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tending a fire

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< delayed weather >

 

Derek’s on the bench, flipping through E. E. Cummings when Dex drops down beside him, eyes burning, laptop tucked against the curve of his side. He’s looking at Dex when he thinks, everything which is natural which is infinite which is  yes.

 

He breathes just that little bit easier, after that.

 

Dex is—quick and angry and sharp around the edges. That doesn’t change. Derek still attempts to pick him apart but his insults are more muted now; he’s falling back more on familiarity than annoyance, and the feelings don’t shift the ground beneath his feet. It’s nothing like an earthquake, or the quietness after thunder, or ripening fruit—but Derek is comfortable enough to call it love. Maybe that is what it is. There’s a satisfaction in relegating himself to someplace untouchable; like he could laugh it off when questioned and say, yeah, chill, it’s no big deal, like most things in life aren’t affecting, the look people take when making their snap judgments. Either he’s a pretentious snob or a dumb jock and they’re right if no one ever proves them wrong—safe in their assumptions of baseless accuracy. Derek wants to be safe in them too, accurate or not—that this is fleeting.

But the months pass. Autumn—Dex’s season—lapses into winter and the leaves drop to the ground before they disappear; Dex is tucking his hands into pockets and biting his lips when the wind turns harsh, and Derek’s feelings, well. They don’t flee.

 

< the brightly blinding snow >

 

Snow falls first in November—when Derek’s getting ready to sprint across campus for class. He’s late, because he’d dropped his phone again—now it refuses to turn on no matter how long he stares at his broken-up reflection. He pushes his feet hurriedly into his shoes. Grits his teeth as he makes his way out of his dorms, ready to start running—but the snow stops him.

Most of it’s untouched; it’s relatively early. A part of him wants to sink his feet into the snow and never leave, but the air is colder than he’d expected. It’s always been a season he liked, though, winter and how everything else freezes over to accommodate her. A breath taken before the next verse. He stares at the ground. It’s too wet for him to run on, anyway. Might as well stay for a while.

But someone knocks into his back, and Derek’s turning around and—oh, it’s Dex. There’s a tight frown on his face, though it’s mostly there for show, he’s rarely in that bad of a mood when he looks like that, anyway. He looks good in this temperature, with that woollen scarf wrapped around his neck. Hands in his pockets. He says, “Skipping class, Nurse?”

Derek laughs. “Woke up late.”

Dex turns to his left, surveying the snow. Derek doesn’t know if he finds it cold, or if he’s wearing the scarf just for the sake of wearing one. There are snowflakes on his eyelashes when he turns back to him. “Your own fault. Who the fuck drops their phone three times a month? Three?”

“Accidents happen, bro,” Derek grumbles. “How could I have seen Tango in the middle of the kitchen?”

“Pretty sure you’re just blind,” Dex says.

“Hey.”

The frown on Dex’s face dissipates, and he’s knocking their shoulders together, expression smooth. It’s odd to see him this relaxed. Derek’s so used to riling Dex up that sometimes he forgets that he’s easy to be with; Bitty could spend the entire time waiting for his pies in the oven to bake just talking at him, and Dex would listen. But that’s not the way Nursey and Dex and Dex and Nursey works; all of this is left field and odd. But Derek supposes that a fresh few feet of snow, untouched, will calm just about anyone.

“I’m going to Annie’s,” he announces, clearing his throat.

Dex inclines his head, turns to him. It’s not right to say that there’s something hushed about him at this moment—because it’s impossible for Dex to be subtle anywhere, not with the way he stands out against the background of anything—but he looks pleased. That counts for something, in the least.

He says, “Not going to class?”

Derek shakes his head. “Think I missed half of it, already,” he explains. Then pauses. Looks at the curve of Dex’s mouth, the snow gently landing on his cheek, and asks, “Wanna come with?”

Dex blinks up at him, considering. Derek’s half-expecting him to say something along the lines of, go back to class, or, I’m too busy for that, but instead, he says, “Sure. You’re buying me coffee.”

 

Derek says, “You’re like, the first person I know that drinks their coffee black.”

Dex turns on his computer. “Something wrong with that?” He finishes the rest of his cup.

“It’s fucking undrinkable without sugar,” Derek argues, spinning a pen in his hand. Dex scowls at his fingers. He makes it a point not to stop.

“I don’t exactly drink coffee for the taste,” Dex says, staring down at Derek’s own hazelnut cappuccino, and moves it closer.

“Suit yourself,” Derek says, stealing the tissue underneath Dex’s cup of coffee, now empty. Annie’s is vacant, too, to the point that Derek can hear the wind if he strains his ears. The only other sounds are the baristas chattering in the break room, and the patter of Dex’s typing. Derek sneaks a glance at his computer. The table’s small, but it’s a corner that their hockey team has basically claimed for themselves, so Nursey’s mostly used to sharing it with two other people rather than one. His legs knock into Dex’s ever so often; he’s restless when he’s busy coding. Derek drags his eyes away. Stares down to the tissue lying on the table.

He looks up after half an hour. Dex was watching him write, apparently, though his eyes are focused on his face, rather than the tissue he’s managed to scrawl all over. Derek swallows. Dex’s eyes follow the movement.

He asks, “What are you writing?”

“Nothing much,” Derek answers, though he doesn’t know if he actually means any of that. How sincere is anyone when they write? He’s read all these biographies of poets. How people could pick apart their lives just by reading. His heart beats steadily in his chest.

“Here.” Derek says, passing the napkin to Dex. He doesn’t seem to notice how much Derek’s regretting the choice; it’s jumped onto him almost instantly. But Dex’s smiling back at him, and he feels his nerves settle. Hopefully Dex isn’t that much of an asshole.

The snow’s still piling up when he speaks. “—an entire block of youth ago,” Dex reads, his eyes flickering back to Derek’s. “Passing to someplace warmer. Something against the cold, Nursey?”

Dex’s raised eyebrow startles him so much that Derek smiles, a little hesitantly. “Maybe.”

He hums. Passes the poem back. “I can’t say that I really understand it, but—it’s nice,” Dex says. Smiles back. Nothing insincere in the upturn of his lips. “I liked it.”

 

(Dex is muttering to himself, when he decides to go back to his homework, and at first Derek thinks he’s just complaining, but the song playing on his earphones ends, and he hears: “‘My hand doesn’t reach for his hand.’ Whose hand are you reaching for?”)

 

Strolls start being their kind of thing, now, in December. They go to Annie’s together, sometimes, or maybe because Dex likes the snow and Derek likes watching Dex enjoy something, rather than being the usual strictly serious person he is, and they spend a significant amount of their time shoving each other into snow banks. It’s what they’re doing now, while they’re on the way to dinner at the Haus.

Dex is grinning at him, in this moment, loud and careless and acting like they’ve got nowhere to be. Competitive as he holds Derek down to push the ice down under his jacket, laughing all the while; and no one else is around, as far as Derek can see. Dex’s laugh is—something else. Derek doesn’t get to hear it too often; he’s too busy trying to get a rise out of him most of the time to bother getting that, though he’d probably start trying differently, now. He lets Dex’s hands press against his chest, observing the shadows on his face, and doesn’t complain about the snow stuck to his skin. Derek’s okay with admitting that he’s that far gone.

“Bitty’s waiting,” Dex says, checking his phone after he lends a hand to Derek. His breath is visible in the air as he exhales. Derek matches his breathing to Dex, waiting for himself to stop panting. “Apparently we’re also going to be washing the dishes, since we’re the last ones to arrive.”

Derek grins. “Oh, it’s chill, Poindexter.”

He gets a glare for his trouble. “I don’t even know why you keep on saying that,” Dex is grumbling. “All it does is make you sound fucking stupid.”

“Come on, child, breathe a little,” Derek slings his arm across Dex’s shoulders. “Want me to pat your back?”

“Fuck off, man,” Dex says, but he’s leaning into it. “I’m only eight months younger than you.”

“You could do a lot in eight months,” Derek argues.

Dex scoffs. “Like what? Lose your keys twenty-four times?”

Derek gasps, puts in his usual dose of theatrical. “Have you been counting, Mr. Poindexter?”

“It’s the only thing I’m good at,” Dex laughs, and Derek shuffles in closer. It’s not true, to say the least; Dex is good at—multitasking and learning and skating and laughing and being, and Derek would probably have fallen in love with all of him even if he all of that wasn’t true anyway. A year ago and he’d have told you that he wouldn’t. That he’d find someone that wasn’t another hockey bro, confrontational with his anger and too-quick to reason, lacking an appreciation for anything more subtle—but there’s something poetic about Dex. It’s there in his slow acceptances and burnt pessimism and righteous anger, all spent in the wrong places.

Derek was prejudiced, too, or at least was too quick to make his own assumptions. That he’d thought that people never changed. He was wrong. At some point Dex has turned from someone he’s hated from first glance to someone he wants to talk to, if only for a second opinion, a shot at changing someone’s mind.

Derek says, “You’re good with a lot of things, honestly,” and relishes the sight of Dex’s cheeks turning pink.

 

When they get to the Haus, Bitty says, “Y’all are washing the plates tonight.” He’s eyeing Derek’s hand, still on Dex’s shoulder. Sizing them up in the parental way that Bitty just is. He’s ready to stop touching Dex at a moment’s notice, though, preparing himself for the no-homo that comes, but Dex isn’t attempting to shake him off, so he leaves it there.

Bitty points at them with a ladle. “No fighting in my kitchen, you hear?”

Dex is smiling at him when they’re both earnestly nodding in agreement. Derek likes his smiles, really, the way they grow crooked when he’s smug about himself, that fucker, or how his lips stretch when he’s beaming after a hard-earned win, or that minute tilt of his mouth when he’s done with his programming business, relieved. It’s nice. He may or may not have written poetry about the way Dex grins. It’s chill.

“Yes sir,” Dex says, tilting his head to catch a glimpse of whatever’s left on the dining table. He looks hungry. Derek lets him go. He’s thinking of hanging back, wanting to greet Farmer—but Dex grasps him by the arm and pulls Derek onto the seat beside him.

“Don’t blame me if I finish your portion, Nurse,” Dex says, biting into his forkful, and it should be disgusting. It’s only cute.

“You’re welcome to, if you don’t choke on it,” Derek tells him, winking back at the glare he receives. It’s still easy to piss him off.

But some days it feels less like they’re sniping at each other needlessly, that they aren’t arguing because they mean it—more like they’ve settled into a dynamic that fits them. Everything comes easy when they’re pulling and pushing and bickering and yelling—but that might just be Derek.

 

When they’re alone, Bitty says, “Dex gets along with you better, now,” like he’s hinting at something.

“Oh, yeah,” Derek says, eyeing his big ears through the window, arms still covered in detergent. He’d lost the bet over how long it took Chowder and Farmer to make out on the couch, and Dex had waited for him to argue with his eyes flashing, and.

He clears his throat. “It’s pretty chill, actually.”

 

Derek hates waking up at six in the morning—but Dex sticks to a pretty rigid schedule. Their classes clash too much for Derek to find a reason to ask him out for coffee, at least not casually, so Derek’s grown used to it at this point; a sleepy-eyed William J. Poindexter is better than a couple more hours of sleep, if you’re asking him.

He brings up his conversation with Bitty, when Dex is nursing his third cup of coffee before class starts. It’s mostly impulse, and Derek wouldn’t have done this a second time—but his curiosity snags at him too much to let it go. He wonders if Bitty had this same talk with him. How he took it.

“Is that a bad thing?” Dex asks, looking up from his screen. His eyes are still half-lidded. He’s probably gotten less than four hours of sleep the night before.

“Guess not,” Derek says, and brushes the topic off. “You should’ve slept in.”

“Too much homework,” comes as a reply, and Dex makes a displeased face at him when Derek tugs the coffee out of his hands to finish it. He’s lying, but Derek doesn’t call him out on that. He knows that Dex puts in extra effort to keep on top of his studies; he’s worried about dropping out, even if he maintains his grades better than the rest of the team.

Derek smiles. “Busy last night, huh?”

“Not all of us can afford to slack off, asshole,” swipes Dex, and Derek lays off, though there’s a smile resting underneath his face when Dex says, “I don’t see why you should be chirping me. I’m not the one that handed in his assignment late for a threesome.”

“It was a good one,” Derek says, but that’s a lie too. The both of them were attractive, sure, but there was something too mild about them, and Derek’s too used to pushing buttons. “You should get some.”

Dex looks at him for a long while, considering, before he says, “I’ll pass. Casual sex doesn’t do it for me.”

“Oh,” Derek says, heart speeding up for no reason. There goes the idea of hooking up with him—which, to be fair, he wanted nothing between them to be casual in the first place, but. Something is always better than nothing. “That’s nice.”

Something seeps out of Dex’s shoulders. “Nice?”

“Sure,” Derek says, only noticing that Dex was kind of preparing for confrontation. He’s still looking at Derek like he’s about to snap at him; like the act of telling was enough to make him vulnerable. He supposes that it’s only fair that he offers himself up, too.

“Don’t worry about it, man,” Derek says, knocking their feet together. “I’m—”

He struggles for a label. Dex is still observing him, patient.

“—not straight,” Derek finishes, inwardly wincing. He’s not sure if Dex is actually homophobic, but hey, he can suck it if he is. If this changes things between them, Derek would just have to get over it. Not exactly new territory.

Dex blinks at him, slow. “Okay,” he says, his lips stretching into a smile, and wow, that’s something else. “Thanks for telling me, dude.”

“Anytime, man,” Derek says, and feels his own face lighting up.

 

Whatever Derek has said about Dex having no sense of fun—he takes it back. Snow angels are one of the best fucking things in the world, kudos to Dex for wryly making a comment about that. He really ought to have known better.

His sleeves grow wet as he spreads his arms against the snow, ice melting against his skin. The goosebumps rise on his arms. He’s not exactly cold, even when the wind brushes past his body—but Dex is kneeling on the ground beside him, looking down, and Derek shivers. No one should ever look good in that hideous angle.

He’s looming over Derek, arms crossed. “Done yet?”

“Nope,” Derek tells him, dragging his arms for further emphasis. “Snow angels take time, man. Beauty comes after hurt.”

Dex nods. “Okay, then. Tell that to the doctor when you freeze your dick off for your snow angel.”

Derek bites back a laugh, chooses to pout at him instead. “My penis is perfectly fine.”

“We still have to go to Stop and Shop, asshole,” Dex says, rolling his eyes. He grabs a handful of snow to pelt at Derek, who doesn’t even give a shit. He’s waiting for an opportunity to get back at him—and it comes when Dex is busy preparing his arsenal. Derek pulls him down by his collar to shove Dex’s head into the patch beside him, as carefully as possible.

“What the fuck is wrong with you,” Dex mutters, lifting his head to glare at Derek. Still half-hearted, so they’re good.

“Now you’re another one of my snow angels,” Derek grins, accepting the snow that Dex pushes onto his cheeks. He wipes it off amicably, turning to look at Dex—who’s smirking at him gleefully. They’re so close that Derek can feel Dex’s breath on his face. Stares at the freckles across his nose.

He’s speaking before he realises it: “So a kiss happens when our world clears, rose-tinted but still visible. None of it is realistic—but ice thaws in winter. Then a warmth settles over the people. And the cities.”

Dex says, “No one ever told me that you were a fucking sap,” and starts propelling him with more snow.

 

The pond’s frozen over. Derek’s managed to convince Dex to skate with him, just because he looked like he needed it. No matter what Dex says—he honestly doubts that threatening to punch your own computer over and over again is a healthy way to work anything out.

“You gotta give yourself some space to chill, man,” he says, skating in no particular direction. Derek used to write like this—with no destination in mind, content to let anything fall out from his fingers—but things aren’t the same anymore. He keeps coming back to the same metaphors, these days, writing and rewriting and tearing and writing and rewriting. His poems aren’t what they used to be anymore; they’ve turned into shuddering entities, jaws snapping. Derek used to hate that kind of anger—he’d thought that it was crude. Perhaps he still does.

Poems with strong emotions are—jarring, for the lack of a better word, crawling out to demand attention. Derek supposes that he just can’t find any appreciation for that, or at least, that’s not anything he wants to write.

Dex slams into him from behind. “What are you thinking about?” Neither of them are wearing their hockey gear, outside of their skates, so Dex’s shoulder is sharp and rigid against the lines of his back, warm. He feels Dex’s scarf against his neck, briefly, before he pulls away.

“How to get that stick outta your ass,” Derek tells him, running his fingers through Dex’s hair. “Seems like it’s working.”

“Fuck you,” Dex says. “But thanks.”

Derek gives his hair one last ruffle, and moves his hand away. They’re still moving together on the ice, though they’ve long stopped touching; he’s happy with that.

 

Dex is sitting with him outside of Annie’s; the tables indoors are all taken. He’s typing up notes for his classes, while Derek is flipping through The Year of the Flood, half-attentive to the sound of Dex muttering shallowly. His hands are a bit too frozen for him to actually write anything, but he’s almost done with the page when he notices the gloves on the table.

Derek sets his book down on beside his coffee, taking a look at Dex. He probably doesn’t need them, not when he’s typing, so Derek pulls them onto his own hands instead. Their hands are about the same size, so the gloves fit.

Dex doesn’t notice until half an hour later, when Derek’s resigned himself to people-watching, gloves too clumsy for a book. He says, “Nursey. You’re a fucking idiot.”

“What the hell did I do, this time?” Derek snaps back, half-heartedly. Dex is watching him with an expression usually reserved for when he drops his phone (again), and he reaches into his pockets to check if it’s still there. It is. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You could have just said that you were cold.”

Derek tamps down on the smile. “Nah, Poindexter. Don’t worry about it. It’s chill.”

Dex looks like he’s about to strangle him, but he’d have done it by now, so Derek thinks that he’ll live. Dex brings his hands up—at first Derek’s thinking that he’s really about to commit homicide, but he’s pulling the scarf off from his own neck instead, rearranging it around Derek’s own. His nose is so red that he kind of looks like a tomato. It’d be slightly concerning if he weren’t so adorable.

“You’re blushing,” Derek points out, though his own heart is speeding up at the gesture. Sometimes he forgets that they’re not freshmen anymore, angling to argue with each other as much as possible; what they have now is truly more friendship than rivalry. Chowder’s presence lessens by the day because they don’t need him as a buffer—and he’s spending a lot of time with Farmer, anyway, and Derek would keep what he has with Dex over any other romance. If he’s honest.

Dex says, “I fucking hate you,” and returns to his work.

 

Derek writes more poetry. They’re all about crackling logs, the pyrophobia when you light up a candle, the sweet comfort of smooth, unblemished skin. He writes most of them with caffeine on his tongue, pressing it to the roof of his mouth, thinking, not thinking, winding up the same scarf around his neck every morning. Dex is insistent on making Annie’s part of their routine; their small little window of black coffee and bickering and typing, so it’s part of Derek’s too, now. He people-watches. Trails his eyes after everyone shuffling about, eyes distracted, observing their clothes, right until he gives in and observes Dex. It’s a good rhythm to settle into.

December’s a boring month otherwise—Derek supposes there’s Christmas, but he doesn’t care that much for holidays, no matter the cheer. Dex is heading back to celebrate that with his family, and Derek’s mothers are probably intending to call him back, too. He wonders if they’ll still go to Annie’s when the break’s over.

Dex is at the house, saying goodbye to Bitty, smiling as he receives his portion of pie, but his eyes catch onto his scarf, wrapped around Derek’s neck. For a moment he thinks that Dex would ask for it back—but that doesn’t happen.

“Bye, Nurse,” Dex says instead, and Derek waggles his eyebrows at him.

“Will you miss me?”

Dex frowns. “No, not really.”

Derek laughs. This was a conversation they’ve had before. Funny how a few months can make you fall in love, quick and easy. A single line of poetry reverberating through your brains and you start sinking in. “You’re always welcome to Skype me.”

“We’ll see about that,” Dex mutters, and picks up his bag. He has his hands in his pockets when he leaves, and Derek’s hands twitch at his side, still-gloved. They feel like they’re warm in the grasp of a handshake.

A handshake will do, too, he’s thinking. A handshake and a hug and the heat of someone’s eyes against a computer screen will last him a long, long time.

Bitty hands him a container of mini-pies. “Got your back,” he says, and Derek tucks it carefully into his satchel. Takes off his gloves and makes sure they sit on top of everything else inside the bag.

