"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way."
The Highwayman, Alfred Noyes
She makes it three days before she breaks.
At first she can pretend it's a game. She's used to antagonizing him; the stakes are just higher now. She pushes the envelope, needling and questioning and shocking him with some of the tawdry details of Lexi's past. It's important not to let him get too close, not just because he might figure her out. The Guard's expecting him to make her fall in love with him again, and that'll only put them right back where they started. So she doesn't let herself flirt with him – even though Lexi would flirt with almost anyone good looking enough, and he certainly meets her qualifications – and she overshares everything that makes Lexi the polar opposite of straight-laced Audrey Parker as extra incentive to keep his distance.
Except that winning this game might be destroying them both. There are moments – like when she tells him pancakes are gross – that it's like she kicked his puppy and murdered his baby and ran over his grandmother right in front of him and his devastation ripples through her with such force that it's all she can do not to drop to her knees and beg for forgiveness.
The feeling compounds by the hour. Every day gets harder, not easier. Maintaining Lexi's façade is exhausting – every single word and look is an act and she's so used to instinct taking over during a case she's afraid she'll slip up like she did with Duke. Maybe next time someone won't find out. Maybe they'll die. Maybe it'll be Nathan. Maybe it'll be her.
She's not sleeping. She can't. Every time she closes her eyes she sees all the ways she's hurt him since her return, and when she finally drifts off she dreams of that moment after the door, with his gun in her hands. It always goes off. Sometimes it makes no difference. He dies, but the Troubles stay, and she never knows if it's because she didn't love him enough or if Howard lied to her.
Sometimes the Troubles die with him. It's worse, somehow.
She hadn't been sleeping before the Barn either. Not really. Claire had given her sleeping pills and sometimes she'd caved and taken them. Mostly she'd worked herself to the bone and sat out on her balcony in the middle of the night, staring at the water wrapped in one of Nathan's old sweatshirts, trying to pretend it was his arms surrounding her.
She'd never been much good at pretending. It makes the whole situation especially awful.
It only takes three days until she can't handle it anymore. They are better together and she should not have forgotten that again. She cannot do this without him.
She's fairly certain the Guard is watching her, but by three in the morning her tail is gone. She dresses in black and circles the Gull three times, but there's no one awake within sight. She parks by the beach over a mile from Nathan's house and walks the rest of the way, looking over her shoulder the entire time.
His door is locked, but she picks it easily. That was actually one of Audrey's skills and he might have remembered that from the Glendower case, but it's easy enough to attribute to Lexi and the portrait of delinquency she's painting.
She navigates by the light of her cell phone directly to his bedroom. Normally her curiosity would drive her to explore, but it doesn't matter now.
All that matters is the man lying in the bed before her. For some reason she had not expected him to be shirtless. His blanket is slung a few inches above his hips and she can't tear her eyes away from the pale skin luminescent in the moonlight streaming from the window. There are too many scars and bruises. He's being careless. It shouldn't shock her, because just three days ago he'd been pointing a gun to his own heart, but it still hurts.
He's bruised and battered but still beautiful, and she itches to run her hands across his chest, to feel and watch the muscles twitch at her touch. He's relaxed but not at peace. His forehead is furrowed even now. The shadows under his eyes are so dark someone could hide in them. His jaw is clenched, his lips stretched in a frown. He hadn't needed stitches, but the gash above his eye is still red and angry.
She wants to shield him from everything that's hurting him, both in his head and this crazy town. The fact that she is the primary cause of his misery is worse than the agony she felt when he moved on with Jordan. It's almost as bad as coming back from Colorado and finding him dead. She wants to protect him. She wants him. He makes her want so many things she never thought she'd have. Family. Love. Companionship. A life. Things she apparently didn't deserve.
She doesn't have a lot of time.
It's the knowledge of that that gives her the bravery to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. She will not waste this chance when she may not have another.
He bolts upright at her touch, blinking wildly as he sits, and she takes a few startled steps backwards. He searches for the intruder in the darkness, and once his eyes find hers she is frozen.
