|The Castle I: Townhouse
Author: Guede Mazaka
Halfway through unpacking, Arthur stopped and rested his hands on the bed, bowing his head over the open suitcase. He could still smell the traces of old decay here, sharpened by the stink of sickness. In all the bright, glittering advances of the past few years, medicine still hadn't found a way to make cancer any more easy on its sufferers, and it had shown. His father had blamed the war, saying that holding the city together in the face of so much loss had sapped too much of his strength. Then again, Uther had blamed the Great War for everything that had gone wrong; a diffuse concept like it made a good scapegoat because it couldn't raise a voice to defend itself. To one that'd never actually been in it, the best it could do were near-endless trails of whimpering, mutilated wounds and graveyards that rolled their horribly neat tombstones into the horizons.
If it'd been anyone else, that would have been enough. Uther, however, would only turn his face away, or have the shades drawn. Igraine had loved light, but after she'd died-
"Leave it on the desk." Arthur roused himself from the bitter cloying memories and made himself continue to replace his father's things with his own. He would have liked to have simply taken another room, but both tradition and practicality dictated he kept his father's: the head of the Round always stayed in this room, and so the security of the house, physical and other, had been built around it. To change that would require tearing down the whole building and remaking it from scratch.
"You don't even want to know who it is?" Though Lancelot's voice was light enough, he was careful to keep his distance.
Something had to be done about that; Arthur suddenly regretted keeping the other man at arm's length for so many years. They'd been fairly close once, but that had been before the War. After that, after his last disastrous talk with Uther, Arthur hadn't been able to look at Lancelot without associating him with the troubles that had driven Arthur from England. That was grossly unfair, seeing as the man was by far one of the few aspects of London that Arthur had missed, but that had been how it was. The pain and the anger had been too raw for Arthur to see clearly.
For that matter, it still was difficult for him to pretend that standing among the relics of his father's life-of his own early life, Arthur reminded himself-didn't make his skin crawl. But he would have to get over that. He had a city, and with that came too many responsibilities for him to succumb to squeamishness. "I knew who it was."
"Oh, right. I forgot about…" And things newly-created in the past few days tugged between them, rippling away the disgust and tempting Arthur to pleasurable lassitude. Lancelot sauntered over to the bed and picked up a few shirts, long fingers absently fingering the fabric. "It feels odd. We weren't old enough to feel you when you went off to fight overseas, and then you cut yourself off from all of us while you were in Rome. And now you're suddenly… here."
"I thought that it would be cruel of me to leave a constant reminder of my absence. Better to make the cleanest break I could. It seemed like a good idea at the time." Arthur took the shirts from Lancelot and used them to fill out the last drawer. Most of his father's clothing had already been removed by the servants, but there had been a few drawers and shelves that they couldn't touch. He took down an armful of books from one of those, feeling invisible tendrils shiver to death on his skin, and dropped them on the bed. Then he started to bend down for his own books, but a hand trapped his against the top of the pile.
Lancelot squatted down so he could look directly into Arthur's eyes. "You mean it was painful to keep feeling what you'd left."
Well, growing up hadn't made Lancelot any more diplomatic. Oddly enough, Arthur felt more relief at that than annoyance, though he suspected that feeling might soon change. "That too, yes. I thought it was better that way."
"It wasn't." The other man jerked both face and hand away, then sighed and shook himself. He picked up the first book, flopped it around to see the title and handed it to Arthur in the same movement. "Never mind."
Preoccupied with the odd flickers of emotions on the other man's face, Arthur took the book and put it away without looking. "What do you mean, it wasn't?"
"It just…Pelagius? Who's he?" With a little more effort than was strictly needed, Lancelot flipped open the next book and started browsing. His forehead furrowed and smoothed several times as he skimmed the pages, ignoring Arthur's efforts to shelve the rest of the volumes. "You're still interested in theology?"
"I read him more for his discussions on free will." There were no atheists in foxholes, it was said, but neither was there much religion in that welter of gore and horror. Dying men said all the manner of things including lies, and those taken by fear were gibbering idiots. Arthur didn't mean that critically or pityingly; he merely remembered. He wished he didn't. Seven years should have been enough time to blur or dim those images. "You're avoiding my question."
Lancelot peered over the top of the book and arched an eyebrow. "And you're suddenly very interested about things that aren't related to business. Does it matter? It's different now."
"Did I hurt you in some way?" Arthur guessed.
First Lancelot's eyes froze, then his face. His lips pressed together as he stared up at Arthur, looking as if he'd just had the wind knocked out of him. When he hunched like that, he appeared years younger. Too much like the gawky adolescent that had trailed after Arthur's every step, and that twisted at Arthur with twice the force that it had done back then.
"I'm-it's coming too late now, but I'd still like to apologize," Arthur muttered. Unable to meet the other man's eyes, he hastily turned back to his books.
The last one bumped his elbow, and he glanced up to see a tense, jittery Lancelot, who was chewing on his lower lip. It'd been a childhood habit of the other man, but Arthur hadn't seen him do it once during the meetings in Rome, so he'd assumed Lancelot had grown out of it. "I just missed you," the other man quietly said. "No one blamed you for leaving Uther, but it seemed like your argument expanded to include everyone."
"It…did, in a way. But that was my fault, and not anyone else's." As he took the Pelagius collection from Lancelot, Arthur silently prayed that the other man wouldn't ask for details. Not when they were in this room, where Uther's presence still lingered in the discarded books on the bed and the papers filled with crabbed, back-slanted handwriting that peeked from the desk drawers. "Anyway, it doesn't look as if you were too badly off without me. You aren't so much of a stick now."