 

Derek texts him when he can, which is pretty often. Dex is busy, most of the time, though he still makes an effort to reply periodically—and that’s more than enough. The holidays have always been an elusive affair even when he is alone with his mothers. All those years spent at Andover and he’s never gained an appreciation for wealth. Sometimes he thinks that it’s this wealth itself that makes him blind. He wonders what Dex has to say about that.

But he doesn’t bother him so much. Instead he flips through anthology after anthology after anthology after anthology after anthology. Crossing his legs in a Starbucks, reading the news for Jack Zimmermann. He wishes he could say that it’s odd, knowing someone this famous—but it really isn’t. His mothers’ names are known enough, though not to the general public. They’re good mothers, if a little distant. They care about him the same way that parents ought to feel obliged about; and Derek loves them back. He wonders if Jack’s parents were ever distant. What they’d told him when he’d left for another world.

 

At dinner, his mama asks, “Have you thought about life after college?”

His phone buzzes shallowly in his jeans. It’s all he ever thinks about; writing and playing shinny and travelling and money. The luck that’s been trickling down to him; the way that Dex has to wake before the sun. The same way too many people do. Fuelled by a determination forged not by poverty—but by circumstance. He’s spent every morning blinking up at his ceiling desperate to sink his feet into the snow, stained by coffee and breakfast. But he stares at his poetry collection and remembers that this is a world he’s grown up in. Far removed. College really is a place to learn.

“Poetry,” Derek says. He knows that they’re going to talk to each other trying to convince him out of it. “But not really.” He makes sure not to drag the fork on his plate. “Still trying to figure it out.” His phone keeps on buzzing. Derek’s going to have to mute the hockey chat.

They’re exchanging a glance. “Alright,” Derek’s mom says, and drops it. “Your friends at Samwell?”

He knows they’re making assumptions about the friends he’s made. They did this even back at school. Before Samwell. It was mostly true, all the talk about the wealth and the racism and the homophobia and a deep, strong, cold neglect.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. Looks around at the dining room too big for three quiet people. You could fit half the Haus in here. His phone refuses to stay silent. “I was thinking of inviting some of them over.” He’s saying, but he won’t actually do that. There’s too much possibility for discomfort.

“Great,” his mama says, pushing her plate away. He thinks about the cheap, overly-sweetened coffee back at Annie’s, or Bitty’s cooking. “We can set up the guest rooms up, if you’d like.”

 

“I’ve been thinking a lot,” Derek confesses, voice low, though he doesn’t have to bother. The house’s empty. It’s just that it feels more sincere this way, with his head on the pillow and the curtains drawn.

Dex snorts. “Oh, no,” he says, and the laugh brightens through the phone. It’s obvious that he’s exhausted; he’s been doing little jobs here and there. Derek’s about to hang up for him to get some sleep when Dex continues talking. “Poetry?”

“Yeah,” Derek says. “I’m angstier at home.”

“Christmas isn’t even here yet,” Dex mutters.

“I’m young,” Derek whines. “It’s normal. Every day I look out at the snow and think of, like, birds or some shit.”

Dex hums. Someone shouts at someone else over the phone on his end, asking where the soap’s gone. Dex is likely covering his phone with one hand when he starts yelling back, though he returns after a few seconds. “Creeping on birds isn’t that normal, Nurse.”

“Siblings?” Derek asks.

“Yup,” Dex says. “Anna and Nathan.”

He thinks back. One’s seven and the other’s twelve. Both of them with hair just as red. Laughing loudly around a Christmas tree. “Sounds like a crowded house.”

“Everyone’s coming ‘round for Christmas,” comes the explanation. “There’s been a few fights.”

He can imagine it. An entire roomful of Williams shouting with smoke pouring out of their ears, like a cartoon. “And how many of them have you been in?”

“Quite a few,” Dex says. He’s leaving the room, or going somewhere quieter. There’s the sound of a door shutting. Derek wonders if it’s insensitive to ask if he shares a bedroom with anyone else. He’s working on being nice. “They’re surprisingly bigoted.”

“Not like you were any better,” Derek says. He winces inwardly—it’s the wrong thing to say, or at least too early.

“I know,” Dex says, and falls silent. Derek doesn’t think he’s angry, or at least not with his breathing still steady, rhythmic. He wonders about all the things he could have say in between these stretches.  What do you consider to be wealth? How does selflessness slip beneath your skin this young? Where did you unlearn all this prejudice?

Dex continues, “I just think that people should at least be given the chance to hear things out.”

“But sometimes they don’t listen,” Derek says.

Another silence. He brushes his toes against the sheets, kicking the pile of books off his bed. He’s just about to say something when Dex answers him, “You’re right. Sometimes they never will.”

 

Derek wakes up the next day with his phone beside his head, the battery dying. He takes a look at his call history. The call had ended at two in the morning. He’d called Dex at eleven, fell asleep around one. He looks out of the window, to the buildings sprawling over the sky. Every day the snow grows thicker as they venture deeper into the months. He wonders how cold the summers are, where Dex is from. How it’d feel like to peer up into a true, blue sky.

 

In the middle of the day—when Derek’s pens run out of ink—he receives a text. Which is odd, considering that he’d frustratedly exited the group chat when the vibrations made him lose five words a few hours ago. He’s gotten them back but the syllables turn out wrong. The pen slips from his fingers onto the floor, and that’s another pen gone.

“Fucking hell,” Derek’s muttering, debating the choices of pushing his chair back to pick it up. He unlocks his phone screen instead, and there’s a picture from Dex. It’s slightly unfocused, with the lighting too bright—but three snow angels, with their makers missing. It’s cute. He’s smiling at the picture when another text comes in.

that’s angela, emma and zoe.

Derek texts back, Are they your cousins? How many ppl r at ur house, jfc

around thirty, is sent back, after ten seconds. still quieter than the haus tbh.

Derek types out a quick, perfunctory reply, before pocketing his phone. He shrugs on a jacket, and heads out. Snaps a picture of his local cafe to Dex, and captions it: you’d hate this place. annie’s is better.

He gets a message after a few hours, with three full poems scribbled on the back of his hands. wait until you come to portland

holdin u 2 that.

 

So the days disintegrate into the same white noise. Snow falling, dinner with his mothers, poetry, more poetry. His finger bandaged from a fall down the staircases. Spending too much money buying the same sweet sickening sugar and scooping too much of it into his coffee. The team rattles on and all of them watch out for news of their old captain, and their new ones take advantage of their positions to administer strange punishments to Chowder. Lardo tells them about the new pieces she’s working on. Dex pops up once in a while to argue with him. Derek thinks it’s only slightly pathetic that his phone is one of the few highlights of his break.

He’s invited to multiple parties from old schoolmates for Christmas. He refuses every one of them and tucks himself against his mama in the living room on the couch, though he’s long grown past her. He’s more than a foot taller, now.

“When did you grow up so fast,” she’s saying, a hand on his shoulder.

He wipes away the ink on his hand. “I think I never grew up at all, Mama.” It’s true. His height’s stayed stagnant once he reached seventeen. Maybe he’ll keep growing, like an errant weed or a vine or some plant that you’d never thought would take root.

His phone lights up on the coffee table. Forty-five new messages from the Samwell Men’s Hockey group chat, and he’s answered none of them. It blinks again. It’s a message from Chowder; incoherent with a string of exclamation marks. Seems like he’s just as passionate about punctuation as ever before.

“You grew taller, if anything,” she says, running a hand through his hair. He remembers this exact same indulgence when he was eight, knowing nothing of words or grammar or syntax but instead having a lap full of anger no one knew what to deal with. He thinks he’d never learned.

“Anything’s too broad a term,” he says, watching her eyebrows furrow. Dex’s face shows up on his screen. Incoming call.

“Your friend,” she says, and he breaks the hug, picking up his phone to move elsewhere.

 

“Hey,” comes Dex’s voice. “Merry Christmas, dude.”

“Thanks, bud. Got me any presents this year?” It’s a joke. Derek’s not particularly wanting one.

“Yeah,” Dex says—and Derek shuts up. “Knock it off, Greg—HEY.”

“Chill,” Derek says. It’s practically part of their dynamic by now.

“I got you a present, yeah. I’m expecting one too, Derek—”

The phone cuts off. He smiles down at Dex’s contact on his phone until the grease gets too slippery for it to stay it in his hand.

 

He starts walking around the neighbourhood, when he has the time. He’s not that photography-savvy, so he abandons his Pentax at home, choosing instead to carry his moleskine around with him. He wraps the scarf around his neck, watching the snow crowd up around the street lamps. It’s a particularly cold winter. Someone’s playing street hockey, and Derek walks up to the children to remind them to be careful. One bad trip and hockey won’t be hockey anymore. One of them eyes him until he stands up straighter, squares his shoulders. As if preparing for a fight he’d have with Dex.

“Okay, man,” the kid relents. Derek smiles down at him, before he walks the other way to duck into the cafe nearby to see how long it takes for them to pick their sticks up again. They don’t come back.

 

He tells this to Dex, when he gets off work. It’s routine by now; Dex will message him when he can and Derek would try his best to slow his replies down, so he doesn’t have to stumble out an explanation that involves anything like: maybe i’m in sweet stupid childish love, or, i can’t taste coffee without wanting to kiss you, or, you remind me of a heated feverish bright summer dream. The worst part is that they’re all true.

“You’ve got issues,” Dex tells him, after he’s complained about the horrible, overpriced tea he’d drank from a mug. He’d had to eat an entire handful of sweets to wash the taste out.

Derek grins. “Nah, man. All poets do. That’s what poetry is for, yeah? Complaining about shit.”

Dex clears his throat. “You’re pretty intense about this,” he says, and it feels like an accusation, though Derek doesn’t know why. He turns away from the pile growing higher on his desk. Bites down on the mint he’s left in his mouth, cold.

After a while, he says, “I’m chill, man, it’s whatever.”

“Are you,” Dex says, scepticism running high. Derek makes a face before he forgets that it’s only a voice call. He thinks that they should start video calling—it’s been ages since he’s seen Dex’s face, flushed red from the cold, freckles light. He thinks about the way the snowflakes gather in his eyelashes, his breath fogging up. Derek looks towards the scarf, folded neatly on his table. It’s a little worn out now.

“Yeah, dude,” Derek says. “You’re the one with issues,” and Dex is—laughing. Soft, barely there, but light and weightless; exactly like snow.

 

They’ve been on the phone for an hour, when Derek grits his teeth, and says, “We should Skype.”

Dex says, “Okay,” easy, and Derek relishes in the pass he’s getting, the unspoken why. “Not tonight, though.”

“Yeah, man,” Derek smiles. “Whenever.”

 

Whenever turns out to be the next morning, the computer propped up on Dex’s lap. He’s eating a bowl full of chips, fingers speckled with salt. He keeps licking at them; it’s distracting.

“Shit,” Derek says, unceremoniously, once the call goes through. “Now I’m hungry too.”

“I wouldn’t give you my chips even if you were here,” Dex says, shooting him a look, possessive. He’s by the window. The snow’s falling hard, casting a white blurry glow around everything, winter-like. He wonders how hard Dex would punch him if he made a joke about elves in a workshop.

“Yes, that does make me feel much better,” Derek says, popping some candy into his mouth. “Plans for today?”

“Don’t have any,” Dex says. He’s wearing a t-shirt, arms thick, folded across his chest. He’s watching Derek expectantly. Something in his mind skips a beat; it feels like Dex is waiting for a punchline to a joke, a what are you trying to do? But he’s content to watch him back, expression unreadable. Dex is hard to grasp when he’s not angry; Derek knows what he looks like in varying degrees of offended, but never when he’s more content, never like this.

Derek shuffles his programmes around, closes Word to magnify Dex’s face. “You look different,” he says, when Dex looks like he’s lost in thought.

There’s a quip to be made here, a joke to throw back at him. It’s because you’re not here. Easy. Simple as that, but instead Dex says: “You look different, too. You’re quieter than you are in Samwell.”

“Am I?” Derek says, though he doesn’t think Dex catches it, distracted by the question of a sibling. He’s turned to his left, going slightly out of frame. His jaw is sharper than Derek remembers. He’s laughing at something too muddled for Derek to catch.

“You are,” Dex says, when Derek regains his attention. His smile tampers down to something akin to fondness, though he doesn’t let himself linger too much on what that means. His mouth is opening to form the shape of a word when he clamps it down. Derek doesn’t ask about it.

You’re changed, too, he wants to say. Less like a wave crashing onto a boulder.

“We’re so mellow now,” Derek whines, though he’s not really complaining. “It’s the weather. Seasonal depression. Do you think Ransom and Jack gets happier around this time? With their Canadian blood?”

“No,” Dex says, short, though the fondness doesn’t go away. “I think you’re just—”

“Just?” Derek prompts.

“—was going to call you a pussy,” Dex says, turning redder. “But Shitty would have heard that all the way in Boston, and come here to strangle me.”

Derek grins at him. He seems to turn even brighter. “Sick, dude. I’m proud of you.”

“Shut up.”

“No,” Derek says, straining to see the gold flecks in his eyes that he knows are—yes. There they are. “It takes a lot to admit that you’ve got a problem in the first place. We’ve all got stuff to overcome.”

“Hmm.” Dex says, and the snow seems to stop outside his window. He wonders if Dex finds comfort in the weather the same way that Derek loves the summer sun and its scorching hot syrupy days. He can’t wait for the sweltering slow quietness that breathes so much differently than the cold. “People change.”

Looks like his attempts to divert the topic hadn’t succeeded. “Sure,” Derek says, giving up on being chill. “You’re not as angry, anymore.”

Dex snorts, ducking his face. His tongue runs over his upper teeth—Derek’s thinking about hockey, now, the curve of a fist. His gloves thrown down, someone punching someone else. It’s not supposed to be beautiful but it is. “That’s because you’ve stopped trying to bait me. I appreciate that.”

“Are we having a heart to heart,” Derek deadpans. “Is that what’s happening? Sharing our feelings?”

“You’re the poet,” Dex says, raising an eyebrow. “You decide,” and moves on to a newer topic.

 

Sometime between the awkward phase of Christmas and New Year’s Eve—his mom asks, “Did a girl knit that for you?”

“The scarf?” Derek asks, tugging it tighter around his neck. He’s taken off his gloves to avoid wrecking the poetry he’s written down in the morning. “I stole it from a friend,” he continues, though he doesn’t know why he’s lying.

“It’s a nice scarf,” she says. “You’ve been wearing it around.”

He thinks back to the twenty or so he’s amassed over the years. Call him sentimental, but he doesn’t like throwing things away. “It’s nice,” he says, feeling defensive. Why spend more money buying new ones every year? “Serves its purpose.”

“The friend you’ve been texting these days?” She prods.

“Yeah. Dex,” Derek tells her, though he doesn’t know how to elaborate. Dex is—kind and angry and beautiful with too-big ears and his eyes shine brighter than gold; he’s hardworking and frugal with his money because he has to be, not because it’s humanitarian; Derek loves him.

He clears his throat, and settles for, “We’re the D-men on the hockey team, remember?”

“Right,” says his mom, though she’s obviously forgotten that he still plays hockey at Samwell. “Anyway,” she says, and the subject’s gone. They start talking about the party the neighbours are holding, about networking.

 

The second Skype call comes a few days later, at about midnight. Derek supposes that he’s had a bad day at work and just wants to talk, because he usually sleeps pretty early, but hey—it’s chill.

“What’s up,” Derek asks, faux-casual. Dex is obviously pissed about something else, if that crease in the middle of his eyes is anything to go by. (It is.)

Dex shrugs. “Nothing,” he says. “How was your day?”

Derek lets it drop. “Boring, mostly. Walked around. I fell three times today. You’d have laughed and called me a moron.”

The furrow disappears, and Derek counts it as a victory, though Dex is still frowning. “You are a moron. Me saying that out loud doesn’t make validate anything.”

“Kay,” Derek says, smiling. “I went to a new cafe and drank their tea. It was shit, wouldn’t recommend.”

“Why are you hipsters so particular about all these drinks,” Dex grumbles. Derek thinks about the hazelnut cappuccino he’s initiated into his mornings, and doesn’t say anything. “It’s just—coffee and tea, man. Just dump a fuckton of sugar into it and call it a day.”

“Chill, Poindexter,” Derek says, smiling when Dex levels a glare at him through the screen.

“Right,” Dex says, after half a second’s worth of being pissed off. “Write any poetry?”

“Nothing substantial,” Derek says, after his surprise to the question fades. He’s almost forgotten that Dex knows that he writes more than one every few months or so; the rest of the team is pretty much clueless, even Chowder. Maybe Bitty—but he’s the Team Mom, so. “Just one.”

“Cool,” Dex says, tilting his head. Derek feels his heart in his throat the same way it does when he scores a goal. “Read it to me?”

“Uh,” Derek says, slightly dumbfounded.

“If you want.”

He takes a look at Dex, who still seems to be patient. The direct opposite of demanding. He’s looking at the screen differently to the way he stares at his homework; he doesn’t look like he’s about to take Derek apart to rewrite him, the way that Derek felt before. It’s an opportunity, Derek realises; Dex is asking because he genuinely wants to listen. No reason for him to ask for something that he doesn’t really want.

“Give me a second,” Derek decides, holding up his laptop as he searches for the slip of paper. Dex looks like he’s trying not to smile too hard, like he’s the one that gets the favour—at this point Derek’s lost on who’s helping who.

He finds it in his coat pocket, folded over, slightly crumpled. He was planning to throw it away, but. “Got it,” he says, waving it at the camera.

Dex leans back against his bed. There must be a snowstorm over where he lives; Derek can hear the wind howling even with the volume turned down low. There’s the slight bit of awkwardness that lingers by his throat when Dex looks at him, expectant, and he realises that he’s never really read any of it out loud before, to another person—when it’s not an obligation. It feels monumental, like a first step north, or the fountain pen his mothers bought him when he was ten. He takes a deep breath.

“I loved the boy who burned like the ice ages never happened,” he says, almost stumbling over the syllables; it’s ridiculous. He’s been revising this in his own head for longer than any person needs to, but despite all that—there’s a knot untied at the bottom of his lungs. Dex doesn’t look conflicted, and for a while Derek’s confused that he hasn’t pointed out the pronoun—but he remembers Annie’s soon enough. He wishes he could go back.

“Not even when the ice settles onto his skin like a bruise,” he reads. “Caught myself thinking that it would hurt—but apparently not if your skin is only a quiet fire.” There’s more to it but he doesn’t read it out; it’s too transparent. Even for someone who’s not into poetry as much as he is.

Dex hums, eyes darting—it’s startling, how clear they are, even in the dark. The winds don’t quiet down where he is. Perhaps they’re loud enough to cover the quiet guilt he hears in his own voice. “That’s nice,” he says, when he seems to realise that the poem’s stopped. Maybe he knows that there’s more to it—but he doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that line of thought. “Who’s it about?”

“No one in particular,” Derek says, feeling the weight of his eyes. “I was just randomly inspired.”

“Really,” Dex says, though there’s no judgement in his expression. He looks down for a moment, and the lamplight catches onto his eyelashes, casting a gentle shadow. Oddly soft for a person whose presence is louder than anyone else that Derek’s met.

 

Derek’s celebrating New Year’s Eve at their neighbour’s party, hiding out alone on the balcony waiting for the clock to turn new, when he receives an incoming call. Dex. He turns the phone on silent, so that the group chat wouldn’t break their conversation when it starts buzzing in his hand.

“Hey,” Derek says, when he picks up, shifting to the side for Dex to hear him clearer. “Happy new year, man.”

“Thanks,” Dex replies, and the background noise fades further away. “Hiding away from the crowd?”

“Yeah,” he shrugs. Finishes the rest of the drink in his hand, before he says, “You too?”

“Pretty much. They can get slightly overbearing.”

“Let me guess,” Derek says, looking down at the group of drunks who’s tripping over themselves on the streets. “You’re being pestered about your resolution, and your potential girlfriend, and what you’re doing after college.”

Dex hums. “The universal experience,” he says. “I’m guessing you don’t have the answers to those questions either.”

“I do,” Derek tells him. “It’s just nothing they’d like to hear.”

“That sucks,” Dex breathes out. “But you know. Still a long way to go.”

“Not that long,” Derek argues. “Time flies faster than you want it to.”

“That’s subjective,” Dex says, and they both let out a simultaneous laugh. Derek supposes that they can always fall back on this, the bickering, if Dex ever finds out about his feelings. It comes so easily that he doesn’t think there’d be a steadfast way to get rid of what they have.

