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The Great European Adventure

Chapter Text

2 days, 4 hours, 7 minutes and 57 seconds had passed since Chuck had left him to go on tourneé in Europe with her aunts and since then every single one of Ned’s breaths had been an unending agony.

“I feel like someone have filled my lungs with a hot mixture of sugar and tamarind extract, had put them into the oven to cook and then had feed them to me with a grapefruit sauce” the Pie Maker confided to detective Emerson, who was sitting in his favourite table at the Pie Hole.

“Stop pining and take a plane to Europe,” said the successful detective, without raising his eyes from the cross-stitched scarf he was working on.

And so the Pie Maker jumped on the first plane to Budapest, without noticing the little spelling mistake sending him to Bucharest.

The lights of the city reflected on the river were beautiful, but all that Ned could see was a Chuck-shaped empty place by his side. Sighing, he picked up the phone and dialed Emerson’s number.

“The sensation in my lungs was growing better as I went nearer and nearer to Europe, but when I discovered that I was in the wrong city I felt like bleach was poured into the tamarind and now the corrosive liquid is attacking my chest from the inside”

He was answered by the voice mail. ”Emerson Cod, detective. Ned please stop leaving mess…”

A loud sound from the horn of a car broke the silence, making the Pie Maker jump and lose his grip on the phone, which fell in the water below. Glancing down, Ned noticed that there were some steps leading down to the river, and that his phone was still visible just under the surface. Thanking Chuck for the integral waterproof cover, Ned walked down and kneeled close to the water. There was mud, and it was very difficult to see through. Ned had been quite lucky, because his mobile had fell above something just under the surface, something that Ned was not able to distinguish with the nocturnal lights.

Suppressing a shiver, Ned pushed his hand into the dark water and grabbed his phone. His fingers briefly grazed the cold shape underneath, before extracting the muddy mobile from the water with relief.

A moment later, all the air was knocked out from Ned’s lungs, as a boot had emerged from the water and kicked him violently in the belly. His back bumped violently against the steps leading to the street, and he just narrowly avoided hitting his head.

“What the fucking fuck are you fucking trying to do?” A man’s voice came from the figure emerged from the river. There was water dripping from his nose, his mouth and his hair, but he seemed completely unfazed, while he aggressively climbed to the shore.

Ned felt the panic rising while he tried to estimate how many seconds had passed since he had touched the man. Ten? Thirty? He was not able to tell, his head fuzzy from the blow.

But it did not matter anymore, because Ned had somehow regained his feet, and the dark figure was extracting a muddy knife from his pocket, still yelling, “What the fuck do you still want from me? Didn’t Gabi run away with that little cocksucker already?”

And so Ned stumbled and run up the steps, away from a fight where he did not stand a chance. He knew he was acting like a coward, but Chuck was far away and he was not good at avoiding knives, especially if brandished by an skilful man.

He ran towards the street and to his hotel as fast as possible, without noticing the corpse lying in the dark alley near to the river. The body was still clutching a gun, as if death had found him when he was about to lash out and kill an oblivious tourist.

One day, 15 hours, 33 minutes and 18 seconds later, Ned was sitting near to the window on the plane to France, feeling little butterflies dancing in his belly while classical romantic music played in the background. He was going to see Chuck in four hours, 25 minutes and a handful of seconds.

But the music in his head came to an abrupt stop when a tall blonde man walked towards him and stopped right beside the vacant seat, raised his eyes to Ned’s face and shouted, “What the fuck are you doing here?”

Ned recognized the voice instantly, it was difficult to forget someone who could almost knock you out two seconds after his resurrection. He stared at the man, who had narrowed his eyes but thankfully had not made more fuss, and considered his options.

He could touch the man again, and have the flight delayed. He could explained the situation to him and probably be called a liar and attacked again. Or…

“Have we met somewhere, sir?” Ned asked smoothly, the fear of the delay in seeing Chuck making him a good liar. It had been dark by the river, and the man had not heard his voice. He could just pretend not to know the man and avoid touching him.

The man frowned, but seemed to believe Ned. And then he sat next to him, taking over half of the space of Ned’s legs. The Pie Maker tried to occupy as little room as possible, but he was flying in Economy Class and the seats were not suited for tall men.

The dead man, oblivious of his turmoil, extended his hand towards Ned, stopping one inch away from his face and saying “Excuse my manners, you seemed like someone who tried to screw me a couple of days ago. I’m Nigel.”

Trying helplessly to retreat further in his seat, Ned blurted, “I have a skin disease. Highly contagious.”

Nigel frowned deeper, but retracted his hand and moved his legs. “No need to be this jumpy.”

Yes, not a good idea to be rude to a dangerous knife-holder. Even if no blades were allowed during the flight, it was better to try and stay friendly. So Ned managed a forced laugh, and answered, “Sorry, mate, I am just scared of flying.”

It was not a lie.

28 minutes and 43 seconds later, the plane was shaking for a turbulence. Ned was gripping the seat belt for dear life. As the plane gave a stronger shake, a cry escaped his mouth “Chuck!”

Nigel eyed him sideways. “Is she your girlfriend?”

Everything was better than focusing on the rolling plane, so Ned murmured, “Yes. I am going to surprise her in France.” The thought of Chuck was like being covered with the skin of a sweet potato, the tender flesh inside warm and protected. “We don’t really do surprises, or at least, I don’t like surprises, but Chuck is brave and adventurous so she might appreciate me surprising her. So maybe from now on, we will do surprises, or at least I will surprise her and she will be surprised, and not the other way around because it would make me uneasy.”

Ned noticed that his grip on the belt was more relaxed now, and that the shaking seemed more subdued. He faced Nigel to thank the man, but his companion was now obstinately looking into another direction. If Ned had possessed a mirror, he would have seen little tears at the corner of the man’s eyes.

Just another 24 minutes later the plane landed, and Ned finally relaxed. He was in the same country as Chuck, so everything was fine. He could almost smell the favourite cheese of the aunts, a smell that reminded him of home.

Ned walked down the ladder of the plane and his mind was focused on Chuck, and Chuck only. He did not see the terrified faces of the other travellers, neither he heard Nigel yelling, “What the fuck are you trying to do, you fuckers!” Instead he could almost hear the little gasp of surprise that Chuck would make seeing him, and see the smile that would surely follow.

So Ned was completely taken aback when a black hood was forced into his head and his wrists were roughly pulled under his back and secured in handcuffs.

The reality came back to his mind with the force of a hammer swung by an inebriated giant. Without his sight, Ned could hear the sounds only, a dull thud followed by a gasp of pain, half a swear-word, and then matter-of-fact orders in a language that Ned assumed was French.

Someone pushed him from behind, grunting, “Move!” and Ned stumbled inside what he thought could be the back seat of a van, considering that he heard noises from an engine. Then something heavy was thrown against his back and he heard the voice from before bellowing, “Tu l'as bien cherché, LeChiffre” before something, probably the door of the van, slammed.

In the darkness under the hood, Ned imagined Chuck and his smile, and it was like a wave of cinnamon spreading from the inside of his chest to the tips of his fingers. A little bit of the panic subsided as Ned sweared to find a way to reach her.


Chapter Text

The light hit Ned in a shock, after hours of being deprived. It was not as if he had dozed off, he was too scared to, yet the continued darkness had put him in a lethargic state. Breaking it was almost unnatural.

The pieces of reality that together gave form to the “now” came back to him suddenly and simultaneously. Nigel bound to the chair at his left struggling and yelling, the probably-but-not-surely French men surrounding them in the scarcely lit basement and finally his own position, standing in the middle of the room with his wrists bound with rope behind his back. His own fear was painting the world in vivid colours, the steely twinkle of the chair was more intense, every single spot of dirt on his shirt was in stark evidence.

For the first time in his life, he had no idea how many seconds had passed, since time was stretching like a rubber band, making those few seconds of freedom from the hood last for hours, months, years.

Ned realized after some time that a man was at his right holding the hood in his hands, and speaking to him in a calm and no-nonsense voice. He would have loved to play along and to free the world from his own nonsense… yet he was unable to do so, since he did not understand a single word. He focused instead on the grounding yellow of his captor’s teeth. The colour reminded him of Chuck’s honey, so sweet and delicate, as Chuck herself…

His train of thought was interrupted by a change of language. Evidently Yellow Teeth had realized the foolishness of his previous bellowing.

“Where is the money?” His captor was saying, now in English.

“I have a wallet in the back pocket of my trousers, then my credit car…”

“You know what I am talking about!”

Yellow Teeth was now snarling. At the blank expression on Ned’s face, he added, pronouncing the words separately as if talking to a baby. “The. Poker. Money. The one that your companion here, LeChiffre, snatched from under Bond’s nose!”

Ned was fortunately saved from answering by Nigel yelling.

“I told you I NEVER fucking heard of this Bont bastard in my fucking life!”

He did not even manage to finish his sentence before another man, with an incongruous Christmas red jumper with reindeers, bellowed at Nigel and waved his fists under his nose.

“Be quiet LeChiffre if you don't want to wake up in hell”.

The movement made the little bell attached to the nose of the central reindeer trill. In the basement it sounded as if all the bells from Notre Dame had gathered there, and it was actually difficult to think of something more hellishly annoying.

As if summoned by the bell legion from hell, another man entered the basement in a rush, screaming, “He is dead, he is dead!”

Reindeer and Yellow Teeth jumped in surprise, then Yellow Teeth, who seemed to be the boss, said, “What are you talking about?”

