This wasn't a date.

The phrase reverberated in Lee's mind as she stood in front of her bathroom mirror, half paying attention to the VoxTube video playing on her phone. From the adjoining room, Freddie Mercury's dulcet tones filled the air, echoing from her new record player.

It was a ridiculous thought, objectively. She was trapped in Hell, actual Hell, with a broken body, a split soul, and blood that was horrifically appealing to the Sinners of the realm she found herself stuck in. Dating, let alone romance of any sort, should be the furthest thing from her mind. And yet, the thought kept nagging at her, like a buzzing little gnat, incessantly bouncing around in her brain, not giving her even a moments peace as she carefully patted on layer after layer of dark eyeshadow, winking in the mirror at herself.

Why that bothersome little thought had attached itself to Alastor, of all people, she had no idea. The man didn't 'do' dates, as far as she could tell, given his aversion to relationships and general disinterest in intimacy. Any smart person would take one look at him, think 'danger!' and quickly run in the opposite direction, as many of Hell's residents tended to do. If she didn't need him, if she wasn't tethered to him… if she didn't know him, she would have done the same long ago. But she did need him, as much as she hated to admit it, needed his help, his protection, and yes, if she was entirely honest, the listening ear he could provide as well.

Which was why she was now dressed like a discount store flapper girl, painting her face in preparation for whatever baffling turn of events the Radio Demon had in store for her tonight.

"Now, for a real 1920's look, you'll want pencil-thin eyebrows…" the demoness said from the phone as she began to pluck above one of her many eyes.

"Nope, not doing that," Lee muttered as she leaned forwards, filling in her brows a bit instead.

Behind her, Umbra paused, one hand still in her hair as she reached forward, drawing on the mirror as it fogged up from cold. "WHY?"

"Because I don't know if they'd even grow back," Lee replied. "My hair hasn't really grown much since I've been down here, at least not that I can tell. Knowing my luck, I'd be stuck with tiny eyebrows until I manage to find my way home."

If you can find your way home, a small, dark voice at the back of her head whispered.

She pushed the thought away.

When she had received Alastor's note earlier that day, she had just finished muddling through an impromptu self-defense class with Vaggie. The Extermination was fast approaching, and while Charlie had insisted that they would all be safe inside the Hotel, Vaggie had taken a more practical approach, gathering the residents inside the ballroom for a quick round of stretches and drills. The woman had deemed it 'too dangerous' for Lee to actually spar with the others, so she'd given her an old broom to use as a makeshift spear, instructing her to focus on keeping out of reach of any potential attackers instead. The task was easier said than done, and by the time the class finished, she was exhausted, covered in sweat, and not feeling at all confident about her ability to keep herself alive. When the letter had materialized in her pocket, it had been a welcome distraction, and she'd quickly returned to her room as it instructed. There, she had been surprised to find a whole outfit carefully laid out on her bed: stockings, shoes, white gloves, more pearls, and that rose-beaded red dress he'd gotten her, the only gift of his she'd kept. On top of the dress was another note, sealed in wax.

'Sweetheart,

I'm taking you out tonight to meet a friend of mine, as well as some associates. This is a more formal affair, so I've already taken the liberty of arranging a suitable outfit for you. Be ready to leave by nine, and please be discreet.

Yours,

Alastor.'

Confusion had swirled in her head at his words. They were going out again, so soon? Had something happened? Did Rosie find something useful, or was this just part of their charade, the façade that she'd sold him her soul? She wasn't sure, but pessimistically, she figured it must be the latter; after all, appearances were everything to Alastor, and she was sure he wanted all of Hell to know that she was spoken for, that she was his and no one else's.

Or he just wants to spend time with you, that infuriating little voice said.

She let out a huff as she set down the brow gel with a clatter. Behind her, Umbra let out a concerned rumble.

"HURT?" she wrote on the mirror. "PULL TOO HARD?"

"No," Lee said with a tiny sigh, "no, Umbra, you didn't hurt me, I'm just… distracted is all…"

The Shade's white eyes narrowed a bit, and she tilted her head, as if she were concerned. When Lee didn't say anything further, she let out a small rumble, then returned her blobby hand to her hair, fixing it until it lay just so.

It was the advertisements, Lee decided. Valentine's Day was only a few days away, and Hell's residents were all gearing up to celebrate the holiday in lustful, sinful style. Whether it was chocolates, or flowers, or a dizzying array of baffling-looking sex toys, every magazine and TV slot and social media page was plastered with reminders to buy, buy, buy, or lose your lover to someone with deeper pockets than you. It was inescapable, suffocating, almost. That must be the reason why dates were on her mind. It was just the time of year, nothing about her, nothing about Alastor, nothing about the flowers he'd sent her, nothing about the thing that had happened between them in the woods—

She shook her head, shutting down that train of thought. Nope. Nope, she was not going there, not tonight, not ever. It had just been a game. He'd just gotten carried away, he'd even told her as much. The way he'd spoken to her, his voice all growling and low, was a fluke, and that hot, sweet feeling that had filled her belly had just been fear, fear mixed with the abject terror that had come with being pursued, with being hunted. There was nothing worth dwelling on, nothing worth thinking about, nothing more to it.

There couldn't be.

She paused the video, flipping to check the clock. 8:58 PM.

"Shit," she muttered as she slicked on a coat of red lipstick, then showered her face with setting spray. Her stomach fluttered oddly as she took a deep breath, scanning her face for any glaring mistakes in her makeup. "Do I look okay?"

Umbra nodded behind her as she put the finishing touches on her hairdo, fastening a sparkling red headband, then gave two thumbs up.

"Good," she sighed. "Good, thank you."

There was no need to worry, she told herself. She'd been out with Alastor before; he'd managed to keep her safe then, and he'd certainly keep her safe tonight. Whoever his friend was, he wouldn't endanger her, wouldn't take her to meet them if he didn't think he could fend them off, whomever they may be. The mention of 'associates' also made her think there was most likely some deal-related component to their excursion. Yes, she thought, in all likelihood he was just showing her off to some potential buyers, trying to make more inroads on his own.

It was a business meeting, nothing more, nothing less.

Then why was she so damn nervous? Why was her stomach churning in a way that rhymed so closely with the few times she'd been out with a man, her heart already thumping in her ears?

And why did that remind her of the steady drumbeat of his heart, of how the warm, broad planes of his chest had felt under her fingertips—

Knock-knock-knockknockknock, knock knock!

She sighed with relief at the sound of the familiar pattern, pulling her away from her thoughts. She gave herself a final once-over in the mirror, then tapped her bracelet, sucking Umbra back down. Her kitten heels clopped against the bathroom tile, then sank into the soft carpet as she approached the door. She took a deep breath, steeling herself as her trembling hand reached for the knob.

His suit was still pinstriped, but looked newer, lacking some of the tatters and holes she'd become used to, the patches where he'd clearly mended his jacket himself. His hair was slicked back, perfectly arranged save for those two strange ear-like cowlicks that stuck straight up, and his actual ears were on display for once, taupe grey and tapering to elfin points. A whisper of cedar reached her nose, as if he were wearing cologne.

"And whomever might you be?" he said with a smile, his eyes narrowing slightly as he leaned against the doorframe. "I came here looking for my business partner, but it seems some little minx has taken her place!"

Fuck, he didn't like it.

"Is it too much?" she asked. "Because I can totally wipe this off, just give me five m—"

"Darling," he cut her off. "I was trying to pay you a compliment." His eyes softened as he reached out, tilting up her chin. "You look lovely, my dear."

"Oh," she murmured, cheeks aflame. She pulled away from his grasp. "Are you… are you sure?"

His smile grew. "You'll fit right in, sweetheart." He offered his arm. "Shall we?"

Something fluttered in her chest as she hooked her arm in his.

This wasn't a date.

"W-where are we going anyway?" she asked, cursing the odd stutter in her voice.

He chuckled as he began to lead her down the hall. "Now that would ruin the surprise, wouldn't it?"

"…you're taking me back to Cannibal Colony, aren't you?"

