,” and gets to his feet with a wince. His muscles are cramping from being on the floor for so long; he can only imagine how Nursey must be feeling--he still doesn’t know how long Nursey was there before Dex found him. He holds out a hand. “Ready to go back to bed, or do you want to sleep on the bathroom floor?”

 

Nursey laughs, and takes his hand.

 

 

Dex is drunk.

 

Nursey knows this, through his own intoxicated haze, because he keeps saying it.

 

“I’m so drunk,” he says, as they tip through the door of their room. They overbalance, even though they’d gone up the stairs hanging onto each other for stability, and Nursey lunges to grab onto the bed frame. Dex goes straight down to the floor and dissolves into giggles.

 

Drunk Dex is a giggler. Nursey’s not sure why he never knew this before, but he’s delighted.

 

“Hey,” Dex says, rolling onto his back and then making a face that Nursey recognizes immediately as moved wrong world spinning don’t throw up. He presses his mouth closed, waits a second, and then opens his eyes. “Hey, Nursey.”

 

“What,” Nursey says. He attempts to let go of the bed frame and immediately wobbles. He grabs it again and uses it as leverage to sit down on the floor.

 

“I think.” Dex scrunches his face up again. “I think I got drunker than I meant to.”

 

Nursey bites down a laugh. “You are pretty drunk.”

 

“I know,” Dex says. He sits up, and then goes a little pale. “Fuck.”

 

Nursey knows that look. “You gonna hurl?”

 

“Maybe,” Dex admits, looking decidedly unhappy about it. Nursey levers himself back up to his feet, then hauls Dex up to his.

 

“Come on. Bathroom.”

 

He drags Dex’s arm over his shoulders and stumbles the few feet to the bathroom, dumping him less gently than is probably nice onto the floor by the toilet and--with the kind of spiritual fortitude that should really be memorialized in some kind of epic poem--goes back to the bedroom to get their water bottles. When he gets back to the bathroom, Dex has curled up around the toilet, his head resting on the seat.

 

“Did you throw up yet?” Nursey asks, holding out Dex’s water bottle.

 

Dex groans, taking it. “No,” he says miserably. Nursey can relate. The waiting is the worst part. “Ugh, I never drink like this.”

 

“Yeah, you went pretty hard.” Nursey sits down with his back against the tub. “Everything okay?”

 

“It’s stupid,” Dex mutters.

 

“Try me.”

 

Dex huffs. “I got stood up.”

 

Nursey perks up. “On a date?” Dex has never talked about any kind of romantic anything with him before.

 

“Yes,” Dex grumbles. “Out of my league anyway. Stupid idea. ’s why I don’t bother. Easier to just stay single.”

 

Nursey frowns. There’s only room for one self-deprecating asshole in this friendship, and he already called dibs. He reaches out with a foot and prods at Dex’s leg. “That’s dumb,” he says. “You should absolutely date.” He pauses. “Unless you’re ace, then, like, ignore me and do what feels right.”

 

Dex snorts. “I’m not ace,” he says, sitting up straighter and then leaning back against the wall. He unscrews the lid of his water bottle. “I’m just shit at people.”

 

And--yeah, alright, that’s not untrue. “You just take some getting used to,” Nursey says, which is true enough. “And come on, it’s hard to put yourself out there. Just because this person was an asshole doesn’t mean you’re not, you know. Worth dating.”

 

“That was awful,” Dex says.

 

“Fuck you, I’m not a pep talker.” Nursey takes a drink of water. His stomach doesn’t feel great, but he’s nowhere near as drunk as Dex is. “Besides, I don’t really have better advice. It’s not like I’m dating all the time.”

 

Dex squints at him. “That sounds fake. You’re all…” Dex waves a hand at him. “Your face is like that.”

 

Nursey shrugs. “It’s the truth.” He hooks up from time to time--not this year, he’s not quite ready to have that conversation about room etiquette with Dex yet--but he’s a romantic at heart, and when it comes to dating he doesn’t really do casual well. “Besides, just because I’ve got a good face doesn’t mean I’m not a weird person.”

 

That gets him a laugh, though he’s not sure which part triggers it. Dex pushes a hand through his hair. It’s growing out a little more, Nursey notices. He wonders if Dex is gonna cave and finally get the Samwell chop this year. “At least you’ve got the face,” he says. “I think guys see me and it’s just…”

 

He breaks off, paling, and for a second Nursey thinks he’s going to throw up, but then Dex’s words catch up to him. Oh, Nursey thinks. Okay. Proceed with caution. “Hey,” he says, as gently as he can. “Do you want me to forget I heard that?”

 

Dex opens his mouth, then closes it, chewing his bottom lip. He’s quiet for a long moment, and then he gives a tiny shake of his head.

 

“Okay,” Nursey says. He’s been in this position before, though never with someone who looks as alarmed as Dex does right now. “Hey. Thanks for trusting me with this.”

 

“Yeah,” Dex says. He looks a little shell-shocked. “You’re not...You won’t tell anyone, right?”

 

His voice sounds almost scared, and Nursey’s heart aches in his chest. “Of course not,” he says. “Come on, dude, I would never.”

 

Dex gives a small, jerking nod, his hands tight around his water bottle. Nursey hesitates, then scoots a little closer to him. “Are you okay?”

 

“Never came out to a teammate before,” Dex says. “I kind of feel sick.”

 

“That might also be the booze,” Nursey reminds him, and Dex groans, dropping his head into his hands. “Did you forget?”

 

“I got a little distracted,” Dex mumbles into his hands. He picks his head up, scowling. “Why aren’t you drunker? You’re always drunker than me, this isn’t fair.”

 

Nursey sighs. “I was on Louis Patrol,” he says. He loves the little fucker, but he’s got a whole new sympathy for all the people who had to patrol him the last two years.

 

Dex frowns at him. “Then why were you drinking at all?”

 

“Louis Patrol doesn’t require sobriety,” Nursey says solemnly. “It requires just enough alcohol to be able to think think like a slightly insane Swedish DJ trapped in the body of a six-foot-one hockey player. That’s how I found him trying to pole dance on the drain pipe.”

 

Dex barks out a laugh. “Oh my god.”

 

“I know,” Nursey says, wincing. “It’s like reliving my own greatest hits.”

 

“Haven’t seen him try to do a strip tease on the coffee table yet,” Dex says, and Nursey purses his lips at him.

