Chapter 1: Break-ins and Bad Guys
I step off the bus into the bitter chill - my thin jacket is not nearly enough to block out the icy wind that sweeps through the darkening streets. The lamps nearby cast eerie shadows, and I stare at mine for a moment. I know nothing about this city; I don’t have anywhere to go, no direction, so I just walk. My eyes stay on my shoes, for the most part - brief glances at my surroundings fill in the blanks, and I use the images to build a mental map.
I got off at a random stop, one that seemed far enough outside the city that I wouldn’t walk right into trouble, but not so far that I couldn’t blend in unnoticed. I’d left Manchester as quickly as I could, and I hope this is far enough away that I won’t be found. My eyes catch building after building, mostly apartments and shops, closed for the evening.
I notice a flash of dirty white sock through the ever-growing hole in my shoe. I don’t have the money to get new shoes, jesus christ... a cold tingle crawls from my foot up my spine, making me shiver. I pull my jacket closer, quickening my pace in an attempt to warm myself. Fat lot of good that’ll do, I need to find somewhere to get out of this fucking wind.
My upward glances become more frequent, last longer, and I finally catch sight of an abandoned-looking restaurant. No signs indicate exactly which restaurant occupied the building before its demise, but it’s surrounded only by a chain-link fence; B&E is a specialty of mine.
I curse under my breath as my frozen hands meet the icy grate of the metal; I steel myself against the chill, take another quick look around to ensure privacy, and scale the fence. Record time, my brain notes as I make my way across the empty car park toward what I assume must be the employee entrance in the back.
Habit takes over, and I pull the hood of my jacket down over my eyes and keep my gaze on the pavement until I’ve arrived at the door. I jiggle the handle, mildly surprised to find it locked despite the decrepit exterior, and pull my pick out of my pocket. What marketable skills I have, I chuckle halfheartedly as I pop the lock and open the door just enough to slip inside.
At least I know the lock works, I reason, glad to be out of the rough breeze. I shut the door, relocking it, then take a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness around me. I listen for movement, watching closely for any shifting shadows, but sigh in relief when nothing draws my attention.
Bus-hopping my way out of Manchester has me utterly exhausted, and - though I really intend only to rest long enough to warm up and take a bite of my remaining energy bar - I feel the siren song of sleep pulling me under before I can even remove my backpack.
“ What’dya think the boss’ll want to do with him? ”
“ Hell if I know. The guy broke in, so I doubt he’ll be too happy,”
The sound of voices wakes me from my fitful sleep, and I’m suddenly on high alert. Instinct kicks in, and I climb slowly to my feet to avoid making any noise. Whoever these guys are, they’re right outside the door...maybe I can get out the way I came, before they…
And of course, it’s too late. The door opposite my escape route is flung open by two shockingly unintimidating guys. I make the split second decision, sprinting for the exit to my freedom. As my hand hits the handle, one of the voices, the first, calls out to me.
“Yeah, I really wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I’m expecting it to sound threatening, but his voice is just light with amusement. I only hesitate for half a second before unlocking the door and swinging it wide.
My eyes are met with darkness, something far darker than the streetlamps should’ve warranted, and I pause. I can’t see anything , not even the dumpsters that I had passed on the way to the employee entrance.
“Yeah, may not want to step out there. Can’t be sure you’ll ever find your way back, really,” I have no clue what he - the other guy, it must be - means, but the blackness is terrifying. Night in a city, that’s not a problem with how everything’s still lit up, but this... I step back, and the door swings shut of its own accord.
“Probably for the best.” The first guy again, and I turn.
“Where the fuck am I, and what is going on?” I raise my voice, hoping that my anger hides the fear I feel burrowing under my skin. The second guy steps forward and I press my back - my backpack, really - against the metal door.
“Look, just come with us. The boss wants to see you,” he takes another step, and I see my opening - the door they came through is unblocked now, and I bolt for it, shoving both guys out of the way in turn.
I barely let my shock register as I hurtle into a fully-lit corridor - this place was abandoned! - and then I’m moving again, looking for any kind of door that might lead outside. Do I even want to go outside? I don’t let the thought settle, pushing it aside and letting instinct take over. The hall opens at the end, a swinging door, and I crash through it.
I nearly knock someone aside, a woman holding... is that a tray of food? I manage to lurch to the side in time to avoid the collision, slamming into a long countertop where patrons are sat. The people - there are people here? How - look up at me, startled, and I immediately drop my gaze, freezing in place. What the ever-loving fuck is going on?
My moment of freedom is unfortunately short-lived - two hands clamp on my arms, and all attempts at fighting fly out the window. Apparently, my sanity went along with it...I could’ve sworn there wasn’t a single light on in this place? Was I that tired, that I somehow missed all this?
I scowl at the guys dragging me back down the hall, toward an open door at the opposite end. I spare a wistful glance at the room I’d entered through. I have no fucking clue what’s through the doorway ahead of me.
Chapter 2: Cages and Corridors
Dan meets the boss man.
I have to say, my expectations for the scary boss-man are not met. I’m standing in a brightly-lit room with a white desk and grey spinny chair, which is currently occupied by a guy not much older than me. His hair is black and draped across his forehead, matching the skinny jeans I’m only able to see because he’s leaned back - glad he’s so relaxed... I can feel the pit of my stomach sinking lower and lower as he continues to stare at me, expression annoyingly neutral.
I drop my eyes to the carpet - I’m not used to being the center of attention for so long. But he doesn’t say anything, and his... who are these guys, security guards or something? They hardly look the part. They start to shift uncomfortably behind me.
“Peej, Chris, I’ll take it from here,” the man finally speaks, and his voice is low and surprisingly soft. They don’t object, vacating the room and shutting the door behind them. I lift my eyes to see the man’s stood up now, and he walks around to the front of his desk. As he leans against it, I notice he’s almost as tall as I am, perhaps the same height when I’m slouched a bit - and really, I slouch more often than not. Height is not an advantage when trying to remain unnoticed.
“Well?” The man crosses his arms, and I’m surprised to notice he’s wearing a rather unassuming maroon button-down shirt. Nothing fancy, or evil, or really anything I’d expect of a mob boss - because at this point, what else could he be? - frankly, this guy is so far from what I expected that I can’t even form thoughts, let alone words to answer his question.
After a long, tense moment, I realize I’m staring at his chest, so I drop my eyes again. “I, uh…” I attempt, but nothing comes out to fill the silence, and it sits in the air.
“You, uh?” He asks, and I look up to see his eyebrows raised, corner of his lips lifted in amusement. “Did Elizabeth send you?” My face scrunches in confusion, and that must be enough for him. He pushes off the desk and returns to his chair, spinning to face his laptop.
“Uh...can I…leave?” I ask after a long moment of silence - I’m thoroughly unsure what’s going on at this point. Usually, the boss will take up an hour threatening to kill me, maybe some goons will rough me up, I’ll take it quietly, and I’ll have to lay low for weeks to avoid literally getting shot.
“No,” the man hasn’t moved, still typing, and his tone is deadpan serious. I wait, confused again, and am just about to speak when he swivels to face me. “You entered of your own accord, so I can’t hold you here. But you can’t go back to the city you came from, not for…” he pauses, checking a watch I didn’t notice a few moments ago, “another six months, give or take,” I think my jaw drops.
It must have, because he gives something like a sympathetic smile. “You’re welcome to leave,” he continues, “but I don’t think you’ll like what you find out there, not right now,” I recall the blackness that had swirled outside the door, and an involuntary shudder runs through me.
“Where the hell am I supposed to go? Where the hell are we, even?” I can’t keep the panic from my voice. “What the fuck do you mean I can’t go back for six months ?” I realize I’m shouting, asking questions, generally breaking every rule in the book for how to talk to the guy in charge, but this is all...too much.
The man sighs audibly, then gestures to the chair - had that been there a minute ago? My brain hurts too much to think, so I plop down, awaiting further commentary.
“Let’s try to do this in logical order. Where are you? My diner. What do I mean when I say you can’t go home for six months?”
“ Not my home ,” I mumble, then clamp a hand over my mouth. Good going, you broke another cardinal rule - never talk over the boss.
“Pardon?” he asks, and I shrink in my seat, lowering my head.
“The city, it’s, uh, not my home,” I say, offering no further elaboration. I glance up to find the man simply nodding before he continues.
“You can’t return to that city for six months because it’s not on the schedule. This place, it moves of its own accord. We don’t expect it to return there for that long, at least. You can certainly attempt to leave, through the aether - that darkness, outside,” he amends when I look confused.
My heart races just considering the darkness, and I hear a soft chuckle from the man.
“Right, so definitely not that, then,” he’s smiling, and he almost looks... beautiful? I shake my head to chase the thought away, and he interprets it as a confirmation. “To your other question - where to go? You’re welcome to stay here, of course, but I’ll have to put you to work.”
Though I’m not really shocked, my discomfort at his requirement - and fear at what he might mean by work - must show on my face. This is much more in line with what I expected. He laughs, and I can’t decide if that’s meant to assuage my concern or frighten me even more.
“Whatever it is you’re thinking, it’s not that bad. You’re in luck, Jainie just quit and I need a new waitress. Waiter,” he corrects, eyes drifting down for a moment. Is he...embarrassed? I try not to smile, but I can’t fight the slight tug at the corners of my mouth, so I drop my head. So much for the big, bad boss man.
He clears his throat to continue. “Anyway, I’ll get PJ to set you up in a staff room and get you on the schedule. You’re welcome to stop in the kitchen whenever you’re hungry, Louise will keep you fed,” he smiles softly, and he looks...really kind. I’m startled from my reverie by a knock on the door, and one of the guys from earlier steps inside.
“Uh, thanks, I guess,” I mumble, standing from my chair to follow the guy - who must be PJ - to wherever it is I’ll be staying.
“No problem - what, uh, should I call you?” I’m surprised by the lack of surety in his voice. It’s rather calming, given the strangeness of my situation.
“Dan,” I nod, and he smiles wide.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dan. You can call me Phil. I look forward to seeing you around,” He smiles brightly, then turns back toward his laptop and PJ gestures at me. Despite the rollercoaster running through my head, I feel a blush creeping up my cheeks, and I smile just a bit as I turn away.
“Dan, is it?” The guy shakes my hand and we start walking down the corridor. I barely nod, shaking the errant thoughts of Phil from my mind, before he continues. “PJ, Phil’s right-hand man and manager of this dump,” he smiles, though, and I assume he doesn’t mean it - the place actually looked fairly nice, from my brief foray into the front of the diner. “Dunno why he didn’t kick you out on your arse, but he must’ve kept you around for a reason. Right through here,” he points to a door, one of the ones I’d passed in my attempted escape.
I try not to think much on what he meant about keeping me, but it seems I don’t have to try hard because the door opens into an impossibly long hallway and my thoughts are tossed out in favor of shock. “How…” I can’t finish the question, as PJ slides past me and marches off down the hall. There is no way the building has space for a corridor like this…
I trudge behind him, my mouth gaping open as I pass door after door. Most are labeled with names I don’t recognize, though I do see a Chris, then a PJ , then a Louise - the chef, right? I almost pause as I pass the door labeled Phil . I start counting, catching up with PJ as he stands in front of what must be my room. Four doors , I make the mental note.
“Alright, so this one’s you,” as he says it, the placard on the door shimmers slightly, then reflects my own name. “Welcome home!” He chuckles, “one of us will get you tomorrow, show you around,” he adds, then retreats back down the hall as I stare at the door. What the fuck is going on… the literal magic that just happened in front of my face is too much for my already-overwhelmed brain, so I open the door.
The room is cozy, small but not uncomfortably so. A twin bed is pushed up against the corner, a wooden desk on the opposite side, and a wardrobe right next to the doorway. I remove my backpack, hanging it over the chair by the desk, and marvel for a moment at the bed. It’s been...far too long since I had a proper one of those.
I collapse onto it unceremoniously and - despite the thoughts racing through my brain, despite my need to unravel and analyze the whole situation - fall into a dreamless sleep.
Chapter 3: Friends and Fiends
This is not your average diner.
A knocking catapults my muddled brain into fully-awake mode, and I jump from the bed before the events of last night manage to find their way back to me. I take a few steadying breaths in an attempt to calm my racing heart, but am, again, interrupted by an impatient knocking.
“Uh, yeah, coming!” I announce, opening the door to a smiling PJ.
“Ready for your first day?” I shrug at his question, still generally unsure of, well, pretty much everything that’s going on right now. “Excellent! Here is your uniform, I’ll give you the tour, we can grab some food, and then you can change. You’re on shift this evening.” I nod, setting the clothes on my bed and following PJ as he traipses down the hall toward the diner.
We pass the doors I’d seen the night before, and I pretend not to stare as we pass Phil’s door. I just want to know where he’s at, so I can stay away if I need to. Just trying to stay safe, the rational part of my mind reasons. I can’t help a tiny smile, though.
PJ points out his own door as we pass. “If you ever need anything and can’t get ahold of me on the phone, I’m in here,” I nod my confirmation, then furrow my brows.
“I, uh, don’t actually have a phone,” my voice is low - it’s one of the things I’m most embarrassed about, not being able to afford the things people just assume everyone has.
“Oh! No, of course you don’t!” He smacks his forehead, and I blush and stare at my feet. Wow, is it that obvious how broke I am? He resumes his walk down the hall, and I shuffle behind him.
“Of course you don’t have one!” He repeats, pushing through the door into the diner hallway. “I forgot to grab one for you,” I’m confused, then, pausing as he continues down toward an open doorway I haven’t yet been through. As he disappears, I’m pulled from my paralysis to follow. What, do I get a free phone or something?
The doorway leads to the kitchen, and I recognize the flop of curly brown hair belonging to my guide near the opposite wall. He catches my eye and beckons me over, so I pass around the perimeter, eyes on the floor, to stay out of everyone’s way.
