Nathan awoke with a hiss in his ears. It was subtle, but distinct enough that he risked poking an unfeeling finger inside his ear, then when that proved unhelpful, slapping his palm a few times over it, tipping his head to try adjust angle and air pressure and get the blockage out.
"What are you doing?" Audrey mumbled sleepily, irritably. Audrey wasn't willing to kill him, but seemed at the same time to be holding that undercurrent of irritation with him, even if they were finally sharing the same bed.
Nathan flushed, both at the thoughts which came with that, and also because of the perplexed way Audrey was blinking at him while he slapped himself upside the head.
"Got water in my ears or something," he said.
She blinked at him further. "Can you hear the ocean?"
It kind of did sound like he'd put his ear to a seashell, though he wasn't wholly sure that was what she'd meant. Audrey was less of a morning person than she'd used to be.
"Something like that," Nathan hazarded. He gave up. Hitting himself wasn't making a difference and felt awkward while she was watching him.
She rolled over, initially toward him where he'd perched on the side of the bed, corner of the cover across his hip. Instead of getting up, though, she stole the covers and with a groan face-planted in the middle of the bed, all limbs extended, and lapsed into some defiantly-trying-to-be-unconscious state.
Nathan didn't have the heart to poke her awake, not least because her pokes back hurt and she knew it, though he'd have to do something soon if they wanted to arrive at work on time. He settled for deferring the decision until after he'd been in the shower.
The rushing in his ears only seemed to intensify through the course of the day. It reached levels of 'annoying' in no short order. Even if he didn't feel pain, he was still sensitive to being hurt or just plain infuriated by overload on his remaining senses.
At lunchtime, he took his malfunctioning ears in the direction of Gloria, who poked and prodded but mostly did things out of sight that he couldn't feel, leaving him wondering if she'd looked at all.
"Well, there's nothing stuck in there," she declared, stepping back. "You got tinnitus. Perfectly regular problem. Comes and goes, could hang around for any amount of time 'fore it goes. Stick some music on to drown it out if it's bugging you."
Nathan tipped his head and groaned. That didn't sound much like a solution. "Seriously? That's your advice?"
"Don't ask if you don't want it," she retorted caustically. "There's a reason I prefer the dead ones. Goddamn patients, always whining."
"I'm not wishing 'em dead, I'm just saying they don't give any lip. Usually," she added with a grimace. "God forbid I forget this is Haven, after all." There was a loud slapping noise. "Now, get. On with you." Nathan twitched belatedly as he realised that had been her palm on his butt, above where he perched against her exam table.
"Hey, Gloria, hands off." Audrey had appeared in the door, arms folded, grinning. "That bit's mine. Thinking of getting it tattooed with my name."
Nathan choked, and he could tell his throat had closed up and his breathing become laboured at that thought.
"Which name?" Gloria returned, and Audrey frowned and Nathan's mood tipped toward bleak again. Gloria at least was failing to be taken in by the 'Lexie' ruse. Even if it was only half a ruse.
"I still prefer 'Lexie'." Audrey didn't miss much of a beat on the response. "Lucy and Sarah and, wow, Audrey? Audrey sounds like my grandma."
"Which would be bad why?" Gloria grumped.
"Of course it wouldn't." Nathan hopped clear to grab Audrey's shoulders and steer her for the door. "Pending any new corpses the afternoon brings, we'll leave you to it."
Gloria flapped a hand in a sarcastic wave.
Outside in the corridor, the light seemed to hit him anew. "Agh..." He put a hand up to his face. "Damn strip lights, designed for nobody's comfort... Have these things got brighter?"
The initial problem with the afternoon's corpse was that it didn't look like a corpse. Duke slipped in at their side to join them in contemplation of the big, crudely-spherical crusted stone ball in the middle of the isolated road, and by now Nathan was so used to him just showing up when Troubles landed that Duke barely needed to provide, "Mick Rackham told me you were up here. There's another one at the marina."
"Where does this road lead?" Audrey asked, stepping back to angle her head and judge where the road -- at this point barely a dirt track -- was heading up to.
"Nowhere," said Duke and Nathan almost together, then eyed each other wryly.
"There's a song in that." Audrey tapped the ball with her fist.
"There's like two more houses before endless coastal flats where the shoreline disintegrates completely into ragged islands of rock amid impassable salt marsh and the road crumbled with it all long ago," Duke elaborated. "Don't know if anyone even lives in the houses anymore."
A call in to the station and a return call a minute later established that people did inhabit two dwellings in the area. Nathan tried to ignore the ringing in his ears, as they rolled the ball in to one side of the road and surrounded it by police tape. They debated whether they'd need lifting equipment to shift it or if he and Duke were enough to just heft it onto the back of Duke's Land Rover.
"Let's check out the nearest house first," Audrey said. "They're sending a uniform up to guard the ball, but it doesn't exactly seem to be doing anything."
"Early days," Duke said.
Nathan felt a sense of unease as they drove through the isolated landscape. He knew that some of the folks who lived in Haven's more remote parts wouldn't have it any other way, and often he'd found it peaceful and calming to be out there with nature, the land and the sky, the ragged coast and elements, but today... The endless sky: it seemed to fill far more of the world than usual, today, leaving him perched dizzied on the mere slither of the ground below, like he was balanced on a tiny pinhead earth. It was white-over, soft clouds filling the vista, but impossibly bright. It seemed to him that it was getting ever brighter and whiter, all the same. He wondered if a sea mist was starting in.
Perhaps the winter and early spring months had worn him out on any sense of peace brought from solitude.
