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Ariadne and Faraday were quiet for a moment, but didn’t let the silence linger long.
“Of course, Webb,” Faraday said quietly. “Let’s head out to the road and get our bearings. We can save any further discussion for when we’re out of the rain.”
Webb begrudgingly accepted Ariadne’s assistance, rising to their feet. She insisted on staying close to Webb’s side as the three of them began to pick their way towards the road. They couldn’t find it in themself to complain.
“I don’t suppose you have any magic up your sleeve that can help us out here?” Webb asked Faraday, trying to keep their tone gentle. Don’t sound stressed out. Don’t be too weird about it. They’ll wonder if you’re still having a meltdown.
Webb remembered a moment later when Faraday gave them a very alarmed look that they never took a gentle tone with Faraday and that, in itself, was probably pretty worrisome. They made a face and stuck their tongue out instead, which earned a laugh. Faraday’s shoulders relaxed.
“If necessary, I might be able to do something,” Faraday said with a nod. “But it’s a little outside my specialty and I’ve already done a few spells tonight. It’s probably wiser for me to save up my energy.”
Witches had a number of abilities that Webb was aware of. Their bloodline allowed them to live in the Valley proper or even enter the Otherworld—but they didn’t have unlimited power. They could draw on their own life energy, or… other sources. Often familiars, apprentices, slaves… It was pretty clear that Faraday wasn’t that type of witch, though, so Webb figured that he was stuck just with whatever power he was able to generate on his own with his limited battery.
“Faraday works better on… slower things,” Ariadne said, more or less confirming Webb’s suspicions. “Things that take effect over time.”
Faraday nodded. “Things like the spider spell, or the bobbin, those I already had prepared. Power that I had stored up—in the thread, or in my coat. Which usually works just fine for what I need it to, but let’s just say I’m not exactly equipped to be an adventuring battle mage responding to unique and unpredictable situations…”
Webb worried at their lower lip rings for a moment as they continued to walk along, leaves rustling wetly underfoot. “That’s fair,” they said. “Let’s see what we can manage.”
Faraday looked surprised again, then grateful, giving Webb a nod. “I’ll try to pull my weight,” he said dryly. “After you got to see how cool Ariadne can be.”
Ariadne snorted. “I’m a brawler with no finesse,” she said lightly. “The things you do are elegant, my dear.”
“Elegance doesn’t mean much under a lot of circumstances,” Faraday pointed out dryly.
“I don’t know,” Webb said, managing a smile that felt like it only cracked their skin a little. “Honestly, I think the world would be a much better place if people had a bit more style and panache about things, like you do.”
“I… think so too,” Faraday all but stammered, ducking his head, a little flustered. He looked at Webb, then quickly away. “Oh, look, I see headlights…” He walked a little faster, leading the way ahead, coat flapping in the wind.
Ariadne bit back a little grin, bumping her hip against Webb’s. “If you think I’m going to forget that we’re worried about you, you’re very mistaken,” she said with threateningly good cheer, leaning in close to murmur in Webb’s ear. “But… that was cute. Thanks.”
Webb found themself flushing a little in return, pushing back against her side. “I’m not—being duplicitous,” they muttered. “I’m just trying to…”
“Mmhmm,” she hummed, squeezing Webb’s hand. “Come on.”
Webb followed closely beside her as they approached the roadside. The occasional car was passing by in the gloom, headlights flashing before disappearing into the fog. Faraday was standing with his arms crossed, eyes narrowed as he scanned for signs or landmarks.
“I can’t see much,” he murmured as Ariadne and Webb caught up. “You two might have a little bit better luck.”
“Doesn’t seem like we’re in the middle of nowhere,” Ariadne observed, tilting her head back and sniffing the air. “The rain makes it difficult, but… I’d wager we’re just outside the city proper. There should be some things along the road here.”
Webb let out a grumbling sigh. “Gee, thanks, Pax,” they muttered. They fished out their phone, checking first for messages (none), then pulling open Maps. “GPS agrees with you. Looks like there’s a gas station at least about ten minutes from here, at least. Let’s head that way for now. Stick near the road, but out of sight. We don’t want to be spotted.”
“I can help with that, at least,” Faraday said, almost eager, raking his wet hair back from his face. “Here, it’s just a small thing…”
Faraday reached out to Ariadne first, lightly running his fingers along the hem of her jacket, straightening it. She gave a little shiver, smiling faintly, the threads in her jacket briefly pulsing a soft silver color. He then turned to Webb, hesitating.
“What’s that going to do?” Webb asked, hugging their elbows and hunching their shoulders somewhat, trying not to look too wary. Then: “… I mean, go ahead, but…”
“Nondetection,” Faraday told them, taking a step closer and resting his hands on the shoulder of Webb’s damp sweater. A faint look of concentration appeared between his brows. Webb could feel the warmth of his hands and shivered at the contrast. “I’m just politely asking the threads in your clothes to help you avoid unwanted attention,” Faraday explained with a little grin. “You’re still wearing Ariadne’s sweater, which is quite familiar with me, so it’s pretty easygoing.”
Webb expected to feel a rush of magic, or notice something different, but there was nothing—then, suddenly, there was a rush of warmth as their sweater dried itself off like a pomeranian shaking and shedding water.
Faraday let out a laugh, his eyes bright. “Oh, seems like it really wanted to be cooperative. Clearly it likes you.”
Webb, still feeling a thousand kinds of fragile, begrudgingly yanked the hood back up and pulled on the drawstrings. “That’s weird,” they whispered threateningly. Then, just as quickly, ducking their head and slouching over to join Ariadne. “I mean. Thanks. It’s way nicer.”
