She gives herself away by saving his life.
The showdown occurs on Potter's Field. Justin Flander's Trouble turns animals vicious, and since he's furious at Nathan for not stopping the Troubles when the three dogs come barreling towards them Audrey knows exactly where they're headed. She doesn't think about Duke's ability to back her up or the fact the Guard – who always seem to be in the midst of their cases now - only wants Nathan dead if it's by her hand. She just thinks of him sprawled on the ground, laid out by a well-placed punch he hadn't seen coming, and the killing machines anxious to savage him. Instinct takes over, and she shoots all three with the precision learned in Quantico. They all fall with a single shot, and so does her cover.
"You need to stop this," she commands with Audrey's authority, looking straight at Justin. "I get that you're angry, but people have died, and they'll continue to die if you don't control it."
"How many people have died because of what he's done? They say he kept the Troubles from ending. The town's gone to hell ever since. I lost a cousin when all the air evaporated in his bedroom. He was just sleeping. Macy couldn't take it anymore. She just left. But I can't follow, because anywhere I go this will happen, and there's nowhere else in the world you can explain this away."
"I understand what you're saying, Justin. You're not wrong. But Nathan didn't mean for anyone to die. Just like you didn't."
"They haven't killed him yet." She's lowered her gun in an attempt to be placating, but her hand tightens on the grip at his threat. Far as she can tell he's a decent guy, driven to the brink when his girlfriend walked out, but she will shoot him to protect Nathan if she has to.
"I'm not talking about Nathan. The animals don't just attack who you tell them to. Your anger sets off any in the area. Mrs. Gladstone was mauled by her cats yesterday."
"Louise? But I didn't—"
"You didn't mean to. I know. It was an accident. That happens with the Troubles. We don't know all the rules, and people get hurt. But once we figure out the rules, we have a choice. You're not a killer, Justin. But you can become one, if you let your anger consume you. You just want to live a normal life with Macy and the girls, and you can have that. But if you start choosing who lives and who dies, I can't let you get away with that."
She prays that he will listen. She can almost feel everyone in that field holding their breath, and she is half afraid some other creature will come bounding down from the horizon. He was a dog trainer, but even the seagulls at the beach had gone nuts when he was upset.
She doesn't have enough bullets to take down a flock.
"She'd never forgive me if I did this on purpose."
It's like a switch has flipped. She knows it'll be okay now. "Then don't." She holsters her gun and inches towards him, arms outstretched. "You can control this. You just need to be calm. Let go of the anger."
"But I'm still mad."
"We're all angry about something. I'm pretty ticked off that half the town wants to off my friend. But I'm not shooting you, am I?"
"Maybe you should. I'm dangerous. Louis – she was an innocent. She just lived next door. She loved those damn cats."
"We can't change the past. But you have a bright future ahead of you. Dwight can take you someplace safe, away from animals, just until the Troubles are over."
"Why send him away?" Jordan shouts from behind her, harsh and strident. "You can end the Troubles right now, Audrey."
She spins, training her gun on the raging brunette, who's got her own shotgun pointed at Nathan where he sits on the ground. It's the moment after the door all over again, except this time Audrey knows what she's up against. She's done hiding.
She hears movement to her left. From the corner of her eye she sees Duke get between Nathan and the Guard, his shotgun cocked and ready. The irony of how far they've come isn't lost on her.
"Guess I'm going to need a new bartender," he drawls like they're having a friendly conversation over coffee instead of armed confrontation, and the reaction is so quintessentially Duke that she smiles despite herself.
"I just have one little request. Any chance you can hang on to Lexi's wardrobe?" He's laying the cad act on a little too think, but she recognizes that he's trying to diffuse the situation by humanizing them all.
She's burning all Lexi's clothes the first chance she gets. But she can't resist teasing him back. "Maybe I can make a few exceptions."
She hears Nathan groan behind her. "Can you two not do that in front of me?"
"Nope," they answer simultaneously. Maybe the pressure and the danger have finally gotten to her. Perhaps it's the sudden space in her head as she feels Lexi slip away entirely with a sayonara to this hell-hole of a town. Maybe they just have great comedic timing. She starts laughing and finds that she can't stop.
"You finally cracking up, sweetheart?" Duke asks, and she thinks his concern is genuine and not part of the show they're putting on.
It feels like it. She wants to laugh until this all goes away. Rebuild the world into a place where this is actually funny. "I may be."
