“Done your homework, then?” Eggsy looked up from the cutting board to see Daisy put her homework in the inbox they kept for it on the kitchen counter.
“Yes. The maths are on the bottom for Dad to look at.”
“Don’t trust your big brother with maths? What’s this world comin’ to?”
Daisy said, “Really, Eggsy. He has expertise.” She’d had to say the last word carefully.
He chuckled. “You sounded so much like your Aunt Roxy just then.”
“Can I help?”
He looked at her pointedly.
“May I help?”
“Of course. Salad greens should be dry, tear them up and figure out what all’s going on it.”
“What are we having?”
“Grilled trout and a tian of tomato and courgettes. Potatoes are already roasting.”
“Lemon vinaigrette with olives and the end of the cauliflower?”
“Sounds fantastic. Should probably blanch the cauliflower.”
He got started on cutting up the cauliflower into smaller bites.
“It’s Christmas soon,” Daisy said.
“We were plannin’ to get the Christmas tree on Saturday.”
“Could Mum come for Christmas?”
Eggsy said, “It’s not impossible. What made you think of it?”
“I haven’t seen her since before Lee was born.”
“And you miss her.”
Daisy nodded as she got a small jar. She handed Eggsy a lemon and climbed a step stool to get some rosemary out of the cupboard.
Eggsy sliced the lemon in two and poured olive oil into the jar. “We’d talked about going up to see Grandmam during the holidays. I think she wants to show you and Lee off a bit.”
Daisy nodded thoughtfully as she twisted the lemon on a juicer. “I’ve seen Grandmam more recently.”
Eggsy took a small dish of cooked courgette out of the oven and placed it where it could cool.
Daisy was still chatting away about her day as he listened with one ear and made certain the fish was ready to grill as soon as Merlin walked in. He heard her say, “Mum said” and froze.
Lee took that moment to try to make a break for the stairs and Eggsy took off after him. It was amazing how fast he could crawl. Eggsy caught him and put him in the small playpen they kept downstairs for when the adults needed to be able to turn their backs on him.
He turned to Daisy who was vigorously shaking the jar to make vinaigrette. “When did you see Mum?” Eggsy asked quietly. The school had reported that Michelle had come by and tried to take her home about a week ago, but he didn’t think Daisy knew about that.
Daisy pretended not to have heard until Eggsy gently took the jar out of her hands. “It’s mixed. Please answer the question.”
Her eyes darted and he said, ‘The truth, please.”
“She said not to say, that you and Dad wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand that you miss Mum and want to see her. This is the last time I’ll ask.. When did you see Mum?”
“I’ve seen her a couple of times near the playground and she talked to me yesterday and today.”
Eggsy nodded and walked away, doing one of his oldest calming techniques from training. “What did you talk about?”
“I told her about riding lessons and that I’m the best singer in my class and how much I like maths and Chinese.”
Eggsy looked at her and saw her looking stricken. “No harm in telling her that. I’m very proud of your learning Chinese, you know. And Merlin’s thrilled that you’re good at maths.”
She relaxed a little. “I thought you’d be mad. She said you’d be mad, if you knew.”
Eggsy said, “I’m not angry with you, but you should beware of adults who hang around playgrounds, right?”
She nodded a little nervously.
“I’ll talk about Christmas with Merlin tonight after you and Lee are asleep, and we’ll discuss it with you at dinner tomorrow. Is that all right?”
She held her arms out for a hug and Eggsy gathered her close. She said, “All right, Eggsy.”
Merlin sipped his scotch and watched him pacing. “First thing we should tell Daisy is that we have tried to get in touch with her mother several times.”
“Mo chridhe, this isn’t like you.”
“I’m shit scared, Merlin. Last time I was this terrified was when I ran out of ammo at Valentine’s.”
“I don’t know. Really, I don’t. I’m angry at Mum for dodging our calls and then approachin’ Daisy at school, but that ain’t enough to feel like this.”
Merlin said, “I’ve told you before that I’m enough of a Scot to take premonitions seriously.”
“I don’t want her in the house. She’s me Mum, but I wish she didn’t know Lee existed.”
“Stop panicking, if you can. Sit down, sip your drink, and lay your head on my shoulder.”
Eggsy smiled at him and followed instructions.
“No matter what,” Merlin continued, “We’ll discuss this with Daisy tomorrow night. I have a couple of thoughts, but I want to talk to my Mam before I take this any farther.”
“All right. If it’s not too late, call her now and I’ll head up and read reports for awhile. We can take it up again when you join me.”
“Before or after I wear you out with sex.”
Eggsy said, “Before. Can’t remember me own name, much less anythin’ else after shagging you.” He kissed Merlin and headed upstairs.”
Merlin picked up the phone and dialled his mother’s cell, which was as well encrypted as any phone a Kingsman had. She was glad to hear from him and they talked generally about their lives.
“You didn’t just call to hear me talk, Hamish.”
“You’re not coming for Christmas?”
“That’s a part, a wee part, but… What made you come to the tea shop that day?”
There was a long pause before Merlin added, “Are you still canny, Mam?”
“Some. Mostly, I can keep it away, but some people or situations, it comes whether I will it or not.”
“It wasn’t while he was here. I made myself a cup of tea. I was upset, you see. I looked down at my tea and when I looked up, the bits of the room he’d been in, the things he touched were all glowing white. When I met you at that shop, I let the sight come and you, Hamish, you’ve been dark for so long, but you were a brilliant blue, like when you were a boy, and I knew this Eggsy was good for you. I pray God will understand it.”
“As do I, Mam.” The pause lasted for awhile. He finally said. “Eggsy’s upset because his Mum contacted Daisy without our knowing about it. I can’t tell if he’s just hurt or angry or if there’s more to it, but I fear that if we don’t invite Michelle around openly for Christmas, Daisy will either try to sneak out to see her or start wondering what we’re hiding.”
