Along Came A Spider
AN: Someone I vaguely know was playing with turning nursery rhymes into short stories a while back, and I therefore created this. I rather liked it, for all that it was made of pure fluff and the product of only one day's obsessive writing, so after a significant amount of editing, here you are! It is a ONE SHOT, although there is potential for more stories. I hope you enjoy.
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
Zebedee peered out hopefully from his sheltered crevice as the little girl came skipping past, sitting herself down in a patch of dappled autumn sunlight on the grassy hill. She looked nice. Pretty. Big blue eyes and golden curls. Blue ribbon. The picture of innocence, except for the sly smile on her face as she unwrapped a little pottery jar she'd carried with her and looked surreptitiously around before dipping her finger into it, bringing it out and licking it clean. Alright, Zebedee reluctantly conceded, maybe not the good little girl she appeared. But really, what could be more sweetly childish that stealing treats and sneaking away to consume them?
And at least she looked too small and cute to do much damage. Not like that housewife with the broom. And all he'd wanted was a bit of food; bugs weren't exactly filling, when you were his size, and having to resort to rats made him uncomfortable, even if he was able catch them in the first place. They'd probably bleed everywhere, and Zebedee didn't like blood.
No, the girl was a much safer bet than the housewife had been. Besides, a child might be more inclined to listen to him without convincing herself that she was crazy and imagining it. He remembered reading something about that, he was sure.
Anyway, he had to try.
Attempting to radiate good will and virtue, Zebedee clambered awkwardly out of his hiding place and sidled tentatively over to her. At first she didn't look up, wholly absorbed in cleaning the contents of her jar from two of her fingers - she was such a very little girl - but then one of Zebedee's feet, unwisely placed, dislodged a small stone, which tumbled down the slope and rustled into a pile of dry leaves. The girl started, her head coming up with a jerk as she caught sight of Zebedee.
Her eyes went huge, her jaw dropped. The jar fell from her suddenly slack hand, sluggishly spilling its contents onto the ground.
"No, really, it's alright -" Zebedee attempted hastily.
Not quickly enough. The little girl screamed piercingly, jumped to her feet, and fled back the way she'd come.
Sometimes it really sucked to be a giant spider.
Moodily, Zebedee rearranged his many limbs, trying not to trip over them again. That was always so embarrassing, even when there weren't any spectators. Honestly, you'd never think that a form change wouldn't bring with it the prerequisite skills for survival in that form, but apparently that was so. And trial and error really wasn't the best way to find this out.
And the poor girl had spilt all her food. Carefully concentrating on the movements of each of his too-many legs, Zebedee took a few more steps, bending down to inspect the substance carefully. It didn't look like much, but it had to be somewhat appetising, surely, or the girl wouldn't have been eating it. And while it shamed him to even think of eating another's leavings, anything was better than bugs and rodents.
He was reaching one elongated foot towards it consideringly when he froze, listening intently. That was footsteps, surely, that he could feel gently vibrating in the ground? Yes, footsteps, two sets, overlaid with the frantic voice of a semi-hysterical child.
Oh, no. She'd brought reinforcements.
Could his many eyes have widened, alarm would have made them do so. Not this again! All he wanted was a cure, but people always assumed he was going to start flinging webs around or abducting babies. Little did they know - he didn't even like children until they'd learned to clean up their own messes, and last time he'd tried to use his silk to build a shelter, he'd tied three of his legs to a tree. It had taken him forever to get loose.
He scrambled away from the little hillock, back towards the trees, the roots that had left a hollow just big enough for an enterprising spider to squeeze into to hide. But in the shade the grass was still wet with dew, and his feet slipped unsteadily, legs pinwheeling frantically as he tried to stall his inevitable tumble to the ground.
Well, getting up wasn't going to be fun. Co-ordinating eight tangled legs when trying to stand was high on Zebedee's list of near-impossibilities. Instead of wasting his energy, he watched the direction from which the noises were originating with a certain amount of resignation, trying not to be too afraid of what might be coming. It would really bloody hurt to have a leg pulled off - he'd learned that already - but at least they would eventually regenerate. But what if they chopped off his head? Then he'd be in real trouble.