Screaming Man in the meantime had reached Nigel’s side, and waved one finger just under Nigel’s chin. “He is not LeChiffre! Even if”. Nigel tried to bite the finger, and Screaming Man yelped and jumped away, “eww. Even if he looks like that evil fucker.”

Yellow Teeth looked unimpressed. “Yes, sure. He is dead, he is dead. Everybody is saying that he is dead.” He raised his hands in the air. “Where is the proof?”

Screaming Man straightened up and looked quite happy. “We have proof, sir!”

As if on cue, a man completely dressed in black slowly entered from the only door of the basement and kept it open. Ned, who had tried to remain as unnoticeable as possible during the exchange, felt a little bit of hope at the familiar sight. Four men were carrying a black coffin, slowly making their way through the small door, while the Funeral Man benevolently watched over them.

The bearers took a look around, and seemed to think that it was a good idea to get their burden as close as possible to Yellow Teeth. There was a general shuffle of feet and some hasty sidesteps as the captors tried to get out of the way of the coffin, looking at it nervously. Yellow Teeth seemed now to regret his decision to ask for proof, even if he could not change his mind now; not without appearing as a spineless leader. He took instead an almost unconscious step backward.

Finally, the coffin was laid down just behind Nigel's chair - since he could not have possibly shuffled out of the way, even if he seemed keen to do it - and right beside Ned, who had kept still. It was his daily job to wake up corpses, a coffin was a familiar and comforting sight. As soon as the basket touched the ground, the cover was lifted to discover the black lining inside, where a man identical to Nigel laid. For Ned's standards, the body was in perfect condition, just a little bit of blood was visible under the left eye. It was clear to him that the coffin had been taken away when the corpse had already been prepared for a respectable funeral. Makeup could cover everything.

A chorus of soft gasps accompanied the uncovering of the body, together with Reindeer's breathless whisper, "He's really dead!" and Nigel’s horrified swearing, but Ned barely noticed those noises because of the crazy beating of his heart. It was his chance, probably his only one, because the attention of the room would soon return to Nigel and himself.

Acting immediately to avoid fear from blocking him, he took a quick step towards the coffin and, with his hands still tied behind his back, he headbutted the corpse.

Ned was expecting the brief flash of light and the sudden gasp of the body seeking air, but he was the only one. Panicked screams raised around him like the time that Chuck had accidentally set her bees free, but Ned had no time to pay any attention to them.

While his previous captors tried to run out of the door, he looked around for a sharp object, whatever that could be used to free his tied hands. He was lucky, because in that moment a knife fell out of Reindeer’s pocket, while he was skirting around Nigel’s chair and running towards the door accompanied by his personal orchestra of bells. With a velocity that he did not know he had, Ned dived to get the blade and cut the rope around his hands. He took a quick look around.

Half of the men, including Yellow Teeth, had successfully escaped the basement, but the others were paralyzed with fear at the furthest corner of the room. Funeral Man had taken a little camera out of his pocket and was taking pictures with glee. The situation seemed under control, but they would soon remember their guns and start to open fire. Fortunately, the ex-corpse was still sitting in the coffin, groaning and keeping his hands to his forehead due to the pain, and that could be easily misinterpreted as a threat. Only by very scared men, but it could.

Ned focused on Nigel. He was very pale, looking almost like a corpse, and he was staring at the body sitting in the coffin with wide eyes and ragged breath. Taking care not to touch bare skin, Ned put the knife in Nigel’s hands and said in a rush, “Free yourself, quick!”

He just received a blank stare in answer. The man was completely out of it, and he was starting to tremble. They did not have time for that, Chuck was waiting.

Ned’s hood was on the floor, abandoned. Taking it and wrapping it around of his hand, Ned slapped Nigel as strong as he could. He said “This is not the time. We have to get out of here, then you can panic as much as you want.”

It worked. Nigel’s eyes suddenly focused, and in a heartbeat he was free. Pointedly avoiding  the body in the coffin, he sprinted towards the exit, Ned right behind him. They both took a breath in relief when they heard the door slam shut, separating them from the corpse and their kidnappers. Ned thought in a mental wave of honey and cinnamon that Chuck would have been proud of him. His legs felt lighter.

He could do that. He could find his road back to Chuck.

In the room, LeChiffre raised himself completely out of his coffin and wobbled to his feet, each one of his movement surrounded by flashes of light from the Funeral Man.

One of the kidnappers reached for his gun, but fell to the ground dead as soon as his fingers reached it. Realizing how that random unexplained death would look like on camera, LeChiffre smirked. Just the leverage he needed to make some fine subordinates out of this scared bunch.

Chapter Text

25 minutes and 23 seconds later, Ned was wondering how on earth they managed to escape. The spreading panic had probably helped quite a lot. In the warehouse over the basement there were people running everywhere, bumping into each other in an attempt to reach the exit. A man with a green scarf bumped into Ned in the middle of a hallway, muttering angrily about being too late. The guards outside were so puzzled that they did not even try to use their guns, not even when Nigel headed towards the first car available and stole it in plain sight. Ned had started to panic halfway through the warehouse, and had just let Nigel take the lead.

Now his mind was in a flurry of guilt and doubts. In the heat of the moment, he did not even think of touching the man again. He was responsible for another dead man. But it had been the only way to get out of that situation. Or so Ned had thought in that moment. But what if there was another way, and he did not think about it? What would Chuck think of him?

Twisting his hands, he realized that he was still clutching the hood that the kidnappers had used. He looked at Nigel. Two people he revived in probably just a little bit more than three days, two people whose lives he had failed to take back. And now he was in a stolen car with Nigel, who was probably a violent  criminal.

As if sensing that Ned was thinking about him, Nigel looked briefly in his direction, before focusing on the road again. He had been silent, and after his very loud swearing in the kidnapper's’ hands, Ned had no idea what to think of that. Should he expect some kind of retaliation for the slap? He squeezed the hood. If Nigel decided that they were enemies, he could be dead before even managing to touch him.

Ned’s increasingly bleak thoughts were interrupted when Nigel said, in a very scruffy tone of voice and staring straight ahead, “You didn’t leave me there.”

For 22 seconds, Ned had no idea what to answer. Then he tried with, “...should I have done that?”

Nigel seemed equally puzzled. “Well, you lost precious time there to snap me out of my reverie and to free me. It would have been safer for you to just run the hell away from there.”

“Oh.” Ned did not really know what to add.

They stayed silent for another 46 seconds. Then Nigel said, “I am not used to people not leaving me behind.” After another 52 seconds, he forced out the words “Thank you.”

Ned answered with an automatic, “You are welcome.”

He hoped that the emotional moment was over. Having other people’s feelings - except Chuck’s - forced onto him was like taking the first bite from a pie and discovering that the stuffing was all wobbly, exposed, and ready to bleed out at the first rough movement. Those pies made him feel like he had too much responsibility in his hands and usually left him with an unpleasant taste in his mouth that Ned associated with metaphysical reasoning.

He was quite happy when 2 minutes and 18 seconds later Nigel asked, swallowing. “Do you know what… Have you done… What’s… What did you do to that corpse?”

This was familiar territory.

15 minutes and 3 seconds after, Nigel said, “Are you telling me that I’ll keep living if I don’t touch you for the rest of my life?”

Ned nodded. Nigel beamed. “Oh but that’s fucking awesome! That’s the fucking simplest rule that I ever heard of!”

Ned blinked. Then he heard himself saying, “Try to think for a moment if you could never ever touch again your dog or the love of your life. Would it be easy? Or would it be like being forced to eat a pie with commercial white sugar instead of Chuck’s refined golden honey?”

Nigel thought that he should not have said that.

2 hour, 33 minutes and 6 seconds after, Ned concluded, “And now as you can see the universe is conspiring not to make us meet! Would you call that simple?”

Nigel had tried to interrupt Ned for the first 20 minutes, but had given up at the magnitude of the man’s rant. As Ned kept talking, and talking, and talking again, the story had gotten under his skin. Chuck was the other half of Ned’s soul. After the bad conclusion of his own love story, Nigel needed to believe in happy endings. And he owed the man his life.

So when Ned was done, he simply asked, “Where is the next performance?”

His companion considered it for a moment. “Assuming that more or less 24 hours has passed since our capture, they should be in Greece in 2 days.”

Nigel nodded. They were in Austria now, it should not be too difficult to take Ned to the right place in time. He said, “I saw a map and a tablet in the back seat, take one of those and check the closest route from our position.”

Ned gaped, reaching for the map. “Are you taking me there? But why?”

Nigel side-eyed him. “Do you really want to hear more about my feelings?” At Ned’s horrified face, he concluded “Yes, I thought so.”

Their captors had not taken their wallets and there was an additional tank of gasoline in the trunk, so they just stopped for lunch to buy sandwiches in a small supermarket in Slovenia. Ned was starting to suspect that they had been kidnapped by unqualified criminals.

In the evening they parked in front of a small motel in Kosovo, and went to sleep without any problems. Ned started to hope.

"We have a problem," Nigel said at breakfast, dropping the tablet over Ned's toast. It was open in a tabloid newspaper, called TattleCrime. The headline recited "Missing journalist in Switzerland".

Ned recognized with a shiver the young man in the picture. He had bumped into him during the crazy run to reach the exit of the warehouse. He started to read the rest of the article.

