title: real

author: neotantrika

fandom: Haven

pairing: Audrey Parker/Nathan Wuornos

rating: NC-17 for explicit sex, AU for divergence from canon

disclaimer: These characters belong to SyFy, not to me.

author's note: I began this story after episode 2.8, "Friend or Faux". At the time, the distance between these two characters looked insurmountable, so I spent a bit of time laying the groundwork for a deeper relationship. All fan fiction runs the risk of instant obsolescence, however, and before I could post it the events of 2.11, "Business As Usual", rendered it more or less moot. That's why I'm calling it an AU (alternate universe) story.

"Do you ever wonder if you're real?" - Audrey Parker to Cornell Stamron

She closes a folder, puts it in her OUT box, picks up the last one, flips it open. It's the county file on one of their Troubled cases, Cornell Stamron. There's nothing new here, just the usual dry, bureaucratic paperwork wrapping up a case. No mention of "copies", of living duplicates of a man embodying his dark side, carrying the same memories. She and Nathan routinely edit out stuff like that. She picks up her pen to sign off on the report. It's a pro forma gesture, really meaningless. It will go into her OUT box along with the rest of the day's paper, to be filed and forgotten. The real report is in the secret files in the Chief's office, or in Nathan's private files.

She twiddles with the pen. She caps and uncaps it. She stares at the signature line: A. Parker. All she needs to do is sign it and go home.

She can't.

"You ready?" Nathan's telegraphic conversational style is the closest thing Audrey has come across to live text-speech. She sometimes wonders if she should "hear" it as "u rdy?" in her head. She looks up and he's there, standing in that hip-shot, easy stance, hands in jeans pockets, blue eyes half-shut in that way that looks sleepy but really, really is not.

"Not yet," she says.

He glances at the file. He can read upside down, every good cop learns that early on. "Problem?"

She shakes her head, picks up the pen. "No. I ... I just..." And she puts the pen down again. She puts her face in her hands, leans her elbows on the desk. "Long day."

"Come on," he says. His voice is neutral, as usual. Gives nothing away. Nathan never does. "Buy you a drink at the Gull."

She looks up. "You're offering to spend money, Nathan?"

He just raises his eyebrow, jerks his head towards the door.

She looks down at the file, closes it, still unsigned. "I guess I can get to this in the morning."

It's not out of his way to take her to the Grey Gull, since she lives upstairs. Usually Nathan just drops her and drives away, but tonight he parks and escorts her into its warm, dimly lit, noisy interior. Sam's behind the bar, with Duke nowhere in sight. Audrey doesn't need Nathan's hand on her elbow to feel the tension ebb out of him. Sam catches her eye, nods towards the corner where an empty table waits. He's already reaching under the bar for Nathan's beer when they sit down.

When her martini and his beer arrive, they sip in silence. Audrey watches Nathan scanning the room, automatically filing away the names of everyone there, who they're with, what they're doing. He probably doesn't even know he's doing that. Of course, she does it too, and knew as soon as they walked in who was dancing, who was drinking, and who was arguing.

"Turner's gonna be passed out before midnight," she comments. Nathan, who has also seen the town drunk sitting at a table, half-soused over his second pitcher, nods, sips his beer. They both know Stan will handle his uncle Turner, as usual. A small town like Haven has secrets, and then not-so-secrets. Turner is one of them. Nathan tips his chair back against the wall so he can stretch his legs out. They go on for miles.

"What's wrong with the Stamron file?" Nathan asks. He's not looking at her, still memorizing the room. But Audrey smiles. Of course he noticed. Of course he picked up on her internal discord. He's Nathan.

"You know when you left me with his ... copy? And went off looking for Duke with Stamron?"

Nathan nods. If words were money, he'd be a miser.

"We had a ... conversation." She sips at the martini. Perfect, as always. "We had a couple of things in common, you might say."

Now he looks at her, that piercing gaze steady, neutral. He doesn't judge her; he listens.

"He ... he had someone else's memories. Like I do." Nathan nods. She sips again. "I asked him, if we have somebody else's memories, what makes us us? I told him he was more than the sum of his memories, that he could be himself, make himself. Or something like that." The martini is half gone and she wonders if she should ask for another. Probably not. But Nathan is signaling Sam anyway, pointing at her glass. She shrugs and goes with it.

"He believed you," Nathan's saying. "In the end, he made his own decision. For himself."

"Sort of nihilistic, don't you think?" she says. "The only 'authentic' choice he made destroyed him."

"Your choices are authentic," he says. As usual, cutting right to the heart of a matter. "You're afraid you're not real?"

Sam deposits her second martini, sweeps the now-empty first away with cool efficiency, one eye on the corner table where Turner is now getting groggily to his feet.

Audrey drinks half the second martini in one gulp. It's strong. "I don't know, Nathan. That report today. I looked down at the line where I'm supposed to sign. It said 'Parker'. Something in me wouldn't sign it."

He tips up the beer bottle, draining it. His eyes don't leave her face. Audrey thinks Nathan listens better than anyone else she knows.

"I mean, am I really 'Audrey Parker'? Am I really who I think I am? Maybe I should sign it 'Lucy Ripley'?"

Nathan sets the empty bottle carefully back on the table. "'Lucy Ripley' is not a member of the Haven PD," he says evenly.

"So I am my job? I am defined only by what I do? I could just sign that form, 'cop'?" She tilts her head to one side, looking at him. The alcohol is going to her head; she feels warm all over, a little dizzy. "I guess you could sign your name, 'Nathan Hansen', couldn't you?" She remembers that Nathan only recently found out his real father was a convict, that he was adopted by the late Chief Wuornos.

