Hold This - RoseGanymede95 - Dead Boy Detectives (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Chapter 1

Summary:

Charles has a really good idea to get out of some magic handcuffs. For some reason, Edwin doesn't agree.

Notes:

Remember what I said the maybe sequel was gonna stay pretty short? I lied. It's 10k already. I've lost control of my life.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Charles had been caught in a nice, wide variety of ghost-proof traps over the past decade. Iron bars were the most obvious way to go about it and thus the most common. Those were a pain in the arse, nearly impossible to get out of without some light singeing, but by now he was quick enough with a lock pick that they didn’t pose much trouble. He appreciated the creativity that went into a magic urn or a cursed amulet that sucked in souls here and there, even though it meant he had to wait around until Edwin found the right magic words to bust them out.

Once he’d gotten stuck in a coffin that was covered in runes meant to stop a dead person from climbing out of it. Turned out that the runes worked right bloody well and he couldn’t get out until Edwin scraped them off by hand.

Edwin hadn’t been pleased with him, that day. He probably wouldn’t be pleased with him by the end of today, either.

At least this time it wasn’t Charles’ fault that they were stuck. This one was a team effort. Neither he nor Edwin had thought to wonder if their client was the dead lover of a megalomaniacal wizard, now, had they? Wasn’t the sort of thing you thought to ask someone right when they walked into your office, asking to hire you.

That reputation they’d been building up for ten years must really be spreading around, because this ‘client,’ Marie, had employed their services just to lure them into a trap so they wouldn’t catch her in the act of her nefarious plan. On some level Charles was actually a bit chuffed about that. Bad guys were scared of them, now, enough to try and take them out of commission before they even started investigating anything.

It wasn’t like Charles had ever wanted to be famous, but if that’s what was happening anyway, he wasn’t about to complain.

Well. He might complain about it this time, because being famous got them a client who was, in fact, the dead lover of a creepy wizard luring them into a trap. The wizard wanted quite badly to bring Marie back to life, which would have been kind of sweet if he hadn’t decided to try and bring her back by cramming a bunch of abducted ghosts into an evil goblet that he made her drink from. Then she f*cking exploded because, wouldn’t you know it, ghosts weren’t supposed to drink each other’s souls like box wine.

It was gross and upsetting, is what it was. Charles was upset, Edwin was upset. The wizard was very upset, and he got it into his head that Edwin knew how to bring her back. Which Edwin obviously didn’t know, because he wasn’t a necromancer under normal circ*mstances and the lady he was supposed to be bringing back had quite literally been exploded out of existence. Charles reckoned it was because the wizard had heard Edwin shouting one of his fancy Aramaic spells. Aramaic just sounded necromancer-y.

And now Charles and his best mate were stuck to opposite walls of the wizard’s real live dungeon- like, cobbled stone walls with chains coming out of them, underground, passed by a human skeleton on the way down here kind of a dungeon- by enchanted manacles.

On the bright side, the wizard only had the two manacles. That was fair enough, how often do you expect to have to chain up more than one ghost at a time? So Edwin and Charles each had one hand free. Even better, the twat had thought Charles’ bag of tricks was just an empty knapsack and hadn’t bothered to take it off him. He and Edwin were only about twelve feet apart from each other, too, so they could talk without having to shout. Ideal circ*mstances for escaping.

On the less bright side, enchanted manacles were new territory for Charles. He was glad they weren’t iron and didn’t burn, but he also couldn’t pick the bloody lock.

“Charles,” said Edwin. “Are you quite alright? You’ve been working on that lock for some time, now.”

“Sorry, mate, it’s a magic lock, innit?” said Charles. He grunted with frustration as the lock on his left wrist once again shifted around his pick. “Keeps bloody moving around if I make progress.”

Edwin sighed. He sat cross legged with his back ramrod straight and one arm dangling from a manacle mounted at the same height at his head. With his immaculate tweed jacket and fussy bowtie juxtaposed against the dirty stone wall of the dungeon, he looked out of place enough that Charles was tempted to laugh at him.

He probably would laugh later, once they were out of this place. The image Edwin’s unflappable composure in the middle of a medieval f*cking dungeon was going to be funny for a right long time.

Now, though, he cursed viciously under his breath. The lock had sort of crunched and twisted this time and bent his pick out of shape.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Edwin observed.

“Nah, it’s all according to plan,” said Charles. He pulled another, identical pick out of his bag and jammed that one into the key slot at his wrist to start over. “I’m playing the long game. Gonna annoy it into letting me go. First I poke it submission with my lock picks, and then I start listing all the times and all the ways you’ve ever cheated at cards. It’ll crack in no time.”

“I’ve never cheated!” Edwin argued, indignant.

“Counting cards is cheating, mate.”

“Counting can’t be cheating, that is simply a skill.”

“See, this is why we never play cards anymore,” said Charles, gesturing in Edwin’s direction with his pick. “You’re a shark.”

“I’m a what?” Edwin asked.

Charles’s pick snapped in two. He groaned and let his head thump against the stone wall at his back. “A shark,” he repeated. He reached into his bag for another pick. He couldn’t keep this up forever, he only had forty-ish duplicates for each pick in his set. “You know, a card shark? One of those blokes who cons everyone in the pub and takes their money over cards?”

“I’m sure you mean a card sharp,” said Edwin primly.

“Aha!” Charles declared. “He admits it. f*ck!” This time the lock clamped down on his pick too hard for Charles to move it again, or even pull it out.

“It doesn’t appear as if picking the lock is going to work,” Edwin noted.

“Alright, then, what’s your suggestion?” Charles asked.

Edwin shrugged. “Which of my spell books did you bring? We don’t know how long he’s going to leave us down here, I might as well start reading up on charms that could help.”

Charles groaned again. He hated it when books were the solution. He went along with it anyway, because he didn’t have any better ideas, and reached his arm as deep into his bag as he could go to start pulling out Edwin’s dusty old books.

“We’ve got…” he said. “Minor Arcana of the Gauls, Lunar Magic and Talismans, Phantasmic Pesticides- you still carry this one around? It’s been seven years since the fungus thing, mate.”

“I have learned the value of having that particular volume close at hand,” Edwin responded testily. “Give me Lunar Magic, I think it has a section on breaking locks.”

Charles tossed the book like a frisbee. It landed squarely in Edwin’s lap. He’d gotten quite good at throwing books, living with Edwin. “We haven’t exactly got any moonlight in here, you know.”

“Not all lunar magic requires the moon to be in sight. Some of it is tailored to work during certain lunar phases regardless of where the practitioner may be,” Edwin explained.

Of course. Magic rules would never stoop so low as to be consistent or sensible. This was why Charles refused on principle to learn it. He preferred his bag full of lock picks and weapons and cool rocks and escape ropes and glow sticks and legos and an ant farm and road flares and some musical instruments and a live snake and three lava lamps and some jumper cables and lighter fluid and 5,359 matches and a little stash of Edwin’s books. And also a bunch of other stuff that he usually forgot about until he needed it.

Charles f*cking loved his bag. Magic was unreliable. The pocket universe was like a friend that always had exactly what Charles needed in the moment. The bag made him understand blokes who named their cars.

It also made him a little smug that Edwin, the cleverest person he’d ever met, couldn’t figure out how the bag worked. Every time Edwin held out his hand to request an item, it was as good as a written proclamation that Charles Knew Better About Something Important. Did wonders for the self-esteem, truly.

And yet, the bag had so far failed to provide him with a device that would free them from the enchanted manacles around their wrists. So, magic it would have to be. Charles was a man of honor, he could acknowledge when he’d been bested.

He slouched against his wall for an indeterminate chunk of time, letting Edwin bounce ideas off him while he rifled idly through his bag. He tried banging on his manacle with a hammer at one point, which accomplished nothing but a loud ringing sound.

God, but he was bored.

“There’s a severing charm, but I think it’s for limbs,” Edwin commented at one point.

Charles couldn’t help himself, he laughed. “Why would you need a spell for that?”

Edwin raised an eyebrow at his page. Charles imagined he might be looking at a grisly illustration. “For cutting off someone’s limbs, Charles. It’s quite self-explanatory.”

“Yeah, but come on,” Charles wheedled. “Who’s cutting off so many limbs that they need to come up with a magic spell to do it for them? And why using lunar magic? Is it just more satisfying to lop someone’s arm off when the moon is full, you think?”

Edwin hmphed and shook his head. “I think there is a great excess of spells in the world whose existence I cannot begin to justify.”

A different thought began to take root in Charles’ head now, one which he was very sure Edwin wouldn’t like. He tried to stop thinking it, he really did, but that had never been how his head worked. He couldn’t stop thinking something on purpose, he could only forget ideas by accident. And ideas that he didn’t want to be thinking were always the hardest ones to forget.

“Alright, listen,” Charles said, after trying not to think at all for at least five minutes. “Hear me out.”

“Any ideas?” Edwin asked, not looking up from his page.

“It’s just. What would actually happen if you cut my hand off?”

Edwin jerked his head up so fast, Charles wondered that he didn’t brain himself against the stone wall. He looked more offended than he had when he found out about the live snake in Charles’ bag.

“What the hell kind of a question is that?” He hissed.

“I’m not saying we should do it!” Charles backpedaled. “I’m just curious! These cuffs make us proper solid, don’t they? We could probably lop it off and get me out.”

No,” said Edwin emphatically. “We are not discussing this. I don’t want you getting any ideas and chewing your own arm off like a trapped weasel.”

“Not my whole arm, just my hand.”

“Charles. We are not having this conversation.”

“Alright, but I think it would work.”

Time ticked by. Edwin flipped pages, Charles dug through his bag. He pulled out a zippo lighter and held the little flame up to his manacle, just in case it somehow might be vulnerable to fire. He didn’t know how the f*ck magic worked, it seemed like it was worth a try.

He had a lot of weapons, he noticed, more than he’d even been aware of. He didn’t exactly keep an inventory, he just held onto things they encountered, and over a decade of solving weird mysteries he’d picked up a pretty impressive arsenal. He had at least a dozen swords, some of them cursed, most of them just old. A flintlock pistol. Seven antique daggers and three folding iron knives. A flashbang grenade. An American baseball bat with iron nails driven through the end of it, he’d gotten that one out of a doomsday type’s bunker a couple years ago.

Neither Charles nor Edwin had any intention of killing anyone. Mostly because they didn’t want to, because they weren’t murderers , but also because making people dead was a pretty surefire way to bring Death herself around, which would be very much not in their interests. So Charles tried to only hold onto weapons that could be employed non-lethally. That said, he did have an undetonated land mine in the bag. It had been too tempting for him not to grab it.

He had a machete, too. And a hatchet. That hatchet would probably work better, but he wasn’t supposed to be thinking that.

It was really hard to stop thinking that.

“It’s just,” he started again. “We’ve only seen ghosts get their limbs ripped off, you know? Like, torn off by a monster and eaten. And when I was learning to use the bag you were all nervous about my arm getting pulled off into another dimension.”

“I still worry about that, from time to time,” Edwin interjected. “You stick your hand in that thing while we’re running, I have no idea how you haven’t lost it already.”

“That’s what I’m saying!” said Charles. “I wouldn’t be losing it, this way, it’d be right here. We don’t really know what happens if we cut my hand off and then like, hang onto it. What if we can pop it back on?”

“And what if we can’t? ” Edwin snapped. “The Corpus Incorporealis doesn’t have a chapter on amateur amputations, Charles, we’d be flying blind. Your hand might just as easily disintegrate once it’s severed from the rest of you. It’s not worth the risk.”

That was a fair point, Charles wasn’t eager to go around one-handed for the rest of eternity. Were there ghost prosthetics? Maybe if worse came to worst in here he’d end up with a hook hand, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. He could fill his bag with different hooks for different occasions.

The sound of footsteps coming down creaky wooden stairs around a corner finally stalled his thoughts along this line of inquiry. Without a word, Edwin tossed his book back to Charles, who stuck it back in the bag along with everything else he’d pulled out. When the wizard rounded the corner into their little part of the dungeon, Charles’ bag of tricks was once again an empty knapsack tucked behind his back.

The wizard, whose name Charles had never got around to learning, was a nervous looking man in his late fifties. He’d been wearing a whole set of elaborate robes when they’d first entered his big fancy house, but it looked like he’d decided to shower and change after his dead girlfriend exploded all over him. His thinning blond hair was damp, and he wore jeans and a jumper like a normal person.

He looked more dangerous like this, to be honest. Wizard robes couldn’t help but look a little bit silly. Normal looking men in their late fifties, with eyes red and puffy from crying, scared Charles much more.

The wizard gave Charles a cursory glance as he entered, then turned his back on him to stand facing Edwin. Too close, in Charles' opinion, he was only giving Edwin a foot and a half of personal space while he loomed over him.

“How old are you?” the wizard asked.

Edwin arched one eyebrow. “Sixteen. Why?”

The wizard shook his head. “You know what I mean. How long have you been dead? You’re dressed like a Victorian.”

Charles snorted. Edwin groaned.

“Why is this generation so fixated on Queen Victoria?” Edwin asked. “Honestly, what would that woman possibly have to do with the way I dress? She died when I was a year old.”

“Don’t ask me, mate,” Charles snickered. “Only one I ever gave a f*ck about was Princess Di.”

“Yes, she was lovely,” Edwin agreed.

The wizard was not amused.

“You’re at least a hundred years old!” he shouted. “You’ve had more time to study magic than even my mentor did! You know how to bring her back, and you’re going to tell me how!”

Charles tugged uselessly at his shackled wrist. He didn’t love the look of this. First and foremost, the wizard was not in a very stable state of mind right now, and magic was most dangerous when it was used in moments of high emotion. Second, Edwin really didn’t know any of what the wizard wanted him to cough up, and if the wizard figured that out it would probably end badly.

Edwin also wasn’t a hundred, yet. His birthday was on New Year’s Day. That meant Edwin would be turning a hundred at the turn of the millennium. Charles was stockpiling fireworks for a big celebration, just to annoy him.

Minor detail, but it rubbed him the wrong way anyhow.

“I have no incentive to help you, just now,” Edwin told the wizard, affecting an air of boredom. “Perhaps if I weren’t shackled to a wall, I would be more interested in negotiating.”

“You’re not in a position to negotiate,” the wizard snapped.

“Neither are you,” Edwin parried. “I am already dead. You have nothing I want. Destroying me would accomplish nothing, except making sure that what I know is lost forever. I don’t want to sit here for the next few decades, waiting for you to die of old age, but it makes no difference if I do. The manacles will release once you’re not alive to maintain the enchantment.” Edwin shrugged, all nonchalance. “If I am as old as you think I am, what difference does twenty years in a conjurer’s basem*nt make?”

Pride burned bright in Charles’ chest. Edwin was loads better at talking tough to bad guys now that he’d been forced to watch Die Hard four times.

“I could hurt you,” the wizard offered softly. Charles yanked at his wrist again, more as a reflex than anything else. He decided that he was going to bludgeon this man with his cricket bat, once they got out of here. Of all his weapons, the bat made the most satisfying noise when it hit something.

Edwin smiled tightly. “You’ll find that I have endured far worse than anything you could do to me.”

“I could hurt your friend,” said the wizard.

Charles stilled and braced himself for things to take a downward turn. Edwin was much worse at playing it cool when someone got the idea to leverage the two of them against each other.

He did a pretty bang-on job of it this time, though. “What would you hope to accomplish by harming my employee, then?” Edwin asked. “Look at how he’s dressed, I picked him up in 1989. You can’t possibly think he’s the first dumb muscle I’ve kept on hand.”

The wizard slumped and wrung his hands. He didn’t catch the apologetic glance that Edwin shot Charles’ way, but Charles did, and since the wizard was facing Edwin, Charles could afford to beam back at his mate. Edwin called him dumb muscle, that wasn’t a phrase found anywhere in his usual vocabulary . He had been paying attention to all those action movies, after all. Charles was so proud he could have kissed him. And referring to Charles as his employee was a stroke of genius, he’d have to remember that one.