"Bout damn time. If I were you I'd have been on a plane to Mexico a long time ago."
"You wouldn't look nearly this good in Lexi's clothes." The thought of that sends her into hysterics again.
"Enough," Jordan demands, the sound of her gun cocking turning Audrey immediately serious. "You think any of this is funny? The whole town is suffering while you and Crocker have a laugh. Stop stalling!"
"You need to calm down, Jordan."
"Like hell!" she swears. "You need to end this, and then everyone can go back to their normal lives."
"I'm not going to kill Nathan," she says slowly, like she's explaining a complicated concept to a child. Truth is it's extraordinarily simple.
"He made us a promise."
"Yeah, he did. Because he wants to make up for what he's done. But he shouldn't have. Because this is my decision, not his. And I'm not going to shoot him."
She sees the crazy flash in Jordan's eyes as she chokes up on the gun and takes a step forward. "Someone's going to die here today."
Audrey knows she should feel sorry for the woman for being collateral damage in an awful situation. But this bitch is going to have to get through her to get to Nathan. She aims for Jordan's heart.
"No they're not."
They stare each other down, woman scorned and woman loved. Jordan's radiating such abject misery that the sympathy does start to kick in, but there's no way in hell Audrey is backing down.
"Shooting Nathan won't do you any good. Same with shooting me."
"Might make me feel better."
But Audrey can tell that she's caving. She's frustrated because Audrey is right.
So Audrey turns her attention to the crowd that is watching the standoff in silence. Justin is rapt with attention, and she's forgotten his kind of trouble could appear from any side at any moment. They need to wrap this up and get him somewhere safe before an army of horseshoe crabs drag them all off, or something equally illogical.
"How many of you could shoot someone you love in cold blood, even for the greater good? Wouldn't you want to make absolutely sure there wasn't another way before you took that leap you could never come back from?"
"There is no other way!" Jordan asserted.
"You don't know that. None of us really understand how any of this works. But there's someone who does, and they told me there's another way to end this without any bloodshed."
"We're supposed to believe your mystery source?"
"Yes. This has to be my decision. I could be forced into the Barn, but it wouldn't move unless I told it to. This works the same way. You can't make me murder him to end the Troubles. It'll only work if I do it willingly."
It's a bluff, but one she believes wholeheartedly. The logic is sound, and it feels right.
"You're holding the whole town hostage so you and Wuornos can play house," Jordan spits. It was becoming increasingly obvious where Nathan had gotten reinforcement for his death wish fixation. She hates that he's hearing all this again. That there on the ground, he's probably believing it.
"I just need six months to find another solution."
The gun trembles in Jordan's hand. "Are you kidding me? One," she counters with a sneer.
"Three," Audrey concedes. It's not much time, but if they can work together on this in the open it should be enough. They can start by getting James to tell them something useful. "That's my final offer. And you don't have anything to bargain with. His death only benefits you if it's by my hand. And you can't make me."
She sees the tears Jordan can't hold back, but she doesn't let it shake her resolve. She will do anything but this.
"You're a selfish bitch."
Maybe it's true. But she has never wanted anything the way she wants him.
"Let's get out of here," Jordan commands the other Guardsmen. They move like a pack, slinking away with their tails between their legs.
"Good riddance," Duke taunts, but he waits until Jordan is probably out of hearing range.
She holsters her gun and reaches out to clasp Duke's arm, more as a thank you than to grab his attention. The whole confrontation she knew Duke had her back. And more importantly, Nathan's. "Can you look after Justin? Call Dwight. Make sure he gets someplace safe."
"Will do." He smiles, and she sees the relief in it. "That got a little tense there."
She shrugs. "All's well that ends well." There had been a few seconds where she honestly thought Jordan might say screw it all and empty a few rounds in her chest. But the situation's diffused now, and there's no use dwelling. "Can you do me a favor?"
"Another one? Guy might think you're taking advantage, Officer."
She looked over at Justin, who was staring at the ground, his hands in his jeans pockets. "Do you have any connections that might be able to track down Macy? Least let her know where he is."
Justin lifts his head, though he doesn't look at them. She'd known he was listening.
"I just might. I'll see what I can do."
"Now I've got a favor for you. Stop stalling. I'm sure his ears are burning." He pushes her toward Nathan, but there's no force behind it.
Taking a deep breath, she turns to Nathan. He's still sitting on the ground but he seems lucid. His eyes follow her, and they're brimming with something she can't identify. The adrenaline starts to fade and she is so over this day.