She knows Nathan well enough to recognize the very slight flicker of emotion that crosses his face. "No," he said tersely. "I couldn't."

She looks down at her glass, fishes out the olives. "Sorry," she mutters. "I shouldn't have said that."

He gets to his feet. He's so tall it seems to take forever, like some crane or stork from the wetlands unfolding itself into flight. He tosses a few bills on the table. "Good night, Audrey," he says, and walks out.

She has two more martinis before she toddles up the stairs to bed. She dreams about Nathans all night, dozens of them staring at her with those smoky blue eyes that hide so many secrets.

The next day Nathan says nothing when he picks her up, says nothing when he drops her at the station. She's learned that his silence has different qualities: this one is a thoughtful silence. It means he's working something out. She knows he's going to Derry for the day on departmental business; something to do with the county health coverage, and this is her chance to do some investigating. Audrey goes looking for the file on Max Hansen - but it's missing. So she goes through his private files in the Chief's office. She hears the comings and goings out in the bull pen but everyone ignores her. On every other law enforcement job she's worked, questions would be raised if anyone went through the chief's files while he was out. Here, she's treated like an extension of Nathan; Stan even leaves her Nathan's phone messages.

All day the Stamron file sits on her desk, unsigned. All day, she ignores it.

The Hansen file tells her nothing she didn't already know: Chief Wuornos thought Max killed the Colorado Kid but couldn't really prove it. There's nothing there about Wuornos adopting Hansen's son as his own, or that Hansen couldn't feel pain, either. There's nothing there about how Max used to beat his wife and son; Audrey wonders of Nathan's inability to feel kicked in before or after those beatings. Does he remember them, or has he blocked them from memory? Does the fact that he has no memory of Max Hansen from his childhood mean Nathan is a different person than if he'd grown up under Max's fist? What with one father who beat him and another who ignored him, she wonders why Nathan has never left Haven. Why he doesn't leave now, when both men are dead? What's keeping him here? The Troubles?

Which leads her back to the file sitting silently, accusingly, on her desk. She puts away the Hansen file and spends the rest of the day on busywork. She doesn't sign the Stamron report. She doesn't sign anything at all.

The next morning, Nathan picks her up, as silent as always. He's brought her coffee, though, and the silence between them is companionable. They're pulling into the parking lot when the radio squawks.

"Got a 419 out on the West Beach, Nathan," Laverne drawls in her husky voice.

Audrey grabs the mike. "On our way," she says. She resists the urge to say, "over and out," since Laverne teases her about her big-city cop ways.

Nathan spins the wheel and the blue Ford truck surges out of the Haven PD parking lot; they never even made it inside.

The wind off the north Atlantic is cold; Audrey huddles inside her jacket. Nathan, of course, feels nothing, and strides up and down looking at tracks, talking to Bernie and the ME. The body washed up with the high tide, and now lies face up, bloated and wrapped in seaweed like a fat man at a spa.

Nathan strides up, his big boots crunching on the gravel beach. "Nobody knows him," he says. "No ID, no usable prints. He's been in the water a couple of days."

The sadness of it - a dead man no one knows - makes the day gloomier. The wind shifts and the smell hits her - seaweed and salt and decaying meat. The stink brings tears to her eyes and she sees Nathan's almost invisible flinch. Unable to feel, his sense of smell is overdeveloped, a definite handicap in a cop. She takes his arm, pulling him aside into the shelter of a boulder so the wind is not as strong.

Nathan's still looking at the body, not at his feet, so he stumbles a bit. He fetches up against her, one hand squarely on her left breast.

She wants to laugh it off, but his shocked reaction startles her. He gasps, fairly leaping back. "Nathan?"

"Sorry!" he bursts out. "Oh, God, Audrey, I'm sorry!"

"It's okay," she says, amused. "You tripped. No big deal."

But he's looking down at his hand, and a slow flush climbs his cheek. And Audrey remembers that he can feel her, and only her, and what his hand was just touching...

He doesn't look at her as he strides away, jacket flapping in the wind.

"Need a couple hands here," the ME says. He's laid out a thick black poly body bag next to the corpse. He stands, a skinny older guy with a buzz cut. He holds up his arm and Audrey can see the cast on his wrist. "Sprained it playing football with my son over the weekend. I can't lift the body."

The uniformed officer and Nathan step over, but it's clear the two of them aren't enough. Nathan looks at Audrey, and she reluctantly comes forward. Thank God there are still clothes on the body. Audrey looks away from the blackened, half-eaten face.

Nathan stoops over the shoulders. "You guys get a leg each, I got the shoulders. On three."

Audrey grabs the cuff of the man's left pants, the cop grabs the right. On Nathan's count, they heave the body up and slam it onto the plastic. Something breaks inside, and the smell engulfs them like a mist from hell. Audrey runs to the surf, not caring what the water does to her shoes, and heaves up her breakfast. Twice. She stays there, hands on her knees, shaking. She rinses her mouth out with the cold seawater, but refuses to turn around until she hears the distant sound of the medical examiner's van departing, then the cop.

Nathan stands beside her. He says nothing, just standing with her.

After a moment she straightens and wipes her hands across her face. She feels a nudge, looks down, and Nathan is holding out a stick of mint gum. She takes it, chews it. It helps.

"Sorry about that," she finally mumbles. "Unprofessional of me."

"How many floaters have you handled?" he asks.

