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“Can someone turn on the lights?” Webb grumbled. “I want to see if Faraday has bedhead.”
“I don’t,” Faraday said smoothly, at the same time Ariadne cheerfully added, “He definitely doesn’t.”
Lore did, however, obligingly turn the lights on—dimly, bless their shadowy little heart. Webb didn’t have to claw themself into wakefulness hissing and scratching. They reluctantly sat up, flushing a little at the sight of Ariadne sprawled happily back and grinning over at them. The undershirt she’d worn to bed left much less to imagination than her hoodie or biker leathers. They quickly averted their gaze.
Ariadne stretched out even more, letting out a laugh. “It’s okay if you look,” she whispered loudly. “I paid good money for these. I want people I like to enjoy them.”
“You didn’t pay for them, darling,” Faraday said patiently, sitting up as well. Irritatingly, he of course looked charismatically sleep-rumpled, though it was odd to see him out of his outrageous coat, which was folded carefully over the chair immediately next to the bed. Webb was relieved to see that Faraday, though tall and lean, wasn’t overly muscled—that would have been deeply unfair, and an absolute disaster.
“That’s true, but it’s less of a fun joke that way,” Ariadne stuck out her tongue. Webb was looking again, obviously, having been invited to. She gave them a smile, soft. Her cheeks were still much pinker than they had been earlier in the night. “Faraday did it, uh, pro bono.”
Webb snorted, but gave her a quizzical look. She gave them a nose-wrinkle in return, which Webb had begun to realize was an Ariadne thing that was, unfortunately, endearing.
“I spent, you know, the first thirty years of my life hating my body and how people viewed me,” Ariadne clarified, matter-of-fact, “and then I met Faraday. He helped a lot, both with helping me figure out gender shit, and weaving the magic to—to make me look the way that felt right.”
Webb resonated with that viscerally; they had no particular desire to change up any of their parts most days, but as an agender person, the less that other people perceived them incorrectly—or at all, ever, in any way—the better. They simply did not care for the mortifying ordeal of being known.
“Would that every trans person had a dreamy wizard boyfriend that could cast shapeshifting spells,” they said dryly, though they tried to keep their tone soft, lightly touching their hand to Ariadne’s.
Faraday laughed softly. “I mean, I wouldn’t say that’s completely off the table for your future, is it, Webb?” he teased.
Webb sat bolt upright, immediately trying to scramble directly off the bed and onto the floor. “Nope,” they called back loudly. “Pizza time! Pizza and planning time! No time for feelings!”
For some reason they both seemed to think this was funny, which was again, unfair, given that Webb was serious about these things at all times. They stole Ariadne’s hoodie, putting it on and stomping out into the other room.
Lore morphed in beside them as Webb flopped down in front of the fire. They too seemed to be in a good mood, which was frankly discrimination, as Webb was obviously a victim here.
“I hope you slept well,” Lore said softly.
“It was fine,” Webb muttered, flicking open one of the pizza boxes and grabbing a slice. “I’m ready and raring to go be social and imperiled.”
They weren’t ready. The situation with Lore had ended up so unexpectedly that Webb was now doubting everything they’d hyped themself up for in terms of meeting with Pax, and they were getting very nervous about it. Pax knew things. Pax had known them—a long, long time ago, when Webb was a very different person.
Pax was one of the few people from before that Webb had begrudgingly let back into their life, and that had only been by accident. Webb had agreed to a business meeting at the Drawing Dead with a third party without realizing that Pax had started working there in the intervening years. Pax had been strangely emotional, especially for the usually unflappable demon, and Webb had to be very firm that their relationship was, under no circumstances, going to return to what it had once been.
Over the last few years, their relationship had fallen into more of an acceptable pattern with occasional meetings that Webb tried to keep as business-forward as possible. Still, Pax was a fantastic actor—Webb really had no way of knowing what was actually going on behind his inscrutably cheerful façade. It could fall anywhere between “I’m actually madly in love with you” and “I’m fucking you over, no hard feelings, it’s just business” and Webb wouldn’t be particularly surprised by either.
“What’s this ‘Pax’ person like?’ Lore asked softly. Webb jerked their head up in surprise and raised their eyebrows.
“…were you reading my mind, Lore? That’s rude.”
“No!” Lore protested. “I mean. I’m able to, if I wanted to, but I wasn’t then, no. It just seemed… relevant.”
Webb… filed that bit of information away for later. “He’s… energetic. Charismatic. A big, in-your-face extrovert that likes to be the center of attention. But he’s clever, too. He likes to have fun, but he knows that life can become unpleasant very quickly, even for a demon, if you don’t have powerful people on your side.”
Ariadne and Faraday had come out to join them as well by this point, settling down on either side of the pizza box and helping themselves. Technically only Faraday and Webb needed to eat, but Ariadne obviously liked to.
“What does Pax do at the Drawing Dead?” Faraday asked curiously.