 

“Watch it, buddy.”

 

Dex grins. He’s gotten some color back, and his eyes are a little clearer. The water must be helping. Nursey nudges him. “Keep drinking,” he says.

 

Surprisingly obedient, Dex does, taking a few small sips and then lowering the bottle with a grimace. “Does it get easier?” he asks.

 

Nursey tilts his head. “What?”

 

“Coming out.”

 

Nursey’s pretty sure he never actually came out to Dex, but he doesn’t have to ask how Dex knows he’s queer--there have been enough Nursey Patrol incidents of Dex breaking up hookups Nursey was too drunk to be getting into that it’s no secret he doesn’t have a gender preference for partners. “Yes and no,” he says. “You get a script for it eventually, or figure out the ways to do it without making a production. But the emotions with it…” He shrugs. “I’m nervous every time, if that’s what you’re asking.”

 

Dex nods slowly, turning his water bottle in his hands. “Has it ever gone bad?”

 

“A couple times.” Nursey doesn’t add the details. He knows a loaded question when he hears one, and there’s no point in telling horror stories. A few veiled comments that Dex has made about his hometown and his family, his brother and father especially, tug at the edge of his memory. “Worried about someone in particular?”

 

“Sort of.” Dex wraps an arm around his knees. “My family is…” He rubs a hand over his face. “I don’t know. My cousin Megan is bi and she’s been out since we were in high school, and people are...No one’s awful to her, or anything, but no one talks about it, you know?”

 

Nursey nods. He has a few relatives like that. “Does Megan know about you?”

 

A faint smile tugs the corners of Dex’s mouth. “Yeah. We got each other through high school, I think.” The smile fades. “She’s always been braver than me, but...I don’t know. Maybe it’s easier for girls. People care less.”

 

Nursey knows enough queer women to know that’s not true, but there’s a time and a place for that conversation, and this isn’t it. “What about your parents?”

 

“I don’t know. My mom would be okay, I think. My dad…” He trails off. “I don’t know.” He drops his head down to rest it on the toilet bowl again. “I keep thinking, y’know, what if I just don’t come out to them? It’s not like I’ve ever had a real relationship with a guy, so it’s not like I know what I’m missing, and it would be so much easier to just…”

 

“You shouldn’t have to do that to yourself,” Nursey says, and means it. “Dex, come on. You deserve to be happy.”

 

Dex sets his jaw, pursing his lips, and then he sighs. “You sound like Megan.”

 

“I hope that’s a compliment.” Nursey nudges him with his foot again. “You look less sick.”

 

“I think I missed my window,” Dex says, almost glumly.

 

He sounds so put out that Nursey can’t help smiling. “Poor baby,” he teases gently, his heart twisting with a sort of reluctant affection. Dex’s half-hearted scowl doesn’t help matters. “Come on. You can sleep in my bunk and I’ll get you a trash can if you decide you need it.”

 

Dex groans. “Can’t I just stay here?”

 

“And leave me to deal with you whining about the crick in your neck tomorrow? Not a chance.” Nursey puts his water bottle on the counter and pushes himself up. “C’mon.”

 

Dex grumbles, but he lets Nursey take him by the biceps and pull him up to his feet. He goes a little green when he’s vertical, but just for a second, and then he sighs and drops his head down onto Nursey’s shoulder. “Hey,” he mumbles. “Thanks.”

 

Nursey slings an arm around him. “For what?”

 

“You know for what.”

 

It’s almost reluctantly fond, and Nursey ducks his head to hide his smile against Dex’s t-shirt. It’s less of a hug and more of a mutual lean, but they’ve never done anything in the normal way. He tries to ignore how much the scent of Dex’s body wash has come to be familiar and comfortable over the last few weeks. “Don’t mention it,” he says. “I’ve got your back.”

 

 

Dex comes home after a six-hour block of classes to a closed bathroom door, which would normally be fine, but the downstairs toilet is leaking and Ollie is in the other second-floor bathroom, and he has to pee.

 

He raps his knuckles on the door. “Hey,” he says. “Nurse or Chow.”

 

There’s a sloshing sound that makes him wince, and then Nursey says, “Shoo, Dex. It’s bath time.”

 

“I don’t care if it’s bath time,” Dex says through gritted teeth. “I need to pee and all the other bathrooms are taken. Grab a towel.”

 

He can practically hear the eyeroll in Nursey’s voice. “Just come in and pee, then. I’ll close my eyes.”

 

“Seriously?”

 

“Yes, seriously! I just got the water how I like it, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve shared a bathroom on the bus with you, Poindexter, I promise we are out of secrets.”

 

It’s not the same thing, but Dex has to pee too badly to care. “Alright, whatever.” He opens the door and barges past Nursey without a glance, unzipping as he moves.

 

He pees for what feels like about an eternity--that second coffee was a bad idea--and then, feeling about a million times better, puts his dick away and closes the toilet lid to flush. “Thanks,” he says, turning to the sink to wash his hands. “You can open your eyes now,” he adds as an afterthought, reaching for the soap.

 

Nursey chuckles. “Now I’m wondering if I should make you close yours,” he says. The water in the bath sloshes as he shifts, and Dex feels a flush creep up the back of his neck. Nursey laughs. “I’m kidding, bro.”

 

Dex rolls his eyes and shuts off the tap, grabbing the towel and turning around out of spite. He falters a little--Nursey’s mostly submerged in the bath, which is a feat in and of itself given the relative sizes of Nursey and the tub, but the water and the bubbles are a startling swirl of pink and turquoise and purple, almost sparkling, and the sheen of it on Nursey’s skin makes his mouth go a little dry. “What the fuck did you do to the water?”

 

“Bath bomb plus bubble bath,” Nursey says, sounding decidedly pleased. He scoots down slightly, submerging more of his chest. He looks at Dex like he’s daring him to chirp him. “And don’t give me any shit, okay? I have earned this.”

 

Dex raises his eyebrows. “Rough day?”

 

“Rough week,” Nursey says emphatically, shifting again. Dex feels his eyes start drifting and drags them firmly back up to Nursey’s face, accidentally lingering on the additions to his tattoo for longer than he means to. Not for the first time, he wonders if the ink would feel different under his fingers than the rest of Nursey’s skin. “I’ve read like a thousand pages of Foucault, my brain is basically mush.”

