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The Startling Secret of The Stone People

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It’s 8am on a Monday when it starts.

“Oi!” He’s clutching a cup of water, trying to convince himself that it’s a piping hot cup of coffee, when she approaches. Her hair is, of course, neatly pushed back – her face is fresh even without make-up and her smile is fondly mocking as always, “Matt! Matthew! Maiden!”

He sighs to himself, still wishing for that cup of coffee. Turns slowly until he can face her – attempts to look like he isn’t considering just coiling up on the floor and staying there until around noon, “Good morning. I’m fine, by the way, thank you so much for asking. How are you? Great. Yes, now that you ask I would like you to call somebody to fix the coffee machine. I’m free to receive them on Thursday, how about-?”

She simply punches his arm.

…She simply punches his arm, and laughs at him like he’s being a complete idiot yet again, “shut up, you can cope for a few days. Are you done with the Hitchcock case yet?”

“No I can’t, I might die,” he huffs grumpily in response, not even batting an eyelash (he’s become accustomed to her speed and occasional violence. It’s quite sad, really), “the Hitchcock case?”

“You won’t die, you’re in the prime of life and health and all those other little factors that contribute to that kind of thing,” she looks mildly disappointed at the lack of any batting whatsoever, aw (this is how they work now. It is, again, quite sad), “and, yeah, are we just going to repeat that at each other for forever?”

“I’m considering it” …He gives up and sniffs, wishing that his poker face was a little better so he could make that look like a tiny bit less of a lie, “I got done with the Hitchcock case on Friday.”

“Pardon me,” she snottily imitates his surrender, can’t hold back a bright grin for even a second, “and that only poses a whole new host of questions, I’m very much afraid.”

Oh?”

“Yeah! Like was it another parking ticket violation or not?”

…Ah.

“It was, wasn’t it?” And she’s already crowing. Bouncing on the heels of her feet and grinning in the most oblivious way known to man, woman or chicken sequestered from all touch for every single second of its life, “just like the Christie case, and the King mystery, and the Bond-“

He’d prefer her to punch him in the arm again, actually.

“-Business,” because she is lovely, absolutely and utterly lovely now that they’ve got past the stage where her and Will wanted to rip each other’s throats out with their bare teeth on a near hourly basis, but she’s not all that wonderful at tact, “Do you want to know what I finished on Friday, Maiden? Do ya? Do ya?”

And so she has this unfortunate trait, this little quirk if you will, of rubbing his face in the fact that she gets all the dramatic jobs while he and Will are left paddling through the dregs and wondering if boredom or drowning will get them first, “not really.”

“Only the Kore case! You know, that kidnapping one where the mother actually burst into the guy’s hideout and-“ this really, really unfortunate trait. No matter how briefly it may last, “sorry.”

“If she just said ‘sorry’ than that’s hardly more dramatic than the third parking ticket violation in a month,” he’s still left only able to sigh after them though, to duck his head and attempt to take it like a man and not an overly touchy beast of burden, “it’s alright.”

…For it is alright, in the end.

Really.

Slightly.

She gives him a mildly sympathetic, or as close to mildly sympathetic as she actually gets, look for a few moments. Makes it slightly more alright when she reaches out and lightly punches slightly lower down his arm, “you’ll get a better case soon, Matt.”

Slightly (he keeps repeating that), “Mm.”

“You will!” Just as she keeps hitting him, looking slightly offended as she does so as if his legitimate doubt over his negligible job prospects is actually disgusting, “a great one! A mugging, or a kidnapping, or a murder, or a mass murder, or a weird cult leader who is behind all the muggings and kidnappings and murders and mass murders, or-“

Mm,” he still replies in the face of such optimism. Sighs again and twirls his water, and tempts fate ever so little, “thanks for the pep talk, but I really don’t think that-“

Ever so middling.

…Ever so large, apparently. As Will shoots through the big glass doors at top speed and almost takes the poor water cooler (seriously, the thing doesn’t deserve all this abuse from the collected Maidens) with him right through the deceptively sturdy looking wall, “Bro! Bro! We’ve got a new case! A really, really, really weird one that is so gonna freak you right out of your mind!”

…Ever so huge.

“See-!”

“There are statues!”

It’s 8am on a Monday when it starts, and he has a pounding headache from the very moment.

 

--

 

The statue lying on the ground is, indeed, stone. It’s tipped on its back – arms extended and one leg up as if the subject was planning to turn on his heel and sprint. His mouth is open in, if not a scream, a rather terrified yell. His stone clothes appear to have been carved rumpled, as if to convey the impression of being worn for a long while.

He kneels by the corpse- statue, if indeed it is a statue, carefully. Gently reaches out to flick a stone finger (and resists the urge to clutch his own afterwards). Twists to stare up at the brightly coloured carnival van above him briefly. Glances back at the man and thoughtfully tilts his head.

…Hm.

Will, bright and affable Will who always seems able to get people on his side no matter what, finishes talking to their main (only) witness (a scared woman, in her late forties with a shopping bag clutched in her hand) and bounces over. Somehow manages to skid to a halt before he trips right over the statue and into the side of the van, beams a bright grin and holds out his arms in triumph.

He resists the urge to grin in turn, “Well?”

“She isn’t quite sure what she saw, but she saw something,” Will holds out his hands, placates him before he can entirely cast aside the grin and fall back to sighing, “apparently the truck drove past her when she was getting the shopping back to her house for her second daughter’s eighteenth. She only saw what happened from a distance, but she thought she saw the truck stop like something had ran in front of it. When she actually got here the driver was gone, a lot of stuff had fallen off the back and that statue was lying there.”

“Interesting” …Very interesting, there’s something odd there that his mind is desperately trying and failing to grasp, “could it have fallen off the back?”

“Nah, she says that she saw only crates and stuff. Nothing statue-shaped, not even any boxes that were vaguely statue shaped.”

“And she can be trusted?”

“She’s a mother of two, one of whom is currently in an Ivy League college. Her husband is a doctor. She likes leaving the Monday morning crossword until the afternoon because it gives her time to drive the newly minted eighteen year old to school,” Will shrugs, carries on so quickly that he barely has the time to marvel at such bizarre ease with strangers, “and there’s another thing.”

He frowns a little, rises to his feet instead of questioning loudly, nods for Will to go on.

“From the brief glimpse of the driver she got, when he went past her within the speed limit, she thinks that he looked an awful lot like the statue sprawling at our feet right now.”

He remains silent for a long few moments.

Hm.

“One more thing,” Will offers, as he brushes off his jeans and shuffles aside to let the masses of lab people bustle merrily in, “we’ve got reports of more of them, an unknown number leading down thattaway.”

“I knew mum never should’ve let you watch those Jackie Chan Adventures repeats on Saturday mornings,” he replies wryly, casting a brief glance over the already gathering crowd (the usual lot: old busybodies, giggling teenagers skipping school, one woman in her mid-twenties with her hands behind her back) before turning right back to the job at hand, “come on, then, let’s see what game is afoot.”

 

--

 

Not a very good one, as it turns out.

For there are more statues. And most of them look, as much as he’d like to dismiss Will and go for the Ockham’s Razor explanation, both very true to life and like they couldn’t have fallen off any trucks. All of them are quite clearly, quite openly and demandingly, there before his very eyes.

First comes a businessman, a stone briefcase clutched in one hand like he was swinging it on his daily commute to work. His mouth is slightly open, like the model was taking a deep breath when it was carved. His flinty eyes are wide and he looks more puzzled than anything else.

Next comes an old woman, frozen- made with one hand reaching into her bag. He can see the amazing carving on her wispy hair, making it almost look like it’s blowing into the wind. Her back is stooped and her feet are glued to the floor in a way that implies she’d be shuffling along like that even if she was alive. He sees a stone slip carefully clutched in her hand and bends to look, straightens up with the slightest shudder the moment he glimpses a surprisingly accurate rendering of the slips the betting shop seven buildings down from their apartment complex hands out.

A group of teenagers, just like those giggly ones skipping school earlier, follows her. There are six of them: four boys and two girls. The three at the front look at the height of confidence, strutting forth like they own the world. The two in the middle look slightly puzzled, like something odd happened just before them but they can’t quite work out what yet. The one at the back mirrors the truck driver statue so perfectly that they could be a pair, the only difference is that the stone girl is half turned as if preparing to run.

And then comes a businesswoman. And another businessman. And another businesswoman and another businessman and lots and lots of business all over the place until he’s practically had an overdose.

And then comes an old man, and his wife, and a woman who may be a nurse, and a cat mid dart between their fossilised forest of legs.

And then another teenager, and a preteen obviously on his way to school, and a girl who seems just about to skip, and a baby with his mother bent over him in his stone pram with the wheels so perfectly rendered.

…And a lollipop lady, balanced just on the edge of the road with her leg slightly extended.

He pauses, right besides her. Tucks his hands into his pockets, rocks back on his heels and glances behind; watches as the whole street appears to be transformed into a huge mass of lab people and gawking spectators and a whole lot of chaos that covers absolutely everything with its mad froth.

…He swears that he’s seen that spectator, that one with her hand just hidden by her hip and a contemplative expression on her face, before-

“Bro,” the thought is soon stolen by Will, standing at his elbow and looking the most concerted that he’s ever seen him (that he’s ever been, for he knows Wills very well by now), “there’s two more, Waiting in the playground for us.”

And he sighs, again. And goes anyway.

 

--

 

The kid before him is obviously meant to be a bully, the dog nervously flinched back at his feet obviously a tool for bullying. They stand in the playground, right by the swings – the odd mix of anger and fear carved on the boy’s face is something almost as miraculous as the widening of the dog’s pupils.

He frowns at it, sighs at it… Turn away from it (to Will, hovering like a hummingbird at his side), “is this the last one?”

“Yes,” Will answers, quite simply (gone more contemplative hummingbird than his usual self, which is something that pleases and disconcerts him in equal measure), “and the mother is, according to the nice lady in the office who gave me cupcakes, on her way to the school as we speak.”

“The mother of the boy who this statue resembles?”

…Will frowns to himself, taps his lip. It’s again disconcerting: he hasn’t done that for at least five years, “doesn’t that seem a bit-?”

“No,” he still just interrupts him sharply, ignores any notes of disconcertment or worry or even simple puzzlement and instead plops himself down onto one of the swing seats to observe the playground from a whole new angle “…I’m not sure what she’s expecting to find here.”

Will remains silenced for a long few moments, hesitates for a long few seconds more before his true nature bursts through and he’s forced to speak again, “her son?”

“If it was that it’d be easy enough, the kid’s probably attempting to skip school behind some bush and needs only a few stern words before he’s restored back to full health,” he sighs another deep sigh, spreads his hands over his thighs and keeps looking out over the cold and empty playground, “it’s if she wants answers that we have a problem.”

“…Answers?”

“To what the hell is going on,” he clutches at his thighs for only a second more, springs back to his feet and starts to pace as Will is forced to take a quick step back and look mildly disapproving “…It could be a modern art thing. You know, one of those ones where a shed is put inside a whale and the whale is then put inside a dog.”

“…Never heard of that-“

“No,” he answers quickly, running his hand over his face and up through his hair until it’s a nest flopping all over his poor scalp, “you wouldn’t have… But then it could be a robbery gone wrong, the extremely stupid thieves tossing out their load as quickly as possible to get away from the chasing cops.”

“…Then how big would their load have been in the first place-?”

“Huge,” he answers again, continues to pace – well into his stride of wearing a groove in the black tarmac of the playground floor, “massive, gigantic. Or they could’ve fallen from space – an experiment on that space station gone horribly wrong, or just slightly mistaken in a way that led to the airlocks briefly being opened and these things falling out.”

“…But would they be able to land exactly on their feet-?”

Or-“

“-Nah” …But Will doesn’t let him interrupt this time. Stops his pacing with one hand and waits until he calms down to a nervous bounce, up and down on his heels in a way that he can’t still but can at least control, “nah, that doesn’t make sense. None of it does. In my opinion we should just return to what our first witness said and go from there.”

…He halts, at the top of a rolling bounce.

Frowns.

Rocks back to the ground, blows air through his teeth and slowly glances over Will’s half-shrugged shoulder…

“I swear I’ve seen that woman somewhere before,” he offers softly, as he catches the briefest glimpse of a Halloween glove before she’s turned and gone and he finds himself fully sane again, “and don’t be stupid. We’re detectives, not mediums. To go by the ravings of an obviously in shock woman would be unwise to say the very least, we’ll see what the lab says and go from there.”

