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to sail you home

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Ned comes back when the leads have gone cold, once he has no money left and Andy needs him home.

He wants to stay, but with every day that passes he’s more and more afraid that what he finds won’t be his wife but her remains. He needs to believe she’s alive and safe but if she were alive, she'd come back to them, he knows that. If she were able.

Andy is ten years old, and when Ned walks, weary and heartbroken, to the baggage return, his parents and Carson and Andy are waiting for him, and Andy runs toward him. She’s getting so big, their daughter, their only child; she has Ned’s dark wavy hair, reddish where the light catches it, and Nancy’s inquisitive blue eyes, and she’s all long gangly limbs and curiosity and innocence. Ned holds her tight and kisses the crown of her head as she cries, in relief on seeing him again, in despair because her mother isn’t with him. He promised he would do all he could, and he did, and it wasn’t enough.

That night he and Andy return to their house, the air stale from their absence, the mailbox choked with junk mail. It’s been years since nightmares or fright have driven her to their bed, but that night Andy sleeps with her arms around her father and Ned wraps his arm around her and strokes her back, and he doesn’t sleep.

Nancy. Baby, come home, please come home.

Carson calls all the people he can, pulling all the strings at his disposal, as Ned tries to figure out what to do. He can’t leave his life behind, because Andy’s a part of it; she needs her father, needs someone to provide for her and keep her safe, and Ned spent so much on tickets and hotel rooms that he’s broke. It all would have been worth it, if she had been at the end of it; he would have given everything to send Nancy home to their daughter.

Ned even does the unthinkable, as much as it hurts. He turns all the leads he found over to Frank and Joe Hardy, and begs them to do whatever they can to find her, to find out what happened to her, to find the group or person responsible for her disappearance.

But all the clues they find lead nowhere, and Ned feels awful the morning of Andy’s eleventh birthday, knowing that she won’t have the present she wants most.

He can’t give up, though. Maybe the search is on hold for a little while, but he still clings to that last seed of faith. He will find her, or she will come home; Andy won’t grow up without a mother, the way Nancy herself did.

He’s almost saved enough money to go back and make a second attempt when Andy comes into the kitchen on the first day of her summer break. Instead of her usual baggy t-shirt and cotton shorts, though, she’s wearing jeans and sneakers and a fitted shirt with a hoodie over it, her long dark hair plaited and falling over one shoulder. Her blue eyes are determined, and she looks so like her mother that Ned feels it stab through his heart.

“Dad?”

“Hmm? Scrambled eggs?”

Andy nods, brushing a few tendrils of loose hair from her brow. She’s thirteen, entering high school in a few months; she’s studious and dedicated, and Ned couldn’t be more proud of her. His mother and Hannah have stepped in to help where they can, but when she had her first period one Saturday, Ned was the one who went to the store to buy her pads and told her she wasn’t going to die. Ned listened when she talked about her crushes, when she swore she would never be a spy like her mother, when she admitted that she was thinking about changing her mind.

“Dad? Can I talk to you for a sec?”

Ned puts the plate of eggs in front of her, pours a glass of orange juice before he takes a seat at their small kitchen table. “What’s up, honey?”

“I know you’re going back. And I want to go with you this time.”

For a moment Ned’s heart is in his throat. “Andrea…”

“I talked to Grandpa. He says he’ll buy the ticket for me. Kind of like a graduation present.” She hasn’t even touched her fork; her blue eyes are steady and determined. “And I know if I ask him he’ll give me some extra money to cover meals and things. I’ll help you. I won’t keep you back. Please, Dad.”

“It’s too dangerous, baby. It is. The people I might have to talk to, the places…”

She keeps her gaze locked to his face, and her jaw tightens. She’s always had her mother’s stubborn streak. “Then I’ll go without you,” she says, her voice quieter but still firm. “You know I will.”

Ned’s hand tightens into a fist, and a flush rises in his cheeks. “I can’t lose you,” he tells her. “Not both of you. You’re all I have left of her…”

“And we’ll find her. Together.” The expression on her face is nakedly eager and pleading. “Because when you were gone before, every night when I went to sleep I was so afraid I would never see you again…”

He comes around the table then and wraps her in a hard hug, and she returns it, her face pressed against his chest. “It won’t be easy,” he finally says as he strokes her hair, and he knows she isn’t bluffing, that if he leaves without her she’ll find a way to follow. “It’ll be one of the hardest things you ever do, Andy.”

She tips her head back and her eyes are shining when she looks at him again. “But it’ll be worth it,” she murmurs. “When we bring her home.”