Audrey shrugs. "I don't know," she says. "I think I've handled them before. I remember several." She turns to face him, and his look is open, accepting. He's not judging her, again. "I mean, I think I remember them. But was that me or ... her? The other Audrey? Were those my memories? Are they real?" She flings out her hands. "Is anything I remember real?"

He doesn't smile or reassure her or say any of the usual comforting platitudes. Nathan looks out across the water. He points. "Right there. Above the beach."

She looks, frowning. He's pointing to the spot where the cutoff from the state highway circles around and drops into Haven. It's the main route into town. "What?"

"That cliff right there. Where your car went off the road."

She remembers her first sight of the town, on an assignment from the FBI. Or was it the FBI? Was she really an FBI agent once? Or was her supervisor, Special Agent Howard, also someone else's memory? "Cracks in the road opened up and my car nearly went over," she says. Is he trying to distract her?

"It's where I first met you," he says. And now he turns to face her, and his look is very serious, very open. He rarely opens up to anyone like this, but he does it for her. Audrey is surprised when he puts his hands on her shoulders; Nathan rarely touches anyone voluntarily. "I saw you for the first time in that car, on the edge. Do you remember that?"

"Of course. And you pulled me out right before the car went over. And then you pulled a gun on me."

A corner of his mouth quirks up in one of his rare smiles. "You pulled one on me, too. But my point is, you remember all that, right?"

"Of course."

"Audrey, I remember it, too." He squeezes her shoulders. "I remember everything since. The Troubles, the Chief, all our cases. Jess Minion and Chris Brody. Duke and Evi. The Rev. Your memories are my memories. We all share memories, all of us."

She swallows. "I know, but -"

"And my memories say you're as real as this beach, this sky. As real as ... " He slipped his hands from her shoulders, down her arms, to catch her hands in his. "As real as touch."

His hands are warm, firm. She feels the strength in them, feels calluses she knows he can't feel himself. His fingers grip hers, sure and steadfast. He's an anchor, the only person she can really trust. She squeezes his fingers, and sees something flit across his face. She knows that look now, knows it's his reaction to something that almost never happens for him, the simple feel of another person's skin against his.

She looks down at their joined hands. "Real? Nathan, you can only feel when I touch you. How real is that?"

"Real enough," he says. He releases her, stands back, but his gaze does not leave her face. "Maybe it only takes one other person to make you real."

He walks back up the beach, his jacket flapping in the breeze. She watches him go, that ground-eating stride, looking a bit like one of the cranes that migrated in and out of Haven in the spring. Nathan: patient, quiet, subtle, strong. Real.

A week later the first snow of autumn hits Haven. It's nothing much as Maine snowfalls go, or so they tell her. Audrey seems to remember snow fights when she was a child, the shock of ice going down her neck. But maybe those aren't her memories, either.

Even though most Haven residents have lived here all their lives, during the summer half of them forget how to drive on ice. So Nathan, Audrey and the rest of the department spend most of the day and a good chunk of the early evening sorting out minor traffic accidents. After sundown the temperature plummets, and Audrey retreats to the warmth of the truck. Nathan finally waves a tow truck out onto the road, watches it drive away, and strides back to the truck. A blast of cold air follows him in as he slams the driver's side door.

"Pancakes," he says.

"Absolutely, pancakes," she agrees.

She should have realized it wouldn't be that simple; nothing in Haven ever is. When they push through the door of the Pancake Shaque, most of the Haven police department is grouped around a long table, busy with forks and syrup and coffee. A cheer goes up. "Chief!"

Stan and Bob scoot over to make room. They squeeze in - and she really is squeezed tight against Nathan, hip to hip. She hopes he doesn't feel claustrophobic. Everyone is cheerful, happy, gossiping. She leans over and murmurs in Nathan's ear. "What is it about the first snowfall?"

But everyone is so close together it's impossible to speak privately. On her left, Bob chuckles. "You don't know?"

"What's going on?"

Stan and Bob exchange amused looks. "Haven PD tradition. First snowfall, the Chief buys pancakes."

Audrey glances sideways at the huge stack of pancakes the waitress is setting in front of Nathan. "Wow. Nathan, I think you're going to have to sell your truck."

"Oh, he's a big boy," the bosomy waitress - her name, Audrey thinks, is Stephanie - rests a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "He can handle a stack, cancha, hon?"

The laughter that greets this is a little mean, as if everyone is actually laughing at Nathan. He stares down at his pancakes.

Audrey is surprised at the bite of jealousy in her. She didn't mind when Jess used to flirt with Nathan. And for all she knows, this bleached blonde cutie and Nathan go way back. Or, something whispers in her, not so far back. She doesn't really know what Nathan does with his nights. Brooding, she stares down at her plate, unseeing.

"Hey, remember that time your dad tried to duck out of Pancake Night? And everyone showed up at his house with syrup?" one of the older cops says. Laughter all around. "Took him a year to live that down."

The talk becomes general, and the stories start. Fifth grade pranks, kindergarten fights, teenage hijinks. Everyone giggles at the idea of straight-laced Stan getting caught half-naked with Trudy Steinbrenner. Ancient jokes are trotted out, punch lines she doesn't get. Practically everyone at the table grew up in Haven; they've all known one another all their lives. Surrounded by shared community memories, Audrey feels like she's sitting in a glass box, cut off from everyone around her.

