Nathan is young, the memory of his mother's funeral a fresh wound when the bright-eyed teacher stands in front of the class and cheerfully announces to the the room at large that they'll be doing an art project. "Draw your family," she tells them, handing out blank papers to the three rows of chattering students, "Take your time, alright? There are crayons and markers and glitter," she entices, hands on her hips, smiling as kids shove their way towards the front of class to grab their materials, "I'm so excited to see what you all come up with."
Nathan drags his paper a little closer, choosing a black crayon when he reaches the teacher's desk. He sits back down and stares at his empty canvas, glancing at little Suzie Langdon, her hair done up in pigtails, drawing five shapes huddled together, smiles painted on their round faces. She draws a green lawn and a yellow sun in the corner of her paper. She names the stick figures - mommy, daddy, grandpa, grandma. She draws a dog, too, with big ears and a lolling tongue. Colin Graves draws two happy women with their arms around a little boy.
Nathan draws the outline of a house with one big room. He makes a stick figure with a frown - Duke always says he never smiles - and he draws a gravestone marked mom before angrily scrawling dad isn't home.
The teacher collects their papers, smile wavering when she gets to Nathan's. She seems on the verge of saying something, struggling to find the words before finally sighing "Let's try again tomorrow, Nathan?" and leaves his paper on his desk, having quiet words in the back with Duke. Duke says something snide and careless. Lillian holds him back after class and Nathan lingers in the hallway, not running alongside the other kids to recess, scuffing his shoes against the linoleum. "What did you draw?" he asks Duke when he joins Nathan in the hallway, picking at a bandaid around his pinky. "Was it sex?"
Duke does weird things, sometimes. He gives Nathan a weird smile, shrugging. "I didn't draw anything," he announces, "I don't have one. Not really. Mine doesn't count, I guess."
Nathan knows Duke's dad isn't around much. When he is, he might as well not be. Nathan wonders why their families don't count, something stinging behind his eyes. "Come on," he tells Duke, dragging him along by the shirt sleeve, "I don't want to play with the others," Nathan says, pulling Duke alongside him, telling himself that that's all he needs - family doesn't last forever, anyway.
He's twelve and he's drunk. He blames Duke. This is how it happens:
Duke comes over to his house with four beers and not a shred of regret, grinning brightly at Nathan, anticipating an invitation. "Are you stupid?" Nathan hisses, staring in horror at the cans cradled in Duke's arms, "Dad will kill us."
"Not if he doesn't find out," Duke counters, shrugging and shouldering his way past Nathan, "What, you have something better to do?"
Garland Wuornos is home in the evenings and on weekends. It's noon, the sun high in the sky. The back of Nathan's shirt is damp. He wants to tell Duke to fuck off, but Nathan's voice dies in his throat when Duke barges up the stairs, telling Nathan he has to live a little, finding Duke cross-legged on his bed by the time Nathan joins him upstairs. Sighing and long-suffering, Nathan cracks the window open, hesitantly scooting up the bed to sit with his back to the wall, their shoulders touching. "Where'd you get this, anyway?" he asks, peering at the bottles labeled Heineken. "You'd get carded."
"Dad," Duke tells him, something careful in his voice. "He's around, I guess. Whatever."
"Whatever," Nathan echoes, shrugging like he doesn't care, either, even when it's obvious that Duke does. He picks at the label when Duke gropes in his backpack for a bottle opener, Nathan rushing to say "You, first," before Duke can get the chance. Duke's not a bully, but he still laughs when the other kids make fun of Nathan and Nathan wonders why that's still not enough for him to end this almost-friendship the two of them have, but he doesn't really want to think about it, right now. Duke brought beer to him, not to Frankie or Riley. He brought Nathan beer and coming from Duke, that's...something. Something not bad, at least.
Duke grins at him and it's all teeth. "Scared?" he asks Nathan, opening the bottle, something performative about the way he tilts his head back and puts the lip to his mouth for a big swig, face scrunching up when he swallows his first taste. Nathan can't help laughing when Duke resurfaces, sputtering a little, squinting suspiciously at the bottle in his hand. "How do people drink this shit?" Duke asks out loud, shaking his head. "It's, what, an acquired taste?"
Nathan shrugs. He wouldn't know. "Your turn," Duke announces, their fingers brushing when Nathan tilts his own bottle towards Duke. He withdraws his hand quickly once the cap is off, tugging the damp collar of his t-shirt away from his skin, hesitating with the bottle in front of his face. He shouldn't, a nagging voice that sounds like his father's says, it's a bad idea, but Nathan's never been a smart kid, anyway. He gulps his very first taste down.
For maybe the first time in his life, he agrees with Duke: it tastes like shit. Nathan coughs, wiping his mouth with his wrist, huffing when Duke grins and says "Pussy," but Duke doesn't go in for a second taste, himself, which makes Nathan feel a little better. Duke reaches across Nathan's lap to fiddle with the radio on the nightstand, humming until he finds a channel he likes, rock and roll and screeching vocals.
"You don't even like Guns N' Roses," Nathan points out, but he lets Duke have the damn music. His back slides a little lower on the wall, a damp spot forming between his shoulder blades. It's hot outside. It's hotter inside, almost and Duke is sweating, too, drops beading on his forehead, one falling from his nose to his exposed collarbone, catching there and lingering for a moment before trickling down the vee of Duke's tank top.
