lb_lee: A pencil sketch of me drawing/writing in my sketchpad. (art)
[personal profile] lb_lee
This story is going up in installments, according to donations!  Many thanks to [livejournal.com profile] silvercat17 for starting us off!  Other sponsors include [livejournal.com profile] taliabear, Kat Symon, cloudiah, and [livejournal.com profile] dreamer_marie! Enjoy!

The Thing in the Drain



“You promise?”

“I promise.

“No sad kids.  No dead people.  No work.”

“None whatsoever.”

“Just a night at the bathhouse.”

“The best I’ve ever seen.”

“Okay,” Perfection said. “But you’d better relax.”


The bathhouse was filthy.  The paint was encrusted in grime, the windows obscured by dust.  As Alpert and Perfection watched, a tile fell from the roof.  Perfection would’ve retorted, except she could see from Alpert’s stricken face that this was a new development.

“I don’t understand…” he said. “It was fine last year…”

The inside looked no better than the outside.  At the front desk sat a woman with a face completely devoid of joy or interest in the world.  It took until Alpert cleared his throat for her to react, and she stared at them unblinking for a few moments.  There was no look of surprise or concern at Perfection’s appearance, just blankness.

Finally, her jaws creaked open. “Help you?” Her voice was where all happiness went to die.

Perfection had never seen Alpert taken aback before. “A room, please.”

A pause, long enough to be awkward, and then the woman intoned, “Don’t do much truck with exorcists.”

Alpert and Perfection waited, but that was it.  When they didn’t leave, the woman sighed liked a dying kazoo and went to rummage for a key.  After a torturous ten minutes (in which the woman left the building entirely), she finally unearthed a key, spotted with some unknown sticky substance and reeking of whiskey.

“Lucky number thirteen,” she droned, dropping it into Alpert’s hand. “Have a nice day.”

She dumped a heap of poorly folded towels and blankets into Perfection's arms, and then left, leaving her two customers goggling after her.  Eventually, they realized she was not coming back; they would have to find the room themselves.

“My god,” Alpert remarked under his breath. “She didn’t even ask for payment.”

“Reverend,” Perfection said, “has it occurred to you that this woman may not want our business? ‘Cause, damn.”

Alpert still seemed in shock. “This place was so lovely once…”

Perfection caught glimpses of that loveliness while they searched for the room.  Under the dust and grime, she saw beautifully painted tile and clay in red, black, and yellow, a bulletin board with notes and trinkets from people around the country, some of whom had come again and again.  This place had obviously been a favorite among travelers, once.

The room turned out to be at the end of the corridor atop the stairs.  The windows were shut, leaving it dark and dank, and when Alpert finally got the sticky door open…

“Those are leaves,” Perfection stated, kicking them away. “And that is the smell of a drunk tank.”

Alpert shook his head as he went to open the window, as though hoping to air the place out. “No one seems to have even been in this room for weeks.  Had I known…” He gave her a questioning look.  They hadn’t paid; they could leave.

Perfection sighed and dumped the blankets on the bed. “Forget it.  It’s late, and we have to set out for the central church early tomorrow.  The bed looks all right; let’s just survive the night and get out of here tomorrow.”

The pipes, at least, were still good.  The water came out clear and hot straight away, and the enormous Roman bathtub seemed the only clean thing in the place.  Perfection let Alpert get to work with the esoteric bottles of salts and oils, focusing her own energies on getting the bed made.

She was shaking the dusty pillows out the window when she heard a loud sploosh, like someone leaping headlong into the tub.

Perfection chuckled. “Well, at least you’re relaxing.”

Silence.

Perfection turned. “Reverend?”

The room was empty, the door still shut tight.  The water in the tub was still rippling from the splash, bubbles breaking the dark surface.  The smell of whiskey was overpowering.

Perfection hurried to the tub and found that the water wasn’t black, just filled to the brim with thick coils of tangled hair.  When she reached for one, it writhed and wrapped around her wrist.

