|The Castle II: East End
Author: Guede Mazaka
It was just a little before the dinner hour, but Lancelot already felt as if he were ready for a fortnight of sleep. His head hurt, his hands were shaking with exhaustion, and his back wanted to double him over into the floor. That, however, was not an option, so he forced himself to stay upright and grimly hung onto the doorway.
Tristan stared back at him, unmoving except for the fingers of one hand, which were slowly flexing open and closed. "Move."
"No. You're not going out until Arthur allows it." Past Tristan's shoulder, Lancelot could see the doctor, pale with fear, giving the unconscious Gawain one last examination. A slight breeze zipped past the doctor's startled flinch, then ruffled across the window drapes. It fluttered by Lancelot's cheek, and he could hear the soft beating of wings as it dove down the stairwell. "I suppose I should say that the rest of you isn't going out."
The other man regarded Lancelot for another long, challenging moment, then withdrew back to the bed and picked up Gawain's hand. Though Tristan's expression remained emotionless, he emanated a sense of patient vengeance that was far more frightening than a gun in the hands of most men.
As the doctor hastily skittered out, he paused just long enough to hiss, "There wasn't a bird. There was no bird visible."
"No, there wasn't. This room has some odd drafts," Lancelot lied, clapping the man on the shoulder and subtly ushering him to the stairwell, where a servant waited to escort him out the door. The Round's regular doctor had recently retired-understandably, since he'd handled Uther's case for four years and probably had had all his nerves shredded by that prick-so until they could find another one that didn't mind ignoring the inexplicable in return for a fat fee, they were stuck with frightened idiots like the one currently departing.
"If you and Guin can't locate Cerdic, then my hawk wouldn't have a chance," Tristan suddenly said. He'd perched himself on the side of the bed, and was now tracing a fingertip over Gawain's palm. "He isn't in the city, is he?"
Lancelot winced and dragged a hand through his hair, which strenuously resisted and even attempted to knot his fingers into it. Somewhere along the line, he must have sweated off all the remaining pomade; it had probably soaked into his shirt collar, which did feel disgustingly stiff and sticky. Two shirts ruined in one day, and the best he'd gotten in terms of compensation had been a minute of petting and an embrace so brief that he would've thought he'd imagined it, if the sheer fervor of it hadn't left him with scorched skin. Even now, he could still smell the frustrated desperation, could still feel the ferocity of Arthur's hold, no matter how momentary that had been.
"I sent her out to search for the son, Cynric." Tristan leaned over Gawain and kissed the other man, then slipped off the bed and walked back to the door. "He would be the one that actually hired the assassin."
"Most likely." Uncertainty grated the ends off Lancelot's nerves and left them singing with rawness, and all the more so because the questions were all ones he should have the answers to. If he couldn't even find two bastard traitors in his own city, then what good was he? "He's probably not in town now that it's obvious the attempt failed. But they'll have to come in at some point. They have to kill Arthur in person if they want to take over."
Shrugging, Tristan leaned against the other side of the doorway and tucked his hands into his trouser pockets. "There would still be traces in the city, which might lead to them. I'm-I'd like to go down into the east side later."
As polite as the man was being now, Tristan still had bits of his earlier aggression leaking out from the edges of his composure. He looked as if he were mentally plotting out the quickest way to hunt and gut his opponents.
On the other hand, enough rationality had returned to his eyes for him to be sensible, which after all was his usual attitude. Lancelot weighed the consequences of Tristan losing his temper against their need to find some kind of trail, then factored in the effort it'd take to keep Tristan confined inside. "All right. But keep your head down, and the bodies out of sight. And if you're not here when Gawain wakes up, no one's going to make excuses for you."
The last point struck home, making the determination in Tristan's gaze flicker a little. But then the other man merely nodded and swiveled himself into the hallway, undoubtedly going to stock up on ammunition before he went out. As he disappeared down the staircase, Guinevere and Merlin appeared at the other end of the hallway and came on towards Lancelot.
Of course, now that Lancelot had finished dealing with one strained conversation, what he needed was another one.
"Where's Arthur?" Guinevere asked.
