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Promises Made in Ink and Blood

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The Parkers are wed on the first of May: a simple courthouse ceremony, over which Dwight presides as Justice of the Peace, followed by a reception at the Gull. The Teague brothers estimate, in that week’s edition of the Haven Herald, that upwards of ninety percent of the town makes an appearance. There’s drinking, and dancing, and cupcakes of multiple kinds passed around.

It’s joyful, memorable, honest, and right. Their (somewhat unorthodox) marriage license might only be legal within Haven town lines -- but they’re there on the books, and announced in the paper, and blessed by all but a few scattered naysayers. And that community blessing means something to all of them, because they’ve all three, in their own ways, made Haven their home.

But if you were to ask Audrey, in the years to come, when and where their marriage had actually been solemnized, she wouldn’t talk about the public ceremony or the party that came after. Instead, she would tell you: Halifax. The twelfth of April. In the room at the back of Red House Irons.

Because that was where Gus inked their tattoos.


The tattoos were Duke’s idea, naturally, something he suggests soon after they begin talking in elliptical circles around things like last names and vows before witnesses and who feels the strongest about flavors of cake. About publicly saying: These two: they are mine. He offers it lightly -- hey, guys, let’s do tattoos! -- but she and Nathan both hear the intent behind the suggestion. This, they both realize, is one of those Important Things that Duke sometimes offers up sideways -- as if he has no particular feeling one way or another -- when in fact he’s deeply invested.

As the one with the pen, Audrey raises an eyebrow at Nathan, who in turn tilts his head in assent. So she says, “Tattoos. Okay, that’s definitely an option,” and scribbles tattoos? below dress? (any color but white) and rings - Nathan wants gold.

Duke, it transpires, has some sort of grand, unified vision about the whole thing. Something about tattoos as a ritual, ceremonial scarification, symbolism, designing a work that will bring them together in a one flesh sort of way. In December, once they’ve set a firm date for the spring, he starts going back and forth with this artist of his in Nova Scotia. Some guy he’s apparently worked with for years on most of his previous pieces. Getting Duke’s vision from mind’s eye to paper to skin turns out to be a lengthy process that involves false starts and scrapped designs, multiple photographed sketches and international phone conversations.

This will be Audrey’s first piece and she expects to be twitchy about third-person discussions that revolve around permanently altering her skin. It’s been a rough decade when it comes to having things done to her; sometimes, even her hairdresser asking a second opinion from one of the other stylists sometimes catches her off guard and sets her pulse pounding -- why are they talking about me? who said they could alter me? --, though she’s been getting better at Duke’s yogic breathing, and hasn't had to walk out on anyone in over a year.

So she expects wedding tattoos to be something she’ll need to get used to, have a hand shaping. Instead, she discovers, she’s utterly calm and detached from the process. As Duke spins out concepts over the phone -- “ I’m thinking halfway between a silhouette and a detailed drawing, right? Like when you see a bird flying take off at a distance. You get the sense of power and loft…” -- her body’s completely quiescent and waiting. Not wary or watchful.

When she says to herself, Duke is claiming us as his by putting permanent, visible marks on our skin, the core of her being responds with: Yes. Of course. That’s just fine.

“Is that weird?” She asks Nathan, one day over lunch at the station. “Is it weird that I actually don’t need to know? That he keeps asking us for our opinion and all I really want to say is, ‘Duke, tell me where and when to show up and I’ll be there’?” Duke’s emailed them both, just before noon, with his latest idea: something involving a complex-yet-simple series of delicate, interwoven lines and the silhouettes of seabirds taking flight. “I can’t really picture it.” she admits, “He sees some sort of--” she sketches a wide circle with her sandwich and soda, “--statement that I’m not sure I see. But it doesn’t bother me. It should bother me, right?”

Nathan wanders over, chewing, and picks up the line drawing Audrey’s printed out. He studies it for a minute, then puts it back down, saying, “I think Duke knows what he’s doing.”

Which she thinks, exasperated, isn’t really an answer to the question she’s asked.