 

“Who’s Foucault?”

 

“Dead French philosopher. All about the relationship between power and knowledge.” Nursey tilts his head back against the edge of the tub. “Dense as fuck to read. I feel like my eyeballs are bleeding out of my face.”

 

Dex leans against the counter. “Gross,” he says. Not from any kind of experience, but he’s pretty sure he’s supposed to commiserate. “What’s that for?”

 

“Topics in Epistemology and Metaphysics.” Dex’s face must do something, because Nursey laughs. “It’s for a gen ed.”

“What gen ed could that possibly be for,” Dex says, exasperated, and Nursey gives him a grin.

 

“I honestly don’t remember. Humanities?”

 

“You’re an English major.”

 

Nursey waves a soapy hand. “Details.” The movement distracts Dex from his careful lock on Nursey’s chin area, and he feels his face start flushing again. Nursey snorts a laugh. “Will you chill? You literally see me naked five times a week.”

 

“It’s not the same thing,” Dex grumbles. “And your dick keeps floating out of the water, it’s weird.”

 

“Penises float, Dex.”

 

“It’s like it’s trying to say hi,” Dex says, going for absurdity over anything that’ll make his blush worse.

 

“Okay, well, now it’s weird.” Nursey flicks water at him. “No one’s making you stay.”

 

Dex makes a face, blinking soapy water out of his eyes. “Alright, alright, I’m going.”

 

Nursey smirks at him, but Dex catches it fade as he turns away, and something about the way a sudden weariness falls over Nursey’s face when he clearly thinks he’s alone again makes Dex pause at the door. It’s probably nothing, but--

 

He turns back. “Hey,” he says, and Nursey startles, jerking enough that the water sloshes against the sides of the tub. “You’re okay, right?”

 

Nursey looks surprised, and then uncertain, and then his shoulders slump into the water. “I mean,” he says, and gives Dex a small, clearly forced smile. “Eh.”

 

It’s not really an answer, but Dex has been practicing listening for all the things Nursey doesn’t say. He closes the bathroom door and sits down on the floor with his back to the vanity cabinet. “What’s going on?”

 

“It’s not…” Nursey sighs. “It’s school stuff, mostly. My classes are harder this year, and my thesis is stressing me out, and the freshmen in the class I’m TA-ing for are driving me crazy, and hockey’s--” He makes a face that Dex recognizes as meaning fucking exhausting, which, yeah, mood. “I don’t know. I’m just feeling stretched, and I’m not sleeping enough, and it’s making my anxiety worse.”

 

Dex nods slowly. He’d forgotten that Nursey was TA-ing Intro to Poetry. The English department in general is kind of a mystery to him--he’d taken his required university writing seminar freshman year, but other than that, he tries to avoid it as much as possible. He likes numbers a lot more than words. “So this is an anxiety bath?”

 

“Something like that.” Nursey takes a hand out of the water and pushes his hair back. “When I was in high school, I was like...I wasn’t great at taking care of myself. When I got stressed, I’d just, y’know, stop sleeping, stop eating, basically just live off coffee and adrenaline.”

 

“Doesn’t sound super sustainable,” Dex says. He’s pulled his share of all-nighters fueled by 5-hour energy shots and Red Bull, but those are few and far between, and usually only around finals. Summers working on the boat have taught him the value of a good night’s sleep. “I’m guessing you hit a breaking point?”

 

Nursey gives him a self-deprecating smile. “Midterms my senior year. Had about a week of two hours of sleep a night and about four hundred calories a day, and then thought I’d be fine to still do a full week of hockey practice. All I remember is getting out on the ice, and then I woke up in the trainer’s office with my skates off and my coach on the phone with 911.”

 

Dex’s stomach flips. “Jesus, Nursey.”

 

“Yeah. There was kind of an intervention after that.” Nursey scoots a little deeper into the water, and then, when Dex makes a show of averting his eyes, snorts out a laugh and moves the bubbles around to cover his junk. “You baby.”

 

“I’m here having a heart-to-heart, not a heart-to-dick,” Dex says, and Nursey smirks at him. He rolls his eyes. “So do I have to worry about you keeling over at practice any time soon?”

 

Nursey shakes his head. “I’m a lot better with the food and sleep stuff now. Plus--” He gestures at the tub. “Baths.”

 

Dex raises his eyebrows. “And the bath helps how?”

 

“Relaxes the body, soothes the soul,” Nursey says with a grin.

 

“You sound like a fortune cookie,” Dex says, but he can’t help his own smile. “Alright, so I should throw you in the bath when you look like you’re getting crazy?”

 

Nursey looks like he’s thinking about objecting, and then he shrugs. “Yeah, probably.”

 

“Noted.” Dex shifts to stretch his legs out. “Anything else I should know?”

 

Nursey goes quiet, his smile fading. “I guess…” He swallows visibly, and then sets his jaw. “When we get closer to midterms and finals, maybe...If you could just keep an eye on my drinking. Not like Nursey patrol, just…”

 

He trails off, looking at Dex like he’s hoping for a rescue, and Dex nods, choosing his words carefully. “Is that something you’re worried about?”

 

“Not usually, but…” Nursey shrugs. “I’m not great at self-control when I’m stressed, and adding alcohol on top of that doesn’t usually do great things for my life choices.”

 

Understatement, Dex thinks, but he nods. “Okay,” he says. “You got it.”

 

Nursey blinks. “Just like that?”

 

“Just like that.” Dex rolls his shoulders. Given all the time they spend sitting on the bathroom floor, he wishes it was more comfortable. “Got your back, remember?”

 

Surprise flickers over Nursey’s features, and then his face softens into a smile. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Thanks, Dex.”

 

It’s quiet and honest and a little bit vulnerable, and despite the ache in his back and hips, Dex smiles back. “No problem,” he says.

 

Nursey holds his gaze for another moment, like he wants to say more, and then seems to change his mind. “What about you?”

 

Dex frowns. “What about me?”

 

“Anything I should look out for, for you?”

 

“Oh.” Dex thinks about that. He’s not sure anyone other than his mom has regularly looked out for his mental health since he was about eleven. “I, uh...I don’t know, actually.” He rubs a thumb over his knuckles.