"So, Mary, where's this monster of yours?" a voice asked, full of sceptical tolerance, and the pair walked into his view at last, the girl's eyes wide and damp as she tried to simultaneously examine the area for signs of danger hide behind her companion's legs.
And as for the other - if Zebedee's spider physiology could have allowed it, if it wouldn't have given his position away, he would have groaned aloud. Naturally the person summoned to dispatch him would have to be every bit as lovely as the girl he assumed to be his little sister. And blond hair and blue eyes looked even better on a boy Zebedee's age - what should have been his age, anyway - than they did on a six year old girl.
Even if the boy was carrying an axe over one shoulder.
Still, Zebedee wasn't quite ready to die yet, even at the hands of such a handsome youth. Maybe for once luck would be on his side, and he'd be able to stand up successfully and get himself back to his hide-out before they thought to peer into the shade in search of him.
He'd only gotten two legs unwoven from the others and correctly aligned underneath him and was working on the other six when he heard something he really didn't to.
"There, under the trees!" the girl shouted. "It's the big hairy spider monster!"
The boy looked over, and Zebedee had the dubious pleasure of seeing a lovely pair of golden eyebrows lift in surprise. And then the even more dubious honour of having him approach with caution but no signs of fear, holding the axe handle confidently in one hand.
Zebedee went rigid with fear. He was going to die, killed by a beautiful boy without ever having had the chance to walk the earth on two feet again.
"So, spider," the boy said coolly. "What are you doing here, and why did you feel the need to frighten my sister?"
...Huh. Maybe he wasn't going to die straight away after all. "I didn't mean to scare her," Zebedee said plaintively, with no real hope that his words would be listened to. Or even heard - who knew if this boy would just dismiss his speech as a delusion? "She screamed and ran away before I could speak to her. She dropped her jar." Giving up on anything as ambitious as standing for now, he waved one ungainly leg at the discarded pot on the hillside.
The girl, looking over at the spillage, made a dismayed noise. "My curds and whey!" she said woefully. "He made me drop them!"
The boy also looked, and sighed. "Oh, Mary, have you been snitching from the dairymaids again?" he asked in exasperation, making her turn ruby red with guilt and study the buckles on her shoes, before he turned back to Zebedee, who had been using the time to push himself a little bit more upright so he wouldn't be loomed over. "So you weren't trying to scare Mary. What are you doing here? We don't get many giant, talking spiders in these parts. If you're after the stock -"
Zebedee couldn't hold back a chittering noise of frustration and anxiety. Just because he was a spider as tall as a man, people always believed the worst of him. "I'm not like that!" he protested. "I'm just trying to get back to normal."
"Normal?" the boy queried, leaning a bit closer in intrigue. "What do you mean? Are you not actually a spider?"
Mary peered out from behind him. "He looks like a spider," she opined nervously.
"I'm not, though," Zebedee said, relieved to finally have someone listening. "Well, I mean, obviously I am, but I'm not meant to be. I'm a person, really, a human. How many spiders do you know that trip over their own feet?"
"He has a point, Mary," he agreed, nodding his agreement to Zebedee's arguments. "And he didn't hurt you, after all."
"No, I didn't!" Zebedee pressed his point eagerly when the girl still seemed less than certain. "And can you please put the axe down? It's really making me nervous."
"Oh, this?" the boy asked in surprise, lifting the weapon off his shoulder and leaning it against a tree instead. "Of course, sorry. The only reason I had it as all was because I was chopping wood when Mary came to get me."
"Thank you," Zebedee said gratefully. Somewhat relaxed by the absence of easily wielded weaponry, he managed to get the rest of his feet in line and lever himself unsteadily into a standing position, until his many eyes were slightly higher than the boy's - who, to his credit, only stepped back a little, despite the spider's less than handsome exterior. Zebedee didn't have much chance to look in mirrors anymore, but he was well aware from his occasional encounters with pools of still water that whatever looks he had once possessed were entirely lacking from his new form. "My name is Zebedee."