“Alpert!” Snarling, Perfection twisted her arm free, paused to tear off her dress—it was loose and gauzy, dead weight—then dived into the tub.  She should’ve smashed her face into the floor of the tub, but instead she dove down, down, into water black with hair.  It brushed and tickled across her face, tried to work its way up her nose and into her eyes.  Perfection shut them tight—she couldn’t see a thing anyway—and followed the bubbles and echoes of Alpert’s thrashing rippling against her skin.  When the hair tried to wrap around her neck, she caught it in her claws and tore it apart.

The water erupted in a shriek of surprise and anger, and Perfection felt Alpert’s arm brush against her side.  She caught him, pulled him close, and sensible man, he recognized her touch and stopped struggling immediately.

The hair didn’t want to let him go, but it was not equipped for the wrath of an angry demon.  She ripped and tore with claws and teeth, and with Alpert clinging to her back, surged for the surface—she was strong, but her lungs were burning.

She broke the surface, gasped in air, and threw Alpert off her back and onto the floor, so hard that he bounced—not that she meant to, but the hair was rallying and wrapping around her legs, and she desperately needed her hands free.

While Alpert coughed up water, the hair crawled up Perfection’s body like a black kraken, trying to drag her back under.  While she twisted, trying to use her tail to push herself out of the water, tendrils went for her neck and arms.  Perfection thrashed and heaved, but with the bottom of the tub gone couldn’t find the leverage.

Still coughing, Alpert hurled himself towards his pack, kicking off a rope of hair around his ankle.  Digging frantically, he finally came up with his chalk belt and a stick of chalk.  Pitching forward on his hands and knees, he swept his arm to start a sloppy cleansing circle around the tub.

“Get out!” He shouted. “Let it go, Perfection!”

Perfection saw what he was doing.  Going limp, she let the hair pull her in enough that she could brace herself against the walls of the tub, and then, using the hair’s grip on her arms for leverage, she ripped it out.  It shrieked again—without the water distorting the sound, it was clearly the voice of a furious woman—and Perfection didn’t so much leap out of the tub as fall out of it, scrambling out of the way just as Alpert finished his circle and slapped it.  The lines blazed with cold fire, and the shrieking intensified.  It wasn’t a binding star, barely an annoyance, but apparently the hair had not been expecting this much of a fight.

And Alpert wasn’t done.  Seizing the wooden tub cover, he scrawled another, more symmetrical circle and a binding star within, then reared up to throw it over the tub.

That did the job.  The hair immediately withdrew under the cover, presumably back into the pipes from whence it came, and the shrieking faded off.  Alpert and Perfection lay sprawled against the tub, bedraggled, wet, and gasping for air.

“Best bathhouse you’d ever seen, you said,” Perfection wheezed. “No work, you said…”

Alpert’s voice was hoarse from water, his lips pale. “There’s a thing in the drain.”

“Just a night at the bathhouse, you said.  Rest and relaxation, you said…”

“There is a thing in the drain,” Alpert said again.

“Yes, Reverend,” Perfection said. “I might have noticed, there is indeed a thing in that drain.”

Now that he was no longer in fear for his life, Alpert looked on the verge of hysterics, though his voice remained quiet. “Why is there a thing in the drain?”

“I don’t know, Alpert,” Perfection snapped. “I don’t know why there’s a thing in the drain.  Why don’t you ask the owner, ask her why there’s a thing in the drain!”

And Alpert stormed to his feet to do just that.  Perfection stayed where she was.  Binding star or no, she didn’t want to let the tub out of her sight, and she was still recovering her wind after her underwater fight.

“I swear to god that man is a chaos magnet,” she said to herself.

After a few minutes, Alpert returned.  He seemed to have regained some of his composure, though his lips were still pale and his eyes goggling out of his head.  He joined Perfection at the bed, sitting heavily with a sigh.

“She’s gone,” he told her.

“Imagine that,” she replied.

