For once, Nancy was one of the last to know.
She comes around to the front yard, slipping off her gardening gloves, yard brush in hand, to the sound of quiet mutterings from the stoop.
“...to see you because it was very… felt things…”
There’s a young woman on her doorstep. Her shoulders are tense, her hands wringing and fluttering in equal measure. She seems nervous, preparatory. She doesn’t know if she’s knocked on the door yet, but judging from the torrent of low words still coming out of her mouth, she’d guess not.
Rebecca hasn’t seen her many times before, but she recognises her instantly by her thick, copper hair.
She had heard that name more often than she’d said it. Always in response to the question, where are you off to, or, who are you going with. Ace would say, Nancy needs my help with something, or, just Nancy and the guys from work. She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t pointed it out. Just nodded and smiled at her son as he headed out the door. Would allow herself a few moments of wondering before letting it go.
She’d met Nancy when Ace brought her to the library. They were talking intently, heads bent low and tilted towards one another. There was a way about them; the way they walked, in step and close together, piqued Rebecca’s interest quickly.
“Ace,” she’d called out—or called out as loudly as a librarian could.
Ace lifted his head and turned to her in surprise, as if he’d forgotten she would be there. He smiled in that reserved way of his and led Nancy over with a small tip of his head.
“Hey, Mom. Is Dominique here?”
Rebecca gestured vaguely behind her. “She’ll be over in the IT corner, as usual.”
She kept looking at him, expectantly, shifting her eyes between the two with diminishing subtlety.
Ace exhaled heavily. “Mom, this is my friend Nancy. We work together. Nancy, this is my mom. I’m helping Nancy with a… project on local town history.”
“Hi,” Nancy said, reaching out to shake her hand. “Mrs…?”
“Rebecca, please.” She shook her hand. Nancy’s answering smile was polite and sweet, and stayed fixed on her face when she turned back to Ace. “Are you writing some kind of article, Nancy? Our town records are immaculately kept, from even before the founding of Horseshoe Bay.”
“I, err, freelance for the Historical Society from time to time. Ace is always kind enough to offer his technological expertise when I’m in need of them.” Nancy looked up at him. The high noon sun was slanting through the blinds, casting a soft, glowing light over the library and its occupants.
Ace returned her look, glanced away, and back, another time. “Well, I am invaluable. And when Nancy Drew asks,” he trailed off, shrug implied.
A trick of the light, or a dusting of pink across both their cheeks.
“Sounds like you make a good team, then,” Rebecca said, interrupting. She relaxed the narrowing of her eyes just in time for her son to shift his attention back to her.
“We do okay,” Ace confirmed. He tapped two fingers lightly on the desktop. “We should find Dominique. Thanks, Mom. I’ll see you at home.”
“It was great to meet you, Rebecca,” Nancy said as they turned to go, keeping close to Ace’s retreating side.
“And you, Nancy. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of each other soon.”
They hadn’t, not really. Fleeting glances at best. A quick hello if they stopped in for lunch at The Claw . But nothing up close until now.
“I thought that was you. Well, if you’re looking for Ace you just missed him. He and Amanda are off on this romantic road trip.”
Nancy’s face drops. She tries to course correct, school her features back into neutrality, but Rebecca has already seen.
Ah , she thinks. So, she was right .
She had begun to think she’d lost her touch.
“You look disappointed.” A little brash, maybe, but not untruthful. “Come on. Take some cookies home. You can freeze them, they keep forever.”
She leads Nancy inside, leaving her to her own devices while she stows her gloves and washes her hands. Inside the house and out of the daylight, Nancy looks just as pale. Rebecca lets her wander silently while she busies herself with packing up a container to go.
“Did Ace say how long he and Amanda would be gone?” Nancy finally asks. Her breath keeps catching at the base of her throat. It makes her frame look awkward and small.
“I’m afraid not, honey. I think they’ve planned several weeks to really make a trip of it, though.” She hands Nancy the container but doesn’t let go of the other side. “Was it important? What you needed to tell him.”
Nancy hesitates. Her focus drifts, a memory playing behind her eyes. Then she seems to come back to herself just as easily. She pulls in a deep breath and says, “No. Not important. It can wait.”
