Michael was sitting in the Archives with Jon, watching as the Archivist became increasingly frustrated. Frustration could be hard to distinguish from confusion when it came to the Archivist, likely because he tended to be both at once. It leaned Its cheek against one too-large hand as the Archivist continued pulling drawers open and grumbling. Absently, It thought of peaches. It hadn’t realized It had spoken until It saw Its yellow voice swirl through Jon’s muttering. Muttering which had stopped, the Archivist now casting his confusion towards It.
“Did you just say ‘peaches’?” He asked, bewildered.
Michael pinned down the squirming line of compulsion before it could try to wind around It, and wondered briefly what would happen if It pulled on it. Another time. “Did I?” It cocked Its head to the side and blinked slowly as It turned Its attention from the wiggling thing caught between Its fingers to the man it was attached to.
“Yes, you did.” Jon said, and the thing in Its hand dissipated. “Why did you say peaches?” Another wisp of compulsion.
It let this one touch It, because It, too, was curious. The words bubbled to mind, though they made no particular effort to pass Its lips. Michael tested the shape of them against Its tongue, before letting them coil into the air. “You are like peaches when you’re frustrated.” It stated simply.
Another incredulous look from the Archivist, warm and fuzzy against Its tongue. “I’m sorry, what? ”
It drifted over to him. Moving like a person had never been something It was particularly good at, so the motion looked deeply wrong. It didn’t bother expending the energy to lie to the Archivist’s eyes to convince him it hadn’t, and he physically recoiled when Michael settled next to him. “What are you looking for?”
Jon recovered quickly. “A statement.” He frowned as he seemed to remember why he was frustrated in the first place.
“Which one?” It wasn’t sure if It actually intended to help, or if It just wanted to put a stop to the prior conversation.
“One I just saw a couple of days ago, about a Leitner I think. I haven’t actually read it yet, but I think it mentions the address of Gerard Keay’s book store.” The Archivist kept talking, but Michael had stopped listening.
A fresh wave of pain rippled through It with an intensity that caught It off guard. Pieces of memories that were not Its own flashed behind Its eyes.
Pressing his lips to each little eye dotted along the man’s skin.
Leather-flavored laughter dripping against his skin.
Hovering on the edge of sleep, listening to the soft hum of fingers through his hair.
The creature reeled for a moment, and then the flood of images faded into something almost bearable. It was still there, in the back of Its mind, but Michael no longer felt as if It might unravel if It let Its guard down for even a moment.
“Michael? Michael are you alright? You’ve gone very still.” The shape of the Archivist’s voice brought It back to Itself. The air was tinted with worry.
It shifted Its limbs carefully, ensuring all of Its pieces were still in their proper alignments. Michael would hate to unravel in front of the Archivist, It imagined that would be very unpleasant for all the parties involved. “Of course,” It lied.
Gerry sat with his boots propped up on the service counter, flipping through a Certified Mundane copy of La Dictionnaire Infernal. There was nothing special about the book, he’d made sure of that when the woman had brought it in. It wasn’t a Leitner, or one that Leitner had missed. It wasn’t even especially interesting, and given the outdated views on other cultures, Gerry could hardly call it accurate. No, really all it had going for it was that it was a well known esoteric book and it was old. But the woman had been reasonable about the price, and that kind of thing was good to have around an occult bookstore, so he’d bought it.
“You should probably go in the case.” He hummed as he closed the book and stuck it under the counter. “Later.”
He stood and stretched, taking a minute to yawn before he pulled out his phone. Eight pm. There probably wouldn’t be anyone else coming in for the night. He decided to give it half an hour before he went and changed the sign. Coffee sounded good, so he stepped into the back to start a pot. Having the shops closing time each day be whenever-he felt-like-it probably wasn’t the best for business, but he was doing fine. He was breaking even, and he had a chunk saved up in case of an emergency, and it wasn’t like he was in it to maximize profits. No, he’d spent more than enough of his life doing things he didn’t want to, and he wasn’t about to turn his book store into one of those things just to run a consistent schedule. He would close the shop whenever he damn well pleased, and if that meant closing at eight thirty today and two in the afternoon tomorrow, so be it. If people didn’t like it they could find a different shop.
