Nathan knows he screwed up, so he stops by Rosemary's once his shift ends and buys a seasonal cupcake sampler. As soon as Audrey opens her door that night he presses the bag into her hands. "Peace offering."
Her tentative smile grows into something dazzling as she accepts the treats and he drinks in her appearance. Her piercings are still in place but she has washed off all of Lexi's makeup. He thinks her eyes are far more beautiful without the smoky rings, but as long as it's her peering out from behind them he won't argue.
She steps aside to let him enter, closing the door behind him. There is a delicious, comforting scent wafting from her kitchen. "Peace offering," she echoes softly.
It is the best gift she could have given him, especially given Lexi's reaction to his suggestion of pancakes. He is overwhelmed anew that she is here and she is Audrey and the magnitude of that is so intoxicating he doesn't think, he just kisses her. She responds immediately, her tongue tracing the contours of his mouth, each stroke stealing his breath and his sanity. She pushes him backwards until he stops with a jolt.
Then two things happen at once – her mouth drifts to his neck and she slips a hand under his shirt.
His brain short circuits trying to process the simultaneous points of contact, and he emits a sound halfway between a moan and a squeak. There's no way he'd stay upright except she's got him pinned to her door and there's nowhere to go.
She pulls back enough to look up at him. There's a smug smirk on her face which he recognizes. He is in trouble with a lower case t.
"You're still mad at me."
She shrugs and takes a step back. He is afraid his legs will give out and he will slide down the wall, but he stays put. "I'll get over it." She spins toward the kitchen but then looks back over her shoulder. Her voice drops. "Or under it."
Her forwardness does something funny to his stomach. He doesn't know if a part of Lexi's still sticking around or if this has always been lurking under Audrey's awkward fed persona.
"Come on. Food'll get cold."
She knows he can't argue with pancakes. He sits at her table as she serves him. All the clunky rings are gone, but her nails are still painted black. "You have no idea how tempted I was to dump a bag of chocolate chips in here. But I know you're a pancake purist."
"Thank you." The fact she would forgo her sweet tooth for him even though she's still kinda mad makes him ache in some strange, marvelous way.
"What do you want to drink? Coffee? Wine?"
Something tells him he won't need caffeine to keep him on his toes tonight, and alcohol is probably a bad idea – not to mention it doesn't go well with breakfast. "Have any orange juice?"
She looks shocked for a moment, but she pulls a pitcher of orange juice from her fridge. "Courtesy of Duke," she says, pouring them both a glass. "It freaks me out that he knew you'd say that."
He shrugs. "Orange juice goes well with pancakes."
"The two of you are getting along." It sounds almost like an accusation, and he smiles at how after everything, this is what throws her off-kilter. "I'm not sure I didn't jump through that door into the twilight zone. Am I in another alternate Haven where you and Duke are friends?"
"I wouldn't say friends."
"He's looking out for you. He wanted me to tell you Lexi was an act and when I wouldn't he offered to help keep the Guard away from you. Duke. Helping. Without any arm-twisting."
He smirks. "He introduced himself as a consultant today. I overheard someone mistake him for a cop a few weeks ago."
"That's not normal."
"Nothing in Haven is normal."
"Weird even for Haven standards."
"Suppose so." Hard as it is to admit, Duke has seemingly matured since the Barn. When Nathan had turned and found Duke at the other end of the twenty instead of a biker, he'd been overcome by the possibility of redemption – that he hadn't killed all his friends. That Audrey was still alive. When he realized that wasn't necessarily the case he expected Duke to go back to being an ass. But for once the man seemed to realize not to push him too hard. Was actually helpful for a change.
He figures loving Audrey made Duke into a better man. It's ironic that it's made Nathan into a worse one. Sitting in her kitchen, all thoughts of his promise to end the Troubles take a backseat to simply basking in her presence.
"You're really not going to talk about what you were up to while I was gone?"
"Wasn't planning on it."
"Duke told me where he found you."
"Then you already know." He hates that she's privy to his weakness. When the Guard attacked him after the Barn he would have let them kill him if not for her voice in his head, telling him he damn well better not give up. Every blow he took outside that seedy motel, he knew Audrey would be furious. But she hadn't been there to find him another solution. He can't change the past, as much as he'd like to.
Now that she's back, he's not sure he'd like to change it at all.
She crosses her arms and huffs out an exaggerated breath. It's unlike her to cave so quickly. "How are the pancakes?" She's annoyed, just like she was earlier today, but he doesn't know how to fix that so he just answers the question.