“Are you sure?” Rebecca finds herself saying. There’s just something she can’t put her finger on hiding at the peripheries, threatening to slip and engulf this girl whole. The instinct to help, to nurture, rises. “I know he’d answer his phone if you called. You came all the way over here—”
“No, really,” Nancy hastens to reply, finally taking hold of the container completely. “I wouldn’t want to interrupt his vacation. With Amanda. It’s nothing. Thank you. For the cookies, that is,” she says, lifting the box. “Ace says you make the best.”
Rebecca gives a gentle smile, tells herself it’s not pitying. “If you have the time over the summer maybe you can come over and I’ll teach you how to make them.”
Nancy looks surprised when she answers, “I’d like that. Thank you,” she says again, and then she’s gone.
Rebecca stands for a few minutes before sighing, retrieving her gloves, and heading back outside to fix the begonias. They haven’t bloomed well this year. Maybe next season’s will be better.
The first picture comes through as she’s closing up The Claw for the night, because someone had to stay behind to do it and she had nowhere else to be, as usual.
The time alone has been welcome, Bess tells herself as she stacks chairs on the tabletops. She needs this. Facing herself as a singular, single person before trying to change that (especially after the whole mess with Odette) could only be a good thing. It was time to kick her habits of dependence over the summer. Come back fresh and ready to begin again with something, or someone, better.
It’s a snap of the gas station on the edge of town that Ace has sent—the one just before the sign that tells you you are now leaving Horseshoe Bay. We hope you enjoyed your stay. It comes with the message, wouldn’t want you to miss anything .
I want it to be as if I’d been there with you, she’d said as she’d bullied Ace into promising her a digital photo album of his roadtrip with Amanda. A chance to see somewhere outside of this town she’s beginning to think of as home without having to leave. Clearly, he’d taken the opportunity to be as literal as possible.
Smart arse , she replies, smiling to herself as she slips her phone back into her apron and continues with clean up. Don’t miss me too much.
The bell over the door jingles while her back is turned, reminding her she forgot to lock it first again. “Oh, sorry we’re… Nancy. What are you doing here? You should be at home resting,” Bess chastises upon seeing her friend’s wan face in the low light. She hurries over to her side, checking for new damages.
“I’m fine, Bess, seriously,” Nancy says, rolling her eyes but looking touched all the same. She still sounds tired. But Bess supposes that’s to be expected when you’ve been playing host to a parasitic wraith for months on end. “I was passing by and just came to pick up my paycheck on the way home. That is if George hasn’t finally snapped and just written my name on a blank envelope for all the shifts I’ve blown off lately.”
Now it’s Bess’s turn to roll her eyes. “You’ve had an excuse, Nancy. We’ve all got your back, supernatural disaster or not. You know that, right?” Bess ducks her head to make sure Nancy holds her gaze, willing her to understand how unalone she truly is.
Nancy takes a second to compose herself but she’s nodding the whole time. “Yeah,” she whispers, voice thick. A watery smile tries valiantly to surface. “I do.”
Bess walks her out to her car, hovering. A full paycheck sits tucked neatly inside Nancy’s back pocket. She rests her forearms on the rolled down window of the Sunbeam, looking down onto the passenger seat.
“Hey, those are Ace’s mum’s cookies!” she says in surprise. “Rebecca makes the best cookies, I swear. If I could bake I would still be trying to steal the secret family recipe from her. Is that where you just were? I have to send back a picture of these to Ace. We’re doing this thing where he sends me pictures of the places him and Amanda stop on their—”
“Could you,” Nancy starts hastily, raising a halting hand. “Maybe not. Send one. I don’t want Ace to know I went over there.”
Bess stops short, her mouth clicking shut. She studies Nancy with a furrowed brow, really looking at her where she sits behind the wheel.
Beyond the vaguely ill pallor still clinging to her skin, the hollow shadows under her eyes, rosiness barely returned to her lips, is something else altogether. Nancy keeps shifting in her seat. Avoiding Bess’s eye as she looks between the dashboard and the offending box of cookies resting on the seat. It’s a resignation, a discomfort… an embarrassment.
“Oh. Oh. Nancy…”
Bess hadn’t realised she’d figure it out this soon.
It’s not like they were taking bets or anything, but she and George had an unspoken agreement that there was something between the pair of them that they had to be resolutely ignoring—that they couldn’t possibly be the only two people left in Horseshoe Bay that didn’t see it.
Only, as time went on, Bess was astounded to find that had been exactly the case.
Every lingering look or comforting touch, all the passive aggressive comments that could have tipped them over the precipice into that space labelled more just… fizzled to nothing. It was getting kind of excruciating to watch, if Bess was being totally honest.