The coffee pot burbled its agreement. “You’re the only one who gets me bud.” He said, patting the lid affectionately.
Sounds of movement came from the front, and his guard immediately went up. The bell hadn’t rang, which meant whatever it was hadn’t come through the front door. Not properly, at least. The only other way into the front was from his upstairs flat, and coming from there would have meant whatever was out there would have had to have passed right in front of him. Setting his mug down he edged over to the doorway to see if he could make out what was happening.
There was a man in his shop, or something that looked like a man. The book the person was holding wasn’t on fire, so it wasn’t the Desolation’s grunts again. Probably. A headache started to form behind his eyes as he tried to focus on the features, and part of his brain hissed Spiral . Probably not a man then. As quietly as possible he moved behind the counter. He was reaching for the Leitner he kept there when the creature turned to face him and he froze. It set down the book It had been holding.
“Hello Gerry,” It said, soft and achingly familiar and wrong .
“Who the hell are you?” He growled.
“I’m not a who, not really, not anymore.” It replied, cocking Its head to one side at an angle that made Gerry’s eyes hurt.
“What the hell are you then?” He frowned. “Why do you look like Michael?”
Normally he would have just used the book by now, but this thing looked like Michael. It sounded like Michael. Distorted, yes, but undoubtedly Michael. Michael who had been gone for more than five years now.
“That is… difficult to explain.” It said slowly. The amused expression on Its face didn’t match the pained edge to Its voice. Or maybe it was the other way round. Trying to figure that out only served to worsen Gerry’s headache.
“Try.” Gerry said dangerously. “Or I have a one way ticket to the Lonely for you.”
It raised Its hand, a very unpleasant movement to watch. “I don’t think that would be as effective as you might hope. But I will try to answer your question, even though it is against my nature.”
“Go on then.” He fought the urge to look away from the creature that made his head hurt.
“I am not Michael Shelley.” It started, speaking slowly. “He stopped existing when he found our center. His who was ripped from his what and ours was lashed crudely in its place. And now there is no Michael Shelley and there is no us, there is just me.” It maintained the pained air and that made Gerry think It might be telling the truth. Its form flickered, the pretense of humanity briefly giving way to something monstrous. It shifted and recovered, though it seemed to take It a great deal of effort to hold Itself together
He frowned more. “And how did that happen, precisely? Did you, what, try to eat him or something?”
It gave a short laugh, a sound halfway between delight and despair, that rattled in Gerry’s skull. “Hardly. We were in the process of the Great Twisting, and, distracted by the ecstasy of becoming, we did not feel him open our door. We did not feel him until it was too late.” It paused and flickered again, and Gerry had to finally tear his eyes away as the pain in his head increased sharply. After a few moments It continued. “He was sent through us by Gertrude.” Now Its voice was undercut with something dark and angry.
He screwed his eyes shut and rubbed the heels of his palms against them. He remembered, of course he remembered, when he’d gone to Gertrude and demanded to know what happened to Michael.
“You shouldn’t have gotten attached. I’d hoped you would have learned as much by now.”
“What did you do?!”
“I stopped the Spiral’s ritual, Gerard. I did what I had to.”
It wasn’t long after that that he’d come to the conclusion that the rituals never would have worked anyways. Turns out he was right, and that made the loss of Michael so so much worse. He’d left then, and had completely refused any contact with the Archives or Gertrude since. The cancer scare had almost driven him back to the old woman, but he knew she wasn’t his friend. In the end, he made it through on his own.
The headache lessened a bit, and he managed to open his eyes again. “So what, you’re Michael now? Or, he’s you?”
“Identity is incredibly difficult,” It said slowly, “but I believe that is as close to accurate as is possible. Some who know me call me Michael.” It ran a hand through Its hair. “It is a name.” It sounded almost miserable at that. It was uncanny how much the thing looked like Michael despite Its wrongness. He’d almost be tempted to call It NotThem, but NotThem prided itself on people not noticing its wrongness until it was too late. And NotThem would never admit to being anything other than what it pretended to.