"You okay, partner?"
She offers him a hand and helps pull him up. She is shocked when his arms come around her so tightly they press the air from her lungs. But she doesn't protest. She sinks into his trembling body. She had honestly worried, when those dogs came running, that one of them would get to him before she could stop it.
"You're back," he whispers.
"Yep. Cat's out of the bag now." It's only after she says it she realizes the irony given their latest case. "Wow. Poor choice of words. That was not intentional, I swear," she says with a laugh.
"Cause normally your jokes are so much better than that."
"Hey." She pinches his arm without thinking about it and is shocked by the vehemence of his "owww" and the way he twitches away from her.
"Geez. I'm so sorry." She rubs at the spot, trying to undo the damage because she's never meant to cause him pain. When he covers her hand with his own she freezes.
"They could have shot you." His voice is gruff, and she realizes he hadn't been worried about himself. "You didn't have to blow your cover for me."
"Wasn't going to let you get turned into dog food. No one touches you on my watch." She reaches up to brush a twig out of his hair and lingers by his temple, exploring slowly. "Except me."
She watches a blush creep up his neck and feels an answering one in her cheeks. This wasn't the place for this. "We should get back to the station. Lots of paperwork to do." She heads back to the Bronco and he falls into step behind her.
There is lots of paperwork to do. Killing those dogs had saved Nathan's life, but they'd also been someone's pets (three people's actually) and she'd discharged her weapon in the line of duty. She works on that while Nathan writes an official and a doctored report about the whole situation.
But she can feel his eyes on her. Occasionally she looks up and catches him staring, and instead of glancing away or stammering some excuse he just keeps looking, something raw and vulnerable in his gaze that she doesn't know how to deal with here in their office, where they're supposed to be professional. They've been alone together plenty of times since she's been back, but except for that first night it's always been under the guise of Lexi. She used to be comfortable in Nathan's presence, but everything is different now. He's seen every part of her – but she's also gotten used to hiding. She's not sure how to get back to what they used to be, back before the Hunter.
"Something on your mind?" she asks the third time she catches him. He blinks as if trying to clear his head from a daze.
"I've missed you."
It's absolutely sincere, but something makes her press for more. "Why?"
He doesn't answer immediately, and her stomach drops. All the fears that have plagued her every time she pushed Lexi at him come roaring back. What if she has broken them beyond repair? What if they can't be Nathan and Audrey anymore? Or what if they can only be partners? Maybe it's Lexi that excited him, and he doesn't know how to tell her that. They'll go back to being platonic, and she'll go slowly insane, even with only one person in her head.
But his voice cuts through her inner freak-out. "Because I love you." He is quiet but sure, and she starts to relax. Long as that's still true, she can figure this out.
"Love you too." He grins at her, and she knows the paperwork's a lost cause. "What are we even doing here? Paperwork'll keep."
"Want me to take you home?" he asks.
"No," she answers, and his face falls before she can continue. "Can we go to your place?"
"Sure." It's unfamiliar territory, and she can tell it throws him too. But Lexi has taken Nathan to the Gull, and she doesn't want to repeat that tonight. This is their chance for a fresh start, and she doesn't want to muddy the waters.
They don't say much on the ride over, but she reaches across the gears to grab one of his hands and she trails her thumb across the back of his wrist, the warm, soft skin steadying her. Like a schoolgirl with a crush she's so nervous it's maddening.
She doesn't relinquish his hand until he parks. He opens the door for her and she follows. She's never been inside his house before; boundaries have always been looser on her end than his. It's a cozy little bungalow with a tidy yard. She can picture him finding the upkeep soothing, pushing a mower across the grass, sweat he doesn't feel making his t-shirt stick to him in all the right places. There's a retriever at her feet as she sits on the porch, admiring the view.
She is getting ahead of herself.
The inside is slightly less neat. The décor screams bachelor pad, though she supposes that's more promising than crazy hermit. There are framed prints on the wall – trees with bright autumn leaves, a rocky shoreline on a beautifully clear day, the sun setting over the ocean. She pauses to look at one more closely and he notices her interest.
"It's the color," he explains, and she understands. He'd told her once how his other senses had sharpened to compensate for what he lacked.
So is he, even though there's a bruise rising on his face where Justin had slugged him. They are finally truly alone together, no alternate personalities or professional responsibilities between them and she's at a loss. Lexi would know how to handle this situation – but Lexi is gone. There is no trace of her thought patterns or preferences in her head anymore. Even the memories of what they had done while sharing a body are a bit faded.
