Isaac had warned Christabel that she might eventually find herself staring down the barrel of a gun. He had done what he could to prepare her. He had taught her methods for disarming assasilants armed with pistols and other firearms. He had periodically tested her, though always with advance warning. Despite his efforts she froze whenever somebody pointed a weapon at her.
Though she knew she should be looking for a way out, all she could focus on was the matte black pistol in Victoria's hand, and what she had told her as she drew it. "It looks like my life has indeed gotten complicated," said Christabel. She took a shuddering breath. "I suppose you're one of Morgan's enemies. What did he do to you?"
"It won't matter to you since you'll be dead soon," said Victoria. She had taken a two-handed grip on her pistol and stood with her feet apart and her knees slightly bent. "Call Morgan. It's time /he/ lost somebody he cared about for once."
Christabel slowly raised one of her hands, and pressed her fingertip to her ear to indicate that she was using her implant. «Morgan, I'm outside the entertainers' entrance with Victoria Valentine. She's pointing a gun at me. Don't come after me. As soon as she sees you she'll shoot me.»
«If I keep her waiting long enough she might shoot you anyway. Try to keep calm. I'm on my way.»
Christabel lowered her hand, and forced herself to look at Victoria's eyes instead of the muzzle of her gun. "He's coming."
Victoria's aim wavered as she took a deep breath. "I meant what I said earlier. You three gave a brilliant performance. You could have been one of the greats. But out of all the guitarists, you had to pick /him/."
"What did he do to you?"
"Why do you care?"
Christabel shrugged. "So I can tell him why I'm haunting him."
"He killed my father."
"Oh, and now you're going to kill my girlfriend?"
Taking her eyes from the gun pointed at her had become the easiest thing in the world. A few meters down the alley, Morgan stood unarmed, his hands on his hips as he gazed contemptuously at Victoria. "Your father had it coming, but if you love him that much despite everything he did to you then shoot /me/."
"You don't think I won't?"
Morgan took a step forward. "I don't think you've got the nerve."
"He'd never so much as touched a sword in his life. He didn't have a chance against you."
"He stole every milligram you ever earned as a child performer. He defrauded hundreds of people who trusted him to manage their retirement savings."
"The evidence was fabricated."
"The grand jury thought otherwise. They found the evidence solid enough to justify issuing unanimous indictments on every charge against him the Phoenix Society requested. When an Adversary came to deliver the indictments and take him into custody, your father shot him in the throat."
"Not another step!" Victoria all but shrieked her warning as she finally turned the gun on Morgan. "Or so help me God I /will/ shoot you."
Morgan's smile became predatory. He took another step forward. "Better not miss."
The pistol's roar drowned out Christabel's cry. The shot struck Morgan between the eyes, and he staggered a step backward. He slumped forward, and Christabel was sure he'd fall flat on his face. She was sure she had seen him murdered, but he raised his head and met Victoria's gaze. "Was that the best you could do?"
"I shot you in the /head/. How can you still be on your feet?"
"You think one bullet is enough for einherjar like me?" Morgan took another step forward. "Try the whole magazine."
"Look at me." Morgan touched the center of his brow where the bullet had struck him. The flesh was pristine, as if he had never been shot. "You've got six rounds left. Seven at most, if you came at me with a full magazine plus one in the chamber. It won't be enough."
He was close enough to disarm her now. Instead, he grasped her wrist and pressed the muzzle to the center of his chest. "Do your worst and watch me get over it. Just like your miserable, embezzling excuse for a father did."
"You enjoyed it, didn't you."
"Yeah, I enjoyed disappointing him. I took /inordinate/ pleasure in hitting him upside the head with the pommel of my sword, bringing him in alive, seeing him convicted, and personally escorting him to the ship that carried him into exile."
"He's not dead?"
"No. He's on a penal habitat orbiting Uranus with the rest of the assholes. He wasn't /worth/ killing, and neither are you."
Now incoherent with grief and rage, Victoria Valentine emptied her pistol into Morgan's chest. Seven shots in close succession shattered the still of the summer night, and though Morgan jerked as each shot tore into him he kept his grip on his would-be murderer's wrists.
He released his grasp as the slide locked. Victoria staggered backward, retching as the pistol slipped from her hands and clattered against the pavement. Christabel herself wanted to vomit at the sight of Morgan's wounds, which bled freely for a moment before beginning to close. "I told you it wouldn't be enough," he said as he raised a hand to strike her.
"That's quite enough." Christabel had not been the only one to say it, and Morgan had not looked at her. Instead, he was looking at Naomi, who stood in the doorway with her arms crossed, her disapproval plain in her scarlet glare.
"There's no need to harm Ms. Valentine," said Naomi as she placed herself between Morgan and his would-be murderer. "Police and paramedics are on their way. Christabel, are you hurt too?"
"N-no." She checked herself over, unable to believe she was unscathed. "What the hell just happened?"
"I provoked Ms. Valentine into firing upon me," said Morgan. "She was determined to shoot somebody, and I figured that if somebody had to get shot tonight it might as well be me since I can take it."
"You can take it?" Christabel stared aghast at him. His jacket and the shirt beneath were bloody and tattered, but the flesh they once covered was fresh and smooth, without the slightest scarring. "You've got eight bullets in you. How can you still be standing?"
