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the longest kiss goodnight

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Nancy opened her eyes and felt a momentary burst of panic. She had no idea where she was. She was in a tall unfamiliar bed, and when she moved the counterpane slid down; she hadn't been tucked in under the covers. The sky was gunmetal grey through the sheer drapes, and the soft hush of rain reached her.

And then the pain rose from a dull throb to a hot, angry ache, and she released a very quiet groan, reaching down to comfort her leg.

Ned. They had arrived and he had offered to help her inside, and she had insisted on doing it herself, but at about the third step he had just swept her up into his arms and carried her up the stairs. Before they had even crossed the threshold, she had passed out again.

And she so would have loved to tease him about carrying her into a bedroom like this.

The pain didn't abate. She struggled to focus. Pills. She needed her pills.

With a slightly louder groan, she managed to put one foot, then the other, on the hardwood floor. She shifted her weight and the floor creaked a little, and she moved to the edge of the mattress. Her head was pounding and her mouth was painfully dry.

She hung her head, taking deep breaths, her eyes closed, and when she opened them, Ned was walking through the doorway, a small smile on his lips.

"Hey, babe."

"Hey," she said, her voice coming out as a croak. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Hey."

"Thought I heard you." He moved to a bag on the dresser and located the orange prescription bottle. "Let me go get you something to drink. Water? Soda?"

"Water," she said gratefully, taking the bottle from him. When he returned with a glass she tossed the pills into her mouth, then swallowed them quickly. She knew the relief wasn't immediate, but she felt better just knowing she'd taken them.

"Did you talk to my dad?" she murmured, fighting to keep her eyes open.

"Yeah," Ned replied, taking the glass from her. "I told him where we are and he said for you to rest up and get home when you can."

Nancy managed a small smile. "How's he doing?"

"He sounded—" Ned paused only slightly before the last. "Okay."

The low hum of voices downstairs rose to a burst of prolonged laughter. Ned glanced back, then walked over to the bed and touched Nancy's cheek.

"What's going on downstairs?"

"Just meeting the other guests," he said easily. Her eyes closed as he caressed her. "How are you feeling?"

"Like shit," she admitted, unconsciously comforting her leg again. "Maybe if I wake up a little."

Ned smiled. "Well, I can bring you a coke. And... there's good news and bad news."

"Oh?" Another burst of laughter reached them, and Nancy glanced that way, then back at Ned.

"The bad news is that this was the last room they had available."

"Not really bad news," she pointed out. "They must be doing pretty well."

"It's break time at the college." He shrugged. "The good news... is that this was the last room they had available."

She fluttered her lashes at him. "Just don't tell my dad."

"Absolutely no intention of that," he told her, and sat down beside her. "I'm just so glad you're safe, Nan. Another inch..."

Nancy placed her fingers over his mouth, then leaned forward and gave him a soft kiss. "Shh," she told him. "It wasn't another inch."

Nancy's last case had been tracking down a man who was brutally beating a string of men and women. He had turned out to be the enforcer for a bookie and loan shark. While Nancy had been working with the police, a snitch in the department who owed the bookie a favor had given him a tip. Ned had finally tracked Nancy down in one of the clubs the bookie owned, after a vicious fight. While Nancy was more than proficient at several hand-to-hand combat techniques, the enforcer had eighty pounds and six inches on her, and she was still nursing several bruises. The deep leg wound he had inflicted late in the fight had made Ned almost blind with rage, and if he hadn't had several policemen at his back, Nancy wasn't sure the enforcer would have left the club alive.

Her time in the emergency room had been pretty horrific, and even now, she just ached, all the time. The doctor had recited a laundry list of wounds and injuries, but they were (practically) all ones she'd had before.

She hadn't wanted to remain in Louisiana any longer than she'd had to. She had wanted to get home, to see her father. But the thought of the long flight made her miserable with anxiety, and a few days at a charming little bed and breakfast wouldn't hurt. Not too much, anyway.

"Feel like heading downstairs? Or, we could stay up here..." Ned's hand stole to her knee, and the contact warmed her all the way up her spine.

Nancy closed her eyes, then smiled. "I guess we should go. Don't want to seem ungracious or anything."

Ned scoffed. "Nan, no one in the world would blame you for staying up here all week."

The living room, small but cozy, held a group of laughing men and women. Nancy was introduced to Joe and Savanna, both tanned and bright-eyed, her husband's dark hair contrasting with Savanna's long blonde mane, and he was thin where she was round with obvious pregnancy. Haylie and Ronni were fresh-scrubbed sorority girls on break from college, dressed in pre-distressed denim and rhinestone-studded sunglasses. Arthur and Diane were an older couple with greying hair, looking for sites for their youngest daughter's wedding. Stephen, who kept brushing his fine brown hair out of his face, spent most of his time gazing intently at his laptop screen, and said he was taking a writing vacation; he had the upper bedroom, rumored to be haunted.

Ned leaned over and murmured to Nancy, "Apparently it's obligatory that every B-and-B in New Orleans has to have a haunted bedroom," and she shivered at the feel of his warm breath against her ear.

A tall, sandy haired young man came in through the kitchen with a wave and a smile. "Hey. Nancy! Glad to see you're up."

"Hey Eric," Nancy said with a smile.

Eric Foster was one of Ned's fraternity brothers, whose parents had moved down to New Orleans a few years before. The Fosters had taken over the Sparrow Inn, and Ned had remembered them when Nancy had been released from the hospital.

"That reminds me." Eric reached into his back pocket and pulled out a newspaper, slightly damp from a few raindrops, and handed it to Nancy. "Found this in town today. If you want more copies you'll have to hurry."

The story about her case was below the fold, Nancy was happy to see, and the only photo was a mugshot of the enforcer who had stabbed her. Ned wrapped his arm around her shoulder and read along with her. In the meantime, Eric's mother, Lisa, came in with a hot pot of water and tea bags. Ronni and Haylie giggled over the selection, while Stephen lifted an insulated mug, his gaze still locked to his screen.

"Nancy! Ned! So glad you two could join us," Lisa said, and Nancy glanced up, flipping the newspaper back over.

"Looking at the movie listings, dear?" Diane asked, as Ned told Lisa, "We were just so glad you had a room available."

"Movie listings?" Stephen said, saving Nancy from replying. "I'm picking up wi-fi if you need them. Where's the closest theater?" He shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose and began tapping at the keyboard.

Nancy breathed a sigh of relief as Ned walked into the kitchen with Lisa, glancing back at Nancy as he went. Nancy mouthed "coke" and he nodded a little in acknowledgement.

Her gaze fell on the lead story. "New hospital wing's grand opening," the headline declared, complete with a slightly blurry photo of men and women in suits cutting a grandiose ribbon. Haylie, Ronni and Savanna started talking about dinner, and Nancy rubbed her belly ruefully as it grumbled in answer. Ned returned with her coke and Nancy accepted it gratefully, closing her eyes at the rush of the first sip.

Arthur was glancing at her newspaper, and she angled it in his direction. He read through the lead story as Stephen and Diane started talking about local ghost walk opportunities, since it was already so close to Halloween. Arthur shook his head and moved the newspaper back to her. "Such a shame," he said.

"Oh?"

He tapped on the final paragraph. "The old hospital was damaged after the hurricane," he said. "It's amazing, how much they've managed to rebuild..."

Lisa nodded, as she handed around a plate of cookies. "A neighborhood just a few miles from here was totally gutted," she said. "We were really lucky here."

Savanna glanced over at Nancy and Ned, grasping at Joe's hand. "We should so hit the tex-mex place in town," she said, her eyes bright. "I am jonesing for that."

Joe chuckled. "You know this place is famous for, oh, jumbalaya, beignets, hurricanes, and here you are wanting the kind of stuff we can get back home."

"It's not me," Savanna said, pointing at her belly. "This is at least partially your fault."

The girls went back up to their rooms to get ready, while Arthur and Diane went out to the porch, Stephen lapsed back into quiet contemplation, and Joe flipped on the television set.  Nancy had finished her coke, so she walked into the kitchen with Ned, Eric and Lisa.

"Thanks so much for letting us stay here," Nancy echoed Ned, tossing her empty can into the recycling bin.

"Oh, it's no trouble. A lot of people are still afraid to visit, and we can use all the tourists we can get. Maybe you could write a testimonial for our blog?" Lisa said hopefully.

Nancy chuckled. "You might want to get Ned for that; I'm afraid I won't be much help. Or maybe Stephen," she said, shrugging in the man's direction.

Lisa and Eric exchanged a glance. "Yeah, but up near Chicago, your name carries a certain..."

Nancy blushed and waved off what he was about to say. "Well, if you really want one, I guess we'll just have to take in a few of the local attractions. I think Diane was saying something about a ghost walk."

Ned scowled at her. "Nan, you have got to take it easy."

"That's what you're here for," she said, nudging his side. "Besides, a ghost walk? Extremely low-impact."

Nancy excused herself to go upstairs, changing out of her comfortable traveling clothes and into a cowlnecked jersey dress long enough to hide the bandaged wound on her leg. When she heard the hair dryer still going strong in the bathroom, she went to her room, digging out her cell phone.

"Hello?"

"Hannah," Nancy said, sitting down carefully. "It's Nancy. How's Dad?"

Hannah sighed. "He's... okay. Not great, not terrible. He's resting right now. Do you want me to get him to call you back when he's up?"

Nancy looked down. "Sure, yes. But he's... okay."

"Mm-hmm. And how are you?"

Nancy sighed. "I'm fine, Hannah."

"You sound just like him, you know that? That same exasperated tone in your voice. So you're fine the way he's fine." Hannah clucked. "How's the city?"

"We're about to go see it," Nancy said. "Well, a little bit. Maybe a ghost tour later."

"Sounds romantic."

"Maybe."

"That boy better take care of you, since I know that's the farthest thought from your mind."

"You act like I'm constantly in trouble."

"You are, girl. Whenever you can help it." Nancy heard a distant timer. "I have to go, honey. I'll get him to call."

"Thanks," Nancy said. She let her head hang down as she hung up, brushing at her face as the door creaked and her boyfriend stepped inside.

"Nan," Ned said softly. "You okay?"

"Yeah," she murmured. "I just wanted to talk to Dad."

Ned came over to her and ran his hand up and down her back, slowly. "I'm sure you'll be able to talk to him soon."

Nancy took a slow breath, very irritated when her breath shuddered in the beginning of a sob. Ned wrapped his arm around her and drew her close to him, and she squeezed her eyes tight shut.

"You guys ready?" A knock sounded, and then Ronni pushed open the door. "Oh shit. Sorry."

Nancy wiped at her eyes, shaking her head, but Ronni was already gone. "I'll be okay," she said, and nodded to herself.

"You always are," Ned said gently.

They all climbed into cars and headed out, with Ronni and Haylie in the back of Nancy and Ned's rental car. As the girls chattered on their cell phones and checked their lip gloss in their compacts, Ned reached over and took Nancy's hand.

"Bet they have some amazing clubs here."

"Bet they do," Nancy said wistfully, squeezing Ned's hand. She flipped down the visor and gently ran a fingertip under her eye, checking her mascara. "Do you want to go to one?"

"Club?" Haylie chirped from the back. "Oh man, we should so do that."

"Yeah," Ronni joined in. "I have been dying to get out and do something since we got here."

Ned found a parking spot about a block away from the restaurant, and as the girls raced ahead, Nancy and Ned held back, still holding hands.

"It's so pretty out here," Nancy said softly. The sunset was just touching the tops of the trees, and the scent of dead leaves was in the wind. Ornate vintage lampposts lined the street, and the upper floors of the buildings were dotted with wrought-iron balconies. Neon signs glowed from corner stores, and Nancy heard the sound of a raucous live band playing down the block.

Ned slipped his arm around her shoulders. "Yeah," he agreed, and kissed her temple.

Nancy gave him a half-smile. "Thanks."

"For what?"

"For putting up with me," she said, resting her head against his shoulder as their steps slowed. "For being thoughtful enough to bring me here. You really are amazing, you know."

"I've heard," he chuckled, letting out a surprised "oof" as Nancy playfully elbowed him in the ribs. He slowed to a stop just before they reached the restaurant, and took her hand.

"I'm so glad you're okay," he said quietly. "I was... Nan, I hate seeing you hurt. I love you so much, and I don't know what I'd do..."

Nancy stood up on her tiptoes, hiding her pained wince as she drew his face down to hers for a kiss. "It's okay," she said softly. "I'm not going anywhere, Nickerson."

Ned slipped his arms around her, leaning down to kiss her, and she melted into his embrace. "You better not," he murmured against her cheek.

The group filled up on chips and salsa, rhapsodizing over plates of tamales, fajitas, quesadillas, enchiladas, and tacos. Ronni and Haylie ordered enormous margaritas that Savanna immediately coveted. Ned, Joe, and Stephen knocked back beers, while Arthur and Diane had glasses of white wine. Nancy was delighted with her arroz con pollo, and when Ned suggested splitting a fried ice cream, Ronni and Savanna piped up with orders themselves.

"Okay," Haylie said, when they were standing on the sidewalk. Savanna was rubbing her belly and breathing quietly. The night had grown cool, but the music was still beckoning from down the block. "We so have to try that place out. Nancy and Ned? Up for it?"

"Please?" Ronni begged. "Come on, it's too early to go back already."

"I'm game," Savanna said, glancing at Joe, who shrugged. "Sure," he agreed.

Stephen glanced at his watch, running his hand through his hair. "I don't know. I have another five hundred words to write tonight."

"But you need some inspiration!" Ronni said, looping her arm through his. "Come on."

The club was smoky and dim and hot and loud, and everything Nancy imagined when she pictured New Orleans. She was relieved when the crowd thinned enough for her to catch sight of a vacant booth, and she immediately slid in over the faux burgundy leather. A barmaid came over to clear the leftover empty beer steins and slide coasters onto the tabletop, and Ronni and Haylie only stayed at the table long enough to place their drink orders.

Ned was tipping his Heineken back when a slow song started. He glanced over at Nancy. "Feel up to it?"

She shook her head. "Not really," she said sadly, knowing how much Ned enjoyed dancing, how much she enjoyed dancing with him. "But go on out there and have fun, Nickerson."

"I don't want to go out there without you."

Haylie came back to the table, glowing, and took a long sip of her daiquiri. "Oh man, you guys, you have to get out there." She glanced between Nancy and Ned. "Going?"

Nancy nudged Ned's shoulder. "Go on," she told him, nodding at Haylie.

Ned raised his eyebrows, but didn't actually move until Nancy nodded again.

As Haylie led Nancy's boyfriend out onto the floor, she looked away. Savanna had her head on Joe's shoulder and they were swaying together gently. Ronni was gazing up into Stephen's eyes, smiling up at him. And Ned was looking down at Haylie, who flipped a wing of bright blonde hair back and slid her perfectly manicured hands up to Ned's broad shoulders.

Nancy frowned, a small ball of tension suddenly heavy in her stomach, and her leg gave a particularly hard throb. Once her gaze was on Ned and Haylie, Nancy couldn't look away. She couldn't count the number of times she and Ned had danced together, at the fraternity house, in clubs, even just to the radio when they were alone together. She remembered how utterly forbidden and delicious it had been to hold her body so close to Ned's, to have him hold her so tight.

Setting her jaw to stifle the pain, Nancy slid out of the booth and walked onto the dance floor. She tapped Haylie on the shoulder, and when the younger girl glanced over, Nancy didn't mistake the disappointment in her eyes, but she didn't begrudge it, either.

Ned's brown eyes were glowing with warmth as he gazed down at Nancy. "Couldn't help it, could you."

"Shut up," she said good-naturedly, closing her eyes as he took her in his arms. She slipped her arms up over his shoulders and swayed with him, gently.

"That was a nice change."

"Mmm?"

"I can't count the number of times I had to cut in on you," Ned said, and brushed his lips over her forehead. "You sure this isn't going to wipe you out?"

"Oh, it will," she admitted. "Guess we'll just have to go home after this."

Ned's fingertips drifted down her spine, to the small of her back. "I'm not complaining," he said softly, against her ear, and she shivered. Her skin prickled with gooseflesh under the sweep of his touch. She rested her head on his shoulder and they barely moved, just shifting their weight slowly, shuffling. She felt so light, pinned to earth by only the persistent burning ache in her leg, and her skin felt flushed and sensitive wherever her body was in contact with his.

The blush rose to her cheek when Ned leaned down and gently brushed his lips over the join of her shoulder and neck. She shifted in his arms and her breasts pressed harder against the strong muscle of his chest, and when he pulled back and their gazes met, both were low-lidded with desire.

When the song ended, they didn't part. Ned's arms tightened around her waist and he barely lifted her off the floor.

"I want to carry you away," he said, a little chuckle in his voice, directly into her ear.

"That would be great," she replied with her own chuckle, tightening her arms around his shoulders. "My leg really fucking hurts right now."

Ned's face fell. "Babe, you should have told me..."

"I am telling you," she said mildly, then emitted a squeak as he bent down and slipped his arm around the back of her knees, picking her up. A series of hushed whispers followed them off the dance floor, and she could see the envy in some of the girls' eyes. He stopped long enough to drop a few bills at their table, and when he raised his eyebrows at her, she shook her head, reaching for his hand instead.

"Squeeze as hard as you want, I can take it."

"You'll regret that," she told him, tossing her hair back as she glanced over. Outside the club, the cooler air was bliss on her flushed skin. "Sorry. I owe you half a dance."

"We will never have all the dances you owe me," he corrected her, fishing in his pocket for the keys.

The Sparrow Inn was quiet when they arrived; the light was on in Arthur and Diane's room, but otherwise they were alone together. Nancy was limping by the time she slid into bed, and her final pill of the day was just dissolving in her belly. She wore a long t-shirt and shorts, and Ned slid into the other side of the bed in his underwear. The bed was tall and the springs creaked, and Nancy chuckled a little, her forehead creased in pain.

"Feeling better?" Ned asked.

"Not yet," she murmured. "I hope I can get to sleep..."

It wasn't exactly a hint, and Ned didn't take it as one. She was curled up on her side, away from him, in one of the few positions she could semi-comfortably sleep in, and his hand, under the blankets, touched her hip.

"Do you want me to get you anything?"

"A new leg," she sighed.

His fingertips drifted down and she shivered. "Maybe I could kiss it and make it better."

She rolled onto her back and his hand slid over her belly. "Couldn't hurt to try," she told him, blinking lazily up at him.

He moved over, above her, and she slid her arms up around his neck again, enjoying the anticipation as he took his time. He kissed her forehead, careful to keep his weight away from her wound, and she ran her fingers through his hair, chuckling when he bypassed her mouth on the way to her neck.

"Oh, so that's how it is," she murmured, shivering a little as he nuzzled the soft flesh of her throat. The bedsprings creaked under her and she let out a quiet groan.

"Hmm," Ned murmured, his fingertips flirting with the hem of her shirt. "Good thing we're alone."

"Not quite alone," she reminded him, shifting up so he could tug her shirt off. "Arthur and Diane are here, remember."

It wasn't the first time they had been alone in bed together, not by far, not the first time she had been half-naked with him, but she still loved the adoration and desire in his touch. She stayed seated, flushing with delight when their lips finally met, and his broad chest was firm and warm against hers. He pulled her onto his lap and returned her slow, soft kisses with his own, his hand stealing to her breast. She ran her hands down his back, feeling the muscles move under his skin, and moaned a little as he gently rubbed her nipple.

"Mmm," she whispered, leaning back. She blinked slowly at him, and when he caressed her breasts again she leaned forward, setting her mouth to his neck. Ned let out a little groan and slid his hands down to her hips.

"How far," he said, his voice a little hoarse. "Do you want..."

She sighed. "I don't think... I can. But you..."

They hadn't quite made love, not yet. They had fooled around, entirely naked, and while they had come close, while she had let him just barely inside her, the pain and her reluctance had always stopped them.

She didn't look at what her hand was doing, as she stroked him; instead she gazed at his face, half in shadow, at the naked need and pleasure she saw there. If she let him, he would have his fingers buried between her thighs now; if she weren't hurt, if not for the continual throb in her leg, dull and awful as a toothache, she would have stripped naked and climbed on top of him, grinding her hips over the length of his cock until they came, flushed and shaking.

When he finished she leaned back, reaching for a tissue, pulling her shirt back on. Ned cleaned himself up and returned to the bed, curling up behind her, draping his arm over her.

"I love you," he whispered, his breath moving her hair.

"I love you too," she whispered, lacing her fingers between his.

The next morning, Ronni and Haylie were visibly hungover, and Savanna puttered around the living room, frowning down at her cup of decaffeinated coffee. Lisa was in the kitchen scrambling eggs to order and sending out plates of bacon and sausage, and Nancy and Ned loaded up gratefully. Arthur and Diane came in, their cheeks pink from the wind, and invited everyone in earshot on a ghost walk that evening.

All through the day, Nancy was very careful to take her medication right on time, but while she was getting ready for the walk, she had to hide the pain she was still feeling in her leg. Ned walked into their room and Nancy put a smile on her face.

"Ready to go?"

"Sure thing," she replied, reaching for her zippered sweatshirt. She stood, wincing a little.

Ned was gazing at her when she glanced up at him. "Nan, seriously—"

"I'm not an invalid," she snapped, then shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm just so sick of this. I don't want you... having to put up with this."

Ned slipped his arm around her shoulders, squeezing her gently. "Yeah, I'm so sick of it too," he said in mock resignation. "Look, you won't be like this forever. In a couple weeks this'll all be a memory. Besides, I like taking a little care of you. It's... nice."

Nancy snorted and shook her head, pulling the sweatshirt on. "Maybe for you."

Ned touched her shoulders, holding her so she was facing him. "Do you realize this is the longest we've spent together not working on a case in practically forever?" he asked. "I'm just afraid I'll get used to it."

Nancy glanced down. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "It's just, I'm worried about Dad, and I feel like such an inconvenience..."

Ned pulled her into his arms, and she lingered in his embrace until it was time to leave.

The ghost walk departed when the sky was alight with the sunset. The tour guide met them just outside a suitably creepy graveyard. Large trees cast the graves into pools of deep shadow. Birds called mournfully to each other. Even the spikes atop the iron fence looked ominous and threatening.

"I hope no one here is easily scared," the guide began, her eyes gleaming. She had introduced herself as Melanie, and her dark hair featured a pink streak at the front. "New Orleans has long been known for its rich history... and its scandals. Many ghosts walk these streets and linger in the old homes and graveyards around us. We'll begin in the graveyard—please keep together; I would hate for any of you to get lost here..." She opened the gate with a dark chuckle.

Nancy and Ned were near the middle of the group, but it took Nancy a lot of effort to keep up with the moderate pace. Ned squeezed her hand, but didn't say anything, and she was grateful for his silence. She didn't know what she would do if he asked how she was feeling. The answer was always, I'm in pain, okay? I'm still in pain.

Melanie struck a pose in front of an age-weathered angel statue. As Nancy tried to quietly regain her breath, she was amused to note Melanie's heavy eyeliner, the black leather bustier over her t-shirt, her lace-up boots. She glanced from the girl to Ned, only half paying attention to what the guide was saying. Nancy had been involved in too many supposedly supernatural cases to take much stock in the stories; in her experience, generally selfish, greedy individuals perpetuated such tales for their own benefit.

Ned felt her gaze on him and glanced down at her. "What?" he breathed.

"Just wondering if it's the ghost story you're paying attention to," she said, keeping her voice light.

"Wow, you're right. Our tour guide really is hot," he said, in mock awe, then lightly brushed his hip against hers.

Melanie seemed to notice their distraction, and spoke even more loudly at the next moss-covered stone. "Legend has it," she said, "that the man whose grave is marked by this stone was lost at sea during the Civil War. On particularly stormy nights, those attuned to such things have reported seeing a light bobbing near the horizon. If it reaches shore, so it has been said, he will return to his home... and, if he does not find his wife there..."

Nancy noticed that Stephen had definitely perked up.

On their way out of the graveyard, Diane snuggled up to Arthur's side, her arm linked through his. "I think we'll disappoint the young lady if we don't act just a little scared," Diane laughed, and Nancy smiled back at her. Ned slid his arm around Nancy's waist and his lips brushed her temple.

"Good idea," he murmured. "So if you get tired or freaked out, we can go back to the inn and I can... comfort you."

"Oh, I can just imagine how you're going to comfort me," Nancy murmured back.

Despite the prospect of sneaking off for some quality time together, Nancy did actually make it all the way through the ghost walk, including the story of the spurned former slave who hanged herself in one of the downtown hotels—that one made Ronni and Haylie actually look up from the eerie blue glow of their cell phone screens for a moment—and the prominent businessman who shot his daughter and her lover before they could elope. Nancy felt herself zoning out a little during another "lost at sea" story, and when the group finally staggered to a stop back at the graveyard where they had originally met, Nancy thought she might cry with relief.

"That was great!" Savannah said, her eyes wide. "And now I really need a milkshake."

"Milkshake, as in something like a virgin mudslide?" Haylie said in a singsong voice. "Come on, guys, we all deserve at least a round of shots after all that. Stephen? Nancy and Ned? Oh, Art and Di, you know you'd like some white wine or something."

Arthur and Diane laughed. "Well, that had to be the best encouragement I've ever heard," Arthur said with a wink. "But you go on and have fun."

Joe and Savannah agreed to go along with Haylie and Ronni, and Nancy could tell Ronni was disappointed when Stephen opted to go back to the inn to capture whatever inspiration he had found on the ghost walk. Ned had to make their excuses; Nancy was finding it difficult to focus on anything, the throbbing in her leg was so intense. She was limping badly when they returned to the car.

"Nan, you okay?"

Nancy nodded, gritting her teeth. "Guess you were right," she admitted, forcing herself to chuckle. "I just didn't expect the tour to last that long." She rocked a little in her seat, wishing she could do anything to make it stop.

"We'll be back soon," Ned promised, turning on the headlights. "You'll be able to lie down. Damn, Nan, I'm sorry, I should've..."

Nancy squeezed her knee, trying to focus on that sensation. "Shh," she told him, just a little louder than she intended. "It's fine. I'll be a good girl tomorrow. Breakfast in bed and everything."

Getting out of the car made Nancy almost cry out in pain. She felt entirely wiped out, although when she passed Lisa in the hallway, she put on as impassive a face as she could muster. "Have a good time?" Lisa asked.

"Oh, it was great," Ned answered for them. "Really informative. And it was a good night for it."

The wind was just starting to blow outside, lashing the slender bare limbs of the closer trees against the windows. Nancy distantly heard Lisa offer some tea or cocoa, heard Ned say they were both pretty beat...

As soon as Lisa vanished into the kitchen, Ned swept her up in his arms, and Nancy was too tired to say much. She slid her arm around his neck and rested her cheek against his shoulder, a little scared that she couldn't even muster the energy to chastize him for treating her like a weak little girl. She would've had to crawl up the stairs on all fours, and even then, she wasn't sure she would have been able to make it in under an hour.

He helped her into her pajamas, a long-sleeved henley and a pair of cotton shorts, and supported her as she hobbled to the bathroom. She closed her eyes, trying to focus on anything other than the pain. The rattling exhaust fan above her head almost sounded like some unearthly moan.

Clearly she needed to cut back on her pain medication... although she tried to imagine enduring pain much worse than this, and couldn't. The doctor had told her that the damage to her body and the healing both were going to be painful.

Nancy splashed her face with cold water, shivering a little. Her reflected face was chalk-pale. She took a few deep breaths, opening the bathroom door, and immediately Ned was there to help her.

"Thanks," she whispered, when he picked her up again. "I'm sorry... I didn't want to be like this."

Ned gently placed her on the bed, arranging the covers over her, and gazed down at her, concern and sympathy in his dark eyes. "Just rest," he told her. "You'll be chasing criminals again soon, don't worry."

Nancy chuckled, then grimaced, reaching down to rub her leg. "Good night, Ned."

"Good night, sweetheart."

Her dreams were vague, anxious. She tried not to toss and turn too much, worried that she would disturb Ned, and at some point she was sure she heard steps in the hallway—and that turned into a shadowy spectre in her dream, of a sad dark-eyed woman, skirts trailing the floor as she paced, awaiting a lover who would never return home.

Nancy woke feeling uneasy, to a grey overcast sky. The scent of rain was faint in the air, and the bed was empty and cool beside her. As soon as she was able, she pulled herself up to sitting and reached for the water and pill bottle beside the bed. Her leg was still throbbing.

She headed downstairs once she had brushed her teeth, rinsed her face, and struggled into some fairly decent clothes, wondering what Ned was doing. She had thought he would be there when she woke.

She forgot her slight irritation when she saw Lisa sitting at the table, across from Joe. Joe was rubbing his scalp, obviously keyed up about something. Lisa was leaning forward, her brow furrowed.

"Are you sure you can't remember?" Lisa said. "That there wasn't a fight?"

"I don't know," Joe insisted, squeezing his eyes tight shut.

Ned glanced up and saw Nancy. "Baby, you okay?" he asked, coming over to her.

"I'm okay," she said, faintly. "What's going on?"

"Remember how Haylie and Ronni went out with Savannah and Joe last night?" Ned asked softly, and Nancy nodded. "Well, the girls didn't come home, and Joe has no idea where they are."

Chapter Text

Nancy moved over to the table, watching Joe closely. Then she glanced over at Lisa.

"I don't know what to do," Lisa said.

"Well, the police probably won't do anything until tomorrow," Nancy said, and Joe groaned. "Joe, what exactly do you remember about last night?"

Joe shrugged. "We went to the club," he said, sounding miserable. "The same place we went before? We danced... I don't know. I just know we were there."

"Is the car here?" Nancy asked, and Ned went to the door to check. "And that's seriously all you can remember? What time did you get home?"

Joe shrugged. "I don't know."

"And you came back here without your wife?"

Joe shook his head helplessly. "I can't remember. I wouldn't have left Savannah at the club, okay? Not like she is. I know I wouldn't have."

Ned walked back in. "The car's not here."

Nancy sighed. "Well, Lisa, you need to call the police. With any luck... well, I don't know, maybe they got too drunk to drive..."

"Savannah doesn't drink," Joe said, angrily.

"Maybe she didn't want to drive, for some other reason, and Haylie and Ronni couldn't either?" Nancy returned. Her leg was throbbing again, and her tone was sharper than she meant. "I don't know. I'm not the one who left my pregnant wife at a club—"

Joe stood, and Nancy noticed he was pale, his face gleaming. "I would never have left her there," he insisted, dangerously.

Ned moved between them, glancing between their faces. "Look, let's just call the cops. The faster they find the girls, the better. I'm sure they just got lost or something."

Lisa was frowning, but she did head for the phone. Ned told Joe he was sure the police would be able to help, and when Lisa returned to the table, she was rubbing her forehead.

"Nancy? Ned? Coffee, cereal, anything? Joe?"

Nancy wasn't sure who suggested pancakes, but Ned went into the kitchen to help Lisa while Nancy headed for the couch, putting her leg up on the ottoman. Joe still looked pissed off, but Nancy couldn't quite read him yet. He really hadn't struck her as the kind of guy who would abduct or murder three women in one night, especially his pregnant wife, but his supposed memory gaps were too convenient.

For a moment Nancy remembered Melanie's relish the night before when she had been leading the ghost tour. "And here, three female tourists were discovered in a dumpster. Legend has it that the three appear to drunk guys, leading them out into traffic..."

Nancy shook her head to clear it, and when the door opened, she half expected a policeman to walk in. Instead, Arthur and Diane came in, making excited "whooo!" sounds and unzipping their wet raincoats. "Good thing we did the ghost walk last night!" Diane said. "Although you're looking the worse for wear, Joe."

"We're trying to track down Savannah, and Haylie and Ronni," Nancy explained. "Ned and I turned in pretty early. Neither of you happened to be awake to see Joe or any of the girls get home, by chance?"

Arthur and Diane demurred, though they said they would be happy to help join the search for the girls. They headed upstairs to change, and Nancy rubbed her leg, praying for the pain medication to kick in soon.

When the policeman arrived, they had all just sat down at the table with their pancakes, Stephen along with them. He seemed disinterested when the policeman interviewed Joe, and that didn't strike Nancy too well either. Stephen had been incredibly interested in pretty much everything else on their trip; shouldn't he be interested in a real-life missing persons case unfolding right in front of him?

"And you can't clearly remember when you left the club?" The policeman made a note in his book.

Joe shook his head, getting agitated again. "I wish I could," he insisted. Nancy and Ned exchanged a glance. By the end of the interview, Nancy was sure the cop thought Joe was involved. His story just had too many holes to be plausible.

Arthur and Diane offered to wash up after breakfast, while Stephen wandered to the window, gazing moodily at a large magnolia tree in the yard.

Lisa clasped her hands tight. "Um, Nancy? Can I talk to you?"

Nancy glanced over at Ned, but he didn't follow when Lisa led Nancy out to the back porch. Nancy had a bad feeling that she was going to have to put her leg up for the rest of the day just to act relatively normal tomorrow.

Lisa turned to her as soon as they were outside, the rain coming down in a solid stream at the edge of the porch roof. Nancy pulled her coat a little tighter. "Look, Nancy, I know you're on vacation, but if there's anything you can think of... I don't know if you really do this kind of thing, but..."

"The cops were just here," Nancy pointed out, slowly, although she was pretty sure she knew what Lisa was about to ask her. "They have the best chance of finding the girls..."

"But if Joe didn't do anything, and the news people come around here... This is just the kind of publicity we don't need," Lisa worried aloud. "If we're connected with missing tourists? This area has already been really economically depressed, since Katrina, and this could be really awful for us." Lisa glanced down. "I mean, I don't want you to think that I'm being... callous about the girls. I hope they walk in five minutes from now, safe and sound, I really do."

Nancy nodded. "I understand."

"Well, do you think you could look into it? I'm not expecting miracles," Lisa insisted. "Far from it. It's just..."

"It's okay," Nancy said reassuringly. "I... well, I'm not a hundred percent, I'll be honest, but I'll try to help as much as I can."

Lisa smiled. "Thank you so much. You have no idea how much this means to me."

"Yeah... the only thing is that you have to tell Ned." Nancy shook her head. "And if you thought talking to me was hard..."

Nancy went back upstairs to clean up and get dressed for the day, and was unsurprised to hear Ned pounding up the stairs soon after, although she cringed when he opened their bedroom door. She was just looking at the outfit she had selected and laid out, and forced herself to meet Ned's eyes.

Ned closed the door behind him and crossed his arms. "I don't like this."

Nancy rolled her eyes. "A dozen things could have happened. Maybe they got lost on the way home—"

"It's a straight shot!" Ned protested.

"Yeah, well, if one of them started in the wrong direction, drunk..." She shrugged. "Maybe one of them ran into an old friend and went back to her place. There's no telling. By lunchtime they'll probably be back here, all apologetic and exhausted."

"I hope so." Ned shook his head. "Nan, you were supposed to take it easy on this trip. This is pretty much the definition of not taking it easy."

"And I would take it easy," she said, "if this hadn't, almost literally, fallen into my lap." She chewed her lip for a second. "Now, help me get dressed."

Ned shook his head. "No."

"No?"

"I'll help you get undressed," he said. "I need a shower and I'm sure you'll need help when you take yours, so..."

"So you're just going to fall on that sword."

"Something like that."

They took their clothes and toiletries to the hall bathroom, and Ned turned on the water, waiting for it to get warm as he stripped entirely naked. Nancy had her shirt and bra off by then, and he helped her with her pants, gently sliding her panties down her legs.

He was on one knee. At that sight Nancy felt her heart give a small traitorous beat, and she cupped his cheek, her blue eyes steady on his. The moment lingered until Ned swallowed and rose, helping her into the shower. Through the small window above the tub, Nancy could see the trail of the rain, still coming down around them, and she tried not to think about trace evidence and possible crime scenes.

No. The girls were okay. The second she stopped believing that, they were lost.

Nancy was just thinking hazily, with almost palpable longing, about taking just a little nap, at the end of their shower. Her exhaustion made her feel almost bruised, and her leg...

Ned shut the water off, and when Nancy turned to pull back the curtain, she felt his hands on her hips.

A very small smile flirted with her lips as Ned guided her down, positioning her at the edge of the tub before he knelt in front of her. "Do you...?"

She nodded, blushing just a little, and tipped her head back when he first brushed his lips between her thighs.

At least the exhaust fan would help drown them out. Nancy never had been able to orgasm quietly when Ned was going down on her. She buried her fingers in his wet hair, her own leaving rivulets down her back as she parted her legs a little further, pressing her other hand against his shoulder to help her keep her balance on the slick porcelain. Ned suckled against her clit and she arched, panting desperately, and let out a little moan.

"Good?" he asked, then very gently needled the sensitive flesh between his teeth.

Nancy let out a breathless cry, her hips bucking. "Oh my God," she whimpered. She trembled, her nipples hard in the cool air, her lips rounding in a silent scream as he pressed two fingers into the slick hollow of her sex, still stroking her clit with his tongue. She came bucking against him, her desperate panted breaths loud even with the fan still going, and Ned kissed her clit as he gently slipped his fingers out of her.

She closed her eyes, hanging her head, surprised when she realized that, for a little while, she had barely been aware of the pain in her leg.

Ned chuckled, reaching for her, handing her a towel and helping her out of the tub. Her legs were wobbling more than usual. "Good?" he asked.

Nancy made a soft disbelieving sound. "You have to ask, after that?"

"Hey, I'm not above fishing for compliments."

Nancy finished rubbing the towel against her damp hair. "Baby, you are unbelievable," she told him. "I would've been screaming if it wouldn't have given the senior citizens a heart attack. And tonight, if I'm feeling up to it, remind me to return the favor."

Ned raised his eyebrows. "Uh, babe? I will do whatever you ask today, short of letting you run yourself ragged, if I get a BJ out of the deal."

She wasn't really looking forward to heading out into the rain, and Ned discovered that the bar wasn't going to be open until that afternoon anyway. She just needed to close her eyes for a moment...

Her head felt like it was jammed with warm cotton when she woke. The house sounded too quiet, and Nancy felt a momentary spasm of guilt. She should be out there, helping look for the girls, unless they had come back while she had been out...

Ned was in the armchair on the other side of the room, gazing down at his cell phone screen. "Hey babe," he said, when he saw she was awake.

"Any news?" Nancy asked, her voice rough.

Ned shook his head. "They decided to retrace the route, see if they could find any sign of the girls. I think Arthur and Diane said they have to go out to another venue this afternoon, so they wanted to go now."

Nancy nodded, pushing herself up to a sitting position. "Joe remember anything else?"

"Don't think so."

"How long until the bar's open?" Nancy rubbed at her eyes. "I really think that's where we'll be able to get our best leads, especially if they haven't shown up by now."