“You met her,” the wizard pleaded. “Marie. You saw how beautiful she was, you heard her laugh. You have to understand why I need to get her back. Just help me.

Edwin plastered a sympathetic expression on his face- as sympathetic as he could look while chained to a wall and staring straight up at his jailer, anyway. “She was quite captivating, I will admit.”

Bollocks. Edwin never liked her. Called her a ‘bobtail’ behind her back.

“Help me get her back,” the wizard begged again.

Edwin tilted his head, just a slight indication of interest. “If you want my cooperation, surely you can understand that I’d like a gesture of goodwill.”

Charles wished he could see the wizard’s face. Edwin was putting on an award-winning performance, and he’d love to know if it was working.

“I can’t let you go,” the wizard whispered. “I need to get her back. You won’t help me if I let you go.”

“I’m not helping you now,” said Edwin.

The wizard squared his shoulders. “You will,” he said. With that ominous thought, the wizard turned on his heel and left the dungeon.

Damn.

Ah, well. There had never been much chance of Edwin talking the man down just a couple hours after they’d all been picking bits of his girlfriend’s soul out of their hair.

Edwin sighed. “Sorry about that,” he said.

“Sorry?” Charles repeated. “What for? You were brills, mate. Not your fault he’s too sad to be reasoned with.” He pulled out his bag from behind his back and considered what to pull out next. He really ought to get himself a blowtorch, he mused.

“Thank you, I’ve been working on my negotiation skills,” said Edwin. “Still. I would prefer not to say such unkind things about you if it’s not going to get us anywhere.”

Charles shrugged. “It was worth a try. You think he’s gonna try to torture you? Because that kind of thing makes me impulsive, just so you know.”

“Believe me, I am well aware,” said Edwin drily. “Now. Let’s see if we can’t escape before it comes to that, shall we?”

Charles frisbee’d Edwin his book back. He also pulled out his hatchet and gave it an experimental swing. Edwin furrowed his brow.

“What do you have that out for?”

“Nothing,” Charles evaded. “I just forgot I had it.”

Edwin didn’t buy it. The crinkle on his forehead deepened. “You can’t seriously be considering it.”

“It’s not Plan A, is it?” Charles replied. “Just thinking ahead for the worst case scenario.”

Something in Edwin’s face shifted. Sometimes Charles thought he looked like a charcoal drawing, pale as a sheet of paper with dark hair and bold features. Watching him emote was like going through a flipbook of pencil sketches. Right now, the flipbook went from stern disapproval to nervousness.

“You’re serious,” Edwin said, quiet enough that Charles almost didn’t hear it. Then, much louder, “Have you lost your mind?”

The flipbook raced from nervousness to fury.

“I’m just being practical!” Charles defended. “We don’t have a lot of options here, do we?”

“Hacking off your hand is not an option!”

Charles held his free hand up in a helpless shrug. “You didn’t want to use the limb-severing spell! I’m just thinking, since the manacle’s done such a good job keeping me solid, a regular old hatchet would probably do the trick.”

Edwin looked appalled. “This is my fault,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t have given you that idea. I’m sorry. Please, please just drop it.”

“I told you, it’s not my first resort,” Charles tried to reassure him. Honestly, it wasn’t so big a deal as all that. It was just a hand. He had two of them. Hell, maybe he’d grow a new one back. Like one of those salamanders. Ghost bodies were weird, who knew what might happen?

“Charles,” Edwin tried again, and this time Charles recognized his deescalation voice. He was talking to Charles the same way he’d speak to a distraught client. “I understand that you’re trying to be practical, and I admire your willingness to make sacrifices for our combined good. But you maiming yourself cannot be on our list of possible strategies. Please. Promise me you won’t do that.”

Charles bit his tongue. He wasn’t trying to make Edwin panic, but he also wasn’t going to make promises he couldn’t keep, was he? What else were they supposed to do, hang around while a wizard tortured Edwin until he realized it wouldn’t bring his girlfriend back? A hook hand was obviously the better option.

Besides, the hatchet thing might not even work. He’d never tried lopping off one of his limbs before. Maybe the blade would just phase right through him without doing any damage. He should probably find that out, actually, before he made this his definite backup plan. He took the hatchet in his hand and raised it.

“Charles!” Edwin yelped.

“Relax!” Charles insisted. “I’m not doing it, I just want to see if it would work!” He brought the hatchet blade up to his shackled wrist and gave a firm tap.

The blade made solid contact with his skin. It was weird. It didn’t feel like an iron burn, but it stung and sort of buzzed like being zapped with electricity. What was the enchantment on the manacle doing to them? Charles had never experienced a sensation quite like this, in his life or his death.

There, on his wrist when he pulled the hatchet back, was a visible nick. There was no blood in his arm, just the blueish energy stuff that he turned into when he walked through a wall. The nick didn’t close up like an iron burn either. He wondered if it would seal once he got out of the manacle, or if he’d just given himself a permanent scar. He didn’t think he would mind having a ghost-scar, really. It looked pretty cool.

“Yeah,” he concluded out loud with a nod. “I’m pretty sure it’ll work.”

His attention was dragged back across the dungeon when Edwin made a noise like the yowl of an angry cat. He now saw that his friend had moved as far into the space between them as he could. His one hand stayed stuck to his wall, but he’d angled himself sideways to extend his full arm span and reach his free hand towards Charles. He was holding out his open palm the way he normally did when he wanted Charles to hand him something, but the wild look in his eye gave away just how desperate the request was.

“Give me the hatchet,” he demanded. “Just- f*ck it, Charles, give it to me!”

Oh boy. Edwin never said f*ck. He must be really pissed.

“Edwin,” Charles soothed. “Everything’s going to be fine, yeah? It’s just a backup plan. Last resort only. Worst case is I figure out how to attach a hook to my wrist like Captain Hook.”

“No, no, this is not an acceptable backup plan!” said Edwin. He had lost hold of his deescalation voice and moved on into subdued panic. “Please,just give me the hatchet and forget about it. We’ll figure something else out.”

“Well, I can’t give you the hatchet,” Charles pointed out. “If the wizard comes back down I’ve got to stuff it in the bag.”

“Then put it in the bag now!” Edwin snapped. “All the way at the bottom of infinite space! You are not using that thing on yourself!”

“Alright, I’ll put it in the bag,” Charles allowed, because Edwin looked like he was about to have a stress aneurysm. He tucked the hatchet back into the pocket universe.

Not at the bottom, of course, that would be counterproductive. He kept it in the spot that was easiest to reach in a hurry.

Edwin sagged with relief once the offending tool was out of sight. “Thank you,” he breathed. “Don’t ever suggest something like that again.”

“Sorry, mate,” said Charles. He really was sorry. He was still going to try cutting his hand off if it came down to it, but he hated to make Edwin so upset. “Deep breath?”

The two of them drew in deep, unnecessary breaths in unison. Charles wasn’t sure why this helped Edwin calm down, but it always worked like a charm. His mate looked much less rattled, now.

“Alright,” said Edwin. “Now, listen. Based on what I was reading, I think our shackles have a powerful binding spell on them. It’s not specific to ghosts, it will hold onto anything, living or dead. And if I’m right, that would mean that the wizard has to keep the key on his person to maintain the enchantment at its maximum strength.”

Charles nodded. “Alright, then. Plan A is to try and get the keys off him, somehow?”

“Yes,” Edwin agreed. “Moreover, I believe I saw him reach towards his front left pocket twice during our conversation.”

“Hm.” Charles reached into his bag to root around with renewed purpose. “Didn’t we pick up a magic string a little while ago? Something you could use to grab things?”

“The Ariadne Thread,” Edwin agreed. “That might work. Do you have it packed?”

“Hang on, it takes a second to find a one string in infinite space,” Charles answered. He dug deeper. He might have left it at the office, but he couldn’t remember one way or the other.

Just then, though, footsteps sounded from the top of the stairs again. “ sh*t,” Charles swore. He beckoned for Edwin to throw back the book and stuffed it down in the bag again. The wizard emerged around the corner before Charles had time to shove the bag behind him, again, so he left it in his cross-legged lap and hoped it didn’t attract any attention.

As it happened, the wizard didn’t pay Charles any attention at all as he came in. He didn’t even look at him. He stepped right where he had been before, looming over Edwin. He held a long, white crystal in his hand.

“I don’t know if this will destroy you or not,” he stated. Charles had his hand back in his bag at once. He closed his fist around the hatchet’s handle and braced himself to use it.

“Destroying me seems counterproductive to your goal,” Edwin observed mildly. “Have you thought this through?”

“Yes,” said the wizard. He turned. Charles let go of the hatchet and whipped his hand out of the bag as fast as he could. Thank f*ck, the wizard kept his gaze over his shoulder at Edwin even as he turned to face Charles and point the crystal at him. “Lucky for both of us, you came with a spare.”

That was all the warning Charles got before the world went white.

It didn’t hurt, per se. It wasn’t good, though. Charles had died once before, and this felt pretty similar to dying. It felt like he’d been scooped out of himself and dropped into water that was both freezing and boiling at the same time. It felt like he was a bell that had just been whacked with a sledgehammer. Or like he was a snowball that got flung into the sun. It felt like pretty much everything at once.

It lasted for a mysterious period of time before Charles realized it had stopped. In that period of time, Charles suspected he was torn into tiny pieces and stuck back together a thousand or so times.

The ridiculous medieval dungeon slowly reasserted itself around him. There were spots in his vision when he blinked, and a terrible ringing in his ears.

No, hang on, that wasn’t ringing. That was Edwin. Edwin was screaming bloody murder.

“Stop it!” he shrieked. “Stop, stop, please, I’ll help you, just STOP! CHARLES!”

Well, that didn’t sound ideal.

Charles blinked a couple times and tried to get his bearings. He was sprawled on the floor now, one arm sticking upward at a funny angle because his f*cking wrist was still stuck in the f*cking manacle.

There was black smoke billowing off of him through his clothes. Definitely bad.

His bag was still in reach, though. Not as bad as it could have been.

“Charles?” Edwin’s voice cut through the fog in his head again. He wasn’t screaming anymore, that was good, but now he sounded like he might be crying instead, and that was arguably worse. “Charles, are you with me? Can you look at me?”

sh*t, all the smoke probably looked pretty alarming, didn’t it? Edwin probably thought Charles was some special kind of magic ghost-dead. Charles summoned all of his strength and turned his face towards Edwin.

His best mate had once again stretched himself as far across the space between them as he could go, reaching for Charles with his unshackled hand. There were tears on his face, but only relief in his expression when Charles met his eyes. “There you are,” he whispered wetly. “Thank heavens.”

“Alright then, he’s still kicking,” said another voice. Right. The wizard. Charles had forgotten about him. Edwin’s face contorted with rage.

“You didn’t know what that would do to him!” He shouted. “You haven’t got the foggiest idea what you’re doing, it’s no wonder you got Marie blown to pieces!”

The wizard adjusted his grip on the white crystal. He looked proper angry, now. “You’re going to help me fix that, one way or another. It’s your turn.” He turned his back on Charles and pointed the crystal at Edwin.

Nah, f*ck that. Charles lunged for his bag. He was uncoordinated, and there was still a little bit of smoke wafting off of him, but he only needed to accomplish something quite simple. He managed. His fingers closed around the hatchet’s handle, and this time, he didn’t hesitate.

Edwin screamed. Charles swung the hatchet blade against his wrist. It made a solid thunk, and easy as that, he was free. It barely even hurt.

Notes:

You will notice that Charles has two hands in canon, which should reassure you as to how this story ends. Maybe not for how it goes in the middle, though.

Chapter 2

Summary:

Charles is down a hand. Edwin speedruns every stage of grief at once. The boys hated escape rooms way before they got popular.

Notes:

You're me. You're sitting at your computer, trying to write emails because you're an adult with responsibilities. Oh no. You've blinked. How long has it been? You have no idea, but instead of that email you were trying to write, you're looking at yet another 5k fanfic chapter. How does this keep happening.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Edwin screamed. Charles swung the hatchet blade against his wrist. It made a solid thunk, and easy as that, he was free. It barely even hurt.

He rolled to his feet- a bit clumsier than he usually was. He felt off balance. No matter. He flipped the hatchet in his hand to make sure his grip was good. He wasn’t right-handed, after all. The wizard must have heard the thunk, because now he whirled around to face Charles. His jaw dropped in shock. Charles smashed the flat side of the hatchet against his temple.

The wizard crumpled to the ground, boneless.

Sometimes, Charles wondered how easy it might have been to lay his dad out cold, one of those nights. The more bad guys he hit, the more he suspected that he actually might have won if he’d fought back.

That was a thought for another day, though. Charles dropped to his knees and rolled the wizard onto his back. He fished an evil looking, old fashioned key out of his trouser pocket.

Then he punched him in the dick, just for good measure. He really didn’t like it when people tried torturing Edwin.

Key in hand, he pivoted to kneel in Edwin’s line of sight. “You alright, Edwin?” he asked, looking him over with a critical eye. He didn’t look too good. A thin curl of dark smoke hung in the air over him. There wasn’t much smoke, though, and he’d only screamed once, so Charles hoped he’d only had the crystal on him for a quick second. His eyes were cloudy and unfocused as he blinked his way back to awareness.

It was well past time to get him out of here, in Charles’ expert opinion. He brushed an affectionate knuckle across Edwin’s cheek to wipe a half-dried tear away and moved over to unlock the manacle on his wrist.

“Charles?” Edwin slurred. “Charles, what did you do?”

“It’s alright, he’s not dead,” Charles promised. The manacle popped open without any fuss at all. Edwin’s hand dropped limply out of it. Charles instinctively moved to catch it, to rub his thumb over Edwin’s bony wrist to check for damage, but, see. He was left handed. Had been a second ago, anyway. The arm that moved to catch Edwin’s wrist didn’t have a hand on it anymore.

Edwin let out a wounded sound and grabbed Charles’ left forearm with both hands. The sleeve of Charles’ jacket covered the cut now that his arm wasn’t being held upright, but Edwin tried to push the sleeve back up his arm now to get a better look. Charles snatched his arm back.

Edwin didn’t need to see that right now, not with smoke still hanging in the air over his head. Not when fresh tears were already running down his face.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Charles. “Time to go, yeah?”

“Your hand!” Edwin cried.

“Oh, yeah! Hang on, let me grab that.” Charles jumped to his feet and crossed back to his side of the dungeon. He made sure to kick the wizard as he went, and the answering groan confirmed that Death wouldn’t be popping by any time soon.

Charles’ left hand was still dangling uselessly in its manacle. It stopped just below the main joint of the wrist, in a clean cleave from which wisps of blue swirled outward like mist. A quick glance at his left arm revealed the same blue fog coming from that side of the cut as well. Charles tried angling his arm to sort of prod at the severed end of his wrist with the stump of his forearm. It did not stick back on. Oh well.

He stuck the key into its slot and twisted, releasing his hand at last. He snatched the limb out of the air as it fell, worried that if it hit the floor it might just keep falling. His hand didn’t necessarily know where the floor was, he figured, so it would be better to avoid dropping it.

Now, though, he had a problem.

“Edwin?” He asked. “Would you mind opening my bag for me?”

Edwin hadn’t moved from his spot, seated against the wall with his back straight as a ruler. He still had tears flowing down his face, which was becoming more than a bit worrisome. Edwin usually only let himself cry for a moment before his usual reserved demeanor reasserted itself. Charles would need to check on him more thoroughly once they were out of the dungeon.

“What?” Edwin asked. He sounded like he was in shock. Definitely worrisome. “Your bag?”

“Yeah, I don’t want to put this down on the floor,” Charles explained, gesturing with his one hand that was currently full of his other hand, “but my bag’s not open enough to put it in there.” He paused, considering. “Unless you want to hold this instead? It’s all the same to me. Oh, wait, I can just stick it in my pocket, can’t I? Never mind.”

Edwin burst into sobs.

Charles rushed to his side and dropped to his knees. He shoved his severed hand into his jacket pocket so he could lay his right one on the side of Edwin’s face.