Nathan jostles her, leaning over to fish his wallet out. Audrey's eyes widen when she sees the check in front of him. "Wow, Nathan, that's really-"

He covers the check with his hand. "You don't mess with tradition, Parker," he says evenly, and starts pulling out twenties. He drops them on the table, stands. "See you guys in the morning," he says.

They barely notice he's going: a casual nod, a wave as everyone leans in to hear the punch line to one of Bob's fishing stories. Audrey stands and reaches for her coat.

"You can stay if you want," Nathan says. He takes her coat and holds it for her. She feels his hands linger on her collar. "Stan will drop you on his way home."

"It's all right." She waves cheerfully at the table, but no one pays any attention. "It's not like I share any memories with these guys."

Back in the truck, she's shivering. His coat is not even buttoned. Falling snow drifts onto the windshield, shrouding the parking lot in white silence. Audrey pokes at the heater, which stubbornly refuses to work.

"Another Haven tradition," Nathan says, steering carefully down the middle of the icy road. His high beams flare on a wall of descending white. "First snowfall, all car heaters fail."

She hugs herself. "L-lovely." She glances at him. He's got that look, that distant expression that tells her he's retreated into his head. "S-so. You and St-Stephanie? You g-got a thing?"

He flicks her an annoyed glance. "What?"

"The waitress. She seems to like you." And Audrey hates herself for even saying these things. What the hell has gotten into her?

Nathan turns his head and stares at her. "What are you talking about?"

And that answer tells her all she needs to know. He really has no clue, no guilty secret, nothing to hide from her. She feels vaguely ashamed. "Nothing. Watch the road, Chief."

"Don't call me that," he snaps.

The Grey Gull is alive with laughter and music, the lighted windows welcoming all comers with the promise of fun and alcohol. Audrey slumps in the front seat of the truck when Nathan pulls up next to her stairway.

"You okay?" His voice is neutral.

She toys with the zipper on her jacket. "Yeah. I guess. It's just ... you don't know how lucky you are, you know?"

He raises that eyebrow, but says nothing.

"I mean, this place. These people. You all grew up here. You all know one another."

"Sometimes wish I didn't," he says, and she knows he means Duke Crocker.

"But still. You said the other day, on the beach. You said, 'we all share memories, all of us'. But I don't, Nathan." She squeezes her hands together. "I don't share memories with any of them. They – they anchor you. They ground you in this place, this, I guess you'd call it reality. But I'm not part of that. I'm … adrift."

He squints at her. "I think you need a drink."

She looks through the falling snow at the bar, thinks of all the strangers sharing drinks, sharing memories she didn't have. She's had enough of that for one night. "No. Not in there."

He says nothing, but opens his door. He comes around and opens her door. "Come on," he says.

She hears him thumping up the wooden stairs behind her. He stands against her, acting as a wind break as she fumbles her key into the lock. Then they're inside and the noise from the bar is muted, coming up from below. The room is warm, and she sheds her jacket. Nathan is already in her tiny kitchenette, rummaging through cupboards.

"It's a little scary, that you know where I keep all my stuff," she says.

He turns, two mismatched wine glasses in one big hand. "You're orderly," he says. "Logical. Methodical. So I only have to think logically and methodically to figure out where you keep your things." He finds the drawer with the corkscrew on the first try, then opens the door under the cabinet and finds the wine. "Merlot? Or chardonnay?"

"When did you learn about wine?"

"When I was fourteen. My first drink was Mad Dog 20/20," he says.

She leans against the refrigerator, shuddering. "I see your palate has improved."

"My taste buds work just fine," he says. "Even if the rest of my senses don't." She can tell that the waitress' teasing stung him.

He pulls the cork easily. It usually takes her a ten minute struggle. She watches him pour the ruby wine into the glasses. "I thought you were more a Jack Daniels kinda guy." She accepts a glass, toasts him silently.

He hesitates, glancing at her with a look she's never seen, then shrugs. "Only when my heart gets broken."

And she remembers Jess and feels awkward and ashamed. "Crap. I'm sorry, Nathan."

"I'm over it." He shrugs, looks away, tosses back the wine like it was water. Audrey thinks there are some things she will never be able to share with Nathan, and his painful interlude with Jess is one of them.

He sets down the glass, leans back against the counter and crosses his arms. He looks at her solemnly. "So. You're in a twist because you didn't grow up here, because you feel like an outsider, right?"

"Yeah." The wine is very good. She finishes her glass, reaches for the bottle and offers him some. He shakes his head, she pours another for herself. "Like I said, no memories in common."

"And yet that guy Stamron, you told him he was more than the sum of his memories."

She remembers that moment, remembers calling desperately across the half-built atrium, the way her careful arguments echoed off the bare concrete. And she remembers the fear, no the terror, that went through her at the sight of Nathan lying so still, face down on the concrete. Her hand trembles and she puts the glass down. "So?"

"Did you believe what you said?"

She swallows. Shrugs. "I meant it when I said it. Now...I don't know. Nathan, maybe we are nothing more than the sum of our memories. Maybe we're the sum of what other people remember about us. Maybe it's all that keeps us from ... nothingness." Amazingly, she feels tears at the back of her throat, hears the faint suggestion of a tremor in her voice. "I mean, where do I begin, Nathan? When did I begin? Did I only exist, really exist as me, the day I drove into Haven and nearly drove over a cliff? Maybe the only reason you can feel me, is the same reason I don't get affected by the Troubles. I'm not ... not real. I never was, I'm only-"

And then it all hurts too much and it's confusing and her chest feels tight, and she's wondering how she can get Nathan out of here before she totally loses it, when he steps forward and wraps her up in those long, long arms.

