A/N: Hi there! Here is the third part of the World War II arc that I have going. I really did mean to have it out on Saturday, but one thing led to another, and now most of you probably won't see it until Monday. Thank you very, very much for reading and also for reviewing and/or favoriting if you feel inclined! I always appreciate some feedback. Enjoy!
Upon a Snowy Midnight
December 24, 1944
It had been five months. Nancy Drew still found it hard to believe. Maybe it was because, exteriorly, almost nothing had changed. Ned had been gone for a bit over two years even before the news had come. She hadn't quite been able to make herself believe that it was really true.
Yet there was evidence that it was true. Nancy had received no letters from Ned since July. Then, of course, there was the more solid evidence: the initial telegram to Ned's parents, the condolence letter they had received from the Army shortly after that, and the gold star that was hanging in their window.
There had been nothing for Nancy, of course. She wasn't a family member or a wife; not even a fiancee. She and Ned had talked about getting married before he had left, but he hadn't officially proposed yet. Except there was no "yet" anymore. There was only what had been and what might have been.
Now it was Christmas Eve. Last year and the year before, Nancy had sent some small gift to Ned, but not this year.
Nancy wiped the tears away and looked at herself in the mirror. Her damp, red-rimmed eyes were bound to give away to everyone how she was really feeling. All her friends realized that Christmas was going to be tough for her this year. They had decided that they would all get together tonight to try to help get Nancy's mind off it, and naturally they had chosen the Drews' house for the location. That way, Nancy couldn't possibly escape.
She had heard a few of them arrive already and could hear them talking downstairs. She couldn't face them quite yet; not until she'd gotten herself a little more composed. It would only be a few more minutes. If only she could think of something else!
There was a soft knock on the door. "Nancy?"
Nancy took a deep breath. "Yeah, Dad?"
The door opened and Carson Drew made his way in. "How are you doing?"
"Okay, I guess," Nancy replied, swallowing hard and willing herself to look more composed than she felt. There was no point trying to hide things from her dad, though. "Who's all here?"
"Just Bess and George and Dave and Helen," Carson told her. "It sounds like they might be all, after all."
Nancy closed her eyes. "Thank goodness. I don't think I'd be able to take seeing anyone else right now. I know Bess and George were trying to be thoughtful, arranging this, but I wish they wouldn't have. I just want to be left alone."
"I know." Carson sat down on her bed and patted the space next to him to indicate for her to come sit next to him. "You don't even feel like it's right to celebrate. If it was up to you, you'd just as soon forget about Christmas."
Nancy sat next to him. "I really can't hide anything from you, can I?"
Carson gave her a half-smile. "It's not too hard to guess. I felt the same way on a Christmas Eve once or twice."
Seventeen years ago, when Nancy was three, her mother had died. Nancy had been too young to really understand what her father had gone through, but the last five months had helped her realize what it must have been like for him.
"What got you through it?" Nancy asked. "That first Christmas or two?"
Carson put an arm around her shoulders. "You. You know, it's pretty hard to skip Christmas with a three-year-old in the house."
"Are you sure I didn't just make it harder?" Nancy asked. "You know, having to pretend to be happy and that everything was all right? Because right now, that sounds a lot harder."
"No," Carson told her. "You did not make things harder. Anyway, your aunt Eloise stayed with us for Christmas that year, and Hannah was here. Between the three of you, trying to forget the season was out of the question. You know, I really didn't want Eloise to come that year. But you know something else?"
"What?" Nancy asked.
"I never would have made it without her. Or you. Or Hannah. I'm glad the three of you didn't let me sit alone that Christmas, and I think your mom was glad you didn't, too." Carson squeezed her shoulders again. "And Ned wouldn't want us to let you sit alone this Christmas."
Tears came to Nancy's eyes again. "I can't do it, Dad. I can't go down there and play games and sing Christmas and whatever else they'll all insist on doing. Maybe next year. There'll be a lot of next years."
