The porch creaks. Haley has been listening for that particular sound ever since sunset, but even though she’s expecting it, it still startles her into swearing uneasily. Her heart’s racing, thudding in her ears and leaving her light-headed, and it takes her a moment. She tosses back another pill, tastes bitterness and worry, and tries to steady herself before stepping outside into the night air.
He’s standing on the steps, one hand on the rail, unmoving as a statue or promontory of rock.
“Where have you been?” she asks quietly, barely resisting the urge to slam the door shut behind her. She’s just gotten the twins to bed – it wouldn’t do to wake them now. Her husband's back is to her, and he doesn’t turn around at the sound of her voice, doesn’t react at all. Her throat tightens. “The tide will turn any minute. I've been waiting—Jeremy, for fuck's sake, it's been hours.”
For a moment there’s no response. Then Jeremy says, voice hoarse, “Couple more minutes, actually. Tide’s still slack.” He turns his head slightly and regards her with dark eyes. “The twins?” he asks, voice almost completely monotonous.
“They’re fine,” she says, and closes her eyes a moment. God, she’s so tired, and her wrists ache, ache to the bone. “They’re fine, Jeremy, they’re sleeping. What about you? Why weren’t you here?”
Somehow he’s still standing, isn’t limp or faint, despite the late hour. Is, to all appearances, perfectly fine. She doesn’t understand, and it feels like her brain’s wrapped in cotton. She can’t make sense of it. Folding her arms around herself, she shivers, and he watches her silently all the while, face blank and smooth.
“Your charts were right,” he says finally into the silence between them, the sound of surf white noise, barely registering for once. “The pull is intensifying. It’s getting worse.”
Haley forgets herself a moment and takes an indignant step forward, then staggers, head spinning.
“Of course my charts are right. I'm a damned genius, you know,” she huffs, and then raises a hand to her head, confused. Wait, he isn’t supposed to have seen the charts. Not yet. Not until she's come up with a workable solution. She'd hidden them, hidden all of her calculations. “But how did you—oh. Oh, shit.” She'd left her laptop open that morning. Just for a minute, just for a few minutes. He wasn’t supposed to see – she can fix this, she can.
Jeremy looks over his shoulder and he smiles at her, shaking his head. Tim has that jawline, that dimple. Tolly has that smile. How long had it been since she’d seen that smile from him? Long enough for it to startle her, for it to strike her into silence. "You never were as stealthy as you liked to think," he says, a smile in his voice, and she wants to run to him, throw her arms around him. “Don’t you worry, Miss Fish. I won’t let that happen to you.”
“Don’t you tell me what not to worry about,” she starts to protest, but he isn’t listening anymore, not to her, and all the warmth has gone out of his face again.
The tide is coming in, bright beneath the light of a growing moon. The tide had left, had drawn back salty and thick from the shore earlier that evening, but somehow Jeremy is still standing there before her, hale and strong, is still on his feet, watching the waves come back towards him with black, steady eyes.
“Jeremy,” Haley says, horrified, dizzy with more than just the imbalance in her body. She’ll have to adjust her supplement tomorrow, she’ll have to steal more of the samples at work— but she can’t think, can barely stay upright or process what’s happening. What’s happened. “Jeremy, what did you do?”
“If anyone asks, I was here all night,” he says distantly, tilting his head up towards the moon, and doesn’t turn around when she takes a step backward, and another and another, until she’s inside and leaning against the closed door, trying to muffle her sobs against the rough-hewn wood.
I have the worst fucking luck, Duke thinks sourly, hand freezing on the pint glass he’d been polishing.
After an afternoon of staring across the table at Nathan Wournos, seeing the bastard smile with his eyebrows and talk to Duke like a human being, instead of a scrap of rotten lobster he’d scraped off his boot, Duke’s feeling more than a little unbalanced. It’d been nice. More than nice, except for how it’d also maybe short-circuited a wire or two in Duke’s brain.
He’s already in a sort of daze over this development, which is bad enough, but then who strolls into his bar but Courtney fucking Cole.
A week ago – hell, maybe even a day ago – Duke would have been delighted. Maybe even a week from now. But today…
“Your timing leaves something to be desired,” Duke sighs, and reaches to get a bottle of double-cask Glenfiddich from the top shelf.
“Is that any way to greet an old school friend?” Courtney drawls. He’s got on a pearl gray suit and what looks like a thousand-dollar tie that he’s already loosening as he slides onto a barstool in front of Duke. “I think my feelings are hurt, Crocker. And after I drive all this way just to see you.”
Duke rolls his eyes and slides a tumbler over. It’s late on a Tuesday night, and the Gull’s empty – he’d already sent Tracy home, in fact, and had been pondering what to do with himself and his tangled, fucked-up thoughts for the rest of the evening when Courtney strolled in.
Any other day, Courtney showing up on a slow night would be a windfall, and if there’s one thing Duke likes, it’s unexpected windfalls. Duke would already be hurriedly closing up, or coming out from behind the bar and giving Courtney a thorough tour of the grounds, or maybe even just dragging him out to the harbor to where the boat is waiting.
Instead, he watches Courtney drink, his mouth red and wet with good, strong whiskey and his eyes dark and promising. He looks like a damned model, professional and cocksure, just unkempt enough with his tie and perfect hair and the slightest hint of a five-o-clock shadow. He’s practically begging to be mussed further, and the fact that Duke’s still got his hands to himself is deeply, deeply worrisome.
Shit. Duke’s so fucked. Like carrying one hopeless torch wasn’t enough – no, Duke has to go double-fisting the fuckers.
“You lying dog,” he says finally, breaking the lengthening silence and taking a healthy swig from his own tumbler, feeling it burn hot and smoky in the back of his throat. “You’re in town for that Portland Neuroscience convention, like you are every August. I’m just a perk.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, comrade,” Courtney says easily, and leans his chin on his hand, watching Duke from under his lashes. “You’re a hell of a perk. And fifty miles out of the way besides.”
“And here I thought you’d driven three hundred miles just to see little old me,” Duke retorts automatically, turning up the charm, and Courtney salutes him with his tumbler, smiles at him over the rim.
“Have done in the past,” he points out, and his voice is low and husky, and reminds Duke of earlier times, simpler times, libraries and auditoriums and lazy autumn days. When Courtney sets down his tumbler and leans across the bar, Duke thinks, Maybe, takes him by the tie and pulls him in closer.
It’s a good kiss, warm and rough, but before Duke knows it, he’s already pulling back. Courtney raises an eyebrow and Duke rubs a hand over his face, biting back a curse. He doesn’t know how this happened.
“Now’s… not a good time,” he says finally, and both Courtney’s eyebrows go up.
“No kidding?” he sounds bemused and disbelieving, settling back on the stool and looking Duke over. Duke can’t blame him. This is an unprecedented response in the history of their friendship. “You sure?”
And it’s been a while – holy hell, it’s actually been since Helena – and Courtney’s a sure thing, a day or two locked in the boat, having lazy, athletic, sweaty sex.
He groans and tosses back the rest of the scotch, which is blasphemy all on its own. Fine twenty-year old malts like this are meant to be savored, not gulped down like cheap vodka.
“Pretty sure,” he admits, and even he can tell that he sounds surprised.
Courtney lets out a long whistle, and fuck if he doesn’t look good in the dim bar light. Broad shoulders, chiseled jaw, and a hell of a mouth, and Duke’s turning that down. He should probably check himself into a doctor’s office, or into the Freddy, at that.
“Duke Crocker, turning down a no-strings-attached blowjob,” Courtney marvels, cocking his head and giving him a penetrating look. “You sure you’re feeling alright?”
“I know,” Duke groans, dragging the bottle back over and topping himself up. “Believe me, I’m as surprised as you are.”
“Well, can’t say I’m not disappointed, but good on you, Crocker. So someone finally managed to pin you down.”
“That’s… Well. It’s complicated,” Duke prevaricates, wincing, and holds up a hand when Courtney processes this, then lets out an undignified guffaw, totally at odds with his polished appearance, and Duke remembers all over again why he likes this bastard of an MD. There’s something genuinely charming beneath the veneer of old money and Ivy League, and Duke still isn’t quite sure why he hasn’t dragged Courtney off into a back room yet. “Don’t even start with me, Cole,” he says, resigned to the teasing already. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about junior-year midterms.”
“No, but seriously,” Courtney starts. “You’re not even in a relationship, what’s the – fine, fine. Christ, Crocker, should I head out?”
“No, no,” Duke protests immediately, and pats his pockets for his phone. “Don’t be an idiot, stay a while. We can go out fishing, see the sights. I’ll, uh—I can get you fixed up over at Mabel’s? My treat.”
“Damn straight it is," Courtney grumbles, but he’s smiling as he does, clearly amused. He’s always been like that, laidback and rolling with the punches. One of the many reasons Duke likes him, not least of which is that he sends Duke a bottle of Dom Pérignon like clockwork every birthday. Courtney is easy and fun and generous, and Duke should be all over that like pink on a shrimp. Instead, he’s got his hand in his pocket fingering the one counterfeit bill Nathan had left him that afternoon and he’s on the phone with Mabel, hooking Courtney up with a honeymoon suite that Duke won’t be sharing. And he’s more upset about not being upset than anything else.
He hangs up and Courtney’s watching him as he pours them both another glass.
“One more chance,” Courtney says suddenly, stopping his hand on the bottle. “One more chance to change your mind.”
Duke bites his lip, then smiles. Why the fuck not. He loves kissing, he’s always been the kind of guy to spend as much time above as below the waist, and maybe this will wake him up. Courtney’s a damn fine kisser, after all.
He comes around the bar and settles between Courtney’s thighs and one of Courtney’s hands sneak around his waist, warm and firm on his lower back, and the other is around his neck, tangled in his hair. Slow build, close-mouthed at first and then Courtney teases his lips open, rocks up against him, bites at the corner of his mouth, and it’s good, it’s great – but it’s not what he wants, even though the lazy warmth unfurling in his belly should be saying otherwise.
“Damn,” Courtney says, eyes still closed. “Fine, I concede defeat.” His mouth looks a little wistful. “So who’s the lucky girl? Or guy, I suppose. Do I get to meet them?”
“Courtney,” Duke says, and hates himself a little. He doesn’t do this. This isn’t him.
Courtney opens his eyes, looking fond and exasperated, and then suddenly his eyes widen. “Erm. Hello.”
“Am I interrupting?” an all-too familiar voice asks brightly, and Duke has to take a moment to compose himself before turning to look at Audrey Parker, who is doing a very good impression of the Cheshire Cat.
“Sorry, did I miss the Do Not Disturb sign?” she inquires, eyes big and innocent, and of course Duke isn’t worried that Audrey, of all people, will have a homophobic meltdown – but he still feels like someone just dumped a pint of good amber ale into his bloodstream, warm and golden when he takes in the good humor in her smile, the total lack of censure. His muscles unknot, his mouth automatically quirks up, and Courtney's watching him with knowing eyes.
Shit, but Audrey's probably slotting this new data into a mental database somewhere, running calculations and statistics and jumping via improbably brilliant illogical hunches to new Duke-related conclusions, and that's... that’s not so good.
Well, Duke was probably already doomed anyway.
"You are always welcome to disturb, Ms. Parker," Duke says, and takes a step backward, away from Courtney, and then another and another, until he's rounded the corner and has a bar and several pint glasses and taps of ale between him and Courtney's shark-like smile and Audrey's big blue eyes, which are twinkling ominously at him. "Though maybe you could knock."
"Hey, I cleared my throat like five times," Audrey protests, holding her hands up. She's still smiling, and Courtney's sipping at his scotch, watching her quietly, taking her in. "I even coughed. You were just, uh. Distracted. And speaking of." She turns to Courtney abruptly, still all smiles, and Courtney startles. "You still haven't introduced me to your, ah. Friend?"
"Friend," Courtney confirms, and smiles back. It's the real deal, not the white-capped veneer version, so clearly Court likes her, which really shouldn't make Duke feel so oddly proud and relieved, like his beau's just passed the 'meet my ex-fuck-buddy' test. Because A), he has no beau, and B), Court's more like an ex-roommate-with-way-too-many-stories-of-Duke’s-youthful-indiscretions than an ex, and Audrey does a mean interrogation on even people that aren't willing to talk.
"Audrey, meet Dr. Courtney Cole. Court, meet Special Agent Audrey Parker, lately of the Boston branch," Duke says, feeling ever more doomed.
Court's eyes shoot up. "Duke Crocker, rubbing shoulders with the law? Somewhere, pigs are flying."
"And devils are ice-skating," Audrey agrees, wrinkling her nose at him and being generally adorable and cheerful and charming Court’s socks off. "It's been that kind of day."
You're telling him, Duke thinks glumly, then shakes himself and puts his charming bartender-face on.
"So what brings you to my dive at this time on a Tuesday night?" he asks, polishing a glass meticulously and hoping that it might forestall a barrage of questions. No dice, of course, but it’s always nice to dream.
"So how do you know Duke?" Courtney's already asking, and Audrey says something nonchalant about a bolt of lightning and a Hello Kitty cellphone, and Courtney's snickering, hand over his mouth.
Duke's feeling a little ignored, and also doomed, so he clears his throat and leans in.
"Business or pleasure, Ms. Parker?" Audrey turns back to him and his eyebrows narrow as he gets his first good look at her. There's something off – he can't put his finger on it, but he doesn't think it has anything to do with walking in on Duke frenching a well-dressed neurosurgeon on top of the bar.
"Actually, I was hoping to get a martini," she admits, and she's clasping her hands together and she looks antsy in a way he's never seen before, tapping her foot against the bar. He really doesn't think it's just the Big Gay Roommate Revelation to blame. Something’s up.
"A happy martini or a sad martini?" he asks carefully, putting a teasing lilt in his voice, trying to get her to look at him. And look at him she does, a wry crooked smile on her face.
"I was thinking a dry one," she retorts, and fuck, this one, this girl. No wonder she lingers in the system, despite all his best intentions.
Forget rubbing shoulders with the law, Duke's practically in bed with it in every way except the one that counts. Which is a crying shame.
Courtney finishes off his scotch and pushes the empty glass over to Duke with one finger. Duke looks up from mixing vermouth and fishing the perfect olive out of his jar and cocks his head questioningly.
"I should really be going," Courtney says, standing up and straightening his tie. "Mabel's waiting for me."
"Mabel?" Audrey inquires, taking the martini glass and sipping. She makes an absent thumbs-up at Duke, eyes focused on Courtney.
"Of Mabel's Bed & Breakfast," Duke clarifies, and fixes himself another – no, maybe he should go easy on the scotch for the rest of the evening. He opens up one of the new taps and starts draining off the head, smells hops. Audrey nods to him, brain always working, always on the go. He wonders what she's coming up with now.
"Don't feel you have to leave on my account," she says, and takes a larger swallow of her drink. Duke huffs, affronted – his drinks are a work of art, not something to be rushed, but she's continuing. "I didn't mean to, ah. Chase you off."
"You're not," Courtney assures her. "I was actually on my way out when you arrived. Glad I got a chance to meet you, though. Duke’s never really given me a chance to meet his local friends when I visit."
Duke feels his cheeks heat a bit and hopes Audrey doesn't notice. So he's a bit focused in the bedroom and likes to make the most of his weekend paramours, sue him. Most people appreciate that, and he certainly doesn't mind Audrey knowing.
"Boat tomorrow?" he asks nonchalantly, taking up Court's glass and polishing it diffidently. "We still on for whales?"
"Duke's apparently decided to catch me up on the local sights," Court says, voice bland, and Audrey's eyes light up.
"Since when do the local sights include whales?" she demands, and Court raises an eyebrow. Audrey flushes. "I, ah. I've missed a few local sights too, I guess. But for less exciting reasons." She dimples and Duke glares at her, points a warning finger, which she ignores. Typical. "Work keeps me pretty busy."
"You should come with us tomorrow, then," Court says, straightening his tie and picking up his briefcase. "What time should we meet you, Crocker?"
"Ah, early. Seven at the latest," Duke responds automatically, nonplussed but not exactly put out by this turn of events. Audrey's beaming and looks ten years younger; he thinks he can see a schoolgirl that might have collected Lisa Frank dolphins in there somewhere.
Courtney nods, mock-solemn, and shakes Audrey's hand, turns to Duke and offers the same hand to shake.
"Ah, we can do better than that," Duke says, and leans across the bar for one last kiss. Sweet, chaste, a little wistful. A goodbye kiss – Duke hasn't had one of those in a while. Usually they're preceded by hello kisses, not one-night-stand mouths being pressed together, which have their own appeal and which Duke has absolutely no problem with. But Duke thinks back to that first night, rolling sweaty over ink-stained notes, and thinks maybe he missed something important.
"Hot," Audrey comments after they pull apart, and Courtney grins.
"I like her, Duke." Audrey makes a pleased face, like she's actually surprised by this or something, and Courtney heads for the door.
In the silence after Courtney's Mercedes takes off into the night, Duke mixes Audrey another drink. He slides it to her and she takes it with a steady hand, doesn't protest being fed additional alcohol on a school night, so to speak, and now Duke's radar is really pinging.
"Hey," he says, and leans in, starts to ask, 'Are you okay?'
"So, you and Court," she interjects, eyebrows up, all cheerful inquiry. Duke sighs and folds.
“Let’s go out on the deck,” he suggests. “It’s a gorgeous night, and hey, winter’s around the corner. Looking forward to your first Maine blizzard, ma’am?”
“You forget I hail from the Midwest,” Audrey says dryly, following him out to a table overlooking the harbor. It really is gorgeous; Duke isn’t just stalling for time. The moon’s up over the harbor, slightly lopsided and so close to full calling it anything else is just being pedantic, in his opinion, and the breeze has the first underscore of September chill beneath the lazy August warmth. “A measly few feet of snow doesn’t scare me.”
“Not much does,” Duke says fondly, and salutes her with his pint glass.
"Courtney," she prompts, undeterred. "Don't think you can distract me with compliments about my valor."
"Foiled," Duke sighs, raising his hands in mock surrender. "He was my roommate in college. We’ve stayed close." Her eyes widen and Duke gives her a look that's maybe sharper than he intended. "What, didn't think I matriculated? No, it's fine. I didn't. Turns out it wasn't for me. Punched the Dean in the face my junior year."
"You what," she laughs, martini forgotten. "Really?"
"I see an unbroken nose, and I just have to go for it. It's my kryptonite."
"Uh huh," she says, wrinkling her own nose at him, and he shrugs one shoulder.
"They thought I was cheating."
"Well. If the shoe fits?"
And now Duke really is a bit offended. "I may relocate goods for a living, Parker, but I'm not a cheat."
"No, you're right," she says, and puts her hand over his, and just like that the outrage fades and he's unwillingly mollified. She has gun calluses, and she's holding his hand, and for some reason that just undoes him. Fucking Parker. "I'm sorry, Duke. You're right. You've got... a code all your own, but you're not a cheat. I shouldn't have said that."
"Yeah, well, you're not the first."
"But you're my friend," she persists, and tightens her hand on his. "I shouldn't have – I'm sorry, I'm just... sort of on edge tonight." An awkward silence persists for a few minutes, then Audrey seems to realize what she's doing and draws her hand back.
"So," Duke says, mouth obnoxiously dry. Oh god, he’s as bad as Wournos, here. He’s practically going mushy over a little hand-holding moment –next he’s going to be passing her notes in study hall. Cripes.
"So,” Audrey repeats, just this edge of teasing. “Guys, huh?"
Duke resists the urge to bang his head against the tabletop. "There's a lot you don't know about me, sunshine."
"Hey, I don't mind. And I got to say, it makes sense." Duke stares at her, immediately alarmed. Why does it make sense? How does she know? "I'm not surprised you won’t limit yourself to just one gender."
Duke is surprised into a laugh. "Maybe you do know me just a little bit after all." She grins at him, pleased with herself, and he shakes his head. He just can't stay mad at her. Maybe it's her superpower. "Can't leave one half of the population wanting, you know, with all this manly beauty on the table."
"Nooo, of course not," she says, mock-serious, then sobers a bit. "He seems like a good guy. You really didn't have to chase him off on account of me, you know that, right? You can kick me out any time."
Like Duke was really going to kick her out after she’d ordered a probably-sad-or-at-least-freaked-out martini. "I really wasn't," he assures her. "It's... it wasn't the right time. Court and I are just buddies, now."
"Hm," she says, and then bites her lip, looks up at him through her bangs. "That didn’t look like a ‘just buddies’ kiss. You sure you don't mind me tagging along tomorrow?”
“I’d tell you if I did,” he promises. “Besides, I’m going to need you out there. It’s a crime, after all.”
“What is?” she asks, eyes narrowing.
“That I haven’t taken you out to see the beautiful harbor wildlife, yet, Parker! You’re a Haven denizen and you haven’t seen our whales yet? We’re going to have to revoke your citizenship.” She beams at him and his heart does something uncomfortable. He wants to see that look a lot, all the time, every day.
