“Today I have grown taller from walking with the trees.”
Karle Wilson Baker
“Our family’s story,” says Derek’s ammi, tucking Derek into bed and curling up beside him, tucking her arm around him, “is a fairy tale.”
“Ay, Amali,” Mama says from the doorway, her voice soft with amusement. “It’s past bedtime already.”
“No,” Derek complains, pulling his thumb out of his mouth. “I want to hear.”
Ammi smiles, smooths his hair back to kiss his forehead, and begins to talk.
Derek Nurse takes his first breath in his mother’s hands, and halfway across the world, a tree begins to grow.
In the old days, as the stories go, he would have been born outside, so that his mother could feel the pulse of the earth in rhythm with her labor pains and hear the sighs of the trees in time with her breaths. But this is the nineties, and this is New York, and things Aren’t Done like that anymore.
All the same, he’s born at home and in water, into his mother’s hands, Mama in the pool at Ammi’s back, with Farah lingering at the doorway to watch. The room is full to bursting with plants, vibrant and growing, the air warm and lush and humid, sweet with the smell of living things.
The midwife counts his fingers and toes, presses his tiny hand into a pot of fresh, new earth. The sapling that bursts free is green and bright.
“Oh,” Ammi breathes, still flushed, her eyes wide. “That--so quickly!”
“Yes,” the midwife agrees, handing the baby back. “A very, very good sign.”
Derek comes from a family of Dryads, going back and back and back through his mother’s line, generations and generations. Every Dryad has a tree, the sapling bursting from its seed from the baby’s first breath, and the tree and the Dryad are connected, one to the other.
Once, it’s said, in the days when their numbers were stronger, a Dryad could communicate with her tree from anywhere in the world. They were tricksters in those days, seductresses, flirts and bards--but those were the days of gods and heroes, when magic was richer in the world, and there were fewer reasons to hide. Now, a Dryad knows her tree through the roots of its family--your oak is my oak is all oaks, a familiar prayer, murmured almost as a lullaby.
Every Dryad makes at least two pilgrimages to the Wood during her life: one to greet her tree in person, and one to say goodbye.
Dryads, of course, are always women.
(Derek has never been attached to tradition.)
He tells his mothers he is a boy when he is four years old, and because they love him, they understand.
(He hasn’t known, yet, anything other than safety and love. His earliest memories are of green: the plants in every room of the house, the way that Ammi coaxes them to grow with her soft brown hands and warm sweet voice. Mama loves the plants, too: she sings to them as she waters them, moves their pots to the best sunshine, clears away wilted leaves. Everything is done with tenderness, with kindness in every touch, and Derek has not yet learned to move through the world expecting anything but softness.)
Ammi takes him to the the shop on the corner to get his first boy’s haircut, holds him in her lap as the barber runs the clippers over the back of his neck. Derek watches his long curls fall around the floor with fascination, and when the barber is done, his head feels light and loose. He shakes his head, wondering, and beams up at his mother. She smiles, and touches his cheek.
“Good, love?” she asks.
“Good,” he confirms.
At home, he sits on his mothers’ bed, squashed between them with Farah next to him, while Mama reads him boys names out of the book she and Ammi picked his first name from. He can’t stop touching his head, running his fingers over the short-cropped curls, the places where the clippers buzzed the hair down thin. It feels more right than it ever ever has.
Mama reads a name, and something clicks.
“Yes,” he says.
Mama taps the page. “Derek?” she repeats, like she’s testing it.
“Yes,” Derek says. The plants around the room seem to hum and pulse, like they’re whispering an approval he can feel in his heart. “Yes.”
They go to the Wood when Derek is six. It’s the longest trip Derek has ever taken: a big plane, and then a smaller plane, and then a car.
And then they walk, and walk and walk and walk, until there are no more people, and the road under their feet falls away to forest. The trees grow thick and strong, the air around them heavy with the scent of something heady and ancient. Derek doesn’t know the words for the things that he can sense, walking at Ammi’s side with his hand in hers, but he can feel them all the same.
The woman who greets them is very old and very tall. She stands with a strength and a grace that makes Derek want to reach out and lean against her, not to push her but to see if she will sway, to see if she’s as willow-like as she seems. Her skin is as brown as the earth beneath their shoes, her hair very, very white.
“Be welcome, little sister,” she says to Ammi, taking her face in her hands and kissing her cheeks, and then her forehead.
Ammi smiles at her, inclining her head, and Derek wants to stare, because he has never seen his mother show deference, not to anyone, not ever.
And then the woman looks at him, and she narrows her eyes. She turns to Ammi, and says something in a language that Derek doesn’t know. Ammi shakes her head.
