“You used... how much flour?” Duke asked, blinking in slow disbelief at the kitchen counter.
“...All of it,” Audrey admitted. There was a trail of flour down her left cheek, and over her left shoulder, and flour handprints on the legs of her pants, and she was well aware that she was probably the least-floured thing in the kitchen. Including Nathan.
“I- how much is all of it?” Duke asked, holding up one of the empty bags. “This isn’t my brand.”
“Went shoppin’, earlier,” Nathan said, with a guilty shuffle of his feet. “After-”
“After the first couple batches didn’t turn out,” Audrey finished, and Duke turned his disbelieving look on her. Audrey felt her cheeks flush, but she refused to look down; admittedly, the situation was kind of a disaster, but nobody had gotten hurt, which made it a much better class of disaster than any of them were used to. And their intentions had been in the right place, which had to count for something.
“How many batches, exactly?” Duke’s voice was strained, his expression still fixed into a mask of uncertainty, and Audrey’s stomach did an uncomfortable flip. It was still a challenge, trying to figure out where everyone’s stress points were, trying to understand what seemingly-trivial thing might be enough to cause a breakdown- they were none of them unscathed, all still dealing with too many traumas suppressed for too long in the name of the greater good.
But what had seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea, six hours ago, felt like it was rapidly approaching a point of real distress, and that was exactly the opposite of what she’d wanted.
“...Cookies, or muffins?” Nathan asked, and Audrey wished she was standing close enough to step on his foot, because that was probably not going to help. Duke bit down on his lower lip, the way he did sometimes when he was trying to keep from saying something he knew he’d regret later, and Audrey edged closer, reaching out to take the empty bag of flour and set it back on the counter.
“We’ll get it cleaned up,” she said, pitching her voice to reassure. “It’s not- you don’t have to worry about this-”
“Just- why?” Duke asked, tone still strained and pitched a little too high. “Explain this, why-”
“Tryin’-” Nathan started, the word rough and hesitant, color flooding his cheeks. He cleared his throat, and shuffled his feet again, before he looked up, fixing Duke with a look that was soft and uncertain and honest. And it still wasn’t easy for him, but he’d been trying, he’d been trying so hard to get better at actually talking to them. “Know... you like doin’ the cooking,” Nathan said, clearly picking the words out carefully. “That it- that it’s part of... You showin’ you care. That you’re- stickin’ around, even after everything.”
Duke nodded, expression shifting slightly, acknowledgement creeping in alongside the confusion, and Nathan took a breath and continued.
“We thought- we wanted. To cook somethin’ fun. For you. Wanted...”
“We wanted you to know that we appreciate it. We wanted you to know that we understood, and that- we’re glad. That we, maybe we don’t always- we haven’t been good at, at showing it, in the past, but- we do care, Duke,” Audrey said, the words soft and no little urgent. Duke’s expression shifted, went soft and shadowed and understanding, and he caught her wrist, drawing her in.
She went, leaning against his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her, despite the clinging white powder she was covered in, holding her like she was something fragile, something precious. She exhaled shakily, relaxing into that hold, and he brushed a kiss over the top of her head.
“You didn’t have to go to all this trouble,” he said, his voice rumbling pleasantly in his chest.
“Wanted to get it right,” Nathan said, the words soft and certain. “Weren’t- once we started, needed to get it right. Couldn’t just- give up on it.”
She felt the sharpness of Duke’s inhale, the brief, reflexive way he tightened his grip, and he brushed another kiss over her head before he let go, crossing over to where Nathan was standing. Audrey turned to watch, and his approach was careful, the way it always was, now, but instead of waiting for Nathan to reach out, he brought his hand up, catching Nathan’s jaw in a gentle hold.
“Thank you,” he said, and the words were raw and shaky. “Thank you for trying.”
Nathan blinked, a little too fast, and Duke shifted, dropping his gaze, and Audrey could see that it was too much, that the honesty, the vulnerability, was overwhelming- they were both trying, but there was still so much to work through. She cleared her throat, drawing their attention, and tried on a smile.
“So, you’re not mad at us for destroying the kitchen?” she asked, tone deliberately too bright.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Duke said, but there was laughter in his tone. “I- how, how did you even- did you have a fight with the flour?”
“Had a little trouble with the mixer,” Nathan said, shrugging one shoulder. “Sure you don’t want to reconsider, find someone that won’t destroy the house, you’re gone for half a day?”
Audrey went stiff, and Nathan’s expression shifted, took on an edge of panic that said he hadn’t thought that through, that the tease was too much, too dangerous, still, for where they were now.
“...No, I- I think I’m good,” Duke said, pitching his voice soft and gentle. “Pretty sure this is not gonna be the thing I can’t handle. I mean, I’ve tried, and after everything, I still chose you.” He stepped closer into Nathan’s space, careful and slow, and leaned in, and Nathan mirrored him, until they were standing with their foreheads pressed together, Duke’s hand still curled along Nathan’s jaw. And Audrey couldn’t see, not really, but she heard the smile slip into his voice as he added, “And I knew you couldn’t cook before I agreed to stay here.”
Nathan laughed, quick and startled, and Audrey let herself relax, let some of the tension slip away.
“We really didn’t mean to make this much of a mess,” Audrey said, looking around.
“Yeah, this, this is a pretty spectacular mess,” Duke agreed, turning to look back at her, and he was still smiling, a glint of real amusement making his eyes warm. “And I am definitely not cleaning this up.”
“Might want to supervise,” Nathan cautioned, “can’t promise we’re much better at that than baking.”
“...Tell you what, I will supervise the cleanup, and we will get takeout for dinner, and tomorrow, when I have figured out exactly how much I have to replace, I will teach you one cookie recipe. Sound fair?”
“Sounds good,” Nathan said, pressing into Duke’s space, eyes falling half-shut as he let himself lean a little. Audrey crossed over to join him, wedging herself in against his side, and leaning on Duke as well, and Duke shifted to get his arms around both of them. She looked up, and caught his eyes, and gave him a soft, pleased smile.
“It sounds really good.”