"Sorry," is all she can manage. She's not sure if she sounds more like Audrey or Lexi because she was too startled to censor herself.
"I'm dreaming," he concludes after a long, heavy moment.
"Do you dream about me showing up in your bedroom often?" she quips, falling back on familiar tactics to diffuse the situation.
"Yes," he answers a little too readily, and she feels herself blush at the implications. She's had a few such dreams herself. Was sure to have more now that she'd seen him shirtless.
"Do you feel in your dreams?" she asks, both genuinely curious and desperate to delay the moment when she reveals the truth and he does not forgive her. When he doesn't answer immediately she reaches out and grabs ones of his hands that is braced against the mattress.
(She'd run a hand down his chest but that's something Lexi would do, and she doesn't want to be Lexi, not tonight.)
"No," he whispers, more sigh than syllable. He's looking at her strangely but he isn't pushing for an explanation, and she figures he must still be half asleep. Or maybe it's more than that. Maybe he's run out of hope that any good could come from this, that it could be anything more than another torment.
She wonders if souls can bleed out the way Josh had, because she feels hers might spill out all across Nathan's floor if he keeps looking at her like that.
So she shucks off her leather jacket and nudges his shoulder with hers. "Scoot over," she demands, pulling off her boots.
"Just do it."
He listens to her. (He always listens.) He slides toward the far side of the bed and she clambers in after him and pulls the sheet over herself until there are only a few inches separating them. She can feel the heat radiating from him and she wants to bury herself in it, but she keeps her distance.
"I don't know what's happening," he tells her.
If that didn't make two of them. "You're not dreaming, Nathan."
"Aud—" He stops halfway through her name, swallows hard. "Lexi," he finishes, but it's like he's chewing glass.
As much as his pain repulsed her, she'd been glad when he'd admitted he wanted Audrey back. Because Lexi was sexy and self assured, and Nathan had fallen for Sarah pretty quickly. She should have wanted him to be happy, even if it was with another one of her personalities. Especially if it was a form of herself and not someone else entirely. But she didn't want to share him. Didn't want him to give up on her. So she'd had to look away, because Lexi should have been enraged but she'd been overcome with hope flaring in her chest.
"Right the first time, partner."
She waits for a dawning realization that does not come. So she reaches out and lays her hand against his cheek. "I kissed you there, the day Jess left, and it was the first thing you'd felt in years. You cried when you rescued me from the chameleon. We got in a fight after your father died, and I wanted to tell you I was sorry, that I would have done anything to keep you from having to see that if I could, but then the real Audrey showed up and I never got the chance."
"I don't understand." But his eyes are brighter now. Maybe it's tears. Maybe it's hope. Either way she's breaking through.
"I lied," she admits. She's ready for his anger, as long as it brings him back to life. "I knew who I was as soon as I came through the door – but the Guard – and the gun – I had to save you."
He surges toward her, and his arms come around her so quick and so tight all the air leaves her lungs. He gasps when her shoulder presses against his – her black camisole leaving lots of bare skin for him to enjoy. But he doesn't seem to care whether he's wrapped around skin or clothing, though he does drop his head into the crook of her neck. She wants to run a hand through his hair but she can't move her arms. So she just breathes him in, willing her traitorous heart to settle and her body to savor the moment.
"Audrey," he whispers, his voice filled with so much relief and reverence it makes her soul want to flee from her body and cleave to his. "Oh thank God."
"It's me," she assures him, wishing again that she could touch him properly. "I'm back."
She's not sure how long they stay like that, but his grip never loosens.
"I'm sorry," she finally says. "I didn't want to say all those horrible things, but I had to make you believe I was her to keep you safe."
"You're here now. That's all that matters."
She pulls away, hardly believing forgiveness could be that easy. She'd spent three days convincing him she was gone for good, practically feeding his heart through the station shredder.
But she's forgiven him for asking her to kill him. Oh, she doesn't like it. But she's forgiven him.
And he seems to have forgiven her. He's fully awake now, and staring at her with a hunger he's not even trying to hide.
