Naomi had spent all day dreading the question, and regretted yet again that she had declined Morgan's offer to come meet her family for Winter Solstice. It would have simplified matters considerably if he had been here to help field her family's questions about her love life after the dissolution of Crowley's Thoth and her misadventures fighting alongside Morgan against Alexander Liebenthal in Boston. But here she was, on her own, when her mother Sophie finally dropped the question as if serving up a fresh cut of some noisome meat. "So, Nims, are you and this Morgan Stormrider fellow serious yet?"
Her father Howell joined in, "I wouldn't have minded meeting him myself. Might have taken him down to the pub for a pint, maybe a bit of arm-wrestling."
Her brothers, Niall, Nathan, and Norman, were no help. They had abandoned her to her parents' tender mercies on the pretext of clearing the table. "It depends on how you define serious?"
"Well," said Sophie. "He fought beside you in Boston, didn't he? And in all of the photos we see in the papers you two always seem rather taken with one another."
"I just want to be sure he's a good bloke for you, Nims," Howell added. "Make sure his intentions for you are honorable."
/Not that my intentions toward him were anything of the sort, and not that he seems to have minded thus far,/ Naomi thought. Of course, she'd never say such a thing to her parents. They were practically childhood sweethearts. They had married young, had sons in rapid succession, and then adopted her after learning that a hitherto undiscovered genetic defect left Howell incapable of giving Sophie daughters.
When her true parents had decided not to raise Naomi themselves—a decision she herself applauded knowing what she did of her biological father—they had sought a suitable family and found one in the Bradleighs. Though they had hoped for a princess and gotten an Amazon, they had loved Naomi.
Naomi loved her parents in turn, or at least she believed she did. At least, she did her best to be a loving daughter. She kept in touch. She visited regularly. She confided in her parents. She tolerated their concern regarding her romantic life with as much grace as she could manage, grateful for the practice she had gotten in dealing with far less gentle probing into such matters by journalists and paparazzi.
Likewise, Naomi wanted to believe she loved Morgan, but she harbored doubts. For one, she believed she had loved all of the lovers who had preceded him. She enjoyed his company. She enjoyed their bedroom sport once they had gotten acquainted with each other's bodies, and she had been generous in her offerings to all of the appropriate gods that the initial awkwardness of new lovers had not lasted long. She did not find his conversation tedious yet, and still hoped Morgan was of similar opinion concerning her own discourse. She was proud to fight beside him, standing back to back with him felt profoundly right, and she had found herself confident that she would take a bullet for him if she had to, as he had already done for her. She believed they could make a good life together, or at least she wanted to possess such faith.
/But is all of that really love?/ That was the question Naomi constantly asked herself, tormenting herself with her own doubts until she pushed her lovers away. "It's not you. It's me," was the common theme on which she had composed a different variation each time, and while it was true enough for government work it hid a deeper, more insidious truth that she had refused to confess even to her psychotherapists. /Am I just using Morgan for my own pleasure? How much my true father's daughter am I?/
"Nims?" Sophie's hand on hers brought her out of her reverie. "Are you all right? Did dinner disagree with you? Too much wine, perhaps?"
"No," said Naomi. "Dinner was lovely, and I've only had that one glass. It's something else."
"Is it about Morgan?"
"If he's hurt you," said Howell, his voice roughening in a protective, paternal anger that Naomi suddenly feared would prove his death, "I'll kick his arse so hard he'll splash down in the middle of the fucking Atlantic."
"It's not Morgan," Naomi protested as her father issued his threat. There was more she could say, but she held it all back for his sake; telling him had didn't have a prayer against one of the einherjar would only cut into his pride. He was still old-fashioned enough to think he needed to be able to fight with his fists for his little girl. Naomi found it touching, especially since she was a bit taller than he while barefoot and towered over him in heels. Howell knew that she hadn't been his little girl in almost forever, but Naomi wanted to believe she loved him too much not to belabor the point.
"It's not him," she repeated, and summoned the courage to say what she had feared to say her entire life. "It's me. I think he loves me. I want to believe I love him. But I'm not sure I'm even capable of loving somebody."