“Here ya go, bud. Your ‘regular’ phone won’t work here, so we had Phil make these for everyone.” He presses a pretty standard-looking smartphone into my hand, clicking it on. “Hold up, okay, go ahead and pick a password. Works just like an iPhone.” I contemplate my password for a minute before entering it.
“I told him we should call it an ‘iPhil’!” I hear the northern accent across the kitchen and glance up, catching sight of the other guy - Chris? - who’d been with PJ last night. He makes his way over to us, beaming at his own joke, though PJ is shaking his head in embarrassment.
“Please excuse this guy’s awful jokes. Dan, this is Chris - I believe you’ve met before, but here’s a proper introduction,” I shake the proffered hand, new phone still clenched tightly in the other. “ Anyway , go ahead and open your phone, there are a couple apps you should know about. First is the schedule for the diner - yep, that one right there,” he points, and I click it. “Preset to your schedule, but you can check other people’s if you need to.” I nod, confirming that I’ll be on shift for the evening.
“Next one is the map,” I click the icon, expecting some kind of geographical map, but I’m brought into what I have to assume is the map of the diner.
“A serious life-saver,” Chris chimes in, hovering over my arm as I scroll around on the screen.
“Yeah, it’s got your room pinned, same with the kitchen and diner, and you can drop any other pins you might need. If you do get lost, pull it up and pick a location, it’ll direct you there.” I scroll around again, then zoom out. The place is less of a simple diner and more of a labyrinth, and I make a note to do some exploring later.
“Chris, aren’t you supposed to be out there seating our guests ?” PJ scolds. I look up, and Chris gives a cheeky grin before smacking me on the shoulder and heading off toward the diner. “That guy, I swear,” he laughs, and I give a small smile.
At that moment, a bubbly woman with blonde hair, pulled up out of her face, makes her way over. “Louise, darling, it’s a pleasure to meet you!” She almost shouts it, and pulls me into a tight hug. Not trying to be rude, I give her an awkward pat on the back before she releases me, smiling brightly. “Phil mentioned we’d acquired a new boy toy,” I duck my head - he said ‘boy toy’? Surely not - and feel a blush creep up my cheeks. She must notice my embarrassment, because she’s laughing, then, and PJ chuckles from behind me.
“Don’t tease him, Louise,” PJ chimes in, and I’m grateful for his commentary. “Louise, this is Dan. Dan, Louise,” he gestures between us, and Louise smiles again. “She’s our head chef, and a damn good one at that,” Louise is the one blushing, now, and I’m glad for the attention to be focused elsewhere.
“Oh, Peej, please, ” she crosses her arms, but I can tell she appreciates the compliment. “Now, honey, Phil told me what happened, and I am so sorry you got stuck here. But I promise, we’ll take good care of you. Six months will fly by, don’t you worry.” Her face softens, and I drop my eyes - I know the look of pity all too well, and I have never been a fan.
I’m about to mumble some kind of response when one of the cooks calls out to her. “Oh, hold on!” She shouts over a shoulder, then pulls me back into an embrace. It’s oddly comforting, though I barely know the woman. “Stop by anytime, right over there,” she points to a door, clearly labeled ‘Staff’, “is our staff kitchen and I keep it well-stocked. I’m also glad to make you something special, if you ever need it,” she winks and pats my shoulder before returning to her work.
PJ is off, then, toward the staff kitchen, and he pulls a couple sandwiches from the fridge as I take in the surroundings: it looks pretty standard, except that there’s two of everything. I’m already munching on the crusts of my sandwich by the time we return to the hall, which I’m beginning to think of as a sort of hub, and PJ takes another turn.
“Last place you should know about, the diner itself,” he pushes through the swinging doors and the same bright restaurant from the evening before stands before me. I swallow my final bite as I take a quick scan of the general layout: everything, from the bright red booths lining the windows to the classic counter with swiveling barstools, smacks of an almost-comical ‘50s American vibe, but the patrons seem to be enjoying it.
Finished with my initial data download, I study the patrons themselves. At which point, my blood runs cold. Horns, tails, fangs - they look like something out of a horror movie, what the actual fuck? PJ must notice my reaction, because he grabs my arm and quickly drags me back through the doors.
“Did Phil not…?” he trails off, staring at my face for a moment. I don’t think I’ve blinked. What the fuck were those? Is this the set of some freak show or something? “Of course,” his face changes, then, to a mixture of anger, frustration and exasperation. He doesn’t lose the grip on my arm, now pulling me down the hall toward - Phil’s office?
“ Phil! ” PJ’s knock on the door is loud and impatient. “ You can’t keep doing this, ” he shouts, and the door swings open before he can knock again.
“I can’t keep doing what , Peej?” Phil’s voice sounds far away, or maybe I’m just in shock. PJ’s dragging me into the room, now, and Phil’s spun in his chair to face us.
“You can’t keep letting people stay here and not telling them! ” His voice is quieter, but the intensity spikes at the end of his sentence. Phil’s eyes flick to my face, which I’m sure has not recovered from the shock. “You’re just lucky he hasn’t passed out, like Chris did when he got here! People from that city, they’ve never seen this stuff before,” I may have blinked, then, though I still haven’t moved of my own accord.
“Oh! You’re right, Peej, I’m sorry. I forget, with how little time we spend up there,” he drops his head into his hands and looks almost...chastised? PJ nods beside me, no longer fuming but clearly less than pleased. “Dan, please sit, let me explain.” I turn to see a chair beside me and let my basic motor skills take over. I notice PJ out of the corner of my eye as he shuts the door.
“This place, as I believe I said, travels of its own accord,” I nod slightly, so he continues. “It runs on the aether - that dark stuff, outside - and generally goes wherever the aether is most dense.” I nod again, more hesitantly, but I think I’m following. Yeah, following a trail of absolute nonsense down Insanity Lane, the left half of my brain shouts. I try to ignore it, picking up the narrative as Phil continues.
“We can usually predict where it will go and when based on the density fluxes of the aether,” I nod, glad for a sense of logic in this mess. “The majority of the aether, though, exists...well, down here ,” the way he says it gives me pause, and he waits patiently, though he must know my next question.
“And where, exactly, is here ?” My voice is hoarse.
“I believe you call it - PJ, what do they call it, again? I can never remember,” I turn my head to find PJ staring at me, eyes flashing a brighter green than I thought possible.
“Hell. The Underworld. Some ancients used to call it Tartarus, or Hades’ realm,” If any blood had, at any point during this conversation, returned to my face, it drains again at the mention of hell. Then everything heats up, and I’m suddenly furious.
“ What the fuck do you mean, I’m in hell? ” I shout, flying from my chair and shooting glares back and forth between Phil and PJ. While the former looks distressed at my reaction, the latter seems unsurprised, leaning back against the wall.
“Told ya, you should’ve told him first thing,” PJ stares past me, at Phil. Then he focuses a hard stare on me. “Look, Dan, here’s the deal - the things you call ‘demons’, they exist down here. Pretty much everyone out there in the diner, whenever it isn’t in your city, is one of them. They look different, but they’re people just like you. Get that through your skull before your shift this evening,” my jaw drops at his tone, and he throws the door open and storms out.
The slam is loud as it shuts behind him, and I turn back to face Phil. Who’s got his head back in his hands. He lifts it, then, and takes a breath.
“I’m sorry I didn’t explain this before, but you were already so overwhelmed,” he pauses, eyes on the desk, “I hope you’re not mad - you’re still welcome to leave, if this is too much.” Now he’s looking at me. Is he nervous? I blink a few times, mind reeling as I try to process any of what I just heard, but Phil’s still watching me expectantly.
“I, uh...I think I should, maybe...go?” I take a shaky breath, and Phil’s face falls. “No! No, I mean I, uh, have a lot to...process. I was just gonna go back to my room? I need to just...think for a bit,” When he thought I wanted to leave...was he disappointed?
“Oh! Right, of course, yeah. I’ll see you around, then,” he smiles, though it’s small and hesitant. My hands are still shaking as I reach for the door handle, but I manage to pull it open and navigate back to my room without too much difficulty. Once my own door is safely shut behind me, I collapse onto the bed.
What the actual fuck is going on? Hell? Demons? This is... Though I’d escaped under the ruse of wanting to fully contemplate this whole situation, I choose instead not to think about it. At all. I flip over, scooting up on the bed and adjusting the pillow into a backrest. Something’s digging into my hip, and I suddenly remember the phone I was given. Wonder if this has got any games on it…
Chapter 4: Anxiety and Apologies
Dan's getting to know people.
I spend the time before my shift messing with my settings, switching the background, and exploring all my apps - especially the map. There aren’t really any games, which I suppose makes sense given the nature of the phone, but I pass a lot of time virtually exploring the place.
The phone buzzes in my hand, reminding me to report for my shift in fifteen minutes. Shit, I haven’t been paying any attention to the time , I curse, hopping up from the bed and grabbing my uniform. I’ve decided I need a shower - since I now have the luxury of showering whenever I want - so I pop into the hall and make my way to the bathroom.
In record time, I’m out and changed, stopping by my room for a second to grab my phone and check the time - Only three minutes, I’d better hurry . I notice, then, a message from an unknown number:
Unknown: This is Phil - Chris told me you got your phone, just wanted to be sure you had all the important people’s numbers :) Have a good first shift
I smile in spite of myself, saving his number. Though I know I’m in a rush, I spend most of my walk trying to come up with a clever response.
Dan: You got me the phone, could’ve just programmed it in ;) thanks
I press send and immediately regret it. Shit, I shouldn’t have sent the winky face, that was a bad move, he’s going to hate me or think I’m a weirdo or... My thoughts follow me into the diner, but Chris grabs me and immediately drags me off, giving me instructions for my shift; I slip the phone into my pocket, trying to focus on his words - I’m to start by just providing water and taking drink orders.
The night flies by, and I actually find that the majority of the patrons aren’t as distressing as I’d first thought: most have some kind of...difference? I struggle to find the right word, but some have horns curling from their heads, or facial features that don’t seem quite normal; others sport fur or scales, and I even notice a few tails poking out from behind chairs. The fact that they’re all mostly anthropomorphic, though, makes the whole situation a little more manageable.
Chris checks up on me regularly, though the tasks I’ve been assigned are fairly simple. When business dies down, he puts me fully in charge of a couple tables in the corner. The patrons are unexpectedly nice, with only one woman throwing a fit for her steak being ‘overcooked’.
By the time my shift ends, it’s something like early morning, and I’m sent to grab some dinner from the kitchen.
“There you are, darling, how was your first shift?” Louise’s voice hits me as soon as I pass through the doorway, and I spot her standing over a griddle.
“Not too bad,” I call back with a smile - which is true, and it sure as hell beats what I used to do for work .
“Go and grab some food before you starve,” she chuckles, turning her attention back to the food she’s cooking, and I head to the staff kitchen. I rummage through the pantry, finding a few things labeled with some names, but most everything seems to be up for grabs.
I pour a bowl of generic-looking cornflakes, the first thing that caught my eye. I munch on the cereal, leaning against the counter, and let the highlights of my day creep to the forefront of my mind for processing.
By the time I’ve finished the last of the sugary milk left in the bowl, turning to rinse it out in the sink, I’m feeling moderately comfortable with my bizarre situation. Or, rather, I’ve accepted that some insane shit is happening and it’s probably for the best just to roll with it. I turn off the tap and pull open the dishwasher when a thought occurs to me: I haven’t seen PJ since he stormed out this morning... while I know my own reaction to everything had been a bit...tactless, Phil hadn’t seemed too offended by it, but... hell, PJ must think I’m some kind of bigoted asshole…
I slam the dishwasher shut, wincing at the clang it makes, and resolve to find him and set things straight. Whatever this is, I don’t need the second in command pissed at me. I shake my head, turning down the hall and pushing open the door to the living quarters. No, and I don’t need one of the nicest people I’ve met pissed at me, either .
As I make my way down the corridor, scanning the names on the doors I pass, I wonder for a moment if I’ve missed it. I slow, reaching toward my pocket to pull out the phone, when “PJ” flashes back at me from the gold plate on the door I’m walking past. I stumble to a halt, suddenly nervous - confrontation has never been my strong suit.
My hand lifts from my side and I notice it shaking. I clench my fist to steady myself, and am about to knock when a door opens down the hall, from the direction I came in. The familiar flop of brown hair emerges, and I freeze as PJ stares at me; the door he came from closes behind him, and it’s suddenly very loud in the silent hall.
“Uh, PJ, I was just…looking for you…” it’s fortunate that the hall otherwise quiet, because my voice is barely audible. His green eyes narrow at me, and his cheeks are slightly flushed as he stalks toward me.
“Well. What do you want,” it’s not a question, the way he says it, and my nerves hit again in full force as I step back. I’m afraid to speak, in case he’ll freak out like he did before. My throat feels constricted when he stops in front of me, and he’s staring, gaze narrow and cold as ice. “ Well? ” He prompts, and I clear my throat, startled from my paralysis.
“I, uh...just wanted to apologize,” I can feel myself wither under his hard look, head dropping to stare at the red carpet beneath my feet. He’s silent, so I feel the need to continue, “for earlier, I didn’t mean to, uhm, react the way I did.” I keep my eyes on the floor, waiting for any kind of response.
A heavy sigh fills the space, and I look up. PJ’s eyes are closed, and he’s dragging a hand down his face. “It’s not your fault, you didn’t know what to expect. I’m just sick of how detached Phil is from your world, he’s always doing stuff like that. And then he forgets the way it affects us ,” he pauses, then, and I realize that he’s said ‘us’.
“PJ, are you…?” I leave the question hanging in the air, suddenly worried. I came to fix things, not potentially piss him off even more, is that an offensive question? Will he be mad if I care? Do I care? The thoughts are whirring like beetles around my head, and I’m terrified of what he might say.
He lets out a short laugh, almost cynical-sounding, and I look up. And gasp: his skin has turned a pale blue, and his eyes are completely black. I blink a few times, staring - though a tiny part of my brain keeps saying I shouldn’t be staring, and to look away. Then it’s all gone, and he looks as human as the first time I saw him.
