Chapter 1: We Make Our Own Second Chances
Gertrude uses the Unknowing to resurrect herself.
Written 2/1/20 for rthstewart, in response to the prompt: Any, any, reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
Her replacement yanked open the door to the Archives before Gertrude could knock with the more functional of her rebuilt hands, and exclaimed, in a shocked and slightly offended tone, "I saw your corpse; I was a suspect for your murder; how on earth--!"
"One fascinating thing about having one's face and voice used by the Stranger in the heart of the Unknowing is that when reality becomes utterly malleable, a determined person can wrangle that sliver of near-existence into something more solid once things settle back into place," Gertrude said as she pushed past him and cataloged the changes to her old haunts, and then added, "Admittedly it took longer than I expected, and I'm not entirely certain I got all the pieces in the right order, but the important parts are clear enough. Now, will you help me kill Jonah Magnus or must I continue doing everything myself?"
Chapter 2: A Change of Perspective
An artifact of the Spiral.
There is an art book in Artefact Storage, titled Scraps from the Drawing Board and marked with Jurgen Leitner's bookplate, which is not only locked in a safe (as per standard containment protocol) but also wrapped in several layers of very thick and opaque paper, so as to prevent even the most casual glimpse of its cover: nobody is entirely certain who managed to wrap and glue the paper so neatly, or what became of them afterwards, but the rumors surrounding the book's acquisition suggest nothing good.
The story goes that it belonged to an artist obsessed with fractals, Escher, and trompe l'oeil , who became convinced that if she drew the exact right combination of impossible patterns and perspectives that she could walk straight out of the universe; every painting in the book is one of her failed attempts, bound together by her students after she vanished (successful at last? eaten horribly by the Spiral? is there even any difference between those possibilities?), and at best those who flip through all the pages become mangled, screaming impossibilities whose warped bodies cannot long survive once the book is closed and the rational laws of physics reassert themselves.
The worst are those who remain outwardly human, but who nod calmly, close the book, and then head to the nearest art store to buy supplies of their own.
Chapter 3: Aftershocks
The shower runs red at first, but Melanie doesn't notice.
The shower runs red at first, swirled with ancient rust knocked loose from the pipes, and thick with ooze and scraps the Flesh-creatures left behind as they squeezed their way through the Institute's defenses.
Melanie doesn't notice; the stains in the water blend with the blood on her hands, the dye in her clothes, and the fury swamping her vision until the whole world turns thick and crimson and hot, the thump of water against the tiles like the beating of her heart or the tattoo of a drum.
When the water finally runs clear, and heat gives way to chill, and the rhythmic splashes waver into the irregularity of rain, it takes her far too long to work out why the normality feels wrong.
Chapter 4: The Direct Solution
Julia is a fan of direct solutions.
It's a bit ironic, Julia tells Trevor when they're both a little drunk from the chase and the knowledge that another abomination is safely dead, that she and her dad both ended up killers, painting the nights with blood.
The difference is that he was always too blinded by the Dark to pick the right target. If it had been her back then with a lost spouse and a helpless child, knowing what she knows now, she wouldn't have wasted time gathering hearts and building rituals in a shed; she'd have tracked down Rayner and gone straight for his throat.
Chapter 5: Vocalises
"I tried having a heart once," Nikola says to the almost-corpse laid open before her.
Written 2/3/20 for wintersday, in response to the prompt: The Magnus Archives, Nicola Orsinov, Unzip my body, take my heart out, 'cause I need a beat to give this tune.
"I tried having a heart once, thought it might make a steady rhythm I could use to time our dances and the calliope's call, but they're such fiddly, fickle things, hearts, always racing and jolting and skipping beats -- far too unreliable," Nikola says to the almost-corpse laid open before her, as she hunts around its neck for a new voicebox to replace her current rasping wheeze.