“No,” she says. “Look closer.”
The woman looks, and then she reaches out and touches Derek’s cheek with one long-fingered hand.
When Derek was five, he’d fallen asleep in the back garden of the brownstone while Ammi and Mama are weeding, his fingertips buried in the dirt. The summer sun was warm on his face. He woke to Farah’s excited cry, and found the garden bed burst into color around him, full of flowers that hadn’t been there when he’d fallen asleep. “Oh, my love,” Ammi had breathed, sweeping him into her arms. “My brilliant boy.”
The elder draws her hand away. She is smiling, her eyes soft. “Ah,” she says. “Be welcome, then, little brother.” She says it strangely, as if brother is a new world that her language has never had before, but her voice is kind, and Derek smiles.
Derek’s tree is an ash tree, bigger than it should be for being only as old as he is. He meets it like an old friend, pressing his hands to its trunk, feeling it sing under his touch.
Ammi touches his shoulder. “An ash tree is just right for you,” she says, kneeling beside him. He smiles at her. “You know what the ash tree is known for?”
He shakes his head.
“Peace of mind,” she tells him. “Sensitivity. Awareness.” She touches his cheek. “Does that sound like anyone we know, hm?”
“Me,” he says. She kisses his nose.
“The ash is known for sacrifice, as well,” the elder says, and Derek turns, not taking his hand from his tree. Her voice is grave, her face graver. He hadn’t realized she’d followed him. “You are connected to the Wood now, child, and your tree will always be here if you need her. But in return, you must keep her secrets--all of our secrets. You are tied to the Wood, to the earth. You feel the pulse of it?”
Derek nods. He can feel it, warm and heavy under his palm. “I feel it all the time,” he tells her. “Not just with trees. With my other plants--the flowers, the ones we grow at home, all of them.”
Surprise flickers over her features, and she exchanges a long look with Ammi. “Then you must be doubly careful,” she says at last. “The strength of your tie can be your undoing, if you’re unmindful.” She gives him a firm look. “You understand?”
He nods, uncertain. “Yes.”
She reaches out, and touches his cheek. “Then be safe, first little brother,” she says. “I expect great things from you.”
And Derek grows up.
He enrolls at Phillips Academy Andover at fourteen, male gender marker on his birth certificate and a long conversation with his moms and the Head of School. Adjusting to living away from home is hard. He gets a single and fills it to bursting with plants, but they’re young and fresh, not the leafy, mature wonders of his parents’ nursery, and he spends an hour after curfew each night coaxing them gently to grow in the dark, trying to remember Mama’s songs, Ammi’s prayers.
He joins the hockey team against Mama’s protests, tells her he’ll be good at it, pushes himself until he is. He treats every bruise like a prize, bides his time on the bench and on third line, knows he’ll claw his way to the top of the team when the time is right. He can feel the potential buzzing under his skin as sure and true as his magic, knows, deep in his soul, that he'll get there.
Shitty Knight is a revelation, almost more of a character than a person. He’s the first person at Andover that Derek comes out to--as trans, as queer, and almost, almost, as magic, but something stops him--and he’s the most larger-than-life friend Derek has ever had.
“Brah,” Shitty says after a Saturday home game, stretched out on Derek’s floor with a joint between his lips (and maybe Derek shouldn’t like weed, dead plants and all, but high school is stressful, okay?). “I keep meaning to tell you, but I am like, lowkey obsessed with your whole vibe in here.”
Derek rolls onto his back on the floor next to him. “‘s just plants, dude.” Derek is newly fifteen, and Shitty is a senior. He knows he doesn’t need to impress him, but he wants to be cool.
“Nah,” Shitty says. “I’ve seen just plants, but these? These are happy plants, man. I don’t know what you’re doing to them, these are some happy, happy fuckin’ plants.” He takes a long drag. “What’s your secret?”
Derek takes the joint, inhales smoke. The floor is hard under his back, but the pulse of the plants around the room is warm, content, and comfortable.
“I’ll never tell,” he says, and grins at the ceiling.
Sophomore year, he starts on T, and it changes…not everything, but nearly.
On the surface, he feels better--more himself, more like the person he knows in his core he’s supposed to be. He looks in the mirror and his face looks right: not as soft, not as (he grimaces at the word) girlish. He grows four inches the year he’s fifteen, another four when he’s sixteen.
