A Good Which, or a Bad Which?


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Councilman Strings' office was on the left side of the corridor today. Sometimes it wasn't, but that was L-9. People got used to it and figured out the knack of getting where they wanted to be, or they ended up reassigned elsewhere or lost in the 38th dimension. Every once in a while, the Councilman would send out a team or two to do an interdimensional roundup and recollect all the lost personnel so they could be interviewed, researched, and often given a good strong dose of amnestics.

Today wasn't one of those days, though, and Gail Weber was here alone rather than with the rest of the team - or as alone as she ever got, anyway, but that was something they were all used to by now as well. She knocked at the door, because even if Gail wasn't usually the sort of person who knocked at doors, this was Strings. She didn't wait for an answer, though, because this was also Gail. The door wasn't locked and she walked in without preamble, avoiding the pentagram on the floor and plunking a bottle and a glass down on his desk. One bottle, one glass, because she knew he'd have his own around here somewhere and he wouldn't take hers if she offered.

The bottle she'd brought said Coca-Cola. The font - and the bottle - were quite old, or at least had been retrieved from some point in the past, back before they had stopped making Coca-Cola the way they'd initially started. Gail poured some into a glass, straddling the chair that was still facing backwards from the last time she'd been here, and leaned her elbows onto the desk, picking the glass up under her fingers and watching the liquid move back and forth. It sloshed, as she soon hoped to be.

"Stri~ings." The word drew out, and it was almost a song, almost a question. Certainly a curiosity. "Why am I here?"

Oh, she knew already. She just wanted to hear what he thought.
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The office was impossible to find when he wasn’t in, which was part of the reason for leaving the door unlocked. The rest of the reason was that it was his office, and it was kind of taken for granted around the Location that if you got caught in there, you’d wish there’d been a booby trap that killed you. It wasn’t even that often that people stopped by even when he was in and the office was definitely locateable, but today seemed to be different. Today was different for a lot of reasons.

Councilman Strings was brooding. He didn’t brood, as a rule, because that wasn’t the persona he wanted his people to see, and nobody saw him except when he wanted to be seen, except when things were different, which they often were. But he’d woken up this morning with a distinct lack of something. It hadn’t gone missing, which was good, but it had wandered off and been – altered. And that wasn’t so good. He liked changes, especially the kind that wasn’t good, there was no mistaking that, but this had caused a shift in plans. Not just anyone’s plans, his plans, and it’d affected something very important to him. And that was a sign of genuine incompetence.

And he’d let himself wallow in that for most of the morning, and afternoon, or whatever times came one right after another after he’d made his way into the office. Most would expect Strings to already have a bottle and glass on the table when he was brooding, but few enough people had witnessed that to say anything with any certainty. Most people would actively avoid Strings if they thought he was in a bad mood, but there was always someone.

That someone today was Gail Weber, and even if she’d had a way to know he was in a mood he genuinely doubted that would change the fact that she was here. In the loosest spacial sense, his office was up to standard parameters. The rest felt like it belonged more in a bayou cabin, thick humidity and all, than any kind of official building or alternate plane. The pentagram set in the oak plank floor was black onyx, or at least until you squinted at it. The walls were the same wood, the warm orange light that wavered had no visible source, and the pieces of once living beings and even the bric-a-brac from various Elsewheres all practically bled malice in the direction of the thin man gently idling with a banjo in the big chair behind the mess of a desk. The only thing that didn’t seem to hate him was the bookshelf and the old robes in the corner that used to belong to a man who led some odd sect of Shub-Niggurath’s cult, which would have conveniently fit if Strings was asked to wear them instead of the gaudy hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts. While the desk’s papers hadn’t yet taken on the wetness expected of such a damp room, they certainly didn’t look like they’d been touched.

She let herselves in, which was mighty kind of her given he wasn’t in the mood to answer a door. He did do the service of looking up from the strings as she evaded the black stone circle and star, and couldn’t help the shift of mood already as she made herself comfortable. The slightest smile slipped across his face, not quite splitting it but not subtle, either.

He took a moment to study her as she served herselves, searching for something in her face and motion. But Gail Weber was a woman after his own black heart, and that tended to make her a hard person to read. The next two whole Notes stirred in the same tone as her address, and something else stirred somewhere else, not quite whole anymore.

“Why indeed.” Could've been a Question if it hadn’t been the answer. “I s’pose it depends on which Gail I’ve got the displeasure of talkin’ to this fine evening.”

Because the time didn’t actually matter, for some people, and mattered too much for others. Usually he leaned into the too-much side of things, but there wasn’t too much energy to spare for that today, and Gail didn’t actually care, so he didn’t put in the extra effort. But she did want him to guess, and he hadn’t made himself do too much today beyond some considerations, so he decided to let her have some humor at his expense.

“One o’ you’d be here to ask me somethin’, the other’d be here to tell. Ya both do like to keep me on my toes.”

He set the instrument on the ground with unusual delicacy for Strings, and then reached into the drawer and pulled out a bottle, and a glass. The bottle might've been whiskey if there hadn't been a not-quite-human eye suspended in the liquid; the glass was thick crystal that reflected back a room that wasn’t this one. He poured himself a glass, and didn't offer any to her, because that'd be polite, and he waited for a question that might be a demand, because that was the way they did things around here.
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"And what makes you think I'm not all here?" Her tone was teasing, and Gail did the thing he needed her to do and sat there and listened, here and there taking little sips of her drink and holding the liquid in her mouth until all the bubbles popped before swallowing it.

Truthfully, they might have referred to her as Duet, but the parts weren't as distinct as they could have been. Sometimes they blurred together, and the sum of the parts was always a little bit different than one would have expected looking at them individually. "Maybe I just thought you might be missing me. I was gone all day, you know. You did notice? You haven't just been in here brooding, have you?" He had definitely been in here brooding. He had that look around him.

Well, they could talk in canon all day and never get to the point. She took another sip of her drink, bubbly and sharp.