"I'm Michael," the boy introduced himself with a smile that didn't even seem too forced. "My sister is Mary. Mary, be polite, now."
She emerged from behind him just long enough to give him a tiny wave and a sceptical stare. "If you're really a boy, why do you look like a spider?" she asked.
"Good question, in fact," Michael said, looking at Zebedee as he waited expectantly for a response.
"I was a magician's assistant," the spider explained, shuffling his feet with automatic embarrassment and nearly falling over again. "I guess I wasn't very good. I knocked over a cauldron of some kind of potion, and it turned me into this. The potion was worth quite a lot of money, I think; the magician was so annoyed that he refused to turn me back. So I've been looking for another Magician to help me, but whenever I try to ask for directions, people just scream, and run away! Except you," he added thoughtfully.
Michael looked shocked. "That's dreadful!" he said. "How long have you been stuck in that form?"
"I don't actually know for sure," Zebedee confessed. "Spiders aren't too good at counting. Since sometime in summer, maybe?"
Michael's mouth turned down at the corners. "Magicians!" he said disapprovingly. "They have no morals. Why didn't you go straight to Doctor Muffet?"
Zebedee had been employing his admittedly marvellous spider vision to gaze wistfully at Michael's mobile lips, cursing the fact that not only was he socially inept, he was now a spider, and so had even less of a shot with the boy. "Who?" he asked in bemusement, trying to shake off his distraction.
"Doctor Muffet!" the boy repeated eagerly. "He's an alchemist. He works out how to fix all the mistakes that magicians make. I'm sure he'd be able to help you!"
Mary nodded wisely. "Daddy can do anything," she said seriously.
"Wait," Zebedee said. "Your father is an alchemist?" The magician he'd worked for had nothing but disparaging remarks for that ilk - Zebedee was rather biased in their favour from that alone. "Oh - is that why you aren't afraid of me?"
"Sure," Michael said cheerfully. "Father always says to keep a perfectly open mind and to carry a bottle of concentrated hydrochloric acid, because you can't judge by appearances. I usually discount that last, though. Do you want to come back to the house and meet father? He'll be delighted for another excuse to prove the superiority of alchemy over magic."
"Yes!" Zebedee said, delighted by this good luck, lurching after Michael as the boy retrieved his axe and led the way back to the house, trying not to dance with delight when the results would no doubt be disastrous.
Mary scrupulously kept her brother between herself and the spider as they walked, but she did take the occasional daring peep at him as they proceeded. It made him nervous. "If Daddy can't change you back," she ventured timidly as they neared a good sized, somewhat sprawling cottage that Zebedee took to be the abode of the Muffet family, "Then you could always join a circus."
Somehow, Zebedee did not feel that this was particularly heartening. Presumably Michael felt much the same, as he said, "Why don't you go inside and see if Mother wants your help in the kitchens?" Gratefully, the little girl scampered to the door, and together the spider and the boy continued around to the back of the house.
This was obviously the domain of the alchemist; Zebedee cast nervous eyes on a pipe that seemed to be venting greenish steam towards the skies, and the wide, expensive windows opening in on a long room that appeared to be a marvellous combination of library, kitchen and pharmacy, with a lean, balding man muttering to himself distractedly as he scrawled notes into the margins of a huge, dusty tome.
Zebedee would have hesitated to disturb him, but it seemed that Michael had no such qualms, as he immediately rapped on one window for attention. The man looked up, his vague frown disappearing the instant he perceived Zebedee lurking awkwardly behind his son's shoulder to be replaced by something like delight as he leapt to his feet and hurried through a door to the outside world.
"Marvellous!" he said, rushing up to Zebedee without hesitation and examining him minutely. "An absolutely marvellous find, Michael. Too much awareness to be your average Arachnid Gigantica...Shape changed, I take it?" He pulled back from his detailed study of one foreleg to look Zebedee in the face; the spider was too taken aback to find a reply, but he nodded anyway, crouching down to look up at the underside of his abdomen instead. "Splendid! Magician's work, I take it? So that would be using Maximillian's standard form altering elixir, I presume? Tell me, was it meant to turn humans into spiders, or was there some unforeseen contamination? Or was it perhaps a miscalculation of the ingredients? Too much spiders' venom, maybe? You only need a trace, but you'd be surprised how many people overdo it..."
