"I am having such a good time," Duke said brightly, ducking under a branch. He watched Nathan's shoulders tense up even further.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nathan didn't turn around; he bent and examined a clump of ferns.
"Nothing," Duke said. "I just thought you'd like to know...you know, how good a time I'm having. Really good."
The ferns seemed to check out okay. Nathan headed carefully down the next rise. "Remind me again who invited you along?"
"Human nature!" Duke followed in his wake, glancing in among the trees for anything funny. "And morality, and, and helpfulness."
"Helpfulness," Nathan muttered. He crouched by a mossy fallen log, running his fingers over the crumbling bark.
"Well, look, I mean, if Audrey and Stan had to go off with old Farmer McGillicuddy—"
"—and left you to comb his back forty for clues all by your lonesome, don't you think I'd feel a moral obligation? To deputize myself?"
Nathan leaned on the log as he got up and dusted his fingertips on his jacket. "To skip out on the restaurant inventory?"
"I hate inventory. I'd rather be Mister Super Law Enforcer, just like you, and suckle off the government trough."
"You don't suckle off troughs."
"I sure as hell don't," Duke said pointedly.
Nathan stomped ahead. Duke followed in his wake, almost skipping.
"Hey Nathan," he said after a minute. "Don't I get a little badge? You could give me the one you wear, from the cereal box."
Nathan might have made a noise, but it could be hard to tell from behind him.
"You can just dust the Froot Loops off it, that's okay." He scuffed the toes of his boots rhythmically in the dirt. "Hey Nathan, are you ever just tempted to pin it right to your chest? It isn't like you'd feel it, and that way you could fight crime and get a tan."
The rigid line of Nathan's spine could've been used to slice tomatoes, that's how sharp it was getting. Like a Ginsu knife. But the view from behind wasn't quite enough anymore.
Duke flung a warning hand out at a thick stand of trees in the distance. "What's that?!"
Probably despite himself—and surely cursing himself—Nathan turned and saw where Duke was pointing, then stared in that direction. He didn't seem to see anything, which was good, because Duke was just making shit up. Nathan shot him a grumpy look, his hair a little damp from the foggy air and falling down on his forehead, his lips pressed together like an exasperated Kermit the Frog.
"Such a good time," Duke said happily. That was one of his favorite looks.
"What about the helpfulness? Deputy?" Nathan headed for a faint footpath weaving through the underbrush.
"Come on. Nathan. Nate. We both know why I'm here."
"For my sins."
"Unicorns. Unicorns, Nathan! I mean..." Duke waved both hands in a spiral around his forehead.
"Traps," Nathan said tightly, his lips going Kermit the Frog again for a second. "Unicorn...traps."
"Whatever!" Duke waved another spiral for good measure. "Ol' Farmer M. wouldn't have put out the traps if he didn't expect to catch any, right?"
Nathan stopped for a second, scanning the surrounding woods with an almost desperate intensity. "He can't just sow a layer of traps wherever he wants! Someone will get hurt." The Kermit-mouth was gone, but Nathan's jaw was tight and worried.
"So you said. But he didn't look too convinced." Duke hopped a patch of what he hoped was not poison ivy. "What's the matter, is the unicorn knocking over his trash cans? Has he tried motion sensor lights?"
"We're just lucky Audrey talked him out of rounding up a posse. Bunch of bored drunk guys with rifles, itching for hunting season..."
"Sounds like a party." Just for fun, Duke peeked into a big sweet-smelling shrub. Nope. Course, who knew what a unicorn trap looked like?
"I guess there's only one reason I'm glad Audrey's off with McGillicuddy and I got you," Duke said. "Since she's immune to all the weird stuff, it might not show up with her around. And I am dying to see this."
Nathan looked like he really wanted to say LaPointe again, but instead he cautiously sidestepped his way down a decline.
"Got my phone charged up and everything. You think Vince and Dave would pay for a photo? Or would they rather have a video for the website?"
"Helpfulness," Nathan remarked to a tree.