"A voice, though, you can do such marvelous things with a voice, all kinds of swoops, and vibrato, and ventriloquism, and all of it under precise control, so I can not-be exactly who I don't want to be, and make others hear all the wrong things at exactly the worst time -- which is much better, don't you think? Oh, but you can't answer anymore, can you."
She wraps her plastic fingers around the larynx with a little cry of triumph, and snaps it free.
Chapter 6: Birthday Best
Jude took her time that evening and waited for Gretchen to come home.
Jude took her time that evening, picked out a siren-red dress (rayon, of course), styled her hair (plenty of spray to fix it in place), set up a romantic dinner in their living room (so much wood, so much more flammable than the cold, tiled kitchen), and waited for Gretchen to come home.
"Should I have dressed for the occasion?" Gretchen asked from the doorway, in the nervous, half-joking tone she'd adopted recently, as if unwilling to directly address Jude's changes and half-hoping she could pretend them away.
"No need," Jude said with an exultant smile, and then tipped the jug of kerosene over her own head and thumbed a spark from her lighter; the flames that consumed her, that fed her god and warped her bones and razed her life to ash, were more beautiful than any clothes money could ever buy, or any love that humans could sustain.
Chapter 7: You and Me Together
Daisy and Basira on patrol.
"Daisy, have you seen--?" Basira said, raising her voice to carry outside the car while she rummaged for the pen that ought to be attached to her clipboard.
There was a sudden meaty crack, a scream, and then a sound like an entire basket of wet laundry falling onto a hardwood floor.
Basira sighed. "Was that necessary?" she said as she slid out of the car to look at her partner standing unrepentant over the quivering body of their suspect.
"My hand slipped," Daisy said, straight-faced and hard-eyed, and if her fingers curled round her baton looked a bit too sharp for a moment, well, it was twilight and the mind played tricks on the eyes even under the best conditions of visibility.
"--report you!--" the suspect wheezed around his moans of pain. "--have rights!--"
Basira looked down at him and reminded herself that he was a person who had rights, no matter what kind of monster he'd chosen to become. The words rang ever more hollow in her mind, but she needed to keep track of them, needed to make sure she kept Daisy safe on their side of the line so far as the higher-ups knew or cared. Then she said in her best brisk, professional tone, "Report what, sir? Her hand slipped."
In the corner of her eye, she saw Daisy smile.
Twelve sentences, because reasons. :)
Chapter 8: A Flawed Thesis
Are monsters better at loving than heroes?
Written 2/5/20 for anonymous, in response to the prompt: Any/any, "monsters are better at loving than heroes".
"I don't think that's true as a general rule," Jon says, his voice rising muffled from where he's pressed his face against Martin's shoulder, "but in my own particular case, and allowing for the fact that I never was a hero" -- he taps his fingers against Martin's cheek to silence the reflexive protest he knows is rising to Martin's lips -- "becoming a monster made me realize how badly I'd done at being human for many years, and how much I wanted to hold on to whatever pieces I had left. So yes, I am better at loving now, but you're not a monster and you've always been better at love than I am, which I feel disproves your own thesis quite conclusively."
"I'm not sure whether that's a compliment or an insult," Martin says after a moment, and then adds hastily, "which I don't mean as an insult to you, of course, just-- just an observation."
"Ha, yes. We may both need more practice at this loving business," Jon says, tilting his head the fraction necessary to meet Martin's eyes.
"There are worse ways to pass the time," Martin says, and Jon lets himself be tugged upright for a kiss.
Chapter 9: Fascination
Jon and Sasha prepare for a research assignment.
Written 2/6/20 for anonymous, in response to the prompt: Any, Any, the fancy hats are a vital part of the plan.
"Sasha, I understand that it's important to do on-scene follow up for the incident, but why not wait another week so we don't have to bother with fancy dress and dodging crowds and cameras at every corner?" Jon hissed into Sasha's ear as she examined yet another improbable fascinator hat, this one shaped like several slices of watermelon with little embroidered bees and butterflies caught above in a net of teal gauze.