Morag said, “I don’t think you need to worry about sneaking out quite yet. She’s only seven. So you’ll want to spend Christmas in London. I understand, Hamish.”
“Actually, I was wondering if you’d come here, too. Have you both stay in the garden flat, maybe let Daisy stay down there one night.”
“Will you come up for Hogmanay, then?”
“That seems like a fair bargain. It will also give us an excuse to limit Michelle’s time.”
“May I ask why you’re so frightened for Daisy to know her mother?”
“I’m not. Not the Michelle I met a few times very early in my relationship with Eggsy, but she was lonely. We didn’t see it. When the man who’s Daisy’s father got out of jail, far too early, she started seeing him again, had two of his gang round one day when we were coming by. We walked out with Daisy.”
“So she was lonely, and you made her lonelier.”
“Perhaps. I… she’s a woman who needs a man, who’s as good as the man she’s with. I kept Eggsy from going to live with her when he joined the firm and may have started this whole mess.”
“But someone who’s strong in herself wouldn’t have needed her son all the time.”
Once again, Merlin said, “Perhaps. We stopped letting her visit -- got her right to visit terminated -- after she made herself sick on … what was it… a combination of ecstasy, hard cider, and hashish. She’s been to rehab twice. The first time, she walked out after two weeks. The second time was in early August, and she stuck it out for the whole three months. We’ve tried to call her at her transitional housing, but no luck. Now this.”
Morag said, “When do you want me there?”
“Is the twentieth all right?”
“And she’ll be joining us when?”
“Christmas Eve or the day before. Eggsy’s taking the tail end of his paternity leave through epiphany. I get my final three weeks after that, but I have the ten days from Christmas Eve through the day after New Year’s.”
“Have her from the twenty-second, twenty-first if you can manage it. Michelle has been through a great deal to see her family. Let her have the time.”
“I have to talk to Eggsy, but I’ll make the case. It’ll be the twenty-second, I think. That’s when my break starts. Having you in the garden flat with her I think will ease Eggsy’s mind. And it will be nice to share Christmas with you.”
“That it will, Hamish. Give hugs to the wee ones for me.”
“I shall. Look after yourself, Mam.”
After he hung up, he took a deep breath before heading up to join Eggsy.
Eggsy picked Michelle up from the transitional housing where she was staying around noon. Morag had stayed home with Lee, and Daisy had joined him in the cab. He watched as Daisy ran to her Mum, and they hugged -- touched in spite of his misgivings. He greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, and Jamal, who had requested to drive them, gave her another hug as he put her bag up with him.
“So, you turnin’ your old friends into your servants?”
“Jamal’s my favorite babysitter. Lee likes him, too,” Daisy said.
“I like you, too, Daisy,” Jamal said. “An’ Michelle, I like what I’m doin’. The shop has some nice perks, like extra insurance for health an’ all. Eggsy asked me ‘bout movin’ to the posh side once, an’ I said no.”
Michelle smiled at him and said, “As long as you’re happy, Jamal.”
“Jamal and his daddy are coming to Christmas dinner.”
“What about your brother?” Michelle asked Jamal.
“Antony’s goin’ to meet his girlfriend’s family. Seems like they’re gettin’ serious.”
“Sounds like they are,” she said.
The ride wasn’t long, and the rest was mostly silent. When they reached home, Eggsy asked, “You want to freshen up and put your luggage in your room or do that later?”
“I’ll come up.”
“Daisy, take Mum into the flat. I’ll just stow her bag.”
“Come on, Mum!”
When they’d gone in, Jamal asked, “You all right with this, cuz?”
“Dunno. I want to be. She looks like me beautiful Mum again. But I can’t forget the last couple times I saw her, either.”
Jamal said, “Like me Dad says, ‘God has a plan, so it all comes right in the end.’”
“If there is a God, I’ll be wantin’ a few words with him in the afterlife.”
Jamal laughed and got back into the taxi. “See you at Christmas.”
Eggsy waved and ran down the steps to the garden flat, put his Mum’s bag into her guest room, and then went into the house. “I see you’ve already met Morag and Lee, Mum.”
“Yeah. Don’t look like this place has changed much, in spite of havin’ the baby around.”
“The playpen is out of the way for the moment. Now Daisy’s room has changed.”
“Can I show her?”
“‘Course you can, monkey.” He took a fussy Lee from Morag and murmured at him soothingly.
“Ain’t ya afraid of messing up your nice clothes?” Michelle asked.
“I’ll change when he’s settled.”
Daisy tugged on Michelle’s hand, and they went up to the second floor.
Morag said, “You’re looking a bit peaky.”
“I’m fine. I think there’s going to be lots of little jabs like that. I don’t know what to do other than be polite or ignore them.”
“Much the best way. I know the little pinpricks can hurt out of all proportion to their size, even when they’re unintentional.”
“Did Merlin do something back in the day?”
“He was used to getting seconds at school if he was hungry. His first out of term time with us, he reached for something I was saving to take to the office the next day. I surprised him and… I looked at him, really, looked. He’d already grown a good deal -- up not out -- and I realized I hadn’t been able to feed him properly before. Laire’d grown a bit, too, but I saw her every day.”
“Know what you mean. I saw some photos Roxy took not more than three months ago, and Lee already looks a lot different. I know this is a rapid growth age, but still, it’s disconcerting being able to turn a page and see time pass.”
“Want to come to Watch Night Mum?”
Michelle took in her son wearing a dark wool suit with a dark red double-breasted waistcoat and said, “When did you get religious?”
“Daisy picked out the waistcoat,” he said, catching her eyeline. “She thought it looked festive. An’ I’m not religious. I’ve joined Merlin for this since that first Christmas together, remember?”
“Yeah, o’ course.”