The house that was supposed to be occupied was isolated enough to take his breath away. The sea came up on either side, sculpting the land out in a jagged chunk that was only tenuously still land at all. They couldn't make their way there by road -- it petered out closer to the sea and they had to leave the Bronco parked next to a far more battered red truck, then walk the last few hundred yards up the jagged rock platform where the house sat.
"This feels like the ends of the Earth," Duke complained, and Nathan didn't object, because it did. He felt as if he teetered on the edge of a panic attack just from the idea of living in this much isolation. He remembered having lost everything, and running from the rest: half the town he loved and called home and was duty bound to protect on the warpath to kill him.
Audrey knocked on the door with the big ornamental door knocker that honestly looked more robust than the house, at if the rest might fall over and leave her holding the old shaped brass. She yelled loudly, and Duke and Nathan both hammered with their fists and added their voices to hers, but they couldn't raise anyone.
"Car's here," Nathan said. His voice came out like his throat was too tight and the declaration felt empty and pointless, but he felt the need to say something. "But who knows where he is or how long he's been gone."
"Might have to put out a missing person all the same," Audrey said. "Since there is no way of knowing..." She frowned at the door consideringly.
"Allow me," Duke said, extending a hand with a piece of wire flourished between his fingers.
Duke was a lot quicker at picking locks than 'Lexie'.
Nathan felt a little better inside the walls of the house. He leaned a hand on the nearest to steady himself as they searched around. He was disadvantaged when it came to decoding physical symptoms, but he thought that his head was reeling and stuffy.
"This guy seriously needs to redecorate..." Audrey muttered, exuding vague horror at the 1970s decor. But there was nothing ominous. A thorough search turned up no corpse rotting in a corner, no unconscious man in need of medical assistance under a fallen shelf of books on maritime history.
It was with extreme uneasiness that Nathan ventured out into the open air again. It had seemed to him that it was hazy inside the house, and outside was all the more bright and hazy than before.
"Sea fret coming in," Nathan murmured. "If we're gonna get a search out for this man, that's not going to help."
Duke and Audrey stared at him. "What are you talking about?" Duke asked. "Looks crystal clear out, to me."
There was none of the taste of moisture in the air that came with a sea mist, Nathan had registered, belatedly. Then again, his sense of taste seemed to be playing up as well. The coffee Audrey had placed in his hands tasted of everything and nothing all at once.
"Just reckon I'm getting a cold," Nathan muttered.
"You're not sniffly," Audrey pointed out. "I don't know, Nathan. It's Haven. Any unusual symptoms make me suspicious a Trouble's afoot." It took an effort by now to make out her words through the hiss.
"My ears are ringing," Nathan argued. "It's flu." He couldn't remember actually getting sick in the last few years -- while he'd been Troubled -- but that didn't mean it couldn't happen. He shook his head again, which still didn't make a difference to the noise in his ears or the veil over his eyes, and made moves to get back into the Bronco, setting the coffee on the roof as he opened up the door. "Anyway, think I am stuffed up. Can't particularly smell much, either."
It wasn't quite true, but what he could smell was an indefinite, pervasive, sickly sweet smell that seemed both generic and all over the place. Still fit the 'flu' theory.
Behind them, Duke tooted his horn to hurry them up. He was in danger of being hemmed in by a large family car overspilling a probably-illegal passenger roster of vast numbers of children. But the Haven police had other things to worry about. "We need to get back and retrieve that ball to examine properly."
That duty would probably fall to Gloria, and wouldn't she love that one?
The way the sound of Duke's horn had cut through the air, clear and true, caused Nathan to experiment with switching the radio on inside the Bronco. Haven's local radio station piped up loudly, and he ignored Audrey's cringe and comment (which honestly, he didn't quite catch). The sound drowned out most of the infuriating white-noise hiss, and that was an unspeakable relief after having had to put up with it all morning.
The music's distraction eased, too, the anxiety of venturing back into all that lonely space. The way it made him feel was also annoying... irrational... Audrey was right there with him. Duke, too, jostling for space on the narrow road like a racer. (Nathan would gift him threats of traffic infractions later.) He didn't know why he should be letting such thoughts affect him.
It wasn't Gloria who found the body -- forensically, professionally -- but the two men she roped in to haul the ball around for the examinations. Nathan got the call halfway to downtown to retrieve another that had been found, oddly, in the lavatory stall at the Mariner's Inn, Dwight having gone to fetch the one at the marina. Nathan pulled the Bronco over to answer the call.
"--What?" The static on the phone line -- in his ears, damn it -- made Gloria's voice barely audible. "Gloria, wait." He turned and presented the phone to Audrey with a sigh. "Can you--?"
"We're going to talk about this," Audrey said, meaningfully, but set the cellphone to her ear.
"What?" Nathan heard, above the rush, shrill this time in Audrey's voice. "You're kidding. So if all of them--" Her face set in a grimace. "Fine. We'll get the others back to you first. We're almost there now." She lowered the phone and passed it back into Nathan's hand. This time he felt her fingers slide over his, jolting him more than usual, as if a more extreme form of numbness had set into him, which that touch cut through just as effectively as always.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"What's the delay?" Duke had pulled up next to them. "I got lunch. I expected you'd be there by now."
"Hungry," Nathan decided with sudden desperation. "I'm hungry." He grabbed a sandwich from Duke's demonstrating hand. "What's Gloria found?"
Audrey coughed. "She had some choice words about her morgue technicians' methods in finding it, actually. The balls of... stuff. They're not just balls of stuff. They've got dead people inside them."