“Speaking of time,” Derek says, turning ‘round to lean his back against the railing, “It’s almost New Year’s. You wanna stay on the phone, or?”

“Yeah,” Dex blurts out, a little too quickly. “Yeah, man. I’m not going back. Someone’s gonna kiss me.”

“Boo,” Derek laughs. “That must suck. One minute left. Sure you’re not gonna change your mind?”

“I’m pretty certain,” Dex tells him. The wind’s faint against the receiver; he must have headed outside. “I don’t do casual, remember?”

Derek hums. “I remember. Just never thought it extended past sex, is all.”

“Well,” Dex says, sighing. “Now you do.”

They fall quiet, after that, though Derek doesn’t really mind; he’s preoccupied with the time on his watch. Ten seconds left. He says, “Happy New Year’s, William.”

“Happy New Year’s, Derek,” Dex says, and there goes the fireworks.

 

“I don’t know why everyone’s comfortable with racism,” Dex is complaining to him, biting his bottom lip as he works on his homework, while skyping Derek. “This isn’t the twentieth century anymore. I thought we grew past that.”

Derek leans back against his pillows. He’s unknowingly subscribed to the Poindexters’ Podcast of Daily Disagreements, it seems, but it’s not like he minds. Dex needs an outlet. “What did you argue about this time?”

“Respectability politics,” Dex says, with a groan. “Why are people like this? You don’t get to pick who you want to be racist against—people aren’t impoverished by choice.”

“Right,” Derek replies. He’s not going to say anything stupid, like, I never knew you were brave enough to stand up against that many people, because he knows exactly how brave Dex is, going to some liberal arts college, far out of his comfort zone. He’s happy for him. “I don’t think wealth is an indicator of anything.”

“Wealth is—” Dex starts to say, but something seems to trip him up. Derek waits patiently for him to continue, but he just looks increasingly angry.

“What is it,” Derek prompts.

Dex runs a hand through his hair. It’s slightly longer now; he’s missed his monthly haircut. “I don’t know what wealth is. I don’t know how it’s like to not worry about money.”

You have plenty of it in your eyes, Derek thinks, but it’s not exactly the most appropriate thing to say. “I’m sorry,” he tells him. “I’m not sorry because you’re poor, or anything like that. It’s just a tiring argument to have in the first place.”

Dex looks at him, closely, with something that Derek doesn’t know how to read.

“Sometimes it’s better to let it go,” Derek continues saying. “We’re not all Shitty, you know? Pick your battles, and all that.”

“I guess,” Dex says, looking away.

 

The flight back is slow, meandering. Derek watches the snow outside transform the land into a glittering white, and he’s flipping his phone over in his hands. The stewardess asks him what he wants to drink. He asks for coffee with extra sugar, as strong as they can make it. The lights are dimmed, and he’s watching a documentary. A photographer climbing up in the mines where the people fall and fall and fall again. How he left prosperity in search for something older, bringing with him a camera and a wife and a devotion Derek thinks his mothers had never dreamed of.

 

Bitty’s there in the Haus when Derek returns, and the kitchen smells too-warm, cinnamon coughing up his lungs. “Bits,” Derek says, smiling as Bitty frets over him. Dex and him are never going to be what Chowder is to Bitty—but it feels nice to have someone slice him a fresh pie, still hot.

“Careful,” he’s saying, when Derek bites into it too quick, happy to bite into the apple flesh. “You’re going to burn your tongue.”

“I hate the cold,” Derek says, somewhat irrelevant.

Bitty tilts his head at him. Derek wonders when he’ll ever tell the team about his relationship with Jack; not that Derek’s going to rat him out. All of them are pretty clueless, anyway, and Derek’s willing to play along. He knows how important secrets are. His mothers used to tell him about the colleagues they now out-ranked; about all the bitter prejudice.

“Dex is coming back, tomorrow,” Bitty says, giving himself a slice. He’s watching Derek expectantly. This would be a good time to tell someone, if he had the courage. If.

Derek says, “I know.” They haven’t been talking much, either because Dex wants to avoid him or he’s busy with work; but Dex had messaged him the departure time, and he’d asked if Dex wants him to be there at the airport. He hasn’t gotten an answer back.

Bitty puts his fork down and asks, “How were your holidays?”

“Boring,” Derek answers, mouth full. It’s true. The words fall out before he can take it back. “Didn’t do much. I wrote until my hands hurt.”

He almost flinches at the kindness when Bitty says, “’s good to be passionate about something,” looking at Derek as if he’s not experiencing the same thing that he is, that big strong hurt of honesty. “Just be careful about it.”

“I’m not like him,” Derek blurts out. He sets his spoon against the table, careful, and straightens it until it’s perfectly perpendicular. Doesn’t look up. “It’s not—my life, you know? I feel childish—a phase, if you will.”

Bitty’s phone lights up on the table, but he’s ignoring it for once. The notifications flood up his lock screen.

He says, “Your world can still change at nineteen.”

Derek’s head snaps up, and Bitty says, “Do you want another slice of pie?”

 

He’s wrapping the scarf around his neck tighter, pulling the gloves on when he sees Dex, toying with his phone on the bench. He must have arrived late the night before; his eyes are half-open and barely there.

“Hey, man,” Derek says, loosening his throat. “How you doin’?”

“Fine,” Dex says, his mouth quirking up in that small subtle beautiful way. Derek’s standing still as Dex walks up to him, arms opening. He’s probably angling for a bro-hug but Derek ruins it by holding on. Dex hugs him back; at least it feels sincere.

There’s a hint of snow on his cheek; Derek’s feeling it against his own. He squeezes once, twice, before he lets go, stepping back.

“Annie’s?” Dex asks, boyish, digging his hands into his pockets. The snow melts in his hair the way that everything else seems to do against him. His eyes just as golden. Distance and fondness and hearts and all that bullshit accumulating together to mean nothing, exactly. What’s there to grow fonder of, Derek’s thinking, when he feels his heart bursting wide open.

He lets his breath catch. “I’ve been waiting for weeks.”

 

“Do you want your scarf back?” Derek asks.

“I don’t need it,” Dex says, hitting the enter button three times, before making an expression. His nails are jagged. Derek wants to ask if his family’s taken good care of him; all that time he’s been spending working.

That’s not the same thing as wanting, Derek thinks, but I suppose you know a lot about that. He feels guilty for the thought, so he suppresses it.

“You’re not cold?” He says instead.

“I grew up in Maine,” Dex tells him, like Ransom might call a snowstorm an inconvenience. “It doesn’t bother me so much.”

“Oh,” Derek says, wordless, and Dex watches him briefly, before he turns back to his computer. Derek doesn’t take the gloves off to write, or anything. He just sits there watching Dex steal glances back at him; and thinks about the balding trees. White branches.

 

Hockey is different to Dex. The both of them are put together because of chemistry, whatever that word means, compounds and formulae and elements all blurring together into this big scientific mess after Derek’s graduated from high school. Derek’s gotten into it because he’d gotten into it when he was younger and looking for something to love the way he’d loved those old indecipherable poems he couldn’t understand with that tiny unknowing heart. Fiction lies still when it’s fiction but poems are never quite unreal, he used to think. Better to get your head out of it, trying to describe an emotion everyone’s already feeling. But hockey’s isn’t that.

It’s the camaraderie and the solid ice beneath him never-breaking. You find your balance and you never quite lose it again; it’s something to invest in, a culture, socially approved, he’s young and black and mixed and brown and this is his place in that too-white too-rich too-intelligent everything. Dex is only one of those things, but he plays harder and means it. He puts his heart into so many things that sometimes Derek gets overwhelmed, too, after a hard loss, pressing a hand to his back. He wonders if hockey keeps Dex awake at night at all.

 

On their way to Annie’s, the next morning, Dex says, “I haven’t seen you write any poetry since you’ve come back.”

“Didn’t feel like it,” Derek tells him, and almost trips over an errant rock. Dex is holding him by the arm, sighing out a breath of a laugh and Derek is so fucking in love that he hates himself for this sappy youthful romance he’s lusting for. “I’m chill.”

“Keep telling yourself that and one day it’ll be true,” Dex rolls his eyes at him, but he’s reaching into his bag. He pulls out a rectangular object, wrapped in paper, the expensive kind. His fingers stretch over the wrapping as he holds it out to him.

“What’s that,” Derek asks.

“Christmas present,” Dex clarifies. “Happy belated holidays.”

He receives it with both hands. “Thanks, man.” Makes an effort to smile at him. It comes so easily that it shouldn’t really be called an effort at all.

“Hey, you’re welcome,” Dex is saying. “You can open it now, if you’d li—don’t trip again, what the fuck is wrong with you.”

“Sorry,” Derek says, distracted. The palm of Dex’s hand still runs hot underneath all those layers of clothing. It feels like an imprint even when he lets go. He unwraps the packaging carefully, making sure not to tear it, and Dex looks pleased by his caution. It’s a notebook, leather-bound, pages smooth. Derek shuts his mouth when he realises he’s stopped walking.

“Thanks,” he says, because he’s not sure what else to say. “I—this is gorgeous, dude.”

“Hmm,” Dex raises his eyebrows, and Derek can tell he’s proud. “Gonna start on the poetry anytime soon?”

“Haha,” Derek says, catching up with longer strides, but he’s thinking about it.

 

In the kitchen, Dex says, “They’re just—I don’t know. Bigoted.”

“I know,” Bitty tells him, sliding into the chair opposite. “Sometimes you just want to knock them over with a rolling pin.”

“Or shove a lobster down their throat,” Dex corresponds.

Bitty asks, “Is that why you’re so worked up, lately?”

“Actually,” Dex says, but pauses, and Derek realises that this is a private conversation. He’s been listening for too long already. He looks down on the floor and tries to remember which part of it creaks. “I wanted to talk to you about something else.”

Derek backs away.

 

He stops Holster after practice, sending an apologetic look at Ransom. “Sorry,” he says, but it’s always easier for him to talk to Holster alone. They’re good captains, both of them, together, separately—but. Holster is tall and gentle and good with emotions and talking to Bitty makes Derek feel too raw, and he’s the second best option.

“Anything wrong?” Holster asks, trying to keep his voice low, and Derek appreciates it. They’re both on their way back to the Haus for Bitty’s pie, and Holster’s doing that thing with his shoulders when he’s trying to relate to someone.

Derek scratches at his head. “I was wondering, if, uh. When someone gets—anxious about something you don’t know about, let’s say—what do you do for them?”

“Ransom doesn’t really—hm,” Holster pauses. “Just ask Dex what’s on his mind.”

Derek inhales. “I didn’t say I was talking about him.”

“Did you need to?” Holster says, gaze pointed, and Derek relents, raising his shoulders before dropping them.

“Thought so,” he says, smug.

 

They’re meeting at the library, when Derek sits down beside Dex and says, “I brought your Christmas present today.”

“Brought, or bought, asshole?” Dex asks, turning his neck just to roll his eyes at him. “You didn’t need to.”

“Aw, Pointy. I bought this before I came back.”

“Okay,” Dex turns his computer off. “Give it to me, then.”

“Ooh,” Derek says, waggling his eyebrows, and Dex glares at him. He should’ve known it was bait, whatever, Derek likes to have his fun and Dex is gorgeous even when he’s trying to laser eye Derek’s face; jaw clenching. He wonders how much it’d take for the both of them to throw punches, now, the way that they launched at each other so quickly. A blink of an eye and the wrong thing said and they’d both be eager to give each other black eyes and bruises. Maybe possession ran from the very start.

He clears his throat. “Right,” he says, brandishing the plushie he’d hidden behind his back. “Tada!”

“Why is it a fucking lobster,” Dex groans. “Couldn’t you have gotten me a fucking crab? I see enough of lobsters as it is, what the hell.”

“It reminded me of you,” Derek says, laughing at the redness of everything. “All red and big and looking ready to pinch someone’s ass.”

“Wow.” Dex punches his shoulder, hard. There’s gonna be a bruise there that lasts for several hours, in the least. “You’re the one carrying this to my room. This is fucking embarrassing.”

“You’re fucking embarrassing,” Derek retaliates, weak, but he’s cuddling the lobster the entire stretch of the road.

 

In this space in between Annie’s and their dorms—Derek supposes that he knows Dex, now, or at least he’s learning. Trying to learn. Putting back together a story with a bigger, widened vocabulary. Changing the context of everything with the same old burning reinvigorated eyes.

 

On Valentines, Derek is biting into a bar of chocolate and trying to place his keys someplace he’d remember, all the while looking down at his untied shoelaces. Everyone else in his dorms seem to be still sleeping, but he’s aching for his usual cappuccino and maybe team breakfast, later, at the cafeteria.

“Happy birthday, Nurse,” Dex says, standing, head lifted to meet Derek’s gaze, who’s watching the way he bites down on his lower lip, the scattering of freckles in the dim light. The sun grows behind them. Lifting the sky until everything shifts to a lighter shade.

He holds up a box, a ribbon tied around it. It looks like the right size for a pen. Derek will keep hidden until he graduates, he thinks. Then he’ll bring it back out again. Better to have a souvenir of time than to go without.

Dex says, “Are you awake, or not?”

“I’m opening my eyes,” Derek says, and he gets a smile for that. All teeth, mouth red, his eyes softening some more, that orange glimmer exactly like the stirring dawn—and a poem blooms on Derek’s tongue.

Chapter Text

< growing, still hurting >

 

Spring comes as a surprise, early and bursting and bright, and the world turns wet. Dex complains to him about his allergies, though he’s not particularly affected by them, and Derek keeps up the conversation up, hearing the too-warm snow lapse back into rain. Samwell is not humid, not by far, but the season brings the restlessness out in anybody. Bitty seems delighted always, baking sweets after cakes after pies after everything; and if the team’s Georgian sunshine’s in a happy mood, the rest of them tends to follow through. Derek retires the scarf and the gloves and folds them as carefully as he can into his closet, layers less.

He’s happy with this logic of spring—where the paper skies turn into a different blue and the flowers shyly grow as he sits breathing the fragrances and the words and the cheer in the middle of class, thinking all the while of pollen. He wonders if Dex likes lavenders, or lemon-hearted tulips, if he appreciates the shy bashful contrast or thinks that it’s garish. Complementary colours singing together like the birds flocking back to their nests.

“Do you like rain?” Derek’s asking, jerking his head towards the window. The rhythm rings irregular against the panes, but the truth is so hardly ever like poetry.

Dex looks at him, considering. “When it’s not inconvenient,” he decides.

“You’re so practical,” Derek says, and flips open his journal.

 

Sometime in March, Dex knocks on his door, saying, “You’re going to be late for practice,” before walking in. He must have realised that the door’s unlocked; Derek’s careless like that. He’s sleeping in, because he doesn’t feel like gathering that last burst of energy he needs to pull his skates on.

“Come on,” Dex says, pulling at him, hands warm, and this is the first time that Derek notices the scar on his neck.

 

He thinks about it on the way to practice, when they’re cutting corners walking on the grass, Dex turning back every so often to frown at him for being late.

“Don’t feel well,” Derek says, fumbling for that age-old excuse just to look at that jagged strip of flesh. He doesn’t expect Dex to actually slow down and press his knuckles to the underside of his jaw, fingers grazing against his cheek. Like a punch—but gentle. Somehow it feels like it hurts exactly the same.

“Be more careful, for fuck’s sake,” Dex sighs, and breaks contact. “You’re running a bit hot.”

Derek takes the opportunity to attempt glimpsing at that patch of skin, but he’s getting no luck. “I don’t think I have a fever.”

“You think a lot of things,” Dex tells him, “but most of the time you’re wrong.” He takes his phone out to call Ransom.

 

“I’m okay,” Derek’s protesting. It’s odd to see Dex in the kitchen in place of Bitty, stirring a pot of chicken soup.

“Don’t think you are even without a fever,” he’s saying, bringing the ladle up to his mouth to blow on it. He’s so domestic that Derek almost regrets not knowing how to cook. It hits him, suddenly, that Dex might not think he actually is sick. “How have you survived all this time?”

“I don’t know,” Derek says. It’s true. His mothers never learned how to press kisses to his forehead the way the world expected parents to—and then they started sending him away. “I mostly just ate, like, pills.”

“Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to take care of yourself?” Dex asks, but his back is turned to Derek, and maybe that wasn’t meant for Derek to hear. He stirs the pot two more times before lowering the temperature. Scoops a bowl of soup to place it in front of Derek. “There.”

“Thanks,” Derek says, meeting Dex’s gaze.

Dex rests his head against his hand. “You’re welcome.”

 

“Guys!” Chowder’s exclaiming, a few hours later, “There’s a squirrel in the front yard!”

Dex sets his controller down to turn his head; Derek’s too lazy to bother. “It’s spring, Chowder,” Dex says, nudging Derek’s thigh with his toes before he unpauses. “That’s to be expected.”

Ransom asks, “Did you say a squirrel?”

“It’s hiding in the tree!”

The game ends, and Dex gets up to walk into the kitchen. Derek doesn’t bother looking at the scoreboards; he’s not particularly adept at video games.

Derek moves his position on the couch for Holster to sit down, curling himself up at the side, folding inwards. Dex comes back to hand him a glass of water, and he drinks it.

“Too sick for squirrels?” Dex asks, slanting him a glance.

“Lobsters are better,” Derek says, but it doesn’t quite come out as a chirp. At least not in the way he intended.

 

The next morning—during their Annie’s before Practice before Breakfast routine—he does it.

Dex’s sharp intake is audible when he sees them lying on Derek’s open hand—and Derek’s thinking: the gasp of spring right after winter; everything dissolving finally from the monochrome. Like a flower, though it could be a long time before they grow again.

“Are you… giving me your keys?”

Derek smiles, licking his lips a little. “It’s an open invitation,” he says.

Dex blinks at him.

Derek blinks back.

“Uh. Thanks,” Dex says, flushing a little, hooking his finger around the keychain, and Derek returns to his book. Dex is turning it over in his grip like he’s trying to memorise the shape of it.

“Now I won’t lose them anymore,” Derek says.

Dex zips them into his laptop bag, and smiles. “I’m sure you’ll find a way.”

 

Derek writes his words hard—he likes the feeling of pressing his pen onto the page—but the notebook or journal or diary that Dex’s bought him has them made thinner than what he’d normally like, so he learns to adapt. Throws out his pens once they’re finished to replace them with thicker nibs. They seem to fit better in his palms, with his too-strong grip and fingers that never seem to slow; the poetry comes out smoother, well-oiled like roller blades. He remembers falling on them when he was younger, the ground scratching at his knees and thighs and elbows when he tried to stand back up like everyone else did. His friends taught him while his mothers were away. Three months in of trying to jump onto this surface and that, and he had his first fracture. His maids took him to the hospital and wiped the sweat off his brow and the entire thing felt ridiculous; like Derek lived in the wrong genre always.

 

Perhaps a wrong genre didn’t mean anything if you were supposed to evolve beyond a daydream. Of course he could stop writing—but Derek was good at it; so why should he?

 

Derek asks, “Where did you learn how to cook?”

Dex rubs a hand over his mouth. He likes to do that when he’s accomplished something small; pressing the side of his palm onto his lips when he figures out how to fix an appliance or his programming or when he finally understands what in the world Tango’s trying to ask about. He’d compare it to a kiss if he were more romantic, but Derek’s having trouble thinking of Dex holding hands with anyone, let alone the brush of a tongue. At one point he’d wondered how it’d feel like, Dex’s inescapable body heat and sharpness and freckles under the pads of his fingers—but Derek’s resigned to wanting.

“Portland,” Dex tells him, dry. “But I’m the oldest in my family. My parents were too busy with work.”

Mine too, Derek almost says, but it wasn’t like nobody ever cooked for him or that he didn’t know how to dial take-out or that he hadn’t spent the most of his life in a boarding school full of rich, spotty boys. “Who taught you?”

“Nobody,” Dex says. “I took my mother’s recipe book and figured out what to do with everything. My sisters and brothers seemed to like the food, so I took up the role.”

Derek murmurs, “So you fed them?”

“I wasn’t Bitty, if that’s what you were asking,” Dex says, fighting down a smile, like it was such a big secret that he was telling Derek about this, that expensive boy from Uptown who never really knew how it was like to want (maybe it was). “I just bought the groceries and cooked them dinner.”

Derek presses their knees together. “Cook me dinner,” he says, light-hearted enough that Dex could shrug it off.  

“I’m no Bitty,” Dex is warning. “But I could try. Sometime.”