“You’d be welcome, Mum. Otherwise, you’ll be alone in the flat ‘til Morag gets back.”
She gave a half shrug. “Least you put a telly in.”
Daisy came down the stairs in a teal dress with a lace jabot and lace tights. “Mum, are you coming, too?” Her face was one big grin.
“Nah, love. Think I’ll turn in early. Maybe watch a DVD or somethin’.”
Eggsy said, “You can stay home with Mum if you like.”
Daisy looked conflicted and then shook her head. “I want to hear Daddy give the reading.”
Morag came in wearing her best and said, “You look very festive, Daisy.”
“Thank you, Grandmam.”
Merlin came down with Lee already in his carrier. “I thought we wouldn’t need the stroller…”
“”’S fine, my love,” Eggsy said. He admired Merlin’s charcoal suit and the dark green tie Daisy’d insisted he wear. He glanced at his phone to cover a message over his glasses. “Just got word that our cab is here. Last chance, Mum.”
“Nah. Thanks for askin’. Not the religious type. Enjoy yourselves.”
They all headed toward the door. Eggsy said, “Got your key, Mum?”
For the first time she realized they were serious about not leaving her alone in their flat. “Yeh.”
Merlin said, “We’ll wake you, if you like, when we get back. Daisy’s allowed to open one present before bed.”
“There’ll be cocoa,” Daisy added.
“Sounds fine. See you in a couple of hours, then.”
Eggsy rested a hand on her shoulder. “Please come, Mum. I know you’d enjoy the singin’.”
“Don’t trust me alone?” she hissed as the other were getting in the cab.
“Just want you with the family is all,” Eggsy said.
Michelle shook her head. “Yeah, well, you’re making it plenty clear that I’m not part of the family.”
“Eggsy?” Merlin called from the pavement.
Eggsy locked the door. “See you in a couple of hours, Mum.”
Michelle watched the taxi until it got to the corner, then went down to the garden flat.
They knocked on the door when they got back. Michelle joined them and smiled as her daughter ordered Eggsy into the kitchen to make cocoa.
“Daddy never puts sugar in,” Daisy confided to Michelle.
“Your Dad died over a year ago.”
Daisy frowned and said, “Dean was my father. I know that, but I asked Merlin if I could call him Daddy.”
Merlin walked up and handed each of them a small box. “From Eggsy.”
Daisy ran to the tree and picked up small boxes addressed to Merlin and Eggsy. Once Eggsy had put down the tray of cocoa, she handed them out. “They’re from Lee, but Auntie Roxy and I helped pick them out.”
“I’m sure you did a fine job,” Eggsy said. “Should Mum open hers first?”
Daisy nodded and sat by her mother. Michelle gave a weak smile and opened it. Inside was a graduated string of pearls. “Thank you,” she said to Eggsy. She turned to Merlin and said, “It’s really pretty.”
Eggsy kissed her cheek and said, “I’m glad you like it.”
Morag nodded and opened her box. Inside was a brooch set with pearls to look like lily of the valley. She smiled at her son and said, “You remembered. It’s perfect.”
Merlin smiled and said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you it was Eggsy who found it.”
Eggsy rolled his eyes. “I saw another brooch while I was away and called to ask Merlin if you liked tulips and whether you’d wear red. That’s when he mentioned your favorite flower.”
“Truly a joint effort and my thanks to you both.”
“You now, Daddy. Then Eggsy.”
“All right, little one.” Inside, Merlin found a pair of slippers. Roxy had definitely had a hand in their selection; the soles were thin enough to feel the floor and let him keep silent.
Eggsy opened his and found a silk pocket square, the colors a bit brighter than he’d have allowed himself, but in a simple pattern that wouldn’t be overwhelming. “You have good taste, monkey.” He winked at her, and she grinned.
“Auntie Roxy said it would go best with your silver grey suit,” Daisy said solemnly.
“I’ll remember that,” Eggsy said with equal solemnity.
“Lee should open something.”
“He’s asleep, little one.”
“Besides,” Eggsy added, “I don’t think we got him anything that doesn’t make noise.
“It’s your turn, Daisy,” Morag said.
Daisy opened her gift and found a pair of small gold circles with tiny pearls: sleeper earrings. “I can pierce my ears.”
Merlin sighed. “We noticed that several of your classmates have pierced ears.” He side-eyed Eggsy.
“We’ll take you to the piercer after we get back from Edinburgh,” Eggsy said.
“Most things are closed Christmas and Boxing Day. Besides, I promised Merlin.”
“That way I can at least pretend you’re eight years old. Finish your cocoa and get ready for bed.”
She took two final swallows of cocoa and kissed each of the adults on the cheek before running upstairs.
Eggsy picked up Lee and said, “I should be back in five.”
“No, lad,” Morag said. “Tomorrow will come early. We should probably head down, Michelle.”
“Yeah, all right.”
They parted for the night.
Morag took her son aside while Eggsy was preparing the roast beef. “This isn’t the sight talking -- not really -- though she does seem a little darker there, too -- but something didn’t sit well with Michelle, and she’s letting it fester.”
Merlin blinked and said, “I thought I was imagining it. Your advice, please, Mam. Should I approach her -- ask what’s wrong -- or hope it will pass.”
“I can’t tell,” Morag said. “Perhaps Eggsy will know.”
“Perhaps. Thanks, Mam.”
The doorbell rang and Morag said, “it seems the question’s moot.”
Guy and Roxy came in with gifts for the children, Michelle, and Morag. By mutual agreement, they’d exchange gifts with Eggsy and Merlin that night after the other guests had gone.
Lee seemed quite taken with the soft blocks they gave him. Daisy loved the simple gold circle pin she’d been given and immediately pinned it to her new yellow cardigan which was one of Morag’s gifts.
Daisy gave them silk scarves.
