All stories start somewhere. It is less cut and dried to say that all stories end somewhere. Something’s bound to linger. The thorny roses climbing the library walls weren’t there last week, and resist all attempts to dig them out. A hazel tree grows outside a seaside bar, the only one in the forest. A pile of spun gold hides in a barn meant for sheep and wool. And, more indestructible than plants or gold, memory takes root. What is done to the mind and the heart cannot be undone; the ripples cannot be stilled once set in motion.
Events end. Stories remain.
Jordan’s hand clenched around her phone, its edges digging into her fingers. She’d been trying to make this call for what felt like hours, the words tumbling through her head in different arrangements and permutations, none of them coming out even close to right. She wasn’t even sure exactly what she was trying to say, only that she needed to say something. Something in her head had shifted when she’d driven off the old woman in the woods. She’d hung onto the stag’s neck for a long while afterward, and he had let her take the comfort she needed. It wasn’t even the old woman herself who’d turned Jordan inside out, it was her own reaction.
She had almost allowed herself to be poisoned, just so she could figure out who to trust. It was a chilling revelation of just how much faith she’d lost in the people around her, and in herself. She couldn’t go on like this. She couldn’t keep surrounding herself with people she didn’t trust, even – or perhaps especially – the ones she knew she should trust, and she couldn’t move forward until she found a way to trust herself again. Setting her jaw and squaring her resolve, she dialed.
Voicemail. Thank God. Jordan took a deep breath, tried to put a smile in her voice. “Hi, Nathan, it’s me. I know we were planning to meet up tonight, but I don’t think I’m gonna be able to make it. I...” She swallowed hard. “I don’t think I’m gonna be able to make it for the foreseeable future, actually. There are... some things that happened this weekend, and I... I need some time to myself. I have some thinking to do.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll... I’ll call you. Once I have some things figured out. Take care of yourself, okay?” Another deep breath, let out in a hollow sigh. “Goodbye, Nathan.”
I’m sending back the list of incidents that occurred over the weekend, and I’ve marked the ones that I think might have been related to my Trouble, along with the story I think they correspond with. I hope that helps you to make sure that everything has been resolved properly. I had no idea my Trouble was spreading so far, and I am so sorry for the problems that I’ve caused you and the rest of the town. If there’s anything else I can do for you, don’t hesitate to say so.
As to your other question, I’m not sure if the dream you told me about was part of a story or not. Dreams are a fairly common element in fairy tales, but I don’t know what this one means if there wasn’t anything else obviously connected to it. The closest thing I could find was in the older versions of Beauty and the Beast, where Beauty repeatedly dreams of hearing a voice telling her that there’s a handsome prince trapped somewhere in the Beast’s castle. She searches the castle by day but finds nothing, because of course the prince in question is the Beast, and as she grows to appreciate the Beast’s company the dream stops. It’s not exactly what you told me about, but if you can possibly get some more information from whoever had the dream in the first place I might be able to draw a better connection. Just let me know.
Nathan frowned at the email. The list of connected incidents from Caroline would be helpful in compiling the “unofficial-official” report, but her information about his dream left him no more enlightened than he had been before. Maybe it had just been a bit of ordinary subconscious babble, dressed up in castles and mysterious voices because that’s what had been on his mind all weekend. He might think about it more later, but for now he put his personal business aside in order to focus on his professional duties to catalog the incident.
According to the official report, the stress of a recent trauma caused a library employee to experience a mild break and barricade herself in the building over the weekend, necessitating police intervention to coax her out of the building. As she had done no harm and was now seeking psychological treatment, the library and the police were considering the matter closed. The other report was going to be much longer. Reverend Driscoll’s attempt at a coup hadn’t dissuaded Nathan from keeping his own records, it had just made him more diligent about hiding them. Someone had to keep records of the Troubles, if only so that the next generation might not blunder through them as blindly as his was, and he didn’t trust Vince and Dave not to take their information to the grave.
“I had the Teagues trace the Harpers,” Audrey said, looking up from the more mundane paperwork on her own desk as if reading his mind. “And the Carsons, Caroline’s mother’s family. There’s no record of anything like this surrounding them, but there was something interesting about the Carson family.”
“Hmm?” Nathan raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Almost half of the mentions of them were in the Entertainment section,” Audrey said with a grin. “Nearly every generation has produced someone active in community theater or local radio. And the articles all use a bunch of adjectives that are polite ways of saying ‘never shuts up.’”
Nathan nodded, understanding beginning to form. “So maybe the compulsion to tell stories is the main part of the Trouble...”
“...and the leakage is just what happens when a Carson can’t,” Audrey finished for him.
“So we need to figure out a way to get Caroline back on her vocal feet before it happens again,” Nathan said.
“Vince had an idea about that,” Audrey told him. “The Haven Herald podcast never panned out, but they still have the recording equipment. If Caroline can tell her stories a little at a time when her voice is up to it, and release them that way, it should be enough of a stopgap to keep them tamed until she can tell them the normal way again.”
It was a good idea, and Nathan wondered how much pressure Audrey had had to put on the brothers before they agreed to it. “What are they saying about this weekend?” he asked. The false memories about the library’s history seemed to have faded from most people’s minds, but everyone in town had seen the dragon.