…And Will has never frowned so much in his life.

 

--

 

But the problem is, the really niggling problem is, that he can’t actually stop thinking about it.

It haunts him all the way back to the station, glides after him as he mounts the steps and nods a hello to the man at reception, downright hums creepy music in his ear the whole long walk back to his office.

…Could Will be right?

And even there it follows him, darts through the door before he can slam it fully shut. Lounges all over his desk as he sits down. Starts banging on his forehead as he spreads out his (largely unrelated) papers and attempts to get down to work.

…Could those statues be more than a weird accident or unaccountable art form?

He tries for hours, but even then it refuses to go away: it tickles at the bridge of his nose, creeps in the gap and slides slickly down his throat, dances in his stomach until the single thing he can focus on is its constant, constant rolling like it means to drive him mad.

…Could, could, the statues have actually been people once upon a time?

Could they?

Could they?

He only gives up at midnight, lays the futile paperwork down and hisses a long breath out through his nose. He can’t even concentrate anymore, the question has gotten so bad – grinding against every single cell of him until he’s practically certain that his brain’s about to explode out through his nostrils.

He just wishes…

“Bro?”

…He’s not sure. But something – something about things being easy, about their first proper case not being a small mess of confusion and awfulness, about things working out absolutely and utterly fine for just once in his life.

He sighs again (over and over and over again), spins his chair until he can face Will – blonde hair fluffed up and expression so hopelessly sleepy that he’s quite obviously been dozing in the office again (again, no matter how much it may hurt his back because his big brother likes working late and god forbid Will ever step away from his family), “yes?”

“It’s ten- eleven past midnight. D’you want me to drive us home now?”

The question makes a sudden resurge at that apparent invitation – seethes up from his stomach like vomit, claws its way back up his throat, heads for his nose again (and his mouth, and his ears, and any other unfortunate gaps that he might have to ooze through)-

“I’ll drive,” he ignores it, for just this once as he plucks his scarf from the back of his chair and starts to rummage for his keys, “we wouldn’t want to run into anymore lampposts, after all.”

 

--

 

Going to the lab the next morning is… Fun.

“We don’t know what kind of stone it is,” a scientist tells him, a scrawny guy with big spots and even bigger glasses, “certainly nothing common. It had precisely no matches in our database.”

“Oh,” he says, perhaps the polar opposite of enthusiastic, “have you compared samples to any known statues…?”

“We don’t have all the money in the world, Maiden,” is the instantly annoyed reply, the glasses shoved that scornful bit higher up his undeniable beak of a nose, “but, if you’re going to be picky, yes. And it still doesn’t match: most statues these days are made out of cast metals like bronze, or brass. Or, if we want to look a little earlier, marble or granite. These things match precisely none of those.”

He simply stares for a long few seconds.

“…Well, keep trying,” sighs softly, resists the ever so pressing urge to scratch his head and throw up his hands up to the sky, “are there any clues in this unidentifiable stone to show where they came from? Whether they fell off a truck or dropped from outer space or-?”

“They’re unmarked,” his favourite scientist interrupts, again with the very grumpiest of sniffs, “completely and utterly. No scratches, no scuffs, not even any bits dented. It’s like they were simply magiced into place overnight.”

“…Right.”

“But, if you require more information…” The scientist forces a screeching, hissing sound painfully through his teeth. He almost finds it within him, in between the wincing, to be impressed, “they’re heavy. It took four people to carry even one in, the combined weight of all of them would buckle a truck.”

“…Okay.”

“And, continuing on the weight subject, if they’d all fallen from space they wouldn’t have landed neatly on their feet without a single scratch. There would’ve been cracks, dents, a blast radius. There would’ve been at least a few windows blown out and a few car alarms going off, not a whole flock of them all dropped smoothly upon their feet.”

“Indeed.”

“And as for your other ideas-“

“Mm,” he takes his chance to interrupt, as politely as possible, and runs an ever so calm (deliberately calm, his fingers don’t shake a single bit) hand through his hair “…Mm, all of my theories can be easily disproved in numerous ways. Thank you ever so much for proving that.”

“…No problem?” The scientist doesn’t even look guilty, git.

And so he’s left only to draw in another few deep breaths, grind his teeth together and close his eyes and try to regain some sense of perfectly unruffled calm , “what about them vaguely resembling people?”

He’s gratified, for just a moment because his life isn’t actually that nice, by his very favourite scientist almost blinking hard enough to dislodge an eyeball, “what-?”

“Facial similarities!” It’s almost a pity when a bright, chirpy voice interrupts them both and sends his dearest darling scientist merrily reeling back into smugness, “I can help with that!”

And so, barely five minutes later, he and the scientist guy have relocated to a creepily shadowed corner of the lab. A female scientist with black hair and blue eyes bouncing between them like her very dearest wish in life is to perfectly imitate the best known species of kangaroo.

“...Well?”

“We’ve identified four facial matches so far,” she gives quickly, still bouncing in the shadows at an incredibly fast speed even as she talks, “three male, one female. We’re pretty sure, with that start, that it shouldn’t be all that long before we identify all the rest.”

“Interesting,” and terrifying too, he’s afraid that there’s really no forgetting that incredibly vital point, “and what about the four already identified…?”

“Two businessmen, one working for a company that sells plastic chairs and one who set up his own fairly successful advertising agency about four years ago. The boy you found in the playground, that one with the dog and the bad attitude. And an old woman, who was barely cleared for confidence trickery about ten years ago,” the female scientist gives brightly, with an entirely dismissive wave of her far too pale hand, “we’ve checked all of them multiple times, and all of them went missing very recently.”

He stares at her for another few seconds, stunned and horrified in a way that it’s very hard to put into more words.

“…Recently?”

“Today, to be exact.”

He stares at her for another long few seconds.

“…Interesting.”

 

--

 

The battered metal of the table is wonderfully cool against his forehead, cool and hard and somewhat soothing. It almost (almost) makes despairingly grinding his head into it a pleasant experience.

…By which he means not really.

…By which he means ouch.

But there’s nothing, absolutely nothing in any shape or form, that he can think to do otherwise. The only other option is headbutting a tree, or running a long bath. Or, at a long push, going to the zoo and jumping into the bear-pit - and that would involve a long and thoughtful walk and splinters and- and-

Well.

It’s all got a bit complicated, really.

“Bro?” And the only, he’s sadly inclined to say dubious, ray of light is Will – hovering besides him and looking almost gratifyingly concerned, “Matt? Matt, are you-?”

…He’s really not sure how this became his life, but he’d rather like to register a complaint.

He raises his head from his arms, stares intensely the shadows across from him (my, this station sure has got an awful lot more mysterious lately) until his eyes slide back into focus and he can actually see in full Technicolor glory again, “yes.”

“…Are you-?”

Yes?”

Will continues to hover for a few moments, silent and concerned. He continues to look over at the shadows, contemplative and miserable.

“…I just got back from the lab,” Will ventures after a while of this, sensibly deciding to leave his genuine state of mind (awful, does it really need saying?) to another horrible day far in the future, “right now, as a matter of fact. I suppose you’ve been today too?”

“I went this morning,” he sighs so much that it’s a wonder he hasn’t disinflated, become a sad balloon all sprawled across the ground “…For all the good it actually did me, how did you find it?”

“Labby, surprisingly dark,” Will gives easily – with only a slight, puzzled wrinkle of his face to suggest any deep thought beyond those fairly obvious points, “they’ve made a bit of progress despite those things, though. And I don’t know about you, big bro, but I think that that-“

“It’s not a good thing, it’s puzzling,” He snaps before Will can finish –immediately has to ease his fists, breath slowly out through his nose and try not to look like he’s on the verge of shooting up and ripping the entire canteen apart, “how many have they identified now?”

Will still looks at him like he’s mildly (hah! Only mildly) nuts, cautiously tilts his head before he puffs himself up to doing anything else, “six, when I went down.”

He resists the urge to put his head firmly back in his hands and make it so much worse, “two more, then.”

“That mother and her baby, yes. They live near here and the kid was born roughly eight-“ Will notices his expression, trails sensibly off again before he actually surges up and destroys an entire canteen with his wrath “…And there’s more. The family members of the first ones identified have found out, somehow and are coming over. Right now. This very moment.”

…Ah.

He makes a noise so loud and prolonged that it can probably be heard by penguins.

“Matt?”

Oh God.

Matt?”

Oh god.

“…I don’t know what to do,” he weakly mutters, in a way so stunned that penguins are still probably lifting their heads and looking extremely disbelieving down wherever they may be, “or what to say. I have absolutely nothing, nothing at all - every single one of my theories was absolutely wrong.”

Will… Sensibly falls silent, actually looks sympathetic.

“They couldn’t be an art piece because they’re made of some creepy stone that absolutely nobody knows,” a pity that it does the polar opposite of helping, “they couldn’t have been stolen and dumped from any truck, because they’re far too heavy. They couldn’t have been thrown from space for exactly the same reason… And now apparently they resemble people who have recently gone missing! I have no idea what’s going on, the only completely insane possibility appears to be that some people just miraculously turned into stone! And I can’t say that-!”

Will- “Why not?”

Will-

…Huh.

“-Because it’d make me look completely and utterly insane,” he repeats slowly, realizing that he’s hovering about an inch above his chair and returning to earth with a slow thud, “I thought that was obvious, and already stated.”

“Eh, I’ve never been an obvious sort of man,” Will shrugs… Looks a little more thoughtful than he’s supposed to, considering the utter futility of the whole situation, “you’re at least willing to accept the possibility of these missing people having been turned into stone?”

Huh.

And he stares.

…Will only shrugs.

 

--

 

He’ll admit to being slightly surprised at Will actually knowing where the library is, but chooses not to comment upon it as he’s dragged by the hand through the entrance and into a warren of shelves. Will is (apparently) the only one who has the possible answer to this business, and he’s not going to risk losing that due to a stupid need to cause offence.

…Not that Will has ever actually been offended in his life.

Once.

It takes a while, he’s also surprised to glance at his watch and find almost an hour gone since they trotted in, but eventually the shelves get clearer and the lights get dimmer (damn, he’s apparently doomed to do things in weirdly shadowy places for this whole day) and they amble ever so slowly to a halt.

“Well?” He asks.

They’re standing in front of a particularly dusty bookcase, so dusty that any hint to location was probably buried long ago. Will simply ignores his question, frowns for a second and then reaches out – traces a slow finger over a nameless spine like it actually means something to him.

“…Will-?”

“Here,” he only speaks to interrupt, draws out the medium sized tome with a flourish that he’s sure should be reserved for much adored people and nuggets of solid gold, “this’ll point us in the right direction! …Or at least vaguely the right direction. Probably the right direction. Please don’t quote me on the right direction.”

…He takes the book.

And, while passionately sneezing, sees ‘Bestiary’ printed on the front in faded gold and crimson red, “You have got to be kidding me.”

“About what?” He starts a step away, incredulously. Will quickly catches on and reaches out to stop him, calmly, “Bro. Just humour me: open up the book to B and see what falls out.”

“No-“

B.“

No.”

Matt” …He finally looks back up, sees Will making a face that he hasn’t managed since he was ten and was trying to convince their father to take them to see their dog at that entirely fictional farm, “Please. At least for those poor stone people?”

And he stares.

And he wavers.

And he sighs

The first word his eyes alight upon when he flicks to the letter ‘B’ is basilisk. He stares at it for a moment. Gawps at it for another. Finds himself flicking to that page without any real conscious thought, reading, ‘The name Basilisk comes from the Greek Basileus, which means king…’

‘It causes death wherever it may go, by the strange and wicked process of turning good folk into stone.’

Turning good folk into stone.

Stone.

 

--

 

The lab technician looks at them like they’re nuts when they arrive, but has to let them in due to technicalities of both rank and law. They stroll past him easily, duck under the fluttering yellow banner and onwards.

It’s easy enough to find the required evidence. Five minutes of searching and Will cries out, bounds over, grabs his arm and drags him back to a box turned over onto its side. It looks slightly crumpled, like something clawed its way out. Slightly old, like it’s held many things in the past. Slightly mysterious, like…

A ragged blindfold lies besides, somehow managing to look both innocent and guilty.