 

They’re nursing a hangover on the couch together, having slept overnight at the Haus, when Derek asks, “What’s spring like?” It’s a serious question, in the least, because he knows that sometimes reality escapes him all too often. His fingers twitch at his side—he’s had the urge to start writing for a few hours, now.

“You’re experiencing spring right now,” Dex says, but he looks up from his phone. “What do you mean?”

Derek bites his inner cheek, and tries to simplify the question. “Like—stuff. What do you think of when you think of spring?”

Dex’s face softens—and Derek hates him that little bit more, really, because he’s going to have a hard time getting over his feelings if he does that all the time.  “Is this for your poetry?”

“Yeah,” Derek says, in the middle of a dirty frat house with his notebook in his lap and Bitty’s pancakes smelling like chocolate, trying his hardest to pretend like he could grow up in a few years to turn into someone who knows what to do with a company; or a house, or that sum of money taunting him in his bank account. Like all of that is a problem in the first place—compared to Dex’s meticulous planning and an insistence borne out of the lack of this exact same security. He doesn’t quite have the grounds to complain.

“Snails,” Dex says, folding his legs underneath him. He slides his phone into the pocket of his jeans.

“Snails,” Derek repeats.

“I know it’s not poetic, or anything,” Dex defends, flushing. “But everything comes out in spring, right? And you step on a snail when you’re not paying enough attention.”

“I suppose I do step on a lot of bugs,” Derek says.

Dex laughs, a bit too loudly for eight in the morning. “We’ll count when we go to Annie’s, later.”

“Is that really what you think about?” Derek asks, meeting his eyes, feeling the shock that’s turned from hatred to annoyance to interest to this. “Me stepping on snails.”

Dex inclines his head—and there the scar is again. Jagged pink, like a crack in the road. “What else is there? Bees? Birds?”

“Very romantic,” Derek says, bumping his shoulder, “but thank you.”

Dex pushes his elbow into his ribs as retaliation, but he says, “Anytime, Nurse,” soft.

 

Everything crackles and spurs to life in April, tentative and unsure with the children still trying to find their footing. Nothing could be anything when you’re trying your hardest not to stumble. A bird flies into Derek’s dorms, one day, when he’s left the windows open, and it sits on top of his journal, claws wet from the rain. A cardinal, red-winged and looking down at him.

“Hello,” Derek says, propping his head up against the pillow.

It hops onto his chair, and Derek reaches out to stroke the feathers. It’s energetic, to say the least, the beak sharp against the pads of Derek’s fingers as it pecks at him gently. It’s stationary for a moment, and Derek withdraws his hand when it ruffles its feathers.

“Say hi to William for me,” he says, and it flies away.

 

Jack comes back to visit them at the Haus—though Derek’s pretty sure that it’s not them that he’s actually visiting. But rather a certain Georgian, enveloped in his arms like it would really hurt them that much to let go. They’re hugging and clinging onto each other for dear life and Derek has to look away; it feels like he’s walking into something too delicate. He doesn’t know how to, though, when Jack sneaks a kiss onto Bitty’s forehead, hand tracing a line along Bitty’s jaw, eyes lowered and intense in the way he’s always been. Derek wonders why he didn’t notice this sooner. Why it ever took this long. It feels like Jack’s been watching Bitty for decades.

He steps in front of Dex to obscure the view. They’ll be ready to face the world someday, he thinks. All the pressure and all the weight on both their shoulders and there’ll be a day when Jack can be Jack and not the statistics on a screen.

“Watch it,” Dex says, poking at his side.

“Sorry,” Derek says, sending him an apologetic smile, and Jack makes eye contact with him across the room. It’s a subtle nod that goes unnoticed easily enough, and he returns it, before moving his gaze back to Dex. He wonders if he’ll ever be as equally obvious.

“Let’s go to Chowder’s room,” he says, and grabs Dex’s arm to walk up the stairs.

 

After a few hours, Dex is stretching, moving towards the door, when Derek says, “Don’t go down there.”

He takes a look at Chowder, who’s fallen asleep on his bed around a stuffed shark. He turns back to Dex, who seems reasonably surprised at Derek’s request.

“Why not?”

Derek shrugs, aiming for nonchalance; it ought to be ingrained into him by now, years of chill and that’s okay and you don’t get to say that if you’re white, but hiding from Dex proves harder than he thought it would, all things considered. If he can hide his own feelings—then Bitty and Jack’s shouldn’t be a problem. “Jack’s down there.”

“And?” Dex says, although he’s coming back to sit down beside him, leaning against the bed. His shoulder’s warm and Derek feels like his heart would come pouring out of his chest, that he wants him to stay shoulder to shoulder to him and he’ll never dare ask for more.

Derek says, carefully, “He’s talking to Bitty.”

“Okay,” Dex says, and falls silent, accepting that as a valid explanation. Maybe he knows about what’s happening between them; the constant texting and the Skyping and occasionally the way that Bitty looks at the rink, unfocused and distant and a little hesitant. He moves on the ice quicker, now, when he doesn’t have someone else to balance himself out with, without Jack pushing his way forwards.

But Dex hadn’t said anything about his feelings, either—and if even Holster picks up on that—then it seems to sing like Dex really is that clueless, after all. He wonders how much of that was leftover from those childhood days of denial. Derek had told him this, once, when they were both drunk; the dismissals of whatever he wanted to do not because it was impossible but because it was smart. Derek wonders if he ever hated him for drinking or eating or buying all those lavishly inexplicable trinkets that cost more than what Dex earned in a month, sometimes. Living all the more better in the world if only because of luck.

“I wonder if he’s happy,” Dex mutters, low. The wind’s blowing against the curtains pretty loudly but Derek can still hear him; it’s a year almost of staring him down on the ice. Trying to read the twist of the lip or the weight of a look.

He contemplates it. Thinks harder. He’s lived a lucky life because he hadn’t earned it, not in the way that his mothers did, fighting with their teeth bared against an older world that didn’t know how to appreciate women. They still don’t appreciate women now. Jack’s life isn’t going to be easy when he comes out—it isn’t even in the present, not with all the hiding and the stuttered responses after all those interviews that's kept Nursey's eyes on the TV. Any news of a girlfriend? The phrase his mothers had never fucking heard. Maybe all that money took the edge off hurting and hiding and healing with broken shoulders, infected wounds. It’s a world that Derek is used to; it’s a world that Dex doesn’t know.

“I mean. That’s what’s important, isn’t it? Being happy,” Derek breathes out, and Dex says nothing.

 

Derek’s balancing his phone between his shoulder and his cheek when his mama picks up. He’s trying to fix his pen that’s fallen on the floor; the tines don’t seem to be aligning and Derek’s lost all his other pens and he really wants to write this poem down right fucking now, but no luck. He doesn’t even really know why he’s calling his mother. It’s the first instinctual response for so many people when they were toddlers—Derek has two but he’s never learned the scent of their perfume or their hair against his face. They spent too much time building their own infallible empire, trying to make sure it’d never break. Someday it’d go to him and he wouldn’t know what to do with any of it, three decades of hard work and shrewd calculating and an intelligence he probably would never be able to match.

“Derek,” she greets warmly, after a spell, and he can hear the surprise in her breathlessness. He almost always never calls; neither do they. “How are you?”

“Good, good,” he says. He stops there, because it was mostly a spur of the moment thing, a weird word recalled at the wrong time. “I just wanted to—nothing, actually.”

“Oh,” his mama says, and he can’t read her like this, silent and distant even though they’ve been that for as long as he’s lived. He taps his fingers against the table and waits for her to say something. She clears her throat.

Derek gives in and breaks the silence. “How’s Mom?”

“She’s okay,” comes the voice through the phone, tinnily. “Stressed about work.”

Derek snorts. “When isn’t she,” he replies dryly, and the both of them giggle, a bit. “Are the both of you flying back to New York anytime soon?”

“Not for a few months,” she says. “Is something wrong?”

“Nope.” Derek coughs. “Just wanted to know.”

“Okay,” she says, and drops it. “Have you gotten your birthday present yet? We sent it in the mail.”

“I did.” He runs a finger over the surface of his journal; remembering the steadiness of Dex’s hands on him, so happy that he almost tripped twice. What is he going to do with a pair of cufflinks? “I’ll wear them the next time you host something.”

“Wonderful,” his mama says, and cuts off to talk to her secretary. “I’ll talk to you later—”

The call cuts off. Derek breathes out slowly, the way that their family therapist had taught him when they dealt with his anger management issues. Closes his journal to work on something else.

 

Time seems to hasten in spring, though part of that seems like it’s got more to do with finals, rather than the days getting warmer as they pass. Bitty’s baking enough pie for all the entire row of frat houses down the street, trying to placate everyone who’s having a breakdown—and Dex is actually skipping their Annie’s routine in favour of more sleep. Derek doesn’t blame any of them; he’s breezing through only because he can’t quite make himself care all that much, though he does make an attempt not to bring up the word ‘chill’ with anyone.

But he can’t escape the annoyances as much as he tries. It starts off with Chowder being disappointed in the kitchen, because Farmer’s not cooperating with him on something, and Ransom is asking Holster to indulge in Mario Kart with him, which is perfectly fine, until the lights go out and he’s stuck with four stressed-out individuals losing their minds while he’s trying to memorise all these lines. The words don’t even make sense to him anymore.

Then Ransom’s screaming about his unsaved data, and Bitty is frazzled because his cell phone wouldn’t charge, and Chowder is trying to put on fires left and right, and even Lardo sits on the couch, staring at the ceiling, hands tightening around her recent project. Derek throws his texts aside and goes to call Dex, because he doesn’t know shit about what to do.

“Derek,” Dex says, standing at the front porch, backlit and illuminated, the afternoon in his hair, “What happened?”

“Something about the electricity,” he tells him, standing with his feet bare and laptop sliding around in his grip. “They’re freaking out.”

“I’d imagine,” Dex says, sounding unaffected, though the bags under his eyes are heavy, and his syllables are slurring in the way that screams that he’s had too much caffeine. His eyes glaze over, for a bit, before they sharpen, Dex's gaze fixed onto him. “How are you?”

“Holding up,” Derek shrugs, following him into the Haus. He sets his laptop down on his kitchen counter and watches Dex shuffle about, tools in his grip and ready to save the day. Bitty’s calmed down, somewhat, getting ready his plates of pies to head up to the attic.

Derek’s leaning against the kitchen counter, and it seems like his body is getting ready to have his own meltdown, teeth gritting at his laptop screen. The news sites screaming his biological father’s name in capital letters. Derek’s never met him before—just a vague name, here and there; his mothers had never let them meet. He wonders what either of them have to say about the allegations made. About these tax havens every one seems to harbour—it’s not false, anyway. But he still wants to know what his mom has to offer. The secretive nothings he’s gotten over the years. What would have happened if she hadn’t left for something that resembles more like the truth. He turns the screen brightness down. Eats his share of food when Bitty brings his plate to him.

“Tired?” Bitty asks.

With as much conviction Derek could muster, he says, “Not really,” and grips the edges of the counter tighter.

 

“Why don’t we call someone to repair all this stuff instead?” Whiskey asks, because he’s a bit of an asshole. Dex is still hunched over an appliance and doing his magic; you’d think that the kid would fuck off to somewhere else while he worked.

“Don’t know,” Dex takes a look at him, grating his words out slowly, “Do you have a few hundred to blow?”

Derek hides a smile behind his fist, and passes over the wrong tool to Dex when he asks for it. He loves it when Dex gets angry, the way his eyes sear through the thick air like a knife, though of course when they’re directed to other people. He wonders how threatening he’d look with a chainsaw in his grip. Get off my lawn levels, maybe.

“You’re hopeless,” Dex says, when he bursts out laughing, when Whiskey’s finally gotten the hint to fuck off. Derek's bringing him an entire toolbox at his request. He smiles a crooked grin at him and sits on the floor next to where Dex is, their knees bumping. Dex is holding something foreign up.

“Do you know what this is?”

Derek cocks his head at him. “Is that a screwdriver,” he asks, deadpan, though he genuinely doesn’t know what that is.

Dex snorts, “Wow, Nurse,” and takes his takeaway coffee from Derek’s hands, fingers brushing. Derek wipes the grease away on his jeans.

 

The weather kicks up the dirt, and the mud, and the scent of fresh grass, and the imagery of flowers growing still, and the barely-there promise of ripening fruit, and the animals singing loudly in the dawn, windows thrown out only to close with the threaten of rain, and the gasp of the melting streams and rapturing trees and the return of their dampened earth—and nobody sleeping in the sky.

 

Derek reads, “Your breath a shuddering, quiet awakening, like you’re kissing the passing of a colder season. As if an aftermath of rain—” before he realises that the typing’s stopped.

He shifts his gaze up to see Dex watching him, and Derek’s trying his hardest not to stare back, not to grab the wrist leaned upon by his jaw and spill his heart out in the entirety of his poetry. He’s sitting there instead, immobilised in that same old creaking chair. Trying to imagine all the wrong things said. An entire year’s worth of bickering and shouting and pushing coming to nothing. He waits for Dex to break the moment, but that doesn’t happen. Derek won’t know if it’s a supplication or a challenge or a taunt, so finally he breaks his own guts to smile back.

 

It’s easy to separate writing into two categories—serious, not serious. Some days Derek wishes that he could paint his poetry onto his body like clothes; call it art, call it a day. The thing is—it’s difficult to say you’re passionate when no one takes you for real. Some days Derek presses his forehead onto the table, asking himself if it’s worth it, writing and writing and writing and writing and writing and never being able to grasp for a rhythm that’s healthy enough, always never. He’s not interested in writing novels, not with their long expanses and winding pages and slow, even pacing; though he could certainly try. Some days he crosses out the words and remembers, just for the briefest second, that someday a short tough block of emotions would matter.

Poets get called dreamy, often. Romantic. Bright bursting spirits of childlike wonder telling you that they’re happy to be alive, or whatever’s the standard answer when you’re born with a house and food and two beautiful, successful parents who arguably loves you. It’s like he hasn’t spent his time picking away the dirt and the muck and the anger to throw everything else into one page, trying for beauty. Ask anyone who tells you that they like to read, and ask them to name a poet that’s darkened over the years. The ones you don’t learn in high school literature or the contemporary rappers or the popular bloggers on social media. Nearly impossible. Derek thinks that poets know more than most people, the silent shame of embarrassment of saying, yeah, I want to do this, I want to stay stuck in my happy place of denial and never find a real job, I want to hurt and I want to write that down and I want people to stop raising their eyebrows up to their scalps saying that they don’t understand—because I never will, either.

 

Derek’s trying to figure out the winding curves of the road out when Dex slams his laptop close. It’s staggering, because Dex hasn’t been truly angry with anything for weeks, at least not in Derek’s presence. He’s been mellow. But this isn’t the way that he used to get mad, either—he’s usually shaking hands and barely concealed indignation but here he looks like someone torn off the page of a book, disorientated, like he’s giving up on making sense.

“What happened?” He asks, pulling his chair closer. Dex is distant, faraway with a closed-in look in his eyes—and Derek can’t take it, so he places a hand on his shoulder, hoping to ground him a little. It was what he did when he was younger, taunted by his classmates for being so different, curling up into himself and feeling the shaking fingers on his arms, his legs, in the safety of the dorms—so maybe it helps Dex now.

“It’s not working,” Dex tells him, a few seconds later, trembling. “I dropped it and it doesn’t fucking work anymore and everything’s fried.”

“I’m sorry,” Derek says, because he really is. “Do you want to use mine? For the moment.”

Dex shrugs off his hand. “I’m not your fucking charity case, Nurse.”

Derek pinches the bridge of his nose. “I’m trying to help, Poindexter.”

He’s glaring at him, fists curled into themselves, before something in him seems to click, and Dex smothers his face with his hands. Derek exhales deeply at the sight, at the hunched-in shoulders and the accepted defeat—it spells wrong, like this. Dex is supposed to be bright fires and embers still flickering no matter what. But money would take their toll on just about anybody. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“It’s chill,” Derek answers, shifting to give him space. “This isn’t even like, a real fight. You didn’t even try.”

“Fuck off,” Dex says, through the opening in his fingers. “I’m trying to be nice, asshole.”

“Your ‘nice’ could do some work.” Derek eyes Dex’s laptop on the table; he must’ve had it for a long time. Derek really doesn’t need his own one, but he supposes the it’d be thoughtless for him to continue pushing, so he drops his gaze when Dex pins his attention on him. Derek wants to help. He’d give that laptop to Dex if he had the choice; he can easily get another. But everything needs time. He wonders if they’ll ever get past that for Derek to help Dex in the only way he knows how.

He tucks his journal into his bag, and stands up, pulling at Dex’s arm. “C’mon, Pointy. Let’s have a Disney marathon; it’d do you good.”

“Just because we’re D-men doesn’t mean we have to be Ransom and Holster,” Dex is saying, but he lets Derek shove his things into his bag and wrap his fingers around his wrist, so Derek would call that a win.

 

Halfway through the movie, Derek asks, “How happy do you think Aurora was, away from the kingdom?”

Dex presses the spacebar to stop the movie, unexpectedly; Derek had only meant for this to be a thought spoken aloud. The gesture makes him feel—strange, like an offbeat pattern. “Contemplating life again?” He says, though it’s more teasing than dismissive, almost fond. “She didn’t know anything else, did she? Must’ve been content, in the very least.”

Derek glances down at his laptop, propped up on Dex’s legs. Aurora and her unfamiliar prince and her recurring dreams. “That’s a long time of not knowing.”

“Fairytales,” Dex says. “It’s difficult to tell a story about being bitter to children.”

“Fair,” Derek acquiesces, though he thinks on that, fingers interlaced behind his head, Dex’s side pressed close to his. The bed in Dex’s dorms is single, not much space, but they make do with it anyway, so Derek can feel the tension in Derek’s body, the turn of his neck when he gets bored of the singing.

Later, after Dex has continued the movie, he says, “I think children can be bitter.”

“Some of them are,” Dex agrees. “I know I was.”

Derek hums, when Maleficent’s crow finds out the hidden magic kept deep in the forests. The light reflects onto Dex’s skin in the brightened room; the greens and the browns, all earthly colours. “Are you still?”

Dex wipes away a spot of ink on Derek’s laptop. “Bitter?”

“Yeah,” Derek says, watching him wipe it away on his jeans. There’s a streak left on the edges still; he can see Dex’s thumbprint on there if he squints.

“I like to think I’m not,” Dex says, stretching his legs out as he shifts the computer onto Derek’s lap. He retrieves the stuffed lobster from the floor—Derek’s Christmas present to him—and wraps his arms around it. His muscles bunch up in the sleeves of his shirt. “But I wouldn’t know. It’s something to overcome.”

 

He notices that Dex has fallen asleep, right before Phillip bends down to kiss Aurora on the lips. He lifts a hand to wipe his fringe away from his eyes. Everyone’s just younger when they sleep, freckles unmoving on a static face. Derek wonders if Dex smiled, much, when he was young, or if he was solemn, if you had to tease the smile out of him, like a squirrel ducking its head out to check for the cold. If he played with mud at the first hint of rain. A smaller William J. Poindexter with the labour missing from his palms.

Dex hugs his lobster tighter, eyelashes fluttering. His throat moves when he swallows; he’s stretching his neck on the pillow. There’s the scar again. Derek feels like he’s haunted by its presence every time he sees it.

Derek shifts his body, trying not to jostle him. He leaves his laptop on Dex’s table as he leaves, shutting the door quietly behind him.

 

Becky, from his classes, brings a twist of daffodils and forsythias one day, held close to her chest as she navigates through the lecture hall to sit beside him. An anticipated unreturned love.

“Secret admirer?” He asks, twirling the pen in his fingers. They’re beautifully arranged, sunny and golden and in the height of their beauty. Young.

She looks down at the flowers. “You’d like her,” Becky says, pressing her hand to the bouquet, this way and that. “The two of you are both needlessly insistent in pestering me.”

“I love her already,” Derek says. “Bring her to meet me sometime; we’ll discuss all the shortcomings of your personality together.”

“You’re on the hockey team,” Becky points out. “She hates the hockey team.”

“I’m not even that into hockey,” Derek shrugs, although that tastes like a lie; he’s grown used to Chowder and quarrelling with Dex and checking people into the boards. The flowers stay on Derek’s right the entire time.

 

He’s carrying three bags of butter behind an excited conversation, something about humidifying air, Chowder listening intently to Bitty talking about Georgia. They’re making pies, later, and Derek has homework to catch up on. They’re both turning to him when he’s too silent to wave it off.