Lancelot glowered and shoved at Arthur's shoulder, and the tension abruptly vanished. "I was never a stick. Thin, yes. Stick, no-that was Tristan because he was always so late coming in for a meal, and you know it."
"He's filled out now," Arthur laughed, relieved that the other man was going to let the issue of Uther pass. He hesitated, still unsure of this new turn in their friendship, then allowed himself to try mussing Lancelot's hair. His fingers promptly were covered in something unpleasantly thick and oily, and the hair itself sprang from neat waves to a more familiar mess of curls. "Good God. What did you put in here?"
"Damn it, do you know how long it takes to get that right?" Nearly growling, Lancelot batted away Arthur's hand. "Oh, never mind. I only did it because Guin kept nagging about curls not being fashionable for men, or something. And apparently, I'm supposed to be respectable now."
He stalked into the adjoining bathroom, then stalked out with two towels, one of which he snapped to Arthur. The other he used to roughly rub the rest of…the substance…from his hair, which in Arthur's opinion much improved Lancelot's appearance. Arthur wiped off his hand and felt the springiness of the liberated curls with no small satisfaction. "Better. Though I don't ever remember Guin managing to make you do anything before."
"Well, the last time you saw her, she was still wearing knee socks. And it was more like blackmail," Lancelot murmured, less irritated by the jab than Arthur had expected. His eyelids were fluttering half-down, and he was ever-so-slightly moving his head against Arthur's hand, which Arthur only now noticed was still rumpling through Lancelot's hair.
Arthur pulled away his hand as quickly as he could without making things too awkward and turned back to the bed. His breath was oddly short, and his palm was burning as it fumbled with the suitcase.
After a moment, Lancelot plucked the towel that was dangling from Arthur's other hand. "I'll just take these down. When you're done, come down to the library. Guin and I need to go through some things with you."
"All right. Thank you." So that he didn't have to watch Lancelot leave, Arthur busied himself with stashing the suitcase in the closet. And then he knelt in the dark there and asked himself what, exactly, he was going to do now that he was-Arthur swallowed and made himself admit it-now that he was home.
"So? What was he like?" In his impatience, Galahad hopped onto the sofa arm and thus set the whole thing to shaking.
Gawain felt his mind be newly rattled to groaning mush. Without moving too much, he tried to boot the rude idiot off the couch. "Stop. Making. Things. Move."
"What's with him?" Galahad leaned over and pried at Gawain's eyelids, thus letting in the scarifying light. Consistency might be a virtue, but not in this case.
Then something batted the fingers away and Gawain gratefully threw an arm over his eyes. "Thank you."
"You should wait to say that until after you've drunk this," Tristan replied, faintly amused. His hand slid under Gawain's head and made it tilt upright so a cup rim could press insistently at Gawain's lip. "Before you ask, it is exactly as bad as you remember. Drink."
"Oh, hung-over?" It was too damned early in the morning for Galahad to sound that gleeful; Gawain made a note to knock the other man into a couple walls later. "The funeral was two days ago. You're not still recovering from the wake, are you?"
Before Gawain's answer could get past his teeth, Tristan shoved the rim further in his mouth and poured the whole cupful of nose-pinching sour, disgusting sludge down his throat. He spent a few moments choking, and then another few moments trying to vomit. The stuff, however, was as stubborn as Galahad, and so it refused to come up no matter how hard Gawain coughed. After about a minute, he gave up and flopped back down, only to discover that that was no longer necessary. Headache and nausea were completely gone.
Tristan's face floated above his as the other man sat down. "All right?" Tristan asked.
Gawain grimaced. "Are you sure you can't make it taste any better?"
"If I did, you wouldn't think twice about staggering back with Bors and waking everyone up with loud, off-key singing." The other man started to get up, but Gawain swung an arm around his waist and dragged him back. Tristan's nose came down on Gawain's cheek, and one of his hands smacked something above them.
The something yelped and fell off the sofa with a painful-sounding thud, which Gawain ignored because he was busy finding out whether or not Tristan had had breakfast. He swirled his tongue one last time in the other man's mouth, then withdrew to ponder. "Orange juice and toast."
"What were you doing out that late?" Though Tristan still managed to look as unruffled as a cat, he was rather eagerly adjusting himself to lie full-length on top of Gawain.
"Bors caught me on the way in and made me come out with him. Vanora's pregnant again. We were celebrating." Grinning, Gawain leaned up and nuzzled away the messy hair from one of Tristan's cheeks so he could lick at the twin scars beneath. His own hair was starting to come out from its loose ponytail, but Tristan was making such interesting soft sounds that Gawain couldn't be bothered to interrupt.
Apparently, Galahad could. "For God's sake, will you two stop that?"
Tristan let out an annoyed sigh that was so quiet only Gawain could hear it, then turned to the third man. "Arthur seems to be fine. He's as polite and considerate as he always was, but he…it would be better if you form your own opinion."
"It would've been easier to do that if I were old enough to remember him before he left. Or if I'd been here to meet him coming back, instead of up north." Galahad sulked his way to the chair opposite them and morosely stared at the wall above the couch. He started fiddling with his cuff-links and tapping his heels against the wood floor.
Gawain glanced at Tristan, who resignedly nodded. They sat up and began fixing their rumpled clothes while Gawain attempted to reassure Galahad, or at least make the man stop that annoying fidgeting.
"It's harder," he said as he tried to tug the wrinkles out of his shirt. "Arthur…is very different from before. Not where you can tell right away, but it's noticeable. Just get to know him as he is now."
Typically, that didn't satisfy Galahad. "How different?"