Ned glanced at his watch. "Uh, we've got about an hour and a half. You hungry?" he asked hopefully.

Nancy chuckled. "Yeah, I could eat."

"I'll go down and get us some sandwiches or something. In the mood for anything specific?"

She shook her head, and when Ned left, Nancy took a deep breath and reached for her phone. When she heard the call go through at the other end, she felt her stomach tighten into a hard, anxious ball of nerves.

"Hello?"

"Hi Hannah," Nancy said, trying to force a smile into her voice.

"You'd better be taking it easy," Hannah said sternly.

"I just woke up from a nap. Happy?" Nancy asked. She desperately wanted to curl back up under the covers, to let it all just fade again... but that never solved anything.

"I won't be happy until you're back here where I can keep an eye on you," Hannah said. "He's... awake. Do you want to speak to him?"

During the wait, Nancy actually felt her stomach clench hard. She felt sick. If this kept up she wouldn't be able to force down anything for lunch, and Ned wouldn't like that.

"Nancy."

Nancy closed her eyes. Her throat was thick, and she had to work hard to swallow. At the sound of her father's voice, two tears tracked down her cheeks. "Hey," she said, trying to make herself sound normal, but her smile was closer to a grimace. "How are you feeling?"

"Could be worse," he said, and his voice caught a little at the end.

Nancy forced herself to take a breath. "I'm sorry we got held up down here."

"Ned told me what happened," Carson said, and her heart clenched at how unlike himself he sounded. He seemed breathless all the time now, his usually jovial voice colorless in comparison to what it had been. "Get your rest. I'll—I'll be here when you get back."

Nancy had to choke back her sob. "Has your doctor... is there any news?"

Carson made a soft noise. "I don't know," he admitted. "What he says... and what he means, those are two different things, and I know he's trying to keep my spirits up..."

Hannah took the phone a few minutes later, after Carson was obviously fading, and Nancy repeated the question. "I'd tell you to call him, but you don't need the stress," Hannah said. "Nancy, get your rest, you can't be any good to him when you're this upset."

Just then Ned walked in with a tray, his face going pale at the sight of her.

"I know," Nancy said, wiping at her face. "I know. It's just, there's a case, and..."

"He'll be here when you get back," Hannah said gently. "He will. Take it easy. His doctor put him on a new medication and I think once it gets evened out, he'll have more energy. Don't let this... get to you." Hannah caught her breath and Nancy knew that her longtime substitute mother was just as upset as she felt. "It'll be okay."

When she hung up the phone, Nancy's lower lip was trembling, and she was horrified to find herself sobbing when she put the phone down on the bedspread. Ned came over to her, pulled her into his arms, rocking her. He stroked his palm up and down her back, whispering meaningless comforting words into her ear.

Fighting to stifle her sobs only made her cry harder, so she gave up, burying her face against Ned's shoulder. "Oh God," she whispered, holding him tight, her voice jumping. "Oh God. Don't leave, please don't leave."

"I won't leave you," Ned murmured. "I'll never leave you, baby. Shhhh."

It took a good five minutes for her to master herself again, and when Ned pulled back to gaze at her, she knew she had to look awful. Her face tended to puff up, and the skin around her eyes turned an angry red when she had been crying like that. She wiped her face with the cuff of her shirt, sniffling, and Ned brought her a tissue. His dark eyes were soft with sympathy, although his mouth was set.

He hated seeing her like this. He hated seeing her so upset.

Nancy shook her head, glancing over at the tray. "I think you said you were hungry," she said, trying at a smile and failing utterly.

By the time they set out for the bar, Nancy was focused hard on the case. Joe, Arthur, and Diane had returned, having found the car, but no actual leads. On the way there, Nancy tried to remember what the girls had been wearing to the ghost walk. Ned seemed to vaguely remember a jean jacket, but admitted that he had been more concerned with keeping up with the group and keeping an eye on Nancy.

"Guess I should be glad I can still keep your eye, Nickerson," Nancy said with a little smile.

"If I'd known we'd be on a case... well, honestly, I still would have had my eye on you." Ned looped his arm around her waist.

The woman behind the bar had dark frizzy hair pulled tight back from her face, and small glittering eyes. The wide expanse of her upper arms was mottled pink. Nancy put on a smile, ignoring the pain in her leg, and sat down at the bar. The only other patrons looked like they generally kept to themselves.

"Were you by chance on shift last night?" Nancy asked.

The woman swiped at the bar top. "Why you ask?" she said, her gaze darting to and away from Nancy.

"We were here a few nights ago—a few of my friends came back last night and now, she's such a scatterbrain, Haylie can't find her sunglasses. She's super hungover though, and she asked if we could come check for her."

"Nobody turned in sunglasses."

"Well, maybe she made some new friends last night and one of them accidentally picked them up?" Nancy suggested, trying to keep her voice light, eager, but not too earnest. The woman looked like she would clam up if she became suspicious. "She really loved those sunglasses. Maybe—you don't have a surveillance camera or anything I could look at? I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but they were Chanel."

The bartender rolled her eyes. "Drunk girls leavin their shit everywhere," she muttered, glancing up at the camera Nancy could see above the bar. "Sorry, the camera ain't gonna be no help."

"And you don't remember anything else that might help?" Nancy pressed. "Haylie was here with her friend Ronni, and Savannah—blonde girl, pregnant—and Savannah's husband Joe. Joe must've gotten pretty drunk—he doesn't remember too much about last night either."

Nancy tapped her fingers once on the bar top, trying not to act impatient as the woman took a patron's money, gave him change and another shot, then wandered back over. "Guy with dark hair?" she said, and Nancy nodded eagerly. "Must be a lightweight, he had maybe two beers. Draft."

"And the girls got... mojitos?"

"Daiquiris," the woman said with a snort, indicating what she thought about the drink. "Virgin mudslide for the pregnant lady. Might as well order a damn milkshake for the trouble," she muttered.

Yep, that was them. "Ronni gets awfully flirty when she drinks, too."

"Dunno about that. Weren't here too long. Thought maybe they wanted to hit the piano bar down the street."

The sidewalk was still wet, but the rain had tapered off. Nancy kept her arm tucked through Ned's as she picked her way over the slick surface, heading for the neon in the windows of the piano bar. "Two beers and they head to a piano bar," Nancy mused aloud.

"Ronni and Haylie strike you as piano-bar kind of girls?" Ned said.

"Unless they're offering to make margaritas in the patrons' mouths?" Nancy tilted her head. "I mean, Joe and Savannah, sure..."

The hostess at the piano bar told Nancy and Ned she hadn't been on the night before, but she directed them to one of the bartenders. Nancy gave a careful description of the girls and Joe, but the bartender said the place had been packed and she didn't remember anyone with that description. For all they knew, the group had seen how crowded it was and turned back.

The piano bar was next door to a small cafe. Ned went inside and brought out some beignets and coffee for them, and Nancy sighed as the rich caffeinated brew hit her tongue. Raindrops still glistened on the umbrellas over the tables, but at least the wind had died down some.

Half a block away, Nancy saw the same graveyard where they'd met for the ghost walk the night before. Ned followed her gaze and chuckled, dusting powdered sugar off his fingers.

"Think one of the ghosts got them?"

Nancy rolled her eyes, swallowing a bite of beignet. "God, these are good. I'm just trying to imagine what the hell happened. So the four of them are at the first bar. They get a couple of drinks, and Joe has two beers."

"And I don't care if it's the first time he's had a drink in his life, two beers doesn't get a normal guy blackout drunk."

Nancy nodded. "So they go to another bar. They have to. Maybe not the piano bar. Savannah's sober, so maybe they go further uptown?"

"I'd agree, but," Ned said, shrugging, "Joe brought the car back earlier. They found it parked across the street. So wherever they went, they ended up back here... and I kind of don't think they left this street."

"Think they got tipsy enough to go to the graveyard and scare each other?" Nancy wondered.

"And then decided to sleep it off in a cold wet cemetery?"

Nancy wrinkled her nose, conceding the point. "Well, if we put Joe aside for the moment—who has the clearest motive—"

"Oh?" Ned raised an eyebrow, reaching for another beignet.

"Okay, the clearest opportunity," Nancy corrected herself. "He's out with three girls. Maybe he and Savannah have a fight, it gets out of hand, Ronni or Haylie see it and he has to silence them all."

"Which makes it sound like you think we're gonna find them in a dumpster down one of these alleys."

Nancy shivered, remembering her subconscious earlier prediction of the same. "I really hope not, but the longer they're gone... two sorority girls and a pregnant woman. Hardly seem like the likeliest candidates for... whatever must have happened."

Ned shrugged. "Well, sorority girls do tend to inspire stalkers, for whatever reason, but were Haylie or Ronni acting nervous? Mention anyone creepy hanging around?"

"Pretty much the opposite. I think Ronni was most disappointed that Stephen opted out of the bar trip last night."

"So, new scenario," Ned suggested, reaching for his coffee. "Stephen hits some writer's block, comes down to the bar to blow off some steam and meet up with that sweet young thing who clearly wants to get with him."

"And Joe doesn't remember that."

Ned shrugged. "Maybe he and Savannah were off getting cozy in a corner."

"But she doesn't come back with him?"

"The fight happened after."

Nancy sighed in frustration. "There's too many variables."

"Well, you and I can alibi each other," Ned said.

"Really?" Nancy raised a teasing eyebrow at Ned. "Well, yeah. I slept so badly that I would've woken up if you got up in the night."

"I noticed that." Ned reached out and touched her hand. He looked like he was going to say something else, but closed his mouth again.

"And Diane and Arthur don't strike me as crazy stalkers, but I've been fooled before."

"Yeah. They keep an RV of young coeds stocked with Doritos and Mello Yello. It's the only way they can feel young."

Nancy giggled, then straightened up. "I'd say Lisa's out, but this case will get the inn notoriety. And there are certain people out there, Stephen included, who would come here because they heard about the disappearance. Asking me to look into the case could just be her trying to cover. She told me she wasn't expecting any miracles."

Ned made a face, then licked a trail of powdered sugar off his index finger. "Four tourists," he mused. "Three girls and a guy. The girls vanish, the guy returns. Usually means...?"

"The guy was involved," Nancy said immediately. "Or being framed for it."

"Excellent point, Detective Drew. Or he's being framed for it. By who? Who has the motive to do this?"

"Stephen, maybe playing out a scenario for his book?"

"Yeah, but what kind of book is he writing?"

Ned tilted his head. "You know... I actually don't know. I was honestly a little afraid to ask him because I felt like he was going to just talk for thirty straight minutes after that about gerunds or something..."

Nancy giggled again. "Or about this race of super highly-evolved lizards who were going to take over the earth and make us their slaves," she suggested.

"Okay, that? Would definitely put him as prime suspect number one in my book."

"Eric didn't show any sorority-girl-stalking tendencies back at Emerson, did he?" Nancy asked, propping her chin on her hand. Sadly, they had finished off all the beignets.

Ned shook his head.

"Okay. So if drinking didn't make Joe lose his memory, what did?"

"Either he's lying or he's telling the truth, and if he's telling the truth—and that's a big if—"

"If his drink was drugged—"

"That'd explain it."

"And if all their drinks were drugged..."

"Then they leave with whoever did it, and bam, there we are."

Nancy and Ned gazed at each other, barely stopping for breath between. She loved when it was like this, when he felt like an extension of her.

"Which is by no means the simplest explanation."

"Otherwise, Joe's some major criminal mastermind who, what?" Ned argued. "Took the car, disposed of the bodies? Got the car detailed and parked it back out here."

"Or rented a car, ditched it somewhere."

"Which takes us back to that motive you said he had."

"Or lack thereof. They seemed happy, but you never really know, do you?" Nancy said with a sigh.

"Sometimes," Ned said quietly. "Sometimes you do know."

His fingers brushed hers again and Nancy smiled. "Yeah," she agreed softly.

A canvas of the other bars on the street revealed nothing, and, frustrated and tired, Nancy and Ned returned to the first bar. By then the tourists were filling in, beads shimmering around their necks, crowing and sloppy with drink. The bartender recognized them with the tilt of her chin, and Nancy ordered two Heinekens and a diet soda, giving both beers to Ned.

Ned was halfway through the second beer when Nancy noticed his gaze was lingering on the floor. She sighed. "Okay," she murmured.

"Okay?" he asked, putting his beer back down.

"Okay, let's get out there and finish that dance."

Ned raised his eyebrows at her. "Uh, Nan, under normal circumstances I'd never turn you down, but I don't want to tire you out..."

Nancy smiled, then moved close to him, whispering in his ear. "Don't you worry, sweetheart, I'll make sure I save enough energy to pay you some attention when we get back to the inn. That what you wanted to hear?"

Ned sighed dramatically. "You act like all I care about is getting off," he said mournfully.

"It's not all you care about," she teased him, sliding out of the booth to follow him. "Maybe half, though."

She moved into his arms, holding tight as they barely swayed to the fast song, the entire length of her body pressed to his. The gentle stroke of Ned's fingertips up and down her back warmed her through.

Oh, she loved sleeping next to him at the inn, even in that tiny uncomfortable bed. When they were back home, sleeping separate again...

Back home. Nancy made herself not think about that. Maybe one of the girls had run into an old friend and lost track of time—although Nancy couldn't imagine Savannah not calling her husband, if that had happened. She made herself a mental note to check with Joe, to see if Savannah's cell phone was flipping straight to voicemail or not.

After their dance, they started to leave, passing by their table. Ned's half-finished beer still stood there; he moved to take a sip of it, then shrugged and left it.

It would be so easy. Crowded club, momentarily unsupervised drinks.

But if someone had drugged all their drinks—and that was a huge if, to be sure—why had Joe been left to stumble back to the inn, disoriented, useless?

And that thought led down an even darker path. She shivered a little.

Her leg was throbbing again. All the walking around definitely hadn't done it any favors.

Ned noticed that she was favoring her leg and pulled her arm a little tighter to his side. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Nancy murmured as they stepped outside. She tried to imagine what she would do if she were Ronni, a little tipsy, on the neon-stained street. Ned followed when she walked down a few feet and glanced down the alley.

A dumpster. Of course.

Nancy swallowed hard. When she set off toward it, Ned followed, but he seemed uneasy. "Don't you think the cops probably..."

"The cops hate touching a missing-persons case before forty-eight hours," she reminded him, steeling herself. The usual detritus of splintered wood and soggy cardboard littered the alley. She wouldn't find anything in there. She wouldn't. She wouldn't.

She reached into her purse for the small flashlight she always carried and pointed it into the stinking container. A few bags of trash were all she could see, and she felt herself relax a little. The bags didn't look like they contained dismembered or whole corpses, thank God. Just in case, though...

"Ned," she murmured, distracted, "is that a broom handle over there?"

Ned heaved a sigh as he brought it over. "Just move the bag," she requested, sliding back a little. "Just in case the cops miss—"

Ned managed to heave one of the bags aside, and underneath it Nancy saw a small glossy-pink handbag, the shattered face of a cell phone reflecting beside it.

She rocked back on her heels, her stomach flipping.

"Was that—"

"Ronni's bag," Nancy said with a little nod, her face pale.

Chapter Text

It didn't feel right.

A different policeman responded to Nancy's call from the bar, and when Nancy explained the significance of the purse and the phone, he made a face. He would have to get a team out to the alley to go through the dumpster for evidence, under the circumstances, and she could tell he wasn't looking forward to that.

"Thanks for the call, Miss... Drew," the cop said, glancing at his notes. "We'll call you if we have any other questions."

Back at the Sparrow Inn, Nancy was limping badly, gripping Ned's arm and the railing hard for support. "We have to get you to bed, Nan," Ned said.

"In a minute. I need to talk to Joe..."

"It'll wait until the morning."

Nancy cast a glance at her boyfriend. "They're going to go through that dumpster and then come talk to the last person the girls were seen with. How much you wanna bet that they won't take him in for questioning?"

Joe was sitting in the common area when Nancy and Ned walked in. He immediately sprang to his feet, approaching them. The local news program was playing on the television set. "Anything?" he asked apprehensively.

Nancy fought the urge to glance over at Ned. "Joe, I need you to tell me everything you can remember from last night," she said, maneuvering ungracefully into one of the overstuffed armchairs.

Joe ran a hand apprehensively through his hair. Ned found the television remote and dialed the volume down a few clicks.

"We... we got to the bar. I ordered a beer."

"Can you remember what you ordered?" Ned asked, sitting down beside Nancy.

"Uh... whatever was on draft," he said. "Ann—uh, Savannah and I... we..." He shook his head. "We danced, I think."

"Remember what Haylie or Ronni ordered?"

Joe shook his head slowly.

"So, you danced. After that? Did the bar get crowded? Did the girls maybe have a disagreement?" Nancy asked, unconsciously comforting her leg again.

"I... I don't know..."

Ned shook his head. "That's not going to work," he said grimly.

"What, do you want me to make something up?" Joe asked angrily. "I don't know!"

"Well, when we were out tonight, we found Ronni's purse," Nancy said. "Any idea why it would have ended up in the dumpster outside the bar?"

Joe shrugged. "Maybe she left it behind and someone ripped off all the credit cards and ditched it? How the hell should I know?"

"So that and her cell phone?" Ned asked incredulously, as the three of them heard footsteps on the stairs. "She was practically glued to the thing."

"Has Savannah answered your calls today?" Nancy asked.

Stephen appeared at the foot of the stairs. "Hey, guys, do you think you could... oh, hey."

"Sorry," Nancy said, although she couldn't quite put much sympathy in her voice. "Working?"

Stephen nodded, shoving his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I'm behind for the day. Ugh. Guess I might as well get some tea while I'm down here."

He vanished into the kitchen. Nancy glanced that way out of the corner of her eye, wondering if he would eavesdrop while he was in there. Nancy knew that she would, in his place.

"Of course she hasn't answered," Joe retorted. "If she had, she'd be here right now."

"Do either of you have any enemies that you know about?" Ned continued, putting that question to the side. While he and Nancy had poked around a little more after discovering Ronni's purse, neither of them had been very eager to discover any more evidence they could possibly contaminate before the police arrived.

Joe shook his head, gazing down at the rug. "No. I mean, Ann has an ex-boyfriend or two, but they're back home, and that's been years."

"Any crazy ex-girlfriends on your end?" Nancy pressed.

Joe glanced up. "You really think that could be what happened? Someone actually... followed us here and...?"

"We don't know yet," Nancy said, trying to be gentle. Stephen appeared in the kitchen doorway, a mug in his hand. "We don't know what happened so we need to consider everything."

"We?" Stephen repeated, taking a sip of his tea. "You his lawyer now, Drew?"

Nancy narrowed her eyes, managing only with supreme effort to keep her temper in check. The pain in her leg was an exquisite excuse. "Of course not."

"Joe, did you do it?" Stephen said, turning to the distressed man.

"Of course not!" Joe shouted, driving his fist down hard on his knee.

Stephen shrugged. "There you go. One suspect down. The cops'll come and ask the same thing, so why waste time?"

Nancy's hand tightened on her leg. "So where were you, hotshot?" Ned asked, standing up.

"Here, writing."

"While they were at the bar?" Nancy asked.

"Who knows?" Stephen asked, taking another sip of tea. "I don't know when they were at the bar. I was up in my room writing until two-thirty this morning."

"And you didn't go out at all," Nancy said, her gaze intent on his face.

"No."

"You don't happen to have Ronni or Haylie's cell phone numbers, do you?"

Stephen snorted, heading for the stairs. "I don't even have a cell phone. Why would I need their cell numbers?"

When Nancy turned back to Joe, he was almost wild-eyed. "Do you really think he might have done something?"

"I don't know," Nancy admitted. "Like I said, until we know what happened, we need to consider everything. Could your wife have run into an old friend, maybe? Is there anyone down here she knows?"

"I—I don't know," Joe admitted, agitated. "I don't think so. You didn't see any sign of her? Really?"

Nancy shook her head reluctantly. "Does Savannah have a Facebook account, any way to look up who she was talking to?"

Joe promised to try to find the information for her account, then insisted that he was going out to see if he could find any other clues. As soon as she and Ned were alone in the room, Nancy slumped against the chair.

"Yeah. 'I swear I'll take it easy today,'" Ned parroted her as he gathered her into his arms. "We keep meeting like this, Drew, and you'll need to make an honest man out of me."

Nancy smiled weakly at him. By the time he had brought her water to down her last pain pill, she was already half-asleep.

--

The next morning, after their shower, she sat down on the edge of the tub again. This time, though, Ned remained standing, his fingers threading in her hair as she took him in her mouth. She was both amused and pleased when she saw his toes curl.

She had to wait for him to recover himself before he could help her out of the tub. "I love you, babe," he told her, gripping the edge of the tub hard.

Nancy would never get tired of the sight of her naked boyfriend. Until recently she could count on all her fingers and toes the number of times she had been treated to it. "I love you too," she said, shivering a little. No matter how hard the heating system ran, she always felt a little cool in the house, and her wet hair didn't help.

Ned murmured a curse and scrambled out of the tub, bringing her a towel. "Sorry, sweetheart. Sorry."

"It's okay," Nancy replied, wrapping it around her gratefully. "Well, we should get started. We have a lot to do today."

Ned shook his head. "And what exactly would that be, dear? Finding pretty damning evidence not enough for you?"

"Damning for who?" she pointed out. "Maybe they'll find some prints..."

"Sweetheart, you don't have all the leverage down here you did back home."

"You think I can't get some sympathy if I flash this horrific wound?" she said, briskly rubbing the towel over her hair.

"Maybe flash a picture. You go a little too high with it and you'll get a totally different kind of attention."

Nancy smirked at her boyfriend. "I do draw the line at flashing my goods for leads," she said wryly. "Anyway. I really want to retrace their steps."

Ned shook his head at her. "I'm gonna need to strap you into a wheelchair before this case is over," he said. "Just so you stop tiring yourself out like this. The easier you take it, the quicker you'll get better."

"And the faster I solve this case, the quicker we get home," she replied, hooking her bra.

Ned didn't say anything, but his dark-eyed gaze softened. "Look, why don't you let me run around today? Just sit at one of those cafés, order all the coffee and beignets you want, and let me ask the questions."

"Because what fun would that be, not getting to see you in action," she said, pulling him to her for a kiss. He returned it hard, cupping her ass, then gave her a light smack when they pulled apart.

She raised her eyebrow at him.

"Consider that punishment for not obeying orders yesterday," he teased her.

"Sweetheart, that's not exactly gonna make me want to obey them today," she returned, rummaging in her makeup bag for her lipstick.

Nancy hadn't been lying, not at all. She wanted to get back home. As much as part of her dreaded it, she wanted to see her father again, as soon as possible.

At first, Carson had dismissed it. He felt a little short of breath, tired out a little quicker, lost his appetite. Hannah clucked over him and he took the stairs a little less and the elevator a little more. He blamed the ache in his joints on a lingering cold, then on his long work hours; whenever Nancy said he looked tired, Carson promised to get some more sleep, maybe try to leave work before sunrise. And she had treated it lightly, told him that he'd better.

Nancy had no idea how long it had actually been going on, or how long he had been aware of it. He was her only family, the only real family she had left—she loved her aunt, her grandmother, but she wasn't nearly as close to them as she was her father—and when he had called Nancy and Hannah to sit down at the kitchen table with him, Nancy had never seen him look quite so weary. It was like he had aged ten years overnight. It scared her.

They almost hadn't caught it in time. Nancy had a terrible feeling that the doctor had told him that to keep his spirits up, that nothing they were doing, the treatments that left him weak and miserable, the tests—that it was all just marking time. Staving off the inevitable.

Her father was dying. Any time the treatment bought was a temporary reprieve.

He was dying.

Nancy reached for Ned's hand, frowning as she tried to put it out of her mind. Get through the case, get back to her father. Get back to him.

She should never have left, but he had insisted. He had told her to go live her life, that he wouldn't be the reason she missed out on a single opportunity or a single thing she wanted to do.

Ned glanced over at her, squeezing her hand in return.

"Thank you," she whispered, when they were at the top of the stairs together.

"For what?"

"For being here," she said, giving him a watery smile.

Ned pulled her into his arms, holding her tight to him. "You don't have to thank me for that," he said gruffly. "This is where I belong, Nan."

"Guess I'm just lucky you had all that vacation saved up," she murmured, and nuzzled against him. "I love you."

"I love you too."

Arthur, Diane, Joe, Lisa, and Eric were sitting in the living room, gazing at the television. They looked up when Nancy and Ned entered. Lisa had dark circles under her eyes, and she nodded at the plate of muffins on the sidebar. Nancy sat down on the sofa, gingerly, glancing around at the other guests as Ned wordlessly went to collect glasses of juice for them. Arthur and Diane were shaking their heads, making sympathetic noises. Joe looked like he hadn't slept a wink; his eyes were red-rimmed.

"Six girls vanished from this club downtown four nights ago."

Nancy glanced up at the television screen, her eyes wide. Behind her, she heard the startlingly loud click of a plate against the counter. So Ned was listening too.

"NOPD is reporting very few leads in the case. Here are the photos of the missing girls, and a tipline. If you recall seeing any of the girls recently, if you have any information which may help police in the case, they beg you to call the number below. If your information leads to their recovery, a reward may be offered."

Nancy studied the grainy photos. They were low quality, but she could make out their smiles. Two African-American girls, four caucasians.

"Where's the club?" Nancy asked, her voice hushed.

Ned transferred the juice into disposable cups, insisted that Nancy finish her muffin on the way, and drove them to the club. "Six girls," Ned said, his voice tight. "Looking less like Joe was involved here."

"Coincidence," Nancy said, then popped the last bite of muffin into her mouth. "Or not. Could be he or someone else heard about the disappearance and decided to copycat, or use it as a good cover. But, six girls?" Nancy shook her head. "At once? That can't be one guy."

"Well, maybe. I have a feeling some guy who looked enough like Johnny Depp could lure as many drunk girls as he wanted out of a club. But the bartender didn't remember anyone like that..."

"Which doesn't mean that didn't happen," Nancy mused. "But, seriously. Two guys working together could manage it. Van waiting outside."

"For what," Ned said quietly, and Nancy shivered.

"Wonder if the guys ended up at home not knowing what the hell had happened, either," she murmured.

"What are you thinking," Ned said, glancing over at her.

She caught herself trying to rip the muffin wrapper into shreds, and instead stuffed it into the empty juice cup. "I'd think that maybe whoever's behind this is collecting girls for some—ring, some purpose. Prostitution?" She glanced out the window. "But I don't think someone in that situation would have gone after Savannah."

Ned shrugged. "I've heard some guys are into that," he said. She cast a mildly scandalized glance at him. "Not me, okay? Just saying."

Nancy sighed. "There have to be easier ways, though. These aren't unhappy girls with no resources. As soon as they were able, they would call home, find a way out..."

"If they were able," Ned pointed out.

Nancy shivered again. "If this ends with some mass grave," she said, and trailed off, shaking her head.

The downtown club was enormous, featuring three separate dance floors and bars at each. Nancy and Ned split up; Nancy approached the first bartender as a slightly scared sorority girl who had been at the next bar, and was consumed by morbid fascination over the disappearances, convinced she could be next. The second, she said she was a cousin of one of the girls. It wasn't until the third that she found a sympathetic ear—or mouth, as it were.

"Shame about those girls," the guy said, dunking a pair of glasses into a tub of soapy water, then buffing off some fingermarks. "I was here that night, you know. Saw them." He shook his head.

"Did you see anyone suspicious around them?" Nancy said, keeping her voice from becoming too bright, too eager. "You don't have cameras or anything in here...?"

"The tapes recycle every day," the guy said. "Besides, when the cops came, they collected everything."

"You don't know if they found their purses nearby...?"

The guy shrugged. "Sorry. Don't know. Hey, you gonna be back later?"

At the sound of Ned's footfalls, Nancy flashed the bartender a smile. "Sorry, I'm taken. But thanks for the info."

Nancy and Ned strolled hand in hand down the street, slowly, looking for clues, although Nancy had no idea what she was really looking for. Anything she could spot, the cops would have seen. Had they searched the dumpster, though? Another tangle of dirty discarded purses and smashed cell phones?

Ned glanced away as they passed by an adult store. "So were these crimes of opportunity, or purpose?"

Nancy shrugged, hitching her purse up on her shoulder. She didn't like this part of town nearly as much as the area around the bar near the inn. At night the street would look garish, seedy. When they reached the end of the block, they turned together by unspoken agreement.

"Both?" she wondered aloud. "If the guy—or guys—needed an out-of-the-way place, an alley to park a van in or whatever... assuming they did drug the girls, how long would that take to kick in?"

"Uh, can't say I really know," Ned admitted. "I like my girlfriend undrugged."

Nancy bumped his shoulder. "Let's say half an hour, forty-five minutes." She glanced up and down the street. "See any camera that might be pointed at the club or the alley?"

The time that had passed since the abductions and the run-down nature of the street meant they couldn't find any likely candidates. No ATMs were located right across the street; Nancy couldn't say she was surprised by that. If she was at the club and needed money, she would be far more likely to slap down a debit card than withdraw cash from a machine on the street, especially at night.

She wasn't expecting to really find anything, not four days later. What she was hoping was that she would be able to figure out the next one. With any luck, the cops were zeroing in on the people responsible right now, but this felt... bigger than that.

Nine girls.

If the person had just hit three or four bars in one night, taken a girl from each...

"Why so many, so quick," she said, once she and Ned were back in the car, on their way back to the bar. She knew she was going in circles, but she could think better outside the inn, away from Joe's panic and Stephen's sarcasm and Lisa's anxiety. And the claustrophobia of her own worry.

"Hmm?"

"Why not spread it out? Grab a girl at a bar, grab two girls at the next. The cops are disorganized; it would take a while for them to connect it all up. Instead, now we have nine girls, looks like the same scenario. Why not try to hide it?"

"Because it doesn't need to be hidden," Ned replied. "Because whoever is behind this has absolutely no fear of getting caught."

"And who would do this without being afraid of getting caught?"

"Well, clearly, an insane person," Ned said, with a faint, sarcastic laugh. "Cops, politicians, charismatic serial killers. Some vast conspiracy of... powerful people, maybe."

Nancy nodded slowly. "Transients," she murmured. "They come to town, grab the girls for whatever it is... and then get out. Doesn't matter if someone figures it out because by then, they're gone."

"Do you think they're already gone?" Ned asked. "The girls?"

"Ugh," Nancy said, running her fingers through her hair. "Guess it depends on whether they're finished. Four nights ago, two nights ago... if it's a pattern, tonight, too."

Ned was quiet for a minute. "Well, what if these are the only ones we know about," he said softly.

Nancy shivered. If they were transients, how many other girls had they taken? And where were those girls now?

They returned to the same café they had visited the day before, and sampled some jambalaya. Every girl who walked by, swinging her purse, checking her cell phone, Nancy wondered about. Would she be next? Were any of them aware of the danger they could be in?

"Nan," Ned said softly, and she glanced up at him, realizing that her hand was clutching her spoon, but she hadn't taken a bite of the spicy stew in some time.

"Earth to Nan."

"Sorry," she said, shooting him a soft smile. "I just hope tomorrow's news doesn't open with a report about how some more girls have vanished."

"Well, anyone watching the news should know to be more cautious," Ned said.

"But, honestly, how many of the tourists down here watch the news?" Nancy asked, gesturing at another cluster of girls coming down the block, swinging shopping bags. "Even back home? I swear, Bess only watches entertainment news; she turns it as soon as anything serious comes on."

Ned took her hand and smiled at her. "Nan, if you're thinking that we need to go door-to-door warning every single person by hand... no. We aren't. We can't."

She chuckled and shook her head. "I know."

Once they finished their meal, Nancy walked Ned down to the bar, then stood for a moment, glancing around. The dumpster was just where it had been, with no crime scene tape wrapped around it.

She took Ned's hand and they began to stroll down, toward the cemetery. "Nan, if this is some group..." He trailed off. "I guess, what's it going to take to end this case? Finding the girls, getting them back home safe?"

She nodded, glad he wasn't voicing her other concern—that the girls would never come home safe.

"So, you've just abducted nine girls. Where do you keep them?"

"Jam them into a room at some run-down hotel?" she suggested. "Maybe some abandoned warehouse? There have to be tons of abandoned warehouses around here."

Ned squeezed her hand. "Good. Maybe if we drive around a lot, you won't be wiped out tomorrow."

Nancy tapped her chin. "But if the girls are in a hotel room, they'd have to be constantly drugged to keep them from trying to escape or screaming for help, so that's probably out. An isolated warehouse sounds like a good bet."

"Or, if it's someone from around here... a storage shed?"

"Wonder how many storage sheds were left after the storm," she said. Then she glanced over at him. "I love when we're like this," she admitted. "When you're able to work on cases with me. You're a great sounding board."

Ned smiled at her. "Know my secret?"

Nancy shook her head.

Ned leaned in close to her. "The way I see it," he murmured, "the quicker we finish a case, the more time we can spend together. Preferably naked."

Nancy giggled, bumping her shoulder against his. It felt good to laugh, after all their heavy discussion. "That's... actually something I wanted to kind of talk to you about," she murmured.

"About getting naked? Heck yes," he said, grinning. "I like this."

She shook her head, casting a mock baleful glance at him. "Not that. Not... not really like that." Nancy glanced down at her feet. "About Dad."

Ned squeezed Nancy's hand. "He's going to be okay," he said, softly.

She glanced up at him, and as much as he clearly wanted to believe it was true, she saw the doubt there. She swallowed hard. "I... I can't believe I'm about to say this," she whispered. "When we get back, do you... do you want to get married?"

Ned came to a dead stop, and she stumbled to one a few steps later, pulled back by their still-joined hands. Ned's eyes were wide as he gazed at her.

"Uh, Nan? You didn't tell me the doctor put you on LSD."

"I'm serious," she said. When he just kept gazing at her, she had to glance away, and sighed. "He... I know he likes the idea of you being his son-in-law, and I... I want him to see me walk down the aisle," she said, and her voice started shaking at the end of it. She turned away from him, squeezing her eyes tight shut, willing the tears to stay behind them, but she felt them slip cold down her cheeks anyway.

Ned turned her to face him, taking her chin and tipping it up so he could see her expression. "Nan," he said, his voice breaking a little, and she opened her eyes again. "What do you want?"

She shook her head. "I love you," she whispered. "I always knew how important you were to me, but, Ned... you've been so amazing, and I couldn't have gotten through this without you. You've kept me sane, okay?" Another tear streaked down her cheek and Ned brushed it away. "I would have gone crazy without you. And what's happening with Dad, it's been so hard, and... I'm sorry, I know this must seem so sudden, but I've been..."

"You've actually been thinking about it," he realized aloud, and took a long breath.

She nodded. "I didn't... I didn't know how to say it. And maybe... I don't know." She shook her head. "I'm being selfish, you need time..." she muttered.

"Stop putting words in my mouth," Ned said sternly, but his touch was gentle, his gaze sympathetic. "This is sudden, baby, but... I've been in love with you for a long time, and if this is what you really want..."

She nodded. "It is," she whispered.

"You're sure?" he asked, searching her eyes. "Nan, please don't get my hopes up—"

She put her arms up around his shoulders. "I love you. I love you so much. And if you can ignore the fact that I'll drive you crazy and drag you on stakeouts and make you talk over cases with me..."

"As long as you'll let me feed you occasionally, and drag you to a movie when you get too wrapped up in your head, and every now and then let me see you naked..." Ned leaned down and rubbed the tip of his nose against hers. "I love you, baby. Nothing would make me happier than being your husband."

Nancy giggled just before he kissed her. "Your wife," she whispered, her eyes shining. "I'd be your wife."

"Mmm-hmm." He picked her up, holding her close to him, and spun her around a little. "I'll expect you to perfect your sandwich-assembling skills in preparation."

"I was a little more preoccupied by other... possible wifely duties," she commented, reaching for his hand again as they continued their walk.

Ned glanced at her curiously. "You mean like the fact that I'm not rocking a five-carat engagement ring right now?"

Nancy smiled. "Yeah. That."

Ned squeezed her hand. "Once we get back, I think I can handle that side of it," he said. "As to any other wifely duties... never change, sweetheart." He considered for a second. "Unless you decide to be more cautious in general. I'm fine with that."

"I'm so glad to hear that," she said, with a smirk.

She hadn't expected to find anything in the graveyard, but they went through it anyway. She kept stealing glances at him, though, and he almost always caught her staring and smiled back.

Ned.

There was no way he could possibly understand it, and she wouldn't say it, but maybe he sensed it somehow. She was terrified at the prospect of losing her father. She had depended on Ned so much to help her through it, and he had been her rock. The next few months, if she was lucky, were going to be an enormous ordeal, and she couldn't imagine going through it without him by her side.

She had been honest about her father, too. A part of her believed that if her father saw that she was married before he—

Her sight blurred with tears again, and she blinked them away hurriedly.

He would want to see her settled and happy, and she would be.

Maybe this wasn't the way she had always seen it, but he had said yes.

--

There was no rhyme or reason to it, not really, but after a midafternoon nap, Nancy put on a dress and she and Ned went to a club halfway between the original two, keeping an eye out for anything unusual. Nancy kept her drink with her at all times but kept an eye on tables crowded with drinks temporarily abandoned by their owners, chatted with the tourists, popped out every now and then to see if a van or other large vehicle was parked on the street or in the alley.

By eleven o'clock Nancy was ready to fall asleep, and she had only discovered that if that was the modus operandi of whoever was going after the girls, they would be cleaning up. She saw countless girls, in groups and clusters and pairs, who would be easy pickings to predators. Maybe Savannah, Ronni, and Haylie hadn't been stumbling drunk, but plenty of the girls at this bar were, and wouldn't even need to be drugged.

Part of her wanted a drink, a few drinks. Wanted to stumble back to bed with Ned, wanted to wrap herself around him, ignore the pain in her leg...

Ahh, thinking about it wasn't good. Her exhaustion and the late hour and just thinking about her leg...

Nancy glanced down at her soda, watered down by melted ice, wrinkled her nose, and stood. Ned was heading back toward her, through the crowd; from the look on his face she could tell he hadn't found anything either.

She knew she should just tell him she was ready to leave.

Instead, when he reached her, she drew him to her, her arms around his shoulders. "Nan?" he murmured.

"Dance with me," she whispered.

"Only for a minute," he replied, slipping his arms around her too.

She closed her eyes. Tomorrow she and Ned would check out some more likely isolated locations where the girls might be. Maybe an eyewitness would report something. Maybe one of the girls would manage to get a message out.

His chest was so warm under her cheek. She never wanted to leave the comforting circle of his arms.