There are light scratches on the road, like something scuttled there.

…The word ‘Basileus’ is printed on its side, exactly like it was in the book.

The lab technician looks at them even more weirdly when they request that it be sent immediately back to the station – but, again, rank and law take happy precedence. They wait until the white van of the lab arrives before they get into their own car. They follow it back to the station in silence, and every time that Will tries to start a conversion he simply shuts his eyes.

 

--

 

Needless to say, the sighing that night is absolutely epic.

 

--

 

He rolls over the next morning, finds himself with not a single sigh left to give in the stuffy air of his room and so just slithers out of bed and goes. Only pauses to pop his head around Will’s door before slipping on his trainers and jogging out.

…A basilisk.

He takes the stairs down from their apartment three at a time, briefly pauses to nod at old Ms Plutowsky before he bursts out into the cold morning. It’s winter, the air crisp like just before a snow. The only light comes from the street lamps and that certain grey haze that hangs around before dawn.

A Basilisk.

He pauses for only a moment at the top of the steps, relishing the frozen air in his lungs, before breaking into a jog yet again – setting up another three stair rhythm. He doesn’t pause when he reaches the bottom, doesn’t pause as he turns right – only steps up the pace a little more as he weaves through the bleary morning commuters.

A mythical creature. A fantastical being. A plot point in Harry Potter. It’s… Ridiculous. Impossible. Offensive in a way that strikes at his sensibilities as painfully as if somebody had taken a chair to his head.

The buildings blur into one as he quickens his stride, and he doesn’t mind. The only things of relevancy to him are the burn in his lungs, the ache in his thighs, the blessed near-emptiness in his brain. He finds himself going faster and faster, subconsciously pushing himself until the only thing in his head is a happy whistle beginning with the letter ‘B.’

And yet…

(Basilisk.)

He’s not a superhuman, and so the momentum isn’t possible for long. Eventually his vision goes the slightest bit black. His thighs cramp. The thoughts, never actually gone, come back with a thunk as he shudders and slows and starts to recognize individual buildings again.

...It is all too believable, isn’t it? Rolling in his stomach, crawling up his throat, dancing painfully on the front of his brain until he can think of absolutely nothing else. A basilisk, a creature capable of turning people into stone. A basilisk, a creature from a child’s fairytale. A Basilisk, free in New York at Rush Hour.

His lungs give up the ghost completely, his thighs follow soon after. The thoughts, always there, swirl higher and higher in a way that’s most definitely painful.

He has to accept it, the world is starting to get an awful lot stranger than he ever dreamed.

He’s been so focused on the simple act of running, and perhaps a bit of insanely trying to avoid his thoughts, that he has no idea where he’s ended up doubled over and panting to the sidewalk. It takes a few seconds for him to get enough air into his lungs, a few more seconds to finally lift his head, a few more seconds after that to finally take in the world around him fully instead of simply staring at indistinct blurriness.

…There’s a truck in front of him, unmistakable in shades of red and gold. The street seems almost expectant, waiting in the pre-dawn light. The only noise is the soft rustle of the breeze through the trees.

There’s only a single other person around, a woman in her mid-twenties leaning against the railings on the other side of the truck. She stands there, quite casually, with her hands in her pockets – her eyes are fixed upon him even across the road.

He stares at her for a moment.

(He could swear…)

And then he decides that there are more important things to do, what with all the miraculous stone people and that. He takes a few, slightly staggering, steps forward. Glances both ways, like his mother drilled into him from the age of two. Hops off the sidewalk and ducks under where the plastic is still fluttering merrily in the breeze.

The place where the basilisk’s box was lying is easily enough to refind. A closer look at the tarmac around it reveals that it’s truly… Scratched, little white lines like something with oddly sharp claws scraped over it.

Huh.

He examines the scrapes for a second.

…Glances over to where the statue resembling a driver once stood, thinks that he can see scrapes right up to there. Pushes up on his heels, thinks that he can see scrapes even beyond that.

He examines the closest sort of scrapes for another second.

And rises, bounces briefly on his heels, cracks his back with all the weariness of a man in his early thirties. Looks at the sky, just starting to dazzle with dawn. Looks at the trees, still rustling in the breeze. Looks at the woman, her eyes still fixed upon him and a slight smile on her lips.

It’s all insane, of course. Completely and utterly insane. Completely and utterly and blatantly insane…

The sky gets a little bluer, the leaves keep rustling, the woman keeps staring at him like he’s expected to actually do something.

Sod it.

He flashes an almost polite smile in the woman’s direction, just in case, and starts forwards again. Finds the scratches, right up onto the sidewalk, and follows them. Trots along so fast and so determinedly that he half feels like he has an actual purpose.

The sky keeps getting bluer, the leaves go on rustling, the woman follows him with an almost silent step.

 

--

 

They go down the street, him and the strange woman with her apparently gloved hand standing out at her hip. He walks fast, she walks just a little slower. He keeps to the right, she follows his cue. He keeps watching the sidewalk… She does exactly the same.

She remains silent, always a little behind him, but he knows that she’s there.

The scratches still stand out clearly on the sidewalk, even after a few days reopened to the public. He can see them practically glowing there: white, shallow, not particularly angry as if the thing (basilisk) was just strolling along instead of marching with any particular purpose. They don’t even send shivers up his spine.

He walks past the place where the first businessman was. Finds white there too, just a casual little scribble, as if the thing (basilisk) barely even paused before bounding on.

He goes by where the old lady was. Notices that the scratches are still shallow even there, still delicate as if the bas- thing (basilisk) still hadn’t paused or halted or slowed for even a moment.

He carefully strolls around where that chaotic group of teenagers were. Discovers that the scratches still aren’t angry, still can be called only calm as if the b- Ba- basilisk was in a perfectly happy mood and just couldn’t help itself.

…And past the white scratches where yet more businessmen and women were.

And by the shallow scratches where the old man and his attendant family were.

And around the happy scratches where that boy was, and where the mother and baby were, and where all the other young people stood-

(It’s confusing, more than anything else, really. Odd. Why is this creature, the force of nightmares and the inspiration for so much terror, not actively acting evil? Why is it leaving casually white scribbles? Why is it being shallow? Why isn’t it angry-?)

And then he reaches the playground.

 

--

 

He comes to a halt, just outside and unwilling to go any further. He can hear the strange woman with the glove breathing softly behind him, bouncing a little on her heels as she observes his sway. The playground is oddly quiet for, well, a playground - screams and the sound of feet replaced by an edgy sort of silence.

Huh.

…He slides his hands into his trouser pockets, casts his gaze across all the silent emptiness with a faint frown.

He hisses through his teeth, tilts his head, watches the children that are there running around in an unnatural way – as if they’re terrified, and only playing to mask it.

He hears the woman breathing behind him, still slow and steady, and is tempted to just spin around and confront her in a grand and (possibly) entirely melodramatic way…

And then he sees it.

Perfectly innocent, sprawling at a little girl’s feet as she sits absently upon a swing. You’d probably ignore it at first sight, look over it, assume it a bag or something and move on. It doesn’t look all that evil: looks the polar opposite, in fact – like a puppy that just happened to wander out of the house and down to school.

It has scales.

And wings, balancing it carefully. And tiny black eyes, turned away from him at this distance. And a beak, actually fairly dull from what he can tell. And a tail. And tiny spikes. And absurdly oversized feet with huge black claws on the ends (he glances down at the floor beneath it, he can just about see a scribble of white marks). And- And-

It’s a basilisk.

…Coiled up at that little girl’s feet, like a puppy. Tail wrapped around nose and back rising and falling as if it’s in the midst of a happy dream.

It’s a basilisk.

Terrified, and half stunned, he staggers back a step. Spins, drunkenly – opens his mouth and flails his arms and thrashes around like he’s going completely and utterly insane in every single way that matters (Which, of course, is an entirely legitimate possibility which makes a lot more sense than his actual life at present moment-)

The woman with the glove is still standing there, wide-eyed as if she didn’t expect him to break the delicate spell that’d sprung up between them. Her mouth is dropped slightly open, her body is swaying a little as if she’s planning to take a hasty step back. Her hand, the gloved one, has just slipped out from behind her coat-

Oh.

Oh, damn.

Her hand.

His eyes drop, slowly and inevitably, to where it’s awkwardly hovering by her side. He notices the lack of wool, patterns, anything that signifies the traditional and traditionally sensible glove. Instead the only thing he sees is bone. Bone - pale, stark, standing out against her cheery jumper in a way that should probably be called obscene by anybody with a brain and a functioning sense of normality.

…She has a skeleton hand.

Oh, again.

She has a skeleton hand.

A skeleton hand that is reaching out for him, a skeleton hand that seems attached to a perfectly healthy arm, a healthy arm that is conjoined to an equally healthy body, a healthy body that supports a concerned looking head and a slowly opening mouth and a pair of far too wise eyes and- and- and-

It’s all a bit too much.

He spins, in a terror this time. Tumbles a shaky step until he’s hovering right on the borderline of the playground. Careers so fast on his heels that he almost falls to the ground and whacks his head open - he catches himself, but he’s not even sure that he’d mind if he hadn’t. It’d make more sense than the world at the moment, the spinning world with the only soundtrack being the thumping of his heart in his throat. Damn. Damn. His entire world has narrowed down to two points: Basilisk, skeleton hand. Basilisk, Skeleton hand. Basilisk and skeleton hand. Skeleton hand and basilisk. Basilisk, Skeleton hand. Basilisk! Skeleton hand-!

Basilisk.

Starting to stir before him at the commotion. Wings flapping and beak creaking open in a mewling yawn.

Skeleton hand.

Still presumably behind him, reaching out for him with its connotations of death and imagined dirt still ground into the joints.

Basilisk.

Lifting its head up now, dozily. Glancing around with a certain disinterest that sends the few children left scattering like wildebeest before a lion. Looking in his general direction ever so slowly…

Skeleton hand-

Warm fingers land on his arm, he actually screams.

…As he’s yanked around. To face a Will with wide eyes and big hair and a general demeanour that suggests he’s just rolled out of bed and sprinted all the way at a speed that would’ve probably shocked a cheetah, “are you actually insane?”

“There’s-“ he tries to start in the face of that, spluttering and choking all the way.

“Do you want to be turned into a garden ornament?”

“-A-“

“A fountain, maybe?”

“-Woman-“

“A statue, to be admired by people even dumber than me at dinner parties?”

“-There’s a woman!” …And eventually manages to finish, even with Will listing the numerous applications of stone right into his face with a solemn look and a certain terrified determination in his eyes, “s-she-she’s got th-this hand! Th-this skeletal han-hand! It’s w-waiting, hovering th-there, just ab-about ready t-to touc u-u-us!”

Will’s mouth still remains open for a second after that, as if he’s trying to think of more uses for stone.

…And then it closes.

Thins.

Tilts just slightly, as if he’s wondering what the hell he’s on about.

But he can prove it. He can prove it. He yanks himself free from Will’s firm grip, takes in a deep breath, spins fully on his heel instead of the terrified half turn he’d been yanked into and prepares to hop back and point like the best prophet in the whole wide world-

…She’s gone.

Vanished, disappeared, popped off into the air as quickly as she’d appeared. There’s absolutely nothing left of her: not a dark shadow, not a single strand of wool, not a few scuffs on the floor, not anything. It’s like she was never even there.

…An assessment that Will obviously agrees with, as his lips loosen a little again and he slowly turns back, “are you sure?”

“She was here,” he insists, in a slightly less shaky way.

“Are you sure?”

“I saw her. I know I did, I can remember doing so: I can still see her stupid jumper now. And, not only that, but I heard her: right behind me, all the way from where the truck was to here. And, beyond that, I almost touched her! I saw her, I heard her, I almost touched her – what do you want, a forensic report on how she smelled and tasted?”

…Will just keeps giving him that dubious look, he knows what’s going to come before he even opens his mouth, “perhaps-“

“No,” and interrupts, viciously.

“Just maybe-“

No!” And yells, and yanks back even further and points his finger and commits himself so utterly to proving that he isn’t insane that there’s no possible way it couldn’t be true, “I know she was there, I’m certain she was there, and I’m sure that she had a skeleton hand just reaching out to touch me!”

“But-!”