"Good." Truth is they're dry and a little bland, but he honestly doesn't care. It's the sentiment that matters, and that's perfect. They're also smothered in his favorite brand of maple syrup – probably Duke's doing once again.
"You're lying. Joe's Diner's are better."
"You just need some practice," he assures.
"And I'll get lots of that now, right?"
He's not sure what it is about that question that pulls the rug out from under him. "If you want to, I guess," he stammers.
"Damn it Nathan." She slams her hand against the table and the plates rattle.
"What? What!" She pushes her chair back and springs out of it. Agitation seems to pour out of her as she takes a few erratic steps. "I'm tired of hiding, that's what. I know we're going to have to keep up a charade in front of the Guard, but when I'm alone with you I want to drop this just partners nonsense. We're not just partners. We've already admitted we love each other. I want to do couple-ly things. Go on dates. Have sex. Communicate honestly about something besides work."
"You want to have sex?"
She rolls her eyes, but it lacks Lexi's affectation. "Men. That's what you took from all I just said?"
He nods. He's still trying to wrap his head around this.
"Yes, I want to have sex. We're two healthy, attractive adults in love. That's usually what comes next."
He can't feel himself blush, but he thinks it's probably happening.
"I don't know – with my Trouble – if I can –" It kills him to think that he will disappoint them both, but it's a possibility.
"The way you just kissed me, I don't think that's going to be a problem."
But he is not so sure. All he can think of is how his body went haywire when she got too fresh.
He rubs at the back of his neck. It doesn't help anything, but it gives him something to do with his hands. "It might."
"One way to find out."
He knows it's an invitation. There is something "come hither" both in her tone and the tilt of her chin. But he finds himself rooted to the spot, at a loss.
"You're afraid to touch me," she deduces after a few moments of awkward stillness.
"Am not." His denial is automatic, but not truthful.
"Then prove it," she dares.
He wants to, but he can't move in her direction. He faces death and monsters on a regular basis, but he is terrified of this slight, brilliant woman whom he loves.
So she comes to him instead. She grabs his hand and suddenly everything is warmth and pressure and he forgets why this is scary.
Until she slips his hand under her shirt and he remembers. His eyes close involuntarily with pleasure. Her skin is softer than rose petals, but the muscles beneath it are taunt under his fingers. She nudges his wrist higher.
His eyes snap open to find hers as his fingers brush the underside of her bra. "What are you doing?" he croaks.
Her gaze does not waver. "Touch me," she demands.
He is still not quite sure how he came to be standing there, half-groping Audrey Parker in the middle of her apartment. It feels like a dream. Surely he will wake up to his hell, and it will hurt worse for contemplating this.
Still she presses him higher. "Please, Nathan. It's okay."
It's the need in her voice that unfreezes him. Even if it's only a dream, how can he deny her?
He moves his hand slowly to cup her breast. The fabric of her bra dulls the sensation but he can still make out the weight and shape of her. She is radiating heat, and he yearns for more. Her breathing has gotten shallower, and when he runs his thumb over where her nipple should be she makes a low, keening hum in the back of her throat that throws his world into sharp focus. This is not a dream. He has his hand up Audrey's blouse, and for some inconceivable reason she wants it there. She wants him.
And he wants her. He has not let himself contemplate this, because there are so many reasons why it isn't right and wouldn't happen. But there's no denying any more that he wants it to.
Yet he doesn't reach around her back to unhook her bra. He doesn't let go of her, though. He can't.
"Okay," she finally says, drawing the second syllable out breathily. "So, more of that. Just … spontaneous." She pushes his hand away and his world goes numb once more. When she smoothes her hand over her shirt he sees the way it trembles.
He can't do anything except stare at her.
"Is it really so awful to have to touch me?" she asks softly.
"No!" It is the polar opposite, but he doesn't know how to tell her that.
"Then why are you afraid?"
She looks worried, and he can't stand that. "If I start touching you, I don't think I'll be able to stop," he admits.
"I don't want you to stop."
He doesn't let that fantasy take hold. "You will. But if I get used to it … My nerves have been dead for so long, and to feel them rush back to life … it's stronger than any drug. But I won't impose on you like that. It's not your job to make me feel normal."
"Touching you … letting you touch me … it's not an obligation, Nathan. It's a privilege." She sounds so earnest it's hard not to believe her, but there's something inside him that's still reluctant.
"Besides, you're supposed to want to touch me all the time. It's called attraction. We'd be in more trouble if you didn't feel that way. And I think it's kind of hot that I'm the only one who can do this."