When the dance ended, Ned tipped her chin up and gently brushed his lips over hers. They left the club together, hand in hand, and she fell asleep in the car on the way back to the inn, barely conscious when Ned carried her to their bed.

She blinked at him slowly when he encouraged her to take her next pain pill. "It'll be like this," she murmured.

"Yeah," he replied, with a smile. "It'll be like this, Nan." He stroked his fingertips down her cheek. "Go to sleep, sweetheart."

She woke the next morning feeling more refreshed than she had in days, and was happy to see that the sun was bright. That would make poking around in otherwise scary warehouses a little easier.

She had just swallowed her first pain pill of the day when Ned came into their room. "The news, Nan, this morning—"

"What? Did they find them?"

"One, one of the girls. Of the six who disappeared. She's at the hospital."

Chapter Text

Nancy tried to keep her expectations low, but all the way to the hospital, she found herself anticipating what the girl might know or remember, any clues she might be able to give. If she remembered a dirt floor, concrete or wood? That would help eliminate options. Roughly where she came from would help too. A description of the people behind her abduction. Or, hell, maybe she would say that she and the other girls had gone on some booze cruise and lost track of time. Something. Anything.

A part of her really hoped it involved a secret passage, though.

Getting the girl's room number would require a bit of subterfuge. Nancy told the receptionist she was one of the girl's sorority sisters and she needed her room number so she could have some flowers delivered.

"Room?" the receptionist said, shaking her head. "She's in the emergency department, no assigned room yet, and she won't even know there's any flowers in the room, girl."

Nancy didn't like the sound of that, not at all.

The room was so busy that Nancy and Ned's arrival was registered as nothing more than a fleeting irritation by the overworked staff. They headed for the epicenter of activity, a curtain pulled to half-surround a bed near one of the windows.

The girl in the bed looked awful. Her hair was greasy and clung to her head. She still wore what Nancy imagined she had gone to the club in, so many days earlier. Her tank top had been hot pink at one time, but now it was grimy with dirt and sweat, and one of her belt loops hung loose. Dark purple half-moons were stark under her eyes, made even moreso by the waxy pallor of her skin. Nancy had just noticed an enormous bruise on her arm when she felt a grip on her forearm. But Ned was on her other side.

"Hey," a policeman said harshly, his brow furrowed. "You a reporter?"

Nancy shook her head. "No, no sir. I'm one of her sorority sisters, and I was just worried about her..."

"They're doing everything they can," the policeman said, as a doctor and an intern passed behind him, scowling in their direction. The monitors were emitting low, dangerous hums.

"I can't believe this," the doctor muttered, so low Nancy could only barely make out his words. "We're going to lose her soon. Stimulant."

The intern looked up. "You think she can take it?"

"It's that or lose her now," the doctor pointed out.

Ned slipped his hand into Nancy's, and she realized that the policeman had been speaking to her. Ned had been answering, but she had no idea what they had been saying.

Another doctor joined the two attendants, and through the gap in the curtain Nancy saw him take a syringe and inject something into the girl's IV drip. The first doctor made some angry outburst involving a dangerous increase in her heart rate and stabilization, and the second doctor just let out a bitter, dismissive laugh.

Ned tugged at Nancy's hand. "We need to go," he murmured.

The policeman was staring fixedly after them, but Nancy didn't care. The girl was dirty, and her pallor meant she had probably been in a confined, windowless space. She needed to look at the girl's fingernails, the soles of her feet—

The second doctor came out from behind the curtain, and she noticed a red strip across his name badge.

CDC.

What the fuck, Nancy thought, as Ned finally just wrapped his arm around her waist and practically carried her out of the emergency department. The Centers for Disease Control? Why the hell would a doctor from the CDC be in Louisiana, helping treat a recovered kidnap victim?

An experiment, Nancy thought, and shivered.

"What do you think that was," Ned asked quietly, as they walked back through the reception area. Two people in wheelchairs, one of whom had a cast, came through the revolving doors with poor grace, and Nancy couldn't blame them. It was hard enough to get through on two working legs, much less with her limp. Even though the doctor had assured her that she would be fine, Nancy was beginning to despair that she would never walk normally again.

Nancy shook her head. "Transients," she murmured. "A CDC doctor. An infection? Some sort of illicit drug trial? They needed test subjects... and she escaped somehow? Did you notice her fingernails?"

"I didn't," Ned admitted. "Sorry. Why?"

Nancy shook her head. "She would have been strapped down to a gurney... hospital gown. Clean. Needle marks? She already had an IV in..."

Ned shook his head. "It's so much fun when I can barely follow what you're saying," he chuckled.

A woman in a russet business suit approached Nancy at the edge of the parking lot, brushing her oddly stiff hair out of her heavily made-up face. "Hello? Were you just visiting the kidnapped girl?"

Nancy shot her a suspicious glance. "I'm sorry, ma'am...?"

"Any update on her status?"

Ahh. The reporters that the cop had been so worried about. She saw the remote unit, the milling cameraman and sound guy. Another van was just pulling up.

Nancy shook her head. "I'm sorry, I can't help you," she said, and she and Ned started moving away.

The first van opened and a man holding a cell phone to his ear gestured frantically for the reporter. "Hey! Bumper in three minutes—she just coded. Probably going to call it soon."

The reporter ran back to the van as fast as she could in her four-inch stilettos, and Nancy and Ned exchanged a glance, then continued to the car.

Ned just sat there for a minute, the keys dangling from the ignition. "Okay, first off, that was... unsettling."

Nancy nodded. "I can't believe they could be so callous about that. If she coded...?" She wrapped her arms around her waist, shivering a little.

Ned shook his head. "Okay, what were you saying?"

Nancy explained about the doctor she had seen. "If we were in Atlanta, I could sort of buy a CDC doctor just randomly being here. But that... how long ago did she turn up?"

"The news report didn't say," Ned recalled. "Just that she was being treated here. Didn't even release her name."

"So she's really bad off. She looked like she'd been kept cooped up for a few days, but I didn't see the kind of marks on her... I don't know. So she escaped from wherever she was being kept, only that girl, none of the others, and she made it back..."

"Maybe she made a statement before she collapsed. Gave the cops some clue."

"And, with any luck, the noon news will tell me something about it too." Nancy shook her head. "Disease, Ned. What if... what if they're collecting these girls for medical tests. That could..." She had to force herself to continue. "That could explain why they took Savannah."

"An infection or a drug that only affects women?"

"Maybe they got their male test subjects in another town," Nancy said, glancing over at Ned. She patted his hand. "With any luck you're safe."

"And if they go after you..." Ned made a soft sound. "I'd feel a lot safer if you were armed. Something."

"I have you by my side," Nancy pointed out. "My own personal bodyguard."

Ned looped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her to him, and kissed her temple. "That's right."

They were halfway back to the inn when Nancy's stomach growled. Ned cast an amused glance at her. "We did rush out awfully quick this morning," he said.

"Might be quicker to get some breakfast out here, before we do some more exploring."

Ned shook his head, keeping a lookout for a pancake house. "You are relentless, you know that, Drew?"

Nancy opted for a stack of chocolate chip waffles, while Ned enthusiastically dug into a steak fajita omelet. Half the conversations she overheard around them were about the girl, wondering what had happened, saying that this would make tourists even less likely to come to the area. A couple mentioned the other girls, raising the question Nancy had been worrying about. Were the disappearances finished, or had they just begun?

If the girl truly was dead... Nancy shook her head. The bruise on her arm. What had caused it? She hadn't seen any obvious head injury, but...

Ned had a patient smile on his face when Nancy refocused. "Morning," he commented.

Nancy gave him a shy smile. "Sorry."

Ned shrugged. "It's okay. Another cup of coffee and maybe I can be exciting enough to keep your attention for ten minutes."

Nancy reached for his hand, patting it. "Let's go somewhere nice tonight, you and me," she said. "Celebrate. As long as we do some serious searching today, I think we deserve to kick back a little."

"We do have a lot to celebrate," he said, a slow smile lighting his features. "Baby, I can't wait to get back home."

She squeezed his hand. "I can't believe it," she whispered. He was hers.

And the sooner she was able to wrap up the case and get home, the better.

They had settled the check and were walking out when Ned suddenly turned back, digging in his pockets. A family filed in between them, and she couldn't see what he was doing. Then he reappeared, his fist closed around something.

"And what's that?"

He waited until they were back in the car to open his fist. He must have gone back to the small bank of child-height vending machines in the waiting area. In his open palm was a small clear plastic egg; a cheap ring with a heart-shaped red plastic stone slid around inside.

Nancy laughed. "How many quarters did that take?"

"Four," Ned admitted. "I gave the army men and the pony stickers to some kids. So, in lieu of the real thing... Nancy Drew, would you do the honor of wearing my cheap plastic ring until I can replace it with the diamond you deserve?"

"I will," she said, sliding it onto her left ring finger, then splaying her fingers to display it for him. "Oh, look how it shines," she laughed, then reached over to kiss his cheek.

She knew how ridiculous it was, but somehow that ludicrous ring made it feel real, more real than it had when he had accepted her proposal. She and Ned headed down the highway, stopping at deserted-looking barns and seedy warehouse spaces, looking for signs of recent occupation, freshly broken windows, suspicious vehicles. Every time the light caught that gaudy red heart, she smiled.

So many places to look. Too many places. Maybe the police did have some kind of clue. Maybe when they returned to the inn, the girls would be there.

Campgrounds with RV hookups. A tractor trailer.

It was too much to search through, too wide a radius. Too many options and not enough time. Whatever was going on, clearly they didn't have forever to find the girls.

Ned's stomach was the first to start growling at lunchtime, and though she hadn't said anything, her leg wasn't happy about all the walking they had been doing. She turned the endless tumult of her thoughts off for a little while, letting her subconscious mull over the case and their options, as she gazed at her boyfriend—her fiancé. He kept his gaze on the road ahead as he drove them back to the inn, but he was smiling.

"We should see if there are any campgrounds around here. That would be a good option," she commented. "After lunch."

"After lunch and a little rest break," Ned said, glancing over at her. "Your leg is bothering you."

She colored a little. She had thought she was keeping it pretty well disguised, but he knew her too well. She fought down the momentary impulse to snap back at him, to tell him that she could take care of herself.

"Well, if you insist."

"I do."

They brought take-out Chinese back to the inn, in time for the noon news broadcast. Lisa entered soon after it began, while Nancy, Ned, Joe, Arthur, and Diane were staring silently at the television.

"And, in our continuing coverage of the recent disappearances from downtown... according to sources at the hospital, the young woman who was admitted last night passed away this morning. The cause of death has yet to be determined, and the police are treating the death as a possible homicide."

The broadcast switched to a reporter standing beside a policeman, a microphone in her hand. "The girl was discovered near the hospital," the policeman said, his voice and demeanor stiff as he gazed at a point between the reporter and the camera. "We have a search party out looking for the other girls. If anyone out there has any information that leads to their recovery, they should call the department at..."

Once the reporter back at the station moved on to the next story, Nancy finally opened the carton of shrimp fried rice and dug her chopsticks in.

Lisa had the grace to look a little uncomfortable. "So... any leads?"

Nancy swallowed her bite and nodded a little. "Some, but it's tough. We've been trying to trace them, but I'm really hoping that after this afternoon we can narrow down the search a little."

Lisa nodded, sitting down at the edge of a dining chair. Joe, who had been listening, wild-eyed, to them, rose and went out.

"I'm just, so glad, that girl... wasn't one of them..." Lisa murmured. "Maybe they're still out there, okay..."

Nancy nodded, although every possibility she could think of made her less and less optimistic about a safe return.

Arthur and Diane glanced at each other. "Well, we're leaving tomorrow morning," Arthur said, "but in the meantime, want some help?"

Nancy and Ned exchanged a glance. "Oh, no, that's okay," Ned said gently. "I'm sure you guys have plenty to do..."

"We've already looked at all the venues, and talked them over with Christie," Diane said. "Come on, let us poke around."

After cautioning the couple to stay in their car and call the police immediately if they spotted anything out of the ordinary, Nancy directed them to the southern part of town. "I mean it," Nancy said sternly. "Anything suspicious, get out of there and call the cops. Better safe than sorry."

Ned chuckled to himself. Nancy shot a loaded glance at him, making a face. "What?" he protested. "It's just... funny, hearing you say it."

"I didn't say it wasn't good advice," she said. "Just that I never take it."

Eric was at the coast with some of his friends for the day—and Nancy tried hard not to perk up when she heard that, though she made a mental note to see if he acted at all suspicious when he returned—and so Lisa asked Ned if he would mind running a few errands for her. He left Nancy with a kiss, and by the time Nancy made it up the stairs by herself, she was ready for that nap he had been practically insisting on.

First, though, she had something to do.

"Nancy," Hannah said warmly. "I'm beginning to forget what you look like, girl. Tell me you're close to wrapping up this case."

"I hope so," Nancy said, wincing as she straightened her leg. "It's tough, though. Is Dad... available?"

"He's actually at the office," Hannah said, sobering, and Nancy shook her head. "I told him not to go, and he swore he would only be there a few hours..."

"He'd better only be a few hours," Nancy said sternly. "If he's a second longer, you have my permission to go down there and bodily collect him."

Hannah chuckled. "I'll be sure to let him know that you demanded it," she replied. "You sure the case isn't going well? You sound... pleased, maybe?"

Nancy glanced down at the plastic ring. "It's... I just wanted to tell Dad something I thought would cheer him up," she said softly. "It'll keep, though. It's okay. I miss you, Hannah. Give him my love, and I'll try to call back around dinnertime."

When she hung up, Nancy debated calling Bess or George, but she was reluctant. They didn't know about the wound that had left her effectively stranded in Louisiana, and... well, she didn't want to tell them before she told her father about her and Ned's engagement. She really wanted to tell him in person, but she was also afraid the knowledge was going to make her explode if she had to wait that long.

She felt like she had only just closed her eyes, but when she opened them, she was a little flushed and Ned was sitting beside her, gazing down at her.

"Hey," he whispered.

"Hey," she replied, reaching for him, and he let her draw him down into the circle of her arms. She held him tight, and his lips brushed her temple.

"You okay?" he murmured.

"Yeah," she whispered, and kissed the corner of his mouth, the point of his jaw, his neck.

He nuzzled against her, brushing his lips over her neck, and then he was opening her pants, pushing the zipper down. She crooked her finger under his chin and brought his face back to hers, tilting her head to kiss him as he slid his hand into her panties.

It was the first time he was touching her as her fiancé.

He curved his fingers up inside her, his thumb rubbing her clit, as they kissed, and their movements were slow, almost lazy. She arched her hips to give him better access as she rubbed the heel of her hand against him through his jeans, and he made a soft noise into her mouth.

She knew they needed to go, to get back out there and look for the girls, but she couldn't help it. Oh God, she loved this, she loved the sensation of his fingers as he stroked and caressed her, loved the little noises he made as she unzipped his pants and slipped her hand into his underwear, gently palming his cock.

He would be her husband. He would pin her under him, he would find his pleasure in her, and while a small part of her was still terribly, terribly afraid, most of her wanted it, wanted to be one with him.

He kissed her when she began to moan and arch up under him, when she began to rock and shudder with the unbearable pleasure of her orgasm. He kept stroking her, until she came apart under him, frantically stroking his cock so he would follow, and when they finally collapsed, panting, to the bed, she was flushed and breathless, and so was he.

"I love you," he sighed. "Oh my God, I love you."

She smiled, bringing her hand up, fanning her fingers. "I know," she told him with a little chuckle, flashing the ring again.

He grabbed her hand. "I'm gonna frame that thing if you keep showing it to me," he told her, kissing her cheek.

"It's sweet," she smiled.

"You're sweet."

They began in the east. She kept feeling like they needed to head west, but they had spent all day yesterday in that direction, and since the girl had ended up at the city hospital, she had a feeling the girls had to be within a definite radius. She didn't really expect Arthur and Diane to find anything, but maybe they would. Maybe the old folks would blow the case wide open.

They had just gotten out of the car to explore an old abandoned factory site when Ned glanced over at her. "So, how do you imagine it," he said.

"Imagine what?"

He smiled a little. "Our wedding," he said, quieter, almost shyly.

She had been wandering away from him. She turned back and caught his hand in hers as they studied the windows, looked for patterns in the dust and fallen leaves to indicate a more elaborate trespasser than the usual teenage vagrants.

"Small," she admitted. "We won't have much time to plan and I don't... I don't really want that many people there anyway." She glanced over at him. "I mean, unless you do."

Ned shrugged. "Family and friends. I mean, we can invite the entire frat... if you want to wake up in Canada smelling like absinthe with no idea why you have half an Edgar Allan Poe poem tattooed on your ass..."

"That sounds like the perfect wedding night," she mock gushed, clutching at his hand.

"Yeah, well." He shrugged. "I was going to call my parents tonight and tell them...?"

She nodded. "Dad went to work today, or else I would have told him."

"He went to work?" Ned asked incredulously.

She nodded, shrugging a little. "If he had the strength to do it... I mean, he loves it. Lives for it." She snickered softly. "Here I am, hobbling around on a bum leg because I can't turn down a mystery. Not like I can judge."

Ned slipped his arm around her waist. "And we need to talk about that, too. I know detective work is what makes you happy..."

Nancy glanced over at him, her heart sinking. She had been worried about this conversation practically since the day she had fallen in love with him. She knew he loved her, but he worried about her so much, too.

He squeezed her gently. "Just be careful, okay?" he said gruffly. "It would tear me apart if anything happened to you."

"I know," she whispered. "Ned, I know... how much you worry, and..."

"And I love you," he said. "And this is what makes you happy. I wish you had a safer hobby, like rehabilitating rabid sharks or something..."

She chuckled. "That's always been my backup plan," she teased him.

He kissed her temple. "I know your leg is driving you nuts, but at least this way I can keep up with you."

She made a face. "Every morning I wake up wishing it would just be better," she sighed.

"Well, baby, I promise that if it's not better by the time we go on our honeymoon, I'll make sure you follow doctor's orders and get plenty of bedrest."

She raised her eyebrow at him. "Oh? So that's what we're going to be doing in bed? Resting?"

"Yeah. I mean, after we've had so much sex that we technically can't move anymore."

She slipped her arm around him and squeezed his side. "Long as we're gentle the first time," she whispered.

Ned's smile was tentative. "Oh, sweetheart, we will be. I promise."

She had had such high hopes for the abandoned factory, but they found no signs there. Three more warehouses, four barns—and all they saw were a few stray dogs, cans pockmarked with buckshot, the dark stain of the high-water marks.

"You know," Ned commented, once they were back in the car and she was rubbing her leg, debating asking if he wanted to soak in the tub with her later, "there's one place that just occurred to me."

"Oh?"

"The old hospital," he said.

"Hmm," she said. "It does have this nice symmetry to it. The crazy doctor... what if he's behind it all?"

"Crazy doctor?"

"The CDC one." She waved her hand. "Experiment goes too far, he dumps her at the real hospital, shows up to offer his services. Yes! Oooh."

Ned gave a fist-pump. "Okay, so we run out there, go back and get changed for dinner, have a super-romantic meal and fool around after... and with any luck we find these guys, call the cops and let them know on the way back, then first flight out tomorrow."

Nancy closed her eyes, letting out a long moan. "Don't tease me," she groaned, turning to look at him.

"I'm being optimistic. There's a difference."

They took a few wrong turns on the way out to the hospital. Apparently it had been built before a bypass road, and while it was set back slightly from a divided highway, the road itself was in disorder. Ned gritted his teeth as they went over half a dozen potholes. "If we pop a tire on the way back, someone is going to get a strongly-worded letter," he growled.

Nancy winced as she slipped out of the passenger seat, rubbing briskly at her leg. Ned reached down to help her up and she quietly gasped in pain. "I think you said something about a quick visit," she murmured, rubbing her leg again.

Ned shook his head. "Maybe we should just come back tomorrow. You look..."

"We're already out here," she pointed out. "Might as well poke around, it shouldn't take too long."

The hospital was four stories, and though Nancy remembered from the newspaper article that it had only been abandoned for a relatively short period of time, it already looked disheveled, almost sullen. Grass had poked through the pavement and lay in pale dead blades on top. The windows on the lower floors reflected the sunset in a blinding opaque sheet.

Nancy grasped Ned's hand again as they began to circle around the main entrance. "Two cars back there," Ned pointed out quietly.

"Maybe drug deal?" Nancy mused aloud.

"Yeah, that makes me feel safe," Ned muttered.

Nancy squeezed his hand. "Don't worry, Nickerson. I'm here to protect you," she said, and fluttered her lashes.

A flicker of movement caught her eye, and despite her bravado, she felt a cold shiver cross her stomach.

"Think two cars is enough proof to get the cops out here?"

Nancy shook her head. "We're already out here," she said again. "And I think we're close, Ned, I think this was a good idea. If it's not this place, it's one like it."

Ned sighed as he glanced up at the hospital. "At least if it were night, we'd be able to see lights in the windows."

Then they saw the three men walking around the side of the building, heading straight toward them. None of the men were familiar to Nancy, although the sensation she felt when she saw them was familiar. They were dangerous.

"You're trespassing," the one in the center called out. The two on the outside exchanged a glance, though, then turned their attention back to Nancy.

A woman. She was a woman, and that was apparently what they were looking for.

"You're trespassing," Nancy replied defiantly, as Ned tugged her to a stop. "We're part of the search party. What are you doing out here?"

Ned's grip tightened on her. "I think this is enough to call the cops," he murmured. "Come on, sweetheart. Let's go."

The three men were moving so fast, too fast, in the shadow of the crumbling building. Now all three of them had their gazes fixed on Nancy. The one in the center broke off and began to run, a wicked grin on his face.

"Run," Ned said urgently, pulling her with him.

But she couldn't run.

She tried as hard as she could, though.

The man reached for Nancy's arm and she shook him off, letting out a soft pleading cry. He snatched at her again and managed to whip her around, and she was panting, trying to think of any martial arts move she could try that didn't require putting too much weight on her bad leg.

He grabbed at her again and Ned shouted an epithet at the man. Behind him, the other two seemed to be either jeering or chastising him, Nancy didn't know which.

Then the man darted forward, and Ned swept Nancy behind him, bringing his fist back for an uppercut.

It was so quick that it felt like it was over before it had even begun. She blinked and Ned was collapsing to the ground, in a pool of dying sunlight.

She had no idea what the man had done to Ned, but it had been brutal.

Panic flooded through her, giving her the strength to ignore her wound and Ned's weight as she began to pull him to his feet. He almost lost his footing a few times, but together they made it back to the car. Her heart was beating so hard that the pounding seemed to echo in her shaking limbs.

"Keys! Keys!" she demanded, glancing frantically over her shoulder, praying desperately that the guys would lose interest once they were in the car, that one of them wasn't running back to get in his own vehicle and pursue. Ned's pallor and labored breathing were scaring her. He dug in his pocket and dropped the keys onto her lap.

When she looked over at him, he was shaking.

She was choking, and only by supreme effort did she not start screaming. Distantly she knew her leg was throbbing, as she jammed her foot down on the accelerator, listening for the muffled thump of one of them throwing himself on the car. She gritted her teeth and peeled out onto the highway, cutting off three cars as she did so. The angry bleats of their car horns followed her as she pressed the pedal even harder.

A hot stab of pain lanced through her leg. She ignored it, glaring at the speedometer, palpably willing the car to go faster.

"Ned? Ned?" she asked, turning to catch a quick glance at him. "Are you okay? Are you bleeding?"

He didn't answer, and she realized that the gasped breaths she was hearing were her own. A small tremor went through his hand when she touched it.

"Shit. Shit," she gasped out, slamming the palm of her hand into the steering wheel as her eyes filled with tears, blurring the road in front of her. "Ned, come on, please. Please don't scare me like this."

When she cast another glance at him, he looked still as death.

Chapter Text

A solitary news van was still parked outside the hospital's emergency department. Nancy noted it absently, without really registering it.

She was terrified that Ned was going to die right next to her. That as fast as she had driven, through the winding streets and wrong turns away from the abandoned hospital, she was too late.

She touched Ned's hand again, and felt a tremor go through him. Oh God, oh God, she couldn't be too late, she couldn't. "We're almost here," she told him, pulling up outside the emergency department and screeching to a stop, yanking the keys out and running inside, leaving her door open. She was practically vibrating with adrenaline.

"I need help!" she screamed when she walked in, and when the first staff member walked toward her, she led them out to the rental car.

As soon as they put Ned on one of the curtained-off beds, Nancy felt her knees go weak. She had been paying attention, but she was pretty sure that the guys from the abandoned hospital hadn't followed them; if they had any intelligence whatsoever, though, they knew where she was going. Just that thought drained her. She had to keep him safe, until they could figure out what was wrong.

He had seemed fine. What the hell had happened? They had just been talking about the wedding...

At that thought Nancy's lower lip started to tremble, and she collapsed into a chair just outside the curtain. They were working on him frantically, asking him questions and receiving no intelligible response, calling for IVs and medications.

"Ma'am? You brought this man in?"

Nancy nodded at the emergency technician. "Yeah, I brought him in. Ned. Ned Nickerson."

"Can you tell me what happened?"

Nancy wiped her face and managed to get herself under some small measure of control, managed to force it back down, although she could still feel it trembling in her, around her heart.

While the technician checked off something on her clipboard, her dark eyes down, Nancy glanced down at the ring on her left hand.

"What's your relationship?"

"Fiancé," Nancy said, her gaze still on the ring. "He's my fiancé."

She went over the story once more with Nancy, with another technician listening, while behind the curtain they kept working on him.

"Are you his next of kin?"

Nancy shook her head. "His parents," she said, and cleared her throat, her eyes filling with tears again. Oh God, oh God, they were going to call his parents, and they would be devastated if he was still like this...

She had put him in danger again. She had done this. Her fault.

He had even suggested that they come back tomorrow, but she had just shrugged it off.

"Miss Drew?" the technician asked impatiently, and Nancy glanced up, taking great gulping breaths, trying to keep herself from sobbing, but she knew she was about to lose it entirely. Apparently she had been asking something and Nancy hadn't responded. She forced herself to pay attention.

"Miss Drew, we need the phone number for his next of kin."

She knew his parents' number by heart, she had called it so many times. She reeled it off, dread rising thick in her.

"He's going to be all right, isn't he?" she asked, pleading with her eyes.

"We don't... we don't know what's wrong," the technician said. "We're still eliminating possibilities. Was he complaining of shortness of breath, a weak feeling, maybe flu symptoms earlier today?"

Nancy shook her head. "He was fine," she said.

"And you? Were you experiencing any of those symptoms?"

Nancy shook her head, but her hand stole to her leg, massaging it. As soon as the adrenaline had worn off, it had started hurting again, throbbing terribly. "Has something like that been going around?"

If she treated it like a case, she could push her panic aside for a while. Flu. If he had the flu—

But he hadn't had the flu, and considering how close they had been over the past two weeks, she would have it too. And she didn't.

The technician started giving vague answers to Nancy's questions, especially when she asked if they had a cause of death on the missing girl yet. Then the technician's gaze became downright suspicious, and she excused herself, peering behind the curtain.

It took less than a minute for the panic to rise again.

Ned, she thought, staring at the linoleum floor, seeing to something beyond it. Ned, please, please be all right. Please just say that you didn't eat enough at lunch and you just fainted and we'll go out tonight, and we'll dance until I can't stand up anymore, I swear, please, please baby. Please.

She was afraid to look beyond the curtain, afraid of what they would say when she asked what was going on, so she strode over to the window. She hadn't seen anyone suspicious approach Ned's bed, and when she looked at the parking lot, she didn't see anyone standing and obviously staring in her direction. But of course she wouldn't.

The expression on their faces when they had gazed at her. When they had gazed at him. She didn't know why, but she was convinced that they were going to come after them again.

The abandoned hospital. If she wasn't so worried about him, she would call for backup and go out right now.

The darkness had fully fallen when Nancy walked over to the receptionist's desk. "I need the number of the local law enforcement office," she said.

Waiting for the officer to respond to her call was exhausting. To keep herself focused, Nancy made notes about what she had seen, everything she could remember. What the three men had been wearing. Hair color, eye color, height. The cars—all she could remember was that one was silver, one black. Couldn't remember license plate numbers.

The expression on their faces. It had been the same. Locked on her.

And now Ned was defenseless in a hospital bed.

The cop who walked in wasn't the same one who had come out when she had called in finding Ronni's purse, but he greeted Nancy with an expression that told her he was very aware of her assistance on the case. He looked weary, wary. "Miss Drew, you say you were assaulted?"

Nancy nodded. "At the old hospital. Three men. I have descriptions."

He glanced over the paper she offered, desultory. "What was the nature of the assault?"

Nancy rubbed her forehead. "I'm not sure quite what they wanted to do, but my b—fiancé and I were attacked. He's being treated now."

The cop raised his eyebrows. "What did they do to him?"

"The doctors don't know yet," Nancy admitted.

"You were there; what did you see them do?"

"They started coming after us. We were running away," Nancy explained. "One of them grabbed him. It was so quick. He fell—he was weak, and I managed to get him to the car, but he started shaking—"

The cop lowered his notepad. "Maybe he had an attack of nerves, ma'am."

Nancy felt like screaming, and opened her mouth to explain just how many bad guys had unsuccessfully gone after Ned, then closed it again. From the almost contemptuous condescension on the cop's face, she knew he was going to disregard whatever she said. "It wasn't an attack of the nerves," she said finally. "He's not like that. He went cold."

"Shock," the cop suggested. "There's been a strain of flu going around..."

Nancy dug her nails into her good leg to keep from slapping the man. "He didn't have the flu," she forced herself to say evenly. "I'm sure whenever the doctor figures out what happened to him, he can let you know. In the meantime, though, the reason I called you is—you need to go out there, to track down those guys. Has anyone checked the old hospital to see if the missing girls might be there?"

The cop's brows knit. "Look, Miss Drew... we'll send someone out there. But, going by your description, it's more likely that you interrupted a drug deal. Now, when your—when Mr. Nickerson wakes up, we'll send someone by to get his statement. In the meantime, though, it sounds like you aren't even sure whether he was actually attacked."

"He was." Nancy drew in a ragged breath. "I'm sure he didn't faint or pass out or—" She rubbed her forehead again.

The cop pulled back the curtain, and she heard him ask if there were any signs of violence on Ned. The nurse made a response, and then the cop sounded more excited.

Nancy didn't realize how afraid she was to see him, to confirm that he looked just as terrible as he had when they had brought him in, until she was facing the curtain, her hand on the edge, about to pull it back.

The nurse was showing the cop something on Ned's arm. She had peeled back a bandage stuck on with adhesive.

Nancy couldn't help but stare. The cop turned and saw Nancy standing there.

"So you didn't see them do this?"

Nancy shook her head, staring at his arm.

A roughly circular wound, the skin swelled around it.

The cop shook his head. "Definitely a drug deal," he said. "Who else would do something like this?"

A bite mark. It was a bite mark, she realized belatedly. And so damn quickly. She tried to remember whether Ned had tried to punch the man and the man had defended himself with a snap of his jaws, but it was all blurred. She couldn't.

A bite. Nancy shivered a little. Just the thought of it, how immediate and personal and savage it was, made her shrink a little.

The experiment.

Ned wasn't moving. Nancy looked at the monitors beside the bed, the reassuring beep representing his heart rate, and tore her gaze away from him long enough to glance at the nurse.

"What's wrong with him?"

The nurse shook her head. "We're not sure. It looks like he may have gone into shock." She sighed. "We'll know more after we look at his blood."

But her tone meant that she wasn't sure, not really, and Nancy tried not to roll her eyes when she saw how self-satisfied the cop looked at that explanation. Of course that was what he would want to hear.

What the hell would have sent him into shock? Nancy knew she had gone into shock from blood loss when the—

For so long she had avoided thinking about it. Her skin had been so sensitive, tender to the touch, from all the bruises. Her mouth had been sore from the punches, from the press of her teeth against the impact of the enforcer's knuckles. The concussion hadn't helped.

But the worst had been the blood, Ned's terrified face, the sensation that she wasn't really there at all anymore. His arrival had saved her life; as much as she had wanted to dismiss his panic, she knew it was true.

She remembered Ned's face, when she had come back to herself in the hospital bed, the hesitance in his fingertips on hers. He had tried to keep his voice steady but she had felt herself vibrate with the tension she could hear there. If I could, baby, he had whispered, I would take this all myself. I can't bear to see you like this. And if I'd lost you...

This whole trip had been for her, and now he was lying there and it was her fault, and she felt the sob rise, unstoppable, in her chest. He was lying there and it was her fault.

The nurse glanced over sharply. Nancy had tried to muffle herself but the tension and worry were too much. The cop glanced over too, but to him, she was just another hysterical girlfriend by another bedside. "Ma'am?"

Nancy sank down into the chair by his bedside, burying her face in her hands, and felt it sweep over her until her sight was blurred with tears. She constricted with the sobs, painfully hard.

He was going to be all right. He had to be all right. Had to be. He was going to marry her.

She could not lose him.

The cop said he would check back later, and the nurse asked if Nancy was all right, and she managed to insist that she was. Another nurse came in to check on Ned, then a doctor, and Nancy kept trying to force it down, force it down, but she was shaking with sobs. As soon as they were actually alone, Nancy rose to her feet, wincing at the pain in her leg, and stood over his bed, gazing at his face.

He was so still, so pale.

She hesitantly slipped her hand into his. "Ned," she whispered, and she choked up in the middle of it. "Ned, please wake up. Please. Why can't they fucking figure out what's wrong..." She smoothed his hair back from his face, then let her palm rest on his cheek. "Oh my God, baby. Sweetheart, please."

She leaned down and very gently brushed her lips over his cheek. When her skin brushed his, her flushed, wet cheek, her heart beat painfully hard, but he made no response, not even a tremor.

She didn't hear a throat clearing, the scrape of a sole over the linoleum, but when she glanced up, shoving her hair out of her face, he stood there. The doctor she had seen earlier, with the CDC badge. Another wave of tears slipped down her cheek as she glanced at it, reading the name.

M. Morbius

"Hello," he said, glancing from Nancy to Ned. "So the young man was attacked."

Nancy nodded. "Are you his doctor?" she asked, panic surging in her.

Morbius shook his head. "No, just... thought I'd see if I could offer any assistance." He reached for Ned's chart, glancing over it, then walked to the other side of the bed. He peeled back the adhesive, and Nancy kept her gaze on his face.

He showed absolutely no surprise at the mark he found there.

"Do you know what's wrong with him?" Nancy burst out, squeezing Ned's hand, and her relief at feeling the slow pulse beating there almost made her knees weak. "They've been saying the flu, shock, the nerves... something... but you—"

Morbius glanced up at her, mildly. "They'll probably know more once the tests come back."

"They will," Nancy repeated. "What about you? Why are you here?"

Morbius took a small penlight out of his pocket and pushed back Ned's eyelids, flicking the beam over his eyes. Nancy felt Ned's hand move in hers, and sucked in a trembling breath.

"Is that—is it a good sign?"

Morbius glanced up at her again and Nancy was suddenly so incredibly angry that she wanted to grab him by the collar and shake him. "For God's sake, if you have any idea what's wrong with him—"

Morbius reached over and touched her hand, and Nancy felt something suddenly surge in her, angry, wrestling, before it subsided. "What is he to you?"

"My fiancé," Nancy replied, her gaze locked to Morbius's face.

"You love him," he said, and it wasn't a question, but she nodded anyway. Morbius took a deep breath. "There's nothing more you can do for him tonight," he said. "Go home and get some rest. You can't do anything for him here."

Nancy took a deep breath too, but she felt like she was drowning. How was it that this afternoon he had been fine, and now... "I can't leave him here."

"Visiting hours are going to be over soon," Morbius said. "You can't stay here with him."

Nancy shook her head. "He's... isn't there any way? I'll stay back here, I'll be quiet—"

Morbius shook his head too. "Go home, Miss Drew."

Nancy looked down. "Just let me tell him good night," she murmured.

Morbius cast a glance at her before he left them alone behind the curtain, and Nancy turned back to Ned, caressing his cheek again. His lips moved soundlessly.

"I don't want to leave," she whispered. "What if you—"

But she couldn't say the words. She leaned down and kissed him softly, and when her eyes fluttered open again, he still lay there, his eyes closed.

"I love you so much," she said, running her thumb down his cheek. "I love you. Come back to me, sweetheart. I'll be back in the morning and if you aren't awake, I will—I will be very disappointed." She cleared her throat. "I'll get your parents to come down here and talk some sense into you."

Her nose was running from crying so much. She blew her nose, wiped her face, then came back to him with a sigh.

Morbius was probably standing outside listening.

She leaned down to brush her lips against Ned's ear. "You have to wake up," she whispered. "We were talking about our wedding, baby, remember? We have to get home. Please, please wake up, sweetheart."

She kissed him one more time before she finally, slowly forced herself to pull back the curtain. Morbius was waiting there, unsmiling, his eyes sharp on hers.

Nancy wasn't sure why, but she couldn't make herself smile at the man. "Take good care of him, okay?"

"We'll try."

It was only once she was in the car, her eyes closed in brief prayer before she cranked the car, that she realized she had never told the doctor her name.

She wanted to go back inside, desperately, to confront the doctor, but the pain from her leg seemed to radiate all the way to her molars. She was late for her pain pill, and it was back at the inn, and...

Ned. Her heart constricted painfully in her chest.

The fucking CDC.

She had been curious when she had seen Morbius the first time. Now that Morbius was interested in Ned, she was terrified.

There was no way he didn't know something.

She would find him in the morning and beat the hell out of him if she had to, just to get him to give her a straight answer.

Driving back to the inn was uncomfortable. Ned had handled the driving for their trip, and her leg ached every time she shifted it. By the time she made it to the inn, the wind had come back up, and the porch light was haloed in the mist. Arthur and Diane's car was parked out front, and Joe's.

Nancy dragged herself up the front steps and looked at the stairwell when she opened the door, her eyes filling with tears. Ned had, over her protests, just picked her up and carried her so many times.

"Did you find anything?" Joe demanded immediately, and for a second they just gazed at each other. Nancy knew she looked terrible, but Joe was wild-eyed, sallow, his voice on the verge of panic. "Did you find her?"

"Any of them?" Lisa asked, more quietly, although Nancy couldn't look away from Joe. The same panic and desperation in Joe's eyes were in Nancy's own, and there was no way he had anything to do with Savannah's disappearance. Unless he was the best actor she had ever seen, and she didn't sense that in him.

"Nancy?"

Finally Nancy looked away, toward Lisa. The older woman gasped. "You look terrible."