"Nonsense," he said with a shake of his head as he hit the button for the elevator. "I'm taking you downtown, to an establishment I frequent. Perfectly safe, I give you my word."

"And this 'establishment' doesn't happen to sell butchered Sinners?" she pressed him.

"Nothing of the sort," he said as the doors dinged open. "In fact, given your love of music, I think you'll enjoy it quite a bit." They strode inside. "The drinks are excellent as well."

"Oh," Lee said, suddenly remembering that she didn't have her wallet. "I'm gonna have to pass on the drinks… I'm kinda broke right now…"

He chuckled. "Don't fret, cher," he said as his knuckle pushed the button for the basement. "I'll be covering the tab."

"Wait, why are we going into the—whoa!" She was cut off as the elevator lurched, dropping a few feet. She tightened her grip on Alastor's arm, her legs trembling beneath her as the elevator creaked and groaned, then continued it slow descent.

"You were saying, darling?" he said with a wry grin as he glanced down at her.

"I was saying… Jesus," she muttered, trying to shake off her anxiety, "I was asking why we were headed down to the basement."

"Discretion," he said, his tone matter of fact. "The Princess hasn't exactly approved this little excursion of ours, so I'd much rather keep it under wraps…"

"Oh…" Lee said as the elevator ground to a stop, its doors sliding open.

Their shoes clacked against the poured concrete floor as Alastor led her past the rows of industrial sized washers and dryers she was now intimately familiar with. Her head pricked up as the faint strains of music reached her ears, barely audible above the hum and whir of the machines.

"Someone's down here," she hissed, trying to slow Alastor down.

"Indeed, they are," he said with a chuckle, never breaking his stride.

The music grew louder as they turned the corner, a smooth synth beat accompanied by a woman singing in what Lee thought might be Japanese. Amidst piles of laundry and sheets, Niffty stood on a stool, singing along quietly as she pressed what looked to be a pair of Husk's pants.

"Hello, Niffty darling!" Alastor called out, waving with his free hand.

The little cyclops looked up from her ironing board, then grinned as she turned her radio down.

"Oooh, you look fancy, Mister Alastor!" she said. "And look at you, Lee, so pretty! You even match!" Her eye narrowed ever so slightly. "Where are ya going…?" she asked, a tiny hint of a suggestive tone to her voice.

"Just to see Mimzy," Alastor said, waving her thinly veiled implications away. "We'll be home by sunrise. If the others ask, our human compatriot is suffering from a migraine, and requires total privacy to recover."

"You got it, boss!" she said, giving a little salute. "Have fun!"

"I always do, dear!" Alastor said with a laugh.

As they walked towards the emergency exit, Lee glanced behind her, stealing one last look at the petite demoness. The woman caught her eye, blinking at her in a way that Lee thought must be her version of a wink, a gesture that brought a bit of heat to her cheeks.

This wasn't a date.


"We're here!"

Lee peered out the window as Alastor slowed to a stop, scanning the sides of the car-lined street. While Pentagram City did have its nicer neighborhoods, this clearly wasn't one of them: piles of trash were strewn across the cracked sidewalk, and many of the buildings surrounding them looked to be completely abandoned, standing skeletal and still under the light of Hell's strange moon.

"Here?" she asked, not bothering to hide her confusion.

"Is that disappointment I hear?" he scolded her as he turned off the car. "Tsk, tsk, tsk. There's no need to be judgmental, dearest." A blur of static, and he disappeared from the driver's seat.

"I'm not being judgmental," she grumbled, crossing her arms."I'm using my—ah!" She jumped as he tapped on her window.

"Now, darling," he said, his voice muffled by the glass, "I know looks can be deceiving, but I assure you, this is in fact one of the most exclusive locales in the entire city!" He swung the door open, letting a blast of cold February air into the car. "And tonight, it's our stomping grounds!"

Lee unlatched her seatbelt as she took a careful step out, avoiding a murky, half-frozen puddle. The stench of sulfur and rotting garbage filled her nose, and she gagged.

"I'm gonna be honest," she said, trying to regain her composure as she smoothed out her dress. "I'm not super impressed so far…"

He shook his head. "Sweetheart, you're being woefully cynical tonight!" He hooked her arm in his as he began pulling her along, stepping up onto sidewalk. "Come now, give it a chance. After all, have I ever let you down?"

"Do you really want an answer to that question?" she deadpanned.

"No!" he said with a laugh.

They stopped in front of one of the more structurally sound buildings, an old brownstone that had clearly seen better days. A rickety neon sign reading "BAR" was slapped onto its edifice, leaning at such an odd angle that Lee feared it would fall off entirely.

"In we go!" Alastor crowed, happy as a clam as he pushed through the double doors, ignoring the bright red "CONDEMNED" notice plastered against the wall.

The smell of smoke and despair greeted them as they stepped into the dimly lit room. An imp was passed out on a barstool, snoring, while another imp, grizzled and missing an eye, polished a filthy glass with a grease-stained rag. Two more demons, Sinners, Lee assumed, sat in front of an overflowing ashtray, puffing away as they spoke in low tones. Even the music from the jukebox was substandard, playing too slowly, dragged out in half-time.

"Evening, Cyrus!" Alastor called to the bartender, raising his hand.

The bartender glanced up from his work, grunting in reply. The Sinners, on the other hand, jumped in their seats, their heads swiveling, wide-eyed, towards the sound of the static-laced voice. Quick as a flash, they jumped over the bar, cowering behind it. The commotion was enough to wake up the other imp, who sat up in his seat, wiping drool from his mouth.

"Whuzzat?" he slurred as his bleary yellow eyes opened. When they fell on Alastor, the imp swore, tried to step off the stool, and promptly landed flat on his face.

"Hello to you too, my splifficated fellow," Alastor said with a chuckle.

Lee glanced up at him in confusion. This was one of the most exclusive spots in Hell?

He appeared to read her mind as he looked down at her. "Don't fret, my dear. This is just the false entrance."

"False entrance?"

His smile grew as he pulled her deeper into the bar, past the dented jukebox, past the few tables where mismatched chairs sat covered in dust. Eventually, he came to a stop in front of the wood paneled wall, in a spot that was suspiciously bare of dartboards and the bar's other bargain-bin décor. He glanced down at Lee with another grin, clearly prompting her to watch, before knocking thrice on the wall.

There was a muffled shuffling sound in response, then a "schsk" as a small panel slid open. Two narrowed, red eyes peered out of the darkness.

"I h—" the gruff voice stopped as its eyes widened, clearly fixed on the Radio Demon. "Nevermind," it said quickly.

"Ah, ah, ah!" Alastor held up a finger. "I'm not alone tonight, Scruff."

The eyes grew even wider as they fell on Lee. A quiet "holy shit" reached her ears, barely audible over the pathetic wails of the jukebox, before the source of the voice cleared his throat.

"She… uh, is she uh…?" the voice said.

"Human, indeed." His hand came to rest on her shoulder. "My human, to be exact." There was a bit of a dangerous edge to his voice. "Now, I believe you were following protocol?"

"Oh, shit, right," the voice muttered. The eyes narrowed again, this time staring at her as it cleared its throat. "I hate a moral coward," the voice half-sang, "one who lacks a manly spark."

"I'm sorry, w—"

Lee stopped short as Alastor leaned down. His warm breath tickled her ear as he sang a verse of an unfamiliar song, his voice low and soft.

"I, uh," she said, trying to ignore the odd fluttering feeling in her stomach, "I just detest a man afraid to go home in the dark?" she sang in reply, her voice wavering a bit.

The voice grunted, seemingly satisfied. There was a metallic jangling, like a series of locks being undone, chains pushed aside.

"Scruff…" Alastor said, "what about moi?"

The eyes snapped to him. "I know you. Everyone knows you."

"Ah, yes, but who's to say I'm me?" he said with a grin. "Who's to say I'm not some enterprising demon in disguise, trying to clandestinely gain access to your establishment for nefarious purposes?"

The voice said nothing in reply, before it sighed. "You're really gonna make me do it, huh?"

Alastor's eyes narrowed. "If you please…"

Another sigh, before the voice began to sing again. "I always spend my evenings where there's women, wine and song," it said, cracking unpleasantly on the last high note.