Except, of course, for how it is. In early March, Audrey wakes in the night to the soft murmur of conversation in bed beside her -- Nathan and Duke talking quietly, spooned together in the dark, like they do sometimes when Nathan’s nightmares keep him from sleeping.

“...asked me was it weird it doesn’t bother her.”

“What did you say?”

A pause. “It doesn’t bother me, either.” Another pause. “I think we’ve both decided to trust you with this. Like it needs to be something that’s yours that we then become part of.”

She hears the soft shuft of the flannel, feels the bed shift underneath her as Duke pulls Nathan closer.

“And I think we all know that you, of all three of us, Duke, knows best how to -- cherish -- your people.” There’s a slight gasp at the end of the word that makes Audrey suspect Duke’s hands are wandering.

She smiles, sleepily, still half-dreaming, her hips canting slightly in reaction. Rolls toward the sound of their voices, her hand slipping beneath the nape of Nathan’s neck where his cheek is pressed to the pillow. “Mmm--” she murmurs. Mine. My people.

Nathan’s hand slides up her thigh, pulls her in closer.

“You and Audrey are pretty damn crap at remembering just how loved you are.” Duke’s voice is both fond and steely. “My job to ensure you don’t ever forget that.”

“You’ve always been better at taking care of me than I am at taking care of myself,” Nathan responds, breath hitching -- oh, yeah, they’re definitely -- “Even when you were angry at me. I’m -- god, I’m sorry, love.”

“Yeah, well, you’re gonna have to quit treating my husband and wife so carelessly,” Duke says a bit breathlessly, teasing-not-teasing. “All the work I put into you--”

Audrey slips back into dreams of Duke’s birds, spiraling above her, circling a slowly rocking dinghy where she lays on the deck, hands pressed to the gunwales, while Duke fucks into her slowly, relentlessly, the creak of the boat sounding suspiciously like their mattress springs.

After that, Audrey stops worrying that her unblinking acceptance of Duke’s plan is some weird codependence and lets herself go with Duke’s flow, surrendering her skin to what he and Gus have in mind.

Gus McMillan is up in Halifax, so as winter thaws into spring and Audrey has to admit she’s put off shopping for a dress until what is officially the last minute, they decide it’s time to skip town for a few days and head north of the border on the Cape Rouge.

McMillan’s place, Red House Irons, is a short walk from the harbor; Duke calls Gus when they get in and lets him know they’ll be by first thing in the morning with coffee and donuts. Given the distance they’ve traveled, and his friendship with Duke, Gus has agreed to work the piece in a single sitting. Audrey suspects certain funds above and beyond the usual price -- or perhaps a case or two of undeclared liquor -- may have been added to sweeten the deal. Or possibly just because Duke’s the kind of guy who likes to take care of his friends.

So they arrive at the studio freshly scrubbed the following morning at eight with four twenty-ounce cappuccinos and a bag of fresh cider donuts. It’s a crisp spring day, cold and clear, and despite the mid-April date Audrey’s wearing her wool coat and glad she brought gloves and a scarf.

“Hey, Duke, good to see you man!” Gus McMillan opens the front door with a smile, clasping Duke’s shoulder in a long time, no see sort of hug. He’s is a short, squat Acadian whose own skin is a tapestry of color beneath the river driver shirt and cargo pants.

“Gus, Nathan, Audrey, coffee, donuts,” Duke nods introductions all around, clasping Gus’ hand warmly.

Gus gives Nathan a shrewd look, “So you’re Nathan Wournos?” and Audrey wonders which of Duke’s tattoos were inked in an effort to forget and remember.

“Yup.” Nathan sticks out a hand toward Gus as Duke tugs him into a one-armed hug, a gesture of pride: look at my find! She thinks, again, how lucky they are to be here -- how hard they’ve fought to get to this moment, with this kind of grace.

“Good to meet you, Audrey,” Gus offers a broad hand to her as well, warm to the touch, and firm in the shaking. “I hear this is your first time. You feeling up for it?”

“Let’s just say Duke can be persuasive,” Audrey smiles.

Gus laughs and ushers them inside.

