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i'm dying not to hurt you

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Duke, Audrey says. He’s a week and two days old, and she says, Come back to Nathan’s house with us. I found out last week he’s never seen Buffy, and I bet you haven’t either. No way can I let that stand for any longer.

He wants to say no, go on without me, you don’t need me there. Wants to say no, thanks, I have stuff I need to do, and that’s not even a lie. There’s stuff enough to do for anyone and everyone who wants it. He knows she wouldn’t let him refuse to take a break, though, and the look Nathan’s giving him says very clearly that Nathan’s not prepared to let him either. 

Fine, he ends up saying, in the end.

He’s not sure how it happens, but he winds up between Audrey and Nathan in front of the screen as Audrey pulls up the first episode. There’s plenty of room on the couch, but they’re all kind of clustered in the middle anyway, three sets of thighs almost touching. If Duke held his arms a little differently he could feel both of them breathe at once.

After an episode and a half, when he realizes he’s boxed in a little closer on either side -- Audrey’s got his left arm, wrapped around it like it’s a teddy bear or something, her head leaning against his shoulder, and Nathan has his own left arm draped across the back of the couch, and Duke can feel just enough pressure and warmth that he knows Nathan’s resting his fingertips on the side of his neck -- he feels a little less silly for wanting to.

A few days later, when they’re at the end of the first season, positions on the couch almost exactly the same, he feels Nathan and Audrey both tense up at the exact same moment. Oh, he wants to say. Oh. Okay. He doesn’t wind up saying anything, but he does lean into Nathan a little more, squeezes Audrey’s hand a little tighter where she’s holding one of his.

At least now he knows why Gloria’s started calling him Buff occasionally.

Duke wakes with a jolt, covered in sweat, panting like he’d just been running for his life. It takes him a few more seconds to orient himself: in bed, on his boat, in Haven. The dark is a normal dark, not pitch-black and almost bottomless, because he’s in bed, on his boat, in Haven. 

He gives in, after another few seconds, reaches blindly for his phone and a small handheld mirror he bought a few weeks ago. At this point he doesn’t even need to see the screen to turn the flashlight on, which is a statement all on its own that he refuses to acknowledge. Flashlight, mirror, look: every time he does this there’s a pit in his stomach until he meets his own eyes in the mirror, sees the familiar brown and breathes a little easier.

Not that it would necessarily change anything, honestly, because. Well. Not the best indicator, he knows. Remembers. But this nightmare is always the same, a maze of mirrors that’s dark everywhere but the spotlight that moves with him, and in the mirror he sees shark eyes staring back at him, stark and cold. And he can always hear labored breathing coming from somewhere just, just out of sight, for whatever that means in a goddamn maze of mirrors, and with every step he takes he can hear it slowing, and by the time he turns the corner to see Audrey or Nathan, it’s always Audrey or Nathan, they’re just a corpse propped against a mirror. A corpse with a chest full of stab wounds and the weight of something in his hand that feels enough like a knife he doesn’t want to look, even though he always does. It’s always covered in blood. It’s always a shock.

His imagination isn’t very creative.

On the other hand, his other nightmares are basically just highlight reels of things he’s actually done. Maybe the one with the mirrors is better, if only because when he wakes, when he’s full of adrenaline and panic and he’s not really sure that hadn’t happened, he can remember all the times he’s seen the two of them in the last month or so, remind himself they’re both still around.

We’re watching Buffy, he says to himself. We’re watching Buffy and we’re almost done with the third season and most days I end up in between Nathan and Audrey on the couch and I still don’t know how to handle that and yesterday Nathan left his hand on my back for almost five minutes while we were at the Gull and two days before that Audrey almost punched someone because of something I didn’t even hear and --

Deep breaths, he reminds himself. Deep, steady, even breaths.

And if that doesn’t work, which, honestly, even odds at this point, he’s no stranger to how irrational some of the brain can be, he can text either of them and they’ll get back to him in less than five minutes. Whatever time it is. Wherever they are.

He’s only mentioned it to them once, two weeks ago or so, after it had very suddenly occurred to him that maybe, maybe, it might be annoying to get a text message in the middle of the night, almost every night, day after day. Or to hear the sound from the other phone in the room. He’d actually managed to get half an apology out, mostly just annoyed it’d taken him so long to think about it, before they’d both managed to shut him down at once, overlapping each other so all he really got was don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it at all, it’s really okay, promise, don’t stop on our account from both directions and a hand on each shoulder, squeezing, solid but not painful. Solid. Reassuring.

It’s looking like tonight is one of those nights. He catches sight of the date after he’s sent the message, squints his eyes a little because it seems like there’s no way it’s accurate, and then shrugs. He’s a month old today. It’s a lot older than he’d ever expected to be.

Nathan texts him back thirty seconds later, and the lack of typos or confusing autocorrects tells Duke he hadn’t woken Nathan at all. Whether he’s awake still or awake because of his own dreams, Duke can’t say. Doesn’t want to spend any more time thinking about Nathan in bed than he already has, no matter the context. And either way the response means he can feel himself relax, the worry that had been slowly evolving to fear dissolving away. 