“There’s going to be a formal apology in this afternoon’s paper from the special effects company that created that incredibly lifelike holographic projection of a dragon,” Audrey said. Nathan couldn’t suppress his incredulous snort. “They were testing out the technology so they could sell it to a theme park. There was supposed to be an announcement before the test so the town wasn’t taken by surprise, but there was a miscommunication and their press team thought the test was scheduled for next week.” She shook her head. “And you know people will believe it.”
“Cling to it, more like,” Nathan said.
Audrey made a sound of agreement. “All this stuff we deal with every day, and so much of this town will believe anything else if it means they get to pretend the Troubles aren’t real.” She sighed. “Do you ever wish that something would happen that would just... drag it all into the open?”
“So that we might have a chance of getting people to work together and fix each other? Maybe find a way to actually end the Troubles instead of slapping a bandage over the wound and telling people not to tell anyone they’re injured? Yeah.” Nathan paused, absently and unfeelingly grinding the point of his pen into the heel of his hand. “But when you think about how big a disaster it would have to be to actually make people believe... The disease is killing us, but we’re not ready for that cure.”
“I know,” Audrey said. “But something has to give.”
And there’s a chance it’ll have to be you, Nathan thought. It was the thing they still weren’t talking about, that deadline that was looming between them. Twenty-five days. “We’ll figure this out,” he said. He’d been saying it for so long, and he was going to keep saying it, even if he didn’t know how.
The smile she gave him in return was weak, thin. It had been getting thinner every time he said that. Maybe that was part of the new distance she’d placed between them, a lack of faith that he could protect her the way he was promising to. I can, he promised her silently. I will.
He seemed to have accidentally ended the conversation, so Nathan gave in and returned his attention to the police reports. He’d laid out all the “little” incidents of the past weekend, and now he sorted them again to reflect the information in Caroline’s email, cross-referencing them in his write-up of what had really happened this weekend.
He should have known that he couldn’t stay away from the subject of Audrey for long. Sandwiched between the talking animals and the old women offering mysterious riddles was a single page detailing a mysterious person seen at the Pace farm. Where that investigation had ended up... well, Nathan had spent too long already trying not to think about it and now he had no choice. Even if he didn’t remember it, just the blackness closing in and then the world rushing back, with nothing in between, there was obviously only one thing that could have awakened him in that particular story. And only one person who could have done it, and only one reason it would have worked. But none of it fit together.
Nathan knew that the idea of Audrey having revealed a secret love for him in that act was a slim hope; she’d made her feelings on that matter clear enough to his own sinking heart lately. More reasonable to think that she’d just been able to wake him because she was the Troubles whisperer, the universal solution to all the town’s problems. Except that that still didn’t track; she’d been locked out of every other story they’d come across. Unless there was still some feeling there, and it was strong enough that she’d been able to simply break the rules of this particular Trouble...
He was going around in circles again. There was no answer here, no matter how hard he searched. He just didn’t know everything that had happened in that moment, what had been in her head and possibly her heart. And he wasn’t going to know, unless he did something incredibly stupid like asking her.
As his dad would have been eager to point out, Nathan had never been smart about Audrey. No point in starting now. “Audrey.”
From the way she looked up, she’d caught his tone. “What is it, Nathan?” she asked. Too concerned. Too gentle.
Nathan found himself rubbing the side of his hand, running his fingers over the cut the spinning wheel had left. “Tell me what happened on the farm.”
Audrey furrowed her brow at him. “I’m not sure what you’re asking,” she said.
Nathan didn’t miss the phrasing. She wanted to know what he was asking, not what he meant. Which suggested that she knew exactly what he wanted to know, but was going to base how much she told him on the way that he asked it. “You kissed me,” he said, watching her face. She gave him a little nod that betrayed nothing, acknowledging that the statement was correct but not adding any context. “And I woke up.”
Now her response was less flat, less certain. “Right,” she said, looking like she was willing him to drop the conversation. True, but not the whole truth?
He pressed on. “The problem is, how does that work?” he asked. “We figured out the rules of this Trouble; the answer has to be the right thing done by the right person. So the story itself would have to recognize you as the right person.” And to be the right person, you’d have to be in love with me. Are you? It was the question he really wanted to ask, but he wasn’t ready to be that direct. “But none of the other stories recognized you at all,” he continued, going for the less imposing question. “So how did that work?”
She couldn’t keep her eyes on him for long. “I knew this was going to happen,” she said cryptically, looking away from him and sinking into her chair. “I said I wouldn’t lie about it.”
A sigh. Audrey looked like she was weighing her options, or her words. “I kissed you, and you woke up,” she said. “And you want to know how that worked, given the circumstances. Maybe you should be asking if it did work.”
This didn’t explain anything; all it did was make Nathan more worried about what she was trying to say. He was awake, wasn’t he? This wasn’t some kind of curse-dream that he had yet to wake up from? “Did it work?” he ventured.
Her smile was so sad. “I wish it had,” she said. “I tried. I’m the Troubles-whisperer; I thought that maybe, even though it wasn’t covered in the story’s rules...” She trailed off. “I would have been the one who saved you if I could.”
So he hadn’t been saved? No, she said she would have been the one if she could. That, he thought, meant that someone else was. “So, someone else kissed me, when you...” He didn’t want to say ‘failed.’ “But there wasn’t anyone—”
Yes there was.