"Really, I just want to see if it looks anything like those sparkly notebooks you used to carry around."
"That was—" Nathan checked himself and headed down another faint path, maybe a game trail. "I doubt it."
"Well, what do you think it looks like?"
"A lost goat."
"You," Duke said, "are officially no fun."
He slid down the rest of the ravine on a slick of damp leaves, arms out for precarious balance. A couple leaping strides got him up ahead, and he turned to walk backwards, the better to remind a silent Nathan, "Officially. Like, I have a certifi—"
Something stung him in the calf, a sudden shock of ice-bright pain, and his leg buckled. He fell hard, brush and leaves crashing under him.
He couldn't respond at first—ferns and stems and who knows what were all in his face, he'd wrenched his back, his thigh and his arm were caught on twigs or something. He tried for a breath.
"Duke—" Nathan was there, heaving away the bushes and crap.
Duke took another breath, more successfully this time. "Ow."
Nathan sat back on his heels, a momentary wild light in his eyes already fading. "Thank goodness you came along," he said.
"I'd laugh, but my lungs are full of acorns." Duke shifted in his pile of bracken, feeling awkward and heavy.
Nathan automatically took the hand Duke held out and leaned back with an easy movement to pull him up—but it didn't quite work out right. Duke got halfway up, his left leg folded under him, and he pitched right back down. This time he got an earful of loam.
"You sprain something?" Nathan cleared away another armful of mashed stems and fronds.
Duke frowned. He felt strange, somehow. "I don't know."
"Where's it hurt?"
Arm: sore and stinging, felt like a scrape. Thigh: just a poke from a stick, but right in the muscle, that was gonna bruise up. Back: could you sue a forest for whiplash? But...
"My left foot," he said. "It doesn't hurt at all."
"How about the other foot?" Nathan asked.
"No—I mean, my foot does not hurt. At all." Duke craned up on his elbows. "Can't move it, either."
"Broken?" Nathan moved quickly on his knees to bend over the foot.
"I don't know. Wouldn't it—hurt a little? Or something? Can you break a nerve?"
He watched as Nathan first pulled up his pantleg, then took hold of his lower leg and very carefully straightened it. He stayed braced for pain, but none came. Just Nathan's hands—no, wait. Nathan's hand. The hand holding his knee was cool and tentative. The hand cupping his calf...nothing.
"Something bit me." His voice rose. "I think something bit me! Was it a rattler? Are there rattlesnakes around here anymore?"
"You're thinking of Vermont." Nathan bent over his foot, taking hold of the sock to peel it down to the boot-top at his ankle. His face changed, and that's the only way Duke knew something was there.
"What! What is it?" Duke lunged up off his elbows as best he could, though sitting up wasn't easy with a shifting pile of plants under his ass. He looked at Nathan's hands where they clasped his numb calf, one high and one low, framing something jutting from the muscle.
"Is that a needle?"
"I think it's a dart." Nathan sounded disgusted.
Duke considered a second. "Tell me I didn't."
"Want me to pull it?"
"Nathan. Tell me I did not."
Nathan gave a quick yank and squinted at the little spike held between his thumb and forefinger.
"I did not get caught in a unicorn trap!"
"Of course not." Nathan's voice was far too calm and reasonable to be trusted.
Nathan settled by him crosslegged. "You should make sure to get that disinfected."
"I swear, Nathan, if you start laughing..."
"Just one more reason for you to be glad Audrey isn't here."
"You're laughing on the inside, aren't you." He eyed Nathan, scowling. "Soon as this wears off, I'm going to put this foot right up—"
"I admit," Nathan interrupted, and yeah, that was laughter showing in the depths of his eyes, the constant tension and worry diluted for a change. "You are the very last person in the entire world who I'd expect to trigger a unicorn trap."
"It was obviously aiming for you," Duke said. He looked at the red spot on his calf, now oozing slow drops of blood. "This'll teach me to be helpful."
"Submit a worker's comp form to Haven PD, they'll give you a Band-Aid." Nathan tilted his head. "How's your tetanus booster?"
