It’s sometime past two in the morning, the quarter-moon a sliver in the sky, when Ace gives up on attempting to sleep and slips out of Amanda’s bed and through her front door, tugging on his sweater as he goes.
The streetlights in Ocean Edge are few and far between, but it’s not completely dark, the occasional patches of light creating a deep blue-black hue everywhere. It’s enough light that he can see, perched on an overturned crate beneath a sign that reads Manager, the hero of Horseshoe Bay herself.
Nancy doesn’t notice him right away – or maybe she just pretends she doesn’t. She’s wearing a bomber jacket that doesn’t look quite warm enough for the night, arms wrapped around herself, and her head is tipped back, her head aimed at the stars. She looks weary, under the moonlight. And she looks beautiful.
He wonders if she was struggling to sleep, too, in Gil’s bed. The thought feels full of heat, and he remembers Amanda asking him about a vibe. He gives his head a small shake, trying to dislodge it.
Nancy turns in his direction only once he starts walking toward her, stray bits of gravel crunching under his feet, and her tired expression transforms into pure exhaustion.
“Ace – ” She holds up both hands, warding him off. “I’m not doing this again.”
“I don’t want to do anything,” he says, more snappishly than he means to; he wishes she’d listen to him already. Softening his tone, he adds, “I didn’t come out here to argue with you. I just wanted some fresh air.”
Nancy appraises him. Her hair is falling over her shoulder, and his fingers itch, inexplicably, to push it back behind her ear. “Couldn’t sleep?”
She nods, and even though there are other crates resting on top of a nearby chest freezer, she shifts over on the one she’s sitting on, offering him just enough room for one ass cheek.
He’s not about to turn down that invitation. He lowers himself carefully onto the crate next to her. It’s about as uncomfortable as he expected it would be.
“Can I say something?” Off her look, thrown at him over her shoulder, he swears, “I don’t want to fight, Nancy. Earlier – I wasn’t trying to upset you, I guess I was just trying to… look out for you.”
Tersely, she says, “I don’t need you to protect me from Gil Bobbsey.”
“No,” he says, because she doesn’t; he doesn’t like Gil, or trust him, but it’s not really about Gil. It’s about her. “I’m – I’m not. These past few days, I’ve just… been worried about you. A lot’s happened. A lot is happening. And you seem… ” He trails off, frowning at his shoes. Through his sweater and her thin jacket, he can feel the heat radiating off her body. “You’re going through stuff. And I just… want you to be okay. Earlier, that’s – that’s what I wanted to say.”
Nancy shifts next to him. “I’m not exactly okay,” she says slowly, mouth twisting around the words like they’re uncomfortable. He knows it isn’t easy for Nancy to do this, to try and dismantle her well-built walls. She’ll peek out to inform them of whatever is lodged beneath her skin, barbed and aching – My mother is dead. My mother wasn’t my mother. Lucy Sable is dead. Ryan Hudson and Lucy Sable had a daughter. – and then replace any bricks she removed to do so with fresh cement.
But Ace has learned: if he waits, and if he listens, sometimes the cement’s not quite as strong the second time around.
“And I know you’re not either,” she continues on an exhale, her shoulders slumping. “But I’m okay as I can be. Grant and Helen and all those people in witness protection are safe. And you’re – ” She shakes her head. “You can’t really think I’d be okay if I’d let you die. You don’t. Do you?”
He thinks of Nancy’s face, crumpled in grief, when they thought they’d lost George. He thinks of a mystical shroud they can never, ever use again. He thinks of his own relief in the tunnels, as he helped Nancy out from under those trembling beams, so palpable he could practically taste it.
No rests on his tongue, but he can’t bring himself to say it, not with the way the guilt that’s boiling inside of him feels like it’s crawling up his throat. Instead, he lets his leg fall slightly to the side, his knee bumping against hers.