Alastor beamed. "But like a man," he warbled back as his arm wrapped around Lee's waist, pulling her close to him in a show of dramatics, "I always bring my little wife along!"

The voice grumbled as the sound of chains grew louder, until the entire section of wall slid open, revealing a sour-looking Hellhound in a tuxedo. Behind him, colored lights danced against the wall of the darkened corridor. Faint strains of jazz music filtered up from below as Hellhound stepped to the side, gesturing at a polished wooden staircase leading downwards.

Alastor looked down at Lee, a smug grin on his face. "Ladies first."

Lee swallowed hard as she peered into the depths, then glanced at the Hellhound. The hound rolled his eyes in response, crossing his arms, clearly impatient.

"It's safe, I give you my word," Alastor said, his voice softer this time. He took her gloved hand, giving it a small tug. "Come, darling."

The creak of the stairs was quickly drowned out by the sound of saxophone and clarinet as they descended, until the corridor opened up into a cavernous room decked in royal purples and midnight blues. One side of the lounge housed a well-stocked bar, its shelves filled to the brim with liquor, while tables and booths occupied by Sinners, Hellhounds, and even a few imps took up most of the other side. The dance floor was packed with a similar medley of patrons, some dancing, some talking, some watching the band, tapping their toes as the horns wailed and the bass thrummed.

"Yeah, everybody loves my baby," the lead singer crooned from the stage, dressed to the nines in a cream tuxedo. "But my baby don't love nobody but me! Nobody but—"

The singer's two sets of eyes nearly popped out of his head as he caught sight of them. A few of the band members followed his gaze, and sour, shocked notes poured from their horns, bringing the music to a screeching halt. The murmurs of the audience grew louder, more fearful as innumerable faces turned towards them.

"Hello, everyone!" Alastor called out, unphased. "Please, don't let me put a stop to your fun! After all, I'm not here to collect any debts!" His eyes narrowed. "Tonight, that is…" The worried murmurs grew louder, but he waved them away. "By all means, please, continue!"

A tense silence hung in the air as the clubgoers stared.

"I said," Alastor repeated, a bit of a growl to his voice as glowing runes flashed around him, "continue."

At once, the band began to play again, quickly launching into an upbeat number as they exchanged frightened glances. Lee noticed a few patrons get up from the tables, quietly heading for the stairs, but most of the crowd stayed put; whether they had been placated by his assurances, or were simply too scared to try to leave, she couldn't tell.

"What is this place?" Lee asked, trying to ignore the eyes that still lingered on her.

"This," Alastor said with a smile, one that reached his eyes this time, "is the Midnight Club, cher. And tonight, you're—"

"Alastor!"

A shrill, nasal voice cut through the din. Lee turned towards the dance floor to see a short, plump blonde pushing her way through the crowd, a scowl on her face. Something about the woman was vaguely familiar, but try as she might, she couldn't put her finger on where she'd seen her before.

"Mimzy!" Alastor chirped. "How are you, my—"

"Don't you 'Mimzy' me, you wurp!" the woman said as she made a beeline for them.

His grin grew in response. "Ah, venomous as ever, I see!"

"What the hell is the matter with you?!" she said as she came to halt before him, not even sparing a glance at Lee.

"Many things, I've been told…"

"It's been weeks since you've come by to see me, weeks since you even called!" Her scowl deepened as her hands balled into fists. "You didn't even come say 'hello' when I played that gig for you at New Years!"

An image of that same woman on stage in the Hotel's ballroom flashed in her mind's eye, decked out in feathers as she sang. So, she had been there, on that terrible blur of a night. Had Alastor meant to introduce them then, before everything went south? Had she seen her in disguise? Seen her be exposed?

Had she tried to rip her apart, too?

Alastor sighed. "Mimzy, dearest—"

Dearest?!

"—I'm a busy man!" he continued. "Between the Princess' little pet project and my own designs, I've found myself rather occupied."

"Oh, tell it to Sweeney!" she cried as she put her hands on her ample hips. "That hokum may work on your marks, but it ain't workin' on m—"

The woman's tirade was cut off as Alastor scooped her up in his arms, lifting her as if she weighted nothing but a feather. Lee had to duck out of the way as he spun her around, watching as the woman's indignant squawks faded to girlish giggles. Her stomach twisted as he planted a peck of a kiss on the demoness' cheek.

"Does that make up for it, ma petite oiseau?" he drawled.

"You're lucky you're so handsome, otherwise I'd sock you in the mouth," she grumbled, flushing a bright scarlet as she crossed her arms. The woman's pink eyes fell on her at last, and her flustered expression melted into one of confusion. "Who's the chippy?"

Alastor barked out a laugh. "Not a chippy in the slightest!" he said as he set her back down. "Mimzy, my dear, this," he gestured towards her, "is the latest addition to my menagerie of souls, Lee. Lee, may I present Mrs. Mimzy Hannigan, songbird extraordinaire, and the best dancer East of the Mississippi… save for myself, of course!"

The woman rolled her eyes. "It's Miss now, Allie," she corrected him. "Has been for ages." A sly smile spread across her face as she spared another glance at Lee. "Although… I wouldn't mind bein' a Missus again… dependin' on the Mister…" She took a step closer, practically leaning against him as she looked up, batting her eyelashes. "I always did like the sound of Mimzy Moreau, ya know…"

His smile shrank a bit. "Darling, you and I both know why that wouldn't have worked."

"Now down here, though!" she protested. "Up there, sure, I get why you had to ma—"

"Let's," he cut her off, "not dredge up old arguments, dear. We'll have plenty of time to reminisce later."

Mimzy's eyes fell on Lee again. "Uh-huh…"

Lee offered a gloved hand. "It's nice to meet you," she said, forcing a smile, trying to ignore the lingering, uncomfortable ache in her chest.

The woman glanced at her hand, then crossed her arms. "So, you're the human that everyone's been flappin' their gums about, huh?" She looked her up and down. "I thought you'd be more… interesting."

"Well, I am human," Lee bristled as she withdrew her arm, "and apparently down here, that's plenty interesting for most people." She shrugged. "I was interesting enough for Alastor, at least…"

Her expression soured. "Speakin' of which," the woman said, a bit of grit to her tone, "why'd ya bring this bluenose out to our spot anyway, Allie?" She gave her another once-over. "Can she even dance?"

Alastor laughed. "Mimzy, sweetheart, we've known each other for decades! Do you really think I'd dare bring a dame around you if she didn't know how to dance?" He grinned at her. "I assure you, Lee here is an excellent dancer!"

"Wait, hold up, dancer?" Lee started. "I c—"

"Horsefeathers," Mimzy fired back, cutting her off. "I know two left feet when I see 'em!" The woman fixed her with a withering stare. "She looks like she couldn't dance her way outta a paper bag!"

"Well, I wouldn't say I'm that bad, but I still—"

Alastor straightened, his grin growing at the challenge. "Then, I suppose we'll have to prove you wrong!"

"But I—"

Lee's protests fell on deaf ears as Alastor took her by the hand, nearly knocking her off balance in his haste as he pulled her towards the dance floor. The band fell silent once more, their instruments going quiet as the throngs of clubgoers parted before them like shoals of fish.

"Al, I'm serious, I can't dance!" she cried as she tried to struggle out of his iron grip.

"Are you wearing the shoes I put out for you?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder.

"Am I—" she started, confused. "Yes, but what does that have to do with—"

"Then, you can dance!"

A clearing formed as the other patrons shuffled out of the way, and Lee couldn't help but shrink under the weight of their fearful, curious stares. Alastor turned on his heel, standing before her, then snapped his fingers. A single spotlight appeared above them, hovering in mid-air, it's light so sudden and blinding that it made her squint. She tried to turn, to walk away, but those shiny black shoes of hers stayed stuck firmly to the floor, unmoving, as if they were suddenly made of cement.