I am very sad to announce that my dear friend Adam Towers, notorious in London for his not always legal and often dangerous methods of looking for a scoop, this time tried to chew on a  bone too big for him. The journalist, who went to Switzerland assuring me that "that bunch of men playing with their guns could not distinguish a journalist in disguise if their life depended on it " is now missing. The official search will not start before a couple of days has passed, but in the meantime whoever has information can email me. I will do whatever I can to save my dear friend and to get a scoop out of it.

Followed a detailed description of the man and of his car. That was identical in every detail to the one that they have stolen. Ned took a look out the window, to where the car was parked. Yes, identical to the last digit of the plate number.

5 hours, 56 minutes and 5 seconds after, Ned was wondering if keeping the car would have been worth the risk. He was used to baking and eating pies, not walking for hours and was suffering more than Nigel, who seemed in a very good mood.

His companion had cheerfully explained that he had always loved to trek in the mountains and had started calculating the shortest route to get them to their destination, which apparently included climbing mountains in forgotten-by-God small paths.

Ned was thinking about what Chuck would have said in this situation, and considered that she would have been very happy to go on an adventure. He stubbornly avoided the thought of the journalist that they had left without a car. It was not practical to feel guilty now. He focused instead on imagining Chuck's smile, which made Ned forget the tiredness and straighten his back.

After 27 seconds of contemplating the love of his life, Chuck grimaced. One second after that, Ned disappeared into a hole in the ground.

Chapter Text

“...Bloody titans, Ned, answer me! You can’t…”

The distant sound of a human voice filtered through Ned’s senses, slowly leading him towards consciousness. Confused, he opened his eyes to almost complete darkness, just to close them again as sharp pain went through one of his ankles.

“...falling into the fucking ground like a goddammit rabbit and…”

He could recognize Nigel’s voice coming from above, together with a single ray of light which just made the shadows bigger. It came from a narrow passage on the ceiling. Roots and pieces of rock obstructed completely the sky, which seemed to Ned miles and miles away.

He tried to speak, “Nig…”, but a handful of dirt fell on him, making him cough, every twitch a fit of pain through his ankle. When he finally stopped, gulping for air, the silence was complete. He called Nigel again, and again, with increasingly urgency. He strained his ears, but there was not any answer.

Ned felt the panic run through his veins, his blood cold like melted ice. He tried to breath, to focus, even as his stomach clenched. He needed to find his way out of the cave by himself.

He forcibly pushed away the fear of dehydration and the claustrophobia, and, trembling, he sat.

His ankle hurted. His head did not hurt. His back did, but the fall would have been much worse without his backpack. The packback! Ned remembered Nigel had insisted to take a torch with them. He extracted it with shaking fingers and switched it on.

He was in a circular room which was way wider than he had thought possible. It resembled an underground temple. Ned suspected he had fallen on the main altar, but the stone under him was covered in moss. A memory came to his mind. Chuck had managed to drag him to an Ancient Greek Museum once. She had posed on every rectangular tomb in exposition, while Ned took great care in not touching anything. She would have been so happy to stumble into a temple.  

The thought gave him the courage he needed to examine his ankle. It was starting to swell,and he hurted. He tried to set foot on the ground. The pain was manageable. He sighed in relief. He could at least limp.

He slid off of his rock, wincing, and carefully headed towards a passage in the wall at his left. As he walked away from the hole in the ceiling, the cave became darker and darker. Still, up-close the passage looked broad and structured. Some of the fear subsided as Ned realized that the cave was artificial. There was a high chance of actually finding the exit, even without Nigel’s help.

After 10 minutes and 2 seconds of stumbling along the path, Ned entered in another room. Broken statues were lying everywhere, like abandoned soldiers of a lost army. The light of the torch flickered on faces, paws and furs, giving an illusion of movement to broken old limbs.

Ned shivered, and tried to walk across as fast as his ankle would allow. He was used to go to a comfortable illuminated morgue, not to march through the forgotten ghosts of the past in a dark cave. But even in his haste, he could not help but stop beside the only intact statue.

It was gorgeous, every little detail perfectly carved into the white marble. It reminded Ned of the time he had sneezed in the kitchen of the Pie Hole and had covered Olive in flour.

He rose the torch to light the face, and his breath hitched.

Nigel returned his gaze, the emptiness behind his eyes scarier than every corpse Ned had stumbled upon. He was smiling, but the shadows lingering at the corner of his mouth gave a devilish quality to his face. He seemed to mock Ned. We are already underground, the manic smile suggested, you will soon join us in our afterlife.

Ned swallowed, and forced himself to point the torch in front of him. He tried to smother the sense of doom which took hold of him.

Maybe it was his shaking leg, or maybe it was inevitable in the shadows. A stone found its way between his feet. Ned stumbled, and his back crashed against the statue.

A yellow flash lightened the cave. A raspy intake of breath resonated loud in Ned’s ears. The statue moved behind his back, and Ned felt all the fear he had swallowed coming back to him, like acrid lemon juice flowing down to his stomach.

He blindly extended his fingers behind himself, gripping and searching for bare skin, until he found a wrist. He exhaled in relief.

But no other flash of light happened, and the silent cave resonated with the sound of two people breathing. Ned’s blood became cold and thick, his crazy heartbeat pounded in his ears. He staggered away, away from that demon, but his ankle gave way, and he stumbled and fell. The torch hit the floor and rolled in a kaleidoscope of light and shadows.

Ned plied, “No, no, please… No,” as he heard the body stepping towards him. The world blurred, lights swam in front of his eyes. A strong hand grabbed his shoulder, and he shook and braced himself for a fatal blow.

But nothing came. Words were spoken over the roar of the blood in his ears, until Ned’s breath slowed down enough to understand them. “Hush, I’m not hurting you, shhh… Breath, yes, like that, good.” The… man? Was murmuring, voice low, cadence rhythmical. Sweet nonsense normally used to calm a frightened pet, or lull a child.

It worked. Limb by limb, Ned regained control over his body. His breathing slowed, the shaking subsided. He rolled on his back, wincing at the pain when he accidentally rubbed his ankle on the ground.

The torch had stopped its race one step away from Ned and was pointed to the stranger. He was crouched next to Ned, close but not touching. His angular face was serene. Ned lied there, exhausted after the fright, while the cold of the floor replaced the fear. The stranger had yet to kill him.

After some deep breaths, he felt steady enough to ask, “Who are you?”

The man opened his mouth to answer, then frowned. He looked around, while his face closed off. His gaze followed the ray of light from the broken pieces of marble to the torch, where it stopped for few seconds. When he met Ned’s eyes, his face was fixed and cold.

The absence of movement unnerved Ned, who was quick to add, “You don’t really need to answer that. I thought that a formal introduction would help us to get to know each other, Chuck always says I should try to be more sociable with people, but introductions unnerves me like tomatoes on cakes and maybe today…”

He trailed off when the stranger chuckled. “I’m Draco.” A sad smile broke in his face. “And you remind me of one of my companions. He babbled a lot, too.”

Ned hesitated, noticing for the first time the man’s clothing. There was way too much leather and a ridiculous number of metal insertions, not to speak of the hair, pulled back in shoulder-long braids. The man was a hipster, or he came from a period without polyester. Judging form the marble lying all around, the latter was more probable.

“I’m sorry… I mean, I’m happy you had such a fond memory of him, but I’m sorry I raised you from the dead. Even if maybe if you were still dead you won’t be alive, so perhaps this is preferable? I’m not sure you were dead, though. Were you?” He groaned. “Please stop me before I ask you other insensitive questions.” Ned paused his speech, noticing the glint in Draco’s eyes. “Oh, by the way I’m Ned, the Pie Maker.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ned the Pie Maker.” Draco stopped, considering. “I’m not sure I was dead. Medusa petrified me.”

Ned blinked. He had studied Medusa. It was a myth. Well, also raising the dead was a legend, even if slightly more diffuse around the world than the snake woman. He studied Draco’s face. Still serene, but it was impossible to say if he was lying.

“Well… I’m able to resurrect the dead, but if I touch them again they die.” They both glanced at Draco’s arm, which had casually come to rest over his elbow. Okay, so not dead. Medusa was… had been real. At a certain point of time.

Then Ned’s gaze fell on the statues in pieces scattered around, and he hugged himself. All those people…

Before he could focus on the thought, Draco touched his shoulder again, and asked, “Where are we?”

“Underground.” Ned was unable to add anything else.

“I see. It was in hell when I was petrified.”
How could he say that in a plain, matter-of-fact tone was beyond Ned’s comprehension. He would scream, then hiss, then try to calm down thinking of Chuck, then…

Maybe he had said it aloud, because Draco interrupted him. “Who’s Chuck?”

Ned opened his mouth, then closed it. Was he really going to speak about Chuck in a scary cave, surrounded by limbs potentially ready to spring to life under his fingers? Yes, probably. But it would be better if he tried to find a way out first. He sat down.

“She’s the love of my life.” He tried to put some weight on his injured ankle, but hissed in pain. He would never walk to the exit like that. He started to hyperventilate again, and closed his eyes, trying not to weep in frustration.

Ned flinched when he felt Draco’s hand around his ankle, but the touch was light enough not to be painful. “Is she here?”

“No.” It was difficult to think over the litany of ‘hesnotgoingtodieagainifhetouchesme’ which invaded his mind. He stared as Draco gently squeezed his foot, prodding on bones and tendons. “I was going to surprise her. She doesn’t know I’m here.”

He fixed his gaze on Draco’s braids. They were kept in place by a leather strap. Retrospectively, trying to surprise Chuck had been the worst decision of his life. That was why he did not like surprises! You leave the Pie Hole thinking vaguely surprising thoughts and in a couple of days you are at the bottom of a cave, formerly defined as hell, and Nigel had left you, even if…

“Who’s Nigel?”