“Turkish prints,” Roxy said to Eggsy under her breath.
“Yeh, but Daisy made me take about fifty photographs to make sure she selected the perfect ones.”
The doorbell rang and Jamal and Kaspar joined them. Kaspar greeted Michelle warmly. He shook hands with Morag and Merlin before hugging Eggsy and bending over to let Daisy kiss his cheek.
Daisy gave them each packages with their silk scarves in them, and Eggsy handed them each a card. “From Merlin an’ me.”
“Shut up, cuz! This for real?”
Eggsy nodded. “You been a Kingsman about four years now. It’s time you got a bespoke suit.”
Kaspar said, “I’ll be honest with you. Probably need an overcoat more than a suit.”
“Whichever you want, the tailors will make it,” Eggsy said.
“Ask for Jeremy,” Merlin said. “I trust his taste.”
“I need two helpers in the kitchen, and you, monkey, should set the table, please.”
Jamal and Guy rose to help him and Roxy and Kaspar shared their presents for Morag and Michelle. Kaspar and Jamal had gotten them each perfume.
“You remembered,” Michelle said as she unwrapped a bottle of LouLou. She kissed Kaspar’s cheek and sprayed a little on her wrist.
Morag said, “Penhaligon’s Lily of the Valley is my favorite.”
“Merlin gave us a bit of help, Missus.” Kaspar said.
Roxy handed them each a jewelry box. Inside were enamel lockets with diamonds at the center, Salter blue for Morag and deep rose for Michelle. When opened, there was a picture of Daisy on the left and Lee on the right.
Morag beamed at her and asked for someone to help her clasp it around her neck.
Michelle said, “It’s lovely. I’ll have to get a photo of Eggsy for the right.”
Roxy nodded and said, “I hope you’ll both wear them in good health.”
“Soup’s ready, if everyone wants to come to the table,” Eggsy called from the kitchen. Jamal and Guy each carried in a couple of helpings and went back to get more Eggsy brought out a couple of bowls and put a sippy cup on the tray of Lee’s high chair.
“Milk?” Michelle asked.
“Nah, he’s eatin’ with us,” Eggsy said with a smile. Things had eased a bit over the past few days, but he noticed that his mother seemed a bit distant.
They all sat down and began to eat, though Kaspar and Morag each separately closed their eyes and said a private grace.
“What is it?” Michelle asked after a taste.
Daisy said, “My favorite, carrot and chestnut.”
“It’s lovely,” Morag said. “Laire raved about it when she came back from her visit.”
“Glad you could try it then,” Eggsy said. Lee sucked his down and banged his cup against the tray. “None o’ that, or I’ll put you down for a nap.”
Lee seemed contemplative for a moment, then put the cup down.
“How do you do that?” Merlin asked his husband. “He’s never that cooperative for me.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re the nice one, Daddy.”
Jamal and Roxy suddenly found the bottoms of their soup bowls fascinating, obviously trying to stifle giggles.
Eggsy shook his head and cleared the table, letting Roxy and Jamal help to keep them from bursting out with laughter.
The roast beef, bashed neeps, brussel sprouts, Yorkshire pudding, and three sauces came out from the kitchen and the conversation became general as everyone filled his or her plate. Kaspar and Michelle talked about the old neighborhood a bit, and Guy asked Jamal questions about his driving job. Daisy answered questions about her favorite classes (Chinese and science) and talked about getting to start jumping in her riding lessons.
“We’ll just see about that,” Michelle said. The table went quiet, and everyone looked at her. Michelle looked at her son and said, “I’m her mother, and I don’t think she should do something so dangerous.”
“She’ll be working on the simple preparatory things for awhile, Mum.”
Daisy reached her hand out to her mother and said, “I’m really good at the things I can do now, Mum. I want to go up to the next lessons. Please. Auntie Roxy will tell you that I’m good.”
“She ain’t your Auntie,” Michelle snapped.
“Purely honorary, Michelle. Daisy and I both know we’re not related.”
Michelle glanced around the table, and said, “Everyone seems to forget that Daisy has a proper mother. Her dad might be dead, but Eggsy’s just her brother, an’ Merlin’s nothin’ at all to her.”
Morag squeezed her son’s hand so that he didn’t say anything to Michelle. To Daisy he said, “I’m your protector, little one.”
“No, you ain’t!” Michelle turned to Daisy. “I’m goin’ to keep fightin’ to get you back, you hear me. You don’t have to stay with your brother an’ his… husband any more.” Daisy’s eyes were wide, and she looked at Merlin, panicked.
Michelle turned to her son and said, “After all, they’re bound to rethink the custody decision if they know your brother’s a whore.”
“Mummy! That’s a bad word.”
Roxy stood and said, “Too right. Why don’t you show me your new dollhouse?” She held out her hand, and Daisy took it after Merlin nodded that it was all right.
As they got to the steps, they heard Daisy whisper, “I thought only girls could be called that.”
Roxy said quietly, “Ask Eggsy and your Dad about it later.” She looked over her shoulder, and Eggsy nodded that she’d said the right thing.
Jamal stood and rested a hand on Eggsy’s shoulder. “I think the little man may need a diaper change. I’ll take him up and check.”
Merlin said, “Thank you, Jamal.”
Guy said, “You probably don’t want me to hear this.”
Eggsy, his eyes locked on Michelle, said, “You’ve become family, Guy. I’d rather you stayed, but I understand if it’s not a conversation you want to hear.”
Guy vacillated, then subsided into his chair.
After a long silence, Kaspar said, “Since you’re not denying it, Eggsy, I assume it’s true.”
“Ollie left Mum and cleaned out her bank account when he went. I knew we needed to pay rent.”
Kaspar thought for a moment, and finally said, “That would have made you fourteen. ‘Bout a year or eighteen months before Dean came along.”
