Some part of him continued to think that men were not supposed to do things like help clear the Christmas dinner dishes. But if he had remained at the table, then Peter and Edmund would have joined the girls and then John would find himself sitting all alone while the rest of his family enjoyed themselves in the kitchen. And, John reminded himself sternly, it was just another small thing that Helen deeply appreciated.
The bridge he and his wife were trying to rebuild was comprised of thousands of these tiny things.
And his small step was reciprocated when his wife took the bowl of carrots from his hands and her fingers tarried on his wrist long enough to make him flush.
Helen smiled, just a little, and slightly smug, knowing exactly what she had done and there was nothing shy about it. Damn, flirtation was just one more thing his wife had learned during the War.
"Thank you, John. I appreciate it."
He had noticed she used a clean plate to cover up leftovers and so handed her the nearest one, then saw the error. "Oh, I suppose that's too small, isn't it?"
"Perhaps a dinner plate?"
He didn't know what that was but figured it must be the larger ones they had just eaten on and so returned the small one to the cupboard and handed her the bigger one.
"Thank you." She set the covered bowl in the icebox, now crammed with leftovers. Thank God Ruby Smith was still sending them boxes or it would have been a very lean Christmas. He had no idea how Edmund had found a goose, other than the mysterious statement that it fell under his traditional purview of "logistics and procurement." Lucy had done the carving. His daughter was exceptionally skilled with knives.
"The wash-up can wait until after the King's message." Helen nodded toward the ajar kitchen door. "What are they up to?"
"They've broken into the drinks cabinet and opened the rum bottle."
"Some saucy discussion shall surely follow. Be prepared to blush."
"So far it was merely classical and mythical. They were arguing about Bacchus and the Maenads."
His wife snorted.
"Why is that amusing?"
"I know this is all new for you, John, but in this context, and particularly with an open bottle of rum, I believe they are likely discussing matters that are in no way mythical, but in fact quite experiential and, unless I misjudge, in no way hypothetical."
"Bacchus?! But…" His voice rose in indignant shock. And the Maenads? Surely not. He could not credit it. "No, Helen, that's simply…"
Her narrow, severe look made him strangle on the words and, for this latest obtuseness, he could feel that damned Goose biting him in the ear and the Cheetah wacking him with her tail. Helen had been living with the strange sophistication Narnia had wrought for far longer than he had. And there had been what he had learned and seen in the last two years and could not ignore. His children were assuredly not children. Edmund and Lucy had both been married. Peter had been Mrs. Russell's lover and though they were discreet, neither had his son in any way tried to conceal it. He wasn't as sure about Susan but the Wing Commander had certainly been very familiar and they often disappeared over weekends. None of them seemed to have any shame at all about … that. They certainly had never asked for permission or approval and did not even seem to care.
Yet Bacchus and the Maenads were wild debauchery. And mythical? But then so were talking animals and gryphons.
Helen moved over to the door, open just a crack, and motioned him closer, whispering. "Surely, you're curious?"
"Aren't we eavesdropping?" he whispered back
"You're welcome to start the dishes, John, if you would prefer."
"So, my brother and High King, which is it?"
"Really, Edmund, do cease with the leer. And I have no idea what you are talking about."
"But of course," Edmund replied cheerfully. "If not Narnia, then, here by all means. Tebbitt or…?"
"Tebbitt, but of course," Susan replied loftily and with what John thought sounded to be heavy humor.
"I hear a qualifier," Peter said.
Lucy giggled and John could hear Susan join her.
"More than a qualifier," Edmund put in. "Sounds like a story to me. Surely Mademoiselle Jean Lambert broke a few hearts on her way to the liberation of Paris."
John hiccuped when Lucy piped in, "Like Marie's!"
Next to him, Helen let out a quiet groan and muttered, of course she did, under her breath.
"Was Marie the woman in the crumbling chateau you holed up with waiting for the Das Reich Panzer division to pass, or was that Peggy?"
"A lady does not disclose such things!" Susan chided. "And I note that none of you has answered the original question."
"Maenads," Peter said.
Edmund scoffed. "Bacchus, of course."
Lucy giggled again. "But why choose? I never did before. Why not both?"
He was gobsmacked, and yet, simultaneously, not at all surprised.
"I think maybe they've had enough rum," John whispered as their children all laughed uproariously. "Or else we've not had nearly enough."
His wife nodded vigorously, and was blushing beet red, which made him feel better if their children could still discomfit both of them. "Tea. I'll make the tea," she squeaked. "You go, and…"
She pointed at the door, not yet quite finding words.
"Coward," he teased and got a playful swat on the arm.
John pushed open the door and stepped into the dining room. "Perhaps we should put the rum away and…"
Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy were all staring at the drinks cabinet, all wearing varying expressions of shock and consternation.
"I say, is something…"
John heard the distinct sound of knuckles rapping firmly on wood.
Helen came out from the kitchen. "Is there someone knocking at the door?"
"No," John managed, far more calmly than he felt. "It's coming from…"
"Inside the drinks cabinet," Peter said.
And suddenly, all four children were arrayed in front of the cabinet with weaponized articles from the drawing room. Peter was brandishing the fireplace poker, Susan was holding the rum bottle ready to hurl it, and Edmund was hefting a brass candlestick (and John still couldn't quite credit the story of how it had come to be there). Lucy was twirling a knife.