“She’s about as real as the basilisk, dammit!”

…And there’s a pause. A very, very long pause.

Oh.

And they both turn, in time as ever with Will wide-eyed and him still faintly shaking, back to the near abandoned playground just waiting there yet again.

Oh.

They watch for a long few seconds before he gulps, sighs, closes his eyes. Reaches out to grab Will’s frozen arm and drag him away before they end up standing and staring all the long day.

 

--

 

The bar that Will leads him to is dark, smoky with old wooden surfaces and a general air of age. He orders a pint, downs it without blinking. Orders a second pint, swallows that in much the third way. Orders a third pint and stares morosely down into it, the brownish liquid actually seeming to mock him as it stares right back up.

“…Bro?” Will attempts eventually, in tones of mild terror, “are you alright?”

He grunts.

“Bro-?”

“I just saw a woman with a skeleton hand” …Grunts, in a way that miraculously manages to resemble words despite no particular effort from him, “a proper skeleton hand with no flesh nor muscle nor fiddly bits that tie them all together. A hand, attached to normal flesh, that was a skeleton.”

“…Oh.”

“And I just saw a basilisk,” and he, even more miraculously, manages to actually repeat the trick – despite putting in even less effort, “an actual basilisk. With scales and claws and a beak and eyes that could’ve probably turned me into stone.”

“…Um.”

“And I saw both of them within minutes of each other, which may mean that I’ve just escaped death twice in the space of about an hour,” and, miracle of miracles, a third trick follows – despite him deliberately putting in the exact and deliberate polar opposite of effort “…Thanks for that, by the way.”

“…Oh-“

“You’ve already said that,” he interrupts, sighs - slams his head down upon the table despite all his very sensible instincts to the contrary, “how am I supposed to be alright after all those things? How am I even supposed to be acceptable? The world has turned on its head and tipped me off into outer space. I’m whirling through a vortex of confusion and angst, and there’s no possible way I can get out for it’s the only logical thing I can actually do!”

There’s a long moment of hesitation.

“…Perhaps,” Will gives, in an oddly unconvinced tone, “but, and don’t take this awfully, I think the only logical thing you could do would probably involve a lot less sitting in a bar before noon and trying to give yourself a simultaneous hangover and concussion.”

And he lifts his head, and he glares, “That’s not the damn point, William.”

“Then what is?”

“The fact that I’m powerless! Stupid! Stunned! Unable to do anything! The fact that I’m expected to solve this case, and help these people, while having absolutely no idea what to do and being terrified! The fact that there’s a basilisk on the loose, a thing that has already killed people by turning them into stone, and so suddenly our first proper case is a helpless mass murder investigation!”

Will… Actually considers this for a while, as he maybe pants, “do you actually believe that?”

“What?” He asks flatly, still a bit breathlessly, “the powerless bit or the stupid bit or the-?”

“The mass murder bit,” Well, that was at the bottom of his list of panicked expectations. Will is staring at him levelly now, his hands joined under his chin and his eyes carefully watching the pint as if he expects a lunge at any moment, “what if it didn’t kill them, bro? What if it just happened to… Freeze them?”

He stares for a long moment.

…He’s not sure if he feels like laughing or slamming his head back into the alcohol, “that’s far too innocent.”

“Just think about it.”

“Don’t be naïve.”

“Just think,” and Will leans forwards, grabs his wrist before he can do a single thing more to his doubtlessly poor liver, “What if you’re not powerless or stupid or stunned or unable to do anything? What if you’re just a little lost? What if you can solve this case, despite being terrified? What if this isn’t a mass murder investigation and you can actually stop this basilisk easily? What if?”

And he prepares to yank away-

And he thinks.

…And he thinks.

 

--

 

The place doesn’t look too impressive from the outside.

It’s an old, wooden house - creaking and ancient, somewhere in the deathly depths of the suburbs. It looks rotten from the sidewalk, faintly green and faintly swaying and like it could fold in upon itself like a particularly unstable house of cards at any moment.

…He gives Will a dubious glance, still slightly tipsy, and sticks his hands in his pockets.

“Come on,” which doesn’t do much good, however, as Will is already moving - bounding towards the house like he’s some sort of rabbit and its some sort of holy carrot glowing temptingly, “it isn’t too bad, she just likes the atmosphere!”

And he sighs.

Sways.

Takes a brief glance around, noticing only one other person standing across the road and seemingly scrutinising a bush, before giving up and following – tramping slowly through the overgrown grass with all attendant fears of tetanus.

The woman who opens the door is younger than he was expecting, brown hair tangled in a rather twisted sort of halo around her head and splattered lab coat billowing around her. She isn’t wearing glasses, but squints slightly as if she should. There are, however, goggles perched on the top of her head – and her expression is more suspicious than truly strained.

“Joan!” Will still greets excitedly, even as he pulls his leg narrowly out of the risk radius of a collapsing board (and even as she continues to look suspicious, like the most caring person in all the wide world) “…It’s Will. From kindergarten, remember?”

“Kindergarten…?”

“I called? And sent you a letter? And pinned an entirely informative picture to your door?”

Joan, apparently from kindergarten (and he might as well stop being surprised at the depth and breadth of Will’s acquaintances), just narrows her eyes that little bit further.

“Oh, you’re that guy,” for a while. A short while. A very short while until she gives a short nod like she now understands the entire universe and allows her incredibly (absurdly, he’s still a little tipsy and so he’s allowed to be awful) suspicious eyes to flit to him instead, “who’s the tagalong?”

Will stares for a moment before he seems inclined to give an answer. Wow, he really hopes that this doesn’t become a stare-off, “my… Bro?”

“You want your brother exterminated?”

“…What?”

“No!” Will flails. Throws his arms out and allows his mouth to drop open and generally hops around like a bunny on sugar, “No, No. Of course not! I don’t want my brother to be harmed in any way, I don’t want my brother to be exterminated and, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want anything exterminated at all! I called about the basilisk situation, don’t you remember?”

Joan, apparently from kindergarten, has also taken a step back. She allows her eyes to roam between them for a moment before reluctantly tilting her head “…Maybe.”

“No, you do. The stone people? The disappearances? The police, like us two, having hysterics in unexpected places? The… The- The stone people that couldn’t have been turned into stone in any other way!” He can only watch, mildly impressed, as Will attempts a heavy huff of his own - leans on the doorframe, “can we come in?”

Joan keeps looking between them for a long few moments.

“…I suppose,” and then grumbles, steps aside with a rough gesture that makes a disturbingly red substance flash briefly into view on the arm of her labcoat, “as long as you’re sure that you don’t want him exterminated-“

“He’s my brother, Joan.”

“Is he a supernatural creature, though?”

“…I’ve known him for over twenty years, I very much doubt that in many interesting and evidence-backed ways.”

“Are you sure, though-?”

He gives a proper sigh himself, a little less tipsy what with the simultaneous risks of extermination and being crushed by a falling house.

He allows himself one final look at the outside world.

He spots the strange, shadowy man still on the other side of the road. Now apparently watching a tree with a fascination that surely can’t be warranted by anything

He sets his shoulders, and follows into the strange house with a certain sense of dread.

“-Is he a changeling?”

No-!”

“I don’t believe so,” and catches up to the two ahead of him in good time, stuffs his hands in his pockets and tries to look as blithely inoffensive as humanly possible, “and I rather think that I’d know by now. I’m a police detective, usually, so I mostly try to be the polar opposite.”

Joan scowls across at him, Will actually looks on the point of facepalming, “mostly?”

“Everybody can slip up occasionally.”

“I don’t approve of occasionally.”

“But it’s a natural human thing, it happens to everybody,” he considers for a long few moments, almost gets to the point of tapping his chin “…Which I suppose proves my point, really. How could I be anything other than a human? I’m a police detective, I make mistakes, I even feel despair – how could anything be more human than me?”

Joan simply… Narrows her eyes at him for a long few moments.

“I’m dedicated to stopping the supernatural from brutally slaughtering every single person in the city, not dedicated to aiding it,” he keeps going nonetheless – hands still in his pockets, eyes paying only the most casual attention to the corridor around him so he doesn’t brain himself, “we’re just the same, you and me. Just conducting our ideal jobs in a slightly different way.”

Joan… Continues to narrow her eyes, “we’re not the same.”

Oh well, at least there are words, “we are, sort of-“

Not sort of.”

“In a very conceptual and airy and just slightly different way, I think you’ll find that-“

No!” And Joan… Sighs at them, much the same as he’s been sighing at the world. Keeps storming on, gets right to a rather battered looking pair of doors and lays her hands upon them without a single moment of hesitation or doubt, “but I suppose you can’t do too much harm, even if you keep trying to force illogical amounts of mercy out of me like blood from a stone.”

An achievement-!

…A sort of achievement.

An achievement that involves no actual achieving at all, because he can’t see how to do any harm and should, thus, probably not be trusted.

The inside of the room is a mess, a chaotic lair of impossibilities that requires either wading or mute drowning. The entire floor is a pile of books: and not just books but clothes, random bits of furniture and glowing things that he doesn’t even want to identify. He almost trips four times, almost severs vital parts of him a few times more and decides to stop counting the near death experiences before they depress him.

He only realizes that they’ve reached safety when Will grabs his arm, and carefully drags him over to something that might have once been a sofa in a parallel reality. They hover over it awkwardly, it seems a far better option than braving the green… Stuff.

“So,” Joan, from kindergarten, takes a seat across from them – seeming to have no problems with sinking down in her own primordial goo, “stone people?”

“Basilisks,” Will explains, with a sigh of relief, and quickly begins to tell.

The explanation takes about an hour in all, what with his frequent interruptions to clarify points and Will’s frequent pauses to flail, and in the end Joan sits back and makes a small face. The clocks continue to tick on the walls, the carpet continues to look frankly unhealthy and they continue to hover. She doesn’t look disbelieving, at least, but she also doesn’t look exactly… Impressed.

A second ticks by.

A minute.

Multiple minutes.

“Well?” Will asks eventually, before he can get to the frankly desperate (maybe he’s still tipsy, maybe that explains absolutely everything) point of bursting out into a musical just to break the chainsaw of tension, “what do you think of it all, then?”

“…It seems like a problem,” Joan, from kindergarten, gives helpfully – taps a finger briefly and thoughtfully against her lips, “have you done anything about it yet?”

“Panicked,” he gives, softly.

“Flailed,” Will seconds, with a merry shrug and wide grin.

Humph,” and Joan, from kindergarten, huffs like everybody else in the whole wide world is an absolute idiot - clambers up to her feet in a way so grumpy that it almost takes the edge off his guilt and stomps over to something that might be a bookcase, “so you haven’t manage to restore the victims, then?”

“Restore them?” He asks, in a tone that probably manages to be just as grumpy, and crosses his arms as he watches her browse, “we’ve studied them, if that’s a part of what you mean, but beyond that I’m really not sure what you expect us to-“

Give me a second!”

Ah.

…And so he leans back, crosses his arms even tighter, gives her a second.

A minute.

Multiple-

Oh, sod it. He leans over to Will, still hovering and trying to appear polite, opens his mouth and pitches his voice low, “can she actually fix this?”

“Possibly,” Will mutters back… Reassuringly, looking faintly absent as he keeps hovering and keeps smiling and keeps being absolutely polite like only a Will can, “I dunno, she’s fixed other things for me before.”

“Other things?”

“Remember that pixie infestation we had when I was four? Those little ones that kept flying around the house when mum and dad were out and knocking all our stuff over?” Will nods proudly, like that isn’t disturbing in any way at all, “yeah, that.”

…He stares blankly for a long few moments, probably gormlessly but oh well, “we had a pixie infestation when you were four?”

“…Er.”

They were the ones who broke mum’s favourite mirror and kept knocking over dad’s flasks?”

Um-“

“And they-?”

…It’s possibly lucky for the both of them that Joan, from kindergarten, returns at that very moment with a heavy tome in her arms and dust sprinkled all over her hair. She thuds it down on what is maybe a table before the both of them, flicks to a certain page and points her finger ever so authoritatively, “There. This should tell you everything you need to know.”

He stares at it absently, for only a moment, prepares to dismissively wave his hand and turn back to the ducking Will to resume passionately scolding instead-

Slows.

Halts.

“What the hell?”

“Erm,” and Will, poor guilty Will with his sudden pixies and unexpected friends, takes advantage of the pause to firmly hide his head in his hands.