By junior year, his hormones have evened out enough that the breakouts have calmed down and his moods have adjusted as much as they ever will (the cyclic depression and anxiety that ebbs and flows with the seasons, his mother tells him, will probably never go away), and people are--noticing him. He sees it in the halls at school, lingering glances he gets from girls and guys, notes passed to him in class, invitations to hook up in closed classrooms, under the bleachers, in dorm rooms at night.
“Bro,” his defense partner, Bucky, finally says, as Derek finds yet another note in his stall after a game. Derek’s first line now, Bucky at his side. They’re good together, even if they’re not close friends. “You’ve gotta start taking people up on those. Like. As a public service.”
“I just don’t get it?” Derek says, looking at the note in confusion. “Like...why me?”
Bucky stares at him.
Derek blinks, and then furrows his brow. After years of being the small, underdeveloped kid, he’s starting to form a theory. “Wait,” he says. “Am I like...hot now?”
“Uh,” Bucky says. “No homo, bro, but yes? The fuck?”
“Oh,” Derek says. He looks at the note. It’s from Vani Patil, in his algebra class. She has long dark hair that she pulls over her shoulder in a side braid, leaving the back of her neck free, and the curve of it always makes him catch his breath.
“Cool,” he says, and puts the note in his backpack.
But there are other things, too.
Like the more he settles into his skin, the more he feels like himself, the more he feels the pull of the earth and the call of the trees start to twist itself into something strange and longing and hungry. He doesn’t mean to push it away, not really--he still cares for the plants that fill his room, treats them with the tenderness he knows they deserve, still visits the old trees on the school grounds when he needs something stronger and fuller to settle his soul.
But for all the elder had called him little brother, had called him by his name and told him he was theirs, the energy of the earth feels so physically female under his hands, and it sends prickles of dysphoria itching at his skin. He’s not sure why, can’t put it into words--it’s his magic, isn’t it, it should feel like his, but it just--
He talks to Farah about it, when he’s home for summer break, a secret shame he can’t share with his mother, and she listens, her expression thoughtful.
“I thought you looked a little paler,” she says, reaching out and taking his hand. He can feel the hum of her magic in her fingers. She’s four years older than him, and her power feels so settled, so sure. He envies her that, the trueness of it. “Derek, is it really that bad?”
“It’s not…” He lays a hand on the nearest plant, a spider plant trailing down from her bedside table. It shivers under his touch, leaves curling around his fingers like a lover. “It was so important to me when I was little, that everyone knew I was a boy, you know? And Dryads--Dryads are women. They’ve always been women. And if I tap into this, am I...what am I saying about myself? What am I letting myself be? And is it okay to even…”
Derek trails off. He’s spent so long, done so much work, to be the person he is and have the body he needs. He can’t ruin all of that, he thinks, just because sometimes he lets his friends at school put eyeliner on him before parties, or paint his nails “just for fun,” and because he likes the way it looks (the way it feels) so much, and…
Farah looks at him like she knows, because of course she does. She’s his sister, and four years of difference is nothing when someone may as well be the other half of your soul. “Magic is magic,” she says. “It isn’t gendered. But Derek,” she touches his cheek with the tips of her fingers. “You need to use it. Remember what the elder said. It’s all connected.”
It can be your undoing.
Derek bites his lip. “I remember.”
Farah props herself on her elbow, her dark eyes searching his face. “Do I need to worry about you?”
Derek shakes his head, breathes in the fresh green air. “No,” he says. “It’s all chill.”
Samwell is different.
He’s playing the best hockey of his life, is more settled into his skin, into himself, than maybe he’s ever been. He loves his classes, loves his team, loves his friends. He and Chowder click like Derek hasn’t clicked with anyone since Shitty, which is great. He visits the Oak in Lake Quad nearly every day, an old, ancient beauty, pressing his cheek to its trunk and letting it hum against his skin. His mother’s tree is an Oak, and he can almost sense her through it, her magic sweet and nurturing, a thousand roots away.
He loves Samwell. He does.
Derek connects with Dex on the ice better than he’s ever connected with any other partner ever, but the second their skates leave the rink, all bets are off. Derek doesn’t know what Dex’s problem is--he acts like Derek’s the picture of class royalty, like Derek didn’t grow up black and queer in Manhattan during the peak Stop-and-Frisk years, like his parents money was gonna save him from any of that shit.
(And he doesn’t have a clue where Dex’s persecution complex comes from--so Dex had to work summers to pay for his hockey gear? Derek’s had summer jobs since he was fourteen, too, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t getting financial aid to go to Andover in the first place. But apparently because Dex worked on a boat instead of in an office, his labor counts more than Derek’s did. Okay, sure.
“We’ve heard this rant already,” Chowder tells him.
“Whatever,” Derek grumbles, and gets another beer.)
