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Safe Here in your Warmth II

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It was nearly two before they actually left Audrey’s apartment.

Audrey hadn’t let them out of bed until nearly noon, and breakfast had been a leisurely affair.  Duke had made eggnog pancakes, because it amused him to hear Nathan squawk good-naturedly about ‘corrupting’ the recipe- particularly when Nathan inevitably ended up going back for thirds, because Duke knew what he was doing, thank you very much.  Duke and Nathan had spent a few minutes, afterwards, going over the windows and the doors, double-checking that everything was secure- the storm was supposed to be a bad one, and Gull was exposed, was positioned to catch the wind right in the teeth, and none of them wanted to come back in two days and find that something had given and the apartment was full of ice.

Audrey watched them work from the couch, swathed in a sweater that was decidedly too large for her (Duke had lost track of which of them it had originally belonged to, whether it was one of his that had been left at Nathan’s a decade ago, or one of Nathan’s that had become a permanent fixture on the Rouge, but it was definitely Audrey’s now) with her hands wrapped around a mug of the cocoa he’d finally shown her how to make properly.  She made the occasional grinning (and not particularly helpful) suggestion, which they nodded along with and then promptly ignored, and Audrey laughed and switched over to heckling and catcalls.

Nathan caught Duke’s eye, at one point, and Duke nodded, and as soon as they were sure the work was properly done, they’d turned as a unit and gone on the attack, resulting in another ten minutes lost to a tickle-war to which the coffee-table nearly became a casualty; Duke declared victory for Team Not-Audrey when Audrey had been reduced to laughing so hard she was wheezing and her efforts to fight back had mostly been reduced to random flailing.  Audrey gave him a look that promised retaliation later, and Duke just grinned back, because he was fairly sure he could count on Nathan’s protection for this one.

Snow was already coming down, blowing almost horizontally in the near-constant wind.  It made the drive somewhat uncomfortable, but Nathan had spent a lot of years driving in Maine winters, and he handled it with his usual calm.  Duke spent a moment to fret over the Rouge, but she should be fine; he’d done what he could to prepare her for the weather the day before, and nothing he could do now was going to make any difference.

He, after all, had never been able to control the weather.

A quick stop for groceries- just in case the storm lasted longer than expected- meant they weren’t actually settled in at Nathan’s until three thirty, because a quick stop with all three of them there was never actually all that quick.  Between the weather and the hour, it was already starting to get dark, and the storm was only getting worse, the wind howling and whistling as they got themselves sorted out and inside.

Duke immediately began working on dinner, while Audrey and Nathan checked in with Dwight over the radio.  Duke listened to their conversation- nothing critical, Haven was not unfamiliar with bad weather, and the town was taking things in stride- as he put together the start of a hearty stew for later, navigating Nathan’s kitchen with comfortable ease.  At some point, they were probably going to have to settle on a single location, were going to have to yield to the fact that keeping up three households scattered around town was impractical, but for now, they’d all simply settled into each others’ spaces without much fuss.  Though Duke was getting a little tired of trying to keep track of three different spice cabinets.

“You’re out of oregano,” he commented, when Nathan made his way over and looped an arm around his waist, leaning against his side.  “Also paprika.”

“How badly do you need them?” Nathan asked, and it’d been months, now, and it still took a second for Duke to register why Nathan was asking, to read the meaning underneath.  He dropped the spatula he was holding, when it clicked, turned to shove Nathan up against the counter and kiss him, and Nathan made a startled sound, but kissed back.

“Not badly enough that you’re going back to the store in this weather,” Duke answered, when he pulled back.  “I can improvise.  Just write down that we need them.”

“…Okay,” Nathan said, with a faint, subtle smile.  “Anything else?”

“I’ll let you know.”

“Need help?”

“Mm.  Definitely not.  I got this, Nate, go keep Audrey busy.  Gonna be a slow few days, and you know how she gets.”  Duke leaned in and took another kiss, and Nathan made a quiet sound of pleasure before he pulled back and made a face.

“…Yeah.  Least we have a few ways to burn energy.”

Duke grinned, and gave Nathan a careful shove.

“You’re terrible, and also right.  Go, keep our girl entertained.  Don’t do anything too fun without me.”

“Hurry up, then,” Nathan replied, smirking, and Duke laughed as Nathan sauntered back out of the kitchen.