She's not sure where they go from here. She didn't have much of a plan, except telling him the truth. But if this is what he needs to start to mend that's fine with her. He reaches out a hand and rests it tentatively on her cheek. His fingers shake slightly as they explore, and it's so tender she almost can't breathe through the feeling swelling up in her chest.
When he brushes his thumb across her bottom lip she's grateful she's already lying down, because otherwise her legs would surely buckle.
She wonders if this is how every touch feels for him, because there's something incredible about it she's never experienced before.
Big love, William had told her. Real love.
She figures he'll kiss her next, and she's ready – God she's ready – but instead he lowers his hand and takes a deep, steadying breath. "You're beautiful."
She ducks away, unable to meet the earnestness in her eyes. "I don't even look like myself."
"The hair and makeup don't matter. Face is the same. You're still you."
She's about to kiss him, patience be damned, but when she leans forward he grips her shoulder to stop her.
"What's the matter?" The thought that she read his signals wrong is incomprehensible.
"We shouldn't. This doesn't change anything. You have to kill me."
All her joy is immediately extinguished, and the clawing frustration of the past three days – hell, the past three months – returns with a vengeance, scratching all the way from her heart to her throat.
"Don't!" she warns.
"Audrey listen, it's the only way."
She twists out of his grasp. "Damn it Nathan, just stop!"
"You don't understand."
What she doesn't understand is how he can be so damn calm when everything inside her is flying apart.
Everything else she understands far too well.
"I can't!" she shouts, mortified when her voice gives out and ends on a jagged sob. She tries to compose herself and realizes she can't. There are no reserves left to draw from. She's too exhausted. Too lonely. Tears start, and she cannot stop them. Her breath rattles through her, thick with mucus and misery. "I do understand. But I can't." Once more her voice cracks on the declaration of her failure.
She turns away, hating the fear she sees flash across his countenance. She swipes a hand across her face but it does no good. She cannot push the tears back in. And she cannot change the reason for them, this awful, inescapable situation. Killing him is inconceivable, no matter the good it may do. But if he keeps demanding she do it, she may just punch him in the jaw.
"Don't cry, Parker," he says. She can tell, even through her sobs, that she's making him nervous.
But she can't stop. She tries to think of the way he'd touched her, just a few minutes before, but all she can picture is the gun in their hands, or the way the Guard had surrounded him and pressed a rifle to his head. She just cries harder.
"I don't know what to do."
He lays a hand on her bare shoulder and suddenly she knows what she needs.
"Just hold me. Please," she begs. It may be the first time she's asked for help that she's not ashamed, but she needs this more than air.
He's quick to oblige, and this time she makes sure her arms come around his neck so her hands are free. His arms don't cling quite as tightly as they did the first time, but there's no way she's slipping from his grasp. She buries her head in his chest, and he twitches but doesn't let go. He guides her down against his pillow. "Shhhhh," he whispers, so close to her ear that she shivers at his warm breath. "I've gotcha." Though at first his arms are stiff and still eventually one hand starts stroking her back. The other tangles in her hair, and she feels it catch slightly on all the product in her curls. She palms his neck and can feel his pulse raising.
The tears keep falling, but the misery fades. He is here and he is whole (almost) and he is safe (for now). After months of terrible, heart-wrenching, self-imposed distance he is closer than he's ever been, his skin pressed against hers and their hearts pounding in synch and his voice whispering comforting nonsense in her ear. In his arms she does not need to be strong or brave. She is not saving a town or sealing her fate. She is just a woman, seeking comfort from the man she loves. Just Audrey, a woman who worked too hard and is having a bit of a breakdown, not Audrey Parker the second, savior and damnation, posing as Lexi DeWitt, interloper.
And he is just Nathan. Not perfect (just perfect to her). Not a sacrificial lamb or the whole town's scapegoat. Just a man who wishes he could make his love stop crying, who would take all her pain on himself if he could.