“Freaky, right?” his voice is bitter and I take a steadying breath. This is exactly the reaction he’s expecting, my mind chimes in, finally catching up. I push my thoughts aside and school my features into something more neutral.
“I suppose,” I nod, aiming for a disinterested tone. “It’s impressive, though, whatever camouflage you have. I never would’ve guessed,” I hope my voice is even, despite the rapid beating of my heart. PJ’s sardonic smirk softens into a thoughtful look, and his eyes narrow again - less threatening, though. I get the feeling he’s sizing me up, trying to decide how sincere I am.
Oddly enough, I find that - aside from the initial shock - I really don’t feel too strange about his appearance. It’s certainly not the most insane thing I’ve seen, what with my shift in the diner earlier; in fact, it’s almost uninteresting - his skin changes color, his eyes turn black. Could be some special effects in a low-budget alien movie, really.
My acceptance must show on my face, because he nods and reaches for the handle of his door. Of his door.
“Uh, were you in...someone else’s room?” I ask, partially curious about his actions and partially - and very suddenly - stressed about the safety of my own room. Could anyone just break into my room whenever they want? PJ’s cheeks turn red as a deep blush makes its way up his face, and my eyebrows skyrocket. “Who’s room was that?” I ask, my worries now pushed aside in favor of curiosity.
“It’s...don’t worry about it, okay? Nobody can get in your room unless you allow it, alright?” He ducks his eyes, pushing into his own room and slamming the door behind him. I pause for only a second, just to be sure he’s not coming back out, before I race down the hall in the direction he’d come from. I think it was... I stop, fairly certain I’m at the door he came out of.
Chris’ room? What on earth...well, I guess they’re friends. But then why was PJ acting so shifty about it? Before I can think too long on it, I hear the door to the hall in the diner open. Deciding I’d rather not get caught doing something that could be interpreted as suspicious, I turn the other direction and begin a fast walk toward my own room.
“Dan?” I increase my pace, until I connect the voice with the person and stop abruptly, turning on a heel. “How was your first shift?” Phil asks, approaching as I stand still in the hallway. He has a bright smile, though it looks a little forced and I immediately wonder if something’s wrong.
“Oh, it was...a little weird, to be honest, but it went well!” I amend, hoping to sound enthusiastic and generally positive. I really should try to avoid pissing anyone else off... I give a smile, though it feels as forced as his looks.
“That’s great! Yeah, again, sorry about all that…” he stops in front of me, closer than I’m used to people standing for a casual conversation, and rubs a hand on the back of his neck. “I hope it wasn’t too overwhelming,” he adds, voice softer now that he’s only a foot or so away.
“No, I, uh, it was fine, no big deal. Just a shock at first, really,” I smile, and a thought occurs to me. If PJ looked normal…
Before I can ask, Phil points a finger next to me. At which point, I realize I’ve completely blocked his door. I shuffle aside, feeling my cheeks flush slightly, and duck my head.
“Sorry, my bad, I didn’t-” but Phil chuckles and waves a hand dismissively.
“It’s fine, really,” I don’t know what I look like, but he must see something worth commenting on. He pauses, hand falling from the handle, before turning to face me. “Why do you always look like that? I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice holds a teasing tone, but it triggers a highlight reel behind my eyes of every act of insubordination, every “funny look” I’d given, every time the boss had gotten just a little annoyed with me. And every punishment I’d received for it.
“Dan,” his voice is so quiet, I almost don’t hear it, but his hand on my chin pulls me from my nightmare as he lifts my face and my eyes meet his. I almost flinch away, until I see the look in his eyes, the concern scrawled across his features. “I promise, no harm will come to you here.” I nod, gently, and his hand drops from my chin.
He turns away, pushing his door open. I don’t move until it’s shut behind him, and then sprint down past the four doors to my own room. Then I’m inside, leaning against the wood and trying to catch my breath. Trying to process anything that just happened. Trying to forget how close he was, how gentle, his hand on my chin, the way his eyes looked...
Chapter 5: Parties and Preparations
Uhhhh well 'Parties and Preparations' sums it up pretty well so...enjoy!
My sleep that night is fitful, brimming with the same nightmares that haunted my time before coming here: I saw the goons who’d ‘teach me a lesson’, but on top of the usual bone-crunching pain and torture, they’d transform in front of my eyes into all forms of grotesque beasts and creatures. It must’ve been my imagination feeding on fear, because the nightmare-beings looked far more frightening than any of the demons I’d seen in the diner the day before.
I’m woken from a half-sleep by a text from Chris, and I’m grateful for the excuse to keep my eyes open.
Chris: Hey dude! PJ said you probably wouldn’t have heard, there’s a party tonight. You’d better be there! 8pm in the ballroom
Chris: Don’t forget, though, you’re on today from 2-7pm
I shake my head, then let it drop back to my pillow. I do not do parties, unless they’re explicitly mandated by the boss. And usually for some kind of job, never for fun. As if I could ever consider being around tons of drunk people and having my eardrums assaulted by uncomfortably loud music for hours on end ‘fun’...
I’m hoping it’s not considered rude to ask - technically, he’s my superior, but... I really would rather do anything else…
Chris: Obviously!!! You HAVE to go. Us humans gotta stick together, right?
I let out a groan, sending a quick confirmation that I’d be there. Maybe I can just make an appearance and leave. I also file away the information about Chris - okay, so he’s human, too. A memory pops up: the day PJ had dragged me to Phil’s office, how he mentioned Chris had fainted at the sight of the demons. Makes sense, I suppose . I pull aside the blanket, scooting to sit at the edge of my bed, and formulate a plan. Goal for today, figure out as many people as I can - who’s human, who’s demon.
Though I’m not entirely sure why it’s important to know that, I feel as though I’ll be more comfortable just knowing . Besides, if my life has taught me anything, it’s that information is the most valuable thing I can possess.
After a scalding shower - god bless hot water - I head toward the kitchen to grab some breakfast. As the door to the living quarters closes behind me, I’m assaulted by the most wonderful smells. Or, rather, they’re quite ordinary breakfast smells, but I’m apparently starving .
An abundance of sizzling drowns out all other sounds as I pass through the kitchen doorway, and I immediately notice Louise waving me over.
“Here hon, take this - customer changed his order after we’d already made it, and you’re absolutely famished !” She shoves a plate into my hands, which is heaped with eggs, potatoes, and some sausage, then waves a hand at me in dismissal. I shuffle out of the way, careful to pass around the other cooks without disturbing their rhythm, and manage to make it to a table in the staff kitchen without anything falling off the plate. Did Louise just... know I was hungry? I take another mental note, grabbing some silverware and tucking into the delicious food.
Stuffed to the brim, I return to the kitchen, seeking out the blonde head. A man - nope, that’s a demon , I amend, noticing the cat eyes as they glance over at me - catches me standing, evidently confused, and calls out over the din of the kitchen.
“She went to get some things set up for tonight, did ya need something?” I shake my head, though I’d been hoping to ask her how she knew I was so hungry. Assuming that’s not an offensive question. I can find her later . Retreating into the relative quiet of the hallway, I take a moment to decide on my next course of action. I could just explore for awhile, I mean, it’s not like I know anyone else to-
My train of thought is cut off when the door beside me swings open, and Chris crashes into my side.
“Oi, watch where you’re-” he starts, but his face brightens when he recognizes me. “Oh! Dan, sorry about that. What are you doing standing in the hall like that? You’re gonna get run over by someone!” He laughs, and I try to chuckle along with him.
“Sorry, got lost in my head, I guess,” I realize I’m smiling, pretty much a real smile, and I’m surprised at myself. Do I consider him a friend? I shake the thought from my head, taking a different route. “Where are you off to? Need any help?” It’s ingrained in me, at this point - do whatever you can to get on everyone’s good side. Except that a piece of me just genuinely wants to help him.
“ Actually ,” he drags it out, and I almost regret asking. “We have a ton of stuff to set up in the ballroom before tonight. I know you work this afternoon, but any help we can get would be appreciated,” he looks at me like he’s expecting a ‘no’ and planning on letting me off easy, which makes me all the more motivated to say yes. Especially since I plan on ducking out of that party at the first chance...
“Sure, I haven’t got anything else planned,” I nod, and his eyes widen slightly before he shrugs and motions for me to follow. I’m a little surprised when we stop at the door for the living quarters, and it must show as he opens it.
“It’s not the fastest way to the ballroom by any means, but the portals make me sick,” I blink a few times, and he laughs before pushing through the door. My long legs do a decent job of keeping up with his quick pace, and we’re soon pushing open an unlabeled door to an ordinary-looking stairwell.
As we ascend, Chris bypasses the first floor. “Just more residences,” he notes, and I nod. We stop at the second floor, and I’m following him through the door before I can even consider what else the staircase leads to. I pull out my phone and drop a pin on the map, resolving to check it out later.
“And now, the grand ballroom!” He announces it with a wide, sweeping gesture, and I take in the enormity and opulence of the room I’m standing in. Rich shades of maroon and violet drape along the walls, and gold glitters back from even the dimmest corners. Crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, casting sparkling rainbows across the floor. But something about the room seems... off .
“Why isn’t there anything here ?” I ask, finally looking beyond the magnificence of the room itself enough to recognize the emptiness. Chris drops his arms and actually doubles over with laughter. What’s so funny? Is everything invisible or something? My face must express my continued confusion, because he looks up, only to fall back into a fit of laughter. When he finally manages to reign himself in, he chuckles through a response.
“Oh, mate, your face, ‘ what’s going on? Oh, I’m so confused!’ Ah,” he smiles, wiping at the corner of his eye. “This, my friend, is the grand ballroom. We will be over there,” he points to an ornate door, set off to the side, “in the regular ballroom!” My face scrunches, somewhere between confused and annoyed. “Look, okay, Phil’s basically made this place into a weird giant mansion, I don’t think we’ve ever used this ballroom for anything . It’s been empty as long as I’ve been here, and Peej said the same.” I blink, not really sure what to do with that, or how to respond.
“Ah, maybe you’ve had to be here a while…” he trails off, turning toward the ‘regular’ ballroom. The doors are surprisingly light, despite the gilded design, and they swing open with ease.
The ‘regular’ ballroom is much smaller, though still large enough to comfortably hold fifty people with space to spare. Chris has already moved farther into the room, but I take a second to analyze my surroundings. Aside from the door behind me, there seems to be a second door in the back, and I notice Louise pushing a cart through it. Another kitchen, perhaps? Along the same wall is a line of tables being draped with thick, black fabric that somehow stands out despite the deep colors of the wall and floor. To my left, a few tables have been set up with chairs, though they’re still bare. Tall bar tables stand haphazardly around the center of the room, and an elegant bar - really, what an odd thing, an elegant bar - is being stocked across from me. People shuffle in and out, though none are going through the door Chris and I had entered.
I follow Chris, weaving around the bar tables to where he’s currently chatting with someone I’ve yet to meet.
“...whatever you need, as long as it doesn’t require portals,” I catch the end of Chris’ statement as I approach, and my eyes wander the room for anything portal-like. “Dan! Nice of you to join us, Dan, this is Wendell, events coordinator for...well, pretty much everything.” I pull my eyes back to the man in front of me.
Rather, below me. He’s quite a bit shorter, and I find myself staring at a grey head - is he the first old person I’ve seen here? I extend a hand, trying not to flinch when four eyes look up to meet my two. They’re a deep red, and I make a very strong mental note - definitely a demon - as his hand grips mine. For an old guy, his grip is firm and confident.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you - I’ve heard so much about you already!” Was I really standing at the door for that long? He smiles, and it’s rather pleasant despite the spider-like eyes that I can’t seem to look past.
“Uh, glad to meet you as well,” I try a smile, hoping it’s convincing, only to jump back as he shoves past me with a shout.
“ Elouise, I told you to use the new tablecloths, those are absolutely ancient! ” My surprise must show, as Chris feels the need to chime in.
“Don’t worry about him, he’s just very picky. But he throws a hell of a party!” Chris is smiling fondly after the man; I’m still just staring open-mouthed. “Alright!” He claps, and I’m startled from my shock. “The head honcho said they still need help getting the chairs set up, as they’ve used all the wrong ones ,” he rolls his eyes at this. “But no portals, so we’ll just be setting up the right ones as soon as they’re brought in. Sound good?” I nod, and we get to work.
Chapter 6: Doors and Decisions
Dan is a Fashion Icon
The rest of the morning - or, really, the rest of the day - passes in a blur. We only pause our chair arranging to grab some food from Louise, who insists we taste-test all the appetizers for the evening. Chris sends me off before my shift, claiming PJ “might actually kill me” if I’m late. I try not to take his words too literally.
The diner’s not all that crowded, as the lunch rush has ended, and - according to PJ - most of the patrons are aware that we’ll be closed for the evening. I’m about fifteen minutes from clocking out when PJ pulls me aside.
“You’ll be at the party tonight, right?” I’m not sure what kind of tone he’s using, but it certainly isn’t the ‘hey bud, ya going to the fun party tonight?’ kind, and I’m immediately on high alert.
“Yes…” I draw out the ‘s’, but it sounds like I’m asking a question, so I amend. “Yeah, I’ll be there, why? What’s up?” But he doesn’t answer, just nods.
“You can go get ready, if you’d like. I’ll take care of table seven, but if I were you, I’d find Chris before he throws a fit.” I’m about to ask why on earth Chris would be throwing a fit, but PJ spins me to face the back of the diner and gives me a gentle shove as he sets off toward the last occupied table.
I can feel the muscles in my brow cramping from being scrunched together, but the whole exchange was too confusing, and I can’t seem to un-scrunch.
Until I’m grabbed by the shoulders and spun to face a very angry-looking Chris.
“ Please tell me you’re not wearing that to the party?” His grip isn’t tight, but he looks very intimidating.
