Title: Curses and Reverses - Chapters I-VI

Author: europanya

Rating: M

Disclaimer: ABC better know what they've got going for them.

Characters: Ned/Chuck, Emerson, Olive, poor Olive

Author's Note: God, I love this show. Thank you letting me share that love with you. This is a longish piece I'm going to post in chapters. Looks to be twelve in all. This is the first half.

Summary: Some curses are better left untouched.

Curses and Reverses

by europanya

I

Ned should have known from the moment he woke that morning the day was going to be difficult. The alarm clock had decided to stick at 10:23 PM the night previous, probably the fault of aging Japanese wiring, or perhaps the heretofore loyal clock radio was merely trying to delay Ned from beginning this day's journey through a series of insufferable events, the first of which would involve a rushed over-slept dash to the shower and an unplanned encounter with his roommate who happened to be stepping out of a rather leisurely late morning wash herself. The combined effect of an opened shower curtain, the triangular placement of bathroom sink and door mirrors, further complicated by a disconcerting lack of towel (he'd forgotten to do the folding), presented poor Ned's newly awakened vision with a Picasso of heavenly curves and skin viewed in all possible angles at one fell swoop.

"Oops!" the masterpiece said with a smile. "Coming through!"

Ned found his vocal cords at that moment to be as inoperable as his clock radio. He collapsed against the bathroom door as she slipped by him, dripping into their bedroom.

"Hey, where's the towels?" She called from the next room.

Ned slapped his cheek. "They ah...they're still in the dryer. Sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry for what?" In a moment she was back, towel about herself and another draped over her hair which was still very damp and dangling about her bare shoulders. "Why are you sitting on the floor?"

"Why, uh, well, it's..."

"Are you okay? You slept late."

"I did, yes. I did sleep late. I'm just a little out of it and..."

"Ned, are you sure you're okay? You look feverish. You know sometimes oversleeping is just your body's way of telling you that you need to rest for reasons you may not be aware of--like possible retro viral activity or a bad slice of meatloaf you don't yet remember eating..."

"It's not that. No. I just...you startled me."

"Why? Didn't you remember I live here?"

"Oh, no, I didn't forget that. I never forget that. I'm always very aware of your...um...proximity." She was leaning over him now, an errant fragrant drop glanced his chin and he flinched.

"Is it because I was naked? Because if it was, it's nothing to be embarrassed about. Sometimes when you're in a hurry and forget to close the bathroom door all the way I'll sneak around the corner and take a little peek at you."

"You what?! You watch me pee?"

"Well, I don't do it specifically to watch you pee, but if you're wearing lose-fitting pants I'll sometimes get a little glimpse of your tush or something."

"Or something?"

"Maybe I shouldn't elaborate."

"Maybe I should get a dead bolt." Ned tried to stand but found his legs were still uncooperative.

"Are you sure you don't feel dizzy or flushed? Can I get you an aspirin?"

He was both, but it was nothing an over-the-counter remedy could cure. "I think I just really need a shower."

She shrugged. "Okay, but hurry; we're late."

The shower didn't help much. It was a warm day and the old pipes in their building rarely deviated in temperature from that of the ambient air. She was wearing the white sleeveless sun dress with the pink cherry blossoms that didn't conceal nearly enough of what was threatening to spill out over the soft freshly floured rounds she was preparing to roll under her pin.

"Ned..."

"Huh? What?"

"You're doing it again."

"Doing what?" He hastily reached for a clump of limp browned bananas and watched them instantly turn into a stiffened perfect yellow.

"Zoning out. It's like your mind's driven a hundred miles away today."

"Trust me, it's right here in this kitchen."

"I think you should see a doctor...wait, can you even get sick? I mean, if you're sick, can't you just touch yourself and make it all better?" She nodded to the bananas.

He swallowed. "Sometimes, but sometimes it only makes it worse."

"Huh?"

The order bell dinged.

"Ned! Is that no-sugar-added apple-crabapple out of the oven yet?"

"It's coming right...oh!" Ned raced for the oven.

"Did he forgot to set the buzzer?"

"He's a little out of it today."

"Ned never forgets to set the buzzer. He doesn't even need the buzzer; he's always there for his pies when they need him. Is he feeling all right?"

"I think Ned's a little attention-challenged today. His alarm clock didn't go off. Come to think of it, he doesn't need it to go off; he always turns it off right before..."

Ned presented the pie in question. "The no-sugar-added apple-crabapple is a little toasty but still good, I think. Who's ordered it?"

Olive looked testy as she examined the pie he offered her. "Mr. Uptown Uptight, is who. You're going to owe me the tip on this one."

"I'm sorry. I'm..."

"Distracted? I know the feeling. I deal. I don't sacrifice a single slice for it, either."

He leaned over the counter at his employee. "Are you accusing me of pie crucifixion? Because I'll nail...sorry, stake my reputation that this one is still sound." She gave him a look. "On the inside. Try the left side, it was further from the heat. Can we comp him an a la mode?"

"Lactose intolerant."

"What about free coffee?"

"No dairy, no sugar, no caffeine, no dice. You're going down for this one."

Ned lowered his forehead to the cool counter top. Why couldn't he have just called this day a wash and stayed in bed?