"Do I look like I know? I thought you were with him." She'd certainly managed to recover the fastest from Arthur's strange behavior, Lancelot grumbled to himself as he yanked at his tie. Perhaps the ability to do an excellent imitation of an ice queen was useful from the short-term point of view, but in his opinion, it was useless in the long run. The more collected Guinevere's response was to something, the worse her later explosion was going to be. For his part, he'd rather just admit that he was feeling strangled and nervous and unsure rather than bottle it up.
The temperature of her gaze suddenly rose several notches. Guinevere poked her head inside the bedroom, and when she noticed that Tristan had gone, her considering look turned into a full-fledged glare. "Arthur was with us, but he left a few minutes ago. And where's Tristan?"
"I let him go investigate in the eastern districts." The air insisted on thickening instead of letting itself be quietly sucked into Lancelot's lungs, so he tugged again at his tie.
"You what? Goddamn it, Lancelot-you know what happens to Tristan when Gawain is hurt. Are you out of your mind?" Too quick for him to intercept, she grabbed him by the lapels and slammed him back against the wall. "Do you want more injured?"
He shoved her off, and would have tossed her into a chair if Merlin hadn't stepped between them. Thwarted, Lancelot had to settle for merely matching the sharpness of his voice to that of hers. "No, I don't, but if anyone had tried to keep Tristan in, there would've been more hurt anyway. And we need to find some sign of Cerdic. Badly."
"I know!" After aiming a half-hearted kick at Lancelot-which Merlin deftly blocked-Guinevere slumped against the opposite wall and stared at Lancelot's feet. "Stop pulling at your tie. You do that any more and you'll shred it."
Lancelot ignored her and turned on Merlin, determined to start getting some answers. "What did you do to Arthur?"
"I did nothing to him." The other man raised his eyebrows and gave Lancelot a contemptuous look, as if he was far too superior to be interrogated. Merlin had always been a bit at odds with everyone except Guinevere, and as far as Lancelot knew, the man had never given any reason to be judged otherwise. He was an arrogant, aloof son of a bitch who thought he was above everything.
"You did something. Arthur doesn't hold grudges for petty reasons." Surprisingly enough, Guinevere had abandoned the deference with which she usually treated her former guardian.
Her change in attitude caught Merlin off-guard as well, and for a moment, it looked as if another rift was going to be added to their growing collection. But Merlin refrained from responding with his usual hauteur, and he even seemed to withdraw within himself. A tiny smile, proud and reluctant, might have passed over his face.
"Hey, Lance." Oblivious as usual, Galahad bounced up the stairs and barged into the web of tension. Though when he did that, he usually didn't look as worried as he did now. "Why would Arthur go to the East End?"
Lancelot and Guinevere both spun to stare at him; startled, Galahad backed up and nearly fell off the step. "What?" Guinevere asked.
"He just left with Tristan-I think they said they were for Limehouse. And neither of them looked…ah…well, someone might want to go follow, even though Arthur said not to," Galahad mumbled. His eyes darted everywhere except Lancelot and Guinevere, finally settling on the still-sleeping Gawain. "Oh, the doctor's done? What'd he say?"
"Heavy blood loss, but nothing vital was hit," Lancelot muttered, pushing past the other man and swinging down the stairs. If he bent a few traffic laws and hit the backstreets, he probably could get into the district before Arthur and Tristan did. And then he was going to corner Arthur for a long talk if he had to wreck the entire city to do so. If nothing else, it was bad strategy for the leader to be constantly out of touch with everyone else.
Something snagged Lancelot's arm. He wrestled with it, but when he couldn't free his arm, he impatiently looked up. Guinevere was leaning over the rail, expression an odd mixture of envy and worry. "If I'm looking at three more visits from the doctor tonight, I'm blaming you."
"As usual. I know what I'm doing. Now let go." When she did, Lancelot went down another step, then came back up. He grabbed for her hand and pulled her down so the others wouldn't overhear. "Get Merlin to talk."
She couldn't refuse if he wasn't there to be refused, so immediately after speaking, Lancelot let go and hurried down the stairs. He paused only to grab his coat and keys, then headed for the door.
As far as Arthur was concerned, the underbelly of one city was no different from that of another. If one wanted to know about the real story behind the latest high-society happenings, one didn't go equally as high, but rather as low as possible. Since he currently wanted to know about Cerdic, he therefore went to the east slums.
