Hematite Badger (hematitebadger) wrote,
Hematite Badger
hematitebadger

Ex Libris, pt. 3: The Thorn In Your Side (2/2)


“Cell reception still isn’t great that far out of town,” Duke told Audrey as they barreled down the road, heading for the sheep farm. “Nathan’s connection might have just dropped out.”

“He’d have found a way to call back by now,” Audrey said. “Either on the radio or on someone else’s phone. The contact number for the farm is a land line.”

“Sometimes those go out, too,” Duke said. “Wouldn’t surprise me if magic messes with them somehow. I’m just saying, no point in assuming the worst yet.”

Audrey took her eyes off the road to say something sarcastic, but it was plain on Duke’s face that he was trying to convince himself. “Maybe not,” she conceded grimly. It didn’t ease the knot in her stomach that had been getting tighter every minute since she’d hung up on the silence on Nathan’s end of the phone. She’d tried calling him back to no answer, nor had anyone answered the phone at the farm. She hadn’t hesitated a second before jumping in the car to go after him, and Duke had been right behind her. “This place isn’t that far is it?”

“No,” Duke said, and the fact that he didn’t say anything further was all the proof Audrey needed that he was just as worried as she was. He hadn’t offered any speculation as to what might have happened to Nathan, whether because he didn’t have any ideas or because he didn’t want to think about it.

The sheep farm really was only a short distance away, especially at the speed Audrey was driving. There was Nathan’s truck outside it, looking perfectly ordinary, with his jacket on the seat. “Anything about this look suspicious to you?”

“Not a lot of fairy tales about trucks,” Duke returned, not really looking at her.

Audrey took that as a ‘no.’ She peered through the truck’s window and ran a hand over the door, then checked the ground where she could still see Nathan’s footprints in the dust. “No blood.” It was occurring to her, belatedly, that there was always the possibility that Nathan had injured himself in some mundane way and just hadn’t noticed it until he’d bled enough to make him light-headed. She wasn’t sure if that would be a better or worse outcome than getting trapped in a story. “If he’s just wounded, it probably didn’t happen until he was away from here.”

Duke made a bitter sound. “If that jackass dragged us all the way out here because he’s ‘just wounded’ and didn’t notice, I’m gonna kill him.”

That brought Audrey out of her own concern for a moment. “You’re really worried about him, aren’t you?”

“Given that he’s apparently incapable of worrying about himself,” Duke said. His voice was sharp, but quiet, like he was talking more to himself than anything else.

It was the same strange tension that always seemed to hover between Duke and Nathan. They rarely seemed to be more than a few words away from a full-on brawl, but any time one of them was in real trouble the other would be the first to respond. It was exhausting to be caught in the middle of, and there had been plenty of times when Audrey had wanted to smack one or both of them and say you don’t think you could try caring about him when you’re not worried he’s gonna die? But there was something sweet about it, too, sometimes, knowing that she could rely on them to look out for each other, especially when the thought crept in that she might not be around to look after them much longer. “I’m sure he’s gonna be fine,” she told Duke. It was the same thing she’d tried to tell herself for the entire trip up, but when she was saying it to someone else she could almost make herself believe it. She started towards the farm, giving his arm a little tug “Come on.”

A flurry of barking heralded their arrival, catching the attention of a woman Audrey assumed was the farm’s owner. She had a sheep slung over her shoulders in a fireman’s carry, and she gave Audrey a speculative look as she approached them. “You’re Wournos’ new partner, yeah? The out-of-towner?”

“Audrey Parker,” she introduced herself, affecting a calm, professional demeanor. “And this is—”

“Him I know,” the woman said, though now she was eyeing Duke with a similarly probing look. “You working with them now?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Consulting,” Duke said. “On an as-needed basis.”

A dubious grunt. “Sandra Pace,” the woman said, shaking Audrey’s hand once. “Wournos call you out to help him?”

“He did,” Audrey said, relieved that she wasn’t going to have to convince this woman of anything. “Where is he?”