He hadn’t bothered to write down the spices they were out of; Duke would try to remember to do it later.  It really would be easier, if they only had one kitchen.

…He’d been thinking about that a lot, lately, maybe more than he should.  Things were working, and admittedly, going from place to place helped ease his own restless nature, but this was starting to look like a very permanent arrangement.  And it was- maybe it was stupid, when nothing at all about any of them was traditional or proper, but if they were going to settle down, it kinda felt like maybe they actually, well, should.

Like they should have a place- one place, a place that was theirs, not three places that were still decidedly individual.  A place where they could build new memories, together.

He’d nearly slipped, earlier, when Audrey had caught him off-guard and asked him for a secret.  Had nearly admitted that he’d been looking at places, trying to find something that would fit.  That he’d maybe found something.  And he was going to have to bring it up sooner or later, because it wasn’t the kind of decision he could just make, was the kind of thing that didn’t work if they didn’t all agree, and the moment had been there, Audrey looking up at him sweet and playful and all of them still warm and comfortable and relaxed, it had been on the tip of his tongue-

-and the secret ingredient in his cocoa recipe had slipped out instead, something small and harmless and inconsequential.

It bothered him; he thought he’d gotten past being scared.  It shouldn’t even be that big a deal- they were already living together, and Audrey’s apartment was definitely too small for the three of them, and the Rouge was getting harder to maintain, was showing her years, and Nathan’s place-

-well, old family home or not, it’d be nice not to feel like the house itself disapproved of him.  It’d been Garland’s place for a lot longer than it’d been Nathan’s, after all.

Maybe he’d mention it when the storm had passed, when they weren’t going to spend a good three, four days without anywhere to go if they needed some space.

For now, well, maintaining three spice cabinets was a small price to pay for what he was getting in exchange.  And he could hear Audrey laughing from down the hall, warm and easy, and Nathan’s quiet, amused rumble, and he hurried to finish getting everything put together and set to simmer for the next few hours before they did start to have too much fun without him.

***

“Snow finally stopped,” Nathan reported, stomping snow off of his boots next to the kitchen door, and Duke leaned back in his chair, rolled out his shoulders and dropped his head back to stretch his neck.

Finally,” he said, genuinely relieved; he’d been through substantially worse, and at least the power had stayed on the whole time, but Audrey did not handle being cooped up well.  “How bad is it?”

“Gonna take some work to get the drive clear,” Nathan said, shrugging, “but it’s not as bad as ninety six.”

“Ninety six was terrible, why is that your baseline?” Duke asked, grousing good-naturedly.  “Pick a rational year, is it better or worse than oh eight?”

“Worse,” Nathan said, shaking his head.  “Gonna take a while to dig out.”

“I’ll get it started, I could use the chance to get outside and move,” Duke said, standing up and crossing the kitchen to steal a kiss.  Nathan kissed back, and Duke made an indignant and undignified noise when Nathan’s hands slipped under his shirt and his nose pressed into his cheek- Nathan was cold, damnit.  Nathan just laughed at him, clearly unconcerned by Duke’s displeasure, pressing further into his space to nuzzle at his neck and push his hands further into Duke’s clothes.

“Warm,” Nathan commented, with his face pressed firmly into the crook of Duke’s neck, voice laden with amusement.

“And you are freezing, damnit,” Duke replied, laughing and trying to slip free, which was made more difficult when Nathan backed him into the kitchen wall, trapping him in place.  “No, okay, not fair, that-”

“Very warm,” Nathan taunted, one hand slipping down Duke’s back and beneath his belt and that was definitely inappropriate when Nathan was still that cold, and Duke made another entirely undignified sound.

“Audrey!” he yelled, not at all above cheating himself, and Nathan laughed, low and rich and rumbling against Duke’s skin.

“Coward,” Nathan chided, though he did withdraw his hands and pull back, and his grin was warm and full of affection.

“Practical,” Duke countered, grinning back, and leaning in to take another kiss, just because.  “See how you like it, when I come back inside,” he added, the threat clearly lacking any kind of weight, given the speculative look Nathan gave him in return.

“Why are we yelling?” Audrey asked, before Nathan could reply, padding into the kitchen in a pair of fuzzy slippers, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

“Distract our boyfriend, please,” Duke said, instead of explaining, and Audrey furrowed her brows, looking them over- flushed and grinning and slightly disheveled, Nathan still more or less pinning Duke to the wall- and shrugged.