“Edwin?” He asked frantically. “sh*t, sh*t, what’s wrong? Did he do something else to you? Are you hurt?” Charles had been too quick to decide that Edwin wasn’t seriously harmed by whatever magic was in the crystal, obviously. He didn’t see any more smoke in the air, but that didn’t mean something else wasn’t wrong. He tried to tilt Edwin’s face up to get a good look at his eyes.

Then Edwin slapped him.

Hey!” Charles exclaimed, instinctively bringing his arm up to cover his face. “What was that for?”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Edwin practically screamed.

Big question, that. For starters, Charles was dead. Both of them were. “Do you mean the hatchet thing?”

“The f*cking- Charles you just chopped off your f*cking hand!”

“Well- yeah?” Charles said with a helpless shrug. “He didn’t know what he was doing, he might have burnt you to nothing! It seemed like last resort time, didn’t it?”

“You can’t- I told you-” Edwin sputtered.

This might be worse than Charles had thought. Edwin had just said f*ck twice, and now he was too upset to even string together a proper scolding. Charles couldn’t ever remember seeing him so angry.

Still, he didn’t see what else he could have done. He had two hands, and only one Edwin. For once, Charles thought the maths were easy, here.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had to.”

Edwin just shook his head and curled himself into a ball up against the wall, weeping silently.

Charles bit his tongue and glanced around them. The wizard was still down for the count, but staying down here any longer than necessary seemed like a bad idea. Eventually he would get back up. Or quietly die from the head injury, if Charles had hit him too hard by accident. Either way, they had a ticking clock hanging over them.

Edwin, however, clearly needed a minute.

“Alright, stay put and keep an eye on him, will you?” Charles told him, jerking his head towards the wizard. “I’m gonna go check that the stairs are clear.” He patted Edwin’s shoulder reassuringly, then rose to his feet and picked up his bag of tricks. It took a little bit of thought to get his bag open the right way with one hand, but he managed, and tucked his other hand into a safe corner of the pocket universe where he was sure he’d be able to find it again. He stuck the hatchet back in the bag as well, in a place of honor next to his cricket bat. It had done its job beautifully and it deserved to be recognized for that.

Once he’d slung the bag over his shoulder again, Charles set out for the exit. He was pretty sick of this place.

There was the skeleton, chained up on the wall right at the foot of the stairs. It was the first thing they’d seen when the wizard dragged them down here. He had to have left it there on purpose, there was no other explanation. Charles wondered if some poor soul had died chained up here, or if the wizard went out of his way to get a skeleton to decorate his dungeon with. Either option seemed plausible.

Charles set his bag down on the floor and held it open with his left arm while he reached inward with his right hand. He pulled out a jar of crickets. Originally he’d gotten them to feed to the snake, but it turned out that living things in the pocket universe stayed in some kind of stasis where they never aged or died or got hungry, so now he just had a jar of crickets for whatever came up. He eyed the jar and considered trying to unscrew its lid one-handed, but quickly decided that was unnecessary. He just lobbed the whole thing at the top of the stairs and let it shatter.

The crickets did not enjoy their brief flight and started hopping all over the stairs as quickly as they could to escape the wreckage. Charles watched them go for a few seconds to see if any of them spontaneously caught fire or something. They seemed agitated, but fine. Charles decided it was probably safe to try and walk up the stairs himself. He made it almost all the way to the top before he encountered an obstacle. An invisible barrier stopped his foot from reaching the topmost step. Charles experimentally knocked his fist against it a couple times, and snickered when he realized how much this made him look like a mime. He trotted back down the stairs to report his findings to Edwin.

“Stairs are okay,” he announced as he rounded the corner. “There’s an invisible wall in front of the door, though. You know how to deal with those, don’t you?”

Edwin had gotten up in Charles’ absence, which Charles counted as a good sign. He was smushing his fists together though, and staring at Charles’ manacle where it was still affixed to the wall.

“Yes,” he said softly, “I can handle that.” He sighed miserably and turned to face Charles. He’d stopped crying, thank god. Charles had really been starting to worry. He approached Charles with uncharacteristic caution and reached out to brush his fingertips against Charles’ cheek. “I shouldn’t have hit you. I’m very sorry.”

Charles snorted. “If you call that a hit, I think I should make you start practicing on a bag.” That was the wrong thing to say, Edwin looked upset again. “It’s fine, honest. I get why you’re angry.”

Edwin stared at him for a long, hard moment. “I’m not sure that you do,” he murmured. Something twinged where Charles’ heart ought to be. Then Edwin shook himself and straightened. “Invisible wall,” he repeated. “That’s simple enough to counter. What shall we do with him?” He gestured to the wizard.

“Seems, obvious, doesn’t it?” Charles said with a grin. He approached the concussed and semiconscious lump of sorcerer on the floor, took hold of one of his wrists, and dragged him over to Edwin’s manacle. He positioned the wizard’s wrist inside the cuff and looked at Edwin expectantly. Edwin obliged and helped him snap the manacle shut. Charles fished the key out of his jacket pocket and had Edwin drop it into the bag on his back- Edwin had had no clue how to intentionally place anything within the pocket universe, so having him drop the key in ensured that it would be well and truly lost in infinite space.

“This won’t hold him very long once he has his wits about him,” Edwin warned. “It was his enchantment, after all.”

Charles shrugged. “We don’t need very long, do we? Not like we were planning on taking a holiday in the dungeon.”

“You’ll find no argument from me,” Edwin agreed. “Would you indulge me by walking behind me?”

Charles nodded and fell in step behind Edwin. Charles was usually the one who led the way if they were walking through unknown terrain, but then, he wasn’t in prime fighting condition right now. It made sense to let Edwin lead until he could either reattach his left hand or get better with his right.

Up the stairs they went. Edwin raised an eyebrow at the broken glass and small hoard of crickets on the steps but didn’t comment on it. He whispered a short phrase in Latin to the invisible wall, and then another one in Koine Greek to the doorknob, and then they were back in the main house.

The wizard’s house didn’t look like the sort of place that would have a dungeon underneath it. It just looked big and fancy, with thick rugs covering every inch of the floor and paintings of pompous old people on the walls. All the tables had clawed feet on them. It was pretty standard fare for weird rich people, in Charles’ opinion.

“Find a mirror and clear out?” he suggested to Edwin. Edwin pursed his lips and shook his head.

“Given how many ghosts he’s trapped in this place, I have to assume he’s blocked the mirror exits,” he said. “I wouldn’t try walking through any walls, either. Who knows what he may have lined them with?”

Charles wrinkled his nose. “His girlfriend was a ghost.”

“I’m not sure that our friend Wymond was a very considerate paramour,” said Edwin.

Wymond?” Charles repeated, incredulous.

Edwin raised an eyebrow at him. “Yes?”

“His name is Wymond?” Charles asked.

“Yes, you were there when he introduced himself,” said Edwin with a frown.

“I wasn’t listening to the old wanker, I was trying not to get sucked into an evil goblet full of liquified souls!” Charles exclaimed. “Wymond the wizard? Are you serious? And he had a girlfriend?”

One corner of Edwin’s mouth dimpled as he tried not to laugh. “It’s an old English name, Charles, perfectly respectable in its day.”

“It’s 1999!” Charles retorted. “He could have changed it any time he liked!”

Edwin’s eyes crinkled just so, and Charles recognized with overwhelming fondness the face that Edwin made when he wanted to laugh but was still too angry to give Charles the satisfaction. It was a small victory, but Charles took it. Edwin would forgive him soon enough.

“You’re incorrigible,” Edwin tutted with unmistakable humor. Charles grinned.

The two of them picked their way carefully through a labyrinth of big rooms filled with expensive furniture. Charles offered to carry anything Edwin wanted to nick in his bag, but Edwin refused to claim anything from Wymond’s collection. Charles thought about snagging a small ivory elephant figurine on principle- it was obviously Indian- but lost his interest when he instinctively reached for it with his left arm.

In the biggest room that they entered, an ornate fireplace took up half the wall, and a nearly life-sized portrait of Marie in a fancy old fashioned gown was mounted over it. Charles paused to look up at it for a moment.

“It’s a shame,” he reflected. “Seemed like he really loved her. If he could have left well enough alone, and let her be a ghost, things would have been just fine.”

Edwin gazed at the portrait and chewed on his lip. “Some people aren’t capable of making rational choices, when they care for someone,” he said. Charles got the sense that he was talking about more than Wymond the f*cking wizard. He tentatively moved to stand at Edwin’s side.

“I really am sorry about the hand thing,” he offered.

Edwin closed his eyes the way he did when he was trying not to snap. “I know,” he said. “But you would do it again, wouldn’t you?”

Charles could say nothing to that. He would absolutely do it again, and they both knew it.

Edwin opened his eyes. There was something like despair in them. “Will you answer me honestly, if I ask you something important?”

“Of course,” Charles said, perplexed.

“Have I ever-” Edwin cut himself off and twisted at the buttons on his shirt cuffs. It as an old nervous habit that Charles hadn’t seen much of for the past few years. “You know I’m not very good with people. I don’t always notice when I say something unkind. Have I ever said something to you, or done something, that made you believe your safety isn’t important?”

No.” Charles hoped the force behind the word would be enough to shut down this line of thought forever, because the question offended him beyond all measure. “Never. You would never.” Edwin loved him. He knew that better than he knew his own name. They’d spent ten years together, for Christ’s sake, and the current plan was to keep that up literally forever.

Charles couldn’t imagine ever finding another friend like this. His own parents hadn’t planned on putting up with him a day after his eighteenth birthday. That was precisely why he had to protect Edwin with everything he had. The idea of losing someone that loved him, really loved him, loved him when the word forever was on the table, was just.

Unthinkable.

“Then why would you do that?” Edwin asked, a pleading note in his voice, “Why would you cut your hand off when Wymond points a staff at me, but not when he pointed the same staff at you?” He searched Charles’ face for something. “You couldn’t possibly have believed- when I told him I wouldn’t care if he hurt you? You know that was a lie, don’t you?”

“Edwin, mate, that’s not it. I promise,” Charles said. “You’ve got my back till the end of the world, I know that.”

Palpable relief flooded Edwin’s body language, but only for a moment before the nervous button-twisting resumed. “What is it, then? What is going through your head when you decide to act like- like you’re disposable?” Edwin asked.

It wasn’t the first time Edwin had asked him something to this effect. The first time had been back in 1990, when Charles’ first, amateurish supernatural cricket bat had been busted to splinters, and there was a weird glowy ball of witch magic that he didn’t know anything about flying towards Edwin’s back, and Charles had simply jumped on top of it like a soldier on a grenade.

Edwin had been apoplectic. He’d tried to kick Charles out and shove him off to his afterlife, but not before interrogated him for nearly an hour about what he’d been thinking. Charles hadn’t been able answer his questions with anything more persuasive than a baffled shrug. He hadn’t understood what all the fuss was about, then. The weird purple burns on his chest had healed within the hour.

That was before he knew that Edwin loved him and worried about him. Unfortunately for both of them, understanding why Edwin hated to see him hurt had not made Charles any more able to articulate why it didn’t matter.

He really felt that he owed Edwin an explanation this time, though. Charles had scared the sh*t out of him at least twice, today, and he could admit that the hand thing was maybe a bigger deal than he’d have thought. He wracked his brain for some way to put it into words.

It was like with his mum. She’d grown up speaking Tamil, but she never taught it to Charles. She never spoke it at all, anymore. His dad didn’t like it. And yeah, Charles was little or not even born yet for most of whatever had gone down between the two of them, but she still didn’t speak Tamil when he got older. His dad was a mean f*cking c*nt, and he beat the sh*t out of Charles every chance he got, but Charles still snuck out and shoplifted eyeliner and went to see bands play pubs he was too young to be in. All the things his dad did to him hadn’t even stopped him from being a minor public menace.

What the hell did you have to do to a woman, to make it so she never spoke her own language? Not even in her own home, not even when she was alone with her own kid?

Sometimes Charles thought about how easy it was for him to knock out monsters and wizards and whatever, and he wondered how easy it might have been to lay his dad out cold, one of those nights. He wondered if he could have stopped it. He wondered what could have happened to his mum that he never stopped.

And all that time, while Charles had been busy not protecting himself or his mum, Edwin had been in actual Hell, getting actually tortured, and Charles hadn’t done anything to help him, either.

“1972,” Charles blurted.

Edwin looked at him like he’d gone mad. “What?”

“That’s the year I was born,” Charles explained. “1972. Would have been seventeen years in ‘89, if I’d made it as far as June. It was just three months short.”

“I’m sorry,” Edwin said automatically, as he usually did when the subject of Charles’ untimely death came up.

“What? No, that’s not what I mean,” said Charles, frustration leaking into his tone. “Edwin. Where were you in 1972?”

Understanding dawned on Edwin’s face, and with it came a brand new look of horror. “Charles,” he began.

“Or 1973?” Charles forged ahead. “Throughout the rest of that whole decade, and then nine years of the next one? Almost seventeen years, I was up here and you were down there, and I didn’t help.”

“That is completely absurd,” Edwin argued. “You’d never even heard of me.”

“Who cares?” Charles snapped. “I was already fifty-six years late when I was born! And then I spent sixteen more worrying about maths and football while you were down somewhere so bad you won’t even tell me about it.”

“So your plan is to be a human shield?” asked Edwin, aghast, “For the rest of time, in penance for something that had absolutely nothing to do with you?”

“It’s not penance, that makes it sound like a church thing. It’s just fair,” Charles corrected him. “No more Hell for you. Not down there, not up here, not anywhere. Not when I can stop it.”

Edwin looked like he might cry again. Charles couldn’t have that. He grabbed hold of Edwin’s stuffy tweed jacket and dragged him into a one-armed hug. Edwin had long since gotten used to these kinds of gestures from Charles, and now he raised his arms to return the embrace out of habit.

“Nothing bad gets to you that doesn’t go through me first,” Charles vowed. “Never again. That’s just the way it’s got to be.”

“Incorrigible,” Edwin whispered.

“Yep,” Charles agreed. “Now let’s get out of here, and then you can scold me all you like.”

“I’ll be holding you to that,” Edwin said as he pulled back. “And you’re not going first through any doors while we’re here.”

“Yeah, it’s probably best if you take point until we get back home,” Charles agreed. “I really wish he’d stuck my right hand to the wall.”

Edwin snapped his eyes shut and breathed out through his nose. “Of course it was your dominant hand,” he said darkly.

Whoops.

Edwin opened his eyes and squared his shoulders. “Later,” he said, threat obvious in his tone. Charles preemptively accepted his fate and followed Edwin out of Marie’s portrait room.

In the next room, Charles spotted a small, ivory elephant figurine in the table and automatically went to snatch it, just on principle. Then he froze.

“Edwin?” he asked. “Have we been in this room before?”

Edwin squinted at the walls. “I do seem to recall seeing that painting before. It’s not possible that we’ve walked in a circle, is it?”

Charles walked all the way across the room just so he could thud his head against the wall. “It’s one of those f*cking magic labyrinths, isn’t it.”

Edwin sighed. “Just once, I’d like to enter a house for a case that doesn’t try to prevent our leaving.”

“Yeah, let’s take a case that’s all outdoors, next time.” Charles rolled his shoulders. “So, how about I try going through the wall, now? See what happens?”

“Don’t you dare,” Edwin warned dangerously. Charles dropped it, because he didn’t want to get murdered a second time by his best mate. Edwin pulled his notepad and pencil out of his breast pocket and started sketching.

“Nothing for it but to start making a map,” Edwin said. “What shall we call this room?”

“Elephant,” Charles answered, pointing to the ivory figurine. Edwin nodded without question.

“Elephant,” he agreed. “Now we backtrack and see how the other rooms have rearranged themselves.”

They picked up an animal theme as they mapped out the shifting rooms in the wizard’s house. Pheasant Room had a taxidermy pheasant mounted in the corner, Dog Room had a painting of an old woman with a dog in her lap, Ibis had a marble bust of Thoth on the mantle, that sort of thing. As a bonus, Charles learned what an ibis was, and that Thoth was the Egyptian god of magic. It was a proper educational field trip.