"Oh, Ned..." Olive sing-songed a half-minute minute later.

"What?" he groaned into the polished oak.

"Mr. Crabby Crabapple wants to speak to the 'management.'"

"Tell him there's no charge."

"You tell him."

Ned gave her his best begging eyes. "Olive..."

She shrugged him off. "I already pointed you out so hiding in your hands isn't going to do you a bit of good."

Ned sighed, untied his apron, threw it back into the kitchen and went to face his disgruntled customer.

The heavyset man in booth #5 dressed in a $800 suit and $150 Jerry Garcia necktie did not look pleased. He sat tapping one diamond-studded pinky ring on the edge of his untasted, slightly singed slice of no-sugar-added apple-crabapple.

Ned had intended to tell this man go to Denny's or some other form of pie-hell if he was going to make a fuss over a $2.25 oozing pile of well-done fruit pectin, shortening and flour. Instead, he crumpled into the seat opposite with a sigh and let a slice of truth ooze out of himself.

"I know my customers have grown to expect their pie of choice waiting for them here everyday in a predictable Pie Hole state of steaming flaky perfection. But no one ever considers the lonely baker who wakes up every morning, wishing he could come in and enjoy the pie of his dreams. And he would if it weren't for a cruel stroke of irony that prohibits him from doing anything more than looking though a refrigerated glass case at his one and only dream pie and most days just being able to see at that pie is enough.

"But when I went to bed last night I had every intention of waking up on time to come in and prepare your no-sugar-added-apple-crabapple to perfection until mine stepped out of the shower naked, and even though I could peek like she does, I never dared because I knew I'd see something I could never have and dealing with that crushing disappointment is much like what you've just experienced--anticipating that first mouthwatering bite of complex bittersweet fruit ecstasy and being denied it so, seeing as I've never ever burned a pie before in my life, I'm begging you to just give me a break today, okay?"

The overdressed customer frowned. "Why not just pick up a fork and have it over with?"

Ned leaned in closer so no one else would hear. "Because then it would really be over, over before it even began and I would be left with nothing but an empty pie case and that would sap all of the pie-making life out of me and you'd find a closed forever sign hanging on the door the next time you stopped by for your no-sugar-added apple-crabapple of your dreams because mine would be gone." He closed his eyes. "I don't know why I'm telling you this. I'm cursed, I've always been cursed, and whining about it like this isn't ever going to make it any better."

"You're right about the whining. But you're wrong about the curse. Have you ever had yours properly diagnosed?"

"Huh?"

"There's all kinds of curses in this world, some more contagious than others. Some harder to cure than others. Was this one congenital or contracted?"

"I...I have no idea. I think it had something to do with puberty."

"Than it's congenital. That's not so easy to cure. But I didn't say impossible."

"Who are you?"

The customer reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. It read: Got Hex, Vex or Curse? Get it Reversed. Harmon H. Hamron, Representative.

"You're a hex broker?"

"Mmm, hm," he said, getting up and dropping a tip on the table next to his untouched slice. "You're the only piemaker in this damn town who makes no-sugar-added taste like sugar-added and I'd like to see it stay that way, so I'm going to cut you a break. Whatever's been cast on you, I've got the witches, wizards and what's its to get it fixed. Every problem's got a solution if you know where to look. Come by during office hours and I'll see what I can do."

Ned looked sheepishly up at him. "I don't really know what I should do."

"I do. Bring the pie along with you and I don't mean the ones you bake yourself."

II

The pie in question sat impatiently in red taffeta on the red velvet overstuffed office chair to his right as Ned sat with another, smaller, less sweet, but none-the-less potentially delicious pie in a box in his lap--one baked special for the office chair waiting room's owner to call them in.

The lovelier of the two pies spoke. "Where did you say you met this guy?"

"He came in yesterday. I had a brief chat with him. He seemed reasonably sane."

"How much did you tell him about...us?"

"Not much. He just seemed to know. I think he senses these things. He's a professional."

"A professional mystical services broker? How many clients could he have? This is the 21st Century. Who do you know believes in curses anymore?"

Ned raised a timid hand.

"Besides you and I, I mean."

"It could be a silent epidemic."

She shook her head. "I don't like the idea of sharing our private issues with strangers. We know what our boundaries are. We should be the ones to deal with them. Alone."

"I'm kind of tired of dealing with our alone boundaries."

"Why didn't you ever seek professional help before, years ago? Why now?"

Ned drummed his pie box nervously. "I didn't know there was any to be had. It's not the sort of thing you just look up in a phone book."

"Well, for the record, I'm going to say I don't like it. Messing around with magical...whatever can't be very safe or advisable."

A big heavy door opened.

"Hello, hello, it's my favorite baker and his, my, my, lovely pies." Harmon H. Hamron emerged from his office, took Chuck's gloved hand and kissed it. Ned squirmed. Why hadn't he thought to do that today?

"This one's for you," Ned said, standing and handing over the still-warm box to Harmon.

"Oooh, smells good. Come right on in!"

Harmon served up slices of his perfectly baked favorite flavor of preference onto paper plates with plastic forks. Ned politely refused his slice.

"Ned doesn't eat his own pies," Chuck explained, taking a big bite.

"So I've heard..." Harmon rumbled.

