Summary: If a person can come back from the dead, maybe a friendship has a chance, too. Nathan and Duke, postscript to "Magic Hour."
“And the guest of honor finally arrives.” Duke ambles out to meet Nathan as he steps out of his truck in the Grey Gull’s parking lot. Nathan senses that the genial slap on the back is coming even before Duke raises his hand, and he braces himself against it. “Everyone’s been waiting for you. Well, everyone who knows what we’re actually celebrating, so about a half-dozen people, but still.”
Nathan sets his jaw to keep it from falling open at the sight of the crowd. He didn’t believe Audrey when she called him to tell him why he needed to come to the Gull, and he doesn’t totally believe it now. “What is this?”
“You were dead and now you’re not. If that’s not a reason to throw a party, I don’t know what is.”
“In other words, you needed an excuse to throw a party,” Nathan retorts. Jordan is leaning on the railing of the deck, looking out at him with a wide smile. He smiles back, although probably not as wide, and quickens his pace.
“I never need an excuse,” Duke says. “Which, fortunately, means that nobody here today is going to ask too many questions about why I’m throwing one now.” He puts hand on Nathan’s shoulder and steers him away from the deck. “Hey, slow down a little. I need to have a word with you first.”
It’s what Nathan has been expecting. Of course Duke has some other angle he’s trying to play. He holds back a sigh and lets Duke lead him around the back side of an SUV that blocks the view from the building. “What do you want?”
The rough hug that Duke pulls him into only lasts for a fraction of a second, but it’s still enough to knock the breath out of Nathan, as much from the shock of it as the impact.
Nathan doesn’t have time to react, doesn’t know how he would react if he did, before Duke steps back. One hand maintains a grip on Nathan’s forearm and the other jabs a threatening finger in his face. “Don’t you ever die on me again, you understand me?” His voice is rough, not the way that Duke’s voice is always rough, but with something heavy and choking, and his face is sharp and intense.
Nathan just stares at him, getting his breath back. There’s real fear in Duke’s eyes, the burning panic of coming too close to losing someone. It’s a look that belongs to the past, to a Duke and Nathan who were actual friends, not just people who happen to have similar goals more often than not these days. It belongs to the kind of friendship deep enough that seeing Duke piss it away was pain enough to reactivate Nathan’s affliction.
Nathan has spent years assuming that relationship was dead. It crosses his mind now, not for the first time, that in Duke’s mind it’s merely lying dormant until better circumstances present themselves – or until something shocks it awake. It also crosses his mind that maybe neither one of them is right about that, but maybe Duke isn’t totally wrong, either. He nods once, slow and solemn. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Duke lets out a single raw breath and releases Nathan with one last half-slap to his shoulder. He walks around the side of the SUV and suddenly he’s Duke again, all easy smiles as he catches sight of Audrey and Dwight and calls a greeting to them, acting like he doesn’t notice Nathan walking beside him.
Audrey lights up when she sees Nathan. It still stings to see her, but for once he’s grateful for the distraction.
Duke catches Nathan’s eye in town the next day, and Nathan’s not sure what to expect. He’d normally assume that Duke wants something from him, obviously, but after last night he’s not sure what to think. He promises himself that he’ll at least go into this conversation with an open mind.
“Hey,” Duke says, trotting across the street to reach him. He drums the back of his hand briefly on Nathan’s arm. “I need your help with something.”
So much for an open mind. “Gee, what a surprise,” Nathan says, turning away to get back to his own business.
Duke keeps pace with him, giving him his usual put-upon look. “Don’t give me that. It’s for Audrey.”
Nathan relents almost immediately, as Duke doubtless knew he would. He rolls his eyes. “You have one minute.”
“She said something in Colorado,” Duke says, and he immediately has Nathan’s full attention. Audrey still hasn’t told him about Colorado yet; he keeps telling himself that she will, she told him she would, she’s just waiting for a good time. “Nothing she remembers from before she got here is real,” Duke continues. “There’s so much she hasn’t actually experienced. It’s getting to her.”
Nathan is pretty sure this isn’t what Audrey had planned to tell him about Colorado. He’s also pretty sure that there’s something Duke isn’t telling him. Nevertheless, he gives him a ‘continue’ nod.
“She also said last night that she’s starting to realize that she needs to have a little more fun with...whatever time she has left.” They both wince at that; Duke suddenly becoming solemn and quiet. “We need to help her with that. It’s not like we can take her to Disney World or anything, but we can at least give her some good memories that are hers.”
It’s been a long time since Nathan’s heard Duke use ‘we’ like that, in a way that actually means ‘the two of us, working together’ instead of ‘you doing something and me reaping the profit,’ and naturally he wants to do anything he can for Audrey. But he can’t help being skeptical. “And after a lifetime of accusing me of being incapable of having fun, you’re coming to me with this because...?”