“He’s a host. One of the people whose job it is to just walk around looking attractive, trying to keep people coming back, getting them to spend more money and buy more drinks, that sort of thing. Tries to resolve ruffled feathers and de-escalate things before security needs to, if it comes to that.”
“So it shouldn’t be too hard to get his attention, and it won’t be weird if he talks to us for a bit,” Ariadne nodded, pleased with that answer.
“And you said he was an imp, a demon,” Faraday said. “Is he likely to try to pull anything questionable in terms of making deals? What do you usually offer him in exchange for intel?”
Webb shrugged. “Other information, usually. Sometimes I’ll come across something that’s useless to me, or too advanced for my clients, and I’ll pass it along.” They made a face after a moment, grabbing another slice of pizza. “Sometimes he just makes me try drinks or play cards with him when he’s bored.”
“Ah,” Faraday murmured noncommittally, just giving Webb an infuriatingly cryptic shrug when Webb glanced his way. They scowled.
“Don’t expect it to go as well as things have with Lore,” they warned. “Pax is smarter and more cutthroat than he looks, and he will try to fool you into underestimating him.”
“Do you think it’s safe to just approach him directly?” Lore asked quietly. “If he’s potentially allied with Grimm… ”
“I think approaching openly is the safest way. There’s a lot of dark dealings going on at the Drawing Dead. They have a reputation to maintain as appearing to be a safe, neutral ground. Nobody wants to risk getting banned, or dealing with their security.”
Reminded of dangerous enforcers, Webb fetched their notebook and flipped it open to the most recent page. Disappointingly, it was blank. They shrugged and snapped it shut.
“No luck?” Ariadne murmured.
“Guess they don’t feel like talking,” Webb said. “Either that or they’re actually getting a full night’s rest.”
“Speaking of which,” Lore said apologetically. “We… should probably get going soon. Do you… have a way of getting there?”
“Assuming you can make yourself compact and don’t blow away in the wind at high speeds, I think we can make It work,” Ariadne said brightly.
Lore nodded. “It won’t be a problem.” They didn’t elaborate, but then, Webb wasn’t particularly expecting them to.
Webb stole the last pizza slice before Faraday had a chance to, rising to their feet while still eating. “Onwards to mayhem and anxiety-inducing social interactions,” they muttered.
Ariadne grabbed Webb’s discarded cardigan, shrugging it on before grabbing her leather jacket. “You’re going to be great,” she told Webb quietly. “We’re going to be right there with you.”
“I know,” Webb said.
That was at least half of the reason why they were worried.
The Drawing Dead was much deeper into the heart of the valley, but it didn’t take very long to reach it with Ariadne zooming along the darkened, largely-empty streets. Faraday, in spider form, was tucked against the back of her neck, clinging securely to her hair out of the worst of the wind. Lore had vanished when they reached the bike, but assured the rest of the group that they would be with them at their destination.
Webb had been to the Drawing Dead dozens of times before, but it never failed to impress as it did the first time and every time thereafter. Multiple stories tall, the vast, sprawling complex loomed brightly in the darkened streets, casting the immediate area in a pool of red and gold light. A wide balcony that skirted the western side of the building opened up to a riverside view; Webb could see it crowded with people in fancy dress, clinking glasses and filling the air with the swell of voices. It was clearly enchanted to repel the rain.
“I immediately feel underdressed,” Ariadne whispered after she’d parked her bike and let Faraday free in a secluded spot to transform back. She patted herself down anxiously.
“I could fix that for you,” Faraday offered, running both hands through his hair, with the air of a man who hadn’t felt underdressed a day in his life.
“Save your strength,” Webb shook their head. “You’ll get all kinds in there. Besides, being a looming figure in a helmet and full leathers is a look all on its own.”
“I don’t loom,” Ariadne protested, but seemed content enough with that logic, falling into step slightly behind Faraday and Webb as they headed towards the doors. Webb heard a sibilant murmuring that reassured them that Lore was still with the group, though they’d clearly opted to remain unseen, for now.
Inside, the Drawing Dead was even more overwhelming. Bells, sirens, and the sound of laughter clashed from the vast casino floor. The ceiling in the entrance hall was dizzyingly, physics-defyingly high, lined with enchanted windows that swirled with clouds and crackled with lightning, like a contained storm. There was an enormous fountain front-and-center that contained both an alluring, naked statue of a water nymph pouring water out of her cupped palms—as well as several actual water nymphs who draped themselves over the sides and called out beseechingly to passers-by.
A dark-skinned young woman with wide red eyes and fuzzy little antennae gave them a bright smile as they headed in, immediately stepping forward to greet them. She was dressed in a version of the Drawing Dead uniform—sleek and black and showy and lined with gold—that allowed her long wings to drape comfortably against her back, like a cloak.
“Welcome,” she murmured, “to the Drawing Dead. My name is Nettle. What pleasures suit your fancies tonight?”
[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.
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