“What?” Nancy turns to her, vulnerability like an outstretched hand.
I know , Bess wants to yell, it’s so obvious that you and Ace have a thing for each other!
But she’s been on the other side of that look more times than she cares to count. Knows how wounding a case of right person wrong time can feel. Hated having it explained away by someone well meaning and utterly clueless about just how much she already knew that her feelings were wrong. The burning shame that attached itself to the knowledge that you’re coveting beyond your means.
She swallows down the big speech writing itself in her head and exhales swiftly, plastering a bright smile on her face. “No worries. Hey, I was thinking. I know you must be tired but I always feel like I can’t sleep after we’ve been on one of our evil hunt thingies anyway. Maybe we could hang out later? Watch a movie and see how many of these we can put away while we’re at it,” she says, pressing a fingertip to the box of cookies.
Relief sweeps across Nancy’s face. “Honestly, that sounds really good. I’ll text you?”
“Yeah,” Bess says quietly, drawing away to let Nancy reverse out of the parking space.
Bess watches her go, hands on her hips, considering.
If anything, she supposes, this will be enough to keep her out of her own trouble for the next few weeks. Until Ace gets home, at least.
Ryan and Carson
It’s an unorthodox conversation happening in the Drew living room.
“I got a sweet new spot on your couch in exchange,” Ryan gestures widely, leaning back into the well worn cushions.
Nancy looks between them in obvious bewilderment.
Carson looks her in the eye, asking as much as he’s telling when he explains, “I told Ryan he could stay here with us while he figures things out.”
He thinks this will be good for Nancy. He hopes it will. He’d imagined a hundred times, as a younger man, the ways in which Nancy would discover her birthright. The possibility only became more and more plausible the older she got, and the better at uncovering mysteries she became. Time, like many things in life, though, had gotten away with him on that one until one day it was no longer a little girl with scraped knees and a pocket book of secret cyphers sitting before him, calling him dad.
The road to this moment had been messy, and heartbreaking, and wound a route Carson could never have considered in those hundreds of imaginings he used to do.
So far gone that he couldn’t see a path back, Carson had kept Nancy in the dark about her origins on the frightened last words of a teenage girl. His own biases hadn’t helped the cause, either. Watching her now, the weight not completely off her shoulders, but better redistributed, he couldn’t have foreseen just how much those decisions would shape her, help or hinder her. You’re never prepared for that as a parent.
She trades glances between them. It doesn’t surprise him that she must be carefully considering like she always does. It’s always a calculation with Nancy. An exchange of emotions that returns to her more than she gives. Carson clears his throat and braces for her volley.
And then— Nineteen of the best years of his life and she’s still surprising him.
Her eyes crease at the corners. Her cheeks lift, the apples rounding. Her lips turn up into a drawn yet contented smile. She holds up a finger and moves to pick up a container of cookies, handing them to Ryan as she settles in between them, right at home.
She curls into his side like she hasn’t done in a long time. Carson tries to pretend his exhale isn’t shaky as he meets Ryan’s happy eye, tucking closer into Nancy's childlike embrace.
The tv plays some other show before them, flashing muted tones of blue light and white noise that settle over the room in a quiet, contented hush.
“No plans with any of your friends tonight?” Carson asks lightly when another commercial plays. “I’d think you’d want to do something more fun with your freedom than hanging out with your dads.”
Nancy hums a sleepy laugh. “Nick and George are out on a date, l think. Bess might be coming over later to watch a movie.” She hesitates, barely. “Ace is out of town on a road trip. With Amanda.”
Ryan pauses his chewing and gives Carson a pointed look over the top of Nancy’s head. Carson shakes his own head subtly, a small twitch from side to side.
“I like that kid,” Ryan says anyway, casually enough. Carson shifts in warning. Nancy settles deeper into his side.
“Me too,” she mumbles into the fabric of Carson’s sleeve.
The look comes again, pleading. Come on, dude!
Carson widens his eyes, no .
“Always handy with a solution, that guy. Very polite. Funny, too,” Ryan continues.
What are you, his wingman? Carson’s incredulous expression says. Ryan shrugs sheepishly and takes a defiant bite of his next cookie.
“No Gil?” Carson asks, his nonchalance painfully transparent. It’s only luck that she’s on the cusp of sleep and doesn’t have the energy to stop his prying in its tracks.