“Yeah, just barely turned fourteen. Still short enough that I could lie to the punters that I was younger. Little less than a year before Dean.”
Kaspar turned to Michelle, who was beginning to look confused, and said, “And you knew?” There was another pause and Kaspar said, “Why didn’t you come to me, Eggsy? Jamal and Antony could’ve shared a bed, left room for you. I’d’ve taken you in.”
“Never doubted it, Kaspar. But someone needed to look after Mum.”
Merlin clasped his mother’s hand to keep his emotions under control. Morag understood and said, “Eggsy, you’re wrong, lad. It’s not a son’s job to look after his Mum, not if she’s young and able-bodied. It was her job to look after you.”
Eggsy finally broke his gaze on Michelle and gave Morag a weak smile. She could see the tears in his eyes. “Now that I’m a parent, I understand that. At the time, thought I was the man of the house, been told so often enough. Had to look after me own.”
Michelle broke in with, “But ain’t no judge going to leave Daisy with you once they know. Lettin’ her pierce her ears and ride horses and sendin’ her to schools with Chinese.”
Eggsy said, “They know, Michelle. I told them after the very first hearing. I also made certain they had my full criminal record.”
“I don’ believe it. They’d never’ve let you keep her.”
Merlin said, “The letters of support from the Princess Regent and Queen Tilde of Sweden may have helped.”
Guy said, “I knew you looked familiar when I first met you. You escorted Queen Tilde, well, she was still a Princess at the time, but you took her to Ascot.”
“Before she met Prince Floris and her coronation was confirmed by the parliament? Yeah, I did. Merlin an’ me are two of the new Crown Princess’s -- well, I s’pose there has to be a word other than godfather for me.”
Merlin said, “Sworn protector.”
Eggsy nodded. “C’n live with that.”
Michelle realized that everyone at the table was staring at her. “I don’ believe it.”
“Michelle,” Merlin said, “if all you’re going to do with the allowance we afford you is…”
Eggsy interrupted. “No, Merlin, we promised her. Michelle, we ain’t withdrawin’ your allowance, and the flat in town is in your name. But we’ll take out a restrainin’ order on you for Daisy, her school, an’ this house.”
“You can’t. She’s my daughter.”
“An’ you called me back from the Marines to protect you from Dean. You wouldn’t leave him even after I saw him kick you in the stomach while you was pregnant with her. He beat you. He beat me, held a knife to my throat, an’ tried to get me to be a drug dealer. An’ you stayed.”
“It’s not easy to leave your man. He was doin’ his best, and he loved me. You took me away from him, but didn’t give me nothin’ in return.”
“I’m sorry about that. Didn’t understand what you needed. But Dean? I heard him offer you to his muppets, not that I think he ever actually allowed it, ‘cause if he had you’d’ve been turnin’ tricks for him same as his last woman. An’ let me tell you, Michelle, I know for a fact that gettin’ fucked for money is hard work.”
There was another long silence as Michelle looked around the table and found no sympathy. Finally Kaspar stood up, an’ said, “Let me take you back to where you’re livin’, Michelle. I’ll get you there safe-like. Give you my phone number in case you want to talk later.”
Morag stood and said, “I can help you pack, if it would help.”
“Eggsy, you’re my son….”
“No, Michelle, I’m not. I’m Merlin’s husband, Daisy’s brother, and Lee’s father. Please leave our home.” His received pronunciation was precise.
Kaspar touched her arm, and said, “Let’s go, Missus.”
She stood and took his arm. “Thanks, Kaspar. ‘Preciate that you know what it’s like.”
He shook his head and sighed, “You should’ve begged on the street before letting your son sell his body. But, yes, I know the old neighborhood and know how you got here.”
They left with Morag trailing behind, obviously wanting to make good on her offer.
Guy looked between Eggsy and Merlin and said, “I take it Roxy already knew?”
“And Jamal. I don’t advertise it, but sometimes it can’t be kept secret.”
“I can’t imagine ever having to make that kind of choice, especially not so young.”
“Glad you didn’t have to, mate.” Eggsy said. “Would you go up and let Roxy and Jamal know that it’s safe for the children to come back down?”
Merlin’s arms were around him before Guy’s foot hit the first step. “We’ll get through this, mo chridhe."
“I know.” Eggsy tapped his glasses and said, “Who’s on?”
“I am, sir.”
“Smitty, good of you to work Christmas.”
“Well, you let me have the days of awe as well as the high holy days. It’s not a problem missing kosher Chinese back at my place.”
“Michelle Unwin is leaving. Please make certain she gets back to the address Merlin’s sending you. If Kaspar Gayle joins her, wait for him to return. And please wait until Merlin and Daisy have a chance to say goodbye.”
“Got it, Arthur.”
“Thank you. And once Mister Gayle is back, feel free to come in for some dessert.” He saw Roxy and Daisy on the stairs and smiled.
“Mum’s heading back to where she’s staying, Daisy. Merlin will take you out to say goodbye in a moment. If Kaspar and your Daddy say it’s okay, you can even go in the cab with her, but you’re not to get out.”
“So she won’t try to take me like Dean did?”
“Will I see Mum again after I say goodbye?”
“I don’t know, monkey. She’s making mistakes at the moment, and we don’t want those mistakes to hurt you. But I promise that we’ll revisit it from time to time -- any time you ask. It’ll probably be a year or so, though.”
He watched her jaw set, her tell for trying not to cry. She ran over to Eggsy and hugged him. “Do you think she’ll ever be better, Eggsy?”
He blinked back his own tears and said, “I hope so, but I’m scared she might not. And if she doesn’t, you’ve still got me an’ your dad, right?”
Daisy kissed his cheek. “I told my teacher, Mrs. Minchin, that you said you were my half brother and half father. She thought it was funny.”