The seriousness goes out of Duke’s face, replaced with a slightly wicked glint to his eye. “Because you are uniquely suited to at least one thing I had in mind,” he says. Nathan raises an eyebrow. Duke drops his voice. “Did you really think that I’d forget about your little collection of guilty pleasures? I figure your stash must have at least doubled while I was gone.”
Nathan scoffs lightly, covering up both his surprise that Duke remembers one of their favorite childhood pastimes and his embarrassment that he’s right about the new acquisitions. “Really? That’s your plan? Bring some joy into Audrey’s life by introducing her to the world of bad science fiction movies?”
“It always cheered you up,” Duke says with a faint smile. “Besides. I hear she’s found out about most of your other embarrassing hobbies. What can one more hurt?”
Nathan is sheepish and Audrey is skeptical as he leads her through his DVD rack. He moves slowly, making sure she has time to see all the cinematic classics that make up the bulk of his movie collection, the masterworks of sight and sound that create worlds meant to be experienced without touch, before digging into his stash of the truly awful. Duke is unexpectedly silent, his face clearly saying that Nathan’s discomfiture is entertaining enough on its own that it needs no commentary. Nathan tries to fight off the feeling that this is another setup in which embarrassing him is Duke’s entire goal. He reminds himself that Duke is providing and paying for all the food tonight, and that has to suggest at least some degree of sincerity.
“It’s just weird,” Audrey says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you light up like this when there wasn’t a baby involved, and it’s over something you know is bad.”
“You can’t fully appreciate good movies until you’ve learned to love laughing at the bad ones,” Nathan insists. He shoots a glare at Duke, who’s smothering a silent laugh over the baby remark. “And you can’t really love a bad movie until you’ve learned to love a good one. They complement each other.” Audrey’s got that gentle look that says she’s humoring him, but when she tilts her head at him he thinks some part of her might actually be interested. Suddenly, Nathan wants nothing more than to spend the rest of his life teaching her how to love film the way he does.
“Or, for the less pretentious among us, spectacular failures are even more entertaining than spectacular successes,” Duke interjects.
The momentum of the moment falls away, and even as Nathan grits his teeth he thinks he might be grateful. “Which is why I’m still willing to associate with you sometimes,” he returns.
Duke raises his glass, but doesn’t rise to the burn. Instead, he puts a confiding arm around Audrey. “You will probably never hear me say these words again, but trust Nathan on this. The man is the undisputed master of terrible movies. He won’t steer you wrong.”
Audrey half laughs, half sighs as she lifts her eyes skyward. “All right, you win. Start one up, I’ll start the popcorn.”
Nathan can’t help giving Duke a look of surprise. That wasn’t much of a compliment, but it was still nicer than most of what Duke says to or about him. “Thanks.”
Duke gives him a little smirk and punches him lightly in the arm. “Hey, I’m just being nice ‘cause you were dead.”
Audrey needs no convincing once the first movie starts. After the first few minutes, once the shock of am I actually watching a movie about giant mutant rabbits? wears off, she’s laughing harder than Duke, and exchanging deadpan commentary with him that would put the Mystery Science Theater guys to shame. Nathan, wedged between the two of them on the couch, remains mostly silent. The sound of Audrey’s delight is better than the movie, and Duke’s vicious sense of humor is something Nathan actually appreciates when it’s not aimed at him.
It takes a little longer before Nathan realizes what should have been obvious from the start. It’s not his movie collection Duke is using him for tonight, it’s his presence. He’s giving Audrey what she needs most, and it’s something that Nathan doesn’t think even the ‘real’ Audrey Parker had too many memories of. He’s giving her a night with friends, people who love her and want nothing more than to be with her and see her happy. He wonders why it took him so long to recognize that. Maybe because it’s been so long since he had friends like this himself, and even longer since one of them was Duke.
Nathan looks away from the screen, and for the first time he notices how closely Duke is sitting to him. His leg is resting against Nathan’s, so lightly that Nathan might not have noticed even if he could feel, but the contact is definitely there. Nathan thinks back over the last couple days and finds memories of a dozen little touches, all the way back to that unprecedented hug. It dawns on him that Duke is reassuring himself that Nathan is still there, that the miracle that brought him back wasn’t some kind of dream. After everything they’ve been through, Duke still gives a damn about him. The only thing more surprising is the realization that maybe he still gives a damn about Duke, too.
Nathan looks up to see that Duke is looking back at him. His face is impassive, and he makes no effort to move away. Nathan knows he should say something, but he doesn’t know how to say ‘you still matter.’ Finally he leans in a little, keeping his voice low enough that Audrey isn’t likely to hear it over the movie. “I meant it. I’m not going anywhere.”
Duke smiles at him, his usual lazy, not-a-care-in-the-world grin, and now he shifts his weight and leans away, settling back into the couch. “Shut up and watch the movie.”
On Nathan’s other side, Audrey bursts into another peal of angelic laughter, and he’s all too happy to follow Duke’s instructions.