“Whales!” she says, gesturing with her glass at the harbor, almost sloshing the remains of her drink on the deck. “Like, real whales? Free Willy style?”
Duke groans and collects her glass and his own. “I see we’re going to have to run you through some marine bio basics, Detective. There are no orcas on the East Coast, baby.” She sticks her tongue out at him and he retreats, heart still a little wonky. She just has to be so damned cute and so damned inaccessible, and ambiguous.
Hot, she’d said, after that last kiss between him and Court. That was… that was promising, right? No, no. Bad Duke. Don’t even go there. There’s such a thing as odds that are too fucking long, even for him.
He returns to the deck, glasses newly brimming, and she’s got her head on her hand, staring out at the harbor.
“Duke,” she says slowly, and oh, oh, she’s got her game-face on. Shit, what’s she seen, a body floating in the harbor? That would be just his luck. “I don’t want to alarm you, but the waves…”
He follows her line of sight and lets out a huge relieved laugh, deep from in his chest.
“Right, okay. Marine biology 101,” he says, fighting to smooth out his grin into something stern and lecture-like. “Bioluminescent phytoplankton. For once, not a sign that some weirdass shit’s going down.” The waves are cresting, rippling in the harbor and coming up against the rocks and buoys, bright shimmering blue, like the color that flashed after he pressed too hard against his eyes in the shower. Magical, mysterious, and totally mundane. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Wow,” she said, and shot him a look, kid at Disney World. “Seriously? That’s just algae? It looks like a rave out there.”
“At night, the ocean likes to boogie,” he says solemnly, and she nods and mimes writing it down on her palm. This, this is nice. Duke could be getting his brain sucked out his dick right now, but it turns out there’s nowhere he’d rather be than this. Maybe this is maturity, he muses, and then shakes his head at himself and laughs. Nah.
They both watch the waves for a while, nursing their drinks, and when Duke looks over, her face has a strange expression on it, almost lost. She’s upset, tapping her boot against the railing, looking down at it from time to time.
“Hey,” he says softly, and she looks up, startled. Caught. “Really, are you okay? Don’t see you here often unless you’ve got an ulterior motive.”
“I come out here all the time. I think I’m hurt,” she protests, attempting a smile, and Duke winced. “Wow, that unconvincing?”
“You really have to work on your poker face,” he advises, and she blows out a breath, stirring the bangs out of her eyes.
“I… just wanted some company,” she says quietly, and Duke feels an altogether petty rush of triumph that she’s here, with him, not with Nathan. Which given the trend of his thoughts this evening is pretty damned ironic.
“Do… you want to talk about it?”
She looks haunted, and for the first time in their acquaintance, Duke watches her and thinks, ‘Fragile.’
“No,” she replies finally, and her smile is stronger this time. “No, for now… just this. This is good.”
Which, of course, is when her mobile rings and her game face goes on. Duke slumps back, unduly annoyed.
“Parker.” And oh, look at her perk up. Nothing perks Parker up like murder, which is kind of sick but also endearing. She’s good at her job; Duke at once feels his customary disdain for authority figures and lawmen, but also admiration at her cool competence, her skill. Watching her work is something to see, especially watching her with Nathan, he has to admit. They click together, much as he hates that. Like dancers in a macabre ballet. Not that he’ll ever say that out loud.
She snaps her phone shut and Duke realizes he’s been tuning the one-sided conversation out as he stares at her dreamily. Ah, well, at least he’s not likely to be busted. For that, at least.
“Body at the marina, gotta go,” she says standing and sliding her phone into her coat pocket. She slides the martini over. “How much do I owe you?”
“Just don’t stand me up tomorrow morning and we’ll call it even, okay?”
She sighs. “Duke, you know I can’t promise that.”
Duke huffs, and then folds. He knows when he’s beat. “At least call me and let me know this time, dammit!” he calls after her, as she strides off the deck and into the night. He picks up her martini and sips it, tries not to feel like too much of a creeper when he wonders if he can taste her, if she was wearing lip gloss or lipstick. Signs point to no. Staring out at the harbor, sitting at the table where Nathan had cleaned his clock and taken all his fake money, drinking Audrey’s abandoned drink, he lets out a groan.
“I’m so screwed,” he says, and settles down to watch the glowing tide come in.
"Parker," Nathan says in greeting as she comes up beside him, shoving her hair behind her ears and squinting down at the rocks by the pier. They've got the floodlights on, silhouetting the scene in long, deep shadows.
"What have we got?" she asks, no-nonsense and on point, as always.
"You're going to love this," he assures her, and she cocks an eyebrow at him, clearly intrigued. "Go on. What weird mythological creature haven't we covered yet?"
She bends over the body – tucked amidst green-black seaweed and down out of the line of sight of any passing boats or lobstermen. The only reason it'd been found so quickly, he suspects, is that Johnny Taylor's boy and Nadine Watson were out on a clandestine night walk. Judging by the red marks left on Nadine's neck, it had been going well until they'd found Atkin Thomas.
He's clearly been jammed in place between two largish boulders, and Nathan suspects that the seaweed covering most of his corpse has been placed there deliberately, a clumsy attempt to hide it from passerby. Still in his waders, his plaid t-shirt has a rime of white salt crystals on it and his face is a rictus of alarm, eyes wide-open and glazed. Whoever or whatever had done this, Atkin had seen it coming.
"His neck," Audrey murmurs, leaning down amidst the EMTs and crime scene technicians.
"It looks like – it almost look like these slashes were done after our man died," she says, sounding perplexed. "And I don't know what would have made them. Something curved, and sharp." She looks up at Nathan and her mouth quirks slightly. "Are we dealing with a rogue Wolverine?"
"No X-Men involved, far as we can tell," Stan interjects, sounding amused, and she flashes him a quick smile of thanks.
"Are there any other wounds on the body? Do we have cause of death yet?"
"You're looking at it," Nathan says, and she frowns, clearly piqued.
"But these wounds look post-mortem," she protests.
"Well, they would. There's no blood in the body."
"Get. Out," she says, eyebrows shooting up. "Vampires?" Stan has a coughing fit and she glances over at him then pounds him on the back. "Wow, Haven really does have everything."
"If it is vampires, they have some very funky teeth," Nathan retorts solemnly. "Might need to see a dentist."
"Sabertooth vampires," she muses, and then holds out a hand for him to help her up. Makes sense. The rocks here are slippery with algae. He focuses on that instead of on her hand in his, the length of her fingers and the warmth and the way his entire world narrows down to feeling her palm against his, her fingers strong and wrapped around his wrist. Everything suddenly goes from neutral to warm. Sunshine at midnight. "Sounds about right for Haven. ...Nathan?"
"Sorry," he makes himself say, and lets go. "I. Yeah."
She looks at him a moment longer, and then turns back to Stan. "There seems to have been some kind of weird... gook in the cuts on his neck," she points out. "Can you get a sample to Julie, Steve?" Stan's smile is lopsided and fond.
"Sure thing, Audrey. Gook’s already in the mail," the EMT says, and Audrey shoots Nathan a proud look. If Nathan wasn't so busy trying not to raise his fingers to his lips, see if he can feel the phantom warmth still lingering there, he'd probably be more amused.
"Okay, so what else we got?" she asks, looking around the perimeter of the crime scene. She starts to stride off, teetering slightly but quickly getting the knack of balancing on the slick rocks.
"Atkins Thomas, local bachelor and lobsterman," Nathan recites, following behind her, watching as she bends down and peers at something on the surf line. The waves froth bright and blue at her feet, kick up a glow like a cellphone light that limns her cheeks and hair. "Fifty-four, lives alone. Far as I know, has never made an enemy in his life. Good-natured guy. Likes to drink, and I think," he pauses for effect. "He runs the local newsgroup for One Life to Live."
He isn't disappointed. Audrey looks up at him, mouth open, and then snickers before shaking herself and returning to her perusal of the rocks.
“Soap operas? Seriously? We have a soap opera aficionado murdered by sabertoothed vampires. Say one thing for Haven, say it’s never boring.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. You haven’t been through a winter here yet.”
“Why does everyone think I’m not equipped for the winters here?” she wonders aloud, and Nathan cocks his head, intrigued. “Hello! Midwesterner, here! We invented rough winters.”
“Mm. We’ll see,” Nathan says, straight-faced.
“Okay, what else?” she says to herself, having circled back around to stare at the body again. “Someone did a crappy job of hiding this guy. They were in a hurry.”
Nathan nods. “Reckon it was spur of the moment thing. Someone got the munchies unexpectedly, maybe.”
“Oh, now we have a stoned sabertooth vampire? Really?” She looks at him, tilts her head. “You’re not going to even try to make this into a normal murder?”
“Guess the super-speeded guy and the stuffed taxidermist have opened my eyes,” he agrees, and she gets a funny look on her face, stares down at her boots for a moment. “You okay, Parker?”
“Huh? Yeah. Yeah, fine. So, we want to, what, interview his soap opera buddies? Do we have a time of death yet?”
“Stan said about 5 PM, but they should be able to narrow it down better after the autopsy.”
“Okay, so we’ll interview some of the fishermen that were out here, yeah? Would the harbormaster be helpful?”
“I’ll give her a call in the morning, get her to give us a list.”
Audrey nods, still looking a little distracted. “These things seem to get worse over time,” she says, seemingly to herself. “We need to hurry.” She looks back over at Stan. “Call me when those lab results get in, okay, Steve?”
“Will do,” Stan says laconically, and winks at Nathan when she turns and starts making her way back to the docks.
Nathan shrugs at him, quirks a small smile, and then follows.
He catches up with her as she’s heading to the parking lot. "Parker, it's almost 1 AM. We have nothing right now. Go home, get some sleep."
"What? No, no. It's fine. Let's get some coffee, check out that mailing list. It's online, right? Maybe we don't need to do personal interviews just yet."
"You sure?" Nathan asks, skeptical, but she shoots him a bright, sunny smile.
"Yeah, I'm not tired yet anyway. C'mon, Wournos, get into gear."
The station's mostly dark when they enter. Audrey waves at Trudy, who's manning the main desk, and makes a beeline for their office and begins busying herself with the coffeemaker. Nathan follows at a more sedate pace, and it's not until the filter's full and the water's started percolating that she notices the difference in the room.
"Something new here," she muses, leaning back against the table and tapping a finger against her chin. Nathan gives her a tiny halfsmile. "No, wait, don't tell me, I've almost got it. Is it the stacks and stacks of hundred dollar bills all over your desk?"
"Don't get too excited, Parker," Nathan says laconically, settling down in his chair and kicking back. "All fake."
"Something to do with our buddy Duke?" she surmises, remembering again coming around the side of the Gull and seeing Nathan and Duke, both sprawling in their chairs, nursing beers and trash-talking each other. Pigs flying and devils ice skating don’t begin to cover it.
Audrey looks down at her hands. She hadn't interrupted them then, hadn't been ready to dump ice water all over their bizarre warm afternoon moment with her own problems. But that doesn't mean she's not curious.
"For a smuggler, he's got an astonishingly bad poker face," Nathan says dryly, nudging aside a stack of cash with his boot and kicking his legs up.
Audrey laughs, remembering the ill-fated poker night they'd had on Duke's boat, before the hijacking and mind-reading. "I know, right? You totally sharked, him, didn't you? He should have known better. You, Nathan, have probably the best poker face ever. You don't even need sunglasses, just that stare." She straightens her face out and does her best Nathan impression. Nathan does a tiny bow in his chair, inclining his head regally, and Audrey has to abandon her stoicness for a laugh.
"So, c’mon. Spill!" She gestures impatiently. “What happened? How’d you guys get all buddy-buddy?”
"Thought we were scouring the internet for soap opera fanatics," Nathan points out mildly, and Audrey flaps a hand dismissively. One mystery at a time. Besides….
"I haven't even had caffeine yet. We'll get to work once the coffee's ready. Come on, tell me! Used to be you’d arrest the guy soon as look at him, and I walk in on the two of you giggling and playing cards. It makes a girl curious."
Especially in light of what she'd walked into at the Grey Gull later that night. Suddenly all the pigtail pulling that goes on between those two has taken on new, intriguing connotations.
Except she isn’t really sure what to think about that idea, to be honest. It, like the delicious caffeinated beverage gurgling away behind her, is going to have to percolate for a while, because her first automatic reaction is... okay, first it’s a visceral, Hot, but there’s some jealousy, too, which isn't fair or logical. Audrey doesn't do jealousy. Or relationships. She’s married to her work, and nobody likes a cuckold. Jealousy is a ridiculous response at best, and an extremely embarrassing one at worst.
Nathan sighs and takes his feet off the desk, rubs the bridge of his nose and then grins up at her.
"I don't really know what happened," he confesses. "Duke somehow... I got tangled up in one of his schemes, I guess you could say."
"And left me out of the fun?" She pouts, sticking out her lower lip, at least a smidge sincere.
"You were busy doing normal police work," Nathan protests. Audrey snorts, and tries not to think of the look on Rick's face as he'd vibrated himself apart between her palms, or what he'd told her before he did. Not exactly normal procedure.
“Did you even read my report?” she asks dryly.
"Well, normal police work for Haven, anyway. Besides, it was just Duke being Duke. Holding information hostage to get what he wanted."
But Nathan looks more bemused than annoyed. And that's new. Audrey slots this away with the new information she's gotten about Duke. Okay, she’s got some hypotheses, but she needs more data before she can really draw any conclusions.
"Well, what did he want? Come on, Nathan, you're being shifty. We're partners. Partners don't shift at each other."
"Hm. I'll remind you you said that later," Nathan says, probably aiming for a skeptical tone but falling short. "Basically... Han Solo fell afoul of Jabba. Only Jabba was hot, and a girl." He looks contemplative for a moment. "Also, I think I'm Leia in this scenario. Nevermind."
"Okay, Nathan? We already have all the sci-fi we need in this town. Talk sense, not Star Wars. ...Also, I'm totally telling Duke you think he's Harrison Ford."
"What's it worth to you, Wournos?" Audrey teases, and this, this is what she needed. Not sitting alone in her apartment, taking off her left shoe then putting it back on over and then taking it off all over again, until she'd deliberately tied the laces into an impenetrable Gordian knot. No, this was definitely much better than going slowly insane and driving herself into more of an identity disorder than she apparently already had.
"I'll... make you pancakes."
"Hm, not good enough. I can get pancakes any time. I want you to decoupage something for me. Can you, like, maybe spruce up my cellphone?"
Nathan groans. "Do you want to hear the story or not, Parker?"
Audrey kicks back and listens. It's a good story – Nathan undercover as a smuggler, Duke the Special Agent...Opposite Day in Haven.
"Then, well. Sack of counterfeit money," Nathan concludes finally. "I did suggest we play Monopoly instead, but Duke insisted on poker." That tiny smile creeps back onto his face. "It was fun wiping the table with him."
"Yeah, I'll just bet," Audrey grins. "You leave him with any pride at all?"
"I magnanimously allowed him to keep a single hundred," Nathan says primly.
"You are a prince among men," Audrey tells him, and Nathan gets this happy look on his face, the kind Audrey likes to see, the one that makes her feel like there's more than one reason she's in Haven, whatever she told the Chief about the Troubles. What was it that Eleanor had said? Haven has its perks. The first real friends she'd ever had in her life – yeah, she supposes that counts as a perk.
"Alright, alright. Enough boasting," Audrey says finally, swinging back to the coffeepot and ignoring Nathan's mild protest. "Let's get to work. What's the name of Thomas' email group?"
It turns out the local chapter of the OLtL fanclub isn't very imaginative -- A Haven Life to Live, on yahoogroups. The membership isn't moderated, so Audrey makes up a proxy email account -- firstname.lastname@example.org – and signs up. Nathan seems distracted, his hand on her shoulder as he peers at the screen, and it takes him a second to register the name. He flicks her nose and sighs and says something about maturity and the lack thereof in this office.
princessnathan's account is accepted (password: dukesolo), and they begin poking through the backlog of messages. Atkins' account name is hooklinensnker, and a bit of internet stalking finds them his blog.
Most of it is probably riveting from an anthropological perspective, but it's a lot of romantic speculation about fictional dynasties by a fifty-year-old bachelor, interspersed with comments on lobsterpots, tidal discrepancies, and fishing gossip. Nathan seems intrigued, but Audrey's about to pass out on the keyboard from boredom and brain-numbness. The two cups of black coffee she's mainlined are not enough for a three-page rant about lobster pots and the preferred putrefaction level of the chicken necks Thomas had used for bait.
“Hey,” Nathan says, breath stirring the hair on her neck, warm and coffee-scented. She fights not to react, to lean into it – seriously, what the hell, Nathan’s lips are practically on her skin. How’s she supposed to react to that? Though at least it’s woken her up, she supposes. Nathan Wournos – understated, but an energy jolt. Someone should market him.
Then she remembers he’d been trying to point something out and shakes herself. “What? More diatribes about the perfidies of harbor seals?”
“Look at this entry,” Nathan says, voice tense.
Audrey looks. “Huh.” Apparently their fisherman had gotten into an altercation with a local marine biologist, and reading between the lines, it’d gotten fairly heated. “Well, that’s the best lead we’ve got so far. Dr. Salt, huh? Man, what a great name. Salt, get it?”
Nathan huffs out a laugh and rests his forehead against her shoulder for a second. She can feel him smiling, and it’s – Audrey doesn’t do relationships, she just doesn’t. It always ends with the other person being disappointed, and anyway, Nathan’s her friend, and she’s being gross and pervy, and it’s probably just that she’s tired. She’s tired and lonely and wants, more than almost anything, to have someone to curl around in her bed tonight as she falls asleep.
But that’s beside the point. They’re working. And Audrey has a whale-watching date in the morning. …Oh, shit, she has a whale watching-date in the morning. She wonders how miffed Duke will when she calls it off.
“That’s a murder suspect you’re talking about,” Nathan reminds her. “Her name is irrelevant. But she’s a nice enough lady, if I’m remembering her right.”
“If this really was Star Wars, she’d been named, like, Dr. Stab, or something,” Audrey muses, and Nathan laughs again, warm, and she can feel it through her shirt, against her skin. “Okay! Well, now that I’ve descended to your level of nerdery, I think it’s time to call it a night.”
“Sure,” Nathan says, and straightens. Audrey spins her chair around and he’s smiling at her, flushed, eyes bright. “Bed sounds good.”
Right. Not pursuing that line of thought. “What time do you want to meet up tomorrow? Do we need to be here early?”
She realizes, to her surprise, that she’s really kind of bummed about missing out on the whale-watching. Maybe she can convince Duke to swing back and pick her up after she and Nathan are done with their interview?
“Why don’t you want to be here early.” Nathan’s watching her with narrowed eyes. Shit. Sometimes Nathan’s more obtuse than she’d ever think possible for a human being to be, and then there’s the rest of the time, when he’s obnoxiously perceptive. She winces.
“Duke said he’d take me out whale-watching tomorrow morning,” she admits, feeling oddly sheepish. "But it's fine – I'll text him and ask for a rain check." See, she was getting better at this, right? At least she was calling and canceling in advance instead of standing Duke up. And it wasn't like Duke wouldn't have company. She was sure Court would like some alone-time with his friend, regardless of what he or Duke said.
"Ah," Nathan murmured, looking over her shoulder. "Well. Might be we could catch them out there afterward. Duke has all the local gossip anyhow."
"True," Audrey said, brightening. "I can't believe there are really whales, out there,” she comments as they left the building. "Whales! Willy-style!"
"You're precious," Nathan teases, raising an eyebrow at her. She fights the urge to stick out her tongue.
"What, just because I'm taking an interest in the local wildlife, you can make fun of me?"
"I can always make fun of you, Parker. You make it easy. But we'll see some wildlife tomorrow morning anyway. Dr. Salt works at the local Maine Marine Research Center."
They part ways, and Audrey heads home, WTLH on the radio with the late-night DJ that has a passion for showtunes. She sings along softly to Luck Be A Lady, keeping an eye on the road for more mysterious spontaneously forming crevasses, just in case. The moon’s set, and the harbor’s dark, even the waves muted now, no longer glowing as they crest and froth against the shoreline.
At least now maybe Audrey’s tired enough that she'll actually be able to get some sleep.
Well. Maybe if she sleeps with her boots on.
The Center is still closed up when Nathan and Audrey arrive in the morning. Well, to the public, at any rate. One of the lab techs lets them in, checking his watch and swearing before taking off in a beat-up pick-up truck for the marina.
"Time and tide wait for no person," he jokes. "And I've got to get these copepod samples before the tide changes. Dr. Salt's running late, but she should be along. Sorry!"
"Bit fishy," Nathan says, watching him go, and Audrey rolls her eyes, groaning, and punches him in the shoulder. He sucks in a breath and fights the urge to rub his bicep, savoring the burn of it. It actually hurts. She hadn't pulled that punch, and it hurts.
