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A Perfect Blood (The Hollows #10)(97)

By:Kim Harrison

“Ceri! What are you doing?” Trent exclaimed, almost panicking as he strode forward to take Ray from Ceri’s shoulder. The little girl fussed, clearly wanting to watch the funny man with the nose drooping down to his chin, waving like an elephant’s trunk.
“Relax, Trenton.” Ceri shifted Lucy out of the way and gave Trent a chaste kiss on the cheek before she came to me. “The girls need to see what a demon is. They’re safe. Al wouldn’t dream of abducting them. I’d follow him into the ever-after and turn evidence on him for every shady deal he has made in the last thousand years.”
Smiling at me, she touched me on the shoulder, and I stood to give her and Lucy a hug, still not sure about having the girls so close to Al. “Isn’t that right, Aunt Rachel?” Ceri said wryly as I drew back.
“Aunt Ra-a-achel?” Al drawled.
I ignored him, busy arranging Lucy’s fair hair to show off her pointed ears. “Not to mention that I will be very unhappy if he does.”
Al made a rude sound, and Ray gazed at him, quiet now that she could see him. “Happy, happy,” Al said sourly as he rocked to a halt when Trent pointed where he should stand, ten feet back from the table. “How did my life spiral down to making one person happy?”
Watching Al suspiciously, Trent pulled out a chair for Ceri, and she sat. “It happens when you become a parent,” she said, arranging herself with small motions of grace. Her eyes went to Ray, resting in Trent’s arms, the baby fixated on Al. “Stop trying to charm her.”
“But she is such a darling!” he cooed. “I think I shall take you anyway. Such beautiful hair you have.”
My face went cold, and my head jerked up.
Ceri’s eyes narrowed, her aura almost flashing into the visible spectrum as she tapped a line hard enough to make my teeth ache. “Al. Leave. Now.”
I tensed, but Al wasn’t moving, instead pouting like a forgotten uncle as Lucy and Ray kicked and fussed. “I didn’t mean now,” he protested. “I’m not going to raise the child. I’m having enough trouble with Rachel.” Smiling at Lucy, he whispered, and with a sparkling explosion of lights, two dozen tiny horses with butterfly wings burst into existence. Both Lucy and Ray squealed in delight, Lucy almost squirming off Ceri’s lap to chase them.“Al!” Ceri shouted, and with a flash of burnt amber, the beautiful horses fell to the earth and turned into squirming maggots. I recoiled, and Lucy howled her outrage. Ray simply looked surprised, the emotion appearing far too mature for her tiny features. Ceri’s lips were a hard line as she stood, Lucy struggling in her arms.
“If you touch my children,” Ceri threatened, and Al threw a hand dramatically into the air.
“Tish tosh. I do not want your babies. What is a demon for if not to scare?”
Lucy tight in her arms, Ceri stalked forward, her hair starting to float. “You aren’t scaring them, you are charming them!”
Al grinned, showing his flat, blocky teeth. “I am scaring you, love,” he said, reaching out to tickle Lucy.
The little girl squealed in delight. Ceri yanked her back, and Trent sucked in his breath, clearly furious. I wasn’t all that happy, either, and I understood their dilemma. Putting the babies down might only make them more vulnerable. Taking them from the room might have the same result. There was no safe place if a demon wanted you and was free to roam about. The only way to fight a demon was to not look away. Not even to blink. The only thing keeping Al civilized was . . . what? I didn’t know, and it made me uneasy.
“Perhaps we should leave, Rachel,” the demon said, his voice having a mocking lilt, and Ceri’s frustration flashed over her. “I don’t think we’re welcome here.”
“You said you could help Winona,” Ceri said as she jiggled Lucy, trying to get her to stop reaching for Al, and Al’s smile grew wicked.
Al was looking at me, and a wave of worry made my stomach clench. “I think I can. I’ve been working on it,” I said as I looked at Ceri, glad when she moved Lucy farther from Al. “I have a curse prepped, but I don’t know if it will make things worse or better. I’ve never tried mixing curses before.”
Ceri took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “It’s an honest answer.”
Ray cried out to get Al’s attention, and Trent frowned, holding her closer when the demon blew bubbles at her like kisses, each one a different color. “I can help Winona,” Trent said darkly. “We don’t need a curse. Or you, demon.”
Surprised, I turned to look at him, seeing his slight flush. That wasn’t what he had said before.