The studio is a shared space with two other artists, neither of whom are in this early in the day, so the front room is empty. They weave their way down a narrow hall papered with sample designs and spill out into the well-lit workroom with clusters of tables and chairs, a long counter space neatly prepped with sterilized equipment.

The room is a strange combination of artist studio and doctor’s office, she thinks, looking around. The walls that aren’t windows or storage cabinets are, like the hall, a profusion of art. In the back corner, there’s battered bookcase full of vinyl records next to a working record player, free of dust and clearly well-used. There’s a few overstuffed armchairs and a coffee table on which sits a half-finished game of parcheesi and a stack of well-thumbed trade magazines.

“--so I’m thinking,” Gus is saying as he and Duke look over the final design, “I’d like to do the birds first, right? And then I’ll work each line in one continuous session. With a break between each. We’ll want to pace ourselves.”

“That place up the road still doing butter tarts?” Duke asks hopefully, while Audrey looks down at the design, laid out in a patchwork of transfer paper. Nathan comes up behind her, slides a warm hand into the back pocket of her jeans, and drops his chin on her shoulder.

“See, I told you Duke knew what he was doing,” Nathan whispers, kissing her ear.

The design before them is strikingly simple, inked entirely in black. There are three birds in flight, more or less evenly spaced, across the table. One for each of them. Audrey’s is a pelican, Nathan’s an osprey, and Duke’s (unsurprisingly) a gull. Audrey knows, from listening to Duke’s phone conversations with Gus, that the pelican will be placed on her clavicle, Nathan’s osprey just below the nape of his neck, and Duke’s gull across the upper forearm that isn’t already heavily inked.

Curling around each bird, as if a wind current made visible, are delicate lines that will push outward along the skin, skating across their shoulders and winding down their arms in irregular spirals until they wrap the pulsepoint of each wrist, then traverse the back of each hand to disappear between the knuckles of third and fourth fingers.

Correspondingly, a second line emerges from between the second and third fingers, twining itself around the first line, caressing the wrist bone, and winding up the forearm to nestle gently just above the elbow.

The piece is designed so that when they clasp hands, interweaving fingers, the lines will create the illusion of leaping from person to person, tangling them together and holding them tight.

Duke has Gus handfasting them in ink and blood.

“So what do you think?” Duke asks. She looks up to find him studying her face across the table and realises there’s uncertainty in his voice, a part of him still unsure that he has her approval.

She pulls Nathan’s arms around her waist and looks Duke in the eye: “Marry us, Duke Crocker.”

It takes the morning, and all of their coffee and donut supplies, for Gus to complete the three birds, each minutely detailed so that instead of stark silhouettes they have depth, the suggestion of feathers and the strength needed for flight.

It’s relaxed, deceptively casual, to be gathered here in this sunlit room with Cream’s BBC Sessions on in the background, the buzz of the needle pitched at a soothing drone. They fall into a rhythm of easy conversation, woven in and around the work being done; whomever’s not being inked picking up threads of idle talk -- wedding plans, politics, local gossip from Haven and Halifax.

Audrey hadn’t thought, beforehand, about how physical the experience would be -- the artist intensely at work with his hands, the three of them alternately under the needle working with the discomfort of repetitive, pin-pricking pain. Gus’ presence keeps the atmosphere mostly nonsexual, but it’s undeniably intimate body work all the same.

She, Duke, and Nathan can’t stop touching each other: Hands casually caressing, resting on thighs, backs, arms, necks, gripping fingers. Normally open about their affection, this is something more: the need for connection as ink enters skin, as Gus methodically wipes seeping blood out of work’s way.

While Nathan’s bent over the back of the chair. leaning forward so Gus is able to detail the osprey at the back his neck, Duke stands so the crown of Nathan’s head is pressed snug against his hip, running his hand absently through Nathan’s hair as the rest of them talk.

“How we doin’?” Gus asks, intermittently, checking in, and Nathan says, “I’m good, it’s good,” with a catch in his voice. Audrey and Duke share a look: He’s feeling this. Not entirely unexpected. They’ve been going through a good stretch lately, Nathan’s Trouble mostly dormant. But Audrey thinks they will never grow used to that, take sensation for Nathan for granted.