"All good, no problem." Duke couldn't remember if he'd ever had one. Did they require it for grade school? Would his old man even have bothered? "Let's get going before it rains. See if LaPointe maybe put a minefield out here for Princess Sparklepony." He leaned forward with some effort to tug his pantleg down, then hesitated. Okay...something was weird.
"He better not," Nathan said, climbing to his feet. "He's in enough trouble as it is."
"In fact, if you want to press charges, we—"
"Put your hand on my knee," Duke said very slowly.
Nathan blinked at him, the laughter gone from his eyes, nothing but wariness now. "Uh—"
Duke had no idea just what was in his voice this time, but Nathan knelt back down, and Duke made himself close his eyes.
He waited. Nothing.
"My hand is on your left knee," Nathan said.
Still nothing. Duke opened his eyes, and there was Nathan's hand, the long fingers curved over his kneecap.
"It, uh." Duke reached out himself and pressed two fingers to his leg just above the knee where Nathan's hand lay. He watched his own fingers, not Nathan's, and certainly not Nathan's face. "It's moving."
Nathan snatched his hand back as in the days when he could still feel a hot stove, and stood up. His cell was in his hand without Duke having seen him even reach into his pocket.
"Parker?" he said into it, and Duke started to feel better. Maybe not on his leg where it counted, but still.
"Parker." Nathan bent over slightly. "Parker, can you— Hello?"
All right. Scratch the feeling better.
Nathan hastily pressed a couple of buttons and jammed the phone to his head again, his other hand over his other ear. "Parker! Audrey!"
Duke dug his own cell out and punched into his contacts. His hand slipped at first and triggered a call to Ollie's Pizza & Lobster Rolls before he cancelled it and hit Audrey's, which he was currently storing under O for Officer Friendly. He knew if Nathan already had her on the line he'd only beep her call waiting, but maybe he'd get a better connection and dammit Audrey why isn't it ringing.
"Parker! If you can hear me! We need medical help!" Nathan had turned his back, as if he could create an invisible phone booth around himself. "We're north-northwest of the trailhead where you left us, about seven miles. Tell them to branch off to the west side of the fork."
Duke's call continued to not connect. Nathan hesitated, and for a second Duke thought maybe he finally heard something—but then Nathan pulled the phone down and poked at it a few more times before gripping it to his ear.
"Haven PD!" he shouted. "Can you hear me!"
Duke ran through a few more of his contacts, but even when they rang at first, they hissed and fizzed and cut out—he might as well actually have called Ollie's for all the good this was doing. He crammed his phone back in his pocket, and Nathan turned back from doing the same. Their eyes met.
"She answered," Nathan said. "I heard her answer."
"Sure," Duke said.
"Couldn't get the station, though."
Nathan looked at Duke's leg and then away, standing stiffly. "How is it now."
Duke drummed his fingers on his newly-numb lower thigh. "It's fine. Whatever. My question is, what the hell was in that thing?"
Nathan started, looking at his hands as if surprised to see them empty. "I think I dropped it."
"Just in case the unicorn comes along to step on it after all?" Duke tried to ease his weight onto his other hip.
No answer to that, just Nathan scrabbling in the ferns and avoiding eye contact.
"Why was the trap set to shoot so low, anyway?" Duke grumbled. "I mean what, did he want to catch the thing in the...is it the foot? The hoof? Do unicorns have actual horse hooves, or is it something weird?"
Nathan swept his arm through a clump of wet, mashed-down leaves and didn't answer.
"Course, that's like saying the rest of the unicorn isn't weird," Duke said.
Still nothing, just the noises of Nathan's searching to keep him company.
At last: "Got it." Nathan held the dart up, eyeing it with squinting suspicion.
Duke clenched his muscles to see if he'd be able to tip entirely upright, maybe cross his legs, but the loss of feeling was really affecting his balance. So he just leaned back on his hands and shrugged, like it was a day at the beach in a warm, clear Haven summer. Without blackflies, even. "So let me see."