"Enough," Lancelot said, ambling in the door. His hair, which earlier in the morning had been tortured into something resembling the current trend, was now in its natural messy state, and his normally immaculate tie looked as if it'd been the victim of a violent mauling. With him, that kind of appearance was usually accompanied by an air of smug satisfaction, but at the moment he looked anything but. "You think you know a man…"
Galahad stared at him, then turned and looked inquiringly at Gawain, who shrugged. The only person Gawain had ever seen regularly and accurately anticipate Lancelot's erratic moods was Guinevere, who generally didn't use that ability towards promoting peace.
Well…and Arthur, from what Gawain remembered of the man. "What? Is he going back to Rome?"
"What? No!" Shock and confusion dominated Lancelot's face as he whirled about and stared at Gawain. "Why would you think that?"
"Ah…ah…because he liked Rome enough to live there for so long, and…" It was hard enough to speak reason to Lancelot when the other man was calm, but when he had brimstone in his eyes like that, even Galahad backed away. As Gawain was already on the sofa, he had no such escape and so could only fumble his way through the unraveling argument that, just a moment ago, had been neat as a pin in his head. He didn't dare drop his gaze from Lancelot's face, but he did reach back to grab for Tristan's hand. "…and because he obviously doesn't like London."
With a violence that was normally reserved for revenge-attacks, Lancelot whipped himself around on his heel and rapidly walked to the window, where he stopped and grabbed onto the windowsill. His head dropped, but his shoulders rose and fell for several minutes while he tried to control himself. On the sofa cushion, Tristan's palm briefly slid over Gawain's hand, then tapped once and slipped away at the same time that Lancelot straightened up again.
"Arthur didn't like Uther. It's got nothing to do with London," Lancelot muttered, much too calm. Then he slumped against the side of the window and lit a cigarette, which he proceeded to smoke like a man awaiting execution. "It doesn't."
For once, Galahad was tactful and restrained himself to some frantic gesturing instead of a stupid comment that would get Lancelot at his throat. Not that Gawain understood said gesturing, but it seemed that Tristan did. The other man made some finger wiggles of his own, then looked at Lancelot's back. "So is his staying here what's changed him so much?"
"More like his-" The cigarette twitched with the quirk of Lancelot's lips. "Well, Bors will be happy. No point in even pretending I'm interested in Vanora now. I thought it'd be-I didn't even know if Arthur'd even noticed that I wasn't an errand-boy anymore--"
Just as abruptly as he'd come in, Lancelot turned around and walked out without finishing his sentence. Gawain belatedly got up and hurried to the door, but by the time he'd ducked into the hallway, the other man was already gone. More than a little confused, he glanced at the other two. "What was that all about?"
Galahad blinked. His jaw started to drop, but he caught it with his hand. "You-you didn't-Christ, Tristan. How did you two ever-did you trap him in a backseat, or what?"
"It was in the back of a theater, and I think he thought I was someone from the chorus line for the first five minutes." Tristan made a little nonchalant move with his hands. "By then we were too far to stop because he'd-"
"Never mind," Galahad growled, covering his ears with his hands. "I don't want to know."
It was Gawain's turn to blink, which he did very slowly and deliberately. When Tristan's calm didn't waver in the slightest, Gawain went back to the sofa and stopped two inches from Tristan's knees, crossing his arms over his chest. "I was not that drunk. If I had been, you wouldn't have let me do anything that stupid."
The other man continued looking up at him. A little fleck of shadow passed over Tristan's eyes as his silence revealed volumes that not only restored the earlier awful lurching to Gawain's gut, but also made his blood boil a fair amount.
Sometimes he didn't know whether Tristan was the wisest man he'd ever met, or the most foolish. Of course, the other man didn't make it very easy to distinguish the two; Tristan was of the kind that was made entirely of odd pale dark shades, not white or black or even gray, that were constantly shifting and merging with each other. It was a quality that was good for when he needed to melt his distinctiveness into a crowd of blandness, but was bad when someone wanted to fathom why on earth he'd do some of the things he did without even seeming to realize that his actions had significant value. As far as Tristan was concerned, what needed to be done was done, and that was the end of it.
As far as Gawain was concerned, it was damned infuriating. "You're an idiot, and if that's what you thought, you should've at least asked me."
"Except then you might have stopped, and…oh, you're not going to get it. See, this and then Lance are why I stay away from serious," Galahad interrupted. He got up and started to leave, then paused by the door. "What that was all about was Lancelot being touchy about Arthur."
"But he's always been like that, as far as I can remember!" protested Gawain. "Him and Guin both-you'd think they would've learned to-to share instead of squabbling like a pair of gold-diggers over the last eligible bachelor-oh."
The door just missed closing on Galahad's parting shot. "And even Bors' oldest two caught on before him…"
Tristan persisted in trying to wear down Gawain by sheer force of gaze. Normally that worked because Gawain neither liked staring matches nor had the stubbornness to pursue them simply for the sake of pride, but in this case he was willing to make an exception.
"You would have gone on thinking that, and-and-" He simply didn't have the words.
As usual, Tristan did. Or perhaps he merely had the ability to see words as only communication and not expression as well-no, that was too cold an explanation. Perhaps there wasn't an explanation. "Till I died, probably. And I wouldn't have minded."
"You're impossible," Gawain breathed, grabbing the other man by the shoulders and kissing him till there couldn't be any doubt that Gawain knew what he was doing, and to whom.
Tristan slung his arms around Gawain and dug nails into Gawain's shoulderblades with uncharacteristic intensity, then pulled back just enough for speech. "So you did know."
"Yes, I knew. I'm not blind; I just wasn't looking for it in Arthur and Lancelot and Guinevere. And damn it, ask me if you ever wonder again-" The words ran out again, but as Tristan was kind enough to substitute a warm tongue in its place, Gawain contentedly acceded to that exchange.
