"So, Nancy Drew." Claire looked over at her with a wrinkled nose and frosty smile. "Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew."
"Did you want to talk to me?" Nancy asked levelly. "Is my work unsatisfactory somehow?"
Claire threw her head back and laughed. "You've never done anything unsatisfactory in your life. But still, that's always what you wanted to know. Always trying to please everyone else."
Nancy maintained a mildly inquisitive stare.
"That's what we always have to do," Claire continued, still laughing. "Otherwise they pay no attention to us women. Or they say we're stupid. We always have to be agreeable. Positive. Demure." She looked up at Nancy with a lingering grin. "Maybe I quit being an archaeology student. Maybe I quit college completely after a few years at good old Illinois State University. Maybe you came away with the artifact last time. But look at you. You're still digging and I'm on top. I've seen and will see more artifacts than you'll come across and I get to decide what to do with them. And in a few years, you'll still be digging away, moving from site to site because you could never make it at a college so you just have to take what you've got. And eventually you'll be just as unhappy as the rest of us."
Nancy tried to ignore that jab about college, pushed aside how surprisingly accurate it was amidst the baselessness of the rest of it. Stay cool, Nancy. Stay cool.
"And now you're looking at me. You're jealous of me. You're finally jealous of me. You finally have to do what I say, which means you have to listen to me. They all do. And maybe you wish you had what I do now, but it's too late. I got to it first."
Anger thawed through Nancy's distant sympathy. But Claire was just so trapped in her own head she couldn't see any motives that weren't hers. She'd been right about Nancy and college, though, she thought bitterly. That always was the one thing she regretted, the thing she couldn't do. Nancy wanted to tell her off right then and there on account of the sore point, but she knew she'd misspoken to suspects before, revealing too much, more of what she knew than she intended, blowing her cover. So Nancy held back. She held the hands of her parents like she had so many years before. She knew herself to be independent, but she'd fallen back on their teachings more times than she could count. Trust yourself, her mother's words echoed in her mind in that still-familiar deep voice. And she missed her. So, so much still.
"Why did you call me here?" Nancy asked.
"They never listened to me. They told me I was wrong. I see it in your face now; you're thinking I'm wrong," Claire said, shearing through another layer of disgust and her face distorted, looking almost inhuman. "But those in power are never wrong. Read any history book. The victors always wrote the history books. And I'm successful. I'm writing my own history now. And then I get to do with the history what I please. That is complete control, Nancy. These pieces don't have to go to museums. They don't go to museums. They only leave my hand when they're going where I want them to go."
Again Nancy waited.
"By all means say something," said Claire. "You were always so quiet back then. 'I won't stay if I'm a trouble,' you said. You were a trouble. I said so. And no one listened. And you didn't speak up, either."
"But you have more to say. I could always tell you always have more to say. You were always so quiet, so hypocritically quiet when your opinions were loud. You know what I'm talking about. The conscientiousness. The fact that you thought you knew what was acceptable and unacceptable when you haven't lived."
"What am I supposed to take away from this?" Nancy asked.
Claire's scowl deepened even further, adding thirty years and another species to her appearance. She was not getting the reaction she'd wanted apparently. That was transparent enough to Nancy. "I know your types. You have loud opinions and then don't speak up on them or don't act on them. The minute someone wants you to act based on the good person you think you are, you don't." Her eyes held scalding malice. "Or do you?"
Nancy fought the inclination to be alarmed. It sounded like suspicion. Still, it might not have been. And everything in Claire's behavior up to this point indicated that she was going for a reaction more than anything else.
"You aren't as stupid and ignorant as you pretend you are. You know what we're doing here. You're here to stop it."
Nancy's eyes hardened. She did not lower them.
Neither spoke for several minutes. Claire's face paled and the lines in it sharpened so she eventually looked positively skullish.
"Or," Claire stretched the skin of her lips all back to show her teeth and gums, "you're here because you've finally given up. Does Nancy Drew give up? She didn't when I knew her." She drew the words out so much they almost became unintelligible.
Nancy thought she'd faced the worst of it. She thought she knew why Claire called her here. Now she felt herself spinning into uncertainty, the only knowledge holding her back from panic being that that was where Claire wanted her to be. Panicking.
"Has Nancy Drew changed? Is the Nancy Drew I know dead?"
Even though Nancy knew her face gave nothing away—she'd practiced enough in front of the mirror for years—she felt a hairline crack in her resolve.
Claire lapped up the discomfort, sensing it, leering. In the expression her face took on, Nancy knew she could tell, that finally in this conversation she thought herself successful to a degree. "You think I'm crazy. I'm telling you I'm not. I just hated you that much, for that many years. See what it does to you. Either way, whichever it is, you'll have to deal with me in one capacity or another."
