“How did you deal with it?”
Ned closes his eyes for a moment, wishing that when he opens them reality will be different.
It’s not. He’s still sitting in a hospital cafeteria across from a man who looks like he’s been up for days
That, and like his heart’s been ripped out.
Ned knows that look. Intimately.
“Not very well, apparently,” he responds, and the bitterness that’s still there doesn’t surprise him, though he hadn’t meant to put it in his voice. He doesn’t know that it will ever go away, and as much as he’s trying to move on and in many ways has—
He can marry someone else and say all the vows and have it be true, and he knows it. Knows he someday probably will.
But he also knows that if he ever had the chance to say them to Nancy he’d trade anything else in a heartbeat. And until that knowledge isn’t true he’s not going to be saying anything to anyone else. Someday? Sure.
But not yet. Time has made things worse rather than better, made him realize how much he doesn’t want to just have a girlfriend at Emerson who’ll be there how the time, how wrong Denise or Bess or anyone else feels to him. Has made him rarely date, though it’s not because he expects her to come back to him. Whatever he might dream.
He’d just rather have closure before he tries to find someone else just to fill the hole that still aches.
“I don’t know what you think I’m going to tell you,” he says resignedly, letting a breath out and slumping back in his chair. “She left me, remember? And even before that—“
He stops, because he’s still angry, a little, and he’s still hurt, a lot, and he still misses her, always, but he’s not an utter asshole. And now isn’t the time.
So instead he’s silent for a moment before saying, softly, “I worried. All the time. I know you all thought I was suffocating her or being overprotective sometimes, but I didn’t—the first few times were horrible, but I thought they were the exception. Turned out they were the rule. And every time after I realized that was even worse. And I couldn’t stand the thought of her being hurt. She never wanted protection, and I know it, and I knew it then. But I—“
His eyes close.
“I thought I’d rather have her with me and mad at me then dead.”
He doesn’t see that Frank has buried his face in his hands until Ned looks up again, moments later.
“I couldn’t stop her. I never could. I think she thought that the fact that I was trying meant that I didn’t understand her. The problem,” and his smile is painful to see, “was that I always knew her much better than anyone thought. I may not be a detective, but I knew her. And I knew I didn’t want to see her put in the ground.
“So I tried to stop her, and I was fucking thrilled when she decided to be a journalist instead of a detective. Even going to Wilder, I thought that would be better.” His smile is cold. “Didn’t really change anything, though. She’s like a damned magnet for trouble. But then, so are you. I guess that’s one reason you always ‘just happened’ to meet up.”
Frank chokes on a laugh when Ned calls her a magnet, catches his breath in pain and annoyance as Ned finishes, and Ned manages to soften his tone a little more.
“Yeah. I wanted her with me. And I wanted to feel that I was important, I wanted her to want me as badly as I wanted her, and I—I didn’t realize. Realize that she did. I know now that she did,” and he doesn’t care, a little, if this hurts the other man to hear.
He’s been hurt enough himself, and he’s doing his best to do something that’s killing him inside.
“But I didn’t then. Or I didn’t remember. She just—so much was going on then, and everything was changing, and I pushed the wrong ways at the wrong time. And I know it. Maybe I knew it even then. But I didn’t—I couldn’t not.”
Silence. And, Ned realizes, resignedly, that he’s been answering the wrong question.
“I dealt with it by loving her,” he says finally, hoarsely, “and so do you. And you’re going to want to protect her and try to keep an eye on her and stop her from taking risks that you suddenly realize were always absolutely insane for her to take. That you were insane to let her take, even though you know no one lets her do anything.
“And you won’t. Because I’ll hunt you down if you do. And then, come hell or high water, I’ll be there for her in any way she’ll take me and do my best to make her happier with me than she’s ever been with you.”
Frank’s head jerks up, eyes startled and angry, and Ned looks at him steadily.
“You fell in love with Nancy Drew. You deal with it by remembering that. And if you try to change it, then you’re trying to make her someone else. Even if you don’t mean to do it at the time. Even if it’s to keep her safe. And even if you succeed at it, you’ll still lose her.”
“We’ve been trying for a baby,” is what he hears whispered, brokenly, and Ned thinks his heart will shatter, and it isn’t fair, they’re not married, he didn’t think to brace himself for that. “What if she loses a baby? What if—“
Ned’s tired. So tired, and he still rather wants to hit the man in front of him, and it’s for the woman unconscious in the ICU that he keeps trying.
His head aches almost as much as his heart. And this isn’t fair. It isn’t. He wants to be the one who convinced Nancy to try for a baby, he wants her to want his baby. This should be Joe, or Nancy’s father, or Frank’s, or Bess or George or anyone else but him.
Except George had called him, to let him know, and he had ran to the hospital as fast as he could anyway.