Ned forced his grin to stay in place. "So the other day you said you might know someone who can help us...uh, me?"

Chuck blinked at him. "I think you mean us."

"I said us, didn't I?"

"No, you requalified your question. You said you, or more accurately, 'me.'"

"I guess I don't think of you as the problem."

"Sure you do. If you didn't think I was a problem we wouldn't be here."

"But I'm the one with the curse or hex or whatever."

"And I'm the product of that curse, so that makes 'me' an 'us.'"

"Okay, it's an us problem. Wait...are we having an argument? Because if we are I think yesterday would have been a better time to have had it."

Harmon had been watching their exchange like ping-pong. "So I'm to guess this 'problem' is causing some strain on the relationship?"

Ned nodded emphatically. "I would say that, which is why we're here to try and solve it."

Chuck shrugged and took another bite of pie. "I don't see why we have to try and solve anything."

Ned's heart sank a few feet. "You don't? What about the whole...touching issue?"

"I thought it was a 'tasting' issue," Harmon interjected.

"What?" Chuck said.

"I was being metaphorical earlier. I was speaking in pies."

Chuck was amused. "You compared me to a pie?"

"Well, in a way, yes. You are like a pie. A very...possibly delicious pie that I'd very much like to...uh..."

"Taste?" Chuck finished with an eyebrow.

"I was going to say kiss, minus the wrappings—uh, the plastic kind."

Chuck turned to Harmon. "What flavor of pie did he compare me to?"

Harmon shrugged. "He wasn't specific."

She looked at Ned. "You couldn't be specific?"

"No. That wasn't the point I was trying to make."

"Not even if I was a cherry or berry or banana cream? Did I have whipped topping?"

"I don't...usually think of you with whipped topping."

"Usually?"

Ned sat up straighter. "Okay, I'm going to redirect this in a plain dessert-free manner. You see, my curse is this in a pie shell..."

Ned then went on to describe his particular problem, which he very much regarded as his problem and his problem alone in great detail. Harmon listened carefully, took some notes, ate some pie, took some sips of unsweetened de-caf herbal tea and when Ned was finished, tore out a fresh piece of paper from his notepad and wrote down an address.

"This is the guy you want to see. He specializes in curse reversal. What you've got, my good baking friend, is a bona fide chronic curse. And you, my lovely, are one special lady indeed." The big man rose and took her hand for yet another kiss. This time ungloved. Ned ignored it. He was too hopeful to put up any fuss if that hand would soon indeed be his. He offered his own to Harmon for a shake.

"What do I owe you for this?"

Harmon patted his belly. "No charge, it's a pleasure keeping quality baked goods on the open counter."

"Chuck, we've been over this three times already." Ned was lying in his bed while she continued to fuss about the bathroom, arguing with him through the half opened door while she brushed her hair and teeth.

"I don't want you seeing this mystery curse person. It could make things worse."

Ned sighed and flopped on his back. "How could things possibly be any worse?"

She popped her head around the door. "That's exactly my problem with all this. I don't think of us as 'worse.'"

"I don't either, exactly. I'd just like to find out if things could be better. I mean, don't you realize how long I've been wanting to ask someone the whys and whats of all this? Why did I get this ability? What is its true purpose? Is this just a job I'm just supposed to do? And is there chance for early retirement?"

Chuck emerged from the bathroom with her hair tied up in a bun. It made him smile from the inside out. She really wasn't all that mad. He got out of bed as she got in hers and pulled the blankets up to her chin. He sat near her hip once she was covered and pressed his palms into the soft sturdy cloth that kept her shoulders safe. She hummed a little as he worked his way down her back. Her eyes were closing as she spoke.

"Will you promise me something?"

"Sure, anything."

"Don't do anything rushed or foolhardy."

"I promise."

"I'd hate it if he turned you into a frog or something."

"What, you have something against frogs?"

"Frogs don't have hands," she said with a yawning grin.

"No, they certainly don't."

III

Ned drove to Japantown the next afternoon. He told Chuck he was going to make a few deliveries and that was partially true. He made two drop-offs at homes near the waterfront, then took Harbor up to the giant red-railed Torii that marked the entry to the Japanese marketplace. The address he carried from Harmon's notepad read two blocks down on the right where there was a low iron gate with a garden beyond. When no one answered his hellos, he opened the gate and went in and walked around the edge of a long koi pond shaded by maples. He hated lying to Chuck, although this really wasn't lying so much as deviating from a projected delivery route, but something told him he'd be better off doing this alone.

At the far end of the pond he saw an arrangement of rocks and in the center of those rocks sat a still robed figure.

"Hello...?" The figure didn't move. Ned drew close and saw it was an old man sitting in the dappled shade with his eyes closed in meditation. Ned waited patiently for him to come out of it. But after several minutes he tried to rouse him again.

"Um, hi...uh, konnichiwa?"

The old man opened his eyes and regarded Ned expectantly.

Ned put his feet together and did his best bow. "Shitsuri shimatsu."

The old man returned the bow--thank goodness for Chuck's occasional late-night impromptu Japanese lessons. She'd run him through a few phrases whenever he couldn't fall asleep.

"Hajimimashite. Do you speak English? Uh...eigo?"