The door's creaking was Guinevere's only warning before Arthur walked in. She hastily shoved her rouge back in her purse and tried to remember that she wasn't a gangling, infatuated almost-seventeen. When that didn't quite work, she reminded herself that she'd seen Arthur a fair amount of times in the past few days, and had even had a few lengthy conversations with him. True, they were either related to the Round's business affairs or Uther's funeral, but nevertheless, they had been successful interactions with Arthur.
And she'd gotten this same weakness in her knees and stomach then as well, she sourly thought to herself. If it hadn't been him, she'd call herself pathetic. "Arthur?"
He had nodded to her when he'd noted her and then turned to browse the shelves, but when he looked at her now, he visibly started. Then he shook his head and laughed to himself. "I'm sorry. I'm still not used to how you-you've grown up so much since the last time I saw you. What was it, four years?"
And sixty days, she almost added. "About."
Arthur's gaze on her momentarily intensified; she felt her cheeks growing hot, but before she could react, he'd returned to examining the shelves. "I always asked about you and the others when Lancelot came down. Once I said that if you wanted to write, you could-did he remember to tell you?"
"Yes." The prick had looked most unhappy about it, and he'd been grumpier than usual for the rest of the week, but he had told Guinevere. She'd started a letter that night, then had burned it in an empty flower vase and kept the ashes in a box stashed in her drawers for months afterward. "I suppose he didn't mention that your father gave a standing order that until you came back to London for good, there was to be no contact other than the minimum needed to keep things running smoothly."
"No, he didn't," Arthur snapped, so sharply that Guinevere was alarmed enough to stand up and start towards him. Before she was halfway there, a kind of sardonic resignation had already swept the anger from his face. "No…but that does sound like my father, doesn't it? I should've realized he'd find new scapegoats."
She drew up about a foot away from him, uncertain as to whether it was safe to probe further. On the one hand, she was technically entitled to do so now if she thought it was necessary for guarding the health of the city. On the other…damn necessity for not letting the Crown and the Scepter both be absent from London, and damn Uther for deciding that Lancelot was the one that was allowed to travel. Guinevere hadn't seen Arthur in so long that she had no idea how to read him. It was like having to find a needle in a haystack in the dark.
If she risked asking, at least she'd know that she wasn't ignorant by lack of trying. "What was the quarrel between you two?"
Everything went very still and tight, silence singing like an overstressed cable. A bit of white flared up around Arthur's left hand, then whisked into nothingness as he sighed. "We had a fundamental disagreement on the purpose of my life. It really had more to do with my mother never really recovering from my birth, and some other-anyway, it's an old fight that's ended now."
"If you say." Lancelot threaded his way through the half-open door, then carefully shut and locked it. He arched an eyebrow at Guinevere's challenging look and dismissed her with a twist of his lips. "If you'd like to get started, we could be out for lunch within the hour."
"What, afraid you'll miss a prior appointment?" Guinevere sneered. Something that had always annoyed her about Lancelot was how he never seemed to be without attractive company, yet professed to be just as capable of fidelity as she was. Then again, she supposed she should take comfort in the fact that he was at least consistent in his shallowness.
He made a disgusted face and crowded her against a nearby table, away from Arthur. "Shut up. You know damned well I haven't been out since we knew that Uther was truly dying," he hissed.
"And now that he's dead, I suppose you're free again. You don't even have to be discreet." She pushed him back and slid around his side in time to see Arthur glance over with an amused expression.
"I'd hope that Lancelot still would be, as certain situations seem to be rather delicate." Arthur turned fully around and crossed the room to start shuffling through the papers Guinevere had brought. "And I'd also hoped that the two of you had grown out of bickering."
Lancelot snorted and sprawled out in the chair nearest to Arthur. "Blind optimism never got anyone anywhere. If you want that to happen, you'd have to-actually, I'm not sure if there's even anything you could do."
Not to be outdone, Guinevere came over and perched on the edge of the desk, delicately arranging her skirts and hair; current trends dictated that she should cut it ridiculously short, but she knew perfectly well what suited her best. "We've managed to wrap up everything except two outstanding concerns. Cerdic…has been less than prudent with his handling of the East End, and-"
"-our relations with New Moon aren't worth the shit in the gutters." Quick as a snake striking, Lancelot slid up to Arthur's other side. He didn't quite look at Guinevere as he did it, but that flash of smugness wasn't for Arthur's benefit. "So far it hasn't started anything serious, except Sparrow helping himself to a larger cut of any of our traffic that enters his harbor, but his condolence message makes it very clear that he'd like some kind of formal settlement."
"Does it." Arthur took said letter and quickly scanned it while Lancelot smirked and Guinevere had to curl her hands around the desk edge in order to keep herself from slapping him.
When Arthur unexpectedly peeked over the top of the letter, both Guinevere and Lancelot hastily assumed casual poses. Though it was clear that hadn't allayed Arthur's suspicions in the least, he refrained from commenting. "How much of this was my father's idea?"
It was tempting to dissemble and thus take advantage of the loophole Arthur had offered, but obviously that wasn't plausible in the least. Oddly enough, Guinevere found that it was less the threat of Lancelot catching her in a lie in front of Arthur that dissuaded her than the threat of Arthur catching her. Lancelot she knew she might be able to bluff into confusion; Arthur was a very unknown quantity.
"Very little," she finally admitted. "In the last three months, Uther was…honestly, he was barely able to recognize us, let alone handle anything. Merlin took over-it was his plan. Rumor said this year was Sparrow's weakest time, and we thought we might have a chance at controlling the other end of the trans-Atlantic trade."
"Of course, they were wrong, and now we're in trouble." Like a disobedient puppy, Lancelot flopped down across the desk and tugged at his already-loose tie so he could flap it at Guinevere. Annoying habit of his, the tie-mussing was. "You didn't even talk to me about it. So much for co-responsibility."