“We aren’t together anymore. The wraith was really clouding my judgement on that one.” Her speech is sleep-slurred but her tone still manages to be dry. “I think… I think I need to go and talk to him again. Now that the situation isn’t so dire. But— But we weren’t good for each other. At least, not in the way we were trying to be.
Carson can see Ryan hiding his mouth behind his hand. “Oh, well,” he says, keeping as still as possible, like her candidness is a small animal and he’s trying not to spook it. “His loss.”
Ryan voices his agreement. “And someone else’s lucky gain. Y’know, eventually. When you’re ready. If you ever are.”
Carson raises his eyes skyward. So, it might take some time to get Ryan caught up on the intricacies of navigating having a young adult daughter. But it’s okay—they’ve got time.
George checks the rota and sees Nancy’s name in blue pen, scribbled over and over and over again. She sighs, pushing back from her desk and stalking out of the office.
She smiles at the regulars sitting at table two, nearly trips over the chair of the kid sitting at table seven, and steadies the tray of drinks Bess almost takes her out with on her way across the diner floor.
The season is beginning to pick up as tourists flock to the bay to enjoy the turning of the weather for the first time this year. It’s satisfying to see The Claw full and thriving, the way it was intended to be—a little hub of life on the edge of the water.
For all she spent her time bemoaning face to face interaction with customers, George knows she’d disappear entirely without them. She needs this. She needs them. Not just their custom, but their conversation, their enjoyment of her food and her home that she’s created within these four walls. Her soul is woven into the grain of the wood and the scuffs on the floor. Seeing people feed off that effort satisfies a yearning in George she didn’t always know she had.
A flash of blue catches her eye over by the door and she follows it outside, into the early afternoon sun.
The crowds continue to spill out here onto the benches that line the sun-baked decking of the shack. The buzz of voices mixes harmoniously with the bubbles of laughter and joyous shrieks of those already out on the water. George makes a note to take some time later this week to bring her sisters for a day out on the shores.
Nancy glances over from the table she’s serving, setting down their plates with practiced swiftness. “Enjoy your meal.” She picks her way back through the benches, the smell of sunblock and fry grease following in her wake. “What’s up?”
“I was checking the schedule and you’ve picked up like five extra shifts in the next week. You know you don’t have anything to make up for, right? That you don’t have to work yourself to the bone because of everything that was going on before?”
Nancy folds her arms across her chest. George is intimately familiar with that stance, with the protectiveness of that stance.
Nancy rolls her neck in a small, dismissive gesture. “No, I know. It’s fine. It’s not about that.”
George narrows her eyes. “So it is about… something?”
“No. Yes. It’s nothing.”
“It’s something and it’s nothing. Right, well, glad we cleared that up.”
“I just,” Nancy pauses, exhaling heavily through her nose. She turns her head to look out over the water. “A lot did happen, and some of it is guilt but mostly… Mostly it’s just nice to have somewhere to be. A place I’m needed, with something to do that doesn’t put everyone in danger.” She finally looks back at George. “It’s nice to not have to think about everything for a few hours while I’m working.”
George considers her.
When she was younger, angrier, spending all her non-schooling hours avoiding her homelife and rushing about inside The Claw doing everything she could to make sure Dawn didn’t regret her decision to hire her, she didn’t call it a coping mechanism. It was simply a necessity.
Now, hiding from rejection, ignoring an end date that’s seared into her bones—coping by doing the only thing she knows she’s good at is exactly what George calls her long hours at the diner.
There’s a hint of that old self in Nancy’s demeanour—her own self as well as George’s. When Nancy first came to work at the diner it was on the back of a life unravelling, of losing someone important, and losing a version of yourself you’d never get to become. George gave her a hard time then because they’d come from opposite ends of the high school spectrum and it was the only script she knew. But the longer they were forced together in close quarters and death defying stunts, George recognised so much of her own fears in Nancy that she thought maybe, possibly, the timelines had merged and whatever was running parallel had been knocked off course; in its place remained one line, the line in which Nancy Drew and George Fan cared for each other.
“Alright,” George says. She lays a brief hand on Nancy’s elbow. “Just don’t overdo it with the shifts, okay? We’re all here for you, don’t forget that. You can talk to me, or Bess, or Nick—hell, call up Ace if you need to. He’d understand.”
“I’m not sure Ace would appreciate that.”