The old man frowned. Ned felt it served him right for leaving Chuck out of this.

"Watashi wa...no, wait, that's if I'm a girl...Boku...no namae wa Ned-san desu."

The old man closed his eyes. "Shizuka."

"Shizuka...shizuka...that's darkness? Or, quiet...? Wait!" Ned snapped his fingers. "Silence! That's it...oh. Sorry. I'll be quiet now. Right now." Ned sat down on the rock opposite and bit his lip.

Presently the old man took in a deep breath, clapped three times and stood up. Ned did the same--the standing, not the clapping.

"Look, I don't want to be rude, but Harmon H. Hamron sent me and if I knew you didn't speak English I'd have brought Chuck along because I know my Japanese is weak--"

"Your Japanese is terrible, that's why I asked you to shut up."

"Oh! You do speak eigo, uh English."

"Unfortunately."

"If you'd rather do this in Japanese, I can go get her and--"

"We don't need her. Follow me."

Ned did, keeping a step behind the man to show respect. The old man took him across the pond over a small arched bridge to a wooden lean-to filled with flowers, bells, charms, rice, ribbons and other offerings. On a low table in the center stood a three-legged brass bowl of water. He motioned for Ned to kneel before it.

Ned peered at himself in the stagnant, leaf-cluttered water. "What do I do?"

"Introduce yourself. Then address the bowl and tell it your concerns," the old man said. "Speak from the heart. Clap three times when you are finished."

"Uh, okay...how should I address the bowl?"

"Bob," the old man said with a huge smile.

"Bob? Bob the bowl. Great name." Ned peered awkwardly into his new confidant.

"Hi, Bob, how's it going? I'm Ned and I feel kind of silly right now but you see, there's this girl that I'm crazy in love with, who I live with, and spend every day with, but I can't touch her, not even for a second because if I did, I'd lose her forever and I can't stand that thought, it's the worst thought of all. But another thought is running a close second in the worst race and that's the one in which we both grow old waiting only to find out we could have touched all along if we'd only known how or when. If I could just find out how much longer I had to wait, even if it's years or decades—although I hope it's not decades—I'd be willing to wait, almost forever, but it's the not knowing I can't seem to stand anymore. And you see she didn't really want me coming here and talking to strangers or strange bowls about this because she's afraid of things changing between us and so am I. I'm terrified, in fact, but I just can't seem to help myself. I love her and I want to make her happy. And...that's pretty much it, I guess."

Ned sat back on his heels and clapped three times. He felt strangely lighter inside. The old man touched his shoulder.

"Did I do good?" Ned asked, waiting for something to happen; what, he wasn't sure.

The old man nodded. "Yes, you did."

The old man knelt beside Ned and looked into the bowl himself. His expression changed as if he was reading something.

"What do you see?"

"I see Bob's answer to your question."

"Question? Was I supposed to ask a question?"

"Bob tells me how much longer you must wait to touch your girl."

Ned's mouth went dry. "How...How long?"

"Eight hours, twenty-seven minutes and thirty-six seconds."

Ned's eyes flew to his watch. "What...? Are you serious? In eight hours?"

"That too long for you?"

"No, no not at all. That's incredible. What's going to happen?"

The old man got up and patted his arm. "Reversal," he said.

"What time is it?"

Chuck looked up from flipping through a fashion magazine and leaned over to check the clock in the bedroom across the hall. "Ten minutes since you last asked."

Ned counted his fingers, his precious stopwatch was sitting forgotten by the sink in the scullery after a final round of scatter-brained pan scrubbing earlier that evening. "That's t-minus twenty-one minutes."

She picked her magazine back up. "More or less."

"More or less? We need to be little more precise than that. Are you paying attention?"

"Ned, please stop pacing, you're making Digby seasick."

Digby whined from the corner in agreement. Ned stopped and proceeded to fidget with his hands behind his back instead. "How can you just sit there? Isn't your stomach doing Olympic-sized cartwheels, too?"

She put her periodical aside. "It is, but I'm refusing to let them tumble all out of me until I know there's a real reason to. We don't have any idea that man or bowl did anything. It doesn't sound like he lifted a finger—no potions, no chanting. Even you need to lift one finger. I don't want to get my hopes up."

"Well, can you at least help distract me from mine for the next twenty minutes?"

She smiled up at him. "Sure, but then what?"

"What? What do you mean what?"

"Well, let's say your condition improves in twenty and a half minutes precisely. What then?"

"What then? We can touch is what then."

"Ned honey, I know. But right now you've got yourself so wound up I'm afraid you're going to faint before we'll ever find out. Please sit down." Ned sat at the opposite end of the couch and took a breath.

"Sorry, what was it you wanted to know?"

She shrugged gamely. "I just wondered if you've given it any real thought. About touching me, I mean."

"I can't believe you just asked me that. Most times it's the only thing I can think about. I thought you knew that."

"I do know that. That's not what I meant. What I meant was have you thought about what kind of things you'd like to do together once we can touch."

If this conversation was meant to distract him from absolutely coming unglued at the seams, it wasn't helping. "I...uh..."

"Let me give you an example. Something I've been thinking about a lot is coming home with you at night and curling up on the couch together under one big blanket with a bowl of popcorn and watch old black and white movies until we fall asleep."