"We don't know that," Carson said. "That's one thing I've learned, that we're not promised next year or even next week. All we've got is right now. Since we don't know what tomorrow will bring, why don't we give Bess and George and the rest tonight?"
Nancy sighed. "Okay, Dad. Just give me a minute so I won't look like I was just crying."
"It's okay, Nancy. They don't mind what you look like, and the best way to stop crying is to go down and talk to them."
"Okay, okay, you win."
Carson stood up and held out his arm to Nancy as if he was escorting her. As she took it, she did her best to smile. If she was going to have to pretend to be all right, she might as well start now.
"It's about time!" George Fayne exclaimed as Nancy and her dad appeared at the top of the stairs. "We were starting to wonder if you were ever coming down."
Bess Marvin, her cousin, placed a record on the player which began playing Christmas songs. "So, what are we all going to do first? I don't suppose supper's ready?"
"Not quite," said Hannah Gruen, the Drews' housekeeper. "It'll be another fifteen minutes at least."
Bess gave a small sigh. She had been looking forward to whatever Hannah was going to prepare all day and was feeling half-starved.
Her boyfriend, Dave Evans, gave a teasing grin. "I hope you made plenty, Mrs. Gruen. I know I'll want a double helping."
As Nancy had expected, her friends all tried to talk about anything other than the War and distract her with games and stories. Hannah's meal was delicious, but Nancy mostly knew that from Hannah's reputation than from actually tasting it. She barely ate at all.
After supper was more games and talking. Helen Corning Archer provided a great deal of the talking. She was a few years older than Nancy and her other friends, but she had always been one of Nancy's closest friends. She had moved to another town when she had married Jim Archer, shortly before the War had started. Like most of the other young men, that was where Jim was now, fighting overseas. With limited travel because of the gasoline rations, it had been several months since Nancy or any of her friends had talked to her.
However, after some time, Nancy slipped away onto the front porch. It was an overcast night and snow was predicted for later. There were a few stars fighting to be seen through the clouds, and it was with a renewed aching in her heart that she identified one of them as the North Star. Before Ned had left, he and Nancy had chosen the North Star as their star that they would look at and think of one another. It had been a comfort to Nancy for a long time, for it made Ned seem not so very far away. Now, though, she knew that he out there somewhere, watching it.
"Hey, Nance, you're missing the point of a party."
Nancy glanced over her shoulder to see George standing behind her. She sighed. "I know. I just don't really feel like celebrating."
"Okay," George said. "To tell the truth, I don't really so much, either."
"I thought it was your idea," Nancy reminded her.
"Yeah." George crossed her arms. "A kinda selfish idea, I guess, honestly. Oh, sure, I wanted to try to distract you from thinking about Ned, but I also wanted to distract myself from thinking about Burt." George's longtime boyfriend, Burt Eddleton, was also overseas right now.
"I guess we all needed some distracting," Nancy admitted.
"Except Bess," George said, but she immediately added, "That didn't sound right. I mean, I'm glad for Bess's sake that the military wouldn't take Dave - for flat feet, of all reasons - but I can't help wishing sometimes that he wasn't the only one." She shook herself. "Anyway, there's no point talking about it. Burt would have hated to have to stay home, anyway. I mean, I know it bothers Dave, even if he doesn't talk about it in front of Bess because he doesn't want to upset her." She let her arms swing by her side as she took a few paces up and then a few paces down the porch. "I know he wishes there was more he could do. I wish there was more I could do."
"It's not like we've been sitting around, twiddling our thumbs the whole time," Nancy pointed out.