It’s said far too casually for George to leave it alone. She narrows her eyes, but Nancy doesn’t see, already weaving her way back inside. “Nancy—”
She doesn’t stop walking away as she says, “It’s not like he’s my boyfriend or anything, he shouldn’t have to deal with my issues while on vacation.” She finally pauses by the kitchen doors. “But, thanks, George. I’m grateful you’re looking out for me. Always are.”
Several things make sense all at once.
The biggest thing that comes to mind is the secretive way Bess keeps showing her Ace’s pictures from his road trip, hiding her phone like it’s porn whenever Nancy walks in the room.
“Crap, talk about timing,” George mutters under her breath, the pieces slotting messily into place. She needs to talk to Bess. And maybe consider implementing policies on workplace romance.
Normally George is in for closing. It’s a habit for her, cathartic almost, like her day isn’t complete without going through the motions of locking up and closing out for the night.
But tonight Ted had called and said Jesse wasn’t feeling well, and George had hurriedly asked Nick if he was okay to deal with it himself. She kissed him without looking him in the eye (an increasingly frequent occurrence) and fled to fix it for her family.
So, here he sits, checking tallies and trying not to feel like he’s messed everything up beyond his ability to fix it.
A movement past the door startles Nick out of his worries. He follows it out and finds Nancy standing at the counter, marrying the ketchups.
“Hey,” his voice makes her jump and he chuckles, holding his palms up to her. “Sorry—thought I was the only one here still.”
Nancy shakes her head. “Yeah, getting a start on prep for tomorrow I guess.”
“Need a hand with that?” he asks, but he’s already halfway across the room, picking up the container of salt from the back and moving to the first table.
“I got it,” Nancy says. Even though he can’t see her, Nick can hear the roll of her eyes. “I'm sure you've got other things to do and I’m perfectly capable.”
“Never said you weren’t. Just want to help,” Nick defends lightly, continuing to unscrew the next cap.
There’s a few seconds of silence before, “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Nick says, trying to keep the smile out of his voice.
The quiet comradery of completing undemanding tasks lingers on. It starts to take on a heaviness after several minutes of silence. Nick can feel the weight of Nancy’s eyes on the side of his face as he works his way around the room. He lets her take her time, knowing from experience you can’t force anything out of Nancy she doesn’t willingly give.
She moves onto the chairs, upending them onto the tables so she can sweep the floor. A quarter of the way through she stops, striding over to the jukebox in the corner and clicking until the soothing symphony of some seventies relic fills the air. Once the broom is in her hand again, she takes a breath.
“Can I talk to you… about something?”
Nick's hand hovers over the next shaker. His surprise tries to show itself in the set of his shoulders but he keeps them down. “Of course.”
“George reminded me the other day that I didn’t have to work through all these thoughts I’m having on my own and I didn’t realise until she said it how much I wasn’t utilising that.”
An uncomfortable squeeze flutters around Nick’s chest. “George is very considerate like that.”
Nancy laughs. “Yeah. Yeah, she is. Anyway,” she breathes again, deep and even. “I wanted to talk to you about the dreamscape. About what I saw when I was trying to find the wraith. About you.”
That gets Nick to turn. He sets down the salt and leans back against the table, crossing his legs at the ankle. “You saw me in there?”
Nancy nods, passing the broom handle between her hands. “I saw all of you, in some form. You’re surprised? You… mean a lot to me.”
From this distance, her hot cheeks are still visible.
Nick has first hand knowledge in the study of Nancy Drew. She shows you that you matter to her. She demonstrates her loyalty through actions—even foolish ones. But talking? This is new territory.
“We know, Nancy,” he assures her. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say we’re grateful you came into our lives. Brought us together into something meaningful. I…” He hesitates.
Nancy starts up again before he can finish. “I wouldn’t want to lose any of you, for any reason. And I think I forgot how to be your friend after we… Well. We didn’t really start the traditional way. And I’m happy you and George found each other,” she hurries to add. “I am, you guys are great together. But you helped me heal when I wasn’t sure I was ever going to. And you’ll always hold a place in my heart because of that. I want… I need you to know that having you as a friend is something that matters to me.”
She stops, waits, shrugs.
Nick blinks. “Wow. Um. Thank you, Nancy. For telling me. You have given me more than I was expecting to find when I stopped in Horseshoe Bay. My life is on the course it is because of you. And recently, I might have caused some bumps in that road,” he scoffs. Nancy furrows her brow at him but he just shakes his head. “But that road? It’s everything to me. And I’ll always want the person who helped me get it in my life. As much as she’ll allow.” He smiles at her.