She is so surprised, she freezes. But he puts his mouth next to her ear and says, in a low, quiet voice. "No one on this earth is more real to me than you, Audrey Parker. If you came into existence the day we met, well then, so did I."

Part of her is distracted by the realization that Nathan is warm. He's a furnace. She'd somehow assumed that since he didn't feel the cold he'd feel cold to the touch, but he's not. Her cheek against his chest is hot, his heart thuds under her ear. And the sense of deep comfort that washes over her, well, she doesn't want to let that go.

What the hell is happening here? part of her says. Another, deeper part of her knows exactly what's going on, but that part does not use words so she tries to ignore it. "Nathan..." she mumbles, her voice muffled against him.

He releases her slowly. His hands linger on her shoulders, her arms. For some reason, it is hard for Audrey to meet his eyes, but she forces herself to look up.

She's not sure what she sees there in those steel-blue eyes, but she knows it's honest. It's trust, and belief, and sympathy. A twinkle of his rare laughter, laughter that always makes her wonder at the man he might have been if he'd been able to live a normal life. She sees sadness there, too, the gloominess that colors his whole life, renders him mute and melancholy at times. And she sees something else, something warm and deep, something - open. Intimate. The air simmers, and even the sounds of the bar seem to emphasize the humming silence between them. Audrey's heart is beating fast, and she feels her face going warm.

He bends down. Part of her thinks breathlessly, this is it this is it and then he's pressing his lips to her forehead, lingering there. She closes her eyes, feeling the softness of his mouth against her brow.

"It's all right," he whispers, and she feels his breath on her skin, her lips moving against her forehead. "Audrey, I ... "

There's a long pause, and then he straightens. She leans against him, resting her forehead against his chest. His hand curls around the back of her head, pressing her against him.

"It'll be all right," he says, and his voice rumbles under her ear. "You are real, Audrey Parker. And you ... you make me real."

Then he releases her, and turns. Four steps, and he's at the door, tugging it open. A swirl of snowflakes dance across the threshold, then the door shuts and he's gone, and she's left with a flush on her cheeks that has nothing to do with a fine California Merlot sitting on her kitchen counter.

She feels shy the next morning, and for a tiny second thinks of calling in sick. Then she curses herself for a coward and heads downstairs. The day is clear, cold, crisp under its mantle of pristine white. Nathan's right on time, of course. He leans over and opens the passenger door. She climbs in and smells coffee and suddenly it's all right; there's no awkwardness, no embarrassment. It's just her and Nathan, as usual. They say nothing on the ride in. They don't need to.

At the station, Bob intercepts her. "I got a call from the Staties. Some clerk says he needs you to send him a file you're holding onto."

Nathan glances at her. "The Stamron case?"

"Yeah, that's it," Bob says. His round face gleams with sweat, because now that winter has arrived the station thermostat is set in the nineties. "He needs to put it away. I can send it out with today's express if you want."

The Maine bureau of investigation keeps a criminal database on computer, but regulations still require a valid signature from the investigating officer. Audrey does not meet Nathan's look. "Yeah, I'll get it to you."

Nathan follows her into her office and shuts the door. "If you can't sign it, I will," he says.

"You were unconscious when it went down. You aren't the official investigator." She feels stubborn and shy, and the combination makes her curt.

"I'm your partner, I can sign for you. Audrey, you don't have to do this." He does not remind her – maybe he has forgotten – that as interim chief, he's also her commanding officer.

"I don't need anyone to cover for me," she says. "I don't need a ... a crutch." She glances up, sees the anger come into his face. "You know I don't mean it that way."

They both know the door is closed but the blinds are open. His expression changes, softens, and she knows he has never looked at anyone else that way. "I'm not a crutch," he says. "But I can be a support. That's what partners do. I've got your back." His mouth curls up in that secret half-grin again. "Or in this case, your right hand." He holds his out.

She picks up the file, the one she can't sign. She's going to hand it to him, really she is, she's going to let him do this for her, let her off the hook of her own conscience, her own doubts. And she remembers her words to Chris Brody, when she broke it off.

"I can't be the one who makes you, you," she says softly.

Nathan blinks. "Beg pardon?"

She shakes her head. "Nothing." She puts the file down, opens it, grabs a pen. She scribbles quickly: A. Parker. Folds it closed, hands it to Nathan.

He takes it slowly, looks down at it, nods to her. And leaves abruptly.

The next morning her cell phone wakes her. "Parker," she yawns into it.

"'Mornin', hon," Laverne drawls in her ear. "We got us a situation. Nathan told me to call everyone and warn them about the weather."

Audrey props herself on an elbow and checks the window: it is white. "Snowstorm?"

"The mother of them all," Laverne says. "Anyway, Stan radioed that he'll stop by and get you on the way in."

"Where's Nathan?" She realizes she asked that a little too quickly.

Laverne seems not to notice. "Wreck out on Highway 32. Staties asked for local law, so he's out there waiting on the tow trucks."

"Right," she says, throwing off the covers. And then regrets it as the cold hits her. "Brrr. I'll be in as soon as I thaw out."

Laverne rings off, chuckling. Audrey pulls on thermal underwear, a T-shirt, a wool sweater over that. She's spent enough time in Haven to know to dress in layers - she might spend the day roasting in the station or freezing on a crime scene, so she gives herself options. She finds herself wondering what Nathan is wearing, whether he bundled up, whether he's risking frostbite by not wearing gloves.

