Christabel was still fuming as she and Morgan walked the last couple of blocks from the Crouch End tube station to Naomi Bradleigh's house. He had not reacted to the scene she had made with Isaac Magnin at the afterparty for Winter Solstice at the Royal Albert Hall as she expected him to, and when he had come back to find her replete from her lovemaking with Isaac, all he had done was ask her if she had enjoyed herself.
She half-suspected he was planning to make a scene at Naomi's house, where they were going to a private and belated Solstice celebration. It's what she would have done were their positions reversed. Hoping to forestall any such eventuality, she stopped a few doors short. "Not a word about last night when we get to Naomi's."
"We already said everything that needed to be said."
"I know you're angry with me."
"The last time I was this angry with somebody, I burned every bridge I had with my family. I thought I had something good going with you and with Crowley's Thoth, and I don't want to throw it away, but every word I hear out of you makes it harder."
"We should have had this fight in the room before we left."
"I don't want to fight with you," said Morgan, his voice taking on an edge that discomforted her. "Look: I'm happy to be your faithful, supportive boyfriend for the fans as long as you keep your affair with Isaac backstage instead of making a public spectacle of it."
"How gracious of you to act like you have a choice in the matter." It was pure bluff on her part; she fully understood her position. Morgan still wanted to be part of the band more than he wanted to be free of her, but if that changed she would have no other hold on him. It occurred to Christabel that he might be staying for Naomi's sake as well; she remembered what Naomi had said about every band she joined falling apart around her and suspected he did as well, but if Morgan remembered that Naomi was a big girl and could take care of herself, then he had no reason to stay at all.
/What's to stop them from starting their own band?/ The question had begun to nag at Christabel halfway through Prometheus On Tour, as one performance after another showed that while Christabel might have founded the band the two she had considered her sidemen were more truly the heart of the band than she. /How long can I keep him from figuring out that he doesn't need me?/
"You coming, or what?" She looked up and saw that Morgan had stopped ten meters ahead, and had turned around to wait for her. He stood with one hand on his hip, still holding a bag of gifts, tapping his left foot. "It's not that much farther."
"I'm coming," said Christabel. Gathering up her own bag, she tried to run to him and catch up. She struck a small patch of black ice and stumbled, one of her feet slipping out from under her. Sure she was about to eat pavement, she drew in a breath to scream.
"I've got you," said Morgan as she stopped short, caught in his embrace. After helping her back to her feet, he took her bag along with his. "You could have walked. I would have waited."
"You could have let me fall." The knowledge of how close she had been to a painful and possibly disfiguring injury hit her. "If you had been only human, I'd probably be missing some teeth right now."
"Why did you save me after I demanded you hide what you are around me?"
A small shrug. "I don't know why you've come to hate me, but I wasn't so desperate for you to have a reason that I'd just stand there. And I wasn't going to let you get hurt just because you've hurt me. That's not who I want to be."
"I-" Christabel's mind stuttered as his words hit her. "I don't hate you. I never did. But I don't know if I ever really loved you."
"Do you want us to be over? Do you want me to leave the band?"
"I don't know." He was offering her an out, she realized. If she said yes to the first question, then they wouldn't be together any longer. But he had asked about the band separately, as if to imply that he was willing to stay on with Crowley's Thoth even if they weren't lovers. "Are you offering to let me go while still staying with the band?"
Rather than answer immediately, he stared up into the leaden sky as snow began to fall again in fat white flakes that began to melt as they caught in his hair. It made him seem almost innocent, and a moment Christabel imagined she saw the ghost of the boy he had been. "I can be content with that if you can," said Morgan.
"I don't know," said Christabel. "I need time to think about it."
"All right," said Morgan, but there was something in his expression that said to her that she'd better think it through with greater care than she had used thus far.
It wasn't Naomi who opened the door when they arrived. Instead, a tall young woman with green eyes and auburn hair that fell in waves to her shoulders greeted them. She was wearing a Crowley's Thoth t-shirt over faded jeans and leather boots with bubblegum pink laces. She lowered her amber-tinted glasses to give Christabel a once-over before lingering over Morgan. "One of the tall, dark, and brooding types? My favorite." She turned back to Christabel. "Mind if I borrow him for an hour?"
Before Christabel could say anything, Naomi's voice rang out from somewhere inside. "Dammit, Claire. Please let my guests in /before/ you flirt with them."
"Sorry," said Claire, not looking even a little chastened as she stepped back to let them in. "You must be Christabel and Morgan. I'll take your coats since Auntie Nims doesn't trust me to help in the kitchen."
"Thanks," said Christabel as Morgan helped out of her long faux-mink coat. "Please use a wooden hanger."
Claire complied, smirking all the while.
"I don't recall Naomi mentioning a niece," said Morgan as he shrugged off his pea coat and accepted the hanger Claire offered.
"Nor I," said Christabel.
"Kind of an honorary position," said Claire. "My real aunt Jackie and Nims are besties, and Jackie says I'm too much to handle on her own."
For some reason this didn't surprise Christabel. In her opinion, one she knew better than to voice, the girl needed a diet and some deportment lessions at the Garden of Earthly Delights. "Do you flirt with your aunt's boyfriend, too?"
Claire blew a raspberry at her. "I flirt with almost /everybody/. Hell, I'd flirt with you if you didn't look like you had planet Arrakis crammed up your arse, sandworms and all."
Christabel glanced at Morgan, who was doing an admirable job of faking a coughing fit. "Did any of that make sense to /you/?"
"Come on," said Claire. "Everybody's inside."