"Alastor," she said, her voice low as she glanced at the onlookers, "I'm gonna make a fool of myself." Her gaze fell on Mimzy, and the demoness' sneer grew in response, her chin jutting upward in haughty disdain. Heat flared on her face as she returned her attention towards him. "Please…" she whispered, "don't make me do this…"

The stage light formed a strange halo around Alastor's head as he stepped closer, taking her gloved hands in his.

"Do you trust me, cher?" he murmured, a small smile on his face.

Of course she didn't, she thought. He was a demon, he was a monster, she'd be an idiot to—

"Yes," she breathed, the word tumbling out before she could stop it.

His eyes narrowed as they roved over her face, as if he were searching for something. He gave her hand a squeeze, an unspoken question, an 'out.' When she squeezed back twice, unsure but willing, his smile softened, shifting into something new, something almost kind. He closed his eyes as he whispered a few words in a language she couldn't place, then turned his head towards the stage.

"Some dancing music, if you please, gentlemen?" he called towards the band.

The men didn't have to be asked twice. There was a flurry of wings and tails and limbs as they scrambled back into their positions, as they rosined bows and polished mouthpieces, until they all stood at attention, glancing at each other, as if unsure of where to start. Eventually, the drummer began to lay down a beat, bouncing and light. The lead singer turned towards Alastor, a pleading look on his face, and he nodded, seemingly pleased by the selection. His smile grew as he turned back towards Lee.

"Just follow my lead, darling."

He took a step back, releasing her hands as he began to sway to the drum line, finding a rhythm. A few taps of his toes turned into a series of simple steps, a click here, a clack there as his shiny shoes drummed against the polished danced floor. He paused, looking at her expectantly.

"Ah!" Lee let out a yelp as her own shoes began to warm up, as if they'd been left sitting in the sun for hours. She looked down, puzzled, only to spy the faintest hint of a green glow shimmering against their black leather tops. Another small, shocked sound left her as her right foot began to move on its own, tap-tap-tapping along to the beat. Her left foot soon joined it, breaking into the same series of steps she'd just seen, scuffing and shuffling with the fluidity of a master. Shock ran through her as she looked up at Alastor, only to be met with a grin a mile wide, his eyes narrowing in satisfaction. He snapped his fingers, and warmth began to spread through her gloves, the tell-tale tingle of magic buzzing against her fingertips.

"And a one," the lead singer called out, "and a two, and a one-two-three-four!"

The band roared to life as the song unfolded, as quick, tight notes and a steady bassline joined the driving drums. Before her, Alastor began to move, his arms swinging as he stepped up and forward, back and to the side. Soon, her own limbs followed, moving like a marionette, copying the moves expertly. Her apprehension faded as they began to circle each other, as she let herself relax, letting her torso loosen, letting her hips sway to the beat. A quick turn put Mimzy back in her line of sight: the woman appeared to be stunned, her painted mouth hanging open in shock. She met her gaze, and the demoness scowled, crossing her arms as she shot daggers at her from across the dance floor.

She didn't have much time to stare, however, as the beat picked up again, spurring them to move faster, to dance even closer, their feet shiny black blurs as they hopped and skipped and shimmied. Alastor took her by the hand, swinging her out, only to pull her back in again, her back brushing against his chest for the barest moment before he flung her away. The crowd blurred as she spun round and round, stopping at the edge of the clearing, only for her feet to carry her back towards him again. Joy, effervescent and light, burst in her chest. She was doing it! She was dancing!

His expression mirrored hers as their eyes met, his grin nearly splitting his face in half as they swung round and round. She yelped as he pulled her back in, their chests almost touching even as their feet continued to move wildly beneath them.

"What do you say, darling?" he asked. "Why don't we really give them a show?"

Her chest heaved as she nodded, sweat beading on her brow.

"Good girl," he said with a wink.

"Whoa!" she cried as he pushed her back, their hands still locked together, then pulled her under him, sending her sweeping against the floor, through his spread legs. Another pull, and she was back upright again. She couldn't help but laugh as they began to circle each other again, much closer this time, taking turns turning and twisting as his hands moved from her hands to her waist, then back again as they pushed and pulled, in and out, round and round.

"Upside-down?" he asked by her ear.

"Go for it!" she said with a giggle.

He laughed as his arm grabbed her by the waist, the other arm hooking under her knees as he flipped her around. The world spun, turning over, until her shoes hit the ground again with a clack, the magic flowing through them immediately sending her stepping again. Sweat dripped down the nape of her neck as they flipped and twirled, their dance now more akin to a circus act as he swept her across the floor again, as he lifted her by the waist, as more laughter bubbled up from her belly.

Eventually, there was a key change, and the music grew louder, its chords coming faster as the song reached a crescendo.

"It's time for the big finale, sweetheart!" Alastor cried, struggling to be heard over the band. "Don't worry, I'll catch you!"

Lee glanced at him over her shoulder. "What do you mean catch—"

The horns wailed as his arm hooked around her torso, as her legs left the ground. A startled cry escaped her as he flung her skyward, past the phantom spotlight, past the chandelier, the wind rushing against her face as she spun up, up, up. Time seemed to slow as she reached her apex, as her gloved fingers brushed against the ceiling, and some small, secret part of her wondered if this was what it was like to ascend, if this was closest her soul would ever get to Heaven. All too soon, however, the pull of gravity broke the spell, and she plummeted back towards the floor, her limbs flailing in shock as fear ran through her like a knife—

The air left her lungs with an "oof" as she landed safely in his arms, as the band's final notes faded away, dissipating into the dark.

For a moment, the world was still. There was no audience, no onlookers, just light, and breath, and those brilliant crimson irises staring down at her. The man didn't appear to have even broken a sweat, his hairstyle still perfectly arranged, save for one or two flyaway strands. His mouth was closed, his smile gentle as he looked at her with something that almost bordered on admiration, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

"Well done, ma belle," he murmured.

Something twisted in her chest as he righted her, her pulse quickening in her ears as he set her down. He took her hand, raising their arms high as he looked towards the audience, then lead her in a slow, graceful bow. A smattering of applause followed.

"Thank you," Alastor preened as he righted himself, basking in the attention. "Thank you, all!" He raised Lee's hand once more. "Another round for the lady, please!"

The crowd's applause grew louder, joined by a few whoops as the demons looked at each other nervously, as they elbowed onlookers who seemed too stunned—or too frightened, Lee realized—to join in.

The band launched into another song as the crowd began to shuffle away, still keeping a wide berth, but seemingly a bit more at ease after having placated the infamous Radio Demon.

"Well, wasn't that just the bee's knees?" a saccharine voice said.

Lee turned to see Mimzy approaching, a wide smile plastered onto her face.

"Oh," she started, a bit surprised, "that's very nice of you to s—"

"That was a real neat magic trick, Allie!" the woman interrupted her. "How'd you do it? Did ya tie invisible strings to her? Make one of your shadows play puppeteer?"

Alastor chuckled. "A magician never reveals his secrets, my dear. Though I will say our human compatriot here did contribute some footwork of her own…"

The woman fixed her with a haughty look as she raised an eyebrow. "I could tell…" she deadpanned. Her attention turned back to Alastor. "Do I get a dance now, too?"

He cocked his head at her. "It depends. Did you do what I asked of you the last time we met?"

The woman appeared to deflate a bit. "About that…"

"Mimzy…"

"I'm gonna pay them back, I promise!" the woman protested. "It's just… my club really needed some new décor, and someone spilled red wine all over the carpet, and I saw these posilutely berries new shoes at the department store, and—"

"You're playing a dangerous game," he cut her off, a note of caution in his voice. "No one like a debtor, darling…"

"I know, I know…" She sighed. "I'll figure it out, promise." She glanced at Lee, then shrugged. "If I gotta, I'll just shack up at that fancy Hotel you've been workin' at, lay low for a while."

"I'm not sure the Princess would be all too pleased with you using her pet project as a hideaway from your creditors, Mimzy…" His smile widened. "So, in the interest of my ongoing entertainment, I highly encourage you drop by, should it come to that!" He straightened, adjusting his bowtie. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we're late for a meeting."

"But Allie…" the woman whined, pouting.

"I'll get you your dance in due time, my dear," he said, waving away her protests. "You know the Crew doesn't like to be kept waiting."