"Father, this is Zebedee," Michael explained mildly, apparently unphased by his father's interrogation of their guest. "He'd like to be human again."
"Yes, yes," Doctor Muffet said, flapping an impatient hand at his son. Ducking between the long legs, he reached past thick bristles to poke the spider enquiringly in the thorax. "Haven't been taking very good care of yourself, have you?" he asked critically. "Well? The potion, boy, what was it?"
Zebedee was feeling just a little overwhelmed. He was used to magicians who intoned everything sonorously, with impressive hand gestures and slow, regal motions, not sharp eyed, quick moving men who asked question after question and whose hands fluttered restlessly as if on an entirely independent quest for knowledge. "I don't think it was set," he said uncertainly. "It wasn't quite finished. I was meant to be stirring it when it went all over me."
"Hah, that makes sense," the Doctor replied, sounding pleased. "A spider probably fell into the pot before the fixative could be added. That's magicians for you. Careless, every one of them. Well! I can put this right easily enough."
"You can?" Zebedee asked, immeasurably relieved.
"Of course!" he replied, sounding rather nettled at this doubt. "Any alchemist worth his salt could correct this. All you need is the correct chemicals, and the elixir will be neutralised and you'll be back to your human self." He stood back at last, finally turning his attention onto Michael, who was looking rather amused. "Michael! I thought you were meant to be chopping wood until you learned the values of physical labour?"
"Yes, Father," he said, grinning unrepentantly.
"Well, get to it," he said, not without affection, as he returned to his workroom. "I don't need an audience."
"What did you do?" Zebedee asked him curiously before he could leave.
Michael shrugged. "Used some of his gunpowder to weed the garden. The only reason he's annoyed is because I uprooted one of Mother's roses, and he hates having to make fertiliser to grow more. I'd better get back to work. Good luck!"
He strolled away again, and Zebedee peered in through the windows instead, watching in fascination as Doctor Muffet plucked various bottles and jars off the cupboards and shelves, assembling them neatly on one of the benches. "How long have you been morphically altered?" he called out, studying two similar bottles for a moment.
"Since the summer," Zebedee replied, wondering what on earth all the ingredients could be. He'd seen some herbs used in magic, of course, but it seemed alchemy was far more interesting.
"We'll need the stronger one then," he muttered, returning one bottle decisively to its cupboard and beginning to painstakingly mix his various materials into a large crucible. At last he held the flask up to the light pouring through one window, added a pinch more of a pale green dust, and swirled it before tipping the resultant concoction into a wide bowl and bringing it out to Zebedee.
"Drink this," he ordered.
The liquid was icy cold and tasted faintly bitter, but the spider did his best, even if the task of manoeuvring his mouth-parts into the bowl was markedly graceless and nearly ended up with him getting a mouthful of dirt instead of medicine. Finally, however, he lifted his eyes back to the alchemist, who was still watching him intently. "...Well?" he asked uncertainly after a short silence.
He frowned. "Don't you feel any different?" he asked.
Wondering for a moment if he'd somehow changed back and not realised, Zebedee ran a swift mental check. No, he still had far more than the necessary numbers of arms and legs; definitely still a spider. "I'm... not thirsty anymore?" he offered, feeling faintly let down. In magic, there would at least have been an interestingly coloured flash of light.
A small, muffled explosion echoed from the other side of the house, and Zebedee decided that on second thoughts he was rather glad about the lack of interesting effects. "What was that?" he asked, curious and a little alarmed.
"What? Oh, they're at it again," Doctor Muffet replied vaguely, his brow still furrowed in thought. "It must need a catalyst!" he declared, expression clearing immediately as he darted back inside, re-emerging with a jar of white powder that he proceeded to sprinkle liberally over Zebedee, who wondered if spiders could sneeze. Apart from that, however, there was no effect, and the alchemist's expression became bewildered. "Nothing?" he said incredulously. "How can there be nothing?"