 

--

 

The next morning his best friend, like every single other person in the station, bounces past his open door with the merriest nod known to man - halts, reverses and gawps like she’s just seen the most stunning revelation in all the world.

“Hi,” he can only greet her mildly, contemplatively resting his chin in his hands.

“…Matt,” she greets him softly in reply, with a tilt of her head. Takes just one slow step into the room before halting again – tilting her head even further and keeping up that stunned expression with ease, “why do you have fifty jars of reasonably priced baby food on your desk?”

It is, in her defence, a totally legitimate question.

After they visited Joan, from kindergarten, they’d sat in the car for around fifteen minutes. He’d clutched the list of ingredients in his fist, watched the man now staring intensely at a bird across the road as he’d debated simply dropping his head and grinding it into the dashboard.

It was only lucky that Will had been sitting next to him, had cleared his throat the moment he’d started to dip and put on the bravest smile known to man, “off we go, then!”

They’d driven to the nearest grocery store first, their local one that’d experienced an aborted gang attack once but nothing worse. He’d stood awkwardly in the aisle, clutching the traditional plastic basket, as Will had shovelled their entire stock of baby food into his arms. Had stood even more awkwardly in the queue, as Will had repacked that baby food into brightly coloured plastic bags while the store clerks stared on. Had practically hovered awkwardly outside, as Will had happily loaded the stocks into the car while the entire population of New York gathered to gawp intelligently on.

“Come on!” Will had still only chirruped (actually chirruped, like he was trying to combine a cricket with an entirely obnoxious sort of bunny) afterwards, like everything was absolutely fine, “stop grinding your head against that wall and get on with it!”

Their next stop had been a poky florists that he’d first found out about from Joan’s, from kindergarten, very detailed map. The wait in the aisle had been just as awkward, as Will had carefully handled roots like they were just about to explode. The wait in the queue had been even more so, made significantly worse by the till-girl (named Tulip, with green streaks in her hair) being unfairly supportive. And as for the amble outside

“Come on!” Well, even Will bouncing almost into his arms yet again barely pulled him back from the brink of despair, “stop slamming your head against that lamppost and help me cart these back to the station!”

…And so somehow, somehow by a process he couldn’t quite recall and didn’t quite want to, they’d managed to get the whole lot over. The drive had been even more awkward than the successive aisles, as Will failed at not humming and he barely managed to avoid yet more head slamming. The clamber up into the station had been far more awkward than the multiple queues, as Will still brightly greeted everyone he met no matter how wide their eyes were. And-

“Excellent!” Well. Will had just given up with all bright attempts, and ended up massaging his back as he’d sprawled face down on his desk and sighed, “Now: we’ve done enough for today, don’t you think? We’ll go home, cook a brilliant meal, get a great rest and forget all about it until tomorrow, right?”

…And so they had. Somehow. Again.

Except now it’s the next day, and he’s sitting back at his desk, and her confused eyes are on him with a light that practically demands an explanation in a way that he can only sigh at. And grumble at. And indulge as fast as possible.

“What,” she, very kindly, refuses to stop looking disbelieving even after it’s done, “But-! ButWhy?”

He’s left only to sigh again, long and loud like that’ll force the universe back into an entirely acceptable shape (it’s possible. He suspects that it was forced out of it by much the same means, after all), “you remember the stone people down in the lab?”

“The mysterious statues?” She gawps at him for a long few moments more, is eventually forced to sigh and shrug in a resigned way, “Yeah, I’ve seen them… Does that case even have a name yet, by the way?”

“God knows,” he says shortly, cutting her off before she can begin any argument and neatly lead them both off the point (not that he’d mind that, since he actually wishes for it, but apparently he’s learned adulthood between last night and here and now), “the point is that they can apparently be cured by this. If we rub a mixture of mandrake root and baby food onto their bodies then they’ll become human again within a quarter of an hour.”

He only receives a still disbelieving look in reply, it’s nice to have friends “…Nope, still doesn’t explain why.”

“To be honest I’m not really sure why you’re asking me about that,” he grouses, leans a little further back in his chair to divert the sudden urge to slam his head into his desk and come up with little bits of mandrake root sticking to it, “all I know is that the mixture of a root that looks like a baby and food that’s meant for a new life can apparently restore the victims of a basilisk. I assume that it’s something about the contrast between those and the stony embrace of death, beyond that-“

“…What,” she interrupts him smoothly, her eyes wide yet again.

“You’ve already said that,” he can only point out with his billionth sigh of the month, lean even further back into his chair, “the mixture of a root that looks like a baby-“

Basilisk victims?”

…And then he actually pays attention.

To her slow tone.

Her calm tone.

Her very slow and calm tone as if she expects him to dive into a psychotic break at any moment and emerge out on the other side pretending that he’s a chicken.

“Ah,” and now he can only sigh, practically slide out of his chair with how far back he’s sitting and attempt to look as sane as humanly possible, “yes, I’m afraid that that really is what I meant. The basilisk victims.”

And she gawps at him.

And she stares at him.

And she-

…Starts to smile, starts to grin, starts to laugh like this is all most terribly funny and he’s an adorable idiot whirling in the middle of it. He’s so stunned by the reaction, the reaction, that he can only sit back and gawp. Attempt to make a face of such outrage that it could halt even a rhino.

“What?” He manages eventually, indignantly.

She just continues to giggle.

What-?”

“Oh,” a giggle that eventually forms into words, thank god… A giggle that eventually forms into fondly patronising words, thank no god whatsoever and he might just start matchmaking his forehead with various hard surfaces again out of spite, “Oh. Good one there, Matty! Absolutely excellent one! I’m so proud of you, you’re almost starting to gain a poker face-!”

What!” And now it’s his turn to gawp. For a few long, endless moments, “It’s not-! It’s not-! I’m not…”

“Yes you are, stop putting yourself down!” Just a pity that she ignores him with absurd ease, even pats him on the cheek before turning on her heel and ambling back towards the door like nothing really matters in the world, “Now: I really must get back to my proper job, my dear, and do proper things instead of laughing at you and your mad attempts at jokes all day!”

“You don’t have to-!” He cuts himself off halfway through, for that will not help, “what proper things?”

“Interviewing an actual witness in a robbery case,” it still doesn’t help, she only winks at him from the door, “Not at all nasty, something that was probably a mistake, but it’s something to do with my extremely and brilliantly valuable time and that’s what matters!”

“…You could spend your extremely and brilliantly valuable time helping-“

“Nope, Bye!”

“Oi-!”

“See you later!”

Please-!”

“Au revoir…”

And then she’s gone, without a single look back to his despairing expression or a single bit of sympathy. She only leaves him feeling more alone than ever – sitting in his office, waiting for Will to skip merrily along and drag him back to insanity yet again.

Ugh.

By the time that her extremely interesting interviewee walks past the door he’s already succumbed to that old urge and started grinding his head against a particularly tough piece of mandrake root. He’s so deep into it that he only gets the briefest glimpse of a concerned, oddly shadowy, oddly familiar face – and then he’s back to despairing yet again.

Joy.

 

--

 

The looks, unfortunately, don’t get any less disbelieving the next day.

“Are you sure about this?” The male scientist asks, peering over his obnoxious glasses and clearly trying to perfect a sneer so profound that he almost feels like applauding, “really, properly, absolutely sure? Because, I have to tell you, this is completely insane-”

“Oh, shut up,” he’s only left to huff (satisfyingly) in response, watch wearily as Will mixes at a speed that can only be called inhuman, “we’re only testing it on one person.”

“But he’s my favourite!”

“…What?”

“…Nothing.”

And he can only huff again, turn away from the fire-engine red face of the male scientist and back to Will finally straightening up from his pot full of goop and preparing to lather.

“Ready?” He asks, politely.

“Ready!” Will only chirps in response, almost drops his brush and almost knocks the male scientist’s favourite stone person (the truck driver, how unexpected) flying with an inopportune swing of his elbow.

…Le sigh.

He has doubts himself, to be perfectly and utterly honest (over and over and over again). Big doubts. Huge doubts. World altering doubts that keep attempting to punch him in the stomach every time he almost gets on top of things.

How can people so suddenly turn into stone?

How can basilisks be actually and properly real?

How can basilisks be actually and properly real and out on the streets of New York and apparently terrifyingly inclined to suddenly turn people into stone?

How is a repulsive mixture of baby food (of reasonable quality, he will give Will that) and apparently magical plant (according to Harry Potter, he will also give that) supposed to help things anyway?

How?

His life has become an entirely ridiculous nightmare, and all he can do is stand back and let it stretch madly on.

“…If you harm the specimens we aren’t gonna be very pleased, you know,” just as the female scientist has apparently been stretching annoyingly on, at lengths that he hasn’t quite paid attention to, “especially our favourite one, the one he’s smearing that stuff over now. We like him, and-“

“I wasn’t aware that that was what favourite meant, no,” he can only answer wryly, keep ignoring her (and the male scientist still hovering awkwardly behind, and everybody looking dubious) as much as he possibly can, “and we’re not going to hurt him. It’s baby food, for heaven’s sake – food for babies. Since when has food for babies harmed anybody?”

“…Fair point,” she’s forced to give, still continues looking dubious, “but it can harm people when it’s been mixed with something. Like mandrake root! What about the mandrake root, huh? What about the mandrake root?”

Stunned by her passion, shocked by the depth of her feelings, he can only… Huff again, and follow it up with a proper sigh, “have there been any studies on it?”

“There might be after this!”

“’The negative effect of an inane and unresponsive root mixed with food for babies and added to stone for no apparent reason,’” and shrug, of course. He can’t forget the shrugging, especially when it’s followed up by the eternal repetition of that ever present sigh, “charming, credit me in the footnotes and please hush now.”

“…Humph.”

Humph indeed.

Humph, indeed-

“Here we go!” …Will interrupts his humping with another well placed chirp, steps back with his hands firmly upon his hips and beams like he’s just managed to paint something more iconic than the Mona Lisa and more charming than Van Gough’s Sunflowers, “all done and about to take effect any second now!”

Bless Will, he’s so good at deflecting his unreasonable angst.

To a strange place.

Filled with silent staring and pretty much nothing beyond that.

…Ah.

“Well!” The male scientist exclaims, after a few minutes of pretty much nothing have ticked boringly by with only awkward stares and, indeed, nothing to show for it, “that was a complete and utter waste of time!”

Our time,” the female scientist corrects sniffily, crossing her arms across her chest and looking most miffed in a way that he’d probably care about more if he wasn’t back on the edge of complete despair, “not to mention our very important space.”

“Exactly!” The male scientist, only slightly cowed by this, takes up her sniffy theme – taking to it like a rather pathetic duck to a rather pointless body of water, “You’re detectives, you have spaces. And yet you insist on performing experiments in our lab when we could be doing far better things.”

“Like not watching you do messy experiments.”

“Indeed! Now we’ve had to waste time watching you set this mess up, and will have to waste more time shooing you out so you can make absurd messes in other places, and will have to waste even more time cleaning up the utter chaos that you’ve left here!”

“And for who? What?”

“Nothing!”

“Nothing at all.”

“Not a single flicker!”

“Or blink.”

“Or breath!”

“Or twitch.”

“Or-!”

“-Anything at all in any way. It is, to be perfectly and completely honest as all scientists should pride themselves on being, a complete and utter and total-“

“Shut up,” he interrupts wearily again, not willing to listen to a single moment more of his apparent (heh, ‘apparent’) idiocy being rubbed painfully in his face, and turns ever so quickly to Will instead “…And what now?”

Will just blinks at him for a long few seconds, like he’s being actually insane and possibly a tiny bit offensive on the side, “we wait.”

“We have waited.”

“For barely five minutes!”

“Oh, yes,” he groans sharply, ducks under Will’s hastily extended arm and turns to the happy point where he can bury his head in his hands and not have to pay attention to a single other idiot in the whole wide world, “Yes. And how long did Joan’s, from kindergarten, absolutely insane page say it would take? How long exactly? How long in seconds?”

…Will remains silent at his elbow, he can hear the slow sound of a hand falling down.

Well?”

“It’ll work,” and hisses, or as close to a hiss as a man like Will is ever likely to get, as he steps back – runs his own hand over his face and sounds like he’s trying his very hardest not to just walk away, “it will. Trust me, Matt, this is going to be great and amazing and brilliant and-“

…He sighs.