Nathan averts his eyes, busying himself with trying to force down another sip of beer. Duke's skin is hot where it rubs against his own, arms pressed together where the two of them are huddled together in Nathan's twin bed, drinking in silence and pretending that neither of them are scared.
Nathan hasn't seen much of Duke, this summer. It's been kind of lonely, but Nathan got used to that a while ago, eating TV dinners to reruns of Jeopardy while his dad isn't around, the house too big and dark and empty around him. Duke comes around when he wants to, Nathan guesses, wondering what makes today different from the past two weeks, only seeing Duke across the aisle at the grocery store, or passing Nathan on the street without so much as a hello.
"Penny for your thoughts," Duke drawls, pulling Nathan closer with an arm around his shoulders. "What's going on in that big head of yours?"
"Fuck off," Nathan scoffs, settling into the loose embrace. "I don't know. Wondered where you've been. You're really tan," Nathan points out, poking Duke's exposed knee, "Were you on vacation? Your dad take you?"
Duke rolls his eyes and mumbles "As if," before letting go of Nathan, tucking his scrawny knees to his chest. His hair is getting kind of long, Nathan thinks, watching the ends go damp with sweat.
He doesn't tell Duke to answer the question. Nathan rifles through the drawer to his right and pulls out an old X-Men comic, handing it to Duke and pretending he doesn't notice how Duke lights up, reverently running his fingers across the cover. He manages to finish his first bottle before Duke, purely because Duke challenges him to and after the taste has mellowed into something Nathan isn't wincing at, he gets halfway through the second bottle, feeling a little drowsy and giggly while Duke catches up and cracks jokes about Nightcrawler's outfit.
Anyway. Nathan is twelve years old and he's drunk when Duke kisses him sloppily, his mouth slick and hot, one hand tangled in Nathan's shirt.
He should push Duke off of him, tell him that Nathan isn't gay - that he's really not, even if Duke wants him to be, but Nathan goes quiet and still with shock and sits there with his hands clutching the beer bottle as Duke slips him his tongue, finally coaxing a weird, ruined noise out of Nathan's throat. He doesn't hate it, one hand fumbling its way to Duke's shoulder, panting for breath when Duke drops his mouth to Nathan's throat, over-eager and hurting a little when he starts to work at giving Nathan a hickey. "Ow," Nathan complains, his fingers sliding into Duke's hair, "C-careful."
Duke obliges, surprisingly, gentling the scrape of his teeth and the tight seal of his lips. "Sorry," he mumbles, pulling back just enough to admire his handiwork, eyes bright and mouth smiling. It's probably practice, to Duke, for all Nathan knows. Practice for girls, or something, because Duke doesn't try again, uncertainly clinking their bottles together and sighing "Cheers," before he gets right back to drinking as if nothing has happened between them at all. Nathan blinks at him, confused and annoyed, before he decides to let it go.
It's not late, exactly, by the time Duke falls asleep in Nathan's bed, but it's too close to the end of his dad's shift for Nathan to let Duke stay. "Hey," he says, trying to wake Duke with a hand shaking his shoulder, "You have to go, now. Alright?"
Duke's eyes are glazed when he meets Nathan's stare, practically bolting upright with his arms flailing, groping for something to balance himself. Duke grabs Nathan's arm and groans "It's that late already?" before stumbling to his feet, patting his shorts down and gathering the empty bottles. Nathan tries to protest, to tell Duke he'll take care of it but Duke waves him off and says "Can't have the old man catch you, right? I got it."
Nathan is abruptly breathless. Duke leans down and kisses him, hard and mean, grinning when he pulls back. "See you around," Duke calls as his feet pound down the stairs, leaving Nathan alone in his clammy bedroom, touching the bruise on his neck and wishing, not for the first time, that he knew Duke better than this.
Duke's voice is hushed when he says "You know Anita, right?" apropos of nothing, sitting behind Nathan as their teacher subjects them to Romeo and Juliet, the movie entering the second act as Nathan tries to stay awake and present. He's startled by Duke's voice, glancing back at him and shrugging in reply. "Well," Duke says, stretching the word out, a pleased curl to his mouth when he whispers "I fucked her."
Nathan fumbles his pen. It clatters to the floor. He picks it up without much grace, blushing when mister Friedkin glances at him with a grave expression before turning back to the projector. "You did not," Nathan protests, buzzing with disbelief. Duke's always been better with girls than Nathan, but Anita Wright is a straight-laced good girl - she doesn't hang out with guys like Duke, especially not now that high school popularity is all that matters. Nathan's head is spinning, because Duke is filling out, growing into his looks - of course the girls would let him, right? Duke's fifteen - of course he'd want it, too.
"I did," Duke chuckles, wetting his lips. "Friday, at Ben's house. She let me go down on her, too."
No way. Nathan can't tear his eyes off of Duke, who's long and lean where he's sitting low in his chair, smiling and bright-eyed. Maybe that's what's been different about Duke, lately. He had sex. Nathan burns with questions he can't ask, turning his attention back to the movie but Duke lightly kicks his chair and whispers "Wanna hear all about it?" and Nathan finds himself nodding helplessly, his throat dry.
"She was wet," Duke murmurs, "Really wet. Pulled her panties off - she kept her skirt on, Nathan, how good is that? Skirt and no panties. Anyway," Duke goes on, talking quietly, leaning across his desk to get a little closer, whispering "She wasn't a virgin, right? Told me to use my fingers and get her ready. Did you know you had to do that? So, I work with that. Put my fingers in her and she's hot inside and she says she likes it when guys use their mouth."
