Halloween 2021 IF,  Interactive Fiction

Halloween I.F – “That Which Lingers” – Day 16

[ Please read the kickoff post before commenting! ] 

Webb rose up, rubbing their face with their hands, and let out a sigh. “I’ll take you up on that offer of a bath,” they said tiredly. “And then I think lying down, at least, is probably on the agenda.” They weren’t entirely sure that sleep would actually happen, but they were willing to make an effort.

“I’m good here by the fire for now,” Faraday offered up, tugging Ariadne a little closer to him again. “Though if there’s another shower, we might make use of it…”

“I’m sure you will,” Webb said dryly. Rather than wait for another retort to that, Webb just turned to Lore. “Well, lead the way, gracious host.”

Lore’s cheeks puffed a little, and they huffed out a coil of smoke and shadow. They seemed a little pleased, though. “This way… Faraday, Ariadne, I’ll be back for you soon,” they promised. Faraday just waved a hand amicably as they headed out.

Lore led the way into the bedroom, drifting lightly ahead of Webb. They seemed like they were able to walk and move like anybody else, but also didn’t strictly need to, and made no sound. The loose coils of their dark hair reached to about mid-back, and swayed with startling realism as they walked.

Before they could stop themself, Webb reached out and lightly ran their fingers through the tips. It felt simultaneously like hair should, shifting silkily under their touch, while also yielding a little too much, cool and flowing.

Webb tugged their hand back, flustered, as Lore turned to look at them. “Sorry,” Webb muttered. “As exhaustion increases, impulse control decreases.”

Lore shut the door to the bedroom behind them, giving Webb a smile that was a little shy and more forgiving than Webb probably deserved. “It’s alright,” they murmured. “You’ve had a very long night. And I doubt you’ve ever seen somebody like me before.”

“You’d guess right about that,” Webb agreed, pausing to look around the room. It was, much like the rest of the tower, tastefully but elaborately decorated—every inch the rich eccentric collector’s home, with an edge of the arcane, like a storybook wizard. The rugs were plush and comfortable, the bed piled high with pillows and a deep red duvet. Velvet curtains muffled the sound of raindrops from outdoors. There were even more bookshelves in here, and a set of kaleidoscopic stained glass lamps that cast a soft reddish-gold glow.

The bathing area that Webb had spotted earlier was set off to one side—able to be part of the room, like some fancy hotel rooms Webb had seen, but with a curtain for privacy. The actual facilities other than the bathtub were through a separate door into an ensuite.

“There are towels there,” Lore offered. “I’ll… I’ll leave you to it, you can just, if you need anything you can—” They started to stammer, drifting messily towards the door again.

Webb tugged their cardigan off and hesitated. Their impulse was to just toss it over the back of a chair, but the chairs here were so nice. They settled for awkwardly draping it onto one of the towel racks instead. “Go get Ariadne and Faraday set up with… whatever,” Webb grumbled, finding that their own cheeks were burning for some reason. “Then… I mean, I’ll pull the curtains around, so… I guess, I’d like it if you came back in after? So we can just… talk a bit.” They huffed a laugh. “It’ll be just like old times, with me speaking to empty air.”

Lore seemed to almost vibrate at that, hugging their elbows and ducking their head. “Sure, sure, I’ll, um. I’ll do that. I’ll see you soon, Webb. Help yourself to any of the soaps.”

They vanished back into the other room without bothering to open the door again—they just phased directly through it. Webb stared after that for a moment, decided not to think too hard about it, and started the water running in the tub. The room felt too big and empty and open now that Lore was no longer there with them, so they tugged the privacy curtains firmly closed before pulling off their shirt and binder and pants.

Skirting around to the little set of drawers next to the tub, Webb found—to their surprise and faint amusement—a vast array of little bath bombs, bubble baths, and soaps. They’d have to ask Lore more about that, later. They chose one at random, tossing it in and watching it instantly foam up pink, which was, sure, good enough. They could work with it.

Sinking into the warm water felt like an immediate mistake. They’d been barely holding themself together all night, their emotional composure strained and taut like a favourite t-shirt from high school they’d long since grown out of. Feeling the relaxation and warmth and vulnerability all at once—it was almost too much to handle. They felt their head buzzing with it.