Until she felt her parents arms close around her, Naomi was sure they would ask if her confession meant that her love for them had been a sham all this time. Instead, Sophie looked her in the eye and said, "Are you afraid that you're like the man who gave you up to us? Are you afraid you might be /his/ daughter after all?"
/Yes,/ Naomi was sure she only admitted her fear to herself, but she must have spoken it out loud because Howell only hugged her tighter. "Nims, I couldn't stop you from learning about him, and maybe I didn't have the right, but I wish to all the gods I had tried harder to stop you because that knowledge has left scars on you that you never deserved to bear. But you listen to me.
"The one good thing that man did, whether he calls himself Ian Malkin or Isaac Magnin or Loki fuckin' Lie-smith was let you go. He loved you enough to do that much even if he is the closest thing we've got to a devil walkin' the earth. If he could do that, then even if you're his daughter in truth you still have it in you to love somebody."
"I just don't know what to do," Naomi admitted, mastering her emotions. She didn't want to ruin Winter Solstice for everybody by making a weepy, emotional mess of herself. There would be time enough for that when she took a bottle to her bedroom, emptied it, and then drunk-dialed Morgan to unburden herself to the one person who needed the truth most. "I've kept so many secrets from Morgan that I'm afraid to stop keeping them. If I had told him up front, he might not have gotten up the nerve to try again with me. If I tell him now, how can he trust me?"
"It's a hard dilemma," said Sophie, "but what's this about him trying again?"
Despite herself, Naomi smiled at the memory. Morgan had been such a young man the first time. "He was working as a bouncer at a bar where I was playing. He was only sixteen at the time, yet he had the nerve to ask me out to dinner. I told him I didn't want to take advantage of a young man his age, gave him his first kiss, and told him he should ask again after he's lived more of a life."
For reasons Naomi did not understand and dared not ask, Howell laughed at her admission. "So, let me see if I've got this straight. This bloke asked you out when he was still mostly a lad, you were his first snog, and he been pining for you all this time?"
"Well, not pining. After all, he did meet Christabel and they were together for a decade. It wasn't his idea to break up, any more than breaking up the band was his either."
/Dammit, Morgan,/ Naomi thought, /I know you promised you'd keep Eddie company and keep him from falling off the wagon again but I should have insisted you come. You could have brought the old sleaze with you. You ought to be here to defend yourself, but I suppose I wouldn't have dared unburden myself if you were./
"That doesn't sound like pining to me, Howell," Sophie said, trying to mediate the dispute. "But it does sound like he cares enough for you to be patient."
"Well, he is that," said Naomi as she refilled her glass halfway. She forced herself to take the barest of sips, just enough to redden her lips anew. "But what am I supposed to tell him? And when? This isn't a suitable conversation for Winter Solstice."
"Just call the man," said Howell, "And tell him you've been keeping secrets. He's probably got secrets of his own that he'd like to share. The sooner you two talk this out, the stronger your bond will be."
"Oh? And what did you tell my mum?" Though Naomi half-suspected she'd regret the question, she asked it anyway just to take their focus off of her.
"Oh, well," said Sophie. "Didn't Morgan have desires he was afraid to admit at first?"
/Only that he craved the firm hand of an occasionally harsh mistress,/ Naomi thought, keeping that and the rest to herself for discretion's sake. /Not that it wasn't obvious from the start./ Instead, she said, "Thanks for being here for me. I really needed this, but would you mind if I called Morgan after we had dessert? I won't be long, but I wanted to wish him Joyous Solstice and ask if he'd mind having me over in the next couple of days."
"Oh, but we were hoping you'd stay a while," said Sophie.
"That's fine," said Naomi, her spirits already lifting. "I just want to talk things out with Morgan in private. It shouldn't take that long. Then, as long as you're all right with it, I'm almost sure he'd be happy to come by and meet you. He wanted to be here tonight, but had promised to keep Eddie Cohen company tonight. He's an old friend, and afraid that if he spent the Solstice alone he'd end up drinking again."
Howell nodded. "That sounds like a good man you've picked for yourself."
Though Naomi wanted desperately to agree, an unspoken doubt lingered. If she had any say in the matter, it would remain unspoken; she did not want to go looking for a reason to dislike Morgan, or to drive him away, unless her own now-admitted fears drove her to it. "He's a better man than I expected him to become. I hope you both like him."