That is certainly a relief, but there's an emptiness too she had not anticipated. For months she's had someone to take over when she's unsure of a situation, but she's on her own now.
"What happens now?" he asks. On one hand it's a relief he's just as uncertain as she is. On the other this wouldn't be a bad time for him to start taking charge.
Then her stomach rumbles and provides the answer. "Can you make dinner?"
"Sure. What do you want?"
"Pancakes?" It's the very first thing that comes to mind. After she says it, she realizes they really sound delightful.
His smile is slight, but she hears the good humor in his voice.
"That's never stopped you."
"True." He chuckles. "Pancakes it is."
Neither of them move. She's made a gesture and he recognizes it but they're still stuck at what happens next. Lexi has showed her how to be bold but it's that boldness that's between them now.
"I'm going to go clean up," she finally says. He nods, and she stands on her toes to press a kiss to his cheek. As she turns to go, she sees him cover the area her lips touched with his hand.
She doesn't know where the bathroom is, but there are only a few possibilities, and she appreciates the excuse to explore. First thing she does once she finds it is toss the nose ring in the toilet. She takes off Lexi's rings and ear cuffs, placing them on the top of the sink, then goes to work on her makeup. It's a challenge when all Nathan has is a bar of soap, but she manages, staining one of his light blue washcloths black by the time she is through. He doesn't have anything that will strip off the nail polish, so that will have to wait until she's back at her apartment. There's nothing she can do about her hair – she'll need to go to a salon for a dye and a cut. She throws it up in a messy bun and examines herself in the mirror. It's almost herself she sees.
She leaves the bathroom quietly and continues down the hallway to Nathan's bedroom. She is tired of Lexi's tight, revealing clothing. Plus it's cold in Nathan's house – which he probably doesn't realize. She tries not to focus on his small, unmade bed and instead riles through his bureau, finding a gray Haven PD sweatshirt. She swaps her tank top for the soft, worn fabric, pleased by the way the sleeves go well past her wrists and it smells faintly of him. Leaving her boots at his bedside, she straightens her hair and wanders back to the kitchen.
She watches him work while his back in turned, humming something unrecognizable under his breath as he flips the pancakes. She thinks she is being discrete, but when he carries a plate to the kitchen he doesn't startle at all at her presence.
He does stop once he gets a good look at her, a radiant smile transforming his whole face into something angelic. She has never seen him nearly this happy, and the magnitude of that is overwhelming.
"Better?" she asks shyly, not quite sure how to handle the force of his admiration.
"You sure? Lexi was hot."
"Couldn't hold a candle to you." The praise makes her uncomfortable, but she doesn't want him to stop, either. Once again, it's that kind of first crush nonsense she never had time for.
No time now either, but it's happening.
"See you raided my closet."
"I did learn snooping in the FBI. Plus it's cold in here."
"Sorry. I didn't realize—"
She cuts him off with a hand to the chest before he can apologize any further. "It's fine. But you should really put the heat on. For your own good as well as mine."
He swallows, staring down at her palm spread over his heart. She can feel it pounding, and she thinks maybe she can warm them both up without the heat.
But he recovers, and the moment passes. "You should start eating. I'll be right back."
By the time he returns she's discovered they're chocolate chip pancakes, and consumed half of them with delight.
He brings himself a plate and sits across from her at his kitchen table, which is too big for someone who lives alone, as if it's just been waiting for her to join him. "How are they?" he asks, and she can tell he's emotionally invested in her answer.
She considers teasing him, but figures she's put him through enough and goes right for honesty instead. "They're delicious," she says sincerely. "Though I'm surprised at you. You just happened to have a bag of chocolate chips lying around?"
"I bought them after I told you about Lucy. Thought they might come in handy." He rubs at the back of his neck sheepishly. "Hope chocolate doesn't go bad."
Sometimes she forgets it hasn't really been that long – especially not for her, when seven months passed like a few days lived by someone else. But that month and a half between her abduction and the Barn had stretched like an eternity, every moment wretched. It's strange to think they had come close enough to what they were now for Nathan to buy something for a post hook-up snack, when instead they'd barely spoke civilly to each other for weeks.
She will not let them mess this up again.