 

He’s pretty sure he does know what Nursey should look out for, but he’s not really sure how to put it. “My temper gets really shitty when I’m stressed,” he admits. “Like, the worst times I’ve snapped at you the last few years have been when I’m worried about school or the team. I’ve been working on it, but…”

 

He makes a face, which basically sums up how that’s going, and Nursey snorts. “I’m not gonna say I haven’t noticed,” he says.

 

“Yeah, well.” Dex grimaces. “I just get...you know, really short with everything. And everyone.”

 

Nursey hums. “You’re the reverse me,” he says.

 

Dex blinks. “What does that mean?”

 

Nursey shrugs one shoulder, water sloshing. “You lash out,” he says. “I lash in.”

 

Dex opens his mouth to object--he doesn’t lash out, he just gets snappy, that’s not the same thing--but he stops, considering. Maybe lashing out isn’t the wrong way to think about it. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “I think you’re right.” He rubs over the scars on the backs of his knuckles again. “I’m not, uh. I don’t really know what to do about it, though. I kind of isolate, but I think that just makes me worse when I end up having to deal with people.”

 

“Mm.” Nursey looks thoughtful. “Do you feel better when you’re at practice?”

 

“I…” Dex tries to remember. “Yeah, I think so. Why?”

 

“I was thinking that if I notice you getting snippy I could drag you out running or something.” Dex grimaces, and Nursey laughs--he hates running, and Nursey knows it. “I know, I know, but it’s the whole endorphins thing. Run through the rage.”

 

Dex scrunches his nose at him, but he can’t deny that there’s logic to it. “I’m not even mad about anything,” he confesses, pulling one knee up and wrapping an arm around it. “I just start looking for things to be a dick about.”

 

“I’m aware,” Nursey says dryly. “It’s not one of your better qualities.” Dex rolls his eyes and flips him off, and Nursey laughs again. “I’m serious, though, working out will help.”

 

“I know,” Dex laments. “But...extra gym time.”

 

“Poor baby,” Nursey teases, gently flicking water at him. “I’m not gonna force you, but I think it’d be good for you. You just have to promise not to be a dick to me if I’m gonna try to help you.”

 

Dex sighs. “Fair,” he says. “We’ll have a code word or something so I know when you’re intervention-ing me.”

 

Nursey’s face lights up. “Ooh, I’m good at this. Operation Gingersnap. Operation Flaming Redhead. Operation--”

 

Dex groans. “I literally asked for this,” he says, but something warm and fond curls up in his chest, and Nursey’s laugh echoes off the tile.

 

 

“You are an absolute fucking idiot,” Nursey announces, following Dex as he slams his way into their bedroom, a wad of tissues crammed against his nose.

 

Dex shoots him a glare over his shoulder, but the effect is ruined by the tissues. “I’m not in the fucking mood, Nurse,” he says, muffled and stuffy, and Nursey rolls his eyes. Incorrigible bastard.

        

Still, the bloody mess of Dex’s face isn’t going to take care of itself. Nursey huffs out a sigh and takes his arm. “Come on,” he says, leading the way to the bathroom. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

 

“You faint at the sight of blood,” Dex grumbles, but he lets Nursey push him down onto the closed toilet seat.

 

Nursey kicks his ankle. “That was one time,” he says, digging the first aid kit out of the cabinet. “And I’m way better about it when it’s not my own blood.” He finds the kit and puts it on the counter, flipping the lid open and peering in until he can find the antiseptic wipes. He tears open a packet and takes Dex’s jaw in his hand, turning his face so he can dab at the cut on his cheekbone. “It’s the mom friend override.”

 

Dex winces at the sting of the antiseptic. “What’s the mom friend override?”

 

“It’s a--I don’t know, kind of a meme thing.” He takes the wipe away, but the cut’s still bleeding a bit, and he frowns, digging into the kit for bandaids. “Like, if I’m anxious to do something, but someone else is more anxious to do the thing, then the override kicks in and I can do the thing.”

 

“You’re more of the vodka aunt than the mom friend,” Dex says, flinching as Nursey goes in with the wipe again. “Ow.”

 

Nursey snorts. “First of all, you’re not wrong, vodka aunt is absolutely my aesthetic. Second, stop moving. This is your own fault.”

 

Dex huffs. “I didn’t start it,” he mutters. Nursey draws back just enough to give him a skeptical look. He didn’t see the whole fight, but come on. Dex scowls through his wince. “I didn’t.”

 

“You threw the first punch,” Nursey points out. Dex shrugs. “Dude, come on. You’re better than that.”

 

And he is, is the thing. For all Dex talks about his temper, he’s usually good about reining it in--more so, since Nursey’s been keeping a closer eye on him and dragging him out to the gym when Dex’s flushes start coming more easily, when his words start sharpening faster. Nursey hasn’t seen Dex start a fight since freshman year (off the ice, anyway--he’s had a few on-ice ejections, but then, so has just about everyone else on the team, so Nursey doesn’t hold it against him), and he can’t deny he’s a little disappointed.

 

Which is odd, because a year ago, he wouldn’t have even been surprised to see Dex act like an asshole, never mind disappointed. But this year has been different. He’s found himself caring more about Dex’s actions than he used to, and not just because of how they reflect on the team, but because he cares about Dex. And that’s...hard to get used to. He knows himself well enough to know that he’d had a reluctant physical attraction to Dex long before he’d been able to stand him as a person, but the work Dex has been putting into growing as a person this year has been...game-changing, to say the least. So it’s more than a little frustrating to see him falling back into old habits.

 

All the more so when Dex refuses to look at him while Nursey puts a butterfly bandage over the cut on his cheek. He sighs. “What did start it, then?”

 

Dex flushes. “Just--some asshole saying stupid shit.” Nursey frowns at him, and Dex sighs. “He was talking about Bitty.”

 

Ah. That’d do it. “You know he doesn’t want us brawling for him,” Nursey says, holding out an expectant hand for the tissues Dex still has wadded against his nose. Dex widens his eyes, probably trying to look pitiful, and Nursey clears his throat pointedly, making grabby fingers. Dex huffs again and hands it to him. His nose is still bleeding sluggishly, and Nursey drops the tissues into the trash, leaning closer to peer at it. “He gave us that whole lecture.”

 

“He was being--exceptionally shitty.” Dex flinches back when Nursey reaches out for his nose. “Don’t.”

 

Nursey raises his eyebrows. “You want to know if it’s broken, or not?”