Zebedee shook his head sadly, and a small cloud of white powder fell from the top of his head.
The next half hour was a trying one. Zebedee became more and more despairing, and the doctor's mutterings became increasingly esoteric as he tried chemicals, potions, herbs and anything either of them could think of that had a shot of reversing the most polluted shape-changing potion. Apart from making him itchy, none of them seemed to make the slightest bit of difference, except that he was beginning to wonder if he was the only person to register the intermittent bangs from the other side of the house; the alchemist certainly didn't react to them.
"I don't know what's wrong with this potion!" Doctor Muffet said, looking more than a little testy. "Unless - well. There's only one more thing I can think of, and it doesn't have anything to do with the potion." He pulled a tiny vial of sparkling liquid from among the myriad other bottles, and shook it vigorously. "Now, let me see..." he murmured, reaching up to tip a few careful drops onto Zebedee's head. Not a single one hit, all of them fizzing into nothingness an inch or two away. The doctor sighed gustily, putting the vial away and dusting off his hands. "Well, that explains it, then," he said, sounding a trifle mollified. "Tell me, boy, did your magician specialise in curses?"
Zebedee gave him a thoroughly confused look, wondering what the liquid had done or proved. "Yes, he did," he replied. "Mostly the gaudy, melodramatic kind. But what does that have to do with anything?"
The alchemist became animated again, his eyes gleaming as he went into lecture mode. "Well, from the information provided, I thought we were dealing with a mere potions accident, perhaps with one or two unexpected pollutants that needed to be counteracted, too. But Unicorn Water is rarely wrong in detecting a curse; it looks like some magic got into the potion, too. Perhaps with a tainted cauldron, or maybe my theories that the magician himself can be a corrupting influence do have a basis in fact - but in any case, that's why we couldn't reverse it. Some of your ideas were inspired, though. Have you considered a career in alchemy? You'd be wasted on magic."
"Wait," Zebedee said, a little lost in this flood of words. "What do you mean, it's not reversible?" His legs started to jiggle in anxiety: he simply couldn't be stuck like this forever!
"Hmm? Oh, I never said it wasn't reversible, boy," Doctor Muffet corrected him. "I simply can't fix it myself. Alchemists can't lift curses, it's not what we do. You'll just have to find someone to kiss you, that's all."
Zebedee clumped a little. "Like - my true love?" he hazarded wretchedly.
The doctor snorted, shaking his head. "No, no," he said impatiently. "Fairy tale nonsense. That's what just magicians tell people to make it sound flashy. It can be anyone. Oh, wait here, I'll sort you out in just a moment." Gathering up all the implements and glassware he'd brought outside, and ignoring Zebedee's half-hearted protest, he returned to his workroom to put it away, though the spider could distantly hear him calling, "Mary? Mary, can you come here a minute?"
Zebedee couldn't stand still, even if nerves made him fearfully unstable on his feet as he paced restlessly outside the door. Such was his distraction that he didn't notice Michael rounding the corner of the a house until the boy was already speaking, and then it was only the greatest exertion of self control that stopped him from falling into a twitching heap on the ground.
"Not fixed yet?" Michael was saying. "Is something wrong?"
"He can't fix me," Zebedee said glumly. "He says it's a curse, not just a potion."
"Ah, of course," the boy said, his troubled expression clearing as he nodded understandingly. "He'll have gone to get Mary, then?"
The spider was spared the need to reply, for at that moment the girl emerged, muffled in a voluminous apron and with a smudge of jam on her noise, clinging tightly to her father's hand - clearly reluctant to re-enter the presence of the 'monster'. "We were making exploding tarts," she said piteously to her father. "If I'm not there, they'll go off without me!"
"Exploding tarts?" Zebedee asked Michael in an undertone.
"It's what happens when you mix alchemy and cookery," he supplied. Well, that certainly explained all the noises.