"You-" This was definitely an accusation, and her index finger was pointed at him to emphasize it. "-Haven't been sounding entirely like yourself." She rocked the chair, two legs tipping up and then settling back onto the floor with a little percussive note.

"Usually you're more of an, oh... 'One o' you'd be here to ask me somethin', and the other'd be here to tell.' It's subtle. And I don't think it's something most people can tell. So, Coun~cil~man, what are you up to, how deep are you in, and do you need me to fish you out?"
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As early as that first comment his smile gave way to the signature split. Of course she wasn’t all here – nobody who spent any amount of time at L-9 could be. That was why most self-respecting personnel avoided it.

“Me? Broodin’? Gail, I never.”

He downed the shot, and it flowed warm through him and so did IT, or what was left of it, and that was a damn problem, because it hadn’t used to move like that, but it also wasn’t ready yet either, except he’d had to determine it had to be, because he couldn’t risk losing another piece.

“And you almost seem like ya fuckin’ care.”

And that was almost a compliment. Words were important, which was why most people tried to be careful with them around here. Strings preferred to bury the important ones in shit, because everybody would rather redact that than dig around in it, except Duet wasn’t most people and would be able to smell out what was and wasn’t ripe. Or hear out, and want to hear him out in turn.

He sighed, with a soft hm in the middle of the exhale that was two sounds in tune, not together the way she could do it but close enough to blend at the edges.

“Less a question of how deep I am in it and more how deep it still is in me. But, guess I would’ve had to bring it up to you anyway eventually.” The accent, which had never been faked but had certainly been exaggerated over time, now receded like most of his other crap, or the way he leaned back against the seat. “An unlucky number of years back I left a vacancy in my body for a bit before some moron decided I was more missed than not.” He said ‘moron’ almost affectionately, but everybody knew he wasn’t capable of that, so it must be a fluke. “Somethin’ else slipped back when I did because of complications with the ritual used. Small thing. Eldritch, self-contained, and brand new, or as close as somethin’ that might’ve always been can be. It’s a learnin’ thing and made itself right at home, didn’t cause no problems and seemed content enough to watch. Lately though it’s decided it likes to wander. Mostly dreamin’ when I'm asleep. Gotta keep an Eye on it then, so I ain’t been sleepin’ so good.”

Of course, Strings never looked good, and he hardly ever looked unwell, but it was never about how he looked and more about how he sounded since that voice was the only gift he’d been given that was worth anything. That was probably what Duet had been hearing, if he had to pinpoint it, and it’d been going on for a while. That raised questions on why she waited for now, but now wasn’t the time for questions, because he had to stay on topic and not bury that in crap.

“I’m tired but it usually ain’t a problem. Dreams are one of their domains in the mind, figured it’d be a good batch of lessons on the psyche, let it stretch its metaphysics. Except last night, it wandered somewhere it really wasn’t supposed to. ACF One Thousand Three’s domain, if my gut’s right, and the being there forced it into a corner. The kiddo split and part of what’s There traced it back here. That ain’t the problem, though. The kid also left a piece of itself behind, which got bound up in the entity that’s left Thousand-Three here for gods and hell know what reasons.”

He poured another glass of whiskeye, and held it from the bottom, swirling it around and looking through with his own mismatched pair.

“Back to me, the details on the contract involvin’ the kid are fuzzy. I’d normally be more thorough but I was a little dead when it was made. I just know it’s important that I keep this thing alive and intact for now. For a while it was best to do that the way I’ve been doin’ it but I can’t risk losin’ the rest of it, not until I’ve figured the rest out. I’ve got the written ritual if your professional curiosity says you should review it and see if it’s got clues. What I need from you, and the others if you want to involve ’em, is that I want it out and I want it bound to this waking world. I’d do it myself but it’s too mixed up in my blood for me to assume I won’t be too loopy from exsanguination to bind anything.”

He took the second drink, then set the glass aside.

“My turn. Where you been all day? And why’re ya just askin’ now?”
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The story unfolded, in the way stories did, sometimes going back and forth a little bit to pick up loose threads that hadn't quite been woven in yet. It wasn't complete, by any means, but stories rarely were. They were messy things, and the only way to understand them was to unravel them. And if Gail started trying to unravel Strings...

Well, he'd be proud. And he'd think it was funny. And he'd probably boot her into an Eldritch exodimension as a good learning experience, and then she wouldn't be here to keep yet another pair of eyes on him. It did seem like he could never have too many. She picked up his line of questioning before touching the tale, because that one seemed to have a lot more hooks in it.

"Me? Oh, we took a handful of the newer L-9 personnel down to the Eldritch depths and let 'em screw around a bit." This wasn't technically part of the job description for Hocus Locusts, but they rather enjoyed it and they were really good at cleaning things up after things went horribly wrong. Some ACF personnel would have adopted a more keep them from doing anything stupid mindset to such an excursion, but people like that wouldn't have ended up in Hocus Locusts - or L9, at least, not for long. "Three possessions and one of them sprouted tentacles. We got them cleaned up after a while. Spent a little time entertaining the locals so they'll be amenable next time we decided to do something interesting. You're welcome."

A whimsical shrug and she downed what was left in her glass, then changed the topic back to something that wasn't just a normal Tuesday. "So. Back to your little divine inspiration problem. Is 1003 still... where, 14? They having issues containing her properly? Could boot her to a level-1... probably not here if you're already having slumber parties. Toss her over to 6, maybe, they're good at securing stuff. And Hack'll love that." This may or may not have been advice, but it was probably a given that it was not good advice - unless it was, in which case it was probably excellent advice but for entirely the wrong reasons.

"I could also write 1003 a cease and desist if you want to go that route." Gail had written a couple of those in her time with Strings. They generally worked very well, as long as one was willing to accept definitions of cease and desist in a somewhat existential sense, and were thus somewhat of a last resort option. Sometimes an end was required, though, and anomalous legalese probably wasn't the weirdest terminations protocol that ACF had enacted over the years.

It was quite possible it was up there, though.