Audrey’s giving him a weird look again, though, so he continues. "Not like the Institute Director to run late, is it?"
Just as he’s saying that, a car pulls into the parking lot and Dr. Salt leaps out of the passenger side, hair tangling in the breeze, and goes around to the back trunk and starts tugging at something. Nathan squints and tilts his head and then recognizes the object – a double-wide stroller.
"Oh, hell," Audrey mutters. "Nathan? Nathan, I need you to stay professional and not go all..." she waved a hand at him. "Gooey."
"Sure, sure," he says to her, and trots back outside to go help Dr. Salt with the twins. Purely to be able to butter her up for their interview, obviously. No ulterior motives here.
"You're a prince," Dr. Salt says, shoving her hair behind her ears and smiling wanly as Nathan helps her untangle the stroller wheels.
"So I've been told," Nathan agrees, and then beams as she opens the back passenger side door. "Well, hello there, little miss. Who's a big girl?" Tolly Salt burbles up at him, waving a chubby fist, then tries to help him unbuckle her childseat. "Oh, and smart, too. How old are you, now? I haven’t seen you since you were a wee thing."
"Coming on one and a half," Dr. Salt – Haley – says, smiling bemusedly at him as he levers Tolly out of the car and bounces her in his arms. She’s settling Tim in the stroller, Audrey watching from the sidelines with a fond, exasperated look on her face.
"Oh, no, I've got her," Nathan protests, and settles Tolly on his right hip, a warm wriggling weight. The baby claps her hands and looks altogether pleased with herself, cooing and grabbing one of Nathan’s hands to gnaw on.
"Thanks," Haley sighs, and began wheeling the stroller towards the building. She’s pale in the morning sunlight, wan, with dark circles beneath her eyes that bespoke many late evenings, probably spent with her twin charges.
"You bring your kids to work often, Dr. Salt?" Audrey asks curtly, holding the door open for her, and Haley says absently, "Oh, no, usually Jeremy has them in the morning, but he's not feeling well, today, and –" she pauses, obviously registering the presence of the two of them as detectives for the first time, rather than just as helpful child-wranglers. "Sorry. What did you say brings you two here, again?"
"We didn't say yet, actually," Audrey points out helpfully, shooting Nathan a look. He stops bouncing Tolly on his hip and letting her gum his finger and tried to look serious. "There's been a murder, and we have a few questions."
"A murder. I see," Haley murmurs, and keeps up her steady pace down the hall, heels clicking. She pauses and slings on a white lab coat, and then turns a corner, seeming to expect Audrey and Nathan to follow. "And what does this have to do with the Institute? Do you mind if I work while you talk? It's just I need to check on our patients, and it's... having someone to watch the kids for a bit would be wonderful."
"No problem," Nathan says cheerfully, and blows a raspberry on Tolly's cheek. "Ow!"
Audrey removes her elbow from his side and gives him a funny look before following Haley into the next room, which houses a large aquarium.
"Well, if we don't have a choice..." she sighs, and then her eyes go big as a sleek dark head pokes out of the water and barks. "Oh!"
"Propeller injuries," Haley says grimly, and pulls on a pair of latex gloves, wincing. “We’re getting more and more of them. These damned fishermen think they’re pests and keep running them over – nevermind that it’s totally violating the 1973 Marine Mammal Protection Act. At least the bastards aren’t shooting them anymore. That’s something, I suppose.”
Audrey shoots Nathan a look. That would explain the enmity between Dr. Salt and Atkin, who according to his blog had a personal vendetta against the “rotten flea-bitten pests.” But he’s not sure that’s enough of a motive for murder. He makes a face at Audrey, shrugging and pursing his lips.
Audrey raises her eyebrows and makes a surreptitious wiggly hand motion that he assumes means “Troubles.”
Okay, fine, he supposes it’s possible the murders are being committed unconsciously.
“My husband brought these little guys in,” Dr. Salt is continuing, tapping a syringe to get the air bubbles out, then laying it on a tray. “He keeps an eye out for them in the harbor – I did my thesis on the reproductive endocrinology of harbor seals. He knows I have a soft spot.” She smiles at her gloved hands.
Tolly recaptures Nathan’s attention by reaching out towards the tank and wriggling for all she’s worth, nearly escaping his grasp.”Dalls!” she squeaks, and from the stroller Tim pipes up, kicking his fat little legs and trilling.
“I heard twins had their own language,” Nathan comments, making a face at Tolly, who ignores him and keeps straining towards the seals, who are getting increasingly agitated and barking madly. It smells like fish and iodine in here, thick in the air – he keeps having to remember to breathe in through his mouth, not his nose. Now that he looks, he can see the four seals all are swathed in sodden bandages, red spotting through here and there.
Dr. Salt laughs tiredly. “Those two are thick as thieves,” she agrees. “Sometimes I wonder if they’ll even bother to learn to speak English, though I know they understand it well enough when Jeremy or I talk to them. Isn’t that right, Timmy?”
Tim looks over at her for a moment and beams sunnily, says something sibilant and unintelligible before turning back towards the tank and cooing again.
“They love the seals,” Dr. Salt murmurs, slight smile on her face as she watches her children.
Audrey ignores this and looks into the tank, eyes wide, and Nathan remembers how excited she’d sounded for the whole whale-watching thing.
“See, what’d I tell you. Wildlife,” he teases her, bouncing the baby on his hip, and she smiles at him.
“They are pretty cute,” she agrees. Some of the seals are clearly young, barely weaned and still fluffy and wide-eyed, leaping up onto the rock formation in the corner of the tank and barking plaintively.
“Want to help me feed them as I change their dressings?” Dr. Salt asks, smiling.
“Yes!” Audrey says immediately, and then pauses. Nathan fights to hide a smile and goes to release Tim from his torment in the stroller, where he’s struggling and babbling desperately, making grabby hands alternately between his sister and the tank. “Uh. But we still need to ask you a few questions.”
“Works for me,” Dr. Salt says, and hands Audrey some gloves and a bucket full of hake and herring. “Try to lure one over here and we’ll get them on the table. Oh, and here. We’ll need to stuff the fish with these.” She shakes two bottles of pills and tosses them to Audrey. “Normally Johnny does that, but with him working two jobs and Yolanda out with the flu, it’s been a little crazy in here.”
Audrey takes the pills. “What are these, antibiotics?”
“And Neupogen. Some of these guys lost a lot of blood before we brought them in – this helps stimulate red blood cell production, get them back up to snuff.” Haley’s mouth tightens again. “I’ll have to hold Belle down and give her a dose of Lactated Ringer’s solution, too, but it tastes like shit and they won’t eat it in the fish.”
“Speaking of,” Nathan says, balancing the twins on both hips and letting them peer into the tank and talk amongst themselves. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Beg pardon?” Dr. Salt says, cutting through the bandages. Audrey peers over her shoulder, and her face contorts at whatever she sees on the seal’s back.
“The man that died,” Nathan continues. “Atkin Thomas.”
Dr. Salt drops the scissors with a clatter and stares at him.
“Yeah, according to his blog, he’s not too fond of you, or seals,” Audrey says, and Dr. Salt bends to retrieve the equipment, clearly rattled.
“Could you hold her?” she asks Audrey as the seal wriggles and makes to escape, and then winces, putting a hand to her head. “Sorry, just – not feeling great today. Must be catching whatever Jerry has.”
Audrey holds the back of the pup’s neck after some prompting, and Dr. Salt continues, voice shaking a bit. “I admit, I hated the man. But I didn’t want him dead, if that’s what you’re asking. And I was home with the twins all last night. So was Jeremy. There, now, off you go.”
The seal barks and slide back into the water, then pops up next to Nathan and the kids. The twins are delighted, and begin immediately burbling, voices clashing, dissonant but charmingly musical all the same. The seal watches them with dark eyes and bobs its head up and down as Tolly croons to it.
“Can anyone confirm that?” Nathan asks, leaning in and letting the kids get a little closer – not too close, he didn’t want them being bitten, or getting wet with all the splashing that was going on. “Stop wriggling,” he tells them fondly, and tightens his grip. Tim looks up at him and grins toothlessly, eyes bright and black.
“Yes, slass,” Nathan agrees, and ignores Audrey making faces at him.
“I…. suppose one of our neighbors? But we live pretty far out. The houses aren’t close together. Thank you, Audrey. I think – I think I’d better be going. The rest of them will be fine for today. I’ll have Johnny check on them.”
“Is there anyone else you can think of that might have a problem with Mr. Thomas?” Audrey presses, stripping off her gloves and tossing them in the bin Dr. Salt indicated.
“What? No. I don’t know. I didn’t know the man personally, and I’m sorry to hear about what happened to him,” Dr. Salt says distantly, and starts collecting things from the nearby desk, printouts and floppy disks and vials. “I… I think I’ll work from home today. Nathan, would you mind?”
“Not at all,” Nathan says. “Say bye-bye to the seals, kiddos.”
They hum and wriggle, and generally seem put out to be saying bye-bye, but Nathan eventually gets both of them back in the stroller, once Audrey huffs out a laugh and bends down to help.
“If I can help at all, you can reach me at the house phone,” Dr. Salt says, and bends over the stroller, face pale, sweat shining at her temples. “I really – I need to go. Come on, little fishes, time to go home.”
They watch her pull out of the parking lot a few minutes later.
“She’s hiding something.”
“Yep,” Nathan says. “Or she’s a sick mom with a sick husband and two adorable babies to care for.”
“This is Haven,” Audrey says, snorting. “It’s never that simple. Oh, hold up.” She fishes in her pocket and eyes her mobile. “Duke? Look, I told you I was sorry, but – what? Where?” Nathan watches her, already knowing where they were heading next. How did Duke always manage to end up in the thick of things?
Audrey flips her phone shut and turns to Nathan, face serious. “We need to head to the docks. Duke’s found something.”
It's a beautiful morning. The sun's been up about an hour, and the air's crisp and cool. The harbor is calm, and the sky is feathered with distant cirrus clouds, slashes of white against brilliant blue. There’s a distant fishing boat, but otherwise they’re alone. It should have been the perfect day for a tour of the harbor, a day to be spent drinking decades-old wine and eating the painstaking collection of hors d'oeuvre Duke had assembled, basking and watching the sun slowly transverse the sky.
Duke really should have known better.
Court's dressed down in a fine cashmere sweater and jeans that mold to his ass perfectly. It's really annoying that Duke's not even remotely tempted, busy as he is thinking dark thoughts at Nathan and Audrey. Would it have been so hard to put off a murder investigation for a day or two more?
But it's Audrey, and Duke knows exactly where he rates against a case. He'd hoped whales would tip the odds in his favor, but apparently not. And he supposes the same goes for Nathan – Nathan’s not exactly the poster boy for shirking his duties and playing hooky.
Except, well. Yesterday he had, sort of, hadn't he? He definitely hadn't played by the books on that one. Giving a known felon (albeit a petty one) his sidearm? And his badge? That had to mean something, right?
"I'm beginning to feel neglected," Court calls out from the stern where he's basking in the sun. "At least bring me another mimosa while you're being all broody. Which I have to say, Crocker, is a weird look on you."
"You privileged silver-spoon types are so demanding," Duke complains, and goes to the cooler to pop another bottle of champagne. The one Court'd sent him for this birthday last year, actually. He'd been hoping to save it for a more exciting celebration, but he's feeling petulant and grumpy enough to want to swig from a four-hundred dollar bottle for kicks.
He wipes his mouth and passes the bottle over; Court raises an eyebrow at the label and follows suit.
"Don't suppose you want to talk about it," he says mildly, and Duke crosses his arms over his chest and scowls. "She's definitely lovely. And smart."
"As a whip," Duke says and slumps into the folding chair, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "And about as approachable."
"Mixed messages?" Court asks, taking another swallow before passing the bottle back over. "You know, you promised me cetaceans."
"We already saw a pod of dolphins," Duke protests, and Court raises a shoulder noncommittally. "This is a good place, lot of krill. We should see them any time now, oh ye of little faith."
"The endangered Atlantic right whale," Court muses. "That's something to see, isn't it? Wonder how much longer they'll be around."
"Way to bring down the mood, buddy."
"Hey, I'm just taking my cues from the host."
Duke groans and rummages around in the basket of food he'd prepared from the Gull. Caviar and chutneys and fresh-baked bread, and ah, there. He starts viciously peeling the clementine, not looking at Court.
"My life is just a little complicated right now," he says, glaring down at the peel, the white of the rind. The juice beneath stings the small cuts on his fingers, is sweet and tart when he sucks them clean.
"You tease. Still can't believe you've got a crush on a lawman. Woman. How does that work? You're still, out there, you know,” he makes an obscure hand gesture that seems to be mimicking swordfighting or fencing. “Right?"
"Crush is such an insulting word." Despite being obnoxiously accurate. "And yes, I am still out there ‘you knowing.’ You enjoying the piece I hooked you up with last spring?"
"I do. Having an imposing desk is a very important part of my job." Duke eyes him, because really, digging around people's skulls doesn't exactly go hand in hand with sprawling out in front of a teak desk carved by royal Thai artisans. "Well, the part that involves having to deal with paperwork and my co-workers, anyway."
"Solid copy," Duke laughs.
"So Agent Parker’s okay with your less-than-lawful quirks?”
Duke sighs, tosses the rind over the side of the boat, kicks back and stares up at the sky. "She doesn't seem to mind so long as I don't rub it in her face," he said, aware that this may just be wishful thinking. But she really does seem to think he puts the petty in petty crime – she's got bigger fish to fry, is more concerned with the safety of the town and the people in it. "So long as I'm not hurting anyone," he clarifies. "Her partner, on the other hand, can be a real jackwagon about it."
"Mmm?" Court hums noncommittally, and when Duke raises his head and looks over, he's doing a good impression of a cat soaking in the sun, lazy and probably barely listening.
"We've got a bit of, ah, a history, though," Duke says, probably more to himself than anything else. "Nathan and I, I don't really know what he thinks about the delivery jobs I do anymore. I used to think he was just fucking with me to fuck with me. But." But yesterday, he'd certainly aided and abetted, at least in keeping Duke's skin and skull intact. Which is... food for thought.
"I'm starting to think he might be more laid-back about the whole 'letter of the law' thing than I expected," Duke says quietly, and arches up slightly to take another swallow of champagne, dry and sweet and fizzing on his tongue.
"Two lawmen? Really, Duke?"
"Oh, shut up and keep an eye out for whales," Duke huffs, and closes his eyes, lets the boat rock him in a familiar, gentle rhythm.
"Not seeing – ah. Duke?" Court's voice stays smooth and calm, but something makes Duke jump to his feet anyway. Court's standing now, leaning against the stern with eyebrows both high, almost hidden beneath blond bangs. "Is that... normal? A red tide, algae, or whatever? Tell me that's algae."
The boat's anchored, so they're not moving, but the tide is, drifting past them in thick, murky swirls of red.
"That's... not algae," Duke manages after a moment. "Which is probably a good thing. Maybe. Considering red tides decimate ecosystems, but..."
They both stare down at the water. The sun's at the perfect angle to sparkle off the waves, turn the water the perfect bright blue backdrop for the abstract art curling around the prow. The tide’s changing, and for a moment the water just hangs there, rippling gently, not going one way or another.
"Then... is something bleeding? A whale? Duke, did you hit a whale?" Court jokes, but he’s looking freaked, and well, he is a mild-mannered neurosurgeon, unused to the vagaries of Haven wildlife. Probably he’s never seen blood that didn’t come from a carefully placed scalpel incision before.
"Maybe someone hit a whale with their boat," Duke allows. But they're at least a mile from any other vessel, and this looks recent, and it's not dissipated at all, is just hanging there in a distinct, thick puddle. And now that Duke's looking, there's all the wildlife Audrey could want, swimming beneath the surface in muted red ripples. A seal darts past, a shimmering shoal of fish. Two feet from the boat, a white-tipped shark surfaces and Court takes a step back, sucking in a breath. It eyes the two of them with flat black eyes before submerging again. Duke catches a flash of white teeth before it goes.
“Okay. That’s fucking freaky,” Court says, eyes wide. “Where’s the body? This isn’t normal, right? Tell me this isn’t normal. “
"Audrey will want to know about this," Duke says, and crap crap crap, maybe any other day he’d have just given the bright red water a pass and scooted on, but now he’s balancing on the prow and poking around in the ocean with one of his old fishing poles, looking for answers and coming up with bupkis.
"Just in case, you know, that is blood, and not algae, it might be something the HPD is interested in, right?”
Court has edged away from the side of the boat and is clutching the bottle of champagne. He shoots Duke a dirty look. “That’s not goddamned algae.”
Duke gives up on poking the water looking for corpses and turns to bicker, be reassuring. But then he hears something jump and land with a loud splash, and holy shit, it’s fucking splattered him with red… stuff. He stares down at his marred khakis, then back up at Court, who is swearing and swigging, bottle tilted perpendicular to the water.
"So, if you’re done contracting cirrhosis, can you tell if this is human blood?"
"Oh, yes, let me just whip up a precipitn test out of the contents of your rucksack," Court snaps, looking a lot like he wants to brain Duke with the bottle. Like this is somehow Duke’s fault. "Life's not like CSI, Duke, I'd need a lab and a vat of rabbit serum just to start checking antigens."
"So what you're saying is we need a sample. And probably not the one that’s on my pants."
Court shoots him an alarmed look. "I'm not getting a sample, and you shouldn’t either. Did you see the size of that shark that did that belly flop? Because I did."
"I didn’t see it, but… we do get some big ones out here," Duke admits, wincing. It’d been a big splash, he admits, but the species out here are all pretty harmless. Mostly. Probably. Still, he can just picture Audrey’s face when he says he didn’t get her a sample, and hear Nathan’s unimpressed snort. He starts looking around for a suitable container. "We don't need much, though, right?"
“Not more than a thimbleful, but really, Duke, I wouldn’t lean over the side of this boat for love or money.”
“What about for sex?” Duke retorts automatically, leering, and then laughs and waves it off. “Sorry, sorry. Ah, I guess there’s no point taking chances.” He finds a mug and ties a line of fishing wire to the handle, then tosses it overboard. The boat’s now surrounded by a murky red cloud – no chance of missing. He starts hauling it in and then swears when another shark emerges, and then more eyes surface in the water, watching as he drags the cup onboard, careful not to splash any more of the stuff on himself.
“Well, that’s just lovely,” Court says, voice strained. “Thanks for the restive holiday vacation, Crocker.”
“Anytime,” Duke says, holding the coffee mug in a gloved hand and staring down at it. The liquid inside is thick, red. Not diluted at all, from what he can tell, and definitely not algae. “Welcome to Haven, my friend.”
Steve takes the mug of blood from Audrey a little dubiously and immediately begins searching for a less biohazardous container to transfer the stuff to, which she supposes is more than fair.
"Whatever you can tell us would be great," she tells him earnestly, bouncing on her heels and peering over his shoulder at the tech he's got hiding away. "If it's blood, if it's human or animal, if it is human, which human – you know, that sorta stuff."
"Definitely blood," he says absently, whisking around in a familiar, reassuring, crime-scene manner. "I'll let you know about the rest." And then he’s off like a shot to the best the police labs of Haven have to offer, which is hopefully enough. Audrey really doesn’t want to have to wait to get the results back from a lab in Portland.
Audrey loves her job, but this? This part is not so much her favorite thing. The waiting, coiled and ready, jittery. Audrey doesn't do waiting super-well.
"Brunch isn't over at the Gull yet," Nathan says from directly behind her, making her jump. What the hell, he’s standing practically on top of her. "We can interview Duke and, ah, Mr. Cole, there."
"Could you stop with the sneaking up on me? It's starting to make me doubt my situational awareness," Audrey grumbles, and then the statement penetrates. "Hey, you just want to be able to eat pancakes while we're on the job," she accuses.
Nathan makes a gun shape with his finger and fires it solemnly off over Audrey's shoulder. Audrey can't help but crinkle her nose at him and grin. "Fine, okay, I could use some coffee and syrup-drenched sustenance, too."
Duke and Court both find this to be an excellent plan – Court's looking a little white around the eyes, and Duke, as usual whenever he’s within fifty feet of the police station, is being extra twitchy and sarcastic and obnoxious. Nathan’s right; relocating is a good plan.
"You can try our new Summer Omelet," Duke says gleefully, and rambles happily on about spices or something, and Court and Nathan appear to be actually listening, saying things like, "Unusual combo" and "delicate palate." Audrey supposes she should have guessed Nathan’d be a gourmand, super-senses and all that. And Duke she already knew about. Audrey mostly just puts food in her mouth and chews and makes happy noises when it tastes good – apparently she’s been missing out on a wealth of knowledge.