He pauses for effect. Nathan can hear the smile in his voice when Duke sighs "Man, I think I like using my mouth too, you know? She was so hot for it, moaning like they do in porn. I was dying, I thought I was going to come before-"
Duke falters. Nathan's stomach is in knots. "I, uh, I put on the condom," Duke continues, "That's weird, for the record. Cold, kind of. But I put on the condom and then I just...slipped inside. I get it, now," Duke announces, "It was awesome. She said it was great, too."
Nathan closes his eyes and bites his lower lip, trying to imagine it, trying to imagine Duke between some girl's open legs. "Oh," is what he finally tells Duke, quietly asking "What did it feel like, f-fucking her?"
His voice wavers and stutters. Nathan hasn't had sex, yet. "It was amazing," Duke is quick to tell him, blurting the words before reigning his voice back in, careful not to be overheard. "I mean, I probably wasn't the best at it, but I liked it. It was fun."
"Fun," Nathan echoes, thinking back to the one time Duke joked about giving him a handjob. For some reason, he can't shake the thought. "Right. I'm happy for you?" he tries, not sure what to make of the flash of disappointment he sees in Duke's eyes, staring back at the screen, wondering if he'll ever be ready for that kind of fun.
Nathan doesn't talk to Duke, most of junior year.
Duke laughs at him in the hallways, sometimes. After the thumbtack incident when he was eight, Nathan shouldn't really expect any better. Still, Nathan sees red - can't be around Duke without feeling a lump growing in his throat. He slams the door in Duke's face the one time Duke tries to make amends, showing up at Nathan's house unannounced, sounding genuinely sorry when he says "I didn't mean to actually hurt you," but that doesn't make it any better. Nathan doesn't have to accept the apology if he doesn't want to. He spends most of that year alone, surrounded by people that either laugh at him or pity him. At home, he doesn't get much of a reprieve, either.
"You're too soft," Garland mutters, pouring his morning coffee as Nathan pretends to feel ill. Not that he feels much of anything other than a hollow dread, lately, since the incident, but sometimes faking sickness works, anyway. Sometimes. "You stay home, those bullies win. You want to look weak, son?"
"No," Nathan mutters, blinking back tears. It's been a while since Duke told him Katie had a thing for him and to meet her in the supply closet during lunch, but the burning shame that's still eating Nathan alive hasn't gone anywhere since it happened. He remembers trying so hard not to cry when Katie had confirmed to the entire school that Nathan hadn't reacted at all when she stuck her hand down his pants and it still feels humiliating to sit in class around dozens of people that thought it was funny. He's still not talking to Duke. His dad still doesn't know what really happened. Everyone says it behind his back - Nathan's a fag. Couldn't get it up.
Nathan drags himself to school and eats his lunch beneath the bleachers where all the other misfits go to hide. Someone's smoking a few yards away, someone else drawing in a sketchbook with headphones in. Nathan eats his tuna sandwich and sighs loudly when Duke's familiar shadow falls across him, his hands up before Nathan can get a word out.
"Nathan," Duke says, approaching slowly, holding on to the bars for support, "You're seriously still mad at me?"
The two of them fight. That's what they do. Nathan never thought Duke liked him as much as Nathan liked Duke, but he thought at least Duke wouldn't laugh at the rumor that started spreading, the rumor he helped to create. "I'm not mad," Nathan mutters, staring down at his half-eaten sandwich. "I'm just not your friend, anymore. It's different."
A heavy silence fills the space between them. "That's it?" Duke asks, sounding somewhere between shocked and hurt. "Over one stupid prank?"
Duke stares at Nathan before sinking down to his knees, grabbing Nathan's shoulder and forcing him to look at Duke. The other kids have left, by now - class is starting again soon but Nathan's still there, arguing with Duke, wishing he was anywhere else. It's been a really hard year. It would've been at least a little easier if Duke hadn't turned his back on him. "Nathan," Duke says, "I wasn't. I swear. I was laughing because I thought no fucking way did Katie do that. She said she liked you," Duke offers, sounding a little scared, "I thought - you liked her, too. I didn't know. I really didn't."
Nathan lifts his head and stares at Duke, wondering where the lie is, because Duke's a liar and he's trying to save his own skin and - and why does he care, anyway? Nathan's never been his best friend, has he? Duke has no reason to be getting grass stains on his jeans, trying to convince Nathan not to hate him. "I do," he mumbles. "I did. She didn't...she didn't tell you she was going to do that?"
Duke's face does something complicated that Nathan can't keep up with. "Honest to god," Duke says.
"You don't believe in god."
"Honest to money, then," Duke scoffs, peering intently at Nathan. "Come on, Nate. I know I'm an asshole, but I'm not - that. Katie sucks for doing what she did. You don't see me hanging out with her, do you?"
Nathan hasn't, actually, if he thinks about it. He hasn't seen Duke in any of the circles he flits from - not with the upperclassmen or the starry-eyed freshmen and not with the girls who have filled out over the summer. "No," he tells Duke, "You mean it? You didn't know?"
Duke deflates with relief, nodding quickly. "Hand to my heart," he tells Nathan, actually putting his hand on his chest, trying for a smile. "I miss you."
Nathan can't hide his smile when Duke scoots a little closer, the line of his shoulders finally relaxing. Duke looks like himself again, smiling at Nathan and poking at his Walkman, asking "Anything new on that?" with a bright grin, hooking his chin across Nathan's shoulder, "Let me hear. It makes my taste in music look so much better."
