"Hey," Nancy says from behind, twisting both hands around the strap of her messenger bag. "Can we talk?"
At the sound of her voice, Ace straightens from in front of his locker. He lets out a close-mouthed sigh as the question sinks into his stomach, and when he turns towards her, the discomfort she's feeling becomes evident in her body language.
A beat passes where neither makes a move.
Nancy, however, is the first to take a step, drawing in a shuddering breath. "You've been avoiding me... for a while now. Ever since the whole life-and-death thing with Daniel West. And I'm sorry that I was willing to let people die to save you. I thought you would understand, that you would've done the same thing-"
"It's not about the list," Ace cuts in with a shake of his head, "That was a long time ago."
In reality it had only been a few weeks since Nancy and Grant traded a hit list to a professional killer to spare Ace's life, but time seems to move inordinately slow in Horseshoe Bay.
"I know. But that was also the same time I called in for a favor with Celia Hudson..." she allows her sentence to drift off there, urging Ace to connect the unspoken dots.
He hadn't tried to hide his feelings on the whole Celia situation, especially whenever he and Nancy talked one-on-one; yet still, her ability to pinpoint the root of behaviors she already notices in him never fails to surprise.
"I just... wish you would have consulted me before you made a deal with the devil."
Nancy recalls a talk during which she was alone with Ace, where he'd briefly confessed his dismay at her recent dealings with the Hudson matriarch.
A string of monotone words all run together as she attempts to explain, "We already went over this, Ace. I-I-I had to figure out how to save you, there was no time to consider my options."
"Maybe it wasn't worth it."
Within a second, revulsion twists every feature on Nancy's face.
"I'm sorry, what?" she demands.
Ace doesn't elaborate. Instead he lifts his raincoat from its hook and shuts the door to his locker, staring down at the garment in his hands with a shamed expression. It isn't long before Nancy has his elbow in a firm grip.
"Hey," she convinces him to whirl around and face her. "You're worth it to me."
You're always worth it to me. You're worth everything to me. A thousand times over, she wants to say. But she doesn't.
"I guess that's my problem."
"Your problem is that I care about you?"
"I don't want to be the reason you sell your soul to the Hudsons."
Nancy blinks, her ferocity weakening as she pulls away. "Aren't I allowed to make my own choices?"
"Of course. But... that doesn't mean I have to like them."
The way he says it is so casual, so lacking in venom that it makes her stomach wrench. He doesn't realize that the only approval Nancy craves is his; she is willing to stand up against even the closest of people in her life - Nick, George, her own father - but not Ace. His opinion of her serves as a compass whenever Nancy is too tired or worn down to trust her own judgment. His opinion is the one that matters most.
"Then what do you want from me? Tell me what I can do to make it better."
It's the most fragile, the most desperate she thinks she's heard herself. Nancy Drew is independent and decisive and strong. So whose voice is it that wobbles in fear, laying down her pride in the hands of another?
If there's anything Nancy can't stand, it's being clouded over with emotion, but the tightness in her throat only warns of an oncoming flood.
"Honestly, Nancy, I don't know right now. Maybe just... help me understand why before you make these kinds of decisions. I don't want you to get hurt."
Their eyes linger for what feels like an eternity, distanced by walls that neither of them know how to tear down.
When Ace moves, he turns decisively away.
Panic beginning to swell in her chest, Nancy pushes past all the other emotions running through her mind - fear, guilt, uncertainty - and takes one last step into the room before he has the chance to get away.
"I did it because I love you."
If anything could stop him cold in his tracks, it's that particular confession. His eyes meet the floor in front of him, speechless and calculating, each second ticking by in tense silence. He turns to face her once more.
There in the center of the room she stands, the bold and courageous girl detective herself, looking smaller than ever. Her voice is barely above a whisper now, eyes in danger of spilling over, "Ace... I think I might be in love with you."
Ace stands motionless in awe, save for a swallow and quick shift of his weight.
When Nancy gets nervous she often rambles to relieve some of her tension. "I didn't know how to say it before, and I- have never actually been in love so maybe I didn't even know what I was feeling until recently, but, you were with Amanda Bobbsey and not in love with me and it's all... very confusing..."
Breath leaves her lungs as quickly as words leave her tongue, anxiety shaking her down to the core. She blinks when the self-awareness sets in; lowers her gaze to the floor for a length of awkward silence.
Eventually she looks back up to find him just a few feet away now, having crossed the room sometime after she finished prattling on about nothing. His raincoat hits the bench.
"There are.. a lot of reasons why I can't do this right now." He indicates himself with a curved hand to his chest.
Though her heart sinks, Nancy's eyelids still flutter. "But you- you would? Hypothetically?"
His mouth flattens into something that's not quite a smile, eyes as earnest as ever. "It's just that... y'know, Amanda's only been gone for a week. And I don't want to lose what we have - what all of us have."