The other problem with Dex, though, is:
When he shuts his political mouth, he is, unfortunately, totally Derek’s type. Farah would drag him to filth and back if she knew he had a thing for redheads with good arms (it’s so bad, it’s so bad), and Dex, unfortunately, ticks all of Derek’s stupid attraction boxes. He even hits some of the personality ones, when he’s not being an asshole--he’s smart, and capable, and occasionally funny, and shockingly kind (though not usually to Derek).
So it’s a Thing. He tries really hard not to make it one. And anyway, Dex pretty much hates him, so that helps a lot.
He brings his Andover plants to Samwell, fills his room with green and life. His window faces south and his room is flooded with sunlight during the day, and his plants hum with satisfaction, grow sweet and happy. He cares for them without magic, still hesitant to use it, scared of what it feels like, but they thrive all the same. They all but sing around him when he studies, and he lets their energy sink into his skin, soothe away the stress of class and games and essays and fights with Dex.
On his good days, when he feels brave, he channels his magic back to them. Each time he braces himself for the clench in his belly, the itch under his skin, but each time it’s different--sometimes there, sometimes not, sometimes cool and soothing, sometimes barely present at all. He lets it whisper through him, wonders if maybe Farah was right, if the femininity of it is something he put together in his head-- just a construct, his Feminist Studies professor’s voice says in his head, and he lets his fingers drift along an orchid’s petals; orchids, which shouldn’t thrive inside at all, and yet his do.
It goes like this, with him and Dex: they settle, and snap.
Spring semester is rough. Winter sets into Derek’s bones, heavy and cold, and he feels the weight of it with every breath: the lack of growth, the death in the ground, dry and brittle where he knows, knows there should be breath and life. It makes it hard to move, hard to open his eyes in the morning. The plants in his room shudder under his touch like they know he’s struggling, and he pours everything he has into them, desperate to keep them breathing, thriving, making himself drag his hands through his magic until the brown leaves under his fingers shiver back to green.
It’s only a matter of time before he crashes. He’s not expecting it to happen in Dex’s room. What starts as Frog Bonding Time--mandated by Chowder--turns into him and Dex alone when Chowder gets a text from Farmer and bolts from the room, red-faced and unsubtle. Derek doesn’t even notice the darkening sky, too tired and absorbed in his readings to realize how late it’s gotten.
Dex is the one who finally breaks the silence. “Shit,” he says. “It’s after midnight.”
Derek lifts his head. His neck hurts. “Ugh,” he says. Eloquent. They have practice in six hours. He looks out the window. It’s snowing. He so deeply, deeply does not want to walk home.
He must look as pitiful as he feels, because Dex, apparently possessed, sighs, looks at him, and says, “Do you wanna just crash here?”
Derek stares at him. “Seriously?”
Dex shrugs. “It’s not like I’ve never shared a bed before,” he says, and what, Derek thinks wildly, w h a t, and Dex gestures at the window. “And it’s dumb for you to walk home in that. You should just stay.”
Derek’s not going to look that in the face. “That’d be amazing,” he says, and means it. “Thanks.”
They get ready for bed the same way they do when Lardo sticks them together on roadies, except that Derek doesn’t have any of his own stuff. Dex gives him a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie, Derek bundling himself into clothes that smell like Dex’s body wash and laundry detergent.
The scent soothes him, and he wishes it wouldn’t.
Dex’s bed is far too small for both of them, but they climb in together anyway. They lie on their sides, back to back, reverse spooning. Dex is a line of heat against Derek’s back, and Derek wonders who else he’s shared a bed with.
There’s a plant on Dex’s desk, a little succulent in a pot. Derek’s fingers itch to touch it, just to ground himself, a little spark. He curls his hands under Dex’s pillow instead, breathes in the scent of Dex’s sheets.
“Hey,” Dex says. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
Derek opens his eyes, looks through the darkness at the snow falling past the window. He tries not to tense. “Sure,” he says.
“How come you don’t have scars?”
Derek frowns. “From what?”
“Like.” Dex sounds awkward, nervous. Like he’s bracing himself to fuck up. Derek’s kind of waiting for him to fuck up, too. He realizes he’s clenched his hands into fists, and makes himself relax them. “Didn’t you have top surgery? You don’t, uh. Wear a binder, or anything. I guess I was just kind of curious.”
It’s not what he’s expecting. He takes a breath, and goes with honesty. It’s easier, in the dark. “No,” he says. “I went on hormone blockers when I was a kid. You don’t need to get top surgery if you never had breasts in the first place.”