Sandra jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Big grey barn, can’t miss it. I’d take you, but I’m in the middle of something here. You folks gonna be much longer with this?”

“I hope not,” Audrey said with a smile that she hoped didn’t look too fake. “Thanks.”

“Duke,” Sandra said abruptly as the two of them turned to make their way to the barn. She gave Audrey the eye again and lowered her voice, though not so low that Audrey couldn’t hear. “When you’re done ‘consulting,’ give me a call. Got a business proposition for you.”

Duke raised an eyebrow, but nodded shortly before turning away again. “No idea,” he said in an undertone before Audrey could ask him what that had been about. She didn’t think he was lying, but she also thought that was the response he’d give her about a potential business deal under any circumstance.

The barn was probably not as imposing or ominous a building as it looked to Audrey just then. She balked, nervous at the thought of walking into any barn at the moment. Duke stepped around her and opened the door, not taking any notice of her discomfort.

For all of their shared single-mindedness, both of them had to stop and stare for a moment at the sight inside. It was like someone had piled sunlight on the old floorboards. “That’s gold,” Duke said unnecessarily.

It was enough to break Audrey out of her own surprise. “Not why we’re here.”

“I’m just saying. That’s a lot of gold.” Duke shook his head. “Nathan?” he called into the building. There was no answer.

The place was a mess of mystery tools and dark corners. If Nathan was here, he must be in the shadows somewhere. “Nathan?” she tried, half convinced that he still might answer her. He didn’t.

Duke was still staring fixedly at the spinning wheel, his face growing grim. “What?” Audrey asked.

He shook his head. “Got a hunch,” he said, walking forward. “Just find Nathan. He’s gonna be in here.”

He sounded more certain than Audrey felt. Realizing that he wasn’t going to give her any further explanation, she began circling the room, poking her head around the machinery and calling Nathan’s name.

It wasn’t long before she found the crumpled form collapsed under a table. “Nathan!”

He looked like he’d simply collapsed, half on his side with his legs folded under him and his arm outstretched. Audrey was on the floor beside him instantly, turning his face upward and checking for signs of life. She eventually located a pulse in his neck, slow and faint, and when she brought her face down close to his she could feel the warmth of his breath every few seconds. Her own pulse and breathing started to slow, coming down from the panic of that terrible moment when she’d thought he might be dead. “He’s alive,” she said to Duke, who she was just now noticing had been at her side from the moment he heard her shout.

Duke made a sound that was half relief, half annoyance. “Thought so,” he said. “Come on, get him out in the open.” He got his hands under Nathan’s legs, helping Audrey pull him out from under the table and flat onto his back.

“It’s like he’s in a coma,” Audrey said, extricating herself from his dead weight but staying on her knees at his side. “I don’t remember anything like this from Rumpelstiltskin.”

Duke was kneeling on Nathan’s other side, a hand on his shoulder. “He came in to check out one story and got caught in another,” he told her. He hooked one finger into the cuff of Nathan’s sleeve and lifted his arm, seemingly trying not to touch him. He let the arm fall to rest across Nathan’s chest, and Audrey understood why when she saw the trickle of blood running down the side of Nathan’s hand. “There’s blood on the spinning wheel, too,” Duke said quietly. He looked up at Audrey, and his mouth curled into an ironic smile. “At least this is one of the easy solutions,” he said, drawing back and sitting on his heels.

Giving us a little breathing room, Audrey realized as the implication hit her. Everyone knew how to wake up Sleeping Beauty. “I can’t,” she said. It was an automatic reaction as she recoiled from the idea of being Nathan’s true love’s kiss. She wasn’t in love with him, she had tried so hard not to be, and doing something this mythical and dramatic to tell the world that she was could only end in tragedy for him, as it had for the other men she’d loved.

Why not?”