 

“It’s not,” Dex says. “I’d know.”

 

“Suit yourself.” Nursey gets him some new tissues and hands them over, then takes his jaw in his hand again, studying his face. The cut on his cheek was the worst one--Nursey only got a glance at the other guy before Chowder and Bully hauled him out of the Haus, but he’d seen the flash of a class ring on one hand, and by the size of it Dex is lucky he’d moved fast enough to not get his cheekbone smashed--but there’s already bruising darkening around his eye and jaw. “Did you win, at least?”

 

Dex flashes him a grin, and Nursey recognizes it as the same one he gets when he’s executed a particularly brutal, but legal, check. “Of course I won.”

 

“Is this where you tell me I should see the other guy?”

 

Dex just looks smugly at him, and Nursey rolls his eyes. “Right. That’s what I thought.” He shakes his head, leaning against the counter. “Do I even want to know what he said?”

 

“No.” Dex says it flatly, his grin fading as his mouth presses into a firm line.

 

Nursey frowns. They’ve had more than a few vent sessions about the shit people have said about Bitty, Jack, Bitty-and-Jack, the Falcs, and SMH in general since the Cup this summer, and Dex has never hesitated to go off on a rant about the bullshit before. “What’s that face about?”

 

Dex looks away. “Nothing. My nose hurts, that’s all.”

 

And okay, nope, Nursey knows avoidance when he sees it. He is the king of avoidance. “Dex,” he says, putting on his TA voice. It’s as effective with Dex as it is with the freshmen in the poetry seminar--Dex looks guiltily at him, his mouth tugging down at the corners. Nursey sighs. “Come on.”

 

“It’s…” Dex grits his teeth, his whole expression taut and reluctant, and then he slumps back, his shoulders dropping. “It wasn’t all about Bitty, okay?”

 

He says it like the words are being dragged out of his mouth, and it takes Nursey a moment to realize why. “Oh,” he says, a little dumbly.

 

And that’s...fine. Okay. He’s a queer black dude in college hockey, alright, it’s not like he’s not used to people talking shit about him behind his back. He’s learned how to shake it off, as much as anyone can--the chill is manufactured, but the alternative isn’t worth the risk. He swallows and pushes his hair off his forehead, exhaling hard.

 

Dex looks up at him, his face going almost nervous. “Are you mad?”

 

Nursey sighs. It’s gonna be a night of sighing, he can tell. “No, I’m not mad, I just…” He shakes his head. “It’s not worth you getting hit over, you know?”

 

Dex’s eyes flash. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

Nursey blinks, taken aback, and Dex flushes. “I didn’t…” He trails off, and then huffs out a sharp exhale, pulling the tissues from his nose and dropping them into the trash. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

 

“I hope not.” Nursey says, trying to keep his voice even. “I’m not saying I don’t appreciate you defending me, but if I got into a fight every time someone talked shit about me…” He shrugs. “I don’t want you compromising yourself over it. If someone had called the cops, or you’d broken a hand--”

 

Dex makes an affronted noise, and Nursey knows, knows he’s going to say something like I know how to punch, I’m not going to break a hand, and he plows ahead before he can interrupt. “I’m just saying, that’s what I mean when I say it’s not worth it. I’m used to it, you know?”

 

“You shouldn’t have to--” Dex breaks off with a frustrated sound, his fists flexing. “Nurse, the shit he said--”

 

“It doesn’t matter,” Nursey says tiredly, and means it. “Seriously. It doesn’t.”

 

Dex deflates, pressing his lips together. His hands tighten, and then he seems to force them to relax. “Do you remember when I told you I got panic attacks as a kid?”

 

The subject change takes Nursey by surprise. “Yeah.”

 

“I had them for months,” Dex says, looking down at his knees. Nursey follows his eyes down, catching the splits in his already scarred knuckles for the first time, and he purses his lips, holding out a hand. Dex glances up, smiles a little guiltily, and lets Nursey take his wrist, grab another antiseptic wipe, and start cleaning them. “Every time I got scared, I just--I shut down. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t…”

 

“I get it,” Nursey says, and Dex’s tight smile softens.

 

“I know.” He breathes out through his mouth, wincing a little. “Eventually I decided that it was better to be an angry kid than a scared one, so I started training myself to punch instead of panic.”

 

Nursey snorts. “How’d that work out for you?” he says.

 

Dex’s lips twitch. “About as well as you’d think. Got into a bunch of fights, got suspended more than my parents would have liked. Once I got more into hockey it was better, I had somewhere to channel it, but I never really...I never really broke the association between feeling threatened and getting pissed.”

 

There’s a time and place to talk about the bonkers amount of privilege tied up in that, but Nursey doesn’t have the energy to go there right now. “What does that have to do with tonight?” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, his stomach flips. “Wait. Was he threatening me or something?”

 

“Not exactly, just…” Dex’s face is still red, and he looks decidedly uncomfortable. “Look, you said you don’t wanna know, so I’m not gonna tell you. But he deserved to get hit and I’m not sorry I hit him, okay? I look out for what’s--”

 

He breaks off, his cheeks going even darker, and Nursey pauses with Dex’s hand still held in his, the alcohol wipe forgotten. “Dex,” he says.

 

Dex pulls his hand away, turning his face. “Forget it.”

 

The air is heavy between them, somehow thick and fragile at the same time. Nursey can feel the delicacy of the moment, the way it hovers, uncertain, and knows, deep in his chest, that whatever he does next is going to matter. He takes a deep breath, and reaches out to rest his fingertips against the darkening bruise on Dex’s jaw.

 

Dex goes still under his touch, but he lets Nursey turn his head until their eyes meet. The openness of his expression against the bruising on his skin takes Nursey’s breath away. “Tell me,” Nursey says.

 

In the quiet room, the words seem to echo, despite the bass rumbling through the Haus from the kegster downstairs. Dex looks up at him, his eyes somehow both nervous and sure.

 

“I look out for what’s mine,” Dex says softly, and the world shifts under Nursey’s feet.

 

 

Dex’s alarm goes off at 5:42, before the sun is even close to up, and he fumbles to turn it off. NCAA hockey is all fun and games until the morning practices start happening in the dark. He groans into his pillow, allowing himself a minute to contemplate hitting snooze (he never does, but he always thinks about it), and then pushes himself up. He misses the ladder twice, his eyes still mostly closed, but finally manages to haul his way out of bed.