Nathan moved closer and they both examined the thing, wicked needle tip dulled with a drop of Duke's blood, socked into a wider steel barrel that looked dull with exposure. There was a bedraggled hank of fletching at the base, indistinct muddy brown.
"My pal McGillicuddy is really not screwing around," Duke said.
Nathan's jaw worked. "He'll wish he were."
"Aw. Hey. You telling me you'd commit a little mayhem for your old pal?"
But Nathan kept his attention on the dart, as if he could X-ray it with his eyes.
Duke shifted his right leg as best he could. The right leg, where he hadn't even gotten a dose of Unicorn-B-Gone. He had a bad feeling about those toes. Well, shit. Shit.
"This is ridiculous," Nathan said tightly. "He can't just—" He stood abruptly. "I'm sure she heard me."
"Yeah..." Duke said, drawing it out as a question.
"But I can run down to the trailhead. Maybe someone will be out there."
Nobody really hiked for fun back in here, where the hilly, tangle-wooded parcels of land were jealously guarded by old-time residents with more rifles than teeth. But Duke eyed Nathan—who was practically vibrating in place where he stood, his eyes unhappy and embarrassed—then nodded very slowly, half-regretting it even as his head was still in motion. "Uh-huh."
Nathan seemed relieved, ten pounds lighter, peeling off his jacket and throwing it on the ground near Duke. "Here. Move over onto this, keep out the worst of the chill. I'll be right back."
"Okey doke," Duke said. "Bye!"
Nathan stood watching him, though. His brows went up. "Go ahead, move over."
"It's okay, I can get it washed."
Duke gave him a look. "Yeah, thanks. Shouldn't you be bushwhacking by now?"
But he wasn't leaving. "If you slide your right leg over, you'd have the leverage to lift up and get on it."
Duke swore to himself, and tried to move his right leg without looking like he was making the effort. Nothing. Not just the toes now, but the whole lower leg on that side too, and the thigh and hip felt like they were already receding. His complete failure suddenly washed up his spine with fast, cold fear; he looked up, stared Nathan right in the eye, and just said, "I can't."
Nathan's mouth opened, paused, and closed again. He knelt back down with quiet, precise movements.
"You didn't get stuck in the other leg."
Duke bit down on a choking number of statements involving the words Captain Obvious, and instead muttered, "Well, I can't feel any of it now, so how the hell would I know."
"How far," Nathan said urgently. "How far up?" He reached out, but his hand just hovered over Duke's thigh without settling.
"Both legs now. All the way." Duke tried to shift his weight, to ease the ache building in his shoulders from leaning back on his arms. "At least in a minute my ass won't be so frickin' cold."
Nathan swallowed. His eyes flickered away from Duke's, and he dove for his jacket and dragged it up close. "Better, uh. Get you shifted over."
"I'll do it," Duke said at once. He didn't like the sound of that "get you" anything. Unless it was a cold beer.
But when he tried to walk his arms over, he found he couldn't shift anything else to follow; not just because of his legs—and now definitely his ass, plus his groin, fuck—but now his lower stomach muscles were feeling weak. Maybe that was just in his mind, though. It was easy to maybe feel a little wobbly when Nathan's Decisive Iron-Jawed Cop Face started to lose its moorings.
He couldn't say anything. He couldn't even swear. He just leaned there on his arms, sweating and cold.
Nathan made a hesitant half-move toward him, stopped, and then moved again, his face going blank and stern. He grasped Duke by both shoulders and actually physically took his weight, easing him down to lie flat. The shoulder muscles ached from the release of strain.
With one hand on Duke's shoulder and the other—Duke twisted his head to see—on Duke's hip, Nathan rolled him onto his side. A second or two, with the sound of shuffling cloth, and Nathan rolled him back flat.
"That should help," Nathan said, trying far too obviously to sound firm and certain.
Duke tried to sit up. His abdominals wouldn't cooperate. The chill wash of fear returned, surging up in him, and he knew he was breathing too fast.