“Are you all right?”

“Pissed but otherwise fine.  You?”

“Much the same.” He flung water off his sleeve and rested his face in his hands for a time, long enough that she was positive he was doing some kind of breathing exercise.  When he straightened up, he looked calmer. “Thank you.”

“You know, Reverend, I’m really starting to wonder how you stayed alive before you had me around.”

Alpert shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “I’ve been attacked in the woods.  I get attacked on cases.  All that is to be expected, but in my favorite bathhouse?  Usually people warn you about things like that.”

“Something is severely not right with that woman.”

“Forget her.  She’s not the problem; it’s that thing in the drain—” And his eyes suddenly went distant.

“What?” Perfection asked. “What is it?”

“You didn’t smell it coming,” he said.

“Well, no.  That liquor smell…” now she was the one with her face in her hands. “It’s coming from that thing.  Damn, I’m dense…”

“Did you smell it on the owner?”

Perfection blinked. “No… owner’s wrong, but clean.  Whatever that thing is, it’s not hers.”

“Odd, don’t you think?”

“A bit.” She smiled with all her teeth. “Why don’t we ask it about that?”

He smiled back. “You read my mind, dear girl.”

He kissed her, and they went to change clothes and have a conversation with the thing in the drain.

...

Alpert pulled a shirt over his thin shoulders. “You’re staring.”

Perfection beamed. “You noticed!  Only time I’ve seen you naked, you were busy throwing up all over me.  But you’re all better n—what’re those?”

It was subtle; old scars, she’d thought before.  But now that she was paying close attention, she could see that these were planned out, methodical, some sort of design over his heart…

But then Alpert pulled his shirt down, breaking her view.

“I thought as my demon, you were obliged to know everything about me,” he said.

“No, just your desires.  So what is it?”

He turned away. “A reminder.” He reached for his chalk belt and fastened it around his waist. “Now let’s have a chat with the lady with the hair, hmm?”

The thing in the drain didn’t come out.  It apparently had had quite enough of Alpert and Perfection and the binding star, and had burrowed deep into the pipes to avoid them, so much so that Perfection could barely smell it.

“Blast,” Alpert said, circling around the bath. “Times like this, I wish I had kept the blade; I could never put stars on all the pipes…”

Perfection rolled her eyes and grabbed Alpert by the collar, dragging him towards her. “Hey, lady!” she bellowed. “If you don’t talk, I’m going to fuck this man, right on your tub!”

“You wouldn’t dare!” The pipes cried indignantly. “You’d scuff the star!  I’d strangle you both!”

“You’re welcome,” Perfection told Alpert, and let go of his collar.

He gave her a chiding look, straightened his collar, and spoke to the tub. “Who are you and what are you doing in that drain?”

“Blame my sister,” the voice snapped.

“Who?  That blob of misery at the front desk?” Perfection asked.

The response was a shriek of rage so loud that the whole tub quivered. “Coward!  Neglector!  When I get my hands on her…”

“No wonder the room is filthy,” Alpert muttered, then said to the tub, “Let me guess, she murdered you to get the bathhouse.”

“What?  No!  She never wanted the place.”

Alpert and Perfection exchanged glances. “So…”

“Look,” the voice said. “The bath house has been in our family since the Plagues.  It always gets passed down to the oldest child.”

“You?” Alpert asked.

“If you’re so intent on coming up with your own answers, I hardly see what you need me for,” the voice said peevishly. “I’m not the oldest.  My sister, may a thousand devils shit on her soul, popped out ten minutes earlier; she got the bathhouse.”

“She’s doing a bang-up job,” Perfection said, rolling her eyes.

“Yes!” the voice shouted. “Look at the place!  It makes me sick!  She never wanted the place, never loved it like I did, but nope, ten minutes and none of that matters.  I don’t even have arms anymore and I still take better care of the pipes than she does of anything else!”

“Yes, yes, understood,” Alpert said impatiently. “So what are you trying to achieve?”