If he was closer, Nick might be able to say he saw Nancy blinking away her tears with certainty. As it is, he drops his head to let her collect herself without an audience, smiling at his shoes.
Nancy lets out a watery laugh, blowing out a breath. “Telling people how you feel is hard,” and they both laugh. “But if one good thing came out of the whole wraith situation it’s that I remembered you’ll regret not saying those things when it’s too late. Just because it’s hard, and you might not feel ready, doesn’t mean they’re not true. Why risk losing something later for the sake of comfort now?”
For a moment he thinks George has told her.
He hadn’t refused her proposal, not outright. He’d been shocked—they had never even spoken about marriage before, didn’t know it was on the cards. It wasn’t that he couldn’t see himself with George forever. That kind of commitment didn’t scare him.
He just didn’t want it to be because George was giving up on stopping the sands from running out.
He wanted her to know they’d find a way to beat this ghost curse.
They’d have those days.
But what if… Would it be worth it? Making her unhappy now for the sake of his own stubbornness?
He’s so wrapped up in his own turmoil that he almost missed the wistful tone in which Nancy had spoken.
Too late, she’d said. Not speaking until it’s too late.
She’s moved on to the mop, last step before they lock up for the night. He watches her from the corner of his eye. There has been a way about her these past weeks, ever since…
Nick sees the whole picture come into startling focus. About time , he thinks sadly, a twist to his lips. Too late .
Worth the risk?
The lunchtime rush has died down by the time Tamura settles into a seat in the far corner of the coffee shop, running his hands down the fabric of his pant legs to give them something to do.
It’s not a date. He doesn’t think it’s a date. He’d be really damn surprised if it was a date.
He tries not to watch the door while he waits. He pulls out his phone, puts it away again, wishes he’d picked up a paper from the tray by the door before he chose a place to sit. It’s not busy, no one would take the table if he got up to get one, he’s pretty sure—
The bell over the door rings and then Nancy’s there, a pink paisley neckerchief matching the colour of her sundress.
She scans the cafe. A shadow of uncertainty crosses her face, but he blinks and it’s gone. Might not have been there at all. Nancy spots him and waves.
Tamura stumbles out of his seat, not really sure how to greet her. There’s an awkward shuffling that ends in a one-armed hug and a mental curse before he speaks. “Hey. How are you?”
“Well, no one has tried to kill me or my friends for over a week now. So, better,” she smiles. He finds himself smiling with her, the tension that the unknown brings leaking from his frame. “And you?”
“Things are just as quiet down at the station. Not much going on beyond a few teenagers getting into trouble out of sheer summertime boredom.” He lifts a brow at her which she dismisses with a single look. “So I can’t really complain.”
Nancy’s eyes narrow and a calculating look pins him, fast. “If I didn't know better, Detective Tamura, I’d say you sounded almost disappointed by that fact. Small town police work not enough for you these days?”
His neck warms. “I’ve gotten used to a certain level of excitement, I will admit.”
The awkward tension breaks easily after that.
“I have to say, I was surprised when you called to— to hang out,” Tamura says some time later, when they’re both halfway down their coffees and the late afternoon slump crowd is beginning to trickle in.
Hang out , could he have phrased it worse?
Comprehension dawns on Nancy’s face and she shakes her head. “Oh, I broke up with Gil a while back.”
A chorus of date date date date threatens to overshadow the rest of his thoughts.
“Err, that’s not—” Not what he meant, or not who . No, who he meant was the other one, the guy with the hair and the soulful eyes. The one who's always running a couple of steps behind her, waiting to catch her the moment she falls.
The look of blank confusion on Nancy’s face makes him change tack. “That’s not what I meant. Just that, I didn’t think that you were interested in… in being friendly. Friends. In getting to know each other after all that’s happened.”
His tied tongue doesn’t seem to put her off. “I had some… experiences lately,” she starts, cryptically, “that made me realise some things. One of which was how quickly things can pass you by if you don’t take the time to notice them. So,” she says, lacing her fingers together under her chin. “This is me. Noticing.”
Tamura can’t be sure, but he thinks he sees a fragility hiding beneath the flirty bravado he’s so used to getting from his interactions with Nancy. Whatever is it he thinks might be waiting, buried and dormant, she doesn’t want to share just yet.
He forces himself to sit still under her steady eye. “In that case, no complaints from me.”