Ned blinked. Okay, it was really time to get a grip. “I don’t really know. He was leading me across the mountains, but he left when I fell down.” Ned stuck a hand over his mouth. No more unsolicited words.

“You’re lucky, your ankle isn’t broken,” said Draco. Ned flinched when a hysterical laughter filled the cave. It took a moment to realize it was his own. Draco waited for him to calm down, then continued, “If you lean on me we can go and find Nigel.”

His seraphic calm annoyed Ned. “I told you he left.”

“You don’t seem like the type of person to attract two-faced strangers. Quite the opposite, with your tendency to run your mouth without thinking. If he was guiding you, he’ll still be there.”

Matter-of-fact, no-nonsense tone. Ned was tempted to believe him. Still…

“Why should he? It’s much less trouble to just go away. He had no obligations towards me. He surely just wanted to go home.”

Draco stared at him, unimpressed. “Did he say so?”

“No, but…”

“Then he’s there.” Draco put one hand under Ned’s arm and one on his back. “Get up.”

Ned, still unconvinced, collected his torch and wobbled along with him.

As soon as they entered the next passage, they saw light in front of them. Ned would have weeped in relief, or laughed at the irony of almost giving up so close to the exit, if he were not concentrated on walking. His ankle screamed every time he put some weight on it, so Draco carried most of his weight. He seemed unperturbed by it, though. He did not even pant.

Still, it was impossible not to feel better when the walls became whiter and whiter and a decorative pattern appeared. Ned paused to put the useless torch back in the backpack, leaning on Draco’s shoulder for support. They kept walking, and finally, around a corner, the exit appeared.

Heart pounding, Ned gazed at the small opening on the wall in front of them. It was wide enough a man could pass across and grass was growing just beyond it. A gust of wind welcomed them, carrying dandelion seeds and fresh air.

The opening was also three meters above the ground without any footholds

Ned leaned on the wall with a sigh. His ankle throbbed, but he could smell the grass outside. They could do it, somehow. Ned would not get stuck in front of the exit.

Draco was touching the wall and frowning. Ned's cautious optimism drained at Draco’s expression.

Draco asked, “Do we have any rope?”

“No.” Nigel had it.

Draco sighed. “Open your bag.”
Neither Ned’s jacket, nor the map were of any use, even if Draco seemed interested in the paper. It took Ned a moment to realize that he had probably never seen anything in print. An unknown number of seconds passed and Ned understood that Draco was not going to comment on how they were stuck there. Not to alarm Ned, probably.

Draco looked calm. Battle trained nerves?

Ned touched the white stones of the wall, feeling how the edges fit perfectly together. Typical of him to find such a well kept ancient cave.

“What the fuck!”

Ned jumped at the sudden noise, looking at Draco and realizing two things in quick succession. Draco had not spoken. Draco’s voice was identical to Nigel.

Draco took a look at Ned's face, walked closer to the window and started to shout.

Nigel's voice came closer. “Ned? Ned! Are you over this godforsaken hill? Because I’ve climbed all the way to the top and…” He came into view and stopped close enough for Ned to see his violet backpack.

Yet he did not seem to hear Draco or Ned.

Ned cursed. Why did he have to find all the bursts of spontaneous magic? Yes, he had been cursed - Chuck said gifted - as a child, but a noiseless window from ancient Greece was a little bit too much.

As Nigel was walking away, Ned rummaged into his backpack for the map and folded it quickly. He had spent days and days and days building paper worlds during his college here, using all the colors and shapes his life was devoid of.  He held his breath and threw the plane.

“Ouch,” Nigel said, and then in a rather anticlimactic fashion he peeked through the hole in the wall. “Ned! There you are! Are you ok?” He paused. “...another one? Seriously ?”

Draco looked at Nigel in silence, but his expression was the exact mirror of Nigel’s. Well, maybe not. Nigel was rather pale, and stared at Ned as if he could prevent him from disappearing through sheer will.

Ned had been very unfair to him.

“Hang on, I have rope.” Nigel stood and yelled. “They’re there!” There was an answering cry, not loud enough to recognize the words. “You do know how to climb, right?”
Ned felt a bubble of panic surfacing again. “Yes, but I’m injured, I mean, I don’t have enough force in my arms to reach the window, and…”
Draco stepped forward. “Leave it to me.”

Nigel eyed him suspiciously but threw them an end of the rope, handing the other end to someone hidden behind him. Draco secured the rope around Ned’s waist and shoulder with a set of knots which looked rather complicated. Draco pulled him towards the window while Nigel dragged him out. Once out, Nigel grabbed his face between his gloved hands.

“You’re fucking alright.” Unused to the breach of his personal space, Ned put the wrong feet down, staggered and fell. Nigel softened the impact. “Well, more or less.”

Ned managed to shut his mouth before he could utter more nonsense, and instead looked at the sun. Still afternoon. Why, exactly, had he hated trekking outdoor?

He did not flinch when Nigel’s gloved hands loosened the knots. He let his head fall on the soft glass and stared at the blue sky. Would Chuck be proud of him for not giving up? Maybe. But he knew another thing he had done that she would be displeased about.

In spite of his previous words about trusting his companions, Draco’s heart accelerated when Ned left him alone in the cave, nobody in sight who could help him get out.

As a warrior, he was used to keep calm in the heat of the battle and in the one millions emergencies which could happen during a mission. Sand scorpions? Defeated. Defying the gods? On a daily basis. Medusa? More or less defeated.

But now he was alone in a world he knew nothing about and from his point of view he had waved farewell to Perseo just a hour ago.

Judging from his interactions with Ned, nothing substantial had changed. Men still fell in love, got scared, made friends. Ned's clothes were comfortable and thin, meaning that the world was peaceful, something Draco would not have believed possible. Or maybe, considering how tiny was Ned's magic torch, weapons had simply become smaller and deadly enough to make an armour useless. Either way, he had no clue.

He was left alone other 43 seconds with his gloomy thoughts before someone else came into view and threw the rope down.

“Sorry for the wait, untangling your friend wasn't easy.”

The stranger had a dangerous glint in his eyes that made Draco's spine tingle. There was something primal there, a beast ancient as the Earth ready to be unleashed. Draco recognised him for what he was, a fragment of that same ancient words of magic, heroes and monsters in which he belonged.

The man nodded in his direction, acknowledging Draco as the warrior that he was, then his demeanor relaxed. He smiled, and Draco was struck by how gentle his face could be. “You need to pick up the rope to come here, you know.”

It brought Draco out of his embarrassing contemplation. He climbed quickly out of the cave. He scanned his surroundings out of habit, noticing how mountains and fields had not changed. Ned was laying down on the grass, fussed over by his twin. Even if it was weird to trust someone with his own face, it was clear that he had not misjudged the pair.

The stranger coiled the rope, then offered his hand. “Aiden.”

Draco shook it. “Draco. Thank you for helping us.”

The man had not shown any sign of surprise at Draco's clothes, unlike Ned. “You lot are lucky I was passing by. Your brother over there really needed a hand.”

At that Nigel turned to them. “It’s not my brother.” He paused. “You aren’t another fucking mafia boss, right?” He smiled, but there was a hint of wariness in the crease around his eyes, visible only because Draco had practiced how to hide it in the mirror.

Behind his back, Ned raised his head from the ground enough to mutter, “Two in two days? Come on…”

Aiden laughed, “It seems that you have an interesting story. If you need a lift you can tell me everything in the car.”

Draco was doing his best to stay impassible under Nigel’s eyes, which was more and more difficult. Every new word and information raised more questions about this future. He decided to take a guess on the mafia boss meaning, and said, “I’m usually the one catching criminals,” which did nothing to smooth the frown in Nigel’s face.

Ned seemed to take its assertion at face value. “Oh, me too, usually,” he said, resting his head on the grass again with a sigh. Nigel’s attention snapped at Ned and he did a double take which was so obvious Draco could not contain a smile. At his right, Aiden burst out laughing.

“You really have to come with me,” Aiden said between gulps of air, “I’d kidnap you all to hear your story.”

Ned rolled on his belly, sniffing. From that position, he said, “Oh, great. If you’re a kidnapper then you have experience and can help us with the actual kidnapped person which we need to rescue.”

After a moment of silence, Nigel yelled, “WHAT?”

Aiden, which had managed to catch his breath, doubled over again, leaning against Draco for balance. Even if he still had no idea what a mafia boss or a car were, Draco found he was starting to look forward to the journey. A warm hand clutched at his shoulder and a kind-hearted person was yelling at a man laying down on the grass. The world had not changed much.

Chapter Text

And there they were, the heartbreak squad going to save what would probably be another hopeless case.

Nigel looked out of the window, asking himself when his life had become like that. Not even his drug dealing activities had prepared him for sharing a car with a driver coming from nowhere, a sorcerer and an ancient greek warrior. Not to mention he himself was technically a zombie.

“You're using metal to contain the power of ancient trees and fire. Clever,” Draco said from the backseat, where he was carefully holding Ned’s leg. To Nigel's surprise, Aiden had miraculously produced an ice cream pack from a small car freezer, which Ned was pressing over his ankle. They may even say they were equipped enough, even if just enough.

“When you say it like that, it seems like we should have invented cars eons ago,” Aiden answered, laughing. He changed gear, and the car sped up on the empty coast road.  