Distraction blissfully achieved. "What kind of popcorn?"

She grinned and hugged her knees. "I love big brass kettle popped popcorn with just a little salt and butter."

"We could have made that in the kitchen. Why didn't you mention it before?"

She giggled. "I don't know. It was kind of a private thought. What about you? Tell me one of yours."

Ned file-flipped through his mind to find something of equal romantic sentiment and found his scenarios to be somewhat less-ready for prime time. "I know the one thing that I've looked forward to most is knowing that I'll finally be able to keep you safe."

"Safe? Safe from what?"

"Safe from harm, safe from sorrow, safe from regret. I want to protect you from everything, anything that could hurt you, least of all me."

Her eyes were soft. "That's been a huge burden for you, hasn't it?"

He nodded.

"Well, it needn't be. I'm a big girl. I'm responsible for my own actions. You can't protect me from everything; why should you think that you have to?"

"Because I couldn't before. Not when you really needed it."

"Ned, you're not responsible for my death. No one is. Well, okay one person is, but that doesn't matter anymore. It's over and I'm here now, with you. And I feel very safe."

He grinned--more than anything in the world he wished he could kiss her right now at this very second and not a minute later.

"Ned?"

"Yeah?"

"What time is it?"

IV

They spent the final five minutes in silence, sitting as close as they dared at the edge of the couch, staring at the clock in the bedroom. Ned stood for the last thirty seconds and approached the bedroom doorway until the clock at last read 9:24 pm on the nose. He at once felt a jolt go through him, but it was only one of revelation that the time in question had at last arrived, although nothing else of note seemed to have occurred.

"Ned?"

He jumped. "What?"

Her eyes were huge. "Anything happen?"

"I don't know; I'm not sure." He crossed the room, stepping carefully around a sleeping Digby and fished around in the windowsills for something dead. There was a moth, small and dried in the corner behind the curtains. He turned to glance back at her once more before touching its faded wing. The familiar zap was felt and the once-dead moth flew to life as Ned felt drained of his. He turned and sank to the floor behind the dining table with a sigh.

"Oh, Ned. I'm so, so, sorry."

Ned couldn't bring himself to look at her. All he could see was the long dismal road of disappointment stretching out before him and at the end of it, her shoes. She was standing in front of him.

"I really wish I could hug you right now."

Ned's eyes swam and he hid them from her in his hands. "I'd like to be alone for a minute, please."

"Okay," she said softly. "I'll just go get ready for bed."

Ned wanted to keep his misery to himself. She'd been right not to trust in hope. He sat in darkness for twenty minutes, maybe more, before realizing even in this short wretched emotional separation, he missed her. He wiped his eyes and got up to turn in for the night.

She was in bed already, her hair unbound and splayed across the pillow. She rolled over slowly when she heard him sit down on the bed opposite.

"Are you going to be okay?" she asked.

"I think so. I was just really looking forward to popcorn with you."

She found a sad smile. "I know, me too. Goodnight."

Ned removed his shoes and shut out the light, lying on top of his covers, too exhausted to get anymore undressed. At least this way he wouldn't have to worry about being late again for work. He rolled over to set the alarm. The button stuck and he had to whap the machine to get it to advance the setting. The clock jumped ahead several minutes. Ned sat up like a rocket. He'd whapped it this morning, too.

"It's fast now! What kind of appliance plays these sorts of games?"

"Ned? What's going on?"

Before Ned could explain the dearth of reliable timepieces in his life, Digby bounded into the room with a bark and jumped up onto the bed, knocking his master over with a big slobbery doggy kiss.

"Digby, whoa! Easy, boy! Easy!"

The light came on the in the room. Chuck was standing over them in shock. "Digby knows," she said with amazement. "Did something happen? Did you feel anything?"

Ned laughed and wrestled his dog on the bed with equal delight. "Not a thing. Hah! He's still ticklish under his belly." The dog barked and lapped at him with more kisses. "Okay, okay. Settle it down, boy. I missed you, too, but..."

His eyes went to hers, where she stood next to his bed with her hair tumbled about her and her face freshly washed and her nightdress rumpled and her lips parted. It was done.

He whistled at the dog. "Out!" The animal obeyed, sensing something of an all-together different nature stirring in the bedroom.

"Come here," he said softly but with no less authority. And she did, knelt, placing her hands on his still-clothed knees. Trying to hold them back from shaking, Ned placed his hands over hers and they locked. They both sat in shock for a moment, pondering the weight of this act. "They're so small," he said.

"What?" She sounded like all the air had gone out of her.

He smiled. "Your hands, they feel smaller than they look."

"I guess feeling is a lot different from seeing," she said.

"Maybe. Let's find out."

The first kiss was soft and gentle, and not unlike the very first one they had shared so many years ago. Hands still linked, they leaned into each other like taking a sip from the still surface of a pond. It was chaste, pure and beautiful. Ned stared at her in wonder when it ended, unable to speak over the pounding in his chest.