Guinevere gritted her teeth and reminded herself that good impressions mattered. "Well, I apologize, and take full responsibility for the mistake." She waited a beat. "And if you'd dragged yourself out of the West End nightlife once in a while, maybe I would've been more inclined to discuss it with you."
"At any rate, I take it that you've both learned better," Arthur interjected, tone slightly steeled with irritation. He watched them till they both lowered their gazes and nodded, then returned to the letter. "I'll send off a letter to Sparrow tonight about settlement negotiations. Cerdic, on the other hand, I don't remember much of. And I don't think he was at the funeral…"
"No. He vanished the day you arrived, actually. We're trying to track him and his son Cynric down," Lancelot replied.
Nodding, Arthur shuffled the papers into miraculous order, then handed them back to Guinevere. "Try to find him soon; I want to talk with him first before we do anything. And I'd like to speak with Merlin. As for lunch…where did you have in mind? I need to make a few stops, but I can meet you there."
"We can't take care of those for you?" Guinevere meant it in good faith, but Arthur's expression made it clear that she'd crossed some kind of boundary. She hastily stumbled through a retraction, but before she could finish it, Lancelot had jumped in.
"There's a new restaurant on Oxford Street," he said. "Just drive down after you're done and head for the thickest crowds."
Arthur looked approvingly at the other man, which put a sick sway in Guinevere's stomach and a bitter taste in her mouth. But then he turned to her and gave her a sweet, faintly amazed smile. "You've bloomed. I wish I'd been here to see it."
She didn't even attempt to make a composed response to his farewells, though she did try to keep from embarrassing herself.
Once Arthur had left the library, Guinevere rounded on a disgruntled-looking Lancelot. "You don't waste any time, do you? He's not one of your whores."
"And you don't understand the concept of passing time, do you?" Lancelot countered. "Which I don't have to do anymore." He looked back at the doorway, exasperation slowly changing to pensiveness. "Which I can't do now," he added more softly.
"I don't believe you." Except that Guinevere did. She understood far better than she wanted to-there'd been a period of about six months when she'd desperately tried to replace Arthur with someone, anyone that was more accessible-but she wasn't going to sympathize with Lancelot, walking prick that he was.
Even when he was looking as dejected as he did now. "Yes, you do. Or-actually, what do you know? The last time you saw him, you were a dreamy-eyed airhead dreaming of her début."
"And you've never acted like you had a real chance before, all your posturing aside. What changed there?" Despite her resolutions, Guinevere's question came out considerably more kindly than she'd intended.
Lancelot noticed and favored her with a suspicious look before getting up and redoing his tie. "I'm beginning to believe he truly did miss m-miss us. Well, come on. Time to go out and pretend we like each other."
"I might actually if you'd just keep your mouth shut. You're not the worst you could be for what you are," Guinevere admitted, straightening the tie for him. "Bitch."
Dagonet felt the air inside St. Nicholas swirl hot and thick, then go as still and cool as before. Something he'd always loved about the place were the eddies of serenity tucked away in its crannies, where no disturbance of any kind ever seemed to penetrate. Not crime, not sickness, not even war-not anything except for the one that could tremble all of London with his breath alone, if he wished it.
"Sorry," Arthur muttered; the peacefulness was such that his low whisper sliced through like a sword through silk. "I keep forgetting not to do that."
"It's part of what you are." With a last nod toward the front, Dagonet finished his prayers and slid out of the pew. He named his dead brothers as he passed each of their former seats, and added his parents when he reached the end of the bench.
Arthur hesitated in the doorway, a shadow against the bright day outside. He was holding a bouquet of lilies, which were slowly crumpling from crisp freshness to worn wilting, and his hat was in his other hand. When Dagonet had come in a few minutes before, he had heard the slight bustle of a few people in the hallways of the church, but now he heard nothing, as if they'd all decided to leave at once.
"The role that I fulfill now," Arthur corrected. He strode up the center aisle and laid the lilies among the other flowers that decorated the altar, then frowned as he noted the withering. His fingers stroked over the petals, and suddenly the church was pervaded with a subtle but distinctive fragrance as the flowers regained their former blanched glory. "I managed to live for nearly three decades without this."
So he said, yet the moment he'd received news of Uther's imminent death, he'd rushed home so quickly that they hadn't had the time to assemble a proper greeting party. And Dagonet distinctly remembered a look of relief as Arthur had taken his first step in London after so many years of self-imposed exile. Refugees of war looked like that-people that had once been lost and had now found themselves again on their own land.
"Mother. I apologize for being late." Head bent, Arthur appearing to be speaking to the flowers, but Dagonet knew better. He carefully withdrew to the outside while Arthur went on to murmur in a language that was pure liquid grace compared to English's forthrightness, and while the sun slanted through the windows to fill the space behind the altar with blinding white.
When the other man came out again, Dagonet was watching a mother chivvy her unruly brood of knee-high tousle-heads across the street. The group was loud and rambunctious, the diametrical opposite of St. Nicholas' atmosphere, and yet in their smiles and laughter there was something of the same feeling of rightness.
"How's Bors and your sister?" Arthur asked, speech a little strained with nervous abruptness. He used a little more effort than was necessary to set his hat on his head, given that Arthur hadn't ever been a particularly vain man, and so far Dagonet had seen nothing to indicate a change in that.
Dagonet put his own hat back on his head and smiled at the youngest of the children, who was the boldest when it came to staring at the two strange men in the churchyard. "They are well. Vanora wishes you would come and visit when you have time. She wants you as godfather for the next one."
"Another one?" Amazement briefly took over Arthur's face as he did some mental calculations. "That's nearly a child every year."