"Tastes fine to me. Better than fine." Their eyes meet, but his gaze is so open and adoring she can't hold it and looks away first. She knows how to sniff out a suspect or calm down someone who is Troubled, but what he's offering her now is uncharted territory.
She doesn't know what else to say, so most of the meal passes in silence. He cooks them both another batch and they're perfection right off the griddle, the chocolate chips warm and melted. The food sharpens her concentration, but as the temperature rises she gets drowsy. It's been so long since she could simply exist without anyone expecting anything of her. It's nice to be comfortable, surrounded by him.
When the batter is gone and their plates are cleared she knows what comes next, but not how to get there, so she offers to help with the dishes.
She washes and he dries, and she finally speaks of the day they've had. "Now that I'm done with Lexi for good, maybe James will have something useful to tell us. We need some kind of lead to start with."
"We should invite him to dinner."
"Interesting interrogation tactic."
"Not just to pump him for information. Because he's our son."
"Family dinner," she says, catching his drift, but then she laughs, because it's positively absurd, this whole entire situation and how entwined their lives are in utterly impossible ways.
"What?" he asks with narrowed eyes.
"Our son looks older than both of us. He had his body swapped and he's my barn guardian, and you slept with a former version of me in the 1950's and it's just insane. Maybe I am cracking up."
He smiles at that, and this time it is her turn to ask, "What?"
"Before today, I can't remember the last time I heard you laugh."
She can't remember either.
"The dishes can wait," he tells her, putting down the dishcloth. He places his hands on her waist and pulls her towards him, looking down at her in a way that sets the butterflies in her stomach into hysterics. Then he kisses her, and it's the stuff of fairytales, every movement of his lips designed to convince her that she's finally home. She reaches up to cup his neck and pull him even closer, but as soon as her skin brushes his he flinches away.
"What did I do?" she asks, horrorstruck, but he doesn't let go of her waist.
"You hands are wet," he tells her, and sure enough they are still covered in suds from the dish washing. "I can feel it."
"You don't ever have to be sorry for making me feel."
Maybe if he'd said something like that to her a year ago they'd have avoided all this mess. She drops her hands back to his neck, playing with the hair there and deliberately wiping the moisture across his skin.
"I am sorry for breaking up that moment."
"We have time now for lots of moments. Come with me?"
He holds his hand out and she takes it. Then he leads her back into his bedroom. There's no desperate scramble; she just follows, anticipation coiling in her stomach. He is so calm and that steadies her.
"Sorry about the mess. Wasn't expecting company." She absolutely doesn't care that his bed is unmade and there is laundry on the floor. It makes the pile of her own clothing less conspicuous.
The bed will be far messier when they are through.
"You've got some now," she cracks, sass always coming easier than sentiment. He smiles, his arms coming down to rest on her shoulder and clasp behind her head. She steps closer, pressing her hands to his waist. She itches to lift his shirt and really touch him there but she doesn't, sensing his need to wait. He leans down toward her, pressing his forehead to hers, and he is so close she can count his eyelashes.
"I love you Audrey." There is something so heartbreakingly tentative in his voice. All his actions the past hour prove that it's not the sentiment he's unsure of. He loves her, and there's no way she could doubt that. It's her identity he's afraid she'll reject. Even though the ruse is over, some part of him expects her to push him away, because that's what she's done, again and again.
"I've made a mess of us. I'm sorry." She feels the tears coursing down her cheeks and she doesn't try to stop them. He deserves to know that she mourns for what they've lost – months and months of might have beens.
He brushes them away clumsily, pressing just a little too hard, and when he finished he stares at the liquid glistening on his skin. Warm, just like her. "It's okay. We'll fix it." He smiles softly, and she can find no trace of sadness in it. "We're good at fixing things."
"I love you Nathan," she swears, and she's never meant anything so sincerely. She surges up to kiss him and he meets her halfway, tender but with an undercurrent of need strong enough she knows there will be no more delays.
They've had sex more times than she's bothered to count, but they haven't made love since the night she returned. Most of the time they hadn't even taken off many clothes, and she doesn't know how much he'd actually been able to feel. That thought shames her now, and she desperately wants this to be different. She'd been trying so hard to hold on to herself, and she'd needed his touch to anchor her. She'd gotten caught up in lust and satisfaction, all the trades Lexi plied in. But she wants this time to be for him, to make up for all he's been through on her behalf. She wants him to feel every second, but she wants it to mean more than just physical pleasure.