It's the realization that calms her eventually. They are people, under all this madness. And they needn't be dictated by absurd theories from sketchy boss imposters and scraps of paper two old newspaper men dig up from their archives.
She breathes deeply and realizes it no longer shudders through her. She turns her head against his chest. "You have no idea how long I've wanted to do this," she admits, her voice almost steady.
"Might have some idea," he mumbles.
She can't bring herself to pull away immediately. She has needed this ever since Duke's news about the Hunter, after all. She figures she deserves it, his soothing touch and calming words and how warm and solid and safe he feels. She figures he deserves it too, that all this time he's just wanted to protect her and she hasn't let him. So she lets him, and she resolves to spend less time fighting him and more fighting the world.
But time is a precious commodity, and she's afraid to see the sun peak over the horizon. She doesn't know how long she's been here.
"God I'm a mess," she says, pulling away even though every cell laments the loss of contact. She wipes her hand under her eye and pulls it away stained with black.
"Let me," he says, and his thumb is suddenly under her other eye with a gentle caress. He's still looking at her like she's the most precious thing on earth, and she's not sure how she convinced him of that. "Can't really judge," he says, conversationally, as if her breakdown never happened. There's no pity there, and she's grateful. "Haven't been that great myself."
"Duke told me."
His eyes widen and his hand stills. "You told Duke first?" His voice is laced with hurt.
She shakes her head. "Not intentionally. He figured it out. Down in that basement. I knew if Duke stabbed Tyler he would end the Trouble and free himself, so I stayed out of the way. He called me on that. I said I was afraid of getting stabbed – but he didn't buy it."
"Duke figured it out – and I didn't?"
"Don't beat yourself up. I was trying harder to throw you off. And you were pretty distracted by all your moping."
"I don't mope," he protests.
She raises an eyebrow.
"Brood, maybe," he concedes.
"Whatever, Tough Guy." She smiles, but sobers quickly. "Duke filled me in on what happened while I was gone." Calling that conversation distressing was an enormous understatement. He'd tried to sugarcoat the truth – and Audrey had gotten the extremely bizarre sense that he was trying to protect Nathan just as much as he was protecting her – but she'd demanded full details, needing to know what had made Nathan so desperate. "It is not okay to use yourself as a human punching bag! I'm rather fond of that face of yours, Cheekbones. I don't want it rearranged."
He doesn't flinch or look away. "This is all my fault. I deserve whatever punishment the Guard demands. You're the only one who can make it mean anything."
But she crosses her arms and this time all her tears are dry. "Nope. I am not listening to your pity party. The past is passed. It happened. The Barn is gone. The Troubles are still here. So what are we going to do to fix it?"
"I think I've been pretty clear."
She pokes him in the chest, right where the gun barrel had rested three days earlier. "Nope. Not happening. You wouldn't let me go into that Barn. I'm not letting you get killed over this. End of story. Don't you dare tell me I'm not allowed to love you just as fiercely."
She is ready for an argument, not for the wonder that steals across his face, transforming it into something almost angelic.
"You love me?"
She rolls her eyes fondly. "Kinda figured you knew that. Otherwise we wouldn't be in this mess."
"I know but – can you say it again?"
His excitement makes her ache in some magnificent, inexplicable way that also feels a bit like flying. She scoots closer, certain that her grin matches his, which is so wide it makes him look a bit foolish but she loves it anyway. She cradles his head in her hands, her thumbs skimming the cheekbones that gave him his latest nickname. They are really quite dashing. "I love you, Nathan Wuornos," she proclaims. And then, because she cannot help herself, she adds, "And your last name really isn't that hard to pronounce."
They meet in a kiss halfway, and it's better than all the others, because there's no desperation, no despair. He's not too shocked to reciprocate like the first time and she's not saying goodbye. No one's pointing guns at them at the moment. It's tender, but there's a passion there that buzzes through her veins and promises a delight she hasn't felt in far too long; has perhaps never truly felt at all.
"Wow," she breathes when they finally break away, and she giggles. It's a girlish, totally un-Audrey-like sound, but she doesn't care, because oh my god, the things that man could do with his lips and his tongue when he couldn't even feel them 99.9% of the time was true outstanding.