The second kiss, however, was a great deal less refined. Ned's eyes went wide as he was knocked back onto the bed by its full-mouth, full-Chuck force. Soon she was everywhere on him, disarming him as she covered his mouth, neck and nose with quick hot kisses while her hands disassembled his clothes as fast as they could be disassembled and Ned berated himself for not getting properly undressed for bed in the first place. Her nightdress came off in one fluid move of her arms raised up over her head and what he'd seen stepping out of the shower the other morning was all of a sudden, unmistakably, remarkably, his. That is if he could only catch her—she was halfway down the bed now, peppering his belly with smooches and pitching a one-mad-woman skirmish with his belt.

"Whoa, hey, wait...let me..."

He took over for her in the particulars of his disrobement as she crawled back up next to him, plunging her fingers into his hair and smothering his mouth again. "They're so soft; I knew they'd be soft," she moaned between mouthfuls. "And your hair and your skin and your...oh, Ned, honey, don't wait."

He scrambled out of his trousers and rolled her under him to try and gain a little more control over the situation before she made him lose the rest of his. They were touching now, no mistake, without any restraints and Ned found that none of his most secret, lustful depraved fantasies had quite prepared him for the reality of a very naked, very warm, very willing, very, very wet Chuck who at that exact moment was wrapping herself around him so tightly he had no place left to go except in. And in again, as blind nature and overwhelming desire would have it. He had to stop kissing her just to breathe and she used her newly freed mouth to tell him just how much she appreciated his endeavors.

"You feel so good; I knew you'd feel good—oh, this is so, so much better than watching you pee."

What happened next Ned could only describe later as an irrepressible welling of absolute joy. Followed closely by the total collapse of every working muscle in his body. Stars weren't the only things he was seeing. Some comets spun through the room, too. "Sorry," he gasped, pressing his lips to her neck.

She kissed his tousled head. "Sorrys? There's no sorrys allowed here. Just beginnings. New ones. Lots of new ones." She lifted his face and kissed him. "And the next one's starting right now."

"Mmfph!" he said as she rolled him under her to begin making good on that promise.

Ned wasn't sure when the night began or when it ended, there were only ebbs and peaks of indescribable pleasures so vast and mysterious and so far beyond the vistas of his imagination, he couldn't name them all. What he did know was that for the first time in twenty years, in the small span of his single bed, Ned felt free—free to move, free to grasp, free to feel, smell or taste anything his heart desired—for as long as he desired. The pie case was flung open and she wanted him just as urgently in return—she begged him to taste her here, to caress her there and to consume hidden places he never dreamed existed.

Sometime in the early hours, limbs entwined and sleep at last falling upon them, she refound her voice.

"I used sneak into my aunts' library before dawn on Sunday mornings when they slept late so I could look deep into the shelves for things they liked to keep hidden from me. Among the old dusty bodice rippers and ancient works of human procreation practices there were medical books with pictures of the insides of ourselves: the brain, the guts, the heart, the bones. I tried to imagine it, all those organs and blood vessels pumping and stretching and working inside me and I wondered where in all those cells and sinews did we keep our souls? Here was no mention of it, although there was plenty talk of souls in the other books. It occurred to me one cold winter morning that something was terribly wrong. Something was missing. Something medical drawings, sutras and overly adverbed purple prose couldn't explain. Or maybe it just didn't exist.

"When I died, I knew for the first time that those medical books must have been wrong. Because it was all I had left of me when my organs failed and my mind shut down. I felt me, for the very first time, unencumbered. And it was so sad because it was all too late..."

She started to cry softly and he held her close, watching the light outside the window just begin to grow.

"I used to be wrong about something, too," he said. "I used to believe that I could live my whole life without ever being close to another human being. That I was fine by myself, and I was okay with that idea. Until I found you again and felt that same kind of despair--that I had been entirely, stupidly, tragically mistaken. I thought I could live without this; I had no idea..."

She turned in his arms to face him. "Thank you," she said.

"For what?"

"For not just bringing me back to life, but for giving me one as well."

Ned kissed the tear from her cheek and gathered her close, grateful just now for the darkness.

V

The hardest thing Ned ever had to do was bring himself to leave the comfort of his bed at 6:02 am (give or take 30 minutes) later that morning. After a brief shower and a hasty run around the block with Digby—more to refresh himself than the dog—he knelt by his bed, still full of Chuck, and kissed her softly goodbye. She stirred from her dreams.

"Where're you going?" she asked.

He smiled. "To the shop. Got pies to bake."

A lazy arm reached for him. "Call in sick."

He took her hand and kissed it. "Can't, my boss is a real ass."

She elbowed herself up. "I want to come with you."

"Naw, sleep. One of us should. I'll likely burn the place down at some point today and come home early anyway. I'd like to find you still here—in bed. I suppose we're going to need a bigger one now."

"I don't want a bigger one. I like this one."

"Hmm...maybe we'll switch tonight. Try yours for a change of scenery."

She laughed and touched his face. "I don't want this to ever end."

"My chin?"

"No, us. I always want to feel the way I feel about you right now."

"I know. Me too. Now that I can touch you I hope you know I won't ever be able to stop." He leaned in for a small kiss. "Come by when you get up, huh? No rush."

"Ned?"

He stopped at the bedroom door. "Yeah?"

"Are you going to tell them?"

"Tell them what?"

"About us, I mean. The change."

He thought it over a second and shook his head. "Let's keep it our little secret for a while. Less likely to jinx it that way."

