Thanks for all the reviews on the other stories, everyone! I rewatched the season finale and was lucky enough to have an afternoon of perfect background music on my Pandora station. This little ditty was almost kissmet. :)
Disclaimer: Not mine. No way, no how.
There are three absolute truths in Duke Crocker's life, three things he's one hundred percent sure of no matter what evidence might be provided to the contrary. The first is that he'll always end up on top: in business, in life, in games of Jenga played with his quickly aging grandfather at the old folk's home in Bangor. He's just that good at what he does, no matter what it is (and most especially if it's a board game of any sort).
The second is that Nathan Wurnous will always hate him for what he did when he was eight years old…and fifteen years old…and twenty-three years old. Duke's bothered by that minutely, not because Nathan's a cop and having a cop hate you is typically a bad thing – especially in Duke's line of work – but because they were, at one time, inseparable and on occasion, when he's melancholy, Duke misses his best friend.
The third is that even when she smiles at him, Audrey Parker's thinking about Nathan and if he's honest with himself, it breaks his non-existent heart just a bit.
"It's interesting," Duke says, staring off into the distance beyond the deck of the Grey Gull. He's had three too many and the tumbler in his hand is slipping. Nathan's reflexes save it from a shattered fate against the weather wood under their feet.
"What's that?" he asks, setting the tumbler down on the glass table between them. He'd promised Audrey that he'd try a truce; he hadn't said anything about philosophical discussions with his sworn enemy. He'd also promised that he'd stop using terms like 'nemesis' and 'bane of my existence' because it made him sound like a delusional superhero. He thinks it's a little unfair that she made him promise all that while she was half-naked and purring like a cat in his bed.
"I saw her naked before you did," Duke says and the words sound like they're being pulled from his mouth, tumbling into a pile on the table.
Nathan stares at him. "I saved your ass from a thug who thinks you lost his shipment and this is how you repay me?"
Duke swings his head around quickly, his eyes taking a moment or two to adjust and focus on Nathan's frown. When his alcohol-addled brain replays the previous sentence, he realizes his mistake and shakes his head.
"That came out wrong," he says. "I apologize."
Nathan hides a smile behind his bottle of beer. "Good thing I'm in a reasonable mood."
"I think she loves you more than me," he says.
"Might be so."
"The girls always did like you best," Duke says, leaning forward to rest his forehead against the cool glass of the table. "Because you're sensitive and I'm a schmuck." When Nathan says nothing in protest, Duke lifts his head and frowns at him. "You're supposed to disagree with that," he says.
Nathan shrugs. "Doesn't seem right to disagree with something I agree with."
Duke looks at him through narrowed eyes. "Are you always going to hate me?" he asks.
Nathan finishes his beer in one long pull and puts it and a five dollar bill down on the table. "Who says I hate you?" he asks, standing. "Hate's a pretty heavy word, Duke." He stands, pats his ex-best friend on the shoulder as he walks by, and disappears down the path towards the parking lot.
Audrey Parker's truths are easy: Nathan will always be there, on and off the field; her life will always be mysteriously intertwined with this crazy coastal town; and Duke will, on occasion, wipe the slate clean of all the bad things he's done in his life just by performing a perfectly choreographed good deed when it's needed.
She also knows that Rosemary's cupcakes are a cure for sadness; Julia's smiles and stories of Africa are perfect for bringing on giggle fits; and the weight of Nathan's hand on her lower back – on anywhere, really – is good for everything.
Nathan opens the door of the diner for her and ushers her in with his hand pressed squarely against the small of her back. Even in the chill of the early November morning, she can feel the warmth of him through her layers of wool and cotton. She turns her head an inch or two to the side and smiles at him when she thinks no one's looking.
"Haven's finest," a familiar voice says from a booth in the back and Duke waves them over with a bright smile that doesn't quite meet his eyes. "I just got here myself. Care to join me?"
Nathan wordlessly leaves the decision up to Audrey and she slides into the booth across from Duke. She smiles across the table while Nathan hangs her coat up for her.