Nathan laughs "Fuck off, Duke," but he lets Duke huddle close, forgetting that he's meant to be in class, playing Duke something Nathan hasn't listened to himself, yet, handing Duke the other half of his lunch and settling down on his back, looking up at the clouds before closing his eyes, grateful for the company.
Nathan is leaving for college in three days. "I'm proud of you, son," Garland tells him, unsmiling and stoic. "Lot to learn."
There it is, the backhanded compliment. "Thanks, dad," Nathan sighs, packing up the third and last box and hauling it downstairs, "I'll talk to you later, alright? I'm going out."
Duke's already at the docks by the time Nathan pulls up and gestures for Duke to get in the car. Duke's in a beaten-up denim jacket, defeating the purpose of staying warm by having his first three shirt buttons undone when he slides into the passenger's seat, leaning in to ruffle Nathan's hair. "Hey, college boy," he grins, "Ready for one last night of fun before you join the world of higher education?"
Nathan almost tells Duke that he should join that world, too - Duke's smart enough, has always been smart enough, but the fallout during college applications is still fresh on Nathan's mind. He opts not to mention it and ducks away from Duke's hand, smiling a little, sighing "I guess I am," before allowing himself a moment to wonder about where Duke will go, eventually. If he'll stay. "Where are we going?"
"Now," Duke drawls, laughing softly, "You know Murphy's tavern? By the interstate, trucker dive?"
Nathan nods, unease crawling up his spine. His dad's taken more than a few complaints from Murphy's over the past couple of years; brawls and a stabbing, the one time, which means Nathan isn't all that thrilled about going. "Relax," Duke huffs, "They don't card, but just in case-"
He produces two fake IDs. Nathan stares and asks "Is that my yearbook photo?" in exasperation, seeing his own awkward face looking back at him. The name isn't much better, either. "Clive?" he asks Duke, voice dubious. "I don't look like a Clive, do I?"
"No," Duke agrees with a shrug, "I don't look much like a Ronny, but if it gets us in, it gets us in."
Nathan wonders, suddenly, how many times he and Duke have hung out in the past eight months without Duke being drunk, or drinking. It probably shouldn't matter as much as it does, but Nathan can't let it go. All he does is dwell on it without giving it a rest as he drives them over to Murphy's, but once they get there, Nathan is distracted by the look of the place, peering suspiciously at the neon sign blinking in and out above the entrance, parking as far back as possible. Duke is smiling, raising an eyebrow at him, asking "Ready to shoot a little pool and raise a little hell?"
Nathan isn't. "Lead the way," he tells Duke, then "Hey. Come here."
He fixes Duke's collar for him, then pauses and adjusts the clasp on Duke's necklace. He used to think it looked kind of girly on Duke, but now, it just looks like a part of him. Like it was always meant to be hanging around his neck, pendant settled in the dip of his collarbone. "Now we're ready."
Duke's smile looks different, colored in neon. The two of them make it past the bouncer, somehow, despite Nathan's obvious nerves. He feels overwhelmed the moment the two of them step inside the crowded bar, truckers and bikers and generally tough people surrounding them on all sides, the bartender's full sleeves of tattoos almost glistening in the dim light. "Beer?" Duke asks, gesturing for Nathan to claim a table in the back while it's still up for grabs, "I got it."
Nathan feels painfully out of place when he hangs his jacket on the back of the chair, nervously picking at the shabby tablecloth. Someone laughs loudly, maybe at him, but Duke is back soon enough with two Heineken and a pitcher of water, struggling to get it all on the table in one go.
Nathan's face burns with embarrassment when he fumbles his bottle and Duke laughs, asking "What are you, twelve?" as if the moment he's talking about is something the two of them actually acknowledge. He meets Duke's eyes, stunned and uncertain, but Duke barrels right past that topic and asks Nathan what he's most excited about doing once he gets to the dorms.
Duke cares. Nathan hasn't doubted it for years, but it's different when he's leaving. He humors Duke, though, talking about the electives he's hoping to sign up for, how he's probably going to be a loser in college like he was in high school, too. Duke laughs quietly, then says "We were all losers in high school, Nathan."
Not you, Nathan wants to say, but they both know that's a lie. Duke was a gangly, shaggy-haired outcast, same as him. Whatever cool points Duke accrued by selling booze to the other kids wasn't enough to spare him the mockery and teasing that Nathan knows he went through. Considering what Nathan knows about Duke's dad, too, he knows high school was as tough on Duke as it was on everyone else, especially the days where Duke had bruised knees and glassy eyes, turning up late to class.
It's not something the two of them really talk about. It's a familiar pattern, talking about everything and nothing as one beer turns to three turns to shots turns to playing pool and laughing too loudly, Duke plastered up against the length of Nathan's back while he whispers "Is that a cue in your hand or are you just happy to see me?" and Nathan elbows him, laughing helplessly, lining up his shot and thinking at least he got this right. At least he hasn't lost Duke, yet.
It's not quite 1AM by the time the two of them stumble out of the bar and Nathan realizes in horror that neither of them can drive them back. "Hey, don't panic," Duke laughs, "We'll camp out in the car, no sweat. You don't have a curfew, do you?"
"You know I don't," Nathan groans, fumbling for his keys, "Alright, uh - you can have the back?"