He supposed he could have asked Lancelot or Guinevere, but he doubted that they would know about the sort of thing about which he needed to ask. Considering that Merlin hadn't even told Guinevere the truth about his relations with Arthur's parents, it was obvious that he'd kept a good deal from her, and he patently disliked Lancelot.
The car rasped like a roused drunk as Tristan turned down another street of sooty walls and crackled pavement. "Whitechapel is where I want to start."
"I was told that you and Gawain had grown close, but I didn't realize you'd partnered off," Arthur said, shaking himself back to awareness. He'd been lax in taking up his duties as Holder, and it showed: he hadn't even known that Guinevere had regarded him as anything other than a kind of older brother, and later on, the head-to-be of the Round. It still didn't make sense why a young, beautiful and intelligent woman like herself would bother with a man she barely knew. Moreover, what she did know of Arthur should've led her to believe him an irresponsible, selfish coward. "Then again, he always insisted on looking for you when you were late to dinner. I don't suppose you remember-"
"I do. We were children for less time than you think." Tristan casually put his arm out the window, then brought it back in as if it were suddenly weighed down with something.
And when Arthur looked for another second, he saw that it was, in fact, holding up a magnificent hawk that shimmered in and out of visibility. He couldn't help but smile. "So you kept that up, after all. I'd wondered. You were all so young when I left…"
"I wanted to thank you for teaching me how to catch her kind, but Uther wouldn't permit it." The rapidly-dimming light striped Tristan in shadow and black, but between the irregular patterns, his eyes shone with genuine sincerity. Then he looked back at the road and steered the car one-handed to the curb. "We weren't so young that we'd forget fifteen years with you."
"Fifteen years and longer being reared to serve me. That's something my father and I never agreed on; some of the things he wanted to do-" Arthur cut off that train of thought before it could make him forget that Uther was dead and beyond either retribution or forgiveness. In some ways, his father's senility at the end had been a curse, but in some ways it was also a blessing. Not everything was better off with a neatly-tied end, and clear resolutions could ruin as much as they could reconcile.
The two men sat in the car for a few moments, simply feeling the past close around the car. It was a difficult experience to avoid in London, seeing as the city was a haphazard layering of ages, with history springing out from the most unexpected corners.
At last, Tristan shifted to murmur to his hawk, which slowly faded until even Arthur couldn't see it. Then Tristan put his apparently empty arm out the window again and wingbeats fluttered away. "Arthur, it was you who raised us in the end-not your father. We follow your rule, and not his."
Eleven years of pretending not to feel the ache of ragged edges around a deep hole, of forcing himself to speak in shallow pleasantries and to ignore the deep longing that colored his dreams and stole the flavor from his food. Rome had been a wonderful, fascinating place-but in seven years, it had never come close to holding him. The moment Arthur had set foot in London again, the familiarity had surged into the hollow inside of him and overflowed him with a ferocity that constantly kept breaking the dikes with which he used to contain it. He wanted to talk. He wanted to remember. He wanted to plunge his hands into the times he'd missed, scoop them out of history and bind them into himself.
Except he couldn't. He'd already let his tongue run enough without much care for the consequences, and now he had a threat to confront and people to protect. If he wanted to make up for his past missteps, then he'd best start concentrating.
"This is just a vacant lot," Tristan said, glancing out the window. "Are you sure the address is right?"
"Yes. Come back at two. In the morning." Arthur took a deep breath, then swung open the door and took his first real step as the head of the Round. "And Tristan?"
Already reaching for the brake lever, the other man paused. He looked faintly surprised by the change in Arthur's tone.
"If you have anything in mind besides tracking, abandon it now. I'll not have private vendettas going on; when we act, we act together. Understand?" Though Arthur knew very well how shaky his grasp on his new role still was, he nevertheless tried to project an unwavering front that would brook no disagreement.
Tristan stared back with opaque eyes that revealed little, but the absence of immediate acquiescence was glaring enough. Arthur put one hand on the car door and positioned himself to get back in, should the other man try to take off; Tristan's eyes flicked to Arthur's hand, then went back to Arthur's face.
A little of the steel went out of Tristan's face, and suddenly he was draped in the shade of the quiet, retiring youth Arthur recalled. "Understood."