It seemed as though the voice had never thought about it.  After a few seconds of silence, the tentative response was: “Well, what I’d really like is the bathhouse.  But look at me, I’m a dead hair-monster of the drains.  Not much I can do about that.”

“How’d that happen, anyway?” Perfection asked.

“Oh.  Uh.  Well.” The voice sounded embarrassed. “When I got the news about the place going to my sister, I kinda went to pieces.  All my life, I was the right person for the place—my sister even agreed!  But no dice, so I decided to have a last hurrah in my favorite room, draw a nice hot bath…”

“Drink a bottle of whiskey?” Perfection added.

“Something like that.  I guess I passed out, or got my hair tangled in the drain or something, because next thing I know…”

Alpert was pinching the bridge of his nose. “Let me see if I understand this.  You wanted the bathhouse.  Your sister didn’t.  Despite this, your parents passed it to her, and instead of working out a way to share ownership, or trade, or anything productive, you instead drank yourself to death, thereby insuring neither of you would get what you wanted.”

“And now you’re haunting the place and attacking customers out of… what?  Sheer bitterness?” Perfection asked. “Suddenly your sister’s misery makes a lot of sense.”

“No!” the voice whined. “I only tried to drown you because you’re exorcists.  I don’t kill customers, just… spook them a little, you know?  Look, I’m never going to get this place.  I might as well run it out of business and haunt it forever.  It’s the closest I’ll ever get to owning it.”

“No it’s not,” Alpert retorted.

“Eh?”

“If you’d bothered to communicate with me in the first place, rather than try to drown me, I could’ve told you right away.” He sounded annoyed. “You can still have this place and take care of it, if you stop attacking people.”

The voice in the drain went silent.  Then, “Really?”

“Yes.  Now tell me where your joyless sister is.”

Even with her help, it took some time to find the owner (she was sitting in a corner, staring at a wall, a picture of all-encompassing despair), but once Alpert explained, she seemed to resurrect.  It turned out she was stronger than he was—good, since they next had to move all the office furniture and paperwork into a room with a tub.  Even if the woman in the drain could be blessed to leave the tub, Alpert wasn’t that forgiving.

The ritual to strengthen the woman in the drain and bind her to the house, rather than her own rage, was ordinary enough.  Alpert made a little pouch of chalk dust for the sister, should the woman in the drain ever need to be renewed, with the usual instructions on how to contact him.

Then the bathhouse officially changed hands.  The woman in the drain would own the bathhouse and use the profits to help support her sister.  In exchange, the former owner would take care of whatever tasks the woman in the drain could not, but otherwise she could do whatever she wanted.  Both women agreed that this was a good arrangement and Alpert and Perfection left them cheerfully discussing the novelty value of a bathhouse run by a spirit.


“She did try to drown us,” Perfection said. “You could’ve just left them to their stupid pointless rivalry.”

“Yes, and then my favorite bathhouse would have gone under and I’d never get to stay here again,” Alpert said, moving from the tap.  They had switched to a clean room, and Alpert had drawn a new bath. “Besides, if anyone has earned a luxurious hot bath, it’s you.”

He stood from the tap and waved her forward, and Perfection slid into the bubbles with a purr.  The heat instantly relaxed her muscles and soothed her skin, abraded from the hair, and she purred.

“All right, you win.  I see why you keep coming back here.” She tilted onto her back and floated for a moment, then sat up again. “Only one thing would make it better.”

She grabbed Alpert by the shirtfront and pulled him forward.

“I only have the two shirts,” he scolded. “Don’t soak them both.”

“Then take it off,” Perfection said reasonably, toying with his shirt buttons with the tips of her claws.

“I have a rule,” he said as he undid his shirt. “No attempts to get into my bed within a day of near-death.”

“That’s not what I’m after, for once.”

Alpert sighed, then pulled his shirt off.