She reaches forward from her seat at the table, and places a hand -- contact -- at the small of his back. Feels muscles jump minutely under her palm. I am here. She thinks. We are all here together. And listens to the needle buzz against Nathan’s skin.

They break for pizza shortly after noon, around the time Chris and Anelle -- the other two artists -- wander into the shop. The other artists’ presence temporarily breaks the spell of the morning. They’ve their own clients booked throughout the afternoon and evening, and as they eat lunch the shop begins to pick up slightly, like a student coffee house does in the late afternoon.

Still slightly buzzed on caffeine and endorphins, Audrey can feel the sunburn sensation of the work on her chest as stand eating their pizza. Beneath her shirt, it’s temporarily slathered in vaseline and covered in gauze, waiting for Gus to return and tether it symbolically to its fellows. She stretches her shoulder muscles where they’ve been tightening, enjoying the pull of surgical tape on her skin, the tightness of the overworked skin.

Gus disappears, then reappears with an armful of Gatorade from some stash in the back, doling them out like a coach to his players: “You don’t notice it now, but if you aren’t careful you’re all gonna crash pretty hard.”

Across the room, Anelle has turned on the record player and put on a Tom Waites album. As the four of them settle back in for the next session of work, there’s a steady ebb and flow of chatter around them, Gus talking shop with his buddies as he continues his work with a steady hand.

Each of the three twining lines is the work of nearly four hours; they’ll be lucky if they’re done by midnight. Duke wants each line inked continuously, following the path he and Gus have traced out from body to body: from Duke to Nathan to Audrey, from Nathan to Audrey to Duke, from Audrey to Duke back to Nathan. So it’s past six o’clock, while she’s under the needle, before the realization finally unfolds deep in her belly how much this act means to Audrey: how important it is for her to have Nathan and Duke inked into her skin. Gus is working the ink down the last inch of flesh on her wrist when it wells up inside her: the relentless ache and burn of the work, the smears of ink and blood, the slick of vaseline, and astringent scent of antiseptic in the air.

Her skin doesn’t change. Scars and stretch marks remain, no matter how many times her memory’s been altered.

Now Duke and Nathan, too, are etched into her flesh as security against an unknowable future.

She needs this.

Her breath must betray her because the buzz of the needle pauses and Gus looks up from his work: “Need a break?”

“No--I’m--I’m okay,” she says.

“Hey, Duke!” Gus calls over to where Duke and Nathan are playing parcheesi, jerking his chin, “can you bring her some Gatorade?” Then, to Audrey, “Never had a client faint in the chair and I’m not starting now.”

“Fair enough.” She takes the bottle Duke brings her and drinks half of it down while he watches, then nods in thanks and sets the bottle aside. Gus resumes working.

Duke studies her face for a moment and then hitches himself onto the table beside her and takes her free hand between his. “Nearly done.”

“Yup.” Damn, the back of her hand burns. She squeezes her eyes shut, momentarily, against the pain, and then opens them again to meet Duke’s eyes. The things she needs to say to him aren’t for public consumption.

The things she wants to do to him are for later tonight.

“You’re stuck with me now, Mr. Parker,” she grits out instead, squeezing his hand, feeling her throat close around even that.

“That has been the plan,” he points out with a smile, glancing over to Nathan counting out his next move. “Now. Please excuse me while I go outmaneuver our husband’s blockade.”

When Gus releases her, shortly thereafter, to finish her heartline up Duke’s other arm, Audrey slips out to the closet of a bathroom off the end of the hall. She’s at the sink, carefully washing her hands, when there’s a quiet taptaptap on the door and Nathan asks, “Parker?”

She realizes she’s trembling, slightly, her eyes aren’t quite tracking. What happens sometimes, in the wake of a rescue, when they’ve diffused a Trouble or otherwise averted disaster. The euphoria of hope, the ebb tide of action.

She opens the door and looks up at him, mute. Trusts him to see what she needs in her eyes. He slips inside, closing the door behind him. “Duke’s busy with Gus for another fifteen, twenty minutes,” he says softly, “You okay?”