The sudden realization struck Nathan with almost physical force. There had been someone else, another presence he’d barely registered in his relief at waking up and his joy at seeing Audrey. “Duke?” he managed, his voice high and strained.
The way Audrey was looking at him was a clear ‘yes.’ “I said I wouldn’t lie,” she said. “But I also promised someone I wouldn’t tell you anything.”
Her voice faded out, going distant in the face of this revelation. Fragments of understanding fell on him in a chain, each one leading to the next inevitable conclusion. Duke. Duke had been the only other person there. Duke had saved him. Duke had kissed him.
The last domino fell with a crash that echoed. Duke loved him.
It was all too much. Nathan buried his head in his hands, elbows on his desk and his entire body hunched forward. “Wh...” He didn’t even know what the rest of that word would have been. There was nothing in his head, no reasonable thought or coherent response, just a swirling mist of confusion. Duke couldn’t be in love with him. He just couldn’t. It made no sense. Duke was constantly angry at him. He always had an insult ready. He was constantly looking for something new to needle Nathan about.
He called me in the middle of the night and poured his heart out because he was afraid and needed someone he could trust. He got angry when I tried to put myself in danger to rescue Audrey. He had absolute faith in me when I didn’t think I was who the sword was looking for. And that was just in the past few days. Now that his mind had latched onto the thread of evidence it was spooling it back along a long line, a million little moments of concern, affection, and admiration weaving in among the fights and fraught silences that had characterized both their lives for so long.
Seek what you need to seek. Find what you need to find. And know how to recognize it when you do. The voice from the dream echoed back at him, his subconscious and someone’s Trouble telling him what he maybe should have figured out on his own long ago.
“Are you okay?” The fog finally faded enough, its confusion evaporating in his new understanding, for Audrey’s voice to break through it. He lifted his head to see her leaning on her desk, watching him uncertainly. Trying not to get too close and interrupt whatever was going on in his head, but ready to be at his side in a moment if he needed it.
He wanted to laugh. Of course I’m not okay; nothing is okay anymore. The light that had cut through the mist in his head had brought with it a flood, a roiling sea of emotion so turbulent that he couldn’t grasp any individual thread of it. “Did you know?” he finally managed.
Audrey shook her head. “I never suspected. Not until...” She was silent for a moment before giving up the pretense; it wasn’t breaking the spirit of whatever promise she’d made to Duke if she was just saying what Nathan already knew. “Not until he kissed you.”
“Not until he took advantage of the situation,” Nathan said savagely. Anger had bobbed to the surface of the sea like a cork, a too-familiar feeling where Duke was concerned, and he clung to it. How dare he.
“Trust me, he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t think it was his only choice,” Audrey said gently, but Nathan wasn’t listening. It wasn’t actually the kiss itself that the anger was latching onto. How dare he, that voice in his head continued to rail. How dare he love me. I never asked for that. I never wanted it.
But then what did he want? The question rose from the depths of his mind, grabbing the anger and dragging it under to mix back in with the rest of the confused tangle of feelings, and there was no answer in sight. To go back to the days when Duke was just a distant memory and not a complicated presence, maybe. But even as he told himself that he felt a stab of pain at the thought, which made him bury his face again. When had Duke become so fundamentally important to him that a life without him in it would be a life with a missing piece?
Someone who needs me. And someone I might need.
Nathan groaned aloud, squeezing his temples. There was a quiet throb at the edge of his hearing, the sound of what would have been a killer headache if he could feel it. He hadn’t ever imagined that things with Duke could get even more complicated... “What am I supposed to do about this,” he said, not actually asking a question, and not really talking to Audrey, either.
She answered anyway. “You care about him, don’t you? Everything else aside, you care about him?”
“Of course I do.” The words were tired, exasperated. There was no point in trying to pretend otherwise anymore, not to himself or anyone else. Not after everything this Trouble had dragged to the surface for both of them. But it was a hell of a leap from caring about him, a vague idea that was the only certainty that Nathan could unpack from his mess of tangled feelings for Duke, to... well, to what Duke felt for him.
“Then I’m not the person you should be having this conversation with.”
“I shouldn’t be having this conversation at all,” Nathan said despairingly. This situation shouldn’t be happening.
“Right, you should just be pretending nothing ever happened,” Audrey said, a cold edge to her voice. “Because that’s worked out so well for this town so far.” Seeing the wince on Nathan’s face at her sharpness, she softened her voice. “Besides, don’t you think you owe him some honesty?”
“I’ve never lied to him,” Nathan protested. Some of the anger simmered back up. The rest of the situation might be something he didn’t know how to reconcile, but Duke lying to him was familiar territory. Even if this was a far more complicated and confusing lie than any other he’d ever told. “And I don’t owe him anything,” Nathan continued, fresh offense bringing some of the harshness back into his voice. “He’s the one who chose to save me. He’s the one who... feels something.”
“You’re right,” Audrey agreed. “You’re not obligated to do anything because of how he feels about you.”
Nathan knew her better than to think that was the end of the sentence. “But?”
“But what about how you feel about him?” Audrey tilted her head and gave him a probing look. “Caring about him doesn’t mean you have to love him back, but doesn’t it mean you should at least not want him to suffer any more than he has to on your account? Don’t you think you owe it to him as a friend just to let him know where he stands with you?”
Nathan deflated, the fight going out of him. That was the real problem, wasn’t it? “And you think I know where he stands with me?”