"Yeah, I know," George replied. "It doesn't make me feel any less useless. Or worried. Or tired." She sighed. "There's got to be something more we can do. I even thought about volunteering with the Red Cross, but I don't know anything about being a nurse." She chuckled nervously. "That would be a scary thought, actually. Me as a nurse. You know what I'd really be good at? You'd be better, of course, but it doesn't really matter because I don't know how you'd get started in something like that, but I think I'd be really good at espionage and that would definitely be useful. Maybe I could even help shorten the War if I could do something like that. It would be better than nothing." She made a disgusted face. "Oh, but listen to me. I sound pathetic. I guess this whole thing is just getting to me, and then having Burt gone, and it's Christmas again, and how many more Christmases is he going to have to spend over there?" The longer she went on, the faster she talked until she was out of breath and had to pause to breathe in.
"George," Nancy broke in during the pause, "I hate to break it to you, but you might want to reconsider the spy thing."
"What?" George wrinkled her forehead in confusion.
"I know what you're trying to do," Nancy said. "Since the party evidently didn't work, you're trying to get my mind off my problems by acting like you need some comforting."
George instantly let her shoulders relax. "I guess I did oversell it a little."
"Just a little," Nancy told her. "The sighing just isn't you and you were talking too fast. Although I have to admit, it did work at first."
"Well, it was worth a try," George said. "It wasn't all an act, either. I really am worried about Burt."
"I know," Nancy replied. "You look like you're about to freeze. Why don't you go on inside?"
"What about you?" George asked.
"Just give me another minute," Nancy said. "I'll go back in."
George hesitated and then looked at her watch. "It's about five minutes to midnight. If you're not inside by twelve exactly, I'm going to have to send Bess out to get you."
"Okay." Nancy smiled, but it wasn't her cheery smile from times past. "You know, George, I really do appreciate all of you being here. I may not have acted like it, and I confess, earlier I didn't feel like it, but Dad was right. I'm glad I wasn't alone tonight. So it really will only be a minute or two, and then I'll be right back inside."
"Okay, Nance." George looked relieved, and then she did a very un-George-like thing and gave Nancy a hug. "We're all here for you. Don't forget that."
"I won't," Nancy told her.
Just as George was about to open the door, she added, "Five minutes. That's all you've got, or I'm sending Bess out."
Nancy smiled again, and this time, it was a little closer to her old smile, but as soon as George had disappeared inside, she turned toward the night outside again and took a deep breath. While they had been talking, the clouds had come up even more and a gentle snowfall had begun, blocking out the stars completely.
Inside, someone, probably Helen, had sat down at the piano and begun to play and Bess had begun to sing along to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear". It certainly wasn't a clear midnight tonight, Nancy thought, sorry that the stars were hidden.
"Get a grip on yourself," Nancy told herself under her breath. "I've got to move on somehow, and maybe, someday, it'll be okay. I mean, when Mom died…" She took a shaky breath as she felt tears rise in her eyes again. "Oh, but if I had just one wish…"
She didn't speak the thought, and instead moved to turn toward the door. Then a movement out in the darkness beyond the little circle of light that came from the windows of the house caught her eye, and she stared at it, trying to decide what it was. After staring hard for a moment, she determined that a person was walking up the driveway, and another moment later again she determined that it was a man.
Her dad had said that no one else was coming to the party, and Nancy couldn't think of any other legitimate business that anyone would have in coming to the Drews' house at this hour. The thought crossed her mind that this man could be dangerous and she had better get inside.
Yet even in the moment that it took to think that, she noticed two more things about the man. First, he was dressed in an Army uniform, and second, he was walking with a pronounced limp in his left leg.
"Who are you?" Nancy called.
The man paused at the question and looked up. "Nancy?" he asked, and his voice shook.
Nancy's heart stopped and her lips parted as she took in a sharp breath. A thrill ran through her, and she felt dizzy. Her voice couldn't rise above a whisper as she answered, "Ned?"
It went against all reason, but for once, Nancy threw reason to the wind. She cleared the porch steps in an undignified bound and began to run toward him. Ned had begun to run, too, at least as well as he could, but Nancy was faster. They met one another just inside the circle of light and threw their arms around each other, too overwhelmed to do anything but laugh and cry and most of all hold one another.
Ned was the first to manage a coherent sentence. "Nancy, I can't quite believe it."