Al, too, huffed, his back to us as he stared up into the foliage. It was starting to get dark, and there were little lights up there where the fairies were, tiny fires in the trees. “It was a curse that changed her,” he said as if he didn’t care. “Only a curse can reverse it, not wild elf magic, and it will be Rachel’s curse,” he said, turning to me as I made a noise of protest. “I know I can do it,” he said, his hands behind his back as he looked up to the snow collecting on the ceiling. “I want to know if you can. Besides, you’re the only one who knows what she looked like before.” 
I fidgeted in the chair. “What if I make her worse?” I asked, and Al shrugged as if he didn’t care. His hands, though, were still clasped behind his back. It was one of his few tells, and as I looked at Ceri, she raised an eyebrow in question, recognizing it as well.
“Should I get her?” Ceri asked, bouncing Lucy on her lap to distract her.
Al pulled a watch from a tiny pocket by way of a gold fob. “I wish you would,” he said distantly. “She sounds fascinating.”
“It isn’t fascinating, it’s horrible,” I said sourly, but looking at Ceri, I saw her hope, her confidence. “I’ll try it if she wants to risk it,” I said, and Al threw up his hands in a small exclamation.
I suddenly found myself holding a slightly squishy Lucy as Ceri stood, plopping the babbling baby in my lap. “I’ll get her,” Ceri said breathlessly, then ran down the path, her soft shoes almost silent.
“Ceri,” I called as I held the baby out from me, but it was too late.
Lucy was craning her neck to watch her mom, a sound of dismay coming from her. Her little face screwed up, and she started to cry. “Trent, some help here?” I said, but it wasn’t until Al strode forward saying, “Let me,” that Trent got to his feet and intercepted him, taking both babies and moving to a bench just down the way.
I exhaled in relief as he put space between the girls and Al. They’d grown another month older since I’d seen them last, and Lucy was standing now, holding Trent’s knee and wobbling as she fussed for her mother. Ray wasn’t happy, either, looking more mad than anything else, her little face squished up in annoyance as Lucy filled the air with her noise.
“Al—” I whispered, wanting him to do the curse instead, but he shook his head.
“No,” he said, his head down as he examined the tiny spear now sticking out of his arm. Apparently the fairies didn’t like him. “Your curse seems fine. The last thing I want is you embarrassing me.”
“Liar,” I said, and he turned to me, shocked.
He plucked the spear out and dropped it, clearly wanting to protest, then seemed to collapse in on himself. Expression bothered, he glanced at Trent, trying to wrangle the two babies into some semblance of quiet, then came close to me, his boots with the silver buckles rapping smartly. I leaned back in my garden chair, and he put a hand on the table, almost pinning me there. “Hell, Rachel,” he breathed into my ear, and I stifled a shiver at his dusky form around me. “I don’t know what I’m doing, either. If you screw it up, it looks like another stupid-Rachel moment. If I screw it up, it looks as if I don’t know what I’m doing, and while the first is embarrassing, the second is intolerable.”
He pulled back at the sound of hooves on stone, his red eyes wide. “Chin up, chest out, stand up straight,” he said as he yanked me to my feet, smacking my gut and shoulder in quick succession until I stood before the table, scowling at him. “Don’t say anything. Ceri thinks I’m a god.”
I knew that wasn’t true, and I edged away from him as he waited with one arm behind him, one before, as if he was meeting royalty. Somehow he’d gotten from the outskirts to the center of the patio, looking as if he belonged among the ferns and Victorian garden furniture. Ceri and Winona were dusky shadows as they came around the bend, a small garden lamp lighting their path. Trent pointed them out to the girls, and Lucy’s wail turned plaintive with little mmmumm-mums and half bounces for Ceri to come and pick her up.Winona looked up as I said hi. She was in a comfortable, long-sleeved sweater and floor-length skirt, but her gray-skinned, ugly face with its curling horns and abnormally pointed chin put her far from normal. Her head made her top heavy, and her goat-slitted eyes reflected the light like a cat’s.
“Hi, Rachel,” she said, her smile fading as she looked from me to Al, standing beside me at the table. Clutching Ceri’s arm, she whispered, “Is that him?”
“Yes!” Al exclaimed as Ceri disentangled herself from Winona, gave him a dry look, and physically pushed him out of the way so she could set the lamp on the table. “I am Al!” he continued, looking almost hurt, but upon bending closer to Winona, still standing at the edge of the light, his goat-slitted eyes widened. “My God, what did that bitch do to you?”