"Or you could just tell your little bit to ask 1003 about cows, and see where that goes." This was certainly not good advice, but might be funny, which was almost better. "As for the binding bit, you just let me know when and where. We'll see about bringing the others in, might depend on what that ritual says. If I tell Cait, she's going to want one of her own, you do know that? She's got another resurrection ritual ready to go, hells don't know what that one will end up doing." The last eight had gone... interestingly. None of them had ended with anything that could technically be called a resurrection, but they had all certainly kept things from being boring - and the occultist had been anything but dissuaded. "Just hope it's not the thing with the frogs again. I swear, that kid-"

Gail shook her head, something between exasperation and pride, and downed another drink, straight from the bottle without bothering to put it in the glass this time. "And I'm asking now because it got more noticeable, probably after that little split. And I'm asking at all because I thought it'd be funny to make it almost seem like I [EXPLETIVE]in' care. You really weren't gonna tell me about this, Strings? My feelings are hurt. Both of them."
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He was a little bit disappointed that what she’d been up to wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for L-9, but field trips like that were important and always a little different. He hoped some of them stuck, at least long enough for him to get a feel for the type of residue they’d attracted. He was sure someone in Hocus Locusts had already taken that into consideration, but it wasn’t the same as seeing something with his own three eyes.

“It ain’t Thousand-Three herself that’s the issue - the part that got Named Ira. She’s fine, better’n fine. Fully contained and now under observation by Dr. Redd, who’s got a knack for that kinda thing. Although I’ve considered a proper cease-desist as a backup plan, might work to keep the rest of it out. Good luck gettin’ Leviathan to approve that, though.” Heart of clay, that one. They almost didn’t fit the position – except when they did. They’d surprised him, and that meant he liked them, even if they didn’t approve of most terminations attempts. “Anywho for the time being we want to keep the part we’ve got here where it is, where we can see it, and as long as she thinks she’s being considered non-threatening, she ain’t going to threaten us.”

He seemed to think about it longer than he needed to, then poured another looking-glass of whiskeye.

“I know why Jupiter didn’t CC you about the changes of her file, even before your little field trip with her, and this one stays between you and me for security reasons.” That phrase indicated how important he considered it. Strings didn’t do anything for security reasons. For once the old scarecrow was not [EXPLETIVE]ing around. “Management at 14 knows, and so does Hack. Butterfly don’t know because he’d poke it. I only do because it’s my research department, and as bad as I wanna poke it, we’ve had bigger fish around here lately. The main change between what you know and what I know is: we know what she is. We’ve known since she got brought back in ’19, but Jupiter’s been keepin’ an eye on her little cult up ’til now just to make sure it ain’t up to trouble. That belief she’s got, that she’s an incarnation of somethin’ bigger? I got personal reason now to believe that’s true. Which means like most of those things we can’t do [EXPLETIVE] about it in its own domain, and I doubt damaging its little conduit will actually hurt it any. We gotta wait for it to come to us.”

Would that be the end of the world, really? Maybe, but a good apocalypse every now and again kept the world on its toes. It hadn’t changed that much after the last one. “I do plan to have the lil’ bit talk to her when it’s ready, it’s gotta have a mouth to do that. Which brings us around again.”

Down went the drink. The inkclot that lived in his blood moved again. It was listening, even if it didn’t fully understand. It was hard to tell if the expression on his face was from discomfort or just evidence for how much thought he’d put into all this, and the frustration with having to change the timetable.

“Hell, Duet, I woulda told ya sooner or later. In fact besides a few redacteds, you’re the first to know. Even if it is just because of the potential time-crunch.” Another sigh, another glass, another twitch that caused an ache somewhere that had blood flowing in the wrong direction. “Normally even I’d wait for Council approval. I got the proposal drafted but it ain’t done. Leviathan’d probably want to check on it, Butterfly’s part of the reason it exists so he won’t in good conscience just say no. Hack would vote against, because he’s morally opposed to fun. The Benefactor’s a mystery on the subject, but they might not be involved if Jupiter hears that Thousand-Three’s connected to it now. He’ll probably want a chance to observe it, and not in the poking-it way Leviathan would, which means he’d need eyes on it.”

That was probably the only good to come out of that end of all this. He’d have the majority, even without getting a vote, since it was his mess to clean up. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t ask for help, which like security concerns was rare as raw beef.

“But I can’t wait that long. There’s a good chance it’ll go lookin’ for its missin’ parts and then the whole thing’s gone. The other reason is that y’all’re here, and I don’t wanna risk anyone bein’ called away. When it comes to Cait I ain’t too worried. In fact, I’ll give her a copy of the original ritual too, might help her work out the kinks. And then when it’s out it’ll be nice to have a willin’ babysitter. We’ll need all hands on deck. My gut says it’ll be trouble. The fun kind, if a little small-scale. Hack’s gonna want eyes on it too, which means given this is L9 and most of his agents get eaten or leave their right mind someplace in a day or two means Brian. Or sendin’ it to 6, but I doubt he’d appreciate that too much.” Which was usually all the more reason to do that, but he let it go for now. “I doubt I’ll kick it but it’ll be nice to have Leech there to pull me back together if my innards decide they really wanna be my outtards. And I ’spect it and Nicky can keep each other entertained when you don’t need him.”

This time, when he poured the whiskeye, he actually looked through the glass. What he saw there was anyone’s guess, but it didn’t seem to be the answer he was looking for. He’d said a lot, but it wasn’t just hot air. There’d been a lot to say. He was sure she’d have an earful to say back, and he might even actually listen. He did value her opinions after all. Both of them, even if they weren’t good advice.
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1003 was doomed to be a later problem or someone-else's problem, which might have been better for it, all things considered. Gail still listened attentively, because if she was going to C&D a deity, she'd better have enough information to do it properly. That wasn't the sort of thing you got to try twice.

She poured herself a second half glass of Coca-Cola, didn't drink it yet, listening to the Strings' assessments of the Security Council. He didn't need to be worried about her running off and tattling to them about all of this, which he was undoubtedly aware of. If Gail ever went above Strings' head to tell the Council something, it was going to be a situation where that head was no longer attached, and maybe not even then, depending on how things were going at the time.