I can't sit up, his brain told his mouth to say. But the import of that sentence was too big, it didn't fit behind his teeth, it pressed down his throat and into his palate and muffled him.
"I," he said.
"Parker," Nathan said into his phone. Duke hadn't even noticed him getting it out again. "Parker. If you can hear me— Duke got hit, LaPointe had a dart trap— advancing numbness, moving up toward his heart. We need help now. Helicopter if you can find one, life support. Tell them I'll set a smudge."
Duke heard noises of Nathan moving around, and eventually the crackle of fire and the whoompf of damp branches being thrown on it. He could smell woodsmoke, tingling along his sinuses.
Duke breathed it in. He could still breathe. But now his hands were gone somewhere he couldn't seem to find them.
"I'm cold," he said.
That was what people said in the movies. They said it in the movies right before they—
"The fire should help," Nathan said. He was kneeling down again. Duke hadn't noticed.
"No, I..." But Duke's throat still felt too full to say anything more. He wished he could shiver.
"Duke. Stay awake." There was the Cop Voice, turned up to eleven. "Here."
Nathan moved out of his vision. Noises. Then Duke was slowly sitting partway up, amazingly, without any use of his disappearing muscles at all. He could still feel down his back, and there he felt body warmth, and the pressure of shirt buttons, and Nathan. Sitting up against him, holding him to his chest.
"Okay," Nathan said, his mouth breathing heat against Duke's ear. "Lean back. You're okay. Audrey'll get a helicopter out here. From Bangor, if she has to."
Duke breathed. He could feel Nathan breathing too. It wasn't as fast as Duke's, but it was fast.
Nathan took Duke's arms and folded them across his chest, covered with his own. Duke could see something sticking out from his right jacket sleeve, a twig or a big splinter—so that's what had jabbed him. He'd been a little busy. And now it didn't matter, his arm wouldn't be complaining any more.
"Let me—" Nathan took hold of the piece of wood gingerly, and drew it out. To his surprise, Duke saw the tip had a little blood on it. He was just getting poked full of holes today.
"Sorry," Nathan said.
Duke breathed, swallowed, and said as evenly as he could manage, "Whatever. Nothing hurts."
"Lucky," Nathan said after a second. His voice was brusque.
"Peas...in a pod."
"Right." Nathan folded Duke's arm securely.
The warm pressure around Duke's shoulders was starting to disappear, and he felt an honest pang, wrenching, as deep as the sea. He felt it crest over his head for a moment, and he breathed carefully until it passed.
Nathan couldn't even see his face, but somehow he seemed to know what was coming. "Save it."
"Your breath, I mean."
"That either." Duke did pull in an extra-deep breath, though. It felt good to know he still could. For now.
"Just hang on," Nathan said, all dispassionate Cop Voice again, like he must have practiced in front of the mirror. "We'll get you out of here."
All at once Duke was angry—not bugged, not irritated, and not the sharp flash of temper that helped him keep on top of things, but angry down in his numb belly like white-hot coals that turn the air above them thick and dangerous.
"Oh no you won't," he said. "I'm going to die here, Nathan, and you're going to say goodbye to me."
Nathan's breath was faster in Duke's ear, almost matching his. But then, with an effort, he said sardonically, "Promise?"
Duke almost instinctively rose to it, to answer with the same tone, years of practice making it easy and welcome, but he bit it back hard. Instead, he spoke very quietly, turning his head so it brushed against Nathan's mouth and chin. "Yeah."
"Shut up," Nathan said—and Duke was happy to hear just how afraid he was, Duke breathed it in, warming himself over the furnace heat that was almost all he had left inside.
Honestly, Duke would have been glad to. He didn't enjoy feeling his nerve endings open to the air, rasped by every passing breeze. But he pushed aside his ordinary disinclination with a strong single effort and continued:
"Tell me you'll miss me."
He could feel the working of Nathan's jaw muscles against the side of his face, but Nathan stayed silent.
"Yeah," Duke said. "Thought so."