She sucks in a breath. “Yeah. Yeah, I --” He reaches up to cup her cheek in his hand and she leans into the warmth, grateful for the grounding of touch. Hers.

“You’re mine now,” she says, in quiet amazement. It sounds almost like nonsense syllables to her ears, like how could something so big be contained in a sequence of sounds -- and yet Nathan just kisses her, gentle and sure, pulling her closer, fumbling at her fly with one hand, then two, as she presses him into the edge of the sink.

They’ve fucked like this, before, at the end of a crisis. Fucked against the clock, burning off excess adrenaline, coming down from the high of Haven heroics. It’s not, strictly speaking, professional. But it’s nevertheless a way back from the edge for both -- sometimes all three -- of them. You’re alive. We’re here. We’re home. We’re done, for now.

It’s not the same context, but still the same sort of urgency, as if the sum total of all the times she’s nearly lost them, has lost them, have come crashing back down in one single, overpowering wave.

“Just -- Nathan -- please,” Audrey pants into his mouth, “I want you inside me.”

He shoves a firm hand down the front of her jeans and, with a practiced turn of the wrist, slides three fingers up and in. She takes him with a gasp and a moan, sinking onto him gratefully, as he laughs softly, affectionately into her hair, catching her with a steadying arm at the small of her back.

Shh, shh, sh--” he gentles, “There you go, there you are.”

He’s cupping her, now, in the palm of his hand, the pad of his thumb pressing her clit, already slick with arousal. She can feel his practiced fingers hooked under the bone, and belatedly wonders if they should really be doing this when the tattoo ink’s still fresh on his hands.

Oh, well. Too late to care. She grinds down against him with a satisfied grunt, wraps a leg across the back of his knee. Audrey feels Duke in his absence, misses his weight at her back, misses how he would put hands under her thighs, lift her up Nathan’s hips, how she would feel the press of his cock at the crease of her ass.

Feels his pulse in her own, hot and strong, beating through the burn of ink on her chest, shoulders, arms, hands.

The orgasm climbs her thighs, snaking up into her pelvis to bloom deep in her belly with a tight arc of pleasure.

Distantly, under the pounding of blood in her ears, she hears Nathan’s laugh, fond and delighted.

“You should -- sorry, love -- we need to get you back. Duke must be near done,” Nathan says, slightly strained, as she leans into him, panting limply. She can feel the press of his dick, hard against her belly, definitely on board with phase two of this game.

She pats him there, gently, with the palm of her uncoordinated hand. If she needs to sit for the first piece of Nathan’s heartline, then -- “You want Duke?”

“If he’ll have me,” Nathan kisses the corner of her mouth.

“When does Duke not want you?” Audrey smiles against his cheek, “I’ll send him in.”

She returns to the work room, where someone’s switched out Lyle Lovett for Susan Tedeschi’s Live from Austin. Gus has disappeared somewhere, possibly in search of another restroom, coffee, or both. Duke is standing at a window, in the late evening sun, stretching and shaking out the tension in his shoulders.

Audrey walks over to him and, without preamble, ducks up and under his raised arms to kiss him. Hard.

“Well hey,” Duke says, dropping his arms to pull her into an easy embrace. “Looks like someone’s a little high on their first tattoo. Who might that be?” He grins down at her.

“Go find your husband, Duke Parker,” she whispers into his ear. “He needs you.” Sliding a suggestive hand down the front of Duke’s torso.

“Does he now?” Duke raises an eyebrow. “You’re good?”

“Very good,” She assures him. Knowing it’s true.

Duke brushes past Gus, mug of coffee in hand, on his way out the door. “Duke!” Gus calls after him as Audrey takes a seat for her final stretch, “You and Nathan go get us some of those butter tarts!”

Deep in the witching hours of the night the Rouge gently rises and falls with the swell of the incoming tide. At the edge of their oversized bunk tucked up under the deck, Audrey sits, legs spread wide, as Duke kisses his way across her belly from hipbone to hipbone. His sandpaper scruff drags across her skin like the tongue of a cat, a ghosting echo of the angry red trails across her arms, shoulders, breast. She stretches and leans, pushing back against Nathan’s hands as he sits tucked snug behind her, working warm oil in slow, soothing circles across newly-scarred skin.