“You’re a good dad. Not like Daddy, ‘cause you’re still my brother, too, but… you take care of me and Lee.”
“I appreciate that, flower. Now go with Merlin to say goodbye to your Mum.”
Merlin held out his hand, and Daisy said, “Thank you, Daddy.”
Roxy said, “Are you going to be all right?”
“Daisy should never feel like she has to comfort me. I think I’m as mad at Michelle for that as I am for any of the rest.” He gave a weak smile. “I’m fine, Roxy. Take it Guy’s with Jamal and Lee?”
“Yes, let’s get everything ready for the guests coming for dessert.”
Every member of the table, except Erec, had come by for dessert, some bringing family along with them. Smitty came in for his serving of Christmas pudding, but chose to eat in the kitchen. Jamal went in to keep him company, and Guy joined them. They ended up playing cards for awhile, until Smitty went back out to his cab.
It was a good evening.
Eggsy put his sister to bed that night. “S’pose you have questions.”
Daisy nodded. “Is what Mum said true?”
“Which part? The part where I was a prostitute or the part where she’ll get custody of you?”
“Both, but the … the bad word part first.”
Eggsy said, “All right. Yes, I did it for about two years, with a couple of times where I did it after that because Dean had taken away the food money. He was trying to get me to sell drugs for him.”
“Why did you? I mean, Mum didn’t say or anything.”
“Before she met your father, and after mine had been dead a few years, Mum -- “ the word felt uncomfortable to him, but he continued, “She had boyfriends who looked after her, like your father did eventually. Most of them, weren’t bad blokes, but they weren’t great ones, either. We was… were… poor. Then she met a guy called Ollie. Things were nice at first, but he started taking her money, left us without enough to cover the rent or to eat. I thought I had to do something so I did what I could. I was also a thief. That’s how I met Merlin in a way, by stealing a car. I’m not proud of it, either thing. But I didn’t sell drugs, and I’m proud of that.”
Daisy nodded. “You paid it back?”
“What I stole? Well, the car went back to its owner the next day after I was caught. Other things? I pickpocketed cash sometimes, no real way to repay that. I… I was more likely to shoplift food, but no, there’s things I haven’t repaid, can’t ever repay, not really. The best I can do is try to be better, give to charities that help people who were in the same situation, so no one else has to make that decision. I wasn’t always a good man.”
From the door, Merlin said, “I think you probably were a good man. Your actions weren’t always legal or right, but the fact that you did your best in spite of your upbringing argues that you were good.”
Eggsy closed his eyes and gave a small nod.
“I’m not sure what being a … what it means.”
“You remember when we told you where babies come from?” Eggsy asked.
Daisy thought hard. “You said that it only made babies if it was a man and a woman, but it didn’t make a baby every time. Most of the time people did it to feel good. Wait until I’m sixteen, and it’s better with someone you love.”
“It’s so much better with someone you care about, even if it’s only a little,” Eggsy said. He smiled at Merlin and added, “But when you’re really in love, it’s almost like a completely different thing. What I did, what being a prostitute is, is doing the things that make people feel good for money. It’s illegal for someone who’s not sixteen, an’ I wasn’t sixteen yet when I started doing it.”
“But it felt good?”
Eggsy said, “Sometimes, but not always, not even most of the time. The people who were paying me wanted to feel good. It didn’t matter to them if I did or not.”
“Oh.” She crowded forward and hugged him. “And Mum’s job wasn’t enough to take care of things.”
Eggsy thought for a moment, but decided not to tell a lie that could get caught out later. “Mum didn’t have a job. I don’t know if she applied for work or if she just relied on the fact that she was pretty, and a man would probably take care of her. That’s why we worry about her being around you too much. She has some bad habits, and we don’t want you to have them, too.”
“When she stopped seeing us last year, that was... Did she take drugs?”
Eggsy’s eyes went wide at the question. “Why do you ask, monkey?”
“It smelled funny and then an ambulance came after Daddy took me upstairs and…”
“Yes, Daisy,” Merlin said, “Your mother had taken drugs and wasn’t able to look after you the way she was supposed to. She’s completed a program that’s supposed to help keep her off drugs, which is why we said it was okay for her to come for Christmas.”
Daisy nodded solemnly. “I don’t want her to take me away from you.”
“She won’t,” Eggsy said. “She thought my past would be a shock to the magistrate, but I’d already told him everything. It’s not a weapon she can use against us.”
Merlin came into the room and put his arms around both of them. “We’ll protect you and Lee for as long as we live. If something happens, like happened to Eggsy’s daddy, there are already steps in place to protect you both. We love you, and we won’t let you go.”
“Would I go to Sweden and live with Tilde?”
“You just want to be a princess, don’t you, monkey.”
Daisy giggled, the first bit of lightness they’d seen from her since Michelle left. “Yes. And I know that’s not what you meant.”
“Actually, it’s Roxy and Jamal who are named as your guardians. They’ll both make certain you stay in touch with Grandmam and Auntie Laire’s family, too.”
“It won’t happen, will it?” She asked.
“Could step in front of a bus tomorrow, if I’m not careful,” Eggsy said, “But me and your dad? We’ll always do our best to come home to you. We love you. We love Lee.”
Merlin added, “And we love each other.” He kissed Eggsy lightly on the lips. “Never underestimate it.”
“I… Can we talk about Mum again?”
“Anytime, little one,” Merlin said.
“I mean, like her visiting?”
Eggsy kissed her forehead, “‘Course we can. She’s your Mum.”
Daisy lay back and settled in. “Not soon, but maybe near Guy Fawkes night? That way if she’s better, she can come for Christmas -- just lunch.”
“Promise,” Merlin said and kissed her forehead. They left her nightlight on, but turned off the lamp as they left her room.