The food talk continues, and Audrey tunes it out as they drive on. The road hugs the harbor, curls along cliffs and beaches. The sun glints off the waves, almost too bright to look at, so she doesn’t – if there’s still blood out there, curling in the surf, she’ll have to find it later. Instead she stares at the road in front of her, which she still doesn't trust not to give way beneath her tires at any moment. That's what Haven's best at, after all – yanking the rug out from under her. So far she's come up swinging, but her foot feels heavy and leaden on the accelerator, and she’s probably imagining it, but it’s almost like she can feel the birthmark – whatever, scar, whatever it is, she can almost feel it, burning like a brand on her sole.
"Parker?" Nathan touches her arm and Audrey plasters a smile on her face, jumps back into the conversation.
"Yeah, what? I don't like mushrooms, it's a thing – they’re rubbery, they’re fungi, it’s gross." Silence in the car. "Are we not talking about mushrooms anymore?"
"You've been a little..." Nathan starts to say, and then glances over his shoulder at the two men in the backseat, who are looking away and studying the scenery so obviously that it's a little insulting.
"I’m fine,” Audrey says, and when Nathan does the eyebrow thing she flaps a hand at him and glares. “I’m fine! I just need some coffee. And pancakes, just normal non-truffle-infused pancakes."
"I think we can do that," Duke says from the backseat. “But I gotta tell you, you’re missing out.”
They pile out of the car and Duke goes in the back with Tracey and his new legion of chefs, then gets the four of them settled on the deck in the sunshine, overlooking the water. There’s a good breeze blowing, cutting the summer heat – salty and brisk and invigorating. Audrey can lick her lips and taste it. Something about being by the ocean in a small town gets in your blood, she thinks. In Boston, she knew intellectually that the ocean was nearby, but in Haven, she can feel it, can sense the rhythm of tides shaping the people that live there.
“Earth to Audrey,” Duke hums, leaning forward and poking her in the shoulder. She swats at him absently, then glances over and meets his eyes. He’s slouching and regarding her, unreadable smile on his face. “Man, you’re a million miles away today, Aud. This case really eating at you that bad?”
“Didn’t sleep super well,” she offers, smiling tightly and looking away. Shit, she has got to pull herself together. She’s on the job, got a case to solve. She can’t go – wool-gathering, lollygagging, whatever Vince or Dave would call it. Something quaint, anyway, that boils down to ‘not paying attention.’ And Audrey needs to pay attention.
“Well, hopefully our mocha nut French toast will help,” Duke says archly, and it’s sort of adorable and admirable all at once, how much work he puts into this place, the menu and the experience. For all he made fun of Geoff McShaw’s more avant-garde pigeon soufflés, he seems to really be enjoying experimenting with his own recipes.
“I can’t see how it wouldn’t,” she laughs, smiling at him, pleased when he smiles back. Then she puts on a serious face, leaning in and lowering her voice. “But I hope you know better than to make Officer Wournos here branch out from his customary dish.”
“You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry,” Nathan deadpans, and then rolls his eyes at Audrey. “I promise to contain myself, even if Duke’s put something mysterious in the pancakes.”
“There’s nothing mysterious about saffron – you know what, forget it. You’ll be begging my forgiveness when you taste them.”
Apparently this is why she’s always gone with her professionalism and taken statements at the police station before. Audrey is going to have to nip this in the bud. “Alright, alright, enough with the Iron Chef talk. Can we actually go over the crime scene now? Please?”
Court glances up from where he’s been staring into the depths of his coffee mug. He looks a little wild-eyed still. “I – was it really a crime scene?”
“Well, tests aren’t back yet, but yeah, let’s call it that for now,” Nathan says, shrugging. “Happened at about, what’d you say? 8 AM?”
Court looks pained. “I didn’t exactly check my watch. It just… doesn’t make sense. I’m not in the field or anything, but fluid dynamics just don’t work that way.” He rubs his forehead and winces. “I feel like I’m having acid flashbacks. You’d tell me if you slipped me something, wouldn’t you, Duke?”
“Ex-nay on the acid-hay,” Duke says out of the corner of his mouth. Nathan narrows his eyes, and Audrey rolls hers. Moving on.
“That’s a good place to start!” Audrey says encouragingly. “Something about the blood, the water, was weird and unnatural – how so?”
Court gives her a look. "You really are a different sort of cop, aren't you?” Audrey blinks, and when she looks over, Duke pointedly doesn’t meet her eyes. Huh. "But I'm a scientist, and this shit is breaking my brain a little." Court looks over to the approaching Trudy, who is balancing some really, really good-smelling platters on her arms. "Sorry to bother, ma'am, but could you possibly bring by a pitcher of mimosas when you've got the time?
Trudy agrees cheerfully enough, settling the plates down and bustling off again.
"So you saw something that was scientifically impossible," Audrey surmises, and Court glares at her around a bite of his omelet. "You... sort of get used to it, in Haven."
"Let the man eat, Aud," Duke says and wiggles her own plate at her. "C'mon, I designed this recipe just for you! You're going to hurt my feelings."
Audrey rolls her eyes, stuffs in a few quick – okay, a few quick incredible mouthfuls.
"Time can be of the essence," she insists, swallowing. "No matter how weird what you saw was, we want to hear it, right, Nathan? ...Nathan."
Nathan is staring at his plate like he's found nirvana, covered in butter and maple syrup. "Duke, I take back at least a fourth of the things I've said about you. These are incredible."
"Yeah, we'll, you've got that whole 'super-senses' thing going for you," Duke demures, toying with his own fork. "Figured you liked some subtle flavors."
"How have I wandered into the Cooking Network?" Audrey says, exasperated, but it's a little cute and it's definitely worth adding to her new catalogue of inter-personal data. Duke invented pancakes for Nathan. Well, but then, he'd also invented french toast – really, really good mocha-pistachio french toast – for Audrey, so maybe the point was moot.
“All that blood, and we couldn’t find a body." Everyone else falls silent and looks over, and Audrey belatedly realizes that maybe this isn’t a typical brunch conversation. At least she didn’t order raspberry syrup, she supposes. "There was... it shouldn't have been possible. We were miles from any other vehicle. And the blood was – cohesive. It hadn’t diffused at all. Like… a slick of blood," Court fades out, looking sick and nauseous.
"A lot of things can cause accidents on the coast," Nathan says after a moment, into the silence that’s fallen between them, and Duke shakes his head.
"Not that you're not right – for once in your life – but there was nothing nearby. No body, nothing. You think I didn’t look? It was just... red stuff. A lot of it. A puddle of phantom blood, in the middle of the ocean, just as the tides were changing. Fucking weird, even for this town."
"If you're telling me you've seen weirder, I may have to haul you in for some scans," Court says dryly, dredging up a smile from somewhere, and Duke makes a thoughtful moue.
"What do you think, guys? I think the drawings and the kid without a face was weirder, personally."
"I vote the taxidermy incident," Audrey murmurs, shoveling another forkful into her mouth. She's starting to realize it's been a while since she's eaten, and now that's she's tasted food, she's starving. She reaches over and snags a piece of Duke's maple-chili bacon, and he shoots her a mock-outraged look and fends off further thievery with his fork.
"Still. We find a bloodless victim last night, then a pool of what may or may not be his blood draining out to sea," Nathan muses. "Might top my list."
"We'll have to wait for the lab results to get back," Audrey says, and folds when Nathan gives her a disbelieving look. "But yes, okay, I agree! It does seem like too much of a coincidence."
"Coincidences in Haven make me itchy," Nathan says dryly, and Audrey laughs and leans over to poke Nathan in the side.
"You wish," she giggles. "Or maybe not – you did come out smelling like roses during that poison ivy disaster three weeks back."
"Yeah, you know, I don't think Nathan should be allowed to judge the weirdness of any one event when he's one weird motherfucker himself," Duke comments, and Audrey strongly considers kicking him, hard, under the table, because Nathan's playful quirked eyebrows go stiff and non-communicative in less than a nanosecond. Not cool, Duke. And you'd been playing so well together.
Court'd been watching their exchange with an increasingly alarmed look on his face, but at this he leans in and hisses, "No, seriously, what is going on in this town?"
“Nothing that exciting, Doc,” Duke drawls. “Just Nathan here's a bit of an ice queen."
"Okay, one? Shut up, Duke, and two, in Haven that could mean anything, and you know it. Nathan doesn’t shoot ice beams or anything."
Nathan interrupts, rubbing a finger across the bridge of his nose, leaving a sticky droplet of syrup behind. "I can't feel pain, warmth – anything. Duke's right. Not that exciting."
"Yeah, tell that to someone that's not a neurosurgeon," Court says, and starts shoving his chair closer to Nathan's, either curious or extremely excited to change the topic, which Audrey can’t really blame the guy for. "So, what, you have a few nociceptors damaged?"
Nathan eyes him sidelong. "Doctor diagnosed me as with 'total idiopathic neuropathy' a couple years back, if that tells you anything. But it's not – it's not medical, not really. Not anymore than a pool of magical blood's scientific. I’m just a freak."
"That doesn't make sense," Court mutters, and takes up Nathan's wrist. "If you couldn't feel anything, you'd be totally non-functional. Pissing and shitting yourself constantly, for one thing."
"Makes sense to me," Duke smirks, and this time Audrey does stomp on his boot. “What?” he protests, looking wounded.
"Very amusing," Nathan says, glaring at Duke, and then looks back to Court, a line forming between his eyes. “Fact is, impossible or not, here I am. And don’t even start with the psychiatry angle, Doc.”
Court starts doing what looks like a some sort of trial, pressing a fork to Nathan's forearm at various intervals, gauging the response.
"Fascinating," Court murmurs, and then looks up and gives Nathan a dazzling grin. "You're not a freak, you're a medical marvel." Nathan blinks, and Audrey can't blame him – she knew Court was an attractive guy, but wow. "There's got to be a level of sensory perception you're not aware of. Not pain or temperature, no, but some part of you must be aware of pressure, of your foot hitting the ground, or of a fork touching your mouth, or you'd be a wreck."
"Look, this is cute and all, but if you want to drag Detective Wournos away and do dirty, filthy medical things to him, you're gonna have to get Detective Parker to sign his permission slip."
Audrey’s all set to roll her eyes and tease Duke about being possessive over his ‘definitely not a boyfriend’ doctor, when she actually looks at Duke, and he's not staring at Court. He’s staring at Nathan.
Nathan's actually warmed to Court. They’re totally ignoring Duke now, talking about baroreceptors and smiloceptors, whatever, and Nathan's actually abandoned his pancakes. Court's taking up all of his attention, is leaning in and smiling – is flirting, effortless and charming. There's a faint high blush on Nathan's cheeks, which is ridiculously cute. Audrey kinda wants to take a picture.
Duke, though, Duke sort of looks like he wants to drag Nathan out of Court’s hands and growl. Which is also cute, albeit in a totally different way.
Yeah, Audrey was totally right about the pigtail-pulling. But as fascinating and slightly mind-boggling as this revelation is, they’re supposed to be solving a murder.
“Hey, you can poke at him all you want later, Dr. Cole,” Audrey says, leaning over and stealing a bite of Nathan’s pancakes, which, wow, really are incredible. Saffron and syrup, who knew? “We’re kinda on a tight schedule here, murder and all. Can you remember anything else about the scenario that might be of interest? I’m talking anything, even if it doesn’t make sense.”
“The animals,” Duke says suddenly, and Court groans, leaning back and letting go of Nathan’s hand.
“Don’t remind me. God, that was freaky. Your town is freaky, you know that? I mean, I should have known, given that it’s you, but Christ.”
“What about the animals?” Audrey snaps to attention, leaning in.
“Just, there were lots of them. Sharks, seals, fish. Like… they were frolicking in it. It was kinda gross, not gonna lie,” Duke says, wincing and shoving back his plate.
Audrey turns to look at Nathan. “Okay, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking we go talk to marine biologist lady again, shake her up a bit. See if anything falls out.”
“Hey, I’ll come with,” Duke says immediately, rocking back in his chair and widening his eyes. “I mean, I am a witness, I can give her a rundown of the species that were out there, shit like that.”
“I’m staying here,” Court says, and snags Duke’s untouched mimosa. “I’m going to get hammered and try to forget where I am. You kids have fun.”
“Stick to dry land and you should be fine,” Audrey advises, and she and Nathan stand to leave. Duke stays behind, hand on Court’s shoulder, conversation murmured and inaudible, before he follows them out.
The Marine Center is a bust – just a couple grad students working, no sign of the marine biologist in question. Then, halfway to the Salt’s place out on the North Shore, Nathan’s radio crackles.
“Hey, sugar, you asked me to keep you up to date on weird Harbor happenings. We got three men down.”
“Dead?” Audrey asks in from the driver’s side, cool and grim. Ready to kick ass and take names. She is fucking hot. Not what Duke should be thinking about at the moment, but there you are.
“That Audrey? Hey, sweetie. No, they’re not dead – just in a bad way. Seems they passed out in their boats; we’ve got ‘em headin’ towards the hospital now.”
“Any strange injuries?” Nathan asks briskly, and the operator says no, no injuries. Just disoriented and prone to fainting spells. Hospital tox scan should tell them more.
“Okay. Divide and conquer?” Audrey asks. “Which do you want, weird sea animals or weird fainting men?”
Nathan shoots her a look, fond and exasperated, and Jesus, it’s all over the man’s face. Duke always suspected as much, but damn, son. Does Nathan actually think he’s being subtle?
“No, wait,” Audrey says, answering herself, sounding amused. “You need to stay far away from those babies; you won’t get anything done if they’re around.”
“Hey,” Nathan protests. “I’m a professional. I can conduct an investigation without my wits being compromised by the presence of toddlers.”
“Uh huh,” Audrey says, clearly skeptical, and wow, Duke is intrigued. “You go all gooey and weird, and you know it. It’s cute, in a creepy sort of way.”
“What, are you telling me Nathan – Nathan Wournos, the man without feeling or general human emotion – melts into a mushy pile of goo when babies are around? Really?”
Both of them jump when Duke first pipes up – he’d be more offended that they’d forgotten him in the backseat, except it’s apparently afforded him an inside look at the dynamic duo in action.
“He does,” Audrey says, meeting his eyes in the rearview mirror, twinkling at him. “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it myself. Multiple times.”
“Freaking me out, Wournos. Every time I see you, you’re acting a little bit more like an actual human being. Playing poker, cooing at babies… what next?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Nathan deadpans. He turns slightly, looks at Duke, then waggles his eyebrows. It is ridiculous.
“Christ, you’re weird,” Duke manages, after a dumbstruck silence.
“Thanks,” Nathan says serenely, and then opens the car door. Audrey’s circled back around, taken Nathan to the police department and his own truck. “There, now you can have a seat up front, like an adult. Don’t misuse the privilege.”
Duke fights the urge to thumb his nose at him. “Have fun with the swooning old dudes.”
Nathan ignores him and goes around to the driver’s side. “Keep me apprised of the situation. And for once in your life, Parker, if things look off, maybe you could call for backup instead of going in, guns blazing.”
“Hey, I hardly ever use guns.” Then Audrey turns and flashes Duke a dazzling grin. “Besides, I’ve got backup, right, Crocker?”
Oh, Court was going to love this. Once again, Duke Crocker fights on the right side of the law; details at 11. “Does this mean I get to wear your badge again, Nathan? Do I get to carry your piece, for the greater good?”
His only response is a flipped bird over the shoulder as Nathan walks away.
“Charming,” Duke says to Audrey, sighing and kicking back in the front seat, stretching out his legs. “Totally charming. But really, though, for serious, now, for real – should I have a gun on this little adventure? Is this going to be dangerous?”
“Nahhh,” Audrey says, turning back onto the main road. “It’s just a mom and two toddlers. How bad could they be, right?”
“Audrey,” Duke says, pained. “This is Haven.”
“Hey, I get by with non-lethal force all the time. We’ll be fine.” She reaches over without looking and pats his knee. “I’ll protect you.”
“Hey, watch it,” Duke jokes. “Next thing you know, I’ll be swooning. It’ll be a swooning epidemic.”
“I’ll alert the CDC,” Audrey says dryly, then glances over at him, face unreadable, then at back at the road. It’s a long drive along the curve of the harbor, another thirty minutes at least, and why, why oh why hadn’t Duke thought of that when he volunteered to go with her?
Sure enough, the next thing she says is, “Speaking of swooning. How are things with you and Court? Sorry your date got ruined with the whole—” she makes a swimmy gesture in the air with one hand, “—blood thing.”
“It wasn’t a date,” Duke says patiently. “I told you, it was just two old school buddies, hanging out, drinking champagne. You should have come.”
“I don’t exactly set my own hours, Duke,” she says, biting her lower lip. “I hate that I have to keep canceling on you, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Duke says, not willing to open that particular can of worms on this car trip, at least. “Anyway, it was nice. Sunshine, caviar, gossip. ‘Was’ being the operative word there, though. I think Court’s about to have a mental breakdown. He’s not really used to the reality-bending stuff, you know?”
“Haven does have that way about it.” And there it was again, that odd distant tone in her voice, the faraway look in her eyes.
“Hey,” Duke says, and puts his hand on Audrey’s knee.
“Oh, oh, are we spreading the swoon now? Is it communicable?” Audrey shoots back, batting her lashes, and oh, if only. But that’s really, really the opposite side of the world from the point he’s trying to make right now.”
“You’re not okay. I don’t know what’s wrong, but I know something is.” Audrey stiffens under his touch, and he continues doggedly. “And you don’t have to tell me what it is that’s wrong. I just wanted to let you know that I know, and that I’m here for you, happy martinis or sad or anything in between. You’re not alone, alright?”
Her hand comes down and covers his for a moment, then goes back to the wheel, at perfect ten and six position.
“Alright,” she says softly, then after a few seconds. “Thanks, Duke.”
The sincerity and maybe even surprise there is making his own eyes sting, so he’s turning the direction of this conversation back to less-solemn waters.
“I mean, I figured it wasn’t just me and Court getting you all bothered. Hot and bothered, I mean.” He leers outrageously and watches the side of her mouth twitch.
“You sure about that?” she asks, eyes sparkling at him. “I mean, two hot guys, one bed… or boat, I guess.”
Duke’s breath snags stupidly. “You think I’m hot, huh.”
“Duh, I have eyes,” Audrey says cheerfully, whatever darkness was in her expression chased away for the moment. “I saw you do that shirtless kung-fu after all. Women and men are befuddled putty before you.”
“Very funny, Agent Parker. I can’t believe you made me put on that act to fulfill your sick, twisted fantasies.”
Audrey’s voice in his ear, taking her unseen orders to throw off those mindreading assholes – yeah, that was a weird moment. Her laughing at him, him almost-but-not-quite afraid for his life, because sure, those two had guns, but he had Audrey Parker on the line, even if she was snickering at him, and he trusted her with his life.
And hadn’t that been a doozy of a revelation. Duke wasn’t exactly fond of trusting people, but Audrey’d gotten under his skin from the very first time he’d laid eyes on her.
“I’m only human,” Audrey says, serene in her ability to make Duke dance like a monkey. “Tell me you wouldn’t have done the same, given the chance.”
“Hey!” Duke protests, spine straightening with indignation, mock or otherwise. “I’d never subject you to such mockery and blatant objectification. You wound me.”
“Uh huh. Says the man who undressed me the first time he met me.”
“Mmm, yes.” Duke remembers it fondly. “An auspicious beginning.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” she says dryly, then punches him in the arm, hard.
“Ow!” he whines, only partially putting it on. Audrey has a hell of an arm. “Not cool, Parker. Not cool. You’ve got a mean streak in you, don’t you?”
She’s grinning wickedly at the road, swerving easily around a pothole and dodging a semi-truck. “Hey, that was a long time coming.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll give you that one,” he laughs, holding up his arms in defeat. “But I really didn’t, even then. Objectify you, I mean. I was a perfect gentleman, did most of the undressing and re-dressing with my eyes closed.”
“Yeah, the Pope will be calling any moment with your sainthood.”
A comfortable silence falls between them. The sun is just past noon, golden and filling the car with warmth, and, okay, Duke might be casting an occasionally leery eye at the waves to check for bodily fluids, but overall, it’s nice.
He’s just relaxing when Audrey strikes. He should have known better.
“Okay, so I’ve been sitting on this, but I can’t wait any longer. Waiting doesn’t work for me. I gotta ask.” Duke already has a sinking feeling in his stomach. “Why didn’t you take up Court on his offer last night? The no-strings attached one, I mean.”
Duke groans and buries his face in his hands.
“No, really,” she pursues, entirely too cheerful about the whole thing. She’s evil. Evil. He probably shouldn’t be surprised; she was trained by the government. “We’re friends. I’m asserting my friend rights, here. I wanna know what’s going on. I know you don’t usually turn down beautiful people with appetites, and seems to me like Court qualifies.”
“Do you really have to turn your investigative eye towards my love life, Parker? Really? Really?” he says plaintively into his palms.
“Yep. And baby, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I’ve got FBI training. Haven’t even broken out the electrodes on you.” She does a ludricrous eyebrow waggle that he sees even from the corner of his hand-covered eyes, and he dissolves into laughter.
