Cold winter light filtered in through the windows, casting long, dull-white bars at sharp angles to the darkened lines between the floorboards. The quiet pulse of the ocean was audible, consistently inconsistent beneath the high call of the wind and the cries of gulls over the bay. Even inside, tucked deep into the pile of down comforters and quilts that blanketed her bed, bracketed by warmth on either side- scented with pine and bay to her left, and amber and sandalwood to her right- Audrey could smell woodsmoke and frost, and she was pretty sure Duke was right about the weather shifting, about the storm moving in.
Though to be fair, more knowledgeable people than she had agreed with him- Nathan and Dwight among them- and they were, as a result, not actually expected to be anywhere. There was a radio handset on the kitchen table, just in case they were needed, but anyone who wasn’t absolutely necessary had been told to stay home, and Audrey and Nathan were no longer counted among the ranks of absolutely necessary.
There were moments when that thought caused a swelling, overwhelming panic in her, an urgent fear that if she wasn’t absolutely necessary, then what was she at all, but this was not one of them. It was hard to worry about her place in the greater world when she was comfortable and warm and utterly certain of her place in her own world, settled firm between her boys in the beautifully eclectic apartment that was her first real home.
She hadn’t been awake for more than a handful of breaths before Duke was stirring beside her, one broad hand settling over her stomach, rough skin and easy strength and a soft touch, and she turned her head, smiling slowly. He peeked out at her from under the mess of dark curls that had become his latest fashion- she liked him best, that way, with his hair almost the way it had been when they’d first met. He’d hemmed and hawed about it, but they’d talked him around with the reminder that it was much easier to get a good grip on his hair if it wasn’t shaved down on the sides.
He’d folded remarkably quickly at that point, and Nathan had been ridiculously smug.
“Hey,” she said, the word deliberately soft, because Nathan was still breathing with the easy, regular pattern of sleep, and it was still such an effort to make sure he looked after himself, she hated to wake him when he was actually resting.
“Hey,” Duke replied, just as quiet, his voice rough and raspy with sleep, and full of contentment. He gave her a slow smile of his own, and there were more lines around his mouth, now, more grey at his temples and peppered into his neat scruff of a beard, but the tension he’d carried for so long was gone; he may be a little more careworn, but he was comfortable, expression open and trusting and happy, and it still made her stomach flutter.
“I didn’t mean to wake you,” she said, reaching up to trace her fingers along his arm, moving by comfortable rote over the dips and rises of his muscles, pausing automatically when she reached each intimately-familiar scar. She enjoyed the way his eyes fell half-closed again at the touch, at the way he shifted a bit so that she could expand her wandering to include his shoulder and the side of his neck, seeking attention as shamelessly and easily as a pampered cat.
“You know I don’t mind,” he replied, because she did, because she and Nathan both had long since come to terms with the fact that Duke couldn’t sleep if one of them was awake. He might be comfortable, but old habits died hard, and he’d been wary for so long he didn’t really know how to stop.
“Still,” she said, because she may have come to terms with it, but it still made her sad, on occasion. But she wasn’t going to dwell; there wasn’t any point, and it wasn’t doing any harm, not really. “It’s cold out,” she said instead, glancing at the windows. “You think you’ll bother to open?”
“No point. Wind coming up the way it is, we’re not going to see any customers, not out here on the water like we are. I called everyone last night, the staff knows to stay home. We should consider going to Nathan’s, before it gets too bad- his place’ll be warmer. Still need to finish redoing the insulation here, work on the weatherproofing.”
“Maybe,” Audrey said, though she kind of liked the thought of weathering the storm right where they were, with the wind straight off the water and the sea pounding the shore just below, the three of them pressed close together under the blankets. “After breakfast.”
“You want me to cook?” Duke asked, and she could feel the immediate shift in his weight as his attention went to the kitchen and he prepared to stand up. She brought her free hand up to catch his wrist, holding his hand in place over her stomach, and pressed firmly with the fingers of the other, and he went still, settled back into place.
“Not yet,” she said, not that she needed to. “This is nice, just… stay with us, for a little while.”
“Not goin’ anywhere,” Duke replied, warm and fond, and she wrinkled her nose at him.
“In bed. Stay with us in bed for a little while,” she clarified, and his low, easy laugh made her toes curl and the fluttering in her stomach bloom into warmth. He was beautiful like that, comfortable and sure and belonging, and it still made her wonder, sometimes, how they’d gotten so lucky.
“Could be quieter, you’re both gonna stay,” Nathan grumbled, rolling closer, moving so that his hand joined Duke’s over her stomach, his fingers slotting neatly into place between Duke’s, his thumb brushing over skin in an easy, comfortable pattern. “Day off, s’pposed to sleep in.”