“So why are you here?” He said finally.
“I remembered you.” Gerry knew that probably wasn’t quite the truth.
“Right.” He sighed. “So do you want something, or?”
It moved in a way that vaguely was reminiscent of a shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Course not. Well, looking at you has pretty thoroughly fucked my head, so I’m going to get my coffee and some tylenol. Try not to break anything, I guess.” He stalked into the back room. Thankfully, his coffee was still hot. Gerry wrapped both hands around the mug as he struggled to process everything that had just happened. He’d always thought Michael was dead, and finding out that he sort of wasn’t… Gerry didn’t know if that was better or worse. He suspected it was probably the latter. He didn’t know how to feel, what to do. If there were some parts of Michael left… he didn’t know.
Michael perched Itself on the counter as It waited for Gerry to come back, taking care not to knock anything down. A bell chimed, drawing Its attention to a door that wasn’t Its own. There was a young person there, clutching a book and looking quite ill. They were afraid.
“You’re not Gerard.” They said when they saw It. The Crawling Rot was already digging into their body.
“No,” It said gently as It shaped their perception to see It as just a man. Friendly even. “He’s not in right now. Do you need help?”
“I,” They trembled in the doorway, so so afraid. “The, the book, it -” They faltered and swayed.
“Here,” It held out one hand and they reluctantly handed over the book. It suppressed Its disgusted at the feeling of the Corruption pushing greedily against Its skin. Instead, It focused on weaving Its lies through the person's mind and body. Convincing it that it was healthy. Convincing them that they were safe. “Better?”
The person seemed shocked. “I, y-yes. H-how,”
“These things tend not to linger once the books are gone.” More soothing lies, easily accepted from something with a friendly smile. “But you should go rest.”
“What about the book?” They asked, uncertain.
“I know how to dispose of it.” That was a truth, actually.
“Thank you.” They looked to be on the verge of tears, and their pale pink relief was shot through with the putrid green of the Rot’s indignant rage. They left quickly.
“Who was that?” Gerry asked with a frown, reappearing in the door to the back room.
“Nothing.” It hummed, attention turned to the book that was still trying to push into It.
“I would have expected you to be a better liar.” He walked over to see what Michael was holding and instantly recoiled when he did. “Is that -”
“The Crawling Rot? Yes. I would not touch it if I were you. It would make you very sick.”
“How are you holding then? And where did it come from?”
“I do not have a body to sicken,” It said looking up at the man. His flurry of emotions had turned his voice a hundred different shades of blue and gray in the air. “I am an illusion. A delusion. A lie. I cannot be made ill." Michael paused for a moment after that. "Someone brought it.”
Gerry looked around his shop, as if for a body. “Where uh, where are they then?”
“Gone. I told their body it was not sick and it believed me.”
He seemed to want to question that, but apparently decided not to. “Will they die?”
“Eventually. But not from this.” It held the book up. The look of it made Its skin feel horrid and slimy. It pulled a face that may have been disgust. “Do you have a fireplace?”
Gerry led It upstairs, after locking up the shop, and they burned the book. Ridding Its skin of the feeling of sickness was worth the discomfort of the shrill screaming sound it made as it burned.
“Why did you do that? How did you do that?” He asked when the whole business was done with, while washing his hands.
“Do what?” It hummed back as It settled on his couch in a way that suggested It didn’t have bones. It didn’t, of course, but the concept was the important thing, so It readjusted Itself to something more plausibly human looking.
“Save that person. ‘Lie to their body’ or however you put it.” Gerry turned to It as he dried his hands and Michael thought his voice looked very pretty.
“Humans are remarkably easy to deceive.” It said with Its stock smile back in place.
“I don’t see how lying to someone makes them not sick anymore.” He said dryly and It smiled more at the feeling of it.
“Come here,” It responded, sitting up more.
He gave It a wary look and It laughed. “What are you going to do?” He asked when It finally stopped. He didn’t seem reassured.