Apparently, the whole place is set up on some kind of intranet, and Chris has me online and ordering some new clothes before I know what’s happening. Also, it seems this is not my usual idea of a party - it is, in fact, a bit more upscale. I guess the ballroom should’ve tipped me off.
“Wendell’s husband, Ollie, makes pretty much all the clothes here. I requested that we stop by to pick up a dress shirt and slacks for tonight, but the rest should be ready to pick up later this week.” Chris informs me as we make our way from his room to the stairwell. The plan is to change there and head directly to the party, so he’s already wearing his nice clothes.
I glance his way, trying to show I’m paying attention, when I see the flash of gold with PJ’s name inscribed. Should I tell Chris what I saw last night? I contemplate for a moment before deciding on a less direct approach, with the hopes of feeling out the situation a bit more.
“Random tangent,” I start, hoping my tone is casual enough, “but can anyone get into our rooms? There aren’t really any locks…” I trail off, and Chris picks up exactly as I’d hoped.
“Nah, they’re coded to you. Only way for someone else to get in is if you give your permission.” He doesn’t elaborate, so I let the silence stretch for a moment as we enter the stairwell and begin climbing. Chris opens the door to the first floor, and we traipse down a hallway identical to the one below.
“So, how does that work exactly? What would I have to do, to grant permission? Just let someone in?” Though I have ulterior motives, I do actually want an answer. The last thing I need is to accidentally allow someone access to my room; if I know the process, I can avoid putting myself in danger. And I get an elbow in my ribs for my efforts.
“Oi, two days in and you’ve already got someone you want in your bedroom, eh?” He’s teasing, but my face flushes with embarrassment as I try to backpedal.
“No, no, I just don’t want to, y’know, accidentally give someone permission,” I rush the words out, but Chris is laughing anyway.
“Mate, I’m just fucking with you, no need to get defensive. It’s pretty simple, but hard to do by accident. Have the person hold their hand on the doorknob inside your room and say ‘I give this person permission to access this room’. If you ever need to reverse it, hold your own hand on the knob and say you revoke their permission. The magic on the doors is pretty sentient, it usually understands what you want.” The heat in my cheeks has cooled off a bit, as we’ve been walking for a while, but Chris hasn’t stopped yet.
“How do you, uh, know how to do that?” I ask, and he gives me a sideways look. For a few moments, he’s silent, and I wonder if he’ll even answer me.
“Been here a while, I’ve had quite a few people I have and have not wanted in my bedroom,” he gives me a cheeky wink before stopping abruptly and swinging a door open. “Welcome to Ollie’s!” He announces, and I follow him inside. He planned that answer so I wouldn’t have time to ask more, my lips twist wryly as I shut the door behind me. Clever guy .
Once again, I’m standing in an unexpectedly large space - though this one is full to the brim, cluttered with clothing of every shape and size, mannequins, and every kind of fabric and material imaginable.
“Welcome! I’ve been expecting you. Chris, son, how are you?” The voice echoes in the space, and it takes me several long moments to realize it’s coming from above me. A shape descends from the high ceiling, and shocked to see a very average-looking, if well-dressed, man land gently in front of me - though I’m having trouble figuring out exactly how he descended.
“A pleasure, as always, Ollie,” Chris’ formal diction matches Ollie’s, but he sweeps the man into a familiar hug. Ollie claps him on the back, and the two turn to face me. “Ollie, I’d like you to meet our newest guest, Dan. Dan, this is the magnificent Ollie, clothier extraordinaire.” The man extends a hand, which is still disturbingly normal , and I shake it. Unlike his husband, I can’t seem to find a distinguishing feature that identifies him as a demon, and it’s unsettling.
“Now, if I understand correctly, young sir, you’re in need of some nice attire for this evening’s festivities,” he doesn’t allow me to answer, instead sweeping around the space and flitting from box to box. “Naturally, I haven’t the time to create something from scratch for you, but I have more than enough lying around. I have no doubt we can find something for tonight.” He pulls a few choices from various boxes, and Chris runs over to him. He whispers something in his ear, and Ollie’s eyes widen, then he nods and resumes his search.
“What was that?” I ask quietly, when Chris returns to my side.
“Don’t worry about it, I was just, ah, letting him know we were a bit short on time,” he shrugs, and I narrow my eyes in suspicion. But Ollie’s dragging me away toward a curtain and shoving clothes into my hands before I can prod Chris any further.
I’ve never cared much about what I wear, unless it somehow relates to a job, and I’ve never had the luxury of just wearing whatever I wanted before, so I take advantage. The clothes fit perfectly, unlike the awkward-fitting clothing I’d been loaned for jobs, and I can’t decide on a single combination I like best. This must be what rich people feel like .
“ Oi, mate, pick something - we gotta go! ” Chris’ voice is barely muffled by the thick curtain, and I stare at the slacks I’ve kept on. Always liked black, may as well keep that going. The shirts, however, are another story. Most of them remind me of the deep hues in the ballrooms, and I’d be happy wearing any of them.
The curtain beside me rustles, though, and a hand reaches through with a bundle of clothing.
“I think I have just the thing, sir,” Ollie’s voice follows the clothes, and I’m shocked to see a pair of white slacks and a perfectly contrasted black dress shirt. I’d usually avoid wearing something so bright, even with the dark shirt, but Chris is still calling through the curtains.
“He knows what he’s talking about, just put it on so we can go, we’re going to be late!” I’ve already switched the pants, which fit me excellently, and am just shrugging off the shirt I have on - something deep purple - and pulling on the black one when Chris’ hand reaches in and grabs my arm.
“What the hell, Chris?” I’m dragged from the changing area while desperately trying to finish buttoning the shirt up.
“Let’s go, button on the way, PJ will not be happy if we arrive late, no matter how fashionably .” He chuckles at his own joke, but his death grip on my arm doesn’t release as he swings the door of Ollie’s room open. “Thanks again, Ollie! You’re a literal life-saver,” he tosses the farewell over his shoulder as we speed-walk down the hall.
I finally manage to finish the last button, only to notice the shirt isn’t quite the simple black dress shirt I expect: the shoulders have been replaced with a black lace, and it’s oddly exposing.
“Chris…” I stop as he releases my arm to push open the stairwell door. “I can’t wear this! People will laugh, are you sure this looks okay?” I feel the flush creeping up my cheeks. I don’t know anything about fashion, but this is...it’s definitely not something I’d pick for myself. Chris grabs my arm again, though, pulling me through the door.
“Trust me, it looks great. Stop stalling,” he’s rushing up the stairs and I have no choice but to follow, shrugging my shoulders and trying to get comfortable with the attire. I don’t even know how I look in this, I could look like an idiot... before I can worry any further, though, we’re through the door to the grand ballroom and Chris is still power-walking his way to the smaller ballroom.
The doors are swung open, and I can see several people milling around. Soft music floats out, and I can already smell the appetizers. I stumble a bit as we enter, already feeling overwhelmed; the myriad of people, of demons , that I don’t know, the pressure to be social, the societal etiquette I don’t understand, and the clothes I don’t feel comfortable in - they all threaten to sweep me under.
Fortunately, a familiar face distracts me - though it certainly doesn’t look happy.
Chapter 7: Champagne and Chances
“ You’re late! ” PJ whisper-shouts as he approaches, two champagne flutes in hand. He pushes one at Chris, who’s just smiling like a fool. “Dan, you look nice,” I look down, staring at the floor by my feet. I notice he doesn’t hand me a drink, as he did with Chris. “No, you probably shouldn’t drink this stuff. It’s a bit stronger than what you’re used to, trust me.” How...can he read my mind or something?
I’m about to ask aloud, but he answers for me. “Yes, but before you freak out, I’m not doing it all the time. Chris,” he turns his attention, “can you not do that here?” I must look very confused, because Chris glances my way and sputters a laugh while PJ runs his free hand across his now-flushed face and takes a long drink of his champagne.
“I’m sorry, but it’s so easy!” Chris tries to control a fit of giggles as PJ pulls him away, evidently to scold him. “Have fun, Dan!” Chris calls over his shoulder, smiling mischievously.
All the anxiety that my friends had kept at bay comes sweeping back in a tidal wave. I glance around, searching for any other familiar faces, and am sorely disappointed to find none. At least I don’t look stupid, according to PJ... I meander over to the bar, hoping to look casual, and snag one of the many champagne flutes sitting out. No way I’m getting through this sober, I decide, taking a sip.
I almost choke; PJ was right, the alcohol is far stronger than I expect for champagne. But the warmth spreads in my chest and stomach is enough of a distraction, so I take another - much smaller - sip. I decide to just people-watch - demon-watch? - and try to guess which of the party guests is a demon versus a human. Some are easier than others, sporting the clear marks of non-humans, but others are far subtler; I try not to stare for too long for fear of being caught, but nobody seems to notice me, and I grow bolder as the alcohol takes effect.
Definitely a demon, nobody has naturally purple eyes. Uh, that guy’s human, maybe? Okay, claws? Demon. Demon, demon, demon, human, demon. I suddenly feel very alone, grabbing another flute of champagne from the bar behind me. Guess there really aren’t too many humans here, are there? The music floats around in the background, though I can’t see a band or DJ booth, and it’s soothing. I sway slightly, and I’m not sure if it’s the music or the buzz in my bloodstream that triggers it.
A hand gently pulls the half-full champagne glass from my hands, and I look over to see Phil standing beside me, dressed immaculately in a traditional black suit.
“You may want to go easy on that, I haven’t even given my toast yet,” he’s smirking, and I cross my arms, trying to act composed - though the sight of him is very distracting.
“I can drink when I like, thanks very much. And I can hold my liquor,” I say the words, but my tongue is thick in my mouth. I really hope that wasn’t slurred... but if he noticed, he doesn’t say anything. Instead, I find his eyes traveling my body, and I’m suddenly very self-conscious. I knew this shirt was stupid, this whole outfit was stupid, I mean, who am I kidding? I can’t pull off white pants…
Suddenly, Phil’s lips are at my ear, and I shudder involuntarily. “ I could pull them off for you, ” he whispers, and a shiver runs up my spine. Did he just…? Before I can say anything, before I can react, he’s halfway across the room and holding a champagne flute of his own in the air. He’s clearing his throat, and the rest of the room hoists their own glasses. I’m still paralyzed, the tickle of his breath in my ear and the words still running circles in my head. Was he...flirting? If my face wasn’t red from the alcohol, it certainly was now.
“Thank you all for being here this evening. As most of you know, this is the six-hundred and fifty seventh anniversary of our founding, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without each and every one of you. You know I’m not one for long-winded speeches,” a few chuckles around the room, “so I’ll keep it short and sweet - I owe everything we have to you, so please enjoy yourselves tonight. Here’s to another year of prosperity, friendship, and community!” His voice isn’t loud, despite the size of the room, but it carries. I find myself staring unabashedly at his figure; he is, truly, beautiful, and I can’t shake what he said earlier. Fucking hell, I think I want that...
Clinks sound, the din returns to the room as the guests resume their conversations, and I’m pulled free of my paralysis. I grab one of the remaining glasses of champagne behind me, downing it quickly and wincing at the sting of bubbles and alcohol against my throat, before making a beeline for the door I entered through.
Why did he say that? What on earth? But he can’t possibly? But what if he? Can he...is he like PJ? I don’t even...but I think I do want...shit, was he serious? The thoughts come in an endless stream, never really completing themselves, and I feel a rush of adrenaline as I push through the door to the blessedly empty stairwell. Part of me wants to just collapse against the cool concrete, but I don’t want to risk anyone finding me - or risk passing out in the hall, how embarrassing would that be - so I grip the railing tightly as I stumble down the stairs to the ground floor.
As I reach the door to the hall, the tell-tale click of a door opening above me worms its way through my rambling thoughts, and I fumble with the handle.
“Dan?” I recognize the voice immediately, and my heart leaps into my throat. Why did he follow…? I don’t… my thoughts stop materializing, every ounce of focus now on opening the door and launching myself into the empty hallway. My toes catch on the edge of the carpet, though, and I end up falling into the wall across from me; my hands manage to prevent any real damage, but I spin, feeling utterly defeated, and sink to the carpet. Maybe he won’t find me...in the middle...of the hall…
I have just enough time to realize how stupid that sounds in my head before Phil bursts through the door, looking a bit flushed himself. My head drops into my hands and I wait for the inevitable mortification of whatever follows this moment. Oh my god, he was joking earlier, of course, what was I thinking, he can’t be into me...
“Dan? Are you alright?” The concern in his voice gives me pause, and I look up. I expect him to be standing over me, but he’s crouched down so his face is level with mine. And very close...fuck. “What happened? Are you... was it what I said? ” he asks the last bit softly, and I can only blink in response - my brain has emptied of anything useful.
“Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that, I’m sorry,” his eyes shift to the floor, and he scoots back to sit against the wall across from me. He pulls his legs up to his chest, his posture matching my own, and I’m once again struck by how normal he seems - no big-boss facade, no threats, no bullying me or demanding anything aside from working in his diner.
“Why?” I ask, meaning why are you so normal? But he misinterprets it - can’t he read my mind? He did it before . When he starts talking, I decide not to correct him.
“I hate those parties,” he huffs a laugh, and I tilt my head in confusion. “After over six-hundred years, it’s expected of me to throw them,” he smiles cynically before continuing, “so I usually drink just enough to take the edge off, give my speech, shake some hands, and make my exit. But then you showed up,” his eyes are on the ceiling, now, and my I take a slow moment to stare at the lines of his neck, to watch them blur.
He shakes his head, and my vision refocuses as his eyes meet mine. The ocean - I can feel the alcohol slowing my thoughts, and that’s all I can come up with.
“And you showed up,” he says it again, softer, “looking like that ,” my face flushes again, and I drop my gaze to my hands, currently wrapped around my knees. Thanks, remind me of my poor fashion choices, I get it .