"Fine," she huffed. "But make it fast!"

Lee turned the exchange over in her mind as Alastor lead her away, hyper-aware of the gentle pressure of his hand against the small of her back as the muscles in her legs quaked from fatigue. Whatever this Mimzy was up to, she didn't like it. They'd just met, and the woman appeared to not only have it out for her, but to be in more than a bit of financial trouble as well. She would do well to keep her guard up around her, she decided. With Alastor so vigilant about his enemies trying to snatch her away, it would be easy for one of his few friends to get close enough to do the job themselves.

Especially one with a crush on the man in question…

Something unpleasant turned in her stomach.

Her thoughts were interrupted as they came to a stop in front of a table littered with empty glasses and filled with imps dressed in business suits. The imps appeared to be all male, save the smallest of the bunch, who bore the black horns of a female, their salt and pepper hair cropped close to their scalp. Unlike the rest of the clubgoers, however, the imps didn't appear to be phased by the Radio Demon's presence; if anything, they looked oddly relaxed, almost… bored.

"Evening, gentlemen!" Alastor said with a smile. "Professor," he said, giving the smallest imp a nod.

"Radio Demon," the smallest imp said, their voice gravely, like an old smoker's.

"Apologies for the delay," he said, sounding not at all sorry, "but I ran into an old friend who demanded my attention." He turned towards Lee. "Darling, I'm pleased to introduce you to the owners of this fine establishment: the Midnight Crew." He pulled out an empty chair, bidding her to sit.

"It, uh…" she said with a heavy breath as she plopped down, still tired from their acrobatic display, "it's nice to meet you all."

The largest of the imps let out a snort, his beer belly shaking. "A mortal soul, sayin' it's nice to meet us?!" He smiled, revealing a few missing teeth. "I like 'er already."

"Unlike many former surface dwellers, my darling isn't the least bit prejudiced, I assure you," Alastor said as he gave her a pat on the shoulder. "In fact, I think you'll find she'd be very grateful for whatever information you can provide her." He turned towards Lee. "Dear," he began, "these gentlemen—"

The smallest imp, the Professor, Lee gathered, cleared their throat, their eyes narrowing.

"—and their associate," he amended his statement, "are quite the knowledgeable and well-connected sort… perhaps you have some questions you'd like to ask them?"

Surprise filtered through her as she scanned the group. "Connected… like to the surface, to Earth?"

A bald imp eyed her warily. "Depends who's asking…"

"This conversation will not leave this table," Alastor said. "You have our word."

The beer-bellied imp's eyes narrowed. "Word or not… them answers don't come free, if you catch my drift…"

Alastor laughed. "Trust us, we're well aware." A snap of his fingers, and several fat wads of cash appeared in front of each of them. "I believe that will be a sufficient fee for a few questions?"

The imps' mouths dropped open in apparent shock, but they quickly regained their composure as they snatched the money, tucking it into their jacket pockets.

"Yeah," the bald imp said, clearly trying to stay casual. "That'll do…"

"Excellent!" he crowed. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I believe I owe someone a dance." He leaned down. "And I trust you'll take good care of this one in the meantime?" There was a bit of a dangerous grit to his voice, and the imps paled, their red skin turning a muted pink, the first hint of fear Lee had seen from them. After a few vigorous nods, he straightened, seemingly satisfied. "Good."

Lee glanced up at him as he gave her shoulder a squeeze.

"I'll be back in a moment, sweetheart," he said softly.

Her eyes followed him as he turned, as the crowd leapt out of the way as he approached the dance floor, until the throngs of bodies closed behind him. Nerves fluttered in her belly as she turned towards the imps, trying not to let her apprehension at being left alone show. She fiddled with her bracelet, mostly out of habit, and its runes flashed red at her touch. The largest imp took notice, his eyes widening as he elbowed the bald imp. He followed his gaze, and the two exchanged a wordless glance.

"So…" Lee said, trying to gather her thoughts, "I'm Lee." She extended a hand. "You might've seen me on TV… or heard me on Al's—I mean Alastor's," she corrected herself, "broadcast."

The bald imp hesitated, his eyes still fixed on the bracelet, but eventually returned the gesture, giving her hand a quick shake. "I know who y'are. And I can tell ya you won't need whatever monster is trapped in that," he said, pointing to the bracelet. "We ain't stupid."

"Oh," Lee said, glancing at it, before she folded her arms in her lap.

He gestured towards himself. "Name's Tracer. This here's Skinner," he said, pointing at the beer-bellied imp, "the twins, Locks and Socks," a point to two uncannily similar looking imps, rail thin and distinguished only by their mirrored facial scars, "and down there's Doc."

"The term is Professor," the gravelly-voiced imp said, crossing their arms. "I'm not a doctor, I'm an academic."

Tracer laughed. "Yer only an academic if ya actually go to college, 'Professor.'"

"At least I'd be smart enough to get in—"

"Well," Lee cut in, trying to nip the brewing argument in the bud. "Now that that's out of the way…" She took a deep breath. "I was hoping you all could answer some questions, maybe help me out." She shifted in her seat. "As you can tell by my, well, human-ness… I don't belong down here."

Tracer snorted as he looked out at the crowd of clubgoers. "Neither do half these sad saps, if you ask 'em," he sneered. "I'd like to see them take their sob stories down to Wrath… see what our kinfolk think of 'em…"

"I need to get home," she continued undeterred. "Or at least, I need any information that can help me get home. I know it's possible, Lucifer told me as much." At the mention of the King's name, the imp's eyes went wide. "And you folks… businesspeople that you are… you wouldn't happen to know anything about movement to and from Earth, would you?"

Tracer gave her a hard look. "Unregulated movement of goods, services or individuals between Earth and Hell is highly illegal," he said, a bit too loudly. When none of the other clubgoers seemed to take notice, her leaned in, his voice lowering to a stage whisper. "But that don't necessarily stop everyone…"

The twins nodded in sync.

Hope sparked in her chest. "What sort of stuff gets moved?" Lee asked, lowering her voice.

"Drugs, mostly," Skinner said with a shrug. "Coke, heroin, fentanyl, the weak stuff. Lotsa Sinners wanna keep up with things on Earth, too, so there's a big market for media… DVDs, albums, nudie mags, that sorta shit." Another glance around. "Some folks, like the cartels, though… they bring in bigger things… human-shaped things. No one knows what they do with 'em, or where they keep 'em… but trust me when I say the blood trade's not a line of business I ever wanna get tangled up in…"

A shiver worked its way down Lee's spine. "How does it work?" she asked, trying to change the subject.

Skinner grinned at her eagerness as he scooched his chair a bit closer to the others. "There's four main ways," he said, splaying out his hand, "of gettin' to Earth. The first is possession, but you ain't a Possessor, so that's out." He put down his thumb. "The second is summonin', but I don't think you can summon a mortal soul." He put a finger down. "The third is a grimoire."

"Grimoire?" Lee asked, confused. "But I tried that, and it didn't work… do you have to have magic to do it?"

The imp shook his head. "It ain't just about the person, it's about the book: the better the grimoire, the better the spells. To get to Earth… you'd need a real good one, a Goetian one, at least."

Her heart sank. "So, a super rare artifact that only royalty have access to…"

"S'not impossible," Tracer cut in. "My cousin's kid married a guy who works for a guy who got his hands on one… but knowin' the royals, that sonovabitch's prob'ly dead by now…"

"The fourth way," Skinner said as he put a finger down, leaving only one remaining, "is an Asmodean Crystal."

"Asmodean Crystal? I thought you had to work for Asmodeus for one of those to work?"

Skinner shook his head. "Ozzie makes 'em and gives 'em out, but you don't gotta be a succubus for them to work. Plenty of gangs and cartels have been able to smuggle 'em out, use 'em on their own." His expression soured. "It's a big risk, though. The King of Lust ain't very intimidatin' compared to the others… but if you steal from him…" The imp dragged a claw across his neck, miming decapitation.

Lee shuddered. "Do you… happen to know anyone who has one of these crystals?"