Audrey’s wrung out and sore, like they’ve just run a marathon, but it’s good sore, and good tired. In ways she hadn’t anticipated, the day -- yesterday, now -- had been an opportunity to temper what, across the years, she, Duke, and Nathan have forged.

She wants to savor that victory before falling asleep.

Nathan runs the heels of his hands down each side of her spine, pushing out tension, brings his hands up from behind to cup warm under her breasts. He’s pressed up behind her on the edge of the bed, clad only in boxers, and she drinks in the closeness of skin against skin. He skates thumbs over her nipples, teasing, pulls her back for a kiss.

Between their legs, Duke kneels, hands lightly at rest along Nathan’s thighs. Audrey pulls back from Nathan’s mouth, leans forward against his cradling hands, spreading her own well-oiled fingers across Duke’s naked shoulders. The newly-inked gull wings across his bicep, the swirling tendrils of air pushing out from its wingtips, heartline wrapping itself around the contours of flesh she and Nathan know intimately.

Flesh of my flesh, she thinks. Bone of my bone.

Duke’s always known, more surely than Nathan has ever acknowledged, that they might fail each other with the best of intentions. Duke knows, more than Nathan will ever admit, that there could be a future when Audrey leaves them because she believes there is no other choice. A future where Nathan doesn’t come back from the dead. A future where Duke cannot keep them safe, where he has to let them fly at risk of falling.

Flesh of their flesh, she thinks. Handfasted together.

Now, if ever she goes she’ll be taking them with her.

“Duke,” she says, like a blessing, and he looks up from where he’s been nosing into the crease of her thigh.

“Hello, husband,” Audrey whispers, hand still against the nape of his neck. Here, in their cabin, she could try to say all of the things she couldn’t voice earlier: words about love and attention, wisdom and pride. About how, when she looks in their eyes, she sees the best of herself shining back.The words, they’ve been building all day beneath her skin. Combining and recombining in phrases that marvel how she’s chosen them. That they’ve chosen her.

Sentences that capture, in crystalline prose, the audacity of what they are choosing together.

“Hello, Audrey, my wife,” Duke returns, his look almost shy.

What’s most remarkable, Audrey thinks, is the complete lack of reluctance as the word leaves her lips: Husband. Prior to Haven, Audrey had never thought of herself as cut out for marriage. Before Duke, and Nathan, she’d never met anyone -- woman or man -- with whom she could picture sharing a life. Before Haven, none of the options for family she’d known had made sense. But now, having found these two, won them, she finds that such words have a fierce, wild power. I am their wife, she thinks, Just you try taking that from me.

All the words are still there, humming beneath her skin. Yet they no longer seem urgent. They’ve all been said, anyway, are being said, will be said. Instead, she says repeats the one key word, again, turning her lips to meet the shell of Nathan’s ear as he presses in close: “Husband.”

“Our lovely wife,” Nathan murmurs against her cheek, slipping his hand into Duke’s, tugging him forward, urging him onto the bed.

She’s been anticipating this for at least eight hours, ever since watching Duke’s ass disappear out that door. She knows, because Nathan told her in teasing whispers, how Duke jerked him off messy and fast in the washroom. She knows what Duke’s taste had been on Nathan’s tongue. He’d murmured the tale into her ear while Gus finished Duke’s line work, and she’d let the ache build, considered options for later.

“I think you should fuck me, Mr. Parker,” she says, pushing Duke back onto the pillows and straddling his hips. His cock, half hard beneath her, is hot and present, and she lets herself settle down into the weight of her hips.

“I think I can do that,” Duke half-gasps back, as Nathan settles beside them and leans in for a kiss. Audrey feels, as she watches them, Duke growing harder, slips a hand down between them to cup under his balls. She can feel her own slick down the back of her wrist, lets herself whimper, leaning into the touch. Nathan reaches down, as he likes to, and lays a hand over her fingers.