"Because of the crowds and cameras at every corner," Sasha said, regretfully setting the fascinator down; it was too cute and quirky and would attract attention they couldn't afford. "Nobody will notice another posh couple bumbling around Ascot in the confusion, whereas they most certainly would notice a pair of academics poking our noses where we shouldn't on a week when they don't have thousands of people and Royal security to deal with."
"I hate that that makes sense," Jon said in a pained tone -- Sasha glanced over her shoulder and yes, he was pinching the bridge of his nose, the ridiculous man -- "and also that by your logic, I'll have to acquire a top hat."
Sasha punched him gently in the shoulder and said, "Oh, quit whingeing; there's no way we'd get into the Royal Enclosure, nor any need most likely -- it'll be the Grandstand for us, so just a suit and tie, no need for full morning dress."
"The things we do for research," Jon grumbled, then perked up and pointed across the shop toward a snappy confection of navy lace and silver beads worked into tiny starbursts: "Try that one; it should match your dress."
Chapter 10: On the Eve
Tim and Jon before the Unknowing.
Written 2/8/20 for anonymous, in response to the prompt: Any, any, Why the hell are you awake!?
"I'm awake because I'm not asleep, obviously; a better question is what the hell are you doing in my hotel room?" Tim snapped.
"I just-- that is-- I wanted to check--" Jon tried, and then apparently gave up on finding either a reasonable explanation for how and why he'd appeared in Tim's doorway or a non-embarrassing way to say he'd been worried about Tim's physical and mental health, as if anybody's well-being mattered the night before either the world ended or Tim finally got vengeance for Danny. "Please go to sleep, Tim. I need you-- we all need to be able to focus tomorrow."
"The entire point of the Unknowing is to turn the world inside-out, so I don't think a little sleep deprivation will make any difference to my ability to tell right from left once it gets started," Tim said, "but yes, I will lie down in my cheap rented bed and close my eyes for a few hours, if you fuck off and lock the door behind you."
He stood from the armchair and pulled his shirt off over his head without bothering to watch Jon leave.
Chapter 11: Greening the City
An encounter with the Corruption.
Written 2/12/20 for anonymous, in response to the prompt: Any, Any, sometimes you want to go for a walk in nature and sometimes nature wants to go for a walk in you.
There's something wrong with her, of course there is; it's not right for mushrooms and lichens and moss to grow in healthy flesh, not natural for decomposition to set up shop without an obvious entry point like an infected cut or an oozing pimple or--
Honoria picks again at her slowly greening forearms and wonders idly how long until she's sprouting proper seedlings, how long until her new ecology turns her body into proper, nurturing soil.
She only wanted to take a walk in the woods last week, to clear her mind and ease her heart after her latest disastrous breakup, only touched the rotting log to move it off the path; she didn't ask for this, didn't ask to be infested, to be-- to be embraced, to be reminded that all life is part of the great cycle, to bask in the truth that all life is ultimately the same; but bringing the forest back to the city is a much more long-term solution, and maybe she can help others remember their place too.
Chapter 12: Clarity of Sight and Word
Melanie talks with her therapist.
"Let's untangle that a little," Melanie's therapist said: "Do you mean that you're in pain, that you hurt others, or that you've hurt yourself?"
"Both? Both is good," Melanie said reflexively, and then winced at how thin her voice sounded making that joke; "That's a meme, ignore it; but yes, I did mean that both ways, that I'm in pain and that I keep hurting others; even now that I'm not... that I don't feel pressured into anger and violence, I still carved those reactions into habits and it's too easy to fall back into them, and it's not like my work situation has stopped being terrible."
"I notice you said nothing about self-harm," her therapist noted in a careful tone, and Melanie pressed her lips together and tried to think how not to sound like an immediate danger to herself if she mentioned her new hope for true escape.
Chapter 13: Uninformed Consent
Tying employees to the Institute on pain of death shouldn't even work.