"It's early for you, isn't it?" she asks. "You're usually still reading your Chinese newspaper and drinking Kona from the deck of your ship at this hour."
Nathan returns, slides into the booth next to Audrey, and subtly presses his thigh tightly against hers, rests his hand on her knee under the table. Audrey's smile takes on a dreamy quality and Duke pretends to be oblivious as he hands them menus.
"I haven't had a chance to go shopping since our adventure at sea," he says. "And Joe told me if I cook myself one more breakfast using ingredients for her carefully planned dinners, she'll chop my fingers off." He waves his fingers. "I like my appendages where they are, so the diner it is." He taps his fingers against his menu, makes a point of not looking at either of them. "And the newspaper is in Korean, but I can understand how you'd mix them up."
The waitress stops by and takes their orders. She turns to leave and her pencil falls from her apron. Duke bends down to pick up for her and happens to look under the table. He sees Audrey's knee with Nathan's hand on it and his lungs leave him. When he comes back up, Audrey smiles at him, and the cracking noise might, in reality, be the pencil breaking under the weight of his hand, but he's absolutely certain it's actually his heart.
Nathan Wurnous knows that the smokiness of a good Scotch is second only to the feel of Audrey's mouth against the pulse point of his neck. He also knows that if she promises to kiss him there every morning for the rest of his life, he'll learn to be nice to Duke.
"I thought you hated to fish," Duke says around a cigar that's been out for a solid twenty minutes. Nathan offered to relight it for him, but the smuggler declined. He said he rather liked chewing on it because it made him feel like an old Hollywood curmudgeon.
Nathan shakes his head, just once, side to side. He draws his line in, casts it out again, and stands solid on the shore with his feet shoulder width apart and his knees locked. The fly rod is old, but still balanced perfectly and it makes casting his line out as easy as reeling it in.
"I said it wasn't my favorite kind of thing," he says, watching the yellow and red streamer bob along the tidal waves. "I never said I hated it." He reels in his line just a little, pulls an extra foot of length out and casts it out to the waves. "And you know as well as I do that this isn't fishing."
He turns to look at Duke and the two men grin, remembering what Duke's grandfather taught them all those years ago, when they'd been dangerous ten year olds with mischief in their smiles and mayhem in their eyes.
"This be an art form," they say in unison.
They go quiet and stare out at the tide, their brightly colored streamers playing along the waves fifteen or twenty feet out from where they stand on the beach. The late afternoon sun is dancing languidly along the horizon – they'll have to head back soon if they want to be on time for the bonfire and Haven's official summer kick-off party. For now, though, they seem content to just stand and pretend they know what they're doing with the fly rods in their hands.
"I envy you," Duke says quietly, so low Nathan almost doesn't hear him. "I never thought I would, but I do."
"Because of Audrey?" Nathan asks.
Duke nods, reels his line in. "Still hate me?" he asks, hooking the streamer on the catch near the handle.
Nathan frowns, following Duke's actions. "I told you…"
"Hate's a heavy word," Duke says. "I know, but that still doesn't answer my question."
"I don't hate you, Duke," Nathan says. They turn and head up the dunes towards Duke's truck. "It's never gonna be like it was, not that it probably should considering how much trouble we caused back then, but I don't hate you."
Duke remains quiet, his shoulders tense, as they load their fly rods into the back of the truck. He stands with his hands wrapped over the top of the tailgate and his eyes focus on a point off in the distance. Nathan punches him lightly in the arm.
"She loves you, too, you know," he says and Duke smiles ever so slightly. "Don't really understand why…"
"That makes two of us." Duke pulls his hands away and shuts the window, turns to Nathan. "Come on," he says, "I'll buy you a beer."
Duke Crocker knows a lot of things – how to tie a fly, how to smuggle a case of vodka from Russia to Washington without the port authority finding out, how to beat his grandfather at Jenga. He's given up on absolute truths, though. Every time he thinks he has one solidly grounded in his life, the universe rears back on her heels and kicks it away. Instead, he focuses on the things he knows.
He knows he's good at board games.
He knows better than to hope for more than he has.
And he knows his heart works better than he gives it credit for.