Duke reacted more than Nathan did. Nathan was seldom surprised by anything gruesome Haven threw at them anymore.
"More importantly," Audrey said. "You couldn't hear Gloria on the phone just now. That's not 'nothing'. When are you going to stop dismissing this and seriously question that there's something wrong? Something more than just flu, whether Troubled or otherwise."
"I already saw Gloria for my ears," Nathan protested, although even he could see that things had moved on since then. "Let's just get the thing and get back. If there's a person inside, we need to find out who, and figure out how this Trouble is working and how we can stop it."
"And I'm even more thrilled that I live in this town," Duke announced, flashing a very false smile and patting the side of the Bronco before he handed Audrey another sandwich and restarted his truck.
Half an hour later they were in Gloria's morgue. They'd managed to unravel the one corpse and chip off most of the coating shell that had been around it. The other two were still curled up in their rock-like prison, though Dwight had made some progress excavating the side of a face in his. It was nobody recognisable yet.
"Don't know the identity of this poor bugger, either," Gloria said, patting the shoulder of the first. It was a man, six foot or so in height at estimate, average build, bearded, and his clothes looked old and faded but who was to say how much of that was the damage done by the stony shell that had encased him?
"He suffocate in there?" Nathan asked. He had to squint and listen hard to catch Gloria's responses through the haze that seemed to surround him.
In reply, Gloria's gloved hand gently pried open the dead man's mouth and revealed crusted rocky substance between the teeth that broke off and rolled down the jaw. Duke lifted his hands and turned pointedly away.
"Alright, but what... what does this?" Audrey posed. "What the hell kind of Trouble seals people up in a ball of rock?"
"It's more like a resin," Gloria said. "I got half an inkling they secreted it themselves. Could be off-base, there."
"Like trees," Dwight grunted. "Amber. They're like those insects trapped in amber."
"...Okay," Audrey said. "I've seen Jurassic Park. But they oozed this stuff out themselves?"
"It's a theory." Gloria shuffled.
"A gross theory," Duke said. "If you're finished with my vehicle, I think I'm going for the go-home option. Besides, I promised Jennifer I'd give her some time today."
"Duke, please." Audrey caught his shoulder. "Nathan's not well. We could really use you."
"I--" Nathan started to protest, and fell silent at both their frowns.
"I guess," Duke caved, reluctantly but too easily, and Nathan rolled eyes at him and muttered, "I'm fine. If I can't feel, at least I can work through a touch of the flu."
"--Hey, whoa. You can stay away from me." Gloria took a step back.
"You're supposed to examine the idiot and tell him to go home," Audrey said with judgement.
The thought of going home seized something in Nathan's chest as if within a clenched fist. Home wasn't much of one, since he'd come back to Haven. The Guard had ransacked the place, and he hadn't had time to clean it. Time or the will, truth be told. When he went home with Audrey, it was to the apartment above the Gull. He'd been living in the one downstairs room he'd sort of restored and only venturing upstairs to shower. Right now, it felt lonely, cold and endlessly inhospitable, and the last place he wanted to be, while Audrey was out here, working.
"You just shivered." Audrey's suspicion had only increased.
"I didn't." Shuddered, probably. "I'm not going home. The Guard found out, they'd hardly approve it, anyway."
Duke screwed up his face, and neither of them had any real answer to that. They knew the Guard still wanted to kill him if he wasn't making himself useful helping with Troubles.
"I'm going to the bathroom," Nathan announced, and fled.
Even as much solitude as a moment in private to gather himself was daunting, but it had been a long, cold winter. He'd spent what seemed a lot of it in public bathrooms. On the road, on the bike, in shabby motel rooms. But this wasn't new, so what was wrong with him today that he was dwelling so hard on it?
He stared at his reflection in the mirror. Ran the water and splashed it over his face, unfelt. At least the sound of the faucet was somewhat soothing, blending with the rushing in his ears, and to some extent, masking it.
He had to get a hold of himself, because there was a case to solve. Didn't really matter if he was sick. Discomfort was mostly an abstract. The drag on his senses was merely annoying. The psychological aspects were only a measure of his body's system being run down. Probably it had been that for six months, since being shot and compounding that by sleeping rough often and living on take-out. He should go for some smoothies instead of coffee and try to eat more green vegetables than were on Lexie-Audrey's current menu. Although not where Duke could see him, or he'd never hear the last of it.
He should also get back to them before the length of his absence became something else to remark upon. Being away from them was unsettling in a way he didn't like, a tug of need to be back with them pulling relentlessly at him. He made himself use the facilities first. He probably needed to by now even if he couldn't feel that particular need. He'd used to be more carefully scheduled around such things, in his old life.
Nathan emerged and felt unaccountably cross at the sight of Duke hovering outside waiting for him. Maybe some of that crossness was at his own sense of relief. "You know you don't have to play it up to Audrey to prove how invulnerable you are?" Duke challenged. "She knows you aren't, for a start."
Nathan stopped and regarded him. "How about the Guard?"
"...It's a point." Duke shrugged. He looked Nathan up and down. "Seriously. You're well enough to work without running face-first into a Trouble?"
"Not too many hours left of the day to work now." He nudged Duke with his shoulder, not with too much force (not intentional force) as he passed. "Come on, we need to identify these dead people. Starting with the resident of that empty house as an obvious candidate."
The man's name was Isaac Bentham, and according to the county register, he'd lived out there for the last four years. According to the grocery store that delivered to him week by week, he'd been content enough out there until very recently. "Usually he'd come out with the cash," said Arnold Whit, the storekeeper. "Odd fella, bit avoidant, but you could get the time of day outta him most days if you approached softly. This last week or two, he started pushing the cash out through the door or leaving it pinned in an envelope to the outside, wouldn't leave the house."
