Audrey felt like a fool sitting in her car in the station's parking lot. The idea that she could've gotten away with coming into work had been pure fantasy. The fantasy had lived only an hour inside the station because Nathan had been in an early morning meeting about complicated small town red tape. He noticed the light on in her office when he stepped out for a break before the next unnecessary meeting. While there was no reproach in his eyes as he entered her space and shut the door, there was also no room in them for argument. He didn't reprimand her for coming in on her day off. Instead, he gently suggested that she'd forgotten which day it was. Before she could disagree, he pointed out that it was no wonder given how crazy their case load had been lately. In fact, he added, still gently, he was already going to have a hard enough time justifying all the overtime already logged in that month. It was easy for her to read between the lines. Audrey just nodded in agreement as she turned off her computer and rose to go. Any real desire to convince him to let her stay had drained away on the drive over. The lack of protest seemed to worry Nathan. Much to her relief, however, he didn't ask if she was all right. Audrey really didn't have the energy to lie. She was exhausted and a little numb. As she left, he gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Along with the friendly gesture came the promise he'd check in later. All she could do was nod before heading a little too quickly out the door. If she'd glanced back, she'd have seen him still staring with that look of concern before reaching for the phone in his pocket.
The morning rolled over in her head again as she turned on the ignition. It was only 10:00 AM and the day had already been a complete disaster. It was tempting to go home and just crawl back into bed. However, the idea of potentially running into Duke as he finished drawing the happy taco guy shot the temptation down. Keen regret twisted in her gut along with everything else that was already twisted up inside her as she recalled the shock and pain in his eyes. Of all the things she could've said, why had she thrown that in his face? It wasn't like she'd been broken-hearted when Evie showed up. Or, that it had been the first time he'd lied or hidden something. He wasn't a boy scout; she knew that. The truth was she didn't know why the omission had hurt so much. Or, why she'd bring it up now after she'd ignored it for so long to prevent hurting him. The words had spilled from her mouth before her brain could catch up to them. Blinking back tears, and berating herself for their existence, she steered her car out onto the main street. Since Plan A for her day off hadn't worked, it was time for Plan B. Audrey was going to get herself a big bottle of wine and an even bigger box of cupcakes. Then, she would hide away from the world until she was allowed to bury herself in her work again…
An hour and a half later she pulled into the Grey Gull's parking lot. The bottle and box were in tow as well as an armload of groceries. Thankfully, Duke didn't appear to be around. Even if he was, it wasn't like he'd come looking for her anytime soon. Not wanting to take any chances, she grabbed all her bags at once. Halfway up the stairs, she realized her mistake as she tried to get her keys out while still holding everything. Before the eggs or wine bottle met an early end, they were taken off her hands.
"God forbid you make two trips." Duke complained, exasperated.
"Thanks." She replied as she fished out her keys, too surprised to say anything else.
As they entered the apartment and set her bags on the counter, he continued to tease and scold her for her lack of patience. Still in shock, she put away the perishables half listening to him. It completely threw her. He was standing in her kitchen chatting away as if everything was fine. The smile, tone of his voice, and easy posture were all perfectly in place. As far as he was concerned, that morning's conversation was another thing they'd never discuss. While some part of her was tempted to play along, and maybe even grateful for the easy out, she just couldn't. The more he smirked, the more the cold regret in her stomach spread. Seeing that mask, and knowing what it meant, spurred her to talk.
"I'm sorry," Audrey said softly. Duke froze in mid lecture and stared. Swallowing hard, she explained, "about what I said this morning. It was cruel."
Duke continued to stare at her. Slowly, the mask started to fall away and a broken look replaced it. For a moment, she thought he would just turn and walk out the door. Or, say something equally cruel back. Instead, he seemed to deflate as he leaned against her kitchen counter.
"I'm sorry, too." He sighed.
"You were just concerned for me," she protested, "I shouldn't have-"
"No, not about that. I'm sorry about not telling you about Evie." Duke corrected with a sad smile. "I should have."
"Duke, come on, we're friends. It's not like we were dating or anything." Audrey deflected. "This morning, that was… I don't know what that was."
"It was going to come up at some point. Actually, I'm kind of surprised it took this long."
"Were you waiting for me to say something?" She asked, putting away the last bit of the groceries. It was good to have something occupy her hands.
"I guess so." Duke replied. "When you didn't, I figured…well, like you said, we're just friends. We weren't dating. Not that I didn't try of course."
"Duke, I didn't-" She began, looking away as she gathered up the empty grocery bags, anxiety adding to the cold.
"No, I didn't mean it like that." He interrupted as he took her arm and gently steered her to fully face him. Letting go before she could pull away, he continued, "I'm glad we're friends; more than you realize."