Written 2/15/20 for anonymous, in response to the prompt: any, any, fine print.
"What annoys me is that I don't think the binding should work at all," Basira remarked idly to Martin. "I read the contract very carefully after I signed it. No matter how convoluted legal jargon can get, I'm certain there weren't any clauses that could be construed as, 'You can't unilaterally terminate your employment, attempts to stay away from the Institute make you sick, and if Elias Bouchard dies, you will too.' You could argue that I was verbally informed of all that so my signature implied consent, but none of the rest of you knew what you were getting into, so that doesn't really hold water."
"I'm pretty sure logic has nothing to do with it," Martin said, having had far more time to worry at the problem than was probably good for his mental health. "It's more down to fear -- the fear that you've overlooked something vital and now someone's revealed a bit of information that ruins your life. That's what the Eye does: awful knowledge revealed only when it's far too late to fix anything, you know?"
Basira hummed thoughtfully. "If our fear is what fuels the contract's effectiveness, what happens if we all stop being afraid?"
"I don't know. I don't think that's possible, not for all of us, all of the time, or even for all of us at the same time for just a minute," Martin said.
"I wouldn't be so sure of that. Daisy knows where to get hold of some powerful drugs," Basira said. "But we'll set that aside as a last resort. For now, I think stopping the Stranger from ending the world is more important."
Chapter 14: Eutrophication
Jon and Helen have another conversation.
Written 2/21/20 for anonymous, in response to the prompt: Any, any, "if things get any better I'll have to hire somebody to help me enjoy it."
"Help you undo the apocalypse? Why on earth should I do that? Look around you, Jon. The world is so easy to twist now, so many minds strained almost past bearing; I hardly need to do more than whisper and they tip over the edge and lose themselves forever. If things get any better, I'll have to hire somebody to help me enjoy it."
"It won't last, Helen. When the world is so easy to twist that everyone is already half-broken, there's nothing left to offer contrast. Even the most careful monster can't keep victims from burning out eventually -- trust me, I know -- and when every human's hope is exhausted, what's left for them to fear? What's left for us to eat?"
A long, crackling sigh, echoing despite the lack of surfaces to reflect the sound. "Yes. I know. But not just yet. Let me enjoy myself a little longer before you close the doors."
Chapter 15: Circadian Arrhythmia
An encounter with the Dark.
Written 2/21/20 for anonymous, in response to the prompt: Any, any, but still I have trouble with/ most days and nights.
Denise sleeps in the daytime now -- the dark is out of the question, since it literally grew fangs and claws and tried to eat her, and electric lights are either too harsh or too feeble to burn away her fear -- and it's wreaking havoc on her schedule and her health. What she really needs is to find a night job, some kind of shift work where she goes in at dinner and leaves at sunrise, but good luck finding an office job with that kind of schedule; instead, she's been studying a bit of programming in the empty, tooth-clenched hours between sundown and sunrise, and maybe soon she'll be able to wrangle some kind of telecommuting thing or gig work where they don't care about when you clock in or out so long as your projects are done on time.
Until then, she collapses into bed the moment she gets home, only to wake in terror as the streetlights blink on; mainlines caffeine through the nights; and as dawn creeps gray and tremulous through her curtains, snatches a few more precious hours of escape into a world where the worst a shadow has done is sway unexpectedly with the wind.
Chapter 16: Social Grooming in Primates
Jon and Daisy help each other with hair care.
Written 2/24/20 for kalira, in response to the prompt: any, any, brushing/braiding/putting up someone else's hair.
Jon's had a hard time dealing with his own hair since-- since Prentiss, really; some of the worm scars and the resulting bandages were in places that made lifting his arms that high, or brushing his hair with more than the barest, cat-whisker strokes, nearly impossible; but it got worse after Michael stabbed him, and Jude burned him, and now the Buried has fucked his shoulders once again and he just lets the whole untidy mess hang and tangle as it will for lack of anyone to ask for help.