He presses his forehead against hers and peers down at her. "I wish I could describe what that was like."
She can't comprehend how it could be any more incredible than what she felt. But there's always been something about the magnitude of his Trouble that makes it hard to fathom.
"I wish I could make you feel everything."
He quirks an eyebrow at her. "Technically you could."
She's shocked by the lasciviousness in his voice, and it's impossible to think clearly when his lips are so close, so she pulls back slightly. "That's a little forward, Wuornos."
"You're the one who broke into my house and climbed into bed with me."
That is true enough. But she hadn't come here to seduce him. That's something Lexi might do, which makes the idea decidedly less appealing.
It's tempting, though. That would certainly release the tension still boiling inside both of them. She has no doubt the sex would be fantastic. The way he had touched her face earlier – she nearly squirms at the thought of him touching her like that all over. And when he was with her he could be a normal man again, could feel whole and alive. She wants to give him that, more than anything.
But the timing isn't right.
Best to get straight to the point then. "We can't have sex tonight."
"Why?" She expects him to blush at her forwardness, not pout.
"First off, you'll give us away. You'll start grinning at me at the police station or something, and people will know we slept together, and then they're going to start demanding I shoot you again. I don't trust your acting skills. We need the sexual frustration to be real."
This time he does blush. "I'm not … frustrated."
Finally she allows herself to spread her hand over his heart and then drift slowly downward. "You will be by the time this is over."
He gulps and she pulls her hand away. "What's the second reason?"
She considers telling him that she misspoke, there's only one reason, but she's tired of lying to him and she'll have to go back to that soon enough. "This isn't the right time. I don't want us to have sex because we're exhausted and desperate. I'm not that kind of girl."
Maybe it wouldn't bother her so much if Lexi wasn't exactly that kind of girl.
He doesn't say the words, but she knows what he's thinking, and it has nothing to do with her alter ego. Chris Brody.
It's another reason she doesn't want to do this now. "You're different than anyone else I've been with. I want to do this right, when we don't have to hide our relationship. When I don't have to hide who I am. Are you okay with that?"
There's an easiness about his grin that's unfamiliar, but she likes it. A lot. "Course I'm okay with that. This isn't a one night stand."
"Cause once definitely won't be enough." Even in the darkness she can see his ears darken. She reaches out and is thrilled by how warm one is.
It's new too, this forwardness. Honest. She feels lighter than she has since her early days in Haven, when weird was still kind of fun and all their cases ended in her talking someone down and then spiriting them away somewhere safe, like a boat on the open seas or the top of a lighthouse.
They haven't solved anything yet. But they will.
"Once we figure this out, no more wasting time, okay?"
He nods. "Good plan." He pauses and then tilts his head toward her.
"You thought about a right time?"
"You said this wasn't how we were supposed to happen. Implies you had something else in mind."
"No." The denial is instinctual. But she finds it leaves her unsatisfied. "Maybe." He waits her out, and she folds her hand. "Yes."
His grin is smug, without any trace of the man begging for death and absolution. She'd do nearly anything to keep him smiling like that. "Stop," she says, but she doesn't mean it.
"Just thinking about you, thinking about us. Did it ever get distracting, imagining the perfect way for us to hook up?"
"Did it ever get distracting, knowing that you'd feel it if I turned around and jumped you?"
"All the time," he answers.
They shouldn't have taken so long to get their act together.
"How should it happen?" he presses.
Truth is she didn't imagine it while they were on a case. There were stray dirty thoughts, sure. He was a handsome guy, and they spent a lot of time together. The potential of a romantic relationship had snuck up on her, though. She hadn't comprehended the depth of his feelings until he tracked down Lucy Ripley for her, and she'd been equally shocked to realize hers trended the same way. She'd been content to see how things unfolded; she hadn't felt a need to predict how they might go. It wasn't until she learned of her fate and those hopes were dashed that she allowed herself to imagine what might have been. She'd sat out on her balcony the night Duke told her about the Hunter and pictured the life they could have had. Then the morning came and she pushed the fantasy aside and broke his heart.