She runs a hand up his thigh and his whole body jerks as the feeling shoots straight to his groin. "Christ, Parker!" He finally knows that she is right – sex will not be a problem, assuming all her skin against his doesn't give him a heart attack. He has not been certain that his broken body could comprehend his mind's attraction. It hadn't worked with Jess. She had been a beautiful, willing woman, and his mind had appreciated the views of her naked body, the words she had whispered in his ear, the sweet smell of her and the fact that there was finally someone close. But the fact he could not feel her breast in his hand or her thigh thrown against his had left him disconnected from the experience. He'd just been going through the motions, and he'd felt no regret leaving Jess in bed to race off after Audrey. He had known, as soon as Jess had touched his bare skin and he still felt nothing, that sex with her would only make him feel more hollow.
But Audrey would fill him, literally and figuratively. And as her hand slowly drags up and down his thigh all he can think of is her pressed beneath him, her muscles clamped around him, her fingers scratching his back and her lips adoring him as he is drowned by the bliss of it.
His libido has been dead with his nerves all these years but it is roaring back to life now.
Her voice breaks the spell. They are fully dressed in her kitchen and he needs to get a hold of himself.
"I don't think 'relax' is the message anyone is supposed to get when you grab them there."
"Fair enough." She moves her hand and he almost pulls it back there himself.
Too late. He is already addicted.
"I still don't want you to flinch every time I touch you." She grabs his hands and leads him toward the couch.
"What are you doing?"
"Trying something else. Do you trust me?"
He closes his eyes immediately. He did once, but he has gotten out of the habit. She needs to know he is ready to do so again.
So he sits on the couch and waits. It's disconcerting not to know where or how she will touch him. He can hear her breathing softly beside her; can smell the overwhelming scent of Lexi's perfume – sandalwood and dragons blood. He listens for movements that will warn him of her plan, but he is still caught off guard when she slides both hands into his hair. He moans without being able to stop it, and she laughs. But it is not the cruel laugh of Duke and the other boys when they were exploiting his Trouble. She is genuinely delighted, and aside from today in the station it's been far too long since he's heard the sound. She continues to run her hands across his scalp, alternating between gently scraping her fingernails and smoothing the pads of her fingers. They move in different directions in different rhythms, and the pattern leaves him lightheaded with pleasure. She runs her fingers through his hair and he feels the gentle tug on every strand.
"Different," he manages to say, though his voice isn't keen on making an appearance. "More soothing." He's not sure it's better than her bold, searing promise. But it feels magnificent in a different way. Instead of making him want to jump out of his skin he wants to curl up in it and never leave her gentle caress.
Eventually her hands still and drop to his shoulders. He opens his eyes and finds her just a few inches away.
"Hi," she says.
God, she is beautiful. Inside and out.
"Hi," he answers. He grins at her because he cannot contain the joy she has sparked inside him.
She must find something funny in his expression because she laughs and shakes her head in a cascade of curls. When she stops she grabs his hand. "I need you to tell me if I go too far." She is serious now, and the change is jarring. Her thumb moves very slowly across the back of his palm. "You know how I like to push – and Lexi's worse – but I don't want to hurt you. If you don't want me to touch you–"
"I'll always want you to touch me," he interrupts, needing her to know that. Even when his mind shuts down with the thrill it is absolutely worth it. "It's just – a lot – sometimes."
"We'll go as slow as you need."
He shoots her a disbelieving look. "Patient isn't the first adjective I'd use to describe you."
She swats his shoulder. Even the sting of that is glorious in its existence. "Watch it, partner! I'll be fine as long as we're finally moving in the same direction. Besides, we have to work on that honest communication part too."
It sounds like an accusation, and he bristles. "Never claimed to be good at that. Seems back with Jess you pointed that out constantly."
"I'm not any good with relationships either. But I know we need to talk to each other."
For months all he'd wanted to do was talk. If she knew that, why had she blown him off so many times?
"I was ready to talk when I told you about Lucy. You kissed me, and I asked you out and I thought I knew where this was going. But ever since you got kidnapped I've had no idea where your head's at."
"I'm sorry." He is so unaccustomed to apologies from her that it stops him in his tracks. "I know that I hurt you. I didn't mean to, but I did. I told myself I was keeping you safe. That I was making it easier on you when I went away. But I knew that was a load of crap. Truth is you're afraid to let me touch you, and I'm afraid to let you in. We're quite the pair, aren't we?"