Except he does actually understand.
Except Joe’s clinging on right now himself, on his cell with his girlfriend Vanessa, even if the car was run off the road into a tree instead of exploding.
Except Nancy would want him to. And that alone is enough to get him to do most things. Not as many as it once did, but more than he’d like. This is just the one needed right now.
“Then you’ll be there to help her when she starts to blame herself for that. Be there to tell her she’s wrong, and it’s not her fault, because it won’t be. Because she’s smart, and for some reason she’s head over heels for you. And because she loves so fiercely that if she does anything that risks a baby it’s only because there was no other choice.
“And you’ll know it and tell her that until she starts to at least believe that you believe it. And then you’ll tell her it until she realizes it’s true.” He glances up and continues when he sees Frank’s mouth opening again. “And if she leaves you someday with a baby, you’ll tell your child what she was like and how she laughed and how she still gnaws the ends of her hair when she’s half-awake in bed before coffee. How she was brave and beautiful and more than you or I have ever deserved. And you’ll have your father-in-law to help you, because he knows better than anyone what to tell a child about a missing mother. You’ll be a perfect father, because it’s Nancy’s child, and that means the baby deserves everything there is. And you’ll hurt like hell.”
But so will I, he thinks and doesn’t say, and he supposes it doesn’t need saying, anyway. He’s describing the life he almost had, or he thinks he did. He’s describing what he wanted. What he still wants.
It’s just not going to be his.
Silence stretches between them for several moments; Frank stares at the cigarette he stubbed out a few minutes ago, hands wrapped around an empty coffee mug, and Ned sits with his eyes closed and wishes things were different.
“I know,” Frank starts, and stops, and Ned opens his eyes and waits.
“I know,” Frank tries again, “that you hate me. I hate you too.”
Ned can’t keep in a short laugh. “No kidding.”
“Shut up. I know you hate me. But I wanted you to know—God, I can’t think.” He rubs a hand over his face, and Ned feels a twinge of concern despite himself. Frank’s hand—both of his hands, Ned realizes, when he glances to check—are shaking badly, and Ned suddenly realizes that he’s too pale even for grief and worry.
“When did you last eat?”
“What?” Frank looks at him, blinking. “I don’t…I had something from the snack machine around eleven…”
“…This morning or last night?”
“You fucking moron. She’ll kill us both if you pass out before she wakes up,” Ned says with exasperation and rises to get—something. Something edible. Even if it’s a hospital cafeteria sort of edible.
He comes back with a tray, dropping it on the table and setting a bottle of juice and a burger in front of Frank. “Eat.”
Frank’s silent for a minute before nodding. “Thanks,” he says quietly, poking at the bun, and Ned grunts something back and works on his own food.
When Frank’s finished Ned firmly hands him a fruit salad and a bag of pretzels.
“Ned, I don’t need—“
“Look, you may be okay with Nancy being furious at you, but I’d prefer not to piss her off until she’s—“
She’s something. Waking up. Walking. Smiling. Dancing. Kissing—
No. Ned won’t let his mind go there. Any of the theres.
From the look on Frank’s face, as he silently makes his way through slices of cantaloupe and banana, the other man isn’t letting his mind go there either.
It’s not until they’re sipping coffee again and Frank’s smoking and Ned’s stubbing out his own cigarette that Frank speaks again.
“She loved you. Still does, really.” At the sharp look Ned gives him, Frank shrugs tiredly, resignation spreading across his face as he watches smoke rise from the end of his cigarette. “I’m not a moron, Ned. I knew from the first time we ki—the first time,” and Ned’s eyes narrow, as Frank changes directions, “that we thought we might start dating that there was a damned good chance she’d end up going back to you. I know now that she’s mine and I’m hers. I trust her. And I know she won’t leave me. But I spent the first six months we were together terrified of it. Waiting for her to tell me that you were coming to pick up her things and take her home.” There’s a pause. “She hit me when I told her that. Hard.”
Ned knows what Frank almost said, what word ki started, and that’s a topic he just can’t deal with even thinking on right now. Because he is sure that if Nancy would be angry to find Frank having fainted from hunger that she’ll be furious to find him with a black eye. And he’s also sure that Frank’s slipping up enough to say even part of that is just another sign of what a wreck he is.
And that he can absolutely see Nancy frustrated and hitting Frank at hearing that. Even knowing the cause, the image brings about some small, petty sort of pleasure as he thinks on it.
Frank’s speaking again. “But I also—“ His eyes close, and Ned watches, emotions firmly held back as much as he can.
He and Frank talked once before about this. Once. After Mexico, after he and Nancy had one of the biggest fights they ever had and then made love for the first time, after he’d accused her of cheating on him and had to accept that, to some extent, she had, Ned had gone to Bayport.
Ned wonders, as calmly as possible, what Frank will say this time.