The other two victims were easier to identify. Dwight knew one on sight, the other still had his wallet and driving license in his pocket. He was quickly identified as a fishing hand, though not one who had been swiftly missed. It seemed he regularly failed to turn up to work. "And even when he did," a co-worker reported, "you could smell the booze on him sometimes."
The third -- a woman -- was one of Claire's old patients, Dwight told them. "Kathy Rennard. Her Trouble was that she'd smell--" His nose wrinkled. "Claire was trying to get her to the point she could dial it down so she could go out in public."
"Are you getting the vibe that this Trouble is something to do with social ostracism?" Audrey quizzed. "And I'm betting the answers are somewhere out there on those sea flats."
Nathan's stomach roiled at the thought of going back there, but, "I guess we need to interview Bentham's neighbours, either way."
"I'll drive," Duke volunteered, eyes sliding warily over Nathan. He supposed he had fumbled and fluffed simple movements a few times in the last few hours, and the toll on his senses was beginning to show.
Gloria called them back in before they could head out again. "Little bit of new information. This stuff--" Her gloved fingers pulled at the caking substance that had formed the large balls, peeling another fragment clear of a victim's skin. "It's breathable. Relatively breathable. Full of air pockets. They didn't suffocate all at once, especially if the layers of it built up gradually. It took them time to die, might've been any one of 'em still alive when we started poking curiously at these things, in fact."
She patted the corpse's knee with an apologetic sigh.
Duke blanched and turned away. "Shit, Gloria."
Audrey grimaced. "Are we talking days or hours alive and slowly suffocating in there?"
Gloria hesitated. "Hours."
The things had appeared overnight, though, at least the ones in town, and who knew how long Isaac Bentham had been out there?
"We didn't know," Nathan said. "Or obviously we'd have taken a hammer to them soon as we found them."
"Next time," Duke said fervently. Nathan wondered how long they'd poked and joked around with the ball on the marina.
"Yeah? You got your marching orders, then. I don't want to see another of these cross my exam table," Gloria said, and Nathan was guessing, as they filed out, that what she was reaching in the cupboard for was her stash of gin.
"This place," Duke said, hands fidgeting on the wheel as he drove them down toward the flat intertidal whiteness. Grey-white sky reflecting off the sea, and the wet incursions of the sea on to the land, made everything look pale and bereft of colour, add the grey road and even the grass that was yellowed and paled from the salt and sun exposure. "There's something about this place, now. I like lonely areas, but this is giving me the creeps."
"Me, too." Audrey shifted at Nathan's side, the two of them squashed together up-front next to Duke. Nathan felt it as a slice of skin brushed his arm. He thought she was looking to him for an opinion, but all he could see was white, the flat emptiness stretching out in front and to each side filling his senses, that undercurrent of a roar from his ears all the more intense, Audrey's voice tiny beneath it. The presence of their surroundings filled his head and his belly, making the world swim with a psychosomatic sensation of weakness, with the urge to curl up and hide away from it. "Nathan."
"Don't like it much," Nathan mumbled.
"You are weird today." Audrey pinched him, her fingers finding the uncovered skin at the back of his hand and digging in like a Chinese burn. Nathan yelped and squirmed, but was grateful to her for snapping him out of it. The clear and true sensation cut through the rest and he could think again.
"All right, all right! Mercy--!"
"It lives," Audrey crowed.
Duke was snickering, but dead-panned at them, "Kids, not while I'm driving."
They fell silent again, though Nathan resisted silence, shaking his head as the threads of the stupor tried to grip him again. He wasn't good at small-talk and couldn't make himself come up with anything to say, but in the effort to try he managed not to get caught up quite so firmly as before.
Duke said, breaking the silence eventually, "You think it's something like this feeling... that that's what happened... Those people just crusted over and petrified... in the face of the vastness and isolation of the universe? I mean, it doesn't seem like any of them were sparkling pictures of mental health to start with. Not to be judgey."
"Fossilized," Audrey said. "Like an insect in amber, didn't Dwight say?"
Nathan shuddered. "Horrible."
Duke gave him an odd look, but didn't expand on it verbally.
They were drawing closer to another isolated house on the sea flats, though even with the obvious signs of occupation there -- actual washing drying, flapping in the fierce breeze that came in unchallenged straight off the sea, from a tenuously secured line -- Nathan didn't feel the sense of isolation let up. Perhaps it even intensified at this sight of someone so obviously living out there, side-by-side with this harsh elemental world.
"Okay, this is creepy," Duke said. "I'd live on an island on my own in a heartbeat, but who the hell would live out here?"
"Nothing to say it is on their own," Audrey said.
They disembarked and trudged away from the vehicle. Duke looked back at the Land Rover with a touch of anxiety. There'd been no rock shelf foundation resembling a solid ground to build upon here, and the wheels had already bitten deep into the waterlogged sandy dirt.
"Pretty sure it won't sink before we're back," Nathan said.
"Who would live out here?" Duke repeated.
An old battered truck was parked under a lean-to, its wheels braced underneath by a sea of boards, so clearly someone did. Nathan shook his head, trying to clear uncooperative senses, and followed Audrey step-for-step like she was a guiding light. He was... struggling, he was steadily growing horribly aware that he needed to actually, finally admit, because he was shortly going to need help from someone else to function at all. Even to walk, with his clouded vision, compromised already by lack of touch.