"Okay."

"You slept with her, didn't you?"

"What?"

Emerson Cod was not a man easily fooled. "You and dead girl, you made the octopus with two backs, it's written all over you."

Ned put down the sugar shaker he was refilling and sat in the booth seat across from him. "Keep your voice down."

"The four-legged crab, the naked pretzel..."

"Shh... There were no...baked goods involved in anything."

"Nope, but there was a baker and his baguette. I knew something was up yesterday, the way you two were making goo-goo eyes at each other. Surprised you managed to take it to-go. So what did you do, get fitted for a pair of custom rubber suits? Never mind, don't answer that."

"You really have a way of making the purest things in life so base."

"I got even money says there weren't nuthin' pure about what you did to that girl last night. Don't need reading glasses to see you ain't slept a wink."

"I did sleep a wink. At least a wink." Ned looked around the floor--Olive must still be on break. "How can you tell what I was up to last night? Not to take that question as a sign of admission."

"That damn hickey on your scrawny neck for one."

Ned clasped a hand to his neck and picked up a spoon, cautiously examining himself in it. "Wait a minute, there's no..."

"Got you."

"Huh?"

Emerson picked up his coffee cup in triumph. "I wasn't 100 sure. Now I am."

"Thanks a lot. I told Chuck we were going to, you know, keep it quiet for a while."

"What the hell for?"

Ned leaned in to Emerson. "Olive. I need to break it to her gently. You know how she is."

"Ain't no way you're gonna break nuthin' about this easy except over her head with a sledgehammer. That girl's crazier than a headless moose about you."

"Still, I care about what she..." his words left him. Chuck was coming in though the door. The biggest grin in the world spread across his face.

Emerson rolled his eyes. "Here we go."

She came up to the table and removed her scarf and sun glasses. "Hi Ned! Hi Emerson! Beautiful morning, isn't it?"

"It's noon," Emerson corrected.

She took the booth seat next to Ned who politely scooted over, entirely focused on how utterly breathtakingly beautiful she looked. Not a hair out of place. Well, a few--the cute, soft curly ones that clung to her cheeks. Her eyes smiled back at him; she was positively glowing. Without thinking they started to lean toward each other.

"Whoops!" She caught herself and straightened up.

"You don't have to pretend right now. Emerson knows."

"Oh, thank goodness!" She wasted no time bringing his face to hers for a nice, long, moist kiss that left him woozy.

"Uh, God," Emerson groaned as Chuck wiped a touch of lipstick from Ned's mouth. "It's worse than I thought. So much for my rubber suit theory. Great, you two all touchin' now, huh?"

Chuck beamed. "Yep, we are. We touch all the time now. In fact, we touched so much last night that--"

"Okay, honey! That's fine, we don't need to go into the details."

"Please, yes, spare me the details," Emerson agreed. "However, you can tell me one thing. How'd you do it? How'd you turn it off and more to the point, can you turn it back on?"

Chuck offered an explanation. "Oh, it's not coming back. It's gone completely. We got Ned fixed!"

Emerson snorted.

"Hey!" Ned was a tad insulted.

"No, no, not like that," she said, hugging his arm. "Ned's a stallion."

Ned felt himself turn eight shades of pink.

"Your stallion here thought about what he's gonna be doing for a living once his racetrack is all closed down and boarded up for sale?"

Chuck looked worried. "Sweetie..?"

"You think this dead-free dream life of yours gonna be worth squat once sweetie-pie here starts paying full market price for produce?"

Ned felt a little nauseous. "I didn't think of that."

"No, you sure as hell didn't. You didn't think of your old buddy Emerson, either. Trust me, a storm is gonna blow through this town before long and ain't none of you going to be left standing. Some time curses need to be left alone for a reason."

An eardrum-shattering smashing of a full decaf coffee pot accentuated Emerson's foreboding comment. Olive had come back from her break. Ned hastily removed his arm from around Chuck's shoulders.

"Too late now," Emerson said. "Cat's outta the bag and it's pooling this way."

Ned got up. "I'll go get a mop."

Ned found Olive sobbing over the rolling mop bucket in the janitor's closet. He touched her shoulder. "Olive, I'm sorry but you knew Chuck and I were..."

She snorted back a nose full of snot and wiped her face on a dish towel. "I know. I know. But I thought, I hoped." Her face crumpled. "She told me she had a deadly Ned allergy!"

He shrugged. "Doctors...they can cure anything nowadays. We just needed to find the right one."

"Well, I hope you're happy," she whimpered into the towel as she got up. "That's all I ever wanted for you."

He tried to comfort her with a platonic half-hug, but she pushed past him. "Don't touch me," she said. "I'm clocking out for the day."

Ned felt like six feet of freshly dug earth. "That's okay, really. Go home; take it easy. Oh, if you're going home, can you drop by my place and walk Digby? He's been stuck in all day."

She dropped the towel from her face and sobbed anew as she made a dash for the ladies' room.

"Or, maybe not..." he rubbed his eyes. God, this day was getting longer by the minute.

VI

Ned had intended to use the couch in the break room for a quick power nap to give him a leg up though the second half of the day. Chuck, however, had other ideas. He hadn't dozed off for more than ten minutes before she slipped in with the lights off to give him her own leg up. Or two--over him, straddling his apron and kissing him stupid.