"You can't take Cerdic," Arthur told him in as gentle a tone as possible. "And losing a loved one in trade for revenge is never a fair deal; I don't know Gawain as well as I'd like, but somehow I think he'd agree."
"And Cynric?" Tristan asked, offhandedly intense.
Arthur took a moment to judge the other man's strength, then allowed himself a shrug as he stepped back from the car. "Find him first. Then we'll see."
While Tristan drove away, Arthur stared at the rusted, half-hung gate that dangled drunkenly in front of him. As the other man had said, it was nothing more than a vacant lot. But all Arthur needed now was a doorway.
And all he had to do in order to step through it was accept all elements of his position: bright and dark, life-giving and death-dealing, law-making and law-breaking. He hadn't done this yet, and as long as he didn't, he could still pretend that he was free to make his own decisions. If he crossed this threshold, then he always had to think of the Round before he thought of himself.
In point of fact, Arthur wasn't thinking of himself, but of Guinevere and Lancelot turning to each other in the restaurant courtyard, and doing so as easily as they bickered. He was remembering the story his father had shouted out at him, the night before Arthur had enlisted in the army, and he was remembering the way he'd dreamed every night in Rome of dark hair, dark eyes and white smiles.
He hadn't been free in a very, very long time, he now knew. It was far easier than he'd thought to take those few steps…and then he was in the mists, pungency of crushed grass staining his nose and a pack of white hounds with red ears gamboling about his feet. Arthur reached down and caressed the head of one, then sent them flying off in all directions to seek the scent of betrayal.
Guinevere locked the door to the library, then deliberately seated herself across from Merlin instead of next to him, where she usually sat because no one else would. She crossed her legs and rested her hands in her lap, then waited.
"I was hoping that I would be dead before you needed to know," Merlin said. The straight set of his shoulders abruptly bent with a weariness that wasn't entirely due to the onset of age, for he was in excellent health. "But that, I see, was asking too much."
"Arthur hates you. I didn't know-but when he spoke of you earlier today, his eyes were clear for the first time, and I could see that." She was babbling a little because she was so uncomfortable with the situation; it wasn't anything new that Merlin was roundly disliked, but Guinevere had never seen Arthur show a fraction of the pure loathing he had in the restaurant courtyard about anything. Even when he'd spoken of his father. And there weren't two men in the world that she loved more than she loved him and Merlin.
Something very like regret flashed over Merlin's face as he nodded. "He's become everything I hoped he would be, and so I wish that things had not happened as they did. If you decide to never speak to me again after I tell you this, I will understand."
As that was the last thing Guinevere had expected to hear, she didn't have a response ready.
"I tried to kill him." Merlin sat back and continued to regard her with eerie steadiness while Guinevere merely gaped, unable to understand the simple statement.
"Factually speaking, I tried to kill his mother, but the effect would have been the same. Igraine forgave me in the end, but Uther never did, and it was Uther who related this to Arthur. One thing you should remember, though-I swear by the ravens of the Tower and the flow of the Thames that I didn't know she was pregnant with Arthur at the time."
A few words finally managed to croak out of Guinevere's mouth. "Would it have mattered if you had?"
The smile on Merlin's face was crooked with pride twisted round with irony. "I've taught you too well, if that's your first question. Probably not. I didn't know him then, and I…you know that there's always three that rule London: Scepter, Crown and Holder. It doesn't have to be that way, but it's most stable divided so."
"Holder can rule alone," Guinevere slowly said, her reason beginning to come back to life.
"It might be possible, but the farthest anyone has gotten is Holder and Crown or Scepter, with the third dropping back. Uther…it's a long, convoluted tale, but the gist is that he and I fell out just before he fell in love with Igraine." Old, old pain settled into the wrinkles around Merlin's eyes and mouth, shading him with an uncharacteristic but no less real frailty. "You won't believe me, but I loved him. And I was young enough to think force could settle anything-it's a common failing of Scepters, but that's no excuse."
As he'd predicted, Guinevere couldn't picture the men she knew together in any kind of gentle relationship, no matter how she tried. In fact, she couldn't see Merlin in that sense at all; as long as she'd known him, he'd never shown the slightest interest in anyone. One of Lancelot's nicer nicknames for Merlin was 'The Monk,' and for good reason.