"I just need you to uncurse someone for me," her father explained. "I'm sure your mother will save them for you." Another explosion rocked the air, and he sighed. Mary looked upset. "Or not," he conceded. "But it won't take long, I just want you to uncurse Zebedee. She's good at uncursing," he said fondly to the spider.
Mary gave them all a look of undiluted horror. "Kiss a big monster spider?" she said, her face crumpling. "No! I won't!"
It appeared that the alchemist had not anticipated this obstacle: he looked distinctly flummoxed. "But you uncursed the frog," he pointed out helplessly.
"He wasn't a big monster!" Mary protested with undeniable logic, tears gathering in her eyes.
"Oh, she doesn't have to -" Zebedee said, dismayed to be the cause of this upset.
"It's just a peck on the cheek -" Doctor Muffet pleaded. "Please, Mary? If you don't, the magicians will have won!"
"You do it, then!" Mary retorted. "I don't want to!"
"Me?" The doctor sounded shocked. "I'm a respectable married man, Mary. I can't go kissing teenaged boys!"
"But Mummy kisses the wood spirits when she has to gather herbs!" Mary protested.
"And that's quite another matter," he said primly. "That's between your mother and the wood spirits. And we can't make your mother do it, you know she can't uncurse a teapot. We can't just leave him like this, dear."
"Come on, Mary!" her brother said encouragingly. "It's no worse than kissing aunt Joan!" His father shot a quelling look, but he was still grinning at his sister.
Mary was definitely unhappy about this, and shot her brother a glower in return. "Make Michael do it!" she said desperately.
"Now, you know that Michael doesn't like to uncurse people," the doctor said chidingly. "Not since that princess fell in love with him last year."
"A princess fell in love with you?" Zebedee asked, momentarily distracted from the matter at hand. Not that he could fault her taste, but what would her parents have said? Hardly an appropriate match...
...Was he jealous?
"She wanted to marry me," Michael said disgustedly, thankfully interrupting this disquieting thought. "Most humiliating experience of my life, not discounting that time with the pink dye -"
Mary burst into tears. "I can't, Daddy, I can't!" she said frantically. "Not a spider, Daddy!"
Zebedee couldn't do this; it was hardly Mary's responsibility to fix his mistakes, especially not when she was so obviously terrified of him. It was hardly her fault: she was so small he could practically have swallowed her whole. "It's alright," he said sadly. "Don't worry about it. You've already done so much, and been so kind to me. I can hardly expect more." He shuffled a little away from house, relieved when Mary's sobs devolved into sniffles and gulps. "I guess I'm just stuck this way," he said miserably. "I mean, no one will ever want to kiss a giant spider..."
Michael looked at his teary sister, and at the depressed spider, and sighed. "Just this once," he said warningly, stepping up to Zebedee. Startled, he tried to scramble away, but his back legs skidded and he found himself halted. "Keep still," the boy told him, putting one hand under the spider's head as he gingerly pressed his lips to the bristles under the many eyes.
And then it was happening again, except that instead of the excruciating pain of his body being twisted out of proportion, there was the somehow right feeling of it returning to normal. Two legs! He teetered on them unsteadily, unused to such simplicity, and automatically brought his arms up to cling to the warm body before him. And then the haze disappeared from his eyes: he turned his head without thinking about it, and the lips that had been resting against his cheek brushed against the edges of his mouth before he pulled back slightly, and found himself staring into blue eyes.
"...Hello," Zebedee said breathlessly, still holding onto Michael.
"Hello," Michael replied, a smile tugging at his lips. "You're shorter than me, now."
"...Yes, I guess I am," he agreed after a second's interval to work out what Michael had said.
"You're also prettier than you were," Michael continued teasingly.
"I am?" he asked dazedly. Seriously, it was very difficult to think at this distance...
"And you haven't let go of me yet," he pointed out. Zebedee blushed, and would have tugged away quickly, but Michael caught his hands. "I never said I objected," he pointed out, and touched his lips to Zebedee's for a much less reluctant kiss.
Doctor Muffet sighed, and turned away while Mary giggled through her tears. "I guess I could always use a new student," he said in resignation, and took Mary's hand as they walked back inside together, the sound of explosions echoing past them.