"I don't believe it." Nancy pulled back a step to look at Ned's face. He had a little stubble of a beard as if he hadn't shaved in a day or two, and he looked worn and tired and older than last time she had seen him, but there could be no mistake. Those were Ned's eyes and that was his smile. "How?" Nancy asked. "We...We thought you were dead."
"Not quite. Didn't the telegram explain?"
"Telegram?" Nancy repeated in confusion.
Ned pulled her closer to him. "There must have some mix-up. I'll explain later. Nancy, I...There were so many times I thought I'd never see you again."
"But that's over now, isn't it?" Nancy replied.
"It is for us." He bent his head forward and kissed her, and all their fears and worries and sorrows melted away.
The moment was interrupted by Bess calling, "Nancy, what in the world…?"
Not without a moment's hesitation, Nancy and Ned turned to look at her. Bess's eyes widened and her mouth fell open for a second and then she covered her mouth with her hands and gave a loud, long shriek of delight. She came at a run, almost slipping on some ice beneath the snow, and grabbed both Nancy and Ned in a hug.
"Ned Nickerson, how on earth did you get here? We thought you were dead."
"Hi, Bess," Ned said, laughing. Nancy thought it was the most beautiful sound she had ever heard.
By this time, Bess's squeal had brought everyone else running onto the porch to see what had happened. For several minutes, there was total chaos as everyone realized what was happening. It seemed a long time later when they had finally all calmed down enough to sit down in the Drews' living room and let Ned explain.
Ned sat on the sofa next to Nancy and rubbed his left knee. "Walking all the way here from the train station was probably a bit more than I should have done," he commented, grimacing slightly.
"You could have called," Nancy told him.
"I would have, but I didn't have any change for a phone call, and there wasn't anyone to ask at that time of night, and I felt like walking anyway." Ned frowned. "There should have been a telegram to my folks, explaining what happened. Hardy's people got his telegram. It must have just been a mix-up. Things were a little confused over there with the Germans attacking at the Ardennes."
"Who's Hardy?" Bess asked.
"He's one of the fellows," Ned explained. "He got me through...all of that." As he said it, a distant look came into his eyes.
Nancy put a hand on his arm. "If you don't want to talk about it right now, you don't have to."
"No, it's all right." Ned shook himself and tried to dispel the feeling that had momentarily come over him. "It's just, if there wasn't any telegram, then my folks don't know I'm all right. Could I use your telephone, Mr. Drew? I'll pay for the call."
"Of course, go ahead," Carson told him, "and there's no need to pay for the call."
While he was making the call, the others fell back to chattering excitedly about the abrupt and wonderful turn of events. Nancy, however, didn't join in. She didn't dare take her eyes off Ned for very long, as if he might evaporate, and part of her was afraid that this might just be a dream and that any moment she could wake up.
Finally, Ned finished the call, during which it had been all he could do to convince his parents to drive to River Heights in the morning instead of starting out immediately. "I hope you don't mind me asking them here, Mr. Drew," he added as he told his host the development.
"Certainly not," Carson assured him. "We're more than happy to have them."
"And perhaps you'd better tell your story in the morning, when they get here," Hannah added. "You look all tired out, and it won't take but a minute to make up the spare room for you."
"I could stand some sleep," Ned admitted.
"But none of us are going to get any sleep until you at least tell us why you were reported killed when you obviously weren't, why no one's heard from you in five months, and where you've been in all that time," George insisted.
Ned chuckled. "That would be just about the whole story. But okay. I'll tell you the short version now and the whole story another time. It's not really much of a Christmas story anyway." He sat down again next to Nancy and paused a moment as he tried to decide what to tell and what to leave out for the time being. "Well, there was some mix-up with the maps. Our lieutenant wasn't sure we were going the right way, and so he had Frank Hardy and me stay behind to guard this bridge in case we'd have to go back across it if it turned out we were going the wrong way. It turned out it was all right, after all, but when Hardy and I tried to catch up with the others, we walked straight into some Germans and we both got hit. That's what happened to my knee here. Then we got captured, sort of."