“Fuck,” Webb breathed out, sinking down a little further into the water. This was all so fucking surreal. They didn’t even have a bathtub in their apartment, just one of those cramped glass showers. They were trying not to breathe too hard and rapidly inhale bubbles.

“Um, Webb?” Lore called through the curtains, uncertainly. Webb jumped, accidentally launching their foot across the tub and sloshing water inelegantly over the side.

“Shit!” they stammered. “Hi, yes hello.”

“Hi,” Lore said, their voice sounding concerned. “You… are you alright?”

“I haven’t drowned myself yet, so I’m calling that a win,” Webb squeaked. “Don’t worry about it. How, how’s it going? Your place is nice.” They half-heartedly tried to mop up the spill by tossing the towel at it.

“It’s… fine,” Lore answered, still sounding a little dubious. Webb could see a little bit of smoke coiling around the edges of the curtain. “Ariadne and Faraday are taking turns using the shower on the third floor and charging their phones. We discussed ordering pizza at 3AM, but they opted to leave it to you.” Their tone turned slightly amused at that.

“Delivery pizza sounds like the sort of horrible breakfast you’d want to have after your life falls apart and you get not nearly enough sleep,” Webb said agreeably, splashing a bit of water onto their face. After a moment, they sighed. “Listen, the bubbles are covering all my naughty parts. You want to just come on in here…? I’ve spent years talking to the air not knowing if you’re listening, and I’m sort of over it, you know?”

There was a pause in response to that, and for a moment Webb wondered if they’d overstepped. But then the curtains shifted, not parting so much as unfurling, and Lore’s shadowy-yet-solid shape reformed, perched uncertainly at the end of the tub.

“I’m sorry,” Lore said, after the silence hung for a moment. “I didn’t… I should have shown myself to you years ago. I’d wanted… but I was afraid.”

Webb tilted their head back and waved a hand, sending some tiny bubbles scattering and drifting. “I imagine you had your reasons,” they said. “Besides… sometimes you have to wait for the right moment.” They weren’t altogether sure they’d have been receptive to Lore making any sort of overture up until now. The letters, the occasional meeting… that was about all that Webb had been willing to commit to in terms of a friendship, or any relationship at all.

Tonight had obviously changed things, but what that would look like after all the chaos had faded and things were back to normal… Webb couldn’t even fathom it. All they could do was just take it one moment at a time in the frenetic sort of fog one entered into when each moment might very realistically be their last.

Lore had scooped up some of the bubbles in their palms and were looking at them very fixedly. “Shadowfolk are very secretive types,” they said quietly. “There are things that I just can’t tell you about me, or what I am, but on a personal level, I just always found myself very interested in people, yet… unable to connect with them.”

“I can relate to that a little,” Webb said dryly. “Honestly, sometimes it’s just more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Yes,” Lore said earnestly, “I was… I mean, for the most part, I thought I’d been doing fine. I was able to watch, and learn about people, and build up my home and my collections, and usually that felt like enough. But sometimes…”

Sometimes, Webb thought, you were alone in the middle of the night with a world that seemed very vast and very empty, and the realization of your own infinitesimal lack of consequence was stifling. Loneliness was a word for it, but cosmic insignificance came just as close.

“Sometimes you wondered what it was like to invite a cute creeper such as myself to get naked and indulge in your impressively extensive bubble bath collection?” Webb teased.

Lore’s hair started smoking like a snuffed candle. “Wh—that’s not what I was going to say!” they protested. Their voice was still mellow and soft even when they were visibly and audibly flustered, which Webb found charming. They gave Lore a lopsided grin.

“What, you’re saying that the bath bombs were for you?”

“Yes!” Lore said helplessly. “They’re mine. As is the bed, and even the tea. I don’t enjoy the hassle that’s required to be able to eat, but otherwise I can… I can engage with most physical things on… on some level…”

“I see,” Webb mused. “That’s very interesting.” They let the teasing tone drop, and sat up slightly, looking at Lore more seriously. “I mean it. I… do want to know more about you. What you get up to, what you think about all this, and—”

Don’t do it. Stop. That’s too much. We’re not doing that again.