Nancy ran her hand through her disheveled hair. "I need to take a pill," she managed to say, and Lisa immediately came to her, letting her lean on her as they went up the stairs together. On the way there Nancy's cell phone started ringing in her purse, but she couldn't get to it in time. As soon as they went into the room Nancy shared with Ned, Nancy felt a wave of sadness wash over her again.

He had to be okay. He just had to be okay.

She downed her pain pill with a long sip of water, gasping as she sat heavily on the edge of the bed. Joe had come upstairs, and Arthur and Diane were in the hallway.

"Did you find anything?" Diane asked, her eyes wide and sympathetic. "We thought we found something—but she was just a runaway, it turned out." She glanced away.

Nancy sighed. "Ned and I were chasing down a good lead—the old hospital. But we ran into three guys there, and they attacked us. We got away. Ned was—he was injured. And now—" Nancy had to stop and focus hard, but her voice started shaking anyway. "He's unconscious and the doctors don't know what's wrong with him yet."

Arthur, Diane, and Lisa made the appropriate horrified noises. "So he's at the hospital?" Lisa asked.

Nancy nodded. "The cops... I don't know if they're going to do anything, and I'd go out there, but..."

The five of them looked at each other. On the other side of the window, the night was already cold and dark, and given how exhausted they all looked, Nancy was sure no one was going to volunteer.

Arthur glanced over at Diane. "Well, if we weren't leaving in the morning..."

Nancy shook her head. "It's okay. I'll find some evidence, something, to make the cops go out there. And if it's not that place, it's one like it." She sighed again.

Joe looked around at them. "You mean you think she might be out there?"

"I don't know," Nancy said. "I don't know what those guys were doing out there, and it's... it's possible. But, Joe, these guys—they were big guys—"

"Do you think I give a fuck?" he asked, searching in his pocket for his car keys. "Where is this place again?"

Lisa shook her head. "Joe, please. In the morning, we can get some people—"

"She's been gone for two days," Joe said angrily. "Just another twelve hours? The baby—"

Joe shook his head, his mouth tight, and pounded down the stairs. With a glance back at Nancy, Lisa headed after him, pleading with him not to go. Arthur and Diane shuffled forward into Nancy's room, as Nancy heard Stephen's footsteps coming down from the attic room.

"What's going on?" the writer asked, looking down the stairs, to where Joe and Lisa had gone.

Nancy sighed. "Please try to help talk him out of it," she murmured, as the door slammed downstairs.

Diane spoke up once Stephen had followed. "Nancy? Do you need anything?"

Dinner. She and Ned had been planning on having dinner together. Nancy's face crumpled for a moment, but she focused on her breathing, looking away from Diane's pitying expression. "Um. I... I haven't had dinner, but I'll just go downstairs and get a sandwich or something—"

"Nonsense," Diane said, waving a hand as she headed for the stairs. "I'll be right back. You just put your feet up and relax."

Arthur gave Nancy a smile as he followed, and Nancy was left alone, the door open, her leg throbbing. She winced as she pulled her leg up onto the bed with her and fell onto her back, panting.

She was just trying to focus on something, anything, to not think about Ned, but she could still feel the ring on her finger, and just the knowledge that it was there made her think of him. Maybe if she just got a few hours of sleep, she could go back and see him—

Her leg throbbed and she winced, comforting it.

When footsteps pounded up the stairs, she opened her eyes. Stephen paused in the doorway of her room.

"I couldn't stop him," Stephen said. "He... you didn't see him."

Nancy shook her head. "I understand," she said quietly. If it were Ned out there, no one would be able to stop her either.

Lisa brought Nancy a sandwich, and Nancy accepted it gratefully, propping herself up on the pillow. "So... just don't leave crumbs everywhere," Lisa said, only half joking. "Um... on tonight's news. Seven more girls."

Nancy's eyes widened. "Shit. When?"

"Two nights ago, apparently." Lisa shook her head. "I didn't want bad publicity for the inn, but now everyone's focused on downtown, the places they vanished from... I didn't want it to be like this. Seven more girls."

"Still all women?"

Lisa nodded. "Young girls, too. College age."

Nancy shook her head. "Would you mind bringing me my purse?"

As soon as she finished her sandwich, Nancy called the police station again, this time asking for whoever was in charge of the case. When the person on the other end asked if Nancy had a tip, she said she might.

"This is Lieutenant Carter."

"My name is Nancy Drew. I've called a few times—"

"Ahh. Yes."

"I told the officer who talked to me a few hours ago that my fiancé and I were attacked out at the old hospital—"

"Yes. Thank you for the tip."

Nancy heard the dismissal in his voice. "Well, the husband of one of the missing girls is on his way out there right now," she said, her voice firm.

"Look, we went out there. No cars, no nothing. Whoever they were, they were long gone, and if they go after someone else—"

Nancy gritted her teeth to keep from screaming at the man.

"Then we'll bring them in, see if you can identify them. Unless you've remembered anything else," he said, his tone strongly implying that he was sure she hadn't.

"I just..." Nancy shook her head. "I just wanted you to be aware. Maybe... maybe you can catch this guy before he breaks in to private property and gets himself in trouble."

She felt terrible saying it, even thinking it, but her gut feeling was telling her that Joe had made an awful mistake going out there alone. If the cops went inside to find him and found evidence of the girls being there...

"We'll take that under advisement," the lieutenant said. "And if your fiancé wants to come in and prefer charges—"

"He's—" Nancy swallowed hard. "He's still unconscious."

"I'm very sorry to hear that, Miss Drew."

Her thoughts were swirling when she hung up the phone, and after a long, laborious trek to the bathroom to brush her teeth and get ready for bed—she bathed her flushed face, but her blue eyes were still reddened from her tears—she turned off the lights and tried to go to bed. Every single muscle seemed to be complaining, and she couldn't find any way to get comfortable, and Ned, Ned would have rubbed her back, would have curled up behind her and wrapped her in his arms—

No one was around to see her. She groaned as she turned onto her side and buried her face in his pillow, inhaling his scent, and her entire body seemed to constrict with her sobs, muffled in the fabric.

What if—what if it was the same, what if when she went back in the morning he just, he just stopped, like the girl who had been found—

She was choking, curling into the fetal position, and oh God, oh God, no, he couldn't die. He couldn't.

She needed him. She needed him here to help her marshal her scattered thoughts, needed him here to reassure her, to hold her. When she even considered calling her father, she only sobbed harder. If she talked to him in the state she was in, she would only worry him.

Her missed call. She hadn't even checked it, just dismissed the notification to call the police station.

She waited until she was calmer, until her breath wasn't shaking with sobs, then pushed herself up and blew her nose again. It had to be her pills and her worry over her father and just the combination of everything making her so upset about him. Surely she would walk into his room in the morning and he would be awake, demanding pancakes, chastising her for worrying so much about him that she put herself into this kind of state. And she would gladly endure the ribbing, the teasing, as long as he was okay.

"Nancy," Ned's mother said on the voicemail message she had left. She sounded upset, and immediately Nancy buried her face in the pillow again. "Sweetheart, they called, and—and we told them that you have medical authority for him, okay? Just make sure they do everything they can. Call as soon as you wake up, give us an update, and we'll get on the next plane down there if he's not—if he's not okay."

She was going to have to call them. To call his parents.

She wanted to scream.

The night passed so slowly, so very slowly, and she couldn't rest, couldn't drift off for more than a few minutes without jerking herself awake. She fell into a nightmare where she could only chase after Ned, could only catch glimpses of him as he walked before her. In another she looked down and found that her leg had caught on fire, and when she touched it it crumbled to ash in her fingers.

In another her father was okay again, was better again, and she walked into the kitchen and he was standing there, and in relief she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him hard. He asked if she wanted a slice of Hannah's chocolate cake, but when they checked it was all gone, and out in the garden Nancy saw only snow and ice, bare stalks, all the flowers gone.

And that one was the worst of all.

She took her pain pill as soon as she woke in the morning, and her leg ached as she washed her face and brushed her teeth. She glanced at the tub and thought of Ned's secret little grin as he knelt between her thighs, his fist clenched as she knelt between his. She looked down at her ring and then at her own gaze in the mirror.

He was fine. He was going to be fine. This was all because she was upset about her father and afraid for him, and terrified of losing the only other man she loved, the only man she could ever see herself marrying. And they would have it figured out, and he would be okay, and that conversation with his parents, that terrible conversation she always hated having with his parents, that wouldn't have to happen again. No.

Lisa was waiting downstairs when Nancy slowly made her way down for breakfast. She gave Nancy a wan smile, as Eric came down too. Eric shook his head.

Nancy glanced between them, her face going pale. "Oh, no. No."

Eric spoke up first, his voice quiet. "Looks like Joe didn't make it back last night."

"Is his car still gone?"

Lisa nodded. "I can't believe this," she burst out, slamming her mug down on the table. "What the hell is going on?"

Nancy shook her head. "I'm not sure, but I have an idea," she murmured. "Or at least I know of someone who might have an idea about what's going on."

"Oh?" Lisa raised her eyebrows.

Nancy shook her head, tearing off another bite of muffin. "I don't want to get your hopes up," she said. "But... I have to get to the hospital. I'll let you know as soon as I know anything, though."

Lisa gave her a small, quick smile. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "It's just been... God. Awful."

"Yeah," Nancy muttered. "I know."

The entire drive to the hospital, Nancy tried not to think about the day before, how she'd gotten her hopes up even though she hadn't tried. She tried to keep her mind blank, tried not to think about it at all, but if he wasn't awake, she was going to lie down on that bed with him and hold him until they figured something out. And then, once they at least lied to her and told her they had an idea about what was wrong, she was going to grab every cop she could find and go out to the old hospital.

She had thought her damn leg was getting better, but she had probably managed to get forty-five minutes of sleep total the night before, and her limp had worsened by the time she walked from the car to the emergency department.

She walked over to the bed where Ned had been the night before. The curtain was pulled back; that seemed like a good sign, she thought, trying not to let her heart rise.

But the bed was empty.

Nancy shook her head, although she could feel tears trying to prick behind her eyelids. So they had assigned him a room.

She walked over to the reception area. "Excuse me, ma'am?" she asked. "Mr. Nickerson, Ned Nickerson? He was admitted last night?"

The receptionist checked her records. "Um—right over there, where he was. We had a slow night—"

"But he's not over there. Maybe he was recently moved to a room?"

The receptionist clicked through a few more screens. "Mmm. I—I'm not seeing it—"

Her phone rang and she dove for it, and Nancy bit her lip, trying not to burst through the glass, shove the woman to the side and find him for herself.

She felt a hand on her arm, and when she turned she was somehow unsurprised to find Dr. Morbius's solemn face and steady eyes gazing into hers. "Miss Drew."

Nancy dipped her head. "And how did you—" she began.

Morbius shook his head. "May I speak to you for a moment?"

The receptionist was still on the phone, and Nancy allowed herself to be led away from the unhelpful woman. They walked back to the empty, freshly made-up bed where Ned had been the night before.

And she felt the first thrill of fear that maybe he hadn't been moved to a room, maybe—

"Miss Drew," Morbius said, folding his arms, and his gaze was hard on hers. "Please listen to me. You aren't from this area, are you."

She shook her head, mutely, her rage and impatience bubbling furiously.

"Go home," he said. "Forget about this, forget about him. Go home."

"I am not," she said angrily, "going to fucking forget about him. I am not going to leave him, so just tell me where the hell he is, you asshole."

Morbius's eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch, and that was the only sign of surprise he showed. "He's gone," he said simply.

"Gone?" Nancy's eyes filled with tears. "Gone? Did he—did he die..."

Morbius tilted his head. "Yes," he said softly. "If he's not dead by the time the sun goes down..."

"If he's not dead?" Nancy demanded, grabbing him by his coat. "Tell me where he is!"

Morbius shook his head. "You have to walk away from this."

"I won't," she swore, her lips shaking. "You tell me where he is and if I don't find him in time, you son of a bitch, his blood will be on your head."

He touched her arm again, then shook his head when she kept holding his gaze. "Come with me," he said simply, and turned away.

Chapter Text

"He's infected."

The room started to dim a little. "What is he infected with," she whispered.

Morbius shook his head. "It's hard to explain."

They sat in a small examining room off the emergency department. Half the time Morbius's eyes weren't on Nancy; they were on the door, the flash of blue scrubs as the nurses walked by.

"Try."

He glanced over at her. Her voice had been incredibly hard. "Something that will kill him."

Nancy's breath was edged in a quiet sob. "But he isn't dead yet. There's—there's a chance."

"There is no chance." His gaze—all of him—was as terribly serious as her voice had been. "If it hasn't taken him already... no matter what, Miss Drew, he's dead."

"Like the girl."

Morbius nodded. "It's that."

"But—where is he?"

Morbius's mouth quirked up just a little. "Ahh, that's a little trickier."

And then she knew, and she looked up at him. "He's at the old hospital, isn't he. Those men, they came here last night and took him and you didn't stop them—"

Morbius glanced at her, his eyebrows rising that quarter of an inch again. "What makes you think that?"

Nancy started to push herself up. "I'm going out there," she said. "You can be a coward, but I'm not giving up on him."

Morbius touched her hand, and she felt that terrifying struggle in her again, her rage threatening to overwhelm everything else. "You can't go out there," he said, his gaze hard.

Nancy jerked away from him, and she saw, for the barest second, something like anger on his face. "Don't touch me."

He shook his head. "You'll die if you go out there."

That did get her attention, for a moment. "But he's out there. And I have to try."

"You don't understand. You go out there and you will die. The girls who have been taken... you'll be like them."

Nancy sat down again and crossed her arms. "Tell me what's going on," she told him. "What kind of infection? What's going on out there, and how is Ned infected, how do you know he's at the hospital, the girls—"

Morbius looked down. "Is there anything I can say to change your mind?" he asked then, frankly. "Anything at all? If I tell you they're waiting with a machine gun and they'll just cut you down the second you walk in? That he's already dead and you can't save him by going out there, I guarantee that, I swear it?"

She refused to let herself think about that; she knew it would only make her upset. "Even if... even if what you're saying is true, you said those girls are out there. Even if I can't save him, I have to try... I have to help them." Her voice started shaking at the end of it, and she reached up to swipe a tear off her cheek. "The girls, the other ones. Infected?"

Morbius shook his head. "I'm sure they aren't," he admitted. "But you have no idea what you're getting into, what you're talking about doing."

"So tell me," Nancy sighed, wiping her cheeks again. "Since you're so convinced this is going to end badly, just tell me."

"They're vampires."

Nancy's eyes widened. "Wow. That's the best you've got?" she said, beginning to push herself up again. "I'm not some gullible little girl—"

"The bite. The bite I know you saw on his arm. Who bites like that?"

Nancy shrugged. "Someone who's high out of his damn mind," she said. "Like the cops said."

"And that bite, practically immediately, knocked him out."

"Shock," she mumbled, repeating what they had tried to placate her with the day before. "The early stages of an illness."

"Which sent a fully grown man in prime physical condition to his knees almost immediately." Morbius sighed. "Look, I know this sounds impossible. I'm very aware of that."

Nancy shook her head. "Are you even with the CDC?" she asked, gazing at his nametag again. Then another thought occurred to her. "Is the infection so bad that this is an easier lie to tell?"

Morbius pushed himself up, went over to the door, and locked it. "If I thought that would fly with you, I'd say that," he told her. "But you... you don't give up easily, do you."

"I don't," she affirmed.

"I am with the CDC," he said. "And I know he's been infected by a vampire because I am one."

Nancy just stared at him, trying not to let it show on her face. So he was insane, completely and totally insane.

It must have shown, though, because he opened his mouth and she saw his incisors actually fucking lengthen. She couldn't look away, and it was impossible, and yet it had happened. The white fangs gleamed, slick in the dark.

"You did this," she breathed. Everything in her seemed to have screamed to an instant stop. This couldn't—this wasn't happening. She was trapped in another nightmare.

Morbius shook his head, closing his mouth. "Let's start at the beginning, okay?" he asked wearily, and she nodded. Because she couldn't think of anything else to do.

He had to be crazy.

She had to be hallucinating. Lack of sleep. A trick of the light.

The beginning? Of what?

Morbius sat down in front of her and interlaced his fingers. "I have a rare blood disorder," he said. "It's not vampirism—it wasn't. It was painful, though, and I was trying to find a way to combat it before it killed me. I'm a biochemist, and I thought I'd found the key in nature; I experimented with serums from different animals, and finally found one I thought would work.

"It didn't," he said, glancing away.

"I gained... abilities. But at a terrible cost. I am incredibly strong, incredibly fast, and I heal very quickly; under certain circumstances I can actually fly, and some—most people, I've found, are pretty easy for me to influence. Not you, though." He shook his head.

"But... blood."

"But sunlight is painful," he nodded, "and I have to feed on the blood of living humans to survive."

Nancy shook her head. "I... I'm sorry. I can't believe that."

Morbius gave her a small, sad smile. "I was trying to keep myself from dying," he murmured. "Now I'm practically immortal. And, were I in your shoes, I wouldn't believe me either."

"And this... infection, you have. You passed it on."

Morbius shook his head. "My bite kills," he told her. "I definitely kill when I drain all of someone's blood, but if I just bite someone, in self-defense, in..." His lips quirked up in a sardonic smile, "in a fit of pique, one out of twenty might live. Might."

"So Ned has a chance." Nancy had no idea how much that thought meant to her until she felt the pressure, the terrible weight of believing he was doomed, temporarily rise. "Oh my God."

Morbius shook his head. "When I say live, I mean like me. Infected. Cursed with this. And this is not life. I have to feed, to survive. I have done—" He shook his head. "I have done terrible things to survive. I've lost people I loved. Please believe that I never wanted anyone to ever have to go through this... but there are times when I can do nothing but find someone else..."

Nancy felt the terrible impulse to glance at the locked door, wondering if now was one of those times.

"The men at the hospital," she said softly, hoping to keep him from thinking too hard about it. It didn't matter how hard he believed what he was saying; even if he was totally insane, his ripping her throat out would still kill her, whether he was a vampire or not.

"I'm getting to that. I had worked on finding a cure for this for years, and one of my colleagues had a very gifted young protégé whom he recommended to me. Ian Keller. I was reluctant to have anyone helping me on it—and the only reason I'm telling you now is because I'm hoping I can convince you to give up on this."

"You aren't at all worried I'll go to the police?" she asked, her gaze sharp.

Morbius gave her that same cold smile. "And tell them I'm a vampire, Miss Drew?" he asked. "And discover the same disbelief you're feeling? Tell them I'm a serial killer? There's absolutely no proof, I can tell you that. I'm very careful.

"But I have a reputation, and any number of people who can vouch for me. Ian, on the other hand... when Ian discovered the true nature of my disease, and what he was helping me do... he gave in to the same temptation that had made me wary of any assistance in the first place. He wanted the power, and the cost was of no consideration to him. To trade another man's life for what we can do..."

"That's... horrific."

Morbius inclined his head slightly. "Ian infected himself with a strain from the lab. While my bite may turn one in twenty men... Ian's probably turns one in four. Those he infected carry the same strain."

"And those he doesn't turn, die like the girl yesterday." Morbius nodded. "You said men," Nancy pointed out. "Did you mean people...?"

"I'll admit that I've merely bitten—as opposed to drained—far fewer women in my life," Morbius said. "When I can, I try to feed from those who... well, for lack of a better term, won't be missed, by society or by their families. Criminals, the guilty. Those who deserve the kind of death my... gift provides." He shook his head. "But I have known only one woman to survive the infection..."

He covered his face with his hands. "And she is the reason," he said, his voice muffled, "that I am sure no matter what I say, you are going to do this."

"Is she behind the attacks?"

Morbius shook his head vehemently. "Ian is. I know that Ian is. Martine would not do such a thing..."

"Martine?"

"My fiancée," he said, then sighed. "What you need to understand is that, if your young man survives, when the desire overtakes him... he will kill, or he will die, and even this... you have no idea how many times, how much I've wanted to just end it, but it is as unimaginable as starving myself to death. I cannot do it. It is a terrible existence, but it is an existence."

"And you want me to abandon him," she said angrily.

"Because if you do not, sooner or later, he will kill you," Morbius said, his voice hard. "He cannot resist it. That's what I'm trying to make you understand. If he is close to you when the desire overtakes him, you will be easy prey. His family, his friends, all who know him or ever trusted him. Why do you think Ian and his band are here, where they know no one? Where the innocents they feed on are unknown to them, tourists, easy prey? Another girl vanishes here and no one thinks—"

"But they are," Nancy said. "Seven girls in one night? Six others? The girls who were staying at the Sparrow Inn? That draws attention."

"And they can overpower anyone who comes after those girls, who comes poking around," Morbius pointed out. "As you should well know."

Nancy rubbed her forehead. Her head was starting to ache. "So they're taking the girls... as food. But you said you were sure they weren't infected."

"The infection kills, as you saw," Morbius said, and Nancy nodded. "The girl in the emergency room—"

"Was she conscious for at least part of the time? But with what happened to Ned—"

Morbius held up his hand. "Let me continue, Miss Drew."

Joe, the night before, his wild eyes, the barely caged panic. She was feeling it now. She needed to go out there immediately. She needed to find Ned. No matter what this lunatic was saying, he had to be all right, he had to be.

And if he wasn't—if he wasn't, she had to see it with her own eyes.

She swallowed, her eyes pricking with tears again, and noticed that Morbius had fallen silent, studying her. She raised her gaze to his.

"It's worse," he said quietly. "It's worse when you love someone this much."

Nancy took a deep breath. "Well, finish your story," she said roughly.

"I believe that Ian's trying something I never had the... well, to be honest, the need to do," he said. "I believe he's turned a few men, that he leads a group of maybe eight or ten. Ian was always very charismatic, and given our particular gifts... well, let's just say that I'm sure he has no problem keeping the group together. All those he turned will feel a certain allegiance toward him."

"And they function as...?"

Morbius shrugged. "Servants, possibly. Bodyguards, employees. Ian is very aware that, were I to decide he cannot continue this life, he would lose in a fair fight. Me against all of them, however, would prove more daunting."

"But you could eliminate him, his entire group, if you so chose," she said slowly.

Morbius nodded. "Yes."

"And you haven't? You've let him take all these women—"

"He's supporting himself and his group, and since only one of the women has turned up... I believe he's using them as a renewable resource. Take a moderately small amount of blood each from a large number of women, and you don't kill them, and they continue producing. Take a large amount of blood from one woman, and she's dead, and you have to find another."

Nancy stared at him, shocked at the matter-of-fact tone of his voice. "So he's—they—they're bleeding the girls."

Morbius nodded. "It appears so. Without biting them, which is smart. If they are hungry enough, and it appears one of them was, you get the girl who died in the ER yesterday morning."

"Is that all she represents to you? A spoiled meal?" Nancy's voice was trembling with anger.

Morbius shook his head. "I've been around for a long time, Miss Drew," he said. "Sentimentality has only gotten me into more trouble. I am what I am. I may hate it, but it is a fact, and sugar-coating it does no good to anyone."

"But you could stop him from doing this."

Morbius shrugged. "The girls are alive and uninfected, if my supposition is true," he said. "I can't help but admire the elegance."

"And captive, terrified—"

"And alive." Morbius glanced up. "Ian made his choice. The men he infected most likely did not. They have to live, still. They have to pay for electricity, for water, for everything else, and they pay for their strength and speed by feeding on blood."

"And if you—if you took care of this problem—"

"If I wiped out the group?" Nancy nodded her answer. "Miss Drew, why do you think I'm here?"

"Well, clearly not to do that," Nancy said, unconsciously comforting her throbbing leg again. "Because if you really are some quasi-supernatural being, and you knew where they were, you would have taken care of it."

"I've told you that I'm trying to develop an antidote, a cure." He sat back. "Ian and his group represent the perfect subjects. I learned a long time ago that testing my experiments on myself could backfire very easily."

Nancy stilled, gazing at him. "So as long as they keep out of your way, you just track their activity and... what, tag them like wild geese? Pull one out of the herd for your tests?"

"This time I didn't even have to go that far," Morbius said. "Before your fiancé disappeared, I did try the latest iteration on him."

"And?" Nancy asked impatiently.

"No physiological change. It didn't work." He looked away. "I fear creating a more terrible being," he said quietly. "My own blood... could be either the key or the curse."

Nancy stood up. "I'm going out there," she said. "I'm going to find him."

Morbius shook his head. "If he is there—even if he isn't, one of them will kill you. Maybe him, maybe one of the others."

"And I have to try."

"How can I put this." Morbius stood as well. "An ant in the face of a hurricane. That's what you'll be."

"So I just have to find a way to surprise them... and what, stake through the heart? Garlic? Silver?"

Morbius shook his head, reaching for the lock on the door. "Quick healing," he reminded her. "Garlic has no effect; a silver bullet is no different from an ordinary bullet to us. A cross or other religious symbol would no more burn me than it would you. And even if you did somehow manage to get the upper hand..."

His arm snaked around her waist.

She was wrenched bodily, and suddenly she couldn't breathe. There was no air. Her sight became a blur and she was waiting for the press of his teeth against her neck, panicked, struggling, but she could do nothing. For the space of half a heartbeat they stopped and then—

They were standing at the edge of the field outside the hospital, under the shade of a large tree.

The whole thing had taken maybe five seconds.

She pulled away from him immediately, stumbling a little, and was terribly aware that she was only able to do so because he let her.

She had not believed him. A part of her was still reeling, refusing, but she gazed up into his face, gasping for breath.

"Do you see?" he asked. "I'll admit, they are not quite as fast as I, but it's close. Let's say you manage to sneak up behind one of them. The others will be on you in seconds, and Miss Drew, you resemble nothing so much as a well-cooked steak to a starving man." Something in his eyes changed. "Were I not... already satiated..."

Nancy took another step back, into the protection of the sunlight. His grin was sardonic.

"So stakes are out," she managed to say, crossing her arms, forcing herself to ignore the throbbing in her leg. "What would you suggest?"

He sighed. "If you refuse to walk away... we heal what is injured, but we don't regenerate what is lost. Whatever you remove is gone. An arm, a leg... a head."

She nodded. "Fire?"

"I can't imagine a scenario that would work for that, frankly," he admitted. "Douse them in gasoline and immediately throw a match, maybe, but...?" He shrugged.

"And..." Nancy took a deep breath, trying to keep her voice from shaking. "How long do I have to find him, before... before it's done..."

He let her hang for a moment, speechless, her eyes gleaming. "It depends on the person," he admitted. "But generally it's determined within twenty-four hours. He will die, or he will... become one of us."

"But I don't understand why they would take him."

"He's a young man in excellent shape, and Ian can't have too many of those."

Nancy cocked her head. "Are you saying that... that once he turns, he won't be himself anymore?"

"He will be himself," Morbius said, and leaned back against the tree trunk. "He will feel... somewhat compelled, although not bound, to follow whatever the person who turned him says. And, by tonight, if he turns... he will have to feed. One of those girls, even one you knew before they were taken? He will drain her dry. He will hate himself for it."

Nancy pressed her fist against her mouth. "He would never do that."

"You've heard of humans doing terrible things in the face of imminent starvation," he said, crossing his own arms. "He will do what he must, to survive. It is like breathing. If he waits long enough, the hunger will take over. Like a child who stops breathing in a tantrum. The child passes out and begins to breathe again." Morbius shrugged. "Or he will be dead, and you cannot understand how much of a blessing that would be."

For an instant Nancy thought of her father, and it took every bit of her will to remain standing.

He was studying her when she glanced up at him again. She cleared her throat. "Another man went out there, last night, looking for his wife. He didn't come back."

"They killed him or infected him," Morbius said, without hesitation.

Nancy nodded. And he would have her believe that was her own fate, but she couldn't, she could not leave him there.

"If you come with me—"

Morbius shook his head. "I've tried out my current antidote; it failed," he said. "I'll be departing for Atlanta this afternoon to continue my research. If Ian... draws unwanted attention, which he is intelligent enough to avoid—yes, I know, he has been arrogant in his maneuvers already. If I need to confront him, I will—but I don't want to interfere, especially not for the sake of one paltry human being."

Nancy took a breath. "If I... you said Martine survived the... infection. So there's a chance—"

Morbius shook his head. "She wasn't infected with this strain, at first," he said.

"Another one you were working on?"

"No." Morbius gave a dark chuckle. "I am living. Someone dedicated enough can—has—killed me. The vampires you're thinking of, the ones who can be staked, who are harmed by garlic, who catch fire in sunlight... one of those initially infected Martine. My strain is the one that kills almost all infected with it. If you are bitten, no. There will be no chance for you."

Nancy opened and closed her mouth, then tried again. "There are other kinds—"

Morbius blinked at her. "Of course," he said. "One vampire in particular... if I were able to somehow..." He shook his head. "No. We were not meant to be this way. Yes, there are other kinds of vampires. If I ever do discover a cure... it will rid the world of a terrible plague." His smile was small, humorless. "And then perhaps, finally, I will be able to die."

As soon as she was back in the rental car, alone, Nancy just sat for a long moment at the wheel, trying to make sense of everything Morbius had told her, but it was impossible.

Either he was a liar—whether he believed what he was saying or not—or what he was saying was the truth. Maybe he had drugged her somehow, and that explained how she was suddenly outside—but she didn't think so. He had warned her strongly to stay away from the old hospital.

That made sense, if he was behind the disappearances. He had admitted he was using people for his experiments. And if he truly believed he was a vampire, and that he was trying to cure people of what was wrong with them...

Everything in her told her that she had to go there.

But she had to eliminate all the possibilities, anyway.

She called the hospital and, after a lengthy pause, was told that Mr. Nickerson was apparently no longer there. A small part of her had been terrified that Ned had died in the night and Morbius was using his absence as a way to lure her out to the old hospital. And, she had to admit to herself, that was still a small possibility.

But Ned was missing, Joe was gone, and the men who had attacked them had been there. If nothing else, maybe she could find some clues there.

What if he hadn't been lying.

It can't be true.

Nancy started the car and drove back to the inn without really seeing anything around her. Arthur and Diane's car was gone when she pulled up. Only she and Stephen were left as guests...

Nancy had cried and cried and cried until she was pretty sure she had no tears left. Even so, her eyes pricked a little at the thought.

Ned's parents were expecting to hear from her this morning. She had no idea what to tell them.

Lisa had left a folded note propped up on the front table for Nancy, saying that she had errands to run but she would love to hear any news about Ned or anything else she had found out. Nancy put it down, heading for the stairs, climbing them slowly.

Stephen met her at the top, shoving his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Just seeing who's here," he said. He gave a nervous chuckle.

"Arthur and Diane gone?" Nancy said, for lack of anything better to say. Stephen nodded, and Nancy pushed into the room she and Ned had shared. His toothbrush, hairbrush, toothpaste. She picked up his suitcase, gritting her teeth, and put them inside, gathered up the loose pile of his discarded clothes.

"Need any help?"

Nancy didn't want to, but she reluctantly accepted Stephen's offer, and together they took the bags downstairs. Stephen wandered into the kitchen for a drink as Nancy sat down at the table, her pen poised over a blank sheet of paper.

Lisa, thank you so much for your hospitality. If you find any problem with the bill and can't reach me, please call Hannah Gruen; her number is listed below.

I'm following a lead today and if I don't return... call the police. Tell them I went to the old hospital. Tell them anything you can think of to get them there, but under no circumstance should you let anyone else go out there. This is definitely too much for you or Stephen or Eric to handle.

Thank you again, and if I do fail, I'm sorry I wasn't able to do more. Otherwise I'll see you tonight.

It would be noon soon. Nancy forced herself to eat a sandwich and a pear, even though her good leg kept giving a little nervous jump every few seconds. She needed her energy. She grabbed a couple of caffeinated diet sodas and Stephen wordlessly helped her take her bags out to the rental car.

"So that's it then?"

"I don't know," she admitted, shading her eyes so she could look at Stephen. "Maybe I'll be back in an hour. Maybe I won't. Just... don't go out to the hospital, okay? Whatever's going on there, it's too much for one person to handle."

"And what exactly are you?" Stephen pointed out.

"I'm going to call the police, tell them about Joe. Get someone to go out there with me." She raked her hair back from her face. "Good luck on your book, okay?"

Convincing a policeman to go out to the hospital with her took longer than Nancy wanted, but eventually the lieutenant relented and said he would send a patrolman to meet her at the inn, so he could accompany her out there. He said he would be highly displeased if her lead turned out to be a dead end.

Morbius had said the only real way to kill them would be to disarm them—quite literally—or behead them. That would kill anyone, though, and for all she knew, Morbius had designed his story just to make her commit murder. Nor did she have anything on her she could use for such a purpose. The thought of very calmly purchasing a hatchet and using it to lop some man's head off was repugnant. The policeman would presumably have a gun, though.

For a split second she dearly wished she had a stake, a cross, something, even though Morbius had promised those would do her no good.

The patrolman pulled up behind her, then came to her car, indicated he would follow her out to the hospital. He was a solid, well-built man who had run a little to fat, with a very close crew cut and small avid eyes. She wasn't sure how much help he would be to her, but a part of her had already decided that, in the event of trouble, she would just grab his gun and use it herself, consequences be damned.

Nancy had just pulled onto the main road when she called home.

"Nancy! You had better be on the way."

Nancy's smile at the sound of Hannah's voice was watery. "Not quite yet," she said, with forced cheer. "Is he—"

"I believe so," Hannah said. "Hold the line for a moment. And—I'll only put him on if you promise you'll be getting back soon."

"I hope so," Nancy said, trying to keep her voice level and relatively normal. "I really do hope so."

"I'm surprised Ned hasn't just carried you to the next flight and duct-taped you to the seat."

Nancy bit her lip, blinking a pair of tears down her cheeks. "Me too," she said, holding the phone away from her mouth as she gasped in a sob.

"Hold on, sweetheart."

"Hello? Nancy?"

The sound of her father's voice very nearly broke Nancy completely. "Hey Dad," she said, her voice soft to keep her agitation from showing.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?"

He always knew her so well. But how could he even ask.

"The case has gotten me down," she told him. "But I... I have a lead I think will pay off. I'm on my way to check it out now. How... how are you feeling?"

"Not so bad," he said. "Although I do miss my baby girl terribly. Is your leg doing any better?"

Compared to those first few days in the hospital, Nancy knew it was. It still throbbed, though, and Nancy sandwiched her cell phone between her ear and shoulder to gently comfort it. "Some. Look, Dad... I just want you to know I love you, okay? You and Hannah. I miss you so much."

"We miss you too, Nan. And as soon as you have a flight number I'm sure Hannah will make something special for you." He chuckled.

"Can't wait," she said. "Love you, Dad."

"Love you."

Although the day was cold, the clouds had kept away from the sullen, glaring sun so far. Nancy tried a hundred different things to keep her from growing more anxious, but none of them worked. She glanced down at the ring on her left hand and her stomach clenched.

Ned, please be okay. Please. I'll be there soon, just hang on.

The policeman looked bored when he and Nancy got out of their cars. "So you say the guy came here last night and didn't come back. Is his car here?"

Nancy saw it parked over at the other corner, near the entrance. They peered inside, tried the doors, but it was locked, and Nancy didn't see anything overtly out of the ordinary inside.

"Is it possible he met someone here, and they left in someone else's car?" the cop asked, making a notation in his pad.

"As far as I know he was only coming here to look around and then come back," Nancy told him. "He had no intention of meeting up with someone else."

The front door was locked. The cop shook the door handles, then stepped back, scanning the windows. They were boarded.

Ordinarily that wouldn't have fazed her whatsoever. Now, though...

Sunlight is painful.

For all she knew, they were long gone by now.

The cop glanced around. "Well, we can scout around the perimeter," he sighed. "We could each take a side, meet at the back."

Nancy hesitated, glancing down at her leg. Her limp was growing more pronounced. "I think we should stick together," she said. "Just in case we see anyone. I'm not exactly in fighting form."

The entire time they walked down the side of the hospital where Nancy and Ned had run into the three men, she was tense, but they didn't see anything. She scrutinized the windows, but they were boarded, and she couldn't tell how recent it was.

On the other side was the emergency entrance and the loading docks, and under the overhang, Nancy saw five cars parked. The cop saw it too, and for the first time since he had left the patrol car, she saw the faintest interest on his face.

"I saw two of those cars last night," she told him, quietly. "When my fiancé and I were attacked."

He quickened his step a little. "Well. Let's just see."

The closer they came to the emergency entrance, the higher Nancy's pulse jumped. Usually she was euphoric at the prospect of a new clue; now, though, given all of Morbius's warnings, she was using all her energy trying not to hope, not to anticipate at all. If she saw Morbius here, though, she would probably kill herself trying to get to him.

He was probably laughing somewhere, at how gullible she was, for falling for something so incredibly ridiculous.

The emergency parking area and the loading docks were sloped down, leading into the basement. The slope hurt her leg to descend and would be even worse going back up, she knew. As they passed into the shadow below the overhang, Nancy felt a burst of panic, as her eyes adjusted to the gloom.

The policeman crossed to the emergency entrance. She saw the same wood panels blocking the glass there, although he said, "There's a gap right here... might need to go get my flashlight."

Nancy was just digging in her pocket for her penlight when she heard something behind her—the scratch of a shoe sole against the concrete. When she whipped around, as fast as she could, a man was standing there. He looked very much like one of the men she remembered from the night before.

Before she could draw a breath to warn the cop, the man's hand was wrapped around her wrist, his grip like iron. He grasped the cop's arm as well, a grin crossing his face.

"Hey, guys? We have some visitors."

Chapter Text

"You cannot be fuckin serious," one of them exclaimed as soon as Nancy and the cop were pushed into the dark hospital. "A cop? Oh, yes."

She was trying everything she could to break the man's hold, but absolutely nothing was working. He didn't yield at all. The cop was having no luck either.

Four guys were seated around a low table, cards in front of them. The air smelled like... like moisture, mustiness. A small camp lantern on the table cast a glow over the gathered men, and on all their faces, the same grin she could remember from the night before, showed there.

She didn't know that she was shaking until she realized only the lookout's grip on her arm was keeping her upright.

"You!" The guy who had attacked Ned the night before was there, and he recognized her. "You were with the guy last night! Oh, hell. See?"

A red-headed guy with a brown beard shook his head. "You win."

"And a fuckin cop? Ian's gonna love this." The first guy shook his head, incredulous. "Damn."

Ian.

"Think we should wait?"

The guy holding Nancy released her, and she nearly collapsed to the floor. "Nah," he said, and she was looking up at him as he—

As he sank his fangs into the cop's neck.

His fangs.