“ Breathtaking ,” he says, and suddenly I can’t breathe, my heart’s racing. “And I couldn’t help it, I shouldn’t have looked into your head like that, and I shouldn’t have said what I said - that wasn’t fair to you,” his voice sounds muffled, and I lift my eyes just enough to see he’s dropped his head.
“No,” my voice is hoarse, and Phil’s black hair falls across his eyes as he lifts them to watch me. “But you did. I liked it,” the words stumble around my tongue, and I think I’m slurring, but I’ve lost all inhibitions and he started it, with his flirting earlier, so I decide to be a little bold. He said he wouldn’t hurt me, I may as well go for it .
I crawl across the short expanse of the hall toward him, shocked at my ability to move despite my drunken state, and Phil lowers his knees from his chest as I approach. I don’t even know what I’m doing at this point, but I remember his hand on my chin, how close he was, and I want that . Before I realize it, I’m straddled across his hips, and his hands find their way to my waist.
What am I even doing? I push the thought back, focusing instead on how beautiful he looks up close, the light pressure of his hands as he holds me in place, and I bring a shaky hand of my own up to his cheek. I want this . I marvel at his eyes, the way they’re sparkling at me, only a few inches away, and I allow desire to fuel my movement as I lean down to capture his lips with my own.
Everything is perfectly silent, perfectly still, just for a moment, and I live in it as long as I can - the slight gasp he made when I kissed him, the way his hands pull me just a little closer, the soft pressure of his lips on mine, my hand cupping his cheek - and then we’re wrenched back to reality as an explosion from above sends shock waves quaking through the building.
Chapter 8: Explosions and Exposure
Something wicked this way comes.
I fall back, the rumble of the building breaking our kiss as dust drifts down from the ceiling. Everything freezes for a moment, and the silence that settles around us is almost as deafening as the explosion itself. Then both Phil and I leap to our feet. He’s through the door faster than I am, the adrenaline battling with the alcohol still coursing through my bloodstream.
I manage to stumble after Phil, climbing the stairs I’d run down only minutes before - had it only been minutes? At the first floor landing, I hear the crash as the door above me slams open and sounds of chaos echo around the stairwell. Phil’s well ahead of me, as he’s less inebriated, and I find myself fighting a crowd as the party guests flee frantically.
By the time I’ve reached the grand ballroom, only a few stragglers are making their way to the stairs, and I’m able to assess the situation. Well, assess it as much as my muddled brain will allow. There’s smoke pouring out of the smaller ballroom, and it looks like a disaster zone even from the outside.
Once I’m inside, it’s far worse. I cough against the smoke, though it’s clearing a bit, and pick my way around the debris that’s scattered across the floor. A few of the guests are leaning against the walls, or sitting on the ground, but I don’t see any grievous injuries. And no dead bodies , my head kindly chimes in. It’s at that exact moment that I realize I haven’t seen any of my friends - PJ, Louise, Chris, they may have all been in the room when...well, when whatever happened happened .
I scan the room again, focusing on anything moving, when I notice Phil crouched behind the bar. Thank god he was downstairs with me... I stop that train of thought, though, when I realize how terrified he looks. Power returns to my legs, and I make my way around the scattered remains of tables to the aisle behind the bar.
Where Chris is lying. He’s not moving, his chest isn’t moving, is he dead oh my god . I’ve seen death more than once, though, and the rational side of my brain takes over - not dead, not dead, but passed out, probably hit his head, from the looks of that cut. Phil hasn’t moved, though, and I notice PJ running over from the entrance.
“PJ,” I hold up a hand, but he’s shoving past me, holding his arm at an awkward angle. He drops to his knees in front of me, next to Chris, and a choking sob escapes his throat as his free hand covers his mouth. “PJ, calm down, he’s not-” the green eyes turn to mine, then fill with black, and I swear I can almost feel his presence inside my head.
“ Why can’t I hear him! ” PJ shouts at me, and I shake my head. Phil’s managed to glance up, now, and he stands. I don’t think he’s even noticed PJ’s arrival, or mine for that matter. He circles around the bar, and I follow his progress toward the back door I’d noticed during setup earlier in the day.
Rather, he makes his way toward the terrifying void that’s replaced the door, and my eyes widen as I stare. Was that door a portal? Phil’s examining it, doing something I can’t see from where I’m standing, so I turn my attention back to the two guys at my feet.
“PJ, he’s alright, just unconscious - look,” I add, leaning down, “can you see his breathing? It’s shallow, but it’s there.” I’m a little surprised when he puts his ear and hand to Chris’ chest, closing his eyes for a moment. When he lifts his head, green has once again replaced the black and he nods solemnly.
Suddenly composed, he casts another glance at Chris before standing. “We need to get everyone down to the diner. I’ll get some first-aid supplies, but can you find Wendell? He’s got the most medical experience.” I nod, glad for a simple task to focus on, then falter as I remember Phil.
“Will he…?” I start, but PJ’s already stepping past me.
“Phil’s fine, he’s trying to figure out what exactly happened here. Go find Wendell, and tell him and anyone else you see on your way to gather in the diner.” I nod again, satisfied for now, and pick my way back to the door. By the time I’ve tracked down Wendell, he’s already on his way to the diner. I relay the message and follow, trying to figure out how else I can help.
It seems that some kind of emergency protocol is in place, as the vast majority of the partygoers have already congregated in the diner. Most were just a bit disheveled, sporting a few cuts and bruises, but some brandished limbs at odd angles, and others were slumped into booths and seemingly unconscious.
I notice PJ consult briefly with Wendell, then make his way over to me. He pauses as a sucking sound fills the air, followed by a strange pop. Adrenaline kicks in, and I’m searching the room frantically for the source of what must be the next explosion, until PJ lays a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s a portal,” he whispers as a black swirl appears against the wall. Phil steps through, looking more furious than I’ve ever seen him - not that I’ve seen him more than a handful of times - but PJ looks almost as surprised. That’s when I notice Phil’s got Chris cradled against his chest. Another pop sounds, and the portal disappears behind Phil as he lays the injured man across the seat of a booth.
“ Someone in this room let her in ,” Phil’s voice is low and full of malice as he moves to the center of the diner, and my eyebrows raise in shock. I watch PJ sprint across the room, behind Phil, toward Chris, though Phil doesn’t seem to care.
“ I will drag this on as long as it takes. You do not want me as your enemy, ” despite the fury behind it, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how his voice sounds when he’s... no, now is not the time to go there, get your head out of the gutter. Still mentally chastising myself, I almost miss the voice that calls out from the back of the crowd.
“What about the new kid? Three days after he shows up, and suddenly we’re being attacked? Can’t be a coincidence,” it actually takes me a full thirty seconds to realize that I’m the person the woman’s talking about, but Phil’s already shaking his head.
“He hasn’t been alone since the portal was set up, try again,” I’m both pleased and disappointed that the gravelly voice has disappeared, but mostly pleased - and he was quick to defend me . My heart lightens at the support - it’s certainly not something I’m used to.
“No,” the woman protests, pushing forward through the crowd. Do I know her? Her skin is layered with scales, and her hair is iridescent as the overhead lighting shines down on it. I think I’d remember that, she’s rather beautiful . “I saw him sneak out, just minutes before the explosion! You can’t say that isn’t suspicious - and he was alone!” Eyes of all kinds shift toward me, and I can’t do anything but stare at Phil.
“Inaccurate, Jemma,” he waves a hand in dismissal, “I followed him out. As I stated before, he hasn’t been alone since the portal was opened.” His voice is firm, and she backs away, the fight dying from her posture. My heart swells again, that he was so adamant about my defense. Granted, he’s not wrong...it doesn’t really mean anything, that he’s defending me. Just facts . Regardless, I allow myself a small smile.
“ Phil! ” PJ’s voice echoes across the empty half of the diner, and Phil spins on a heel. “Where’s Louise?” Phil has the decency to look shocked at PJ’s hard expression for a moment before rushing off to the kitchen. “Has anyone seen her?” PJ stands from where he’d been crouching next to Chris, and a few murmurs go around the crowd before I see Wendell push his way through.
“PJ, surely you’re not accusing our very own Louise of any... nefarious deeds?” His head tilts as he talks, and his four eyes narrow slightly.
“I know what I saw in Chris’ head just now,” PJ’s staring down at Wendell, and I watch as his skin deepens to the blue hue and his eyes fill in black. Then his eyes go wide, and he staggers back as Wendell suddenly sprints for the door; I’m frozen as my brain attempts to connect the various dots that PJ seems to have already put together.
PJ’s running after him, and I make a move to do the same - come on, slow brain, figure it out - when Phil returns from the kitchen, followed by a dazed-looking Louise.
“Peej, let him go. Her. Whoever - they aren’t worth our time. I knew something like this was bound to happen eventually. Let’s just find Jemma and Wendell, and make sure everyone is alright.” Phil turns to Louise and says a few quiet words. She nods, and he pulls her into a hug before making his way over to PJ; Phil places a hand over his broken arm, and it snaps back into place. I’m a little surprised when he moves on to the rest of the guests without so much as a second glance at Chris.
“He’s just making sure everyone’s alright - nobody died, that he can’t fix, but the minor stuff is within his wheelhouse.” PJ’s got a hand on my shoulder. “Unfortunately, humans are a different story,” he amends, and I nod. My muddled brain works to take in the bigger picture, though it’s still sorting through the events of the evening.
“A spy? Shapeshifting abilities or something?” PJ nods, evidently glad I’ve caught up to the current situation. “Sent by...someone?” Another nod, but PJ doesn’t elaborate.
“Not my story to tell,” he starts, but his attention is drawn by movement from the booth across the room. “Ask Phil,” he adds briefly before heading back over to where a grimacing Chris is slowly sitting up.
Chapter 9: Dares and Dances
Love is in the air, friends.
Tw: mentions of blood (nothing too graphic)
As the remaining party guests slowly trickle from the diner, I sit at the counter and watch Phil. He’s worked his way mostly around the room, pausing whenever an injury requires his attention, and everyone seems to have the most sincere admiration for him. Whatever this is, it’s not anything like the organizations I’m used to working with .
PJ, helping Chris stand from his spot in the booth, catches my attention and beckons me over. I wrap one of Chris’ arms around my neck, and he grunts as we help him walk toward the living quarters.
“Guys, really, I’m-” he’s cut off by a wince before continuing, “fine, I can walk by myself!” His protests are met with eye-rolls from both me and PJ, and we continue to march him down the hall. I stop, seeing Chris’ name placard on the door, but PJ continues.
“He’s, uh, gonna stay in my room for tonight,” I raise an eyebrow at him, and he ducks his head. “Just to make sure he’s okay, y’know,” I blink a few times, but shuffle along as we bring Chris - who’s eyes have fluttered closed - to PJ’s room. He swings open the door, then pokes an elbow into Chris’ ribs.
“Hey, you got hit on the head - no sleeping tonight, in case you’ve got a concussion,” we manage to snake sideways through the entrance, and the door shuts behind us as we drop Chris onto the bed.
“Hmm?” He looks up at us, and I stand to the side as PJ looms over him.
“You can’t sleep, you might have a concussion,” he repeats, then he’s suddenly very flustered and crossing his arms across his chest. “Quit that!”
It’s not quite a shout, and Chris is grinning despite his disheveled state. “Make me,” Chris is staring at PJ - who’s still very red and can’t find a place for his eyes to settle - when it clicks.
“ Oh ,” my eyebrows hit the ceiling and I’m already backing away. “I, uh, should probably…” I don’t even finish the sentence, turning on a heel and fumbling with the handle. I’m in the hall a moment later, and it strikes me just how slow my brain is. Okay, no more of that demon champagne for me, I can’t afford to be twelve steps behind whatever’s going on.
My own cheeks have flushed, recognizing the awkward situation I narrowly avoided, but I’m actually happy for the two. I turn, pause for a moment to orient myself, then turn again in the correct direction before setting off down the hall toward my room.
I stare at my feet, watching the steps they take so as not to trip and fall, when a loud bang startles me. Not an explosion, I don’t think , I swing my head around, looking for any signs of destruction, when my eyes catch on the placard of the door I’m standing beside. Phil .
“Phil?” I call through the door, knocking a few times. Is he okay? Did something happen? There’s no response for a moment, and my concern nearly doubles. “ Phil! ” I shout, knocking more frantically now. I yelp when the door swings inward, my arm still raised in the air, but it drops and I exhale slowly as I see the figure hunched on the corner of the bed.
“Dan?” Phil looks up sharply, face a mixture of anger and confusion. “I didn’t-” he stops, shaking his head. Then I’m taking in the situation - his hand is bleeding, and the wall beside him has a matching fist-sized hole in it. “You should just go, get some sleep,” his voice is quiet, but he doesn’t close the door - at this point, I have to assume he could’ve, even from where he’s sitting - so I step inside.
“Are you okay?” I ask, matching his soft tone. Wow Dan, what a great question - does he look okay? I curse my shit wording, stepping farther inside and gingerly lowering myself to sit on the edge of the bed. “I mean, I guess you’re not, but are you...uh, I mean, is there anything...do you want, uh…” he hasn’t stopped me from my incessant rambling, so I trail off and look his way.
And he’s smirking at me.
“Oh, sure, fine, have a laugh at my expense then,” I try to sound annoyed, but I can’t help my small smile, and I hear how it changes my voice. Can’t even manage to sound properly annoyed. You’re a goner for him, aren’t you? I hush my thoughts, hoping desperately that he’s not listening to them. He sighs, then, and my heart falls a bit. I was only joking, it’s really no big deal; I almost say it aloud, but he’s talking, so I let him.
“What a mess this is,” he’s shaking his head, voice thick with sarcastic humor. Is he talking about me? Or us? Or- what a twat, you know there isn’t an ‘us’...he’s probably about to tell you to leave him alone, jesus christ… “I knew she’d try to get at me for keeping the diner, but I didn’t think...I didn’t think she’d hurt people…” he trails off, sounding utterly exhausted. Way to go, Dan. Make everything about you.