“How was class?” Bitty asks.

“Good,” Derek shrugs. He picks up his pace and falls back into step with them. “Things are winding down, a bit.”

He thinks about it. Becky’s girlfriend carefully choosing flowers at the florist’s, delicately balancing stem after stem after stem. About the tulips and the lavenders blooming at the sight of green, the shy admission of admiration.

“That’s true,” Bitty agrees, and none of them has mentioned the heavy word of graduation, but he looks upset anyway, eyes flickering.

Derek tightens his hold on the groceries, and steps past the uneven ground. It’s difficult to watch your friends leave for a brave new world.

 

Over the phone, his mom asks, “Are you still continuing your degree?”

Derek sighs. It’s four in the afternoon where she is, though he can’t quite remember where. He’s sitting upright in his bed; it’s dark, so he can’t tell the time. Most likely it’s midnight.

He says, “Why wouldn’t I?”

There’s a hitch in the conversation now, the part where she ought to be saying: it’s not practical, nothing wrong with having a hobby, why can’t you have any ambition of your own? But the quiet stretches on, and Derek’s used to living this, the extended phone conversations in the middle of the night. Sometimes he wonders if he should give in. Get a useful education and walk right in to adulthood with the money all laid out. Who cares about your dreams if you’re starving?

She decides on a response, eventually: “Why would you?”

“Right. Okay,” Derek says. “Give me some time, Mom, I’ll think it through.”

There’s so much relief poured into her voice that Derek feels ashamed, slightly, too caught up in himself to really understand anything that’s going on. A rotten fruit, he’s thinking. What do you do with something gone so soon? The April showers are only beginning—but here he feels like he’s about to graduate himself. Perhaps that’s all he really needs to do.

 

The rain’s not exactly surprising, when Derek wakes up, more than aware that he’s missed both Annie’s, and practice, and Bitty’s breakfast, and class. What is, however, is a thoroughly-soaked William Poindexter in the middle of his room, dripping water onto his floor.

“Hello,” Derek says, somewhat dryly.

He runs a hand through his hair, increasingly aware of the fact that he’s only in his boxers. Dex’s gaze flickers to his tattoo, then back up at his face, which must look like shit right now—but there’s something appreciative in his eyes, and Derek doesn’t want to think about that too much.

“I didn’t have an umbrella,” Dex explains, though Derek’s laptop has reappeared on his desk, looking relatively intact, nothing wet about it. He shrugs. “So I figured—”

“Yeah,” Derek says, and throws him a T-shirt, and a pair of shorts. Dex catches them. Derek looks away as he changes out of his clothes, muffling his head with a pillow.

“Thanks,” Dex mutters, and Derek throws open the covers. “You okay?”

“Hmm,” Derek grumbles, tossing the pillow away. “I’m fine.”

“Are you?” Dex asks, and Derek turns to look up at him, mouth dry at the sight of his eyes. Dex licks his bottom lip, and Derek raises a hand to poke at his stomach. Just for the sake of having something to do.

“I guess,” Derek says, finally, when Dex still won’t move his gaze away. He’s never learned how to live with scrutiny; always neglected in favour of the other boys at school. He was always alright. Grades good enough to go by. Stuck in the cycle of mediocrity until the magazines accepted his poetry and then finally he had something that people noticed other than his looks. “Just—thinking.”

“Only thinking?” Dex smiles, raising an eyebrow at his hands. They’re covered in words, and some of the ink has smudged, but there’s nothing Derek wants to keep, anyway, so he doesn’t quite mind when the bedsheets are ruined. He feels his own face heat up. Dex is looking down to his fingers, splayed across Dex’s stomach, and Derek pulls his hand away. It hovers in mid-air between the both of them. He holds his hand out. Closer to Dex. An offering, he thinks, if it weren’t so frightening. Like peeling back a layer of skin from a wound.

Dex’s breath hitches, and hooks his fingers beneath Derek’s, needlessly gentle. He looks away from Dex’s eyes, who stares down at the caution of his thumb instead, caressing the inkless spot on the back of his hand. He brings it closer to him. Derek feels his heart lodged in his ribcage, swelling and growing and stuttering, shy.

“You’re telling me: maybe we should head back,” Dex reads, barely louder than a whisper, and Derek can feel the breath on his skin, hear the vowels and the soft separation of his mouth. “But why should we?”

He dares himself to look at him, the bright watchful assessment in his stare. Derek can see it, now, a young William, seeing and processing and understanding—and he wonders if he ever liked the poetry they teach in his high school.

“A lack of sustenance in the spring will kill just about anything,” Dex finishes, and dimly, Derek feels that warm hint, like he's just been set on fire.

 

Later, when Derek pulls his hand back, burying his face under another pillow, Dex asks, “How much do you believe in that?”

Derek grunts. “A reasonable amount. I mean—I wrote it, didn’t I?”

Dex shifts on the bed beside him—it doesn’t register that they’re touching, until his fingers brush against Nursey’s tattoo, light. “People say a lot of things they don’t mean,” he says. “You just have to figure out if you want them to.”

 

“Were you always like this?” Dex asks, a few seconds or minutes or hours later. “Living so much in your head.”

Derek flinches. Slowly, he says, “I think—maybe.” He doesn’t know for sure; doesn’t want to talk about it. It feels minuscule, this entire world of an unsolved pattern. Who knows what Derek’s doing. Who knows where he’s off to in his own mind. Who knows how to teach him how to walk or to clean or to eat.

Dex sits up. Derek can feel him looking at his back, with his face still buried under his hands. He shuts his eyes as tightly as he can manage.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Dex says.

Derek turns around.

“There’s this thing you do,” Dex continues, loose-limbed in Derek’s clothes even with his eyes sharp, “I don’t know. You don’t seem that invested in anything.”

Derek watches him. He watches back.

“So, like what. I've got a defense mechanism?”

Dex grabs a pillow, wrapping his arms around it, and Derek wonders if it’s a newly formed habit. “We all have them.”

“So what’s yours, William?” Derek asks.

“Don’t try and change the topic, Derek,” William says, with the ease of an experienced adult. Something Derek could never be. “But I’m pretty sure—what was it you said? That I needed to unclench.”

“What I said was true,” Derek argues, and rubs a hand over his jaw. He can barely see him in this light; not with the skies still clouded, but the fact that he’s got younger freckles on the sides of his nose is a new discovery. “But you’re right. I digress.”

“Never thought I’d hear that coming from you,” William says, wry.

“I’ll take that back, how ‘bout that.”

William snorts. “I’d rather you not.”

William is biting down on his lower lip, silent, until Derek realises that he’s not going to budge from this conversation. Just as well.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of company,” Derek tells him. “I didn’t go to kindergarten. Didn’t enroll in school until I was twelve.”

“Oh,” William says, eyebrows lifting.

Derek says, “I imagine it’s different for you.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s like a classic story,” Derek continues. “Young boy, too-rich in his library, reads too many books. Then he’s too caught up in god knows fucking where. Doesn’t learn anything long into his adulthood.” He thinks of all the years he spent tucked up in an armchair, hardcover book in his hand. The slow trickle of time reading and reading and reading and not knowing how to stop, at least not before his tutors came. Then he’s reading again.

“You know how to write,” William objects. “That counts for something.”

“It’s not the same,” Derek shrugs. “Everybody knows how to write. Give them a pen and a pencil and they’ll be calling themselves the next Fitzgerald. Someone gets an A on their essay and they’re America’s best novelist.”

William tilts his head at him. “But that’s not true.”

Derek laughs. “Of course it’s not. Writing is a difficult talent to pin down. Either you’re good for it or you work harder to get good. But more than likely you're just never better than decent.”

William presses his hands down onto the bed, shifting his weight. He doesn’t take his eyes off Derek. “I think you work hard enough,” he says.

Derek studies his expression, trying to see if he’s joking.

“I do,” insists William. “You’re always staring or writing and your hands—I thought you were lazy, once.”

“I don’t disagree with that notion—”

“—but I was wrong,” William interrupts, and Derek looks away from his eyes. They reveal so much that he’s not sure if he should admire or be scared of them. “You—” He grabs Derek’s journal off the table. “This is half-filled already.”

Derek hums. “And?”

William smiles, looking a little proud. “I gave this to you after the break, asshole. It’s only been a few months.”

“Okay,” Derek says. “And?”

“That’s a lot of effort,” William flushes. “You don’t take poetry lightly.”

“I guess I don’t.”

“Look,” William says, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I don’t write. I’m not like you, or Lardo. But I know you’re serious about this. I think you’re wearing yourself out too much.”

“Am I?”

William presses his toes against his thigh. “Find some chill, Derek,” he says, and the weight’s gone. Just like that.

 

Another semester passes. The days grow heated and bright and Derek thinks that they’ll be in for an ardent summer; they’re in May and the skies are pouring but it’s hot at the same time, colourful with the flowers springing up by the curbs and more parties thrown. Samwell grows and breathes and leaves her hands on Derek’s skin, and he learns to love it. The pinks and the yellows and the greens collapsing into one messy blur of a season. Like a woman, perhaps. Or a garden.

William occupies his freer days with sunblock and the freckles flourishing on his body, and Derek doesn’t get rid of the heart of his tree sprouting and singing. It’s there when they’re sitting opposite each other at team breakfast, or Bitty’s pancakes warm and syrupy on his tongue or the birds taunting him with their shadows. He likes the idea of it, or at least the way his heart sounds clearer in his head. Like it’s wanting for attention.

 

Derek hears him even before he’s stepped through the Haus—which is odd, for one, considering that Chowder’s usually the one exclaiming loudly about Farmer or his classes or something about sharks. He’s typing out a submission to one of the literary magazines, and Bitty’s sitting across him, Twitter open on his phone as he deposits the pie onto the table.

“Maple-crusted,” Derek comments. “Is this even for us?”

“Quiet,” Bitty says, swatting at his hand. “Do you want a slice or not?”

Derek smiles at him. “Sorry, Mom.”

Bitty looks at him for a second, before he pushes the plate towards his direction. Derek feels like he knows what Bitty’s going to ask—but he’ll do anything for pie, so he might as well give it up. “I talked to him.”

“—you did?”

Derek pauses. “Not about that, but.” He pushes a forkful into his mouth too soon. His tongue protests. “He’s helped me realise some things.”

“Has he?” Bitty asks, locking his phone.

Derek rolls his eyes. “Come on, Bits, you know he’s a good listener.”

Bitty makes a weird face at him, some point in between disbelief and fondness. I can’t believe my frogs are this stupid, maybe, or Someone ask Jack to give Nursey the dad talk, which, by the way, was so awkward that Nursey would rather find himself rotting in a ditch. He’s about to defend his feelings when Ransom and Holster slam through the door.

“Bruh. Why didn’t you tell us there was pie?”

Derek raises his hands. “I was here the whole time.”

“Not an excuse, brother,” Ransom points a finger at him, and slaps his back. “Damn. Why’s it apple again?”

Bitty crosses his arms. “Y’all just go ahead and keep complaining, I’ll bring Chowder your portions—”

Holster and Ransom do some weird synchronisation thing with their faces. Almost like a puppet show.

Bitty sends them both his Disappointed Mother look. “I thought so.”

“Pie?” William says, ducking his head in.

“You can have Ransom and Holster’s slices,” Bitty says, and Ransom’s squawking in dismay. William’s holding back a laugh, eyes dancing, lips parted in a soft approximation of a word, and Derek’s staring; he always is.

“I’ll pass,” he says, and leans against the door frame. Maybe he’s grown taller, hard to tell. Derek wonders how it’d be like to look down at him, or look up. To have some distance maybe. But it just so happens that he’s meeting his eyes every time. “Need to leave. Class stuff.”

“Alright,” Bitty says, but he hands him a container full of pie anyway.

“Bye,” Derek calls out, after he swallows his mouthful, and William turns around to smile at him before he leaves. It’s not quite a smile—not really—but something softer, quiet. Like an interlude.

But no one else quite notices; everyone continues on with their conversations like nothing’s wrong in the first place. Except for Holster, apparently, a small subtle frown on his face. He notices him looking, and points his gaze towards Ransom’s direction, nodding.

Derek nods back.

 

Sometime at three in the afternoon, William barges into his dorms, doors swinging open, to ask: “Are you going?”

Derek trips, halfway to the closet, but he manages to steady himself with a hand on the table. “Hello to you too, Pointy.”

“Sorry,” William says, looking slightly sheepish at his own entrance. It’s usually a good look on him, for someone usually so brazen, but his face is a shade paler than normal. “But are you?”

The scar blinks up at him, like a taunt. Derek wrenches his eyes back to William’s face, which. He has no problem doing at all. “To the kegster?”

“Yeah,” William nods, pressing his lips together. He looks like he’s about to throw up.

“I am,” Derek says, and then, “Are you alright?”

“What?” William looks up to stare at him in alarm.

“You seem upset,” he clarifies. “Is there something…?”

“No,” William sighs, deflating. “I just remembered that it’s the last time, y’know? They’re leaving.”

In all seriousness—Derek hasn’t thought about it much. He’s not usually a sentimental person; or at least he tries not to be, he accepts that things happen and he moves along with whatever gets thrown in his way, no big deal. At some point it all comes crashing down anyway. What matters was your ability to deal with it, so let’s not talk about it, let’s never talk about the time you’ve spent wasting your life away staring down onto blank pages, let’s avoid the big issue where Derek Malik Nurse is allergic to his own fucking feelings. But this is different, somehow; these are his captains and his manager leaving and it’s not the same with Jack and Shitty because they’ve always been slightly out of reach, like the frogs were intruding on an established dynamic—but Ransom and Holster and Lardo seemed to occur naturally. A pronoun taken for granted.

“Yeah,” says Derek, after a while. “They are, aren’t they?”

They’re standing in his room, Derek half-naked and William flushed from running, probably, judging by his breathing, and they’re looking at each other like they’ve got the answer to something neither of them know. But he understands. It’s scary, stepping into a place of life you don’t know. Even scarier when your friends start leaving.

“We’ll be okay,” Derek says, even though he doesn’t know if he believes that. Takes a step forward to William. “I’m going to hug you, yeah,” he says, like a statement rather than a question, and Derek’s expecting to be the one that wraps his arms around him—but William pulls him in to give him the tightest hug he’s received off the ice, and there’s that.

 

William’s messing around with his phone on the bed, long legs hanging off the edge. He wants to spill his guts right then, with the rain tapping onto the windows and the trees singing, an I’m in love with you could be too sudden, so maybe something smaller. I want you to stay seems a bit too much still, even a I like you like this. I like you unwound and idle and tight-lipped and refusing every single idea I have.

Derek says, “Do you want to read what I’ve got?” He turns in his chair.

“Your poem?” William asks, and his neck’s bared when he looks up.

“Yeah.” His throat is dry. It’s an odd feeling, because Derek had trained the awkwardness out of himself when he started reciting poetry, speaking quietly in front of the mirror in his mama’s closet. That was before he practised the unfazed unbothered unchallenged whatever—

So why does his palms sweat now?

There’s something shifting in William’s expression. A progress bar, loading. An eternity passes before he’s grinning up at him, and everything goes slow. Monumental. “Yeah—yeah. Sure.”

“Great,” Derek smiles, and turns half of his heart over.

 

Becky makes his way to his table, when the bar’s relatively empty, a novel pressed to her chest as she squeezes her way to him.

“Evening,” he greets, leaning back in his seat, and she raises her eyebrows in greeting, before she opens her book. Austen. Her daffodils are pressed into a bookmark, it appears.

“Someone’s attached,” Derek says, eyeing the crowd that’s beginning to form. “Never knew you were the type to press flowers, Beck. Bet your secret admirer’s beside herself with glee.”

“Girlfriend, now.” Becky smiles at him, and Derek tamps down the growing envy in his chest, when she asks, “You? Asked out the redhead yet?”

He nearly chokes on his drink. “Uh.”

She pats his back. “Your poetry,” Becky says, amused, sending a look to his journal. “How big’s the elephant so far?”

Derek wipes at the wet patches on his shirt, from where he’d spilled the drink all over himself. “You’re such a fucking asshole,” he says, and Becky laughs.

 

It’s five in the evening when Ransom and Holster rush up to Derek, laughing and screaming as they tackle him to the ground. He supposes that this is—their way of saying goodbye, maybe, with their arms around his neck. He didn’t think about what it meant if the both of them were gone. But this is as good a time as any, alcohol spilling from their cups and their eyes trained on each other like they’ll never leave. In a month they’re gonna haul the boxes down the attic into the cars and move away.

“I’ll miss you guys,” Derek says, because it’s easier to tell someone than to leave a sentiment piping hot in your veins. “Practice isn’t going to be the same anymore, man.”

“We’ll miss you too, bro,” Ransom grins, squeezing his shoulder. Holster’s expression is a mirror of his—and it doesn’t need saying that it’s a shared feeling. Always on the same page. Even with an added epilogue.

Holster pushes his snapback down onto Derek’s head. “Keep it,” he smiles, eyes not so subtly angling their way into William’s direction. “We’ll be playing beer pong with Lardo, yeah?”

“Okay,” Derek says, heart thundering. Holster claps him on the shoulder. He’s pulling on Ransom’s hand, and then Derek watches them walk away, holding onto each other with their shoulders knocking.

Lardo walks up to him. “Frightening, isn’t it?”

“Definitely.”

Lardo holds out her arms, and Derek wraps his hands around her, bending down. She’s so compact; it’s difficult to remember she’s this small sometimes, living in a house filled with six feet dudes.

She says, “I know it’s the uncertainty that gets to you. But angling for the courage to try—that’s art, too.”

“—yeah.”

“You’ll make it,” Lardo says, and her voice is low, but Derek doesn’t need to strain to hear her. “You’re this far already.”

Derek laughs, shaky. “Thanks, Lards.”

She claps his back, moves away as William comes towards him. He’s wearing a flannel, sleeves pushed up with the warm weather, perspiration beading up on his forehead, and he—looks good. He always does.

He asks, “Holding up?”

Derek’s taking his time to consider that, before he gives a tight nod. “Sure,” he says, and they fall silent after that, watching the rest of their team scream their way through.

The sun’s just starting to set. No one in their right mind would call it scenic, but the light diffuses onto them so carefully that it might just be that; Derek participating in this ending with William beside him, smelling faintly like beer and the salt of the ocean. Derek's trying his best not to stare—but William's watching him back when his resolve breaks, eyes burning copper and amber and gold.

Will says, “Come spend the summer with me.”

Chapter Text

< the steam and the rain and a ship sailing >

 

Summer in Portland shines differently than what he’s used to—over here it’s windier, and the air tastes buoyant and almost too light, though everything still sinks into his tongue nonetheless, like sand. The sun glares through his windshield the entire time he drives there, listening to podcasts and not paying a single shred of attention to any of the words; he’s feeling too much energy in his feet, his entire body. Derek stacks up empty cups of coffee in his car, the ice cold in his mouth, and it feels good to know that he’ll be on a beach soon enough, with the aching heat and the lethargy. He likes the hot drag of the weather on his skin; the ice cream on his fingers and on his tongue. The neon red yellow orange green blue of everything.

This entire season blinds him with its garishness, dilutes his poetry into a sappy mess of stifling sweetness; and he thrives for the squinted eyes and the burnt skin as much as the trees or the flowers or the leaves. Everything is beautiful before they die.

Will has his hands on his phone when he parks the car in the driveway, and Derek’s chest twists when he realises that Will grew up here, large ears and lanky limbs and bright, big eyes. This entire place got to have him before anyone else did.

“Hey,” Derek says, a little breathless.

Will looks up, and his face lightens when he registers him, finally, striding up to the porch to give him a hug. Not too firm. “Nurse,” he says, and it reads as a surprise, like he didn’t believe him when Derek said he would come. His skin is hot to the touch, no shock there—but the tank top is what’s different. He supposes that Will can’t really chide Derek's own love of them anymore. But he looks good, broad shoulders exposed alongside the muscles in his arms.

He rests his chin on his shoulder. “William,” he greets. “I’m loving your new sense of fashion.”

Derek can feel the annoyed tsk he lets out, right beside his ear, “Shut the fuck up, please.”

Will pulls back, but his hands are still on Derek’s skin, and the touch is oddly cool. He takes his time to study the freckles on his cheeks. They’re even stronger in mid-June, dusted over his nose—and this is not the first time, but Derek almost reaches out to touch his fingers to them. He keeps his hands at his sides.

“I’ll bring these in,” Will says, reaching for his bags, and Derek lets him.

 

Will’s room is a bit cramped, though neat, with the bedsheets made up and everything. His bag is put on the chair beside the table, and Derek jumps onto the mattress, ready for Will to drag him away by his feet, but instead he says: “I didn’t think you’d come.”

“I was always going to,” Derek says, sitting up.

Will laughs. “I believe you.” He looks so vulnerable standing in the middle of this space; filled with a hand-painted blue, that Derek wants to find something to say. Read some poetry out, maybe, but that’s a bit too sappy even for him. You don’t like your organs soft—but who does? But at least the heart is loud enough to be heard. I’d just wish you didn’t halt it at your throat.

“I was supposed to be holding you to some awful coffee,” Derek says instead.

“Hmm,” Will raises his eyebrows, like he’s surprised that Derek’s remembered a text conversation they’d had last year, in winter. “True. Right up your pretentious fucking alley, too.”

“Fuck off,” Derek grumbles, and follows him out the door.

 

Derek finishes his cup, and says, “I don’t really taste anything.”

Will’s looking out the window, watching the tourists walk their around the shops. He’s right; Portland is a hipster city, with her small shops full of trinkets and quiet alleys. It shouldn’t suit him but it does, with the lukewarm winds and the quiet whispering anybody. He’s mellower here—or maybe it’s just the fact that Derek doesn’t rile him up as often as he used to anymore.

Will raises an eyebrow at him. “Pretty sure you were supposed to take a picture of it first, then post it to Instagram.”

“I don’t even use that,” Derek lies, and Will’s laughter comes out breathy.

“Snapchat it, then.”

Derek pokes Will’s foot with his own, wanting for a reaction, but his face is as smooth as ever. “Why do you hate social media so much?”

“I don’t hate social media,” Will mutters weakly, turning away, but he doesn’t withdraw his legs. Just moves his gaze back out to whatever he’s observing.

 

“You’ll have to room with me,” Will says, walking behind Derek in the grocery store, baseball cap backwards on his head. “Unless you want to sleep on the couch. That’s fine, too.”

“You’re not going to kick me out, are you?” Derek asks, in front of an entire array of toothbrushes and toothpastes and mouthwash. He grabs the nearest toothbrush, and decides that he can steal Will’s toothpaste, if it comes down to that. “I can sleep in the car.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Will says, eyes downturned in the middle of the aisle. The air conditioner blasts on top of them, and Derek can see the faint glow of the freezers from where he stands. Will looks good, like this, with his sleeves rolled up and his jeans tainted by grease and the white lights backlighting him. He wonders if he looks like this all the time; without the tension in his neck or the quiet hesitance in between his brows. It’s only now that he realises how serious Will is about—college. Or whatever’s there in Samwell.

Derek says, “Okay. Don’t blame me if I kick you off the bed,” and grins back at him.

 

He meets William’s parents when they finally make the long way back home, Derek following him on the small roads, talking about everything and nothing. He’s gotten patches of red on his skin, flushed and looking painful, but he’s shrugging it off well enough, claiming that he’s had worse, and Derek had left it at that.

“Ought to have put on more sunblock,” Will says, before he calls out for his mother, who’s short with a loud voice and in a pencil skirt and blazer and the complete opposite of what Derek had expected (he’s willing to blame this on one too many Harry Potter movies).

“Mom,” William says, blushing a little. “This is Derek—my friend from Samwell. The one I told you about?”

“Good evening,” Derek says, trying his best to angle for a genuine smile rather than the ones he’s used to, at his mother’s fundraisers. “It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Poindexter.”

“Clare,” she amends, and embraces him. Will’s rolling his eyes beside them at all the formality, and Derek sticks his tongue out when he makes sure that no one else is here to see.

“Clare, then,” he corrects himself. “Thanks for having me over.”

“It’s no problem,” she says. “I hope you don’t mind sharing a room with Billy.”

Derek’s grin widens. “Oh, Billy and I are fine with sharing, definitely,” he says, waggling his eyebrows.

“Okay, enough, thanks, Mom,” Will blurts out, pushing he towards the direction of the staircase, and Derek laughs so hard he might as well be seeing stars.

 

“Left side, right side,” Will asks, when Derek’s stopped laughing enough to register what he’s saying. “If you call me Billy one more time—”

“I’m sorry, darling, of course I won’t,” Derek says, and holds his hands up, watching him stride over the room to open the windows, letting the air blow out, and nudges his thighs with his toes when it’s apparent that Will’s still grumpy at him.

“William,” Derek tries, and prods him in the side. “Hey. Chill, man. This is the part where I tell you about my embarrassing nicknames, but I’m afraid I don’t have any.”

“…You don’t?”

Derek shrugs. “I was in boarding school, and my mothers weren’t ever around to give me one. The ones I had aren’t any that I’d want you calling me.”

“Right,” Will blinks, eyes flickering, and Derek hates that so much that he fumbles for the previous question he’d asked.

“I can sleep anywhere,” Derek clears his throat, and makes his way to the side that’s closer to the wall, pushing his shoes off.

There’s still something left in the quietness of his answer, but it’s a remarkable improvement. “I don’t get how anyone can fall asleep on top of a pile of leaves.”

“Use your imagination,” Derek retorts, but his eyes are closing from how long the drive is, and Will’s stretched out beside him before he knows it, breathing quiet and light and rhythmic. Watching the minute movements of Will's chest falling when he sinks to sleep.

 

At one in the morning, Derek wakes up to find William asleep next to him, phone lighting up with notifications from the Samwell Men’s Hockey chat, and realises that he’d have to turn his phone back on at some point. He’d left it switched off ever since he left a text to his mother telling them that he’d be in Portland, visiting the beaches; and he figured that it was true enough—even if the beaches weren’t what he was technically visiting. But it could be. The sun and the waves and the sand underneath his feet opening up under his weight all sounds good. Like a fairytale. A beautiful stereotype of what summers are supposed to be—except he’s not here for that.

Will is snoring softly, and Derek tries to uncurl his fingers from his phone, gentle, to plug it to the cable on his nightstand, leaning that stretch across him. But Will wakes when Derek tries to cross the space back to where he’d slept.

“Hello,” Derek says, quietly, one hand supporting himself as Will blinks up at him, eyes hazy. He could be smiling in the dark; it’s hard to tell—but Derek’s heart beats harder anyway. “Did I wake you?”

Will confirms, “You did.”

“Sorry.”

Will sighs. “It’s fine,” he says, reaching out probably for his shoulder but touching his chest instead, making Derek wonder what he thinks of the steady increase of his pulse. If he’d ever knew what all that meant. His heart slicing wounds through his ribs and his bones and his flesh. Line after line after line of poetry saturated down to the rhythm, there if he ever cared to listen. 

“Go back to sleep,” William whispers, and the dim light catches on the curve of his lips. The slight opening of his mouth.

 

Derek wakes up to the loud knocking on Will’s bedroom door, and he’s trying his best to figure out how to untangle their limbs, when Merida sees fit to burst right in. Like, right out of the fucking cartoon and all. Will laughs at both their expressions.

“Ellen,” Will greets, his thigh somewhere under Derek’s own. “This is Derek.”

And Derek realises that he’s very, very rudely staring—except that’s a carbon copy of William; if he had long, curly hair and was about a foot shorter, around seventeen, and dressed in the most garish neon red pyjamas he has ever seen.

“Wow,” Merida says, and closes the door. Will doesn’t stop grinning at his confusion even when Derek manages to resemble some form of wakefulness.

 

“Hello,” Derek says, sitting beside Ellen as Will’s mother brings them breakfast. 

Ellen looks him up and down. “I know how to box,” she says, mouth full of bacon. “I can punch someone taller than you very effectively.”

“That’s chill,” Derek replies. He doesn’t doubt her one bit.

Anna and Nathan stares at him, across the table, and he’s pretty sure they’re whispering about whether or not he’s come to take their older brother away. He would, if he were able to. Fold his limbs up into his duffel bag and keep his corners tucked close to Derek’s chest with all the selfish intentions of a three year old with a newfound toy. Except this is nothing new. It hasn’t been for a long, long time. But he still wants William, quick-footed and lion hearted and ready to set him on fire on any given notice, and Derek realises, over fucking breakfast, that he loves him so much that he'd even be happy with static between them.

“They’re shy,” Will says, their knees brushing when he sits down beside Derek, noticing the lapse in attention. He even has freckles on his shoulders, dotted all over his arms, moving slightly when   Will finishes his orange juice, brushing away the remnants from his lower lip. “Eat your breakfast, Derek.”

 

“Ellen likes you,” Will tells him, locking the door as they step outside. It’s hot, but not by that much, and Derek doesn’t have to squint to meet Will’s gaze, locked onto his. The weather makes it feel like there’s something boiling and bubbling and bursting in between them. Sinister, maybe, or a tentative wound. It’s something else entirely when the both of them are taken out of Samwell, into this new foreign place that feels too much like playing at something that Derek doesn’t necessarily understand. But if anything else—he wants to understand William, with his angular temperament and the softness in his eyes when he tells Anna not to forget her bag, this jaw-snapping shuddering entity he never wants to unlearn.

Because graduation is part of that. Unlearning Ransom and Holster and Lardo now that they’ve moved on, learning that this hopeful sink of his feet might not last if his mothers don’t like the idea of him staying in some place they’re not a part of. He doesn’t want to stop writing William into the kerning in his poetry or the gentler press of his nib onto the page or the youth that still bleeds like too much ink on paper, not yet controlled.

Derek says, “I can see the family resemblance,” and looks away.

 

“Where are we going?” Derek asks, following him on the small secluded path.

Will says, “Ice cream,” and grabs his wrist to pull him into the nearest shop. Derek sees the goosebumps surface on his skin when he pulls out two ice cream cones from the icebox, handing it over to the cashier to pay. He’s about to reach for his own wallet, to pay for his fair share, but Will looks at him with a warning in his eyes—Derek leaves the money in his pockets.

“Here you go,” Will says, handing him the cone after he’s finished unwrapping it. Something about this feels so stupidly heavy, the extended limb and the ice cream melting onto his fingers and a three simple words said. Will's gaze focused entirely on him.

His fingers are cold when Derek brushes his own against them.

 

In the end it comes down to this: Derek’s a stranger in a strange city; he’s licking a sweetness from his fingers with William for company—and he could swear that this is the happiest he’s been in his entire life—which honestly, isn’t saying much.

 

This city feels nothing like New York; Derek is used to sprawling buildings and cramped alleyways and crowds leaking into your vision everywhere you turn, but here it is different.

“I like Portland,” Derek declares at a traffic light, watching the sunlight move and throb with the clouds hustling along in the sky. It hits hard onto the stone roads. The temperature is relentless, hitting ninety.

“Do you,” Will asks, like he’s never sure if Derek means what he says. Unfastens the first few buttons of his shirt—Derek can see a hint of his collarbones. “It’s alright to me.”

“Of course it’s alright to you,” Derek tells him. “You grew up here, man.” Learning how to walk by the beaches. Growing older to watch his younger siblings learn. Then the cousins. It all sounds cloying, picture perfect. William and his large family of Poindexters throbbing in the same city, until you realise that people are all too often oversimplified.

“In the very same house and everything,” Will tells him, and strokes a thumb over his inner wrist when the light turns green. “Time to walk, Nursey.”

“Right,” Derek says, belatedly, and catches up. They turn the corner.

 

Will’s led them into a bookshop, after a few more minutes of walking. Someplace hidden and neatly kept, like a secret. The ceilings are high and the shelves are all fully stacked; and the scent of old pages fill in his nostrils the minute they push the door open.

“I would never have expected you to bring me to a place like this,” Derek says, voice hushed. Will sends him a glare, walking past him. He stops when he reaches a small division, out of the way. The sign above them doesn’t read fiction, or non-fiction. It’s blank.

“Poetry section,” Will explains to him, and Derek feels like a massive fucking idiot, looking back to the names.

“Oh.”

Oh, is right,” he says, and it’s obvious that he’s trying to hold back a laugh, lips pressed together and eyes dancing.

“Shut up, dude,” Derek mutters, and begins looking from the top shelf. “This shit is my jam.”

“Sure,” Will says, and leans his back against the wall.

He takes a breath, halfway through. “A lot of these are 20th century,” Derek says, looking up. “Not very well-known.”

“Meaning?” William’s eyes are sharp, on his.

“That I’m surprised.”

He asks, “Why, exactly?” and Derek stills.

There are a million fucking answers to that, he knows. Sometimes it’s shocking that you could die a relative nobody and still have your poetry published. He flips the cover open to find the publication date. 2011. Not that long ago. Poets don’t make their mark like the rest of the people do. All a stroke of luck in the right places. He has the money to live out the rest of his life being a nobody. Being his mothers’ son. But it doesn’t fucking matter if you breathe and live and die all in the same vein knowing that the only person you wrote this for was yourself. And that’s fine—but ambition’s taken root in his mind ever since spring. That phone call asking him why he wanted to do this, and—why did anyone do anything?

Derek clears his throat. “People remember the novelists, you know? Not so much the poetry. How much can you remember off the top of your head? The ones you didn’t read about in high school. Not many.”

“That’s true,” Will agrees.

Derek clears his throat. “So I feel kinda. Immature, you know? Childish.” A dream without the room to grow. Boxed in, limbs hurting. Already dead. “Besides. Not practical.”

“Money isn’t everything when you’re miserable,” Will says, quietly, almost into his ear, and he drops the topic after that. Is willing to let him look for the forgotten poetry in silence instead.

 

Derek’s bought three anthologies before he knows it, Will looking over his shoulder, the content approval in his eyes.

 

The pen he’s carrying is almost running out of ink, so Derek decides to live out the rest of its life span on the back of his hands rather than the journal tucked into the back pocket of his jeans. They’re hiding from the afternoon glare in a cafe, now, Will’s attention fixated on his phone and Derek busy trying to get the ink to come out properly on his skin.

Will asks, “Did you ever end up using the pen I bought you?”

“That’s my lucky pen,” Derek tells him. “I don’t bring it out travelling.”

“I’m flattered,” Will says.

“What if I told you that it was purely coincidental,” Derek mutters, almost deciding to carve out the word human out with the pen nib on his skin instead. The ink skipping when he reaches the end of it.

“I’d be flattered nonetheless,” Will shrugs, and Derek looks towards his face, busy with drinking his marked-up black coffee. “But what on earth are you trying to do?”

“Write,” Derek says.

Will rolls his eyes. He says, “Could have just said,” and flags down someone to ask for a pencil, huffing. Derek beams at him for too long after that.

 

On the way back to Will’s house, he says, “My brother is coming back.”

“Brother?” Derek asks. He almost can’t keep track of all the Poindexters there are in his family—there are so many of them that he’s surprised he’s managed to remember most of their names.

“Greg,” he clarifies. “He’s a little shit.”

“So are you,” Derek mumbles, but Will reaches out a hand to catch him anyway, when he slips on the curb. “He wasn’t here before?”

“At his friend’s house, previously.”

“How many siblings do you have,” Derek asks, running a hand through his hair. His forehead’s slightly matted with sweat; it’s ninety degrees out, and Will’s cheeks are completely flushed, and the tips of his shoulders are still reddening. Same loose tank top. He could stare at him for decades—although that might be too soon to say; he hasn’t even reached his second. But young love will always feel that way.

Will breathes out a laugh. “I won’t judge you for counting on your fingers.”

“Fuck off, Dex. I’m smart.”

Will levels him a look, careful, and says, “You are,” before pulling away.

 

Derek’s thankful for the evening wind when he’s sitting out on the porch, watching the lights dim down. The breeze settles when Nathan, in all his tininess, scrambles to sit next to him. William’s helping Greg with calculus back on the dining table; and Ellen seems to be trying her hardest to entertain Anna, who’s insistent on building a castle for her barbies out of lego.

“Hello,” Derek says, after a few brief seconds of Nathan staring up at him, red hair matching his eyes. Just like his brother.

“Hello,” Nathan echoes back. “What are you doing here?”

“Appreciating the view,” Derek tells him, obediently opening the can of soda that Nathan holds out. “Are you sure you should be drinking this?”

Nathan nods solemnly, “Billy said he wouldn’t rat on me.”

“Billy rats me out on everything,” Derek complains.

“That’s because you’re stupid,” Nathan tells him, and Derek barks out a laugh. “He said so. Even before you visited.”

“Did he,” Derek smiles, and cranes his neck to look for him. He’s biting on a pen, as he’s watching Gregory write down the answers. Wasn’t that long ago since he and Will were both in high school, he thinks. He wonders how his grades were like; if he studied as hard as he did in spring. What he did during the long stifling days of summer.

 

Will corners him in the kitchen, when he’s grabbing a can of soda for himself, and asks, “What did Nathan tell you?”

“Nothing that I didn’t already know,” Derek says, pulling back the tab. Some of it sloshes over to his fingers, and he wipes them onto Will’s shirt gleefully, but Will isn’t paying any attention to that, stepping closer. Derek can hear the wind starting up again with the windows open; he’s grateful for it, the night has been sticky and too-hot this entire while. “Apparently, you called me stupid for a pretty long time.”

Something seems to deflate in him; like Derek’s tripped over the cables again, at Annie’s.

“What,” Derek asks, taking a sip of his drink. “Did you say something about me, Billy?”

“You wish,” Will says, too hasteful, the tone coming out all wrong. Almost like he’s frightened. Derek wonders what secrets he’s been keeping. If he ever felt angry for needing to keep them.

“It’s chill, Dex,” Derek mutters, because William looks like he’s just jumped out of his skin, nervous and unsure and nothing like what he’s supposed to be. “I’ve got a ton of embarrassing shit, too.”

“Really,” Will says, stepping back. Pulls his shirt over his head to inspect the soda stains that Derek’s left on there—he doesn’t seem too bothered by it.  “Must have had a lot of them.”

“I guess,” Derek mutters, daring himself not to look away. There isn’t anything he hasn’t seen before, anyway—but he wants to trace a line along his ribcage, mark his heart out with the ink of his pen, or at least measure the gaps from finger to finger. He used to think about it, often, lying in his bedroom back in the city, feeling the pen scratch against his skin, but now he leaves those thoughts simmering. Doesn’t push it.

 

He’s always been restless in summer—waking up early to see the dawn break. Staying up late just to hear the motorcycles and the wind and the quiet noises of the people outside, awake even at eleven. Still partying. And then—how it boils down to a still surface of a river for the brief minute. You could whisper something in that brief period of time and it’ll still read like a shout. Except this isn’t New York City, or even Samwell. Portland is unhurried. Nearly careless. The people living in an almost vacuum, and William pulling his clothes off slowly as he throws off the covers, sweating slightly from the temperature, before he caves, and opens the windows.

“Fucking hot,” he mutters, when he returns to bed, and Derek watches his silhouette move in the darkness. What he wouldn’t give to cut open his heart just to love.

Quietly, Derek says, “I like summer,” and it might be too dark to tell—but on William’s face, that expression could have been a smile.  

 

It doesn’t hurt that much, now that Derek’s experienced it: getting to know Will when he wakes up. He always makes sure to turn away at the last second—Will likes to get up the first thing in the morning, and he’s either helping Clare with breakfast or presumably, trying to be productive. Derek doesn’t know sleep in this strange small bedroom, where the dawn rises early and he never tires. So he switches on the bedside lamp and writes. He’s been trying to grasp the words for it, the sunlight falling into place alongside his freckles. So mundane. Blink and you miss it. Except in Portland the clouds separate and repositions the sunshine so much differently.

When he was seven he’d told his mothers that he’d go back to Vienna every winter if he could help it. But he turned fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and now he doesn’t know how the place looks like anymore, blanketed by snow; Derek always had a bad memory of things. He had to work to remember them. The slow rhythm of a beat, especially. He doesn’t like the idea of wiping his head with an idea. This young, sweet love could be another thing, though. However short-lived.

 

He eats his breakfast and tells Ellen about Samwell, since apparently Will can’t be trusted with an objective viewpoint, never mind that Derek studies there too.

“It’s very liberal,” he says, putting his fork down. He knows that this isn’t an easy topic to navigate around the Poindexters. Even around Will now, well. He’d prefer to keep his mouth shut; he’s staying over, after all. They still fight over the same unimportant things but difficult subjects are thrown under the bridge. Letting sleeping dogs lie in the backyard of summer seems like a particularly good idea.