Audrey sat back in her chair, the look coming over her face reminding Nathan of the way she looked when she’d just worked out how to reach a Troubled person. “Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said quietly.
Nathan felt like he’d just bitten into a lemon. “What, because I have no idea what I’m doing?”
“More because you know it,” she said, a wry twist to her lip. “Or maybe just because you’re willing to admit it. I could have told you months ago that all three of our lives would be so much easier if you two would just talk to each other.”
“Why didn’t you?” It wasn’t an actual question; Nathan already knew the answer to that one.
“Funny,” Audrey observed, her ironic little smile just inviting enough to elicit a twitch from his own lip. They both knew the answer to that one. “You wouldn’t have listened then, and I’m honestly surprised you’re listening now. I figured you would have shut me down ages ago.”
Nathan let out a puff of air. He was too far out of his depth to shut her down. It wasn’t that he wanted her advice, exactly, even if there was a childish voice in his head shouting that she should be fixing this problem like she fixed every other problem in this town. No, it was more like he’d given up any pretense of being in control of the situation and had just let her take the lead rather than try to swim to shore on his own. “Easier to listen to you than to try to listen to myself right now.”
Audrey climbed out of her chair and came around to his side of the desk, perching on the edge of it and leaning over him. Her hand moved like she was about to rest it on his shoulder, then she stopped herself. Again there was that wall she’d put up between them, and as much as he hated it, at the moment her touch would just be one more thing cluttering up his already mired mind. “I’m betting I don’t want to be in the middle of this any more than you want me here,” she said. “But apparently someone has to be.”
He gave her an ironic look. “We were messing up each other’s lives just fine before you ever got here,” he reminded her.
“And isn’t it a good thing I came along to meddle in that,” she said, matching his tone. Another aborted near-touch, and now he could sense her inching away from him to avoid temptation. “You’re my two favorite people in the world,” she said, the lightness going out of her voice. “And I can see how much you mean to each other, and I don’t want you to lose that. Either of you.”
Again there was that stab of heartache at the thought of losing Duke. Nathan needed Duke in his life, even if he couldn’t piece that feeling together clearly enough to understand it. Hard not to lose something when you don’t even know what it is.
He didn’t realize he’d said it out loud until Audrey made a sympathetic sound. She breathed in, then let out a sigh. Nathan could tell from her expression that she didn’t think he was going to like what was coming next. “Maybe it’s the wrong question to ask right now, but... what Duke wants, is it even an option as far as you’re concerned?” He furrowed his brow in confusion, and she pressed on. “I’ve got no reason to assume you’re attracted to men at all, but I’ve got no reason to assume you’re not, either. And whether or not you are... well, that’s definitely got some bearing on where this might or might not be going, right?”
Even through the embarrassment that he was sure was turning him scarlet, Nathan almost laughed at how irrelevant the question seemed. It was Duke. There was nothing about this situation that could possibly be a bigger or more complicated concern than that. The genders and sexualities involved were barely a footnote to the tangled mess of their relationship. “I’m... open to the possibility,” Nathan finally managed in a mumble when he realized Audrey was still waiting on a response, her head tilted and a ‘go ahead, tell me everything’ expression on her face. “Opportunity’s never really come up.”
An unconcerned nod, Audrey taking this information in stride as she did with everything else in this town. Despite having already assumed that she wouldn’t take issue with his potential bisexuality, Nathan couldn’t suppress a relieved exhale. The relief was short-lived. “And this particular possibility?”
Nathan spread his hands helplessly. What was he supposed to say to that? “I don’t... I mean, I haven’t ever...” This was the first time it had ever even occurred to him to consider Duke in this context. Sure, he had always known Duke was attractive, a handsome man with an easy charm and an enticing roguish streak, and while he’d spent so much of his life jealous of the way women were drawn to Duke he’d always understood why they were. But there was a difference between knowing it and feeling it.
Maybe not as much of a difference as he wanted to tell himself, now that the subject was unavoidable and curiosity was beginning to take hold. He cared about Duke, even liked him sometimes. And he could see Duke’s appeal, with perhaps more clarity every minute that he thought about it, which he was sure was making him turn red again. Was wondering if there might be something else there really that big a leap?
Stay far away from all that. It’s Duke. Everything he’s said and done and been to you over the years should be proof enough that he’s not worth the risk.
Go for it. It’s Duke. Everything he’s said and done and been to you over the years should be proof enough that he’s worth the risk.
The two thoughts ran rings around his head until he was dizzy, or maybe it was one thought chasing itself in a circle. Slowly, helplessly, Nathan let his forehead fall to the desk.
Now Audrey finally touched him, a worried hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Finally, a question he could answer. “No,” he said, shaking his head against the table. “I don’t know.” He raised up his head and looked at Audrey despairingly. “It’s...”
“Complicated?” Audrey suggested, not a trace of humor in her smile. “That seems to be the theme.” She shook her head. “You two really are this town,” she said, which Nathan couldn’t understand, but she offered no further explanation. She had the same concerned, frustrated expression she’d worn so often when talking to him about his relationship with his father.
“Audrey...” Nathan started. It was meant to be a firm but friendly warning. It came out as more of a plea.
She sighed, sad and gentle. “Okay,” she said, standing up and returning to her own desk. “I’ll back off. I know I can only push you so far.” She fixed him with a look that was a firm but friendly warning of her own. “But you know you can’t go on like this forever. No matter what you both try to tell yourselves, something has to give.”
