"Come on, Nathan. Let's get you cleaned up." Duke nudged Nathan towards the diner, eyeing the carefully-applied coat of blue housepaint that almost hid the wear and tear that came with a thousand bikers and truckers regularly visiting the little roadside restaurant on the wrong side of every track known to New England. He supposed that even the most run-down of places had to have some hot water to spare. And Nathan did smell like shit.
As Nathan pulled open the diner's creaking door and stepped inside, something tugged at Duke's memory. In the rush of reunion and the desire to get Nathan at least looking like his former self, he felt as if he'd forgotten something. He stopped short, one foot already over the threshold, and half-turned--
--only to run right into Jennifer, bringing up the rear, a hair's breadth behind.
She yelped and jumped backward, stumbling just enough to have Duke reaching out to steady her. "Sorry, I--"
"No, no, it's fine, it was my f--"
"Really, I didn't see--"
"No, honestly, it was mine."
For one long, awkward moment, they stood still, limbs as tangled together as Duke's thoughts, until Jennifer righted herself and gently pushed Duke away, smiling that slightly manic smile that had Duke wondering, not for the first time, if she could somehow hear even the things he wasn't saying.
"I think I should get some supplies. Gas for the truck. Some food, maybe. Give you two some-- some time." Jennifer glanced over Duke's shoulder, her expression saying everything she didn't.
He wet his lips, scrubbed a hand over his chin. "It's--"
"--Complicated. Got it." This time, when she smiled, she seemed far more at ease. "Keys?"
"What? Oh, yeah, sure." Duke fished them out of his pocket and handed them over along with her twenty. "Thanks." He tried to return her smile, but the idea that Nathan might be rushing out the back on some hell-bent race to find Audrey was enough of a distraction to keep even the most charming of his grins in check.
Jennifer closed her fingers around the keys and bill, and tipped her head to the side. "I'll be back in an hour, let's say?"
Duke glanced behind himself, relieved to see Nathan lingering only a few steps further inside, waiting for him. He turned back to Jennifer. "Make it two."
She touched his shoulder, letting her fingertips trail down his bicep as she nodded. The touch turned into a nudge, and then she was gone in a flutter of skirts and good intentions.
Turning back to the diner, Duke stepped fully through the doorway and let his eyes adjust to the gloom.
The inside was dim, musty, and didn't smell a lot better than Nathan, but now that Duke's attention was all on him, he came back to life, making a beeline towards the back. Duke was dubiously reassured that he seemed to know where he was going, as Nathan nodded at an impressively tatted up woman behind the bar who smiled faintly at him as he brushed by her on his way to a door marked "Private."
Even as the door swung open and shut behind Nathan, the woman's gaze turned towards Duke. There was a wariness there that spoke of sizing him up and knowing what kind of person he was. Trust Nathan to be able to charm the suspicious ones, the ones that saw something of themselves mirrored in Duke and instinctively knew not to be taken in by his wiles.
Yet if Duke squinted, he could almost imagine her tattoos were moving a little. Not a lot, just a sail swaying gently in the wind here, a wave rocking softly against a bow there. He could feel the corners of his mouth tugging upward. She wore the same suspicious look that seemed to be permanently stuck on Dave's face, and the same weathered-in wrinkles and waving, greying hair that made Vince look decidedly like the kindly grandfather he was not. Maybe she was distantly related to the Teagues. Maybe he should give Vince and Dave a little head's up, let them run a quick check or two, see if they had a long lost sister.
"What're you looking at, ponytail?" The woman glared at him as she rubbed a cloth over the beer glass in her hand, smearing the clinging droplets of water into a thin, moist sheen across its surface.
Maybe not. The last thing this world needed was another Teague. Duke grimaced in imitation of a smile, shifting carefully around her when it was clear she wasn't going to give way. "I'm, uh, with him," he muttered as he slipped past her glower and through to the back room.
Behind the bar was about as pleasant as in front of it: stacks of boxes, some half-open, most closed; a spare chest freezer, humming away to itself in a corner; dusty cups and plates and empty bottles, the flotsam and jetsam of restaurant work; and beyond them, a beaded curtain, still swaying back and forth, marking the boundary of a small living space wedged in tight.
Crossing through the storage area to the not-quite-apartment, Duke held the strands of the curtain away from his face, avoiding all but the smallest sting of plastic bead and thread as a rogue chain slapped against his forehead. He felt his eyebrows arch and retreat as he looked over the little room. Nathan was digging through a duffel resting on a small, sagging cot, a bar fridge nestled at its foot. Opposite the cot sat a folding chair and tiny table with a few more taped-up boxes shoved underneath. Duke could see the corner of a tub and toilet through another tucked-away doorframe, and someone had tried to inject a little warmth into the room with an ancient radio and a bottle holding now-dry daisies, both resting on the beige carpeted floor.
"How long have you been living here?" It wasn't like Nathan couldn't handle rough, but it seemed so strange that he'd hidden out here when there were plenty of cushy places he could hole up. Hell, it wasn't like anyone would have even raised an eyebrow if he'd taken the Cape Rouge and made a clean getaway. And it wasn't as if Duke would have been around to object.