“Oh,” Dex says. “That’s...easier, right?”
Derek shrugs. It is, maybe. It was a major surgery that he didn’t have to have, after all. But it makes him think in spirals--his relationship with his body is complicated, tied up in ancient magic and a connection to a tree halfway across the world that whispers his name in a soft, feminine voice that feels like home in a way that he wishes it wouldn’t even as he yearns for it. If he’d been in a place where he’d had to choose to get surgery, would he have done it? He’s not sure. He buries his face in Dex’s pillow and shudders a sigh.
Behind him, Dex rolls over. A tentative hand settles between his shoulder blades, high enough that it can’t be anything but platonic. “Nurse,” he says. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Derek says.
Dex is quiet for a moment, and then he takes his hand away. “Okay,” he says. “Goodnight.”
“Night,” Derek echoes.
He waits until Dex’s breathing evens out behind him, and then he gives in to temptation, reaching out. The succulent on the desk is waiting for his touch, and he feels its purr under his fingertips. He falls asleep with his hand in the earth, magic humming under his skin.
In the morning, they go to practice like nothing happened, but Derek feels the air between them shift, something fragile and quiet settling into place. Maybe this is it, he thinks, the push they needed to get to a better space, to finally click off the ice.
Within a week, they’re back to bickering, all but clawing at each other--verbally only, though Derek’s been tempted, more than once while out in the quad, to let a few tree roots conveniently shift under Dex’s feet and just accidentally send him sprawling, and it’s only his mother’s glare in his head that stops him. The quiet intimacy of a shared night is gone like it never existed, and Derek almost wishes they’d never had it in the first place.
The blowout fight (the shattering) comes after a hard loss, Harvard’s center elbowing between them to get a goal in overtime. Dex is furious in the locker room, slamming his pads into his bag with a violence Derek rarely sees off the ice, and Derek’s ready for him when he turns to him to snap, six retorts already curled on his tongue. The fight burns hot, harsh and sharp and mean like they haven’t been in months, and later Derek won’t even remember what either of them said, only that they were both trying to hurt, and that it worked.
Derek doesn’t remember when his mind went blank, when the walls started to press in around him and the feeling of trapped became too much and the need to be anywhere but inside became overwhelming. All he remembers is leaving, abandoning Dex without resolution, and setting off at a run for fresh air, for something, anything, that’s still growing, still alive.
Tree, he thinks, half-blind and exhausted, and his feet take him to the Quad without him thinking, to the old Oak with its strong branches and solid trunk and its safe, steady pulse.
The Oak is waiting for him. It stretches one long branch down to him, and he grabs it, swings himself up. The Oak straightens with a groan, and Derek falls back against its trunk, gasping.
“What,” says a familiar, breathless voice beneath him. “The actual fuck?”
Shit, Derek thinks. He leans over the side of the branch.
Flushed and sweaty and panting, Dex stares back at him. “How the fuck did you do that?”
Shit, Derek thinks again. Shit, shit, shit. He takes a breath. “Why do you care?”
Dex scowls at him. It’s really unfortunate, Derek thinks, that he has such an attractive scowl. “Get out of the stupid tree, Nursey.”
Derek still has a hand on the Oak’s trunk, so he senses, clear as day, the moment it thinks I’ll show you stupid, right before it lets all its remaining dead leaves fall right on Dex’s head.
“What the fuck,” Derek tells it, as Dex sputters beneath him, spitting leaf fragments and dirt out of his mouth. The trunk under his hand is unrepentant and silent. Derek sighs heavily and jumps out of the tree. Dex startles and nearly falls, and Derek catches him by the arm.
For a moment, they stare at each other, Dex covered in leaves, Derek, for once, not. The air is still and silent around them. The earth is frozen. Winter, Derek thinks, heavy and cold. Under his hand, even through the fabric of his coat, Dex feels so, so warm.
Derek takes a breath.
“Listen,” he says. “I’m going to tell you something, and I need you to swear that you won’t tell anyone. Ever.”
Dex blinks. Blinks again. He nods.
“Okay,” Derek says.
He tells him.
Dex sits down on the ground. His arm slips from Derek’s hand. For a moment, he’s silent, and then he looks up at Derek, his expression caught somewhere between confusion and awe. “Okay,” he says. “Is it weird that this makes a lot of stuff make sense?”
He brings Dex back to his room, and Dex crosses the threshold like he’s entering a holy space, uncertain, hesitant, his eyes wide as he takes in the plants around the room like he’s seeing them for the first time. “Are they alive?”