It doesn't occur to him until two days later, when Daisy wanders past with her own hair a mess of tangles (though mostly clean of dirt; he Knows, suddenly, exactly how long she sat, shaking, in the steadily cooling shower until the water no longer ran brown when she mashed the back of her head against the tiled walls), that he's not the only person having trouble, and that maybe he does have someone to ask after all.
It's just this once, he thinks that first time, but there's something so intensely solid and reassuring about hands running through another person's hair, about caring and being cared for, that it becomes a pattern: every day or two, Daisy wanders into his office with a comb, a brush, and a new handful of soft, bright-colored hair ties, and they take turns making each other feel human.
Chapter 17: Do You Hear the People Sing?
An encounter with the Slaughter.
Working retail is a war, and Reva doesn't know why nobody else can see it -- really see it, not just smile and sigh and say things like, "Yeah, it sure feels like hell some days, doesn't it?" but feel the snarling tension that snaps between every clerk and stocker and helpless return desk staffer and all the customers who invade the Walmart and want nothing more than to trample the staff underfoot and crush them under the weight of too much work and never enough time or money or support.
But she keeps talking, and talking, and slowly her words fall into rhythm and the others nod and clap along, finally solid at her back, and when Mrs. Fucking Macready from down Deer Lick Road comes in Thursday morning demanding a refund like she doesn't charge Reva and her parents twice the market rate for rent even though she's sitting pretty on her husband's life insurance payout, Reva snaps and screams and lunges forward, and her troops fall in behind her for the charge.
When the battle is over, the store finally still and the loudspeakers singing only static, Reva marches through the shattered doors with only a trail of bloody footprints in her wake, but it's okay.
She'll raise a new army soon enough.
Chapter 18: Domestic Bliss
What if Jon and Georgie stayed roommates after they broke up?
"So what pronouncement did the terrible eldritch forces behind the Magnus Institute have for you at this hour of the morning?" Georgie asked as Jon dropped back into his chair and set his cell phone on their wobbly kitchen table with an expression halfway between calculation and a scowl. The Admiral promptly reclaimed Jon's lap as his rightful territory and Jon, well-trained, began stroking the soft gray fur between his ears.
"The computer system is down so all the researchers have been given an optional day off," Jon said, "which is ridiculous -- yes, computers are useful but the books are still there, the phone lines are functional, and it's not like I've forgotten how to take notes with pen and paper -- but I think Rosie was strongly implying that they'd prefer me not to come in."
"Considering you'd nearly overworked yourself into pneumonia before I convinced you to use your sick leave, I'd say she has a point," Georgie said tartly, then smiled, and shrugged, and added, "Besides which, if you're that desperate to research probably made-up spooky stories, I have some episode backgrounds that could use a bit of fleshing out -- and don't pretend that you won't enjoy the chance to indulge the Admiral all day."
"I don't know why I ever thought we'd still work as roommates after we broke up," Jon grumbled, but it was for show and Georgie knew that he knew that she knew it.
"Drink your tea, grumpy-guts," she said, and ruffled his hair to watch him and the Admiral hiss in mutual affront.
Chapter 19: When the Earth Shall Claim Your Limbs
An encounter with the Buried.
Junghyun lasted four days by staying resolutely indoors, eating crackers and protein bars, and drinking bottled water -- take that, everyone who always looked down on her unhealthy eating habits! -- before she had to venture into the screaming wrongness that had replaced the world (and yes, there was a difference; human fuckery wasn't remotely the same as sentient fungus creeping up from her drains, or computer screens that watched and watched and never turned off, or giant flesh-blobs slurping through the streets in a running battle with toothy monsters that might be werewolves, or worst of all, the clear blue sky swooping down to eat people) both to find supplies and to avoid the leaden fog and cobwebs that were starting to gather in the lower and upper corners of her flat.