It's after noon when Nathan finally arrives, stomping the snow from his boots as he talks to Bob and Will out in the bull pen. She feels a little curl of anxiety, feels ... shy. She tells herself it's ridiculous, this is Nathan.

As if she has called his name, his head comes up and his gaze meets hers and for a moment it's like there are only two of them in the entire station. Audrey Parker feels it right down to her toes, that raw look, the unguarded nature of it, eyes the blue of a crisp autumn sky. Then he looks away, his shoulders tense but his stance deliberately, elaborately casual.

"Crap," she says softly to herself. She should have known. She should have realized. What the hell kind of investigator misses something like this under her very nose? Because she knows now it's not about him. It's about her.

He's just as aware as she is that something has changed. So when they're called out to investigate a break-in at a gas station, they sit pressed against opposite doors of the truck, and they don't talk. Their eyes don't meet. She takes care not to touch him, and he stays arm's length from her at all times. Their only conversation is the clipped, staccato police talk of a day on the job.

"Jimmy Long," Nathan says.

"Yup. Couldn't have opened that heavy gate by himself," she says.

Nathan eyes the industrial strength garage door. "His brother, too?"

"Yeah."

"Better find them before they drink it off."

"Split up?"

"I'll take the pool hall."

"Right. I'll call the diner out on 32. He likes Dotty's soup."

It's after sundown when they round up the Long brothers, recover the stolen tools from Jimmy's truck, and book them into holding. As usual, the brothers are half-drunk, rowdy, arguing more with one another than with Nathan and Audrey. But the process is long, exhausting. Audrey's glad, because it keeps her from thinking about the thing she doesn't want to think about.

But she keeps remembering those long arms around her, the beat of his heart against her face, the feel of his lips on her skin. And she can't get that moment out of her head, the moment he met her look with every barrier down.

When their shift ends, she lingers over paperwork, trying to figure out how to ask Stan for a ride home without drawing attention, without alerting the gossip machine that something is out of the ordinary. But there's Nathan, standing in her doorway, holding her coat.

"Coming down pretty hard out there," he says, his voice neutral. "Better get going while we can."

She sighs, shuts down her computer. "Coming."

They're alone on the road. The world is encased in a white fall of snow so thick she can hardly see past the hood of his truck. Main Street is shut down, but when they turn onto a residential street, the lights in the houses are warm and speak of home. "Where are we going?"

"My place," he says. "I forgot my tire chains. Might need them if we get called out tonight." He pulls into a driveway that runs beside a weathered cottage that might have originally been yellow. She climbs out, shielding her face against the cold, wet flakes. He stamps a path up through the yard to the porch. She follows him, then enters the dark house behind him.

"Yikes," she says, slapping at her arms. "It's freezing in here."

"Oh, sorry," he says. He flicks on lights, and she sees a comfortable man-cave - large HD television, a couch long enough to sleep on, a few pillows. It's neat and organized, and she's surprised, but shouldn't be, to see a stack of books next to a comfortable reading chair. There's a well-used fireplace and wood, broad windows with fading curtains that she thinks his mother - or at least, the Chief's wife - must have hung decades ago.

Nathan is fiddling with a thermostat against the wall. "I forgot to turn it on." His breath is frosty in the cold air.

"We're going to find you frozen solid in your own house someday," she says. "Can't you put it on automatic? Even if you can't feel the cold, you can still freeze to death."

He shrugs. "They say it's like going to sleep. Have a seat. I'll put some coffee on."

Instead, she follows him into the kitchen. It's right out of the Forties, all tile and white wood. Dishes are neatly stacked behind glass fronted cabinets. "You go get your chains," she said. "I can handle coffee."

"You just want to go through my pantry," he says.

"Duh. Go." She opens the refrigerator, though the blast of cold air is not welcome. He unlocks the kitchen door and goes out.

It takes her several minutes to find the coffee. Maybe he's not as orderly and methodical as she is. She measures the coffee into the drip cone, sets it going. And, naturally, goes through his pantry.

Lots of macaroni and cheese. That figures. But also a few ingredients she doesn't recognize. Hoisin sauce? Celery salt? Who cooks with that? The fact that Nathan possesses expensive, copper clad cookware is not lost on her. She remembers him saying his taste buds still work. Maybe eating is the only real pleasure he gets, she thinks. And that makes her sad.

She's rummaging in a cupboard, looking for mugs, when he comes back in. He stamps snow off his boots and hangs up his jacket. "Really coming down out there now," he says laconically. She can see his breath in the frigid kitchen air.

The window over his sink is a mirror because there's no light behind it, only a silent wall of white. His reflection behind her looks lonely, isolated. She shivers.

He notices. "That old heater takes a while, or so I'm told," he says. "I'm going to build a fire."

She doesn't object, having finally found the mugs. She wraps her fingers around two filled mugs and follows him into the living room.

He builds the fire quickly, expertly. "I never got the hang of that," she says.

"Practice," he says, laying another log on. He's discarded his sweater, and now he's down to jeans and a Henley t-shirt. She can see the long muscles on those arms bunch and release as he stacks wood. She's looking at his shoulders, thinking about how wide they are, and he turns and catches her looking.

She knows it's all there on her face. She doesn't hide it. He says nothing, but stands slowly. He doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands - they go in his pockets, then come out to run through his hair, then he shoves them under his armpits. "Hey," he says, uncertainly.

She holds out the mug. "It's cool enough to drink now," she says. "Black, like you take it."