"I didn't know she was the Crown for our generation till it was almost too late. London came within a hairsbreadth of falling, and even now, I don't know how Uther held it together. I know he was cruel in his last years, but when he was young…" Merlin sighed and Guinevere looked away before she could identify the emotion that birthed that sigh. She had enough of a queasy feeling from just trying to picture Merlin in bed with someone. "Igraine never fully recovered, and she died much earlier than she should have."
"While Uther had to keep you around, even though he detested you." An avalanche of tiny and large incongruities that had accumulated over the span of Guinevere's life suddenly explained themselves. "And he wanted to make sure that that would never happen again."
For the first time since they'd started talking, a shadow of the old, didactic Merlin reappeared. "We both wanted to make sure that history wouldn't repeat itself. That's why you and Lancelot were identified early. That's why I've never approved of him; he's egotistical enough to act like I did."
"You've always underestimated him," Guinevere unthinkingly snapped. "That's why he always managed to outthink you."
Merlin blinked, at a loss for words. He cleared his throat and peered at Guinevere, searching for something, and then he laughed. "You're defending him. Good."
"I am not!" As soon as she spoke, Guinevere blushed and dropped her head in her hands, kicking herself. She supposed it was a measure of how rattled she was. "All right, I suppose I am. But it's true that he'd never hurt Arthur, and he knows perfectly well that Arthur-feels something for me. God knows what…one moment Arthur is holding me like…and the rest of the afternoon he's as distant as the stars. And running off to the East End without explaining a damned thing."
Wincing, Merlin glanced down at his hands. "Mine and Uther's quarrel ended up scarring Arthur's entire life. I have a feeling that when Uther finally told this story to Arthur, he also tried to make Arthur choose one of you."
"Choose?" Guinevere swallowed against the instinct screaming in her throat, and prayed that she was wrong.
"Uther always was one for the irreversible decision. And Arthur was always uncommonly devoted to responsibility; I can't think of any other reason why he'd run from London, if not to protect someone else." Merlin's lips curved once more, but this time it was a resigned ghost of a smile. "He's like his mother that way. And I suppose you want me to leave now."
In truth, Guinevere didn't know. What she needed was several hours of quiet contemplation without any external worries to compete for her attention, but she clearly wasn't going to have a chance at that any time soon. The best she could do, she finally decided, was go with the feeling, and work out the thought later.
"No. I don't really want to see much of you now, but I don't want you to leave. What you did-it's not going to matter. I won't let it. You and Uther have done enough, and now that Uther's dead, I'm not going to let it continue," she said, measuring out each word. "We aren't you and Arthur's parents. We're too old now for your interference."
"Yes. For better or for worse, you're free now." Slow as the sunset, Merlin stood up and bowed. Then he walked out, leaving Guinevere alone to think.
It only took her five minutes to make up her mind as to what to do next. She went from the library straight to Gawain's bedroom, where she found that Bors and Dagonet had joined Galahad. "Bors, Dagonet, stay here and guard the house. Merlin's downstairs if you need him. Galahad, come on. We're going east."
"Popular direction tonight," Galahad quipped. "Are you bringing along the rifle or the daggers?"
"Why not both?" she countered in a light tone. "Now get going."
As it turned out, Lancelot arrived in time to go through the entire east side and definitively establish that Arthur was not, in fact, there. He did find Tristan in Whitechapel-thus proving that Galahad was either a bad message-carrier or truly terrible at geography-but no Arthur.
"I was about to go pick him up," Tristan calmly informed Lancelot. "And I didn't tell you before because you were yelling too loudly to hear."
"Well, I see you're back to normal. How many?" Lancelot irritably swung himself into the car and slammed the door.
Since he wasn't expecting an answer, Tristan gave him one. "Five. Cynric and Cerdic have split forces; I don't know where Cerdic's gone, but Cynric will be up near Highgate in a week."
"Great. As soon as I go beat my head against the wall that's Arthur's idiocy, we can swing up and kill the fucking bastard." It was more very early morning now than night, so everything was grasping shadows that the glare of the headlights sliced into concrete shapes. Consequently, Lancelot had to squint if he wanted to see anything, which did nothing for his migraine.