Florence’s headlights are steady on the highway. A lot of people fear it, but Ace has always preferred night driving. He finds it soothing, and quiet. Used to the quick, bustling nature of a diner kitchen, the road in the dead of night reminds him of afternoons spent sequestered in a corner of the library when his mom was on shift. A pocket outside of time in which he feels alone, but not lonely.
He glances over to the passenger seat. Amanda is sleeping soundly, her face tucked against the window, her mouth falling open and emitting adorable snores every few breaths. Ace sneaks glances at her every few seconds, tracking everything about her he can, and then all over again when he looks back at the road and forgets.
She’d told him to wake her up in a few hours so they could trade off, but he likes long, dark drives, rarely gets to do them. It’s only by chance that he’s had two in such close proximity.
The drive to Westchester wasn’t nearly as relaxing as this one.
Ace remembers the frenzied search for a solution, pouring potion after poultice down Nancy’s throat and praying for something to stick. No matter how many miles he put between himself and Horseshoe Bay on this trip, he can’t escape the image burnt behind his eyelids—the sunken hollows of her cheeks, the dark tears in her skin, mottled and bruised and dying.
He looks—a lock of hair has drifted over Amanda’s forehead and into her eyes. She scrunches her nose against the tickling sensation. Ace reaches a hand over to pull it back as lightly as he can, tucking it behind her ear. She hums in her sleep and settles deeper into the seat.
Nancy had been very still on their drive.
At first he’d tried to keep her talking. He wanted to hear her voice in the moments he couldn’t look at her and know she was hanging in there. Almost subconsciously, his hand had sought hers across the seat, and Nancy had taken it without question.
“You ever been to Westchester before?” he’d asked, squeezing her fingers.
There was a longer pause than the last time she’d spoken, then a tired hum. “No. You?”
“Nah. Hear there’s nothing to do anyway. What’s it got? Rich people and their farmers’ markets? Probably better off.”
“State park, nice trails,” Nancy mumbled, lips barely moving. He was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see the worrying ring of blue colouring their edges.
“Lived in the library, remember? You can’t sell me a place based on its outdoor activities.”
“Thought…” A difficult sigh. “Thought the woods spoke to you. Archery camp.”
It made him wonder just how much she stored in that brilliant head of hers about them all. Where she kept all the details they let slip about themselves, not knowing that Nancy would keep them, hold onto them, bring them out when they needed to know someone was listening the most.
“Such is the duality of man,” Ace tutted, squeezing her hand again.
She laughed, quietly. “You contain multitudes.”
“As do you.”
“A hundred mini Ace’s all running around in there. Standing on top of each other. Wearing a trench coat.”
Ace’s grin was lost to the darkness, flickering only under passing streetlights. “It’s like you know me.”
He let the conversation die for a while, allowing her to rest.
He regretted not waiting for anyone else to get in the car before pulling out of the lot, but his focus was on getting them going as soon as possible. Now he’d wished for another person, another voice, to help keep her tethered here.
He jumped, not expecting her to still be awake. “Yeah?”
He swallowed thickly. “None of this is your fault, Nancy.”
“Not for this.” She didn’t speak and for a moment he thought she’d dozed off for real this time. And then, “For before. The list. The Road Back. Don’t think I said sorry. For putting those lives on you. I don’t regret it. I’d do it again. But I hate that you felt cornered.”
Ace breathed as evenly as he could. The truth was, the more time passed, the more Ace realised he wasn’t angry with Nancy. Forcing himself to see the situation reversed, he couldn’t honestly say he would have behaved any differently—the only difference was that he didn’t have Celia Hudson on call in his back pocket.
The terror that he’d felt, knowing what Nancy was willing to sacrifice, to trade, in exchange for his life, was overwhelming. He’d never experienced a feeling like it. He didn’t know what to do with it.
It was a delicate thing, paper-thin glass placed in his palms and told to take care of. Ace knew how to worry in secret about those you were closest to. In his experience, if you drove them to frustration on the surface, kept them away from your problems, before they realised how much they were willing to risk for you, the bet never felt too high in your favour.
He didn’t want high stakes with Nancy and the crew. He’d had enough for a lifetime with his dad, and then Laura, and then Grant. He wanted one thing that stuck. One thing without jeopardy.
Nancy’s head had tipped back against the seat after that, before he could formulate a response that explained it all in the right way. There’d be time, he’d make sure. They all would. From that angle, at least, the rise and fall of her chest was more obvious.
