The first time he finds the photo is the day after the food festival. He arrives to the Claw late, rushing to shove his jacket into his locker and get to the kitchen before George notices his absence, when something crinkles unexpectedly in the pocket. Reaching in, he pulls out the polaroid - a bit wrinkled, the right corner completely folded over - but still in one piece even after the events of the day before.
He stares at it for a moment, crouching in front of his open locker, trying to recall when he had acted on the impulse to grab it off the coffee table in their rush to leave, and before he can stop to realize what he’s doing he’s studying the picture’s subject instead. Hair falling into her eyes, dirt from the tunnels still smeared across her face, her features set in an expression of determined focus as she dug into the box of files Carson had procured for her, still looking so perfectly…Nancy. A small grin crosses his face as he remembers her amused reaction to the flash of the camera turning into a sincere smile as Carson told her how proud of her he was -
Because of her testimony. The grin drops off his face as the memories of the rest of the day rush back into sharp focus. The sense of uselessness he’d felt as he’d dangled from that railing and watched his life be traded for the lives of countless others; the terrifying amount of finality he’d heard in her 'I couldn’t lose you.'; the way there was no doubt in his mind about what 'favor' Celia had asked for in return - a favor that for all he knows Nancy could be fulfilling right this moment.
As if summoned by his own despondent thoughts, the door to the storeroom suddenly bursts open and Nancy rushes in, her coat hanging on by one arm as she fastens her hair into a hurried bun. Her mad dash stops short upon seeing him, and as their eyes meet he’s suddenly overwhelmed by all the things he wants to say to her; all the things he held back the day before while Grant was around. The questions of 'How could you -' and 'Why would you -' and the arguments of 'This will ruin your -' and 'I’m not worth -' cycle around each other in his mind, and he can tell that something’s about to slip out his mouth but he can’t make the connection between them to know what it’ll be -
And then suddenly he doesn’t have to. George’s annoyed voice rings out from the kitchen, and he’s never heard the phrase ‘saved by the boss’ before, but after this he might consider adopting it. He quickly crumples the photo into a ball and tosses it into his locker, following it with his jacket as if burying the image would help him bury the feelings it brought up. He gives Nancy a curt nod, avoiding whatever he might have seen in her eyes as he turns and heads towards the stairs, knowing there was a difference between delaying something and running away from it, but not quite sure which side this was falling on.
It’s several months before he sees it again. Long enough for Everett Hudson’s first case to be declared a mistrial due to jury tampering, and for the time between it and his retrial to be just enough to allow Nick and Ryan to find a smoking gun hidden in Tiffany’s files that put the Hudson patriarch away for his full sentence (officially, at least).
Long enough for Amanda to turn to him on her doorstep two weeks after the trial and tell him that she and Gil were leaving - finally following up on his lead in Santa Fe. There were kisses goodbye and offers to help in any way, but they both agreed it would be better for her to focus on finding her mother, and at this point it’s been long enough that he’s starting to feel like he’s doing okay after the breakup. He’s starting to feel like everything’s back to…whatever passes for normal in Horseshoe Bay. At least, he is until Nancy announces - midway through George’s mandated After Hours End of Summer Cleaning Locker Inspection, no less - that she’s gotten into Columbia.
His hand had just closed around a crumpled ball of paper in the back of his locker when the words leave her mouth, and the ball stays in his hand even as he joins in on the group hug an ecstatic Bess initiates; as he tells Nancy how happy he is for her; as he reassures George that he’ll close up so she can ride with Nick to the celebration he’s sure Carson has planned for Nancy back at their place.
It isn’t until he’s left alone in the storeroom and he drops down onto the bench in front of his locker that he notices how tightly he’s been gripping the paper. Or the…not paper, he corrects himself as he notices the different texture of whatever he was holding. A sneaking suspicion comes from the back of his mind as he starts to smooth out the ball, and once the image is revealed in full - slightly faded with the right corner ripping off altogether after he pulls a bit too hard - he has to fight the urge to crumple the photo again and toss it into the trash. Which is a weird impulse, isn’t it? Because he was happy for her, of course he was. This was Nancy’s dream school, after all, and after the year that she’s had, doesn’t she deserve to do what makes her happy? To move on with her -
His thoughts stutter to a stop. He shakes his head and tries again. After all, hasn’t he - haven’t they all - known this was coming, sooner or later? Hasn’t he known from the start that Nancy was meant for bigger and better things? That she wasn’t going to hang around forever, not in this nowhere small town, with her ragtag group of friends and the dishwasher who’s been at a standstill since high school -
He’s being unfair, he knows. Because Nancy doesn’t see it, any of it like that. He knows how much Nancy cares, about Horseshoe Bay, about her friends…about him. She’d told him as much during the several knock-down-drag-out arguments they’d had after the incident at the paper mill, hadn’t she? But he can feel annoyance - or maybe even anger - rising up inside him, and if he doesn’t deflect it towards her, then he’ll have to confront himself, and he’s been avoiding that confrontation for months now.