“Your loss,” Audrey said, opening her arms and beckoning for Nathan, and Nathan laughed and crossed the kitchen to accept the offered hug, literally scooping Audrey off of her feet to accomplish it.  She laughed, then squeaked.  “Oh my God you’re freezing,” she complained, and Duke laughed as he went for his coat and boots.

“Yeah, that’s after he warmed his hands up on me,” he pointed out, and Audrey made a face at him over Nathan’s shoulder, eyes sparkling in the cold white morning light that filtered through the windows.

“You could’ve warned me,” she accused, and Duke just grinned at her.

“Sorry,” he said, not actually sorry at all.

“Uh huh,” she said, with a vaguely judgmental raise of her eyebrow, but it was softened by the smile she clearly couldn’t suppress.  “You going outside?”

“Just gonna start working on clearing the drive,” he assured, and Audrey nodded and wriggled in Nathan’s hold.

“Okay.  Nathan, put me down, come sit by the fire and have something warm to drink.”

“Mm, okay,” Nathan said, adjusting his hold enough to very deliberately keep Audrey’s feet off the ground as he headed back toward the living room.

“That is not-” Audrey started, and Duke missed the rest as he stepped out onto the porch to finish getting his winter wear on, but he was still grinning, anyway, warmed all the way through in a way the cold couldn’t touch.

***

He’d been working for the better part of an hour, and had made far less progress than he would have preferred- he wasn’t entirely sure Nathan was correct in his estimate that it wasn’t as bad as ninety six- when he heard the door from the porch open, and he paused, set his shovel aside and stretched his back before he turned around.  Audrey was bundled up against the cold, a cheerful patch of color against the bright blank snow, picking her way down the ice-slick porch steps with care.  He drifted a few steps in her direction, met her halfway.

“Hey,” he said, “what’re you doin’ out here?”

“Just checking on you,” Audrey replied, and Duke raised an eyebrow, because she’d gone to an awful lot of effort getting dressed just to come out and check on him.

“Everything okay?” he asked, reaching out, and she caught his gloved hand, gave it a tight squeeze.

“Everything’s fine,” she promised, and her tone was just slightly off, her attention not quite on him- she was focused over his left shoulder, though she was trying hard not to show it, and he felt a prickle along the back of his neck.  Wary, now, Duke shifted left, just a little, automatically moving to place himself between her and whatever the possible threat might be, and he slid his hand up from hers, along her arm, until he’d be able to get a firm enough grip to move her if he needed to, and he kept his breathing carefully steady, tried to keep his posture casual despite the sharp, urgent press of alarm.

“Uh huh,” he said, rolling out one shoulder and using the movement to turn slightly, scanning the yard to the right- the lots were divided by a set of low shrubs, currently no more than a slightly taller bump in the snowcover, and there was nothing threatening that way, no disturbance in the snow, no trace of movement.  He mirrored the movement, scanning left, and his pulse kicked up at a line of disturbed snow that definitely hadn’t been there before, cutting across the edge of the property from behind the carport to behind the house, which was not something he should’ve missed, no matter how focused he’d been on the task at hand.  He turned further, grip on Audrey’s jacket-padded arm going tight as he did shift her, and he wished he hadn’t left the shovel out of reach, it wasn’t much of a weapon but it was a hell of a lot better than nothing-

-he caught sight of a very familiar red-and-grey sleeve, peeking around the edge of the carport, and the tension drained out of him, confusion slipping in to take its place, which lasted precisely as long as Nathan stayed half-hidden; when he stepped out, snowball in hand, Duke understood immediately, and turned just enough to shoot Audrey a betrayed, petulant glare.

“Really, the both of you?” he said, and she grinned at him, puckish and not even slightly chagrined, and Duke dropped his protective hold, turning back toward Nathan.  “Nathan, don’t you dare throw that snowball- goddamnit!”  The snowball caught him, mid-threat, high in the chest- high enough that the scatter stung cold and bright against his chin and cheeks.  Nathan crowed his success, laughter echoing off of the fences and buildings, and that could not stand-

-the second snowball smacked into the back of his jacket, and Duke swore and made a break for the dubious shelter of one of the small evergreens planted in the yard, because he definitely couldn’t take them both on without some kind of shield.  Audrey’s high, tickled laugh chased right on his heels, and Duke resolved to make very sure that they were both thoroughly trounced before the game was over.