The force in Duke’s voice, angry and frantic, nearly pushed her backwards. His teeth were bared, and he was looking at her with the sort of fury she was used to seeing from some of the more aggressively terrified Troubled people she’d dealt with. You can fix this. Why haven’t you done it already? “I’m not part of the story, remember?” she shot back, almost as aggressive as he’d been. In her fear of marking Nathan as someone she loved, she’d forgotten that for a moment.

“Ever since you got here, he hasn’t had a single story you’re not part of,” Duke said, less angry but still forceful. “A Trouble isn’t going to change that.”

It was similar to what Nathan had said to her on the phone. You always fit into my story. He’d just been being as awkwardly sentimental as he always got around her, or so she’d assumed. But what if he’d been unwittingly giving her a clue that this one didn’t follow the same rules as the others? If it worked, she might be putting Nathan in danger in the future. But if she was supposed to wake him and she didn’t, this Trouble might never be solved. She had to try. It was her duty. “Okay,” she murmured, hearing the breath go out of Duke as he stood up. “Okay.”

There was a lump in her throat as she bent over Nathan’s still form. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, praying that there would be time to fix whatever damage this might cause. Nathan’s lips were warm under hers, and she wondered if, in his unconscious state, he could still feel her. She didn’t know whether or not to hope he could.

Nothing happened. Nathan didn’t move; the rhythm of his slow breathing didn’t change. A second kiss continued to fail to show any results. Audrey looked up at Duke, seeing a mirror of her own feelings in the sick, sinking look on his face. “It didn’t work.”

“Okay,” Duke said, running a hand over the back of his neck and turning away from her to pace a few steps, his face and voice turning frantic with desperate thought. “There are other versions of the story. Sometimes... sometimes there’s a splinter of something under her nail, and taking that out wakes her up. Check his nails, and the place where his hand is cut.”

Audrey checked several times, pinching and pulling his split skin until blood ran over her fingertips. “Nothing.” A thought struck her. “He had his phone in his hand when he fell. Did you see where it landed? He has to have Jordan’s number in it, maybe she—”

Duke made a sound of disgust. “If you didn’t work and she did...” he started, not bothering to finish the sentence. Audrey had to admit that a similar thought had been running through her head, but she didn’t want to say so. Duke was still talking, half to himself, trying to pull out a thread of an idea. “Can’t be an apple in his throat; he wouldn’t be breathing. Same with a tightened corset.” He gave Audrey a helpless look. “Poisoned comb? Check his hair?”

“What?”

“I’m going through every enchanted sleep story I know, all right?” Duke fell back to his knees next to Nathan, putting a protective hand on his friend’s shoulder. “There has to be an answer,” he said, his other hand on his own head. “There’s always an answer.”

At a loss for anything else to try, Audrey reached for her phone. It might not be traditional, but calling an ambulance might still be the best idea. They could at least keep Nathan stable until someone figured out how to wake him. She was digging in her pocket when she saw Duke go completely still. It was a stillness she recognized, that moment when the thing you were dodging thinking about hit you so hard you couldn’t ignore it any longer. His hand fell away from his face and he let out a long, slow, resigned breath, looking up at the ceiling with his eyes closed. “You didn’t see this,” he said, so quietly that Audrey barely heard him.

“Wh—” Audrey started, but the question hadn’t even completely formed in her mind before it was answered. The entire world seemed to go silent as Duke bent and pressed his lips against Nathan’s. It was a kiss that only lasted a moment, but it still seemed to contain a lifetime’s worth of love and tenderness, and above all else sorrow.

The silence was broken by a harsh gasp, followed by a burst of coughing as Nathan tried to sit up. Audrey leapt forward to throw her arms around him, her shock at this turn of events eclipsed by her relief at seeing him recovered. For his part, Duke leapt backwards to his feet with sharp grace, pulling back before Nathan could see him there.

“Audrey?” Nathan mumbled against her shoulder, sounding baffled but otherwise perfectly fine. He raised his head and put an arm around her to pat her back reassuringly, despite apparently not knowing what he was reassuring her about. “What happened?”