Nigel had given up on trying to place his companions. He was pretty sure they were not a danger to Ned, for two reasons. First, even Ned’s bad luck could not stretch as far as two kidnappers in two days. Second, Aiden had not tried to kill Ned after two hours of unending ramblings over Chuck, which required an uncommon dose of gentleness. The other Nigel - Draco , Nigel tried to mentally amend - had even genuinely grimaced in sympathy.

Which led to Nigel's initial thought. Heartbreak squad. Nobody who was not recovering from a recent heartbreak could stomach Ned's level of pining for so long.

Maybe, now that Nigel was thinking about it, Ned was actually pretty lucky. He glanced at where he was laying down on the backseat. He was in one of his moments of deep contemplation, mumbling half-connected sentences with a litany of “Chuck” sewn in between.

Nigel knew what they were doing was a bad idea. Monumentally bad. And he usually was the impulsive one. But when Ned had said, “I won’t be able to look Chuck in her eyes if I abandon that journalist after putting him in danger,” Nigel had not found in himself to argue. After all he had killed for Gabi, and he would do it again, gladly, to extend the - too short - time when they were in love.

His train of thought was interrupted by Draco. “How long will it take to reach the kidnappers’ lair?”

Aiden answered. “It’ll take more or less 11 hours to pass the border with Austria. Then we need to reach the place. Could you point it out on a map, Nigel?”

“If you give me your phone, I can set up the GPS,” Nigel answered, his mind somewhere else. He was wondering if Ned would be of any use by the time they would get there. Draco had said the swelling of his ankle should decrease within a day.

He realized the silence in the car was stretching. Ned, who had snapped out of his revery, said, “You can use a smartphone?”

“Yes, of course.” Everybody could. Well, probably not the other Nig… Draco . Wait. “ fucking can, can’t you?”


After 3 seconds, Ned and Aiden started talking at the same time.

“I don’t like to touch things, why should I want to…”
“I lived for the last years with werev… weird friends, they don’t really…”
“...I always fear to revive the background photo, or how do…”
“...and we were camping! Not so much electricity and…”

Nigel, who could recognize a very useful tool when he saw one, sighed and searched for the map in his backpack.

In the end their trip lasted more than they had expected.

They spent the night napping in a parking lot, since Draco had successfully argued that four exhausted zombie people could not hope to face a bunch of kidnappers and come out on top. Of course, he had phrased it more along the lines of "a warrior bids his time", but that did not change that sleeping had been the sensible option.

That fact had confirmed to Nigel that Draco was the more practical minded of his companions, so, in the early morning, Nigel ignored the other two people in the car and addressed Draco directly. "Do you have any suggestions for a rescue plan?"

Draco narrowed his eyes, "What do we know?"

"Well, they mistook me for someone else. Someone they had a grudge against, because they didn't treat me well. The place where they took us was a former warehouse." At the blank look on Draco's face he explained. "A big empty house with a main big room, which is close to a bunch of smaller rooms connected through a small hall. They walled up every window." Draco nodded. Nigel looked at Ned, who was yawning on the backseat. "Did I forget anything?"

Ned seemed not to be a morning person. "I'm not sure if you want more information from me, which is completely unreasonable since I was in shock, or if you want me to remark on the complete absence of cussing, which seems way too reasonable..."

Nigel sighed. At least Draco seemed unperturbed by their scarce knowledge of the enemy. “Do they have guards? Secondary doors?”

Nigel closed his eyes, trying to remember. “I think there was only one door.”

Aiden joined the conversation, “Usually there is a huge ventilation system. And a window on the ceiling.”

Draco paused, “I think that solution is not viable with Ned in those conditions. And if there's only one door and we can’t sneak around, we will be forced to walk through the front door.” Draco scratched his beard and nodded at Nigel. “And probably they’re still searching for you.” Nigel grimaced. “We don't have an army, so we need to keep a low profile. Any ideas?”

“Posing as plumbers?“

Ned's voice sounded unexpectedly confident. Draco looked at Ned, then turned at Nigel for an answer.

Nigel hummed, considering. Hiding behind an uniform was a good idea. “ may just work. Best we have.”

It seemed to be enough for Draco, who nodded.

The car stopped at a desert crossroad; Aiden took his eyes off the road and looked at Ned. “It may be dangerous.”

The assessing gleam in Aiden’s eyes made Nigel uncomfortable. It was more excited than scared. It dawned on him that someone who traveled alone and still let three strangers into his car had to be very confident in his survival skills.

Ned remained strangely calm under their conjoined questioning gazes. “I’ll do it. I want to make up for my mistakes.” He lowered his eyes. “You don’t need to come with me.”

The probable span of Ned’s life in case he went alone flush before Nigel’s eyes. Very very quickly. “I’m fucking coming with you.” He still had a debt to repay.

Draco said, “We need a diversion. Something that will create enough trouble to let us escape.”

Aiden said, “We could call the police.”

Nigel froze, then relaxed when Aiden winked at him. He was joking… Wasn’t he? Before Nigel could start to worry again, Draco asked, “What’s the police?”

Ned mumbled, “A bunch of noisy people, who will come into your shop and stand in a corner and refuse to go away.”

Aiden said, “A surprisingly accurate description, but yep, that's the police. I’d call them the modern equivalent of a patrol.”

Draco nodded. “Their untimely appearance could induce panic between our enemies, and in the resulting chaos our companions could be in danger. I’d suggest to summon them only when the mission is complete and we need to retreat.”
Nigel remembered the last time he had been caught in that situation. The escape from his refuge had been unorganized and rushed. With a certain surprise, he said. “It may really work.”

Draco said, “We’ll need to be ready to run, so you need to stay in the car, Aiden.” Aiden hummed in agreement, not complaining about receiving an order. “I’ll protect you, and keep an eye on the warehouse, in case Ned and Nigel need support from the outside.” He looked at Nigel. “That would leave you to protect Ned. Can you do it?”

“Of course I fucking can.”

Ned tried to say something which started suspiciously as ‘you can’t’, but the words broke into a whimper when he accidentally elbowed his ankle. Nigel glared at him, daring him to complain.  

Ned opened his mouth, took in Nigel’s expression, and shut up.

Aiden said, “Well, that sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?”

To Nigel’s bemusement, Draco answered, “Yes, it does.”

Aiden restarted the car. Looking distractedly out of the window and hearing Ned’s baroque mutterings, Nigel wondered again why he was willingly following those people.

They drove past the warehouse, which was guarded by two armed men, and Aiden parked just around the corner.

Ned stood up, testing his foot. The pain was manageable if he did not move briskly. Behind him, Nigel was putting on a cheap uniform that they had found at a supermarket, complete of clipboard and nametag. And gloves, of course.

As Aiden smeared foundation and other weird substances on Nigel's face, it downed on Ned that yes, they were really about to do it. He opened his mouth for one last attempt to dissuade his companions, but Aiden cut him off with a hand on his chest, right over Ned’s heart.

Ned glanced at the piece of paper Nigel was holding. It was a rough map of the warehouse, sketched by Nigel. Draco had drawn small arrows where it was probable trey would find guards.

They were as much prepared as they could be.

Nigel gave  a short squeeze on Ned’s shoulder. He extracted a black wig, which had somehow find the way to Aiden’t possession, from the trunk, and put on a scarf to hide his tattoo.

All in all, he looked ridiculous, but it was difficult to make out the precise features of his face under the messy hair and makeup.

Shortly after they were walking to the presidied door, anticipation twisting Ned’s stomach as sour flour. Nigel told the guards in broken English that they had been called for a repair, and somehow he was pushy and loud enough to be let in, and unimportant enough to be accompanied only by one guard.

Aiden and Draco looked at their companions while they disappeared inside the building, hiding behind a line of trees at a safe distance.

Aiden said, "Wouldn't it be better if you had gone with them? You seem like a man who could easily defeat an army." Aiden's smile widened. "Quite literally."

“Thank you.” Draco inclined his head, pleased. “But I believe in letting a man pursue his objectives. Nigel seemed quite determined not to leave Ned out of his sight."

"Well, even after spending less than a day with him we can see that Ned has an habit of getting into dangerous situations." Aiden frowned. "But probably I'm not the right man to judge."

Draco settled. "Nor am I."

As soon as they turned the corner, Nigel took hold of the guard’s hair and slammed him against the wall. Ned pointedly ignored the easy grace in the movement and the implication that Nigel had done that before. He followed Nigel to the center of the warehouse, where Draco had said they probably kept the hostage. The further from the doors, he had explained, the less probability of an escape.

The hall in front of them was weirdly empty, but Ned refused to question their luck. He advanced, walking carefully not to stomp his injured foot on the floor.

From their spot, Aiden and Nigel had a clear view of a window bursting open and a red haired woman climbing down, followed by a bunch of armed guards.

Aiden muttered, “They should use the door, not the window, if they don't want to get stuck like that.”

Draco touched Aiden's arm to get his attention. “Is that the correct functioning of modern weapons?”

Aiden answered without looking away from the scene. “They’re called guns.” He snorted. “No, usually they do something more than be waved in the air with no visible effect.”

They stood in silence, watching. Draco said, “She must have damaged them. She isn't armed, she wasn’t expecting a direct confrontation.”

Aiden nodded, then scratched his chin. “How much time do you think we have before they draw her from behind that van?”

“They have knives, so 30 seconds.” A pause, punctuated by an explosion. Draco grinned. “Two minutes, if she keeps that up.”

The smile stayed in place when Draco turned to look at Aiden, who felt his lips tending into something more genuine than the smirk he had affected so far. Eyes sparkling, Draco asked, "How many hits can your car take?"