"You won't," Nancy states with a furrowed brow, "Why do you think you would lose us?"
He bobs his head a bit. "Things could get complicated between us. Especially considering... things."
"What do you mean? What kind of things?"
"Well, I'm not trying to point fingers, but... there is your track record. With relationships."
It doesn't escape her attention that he refuses to make eye contact when he says the last part. She tenses up and repeats, "My track record?"
Ace opens his mouth to soften the words, but the look on his face is enough to suffice as an apology. Nancy retreats on her own as three particular guys - Ned Nickerson, Owen Marvin and Gil Bobbsey - flash through her mind's eye. Guys she had used as a distraction, a rebound, and a means of sexual gratification, all of which Ace witnessed firsthand from the sidelines.
"Yeah I deserve that, don't I," she says quietly.
"No, you don't. That part's fine. It's about everything else."
"Everything else being the Hudsons, Amanda, and losing what we have."
He offers only a nod. Draws in a breath. "Nancy, I want to love you too. And I'm not saying that I don't, but..." his voice breaks, just a bit, but enough for Nancy to notice.
"...It's not the right time," she finishes for him with a resigned nod; "yeah," under her breath.
This time it's Nancy who won't meet Ace's eyes. She darts them all across the room in avoidance, lips pursing together. "I'm- I'm sorry. This is.. not really who I am and I probably shouldn't have said anything to begin with, but-"
"No - no, don't apologize," Ace says with the usual gentle firmness and a slight tilt of his head. "I'm glad you said something. Really glad. In fact, um, if you're not opposed... there is something I wouldn't mind trying before you go off to Columbia."
"Ha. Who says I'm getting into Columbia?" she asks sardonically, crossing her arms.
Ace gives a subtle grin of support. "You'll get into Columbia."
She stops to consider his words, but then emits a soft chuckle, smiling gratefully at her best friend as though there were no mistakes, no confession of feelings, no heartbreak to contend with.
Time drags on as his vague statement from before remains unaccounted for, though almost as if pulled by gravity, there's a mutual instinct that draws them closer together.
Along with instinct, however, is hesitation - a slowness in the way they line themselves up, a caution in the way they read each others' eyes. Gradually his hands find their way to her jawline and before she knows it, in stark contrast to their prior pace, her back is up against metal with the most satisfying warmth she's ever known on her lips.
Nancy's entire body lights on fire, so much that it takes a dazed moment before she is able to react. Her eyebrows lift as she takes full advantage of the moment, kissing him back with the fervor of months worth of pent-up feelings all finally coming to surface; hands crawl upwards from his arms, to his shoulders, and eventually land on either side of his neck.
For a few rapturous seconds, they allow themselves to melt entirely into each other with the realization that things won't be like this again for a while; not until they're able to overcome the doubts, the obstacles, the emotional walls that they both know would cause more harm than good if they were to pursue this now.
Maybe this is perfect. Maybe one kiss - one blissful, ravenous taste of just what it is they're missing out on is enough to satiate their appetites for the time being and prepare them for what's to come.
With one last surge forward, hands sliding down his chest, Nancy realizes that kissing Ace never felt this good in her dreams.
Then, sooner rather than later, it's over.
Though their lips disconnect, everything else remains. A breathless minute comes and goes before either have any words to speak.
"Are you- are you sure you don't want to change your mind?" Nancy finally asks through her teeth, eyes drifting down to his mouth more than once.
A smirk tugs at his face as he steps back, hands remaining on Nancy's forearms for perhaps a touch longer than necessary. "Few more of those and I might."
Nancy gives a wistful giggle, using her shoulders to launch herself away from the lockers right when her phone buzzes.
Ace watches with curiosity as she opens her latest text notification, but waits silently to be filled in.
"It's George. She says they're waiting for us at their place," Nancy murmurs with her brow lowered, looking at Ace for a potential answer to her confusion.
Rarely one to disappoint, Ace nods in recognition. "Oh yeah, they took it upon themselves to reschedule game night. I was supposed to tell you."
Nancy raises her eyebrows in good spirit. "Ah. Well, I'm sure glad you told me in plenty of time."
"Come to think of it, Bess pretty much insisted I be the one to tell you. The whole thing must've been a ruse."
Nancy shrugs. "Eh, you know what they say. What's done is done." she waits a beat before thumbing towards the back door over her shoulder. "Join me?"
"Yeah," Ace agrees as he grabs his raincoat and the pair start walking out. "Yeah but I have to warn you, none of what just transpired is going to have any affect on how badly I demolish you in Absurd Code Word."
"Wow, Ace, I think you're underestimating my game night abilities. Have you ever seen me in Absurd Code Word?"
"Don't need to."
"I see. Is it because I'm a girl?"
"C'mon, Nancy. You know me better than that."
The ease with which they're able to shift gears serves as a delicate reminder of how intrinsically they are connected; of the level of comfort and stability within their potential when the time is right.
Whenever that may be.