“Audrey--” Duke whispers, hoarse with desire, “Audrey--look at me--” reaching out to cup her face with the hand that isn’t wrapped around Nathan’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” Audrey whispers back, leaning in to kiss his mouth open, nip at his lip, joust with his tongue, “Fuck, Duke, this day--”

“Yeah -- yeah, I know.” And he does.

So Audrey quits trying to tell him, and lets Nathan guide Duke inside her, settling down with a satisfied hiss. More often they do this side-by-side, where the horizontal position makes three-body sex just a little bit easier, but she loves looking down on Duke or Nathan beneath her, loves taking the reins on their movement, pushing hard, flying high.

Audrey and Nathan agree that Duke will never understand how amazingly fuckable he is. He’s like walking sex to them most days, anyway, but in moments like this he gives himself over to bodily pleasure with an abandon that both Nathan and Audrey must deliberately seek. He drops all pretenses, defenses, and welcomes them in with easy, satisfied sighs.

He’s flushed in the lamplight, hair tangled dark against the pillow, nipples dusky and pebbled as Nathan leans over to tongue first one, then the other. Duke’s been holding her eyes as she settles above him, then, as Nathan’s lips touch his chest his eyes flutter closed -- and he whimpers, surprised.

And it’s this that always slays Audrey, they way Duke never takes them for granted. The way he gives all of himself without expecting return. Take me, he says. And is, then, amazed, every damn time, when they do.

Audrey flexes her thighs, rising and falling in a slow, steady rhythm, savoring how she can feel Duke moving inside her, the heat and tension and pressure, enough not enough, Nathan’s fingers caressing the point of their joining, I’m here, his fingers say, where you are, I am here. She opens her eyes and locks eyes with Nathan, “--inside--” she whispers, and he knows what to do, pressing in one finger, two, pulling her wider, pushing Duke flush against that rough, swollen spot, just inside, the spot that calls her attention back to the pleasure building in her own groin.

“Fuck--god--oh--fuck--Nathan--!” Duke gasps, jerking his hips in an attempt to get closer, deeper.

She leans forward, whispers against his ear, “We could just. Keep. Doing this. Forever.” Under her belly she feels the pulse of orgasm building between his hips, lifts and leans forward to give his hips room to move as he jerks, again, hard, up into her, into the hollowing out she can feel deep inside, up along the curve of Nathan’s fingers. And then his head is back, hands scrabbling at the bedclothes, and she can feel him spilling hot and slick, feel the sudden release of tension spooling out from his core, their core.

She curls into it, shaking from tension of her own, presses her forehead into Duke’s chest and listens to the alarming race and then slow of his heartbeat as he he sinks back, loose-limbed, into the mattress.

She slides down beside Duke, his softening cock slipping out, along with Nathan’s hand which settles oh-so-gently over their husband’s spent cock. She presses her face against Duke’s overheated cheek, sliding sticky fingers down between his hip and her thighs in search of her clit. She can feel Nathan’s eyes on her, hungry, as she turns her focus inward. She’s shaking, and restless, a thin sheen of sweat breaks out over her skin.

Duke shifts, clumsily, rolls himself toward her, pushing an arm under her neck and settling her close. “Mmm,” he mumbles approvingly, groping her breast. Finger and thumb find a nipple, twisting it hard, and she arches up with a gasp at the sudden rough, anchoring pain.

“Duke, please--” she spreads her thighs wide, heels pressed deep into the tangle of sheets, and it’s Nathan’s nimble fingers that find her, replace her, push her greedy hands to one side.

“Audrey, Audrey, let us-- let me--”

“Oh, god--” she grates out, “--please--,” torquing up into their bodies; Duke’s hands and, now, mouth, relentless and sure. Nathan’s fingertips work steadily over her clit, teasing her onward until she grunts in frustrated protest -- fuck, is she ready, don’t want to lose -- and then she’s tipping, falling, rising, shuddering over the edge.

“...and what about you?” Duke murmurs post-coitally to Nathan, as he holds Audrey gently against his shoulder while she sucks in lungfuls of air.

