A/N: A note for new readers:
This series has a lot of slow, detailed world building that makes up much of the first 12 chapters, especially between chapter 6 and 12. During the initial months of publication, I discovered that people either absolutely loved that or really didn't care for it at all. Some folks stopped reading, but some of them came back after Chapter 13 and were very pleased. My advice: If you start reading, and feel like maybe the world building is getting to be too much for you after a while, check out chapter 13, then decide if it's worth continuing. :)
I'm also aware that in the first four of five chapters, I tend to overuse caps for emphasis; that's a habit I finally managed to drop, and I just haven't had a chance to go back and fix it, yet.
And with that out of the way, I give you: Black Swan.
"It-it was a really nice service, Chloe. Your Dad - I mean - I think he would have..."
Max regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth; they sounded so weak, so stupid. As if the perfect way to wipe away Chloe's grief was somehow out there, and she was a shitty friend for not immediately divining what it was. The other girl seemed too lost in her mourning, tears flowing freely down her cheeks and mouth, to have noticed; for this small kindness, Max found herself grateful.
She instead focused on tightening her embrace, comforting arms wrapped around her best friend since - well, as far back as her memory could take her. It was barely two weeks ago, when they had been laughing and fooling around, Chloe and her father making pancakes and talking about their someday-future trip to Paris, before the call came in.
The one from Joyce.
The one that ended up killing William.
"Oh God. It hurts Max. It hurts so fucking much."
Chloe had tried to hold it together during the funeral - tried too hard, really - and it was finally gushing all those previous days where she should have been crying, freaking out, and angry, but wasn't - like she was just in shock - was now rising up to the surface. She dammed it up, and now that dam was cracking at last.
This was no dream; there would be no miracles. Wonder Woman wasn't going to swoop down and save everyone at the last second. There'd be no clever sitcom twist, where everyone realizes William's death was just a big misunderstanding. There was only what was in the here and now: his passing would mar the lives of all who had known and loved him.
For Chloe? There was a Daddy-shaped hole in her heart that would never close again.
Max stared numbly out at the wall, feeling so terribly small and helpless against the world, filled as it was with cruel indifference. She'd never dealt with death before aside from a housepet. Both of her parents, and all of her grandparents were still alive, not one of them yet ripped away from her. At the end of the day, she'd leave this room, walk away from Chloe and her Mom, back to her own home. To the loving embrace of her own mother. And her own, still quite alive father.
Not..fair. It's not fair! I'm a failure! I'm SUCH a failure, oh Chloe, I'm so sorry! What can I do? How can I make you feel better. How can I...?
She stifled a soft groan, closed her eyes tightly as a wave of pain swept over her forehead, burrowing down acidly into her stomach, where it blossomed into another fresh swell of nausea. Max told herself it was just from all the shittiness of William's passing, blithely ignoring the fact that the headaches began a good month earlier, although they'd only rapidly grown in frequency and intensity since that day.
As she worked to figure out how to distract herself from her own physical pains, she squeezed Chloe a little tighter, tenderly stroking her sandy blond hair; then stared off into space, letting her gaze focus into an intense spot against the wall in Chloe's bedroom, where a recent-taken Polaroid picture was hanging
The two of them, from happier days not long before, but forever-distant in the past. William had taken the picture; it had been his last.
IT'S NOT FAIR!
Max screamed in her head, instantly regretting it as the urge to vomit bubbled up from her stomach, tasting hot and nasty in the back of her throat. Pushing it back down, she sobbed, reaching up to clear her eyes of tears, and then found herself pulled back to the photo again.
The way it seemed to fuzz in and out of focus, as if by its own accord. As the intensity of her fixation upon the picture increased, a strong memory of the day began to flood her mind.
...almost like...like I can hear us talking. Voices. God, we sound so happy then. Will we ever be like that again?
Max felt the world grow tighter and smaller against her, until there was nothing left in it except her, and the photo. To the point where she couldn't even feel Chloe pressed against her body. The voices in her memory grew sharper, louder. Filling her ears. The Poloroid took on an eerie, hyper-realistic quality.
Almost as if she could fall into it. A personal rabbit hole.
There was a palpable snap inside her head, like a rusty chain link smashed with a hammer. She'd meant to scream at the sensation, if only she could. But she wasn't herself anymore, wasn't in Chloe's bedroom.