Other than the sign over the door, the only thing distinguishing the Haven public library from every other building on the street was the spray of roses climbing the walls to about chest height, blooming out of season and giving the squat stone structure an air of inviting mystery. It was a pretty sight, but Audrey still squeezed through the door as quickly as possible, keeping well away from the thorns just in case.
It was funny how strange the inside of the building looked to her now. The flimsy posters should have been heavy wall hangings, the utilitarian circulation desk a mahogany behemoth. She had to stop moving for a moment before the sense of not-quite-déjà-vu settled and she could accept the library for what it was supposed to look like. The other version of it had been strange and stately in its beauty, but she definitely liked the reality better.
Doreen appeared around the corner of a shelf and immediately brightened. “Officer Parker,” she said cheerfully. “To what do we owe the pleasure? Finally coming in to get your card?”
Nathan had certainly spread word about that around to the librarians quickly. There was something endearing about his eagerness to include her in something that was important to him, something that might anchor her here or at least leave behind some proof that Audrey Parker had existed once she was gone. “I’m actually here on business, sort of,” she said. “I hear Caroline’s here today?”
“On your way out, then,” Doreen said, undeterred. She had already rounded the circulation desk and pulled out a form. “Caroline’s in the conference room. I can have this filled out and ready for your signature when you get back, if you like.”
Some proof that Audrey Parker had existed. A piece of cardboard, a signature on a form. Anything that wasn’t just fading away. “Sure, sounds good.”
According to the schedule posted on the door, the conference room was mostly used for scout meetings and evening classes, and was usually empty during the day. Through the window in the door Audrey could see Caroline alone at one end of the big table, wearing headphones and bent over a microphone connected to a laptop. Audrey couldn’t hear what she was saying through the closed door, but she was gesturing animatedly, relaying a story to an absent audience with obvious delight. She didn’t miss a beat as she saw Audrey, smiling and incorporating a nod of acknowledgement and a ‘one second’ gesture into a sweeping arm movement. The story continued to unfold until Caroline apparently reached a stopping point, when she fiddled with something on the laptop and waved Audrey into the room.
“You look like you’re taking to that pretty quickly,” Audrey said. Like the library, Caroline looked different than she had when last they saw each other, but she couldn’t put her finger on how.
“I’m getting the hang of it,” Caroline said in her soft voice, taking the headphones off. “It’s weird, not having the kids right here, but if I pretend they’re there I think I do okay.” A sheepish smile. “And being back in the building – the real one – helps.”
“I bet.” Audrey smiled. “This place is really important to you, isn’t it?”
“Ever since I was a kid. My mom used to bring me here almost every day, and we’d sit in a pile of pillows and read to each other, and make up new stories together.” A wry look. “That makes more sense now. It probably would have prevented a lot of problems if she’d just told me why.”
“Communication is not this town’s strong suit,” Audrey said, equally wry. “How does it feel, the whole podcast thing? Is it working?”
Caroline thought for a while before nodding. “I feel... better. Like something that was pressing on me has eased up. Like I can breathe easier, maybe even non-metaphorically. It’s not as good as being back on the job, but... it’s enough, for now. I can deal with this for a while.”
“Good,” Audrey said sincerely, happy both for the town and for Caroline herself. She was clearly feeling much better than she had been when last they saw each other. “I’m looking forward to hearing them, once you start releasing them.”
“Shouldn’t be long once I get the sound editing part figured out. I have almost all of the first episode recorded.” Another sheepish little grin as Caroline tucked a bit of hair behind her ear. “I’m starting with Rapunzel.”
That was what was different about her. The hair that had been a curtain hanging almost to her waist when they’d found her was now even shorter than Audrey’s. “You cut your hair.”
“I had to. This is the length it was before this weekend.” A shrug. “Apparently I wasn’t quite immune to my own Trouble, and it decided to leave me something to remember it by.” She shook her head. “Heck of a souvenir, right?”
“Speaking of souvenirs,” Audrey said, remembering the other reason she’d come to see Caroline. She pulled a little packet out of her jacket pocket. “There’s something we wanted you to have.”
“‘We’?” Caroline repeated, taking the paper bundle from her.
“Me, mostly,” Audrey confessed. “But it was Duke’s idea to start with,” she continued as Caroline unrolled the paper to reveal a small glass vial.
Even in the harsh fluorescent light the vial’s contents gleamed, a coil of gold thread throwing back a clear, pure light that made everything it touched look warmer. “Spun by Rumpelstiltskin himself,” Audrey said. “Most of it’s going to get sold off to pay some of the sheep farm’s expenses, but Duke said it would be a shame if none of it stayed with someone who’d know what it really was.”
Caroline’s face darkened. “I can’t take this,” she said, setting the vial down and pushing it towards Audrey. “I made such a mess of things. I can’t just take something beautiful to... I don’t know, commemorate it.”
“Even when it’s something beautiful you helped create?” Audrey asked her. She held up the vial, turning it so that the gold thread caught the light again. “This only exists because of your stories. I’m not gonna lie; you did some damage out there. It’s going to be a long time before the ripples from this disperse entirely. But I don’t think all of them were bad ones.”