 

The floor is cold under his feet, and he shivers as he shuffles across the room to the bathroom, rapping his knuckles on the slightly open door when he hears running water. Chowder opens it and gives him a sleepy wave, his toothbrush stuck in his mouth, and Dex nods at him before bending over the sink to splash water onto his face.

 

Usually Nursey stumbles in after them by the time Dex is spitting out toothpaste, but he’s still in bed when Dex comes back into the room, feeling slightly more alert. He has his blankets pulled over his head, and he makes a disgruntled sound when Dex nudges his shoulder.

 

“Hey,” Dex says. “Come on. We have practice.”

 

Nursey’s head shakes under the blankets. “Sick day,” he says, voice muffled by his pillow.

 

Dex frowns. “What’s up?” Nursey doesn’t move his blankets, and Dex sighs, sitting down on the side of the bed. “C’mon, lemme see you.”

 

With obvious reluctance, Nursey tugs his blankets down. The room is pretty dark, but Dex can see he’s wincing, and he frowns, reaching down and putting the back of his hand against Nursey’s forehead. His skin is cool, not feverish, but the tense lines around his nose and eyes make it obvious that something’s wrong. “What’s going on?”

 

“Headache,” Nursey mumbles, not opening his eyes.

 

Dex purses his lips. “You need me to get you anything?”

 

Nursey shakes his head and then presses his mouth into a line like he regrets it. “No. Talk to Coach for me?”

 

“Sure.” Dex hesitates, and then moves his hand from Nursey’s forehead to his shoulder. “I have class after practice, but text me if you need something, okay?”

 

Nursey cracks an eye open, squinting at him like he’s uncertain, but then he gives a small nod. Dex squeezes his shoulder and stands up to get dressed.

 

Practice without Nursey is always weird, more so since they made first line and have developed almost a sixth sense for where they are on the ice in relation to each other. Rans and Holster had come to one of their games early in the season and tearfully (and in unison) pronounced them “drift compatible.” Dex had flushed scarlet at the time, but the more they play together, the more he feels like it’s true--he always seems to know where Nursey is, what he’s doing, where the next pass is going to come from. Practicing with Louis is fine; he’s a strong, solid player, but Dex can’t help feeling like he’s missing a limb.

 

He doesn’t hear anything from Nursey during practice or during his classes, so he pretty much assumes Nursey took something for his head and went back to sleep. They just finished a round of midterms and it’s cold season on campus, so he’s not really surprised that Nursey might be coming down with something.

 

Still, just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it’s fun. He swings by the campus store on his way home from class and picks up some orange juice and cold medicine. The girl at the counter, who can clearly tell from a glance that he’s not buying for himself, smiles at him when she hands him his bag. “You must be a good boyfriend,” she says.

 

Dex thanks her without thinking, and is halfway out the door before her words actually sink in. Cheeks flaming, he heads back to the Haus.

 

Their room is still dark when he gets home, but Nursey’s bed is empty. Dex frowns, taking off his shoes and putting his backpack down. “Nurse?”

 

“Here,” Nursey’s voice says from the bathroom. Dex picks up the orange juice, heading over. The door is propped, and he taps his knuckles gently against it. “Yeah, you can come in.”

 

He pushes the door open. Nursey is curled up on the floor with his head resting on the toilet seat, and Dex feels a pang of sympathy. “Hey,” he says quietly. “Not doing great?”

 

Nursey gives a tiny shake of his head. “Migraine,” he says. “Been here all day.”

 

Dex winces. “Shit.” He steps into the room and sits down next to Nursey. “Did you take your meds?”

 

“Tried to.”

 

Dex takes a second to figure that out, and then grimaces. “That’s not good.”

 

“No kidding.” Nursey turns his head and squints at him. “Practice okay?”

 

“It was fine.” The only light in the bathroom is filtering in through the open door from the window in their bedroom, but it’s enough to see the greyish cast to Nursey’s features, the glisten of sweat at his temples. “I brought you some juice, if you want it.”

 

Nursey shakes his head again, a barely-there motion. “Don’t want to put anything else in my stomach until the nausea stops.”

 

Dex frowns. “Have you eaten anything today?” Nursey’s silence is answer enough, and Dex narrows his eyes. “Did you drink anything?”

 

“Been working on water. Not really--” Nursey’s face goes tight and he snaps his head around in time to throw up. Dex winces again and leans over, resting a hand between Nursey’s shoulder blades to steady him, and thanks his lucky stars that growing up with a pile of little cousins basically made him immune to sympathetic vomiting.

 

Nursey spits and sits back. “Fuck,” he mumbles, and puts out a groping hand. Dex realizes he’s looking for his water bottle and passes it to him, and Nursey shoots him a grateful look, rinsing his mouth and spitting again before he leans back and flushes the toilet. “Remember how you used to want to kill me all the time?”

 

Dex raises his eyebrows. “Yes.”

 

“Can I still take you up on that?”

 

Dex snorts. “Sorry. Missed your chance.” He squeezes Nursey’s shoulder, though, and gets to his feet to wet a washcloth in cold water. Nursey makes an exaggerated pouting noise, and Dex shakes his head, sitting down again. “Not my fault. You grew on me.”

 

“Mold grows on people,” Nursey says. “You get rid of mold.”

 

“Sorry, bro.” He folds the washcloth and leans over to gently drape it over the back of Nursey’s neck, though, and Nursey makes a soft, almost relieved sound, melting a little bit against him.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Don’t mention it.” Dex shifts slightly to find a more comfortable position, dropping his hand to Nursey’s lower back. “You need to drink some water, though.”

 

Nursey gives a weak, exhausted laugh. “No thank you.”

 

“Nurse.” Dex puts a little force into the word. “Come on. You need to stay hydrated.” Nursey shakes his head, and Dex sighs. “It’s drink some water or I haul your ass to the ER, Nurse.”

 

Nursey groans, but he reaches for his water bottle again. “That would be so much worse.”

 

Dex waits until Nursey has taken a few small sips of water before he says anything else. “You don’t like hospitals?”

 

“Does anyone?” Nursey swallows another sip and then shifts to sit back against the wall. “No, I’m not a fan. They’re bright and loud and miserable, and even if I’m literally throwing up from pain I get treated like a drug addict for asking for an IV. It’s not a great time.”