“Of course they’re alive,” Derek says, tossing his jacket on his desk and taking his shoes off. He brushes his fingertips over a leaf of his rubber tree, and it hums pleasantly under his skin like a cat arching its back. “They’re plants, Dex.”
“No, I mean, like.” Dex hangs back by the door. “Can they hear me? Understand me?”
Derek shakes his head. “Not these ones.”
“But the tree could,” Dex says, sourly now. There are still flecks of dead leaf in his hair, the greyish brown caught against the red strands. Derek wants to reach up and brush it away, but he smiles instead.
“Yes. It comes with age.” He touches the rubber tree again. “These ones are too little.”
Dex finally comes inside, shuts the door behind him. “Does it cost you? To take care of them?”
“They take care of me, too.” It’s true, in a sense; their energy hums through him, refills him as he sleeps and studies. But it’s harder, in the winter, and this one has been long and cold. He rubs his eyes, suddenly tired, and when he opens them again, Dex is frowning at him.
“You’ll water them, right?” Derek says. He’s not sure what makes him say it--the words come out of nowhere, from a place that doesn’t even make sense. “Like, if something happened, and I couldn’t?”
Dex’s frown deepened. “I guess,” he says. “Is everything okay?”
Derek sits down on his bed. He feels, suddenly, very tired, and notices, for the first time, that some of the plants have the slightest tinges of brown at the edges of their leaves, that his orchids are wilting. He sinks his fingertips into the earth of the nearest pot, pulls deep into his magic, feels it hum through him.
The leaves turn green again. His head dips and spins. He blinks to clear his vision.
“Nursey,” Dex says again. Concerned, now.
“I’m fine,” Derek says. He looks up at him. Dex’s brow is furrowed, but his eyes are soft. One hand is extended, just barely, as if he’d reached out to touch Derek and then stopped. Derek holds his gaze, and Dex drops his hand back down to his side.
“It’s winter,” Derek says. “And I don’t want to fight.”
Dex looks at him, a long, quiet look. “Okay,” he says softly, and Derek feels the weight of the world. “Okay.”
Things with Dex get better.
They still fight, because of course they do--Derek is magic but he’s not magic, and Dex scrunches his face at him every time Derek makes that joke--but it’s easier now, gentler, squabbles over ice time and Chowder’s attention and television plotlines, not politics and blame and privilege. There’s an unspoken agreement in the air to practice care with each other: not that it is Derek’s job to educate Dex, or vice-versa, but that they could both stand to be a little kinder to one another, and at the very least, they can start there.
(They have made a point to distinguish between kind and nice. Kind, they have decided, is doable. Nice is not a thing that either of them are particularly good at.
“If we’re going to do this,” Derek says, by way of explanation, “I’d rather we did it genuinely.”
“Fair enough,” Dex agrees. They clink their beers together. It’s as good as a contract. Chowder nearly cries.)
Things do get better. Derek finally gets to see why Chowder likes being friends with Dex so much: his humor, his support, his drop-everything-to-fix-your-shit responsiveness, his generosity. He gets to see the way friend-Dex is quicker to laugh, easier with physical contact, more generous with his stories of home and family. It’s good, the way they finally relax around each other, settling something in Derek’s chest he hadn’t realized was crooked. It feels right.
Things with Dex are better. But everything else...
(He learns, later, that it’s not uncommon for Dryads, living far from family lines, isolated from the source of their magic, struggling with conflict, to begin to wilt and fade.
He learns, later, that what happened to him could happen to anyone.)
Derek blames it on the winter, and maybe it’s fair that he does: it’s one for the record books, long and cold and snowy, the earth disappearing under blizzard after blizzard. Classes are cancelled and then cancelled again, and on days without practice or games, he finds himself in his room alone, surrounded by his plants, trying to keep his head from spiralling in the silence of a world without growing things as the months without spring stretch on, and on, and on.
He doesn’t notice when the fever sets in, or when the shivering starts. He doesn’t notice his phone buzzing on his bedside table, the SMH group chat, Chowder, Lardo, Bitty, Dex, Dex, Dex again.
He doesn’t notice anything, until he notices what he doesn’t hear, what he doesn’t feel:
The plants in his room are quiet.
He opens his eyes. He sits up.
His room is silent, the air still. He raises a hand and pushes, testing, looking for the tell-tale resistance of magic, and feels nothing but dead space. His heart drops to his stomach, and he pushes himself onto his knees, leaning over to his desk. The leaves of the spider plant there are brown and drooping; they don’t so much as twitch under his touch.
Derek has had this plant since his freshman year of Andover, has read it his essays, had felt its leaves brush across his hand, encouraging, as he leaned in for his first kiss, had cried beside it the night he lost his virginity.