The room began to dim again, and what followed—if she had been able to tear her gaze away, she would have, but she couldn't. The cop fought it at first, as much as he could, but almost casually the red-headed guy took his gun out of the holster and he was left defenseless, his knees buckling. He shuddered as he slumped to the ground and the lookout wiped his lips, his chin smeared with blood.

Nancy's stomach heaved.

The cop twitched once, then was still.

Nancy began to scramble backwards, crabwise on her palms and feet. She could—she could get to the other end of the hospital and break in. The girls—

The guy who remembered her looked down with a grin. "No, sweetheart, sorry. Why don't you stay for a while."

She made herself rigid, arching to make her weight as awkward as possible, to buy herself some time or some leverage. The lookout lifted her with one hand, like he was lifting a five-pound weight. As soon as she was on her feet, she jerked away from him.

The dark-haired guy looked up. "He ready yet?"

"I'm sure he is, but he could hold out a few hours." An unsmiling blond man folded his arms. "And we should probably ask Ian."

The lookout shrugged and grabbed Nancy's arm again. She clawed at his hand, digging her heels against the linoleum, and she saw a flash of anger on his face when he turned.

He backhanded her once, hard, and for that moment, the pain in her leg seemed to recede a little. "You aren't going anywhere," he told her, resuming their walk out of the reception area. "So just relax."

Nancy took a deep breath, cupping her jaw. She couldn't bring herself to just walk along behind him easily, but his grip was unyielding. "Where's Ned?"

The guy ignored her.

"He was at the hospital. You took him," Nancy prompted. "Dark brown hair. He was with me last night—"

The guy turned and glanced at her as they entered a dim, cold stairwell. He didn't say anything, but she saw a particular glint in his eye. He knew.

"Please," she said, hating herself for begging, but any hint, any clue she managed to pull out of him would save her time later, once she escaped.

He shook his head and dragged her up two flights of stairs, to the third floor. He was no rougher than he had to be to get her through the door, and as soon as they were on the third floor, a man greeted them, his gaze cold as he looked Nancy over.

"With the others?"

Nancy's heart sank when the lookout shook his head. "Got to ask Ian what to do with this one. If he doesn't get back soon, though..." The lookout grinned.

Fangs in her neck. She could almost feel them already

Desperately she began to tug at her hand, trying to pull away from him. She couldn't help it, couldn't stop herself. She had to away from them. Had to find Ned and get as far away from here as they could.

He backhanded her again and Nancy sagged, kept upright only because of his grip on her wrist. "Get the door," the lookout said, and she was shoved through, into an almost-empty patient room. The window was boarded over, and the only light came dim from the hallway.

Nancy felt a hand groping at her pocket and tensed, her eyes widening when the lookout plucked her cell phone out of her pocket. She couldn't pull herself out of his grip; the only thing she could do was bat at the phone, catching him off guard. As soon as the phone hit the floor she slammed her heel into it, shattering the screen.

The lookout scowled, drawing his hand back, and he chuckled when she flinched. "No ransom for you, then," he said angrily.

The other man shook his head. "Too much trouble anyway," he said. "With our luck she's poor and has no gullible friends."

Thank God they had no idea who she was, who her father was. She went cold at the thought of one of them calling him, at what it would do to him. In the state he was in—

She took a breath and suddenly she was on a pallet, her wrist cuffed to the radiator under the window. The lookout gazed down at her, his arms crossed.

"If we come back and those boards," he nodded at the window, "are down? You will have a very unpleasant evening."

Nancy gingerly touched her upper lip and found a thread of tacky drying blood there. "Why do I think I'll have one regardless," she muttered.

The lookout chuckled, turning to head for the door.

"Please," she said. "At least tell me if he's here or not. Please."

"You'll find out," the lookout said, without turning back to face her. "Now keep quiet."

Nancy counted her breaths and reached one hundred before she began to work on the cuffs. They had only shackled one wrist. Two would have taken longer, but she was still confident it would only be a matter of time.

He was here. She knew he was here. She had to find him and get out, come back with help so they could get the girls.

Hang on, Ned. Hang on. I'm coming.

That was when she saw the flicker of movement through the window in her door. So they were keeping an eye on her.

She could tell by the sweep of the sunlight, the shifting light, that clouds were drifting over the sun. She worked more slowly, her eyes closed, working with it by feel, and her wrist felt practically raw by the time she managed to pull it out of the cuff.

A guard wouldn't be up here unless someone else was up here too. The other girls—that made sense; from the third floor escape through a window was less likely, and they would be easily separated in their little cells.

Ned.

For an insane irrational second she wished she could just sense him somehow, but she gave up, marshaling her strength. She was going to need it.

When she opened her eyes she had begun comforting her leg again. And that was what scared her the most. If she could get Ned out of his cuffs, if he hadn't managed to get out of them already, together they could find a way out.

But she remembered the way he had looked the last time she had seen him, his handsome face pale, and so still. If he was still unconscious—

Well, she was going to have to cross that bridge when she came to it. She was in a hospital; maybe she could find some gurneys, a wheelchair, something, some way to wheel him out.

Down the stairs. No electricity; no elevator. Yeah.

Nancy shook her head, watching through her lashes, waiting for the flicker of movement again. Before she saw it, she heard footsteps on the stairs.

"He back yet?"

Nancy couldn't resist the urge. She crept forward, very quietly, until she was just pressed against the door, and turned to tilt her head, the cup of her ear, against it.

"It's gotta be tricky."

"You really think it's five?"

"I don't know, but what happens to everyone else?"

"I don't really fuckin care as long as it isn't here. This is a damn shithole. ...You think it'll work?"

"We'll see."

They continued down the hall, until they were out of her earshot. Nancy looked up at the doorknob.

Her room didn't connect with the room next to it, although she saw another door. A bathroom. The bathroom was extremely dark, and the air there felt like it was heavy with moisture.

She shivered, once, searching it for anything she could use to pick the door lock. The toilet paper holder took a moment for her to disassemble, with her shaking hands, and she rested for a moment before creeping very quietly to the door again.

Morbius hadn't said anything about heightened senses. Since the guard hadn't caught her working her way out of the cuffs, she was pretty sure he wouldn't hear her working on the door lock either.

She was just reaching up to try the knob when she heard the footsteps approaching again.

The more rational part of her wanted to wait for the shift change, for a likely time that someone would be distracted. From the general air of boredom and irritation, she didn't think the person on guard duty would be all that vigilant.

But then she remembered the cop crumpling to the floor, twitching, his neck a gout of blood, and the cold eyes staring down at him.

She had to try, though. She had no choice. For as long as there was a chance—

She had to swallow hard at that, against the sudden lump in her throat. As long as she could see a chance for any of them, she had to try.

The footsteps passed again. The original knob had been replaced, and it jiggled a little when she tried it. It was double-key. The door was probably particle board, and a good kick just beside the lock would probably take the door down, but it would be loud and she couldn't trust her bad leg to hold all of her weight while she used her good one. With a quiet sigh she began to untwist the spring in her fingers.

No more bed-and-breakfasts for her, oh no, not until her damned leg was all better. She wanted to go home, to be safe in her own bed, to see her father again. But she couldn't imagine any of it without Ned.

As the steps returned she hastened over to the blanket, taking the empty cuff and tucking it under the edge, then bunching it up to make it appear she had fallen asleep underneath. It wouldn't fool an interested glance, but a disinterested one, probably.

Picking the lock, as quietly as she could, took longer than she wanted. She kept having to wipe her hands on her jeans when they became slick with nervous sweat.

Footsteps pounded up from the stairwell. "Dinnertime!" a sarcastically cheerful voice called out. Nancy scrambled back to her blanket, sliding her fingers through the cuff but keeping her hand behind her, and less than half a minute later, she saw the suggestion of a silhouette at her door.

She hadn't realized how dark it had become. Soon she wouldn't be able to see her work at all. While she had picked locks in the dark, she didn't relish the task on top of her fatigue and worry.

Dinner turned out to be a bottle of water, a sandwich, and a pill. Nancy looked at it suspiciously when it was handed to her, and the lookout's face was even more sinister in the lamplight. "Just a multivitamin," he told her. "Got to keep your iron up." He winked before heading for the door.

"And if I don't eat?"

"Believe me, it's a lot easier to do the sedative-and-IV thing," he said, catching the doorknob in his fingers. The wire was tucked under Nancy's thigh, the sharp end digging into her through her jeans. "Just not nearly as fun."

After a thorough inspection of both the sandwich and the seal on the water bottle, Nancy finished them both, though she tucked the pill under the corner of her blanket. No matter what he had said, she still didn't trust his explanation.

The guard was talking to someone else in low tones when Nancy finally managed to unlock her door. The room was so dark that she could only see her own skin as a suggestion of light and shadow, and she was hoping to use that to her advantage.

She twisted the knob so, so slowly, and held her breath for a moment before she just barely opened the door. The voices had trailed off. Maybe they had wandered to the other end of the hallway.

She wanted to crawl, to keep low, since she would have a better chance of eluding their detection that way, but crab-walking earlier had made her leg hurt even more than usual, and she was afraid to try it. Gritting her teeth, she pulled herself to her feet, closing her eyes so they would be accustomed to the darkness.

Her heart was beating painfully hard when she opened the door, as slowly as she possibly could, and took a step, glancing wide-eyed down the hallway.

Two figures stood there. One of them raised his head, tilted it.

As fast as she could, she made for the stairwell door. Before she could reach it, a man stood there, a slight smile on his lips. "So you got out of the cuffs and through the door. Impressive," he said, crossing his arms.

Nancy glanced over, trying to find another way out, and then his hand shot out, clamping hard around her wrist. The redheaded guy from downstairs was standing there beside them, suddenly, and she saw that same expression on his face, the one she had seen the night before and not quite understood.

Hunger.

"He's not back yet."

The redheaded man shook his head, his gaze still on Nancy.

"Well, I'd love to play cat and mouse with you all night," the first man said, glancing back at Nancy, "but we do have other things to do. So come with me."

She stumbled on the first step and he tossed her prone over his shoulder, the bone there digging into her stomach, and she beat at his back with her fists, desperately. The redheaded man, still standing in the upper doorway, let out a loud laugh, and Nancy's heart sank. It felt like punching a bag of concrete, and just as ineffective.

Back in the kitchen, the lookout and three men Nancy hadn't seen before were gathered around the table. She was tossed unceremoniously to the floor, and while she tried to land well, her leg didn't cooperate, and the wind was knocked out of her. She winced, pushing herself up on her elbows, then her palms. The emergency room exit—

The cop's blood was still on the floor and for a second she wondered where he was.

"She got out."

"And?"

"And I wouldn't mind so much, but it's wrong to play with your food, right?"

Three of the men laughed, and Nancy's stomach turned. She used the wall to help pull herself up to her feet.

The man who hadn't laughed shrugged. "Double the cuffs."

"Too big a risk. I think he'd agree."

Two of them seemed to have reached the end of the conversation before the rest of them had, and they turned toward her, their eyes wide and shining, lips slightly parted. They looked like men she would see on the street, at work, dressed moderately well, but the look in their eyes reminded her of the most terrible criminals she'd chased, the ones whose lives had driven them to acts of unimaginable cruelty, who afterward had discovered that the acts weren't so repugnant after all.

The lookout jerked his shoulder behind him. "No change. Throw her in; two birds with one stone."

A man in a brown leather jacket licked his lips, and Nancy shuddered when she saw the gleam of a fang. "Not even a taste?" he complained.

"We have to leave plenty," the man who had brought her downstairs said in a singsong voice.

"And if he turns her down?" the guy in the leather jacket asked.

"I say..." the other man replied, then smiled. "Buffet time."

Nancy's legs were shaking as he dragged her through the kitchen. They passed near the knives and he grabbed her other wrist, twisting painfully, until she was gasping, stumbling along, her teeth gritted. In the other room the men were laughing and her stomach was clenched.

He dragged her to the freezers. Each was sturdily barred. He held her wrists one-handed and she threw all her weight, trying to shake off his grip, as he reached for the bar on the leftmost freezer.

He moved to backhand her and she dropped to the floor, avoiding his hand. He yanked her to her feet and she let out a pained cry as her weight shifted to her injured leg.

Behind the door was darkness, and, just faintly, the sound of breath.

Nancy was tossed inside so suddenly that she crashed into the wall, all the wind knocked out of her again. Before she could even glance up the door was shut and she heard the bar slide back into place.

Her heart. Her heart. Oh God. She couldn't hear anything over the roar of her pulse, and what had they shut her in with—

The faintest glow was coming through the small window in the freezer. Nancy closed her eyes, forcing herself to count to ten, slowly. When she opened her eyes the darkness swam with purples and flashes of gold, resolving into graphite on midnight. The room smelled like old damp cardboard, the slightly sweet stench of rot, the high dim note of refrigeration.

"Hello?"

She had to be imagining it. Had to be. His voice sounded like Ned's.

"Hello?"

"Nancy."

Nancy let out a shocked cry, almost a sob, and scrambled across the floor toward the sound of his voice. "Ned," she replied, "oh my God, Ned, you're awake—"

"Nancy," he replied, his voice soft. She felt his jeans against her fingertips and traced them up—he was sitting on the floor, propped against the shelves, but he was awake

"Oh my God," she whispered again, sliding her arms around him, and he slipped an arm around her. She was crying, she realized belatedly. "I thought I'd lost you," she whispered, putting her face against his neck, feeling him breathe. "I went back to the hospital and you were gone—Ned, we have to get out of here—"

"I'd love to," he murmured, and then she heard something rattle near her ear. "I'm cuffed, though."

"I thought I taught you how to get out of cuffs."

"You did," Ned pointed out. "Just not this kind."

She found the cuff, exploring it with her fingertips. It was made of thick, solid metal, tight about his wrist so he couldn't slide his hand out. Once she eliminated that possibility, she felt along the links. If they could just break the chain, they could take care of the cuff later.

Ned's fingers touched her face, and she paused for a second, her eyes closing. "I thought I'd never see you again," he whispered. "Never touch you again."

"You know I'd never leave you," she replied, trying to keep her voice light. "Not like this."

She pulled herself to her feet and began to find her way around the room by touch, hoping to find something to hammer the chain apart. "I guess you were right about that mad scientist experiment thing," he said.

"Oh?"

"I have needle marks on my arms. Can't remember getting them." He paused. "And I'm hungry," he whispered. "So incredibly hungry."

Nancy froze for a second, then continued her search. She found a few empty boxes, but otherwise only the shelves. When she yanked on those, they were bolted firmly in and didn't budge. "Didn't they feed you?"

"A sandwich and some water," he confirmed. "But that didn't touch it. Guess I'm starved from being passed out."

Nancy went back to Ned, sitting down on the floor near him, feeling along the chain again. "You don't have your Swiss army knife or anything with you, anything to help pick this lock?"

"Sorry, no," he murmured.

She made a soft clicking noise with her tongue. "It's okay. I'll get you out of here. He'll... he'll be able to fix it."

"He?"

"The doctor from the hospital." She chuckled a little, without humor. "The CDC one. He told me you were infected, but you're awake, and... you don't feel... sick, do you?"

"I feel like shit," Ned admitted. "And, you know, it's the damnedest thing. I thought I heard one of them talking about blood."

"The doctor said... you're going to laugh," she told him. "He said you're infected with something a lot like vampirism."

But Ned didn't laugh. When his voice did come, it was small and almost wounded. "Oh."

"And the guys here..." She shook her head. "I think I'm losing my mind. They're fast, and strong, and I saw one of them... I brought a cop in as backup and they just... bit... him..."

Ned didn't reply, and Nancy took a deep breath. "But it's okay. We'll get you out of here and everything will be okay."

Ned reached for her hand. "Baby... you have to get out of here."

"We will—"

Ned made a soft sound, almost a sigh. "No, Nan. We don't have time. You have to get out of here. You do."

"I'm not leaving without you. We'll get the cuff off—"

"We don't have time," he repeated, and from the tone in his voice she could tell he was upset.

"I don't understand," she whispered, but she felt like she was turning into ice, turning entirely numb. Because he couldn't mean—

"I'm dying," he whispered. "I can feel it, baby, and I want... Nan, if you don't get out of here—"

"Morbius has been working on an antidote," she said desperately, squeezing his upper arm. "We just have to get you to him."

"Working on it," Ned repeated. "But he hasn't found it yet, has he."

Nancy choked back a sob. "But he can do—something—"

Ned touched her cheek. "Nan, get out of here. Please."

"I can't leave you."

He went quiet for a moment. "From the second you walked in here," he said softly, "I... You have to get away from me."

She had never been afraid of him, never. Never in her entire life. She knew that he had loved her forever, that he would never hurt her.

But in that second she knew he could.

Once the hunger takes over, he will kill you.

Slowly she stood, her heart beating faster as she moved to the small window. Distantly she could see the rectangle of light from the reception area, where the guards were. She felt around but there was no handle on the door, no seam big enough to dig her fingers into. She felt around the other side of the door, but the hinges were on the outside.

Two silhouettes crossed into the room, and Nancy shrank away from the window. "Fuck, it's dark," one of the men muttered. "You got a flashlight?"

"We're runnin through D-cells like candy," the other said, heading back. He returned and Nancy backed to the wall as they approached, shining the light through. The beam found her, then Ned, and she glanced over at her fiancé.

He was pale, his hair rumpled, his eyes bright, but he looked drawn, almost fragile.

And then his lips parted, and Nancy slid down the wall, trembling. She heard a small, almost animalistic sound and realized it was her, the sound of herself whimpering.

Fangs. He had fangs.

The two men laughed. "Go get her," one urged. "Bet she tastes sweet."

Ned glanced away, hiding his face. The beam went back to Nancy, and she looked away too.

No. No. She was going to wake up back at the inn and this, this was a nightmare.

By the time the two guys left, Nancy had her knees tucked up to her chest and was rocking back and forth, gasping for breath. She didn't want to believe it. She didn't want to.

But she had seen it.

"You'll die," she whispered. "If you... if you don't have some blood. You'll die."

Ned took a trembling breath. "Then I'll die."

Nancy wiped her face with her palm. "Ned..."

"I can't do this. I can't... I can't hurt someone..."

But he would. Morbius had been very clear about that. He was shackled, and it did seem to be holding, for now, but she had been given to him.

What if he turns her down?

Buffet time.

Him or them. Him or them, or she could kill herself. Those were the only three ways she could see out of it.

She wiped her face again. "They said that if you don't... do this, they will hurt me," she whispered.

"When they come to the door, when they open it, you can rush them, distract them, something—"

Nancy shook her head. "They are so fast," she said. "So strong, and they heal quickly, and my leg... Ned, even if I didn't have a bum leg to drag around, they're a hundred times faster. They open the door and I'm as good as dead."

"You have to try."

She sobbed once, then, wishing with every fiber of her being that she could see his face again. She moved a little across the floor, toward him. He didn't understand how fucking hopeless it was. "And leave you here to die."

"They... they drink blood. I can't live that way... I can't, baby. And I couldn't live with myself if I hurt you."

Her head was pounding, her throat thick from her tears, and she ran her hand through her hair, trying to catch her breath. Her face and legs felt bruised from the rough handling, but worse than that was the terrible ache in her heart.

She moved over to him again, reaching for his cheek, and when he flinched away from her touch, she whimpered, hurt. "Ned, please," she whispered. "You have to try. He... Morbius will find a cure, I know he will, it'll just be for a little while, but..."

Ned was breathing hard. "I won't," he said. "I won't."

"You told me you'd marry me," she said then, her voice shaking. "You can't die."

He moved, trying to get away from her. "Get away from me," he begged. "Baby, please, you don't understand..."

He would kill her, or they would. She had no doubt about that.

And if she had to die, she would die in the arms of the man she loved.

She cupped his face with both hands, turning him toward her, felt how labored his breath was, how tense his every muscle was. He was holding himself back. "Ned, the only chance is if you do this," she whispered. "We can't get out this way. They're too fast, too strong. But if you do this..."

She could feel his breath. "I would turn you into a monster."

He didn't know. He didn't know that his bite would kill her.

She swallowed hard. "The cure," she said. "He'll find the cure and this..."

Ned jerked away from her again. "I can't hurt you," he said hoarsely. "I can't..."

Nancy closed her eyes. "Then kiss me," she whispered.

He took a long breath, and her fingertips brushed his cheek as he cupped her own. She moved forward, standing on her knees, and barely brushed her lips against his.

He made a soft noise as he kissed her, and her lips parted. Her heart was beating so hard again and his tongue slipped into her mouth, and she swirled hers around it, and—

They both shivered when her tongue brushed one of his fangs.

No. No. Not true, not true, no.

"I love you," she whispered, trembling when the kiss broke. "I love you so much."

"I love you too," he breathed, leaning forward again. He kissed her and she moved onto his lap, straddling him, arching.

And his touch...

When Morbius had touched her—

Most people are pretty easy for me to influence.

She had felt it, felt that ineffable interference, wrestling with her. But she had been able to overcome it. Now, though.

Ned cupped her breast through her shirt.

He was supposed to be her husband, and now they would never leave this room, and she would never know what it was, to feel that expression of his love for her.

But she wanted to.

He squeezed her breast as she stood up on her knees, the pain swallowed in desire as she unbuttoned her pants, then started trying to work them down her legs. She had to swing off him, but as soon as her jeans were off, she pushed her panties down too, wincing when the fabric brushed her wound. She knew she was wet; she had been wet practically from the moment she walked into the room, as soon as she had known he was there.

"Nan," Ned breathed, as she straddled him again, reaching for his fly. He cupped her face, drawing her back to him, as she unzipped his pants, and then he reached down, freeing his erection.

She was starting to panic, so she kissed him harder, and his fangs scraped the inside of her lower lip—

And she tasted the faint copper of blood.

Ned groaned, rocking up under her. "Shit," he breathed. "Just... just a little, just..."

And she knew she was lost, but at least it was him. At least it was Ned.

She panted as Ned slipped his arm around her, drawing her closer to him. "Take your clothes off," he murmured, and immediately she reached down to the hem of her shirt and pulled it off, her bra following, leaving her naked.

He guided her up, angling himself for her, and he was kissing her breast, swirling his tongue around her nipple. He gently ran the tip of his fang over her nipple and she whimpered as the brush left a stinging wound over the sensitive flesh. He licked up the trace of blood, shuddering, and she moved closer to him, angling her hips.

"Taste so good," he mumbled, leading his cock to her, the head fitting just inside her. He nipped at her other breast and she cried out, wincing at the pain.

"I need you," he told her, gently biting her nipple without using his fangs. "I need you, sweetheart, please..."

"Then take me," she whispered, a pair of tears slipping down her cheeks as she cupped the back of his head. "I'm yours, baby."

Yours forever.

He pushed her down onto her back and she could feel her jeans bunched under her as he moved between her bent legs. He slipped just inside her, groaning a little when he found her wet, and then he kissed her, his lips trailing down to her neck, leaving small stinging kisses.

He licked the side of her neck and she shuddered under him, tilting her head back when he moved just a little deeper between her thighs. "Fuck," he swore, as she wrapped her legs around him, as he traced the artery on the side of her neck hard with the tip of his tongue. "Oh my God, Nan..."

"Yes," she whispered, trembling, tilting her head to give him better access, and she was crying freely now. Her hips stilled as he moved a little deeper inside her, a little deeper.

He sucked hard at the side of her neck and despite herself, despite her terror and fear and the pain, all of it, she felt herself clench a little in response, and Ned groaned. She rocked her hips back and forth and Ned slid almost fully inside her, and the pain—

He traced his fangs over the side of her neck and she felt him break the skin, and it stung, and then he was fully inside her.

She cried out, loudly, arching. He sucked hard against her flesh, finding every trace of blood, and then he sank his fangs completely into her neck and he fucking surged, pulling back to thrust into her.

"Ned," she whispered, crying out with his every thrust, and oh, oh God it hurt. Her pulse was throbbing hard and it felt like he was sucking a hickey against her neck, a terrible brutal hickey, but she could smell her blood in the air—

Could smell their mingled sweat, their lovemaking.

Her love.

She touched the ring with her thumb, her breasts trembling against his every thrust. Between her legs was sore, tender, but he thrust again, again, still drinking her blood.

She had known that she might face this choice one day, to save his life or her own. She had never dreamed it would be like this.

He bit and sucked on her shoulder and she shook, her hips trembling. This time when he slammed home inside her she rocked her hips up to meet him and he groaned against her skin.

She saw purple spots in front of her eyes.

So this is how it feels to die.

He reached between them and his thumb found her clit and she cried out again, writhing under him. He bit the other side of her neck, lower down, and stroked her clit and even through the pain she felt her arousal begin to rise, felt her inner flesh tingle and clench in answer.

"Come," he whispered, and licked a blood drop off her neck, and she squirmed under him. "Come, baby. I love you so much."

She dug her nails into his back and panted, shuddering, as he fucked her. "I love you," she whimpered. "Forever, baby. Forever."

"Come," he ordered her again, rubbing her clit harder, and she cried out when she broke, as he pressed his entire length into her and settled between her thighs. "Oh God. I love you."

She screamed when she came, as Ned throbbed between her thighs, and she was sprawled, spent, feeling him nip at her breast again. She shuddered when he brought her hand to his lips, tracing the pale blue web of her wrist with his tongue.

Her next shiver had nothing to do with her orgasm.

Morbius hadn't said it would hurt like this. Maybe he hadn't cared; maybe he thought she deserved to find out this way.

"Nan," Ned breathed, and then his lips were near her cheek. "Nan!"

"I love you," she whispered, sliding her hand down to cup his cheek, and she couldn't stop trembling. "I love you so much, baby. Thank you."

Ned shook his head, panting. "Nancy!"

The anguish in his voice... it was amazing, how much fell away, how the world had constricted to just the two of them, and now...

"Nancy, please! Stay with me!"

"I'm sorry," she whispered, closing her eyes. "I'm sorry, baby. I love you."

He buried his face against her chest.

She wished she could say more. Take care of my dad. Be good, and kill every fucking last one of them when you get out of here.

He was all that was left.

"I love you," he whispered hoarsely against her breast, and at the end he choked in a sob.

And then she was gone.

Chapter Text

No matter what Ned did, she wouldn't wake.

He felt sick.

I love you.

He was crying as he redressed her in the dark. It was laborious, with just one hand, and he kept praying that she would stir, mumble something, breathe his name, but all he felt was a tiny sporadic quaver over her skin, so faint he almost thought he was imagining it.

And then he jerked his chained wrist in frustration and the chain broke.

He stared at it for a moment. The dark was pulsing with purple, and he couldn't really see anything at all, but he knew that chain had been secure. He knew it. And now it had shattered.

He was so gentle as he dressed her, working her pants back on, slipping her shirt over her head. She was still breathing, but it was shallow.

He remembered, unwillingly, the girl they had seen at the hospital. The missing girl.

No. No.

I'm sorry, baby.

Ned wiped his wet cheeks, gathering her into his arms. "Baby, no," he told her, rocking back and forth. He pushed her hair back from her face. "You're okay. You're gonna be okay." He choked back a sob. "Nan, please wake up. You—you can't die. We're supposed to get married..."

He was a monster. There was no way she would ever marry him now, not like this...

Not if she didn't wake up.

He moved to prop his back against the shelves and cradled her, brushing his lips over hers.

How could she ever kiss his lips again after what he had just done to her...

"I told you," he whispered, his eyes stinging. "I begged you to get away from me, baby, why didn't you..."

And he had sworn that he would not hurt her, that he would protect her after everything, after seeing her bruised and broken and bleeding on that floor. He held her tighter, praying that he would feel her stir, but all he could feel was her breathing. He had sworn.

And then she had been half-naked and he had tasted blood in her mouth...

He was disgusted to find that he was half-hard at the thought, and as the guys' voices in the next room rose to excited conversation over something, he kissed her forehead.

Something inside him had just snapped at the taste of blood. It had taken every last shred of his self-control to stop when he had, but he still hadn't pulled back fast enough. The hunger had lessened, but oh, oh what had he done.

He was still holding her when a light approached the freezer. He heard the scrape of the board and then the click of the handle, and he didn't care, didn't even bother looking up. Until she was awake, okay, he didn't care about anything else.

"So," Ian said. "How are you feeling?"

Ned glanced up at Ian. He knew his eyes were pink-rimmed. He didn't give a fuck.

Ian looked back at the dark-haired guy behind him. "What happened here?"

Ned spoke before the dark-haired guy could. "She's my fiancé," he said, his voice rough.

Ian's voice was cold as he looked at the two men behind him. "Did you know about this?"

The dark-haired guy shrugged. "Well, kinda, but she showed up and we didn't want to—"

Ian delivered a quick, brutal punch to the dark-haired guy's face, kicking the shin of the other guy so he fell to his knee. "That was stupid," he said. "Very stupid. Go get Brad and Kevin."

Ian turned back to Ned, his arms crossed. "I apologize," he said, taking a step forward. "If I'd been here that definitely would not have happened. I'll take care of that."

Take care of? Ned raised his eyebrows.

"They'll take her to the hospital," Ian explained.

"They can help her there?" Ned hated the naked plea he heard in his own voice, but this was Nancy. He would carry her there on his back if that was what it took.

Ian shook his head. "So she'll be comfortable," he said. "There's nothing any of us can do for her now."

Ned shook his head, even though his stomach had turned to ice. "No. No," he said firmly. "I bit her. She'll become like me."

Ian frowned. "She won't," he said, just as firmly. "Women don't survive the infection. That's why they're ideal... sources."

Ned looked down at her face, his eyes wide.

I'm sorry, baby.

"No," he whispered, and touched her cheek. "No, you can't—you can't do this—you said—"

"I'm sorry."

"But she's still breathing..."

Ian nodded, crouching. "Depending on how much you took, she'll be... gone, in maybe ten or twelve hours. We'll take her." He reached out.

Ned tightened his arms around her. "No," he said, his voice low and dangerous, as two other men walked up behind Ian. "Don't touch her."

Ian sighed. "And this is why you don't do this," he said to Brad and Kevin. "Go grab someone else, I can tell he's gonna need it."

Brad and Kevin exchanged a glance, then headed out. Ned pulled Nancy's hips onto his lap and guided her head to his shoulder, his arms around her.

"In the morning we need to go over a few things," Ian said. "See if anything worked. I understand that you didn't choose this, and the adjustment period can be... difficult. Once you feed again, though, you'll feel better."

Ned didn't look up.

"Ian..." Ned heard another voice. "The other guy from last night. He didn't make it."

Ian snarled. "Take him back to the lab. I'll be there soon. Where the hell are they?"

Kevin returned. "Will just bled them. You still want...?"

Ian shook his head. "It'll keep. Until the morning." He stood. "Ned, it'll be easier for you if you let us take her. The end of it... it can be hard to watch."

"I owe her," he whispered roughly. "I owe her that much."

"Get some rest."

The door closed. The bolt slid back into place and the light faded.

They were afraid of him, afraid of what he would do when he was like this.

Well, they should be.

He cupped Nancy's cheek, his thumb stroking her skin. Blood was drying down her neck, dark under the collar of her shirt. Her breath was shallow. Her heart was still beating.

Oh God, how she had trembled under him. Would it be like that?

"I can't believe you're still wearing that damn twenty-five-cent ring," he said, his voice just above a whisper. "Nan, why did you do it, why did you come here?"

She would never leave him. She would follow him to hell and back, just as he would her, follow her into the back of that place to see her broken and so pale. He had thought he was terrified then, but it had been nothing in the face of this.

He closed his eyes.

When she—when she drew her last breath, he would walk out of here and he would kill as many of them as he could. And then he would end it. He would kill himself before he hurt another innocent person.

Why her. Why had it been her, why hadn't she stopped him...

It's the only way.

To give him the strength to do what she couldn't.

He took the thin blanket and pulled it over her. She was shivering, and he knew that the night had grown colder, but he couldn't really feel it.

"I've loved you for so long," he whispered. "And if you... Nan, you can't leave me, you can't do this. I don't care what he said, you're stronger than this, baby, please. I'm so sorry." He blinked and two tears streaked down his cheeks. "I would rather have died than hurt you."

She had said they were fast, strong. He had broken the cuffs with little effort, but he needed to watch them, to figure out how he could kill as many of them as possible. At least then he wouldn't feel as fucking useless as he did right now.

They needed to get out, but all he had was the name Morbius. He had seen at least six men outside, and the prospect of getting Nancy out with either of them in one piece was laughable.

And it was what she had understood when she had turned to him, had come to him instead of working on finding a way out.

If you don't do this, they'll hurt me.

He knew that he needed to rest, but the thought of sleeping while she was dying...

No. No, this is impossible, it can't be.

His tongue found the point of a fang in his mouth. It was all fucking impossible, all of it. And he could fucking smell her blood, and he found himself nuzzling against the base of her throat. Just a taste, just a little taste...

And that was how it had begun in the first place.

He kissed her collarbone. "You will never love me again," he whispered against her skin. "Even if you..." He choked.

"I always saw you in white. You were so incredibly beautiful, walking down the aisle to me, and you were mine... but I was so afraid we would never get there... and then you asked me, baby. Nan, sweetheart, you have to come back to me... I can't go back home and see your dad and..."

And tell Carson what he had done. Carson would kill him, and he would deserve it, for what he had done. Carson's baby girl.

And she had come to him, wrapped herself around him even as he sank his teeth into her...

He had tried to stop. Oh God he had tried to stop, but he had been inside her, and she tasted amazing, felt amazing as she clenched around him, gasping, panting—

He had broken her. He didn't deserve to even hold her, to even touch her again, but she was everything, and until she breathed her last he would be by her side.

He slid down onto his side, his back against the shelves, and pulled her to him, her back to his front, tucking the blanket around her to keep her warm. His heart was still beating, as was hers; he could feel it. Even after what he'd done.

"I love you," he whispered against her hair, holding her to him as he closed his eyes.

He couldn't live without her, and if he lost her he would still follow. He would throw himself into the dark on the hope that she would be waiting for him on the other side.

--

The sun was up. He could feel it. He stirred and found her pulse with his lips, but it felt faint.

When breakfast came, they only brought enough for him. As far as they were concerned, she was already dead. As he ate, he kept his gaze locked on her. He had to keep his strength up. If he found a potential way out, he had to take it, but he couldn't leave her here with them.

She looked worse. His heart clenched painfully hard in his chest.

Ian came in when Ned had finished breakfast, when he had Nancy cradled in his arms again. "So," Ian said, with a smile. "Sun's up, and it's a gorgeous day. Come with me."

Ned didn't want to leave Nancy, not under any circumstance, but something in Ian's tone told Ned he would brook no argument whatsoever. Very gently he laid her down. "No one can touch her," Ned said, his voice trembling a little, and Ian nodded, almost impatiently.

"No one will touch her. We have some work to do."

He looked back at her, but he couldn't leave her. He couldn't just leave her in a freezer lying on the cold dirty floor. Ian said that he couldn't bring her with them, so Ned scooped her up—she felt as insubstantial as air, now, though dimly he was aware that she was still solid flesh and blood in his arms, and Ian led Ned to a patient room on the second floor. A window at the other end of the hall had been left unboarded to provide light, and while the room was dim, at least it was comfortable. Ned very gently put her down on the bed, praying that she would stir, that her eyelashes would flutter, but she didn't move.

"Will she... wake up again?"

"No," Ian said. "She'll have seizures... when it's close. We're wasting time, Ned."

Ned smoothed her hair back from her face and tucked the blanket around her. "The key," he said.

"What?"

"Give me the key," he said. "I don't want any of them getting in here, getting to her."

"They wouldn't," Ian said wearily. "She's infected, dying. Not good for..." He trailed off when Ned cast a terrible glance back at him. "Fine. Lock her in."

He had to be back with her. He couldn't leave her alone in there for long. From everything Nancy had told him, their respect for the lock would be all that kept anyone else from just ripping the door off the hinges. That, and the knowledge that her blood was tainted...

On the way in, Ian checked on two figures tucked into beds, then directed Ned into the lab with a flourish. Ned glanced around, making note of exits, possible weapons, anything that might help. He was thinking of fire; he was thinking about getting the girls out, if any of them were still alive, and the roar of flames against a night sky.

Ian wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Ned's arm. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

Habit made him answer truthfully. "Strange," he admitted. "I'm hungry. And I feel colder than usual."

Ian frowned. "David didn't bring you... anyone this morning?"

Ned shook his head.

"We'll take care of that when we're done here. Now..." He shined a penlight into Ned's eyes, checking his pupil dilation. He seemed displeased when he asked Ned to open his mouth so he could look at his fangs, but brightened up a little as his fingers gently explored the lymph nodes in Ned's neck.

"I need you to..." Ian led Ned out to a side door, then pulled it open. "Just put the back of your hand in the sunlight. Just the back."

Ian's nervousness and the care he took to stay out of direct sunlight made Ned cautious, so he edged around the shadow, took a deep breath, and hesitantly slipped first his fingertips, then his entire hand into the warmth of the light.

Ian's eyes widened, and he started a stopwatch. "Yes, fantastic," he breathed, his gaze locked on Ned's hand. "Any sensation?"

"Just warmth," Ned said. "It's... it's not unpleasant."

After thirty seconds, Ned's skin had turned a mild shade of pink. After two minutes, the warmth had become a tingling awareness, then a faint burning. After three minutes the discomfort was so much that Ned jerked his hand back. It had become as sharp and painful as touching a fresh-out-of-the-oven iron skillet.

So the sunlight burned. "We gonna try out garlic and stakes next?" Ned asked, rubbing his hand.

Ian was recording something on a clipboard, his eyes extremely bright when he glanced up. "Oh? No. No. That was great."

"The instant sunburn?"

"Most of us... we can only withstand direct sunlight for twenty seconds before it becomes almost unendurable." Ian led the way back to his lab, checking the inside of Ned's elbow. He had felt the puncture wounds there the night before; now, his skin was smooth and unbroken.

Hmm.

"So why can I?"

"The injection I gave you last night," Ian explained. He pulled out a chair and Ned sat down only when Ian gestured for him to do so. From the second he had left Nancy alone in that room, he had felt the urge to run, to grab her and run. But then he hadn't known that three minutes in sunlight would burn him. At nightfall he wouldn't have that problem—but the other vampires wouldn't, either.

"Intravenous sunscreen, eh."

Ian's smile was small, distracted. "Sunscreen is okay, but it doesn't do much good after ten minutes of exposure."

Ned crossed his arms. "So why am I here," he said. "Why did you do this to me."

"From what I understand... the men who attacked you were actually trying to get to your girlf—your fiancée. But I'm working on a possible solution, and your participation will be invaluable."

"So you're trying to cure this. This infection."

"Something like that."

"Something like that?"

Ian looked around, then rolled an old desk chair over to Ned. Like all the other furnishings that had been left in the abandoned hospital, it was old, rusted. "Break this," he said.

