Latimer fussed over them as soon as they walked through the door. “You did good,” he whispered as he threw his arms around Alice, “You’re alright. You’re home now.”
They looked in on Gwendolyn just long enough for Alice to confirm that she was okay. Then Vlad carried her upstairs and helped her into the shower. She swayed on her feet as he washed her hair and made his best attempt at braiding it.
“Why do I feel drunk?” she slurred before an earsplitting yawn.
“Your adrenaline,” he cupped her face, massaging just beneath her ears, “It flooded your system, and now it’s gone, so you feel a bit off-kilter.”
“Oh,” she started to sway again, “You never asked if I did it.”
“I don’t care if you did it. Do you want to sleep in sweatpants or in shorts?”
“Shorts,” she replied quickly and then frowned and shook her head. “No, I mean sweatpants. I…I think I’m cold?”
She looked flushed, but maybe it was the shower. “Alright,” he agreed, determined to give her some agency. When he’d finally gotten free from Miko, making decisions—no matter how small—tethered him to this world and helped him keep his sanity. “I’ll get your clothes and lay with you until you fall asleep.”
The sun was shining through the windows by the time they climbed into bed.
Alice slept fitfully. At one point, she woke up, panicked. “Do you think this is happening because I’m a witch? Am I attracting bad energy? Is it because I fucked up? It is, isn’t it? I fucked up, and now my whole life is ruined. I’m going to jail, and they’re gonna take my kid because I really did hate Eliza, and I’m not sorry she’s dead!”
Vlad tried to calm her, but she continued to struggle.
“They know I’m not a good sim! I have these awful, spiteful, shitty thoughts—I’m not nice, and I’m gonna be punished for it!”
“Shhh,” he pulled her back down until her head rested on his chest. “No one is nice. Especially not me. And I will use every ounce of my not-niceness to ensure you are always safe and free.”
“How? They’ll get you too,” she rasped, and he could feel her heart beating in her chest like a trapped hummingbird. Vlad knew it was to feel haunted, and so he held her tighter, his voice a whisper meant to lull her to sleep.
“Centuries ago, a being that defies logic caught me. She locked me in a cage for five hundred years. Broke my bones, clawed out my eye, took my heart. Once, the direction of the wind put her in such a mood that she peeled back my skin with a whaling knife. She made me such a thing as to give you nightmares, and now no one, not even her, could stop me from doing anything I wish to do.”
It worked. Within seconds, Alice’s eyes slid shut, and she started snoring.
“What have you gotten yourself into?” Lilith demanded as soon as he got downstairs. “Your mortal lover is no mortal; she’s teeming with magic, and so is her daughter.”
Vlad moved past her to start the coffee maker. He should amend his statement to Alice. Plenty of beings could stop him from doing what he wanted to do. Two of them were in his kitchen. “Alice is some kind of witch, and Gwendolyn just inherited her magic.”
“She’s not,” Lilith growled, “Can’t you smell it? Witches cast magic, but Alice and her child are like the essence of magic itself. They’re like those babysitters who aren’t mortal, either. They smell—”
“Ancient,” Vlad finished. “And wrong.”
“Exactly. I killed them, but I don’t think it’ll keep.”
“Speaking of which, Alice said someone is trying to kill her,” Latimer frowned, “Not that they have a chance in hell, but what is she talking about?”
“I’m not sure,” Vlad admitted. He ran through the details of the heist and Alice’s encounter with the wand as quickly as possible.
“I’ve never heard of a wand like that,” Lilith declared. “You invited this mortal into your house to give her and her suspect magic full run of the place?”
“She is not some mortal. She is my partner, Lilith. I—”
“Intend to marry her?” His daughter’s eyes narrowed to slits, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Alright,” Latimer held up a hand, “We’re getting off track.”
“No, I think we’re on track. Don’t you, Father?” Lilith’s eyes glittered. “You intend to marry this mortal when you’re not over your first marriage?”
“There is no wedding happening right now, and I am long over my ex-husband.” The part of Vlad that was broken and addicted to toxic things said otherwise, but that was his shit to figure out, not Lilith’s.
“My step-father, you mean, who stayed for the entire conference.”
“We’re back to that?” Vlad thrust out his arm. “We just had this conversation, Lilith. Yes, Ethren was at the conference. I admit that my corporeal form was not in the room. He probably hugged you after and said some very nice things before he fucked off.”
“He did. And yet you want me to forget him like he didn’t raise me!”
Rage hit Vlad so swiftly he was temporarily blinded. “Raised you?” he repeated tonelessly.
“Yes! My real parents wanted to teach me about magic, but they died before they had the chance. Ethren stepped in as much as he could, but you kept dancing in and out of relationships with him. And now look at me! I’m a mess! In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever be whole because of it.”
“What do you mean ‘never be whole’?” Vlad bellowed.
“Exactly what I said! Ethren saw it; that’s why he took me to the Magic Realm. To try and fix what my real parents couldn’t teach me.”
Lilith’s real father had been a powerful witch. And a layabout. Vlad loathed him with every bone in his body. He never once regretted cutting the bastard’s throat and draining him into a fountain, especially when a small boy and a toddler wandered into a tavern starving, covered in dirt, and clutching the family crest.
“I took you to the Magic Realm!” Vlad growled, “And picked up your toys and held you through night terrors and Ethren—”
“Vladislaus.” Latimer’s voice was a warning.
“He made me!” Lilith cried, her hands balled up into fists. “You said so yourself. You would have never been able to turn a witch safely without his help. He cares for me.”
“Ethren cares for himself,” Vlad spat. “The only reason he even deigns to—”
“Vladislaus!” Latimer pounded his fist on the counter. “Don’t you dare! You cross that line, and you’ll never forgive yourself, so just shut the fuck up.”
Vlad ground his teeth together so hard he thought he cracked them.
“Your father didn’t mean it. Your step-father loves you,” Latimer said, his eyes locked on Vlad’s.
It was only through sheer physical willpower that Vlad was able to nod in agreement.
Lilith checked a look of victory. “You’re full of criticism for Ethren, but if you’re so good at parenting, why can’t you hear the child upstairs weeping?”