She sat through his descriptions of her team's potential irresponsibilities here, since he knew them as well as she did. It seemed like this was going to be an all hands on deck sort of situation, which meant telling them sooner rather than later, but they knew how to keep quiet about things as well. Half of their job was about keeping quiet, after all. The other half... well, the other half not so much, but the exsanguination he'd mentioned earlier was pretty much right up their alley as well.

He'd downed quite a number of glasses of questionable content - by which Gail meant that she had a lot of questions about it - so when he set the bottle down again she picked it up, holding it up for a minute and peering into it. Most drinks didn't peer back, but there was a first or second or third time for everything. She swirled the contents a little to give it a fresh outlook, then poured a shot's worth into her Coca-Cola glass and set the bottle down again.

"So you'll need someone to keep it here while you get back on your feet, too, most likely, and not be too good an influence," Gail stated conversationally, as if she were not potentially doing something even Strings would think was a bad idea, picking up her glass, giving it a little swirl, and downing a decent amount of the contents.

Well, the not being too good an influence part would be easy, at least.
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Gail got distracted, which was not unlike Gail. Even Strings rarely had the whiskeye without the looking-glass, but it wasn’t because it was a conduit that limited the ability. With other factors involved and a little more emphasis on the eye it could be, but that wasn’t here nor there. There was, of course, the additional factor that it wasn’t her drink but had been accepted from him by implication of his leaving it, which, if he’d been in a more binding mood, would’ve secured a few things. But security wasn’t his department and he was more in the mood to loose something, so the drink didn’t have an effect in his direction.

Rather than a slight buzz, Gail would start to feel the slight creeping sensation of being watched. It only took one or two for most people to take that creeping feeling and turn it into paranoia, but it was Strings’ drink of choice, and Gail was used to loose paranoia, otherwise she wouldn’t be the left chair of the Duet. That, and it was mixed with the drink of her choice, so it could take a little longer to settle.

Once he was fairly sure that Gail wouldn’t be suffering too much from her shot of whiskeye, he resumed, “They’ll probably have me under observation at L-10 for a few days just to make sure I don’t kick it or hack up a second extraplanar child. Or I guess, at this point, a third one.” That was, of course, if the missing piece was a live somewhere and the distinct severance hadn’t just been it dying. “Could turn into an excuse to force me to take a goddamn nap, but that’ll be my problem when we get to it. And then the paperwork, and the lectures I’ll ignore, and then Butterfly tryin’ to be a good friend and remind me what I’m dealin’ with… could be up to a week.”

The smile became a crescent moon again. Either a challenge, or full confidence.

“If your people think they can handle it, I’d rather have it done today or tomorrow. Before I sleep again.”
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The drink was... really something. Gail could feel the eyes on her, or in her, or wherever they were. It would be really easy to see little wrongs adding up everywhere. "Wow."

She took another drink, compounding the eyes issue. "Where was that when I was in my torts classes? This stuff is great." Nothing like a feeling of everything being about to go wrong to help make you hyperaware of all the ways that it could. He was right about the Council, they would want to get involved. They'd have all the right reasons for it, but L-9 had never been much about the right reasons. The right reasons were the wrong ones here, and that meant this was one of those better to seek forgiveness than ask permission sorts of situations.

Gail polished off the drink in a gulp, set the glass back down on his desk quite audibly, and gave him a nod before either of them could change any of their minds. "Let's just do this."
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Gail finished her shot of liquid perception with gusto, and Strings had one last shot of his own at the same time. When he rose from the desk, it wasn’t the slow rising and rising he sometimes pulled out as a party trick for scaring newbies. It was quick and fluid, and was accompanied by one hand retrieving his hat and the other shouldering his banjo. He set the hat on his head, then rummaged in a drawer until he withdrew a bundle of papers.

“One hour. Break room. Should give us all plenty o’ time to finish gettin’ ready.”

He’d actually made more than two copies, all written in a deep dialect of Eldritch Horror Poetry commonly associated with the Black Goat. He gave her one for everyone except Damsel, who he was sure would be upset about being left out but wouldn’t be able to comprehend what’d been written in any meaningful sense. He’d make it up to Nicky eventually. Maybe convince Jupiter to let him try out something big and noisy when this was all over. Or…

“Oh, and Duet?” He paused at the threshold of his office, then turned back to Gail, because this was likely the worst idea to come out of this whole situation. “It ain’t got a Name yet, not a proper one. Brand-new and all. You’d better pick a good one.”

And then he was gone, not just into the hall but with the slight warp that indicated his location had given way to his will. He didn’t have time to lose, after all. He had a proposal to finish, and then an apology to preemptively write. The rest, he knew, could be left almost completely in his Locusts’ incapable hands.
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Date: 7-17-2023
Location: 9, Break Room
Personnel: Gail Weber, "Duet," A-Class-E; Joshua Seimar, "Leech," R-Class-D; Cait Corby, "Ghost in the Spell," A-Class-C; Brian Connor, "Tech Wizard," A-Class-C; Nic Gutierrez, "Damsel," A-Class-C; Councilman "Strings," SV-5
Equipment: As Needed
Time: An hour later

This wasn't happening.

Maybe later, when the Councilman was ready for it, it would have happened, but for now all the records indicated that nothing out of the ordinary was happening, or at least, nothing out of the ordinary for L-9. The security cameras and audio records would all confirm it. Brian had spent the last hour getting things set up for convincing fakes, and from the looks of the situation, had had a decent amount of this prepped and ready to go ahead of time, just in case.

It probably wouldn't pass a close inspection from SV-4 if he decided to have a good look at things, but it would be enough to seem standard at a first glance, enough so that nothing would prompt anyone to look into things any time soon.

The pentagram etched on the floor was shining with something that, for sanity's sake, was best to think of as glow in the dark puff paint and not think about it in any more detail. Crystals hung from the ceiling at more or less random intervals, some attuned to different planes of existence and some that were, apparently, "just cool looking." Knowing Cait, it was entirely possible that cool looking was an active component of whatever hex she had active.