 

“That’s shitty.” Dex holds out a hand for Nursey’s water bottle, weighing it to see how full it is. Answer: very. “Three more sips, please.”

 

Nursey makes a face but takes it back. “Anyway, it’s a shitshow. I’m not really into being treated like someone looking to get high.”

 

Dex nods. “Is it...Is that a race thing?”

 

A slight shrug. “Usually.”

 

“Fuck.” Dex hesitates, never sure if it’s better to say more or less when something like this comes up. They’ve had more than a few hard conversations over the past few months about the ways Dex has been ignorant, entitled, and sometimes just plain racist over the years they’ve known each other, and he thinks he’s doing better at paying attention to that kind of thing, but he’s never sure when he’s supposed to talk or when he’s supposed to just listen. He settles for a question. “Would it make a difference if I went with you?”

 

“As my token white friend? Probably not.” Nursey rubs his forehead. “Whatever. Racists gonna racist. I just only go to hospitals if I’m actively bleeding or broken.”

 

Dex shakes his head. “That’s so fucked.” Nursey snorts in the way that Dex has come to know means thanks, understatement, and Dex shakes his head. “I mean it. It’s shitty, and I’m sorry.”

 

“It is shitty. But it’s low on the shittiness list, so--” Nursey blanches, then turns to be sick again. Dex makes a sympathetic sound and puts a hand on his back again, murmuring nonsense that he hopes is comforting. He doesn’t think he’s particularly great at it, but he’s trying to make more of an effort when it comes to Nursey.

 

Something has shifted between them in the past few weeks, ever since he’d let his temper get the best of him with that asshole at that kegster, and Dex hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that they’re both--well. Waiting isn’t the right word, but the ever-present tension that used to be tight between them has turned into a fragile, delicate thing, wrapped in lingering touches and lasting glances.

 

He knows that what he’d said that night had been as good as a declaration of intent, but it hasn’t gone any further than that. Somehow, though, there’s no uncertainty, no anxiety. He can’t explain why, even to himself.

 

Nursey trembles under his hand, and Dex bites his lip, shifting closer and rubbing gentle circles between his shoulder blades. “You’re okay,” he says. “I got you.”

 

With a cough and a shudder, Nursey sits back, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “You don’t--” He coughs again, and spits into the bowl. “You don’t have to stay. This can’t be fun for you.”

 

Dex hands him his water bottle. “Do you want me to go?”

 

Nursey rinses his mouth with a grimace. “No. I mean--I don’t know.” He slumps back against the wall. “I’m not great at asking for help.”

 

“I know you aren’t.” Dex moves his hand from Nursey’s shoulders to the back of his neck, squeezing gently, and Nursey sighs softly, closing his eyes. “Neither of us are. But I’m from--what do you and Shitty call it?--a white wilderness of repression and toxic masculinity. What’s your excuse?”

 

“Boarding school, mostly.” Nursey opens his eyes and gives him a weak smile. “It’s hard to describe. There was kind of a split in the faculty between the hardass old guard and the newer staff who actually had some emotional intelligence, and you could kind of tell that they were trying to shift the culture, but like…” He shrugs. “There was still that idea that you should be able to take care of yourself. It’s hard not to internalize that.”

 

Dex nods slowly. “But you know it’s different here, right? You’ve got people looking out for you.”

 

Nursey lets out a short laugh. “Intellectual brain? Yes. Anxiety brain? Not so much.”

 

“I get it.” Dex studies his face. His features are pinched and tense, and Dex can’t help a worried frown. “How’s your head?”

 

“Hurts.”

 

Dex chews the inside of his cheek. “And you’re really going to fight me if I try to drag you to the hospital?”

 

Nursey’s shoulders slump. “I mean, I think we both know I can’t really fight you right now. But I really don’t want to.”

 

Dex sighs, choosing his words carefully. “I know,” he says, keeping his voice as gentle as he can. “But you need fluids that you’re not gonna immediately throw up, and you need to actually be able to absorb your painkillers. So I think I’m making an executive decision.”

 

Nursey gives him a look that’s probably supposed to be objecting but just ends up pitiful, and Dex shakes his head. “Come on. I’ll be with you the whole time. I’ll pull the privilege card if anyone tries any shit.”

 

That gets him another soft, almost humorless laugh. “Gonna ask to talk to a manager, Dexy?”

 

“If I have to,” Dex says firmly. Nursey doesn’t move, though, and Dex bites his lip. He doesn’t want to beg, but he can only take so much, and apparently he just doesn’t have it in him to see Nursey in pain. “Derek,” he says, and it comes out like a plea. “Please. I hate watching you like this.”

 

Nursey looks at him, studying his face for a long moment, and Dex feels suddenly vulnerable. They see each other naked five times a week, but somehow this feels more exposing.

 

Finally, Nursey’s eyes soften, and he gives a tiny nod. “Okay,” he says softly. “If it means that much to you.”

 

“You do,” Dex says, and gently helps him up to his feet.

 

 

“Bad news,” Dex says, cleaning his hands on a towel as he comes into the room. “The furnace is officially shot beyond what I know how to--oh, come on, Nursey, really? It’s not that bad.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” Nursey says around chattering teeth. He’s already wrapped in his normal comforter and his extra blanket, one of Dex’s oversized hoodies pulled over his own sweater. “I hail from a desert people, Poindexter, I need heat to live.”

 

Dex snorts. “Sucks to be you, then. I called the furnace company and the sooner they can get a repair guy out here is tomorrow afternoon. Fortunately the hot water heater is okay so we don’t have to worry about the pipes freezing, but it’s gonna be blankets and extra socks for at least another day.”

 

Nursey groans, pulling Dex’s hood over his head and tugging the drawstring to hide his face. “Dex. I’m gonna freeze to death.”

 

“Don’t be such a baby.” It’s fond, though, and only a little chiding. Dex’s footsteps pad across the room, and the bed dips next to Nursey as Dex sits down. “Come on. I thought you were a big tough New Yorker?”

 

“I’ve claimed no such thing,” Nursey says, poking his face out from under the hood. “I am a soft, warm-blooded creature who thrives off of coziness.”

 

Dex rolls his eyes. “Thrives off of stealing other people’s sweatshirts, maybe,” he says, reaching out and snaking a hand under the stolen hoodie to try to tug it off.