As Arthur was an intelligent and perceptive man, Dagonet refrained from reminding him that he'd not taken into account the months of expectancy that had preceded Bors and Vanora's quick wedding.
"I'm sorry," Arthur said again, only this time he did so with a strange twist of his mouth, as if he'd just been sick. "When I joined up, I never meant to include anyone else in my and my father's arguments. You should have had just as many by now, and three times the number of nieces and nephews."
It took a moment for Dagonet to understand everything that Arthur was saying with words and eyes and tone, but when he did, he unexpectedly gained a faint understanding of why Lancelot had taken such a dislike to religion. Suffering was a dangerously attractive cult to certain personalities. "I and my brothers did as we did, and they died as they died. I don't blame you for their deaths and my life. We didn't follow you blindly."
"Which is possibly worse." A trace of irony edged Arthur's voice as he stared out at something that Dagonet didn't have the ability to see. "You all believe in me. I risk the entire city by going off to war, and you go to make sure the Pendragon line doesn't end on some Balkan mountain. After that's over, I move to Rome and spend seven years trying to pretend London wasn't part of my life, and when I come back-I've been missed."
The other man sounded as if he was torn between wonderment and anger, and leaning toward depression as a compromise. Dagonet tried to recall the last time he'd seen Arthur with an expression that was as uncomplicated as those on the faces of the now-distant children.
Bors and Vanora's wedding reception, of course. Sixteen and pretending to seventeen, Guinevere had come up to Arthur with determination clutched tight in her clasped hands and the faintest blush on her cheeks, and she'd asked him to dance with her. He'd smiled and said yes, and she had been glowing for days after his return to Rome.
"What was my father like, while I was gone?" Arthur abruptly queried. When Dagonet didn't immediately answer, the other man pivoted like a polo horse and fixed him with a gaze that he'd seen break savage, bloody Turks without a single finger being needed to force that.
"Difficult." Dagonet hoped Arthur would leave it there, as he certainly wasn't the best person to ask about Uther. Unfortunately, Arthur's relations with Merlin were less than cordial; after the wake, Merlin had been sensible and had immediately asked to retire in favor of Guinevere, so only a few instances of chilly interaction between the two men had been necessary. Still, the ice there hadn't been quite thick enough to disguise the burning fury.
Of course, Arthur wasn't going to let Dagonet get off with that. "Any way other than how he always was?"
With a last glance at the bright sun, Dagonet offered up the honesty that was all he had. "He was a caricature of his old self, and we all suffered in some way. Even Merlin. But he missed you. He was difficult because he was a man at the end of his life who believed he'd failed in the one undertaking that mattered most to him."
"Ensuring a perfect heir." Arthur absently checked the time.
"Loving his son," Dagonet corrected.
He felt more than saw Arthur's gaze snap back to him and sear through the side of his face, peeling away every layer. Nothing was there that Dagonet didn't already know about, so he stood quietly and waited for Arthur's response.
"Loving what my mother left him as a parting gift," the other man finally countered. "I went to Rome because that was as far as I could go from the lives of my parents without Uther sending someone after me. And even then, he had Lancelot see me once a month. I see now that there's no such thing as free will when it comes to family."
Lancelot going to Rome had little to do with family as Arthur pictured that concept, but Dagonet didn't see the point in discussing something that he could never fully understand, seeing as he would never be more than an outside observer. He did, however, have one last thing to say, and then he was done. The moment needed ripening, so he rocked back on his heels and let it do so.
"My mother loved this church," Arthur went on, tone turning from bitter to nostalgic as he looked about. "Some of my earliest, best memories are of services here-it's so calm. Always. And yet Lancelot and Guinevere still managed to get themselves banned from St. Nicholas before either of them were twelve…" He laughed and looked down at the ground. "And Uther never set foot here, so he can't spoil this patch of London."
"We love you because we do," Dagonet said. "Your father never gave orders about that."
Arthur's breathing stopped for three long seconds, then started again. He stared down the street with narrowed eyes, watching his car being driven up. "Thank you, Dag. For what's that's worth…I'm honored."
Dagonet only nodded and stepped back so as to give Arthur clear passage.
Though he already knew the answer, Lancelot asked anyway. "What time is it?"
"Twenty-five seconds after the last time you asked," the other man growled, elbows on table and head in hands. Even with his long hair neatly tied back as it was now, Gawain always attracted a kind of fascinated disgust from passersby the rare times he went uptown. At the moment, the other diners in the restaurant probably thought Lancelot and Guinevere were lunching with a pair of barbarians escaped from the nearest curio show.
"Damn it, he's late," Guinevere muttered, fidgeting with her knife in a way that was decidedly not ladylike. Then again, it was probably up for debate which one of them was garnering the worse stares.
The only one of them with manners that were reasonably intact, Galahad casually continued cutting up his steak. "Next time, you're taking Tristan instead of me. He doesn't mind if you three fray each other to pieces. Or he doesn't notice. Either way, you are very, very lucky that this filet is the best in the city."
Gawain lifted his head and glared at Galahad, then turned to Lancelot. "Why aren't we allowed to strangle him?"
"Because Bors has a family to deal with when he's not working down in the East End, Dagonet has to handle Merlin, and Tristan has other duties. So if you killed Galahad, then you wouldn't be able to switch off driving Guin and me with anyone." Lancelot made himself resist the urge to check the street again and desultorily started in on his own meal. It would have been the epitome of fine cuisine if it hadn't been so damned cold. Which was entirely Arthur's fault for breaking his habit of punctuality.