The problem of living on a boat was that there was always something that needed to be repaired, taking up time and energy you could be devoting to something else. The nice thing about living on a boat was that there was always something that needed to be repaired, taking up time and energy you would otherwise be devoting to things you didn’t want to think about. Given all the things Duke didn’t want to think about lately, the Cape Rouge was in better shape than it had been in a long time. The pump that was currently laid out in pieces on the deck should probably be replaced entirely, but keeping it working was one of his best sources of comforting distraction. Its tendency to quit on him was an obvious problem with an obvious solution, and working on it made him feel like he’d at least accomplished something.
Unlike the problem currently trying to sneak up behind him. Duke managed not to tense up at the familiar footsteps, or the way they stopped some distance away. He held out his hand, not turning around. “If you’re going to just stand there, make yourself useful and hand me that wrench.” Metal thumped against his palm. “Thank you.”
No response, which was probably a good thing, given that Duke wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He immersed himself back in his work, tinkering with things that didn’t strictly need to be tinkered with and ignoring the growing knot in his stomach. He could wait this standoff out.
After what felt like hours he finally conceded that he couldn’t. The silence was digging into him, sending claws up and down his back and threatening to turn him inside out. He put his tools down with a sigh and turned around. “What do you want, Nathan?”
Nathan didn’t answer right away. He stood on the deck like he’d never seen it before, subtly drumming his fingers against his thigh and maintaining eye contact with Duke’s left shoulder. “You’ve been avoiding me,” he said finally.
Duke didn’t bother to deny it. He’d worked out that the only solution to his current problem was to stay as far away from Nathan as possible outside of their forced Trouble-hunting interactions until he’d managed to force his love and pain back into their usual box at the back of his mind. The way his heart had jumped into his throat on saying Nathan’s name, he had clearly not succeeded yet. “Consider it a vacation,” he said shortly, turning his attention back to his work.
The footsteps started up again, Nathan bringing himself around to stay in front of Duke. He took a seat on a crate on the opposite side of the deck, staying in Duke’s line of sight and bringing them to about eye level. “Too quiet out there without you.”
It was too loud in here without anyone else, as far as Duke was concerned. He was usually fine with being alone with his thoughts, but not the thoughts he’d been having lately. He grunted, the only reply he could make to that, and Nathan gave up on talking.
No, not gave up. Out of the corner of his eye, Duke saw him shift, repositioning himself into something that would be more comfortable if comfort mattered to him. He folded his hands in front of his face, elbows resting on his knees. Not giving up. Settling in for the long haul.
Just kick him out. This was private property, Duke’s home. Without a warrant, Nathan was only there by his leave. If Duke didn’t want him there – and right now he really, really didn’t – he’d have no choice but to go. But if I tell him to go, he might not come back. It was a line he couldn’t bring himself to draw yet, though it might become necessary in the future. Let him sit there, then, and get whatever wounded-puppy need for attention he was feeling out of his system, and then maybe they could get back to what passed for normal.
Even when he wasn’t doing anything, Nathan was impossible not to watch. He was beautiful, had been even as the gangly teenager who’d first given Duke butterflies. Duke’s reaction now was more sedate and more pained, but he still couldn’t stop himself from shooting little glances at Nathan every few seconds, trying to keep Nathan from noticing.
For his part, Nathan was still looking in Duke’s direction but not at him, brow furrowed like he was trying to say something. Or trying not to say something. The fingers of his right hand were absently running over the edge of his left hand, brushing against the bandage that covered his spinning wheel wound. “How’s that healing up?” Duke finally couldn’t stop himself from asking, tilting his head towards the bandage.
Nathan turned his hand around and looked at it like he’d forgotten it was injured. “It’s doing okay,” he said. “You?”
“Fine.” Duke’s own bandage was a noticeable lump under the thin undershirt he was wearing, hiding the ugly gash the briars had left across his midsection. The wound had already reached the healing stage where it was starting to itch and pull like hell, but he knew it would have been a lot worse if Nathan hadn’t pulled him back in time. I saved your ass, you saved mine. We’re even.
“Good,” Nathan mumbled, not looking at him at all now. He was still studying his bandaged hand, running his fingers over it again like it had reminded him of something. To Duke, who would rather that Nathan just forget the entire incident, this was a bad sign. “Duke...” he started, taking a slow and uncertain breath. “I think we need to talk.”
“Do we,” Duke returned, managing a skeptical look over the sinking feeling in his stomach. He didn’t think he’d ever heard those words from Nathan before. Nathan wasn’t exactly the talking type. He was more the ‘saying nothing for years until something exploded’ type. A departure from that... well, it might be just what both of them needed, truth be told, but it still wasn’t a good sign. “About what?”
“About whatever’s going on here. With us.” The words were clipped, hesitant. His fingers were still moving, just barely, only noticeable because the rest of him was so still. “I don’t... I don’t want...”
This was getting worse. Nathan only lost control of his words like this when he was scared of the weight of saying them. And the only words that scared Nathan were the ones that left him vulnerable. “Maybe you should come back when you know what you do want,” Duke said, just enough venom in his voice to irritate. He was growing even more convinced by the second that he didn’t want to have this conversation.
“I know it was you.” In contrast to the way he’d been speaking, this sentence came out in a rush, Nathan jerking his head up to look Duke in the eye for the first time since he’d stepped onto the boat. Duke could feel himself stop breathing. “In the barn,” Nathan continued. “You—you woke me up. There was—there was nobody else it could have been.”