They also found that it was impossible to move through more than four rooms without ending up back in front of Marie’s portrait.

“Her memory is the heart of the labyrinth, then. He built his home around her.” Edwin observed. He pulled a face of mild disgust. “I suppose that’s meant to be romantic.”

Charles laughed. “Don’t be a spoilsport, mate. Maybe all she ever wanted for Valentine’s Day was revenge on annoying houseguests. Invite them in and trap them forever if they make for bad company.”

Edwin’s lips twitched. He was still angry, Charles could tell, but he was wearing down. He only just managed to suppress his smile. “To each her own.”

The last room added to their map was Unicorn Room, so named for an antique Baphomet statuette that had lost one of its horns and looked like a hilariously muscular unicorn without it, and after that their existing set just repeated in a semi-random order. They wandered into Marie’s Room for the umpteenth time and paused to look at their map.

“We could always just blow the place to smithereens,” Charles suggested.

Edwin seemed to consider this for a moment, which spoke volumes to how badly he wanted to leave. “That probably wouldn’t work,” he said reluctantly. “The magic keeping us in here might just cling to the rubble instead, and then we wouldn’t have any clear landmarks to help us navigate.”

“Pretty chuffed you actually thought about it, though.”

Edwin gave him a withering look. “Is it so surprising? The longer we stay here, the more I worry you’re going to find some reason to cut off the rest of your arm.”

“I’ve cut off one hand in twenty-six years,” Charles argued. “That’s not such a bad record.”

“It’s significantly worse than average,” Edwin pointed out.

“Ah, well. So were my marks in school,” said Charles.

“You had terrible teachers,” Edwin admonished absently. He was squinting up at Marie’s portrait with renewed interest. “Does she look different to you?”

Charles moved to stand at his side and followed his gaze. “Different how?”

“Her expression. She looks angrier.”

Now that Edwin mentioned it, there was something about Marie’s painted expression that seemed distinct from the first time they’d seen it. Her eyebrows were positioned differently.

“Huh. She does, doesn’t she?” Charles agreed. “She did blow up into a million tiny pieces, right? She couldn’t also be haunting the portrait.”

“It shouldn’t be possible.” Edwin co*cked his head. “Perhaps it’s something to do with the painting itself. It’s of a very high quality, and I doubt Wymond is such an accomplished artist. He probably made it with magic.”

Charles turned that idea over in his head. Looking up at the portrait, really looking at it, something else that was starting to feel off to him. “It doesn’t actually look that much like her, does it?” he asked.

“I don’t know about that, I think it’s a fair likeness,” Edwin disagreed mildly.

“Yeah but, you remember what she was like in the office, don’t you?” said Charles. “She kept, like, sneering at things.”

“She was an unpleasant woman,” Edwin conceded.

“Yeah!” Charles “She looks all noble and tragic up there, but her face never actually looked like that. She looked like one of those really posh mums that would come to school to tear into the headmaster when their kids got in trouble.”

“Yes, I see what you mean. She had a markedly haughty demeanor,” Edwin said with a nod.

“Yeah, that’s it! Haughty.” Charles nodded firmly. “And she was dressed modern, up here she looks like she’s from the 1800s. And- hang on a f*cking second, he made her eyes blue! Hers were brown.”

“Very well observed, Charles,” said Edwin, genuinely impressed. “So, what does all that tell us?”

“If something’s in the painting, it’s not Marie,” Charles concluded. “Whenever Wymond painted it or magicked it or whatever, he didn’t do it while he was actually looking at her. That up there is just what he wanted her to be like.”

Edwin was nodding slowly. “The heart of the labyrinth isn’t an actual memory of Marie, then. It’s an idealized image of her.”

Charles had a sick feeling in his nebulous core. “You said he’d probably blocked off the mirrors. Do you think she could leave this place, without his permission?”

Edwin looked unsettled. “If the labyrinth had been built with an accurate memory of her as its heart, she would have been able to move through it without issue. But that wouldn’t be the case if it was built around an ideal she couldn’t match.”

“She only ever got as far as our office because Wymond let her,” Charles realized. “And he only let her do that because he was afraid we’d try and stop them once we tracked down the missing ghosts.”

“Distressing at that thought is,” said Edwin, “We may have a more pressing problem at hand. If this painting is reacting Wymond’s emotions, and it’s changing, that could mean that he’s fully conscious again. And angry.”

Charles dropped his bag to the floor and pulled out his cricket bat. “I’ll wallop him if he shows his ugly mug.” He wasn’t as good with a right-handed swing, but he had plenty of anger to compensate for lack of finesse. “Will the house let us go if he’s out cold?”

Edwin shook his head. “It didn’t the first time you hit him in the head,” he said.

“I could always try again.”

“Troublesome as he may be, I’d rather deal with Wymond than Death while we’re in a house that we cannot leave. Let’s not cave in the man’s skull just yet.”

“Last resort, then.”

“I think we’ve had quite enough of your last resorts, today. We seem to disagree on what the word last means.”

Charles laughed. Edwin glared.

“Have you noticed that you’re funnier when you’re angry?” Charles asked him with a smile. Edwin glared harder.

It was a good thing Charles was already dead, because his best mate would definitely have strangled him by now, otherwise. Charles slung his bag back into its place over his shoulder, never wavering in his smile.

“I’m kidding, I won’t actually kill him,” he said. “No promises for his kneecaps, though.”

Edwin seemed mollified by this. The way he shook his head spoke to exasperation, not true anger. Charles was really quite fond of Edwin’s many exasperated expressions. There was something delightful about irritating Edwin to near distraction, knowing full well that he wouldn’t even raise his voice in retaliation. Edwin could be provoked into a true rage, under the right circ*mstances, but he couldn’t be annoyed into one. At least, not by Charles. It filled Charles with almost unbearable affection.

“I don’t believe the sequence in which the rooms appear is random,” Edwin said, consulting the map on his notepad. “If I’m right, we should enter Pheasant Room if we exit this one through the southern doorway.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Charles said. “How the hell have you managed to keep track of which way is south, though?”

Edwin co*cked his head. “Obviously, the map is oriented to the cardinal directions.”

Charles snorted. “Obviously,” he repeated sardonically. “You’ve got no business getting on my case about what a last resort is, if you’re gonna keep using the word obviously like that.”

“You and I can engage in a spirited debate about semantics back at the office. I’ll supply the dictionaries.” Edwin made for the apparently-south-facing door. Charles followed him, perching his cricket bat on his right shoulder.

“I only trust the scrabble dictionary,” he said, just to be a bother. Edwin crossed the threshold, a single pace ahead of him, and turned his head to throw a retort over his shoulder.

All of a sudden, Charles’ gut lurched with panic. He didn’t know why, couldn’t see the threat, but he knew beyond any doubt that something was about to go terribly wrong. Without any additional information to guide his reflexes, Charles’ body reacted the same way it had been reacting to panic for ten years. He reached for Edwin and prepared to run.

He reached for Edwin with his left hand, his dominant side. His empty wrist fell several inches short. He didn’t even brush the tweed of Edwin’s sleeve.

The image framed by the doorway shifted, and Edwin was gone.

Notes:

I’m really bad with left and right, folks. The whole fic has now been edited to reflect Charles’ left handedness.
The worst part is that I did actually check before writing this, found an image of him twirling his bat in his left hand, and went “ah yes, that’s his right side.” Please revoke my kindergarten diploma.

Chapter 3

Summary:

Left unsupervised in a big fancy house, Charles gets in touch with his inner Kevin McCallister.

Notes:

You know, I don't actually think Charles ever saw Home Alone. It came out the year after he died, and I don't think he would have gone to see it. He definitely saw trailers for it, though, while he was watching other movies, so I think he can piece together the gist of it.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Charles couldn’t move for a moment. He was frozen, starting at the spot at the end of his arm where both his left hand and Edwin were supposed to be. The glaring absence of them both was not something his brain could process into usable information yet.

He stayed frozen for another moment even after his brain caught up to reality and informed him that Edwin had just vanished into thin air.

What had probably happened, Charles’ brain went on to tell him, was that the labyrinth shifted while they were on opposite sides of the threshold. Because Edwin had said that this door should lead to Pheasant Room, but through the empty doorway Charles could see the hanging Aztec-style tapestry that marked Crocodile Room. Trying to follow him wouldn’t do any good, then. Edwin had been shuffled away by the maze.

Charles’ brain relayed all this information to the rest of him, and Charles lost another second while his whole body rejected it like a botched organ transplant.

Once everything had really sunk in, Charles took a breath. He used that breath to utter a long, colorful string of curse words that would have knocked his poor mum into a coma if she’d heard it. Then he stomped back into the middle of the room, where he could see all three entrances and exits, adjusted his grip on his bat, and leaned against the back of a leather sofa to wait.

Edwin wasn’t here right now, but he was coming back, of course. He had to be coming back. They’d established that they couldn’t move through more than four rooms without ending up back in Marie’s Room, and once Edwin noticed that Charles wasn’t behind him anymore- which would take maybe half a second, they’d been in the middle of a conversation- he would hurry through the next four rooms and end up back here with Charles. So Charles would wait for him.

He didn’t trust himself to keep track of time when he was this agitated. He’d noticed five years ago that time didn’t seem to work quite right, for him, when he didn’t know where Edwin was. So he pulled a man’s wristwatch from his bag to keep an eye on how long it took Edwin to come back.

He waited one full minute before he started pacing. Three more before he used his cricket bat to smash an ugly, fancy lamp in frustration. A total of seven minutes since Edwin vanished before his eyes, the floor of Marie’s Room was completely covered in broken trinkets. Not a single overpriced vase was left standing.

Seven minutes was too long, Edwin should have been back here within three. He wouldn’t leave Charles waiting on purpose, no matter how angry he was. They both knew how bad it wigged the other out when one of them went missing.

Something was wrong. Maybe the labyrinth had changed its rules to keep them separated. Maybe something had happened to Edwin that stopped him from moving through the rooms. Maybe he was trapped or hurt somewhere in the maze without Charles there to help him.

Maybe, literal f*cking minutes after Charles had promised that nothing bad would get to Edwin unless it went through him first, something terrible had gotten ahold of Edwin anyway. Because Charles had reached for him with the wrong f*cking arm.

Charles tried not to spiral, he really did. He didn’t know that he had time for that kind of thing. But f*cking hell, this wasn’t how things were supposed to go. He’d done his bit. He’d gotten them clear of the immediate threat in the dungeon, he’d hit the bad guy in the head, and he hadn’t complained about the cost. He hadn’t wasted a moment being scared or selfish, he’d just done what was required of him and moved on. He’d lopped his dominant hand clean off his body to keep Edwin safe.

He couldn’t make sense of why Edwin was gone anyway.

How was Charles supposed to get him back? Edwin was the brilliant one, and he had their map with him, and he clearly hadn’t been able to find his way back to Charles yet. That didn’t bode well for Charles’ odds of success. Charles was just the brawn, his job was to hit things really hard and watch Edwin’s back. And he had traded in his ability to do even that properly.

Obviously, Charles still thought it was a fair trade to give up his hand if it stopped Edwin from being tortured by some lunatic that didn’t know how not to annihilate him. But now Edwin was in danger again, and Charles was still missing his goddamn hand.

He wanted to scream at the bitter, paradoxical unfairness of it. What the hell else was he meant to have done? Sat politely while Edwin screamed, smoke pouring off him, until the screaming stopped forever? Dick around with lock picks until Wymond decided to snuff them both out? There hadn’t been a choice, not a real one. And it had still somehow proven to be the wrong choice anyway. He’d done what he had to do to protect Edwin, and in doing so he’d rendered himself unable to protect Edwin.

What was even the point of him, if he couldn’t protect Edwin anymore?

There wasn’t any point to him at all.

There was a really big, really nice wooden table in Marie’s Room. It was probably mahogany or something else that had to be imported. It had stupid lion’s feet on it. Charles broke all four legs in two before he could calm down enough to think.

Edwin wasn’t gone, not forever. Charles knew that for certain, because the fabric of reality hadn’t imploded around him. As long as Edwin still existed, Charles could find him. He focused on that.

Edwin said that the f*cking wizard was probably awake and pissed off by now. The rooms hadn’t shifted to separate them before, so Charles had to assume that Wymond the Wanker was responsible for the new situation in which they found themselves. Charles’ next step, then, should be to go find the twat and beat the stuffing out of him until he made the labyrinth give Edwin back.

Unfortunately, the wanker would be able to move through the house without being trapped by its shifting, and Charles obviously couldn’t do that. So what, exactly, was he supposed to do? Go hunting through the rooms hoping they somehow crossed paths? Should he assume that Wymond had Edwin? Maybe not. There was a good chance, in Charles’ opinion, that Edwin could outmatch Wymond in a one-on-one even if the c*nt weren’t nursing a concussion.

If Charles used his head for a second– which was really f*cking difficult, to be clear, when every part of him was shrieking in unison over Edwin’s absence– he thought it would make the most sense for Wymond to keep them trapped and separated for as long as possible while he patched himself up. Could wizards fix their own head injuries? It probably depended on how bad the head injury was, and Charles was pretty confident that he’d hit Wymond just about as hard as a bloke could get hit in the head without dying on the spot.

Charles also didn’t think Wymond would just leave him alone, if he had all his wits about him. Charles had smashed him in the head with the flat side of a steel hatchet and then shackled him to the wall of his own stupid dungeon with his own magic cuff, and Wymond hadn’t seemed like the forgiving sort. If he was out and about with all his powers available to him, Charles doubted he’d have been left alone to indulge in seven full minutes of pacing and smashing stuff in Wymond’s favorite room. So. The f*cking wizard probably wasn’t at a hundred percent just yet.

That gave Charles some time to work with. He opened his bag. He had a lot of useful stuff in his bag.

Bubble soap in bulk, because he’d always thought it was funny for clouds of bubbles to appear out of nowhere in public. Wind chimes that Edwin had rejected as possible office decor. Roofing nails. A dozen varieties of twine, cord and rope. Enough duct tape to supply every plumber who had ever lived. A collection of marbles that he’d been steadily adding to for six and a half years- he thought he had about thirteen hundred, all together.

Yeah, Charles could make this work, actually. Wymond might be able to navigate his own labyrinth without getting lost in it, but there was more than one way to make a house inhospitable.

He figured Marie’s Room, if it was the center of the labyrinth, would be the most likely place for Wymond to show his stupid ugly face once he crawled out of the dungeon. And fortunately enough, Charles had already smashed to pieces most of the tables that pinned the plush rugs in place on the floor. It was remarkably easy to roll the rugs out of the immediate areas of each of the room’s doorways, cover the exposed wooden floors with bubble soap, and scatter the area with a handful from his marble collection. Nobody in a living body would be able to step here without taking a dive.

Setting a tripwire took some doing. He couldn’t very well tie knots, with only his undextrous right hand to work with. Fortunately, he’d stocked his bag with enough Velcro, duct tape, and clothes’ pins that he could rig something precarious together. He stuck a set of windchimes to the wall right next to one of the three empty archways that served as entrances, out of sight to anyone walking through from the outside, and connected it to a clothesline strung across the threshold a few inches up off the floor. If someone entered Marie’s Room through this door, their foot would catch on the clothesline, tear the windchimes down off the wall, and send the chimes crashing to the floor. Now Charles had an alarm system.

He wished he had more windchimes, but he’d only ever thought to keep one set. For the other two doorways in Marie’s Room, he set similar alarms using a child’s xylophone and the cymbal from an old drum kit. Satisfied that he’d hear it if Wymond did show his face in here, Charles stepped over the tripwire connected to the windchimes and proceeded to the next room.

He found himself in Dog Room. He had a dozen large mouse traps in his bag leftover from that one time the London sewer system had been overrun with zombified rats, and he now placed them all in strategic positions on the floor. He used his foot to hold each trap in place while he pried back the snapping mechanisms to set them. They would be easy to avoid, if someone were being careful to avoid them. Charles intended to make proper caution difficult.