Nancy looks at him. Half her face, caught by the streetlight, has an otherworldly pale blue glow. “Ace,” she sighs. Her knuckles brush briefly against his knee before she knots her fingers together. Her gaze drops from his face, and there’s a beat of total stillness, total silence, before she draws in a breath and he watches her jaw lock into the stubbornly determined shape he’s come to know so well.
“Nance,” he says, before she can speak, echoing her sigh.
A tiny smile flickers across her mouth, and her eyes find his again, one eyebrow gently arched. You’ve never called me that before, it says.
Ace shrugs and bumps his knee against hers again. Trying something new, he hopes that little nudge says.
And he thinks it works, because her stubborn chin dips in a little nod, smile still lingering at the corners of her mouth when she says, “I’m going to figure it out. Everett’s done… so much wrong. There are other avenues to get to him. To fix this.”
He shouldn’t say it – he should nod, too, and hope that her smile can stay – but ultimately he can’t help himself. “While you owe his wife?”
Even in the depth of the darkness, Nancy’s eyes flash. “I’m going to get justice. For everyone on the Bonny Scot. For all his victims. For my mother.” She takes a sharp breath. “I have to believe that. I have to believe in something.”
He nods, eyes moving over her face. One corner of her mouth is tucked downward, and his heart feels like it’s in a vice. “Nancy…” He lifts a hand and then drops it back into his lap, swallowing hard. “I believe in you,” he tells her. “And I’ll help you.”
Her eyes search his. There’s the slightest quiver in her bottom lip before she asks, “Yeah?”
Ace nods again, more firmly this time, his hair falling into his face. “Yeah.”
“Thank you,” she says, barely above a whisper.
It doesn’t feel right – he should be thanking her, for saving him, for weighing his life in her hands and finding it worthy, but he can’t manage to say it. There’s too much crammed into his throat, fury and worry, helplessness and frustration. So he lifts his hand again, with more purpose this time, his whole arm following and easing its way around her shoulders. He’s halfway expecting her to stiffen, but she doesn’t. Her body tilts into his, and her chin juts into his shoulder.
Several seconds pass, and then a breath shudders through her chest, and she makes a gasping sound so quiet Ace wonders if he imagined it, but then he feels her tears wet his neck, her eyelashes brushing his skin. Despite the way they’re precariously balanced next to one another on the crate, he manages to tug her in a bit closer to him. Her arm wraps around the front of his body, fingers curling around a fistful of his sweater, and he rubs very lightly at her upper back, convinced that too much pressure from his palm might spook her into pulling away and sitting upright.
Ace turns his face into her hair, wisps of it tickling his nose. She smells different than she did the day at the mill, the sting of the cold absent and replaced by something musky, probably whatever body spray Gil Bobbsey is wearing these days. But beneath it, there are still notes of her shampoo, pomegranate and honey. It takes him back to that day, to that moment, Nancy’s body colliding so hard with his that it knocked his breath away, her hold on him desperate and fierce. Even when they pulled apart, her hands lingered tightly on his shoulders, and she looked at him so intently and for so long, like she needed to confirm that he wasn’t going to disappear.
When he’s lying awake at night, tossing and turning, overheated and then shivering, this is the reason he hates himself. Wanting to live, when death loomed over others. Wanting to feel his heart pounding in his chest and feel Nancy’s too, beating out an equally frantic tattoo, her body pressing into his, her arms wrapped tightly enough around him that it nearly hurt. Wanting this life, his life, and wanting her in it.
He’s not quite sure how long they hold each other, but eventually there’s a quiet crash somewhere on the next street, and they pull apart, the moment interrupted. Nancy sniffles, and swipes at her eyes, but she doesn’t turn her face away, and Ace finds himself holding his breath, captivated by her continued closeness.
She meets his gaze with her own. The walls have come down, at least a little, and she’s not reaching for bricks to rebuild it. He watches her tongue run across her top lip, and hears her say, “We should go back inside.”
Nancy is looking at his mouth, and Ace’s lungs feel like they’re a heartbeat away from bursting.
“Yeah,” he agrees, but neither of them move.