On the landing a few minutes later, Eggsy said, “Promise me I don’t ever need to talk to a seven year old about sex again.”
Merlin held him close. “Lee’s going to need the talk at some point, but I agree, he doesn’t need to know your past until he’s much older. Let’s go back to our guests.”
Kaspar took the cab home not long after the children went to bed. Morag headed down to the garden flat at the same time, and Jamal, Eggsy, Roxy, Guy, and Merlin sat in front of the fireplace with glasses of armagnac, letting the conflicts of the day ebb away.
“Gifts?” Merlin said.
“Yes, let’s,” Roxy agreed. She glanced at her brother and Jamal and said, “Can you gentlemen go to the car and get their gift from Guy and me.”
“Not a problem, mate,” Jamal said.
Merlin left a flat box on the chair where Guy had been seated and handed Roxy a much larger box.
The package the men brought in was about three feet wide and four feet tall. “Lean it against a dining chair,” Eggsy told them, “and open yours first, Roxy.”
Inside was a pair of handmade boots in ivy green leather. “You didn’t!” she said, giving them each a quick kiss. “I was lusting after a pair in this color, but it didn’t seem practical.”
“Hence, the gift, lass,” Merlin said.
Eggsy nodded at Guy to open his. His jaw dropped as he saw the drawing of a male torso with a study of a hand in one corner. “Is this a Rodin?”
“Yeah. Roxy said you need art on your walls, and Daisy mentioned how much you liked Rodin after you two took her to the museum.”
“We didn’t know what style of frame you’d prefer, which is why it’s just the drawing,” Merlin added.
Roxy said, “Guy and I went in together on your gift.” She nodded at the leaning package. “One of you should open it.”
Eggsy got up and tore off the wrapping. “This is perfect,” he said with his eyes on the painting. “I was on an assignment when this came up for sale and kicked myself for missing it.”
Merlin’s eyes were wide. “It’s a Mullican.” He gave Roxy a quick kiss on the lips and after a moment’s thought kissed Guy the same way.
Eggsy hugged Guy and kissed Roxy. “Thank you. This is perfect for Merlin which makes it perfect for me.”
“Gonna hang it over the fireplace, cuz?”
Merlin shook his head. “The heat could damage it. We’ll have to decide later.”
“No we don’t,” Eggsy said. With a little help he maneuvered it into the dining room. There was an expanse of wall that didn’t catch direct sunlight and had no vent in it.
“Perfect, mo chridhe.” Merlin said. “Until we can get it insured and hung properly, though…”
Eggsy smiled at him. “Who’s going to help me get it up to our office?”
It didn’t take much longer before they were all ready to say their good nights.
“Are we going to that party for the Organization of American States together?” Roxy asked.
“Nah, thought I’d take Kay as the lady on me arm. That leaves you free to take another plus one.” He glanced at Jamal.
“I don’t think he’d…”
“I do,” Eggsy said. “He’s never going to get the bottle to ask you out. Ask him.”
Roxy smiled and said, “I’ll think about it. Happy Christmas.”
In bed that night, Merlin said, “I know you hoped our children would never need to know.”
“Everyone’s allowed a fantasy. Did I handle it all right?”
“Yes, mo chridhe.”
“Feels like you still have questions.”
Merlin nodded. “Did you know you could go to Kaspar?”
“I know he’d have wanted to look after me, but I was ashamed. I hadn’t looked after my mother properly, and what did that make me if I couldn’t look after me own?”
“There were programs…”
Eggsy said, “You have to know they exist. You have to qualify for them. I was fourteen. Y’know Guy asked me in the kitchen about it. Nothing big, I think he was trying to see if I thought of myself as a rape survivor, or maybe he was just worried about my stability, but…”
The pause lasted a very long time. Finally, Merlin broke it. “But?”
“I never thought about sexual assault or whatever. Sex worker, yeah, and I’ll contribute to legal defense funds for the people who do that type of work ‘til my dying day. But when he asked me, I flashed back, not to a particular night, but to that photo of me on my knees in an alley with Ywain’s cock shoved down my throat. If he hadn’t paid it in advance, all I’d’ve done was asked him for an extra tenner -- that was my fee for deep throating -- lots did pay it in advance, so maybe he did. After all, he was, as he always insisted, a gentleman. I could choose not to take a punter. I often chose not to get in cars. If someone felt a little off, no way I’d get in with them. That was an extra tenner, too, getting in a car.”
“There’s something you’re not saying in all those words.”
Eggsy kissed his chest and said, “Tonight was the first time I thought about the ones who took without asking or scared me -- an’ there was a fair few of those -- or, “he sighed. “Or the ones who asked me to do things I didn’t want to do. I thought it was okay because I got paid extra. That might mean I could go home earlier or stay away longer or whatever. Guy’s questioning made me realize that I was assaulted, more than once and in more ways than I can even define.”
Merlin held him close. “I’d take it all away if I could.”
“I know, my love.” Eggsy took a deep breath, “I think I may see a counselor again for awhile. Got some things to work through.”
“Want me to join you?”
“Maybe sometimes, but let me see how the psychologist handles it first.”
Merlin kissed his forehead, and they settled in to sleep.
Morag and Eggsy talk
PerfectFour wondered about Morag's reaction.
They’d taken the night train to Glasgow at 10 p.m. on Boxing Day. Morag and Daisy shared one room, and Eggsy and Merlin had taken Lee’s travel cot into their room. Nanny Simm would be returning at Epiphany and Elaine would be back in London the day after New Year’s.
It was early morning when they arrived, and Morag accompanied them to the hotel for a big breakfast. Merlin checked into the hotel and said, “Mam, do you want me to accompany you home?”
Morag said, “If Eggsy wouldn’t mind, maybe he could see me home?”
Merlin looked puzzled, but Eggsy just smiled.