The next room turned out to be Unicorn Room. He lifted the corners of the ornate rugs to access their undersides and studded them with steel roofing nails, such that the sharp ends of the nails faced upward when the rug was righted again. Pheasant Room got another tripwire, this one set to topple over a small end table upon which he sat a glass jar filled with the nineteen wasps that Edwin had asked Charles to remove from the office over the years.

He went on setting traps like this for a while. None of them would do any harm to Edwin if he happened upon them- although if he set off the wasp jar, Charles was definitely going to get an earful about how keeping the wasps in the bag did not count as removing them from the office. Wymond, on the other hand, was flesh and blood that just happened to be able to do magic. Charles didn’t know if he’d be able to find the wanker in his own stupid magic house, but he didn’t need to be in the same room with someone to make their life Hell.

Every time he entered a new room, Charles hoped he would find Edwin in it, half-mad with frustration but otherwise fine. Every time, Edwin wasn’t there, and Charles set the next hazard for Wymond to walk into as quickly as he could. He made it through eight rooms, not counting the second time he walked into Marie’s, before the clanging of a cymbal reached his ears.

Marie’s Room, west entrance. Charles was in Butterfly Room, the first one he’d entered after leaving Marie’s the second time. He was three rooms away. Go time.

He jogged through Ibis and Crocodile- pausing to chuck another handful of marbles on the floor in Crocodile Room as an afterthought- and the last room before he would enter Marie’s again was Elephant. Excellent. Charles had been quite proud of Elephant Room. He stayed close to the edge of the room, out of sight as he approached the doorway that would take him to Marie’s Room if he went through it and pressed himself against the wall right beside it. He stopped breathing so he could listen.

There was motion in the next room, heavy breathing and a pained groan. Disappointment washed over him. That was definitely not Edwin’s voice. On the bright side, this meant Charles had located Wymond. He dared to peek through the doorway, craning his neck to look around the door frame.

He jerked his head back just in time to avoid the sizzling streak of fire that was hurled in his direction.

Game on. Charles reached into his jacket pocket for the flashbang he’d pulled from his bag in preparation. He was a little excited to see how it worked; he’d been holding onto it for three years now. He pulled the pin with his teeth and gently tossed the little plastic canister through the open doorway, into Marie’s Room. He heard it bounce twice on hardwood before landing on one of the thick carpets that he hadn’t tampered with, then-

The floor flew up to hit Charles in the face so hard and so fast that it didn’t register with him for a second that he had fallen. He would have sworn that someone had just thrown the ground at him. He had been careful to keep himself only semi-corporeal for this part, and now he thought that had probably been too corporeal. His phantom retinas seemed convinced that they could be burned by mundane methods, actually, ghost rules be damned. There were white spots all over his vision.

Flashbang was, apparently, some kind of jargon that really meant explode a f*cking star so hard it blots out reality for while.

Charles scrambled to his hands – well, hand – and knees and pressed himself against the wall by the doorway again. He reassured his ears that his eardrums were just metaphorical, and therefore not ruptured, and tried to listen. He really hoped he hadn’t killed the wanker, he wasn’t sure he could fight off Death one-handed.

He heard a pathetic whine from the next room. Not dead, then. Brills. Charles dared to peek around the doorframe again.

Wymond the f*cking Wizard lay flat on his back, arms out at funny angles like he’d hit the floor in the midst of flailing. He raised his head enough so Charles could see the vibrant purple-and-blue bruising on the side of his face. Charles happened to know that a bruise would not naturally turn that color until a couple days had passed, and his face wasn’t as swollen as it should be at this point. It was safe to assume that Wymond was magically healing himself. Cheating twat.

He also noted that Wymond looked really, really angry. That was a victory in and of itself. Charles was pretty f*cking angry as well.

“Hey, wanker!” Charles called around the corner. “You still got eardrums? I want to have a chat.”

The wizard grumbled something. Charles took that as an acknowledgment.

“Your big ugly house took my mate,” he said. “Give him back and I won’t have to hurt you any worse.”

An animalistic snarl answered him. “You,” the wizard spat. “Are going. To regret. Being born.”

Charles smirked. “You will, first.”

He reached into his bag and pulled out a Roman candle- one of the smallest fireworks he had in his stock. He held the cardboard tube gingerly between his teeth, extracted a Zippo lighter from his back pocket, and lit the fuse. He hurried to transfer the lit firework to his hand and take proper aim before it went off. Not the best time to lose any more body parts.

One, two, three pops of bright light shot forth from his hand to land on Marie’s portrait. One, two, three scorch marks appeared wherever the light touched.

Spellcasters were always so smug about being able to throw fire around. Charles could do it too, though, and he didn’t need to read a whole f*cking book about it first. Wymond’s inelegant howl of rage gave all the confirmation Charles needed to know that it was time to move. He hopped up and trotted for the center of the room, placing himself in an easy line of sight from the doorway. He waited for the telltale sizzle before he dropped into a tidy barrel roll to dodge the sloppy firebolt that came his way.

Twice now, Wymond had missed him with his fancy fire magic. Charles, meanwhile, had three direct hits under his belt. He would have to brag to Edwin later about being a better pyromancer than him.

Wymond was following him now, he could tell from the thuds of his lumbering steps. He could also tell from the miserable squawk that the wanker had just slipped on the combination of bubble soap and marbles and tumbled face-first through the doorway into Elephant Room. The squawk became an unholy shriek of pain when he landed on the plush carpet.

See, Charles had meticulously loaded up every rug in Elephant Room with the pottery shards that used to be vases in Marie’s Room. You couldn’t really see the shards through the thick fibers, but you could sure as sh*t feel them there if you stepped on them. Or landed on them with your face. Waste not, want not, he figured. It’d be silly not to make use of so many sharp points if he already had them lying around.

The wizard screamed harder as he shoved himself back up to his feet. That would be a hefty amount of pottery shards in the meat of his hands, now. Charles had no sympathy for his pursuer’s agony; Wymond, at least, still had two hands to pincushion in the first place. Charles remained fully incorporeal as he jogged through next doorway, seeing as how he had no way to know which room was on the other side, much less if and how he’d rigged it.

He needn’t have bothered, because he ended up in Whale Room. He hadn’t had a chance to set up any traps in here. Never too late, though— he still had that zippo on hand, and the wall to his right was covered in flammable-looking oil paintings. He held the little flame to each one of them as he trotted past, just long though to start a little ember on the canvas. One of them went up at once with a brilliant fwoosh. Charles spared a millisecond to wonder if that one was a fake.

Whale Room connected to Dog Room this time. Charles glanced over his shoulder as he jogged over the scattered mouse traps, letting his feet phase right through them without setting off the spring-loaded snaps. He saw Whale Room filling with smoke behind him, but no Wymond. Maybe he was still in Elephant Room, or maybe he had ended up somewhere else in the house using the same doorway that Charles had. He paused and stopped breathing again to listen.

He stopped listening when Wymond came storming in through the door directly in front of Charles. He had a wand of some kind in his bloodied hand. It was black and gnarled like lava stone, and it came to a wickedly sharp point at one end. The last time Wymond pointed a wand at him was not a fond memory, so Charles moved fast. He dropped to the floor, rolled forward, and pivoted to kick Wymond’s feet out from under him. The maneuver probably would have worked even if the wanker weren’t still dazed and half blind from the flashbang. He toppled over like a felled tree.

Wymond threw his hands out to catch himself. Charles had honestly thought he might have learned by now. His right hand hit a mouse trap at a perfect angle for the trap to snap shut on his thumb. Another pained shriek split the air. Charles moved in to kick away the wand that Wymond had dropped as he fell. He planted a knee on the wizard’s back.

“Stay down,” he warned. “You’ve got nine fingers left to break.”

The wizard bared his teeth, but he was too hurt and too tired to put up more of a fight than some obligatory squirming. “Is this how it works, then?” he panted. “You lose your limbs and torture people while the Victorian boy keeps his hands clean?”

“Yes. He pays me in rare, collectible Beanie Babies,” Charles answered. “Where is he, then?”

“He’s gone,” the wizard snapped.

Charles paused to think that over. Then he carefully reached over to the right and placed his remaining index finger on top of the metal bar of the mousetrap closed on Wymond’s thumb. He didn’t apply any pressure, just held his position.

“You’re gonna want to choose your next words really carefully, mate,” he said quietly. “What do you mean, he’s gone?”

He didn’t know if he could fight Death one-handed, but if Edwin was really gone, that wouldn’t matter. If Edwin was gone, neither Wymond nor Charles was ever leaving this house.

“He left,” the wizard growled. “He’s not in the house anymore.”

Ah, that was just a lie, then. No need to panic. Charles pressed down on the trap. Wymond howled.

“Try that again,” Charles advised. “Where’s Edwin?”

The man pinned under his knee made a pathetic whining sound, like air out of a beach ball. “Don’t believe me?” he asked. “Why not? Thought this was a hired muscle situation.”

“I’m really expensive,” Charles explained amicably. “You wouldn’t believe how many Beanie Babies it takes to get me on retainer, wouldn’t want to waste that kind of investment.” He tapped a threatening finger against the mousetrap. “As you can imagine, it would also be bad business for me to leave without him.”

“If you two care about each other so much, you should be helping me,” the wizard reasoned. “Help me get Marie back and then we can bring all three of you back to life.”

“Sorry, we’ve already pegged you as a bad client,” said Charles. “Tell you what. You don’t have to say anything. Just do whatever magical f*ckery you do to make the labyrinth give him back.”

Wymond let out a pained breath. “I can’t,” he whispered. He whispered something else, a bunch of words that sounded like Aramaic, and Charles’ knee abruptly sank down through the wizard.

Wymond had forced Charles’ form to be fully incorporeal so he could wriggle out from under the knee pressed between his shoulder blades. The wizard rolled to the side, dragging his ribs right through Charles’ leg as he went. It was bloody disgusting. It also meant that there was once again a pissed-off wizard loose and gunning for Charles. Time to leg it.

Charles surged to his feet and ran for the door. Fighting would be a really bad idea if he couldn’t land a hit. His best bet would be to disappear back into the labyrinth and rely on his traps to try and get the wizard subdued again.

He almost made it, too, before something hit him square in the back.

The last time Wymond had pointed a wand at him was not a fond memory. This time was something else entirely. The first time had felt like everything at once, life and death and total annihilation singing through his fingertips in a discordant cacophony, but it hadn’t really hurt.

This thing, though. Whatever he had now instead of the f*cking crystal. This thing hurt a lot.

It hurt from the inside out, like Charles had real bones again and they had been swapped out with molten lead. It burned in the really scary way, the kind of burning that came from something hot being pressed willfully against his skin, the kind that you knew wouldn’t relent no matter how hard you tried to pull away.

Charles didn’t scream. Most of his muscle memory had stayed with him when he died even though his muscles were just memories themselves, now. He clamped his jaw shut even before the rest of him realized that he’d been hurt. He couldn’t manage to stay quiet, though. A stifled cry of pain escaped him despite his best efforts. His knees tried to buckle. Charles caught himself in a three-point kneel, right hand and left foot planted on the ground while his right leg gave way. He curled his left wrist close to his chest.

When it stopped, Charles allowed himself the luxury of missing the good old days, back when he’d thought ghosts couldn’t feel pain. It was true that the usual stick and stones didn’t hurt them, but the world was apparently crawling with magical weirdos who had nothing better to do with their time than figuring out how to make ghosts suffer. Really beating dead horses, in Charles’ opinion. He wished they’d all just take up a normal hobby.

“How many ghost torture wands do you even have?” Charles panted when he could speak again. “They can’t all be for Marie.”

Wymond limped around to stand in front of him. Beneath the mottled bruising and cuts all over his face, his eyes were incandescent with rage. “I would never hurt her,” he growled.

Charles doubted that, but the wanker had the scary black wand pointed at his face just now, so he declined to voice that thought.

“The white crystal was supposed to make her stronger,” Wymond went on. “It’s just a storage device for pure spiritual energy. Neither of us knew that ghosts can’t accept more power into themselves without starting to break apart.”

So he had used that thing on his girlfriend. A mangled, bruised corner of Charles’ heart wanted to cry.

What did you have to do to a woman, he wondered, to make her come back to this after she’d been set free from the labyrinth?

“This one, though. This one will definitely erase you,” said the wizard, flicking the wand for emphasis. “I didn’t want to use this one earlier. I’m not a monster. I don’t like hurting people. I don’t want to end you.” He tightened his grip on the wand. “You’re not giving me a choice, though. What would your boss do if you were gone?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to find that out,” Charles advised. “I’m the muscle. Doesn’t mean I’m the dangerous one.”

Charles wasn’t bluffing. He was pretty sure that if the wanker ended him right here, the house would be a smoldering crater within half an hour.

Wymond had a panicky look in his eyes. “He won’t help Marie. But you’re important to him. He went spare when you were screaming. I don’t care if you’re his friend or lover or bastard grandson or whatever. If you’re gone like Marie is, he might help you.”

Charles had never really considered that possibility. What would Edwin do, after reducing this place to rubble, if Charles were snuffed out? Charles was pretty sure that what Wymond wanted was impossible, but if someone were to figure it out, it would be the boy that survived seventy-three years of Hell and came back stronger. Charles hoped Edwin wouldn’t try it, though. He didn’t like the thought of Edwin tampering with that kind of darkness.

The thing was, you had to be a particular kind of person to get into necromancy. It wasn’t love or desperation or a need for power that brought people down that road. It was indignation. The people who spent their lives trying to pull a fast one on Death were the ones who just couldn’t cope with the idea that they weren’t the exception. They were used to being in control, used to getting special treatment, and being told that they couldn’t change this one thing drove them absolutely mental.

Edwin wasn’t that kind of person. Charles knew someone else who fit the profile though. And he’d been pretty good, back in his day, at keeping that bloke distracted.

“How come you haven’t asked me if I know how to un-explode ghosts?” Charles asked abruptly. “It seems sort of obvious, doesn’t it? Why else would a spellcaster like him keep me around? It’s not like he can bring himself back if an idiot like you blows him up. I’m his apprentice.”

Wymond froze, and Charles knew he’d won. Men like that got so scared when they thought they might have broken something permanently. They relied on the messes they made being cleaned up for them so they never had to look at how badly they’d f*cked it up. Denial was their only safe haven when nobody came to clean up the mess, and they’d latch onto some downright stupid ideas if it kept the denial alive.

“Honestly,” Charles scoffed. “Would I really cut off my own hand if I didn’t know how to put it back on?”

“You haven’t put it back on,” Wymond pointed out.

Charles shrugged. “That’s because I was busy redecorating your ugly house. The ritual takes a minute. Besides, I’m not left-handed. I don’t really need that hand.”

There was a gleam of hope emerging in Wymond’s battered face. “You know how to bring her back?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Charles.

“Prove it,” the wizard demanded. “Prove that you’re skilled enough. Grow your hand back.”

“Alright,” Charles agreed. “I’ve got the old one right here though, so I’d rather not grow a whole new one. It’s in my bag. Do you mind?” He gestured at the bag on his back. Wymond nodded hesitantly.

“Don’t try anything,” he warned, brandishing the wand.

“Yeah, you’ll erase me from this mortal plane, got it,” Charles said with a dismissive wave of his empty wrist. He dropped his bag to the ground, maneuvered it open, and pulled out his left hand. “I’ll need a book, too,” he added, stuffing his hand in his pocket again. Wymond gave him another cautious nod. Charles pulled out Lunar Magic and Talismans. He also snagged a piece of sidewalk chalk and a strip of duct tape, while he was rooting around in there. He rolled the duct tape into a little cylinder with the sticky side facing out and concealed it in his palm when he pulled out the chalk.

“I’ll need to draw on something,” Charles said. “You’ve got too many rugs, do you know that?”

Wymond scowled. “You can draw on the wall.”