“—and, I mean,” they trailed off, suddenly hoarse, pulling their knees up to their chest. “This is already… a lot. Thanks for helping us out and not throwing me out into the street in the middle of the night. Are you—do you want to come with us, later? When we head to the Drawing Dead? I’d… if you’re willing, I’d really like to have you around. You’re powerful and all,” they add hastily. “Useful.”

“Ah, mm,” Lore tilted their head to the side, that thoughtful look on their face again, their dark eyes wide. Somehow they seemed a little brighter in their face, though it was all inky shadow. “… I’ll go with you. If the Inquisitors really are after you, and the vampires… it would be… cowardly and irresponsible to stay out of it. Even if I’m not really accustomed to getting involved in such things. Though… if it’s alright with you, I’ll probably just—stay out of sight, unless I’m needed.”

Webb let out a breath, a little line of tension between their shoulders easing. “… I’d appreciate that more than I can say,” they told Lore. “I really… could use all the help I can get.”

Lore smiled. “I think you have more people willing to help you than you realize,” they said gently. “Don’t worry, Webb. We’ll figure things out.”

Webb broke eye contact hastily, clawing some of the bubbles closer to their body. “… it’s starting to get a little thin in terms of coverage here,” they muttered, rather than acknowledging that. “So unless you plan on sticking around to get an eyeful—”

“Should I pretend I wouldn’t like to?” Lore asked demurely.

Webb’s jaw dropped. “I,” they managed, scrambling to find a quick retort but not expecting Lore to try to gain the upper hand. “I, you can. Do what you want?”

Now Lore seemed flustered again, unfolding themself and practically oozing across the floor and back under the curtain. “It’s fine, I’m sorry!” they called back softly. “Please, take the time you need, and make yourself comfortable. I’ll make sure the bed is—ready, for you.”

At a loss for anything else to do, Webb just laughed, tilting their head back and closing their eyes, letting out a long breath. “For me and the weird hot couple in the other room, yeah,” they muttered.

“I do have other rooms that I can prepare downstairs,” Lore said slowly, “though they’re quite chilly at the moment. But I thought you’d perhaps, mm, enjoy the option of…”

“Lore, you little scamp,” Webb said with appreciative amusement. “No, it’s fine. I’m sure it’ll be fun, as long as the two of them don’t get too handsy.”

“Ohhh, nooo, whatever would you do…”

“Oh, you’re meddlesome, I see. That figures.”

Webb hadn’t slept in a bed with anybody else for about a decade. On some level the idea filled them with an existential level of dread. On the other hand, the idea of being alone right now yawned like a sucking void of terror in the periphery of their subconscious.

They heard Lore laughing softly, and relaxed a little more. Somehow, knowing that Lore would be around—whether or not they were visible—regardless of what happened was reassuring. Webb tried not to examine that though too deeply, either.

Hauling themself out of the tub, Webb drained it and grabbed their towel, hastily drying themself off and running their hands through their slightly damp hair. They shimmied back into their underclothes, loose pants, and tank top, then grabbed a throw blanket from one of the armchairs to wear as a makeshift cape as they padded back into the sitting room.

Ariadne was sitting by herself immediately in front of the fireplace, hands wrapped around a mug of tea. She, too, had opted for the blanket cloak school of fashion, and her blond hair was slightly damp, drying with a bit of a wave to it in the heat from the fire. Her expression was pensive, lost in thought, but she looked up quickly when she heard the door, flashing Webb a little smile.

“Hey,” she said warmly, with an unusual edge of something Webb almost thought was shyness. “Faraday’s just taking his turn getting washed up. He takes about three times as long as I do, generally. Do you… want to have a seat?”

[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.

As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, deeds, or curiosities!]

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  • Prince Charming

    You should try to get to know Ariadne and Faraday better, too. What do they like to do?

    Since you‘re going to Drawing Dead soon, think about Pax. What‘s he like?

  • meredithakatz

    You know — you’re just starting to acknowledge how traumatic this is for you, right? I bet it’s pretty traumatic for her too, or at least… stressful in a way that’s extremely personal, you know? You know how it undid you when someone asked if you were okay. Maybe someone needs to ask her. (Where’s Faraday when you need him.)

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