"How do you sort of get captured?" Dave asked.
"The fellow that captured us, Jan Weis, it turns out, had learned a thing or two about his Führer that cooled his enthusiasm about him a bit," Ned explained. "He was ready to do just about anything, no matter how small or how big the risk, to undermine the Germans, and he saw his chance in helping us. The trouble was that apparently the only way he could figure out to get us away from his superiors was to report us killed. That was reported to the Red Cross and then back home, so that's the first mystery solved. Somehow Weis got us to a French doctor who was stuck behind the German lines. He did a good job patching us up under the circumstances, but he turned out to be quite the renegade. Then, on top of all that, neither Weis nor the doctor spoke English. Weis spoke a few words, but not enough for us to understand each other well enough. The doctor had picked up some German - well, quite a bit of German, actually - and Hardy speaks French, so we were able to communicate that way, to some extent. Between all the confusion that that caused and being injured and Weis being incredibly distrustful of everyone and a few other problems, it took us a long time before we were able to get in contact with the French Underground. Even after that, it took some time before we were able to get back to safety. That was just a couple of weeks ago, just when the battle in the Ardennes was starting. Our headquarters was in a bit of confusion from that, and I guess they somehow didn't send the telegram that they said they would to my folks telling them I was all right. I would have sent one of my own, but I couldn't afford the overseas rate and I figured theirs would take care of it. I guess I should have sent one anyway."
"You could have at least sent one after you got to the States," George pointed out.
"Yeah, well, I was in a hurry to get back home and I didn't have the time with all the connections I had to make to get here still today. Hardy and I were both honorably discharged at the same time - with my knee and his shoulder, neither of us were much use to the Army anymore, at least not after we had reported everything that we had learned. We came back to the States together and landed in his hometown of Bayport on the East Coast. His family invited me to stay with them for Christmas since they didn't think I could make it back here in time, but I wanted to try."
"I'm glad you did," Nancy told him.
By this time, it was after two o'clock in the morning, and despite the excitement, everyone was beginning to feel the late hour, particularly Ned, who had spent the last week and a half traveling after having nowhere near enough time to recover after his ordeal. While Bess, George, and Dave said their good-nights as they took their leave, Hannah went to make up the spare rooms, one of which Ned would take and the other would be for Helen. Helen went with her, and Carson also tactfully said good-night, leaving Nancy and Ned alone in the living room.
For a few moments, they both felt oddly shy. It had been so long since they had seen one another and there was so much to talk about that neither one knew what to say.
"I still can't believe it," Nancy said finally. "I know I won't get any sleep tonight. I'll be afraid I'll wake up and this will have just been a dream."
"I know. I knew you wouldn't expect me to show up tonight, but I didn't realize that I'd catch you this off-guard. I didn't know that you still thought…" He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I really should have taken the time to telegraph."
"It's all right," Nancy told him. "This is one surprise that I definitely don't mind."
"Still, I should have telegraphed," Ned repeated. Then he took her hand in his. "Nancy, there were so many times over there that I thought I'd never come back to you. And then there were so many times that I thought that maybe, after all this time, you would have moved on."
"No," Nancy told him. "I don't think I ever could have."
"I love you, Nancy," Ned said.
"And I love you," Nancy replied.
They leaned toward one another and kissed, this time with no interruptions, and then they held one another for a long time.
"Merry Christmas," Ned told her.
Nancy smiled. It was that; it was definitely that.
A/N: Thank you again for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. I'm not going to make any promises as far as this arc is concerned, but I am seriously considering writing a longer story about Ned and Frank's experiences (and then also touch on what the Hardys have been going through this whole time!). That's why I'm intentionally vague on the details of that. If that story sounds like something you'd be interested in reading, let me know. It might help me make up my mind what my next writing project will be. ;)
Once again, thank you and Merry Christmas!