He’d have to actually think about why he’s been keeping Nancy at arm’s length even after they’d both said their piece during those arguments. Why he’d been so insistent that they’d ‘gotten back to normal’ when he honestly wasn’t sure he had any idea of what ‘normal’ was for them. It certainly wasn’t the way she’d avoided his eyes when he’d congratulated her, but he wasn’t sure it was the way she had held onto his hand long after everyone else had left their hug either. He’d have to actually think about how he’d wasted so much time pretending there wasn’t still something to fix between them, and how he didn’t know what to feel now that he’s realized they’ve run out of time anyway.
When Amanda had left, it had felt like they were mutually closing a door - calm and maybe a little sad, but with both of them smiling and understanding on their respective sides. Knowing that Nancy was leaving felt like having to struggle with a door against hurricane-level winds, without a clue of what side he wanted to be on once he finally got it closed. But maybe that’s not a fair comparison to make, he rationalizes. After all, he and Amanda were together. He and Nancy have just been…
He looks back down at the polaroid, his thumb running along the torn edge as he considers just what exactly he and Nancy have been, before dragging a hand through his hair with a sigh. Too late to figure it out now, anyway. He leans forward and slips the photo between the pages of a library book already overdue by a year at the bottom of his locker. So he’ll have something to remember her by, he tells himself, unsure if the unpleasant feeling that settles over him as he slams the locker shut is bitterness or just plain sadness.
Life goes on in Horseshoe Bay, even without Nancy Drew. It’s not until late fall when he sees the photo again. He’s helping George and Nick with the Claw’s first official Allhallowtide event, spending his day helping kids decorate their lanterns whenever he’s not hyping Bess up over text for her ‘very preliminary, very probational, very terrifying!!!!!’ (her exclamation points, not his) first in-person meeting with Aunt Diana since she’d started slowly rebuilding their relationship.
He’s sitting on the steps leading into the storeroom after one of their longer text exchanges, laughing when George calls out for him to make himself useful and find more markers, but he rises to follow her instructions anyway. It takes him all of 5 minutes to realize that they are completely marker-free, digging through every drawer and pencil holder in the room and coming up with nothing, before he remembers the pack of Crayolas he’s pretty sure survived his last locker clean-out.
He unloads his jacket, a few books, and the jumbo pack of earplugs he’s been drawing from ever since that siren incident three weeks ago onto the bench to make it easier to find the markers, but the earplugs overbalanced the books and everything came toppling down before he could even look through what was left in the locker. With a sigh, he leans over and picks up the old library book that fell face-down, watching curiously as a square of paper drops out from between the pages and back down onto the floor. A catalogue card, he wonders, or maybe a note someone stashed and forgot about? But as he picks it up and sees the torn right corner, he realizes that not only is it not regular paper, but that he knows exactly what he’s going to see before he flips the item over.
A shock runs through him all the same once he does, seeing Nancy’s face for the first time in months. He doesn’t have more than a moment to think about that though, as his phone erupts with seven text tones in rapid succession at the same time George’s shouts for him to hurry up reach the storeroom. After a tiny moment of hesitation, he slides the polaroid into his back pocket and shoves everything else back into the locker before making his way back to the dining room, marker-less and contrite. That was a mistake. He spends the rest of the day hyper-aware of what he’s holding onto, patting his pocket for reassurance it hasn’t slipped out so many times that one of Ted’s friends asks him - with all the seriousness a 9-year old can muster - if he is also suffering from a wedgie-saurus.
It isn’t until that night, after he insists that he’ll close up the Claw so Nick and George can stay with her sisters at the lantern-lighting event, that he has a moment alone to actually look at the picture. He straddles the storeroom bench, placing it down in front of him and resting his elbows on his knees so he can lean in close as a sudden wave of guilt hits him. He remembers the way their text conversations had petered out after long stretches of one-word or emoji-only replies; the way her calls had slowly become less and less frequent until they stopped altogether. He still gets weird looks from the others when he makes excuses to avoid their video calls with her; can still hear Bess’s overly-sympathetic voice after she’d spent a long weekend in New York telling him that everything was fine, that Nancy just misses him.