Duke, says Nathan. He’s two months old, and Nathan says Look. No pressure, no problem if you say no, only -- if you wanted to sleep here, instead of going back, you could. Welcome to. 

And he says, What? because he can be eloquent as hell but that capability appears to have disappeared from his body entirely, leaving him to sit there, trying to figure out what on earth he can say aside from that, what the hell it even means, if it means something that it looks like Nathan waited to say this until Audrey was in the bathroom, if -- What? he says again, for good measure.

Like I said. No problem if you don’t want to. Nathan continues looking down, somewhere in the vicinity of their feet. Just thought maybe you’d sleep easier, all three of us in the same place

Well. He’s not actually wrong, all things considered, is kind of the problem here. There are still so, so many reasons he should be saying no -- Nathan even said no pressure! no problem! it should not be this difficult to say no -- when Nathan opens his mouth again, closes it. Opens it a third time, blinks once, and finally turns to Duke and says Think we all might sleep easier.

Part of Duke really wants to start shouting about how that’s playing dirty, there’s no way that’s fair, no way Nathan doesn’t know how few things are on the list of what he wouldn’t do for the two of them. The rest of him is jubilant at suddenly having a reason to say yes that he won’t get mad at himself for later. 

Okay, he says. Okay. Yeah. I’ll stay.

He’d said he would stay. He stays. He stays so much longer than he’d expected to, longer than he’d thought either of them would want, longer than he’d thought either of them would tolerate. He would definitely think he’d overstayed his welcome and not noticed, at this point, except that he gets this look from both of them every time he sort of vaguely mentions going back to the Rouge for a few days, letting them be, giving them space, this look like he’s somehow broken both their hearts at once and they can’t stand it but they can’t stand to say anything. He can’t stand being the reason for that look.

He only brings it up twice. Just because he doesn’t understand it doesn’t mean he wants to see it.

And it’s -- it’s not even that he wants to leave, really. Because he has been sleeping better, is the real bitch of the thing. Apparently at some point his brain had re-wired some connections so that smelling Audrey and Nathan together, surrounding him in the dark, says home to the rest of him just as much as the rocking he thought he would miss on dry land. 

That’s the real thing, he knows, the real issue here. Barely an issue, and at the same time the biggest issue possible. It had never even occurred to him that it was possible. But then that’s what Audrey and Nathan do, isn’t it, do things that he never sees coming.

The real thing, the real issue, is --

Deep, even breaths. He’s stretched out across the front seat of his Land Rover, and he’s parked in Nathan’s driveway, and he needs to not get caught in this. Breathe in, breathe out. Remember the facts.

The facts: three weeks ago, he was dragging the covers on the bed in Nathan’s spare room into some vague semblance of order and more or less failing at it. Audrey had looked in the doorway, yawned, taken three steps into the room and tugged at his hand wordlessly until he was walking down the hall behind her, pushed him unceremoniously onto the bed. And Nathan had given him a half-asleep smile and pulled Duke to the middle of the bed, turned on his side and stretched an arm across Duke’s stomach so he could lay a hand on Audrey’s hip. He’d felt Audrey pull the covers up over all three of them, felt her shifting around a little until she was comfortable, realized she’d laid an arm across his chest, her hand resting over his collarbone.

The facts: he is three and a half months old and he is terrified this is going to blow up in his face. This morning he woke up with Nathan’s face tucked into his neck and Audrey’s face somewhere between his collarbone and his chest and when they woke up all either of them did was breathe quietly for a few minutes, mumble morning and gently squeeze whatever part of him their hands had been resting on, and he’d thought to himself, this, just this, this is it, and he is so, so fucking scared.

Duke, Audrey says. 

Duke, Nathan says.

He’s a day past three and a half months old, and he’d ended up on the Rouge last night because he couldn’t make himself get out of his Land Rover and in the end he’d slept terribly anyway, and Nathan says, I’m sorry if we overstepped .

Audrey says, we’re both sorry. I shouldn’t have --

And he cuts her off, without meaning to, says no, no, not on either of you, I was just worried that you guys weren’t getting any time to yourself, that kind of thing is important, you guys have waited long enough.

They look at each other, and they look at him, and then they look at each other again for half a second before Audrey sighs, Nathan closes his eyes and sighs, and Duke wishes he could be brave enough to step closer.

Duke, Audrey says, and it sounds like she’s gearing up for something, but Nathan grabs her hand briefly, there and gone, and she closes her mouth instead. And then Nathan takes his own step forward, reaches out and takes Duke’s hand in his own, keeps his eyes on their hands as he lifts them up and puts his lips on Duke’s knuckles lightly, lightly enough Duke can barely believe that’s what he’s feeling even though he can see it for himself, and --

He remembers, abruptly, how many times Nathan had hugged him, before the Troubles went away. How many touches there had been, that he’d made himself miserable over, and never stopped to think, why is he really doing this?  

He remembers we love you

Duke, Audrey says, softly, and when he finally looks away from his hand entwined with Nathan’s she’s closer too, hesitates and then lays a hand on the side of his face. We were waiting for you, too.

Oh, he thinks. Oh. Okay.  

And it is.