Nancy fought to keep her expression neutral.
"Just know," said Claire, "that if you're here because you've given up on living fair and you want in, I'm not going to help you. You're broke. You're stuck. And if you're here because you plan on exposing us, I will know, and I will make sure your family, your precious friends never find you."
Nancy dug her fingernails into the back of her thigh where Claire couldn't see them.
Claire looked down, eyes stopping on Nancy's knee. "That's your only warning. That's your chance to turn it around." Her eyes snapped back up. "The men here don't scare you. We women, we have something else. We fight hard to match them, then we exceed. I am one of you, so you know that I won't stop before finding some horrible fate for you. There's no line I'll draw. There's no unfamiliarity. I know your shoes, I've been in them, and so anything and everything is justified in my hands."
"I won't give you any reason to take such action," Nancy replied.
Seeming grudgingly impressed with this, Claire pursed her lips and stared at her again for a long, long time. "It's true you aren't stupid. Get out of my sight."
Making sure to take her time, Nancy walked back to the dig site. She would not allow Claire to think she was in any hurry to leave or she was intimidated by her threats. She shouldn't have been intimidated by her threats in the first place.
Beltrán and José had disappeared by the time she returned. Such behavior indicated carelessness. They probably didn't believe they'd find anything else of much importance at the site.
Maybe it was about to close up.
Nancy frowned when she realized another person's absence: Sonny's. While she didn't suppose he'd managed to get himself in some trouble, there had been a lot of strange things happening at the site just today. She continued past the set of pits. Now she had to find him.
As she walked by her usual working space, Lou tossed her a reproachful glance. At that point Nancy realized that he had probably been placed in the unfortunate position of covering for her the several times she'd been gone today. She returned his look with an unspoken apology and continued walking.
First she tried behind the hill that housed the vehicles, ignoring the scared and suspicious looks of the diggers. No, she didn't plan on stealing a car, but Sonny had been hanging around there just a few minutes ago.
The area was deserted when she reached it.
Frowning, Nancy thought about where to search next and tried to determine a methodology for looking for him. Much of this place looked the same; she could so easily get lost.
She decided on starting from the nearest hills surrounding site then continuing in an outward spiral until she found him. Sometimes Sonny didn't think before he did things, but he wasn't stupid. He wouldn't have gone far.
After fifteen minutes of this she didn't get a result. Just as she started to worry, though, she saw a slender figure plastered against the green ground backdrop. His slouch was more defined than it was normally, indicating exhaustion or stress instead of a relaxed state.
Concerned, she approached.
Nancy had been right. Even with his back turned, she could see he was distraught. Where his hair wasn't oddly flat it lay in horizontal strips like he had run his hands through it several times. His head was slightly turned, and she saw that two distinct tufts protruded from either side of his head and one leaned forward and sideways from the front of his head, giving him the appearance of horns. His left hand fingers were flat and jammed together, tapping against the side of his leg in quick, short, stiff jerks that varied in duration. His other arm folded in front of him against his torso, parallel to the ground, and his right hand gripped the elbow of his left.
Nancy leaned slightly to the side inquisitively. "Sonny?" she tried, unsurely, as quietly as she could while he'd still be able to hear her. So much had happened between them just in the last few minutes. Maybe he needed time to process alone. She knew she did. Maybe he wanted to be alone right now. The talk with Claire still hung crisply over her. The shakiness of her voice from that ordeal wasn't something she was sure she could control.
He still jumped when she spoke, and spun around. She saw it was even worse than she'd thought; his lips quivered and the corners gravitated down as if he hadn't smiled for some time. "Nancy," he choked out. "What are you doing here?"
"I could ask you the same question," she replied, stepping tentatively closer. "It's pretty far out here. You weren't lost, were you?"
"Nope," he said, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "Needed a breather."
"I just talked to Claire," she said.
"I know where you were."
Nancy wouldn't have liked his tone even in normal circumstances, but with frayed nerves she was in even less of a mood for this. "What?" she asked.
"Everything's falling apart."
Then she snapped. That was the last thing she needed to hear right now. The damage control for that would take Herculean effort. "No, it's not," she snarled. "Pull yourself the hell together."
Hurt dug into his eyes. It quickly changed to fury. "Don't tell me to pull myself together." His voice rose. "Don't tell me to calm down. What are you doing, anyway? You haven't been here for the past few minutes. You haven't been working on clues. You've been chatting. You haven't been thinking, you've been chatting. You've just been sociable with that weird lady for way too long, like, oh, la di da, I don't have a fucking other thing to do here."