“I want Audrey’s hands,” Nathan says softly, but surely, and Audrey laughs weakly. “--gimmie--minute,” she manages, still slurring slightly. Words. So hard.

But she loves doing this, so she’s not gonna give up the opportunity. After a few quiet minutes of recovery she clambers over Duke, who shifts back to make room for her, and settles between them pressed up against Nathan’s side.

“Well, hi there,” she says softly, sliding a hand down over his erection where it curves up over his belly. “I’m sorry I missed this earlier.”

“Yeah,” Nathan responds, already gratifyingly breathless, “--yeah, me, too--”

“It’s good we can make up for that now.” She traces the tips of her fingers around the base of his cock, dips her hand down to tug at his balls. She presses her teeth into his shoulder, tasting the oil on the tip of her tongue. Moisture beads at the tip of Nathan’s penis and she slides her thumb across it, circling, dipping below his foreskin, sliding back down.

Behind her Duke shifts, pressing her forward, and she feels a hand worm its way down the crack of her ass, under her thigh, into her opening. Distracted, it takes her a moment to realize what he’s doing: coating his fingers with her slick, and his. She shifts to accommodate, crooking her knee, can’t help pushing back into his hand -- making Duke chuckle -- then feels him withdraw and reach over her torso to join in the fun.

“Duke’s touching you, now,” she whispers, low, to Nathan, panting before her. He’s squeezed his eyes shut to focus on touch. They’ve learned, through trial and error, that when his Trouble is dormant that skin-to-skin contact can be overwhelmingly strong.

“I can -- Jesus -- I can feel you both, Parker, I know -- his hands -- and yours -- I --” he jerks up into her hand where she’s squeezed the tip of his cock, sliding through Duke’s light-fisted palm, and she thumbs him again,

“He’s close,” murmurs Duke into her neck, feeling Nathan’s abdominals under his wrist.

“We’ve got you, Nathan, you gonna come for us?” knowing he wants, needs permission, “You’re so beautiful, Nathan, come for me, Nathan, you’re so good, I know you can--” and there he is, pulsing up into her hand, hips stuttering up, hand suddenly gripping her wrist -- stop, enough, too much, stay, don’t go --

“--There you are, we got you,” she keeps up the whispers as he tips in toward them with a bitten-back cry. Duke lets his dick go and reaches instead for Nathan’s hip, pulling him in toward them closer so Audrey’s sandwiched inside. She lets her hand slide down the length of Nathan’s softening cock, through the rough wirey fur, along the sweat-damp line of his inner thigh, coming to rest in the soft hollow behind his knee.

They lay together, breathing, for an indeterminate while. Audrey feels the lift and fall of the Rouge on the tide.

At some point simply later Duke gets up and comes back with a washcloth, warm from the galley, to clean them all up before the sheets get so damp they need changing. Audrey submits to the gentle heat, wishing not for the first time she could purr in appreciation at the care in his hands. Nathan, mostly asleep, still manages to pull Duke into a kiss when Duke bends over to wipe him down and tuck him in.

Only after they’re both cleaned and dried, and tucked under the duvet, does Duke turn off the light and return to their bed, settling with a surrendering sigh into the circle of Audrey’s arms.

Sleepily, Audrey presses a kiss to the gull on Duke’s exposed shoulder, then nestles down against his neck, shoulders, back, curling her hand protectively over the newborn bird. Rousing momentarily from sleep, Nathan mirrors her movement and spoons himself up against Audrey’s back, bringing his knees up behind hers where they press against Duke’s behind. Nathan slides his own hand up Audrey’s arm elbow to wrist, folding his own hand over hers.

Together, she and Nathan hold Duke in a double embrace.

Audrey thinks, on the brink of sleep, that -- maybe more than she and Nathan have ever been willing to recognize -- Duke is the one who needs to be cherished. Because he is the one who knows how to keep them together. Give them all this.


When you ask Audrey Parker, in the years to come, about the day on which she, Duke, and Nathan were wed, it will be this day to which her mind turns. To the promises Duke knew they needed to make to each other; to the day when those promises became part of their skin.