"Likewise." Audrey replied, smiling as the anxiety and cold lessened. There was more sincerity in his eyes than she'd ever seen.
"That's good to hear," he agreed, smiling back. "I just wish you'd let me be one to you more often."
"Um, you did push me out of the way of killer vines the other week." She pointed out with a laugh. "And I'm pretty sure you're the same guy who reduced the rent on this place just so I could move in."
"Not quite what I meant." He explained with a small chuckle. "Look, I know you don't need someone to hold your hand. Or, to talk to about the troubles, or, anything else going on around here. Just know I'm here when and if you want to talk about it."
"Thanks. I will definitely keep that in mind." She said. While the offer had always been implied in the past, having it actually vocalized comforted her in a way she didn't expect. An easy silence fell as she finished tidying the counter. The only items left out were the wine bottle and box of cupcakes.
"You know, I almost brought it up myself a couple of times after Evie came around." He ventured, feeling she was owed a better explanation.
"Why didn't you?"
"There was so much going on as it was and…" he faltered, trying to find the right words and giving up with another sigh. "Audrey, I don't really know why. What I did know is that you were already dealing with enough from everything else that was going on and I didn't want to add to it."
"Which is exactly why I didn't say anything to you. I didn't want to make what you were going through worse." She confirmed. "Though, I'm guessing that didn't work."
"No," he admitted quietly. "Did it work for you?"
"No." Audrey replied with a slight shake of her head.
"I am sorry." He repeated, sincerity still in his voice and eyes.
Duke fully expected her to shrug off his apology with another deflection or maybe a teasing remark. Neither one was really comfortable with the subject, or, talking about their feelings at all. Therefore, he was more than a little surprised when she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. Only Audrey remembered the first time she had hugged him. The moment had been lost in the repeats she so badly wanted to forget. This time, however, was something he would always remember.
"Water under the bridge." She promised, giving him a final squeeze before pulling away. "And I'm sorry for how I brought it up."
"Also, water under the bridge." Duke assured her, pressing a light kiss to her forehead.
"Thanks." Warmth replaced the cold inside her as his words. Someday, she would ask him what had happened with Evie. Someday, he'd tell her about the night in Miami where Evie left him holding the bag and all the heartbreak that betrayal incurred. For now, though, this was enough. Unlike earlier in their conversation, things really were back to normal.
"So, I'm taking it that the reason you're back here so soon is that Nathan put his foot down when he saw you?" He asked once she had fully stepped away.
"He pointed out that I may have forgotten what day it was." Audrey replied, a little sheepishly.
"Really? Never thought I'd agree with Nathan, but, slips in memory are all the more reason you can't be burning the candle at both ends." Duke concurred semi-seriously. Audrey rolled her eyes at the teasing, but, was secretly grateful they were back to their usual banter.
"I guess I just wanted a distraction from thinking too much about…things." She said.
"I meant what I said before about if you wanted to talk." He reminded her gently.
"Duke, I'm not even at the point where I can think about it, let alone talk." Audrey replied.
"When you are ready though…"
"Definitely." She confirmed with a smile he readily returned. Even though she hadn't fully described what was troubling her, he took the admission as a big step.
"Were those part of your plans for distracting yourself?" Duke asked, gesturing to the wine and cupcakes.
"Maybe. Okay, yes." She admitted after he gave her a look. He moved past her to put the pastries and the wine in the cupboard.
"Okay then," he began after they were put away, ignoring her protests. "Time for Plan B."
"That was my Plan B." She complained.
"No, my Plan B. Even I can come up with a better plan for distractions than booze and a sugar bender." He countered as his phone chimed. Duke smiled at the incoming message. "And it looks like part of my plan has just arrived."
"Nathan's down stairs. He wants to know if we're ready for lunch. If you're not too ticked at him that is." He explained. When she looked confused he teased, "How do you think I knew to keep an eye out for when you came back?"
"Oh." Was all she could say as she realized what the conversation between the two men must have sounded like. Instead of feeling aggravated, she again felt unexpectedly comforted. It was still a new experience to have people around who cared about her. However, it was one that she liked.
"Word to the wise, sweetheart," Duke advised as he guided her out the door. "Some guys take what you say at face value because they can't be bothered to do otherwise. Even if they know better. Some are willing to call on someone who annoys the hell out of him just to help a friend who's having a rough time."
"That is something to think about." She agreed. Seeing the tall man smiling shyly at her at the bottom of the steps, Audrey knew that it was something she would think about for a long time.
Author's note: Hope that you enjoyed the story. I love writing D/A fics from the friendship perspective. Thank you all for the constructive reviews. Hopefully, I will be adding a new story to the archive soon regarding tying a loose end or two from the N/A perspective. Goodness knows there are a ton to pick from. Special thanks to DoublebinConnecticut for the topic suggestions.