[ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ]
“Well,” said Faraday, his voice low and seeming overly-loud in the darkened hall, “I suppose that’s as direct as one could expect.”
Webb took a step forward towards the stairwell. They’d never actually been upstairs before—and had certainly never been here at night. They usually let themself in when it was quiet, but well-lit; one of the downstairs doors would be open, leading into a small sitting room where tea would be waiting, hot and steaming as if freshly poured, though Webb never saw anybody set it down.
Their relationship with the Curator had begun early on in their career. Back then, before they’d really built up their network, they’d posted some flyers around asking for tips and sightings. They hadn’t bothered with online—that was a swift route to a lot of spam and garbage.
Shortly after that, they’d received what would become the first of many letters that they’d exchanged with the Curator: a peculiar pen pal at first, but one that had graduated to an invitation to the Curator’s home, when more sensitive information was involved, it seemed. The types of tips they received from the Curator varied greatly, but were generally reliable, though they asked never to be credited as the source.
Webb had asked questions throughout the years, of course—how could they not be curious about who or what the Curator was?—but was met each time with a gentle rebuff. They’d thought it best not to push the boundaries too much and risk losing a valuable contact.
They were a combination of both intrigued and uneasy as they began to head upstairs, glancing back only briefly to confirm that Ariadne and Faraday were behind them. The stairs creaked gently as they proceeded, their hand gripping the railing tightly.
“Webb?” Ariadne whispered. “Are you sure about this…?”
“Of course,” Webb lied. Then, more assuredly: “I’m curious, more than anything. I… I think it’ll be fine.”
I trust them almost came to Webb’s lips, but was quickly discarded. They didn’t know the Curator well enough to trust them, they reminded themself. Webb didn’t think they knew anybody well enough for that. And wasn’t this whole ludicrous day happening because they’d extended even the most minuscule amount of confidence in other people and were being soundly punished for it?
Even so, some of the nicest days they could remember over the last lonely decade were spent curled up in the Curator’s sitting room, listening to quiet music playing and reading what the Curator had set out for them. Letters, of course—at first simply briefs outlining rumors, information, and leads. But over time, the letters occasionally asked about Webb. What kind of tea they liked. Were there any snacks they preferred? What did they like to read?
And the next time they visited, there was new tea, and the requested snacks, and a book with a little note outlining what the Curator liked best about it. At first, they preferred that Webb read the book in the sitting room, rather than take it home with them, but over time that changed as well.
As long as you tell me all about it later, the letter had read.
“I don’t know if they can… hear or see us,” Webb said quietly, hesitating as they reached the second floor landing. It was dark here as well; Webb could see curtains fluttering in the high arched window, the dim light from the street and the flicker of Ariadne’s flashlight illuminating several enormous bookshelves and another narrow hallway. “Sometimes I’d talk to them as though they could hear me, but—I mean. Maybe I just like hearing the sound of my own voice.”
“That is something I’d picked up about you,” Faraday murmured.
Webb didn’t deign to respond to that, continuing up the stairs. Every time they seemed to be approaching the darkness looming ahead, another light flickered on.
Webb examined one as they passed by. It was an old-fashioned type of lamp, designed to look a little like an ensconced lantern. They reached out to turn the small knob, flicking the light off, then on again.
“I don’t smell anybody…” Ariadne said, pressing up close to Webb’s side. Her face was tilted up, her tongue wetting her lips. “Outside of the two of you, obviously.”
“And how good’s your sense of smell?”
“Extremely good,” Ariadne said.
Webb paused. “And how do I smell?” they asked. They weren’t sure why. Sometimes words just came out of their mouth and then they had to deal with the consequences.
Ariadne scrunched up her nose, sticking her tongue out a little. “Also extremely good.”
Ah, yes. Well, they were magic-blooded now, after all. Though that thought gave them pause.
“… you must have known the entire time that I wasn’t… that I was…” Webb trailed off, giving her a slightly accusatory look.
Ariadne just shrugged. “I figured you’d tell me if it became relevant, but before that, it was none of my business.”
Webb let out a heavy breath, but then just continued onwards. They’d think about how that made them feel a little later.
The winding stairwell ended, finally, at the top of the tower, opening up into a spacious library and reading room. A crackling fire in a massive fireplace cut through the chill of the nighttime air. The room was full of antiques and oddities: a delicate globe in a golden stand, a carving of a raven perched and looming from a bookshelf, glass cases behind which there were even more books and coins and statuettes.
As with the downstairs sitting room, on each wall hung several oaken-framed paintings of beautiful vistas—sunsets, mountain ranges, and ocean views. There was also another door out of the sitting room that seemed to exit into a bedroom; Webb could see the edge of a four-poster bed and what seemed to be a clawfoot bathtub.
Faraday let out a soft, low whistle. Ariadne tugged on Webb’s sleeve and whispered. “On the table, there.”
Webb looked to where she was pointing and saw a neatly-folded piece of crisp, heavy paper. They hesitated for only a moment before picking it up, thumbing it open. In the Curator’s neat cursive, it read:
Is everything okay?
Webb swallowed hard, staring down at that, reading the three words over and over again. They’d practiced everything in their head already: be honest, but not too honest, be cautious, try to pry for information, keep it simple, but now that they were here in this place that felt melancholy and comfortable and strange all at once… should they leave a letter and go, like they usually did? Should they talk out loud and just… wonder if anybody would answer, though they never had before?
There was also the fact that Ariadne and Faraday were here, too. Webb had a relationship with the Curator, of a sort—these two were complete strangers. Would they get a different reaction if they asked to speak with the Curator privately?
And as for that question, what… what could they say to that?
[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.
As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, deeds, or curiosities!]