Skinner opened his mouth to reply, but Tracer cut him off. "Even if we did," he said, his tone sharp, "we wouldn't be tellin' you. Unlike you Sinner types, we don't re-gen. We get caught with somethin' like that… it's lights out, for good."

"Hey, hey," she put her hands up defensively. "I'm not a Sinner, I don't regenerate either! Look," she pulled off one of her gloves, pointing to the scar Alastor had left on her inner forearm. "That's from a regular knife, not a blessed one, either."

Tracer leaned in, examining the scar, before his eyes flickered back to her. He sat back in his chair.

"Why're you askin' about this stuff, anyway?" he asked, crossing his arms. "Doesn't the Radio Demon own you?"

"He doesn't own me," she bristled as she shoved her hand back in its glove.

"He owns your soul," the Professor said with a shrug. "That means he owns you."

"He—"

Her protests died in her mouth as the binding spell Alastor had cast took hold, as her tongue turned to lead, heavy and immovable.

"It's a game," she said finally, pulling out the same lie she'd told Amon. "To him, at least. But to me, it's life or death. And he said if I can get home, all on my own, my soul is free and clear."

Skinner laughed. "So, you're askin' us all these questions to try to get your soul back from the fuckin' Radio Demon? The Radio Demon?!" He scoffed. "Listen, I dunno what kind of bullshit he fed you, but he's an Overlord. They're liars and cheats, every last one of 'em. He's never lettin' you go."

"You don't know that!" she argued.

His eyes narrowed. "I know plenty, lady. Just 'cause you're in love with the guy or somethin'—"

Her heart dropped. "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" she put her hand up. "Hold it, back up. I am not in love with him!"

He snorted. "He called you 'sweetheart' and you went all soft-eyed!"

"I like compliments, so what?! Doesn't everyone?!"

"Yes, but there's more to it than that, isn't there?" the Professor asked. They adjusted their bowtie, sitting up a bit straighter in their seat as they cleared their throat. "As an anthropologist—"

"Not this shit again," Tracer groaned.

"—I've spent plenty of time observing mortal souls, watching them, studying their societies, learning to recognize cues from their media," they continued. "I have also studied human courtship and relationships extensively, and in my academic opinion, you are showing many of the telltale signs of fondness for the Radio Demon."

Lee shook her head. "You've got it all wrong. I tolerate him, at best, and the feeling is mutual."

The Professor raised an eyebrow. "The mating dance you were performing earlier leads me to believe otherwise."

Her face burned. "M-mating?!" Another vigorous shake of the head. "No, no, no, that was just dancing! Humans don't even have 'mating dances,' you don't know what the Hell you're talking about!" She looked out towards the floor, spotting Alastor in the crowd. "Look, right now he's…"

She trailed off as she took in the sight of his long limbs, the graceful, quick movements of his feet as he danced, as he smiled… as he took Mimzy's hands the same way he'd taken hers. Even from a distance, she could see that the energy between them was electric, crackling as they moved in perfect sync, twisting and turning. The demoness danced with the pomp and flair of a Broadway starlet, every step expertly placed, her fluid motions, unaided by any magic, speaking to a lifetime of experience. Alastor, in turn, switched between following her cues and taking the lead, the two of them communicating without words as they traded off moves, as his hand found her waist, as he pulled her in closer.

They looked good together.

They looked perfect together.

Something hot and sickening settled in her chest as she pulled her eyes away from them.

"He's dancing with that Mimzy woman right now, see?" she finished half-heartedly. "He just likes to dance, that's all… us dancing together didn't… mean anything…"

The Professor smirked. "And you don't sound too happy about it…"

A spike of anger ran through her at the comment, blistering and entirely unexpected. "Y'know what?!" she said. "I don't have time for this shit." She stood, smoothing out her dress as she eyed the gang of imps across from her. "Thanks for your 'help,' I guess."

Their calls were drowned out by the boisterous sound of the band, by the ringing in her ears as she turned, as she pushed her way towards the dance floor.

One step forward, two steps back. Every time she'd tried to get more information about her condition, she'd been met with nothing but more obstacles, nothing but dead ends. And now, tonight, when she finally thought she might be getting somewhere, she'd not only gotten more doors slammed in her face, but been made fun of to boot.

"Stupid assholes…" she muttered through gritted teeth.

The idea of her possibly being "in love" was already ridiculous, but with Alastor?! Really?! He was a murderer, a sadist, quite possibly a sociopath, and on top of all of that, supremely annoying. He'd borderline harassed her, twisted her into a deal, taken her to a God damn cannibal tea party, and then abandoned her in a club full of demons to dance with some gorgeous, curvy diva who called him "Allie"—

No. No, she was not going to let it get to her. It didn't matter, it shouldn't matter. She just needed to focus on the mission, on getting home.

She squeezed through a throng of Sinners as she spied Alastor standing at the bar, his dancing companion now nowhere to be seen.

Assuming the imps had been telling the truth, she had two options: a Goetian grimoire, or an Asmodean crystal. Trying to steal a grimoire from a Goetia was a suicide mission; Alastor was powerful, sure, but even a young Goetia could still squash him like a bug. Stealing a crystal from Asmodeus was equally impossible, given that her soul couldn't leave Pride Ring in the first place. As far as she could tell, her only shot, short of selling her soul to Lucifer, was to look for an Asmodean crystal that had been smuggled out of the Lust Ring, one that had been 'misplaced,' and use it before anyone was the wiser.

But would that even work? a small voice in the back of her head whispered as she weaved through the crowd. While half her soul was down here, the other half was still in her body, still on Earth. Would the crystal permit a soul to move through it without a body? Would it even work for a mortal soul at all? Was she just doomed to be trapped down here forever, trapped until her body finally gave out, until the rest of her soul slipped through the Veil? Or would her soul break apart, erasing her entirely?

Was she just a dead woman walking?

Tears pricked at her eyes as she approached the bar, as she tapped Alastor on the shoulder. The man let out a hiss of radio static in reply, sending the other bar patrons skittering away as his head turned 180 degrees, his eyes swirling, angry dials. When they fell on her, however, he immediately relaxed, switching back to his normal form with a pop as the rest of his body turned to greet her.

"Darling!" he almost cooed. "Your timing is impeccable; I was just about to order you a—"

"I wanna go home," she muttered.

His brows furrowed. "But it's not even eleven! The night is still young, cher, I—"

He flinched as she took his gloved hand, giving it three quick squeezes.

"I want," she said, her voice wavering, "to go home."

His smile shrank in an instant, becoming barely a ghost of the wide grin that had graced his features just a moment before. She could almost see the gears turning in his head as he looked at her, as he studied her. Behind them, the band's tempo shifted, slowing from a lively tune to that of a waltz.

"Alright," he said finally. "We'll go… but first…" He pushed away from the bar as his fingers laced with hers. "Would you be willing to grant me one more dance?" Her expression must have given away her confusion, as he continued: "Decorum dictates that a gentleman saves both the first and last dance for his companion of the evening." His smile shifted into a smirk as he cocked his head at her. "And the last thing I want is to sully my sterling reputation…" He gave her arm a small tug as he took a step towards the dance floor. "What do you say, cher?"

She glanced towards the stage, then back at him, unsure.

"…okay."

His expression was almost serene as he led her to the center of the floor, as waltzing couples danced out of the way, their eyes widening in surprise at they approached. She flinched as his free hand found her waist, as his other hand extended their arms. Her stomach turned as she looked around, catching the eyes of onlookers who quickly averted their gazes, feigning disinterest.

"I don't know how to slow dance either…" she muttered, embarrassed.

"I know." His voice was gentle, soft. "I'll teach you."

He waited a few beats, listening to the music, before he began to move, pulling her into a simple series of steps. Piano chords hummed in the air around them as their shoes clacked against the floor, like a metronome keeping time. This time, there was no telltale warmth of magic, no spell guiding her. It was just the two of them, together, alone in a crowded room.

"And up, and to the side, and back, and the other side," he said, narrating as he led her along. "Good girl, just like that."

Heat flared on her face at the compliment, and she stumbled, stepping on his foot.