There was only another time now, another place.
A white flash blinds her, fills her vision completely.
Another second or two, and the pieces fill in. Sound and scent come next. Touch and taste join the party.
Layer by layer, the world reconstructs until...
"Someday, Dad'll get one of those newfangled computers."
"I hope the flash didn't scare you, Max. This...is a keeper."
"Not until I see it first! You know the rules, Dad. Max, tell him. Whoa, hey, you look totally pale. Are you okay?"
Oh my...oh God! What is this? Where have I...oh shit. Am I dreaming? Hallucinating?! This all seems so real. Too real! This was only two weeks ago, but I feel like I'm actually here.
What's happening to me!?
"Yeah, I just...Uh yeah. I'm fine." Max lied.
Stunned, she allowed Chloe and William's continuing discussion to fade off into the distance, with their talk of eggs, and France and breakfast.
This was Chloe the way Max remembered.
I - I've lost my mind! Maybe those headaches were a-a tumor? Oh shit! Maybe I'm dying! Maybe...
It was all she could do to keep from hyperventilating, allowing the ever growing thrum of panic to narrow her vision down into a tiny point, fill her with terror, make her curl up on the carpet and whimper, begging for normality to return.
But then a new idea suddenly stuck in her mind:
Wow. I've gone fucking crazy! Totally super stupid mental. Okay. Right. Okay Max. Go with the flow. Your brain wants you to relive a horrible flashback, you go and tell your brain to just...to just eat it! I'm going to take charge! I'm going to make this dream go the way I WANT it to go. The way this day SHOULD have gone!
Wait, what DO I do, anyhow?
Just for fun, she started by picking up the camera, and calling out, "Now I get to take a picture. Strike a pose!"
"Make me a star!" Chloe demanded.
"Just make me look young." William affably asked.
There! That...that was nice. That was a nice thing that I did, that never happened. What other nice things can I do, that didn't happen on this day? Oh! Look!
Max tried not to giggle too loudly, a warm giddiness spreading from her chest and fuzzing up her brain. She picked up a piece of charcoal and started sketching out a butterfly picture against the stone of the fireplace.
Yup! That's pretty. Really pretty! Okay, what's next?
Max's sanity frayed around the edges. Peals of laughter threatened to burble their wayout her throat, until the phone rang.
Joyce. Joyce's call.
She could feel the chill clench around her heart. William picked up the phone, and then...
"Hey honey! Just making a fabulous breakfast with Chloe and Max!"
No! Nonononono! I don't want to see this again! This MY crazy dream! I don't have to let it happen this way!
As she looked around the room in a panic, her mind sharpened itself anew, trying to recall how the day previously unfolded. Struggling with the need to make a snap decision in under a minute, to chose a critical path to take.
The keys! The car keys! If he can't find them, he can't leave. Yeah! Ha ha!
She snagged them, then walked over to one of the potted plants.
Plant, meet keys. Keys, plant. Have fun!
Her dream, however, seemed to have different ideas. A minute later, her small triumph was smashed into tiny pieces as the modern marvel of twenty first century technology led William right to where he needed to go.
"Now for crying out loud, how did these end up there?"
What?! He's leaving! No! No fair! It was good! It was a good idea. This is MY dream, and I can't...can't let it end like this.
William walked to the door, to the white fuzz bordering the edges of the dreamtime. With a strangled, petulant cry, Max called out, "No!". Reached out with her hand, in a futile, grasping gesture.
Another chain link in Max's brain snapped, and the world wobbled and spun. Reality began to peel back, shuddering and juddering all around her, like old style film stuck inside a reel to reel projector.
With a gasp, she stopped herself. Watched the dream pick up from where Chloe and William were working at the stove. Let loose with another soft, low laugh, as the full effect of her newly discovered power, and the control it gave her over her immediate surroundings struck home.
Oh...YES! YEAH! Who's the Dream Queen? Max is the Dream Queen! Eat my awesome, stupid brain!
But stupid brain apparently possessed a competing agenda..
She tried unplugging the home phone.
William's cell phone rang, instead.
She tried to call Joyce, warn her off.
Joyce was already gone.
She tried to answer the home phone herself. "Wrong number!"
William was not amused.