“You’re an idiot, is what happened,” Duke answered before Audrey could say anything. He was standing some distance away, his arms folded and his usual look of impatience at Nathan’s stupidity on his face. “Who hears that there’s a fairy tale Trouble in town and then stands that close to a spinning wheel?” Audrey didn’t think she was imagining the catch in his carefree voice.

A look at the shy adoration in Nathan’s eyes told Audrey that he was drawing the obvious conclusion about what had happened to him, and who had saved him. A look at the resigned pain deep in Duke’s eyes told her that he was going to let Nathan draw the obvious conclusion. Oh, Duke.

She and Nathan both seemed to realize that she was still holding onto him at the same time. She pulled away, holding him at arm’s length to take a look at him. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” he told her, looking himself over and brushing some dust off his shirt. “Like nothing happened.” He gave her a gently solemn look. “Thank you, Parker.”

Feeling like she’d led him on was even worse than feeling like she’d put a target on his back. “Hey, I look out for my partner,” she said, forcing a smile. She gave him a gentle thump on the shoulder. Come on, get up; we’ve got to get to the station.” She hesitated. “Although... I’m not sure if you should be driving.”

Nathan laughed as he got to his feet. “I’m fine,” he told her again. “It’s not like people relapse from being cursed, right?” He looked to Duke for confirmation.

A one-armed shrug. “If he says he’s fine, he’s fine.” Duke’s voice had gone completely flat.

“See? Right from the expert.” Nathan beamed a little more. “You two get going. I want to talk to Sandra one more time before I leave, but I’ll be right behind you.”

“Okay,” Audrey said. It was probably a good idea to get away from him for a little while, even just for the length of a drive back into town, and at least until she’d had a chance to talk to Duke alone. “Duke? You coming?”

The look Duke gave her said two things: I know you want to talk to me and I really don’t want to talk to you. “It’s a nice day,” he said, still in that flat voice. “Think I might just walk.”

*

Duke hadn’t actually expected Audrey to let him go home alone. They didn’t have the time it would take him to walk back to town, or to find someone nearby who’d be willing to give him a ride. And it wasn’t like she was going to let this pass by without comment. It hadn’t escaped his notice that she was driving far more sedately than she had on their way out to the farm, keeping to a speed that would give her time to interrogate him. Duke would have preferred to hunker down in the farthest corner of the back seat, where it would be easier to ignore her, but apparently she’d guessed that much. His attempt to avoid the front door had been thoroughly squelched by the look on her face, not helped by the knowledge that Nathan had been still in earshot if she’d decided to press the issue.

In the moment, trying not to look at her as she navigated the road as if this were any other drive, he hated her. It wasn’t fair and it wouldn’t last, but he ached to the core and someone had to take the blame. He cared far less about the pain itself than about the fact that she’d seen it, that he’d been forced to reveal something that he’d never let slip to anyone before. And now that she knew... the sneer that curled his lip was involuntary. Audrey Parker was one hell of a liar when it suited her, but she wasn’t going to keep something like this from her partner. By this time tomorrow Nathan would know that Duke was in love with him, and that would be the end of... well, of everything.

“I’m sorry.”

Audrey’s voice was so quiet and gentle that it cut through the noise in Duke’s head. “For what?” he snarled, cracked and brittle.

She didn’t rise to match his tone the way she had in the barn. “For seeing that. It’s pretty obvious that you wish I hadn’t.”

That took the wind out of his anger, leaving only the old, hollow sadness that had lived in his gut so long it was practically a friend. “Not like it’s your fault,” he mumbled, still resentful.

“I’m still sorry.”

Duke grunted a noncommittal acceptance, and some cynical voice in the back of his head started counting.

She lasted twelve seconds. “Do you want to talk about it?”

There was no amusement in his laugh. “What’s there to talk about? You already know the whole story.”

“I don’t think I do,” Audrey pressed. “And I’m worried that I need to.”