He takes it from her, and their fingers touch, and he simply stands there, holding the mug in his outstretched hand. She can tell he doesn't want to break the contact.

I make him real.

The fire crackles and sparks, the light flickering across his face, throwing shadows over his face. But his eyes, yes, she can see his eyes. And there it is again, that look. It goes through her, tells her everything. She can see the mug tremble in his hand.

Then Nathan Wuornos takes a deep breath and sets the mug on the mantlepiece. He half-turns, hiding his face, picking up the poker but not poking at the fire.

He's nervous, she thinks.

And realizes that she isn't. That the moment has come, that this is the crux on which their future will turn, and it will be up to her to decide whether they turn back to the partnership they had before, with its distance and reserve and its loneliness, or go forward into something new and dangerous. And maybe wonderful.

So she sets her mug on the mantle beside his, and touches his shoulder. When he turns, she rises on tiptoe, taking him by surprise, moving quickly before he can move back. And her lips meet his in a soft brush, just a taste, a greeting and a question.

He gasps, but he doesn't move back. He closes his eyes and holds very still. She pulls back, and his eyes remain closed, his expression blank. Very slowly, like dawn on a winter's day, his lips curve upward at the corners. He opens his eyes, and they're blue and wide, full of something hot and deep. This time he reaches for her, and she meets his mouth halfway, and she doesn't need the fire to warm her up.

His mouth is soft, generous, but hesitant. He's a little clumsy, a little impatient. It occurs to Audrey that he hasn't had much practice at this; even with other women he could not feel them. So when she hears that soft, breathy moan he's trying to hold back, she runs her tongue along his closed lips. He opens them and then she's tasting Nathan, coffee and lemon drops and Nathan, so intimate and familiar, it's like she's been kissing him all her life. His hands slide around her, up her back, pressing her close to him. Slick, wet, hot - his tongue explores her mouth. He drinks her, and she feels the tension rising in him, feels his muscles tensing under her hands where they rest on his shoulders.

He breaks from the kiss, and his face in the firelight is shades of gold and dark purple shadow. His eyes ask her the questions his mouth cannot, and she answers him with a smile. She slides her hands up his chest, feeling muscle under the thin cotton. She sculpts his collarbone, his wide shoulders, runs her fingers up his neck, along his chin. The stubble on his jaw rasps against her fingers; the sounds says male in some primeval language inside her, sending a spike of hot lust down her middle. She skims fingers along his jaw, and he turns his head and kisses them, gently, one at a time. She lets him, and then slides them up into his hair (silky, soft, tickling her fingers) and pulls him down into another kiss.

This time he's not clumsy, not impatient. He takes his time, more sure of himself. He cups her face gently, savoring her. The only sounds in the room are the crackle of fire and the soft, wet sounds of kisses – small ones tracing her mouth, deep ones that want to devour her. Nathan slides his mouth off of hers, along her cheek, down her neck, kissing as he goes. She feels the intensity of his focus, knows that this is the first time in years, maybe the first time ever that the walls of his Trouble have come down for him. She feels heat spiral out from her center when his mouth finds that spot under her ear. She says nothing, but he's so attuned to her he knows immediately what that does to her, and he curls his tongue into the hollow where her jaw meets her neck. She can't help it, she comes up on her toes and makes a kind of squeaking sound.

He chuckles, and that rare and personal sound is so Nathan it makes her laugh. She pulls back, frames his face with her hands just to make sure that sad expression is gone from his eyes, the expression that seems to define him. Instead, his expression is open, relaxed, happy.

"Audrey," he breathes, barely audible. "You make me real again."

Her jacket lands on the couch. She toes off her boots and kicks them into the darkness beyond the firelight; she hears them land in two separate thumps, far apart. He's watching her, wide-eyed, knowing but not believing that this moment is happening. But he's not stopping her as she lays aside gun and badge, all the trappings that make her a cop and not a woman. She's unbuttoning the white cotton blouse when his hands catch hers.

He's never been a man of many words, and now is no exception. His eyes ask her a million questions, and the answer to every one of them is yes. She lets him fumble at her buttons, his fascinated gaze locked on his fingers. She wonders if he has ever undressed a woman. His fingers are warm; when her blouse falls open he brushes his knuckles against the skin of her right breast, tracing it down to her brassiere. His eyes close briefly and his cheeks go red; she loves it that he can blush, at his age. There is something so very, very innocent about Nathan Thaddeus Wuornos, the sad man with the beautiful eyes.

Audrey tugs his shirt out of his jeans, slides her hands up under it. His gasp echoes hers; his skin is hot, smooth, until her fingers get far enough up his chest to feel crisp chest hair. He raises his arms and she tugs the shirt up and off and there he is, marble shadowed in firelight, abs and pecs and dark curling hair scattered across his chest. His long, long torso is marked here and there by scars and bruises. She presses her mouth to one old white scar and he inhales and clutches the mantle with one hand. She feels the tremor go through him, thinks his knees may give way at any moment. She hopes this won't be too much for him, because she doesn't want to stop. She knows he doesn't want to stop, either.

So she takes his hand, steps back, kneels in front of the fire. He has to let go or follow her down, and he follows. One long arm shoots out and grabs a blanket off the couch and then he's kneeling with her, chest to chest, covering her face with kisses. His breath is hot, ragged. It catches when she works the buckle of his belt, slowly draws it through the loops of his jeans. A log falls in the grate, sparks shoot upward, and briefly his face is fully lit in gold and white. The cupid's bow of his upper lip curves upward in that secret smile, the one that looks like he knows something he's not telling, the one that holds a challenge in it.