Ellen nods. “I know. Billy’s wanted to go there forever.”

Derek looks up, to where he’s arguing with Greg over how he should be cooking their eggs. It’d be a far-fetched idea to think that, back when they were trying each other’s buttons, but he can see it now. Barely a blink of an eye ago, actually.

Derek takes a deep breath, and says, “I really like it there. I think your brother does, too.”

“Then that’s good,” Ellen says, and grins.

 

After eleven, Will leans into his space on the couch, where they’re watching cartoons with Anna, and says, “Derek.”

“…Yeah?” He responds, and it comes out raspy. Sometime in between he’s turned from Nurse to Nursey to Derek and he thinks this might kill him. Feelings would be so much easier to overcome if he didn’t have to deal with a growing intimacy at the same time.

Their noses brush, when Derek turns his head to meet his gaze.

“I was thinking,” Will says, then pauses, eyes darting over his face like he’s looking for something. Except his own features soften, and there’s a newfound lightness to his eyes. The condensation from the can Will’s holding seeps onto the side of Derek’s knee, but he doesn’t mind; it’s hot enough that he considers stealing the soda. But he doesn’t.

“Yeah,” Derek prompts. He can see the scar from here. He wants to run his fingers over it and press into the flesh, mapping the ridges of the line. Hearing the story.

But Derek can have this too. Whatever Will’s going to give—a quiet friendship could beat anything else over college. It’s supposed to be the best time of his life, or something. He can at least set his standards lower to meet that.

Will cracks a smile. “Let’s go to the beach.”

 

They take his car, and make the trip there listening to the radio, and don’t speak much, because Will’s driving and Derek’s pressing a pen to the skin of his hands. The ink smudges when he rubs his thumb over the crossed out phrases that don’t quite work; but they’re still legible. He leaves it. Listens instead to the leaves rustling with the winds.

 

Derek’s surprised, when they reach. He’d expected more people—not the scattered few that’s chosen to sit around under their umbrellas, far away from where they stand. But this is good, too. Calming, even if the weather feels like it’s approaching ninety.

“It’s normally not so hot,” Will raises his voice slightly, over the waves. They’re both in boardshorts, and Will’s slathered sunscreen all over himself unceremoniously, before he got out of the car.

“Explains the lack of people,” Derek says back. “Fine by me.”

Will grabs his arm to pull him forwards. He thinks about faking resistance, but doesn’t bother; everything here turns so vibrant under the sunlight that it makes him compliant, warm-hearted. The both of them slightly sweating already.

Derek grins. “If you’re planning on drowning me—shouldn’t you be doing that at night? Assuming that you don’t want to get caught.”

Will shushes him. “You didn’t come here not to get splashed by me.” Something about the beach, maybe, or the sun makes his words slurred. Syrupy. The tension seeps out of his shoulders when the water reaches both their knees, though Will doesn’t seem interested in dunking him under the water, or anything, outside of that perfunctory kick he’d directed in his direction, a few seconds earlier.

He looks to Derek’s hand, then back into his eyes. Someday he’ll pinpoint the colour, he thinks. It’s a cliche that never gets old.

“You wrote something,” Will says, and Derek almost chirps him for the statement. But doing that doesn’t feel right.

“I did,” he says instead, and grabs William by the waist, trying to lift him. But it doesn’t quite work, after way too much struggling, and Derek lands back onto the sand, where the water barely touches them, and William’s sprawled on top of him. He’d have a heart attack if he weren’t laughing—he’s too busy being amused at William’s expression, half-indignant and half-fond.

He’s about to dip his palms into the water when William says, “Don’t do that.”

“Do what,” Derek asks.

“That,” William says, and jerks his head towards the words. “Don’t waste your efforts.”

Derek smiles, and holds his hand out. “Read it, then,” he offers. The weather beats into his back and he feels good about it; feels content to have the sun melting him down into the wet sand. “So it won’t amount to nothing.”

Everything is so, so blue. He knows the water fades into a gradient if he looks to the horizon, but he doesn’t. Derek watches him instead; the gentleness William uses when he turns his hands over. It’s so different to how they’re like, usually. Bickering and shouting and arguing over the smallest of all nothings. But the way that William reaches out for his skin feels newer in its magnitude. Significant, with the waves lapping at their legs and the sun growing stronger by the second.

Immeasurably quietly, he reads, “I admit, I’ve been using you as a map to this foreign city all this time. I never thought about an island but it could be good, too.

“Hot sand on our bare feet and here, you should know by now; the water’s cold regardless of season. I’ll have to learn. Tropical weather is nothing if you let me get used to your fires. Water in my lungs is nothing compared to being in love.”

William looks up at him. Eyes shining hard. Derek knows he’s given himself away, but something about him doesn’t feel the panic. It’s all written down in ink; he can wash the words only if he turns back to the sea. Pretend nothing ever happened. But William presses on anyway.

“If you don’t want that—it’s fine, too,” Will finishes, voice breaking, and lets go of Derek.

“Oh,” William says again, his mouth parting.

Derek’s watching the realisation sink into his eyes; waiting for the burn of a rejection—but for a moment, he thinks about licking the saltwater off William's lips. Writing the words onto his body rather than his own hands; marking out his freckles with bright inks and shaking fingers and drawing the sun back out onto his skin. Watching him tan in the summer heat. But Derek’s already happy with much, much less. It’s not the matter of pushing his luck—it has never been.

He's lost in thought, about this, the way he always is, when colossally, with all the weight of the ocean, William says: "Derek.”

His attention snaps back, to the red against the blue against William's skin against the freckles on his cheek, hot against his palm. He did that unknowingly. A reflex. Derek’s about to pull his hand away and apologise, but William curls his fingers around his wrist, and Derek freezes.

Slowly, against the waves and the sun and the bright unrelenting beautiful heat, William says: "I think fire is only beautiful if there's someone to light one," with a smile. Almost like they're in on a secret together. "You want the water only in your lungs but I want them in mine, too."

The sand shifts underneath their knees, giving under their weight when William kisses him, feather-light.

Inevitably, once his brain registers everything—the grip of his hands the tan on his arms the scar on his neck the redness of his hair his eyelids his eyelashes his freckles his mouth—Derek kisses him back.

 

It feels like a shipwreck when they break apart. William’s skin is flushed and he’s out of breath, curling his fingers too hard into Derek’s arms. Everything feels tangible. But he's thankful for the slight discomfort that grounds him when he tries to make himself come up with an approximate idea of what words feel like.

“You make me want to rewrite the world,” Derek says, at last. “The tide always feels too soft. I’m feeling everything crash onto me, you know?”

William whispers, “Yeah. Me too.”

“Dex—William. What a thunderstorm.”

Will rolls his eyes, but he’s leaning forwards to lean their foreheads together, pressing a brief kiss against his lips, casual. “There might literally be one coming,” he says.

“You can tell?”

“Phone,” Will shrugs, smirking, and reaches to pull him back into the water. “Since we’ve got time—”

“—what happened to drowning me at night,” Derek whines, and lets William push him further into the sea.

 

The flash of lightning comes when the sun sets, with William pulling him under shelter, pressing kisses to the side of his jaw, his mouth.

“I wondered about this,” Derek says, watching him. “If you ever knew about me.”

William pauses. “I hoped—you never know with poetry.”

“You could always ask,” offers Derek.

“You and I are—”

“—at odds, more often than not, I know.” Derek interrupts. “But things change, William.”

Derek gets a snort for that, and Will looking away. “This is change, you’re right,” and it’s so easy to accept that as an out, to go back to guessing and wanting and never knowing, but he’s not going to fall for that.

“Hey,” Derek says, stroking his thumb against Will’s jaw. “Emotions are difficult. I get that. You know I do.”

William hums. “Okay.”

The thunder blares above them then, big and bulky in their ears. Derek winces.

“Let’s go home,” Will decides on. He takes a step back. At this junction, Derek knows that he should be the one prodding further, asking questions, but he keeps his lips pressed together; their hands are still interlocked. That’s conversation enough, he thinks.

 

On the ride back, he keeps brushing his index finger over his mouth, remembering the salt of the ocean; there’s a simmering emotion when he looks at the barely-remaining ink on his palm, the areas where William held his hand so carefully. Cool against his skin, even with an overwhelming sun. Nothing burning. No heart of his going into flames, nothing hard about the kiss. No teeth. Just the touch of their lips and a slide of the tongue, sensuous, smooth. He never knew that people could change like this.

 

Outside the house, where they’re sitting in the car, doors unlocked, William says, “Derek.”

“I know,” he tells him. There’s a note of apology in his voice, and when Derek leans in to press a kiss to his cheek, as fast as he could, he still smells the seawater lingering by his ear. He never wanted to make this difficult for him.

“My mother,” Will clarifies. “She can’t know.”

“Okay,” Derek tells him, and tries not to look so offended at William’s surprise.

“Just like that?” Will asks.

“Yeah,” Derek says, and nothing else. Waits.

He says again, “I’m not an idiot, Will.”

“I know you aren’t,” Will snaps, but softens after, rubbing a thumb over Derek’s knuckles. An apology. “I’m fine with—being gay. I don’t know if she is. I don’t think I want to find out.”

There are fireflies buzzing about, glowing outside their front porch. Derek wonders if they’ll scatter when they walk closer, or if he’d wished the entire day up. Will pulling him by the neck to kiss him or the oceans or the lightning or the storm on the sea, right beside his ears. Waves crashing. It’s a good dream if it’s all imagined.

“I understand,” Derek says, though he doesn’t know if he does. It’s unknown territory that comes with having two mothers, the fact that Derek will know they won’t ever disapprove. Harder in a family of conservatives like the Poindexters.

He looks back to the fireflies. They could be that, too. Hovering in the mild dampness of this air. A summer trickling by with them for witnesses. Breathing heavily at midnight while the sun slumbers.

“Sorry,” Will looks towards him, finally. It sounds gritted out. Painful. “I didn’t mean to make this—somewhere to hide. I’m not ashamed of who we are.”

But you were, once, Derek thinks, a little mean, though he doesn’t voice it. “Kiss me again, and we’ll see about that,” he says.

Will tugs on his arm, on his shoulder, until they’re forehead to forehead. “You’re one of those people who loves kissing, aren’t you.”

Derek shrugs. “Feels good.”

“Okay,” Will says, and presses their mouths together, but he bites down on Derek’s lips, hard, and Derek can’t help but think that he likes that, too.

He doesn’t say anything when Will jerks back, taking a step away as they get out of his car. The distance stays between them all the way to dinner.

 

“Anna,” Will says, indulgently, when she begins to hover in the kitchen, where Derek is trying to chop onions. “Go and bother Gregory.”

“He’s not fun,” she complains, though Derek assumes that she’s quiet about it, only because he’s around. “I want someone to watch TV with me.”

“What about Derek?” Will says, adding the onions to the pan. “He’s fun.”

Derek raises an eyebrow.

Will squints at him.

“Okay,” Anna agrees, and tugs on his hand. They don’t end up finishing the cartoon she’s interested in, when she falls asleep against him. Ellen’s giving him a shrewd look; the kind that Bitty or Lardo tend to give him, when he’s doing something that might look stupid. But there isn’t much judgement in her eyes. Just the gentlest kind of concentration.

“Yes?” Derek asks, clearing his throat, but Ellen’s not saying much. Just watching him, before her eyes shift back to Will.

Ellen says, “Nothing much. Go get Anna to sleep,” and leaves.

Derek carries her in his arms, to bed. Tucks her in at William’s request, thinking about the strength in his arms. How many years he’d spent looking after this family.

 

Dinner is—oddly good.

“Why do you look so fucking shocked,” Will rolls his eyes, when Derek tells him that.

“This is nearly as good as Bitty’s,” Derek confesses, wide-eyed.

Will looks pleased, for a brief moment, before he presses his mouth shut. Gregory looks really close to laughing at the both of them, but he’s also busy chewing with his mouth closed, so there’s that.

“You don’t think that,” Will points out, and he’s wrong. Derek doesn’t bother correcting him, though. Just nudges his ankles.

 

In bed, Will wraps his arms around him before he has the chance to say anything mundane, like good night, or thanks for today. Derek will take what he can, though, Will holding onto him from behind. That’s good, too. It’s always difficult to want any sort of affection from people so private; he thinks that he can make a habit out of this. Reading everything from nothing. Understanding a lack of intention in a step taken back.

“We don’t have to talk about this,” Derek says, when it’s clear that Will’s not letting go, not anytime soon. He can’t see his face like this; just the curve of his arms curled around his torso. Derek can feel his breath in his ear, the inhales deliberately losing their sharpness, the exhales softening further.

Will grasps his shirt in his fingers. “We have to.”

“Not right now.”

Derek uses the lack of a response to turn around; Will’s staring into space. He observes him, the tension in his shoulders, his lips curling into a frown.

Derek says, “You have all the time in the world.”

“Hyperbole,” Will mutters, and his eyes refocus.

Derek smiles, “Someone paid attention in English.”

Will looks like he’s on the brink of an argument, but Derek rubs his knuckles across his cheekbones, and sighs. “Go to sleep.”

 

Once, he’d expected William to turn into another person, entirely, when he goes still, the only movement his breathing. But it’s not the case. He turns in his sleep, occasionally, brows furrowing whenever he’s having an unpleasant dream. He likes to leave the curtains open. The light always catches the scar when Derek feels safe enough to watch him; the raised, jagged flesh. What he did when he waited for that to heal, if his missing father had done anything.

This haunts him. But the lack of information always teases people; out of their hiding places, eager to know. He’d been treated like that, once. Derek’s background too prominent to really fade away; he’s always been at a junction. The people trying to coax him west, then south. It’s the same unpleasantness he’d forced onto Will before. Vice versa. Too different to understand.

“But our eyes are not limitless,” Derek mutters. The clouds drift. In this newfound light he’s able to see William’s freckles again, the clusters across his cheeks. “It takes more than just determination to search for the nebulae you know you cannot find.”

 

He wakes up restful, for the first time in a few months. Will’s fingers are in his hair—he’d rearranged them so that Derek’s head would be on his lap. It’s more calming than he’d like to admit, the pads of Will’s fingers dragging across his scalp in a repeating motion. Derek could get used to that; he’s ready to shut his eyes when Will catches him, attention diverted from his phone.

“You’re awake,” he points out.

Derek groans, “Good morning.” He stretches out, arms smacking into him on purpose.

Will is either annoyed, or stifling a laugh. “What are you, a cat?”

“Meow,” he snarks out, and tumbles out of bed to head to the bathroom. But there’s an excessive amount of commotion, even for the horde of Will’s younger siblings, and it doesn’t occur to Derek that something could be amiss before he realises that there are far, far more people in the living room than Derek is comfortable with. He’s only wearing a pair of trousers, if that justifies anything.

“Dex,” he hisses, ducking back into Will’s bedroom. “Why is there fifteen people in your house?”

Will continues scrolling on his phone, looking unfazed. It’s only then that Derek realises that there’s a plate of toast, on the nightstand. Presumably for him. “There should only be thirteen, theoretically. I saved you breakfast, though.”

“Thanks,” Derek mutters, sliding back under the covers. Will hands him his cup of coffee, exactly like how he takes it, and he tries his best not to slosh the liquid over the rim of the cup. “Is there a possibility of avoiding socialising with all these people?”

He’d meant it as a joke, but something darkens in Will’s face, and Derek tries not to flinch at that. He’s ready to take his words back, when Will says, “I’d rather not to talk to them, either.”

“Oh,” Derek says, at a loss for words. Again.

“It’s okay,” Will shrugs, though his expression doesn’t clear. “I’ll bring you to another beach, today. Up for it?”

Derek nods his head—of course he is.

 

The car ride is significantly shorter there, with Derek slumping in his seat, trying to shield his eyes from the sun. Just as unforgiving as the previous day. Will had shuffled him out of the house, barely giving his relatives any time to notice a stranger in their midst. Which was fun, he supposes. The teenage experience.

“Will you kiss me on that beach, too?” Derek asks him, after the car’s parked and the engine’s turned down. He can hear their light breathing in this space of theirs, unobtrusive.

“If you want me to,” Will says, his face a soft red.

Derek confirms, “I want you to.”

 

In here everything is richer. The people walking about with their other people. Leashes in hand, with pets. The children attempting to build sandcastles and failing, not quite there. The waves bluer. Boulders bigger. There’s a lighthouse, and a lifeguard. Sprawled out in the sunlight. Derek piles more sand onto William’s feet, and laughs when a bottle of sunblock hits him.

“What are you trying to do?” Will pokes him in the arm. Derek shifts on the sand to push himself closer into his space; Will’s blush is spreading over his cheeks, and he wants to trace the freckles out with the pads of his fingers. Mark out the roads.

Derek caresses the line of his jaw. “This okay?”

“Okay,” Will agrees, and Derek leans further in.

 

So his heart folds inwards when they kiss; Derek should have been expecting that. They say that the first person you fall in love with hides a piece of themselves in your skin afterwards. In your mannerisms, your memories. Perhaps after this is over—he’ll be walking on beaches feeling this present moment preserved; some part of youth to hold onto. The Peter Pan in him clamouring to go back. But this is the thing about time, Derek thinks. It slows down even now, with the salt and the wind and the grains of sand sticking to his skin. Everyone present in their settings. William’s hands around his neck.

 

When they break apart, Will says, “This is the part where you recite poetry to me, isn’t it,” which gets a quiet laugh out of Derek.

“Do you actually want that?” He asks, rubbing a thumb over William’s bottom lip, still slick. “I could.”

“Could you.”

Derek raises an eyebrow at him. “Are you doubting me?”

“Maybe,” Will says, eyes scorching. He’s always so intense that Derek worries about him, a little; did he get burnt often, in his youth? Fixating so much on everything that’s subtle. His attention always snapping. William’s so collected everywhere else. Maybe that’s all smoke, too.

Derek smiles, slowly. “Perhaps inhaling this seawater luck wouldn’t do anything to my nerves.”

Runs a finger over the callouses of Will’s palms. He keeps on thinking about a younger him, playing with his siblings in another time, same place. If time distorts here. How much he misses the ocean and the shaking water, the unpredictability—

—what he did to stay afloat. Everyone has their secrets from their youths. Everywhere that luck had failed them.

Derek continues, “Hammering at your pulse on mine bursting brightly from anger. So much like the sun. This is us, sinking into the sand; me, going forward in the face of your fires. Wanting to melt even further.”

On an exhale, Will asks, “Was all that about me?”

Derek rolls his eyes, even with the warmth in his chest. “Did you want me to recite it to that dog, instead?” He points towards the one shaking out the water from its coat.

Will punches his arm, laughing. “Don’t be an asshole.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I liked it, though.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Will snorts, about to flip him off, probably, but a voice travels from behind them: “Will?”

The both of them stand, abruptly, and Derek finds himself looking at someone about their height, slightly shorter. He feels the small bloom of jealousy towards the affection in their voices, and ignores it.

“Hey, man,” Will says, bumping fists with them. Derek doesn’t know if he should step closer, or step back, but the decision’s made for him; he’s slinging an arm around Derek’s shoulder before he could move away. They’re exchanging pleasantries, before the person looks towards him, and Derek realises that that’s his cue.

“Hi,” Derek adds. “I’m Derek. William’s—uh—”

“—boyfriend.”

Derek turns to meet his eyes, but no luck. Will’s gaze is steadfastly fixed on his old schoolmate. It’s surprising, and—not, at the same time. He’d reined himself in, because he didn’t want to jump to conclusions.

Which was not to say that he hadn’t hoped.

He hides a grin. Reaches out for a handshake, and is prepared to let himself dissolve into background noise, after that, but their acquaintance asks Will about what he’s doing at Samwell. And that naturally includes him, Derek supposes, so he tries his hardest to pay attention to the sluggish conversation. 

“English,” Derek says, answering the question about his major. He wonders how long it would stay that way. When his mothers would finally coax him elsewhere.

“Yeah,” William chimes in, “Derek’s good with poetry shit.”

He tries his hardest not to laugh at that, distracted. “Very articulate, Dex,” and tunes out afterwards.

 

They’re left alone, after thirty minutes, and Derek takes the silence to tease him.

“Your ears are red,” he says.

Will shoves at him. “You’re annoying.”

“Your boyfriend is annoying.”

Will’s glare is very impressive.

Derek’s smile widens.

“You’re gonna give me shit for that, aren’t you?”

Derek flops back onto the sand. “No, no, we’ll talk about something else.” He stretches his limbs. “Like, okay. Do you think mermaids exist?”