Panic clawed at Duke’s chest. No. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t happen. The comforting knowledge that Nathan wouldn’t work everything out had been the only thing keeping him from weighing anchor and disappearing into the night, Troubles or no Troubles. And since Nathan couldn’t have figured it out on his own... “Audrey.” Duke breathed her name like a curse.
“She didn’t say anything until I’d already worked it out,” Nathan said, and as much as Duke didn’t want to believe it, he had to. He’d said himself that Nathan wasn’t stupid, but why did he have to choose now to prove it? He was looking at Duke with wide, bewildered eyes, begging for some explanation.
Without his conscious bidding, Duke’s con artist instincts kicked in, hiding his now-pounding heart behind a lazy smile. If a plausible lie was what was needed, then that was what he’d offer. “Didn’t have a lot of choice,” he said, sounding unconcerned. “We needed you for the sword, you needed a kiss...” A shrug. “I took one for the team. Not my ideal course of action, probably not yours either, but what can you do?” Part of that was true, at least. He’d spent so much time over the years wanting to kiss Nathan, but this wasn’t anything like how he’d wanted it to happen.
Nathan still looked blank and confused, but now he was shaking his head like he didn’t believe it. Come on, Duke pled silently, just go with it. “That’s not how it works,” Nathan fumbled, dashing Duke’s hopes of getting out of this easily. “You had to... it had to be right. And to be right...” His hands were working more obviously now; he bent his head over them like he was working his way to a conclusion that he must have already come to or he wouldn’t be here. “Duke...” he finally managed, looking up at him with desperation and confusion and... was that fear? “Do you...? Are you...?”
It was the look of sheer helplessness that did it. Duke’s last reserve failed, taking with it his panic and seemingly his strength. The calm that came over him was the same feeling that had washed over just before he’d kissed Nathan; a feeling that the fate he’d been trying so hard to defy had finally made itself truly inevitable and there was nothing he could do except ride it out. “Yeah,” he said quietly, bending his head down and directing his words towards the pump, doing everything in his power not to look at their actual audience. “I love you. I’ve been in love with you since high school.” That’s it, then. Whatever happens next, happens. He’d always thought, deep down, that it would be a relief to say it out loud. That no matter how Nathan reacted, it would be better than having the weight of what remained unsaid pressing down on his chest and stomach. He’d been wrong. The weight was still there, and now it was a fist clenching around his entire body, just under the skin.
The lack of any reaction went on for far too long. When Duke finally got up the courage to raise his head, Nathan was staring at him, face too pale, eyes widened again with the shock of discovering something he’d already worked out. When he saw that Duke was looking at him again, he seemed to regain a little bit of his composure if only to save face. “I didn’t... I didn’t know,” he finally croaked out.
You weren’t meant to, Duke didn’t say out loud. This reaction was nothing like what he had expected, even if he hadn’t know what to expect. There should have been shouting, indignation, maybe even a punch thrown. Nathan didn’t react well to having his world turned inside out. At best, he’d hoped for an over-rehearsed apology, the old ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t feel the same way.’ This helpless shock, like he’d hit Nathan so hard he didn’t know how to bounce back, was outside of anything he’d expected to see. “Now you do,” he said simply, quiet around the tightness of his throat. He forced the lump down with practice. “And now you can forget it,” he added, louder and colder, “and we can go back to our lives.”
That brought Nathan up short. “I’m not going to forget,” he said, sounding appalled. Insulted, even. “You can’t just tell me something like that and expect me to forget it like nothing happened!”
Anger. Finally, they were back on familiar ground. Fury bubbled up in Duke’s own chest to meet it, breaking him loose of the weight of old pain and sadness as he finally got as mad as he’d always wanted to be at how unfair all of this was. “Of course not,” he growled, rising to his feet. “Because that would leave me with one thing in my life that you’re not constantly hounding me about. One secret that doesn’t lead to you accusing me of trying to ruin your life because of something I don’t have any control over.” He ground his teeth, his voice rising almost to the breaking point. “Do you think I want this? You think I’m okay with being in love with someone who hates me?”
“I don’t hate you!” Nathan shot up and took a couple short steps towards Duke, not quite closing the distance between them. His words echoed in Duke’s head, the same words Duke had tried so hard to get him to say when he was dying, now roared in his face with more force and violence than anyone in history had probably poured into saying that they didn’t hate someone. “You piss me off so much,” Nathan continued, more quietly now that he’d gotten the initial outburst, but still practically crackling with vehemence. “But do you really think I’d get half as mad as I do if I didn’t—if you didn’t mean the world to me?” He buried his face in one hand again, catching his breath in Duke’s stunned silence. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Irrelevantly, Duke reflected that he didn’t really have the right any longer to claim that Nathan didn’t react well to having his world turned inside out. He wasn’t sure exactly how Nathan had managed to flip everything around on him, leaving him the one confused and helpless and not sure what was going on. “Would it have made a difference?”
“It would have been a start.” Nathan’s voice had gone small now, stumbling over his words again. “We’ve been fighting for so long, and you’ve been carrying that around all this time... If I’d known...” He let out a short huff and looked away, like he was steeling himself for something. “It’s not all your fault that we’re so screwed up,” he finally said, looking back at Duke. “And maybe if I’d known what was going on in your head, I wouldn’t have done as much as I did to make things worse. We could have been... better.”