Ned shook his head. "I can try, but..."

Ian gave it a shove. "Break it."

Ned pressed one hand onto the seat and gripped the back of the chair, gave it a shove—and the whole thing came off, clattering loudly onto the floor. Ned gazed down at it in disbelief. "It's old," he said, glancing up—

Quick as the blink of an eye Ian snatched up the back of the chair and smashed Ned's face with it.

Ned stood so suddenly that his own chair toppled backwards, reaching for his face. His nose was sore to the touch; he had bitten the inside of his lip and the taste of blood made him feel suddenly giddy. "What the fuck," he shouted, glaring at Ian, his right hand closing into a fist.

"Angry?"

"Yeah," Ned said, wiping blood off his upper lip.

"Then come get me."

And Ian moved faster than anything else Ned had ever seen, and blindly, enraged, he followed. Ian managed to snatch his sleeve out of Ned's grip once Ned caught up with him, and after a few more feints Ned got a good grip on his arm. Ian swung back and caught Ned in his already-sore nose, and Ned worked on maneuvering him into a sleeper hold.

Ian managed to break free after he delivered a hard elbow to Ned's face, and only in the momentary disorientation was he successful. Ian and Ned looked at each other, panting, until Ian grinned.

A knock sounded at the door of the lab, and that was when Ned realized they were down the hallway, almost at the outside entrance. He blinked and Ian—Ian vanished.

"Come in!"

Ned took a few more deep breaths, then followed, as quickly as he could. Everything blurred and then he was back in the lab, watching Ian open the door.

Chris came in, carrying a bottle. "First stop," he said with a smile, and Ian brought out two tumblers. Chris poured about two cups of liquid into each, then left with a nod.

Ian gestured for Ned to take one, although Ned was still trembling a little with anger. "Drink up," he advised.

Ned knew what it was, and his gorge rose at the thought, but as soon as he smelled the blood, his stomach growled. He took a sip and soon he had drained the whole glass.

"You'll need more," Ian said, "but hey, touch your nose."

Ned touched it gingerly. It still felt a little sore, but even that faded. He was healed.

He looked up at Ian in unabashed surprise.

"Exactly," Ian said softly.

"I don't understand."

Ian sat down, crossing his arms. "We're infected," he said. "That you know. The nature of this infection... you also know. The fangs, the sensitivity to sunlight... the dependency on blood. Those are weaknesses we have to endure, to maintain our strength. What I'm seeking is a way to overcome those weaknesses. To reach our full potential."

"So you're experimenting."

Ian nodded. "But I do have to warn you, that if I have any idea that you might compromise what we have here... we aren't impervious, and I will not have any second thoughts about killing you."

Ned crossed his own arms. "Can I be honest with you?"

Ian nodded.

"N—my fiancée," he said. "What happened to her—"

"Was a mistake," Ian said. "She should have been left with the other girls. I'm sorry. I am very sorry for your loss."

Hearing him speak about her that way... Ned shook his head. "The other girls?"

Ian nodded at the empty glasses. "Where do you think that came from?"

Ned shrugged. "I thought you'd just... I don't know, blood donations from a hospital?"

Ian's smile was thin. "Would that we could. Blood when it isn't fresh—I'd say the longest it can sit and still be palatable is about thirty minutes—tastes like rotted meat. And we can only go so long without blood, just like we can only go so long without food. We are still living, Ned, still mortal. But we have to drink blood to survive, to maintain our strength."

"So that came from..."

"The girls," Ian said, and his face became solemn. "It's not an ideal situation, but we're not killing them, and they're kept in... well, something like comfort. I find it just as repugnant as you do, but the alternative? When the hunger takes over..."

Ned remembered it. Nancy quivering under him.

Ian nodded. "And this... we can't allow this kind of power into the wrong hands."

Ned fought to keep his face impassive. Given what had happened to him in the past thirty-six hours, he was shocked Ian could say that with a straight face. The wrong hands? Whose hands did he think had shoved Nancy into the room with him, left her as defenseless prey?

"There is a man... while he does still need to drink blood, he doesn't share our weakness to sunlight. I've been hoping to find him, but in the meantime, this, eliminating that need, perfecting this..."

"To what end?" Ned asked, quietly.

"Because this is what we were meant for," Ian said, standing. "The man who discovered this is a genius... and he doesn't understand, he thinks this is a curse. Can you imagine soldiers with this ability? Policemen?"

"Well, once everyone—"

Ian shook his head. "No. No. Didn't you hear what I just said? This ability in the wrong hands..."

Ned gritted his teeth for a moment. "Right," he said with a nod.

Ian gazed down at him. "I know it's been rough," he said. "I think once you've... well, after today... things will be easier."

Ned looked down. He meant once Nancy was really gone. "Yeah," Ned murmured. "Yeah, they will."

Because I'm going to burn every last one of you down to the ground. All of you.

Ian nodded slowly. "So if you're willing... in a few days I think I'll have another trial ready."

Ned nodded, but he couldn't make himself smile at the man. "Sounds good," he said. "Look, I just... are we finished here? I need to get back to her..."

Ian squeezed Ned's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I'll have David bring you... something."

He could be by her side in the blink of an eye. He could take apart anyone who threatened her. And now that he could... that ability had killed her.

He was half convinced that when he returned to the room, Nancy would be gone, or worse... but when he keyed open the door, she was just where he had left her, her face pale. He breathed her name, crossing to her, and found her pulse, covering her heart with his palm. The shadows under her eyes. She looked smaller, somehow.

Ned had always thought that the first time he and Nancy slept together would be special. She had been reluctant, and he had known that under the right circumstances he would probably be able to caress, to cajole her into it, because she loved him and he knew that she wanted him. But he had pulled back whenever she had said no, telling himself that it wasn't forever, it was only a matter of time. Maybe their wedding night, maybe a night after a nice dinner and a bottle of wine. Maybe just her nod and the warm scent of her perfume when he buried his face against her neck—

He shuddered.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. It was never supposed to be like this.

He smoothed her hair back from her face and her breathing changed a little, and even though he tried not to get his hopes up, he scanned her face frantically, stroking her cheek. "Nan?" he breathed. "Oh, Nan, I'm so sorry, if you would just wake up..."

A knock at the door startled him. He turned to see David waving through the small window set into the door.

"Here you go," David said, stepping into the room. He had a girl slung over his shoulder.

Ned shuddered.

David put her down in the cracked plastic chair in the corner of the room. "Yeah, it's hard the first few times," he said sympathetically.

Ned chuckled darkly. "It gets easier?"

"Yeah," David said. "It does." He glanced at the girl. "They aren't like us, you know? And if that's what it takes... then that's what it takes." He grinned. "We're at the top of the food chain now."

Ned forced a smile, sure that David would report back to Ian if he had any suspicions. "I'm sure you're right," he said.

David glanced over at Nancy. "Look, seriously, man. I can take her."

Ned shook his head immediately. "She's more than just a piece of meat, okay?" he said, his voice rough.

David backed up, palms up and out. "Hey, it's okay."

It was terrible. As soon as David left him there, Ned felt the perpetual awareness at the back of his mind, the knowledge that the girl slumped in the plastic chair would sate his hunger. The blood he had shared with Ian earlier had only whetted his thirst.

He hoped he could leave this place without sinking his fangs into any other living flesh.

Ned moved onto the bed, cradling Nancy on his lap. In the dim light he thought he saw her eyelid twitch, but as he stroked his palm over her face, she stayed still.

"Baby, you have to come back to me," he whispered, and kissed her forehead. "Baby, please, come back to me. If you don't... if you go I'll go with you. I will take every last one of these fuckers out and I will follow you, because I can't... I can't do this without you."

He felt her tremble and kissed her again, brushed his lips over hers, holding her tight. He felt his eyes prick and his throat was thick and no, no, he couldn't lose her, not like this.

"I love you," he whispered, his voice breaking. "I love you so much, Nan."

She shivered and sighed and Ned pulled back, his eyes wide, praying that she would just open her eyes, just one more time. Please. Please.

His sight was dimmed with tears, and in the faint light he could almost believe that this was all some terrible nightmare. All of this. How could he never hear her voice again...

He reached for her hand, his thumb brushing against the cheap red stone in that cheap ring. She had deserved so much better.

Had.

When he glanced back at her face, her eyes were open, and he wondered if she had slipped away so suddenly, if she had heard him at all, if she knew.

"Ned?"

She blinked up at him, her voice faint, but it was her voice.

She was alive.

Chapter Text

She couldn't believe it.

She had been dead. She had been sure of it. When she had drifted off...

Ned's face was wet, his brown eyes shining as he gazed at her. "Oh my God, Nan," he whispered, and his arms were around her.

His teeth. She could remember his fangs in her neck.

She shuddered as she sat up, pulling free of his arms. "What," she whispered, and her tongue touched—

She reached up and touched her tooth, felt the sharp edge of it against her fingertip, and heard herself whimper. Oh God, oh no.

Ned wiped his face with his sleeve. "You're okay," he murmured. "They said..."

She looked down at her hands. She was dressed again, although she still felt a little sore between her thighs, and her leg ached—the painkiller was probably half out of her system by now. And her tooth, and her terrible hunger.

She felt numb.

She was supposed to be dead. She had given herself up, resigned herself to dying in his arms, and now she was... she was a monster. And she realized that she had been so naive, thinking that there was any way to resist this desire in her.

The thought appalled her, but she knew from everything Morbius had told her that she would have to feed, that she would die in agony if she didn't. Already she could feel herself shaking at the thought.

I would rather die than hurt you.

Nancy rubbed her face hard with her palms, wiping her wet lashes with her fingertips, and took a long breath—so strange that she still breathed, that her heart was anything other than cold.

"Ian told me," Ned said, very quietly, "that women don't survive this."

She turned, so slowly—oh God, how her leg ached, how all of her ached, with hunger and pain and fear—and sat back, against the wall, turning to Ned. The expression on his face cracked her heart in two.

"You thought you—you were going to let me kill you," Ned said, and his voice broke. "How could you..."

Nancy closed her eyes, a pair of tears slipping down her cheeks. "It was either you or them," she whispered. "Ned, they're so fast..."

"I know," he said, almost grimly.

She shook her head.

He held out his hand and she felt so numb. She looked down at it, and had to direct every muscle contraction, every movement, to touch his palm with her own.

He had killed her. He had.

And, she realized, she would do it again. If she had to, she would lay down her life to save his again.

"Nan," he whispered.

She reached up and touched the crusted bite marks in the side of her neck and shuddered. Then she saw the girl slumped in the chair across the room, and glanced quickly over at Ned.

"She's... she's probably just drugged. They brought her for me. I guess I'm at half-power or something because I didn't drain you dry." He glanced away, toward the boarded-up window, and his fingers tightened on hers.

"I thought..." She cleared her throat and just doing that sent a stab of pain through her, and she panted, bowing her head for a moment. "I guess Morbius was wrong. He said he tried an antidote on you, but it didn't work."

"Ian tried something on me too," Ned admitted. "He made me put my hand in sunlight. Said it hurts most of them after twenty seconds. I didn't hurt until about three minutes or so."

"Ian," she repeated, and touched her head, willing the throbbing to stop. "Morbius's protégé."

"Somehow that didn't really come up." Ned cupped his hand over hers and she shuddered, but she didn't push him away. She wanted to wrap her arms around him and hold him until she stopped shaking, but oh, oh God, the feel of him inside her, his mouth at her throat—that memory was too raw. Not yet.

"I don't understand," she whispered. "Maybe what they gave you... maybe that's why I'm still alive."

"I thought I'd lost you," he said, and laced his fingers through hers. "I... I was going to burn this place to the ground and... and follow you."

His voice was just the barest whisper by the end, and Nancy pulled her legs up, biting her lip to keep from crying out from the pain. She hugged her legs close and rocked back and forth, and the girl on the other side of the room, she shivered a little.

"I can't do this," she whispered.

Ned touched her chin, forcing her to face him. "You swore to me that it was just for a little while," he said, his gaze steady and hard on hers. "Until he came up with the antidote."

Her stomach roiled as they both looked over at the girl.

"I was wrong," she whispered. "I was wrong. I can't."

"And you think I'm just going to let you die?" Ned shook his head.

She managed a very small smile. "So you see how it is," she murmured.

Ned slid off the table and turned to face her. "I hate it too."

"But you did it."

He wiped his hand over his face. "The first drop... it's like water after a month without. There is no stopping... it took everything I had to stop..."

She hugged her legs, hard, hating herself.

Ned swallowed. "Listen, the girls... the girls are still here."

It felt like a million years ago, that Lisa had asked her to look into the fucking case. She held Ned's gaze, listening.

"I say we get them out of here and we burn this place to the ground," he said, his voice low and intense. "Ian, all of them. What he wants, Nan..." Ned shook his head.

"And, after that... after we've done that, I will do whatever you want to do. If you want to go to that doctor, we can. If you want to try to find a cure on our own, we will. And if you... if that's not enough, if you decide that you can't... then I'm with you." He touched that cheap ring, still wrapped around her finger. "Until the end, sweetheart."

He would die by her side, if she asked him to.

But she knew what he was asking her to do, and she would not become fully one of them until...

Ned glanced over at the girl. "I don't want to do this either," he whispered.

Nancy shook her head. "You said you were... low?"

He shrugged. "I feel... I feel fine. Good. They keep saying I'll feel better after..."

She wanted to tell him to just drain the girl by himself, to leave her there, but knowing that she was so close was practically enough to make Nancy's mouth water.

"I'm so hungry," she whispered.

Ned's gaze wasn't unsympathetic. "It's not easy. Not..."

He trailed off and Nancy let her legs down, breathing hard. She would do it, she knew she would, and it was going to take a bit of her soul.

Ned walked over to the girl and lifted her so gently, bringing her over, and Nancy's eyes widened as Ned laid her down, her head on Nancy's lap. He took a deep breath and pushed her hair off her neck, and Nancy's pulse was speeding, she was going to fucking hyperventilate, no, no.

Ned's gaze went to Nancy's face, and when he saw the panic there, he closed his eyes for a long moment. Then he reached down, nicked the side of the girl's neck with his fingernail, and—

And Nancy could smell the blood before she saw it.

He drew his fingertip over the wound and raised his hand, offering the drop to her.

She had never seen such an expression on his face before. Despair, disgust, sympathy.

She grasped his wrist, another pair of tears slipping down her cheek as she brought his hand to her lips, sucked his fingertip into her mouth, flicked her tongue against it.

And she exploded with hunger, and Ned closed his eyes when she bit his fingertip, seeking more, but the taste of his blood wasn't right. It was like water where the other felt like cocaine.

"It's okay, baby," he said, drawing his hand back, turning the girl's head to the side to give Nancy better access. His voice was shaking, though. "It's okay."

She couldn't do this. She couldn't, she couldn't.

And then she was.

And she knew what she was doing, and she hated herself for it, but as she drank the girl's blood it slid warm and rich down her throat and it felt like everything she had ever wanted, that amazing, that perfect, that empty. And she wanted more, so much more, wanted to drain every single drop, even after the girl—

The girl shuddered and Nancy pulled back with a cry. Her lips, her chin were warm and wet and oh God, what had she done.

The light in Ned's eyes was like none Nancy had ever seen before, and he leaned forward. She thought he was going to kiss her but he licked the blood off her chin, almost panting. "Keep going," he murmured.

Nancy shook her head. "I can't," she moaned.

He kissed her once before he leaned down, sinking his fangs into the other side of the girl's neck, and Nancy had to look away as the girl began to tremble harder, shaking the metal frame under her. When he moved down to sink his teeth into the flesh over her heart, Nancy compulsively felt her own, wondered if he had done that to her as well. But the girl was death-pale and nearly empty, and he had stopped with Nancy.

Ned finally pulled back, his gaze distant, his chin slick with blood, and the girl was so still. He panted a little and Nancy felt for a pulse in the girl's neck, her stomach sinking when she found none, but she licked the warm traces of blood off her fingertips anyway.

She hated how good it felt, how good it felt still. She had been on morphine before; this was almost as good. Fucking bliss.

All it had cost was someone else's life.

Ned's hand closed around the edge of the frame and Nancy moved, gently, edging out from under the girl's weight. She kept her movements slow, lowered the girl's head as it slipped off her thigh, and her leg was throbbing even harder now.

She was so thirsty, and she was famished, but she still felt like, if not for her leg, she could run a dozen miles without stopping.

Ned swiped at his chin, his cheeks wet, and Nancy realized with a start that hers were too. He glanced over at the bathroom. "Come on," he muttered. "Let's get cleaned up."

Her shirt collar was crusted with blood, she saw as she studied her dim reflection in the mirror. She was afraid to open her mouth, to see the fangs there, the too-red valley of her tongue. Ned splashed water on his face, scrubbing at his stubbled chin, and Nancy pulled her shirt off, running the collar under the water once he was finished, trying to rub some of the blood out.

The room had been a private one, once upon a time, and the bathroom held a small corner shower, the curtain gone, an old shower head and a drain all that remained. Ned turned it on. Soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, a little hotel set of shampoo and conditioner. He looked at them when she did, and shook his head a little.

She picked up the toothbrush and toothpaste as Ned stripped his shirt off, trying to brush the taste of blood and the rot of sleep out of her mouth, and then cupped her palm and sipped water from the tap. By the time she had drank her fill Ned was naked and brushing his own teeth, and she slipped out of her bra, began to gingerly take her pants off.

Her jeans were at her ankles by the time she realized that her leg wasn't hurting.

Her fingers were shaking a little when she reached for the bandage, carefully peeling the tape off and pulling off the gauze. Her wound was no longer a deep purple crusted gash wreathed in bruises; only the baby pink of new flesh marked where she had been stabbed.

Her face. She remembered how many times she had been backhanded, and felt slowly along her jaw. Nothing. The soreness between her legs was gone, replaced by the dim throb of arousal when she thought about it.

She glanced up at Ned. "My leg," she whispered.

He looked down at her, smiling as he saw her newly healed skin. "Yeah," he murmured. "It's amazing, isn't it."

It wasn't like she needed his help there anymore, but she stepped into the shower spray with him anyway. They traded the soap, shampoo and conditioner, and she looked with some dismay at her legs. No razor to shave. But it felt good to wash the sweat off, and she felt the dried trace of them between her thighs.

Her ring.

They had left the door open; otherwise they would have been in pitch darkness, although she felt like she could see better than she normally would have. Ned's face was in shadow; his eyes gleamed, and he was naked, gazing at her.

She finished rinsing her hair and moved out of the spray, feeling like she was going to burn alive from the intensity in his eyes. He turned off the shower and touched her hand.

And she had been aware of him, remembering the pain and fear as he had made love to her, but as soon as he touched her she knew that he wanted her. She closed her eyes and took a step back, feeling the cold tile against her shoulder blades, and Ned laced his fingers between hers.

Her pulse was fluttering in her throat. She could say no, she knew she could, but all of her wanted to say yes.

He knelt before her and pushed her legs apart, and she made a soft sound as she slid down the wall a little, drawing one leg up to drape over his shoulder. He glanced up at her, his eyes dancing, and she cupped the back of his head as he kissed her inner thigh.

"I love you," he whispered into her skin. "So much, baby. I'm so sorry..."

She closed her eyes as he pressed a kiss against her lower belly, nuzzling his way down. "It's my fault," she whispered, and shivered as his breath brushed her clit. "If I hadn't brought us out here..."

She let out a soft cry as he ran the tip of his tongue over her clit, and he pulled back a little to look up at her. "We have to be quiet, baby, okay?"

She nodded, lacing her fingers through his hair, tipping her head back and panting as he suckled against her clit. He pressed a finger between her legs and she shuddered, already incredibly slick for him, and she clenched hard when he had barely made his second thrust.

She needed him. She needed him so much, needed him deep inside her, rough and brutal. She panted harder, her entire body undulating when he ran the tip of a fang over her clit, and she whimpered, her hips thrusting.

He plunged three fingers between her thighs and caught her clit between his teeth, suckling it hard, and she bucked wildly, tipping her head back. She grasped desperately at her breast, pinching her nipple, fondling the other as he fucked her even harder with his fingers.

"Oh my God," she breathed, her brows knit, her voice shaking. "Harder, harder baby—"

She blinked and suddenly he was standing, grasping her legs to bring her knees up, to bring her hips on level with his—

He plunged into her, grunting, thrusting his full length between her thighs, no hesitation whatsoever. She moaned and he sealed his mouth over hers, stifling her, pulling back for another hard thrust.

He was fucking slamming her against the wall, and she could hardly move, hardly breathe, and it felt fucking amazing. She wrapped her legs tight around his waist, moving with his thrusts, her nails digging into his shoulder blades. When he pulled back, both of them panting as their mouths parted, she sank her fangs into his neck and he drove hard into the slick warmth between her legs, like he was punishing her.

She needled his flesh and he smacked her hip, fucking her even harder. When his thumb squirmed between her legs and found her clit, she screamed against his shoulder, circling her hips.

He nipped at her neck too, gently, in return, even as he pulled nearly out of her to impale her with another brutal thrust, the swift drive of his hips. She was trembling with every stroke of his thumb against her clit, and when she began to come she dug her heels into the small of his back, forcing him against her, her panted breaths turning to quiet sobs.

She was jerking against him when he came, his body tight to hers as he pressed her into the wall, and she couldn't breathe, couldn't let him go, was never going to let him go. They clung to each other, panting, and he kissed the join of her neck and shoulder, the wound he had left there already healed.

Very, very slowly she brought her legs down, and he leaned forward, pinning her against the wall. "Shit," he whispered. "Are you okay?"

She nodded, her eyes drifting closed, although her stomach was still rumbling. She felt incredibly relaxed. "That was so good, baby," she whispered, nuzzling against his neck. "Mmm."

He kissed the point of her jaw. "I thought you would never want me again," he whispered. "Oh God, Nan."

Then he leaned back, meeting her eyes. "Shit," he whispered.

"What?"

"We just..." He shook his head. "Fuck."

The main doorknob rattled, and then they heard a loud knock. Ned released her, his eyes wide. "Stay here," he whispered. He walked out in his pants, his chest bare and his hair still wet, and Nancy was left in the dark, naked, shivering. With a sigh she very quietly began to collect her clothes.

Ned came back with two bottles of water and two sandwiches. "Told them I was really hungry," he said, and handed her one of each.

Nancy began to walk back into the room, and had just noticed that Ned had moved the girl's body—but it was no longer in the room. She glanced over at Ned.

"They took her away," he said softly. "And you need to stay away from the door, from where they can see you. They... they think you're dead. Almost, anyway."

Nancy blinked at him. "What?"

Ned sighed and gestured for her to sit down, as he pulled the chair over.

They finished their lunch before he began, sitting on the edge of the bed, facing her in the chair. He was able to keep an eye on the door, and the number of glances he sent in that direction scared her.

"You told me Morbius is trying to cure this," Ned said, and Nancy nodded. "Cure, like...?"

"Cure, like become human again," she said.

"But with the same abilities?"

Nancy shook her head. "He originally came up with this trying to cure a rare blood disorder," she explained. "All he wants is a normal life, from everything he said to me. He hates... feeding." She shuddered. "He said it wasn't a life... he told me that if I followed you here, I would die. That I had to... that I had to leave here, forget about you, or I would die."

Ned nodded. "But you didn't," he murmured.

"I couldn't," she whispered. "I couldn't leave you, baby."

"Ian's looking for a cure too," he told her. "But he wants to keep all the abilities and lose the weaknesses. No more need for blood, no reaction to sunlight. And once he's managed to eliminate all that, he'll give it to the people he thinks are worthy."

Nancy's eyes widened.

Ned dipped his head and swallowed hard. "I'm pretty sure the cop who came in with you didn't make it," he said. "Ian's experimenting, and he thinks that you won't survive this—Nan, if he finds out you turned? He'll have you strapped to a bed in his lab before you can blink."

Ned's hand tightened into a hard fist. "And we just had unprotected sex."

Nancy pulled her legs back up to her chest, hugging them tight. Oh hell. Oh no.

His voice dropped to just above a whisper. "I can't imagine the kind of things he would do to you if he thought... if you were..."

Nancy made a soft sound. "Don't," she whispered. "Please don't."

Ned swirled the remainder of the water around in the nearly empty plastic bottle. "Every one of them here is loyal to him, or at least he thinks they are," he said. "He told me that if he had any idea I would fuck up his plans, he wouldn't hesitate to kill me... and he could do it."

Nancy propped her chin on her knee. "Do you remember who... which guy bit you? Was it Ian?"

"I've seen him here, but no, it wasn't Ian," Ned said, and Nancy breathed a long sigh of relief. "Why?"

He needed to know; he was going to figure it out sooner or later. "The person who infects you has some measure of influence over you," she explained. "And if it's Ian..."

Ned raised his eyebrow. "What kind of influence are we talking, here? How much?"

Nancy shook her head, shrugging a little. "I don't know how it will be for you," she admitted. "But it's not total. You still have the decision."

And then something in Ned's eyes changed. "You said you don't know how it will be for me," he repeated. "How is it for you?"

She ran a hand over her damp hair. "It's stronger when you touch me," she whispered. "But... I want what you want. It would be easy to do whatever you asked me without a second thought. I can say no... but I don't want to."

She swallowed. "When we were in the shower..."

Ned was unscrewing the cap on his water bottle; he froze. "It was like you melted when I touched you," he whispered. He glanced up at her. "Did you...?"

"I wanted you," she said. "And as soon as you touched me, oh God, it was a million times stronger." Her voice dropped, even quieter. "But last night, as soon as I walked into the room where you were... I was... ready for you."

Ned stood, facing her. "But I hadn't touched you," he whispered. "Had I?"

She shook her head and gave him a small, watery smile.

He reached for her, and as soon as he realized what he was doing, he stopped before actually touching her. She tilted her head. "It's okay."

He stepped closer, and she let her legs down, opening her knees and allowing him between as he put his arms around her. He let out a long, slow breath and she felt him shake a little, and she wrapped her arms around him in return, holding him tightly.

"Last night... Nan, I'm so sorry..."

She squeezed her eyes tight shut. "It's done," she whispered. "It's okay."

He pressed his face against her hair. "I killed you," he whispered.

She had been holding it back, but at his words she let herself feel it, and she started to cry. It had hurt, he had hurt her. She loved him so much and he had hurt her.

"Nan," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."

He hated himself for what he had done to her. His anguish, his relief and his horror at seeing her alive again, like this... she could feel it practically radiating out of him.

She buried her face against his chest. "We're gonna be okay," she said, her voice shaking with her sobs. "We're—It's gonna be okay."

But it wasn't. They both knew that.

It took a long long time for him to pull back. The dim quality of the light reminded her of the day before—oh God, not again, not again.

Ned wiped his face. "Okay," he said softly. "We need a plan."

Nancy pushed her hair back and wiped her cheek against her sleeve. "We're good at plans," she said, then shook her head. "Sometimes."

Neither of them had ever planned for anything like this.

--

Ned didn't have to feign the despair on his face. He went down to the ground floor and into the kitchen. While they depended on the dim glow of lanterns and flashlights, that was just to keep anyone from poking around. The refrigerator was full of bottled water and Ned caught only a few glances when he pulled one out, took a long sip.

"That'll be a quarter," David called with a smirk, and Ned dismissed the remark with a shake of his head. Then he came over, closer to the table where the guys were playing a round of poker.

"I need a shovel," he said quietly.

Three of them put their cards down and glanced up at Ned. "Ian won't like it," Kevin said.

One of the guys Ned remembered from the night before, whose bright idea it had been to shove Nancy into the room with him, snickered. "And we should give a fuck," he muttered.

Brad made a face. "Keep it up. Less competition."

David sighed and glanced up at Ned. "It's better to burn her," he said.

Ned's mouth fell open. "She was my fiancé," he said. "I'm not going to—"

"She was." David moved a card in his hand.

Will stood up. "Ian doesn't want anything that could draw attention to this place," he explained. "Finding a body near here..."

"It doesn't... I can take her somewhere else," he said. "There's... there's a cemetery. We went on a ghost walk..."

Will led him a few steps away from the table, still frowning, but he at least looked mildly sympathetic. "You have to be quick," he said. "And Ian... you should probably tell him, when he gets back."

"I didn't think any of us really went out that much during the day," Ned said.

"He's... running some errands." Will shrugged. "There's a caretaker's shed out there. Probably a couple rusty shovels."

"The rental car," Ned said. "Is it here? I need to turn it in before I rack up another week's charges on it."

"So you'll be sticking around here," Will said, raising an eyebrow.

Ned shrugged. "She... she was all I had," he said softly. "There's nothing to go back to. And at least here I won't have to kill someone..." Other than her, he didn't add.

Will nodded, and Ned lingered in the doorway as Will went for the keys to the rental, the keys that Nancy must have had. He saw a small file box, a stack of receipts, and remembered Ronni's discarded purse. She wasn't dead, only missing, and if her parents didn't stop her cards, they could go on a shopping spree before they were caught. The sandwiches, the bottled water, the lab equipment, all had to get expensive...

Ned inclined his head when Will handed over the key. "So what do you do?" Will asked.

"I work for an insurance agency—up in the Midwest," Ned replied.

"And you don't want to go back to it?"

"I... I don't know," he said, and was shocked to find that he was telling the truth. "Nothing really seems to make sense anymore. Nothing seems to be important anymore. I can do... all these things, but I can't walk around during the day, and anyone who sees..." He opened his mouth a little more, curling his lip. His fangs were plainly visible. He shook his head.

"When we went back home, we were going to get married," he said, more quietly. "I can't imagine going back without her."

Will leaned back against the wall, his arms crossed. "You should tell Ian," he said. "Your work experience... that could get you in."

"Get me in?"

Will shook his head. "Just... talk to him about it, okay? I can't really say anything."

"I get it," Ned reassured him. The guy looked agitated, then glanced down at his watch.

"Shit. I've gotta get upstairs."

Upstairs. Where the girls were. Ned considered offering assistance, but given how skittish Will already seemed, he didn't want to press his luck. "I couldn't do it," he said instead. "You must have a strong stomach."

Will gave him a bleak smile. "You'd be able to do it, if you thought hard about the alternative," he replied.

Ned wrapped his fingers around the key, then saw a pile of candy bars next to a change jar. He took out his wallet, shoved a dollar into the jar, and picked up three. He was halfway out when he glanced at the guys, busily playing their poker game again, dropped another dollar into the jar and grabbed another water bottle.

Nancy was so still under the sheet where he had left her when Ned walked back into the room. "It's me," he said softly, and she sat up immediately, swinging off the table. 

"Thank God. I was about to explode."

He left a candy bar and a water for her, and she smiled when she returned and saw them. "So?"

"So I have the keys to the car," he said, "and permission to take you to the cemetery. Ian's supposed to be back later. And I had a very interesting conversation with Will."

Nancy had just swallowed the last bite of her candy bar when he finished relating it to her. "Yesterday," she mused, "I heard two of them talking. One said something about 'five,' whether something was going to work or not."

"You think they have something to do with each other?" Ned leaned forward and brushed a smear of chocolate off her lip, then licked it off his thumb.

He caught himself wishing that he had kissed it off, but the look in her eyes told him it wouldn't have ended there... and then he wondered if she was responding to his own arousal, if she was wet...

I was ready for you.

He shook his head and Nancy closed her eyes. "Maybe if we turn the water on full-blast it'll drown us out," she said softly.

Ned let out a strangled groan. "I need to go upstairs and do some recon," he reminded her. "Please don't tempt me."

"I'm not," she whispered, and then she opened her eyes. "It's only temptation when you don't want it yet, when you haven't decided. But you have, Ned."

And he did want it. He wanted to see her gasping and crying out with pleasure under him, instead of bleeding, shivering as she slipped away. He knew he would never forget it, would never stop hating himself for what he had done to her, but the more times they made love, the more it would have to fade.

He was so afraid that after they tonight, she would tell him that she couldn't go on this way. That she would cast herself into the flames. And he would follow.

He was more afraid of what would happen if she didn't. What would happen when they were hungry again.

When he glanced back at her, she had gathered her hair in her fist and was rubbing the back of her neck. The marks he had left there were totally gone. She was able to move her leg without wincing, without pain. She was whole again.

But oh God, the price.

If he didn't leave now, he knew that he wouldn't.

She sighed, but she climbed back up on the table when he asked her to, crossing her arms over her chest. He shook out the sheet and let it fall over her, folding it back so he could look down at her face one more time.

She blinked up at him. "I love you," she whispered. "No matter what happens tonight, I love you."

He brushed his thumb gently over her lower lip. "I love you too," he whispered.

She reached up and drew his face down to hers, and he kissed her slowly, sweetly, then nuzzled against her cheek. "I'll be right back, baby."

She nodded, and the last he saw was the gleam of her blue eyes before he pulled the sheet over her again.

The hallway was so dim. Soon it would be time.

Ned pulled the door closed behind him and locked it, and in the time it took for him to turn, someone was standing there.

Ian.

Ian gave Ned a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Mr. Nickerson."

Ned willed his heart to stop pounding quite so hard, but his stomach flipped when Ian glanced at the door behind him.

"Come with me."

Chapter Text

It would be fast, Ned was sure. Otherwise he would have time to avoid it, and Ian wouldn't want that.

The closer sunset was, the more anxious Ned felt. Ian led him to the locked door of the laboratory, gesturing for him to walk inside, and the skin on the back of Ned's neck crawled when he was facing away from the man. While he still believed that he wouldn't be entirely unmatched in hand-to-hand combat—he had to believe that, had to believe there was a way they would be able to get out of this—a part of him still doubted.

"Will said you wanted to speak with me," Ian said, folding his arms, leaning back against a desk.

The lab was quiet. Three figures swathed in white sheets lay on tables in an alcove, two of them hooked up to IV stands. Ned had never realized how pervasive the hum of electricity was until he spent time without it, in a place like this.

He swallowed. The worst part was figuring out what to do with his hands.

In some version of this, in some other place, he had just lost her. She had just breathed her last in his arms and it had been his fault.

His grief at the thought was in no way feigned.

"I want to bury her," Ned murmured, his voice solemn. "She... she deserves that."

Ian shook his head. "You bury her in the woods and some scout troop or scavenging animal uncovers her—"

Ned set his jaw. "We went on a ghost walk when we got here, in a cemetery closer to town," he said. "I'll be quick. I just... I owe her this."

Ian's lips tightened into a thin line. "I want you to understand that this is a privilege," he said slowly. "And if I grant you this privilege, I expect something in return."

Ned inclined his chin a little, although his heart was pounding.

"Tomorrow night... I need you to go with the guys. Pick up some more girls. We're going to need them."

Ned wondered how many girls had already been through the old hospital, how many were ash now, settled as dust over the dead leaves outside. "I don't know," he said.

Ian raised an eyebrow. He led Ned over to the beds, where he wrapped his fingers around a pale wrist, searching for a pulse. "This isn't free," he said. "This place, all of it—it isn't free. That job, distasteful as it is, is necessary." Ian moved to the next bed. "What's your job? What do you do?"

"Insurance agent back home. In the Midwest."

Ian nodded. "And are you going to go back there? Take your chances?"

Ned had a feeling that those men who broke away from the group did vanish, just not to where they were expecting. Ian didn't look like the kind of man who appreciated loose ends. "There's really nothing left for me there," he said, wondering how much of their conversation Will had repeated. "With her gone..."

Ian tapped the IV line with his thumbnail, darting a glance back at Ned. "That's something else I needed to ask you about," he said. "Your fiancé. Nancy Drew. Her father's well-off, isn't he."

Ned's blood turned cold. He fought down the urge to swallow hard before he nodded. "Fairly well."

"I need to contact him."

"Why?"

The question slipped out before Ned could stop it, and Ian's gaze was sharp when it fell on Ned again. "Like I said, this place isn't free," he said. "And if you're unemployed and taking up community resources, we need to replenish that somehow. Her father could definitely help."

Ned's jaw tightened. "And when he asks for proof of life—"

"Well, we have you, don't we?" Ian smiled.

For a second Ned considered appealing to Ian's sense of decency, pleading that the man was sick, that hearing his only daughter was in danger might prove a blow he wouldn't recover from, but Ned saw absolutely no sympathy in Ian's eyes, even when he turned back to Ned, shaking his head.

"Listen, I know this is difficult. Watching her die must have been..." Ian trailed off, shaking his head, feigning empathy Ned was positive he didn't feel. When Ned and Nancy had killed the girl earlier, it had felt like it was ripping him apart; did Ian even feel anything anymore? "But you need to serve a purpose here, Ned. It's the only way we're going to survive."

"Of course," Ned said, his voice just as toneless as Ian's had been.

"So, tomorrow night." Ian nodded. "And once you take her out there tonight, come back and give me his contact information. We don't have any time to lose, Nickerson." Ian pinned him with a glance again. "You get your head right, and you could really do well here."

Ned just tipped his head up again. "Yeah," he murmured. "I think I'll take some time and do that tonight. I just need to be alone for a little while. You know how it is..."

"So we'll see you again in the morning." The way Ian said it, it was in no way a question.

Errands. He had been running errands away from the old hospital.

The wheels in Ned's head were spinning as he left the lab, taking a deep breath before he yanked open the door to the stairwell, and pushed

God, if he had been able to move like this on the football field or the basketball court, his coaches would have cried with joy. It took the space of a breath for him to reach the next floor, and his eyes adjusted to the dim light before he very quietly opened the door onto the hallway.

He could feel the sun was just slipping below the horizon. Every single sense he had seemed to be on alert. The night before, all of them had been centered on Nancy; now, it was all he could do to keep himself from running back to her, getting between her and Ian. If Ian found out she was still alive—

Ned shook his head, drawing in a long breath.

Two guards, patrolling the hallway. Ned counted twenty girls, as he darted between shadows. Most of them were two to a room, handcuffed to the bedframes, slow and lethargic from blood loss. One in particular had a swelled, oversized belly, and Ned's hand closed into a fist. Savannah. Joe was probably losing his mind with worry over her.

While Ned knew the lower floor and probably the upper one held more patient rooms, that they could conceivably fill every office and closet with shackled girls, they didn't seem to be preparing more rooms.

Sneaking out took a little more skill, and every single heartbeat that passed before he saw her again felt like agony. If he walked back into that room and she was gone...

He was confronted suddenly with the image of her, throat ripped open, eyes wide and glazing, and he bounced on the balls of his feet, waiting for the guard to pass so he could get back to the stairwell.

They were waking, all of them. He could feel their eyes opening in the dark.

Ned went downstairs, taking his time when he reached the second floor and headed for the first. He was just about to walk into the reception area, where the rest of them seemed to stay perpetually gathered, when he heard Ian's voice.

"You'll know what to do."