“‘Course, I will, Morag. Kiss Grandmam, Daisy.
“Isn’t she staying with us?”
Merlin said, “Mam will stay at her apartment, which is too small for all of us. But she’ll join us for dinner and for our trip to Edinburgh tomorrow while Eggsy watches Lee and all the other things.”
“Okay, then. But you’ll be back for dinner tonight?”
“I shall indeed, Daisy,” Morag said. She bent down so that Daisy could kiss her cheek.
Eggsy said, “I’ll let you know if I’ll be more than an hour. Might want to walk back to stretch my legs after the train.”
Merlin nodded and gave Eggsy a quick kiss before nodding to the bellman and herding Daisy to their suite.
They were quiet during the cab ride. Eggsy paid the fare and took her bag up the stairs to her flat.
“Thank you, Eggsy. The flat is comfortable, but the stairs can be a bit much sometimes. Tea?”
She fussed in the kitchen and said, “The milk’s instant I’m afraid. I keep it for emergencies.”
“It’s fine. Need me to do a quick run to the shops for you before I go?”
“The milkman will deliver tomorrow. I should be all right.” She brought in the tray with a few shortbread cookies as well as the tea. They sat at her dining table.
“Thank you for letting me talk to you alone,” Morag said.
“Thought you might want to after Michelle’s bombshell yesterday.”
“Yes.” There was a long pause. “Was there really no other way?”
Eggsy said, “I’m sure there were many other ways. Merlin and I talked about a few last night after we put the kids to bed.” He sipped his tea and gathered his thoughts. “If I’d been separated from Mum, I’d’ve thought it was my fault, that I didn’t live up to my responsibilities. Fourteen year olds even street rats like me aren’t smart about things sometimes.”
Morag’s brow knitted as she sipped her tea. “I hate to sound naive, but how did a teenager, not much more than a child even know that was an option.”
“The only good thing is that soliciting ain’t on my rap sheet. I gotta rap sheet, too, so’s you know. Mostly petty theft. I was a good enough pickpocket that I was never caught. Good thing, too. Robbery is an offense against a person and that makes it a harsher penalty even if what you took is less valuable than the electronics swiped off a truck.”
“Eggsy, I know you think I’m judgmental. I probably am more judgmental than I should be, but you didn’t have to be a criminal or a rent boy.”
“An what else could I do?” Eggsy yelled. He calmed himself. “Sorry for raisin’ me voice. But I never dealt drugs, though I ran them sometimes between dealers. I never stole from a home, though I joked about it with Harry -- an’ Merlin for that matter. Takin’ ten or twenty quid from someone’s wallet might mean that I didn’t have to go out and sell meself. Sellin’ meself -- myself -- meant we had a roof over our heads. Shop liftin’ food or formula and nappies for Daisy that was essentials. I trained for the Marines, but I never became hired muscle. I did mechanics work when I could get it, an’ sometimes it was off books an’ at least one place I worked was more of a chop shop than repairs. I’m starting at uni in the spring. Even if it was still free, I didn’t see it as a possibility for the likes of me. I envy Merlin for havin’ you as a Mum because you dug yourself out after your husband died and taught your children that good brains was a way out. An’...” He was near tears.
Morag came around the table and put an arm across his shoulders. “How old are you now?”
Eggsy said, “Still under thirty. Twenty-eight if you need specifics.” He took out his handkerchief and wiped his nose, refusing to sniff in front of her.
She sat back down with a thud. “Daisy’s seven and you’ve been looking after her for four years.”
“Longer ‘an that. Four years since Merlin an’ I brought her home with us, if that’s what’s meant.”
There was another long pause and Eggsy noticed Morag’s hand tightening on the handle of her teacup. “You’ll break it if you’re not careful.”
She looked down at her hand and let go. “I have never been as angry in my life as I am right now,” Morag said. She looked him dead in the eye. “Not at you, Eggsy. Michelle.”
Eggsy gave a half-shrug. “She was depressed, like clinically, medically speaking, but it was never treated. Street drugs helped her cope. Men like her. You’ve seen ‘er. She’s beautiful or can be. I know I was flaming angry when she left on Christmas day, but now all I am is sad. She never saw the possibilities. No one ever told her there were possibilities.”
“She shouldn’t have relied on her only child to provide for her. Not at that age. Never in that way.”
“Do I disgust you, Morag? I mean, I know I’m not in Merlin’s league, but I love him. He loves me, but I do worry sometimes.”
Morag shook her head. “Never worry. Merlin is loyal to the end. And, lad, he loves you with all his heart and soul. When I think of you coming to me to keep us from cutting each other off, I completely understand why. Now I know that you sacrificed at least part of your young adulthood -- childhood, really -- in ways that make me ashamed. This shouldn’t be happening in a prosperous country, young people selling their bodies to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.”
Eggsy was still gazing at her and she said, “No, Eggsy, you don’t disgust me. I don’t understand your choices, but I have some grasp of why you had to make them. Would you ever have told me?”
Eggsy shook his head. “No reason for you to know -- ‘specially since I know you don’t like Merlin havin’ a husband rather than a wife.”
“I’m sorry that you had that choice taken from you, too. You’re right that there was no reason for me to know. I’m glad I do.” She chuckled and added, “Merlin nearly broke a finger he was squeezing so hard. It was all he could do not to throttle Michelle at the dinner table.”
“We agreed awhile back that we were each responsible for dealing with our own mums. I could feel how much he wanted to help.”
“Let me hot up the tea while you call Merlin and say that I kept you a little longer. Would you like an ice pack so Daisy can’t tell you were crying?”
“Please. She’s had enough drama for the holidays.”
When she brought the tea back, she said, “Thank you for coming up here for Hogmanay.”
“It ain’t a problem. I think getting away is probably healthy.”
Morag poured them both some more hot tea and said. “I agree.”