Or suggest it, he supposed. If there was one thing the scene outside had made clear, it was that Nathan was busy indulging in one of his favourite pastimes: punishing himself. No doubt this palatial estate played right into that narrative.
"Hmm? A couple days. I was thinking of moving on soon. Keep going." Nathan didn't even raise his head as he answered, leaning over slightly as he dug deep for what Duke hoped was a clean shirt. The hem of the ragged one he was wearing right now rucked up with each movement, and Duke caught flashes of dark bruising, some old and aging, some fresh and new.
"Ah, God, Nathan. Stop. Stop, stop, stop what you're doing." Duke closed the distance between them, reaching out and curling a hand over Nathan's shoulder, tugging him away from the bag and gently turning him around. "You might not be able to feel all those bruises, but I can. Let's get you out of this, ok?" He winced as he pulled the shirt upward, revealing more bruised than unblemished skin.
For his part, Nathan stood stock-still, doing nothing but raising his arms as the shirt slid over his head, watching Duke undress him. As Duke tossed the shirt onto the bed, just missing the duffle, he looked up to see Nathan grinning at him like a fool.
"What? I--" Duke didn't manage a breath more before Nathan's hands were cupping his face, holding him tight as he pressed his lips against Duke's.
The pressure was all wrong, Nathan's grip too tight, his teeth clacking against Duke's as he deepened the kiss, his out-of-control beard scraping like sandpaper, the beer and blood doing nothing to cloak the moist, sour tang of something like mushrooms, the stink of salty sweat wafting upward from his remaining clothes. But all the same, every bit of it was absolutely right: Nathan's fierceness, his single-minded focus, the heat of his body, the feel of each curve of muscle and puckered scar under Duke's fingers. Duke groaned as Nathan's tongue flickered against the edge of his teeth, grazing his own tongue, exploring Duke's mouth as if he'd never known it the thousand and one times they'd complicated things before. Duke slid his arms around Nathan's back, tracing the curve of his spine, the bumps and nicks, new and old, determined to relearn and feel each part of Nathan even if Nathan could not.
He groaned when Nathan finally broke the kiss, rock hard and wanting in ways they simply didn't have time for right now. And a quick glance downward confirmed he wasn't the only one impatient for more.
It felt like an inhuman effort to unwind from Nathan, pressing his palms flat to his chest. "Nathan. Nate. Not now, ok?"
"I really thought you were dead." Nathan smiled as he stroked his thumbs over Duke's cheeks, still not ready to relinquish his hold. "But here you are."
"Here I am." Duke raised his hands, gripping Nathan's wrists and gently easing them down. He let one wrist go, pointing at the bathroom. "And that's where you should be. A bath and a shave will do you a world of good, mountain man." He leaned in and kissed Nathan lightly, licking his lips as he pulled away. "Get undressed, would you? I'm sure you can manage to take your pants off without help, and I definitely don't want to see the state of your underwear."
Leaving Nathan to navigate the world of denim, he stepped into the bathroom to fill the tub. The pipes gurgled and spit as the first gush of water made its way out the tap, but to Duke's relief, it was clear and clean. A quick test and some turning held the stream at a comfortable temperature, and it was no work at all to track down the plug and jam it in the drain. Just like the rest of the building, the bathroom was worn but not uncared for. Duke snorted softly; maybe this was the perfect place for Nathan after all.
He tugged down a couple towels from a shelf just above the toilet and snagged the sliver of soap sitting on the edge of the only sink in either room. The mirrored medicine cabinet above did little to give the space any extra illusion of depth, but Duke supposed the diner owners hadn't had a chance to consult an interior decorator recently. The soap balanced nicely on the lip of the tub, and with the lid down, the toilet did all right as a seat for himself and the towels.
"Hey! Did you forget or something? It's unbutton, unzip, slide, slide, step, step." Duke frowned at the doorframe, still empty of Nathan. "Of course, it gets a little more complicated if you're wearing one of those button flies, but I think I have a knife on me somewhere if you're having that much trouble." He leaned forward, covering the towels with one hand so they didn't slip off his lap as he turned the taps off with the other.
"Sorry." Nathan's feet slapped against the linoleum as he rounded the corner, that goofy grin the only thing he was still wearing.
Duke swallowed and willed himself not to look at Nathan's groin, but if there was one thing he was helpless against, it was temptation.
Sadly, Nathan was going the modest route, and kept his cock cupped and covered until he was sinking into the water. He'd have to lean forward again to get a good look, and that would lead nowhere good, not with Jennifer coming back in less than two hours. Dammit, Duke thought, I really should have gone for three.
"Should I...?" Duke stood, clutching the towels in front of himself like a shield. "I should give you some privacy."
"No." Nathan reached out, gripping Duke's hand tightly in his own. "I don't want you out of my sight." His smile widened. "I can't believe this isn't a dream."