Perfection paddled close, squinting carefully at his skin.  His skin was flushing from the heat and steam, making the faint scars easier to see. “That’s a binding star on your chest.”

“Yes.”

She went and examined his arms. “And those are cleansing circles.  I didn’t even notice those before.”

“They’re very old,” Alpert replied, rubbing the backs of his hands so the faint circles rippled and flowed. “More symbolic than anything, at this point.  I’d get them redone, but…”

Perfection settled against her side of the tub. “Tell me what they’re for.”

Alpert avoided Perfection’s eyes.  He folded his arms across his chest. “This is absurd,” he muttered. “You’re my demon.  You of all people shouldn’t have an opinion to fear.”

“I’m trying to be a person, so I wouldn’t be so sure of that.  Alpert, I’m not stupid.  You’ve been dragging your feet the whole way to the central church, and now you’ve got that binding star on your chest.  What the hell happened back there, Alpert?”

Alpert’s face was still as stone. “I notice you only call me by name when you’re serious.”

“I notice you stall when I do it.”

With a sigh, he rolled his pants up, sat on the edge of the tub with his feet in the water, and patted his knee.  She came and rested against it.

“You remember Dorothy Ives, who served me my notice.  She has two names.  I have one.”

Perfection shrugged. “I only have one name.”

“Yes, but you’re not a Gestaltist.  All of us are given three names when we join the church, and these names can be stripped from us as punishment for egregious behavior.  When we no longer have a name, we cease to be.  We become… nonentities.”

Alpert’s face was drawn and distant, reliving old grief.  Perfection sat still and listened.

“A long time ago, when I was young and even more arrogant than I am now, I hurt a member of the church so badly that my last name was stripped from me.  The binding star was my insurance that I would never do something like that again, and after a time, I left the church to become an exorcist.”

“What did you do?” Perfection asked. “And that’s only one name.  What happened to the other one?”

Alpert rubbed his eyes. “The short answer to the latter is, I humiliated the church elders; I’d tell you more, but it’s a long story and mostly irrelevant to your first question.  As for that one…” he sighed and gave her a sad, pleading look, “are you absolutely certain you want to know the details?”

Perfection sat and considered.  It was late.  They were both tired and had recently been nearly drowned, and had spent half the night moving furniture.  Also, Alpert didn’t just look sad—he looked ashamed.  Whatever had happened, it was obviously something he had not talked about in a long time.  Even what little he’d said seemed to have exhausted him, and there on the side of the tub, he looked tired and old.

Perfection snuggled against his legs. “You know I’ll find out eventually.”

He scratched her horns. “I’m sure you will.”

Alpert washed her hair, and Perfection did not try to seduce him.  He slept the night through, but Perfection stayed awake, crouched on the windowsill, thinking.

Date: 2014-05-20 01:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rolodexaspirin.livejournal.com
*Laughs uproarously for a while.*

Their interactions please the hell out of me. The way they quietly bicker and banter without really bickering but you can tell they're pushing each others' buttons.

Date: 2014-05-22 02:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lb-lee.livejournal.com
At this point, Alpert and Perfection have been around each other enough to poke fun at each other. As you'll see with this installment!

--Rogan

Date: 2014-05-20 01:48 am (UTC)

Date: 2014-05-21 07:08 am (UTC)

Date: 2014-05-22 02:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lb-lee.livejournal.com
No matter what world you live in, no matter who you are, shitty customer service is a constant.

Date: 2014-06-04 06:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] silvercat17.livejournal.com
*snicker* There's nothing quite like sibling rivalry....

Date: 2014-06-07 08:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dreamer-marie.livejournal.com
This is great! I wonder why the woman at the front desk doesn't want her sibling to manage the bathhouse!

Date: 2014-06-07 09:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lb-lee.livejournal.com
She did, actually. It's just that... well, you'll see.

Date: 2014-06-08 10:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dreamer-marie.livejournal.com
*bites nails from suspense*
Page generated Apr. 23rd, 2017 07:43 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios