Nathan's Trouble came back gradually, as if it seeped up out of his bones, slow to reform the old familiar shape within him, yet something he could never be rid of now. Audrey and the new Barn had taken all the Troubles out of Haven, and they were supposed to be gone for good, yet all the same he was not surprised that it came back.
Croatoan had used aether to fix Audrey... fix Mara, when Mara was young. It was integral in Audrey's body now, or at least that was his understanding -- something she could not live without. So... how, exactly, had Croatoan fixed Nathan? Even assuming the damage hadn't been done irreparably by the spike of aether he'd been struck with first. Either way, aether was still in him, and it recognised its former role.
It was almost funny, almost apt. After all, why should he be the one who got to return home to a normal life, when Duke was dead, when Audrey was trapped forever in the armoury that should have been Croatoan's prison? Jennifer, Charlotte, so many others. Even the Teagues had paid more, in the end.
The resurgence of full feeling started to noticeably fade after a few months, but touch lingered, traces of it, diminishing slowly for maybe another month after that. Not much more than three months from the day the Armoury had pulled the Troubles out of Haven, he was back to normal.
He thought of it that way: back to normal. The morning he woke up with no sensation in his body, his soul felt nothing more than resignation.
A few days later, the first corpse turned up with black-smudged dead eyes.
"You're wrong," he said into the phone, sluggish for the hour, hating that once more groping for the phone and the lamp in the dark had become a near-impossible task, and without the mumbling of Audrey or the bright definition of her sleepy body beside him to make up for it. "You must be mistaken."
"I sure as hell am not," Gloria snapped. "It looks like the others. Like the work of Croatoan." There was an edge in her voice. Not that Nathan couldn't understand why there would be. "Get down here and see it for yourself."
"I'm coming," Nathan grunted.
The dawn light cast a yellow and grey filter over the recovering town of Haven, quiet and eerie with the hour. Nathan had to judge his newly-unfeeling hands with care on the steering wheel. The skeletal shapes of scaffold from repairs and new builds loomed raggedly darker grey-on-grey from either side of Main Street. For a stretch of several seconds on the turn, all the windows on one side reflected and gleamed yellow from a chance angling of the rising sun, and then he was driving onto a less built up road with the dazzle and the scattered skeletons left behind him. Like the sun had crossed a threshold, though, there was suddenly more yellow in the world than grey, light enough to better see by. Several crows left a straggly tree and signpost at the roadside as the Bronco sailed past, cawing discordantly and beating their shadowing wings far too loud on the air.
Nathan pulled up outside Carla Jenkins' house.
He hadn't recognised it by the address alone, but he'd been here just a handful of days since, to respond to a callout. Carla had been pleasant and full of life and energy, and might have been flirting, but Nathan was so far from having any capacity to be interested that he'd not put any thought into figuring that question out.
He hadn't imagined, when Gloria said she was sitting on a corpse with black smudged eyes, that he'd know who it was. He should've, probably -- there weren't that many people left in Haven. Most who were there now were the tenacious survivors of Troubles, darkness, Duke...
Inside, Gloria was slumped on the arm of the sofa and drinking coffee from a flask. Stan was standing looking grim. There was no sign of Vicki. Home with the baby, most likely.
Carla Jenkins, who in school had been Carla Rose, lay dead on the floor, just like all those others who'd had their Troubles ripped out of them.
"Was she Troubled?" Nathan couldn't remember, but there again, very few people had not been Troubled, at the end. If she had been, it had been something minor enough it hadn't ever exploded to the degree the news had reached him.
"No-one's supposed to be Troubled," Gloria said sharply, rising from her perch and setting her cup aside. Her eyes were hard as she pinned them on him, and... he should have foreseen that she would notice, if anyone did.
"Mine came back," Nathan reluctantly came clean. Stan's jaw dropped. "It's... I didn't think it was something to worry anyone about. Croatoan damaged, then fixed me with aether, in the back-and-forth on that last day. Aether that the Barn... Armoury didn't pull away, it seems like, maybe because it's keeping me alive."
"You kept that one quiet," Gloria said, her eyes narrowed.
"You didn't run my DNA sample," Nathan pointed out.
"Yeah? Well, clearly I should've. Fool idea to assume people would mention stuff that might be significant."
"I thought it was just me..." Nathan crouched down and reached for Carla's face, but stalled just short of allowing his fingers to connect with the skin below her eye. He wouldn't feel it anyway.
Other people knowing made his situation real in a manner it hadn't been until now. He swallowed, not feeling that, either, and reminded himself that without Audrey, without Duke, there wasn't much he was interested in touching anyway.
Yet he had already been aware that there was aether remaining, even with the Troubles gone. Could leftover scraps of aether be responsible for this, or...
Were the Troubles really gone?
Nathan did not want to be chief in a Troubled town that had shot its last bolt and expended all its last hopes, and stood with nothing but empty hands. He'd resigned himself to his Trouble returning when so much had been won for everyone else. But to think of all the Troubles returning, after they'd lost and sacrificed so much, fought so hard to see them gone forever, that was intolerable.
"Nathan, hon, are you all right?" Gloria's voice was still sharp, but her compassion and concern rang out clearly.
He realised his breath had quickened to such degree that he was on the verge of a panic attack. His head spun. He strove for control.
"Yes..." he gasped. "We need to bring Dwight in on this. What's left of the Guard, too." Further irony after all the time they'd spent trying to kill him. The Teagues were gone, and so much else of the infrastructure that Haven relied upon to cope with the Troubles. Audrey...
"He's not Chief anymore." Stan shifted uncomfortably. "He's not even in the force."
"Didn't want to wake up his daughter, at this hour," Gloria said. "Didn't see the point, until we'd had this chat. He is retired. Rib cage like glass, the number of shots he's taken to the chest. We need him, all the same."
"Mm." Nathan's brain was busy juggling a dozen contrary sources for panic. "Pool resources again. Find out if the Guard know of Troubles that have come back. Find out if Carla's friends or family -- or neighbours -- know what she did, if that was back. Find out--"
"Maybe you should put a guard on yourself," Stan interrupted, uneasily, and flustered for interrupting. "If whoever did this is targeting Troubles that have returned."
"I--" It would never have occurred to him. "We'll see what sort of numbers we're dealing with, first."
Heading back from the scene of the killing as full daylight was starting to emerge from the misty yellow dawn, Nathan saw a mirage. There one moment, gone the next, while Nathan was stopped at a crossroad. Duke Crocker bent to his car window and touched the bodywork of the Bronco.
Nathan slewed the car to one side and scrambled out, but there was no sign of the dead man. He spun in place and yelled, "Duke!" to no avail.
It had been a split second, and what he'd seen of Duke and what he'd seen Duke do had been very ordinary, not the least bit ghostly.
But he could only think -- think past the memory of tightening his hands and clasping struggling flesh and squeezing tight -- past that he could only think of Duke, collecting Troubles for Croatoan; of all the aether concentrated into his body when he died. And if some part of Duke was still around... maybe powered by aether which had been left or overlooked, what if that wasn't a good thing? What would become of such a traumatized spirit, no longer flesh and blood, no longer strictly carrying the Crocker Trouble? Would he re-enact the role Croatoan had created him for in death, Nathan's obliging act of murder no salvation after all?