It was David, who had been so callous about Nancy earlier. His gaze was up and on Ian when Ned walked in, and Ned saw the subtle shift in his eyes when he glanced at Ned.

He found their rental car easily enough, parked just beneath the cover of the woods at the edge of the parking lot. The police car and a few other cars were parked there too, and he saw a sports car and two sedans parked around the other corner of the building, a few cars crowded under the emergency entrance at the side. Other men who went about their lives, who came here at night, reporting in. Coming in for their ration of blood.

Five.

The lock on the caretaker's shed broke easily under his grip, and he found a long-handled shovel, its blade crusted with dirt. 

He backed the car up to the building. He desperately wanted to back it up to an out-of-the-way entrance, where he could carry Nancy out unobserved, but if Ian had any suspicion whatsoever, that would only feed it. He brought the car to the emergency entrance, making sure he found the button on the fob that would pop the trunk lid.

Then he had an idea, and pulled down one of the seats in the back passenger space, leaving an opening between the passenger area and the trunk.

Jack was making sandwiches. Of course. No women around to make anything more complicated, although Ned was pretty sure no one would object. He grabbed two and handed Jack a dollar when the other man grimaced. David was watching, so he only took one bottle of water.

She was so still, so damn still when Ned walked into the room, and he didn't trust that they wouldn't follow him in. He left the door unlocked and pulled the sheet down, and when he touched Nancy's lips, her eyes opened.

His heart hadn't stopped pounding since Ian had grabbed him, and he couldn't ignore the terrible premonition that they wouldn't get out of this unscathed.

He gestured for her to be quiet, handing her the sandwich, and they ate quickly, splitting the bottle of water. Once they were both ready and she stood there in front of him, still silent, her eyes searching his, Ned bit his fingertip, then smeared his blood over her neck. If one of them checked her over or saw her when they were leaving, not seeing blood there might raise some red flags, even if the wounds had healed.

She took his hand when he began to pull back and sucked his finger into her mouth, her tongue flicking over his fingertip, and he closed his eyes. She swirled her tongue around him a few times, then released him, and he throbbed a little at the sensation.

"Don't say anything until we're on the highway," he breathed, and she nodded.

She was about to climb back up on the table when she paused and then put her arms around him, hugging him tight, and God, she didn't understand what this had done to him, because he would do fucking anything to save her and it was like he had a second chance, and he would be damned if he didn't do it right this time. His arms slipped around her and he held her tight to him, lifting her up off the ground a little, and he could feel her heart beating hard against his.

"I love you," she breathed.

He closed his eyes. "I love you so much," he said, his voice normal, because he was supposed to be saying goodbye to her.

He tucked the sheet around her before he picked her up in his arms, her hair tumbling down over his arm. When he opened the door no one was obviously waiting for him, but oh God, everything felt like a trap.

He carried her like a man with his new bride, letting himself fall back into that terrible place where she hadn't survived, where her weight in his arms was like a failure. He was so gentle with her and when the sheet slipped a little, revealing her cheek, he forced himself not to put it back.

All their eyes were on him as he carried her out of there. David's weren't, though.

He popped the trunk after he shouldered through the emergency entrance, and the skin on the back of his neck was crawling again. He hated turning his back on them. He very tenderly put her down in the trunk, and she let him fold her legs, turning her onto her side. The sheet slipped down and her eyes were still closed, and he could see the faint pulse of her heartbeat in her neck. He just had to hope none of them had.

At least, to them, she was infected, her blood no longer of any use to them.

He pulled his wallet out of his pocket and tossed it onto the other seat as he cranked the car. Nancy's purse was in the back with her; she generally locked it in the trunk before she went on recon, and he had seen it there. As soon as they were out on the highway she moved to the opening between them, remaining in the trunk.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm pretty sure Ian told David to follow us. And I'm pretty fucking sure that Ian has another place set up."

"Another one?"

"Yeah. He said, in return for letting me bury you, I had to go out with the group tomorrow night and grab more girls... and I don't see them prepping rooms up on the third floor."

"How many of them are still up there?"

Ned told her what he had seen, including Savannah and the number of guards. Nancy told him that when she had been up on the floor, usually only one guard was on duty; the second came up to chat or help patrol, but he wasn't always there. And that made it worse, really.

"So where are we going?"

"The cemetery," Ned replied. "We have to. If David..."

"So you have a body to bury too?"

He cast a disparaging glance into the rearview mirror, even though he couldn't see her there. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

She was quiet for a minute. "My major credit cards are missing," she reported. "Fuck."

"I still have mine. We'll make it."

She sighed. "So once we fake David out, we head back and ambush them—"

Ned shook his head. "No."

"What?"

He cast a quick glance behind him. Her brows were drawn together. "Nan, the most important thing here is getting you somewhere safe."

"Ned—"

"No," he replied, his voice hard. "I am not fucking losing you again. We're going to the cemetery. You check into a motel, and I'll meet you there after."

"And what the fuck makes you think I'm going to just go along with that?" she retorted angrily. "Do you think I'm just going to fucking let you walk back in there alone? I've seen them and I know you have. You won't have a snowball's chance in hell without me."

Ned shook his head. "I'll figure it out," he said. "I'm fast."

"And Ian's faster." She made a frustrated noise. "You say you can't lose me again, but Ned, I'm not letting you do this. End of fucking discussion. Or you may as well actually bury me in that fucking grave because if I lose you—"

She broke off with a quiet choked noise and Ned slammed the steering wheel with his palm. She had said that he had some influence over her, but he wasn't entirely sure that was how it worked. Because he sure as hell felt like she was more persuasive than he was, at the moment.

"You're not going to lose me," he said softly.

"Liar," she replied.

Ned was quiet for a moment. "Nan? What if... what if it's the only way... what Ian's doing. The only way to survive without killing."

"Because it's better to die a slow, lingering death in captivity than going into shock and slipping away from the blood loss," she said, her voice thick with disgust, but she went quiet too.

"Morbius said... said it was elegant. An elegant solution to the problem."

He didn't want to say it, didn't want to lead her down the same path he was on, but he knew it was only a matter of time before she had the same thoughts he did. "I think the longer it is... the easier it gets. David said... it's like we're at the top of the food chain now. Like it doesn't matter who we hurt because we're better than them."

The people they loved, every single one of them in danger.

He had told Ian that there was nothing left anywhere without her, and in a way, it was true. As long as she was with him, he could endure this. He could keep his soul. Without her, though, this life would be a nightmare.

Too soon, he pulled up at the cemetery. He took the shovel from the backseat, meeting her eyes, and then headed out, swiftly digging an appropriate hole in a secluded corner. The ground was patched with moss, and would be easily replaced when he was finished. He popped the trunk and she curled up as small as she could, trying to keep out of sight, as he leaned down, picking up the sheet. He moved quickly so whoever was watching would only see the flash of white in his arms, then swiftly replaced the dirt, ending by placing the mossy turf back on top.

He might be strong, might be able to move quicker than the eye could see, but he was still covered in sweat when he was finished. His shirt was streaked with dirt, his hair damp, as he slid back behind the wheel.

"So Ian thinks you're sticking around here for a while," Nancy said, as soon as they were back on the road.

"Yeah. I get the feeling that if I said I wanted to leave, he'd nod and... and they'd never find me."

"If Ian's got another place to set up, and he wants more girls... what do you think is gonna happen to Savannah and the rest?"

From the tone in her voice, Ned could tell Nancy had the same fear he did. "You think there's any way they'd last much longer?"

"So he might just cut his losses." She sighed. "We have to get them out tonight."

Ned blinked hard. He just wanted more time with her, just a little more time.

"We'll get a room, pay in cash," she said. "And tonight we'll go and we'll do this."

--

Ned looked like a mess. And his mood... Nancy was no longer sure if anything she felt was really her anymore. Until he had let her out of the car and she had slid into the cab and told the driver to take her to a discount store, until she had been alone, she had felt the certainty grow and grow in her.

No matter what happened, Ned was sure they wouldn't survive. Not the two of them against at least twelve men, not including Ian. If Ned had the chance to do so, he would try to leave her behind, and he'd walk willingly to his death because he thought killing Ian meant keeping her safe.

But she could break any rope, any set of cuffs he tried to use on her. And nothing was going to keep her away when they tried to do this.

She picked up a few supplies, plus a prepaid cell, programming Ned's cell and her father's numbers in immediately.

Her father. She had to call her father.

The cop... didn't make it.

If Ian knew who she was... well, he had no idea that she was still alive, and while he seemed intelligent, from everything Ned had told her about him, she doubted he had surveillance on her father's house or phone lines. Especially since she was supposed to be dead.

Her credit cards were gone, though. Ian knew her name. And it would only be a matter of time before he figured out who her father was.

Her red-gold hair was tucked under a Saints ballcap when she walked into the motel's reception area. For situations just like this one, she had sewn some quantity of cash and a no-name prepaid debit card into the lining of her wallet. She figured out the positions of the security cameras before she walked in, and kept the brim of her hat down, her smiles brief, lips closed as often as she could.

The room was near the front, second floor, king-sized bed in the middle. Ned carried their bags inside and she remembered Stephen helping her carry them out to the car, when she had been terrified, knowing that no matter what, she had to find Ned, had to try to save him if she could. Her leg had been aching. It felt like four years ago.

Her leg was perfect now.

And he thought he could leave her behind.

As soon as she shut the door he stripped his shirt off, heading for the bathroom.

She locked the door and took her cap off, tossing it onto the dresser, running her fingers through her hair. She heard the shower turn on and shook her head, following him into the bathroom.

He was naked, and he glanced up, his eyes wide with surprise. The room was so small that it became claustrophobic with the two of them in there.

"You are such an asshole."

Ned's eyebrows went up, his expression defensive. "Hey," he said angrily.

"You are ready to walk in there, to fucking offer yourself up just to get a chance at him, and I'm just supposed to sit back here and wait, and for almost an entire fucking day all I heard was that you were as good as dead and I— I can't—"

Her voice started shaking and Ned shook his head, taking the two steps between them when she began to cry.

"You said you'd follow me," she said, her voice catching with sobs, as he took her in his arms. "I can't do that—I can't just follow you. I'm going to be by your goddamn side because if there's a fucking chance that we're gonna get out of this, it'll be together. Or I'll be there—I'll be there to destroy anyone who touches you."

Ned buried his face against her hair. "I don't know how to do this, baby," he whispered. "I just wish we had more time."

Once she had stopped shaking quite so hard, he tugged her day-old bloodstained clothes off and they stepped into the shower together. He rinsed a smear of blood off her neck that she hadn't caught, and she lathered up his back, watching the water run in rivulets down his dark hair. She finally felt clean when he turned the water off, but his words kept echoing in her head.

I just wish we had more time.

She pulled him down to sit at the edge of the tub, and sank to her knees. He looked a little nervous, even though he was very aroused, and she realized that she definitely hadn't given him a blow job since she had turned.

She used her tongue a lot, careful not to scrape her sharp teeth over the sensitive flesh of his cock, and when she knew that he wanted her to deep-throat him, she closed her eyes and took as much of his length as she dared, his fingertips firm against the back of her head. He thrust against her, groaning, and she shivered when he came.

"Oh my God, Nan," he sighed, as she slowly drew back, sitting up. He was so beautiful, and she loved him so much. The influence he had over her now had nothing to do with it. He was hers and she wanted him to be happy, and if that meant giving him head every morning for the rest of their lives, that was what she would do.

They had to get through this, she thought to herself severely. He had promised to marry her. Her father needed her. And she could not believe that she had survived certain death just to die in some impossible fight.

Ned's eyes finally fluttered open. "Wow," he whispered.

She smiled. "I would say that we could just stay here and keep doing that..." she replied.

"Don't tempt me," he groaned, pulling himself to his feet.

She blinked and his arm looped firmly about her waist, and she suddenly found herself on a towel, sprawled over the bed, pinned under him. He nuzzled against her breast before he pulled her nipple into his mouth, and she parted her legs, arching under him as he suckled. "And I have to be quiet here too?" she asked, running her fingers through his hair.

"Well, not that quiet," he replied.

She moaned when he slipped two fingers between her thighs, finding her already wet for him. She was bringing her knees up when he ran his fang over the tip of her nipple, and she let out a sobbing cry when his thumb found her clit. "Oh my God please now," she demanded, her hips trembling.

He chuckled. "Not even close," he growled.

The first few times they had gone to bed together, teasing each other with fingertips beneath their clothes, the press of hips and slow kisses, it had taken her so long to reach climax. Part of it, she was sure, had been his reluctance—oh, God, he had wanted her, he had been incredibly eager to go to bed with her, but he had been so afraid of hurting her, afraid of doing something wrong. The first time she hadn't understood what was going on, either. The pressure had been unbearable and then it had been glorious, and she had been whispering his name, her brows knitted.

Since she had turned, though, practically from the moment he touched her she was slick and tingling, impatient and begging for him. All he would have to do was tell her to come and she would, whether he was inside her or not.

But he didn't want her to, not yet. He was enjoying this.

A small part of her wondered if he was getting revenge from having to pull back all those times, for how many times they had approached the line and she had begged off.

She could still taste his seed at the back of her throat as she writhed under him, circling her hips to find a good angle as he fucked her with his fingers. She wanted him harder; instead he pinned her beneath him, kissing and nipping at her neck as he made his strokes slower, more gentle.

She panted, grasping his shoulders, tracing his spine, all the way down to his ass. "I love you," she whispered, her hips rocking gently against his fingers. "Oh my God, baby, I love you so much."

"I love you too," he whispered, sliding the entire length of his fingers inside her and holding them there as he circled her clit, and she spasmed around him, tipping her head back, baring her throat, and he ran the tip of his tongue up the artery in the side of her neck before he rolled onto his back.

Nancy mounted him, closing her eyes, shivering when he found her clit again. "Oh God," she gasped out, sliding up and down the hard length of his cock, and he let out a long, pleased groan. "Please, baby, oh please—"

She rutted against him, her head hanging, her damp hair swinging against her cheeks. Slowly he rubbed her harder, harder, until he was working the tip of his nail against the very tip of her clit and she cried out, his hips jerking hard against hers as he finally whispered, "Come."

She collapsed to him, burying her face, her fangs against his shoulder as she screamed out her pleasure, and he pushed himself up to sitting, her legs still sprawled defenseless on either side of his hips as he kept rocking inside her, drawing out her orgasm. She was drowning in the sheer joy of it, her nails digging into his back, whimpering with his every thrust, and when he finally came she wrapped her arms around him and held him tight, gasping for breath.

She was flushed and shaking and they were slick where their skin touched, and she realized that his fangs were buried in the side of her neck and she hadn't even felt it, her orgasm had been so intense. He kissed the wounds and she groaned, nuzzling against his neck.

Then he kissed the side of her mouth, her closed lips. "Was it good, baby," he whispered.

Her eyes were still closed, her bare breasts pressed to his chest as she tried to catch her breath. "Shit," she whispered. "I couldn't fucking come until you told me to. You ass." She was smiling, though.

"Mmmmm."

"Was it good?"

His lips found the point of her jaw. "It was amazing," he whispered against her skin, and nuzzled against her. "I love the way you feel when you come."

She shivered.

He had come inside her again, no protection between them whatsoever.

She closed her eyes. They could think about it later, after. For now, she loved being so close to him.

They rinsed off in the shower again, and she washed the trace of them off her thighs, aware that the longer they were naked around each other, the higher the temperature felt. She dried her hair and found a dark long-sleeved t-shirt to put on, and reached for her jeans.

Ned put his hand over hers. "I've been thinking," he said softly. "We have an advantage, Nan. When it's near sunrise, they'll be settling in, but we have time. We can go in, scout it out."

"So you want to wait."

He nodded. "We can get some rest, make sure we have a good plan before we go in."

She tossed her jeans back on top of her suitcase and reached for the hem of her shirt, pinning him with a glare before she pulled it off. "Ned, I swear to God, if you leave me here I will find you and kill you with my bare hands."

He shook his head, then unzipped his own bag, finding a clean pair of boxers. "I'll take you with me," he said quietly, and she knew from the tone in his voice what he was feeling.

As soon as they settled into bed together, she in a long-sleeved henley and her underwear, Ned in his boxers, she curled up against him, remembering again how wonderful it was to not feel pain every time she moved her leg. She rested her head on his chest, listening to the distant thud of his heart, and stroked his shoulder.

"So what's the plan?" she murmured.

He stroked her hair. "The key to the van is probably in the office near the emergency reception," he said. "That's where they were keeping the key to our car... and I think the girls' stuff is in there too, their cards, if they kept them. I'll grab the keys and give them to you. There's an exit at the back, and that will probably be the easiest place to take the van. I'll go upstairs and get the guard and then you go in there, and start getting the girls out."

"While you're doing what," she asked. She hadn't been able to relax while she had been in the old hospital, and here, in his arms, in the glorious afterglow of their lovemaking, she was content for the first time in days.

"I'm going to find Ian," he said. "Kill him first."

"You have to take off his head," she said, shifting against Ned. "We heal, but what we lose doesn't grow back."

"Hmm," he said, his fingertips drifting down her spine. "I think once Ian's out, it'll be chaos. I'll get as many of the rest as I can... and if we time it right, if it's full sun outside, I think we have a real chance."

And if we time it wrong. "Then I take the girls to the hospital, drive up to the emergency department and leave the van there, and you'll come pick me up. ...And the sun will be up."

"Apparently sunscreen will help," he said. "SPF 100 will give us, what, at least five hours?"

She smiled. "You don't know that I'm the same as you," she pointed out. "That I can bear three minutes of exposure."

"I can drive the van to the hospital..."

"And leave me to take out the other guys?" She made a soft disbelieving noise. "Then you really will try to lock me in here and leave me behind."

Ned sighed. "If I beg you..."

She brought her head up, glaring at him, and he lapsed into silence.

"I love you," he said finally. "Don't you dare look at me like that. I love you."

"And I love you," she said. "And that's why we're doing this together."

Ned reached for the alarm clock to set it, and Nancy was relieved to see that it was before midnight. "I'm gonna call my dad," she said softly, pushing herself up.

"Shit," Ned murmured, his eyes widening. "I was going to call my parents..."

He was still setting the clock when she found her new cell, already mostly charged, and dialed the number for her home. The phone rang three times and Nancy found her heart was pounding. What if Ian had gotten to him, what if—

Hannah answered the phone, her voice a little slow with sleep. "Hello?"

"Hannah," Nancy said, fighting to keep her voice calm.

"Nancy! My God, girl, I tried to call you—I thought you said the case was almost done."

"It is," she said. "Almost. Just a few loose ends to tie up. I just... I knew you were probably worried about me."

"You'd think I'd learn after all this time," Hannah clucked her tongue. "Tell Ned to remind you to call more often. You think you might make it back before the end of the week?"

Home. Home. "I sure hope so," she said, keeping her voice light. "Look, I know Dad is probably asleep, but I just wanted to tell him goodnight."

"I'll check, honey. I know he's been wanting to hear from you. You want me to wake him if he's not up?"

"Yes, please," she said, closing her eyes. If they didn't make it...

It took a long moment for her father to come on the line. "Nancy," he said, and he sounded exhausted. "What's wrong? You need to talk the case over with me?"

"No," she whispered. "No, Daddy. Ned and I... we're going to try to tie up all the loose ends tomorrow and come home, and you better rest up, because after this... after all this..."

She heard her father take a sip of water, and he sounded marginally more awake. "I hope you didn't get hurt again," he said. "You sound... you sound upset again, Nan."

She rubbed her forehead. "I'm sorry, it's just really late," she lied. "But my leg is doing much better."

"That's good, sweetheart."

"I'd better let you get back to sleep."

"Tell Ned I'll be very disappointed if he doesn't bring my daughter back to me by the weekend."

"I'll tell him," Nancy said, looking down at the cheap heart-shaped ring. "I think he'll be very disappointed if he doesn't, either. He's... he's been wanting to talk to you."

"Oh, has he," Carson said, sounding wary. "Is this going to be a good talk or a bad talk?"

"The kind of talk that I think will need Hannah's pineapple upside-down cake to follow," she said, forcing a smile. "A good talk, I think."

Carson gave her a mock-heavy sigh. "Hmm. Well, if it's that one particular talk... I have to say, I've been waiting for it for a few years, now."

"In a good way?"

"He's a good man, Nancy," her father said softly. "I don't know if any man on earth is good enough for my baby girl, but anyone can see how much he loves you, and if I have to lose you, I'm glad it's to him."

He killed me, Daddy. He sank his fangs into my neck and drank my blood and I would have died... and now I'm a monster.

She forced a smile again. "He'll be glad to hear that," she said softly. "I love you so much, Dad, and give Hannah my love."

"I will. I love you too, honey. And now that I'm going to be dreading this talk, don't leave me in anticipation for too long."

When she hung up the phone, tears were standing in her eyes. Ned had already finished his call to his parents and was sitting on the edge of the bed, facing her, his phone in his open palms.

She looked up at him, but she couldn't say it, and he held her for a long moment before they moved under the covers, still joined.

Neither of them fell asleep easily, knowing what was coming in a few hours. Finally Ned touched her shoulder and whispered, "Go to sleep, baby," and she felt herself start to drift off. She was fighting it, terrified that they would oversleep, but her exhaustion overtook her.

She was in that freezer again, her limbs rigid with terror, and she could feel Ned in the dark. He was there with her, and he was okay, he hadn't been infected. She came to him, and her fingers were shaking as she tried to pick the lock, to release him.

The door opened behind her and Ian stood there, staring at her. In a second he was on her, grabbing her arm and flinging her behind him, and Ned was powerless, unable to do a damn thing. Two of the men grabbed her, holding her back, and she watched it again, screaming for him, fighting as hard as she could as Ian's fangs sank into Ned's neck.

She couldn't save him. She had never been able to save him.

She wanted to die.

The man she loved was on a pile in the ground, trembling, while the men holding Nancy jeered and laughed, crowing, and Ian's chin was slick with Ned's blood. She screamed at him, tears streaking down her cheeks, and she didn't care what it took, he would pay for what he had done.

Morbius was one of the men holding her.

She ripped herself free, her heart ready to beat out of her chest, and sank to her knees, her gaze locked on Ned. He had to be okay. He had to be.

And then he stirred, raising his head, and opened his eyes.

They were dark red.

She whimpered but then he was on her, his fangs long and sharp as he sank them into her neck, pulling hard. The pain was unbearable and she screamed, and oh God he was hurting her, he was killing her, and then he ripped her shirt apart and sank his fangs into her heart

She woke crying out, her face wet, sobbing, and sat up, clapping her hands over her face. She touched her chest over her heart and the skin was unbroken, her neck wasn't covered in blood, but oh God, the terror was still there, quaking in her.

Ned sat up beside her. "Baby, it's okay," he whispered, reaching for her, and she trembled, fighting him for a moment before she collapsed against him, burying her face against his neck.

She wondered if she would think about it every time they made love, every time she saw his eyes, if she would remember it again.

He laid back down with her, holding her, stroking her hair until her sobs stopped. "It's okay," he whispered. "It's okay, it's okay."

She wanted to scream. It wasn't okay. They could lie to each other, lie to themselves, but it wasn't okay.

They had killed someone.

She was afraid to go to sleep, afraid to dream that.

And then he touched her and she felt it wash over her, and when she slept again she didn't dream.

When they woke together, thirty minutes before the alarm was set to go off, he was hard and tugging her panties down, and he was just Ned, the man she loved, who would never hurt her. He cupped her breasts through her shirt, and then he gently bent her legs, pushing his boxers down as he moved over her.

She hadn't been under him since he—

She forced herself to gaze up at him as he slipped inside her, her lips parting as her breath left her in one long sigh. No foreplay, but she didn't need it, not anymore. His first thrust was smooth and easy, and he was pleased, he loved how wet she was.

He loved her. He loved her so much.

He made love to her slowly, moving in her with slow regular thrusts, and she moved to meet him, her heels against the mattress as she tilted her hips to take him deeper. She blinked, a pair of tears tracing down the sides of her face, and slipped her arms around him.

His lips brushed against her temple and she shuddered, her legs falling open. "Yes," she whispered, "oh yes, baby, I love you so much, yes."

He moved in her through her orgasm, until she was gasping, bucking under him, and with a hard press of her hips into the mattress he buried himself deep inside her and found his own release, whispering her name.

She buried her fingers in his hair, holding him to her until they had to get out of bed, had to get ready.

Please, she prayed as she pulled out her dark top and jeans, shivering in the predawn. Please don't let me lose him. Please don't let me lose him again.

But her dream came back to her. It wasn't her fault, but it was, this terrible thing they had both become. Maybe it would be better, if it ended like this, before they killed someone else...

And if it ends today, at least let us take Ian down with us.

--

They went over it until they couldn't speak anymore. He was nervous and jittery with tension and with all his heart he wished that she had stayed behind. Once they walked in, he knew they wouldn't walk back out again, and if she had just stayed in the hotel room, she could have made it back home to her father, after...

To never make love to her again, to never touch her again... oh, it ached in him, but if he died by her side, there would be no fear in it. And they would be free from the terrible thing he was, the terrible thing he had done to her.

When the hospital appeared on the horizon, he reached back and she took his hand, out of sight in the floorboard of the backseat.

He put every bit of his will into it and whispered, "Nan, when I get out of the car... go back to the hotel and wait for me. And if you don't hear from me by tonight, go back to your father. Please."

She was quiet. She was fighting it.

"I will not leave you," she whispered. "I don't care what you do but I'm not leaving."

He pulled into the parking lot, close to the building, and turned off the engine.

At least they would be together.

"I love you," he whispered.

"I love you too," she replied. "Forever, baby."

Chapter Text

The first kill was hard.

What was harder, though, was watching Nancy leave his sight.

Ned walked in unarmed, trying to keep his expression normal, but the utter surreality of it kept interfering. His heart was pounding.

Remove the head.

He had never in his life taken someone's head off.

He had to wait ten minutes for David to walk out of the inner office, and then shouldered inside. Everyone seemed slow, lethargic in the predawn gloom, and Ned felt that same impulse to find shelter pulling at him. He patted his jeans pocket; the tube of sunscreen waited there. He hadn't wanted to raise any alarm bells by putting it on early.

He dug through the jumble of keys until he found two sets that matched the make of the van and slipped them into his pocket. When he glanced up, Will was standing in the doorway.

"Looking for something?"

Will's eyes were sharp. Ned smiled. "Just putting my keys back," he said, holding them up. "Don't we do that, leave them all in here?"

Will shrugged. "It's a sign of good faith," he said, his eyes still on Ned. "But you coming back... yeah. You here for good?"

"I think so." Nancy was waiting, alone, exposed. "Let me go get my bag..."

Ned scooped up his keys again and ignored Will's lingering gaze as he walked back to the car. He had parked near the white van, the trunk away from the building; Nancy's expression would have been sardonic if they both weren't so fucking jittery with adrenaline.

"Give me ten minutes," he said, handing her the two sets of keys. "It's one of these. It better be one of these. I'll check to see if you're out there before I start."

She nodded and Ned picked up his bag, headed back inside. Every single instinct he had was screaming for him to leave now, to get the hell away from this place with her and never look back.

But, no matter what, he would always feel the guilt of not doing this, if he walked away now. Leaving the girls here to a fate he could barely imagine.

Ned entered the stairwell, closed his eyes, and the world blurred around him as he sped to the third floor. For the split second he was on the second-floor landing, he held his breath, hoping, praying that Ian wouldn't choose that moment to leave his lab. He met no one on the way, though, and waited at the door, watching for the guards.

Two voices. Two people.

He hadn't found anything so convenient as a sword or a scythe. He had found a large butcher knife in the kitchen, though.

The first one was just turning when Ned stopped behind him, the knife raised. The hesitation almost got Ned killed.

While Ned was fast, the other man had fed more recently, and he was stronger. He grasped Ned's wrist, keeping the knife away from him, and lashed out. Only a quick shift of his weight kept Ned from getting his legs knocked out from under him. Ned drove his palm into the other man's chin, snapping his head back as he slammed him against the wall.

The blood. There was so much blood, but nothing so damnably seductive as the blood of an uninfected human.

It took such force for Ned to drive the knife into the other man's spine, severing his head. He was shaking with adrenaline.

They aren't really there anymore. This is the only way.

But they were, they were still human underneath this—

And the second guard was upon him before he could wrench the knife out of the first corpse.

If you don't do this they'll go outside and find her and kill her. Torture her. Experiment on her.

That gave Ned the strength he needed, to do it. He managed to grasp the other man's head and snap his neck hard, then stab him, into his spine.

When it was finished, he was covered in blood, panting harshly in the silence of the corridor, and the dawn was creeping closer but he was shaking. Numb.

What are we, what have we done.

Nancy.

He went to the window, ripping a board off, and made out the dim shape of the white van at the lower entrance. He waved, and knew that she had seen him.

Now the hard part was just beginning.

--

After sneaking around for so long, Nancy couldn't believe how damn wonderful it felt to be walking around freely. She went through the door Ned had left open for her and sped up the stairs, leaving him to deal with the men she could feel below, waiting.

Then she saw the bodies of the two men Ned had left decapitated in the hallway. Her blue eyes widened, and she felt distantly sick.

No. No. This isn't...

She shook her head, moving past them to the first patient room. She had almost broken in when she turned and glanced back at the bodies.

If someone came upstairs, they would be an obvious red flag. And probably upset the girls, too.

She found a janitorial closet and stuffed them inside, letting the darkness hide the bloodstains on the wall. With any luck they would be gone before anyone came upstairs—with even better luck, no one would be left alive to come upstairs and see what had happened.

Nancy only realized how long it had been since she had fed when she opened the first door and saw two girls handcuffed to beds on opposite sides of the room. They moaned and turned away when they saw her, and she saw the needlemarks, how pale they were—

Oh God, how they would taste.

She snapped the cuff on the first girl's wrist, leaning over her. "I'm here to get you out," she told her, and when the girl looked up at her, blinking in the darkness, she gasped.

Nancy's fangs. That was what the girl was reacting to. Just the thought of blood had brought them to prominence.

Nancy shook her head. "It's okay," she said, as the girl shuddered, trying ineffectually to squirm away from her. "Can you stand? We need to get out of here."

The other girl was slower to rouse, and when she woke the two prisoners looked at each other, then back at Nancy, the slimmest thread of hope showing in their eyes.

"I'm going to take you to the hospital," Nancy murmured. "There's a van outside. We have to be so quiet, okay? Those guys might still be around."

The fire escape was old and rusted, and squealed when the three of them stepped foot on it. Nancy cringed, glancing down to the bottom story, waiting for someone to come out and spot them, but no one did. Taking the fire escape would alert everyone in the whole damn place, though.

She sighed. "Okay," she murmured. "New plan."

--

A few of them ran. Only a few, though.

Ned had every intention of going after Ian next, but when he headed down the stairs, Will saw him, and Ned knew the scent of blood, even if it was infected blood, was on him.

And from that moment, he was outside himself, watching what his hands were doing, what he knew needed to be done.

It would never stop. This nightmare would never end, not for them, not for him, until they were gone. And the blood, God—he was covered in it, slick over his hands, down his front. They were so fast, and they wanted to live, but he was doing this for her, for his own conscience, and that gave him a speed they didn't have.

There was no way Ian didn't know what was going on by the time Ned headed upstairs, the first floor of the hospital turned into the blood-drenched set of a horror movie, a fresh knife in his hand. He had broken the old one.

He could feel it, distantly beating at him, the growing horror at what he was doing. He pushed it back. There would be time to deal with it later. For now he just had to make sure that she made it out safely. Nothing else was important.

The sky was lighter now. He took a precious few seconds to smear himself with a thick layer of sunscreen.

At first, when he opened the lab door, he didn't see Ian, and a wave of ice water filled his stomach, crept up his spine. He should never have left Nancy alone like that. Ian had heard her, gone upstairs and found her—

A car was just pulling out of the parking lot, wheels spinning. Ned ran to the side entrance, hoping to catch even a glimpse of it so they would have something to trace—

And that was when Ian caught him.

Even underneath it all, he still depended on what was left of him that was human, and his stamina was flagging a little. And Ian was savage, brutal.

His fist caught Ned in the neck, hard. Ned staggered back a few steps, choking, and when Ian rushed forward to take advantage of the opening, Ned swung the knife up from below, aiming for a spot just beneath Ian's ribs.

"So did he find you?" Ian asked, a manic grin on his face as he swung out of the way. "He knows he'll have to be the one. To send an underling—"

Ian made another feint at him and Ned backed up, fighting the urge to go back to the window and tip Ian off by checking to see if the white van was still parked outside. Maybe Nancy had left for the hospital by now. Maybe she would be safe.

He could feel the dawn breaking outside. Just a little longer. Just a little while longer.

He wished that he'd told her he loved her just one more time.

"You're not worth more than an underling," Ned taunted him, adjusting his grip on the knife. He was crouched down, waiting.

Ian's eyes narrowed. "And you're disposable."

He was. Just not for the reasons Ian was thinking.

--

From the third floor they started hearing the cries, the muffled thud of bodies hitting the floor, and the girls became even more agitated. Nancy had taken all the boards off the windows, as a precaution, and rapidly smeared herself with sunscreen. If at least one of the girls was coherent and strong enough to drive them to the hospital, as long as she gave them a chance, it would be worth it. She wouldn't mind so much, feeling sunlight on her skin again. Even if she wasn't like Ned. Even if she felt herself begin to burn.

Morbius had been right. This was no life, and even if he did manage to find a cure, all the horrific things she would have to do to survive to that point would make a cure like a nightmare. And Ned...

She knew that what he was doing, he was doing for the both of them, to get the girls out of danger, but it was so much blood...

One girl wouldn't rouse, even when Nancy lifted her to sitting. She checked her pulse and it was thready, and she didn't move when Nancy pushed up an eyelid. For a moment Nancy wondered if she was playing dead. Most of the other girls had immediately shrunk back from her on waking, recognizing Nancy for the threat she would have been to them. This girl, though, didn't respond at all. She was smaller than the rest, and chalk-pale, her lips chapped. Too much blood lost.

Nancy brought the other girl into the hallway. The first dim blue light of dawn was coming through the window, and Nancy watched carefully to see if any of the girls were reacting to it, shrinking back. If Nancy herself had turned despite all warning that women wouldn't survive the infection, if one of the men taking blood had slipped and given in to temptation, the van could turn into a nightmare before they even reached the hospital.

But none of the girls appeared to be shivering or cowering away from the sunlight specifically. "One more room," she whispered. "Be quiet, okay?"

A muffled thud sounded from downstairs. The girls grouped into tighter circles, arms around each other for comfort. Some of them had known each other before this nightmare started, probably, and being chained to a bed while vampires bled them was sure as hell a great bonding experience. With any luck the memories of it all would fade, once they were healthy again, turn into vague memories therapists would help soothe away.

She envied them that. At least their nightmare was almost over.

Something slammed downstairs and Nancy felt the floor shake in answer.

Ned.

No matter what he said, and she knew exactly how he felt about it, there was no fucking way she was leaving him here. As soon as the girls were safely on their way to the hospital, she was going to make sure he was all right.

The sounds from the floor below had become more violent by the time Nancy broke into the last room. Her heart seized for a second when she saw the figure on the second bed.

Savannah.

Nancy rushed to her side and broke the cuff, hoping against hope that she was still all right, that the baby was still all right. Savannah's eyes widened when she saw Nancy, but in recognition, not in fear. Haylie was cuffed to the other bed; Ronni was in the hallway, slumped down with her back against the wall, her gaze fixed to the window. How long had it been since she or any of them had seen the sun?

Nancy roused Haylie and together they helped Savannah maneuver off the bed. As soon as she was seated at the edge, though, Savannah reached for Nancy's arm, grasped it hard.

"Joe?"

Nancy couldn't find the words for a moment. "Savannah, I'm really sorry—"

"He was here!" Savannah insisted. Her eyes were tired, the skin beneath turned to smudged half-moons, but almost feverishly bright. "I saw him! He's not with you?"

Nancy shook her head. "When... when did you see him?" she asked cautiously.

Savannah shook her head in answer. "I don't... I don't know... but I know he was here. We have to find him..."

Savannah faltered on her first step, the way the rest of them had. Together Nancy and Haylie walked her out into the hallway, and the din of their whispers was rising.

"All right," Nancy said quietly. "I'm going to go down the inner stairs and make sure no one's waiting for us, and then we're going to head for the van, very quietly. Is there anyone here who feels like she can drive?"

Three of the women raised their hands. Nancy remembered Ned saying that snacks were in the kitchen.

"Okay. I'll be right back. Stay here, and for God's sake, be quiet. I don't know how many of them are left."

Nancy headed downstairs as quickly as she could, and did her best not to look at the tumbled bloodied bodies on the floor. She would think about it later. Maybe. Maybe she would. Maybe this entire day would just become a terrible blur.

Maybe she wouldn't live to see the end of it.

She found a bag in the kitchen and, moving as quietly as she possibly could, she shoved all the snacks, the cookies and crackers, sugary sodas, into a bag. She saw a small box with cards inside and grabbed that too. Once she was back upstairs, she distributed everything, and they seemed much more awake and aware after a good jolt of caffeine. A girl with short, dark hair and a long healing scratch down one arm was the best candidate to drive the van, and she and Nancy led the group very quietly down the back stairwell, to where the van waited. They didn't run into anyone on the way, but Nancy could still hear the fight going on upstairs, and she had to bite her tongue to keep herself from rushing the girls. They were weak and tired, and moving as fast as they could.

It would be worse, when the sounds of the fighting stopped, when she had to wonder whether Ned was still alive.

Savannah turned to Nancy as she climbed up into the van. "Please," she said, her voice desperate. "Please find him."

Nancy swallowed and nodded, hoping that she wouldn't have to tell Savannah where her husband had been buried. Girls huddled between the seats, in the floorboards, tight together in the cramped space.

Nancy went up to the driver's side door. The sun was visible in the sky now, and she kept waiting for her skin to start tingling in warning, but it hadn't happened yet.

Between them all, the debit and credit cards would be enough to get them gas, food, whatever they needed, she was sure. "Are you absolutely, fully okay to drive?" Nancy asked the dark-haired woman, who had identified herself as Stacy. "I mean it. If you aren't, I can."

Stacy swallowed. "I should be okay," she said, and nodded at the citrus soda in the cupholder. "That's helping a lot. If I feel bad we'll stop at a gas station and get some energy drink."

Nancy nodded. "Drive carefully, and when you get to the hospital, tell them that you were all abducted and escaped. You need blood."

Stacy nodded. "Thanks," she said. "I'm sorry I..."

Nancy shook her head briskly. "Go," she said, patting the side of the van.