"It's not." The towels slipped from Duke's free hand, tumbling to the ground in a messy heap. "I'm here, Nate. I'm here and I'm not going anywhere." He squeezed Nathan's hand a little tighter, hoping to relieve a bit of pressure before Nathan bruised his fingers by mashing them together. "Wash up, ok? We need you shipshape before we--"
"--look for Audrey." For a moment, Nathan's eyes clouded over with pain and guilt.
Duke nodded. He wished he wasn't so familiar with Nathan's many and varied expressions of self-flagellation; for a man who could feel no physical pain, he made damn certain to make up for it on the psychological front.
Tugging his hand free, Duke smiled and patted Nathan's arm. "Do you have a razor or something around here? I'm not big on being the Ben to your Grizzly Adams."
"In the cabinet." Nathan nodded towards the sink, but his eyes never left Duke. "Bottom shelf, near the shaving cream."
Duke swung the mirrored door open, and miracle of miracles, immediately saw not only a bottle of off-brand shaving cream and a pack of untouched disposable razors, but a toothbrush and tube of paste to go with it. He grabbed all four and brought them over to Nathan, pleased to see he'd picked up the soap and was busily scrubbing away his own stench.
"Hey, hey, take it easy, ok? You're going to scrub off a layer of skin." Duke put the razor, cream, paste and brush down on top of the mound of towels and perched on the edge of the tub. He let his fingers trail in the water, back and forth, back and forth, flexing and curling loosely as if he was stroking his fingertips over Nathan's leg, across his thigh, cupping and holding him, coaxing him back to hardness. It would be so easy to do, to bridge the distance and plunge his hand beneath the water, to marvel at how he could make Nathan feel even if he couldn't quite feel it.
Instead, he watched as Nathan became himself again by inches, dirt, blood and misery washed down the drain alongside facial hair, foam and soap. He could see the old resolve firing to life behind Nathan's eyes, and as good as it was to see him come back to himself, there was something about that look that unsettled Duke, something that made him want to stop Nathan before he retreated too far into the familiar cloak of Officer Martyr. That was the last thing they needed right now. No black and white rules that neither of them could hold to; no law and order covering a veneer of chaos and lies; no Nathan Wuornos, Haven P.D. versus Duke Crocker, Smuggler and Scoundrel. What they needed was complicated, and even if Nathan would never admit it, complicated was what the two of them did best.
As the water gurgled away down the plughole, Duke reached for a towel, offering it up to Nathan as he rose from the tub. Duke frowned a little and tipped his head to the side as Nathan towelled off; if he thought the bruises were bad before, they stood out in even more lurid colours now that his skin was clean. Each fresh, warm, pink stripe between the reds, purples and yellows of abused flesh made Nathan look just that much more fragile, more easily broken. Duke supposed that this particular wooden boy had been broken many times before -- sometimes at Duke's hand, and sometimes when Duke's hands were the only ones that could glue him back together -- but all the same, Duke worried that the break that Nathan couldn't survive was right around the corner. He reached out, gently touching one of the fresher bruises, hissing in sympathy when it gave under his fingertips, frowning harder at the way it rose from Nathan's hip.
Nathan paused in the middle of running the towel over his hair, glancing down to watch Duke map his skin. "Duke," he murmured, and the longing in his name asked more questions than Duke had answers to give.
Duke chose to answer the most pressing one; the rest could wait until they were back in Haven, relaxing outside of the Gull, cold beers clutched in their hands. "Yeah. Yeah, Nate, we will. She's out there somewhere." He glanced at his watch, "But first, let's shake a little of that exhaustion loose, ok? We've got a little under an hour before Jennifer's due back."
Duke stood, smiling at Nathan as he rested his hands on Nathan's hips. "I think there's room enough on that cot, isn't there?" A small nudge here, a gentle push there, and he steered Nathan back to the tiny living area and down onto the mattress. He could feel Nathan's muscles pull tight with tension, every bit of him wanting to recoil against the idea of rest, and so it was easiest to slip in behind him, curl up against his back and act as a flesh and blood barrier between Nathan and the rest of the world. At least for now, at least while Duke still could.
"Thirty minutes. Not a moment more." Nathan's voice was already slightly slurring, the thin, lumpy mattress no challenge to a warm bath and a warmer body pressed against him.
Duke chuckled and brushed his lips lightly across the nape of Nathan's neck. "Forty-five," he murmured. He slid his arm over Nathan's waist, stroking his chest, careful to avoid pressing down on the bruises. After a few moments, his fingertips found and traced what felt like a new scar, puckered and bumpy, a short, angry slash just beneath his ribcage. He sighed and filed it away as another thing to ask about between those cold beers, already longing for that familiar tap-tap of glass on glass.
Nathan stirred, shifting a little towards Duke's warmth. "Audrey," he breathed, surfacing for no more than a moment before he slipped back into the sea of dreams.
Duke nodded, dipping his head to kiss Nathan's shoulder. He tugged Nathan a little closer, arm tightening across Nathan's chest. "We'll find her, buddy. I promise."