Olive had always thought Ned’s outward uncomfortableness in his body had to do with the trauma of his mother’s death and subsequent abandonment of his father at a young age. That kind of anguish—so much drastic change in such a short amount of time—would give anyone a complex.
She had wanted to get under the problem, root out a solution with her brand of tenaciousness and a care that she thought she was the only one who could provide for Ned. It bugged her that he and Chuck never seemed to touch. Their closeness was one that wasn’t physical, but could be seen in the looks they shared. The smiles that passed their lips spoke of a closeness that couldn’t be measured by a catalogue of mere touches. Yet, to Olive, touching was Very Important. So from Olive’s perspective, it was a shame that, as close as Chuck and Ned were, they couldn’t—for whatever reason—share in this Very Important thing.
But Olive being Olive thought she came up with the greatest solution to this problem: she’d simply touch the both of them. (Um…not like that. Well…okay, maybe exactly like that. But that would be getting ahead of one self. It was important to approach skittish, easily nerved creatures very delicately.)
Which was why Olive was, at this very moment in time, on Ned’s doorstep, with a cherry pie à la Mode in her hands. She wasn’t sure if the old adage “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” held any truth as it did for her, but she wasn’t opposed to finding out.
Ned opened the door quickly after her knock, dressed in loose grey pajama pants and a white cotton tee shirt. He looked as delicious as the pie Olive was holding.
"I come bearing pie and ice cream," she pushed past him and gave Digby a little pat as she went to the living room.
Ned followed on her heels, and she knew, without even looking at him, that he was suspicious about her visit. At his home. At ten in the evening. That boy was so suspicious about everything though. And it wasn't like Olive didn't have good intentions—she did! Even if, on the surface, it didn't look that way. She just wanted to comfort her best friend. It wasn't (entirely) her fault that her intentions seemed to get buried under her salivating after her friend.
It felt surreal—but in a good way—to be sitting at Ned's kitchen table, eating pie with him on a snowy evening when the outside world was enveloped in coldness, darkness, and death, but they were enveloped in the warmth, light, and life of a good piece of pie shared between very good friends. The only thing that would have made the evening even warmer was if Chuck was around too.
"Are you okay?" She started. "I mean—besides the whole 'Chuck is mad at me and I spent the night moaning her name in the streets thing.'"
Ned's head snapped up. His eyes were impossibly wide. A rich, warm dark shade of brown that Olive felt herself drowning in.
And the thing was, she didn't expect him to open up to her. She wholly expected him to put on his polite smile, shake his head, and say that nothing was wrong—either with him or between him and Chuck, though Olive knew Something (definitely capitalized) was definitely up with them. She expected him to shoo her out the door as he had done multiple times. She didn't expect anything from Ned. It was just easier not to.
"No, I'm not okay, Olive."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
After what seemed like an eternity had passed, Ned shook his head. Rueful and with a sadness in his eyes that would haunt Olive once she left the apartment.
They finished the pie in silence, Digby napping at their feet. And Olive could delude herself into thinking, just for a moment, that this was a perfectly normal, domestic scene for them.
Her eyes flicked up toward the wall, seeing the clock chiming almost midnight. She should leave…right now.
Olive made to get up but before she was out of her seat, Ned grabbed her hand in his.
"Oh," she exhaled on the word, looking down at their intertwined hands like she wasn't quite sure what she was seeing was real or make-believe.
"Olive—" He stopped, looking at his hand gripping hers.
She waited for him to continue, but he didn't. He just kept staring at their hands.
"Do you—do you want me to stay?" She couldn't believe what she was asking. This went beyond torturing herself.
Ned gave her a small nod, barely a lift of his head in the affirmative.
They moved to the sofa, Digby curling into himself and putting his head down his paws to resume his nap. Olive really meant to sit at one end of the sofa, and leave the other end for Ned, but he sat down close by her, their thighs almost touching but not quite.
Like a light-bulb suddenly getting turned on, Olive instinctively knew that what Ned needed right now, but couldn't ask for, was the same thing she had been so reluctant to give into all evening.
It felt like they were in an old-timey movie, the one where the guy would fake a yawn and stretch his arm across the girl's should...except it was Olive who was decidedly faking her yawn, and trying to subtly put an arm across Ned's shoulders. But the height difference between them was noticeable that Olive couldn't quite reach all the way around Ned’s shoulders comfortably. It looked much more ridiculous than romantic, with Olive squished into one arm of the sofa, with her arm awkwardly lifted up into the air, and Ned hunched in on himself like he was afraid to take up any more space on his sofa.
Olive sighed softly to herself. The man was just not giving her anything. And wasn’t that the problem? He had to meet her halfway here; she couldn’t be the one who was always going to him…
Resigned to stay this way until Ned forced her to leave, Olive couldn’t help but reflect on her life choices and what led her here to this precise moment in time…
She tried to go back to the beginning, to the first time she and Ned met. She found herself ambling, lost then, unsure where to go once the community theater let her go because she fought with the director way too many times. (He had wanted her to sing sotto voce, she was a mezzo soprano kinda gal; it wasn’t important to get into it right now.) It was a happy coincidence that she happened to wonder by The Pie Hole that one Autumn day and noticed the employment sign plastered to the window, beckoning to her like a lighthouse beckoned to lost ships at sea.
But Olive was still confused as to which of the many specific roads she took in life made her fall in love with Ned. It was a puzzler.