“Let’s get going,” Ariadne suggested, her gaze scanning the horizon. “That’ll help, but… we might still have a long ways to go.”
As the three of them began to trudge northwards along the side of the quiet, winding highway, Webb tried their best to try to focus on the things that seemed present and real, and as little as possible on all of the things that seemed terrible and looming and so very loud in their head, like the rustling of trees reminding them just how very near the woods were at any given moment. They tried not to think about Lore, or Pax, or how cold their feet were, or how fucking exhausted they were, or how much they really hated cardio, and how terrified they were about their past coming back to haunt them…
“Ariadne,” Webb rasped out, when it was clear that walking in silence was very soon going to result in them having a full-scale meltdown on the side of the road. They cleared their throat, and tried again. “Ariadne… back there, when Veracity mentioned that Grimm might not actually be Grimm…”
Ariadne’s shoulders tensed a little, but she fell back a step slightly to walk closer to Webb. “Yeah?” she murmured. “What about it?”
“How… are you feeling about that, first of all?” Webb asked awkwardly, voice still a little rough. “But also—what did she mean about you being a puppet?”
Ariadne scrubbed at her pale face with one hand, looking a little tired, but her jaw was set, determined, her chin tilted up slightly. “Vampires… I mean, you already know we have the ability to mesmer, to charm and influence people. The stronger and older the vampire, the more power and sway they have. And for those who have sired or turned others… well, you’re sort of in a perpetual state of thrall. It’s really hard to turn on your sire, and if they order you to do something, well, you’re sort of…”
“Permanently indebted to your vampire sugar daddy?” Webb suggests. “Damn. That’s rough.”
Ariadne made a face. “It’s not even debt so much as… I mean. It’s magic. It’s blood. It’s… visceral. It’s part of who you are, and it’s how vampire lords get so powerful. The more their clan grows, the more they have a small army of obedient thralls…”
“And yet,” Faraday said thoughtfully, “if this information is true, that means…”
“It means a lot of things,” Webb interrupted. “It means, first of all, Ariadne, what were you planning to do when we came across him before you knew it was possibly a bait-and-switch? Just hope, like, I don’t know, this innate vampire puppet disease was a problem that just happened to other vampires?”
“No!” Ariadne protested. “I just… I mean, what else was I supposed to do? I was worried about it, obviously, but I had Faraday, and then there was you, and I hadn’t exactly meant for tonight to go like this, it just sort of ended up this way, and one thing led to another, and…”
Webb sighed, nudging her as they walked. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” they muttered. “But also, I mean… now what? If it’s true… I mean, if vampire lords are a big fucking deal like you said, then… what’s it mean for us if we’re dealing with someone that offed a vampire lord and took his place?
Neither of them had an answer to that. Webb wasn’t sure they were expecting one.
They fell into silence again as they walked. After about ten minutes had passed, the gas station came into view, the reds and yellows of its fluorescent signage glowing particularly brightly in the pre-dawn gloom.
“What’s the plan from here?” Faraday asked, glancing back at Webb. “I still think it would be a good idea to find somewhere to rest…”
“Either of you ever steal a car before?” Webb asked casually.
“No,” they said in unison. Faraday looked a little affronted. Ariadne mostly looked thoughtful, then changed her expression to serious when Faraday frowned at her.
Webb grinned, finding the smile coming a little easier this time. “Just kidding,” they said, though they hadn’t completely been joking. “But I am really fucking tired of being out in the rain. Maybe we could at least, you know, casually convince someone to give us a ride to the nearest motel…”
Ariadne nodded at that, thoughtful. “That… would probably be fine,” she agreed. “Fastest. Avoids the possibility that rideshare or taxi companies have been asked to be on the lookout for you or your accounts…”
“Love that thought,” Webb said dryly.
“Though we’ll have to be careful with any place we check into as well,” Faraday pointed out regretfully. “I could weave together disguises, but it’ll be a little more effort…”
As Ariadne and Faraday chattered back and forth, exchanging the exhaustingly endless pros and cons and possibilities of how to travel and where to rest and how it was possible that every move Webb was making was being followed and hunted down, Webb suddenly felt an uneasy sensation at the back of their neck. Turning, they nervously scanned the roadway and the edge of the woods.
“… Webb?” Faraday asked, turning to him. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Webb murmured. “I just thought I felt someone watching me…”
“Let’s get inside at least,” Ariadne said warily, her red eyes flickering as she scanned the horizon as well. “No reason why we can’t warm up and get some terrible coffee while we figure out where we’re going.”
There was something jarringly intimate and nostalgic about wandering into a little convenience store in the most nebulous hours of the day with the two of them—Faraday with his brightly-colored coat, Ariadne with blood still caked in her hair. Liminal, strange, and yet familiar. The soft whirr of the Slurpee machines. The smell of coffee that had probably been brewed four hours ago. The young gnome woman behind the counter that looked up and could clearly, powerfully care less. Webb had absolutely no idea if that was Faraday’s glamor at work, or simply her own powerful sense of ennui. Either way, they respected it.
As Ariadne stepped away to get cleaned up in the shockingly-not-out-of-service bathroom and Faraday perused the questionable coffee options, Webb pulled his hood up a little further, lingering near the front of the store and peering back outside, still feeling uneasy. The harsh lighting overhead hummed and buzzed, casting their reflection in the glass into strange and jagged shadows.
“There’s nothing there,” they said quietly, to their own reflection. “You’re exhausted, your imagination is running wild, and…” they trailed off.
Their reflection continued to stare directly back at them, and hadn’t mouthed the words in return.
[Please suggest or +1 an action in the comments.
As a reminder, it can be thoughts, words, deeds, or curiosities!]