He's trying to be kind. Duke hauls him into the backseat right alongside him, though and Nathan doesn't have the wherewithal to protest, settling heavily on the seat, leaning against Duke as Duke leans against the door, both of them flushed and breathing heavily. "You had fun, didn't you?" Duke asks, looking right at Nathan. "I didn't waste your time?"
"You never do," Nathan mumbles, tugging his jacket tighter around himself. "No. Yeah, I mean. I had fun."
Fun is easy with Duke. Duke knows it, too, pleased with himself when he mumbles an agreement, slinging his arm around Nathan's shoulders and sighing deeply, double-checking that the door is locked before allowing himself to slump a little lower in his seat. It reminds Nathan of how Duke used to be in class, carefree and careless, grinning at Nathan whenever he'd turn around to look at Duke.
He's always spent too much time looking at Duke. Nathan can't seem to break the habit, now.
It's painfully obvious when it happens - or, in the split-second before it happens. Duke rolls his shoulders back, turning his back to the door, looking at Nathan with an expression that Duke doesn't get often - only when he's deep in thought, or troubled, or about to get laid. It's a weird expression. Nathan stares at Duke and the wounded curve of his mouth, closing his eyes, letting Duke kiss him just as slowly as he did last time, months ago, Duke's mouth slotting up against Nathan's with ease and care.
The kiss lingers in the way that drunk kisses tend to do. Whenever Duke pulls back, Nathan pulls him in again. When Nathan breaks off to gasp for breath, Duke chases his mouth. It's a tangle of limbs when Nathan clumsily makes his way into Duke's lap, the kiss shifting from languid to hungry, his hands in Duke's hair and Duke's fingers on Nathan's hips. Three days out, Nathan will be gone - forever, maybe because Duke sure as hell won't chase him and Nathan stopped wishing that he would a while ago. He busies himself with Duke's mouth, gasping at the scrape of teeth against his lower lip, letting Duke put a hand up his shirt without much protest at all.
"Why do we never talk about this?" Duke laughs. It's not his usual laugh and Nathan pauses, going still, looking at Duke from up close, taking in the narrowed pupils and flushed cheeks, the freckles on the bridge of Duke's nose and his forehead.
"Do we have to?"
Duke shrugs. "Probably should," he tells Nathan, keeping his voice conversational, but Duke doesn't push the issue beyond that, choosing to mouth at Nathan's jaw instead. He's sensitive, there, shivering when stubble catches against stubble, Nathan rolling his hips almost furiously, demanding more while Duke kisses his jaw and murmurs for him to slow down, to enjoy the moment, to let Duke take his time. Nathan almost says fuck that, but Duke's insistent, working a careful hand down Nathan's jeans once Duke's got them unbuttoned, fingers squeezing Nathan's cock, his heart racing and thudding against his ribs when Duke moans "Fuck, I missed this."
Not Nathan, this. Duke missed this.
"Shut up," Nathan demands, or maybe pleads. He can't quite tell the difference.
He kisses Duke silent, swallowing his moans. It's almost enough. It's almost gentle. It's almost what he's wanted all along.
The fracture between him and Duke is deeper than a canyon and wider than the goddamn ocean. At some point, Duke makes his way across, anyway, forcing Nathan to look at him.
It's been years since the fight. Privately, Nathan has never thought of it as a breakup, but ever since Audrey figured out the long, messy history between him and Duke, that's what she's been calling it, the breakup that never happened. It makes Nathan burn - maybe with shame, maybe with regret. The two have always been tangled intimately together since Duke punched him in the face, making it the last thing Nathan felt, the memory of a bruise that hadn't quite taken shape yet.
There were good years, too. That's the hardest thing to reconcile; that he and Duke could've had all those years and it still didn't amount to anything, that Nathan was another angle for Duke to use, in the end. Nowadays, he at least speaks to Duke without it being strictly on police business. At least Nathan's civil, he tells himself, watching as Duke waves cheerfully from across the room where he's cuffed, making the motion awkward. "Why's he here?" he asks Audrey, nodding towards Duke.
"Why don't you ask him yourself," Audrey laughs, "Like a grown-up, instead of us playing telephone?"
"That's not fair," Nathan sighs, even though he sees her point. He flags down Stan for the keys to Duke's cuffs - figures if Duke's being a pain in the ass, Nathan will match that attitude tenfold, dragging Duke along to an empty interrogation room, gesturing for him to take a seat and get comfortable. The fact that Stan told him Duke was in for a failure to turn up in court...Nathan rolls his eyes, taking a seat, suddenly at a loss for words when he meets Duke's eyes and finds him unsmiling and stoic, chin tilted high.
Duke keeps getting himself into trouble. He was always the smartest person Nathan ever knew. Not...this. Not someone who gets himself arrested more times than Nathan can count.
Before Nathan can say a single word, Duke laughs out loud, rubbing at his eyes, turning them skyward when he sighs with real emotion behind it and shakes his head, not letting Nathan get a word in, because Duke whispers "I'm so sick of fighting with you," and Nathan's breath catches in his throat.
This is what the two of them don't talk about. Duke runs his hand down his face and shrugs, averting his eyes like he can't stand to keep looking at Nathan, sighing "Look, I'll - I'll pay the fine, I'll stay overnight, whatever. Just...don't make me talk to you right now, Nathan. Don't."