After this, Lancelot wasn't letting Arthur go anywhere without worming a detailed itinerary out of the other man. In fact, he was kicking himself right now for not pressing the point; his earlier offhanded attitude about the matter aside, the longer Cerdic and Cynric stayed missing, the more worrying that situation got. And with everything else, losing track of Arthur was the very last thing Lancelot wanted to do.
"The problem is, he can still cut us off if he doesn't want us to know what he's up to," Guinevere grumbled, idly stabbing at her peas. She methodically skewered them all on her fork, then ate them in one bite. At the table behind her left shoulder, some old dowager with too many wrinkles and too little clothing frowned in gross disapproval and leaned over to an equally ugly friend to pass the latest gossip. "Goddamn it. He acts like he's still in Rome."
"As much as I'm enjoying the sight of you publicly embarrassing yourself, we've got reputations to keep up." When she shot him a look of annoyed confusion, Lancelot covertly tipped his fork toward the chatting biddies. "We're supposed to be the vaguely respectable side, remember?"
Her tongue-tip momentarily poked out, but then Guinevere recalled that she was twenty-one. "And what part of having intimate relations with every single actor and actress in London is respectable?"
"None of it. But it did serve the purpose of proving my capabilities." As he choked down some over-sugared coffee, Lancelot grinned at the outrage on her face.
Gawain put his head back in his hands. Galahad hastily excused himself and headed for the washrooms.
"Past tense." Guinevere arched her delicate little eyebrow.
"You said you believed me," Lancelot reminded her. He glanced past her right shoulder and noted a waiter moving toward them with a folded paper on a platter; perhaps Arthur had remembered to be polite and had sent an excuse.
She snickered, though she did keep her voice down so the other diners wouldn't be even more offended. "Oh, I do. I'm just looking forward to when you realize exactly what monogamy means. Seeing as you and it have no past acquaintance-yes?"
Wooden-faced, the waiter leaned down as if to allow her to take the message. His jacket shifted in an odd manner…Lancelot flung himself out of his chair and leaped. But it was too late.
Gawain, who'd had his head down and thus had a perfect angle to see what the waiter was really doing, had kicked over Guinevere's chair and lunged for the man. A deafening bang, not muffled at all by the intervening body, ricocheted its echoes through the room.
Time slowed, and sound disappeared. Everyone seemed to hold their breath.
Then reality snapped tight; against a backdrop of shrill hysterical screaming, Guinevere was rolling up with the dagger from her garter in her hand, and Gawain was dropping to the floor. He managed to rip the fake waiter's sleeve off as he went, sending something small and black and metal clattering across the marble tiles, but the other man wrenched free and ran pell-mell for the door.
Past caring about appearances now, Lancelot jumped from his table to the next nearest and tore after the assassin. He let one of his guns fall from his sleeve to his hand, but kept the other one back in reserve.
"Move!" Guinevere shouted.
Without thinking, Lancelot dodged sideways, and took the opportunity to leap a railing and shove aside some fleeing people as he did. Something hummed past him and Guinevere's dagger suddenly sprouted from the assassin's leg just as the man tried to vault the last balustrade between him and the door to the outside. He staggered and recovered himself, detouring for a cunningly-concealed side-door instead, but that break in pace allowed Lancelot to catch up till he could nearly touch the man's back if he stretched. And he did.
The moment they were through the doorway, they were out of fashionable West End and in some misty meadow that, rationally speaking, didn't have any right to be there. Given that this just proved the matter had moved beyond the normal sphere of things, that didn't matter. Though it did say to Lancelot that Cerdic had been busier than they'd thought, if he'd gained the ability to manipulate the fey world that shadowed the real one.
In the distance, a hunting horn blew. "Theatrical bastard," Lancelot muttered to himself.
He dropped into a crouch and braced himself as his pistols suddenly went long and weighty, but he was careful to keep his swords from making any sounds. Cerdic hadn't ever earned enough trust to be told about the exact responsibilities and powers that surrounded the Crown, Scepter and Holder, and Lancelot saw no reason to enlighten him now.
For all that care, the assassin only took a moment to dispatch. Lancelot slipped back through the gateway without notice from the few frightened diners still running out and tucked his bloody guns into his sleeves as he hurried to their table. Good thing it was a dark-colored suit-and damn it, he was not going to succumb to shock. He hadn't even been hurt.
"Your cuffs are turning red," Guinevere noted. She and Galahad, who'd shown up somewhere along the line, were kneeling by a Gawain that was cursing far too fluently to be dying.
Relief knocked Lancelot's knees out from under him, and he sat down hard on the nearest chair. "Maybe it'll start a new trend."
"And you didn't bring back my dagger." Guinevere gestured for Galahad to hold down Gawain, then carefully peeled back Gawain's shirt and lightly probed the bloodiest spot.
Gawain threw his head back, gritted his teeth on a whine, and passed out while Guinevere hastily bundled his shirt into a compress on the wound. She pressed down and bowed her head so Lancelot barely glimpsed the way her lips turned white with worry and anger.
"I'm not telling Tristan; someone else can do that," Galahad finally said, letting Guinevere take over Gawain. "Be right back-I'm going to go find a telephone and call for a doctor."
"Get some of our men in Scotland Yard and fill them in while you're at it," Lancelot replied. "Coming up with a plausible explanation for this is going to be difficult."
When the last of Galahad's steps had finished ringing throughout the emptied restaurant, Guinevere spoke again, voice very low and strained. "You didn't even hesitate."
For some reason, Lancelot desperately wanted to laugh. "Well, we swore that we were the only ones allowed to kill each other. Us and Arthur, only he'd never even think about that."
"You were ten years old and I was five." Her fingers clenched on top of the wadded-up shirt, then relaxed a little. "Good to know that we haven't changed our minds on that."