***

Exhausted, panting, Duke took shelter behind the edge of the porch, and tried to gauge where Nathan had gone.  Nathan’s alliance with Audrey had lasted a grand total of ten minutes before Audrey had turned on him and it had become a wild free-for-all; last Duke had seen, Nathan had been taking shelter behind his truck, but he doubted Nathan was still there.  Audrey- who had lost her hat, her hair plastered to her cheeks, little flecks of ice scattered throughout and catching the light to make her sparkle in the weak sunlight- had taken up a position at the edge of the drive, fortified behind the snow he’d shoveled, the minx, and while she had a commanding position over most of the yard, he was relatively safe where he was.

Except, of course, that he couldn’t see Nathan, and that was definitely a problem.

The smooth, clean layer of snow had been entirely demolished; the front yard was a churned up map of trails and scuffs and awkwardly-posed impressions where people had tripped and gone sprawling.  Duke was freezing, and soaked, and bruised in no few places, one glove lost somewhere in amidst the carnage, and he definitely wouldn’t be getting that back until spring.  Duke was very near the point of conceding defeat, just so that he could go inside and warm up- he’d been outside and working for almost an hour before they’d come out to play, after all- but he wasn’t going to surrender until he was sure Nathan was just as thoroughly worn out.

“Oh, come on, you two, you really planning to just hide?” Audrey called, loud and taunting, and Duke scooped together a snowball and slung it around the corner in her approximate direction; his aim was good, and she squeaked and only partly dodged, taking a glancing blow to the shoulder.

“You’re in a fort, you don’t get to talk!” he called back, once he was safely back behind the porch.  “You-”

The snow behind him crunched, and Duke didn’t have time to react before he was being tackled, momentum carrying him and Nathan a handful of feet back beyond the edge of the porch.  Duke wound up with a mouthful of snow, but he was still more flexible than Nathan by a wide margin, and he twisted and shifted his weight and managed to wind up on top, pinning Nathan to his back in the snow.  Nathan was flushed and grinning and had kept his outerwear intact, but he had a skinny fan of fir needles caught in the back of his knitted hat, sticking up over the top of his head, and he didn’t seem too put out at being pinned.

“Not your best plan ever, Nate,” Duke said, smirking at him, and Nathan laughed breathlessly.

“I dunno, pretty sure I’m still winnin’,” he replied, and Duke couldn’t help but laugh in response.

“You about done?” he asked, before he had to drop flat, hiding his face against Nathan’s shoulder as Audrey sent three snowballs in rapid succession at their very exposed position, and Nathan took advantage of his distraction to flip them, and Duke exhaled heavily as Nathan’s weight landed more firmly on him than he would’ve preferred.

“Yeah, ‘bout,” Nathan said, smug, his gloved hands going tight around Duke’s wrists.  “You?”

“…Very,” Duke agreed, entirely distracted from the game, though not distracted enough not to laugh when a snowball exploded on Nathan’s shoulder.

“On three, I let you up, we rush her?” Nathan asked, and Duke nodded, and Nathan’s grip on his wrists relaxed.  “One, two- three.”

Nathan scrambled, shifting sideways just enough to let Duke roll himself to his feet and break left, and they rushed across the yard- well, for a certain value of ‘rushed’, anyway- and Audrey managed one good hit on each of them before they got to her.  They couldn’t tackle her, not given her position on the driveway, but Nathan scooped her up and carefully tossed her at Duke, who caught her and very deliberately dropped them both into the snow, rolling them a few times while she shrieked and laughed.  He came to a stop on his back, her back pressed into his chest and his arms around her, protective and deliberate, and she made absolutely no effort to move, still laughing.

“Truce?” he asked, beside her ear, and she managed to nod, and Nathan trudged over and offered them his hands; Audrey took one, Duke took the other, and he helped pull them to their feet.  They ended up in a comfortable tangle, leaning into each other, and they stood that way for just a moment, little huffs of laughter mingling in visible clouds in the air.

“Okay, inside, c’mon, ‘fore we all freeze,” Nathan said finally, pushing them toward the house.  “Need to get you out of those wet things.”

“You just want to get us naked,” Duke accused, and Nathan shifted his hand down, sneaking in a quick grope.

“Maybe,” he admitted blithely.  “You complainin’?”

“Nope,” Duke said, grinning.  “Definitely not.”

“Good,” Nathan said, with an entirely too charming smirk, and really, it was.