“—We hated ourselves, you know,” Frank finally says, looking at his coffee cup as if it’s the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. “Every time we kissed or—or wanted to, or it—or when we both knew what we were thinking was—“
Ned has to cover his eyes for a moment, afraid he’ll cry, and Frank pauses at the gesture before continuing in something just barely more than a whisper.
“I never—I never wanted to be that guy. The one who cheats on his girlfriend and pretends everything’s okay because it’s just a kiss. And then because it’s just two or just three—“
He stops, and Ned thinks he’s glad, because there’s only so much control he can have right now. Only so much empathy he can give Frank Hardy, so much he can stand to hear. And he doesn’t want to know how many times it was that Frank had something Ned had thought at the time was only his.
“I didn’t,” Frank says, finally, with hands at his temples, “want to do that to Callie. I hated that I kept doing it. But I also—I didn’t,” and it’s hard, Ned realizes, for Frank to say this, as hard as the rest of what they’ve discussed this night, “want to be the guy who kisses another guy’s girlfriend. And—“
And again he stops and the silence is loud.
“I knew,” Frank manages, hoarsely, “that I’d be furious if Callie had been doing the same thing. At least after the first time. And I didn’t—“ He has his head in his hands again.
“I hated myself,” he says finally, head still in hands and eyes closed. “I’m not Joe. I’m Frank. I’m responsible and thoughtful and in control. I don’t—that wasn’t supposed to be me. It wasn’t me. Except it was, whenever I saw her. When I didn’t pay attention.” His fiddles with the red plastic stirrer he’d used with his coffee, twists it and bends it, and his hands, Ned notices, are still shaking a little.
The food couldn’t fix anything other than hunger, though, so he’s not surprised.
“It wasn’t that much,” Frank says finally, without looking at him. “Not that many times. Too many, and I—we both knew it, all right? I knew it. Know it. It shouldn’t have been any. But it wasn’t…much. We never let it be. Not in kissing or—or even touching at all.” It’s at least a slight lie, and Ned knows it, though he doesn’t point it out; Frank and Nancy have always been inclined to hold hands, and right now he’s feel too worn through to point it out.
And if there was more, if it’s more than a slight lie—well. He’s too tired to be angry any more than he already is.
“A lot of it,” Frank finishes, whispers, “was just…wanting. But she didn’t—we tried not to give in to the wanting. And yeah, we did too much, but—we tried. Maybe we shouldn’t have and should have just gotten together then. It might have been kinder all around. Because it didn’t—it was the start, I guess. Of chipping away at things. But we were trying. And she never forgot you. Kissing me never drove you from her mind. And it never meant she loved you any less. I knew it then.” There’s a pause. “I hated it, but I hated a lot about the situation. That it was happening. That it also didn’t make me love Callie any less. Just…realize that I didn’t love her enough, so I tried to love her more. And I hated that too. Hating knowing she loved you then was just one more thing.”
Silence stretches for minutes before Ned swallows, mouth and throat suddenly too dry. “Why are you telling me this, Frank? Because if you’re expecting me to—“
“I’m not expecting anything, Nickerson. I don’t want anything from you. But I wanted you to know that—we fucked up. All of us did, somehow. Callie might be the only one who didn’t, and I know what I did to her is even less fair with that. But she did love you. And she does, even if I hate it. And,” and it’s choked, as Frank’s eyes clench shut, “I’m sorry.”
“I hate you a lot, you know,” Ned says finally, almost politely.
“Yeah, and I think you’re just swell.” The sarcasm is thick, and Ned feels somewhat better about Frank’s state, at least, as he notes it.
“Good to know.”
Frank looks up as he reaches for another cigarette and his lighter. It’s not until he’s smoked half of it away that he says, evenly and quietly, “I’m going to do everything I can to not lose her.”
“I know.” He wants to wish that Frank would fuck up, and he can’t, really, because this is the guy Nancy’s chosen. And he may want to add “for now,” but she’s the only one who can add those two words to the end. Not him.
And Ned knows it. Has known it for a long time.
But Nancy Drew is in the ICU right now, machines keeping her body working as it starts to slowly heal after surgery and bones being set, her beautiful hair shaved in spots for stitches to be put in, and it’s only the grace of God that there’s no brain damage.
And that means he can’t be anywhere else in the world right now.
Frank stubs out his cigarette and sits back in the chair, eyes closing as he slumps. “What time is it?”
Ned glances at the clock on the wall. “Around three.”
“I’m going to go check on her again.” He stands, shakily, and Ned says nothing as he rises and follows Frank out to the hospital corridors.
It’s when they near the ICU and Ned has to stay out with the other people waiting for Nancy while Frank goes to sit by her that Frank speaks.
“It’s not for you. “
“I know.” A pause. “Thank you.”