The facts were these.
The pie-maker is thirty-two years, thirty-two days, and thirty-two minutes old. He touches a dead man, hears a murderer’s name, solves a crime. Sixty seconds pass. He touches him, again. The dead man stays curiously alive.
Ned pauses, because that can’t— that can’t happen. That can’t be. Tries again, and again, and again.
“So am I dead, or what?” the dead-but-alive man asks, bored. A hit-and-run victim, the spokes of his bicycle poke out of his torso at odd angles, this way and that.
“You’re alive, I think. For now, at least,” Ned answers, backing out of the room. Emerson and Olive are waiting on the other side of the door. “You should get that looked at, though,” he adds, nodding at the bent wheel wrapped around and through him, the tire marks stretched black across his neon-green racing tee. “Have a nice life.”
Thanks, man is the last thing Ned hears as the door swings shut behind him.
“I do not have, nor have I ever had, performance anxiety,” Ned shoots back.
“I’m just saying, could be it's just temporary. You go around touching enough dead people, you’re bound to not be able to finish one off eventually. No sense getting worked up over nothing.”
“It's not— I don't think this is temporary. I think this is real, I think maybe I'm changing. I feel changed, do I look changed to you? I've had this tingling in my thumb. I feel lighter, I feel brighter. Do I look brighter? Less like a man who wakes the dead and more like a normal, everyday man who doesn't re-kill dead things?”
“Ned, you look the same as you always do,” Chuck says. “You are at your usual level of brightness." She pokes at the half-eaten slice of pie on the plate in front of her. "Are you sure? Are you sure he didn’t die?”
“Of course I’m sure, but. Maybe I should test it out, maybe I should try again."
“No, absolutely not,” Chuck argues. “You can't play with life and death that way. You can't go around touching dead people willy-nilly. What if it doesn't work, or what if it only half works? What if you create an entire horde of once-dead human zombies?” She pauses, then, excited: “Test it on me – I can be your test case.”
“Chuck—I’m not going to test my powers on you. I could kill you, if I'm wrong, if this is only a strange temporary pause.”
“We’ll never know until we try.”
"Chuck, it's too dangerous. We can’t—we can't ever know, not really, not for certain. There are steps I can take, things we can try—the fruit, maybe I can start with the dead, rotting fruit, but. We won’t ever know, not for certain. If I were to touch you.”
Ned pauses, slides his hands under his thighs. Presses them down hard against the seat.
"Even if whatever weird sort of magic lives in my bones is gone now, it doesn't mean it won't come back. I could kill you. I don't want to kill you."
Chuck nods, certain. “You won’t. Anyway, it’s not just your decision, Ned. It's not totally yours to decide."
He touches things, furtively, just to see, just to test. Just to file away in his brain. Everything, all of the things. Anything that is dead, anything that might once have been alive. Moldy-gray berries and peaches and apples, a spider he finds dead in his bathroom sink. Digby, who isn't so much a conscious choice as he is a bundle of furry dog love, tackling Ned every time he walks through the door. Twenty-plus years of their unspoken understanding, gone, just like that, replaced with a constant demand for physical affection. Ned sighs. Digby wags his happy tail and presses his wet nose into Ned’s hand.
He accompanies Emerson to the morgue, just once, against Chuck’s will. Gets sent home with a look of disdain when he fails to wake the dead.
Ned is permanently on the verge of some kind of panicky nervous breakdown, but nothing happens, nothing turns alive and un-alive again the way it's supposed to.
It’s real, whatever’s happening to him, whatever’s caused this change. It seems too wonderful to be true. Ned allows himself to hope, anxiously, that it might be for good, that it might be forever.
(They've been fighting and fighting and fighting. Apologizing and fighting and apologizing some more. Always the same same same. Tense breakfasts and loaded goodnights, dancing and dancing and dancing around what they can and cannot do, what they want and what they’re—what Ned’s—too afraid to want. Chuck stops wearing her bell slippers, stops being careful about keeping space between them, throws her hands up at Ned’s inaction, at his caution. Starts sleeping at Olive's, again.
Ned tells her they can’t, they shouldn’t. Touches dead-alive things that are not her all the time, compulsively. Buys a box of condoms, new sheets. Dismantles the safety contraptions built on and around his bed. Gets a haircut. Just in case.)
“We’re torturing ourselves for no reason,” she says, frustrated, standing (slipper-less) in his apartment. “Happiness is in sight, one more step and we’re there, and we’re not — we’re just. We’re ignoring it.”
Ned clasps his hands behind his back, tight. “We’re not ignoring it. I’m not ignoring it. I’m keeping happiness right where I can see it, at a safe distance from me.”