"Many.” Aiden fetched the keys from his pockets. “I needed to take down a couple of fences in the past."

Draco nodded. "It's always good to be prepared." He climbed to the hood.

Aiden got into the car and gripped the wheel. "You know what? I really like you."

After 23 seconds, when Ned had almost made it to the door and was starting to relax, a siren went off. The door slammed open and five guards ran out towards the entrance, barely glancing at Nigel and Ned. Apparently even in Europe plumbers were invisible.

Ned torned to Nigel, wanting to remark on their luck, but as he saw Nigel's closed off expression he realized that they were as trapped as strawberries on their way to a bakery. A siren meant that Aiden had already started a diversive or had been found out. They had no plan to get out anymore.

Of course, as some strawberries were not chopped or minced or blended, there was a possibility that the siren was completely unrelated to their situation and that Aiden was still waiting for them, but what were the odds? There was only one lucky berry for a ton of jam.

A voice brought Ned back to reality.

"Well, now why can't I get out? Your boy band is working with half his members and can’t win the next macho contest. Do you fear I'll make you all look like a bunch of school kids playing catch-up?"

It sounded astonishingly like Aiden. It had to be their hostage.

Nigel recognized the voice too and barged into the room, knocking the remaining guard out. Ned followed limping. Adam looked unschated and supremely unconcerned. He fixed a level gaze on them, “Great. A rescue party. Am I allowed to leave now?”

Ned blinked. “While I’m aware that sudden freedom takes even the more resilient mind by surprise, like a sparrow opening his wings for the first time, you’re, indeed, free.”

There was a moment of silence, and Ned considered that Chuck would have said it better. Probably if she had been the one to say it, Nigel would not have been that tense, and Adam would have not been so disappointed. After all, Chuck’s voice could ring with the clarity of the purest meringue, and…

Adam stepped forward with a calculating smile. “Great. Can I be briefed on my escape plan?”

Nigel narrowed his eyes. "No, because we don't have one anymore. Suggestions?"

Adam shrugged. "I overhead the guards talking about a secondary exit. Those criminals have too many pretty red codes and not enough domesticated dogs, so I don't think they're guarding it right now."

Nigel, still glaring, handled Adam the map. "Where is it?"

Ned zoned out as Adam pointed to a spot on the paper, considering how different from Chuck the journalist was. Deliberately disrespectful, where Chuck preferred to keep the peace, and not very straightforward in his answers. Yet, like Chuck, he did not seem so stressed about being a hostage.

He was brought back to the present moment by a hand on his shoulder and the resulting wobbly half step. Ned anticipated the pain, but Nigel stabilized him before he stomped his foot.

Without an explanation, he dragged Ned to the corner of the room and whispered. "I don't trust him. Can't we leave him here?"

"What? We specifically came back to get him."

Nigel clutched at Ned’s shoulders, hesitated, sighed, then released his grip. "We have a fucking problem. He wants us to go to the back room and I can't understand why."
Ned blinked. Oh.

Adam coughed just behind their back, making them jump.  "My apologies. You're right, I wasn't sincere.” He looked down, his tone less flippant than before. “The point is... You know... my pictures are in that room. But there's also a back door, I promise."

He looked at Ned.

Ned looked at Nigel.

Adam added, in the most reasonable tone. "No worries. I can pick them up myself, now that you two kindly overcame the guards. There's no need to follow me."

Nigel briefly closed his eyes. "Okay. After all we went to this fucking place to save you, we’re rolling, let’s keep going to the bitter end, so then..." He paused, then abruptly started to walk. "Let's move on, before our luck runs out."

Ned followed him, with the sinking sensation in his stomach that he had lost a vital piece of information or two.

But there wasn't any time to dwell on it, because he had to limp at the maximum velocity allowed by his leg through the empty corridor. He wondered again why nobody was around.

Draco had punched and kicked from the hood of the car, taking down a number of kidnappers and giving the woman - Freddie - enough time to get inside the car. However, more men were coming, and they had no way of knowing if Ned and Nigel needed them.

There was a large locked door beside them, probably the service entrance.

Aiden yelled at Draco, "Come inside!"

Ned and Nigel hurried after Adam in the hallway. They slowed down as they approached the door, listening for any sounds from inside. Ignoring that, Adam strolled right through the door as if he owned the place, saying, "Guess what? I'm saved."

Inside, four armed men were looking down to something on a central table, while a fifth man was barking orders. Ned recognized him as the corpse he had revived. Was the name LeChiffre?

While Adam walked closer, probably-LeChiffre glared at him, “No, you aren’t.” He gestured to the other men, “Get them.”

Compared to the ones they had dealt with so far, those men were competent. In a moment two of them immobilized Ned and Nigel with their hands behind their backs, while the other two walked to Adam but recoiled when he hissed. They settled to move between Adam and the door with an apologetic expression.

Adam was not intimidated.  "You fucker. Don't you dare restrain me again, or next time I won't come back to you with my saviours."

LeChiffre’s eyes flashed with anger. "Next time they won't get to you."

Adam marched to the man, stopping one feet away. He radiated rage. "There won't be any other meddlers if you simply. Let. Me. Walk. Around."

Ned found that interaction weirdly familiar. Chuck had told him something similar, eons ago, when he had tried to confine her to the Pie Hole. The memory of her anger overlapped with Adam’s current situation, making it impossible to be angry at him. However, Adam had betrayed them, and Ned did not see many chances to get out in one piece.

He looked around for the first time since they had passed the threshold. The famous door was there, even if closed with three different locks.

LeChiffre walked around the table, coming chest to chest with Adam. "I can't risk it."

"For a man who claims a perfect eyesight you can't see the obvious, Jean. How many fucking alarms rang today? I feel like the Queen of the prom."

LeChiffre’s answer was lost in an explosion. Many things happened at once.

A familiar car broke down the door, sending splinters of woods flying in every direction. Aiden was grinning behind the wheel.

LeChiffre jumped on Adam and dragged him away from the car’s trajectory, while his men regrouped in the farthest part of the room and grasped for their guns. Ned was caught and pushed away by Nigel. The car stopped exactly where the table had been.

Before anyone could act, a woman with a wild bush of red hair jumped out of the car pointing a gun to LeChiffre. "Let him go."

LeChiffre looked briefly up from the floor before resuming his silent struggle with Adam. "No."

Freddie raised her arm to aim, but Draco sneaked behind her and held her hand. To Ned’s relief, Aiden walked out of the car unscathed. "Hey, you were right Ned, he looks exactly like me!"

Ned cautiously rolled away from Nigel's hold, mindful not to accidentally touch his unprotected face and neck. He propped himself up his elbow, looking at the fight between Adam and LeChiffre.

There was something weird. Adam kicked LeChiffre on the shins and tried to get on his knees, but LeChiffre gripped him by the throat, only to release him when Adam choke. Adam proceeded to elbow LeChiffre's lungs, only to be catched and released again. Avoiding a too weak blow to his neck, Adam said, "Lounds, please don't shoot this fool, he's only stupid."

Oh. So the woman was the one who wrote the article asking for help. She seemed to have found the scoop on her own. Probably some people felt their job like a pull impossible to ignore, like trying to fight the strawberry juice when he was dripping out of a small piece of cake, and…

Apparently he was talking aloud because Nigel grumbled, “Some fucking people are fucking hell bent on being at the center of this mess even if it isn't even their fucking job.”

Freddie shrugged off Draco's hand, taking a couple of steps towards the not-quite-a-fight on the floor. “Towers. Have you lost your mind?”

Adam muttered something that sounded like, ‘no, dating zombies is totally normal’, at which LeChiffre paled. Adam gave him a particularly vicious kick and rolled away.

LeChiffre crouched, ready to lounge after Adam, but Freddie pointed her gun again. “I wouldn't do that.”

LeChiffre glared at her, reaching for something in his pocket. Nigel pushed Ned down again, Aiden and Draco jerked forward, but they were too far…

Something fell off the ceiling, knocking the gun out of Freddie’s hands.

Ned felt himself floating in a sea of warm caramel, beatitude filling him from the outside to his stomach and reaching his madly beating heart. He gasped, “Chuck!”

Nigel was thrown away as if he did not weight anything. The surprised sounds coming from various zones of the room were covered by Ned's own heartbeat. Freddie, LeChiffre and the gun were forgotten.

Ned rushed forward as Chuck turned towards him… and their eyes met. Not a vision, not a memory, but Chuck, with her hair flying in three different directions, with the small crease on the left or her mouth when she smiled and with a black spot of ink just over her lip where she always scratched herself with a pen when she was thinking. Chuck, perfect. Ned relaxed for the first time since he waved her goodbye.

He did not feel the stares. He did not heard Aiden saying, “Well, at least now we know the reason why he's obsessed. Have you seen how she jumped in from the ceiling?”

He stood still, as every detail he needed not to imagine flooded him with relief.

She broke the silence. “I've been looking for you since Emerson phones me. He told me you had stopped leaving him silly messages. How did you get kidnapped?”

Ned said, “Actually-”

They were interrupted by a crash. LeChiffre had used the moment of distraction to jump Adam again and the two of them had resumed their fight on the floor. Actually, the sound had come from one of the dozen armed men who had entered the room in the meantime. Specifically, one of them had tried to fire his gun only to curse loudly and to throw it to Adam… hitting LeChiffre. Consequently, the crash.

Ned looked back at Chuck, reassuring himself she was not a mirage. She had her gloves on. Ned came closer and held her hand.