Everybody turned out to be Naomi, a petite blonde in slacks and a pale blue cardigan hiding behind a battered copy of /The Unix Programming Environment/, a grizzled old campaigner who looked to have decades of hard drinking and harder living under his belt, and a fluffy tuxedo cat with pale blue eyes.
The old man nodded to Morgan as if he recognized him, and Morgan returned the courtesy. /Oh, shit,/ thought Christabel as she finally placed the face. /That's Edmund Cohen./
"Oi, Josse," said Claire. "The whole damn band's here."
The other girl carefully closed her book and laid it aside. Standing up, she offered a slim hand to Chistabel. "'Ello. I'm Josefine Malmgren. I'm Claire's roommate."
"You're a computer science student, aren't you?" Naomi had brought out a steaming teapot and began pouring.
"That's right." Josefine shot a sidelong glance Morgan's way. "Maybe I shouldn't talk about what inspired me."
"Thanks," said Morgan as he accepted a mug from Naomi. After a sip, he turned his attention to the shy blonde. "Was it Project Einherjar?"
"How did you know?"
Suspecting she knew where the conversation would go, Christabel shot Morgan an angry text. «When you're with me you're only human, remember?»
"I've talked with a few techies at my day job," said Morgan. "Many of them hoped to get into AI research because they read about the project."
Glad Morgan had deftly handled the situation, Christabel tried her own tea, and nearly choked on it when a message came from Morgan. «A little credit, please.»
"Dinner will be a couple of hours yet," said Naomi as she sat down with her own tea. Cocking her head to one side, she watched as the cat climbed into Morgan's lap, danced about while kneading with its forepaws, and settled in for a nap. His purring filled the room. "Wait. That's not /my/ cat. Phantom doesn't purr that loudly."
"Sorry about that," said Edmund. "Desdinova fobbed him off on me. Said he was allergic."
"So, why did you bring him here?"
"Well," Edmund said with an exaggerated drawl. "I figured Morgan hasn't been getting enough pussy lately."
Both Morgan and Josefine almost choked on their tea. Claire, however, favored Christabel with a saucy smile before kneeling beside Morgan. "Mind if I pet your pretty pussy?"
Looking down at the cat in his lap, Morgan sighed. "I think I belong to the cat rather than the other way around." He scratched behind its lynx-pointed ears. "What should I call you, little fluff?"
The little fluff blinked blue eyes up at him. "Meow?"
"How about Mordred?" Claire suggested the name as she let the cat sniff her fingers and then rub his face against them. "That's a pretty metal name for a black cat."
"You're a talker, ain'tcha."
"I suppose Mordred will do," said Morgan. He looked at Edmund. "He's fixed and fully grown, right?"
"Nope. Mordred there is still just a kitten. Ain't gonna be big enough to neuter for another three months, and he's gonna get bigger."
"How much bigger will Mordred get," Naomi wondered as her own cat, a short-haired tuxedo tom with a white patch covering the right side of his face, sauntered in and rubbed against her shins. Mordred, seeing the other cat, immediately leaped from Morgan's lap to pounce on Phantom. Once he had the other cat in a headlock, Mordred began washing him. Phantom tried to endure the younger cat's assault graciously, looking up at Naomi for rescue the whole time. "He already looks full-grown."
"He's gonna get much bigger," said Edmund, and looked at Christabel. "You could sic him on the groupies trying to get a piece of Morgan while you're off with Isaac Magnin."
"Eddie, I appreciate the support but this isn't your fight. I've already made my feelings plain to Christabel."
"Wow," said Claire, staring at Christabel. "I can't believe there are women who aren't creeped out by that guy. Didn't anybody tell you that white-haired bishounen are not to be trusted?"
"This is none of our business," said Josefine, trying to hide her flush behind her book. "And is it really appropriate to talk about this at a belated Winter Solstice celebration?"
"Not really," said Naomi. Reaching under the tree, she retrieved a couple of packages. She handed one each to Claire and Josefine. They had looked heavy to Christabel, but Naomi barely showed any strain. "I hope you like yours. Claire told me a little about you."
A squeal of delighted surprise erupted from Josefine as she tore open the wrapping paper to reveal a box of leather-bound books. Each one bore the name Donald Knuth on the spine. She blinked at Naomi, seeing that Claire had received a set of books on espionage and information security. "This is a complete set of /The Art of Computer Programming/. How did you find this?"
"Oh, I have my ways," said Naomi. "I'm glad you like it."
"Like it? This has to be the best Solstice gift I've ever gotten. But now I feel terrible about the gift Claire and I got you."
"It can't be worse than mine," said Morgan. He had retrieved his bag, and passed out a small parcel each to Claire, Josefine, and Edmund. "Sorry you're all getting the same thing. Naomi told me she might have other guests over, but didn't give me much in the way of details."
"Whoa. Bootlegs of the Winter Solstice show at the Royal Albert Hall." Claire stared at Morgan. "Who did you blow to get these?"
"Dammit, Claire." Naomi and Josefine said it at the same time, both women equally exasperated. For his part, Morgan merely smiled and held a fingertip to his lips. "A gentleman never tells."
"Hey, Nims, this guy's a keeper. He takes it like a man."
"So glad you approve," said Naomi. Sitting beside Morgan, she gave him a quick hug and pressed a large package into his hands. "Please don't be embarrassed by this. I know it's extravagant."
Once he had gotten through the wrapping paper and opened the box, Morgan lifted out a black greatcoat. Fingering the material, he stared at Naomi. "This is graphene. With ceramic plates sewn into the lining."
"I can't stop you from taking a bullet for somebody who isn't worth it," said Naomi, looking squarely at Christabel as she did so, "But I want you to think of me as you wear this and remember that there /are/ people who care about you."