Right now they had an interview to conduct, so he would have to hold things together until afterward.
Audrey's knock on the door was distant and hollow under all the static rush. "Drapes have been twitching since we drew in," Duke murmured, "so there's someone in there. Why even bother with drapes, out here?"
A bolt shot loudly and the door yanked open. "Can't surprise a body in these parts," said a rough female voice, cracked with age and belligerence. "Ah heard you coming down that road a mile distant. You the ones been roaring around all mornin'?"
"Mrs Cory?" Audrey tried some audible effort at steel. "I need to speak to you about your neighbour."
"He's been quiet of late."
Duke gave a huff of laughter, and Nathan managed to elbow him discretely, though not wholly sure how discrete or where on Duke's torso the elbow landed.
"He's... dead, Mrs Cory. I am sorry," Audrey said.
The old lady jerked her head, expression stony with a fierce, frightening dignity and acceptance. "Well, the world takes."
"A hostile sort of a world, out here," Audrey voiced, a token note of agreement.
"I like it here," the old woman came swiftly back. "Ma Cory accepts the rules of nature. You listen to the world, stop and really listen to it. That's easy to do out here. It's speaking, always. When you listen, it's not so bleak."
A faint sound emanated from inside the house.
It jerked Nathan's head up. Faint yelling, he'd thought he'd detected. His instincts were attuned, despite the veil over his senses, to the sounds of distress. Audrey and Duke reacted more sharply.
"Excuse me, ma'am," Audrey said, while Duke wide-eyed asked, "Who've you got in there?" A moment later, faint banging joined the voice and Audrey pushed past Ma Cory as the old woman protested, "Don't," drawing her gun out and gathering speed. Nathan followed by rote, planting his feet almost by pot luck. He couldn't see much among the shadows of the home's interior and the veil over his eyes. Duke's hands jostled his shoulders in the tight corridor, then Duke was past him.
Inside the house, stumbling down the hall to the back, the noise there resolved distinctly more into that of a man trying to get free. The banging emanated from behind a closed and bolted door that jumped and reverberated with each pound.
"Someone's locked in." Audrey reached for the lock and hesitated, to raise her voice first. "Sir, get back from the door."
"Don't you," Ma Cory said. "Don't you let him out!"
"Who is it?" Duke asked, bewildered.
"You can't keep people prisoner, lady. Stay back!" Audrey didn't quite train her gun on the old woman, but it didn't seem like it would take much more pushing.
Ma Cory made a noise of despair and disgust as Audrey drew back the bolt. A second later, Audrey was knocked flying by the man the other side emerging.
He was hunched and clumsy, moving like a madman. Moving, to be honest, like he couldn't really sense what he was doing, lunging feet unsteady. He slammed into Duke and Nathan, who held him for all of a second, then he'd torn free and was past them. Ma Cory's boney fingers couldn't find enough traction to haul him back, and her yell of, "You listen to your ma and stay put, Graham!" seemed to fall on deaf -- or certainly uninterested -- ears. He barreled down the narrow space and out of the front door, where he fell sideways like the outside world had wounded him, wailing with a new desperation.
"Graham, you know you don't like to go out! Come back here!" Ma Cory was helpless and shrill. "This is you people's fault!"
"After him!" Audrey panted, picking herself up. "He could be the source of this Trouble!" She pelted past, then out through the door. Duke spun and ran after her, despite yelling all the way, "This is not my job, damn it!"
"Stay here," Nathan told the old woman. "We're going to fetch him back either way." He genuinely tried to give chase and follow Duke and Audrey.
He managed to catch up and keep pace over the smoothed terrain of the garden and the road, but their quarry split from the road -- or the road split from bothering to be a road -- fast -- and the uneven footing of the terrain would have been a challenge to Nathan on a better day. His foot caught almost inevitably and he went sprawling, the impact heavy but unfelt, any damage done a mystery.
One of the figures blurred and silhouetted against the light as he looked up dropped back -- he couldn't even tell whether it was Duke or Audrey. Whoever it was, he waved them to continue onward. "Get him!"
They turned again and left. The sound of their running feet was replaced by the hiss of static in Nathan's ears growing louder and louder. The land and sky surged in, the brightness of the sky all but blinding him, white-grey and terrible. It should smell of mud and salt and vegetation, but it smelled of nothing, no taste upon the air either. Nathan had sometimes felt like a human blank, being unable to feel for so many years. He'd underestimated, he thought, the force of the real feeling.
In the winter, he'd known true isolation. Without Duke, Audrey, his family, neighbours, friends. Without his town and duty. With the very knowledge that all of it had been shattered at his own hands. He'd been bent and broken by loneliness and despair, and it was with him still, hanging around him in tatters that had barely started to heal, that whatever this was sensed and latched onto.
The world receded from him, turning greyer and more distant still.
Then in the far, far distance, a voice cracked. "Didn't escape Ma Cory's notice you're in bad shape."
Nathan blinked and looked up. The threads trying to wrap him, smother and drag him down retreated a little. The light was eclipsed by the crooked shadow of the old woman hanging over him.
"Ah can't pick you up, big lad like you. You'll have to do that for yourself. But come on, now, and you stop lyin' there useless like that."
Nathan got his hands underneath him and pushed off, prying up onto his knees. The ground made more noises that were... grounding, soft snicks and squelches. There was moisture on his clothes, on his knees, on the side of his jacket where he'd landed. He could, just faintly, smell the dampness.