"Shit!" she yelped, a bit louder than she intended. "Sorry!"

"Hush, darling. It's fine." He gave her hand a small squeeze. "You worry too much…"

She cocked her head, wordlessly pointing out their hellish surroundings. "Kinda comes with the territory…"

He let out a laugh in response. "Yes, I suppose it does…"

The smooth notes of a saxophone joined the song as they swept across the floor, his hooded eyes never leaving her as they slowly turned.

"So…" she started, feeling a bit awkward. "You and Mimzy… how long have you been a… a thing?"

He quirked an eyebrow. "I may not be up to snuff when it comes to modern turns of phrase," he said with a smirk, "but if you're implying what I believe you're implying, you're gravely mistaken, sweetheart. While Mimzy has been sweet on me on and off for many decades, I'm afraid I've scarcely carried a candle, let alone a torch, for her in return." He shook his head. "Our arrangement is and always has been purely platonic."

Confusion trickled through her. "But… but you kissed her…"

"On the cheek, yes." He smiled as he led them into another half turn. "A small price to pay to placate her, to quell her notorious temper. Hardly an intimate gesture, I assure you."

Something ached in her chest as she thought back to the times his lips had brushed against her knuckles, brushed against her scars. "…oh."

His brows furrowed. "You sound almost disappointed…"

"I'm fine," she said quickly. "It's fine."

For once, he didn't argue, didn't challenge her any further. Instead, he only let out a small hum in reply, his expression shifting back into that same, quiet smile of his as the music played on.

"And what of your rendezvous, my dear?" he asked. "Did the Crew have anything of note to offer you, any inspiring leads?"

Tracer's words echoed in her ears: He's never letting you go.

"Just more dead ends," she said, settling on a half-truth. She shrugged. "Unless you wanna try to steal a Goetian grimoire for me…"

He laughed. "And risk being turned to ash in the process?" He shook his head. "No, no, I'm afraid I'll have to pass on that idea, little Eurydice."

"I figured as much…"

There was another turn, a quick step back, before the hand on her waist shifted to the small of her back. Goosebumps rose on her arms as she leaned back into a small dip, as he leaned with her, closing some of the distance between them as the scent of cedar filled her lungs.

"Speaking of ideas," he said, his voice low. "I'm afraid I have a confession to make."

Bewilderment swirled in her belly as he righted her, as his hand moved to her hip. "O-oh?" she stuttered.

Her breath hitched as he pulled her in closer.

"While I do endeavor to be honest with you," he said, a bit of his natural accent filtering through, "I must admit that I haven't been completely transparent regarding my intentions this evening… regarding the true reason I chose to bring you here tonight."

She swallowed hard. "Is this where you tell me we're actually here because those imps want to buy some of my…" she glanced around, "y'know… stuff?"

He chuckled. "No, no, nothing of the sort, sweetness…"

Sweetness. Her heart seized.

"You see, cher," he continued, "ever since you signed yourself over to me… ever since you gave in… I've had a… well, let's call it a hunch. An inkling of an idea, if you will." His smile grew, closed-lipped and clever. "It's something I've suspected for a while now, something that's intrigued me… and tonight, I believe I finally have my answer."

"A-and?" she asked, her voice breathy as she fought against the sudden tightness in her chest. "What is it?"

Her pulse hammered in her ears as her mouth grew dry, as she stared up at his towering frame, suddenly hyper-aware of how close he was, of how perfectly those long, elegant fingers of his laced together with hers. Heat rippled across her skin as he leaned in, as his warm breath tickled the baby hairs on her forehead, as those soft lips dipped closer and closer, towards the shell of her ear.

"We're being followed."

"…what?" She pulled back, staring up at him.

His expression was very much the same, his eyes hooded, his smile sultry. "Act natural," he said, his lips barely moving. "Stay calm. In a moment, I'll dip you again. When I do so, look back and straight ahead."

The music swelled as he led her in a few quick steps across the floor, his hand bracing against her back as he lowered her down, tilting her until she was practically horizontal. Her eyes scanned the upside-down crowds of clubgoers as her head tipped backwards, as she looked for anyone out of place—

There. A shark-headed demon, a hammerhead, puffing away on a cigarette as he leaned against the wall, his gaze trained on her. Their eyes locked, and he looked away, fishing his phone out of his pocket, its case emblazoned with a glowing blue "V."

Her head spun as Alastor snapped her upright.

"I think I've seen that guy before," she whispered as the song ended, as the clubgoers broke into light applause. "On the way to Rosie's."

"I've seen him as well," Alastor murmured, his wide smile back in place as he put on his best ventriloquist act. "Skulking around the Hotel's grounds, turning up in spots I frequent." His left eye twitched. "And I believe I know exactly who he's working for."

"Vox?" Lee asked. "Valentino?"

"The self-proclaimed 'television mogul' would be my first guess, yes." His arm wrapped around her waist. "The man always was a sore loser…" he muttered as he began to steer them towards the exit.

Icy dread ran down her spine. "What do we do?!"

"First," he said as they approached the stairs, "we need to see if our new friend is alone. If he's brought company, as I suspect he has, we'll need to suss out exactly who—"

"Allie!"

Lee jumped as Mimzy stumbled into their path, cocktail in hand.

"Where ya goin'?" she asked, her words slightly slurred. "Why ya leavin'? Clive sounds really good tonight… I wanna dance some more, come dance with me—" She reached for his hand.

"I'm afraid this is where we depart, Mimzy, dear," Alastor cut in, his tone almost casual as he stuck his free hand in his pocket. "I have to go do some ironing."

The odd turn of phrase caused the woman to perk up, her eyes widening in apparent recognition. "Oh!" Her brows furrowed. "Well, be careful, then…" she said, a note of concern in her voice. "Make sure those Chicago overcoats are all pressed…"

His smile twisted into something a bit more sinister, making Lee shiver. "I always do, darling…"

The sound of his humming echoed off the walls of the narrow corridor as he led her up the staircase, as the light from the club faded behind them. Lee's stomach dropped as a third set of footsteps joined them, creaking along only a few stairs below, and Alastor picked up the pace, his hand pressing against the small of her back as he subtly urged her to climb faster.

"Evening, Scruff!" he called to the bouncer as they reached the landing, his tone chipper as ever.

The Hellhound grumbled something she couldn't make out in reply as he slipped off his barstool, moving to undo the dozen or so locks that kept the Midnight Club's entrance tightly shut. He pushed the door into a hidden side pocket, and yellowish, wavering light poured into the darkened space.

"Thank you, my good man!" Alastor said as he slipped him a crisp bill.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever…" the hound mumbled.

Anxiety crackled through Lee's limbs as they stepped out into the club's false entrance, as the footsteps behind them grew nearer. She tried to turn to look, but Alastor clucked his tongue at her, applying more pressure to her back as he pushed them through the now-deserted bar. He snapped his fingers, and the door to the street swung open, bringing with it a burst of frigid, foul-smelling air.

"To the car," he said quietly. "Post-haste, sweetheart."

She clenched her jaw at the sudden chill, trying to keep her teeth from chattering as they strode down the sidewalk. Her heart sank when she caught sight of the Model A, however, its shiny red chassis listing oddly to one side.

"I think they popped one of our tires!" she whispered.

A buzz of static emanated from Alastor, and the car's engine puttered to life, its headlights blinking on. There was a hiss of air as the tire re-filled, as the door to the passenger side swung open. He ushered her inside, then blinked out of existence, reappearing in the driver's seat. A snap of his fingers, and her seatbelt snaked across her lap, clicking into place.

He rolled his neck as he adjusted the rear-view mirror. "It appears our would-be tail does indeed have company…"

Lee sat up straight in her seat, craning her neck to see as he tilted the mirror towards her. In the distance, the squat demon stood by the entrance to the bar, stealing glances at their car as he lit another cigarette. The door opened, and two more sharks joined him, one burly, one tall and thin, both dressed in identical navy-blue suits. The hammerhead took a long drag as they talked among themselves, then pulled his phone out of his pocket, tapping out a message. He stared down at the phone for a few second later, as if awaiting a reply, then looked up, barking an order at the other two. One by one, the sharks piled into a nearby black sedan, it's engine rumbling as its headlights sent the street rats scurrying back into the gutter. A moment later, two more identical cars turned on, one further behind them, one directly across the street.