Duke would prefer a night in a cell to this. Nathan rises to his feet abruptly, knees making a hard impact with the table, spitting "Sleep tight, Duke," and practically running from the room, his heart in his throat, wondering what the turning point was, wondering when Duke started hating him. It feels impossible, but the evidence is there - Duke doesn't want him around. After all the goddamn years Nathan spent forcing Duke further and further away from him, it shouldn't come as a surprise, but it does.
Ten years ago, he and Duke were alright. Not great, not...not together in any sense of the word, but the two of them had an understanding. It's not Duke's fault Nathan fell in love with the impossible. It isn't Nathan's fault that Duke never wanted it. Who's fault is it that this is what it's come down to, after everything he's been through with Duke, everything that Nathan has been with Duke?
"Let him go," he tells Stan, hands shaking. "It's not worth it. Let him go," Nathan says again, wondering why the fuck he can't take his own advice.
He and Duke don't have honest conversations, these days. Maybe they never did, but it's all aggressive small talk and sarcastic barbs, both of them trying to get their hits in while the words are fresh and there's blood in the water. There's one time, though, where Nathan gets a call about a disturbance by the docks and drives down to find Duke sitting by the water, his eyes glassy, staring out at the sea like maybe he wants to do something stupid.
Nathan sits down beside him, cross-legged. He forgets to be a cop, for a moment and tries to be the Nathan that Duke used to confide in. "I hate this place," Duke tells him eventually, staring down at his hands. "Nothing ever works out, you know?"
Not knowing what to make of that, Nathan tugs Duke's collar tighter around his exposed throat. It's chilly out, especially on the docks, the breeze ruffling Duke's hair. "What are you talking about?" Nathan asks, keeping his eyes on Duke when Duke flops down on his back, briefly glancing at the shattered bottles on the rocks, wondering since when Duke's been a maudlin drunk. "What are you doing here, Duke?"
"Nothing," Duke laughs, rubbing at his eyes. "Fuck. Nothing at all, officer."
It's not cold, Duke not using his name, but it stings a little, anyway, Duke radiating fuck off and leave me alone when he turns his head and refuses to look at Nathan. Something is wrong and Nathan has no idea what, sighing and laying down right beside Duke, their shoulders brushing. He can hear the whisper of denim against suede.
The stars are out in full force. Nathan remembers learning about constellations somewhere, but he never quite got the hang of it the way Duke did, except Duke probably had to use it more than Nathan ever did, out there on the ocean, navigating by the stars. It's been a while since Duke last left on a job. It's been a while since Duke left at all, actually.
"Remember," Duke tries, closing his eyes when Nathan turns to look at him, "Remember - fuck. Remember the first time, huh?"
Nathan's cheeks are probably already red from the chill. It doesn't matter if he's blushing. "The first time what?" he answers, evasive and suspicious, "What are you talking about?"
Duke rolls his bottom lip between his teeth. "First time I kissed you. Memory not working?"
"Of course I remember," Nathan scoffs, not knowing why it makes Duke smile. "First time you got me drunk, too. Remember that part?"
Duke reacts almost violently to that, eyes flying open as he looks right at Nathan. "You kissed me back," he challenges, then waves a hand to stop the argument in its tracks. "Nevermind. You remember," he concedes, blinking up at the sky overhead. "It was easier back then. I knew what world I was living in, you know? Knew who I was. What I was gonna be."
Nathan is really starting to worry, now. Duke doesn't talk like this. Duke's self-assured and confident of his place in the world. It's always been the thing that Nathan admired most about him, despite the times that it infuriated him to feel so fucking lost beside Duke, who seemed to always have everything worked out. Whatever is going on, Nathan doesn't think he can fix it.
"And now?" Nathan finally questions, laying with his back against the concrete, staring at Duke in profile. "What about now?"
There's an eternal beat of silence before Duke smiles crookedly at him without any real humor and says "Now, I'm what I was always going to be. Alone."
Nathan takes him home. He takes Duke downstairs, to bed. He leaves Duke there and sits in his car, head filling with static, trying not to feel responsible.
Duke doesn't call, anymore. Not that he has since before college, anyway, but Nathan can't stifle the startled reflex to toss his phone when he sees the screen light up with Duke's name that he never got around to deleting from his phone, anyway, hesitantly answering the call with a brisk "Yeah?"
"Peace offering," Duke says, not bothering with pleasantries, "Meet me at the Gull."
The lilt of his voice is questioning. Nathan wonders if it's liquid courage that has Duke calling after all this time and all those fights, but he's curious enough not to shoot Duke down immediately. He's quiet for a while, though, until he swears that he can hear Duke's anxiety permeating the static, finally offering a quiet "Alright. See you soon, I guess?"
Duke hangs up without another word. Nathan wonders if he'll ever understand Duke, but he's off to the Gull soon enough, wondering if maybe something's happened. He never imagined repairing the rift between them - never thought it was possible, honestly - but if Duke's going to try to make amends, Nathan figures he'll at least humor the attempt. Nevermind that he's missed Duke for a while, now, ever since their paths crossed again. Nevermind that he never got over Duke being his first kiss, way back during that sticky summer. Nevermind.
Duke looks exhausted, sitting in a corner booth, leg bouncing up and down. He's flushed under the lights, eyes finding Nathan the moment he enters the crowded restaurant, slipping hesitantly into the seat across from Duke and offering a muted "Hey," before clearing his throat, asking "What's this about?"
It's a ridiculous thought, but Nathan wonders if maybe Duke is dying. He's heard of people doing this once they get a countdown on how much time they have left; trying to make amends and putting things right before they go. It's a ridiculous thought, Nathan tells himself. Duke doesn't get to do that.