“Kinky,” he manages eventually, and she inclines her head in regal acknowledgment, then presses her advantage.
“Come on. You know you want to tell me. Otherwise, I’ll have to figure it out on my own, and man, you really don’t want that.”
“You’re a menace,” he says, then lets out a deep breath. “Just… I guess it didn’t feel right,” he says finally, and Audrey drums her fingers on the steering wheel.
“Because of Nathan?” she asks lightly. She should come with a warning sign; Duke can barely breathe, he’s spluttering so hard.
“What! No! Come on, why would you –”
“Oh, like I haven’t noticed you pulling his pigtails. Hello, trained investigator, here.” She flaps a hand at him and shoots him a victorious look from beneath her lashes. “So it is about him, huh?”
Duke has a sneaking, horrible suspicious that he’s blushing.
“Hey, I pull your pigtails, too, Ms. Investigator,” he points out sulkily, and then she blinks, clearly taken aback, and he realizes he may have made a tactical error. She looks flustered, though, which at least evens the ground between them somewhat.
“Yeah, but it’s me. It’s friendly pulling. And don’t even start with the dirty jokes, let’s just take them as said.”
“Only because you made it clear that that’s what you wanted,” he admits, because hell, he’s already hanging all out there, and her expression now is decidedly fishlike. He takes a petty amount of satisfaction from that.
“Duke,” she says finally, sounding unhappy. Crap. “I just – it’s not that I don’t like you, it’s really really not, even though I know how that sounds. I’m not good at relationships. It’s – it’s a thing.”
“Yeah, well, me neither,” Duke points out, feeling that lovely burn of rejection all over. And this day had started out so nicely.
“And yet! You still turned down a no-strings-attached blowjob,” she says triumphantly. Like a freaking homing pigeon. Duke has a sudden urge to soufflé her. “Doesn’t make much sense, does it, hmm?”
“Hey, if you’re offering,” Duke says grandly, ignoring the twitch of warmth and dismay in his belly at the thought. It does produce a startled honk of laughter, though, so there’s that.
“And if Nathan offered?” she inquires archly, and he winces. Sparring verbally with Audrey Parker. What was he thinking?
“To me or you?” he counters, and gets a fishface again in response. Score one to the underdog?”
“Oh, come on, like you haven’t noticed the way he looks at you.” No bitterness in his voice, definitely not.
Her eyes are wide and she takes the next curve just a little too sharply and sends Duke sprawling in his seatbelt. Whatever, though, he can work the sprawl. Clearly it’s a sign from the gods to smirk more.
“I – what?”
“He looks at you like you hung the sun and moon, naked. You’d really turn that offer down?”
“I told you. I’d have to – I couldn’t, it wouldn’t work.” She’s gone all twitchy. “And, I mean, even if you were right? Which I’m not saying you are, we’re partners. Colleagues. Fraternization doesn’t exactly go over well at the office.”
“Like you’ve ever played by the rulebooks before,” he snorts.
“Duke,” she says, exasperated.
“Audrey,” he says back, lilting and mocking. “What, come on. You like him, you do. I may not be a trained investigator, but what’s that you said before? Oh, right. I have eyes, I can see what’s right in front of me.” And hasn’t it given him a bitter night or two; he never knows if he’s being stood up for Wournos or her work, and it’s just enough to keep giving him stupid, tenacious hope that even his kind of, tentative crush of his own on the bastard can’t squash.
“Okay, one, I am just not a relationship person. I’m not. I mean, you know this stuff, Duke. I’ve stood you up enough times. Imagine if – if we were something. I’m still like that. I’m always like that. I can’t turn off who I am.”
Okay, ouch. That’s close enough to his train of thought to make him wince, force him to take a step back and take a good look at himself.
“Okay, not that it doesn’t chap my ass that I don’t get to see more of you, but… You shouldn’t have to turn anything off. You help people. That’s your job. And sometimes? You’re the only one that can help people. You think Nathan and I don’t know that? That anyone who knows you doesn’t know that?”
She huffs, not quite a laugh. “How’d we get from you and Nathan to my personal flaws?” she wonders aloud, making a turn onto a dirt road.
“Hey, we just covered the ‘not-a-flaw’ thing,” Duke protests. “We can talk about how you’re deaf, maybe.” She snorts, and he flicks her nose. “No, really. Don’t ever change, Parker.”
She gives him a funny look that he can’t quite read, then shakes herself and stages a sneak attack while his guard is down, poking him in belly. “Duke Crocker. That is enough. Do you like Nathan Wournos, check yes or no.”
Jesus, she’s not a homing pigeon, she’s a bulldog. A really cute, blonde bulldog.
“Can’t we just talk about the weird blood some more?” he whines, but Audrey apparently is on the scent, has her teeth in his ankle, and is not to be deterred. She just pokes him again, and he yelps, crossing his arms protectively over his stupidly ticklish rock-hard abs. How did she even know he was ticklish? “Look, okay, even if I did, it’s not like the dude’s exactly equipped for… well. You know.”
She turns at this and gives him a warning glare. Protective as always, and it makes him want to push.
“C’mon, Aud.” He rolls his eyes, slouches down lower in his seat. “The guy literally can’t feel! Sort of a necessary part of any hypothetical relationship that involves the bedroom.”
“You’re an innovative guy,” she dismisses. “And you don’t know for sure that things, uh, wouldn’t work. And ha! You just admitted you like him in a bedroom way! I win!”
“I said hypothetical!” he splutters, which she totally ignores, bouncing in her seat like a freaking kid.
Duke leans forward and bangs his head on the dashboard. Damn his stupid, stupid mouth. She was never going to leave him alone now.
“He hates me, remember? It’s sort of the defining aspect of our relationship, you may have noticed over the months. The burning hatred.”
“Don’t think Nathan plays poker for fun with people he hates,” she sing-songs, the psychopathic matchmaker. She pokes him again while he’s busy being unguarded in his misery, and he squawks and catches her wrist. “I mean, if I were you, I’d be more worried he doesn’t like guys.” She resumes drumming her fingers thoughtfully. “Don’t worry, I’ll scope it out for you. Get some inside intel.”
“I’d rather have the electrodes,” he grumbles, staring at his hands. He and Nathan had gotten into a fist fight – one of many – in high school, this one on the softball pitch. Who even knows how it’d started, but it’d ended with blood and bruises, broken noses and fingers. Nathan may play poker with him now, smirk and drawl and taunt him in a new friendly way that kind of sets Duke’s blood simmering. And they may even have had a few moments during their weird escapades yesterday, but there’s a lot of bad blood beneath that bridge.
And that doesn’t even take the tacks incident into consideration – and if Nathan is still brooding over that one little childhood transgression, well. Duke knows what his chances are. Probably even worse than they were with Audrey, which is saying something.
He glances over and Audrey’s darting little, concerned looks his way, so he guesses some of what he’s been thinking had shown up on his face.
“Look, if he likes anyone here, it’s not me,” he says, and starts picking at his hands. One of the fingers had healed just slightly crooked. It’d been a hell of a fight. “And I think you’re making a mistake letting him get away.”
“Hmm,” Audrey says, voice neutral, then pulls into the driveway of a pretty white house overlooking the water, with a dock leading out amidst the black rocks and waves. “Okay, we have to talk about the weird blood in the harbor now, grill some suspects. But this? This conversation? It isn’t over.”
She gets out of the car and Duke thumps his head against the dashboard again for good measure.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Audrey’s good at compartmentalizing, so when she’s knocking on the Salt’s door, she’s definitely not thinking about Nathan and Duke, what it might have been like to walk up on them in the bar, tangled together, hands in each other’s hair.
Duke comes up behind her as she knocks a second, and then a third time. On the fourth, the door opens beneath her palm, and a man answers, broad-shouldered, dark shaggy hair hiding his eyes.
“What,” the man says. It’s not a question in the slightest. Okay, well, this interview is off to a great start.
“Mr. Salt, I presume,” Audrey says cheerfully, not letting the stony expression to deter her. “Sorry to bother you, I heard you haven’t been feeling well. But we need to speak with your wife.”
He blinks at her and starts to close the door. “She’s not well today. She can’t talk to you now.”
Audrey keeps smiling and shoves her foot in the door, glad she wore her shit-kicker boots today, and keeps it from closing as she flips out her badge.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to insist.” Keep that smile on, even if the guy is giving her the a bit of the creeps.
He regards her silently, then his eyes flick to Duke, standing behind her. Inside the house, a mournful call echoes from one of the rooms, taken up quickly by another, in high eerie dissonance. The twins, probably, Audrey thinks. Unless they’ve got pets. Birds, or something. Kids were so weird; she really didn’t get Nathan’s obsession. Affinity. Whatever.
“She’s not well,” Mr. Salt repeats. “Come back later.”
“If you’ll just tell her we need to speak with her,” Audrey presses, more certain than ever that she needs to talk to Dr. Salt. She doesn’t know what’s going on here, exactly, but she’s got a hunch and a bad feeling, and she’s learned to trust her instincts in Haven even more than she had anywhere else. “We talked this morning, she should remember me. Just a quick conversation, and we’ll be out of your hair.”
He stares a moment longer, weighing her words, then nods perfunctorily and turns, disappears into the shadowed house.
“Well,” Duke says after a beat passes. “He’s friendly.” Audrey turns and shrugs at him, equally nonplussed by the brusque conversation that had just occurred, and when she turns back, a dark pair of eyes are staring back up at her from the cracked door.
“Uh. Hi, there,” Audrey says, and the twin makes a beseeching noise and raises its chubby arms at her. Audrey stares. Maybe it wants her to… pick it up? Hold it? She’d seen Nathan bouncing one of them earlier, but she’s not sure she’s up for that herself. What if she dropped the kid? Or if it peed on her? “Where’s your mom, kiddo?” she asks instead, and the toddler makes another piteous sound, as though Nathan might pop out of the bushes and run over to coo at it.
“No,” a voice says sternly, and Mr. Salt leans down and picks up the child, holding it in front of his face. “No.” He turns and looks back at the pair on the porch. “Haley will be here in a moment,” he says flatly, then disappears back into the house with the child, closing the door behind him. Audrey hadn’t even noticed she’d shuffled back in alarm when the kid appeared, but she must have. Dammit.
“Maybe we should have brought Nathan after all, huh?” Duke says, blinking. “Kid’s almost as weird as he is. They could bond.”
Audrey’s about to ruefully agree, and tell him about this morning, when she’d practically had to pry the babies out of Nathan’s arms, but then the door opens again.
Dr. Salt looks awful. She’s clutching the doorframe, wincing at the sunlight. Her hair’s straggly and lank, and the circles beneath her eyes that Audrey’d seen just that morning have somehow gotten deeper and darker. The change is dramatic and startling. Audrey sort of wants to wrap the woman up in blankets and drag her to a hospital.
“Agent Parker,” she says, voice hoarse and thin. “Is something wrong?”
“You look horrible,” Audrey says frankly, then when Duke coughs, amends with, “I mean, you look like you feel horrible. Have you seen a doctor yet? Do you need a ride?”
Dr. Salt takes a second to parse this, then smiles faintly. “Yes. Just a summer cold, I’m afraid. I think I’ve gotten it worse than the others.” She coughs into her arm and makes an apologetic face. “You probably shouldn’t get too close. We seem to be a plague house.”
Inside the house, the children start crying again, reedy and piercing, and the doctor shivers and looks over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I should get back to them. If you could be quick – it’s difficult to have the whole family sick at once, I’m sure you understand.”
Well, Audrey remembers the foster homes getting decimated by flus now and again, but usually they just shifted the caretakers around until it blew over.
“You husband seemed alright enough, for certain values of alright,” Duke puts in, and Dr. Salt regards him glassily.
“I – yes,” she frowns, looking over her shoulder again. “He seems to be on, ah, the mend. He’ll be back at work soon. I really must –”
“Where does he work?” Audrey asks, something tugging at her brain, and Dr. Salt says, in a tired voice, “He fishes. I’m sorry, I can’t – what did you want?”
Her posture is slipping; she’s all but sliding to the floor, clinging to the doorframe with a white-knuckled grip.
“We just saw some strange things in the harbor, thought you might help us ID them,” Audrey says gently. “But it can wait. It’s not important. Is there anything we can do for you? Do you need sitters? My partner’s great with kids – you may remember him, had to pry him loose from the stroller earlier.”
This gets a faint smile. “No, that’s – not necessary.” But then her eyes sharpen. “What did you see? In the harbor. What strange things?”
“Blood,” Duke says succinctly, and Audrey’s watching the woman’s face – she sees when she flinches.
“Could be an injured animal. You should contact Fish and Wildlife.”
“There was no animal, no body,” Duke tells her, eyes unreadable, and Audrey turns to glare – can’t he see they’re not going to get anything from this woman? She needs help, not an interrogation. “Just the blood.”
Dr. Salt starts to close the door, shaking her head. “I don’t know how to help you,” she says. “I’m sorry, I can’t—”
“Dr. Salt. Haley. We want to help you,” Audrey interrupts. “But we can’t unless you tell us what’s going on.”
A dark form appears behind Dr. Salt, catches her beneath the arms and cradles her. “Miss Fish,” Jeremy Salt says. “Back to bed.” He looks back at Audrey and Duke, mouth thinning. “You should go.”
“Okay, okay,” Audrey says, hands up and empty, unthreatening. “Okay, just—will you take my card? Please? Call me if you need anything.”
Dr. Salt takes the card; her fingers, when they brush Audrey’s, are cold and clammy.
“Thank you,” she says hoarsely, and the door closes.
“Well,” Duke says. “Now that was weird.”
When Nathan gets back to the station, both Audrey and Duke are already there – Audrey at her desk and Duke at Nathan’s, where he’s building some sort of fortress or castle out of stacks of counterfeit bills.
Nathan should really put those in the evidence locker.
“How’d the swooning go?” Duke inquires, not looking up from his task.
“Larry Cuomo and the Teague brothers are all suffering from hypovolemia,” Nathan says, and goes to sit on the corner of Audrey’s desk. She looks up at him in alarm and he raises a hand, continues. “Massive fluid loss, but they’re all on treatment, hooked to about a thousand IVs. They’ll be fine.”
“Sabertoothed vampires again?” Audrey asks, and starts frantically texting, probably to Vince and Dave. Meanwhile, Duke’s staring at the both of them.
Nathan ignores him. “No saberteeth wounds this time. No injuries at all, actually, except Vince. He hit his head when he fell, but it’s just a scratch. Nothing serious.”
Audrey pauses mid-tap to her phone. “But… hypovolemia, that’s massive blood loss, right? How are there no injuries?”
“It’s usually from hemorrhaging, but it can sometimes be internal. Or the result of dehydration. Not the case with any of these men, and they all report they were feeling fine when they set out this morning, and had plenty of water with them. The doctors can’t make heads or tails of it.”
“Not unusual in Haven,” Audrey muses, tapping a pen against her lips. “Did you talk to them? Do they remember anything?”
Nathan winces. “They were pretty out of it, disoriented. I didn’t get much. They did all mention the glow – Dave kept going on and on about the water shining.”
“Helpful,” Duke pipes up. “You know those old fogies like to, hmm.” He raises an invisible joint to his lips and puffs. “Indulge, right?”
“Glow, shining water,” Audrey repeats, eyes narrowing. “Okay, well, that’s something to keep in mind. Could be blood-loss related hallucinations, but you never know. What about the blood sample, and the tox screens?”
“Ah, yes. Those. Now those are pickles.” Nathan raises his middle finger in Duke’s direction before he can say anything, and continues. “Haven’t got the tox screens back yet – none of the usual suspects are showing up, so apparently the lab's having to test for weirder stuff. Takes time.”
“Great,” Audrey says, flinging herself backward in her chair and scowling. “More waiting.”
“Definitely your best thing,” Nathan says solemnly, and she wrinkles her nose at him.
“But the blood?” she persists.
“Human, with some phytoplankton contaminants, but mostly human. And it’s not from Atkin, or any of our swooning fishermen, either. And while I was at the hospital, I got another call from the harbor master. Another group saw a slick of blood in the water this afternoon, ‘bout 4 PM.”
Audrey stares at him. “So we might have other victims out there? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Not according to the missing person reports,” Nathan says, letting the frustration he feels slip into his voice a little. He hears his chair squeaking from the other side of the room, focuses on that, on the distinctive scent of the violet-flavored bonbons he hides in the back of his bottom left drawer.
Nathan scowls and looks at Audrey accusingly. “Why is Duke at my desk? Eating my candy?”
“Oh, like you could call this candy. This is disgusting, Wournos.” Sound of Duke sucking the hard candy against his teeth. What is wrong with the man? Was he raised in a barn?
“And yet, you seem to be eating it.”
“It’s because he knew it would annoy you. It’s how he gets your attention,” Audrey interjects serenely. Nathan blinks and looks over at Duke just in time to catch the stack of money he’s tossed at Audrey’s head.
“Quit it, Parker,” Duke hisses, jabbing a warning finger in her direction. “I mean it.”
“Quit what?” Audrey asks innocently, widening her eyes and spreading her hands.
Nathan looks between the two of them for a moment, then makes the executive decision to ignore it.
“Tell me you got something from Dr. Salt,” he says instead, and Audrey blows out a breath and leans forward on her desk. If Audrey shifted a little to the left and Nathan a little to the right, her hand would be brushing his thigh. He’s probably imagining that he can feel the warmth radiating off of her. Psychosomatic. Obviously.
“Bupkis,” she says ruefully. “Well, regarding the weird blood and fish show, anyway. But there’s something seriously off at the Salt house. Like, creepy off.”
“Are the kids okay?”
“You really weren’t joking about him and babies, huh,” Duke states disbelievingly.
Audrey ignores him and shrugs. “They seemed a little cranky, I guess? One of them made a run for the door, but their dad caught it before it could escape.”
Nathan eyes her and chooses to ignore the ‘it’ for now. Babies aren’t ‘its,’ but that’s a battle for another time. “Jeremy was at home? He’s usually out on the boat about that time.”
“Yeah, guess he’s sick or something. Not the friendliest guy.”
Nathan frowns, not sure whether or not she’s joking. “Jeremy Salt?”
“Uh, yeah. Big, burly, face like a rock wall, about as communicative?”
Nathan shakes his head. “Jeremy’s a teddy bear. Nice guy. Goes out fishing with the Chief, sometimes.”
“Well, he wasn’t a nice guy today. Ask Duke, he saw him too.”
“Guy was about as friendly as you are,” Duke says, kicking back in Nathan’s chair, smiling brightly, all teeth. Nathan mimes laughing, then lets his face go stony and blank again. “Yep, that’s the face, right there. You and Jerry must be related.”
“Okay, so add that to the weird column,” Audrey says, narrowing her eyes and staring off into space. She’s thinking, putting pieces together, coming up with a new angle to attack the case with. Nathan waits patiently. “What time were Vince and Dave and the other guy attacked? Do we have an estimate?”
Well, that wasn’t the question he’d expected. “There were no signs of attack.” She makes a ‘go on’ gesture, obviously ignoring him, and he sighs. Okay, so he thinks it was an attack, too. “Whatever happened to them, it happened late last night, early this morning. They were night fishing. That’s the best estimate we got, based on what the docs have said and what they remember about the time they left the marina. Probably a little after two, three.”
“Interesting,” Audrey murmurs, and starts tapping away at her computer again.
“Going to share with the class?” Duke inquires politely. Duke being polite always worries Nathan, so he shifts to keep a better eye on him. He has a brief moment of thinking they shouldn’t be sharing information about the investigation with a petty crook, but, well. Yesterday he’d allowed said petty crook to impersonate a police officer. And whatever excuses were made about it being for the information, well. It still wasn’t exactly overboard.
“Just working on a theory,” Audrey says. “I’ll let you know if it pans out. Okay! So, next step, in my opinion, at least until Vince and Dave perk up a bit, is a stake-out on the Salt house. Jeremy’s pulled a 180 from teddy bear to gargoyle, Haley’s got some sort of death plague flu out of nowhere, and the twins are just weird.”
“They’re cute,” Nathan protests.
“They communicate via air raid siren noises. I find it alarming,” Audrey retorts, and he purses his lips. “Don’t pout at me, I know they’re cute. Cute but creepy. Like you.” Dammit, and now he was smiling, probably looked totally goofy. Audrey was hell on his stoic face. “I’m just saying, something’s off about the whole family, and they’re the best connection we have to our murder. If we’re assuming the hypovolemia cases are linked, which I think we should, I definitely want to keep an eye on them tonight.”
“What time were you thinking?” Duke asks, and here Nathan has to put his foot down.
“You are not on this case.”
“Whoa, easy there, Lone Ranger, I’m not muscling in on your turf.”
“Hey, I am totally the Lone Ranger in this equation,” Audrey pipes up absently, still squinting at her laptop. Then she looks up, grinning madly. “I can’t decide which of you is Tonto and which is the horse.”
Nathan tries to glare at her, but it keeps morphing into a smile, so he directs it at Duke instead.