She was so in her head, Olive was surprised to find Ned had unclenched some and put his head on her shoulder.
Olive blinked. Then she blinked again. Was this happening? Was this really happening or did she fall asleep? It did feel like a dream, after all.
“This is nice,” Ned said.
“Uh-huh.” She didn’t want to move, much less breath, afraid to shatter this magical moment.
“Olive…there’s something I have to tell you…”
The words sounded ominous in the quiet silence of the toasty apartment. She had wanted to scream at Ned not to break this mood they’ve created but Ned sounded torn, like if he didn’t speak now he’d never find the courage again. Whatever comfort she was gaining from this moment of theirs, she couldn’t be selfish and keep Ned from talking. She never got him to talk about personal stuff as it was.
“Ok?” She turned her head slightly, and got an eyeful of brown hair for her trouble. But she didn’t mind. Being this close to Ned, he smelled wonderful.
She was thinking she was going to regret not being selfish when Ned moved away, thighs not touching anymore, and the warmness dissipating.
“This is a really big secret, Olive, one I’ve been carrying my whole life. There aren’t a whole lot of people who know…”
“Does Chuck know?”
“Does Emerson know?”
He nodded again.
“Then I want to know.”
Ned sighed, looking relieved. Before he took a deep breath, and stood up.
She almost gasped in anguish when he finally lifted his shirt over his head and she saw his back. She quickly disguised it as a cough.
Running down his spine were black marks that looked like crisscrossed sutures, but they didn’t look like they were man-made.
Olive gingerly touched the marks, the texture of them feeling like raised goosebumps under her light touch.
“Do they hurt?” she asked in a whisper, meaning the marks.
“No, only when I don’t let them out for a long time.”
That particular sentence caught Olive off-guard. Let them out for a long time? What could he possibly mean? And then on the heel of that thought was wings. He means his wings. He has wings. Holy Toledo! Wings??!!! Really??!
There was a particular thing she wanted to ask, but she felt super silly about the question. With the way Ned was, Olive thought it was a pretty safe bet that not a whole lot of people got to see what made him so special (besides his whole adorable personality, she meant), and she didn't want to spook him off with inane questions.
Olive debated back and forth before she blurted out, “Are you an Angel?”
Ned laughed, before turning back around to face her. He was grinning—not his usual ‘grin-and-bear-it-and-maybe-they’ll-stop-bothering-me’ smile but a truly contended one that reached his eyes and made them sparkle with a warmth that took Olive’s breath away.
“I honestly don’t know.”
He sat back down on the couch, and Olive followed him, resisting the urge to grab his hands again, and never let them go. “The only ones who could answer that question are my parents. One of them died before I could even think to ask, and the other, I have no idea where they are now. Would they even know?”
Olive really hoped that was a rhetorical question.
He looked at the cherry pie they had demolished, left on the table, giving her another smile. Twice he had smiled now! Olive felt a little thrill go up her spine at the fact that she caused them.
"Thanks for the pie. It really did comfort me."
She gave a small nod of acknowledgment.
It felt like they sat there on the sofa for an eternity.
Also? Ned still hadn’t put his shirt back on. That felt like an important thing to note at this time. Ned was still half-naked. And Olive couldn’t stop looking at his naked chest.
“This doesn’t have to mean anything,” she said, as she palmed the broad expanse of Ned’s back, touching the black marks reverently. Ned shivered under her soft, feather-light touch. That was him merely being cold, Olive thought. She was feeling anything but however. It felt like she’d scorch him, her whole body radiating a volcanic expulsion of warmth.
“O-olive, please,” he moaned. It was a few excruciating seconds before he continued, like he was giving himself permission to enjoy her ministrations before he put a stop to them. And Olive knew with a bitter certainty that he would stop them.
“You h-have no idea what you’re doing.”
She had to concede that point. But though she couldn’t seem to control her hands, she didn’t see why she had to. Of course there was that pesky thing of Ned not loving her. However, after much reflection on Olive’s part, she realized she didn’t need him to love her back. She just needed him to let her love him.
It felt as if she had been carrying a torch for Ned for years, but now the flame was starting to ebb lower and lower. Oh, it wouldn’t ever be completely extinguished. It hadn’t been completely wiped out even when Chuck appeared as if from nowhere. But the pain of it being unrequited on his part was less sharp than it had been in the beginning; a little easier to live with now. Before, it felt like a stabbing pain all over her body, pinpricks of pain, but now, it was just a dull ache that she could forget about from time to time.
Also, most miraculously, she had started to feel something strange for Chuck. All these weird and new feelings for the girl who was not quite dead surfaced. And most surprising and miraculous of all, Olive couldn't distinguish where her feelings for Ned ended and her feelings for Chuck began. They were all rolled into a big snowball of desire and longing and lust and pining and utter heartbreak.
Tomorrow, she'd help comfort Chuck and try to get the other woman to talk to her about why she was suddenly needing space away from Ned (when all she, Olive, wanted was to get into Ned's space).
Her mission done here, Olive berated herself for staying as long as she did. She should really get up and leave already. She really should leave…
But it was cold outside. Even if she was merely tiptoeing across the hall, it was still chilly. And she was so very warm, with Ned leaning into her side, snoozing lightly.
It’d be alright...if just this once, she stayed.
A mere door away, Charlotte Charles tucked herself into bed, and dreamed. She dreamed of Ned and Olive and she dreamed she could touch them both, freely and lovingly.