He supposed Helen was able to handle this with more calm and less lethal force as this was not her first time peculiar things had popped into the drawing room. His wife stepped over to the cabinet and knocked. "Hello? Can I help you? Are you from Narnia?"
"Hello, Helen," a voice came from inside the cabinet. "Happy Yule."
The candlestick Edmund had been clutching clattered to the floor. "Morgan?"
"Yes, of course, it's me, Harold."
Edmund hurtled himself to the cabinet and threw open the door.
A Negro woman, with long dark hair, and wearing trousers and a shirt much too big for her, somehow, fell out onto the floor in an inelegant heap. Edmund helped her up and then jubilantly threw his arms about her, lifting her off the ground. "What? How? I don't…"
"I've been badgering Aslan to let me come once you turned the age you were when we met. It's my Yule gift. He owes me."
"And you're wearing my shirt."
"And a corset, Harold. Happy Yule."
She untangled herself from Edmund enough to nod at Lucy, Susan and Peter. "Hello. Nice to see you again. But I don't have much time."
From her trouser pocket she withdrew a thick wad of paper. "So let's get to your rooms and you can unwrap me. I brought a supply contract for you to read me, unless you've got something better?"
"I was just thinking the other night you might like Carlill versus Carbolic Smoke Ball Company which established principles of contract under English law."
"That sounds interesting. Let's go."
Edmund tore his gaze away from Morgan and glanced about, looking, for a moment, a little sheepish. "Morgan this is, ahhh, my parents' home."
"Well, given our planned activities, it might not…" Edmund trailed off as Lucy snickered.
Susan injected politely, "I do know an excellent, private hotel close by. Very discreet. I can make a call, if you like."
Which left John wondering how Susan knew of such establishments and as quickly realized the wisdom of Helen's approach that it was better not to know.
"Thank you, Su, perhaps…"
"I don't want to waste time going somewhere else. I want to know why we can't just stay here."
Morgan turned her head towards him but, as Helen had mentioned, she looked over his shoulder and didn't quite meet his eye.
"Hello, we've not met."
She stuck out her hand.
Morgan had a very firm handshake.
"I'm Banker Morgan of the House of Linch, Baker of Narnia, Hound-friend, Lady of the Murder and Romp, Gryphon-wing, Lady Consort and mate to your son, King Edmund, the Just, Lord of Cair Paravel, Knight of the Order of the Table, Wandbreaker, Duke of the Lantern Waste, Count of the Western March."
"You've been rehearsing that, haven't you?" Edmund said.
"Is there some problem, John?" Morgan might not be looking right at him but she had a formidable presence to her.
"With your son, the King, and his Lady Consort going to his rooms and reading Carlill versus Carbolic Smoke, Harold did you say Smoke Ball Company?"
"And reading Carlill versus Carbolic Smoke Ball Company and having sex? Because if there is, I want to know why. We audited financial records of every enterprise, in the Known Lands, took apart a dangerous scheme that posed a threat to the security of Narnia, and had sex in my father's house for 72 days and he, very wisely, never objected and it was a much larger and nicer house than this one and I've been waiting over 1,000 years for my Yule present. So you had better have a really good reason why we can't stay here and have sex and be prepared to argue the point with me."
John glanced at his wife. Helen was trying to look severe, was absolutely scarlet, and shaking with laughter.
"And if you aren't persuaded, John, I'll have Jalur come through the cabinet, and you can explain it to him."
John believed that was not a good idea given the number of gasps and aghast expressions in the room. Even Peter looked alarmed.
Next to him, Helen whispered, "The Tiger. He's enormous. He'd never fit. Not with the Christmas tree."
"You are brilliant as always, my Lady-Consort. I have missed you very much." Edmund positively beamed at Morgan and put an arm around her. And, John thought, took a glance down her gaping shirt. His son was also, wisely, staying out of it and relying upon Morgan to make him flounder through awkward explanations.
Discretion being the better part of valor, there was plainly only one acceptable outcome. "You are, of course, welcome in our home, Morgan."
"Delighted," Helen added. "Truly. Happy Christmas."
"There is, regrettably, one other complication. I do share a room with Peter."
Morgan swung her head about so sharply, the green bow in her hair flew off and landed in the Christmas tree.
Peter made a strangled sound and held up his hands in surrender, one still clutching the poker. Maybe he was worried about that tiger, too. "Sister, it is wonderful to see you again, however, briefly. I happily cede our shared space for the enjoyment of your… errr … Yule present."
Edmund held out his arm and Morgan took it. "Shall we?"
"Yes. I've waited long enough. Happy Yule."
Edmund and Morgan made their way up the stairs. John heard the sound of a door shutting and the audible click of a lock.
Lucy turned on the wireless. Loudly. The King was in the middle of the annual Christmas message.
"Tea? Anyone?" Helen's voice hiked unnaturally high.
He needed something far stronger. "Peter, do you still have that tequila?"
"Yes. It is, however, in the drinks cabinet."
Peter brandished the poker and gingerly lifted the latch. "Let's just see what else might be in there."
In addition to being utter crack fic fluff, and AlexR's fault, and AU of The Stone Gryphon AU, this also, obviously assumes that John has begun to repair his relationship with his family. So, I'm working through that.