"Oh shit," Lee breathed.

"It's alright," Alastor assured her as he put the car into gear, turning out onto the road. "Try to stay calm. So long as we're cautious, we should be able to—"

Lee screamed as a muffled boom shattered the still night air. Another boom followed, and a spiderwebs of cracks spread against the driver's side window, right by Alastor's head.

"Get down, cher!"

Fear shot through her as she ducked, as his foot slammed against the gas pedal. The engine roared, and her body jerked forward, lurching against her seatbelt as they suddenly accelerated. Blinding headlights reflected off the side view mirrors as the one sedan, then another, then another, peeled off onto the street, and hail of bullets soon followed, pinging off the car's chassis as squashed rounds lodged themselves in the rear window.

"Why are they shooting at us?!" Lee cried.

"They're goading me," Alastor called, struggling to be heard over the thunderous chug of the pistons. "They're trying to get me to fight them, to abandon you!" His eyes narrowed as he shifted gears. "Idiots."

The tires squealed as they hung a hard right, and Lee reached out, bracing herself against the door.

"What are we gonna do?!"

"The same thing we did on the dance floor, darling!" His smile twisted into something mischievous as he glanced at her. "We're going to give them a show."

Pedestrians dove out of the way as they ran through red lights, their angry curses drowned out by the screaming engine as they sped through the city. Lee's frightened cries mixed with Alastor's laughter as he swerved, narrowly avoiding an imp woman pushing a baby carriage, only to plow right into a garbage can, sending wrappers and beer cans flying. He shifted gears again, and the engine made an unpleasant grinding noise, the speedometer refusing to budge past sixty-five. Lee dared to spare a look at the shattered side mirror, and her heart seized: their pursuers were still hot on their heels, their fractured reflections growing bigger by the second.

"Does this thing go any faster?!" she asked, immediately regretting the question.

Alastor's eyes flashed to dials as his smile grew. "I thought you'd never ask!"

He tapped thrice on the control panel, right by the radio, and a hidden compartment slid open, revealing a shiny red button. His fist slammed it down, and Lee let out a yelp as she was pushed back into her seat, as the speedometer ticked past eighty, then one hundred, then one twenty, until it ran out of numbers entirely. She grit her teeth, trying to keep her dinner from re-surfacing as the car shook violently under the strain, as they practically flew down the road, bouncing over potholes and debris.

"Look out!" she cried, pointing at a rapidly approaching building, its brick edifice looming in the distance as they hurtled down the street, moving too fast to turn.

"Take my hand!" he yelled back.

"What?!"

"Take my hand and close your eyes!" He extended a hand. "I give you my word, you'll be alright!"

She fumbled blindly for his hand as acrid smoke began to fill the car, stinging her eyes. "Now what—"

Her words shifted into a scream as he floored it, as a manic smile broke out on his face. Red-hot terror licked through her veins as she tried to struggle out of his grip, as she tried to undo the latch on the door. Alastor cackled, that red "X" glowing on his forehead as the building grew closer, and closer, until nothing but dusty brick filled the windshield—

Heat.

Light.

The screech of brakes, the crunch of metal. A burst of hot air, the smell of gasoline, the press of fabric against her cheek.

Red pinstripes filled her vision as Lee cautiously cracked an eye open, her breaths still rapid and shallow, her heart hammering in her chest. Smoke singed her nostrils, and she coughed, blinking away a few tears.

"Shhh…" a voice somewhere above her murmured. "Easy now, cher."

She shifted, turning to look upwards, suddenly noticing of the pressure against her back, the pressure under her knees.

"Take a few deep breaths for me," Alastor cooed down at her, his face streaked with ash and far closer than she expected. "Nice and slow, darling…"

She sucked in air as she looked down at her dangling, soot-covered legs, as she turned to take in the sight of smoldering wreckage. The Model A lay in mangled heap against the cracked, crumbling wall, half-squashed, its smoking engine jutting out of its torn hood. Beside it lay the remains of three equally destroyed black sedans, one upside-down, the other two crushed into barely recognizable balls. Loose bricks and car parts were strewn about on the road, which was now streaked with long, desperate skid marks, undoubtably from their pursuers aborted attempts to stop. There were no signs of life, no other creatures that she could see, only the crackle of flames and the faint smell of frying fish.

"What—" another cough, "how?"

Alastor chuckled. "This," he said as he tilted his head towards the twisted metal hunks, "is why it's important to always obey the speed limit, haha!" He grinned at her. "I'd say we gave our pursuers quite the wreck-oning, wouldn't you say?"

She nodded dumbly up at him, her mind reeling as she tried process the fact that she had somehow survived, that she was somehow in his arms.

"Are you alright, ma belle?" His brows furrowed. "You look a bit—"

"Hah!"

He stopped short as a barking laugh escaped her. Another soon followed, then another, until hysterical laughter was pouring out of her, bubbling up like a geyser. A flood of giddiness swept through her as she became hyperaware of the pulse in her ears, of the air in her lungs, of the goosebumps prickling against her skin.

Alive. The word reverberated in her head like a bell. She was still alive!

"That," she managed to gasp out between bouts of giggles, "that was the craziest shit I've even done in my life! It was… it was like a movie, holy shit!"

His smile shrank. "You're not… frightened?"

"Oh, Hell no, I was terrified! I still am!" Her ribs started to ache as another fit of laughter overtook her. "I think I… I think I'm in shock, actually!" She kicked her feet a bit. "I feel weird! This is weird, can you put me down, I gotta… I feel like I gotta run a marathon, or something! Fuck!"

"It's the adrenaline, dearest," he said, his voice soft as he set her down. "It'll wear off in time…"

"Okay, cool," Lee said, her hands trembling as she found her footing. Her knees knocked together, and she stumbled, nearly losing her balance altogether. "Cool, cool, cool, 'cause this is… I don't think I really like this, haha!"

She flinched as his hands came to rest on her shoulders, steadying her.

"How about we go for a little walk, then, hmm?" His thumb stroked against her collarbone. "The Hotel's only a few blocks from here, and it will give you time to calm down."

She nodded vigorously. "Walk. Yeah, walk is g-good, I think walking would be good right now, yeah, I… I feel all shaky and weird inside…." She took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing heart as she picked at the beading of her blackened, ruined dress. "D-don't feel bad, though!" she said as she held up her hands. "It's not your fault! You didn't sic those assholes on us, and you did get us both away in one piece, so," she gave him two thumbs up, "score one for Al!"

He laughed. "Now I know you're really in shock, my dear!" He cocked his head at her. "The Lee I know would be putting the screws on me by now!"

"I promise I'll yell at you later," she said. "Right now I'm just… very happy to not be a human pancake!" Her legs trembled as she rambled on. "Besides, almost-dying aside, it was kinda fun, y'know, going out, dressing up all fancy, dancing with you—"

Her mouth snapped shut, her nervous torrent stopping in an instant.

"It was… tonight wasn't… bad…" she finished lamely.

His smile shifted into a smirk. "Do my ears deceive me, or did Little Miss I-Can't-Dance actually enjoy herself?"

Heat rose on her face. "Okay, technically it was the shoes doing all the work, so it doesn't count as me dancing!" She averted her gaze. "But it was still… nice, to try something new. To do something like that with… someone…"

She shivered as his gloved hand moved from her shoulder, gliding along her collarbone, his thumb brushing against her throat before her took her by the chin. Something inside her wavered as he tilted her face up, as their eyes met.

"Then I suppose we'll have to try new things more often…" he said quietly.

The warmth on her face spread to her chest as her stomach fluttered, and she looked away.

"Oh, and uh… sorry about your car…" she said sheepishly, pointing a thumb at the flaming wreckage behind them. "I'll, uh… I'll pay you back?"

He chuckled as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. "Oh, my darling…"

Their shadows merged into one as they started down the sidewalk.

"Tonight was payment enough."