“Do you, uh, want to talk about it?” I ask, curiosity getting the best of me - whatever happened, I definitely want to know what caused it. And who this mysterious ‘she’ is. Oh my god, what if he’s not into guys? What if I misread this whole fucking situation, and then I kissed him, and oh shit he’s right, this is a fucking mess…
“If you stop freaking out, then yes, I will tell you,” I turn abruptly to face him, and he’s smirking at me. Has he been- have you been reading my thoughts? I ask into my head, terrified. “Before you ask, no, I haven’t been in your head. But thoughts normally sound like background noise, and yours currently sound like someone dropped a spoon into a blender.” I sputter a laugh at his weird analogy, relaxing slightly.
I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself, and he watches me - not helping at all… I close my eyes, hoping it’ll make things easier, when he starts talking. I guess that worked?
“Elizabeth was…” he starts, and I recognize the name from the night I arrived, when he’d asked if she sent me. “We were…” he tries again, and now I’m watching him as he searches the floor for the right words. “We built this place ages ago, together. When we had a...falling out,” he sounds unsure, and his eyes lift to meet mine for just a moment. “She wanted us to keep running the place together, said we could ‘put our personal issues aside for the sake of the business’,” he makes the air quotes before dropping his head into his hands.
Again, I find my brain struggling to catch up, and it hits me that this woman, whoever she is, she and Phil were once together . Fuck, I’ve definitely screwed it up, he was just messing with me earlier, he doesn’t even like guys, and I went and kissed him, fucking hell… Phil’s head lifts again, and his lips are twisted in a wry grin.
“You need to stop that,” there’s a hint of humor in his voice when he speaks, and I frown. Stop what? I can’t figure it out, still worried about the kiss, until he sobers completely. “Seriously, what’s going on in your head? Are you worried about what happened earlier?” My eyes go wide, and he drops his head to his hands again.
“I didn’t realize, I’m sorry, I-” I start, but he cuts my apology off with a confused look.
“Why are you apologizing? It’s not your fault. You shouldn’t feel bad for being concerned, I’m the one who’s put us in this situation,” he runs a hand across his face, the one that isn’t currently dripping red onto the carpet at his feet. Well, he did flirt with me, but I kissed him, that was all me... I redirect my thoughts, focusing on the split knuckles on the hand closest to me. I fucked it up, obviously, but this is something I can help with. I reach for his hand, and he doesn’t stop me, so I lift it gently.
“This doesn’t look too bad,” I comment, hoping to change the topic to something far safer and less embarrassing for me. “Don’t move,” I add, resting his hand on his knee. I step into the hall, setting off toward the bathroom. Once there, I grab a few paper towels, then notice a medicine cabinet. Please have...yes, bandages, and some antiseptic solution. I grab both, then return to Phil’s room.
Focused intently on my plan to clean and bandage his hand - and trying desperately to avoid my feelings for him, the ones he definitely won’t be reciprocating - I juggle all the items with one arm as I push open the door with the other. Phil looks up again, startled, and I want to stare at his wide blue eyes for... no, no, stop that. I drop my gaze to his hand, which seems to have stopped bleeding.
“Here,” I reach my hand out, and he lifts his. I manage to get most of the blood off, then dab the antiseptic solution across the cuts. He winces, and I pause to check his face. To find him staring at me; a flush creeps up my cheeks. “Sorry, I should’ve mentioned this would sting,” I mumble under my breath, but he doesn’t respond. When I’m satisfied he won’t get an infection, I pull out the bandage and wrap his hand gently. Though I’ve finished, I’m reluctant to let go - this might be the last chance I have to be this close, he’ll never want to be around me again after that kiss..
He clears his throat, and I jump, dropping his hand in the process. He gives me a small smile, flexing his hand carefully, and I take a moment to appraise the job I did - not half bad, if I do say so myself . I stand, then, about to turn toward the door, when Phil grabs my arm.
“Thank you,” his voice is low, and I look down at him. It’s strange, to be in this position of any kind of dominance over ‘the boss’, and I’m torn between wanting to run and hide in my room and wanting to push him back on the bed and straddle him like I had- nope, no, he’s not into me, he’s not even into guys , stop that already .
“Of course,” I mumble. Neither of us moves, his hand still on my arm, and I can’t bring myself to pull away. Instead, I stare at his hand, marveling at the way it holds me - not harshly, just enough to keep me from moving. Though he wouldn’t have to ask, to hold me here - I’d gladly stay if he wanted me to.
Then he stands, tugging me toward him, and I’m so confused I almost pull away. What is he- my thoughts are cut off when his arm encircles my back, and I’m flush against his chest. It’s then that I notice a soft melody lilting through the room - had it been there before? Surely I’d have noticed music ...Phil’s hand has drifted to my own, clasping it gently and lifting it as he begins to sway. Is he...are we…
“Dancing? Yes,” he smiles, “since I never got the chance to ask at the party.” I blink a few times, trying to put some words together to form a coherent response. But I thought he didn’t like guys? As soon as I’ve had the thought, he laughs, and it vibrates through him and into my chest. “And what gave you that impression? Was it the flirting, or the kiss perhaps?” He’s still chuckling, and I can’t figure it out.
“But you and...Elizabeth?” I manage to say, “And the...aren’t you upset about the kiss?” I’m suddenly desperately wishing I had his abilities, so I could see what’s going on in his head as another laugh rumbles through him.
“Sure,” he says, and his answer floors me. I step back, then, worried that this must be some kind of sick, twisted game. Of course he’s pissed, what was I thinking. Until his hand lifts my chin up, and I’m reminded of the night I saw him in the hall, when he’d done the same thing.
“I’m definitely upset,” he continues, and I hold my breath - but he doesn’t look angry. He looks… “I’m upset we were so rudely interrupted, but I suppose we can pick back up where we left off,” I exhale the moment before his lips meet mine, then I’m the one pulling him closer, back against my chest. His arm returns to its spot on my lower back, and his other hand - which had been occupied with mine until I’d pulled back - finds the nape of my neck as he deepens the kiss.
“But, I thought-” I manage to get out as I pull back to take a breath.
“ Stop thinking ,” he whispers it against my mouth. So I do.
Chapter 10: Humans and Hang-ups
I’m drawn from a comfortable sleep against Phil’s chest by the annoying buzz of my phone in my pocket. Which is very kindly notifying me that I’ve got fifteen minutes to get over to the diner for my shift. I drop the phone back onto the bed, burying my face back into Phil.
Though I didn’t realize it, he’s awake, and his hand runs through my hair once before he nudges me.
“You need to get up, you’ve still got to get changed for work,” he’s smiling softly, and I don’t want to leave, but it’s literally the only thing he’s asked of me, so I groan as I sit up. My head is pounding, and I fight a wave of nausea that bubbles up in my throat. I am not about to get sick all over my boy...uh, Phil’s room. I grimace, then manage to stand up. Phil’s not moved, just watching me, and I’m suddenly very aware of the situation. And I’ve got no clue what I’m supposed to say.
“Uh, right, I’ll, uh...see you later?” I try, and am rewarded with a grin.
“I certainly hope so,” Phil’s voice is thick with desire, and I’m more than ready to risk the wrath of Chris or PJ - or Phil himself - just to spend another five minutes in his arms. I wonder what Phil’s wrath would be like... “Go on, none of that now,” he smirks, and I feel my cheeks blush as I smile to myself, turning quickly and exiting into the corridor. I rush to my own room, checking the time on the way. Ten minutes, guess I won’t be showering then.
I strip off the dress clothes from the night before, wrinkled from sleeping in them, and pull on my uniform. I’m out the door with minutes to spare, and I hesitate by Phil’s door as I pass it. Before I can think too hard on it, I knock once and open the door. He’s not moved, and it seems I’ve once again surprised him - he glances up sharply, but his face softens when he recognizes it’s me.
“I look forward to later,” I wink at him, shutting the door so I don’t have to watch his reaction. Oh my god, I just winked at him, how cheesy was that? Why the fuck did I do that? I mentally curse myself as I speed-walk down the corridor to the diner. Fortunately, I’m quickly distracted from my thoughts by PJ all but dragging me toward the front to seat some patrons.
Fortunately, I’m only working for a few hours - I don’t think my head can handle much more than that. At the end of my shift, I’m pulled away by Chris.
“Mate, you look like absolute shit - Peej did warn you about that champagne,” he’s laughing as he drags me toward the kitchen. I want to be annoyed, but the smell of the food makes my stomach grumble. I haven’t eaten anything since last night - partly due to the unsettling nausea that had plagued me during the first half of my shift - and I’m suddenly-
“ Famished , honey,” Louise appears, a sandwich extended toward me.
“Yeah, she said if I didn’t get you in here right now , you might pass out,” Chris adds. I assess my own hunger levels - definitely need something to eat, but I don’t feel lightheaded . My confusion must show, because Louise butts back in.
“Alright, so you’re not that hungry, but I’m not about to let you get that hungry. Go on,” she says, shoving the plate into my hands before marching off to check on something in the oven. I follow Chris as he swings open the door to the staff kitchen.
“Can she…?” I trail off, unsure what I’m even really asking at this point.
“Tell when you’re hungry? Yeah, bit of a weird ability,” he smirks as he plops down in a chair, and I take the place across from him. “But who am I to judge! I haven’t got any bloody abilities,” he crosses his arms and actually looks a little annoyed. I take a bite of the sandwich, thinking while I chew.
“But she doesn’t look…” Again, I trail off. Like a demon? Weird, different, unsettling? I can’t decide on which term is the least offensive, so I leave it open in the air. At least Chris is human, I’d be terrified to ask PJ any of this…
“Right, you’ve seen Peej’s camo, yeah? He looks human most of the time?” I nod, taking another bite and making the mental connection. I guess she can do that as well? “Louise does that too, but her camo’s a bit different.” I nod again, halfway through the sandwich at this point. When Chris doesn’t speak for a moment, I swallow the bite I was chewing and prompt him again.
“So…” god, I must sound like the most insensitive person. I do a quick scan of the room before finishing my question. “What does she look like?” I whisper it, in case someone’s got super hearing or something. Oh god, what if Louise has super hearing? I shift in my seat uncomfortably, going for another bite of the sandwich. Chris seems...well, not offended. Rather amused, actually.
“She’s a snake,” he says nonchalantly, and I stop mid-chew. And blink at him a few times.
“She’s a what now?” I ask around a mouthful.
“ Snake . As in, scaly, slithery reptile? Long, forked tongue? Ringing any bells?” He’s trying desperately to keep a straight face as my eyes widen considerably. I swallow again, not just the sandwich but against the lump in my throat as well.
“Oh,” I nod, trying to retain the same calm and disinterested demeanor I put on when PJ showed me his demon form. “That’s...interesting,” I stare at my plate, but I’ve finished the sandwich and have nothing left to distract me from Chris’ laughter.
“It’s fine, you can be freaked out. I sure as hell was, the first time I saw some of these guys. I mean, I love Wendell, but four eyes? That shit scared the fuck out of me.” I glance up, and want to scream when I catch the hint of pity in the look he gives me, but I realize it’s encompassed by something I really didn’t expect: camaraderie. It hits me, then, how isolated it must feel - how isolated I’ve felt, so far - when everyone else is (or very well could be) a demon. Hell, for all I know, I’m the first human Chris has met since he arrived. I wonder how long…
“How long have you been here?” I decide to voice the question, curiosity directing me now that this door of friendship has been opened. It earns me a bitter chuckle, and he levels a look at me.
“Sure you want to know the answer?” He asks, and I second-guess myself. No, it’ll kill me if I don’t know, especially now he’s said that. I nod, and he shrugs and leans forward, resting his elbows on the table. “Been here over two hundred years, did the exact same thing you did. Well, not exact , I was slightly more...inebriated, but it got me stuck for a while and by the time we got back to the city, I, uh…” he pauses, and it takes me a full ten seconds of silence to realize what he’s implying.
“You met PJ,” I state bluntly, and his eyes shoot up to mine before he laughs off his embarrassment with an awkward chuckle.
“Yeah, I met Peej. But it took him ages to come around, I’ll tell you that,” he’s staring at his hands now, and I take a leap and decide to prod him on.
“What happened? How’d you two, y’know,” I gesture nonspecifically at him, and my own cheeks begin to heat up as I consider my own situation with Phil. What are we, anyway? Are we even a ‘thing’? Is there a ‘we’, or was I just... I end that train of thought, not in the mood for self-doubt. Chris’ voice pulls me back to the present, and I try to focus on it, on the story.
“Jeez, I think he knew how I felt before I did. He was the one who found me, when I stumbled in here drunk and passed out in a back booth, and he was the one who suggested to Phil that I stay until we got back to the city, I could just work in the diner to earn my keep. It was more of a...bar, back then. But anyway, not what you asked,” he waves a hand, dismissing the tangent he was about to go on, and I lean forward, genuinely interested.
“So he found me, right, and actually put me up in his room until I recovered from my wicked hangover. I started working the diner, usually under Peej’s supervision - Phil basically considered me a pet, at that point, for Peej to take care of. Took me ages to figure out why he always acted so...flustered around me, but mate, let me tell you, I have zero control over my thoughts.” I laugh, recalling the various times I’d seen PJ get inexplicably flustered when Chris was around.
“Right? It’s hilarious. So, by this point, I could at least admit to myself that I was into him, and I tried pretty much every trick in the book to get him. Including, I will admit, several scandalous one night stands with the hopes of making him jealous. Remarkable how many of these demons want to get it on with a human,” he laughs, and absurdly frank tone makes my blush deepen, so I drop my eyes to the table. Is that all I am to Phil? Some human he can eventually get into bed, just to satisfy his curiosity? The thought terrifies me.