Charles beamed. “Cheers.” He hopped up to his feet, tucked the book under his left arm, and approached the wall. He started scribbling a circle surrounded by runes and symbols on the stuffy beige wallpaper. He was mindful not to replicate any actual ritual circles too closely; he sort of crossed three or four of them together and hoped it would pass inspection from a man who’d suffered a fair bit of cranial trauma.

When he was done scribbling he stepped back to show the wizard what he’d drawn, feeling like he’d been asked to write an answer on the chalkboard at school. Wymond’s face showed not a glimmer of recognition. “Go on,” he ordered as he gestured with the scary wand.

“I’ll need to be corporeal,” Charles told him.

“You are, that spell only lasted for a second.”

Charles saluted and set about his task. This part was a gamble. He figured that at least if he didn’t make it, he could be assured that Edwin would avenge him with style and class.

He reached into his jacket pocket to retrieve his severed left hand. He willed tangible thoughts at it. It felt solid enough in his right fingers. He stuck his cylinder of duct tape to the blunt cleave where the hand ended. The tape stayed in place, which he considered an excellent sign. He brandished his left hand in his right hand at the circle he’d drawn and shouted, “Iṉiya puttāṇṭu nalvāḻttukaḷ!”

Charles had figured that the wizard would probably recognize any of the words Charles knew from Edwin’s usual rotation of spells, but he probably wouldn’t recognize the phrase Charles’ auntie said over the phone every year on Puthandu.

He smacked his severed hand onto his empty wrist and hoped for the best. The tape held. Truly, a New Year’s miracle.

Charles spun around to face Wymond, holding his wrist straight up with his hand balanced on top of it so the tape wouldn’t have to fight gravity.

“Tada!” he sang.

Wymond the f*cking wizard was looking at him with genuine tears in his eyes, as if Charles had just walked on water. “You can bring her back,” he whispered, full of emotion. “You can fix this.”

“Yeah, why not,” Charles agreed. “It’s just my teacher that’s the stingy one, I don’t mind spreading arcane secrets around.”

Wymond nodded furiously. Charles steeled himself and made the big play.

“I’m gonna need something from him, though,” he said, aiming for a casual delivery. “You know that bow tie he wears? It’s got a fancy talisman in it that makes his magic stronger. If you want me to bring Marie back, I need that talisman.”

Wymond actually looked elated. “I knew he had a secret,” he breathed. “He’s too powerful. I just thought it was because of how long he’d been studying.”

Edwin had only been able to study magic since he’d gotten out of Hell. Charles suspected Wymond had been training twice as long, maybe more. Edwin, he reflected with pride, was just very talented.

“I’ll bring him here,” Wymond promised. He limped over to the wall perpendicular to the one Charles had drawn on and slapped a hand against it. The whole room vibrated.

Charles’ attention was yanked to the doorway by a sound he knew better than his own voice: Edwin’s most irritated sigh. He could not fight the smile that bloomed on his face, nor did he want to. Edwin only ever sounded that annoyed when he was, in fact, fine.

A thousand nightmarish scenarios in Charles’ imagination faded away. Edwin was alright. In his books, that meant pretty much everything was alright.

Edwin stomped through the door into Dog Room. He looked disheveled, with his collar askew and his hair in disarray. He must have been running anxious fingers through his hair quite a lot, to muss it up this much. Charles had known that if Edwin was able to do so, he’d be searching every nook of this forsaken house for Charles, but the evidence written all over his friend’s appearance of how worried he’d been still made Charles feel warm all over.

It was probably selfish of him to feel gratified when someone he loved so much looked so worried. But Charles had been killed and forgotten by the friends he’d had before Edwin. He knew that cheerful camaraderie didn’t mean a thing, if someone wouldn’t notice you dying of hypothermia in the middle of the night. A friend that looked for him when he went missing was just about the most precious thing Charles could imagine. Edwin looked rumpled and anxious and upset, and Charles loved him so much for it that he just about followed Marie’s example by exploding.

Instead of exploding, he pressed his lips together and whistled, sharp and loud. Edwin snapped his head around to face him, and his expression melted into one of abject relief.

Charles,” he said, cramming a dozen different emotions into the name.

Charles smiled so wide his cheeks ached. “Think fast!” he shouted, and tossed Lunar Magic and Talismans at his best mate like a frisbee.

Then he grabbed his left hand right off his wrist and threw it at the wizard’s bruised, stunned face. Wymond squawked in panic and probably disgust, batting the hand away like he would a bee. Charles took advantage of his distraction to charge forward, duck low, and drive his shoulder into the wizard’s solar plexus with as much momentum as he could muster. They both tumbled to the ground. Charles grabbed for the scary black wand as they went.

He remembered to use his right hand to grab, this time, he just wasn’t quite as strong with his right, nor could he protect his head very well with his left. He lost his grip when Wymond socked him in the face. He ended up sprawled on his back with the black wand shoved into the soft flesh under his chin. He reflexively clenched his jaw shut just before the pain hit.

When the bones that he didn’t have anymore turned to molten lead again, and everything burned like a cigarette being stamped out on his collar bone where even the thin strap of an undershirt would cover it, he tuned in to the sound of Edwin chanting. He’d never stopped thinking it was completely brilliant when Edwin chanted to cast a spell. His best mate never sounded as strong and sure as he did when he was speaking a long-dead language. If Charles was about to get erased from this world, he was glad that at least he could hear Edwin’s voice while it happened.

Then the pain stopped and all he could hear was screaming. At first Charles worried that it might be him screaming, but no, his mouth was still closed. All his cries of pain had been muffled behind clenched teeth. Edwin wasn’t screaming either, this time. That was Wymond.

Charles peeled open eyes that he didn’t remember closing and saw red everywhere. It was all over him and all over the floor, and all over the pale hand clenched around a black wand sitting in the middle of his chest. Wymond sat next to him, shrieking, his whole body curled around the stump of his right wrist.

Edwin stood just a few paces away with one hand outstretched and Lunar Magic and Talismans held open in the other. His eyes blazed with a fury that Charles had seen maybe three times in ten years.

That,” Edwin said, his voice like ice, “is enough.”

Notes:

For reference, Puthandu is the first day of the new year in the Tamil calendar. The "spell" Charles says to "reattach his hand" literally just means Happy New Year.

Chapter 4: Interlude

Summary:

Edwin's been having a stressful day.

Notes:

Okay this is not the last chapter, and I am sorry for bumping up my chapter count again, but hear me out. I know what you people like. You like it when I black out and reemerge with thousands of words worth of Edwin experiencing mind-destroying levels of concern for his fellow teenage husband. So, you're gonna like this.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

For a moment, Edwin almost believed that things were going to be alright. Their map of the shifting house was coming along quite well, the wizard had not been sighted for almost an hour, and Charles was arguing with him about what the word obviously meant. The situation was far from ideal, but the two of them had weathered terrible conditions together before. Surely, they could weather this as well.

“You and I can engage in a spirited debate about semantics back at the office,” said Edwin, as he made for the south-facing doorway of Marie’s Room. “I’ll supply the dictionaries.” He was bluffing, of course, because trying to get Charles to engage with the structure of formal debate would drive them both to madness within minutes, but Edwin was sure that Charles would find the prospect more threatening than he did.

“I only trust the scrabble dictionary,” Charles said, in that teasing tone he only used when he didn’t mean a word he was saying.

Edwin looked over his shoulder to remind Charles that their game of Scrabble had lost its dictionary under mysterious circ*mstances around the same time that Charles had claimed that the word tosh was legal. The floor beneath his feet vibrated as he was turning his head, though, just enough to give him pause, and he suddenly found himself staring back through an empty doorway. Marie’s Room was gone, and so was Charles.

For a long moment, Edwin could not force himself to move.

“Charles?” he asked the empty space through the archway.

The empty space, unsurprisingly, declined to answer.

Edwin’s rational mind whispered at him not to panic. The labyrinth had obviously shifted in the split second between when Edwin stepped over the threshold and Charles tried to follow him. There was no reason to assume the worst.

A different part of Edwin’s mind, though, the part that was going to be sixteen forever, politely told his rational mind to sod off. If Edwin weren’t already dead, the stress of this day would have killed him by now, and he really didn’t know how much more of this he could take.

His relentlessly kind, recklessly brave, stupidly selfless partner was walking around one-handed as thanks for his dedication to Edwin’s protection, and now Edwin had gone and bloody abandoned him.

Edwin took up a brisk walk. Charles had still been standing in Marie’s Room when the maze changed, and despite rapidly accumulating evidence to the contrary, he was, in fact, very intelligent. He would know to stay put until Edwin made his way back to the labyrinth’s heart. It shouldn’t take any longer than two minutes to move through the next four rooms with appropriate caution. Edwin was in Pheasant Room at the moment, as he’d predicted, which meant that the next room should be either Unicorn or Butterfly.

It was Butterfly, followed by Ibis and then Elephant. He made a note of the order before stepping into Marie’s Room.

The next room wasn’t Marie’s. It was Whale.

It wasn’t possible that he’d miscounted, was it? Edwin frowned at his map. This had been consistent for the near hour they’d been wandering around the labyrinth together, Marie’s room appeared after any other four rooms, and sometimes more often than that. Edwin, however, had just entered the fifth room in a row without coming back to Marie’s. The rules had changed.

He kept walking. He went through Unicorn, Elephant again, and Gryphon. Eight rooms, now, without Marie’s appearing. The ninth was Salamander.

Charles would be waiting for Edwin in Marie’s Room. Edwin couldn’t get back to Marie’s Room anymore. The maze had changed its behavior to keep them separated. The wizard was the one who controlled the maze, so it was almost certainly his doing. All these pieces of information arranged themselves into a single image that made Edwin’s nebulous insides curl tight with dread.

Charles was alone and disabled in a maze that now housed an angry spellcaster, as well.

The memory of demonic giggling filled Edwin’s ears.

Edwin had seen his own limbs torn asunder so many times that he was almost completely desensitized to it. He knew the color of all his organs with clinical specificity, and the precise thickness of every tendon. He knew the sound that his femur made when it snapped, so different from the wet crunch of his finger bones.

Charles didn’t know any of this, of course. He knew more about Hell than most people ever would, but the gory details of Edwin’s specific torment remained unspoken. Edwin hoped they would remain that way forever. He cherished the knowledge that his companion could look at him without seeing the shadows of Hellish gore. It made it so much easier for Edwin to pretend that he couldn’t see them, either. There were times when Charles’ easy laughter erased the memory of Hell altogether for long, precious moments.

Now, though, Edwin knew what it looked like when Charles was the one dismembered, and everything was brand new again. The wall of numbness that had protected him for decades hadn’t stood a chance.

The lifeless, floppy fingers of Charles’ severed hand were different from Edwin’ in color, thickness, and association. Edwin’s hands were long and pale, well suited to scrabbling against the walls of sickly green. Charles’ hands were meant to be in constant motion, flying through the gestures that accompanied a well-told story or twirling a cricket bat in lazy circles. The wrongness of seeing his hand - his left hand, Charles was left handed, rare in every way- rendered inanimate and useless cut right though to his core. Charles’ casual gesturing with his unattached limb had nearly broken Edwin in a way that even Hell couldn’t.

Hell, after all, was driven only by the logic of suffering. Edwin understood Hell. For all its horror, it was quite simple. Charles was different. He was driven by the logic of love, devotion, kindness so radical it constantly threatened to destroy him. He hadn’t maimed himself for the sake of pain. He’d done it, willfully and without regret, because he loved Edwin more than he loved himself. Edwin wished Charles had just driven the hatchet through Edwin’s skull, it would have been kinder.

Charles’ love was crueler than Hell, sometimes. At least in Hell, Edwin had known that he’d done nothing to deserve his torment. He could comfort himself with fantasies of exoneration. Every time Charles flung himself between Edwin and pain without a second thought, it was a more insidious torture than the Dollhouse had ever dealt him, because Edwin knew it was his own fault. He knew that the kind, bright, beautiful boy that followed him everywhere wasn’t supposed to be here.

Charles was supposed to be somewhere blissful and calm. He was supposed to have been released from all the suffering of this world a decade ago. He stayed here with Edwin instead, and Edwin, finally worthy of his damnation, let him do it. He let Charles stay and fight and be hurt. He let Charles cut himself to pieces for Edwin’s sake. He let Charles skirt with reckless abandon the threat of annihilation when he was supposed to be in paradise.

If the wizard found Charles now, he would destroy him. If that happened, then Edwin would have robbed Charles Rowland of heaven forever. He could not begin to stomach it. It would kill him a second time, and then most likely a third and a fourth. The despair of knowing what he had stolen from the one person in all the world who most deserved paradise would put Lucifer’s darkest pit to shame.

The only thing to do was find Wymond first and remove the threat. Edwin breathed deep and examined his map with renewed focus. He let the phantom giggling in his ears drive him forward and resumed his trek through the maze.

Dog, Pheasant, Crocodile, Ibis, Butterfly, Unicorn- each room had tendencies, patterns in when it appeared, and as Edwin went, the pattern clarified. He could predict with three-quarters accuracy which room would appear through each doorway. Minutes passed, and his predictions became more accurate.

Then the rules changed again, and the door that was supposed to bring him to Salamander Room brought him to Marie’s instead. It was not as he had left it.

The first thing he noticed was that a great many things in the room were broken. Vases, table legs and glass frames lay in pieces all over the ground. It looked like someone had gone on a spree, breaking as much as they could. For a terrifying moment, Edwin was certain the he was too late, and that Wymond had already found, overpowered and done away Charles.

For a terrifying moment, Edwin had no idea what he might do next, but he knew that it would end with this place reduced to a pile of burning rubble.

That train of thought derailed when he noticed that the floor was covered in Charles’ marble collection, as well a thin, shiny coat of a liquid that he thought might be soap.

There was a set of windchimes affixed to the wall with a bizarre tangle of tape and string. This could only possibly be Charles’ doing. Why Charles would do any of this, however, was beyond Edwin’s powers of comprehension.

Edwin’s wandering through the rooms took on a very different tone. With increasing frequency, he would step into a room to find it – altered. There were nails sticking up through the carpet of Unicorn Room next time he passed through it. Dog Room was littered with mouse traps. Pheasant Room now housed a jar of live wasps.

It filled Edwin with relief to find evidence that Charles was well and active enough to be moving through the house. On the other hand, Edwin was genuinely beginning to worry that Charles might be losing his mind. The next time he went through Marie’s Room he noticed that it wasn’t just windchimes on the wall, Charles had also attached a child’s xylophone and a drummer’s cymbal to the walls by the other doorways. Edwin tried to make sense of this for several seconds and failed completely.

Maybe this was some sort of stress coping mechanism? Charles had to be just as worried as Edwin was. Was he vandalizing the wizard’s house to vent frustration? If that was it, Charles had very strange tastes in vandalizing activity, but Edwin couldn’t come up with an alternative explanation. He would simply have to ask Charles about it when they reunited.

Through the maze he walked, gradually pinning down the correct sequence of doors to use to get to any given room within three steps. It was a pointless achievement because it brought him no closer to his partner or their pursuer. It also did not shed any light on why the carpets in Elephant Room were now studded with shards of porcelain. Edwin ran his fingers through his hair so many times he was sure he created a proper mess of it. He couldn’t find Charles and worry was driving him ever closer to madness.

He could feel it when the rules changed again. The floor of Crocodile Room- now scattered with marbles for some reason- vibrated beneath his feet. The east facing doorway no longer framed a view of Pheasant Room, but Dog. Edwin sighed. He didn’t have time for this. He stomped through the door.

Dog Room was not as he had left it, either.

There was the wizard, and at the sight of his wretched face understanding flashed through Edwin’s mind like lightning. The wizard was bruised and bloodied from head to toe, covered in little cuts. There was a snapped mousetrap at his feet and an unnatural bend in his right thumb, even as he used that hand to grip a menacing black wand.

The chaos strewn throughout the house was a collection of hazards for a living body to encounter. While Edwin had been pointlessly mapping out a set of rooms that shuffled like cards, Charles had once again taken the initiative to protect them. He’d been setting traps.