And he let it die.
(Because you’re afraid, he thinks, because of what the magic means, what it might cost him to sit down and untangle the web of feelings of magic and gender and sex that have twisted up inside him, and instead he let it fester, grow cold and heavy inside him, and what has it done instead, what has it cost, what has it taken--
Your undoing, says the whisper of the elder, her voice the brush of fingertips in the back of his mind, and Derek--)
He lets out a choking sob and drags himself out of bed, stumbling across the room and collecting every water bottle he can find. He staggers out to the hallway and fills them at the fountain, then stumbles back, watering every plant, every pot.
And then he collects himself, pulls in a shuddering breath, and starts to bring them back.
He starts with the spider plant, digging his fingers into the soil (dry, so dry, the roots all but crumbling; his heart cracks in his chest), dragging his magic from wherever he can find it and pouring it into the earth, the roots, the leaves, until they’re green and lush and humming again. And he goes from there--to the peace lily, to the rubber tree, to the ferns and the anthurium and the aloe and the pothos, long past the point where he can see, his vision blurry with exhaustion and tears. I’m sorry, he pours into them, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
This is a part of him, he thinks, and he can feel his energy draining away, out of his veins and his skin (he is so, so past the point where he should stop, and yet, and yet, and yet), leaving him grey and exhausted. It doesn’t have to be a feminine part but it can be if it wants it to, but whatever it is, it’s his, and it’s in his blood, and it’s not just that he doesn’t want to lose it but that he can’t, he can’t, that he thinks he might actually die if he does.
The plants bloom around him, the air rich and thick and sweet, humming with magic. Derek lets out a shuddering breath and feels his knees buckle; pulls himself back to his bed. Hands trembling, he picks up his phone, slides open his most recent text thread. Types, with clumsy fingers, SOS.
Immediately, the phone rings. He fumbles to answer. “Nursey,” Dex says, furious in his ear. “What the hell is going on with you? We’ve been trying to reach you for--”
“I messed up,” Derek says. His voice feels very far away. He’s floating. “Dex, I messed up, I didn’t think--I wasn’t thinking, and I forgot so much--”
“Nursey,” Dex says, and he sounds frantic now. “Nursey, what are you talking about? Where are you--What’s going on?”
But Derek’s already drifting, sleep closing in around him. He can hear Dex yelling at him from somewhere far away, his name, over and over, Nursey Nursey Nursey Derek, and he can smell the sweetness of the blooming life around him. Can feel the pulse of the plants around him, the hum of magic trying to reach out for him, to press back into him and knows, instinctively, but it’s not enough.
It’s okay, he thinks to them, through whatever link they share. It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s all okay now.
Derek closes his eyes, and drops away.
He dreams of the Wood, and of his tree. She is strong under his hands, her leaves green and lush and shining. He presses his forehead to her trunk in wonder, and feels her strength, the hum of her magic. Her bark is rough under his fingers, grounding him. She is untouched by his years of uncertainty, of worry, of pain--
“Not untouched, little brother,” says the elder, and Derek turns. The years haven’t touched her, either, except for her eyes. “She has felt everything you feel. But she has grown with you, little brother. Why would you think that you would make her weaker?”
Derek rests his cheek against her trunk, feels the whisper of her magic against his skin, a coming home. “I thought she’d be dying,” he says.
“Oh, no, little brother,” the elder says, and there’s a smile in her voice. “Not yet.”
The wind whispers through the trees, and the Wood sings around them.
(Derek is six years old, and he has never been so far from home.
“I expect great things from you,” the elder murmurs, her fingers soft against his cheek.)
Derek wakes up.
He wakes up warm, which is surprising, but what’s more surprising is that he wakes up at all, so he doesn’t manage to think much about the fact that he’s cradled in someone’s arms, held against a solid chest, someone’s fingers tucked tight against his neck like they’re making sure his heart’s still beating. Derek sucks in a breath, and then another, and then he says, “What?”
And behind him, Dex says, “Oh, thank fucking god,” and the hand at his neck becomes two arms wrapped tight around his chest from behind, folding him in a fierce, almost frantic embrace.
“Um,” Derek says, stunned, still a little lightheaded, his vision not quite back. All he can see is green, and red, when he turns his head and realizes that Dex’s face is tucked against the side of his neck, his hair mashed against Derek’s cheek. He can smell Dex’s shampoo. Shakily, he brings a hand up and pats clumsily at Dex’s head, and Dex holds him tighter. “Where,” he manages.