This confession was more shocking than anything Nathan had ever said. It hadn’t been an apology, and as far as Duke could tell it was as gentle a rejection as Nathan could manage, but it was still... well, like he’d said. It might be a start, if only to some of the old pain lifting. “Maybe,” Duke said quietly. He forced a rueful smile, and found it didn’t take all that much force. “In another life, right?”
Nathan took a deep breath. “Or maybe this one?” There was a tremor in the words, and he was looking more nervous than Duke had ever seen him before. “Maybe, if I’d known what you were...” He faltered, seemingly running out of words. Duke, similarly lost, did nothing to interrupt as Nathan tried again. “It never... I never thought to look at you like that,” he said, sounding surprised at himself. “And now I have, and I’m looking and... I don’t want to look away.” Something in his face softened as he said that, the barest hint of wonder in his eyes. Like he’d discovered something new. He shook his head helplessly. “Maybe it’s not what you’re feeling. But I want to find out if it could be.”
Hope burned in Duke’s chest, beautiful and terrible because this couldn’t possibly be going where he wanted to think it was. And yet... “I... have no idea what to say to that,” he said quietly, not wanting to ask the question that he wanted to ask.
He hadn’t thought Nathan could get any closer without it being way too close. Nathan seemed to disagree. His voice was practically a whisper. “So for once in your life, don’t say anything.”
Coming from anyone else, Duke would have known immediately what that meant. But coming from Nathan... that fear in his eyes was contagious. So was the sudden softness of his voice, as Duke discovered when he tried to respond. “Was that... a ‘shut up and kiss me’?”
A grin, nervous and fumbling but with clear intent. “It was trying to be.”
Oh. Not much room for interpretation. But plenty of room for hesitation, as it turned out. Duke rested a hand on Nathan’s chest, mostly to steady himself, and got as far as leaning in before he froze up completely. Nathan was apparently in no bolder shape than he was, willing to ask someone else to make the first move but not brave enough to make it himself. Then there was a new curl to his lip and a low growl: “For god’s sake, Duke, don’t you dare chicken out on this one.”
It shouldn’t have worked. Duke liked to think he had far too much pride and dignity for something like that to work. And yet suddenly he was kissing Nathan, really kissing him this time, and Nathan was kissing him back. It was cautious, and about as awkward and uncertain as could be expected from someone who couldn’t actually feel what he was doing, but it was real, and it was happening, and there wasn’t room in Duke’s brain for much else.
Eventually Nathan broke away, leaning back just enough to take a good look at Duke. He brushed an errant bit of hair out of Duke’s face, then left his hand there, resting lightly on Duke’s cheek. “Keep your eyes open this time,” he murmured. Duke barely had time to nod his acknowledgement before Nathan kissed him again, and then there was nothing else in the universe but the deep, perfect blue of his eyes. There was still awkwardness to his touch, but the caution had evaporated entirely.
This time Duke was the one who had to pull back, to catch his breath and rein in his reeling head. “Okay,” Nathan said quietly, sounding almost as dazed as he felt. “Gotta admit, that was a little bit magical.”
It was the worst thing he could possibly have said, or maybe the best. As Nathan started to lean in for a third kiss – magic always comes in threes – Duke took a step back, the hand still resting on Nathan’s chest becoming a barrier. “I think you need to leave for now,” he forced himself to say, ignoring the thousand little voices in his head screaming that he was making the biggest mistake of his life.
Watching the new light fall out of Nathan’s face was painful. “I thought—”
“I know,” Duke said quickly. “And I can’t believe I’m saying this. But this...” He laughed helplessly at himself. “This is everything I could possibly want. If it’s real.”
Nathan looked as confused as he had at the beginning of this conversation, though now the helplessness was replaced with hurt. “What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that there’s a Trouble that locked us in a story that we had to see through to the end,” Duke said. “And what if it’s still hanging around? There’s fairy tale residue all over town, from the gold at the farm to the new tree outside the Gull. What if this is only happening because it’s supposed to be how the story ends? I know,” he continued, cutting off the objection that he could see Nathan forming, “you’re going to say that you know how you feel, and no Trouble could have caused it, right? But a Trouble made you believe in dragons and magic swords. I know, because it did the same thing to me. Can you really be sure it didn’t do this to you, too?”
“Yes,” Nathan said quickly, but his voice lacked conviction. “No,” he confessed.
Duke nodded, aching with regret. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “You have a girlfriend,” he said, trying not to notice the strange way Nathan’s face twisted when he said that. “Not to mention that you’re still hung up on a woman who’s one of my best friends. I just... I don’t want either of us to regret anything if this all wears off.”
“So, what?” Nathan asked, his voice going flat. “We do what you said earlier? Just forget any of this ever happened?”
Duke smiled ruefully. “Do you really think I could?” He shook his head. “Just take some time, is all I’m saying. Clear your head. Talk to whoever you need to talk to. And in a couple days, if you still... well, you know where to find me.”
“And if I don’t?” Nathan asked. The sadness in his voice reminded Duke of his own, the regret of time wasted and chances that the two of them should have taken years ago.
“Then you still know where to find me.” Duke forced a shrug at Nathan’s doubtful expression. “Hey, at least I’ll finally know, right? We can start clean either way. And even if we can’t be something else, maybe we can remember how to be friends again.”