Most of the team was seated on the floor poring over the various copies of the paperwork Strings had given Gail just a little while ago - including Nic, who was offering frequent suggestions despite not having the faintest idea what any of it actually said - or possibly because he didn't have the faintest idea what it said.

The exception was Gail herself, who'd taken over the sometimes-cards table with her own copy of the contract, a quill made from something that was almost like a peacock feather, if you got past the part where it was made in tones of shadow-and-blood and the "eye" was actually blinking, a vial of blood, and a piece of anomalous parchment, which was absorbing every word she wrote onto it in a very literal sort of sense.

She was fairly certain that she'd gotten all the important parts into it: all it needed was the particulars, date and time, signature of the attending doctor - which would be Joshua - and Name, of course. It was going to be important for this little entity to have an official birth certificate, when this all was done. Otherwise the legality of everything here would get... complicated.

Not that they didn't like complicated, at times, but this was one of those times when it was a good idea to cover their respective [EXPLETIVE]s by having all the right paperwork. When Eldritch contract law went wrong, it tended to go wrong in a reality-ending sort of way, and Gail was having way too much fun with this one.
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It would’ve been easy to write off the squirming sensation in his stomach as the entity trying to squeeze its whole self into the area, realize that he didn’t have enough vessels in there for it, and then disperse again. That almost definitely was part of it. Another part was probably the whiskeye. But while he could lie to everybody else, Strings had never been able to convince himself. He’d always known what a slippery bastard he was.

He was nervous.

Nervous as the first time he played in a backwater bar, before he realized he had a voice that could make people trip over themselves despite his ugly mug. Nervous as the first time he’d led the rituals in the backwater cult that’d decided it took too much of a liking to him. Nervous as he’d been when the Welcoming Committee came knocking. Almost as nervous as the seconds before his brain stopped working, when he realized his heart had given up. This much of his life hadn’t flashed before his eyes back then, and there being only two then wasn’t a good excuse.

Every time, he’d managed to cover that up. A smile, an unnerving laugh, a hum or a badly timed off-putting joke. Nobody really wanted to take a deeper look in his head long enough to figure him out, except Butterfly, and that guy had always been a moron so he could be forgiven. But the Locusts knew their Councilman. Hell, someone might even be able to tell the difference between the gentle strum of the banjo now and how he usually went about tuning it.

“Sanitarium, leave me be.”

He stood against the wall with all eyes closed, dressed not in his usual gaudy clothes but in Foundation black. The kind of simple clothes that wouldn’t be kept, but where you wouldn’t be able to tell how much biomaterial was blood and how much was Something else. He certainly could’ve donned the robes that sat in the corner of his office, for dramatic effect, but for once he really wasn’t feeling the drama. Too much else going on. He didn’t even have a smartass comment for Nic when he said something obviously stupid, although Cait was usually on it before he could get to it anyway. Girl was gifted in more ways than one. She’d be a terrible influence, which was exactly what the kid would need in the first part of its exterior life.

Honestly, half of the last hour had been spent distracting himself by figuring out how to give Duet his full and proper Name for documentation without Giving Duet his name. There wasn’t too much to worry about what the Demon could use it for. Demons were plenty predictable when it came to that kinda thing and there was always a loophole whenever they initiated a proposal. But Weber was another matter entirely. She was a lawyer. A Name like his could be very valuable in contract dealings, and he was already well aware she wanted to see what happened when she tried to contract him. He’d finally gotten around the issue by writing it down with various wards around it, just in case, then folding it up and giving the paper to Gail, which was the simplest answer but that made it the most boring.

But a little boring hadn’t hurt. Not yet, anyway.

Anesthesia would probably interfere with the magic, and he’d decided to leave the best place to drain the kid – and probably a lot of arterial blood – in Leech’s steady hands. The man was hardly cruel, but he did have the signature researcher’s curiosity. And strong negative emotion was very good at attracting Eldritch creatures to a certain point.

It tried to pull itself into his chest again, and his face twitched. Maybe the nerves would just be enough. Nerves that had to be connected with being subject rather than researcher, given he’d already put too much thought into the impending fatherhood part of this for that to be what got under his skin.

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Strings arrived, in unusual fashion, which was to say with hardly any fashion at all. No sarcastic comments, no humming - like his usual animation was trapped. He gave Gail a paper, and she acknowledged the difference, but still cast him a concerned look, because she knew what was going to be on the paper, even if he wasn't technically giving it to her.

Another time it could have been a battle, of sorts - his safety net seeing if it could stand up to her attempts to find a loophole in it. It would have been fun, for a certain definition of the word, seeing if she could tie him in a knot he couldn't get out of - but this wasn't about them, or at least, was about something besides just them, and a certain degree of professionalism was required. Gail was good at being professional, when she needed to be. She took the paper, calmly unfolding it on the desk, finding the edges with her fingers and very carefully refolding it.

Over and over again, because you couldn't have too many twists and turns on a thing like this. It took shape, eventually, a tiny little mockingbird that fit in the palm of her hand. Gail couldn't really have put into words why she'd picked that instead of a frog or a dragon or a flying monkey or... well, anything but a cow, really.

Or a butterfly. It was best to keep the butterflies out of this one.

Still, it felt right, and L9 was a good place for trusting those instincts and figuring out the Why of them later. Gail dripped out a little puddle of blood-ink and let the paper absorb it, then slowly fed the entire thing to the anomalous Certificate, which absorbed it into the right spot, prepared and ready for whatever came next.

The same as could be said for the rest of them, because they were ready for anything. That was their job, after all, and they were Damn good at it. The group had broken up, contracts put away for now. Nic was on Interference, meaning if anything that wasn't supposed to be here got in, he would interfere with it. There was no telling if that meant Eldritch entities or dissociated anomalies or anything else - though probably not L9 personnel. They'd learned not to come in here when the door was hexed, even the ones that could get through the hexes. Most of them wouldn't come in here even when the door was wide open, which was a compliment to their instincts.