At least Guinevere should've wormed out all of Merlin's secrets; Lancelot had felt her prowling through the East End, and she wouldn't have been there if she hadn't settled things with Merlin. The girl was thorough and cunning like that…and yes, Lancelot did admire her for it. He amended his earlier conclusion about her cold act to admit that it could produce some useful results, though it still wasn't very healthy.
Actually, Arthur was the perfect example of that. He spent years acting as if Lancelot was nothing more than a friendly acquaintance, and then in five seconds that had all disintegrated. Not that that had stopped Arthur from trying to start that routine all over again immediately afterward.
"My God, why do I put up with this?" Lancelot muttered, slouching down in his seat till his head sank beneath the dashboard.
That and Tristan's uncanny reflexes were what saved him, because a second later the car filled with brilliant white light and bullets shattered the windshield on Lancelot's side. Tristan instantly dropped down and threw the car into the highest possible acceleration.
They tore down the road and side-swiped the oncoming car as it belatedly tried to swerve out of the way; their car jerked and nearly tipped, but the second one went on to crash into a building. Red flooded the night, and the sound of the explosion deafened Lancelot for several seconds.
By the time he could hear again, they were already three blocks away. Expression apparently unchanged, Tristan had climbed back into the driver's seat and was serenely guiding them down what Lancelot hoped was a detour, because-"Damn it. One of us had a fucking tail."
"You did. I killed mine." Tristan shrugged off his jacket and offered it to Lancelot. "Bundle up the broken glass in that; it's bloody anyway."
"I'm never going to understand how this works. You and Gawain…Arthur and I and Guinevere," Lancelot reluctantly added. He did as Tristan suggested, and was surprised to see that his hands were shaking. Two attempts in one day-and both Arthur and Guinevere were out on the town. "Fuck! Tristan-"
He was going to order the other man to go towards Guinevere, who was currently nosing about on a route parallel to theirs, but Tristan abruptly slammed on the brakes and the subsequent lurch jerked the words right out of Lancelot's mouth. It nearly filled Lancelot's face with glass shards as well, but he threw up Tristan's coat in time and fended those off. Then he sat up and was preparing to give Tristan a piece of his mind when the door was suddenly wrenched open.
"Alive…" choked from eyes bright with darkness.
And then Lancelot was out of the car and pinned up against it instead, finger-vises cutting off the blood to his arms and heaving breath sinking into his neck. Arthur slumped against him, shuddering.
"That…that wasn't where I dropped him off." For once, Tristan sounded stunned.
It was a shame Lancelot was too busy to gloat over that. He pulled at his arms, first gently and then roughly, but that only made Arthur tighten his grip, which in turn forced Lancelot to bite down on his lip in order to not pass out from the pain.
It was a bad idea to stand around in the street like they were, so Lancelot scrabbled around behind himself till he caught the edge of the front passenger seat and shoved it down an inch. Tristan caught on and moved it so Lancelot could drag himself and Arthur into the backseat, then pulled the door shut and started the car.
"Arthur, let go. I'm not dead, but I'm going to lose a limb if you don't…come on. Let go." Lancelot rubbed his palms over as much of the other man as he could reach, hoping to soothe Arthur out of-well, whatever this mood was. To be honest, he'd never seen anyone act like this, let alone someone that was normally as restrained as Arthur.
Then again, the lunchtime attempt had seemed to do…break something inside Arthur. Maybe he was still-
Arthur lifted his head, and Lancelot froze, because what he saw was too much. Too intense, too human and too distant all at once for him to do anything except allow it to flood him. It was like the concentrated humanity of the whole of London, brought to bear only on him.
"All I need is a gate," Arthur said, very distinctly. His voice echoed itself, as if he was standing in an empty auditorium. "It's a place of exchange."
Then Lancelot understood, and then he was angry. He reached as far in as he could, but Arthur was still closed to him. "Goddamn it, get out of him. Arthur-fuck, Arthur, shut it out. You're not London, remember? You hold it, but you and it aren't the same."
"He must have extended himself too far," commented Tristan. "That's why there's three."
"And you don't think I know that?" Lancelot hissed. He focused for a moment, then wriggled around till he got Arthur on the seat. "Drive to the Nine Doors. I just told Guinevere to meet us there. And ignore what I'm doing."