Will’s words choke off in response, he takes another step back and doesn’t make a single move further.

…He sighs again.

And Will keeps not moving, and the scientists keep conversing in whispers, and the statues keep not twitching, and the world keeps being generally awful, and- And-

And.

“Mr. Maiden?”

…He feels like he should know that voice.

And so spins, ever so slowly, to see… The strange man who’d been standing across the road when they’d went to visit Joan, from Kindergarten. The one who’d been staring at a tree, and then a bush, and then a bird fluttering ever so innocently. From this close he can see absolutely everything: the smart suit under the lab coat, the slightly nervous eyes, the way his skin actually seems to eddy - dark and nebulous like he’s staring into the heart of space.

Huh.

They stare at each other for a long second.

…And he opens his mouth, and licks his lips, and prepares to scream at the top of his lungs for an arrest-

The truck driver, over the strange man’s shoulder, has just blinked himself back awake. His eyes are wide, his hands are shaking. His clothes stick to his body as if he was in a deadly sweat when he turned and he generally looks about a step away from just flailing onto his back and becoming dead to the world yet again.

“It worked,” the strange man says quite simply, and steps aside as Will rushes back to him with his mouth gaping open.

 

--

 

A week later and pretty much everybody has recovered.

It’s stunning, alarming, impossible - but yet it still happens. The truck driver walks stiffly around the lab, the old woman blinks and sobs for a few hours on his shoulder, the teenagers scream and run around like headless chickens until the female scientist yells them back to shape.

…But.

Will finds him in the canteen, head down on the table and breath hissing out of his nose. He sensibly hovers for a moment, gently decides not to comment upon it and slides silently into the seat across from him.

“…Matt?”

“Hrm?”

“What’s wrong?”

A long pause ticks by.

He lifts his head, rests his chin in his palms and blinks for a long and hesitant moment. Watches until Will slides a little down in his seat and makes a face before he can even think of building a response “…Nothing has changed.”

Will, half-sunk, looks actually surprised at this summation. Pushes himself up a little from his slump with a low frown between his eyebrows, “Yes it has. What about all the people we’ve saved? The magic we’ve done? The mythical creatures that we’ve stopped dead in their-?”

“And the one that’s still out there?”

Another long pause ticks slowly by.

Will starts, coughs, looks down at his hands, squeezes shut his eyes briefly and still seems to have absolutely no answers when he comes back up “…Um.”

“It’s still out there,” he explains levelly, still with chin propped miserably upon palm (like he’s some statue – or, at least, feels just as frozen as one), “with claws, with tail, with eyes that have that charming ability to turn people into stone. It’s still dangerous.”

…Will doesn’t even try this time.

“And we’re powerless to stop it,” and he just keeps staring out at nothing.

 

--

 

The sleep he has that night is… Unsettled, to say the least.

He’s all alone, all alone and cold in a way so bitter and unyielding that there’s a sickly feeling in his stomach just waiting to surge up his throat. This feels fated. Certain. unavoidable in a way that sends panic sharp and tangy into his mouth and his heart pounding like a rabbit that’s just spotted an eagle.

The scaled thing, basiliskbasiliskbasilisk, is standing before him. Head tilted and eyes mildly mocking.

They stare at each other for a second.

Stare…

He can actually feel himself, actually feel himself crumbling ever so slowly into stone. A sensation that starts itching in his toes, paralysing him with magic and pure fear besides. His heart pounds rabbit fast again, his mouth starts actually fizzing, the churning in his stomach grows faster and faster and-

The numb itching sensation travels up his shins, freezing him solid. His kneecaps, the sides of his knees, the backs. Over his thighs, across his hips and steadily in between.

His stomach, turning the churning into a permanent block that sits hard within him. It creeps slowly up his torso, his ribs, his spleen, even his lungs dead in his chest. His heart stops, actually stops, with a hard little thunk. He’s ashamed to say that he barely notices.

His shoulders creak to numbness, weighing him down so much that he half feels that he’s going to drop to the floor. His upper arms follow, his elbows and his lower arms, the back of his hands and his palms. His fingers go last, hard in the air – clenching into helpless claws before he can do a single thing.

Then his collarbone, something that he’s never felt before but miserably realizes now. And his neck, and his jaw, and his mouth, and his nose, and his ears, and his eyes, and his brain, and right up to the very tip of his hair. To the point where it’s ruffled just as he likes it, in a way that no sculptor could manage even if he or she tried for a thousand years.

…He can still feel every single bit of him, numb and frozen.

He can still feel every inch, turned into stone.

He can still feel.

And the basilisk, the bloody basilisk with its definitely mocking eyes, tilts its head before him. And chirps, and waves its tail, and looks smug, and smiles so wide with that damned beak and steps forward and-

…And he shoots up, shaky in his bed at midnight. The sheets stained with sweat and his heart still pounding like a rabbit under an eagle and between a gun and a cliff.

The room is dark, dark and silent. He’s all alone, the only company a sliver of moonlight poking in through the mostly closed curtains. His skin is still soft, still human. No basilisk (basiliskbasiliskbasilisk) lurks, even in the darkest corners.

Oh.

Oh, heaven.

…It’s been a hard week, he decides as he peels himself out of bed and half crawls to his door, and an even harder day. People have been brought back to life, yes, but that doesn’t take away the fact that others will soon be dying. Miracles have been performed, yes, but that doesn’t stop yet another miracle from casually walking the streets and causing chaos wherever it goes. He’s been congratulated so many times today that he feels practically like a god, yes-

But, well.

His father called, in the short gap between him getting home from work and Will getting home from his celebratory drinks.

“Are you still working down the station?”

“I’m a detective, dad.”

“A stupid job, you ain’t suited to it. Didn’t I tell you to get out of that life and into one that’d make your good old man actually proud?”

“You tell me a lot of things, dad, and you’re so good at joking that I’m not sure whether to take them seriously or not. How was I to know that that was meant in a perfectly sincere way?”

“…Humph.”

“Besides, I like my job-”

Don’t get uppity with me, boy.”

“…Sorry.”

“Good. Good, you still remember those manners that your mother insisted on teaching you. Silly bint otherwise, but those… Well. If you’re still working at that station then you’ve probably been doing stuff there. What sort of stuff, kid?”

“Detecting-“

“What sort of cases, stupid?”

“A big one, actually. Our very first. You see, dad, there were these stone people that suddenly appeared all over the place – in the road, down the street, even in a playground. They were all sorts of people, and they all appeared to have been left there by absolutely nobody. But, but, we’ve just figured out-“

“Our? We?”

“-How to fix them. What?”

“You actually managed to get a partner, kid? Actually? Another guy, or gal – never say that I’m not equal opportunity, to have your back and do all the numerous things you can’t?”

“Erm… Didn’t you know?”

“I didn’t know that you were still working at the station until you told me today, Einstein. Honestly, am I supposed to know everything around here? Am I supposed to be one of those obnoxious intellectual types with tweed elbows and an inability to take care of himself? Come on.”

“…Um.”

“So, who is it?”

“Er…”

Who?”

“…Will, actually. It’s Will. You remember Will, don’t you? Blonde, slightly shorter than me, constantly bouncing, the most positive person in the whole wide world? Your son-?”

“They allowed that halfwit to become a detective?”

“…What.”

“Exactly what I said. That halfwit? God help the world, kid, if that halfwit is allowed anywhere near a position of power. He’s a moron! A fool! An utter nutter. Honestly, I don’t know what things are coming to when a boy like that is brought in…”

“He’s your son-“

“So? He’s always had more of his stupid bint of a mother in him than me.”

…And so on.

That was probably the birth of the dream, he decides as he scrambles down the corridor and towards the kitchen. His dearest darling father. Or, more accurately, his dearest darling father yet again.

He’s always been like this, he continues to think miserably even as he gets there – straightens reluctantly to his feet and gropes vaguely for the door of their fridge, always. Always been rude, abrasive and downright cruel. Always been mean, stubborn and determined not to acknowledge the world in general. Always been against dreams of any kind, aspirations of any kind, Wills of any kind. Always been opposed to everything good in the world.

…He takes a deep breath, grabs a carton of milk out of the fridge, downs a quarter of it in one. Strolls over to the misted window and lays his head against it.

It shouldn’t affect him this much, he muses miserably as he takes another long and awkward gulp of milk, it really shouldn’t at his age. He’s in his thirties now - so what if his father’s an asshole? So what if he’s always sneered over Will? So what if he’s never been comfortable with allowing other people their own lives? So what? They don’t need him, he can’t touch them now, he’s absolutely nothing in a way so profound that it’s almost laughable.

And yet…

He’ll still always be there, realization thuds sadly into him as he slumps an inch lower down that cold window, it’ll still always hurt. Always sting, at least a little. Always feel, so painfully, like knives are digging into the fabric of his heart. He could be in his forties, and the man would still have the power to wound. In his fifties, and the man would still have the power to make him ache. In his sixties and-

…He’d still be just as frozen as the stone people, victims of that basilisk.

He takes another sip of his milk, sighs to himself. Takes another sip of his milk, groans to himself. Takes another sip of his milk and curls into himself, sliding even further down against the window and yet still somehow managing to stay on his ever so painful feet.

It’s all a bit pointless, really, isn’t-?

Oh.

He’s being watched, it’s a knowledge as sure as the sun rising or his heart beating. He blinks at it, frowns at it, pushes himself up against the counter and sets the carton aside as he raises his head. It only takes a few moments for his eyes to focus across the street, to the streetlight across from him, and from there it’s easy enough to see what lurks underneath.

The woman with the skeleton hand looks up at him, as calm as anything. The man with the skin like the night sky stands quietly next to her, eyes also fixed. They wait together, as if they expect something strange and new to happen in the blink of an eye.

…Oh.

An odd sense of calm spreads through him. His shoulders ease and drop, the pounding of his heart calms. He takes a slow step back from the window and puts a thoughtful hand to his mouth.

…Oh, indeed.

By the time that Will staggers blearily into the kitchen, in search of cereal, a plan has already started to slowly form.

 

--

 

The orphanage where the girl, Delilah, and her basilisk live is an old and extremely odd place. Its red brick reaches ominously up to the sky, the windows all glint darkly and the gargoyles peeking over the edges all wear uniform expressions of malice. He decides, as they trot quickly up the crumpled stairs to the ragged front door, that it’s probably the most gothic place that he’s seen in his life.

The inside is a little nicer, But nicer in the way that Greenland is nicer than the North Pole. An actual fire burns in the grate across from them, the woman hurrying across looks like she’s just burst out of the attic (complete with cobwebs in her hair).

“Detectives Maiden?” She asks as she comes to a halt before them, anxiously tilting her head (and plucking at the cobwebs, still in her hair).

“Speaking.”

“We called ahead…?”

“Yes,” the woman from the attic half ignores them both, glances briefly over her shoulder and then starts back to them in such a jumpy way (giving up on the cobwebs after only a few seconds), “Good, I know. I remember your voice, at least… You’re here about Delilah and her scaly problem?”

What a neat way of putting it, he narrowly represses the urge to clap admiringly, “Delilah and her basilisk, yes. How long has she had it, Ms…?”

“Shelley. Mrs Shelley,“ Mrs Shelley, the incredibly jumpy ghost from the attic, jumps again. Wriggles uncomfortably on her feet and takes a good few seconds to ease down from her apparent high, “and about two weeks, she just walked home from school one day with it following on her heels.”

“And you all managed to avoid its eyes?”

“Only because a few children ran back before her and told us about their poor, slaughtered friends. Otherwise we would’ve all been doomed!”

“Doomed,” Will says, sending a frown at him that says several thousand uncomplimentary words on the subject, “bit of a strong term, really. They’ve all recovered now, quite easily after we figured out what was going on.”

“…Oh.”

“And there were only one or two kids frozen anyway.”

“Oh-“ Mrs Shelley, from the attic, shakes herself thoroughly as if to get back on track. Actually manages to do so in the next few seconds with a flair that impresses him quite thoroughly, “not the point. It’s still a creature of doom, it’s still terrifying, it still has scales and a tail, it can still turn people into stone!”

“And…?”