Again and again, she forced the dream to pull back, erase and rewind, and each and every time it found a clever, maddeningly frustrating way to defeat her. Unable to take it anymore, she grabbed the keys again, opened the glass door, and chucked them forcefully into the yard.
Fine, brain! You wanna play hardball? Deal with this!
Max waited, tapping her foot, almost relishing the opportunity to discover how she'd be thwarted this go around, in the latest revolution of "Max Caulfield's Olde Timey Insane-O Helter Skelter Ride-type Experience."
Winning was the one thing she hadn't counted on. It threw her entire rhythm off.
"Of course. Last time I order from SpyGuy Electronics."
Hee! Check, brain! Check, and now mate!
"You can take the bus, right? The stop is right down the street!"
As she made her pitch, Max couldn't help but think she deserved kickbacks from the Lincoln County Mass Transit Authority; the way she effusively sung the ineffable, inexhaustible praises of taking the bus.
William put a quick, good natured end to her spiel.
"You sold me already. I'm off to yonder bus stop." He then turned towards the toward the door and grumbled with good humor, "Joyce will love this."
With the taste of success now firmly upon her lips and tongue, Max began to shuffle and slide about, dancing with vague abandon.
Chloe gave the other girl A Look, crossed her arms, and asked, "Max, you are being so fucking strange. You feel okay?"
Bouncing up and down in glee, Max exclaimed. "Chloe, I am awesome! We are...awesome!"
Tears of joy began to fill up her eyes, making her sight blurry. Milliseconds passed, and the dream began to fade to white, like a frame of film burning up, curling away under the heat of a projector lamp.
I wish it had been real! I wish it had been real! Oh God...it ended too soon.
The transition wasn't immediate, at least from Max's perspective. The threads of Time, once solid, flew apart in all sixteen thousand infinite directions of lunacy, then just as quickly seeking to re-weave themselves into a new tapestry, the story of What Is replacing the old of What Was.
"...and so I told her, the difference is: you can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish!"
Chloe groaned, rolling her eyes at her father; despite her show of the sort of horror and embarrassment that all teenagers feel for their parents, she was smiling wide and warm.
Max looked around; sitting at the dinner table, just Joyce, Chloe, William and herself.
Funny. Don't remember sitting down. How did I get here? What day is it? Is this still the dream? Neat! Feels more...real somehow, though. Realer than before. As real as real is...uh...real?
Her eyes flew over to the clock and calendar on the wall. Checked twice, then three times over again as she read the date.
It was the day of William's funeral. His burial. If the clock on the wall was telling the truth, only a few minutes had passed since Max had turned her focus to the picture on the wall. Except...except no! Now, here he was, alive and well and telling one bad joke after the other. Joyce smiled good naturedly, and Chloe...
She looked so radiant now. Happy. The way that Max always wanted to remember her, and feared she'd never see again.
"Dad, that joke is OOOOllld. So old! What bone pit did you dig it out of!? Geeze!"
William chuckled, a smile touching his eyes, "Maybe, but believe it or not, Hiroko thought it was hilarious. Once her translator explained it to her, of course. You see, a lot of Japanese humor is based on puns and word sound-alikes."
"Yeah, Dad, and the Japanese are all crazy stupid polite, too! She was probably just humoring you."
"Ha ha. Careful, daughter of mine. You say THAT, and yet all these old ears seem to hear is 'No thanks, Dad, Max and I don't need to go out for ice cream after dinner."
"What!? Hey, no fair, no fair! I take it back!"
Max glanced down at her food. Chicken and pasta, because of course it was. It was Thursday, and that was the usual meal at the Price household. She often came over that night to eat; it had become a reliable tradition, a rock solid anchor. She salivated, realizing how exquisitely hungry she'd become, and began to eat with gusto. Everything tasted better than she ever remembered, from the ranch dressing on the chicken itself to the al dente fettuccine noodles.
"Good lord, Max Caulfield. Do Ryan and Vanessa not feed you enough?" Joyce smiled, good-naturedly teasing.
Slurping up a stray noodle, Max smiled around it. Her head was spinning, her heart lighter and more joyful than she could possibly believe. She had done it.
It wasn't a dream after all. No, wait...wait it had to be.
She glanced casually over her shoulder, and stopped short as her heart skipped several beats.
The charcoal butterfly scribble.