He misses her too; of course he does. Some days he missed her so much the ache of it caught him by surprise. Like when he'd realized his habit of watching the door for the first ten minutes of every shift, still expecting her to rush through it with her name tag missing and an excuse at the ready. When he made a Big Lebowski reference at dinner one night and got nothing other than a confused smile from his mother in response. When he was researching something at the end of the bar and felt a phantom presence at his shoulder, like she was just outside his peripheral, leaning up against him and waiting impatiently for him to turn towards her and give her the answer she was looking for. It didn’t seem possible for someone he’d known for barely a year to be so much a part of every aspect of his life, but everywhere he turns there seems to be another reminder of Nancy Drew.
And that just makes everything worse. Because he hadn’t been able to give her the answers she might have needed before she left. And now, now that he’s had the time to figure those answers out, now that they kept him up at night, running endlessly through his head while he stares at the ceiling, he doesn’t know if they’re still the same answers she was looking for. And he’s terrified by the thought that they might not be. He’s gotten himself caught in a mystery he doesn’t know how to solve on his own.
But maybe… His thoughts are interrupted by the chime of the clock hanging above the back door, and he starts when he realizes nearly an hour has passed since he first sat down. Glancing at the photo again, he waits for the urge to tuck it back between the pages of that book; to push his feelings down and avoid having to confront them, but it doesn’t come. Something else clicks into place with the last chime of the clock, and holding the polaroid in one hand, he unlocks his phone with the other, ignoring Bess’s 5 recap and 2 goodnight texts for the moment while he taps the contact info for the only other person he’s sure will be awake at midnight on a Tuesday.
She picks up on the first ring. “Ace?”
Her voice sounds tired, maybe even a little worried, but so deeply familiar it feels like his heart jumps into his throat just at the sound of his name. “Hey, Nancy.” he begins, unable to hold back a small smile as he looks down at her picture. “Can we talk?”
Maybe he doesn’t have to solve this one alone.
Maybe neither of them do.
Nancy’s bright hair makes her easy to spot, even from his position across the train platform. He watches as she peers through the crowd, noticing him with a grin and a tiny wave, before he pushes off from the wall and starts to make his way over to meet her. He’d practically had to fight Ryan to be the one picking her up, he imagines telling her as she laughs. The man had been ready to push him down in the driveway until Carson had stepped in to - heavily, mind you - imply that maybe Nancy and Ace could use a little ‘alone time’.
That part he might keep to himself, actually. It was bad enough that Carson acted like he was in on some big secret every time he got off the phone with his daughter; he didn’t need her wondering why both her father figures were trading smug smiles every time the four of them were in a room together.
He realizes too late that he’d gotten caught up in his thoughts and that Nancy was suddenly standing less than a foot away from him. “Hi.” he murmurs, the memory of their last - somewhat awkward - reunion tugging at the back of his mind. (He almost wished his arm was still in a sling. Then at least he’d only have to worry about what to do with one of his hands).
“Hi.” she replies in the same tone, her own hands twisting nervously in the strap of her bag, but a beaming smile on her face. It was the same smile he’d seen during their almost daily video calls for the past month and a half, but he hadn’t thought to prepare for the way it makes his heart flip to see it directed at him, live and in person.
“H-how’s Columbia?” he manages to only stumble over the first word, but it doesn’t really seem to matter because suddenly Nancy drops her luggage and launches herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck and clinging to him while his arms instinctively wrap around her, pulling her closer still as he breathes in the fact that this is really happening, that it’s not a dream he’s going to wake up from to find the calendar mockingly reminding him there was another three days until her holiday break started.
He’s not sure how long they stay there, wrapped up in each other while the rest of the world moves around them, but when they finally pull away he knows his smile is as bright as hers. There’s a lot they still have to share - he hasn’t told her about his first day interning with John Sander yet, and she has a copy of the Daily Spectator with her first front page article stowed safely in her bag - and a lot - the distance, their schedules, missing each other - that they still have to figure out. But as he holds out his hand and Nancy takes it in hers, intertwining their fingers as if it was the most natural thing in the world, Ace can’t find it in himself to worry.
Whatever happens, they’ll figure out a way to solve it. Together.
(She finds the photo less than a week later; sees it hanging on the inside of his locker when she stops by the Claw to help them decorate for the holidays. Bess is beside herself at somehow being one of the last to know, but Ace can’t really focus on anything other than the look in Nancy’s eyes as she pulls him in for a kiss.)