There were moments when Charles was simply so brilliant, Edwin could not find the words to describe it.

A sharp whistle snapped Edwin’s head toward the wall on his left, and all at once he felt a lead weight drop from his shoulders. Charles was there, smiling at Edwin like nothing in the world was wrong. He was standing in front of a nonsensical scribble chalked onto the wall, holding a book under his arm, and his hand was back on his arm.

“Charles,” Edwin said, letting all the wonder and worry and relief he felt infuse the name with emotion.

Charles grinned even wider. “Think fast!” he shouted. He hurled the book under his arm at Edwin like a discus.

Edwin had never been any good at catching, but Charles had been throwing books at him for ten years. His hands had eventually been trained into something like coordination. He caught the book when it reached him and identified with a glance the cover of Lunar Magic and Talismans. A practical choice, he’s been flipping through this tome recently enough that he already knew the placement of most spells. He opened his mouth and looked to Charles to commend his selection.

And then before his eyes, Charles removed his hand from his arm and threw it.

The severed limb flew towards the wizard, and Wymond panicked, waving around the sinister looking wand, and Charles was moving too, and Edwin had only enough time for a single, half-formed thought.

Please, please don’t.

Charles did anyway. Of course he did. Because Charles was in the same room as both Edwin and a threat, and there was only one way he could ever be counted upon to act in such moments. He bodily tackled the enraged spellcaster and knocked them both to the floor, grappling for the wand.

Edwin had the book open to the right page. Tonight was a new moon, there was an immobilization spell that should work well today. He scanned the first line of text.

A stifled cry of pain turned his spectral body to ice.

Charles screamed so, so rarely. It happened sometimes in their line of work, but much more often, Charles seemed to reflexively smother any indication that he was hurt. He regulated his expressions when he was in pain and concealed it when he was walking off a limp, and if something hurt badly enough to make him scream, his jaw would seal itself closed before the sound of Charles’ suffering could escape. The sound that Charles made instead was usually worse, like it was now. It was agony and fear and defiance rolled into one, the sound of a young boy determined to suffer silently.

The memory of giggling swelled so loud that Edwin could hear nothing else. Charles was missing his hand and he was trying not to scream, he was being torn apart but he knew he had to be quiet, and this was every nightmare that Edwin’s unsleeping mind could ever conjure, it was Hell, he was in Hell, Charles was in Hell, Charles was being torn to shreds in Hell-

Edwin flipped the page. He started chanting a different spell.

This wasn’t Hell. Edwin was never armed in Hell. He was armed now. Anything that hurt Charles here, Edwin was going to hurt worse.

Notes:

The actual last chapter will probably be up in about a week. Unless I black out again and write the whole thing when I'm supposed to be at work, who knows anymore.

Chapter 5

Summary:

Edwin is the dangerous one. The boys discuss Peter Pan. We all find out what the hell we're gonna do about Charles' hand.

Notes:

Guys. My friends. Countrymen and Romans. The responses you folks have sent me for this fic have been completely overwhelming. I am stunned and touched and very behind on replying to all your comments. I promise, if you have ever left me a comment on one of my ongoing DBD fics I will be responding with a personal thank you, it might just take me uhhh little while.

I liked writing this one even more than Like Fool's Gold, mostly because Charles is an absolute maniac and I love trying to get into his head. I'm a little sad that this fic is over, to be honest. Guess I'll be compelled to write another one by forces beyond my comprehension soon.

Thank you so much for reading, I hope the conclusion satisfies! Please, for the love of all that is holy, mind that Graphic Violence warning!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

That,” Edwin said, his voice like ice, “is enough.”

Charles pushed himself up into a semi-upright sort of heap on the floor, bracing his hand on the floor behind his back to keep himself steady. He stared at his best friend with unabashed awe, knowing that his jaw was hanging open like he meant to catch flies in it and not caring a bit.

Edwin, cold and furious, standing over the grown man he’d just taken a chunk out of, was the coolest f*cking thing he’d ever seen.

There was something that Charles had been trying really hard to ignore ever since they got to this godforsaken house, that now he felt like it was safe to notice. The thing was, Wymond looked a bit like Charles’ dad. Not a close resemblance, but a passing one. Something about the shape of his nose and the cut of his hair, the fact of him being a white bloke in his fifties, the watery color of his eyes.

The sight of a man fitting that description bleeding on the floor, howling for mercy from Edwin Paine, was doing something to Charles’ head. He couldn’t figure out what the feeling was, exactly, but it felt scarily good.

The nice part about playing hooky from the afterlife was that you didn’t really need to worry anymore about getting judged by any omniscient moralists. So, Charles went ahead and thought the thing that he really out to be ashamed of thinking.

Charles thought, if Edwin ever found out what his dad was really like to him and his mum, Philip Rowland would be reduced to a couple of bloody smears on the walls.

Charles thought he might kind of like to see that.

“You are done,” Edwin stated, taking two long-legged steps to loom over the pathetic lump of Wymond on the floor. His voice was still so cold, but his eyes burned like the blue flames of a gas stove. “You will not harm him again, you will not touch him again, you will not do any more damage than you have already done with your half-witted, amateur flailing.

Wymond the wizard sobbed. “I just- wuh wanted to- to save Marie!”

“You killed Marie!” Edwin snapped. “No, you did worse than that! She is gone. She will not have an afterlife, she will not be reincarnated, she will not even persist in Hell.” He shook his head, disgust and anger painted in bold strokes across his striking features. “You kept her here in your labyrinth until you destroyed her, because you are a weak, pathetic child who could not bear to be lonely.”

No!” Wymond wailed. “I can get her back!” He pointed his one remaining index finger at Charles. “That mongrel said he could get her back!”

Charles winced and braced himself. He hung around old-timey English ghosts all the time, and that was after he’d gone to a posh boarding school. He’d been called plenty of racist sh*t before. It didn’t bother him much anymore.

Edwin really didn’t like it, though.

Edwin hissed a phrase, just a short one, that Charles had never heard before. It sounded like it was in one of the proper old languages, the ones that were only preserved in scary looking grimoires with crumbly pages.

The finger that Wymond had pointed at him snapped backward at a grotesque, unnatural angle, and then just kept bending. Charles watched, full of phantom nausea, as the finger curled up the way a finger was supposed to, but in the wrong direction. All three joints had been broken and forced back at a ninety-degree angle.

He’d never heard a sound quite like the one the wizard made, then. It was almost enough to make Charles feel sorry for him.

Edwin wasn’t done with him, though. He took one more step and planted a foot on Wymond’s chest, knocking him back to the ground and holding him there under his boot.

Death is not a game!” Edwin shouted as the man beneath his foot wept. “You don’t get to try again! You have ended her. There are no more chances. If you really loved her, you would have let her go! You would have let her move on! She might have gone to heaven, did that never occur to you? Her soul might have had another life on earth! But you kept her for yourself and you ruined that for her!

Oh sh*t.

Edwin wasn’t just talking about Marie.

Charles lurched up to his feet. He almost toppled right over, but he kept his feet underneath him, even when the bloody mess of an unattached hand fell down off of his chest.

“Edwin?” he said faintly. “Edwin, mate, I’m alright.”

Edwin glanced his way only for a split second. His already wrathful expression contorted into something downright feral, and Charles abruptly remembered that he was covered in blood. Not helpful for de-escalation, that.

Wymond was trying to speak again. He needed to stop doing that, Charles thought, if he wanted to survive the next couple minutes. It was a good thing he was crying too hard for intelligible words to come through. Amidst the garbled noises that poured out of his mouth, Charles caught the word sorry.

“Sorry doesn’t matter!” Edwin spat. “You’ve already earned your spot in Hell! You cannot begin to imagine what’s waiting for you down there!” He leaned down, right in Wymond face, and growled low, “You should find a way to erase yourself the way you erased your partner. You’ll find no greater mercy, now. But I don’t think you deserve even that.”

He pressed one of his fingers to the wizard’s throat, and Charles realized that he didn’t intervene now, Edwin really might kill someone right here on the carpet.

He realized at the same time that he didn’t actually want Edwin to kill his father, no matter how appealing the concept was in theory. Edwin had already seen so much horror, much more than he could ever deserve. Edwin had the kind of long, graceful hands that were supposed to play instruments and paint on canvas. His handwriting was tidy and precise, with an occasional flourish added to the crossing of a T when he was especially pleased with himself. When they had had a bad day on a case, Edwin would always offer to read out loud from whatever book he was using to wind down, and his voice sounded like the soft patter of rain against a car’s windshield.

Edwin had survived decades of torture and come out gentle on the other side, and that was the most beautiful thing that Charles could even imagine. He didn’t want Edwin to kill anyone. He didn’t want those long, graceful hands to have blood on them. That was what Charles was for.

His best friend was more upset and wound up than Charles could ever remember seeing him, though, so he didn’t think the usual “deep breath” method would be effective right now.

“Edwin!” He called, acting on the first, half-formed idea that occurred to him. “Help!”

Edwin abandoned the wizard and flew to Charles’ side so fast, Charles didn’t have time to blink. Some ghosts could sort of teleport, under the right circ*mstances. Maybe Edwin had been holding out on Charles with regard to his ghostly abilities. His hands fluttered all over Charles’s head and torso, not quite touching, like he was trying to make sure Charles was all there. Given recent events, it wasn’t an unreasonable concern.

“What? What is it? What’s wrong?” Edwin demanded, frantic. He hovered his hands at Charles’ shoulder and looked him up and town, head to toe, three times in the space of a single breath.

Charles’ brain stalled. “I’m covered in blood,” he blurted. He figured that really was a problem, judging by how Edwin had looked at him just a moment before. “I need you to get the blood off me.”

The pinched, tight lines of Edwin’s face turned incredulous. “Surely that can wait?” He asked. Charles didn’t like the manic edge to his tone, that didn’t sound like his Edwin at all.

“No, it can’t,” Charles said firmly. “I need you to get all this blood off me. It’s freaking me out.”

Surprise and guilt flickered across Edwin’s expression. “Of course, my apologies,” he said,sounding much more like himself. He slapped a hand on the middle of Charles’ chest, right where Wymond’s right hand had landed and left the most saturated bloodstain. The contact squelched.

“Immunditiam corporis emundare,” Edwin murmured. The air ruffled around Charles’ body, feeling like something even though it shouldn’t because magic never cared about the rules. Charles didn’t need to look down at himself to know he was clean again.

“Thanks,” he smiled.

Edwin looked him over once more and relaxed a noticeable bit. His shoulders dropped at least two inches, and some of the tighter lines around his eyes went away. He exhaled a shaky breath. “I see,” he said quietly. “That was for my benefit. Thank you, Charles.”

He hadn’t pulled his hand away from Charles’ chest yet, so Charles took his chance to pin it in place with his right hand, pressing Edwin’s palm right over where his heart should be. “Just thought you might need to see that I’m alright,” he said. “I promise I’m alright, mate.”

“You’re still missing your dominant hand,” Edwin disagreed.

“I’m not missing it, it’s right over there,” Charles said with a jerk of his head. “Plus, you know, now Wanking Wymond’s missing a hand too. Along with a liter or ten of his blood. And I don’t think any doctor’s gonna be able to save that finger.”

Edwin ducked his head. “I may have gotten a bit carried away,” he admitted. “He hurt you. And he called you something vile.”

“I know, he deserved it,” Charles reassured him. “Found out the hard way that my best mate’s a scary f*cker.”

Edwin’s eyes flicked up to Charles even as he kept his head down. “I’m not scary to you, am I?” he asked with real nervousness.

Charles grinned wide. “Nah, not to me. It’s too late for that, I already know you can’t win at cards without cheating.” He released Edwin’s hand and clapped him on the arm. “I just don’t want you to kill the twat unless you really mean to. Thought you could use a quick time-out.”

Something dangerous flashed in Edwin’s eyes, but it went away quick enough. “I won’t kill him,” he said, after what seemed to be a moment of serious internal conflict on the matter. “I might cut out his tongue, though. He trained almost entirely in magic that requires verbal incantations. He would be far less dangerous if he couldn’t speak.”

Charles thought about it. “Do you want to cut out his tongue because that will make him less dangerous, or because he called me a bad name?”

Edwin didn’t answer.

Charles loved him so much.

“Okay, give me two seconds to talk to him,” Charles said. “I think I can solve a couple of our problems at once.”

Edwin nodded his assent and took a couple steps back. He still had his spell book open to the limb-severing spell, Charles noted. Brills. Charles trotted over to Wymond’s prone form and squatted down next to him.

“Hey, c*nt,” he said softly. “You and me need to have a quick parlay.”

Wymond had been staring blankly up at the ceiling with tears flowing from his eyes, but he slowly turned his head to look Charles in the face. He probably wasn’t so deep in shock that he was gonna die on the spot.

Probably.

“So, you remember my teacher? The one who pays me in Beanie Babies? And cut off your hand? And turned your finger into a Swiss roll because he didn’t like how you were pointing at me?”

Wymond’s eyes grew wide with terror.

“Right well, here’s the thing.” Charles settled down and sat cross legged so he could lean in close. “I made up the Beanie Baby thing. We just hang out together because we like it. And he really didn’t like it when you called me a mongrel. So, he’s thinking about cutting out your tongue.”

Wymond sobbed.

“Hey, hey, it’s alright, I think I can talk him out of it,” Charles soothed. “Look, though, there’s something else. He went totally spare over you blowing up Marie, right? He hated that. But he didn’t hurt you, not then. Then he saw you pointing that black wand at me and hacked your hand off with a couple words.” He leaned even closer, right by Wymond’s ear, so he could whisper. “I don’t think he knows you meant to snuff me out. Last time he saw you point something at me it was just supposed to hurt, not make me go away forever. Do you think I should tell him? I mean, he was so mad about it, he should probably know what it really was, shouldn’t he?”

Don’t,” Wymond begged.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought you’d say,” Charles said with a theatrical sigh. “Alright then, that can be our little secret. Two conditions, though.”

Wymond nodded desperately. He really did kind of look like Charles’ dad. Charles wondered, for the millionth time, how easy it might have been to lay his dad out cold, one of those nights.

“First thing, obviously, you’ve got stop messing with ghosts. That’s our jurisdiction. It’s a bad idea anyway. He wasn’t kidding about Hell. If I were you, I’d spend however much time I have left up here trying to build a case for leniency.”

Wymond nodded.

“Second, and you’re gonna be happy about this one, you’ve got to let us the f*ck out of your f*ck-ugly house.”

“Any door will take you to the foyer,” Wymond whimpered. “Just go and leave me alone.”

“Cheers,” says Charles, patting Wymond’s sweaty forehead. “We’ll be checking in, of course, to make sure you’re holding up your end of the bargain. If I see any slip ups I’m gonna tell him your mind controlled me to cut my hand off in the first place.” He rose to his feet. “Oh, one more thing. I’m gonna leave you alone with him for just a tick. He probably won’t hurt you any worse, if you don’t say anything stupid.”

Charles crossed the floor to pick up his bag and then his hand from where he’d thrown it- thank Christ, it hadn’t fallen through the floor after all- and gave Edwin a cheeky salute. He whispered to Edwin as he passed, “Go talk to him and be scary,” and then headed over to wait by the southernmost door to Dog Room.

Edwin was right, it was handy to keep track of the cardinal direction indoors.

He leaned against the wall by the doorway and minded his own business while Edwin leaned over Wymond and said something, probably something horrifying, in soft, clipped words. Edwin came to meet him at the door after a long moment that left Wymond weeping hysterically. Charles beamed with pride.

“Well done, mate,” he praised. “You use any lines from Die Hard?

You won’t be joining us for the rest of your life,” Edwin recited dutifully. “Paraphrased, I’m afraid, but I tried to channel the spirit of Mr. Rickman’s performance."

Charles loved him so, so much it was hard to breathe. So he stopped breathing and patted his best friend in the world between the shoulders.