The thought was chilling, and it sent that shiver down his spine even through the nerves that couldn't feel, making Nathan squirm and shudder.
He made himself get back into the Bronco and move on. He had a meeting to get to that was almost as unpleasant to contemplate as such thoughts.
They were supposed to be ex-Guard, now, but instead of disbanding, the Guard seemed to have transmogrified into a sort of weird self-help group that put up obtuse meeting posters around town. Troubles Anonymous, Nathan couldn't help but dub it -- at least in the privacy of his own thoughts. It wasn't as though it was actually funny. There were enough people with PTSD in town, and he might've been grateful for the chance to talk about the things they'd been through himself, but relations were still far too raw with far too many of the people involved. He could not reveal so much to that contingent publicly. Or even attend.
Dread was pooling in his stomach, a churning, sticky, psychosomatic lump above his groin, as he walked into his office and found it already occupied. Lionel Harp, the head of the Guard-run self-help division, looked like he'd been turned out of bed five minutes ago. The man he'd brought with him looked belligerent and more awake. Nathan thought his name was Verne. Dwight looked emotionless and competent as always. Almost always. Nathan hadn't realised he was physically in such bad condition as Gloria's words had indicated. He frowned and looked the larger man over with a bit more intensity than he might normally, but he had enough other things on his mind that he quickly moved on. He needed to discover how far this stretched, how bad was the scale of the Troubles' return and the Armoury's failing?
"Your Trouble is back?" Dwight opened with, before he could speak, returning the intense study. "Nathan--" Serious, grim and so, so sorry.
"It's alright," Nathan said, waving him off. He sat on the edge of his desk rather than in the chair. Having Dwight there made it weird. It still felt a little like it was Dwight's office now, even though it had been Nathan's first. He stared at his empty hands and realised he'd forgotten to get a coffee to bolster him on the way in. Well, no real problem. His throat sounded dry, but it didn't bother him as such. Although when he added, "I'm fine, we need to find out who else has been affected so far--" the sentence terminated with a bout of coughing.
Lionel shocked him with a shake of his head and a flat, "No-one's come to us with anything like this." There was an edge in his voice, a distrust, a fear, despite the negative report of his words. "Wuornos, if you're playing some sort of sick stunt--"
Nathan picked up the stapler from his desk in a blind grab behind himself, flipped back the base and slammed the stapling mechanism into his palm. "I can't feel. I'm not making this up, or... losing it." Dwight made a disgruntled noise that said he disagreed as he leaned over and wrenched the stapler from him. "I wasn't going to do it again."
"I've heard nothing of any other Troubles coming back, either," Dwight said.
"Carla Jenkins died this morning. Same way as the others died back when Croatoan was killing. That requires two things--" Nathan tried to control his breathing. "One, for her to be Troubled, and two, for some agent of Crotoan to be on the loose to harvest her Trouble."
Dwight shook his head. "Or this is something we haven't seen. We know so little about the aether, even now. I'd hoped Audrey and Charlotte--" His voice wavered "--would be able to give us answers, but we lost both of them, and the Troubles too, with so much left unexplained."
"Maybe it's just Wuornos." Verne was definitely an unfriendly, and now that he spoke Nathan recognised him as one of the men baying for blood at that mockery of a trial. "Hell, it makes perfect sense to me--" He moved his hands in an expansive gesture, mouth stretched in a rictus grin that wasn't all mirth; too much tension behind this subject. "All the death and destruction visited on this town in the past year is down to him. Why should he get to be cured?"
It wasn't anything Nathan hadn't thought himself, but Dwight's chair slammed on the floor as he rose. "Get out." He looked as though he intended to bodily throw both of them out. "I'll talk to Nathan alone."
Given the size of Dwight, and the fact that if he had issues with physical fragility Lionel and Verne evidently weren't aware of them, the two Guardsmen left. Lionel threw a mildly apologetic glance back.
"You're an idiot," Dwight said, as the door shut. "Give me that hand."
Dwight picked the staple out, holding Nathan's hand firmly between his two broader ones. The prongs hadn't closed, and the two metal points slid out easily, leaving only pinprick red dots, no worse than expected. Nathan had stapled himself before. By accident, he'd done it before.
"What do you think?" he asked. His breathing and heartbeat were starting to normalise. At least, he couldn't hear his heartbeat anymore. Embarrassment was catching up, though, at how close he'd come to losing it. "It's..." He scraped his free hand over his face. "Before Carla, I did think it was just me. Croatoan hit me with a blast of aether, at the end. Might've fixed me with it, too. For all I know, it's still in me. So it just... found the place where the Trouble used to be, and slipped back into the gaps?"
Dwight's shoulders moved in a shrug like an earth tremor. "I think we need to treat this and the murder as two separate things. Unless we find more people starting to express their Troubles again. I'll ask. I'll get them to ask." He jerked his thumb toward the door, where the Guardsmen had gone.
"There's something else." Nathan remembered it suddenly, and then wondered if he should mention it at all. He'd not been convinced it wasn't some kind of hallucination. "I saw Duke. On the road, on the way here."
"Just for a second. He was like -- like a ghost--"
They both stared at each other in unison. "You saw a ghost of Duke?" Dwight repeated, unusually lost and uncertain. "I spoke to Duke's ghost, back when -- back before the aether left town. You, uh, remember that?"
Nathan remembered he'd not been able to see what Dwight was talking about, and had not been sure he could completely believe him. "Have you seen him since?" His voice had become even more of a thready rasp, he noted almost academically, as though he was watching and listening to himself process that from outside.
Dwight shook his head. "I thought he'd gone with the aether. But if the aether in you didn't go..."
"Duke had a lot of aether filtered through him, the way Croatoan used him, the way the Crocker Trouble worked," Nathan said. "Maybe that's become something different, either from the Troubles or the raw stuff from the void. Who knows, it mutated in him before. A kind of aether that sticks, even to..." He swallowed, uneasily. "Even when the body's dead and buried."
Had killing Duke transformed him into a monster?
Dwight's face only went calmer and grimmer. "Come get a coffee and calm down, Nathan," he entreated. "You'll solve nothing this way. And finding out what happened with Carla Jenkins could take days of waiting until all Gloria's tests come back. If we even understand the results when they do," he added in a disenchanted murmur.
Nathan nodded and reluctantly went with Dwight.
He spent the rest of the day trying to tell himself that Carla Jenkins was some freak event. Maybe the Barn had missed a Trouble in the first collection, and its continued function had dragged the Trouble out of Carla later, with disastrous results. There were, he told himself, other possible explanations. Especially in this arena where they understood next to nothing.
But the following day, he was called in the morning with the news that two more dead bodies of former Troubled people awaited him.
In the mirror, as Nathan was getting ready to go out to the new crime scene, feeling scattered and frayed, he kept imagining he saw flashes of something at the edges of his vision.
Calm down and stop being an ass. The thought flitted across his mind with a certain alien quality that made him stop and review. It... felt like someone else had said it. But there was no one else there, and he was certain he had heard nothing through his ears.
"Duke?" he said, aloud, and felt ridiculous. He shook his head and dried his face.
I don't know what's happening here, but I'm going to fix this, alright?
That, too, could have been his own thought, yet he had the distinct feeling it was not. Before he could analyse it, the feeling was gone, and Nathan felt stupid for his brief-entertained imaginings. He finished readying himself and drove out in the Bronco to the new scene.