"There, now," Ma Cory said as he staggered to his feet, and reached to grip his hand in her boney claw for a moment -- but no, he couldn't feel her. Even so, right then she was more real than anything, driving the light and noise away. "You come back with me, to wait for your friends. Come on, now." And she walked him back across the dizzyingly paled-out sea flats until his feet struck solid road again and the world made a little more sense, but she still kept walking him back to the small house, where she led him inside and the land retreated again from his view. He was covered again by the comforting darkness and shadows of what had previously been her rather ominous home.
He daren't ask if the mist had come in during the ten minutes he'd lain on the ground. He was afraid -- no. There was no mist. This was him. Something had taken hold, and they needed to stop it before...
Could he end up like those other people? Was this that Trouble? What had they said about it? Crusted over and petrified in the face of the vastness and isolation of the universe... not that any of them were sparkling pictures of mental health to start with... Duke's voice rang in his head and he scowled. He didn't want the stark vulnerability of having been vulnerable to this Trouble. Not and having Audrey and Duke know it.
He hunched in a high-backed chair in Ma Cory's cramped living room. There was enough life here to drive the shadows back, even if it was weird, smelly, Technicolour life that looked as though it might be supporting microcosms of more life. There was a stuffed bear's head mounted on the wall crooked, staring at him, looking like it was slowly being eaten by some infestation. The armchair he was sitting in cracked and rustled alarmingly when he moved. Elsewhere in the room, only the tiniest of paths had been left open between covered tables and dressing tables and propped-up pictures and tea-trays and other junk, and every surface seemed to be covered. Though there were a few pictures leaned on the floor, the walls were mostly bare.
"Here." Ma Cory pressed a cup of tea into his hand, and he could smell it, and taste it when he lifted it to his lips. "You get that inside you." She didn't comment on hot, but she was raising a cup to her own lips with disdain, so either she had her own asbestos mouth or she'd topped up the mugs with cold water.
"Thanks for the rescue," Nathan managed. "Out there--"
"My son don't like it," she hissed, half-whispered like a confession.
"That was... your son?"
Nathan could also smell her, as she got up close, and the mix of her and the wider room almost made him wish that sense hadn't returned. No wonder Duke and Audrey's faces had been a bit wrinkled earlier.
"Graham." She pronounced it 'Graaam'. "Your friends..." Her throat clicked in agitation. "Disturbed him. They gotta bring him back! But he don't like it. Started having fits when he went outside. Says it's this place that's bad, but I say it ain't the place, it's inside him. Ma's only been protecting him from himself."
"How long?" Nathan managed, though the shadows were pressing in again. That was her son she'd kept locked up?
"Better his ma takes care of him than some institution. I like it here. Nothing like the peace. He's mad, you see? You have to understand. You can listen to it, the land around here, and it'll tell you everything you ever need to know." Her bony hands gripped his shoulders, leaning in above him over the chair. Nathan could see the grip of hooked, wrinkled fingers disturbing the line of his clothes, piercing deep. She should've been a threatening shadow, dark and cold and brittle -- clearly, clearly as looney as a toon. But instead she drove back other shadows, the mist and white noise in his vision and ears. She was ancient, but seemed to exude life-force.
"How... when did it start?" Nathan tried again. "With Graham?"
"Six months past, he came to live here, since he was left by his thrice-damned wife." The old woman spat. Her grip clenched tighter, but Nathan couldn't feel it, so stowed complaint.
"And it happened slowly... from the start of that six months?" he puzzled.
Nathan frowned. Hard to say if this was a Trouble that had built up to a saturation point or if it was one of the new Troubles that spread to infect other people. At any rate, Graham Cory hadn't petrified himself.
There was a commotion, and the sound of a door, voices, and more commotion, then Duke burst through into the room, his stance rangy and hands posed as though prepared to fight.
"Really? You're gonna wrestle the old woman to the ground?" Nathan asked.
"Oh, thank God," Duke said, with almost palpable relief.
"Nathan?" Audrey's voice shouted from still around the corner. "Is he there?!"
"He's here!" Duke shouted back. "He's just fine... Is that an old airplane engine in the corner?"
Nathan wasn't sure he was 'fine', but for a comparative state, he'd accept the description. Ma Cory had stopped leaning over him and turned her fierce attention onto Duke. "Where is he? Where's my boy Graham?"
"Her son," Nathan said quickly, hoping to provide explanation. "She's been taking care of him. He suffers from... some kind of an agoraphobia condition, I think, in recent months."
"Right? Hey... lady, watch it." Duke flailed as Ma Cory tried to get her iron grip on him.
"Nathan!" Audrey yelled. "Come hold this guy!"
Nathan managed to get up from the hard armchair --it turned out something of a feat -- and made it to the door jamb, sidling past Duke and the old woman. His vision was blurring, but he could make out Audrey with Graham in the corridor. He thought from the way he held his arms that the man was cuffed, though he seemed docile right now.
"Just keep an eye on him while I--" Nathan caught the jerk of her head, but whatever she did with her face was too much fine detail for his ailing vision. As soon as he'd got a hold on the guy, Audrey shot off to raise her voice at the old woman and Duke. "Hey! Ma'am, you need to get off him, now."
"Not like it's assault on an officer," Nathan muttered reminder.
"Ma'am, your son needs to be examined by a doctor. He's not tracking and I don't know what's wrong with him. He may need to be taken care of for a while..."
"He's better off with his ma! I been taking care of him long enough!"
Nathan winced as the two female voices rose in argument. But if Graham was the Troubled one, they needed to try talk him down in a controlled environment. Ma Cory's interjections and methods weren't going to help with that.
