The day after Aubrey officially moves in to Amnesty Lodge, Ned shows up. He comes armed with a box of Halloween decorations, a bag of candy, and a wide grin.
“I found some extra decorations lying around,” is what he tells her, but it quickly becomes clear these were carefully chosen for her.
Most people might have found the red lace curtains and pumpkin string lights and light up ghost tacky, but it makes her room feel more like home. He helps her unpack, too, something she hasn’t bothered to do in years. Staying still feels unreal, almost unnatural. Even now, some small part of her is ready to leave any second.
Ned seems to recognize the impulse. “So, how is it, living here? You’ve been on the move for the last few years, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, been doing shows all over. I like moving around. It’s cool, to get to see new places.”
“I understand the feeling. I’ve done my fair share of traveling too. But there is something to be said for a more….sedentary lifestyle.”
“Yeah. It’ll take some getting used to, though.”
The last thing she puts up is a photo in a relatively plain frame, of a woman with dark brown hair and bright brown eyes, her dark skin a perfect match to Aubrey’s.
“Family member?” Ned asks, nodding at the photo.
“My mom. She’s gone, now,” Aubrey explains. “Don’t have much family left anymore.” Ned looks a little pale, awkward with the sudden change of topic, and Aubrey nearly laughs at him. He’s quiet for a while, working out what to say.
“You have family here,” is what he settles on.
Painting Ned’s face is not how Aubrey expected to spend her Saturday night, but she doesn’t have much of a desire to complain. As the only person Ned knew with experience wearing makeup, he’d enlisted her to try and do his. This episode of Saturday Night Dead is a old vampire movie, so she’s trying to make him look pale and eerie.
“You know, vampires don’t really look like this,” she says as she covers his face with more white Snazaroo.
“Well, we know that. But the general populace does not.”
“True. But shouldn’t we trying to fix those kinds of stereotypes?”
Ned shrugs. “I think our job is just to kill the bad guys.”
Aubrey huffs. “Well, excuse me for thinking proactively.”
Ned chuckles. “C’mon, we don’t need to worry about anything like that for a while. Right now, our job is to relax and have fun.”
“And paint your face white.”
“Is that not the epitome of fun?” Ned smiles at her, an odd look with the paint. “That being said, you may need to hurry this up. We go live in….about 20 minutes.”
“Beauty takes time,” Aubrey says, but she decides to stop fussing with the paint and move on. It’s a shame it’s such a simple look; Ned is a wonderful canvas. He doesn’t squirm or complain, simply sits quietly and lets Aubrey do her work. “You should let me do real makeup on you sometime.”
“Is this not real makeup?” Ned asks, opening one eye.
“I mean like, let me do some kind of Look. Eyeshadow, highlighter, lipstick, the whole nine yards. I think you could rock it.”
Ned smiles at her. “Well, if you think I could pull it off...I trust your judgement. We’ll have to do that sometime.”
Aubrey’s the first one to catch Ned limping. Duck doesn’t have the best grasp of what normal human abilities are, but Aubrey is very familiar with the limitations of the human body.
It’s not until she finds a cane in the back of the newly painted Crytonomica van that she realizes what’s up.
“Hey Ned, this yours?” she asks, pulling it out. She was supposed to just be helping with Saturday Night Dead, as she does whenever she can, but this requires further investigation.
Ned looks at the cane disdainfully. “The doctors gave it to me, after the….incident at Leo’s.”
“You can talk about it, Ned.” She knows everyone’s been avoiding talking about the Pizza Hut Incident around her, too worried for her fragile emotional state to dare mention it. “I can handle it.”
Ned chuckles awkwardly. “It’s not that, it’s... I’m the one who can’t handle it, really.”
“Are you supposed to be using this cane, Ned?”
“Well the doctor told me to, but, what does he know? I’m fine, friend Aubrey, just dandy. Nothing wrong at all!”
“You sound like Duck right now,” she says, folding her arms.
“Is that your way of calling me a bad liar?”
“Yes. Now tell me the truth.”
Ned sighs. “It’s embarrassing, having to use a cane like that. I’m not old enough to be needing one yet.”
“There’s nothing embarrassing about using aids like that. I’m on medication, is that embarrassing?”
“You could have died, doing what you did. You saved people’s lives. There’s nothing embarrassing about getting hurt saving lives, or about needing help.”
Ned huffs. “When you put it like that I sound completely ridiculous.”
“That’s because you are. But I think I know of a way to make the cane at least a little more fun to use.”
She insists he meet her at Amnesty Lodge tomorrow, and the next morning she presents her gift - his cane, painted with bright flames creeping up it.
“Now it looks cool, and you have to use it or I’ll be sad.”
“Well, we can’t have that, can we,” Ned says.
He presents it flamboyantly on Saturday Night Dead, a gift from the Lady Flame herself, a powerful artifact imbued with magical properties.
The letter is singed where she touches it, bad enough that she’s tempted to ask someone to read it to her, but she decides against it. This is between her and Ned.
Dear Aubrey, she reads, and bursts into tears.
Duck finds her sobbing on the floor twenty minutes later, the letter a safe distance away from her. Her hands are balled into fists, steam rising off them as she tries to keep her entire body from igniting. Duck makes the mistake of placing a hand on her shoulder and pulls away burnt.
“Aubrey,” he says, kneeling down next to her. “You found your letter?”
“Mhm,” she says, wiping at her eyes frantically. Duck sighs.
“He called me a hero in mine. Said he didn’t have what it takes to be a real hero.”
“He was a hero,” Aubrey says hoarsely.
“He - he wrote his real name,” Aubrey says, trying to swallow the tears that threaten to cut off her words. “He told me to hate him. Duck, he died -” she chokes on the word, hiccuping halfway through it - “he died thinking I hated him. He died wanting me to hate him. And now - I can never -” her words dissolve.
Duck scoots closer to her, placing a hand on her shoulder, which luckily has cooled by now. “He knew you cared. He probably wrote that in there ‘cause he knew you’d forgive him.”
“He’s more of a hero than anyone I’ve ever met,” Aubrey says, then bites her lip. “I mean - not that you’re not, I just -”
“Nah, you’re right. I didn’t take a bullet for anyone. But look, Aubrey, you can’t blame yourself. That’s not what he’d want.”
“Nope, no buts. C’mon, he wouldn’t want you beating yourself up like this.”
“Yeah, well, I want him back, but we can’t always get what we want, can we?”
“This ain’t your fault. He knew you cared about him. You should’ve seen how he talked about you.”
Aubrey lifts her head slightly, looking at Duck. He gives her a tired, worn smile.
“He bragged 'bout you like you were his kid, practically.”
“I felt like I was, sometimes.” Duck leans his head against the wall, thoughtfully, then looks back at Aubrey.
“We gotta….preserve his memory, in some way. Kirby’s cool and all, but….well, he’s not much of a showman.”
Aubrey smiles, a little broken but better than nothing. “What are you suggesting?”
“I’m saying….well, I’ve been thinking, and Ned wouldn’t want us wallowing around, right? I say we do a special episode of Saturday Night Dead. Saturday Night Ned, if you will.”
“I think I’d like that.” She’s never been to a funeral, but Aubrey has helped with nearly every episode of Saturday Night Dead. This, at least, she can do.
It feels wrong, being at the Cryptonomica without Ned, but Aubrey pushes through the grief and puts on a show. There’s no movie, this time. Instead, she and Kirby and Duck and any other people they can get tell stories about the enigmatic figure that was Ned “Insert Name Here” Chicane.
Aubrey digs up videos she took, the time she secretly filmed Ned practicing a monologue and a really stupid argument he had with Duck about whether pineapple goes on pizza and a short video of him passed out in the lobby of Amnesty Lodge, a blanket draped around his shoulders and Dr Harris Bonkers PhD in his lap. Kirby shares some of his own, videos of Ned singing show tunes while assembling the newest Cryptonomica exhibit, glaring at the camera when he realizes it’s filming. Duck has no footage, but he does have some copies of tickets he gave Ned for increasingly bizarre antics over the years. Aubrey’s favourite is his 12 tickets for illegally feeding animals - apparently Ned made friends with a raccoon at one point.
The ache in her chest never goes away completely, but it softens. It starts to become something she can live with.
The show wraps up after two hours, but Aubrey has one last speech.
“To everyone who tuned in today, who came by to share their own stories, thank you. I know not everyone liked the Cryptonomica, or even Ned himself, but the outpouring of love has been beautiful to witness. Thank you, Kepler.” She grabs Ned’s cane, smiling despite everything. “Let’s give it up for Ned “Brave” Chicane.”
If she listens carefully, she can almost hear the applause.