"I've been in love with you for half my life and I-"
"What?" Nathan blurts, shocked into incoherence. "You're not. You weren't. You can't be."
Whatever the last thing he was expecting Duke to say was, he didn't even take this into consideration. Nathan can see his own wide-eyed reflection in Duke's eyes, how his mouth hasn't managed to close yet. It's so wildly unexpected that Nathan almost laughs, but the noise dies in his throat when Duke makes a soft, pained noise and shakes his head, staring at Nathan like he's an idiot.
Duke pins him with a bewildered look, hands turning into fists. "Nathan," he says, "Sometimes I hate you for doing this to me. What, you-? All the time I spent chasing you, you never noticed? No, you did," Duke insists, "You didn't want to see it. Why do you - why do you always have to make it so hard to talk to you, Nate? Why's it always have to be a fight?"
It doesn't, Nathan wants to say, but what Duke's suggesting is incomprehensible and huge and earth-shattering. Duke has kissed him a dozen times, maybe more, but Duke never stayed. He's restless with frustration, sitting there across the table, staring at Nathan like the wrong word will send him fleeing out the door and back home, leaving nothing resolved.
Nathan never got over Duke and the maybes and the almosts. It's been a long time since he felt wanted by Duke - since Nathan allowed himself to want Duke back, to touch Duke. "You're in love with me," Nathan breathes, shrinking from the passing server, not wanting the conversation overheard. He has no idea what to say. He doesn't know if the right thing or wrong thing will come spilling out of his mouth, but he searches for something, anything to say, struggling to find the words. "I - Duke, what...? Why's it matter, now?"
Fuck, that's a misstep if he ever saw one. "Don't," Nathan blurts in a panic when he sees Duke getting ready to get up. He's never panicked with Duke, before, but the stakes have never been this high, either. "Duke, you - you have to give me a moment, alright? Just a minute."
It sounds painfully awkward, but by some miracle, Duke obliges, slumping back down and sighing deeply. "I swear," he mutters, "You drive me crazy. Useless with your words."
"Don't you think I know that?" Nathan groans, fiddling with the zipper on his jacket. "You're in love with me," he eventually repeats, calmer and more steady. "What, do...do you just want me to know?"
Duke's smile is fond. Nathan didn't think he deserved that, still. "Nathan," Duke says, "What do you think, huh? You think a guy confesses something like that just to walk away, say see you later?"
Nathan spent a lot of time pushing down the idea of Duke - of having Duke. He was eighteen the last time he let himself hope, but Duke always seemed so far away and distant and Nathan had enough on his plate, didn't he? He didn't entertain the notion of trying for more, because Nathan was going off to college and Duke didn't ask him to come around or call, so Nathan went. Duke never called, either, but it was right back to where they'd always lingered in that awkward in-between space of not being together, but waking up in each other's beds. Then, the fight. Then, nothing.
Walk away? That's not what Nathan wants. He hasn't been this scared in years.
"Duke," he forces out, "I never wanted this. No, listen," Nathan urges when Duke looks like he's getting the wrong idea, "I didn't want to - be this. Angry with you. Fighting. What was I supposed to think?" he asks, gesturing helplessly, "You left town before I could even talk to you. You came back and it was all wrong. Couldn't even look at me-"
"Because I was ashamed, Nate," Duke sighs. "Ashamed that I left, alright? That I did this to you."
That's not something Nathan ever considered. Duke was an impossibility. The fact that Duke was ashamed-?
It's taken a long time for Nathan to come to terms with his trouble. He clears his throat, asking "Is that how you knew that I...that I was-?"
Troubles aren't triggered by just anything. Duke's always been the smart one, between the two of them. There's no way he didn't know, that he didn't see it painted on Nathan's face ever since Duke kissed him for the first time. It's always been difficult to understand, but Duke must have had some idea. He was never dense. Duke's always had an eye for details.
"Why do you think I was so ashamed?" Duke croaks, his voice thin. "I fucked it all up for you. The worst part is that I didn't even think about it. I just did it, anyway."
Duke probably has no idea what to make of Nathan's sudden, loud laughter. Maybe he thinks Nathan finally cracked after all this time.
"Duke," Nathan gasps, a little frantic to get the words out before he loses them forever, "I was so stupid over you, you know that? So jealous of - Anita Richards, because she got you first. God," he huffs, abruptly exhausted, "I wanted you. I loved you. I thought I was...fun, for you. Convenient and stupid and fucking available."
"Loved me," Duke echoes, staring at Nathan like he's seeing him for the first time. Nathan suspects that's how he's looking at Duke, too. "I screwed it up that badly?"
The implication is obvious - past tense, no mincing his words. Nathan fumbles to salvage the moment, eyes flitting between Duke's eyes and his mouth, voice hushed with sheer shock when he says "I'm here, aren't I? I thought-"
It's a clumsy attempt, but it is an attempt. Nathan doesn't expect credit for it, but he can feel something tense settling between them, because this is the last chance, isn't it? His last shot at getting it right and if he fails, now, there's no going back. If Nathan fails now, he loses Duke forever - and knowing that he could have him back, suddenly, makes it all the more crucial to fix this.
"I thought I wasn't what you wanted," he tells Duke, after a lifetime of struggling with the words, "Thought you didn't want to stay in Haven, anyway and I was never going to leave. What future was that?" Nathan asks quietly, shaking his head to get back on track. "You - Duke, the best parts of my life was when you were in it. I loved you, then."