“Hey, don’t turn the squinty-eyes on me. I was just thinking, you and Audrey gotta eat sometime, right? Stop by the bar, I’ll put you together a picnic basket. I’m thinking wine, oysters, cherry cordials…”
“Exactly what do you think a stake-out is, date night?” Nathan asks, amused, and is a little alarmed when Duke just waggles his eyebrows.
“You could make it a thing. Bonding time. Ow! Hey! I’m trying to do a nice, noble thing here!”
“Noble is not high on your list of virtues,” Audrey says, glaring, and Nathan is a little lost, here.
“Could we not use the evidence from our counterfeit case as projectile missiles?” he tries. “Or building materials?”
“Aw, you’re no fun, Nathan,” Duke says, and sticks out his tongue. Nathan raises an eyebrow minutely. “Where is that carefree Nathan of yesteryear? Or yesterday. Man, I knew that was a fluke, that laidback guy.” He sighs, tsks. “I’m gonna miss him.”
“You’re just worried I’ll kick your ass at poker again,” Nathan says smugly. “You can’t handle carefree Nathan.”
It had been nice, though. Apparently there was still an awkward, teenaged Nathan still locked up inside him that remembered Duke being the popular jock at school, liked his attention and surprised smiles. Not exactly the most comforting realization, especially given that that Duke had hated Nathan’s weird, geeky guts.
“If you two are done flirting,” Audrey says, and when Nathan turns to glare at her, she’s got her head on her hand and is sticking her tongue out at Duke. “I think we should probably wait ‘til it gets dark, don’t you? We should have time for dinner. Nathan, why don’t you meet Duke at the bar? I’m sure he’ll be happy to whip you up something special. Maybe even pancakes.”
Nathan responds automatically. “Mmm, pancakes.” Then he pauses. “Wait. What’s going on with you two? You’re acting strange.” He looks back and forth between the two of them. They’ve both assumed angelic expressions. “Stranger than normal,” he amends.
“No idea what you’re talking about,” Duke says.
“None,” Audrey agrees.
“Okay,” Nathan says cautiously, and goes to pick up his coat. It’s gotten a little chillier than normal for this time of year. “So, dinner?”
“Dinner, then stake-out. Which I am not accompanying you to. Unless you want back-up, and, I would like to point out, I have already provided it once on this case. Just saying.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nathan grumbles. “You're paying. Who’s driving?”
Dinner is spent with Nathan looking increasingly bewildered as Duke keeps trying unorthodox tactics to shove Audrey at him. He’s not playing fair, since Audrey hasn’t had a chance yet to scope out the situation, feel Nathan out for bicuriousness, or bisexualness, even. She thinks the chances are high – she’s seen him hiding a smile in his hand as Duke gesticulates, but she doesn’t know for sure.
Maine’s pretty liberal, she’s found – or at least in Haven, anyway. She hasn’t really made it outside the area yet, but here there’s Mr. and Mr. Bowman, running one of the organic farms, and Rosemary of pastry fame and her girlfriend that works at the art gallery, and even a couple kids at the high school, and those are just the couples she’s seen and noticed, and they clearly are out and proud and haven’t been run out of town on a rail, yet.
At any rate, she knows Nathan’s flirting method from watching him with Jess Minion, and he’d needed a healthy shove in the right direction there, too. It’s lucky for him Audrey has his back, or he’d get no play at all.
Like you, a voice in the back of her head whispers, but she shoves it back down where it belongs. She doesn’t have time for a relationship – she barely has time for friends. The one non-work friend she has, she’s dragged into her work, which proves her point. And then there’s all the Lucy stuff – even she can barely deal with that. She’s not involving anyone else in it.
Besides, she has friends, she has a vibrator at her apartment – that’s more than she’s had most of her life. She’s not complaining. So if Duke could quit shooting her meaningful looks and hip-checking her into Nathan and sneakily getting Nathan to feed her bites of his food off his fork, that would be just great.
She switches tactics. “So!” she says brightly. “Tell me about your schooldays, huh? I hear you guys got into a lot of fights on the softball pitch. Crimes of passion, huh?”
Duke glares, but Nathan, interestingly, turns bright red.
“Duke was an asshole then, and he’s an asshole now. Not much’s changed,” he mumbles, and shoves a huge bite of crepes in his mouth.
“Oh, I was the asshole?” Duke says, still glaring at Audrey. “You were the one glaring at me all the time like I’d murdered your dog.”
“Tacks. On my back,” Nathan says darkly, but he’s doing the tiny crooked smile thing, and Duke does a funny half-grimace, half-smile back.
“I apologized! When are you going to get over that?”
“You apologized yesterday. It’s going to take some time. And maybe more of these pancakes.”
“Coming right up,” Duke says immediately, and bounces to his feet. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, kids.” He winks hugely and Audrey wants to throttle him, then he disappears into the kitchen.
“I could get used to this,” Nathan says, clearly pleased. “Guilt-tripping Duke, I mean.”
“He does seem to want to get on your good side,” Audrey agrees, and then scoots her chair closer, ignoring how this presses her legs up against his. She’s seen an opportunity, that’s all. “So, Duke, he’s cute, right?”
Nathan looks at her as though she’s started vomiting forth live lobsters. Not impossible for Haven, but still. Shit. She’s crap at small talk, how had she forgotten that?
“I mean. I think he’s cute, do you think he’s cute?” she struggles gamely on.
“Uh. I suppose he’s aesthetically pleasing? He got a lot of tail in high school, anyway.”
“Tail? Really? We’re calling it tail?”
“Quiet, you,” he says, wrinkling his nose at her, smiling slightly. Audrey loves when he dimples like that; he doesn’t do it enough. He cocks his head and regards her. “What’s this all about, Parker?”
“What, nothing’s all about. Just wondering what you thought.”
“Why?” he asks, smile suddenly gone. “Are you – you and him? I mean.”
“What? No, no! Just, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, I wanted to know what you thought. About Duke’s cuteness.”
“Yeah… and that’s not odd, at all.”
“But, I mean, if you had to date a guy… he’d be pretty alright, right?”
“Aside from the smuggling, larceny, and tendency to sleep around, and the fact that he and his gang of friends made my life hell in high school?” Nathan asks wryly. “Well. He is aesthetically pleasing, he’s got that going for him.”
Oooh, he hadn’t protested that he wouldn’t ever date a guy. That was definitely promising. Audrey beams. “Aw, come on, he’s gotten better, hasn’t he? He’s a good guy. Uh. Aside from the smuggling. And larceny? Really?”
“I shoplift once in my troubled youth, once, and he never lets me live it down,” Duke says, swooping back to the table with a couple of plates. More crepes, stuffed with tomatoes and spinach and goat cheese, and a second plate, this one with what looks like chocolate and strawberries. Audrey makes grabby hands at that one, and is gratified when Duke bows and slides it to her.
“Not that I’m not a good guy, but what’s this, huh? Gossiping about me behind my back?”
“Audrey wanted to know if I thought you were cute,” Nathan says, dry as smoking ice, and Duke narrows his eyes at Audrey for a moment before sprawling back in his chair again and smiling.
“You’re… cute, I guess,” Nathan allows, regarding his plate of food fondly. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
And Duke, Duke is blushing, a faint red flush on his cheekbones beneath his tan. Score one to Audrey.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fucking adorable. You going to eat that, or what? Thought we were in a hurry, gotta catch the bad guys.”
“What’s this we?” Audrey wants to know, looking up from her fingers. She’d been contemplating both the urge to bask in her victory – Nathan totally thought Duke was cute, it was a step in the right direction – and to crawl in Nathan’s lap herself and be otherwise ridiculous. Which was stupid. It wasn’t like Audrey had a claim on the guy or anything, and she wanted him to be happy. Someone here should be.
“Okay, sue me, I’m curious. I feel like I’m involved. And I do a mean back-up, and you both know it. Plus,” and here Duke’s grin gets dazzling and Audrey narrows her eyes warily. “I should repay the favor.”
“I was not your back-up yesterday,” Nathan says flatly, and oh, oh – opportunity.
“Yeah, sounded to me you were more like… partners,” Audrey says airily, and scrapes up a last bite of strawberry. “God, delicious. Okay, Duke, you’ve convinced me – we need backup for staring at a house? We’ll totally call you!”
Duke freezes, then flops back down in his chair, glaring.
Nathan stands, smirking slightly. “Thanks for dinner. You’re a swell date, Crocker.”
“So you want to tell me what that dinner weirdness was all about?” Nathan asks mildly, peering through his binoculars. Movement behind the curtains – target still there.
The Salt house is relatively isolated – driving up or commandeering a neighbor’s house as a vantage point hadn’t been an option. Instead Nathan and Audrey had had to hike a ways through the woods, sneak up to the property and set up camp on a ridge with a lot of brush. They’ve got a good view from there, and Nathan’s keeping an eye on the house, Audrey on the docks. There are quilts to kneel on and thermoses of coffee – it’s not the height of comfort, but it’s not bad, and luckily the weather’s still balmy. Not too hot or muggy. Kind of perfect, actually, with an end-of-August breeze coming off the harbor, brisk and invigorating.
Nathan’s suffered worse stake-outs, to be sure. And he can’t complain about the company, even if said company is currently ignoring his very reasonable inquiry and munching on a bag of trail mix as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
“See, that right there, the avoiding of the question? That’s part of the weirdness. You’re being fishy.”
She lowers her binoculars slightly and shoots him a wide-eyed look. “I’m being fishy?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” Nathan says firmly, staring at the house. Movement upstairs, but he can’t get a bead on who it is. Damn people with their curtains. Don’t they want to look out at the harbor, the full moon? Why have a house on the water if you’re keeping all the windows closed up? If Nathan weren’t already suspicious, he would be now.
“So you’re fishy squared,” he continues after Audrey stays silent, which is also suspicious. “I’ve been informed partners aren’t allowed to be fishy with each other.”
“I never said fishy, I said shifty.”
Audrey sighs and rearranges herself, folding her legs underneath her. “Okay, okay. Jeez, you’re getting good at this guilt-trip stuff.”
“I’m a fast learner. Go on.”
“Can’t we just play I Spy again?”
“I Spy someone stalling. Badly.”
Audrey snorts and bumps her shoulder against his, and he nearly drops the binoculars. It’s like the night lights up. It’s like fireworks, flash bang gone, just the after-image of warmth dazzling his system. He belatedly realizes she’s talking and struggles to focus again.
“Look, I know it’s weird, but hear me out. I think he really likes you, and he’s a good guy, and it’s not as though your calendar is swarming with hot young things offering nights of debauchery, or, I mean, if it is, you’ve been very discreet about it.”
Nathan takes a last look at the house, verifies that nothing has happened, and then lowers the binoculars and stares at her. She smiles at him, raises her eyebrows.
“What,” he says. “Parker. Explain.”
“Duke! He totally has a crush on you. You should hit it.”
Nathan blinks, then shakes his head, like maybe if he does an etch-a-sketch move what’s just been said can be erased from his brain and she can try again. It doesn’t work.
“I’m sorry. That sounded a lot like you said I should have sex with Duke.”
She keeps smiling, nods, and gives him a thumbs up. She’s got the imprints of the binocular eyepieces on her cheekbones; he wants to rub a thumb over them, soothe away the redness. He wants a lot of things, some of them conflicting. The urge to throttle her, for example.
Nathan gnaws on his lower lip, considers this, then raises his binoculars again. “I cannot even begin to explain how concerned I am for your mental health right now.”
“But you’ll think about it?”
“Audrey. You don’t actually need to hook me up with people. If I want a date, I’ll get one. And not with Duke Crocker.”
“Uh, hello? I was here for the whole failed attempt you made to pick up Jess. Without me, you’d have crashed and burned.” She pokes him without looking over, and he sucks in a gasp, catches her hand before it can withdraw. God, she has calluses. Gun calluses. And she’s so warm. “Uh. Face it, Nathan, you – you need me.”
“Yeah,” he says, voice low and husky, then he makes himself let go of her hand. He can’t – part of him really, really wants her to know, because it’s Audrey. But he doesn’t want an Audrey that’s obliged, that’s being noble, helping out the poor freak. He can’t… actually think of anything worse than that, not even Audrey and Duke. Or Duke and him.
“But I don’t need you as a matchmaker,” he says lightly, trying to get his composure back. “And especially not with Duke.”
“What’s wrong with Duke? Okay, wait, don’t answer that. I know you probably have, like, an itemized list, arranged alphabetically somewhere in your skull, because you and Duke are both frozen at nine-years-old. You two are seriously ridiculous.”
Nathan decides shoving his partner off a ridge into the ocean is probably against some sort of regulations, so he bites his tongue and focuses on his job and not on how incredibly wrong Parker is.
There are a few blessed minutes of silence, broken only by the sound of Audrey munching pretzels and the quiet white noise of waves rolling in and the breeze rustling the foliage around them, and the thud-swish of his own heartbeat in his ears.
It can’t last. He knows that, but he’d hoped for a least a bit longer of a reprieve.
No such luck.
“Oh, hey, Duke wanted to know – uh. It sort of came up while we were talking, but. You can, you know… right? Just, the whole thing with Jess, it seemed inconclusive.”
Maybe he could just fling himself off the ridge. “The FBI never passed around that memo about not discussing horrifically embarrassing things on stake-outs when you’re trapped in close company for hours at a time with no chance of escape?”
“I never read memos,” Audrey says dismissively. “Boring. If it’s actually important, people yell at me, I figure out policy’s changed, life goes on. You didn’t answer the question. I mean, I figure biologically, you probably still have the wet dreams thing, right? Totally involuntary, but – mmph!”
“For the love of God, stop talking,” Nathan begs, but he hadn’t thought through what it would mean to slap his hand over her mouth, and now his voice has gone all dreamy and soft and fond instead of outraged, like he intended. She hums and he can feel it tickling his palm. He zones out on it, trying to formulate some kind of response that will make this conversation end and not make him want to stab himself in the face.
“Are we really talking about this? Is there any way to convince you to let this drop? Just nod or shake your head.”
Audrey narrows her eyes at him, but she’s not breaking his grip or moving away, and she definitely could. She shakes her head in a negative, and Nathan sighs.
“I just want to put it out there, for the record, that I’m really alarmed by how invested you are in my love life, Parker,” Nathan says, pretty sure his whole face is bright red. He cannot believe they’re having, for the second time in their partnership, an actual conversation about whether or not Nathan can get it up. And he doesn’t mind nearly as much as he should – because it’s Audrey. Audrey’s not mocking him, or taunting him, or trying to tease him and drive him nuts. She says what she means, doesn’t hide or lie. She’s just herself, and if Nathan’s being honest with himself, he really, really doesn’t mind her knowing that he doesn’t have any, ah – problems – with his equipment.
Especially not with her. But that is definitely not a conversation they’re having tonight. Their policework is suffering enough as-is, he suspects.
“I’m starting to think you have less than purely philanthropic match-making urges, here,” he says before he can stop himself, and oh, fuck him, that is just… not the sort of question he needs hanging between them right now. She’s staring at him, and he thinks maybe her cheeks are flushed… but then there’s a slight buzz from the folds of quilt near her knees, and she starts groping around for her phone, struggling to keep her binoculars up at the same time.
“Hold that thought, Vince is finally calling me back.”
“No chance,” Nathan mutters. “The thought is unheld. It is released. Gone.”
She sticks her tongue out and goes back to futzing with the phone.
He sighs and rearranges himself on the hard ground – oddly enough, even though he can’t feel the pins and needles happening, it does tend to fuck up his ability to walk when his foot falls asleep, and he’s had a lifetime of experimenting to figure out which positions keep that from happening.
Audrey’s chatting away, concern and fondness audible in her voice. “Yeah, yeah, you’re a tough old bird, I know. They got you on the good stuff? Neuropen and codeine, huh, sounds like a cocktail. No, don’t save any for me, what would I do with it? Listen, Vince, I gotta ask you something about this morning. Before you fainted – fine, before you were attacked, sorry – did you notice anything weird? Uh huh. Like, what, like that algae stuff? Okay. And what was the tide, do you remember? High or low?” A line forms between her eyes. “Huh. Okay. Right, that’s great. You’ve been more than helpful, honest. Go back to bed, get some rest – Well. I may have something for you later, I can’t promise it’ll be publishable. I’ll keep you posted. Give my love to Dave, alright?”
She hangs up. “Ugh.” Letting the binoculars fall, dangling around her neck by the cord, she stands and stretches, twisting and grimacing. “Man, that lactic acid really builds up in the shoulders, doesn’t it?”
“Wouldn’t know,” Nathan says, and she wrinkles her nose at him.
“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Superman.”
“So what was that about ? That conversation.” And not the previous one, but he should have known better – Audrey’s back on the case. Personal life takes a back-burner; just one of the many reasons he thinks she may be the best cop he knows. Best person, maybe, even.
“Just checking my theory,” she says, sitting back down and pulling out some paper from her bag. He leans over and looks – tidal charts. Huh. “And that glow stuff they we rambling about earlier? Seems that that algae, the bioluminescent jazz, it was acting funny. Just pooling around their boat, not being all dainty and pretty at the edge or waves or whatever. Sound familiar?”
“Blood and algae. Great. How’s this a theory, again?”
“Not sure yet. Okay, it’s more of a hunch than a theory. But I think the tides have something to do with it, and the algae. You said they found some mixed with the blood, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s ocean water, Parker. It’s not going to be totally clean. There’s always something going on in there.”
“Okay, but work with me – night we found Atkins, there was a ton of that glowing stuff in the surf, right? Enough for me to notice it, and I’d never really seen it out there before. And around when Vince and Dave and their buddy got taken down, they said the ocean was thick with it. And – something about the tide being slack? I don’t really know what that means.”
“Keep forgetting you’re a landlubber,” Nathan teases, but his mind is ticking away. “It’s when the tides are in balance, not going in or out. Good time to go crabbing or clamming –” He stops. “That’s when Duke says he saw the blood, isn’t it? When the tides were changing.”
“Yep,” Audrey agrees. “So, that’s my theory. Don’t know what it means, but there it is. And I want to see what happens at the Salt house when the tide comes in, or goes out. Whatever.” She shuffles the papers around, peering at them, and Nathan suddenly realizes she’s not using her cellphone for light anymore – Nathan hadn’t thought anything of it at first, but usually he has better night vision than Parker. But it doesn’t matter tonight, because a full moon is up.
“Here’s another lesson for you, Parker – full moon fucks with the tide. We call it a spring tide – means flood tides are higher than normal, and low tides are lower.” He’s wracking his brain, trying to figure out what this means. “Tides, and blood. What, the blood’s going… out with the tide? And then the tide comes in with… glowy algae?”
Suddenly Audrey sucks in a breath. “God, I’m an idiot. Neuropen. Neuropen, that’s what they’ve got Dave on. And Dr. Salt was treating those seals with it, too. For blood loss. That’s why she looked so sick; she’s been suffering from blood loss.”
“The kids,” Nathan says, feeling sick. “What time is low tide on your charts?”
Audrey stares at him, face pale in the moonlight. “Three hours ago. Should be slack tide… now.”
They both look down. Nathan picks his binoculars back up, just to be sure. Waves are breaking on the shore, phosphorescent. And beyond them, there are slow, thick swirls of light, hanging in the water, moving slowly towards shore.
“I think we better get down there,” Nathan says grimly, and without thinking offers Audrey a hand up. A pulse of warmth, light. Almost blinding. Like a wave breaking over him and glowing, but not cold, not blue. All gold. He staggers.
“Nathan. Nathan, what –”
“Let’s go,” he says grimly, and takes off down the ridge.
Audrey’s cellphone goes off as she’s crashing after Nathan down the ridge. It’s an unknown number, and she picks up, barks out, “Parker! Make it quick or an emergency, little busy –”
“The kids,” Dr. Salt’s voice is high and panicked. “Please, he’s taking them, I can’t stop—”
“We’re right here! We’re coming in, Haley, stall him,” she pants, and Nathan glances back at her, face dark and shadowed, then picks up the pace, gets ahead of her. The front door’s locked, and Nathan kicks it in with a quick, barely pausing. They move into the dark house, guns up.
“Mr. Salt, Haven PD!” Audrey calls; no response.
They follow the sound of sobbing, and wind up in a wide room overlooking the sea. The moon shines in, washes everything pale and otherworldly. Haley’s on the floor, struggling to sit up, and Audrey sees long parallel slashes on her arms, ragged sabertooth claw-marks, bleeding faintly but already closing before their eyes. The door’s open, leading to the deck, and they see a shadowy figure there. Holding two children against his chest, rocking them the way Nathan had, earlier that day – more jerky, though. Mechanical, going through the motions.
“Mr. Salt,” Nathan says icily. “Give them to me. You won’t be hurt. Just, give me the children.”
Silence, broken only by Haley’s rasping breaths and the children keening.