Given that Arthur still had a vicious grip on Lancelot's forearms, it was awkward as hell, but Lancelot managed to get down on his knees. Once there, he nudged Arthur's knees apart with his head, and then…he closed his eyes and rested his forehead against one warm thigh, trying not to be sick. Of all the ways he'd wanted to do this, the current circumstances had never even crossed his mind.
A moment later, Lancelot raised his head and undid Arthur's fly with his teeth before he could think anymore. Good thing he'd had practice with this-and that little particle of himself sounded far too much like Guin. At least he'd also had practice ignoring that.
Whatever was going on inside Arthur at the moment, it didn't affect bodily responses at all. His cock started rising at the first suck, and it was barely five minutes later that Lancelot was swallowing down thick saltiness. It tasted like death.
He was so preoccupied with that that it took him several seconds to notice that his arms had been released. Lancelot went still again, then backed off without looking up, or watching as hands fumbled the fly shut again. "I'm sorry. If there'd been any other way to shock you out of it-you probably want to kill me now. You can, if you want."
Tristan hissed a breath, but Lancelot could barely hear that because he'd been ripped upwards again, this time by the wrists. But it was definitely Arthur that was staring back at him, horrified and furious and…and shoving Lancelot against the door so he could ravage Lancelot's mouth.
"Don't you ever, ever offer me that again," the other man rasped, chewing his way across Lancelot's lips. His tongue shoved into the center of Lancelot's surprised moan and eviscerated it into helpless whimpers, while his fingers stroked restless caresses over Lancelot's wrists. "Ever. Do you understand me?"
"That-then you forgive me for-for taking advantage-fuck, I'm dressing it up like a politician. For-" Lancelot flung his head back in an attempt to free his mouth for speech, but Arthur simply moved his relentless assault to Lancelot's throat. "-for ra-"
His mouth was taken again, and by the time it was released, he was barely capable of breathing. "That wasn't what you did. I-damn it, can't even explain-damn London. But you didn't hurt me. Understand? And don't ever-"
"I know, I know, I won't." And relief surged against the lust raging down Lancelot's veins, turning him into so much mindless thrashing turmoil. He still wasn't convinced, still didn't understand, and he just couldn't think the one time he needed to.
But Arthur was taking care of that. He was systematically pinning down Lancelot, forcing a pattern onto Lancelot's disorganized reactions, and simplifying everything. Mouth scraping down jaw equaled a shiver, prick grinding against leg was white and red streaks in the brain. The burning pain of Lancelot's bruised forearms softened and spread to prickle through his entire body as he was bent and molded and remade to whatever Arthur wanted.
He barely registered the shift of his wrists to one hand, but the feeling of five fingers sliding down the front of his trousers nearly shocked the bones from his skin. Arthur curled his thumb behind Lancelot's balls and pressed up, then swallowed the groan that lacerated its way out of Lancelot's mouth. Then he wrapped his fingers around Lancelot's cock and held Lancelot there, held at the wrists, held at the mouth and slowly stole Lancelot's soul for himself. With what cooperation Lancelot could provide, given that he was slightly less than conscious.
By the time Lancelot regained full awareness, they'd stopped and Tristan had stepped out of the car. Arthur's face was tucked into Lancelot's neck again, and he was breathing so slowly that Lancelot was suddenly terrified he'd lost himself again. "Arthur?"
"If anything about this was normal, that would have been forcing me, and I would want to kill you. Except none of it is. I've helped cover up at least two killings today, and I'll certainly have to help cover up more. Because if I didn't, I'd lose you and Guinevere. And I can't do that." Another breath, and then Arthur slid off and wiped off his hand with a handkerchief. He got them out of the car, then sat back down on the edge of the seat with his legs on the pavement and his head nearly between his knees, as if he was near fainting. "I can't do this. I thought I could, but I can't."
"Can't what?" Lancelot squatted down and tried to angle himself so he could see exactly what was going on in Arthur's mind, but as soon as he put his hands on Arthur's knees, a hand wrapped around his neck and pulled him in. His face ended up pressed into Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur's mouth was slowly moving over the side of his cheek.
When the other man spoke, he sounded like he was continuing a long, scarring argument with someone else. "I can't choose, and I can't do this alone. London's getting too deep into me."