Stacy turned the key in the ignition and, with a glance back at Nancy, put the van in gear. Nancy watched it head to the highway, turning toward the hospital.

Then she sprinted back into the old hospital, the dim sunlight catching in her hair.

--

Ned and Ian were bleeding from a handful of wounds each. Early in the fight they had still been healing, but now that they were exhausting each other, and it was taking longer.

The longer the fight stretched on, the smaller Ned's chance at survival had become. Ned knew it, and Ian knew it too. As long as Nancy was safely away from the hospital by the time Ian killed Ned, she would be all right. She would go back to her father, and she had always been strong; she would have a chance.

But Ian wasn't letting Ned walk away. Not a chance in hell. Not now.

Ned shoved a lock of hair off his forehead, his other hand in a fist around the handle of the knife. Ian had a length of hollow metal in his hand that he was using as a club, and the fight had brought a flush to both their faces. Ian's fangs were out, and Ned knew his own were. Biting Ian wouldn't do him any good, but using his fangs to rip out his throat, some crucial muscle...

As much as the thought horrified him, he knew that Ian wouldn't hesitate if he found an opening.

Ned had been noisy, hoping that any small noise from upstairs would be covered. Ian's lab equipment had been mostly smashed, IV stands fallen to the ground. The entire place looked like a blood-spattered crime scene.

Please let her be safe.

Ned took a deep breath before he swung for Ian again, his body hunched protectively away from the other man.

Ian swung with his makeshift club and Ned stabbed at his fingers. The action had the intended effect; Ian swung back immediately, trying to protect himself.

Then Ian swung out with his foot, faster than Ned could compensate, and caught Ned firmly on one knee. He didn't quite succeed in knocking Ned's legs out from under him, but Ned shifted his weight, slamming the full force of his heel into Ian's stomach. They scrambled together and Ned used the hand with the knife to break his fall, releasing it in the process. Ian swung around again and Ned caught the club, and they grappled over it, lashing out at each other.

Ian lunged suddenly, and Ned didn't realize that he was going for the knife until it was too late.

"Ned!"

Neither of them had heard her, in the heat of their fight. Still batting at Ian's hand, Ned followed the sound of the voice, his heart sinking.

Nancy was standing there in the doorway, her blue eyes wide.

Ian sucked in a breath. "Fuck. So that's what you were hiding."

Steeling himself, Ned redoubled his efforts, his knee catching Ian on the point of his chin. Nancy ran into the room, reaching down to sweep up an IV stand.

Ian wrapped his arm around Ned's neck, and brought the tip of the knife blade right over his heart. "Stop right there," he told Nancy.

Nancy stopped, panting. Her gaze was locked on the knife.

"You're coming with me," he told her. "Or I stab him right now."

"Nancy," Ned said warningly.

I couldn't let you die. I could never let you die.

She leaned down and slowly put the IV stand on the ground, leaving her hands empty.

Ian nodded. "That's right. Slow. Very slow. So you turned yesterday, did you?"

Nancy didn't answer. She looked at Ned, and he held her gaze, using every bit of his will to try to force her to leave. She was quivering.

"Get out of here," he whispered, and he saw her eyes begin to gleam. "Please. Please, baby."

Ian's voice turned darker. "Get over here."

Nancy blinked once, her hand tightening to a fist at her side.

"Please," Ned whispered.

Ian used the point of the knife to open Ned's shirt. to show her the place he would stab him.

"Where's Joe," Nancy said, her voice so quiet it was almost inaudible.

"What?" Ian replied irritably.

"Joe," she said softly. "The guy who came here the night before I did. Is he still here?"

"He wasn't downstairs," Ned said softly.

"Is he dead?"

Ian scowled. "Get over here, I said," he repeated, his brows drawing together.

Nancy's other hand tightened into a fist.

She hadn't gone on a spree downstairs. Her energy was barely depleted.

Ned saw only a blur of motion and then a band of sunlight struck them, and Ian let out a shocked, angry cry as she ripped the other boards down off the lab window.

And then Ned felt it. A stab straight through to his heart.

Nancy drove a splintered board directly at Ian's head, and Ian was sent sprawling across the room. She followed, slamming it harder, and Ned saw the blood fucking pour out of the wound in Ian's neck, even though Ned was beginning to see spots at the edge of his vision. The handle of the knife was sticking out of his chest. He could feel it.

Oh God. Oh God, it hurt.

Ian scrambled to his feet and Nancy, her blue eyes glowing with rage, threw the board as hard as she could. Ian jerked open the door of the lab and was gone.

"Go after him," Ned said, his voice barely above a whisper.

Nancy looked back at him and immediately, before he could take another breath, she was beside him. Her hands trembled as she reached for his chest.

"Ned," she whispered.

"Go after him, Nan," he said. "I love you, baby. Go."

And then there was only darkness.

Chapter Text

They were alone. Nancy could feel it in the stillness, as she watched Ned's eyes flutter shut.

His heart. The knife.

Her gaze was shimmering with tears.

She knew he couldn't heal with the blade still buried in his chest, so she grasped it firmly and pulled as hard and steadily as she could, letting out a choked sob when Ned shuddered and a fresh gout of blood flowed out of the wound. His eyes still didn't open, though, and she cupped his cheek, frantically searching his face, waiting for a sign that he was coming around. But he didn't stir.

She had to help him, had to heal him.

She remembered the girl upstairs, whose pulse was thready. Nancy had left her there. In the back of her mind, she realized, she had intended on sharing her with Ned...

Oh God. Oh God.

It was only going to get worse, this terrible hunger in Nancy's blood. She had no doubt that the girl had only a few hours left, and at least it would end her suffering...

And prolong their own.

Ned's own pulse was erratic, growing faint.

Nancy wiped her tears with the cuffs of her shirt, and as fast as she could she made her way upstairs. The girl's body was still warm, but when Nancy unwillingly felt for her pulse, she couldn't find one. She would have been dead before they reached the hospital.

Nancy had to believe that. She had to fucking believe that or she would take the damn knife that had been buried in Ned's chest and kill herself with it.

Very gently she lifted the girl and went downstairs, fast as she could. The rise and fall of Ned's chest was barely perceptible, but he was still alive.

"Ned," she whispered, but he didn't respond. Nancy had no doubt that she would rise from the dead if Ned told her to, but she didn't have quite the same sway over him. She tucked her hair behind her ears and looked down at the girl.

They didn't have too much time.

Nancy touched the girl's cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. I hope you're at rest..."

Then she let her fingers slide down to the girl's throat, and nicked it with her nail, the same way Ned had done for her. Her stomach did a slow flip as she ran her fingertip against the wound, and she gazed down at the dark red before she touched it to Ned's lips.

He shivered, and Nancy closed her eyes as his tongue ran against her skin. His dark eyes opened.

"Nan," he whispered.

Nancy dashed a tear off her cheek. "Come on, sweetheart," she whispered, and pulled at his shoulder. His gaze fell on the girl by his side, the wound in her neck.

"It's okay, baby," she said when he hesitated, though she could see that his fangs were already out. "It's okay, she just died. No one can save her... and you need this..."

He shifted onto his stomach, moving over the girl, and sank his fangs into her throat.

Nancy sat back on her bent knees, giving herself over to the trembling that she had felt inside since they had left the motel. How many more times, how many more fucking times could they do this, could they kill and feed, without losing who they were? Even if they weren't directly responsible for her death, she would still see the girl's face when she went to sleep, and knowing that made her close her eyes, another wave of tears slipping down her cheeks.

Ned rolled onto his back once he was finished, his chin covered in blood, panting quietly. His dark eyes were back to normal now, and he pushed himself up to sitting. "Nan," he said softly.

She had to force herself to look at him. "Are you okay?" she whispered, reaching for him. The wound in his chest was nearly healed; he shivered once when she ran her fingers over it.

He looked down at the girl. "There's still some left."

Nancy shook her head, pushing herself to her feet. "No..."

Ned remained on the floor, gazing up at her. "Baby," he said quietly. "You have to do it sooner or later."

She held out for a long moment before she sank to her knees. She still couldn't bring herself to feed, though. "How long," she whispered. "How long is it going to be like this?"

Ned shook his head. "Until he finds a cure, I guess," he said quietly.

She knew she could refuse. And she knew that if Ned touched her, if he asked her to, his sway and the hunger would overcome her revulsion, and it would happen over and over...

Tell him to bring my baby girl home.

Her father. If he lost her now, oh, what would it do to him...

The scent of it... oh, she found herself staring down at the girl's neck.

Once they had drained the girl, Nancy was shaking, wiping at her chin with her sleeve, her cheeks wet with tears. Ned was utterly covered in blood, and the majority of it wasn't his.

"Why didn't you go after him," Ned said.

Nancy took his hand as he reached down to help her up. "You would have died," she said. "At least, I think you would have died. You were in shock..."

Ned sighed. "He knows you're alive, now," he pointed out. "He'll come after you."

Nancy shook her head. "Let him," she said softly. "Ned... I can't do this. I can't keep doing this."

Ned reached for her hand, and she took a step back, away from him. The hurt on Ned's face was enough to break her heart. "Whatever you want to do, I'll do it," he said softly. "If you want to end this..."

Nancy ran her hand through her hair, her mouth trembling. "We have to go home and see my father," she said softly. "I can't..."

He nodded. "Then we'll go see him." He looked down at her hand, and for a moment he didn't say anything. "What you said... do you still want that?"

She looked down at the plastic ring. Her father would give his blessing; she knew that. And it would be easier for him, if he never knew what she had been through, to come home to him.

"Yes," she said. "I do."

Despite herself, she wondered how long it would be, how long it would take.

When he reached for her hand this time, she let him take it. He gave her a small smile.

"I'm with you until the end, baby," he murmured. "And at the end I'll follow you."

--

A small part of Ned hoped that when the firemen went through the wreckage, they would discover the body of the girl they had left upstairs and report it, that Ian would believe Nancy had died there—but he couldn't really make himself believe that they would be so lucky.

They started on the top floor and worked their way down, setting fire to the boarded windows, the blinds, anything that looked like it would catch and light. Bedlinens, upholstery. In Ian's lab, the bodies on the gurneys, everything there went quickly. Nancy had confirmed that one of them was Joe, but he was well past any help. Ned's stomach clenched as he walked out of that room, out of the inferno.

They stood watching the blaze until the first sirens began in the distance. He reached for her hand again and she turned to gaze up at him. Her hair was a mess, her cheeks brushed with soot, her shirt bloody. Her blue eyes were pink-rimmed from crying.

And she wanted to die. He could feel it with every beat of his heart.

And he knew that he couldn't let her. She hadn't been able to walk away from him after Ian had stabbed him in the heart, and Ned knew he would always do the same. He would hate himself but if he had the power to save her, there was no other choice but to do so. There never would be.

Back in their rented room they walked wordlessly to the shower together, stripping down. She traced her fingertips over his heart, over his flawless skin, and he shivered, watching another tear slide down her cheek.

He knew how much she wanted to die because he wanted it too.

By your side. Always by your side. Never leave me.

After they were clean again, he pulled her to the bed naked and wrapped the two of them in the towel, and they held each other, rocking together, without saying anything. She shivered a little and he pulled her tighter to him, his lips against the crown of her head.

The girls were safe. Ian was another matter entirely. They had to find him, but after the horrific morning at the abandoned hospital, Ned had no taste for it. His hand and his heart ached at the memory of what he had done, what he had been forced to do.

He felt Nancy's lips move silently against his neck.

He would kill anything, anyone that threatened her. And she had seen what he had done. But he had also seen the look on her face, the rage and protectiveness in her eyes when she had gone after Ian for threatening him.

She kissed his neck, gently, then pulled back to press her lips against the skin over his heart.

"I love you," she whispered.

"I love you too," he replied, his fingers drifting down her back.

"Take me home," she murmured.

When the time came, Ned had the most terrible feeling that they wouldn't need to look too hard for Ian. Ian would, he was sure, find them.

And it wouldn't be so bad, if Ned could take him down with him.

--

They made their rounds. The girls were doing well at the hospital. Lisa was relieved that Haylie, Ronni, and Savannah were safe. Nancy broke the news of Joe's death to Lisa quietly, the same way she had to Savannah, and that had hurt, seeing the way Savannah cried, her hands cupped protectively over her rounded belly. He had died trying to save her, but that fact didn't seem to touch her grief, not at all.

When they were alone again Ned pulled Nancy into his arms and held her tight for a very long time. She had been trembling, faintly, ever since the fight at the old hospital, and he wondered if both of them were in shock. If they would ever come out of it.

They booked two tickets on the late flight back to Chicago, and while they sat in the waiting area, well away from the windows, Ned reached for Nancy's hand and touched the ring. The stone was loose, and underneath it, her skin had turned faintly green.

"So, when we sit down and talk to your dad, you are not going to be wearing that."

She fanned her fingers and looked down at it. "You think he won't think you're serious if I come in wearing a twenty-five-cent ring?"

"I know he won't."

She shook her head, then swept her hair out of her face. Both of them smelled faintly of sunscreen, but even so, direct sunlight against his skin made him feel skittish. She stretched her legs and seemed to marvel again at how good it felt to move without pain.

"Let me keep it, though," she murmured, almost like an afterthought, and glanced up at him. He nodded and she smiled a little, touching the small red heart gently with her thumb.

He had spent their entire relationship worried about her. While she was tall and athletic, while she was trained in martial arts and quick on her feet, he knew that in some situations that still wasn't going to be enough to get her out safely. And God knew he hated how they had come to it, but she was stronger now, they were both stronger now. He could protect her now in a way that he had never been able to protect her before.

Ned laced his fingers through hers. "What if we didn't have to feed," he murmured.

She glanced up at him. "You mean if Ian finally finds that miracle cure he's looking for?"

"Kind of, but... there's two of us. We can find a way to get what we need without hurting anyone, not like they were doing."

Nancy searched his eyes. "Like stealing from blood banks, that kind of thing?"

"I don't think we can do that. Unless Ian was lying about the spoiling after thirty minutes."

She tilted her head. "Well, I've volunteered at blood drives before, and sometimes they'll get partial bags—and they have to throw those away. Like if someone doesn't quite fill the whole thing."

"Like that," he nodded. "It's not hurting anyone, and it would go to waste anyway."

"And what about the days when there are no partial bags," she said softly.

"Well... maybe we find someone who can afford to donate some blood that day. Some drunk asshole spoiling for a fight, something like that." Ned ran his thumb along the side of her hand.

"Without biting them."

"Definitely without," he replied softly. "I don't want to infect anyone else."

She nodded slowly. "Me either."

He waited another moment. "Baby... do you know how worried I've always been about you? There have been so many times I wanted to beg you not to take a case... but now that we're like this..."

"Trying to see the upside?" she asked, with a small smile. "Maybe we're monsters, but we can be monsters on the side of good?"

"Something like that," he replied, nodding slightly. "I mean, chaining twenty girls up in a basement? So much upkeep..."

She shook her head, bumping her shoulder against his. "You mean even after we're married, you'd be okay with me taking cases?"

Ned tilted his head. "You thought I wouldn't?"

"Well... yeah, kind of," she admitted. "Like you said, you were always so worried about me. I thought you'd want me to settle down and do something boring. Like, I don't know..."

"Insurance?" Ned filled in, and chuckled when she bumped against him again. "I'll have you know that insurance can be very exciting."

"Oh, I know it can," she said wryly. "Especially when your mentor frames you for murder. That really makes it exciting."

Ned shivered a little. "Could have happened to anyone," he said lightly.

Nancy rolled her eyes, then looked away. "What happened back there," she said quietly. "Wherever Ian goes, he's going to try again. I want to be there to stop him."

Ned's fingers tightened against hers. "As long as you take me with you," he said firmly. "I don't think either one of us can take that guy on by ourselves."

She nodded, glancing over at him. "Well... we can try," she said. "That's all we can do. Until he finds a cure. But, Ned... promise me that if either one of us starts getting out of control..."

He nodded. "If that happens we'll end this," he said softly. "I promise you that. I hated this morning."

"And if we don't find Ian soon, it will happen again."

Ned slipped his arm around her shoulders and she leaned against him. "If we can do this," she said softly. "If our lives can be something like normal... oh God, I hope they can."

He kissed her temple. "You asked me to marry you, remember," he said softly. "That whole 'till death do us part' thing? I didn't really plan on it being a few weeks or months from now."

"It might be considerably longer," she pointed out. "I have no idea how old Morbius is, and if we just heal instead of aging..."

"Baby, whether we live to be a thousand or die next week, I have no intention of ever leaving your side," he whispered. "Don't ever doubt that."

"I'd do it again," she murmured. "If I had to make the choice again, I would still save you." She tilted her head down. "You and my father mean more to me than anything in this world."

He rubbed her shoulder. "And you mean more to me."

--

"Nancy!"

Plump, brown-haired Hannah, who had served as Nancy's substitute mother for as long as she could remember, enveloped Nancy in an enormous hug as soon as she walked into her father's house. Nancy wrapped her arms around the older woman and hugged her back just as hard.

Ned brought Nancy's bag up to the porch, then took a step back. "Dinner tomorrow?" he asked, when Hannah finally released Nancy.

Hannah nodded firmly. "Dinner tomorrow. Shame on you two for not getting back earlier, or it could have been tonight."

Nancy and Ned exchanged a glance. "I know," Nancy said finally. "The case ended up taking longer than we expected. Let me just tell Ned good night."

Hannah took the hint and took Nancy's bag inside, giving her a smile before she gently closed the door.

Nancy slipped her arms around Ned's neck and held him tight. "Thank you," she whispered.

Ned chuckled. "I wouldn't be standing here right now if not for you, Nan. And, while I would love to invite you over tonight, I'm sure you want to spend some time with your dad..."

Nancy nodded. "Besides, aren't your parents home?"

"Yeah, and I get to have a nice talk with them." He kissed her temple. "But I'll see you tomorrow. Tell Hannah to make something good for dessert."

Nancy pulled back and patted his stomach. "Oh, so now I see the real reason you're coming over."

"It's third on the list," he teased her in return, then reached for her hand. He slipped the ring off and placed it in her palm.

"I don't care what you replace it with, I'm always going to treasure this one," she told him.

Ned's eyes twinkled. "Who said I was replacing it with anything?"

She shook her head. "You're terrible."

He leaned down to kiss her, nipping lightly at the end. "My bed's going to feel awfully lonely tonight without you in it."

Nancy closed her eyes, feeling the pull of his desire. "Mine too," she whispered. "But I think we can suffer through a day without each other."

He touched her cheek. "If anything happens and you need me, call and I'll be right here."

He didn't have to say Ian's name for her to know what he was talking about. She nodded. "I will."

"I'd feel a lot safer if you were with me."

"Soon, sweetheart," she murmured, standing on her tiptoes to brush a kiss over his lips. "You won't have to wait too much longer."

Nancy walked inside the house, her arms wrapped tight around her in the absence of Ned's, to find Hannah placing a plate of cookies and milk on the table. "Does Ned want some, too?"

Nancy shook her head. "No, but he's definitely looking forward to whatever you're making for tomorrow," she said with a smile. "I'll help, though. I'm sure you've been busy, with... everything. ...Is he—"

Hannah caught the drift of Nancy's words and nodded. "He said he would be out to see you in a minute..."

She heard her father's footsteps before Hannah did, and turned to see him, her eyes filling with tears.

Her father had always been a handsome, distinguished man. He still was, but the disease and its treatment had left him tired and pale, had sapped his energy. Nancy crossed to him quickly and threw her arms around him, and even though the trembling had stopped hours before, she felt it return again when she was in the comforting circle of her father's embrace.

"Dad," she murmured. "I missed you so much."

"I missed you too, sweetheart," he told her, patting her back before they pulled apart. "And I suppose you're going to keep me in suspense a while longer, since I don't see Ned in here."

"Dinner tomorrow," she nodded. "How are you feeling?"

The tightness around his eyes told Nancy that his dismissive shrug was a lie. "Much better, now that my baby girl is home," he said, crossing to the couch and patting the space beside him. "So tell me about your case. And your leg? You said you were doing better?"

She nodded. "It's almost good as new now," she said with a smile. "Maybe those voodoo doctors aren't entirely off-base after all."

Hannah walked in with the cookies and milk, and Nancy raised an inquisitive eyebrow at her father, who shook his head. "Just some hot tea for me, if you wouldn't mind, Hannah," he said, and Nancy closed her eyes in bliss at the first bite of the cookie.

When she described the case to Hannah and her father, she left out all references to what had really happened, saying instead that Ian had tried some experimental compound on Ned that had left him exhausted and vulnerable in the hospital. Hannah and Carson were both relieved to hear that they had recovered almost all the missing girls and brought the loan shark's enforcer to justice, even though the case had taken far, far longer than either of them had wanted.

Hannah dusted her hands and stood as Nancy sat back, the cookies reduced to a few tiny crumbs on the plate, the milk nearly gone. "Well, love, it's wonderful to have you home again, and I will hold you to that promise to help out tomorrow," Hannah said with a smile. "I believe someone said something about some upside-down cake?"

Carson remained seated, smiling his good night to Hannah as she headed off to bed. Once they were alone, Carson and Nancy looked at each other. Nancy hoped what she was feeling wasn't showing on her face; it was so hard for her to look at her father without pity or fear or desperation creeping into her eyes or closing up her throat.

"I hate to play the tired old man card," Carson said, with a hint of a smile, "but it is getting late, and as much as I want to stay up talking to you, I'd hate to fall asleep mid-sentence. I do have one question for you, though."

Nancy nodded, willing her eyes not to fill up with tears.

"I know you and Ned have been together for a long time, and I know that he would bring you the moon if you asked for it," Carson said. "But you've also never been the kind of girl who doodled your name and his on your schoolbooks or planned out your wedding with Bess and George. If Ned asks for my permission, I will grant it with no qualms whatsoever... as long as you tell me that's what you want."

Nancy managed a small smile. "More than anything, Dad," she said softly. "Although, I don't know if this will give you any qualms, but I was actually the one who asked him."

Carson's eyebrows went up. "Really. And I suppose you asked for James and Edith's permission first?"

Nancy giggled at her father's mock-stern expression. "No, I didn't." She sobered a little. "Can I tell you something?"

Carson looked just a little troubled, but he nodded.

"I thought it might be easier for you," she admitted. "To see me settled."

Carson was quiet for a moment. "Nancy, if that's the reason you're doing this—"

Nancy shook her head vehemently. "No. It's not the reason I'm doing this. Ned and I have loved each other a long time... I don't think I realized just how much until we were on this case," she said. "He's been my rock, and I don't know what I would have done without him. Since you... since the doctor said..." She felt herself losing control of her voice and clamped her lips shut, impatiently dashing a tear from her cheek. "He's been amazing," she said, when she was able to speak again. "And I can't imagine anyone who could possibly be more perfect for me."

Carson gave her a small smile. "I can't either," he admitted. "So maybe I should be having this talk about second thoughts with him, eh?"

Nancy dashed another tear from her eyelashes, chuckling. "Be my guest. Although I never saw him look so happy as I did when I asked if maybe he wanted to get married."

"Well. And here I was, thinking he was going to ask my permission before he put a ring on your finger."

"Well, he did give me one," Nancy admitted, slipping it out of her pocket. "We went out to eat and he got me this out of one of the toy machines."

Carson clucked in mock disapproval at the cheap plastic ring. "Kids today," he sighed.

"What? It was incredibly romantic."

Carson shook his head wearily at his daughter. "I'm sure it was, sweetheart. And if you swear that you two aren't just doing this because—"

Nancy shook her head again. "I shouldn't have told you," she murmured. "It's just... I want this, he wants this. We can get the license and have it done within a few weeks..."

Carson looked pained. "When I said you weren't the kind of girl to plan out a huge elaborate wedding, I didn't mean for you to go have a justice of the peace do it," he said. "Whatever you want, sweetheart, we'll do."

Nancy patted her father's hand. "I want you and Bess and George and Hannah there," she said. "James and Edith too. And I want you to walk me down the aisle... or, whatever it is exactly that you walk down."

Carson chuckled. "I think I can call in a few favors with the minister," he said mildly. "Your wish list seems pretty reasonable so far."

She smiled. "We love each other," she said softly. "I just don't see the point in waiting anymore."

Carson studied her gaze for a moment, then nodded. "Well, I'll just try not to cross-examine him too hard tomorrow."

"He can take it," Nancy said, a twinkle in her eye.

--

At least she was wearing the blue dress, Ned noticed when he came over to the Drews' home for dinner the next evening. She looked gorgeous, and Ned felt nervous as hell.

He knew that he had already said yes, that this was just a formality, but this was Nancy's father, and in the back of his mind Ned had always been a little in awe of the man. Carson Drew was a legend, and Nancy worshipped him. Ned had always been afraid that Nancy, if ever she compared the two men in her life, would find him wanting.

Dinner was roast beef with potatoes and carrots, rolls and gravy, and upside-down cake served after. It was all delicious, Ned was sure. He was equally sure that his heart had stopped beating every time Carson so much as glanced in his direction, and he could barely remember the meal once it was cleared from the table.

Carson wiped his mouth and pushed his chair back. "Well, Ned," he said, glancing at his daughter's boyfriend, "shall we retire to the study?"

Nancy glanced over at Ned, and he was glad to see that the troubled expression she had worn so often the day before had mostly faded. He had every belief that they could make this work between the two of them, that it wouldn't have to always be the nightmare it had become. She gave him a reassuring smile and pushed her own chair back, reaching for her glass.

"Let me just see how Hannah's doing in the kitchen..."

Ned reached for Nancy's hand, their fingers brushing. "Come with us," he said softly, and after a second she nodded.

The three of them sat down in Carson's study, Nancy's father behind his desk, and Ned was struck by the change in his appearance yet again. Despite the pain and discomfort he must be in, his mind still seemed sharp as ever.

"Mr. Drew..." Ned began.

"Carson," he replied with a wave of his hand, one corner of his mouth curved up just a little. "Let's not stand on formality here."

Ned dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Carson," he repeated. "Nancy and I have been discussing marriage..."

Carson tilted his head.

Ned swallowed. "And I thought it best to seek your approval before we made any more plans," he finished, pleased when his voice didn't start trembling.

Carson glanced briefly over at his daughter. "You were being very diplomatic," he said, shaking his head. "I'm given to understand that Nancy, in her customarily forthright way, was the one to propose."

Ned nodded, once. "She was, sir," he confirmed, and didn't dare glance over at her.

"And that her decision may have something to do with—"

Nancy sat forward in her chair, her eyes wide as she stared at her father. "Dad, I told you..."

Carson held up a hand and Nancy trailed off. "One of her considerations was my health," he finished. "Or, to be perfectly blunt, its rather poor state. While I do appreciate that thought, by no means do I want the two of you to make a decision of this magnitude based on that."

Ned looked down at his steepled fingers. "I've been in love with your daughter for a long time, sir," he said firmly. "There hasn't been anyone else in my life for a long time. The only thing I've ever been waiting for was her willingness. She makes me a better person than I would be without her, and by no means do I consider myself worthy of her, but I promise I'll try every day to prove to both of you..."

Nancy touched his knee hesitantly. "You are the only man who will ever be perfect for me," she whispered, dashing a tear from her cheek. "After everything..."

Their gazes met and held for a long moment. Three nights before, he had held her in his arms and infected her, and for the rest of his life he would never be able to undo it. She had laid down his life for his, and he owed her every remaining moment.

Carson's chair squeaked faintly as he moved, and they turned back to him. Nancy's eyes were bright.

"It must take a very special man to stay in love with my daughter," Carson said. "And it does make me happy to know that you'll be in her life, trying to keep her out of trouble. If this is what she—what both of you want, then you have my blessing. Just, please, remember to always talk to each other. I know both of you can be stubborn, but don't let that destroy what you have. True love can be very hard to find. Treasure it."

Ned dipped his head once, swallowing hard. "Thank you, sir," he said quietly. "I will. Every day for the rest of our lives, I swear I will."

He reached into his pocket and slipped out of the chair, onto the floor at her feet. From his knees he gazed up at her, and her blue eyes were wide.

"I love you," he told her. "I love you and I owe you my life, Nan."

"And I owe you mine a thousand times over," she replied with a small smile, brushing another tear from her cheek.

He showed her the ring, careful not to touch her, although he knew that his sway wasn't entirely limited that way. "I will be the luckiest man on this earth if you are my wife, and I will never forget that."

She reached for his hand, nodding. "Yes, sweetheart... please, yes."

He slipped the ring onto her finger, then stood, pulling her into his arms. They held each other tight, and Ned felt so happy that he thought he might explode with it.

Carson was smiling when they pulled apart. "I hate the idea of losing my little girl," he admitted. "She is special, Ned. And I'm glad she's found someone who could fully appreciate her."

Nancy wrinkled her nose at her father. "You make it sound like I'm a lunatic," she teased him.

"A little bit of one, anyway," Carson said, pulling himself up. "Now, who's up for more cake? Ned? I couldn't eat another bite, but I seem to remember that you never refuse Hannah's cake."

"Very true, sir," Ned said, squeezing Nancy once before he released her. "And I'm definitely not going to turn it down now."

Hannah subjected all three of them to tearful, joyful embraces before pouring the coffee and serving more cake. Ned suggested that they fill out the paperwork for the license in the morning, and Carson agreed to talk to the minister and find a time they could use the church for the wedding. Hannah immediately began to root through her recipe box for a suitable cake recipe.

Nancy walked Ned out to the porch at the end of the night, zipping up her shearling coat against the fall chill. "Well, now I get to tell Bess and George to clear their calendars for the next few weeks," she said, and smiled. "Once she gets over the shock, I'm sure Bess will be over here with a car full of wedding magazines fifteen minutes later."

Ned reached up and cupped her cheek. "I love you, baby."

"I love you too," she whispered. "Ned, what you were saying back there... you've always been good enough for me. You put up with so much, and you're the most kind, most genuine guy I've ever met. I just wish I'd figured out what was going on before... before you..."

He pulled her into his arms. "Stop beating yourself up about it," he told her. "There's nothing we can do now. And this isn't forever. He'll find a cure... or maybe you will, Nan. You've taken on tougher cases than this."

She laughed, but there was no humor in it. "I have," she agreed.

Ned lifted her so their faces were even, and she wrapped her arms tight around him. "Come to me tonight," he murmured, his gaze intent on hers.

She closed her eyes for a moment. "Where."

"I'll rent us a room if I have to, but I need you..."

She nodded. "Okay," she whispered. "But I have to be back in the morning, before they wake up."

"You will be," he promised, leaning forward to kiss her gently. "Oh God. Did they notice your teeth?"

"Dad did. I told him that apparently I'd been grinding my teeth in my sleep or something."

Ned chuckled. "That's good. I might have to use that."

The warmth of her body against his as he gently released her made Ned want to snatch her up and run away with her. Instead he tilted his head down and touched his forehead to hers.

"Have you been... hungry?" she asked hesitantly.

"Not yet," he murmured. "I think I'll be okay tonight, if you will be."

She nodded. "I think tomorrow, we'll need to..."

"Okay," he said softly. "Let me know when you're free, okay, baby?"

She stood up on her tiptoes to kiss him. "I will," she whispered. "Fiancé."

--

"Much better."

Despite how keyed-up she was, knowing that she would be seeing Ned soon, Nancy chuckled when her father nodded his approval over the ring Ned had placed on her finger. "I don't know, I was really fond of the other one," she teased him.

Carson shook his head, then turned to meet his daughter's eyes. "I'm glad your leg is better," he said. "I was very worried about you on this case. Every time you called, you sounded..." He shook his head.

Nancy knew that her father had no idea what she had been through, but her heart clenched a little anyway. "I didn't mean to make you upset," she said lightly. "That's the last thing in the world I wanted."

Carson sighed and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, giving her a brief hug. "I'm glad you and Ned are doing this," he admitted, then coughed, and Nancy's eyes filled with tears. "I hate that my getting sick prompted it..."

Nancy wrapped her arms around her father, hugging him gently. "Dad... I love you so much," she whispered. "You and Ned are the two most important people in my life, and I..."

She choked up and her father patted her head. "It's okay," he murmured, and then his lips quirked and he shook his head. "Actually, it's not okay, at all. There are so many more things I wanted to do, sweetheart, and I know the doctor says I'm responding well, and I have to believe that I'll be around to see my grandchildren—assuming Ned's ever able to slow you down long enough."

Nancy gave her father a mock-scowl, brushing tears from her eyes.

"But you'll be okay without me. And I know your mother's waiting for me. It won't be such a terrible thing." His smile held no humor. "I just wish I had more time."

Nancy nodded. She didn't trust herself to speak for a long moment. "Me too."

"I love you, Nan." He patted her back. "Now get some rest. We have a big day of wedding planning in front of us."

Nancy smiled reassuringly at her father, but as soon as he was upstairs, she buried her face in her hands. The house she had grown up in settled around her, and she could feel the cold, the length of time until the dawn, and Ned, waiting for her.

She left a note, just in case Hannah or her father came looking for her before she returned, and was carrying a small overnight bag when Ned picked her up. She slid into the passenger seat, shivering at the cold, and turned to him. His eyes were dark when he gazed at her.

"Ready?"

She nodded. "So did you get a room?"

"On the outskirts of the city. Didn't want to try our luck too much."

As soon as they had checked in and Ned keyed inside, she surrendered to the sway of his desire, wrapping herself tight around him. "Love me," she breathed into his ear, reaching for his fly. "Please, baby, I need you."

He carried her to the bed, his mouth finding hers as he tossed the key onto the floor, dropped the bag he was carrying, and tugged at the hem of her green sweater. She raised her arms, her legs locked tight around his waist, letting him tug the sweater off and toss it onto the desk chair. Her ivory camisole followed, and he was tracing his mouth down her neck, nipping softly at her, as he found the hooks of her bra and parted them.

"You look so incredibly gorgeous," he whispered, sitting down with her, and she shrugged down the straps of her pale blue satin bra. She tugged at his sweater next and he let her strip him to the waist, and soon he was naked and she was clad only in her pale blue satin string bikini.

They moved back onto the bed, her on top of him, their mouths joined, and she shuddered when he gently ran his flat palms over her nipples, following with his thumbs. She reached down and began to push her underwear down, and Ned was panting when she pulled back to slip them fully off.

She had just straddled him when he reached up to cup her cheek, and the concern in his eyes made her close her own. "You okay?"

She sighed, shaking her head. "Later," she whispered, leaning down to him for another kiss, her hips sinking to his.

It had only been two days since they had last made love, but the depth of her craving for him was almost terrifying. He held her back, held her down, caging her wrists in his hands as he suckled at her nipples, chuckling at her cries as he went down on her. He slipped two fingers up inside her and circled her clit with his tongue and only then did he let her come, and she arched, sobbing in pleasure, her inner flesh pulsing tight around him as she reached her orgasm.

She was sated and loose, panting her breath back, when he bent her knees, lowering his hips to the cradle of her thighs. He caressed her so gently and she opened her eyes, watching him as he loved her, as he worshipped her with his fingers, his lips. Everywhere they touched, even the slightest brush of contact, burned through her, and she wanted so badly to touch him. She reached for his erection and he shook his head, gently moving her hand away.

She was rocking, trembling in anticipation when Ned finally guided the tip of his cock just between her thighs, and she tilted her head back, crying out in relief at his first thrust. He felt so big inside her, and when he brushed his thumb against her clit she moaned, her every nerve alight, every atom of her being centered on the pleasure she was giving him, the pleasure he was giving her in return.

He drove into her with slow, languid thrusts at first, his hands cupping her hips to bring her to the right angle, until she wrapped her legs around him. Then he lowered himself to her, filling her, and it was such a relief to lose herself this way. She felt the weight of his ring on her finger as he slid hilt-deep inside her, groaning at the pleasure he felt.

"I love you," she cried out, her breasts trembling at the force of his next thrust. "Oh, baby, I love you so much."

"I love you too," he whispered harshly, and she felt tears gather in her eyes. When they were like this she felt that she was made to no other purpose, and she was giving her lord pleasure, and he had no obligation to do so but he was loving her in return.

"Please," she whimpered, feeling unspeakably selfish, desperate, her hips rocking underneath him in time with his thrusts. "Let me come for you, with you, let me make you happy."

He groaned. "Oh my God, Nan," he managed to force out, moving faster inside her, and she screamed against his chest as their angle shifted. She hovered, shaking, on the edge of another climax until he whispered, "Come, sweetheart."

She jerked under him, arching harder, crying out against his chest as she clenched tight, slick and hot around his cock, and he pushed her knees back, fucking her faster. Her climax tightened in her belly, shot up her spine, and she could do nothing but move against his thrusts, moaning. "Yes yes yes oh God yes," she cried out, the pleasure so intense it was almost agony, and when he came with a deep pleased groan she followed, her legs falling open, their hips still moving gently together.

It took a long moment for either of them to speak in anything other than harsh, panted breaths. "Mmmm," she murmured, running her fingers through his hair. "Marry me tomorrow, so we can do this every night."

Ned chuckled. "Even if we get married two weeks from now, I have no intention of stopping," he murmured. "God, I wanted you so much last night. I kept waking up and wishing you would just suddenly be there, beside my bed."

She slipped her arms around him and held him tight. "When we're like this," she whispered, her eyes closed, "all I want is to please you. And when you let me come..." She shivered.

He rolled so they were on their sides, facing each other. "What was bothering you, sweetheart," he whispered, stroking her hair.

She swallowed, shivering a little when he slipped out of her. "I was talking to Dad," she whispered.

Ned's hand stilled, then continued its stroke. "Nothing bad happened after I left?"

She shook her head, her face against his chest. "No, nothing bad. He's happy that we're getting married. But I..."

She trailed off and Ned pulled back, looking down at her. He tilted her chin up so he could meet her eyes. "What is it, sweetheart," he whispered.

"I had the most terrible thought," she breathed, searching his eyes as her own filled with tears. "He's... he doesn't have to die this way..."

Ned's eyes widened, but she could tell that he wasn't shocked by what she had said. So he had thought the same thing.

"Morbius said that one in three, one in four of those infected turn," she went on, wiping her face. "Those with Ian's strain, anyway. But when you infected me, I survived, and if there's any logic at all, my father..."

"Might die," Ned said softly, stroking her cheek.

Nancy's face crumpled, and she moved to him again. "What if we can save him," she murmured against his skin. "What if we can heal him."

At this terrible cost.

Ned rolled onto his back and she moved with him, feeling him sigh. "You want to tell him the truth about what happened to us," he murmured, his arm still around her. "Because, baby, if you want to do this, we have to tell him. We have to give him the choice, all cards on the table."

She shivered, then nodded. "But what if we try and it kills him," she whispered.

Ned shook his head. "Could you live with that?"

"But can I live with myself if we don't at least try?"