Dex pulls in a shuddering breath and loosens his arms. It leaves Derek feeling colder, and he presses back with the little strength he has, chasing the warmth, and Dex, as if on instinct, tightens his grip again. “We’re in the Greenhouse,” he says, his voice hoarse, like maybe he’s been crying, and Derek doesn’t know what to do with that. “Uh--the Warm Temperate Greenhouse. South side of campus, by the bio buildings. It was the closest place I could think of with a lot of living plants.”
Derek blinks rapidly, trying to get his vision to clear properly, and as he does, he realizes that they are surrounded by plants--and not just plants but trees, flowers, a lush, vibrant garden. It’s like being in a miniature forest. They’re all but humming around him, chanting his name, the pulse of their magic sinking into him with every beat of his heart, and he pulls in a deep breath, feels it fill him from the inside out.
“How,” he says.
“I’m going to hope the one-word questions are temporary and not a sign of brain damage,” Dex says, shifting slightly behind him. Derek elbows him weakly, and Dex gives a hoarse laugh. “Okay. I went to your room after you called and I found you and you--God, Nursey, you were barely breathing, it was fucking awful. I was gonna call 911, but then I saw all the plants, how green they were, and how you looked, and I knew…”
He trails off. Derek can hear the question he wants to ask, the did you do it on purpose, and he reaches up, closes his hand around Dex’s wrist where his arm is still looped around his chest. He squeezes, gently, a nonverbal please don’t ask me.
Dex gives a barely-perceptible shudder, but he tightens his arm and keeps talking. “Anyway, I remembered what you said about--the feedback loop, or whatever. That you help them, but they help you. But I figured if the ones in your room weren’t enough, that you needed something better.”
Derek looks around again. “I didn’t know this place existed,” he says. It would have made a pretty big fucking difference, if he’d known about it.
“I didn’t either,” Dex admits. “I think the science department keeps it under wraps. I don’t think they want people finding out about it and coming in here to try and plant weed. I only found it because I googled for greenhouses and it came up. We got lucky. Otherwise I would have had to steal a car to get you somewhere.”
Derek frowns. Blinks. Pushes himself up slightly, and immediately regrets it, the world spinning. Dex catches him when he falls backwards. “Um,” he says, when his vision has cleared. “How did you get me here?”
Dex mutters something.
“I carried you,” Dex snaps, sounding supremely embarrassed about it. “And then I picked the lock to get in. Okay?”
Derek chances sitting up again. Fortunately, this time it works. He turns around to look Dex in the eye, and finds him red-faced and already attempting to avoid Derek’s gaze. “Dex,” he says slowly. “You know you probably saved my life, right?”
“Yeah, well.” Dex won’t look at him. “You’re my partner, so.”
Derek takes a breath, and then, still a little lightheaded, half-high of the magic humming in his veins, says, “You carried me all the way here, without all my help, and broke into a university building, just because I’m your partner?”
Dex presses his lips together. He looks down at the floor. And then he looks at Derek, and his eyes are the color of fresh-turned earth under the summer sun, golden and open to so much possibility.
“Nursey,” he says, a million worlds in a single word.
Derek smiles. “I’m going to kiss you now,” he says. “If that’s okay.”
He puts a hand to Dex’s cheek, and Dex has met him, nearly halfway, before he startles. “Wait,” he says. “Here?”
Derek raises an eyebrow. “I’m not going to be getting up off this floor for...awhile.”
Dex flushes. “I just meant…” He doesn’t take his hand off Derek’s waist, but with the other, he gestures at the plants around them. “In front of all the…”
Derek grins. “Don’t worry,” he says. He hooks a finger into Dex’s shirt. “They won’t tell a soul.)
(He’s lying, just a bit. Temperate plants are gossips, and it’s all over campus within a day.
But it’s a very good kiss.)
“Our family’s story,” Derek tells his daughter, stroking her auburn curls away off her forehead as she climbs into his lap with her thumb in her mouth, “is a fairy tale.”
“This one again?” Will’s smile is fond as he comes into the room, a sippy cup of gently warmed milk in his hand. “You don’t think she knows it by heart?”
Their daughter takes her thumb out of her mouth so she can take her cup, pouting up at him. Derek’s lips, Derek’s eyes, Will’s nose, the shape of Will’s face. The hum of Derek’s magic in her veins. “It’s my favorite,” she says.
“You heard her,” Derek teases. “It’s her favorite.”
“Well,” Will says, like it’s a burden. “If it’s her favorite.” He sits down on the bed next to Derek, wrapping his arm around him. He kisses the side of Derek’s neck.
Derek smiles, breathes in the scent of magic around them, and tells the story again.