So of course it wasn't any of those horrors that got her. No, it was the earth itself, pavement crumbling away under her suddenly too-heavy feet and yanking her down into its jagged maw, roaring a tuneless song of weight and heat and pressure until her blood and bones and the compressed air in her lungs couldn't help but hum along.
Junghyun closed her eyes and mouth and waited for the earth to eat her whole.
And waited, until the waiting itself was more horrible than death could ever be, but when she tried to open her eyes the stones prevented her, and when she tried to speak the mud choked her, and when she tried to move the earth moved with her like a too-tight blanket trapping her in a nightmare bed.
Eventually she went limp in mind and heart as well as body.
That was when the earth let go, and she fell through lightless chasms, down and down and down, striking and scraping from rock to rock like a rag doll flung down a garbage chute, farther than should be possible until the pain and impossibility of it all numbed her once again.
The earth caught her and squeezed, hot and thick and heavy, and Junghyun's tears leaked out to join the mud as she realized there was no escape, never; she was swallowed, she was eaten, and the digestion would last forever.
"Yes," a voice said without breath, vibrations passed from its throat through the stone to her ears without ever touching air. "Now you understand. The earth makes us, the earth unmakes us, the earth is all there is. The surface is an illusion, a twisted, mocking dream from which we wake to the embrace of truth."
"But the sky--" Junghyun tried to say. She coughed, choked. Spoke again, this time exhaling dust instead of breath. "Did I only dream the sky?"
"The sky is a nightmare trying to be born," the stone voice said.
"I saw it eat people," Junghyun said. Her voice was slowing, rasping, as her lungs filled with solid earth instead of fleeting air. "I didn't want to be eaten."
"Don't worry," the stone voice said. "You're with us now. The sky can never touch you again."
The last gasp of air left Junghyun's chest, and she sighed in relief at the perfect, even pressure of earth within and earth without, stable and certain as she had always been meant to be. She turned to face the stone voice, seeing without eyes and hearing without ears, down where all the world was darkness and vibration and the endless roar of molten stone.
"Yes," she said. "I'm with you and you're with me and we're with the earth. The Vast can't reach us. The Eye can't see us. And we will dig until every direction is down."
This one doesn't even remotely approximate three sentences and I don't care. :)
Chapter 20: Wherever You Go, There You Are
How the Distortion works.
Which was the beauty of it, of course, because fear did tend to hurry one along -- no time to sit and reason logically when all the little glands and nerves were screaming at the top of their lungs to flee or fight -- or even to freeze, because the mind froze along with the body, each cell vibrating so fast that everything blurred into a single sheet of terror-white.
And once they were hurrying, how easy to wind that panicked path into corkscrew curls, steps strung between her fingers like recursive, nightmarish cat's cradle yarn, around and around and around it goes and where it stops... well, it doesn't stop, of course, because it's not just a spiral; it's a Möbius strip and the strip is Helen and Helen is hungry.
She may have jumped tenses there, but that's fine because time is only another path to twist and no matter how fast her victims run, she's always there before them.
Random trivia: the prompt quote is frequently said to be from Alice in Wonderland, often mentioned as being dialogue from the White Rabbit, but so far as I can tell it's not Lewis Carroll's writing at all. And yes, I did reread the entirety of my copy of Alice to check. *wry*
Chapter 21: Tikkun Olam
Georgie and Melanie after the apocalypse.
Written 2/26/20 for last_haven, in response to the prompt: Any, any, I've had my adventures, I don't need something new, I'm afraid of what I'm risking if I follow you.
"We can stay here," Georgie offers; "You've been through enough, and there's no saying we'll be able to do any good out there anyway. At least here we have a little protection -- you from the Eye and me from the End, and the other powers are keeping their distance for now."
Melanie smiles in the direction of her girlfriend's voice and shakes her head: "I quit the Archives because I couldn't be part of something evil, but you know the quote, right -- that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing? -- maybe we can't do much, but if we have a little protection the least we can do is extend it to as many people as we can."