And then she finally understood.
She'd found a miracle. Given her best friend back her father and reset their lives.
Please don't let this be a dream. PLEASE PLEASE, God, if you exist, and this is real, PLEASE don't let it be a dream...
...or at least don't let it end.
She fought back the urge to leap out of her chair and dance about the room; to shout, hoot and holler. The world was wonderful, and why shouldn't it be? This was the age of the incredible! Wishes were granted if you truly believed, and cast them with the purest of intentions! Despite all the times that her parents tried to convince her otherwise, life was actually, honestly fair!
"I'm...it's good, Joyce. It's really...reallyreallyreally good!" She took another hearty bite, and mumbled around it, "And I'm fine. I'm great! Really great! But it's like, you know. I just wanted to say that I...how much I love you guys. Okay? Because people don't say it enough. Everyone acts like...you know how you...it's just that you never know when people might suddenly be taken away from us, and then we all wish we said stuff like this more, when we still could. So I just wanted to say that...I love you guys. You're like a whole other family to me. And you will be. Always and forever."
Joyce blinked at first, in confusion, and then swallowed, a tight, emotional smile spreading across her mouth. "Oh...darling. Max, you are just THE SWEETEST little thing sometimes." She reached over to give the girl a warm hug.
"Wow, Jesus Max. I don't know what the hell you scored, but can I have some? It's obviously awesome stuff!" Chloe rolled her eyes, trying to play it as cool as she could, but the flush on her cheeks told a different story.
William just chuckled, shaking his head, and drawled, "Well, Max. If that was your way of trying to get yourself an extra scoop of chocolate at the Tasty Top after dinner...mission accomplished." He reached over, ruffling her hair affectionately.
Catching each others eyes, the girls traded smiles. Chloe mouthed, "Score! Yes". Max reacted by giving two thumbs up.
Max still didn't understand exactly what had happened. If it was a one time thing, or if she now had a power. She didn't want to test anything, afraid it would shatter the thin soap bubble of existence. She didn't dare to do anything that might send Chloe back into the nightmare world of ten minutes ago.
She'd...she'd do anything for Chloe. Anything to make her happy.
Still, she knew she'd have to test it again. Sometime soon, a day or two, alone. She couldn't explain why, but she just felt like she'd be tempting fate far less, in her own bedroom. But she needed to know if she could keep rewinding time; assuming she did, she swore then and there to use it to make people as happy as she felt, right here and now. If the power was gone...well...maybe that's just the point of a miracle. It only lasts as long as it's needed.
Still, what a story! She had no idea how she could tell it, or who would even believe her.
But she knew exactly how it ended.
And they all lived happily ever after.
CENTRAL HQ, DAMOCLES INITIATIVE
DEEP UNDER SEATTLE, WA
"Ten letter word, down, clue is 'Mistress of Irony."
Senior Field Agent Nicole Wright chuckled low in her throat as she read the clue from the day's Seattle Times crossword puzzle.
"Morisette? Alanis Morisette, right?" called out Chen, one of the two field techs operating the controls in the monitoring room.
"No shit." Wright snorted, filling in the squares, and then casually fiddling with one of her cornrows as she slipped the pencil back behind her ear.
"Uh, have either of you guys ever noticed that there's no irony at all in that song? At least...I don't think so."
Wright glanced over to Hubbard, the heavyset man in his fifties who made the observation. She straightened up in her command chair, which sat upon a raised dais, and mused with a playful glint in her eyes, "What? Shit you say, Rob? Damn, I think you're the first man in history to figure that one out!" She followed the statement up with a saucy, exaggerated wink.
Chen covered up his mouth, trying to hide his laughter.
Hubbard retorted, "Just saying, that's why this country keeps going to hell. If you're going to write a song about something, you should MAKE it BE about that thing, you know? School standards going downhill, giving kids grades they don't deserve, just for showing up. And it's shit like this that's all a symptom of the problem!"
Wright did her best to smile amiably, then leaned over against the railing surrounding most of her seat, "Well, here's the thing: you ever consider that the whole song ITSELF is supposed to be ironic? Because a tune about irony that doesn't have any actually examples of it in the lyrics? Damn, that's some pretty weapons grade irony right there." With that, she turned back to the folded newspaper in her hand to ruminate on the next clue.