Brian was doing much the same thing, from a technical perspective. He'd be keeping watch over the security systems and his personal fortress of firewalls, stonewalls, icewalls (mostly for keeping SV-4 out), concrete walls, discrete walls, discreet walls, and spyware with little Eldritch eyes tucked into the code, which had taken him and Cait about three months of working together to get properly dysfunctional.

Joshua stepped into the center of the pentagram, dressed as could be expected in standard surgical scrubs in standard ACF gray. It was important that at least some things follow expectations here. And for everything else... well, for everything else, there was Caitlynn, who was wearing black jeans and a Symphony of the Night t-shirt. She had gotten the bathroom inversion working, for anyone who happened to be curious.

That was, fortunately, not here.

"I think we're ready here if you are, Councilman." They'd set up a chair in the center of the pentagram, as well as a little table at arm height beside it, much like a standard phlebotomist's setup, though sans any actual needles or IV. Instead, Joshua held a silver scalpel, and held out his empty hand. "Cait?"

She stepped in and set down the Vessel on the table to catch the extra blood - upright, not inverted, though that had been tempting. A single card.

The King of Cups.
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The Mockingbird added a few extra Notes to the contract – or, really, just one, but everything tied to it pulled tight into harmony. It took the name out of Duet’s hands at least even if it meant she'd killed the mockingbird to do so, which was hardly the worst thing she'd done for a contract. He’d half hoped that Gail would buck him, or bind him, or otherwise distract him. But no, instead she’d had the audacity to look worried about him under that mask of professionalism. The kind of look Butterfly would’ve given him in the same scenario. He’d expected her to be worse than that. He’d have to keep an Eye on her after this, just to make sure she didn’t get soft.

There were Eyes on the room, too – things that couldn’t get in, because this was L-9, but they could see, they could sense, and a thing that couldn’t get out yet but Knew its time was at hand. Perhaps the other half of it was there somewhere among the watchers, or whatever had stolen the part away and forced all this to happen too soon. It wasn’t the drink now that let him feel them. The mild paranoia and panic was natural, which was why he didn’t have much trouble resisting it, shoving it all into a dusty corner of his brain for later energy expense.

And of course there were other eyes, the kind he couldn’t sense but Brian certainly would. Eyes that knew what was coming, or at least that whatever was being hidden was probably terrible for security. Not to say that Brian’s defenses hadn’t bought a few minutes – if this hadn’t been L-9, the trick might’ve gone completely unnoticed or otherwise passed on to local maintenance as an error. And in his mind the whole place was an error, but not the sort that maintenance there ever seemed to want to fix. With a flex of his fingers, his schedule cleared itself. He might not be able to see what was happening, but he knew something was, and that was enough for him to initiate countermeasures.

As for Strings, he wasn’t ready, and he never had been, and if he kept standing here he never would be. He set the instrument down with the respect he reserved for it to lean against the corner in his place.

Ready or not, it was showtime.

There was no lazy slouch nor menacing loom to his posture. Straight, but professional. He clapped Dr. Seimar’s shoulder with long, gnarled fingers as he passed the doctor – and held on for just a second. “Joshua, I swear by everythin’ that’s ever laid a metaphysical, metaphorical, literal, or illiterate hand on me, if I wind up dead again I’m gonna find a way back in here just to haunt yer [EXPLETIVE].”

He gave Cait a wry smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes as the fortune was revealed. Of course this was Cait, not fate, but the decision was made somehow somewhere and something would care. He was almost tempted to turn it with a finger just to see what it did, or perhaps to make it fit better. Perhaps it was because of how poorly the suit suited him that he let it be.

He folded himself down into the chair. The table was non-dominant and so was he; it was right, and he wasn’t, but he set the right elbow on the card, brushing up against fate. His hand closed gently, and he held his tongue between his teeth to still it. He wasn’t the star of the show, just an opening act, and Questions weren’t for the subject anyway, no who, what, where, or why about it.

Well, maybe one Why. One that might know and not understand what was happening, and did happen to be Curious, but didn’t have enough concept of bathrooms or kings let alone inversions to ask. One that wriggled and swam almost like a cuttlefish, and clawed and climbed almost like a cat, and flowed almost like blood past the heart of its current Vessel as it quickened.
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They were being watched, which wasn't unexpected, but Brian had hoped for a little more time, mostly as a matter of personal pride. It was rare that he had a real opportunity to challenge L-6 to a battle of code, and he couldn't say he wasn't enjoying the opportunity. At least he'd noticed when the other got in - that was more than he'd been able to manage, once upon a time.

Having options was important to security, so Brian responded to the Presence with a rather impish Note of Thought that might get your attention. Enjoy the show. As if, of course they'd always meant for that to happen.

Most of L9 was just about rolling with whatever came, after all, and whatever it was... well, it was coming soon.

Joshua accepted the threat from Strings with a very solemn nod, his tone grave and serious. "Understood, Councilman. I'll make sure Cait exorcises my buttcheeks."

He might have been able to say that with a straight face, but his occultist assistant caught a fit of the giggles. The silver knife flashed, a single stroke at the cubital vein, opening it without severing through. Joshua hadn't bothered with a tourniquet, so the blood would come quickly - one might even say eagerly - perhaps as if it knew what was awaiting it.

Or perhaps as if it had no idea whatsoever. That was one of those statements that could go in either direction, for very different reasons.
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The Fourth Councilman had not quite reached through when the Note reached back. It wasn’t that Note, because of course for security reasons that man did not exist anymore. And yet he continued to prove to be a security issue. It was the ghosts in the machine – or whatever they were, the supernatural was not his department – that provided the right hiccups in the code to keep him at bay. Agent Connor was gifted. Which made it unfortunate that he had decided to obey whatever fool idea his Councilman had ordered he undergo. Not that he thought Connor was unwilling, either. There was a reason he had been selected for STLH-IX-S. “More reasonable than the rest” did not make him reasonable, it made him suitable.