"We can't be too harsh on her," Nathan said, hunched over in the back of Duke's truck. The hum of the car competed with the hum in his head. "She saved my bacon, out there, after a fashion." He felt cocooned. The mists were drawing around him again. He only had the smallest radius of world left that he could see and hear, and even that small portion was smothered and strange. Since he'd got into the vehicle, he wasn't sure he could get out again and stand and walk upright unaided.
Audrey was sitting with the suspect -- Trouble-suspect -- in the front, while Duke drove. The landscape outside the windows was almost only shifting greyness to Nathan. He should say something, he thought. Ma Cory hadn't -- hadn't said what state she'd found him in or otherwise commented. She had left him his dignity, was what he'd thought at the time. Now he opened his mouth, wanting to say, Help me, or, I think I'm in trouble, or This thing, I think it has me, and he found that he couldn't. And he wondered if she had known this, too.
He was always quiet. Would they even question him being quiet? Did he need to speak at all? Audrey was back. Audrey was the one who solved Troubles. His only purpose here was supposed to be to die... and she wasn't going to let him do that.
A sound finally emerged from the back of his throat, like a soft grunt.
"That the thought for the day, Nathan?" Duke tossed back over his shoulder, as if attuned to all Nathan's most pessimistic thoughts. Duke always joked around about Nathan's silence and shortcomings.
It doesn't matter. A spark of hope lit within him anyway. Audrey has Graham, she's going to have this fixed once we get back to the station.
"Nathan?" Duke pressed, with a slightly warier note, though it sounded like he was speaking through a very long tube, hollow and far away.
"He's--" He thought Audrey was leaning back, looking at him. "Oh, shit. No, damn it, Nathan!" Hands on him, sensation bleeding through the cocoon of haze. The drips of her touch filtered through.
"What?" Duke was trying to focus on driving, and the crazy old woman's crazy son came alert with a cry and started wrenching at the wheel.
"He's got that -- stuff--!" Audrey, hand still on Nathan, tried to grab for Graham as well. Nathan was jolted by her words into blinking, which made him realise all that space of seconds or minutes had passed where he hadn't blinked at all. Unfelt flakes fell away from his eyes. Crusted...?
Nathan was automatically reaching out to help Audrey by grabbing onto Graham Cory, but when he looked down at his hands, he could see they had a patina of grey overlaying them, that the texture would be roughened and stone-like if he could feel it at all.
Petrified... Fossilized... He heard the echo of Duke and Audrey's competing voices.
Heard Audrey, in the now, say, "Nathan, do not do this to me!" Graham's struggle had become more frenetic. Nathan heard Duke swear and then the vehicle lurched and tipped, and for a moment severely reduced senses reduced all the more, to none.
He heard the soft, damp noise of movement over the waterlogged ground. He was still veiled by darkness. His eyes were -- open. He pulled his arm back from over his face.
"Nathan!" Duke's hands, unfelt, were on him. Duke was pulling at his arms, too. They were outside of the Land Rover, with no shield between him and the bare, raw landscape. Duke was like a looming grey shadow, recognisable by his hair. "Nathan, you need to snap out of this!" His voice sounded like he was underwater.
The doors of the Land Rover, a matter of ten feet away, were open. Audrey was struggling with the manic Graham on the ground.
"Help her," Nathan managed to get out, the thought beating the haze, the words coming out chewed and mangled.
"Duke--!" Audrey's frustrated cry echoed the sentiment, as Graham slipped their grip. They both fell in the soft, sandy turf, but he was loose and was back on his feet and moving before she could grab him. She surged after him with a curse.
"Forget the guy!" Duke yelled, always contrary. "We need to fix Nathan."
"Maybe we need the guy to fix Nathan!" Audrey yelled back. "I need to talk him down!"
"No, this is -- it's -- I'll bet anything this has latched onto something from this last winter. Audrey, that's something that isn't even real anymore! We can break this. He's not like the others. He's not alone."
Nathan blinked. He thought he had something in his eyes.
"You see this?" Duke was pawing at his hands, dragging them into his line of sight. The grey coating was thicker, and it crumbled and fell away when Duke moved him, but rebuilt, replaced, as though it seeped out through his skin. Nathan kind of wondered what that would have felt like. "This is what's going to happen if you don't snap out and stop this. I mean, we can keep chipping you out again, but for how long? I guess Gloria was only half right about being able to save those others if we'd acted sooner. Come on, Nathan! You know better than this. Audrey's here -- you have her back now--" He groaned, evidently as Audrey took off after Graham. "Dammit, Audrey!"
Audrey's a cop, Nathan pointed out, though he couldn't seem to wrap his lips around saying it. They didn't want to obey him. Duke's hands rose to his face and pulled back shedding crumbling grey flakes.
"Keep trying," Duke urged. The panic in his face and voice was blurred, but Nathan could still tell it was panic.
Duke, I don't know if you can do this by talking down the victims. Maybe you should just help Audrey, Nathan tried.
"You're gonna be all right. I'm not letting this happen. I mean, this would be freakin' easier if I was blonde and five-four, but--" Duke either hadn't heard, or he had and was just contrary as ever.
Nathan stared at Duke's hands gripping his hands.
"Since when are you scared of, basically, Haven's coastal landscape, anyway?" Duke challenged. "Sure, add the bodies and it takes on a spooky edge, but that's not you, that's Graham's projected fears, or whatever. Spiralling out into the ether and finding whoever's feeling any analogous loneliness and despair to hook it into... And you're not alone," Duke added. "So much not alone, in fact. Aren't you boning Audrey now? You can feel that, too, you dog. I'd think that would be hell of an exciting 'not alone'. Right? C'mon!"
