The Flame Game – R. J. Blain

THE FATHER I hadn’t met until this morning walked me down the aisle, but Quinn’s hands holding mine kept me from running in terror at so many people witnessing me marrying someone like him. I questioned everything about my odd life. Me, the Calamity Queen, marry him? It took a few moments to remember I’d already married him once. I’d asked that same question then, too. He’d laughed, and then he’d goaded me until I’d done what he wanted, which involved me marrying him. Crazy man. There’d been a bunch of witnesses to that courthouse madness, too, and I’d survived through it mostly unscathed. Most of the witnesses to our first wedding had been too busy brawling with each other to pay any attention to me signing the papers that gave Samuel Leviticus Quinn certain rights to me, but that didn’t matter. Reminding myself his signature on the same papers meant I got rights to him did a good job of steadying my rattled nerves. No matter how many times I failed to tell him properly, I loved him. To endure so many people staring at me, all I needed to do was remember a few key things. After the vows came the food, after the food came a show of gorgons petrifying each other during a brawl, and after the brawling came the pampering in our suite, which would be devoid of children for at least twenty-four hours, courtesy of an assortment of parents and grandparents. I needed a lot longer than twenty-four hours to come to terms with having two pairs of parents. One set hated me. The other, who I’d learned about just yesterday, loved me.

I needed a lot longer than twenty-four hours to adjust to my life’s new circumstances. First, I needed to survive through my second wedding. Tomorrow, I would resume my quest to be the best mother possible for our pair of orphaned gorgon children, who would spend the rest of the day and most of tomorrow socializing with the other gorgons in attendance, most of whom were related to my husband in one way or another. Staring at Quinn and refusing to acknowledge anyone else in the Venetian’s canals would help with that, at least until we made it to the food portion of our wedding day. Once the food came around, I didn’t care who watched me devour steak, steak, and even more steak. The fire-breathing, meat-eating unicorn in me loved steak almost as much as I loved the man who’d turned my life upside down on me. My husband made no effort to hide his amusement, and he squeezed my hands while we both ignored the minister, who did a pretty damned good job of impersonating Elvis while reading the scripted sermon. He went on and on about the responsibilities of married couples, husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers, along with the death-do-we-part stuff I doubted applied to us at all thanks to our mishmash of crazy relatives, most of whom were in attendance. A few too many gods and goddesses for my comfort joined almost every damned cop in our precinct to witness us confess our love to each other. Or, at a minimum, blurt ‘I do’ in some horrifically embarrassing fashion.

I had trouble with the basics, and nothing had changed since I’d married my gorgonincubus doohickey the first time. “You can look somewhere other than me if you want,” Quinn whispered, leaning closer to me. I debated stealing a kiss before the official kissing portion of the ceremony, although the dumb veil kept getting in my way. Quinn had already shunted the damned thing back, but it kept falling wherever it wanted, to the point I wanted to light it on fire. Nobody had warned me how much of a pain in the ass wedding dresses could be. And the heels? The heels might do me in. What had I done to deserve the damned heels, especially with the asshole pair of parents uninvited from the ceremony? While inserting my heels into their asses would have made my day, having a pair of parents who actually wanted me trumped my petty desire for revenge. Huh. Somehow, I’d grown up since meeting Quinn, although only a little. I forced my attention back on my husband.

“If I look anywhere other than at you, I will see them staring at me. You’re prettier than they are, and I absolutely refuse to be ashamed of this.” A few months ago, I would have gone and cried in the bathroom had I said that where anyone might hear me. The Elvis impersonator grinned. “He really is prettier than everyone else here. You’re a very lucky woman.” Oops. I shrugged, but I also smiled. “It’s true. I can’t help it.

He’s in a suit. He can’t wear dress uniforms at home. I get ideas. I am enjoying this while it lasts. Someone is going to take a picture of him in his suit, and I will end up being bribed for copies of the pictures. I’ll have to ration the pictures out. I make him late for work if he wears anything other than his normal uniform. He has to change at work.” Well, maybe I couldn’t keep my blabbering mouth under control, but I could make people laugh. The entire audience had a field day with my runaway commentary, but beyond blushing over my nervous tendencies, I resisted the urge to dash for the door.

If I bolted, Quinn would catch me, drag me back, and laugh about it for the rest of eternity. It amazed me how much could change in such a short period of time. Six months ago, I’d been bitter, alone, tired, and hungry more often than not. I no longer worried about what I’d eat; if I skipped a meal, Quinn chased me down and hovered until I did what he wanted, which involved eating whatever offering he had brought for me. Greasy fries and burgers showed up almost as often as healthier fare. He even tolerated me trying to shove fries down his throat, as he deserved to enjoy greasy goodness, too. I had issues. I had a lot fewer issues than six months ago. I deserved a gold star and an entire bucket of napalm for how much progress I’d made. Quinn chuckled, which captured my attention, and he stole a gentle kiss.