The King waited, above the cup.

He did smile at the quip, but it hadn’t been his smile, not with his tongue locked between the teeth. He should have closed his eyes, but he would not give Hack the satisfaction of being the only watcher here. He bit down as the scalpel bit through, not enough to give the ooze another opening but enough to keep his Voice to himself. His breath rose and fell with forced evenness, but his heart rate spiked. This was preferable. He might not have preferred it, most of the time, but it gave the little pup the extra push toward

– oblivion, or its opposite.

The Vessel’s vein had never been opened in involuntary violence. When he tore for blood he tore with teeth, so when it flowed down the arm into artery from heart it was drawn not by line alone. It flowed out along the fingers that knotted and curled and bent back upon itself from artery to capillary to vein and reached up and out to the edge where waited the Without–

Was it ready, for Without? It had experienced a there, that fear and the severed Strings. Suddenly it wished to slow, for the siren song of outside where he was not there in which to hide ceased to cry with such sweet supplication to the unborn abomination –

And yet it ended in the press of blood, or rather began, the first drips of its oily Self sliding out upon the surgeon’s sideboard, darkness into light not of a Sun-Rise or the scorching Sphere but unobtrusive atmosphere. The world began not with a scream, but with taciturn trickle, only a fraction within the flow as it slowed itself to a trickle.
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It didn't all happen at once.

Oh, it very much could have, if it'd wanted to, but there were only a few drops of Whatever-It-Was mixed in with the blood. The rest of it was held back, or holding itself back, resisting the extrusion. Cait kept an eye on it - two, actually, but only two - and Joshua looked back over his shoulder to where Gail was sitting, patiently waiting. No one said anything, because Words had Power here, or perhaps they Were Power, and the Wrong Word would be a problem. Hocust Locusts might have excelled at problems, but they also knew how to fix them - and right now wasn't the time for Making Speech.

Gail shook her head just a little bit, with a whisper of an exhalation that held no words itself, letting her grip slip just a little bit, just enough to start humming along with herself - an old song, but a song that was about new things and the start of an adventure in an unfamiliar place.

Come out, come out, wherever you are...

After all, this was hardly Kansas any more. And it was probably used to music - it had been tied up in Strings long enough. Music would be familiar, and even if this was a slightly different Tune, it was still a Song, and maybe that meant something to Whatever It Might Be. For now it was just a Question, but soon they'd have a moment to figure out a few answers - and, without a doubt, a whole lot more questions.

Are you a good Which, or a bad Which?
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Why did he seek sundering? The Question tried to ask, for he always seemed to have the answers, and yet still he did not respond, voice held tight in biting bond. The part that was Without felt now the eyes and as ice it froze. Unable to see that smallest sample sat still making attempts with all Its sense to sense the new unwelcome world. Not by ear did it hear for ear was not part of the fluid that flowed out, but in its viscosity it could tune to tune of a Song.

Tongue between teeth he was not singing, still silent despite the insistence of vexed existence that egged from beyond the edge of exposure. That same exposure could sense the soft vibrations and direction of the Notes that were not Note although their meaning remained mystery.

And what better lure for something almost a cuttlefish? For the shell that shaped the viscid creature’s core was cloying Curiosity, and every moment drew It more from the meat that masked ItsSelf. Blood drawing spilled in senseless patterns upon the surgeon’s table and separated from the Blood-Drawn, still connected to Him in sticky Strings that held ItsSelf together.

Mass impossible, for it flowed (but did not flood) and kept flowing, as though it expanded the moment the exit caused it to exist, as though the Self beneath the crust was denser than the Self outside. The ebb and flow and twitch and occasional unceremonious gloop between existence and understanding, but limited in a sense to its singular sense. Unable to bear Its blindness, It opened some Eyes – his eyes echoed infinities enumerable by pair and trinnities, all blinking in blackened disunison under unfamliliar light.

And then once more hesitance within the Why that whispered at the edge of Its own Existence as It searched the room for the source of sound, eyes each differing in direction, determined but indeterminate, seeing for once with sight all its own and suddenly overwhelmed with the Without world – but prepared to pull back at the first sign of unsafety.
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It was beautiful.

Of course it was messy - being born always was. It didn't know where it was or who it was or anything about itself, except for some innate core of itself that was Unknown but not yet Unformed. Yet to be discovered, but perhaps not yet to exist. Gail knew well about things which were undiscovered. Histories that had never been, because they hadn't been written down by the right people. Places that had to belong to someone else, because they couldn't belong where they were. People that weren't people, because they weren't the right people.

L-9 was full of the wrong people. It was one of the reasons that she liked it so much. She watched the new thing test out its vision for the world, all out of time, unsettled and unsettling. There was something of Strings in there, but it had been nesting there in his black heart for a long time. It didn't make sense, but here, in this place, it didn't have to.

Gail stood, not too quickly, taking a mockingbird's feather from the collection in her briefcase and cutting it to a point, then walking over - not with measured steps, because this was no place for order. Not too close, but not too far away. A presence, but one to be curious about, not one to fear. She dipped the quill in the blood that spilled, because it ought to be that blood, even if she was doing the writing. The feather scratched the parchment, and then it too was gone into the Making of the thing. She rolled the parchment, then held it out to the thing that didn't have hands yet. It didn't need them, unless it wanted them. It was beautiful just the way it was.

"This is You." A soft sentence, with the offering. There was a word on the paper - a Name.

It meant a lot of things. It meant the soul, but especially the irrational part of the soul, because there wasn't much need to be rational around here. It meant the part of the psyche that went inward, towards the subconscious. And it could mean the feminine part of a man's personality, because Strings had talked about her a bit that way, and maybe that mattered.

And it meant, in some ways, something brought to life.

It was something that could be changed later, if it needed to be. Sometimes things just didn't fit right after a while. If they needed to reName her after a while, there wasn't any reason they couldn't, but it was a Baby Name, a Cradle Name, something to call her while she was still figuring out who she was. Gail plucked at one of the strings still tying the creation to the cradle, not quite as deftly as he'd have done it, of course. It wasn't a song, but at least it wasn't averse.