“I’m going to show you. Come here.”
Cautiously, he walked over to It.
“Give me your hand.” It said in a way that might have been meant to sound gentle.
Gerry narrowed his eyes, but stuck his hand out to the creature. It took it into one of Its own carefully, and turned it so his palm was facing up.
“Watch,” It said and he was about to tell It to just get on with whatever this demonstration was, because it was beginning to make him feel weird, when It ran one of Its other fingers across his palm.
It felt like he’d grabbed a hot iron. Instant burning pain shot up his arm as the skin of his palm split easily. He made a startled noise as blood started to well up and spill over the edges of the cut. He tried to yank his hand back, but It held him firmly.
“Watch.” It said again, something his mind distantly registered as annoyance in Its voice.
He had no desire to sit and watch himself bleed out, and was planning on saying as much. His palm felt like it was going to need stitches, a feeling he knew from experience. And then, all of the sudden, it didn’t anymore. The creature carefully wiped the blood away and he saw that where there should have been a massive gash, instead there was unmarked, decidedly unbroken, skin. The confusion and shock must have been plain on his face, because Michael laughed again. The sound of it made his teeth ache.
“What, how, what? ” He stammered, staring at his non-wounded hand - that was still covered in blood.
“I told your body that you weren’t injured and it believed me.” It said with a smile that was definitely self satisfied.
He looked up at It with an exasperated frown. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
It blinked at him, head cocked to one side. He hadn’t seen It move. “Did you expect it to?”
He stared at It for a moment, then sighed and rubbed his face. “No I guess not.”
Vaguely he realized he felt dizzy, and wasn’t sure what part of the prior ordeal was to blame. Looking at Michael made the dizziness worse, so he stopped doing that. Out of the corner of his eye saw Michael start to stand, so he looked over. Bad move really, as every part of his brain screamed WRONG in response to the movement. His already unhappy stomach lurched.
“It was not my intention to make you sick,” It said. “So I will leave you to recover in peace.”
"Hm?" It turned back to him.
"You never told me why you helped that person. Why did you want to save them?"
"Oh," It seemed pleasantly surprised, though he hadn't the slightest idea why. "I didn't want to save them. I don't particularly care one way or the other about them. I just hate the Crawling Rot and that was a good a way as any to," It paused, as if searching for the right words. "Piss it off." Michael said finally, with an unsettling smile.
It was Gerry's turn to say "Oh." It turned away again. "Wait," he said again. “Will you come back?”
“Later.” It responded, then stepped through a door by his sofa that definitely hadn’t been there before, and should have led to a two story drop onto the pavement.
"So that's where you came from." He grumbled to himself as the door stopped existing where it had never existed before. He felt dizzy and disoriented and more than a bit confused, so he decided to just lay on the couch until at least one of those feelings passed.
Later turned out to be a very subjective term for Michael. It would visit him every so often, usually just to talk or watch him work, though It had helped him with Leitners more than once. Each time It left It would tell him It would come back later. There was absolutely no consistent amount of time between Its visits. Sometimes “later” meant in a couple of hours, and at least once “later” had meant almost a month. He’d brought it up one time, to which he had just gotten a confused: “ time has passed, yes?”. After that he’d become convinced that Michael had absolutely no concept of the passage of time and given up.
As time went on, being around It became more bearable, comfortable even. Gerry found that if he didn’t try to pin down Michael’s features he could look at It indefinitely with only a minor headache. They had gotten to the point where It would even touch him sometimes, and that wasn’t so bad either. It managed to not cut him again, usually, and even prolonged touch only caused a low level dizziness that was almost pleasant.
It was sitting on the couch with him one night, which It did often, and It leaned Its head on his shoulder, which It had never done before. Well, at least not since before It had stopped being him. Michael’s hair fell against his arm and it made the skin there tingle. It wasn’t unpleasant, just strange.
“Doing okay there?” Gerry asked softly. He was tempted to reach across and stroke Its hair.
It made a little humming sound. “I thought this might feel nice.”