"Ohhh," Nathan said, trying to rally. "Is this where you start making chicken noises at me?"
But Duke stayed on task, anger and grief still burning in him, still resisting the easy fall back into the fun of the slapfight.
God, he was gonna miss those, though.
"No," he said. "I know that's what you're hoping for. But you're not going to get it."
"This is what you wanna do right now?" Nathan said, as sarcastic as he could probably manage.
"Would you—" Nathan started explosively, but cut himself off.
Duke let it lay for a second, every sound bright and crisp in his ears, the wind in the leaves and Nathan's harsh breathing. The sky through the trees was heavy and gray, and the air smelled of ozone. If he'd been on his boat, he'd have been checking the bulkheads and fastening the hatches by now. He remembered his boat as if he'd last seen it a dozen years ago, with an intense, honey-colored nostalgia. It had been so good there. The bad times were just collateral, a background for the good times to show in bright relief.
"We've had some good times," he made himself say aloud, feeling a little malicious. "Haven't we, Nathan."
Nathan pushed out air between his clenched teeth.
"It was all worth it," Duke said, as sincere as he could manage, feeling the force, turning the screw. The silence beat, once, twice.
"What." Nathan spoke at last, his voice very small. "What do you want me to say." It didn't sound like he had the strength to be sardonic anymore. Even though Duke was the one with the poison in his veins, Nathan's voice sounded lost, like it would trail off into nothing.
Duke had no sense of his body now, except for where Nathan pressed against his back. He felt so light, the coals inside him buoying him up with heat that rose like the smoke of the smudge.
"You know," he said. He was faintly dizzy, and he wondered if this was it. He wondered why it felt so important to say these things, even though he was flushed hot from the effort—why it felt so good to go down into the haze with his teeth in Nathan's throat.
"Duke." Nathan was almost whispering.
Duke closed his eyes and struck. "You didn't have to keep pushing me away so hard, Nathan. Just to make sure I could take it. To make sure I'd come back."
The sound of Nathan's breathing was a shamefully sweet reward: it hitched, uneven and shallow, barely held in check. The cards Duke had played weren't fair...but that had always been the way he played. Up to the end.
"Up to the end," he repeated out loud, letting out a sigh. The heat of his anger was dissolving. He guessed he was done.
He saw Nathan's arms tighten around him, and wasn't sure if that was the only reason it felt harder to breathe. It was clear Nathan couldn't step up to it, and Duke tasted a mix of triumph and sorrow so rich that it felt like it would drown him. What a way to go.
Nathan shifted convulsively, the stubble on his jaw rasping the side of Duke's face. His fast, uneven breath was hot in Duke's ear.
"Please." Beyond a whisper, barely a ghost, formed by Nathan's lips against Duke's skin. There was a deep breath in that moved both of them, Duke's chest lifting in harmony. Then, with a rising effort, each voiceless word clear and distinct and desperate: "Don't leave me."
Duke wished he could even just move his hand in Nathan's. The dizziness was mounting, his eyes slipping half-closed. He struggled against the undertow, of course—but there was also a strange, sudden sense of pride in Nathan he hadn't expected, which gave him a peaceful place to rest his head. He still felt the warm touch of Nathan's mouth to the last, caressing his temple, his ear, his cheek. Then the darkness closed over him with the rough playfulness of waves in a cross swell.
There was a noise—not in his hearing, not really, but in his body, or rising into him through the earth. It approached, slow and deliberate.
His eyes opened.
At the edge of the trees, something moved against the darkness of oncoming cloud shadow. It glowed a luminous silver-white, its mane and tail tumbling down like sprays of falling stars.
Duke managed to open his mouth, but if he could have spoken, he figured it would only have been a string of very inappropriate words. In all the talk he'd ever casually laughed over about celestial apparitions leading people to the afterlife, they'd never mentioned this particular scenario.
His body moved, sitting further upright. He felt Nathan turn toward the figure and abruptly go taut and still, letting out a surprised huff of breath past Duke's ear.