"That's a sucky way to live."
“It is, sometimes." He feels his resolve slipping, before:
"I think about it. I think about it sometimes, what it would be like, and it’s—there’s no use. I thought about it before, even.” He closes his eyes. “It always ends. I always wake up, always come to my senses.”
"You think about it," she repeats, softly. "You think about us?"
"Of course." All the time. Some sort of fever dream, it usually feels like, Chuck naked and warm underneath him, the thready beat of her heart. The weight of her breasts in his hands. Then, always, his stomach drops, back to reality: Chuck, at a safe, arms-length distance away. "You don't?"
"I do. I do all the time. I just. I think it can be possible for us, now."
"Your aunts will kill me if I kill you.”
“Probably, yes. But you won't.”
(He won't, he knows. Thinks. Hopes. He feels it in his bones: that brightness, that sureness.)
“First kiss, last kiss,” she says.
She steps closer. She smells like honey and butter and brie.
“First kiss, last kiss,” he agrees.
It's easy at first, just a brush of lips as Ned tenses, still half-expecting the zing of life given or taken; he hope hope hopes and then: Chuck's quiet gasp, the press of her tongue.
Ned exhales, hugely relieved, lets himself melt into her. Takes her face in both his hands, traces her cheek, her jaw, the line of her neck. Lower, lower. "You're not--"
"I'm not," she agrees, grabs at him, and yanks.
It is -- it is like heaven, frankly. Chuck off-balance on her tiptoes, reaching up to him, her hands scrabbling along his neck, his cheeks, his hair, pulling him closer. Her warm, warm mouth.
Ned gets his hands under her ass and lifts. She wraps her legs around his waist right away; Ned hears the clunk of her shoes on the ground behind him: one, two. She squirms in his arms, hooks an arm around his neck, keeps one hand pressed to his chest. Every time she moves, he feels it right in his groin.
Her dress hikes up, pulling tighter and tighter across her thighs, yellow and delicate-looking; he irrationally thinks about not wanting it to tear.
He steers them into the bedroom.
"You took down the spooning equipment," she says, surprised, before anything else, when he sets her down on the bed. At the top part of her dress, she is flushed, tousled, crooked. Her chest moves every time she breathes.
Ned stands at the side of the bed, awkward, sticks his hands into his pockets. Thinks how, he thinks, yes, he thinks, something about not having expectations, not being sure if she'd ever come home. He says: "I did."
Chuck grins, brushes her bangs out of her eyes. Pushes herself up on her knees, so she's (almost) eye-level. Reaches back, tugs her zipper loose. Kisses him once, perfunctorily, then slides a thumb into his mouth. Presses her forehead to his. This close up, she's almost blurry.
He swallows, hard. “Maybe we should take this slow, maybe we should—“
“Ned.” She smiles, breathing hard. “Take off your pants.”
He feels something crack open inside him, his heart, maybe, or the box he keeps locked up tight, everything he ever wanted, right there, in front of him. He smiles back. “Okay.”
It takes awhile, after that first night, before Ned lets himself even breathe around her.
He's aware, all the time, aware of Chuck’s proximity. He always was before too. He always was when he was eight years old and even some years after that, in fact. Before, though, he was aware of the distance, knew where she was and knew how far away he had to be, so. It's exactly the same, only the precise perfect opposite.
He takes her bare hand, threads their fingers together. Kisses her, kisses her always, on her cheek, her lips, her neck, the inside of her thigh. Her wrist.
He gets close enough to breathe her in, to count the freckles on her nose. He wants to spend a lifetime learning her, the warmth of her skin and her wandering hands. He never wants it to stop.
“We kissed before,” Chuck argues, when he looks at her like she’s brand-new. “We kissed fairly often, before.”
“We kissed with saran-wrap,” Ned argues. “We kissed through shower curtains and plastic rain ponchos and full-body spandex suits.” (See if you can get me off through our clothes, she’d say.) “This is different, this is more, this is so much more.”
He stays awake for hours, grinning like a fool, Chuck sprawled heavy across his chest.
Puts his hand in the warm place in her lower back, not all the time, not every day, not with all the fancy frilly dresses she wears, but. Some times, some days, when she's in jeans and fancy frilly shirts, he puts his hand on her back and feels the warm line of skin along her waistband, works his way under her shirt, tracing it with his fingers until she makes a humming happy sound, until she smiles. She starts wearing more shirts that don't need to be tucked in.
(Maybe it's a cosmic exchange, he thinks. Maybe there's a finite limit, the lives he can touch and touch again. Maybe he hit his max.)