"Don't you dare take that tone with me." Nancy stomped up to him. "Don't you dare. That 'friendly chat' was mainly me trying to keep us here without any trouble."
"Well, just don't bother," he said, firmly and relatively quietly. "I don't want to be kept here. So don't even try because it honestly isn't worth your time."
Nancy looked at him incredulously. No words came to her.
"And as for the rest of it, try to get a move on it, will you? Hurry up. Because I'm sick of being here."
"You can't expect…!" she turned away, head unable to stop going from side to side in disbelief, "out of nowhere. This is out of nowhere. And now you just want to drop everything without any notice."
"I don't want to drop everything. I want you to figure it out, because it's taking way too long."
"And you're blaming me for that? You always have me do all the work while you sit around and watch the sky and wait for something that's never going to come. No, you couldn't put together the compass yourself in New Zealand, you had me do it. You couldn't even bother to raft. You made me do that. And now that I actually need you for all of this stupid alien theory backstory, instead of helping me, you're cutting me out?" She crossed her arms so tightly they started to go numb right away. "You know I have no idea what to look for. I've been saying that since the beginning. And now you're blaming me when I'm not finding anything? That isn't fair."
"I'm not focusing on fair. I'm focusing on getting out of here. And about ideas. You have no idea? Then get an idea. Look at the clues and get an idea. That's what I wanted you for, and I've been telling you that since the very beginning, like you told me to. All I've ever done is keep you completely in the loop."
"You aren't making any sense!" Nancy wanted to scream. "To get an idea, I have to talk to you. I don't know any of this alien stuff. I need your help."
"You can't talk to me." Sonny's eyes went vacant. "I'll be leaving."
She double took. "What?" She looked around, making sure they weren't overheard. "You're the one who wanted me to come here in the first place!"
"No. Jin wanted me to come here," he said tersely. "And now he's dying."
Nancy's eyes widened.
"I mean, I wanted to go too," he added pensively. "I was the one that brought this to him. And he said, 'Go.' And now all I want to do is leave."
She still couldn't speak.
"And we can't. We have to finish this. Jamila's right. That's what he'd want."
"I'm… sorry," Nancy said finally.
He sighed. His eyes glittered with unshed tears. "I'm sorry I went off like that. None of this is your fault."
"Maybe telling you to pull yourself together wasn't really helpful, either," Nancy offered. "I'm sorry. Next time you say that, I promise I'll listen."
"And I promise I won't blame you for stupid shit." Sonny replied, looking miserable.
Nancy placed a hand on his shoulder. "We can finish this up," Nancy nodded as she spoke. "I can talk to Dylan, tell him we're almost done… and I think he knows that anyway. He's scared. He's making copies of sales records, receipts as we speak. He's even putting together and copying a rough provenance document for the first sale. That's all we need I think."
"What about Lou?"
"Lou never wanted to be here in the first place. He's always talking about dinosaur bones. You've heard him."
Sonny's brow folded from the pressure of discussing the investigation. "Can we talk? Can we just… talk?"
For a few seconds he just stood there, biting his lip.
"We've got to stick together now." Nancy offered a shaky grin. "I know it's hard, and this is new…"
"For what," he began at the same time, then realizing he'd interrupted, grimaced. "Sorry."
"Go on," Nancy prompted quietly.
"For what it's worth," he scratched his head, eyes darting up to her, "is there an us? Do you want there to be an us?"
"Yes," she replied immediately. After a brief pause, she spoke again. "Is that what you want?" she asked. "Because I know I sort of took you by surprise back there."
"Not that much by surprise." His shoulders, still tense, relaxed a bit. "I guess I should have expected you to make the first move."
"I didn't," admitted Nancy. Then she figured she'd go for honesty. All good relationships started and continued with it. "I've just been through a breakup," she further explained. "It hasn't exactly been great."
Sonny's head jerked up. "Really?" he asked. "I, uh, I didn't know that."
"Yeah. Turns out, he's gay."
His eyebrows rose. It looked so out of place next to the redness of his eyes and nose that Nancy would have laughed had it not been so tragic.
As for Ned... Nancy prepared to bite back a wince when her mind went to that again, but the temptation never came.
She hadn't even seen it coming at all. How running from Minkie McNab and Deirdre Shannon didn't just simply make him a nice boy. Loyal. How their innocent interactions, short kisses, long cuddles, weren't just respect. How his anger behind missing the romantic getaway was a different long-stifled frustration than she'd thought, comprised instead of secrets and long traces of relief that had prompted an overreaction. That innocuous storybook romances like theirs, which neither of them really outgrew, hardly ever existed in real life. How her being away all the time, his gushing over how amazing she was from thousands of miles away, was perfect for him.