“Don’t worry. I’m going to have as much trouble as you when I get you into a dress uniform.” I loved my gorgon-incubus doohickey. “Serves you right, you freak.” Aw, damn it. There I went, calling my husband a freak on our second wedding day. “I’m blaming the absurd number of cops in this building for my inability to behave like a normal adult.” The cops snickered, which helped mitigate most of my urge to run away and hide from my ability to thoroughly embarrass myself. Then again, if I did run away and hide, Quinn would cheat and use his body to lure me to our room. Running so he’d chase me tempted me, but I stood my ground for a rare change.

Sometime within a few hours, he would lure me to our room, and I would be rewarded for handling our second wedding with a little more grace than our first. Mostly. Maybe with less grace but properly dressed. I could work with properly dressed for our second wedding. Then again, if we got through the vows without Quinn’s relatives brawling with each other, we would be way ahead compared to our courthouse wedding. The Elvis impersonator grinned, waited for the laughter to subside, and resumed his lecture. To my relief, he wound the whole sermon thing down, beginning the important exchanging of vows part. Thanks to my general inability to handle life normally, I’d made a single request: short, sweet, and to the point. Wedding number three could be more elaborate after Quinn had a year to help me get over some of my more problematic issues. Blurting random shit out in the middle of my own wedding counted as one of those issues.

After some deliberation and some whining from the Devil, we’d settled on Catholic vows with some alterations offered by Quinn’s various relatives. My husband smiled at me and said, “I, Samuel Leviticus Quinn, take you, Bailey Ember Gardener, for my lawful wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.” While I had issues, memorizing my lines, such as they were, wasn’t one of them. “I, Bailey Ember Gardener, take you, Samuel Leviticus Quinn, for my lawful husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.” Considering who my parents were—the pair I actually liked—the death do us part thing might cause us some trouble. Could the daughter of two divines and two horrid humans complete with a shapeshifting problem actually die? Did fire-breathing unicorns with a fetish for magically enhanced gasoline with some delicious additives age? What about gorgon-incubus doohickeys? I had questions. I doubted I’d get answers, as we were related to a bunch of immortal assholes who enjoyed toying with us because they could. Three such assholes lurked in the front row, and I couldn’t tell how many of them were fucking assholes or just standard ones. Sariel, formerly known as Sylvester but forced to change his name due to our adoption of Sylvester, the gorgon whelp, lifted his hand enough so I could spot him holding three fingers up. Damn it.

The last thing I needed was three fucking assholes, also known as archangels, making a mess of the wedding. Angels, the standard assholes, were bad enough. But to have three archangels and the Devil in attendance? I would make enough of a mess of the wedding without help, and I had a lot of help available. The Elvis impersonator made it through the rest of the predetermined speech and informed Quinn he could kiss the bride. My husband did an excellent job of redirecting my attention to him and only him. Somebody needed to give his tongue a hazard rating, and as he wasn’t above cheating, he enhanced his claim over my lips with a touch of his incubus influence, warning me what I’d have in store for me after the eating, the brawling, and whatever else needed to happen before we could head to our suite. Once he finished with me, all I could manage was a whispered, “You’re pure evil.” He grinned at me. “And now you get to stew until I get you back to our room tonight. I will be the luckiest of men.

” “Are we going to fight over which one of us is the luckiest?” “Absolutely. But only once we’re in bed.” Whee. “I forgot what I’m supposed to do now. You distracted me with your mouth.” “It’s an art I’ve been cultivating with daily practice, making sure you’re incapable of even thinking once I’ve had my way with your mouth.” Quinn linked my arm with his. “Now we walk through the gauntlet of people eagerly waiting to throw things at us, as this is somehow romantic.” “Are they flinging money at us? That would be romantic.” Despite having mostly whispered my question, everybody laughed.

“Alas, you’re getting rose petals rather than dollar bills. You’re my bride, not a stripper.” As I’d probably die from mortification if I even thought about stripping for anyone other than him in the privacy of our bedroom, I couldn’t blame anybody for chortling over his reply. They knew me well, especially the feathered menace giggling a storm in the front row, who could read my mind at his whim. I still wondered how a headless being could giggle. “I’d be a terrible stripper,” I conceded. “I’d be trying to add layers rather than remove them.” “You really would.” Quinn shook his head, chuckled, and had to drag me the first few steps to get me to move through the gauntlet of cops and family. As warned, we were pelted with rose petals, and because some cops had a twisted sense of humor, a few bills fluttered our way.

Quinn’s grip on my arm kept me from chasing them down, but he caught one and handed it to me. “I’m sure you can figure out what to do with that later.” Whee. If someone wanted to get my dollar, they would have to pry it from my cold, dead hands—and get through my gorgon-incubus doohickey first. As I was in no hurry to escape his clutches, I’d enjoy his hovering. When I did finally tire of his overprotective ways, I’d transform into a fire-breathing unicorn and nip him until he behaved. Or he joined me as the world’s best cindercorn stallion. Janet and Tiffany, both of whom had been recruited as bridesmaids so I could pretend I had a somewhat normal wedding, waited until we reached the end of the gauntlet before they both offered me twenty dollar bills. I looked my husband in the eyes while depositing the cash in my bra. “Thank you, ladies,” Quinn said, grinning at our friends.