“I can make it work,” Haley says, voice hoarse and scraped raw. She’s trying to drag herself to the door. “Please, Jerry, I can make it work. Don’t let it take my babies, Jerry, you can’t—”
“You’ve got nothing more to give, Miss Fish,” Jeremey says, suddenly, and his voice is different, stranger than it’d been that afternoon. Garbled. But the tone’s different, too. Gentle, sad. “I won’t let you give any more.”
Haley lets out a sob, and Audrey takes a step forward alongside Nathan, lines her gun up. This close, she can see bloody tear tracks, thick and dark along Jeremy’s cheeks, more blood running out in a thin line from the corner of his mouth and his ears. She sucks in a gasp as she sees the same on the cheeks of the whimpering twins.
“Don’t move, Jeremy. We want to help. Let us help you.”
He lets out a grating laugh, and she sees his teeth – aren’t right anymore. His hands are claws, his eyes are flat and black and – Christ.
“Jerry, don’t make me shoot,” Nathan says, and Jeremy blinks, eyelids wrong and sideways.
“Won’t let them, Haley,” Jerry says, and it’s barely intelligible, then he’s over the side of the deck, scrambling down the rocks towards the water. Haley lets out a moan and gets up, falls again, hard, and Audrey wavers, then goes to her.
“Nathan, follow him!” She snaps, and he’s already gone.
“No, no no no,” Haley’s saying. “I can fix it, I can—he can’t let the ocean have them, he can’t.”
“Haley, Haley, you’ve got to tell us what’s going on. I know something’s happening – I thought it was you, but it’s Jerry, isn’t it? Jerry and the twins. You’ve been giving them your blood.”
Haley’s eyes are wide and unseeing , and her lips are a pale, terrifying blue. “I have to, they’re – they’re so thirsty, and if there’s not blood, the ocean comes in. And they change, they change – that’s not Jerry anymore. I didn’t have enough for him, and now –”
She ignores Audrey’s hands, trying to hold her, hold her down, and staggers to her feet, drags Audrey a few steps before falling again, eyes rolling back up into her head. Her pulse, when Audrey finds it, is sluggish and slow, and then Nathan’s appearing back on in the room, face tight.
The rest of the night passes quickly. They get Haley settled in the ambulance, on an IV drip with a solution of the same Lactated Ringer’s she’d given her seals. Audrey calls Vince and tells him to watch out for her, to get her to talk to him when she wakes, while Nathan puts out an APB for the Coast Guard – Jeremy Salt, two hostages.
It’s a big harbor. The sun rises without them finding any trace of them, and if blood’s going out on the tide, it’s not within sight of any of the searchers. They should have gone in the house earlier. They shouldn’t have been up on the ridge, flirting, whatever the fuck they’d be doing.
They should have been there.
Nathan finally lets Audrey drag him back to the office, saying they need coffee and rest or they won’t be good for anything. Nathan doesn’t agree, but Audrey’s gone steely-eyed and it’s easier to give in on this, quicker.
The tox screen is waiting for them in Nathan’s inbox, too late to be any good. Venom, something like a sea snake's – paralytic and a coagulant, all at once, in the blood of all four of the victims.
“That explains the lack of wounds on the survivors. And you know what, I bet if we check the blood sample, it matches the type of the Salts,” Audrey says quietly, and Nathan punches the wall.
“We should be out there,” he says flatly, and rests his head against the plaster. “He’s insane, Audrey, you saw him. You don’t know what he’s doing with those kids – how much time they have, what’s happening to them out there. We need to find them, now.”
“The whole Coast Guard’s out there. We’ll find them, but you can’t run the whole search 24-7, acting like a crazy person.” She’s up in his space, glaring at him, and then she looks down and her face twists. “Oh, Nathan, your hand.”
“The ocean’s a big fucking place—” Nathan snaps, some place inside him cringing at snapping at Audrey like this, knowing she’s right, that him running himself stupid and ragged with sleep exhaustion isn’t helping. But then Audrey’s taking his hand and he hisses as pain floods in, hot and sharp. This is a broken finger. This is bleeding.
Audrey stares at him. “You can feel that, can’t you.”
It’s not a question.
“Yes,” and against all odds, he smiles, closes his eyes and shakes his head. “Sorry.”
“I’m glad,” she says softly, and gets on her tiptoes, and before he’s registered it, she’s pressing a warm, soft kiss to his mouth, and that’s the feeling he remembers. The warmth, uncurling in his belly, and before he realizes it he’s got his hand in her hair and is kissing her back, fiercely. Warm and wet, and oh god, he wants her.
“Am I interrupting?” A voice intrudes, and Nathan barely hears it, but Audrey’s swearing and pulling back.
“Goddammit, Duke,” Nathan says into Audrey’s hair. Soft, so soft. Like sunlight should feel.
“Told you, Parker,” Duke is saying, and Audrey’s gently untangling herself, stepping away. Her mouth is red, and her cheeks are flushed, but she’s not touching him and Nathan’s world is blank again. Empty, neutral, nothing, and he’s whirling around to glare at the intruder, to get his fists bloodier on Duke’s face. Then he sees the look there.
Okay. Okay. He struggles to bring his brain back online and process. Maybe Audrey was right.
Except he knows fucking Duke wants Audrey – how couldn’t he? Nathan would want Audrey even I if he couldn’t feel her, even before he knew what her touch did to him. And that could be why Duke looks like he’s dying all over again, dead man’s eyes in a young man’s face this time.
But the expression’s gone before Nathan can really analyze it, figure out what it means.
“Just thought I’d offer my boat,” Duke says, leaning against the doorframe, eyebrows up and mocking. “Didn’t think I’d be interrupting a clinch, and hey, what am I thinking, like the HPD really wants to take a smuggler’s boat out in the water, right?”
“Duke, now is, wow, really not the time for your inner ten-year-old to come out. You know we’ll take your help.”
Nathan closes his eyes, breathes out through his nose, then meets Duke’s eyes. “Might be a smuggler and his boat’s just what we need. You know the nooks and crannies of this cove better than anyone.”
Duke stares. Nathan stares back, waits.
“Okay, that… sounded oddly like a compliment,” Duke says, sounding uncertain.
“Do you want to help or not, Crocker,” Nathan grinds out, already remembering all over again that this fucker drives him crazy, even when he’s not pinning him down and grinning with a bloody, fierce smile.
“Yeah. Yeah, I do. Let’s go, what are you waiting for, winter?”
They spend the day on the harbor, and Audrey finally sees her whales, which sucks, because it’s not like she can enjoy them. And compartmentalizing today is really, really hard. Nathan had unfrosted for a bit that morning, but he’s all hard edges and gruff voice, now, coordinating their search with the other boats, checking in with the marine biologists they’d dragged away from the station in hopes that they could provide some sort of useful feedback.
So far, not so much. Of course, that might be because Nathan’s terrorizing them.
Duke tries to get Audrey alone at some point, and his eyes are huge, but Audrey really, really doesn’t have time for this, for analyzing the – whatever – that’s happening between the three of them.
“Later,” she grits out, and goes to help Nathan pour over the tidal charts and jagged maps of the coastline.
She touches his back and he closes his eyes and leans into it. When he opens his eyes again, he’s smiling, and his eyes are locked onto her face, half-lidded. Audrey feels an incredulous curl of warm tightening low in her belly, and suddenly it’s a little hard to breathe with Nathan Wournos looking at her like that.
“You know it distracts me when you do that.”
“Yeah, well, it’s kind of addictive, Wournos. You don’t usually distract so easy.”
“Mmm.” He moves out from under her touch, though, sighing raggedly. “Don’t have time to be distracted. Have to get back to you on that.” He shoots her a look from under his lashes, then says hesitantly, “If you want.”
“Don’t be more of an idiot than you have to be,” Audrey retorts, hands on hips and glaring.
Duke’s watching them from the sidelines, slouched against the side of the boat, hands in his pockets. They’ve paused in a small cove pocketed with caves that Nathan wants to check, and the Gertrude’s at anchor. Audrey waves at him, a little wiggle in her fingers, and is rewarded with a grumpy face.
“Are we going ashore or what? You lovebirds ready to tear yourselves apart and get to work, yet?”
“Jealousy doesn’t suit you, Crocker,” Nathan says, and then his eyes go huge as Duke gallantly offers a hand to help him overboard. He ignores it, to Audrey’s amusement, but she doesn’t have much time to think of that, because they’re off, scrambling over the rocks.
“Okay, not that I don’t get the urgency,” Duke says a few hours later, flopping on to the middle of the deck and sprawling. He’s got black, non-glowy algae smeared on one cheek, and sweat drenching the collar of his shirt. Audrey’s a little surprised he hasn’t taken it off yet. “But I seriously need a change of clothes. And a shower. And a meal. And you know what, I know you both need it more than I do. I’m exercising my rights as a captain and taking us back to shore for a spell.”
Nathan glares at him. “I could commandeer your boat.”
“You could,” Duke allows, and reaches over to ruffle Nathan’s hair. Nathan’s glare intensifies. “But I just got a call on the comms from your daddy, and he’s ordered us to shore, too.”
“Gotta say, I think you’re outnumbered, Wournos,” Audrey comments from the sidelines, enjoying watching them. She’s not quite letting herself touch the thought, yet, that Duke was right about Nathan. Half-right, maybe. Which has… implications, that she’s not letting herself think about, not while she’s on the job.
Maybe while she’s in the shower. Duke grins triumphantly and goes to man the wheel, disappearing up the stairs, and Nathan is clenching his jaw. Shit, Audrey knows that look all too well. She interposes herself between him and anything he might punch.
“Hey, come on, now I got plans for those hands. Stop beating them up.”
Okay, so maybe she’s thinking about it a little right now. It’s the stupidest, worst idea on the planet, because they’re partners, and friends, and Audrey has few enough friends as it is, and getting Duke involved makes it even worse, and it’s obnoxious how little she cares.
But that’s another thing Duke’s right about. She doesn’t like playing things by the book, and she likes to jump in at the deep end. Besides, she’s enjoying how huge Nathan’s eyes just got, the way the cold rage has been temporarily replaced with a dumbstruck happiness. She likes that look on him.
“Let’s take six hours each, then meet back at the station, okay? Can we agree to that? Can you agree to that?”
Nathan’s expression has gone from flabbergasted heat to disgruntled.
“Mutiny,” he mutters, then runs a hand through his hair. “Fine.”
“Look, when this is all over,” Audrey says, moving in a little closer. It’s not that she doesn’t want Duke to hear it, it’s just – she knows of all people, Nathan would understand the thing, the thing with Lucy. Understand the world collapsing and reforming, understand being… not normal. She wants him to know first. “I really need to talk to you.”
“Yeah, I really need to talk to you, too,” he says, and a small, pleased smile is creeping onto his face. Boyish, playful. God, he’s lucky he’s so cute.
“We really, really need to work on your lines. Maybe Duke can give you lessons.”
Ooh, there’s that scowl again.
“Are you saying Duke’s smoother than I am?”
“Sandpaper’s smoother than you, Wournos,” she says, grinning. “But I like you anyway, I guess. But no, it’s not that. It’s – it’s a Troubles thing. And I really need to talk to you about it before any, uh. Other talking happens.”
“Hm.” Nathan regards her thoughtfully, then smiles. “Deal. Shake on it?” Hopeful, teasing smile, and oh god, this guy is going to kill her.
“You wish,” Audrey says, and feels the ball in her stomach that’s been there since she found out who Lucy really was, four days ago, finally start to unthaw.
They dock back at the harbor half an hour later, and Audrey is really, really gross. Stiff with salt and other less savory things – those caves had not been her idea of a good time, seriously. She is ready for a shower, and a nap, and a change of clothes, a chance to zone out for a bit and then come back to this case with a clearer head.
““I mean it, Nathan! No sneakily investigating! Just… if I’m saying we need a short break, you know I really fucking mean it, right?”
“Right, right,” Nathan grumbles, and gets in his truck, scowling. She watches him pull out suspiciously; she really doesn’t trust him to take a nap. Maybe she should have gone with him – but then, she thinks, they really might not have gotten any rest.
“So,” Duke says from behind her. “We’re talking about this later, right? You and me. And Nathan.”
“You better fucking believe it,” Audrey grins, and then sees another boat full of Coast Guard come in, their faces grim and their boat empty of kids. Shit.
“Hey,” Duke says, following her line of sight. “Go. Get some sleep.” He hesitates, then leans in, brushes a kiss over her cheek. “See how I’m being a gentleman, here?”
“Yeah, yeah. St. Duke,” she agrees, smiling a little sadly, and gets in her car to go wash the day off of herself.
Most of the day.
Audrey calls Duke’s as he’s making his way through the station, flashing sardonic grins at disapproving officers who clearly think Smuggler Duke doesn’t belong in their place of law-abiding business.
“Haley just woke up. I’m going to go talk to her, see if she’s got any ideas where Jeremy might have gone. Get an idea of what kind of time frame we’re looking at, too. Tell Nathan to keep his panties on.”
“Silk panties, do you think?”
“He is quite the sybarite,” Audrey laughs, and Duke smiles helplessly.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let him steal the boat and take off without us.”
“Wow,” Duke says, impressed. “Wow, that was bad. Don’t ever say that again.”
“Suck it, Crocker,” Audrey says, and hangs up. Duke shakes his head sadly, and goes to their office to wait – hey, he’s an honorary cop, right? Carried the badge and everything. He can call it his office, too. He flops down on the couch and closes his eyes to wait.
Audrey shakes him awake, and he blinks, startled.
“Shit, guess I was more tired than I thought.”
“Did you not see this?” she asks tersely, and shoves a post-it note at him. It’s pink, and has Nathan’s loopy, stupid scrawl on it.
Got a lead, checking it out. Call the cell.
“Shit,” Duke says feelingly. “I didn’t see it. Where was it?”
“On the coffeepot,” Audrey says grimly, and goes to her desk and starts rummaging around, comes out with a Browning. She tosses it to him. “This time, I want you armed. He’s not answering his cell.”
“Shit,” Duke says, getting to his feet. “Goddammit, that fucking asshole. He said he’d wait on us!”
“Yeah, and when we find him, we’re going to have a real long fucking talk about just who in this relationship runs in without backup.”
She takes off in long strides, and Duke follows her.
“We’ll find him.”
“We fucking better. Tide’s going out in an hour. I have an idea, but it has to wait for the next flood tide, god fucking dammit. Nathan, you idiot,” she seethes, shoving her hair behind her ears. Warrior woman; she’d look good with face paint.
“Why does it have to wait for flood tide?” Duke asks, jumping in the passenger side of her car and then clutching the dashboard as she takes off with a screech of wheels. “Whoa! Whoa, dying in a fiery crash helps no one, here.”
“Flood tide and darkness,” Audrey says, shooting a baleful glance at the afternoon sun. “We’re going to follow the glowing path, I hope. The algae, it follows the Salts. Haley says it’s a family thing, hereditary. They hoped it wouldn’t wake back up, but you see how well that worked.”
“So, wait, what, Haven’s home to, what, a family of murderous sea sprites?”
“Not… murderous, exactly,” Audrey hedges, and then jerks her path out of the way of a huge sinkhole that’s just appeared on the road, misses it by inches.
“What the fuck,” Duke says, eyes huge, and Audrey snorts.
“Knew that wasn’t normal,” she mutters. “Fucking Nathan, such a liar.”
She keeps driving, foot to the floor, it seems like, and continues. “They aren’t murderous, just… thirsty. Blood drains out with the tide, the ocean sends something back to replace it, and they change. Get less human, more, erm. Well, I don’t know exactly, but whatever it is has venomous claws and some pretty freaky teeth. And evidence suggests whatever it is is also a good swimmer.”
“That’s… great. Just great.” And Duke tries to tell himself that it’s Audrey’s driving that’s making him queasy, not the thought of Nathan being attacked by a saberseal-snake thing, or whatever.
“Haley figured out if they got transfusions of fresh human blood, there was no space for the ocean to get inside, change them. At first, they weren’t losing much. It was doable, she could steal saline solution and blood treatments from her work to augment it. But it got worse.”
She bangs a hand on the wheel, and glares out at the town blurring past them. “It’s this stupid goddamned town with all the fucking secrets. If they’d just asked for help, this wouldn’t have happened, none of it. Dammit!”
“It’s a good plan, Audrey,” Duke tells her, trying to get her to look at him, calm down. “We’ll find him. It’ll be okay.”
“No, it won’t, because there’s not much of Jeremy Salt left in there, you understand? But there’s enough to know he has to protect his kids. He needs a fresh supply of blood, and Nathan just waltzed right in there and offered himself up like a bloodbag, and we don’t know where he is because he didn’t think it was important enough to include in his goddamned, useless, fucking idiotic post-it.”
“And when – when, not if, okay? When we find him, I’ll give you first chance to beat the snot out of him. But he’s got the best person in the world on the trail, okay? We will find him.”
Audrey didn’t say anything, just put on another burst of speed, which Duke hadn’t thought possible, racing towards the sails of the marina on the horizon, and the gleam of the harbor beyond it.
Nathan wakes up to the smell of seaweed and rot, and to a small face buried in his arm.
Tolly trills miserably at him, and tried to snuggle closer. And huh, Tim’s in his lap. Gang’s all here, except Papa Salt, wherever he might be. Nathan tries to lift an arm to wrap around her, but he’s wrapped in thick cord, tied to something behind him.
“Guess I found the right place,” he rasps, wincing and looking around the cramped fishing shack he’d located on the Salt property records, six miles off Phoca Sound on a small promontory of rock. He’d done a U-turn on the way home, sped back to the station and yes, yes, there it was – Salt family owned a tiny island, and that’s where they’d be. He just fucking knew it.
No one was there at the docks when he got there, and he hadn’t wanted to wait, not with the certainty thrumming in his veins. He’d taken out his dad’s johnboat, furious and packing a rifle and two other guns, and had felt pretty okay with his plan up until the moment he’d gotten within sight of the island and the boat had gone swinging off course, sideways, and then capsized.
Last thing he remembered was hitting the cold water, seeing a dark shape approaching, and thinking, “Audrey’s going to kill me.”
“Hey, kiddos,” he says, and yep, when he squints in the dim light, there are thin silvery lines on his forearms, and his shirt sleeves are in bloody scraps. The kids have sharp little claws, nothing like their dad’s, but they got the job done, apparently. Probably explained his wooziness. “Got thirsty, huh?”
Tolly made a piteous noise, and he said, “Hey, hey. It’s okay. Not your fault, Tolls. You’re a good girl. This is no place for babies, huh?”
“Mama,” Tim says, plaintive and distinct, and Nathan gives him a big smile.
“Look at you, talking big people words! Your mom’s gonna be so proud.”
Thick glittering tears, viscous and white with salt, are glittering on Tim’s cheeks, and Nathan really wishes his hands were free, for a number of reasons. Jeremy’s fucking insane – they may be weird little kids, but they’re still kids, and the shack is full of rusted hooks and dusty glasses, knotted nets. He can see a hook stuck in Tolly’s hair.
“Don’t worry, Mama’s okay.” Tolly clambers over his arm and huddles with her brother in his lap, keening softly. “She’s okay, and my partner, you remember my partner?”
They look up at him solemnly, big black eyes and chubby cheeks with traces of blood still streaking their mouths, and okay, Nathan can understand the urge to call them creepy, but they’re just kids. Audrey’s going to be – well, angry is an understatement, but he had to get out here, had to be here right now, and he can’t regret that the kids at least have company, right? And he can donate a couple pints – how much could two tiny bodies take up?
“My partner will find us. Lady with the yellow hair, remember her?”
Tolly’s chewing on his shirt sleeve, but after a moment, she nods.
“You remember her, Tim?”
Tim nods too.
“Well, she’s really, really smart. She saved your mom, and she’s going to find us soon, okay? And then we’ll have a bath, do you like baths? I bet you do. Lots of soap, and shampoo…”
They wrinkles their noses and Tolly giggles, says, “No!”
“Look at you!” Nathan grins again. “That’s some good talking, Miss Tolly. Well, no baths, but I bet you like ice cream, huh?”
The kids cuddle closer, and Nathan cranes his head, tries to gauge the position of the sun on the horizon from the light coming in the small window. Pretty low in the sky. How long had he been out?
He keeps talking, keeping the kids distracted and listening to him, and tries not to think about how many tides he might have already been through before he woke up, and how many more he might have left in him.
Audrey is not letting herself panic, because she doesn’t have time to panic. But it’s been a day already. A full day. Haley said the kids didn’t take much blood – they’re small, they still don’t put out or take in the volume their father does, but there’s still only so much Nathan can lose.
And that was just going off the hope that Jeremy had himself given up on the blood – had stopped taking human blood and started taking in what the sea gave him. That he hadn’t just killed Nathan, that he wanted to keep the kids human as long as possible.
A pretty big if, but Audrey is not, is not letting herself think of the alternative.
It turned out finding a single stream of plankton in the sea was more difficult than she’d hoped – there was normal phosphorescence everywhere, churning bright and blue in their wake right now.