He took one of her hands in his; they were gentle with her whereas they had held fast to his assailant's. "It'll be fine. I'll just spend a couple of weeks pissing lead acetate."
"Absolutely not," said Naomi. "You're going to the hospital and getting those slugs removed."
"I'm coming, too," said Christabel. Not that she wanted to spend the night waiting for Morgan to come out of surgery, but what kind of woman refused to wait for her boyfriend after he had taken gunfire meant for her? Unfortunately, there was first the matter of giving a statement to the police. While the Phoenix Society would prosecute the attempted murder charge, since Victoria's attempts to deprive first Christabel of her life without due process and then Morgan were technically acts of tyranny, there were lesser charges that fell within the NYPD's purview.
One of the patrolman on the scene had no trouble handcuffing her as his partner secured her weapon for evidence and set about gathering up the used shell casings. "Victoria Valentine, you're under arrest for disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and reckless use of firearms. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used as evidence against you. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, you will be provided one at public expense. You have the right to humane treatment while in custody. Do you understand your rights as outlined?"
"I won't even answer that question without an attorney," said Victoria, thus proving her understanding of her rights as one accused of a crime.
By the time the police had finished getting Christabel's statement, Morgan had come out of surgery and was resting in a recovery room. Nobody at the hospital objected to her seeing him, even though it was past visiting hours.
Though he looked almost fully recovered, he was still down and Christabel meant to give him a good kicking. She had her orders, and if she was right about the state of their relationship then it was time to begin carrying them out. He paled as Christabel delivered the four words whose speaking all sensible men feared. "We need to talk."
"I told you I'm an Adversary," said Morgan. "But I should have been more explicit about what that might mean for you. I was wrong."
She shook her head and leaned over him. "You didn't tell me you weren't human. What was it you called yourself? Einherjar? Is that why Victoria couldn't kill you? Because you're already dead?"
"I'm as alive and as human as you." Taking her hand, Morgan pressed it against his chest. She could feel his heart beating as she had whenever she used him as a pillow. The flesh was warm beneath her touch. "People like me are einherjar because we were made to be able to stand alone against any threat. Each of us is an army of one."
"When were you going to tell me the truth about what you are?"
"I never wanted you to know, but I could bear neither to let you die nor to kill in front of you. I saw no other way than to provoke her into turning her gun on me."
"Did you have to let her shoot you?"
Morgan shook his head. "I could have dodged every bullet, but they had to go /somewhere/. They were likely to hit /somebody/. I thought it better to let them strike me than some innocent bystander behind me."
"Do you think you're a hero?"
"Everything I did, I did for myself. I became an Adversary because Isaac Magnin promised he'd help me become a rock star if I did, and if I agreed to take on certain dirty jobs for the Phoenix Society. If I hadn't taken that deal, I might never have met you. We might never have recorded together, or started Crowley's Thoth."
"And is that supposed to make everything all right?"
"Of course not. What do you want from me, Christabel? Was I supposed to let Valentine shoot you?"
"I wanted you to /think shit through/. With a modicum of discretion you might have prevented this entire situation. You sow dragon's teeth for a living, and I get stuck with the harvest. I want no part of it. I don't want to have to deal with you being some kind of superhero. I don't want your enemies coming after me to get to you. When you're with me, you're only human, do you understand me?"
Morgan's face had fallen, and he had winced at her words as if she had whipped him with each. "I understand. You want to live a lie."
"If you can't deal with that, then I can't be with you. Nor can I work with you."
"That would hurt Naomi, too."
She hated him for thinking of her, and doubted it was the first time he had done so when he should have been thinking about Christabel. "Never mind her. I could have been killed because of you, and I've got to look out for myself if you won't look out for me."
A long moment passed before Morgan spoke again. "I'll do what it takes. I suppose I should have taken on a stage name sooner."
"Yes, you should have. From now on, you'll get credited as Morgan Stormrider." Christabel ignored the way he winced at the mame. /Fuck him,/ she thought. /If he wanted something less ridiculous he should have come up with it himself before he started performing./ "It won't be a perfect cover, since we already recorded Prometheus Unbound under your official name, but we can change the credits for a reissue down the line. I can make it stick better by making a big deal about breaking up with you and firing you as Morgan Cooper, too."
"Whatever it takes," said Morgan, as if he had given up.
Christabel found Isaac Magnin waiting for her in the hospital lobby. "Are you nuts? We can't be seen together."
"Remember who I am,", said Isaac. "You see me as I am. Everybody else thinks you're with Naomi Bradleigh, and nobody can hear us."
"More of your sufficiently advanced technology?" Isaac had been steadfast in his refusal to call it magic.
"Of course. Incidentally, Victoria Valentine sends her regards."
"Where is she?"
"In custody, but in a nice, comfy cell. We'll make a big show of her trial, and then instead of shipping her off to Uranus to be with her dad we'll give her a new identity, pay her, and send her off to Armstrong City on Luna to start her new life."
Christabel nodded, pleased with the outcome. "Good. She really carried off her part. I honestly thought she was gonna kill me."
"I was there the whole time," said Isaac. "I would not have let it happen."