Everyone was giving me that “Who’s this guy?” look. Everyone but Mira. She was on her feet, watching me with tension on her face. She knew. She knew, and she was waiting to see what I wanted her to do.

For a brief (very brief) moment, I wanted to see what would happen if my wife the witch threw down against my own personal demon. But Axel was more powerful than I wanted to truly admit, and any kind of major magic work would take a horrible toll on Mira. So, no, not really an option.

Not to mention that there were civilians here, people who had no idea that real demons walked the world. My sister-in-law, the kids, Dr. Bridget and her new boyfriend… All potentially collateral damage.

I pasted a smile on my face and jerked my head toward Marty. “Beer me, Marty.” My stocky friend tossed me a bottle and I passed it to Axel. “This is Axel. I work with him at It.” Lies suck, and I hate doing it, but sometimes they come in handy. And Axel could pass for one of my tattooed, pierced, punk coworkers easily enough.

The man-demon twisted the bottle open and took a long drink, then sighed with satisfaction. “Good stuff.” He looked around at the crowd, which was still mostly staring at him. “Do I have something on my face?” He felt around on his face with mock alarm, touching the gold rings in both eyebrows, the stud in his nose, the labret piercing just below his lower lip.

The buffoonery worked, and everyone laughed. Well, almost everyone. Mira and I exchanged worried looks, but what was I supposed to do? Any tussle I started here would be in full view of people I didn’t want hurt. There was no choice but to leave him be, for now.

And my day just got weirder after that. For no reason I could discern, Axel stuck around, introducing himself to my friends and family with a charming smile and witty conversation. He avoided Mira without seeming to do so, and after straying too near my daughter once and coming face-to-face with my wife’s cold expression, he avoided the little kids, too. That worried me. He was being entirely too accommodating. And what the hell did he even want? He wasn’t the “social call” kind of demon.

Esteban was too perceptive for his own damn good, too. He caught me when everyone else was distracted. “I’ve seen him before. At It, but he doesn’t work there.” He raised one dark brow at me, daring me to disagree with him.

“You’re a smart kid.” I handed him the first platter of burgers. “If I say move, you grab Anna and Nicky and get your ass in the house, entiendes?”

“Entiendo.” His jaw firmed, taking his duty very seriously.

“And Esteban? If that happens, I’m gonna need my sword.”

“Yes, sir.”

Esteban was a good kid, from a good family. A good family who also happened to be demon hunters for generations going back. It felt a little weird, relying on a teenager to be my backup, but of everyone here, I knew I could trust the kid to follow orders, and to never back down. We’d fought demons together before.

Cam-short-for-Cameron tried to blend too, making small talk with Cole mostly, while I went through the motions of rustling up grub for everyone. I tried to keep an eye on both him and Axel until I gave myself a headache.

The almost-priest seemed like an all right sort of guy, if a little strange. More than once, I caught him watching me, though he’d look away the moment he realized I was looking back at him. It did also occur to me that maybe he was just watching me to figure out why I was staring at him, too.

He had a very faint limp when he walked, like maybe his right leg wasn’t entirely sound, and when he wasn’t staring at me, he was very attentive to Dr. Bridget. The smiles they exchanged from time to time made me feel like a peeping Tom. It was that smile that said, “I’m totally head-over-heels in love with this person.”

I had to admit, it was a bizarre feeling, watching them, and I finally decided that this was how I’d feel when Annabelle started dating someday. If Bridget had warned me, I could have been cleaning a shotgun or something when they came in. “She’s my only daughter…” Which is probably why she didn’t warn me.

The burgers came off the grill and the brats and hotdogs went on, and the party partied on. If not for my own voice carrying across the patio as Axel laughed at someone’s joke, I might have even forgotten that he was there. Did anyone else notice the voice, I wondered. Or did he sound like me to only my own ears? It was almost disorienting, hearing myself speak from yards away.

Some clouds drifted across the sun, dropping the temperature by a few degrees, and we all started watching the sky warily. Esteban and I in particular had an aversion to stormy weather. That’s what happens once you get a firsthand look at the inside of a tornado.

The moment the first droplets hit the ground, Mira marshaled the troops into moving the party inside, everyone grabbing what they could. In moments, the backyard was empty, save for me and Axel. He lingered near the patio table, fingers walking across the neat tile squares in the tabletop. Marking out chess positions, I realized, from the last game we played. Before I’d packed the set up and taken it inside, of course. Because I was mad at him.

Being reminded of that made me feel petty, which then made me feel ashamed. And my response to shame is to get defensive, which comes out in a rather vicious brand of humor.

I smirked and asked him, “Not coming inside?” knowing full well that he couldn’t. Mira had long ago placed magical wards on the doors and windows, specifically to keep Axel out. I didn’t know what would happen if he tried to pass through them, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Axel gave me a smirk in return, but it faded. We both stood uncomfortably in the rain, looking everywhere but at each other. Finally, he said, “How’ve you been, Jesse?”

“I’m still upright and breathing. Why?”

He shrugged. “Just asking. Been a while since I’ve had to try to make small talk.”

The rain picked up, the pleasant shower promising to become a downpour in short order. And since this was getting way too chick-flicky for me, I decided to cut straight to the meat. “What do you want, Axel?”

“What makes you think I want anything?”

“Because you always want something.” He always wanted one thing: my soul. Which was why I’d booted him out of my yard about six months ago. Big jerk nearly got me killed with his hints and taunts and sly smirks. “And what’s with the getup?” I gestured at his all-too-human body. Normally, his appearances involved possessed squirrels, and once a really nasty opossum.

“You ever think maybe I just wanted a burger? And a beer. Oh that beer was wonderful.” He paused a moment, a blissfully dreamy expression on his face until I cleared my throat. “It’s almost impossible to drink out of those bottles when you’re six inches tall, you know. And a beer-drinking squirrel is a bit conspicuous.” I just raised a brow at him. We both knew he hadn’t answered my question yet. “I was in the neighborhood, all right? Thought I’d swing by and say ‘hey’.”

I had to chuckle at that, and he gave me a surprised look. “Come on. You really expect me to buy that? You used to be better at this.”

For a moment he tried to find something to say to refute me, but. .. well, you just can’t. He finally chuckled and shrugged again. “Yeah, I did. Guess my heart’s not in it right now.”

“Maybe you need a vacation.”

“Ah, wouldn’t that be grand? Somewhere warm, with a beach…” There was that wistfulness to his face again, for all of about three seconds. Then something in his eyes became more… pointed, somehow. Sharper. “Aren’t you taking a vacation here soon? Your annual camping trip thingy?”

“Yeah.” He obviously knew, already. It wasn’t like I was revealing trade secrets. “We’re leaving day after tomorrow.” Immediately following the annual Dawson family barbecue and snarky T-shirt contest always came the annual guys’ paintball extravaganza, in the wilds of Colorado. Yet another attempt to make all the amends I needed to.

“That’s good! You should definitely go do that.” He did everything but clap his hands in glee. “A vacation might do you a world of good, and all that fresh air out in the middle of nowhere should be exhilarating…” He paused in his enthusiastic babbling when I frowned at him. “What?”

“Since when did you become a travel guide?”

“What, just because I’m a demon, I can’t appreciate nature’s bounty?”

I winced and glanced behind me, but they’d all gone inside. Only Mira remained in the kitchen, cleaning up and looking over her shoulder to check on me just a little bit more than necessary. I waved to her, but she didn’t wave back. Her gaze went to Axel, then back to me with a very clear “Get him out of here” message.

Yeah, cause I wanted to be standing out in the rain chitchatting with a demon. “You need to go.”

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