Because she is truly Audrey again. And the strongest part of Audrey is not her need to help the Troubled or any sort of self-preservation. It is her love for him. She's not sure if that's a hiccup in the universe's design or how this was always supposed to happen but she doesn't care. She's not willing to change.
She slides her hands under his henley, rubbing circles into his sides. He runs a hand up her back, underneath the sweatshirt, searching for the clasp to her bra. But he finds only skin.
"Figured I'd make it a little easier on you." She tilts her head toward the pile she'd left on his floor, her black bra on top of her gray tank top.
His eyes brighten, and he shows her exactly how much he appreciates the gesture, his large, warm hands teasing her, massaging the sensitive flesh without obstruction. She moans, ready for him to take her right then.
But there is so much more to be enjoyed. They undress each other slowly, and she pouts just a little to hear him chuckle, the warm, rich sound rippling over her. She touches every inch of him she can reach, stroking and tickling and sometimes scraping, cataloging the way each action makes him react so she can spend a lifetime doing it again in the way that pleases him most. And she tastes, over and over. No matter where their lips drift they keep finding each other again.
When they are finally both bare and flush with need he lifts her effortlessly, cradling her to him, and she covers his heart with her hand and feels it pound. He sets her carefully on the bed and then follows, hovering above her, their bodies separated by mere inches but not touching. He gazes down at her, smiling, and her soul answers with a grin of her own. There is only one thing missing in this moment.
"Say my name. Please," she whispers, reaching up to touch his face. "I won't stop you ever again." She had always forbidden him from saying it before, cutting him off with her tongue and her teeth. Instead of calling her Lexi he had mostly stayed silent.
"Audrey," he breathes, the word itself a caress, and then he ducks his head to kiss her. The rest of his body follows a few seconds later, and she closes her eyes and moans at the bliss of him filling her.
"Oh god, Audrey." He says it over and over like a beautiful lullaby to her tired soul, the cadence of his voice synchronizing with his movements to envelop her and bear her away on an ocean of paradise.
After, as the euphoria fades, she realizes the next gift she's been given – neither of them have to leave.
From her sprawled position she can see his navy henley on the floor where she'd tossed it. The idea of moving holds little appeal, but she's yearned for this prize since their first time together, and finally it's feasible. She coaxes herself out of bed, determined to do this quick and snuggle back against him.
She isn't quick enough. "Don't go," he pleads.
She freezes and turns on him with wide guilty eyes. She thought she had assuaged such fears. "I'm not going anywhere," she assures him. She snatches the shirt and tries to throw it on quickly, but it's inside out and it takes her nearly a minute to manage it as precious seconds tick by that leave him wondering.
When she finally clambers back she pushes him down from his sitting position and rests her head on his chest. "You have no idea how much I've wanted to do that."
"Wear my shirt?" he asks quizzically.
"Well Parker, if you had such a hankering for my wardrobe you just could have asked."
She swats him for his cheek and then presses herself closer, drawing her leg up his.
"Don't you find this sexy?" She tugs at the collar. With the buttons open the neckline falls halfway down her shoulder.
"Find you sexier without it," he admits, still looking perplexed.
"Fair enough," she concedes with a laugh. "But I like it."
"Don't need it though."
"I might. It could get cold in here overnight, and some of us notice such things."
She knew he'd keep her warm. But she'd never been comfortable with the vulnerability of sleeping naked. Maybe because it was easier to make a quick getaway when the regret sank in if she was already halfway clothed. Claire would probably say it was something far deeper than that, and she's not sure if it's Audrey's demons or her original self's demons or some combination of the two. Tonight she doesn't care. It's not Nathan she doesn't trust. This is her own failing, and she's sure he'll break her of it one day. But tonight it feels good to be wrapped in something he's worn, soft and smelling of him, a token of this hard earned victory.
"It's in the way," he mutters, and she laughs at his petulance. She certainly won't mind when he takes it off. But she will put it on again afterward.
"I think you'll manage."
And he does. He shifts them so her back is pressed against his chest and one hand drifts under the shirt, gently teasing. He takes advantage of her exposed shoulder, pressing wet, open mouthed kisses across her collarbone.
"Stay with me," he murmurs against her skin.
"I'm not going anywhere tonight," she answers. There is nothing that could make her give up this night, not even if Vince Teagues starting knocking on Nathan's door.
"Not just tonight. Move in."
She's glad Nathan can't see the panic that's surely showing on her face. She tries to keep her voice steady. "Isn't that a little fast?"