“Not sure I’ve ever been more proud of you,” he said earnestly. Edwin gave him the ghost of a smile in return.

Together they crossed the threshold into the foyer and left the wizard’s house.

It was night outside, overcast and dark gray. Nice, spooky weather for ghosts. They started their walk down the long, cobbled pathway that led to the edge of Wymond’s oversized lawn. Charles stretched his arms up and up, feeling lighter already.

“I’ll go ahead and call that one job jobbed,” he declared. “The missing ghosts were already well gone by the time we ever heard of them, poor souls, and the arseholes who did it are either resting in pieces in oblivion or crying over a bloody stump-wrist. Justice served.”

Edwin hummed his agreement. “I also left a small hex on our wizard that will cause his two front teeth to fall out shortly,” he said.

Not knowing was almost sweeter than knowing would be, but Charles had to ask anyway. “Why his two front teeth?”

Edwin rolled his eyes. “I told you, he trained almost exclusively with verbalized incantations. He’ll be much less dangerous if he has to spend the next decade relearning workable pronunciations for all his preferred spells.”

“You can’t cast spells with a lisp?”

“Of course you can, you just have to learn how. And he’s not a very quick study, I gather.”

“Perfect,” Charles said. “Can’t do magic or tie his own shoes for a while, then. Wizard neutralized.” He considered something. “Do you think he’s gonna die of blood loss? He seemed sort of shocky.”

Edwin thought about it for a second. “Probably not.”

Probably was better odds than the wizard had given Charles, so Charles called it fair and put the thought to rest. It wasn’t like he was going to go back in there to try and give Wymond stitches.

Charles gasped. That gave him an idea.

“Edwin!” he said excitedly. “I have an idea for how to stick my hand back on!”

Edwin looked at him with alarm and trepidation. “What kind of idea?” he asked.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Charles scolded. “Hear me out.”

Edwin shook his head and walked faster. “No, not with that introduction. I’ve decided I don’t want to hear it after all.”

“Come on!” Charles whined. He sped up to a trot to keep up with Edwin’s long, brisk strides. “It’s a good idea!”

“I don’t think I believe you.”

“It’ll be like in Peter Pan!”

“Now I definitely don’t believe you.”

“Just listen to it!”

“No.”

They kept up this back-and-forth for an impressively long while before Edwin finally caved.

Charles sat cross legged on the floor of the office, at the coffee table in their sitting area. His hand sat in the middle of the coffee table. Charles hadn’t had a whole lot of time to really look at his severed limb, back in the wizard’s house, and now he had to admit that he found it kind of unsettling. His left fingers curled inwards a little bit, like the legs of a dead spider. The stump where the hand ended at the wrist was still wafting off trails of bluish light. Charles wondered if he was all blue inside. He hoped not, he didn’t like that shade of blue.

Edwin emerged from their closet with his hands full of everything they needed. “I still don’t think this is going to work,” he groused.

“That nurse from World War Two thought it would,” Charles pointed out. They’d taken a detour to a church hall that used to be a field hospital on their way home from the sh*tshow in the wizard’s house, and the kindly nurse who haunted the place had given them medical advice in exchange for some crossword puzzles out of Charles’ bag. Charles had been thrilled with her feedback on his brilliant idea. Ewin had been less enthusiastic.

“She also said that she had never tried it before,” Edwin quipped. “I don’t know that we ought to put all our faith in her word.” Even as he complained, though, he carefully set down their supplies on the coffee table and sat down, cross legged, across from Charles. He looked nervous.

“You don’t have to be the one to do it, you know,” Charles told him.

Edwin scoffed. “Are you planning to do it yourself, then?” he asked “Use your right hand to sew your left hand back on? You wouldn’t even be able to thread the needle.”

Charles eyed the needle, thread, scissors, and bright desk lamp that Edwin had laid out on the table. Edwin had a point. Charles wasn’t as good with this kind of delicate, finicky stuff anyway. The desk lamp flared to life when Edwin plugged it into the extension cord he’d run between their coffee table and the socket in the wall behind the couch. The lamp bathed the sewing supplies and Charles’ hand in a bright, clinical light.

“I just meant that we could ask someone else to do it, if you’d rather not,” said Charles. “I’m sure we could find a ghost seamstress or someone, a lot of folks owe us favors.”

Edwin made a vague grunt of disagreement. “I’d rather not place your wellbeing in the hands of total strangers.”

Charles understood that. He would have the same hangups about bringing Edwin to someone else for help.

Edwin measured out a length of thread and whispered over it the magic words that made physical objects easier for their less-than-physical bodies to interact with. He cut the thread and guided its end through the eye of his fine needle.

Charles was nervous too, all of a sudden. He hadn’t needed to get an immunization jab for over a decade, but now he recalled that he’d never liked needles much when he was alive.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Edwin asked him warily.

Charles nodded. “Yeah, what’s the worst that could happen? Not like we’re gonna make it fall off more.”

Edwin made a face but nodded as well. He gestured at Charles’ hand in the middle of the table. “Would you mind holding it in place, then?”

Charles took his left hand in his right hand and carefully brought it to the blunt end of his wrist, pressing both sides of the cut together. He held himself together like this and extended the whole situation into the middle of the coffee table, where the lamp’s light was brightest. Edwin leaned over him to examine the task before him.

“Rotate it counterclockwise a bit, your thumb’s not in the right place,” Edwin instructed. Charles complied until Edwin gave him a satisfied nod.

“I’ll make the first stitch under your thumb and go across the top of your wrist,” Edwin explained. “I think that should help prevent it from moving out of alignment when you rotate it to give me access to the underside.”

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Charles said.

“Alright, then,” Edwin said, more to himself than Charles. He nodded once, firmly, and blew out his breath. “Here it goes.”

He carefully brought the needle’s point to Charles’ skin, right at the wrist joint under his left thumb, and pressed it through. The irrational part of Charles that had been expecting this to hurt relaxed. The needle didn’t feel like anything when it punched through him. Neither did the thread. Edwin tied off the first stitch with steady hands.

“Did that hurt?” he asked anxiously.

“No,” Charles answered. “I thought it would, for some reason, but it’s fine. It feels just as nothing-y as everything else.”

“Good,” Edwin said, sounding again like he was speaking to himself. “That’s good. Alright. Shall we continue?”

“Yes, please,” said Charles.

Edwin punched the needle through his skin again, a hair to the left of the first stitch. He did three more tidy stitches before he seemed confident enough to speak at the same time.

“You said this would be like in Peter Pan,” he said. “I don’t suppose you could enlighten me as to how this is remotely similar to the events of Peter Pan?”

“Oh yeah,” Charles recalled. “Well at first I was thinking about Captain Hook, because if we can’t stick my hand back on I’m thinking about getting a nice hook. But then I remembered the beginning of the play, when they sew his shadow back on? And I figured ghosts are more like shadows than pirates, so it might be worth a go.”

Edwin nodded slowly. “You do recall that that book is a work of fiction, yes?”

Charles frowned. “It’s a book?”

Edwin paused in his stitching to raise his eyebrows at Charles. Charles could only give the tiniest shrug in return, careful not to jostle his wrist. “I just saw the play on a school field trip.”

“I see,” said Edwin. “I didn’t realize you were a fan. Would you like to have a copy of either the book or the play in the office?”

“f*ck no,” Charles laughed. “I f*cking hated that play.”

Edwin tied off a ninth stitch. “You seem to remember the details of it rather well.”

“Yeah, well, it was a memorable field trip, wasn’t it? All the kids on the bus kept doing the woo-woo yell at me on the ride back to school.”

Edwin didn’t respond until he had tied off the tenth stitch and snipped off the excess thread. Then he gave Charles a flat look. “What,” he said, “in God’s name is the woo-woo yell.”

Edwin saying woo-woo with his most prim, unimpressed delivery was too funny for Charles not to laugh. Edwin looked even more unamused.

“It was really f*cking stupid,” Charles said when he was done laughing. “But you remember the bit with Princess Tiger Lily? And they all go back to her place for like, a party or something, I don’t really remember, but there’s a whole bunch of shirtless blokes running around going like-”

Charles went to move his hands to demonstrate, but realized he couldn’t in his current state. He sighed. “f*ck, this is hard to do without my hands. But you know. They’re all running around with their tops off, patting their mouths and going woo woo woo. And the kids in my class thought it was really funny to do that at me, because, you know.” He nodded downward, trying to indicate himself. “Indian.”

Edwin looked utterly baffled. “But that’s not-”

“I know,” Charles agreed.

“You’re not-”

“Not that kind of Indian, I know, I told them so. But there weren’t any American Indians in our class, were there?” Charles shrugged. “They were going to be c*nts to someone. I fit close enough.”

“That is wretched,” Edwin said emphatically. “That is both vile and revealing of a profound failing of your geography curriculum.”

Charles laughed again. “Yeah, I know. They weren’t even being the right kind of racist twat.”

Edwin shook his head in disgust. “It’s the wrong bloody continent,” he grumbled, and set in on the eleventh stitch.

At stitch fourteen, Charles carefully rotated his left wrist to give Edwin access to the underside.

Edwin piped up, “It’s not the same, and I would not make a comparison, but I don’t much care for Peter Pan either. One of my schoolmates saw me reading the book when I was nine and took to calling me Wendy. Some other boys picked up on it, as well, and it persisted for several weeks.”

“That’s stupid,” Charles said. “You’re not Wendy.”

“If we are reenacting the scene in the nursery when Wendy sews on Peter’s shadow, I think you’ll find that I am,” Edwin observed.

Charles scoffed. “You’re obviously Peter,” he said.

Edwin flicked a glance up at him, the hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Obviously?” he repeated before focusing again on his task.

“Well first of all, you cut off Captain Hook’s hand just this evening, and the only reason you didn’t feed it to a crocodile is that you didn’t have one laying about,” Charles started. “But more importantly, look at you. You’re staying young forever and having magical adventures all the time. You’re Peter, and I’m your lost boy.”

Edwin didn’t respond to that for a while. He had a funny look on his face that made Charles wonder what he had said wrong.

“You know,” Edwin said softly, after a long, quiet moment. “In the book, at least, the Darling boys realize that they don’t want to stay with Peter in Neverland. They have a loving home waiting for them.”

Right. A block of granite took shape and settled where Charles’ heart used to be.

“Nothing’s waiting for me, Edwin,” Charles said. “We don’t have to have this talk again.”

“You don’t know what it might be like-” Edwin tried again.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Charles cut him off. “Not unless you’re coming with me.”

“I can’t go with you,” Edwin snapped. “That doesn’t mean you have to give up on your afterlife forever.” The stitches were almost all done. Edwin yanked the thread through the next one harder than was necessary.

“I’m not giving up on anything!” Charles argued. “This is my afterlife. I like it here. I like being a detective with you. We make a difference.”

“And what if our luck runs out?” Edwin demanded. He pointed the needle in his hand toward Charles to emphasize his agitation. “What if next time we encounter someone truly dangerous, you’re too slow to dodge? Or I can’t work out the right spell in time? What if something happens to you that ends this afterlife? You won’t have a choice anymore in whether you get to find out what the next one might hold.”

“I already made my choice,” said Charles. “Are you going to kick me out over it again?”

It was a low blow, and he knew it. Edwin had tried only one time to make Charles move on to his afterlife, back in 1990, and he’d only done it because he was afraid of Charles getting himself properly destroyed. The resulting separation had made both of them so miserable that Edwin never really pressed the issue again after they reunited. Charles had always suspected that the fight weighed even heavier on Edwin’s conscience than it did his own.

Edwin cringed at the reminder. His shoulder sagged and the fight that had animated him just a second before faded from him entirely. “Of course not.”

“It’s my choice,” Charles said firmly. “I get to decide if I ever want to move on or not, and I don’t want to. I’m staying here with you.”

Edwin swallowed hard and resumed his stitching. “You’re right,” he murmured. “It’s your choice. It has to be your choice.”

Charles really wished his hand was done, because he really wanted to hug Edwin right now. He thought about waiting, but Edwin looked crushed, and Charles couldn’t tolerate that for any period of time. “Hey,” he said. “Look at me, will you?”

Edwin obeyed and met Charles’ eyes. He looked so sad.

“I know the Marie thing struck a nerve,” Charles said. “But I’m not her, and you’re not f*cking Wymond, alright? You’re not keeping me here. You’re not gonna get me blown up.”

Edwin blinked suspiciously shiny eyes. “If I had left you alone in that attic, you would have moved on,” he whispered. “You might be in paradise. You might be living a new life. You’d be at peace.”

“f*ck peace,” Charles said flatly. “If you had left me alone in that attic, I would have died miserable and terrified. Instead I got to meet the best friend I’ve ever had.” Charles shook his head. If there was anything in the world he was sure of, it was that he belonged at Edwin’s side, now and forever. “I’m not leaving you for a maybe. I wouldn’t even leave you for a definite heaven. We stay together. If there’s a heaven that wants me so bad, they have to take you, too.”

Edwin closed his eyes. “I don’t want to be the reason you get hurt,” he confided.

“You’re not,” Charles stated. “The arseholes that try to mess with us are the reason I get hurt. You’re the one that starts cutting pieces off them if they land a lucky hit on me.”

Edwin opened his eyes again. “I thought about doing worse,” he admitted.

“I know, I saw you doing it,” Charles said. “I wouldn’t hold it against you. I’d do worse for you.”

Edwin tugged the thread in Charles’s wrist. He was almost done. “Will you close your eyes, please?”

Charles would do just about anything for Edwin, whether he said please or not. He closed his eyes without question. Edwin tied off one more stitch, and then gently rotated Charles’ hand so the back of it faced up.

Charles felt the faint sensation of phantom lips pressing against the back of his wrist, right on top of the cut.

“Please don’t ever hurt yourself for me again,” Edwin murmured. “You’re not sparing me from anything.”

That block of granite in Charles’ chest melted and evaporated and ignited until he was sure that he had trapped the sun inside his nonexistent ribcage.

“I’ll try,” he promised.

“That’s the best I can really expect from you, I suppose,” Edwin sighed. “You can open your eyes. I’ve finished.”

Charles opened his eyes and looked at his hand. He thought about playing cricket, and about how the impact of a solid hit on the ball would travel up the bat and into his arm. He thought about when he’d burnt his finger on the lighter the first time he tried to smoke a cigarette. He thought about holding his mother’s hand to cross the street when he was little.

Charles had been dead for ten years. Memory was all he was. He figured, if he remembered his hand hard enough, his hand might remember him, too.

His left fingers twitched.

Charles whooped and lunged across the table. He knocked the desk lamp right over with the force of his enthusiasm. He grabbed Edwin under the arms and dragged him into a ferocious hug, not caring for how the table dug into his stomach. He sank all ten of his fingers into the fabric of Edwin’s shirt around his back.

“Look at that!” he crowed. “f*ckin’ brills, mate!”

“I cannot believe that worked,” Edwin said into his ear. “Don’t you dare take this to heart, I am never doing that again.”

Charles released Edwin from the hug but kept his hands- his hands!- on his shoulders.

“Come on!” he cried. “Let’s play cricket!”

If Edwin had had any blood, it all would have drained from his face right then. “No thank you,” he said quickly.

“Fine then, let’s grapple!” Charles said, undeterred. “I’ve got to make sure my hand still works, don’t I?”

Edwin shook his head frantically. “I should have left you one-handed,” he said. “I didn’t know the alternative was athletics.”

Charles grinned. “Got it,” he said. “Frisbee it is.”

He wrapped his left hand firmly around Edwin’s wrist and dragged him over to the closet to retrieve their frisbee.

Edwin was better at frisbee than he thought. Charles had been subtly training him by throwing books at him for years.

Notes:

Eventually Charles' stitches come out like normal and the power of expectation just keeps his hand on. He's a ghost, medicine is entirely vibes-based.

I may have buried the lead, I do actually have another fic ready to go in a couple days. It's a long one shot, and it's devastating. I devastated myself writing it. Brace yourselves.

Hold This - RoseGanymede95 - Dead Boy Detectives (TV) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

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