"God, I want you," she panted between smooches. "Don't you want me?"

"Mmm, yes, I do. But, oh...mm, I'm operating on very few brain cells at the moment and..."

The lights came on. Chuck hopped off him and rearranged her skirt. It was Emerson.

"Ain't you two worried at all about the health code in this joint?"

"Well, technically no food preparation was taking place..." Ned began.

"I hope you both intended to wash your hands when you were finished. I eat here!"

"And I work here," Ned said, irritated. "This is my break room—no customers allowed."

"I guess not. I suppose you've been too busy to watch the news?"

Ned and Chuck looked at each other. "Why?"

Emerson walked over to the table and flipped on the mini TV. Channel 4 was running the end of a report.

The family of Mr. Hamron is offering a 5-million-dollar reward for any information leading to an arrest in this case. More at 6.

"Five million! Fiiive million!" Emerson bellowed. "We all could've retired on this bitch! But no, you had to go and get your horny ass fixed!"

Chuck looked at Ned, then at Emerson. "Harmon is dead? How?"

"News report said it looks like some kind of freaky-deaky cult did some bad mojo on this mofo."

Ned shrugged. "Sorry. I'm sorry I can't help him, either. Chuck and I were going to send him a 'thank you' pie everyday for the rest of his life."

"You were what? You know this dude?"

"He's the one who fixed us up with someone who could help us get Ned fixed," Chuck explained.

"Can we stop using that terminology, please?"

"What are you two saying? He's some kind of curse therapist?"

"Broker, actually," Ned said. "It's a career, turns out."

"Well come on, close up early; we gotta get busy."

"Busy doing what? I can't...perform anymore. Ugh...now I'm doing it."

"Get your coat," Emerson said, patting his gun. "We gonna solve this one the old-fashioned way."

"Ned...? Ned, honey. Wake up."

"Hmm? What? When?"

"The morgue, right now. You fell asleep."

Ned let out a vicious yawn and found his feet just in time to watch Emerson palm something to the coroner with a wink.

"You two have a thing I don't know about," he asked Emerson as they slipped through the double doors.

"Mind your business. Now get in there and start looking for clues."

The body in question was covered in a giant blue sheet which did nothing to cover the smell.

Ned held his nose. "Why do they always have to stink like that?"

"The dead don't apologize," Emerson said. "Go ahead, uncover him."

Ned pulled the sheet back with a shudder. Chuck stepped up and looked the body over.

"Why did they suspect cultists? I don't see a mark on him. Do you, honey?"

Ned declined to comment.

"You'd best turn him over, then," Emerson said.

"Whoa, not a chance," Ned said. "You turn him over."

"I don't touch the dead. That's your field."

"Was my field. Was. I don't do this...morbid stuff anymore."

"Sure you don't. That's why you're here."

"You know he's got a point," Chuck said. "Why are you here?"

Ned crossed his arms. "Because, I...I was curious about how he died. He was very helpful to us, once."

"The only thing you're curious about is how good your hoochie's gonna look wearing two million dollars."

Ned looked at Chuck who looked at him. "I...was not."

"That kind of money sure does buy a lot of peaches and roses. Now stop playing holier-than-thou and start flippin'."

It took Ned, Chuck and a push broom to finally wedge the big man over.

"What the hell is that?" said Emerson. On Harmon's back was a large black burn mark with lighter strokes in the center. "He leave the stove on or something?"

Ned leaned over gingerly. "I think...is that Japanese?"

Chuck stood on her tippie toes to see for herself. "It is. It's the Kanji for Revenge, War and Beginning."

"That doesn't sound healthy," Emerson commented.

"The man Harmon sent me to was some kind of Shinto priest. He wouldn't open his eyes until I greeted him in Japanese, badly."

Chuck grinned. "You didn't tell me that. I wish I'd been there."

"I wish you'd been, too."

"So how'd you do?"

"I got my name right, that's about it."

"Did you remember to use Boku."

Ned smiled. "I did."

"Aw, that's my little samurai."

Emerson cleared his throat. "Excuse me, but before you all give a man diabetes, are you saying this priest guy had it in for your broker? Isn't that biting the hand that feeds you?"

Ned nodded. "I'd say that's a healthy guess."

"Well, a healthy guess is all we got. How healthy is your memory of where we can find this bad-ass Morimoto?"

"I found him sitting in a garden near the Japantown marketplace."

"He got a home or business?"

"I don't think so."

"You mean he doesn't have an address?"

Ned shrugged. "He sits near a pond."

"Genius. Now listen up; here's the plan: two of you go back and chat this no-house-havin' dude up like you all got marital problems or some other anti-curse-related issues while I go nose around under his rocks and water lilies for evidence. We keep it nice and casual so none of us wakes up with a permanent take-out menu on our backs. Any questions?"

Ned raised his hand. "I have a question."

"Yes?"

"When does Ned get to take a nap?"

"Ned doesn't get to take a nap. Ned should have thought of that before he left the house."

"Ned was...busy."

"Ned was a damn fool and now he'd better get his head together and start taking care of business. The right kind of business!"

to be continued soon...or visit my livejournal for chapters in progress under euro-fics.