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Nathan is used to walking wounded. He doesn’t believe he is more careless these days than he ever was before his Trouble returned. Dr. Carr’s record shows plenty of injuries sustained by one Nathan Wuornos between the ages of nine and thirty-one. He knows how much it’s supposed to hurt to hit your head or break a leg. People just seem to make more of a fuss about it if a door shuts on his fingers, now. It never fails to baffle him, just a little.

(Audrey hits his arm or slaps him upside the head or elbows him in the ribs all the time. As far as Nathan can tell, she doesn’t do it more now than had become a habit before she found out he could feel her.

It’s glorious.)

Nursing bruises has never really been the problem. Sometimes, however, Nathan wishes more people would understand that the real issue is having to trust his instincts more than everyone he knows. Every second of the day, his input from the world is limited. He has 20/20 eyesight and above average hearing, true, a well-developed sense of taste and certainly of smell, he’s learned to compensate. Yet depending on any given activity he has to either willfully not think about what his body has started doing or convince his brain that it has the right idea, lest he freeze up and over-think everything. This may be why he is so resistant toward the concept of change.

Reacting to Duke is a contradiction. Nathan knows how his body works when the two of them fight. The impulse, persistently and irrationally, is to leave his back open.

*

Not long after Mom had died, Nathan had simply lost it at school one day and taken all his hurt and grievances out on Duke. Duke, Nathan remembers, had merely stood there and toughed it out while Nathan had socked him in the face once, twice… To this day, he isn’t exactly sure how many hits he’d gotten in, only recalls getting madder and madder because not once could he feel his fist connecting with skin. In retrospect, this explains the tacks and the ensuing humiliation. Eight-year-old Nate had certainly felt that.

Town-encompassing haze surrounding everything concerning Simon, Lucy and what was then only known as the Colorado Kid aside, one of the first memories Nathan has from when the Troubles disappeared is trying to be there for Duke. Knowing his presence was unlikely to be welcomed, he’d been unsure what to do for him except be there, had all but expected to take his due turn staggering home with a black eye and a bloody nose.

Neither Nathan nor Duke has ever mentioned either incident. Likewise, there never will be any mention of a second shovel helping Nathan bury the Chief.

*

Disregarding a slew of Troubled people, assorted criminals and Audrey, Duke is the one person who most often does Nathan physical harm. The tacks hadn’t even been the first time. There had been that ill-gotten snowball when they’d been only just six and still five, the week Nate had seemed to trip over Duke’s feet wherever he went if other people were around. If Nathan sits down and counts, Duke has punched his lights out a total of four times. They’re about even.

With the Chief and Dr. Carr gone, Duke is also the only one left who will never clean forget that Nathan might not realize he’s been injured. (Julia is good about it when she visits, Dwight more than anyone understands the consequences of inattention, and few are as fast on the uptake as Audrey. They’re learning.) Duke might resent it when Nathan doesn’t feel a punch, make fun of Nathan’s sex-life or incidental lack of it, might on occasion exploit the fact that Nathan will feel neither pressure not heat nor touch. Unlike some in Nathan’s life who then panic at the sight of a paper cut, he’ll never let it slip his mind.

*

Once he’d gotten his sense of touch back in 1983, it had taken a while before every tiniest little thing had stopped overwhelming him. To make things worse, by then there had already been enough distance between Nathan and the Chief without Mom as a stalwart link between them that he’d been reluctant to even let the Chief hug him.

Young Nathan had actually wanted to cling to the Chief quite a lot. He’d held back, had all-too-vividly remembered climbing into bed after Mom’s funeral and a hug which had seemed to go on and on but which, even with the scents unique to Dad and the sounds of crinkling clothes over bitten-back sobs and the ticking of a wrist watch, hadn’t been able to do much of anything for him.

*

The worst that can happen when Nathan puts his back to Duke in their ongoing quest to help Audrey is Nathan losing face. Tacks biting into his skin, a little blood – nothing that Audrey and the Troubled and what there is of innocent bystanders in Haven aren’t ultimately worth risking.

The one time he’d trusted an armed Duke to back his play only to watch the man side with the Rev… At the time it had thrown Nathan into a spin, had done so all the worse because he’d just begun to believe something like it would never happen. (When the secrets and attempted subterfuge and actual betrayals had been sorted out, it still hadn’t.)

Nathan trusts Duke with his back, with Audrey, with the people Nathan is sworn to protect. He still doesn’t know how to reconcile this with the addictive nature of the Crocker Curse.

(Out of the two of them, Nathan is the one who has raised a weapon against Duke with every intention of firing.)

*

Being the only one someone is able to touch is not enough to make a relationship. Nathan knew that before he ever dared look at Audrey and tentatively contrive to lean into her. He knew it whenever he dreamed of Hannah and the four that came after her, knew it when Jess left and he missed everything about her in his life except the heat of her skin. He knows it five times over, now, after things have spectacularly fallen apart with Jordan.

(“Maybe he was mad it was Carla Rose you wanted to spend time with,” Julia had said. It’s something Nathan had never considered.)

*

“…and the car had hit Duke,” Audrey had told him once in a timeline he does not remember.

“Would have been something to see,” he’d answered, even as his mind had rebelled at the very notion and everything had shut down in an echo to the numbness of the nerves under his skin.

“You were pretty upset about it,” Audrey had claimed, but it couldn’t have been true. Nathan had refused to believe he’d cared even a little. (Duke couldn’t have died.) He’d steered their conversation as clear of the subject as trying to solve Audrey’s Groundhog Day had permitted.

*

The day a switch had once more been flipped in his brain, Nathan had been burning with resentment at having been played for a fool, aghast and furious that Duke would use him for one of his runs. Salt water had been stinging the cuts on his knuckles and above his left eyebrow. He cannot pinpoint the exact moment he’d realized he couldn’t feel the blows anymore.

Thirty-one and forced to move in with his father for an adjustment period, Nathan had had to relearn how to navigate a sensation-less world. He doesn’t think Dr. Carr believed a part of him had never forgotten.

Nathan never told anyone, but apart from the breeze and his clothes and the sun against the uncovered parts of his skin, the first touch he remembers feeling when the Troubles went away in 1983 is the touch of his own hand against Duke’s back, his not-friend mostly-enemy short a father figure and a friend or aunt or surrogate mother almost in one go. A sad little boy like himself, warm and real and trembling with the effort not to cry.

* * *