"Only because we've wasted so much time going slow. I don't want to waste anymore. If we only have three months—"
She turned in his arms. "We have more than three months! I bet James will start telling us stuff now that I'm not pretending. If we don't have it figured out by the Guard's deadline I'll just get an extension. They can't make me kill you. I won't do it!"
"Okay." He started at her scalp and ran his hand through her hair. He'd snapped the tie holding her bun a long time ago. "But either of us could die tomorrow. We could get taken out by a Trouble or hit by a bus. Haven's not an easy place. I don't know how much time I have left, but I know I want to spend all of it with you. I don't want to waste time worrying about whose place we're going to stay at or always making sure we have a spare set of clothes for work. I just want to make love to you every night, wake up with you in my arms, eat breakfast together and know, whatever the day throws at us, that it'll end with us side by side."
Audrey is a classic commitment-phobe, and part of her wants to protest on principal. This is drastically soon for such a huge step. They'd never been on a date, for christ's sake. But truth be told her and Nathan have been preparing for this day since the start of their partnership. She knows his bad habits and his insecurities. Knows how to deal with him when he is cranky or depressed. Knows how he takes his coffee and the foods he can't stand, as well as the food he loves – though almost everyone knows that. Probably if they'd gotten together under less extreme circumstances she would have resisted for awhile – though he surely would have worn her down eventually. But she has spent the past few months in bed alone, yearning for him, and she knows there is nothing preferable in the solitary life she's been living for so long. He painted such a beautiful picture, and she wants that for herself – for him – for both of them. They deserve it, all the hell they've been through.
Her hand drifts across his chest. She will never get tired of touching him. "I'm not going to cancel my lease just yet. But I'll bring some of my stuff over tomorrow. We can see how it goes."
"It's gonna go great." His enthusiasm is almost boyish, and she's never seen this side of him. She will learn how to draw it out.
"Mighty confident there, Wuornos. I'm warning you, I'm not a useful guest. At all. I don't cook. I don't clean."
"You can do the grocery shopping."
"Have you seen the contents of my refrigerator? That's probably a bad idea if we actually want to eat. And considering how many calories we're gonna burn on a regular basis, we probably need to replace them."
"Well there goes my plan for a free housekeeper," he deadpans, and she giggles and presses a kiss to his shoulder.
"I can think of a couple ways I can earn my keep. Test your coffee. Make sure your showers aren't too hot. Keep your bed warm."
"I like the last two." His voice is so low and sexy it gets her ready for the next round. But she'd seen the way his eyes had widened slightly at her last suggestion, and now she's curious.
"You can feel my body heat, can't you?"
He nods. "I don't know how to describe it. I've been numb for so long and now—. It's like I've got my own personal space heater."
She cannot imagine that numbness and the despair it must spark in him, but she'll fight it off tooth and nail any way she can.
"Thought of another perk," she purrs. "You might be able to take fewer trips to the hospital because I can check you for wounds myself."
He pretends to consider this. "You are prettier than the nurses," he concludes.
"Oh. We could play nurse if you like." She grabs his wrist as if she was taking his pulse, but instead of counting she just marvels at the way it beats under her fingers. "You can be a difficult patient. Or my boss. You'd make a pretty sexy doctor." Now that she has the image in her head it's hard to dislodge, the white coat and skillful hands and compassionate bedside manner. If not for the Troubles and the Wuornos legacy of law enforcement it's something she could see him doing.
"I don't want to play anything," he says seriously. "I just want to be Nathan and Audrey."
She rues her choice of words. She hadn't been thinking. But she supposes that's good. Lexi is not haunting her. She's already begun to forget.
"Parker and Wuornos," she adds. Those are the people they've always been, even more so than Nathan and Audrey. "Partners. Detectives. Haven-savers."
"Best friends," she amends.
"Most likely to get caught making out in the police station."
He snorts. "Most likely to make my father roll over in his grave for inappropriate workplace behavior."
"Most likely to say I love you with pancakes."
"Stay," he repeats, so earnest and absolutely perfect.
"Convince me," she counters.
He does an admirable job trying, but it's the morning that seals the deal. She watches the awe and joy wash over him as he wakes tangled in her arms, unbridled happiness from a man who has known far too much pain. She knows then, come hell or high water, she will do absolutely anything in her power to never have to leave.
That's it, folks. Let's just assume for the sake of this story that they solve the Troubles and live happily ever after, okay?
More of The Return coming soon.