It-!” …Mrs Shelley pauses, tilts her head, frowns like she’s out of ideas. It takes another long few moments, he can’t really blame her – he’s been through the same process a thousand times in the past fortnight, before she’s able to get back on track, “erm. That might be the extent of its traits, actually.”

“And its powers?”

“…That might be the extent of them too.”

“Ah,” Will sends him another look, draws in a deep breath with all the passion of a man who’s just sensed a possible double in the world, “and does Delilah know this?”

“…The extent of its traits and powers?”

“No,” he returns the look, takes over the conversation with the quiet confidence of a man who knows that he’s just sensed his double in the world, “the fact that it actually has any powers whatsoever.”

Mrs Shelley opens her mouth… Closes her mouth, tilts her head even further, shifts from one foot to the other. Her eyes dart everywhere for a second, her jaw shifts and she looks a little like she just wants to fall over and roll peacefully out of the room.

It takes a long while, such a time-wasting interview, before she even manages to reopen her mouth just a little “…No. To be perfectly honest I don’t think that she notices anything odd about it at all. Delilah is blind, you see, has been at least since she was dumped on our doorstep when she was a few days old. She can’t see it and so she hasn’t suffered, as a result she has no idea why everybody else is so terrified.”

“Because she thinks that it’s nothing to be terrified of?”

“She thinks that it’s a puppy, at best guess. A Doberman or a greyhound or one of those odd breeds that they don’t really allow near children.”

“Huh,” he says carefully, and sways backwards and forwards on his heels. It’s only the sudden knowledge of how deeply annoying it actually is that keeps him from retreating into his own mind and not coming out until he has a long beard, “and does it act like a puppy when it isn’t threatening to turn people into stone?”

“Well, that’s a pretty narrow time period…”

“Does it?”

“And there are an awful lot of puppies, that all act in completely different ways…”

Does it?”

“…Maybe,” Mrs Shelley is forced to sigh, her hands knot before her for a long moment before she picks up on the same realization as him and hurries quickly on, “I don’t know, really, since I’ve been too terrified to get all that close. It seems sweet, at least – it certainly hasn’t done anything to her yet.”

“And you’re happy about that.”

“Of course I’m happy about that! This isn’t Annie, for crying out loud, I don’t take pleasure in mistreating my charges-!” About to launch into a rant, she sees their faces. Hesitates for a long few moments before drawing in a sigh and looking awkwardly away “…More than happy, actually. Delilah’s the loveliest girl that I’ve ever met, but children are children and most of the ones she associates with haven’t yet learned to be kind. This is the happiest I’ve seen her in years, as terrified as I am I still can’t help being touched by that.”

“So you’d hate to take it away…?” He presses carefully, seeing an opening and immediately leaping for it.

“Yes, I suppose,” she only takes a deep breath, hovers carefully around the bait, “yes. I don’t mind making people unhappy, not particularly – but it’d break my heart to take away that girl’s one lifeline.”

“…Hrm,” he says carefully, glances at Will and pretends to consider for a few ever so long moments, “well, maybe there’s a way that you won’t have to.”

The plan is simple enough that it can be explained in about five minutes, even with a few overexcited interruptions from Will. Mrs Shelley looks slightly dubious afterwards, and rightly so, but eventually forces a smile and submits – goes to the door and politely calls.

Will looks at him as she does so.

He looks back at Will.

“…You sure about this, bro?”

“As sure as I’ve ever been,” he answers confidently, and turns back as slow footsteps sound down the stairs, “surer, if that’s at all possible.”

Delilah is a small girl. Petite. Looking a little like she could blow away in a strong wind as she taps her way into the room and pauses uncertainly. She’s obviously, disgustingly if he’s going to tell the truth, used to bad things – she hovers like she expects jeers or worse.

…Will looks at him again, he glances briefly back at Will.

And then shrugs, smiles slightly, takes the required few steps forwards until he can crouch carefully down, “Delilah?”

She starts a little from his voice. Doesn’t flinch, not exactly, but does sway warily just a little, “Y-yes. Yes, that’s me… Who-?”

“Just call me Matt,” he says, as gently as he can. Smiles even though she can’t see it, “I’m a detective with the police department near here, solving crimes and other such things.”

“Serious crimes?”

“Sometimes.”

He watches her turn that over in her mind for a long few moments. Feels an odd, absurdly touched feeling blossoming slowly and strangely in his chest before she gets around to opening her mouth even a little “…Have I committed a serious crime, then, sir-?“

“Matt, please,” his smile grows even bigger, “and how old are you, Delilah?”

“Seven.”

“Then I don’t think that you’re old enough to have done anything serious at all, do you? And, even if you were old enough, I think that you’re rather too nice to have done anything anyway,” he tilts his head, still with smile, watches that slowly settle into her mind “…We’re here about your dog, actually.”

“…My dog?”

“Yes,” he nods a little, pleased that she gets it so very fast (she’d be a good detective one day, really. Expect with far fewer emotional hang-ups ready to eat her alive at every single turn), “I understand that you found him two weeks ago, and very kindly led him home. Does he have a name yet?”

Delilah already looks a little happier. It’s touching, really, how her eyes light up and an actual smile touches her mouth, “I call him Puppy… Matt?”

“A very good name,” he nods, definitely pleased and certainly a little touched into the bargain, “do you know how old he is? What… Breed he is?”

“No,” Delilah gives quite honestly, without any sort of shame and still with that almost beaming smile spreading across her face, “and no. But I know that he’s nice, at least. He’s a baby, just like me, and he’s lovely and happy and he likes bringing sticks back to me every time we go to the park. He’s good at it, too! He always manages to find them, no matter how odd I might’ve thrown.”

“A very good dog, then?”

“A brilliant dog!” And Delilah pauses for only a moment as she thinks over her next sentence, allows a slightly fonder smile to come to her lips, “plus, he was lonely. Just like me.”

…Oh.

Aw.

For despite all the years between them, all the differences in upbringings and genders and views of the world, he feels an odd kinship with Delilah and her basilisk-dog. They’re both just lonely kids, really. Both only able to struggle with what they’ve been given because there’s no other way.

“…He’s not in trouble, is he?” The admiring pause is, unfortunately, enough to get Delilah concerned. Her forehead wrinkles, her voice goes a little higher and she honestly looks distressed, “he hasn’t done anything, has he?”

He hurries to reassure her, a little guilty, “no-“

“’Cause he’s been with me all the time! Even when I go to school, even when I go to sleep! He couldn’t have done anything, he’s been too close every single second of the day!”

“Yes-“

“I’d know if he’d done anything! And, even if he had, I’d scold him and make him know that he was wrong and frown at him until he acted like a good dog again!”

“I know-“

“You won’t lock him away, will you? Oh please don’t lock him away! Please-!”

“-And no,” he finishes, finally. Feels an odd mixture of guilty and proud for a long few moments before he realizes fully that he’s ridiculous and moves swiftly on, “we’re not ever going to lock your poor Puppy away. We’ve come to help you keep him, actually.”

He realizes that the plan, despite Delilah’s demonstrated intelligence, is a little too complicated – but, with a little thought, is soon able to pare it down into a far easier form. Delilah frowns all throughout, but nods when he gets to the end and accepts the blindfold easily. Her fingers slip over it for a second before she takes it fully, but soon she’s smiling again and heading for the door with an enthusiasm that does her credit.

…It has to be enough.

He reverses back to Will as she opens the door and starts to call, turns his head and looks at his little brother contemplatively. Will returns the look for a long few seconds before nodding and attempting a smile, “you’re sure that you’re sure, bro?”

“That makes no sense,” he smiles. And then, almost casual enough to be an afterthought: “I hope so.”

“Here, Puppy!”

…And then he hears it.

The skittering scrape of claws, the soft thud of something reaching the bottom of the stairs and deciding to commemorate that with a quick faceplant into the ground.

Good Puppy!”

Mrs Shelley has disappeared, probably off to hide under some desk. Delilah is the only person capable of facing forwards, probably scratching her basilisk-dog’s stomach. He and Will are the only ones in the room capable of being hurt by this.

…Ah.

“Are you alright, Puppy?”

Ah, indeed.

(If you can actually say ‘indeed’ in a situation like this, if the word ‘indeed’ actually makes any sense, if he’s not just going mutely insane yet again and forgetting all polite social contact and- and-)

“Are you sure, Puppy?”

(He’s panicking, he knows.)

He’s having a quiet panic, a quanic if you will. The only possible thing he can do is draw in a deep, careful breath and try not to flail into a rather melodramatic faint.

“Yes, Puppy? Good, Puppy!”

That’d be bad, after all. Very bad. Impolite, more than anything. Nobody ever flailed into any melodramatic faints when he was a kid, even when he appeared to get involved in an insane case every other week. He can return the favour, totally. And especially for a kid as lovely as-

He hears the soft squeak of shoes moving across the floor, the drawing in of a slow breath. It’s barely audible, it’s cloth so he’s not entirely sure that it’s supposed to be, but he half thinks he hears the sound of something exactly like a blindfold being unfurled and wrapped around something slightly rough and entirely amiable.

“…Mr. Matt?”

Oh.

Oh, God, “just Matt is fine, Delilah, I’m really not that much of a mister.”

“Cool! …I’ve done what you said, now.”

Oh God.

“D’you wanna see?”

Oh-

He slowly creaks his eyes open, from where he was clenching them unconsciously shut. Takes in a few deep breaths and glances slowly across to Will yet again. His brother is in much the same state – face screwed up, body trembling with something that might just be unexpected terror.

“Absolutely sure,” his voice is tiny, when he finally manages to draw in a deep breath and speak, “bro?”

“Absolutely,” he answers firmly, raising his chin and drawing in an ever so deep breath through his nose.

…Absolutely.

Absolutely-

He gulps, sways, turns around so fast that the world half blurs around him. Stops himself from falling over, reopens his eyes from where they’ve instinctively slammed shut, draws in yet another deepdeep breath and focuses-

Delilah is standing there politely, right next to her basilisk-dog with its scales and beak and tail. The thing’s head is tilted towards him, but he doesn’t feel even the slightest bit like turning into stone forever – its eyes are completely covered by a strip of black.

He draws in a deep, heartfelt, ever so startled breath.

“Matt…?”

“We’ve done it,” he mumbles, mainly to himself – and then beams like his birthday and Christmas have all come at once in a happy ball of utter joy, “We’ve actually done it!

And suddenly Will is laughing, Mrs Shelley is scuttling back from wherever she was hiding with her mouth gaping open, the children are popping their wide-eyed heads around so many doors just to see the spectacle, the carers are tripping down the stairs in absolute shock, everybody-

Everybody.

Within about five seconds the room is entirely full, jostling with joy. Some people have set up a dance, bright and random in the corner of the room. Will is still laughing over it all, surrounded by children who obviously see another five year old to add to their pack. Mrs Shelley is half sobbing with joy, picking up random children and spinning with them as if everything is alright now, everything is fine.

(And he understands the feeling.)

He understands the feeling so well that he almost bursts into a dance himself, almost falls into hysterical laughter, almost sits down and starts crying in the middle of the room, almost does everything joyous that it’s possible for one man to do.

…Delilah just sits in the middle of it all. Knees draw up to her chest, expression faintly puzzled. Her basilisk-dog, Puppy, coils confusedly around her – its head in her lap and shifting only faintly with the absent scratches of her fingers.

He pulls himself together pretty quickly after that.

Walks over to her-

…Spots, in the middle of the party, the girl with the skeleton hand and her inky black beau. Standing there calmly and watching him with twin smiles upon their faces – like they’re proud, like he’s good, like he’s done absolutely everything that he was supposed to.

He only raises his hand in the briefest wave, smiles happily back. Goes to sit by Delilah and her basilisk like any decent man would.

 

--

 

The next time they end up in a bar is significantly better than the last.

They’re both still hyped up on victory, on being right for once and not plaintive statues clawing at the air. Will half skips in, glowing so brightly with pleasure that he almost fears that the fire alarms will go off. He follows in practically the same way, grin so wide that it occurs to him that he should just keep fearing.

“We did it!” Will chirps to him over the loud music, the moment the doors close behind them.

“We did it,” he grins back without a single snap, and barely notices so high on life he is.

They do find a table in the end, after only a few minutes of hovering in a happy circle. It’s a secluded one – old oak enclosed by dark walls where they can bounce to their hearts’ content. They’re so far away from the action that the weirded out looks from the other patrons soon fade away, so far away that even the waiters ignore them as they hurry to and fro across the floor. It’s absolutely perfect.