The sky turns blue and then grey and then orange, the sunrise following their path back towards the bay. Amanda turns her face towards him, her hand falling closer to him on the bench. He tightens both hands on the wheel and heads for home.
Bess had said it so casually. And Ace is home tomorrow . Just like that. Ace is home tomorrow.
It’s not like Nancy wasn’t aware how much time was passing. The days were a sluggish drag of double shifts as much as they sped past in a flurry of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Rinse and repeat, every day. The only thing changing was the speed with which the early fog burned off the sea each morning as they crept further into summer.
She knew her grace period had to be nearing its end. That didn’t mean she was ready for it.
Part of her had hoped that absence would do what it oh so rarely accomplished and remove any notions of fondness from her heart. A feat that would have been substantially easier if her dreams weren’t filled with visions of the bluff and a baby nestled in her arms and—
Will you hold me?
I thought you’d never ask.
—they showed no signs of stopping. She could never ask, would never get the chance to ask. Her moment had passed her by. And that was no one's fault but her own.
And yet. The question repeated itself steadily with the ticking of the clock, counting down the minutes until Ace’s return. What if she asked? What if she told him? What if he held her?
Her mind had shown her the rewards for wearing her heart as close to her sleeve as she could get and now it wouldn’t stop reminding her. But even in that dreamland she wouldn’t let herself lean that final inch. Have that moment she so obviously craved.
Obvious, only now, after waking the sleeping giant, opening Pandora’s box, kicking the hornets’ nest, and every other metaphor that meant she was utterly screwed.
There weren’t many instances where Nancy would say ignorance is bliss, but this qualified.
Her only reprieve was that nobody but her knew of this secret turmoil. If she had reached Ace that day before he left, and spilled her guts at his feet only to have them swept aside with his mom’s yard brush—what if Ace had told Nick, who had told George, who had told Bess?
No. She’d take missing her shot and the pain of not knowing over that humiliation any day.
“Have you guys felt anything strange lately?” she asks, leaning her elbows on the edge of counter where she can see all Nick, Bess, and George together.
Nick says, “Strange how?” at the same time Bess groans and George says, “No, I’m having the summer off from strange.”
Eyes on Nick, Nancy ignores the others. “Ever since I got that letter from Temperance I’ve felt a weird disturbance in the air. That night there was a pounding on my front door but when I got up to look there was no one—or nothing—there. Remember in those accounts from the Women in White, there was something about a dark force living under the town that Temperance was trying to set free. You don’t think she’s already found a way to finish what she started, do you?”
“No one, not even a Hudson, works that fast on freeing a deadly dormant spirit,” George reassures her, wiping down the counter. “Look, Temperance is definitely a problem but until she makes a clear move we can’t do anything about it. Why don’t we wait until we’re all together, probably with some pizza, and look into it then.”
“We won’t have to wait long then,” Nick pipes up, nodding over to the door.”
“Ace!” Bess yells, jumping up without pause to run over to the door and throw herself into Ace’s waiting arms. He catches her, smiling into her hair and holding on tight.
“Hey, I missed you guys,” Ace says, coming over to sit on the stool next to Nancy’s. “I think we might be unhealthily dependent on each other.”
Nancy doesn’t realise she’s grinning until her cheeks start to ache. “Is that so?” she asks. “Glad to see we’ve made some impact.”
Her plans to stay distant and aloof have flown out with the rest of the smoke, sucked up the extractor fan and out across the bay.
“More than some,” Ace replies. He looks at Nancy and she looks back. She never had this trouble before; looking away from Ace’s eyes is like disrupting an orbit and she’s nowhere near strong enough to try. But Ace isn’t looking away either.
Nancy feels like all eyes are on them. Nick, Bess, and George are quiet. It feels like they’re all staring at her and Ace, breaths caught, anticipating.
But that’s all in her head because they can’t know.
She clears her throat, forcing herself to look away. “Glad to hear it,” she murmurs.
Thankfully, Bess comes to her rescue after that. “Tell me everything! Where did you go, what did you see, did you have fun? Did Amanda enjoy it? What was your favourite part?”
“Which would you like answering first?” Ace asks.
“All, all,” Bess replies, grabbing his arm easily and taking him over to a booth. “Taking my break! Ace and I are talking about every last detail,” she calls behind them.
Nancy watches them go with a feeling like jealousy squirming in her stomach. If only it were that easy.