Will doesn’t move away, when Derek maneuvers his head to his lap. “What.”

“Mermaids,” Derek says again, “Evil creatures that pull you under the ocean.”

Will shrugs. He leans his weight onto his hands. “I hope they don’t.”

“What if you were actually one,” Derek muses. “That would explain everything.”

Will raises his eyebrows at him.

Derek pokes at his left cheek, where the freckles are the most concentrated. He’s gorgeous, like this, lax and glowing in the sun. Sand on his face and all. He drags the pads of his fingers over his cheekbones. “I feel like drowning into you.”

It’s true. There’s always been something about William that felt like he could swallow him whole; his righteous anger and harsh insults and burning eyes. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s stayed the same. Maybe they just didn’t know how to breathe around each other, back then. Hard to pull together two people so different and expect them to communicate on the same wavelength. But they’re learning. Finding the pauses of a stanza. Learning the blankness between words, between phrases.

“Sap,” Will says, and it’s fond. Derek helps himself to another kiss.

 

On the way back, Derek had asked, “What topics am I supposed to not talk about,” and sitting in the middle of a crowd of Poindexters, he’s half-glad that he remembered to ask that question. They’re in a hot debate of whether homosexual marriages should be legalised, and, well.

“It’s none of my business,” Will says, despite an entire hot afternoon of making out with a half-black half-brown guy on the beach, water up to their thighs and all. Derek wonders when he knew about his sexuality—how many debates he had to sit through, barely there, not quite listening. “Other people can marry whoever they want.”

“But it’s not right,” an uncle argues. Derek had assumed that Will would burst out in anger—or at least look like he was about to—but he’s calm and collected and composed and Derek’s not quite sure what to do. It’s obviously the norm, if no one is batting an eye at how he’s taking a sip of his beer, shrugging a shoulder.

Derek stays quiet.

Gregory rolls his eyes—all of Will’s siblings resemble him, in looks and mannerism, and that eye roll makes Derek wonder how often that was directed to anyone other than himself. “None of your business, though, isn’t it?”

“None of yours, either,” says someone else.

“Then why are you making such a big deal out of it?” Gregory retorts, and Derek tries to shuffle himself out of the conversation, lingering at the edges. He’d have spoken up, but this isn’t a place for him to do that, and William obviously needs to maintain good relations with his family—he doesn’t want to fuck things up, like that.

Will grips his wrist, gentle. “Let’s go,” he says, into Derek’s ear, voice soft, and leads him back upstairs.

 

“I’m sorry about that,” Will blurts out, slamming the door behind him.

Derek thinks about it—the apologies he’s never received from him. The guilt and the shame and the anger mellowing his face into something unrecognisable. He probably wasn’t here for the worst of it; the discussions of racism that he knows take place in the household more often than not. He supposes that his presence changes things, sort of.

“Affects you, too,” Derek chooses to say, at last. “Unless you’re going to that what happened between us wasn't actually gay.”

Will halts, looking startled. There’s another wave of muted shouting sounding from downstairs, and an ugly feeling twists in Derek’s gut. He understands internalised homophobia—but it didn’t mean that he has the energy to revisit the vitriol or the self-loathing. Derek says nothing.

“I’ve always known I was gay,” Will confesses. “And I had one night stands. But they didn’t do anything for me.”

Derek inhales, sharp. He hears the low murmur of Will’s extended family starting back up again. Background noise against the sounds of the insects outside their window, still buzzing. What Will had to do to block their words out. If he hid under the blankets when he was young, or if he had to sit there all this while, stone-faced, without the excuse of another friend up in his room.

The thing about William—it’s that he’s always flashing. Right on the edge of snapping, smiling, scowling. Running scaldingly unpredictable. He’s frightening because things matter; Derek is too used to keeping them hidden at the back of his mind. Everything can be left alone until forever stretches thin.

But Derek is learning him better. A lot of him is still passive; you have to coax the indulgence out with a spark. A bright, garish invitation for the sinking of his teeth. Turn yourself over on his tongue and the fire will grow; people like William don’t die down. He won’t let himself.

“What about me,” Derek breathes out. “Do I do anything for you?”

Will leans in, threads his hand through Derek’s hair. “You do. But not—”

He bites his lips.

“Not…?” Derek prompts.

“I don't know—I don’t know what to think about sex.”

“Okay,” Derek agrees. “No sex.”

William’s head snaps up. “Really?”

Derek tries not to feel too hurt about the shock. But it’s okay. “Really. But you’re fine with kissing, right?”

Will presses Derek’s knuckles to his mouth, audibly swallowing. “Yeah.”

Derek rubs a hand over Will’s nape when he lets go, feeling the warmth of his body. A human furnace indeed. 

“Make out with me, then,” Derek says, laughing when William crashes into him.

 

Before Derek can get his mouth back onto his, Will says, “Sorry,” again. As if he alone created homophobia. It’d be funny but not when Derek knows how shame does a terrible thing to your organs. Twisting them around until you turn sour. He felt it even when he grew up with his mothers—societal discrimination doesn’t leave easy, even when you put your mind to it.

“Dex,” Derek whispers, so close that he sees the flecks in Will’s eyes, “You don’t have to fix everything. Not your responsibility.”

Derek presses a hand to his chest. He can fall asleep like this. William’s heart thumping beneath his fingers, mouth as red as his hair. If he could melt into him he would. If he could melt further he would.

“Doesn’t mean I can’t be sorry,” Will says, voice cracking. “For them, and the—” He cuts off. Brows furrowing. Derek waits, but nothing else comes out; he understands. Emotions are always hard to come by. Box them up in a treasure chest for too long and you’d lose the key to the ocean. But the beach washes so many things back to shore.

Derek presses his thumb to Will’s bottom lip, tracing the contours of them. Focusing on the rise and the fall of his breathing.

Derek says, “Listen. The pleasures of the mind, or the flesh, or the heart, in their shapes and forms—they’re all interchangeable. For me. But all I want to do is write poetry on your body.” He matches their breathing up. Curls his fingers into his sides; sure that they’ll leave marks. “If you’ll let me.”

The blush on Will’s face intensifies. They’re both grinning too hard to kiss after that.

 

Over eggs, Will asks, “When are you gonna check your phone?”

Derek finishes the last of his breakfast, washes the salt down with the cup of bitter coffee. He doesn’t bother with the sugar here; most of the time he’s feeling too sleepy to ask, content to wake up around the sounds of Will conversing with his mother instead. Eating up that familial sweetness. “It’s already turned back on,” Derek says.

Will presses a foot against his leg. If it’s a sign of support, he’s grateful for it—and if it isn’t, he’s grateful anyway. “Did either of them call?”

“No.” He presses the heel of his palm against his eyes, sun glowing red-orange behind their eyelids. His eyes prickle with the gentle burst of anger. “I’ve got nothing.”

“That’s okay,” Will says, handing him the rest of his breakfast. “You’ve got time.”

Derek ignores the guilt curdling in his stomach. Looks down to the barely-touched pancakes, and believes him.

 

Aloud, with his head back on Will’s lap, Derek reads, “It takes your unfurling limbs, and the sun equally as lazy, and the static stop go stop of the radio—for me to finally remember time. An entire afternoon lusting after sandcastles neither of us ever knew how to build. That opulence we’re trying to imagine. But the sun already gleams.”

 

He’s flipping through the journal that William bought him, in the late afternoon. Feeling the raised markings of where he wrote as softly as he could manage. Writing rewriting cancelling. He swears a bird sits on the windowpane, watching him. Round black eyes fixed onto his eyes fixing back. It flew away when he closed his eyes and yawned.

“Hey,” Derek says, when William climbs onto the space beside him. “I want you to have this.”

William takes the journal from his hands. “Really,” he says. Ghosts the spine of the book and rests it against his thighs. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Derek says, then after a beat— “I want this.”

He feels the perspiration clinging to his forehead when William meets his gaze. Studying him with an intensity that he doesn’t quite know how to name. The seconds blur together in the silence that stretches out before the birds start their chirping back up.

Will asks, “What do you want?”

Derek takes his time to think about it. The small distance from Annie’s to their dorms; the ink staining the pads of his fingers. Himself the speechless watcher sitting far away from the people, Will typing line after line of code. Trying and failing to match him drink for drink and waking up the next morning slumped over a green couch. Then the long walk back to either one of their dorms, still reeking of alcohol and falling and stumbling and not knowing what they wanted, even then. But they could start to find out.

“Anything you have left to give,” Derek says, because nothing really ever comes full circle. He strokes a finger against the scar on William’s neck. Wonders about all the stories he’d given it; what it’d take for him to listen one day. But he has this for now; the late summer sun and pages after pages of his heart in Will’s hands. All bursting under the weight of time. “All your hidden childhood stories of growing up.”

Will smiles at him, cups the side of his face. His thumb rubs over his cheekbone. “People don’t stop growing, Peter Pan.”

Derek turns his face to drop a kiss into his hand. The junction between index finger and thumb, before he reaches out to feel the callouses on them. The labour. Breathes in to say, “Then grow with me.”

Chapter Text

< so i am back here tending your fire >

 

The semester begins, with the weather still slick and inescapable. Will’s fingers have several new callouses on them, right beside the old ones, and he shrugs them off like Bitty chases away the lingering looks at the pies Ransom and Holster and Lardo aren’t here to fight over. It’s odd, living on a single mattress in this space that used to belong to two people, long-gone by now. Captain after captains after captain of differences.

Even Derek himself. Now he’s lying on top of William trying his best to word him up with felt-tip pens. Rubbing the ink with his fingers whenever he makes another mistake. The bedsheets are stained by all his efforts to write in the middle of the night—which happens so often that Will never makes a fuss now—so he no longer bothers trying to hide the fact that he’s using skin as a substitute for tissue paper.

Derek presses his lips together. He’ll have to take another shower before class starts, it seems—if he’s still enrolled in the programme—which, frankly, he knows nothing about.

He exhales hard, and strokes a line down Will’s side. “Dex.”

“Derek,” Will says back, and it’s only then that Derek loses his footing on what he’s supposed to call him by, now; if this relationship is ever going to start warranting another name. “Annie’s?”

He thinks about it. The path from the Haus to Annie’s—that’s something familiar. He could take comfort in that, at least, the small winding road they could have for the next two years.

But somehow that’s frightening, too, watching William shake himself out of his half-asleep state and reaching for a shirt. Covering up the fully-written poem Derek’s finished on his chest, the words moving atop muscle and bone. He can see where his tan lines are fading, the colours evening out.

“I don’t want to go to Annie’s,” Derek says, and William stops moving.

Will says, “Okay,” and lies back down. He doesn’t ask, what’s wrong, or, did something happen, or, what else do you want to do?

Instead: “Read your poem out to me, then.”

He doesn’t look away.

“Yeah,” Derek sighs. “Okay.”

A smile breaks out on Will’s face, shifting his eyes from red to gold, and Derek’s breath hitches—nothing new, there.

“I promise I’m not hiding,” Derek reads, the thought leaving a coldness arching up his spine. “This is only a too cold unquestionable morning death and I am settled in between your ribs, asking how change happens. If it’s gradual.”

“Derek,” Will breathes out, sounding soft, unguarded, when Derek trails off. His hand reaches out to interlock their fingers. “Everything changes.”

He buries his face in Will’s neck. Says, “That’s the fucking thing, isn’t it.”

Will hums, a small quiet sound. “The world’s—interactive, Derek. You’re not sitting in a glass box.”

He sure as hell wants to. “Some people are.”

“You’re not some people, come on,” Will runs his fingers through his hair, longer now. “You write like the end of the world is coming.”

Derek frowns, relaxing into his hand. “Maybe it is.”

“Very melodramatic.”

Derek pauses, and says, “Perhaps not enough.”

Will smiles; Derek can feel the soft puff of air against his ear when he does. “You’re enough,” he says. “Trust me. Very melancholy.”

“Fuck off,” Derek grumbles.

Will says nothing for a while, and then: “Why do you write?”

Derek shrugs. What explanation is he supposed to give? He has too many answers to that and none of them seem correct. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know,” William repeats.

Derek exhales, and clenches his jaw. He doesn’t know because he knows nothing, yet, he’s got almost two decades of his life and nothing else—everything is planned out drawn down written and locked away for him from the very start. His mothers always had a clear destination when he didn’t.

He elaborates. “I want to find out.”

Derek wants—there’s nothing in the world he doesn’t want. He wants to either live with this fire or feel how it’s like to get burned by it; he wants to taste the blood and wine on his tongue and live out his mundane casual life until something rips apart in his life or heart. It never mattered what else there was to everything. At least not right now. Even then he’d want to feel the regret chewing deep into him, never letting go. It’s all emotion he’d get to write down. How else does anything matter?

“Write until I cannot breathe,” Derek adds, after that brief thought. “My mothers will survive. They did fine before me and they’ll do fine after, it’s—they carved out a piece of the world to live in, and that’s good, you know?”

William presses his lips to the crown of his hair, “But that piece of their world shouldn’t be an inheritance,” he says.

Then it hits him. That weight of an answer that makes so much fucking sense, like something that Derek's revisited too many times. Perhaps he only needed someone to say it out loud for him, sorting the puzzle out. Simple logic and an obvious conclusion.

"Holy shit," Derek says, pulling away. He’s looking down at the smudges on the pale expanse of William's body, the words pooling together like the current of the sea, and William—William is smiling at him, indulgent and patient and almost a little bit snarky, like he’s just won an argument, like he knows Derek would let him win every single one, like he’s aware of the fire and the grit and the wealth in his bones, that Derek feels like he’s loving him with smoke in his eyes, his throat, his lungs.

Derek rests their forehead together, thinking. “Holy shit, William. I gotta tell them.”

“Do it,” William says, holding his hand out, Derek’s phone resting glowing living subtly in his palm. “Say what you have to say.”

He takes the phone and waits, for a moment. Breathing in the same air with the ink already melting and the words gone on William’s chest, eyes flickering. They’re kissing when he leans in, gentle, William tasting like a hotter ocean, bringing with him the immense urge to both drown and never sink. Derek doesn’t have to open the eyes of his eyes in that moment to understand the copper gold bronze molten under everything. He’s there and William’s there and it feels like they’re finally on the same page, the hot sun and the waves crashing and pulling and pushing. This great unimaginable happening beginning beneath his ink-stained fingertips; this breath taken at a finally-chosen title. It really did take this long to realise the words.

Outside, the leaves start falling.

Chapter Text

 

< the brightly blinding snow >

i.

I loved the boy who burned

like the ice ages never happened.

Not even when the ice settles
onto his skin like a bruise.
Caught myself thinking that it
would hurt- but apparently not
if your skin is only a quiet fire.
The winter's left him with a wound.
I'm watching the warning fester
as he works. Stubbornly refusing
to hibernate. At first
I assumed it was glutton.
It's not. He'd known from the
beginning that all the liquid gold
in his eyes would never have
survived the freeze.

 

ii.

we are watching the snow come
down when he says:
“the light is shifting—”

while the birds keep flying. still
in the same direction as they
were. even down south, or
an entire block of youth
ago. passing to someplace warmer.
my hand doesn’t reach
for his hand. a neck turned
and he’s caught me staring. asks,
“what are you looking at?”

i tell him about the remarriage
between this neighbour
and the next.

 

iii. 

The sun breathes, this morning
right where the snow is melting.
A kiss happens when our world
clears, rose-tinted but still visible.
Nothing is realistic
but ice still thaws in winter. A
warmth settles over the people
and the city forgets how it was like
to go hungry. Snow will turn to rain
but it is never cold. Wait until
the shaky exhales stop. Wait until
you start breathing easy. 

[commissioned by @whitepeopleininformercials.]

 

< growing, still hurting >

i.

April's showering us
with the demand of
a glowing greenness

and it is now that I realise
the palms of your hands
opening
and closing

or the sweet curve of
your mouth
pressing against a flower

and your breath a shuddering
quiet awakening

like you're kissing the
passing of a colder season,
as if an aftermath of rain.

Hot and
heavy and
wanting.

 

ii.

the rotten fruit
dangles.
way too early in its days
as you pluck it from the
branch, considering.
what do you do with
something gone
so soon?
the april showers
are only beginning
and here. the warning
running juice over
your gloves. leather
ruined. the smell
makes the both of us
hold our breath as
we toss it into the
garbage.
we're already tired.

 

iii.

the winds aren't as cold,
i was thinking. a lit candle
flickers as we walk down
the clear path,
still wet from snow. the mud
sticks to our shoes. you have
to put in extra effort when
you're moving.

you're telling me: maybe
we should head back.
but why should we?
a lack of sustenance at the
very start of spring
will kill just about anything

 

iv. 

This is rhythmic
but nothing hopeful.
An inconvenience, you
might say. Hearing
listening understanding
doing redoing
and trying again.
The exact same chore.
Reading the words
from the palm of your
hands sweating and
waiting
to be done.
Then coming back
just that little bit richer.

 

v.

we’re brought an uglier limb
than asked for. but that’s okay.

the muck is only the muck
for the tenderness of a daisy
in between our fingers.
tomorrow the rain eats up
our solitude and leaves
disapproval eating at her petals.
but you are what i breathe
in spring. not the grime
nor the birds nor
the birth of a
fresher bigger brighter
tree,

but your spitfire eyes
that always gleams

 

< the steam and the rain and a ship sailing >

i.

so we’re both burning now.
i think perhaps
inhaling this seawater luck
still wouldn’t do anything
to my nerves. hammering
at your pulse on mine
bursting brightly from anger
so much like the sun.
this is us sinking
into the sand
and me going forward
in the face of your fires
and wanting to melt
even further

[written for @bittlebunny.]

 

ii.

seeing is scary.
we try and apply logic
to the skies at one
in the morning because
that’s the most comforting.
but our eyes are not
limitless. it takes
more than just
determination
to search for the nebulae
you know you cannot find.
but it doesn’t mean that
i couldn’t try. after
twelve hours
your freckles will appear
in a stranger pattern and
i’d blind myself
just trying
to understand.

 

iii.

you’re not telling me
something. that’s fine;
i can keep secrets too,
hovering in the mild dampness
of this air. a summer
trickling by with the
fireflies in between us.
witnesses.
i’m wondering how many
of them have learned
to whisper in order
for the humans to
let them go. we could
be that. breathing
heavily at midnight,
in july.
fireflies blinking and
the stars unseen
because neither of us
are looking away.
oh, my darling.
i, too, would
set myself on fire just
for a reason to kiss you.

 

iv. 

on the shore it's a
different idea. but
let me have this dream.

shut your eyes.
do you see the sunshine
bleeding into the roads

or something else? the
car you're driving is mine
but it's all i remember.

i admit,
i've been using you as a map
to this foreign city all this time.

i never thought about an island

but it could be good, too.

hot sand on our bare feet
and here, you should know by now
the water's cold regardless

of season. i'll have to learn.
tropical weather is nothing
if you let me get used to your fires.

water in my lungs is nothing
compared to being in love. if you
don't want that it's fine too.

we can still argue with
your spitfire tongue when i build
you houses on the beach.

seashells, i'm thinking. or the
crustaceans’ washed up skeletons.
what about my own bones?

if we're too young to live
and you're wanting your summer's end
i’d still want you to thrive in me.

or a shipwreck could happen.
i'll start you a village anyway
with the wealth in your eyes

but i understand your city.
the home you grew out of
calloused hands, the anger.

but either way, darling.
we're still stranded in the sea.

 

[commissioned by @tiptoe39, but written with this fic in mind!] 

 

v .

it takes your unfurling limbs
and the sun equally as lazy
and the static stop go stop
of the radio for me to finally
remember time. an entire
afternoon lusting after
sandcastles neither of us
ever knew how to build.
but it’s this exact kind of
love that swelters inside
my fingers and the song
thrumming in tune to the
useless spinning fan;
i’m learning. lying with you,
eyes shut in the shade.
taking breath after breath
after breath
for the flowers. and the leaves.
waiting for them to start
burning.

 

< so i am back here tending your fire >

i.

Now, I am overripe and bruised.
Taken away. Realising the necessity
of one ending passing onto another.
The world starts waking along their
parents, or falling back to slumber.
I can never tell which is which,
not anymore. I promise that I’m not
hiding. This is only a too cold
unquestionable
morning death and I am settled in
between your ribs asking how
change happens. If it’s gradual.
You end up answering me like it’s
all logic, none of the romance. But
your hand stays warm even this long
after summer.