“Yeah? And?” Fuck it, he decided, and ran his fingers through Its dizzying golden curls. It was all at once sharp and not, and the ringlets seemed to twist against his fingers on their own. Again; strange, but not unpleasant.
“It does.” It said, closing Its eyes. “Feel nice, I mean.” It added after a moment.
The angle It was leaning at made his neck ache in sympathy, but It didn’t seem to mind. He continued running his fingers through Its hair, and they were quiet for a while.
“Gerry?” It sounded uncertain.
“Yeah b-” The pet name had almost made it through his lips before he realized what he was saying. Old habits died hard, apparently, he thought.
It shifted to lean against his side more and Its weight was all at once more and less than it seemed like it should be. If It noticed his slip up It didn’t react. “What was he like? Before?” It spoke so quietly that he might not have heard It if It hadn’t been so close.
He took a long moment before answering. “How much do you know about him?”
“I know him as he saw himself. I can… see his memories, but they are like looking through someone else’s eyes.”
Gerry sighed softly. “He was really insecure, so your idea of him probably isn’t accurate, if it’s based on how he saw himself. He was… amazing, really. He couldn’t see it, but,” he paused. “They always say, when people are gone, that they would light up the room. But Michael really did. He was always so kind, and he did everything he possibly could to brighten other people’s days. He saw the best in everyone.” He felt himself start to choke up and took a deep breath. “Gertrude didn’t give him a choice, she didn’t tell him what was going to happen when she asked him to go to Sannikov land with her, but, I think if he knew he might be saving people he would have done it willingly. That was just... who he was. He put other people first and always tried to do the right thing. And he was beautiful. God he was beautiful. He didn’t think so, of course, but still.”
“He thought he took up too much space.” It murmured and he nodded. “Did you love him?”
“More than anything. I still do.”
Michael focused on keeping Its edges soft where Gerry was touching it, instead of trying to process the flood of emotions twisting inside It.
“Hey,” Gerry said, steely gray and mercifully cool against skin It hadn’t realized felt heated. His voice was like dark chocolate on Its tongue.
It looked up at him and he touched Its cheek, and just then It realized its face was wet. Why was Its face wet?
“What are you crying for, huh?” He asked gently.
“I, I’m not,” It started but Its voice looked strange. It felt too heavy as it settled around them. It shouldn’t have been able to cry, It thought, even as more tears came. It shouldn’t have been so many things that It was.
“It’s okay, co’mere.” He held his arms out and Michael sank into the hug, burying Its face in the crook of his neck. Gerry stroked Its hair as It cried against his shoulder, and that sounded the same as it did in the memories. “What are you thinking about?”
It made a miserable sound, trembling as It tried to hold Itself together against the pain of being, of remembering, of feeling. It was sure if It wasn’t trying so hard to stay soft for Gerry It would have unraveled by now. “He wanted you, in the end.” Its voice was so strange, strained and cracked and warped in a way that was so unfamiliar to It. It might have sounded strangled.
“What do you want?” He asked, tilting Its face up to look at him.
“I,” he was a point of calm in the raging storm of Its being. “I want,”
“Take your time.” He said gently, stroking Its cheek.
It leaned into the touch and closed Its eyes. “I want to stay.” Its voice was barely there, distorted almost to the point of incoherence.
“Well, stay then, and we’ll figure the rest out later, okay?”
It nodded shakily. He leaned in and kissed Its forehead.
Gerry hadn’t expected Michael to be the one to start crying, but things rarely went the way he expected when It was around. That much was to be expected. He held the thing that was so very much like the Michael he had known until It eventually calmed. It stayed nestled in his arms for a while after that, and if he had any reason to believe the creature slept he might have thought It cried Itself to sleep. He tried not to think about what It had said, which was aided by the fact that being that close to It for that long made it a bit difficult to think at all. At some point he closed his eyes.
He didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until he’d woken up. Blearily, he blinked his eyes open. Michael was still curled against him, It seemed to be watching him. He made a confused sound and It pulled back. The fog in his head seemed to clear just a bit at that.