In a Chuck-less and consequently uninteresting corner of the room, LeChiffre was lying on the floor, holding his head between his hands, while Adam poked at him with his foot, mumbling under his breath, "All your fault, goddammit, and still..."

Freddie moved closer to them, leaning over to glimpse at LeChiffre. “Is he dead?”

Draco answered, “Improbable”, while at the same time Aiden said, “Nope,” and while LeChiffre raised an arm to stop his minions who were aiming their guns again.

He emerged from the tangle on the floor, glaring at Adam and saying, "Everyone get the hell out of here."

His men, of course, obeyed instantly.

Ned simply brought his attention back to Chuck, ignoring both LeChiffre and Nigel trying to drag him out of the room. That was a problem for later, when he would have memorized how the light came in from the hole in the wall and shone over Chuck's hair.

The rest of the room did not react to LeChiffre's order at all. Draco was waiting for Aiden, who was staring with interest at Freddie, who was looking at Adam, currently scratching LeChiffre with his nails.

LeChiffre, realizing that was the best result he could hope for, caught Adam by the wrists and lowered them. He hissed, "Do you want to have a serious conversation on the floor?"

Adam's eyebrow shot up. "As long as it works, princess."

But he stopped to attack LeChiffre.

Nigel let go of Ned. "I'd say this is the moment for a cigarette. Outside." He attempted to give Ned a meaningful look, which was completely disregarded because Chuck was doing the little thing with her mouth that meant she was thinking. Nigel sighed, and decided to let him be. He stepped across the mess of broken bricks on the floor and disappeared outside, ignoring Aiden and Draco, who were sitting on the hood of the car and did not show any sign of wanting to move.

Freddie was still close to LeChiffre and Adam. “Adam. At this point the question is superfluous, but since I'm here I feel compelled to ask anyway. What the hell are you doing?”

Adam, who was helping LeChiffre to stand, did not turn in her direction. “Enjoying my holidays. My trip in Central Europe was planned, unlike your surprise exploit.” He turned towards her, crossing his arms. “You’re the one out of place. I bet your resident cannibal is going rogue and you're losing an opportunity to tattle about it, or about whatever nonsense you usually write”

Freddie regarded Adam in silence, looking from his expression to the way LeChiffre was inching closer and reaching for Adam's hand. She laughed. “Good.” She rummaged into a bag strapped to her right arm. “At least that was good exercise. Good. Brilliant.” She extracted a small recorder. “So, since you’re okay, do you have insider’s information for me?”

LeChiffre said, “An american journalist will be murdered soon, I suspect.”

Adam glared at him. “You’re not murdering my friends, for the record.”
Freddie pretended to swoon, “Oh, I’m touched. Friends with Towers, what a bliss. My scoop?”

Adam said, “Nothing I can think about. I was kinda busy being an hostage, you see.” He shot a look at LeChiffre, who reluctantly let go of his hand. “Jean, anything you want to brag about on the web?”

LeChiffre scowled. “Adam…”

“Well, you see she won’t get out of here until she has her scoop, so why don’t you give her a piece of paper with an address or something? Send her to the candy shop.”

Both Jean and Freddie closed their eyes and took a deep breath. Then Jean pointed to the recorder. “Miss-”

Freddie pressed a button. “Just say the word, boss.”

LeChiffre said something quickly in French; Freddie raised an eyebrow at that. “Well that's actually helpful.” She winked at Adam. “Take care or your boyfriend, he's a keeper."

LeChiffre blinked and Adam looked at him doubtfully, but Ned smiled, because Chuck was smiling too.

Adam pushed Freddie towards the hole in the wall. “Are you done yet? Go chase your scoop.”

“Not a chance. I want to see you all smitten and set first.”

There were a couple of agreeing noises, probably from Aiden and Draco.

Adam glared until Freddie stopped the recorderding, then turned away from her and asked LeChiffre. "So. Am I your hostage?"

LeChiffre said, matter-of-fact, "No."

Adam face twitched. "Then I can leave this instant."

The answer was flat. "No."

"I advise you to look up 'hostage' in the dictionary, because that pretty much sums us up." Adam's mouth thinned. “Only if that's not too much hassle, of course.”

Jean's mounting anger was focused in his eyes. "If you could for once be reasonable, and don't run in and off of dangerous situations-"

Adam's tone raised. "Oh yeah? Well, breaking news, you are the dangerous situation. If you don't want to add 'toxic' to our relationship, you'd better let me come and go exactly as I please-"

"There's no way I'd let you run loose-"

"I won't stay here-"


"I- What?"

Jean and Adam, plus Freddie and Aiden and Draco, all turned towards Ned, who had just spoken. He was still holding Chuck's hands like his life depended on it.

He spoke again. “If you let him go, you can gain a ninja boyfriend.”

LeChiffre blinked again in confusion, while Adam said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it should be clear that he’s not my boyfriend. He’s holding me here against my will, for fuck’s sake!”

Ned nodded. “Yeah, exactly. It'd be much better if you both just go to a ninja course, or something like that, it would be like the cherry over a warm cake, just-”

A vein on LeChiffre’s forehead twitched, while Adam threw his arms above his head and marched towards the exit, muttering under his breath. LeChiffre caught him, and Adam turned with a raised fist and an air of menace.

Ned said, “I was saying that…”

Chuck spoke loudly but clearly. “Stop behaving like kids for few seconds and listen.”

The tone was too authoritative not to listen, so Adam and LeChiffre stopped, still frowning at each other.

Chuck said, “What Ned’s trying to say is that Jean, you need to let him go. There can’t be any relationship between you two without trust.”

LeChiffre opened his mouth to protest, but Chuck cut him off, “I know it may sound difficult, but-”

“Madame, I fear there’s a misunderstanding. Adam,” LeChiffre glared, “first tried to run off with five grenades and a map, then with a bunch of pamphlets and a camera, and finally with a stick and a shirt saying ‘fight me’. His target was a group of terrorists.” Freddie snorted. “I’ve known him for less than two days. He isn’t to be trusted to take care of himself.”

“Then go with him,” said Ned.

LeChiffre and Adam looked at each other, then at Ned, then at each other again. Even Freddie seemed stunned. In the sudden silence, Aiden made a low, slow whistle.

Jean seemed to be dubious. ”But-”

“No. No but.” Ned squeezed Chuck’s hand. “If you’re in love with a person, you can’t decide which parts of that person you want to keep. You can try to have the humour, discarding the danger, and it may even work for few days, maybe even for few years, but.” He smiled at Chuck. “But. The humour is a result of everything else that person is. If you cut it off, you risk losing not only their trust, not only their happiness, but also those core traits which make them, well, them .” He paused, and there was still silence, all the eyes on them. Freddie had the recorder switched on.

He nervously continued, “You see, Chuck wanted to go to Europe, because she’s brave and adventurous and she was happy to go. And, yes, trips to Europe can be dangerous, but she came to rescue me.” He looked at LeChiffre, “He can’t rescue you if you don’t let him.”

Still silence.

“And you can go with him if you’re that worried.”


“And maybe you can go well together like some wild strawberries over the cream and…”

Freddie stopped what even Ned perceived as a pointless rambling, saying, “Well, Adam, had you taken notes? Because that was one hell of a persuasive speech.”

Adam said, “Shut up, Lounds,” and everyone else started to talk at once.

Chuck smiled at Ned. “How did you know I took a ninja course in Europe?”

Ned answered, “Because I know you. And I missed you so much.”

In another corner of the room, Draco nodded in approval. “I knew there was more in him than meet the eyes.”

Aiden replied, “Well, you have to admit that his determination to find Chuck and the weird similes were strong hints of that, right? He’s a nice guy to keep around.” He winked. “Not as good as you, you know, but…”

Nigel was outside but had heard everything. He leaned against an intact portion of the wall. Letting go of someone… it was not always easy. But he needed to learn. Second chances were too rare to waste.

Freddie tapped his shoulder, “Nice job in letting Ned go on this rescue mission. He seems very likely to die, I wouldn’t have risked it, you know.”

NIgel blinked, a smile slowly getting on his cheeks, until Freddie got bored and left. He thought that maybe he was on the right track, as he watched her steal one of the cars.

Inside, LeChiffre took Adam’s hands, and asked primly, “Would you allow me to come with you?”

Adam said, “Wait, did you really took that cheesy speech seriously? You don't need to try that hard if you want to bang me, after all. I'm kind of easy.”

“But obtaining a first date is way more difficult.”

Adam sputtered, “What?! So all of this mess was because you want to have an actual relationship .” Adam spat the word with disgust. “I thought you were joking. I was joking. Don't tell me you're actually worried about me?”

“Adam, you told me you were almost choked to death. And that was in London. I can’t imagine what would happen in Bucharest.”

“You’re seriously underestimating London.”

“Well you could show me. Eventually.”

“Why would I allow you to follow me around? Do you even speak other languages?”

“I’m French.”

“Oh, right…”

“And that would be because you want to bang me.”

“I want to bang a lot of people.”

“Not a denial.”

“Who would fix the bunch of your subjects with you gone? They need training.”

“You can delay your trip. Help me. I bet you can make them follow an order.”

“Here you are, kidnapping me again.”

“There’s a proper bed in my house, you know.”

Adam looked straight at him. “Okay.”

“Don’t get too excited.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. Anyway,” LeChiffre took a look at what remained of his secret lair. Aiden was passing chips around. “I think it’s time to kick everyone out.”