“Cold light,” Haley had said, “cold light in the ocean – they call it that, because it takes up all the energy just to make it. No heat.” And then she’d shivered. “I know why they call it that. Jeremy is so cold, now.” And then she’d turned over in her bed and faced the wall, shoulders shaking.
Haley’d wanted to come out with them, but she was so anemic the doctors were keeping her there, giving her steady transfusions and monitoring her blood pressure. Vince and Dave were with her, holding her hands, keeping her company, and Audrey couldn’t worry about Haley now.
Duke had come up with the bright idea of looking from above, getting helicopters to stop searching for boats and signs of habitation and start looking for light in the water, but then Audrey did him one better and got ahold of some of her contacts in the FBI, pulled the records of satellite imagery over the harbor for the past few days.
They’d found something, but it’d taken way too fucking long, so long to comb through the data, to narrow down the search, but they’d found it, and they’re on their way now. They’ve abandoned Duke’s boat for a cruiser, and they’re speeding through the dark water.
Audrey just hopes it’s fast enough.
They’re in sight of the island, the boat slowing as they approach – Duke’s at the helm, face haggard and grim, and Audrey’s about to just jump over the side and swim the rest of the way when the ocean does it for her. The boat halts with a groan and they’re all in the water, cold and dark. Audrey opens her eyes and sees bright, stinging blue rising around her in clouds of bubbles, and a dark shape coming towards her.
She surfaces, and kicks towards land, coughing. Duke’s already there, on shore, shaking out his hair and scanning the water. It’s only just sunset, and the moon’s out, lopsided and not-quite full, and it’s enough to see the frantic expression on his face. She keeps going and her feet touch the ground. She staggers forward.
“Go!” she shouts, and whirls around, backing up, gun traced at the water, at the slowly swirling traces of red. “Go, I’ve got him, go get Nathan!”
“Dammit, Audrey, if you let this fucker kill you, I’ll—”
“Go,” she repeats, and hears rocks clatter as Duke finally obeys, heading towards dry land and hopefully, hopefully, to a living man who is probably cooing at two kids as they speak, because he’s insane and stupid, and –
She shakes salt water from her face and watches the sea.
There’s more blood in the water, now, and Audrey thinks maybe some of it isn’t unnatural – the boat had still been going pretty fast when they’d been slammed into, and Jeremy may be stronger now, but there are still limits.
A dark head appears, and Christ, he doesn’t even look human anymore. Humanoid, maybe, but that’s all she can say for him.
“Jeremy!” Audrey says, and keeps her hand steady. “Jeremy, I know that’s you. Your wife says hello.”
The figure freezes, then continues, coming closer in smooth, shark-like movements. She can see the moon reflecting off the black of his eyes, and the red in the water around him is illuminated by the movements he makes, the plankton lighting up like it’s a swimming pool, Caribbean blue. “She’s okay, Jeremy, we got her to the hospital. We’re going to take your kids there, and they’ll be okay, too. We’ll get them transfusions every day until we can fix this.”
Jeremy’s close enough now that he’s in shallow, rocky water, and he rears upwards, sleek and dark. She thinks maybe that’s fur covering his body.
Nathan’s been gone over twenty-four hours, and some part of her wants to shoot this man in front of her. But this was a man, once, and a man that loved his wife, and his children. Had tried, even as he lost himself, lost his humanity, to save them.
“Haley said your family has always been Troubled,” she continues, and he’s close enough that she can see his flat, eyes, all pupil and brown iris, no white. “And I don’t know if you remember me, but I might have met you before, your family before. I’m Lucy.” It’s easier to say than she’d ever imagined. I’m Lucy. “Do you remember me?”
No response, then a slow incline of the head, and another inch forward.
“I can help, I can help Tim and Tolly, and maybe I can help you. I’m – I cancel them out, the Troubles. Sometimes I can stop them. Just –”
Close enough to touch now, so she does, lays a hand on the wet black fur, and tries to find Jeremy somewhere in there, beyond the changes and differences and sharp white teeth.
The eyes focus on her face as she does, and he makes a noise. Almost like speech.
“Haley.” Pain and sorrow and tired, so tired. “Sorry.”
And it hurts someplace deep inside her, like she’s reaching too far, and her hand is burning and finally she has to let go, stumbling backward, falling to her knees on the rocks.
Jeremy is above her, and Audrey has a moment to think how easy it’d be for him to – but then he’s gone, and there’s only tiny ripples of light left behind.
She blinks and rubs at her face, breathing in deep, shaky gasps, and then gets to her feet and starts running towards the shack.
Duke runs for the shack, leaving Audrey behind, having to just trust in her gun and her instincts, and just go. When he gets closer and hears voices, he almost goes limp with relief, has to take a moment – the rush of feeling almost enough to make him throw up.
“And then Miss Parker told the scarecrow man that it wasn’t what’s inside you that makes you human, it’s what you do, and you know what he did then?”
Jesus fucking Christ, Nathan’s having story-time with the blood-sucking babies. Doesn’t that just figure.
“He said, ‘I’m a dad, and that’s what matters,’ and he picked up his little boy – little just like you, Timmykins, and took him home.”
“Again!” a small voice pipes up, and then Duke’s bursting in the shack door and Nathan’s blinking up at him, dopey smile on his face. Jesus fucking Christ, even in the dim light, Duke can tell he’s pale as paper, with dark circles beneath his eyes and his shirt in bloody tatters. He’s anchored to the wall by thick cords, and he’s hanging limp in them. There are two tiny forms trying to burrow behind him.
“Duke, buddy,” Nathan slurs, smiling up at him. Duke’s heart does a stutter-step. “You’re here, that’s – no, don’t hide, Tolly, this is Duke, remember, I told you? The pirate.”
One of the kids edges out from behind Nathan and blinks at Duke. Duke is going to remember this, but for now he’s trying not to freak out about how glassy Nathan’s eyes are, how pale he is. He gets to his knees and feels around in his wet, sodden boot for his fishing knife and starts cutting Nathan loose. Nathan’s so fucking cold, but he’s awake and talking, and that has to be good, has to mean something. Mean he’ll make it.
“I… am glad to see you,” Nathan announces, and his head lolls forward. “Duke.”
“Yeah, well, what can I say, your pirate prince has come.”
Brilliant smile, even in the darkness. “Can’t b’lieve. Didn’t you notice? Audrey said you didn’t.”
“Didn’t notice what, jackass? Didn’t notice the lack of any information on your stupid-ass note?”
“When you held me down. Softball, you didn’t notice? I work just fine. I’m a real boy. Thought you felt it. You never notice shit, Crocker. So stupid.”
“I can’t fucking believe you,” Duke says, pained, and shoots a glance at the kids, who are watching this exchange with wide, creepy-big black eyes. “Later, we’ll get back to this. Let’s just get you home, okay? Focus.”
“Are you wet?” Nathan asks suddenly, peering at him suspiciously. “Where’s Audrey?”
“Yes, I am, in fact, wet. Good job on the noticing. Somebody’s daddy tipped us into the ocean, and now we have to wait for the Coast Guard boat to get here with some really fun, awesome IVs, just for you, buddy!”
The kids had scattered when Duke came close, but they’re inching back again now, streaked with Nathan’s blood. It’s a little freaky, and by a little, he means a lot, but they’re… really small, and clearly frightened, so Duke just smiles at them and waves and tries not to think about how their father might be eating Audrey, right now, as he speaks.
“Hey, guys, you ready to go home to your mom? She’s worried about you.”
One of them bursts into tears and rushes him; he only just gets the knife out of the way in time. “Whoa, whoa!”
“Mama,” the kid says, clutching him, sniffling and rubbing its nose on Duke’s arm. “Mama?”
“Aren’t they sweet?” Nathan says dopily, and the other kid is in his lap, helping tug away the ropes with chubby baby hands and – not doing a terrible job, actually.
“Sweet is one word for it,” Duke says, rather sweetly himself. “Ooh, you are in such trouble.”
“Trouble is not the word I would use,” Audrey says from the doorway. Oh thank Christ. Duke cannot handle this shit. If this is what dating two lawmen is like, Duke is so fucked. One of the kids waves at her, and she visibly forces the fury from her face and gets to her knees. “Hi, honey.”
“They don’t have the biggest vocabulary,” Nathan manages, garbling it a little, and Duke gets an arm under him and heaves him to his feet. He’s a heavy fucker, and he’s barely supporting himself at all, can hardly keep his feet underneath him. “But we’re workin’ on it.”
“I could see the Coast Guard boat; it’s nearly here,” Audrey says, and after hesitating a moment, picks up the kid closest to her and lets it bury its snotty, bloody face in her chest. She holds a hand out to the one still clinging to Nathan’s pant leg. It dithers a moment, then looks up at Nathan.
“Yep, that’s my partner. That’s Audrey. Go on.” The kid tentatively toddles over and Audrey picks that one up, too, and she looks good with the kids, is talking to them and smiling, big and reassuring.
Duke and Nathan follow her out of the cabin, and yeah, there’s the boat, approaching at a fast clip. They stand there waiting.
Nathan smells like shit, and he’s cold and clammy and clinging to Duke, but he’s alive and babbling like a lunatic and looking at Audrey like she’s made of pure gold, and that’s normal enough that Duke can’t resist turning his head and pressing his forehead to Nathan’s stubbly cheek. Nathan goes still, and then Duke presses his mouth against Nathan’s jaw.
“God, you’re such an idiot. How’d I wind up associating with an idiot like you,” he says gruffly into Nathan’s grimy skin, trying not to sound like he’s choked up or anything.
Audrey leans over and says, “Quit hogging the Nathan, Crocker,” and presses a kiss to the other side of Nathan’s face. “You are in such deep shi—er, excrement. You don’t even know.”
But Nathan jolts like she’s shocked him with a taser again.
“I felt that,” he says, wondering and dazed, and Audrey sighs, and luckily Duke already knows about her magical touch from their really, really shitty day of panicking and commiserating over what it’s like to be kind of sort of obsessed with a loser like Nathan, or else he’d be really confused right now.
“I know, Nathan. Remember?” Duke says. “She does the wacky Trouble black-out powers with her hands, and, bam, you’re a real boy again.”
“No,” Nathan says, wide-eyed and listing, and if he wasn’t so cold and they weren’t on a fucking hunk of rock, and there weren’t two blood-stained toddlers involved, Duke could almost pretend he was drunk and that this wasn’t the culmination of one of the worst days of his entire life. “When she – I felt you.”
Duke is speechless.
“Well,” Audrey says, and starts wading into the water towards the boat with her armload. Coast Guard EMTs are already swarming out, making a beeline for Duke and Nathan. “That’s promising.”
By the time they make it to the hospital, Vince and Dave have already organized a troop of citizens to make regularly hourly blood donations for the babies, have cobbled together an article for the paper about how a hereditary blood disorder has taken the life of Jeremy Salt and left Dr. Salt to care for two sick babies.
They’re going to be alright.
“Thank you,” Dr. Salt says, eyes filled with tears. Nathan’s out, unconscious and being pumped full of electrolytes and saline and donated blood himself, and Audrey’d left Duke holding his hand.
“I know he can’t feel it,” he’d said, looking defensive and surly. “But I can.”
Court’d stopped by on his way out of town, and was keeping Duke company. “Oh, I don’t know, from why I can gather, he can, at least, feel pressure. Especially when it comes to you.” Okay, so Audrey’s been gossiping, sue her. She loses some of what little verbal filter she has when she’s furious and panicked and angry, and Court had been there a lot during that last day of searching. Talking about Nathan’s own particular Troubles and what they meant and how when they found him, Audrey wanted to subject him to the maximum amount of torture possible. It had been soothing.
Audrey’d dragged herself away. The kids are curled around Haley now, tiny curled forms on either side of their mom, and they’re sleeping now. Haley can’t stop looking at them, not even long enough to meet Audrey’s eyes.
“Thank you,” she repeats, smoothing a hand over Tolly’s sleek head. She hesitates, and her voice wobbles. “Jeremy?” she asks.
Audrey closes her eyes, reminds herself that Jeremy Salt had been a teddy bear, once. Liked puns, bad jokes, had wooed the out-of-town grad student that Haley Fairchild had been with rescued seal pups and romantic midnight boat rides in the glowing harbor. If it’d been Nathan, or Duke… Audrey can’t imagine. She’s had to give this talk before, to grieving relatives and loved ones, and it never gets easier, but this one’s a little weirder, a little harder, because Jeremy’s gone, but he’s still out there somewhere in the Atlantic blue waters. An ocean creature, now. Not the husband Haley married, not ever again.
“He’s gone, Haley,” Audrey says softly, and lays her hand over Haley’s as the woman closes her eyes and lets out a quiet noise, not quite a sob. “He’s – he’s out there. But he’s not your husband any more. He loved you very much.”
“I know – I know he did some terrible things,” Haley manages. “He just. Part of him was still there, I know it was. He was just trying to help.”
“Last thing he said was your name,” Audrey tells her, and she smiles, weak and faint, but a smile.
“Thank you, Audrey. I – we won’t forget this.”
“We’re going to have to do something about the secrets in this town,” Audrey says, more to herself than anything else, but Dr. Salt huffs out a laugh and agrees. It’s good to have another ally. Audrey has a feeling she’s going to need them, soon.
She leaves the little family, and goes to find her own, crazy and weird as it is.
She runs into Court in the hall. He’s got a rueful, wistful look on his face, and he doesn’t seem to register her until she’s right in front of his face, waving up at him.
“Oh, sorry, Officer Parker,” he says, grinning and sticking his hands in his pockets. “I was just – leaving.”
“Think by now you can go ahead and call me Audrey,” she points out, smiling wryly and raising an eyebrow. “What, had enough of Haven for now?”
He closes his eyes. “Yes. Christ, I can’t believe you people stay here.”
“Kinda gets in your –” Okay, rephrase. “Gets under your skin. And there are some perks.”
“Yeah, you’ve got your perks in there waiting for you,” he laughs. “And Jesus, if something starts crawling under people’s skin here, please do not call me.” He pauses, then screws up his face as though something’s hurting him. “Unless you need to. Dammit. I just can’t turn away from a medical mystery. And you’ll probably need some doctors in the know at some point, I’m sure.”
Audrey’s just collecting a legion of Haven allies, now. Awesome.
“I’ll hold you to that,” she warns, and he groans and holds up his hands.
“Okay, okay. But for now, I go schmooze with colleagues. It’s been weird, Audrey. Take care of those lunatics in there for me, okay?”
“Don’t be a stranger,” she says, and goes in for an awkward, one-sided hug. “We still need a whale-watching trip. This time without the gore, okay?”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he says gruffly, and then salutes lazily and continues on. A doctor in a white coat watches him as he strides past, long-legged and broad-shouldered, and manages to walk into the wall beside a door. Audrey sympathizes – she still can’t quite believe Duke had turned that guy down for two police officers, both with their own healthy bundles of neuroses.
Well. They had to get lucky sometime – law of averages. She grins to herself, and knocks perfunctorily on the door before opening it, and then her eyebrows shoot up into her hairline.
Duke and Nathan are tangled up in the bed, Duke on top, pressing Nathan down into the bed, hands tugging at his hair, and Nathan’s arching beneath him.
“Hot,” she says, and means it. Nathan’s hands start shoving at Duke as he tries to sit up, but Duke seems disinclined to move. He raises his head and meets Audrey’s eyes, mouth red and wet.
“You’re late,” he says, smug and self-satisfied. “Sorry, I’m not well-known for my patience.”
“Stop, the shock may kill me. But seriously, off. He’s still recovering.”
“‘He’ is just fine and can speak for himself,” Nathan says grumpily, and Audrey narrows her eyes.
“Uh huh, because you’ve shown such sparkling judgment on the subject of self-preservation in the past. Right.” But she can’t quite resist coming over beside the bed, leaning down and taking a kiss for herself, and the result is – fuck, she isn’t sure how long she’s going to be able to resist before she drags Nathan out of the hospital herself. He’s gone boneless, moaning into her mouth and writhing up against a delighted Duke, who’s eyes have gone dark and heated.
“I think monogamy will have perks,” he says, and rolls his hips, then, “Whoa! Nathan, you – Jesus, that’s hot. Just like that, huh?” he purrs.
Nathan has gone limp, panting into Audrey’s mouth and hand loosely curled around her neck.
“I think we broke him already,” Audrey says, leaning back enough to speak, and Nathan makes a negative noise, shaking his head.
“Up,” he says, thick and drawling. He opens his eyes. “Audrey. Get up here.”
“Okay, tiny hospital bed, not a lot of room. I know we just sex-whammied you, but we really should wait –”
“Who knew I’d eventually like the Wournos growl?” Duke muses, and tips himself to one side, curling around Nathan, and it’s not like Audrey’s surprised that Nathan’s going to wind up being a cuddlefiend, but it doesn’t stop it being deeply adorable when Nathan makes a blissful noise and leans back into Duke. “Come on, Audrey, stop tormenting the man. And me. Some of us take a little more to discharge our weapons.”
“It’s a medical condition,” Nathan murmurs, and tugs at Audrey again. “Audrey, you did this. ‘s your fault. Take responsibility. Up.”
“Oh, this is so undignified,” Audrey says, shooting a glance back at the closed door and hoping there aren’t any charts that need read or tests that need run anytime soon. But she slides into the bed next to Nathan, settles with his head on her collarbone and his hands running over her, lazy and sweet, curling beneath her ribs and the curve of her breasts.
“You smell terrible,” he says into her shirt, and Duke laughs.
“Wow, pot and kettle and I don’t even know what I am in this equation.
“Lobster pot,” Nathan murmurs. “Dirty lobster pot. Stank.”
“Yes, pillow talk, lovely,” and Duke’s rocking against Nathan, biting at his ear, and he’s got an arm wrapped around the both of them.
“Mmm,” Nathan hums, almost a moan, and wow – reduced refractory period, that’s something excellent to add to the list of Nathan’s wacky symptoms. He cracks an eye open, looking mournful. “When do we get out of here?”
“When the doctors think you’re not going to faint every time you stand up,” Duke says, at the same time that Audrey huffs, “Oh, don’t even start with me, Wournos, you’re staying as long as we say you will,” and Duke laughs, leans up and catches Audrey’s mouth in a kiss.
And how hasn’t she kissed him yet? First kiss, like this, tangled up with Nathan between them, warm and making interested, happy noises, sneaking a hand in Audrey’s shirt and making her gasp into Duke’s mouth as he finds her nipples. Should definitely go down in the history books as the best first kiss, like, ever.
“Ah, oh god. Okay, we all need to be naked as soon as possible.”
“You’ll kill me,” Nathan says, not sounding too concerned about it.
“Oh, don’t worry, we have plans for you,” Audrey says into Duke’s mouth. “I think Duke should fuck you. And you should fuck me. It’ll be, god, good.”
“Jesus,” Duke moans. “I just came in my pants. You’re a fucking menace, Parker. Nathan, I can’t reach – get her belt off.”
“Can I fuck you now?” Nathan asks, interested and nuzzling, and his hand is sliding between them, fumbling with her belt until she laughs and reaches down to help.
“Nothing too strenuous for the invalid,” she teases. “And believe me it’ll be strenuous – ah, fuck. Yeah, babe, like that, oh.” She arches against his fingers, rough and calloused, and it’s so much, so much of everything, Duke leaning up to watch, eyes darting between Nathan’s face and where his hand is in Audrey’s cotton panties, sliding them aside and pressing his fingers against her. Reverent and he’s talking the whole time, “God, God, Audrey, you’re so – I, like sunshine. You’re so wet, oh. Oh, god.”
“You don’t make any sense,” she moans, and Duke kisses her through her climax, shuddering around Nathan’s fingers, which are at the wrong angle and shouldn’t be so good, even with that wondering, blissful tone in his voice. She collapses against him and buries her face in Nathan’s neck, breathing in the scent of fish and sweat and blood, ridiculously happy. He rocks against her hip, keening and then pants and goes limp again.
“You’re so easy,” Duke says fondly, and flops back down again, long arms around both of them. “Tormenting you is going to be so much fucking fun.”
“So what else is new,” Nathan mumbles, and arches his head back for a kiss. Audrey watches them, rocks against Nathan’s fingers once more, almost too-sensitive and shivering with it.
“Okay, better than a vibe,” she says muzzily, and Nathan makes a sleepy outraged noise.
“Damn skippy,” he manages before yawning hugely. “Sleep now. Shh.”
And Audrey knows she needs to get up – they’re all three of them a mess, an extremely unprofessional, publicly indecent mess, but for now, she’s content to just lie like this, with her boys.
They’ll take the rest of it when it comes. Work, and Lucy, and the less-than-legal aspects of Duke’s life. It’s going to be a bit of a tangle, but hey, Audrey’s always liked a challenge.
And lucky for her, she lives in Haven. This is her home. And she’s dating her partner and a thief, in the least orthodox trio of all time. Challenges aren’t exactly hard to come by, which is just exactly how she likes it.