“Not my fault Audrey keeps cop hours,” Duke countered, laughter still in his voice.
“You keep restaurant hours,” Audrey replied, wriggling so that her side was pressed up against Nathan’s chest, so that she was close enough that he could lean forward just a little and kiss her temple. He did, and fixed her with a smile so sweet and earnest that she was pretty sure she fell for him all over again; she was pretty sure she fell for him all over again every morning, every time he looked at her like that.
“Don’t care who’s keeping what hours,” Nathan said, shifting to lean over Audrey and collect a quick kiss from Duke, who met him halfway, and that was a view Audrey enjoyed. “Care who’s talking,” he added, when he’d pulled back, but there was no bite in it, just a fond kind of amusement.
“We can be quiet, if you want to go back to sleep,” Audrey said, and Nathan scoffed, clearly disbelieving.
“No you can’t,” he said, stretching back out beside her, and beckoning Duke a little closer, until Duke was pressed as firmly against Audrey’s side as she was against Nathan’s chest, and it should’ve been suffocating, it should have been overwhelming, but it just made her feel safe, made her feel anchored. “But we can stay a while anyway.”
“What makes you think we can’t be quiet?” Duke asked, amused, eyes dancing with silent laughter.
“Experience,” Nathan replied, playfully vehement. “Either one of you alone, you’re fine. The two of you together, you talk.”
“And you don’t?” Duke teased, and Nathan just gave him a look, pointed and wordless. “…Point made,” Duke yielded, grinning, and Nathan looked satisfied, smiled back, and Audrey was absolutely sure the phrase ‘heart eyes’ had been coined specifically for the way Duke looked back at him, adoration and wonder and so much love it made her breath catch.
She wondered, sometimes, how either of them had missed it for as long as they had. Duke was really no kind of subtle.
Duke looked down at the hitch in her breathing, raised a brow in a silent question, and she smiled, nestled down, and put on an expression of faux seriousness.
“Tell me a secret,” she said, the words slipping out, and she wasn’t sure it was what she’d meant to say, wasn’t sure she hadn’t been planning on something less… open-ended, but Duke tilted his head quizzically and smiled, and Nathan chuckled softly next to her.
“Any secret?” Duke asked, considering, and Audrey nodded, letting her hand rest over Nathan and Duke’s.
“Anything,” she agreed.
“The secret ingredient in the hot cocoa you love that you can’t figure out is almond extract,” he said, after a moment. Audrey laughed, and traced her finger over the back of his hand.
“I knew there was something you weren’t telling me, I knew I could never get it right,” she said, and he smirked.
“Why do you think I wasn’t telling you? Can’t have you making it for yourself, you might decide you don’t need me.” And it was a joke, light and easy and utterly unconcerned, but Audrey’s amusement flickered out, and she wriggled enough to sit up, enough so that she could pin him in place with a serious look.
“That will never happen,” she said, and she could feel Nathan’s hand tighten around Duke’s keeping him from moving, keeping him from backing away or redirecting with another joke. Could feel that he’d gone quiet and serious at her side, because they didn’t talk about it, often, didn’t make too much a point of it, but she knew she wasn’t the only one of them struggling to understand where they fit, sometimes. What their purpose was, where they belonged, in the wake of everything they’d been and done. “We will always need you. Okay?”
“Keep us both grounded,” Nathan added, the words careful and precise, and it was such a deliberate statement that Audrey knew he must’ve devoted some thought to it, that it wasn’t just coming out of the moment.
“We need you, Duke,” Audrey said, earnest and insistent, and Duke’s smile had faded, his expression serious and startled and unprepared.
“Okay,” he said, after a moment, and she wasn’t sure he entirely believed it, wasn’t sure any of them were ever going to entirely believe it- but they had time. They had years, to repeat it over and over until it sank in. Duke managed a smile, deliberate and practiced, and leaned up to kiss Audrey, then leaned across her to kiss Nathan, just as deliberate and just as practiced. “Okay,” he repeated. “…Not going anywhere. You know that.”
“We know,” Nathan said, voice low and gruff. “Wouldn’t let you anyway.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Duke replied, laughter back in his voice. “You are cops, you have resources, you would track me down and drag me back home, I remember. You have made that very clear.”
“Damn right we would,” Audrey replied, shifting back down, wedging herself back into her comfortable nook between them. “You belong right here with us.”
“Though, you want to get up and make breakfast…” Nathan started, a hint of humor in his voice, and he let out a quiet oomph when Audrey elbowed him.
“No,” she said. “Nobody’s moving yet. We have time.”
They had all the time in the world.