His voice is small when he finishes "And I love you, now."
That's it. It's all over. Nathan can breathe, now, but - he cracks up, a little, knowing the hard part is done with, watching Duke watching him as his mouth twitches into a helpless smile, like he can't resist laughing, too, at the absurdity of the conversation. "Nathan," Duke says, "I waited twenty years on that. What are you doing all the way over there?"
Time stops, for a second. Nathan stares at Duke and Duke holds his gaze. Someone's hand knocks over the fake candle sitting on the table - someone laughs, or maybe both of them do. It doesn't matter, in the end, because Nathan makes his way across the space dividing them, tumbling into the booth beside Duke, meeting his mouth halfway, watching Duke's lashes from up close as Duke sighs into his mouth.
Nathan isn't actually stupid. He's good at pretending, though.
He knows everything isn't magically alright after he went ahead and kissed Duke in front of a crowd of people, but he can hope, can't he?
Duke's not going to make it easy, but Nathan figures that's pretty much exactly what he deserves for having been willfully ignorant for all these years, making it so difficult for Duke to get close. It's the next morning and the anxiety that Nathan has kept at bay is starting to crawl up his throat during breakfast, eating cereal at the counter, barefoot and breathless with anticipation.
Footsteps on the stairs alert him to Duke's inevitable appearance. Nathan's still sleep-rumpled, rubbing at his eyes. Duke wasn't fit to drive, yesterday - admitted to a few too many beers over the limit by the time he and Nathan separated from each other and Nathan had done what he should've done a long time ago. He stepped up and offered to take Duke home, but somehow they both ended up here, at Nathan's house, Duke crashing upstairs and Nathan spending the night on the couch. By the time Nathan hears the bottom step squeak, he's composed himself to look calm, for the most part.
He practiced his words a half-dozen times but his voice still comes out too shaky when he says "I made coffee," and stumbles to add "Did you sleep - well?"
Nathan trips over the word, closing his eyes and wincing. "Yeah," Duke tells him, his laughter mostly fond, mostly muted. "I actually did. Your mattress is lumpy, did you know that?"
No, Nathan didn't. It could be a concrete slab for all he'd know. "Sorry?" he offers uncertainly, quick to hand Duke a cup of coffee, needing to see Duke's hands busy. He needs to delay the inevitable. "Did you want to use the shower?"
"Nathan," Duke says, one hand circling Nathan's wrist. "Easy, alright? We're not fighting. We got nothing to fight about. Sit down and shut up, will you?"
Obliging, Nathan lowers himself to sit across from Duke at the table, wondering if Duke will take offense at that. Duke's good at reading people. He'll recognize the shield Nathan is trying to put between them, in case things go sideways.
Duke drinks his coffee without rush. He keeps looking at Nathan like he knows something Nathan doesn't. Finally, Duke raps his knuckles against the tabletop, clears his throat and says "For what it's worth, I never had a harder time dating someone than this. For the record."
It makes Nathan smile. He wonders if maybe he's not supposed to.
"So," Duke goes on, "Here's what I'm thinking. We wasted twenty years, Nathan. That's a long time. You love me," Duke says, something uncertain flickering across his expression, "And-"
"I love you," Nathan says, nodding firmly, his throat tight. "Don't have to make it sound like a question, anymore."
Duke directs his smile at the floorboards. It's never been easy, taking Duke by surprise. "Anyway," Duke chuckles, his voice holding so much warmth that Nathan's almost bowled over by it, "I'd say we're on the right track, what with you groping me last night."
"I can't feel my hands," Nathan protests, flailing one in both protest and demonstration, "You were getting some groping in, too. Don't think I didn't notice."
Duke rolls his eyes. "Groping," he repeats, blinking like he's momentarily lost his train of thought, "Kissing, that one's up there, too. I mean, we're ticking off a lot of dating staples, Nathan," Duke teases, "So by the time I walk out your front door, we're dating. No take-backs. Are we on the same page, or...?"
Nathan blinks and thinks back across the years and the divide between them - thinks back to all the times he wished he knew what to do with Duke in his bed, sitting in the passenger seat of his car, his body flush against Nathan's own. He thinks about all the stupid jealousy that drove a wedge between them and how he never felt lonelier than his first term at college when Duke didn't call. He's done Duke wrong. Duke's made mistakes, too. But-
"I'm sold," Nathan tells Duke, his voice going dry. "Great sales pitch. Alright. Date me, then," and Duke laughs loudly at the fact that Nathan makes it sound like a challenge. His own mouth twitches into a smile.
"You're a jackass," Duke chuckles, but he finishes his coffee and rises to his feet, rounding the table and propping his hip against it, one hand curving around Nathan's jaw. "Eyes on me," Duke hums, leaning down and kissing Nathan - and it isn't electric the way it was when Nathan could feel it, no, but it's transparently gentle and that's what Nathan focuses on. He blinks and Duke pulls away, staring at Nathan's mouth, slowly declaring "I really need to, uh," and making a vague gesture towards the door, "I'll see you later?"
"You will," Nathan agrees, watching as Duke heads for the door, "Duke?"
He can't see it, but Nathan knows Duke is smiling as he leaves.
There are other conversations they need to have - exhausting conversations, no doubt, and difficult conversations with no easy way to navigate, but all of that falls by the wayside in favor of Nathan sitting in this moment, right now, smiling down at his cup of coffee, knowing that he finally got it right.