Nathan watched through blurry slit-eyed view as Duke determinedly brushed the crusted coating from his hands. A little of it had crept onto Duke's fingers, and stuck there. The other man's brushing got a bit more frenetic and he stared at it in dismay.
No... Something inside stirred and kicked and fought back. "Audrey's... it doesn't mean anything anymore." His voice was choked and small, but there. "I destroyed Haven for it. I'm supposed to put everything right. Yet she won't..."
"No shit." Duke was visibly distracted. "Hey, is this thing transferable?" He flicked his grey fingers. "Okay... wait, get a grip, Crocker. Nathan. I hate to tell you this, but reducing your relationship with your girlfriend -- partner-- to your crappy guilt and no more, does not make for a healthy relationship. Not that I'd -- anyone -- was particularly expecting that, after everything that's happened. But you need to deal with that, buddy."
"Shut up," Nathan grumped. He shook his head. A few more of the smothering threads fell away.
"Have you ever talked to her about how bad that six months was?" Duke grimaced. "Not that you told me how bad it was, but I saw -- and smelled -- the tail end of it, which I am guessing was not the worst of it. In fact, having been out alone in the world myself the odd stretch, I'm guessing there's stuff in there you plan on never telling anyone."
Nathan glared at him, but Duke just went po-faced and looked back in challenge, his greyish fingers still fidgeting. Nathan turned over and started to lever himself more upright, and only then registered how he'd been twisted up on the ground... the same way the others had been twisted inside their rocky prisons. He hacked a sudden cough and grey crumbles fell from his lips. He hadn't registered struggling to breathe, either.
"That's it," said Duke, his eyes lit with fervour. "Nathan, you can fight this. None of those people, none of them had anyone with them."
"And you're... supposed to count as a help?" Nathan cracked, intending jest.
"I am always a help... much to my distress. Don't advertise it."
A sudden approach of running feet pounded to a halt just outside of Nathan's vision. "We need-- Is he--? Nathan, are you okay?!" Then, Audrey was down on the ground, hands dragging at him, covering his arms, his face. He felt the grey crust fall away under her touch. "I don't understand. The people this hit, they were all isolated, damaged, desperate..."
"He's gonna be fine," Duke said, starting to get up from his knees. "He had a shit winter. I'm guessing that's what this hooked into. But there's no reason he has to feel alone now."
"Graham?" Nathan grunted, diverting.
"He's -- we need to get a search out and look for him. Ma Cory's going to have Haven PD's hide. Nathan, if this thing hit you, if your feelings were that strong, you should probably be talking to someone."
Nathan groaned. "I'm fine... Duke, wait." He grabbed past Audrey, to reclaim Duke's hands. Determinedly, he worried at the patch of grey left on the ends of Duke's fingers, watching it and working at it until his rubbing had wiped it clear. "Dust," he asserted, with weary resignation and relief. "It was just dust, Duke."
They were sitting in a non-corpse strewn room of the morgue after Gloria's exam of (a non-corpse) Nathan when word came in from the extra manpower Audrey had called out to the search that Graham Cory had been picked up. "Well, that's something at least," she said, coming off the phone. "I guess I need to talk to him... or possibly steer him to more professional help. I wish Claire was still around."
For more than just practical reasons. Her eyes grew misty. Nathan reached out to touch her arm.
"Maybe just being away from that place will help," he said.
"We make our own prisons," Gloria said, tapping her head. Nathan wasn't entirely sure that remark wasn't sharply aimed at him.
But Audrey responded, "His mom made him a prisoner there. He wanted out."
"In fairness, I think what she's saying is more the idea of the world being ranged against the individual is a construct of the mind," Duke said, waggling a finger at his own head. "Like the way you can decide you're all alone despite having a fantastic girlfriend and a best buddy who'd jump into an exploding supernatural barn on your entreaty -- and I still can't explain that." Duke huffed as he bounced a comradely fist off Nathan's shoulder.
"Thanks," Nathan said wryly.
"Are you feeling more normal again?" Gloria asked.
"More or less." Still numb in body, but not sight, sound and... soul. Nathan rubbed at his forehead. The constant noise in his ears was a low hiss that might only be the air con. His vision seemed... normal? Fluorescent lighting never did any favours for the eyes. He could smell and taste the disinfectant in the air well enough. "It's funny. While it was happening, it's as if I couldn't talk about it, admit it for what it was. Even to me."
"Well," Duke said. "When we construct the world as intrinsically against us, talking doesn't seem like something that's going to help."
"Huh," said Gloria. She pushed another mug of hot coffee in front of Nathan. "I topped it up with something," she told him with token conspiracy. "Me, I'm thinking maybe I won't bother with the coffee."
Duke held out his empty mug.
"Ain't you the designated driver?" Gloria vetted him with an arch eyebrow and found him wanting.
"I hate being the responsible one," Duke declared, "and I blame all of you."
Nathan chuckled, and sipped Gloria's doctored coffee. Audrey came up behind him and slipped her hands around into his jeans pockets. Pressed her face against the side of his to create a pool of sensation there. "It's almost seven, and we're so into overtime there's no question of having earned a night off," she said. "Besides, we need to talk. Duke says you've probably got a few stories to tell me about your winter. I probably should have asked sooner."
Nathan groaned inwardly at the soft concern in her voice. Outwardly, his lips froze and no noise wanted to arise from him. He struggled to draw in a breath, and when it finally came, swallowed hard.
"It was long," he said. "Long, and lonely. Not much there worth talking about."