 

Even through his sweater Dex’s hands are freezing, and Nursey yelps, squirming away. Dex’s eyes widen, and Nursey has less than an instant to realize his massive mistake.

 

“No no no no no, don’t you dare, you asshole--”

 

Dex pounces, freezing fingers out in full tickling force and his face spread into a wide, wicked grin, and Nursey lets out an undignified shriek as Dex pushes his shirt up to get better access to his bare skin.

 

They’re usually evenly matched for wrestling matches like this, but Dex has the advantage of surprise and not starting out hampered by a blanket nest, and he gets Nursey pinned to the mattress in under five minutes. Normally, Nursey would throw him off and retaliate, but Dex is warm and a little sweaty from working on the furnace, and sue him, he’s been freezing all day. He worms a leg out from his tangled blankets and loops it around Dex’s waist, dragging him down, and Dex collapses onto him with a surprised grunt.

 

“Yes, good,” Nursey says, pleased. “The warmth is mine.”

 

Dex snorts, twisting slightly to try and get up on his elbows. Nursey tightens his arms around him, and Dex huffs. “Will you let me breathe?”

 

“No,” Nursey says. “This is your penance. If you wanted to breathe, you should have thought of that before you came at me with those icicles you call fingers.”

 

“I’ll remember that for next time,” Dex says dryly, but he stops trying to get away, and lets Nursey push him around until he’s pretty much draped over him like a blanket.

 

Nursey grins, tucking his face into Dex’s neck and breathing in contentedly. Despite the time he’d spent working, Dex still smells like clean sweat and faintly like his body wash, not like oil or chemicals or whatever else mechanical stuff usually smells like. It’s a warm, familiar smell, and Nursey can’t help a soft, pleased sigh.

 

Dex shifts above him, a bit of tension coming back into the lines of his muscles, and he clears his throat softly. “Nurse,” he says.

 

“Mm,” Nursey says, not moving his face.

 

“Nursey.” It’s firmer now, and Nursey opens his eyes, and oh. Their faces are very close together, and Dex’s eyes are very intense, and very gold. A little like whiskey, Nursey thinks, and just as easy to drown in. Dex flexes his hands against Nursey’s sides, and it makes Nursey shiver. “What are we doing?”

 

It only occurs to Nursey then where they are, and what this would look like to anyone walking in--Nursey on his back, his sweater hitched halfway up his chest; Dex sprawled out on top of him, practically between his legs, his hands still pressed to Nursey’s bare skin. More parts of their bodies are touching than aren’t. Nursey swallows, his mouth feeling suddenly dry. “I don’t know,” he admits.

 

Dex’s expression tenses slightly, but he doesn’t move away, and Nursey doesn’t loosen his arms to let him. “I’m not imagining this,” Dex says softly. “Right?”

 

Nursey doesn’t need to ask what he means. “You’re not.” He puts a hand against the side of Dex’s face, uncertain. “I just. I’m not sure…” He takes a breath. “Are we going to fuck this up?”

 

“Do you think so?” Dex tilts his face into the touch, warm pressure against Nursey’s hand. His features are calmer than Nursey ever expected in all the times he imagined this conversation.

 

“Do you?”

 

“No.” Dex shifts to prop himself on one elbow, putting his other hand over Nursey’s. “I don’t. I trust you.” He hesitates. “I trust us.”

 

He says it with the same easy, quiet confidence that he uses when he talks about code or plays, but with more intensity behind his eyes, more of a flush to his cheeks. It’s complete certainty, sure belief. Trust, Nursey thinks, and something inside him settles into place.

 

“Come here,” he says.

 

There’s an instant of hesitation, a flicker of surprise across Dex’s features, and then he grins like the sun and bends down. The kiss is nothing like Nursey expected their first one would be--he always imagined something bruising or furious, in the middle of a fight, but this is so much better, soft and settled and sure. Dex curls a hand over the back of his neck and bites gently at his bottom lip, and Nursey can’t help the sound that comes out of his throat, pleased and a little rough.

 

It’s very nearly a freefall from there, everything getting deeper and more intense, and it’s a good thing Dex has the presence of mind to eventually pull back because Nursey knows himself well enough to know that he wouldn’t have. “Fuck,” Dex pants, pushing himself up onto his knees and dropping his face into the crook of Nursey’s neck. “This is--a really bad idea.”

 

Nursey laughs, a little breathlessly. He tilts his head, and Dex makes a gorgeous noise and promptly attaches his mouth to the place where Nursey’s neck meets his shoulder. Nursey shivers, reaching up to try to drag Dex’s hips back down to his.

 

Dex groans and pulls away altogether, flopping onto his back. “Don’t.” Nursey whines at him, making grabby hands, and Dex bats him away. “I’m serious, I will literally come in my pants in like ten seconds if I touch you again.”

 

Nursey lets out a strangled groan of his own, and Dex face flushes, grabbing a pillow and shoving it at him. “Five seconds if you make noises like that, shut up.”

 

“Okay, okay.” Nursey pulls the pillow away from his face, rolling onto his side and grinning as he takes in Dex’s profile. His face is flushed and a little sweaty, but his lips are curled up at the corners, red from all the kissing. “Hey.”

 

Dex cracks an eye open. “Hey.”

 

Nursey can’t keep the smile off his face. “Can I tell you something?”

 

“Sure.”

 

He leans over and drops a kiss to Dex’s shoulder. “I like you.”

 

Dex turns to look at him directly, his smile big and goofy and not at all sexy. He looks amazing. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Dex props himself up. “I like you, too.” He leans over and brushes a light, chaste kiss over Nursey’s lips, then shivers and pulls back. “Fuck,” he says, looking around the room. “It really is freezing in here, isn’t it?”

 

Nursey throws his hands up. “I told you,” he says. Then he grins. “Hey. Didn’t you say the hot water heater still works?”

 

“Uh.” Dex narrows his eyes. “Yes?”

 

“So it seems like the shower might be a very warm place to be.” Nursey scoots closer to him, leaning close enough to drop a kiss to Dex’s jaw and then scraping his teeth there.

 

Dex shudders. “You’re a very bad influence,” he says, but he snakes a hand back under Nursey’s shirt.

 

“That didn’t sound like a no.”

 

“It wasn’t,” Dex says, grinning, and pushes him out of bed.