“I very much appreciate your donation to my post-wedding activities. I’d say evening, but I suspect it’ll be closer to morning before we escape.” Janet snickered. “The Devil told me I had to make sure you both showed up for dinner. It seems everyone went present shopping today, and you’re to accept all your gifts at the restaurant. Apparently, this will be done in an orderly fashion and in pairs so Bailey doesn’t try to bolt for the door from embarrassment. Also, you owe me, woman.” “I do?” I asked. “I convinced your father to let you brawl a little with that gorgon you keep wanting to pick a fight with. You can thank the angels in the front row.

They suggested it would be good for your little ones to be exposed to all forms of your magic early, including shapeshifting.” “Does everybody know?” I whispered. “Yes.” Janet pointed at the front row, where the Devil sat with his brothers, chatting while waiting for us to get out of the way so everyone could follow us to dinner. “It’s his fault.” Technically, being pregnant with twins was the Devil’s fault, along with some help from his winged menaces of brothers. While Quinn took steps to prevent our family from growing unexpectedly, his incubus powers didn’t stand a chance against his divine relatives. “That is true. Quinn, we should get revenge on him. Perhaps as unicorns, after we have some napalm.

” Janet grinned. “And this is where Tiffany gets to give you a present!” I gave Perkette my undivided attention. “I deserve a present, especially as you made me leave my precious puppies and kitten upstairs rather than being part of the wedding party.” In reality, we’d left them upstairs in the care of an angel, as the sheer number of people present would scare them. While Blizzard handled crowds well, the husky puppy became excessively energetic, and while Avalanche was remarkably chill for an ocelot, they’d be happier playing with their toys in our suite. Sunny had been invited, as she had more than a touch of the divine influencing her, but it hadn’t seemed fair to include her but exclude the other two beasts. I already missed my furry babies. Perkette giggled, and she spun around, showing off the dress the Devil’s wife had acquired for her. The woman, a snow leopard shapeshifter of some sort, sat with her husband and seemed like the adult of that relationship. “You get to have a cup of napalm a week while a unicorn, and once a month, you get an entire bucket for your enjoyment.

I have the documentation for it. We put it together earlier today with some help from the Devil, his wife, and his brothers.” I freed myself from Quinn’s grip and doubled back to the front row, and as the Devil and his brothers were all conveniently located together, I flung myself at the quartet and indulged in a group hug. The Devil’s wife dodged my affection, although she caught my veil before it could be ripped off my head or otherwise cause me trouble. Behind me, my husband laughed. “You fucking assholes are the best!” Quinn’s angelic grandfather chuckled. “While I am most pleased to take some of the credit, my brother is the one who has done the research. He will also, with some help from your father, teach you how to better control your shapeshifting abilities. Your little ones need exposure to all of your magic, so outside of a ban from alcohol and too much sugar, you will find the next few months of your life disturbingly enjoyable when your offspring are not doing their best to kick you in the ribs. Cindercorns have an easier time with pregnancy than human women.

” Uh oh. I saved myself from exposing the surprise by not looking at Perkette, who would be dealing with quadruplets after having been barren her entire life. “You’re about to tell me I’m not human, aren’t you?” “You are sufficiently human for your new job’s needs,” the archangel assured me. I grabbed Sariel’s hand, kissed the back of, and repeated the process with the other archangels before planting a kiss on the Devil’s cheek. The Devil’s wife laughed and warded me off before shooing me away. I bounced back to my husband. “I get napalm, Quinn!” He caught me in a hug and kissed my forehead. “Heaven forbid you are forced to suffer without any napalm. There’s going to be a catch. There’s always a catch when it comes to you and your favorite fiery treat.

You should find out what the catch is now to limit your disappointment later.” As Perkette would do something like dangle a treat in front of me and then make me pay for it in some horrendous fashion, I asked, “What’s the catch?” “You have to exercise,” the mad scientist replied. “You’ll probably survive, and the exercise will be good for the babies.” I would remember that when she was waddling around, thanks to her four incoming children. “I’ll try to limit my whining somewhat. That is a catch I can live with.” Perkette feigned fainting against Janet, and she flung her hand against her forehead. “It’s a miracle. Your napalm supply will be rationed, however. There will be no unapproved napalm benders.

” Heaving a sigh, my husband turned me around, planted his hands on my shoulders, and pushed me down the aisle in the direction of the steakhouse deeper within the canal’s shopping district. “And I would prefer if there are no approved napalm benders.” I couldn’t blame my husband for his opinion. Bad things tended to happen when the CDC authorized me to use napalm, and it usually involved mass destruction and a requirement for construction crews to remove the rubble once I finished. Add in how I tended to scare a few years off my husband’s life, and it amazed me anyone let me near napalm at all. And the hangovers. I could live without the napalm bender hangovers. “That doesn’t mean there might not be an approved one. Come on, Quinn. We’re the best at playing with fire.

” “I’m sorry, Bailey, but you’re still outclassed by phoenixes,” my husband said. “Just because phoenixes can fly doesn’t mean they’re better than cindercorns. We have hooves, we breathe fire, meat is delicious, and so is napalm.”

.

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