"Let go, now. It's time to choose your own adventure."
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The Eyes all converged upon her, the first to move, whose name was just beyond the reach of Question. The slickness fled before her step, slid away from her, memory confused for a moment – Her of Elsewhere and her of where-else-but-here blurring at the edges of dark hair and height as in uneven step she descended from the light of the –

–fluorescents. No Sphere; a pair and trinnities checked, all the rest tied to her who sang and came not as goddess but as woman, a woman known but unnamed because it had not been given. It had it so long as it had him, but even in its clinging threads it realized with a tremulous dread that its knowledge had been left behind, or perhaps it was the confusion and the cold and the quiet.

Why was it silent? Why did no one speak or sing? Why were all their eyes turned upon the unrealized thing that pooled about the feet of her who was not goddess? What was it that she pressed against the parchment and scratched out into the silence? And why did it sense the question –

Are we good whiches, or bad whiches?

The paper devoured the pen, dipped as it had been in the blood of the King. The blood that was still bound to It, still bonded It with Him and made It Whole even in its separation; it was now consumed within the contract, and the woman held it out to her and shattered the silence with a whisper. The fluid froze upon the ground, sights set upon the certificate. It did not need comprehension to understand that should it accept such, it would indeed be bound to birth.

And yet Curiosity beckoned.

A tremor ran through, a single Note, as the woman plucked the Strings that bound her still. And then for the first time, she saw him move, pale and slow, the deft left hand that held her not now trembling but determined. Without opening his eyes he found the harmonic, and struck the string with certain softness that echoed in his tone.

It’s time.”

For it was, of course, the place of the father to cut the chord.

And in that moment when the threads broke the Why was inconceivably immense and unconceivedly small; it filled all space that had not already been filled and yet it had withdrawn its Self to a single point upon which it spiraled out and up and throughout and back into itself, into a pool on the floor with the eyes closed.

And then one eye opened, peering out as if afraid, set upon the paper proffered. She – the little she – hadn’t perished in the moment she was separated from her safety. The floor was cold. The lights were bright. Her self was loose, ill fit for Without; she needed definition by some stretch. Something strung itself out with tentative intensity toward the contract. It had five points, like a hand or a pentagram, but was nearly webbed for the wetness that spread between appended ends.

She touched the page of what might become, and then pulled it into herself suddenly as though afraid it might be taken again before she had a chance to get a sense of the Self at its center. She pulled it into the gooey black center and curled around it in infant indignance. And then once more she unfurled – no, unfolded; and then bent back upon herself, edges never symmetrical yet close enough to bend into bird, which melted and smoothed around edges and grooves; ink fading to grey and white in soft stripes;

The Bird boobed about for a moment, beak opened partway before she realized that while she could comprehend the angles and feathers that constructed it, she had never witnessed the inner bones. The interior was still too wet to be a suitable structure. And so again she stretched and spread, unfolding and unthreading as she remembered another moment of separation and unwinding that spiraled and swirled and then sudden as the unbinding she became into

There was a name at the heart of the blood. It was blood, her black and his red, by which she’d become contract-bound. And yet in that moment the liquid served as ground-work for the work to which she set; creation as remembered in hesitant steps, a flight of memory taken upon a flight of fancy. And the body had been within his body, flowed between the muscle and bone; and she pulled her own threads together around that name and formed the center and the skull and the spine and the joints and covered each layer with muscle and skin, weaving the blood and the memory and the name throughout like an overture in He.

Furthermore as the face formed it would be clear that while his was the threading chord there was another influence in Her form, for in such places as he bent and bone drew out she filled the space with sweeter softness as suited the Self she was assuming. Her skin was the deep shade of one who’d spent her summers in the sun, and covered in a dress patterned after light greys, whites, blacks – not the ordered solidity of the Foundation but a plumage she found from someplace within.

The hair that fell about her back was dark and curled and shone as ink fresh on a contract or the smooth flesh of some creature that knew only the sea, not in a tangle but not brushed to tameness, either. The eyes that opened were not his eyes. As his they were not the same, one the deep brown of the bird now bound within her, sacrificed to Self, the other the vibrant red that matched that Eye with which he Saw and she had once seen.

And she breathed, remembering the function of the muscle of the diaphragm and the opening of the lungs and the flow from air to throat and from blood to lung and then the slow contraction. She shaped her mouth and from it came her first sound –

A whistle. Warbled, not warped, attuned and in tune with her, of nothing else.

And then the lungs expanded again, and she smiled, slowly, and despite her face not being his face it had that bent that left no doubt that She was his. And the mouth moved, memory of words shaped much like his but not his voice.

“I am…”

And suddenly the diaphragm contracted again, and the grin split, and she laughed, the wondrous laugh of something experiencing voice and joy and laughter and air and light and sound and touch and Self, truly and independently, and had Chosen and delighted in the Choice – the laugh of glory in being. The laugh of something that suddenly found balance upon her bare feet and danced in wonderful imbalance and perfect harmony with that which burst from her in waves of sound.

“I am!”

Someone may have been looking at the half-lidded eyes and the smile of the man seen as Strings. His white face was paler even than usual; and perhaps the visible weakness could be blamed for the slant of that smile he wore, and why it didn’t have that wolfish undercurrent of sharpened mischief. Why it seemed soft – but woe to the one who said that out loud.

Woe to the person who accused him of loving the creature that sat before him, not in his image but bound of his blood, exploring her voice that was not his voice and did not deserve to be, for it was more, as all of her was.

And woe to anything that so much as looked upon her with ill intent.

He examined her form, and her Form, and approved of her in weary silence. Thirteen was a good age, he thought; an age of discovery spent uncovering her Self without his help. She’d have to do without him, at least for a little while. His lips moved faintly, and perhaps Joshua heard the whispered words:

She’s perfect.”

And then, between the lost blood and lost sleep, Councilman Strings lost consciousness.
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