"It's sappy," she warns.
"I like sappy," he counters.
It's private and kind of embarrassing but she knows he won't judge her, and she wants to share this with him, foreign as that concept is. Maybe if he hears he will start to want this to, and he will give up his awful crusade and focus on finding a better alternative.
She reaches out and links her fingers with his. His hand is so much bigger but they still fit, somehow.
"The Troubles end and you can feel again. You take me out for a fancy dinner. We order lobster and you pretend to like it. But we end up at the diner afterwards, splitting an order of pancakes. We're overdressed, and we drank a little too much champagne, so we laugh too loud and everyone stares. We know the whole town will know by morning. You take me home. I ask you up for coffee. We make out on the couch for awhile, and then I pull you to my bed and we make sweet love for hours. And then not so sweet love."
Their eyes meet. He looks enraptured. Bespelled. And she resolves, come hell or high water, that she will give him this.
"That would be better." She's never heard his voice so low.
"I'm not finished. In the morning I decide I want to spend every day waking up in your arms. Things get awkward at the station because we can't keep our hands off each other. But without the Troubles there's not a whole lot else to do anyway. We get hitched. Get that dog I wanted. I have enough little Wuornos's to make up half the Seadogs, so of course you have to coach the team. You're completely mortifying the entire time they're babies, but you're a terrific father. And we live happily ever after."
There are no words to describe the awe that washes over his face. She knows that she's done it. He wants this more than anything, now. Even keeping his promise to the Guard.
"I'm going to make that a reality. You just have to hold on for me. I will find another way to end the Troubles. I need you to trust me on that. Because I need you to stop asking me to kill you. Well – you might have to ask Lexi, for show. But you need to stop meaning it. Because I can't stand it."
He studies her, and she can see the wheels turning in his head. She doesn't think he'll deny her, but he's stubborn too.
"Okay," he promises. "I trust you."
"Thank you." She squeezes his hand and he squeezes back. "Aren't you going to kiss me after all those pretty words?"
"If I kiss you now there's no way we're waiting until the Troubles end."
His words set her body on edge. He won't be the only one frustrated by the time this is through.
The anticipation's kind of nice, though. Extra incentive to figure out this whole mess extra fast. Because when they finally have sex, she's not coming up for days.
"I should get going."
He doesn't let go. "Stay. Sleep for a few hours. That makeup doesn't hide the bags under your eyes."
She thinks it did before she cried most of it away.
"I can't. They're watching me. I have to be home before daylight," she insists. But she'll sleep once she gets there, she knows. She'd much rather spend the morning in Nathan's arms. But the knowledge that she's persuaded him to abandon his death wish will be enough to let her get some rest. A positive about playing Lexi DeWitt is that it will be completely in character for her to blow off her alarm and sleep through half the morning.
"I'll see you at the station tomorrow?"
"Late. But yeah." She runs a hand through his hair, just because she wants to and she hasn't had the chance yet. He presses into the contact, like a cat begging to be stroked. She wants to kiss him again. But he's right. She won't leave. And she needs to leave. For him.
For them both.
"You have to treat me like Lexi. You can't slip up. I'm going to be awful again. But just remember what we're fighting for."
"I love you."
It's the first time he's said it, but she's known for a very long time.
"Love you too."
One day she'll show him how much. But tonight she dons her boots and her jacket and slips back into the moonlight.
This show, right?
Not only has it totally hacked all my original writing for about nine months, now I'm getting distracted from my side project by another side project. And I'm not even sorry.
I had hoped to finish and post this before tonight's episode, but I couldn't quite manage it. Aw well. This is completely AU now, but I figure we all could use some Nathan/Audrey fluff. And I'm quite fond of this piece.
And still pretty proud of how much I guessed correctly in The Ruse – and the route the writers decided to take. I really thought we were going to have a drawn out amnesia storyline. I'm loving what we got instead.