Ned said love should be better for her, which made her angry. Yet finally, feeling the thought of Sonny glow somewhere behind her eyes, she understood what he meant. For all those months she had been annoyed, even a little angry, that he had held something so big from her for so many years. Now she felt the last trace of that lingering emotion slip away and die under her shoes.
And even when the infatuation with Sonny started to simmer away, like it had after that most recent kiss and even more now, she felt just as happy not working clues with him, just lying in the grass with him while they either talked, sometimes joking and sometimes dissecting the world, or said nothing. It was like the company of good friends: she didn't need to be around him all of the time, didn't want to be around him all of the time, she admitted with a smile, and the minute she saw him again, it was like no time had passed.
Whatever... this was, it was more than that now. More than infatuation. It was...
The sun passed behind a set of clouds, drawing Nancy's attention to the sky. She noticed the bronze light had turned rusty. "It's getting late," she noted.
"I don't want to go back just yet."
"Yeah, I don't either," Nancy admitted. She sat. "They'll probably be done working by the time we get back anyway."
Sonny sank down onto his knees where he'd stood and looked at her. "Do you think José and the rest will be back?"
"They've got to be, unless they're farther out than this," Nancy said, drawing her legs out forward and leaning onto the knuckles of her balled hands. "I didn't have to hide to avoid running into them when I was looking for you."
"Well, I'm not worried. They haven't been around. It's like they've stopped caring."
"That's exactly what's happening. At least, I think it is."
"And if you think it is, it probably is," he said as if stating a fact, not a compliment.
"Well, I hope so. It's better if they don't care. Easier to get away with investigating. And easier to take breaks like this." Nancy allowed her head to sink into his shoulder.
They lay off speaking for a while, on Nancy's part due to exhaustion, on Sonny's due to rumination. The day had been so trying that Nancy had almost fallen asleep the next time Sonny spoke.
"Grandpa Jin went to a lot of places, but he never really saw the stuff around him," Sonny said softly. "He was always very 'space.' I had a lot of great conversations with him. Thorough conversations." His voice caught almost imperceptibly. He swallowed. "And now I've got only one left."
Nancy knew firsthand that nothing she said could make him feel better at that point. After her mother died, she'd confided in people, sometimes strangers, and been disappointed when they felt a need to respond. It was mostly out of obligation, anyway, so it always sounded stilted and uncomfortable. Sometimes her father even did it.
Maybe someday she'd know what to say, what he needed to hear. But for the moment she ran her hand up and down his arm and curled into his side.
He didn't continue. She didn't sense any more grief from him right now and suspected that he didn't say more because he didn't need to.
A few more minutes passed as the beginning of the end of the day snuck up on them. Somehow she knew this was the extent to which she'd be able to get out and enjoy Mexico, just like it had been with all of her past cases. This was all of the little time she'd always managed to scrape for herself. So she enjoyed it as intently as she could.
"We'll make our own stories, won't we?" she murmured.
"Mmmm-hmmmm," Sonny replied. He turned his head to the side and kissed her hair, his lips lingering for a few seconds above her ear. "Without a doubt."
They stayed there, all words drowned and colored in by the sunset. Objectively Nancy knew this was the least original pastime for romantic partners. But with Sonny, it all felt original.
"Pinch me," he said sleepily, out of nowhere.
"Not sure it'll help. I'm dreaming, too." There was a richness to this that couldn't be paralleled by experiencing it alone. "Sunsets," Nancy sighed, ducking her head as she felt a blush creep up her cheeks. "You're kind of the perfect person for this."
Sonny didn't respond. She imagined he was pleased.
A wash of fuchsia and scarlet splattered across the sky, making a sunset more vibrant than any of the sunsets they'd seen so far. Nancy had seen them every night. It would ultimately prove subjective for sure; part of it was in the eye of the beholder. For the past few nights she'd been used to the beauty, taking it for granted. This one seared more brightly in her memory. And then more than ever she got the sense, felt intuitively the fact that time didn't ever retreat. Sometimes it retraced its steps.
This wasn't one of those times.
This built up to something unprecedented.
Something that couldn't be reversed.
Something that never turned back.
They stood and made their way back to the site, where tents were already set up. Since all the others had become so apathetic, they'd managed to just slip in without anyone noticing their absence. Things were just as bad as they'd left them, Nancy noticed. Claire threw Nancy a poisonous glance. Yet amidst all the strife, amidst the trouble, Nancy sank onto her cot and fell into the most peaceful sleep she'd had in months.