She answers that challenge. Locking gazes, she slides one hand past the waistband of his jeans and finds Nathan rock-hard and hot against her palm. His entire body jerks convulsively, but he doesn't blink. She can see his nipples rise on his flat chest. He slides both hands to her waist, circling them possessively, one sliding up to cup a breast gently. His touch is infinitely gentle, exploratory. She squeezes him lightly, stroking. She sees the adam's apple in his long neck bob as he swallows, his chest rising and falling as his breathing grows faster, deeper. His lips part, and she cannot cannot resist but slams her mouth to his, wanting his mouth everywhere, wanting those big hands all over her.

He moans into her mouth as her hands leave him, grab his waist, his arms where the hair tickles her palms. His hands are busy with his jeans; she feels him kicking hard and hears his boots smash something across the room. Then Nathan is naked over her, the long muscles flexing in the flickering light. His skin is hot, his mouth eager and wet on hers. He slides hands under her, and she has to fight not to laugh at his frustrated noises when he tries to figure out her bra. Gently, she puts his hands aside and does it herself. He is propped on his hands, looming over her all gold and ivory and black, blue eyes burning with the intensity of twin stars.

Finally, finally, Audrey is naked and he is naked and the room is no longer cold. They are finally where they have been heading for two years, finally arrived at the end - or maybe the beginning - of a long journey. She parts her knees and he settles between them, his cock hard against her thigh. He's looking at her, drinking in the sight of her. His head comes down, and his lips brush her right nipple, and the sensation almost brings her off the floor. He teases, nibbles, tastes. She winds her fingers in his hair, feeling the throb of him against her thigh, urges him on with little cries and sighs. But Nathan, having waited this long, seems inclined to take his time. He trails lines of kisses from one breast to another, measures her torso from neck to navel with his tongue, tastes her skin at waist and elbow and the underside of her breast. He lingers on her breasts, kissing and suckling until she has to force his head away from her nipple, half-laughing, half-impatient.

"Nathan…," she whispers.

"Audrey..." Her name is a prayer and a blessing, said in that voice. His hand slides between them, finding her, finding her so, so ready, hot and wet for him, and his eyes go wide and sky-blue.

There will be time for more exploration, more discovery later. There will be time for more everything later. But now she doesn't want to wait. She wants this joining now, wants to merge with that smoky blue gaze, that open heart that lives in his eyes when he looks at her. She shifts against him, feels him settle into position, watches his mouth part in wonder.

He swallows hard. "I..."

She kisses him to shut him up, snakes a hand between them, guides him. His size surprises her, as does his restraint, his hesitation. And when he slides home, they both sigh. He whispers something she can't make out, strokes into her, long muscle, heavy bone pressing her into the blanket, the fire hot on one side and Nathan warm above her. His weight is solid, true. His hands clutch at her waist, he shifts and drives deeper.

Audrey gasps, arches. His head comes up, alarmed, fear in his eyes. But she grabs his butt with both hands, feeling hard muscle, and pulls him into her. He obliges, rocking deep, pressing every inch of skin against her, diving into her as if he wants to disappear. He keeps his eyes open, gaze locked to hers, and it's more intimate than anything else they're doing. She sees, feels the astonished, glorious reaction in him, to the feel of her skin against his. She sees the fire sculpting those long muscles, glances down to see his long body straining into hers, knows he is hers and that this memory, at least, is real, real, real.

Then he shifts, and drives deeper, and she hears him gasp at the same moment that the fire blooms in her center. Audrey feels the wave rising, the tension coiling in her center, and then lets go with a soft cry.

"Yes," he whispers. "Yes, Audrey."

It's Nathan, all Nathan around and in and above her, hot and male and real, so real, more real than anyone else has ever been. Even as her orgasm subsides, it builds again, driven by his hands and his cock and his mouth on hers again, teasing her, devouring her. She clutches his back, hears his low chuckle of triumph as she soars again, the wave of pleasure rippling through her.

He buries his face in her shoulder with a hoarse cry and lets go, and she feels him pumping deep inside her. She wraps her legs around his and squeezes; she will not let him go. He shudders all over, and then collapses in her arms in a comic tangle of long limbs. From the very depths, he fetches a deep sigh. She laughs, and his head comes up.

"I do something funny?" he says, and the blue eyes twinkle. His grin is soft and infectious.

"Hilarious," she says. "Hysterical. Knee-slapping."

He pushes himself up on his arms, and looks at her. She gazes up at him, painted by the fire, now a little shiny with sweat. He's the one who will always be there for her, no matter who she is, no matter who she turns out to be, no matter who she becomes.

"I love you, Audrey," he says quietly. She has never heard that hoarse tone in his voice before. It's bedrock Nathan, as honest as he can get, as solid as his bones.

She strokes a hand down his cheek, and he turns his face into her palm, kissing it. "Same goes," she whispers. "You make me real, Nathan."

He looks down along their bodies, to where they are still joined. He shifts, and she feels him stroking into her again, still half-hard. She draws her fingernails down his side and he flinches. Then he laughs.

"What?"

She has never seen that smile before. "You tickled me. Do you know how long it's been since I was ticklish?"

Audrey grins wickedly. "Ticklish?" She raises her hand.

He moves fast, pinning both hands with his on either side of her head. "We'll investigate that later," he says. His voice is rich, rumbling, intimate. She wonders if it will ever sound the same to her again. "For now..."

She smiles, and answers his kiss, and lets him make her real again.

THE END