Gloria was already there, pouting and grumbling, the baby under her arm in just as grumpy a state. "Vicki's at the Johnston home. I thought we'd left well behind the days of waking up to two murders in Haven."
"Gerald Johnston?" Nathan asked, kneeling down over the body of Merle Bridge and studying the dead man's eyes. He'd seen Merle the other day, same as he'd only recently seen Carla. Haven's population was a lot smaller than it used to be, but he was still relieved that he hadn't seen Gerald Johnston in months. Since before the new Barn, and in fact it was news to him that Gerald had still been alive, after those last frenetic days.
He'd seen Merle at the community hall's re-opening ceremony, supposedly a celebration of the town starting to be put back together.
Merle and Gerald had both definitely been on the Troubled list.
"What if it's..." Kneeling down over the body, he reached for the right words. "If it's not a murder, but some failing of the Armoury. If people's Troubles are escaping, trying to get back in."
Gloria shrugged -- as best she could, holding Aaron -- and pulled a face. "When it comes to that sort of mumbo jumbo, my guess is as good as yours. Seems to me it's as likely as anything else."
"Our best suspect otherwise is a dead man," Nathan muttered. And Nathan did not want it to be Duke. He had killed Duke to stop more killing at Duke's hands, because Duke had asked him, and he hated it. It couldn't have been in vain, that murderous reach extending even beyond Duke's sacrifice, even when Croatoan was meant to be gone.
Gloria narrowed her eyes at him, perhaps thinking on the oddness of the comment, perhaps just taking it as a reference to how Dave had killed. "I've seen stranger things," she said glibly, shrugging the uncomfortable moment off, and settled the baby in his stroller.
Nathan forced himself to set about the rote of taking evidence. What evidence was there going to be, for either a mystical process or a murderous dead man? If Croatoan was using someone new, he told himself, then there could be physical evidence to tie that person to the scene. And he scoured the location with a fine-toothed comb. Then he headed on to the next scene. Everything there was much the same: no real sign of any disturbance not caused by the body falling over, and the only damage on the corpse the familiar black aether-scored eyeballs.
Panic was duller and quieter than the day before. Something was badly wrong, but Nathan did not know the answers, had no leads and no obvious course of action to prevent whatever this was from continuing. Audrey was gone. Vince and Dave were gone. Charlotte was gone. Every resource they'd had about Haven's mysteries was gone. He was... useless.
He came in to the police station -- coffee and bag of sugared donuts firmly in hand after yesterday's lesson, and he'd force feed himself calories if that was what it took to push the panic back down -- and frowned at the reports left on his desk from the interviews conducted in connection with the Carla Jenkins killing.
Don't know what you'll make of this, said a yellow sticky note in Dwight's handwriting. Should be good news, but then ?explanation?
Nathan frowned at the note, then peeled it off and read the reports.
No friend, relative or neighbour had seen any indication that Carla's Trouble had returned. No friend, relative or neighbour had thought her behaviour had changed recently, in such a manner that she could have been keeping a returned Trouble secret, or that she had acted as if she was in any way under some new source of stress.
Nathan sat back in his chair and stared into space. He stirred himself after a while to drink coffee, the probable coldness of which had no impact upon him, and reached for a donut.
Three deaths in two days. Was this going to escalate? Would he have even more new bodies facing him tomorrow?
Was every resource he had to find out what was happening really gone? Those flashes of Duke, if they were more than just his own restless guilt, were they anything he could do any more with? But then Dwight, who had reportedly spoken to Duke after his death, had not been able to contact him since. Nathan didn't know how to reach Duke, if he was even there to be reached.
Audrey... Since she had left, he had never tried to... would never try... She had chosen her own fate, after all, no going back, no point other than to torture himself and risk further contact with forces that had almost torn Haven and even the whole world apart. But surely circumstances such as these called for action.
He looked at the clock on the office wall, the second hand ticking toward midday like a countdown to destruction.
He stood up, shaking. He was unsteady as a drunk as he headed for the door.
This was absolutely something he had to try. Even if the worst could be a lot worse than him ending up looking ridiculous, screaming at a hilltop.
He told Laverne as he walked past her to take messages for him. He didn't know how long he was going to be out.
The disappearance of an historic monument of the scale and visibility of the old armoury had been something for which no explanation was necessary in Haven itself, but to the world outside it had been a harder sell. In the end, Nathan had figured nothing was more misleading than the truth, and marked it up as 'vanished overnight'. "Maybe aliens took it," he'd suggested to the two buildings inspectors who'd popped up a few weeks later. They'd laughed at the line and gawped at the absence and poked tentatively at the ground for sinkholes, and nobody else had ever been back.
Nathan didn't much like returning to the site.
Not just that this was the place he'd finally lost Audrey, after such a long fight. There was an eerie feeling, a charge in the air, like that place they'd found when looking in the woods after the disappearance of Audrey II's memories. Something powerful had manifested here: it left a permanent mark on the soul of the place.
The floor plan of the armoury, starting to become overgrown with grass, was surprisingly small on the hill's brow.
Nathan stood in the centre of it. "Audrey?" he asked the humming air, alive with vibration he could taste, and he could hear the thrum with his ears though he couldn't feel it. This was the place -- a connection still held true, from here to wherever the Armoury was now. "Audrey, I need to talk--"
He hadn't been at all sure it would work. Was half convinced he was being utterly stupid. But the world turned white and too-bright around him.
"Nathan!" For a moment, his arms were full of her. His face was alive again as she ran her fingers over his cheeks. His hand renewed, as she grabbed and held it. His lips--
Sensation wasn't gone as Audrey pulled back. He realised that as had happened in the Barn, his Trouble was nullified by the power of the Armoury. "Nathan, what are you doing here? It could be dangerous."
"Vince can't make sure I walk out of here with all my memories intact?" Nathan croaked, only half in jest. Vince was off to one side, trying to make himself inconspicuous -- absurd, for such a large man in an otherwise blank space.
Nathan hadn't expected this to work. When the Troubles had gone, he had thought that was a line drawn underneath it all. He, Audrey, Duke, were over like the Troubles, over like the taste of magic -- malign as much of it had been -- intruding his ordinary human life. But if he could come here and call out to Audrey at any time...
"We can't take your memories," Audrey said. "But the Barn isn't, strictly speaking, on Earth any more. Stepping through dimensions is always a risk. So I hear." She eyed Vince sideways.
"Are you..." All Nathan's thoughts and plans and practicalities derailed when faced with her. "Are you all right? Audrey..."
"I am." Her eyes glittered. He didn't believe her. What the hell was there here for her, what was this as any kind of life, stuck in this space, in this nothing? "Nathan, why are you here?"
"I need to know," Nathan made himself ask, "Is Croatoan still captive here?" He looked around, wondering if the killer would materialise out of the white space.
"I assure you he is," Vince said. "The old bastard's in retreat, taken up contemplation. Learned it from Duke, I think, after the time spent walking around inside his head, because he sure as hell didn't learn it from my brother."
Dark Duke had never seemed much into contemplation. Nathan shook off the memory of killing him as it asserted itself more strongly than ever. "Someone... We found something. You're sure he's not walking around in someone's head again, out in the real world?" Nathan asked. Vince's assurances didn't mean much to him. Seeing Croatoan would mean more. He barely looked at Vince, though, for all his concerns. He couldn't tear his eyes away from Audrey, here with him again in defiance of everything he'd thought possible.
"Positive," Audrey said, grimly. "There is no way for even his consciousness to slip out of the Barn just like that. This is Croatoan's prison, and we were careful." Her lips twisted and he couldn't help but think that there was something she was not saying, maybe even something she was hiding. But what she said was, "You mustn't come here again." After his responding silence, staring into her eyes... "What's happening in Haven?"
"We're finding more corpses who look like they've had the aether ripped from them. I don't know how it's possible when... when the Troubles are gone." He averted his gaze from Audrey's sad eyes. She had done this as much for him as anything. He couldn't tell her his own Trouble had returned.
"It's not possible," Vince said, finally moving closer. "Nathan, that can't happen."
"Well, it's happening." Nathan grimly spit out the words. "We don't know the effects overexposure to aether has on people. Dwight said he saw a -- like a ghost version of Duke. With all the aether siphoned through him, what if that did something? What if he's still around--still killing but in a different way?" His voice had all but risen to a shout, but his fears finally choked the words into silence.
He'd hoped they'd have an answer, but all Audrey gave him was a bigger question, and news he'd never expected. "Duke came to us, too," she said quietly.
"--What?" He could only stare at her dumbly.
"Before you." Her voice gathered breathless excitement and momentum. "Today. He pulled the same stunt, in fact. He always was that little bit quicker..." Audrey teased, but there were tears in her eyes. "I didn't realise that... something of Duke... was still left behind, or I'd never have just left him, I never would! But he seemed normal. Oh, Nathan, he really did. He was still Duke, he was okay..."
"Damn it!" The rage rose in place of any other emotions or thoughts that Nathan couldn't hope to deal with, causing her hands to retreat from him. Would she have told him about Duke, the thought flitted across his mind, if he hadn't raised that fear? "If Duke's still around, why doesn't he communicate with me?! He was supposed to have spoken to Dwight, before, but I've not seen or heard a thing in all of this time! Months, he's been there--" --the insides of Nathan's eyelids stamped with his dying face--
Something felt like it was tearing inside him. Was it because he had killed Duke, that Duke wouldn't come to him? He didn't remember his nightmares, but his waking thoughts were bad enough. Did Duke blame him? Nathan had wondered, so many times, if that deed had truly been necessary. Duke had asked him but Nathan could have refused. Croatoan had turned, in the end. Duke hadn't had to die.
Three months, he'd thought Duke dead, Audrey gone, both of them unreachable. But they had all been here in the same place in the space of a day. If that could happen, there was still hope. It wasn't over. Perhaps there was still a way for them to somehow be together... and both of them had had some inkling of that, without communicating it to him.
"Oh, Nathan," Audrey said, as if she could see all of those thoughts in his face. "You can't see him. He still hasn't made peace with you..."
"Or you haven't forgiven yourself," Vince suggested tersely.
"Duke... If Duke was here..." Nathan fumbled the words. He tried to reassert some control, reason with himself. This wasn't about him. He had let himself choose love over Haven before. Now, it was his responsibility to rebuild, and he had to hold onto that. "I need to talk to Duke. If he's out there, he could be something to do with this. If I could pass word to him for us all to come back at the same time... would I be able to see him if we were both here, in the Armoury...? The way the rules worked differently in the Barn, before."
Audrey's breath caught. "Oh. That could work. But, Nathan..." He could see her wanting to tell him he couldn't and mustn't do this again, the impulse being weighed against her own desire to see them together. He dragged his eyes from her because it hurt too much to watch.
"Nathan, look at me."
"I... perhaps it's not a good idea. Perhaps none of this is." He forced out the constricted words, and made himself hold up a hand between them to impede his view. He needed to leave, before he wanted to stay here forever, before she broke him again by telling him he couldn't. This meeting wasn't a gift, it was no more than torment. "I... I have to..." He had to go back to Haven and turn the wheels on finding a solution to all of this. He didn't know what he'd do if he saw Duke again.
"If you can fetch Duke..." she said, voice breathy and almost disappearing. "And return... one more time.... for the sake of Haven."
She wasn't made of light, it was just the Armoury's bright interior. But he felt like she was too radiant for him to bear being near her. Then the next moment, she wasn't there anymore. The white light was gone and he was standing in the space on top of the hill where the Armoury had been.
Nathan went through the rest of the afternoon in a daze. He had not lost time in the Armoury, and the time seemed to have slowed for him now. He spoke to some imagined Duke periodically when he was alone, telling him -- potentially telling no-one -- that he was going back to Audrey that evening and Duke should come with him. Perhaps in the Armoury they'd be able to talk. He felt more like he was going mad than achieving anything.
The anticipation almost hurt. The idea of seeing Duke again, of Duke being there -- all this time, perhaps -- to be seen if only Nathan had the eyes to see, was almost too incredible and awful to contemplate. What was Nathan going to say, when they were face to face? Nathan had brought Duke back to Haven after he'd been free and clear and escaped his damned 'destiny'. Then Nathan had killed him.
A breath of air seemed to rustle past him, and in that moment it seemed something touched his face, an impossible feat anyway. He jolted up from his chair -- how long had he been sitting, locked in that daze? -- and repeated, breathlessly, his speech about meeting Duke at the site of the Armoury.
Jeeze, would you shut up about that? The thought slid paper-thin through the back of his mind.
Nathan clenched his teeth so hard something clicked.
He looked at the clock: it was almost time.
He grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair, pulled it on over his shoulders. The habits of years spent numb hadn't eased so much in three months that he couldn't settle easily right back into them now. It was sad just how easily.
"I'm going now," he told Duke. He rubbed his forehead, pointlessly, pressing with his fingers until he heard his bones grind. "...Well, I hope you're coming." He muttered it more to himself this time than the maybe-ghost. He strode out of the office, stalling just past the threshold with an indrawn breath when the door caught on something unseen, or maybe just its new spring, and failed to slam in his wake.
The interior of the Armoury resolved around Nathan again. He wasn't expecting to see two figures standing beside him. One dressed ominously in black, as though Duke had discovered a vaguely goth fashion aesthetic a few decades too late. The other, smaller, wore an ugly sweater-vest much like the ones he'd worn in life, and rumpled pants.
"Dave?!" It hadn't been what Nathan intended to say, with Duke there, but he'd been half expecting Duke.
"Yeah." Duke jerked his thumb, and oddly, looked almost as shocky and nervous as Nathan felt as their eyes met over the smaller man. His eyes glittered as though with moisture (the tears of the dead?) and were strangely pleading, even as his words rose, glib. "Look who decided to tag along."
"You're here." No doubts about the tears in Audrey's eyes. "You're both here." She anticipated Nathan's impulse to throw himself at Duke and cling on, turning it into a messy three-way hug. In the background, Dave pounded on Vince's shoulder as the big old man's lower lip trembled, wordless, hanging more than a head-height over his brother's bowed shoulders and curled arms.
"Dave... Dave!" burbled Croatoan's voice with uncanny delight. "Oh, I do declare! You made it!" Nathan wrenched away from Audrey and Duke, an old sense of panic resurfacing.
He sounded so wretchedly cheerful, like Dave was an old friend, but the expression on Dave's face... perhaps everyone else's, too... caused Mara's father to back off, holding up his hands in a parody of surrender. "Okay, I get the picture... I'll go make myself scarce."
Nathan didn't realise just how tense he'd been until he was sagging after Croatoan was gone.
"Sorry," Audrey said, putting her hand on Duke's face, cupping his chin gently to turn away his fixed stare. Nathan hadn't seen the full force of it until he turned, but there was as much horror there as in Dave's. Audrey stood up on her toes to kiss Duke on the mouth. "I'm so sorry. Nathan had asked to see him, as proof he was still contained, so we managed to drag him out of his projects... I didn't think it through." She added, "He's trying to change, I promise."
"I... don't know that I care," Duke said, his voice almost a wheeze.
"Nor do I," Nathan added gruffly. He reached for Duke. He realised anew that he'd been able to feel since he arrived in the Armoury as his hand contacted Duke's arm through his clothes and encountered solidity, stability, proof. If Duke was some kind of aether-ghost, then right here and now at least, he was solid and real. Nathan froze and stared.
"Breathe," Duke suggested. Smartass, as always.
"Were you in the station?"
"Yeah, I was in the station," Duke said with heavy sarcasm. "Do you know that it's almost like... like the opposite of a sixth sense, that you have there, Nate? When every single time you talk to the air you manage to look in the complete opposite direction from me?"
"Stop it," Audrey chided, her voice aiming for lightness, though one of the tears brimming in her eyes fell, trailing a glittering reflection of white light down her cheek. "No arguing here."
"You wanted us here together," Duke pointed out.
"The killings..." Nathan almost choked on remembered duty, but he managed to get the words out. It was what he'd come back for. "Do you know anything about the killings?"
Duke frowned in a very particular way, long-familiar to Nathan, and shook his head. "Not me."
"Dave." Nathan said it with more of an edge. It had been Dave who had killed like this before.
The old man spread his arms, his face anguished. "To the best of my knowledge, Nathan, it wasn't me... But you know we've been on this road before."
Nathan's eyes flickered unintentionally between Dave and Duke. Unintentionally suspicious.
"I did not do this," Duke said, jabbing hand gestures flying. "I don't think he did this, either, even though he's been playing hide-and-seek with me this whole time we've been dead and discontent together."
Dave nervously blurted, "What can I say? You were pretty daunting at the end, Duke. And I've always been... guess I'm still a coward, at heart."
"Not that." Vince spoke up, sharp and unexpected. "Never that. No... not that, Dave." The taller Teagues brother mustered a grim humour and bolstered himself with, "I know what you have been doing all this time. Who was it always wished they had themselves an invisibility Trouble, hm?" His eyes bulged as he nodded his head manically.
Dave's mouth ticked and he gave a filthy chuckle. "Oh, you only wish you'd gotten to hang around ladies' bedrooms instead of in this white box!"
"You--" Duke broke off the exclamation, looking disgusted. Nathan processed the implication Duke hadn't done that. "You gutter minded old coot!"
Dave waved a hand. "Whereas you've been hanging around in... let me guess... Nathan's house?"
"That's different. We're--"
Dave's gleefully mocking, contrary expression was a reminder how irrepressibly annoying the old man had been capable of being while alive, and in some way that wormed into Nathan's soul and soothed the manner of his death. He watched the soft smile collapse Vince's face into all its many wrinkles and knew he wasn't the only one.
Audrey was smiling, too. "We're all together again..." A feeling of warmth and joy seemed to radiate out from her. In the middle of all the white, it was like she was made from gold. It lasted a few seconds before Vince's face fell, and hers followed his like a reflection.
"We must figure out what's happening in Haven!" Vince exclaimed, even as Duke's hand closed around Nathan's hand and he said, very intently, "Nathan."
Nathan felt the contact like fire upon his skin, senses brought back from vaccuum state, and the intensity of the touch... The expression Duke wore was unreadable, but it changed as he felt Nathan's flinch of reaction and he released his grip with a spasmodic unclenching. Nathan hadn't meant to let go. But, well, didn't that sum up so much?
"We do need to focus," Audrey said, reluctantly picking up Vince's thread. "You can't stay here for long, and we can't keep the Armoury here for long. It affects the world around it... and the Troubles did damage enough already."
"What if... if you took us away in the Armoury? Return us later?" Nathan rasped. Stay here for good, his thoughts whispered fiercely, but duty resisted.
It had been a thin hope. Vince said gruffly, "It's hardly an exact science. You should try driving a transdimensional building! Every exercise risks dumping a multitude of Troubles -- or worse, raw aether! -- back into the world."
"And there's you to consider," Audrey said, her words saturated with pain. "You've already been in the void, you've already been touched by aether, and it's too much risk..." She looked at Duke and Dave and managed a smile to go with the offer: "Both of you could stay, though. Given you're no longer really mortal, and the aether that makes up your forms... It really should be in here and not out there, anyway."
Duke glanced at Nathan and turned away from them both. "I need to stay in Haven."
In the face of Vince's joy, and irritable pantomime-prompting for a likewise reaction, Dave responded, "But, naked ladies! And, Vince, Croatoan is in here...!" He shuddered.
"He can't do anything now. Audrey's here, too, and I can do things. Remember that! Dave, do not tell me you're choosing to ogle jugs over the prospect of spending the rest of eternity with your own brother!"
Dave broke out a genuine smile. "I'm joking, you asshole."
Nathan averted his eyes in abrupt pain as the reunited brothers embraced again.
"Nathan," Duke said, but Nathan's thoughts were full of phantom killers and corpses with aether-smudged eyes. He rubbed his hand where Duke's touch echoed, as if he could remove a lingering itch, though that wasn't quite what assailed it, and said, "I guess we will know it's not Dave if this stops. Maybe you should stay here, too. Better for you, I'd think." Nathan didn't know what Duke felt he had to stay behind in Haven for.
"Seriously, it's not me," Duke said. "Can we put a lid on that theory? How is it that after everything we've been through, we're still back to this?"
His face fell the instant he'd finished the protest. Remembering, perhaps, that he'd gone mad for aether under Croatoan's influence and murdered... But Nathan hadn't meant that. "I just want you to be safe." Duke could be with Audrey, even if Nathan couldn't be with them, and perhaps together they'd be able to make something resembling happiness here, while Nathan had to go back alone.
Duke shook his head. "I'm not leaving. Not this time." When Nathan turned back to Audrey, he noticed Duke had edged closer again and was touching his arm very lightly.
Duke, he thought bleakly. Duke, who he'd killed.
Nathan shut his eyes a moment. He had to focus, he told himself harshly. Focus as he had before, with Audrey, though both of them were here to turn his head now. He still had a job to do. He'd made his choices -- to stop fighting for them, to choose Haven, this time. He had to let them both go. He was Chief of Police again and, having taken up that badge, he had to make himself worthy of it, this time.
"If it's not either of them, we're still no closer to what it is," he said.
"Ruling them out is still progress," Audrey ventured. "We will work on it... separately, as we must." Her eyes didn't leave Nathan. The gaze lingered between them for a long time. He could see the lines of her body yearning toward him.
The white interior was replaced by the gap on the hilltop in an instant. Nathan swore and looked around for Duke, but he still couldn't see him, nor any trace of him.
"You should have stayed there!" he snapped at the air. What was Duke thinking? "What exactly are you gonna do, huh, in a world where no-one can see or hear you?"
Duke didn't answer, not even those subtle senses of an echo inside Nathan's own head. But perhaps Nathan's thoughts were racing and his heartbeat pounding too loudly to hear him.
After the Armoury, and in the absence of any perceptible Duke, Nathan stumbled home. Feeling was a removed sort of concept, but he felt like gravity wasn't working properly, like the world was sliding sideways when he tried to place his feet on the ground. At home, he opened the bottle of scotch that had been sitting untouched since the first day he walked back alone from the absence left by the departing Armoury.
He didn't drink very often, and the bottle did not last very long, but at least he wouldn't feel it in the morning.
In his nightmares, the aether in him crawled up into his eyes and nose, mouth and ears, until he was bleeding it out just like Duke. He could feel it in the same way he could feel Audrey, when all else was numb. It hurt like nothing he'd ever felt, but it filled his mouth and he couldn't scream.
Did it hurt like this for Duke? some hazy awareness wondered. Did Duke want to scream inside all the time, behind those black eyes? Did he tell Nathan to kill him because he'd just come out from that terrible immersion, with the knowledge of what he'd done beneath it, and thought he couldn't face living and there was nothing left to live for?
Nathan was returned to familiar ground, then, murdering Duke over and over in his dreams.
"Wake up, man!" Duke's voice rapped in his ear, filled with a desperate anguish. "Nathan, wake up!"
"--Ugh--" Nathan rolled over and off the edge of the bed, sitting up hunched over his knees. Gripping his knees, he watched his fingertips indent the flesh. He stared at the floor between his legs until his breath evened out, then shook his head. He couldn't catch hold of the memory of what was responsible for the harsh awakening.
He could make his guesses, though: just like he could make his guesses what the nightmares were about.
"Duke?" His voice was rough from sleep. "If you're here--"
Now he knew for sure that Duke could be there, even if Nathan couldn't see him, that didn't necessarily mean that he was.
"Duke, I... You have to know, I..." His voice shook. He had not had time, nor the right moment, in the Armoury, to say all the things he needed to, with Duke made visible and real anew. But there was no reason he couldn't say them now... None except for his closing throat choking him and the hiss of blood coursing through his head. He could say his piece now, for all it would be a one-sided conversation. "I shouldn't have done it. There was another way, there's always another way. I should have stood my ground..."
A strong impression of shut up kissed the back of his mind... The sense of anger flooding through him was strong, and he didn't think it was his. If Duke's ghost was in the room, he was swearing up a storm at Nathan right now.
He was fairly sure it was only his own misery that rolled over him next. Nathan crouched in the centre of his too-large bed, the expanse of the sheets an empty ache, covers pooling around him, and watched the shadows seem to crawl around the walls.
"I am sorry, Duke," he tried again, trying to make the words gentler, more like he meant them. "I would have fought for you, the same way I always did for Audrey."
He just... hadn't realised it until too late. After that, already having given in once, it hadn't seemed to matter any more when the world called for him to give up both of them. At least Audrey was still alive.
He scrubbed a hand over his face and told himself again that he had chosen Haven, and it was the responsible choice, the decent choice, the good of the many...
He had the impression of a sigh, of resignation, and he thought he might have made progress, gotten something through.
His arms on Duke's neck; tight-held grip through unfelt death throes...
It was light outside the drapes: he'd slept through, carrying his nightmares with him past dawn. Nathan switched off the alarm before it could sound. His brain was just catching up to the current state of affairs in Haven -- he had a string of deaths to deal with, all their efforts to establish supernatural assistance hadn't helped, and Audrey had done the next best thing to throw him out -- when his cellphone rang and he realised what was missing from the morning.
Nathan had talked to Cat Anderson in the police station, briefly, on the evening before the first death. A cold fear gathered, wrapping his insides in layers of smothering dread. This was starting to settle too close.
"Gloria," he greeted cautiously, stepping through the door under a scaffold-covered frontage; boards over windows, tarps patching the roof above. There were other people in the room, but no Vicki and no baby. Nathan focused on his Medical Examiner.
She squinted at him and judged caustically, "Yeah, this crap gets me like that, too. So much for it being 'over'..." Nathan glanced sideways to their company in quiet alarm, but she hadn't been too brazen... and besides, these people had to have already seen Cat Anderson's eyes.
He took her remark to mean that the signs of his hangover were visible on him even if he couldn't feel it. He shook his head warily, not wanting to discuss either matter in public. "He's the only one today?"
Gloria nodded. "The idea of this spreading exponentially was looming pretty large for me, too, kid. But--" She spread her hands and qualified, "So far."
Nathan pressed his lips against the back of his knuckles, hiding the expression he couldn't feel in his uncertainty of what it would reveal. "Let's do this."
They processed the scene together, Nathan's movements weary and sluggish. He shouldn't have drank last night. Then again, Gloria of all people wasn't going to castigate him for it. He'd known she topped up on gin at breakfast any number of times when the Troubles were at their worst.
He was heading out again when someone caught his arm. He 'felt' it only when he was moving away and the other person dug in so hard it jerked him back, making him misstep. He turned to the tune of the other person's pissed off demand, "What the hell is wrong with you, Wuornos? Gerald said he even went so far as to grab your arm at the opening, but you walked right on past him anyway."
Damn it. Nathan didn't want to admit to his Trouble, and cause more fear and panic. He squinted at his accuser. Kev Jarvey was the name his brain supplied, its gears working slowly. "Sorry. I've been..."
...Preoccupied, he didn't finish, as the implications landed on him.
"Gerald? Gerald... Johnson?" He could see in Jarvey's face that he was right.
He'd seen Carla Jenkins a few days before she died.
He'd seen Merle and Gerald the day after, even if he hadn't known he'd seen Gerald.
He'd seen Cat Anderson, too, a few days ago. He remembered shaking Cat's hand, feeling nothing.
Duke... his flailing thoughts grasped, and latched onto. How long has Duke been hanging around me, going where I go?
All his instincts rebelled. It wasn't Duke.
Nathan groaned and fell back, staggered by the revelation. These people hadn't touched Duke, they'd touched him. He remembered Carla's playful pat on his face, smiling at a memory of their schooldays, creating a bright moment in the first day he'd woken up to no sensation. He'd shaken Merle's hand as well as Cat's, a casual matter of rote and formality. Gerald must have caught skin, when he'd touched him and tried to speak to him without him knowing, when Nathan had been buzzed and tense and focused obliviously on the opening and never realised the other man was there at all.
His legs gave out entirely, and Jarvey grabbed this time to keep him on his feet. Maybe too late for him, now, and who else had he condemned in the last few days, unknowing?
Dwight. He clearly remembered fingers trailing the abused palm of his hand, in friendship and concern. The next person to touch him after Cat had been Dwight.
He grabbed for his phone, tuning out exclamations around him. Dwight picked up on the second ring, his voice muzzy from the hour. Nathan could hear the clicking of plates and Lizzie's bright voice in the background, a burr of a sleepy question from McHugh. "You're all right." The relief was almost a physical blow.
"Why wouldn't I be... Nathan, what's wrong?" Dwight asked, going from puzzled to sharp in an instant.
"I need you to come to the station. As soon as possible. I don't... I don't understand it, but I think you're in danger."
"I'll -- I'll be there." Dwight sounded uncertain. This was too much to throw at people who had already been through too much, who had thought they'd gained a return to a safer, normal life. But Dwight was still alive, for now.
Nathan lowered the phone and his stomach rebelled. He tasted vomit in the back of his mouth in time to hold it in until he could get to the Andersons' kitchen sink. Heard Gloria shouting: "Nathan! Nathan! What's the matter?"
Him. He was the matter. He'd killed them all. Probably killed Dwight yet. Somehow the aether inside him... It was too big a coincidence for any other explanation. Everyone he'd touched since his Trouble had slipped back on full-throttle, that touch apparently marking them for death. Four people were dead because he'd touched them.
He clung to the edge of the sink, though its metal rim gave no grounding or comfort to the dead nerves of his fingers. The edges of the world frayed and filled with a creeping darkness that he had to fight back. While I sleep... Nathan urgently pulled the facts together. It kills them while I sleep... So no matter what, he could not pass out. He forced himself to straighten, his head to lift.
Gloria skittered away from him as he turned, a curse hissing from her lips. "No...! You--"
Nathan didn't dare to ask what she'd seen. If his eyes had been as black as Duke's had gone for just a moment or if it was only his expression she reacted to. He looked at the sink, and there was no aether stain like tar among the mess there. "I--I need to go." He lunged for the latest man who'd touched him, dragging him to the door by the back of his jacket. "You need to come with me. Your life could depend on it!" Whatever protest Jarvey had been about to offer died in an instant.
Nathan had to save Dwight, save the others. His head spun and he couldn't think. He needed to, though. He needed to be very, very clear on this: who had touched him, in the last few days?
There had been at least one person who'd touched him within the same time frame who'd survived the others, he realised. The young girl at the opening of the community hall who'd given him an improbable spontaneous hug. He hadn't seen her since, but he'd have heard if a child had died. She was a newcomer to Haven, adopted by a woman who'd lost all her own family to the Troubles.
So... then they had to have been Troubled before, too.
He should have realised sooner, he thought, but he hadn't even shared necessary information with Audrey and Vince. He'd been so stupid. His Trouble had come back, in defiance of what should have been. He'd seen all the signs of it. He'd been contaminated by aether, the way Duke had been contaminated, and when had it not had an effect? They weren't like Mara and William's people, who could take it and control and manipulate it -- though it had still got to Croatoan, in the end.
Dwight. Dwight, of all of them, still had a chance of a normal life. The thought thundered in his head, rushing through his bloodstream as he staggered out to the Bronco, moving too fast, numb, while dragging another person, for any kind of grace. Nathan had thought he'd had that opportunity for a normal life, had tried to believe it and live up to Audrey's request that he should live.
He'd tried to make amends and protect Haven, to be the one who put the town back together.
This was too much. This, there was no coming back from. (This, was how Duke felt at the end, pounded the straining beat of Nathan's heart.) Four people dead from some demon crouched within him...
All he had left was to try and save the ones who were not yet dead, before they joined the victims he had killed.
He searched around him for some solace from the ghost, but couldn't detect anything of Duke's subtle reactions amid the noise of his panicked body.
It was for the third time in twenty four hours that he stood in the place where the Armoury had stood, with Dwight and Jarvey and Mrs Henson, who had touched his hand in the coffee shop while exchanging loose coins the day before -- and he could only hope that was everyone who had been tainted by this new, unexplained curse.
"Nathan," Dwight said heavily, hand on his shoulder when Nathan turned his way, despite everything. There was a shrug in his eyes with the sorry truth: not like it matters now. Aloud, Dwight said, "This isn't your fault. Unless you mean to start blaming Duke for what Croatoan forced him to do, too. This is something Croatoan did. Maybe he even did it on purpose."
Nathan nodded, not feeling the consolation, but it was easier to pretend.
"Though you could've discussed things with someone before you started playing with the new Barn again," Dwight grunted, rather more judging.
"I didn't expect it to work. Not the first time." And after that, there had been Duke and the overwhelming experience of seeing Audrey again, and Nathan had not thought about talking to anyone else at all.
"We'll fix it." Pushing forward, Dwight seemed to have dismissed the complaint overly fast, and he quieted the protests of Jarvey and Mrs Henson alongside him. Nathan didn't feel that he deserved such support.
"We need Audrey for that," he said. Uncertainly, he stepped clear of Dwight to call out to her again, petitioning for a third and final time. He thought his legs were trembling, or at least they seemed unsteady underneath him. He realised he'd forgotten to eat last night, and he certainly hadn't eaten this morning. Had thrown up everything left in his stomach. There was a mundane explanation for his weakness. "Audrey, I need you!"
He waited, but she didn't come. Audrey had thrown him out last time -- the abruptness, he allowed, might have been due to her own hurt and inability to approach another long goodbye -- and she'd been adamant about not lightly doing this again. But the lives of others were on the line, and he could not let her turn him away.
"Audrey!" Nathan howled, choking on the end of the cry, his vision blurring with the smear patterns of moisture as he let the anguish loose. He hoped she'd respond to his despair. "Help me! It's me-- It was... It was me all along."
He fell to one knee on a white floor. Heard a grunt of surprise from Dwight and less dignified noises from the other two, less used to the convoluted craziness of directly dealing with Troubles. Nathan lifted his head to see them looking around, agitated and freaked out... by Duke's appearance among them as much as anything. Duke looked almost as panicked as they did, though.
Audrey ran to Nathan's side and fell to her knees. "Nathan..." Her hands clutched his shoulder, his face. "You..." Her eyes turned distant, as though she was seeing straight through him, and she gave a startled little hiccup as they returned to focus, and shock overtook her expression. "Nathan! Croatoan happened to 'casually mention' that he'd seen aether still in you," she said bitterly, "But I wasn't expecting anything like this. Why didn't you tell me?"
"After all you'd done...?" he mumbled, staring enrapt at her face. She was so much more adept with the aether, he thought dazedly, distantly. She must have been learning from Vince and Croatoan. "Wasn't going to tell you my Trouble had come back anyway."
He couldn't meet her eyes. He hadn't begun to imagine the rest of the problems his Trouble had brought with it.
"He's struggling," Dwight said. Dwight was looking at Duke with his mouth partially open, as though he wanted to say something more.
"I know," Duke said. "I've been treated to my own zero-participation experience of watching it."
"...Vince," Dwight acknowledged the looming presence of the taller Teagues brother, and then with a touch more startlement, the smaller beside him, "Dave." It was almost funny how Dwight managed to remain so collectedly calm and polite. Nathan repressed a laugh that would likely have come out rather hysterical.
"I killed them. It must have happened in the night. Don't know how. The aether... must've taken control of me, and I--"
"Not that," Duke said. "It didn't happen that way." Considering he was a ghost of sorts and, well, Duke, it was remarkable how his face flushed as the others looked at him.
"Because you've been watching over me, like some guardian... Duke?" Nathan's voice flattened on that last word as he realised no substitution he put in there would ever fit.
"Yeah, okay." Duke shuffled. "But I can positively tell you that you have not been getting up and killing people by tearing the aether out of them, Nate." A trace of anger crept back into his tone.
"How do they have aether?" Audrey asked, standing up from Nathan to extend her hand to Dwight. "Because they shouldn't have aether to begin with. Are we so very sure that...?" She paused to ask permission with her eyes before placing her hands on the big man's chest, between the opened buttons of his shirt, on revealed skin that could never have been on display in the days he'd spent imprisoned within a bullet proof vest.
Audrey breathed in sharply.
"Aether?" Vince asked quickly, his focus crawling worriedly over Dwight.
"Yes! It's there. It hasn't been there long. It's... trying to reform into his Trouble. Loose, raw, unrefined, unshaped by will or thought... only the existing scars left by the aether that was there before. How could it possibly get there?"
"Because I touched Nathan?" Dwight asked, his brow curling. "I touched Nathan's hand, the day before yesterday."
"Oh..." Audrey spun back to Nathan, sharp as she rapped out, "You're not killing them." Her voice was shaky, distress and alarm raising the pitch. "It's the Armoury that's killing them."
Vince made a choked noise.
"It's not exerting its full power, because it already did its job, but the pull is still there. It's just... passively trying to take their Troubles again. Once their will turns off, once they're quiet and sleeping and not moving... it must come out like a tidal surge..."
Vince nodded, loosing a harsh breath. "You're quite right. The amounts were too tiny for me to notice, but now I examine the past few days in detail..."
"But then the stuff in Nathan--" Duke started urgently.
Vince wafted a hand and sighed. "Like to like... Nathan's aether is keeping him alive, just like yours is. It should have been pulled in by the Armoury, too, just as yours should. That was supposed to have been my function. But... Audrey and I are also part of the Armoury's function, and neither Audrey or I would ever wish to destroy you, or Nathan... or my brother." His expression turned misty. "I had wondered before, and can only surmise that our unconscious desires spared you... and left this disaster waiting to happen!" He frowned. "Now that the Barn is largely in its dormant state, passive will is certainly enough to control such strongly bonded aether, and for our purposes I should think the human will to survive goes a long way. Nathan might experience the same pull as the others in his sleep, but the aether in his body is likely to be mending the damage even while it's exacted. But if Nathan is going to start leaking aether out, willy-nilly, recontaminating others--! Well, that's another matter!"
Vince sounded like Nathan had conspired to do it on purpose. Though he felt numbed anew from the revelation of exactly how he'd contributed to the deaths, Nathan managed a token scowl.
"Hush, Vince." Dave punched his brother in the side, frowning. "Stop freaking people out. I swear, this Barn brain-patch is making you even more of an ass. Will they be all right, that's what matters!"
Duke sidled in to help Audrey pick Nathan up from the floor and dust him off. Duke's hands were kind, and touched him as tenderly as Audrey's did, and Nathan could detect no malice in his touches for the fact of Nathan having killed him.
Vince looked contrite. "Yes... Well, we can turn on the Armoury back to full power, extract the aether from these three." He acknowledged Dwight with a grim smile of apology as a vague wave encompassed the others. "They can go back."
"And Nathan?" Duke pressed.
"Nathan, I'm less sure of. If there's so much aether in him that it's seeping out..."
"It might need Croatoan's expertise," Audrey said. "And he's in a huff right now."
"But Nathan's alright here," Duke said. "Here in the... Barnmory."
"Yes, temporarily," Audrey snipped. "Nathan would theoretically be all right here."
A light glimmered through the darkness, both a promise and a curse. Nathan had been cursed all his life anyway. He struck out for it, half-blindly, fumbling. "...Here... I'll stay here..."
"Nathan, no!" Audrey denied, full of quick, defiant anguish.
"Audrey, yes!" Duke rounded on her, still clutching Nathan's shoulders, making him feel like a bone dragged between the two of them. "He doesn't want or need a normal life, Audrey! How could any of us really be normal, after everything--?"
"Tell me..." Tears sparkled on her cheeks, a host of silver tears in the light of the Armoury as she faced off to Duke and refused to back down. "Tell me that this isn't just giving up--"
"Like I did, is that what you mean?" Duke shot back, and Audrey's breath hissed. "I know that now, and I know what it did to him. You think I don't regret that moment? There was... there seemed... no other way." Duke's complexion had gone pale, but the way he panted and struggled, physically, to frame the words was wholly un-ghostlike.
"I don't want to die." Nathan grit the words out, barely believing the implications of what he'd heard. Duke blaming himself for Nathan killing him. Absurd-- "I want to be with you both."
He scrabbled at his jacket, searching for a definitive gesture to seal his commitment. His fingers and jacket both seemed uncooperative even though he could feel, here. But he curled his hand around the hard edges of his badge after a brief struggle, and he thrust the palmful of duty toward Dwight. "I'm sorry..." Too much has happened. I can't do this job. Can't protect Haven. All I do is destroy it.
"No problem." Dwight took the badge like it was a nothing, an easy burden, the smile on his lips casual. A kind smile. "I was getting bored of retirement."
"Is that enough?" Duke challenged, fierce.
"Goodbye, Dwight." Audrey's smile for him at least was full of real warmth, though Nathan wasn't sure if he himself was going to be forgiven anytime soon. She had wanted the best for him. Vince slapped Dwight on the back, and Nathan opened his mouth to speak--
--Before he could, Dwight and the others were gone. He'd managed to catch Dwight's eyes, one last time. Understanding had been there. That would have to be enough.
"When we leave here now," Audrey said, "it will be with the Armoury switched fully 'on'. We'll take the aether from them safely."
"I'll... go and see to that," Vince said slowly, and pushed Dave ahead of him, away. They disappeared, swallowed up in the white haze. Dave's backward glance at Duke hung on the air an extra moment like the Cheshire Cat's grin.
"Well," Audrey said, a trace of sting in her voice. She sighed heavily and her hand travelled up Nathan's chest to his shoulder as she stepped in close, and her tone softened. "You got what you wanted, I suppose. But did you have to get yourself contaminated by aether to do it?"
"I'd have traded staying in Haven for their lives in a heartbeat," Nathan rasped. "But I'm not going to regret being with you." Wasn't going to pretend he didn't want this. Wasn't glad that more people had died to achieve it, after the carnage they'd already endured in Haven. Wasn't... happy, though that might come later. But he felt being there with them both as a great relief.
"I know." Duke folded him in his arms. "And for me, I won't have to listen to any more of those horrendous apologies without being able to tell you to shut the fuck up. You're an idiot, Nathan."
"I heard you," Nathan mumbled into his shoulder. "Heard you tell me to shut up. Thought you were still mad."
Duke's snort was expressive, though he quieted and allowed, "Perhaps I was a little bit, at the beginning. But I do not blame you." He dragged Nathan's face up between both his hands and moved to kiss him.
Audrey sighed. "Now we're all stuck with each other in this dimension-straddling box, I hope you've some idea what you're planning to do with eternity."
"I've got some..." Duke's voice curled low and seductive before truncating in a distressed squawk. "...Teagues and Croatoan have got their own separate bunkspace, check?" The wild flail of panic wasn't entirely pitched for humour.
Audrey huffed laughter that was only half a sob and relented, leaning in to wrap her arms around them both. "We have the aether to make whole universes inside this thing, once I learn to use it."
She smelled of electrostatic and tears. Nathan buried his face in her hair, his cheek rasped upon Duke's beard, and he thought of being in a place so alien, and yet so uncontestably coming home.