Adam put his hands around his mouth and said, “You heard that? Get out, I’m not in need of saving anymore!!”
Ned’s said, “Oh, thank strawberries,” still holding onto Chuck.

Aiden ate one last chip before getting inside his car and turned the engine on. “Well, who needs a ride?”

Ned, Chuck, Nigel and Draco all squeezed in.

Chapter Text

Ned was not very aware of what was happening during the one day trip to Greece, because his senses were filled to the brim with Chuck, Chuck, Chuck.

She drove the car, she laughed with Aiden, asking him about all the cities he had visited, she exchanged local swear words with Nigel.

Sometimes, Ned was aware of Nigel using his mobile to find the right road; Ned was almost sure he had offered Nigel a job at a certain point. After Olive had left, they were short on stuff. If she could sing and be rude and somehow not scare too many people away, Nigel could touch that weird screen and be rude and save Ned from any human interaction.

Draco’s armour tattled on the trunk every time Aiden braked. That sound was very important because it always brought a giggle out of Chuck, interrupting her line unending questions for Draco. She wanted to know exactly how they made cheese in his days and to start her own production. In his mind, Ned could already taste the pie they could make, with honey and cheese.

Ned vaguely remembered Chuck agreeing to come back to USA. She missed the Pie Hall as much as he did, she would already be back if Ned had not gone missing. That mundane  implicit agreement was a small big bubble of joy.

“Draco, I feel somewhat responsible for your life, since this one time you didn’t steal anyone’s else life, but you got your own back thanks to my touch, and so I wanted to ask you if you need any help in integrating yourself in the modern world and…”

“Ned, he’s coming with me,” Aiden said.

Ned stopped for 3 and a quarter of seconds. Then said, “Good, because I’d loathe to defer my departure, Chuck says that as soon as we say goodbye to her aunts we can leave, even this afternoon, and I desire it more than…” He stopped. “I mean, good. It was good to meet you. Thank you for your help, I wouldn’t have survived without you.”

Aiden winked, “Next time you need to rescue a hostage, you know where to find us.”

Chuck said, “Will you write me any letters? I still want to know about your goats.”

Draco nodded, and off they went.

After dropping everyone but Draco with the Darling Mermaid Darlings, Aiden had expected some questions. Who Aiden was, why he was accepting to travel with a stranger, where did he live....

Instead, Draco did not ask anything. At first, Aiden tried to fill the silence with random ramblings, forced silliness. Occasionally Draco asked him some questions about the modern world, but never about Aiden.

And so Aiden started to ask about Draco. Where was he from; had he family; was he lonely.

He stopped the car at an ice cream shop when Draco's eyes reddened. He gave him his handkerchief, he showed him his pencils and his sketches to cheer him up.

They ended up driving down the Greek coast and talking a walk, searching, precariously balancing on the rocks to reach the resting place of Draco's old life.

Aiden expected nothing; there was beauty instead.

The sea had reclaimed the cliff, disregarded the garden, drowned the flowers.

It had not ruined the mosaics.

There the waves gently submerged the delicate pieces, a layer of water which cleaned and magnified the beauty of the ancient design.

In the picture, a child laughed, a woman directed her servants to prepare a feast; a young Draco came back home with wild berries and game.

Aiden felt himself choking on the clean salty air. Draco, impassive, walked there, stood on the picture, crouched to touch it. There were not tears, so Aiden's fell to the sea in their place.

He advanced, to let his libation fall on that single fragment of crystallized past.

He touched Draco's shoulder, ready to leave if his presence were invasive.

Draco turned and offered his hand.

Aiden took it, then leaned against Draco, then embraced him.

They left.

The sea kept eroding that timeless piece of home, making it more and more beautiful..

One month later, Chuck still had not stopped asking Ned about his adventures. When Ned had explained that he had wanted  to save the journalist to be worthy of her love, Chuck had looked at him like the first time they had met, but with the underlying layer of intimacy of their years together. She was impressed, and happy, and proud.

Now, she had reached for him while he was waiting for the pies to cook, sat down with him and asked to hear the story again. Ned was starting to feel like he was the knight in shining armour that she thought he was, and not only a Pie Maker. Maybe it had been a good idea to fly in Europe, if only for the enthusiasm in her eyes while he was telling her about Bucharest, about the basement or about the cave in the Balkans.

When he reached the part where they dressed up to rescue Adam, she bit her lips. Ned, attuned to her emotions like a blueberry filling is attached to its pastry, asked, “What is it that bothers you?”

“When we went back I was so happy to meet you that I forgot to ask Adam his phone number. I wonder how he’s doing.”

“There weren’t  any major accidents in Europe so I think he’s fine. Probably.”

Steps came closer to the table, then Nigel entered in Ned’s very selected and Chuck-oriented field of view. He dropped his tablet over Ned's pie, mumbling about Americans not being able to use a fucking mobile.

The gesture stirred some residual sense of alarm in Ned. The last time that Nigel had given him a newspaper, Ned had discovered that he was responsible for the kidnapping of a journalist.

Ned took a breath and looked at the screen. TattleCrime again.


Adam Tower found love!

I have to admit that this is not what I was expecting when I told Adam that it was time to settle down. Yes, that doesn't sound like a Freddie Lound's advice at all. In my defence, he had almost died trying to get laid.

Towers took my advice at heart and started to co-lead a reformed criminal group under LeChiffre control. I’m aware there are at least 70 people who saw LeChiffre's dead body and three separate medical reports, but I promise, I’m not going insane. I found them at the end of my perilous trip to Europe. My friend, alive, happy, letting Jean believe he was his hostage. Wild even for him.

Anyway, after my friend provided me with the juicy scoop I published last month, I decided to track him down again, just to check that his fake-hostage situation hadn’t evolved into a real one. So much gentleness, so much love. Fortunately Adam hadn’t completely trained his group yet, so I managed to locate them, and I found myself hidden behind a bush at 2 am. From that position I saw my dear friend bossing around 20 armed men, LeChiffre included. Of course I took as much pictures as possible, but I can't prove that they are not photoshopped. I can’t even prove the voice recording isn’t fake.

Anyway, my joy in seeing my dear friend alive, kicking and smitten was priceless. I’m sure I’m the first one to capture on camera that expression on his face.

If you are wondering what they were doing, at the bottom of the page there’s a link to the New York Times. Caravaggio's Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, missing since 1969, has been mailed today to the White House.

Good luck, LeChiffre and Adam, cultural avengers. I hope your t-shirt sells as much as the Murder Husbands one.


Chuck finished the article and smiled at Ned. "I shall call you Match Maker now."

Even if Ned was not really sure about his matching abilities, Chuck’s grin was infectious, and he returned the smile.

After 5 seconds Nigel came back and interjected "I disagree, I was with him the whole fucking time and I’m still fucking single!"

Emerson, who was sitting at the table and who so far had pretended not to listen while wearing his best ‘I won’t pay’ expression, decided to speak. He needed concentration to finish the last crucial row of his scarf, and their conversation was bothering him. "There is a client, why don't you three go and serve him?"

The door of the Pie Hole  was, indeed, open. Ned and Chuck did not stop staring at each other, so Nigel figured he was actually paid for that.

He plastered a smile on his face and said, "Hello, and welcome to the Pie Hole." Then, taking a better look at the newcomer. "Oh, hi Adam. We were just reading your article. Where's your boyfriend?”

“I don't have a boyfriend.” The man's face opened into a smile. “Since you read it, what did you think about the design of the Plough? I told them that it was inaccurate, and that even children should be taught how to recognize…”

Nigel stepped forward. “My apologies for interrupting.” Emerson looked up from his work. Why was Nigel talking like that? “I fear I mistook you for someone else.”  Emerson groaned. Just what they needed, another person who looked exactly like the others. Nigel extended his hand. “I'm Nigel. I'm glad you walked in here, gorgeous.”

Adam shook it, but frowned. “My name isn't gorgeous.”

“I know, but I know another Adam and he isn't even remotely handsome as you are.” Emerson’s jaw dropped open. “Now, come in, let's see what I can offer you as an apology." He took the stranger's jacket and led the way towards the counter.

That caught Chuck’s attention, and consequently Ned's. She stage whispered, "Not a Match Maker?"

Adam was talking again, leaning close to Nigel, who listened with attention. Emerson lowered his eyes to the scarf, raised an eyebrow in surprise, and hummed in satisfaction. He had reached the end and all the threads were perfectly where they belonged.

Bonus - Freddie's tape

“You said the van would be here at 21:03. You said your calculations were always right.”

“I can’t account for other people’s laziness, Towers.”

“All excuses. 45 seconds late already. Unacceptable.”

“42 seconds.”

“ 45.”

“Shut up. That Cezanne is worth much less than this Caravaggio.”

“I wore high heels to discover where it was.”

“Cute. I’m sure that increases the price.”

“I’m sure that means I can find another boyfriend.”

“Sure. I heard you this morn-”

~slapping noise~

“Say another word and-”

“Men! Assault the van!”

~33 seconds of guns noises and shouting~

“I hate you. I don’t even remember why I stayed that first time.”

“Someone stole your car…”

“Silly me, not stealing another to escape.”

“...then you decided that staying with a reanimated corpse was way more interesting than escaping…”

“I was waiting for you to lose some pieces and die.”

“...and then you completely fell for me...”

“You’d like that.”

“...and to prove it you will kiss me in 7 seconds sharp.”


“Because the Cezanne is currently hanging over our bed.”

~wet sounds~

“This proves nothing.”

“As you say, Towers.”