But even as Duke wanted to laugh—wanted to remind Nathan about that one notebook that one time, wanted to say wow look it does have weird hooves, is that more like a deer or what, wanted to ask hey are you gonna arrest it as an accessory—the creature lifted its head, the delicate horn catching and concentrating the faintest glimmer of sun through the clouds. It snuffed the air, swished its tail, and flickered back into the trees. As it vanished, Duke's eyes closed again.
Quiet for a while, then indistinct noises.
"—still has a pulse," he heard Nathan saying, quick and urgent. "Still breathing."
"Life Flight is incoming," Audrey said. Her voice was tinny and blurred. "But I talked to the doctors, I read them the label off the can. They're not worried—it'll just be numbness in certain large muscle groups and some vertigo. It won't stop his lungs or his heart."
"Okay," Nathan said. Then, more to himself: "Okay."
"The stuff is really old by now, too. Mr. LaPointe tells me he mail-ordered it the last time he had an...infestation."
"So, about twenty-seven years ago?"
"There was an ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine," Audrey agreed. She went on to say something else, but Duke was dozing again, lulled by the wry humor in her voice.
After another long while, the sounds resolved into words again, and Audrey said, "He's still asleep. You should get some coffee." Her voice sounded much clearer now. Either the speakerphone on Nathan's cell had magically improved by leaps and bounds, or—
Duke opened his eyes.
"Hey, there he is," Audrey said, her smile instant and pleased. Her warm, reassuring presence spilled over with it, lighting the little hospital room.
"Did someone say coffee," Duke managed. His voice was husky, but all his.
"I was gonna tell them to hang an IV bag of it for you," Nathan said. Duke turned to see him sitting up close to the other side of the bed, one hand clenched on the sheet against Duke's side, his five o'clock shadow on the verge of hitting ten o'clock.
"Stat," Duke agreed.
"I bet they'd let me smuggle some in here for the both of you," said Audrey. "You look like you could use it."
"Yeah, well," Duke said. He eyed Nathan, who regarded him warily. "It's been kind of a long day."
"At least Mr. LaPointe shouldn't be having that unicorn problem anymore," Audrey said. "I think I got it taken care of."
"What did I tell you," Duke said to Nathan. He grinned over at Audrey. "Immune. Nice."
"Sort of a shame," Nathan said. "I would've liked to see one, for once in my life."
Duke took a moment to shift on his pillows, all the muscles in his body once more his to command. Then he turned his head languidly to look at Nathan. Nathan had dark bruised circles under his eyes, and his hair—even as short as he kept it these days—was mussed every which way. He looked exhausted, and nervous, and wound up as thin and tight as a filament of copper wire.
"Yeah," Duke said, and he could see the muscles of Nathan's shoulders easing a tiny bit. "But, I mean, we all know that's probably impossible."
Nathan's eyes searched his.
"Or maybe I mean unlikely." Duke nestled his head into his pillow thoughtfully. "Just because the world thinks they don't exist...that doesn't necessarily mean anything."
Nathan's jaw moved as if he was going to say something, but he didn't. So Duke just smiled at him, narrowing his eyes until he saw Nathan swallow. Then he turned over in the bed to smile more sweetly at Audrey.
She was still smiling herself, but it had faded—and surprisingly, she seemed a little sad as she looked at them both. "You never know," she said. "Maybe there's still time." Then she ducked her head and stepped out into the corridor, presumably toward the coffee.
Duke gazed vaguely at the door, feeling the warm sheets against his body and an itch on his leg. He could easily have moved his hand and fingers to take care of the itch anytime he wanted to, and because he could, he wasn't in any rush.
Nathan was a quiet, distant presence behind him. Without having to look, Duke knew exactly how he was sitting: worn to the bone but making himself sit up straight, waiting for Audrey to come back.
His silence felt definitive, somehow. Duke knew he wouldn't be able to poke any holes in it...not right now.
But Duke also knew for certain that Nathan's hand was still on the bed, just behind him, the sheet pulling between his fingers. Tentative, but close, and holding on tight.