"Huh. Can't say I saw it that way. Stilllllllll, now it just sounds like she's trying to be fucking pretentious. Can't stand people trying to be pretentious, like they're smarter than they really are."
Wright sighs softly, "Oh, Rob. Never change. Anyhow, speaking of kids and shit, how's that new grandson of yours doing?"
"Great! Thanks for asking! Just the other day, he finally started..."
The giant display screen that dominated the front wall started to flash, as a soft, synthetic female voice intoned, "EMERGENCE DETECTED. EMERGENCE DETECTED...PAN-Opticon triangulating...standby."
At first straightening up, and then rising to her feet entirely, Wright called out, "Well, would you look at that? We actually got a bite, guys! First one in two years, maybe? Who won the pool, because I sure as hell know it wasn't me."
Chen spun back around, fingers flying over his keyboard. "Wanna say maybe Jenkins? I'll have to go back and check the chart. Good for him, I think there's almost a grand or two piled up at this point. He was telling me the other day how he never can afford to take the wife out someplace nice. Now he can." Another few seconds passed as he poured over the data scrolling across his personal display.
"Well, let's see what we've caught...whoa! Panny's initially tagging it at Theta-Yellow, guys!"
"What? Bullshit! That's almost the top of the scale. Hasn't been one that high since..."
Suddenly, the lights in the room dimmed low; beacons dropped from holding canisters set into the ceiling, painting the room in slowly rotating cones of crimson and yellow. The sound of soft, chiming alarms filled the air.
"The hell you guys do?" Wright demanded.
"Not us, Nikki! Honest!" Hubbard answered, quickly, glancing down at his terminal. "I don't understand it! All our terminals have locked down. Something just made PAN-Opticon go crazy!"
With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, Nicole wandered to study the readouts from the various instruments.
"Damn, and on my night to watch, too. How come this fuckery never hits Reese when HE'S on monitor duty?"
"Probably does, just no one's gonna remember, right?"
They all laughed, trying to break the tension that was forming. But the half-cocked grin bourn of bravado died on Wrights face as she glanced at the words scrolling across the screen.
PAN-OPTICON CONTROL HAS BEEN LOCKED DOWN UNDER ORDER PO-BS-009/CD/PM
THIS SYSTEM MUST BE UNLOCKED BY AN AGENT WITH NUMBERS-4 CLEARANCE OR HIGHER.
ATTENTION: ALL AGENTS AT LEVITICUS CLEARANCE AND BELOW ARE HEREBY ORDERED TO EXIT THE ROOM AT ONCE.
"Oh. God." Wright rubbed at her forehead and sighed heavily. "Guys, you better go to the break room and have yourselves a metric ton of coffee, and just forget what you saw here. Something tells me I'm not getting out of here anytime soon."
"Yeah, sure. We're ghosts."
"Yup, on our way out. Good luck, Nikki." Turning to Chen, Hubbard remarked, "God, I hope this isn't one of those super secret things they end up shooting us in the head over. Now THAT would be ironic!"
Chen took a deep breath through his nose, then let it out quickly,Theo. That would just suck. A lot. Besides, they'll just fuck with our memories of it, instead. Perk of the job."
"Chen, don't joke about that. I'm telling you, that shit CAN'T be healthy."
Wright took a minute or two to secure the room, making sure that all the exits were locked, then performed a standard bug sweep. When that came back clean, she entered her authentication code, relieved to see that not only was it accepted, but it caused the beacons to stop flashing.
THANK YOU AGENT WRIGHT; PLEASE STAND BY FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
She tapped her foot impatiently as a call was routed through a massive number of encrypted channels. It was a good forty seconds before she was connected.
"Wright here. I'm in the PAN-Opticon monitoring room. We just detected what looks like a MAJOR Emergence event, but I'll be damned if it's anything like I've ever seen before. Uh...please advise?"
An image of an impeccably dressed woman in her early thirties suddenly filled the screen; her mane of platinum blond hair secured into a tight plait. She sat at a low, antique wood table, sipping tea from a china cup.
Speaking in a crisp, aristocratic British accent, she answered, "Davies here. And my goodness, according to the encryption envelope tagging your line, you certainly have a knack for finding delights and surprises within the most mundane of tasks, don't you?"