“Michael?” He mumbled. Distantly he registered that he felt more well rested than he had… maybe ever. He didn’t remember having any nightmares.
“You fell asleep,” It said softly, touching his hair.
He let his eyes drift closed again. “You were crying.” Slowly he was able to piece together what had happened the night before.
“I’m sorry,” It murmured, reluctantly pulling Its fingers from his hair. “I should not have stayed, I, I’ve confused you.” It made a move to pull away from him but he held onto It.
“If I cared about being confused I wouldn’t have let you keep coming around.” He said with a yawn. “You’ve always confused me Michael, it's part of what makes you you.”
It leaned against his shoulder again.
“Besides, something about having you around made me sleep better than I have in ages. Though, I’m probably pretty shit at comforting people if I fall asleep on them.”
Michael laughed at that, soft enough to not give him an instant migraine, which he was grateful for. “It was… effective.” It said, and he could feel It smile against his skin.
“I feel… better.” It spoke slowly. “Sharing truths about myself is… difficult. But I want to try.” It paused. “I think that I understand. What I want.”
“That’s good, right?” He asked, fingers toying with the ends of Its hair.
“Yes. Mostly. Though,” It sat up to look at him and there was something vulnerable in Its kaleidoscope eyes. “I am uncertain… of how to proceed.”
“You love Michael Shelley and I,” Its edges shimmered for a moment, and It sounded pained. “I cannot be him, I… I cannot be the Michael you love.” There were tears now. “I want to be with you, and, and I cannot tell if those are my feelings or his but…” Its voice was barely a whisper. “I cannot be him for you. And I am afraid. Afraid that you will hate me for that.”
He thought about how to respond for a few moments, he really didn’t want to get this wrong. “Okay. I’ve got to admit that when the monster that used to be my boyfriend showed up in my shop I didn’t really know what to feel for awhile. And at first I thought that maybe there was enough of him left in you that if I stuck around long enough maybe I could make things feel like they used to. Like he wasn’t gone anymore.” He took a deep breath. “But, as time went on I understood that that couldn’t happen, and I understood that even though there are bits of him left in you, you aren’t ever going to be him. I still miss him, I miss him like hell, and sometimes you’re so much like him that it hurts.”
“But you can’t replace him and that’s okay. Really. I don’t need you to be him because you’re you, and I like you. I like your weird laugh, and how the strangest things seem to go over your head, and how you really make no sense at all. I like you for you, not because you used to be him. I won’t say I know what to do, because you’d know I was lying, but I will say that being with you feels nice. It feels right. I think the best we can do is to just keep doing what feels right. And maybe someday, if you want and assuming this isn’t all some long con to eat me, I can learn to love you too.”
It made a sound he couldn’t really interpret and hugged him tightly. Its form seemed to squirm under his arms. “Don’t look,” It mumbled into his shoulder. He kept his eyes closed until It seemed to settle on one shape.
“Will that happen every time things get emotional?” He asked with a chuckle.
It made another sound he couldn’t place. “I hope not." And then, more quietly, "I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I think I’d live.” He hummed. “I also think I’d like to kiss you, if that’s okay.”
It looked up at him again, all big colorful eyes and blonde curls. “I’ve never been kissed. Is it nice?”
He grinned a bit. “Here, I’ll show you. Close your eyes.”
It gave him a smile, too big with too many too sharp teeth. “How will I see if my eyes are closed?”
“Do you want me to show you or not?”
It huffed a bit, but he could tell there wasn’t any real irritation there, and closed Its eyes. He bit back another laugh and pressed his lips against Its. The kiss was strange, everything about Michael was, Its lips were wrong in a way he couldn’t put his finger on and the kiss made his face feel a bit numb. But it was nice.
“See?” He mumbled against Its lips, not pulling away.
“It is nice.” It hummed back, before capturing his lips in another kiss.
Being with Michael wasn’t like anything Gerry had ever experienced before. It was strange and confusing and it hurt sometimes. But after everything that had led both of them to that point, it was good. It felt safe and comfortable and nice. And as it turns out, that was enough.