“Sorry, mate,” Chris catches my discomfort and must decide to wrap the story up quickly. “Anyway, none of it worked, and I basically all but gave up. Stopped bugging him, stopped my seduction attempts, stopped with the jealousy bit, and just...gave him space. I guess that’s what he needed, time to process and figure out his feelings, and then he came to me , and...ah, let’s just say it was a very eventful evening,” when I lift my gaze, he’s smirking again, and I clear my throat.
“That, uh, sounds...yeah, interesting,” I’m utterly lost for words. That conversation did not go in any direction I expected it to. And I do not feel any better about this...whatever it is with Phil . “I’m gonna...I haven’t showered since yesterday, so I’m gonna go do that,” I mumble, feeling incredibly awkward and looking for any escape route. When Chris just laughs, I turn and speed-walk my way back to my room.
I almost stop at Phil’s door, temptation drawing me there, but fight the urge and rush to my own room.
Chapter 11: Candles and Chases
I take far longer than necessary under the scalding stream of water, hoping to clear my thoughts, but it doesn’t help. Chris’ words have burrowed into my head and latched on tight, and I can’t fight them off. What if I’m just a novelty for him? I towel off, scrubbing at my hair and head twice as hard in the hopes that my nerves will be sucked away with the water.
It doesn’t work, of course, and I end up in my room, deciding that I won’t just give into whatever he asks, he’ll have to put forth some effort. He’s got to chase me . That’ll prove he’s not just using me to get his ‘I slept with a human’ card. I’m completely committed to the idea. Until my phone buzzes.
Phil: Have a few errands to run today, shall we get dinner together this evening?
And there goes my heart. I battle with the idea of making him wait, or outright declining, or maybe not even responding at all, but it takes my fingers all of five seconds to type my answer and hit send.
Dan: Sure :)
I sigh, dropping to the bed. So much for that. At least he didn’t just say ‘hey let’s hook up’ or anything... I hold that tiny, silly bit of hope in my heart.
Phil: Dining room on the 3rd floor, 8pm
I send a quick confirmation, then pause - I have no clue where that is. I’m about to ask him when I remember the extremely useful map on my phone. Alright, time to go exploring . Once I’ve oriented myself on the map, I scroll up to the third floor and start scanning the rooms. Most are unlabeled, though they look to be living quarters similar to this floor and the first. Toward the end of the hall, I notice the dining room and drop a pin, requesting that the app direct me there.
I follow the navigation to the stairwell - great memories of that, I think as I scoff aloud - and push open the door. By the time I get to the third level, I’m huffing and puffing like I ran a marathon. Fucking hell, I forgot the grand ballroom had such high ceilings... I had to climb the equivalent of four flights of stairs, and I am in no shape to be doing that regularly. Alright, I need to arrive early tonight so I don’t sound winded when I meet Phil, I make the mental note as I push through the door.
My breathing still hasn’t returned to normal by the time I reach the end of the corridor, standing in front of what my mini-GPS is telling me is the dining room. The door is fairly regular-looking, and I wonder for a moment if it’s been perhaps mislabeled on the map. I do a quick double-check, then twist the handle and push lightly on the door. I hope nobody’s in here... the thought occurs to me at the last second, and I’ve already opened it a crack, but it’s fully dark and I sigh in relief.
I swing the door open wide, and I’m met with a pitch-black room. I fumble around the walls, searching for a light switch; when my fingers find the panel, I flick the lights on triumphantly. Except nothing happens - rather, nothing happens at first. I’m about to switch them off again, to attempt the old tried-and-true method of turning them on and off until they start working, when I notice a small glow from across the room. Is that…
I make my way across the barely lit space, hands extended at every angle to avoid running into any unfortunately-placed furniture; I manage to find my way to the small flame without incident, though, and shift my focus to inspecting it.
The fire looks realistic, and I wonder for a moment if technology has gotten so advanced that those little LED candles can look like actual flame. My face is about half an inch from the light, and I can feel the warmth tickle my nose. Surely not... I lift a finger, bringing it closer to the wick that looks far too real to be a tiny bulb. The moment before I can touch it, though, two more candles light beside me, right next to the first, and then two more - I realize I’m staring at the first candle in a rather ornate candelabra. I pull back as the flames spread, popping up on more candelabras and smaller candlesticks nearby; before I realize it, I’m spinning to watch the candles light themselves around the entire room, and my breath catches in my throat. It’s beautiful, like stars in the night sky, or fireflies, but softer.
I’m interrupted from my staring when the door to the room opens.
“Dan?” I recognize the voice, though it’s still dim enough in the room that I can only make out a vague outline.
“What are you doing here, PJ?” I furrow my brows, squinting to try to see him better. Now that the candles have all lit, I’m able to distinguish shapes in the room, so I’m not concerned about running into anything as I walk over to him.
“Phil asked me to, uh…” he pauses, like he’s unsure he should continue. “I just have to do a routine check of all the rooms,” he amends, and I’m immediately suspicious. “Did you, uh, need something in here?” It’s clear he’s trying to get me out, now that I can see his face - he won’t meet my eyes, and he’s tapping his fingers against his leg impatiently. Though I’m not sure he’s telling the truth, I don’t have much of an option, given his abilities.
“Phil invited me here, later tonight, so I wanted to be sure I could find it.” I shrug, ducking my head to cover the blush that creeps up my cheeks. Though I try to avoid thinking about it, my mind inevitably drifts to what the evening might hold. What if it’s just an elaborate ruse to get me into bed? I can’t help the thought, and my heart sinks a little.
Then PJ’s laughing, and it echoes around the space in an unsettling way. I glance up and fix him with a hard gaze - did he listen in on that bit as well? For fuck’s sake, that’s annoying.
“Dan, you’ve got nothing to worry about, alright? Can I,” he sweeps a hand around the room, and I frown. He said I have nothing to worry about, what’s that supposed to mean? My face is still scrunched, but I nod and move past him to leave the dining room. “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” I hear his words over my shoulder just before the door shuts behind me. Does he know what’s going on in Phil’s head, I wonder? The concept gives me a little burst of hope - if PJ said I shouldn’t worry, he must know something I don’t, something about Phil’s intentions…
I let the idea soothe me as I trudge down the steps to the ground floor and return to my room. Then check my phone. No texts from Phil, I wonder what exactly he’s up to? He said he had ‘errands’ to run...can he leave this place? I mull the thought over in my head for a while. I guess he can make portals, but where can he even go? If this is hell, what’s outside the diner? Do I even want to know? I clear my head before my imagination can conjure nightmarish landscapes and horrifying creatures, worse than the demons in the diner. Instead, I plunk down on the mattress and check the time. Ugh, only half past four. I lay back, intending only to rest my eyes for a bit, but I’m soon sucked into a dreamless sleep.
Fortunately, it only lasts a few hours - well, I’m woken rather abruptly from my nap by an incessant buzzing in my hand. I groan and sit up, still groggy, then check who’s calling - Chris . I stare at the ceiling for a few moments, blinking away the sleep, before I answer.
“ Hey mate, Peej said you’ve got a hot date tonight, that true? ” He’s talking quickly, clearly excited; I groan again, falling back to the mattress.
“ Why did PJ tell you that?” I can feel the embarrassment making my face warm, and I hope he doesn’t tease me too much. At this point, it’s inevitable…
“ For a guy who can read everyone’s minds, he’s pretty shit at keeping secrets to himself, ” Chris chuckles at the other end of the line, and I drag a hand across my face. “ So who’s it with? You have to tell me, ” my eyes fly open at this. At least PJ didn’t tell him who I was...is it a date? Does Phil consider it a date? I only realize I’ve been completely silent when Chris bugs me again.
“Oh, uh, I mean, I…” I stutter, not exactly willing to admit who I’d be seeing this evening. “Can I not?” I ask, voice small and, I notice, projecting my embarrassment pretty clearly. I’m met with a very loud groan on the other end, and I have to pull the phone away from my ear for a minute.
“ Fine, fine, but I demand details tomorrow, or I’ll make your life hell during your shift! ” His tone is joking, though, and I don’t think I’m meant to take the threat seriously; I’m immensely relieved, and about to say a quick ‘goodbye’ and hang up, when he jumps back in. “ Okay, Peej said it was in the dining room upstairs, which means it’ll be fancy. Have you picked anything else up from Ollie yet? ” I shake my head in response before realizing he isn’t in the room.
“Uh, no I haven’t...Honestly, I was just gonna wear regular clothes, do you think I really need something nice?” Nerves creep in again, and I stand from the bed.
“You’re impossible. I’ll be there in one minute.” I hear a click as the phone’s hung up on his end, and I lower mine from my ear. Okay, I guess the general atmosphere of the room should’ve given it away, but it’s not like Phil told me I need to dress nicely? I’m startled by a knock on my door, and I go over to pull it open. Chris is standing there, arms crossed impatiently. He’s even tapping a foot, and the whole sight is rather comical.
“Mate, you can’t be serious! You weren’t gonna wear that, were you?” I scan my own clothing, a pretty basic shirt and jeans from before I arrived here, and Chris actually throws his hands in the air in exasperation. “Let’s go, you’ve only got half an hour.” I check the phone again, cursing as I see the time. And I wanted to get upstairs early, too...shit.
We’re at Ollie’s in record time, given how long it had taken the first time, and Chris practically shoves me into the room before running off, saying PJ needed him for something.
Fortunately, Ollie’s already on the ground, so I’m not left as unsettled as before, when he’d mysteriously descended from somewhere above. He appraises me quickly before disappearing into the labyrinth of boxes, so I stand awkwardly and let my eyes wander the space. I’m staring at the ceiling when he returns, squinting in an attempt to see beyond the layer of darkness that hovers up there; he gives me an inquisitive look before passing me the black slacks I’d tried on the other day along with a dark maroon button down.
“Chris mentioned you would be in the dining room, this should suit the atmosphere nicely. Now, I’d recommend changing posthaste if you plan to arrive on time.” I’m ushered into the changing room once again, and I check my phone on the way - shit, already ten til. I hope I’ll have time to recover after running up the stairs.
I dress quickly, thanking Ollie as sincerely and succinctly as I can manage before power-walking down the hall to the stairwell. I swear this stupid fucking corridor just goes on for ages . Anxiety creeps in as I finally make it to the stairs, climbing them two at a time before stopping behind the door to the third floor. I inhale deeply a few times, trying to slow my heart rate, and check the time. Okay, I’ve got a few minutes, I can breathe.
I continue to take deep breaths as I push through the door and make my way down the hall toward the dining room. By the time I’m reaching to turn the handle, my breathing has evened out. My heart rate, however, has not - my nerves have only multiplied in the time since leaving Ollie’s room, and I hesitate to open the door.
What if he comes up the stairs and sees me just...standing here? The fear of embarrassment motivates me, and I step inside. I’m surprised to find the place empty: aside from the low glow of the lit candles and a single table, set for two, under the elegant chandelier at the center of the room, nobody’s here. I check my phone - right on eight - and scan the room again. Perhaps Phil’s just running late? I mean, he said he was running errands. I wander slowly over to the table and pull out the chair, perching on the edge of it awkwardly.
Chapter 12: Fear and Fire
Tw: descriptions of blood. Nothing immensely graphic. Also one very bad pun. Soz.
My legs bounce under the table, more from nerves than impatience, but minutes pass without Phil, and I’m beginning to wonder if he ditched me. I stand, feeling restless, and pace around the edges of the room. The candles are warm against my skin as I examine them again - having been interrupted the last time - and I decide it best not to touch the flames. The room itself is ornate, but not on the same level as the ballrooms, and the simplicity of my clothing does seem to match the room rather well.
I’m just getting to the other side of the room, near a raised platform, when the air is sucked away from me. It takes me a moment to place the feeling, then a pop sounds and the room returns to normal - portal . I spin, searching for the black void, jumping when I notice it’s appeared on the wall right behind me.
I jump toward it the moment I recognize the form that stumbles through.
“ Phil! ” I shout, barely managing to catch him, though we both fall against the wall. “Phil, are you okay?” I’m scanning him, but nothing seems obviously wrong - until I see the blood seeping through his fingers, clutched tightly at his stomach. His head is down, but he grunted when we’d hit the wall, and his breathing is loud enough that I can hear it - still alive. For now. I keep Phil balanced against the wall and fish in my pocket for my phone. Blood smears the screen, and I realize my own hands are covered in it.
“Fuck,” I curse, fingers slipping across the screen. I finally manage to pull up the number I’m looking for, and it only rings once before he answers. “ PJ, you need to get up here now! ” I all but scream it into the phone, then hear it click as he disconnects.
“Phil, Phil, I need you to stay with me, PJ’s on the way, he’ll know what to do,” I ramble, my hand shaking as it drops the phone to lift Phil’s chin. His eyes are squeezed shut, fighting the pain, and I can’t think of anything to do or say. What if he dies? What if he’s dying right now and I can’t help him? What am I-
My thoughts cut off abruptly as another portal forms by the door. PJ rushes through it, dragging Wendell behind him, and they reach us in a matter of seconds.
“Peej, please, help him, please tell me you know what to do!” I’m yelling, desperate for someone to do something, but PJ just stares at us both for a moment. His eyes go black, but I don’t feel anything in my head. He must be looking into Phil’s , I reason. But he stays that way for ten seconds, then twenty, then almost a full minute, and I can’t…
“ Peej, do something! You can’t just stand there, he might be dying and you’re just standing there, what the fuck are you doing! ” I scream at him, still shaking, and I feel tears pressing against the back of my eyes. My pleas must pull him from his trance, because PJ turns and pops into my head for less than a moment before his eyes turn back to their normal green and he nods at Wendell.
“Dan, you need to come with me. Phil will be fine, he just needs to heal himself. Wendell will stay and make sure things go well, but we should let him get fixed up, okay?” His tone is unnervingly calm, and I’m still in shock, so he leads me away without a fight. Until we hit the other side of the room. Two steps from the door, I freeze.
“No, no, I can’t leave him. Not until I know for sure that he’s alright.” PJ fixes a sympathetic look on me, but it only hardens my resolve.
“I don’t think-” PJ barely speaks before I cut him off.
“No, I’m not leaving.” I even cross my still-shaking arms, and PJ pinches his brow.
“Fine! Fine,” he throws his hands up in defeat, stalking from the room. “Just tell Phil I tried to get you to leave, yeah?” I don’t respond, but he slams the door behind him and I’m suddenly worried. Is that what Phil wanted, for me to leave? Why?
I turn, hesitant now, to find Wendell’s lowered Phil to the ground. And sat back, just watching. I take a few steps closer, until I’m standing behind Wendell.
“He can heal himself?” I ask, a little confused. Why didn’t he do that before coming back here, then? Hell, why didn’t he do it when he punched the wall earlier? I stare intently at the wound in his stomach, waiting to see it close over or stitch itself up or something else miraculously magical. Wendell nods, and I make a move to step forward, to get closer, but his hand shoots out to stop me.
“No closer,” is all the explanation he offers, so I step back. Maybe there’s some kind of...side effect, or he needs sufficient space to heal, or... I rack my brain for anything else remotely possible - not that I’m well-versed in supernatural healing - and come up with nothing. I guess I’ll find out?
I’m scanning Phil’s entire body, now, for some kind of indication that he’s fixing himself, but he only looks weaker and more strained. His breaths are shallow gasps, and the hand that was clenched over his stomach is now limp at his side. Though he was pale to begin with, his skin has taken on an unnaturally sickly color; I’m about to rush past Wendell, try to help - though I’ve no idea what I’d do - when the air shimmers around him.
Finally - this must be him healing. My breath is stolen from my lips, though, when a gust of wind explodes out around Phil and knocks me back. I manage to catch myself, eyes on the ground to stop from falling over, and I look up slowly.
To find Phil in the air - well, I assume it’s Phil, but the form suspended before me is not the man I’ve come to know. His skin is an ashy gray, broken up by a red-orange glow that must be his veins, though they look more like trails of lava. From his back are two enormous leathery wings, extended fully, and I’m worried they’ll shatter the chandelier if he so much as moves.
Strange time to be worrying about the decor, don’t you think, Dan? I hear the thought in my head, but I don’t recall thinking it.
Phil, are you... I stare at the figure before me, pleased to see the dripping red from its stomach slow to a stop.
In your head? Yes. The demon floating in front of you? Also yes. I inhale sharply, staring at Phil’s face. His eyes are still closed, his lips haven’t moved, but he’s talking to me in my head.
How is that possible?
Abilities are enhanced in our true forms. He offers by way of explanation, and I recall the way PJ’s eyes black out whenever he searches someone’s thoughts. After a few tense moments of silence, Phil’s eyes finally open, and I’m once again astounded: they match the veins running across his skin, red and orange and flickering like flames. He is the epitome of fire - from the low glow of the candles still surrounding us to the heat of a volcano and the cool ash left after a bonfire.
As he lowers himself to the ground, I’m mesmerized watching the pulse of his veins. I can actually see his heartbeat as the blood rushes across his skin in glowing lines, and it reminds me of a lightning strike. His wings fold as soon as his feet touch the floor, and he runs a hand across his stomach experimentally. I’m immensely relieved when his hand reveals perfectly unblemished skin.
Then his attention is focused on me, fire eyes watching me closely. This is exactly like PJ, he’s waiting for my reaction. He’s waiting for me to freak out. I hope he’s not hiding inside my head, listening, because a part of me is a little freaked out by his demon form. Though, honestly, I’m mostly concerned I’ll get burnt…
He must read some measure of calmness in my features, because he takes a hesitant step forward. I don’t move, and he takes another. By the time he’s stood a foot from me, Wendell has already slipped out the door, and we’re left alone.
The lines of glowing red have me fascinated, and I extend a hand toward him. Then pause, watching his face.
“Can I…” I trail off, reaching a bit farther, and he nods. Is he nervous? I’m having a hard time reading his features, the colors throwing me off, but the tips of my fingers make contact with his skin, and he tenses. I stop, watching his face closely, but he schools his features into something I can’t place, and nods again.
I turn my attention to his skin, the glowing veins running beneath it, and trace them slowly. I step closer, then around to the side of him as I follow a vein up his arm and across his shoulder. The glowing path leads my fingers to the spot where his shoulder blade meets his wing, and I marvel at the warmth and softness as I continue my journey. He inhales sharply, and I only pause a moment when he extends the wing fully. It’s easily as long as I am tall, and my fingers splay out across the membrane as I walk out to the tip of it.
It’s there that I encounter the sharp claw, and I glance at his expression before touching it. He looks... concerned? I don’t realize why until I return my gaze to my fingertip that a small dot of blood has welled up. Note to self, that is very sharp. I wipe the finger on my shirt - it’s ruined already, anyway - then return to standing in front of Phil. His eyes have not left my face since I began my inspection of his demon form, and he seems to be holding his breath now.
“And to think,” I start, meeting his gaze with a smirk, “I thought you looked hot before.”
Chapter 13: Tales and Traditions (Epilogue)
Mostly happy stuff enjoy it frienderinos.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Phil had flat out refused to tell me what happened, leaving on the excuse that he had a few things to take care of, but PJ filled me in afterward ( note to self, he really is shit at keeping secrets ) - he’d gone to settle things with Elizabeth, but she refused to just take the money he offered and leave the diner alone. She’d attacked him first, and he, as PJ put it, “did what he had to do.” I didn’t request any elaboration on that one.
When a text from Chris informed me there’d be a party later in the week to ‘celebrate’, I had immediately run off to find Phil.
“Phil,” I’d already tried his office, where I assumed he’d be if he had ‘things to take care of’, but the room was dark and empty. So I backtracked to his room, where I’m currently standing and knocking. And Phil isn’t answering.
Before I can allow myself to think too hard, I turn the handle and push the door open. Phil’s lying, in human form now, on his bed, and he eyes me suspiciously; the question I was about to ask dies in my throat.
“I never gave you permission to come in here,” he says bluntly, and I duck my head.
“Sorry, I just, I couldn’t find you and I was worried because Chris said you’re throwing a party but you said you hate parties and I just wanted to make sure you were okay and-” Phil holds up a hand, so I stop abruptly.
“No, I have never given you permission to open my door, and yet this is the third - fourth? No, third - time that you’ve come in. I need to work on the sentience of the magic I instilled in those things,” this part he mutters to himself, staring past me, and I jump when the door slams shut of its own accord. Then Phil chuckles, and it jogs my memory.
“Why, though?” I ask, and his grin sobers to a half-smile.
“It wasn’t my idea, but PJ was right about it. We need something to come together, after Elizabeth tormented my staff at the anniversary party. And they all love a good party,” his voice drips with sarcasm, and I huff a laugh. His eyes shift, then, like he’s remembering something, and he takes a deep breath. “Her death is not something to celebrate,” his voice is low, detached, and I move to sit on the bed beside him.
“Life’s too short to waste time being unhappy,” I offer, though it occurs to me half a second later that his life is not so short - hell, he might be immortal for all I know. I can tell he’s read my thoughts when he chuckles and pulls me into his chest.
“Perhaps not short , but you’re right. Besides, I have quite a few reasons to be happy,” he presses a kiss to the top of my head, and I can’t help the small smile that tugs at the corners of my mouth.
The remainder of the week is uneventful, and I’m surprised to find I’m actually a little excited for the party this evening. I’d even gone with Chris ahead of time to Ollie’s, and left with a suit. I’d protested at first, but Chris had insisted - and even left with a tuxedo , so it did seem that the attire for the night would be more formal than the original anniversary party.
I’m just finishing clearing a table, the last before we close, when the shift manager beckons me over. It’s the woman with the iridescent skin, Jemma, from the night of the explosion - I’ve since learned that she takes over when both PJ and Chris are in demand, as they are tonight.
“Hey, Dan, you’re off for the evening - I’ll finish up, but PJ said you should stop by his room before you go to the party?” I nod, though I’m unsure why he’d want me to stop by, and toss a quick ‘see you later’ over my shoulder as I make my way to my room.
I check the time once I’m in my room, pleased that I’m not yet running late, and go take a quick shower - though it is a force of willpower to get out of the hot stream of water the moment I’m finished. I grumble against the chill of the air against my flushed skin, rushing back to my room, and quickly get dressed. I hadn’t been a fan of the pattern on my dress shirt at first, but I trusted Ollie’s judgment. Now, in the mirror, I’m second-guessing myself. I stare for a long moment, analyzing every aspect of the man looking back at me, before a buzz from my bed startles me out of my trance.
PJ: Are you coming? Please hurry, we can’t be late.
I sigh, checking the time, and look in the mirror once more. I guess this’ll have to do, then . I take a steadying breath before leaving my room and making my way down to PJ’s. Before I can even knock, PJ pulls the door open and drags me inside.
“Oh, thank god you’re here,” he looks incredibly flustered, and he’s fumbling as he fishes a small box from his pocket and presents it to me. “Well?” He asks, and I stare at it for a moment before it clicks.
“Oh, Peej, I’m honored ,” I do my best to act surprised, “yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” I grab the box from his hand, opening it to find a simple ring of gold. PJ takes a hilarious minute to process the situation before he’s snatching the box from my hand and shoving it back into the pocket of his suit jacket.
The expression on his very flushed face sends me into a fit of laughter, and he crosses his arms angrily. “Maybe this was a bad idea…” he trails off, staring at the ground beside his feet - I rein in the humor, voice taking on a completely serious tone.
“No, Peej, he’s going to love it. Trust me.” I pause for a minute, trying to think. “But why did you ask me to come here first? Why not Phil?” They’ve definitely known each other longer, so I’m not sure why he wanted to run the idea by me first. He only manages to look annoyed for another few seconds before his nerves creep back in, and he starts pacing.
“You know Phil,” he grumbles, and I scrunch my eyebrows together. “He doesn’t know a thing about humans,” PJ throws his hands in the air exasperatedly, and I nod in agreement. “We don’t really do this kind of thing down here,” he amends, “since most of us live so long, but I know it’s a meaningful tradition for you,” he gestures at me, and I realize he means humans , “and I just thought…” he drops his head into his hands and sits on the bed.
“Peej, seriously, he’ll love it. Now,” I try, hoping it’ll get him out of his funk, “if we don’t leave soon, we’re going to be late .” I smirk when his head shoots up, and he grabs my arm as he drags me from the room and down the corridor.
“So, tell me more about this ‘marriage’ thing?” Phil and I are leaning against the wall in the corner - he’s already finished his champagne. I, on the other hand, am trying to take it slower with small, occasional sips. Chris said yes, of course, and he and PJ have been dancing for most of the evening since. As expected, Phil knows next to nothing about the custom.
“Basically it’s when two people love each other and decide to commit to each other for...basically forever,” I know I’m not doing it justice, but I really don’t feel like explaining the entire history of marriage to him right now.
“But you mentioned a large party? Why is that level of celebration required, do they not just say they’re committing to each other and be done with it?” His inquisitiveness is endearing, but any proper answers I could give would take ages , and I’m not sure how much background knowledge he might require about humans for everything to make sense.
I shake my head in place of answering, taking a large sip of my champagne and setting it aside.
“I’m sure PJ would love to explain it to you later,” I smile, taking his hand and pulling him from the wall. “How about a dance?” Though I initiate it, he’s suddenly the one leading me onto the floor, and he pulls me against his chest in one smooth movement.
Wendell insisted he could make a proper ‘wedding’ happen in a matter of weeks, and I’m surprised at how well-put-together the whole thing is. I was a little shocked when PJ had asked me to be his best man, given how close he and Phil were, but he explained that Phil would be presiding over the ceremony. I actually laughed at that, until PJ fixed me with a hard stare. Naturally, I agreed to be his best man.
The ceremony itself was rather traditional - which made sense, given how long ago Chris had entered the diner - but succinct, for which I was immensely grateful. The reception, though, was quite the spectacle. Phil rearranged the entire grand ballroom - the first time it had been used in ages - in one fell swoop, and suddenly the place was set for a party.
It’s already late into the evening, though the festivities show no signs of stopping, when Phil pulls me aside. He’s been playing host all night, chatting with all the guests and being his usual charming self, though I’ve been more than content to sit and people-watch.
“Care for a dance?” He asks, and I smile. I’m a little surprised when he leads me out of the ballroom and down to the ground floor. It takes me until we’ve just stopped at his door to realize we’re going to his room.
“Dancing, are we?” I ask, raising an eyebrow at him as he pushes his door open. I follow him inside, and soft music fills the air.
“Of course we are! What else would we be doing?” Phil’s trying to sound innocent as he pulls me in, and I laugh against his chest.
“Right, sure, whatever you say,” I smile and drop my head to his shoulder as we sway, and we get lost in the music for a while.
“When I was doing some research for the wedding, I learned about another tradition,” Phil’s voice breaks the almost-silence, and I lift my head so we’re face to face.
“Okay, and what’s that?” I ask, humoring him. Sometimes he gets an idea in his head, best to just let him run with it . My eyebrows arch slightly when I notice the look in his eyes.
“Well, it seems,” Phil pauses, spinning and pushing me to the bed beneath him, “there’s a tradition of sharing the same bed, the night after the wedding,” his grin is wicked, but I can’t help myself.
“Phil, you spoon, that’s the married couple,” I’m laughing, but it’s breathy - having him so close is absolutely intoxicating.
“Oh,” his voice is low and husky, and I bite my lip. “I guess I really don’t understand much about human traditions,” he tilts his head to the side, pretending to contemplate something. “Oh well,” he shrugs, moving to pull himself off me, “there go my plans for the evening.” I narrow my eyes at him, and he smirks down at me. My hands find his hair, the nape of his neck, and I bring him back down to me, stopping him the moment before his lips meet mine to respond.
“ We can make our own traditions. ”
THIS IS NOT THE END! Look for more from the Demons and Diners AU coming soon! Thanks y'all for all the interest, I really appreciate everything.