Nicole slumped her head forward for a moment, "No shit. Cammie. Sorry to bother you on your night off. What the hell is a PO-BS-009? "
The other woman paused, before raising a single brow. Slowly, she placed her cup onto a plate on the low table, and then turned to a small computer terminal at her side.
"Hold on...I'll answer that question shortly. I'm assuming the room is clear? It's just the two of us now?"
"You know it is..."
"Quite. I've fully unlocked the system, we should start getting a proper triangulation sequence going again."
Wright read through the results as they came through, "Hmmm...North America...On the...Midwest? No...no no. The West Coast."
A pause, and then the other woman crafted a curious expression upon her face, almost of disappointment.
"Oh, please don't be the Pacific Northwest."
"California's out, so that just leaves..."
"Oh PLEASE don't be Oregon then!"
"Hey, what's wrong with Oregon!? I was born and raised in Corvallis, you know?"
"I'm well aware. But ever since Incident 23 occurred, a higher than average number of Specials have Emerged in that part of the US. More importantly, because of THAT, there's a queer sort of background radiation that's difficult to cut through, at least from orbit. I believe you're going to find PAN-Opticon won't drill down any further than a tri-county sized region, at best.
There was another pause, as the pair waited for the data to be sifted through and processed further. The picure of the globe on the screen began to blow up, as the focus shifted onto the Northwest, then Oregon, then onto the western portion of the state. Eventually, a chunk of the northwestern coast began to blink blue.
Nicole narrowed her eyes, murmuring, "Worse than that. Whatever it is, it's not any further north than Tillamook, and not south past Douglas. Maybe. Damn, that's a LOT of ground to cover, at least six or seven counties."
"I can probably eliminate half of that with two or three days work. Got a few algorithms I've been working on for just this sort of situation. But for now, sit tight, and stay on base, please. I'll need to gather what I can, and make the initial report to Director Martinet. At the very least, I'd say expect to leave before dawn. I'll need you to prepare a three-and-one node triangulation team. Call Reese in, we're ABSOLUTELY going to need him for this. The rest of the team, I leave to your discretion."
"Right, right, roger that, bosslady. I'll load up the mobile base, and we'll be ready to go wheels up in two hours."
"Hey, just one thing before you go and chitchat with the Director: what the hell DID just happen? What does that code mean?"
Davies stiffened, until she sat ramrod straight. A thin, wintry smile crept upon her lips like hoarfrost, as she answered, "Something truly historic, Nicole. And if we're very lucky? We'll never, ever see it happen again."
A/N: Sooooo. Welcome to Black Swan. This is an idea I've had stuck in my brain for a long while. In the beginning, it was almost painfully, obsessively consuming. It originally was going to take life as a brief but incredibly weird chapter of Riotgrrls in Love, but there was too much potential here, and it demanded to be it's own series. The flavor is intended to be sort of a mix of the LiS we all know and love with an Agents of SHIELD twist. Despite that, this will be, at its core, a love story. Also, some unexpected people put in appearances, and That One Particular Week In October takes a fairly different turn.
First off, credit where credit is due:
A BIG thank you to Solynna. After giving me some an incredibly useful critique of Childhood's End, thereby turning it into a MUCH better, if slightly different story, she then gave generously of her time during a tight week for her, helping me sand the rough, overly-complicated edges from my initial plot synopsis. While she may not get a chance to beta read much, if at all from this point, she has already had an influence on this work that can not be understated. Also, she writes, and you should check out her latest LiS piece, What Does It All Mean?
Corentin IV, The Ever Excellent Editor and British Bestie o' mine, who essentially rescued Once More Unto The Breach from the mid-teen doldrums I had driven it into, and helped turn it into the solid work that it stands as today, has kindly agreed to ride shotgun with me on this. Usually I go solo on fluff, but this is going to be a somewhat darker story, with a bit more complicated plot, and I know myself well enough to know that I'll never do my best without her mentorship.
Believe it or not, I actually have about 35,000 words written already, but I'm doing my best not to overwhelm poor Cory. Point being, there should be a predictable stream of chapters for some time to come. With that said, Riotgrrls in Love may need to slow up, or even take a hiatus. Sorry about that guys, but there are going to be some extremely awesome scenes of young yuri yomance...er..romance coming up. :-D
So anyhow, PLEASE REVIEW, and I hope you enjoy.