All his anger dissipates at her obvious distress. "Audrey—"
"Just shut up a second. Let me finish. No one else ever loved Audrey Parker. She didn't have parents. Didn't really have friends. Never let men get too close. And me. Only person I let get too close was Chris and that was a disaster. Lucy had James – sort of – but he died thinking she'd killed him. Sarah had you, I guess, but I don't remember that. And all the others – if they had anyone, they lost them too after a couple of months. I wanted you so much. I got scared. Used the Barn as an excuse to convince myself you'd be better without me."
"I wasn't better without you."
"No kidding. You're not better without my touch either."
"No." He couldn't deny that, even if maybe he should. Tonight was the first time he'd felt whole and alive in years.
"Can we just start over? Acknowledge that we're probably going to screw this up, but we'll keep trying until we get it right?"
He should have told her no. That he didn't have a future and she shouldn't bank on it. He'd already made a promise, and it wasn't to her.
But he couldn't. The Guard's plan had seemed so logical until Audrey had jumped back into his life. But she'd been adamant about the fact she'd never shoot him, and he believes her. If he pushes her on this again, he will break the fragile trust re-growing between them. If he's going to keep on living, he doesn't think he can manage it without her by his side.
"Sounds good to me."
Her relief is palpable as she leans back against him. She grabs a blanket from the top of her couch and drapes it around the both of them. He reaches an arm around her and tangles it in the curls she's always playing with.
She tilts toward him, resting her head on his shoulder. Her body heat is starting to sink into his bones, and it makes everything kind of fuzzy. She reaches up and brushes a finger down the cords of his neck. He does his best not to flinch, because he doesn't want her to stop. "What does it feel like when I touch you?"
There's no adjective nuanced enough to describe it, and he's never been much good at stringing them together. So he searches for another way to explain it, and the metaphor comes to him.
"When I was a kid my grandfather used to take me out on his boat twice a year."
Her question is not about the existence of a relative he has never mentioned, but about said relative's nautical habits. "Your grandfather had a boat?"
"It's Haven. Everyone's grandfather has a boat."
She chuckles. "Carry on."
"He'd make me get up at three in the morning and we'd sail until we couldn't see land. Couldn't even see any lights, not that anyone was up at that hour. He'd make me sit out on the deck with him. First time I whined about how tired I was. He told me that sometimes we have to wait for the good things. Then we'd watch the sun rise over the water. He was right. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen – for years, anyway. One minute it was dark and the next the whole world was alive with vibrant color. Your touch … it's like that."
She looks up at him with bright eyes. "Why Nathan Wuornos. Who knew you were a romantic?"
He is pleased that she appreciates his explanation. He wants her to know how she has saved him from a world of darkness. It's more than his body that she has reawakened.
She wants to talk, so he humors her. They have both had enough seriousness for the night, so they drift to lighter topics, like police station gossip and Duke's relationship with Jennifer. Feeling bold and slightly buzzed – he'd known he wouldn't need any alcohol – he slips his hand under her shirt again and rests it against her stomach. She hums in approval and snuggles deeper into his hold.
He can feel the pressure of her body pressed against his, the tickle of her hair on his neck, and her body heat wrapping him in a cocoon of warmth. It takes a while for him to recognize the feeling washing over him. He is comfortable for the first time in years, and it is a glorious sensation. His mind is at peace as well, the guilt that's been consuming him chased away by the persistent sound of her voice. He could stay like this forever and never complain.
Overcome, he presses his lips to her forehead. He doesn't know how to tell her how much this all means to him, but he resolves to try.
She gazes up at him. "Don't you want to know what I feel when you touch me?"
He has been wondering, but he'd been afraid to ask in case she didn't have an answer.
He nods, throat suddenly dry. "Yeah."
Their eyes meet, and he knows he has nothing to fear.
"Feels like I'm finally home."
There you have it. A little superfluous after tonight's episode, but I wasn't able to get this finished before it aired. I know Doks is going to kill me for this, but I'm not sorry. This was super fun to write. I can't seem to decide whether these two should jump right into bed or keep delaying the inevitable, and my fics are pretty much split down the middle. Nathan gets to be pretty good at relationships in The Return, but Countdown reminded me that in canon Nathan is not very good at relationships.
I'd really love to hear what you all think. I'm pretty proud of this one.
And thanks to each and every one of my reviewers. I've been too busy to keep up with my responses (I figure you probably want me to keep writing as fast as I can), but I cherish every bit of feedback. Thanks for being so supportive!