That was probably the closest to a thank-you that Lancelot was going to get, but it was still more than he'd expected. He slumped back in the chair and opened his mouth to say something stupid, but then-
--and Arthur came storming through the doors just as both Lancelot and Guinevere regained their balance, Dagonet and Tristan at his heels. When he saw them, he stopped and the world ceased to spin, which meant that Lancelot had to readjust himself again. The naked fear in his eyes quickly merged back to let the cold, determined fury to the forefront. "Who did this?"
"Cerdic, most likely," Guinevere answered. "I'm sorry, Arthur. I thought he would at least wait to see how you were going to deal with him before he risked something like this; the matter with Sparrow seemed more important. I should have known better."
Tristan quietly walked past Arthur and settled down on his knees by Gawain, smoothly and irresistibly taking over care of the man from Guinevere. The way he bent over Gawain reminded Lancelot of the gentleness of a mother with her child, but then Lancelot noticed the tremble in Tristan's shoulders, as if the man was barely holding himself back. Holding himself together. It was impossible to tell.
Arthur swayed closer a few steps, almost as if he was going to touch them, but then he collected himself and moved back. When he turned to greet running feet, he moved like a man of stone. "Galahad?"
"Doctor's coming, detectives have been told that we're calling in favors," the other man panted, skidding to a stop. "Oh. Merlin called-said he knew-said he needed to speak with you tonight-"
"So we will. Take Gawain back to the house." As curtly as he spoke, Arthur turned around. Then he paused. "Lancelot? Guinevere?"
They both looked at him, hoping.
"Find Cerdic." With that, Arthur walked off, back stiff and eyes focused straight ahead of him.
Arthur's nerves were gracious enough to wait until he was in a fairly secluded part of the courtyard before they broke down. He had just enough control to keep the magic out of it as he took out his rage on a convenient wall.
When tentative steps finally followed him, he was sitting in one of the few chairs that hadn't been overturned, staring at his ruined knuckles. They'd heal in a few days, thanks to his damned position.
"That was a cool reception," Lancelot said. "You don't even want to know which one of us the hitman was going for?"
"I couldn't find you," Arthur muttered, watching the red drops smear from perfect spheres to long streaks of congealing stickiness. "I felt someone hurting, and then Guinevere was pulling gateways closed before I could figure out who, and I couldn't feel either of you."
Rustling clothes as Guinevere moved up to him. "We…that's how we've learned to act. It's only lately that there's been three."
"I couldn't feel you." The words weren't working, but neither was Arthur's mind. So he simply kept repeating phrases like a dumb parrot, as if that alone would convey the sheer mass of fierce emotions that had taken him over when he'd realized. "That's never happened. Even when I was in Rome, I knew that all I had to do was reach out, and I'd find you."
"I wish you'd done that, then. Because it's been hell not being able to have that particular luxury," Lancelot snapped. He was over by Arthur in an instant, and grabbing Arthur's hand as he dropped to one knee. "Arthur-"
And when actual contact was made, everything boiled over. Arthur found himself dragging them both down by the wrists and nearly snarling in their faces as he desperately struggled not to just-take. "Do you know what it's like knowing that it should be you receiving all the blame, the pain and the suffering and then time and again, seeing other people take it in your stead? Just because an accident of birth? Because of some artificial hierarchy? Do you? God-you two are the last people I want that to happen to. Do you understand?"
Before they could answer, he threw them back and yanked himself out of the chair. Frustration made him irrational, and trying to suppress it only made it stronger unless he managed to wear it out of himself in some other way. Unfortunately, he had a feeling that in this case, he'd have to pace the circumference of the world before he found any peace.
And less than an hour earlier in St. Nicholas, he'd thought he'd been well on his way to finding it. The energy abruptly fled from Arthur, leaving him weak with ironic humor as black as death. "This is just ridiculous. Like you said, you got along well enough without me, and now that Uther's gone-"
"We did not 'get along well enough without you.' I said it was hell. I meant that." Lancelot stalked around to face Arthur, the intensity of his eyes rivaling only that of Guinevere's gaze. It felt like Arthur was being flayed from two directions.
Taken aback, Arthur groped for reason and logic. "Lancelot, you've seen me for a total of a week's worth of time over the past seven years. And Guinevere, the last time you saw me, you were only sixteen."
"Oh, as if that matters," she retorted. "Right now, you're the one that's acting like a sixteen-year-old. I love you. I think I have ever since we met, and yes, that was when I was three. So? I still love you anyway. And-and Lancelot's no different from me here, much as I hate admitting it."
When Arthur looked at the other man, Lancelot merely stared back and refused to contradict something that couldn't be true. Except Arthur was coming to understand that he may have been lying to himself for a very, very long time.
One thing, however, was true. "I'm trying not to be my father," he said, wrenching the confession out of himself. "You don't understand-when it's us, when it's people that are what we are, it's not that simple."
"If you told us exactly what your father did, then perhaps we would understand." Guinevere was wound as tight as a spring, bloodstained hands rolled into white-knuckled fists.
For that matter, they all had red hands, and if that was a sign of the true state of things-Arthur rejected that thought. He refused to let history repeat itself and chew up these two people like it had his parents. "I can't tell you because Merlin raised you. It's as much his story as it is mine or Uther's, so ask him."
"I will," she hissed, proud and beautiful and everything he could want in a woman.
And then she unraveled, so quickly that Lancelot barely had time to grab her and pillow her silent sobs on his shoulder. He steadily regarded Arthur over her head, neither accusing nor contemptuous, but instead…wistful. Regretful. Wanting and not daring to ask, but loyal anyway.
Arthur's irrationality surged again, and he was holding them before he could quite register that he'd drowned. Then he was through the doorway, back in the restaurant, and pretending he didn't hear them following.
War had been declared, and he had to fight.