“Trust me, you already know more than you need to.”

“If it was anyone else, I’d agree with you. Your heartache, your business. But it’s Nathan.” Did she sound shocked at that? Jealous? Or maybe a little bit resigned? “Even ignoring the fact that I care about you both and I worry about you, it’s never just about you two when it’s about you two. It’s like you’re the entire insane history of this town wrapped up in two people, and any time something happens between you the rest of us get dragged along for the ride. I want to at least know what I’m getting into before this gets even more complicated.”

She was treating him like another problem she had to work around to fix Haven, and he couldn’t even bring himself to be mad at her for that. Hell, it wasn’t even like she was wrong about him and Nathan. He dug the heel of his hand into his forehead. “My life hasn’t been my own for a long time, has it?”

“Want to start a support group?” The mix of irony and sympathy in her voice made him turn to look at her for the first time since they’d gotten into the car; she caught his eye with half a smile. “You know I wouldn’t pry if I didn’t think it might be important.”

“Yeah, you would,” Duke said, turning away from her again. The word cop rested on his tongue in the tone that made it the worst obscenity he knew. He let out a short breath, letting the word dissolve. He didn’t have the energy to start an actual fight.

Audrey didn’t try to deny it, but her shrug said ‘it’s not worth arguing about this right now,’ not ‘you’re right.’ “Look, just answer one thing for me right now,” she said when Duke continued not to respond. “We can leave the rest of this conversation until after we’ve dealt with the current problem, but I do need to know if it’s related to the current problem.”

He held out for as long as he could, but the incomprehensibility of the question won him over. “What?”

“I need to know if you’re being affected by this Trouble,” Audrey said. “If what you’re feeling is part of some kind of story, it might be something we’re going to have to deal with before we can move on to rescuing Caroline and getting her to stop the fairy tales.” She turned away from the road just long enough to give Duke a gentle, probing look. “How long have you been in love with Nathan?”

Hearing her actually say it out loud turned Duke’s throat raw. “Audrey...”

“If you don’t know,” she persisted, “if it’s just something that appeared in your head, like knowing about the library, then maybe... it might not be real.”

She didn’t believe her own theory. That much was clear in her voice, the hopeful desperation that came with an optimistic lie. She wanted it to be true, whether to give Duke an out or because she was jealous – which didn’t make any sense; as far as Duke could tell she was the one who’d pushed Nathan away, and it wasn’t like Duke would have ever been viable competition anyway – but she knew better. And still she was willing to offer a fiction they could both cling to. Of course it’s not real, Audrey. I just got pulled into the story because I was in the right place at the right time.

The easy lie caught in this throat and wouldn’t be dislodged. “I was fifteen,” he finally managed, the quiet words dropping like lead. He tried to block out the sound that Audrey made, a mix of sorrow and pity and that sad surprise that wasn’t really surprise. He hadn’t realized that he could sink even lower into his seat, his head falling against the window. “Maybe fourteen, I don’t know. I was already starting to figure out that it wasn’t just girls who were catching my eye, and Nathan... Nathan was one of the boys who did.” Another humorless laugh. “Took me longer than it should have to figure out that this one wasn’t just a crush. I was already falling in love before I knew what hit me. Probably couldn’t have avoided it even if I had seen it coming.”

“Duke...”

The soft sadness in her voice made part of him want to tell her everything, every last nuance of what Nathan had meant to him and how much it had ached to pretend otherwise. The lonely, heartbroken kid he’d been at the time would have given his right arm just to talk to someone about it. The man he was now, older and theoretically wiser, still wanted to pour his heart out. “It’s not like—” It’s not like I ever thought I had a chance. He couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.

He tried again. “I got over it,” he said with forced calm. “Got the hell out of this town as soon as I could and let him drift away along with everything else here. I had a good life out there,” he added with some nostalgia. “Had some fun. Figured myself out a little. Fell in love again, not that that worked out.” He shook his head. It was still difficult to think about Evi; everything between her arrival in town and her death felt like a dream, more surreal than any supernatural event that had happened to him so far. “And then I came back here,” he concluded, slouching down again and putting his hand over his eyes. “And all the feelings I’d left behind were right here waiting for me. And they don’t seem to be going anywhere this time.”

Audrey let out a little sigh like she didn’t know how to respond. “God,” she finally said. “Duke, that’s...” Tragic? Crazy? Kind of pathetic? He’d certainly thought all of those himself, sometimes all at the same time. Audrey abandoned the sentence entirely. “And you’ve never said anything?”

Duke could only grunt in response. She knew the answer, or at least it should be obvious. He was already starting to regret telling her, even if he hadn’t had much choice in the matter once the damned fairy tale had taken over. He’d had years of experience in keeping his hurt over Nathan buried too deep to cause more than the occasional twinge, but now that it was uncovered again he knew he might never force it all the way back down.

“God,” Audrey tried again. “That’s... that’s gotta suck.”

It was such an understatement, but at the same time it was probably the best way Duke could think of to describe it. This was an ache that had been agony once upon a time, the kind of misery so deep that it was weirdly enjoyable. It had been the end of the world when he was fifteen, and a fondly wistful regret when he’d thought he’d left it and Nathan behind for good, and a punch in the gut when it had resurrected on him. In its current incarnation as a resigned, hollow sadness buried deep in his chest, it didn’t break his heart every day so much as it just... sucked. “It really does,” he said with a laugh that was almost real. “Thank you for noticing.”

There was a weight to the silence that fell, a tension in which Duke could practically feel Audrey weighing the benefits of pressing on or leaving him alone. “What happens now?” she finally asked.

“We find Caroline, make her stop doing whatever she’s doing, and get on with our lives.”

“Come on.” If she wasn’t driving, Audrey would have been trying to stare him down. When he remained silent, she tried a different tack. “It’s not like I don’t get why you haven’t said anything,” she said. “You two are...” a vague wave of her hand. “Complicated.” Duke gave another almost-laugh at this latest understatement. “But you don’t have a lot of choice now, do you? He’s going to know, now.”

“Only if someone tells him.” Duke let that hang in the air, waiting for her reaction before deciding which way to jump. She knew, or at least had a vague idea, how much her silence was worth to him, and now it was just a matter of seeing how willing she was to take advantage of that. Duke was willing to counter with whatever threats, guilt, or bribery were necessary. He was also willing to beg, if it came down to it.

“You really think he’s not going to figure it out on his own? There were only two of us in that barn, and he knows I can’t affect this Trouble. He’s not stupid.”

“I know he’s not,” Duke said sharply, with a stab of instinctive loyalty. Even when their friendship had been at its lowest ebb he’d still been offended on Nathan’s behalf by the people who underestimated his intelligence because they didn’t understand his brevity or his subdued reactions. “But he’s got a massive, me-shaped blind spot. He’ll just assume it was you and not bother to try thinking around that.”

“And you think I’m going to be okay with that?” Audrey countered.

“Is there some reason you wouldn’t be?” Duke asked archly. A part of him was genuinely and honestly curious, but mostly he was jumping at the opportunity to turn her unwelcome probing back on her.

She gave him a wry look that gave nothing away. “You think you two have a monopoly on ‘complicated’?”

Okay, new tack. “It’s not like it would necessarily mean anything if it was you,” Duke suggested. There was desperation in his voice. Apparently he’d decided to go with begging. “Everyone knows you’re the person who solves Troubled problems. You stepped in, you solved a problem. That’s all you’d have to let him think.” And he’d believe it, because it should have been you. This was their story, it always had been, and as much as he adored Audrey he thought he might never stop resenting her just a little for that.

“It’s never all he’d think,” Audrey said, half to herself. “Come on,” she said more clearly, going back to her quiet, cajoling voice. “Would you really want that? Nathan thinking that he’s only awake because I was in the right place at the right time? This is literally the kind of love they write fairy tales about; is it really fair to him not to tell him that someone loves him that much?”

It was something Duke had been trying not to think about. Not the idea that he was somehow depriving Nathan, which was insane, but the... mythic aspect of it. He had lain his heart bare, faced down the strange Troubled magic that held Nathan and declared I love him, you can’t have him, he’s mine, and it had worked. The universe had sized him up and said yes, your love is real, and it is enough. It was an amazing, validating feeling, and he didn’t want to examine it too closely for fear that he’d start trying to make it mean more than it did. “Still doesn’t change who he is,” he said, reminding himself as much as Audrey. “Or who I am.”

“You know that who you are and who he is aren’t as far apart as you both like to think.”

Duke gritted his teeth, his patience collapsing. “Just let it go, all right? We already know how this story ends; don’t make it harder on me than it already is.”

“I just don’t want either of you to be alone if you don’t have to be,” she said, sounding like she wasn’t really talking to him.

“You just worry about saving the town,” Duke said wearily. “Don’t go trying to save me, too.”

She gave him a wry look and shook her head, making a sound like his own mirthless laugh. “Okay. I’ve said my piece; I’ll leave you alone. And I won’t say anything to Nathan,” she added, and the relief that made Duke sag only lasted until she turned away from the road to fix him with a solid look. “But I won’t lie to him, either. When he starts asking questions...” She trailed off and shook her head.

“That’s the best promise I’m gonna get out of you, isn’t it?”

“It’s the only one I can make.”

Duke considered this. It wasn’t a bad deal, all things considered. Whatever Audrey thought, he was pretty sure that Nathan wasn’t going to question the circumstances, and he could probably trust her to keep her word and not bring it up. He wanted to hope he could trust her, anyway. “Guess I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”

“Guess not.” A long silence before she turned to look at him again. “Are you gonna be okay?”

There it was again. That voice that genuinely cared and made him want to trust her with more than he probably should. He forced a smile. “Old wounds, Audrey. How much bite can they really have anymore?”

She made a noncommittal sound that told him she was willing to go along with that non-answer and turned her entire attention to the road, letting the conversation end. Duke sank back against the window again, staring off into the distance and trying not to remember that he was going to have to look Nathan in the eye again once they reached their destination. He tried to focus on the endless trees passing the side windows, keeping his focus away from the approaching town, but a flash of movement in the corner of his eye made him swing his head around to the front. A black streak in the sky, too low to be an airplane, moving over the town with cold, graceful purpose. “Audrey...”

“I see it,” Audrey breathed. She sounded amazed, almost reverent, and Duke couldn’t blame her. The dragon was barely more than a dark shape at this distance, but it was still awe-inspiring. “Do you know anything about this?”

He knew what she was asking. Was there information in the back of his head, put there by forces unknown and making his brain itch, that might offer a clue? “Not a thing,” he said. “I don’t think even a Trouble could shove an entire damn dragon into someone’s head without anyone asking questions. Except...”

“Except what?”

Duke ground the heel of his hand into his forehead. “Something’s trying to happen,” he grunted. The itchy, crawling feeling burned now. “It’s like the story is rewriting itself. It’s like...” He trailed off and raised his head. “It’s bad,” he said, certainty in the pit of his stomach. “We’re not supposed to know about the dragon. If it’s coming out... things are getting worse.”

What’s getting worse?”

“I don’t know. I just know... that we have to fix it.”

Audrey’s phone rang, startling them both. “Parker,” she barked after fumbling it on. “Yeah, Nathan, we see it, too,” she said, flicking an eyebrow at Duke. “It’s bad, I know. No, meet us at the police station still. I have a feeling we’re really going to need that sword now. See you there.” She ended the call and took a more solid grip on the steering wheel, slamming the accelerator into the floorboards. “We really should have asked more questions about why the sword had wings.”
Tags: ex libris, fic, haven
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