“We did it-“

“Stop repeating yourself,” just as Will is perfect, just as Delilah and her basilisk-dog were perfect, just as the world is mildly perfect just for these few moments, “and tell me instead, how does it feel to complete our first proper case?”

Will only restrains his bouncing a little at that, not at all at the interruption, “we’ve had cases before.”

“Not proper ones.”

“Really? Not even that one with Hitchcock…?” Will snorts at his expression, laughs so loud and so free that he can’t help but join in. There’s an odd sense of happiness in his gut, creeping up his spine. He truly does feel like he could hover with it, “fair enough. It feels great.”

He can’t help a grin either, beaming across his face in response, “great?”

Brilliant,” and Will only laughs again, slumps back in his chair and stares up at the ceiling like he’s just seen the Mona Lisa and the milky way all mixed into one blur of glory, “we solved the case in only two weeks! And we rescued all the people! With not a single fatality to our names!”

“Yes-“

“And we stopped the basilisk from hurting any other people! In a way that didn’t involve killing it or taking it away! And, as a result, Delilah was able to keep it and will be able to keep it for the rest of her life!”

“-And Yes.”

“And…” Will trails off, looks at him for a long few seconds. They stare at each other in that way for a short while before yet another beaming grin breaks inevitably across his face, “you’re happiest about that bit, aren’t you? The fact that she won’t have to be lonely ever again.”

“…Maybe,” he gives, with a little smile of his own.

“You felt an odd sense of kinship with that girl, didn’t you?”

Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“I’m not blind,” he gives again, with a smile that just grows bigger and bigger (uncontrollably, widening across his face in a way that he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to), “and I’m not a girl, and we did have parents even if they were less than ideal most of the time. But… Yes, maybe. Maybe, and that’s the only thing that I’m going to say.”

“You were both lonely little kids” …Will just keeps staring at him, an understanding smile spreading slowly across his face, “who took a while to find the only other thing in the world who’d know you for who you were.”

A long, honest pause ticks by.

“You should’ve been a psychiatrist instead of wasting yourself on this detective business,” he grunts, and ducks his head so Will won’t see his smile (still uncontrollable, still so very much wanted), “come on, how about some drinks before you leave for your new vocation?”

“I would be an awful psychiatrist,” Will sees through him anyway, laughs again, stares at him with absurdly touched eyes…

But goes anyway, with only the bounciest backwards glance. Leaves him alone and sitting there with an odd feeling in his heart and a huge smile still struggling happily across his face.

…Ah.

He leans back in his seat, taps his fingers against the table. Blows his cheeks out, like a goldfish, and lets a long whoosh of breath out. Finally half turns, elbow on the table, and lets his eyes play across the rest of the packed bar in such a contemplative way.

…They’ve won.

Won. Won. Not just half won, not just quarter won, but actually won in a way that sends a warm feeling dancing in his gut. He feels a little like he could summersault, a little like he could loop de loop, a little like he could just leap up into the air and fly away.

It doesn’t even matter that nobody else will believe him, will just chalk it down as a strange phenomenon and force him to get back to work the day after. It doesn’t even matter that he won’t receive much appreciation, will just get odd looks and narrowly edged around subjects. It doesn’t even matter, that not a single person in this bar will know what he’s done. It doesn’t even-

Ah.

An odd chill goes down his spine the moment he sees her, he carefully leans back in his chair and draws in a deep breath. When the woman with the skeleton hand actually approaches, slides into the booth next to him and neatly crosses her legs, the only thing left to do is tap his fingers against the table and sigh.

A-

She’s pretty, from close up. Her bony hand is unsettling, yes, but the brown of her other hand is warm besides it. Her dark hair is cut into a short bob, just brushing her jawline in a way that could probably be called sophisticated. Her dark eyes glint from under her fringe and she looks a lot younger than he ever would’ve guessed in the midst of… Everything.

She’s smiling at him, he supposes that he should take that as a good sign, “hello, have we been officially introduced?”

“I don’t think so,” he answers politely, voice surprisingly level considering both this situation and the past two weeks, and… Extends his hand, like some sort of upstanding young gentleman, “Matthew Maiden, but after all this time I suppose you can probably call me Matt.”

“Cecilia,” her grip is firm, at least. She seems somewhat impressed at his daring, “and after all this time?”

“You have been following me.”

“Indeed, but only since you took on Delilah’s case,” she smiles a little at him, drops his hand as she leans carefully back in her chair, “and did rather an impressive job, I must say. Have you solved all of it yet?”

He arches his eyebrow at her, wryly, “shouldn’t you know?”

“I suppose,” and her smile is charming, she gets right to the point without any delay or diversion, “but I would still like to hear it.”

“Fine” …He can only smile, at least for that, “we think that we’ve solved every single part of it, even if you might not entirely agree. The stone people have been restored to humanity, the basilisk has been tamed and I think little Delilah will be happy with life no matter what.”

“Oh, I quite agree,” Cecilia takes away the pressure immediately, only keeps smiling when he looks the slightest bit surprised, “what part was the most important to you, then?”

“Delilah being happy with life no matter what” …He only realizes that he’s answered when he hears the words in the air, shrugs and decides to keep on rolling with it, “of course. No child ever deserves to be alone, not even in those sort of circumstances.”

…And obviously the rolling, the entirely true rolling he realizes as the seconds tick on and on, was good.

As Cecilia grins, and sways happily in her seat, and nods with a joy that makes him feel entirely and oddly warm inside, “you see, I knew you were a good one. It’s nice to meet somebody who has their priorities in order, for once, it happens so rarely…”

“My second concern was returning the stone people to life,” he continued, buoyed by that brightness, “also of course.”

“Aren’t you just a shining ball of good intentions and fantastic life choices?” Cecilia only keeps grinning, only manages to scale it back to a smile after she’s made him feel thoroughly good, “which I’m glad for, of course yet again. It’s always nice to meet somebody whose outlook meshes so perfectly with ours.”

“Ours?” He teases, feeling a lot more comfortable with that goodness still coursing through his veins, “would that mean you and the man with skin like the night sky, perhaps-?”

“Death, you mean?”

“…Oh,” oh well, a little more comfortable. Still comfortable enough to avoid having a screeching panic attack in the middle of a crowded bar, at least, “well, I have to say that my description was an awful lot more poetic.”

“He’ll like it, certainly. I’ll have to suggest it to him when we get back home,” Cecilia’s smile grows that little bit fonder, it seems so wonderfully private that he returns to a lot more comfortable with every single breath, “he’s my boyfriend, you see.”

“And that explains everything,” he gives wryly, deciding to throw caution to the wind and embrace the comfort wherever it may come, “including your hand, if you don’t mind me asking…?”

“Our first date,” she doesn’t, even as she goes slightly bashful and ducks her head to blush, “It went a little… Pear shaped for a bit, after we first met. It’s all sorted out now, though.”

“I’d hope so,” he grins in return, soon finds himself automatically embracing that comfort yet again, “and, since we’re still on this incredibly fascinating subject, I suppose this also explains why you were observing us and our investigation so very closely…?”

“That was why we started doing so, yes,” Cecilia’s smile, in response, goes right back to beaming too, “he has this certain… Well, it’d probably take too long to explain and you’re probably not actually all that interested. But he was drawn to the oddness of the stone people, and I was inevitably drawn along with him.”

“You do that a lot, then?”

“A fair amount, I’m afraid.”

He chuckles at that, nods to himself… Since he can understand that, really. Far too well, to tell the absolute truth. Life is just an endless line of being dragged into things of dubious sanity, you either get used to it or end up coiled in a sobbing ball for the rest of eternity, “why did you stick around after you figured things out, then?”

“Who’s to say that we figured things out at all?”

Cecilia.”

“…To make sure that Delilah, and her basilisk, were alright in the end,” Cecelia – who simply shrugs, smiles, gives in with a certain amount of joy that he can definitely feel, “to see how the mystery turned out, to find if two lonely little children could get the happy ending that they both truly deserved.”

…And an odd feeling surges up his throat.

An odd prickle starts at the back of his eyes.

He can only stare at her for a long few moments before he has to duck his head, give a ragged little laugh to his hands and attempt to look like an actual person instead of a mass of pointless tears.

“I’m glad that they did,” Cecilia says gently, mercifully taps her fingers against the table and looks away “…Ah, and here are our drinks! I hope you don’t mind us joining you, at least for tonight?”

“Of course not, be our guests” …And he smiles, right down to his hands yet again.

 

--

 

“You’re smiling,” is the first comment he gets when they meet by the water cooler again the next morning – his hand wrapped around a plastic cup (the coffee machine is almost fixed, what a day) and his expression, indeed, absolutely beaming.

“Shouldn’t I be?” He can only ask casually as a result, so pleased that he could start using chirping terms such as ‘indeedy-do’ and ‘ whatsa-diddling’ and not care a single bit, “what exactly is wrong with smiling on a… Thursday?”

“Tuesday.”

“Really? My, feels like a Thursday sort of day,” he takes a bouncy sip of his water, only smiles the slightest bit as she narrows her eyes at him like that’ll transform him back into the known and loved Matthew Maiden of the past “…By which I mean that it feels good. You’re actually shocked at my happiness, why?”

“…After the fortnight you’ve had-“

“Few weeks.”

“-Fortnight, I thought that you’d be a lot more miserable,” she just ignores him, doesn’t punch him on the arm (it has to come at some point, though, it always comes at some point) but instead gives a quizzical little shrug and tilt of her head, “that’s all. I mean, obviously I don’t want you to be miserable – but you’ve had an awful time and generally people come away a bit grumpy from that.”

He considers this for a long few seconds “…Generally.”

“…That didn’t sound anything like a sudden realization.”

Well. It was weird, yes, and terrifying and even a little awful… But in a good sort of way, if that makes any sense?” He takes one look at her flat expression, has to bite back a smile, “it doesn’t, I know. But I’ve had a good case: I’ve saved lives, made lives better, solved the ‘Crime.’ It’s been all of those terrible things, yes, but it’s also been brilliant and wonderful and good - and, for once, I’ve been brilliant and wonderful and good too.”

She stares at him for a long few seconds, still in flat silence “…For once is a bit of an understatement.”

“Well, you were bound to say that,” he lies, ducks his head just slightly and can’t help the grin that bursts like a ray of sun over his ever so happy face.

…She, even still disbelieving and definitely sceptical, grins slowly in return.

“I know you don’t believe me,” and he, bolstered by that, allows his grin to fade to a fond smile – carries on still so happily that he could still probably hover, “but I believe myself, and I suppose that’s what matters. I probably won’t be able to continue being brilliant and wonderful and generally good – but I can try now, and that’s a lot better than it ever was before.”

She-

“Isn’t it?”

She-

Isn’t-?”

…Nods, slowly. Still looks disbelieving, but a little less so due to it warring so strongly with pride, “you can show your father-“

“Show him? I’ll never even have to see the man after this!” and he goes right back to bouncing, higher and higher, like he truly could hover off the ground and drift happily away into the sky, “I don’t need him, neither me nor Will do. We’re better off without him, better with only the few people who get us best and who’ll stick with us through any amount of storms.”

She keeps smiling-

“And better off trying to be proper detectives, now,” he continues before he can get touched by it, allow the sleep deprivation and the contrast terror and everything to sweep him away on an entirely embarrassing wave, “with proper cases, beyond the absurd and humiliating. We could actually be something close to great.”

She’s still determined to catch him, though, like a fish in a net, “you already are great.”

Just a pity that his natural instinct is to wriggle through “…We’ll just have to be greater, then.”

“Greater?”

“Far greater.”

“Far far greater?”

“Far far far greater.”

“Far far far far-?”

And so he keeps wriggling, and keeps weaving, and keeps ducking. And laughs, triumphant and bouncing and finally happy. And-

Will bursts in, almost skids into the water cooler again, just about manages to pull himself up before he puts an actual Will shaped hole in the wall – bounces right up into their faces in a flail that almost sends them both stepping swiftly back, “Bro! Bro! You aren’t gonna believe this! There are these things, these tiny things, that are apparently stealing shopping and knitting and limbs down on the subway-!”

-And he blinks.

And he sighs, ending it by the water cooler just as it begun.