"We can't make you choose," said Guinevere from the side. Without losing contact with Arthur, Lancelot twisted around to see her; it looked as if she'd been there for a while. Strangely enough, she seemed much less upset than she should have been about not being first. "Arthur. We won't make you choose."
"What-" Lancelot started.
Before he could finish, she was down beside him and hissing fiercely in his ear. "Follow my lead, or he's gone. Merlin-his parents-damn them to hell."
Arthur had leaned back to take in Guinevere, and now he swept a hand through her hair, brushing the tendrils back from her face. His mouth was twisted into a grimace, but his eyes seemed to be pleading for something. Understanding, maybe. "So he did tell you."
"Yes, he did. What he knew, anyway." Guinevere turned her face into Arthur's stroking and grazed a kiss over the inside of his wrist. His resulting shiver trembled the hand he still had on Lancelot's neck, making the skin tingle. "It's all right, Arthur. I wouldn't-" she swallowed hard and gave Lancelot a curious look "-I can share."
An elbow thudded into Lancelot's ribs and nearly knocked him over. He glared at Guinevere, who pointedly looked at Arthur. "I have no idea what's going on, but I'd like to mention that if I truly wanted to kill Guin, I would've done it when she was small enough to bury in the backyard. That would've saved a lot of trouble."
No one laughed, or glowered in disapproval. But the fingers on Lancelot's nape tightened, and Arthur tugged Guinevere up to kiss her. His eyes squeezed shut, almost as if he were in pain, and she was oddly tender compared with her normal attitude.
Watching them didn't hurt, Lancelot was surprised to find. It did make him feel awkward and out-of-place, but when he dropped his gaze, a thumb curled under his chin and stroked it up again. Arthur was staring alternately at him and Guinevere with an intensity that flushed Lancelot's cheeks full of heat, and Guinevere had her head nestled against Arthur's shoulder. And somehow, that seemed right.
Galahad just wanted a straight answer from someone. Gawain shot, hitmen running around all over town, and everyone in the Round acting as if they had fever on the brain. "It'd be funny if it wasn't so damn worrying."
"You're worrying?" Having chased off the barman, Tristan poured out three glasses of whiskey and lined them up on the bar, then slipped into the chair beside Galahad.
"Of course I'm worrying! You never mentioned that Arthur came back less than sane. Or that whatever he's got is catching," Galahad snapped, ripping his tie loose. He tossed it and his hat at the far wall, but that did little to relieve the frenzied rippling of anxiety inside him. What would have been nice was a good, long barfight, but at this time of night-early morning-not even the drunks were out.
Tristan had apparently gotten the restless frustration worked out of his system, because his response was to idly gaze at the door. "He's perfectly sane. So are Lance and Guin. It's the life that's insane."
As Galahad didn't understand that at all, he opened his mouth to demand an explanation. The sound that actually came out resembled more the croak of a strangled frog.
Lancelot didn't bother looking at him, which wasn't anything unusual. But even after his most infamous New Year's Eve bar crawl, Lancelot had never looked as…well, mauled as he did at the moment. Tie and hat completely gone, coat off both shoulders and half his shirt buttons ripped off, while his shirttails crumpled down his legs. He had fresh bruises on his wrists-and many more elsewhere, to judge by the way he was moving-bloody lips that were so swollen it seemed like just a breeze touching them would hurt, and his hair was a complete disaster.
Guinevere closely followed behind him, her mouth slightly bruised and dark circles dappling the flesh around each eye. Her appearance was passable, but she normally didn't watch Lancelot as if she was concerned about him, and she almost never blushed. The brightness in her eyes was blinding.
Galahad and Tristan sat in silence as the other two staggered up to the bar and each took a glass of whiskey, which they downed in one swallow. A half-second later, Lancelot winced and pressed fingers to his mouth; he was clearly in pain, but he didn't seem too upset about it. "So we're not fighting anymore."
"Not over that, no," Guinevere agreed. She lit herself a cigarette and smoked it with an uncharacteristic fury. "You're still more of a bitch than most women."
"And you're still more of a bastard than most men." When Lancelot tried to light himself a cigarette, his hands were shaking too much to get the flame to the tip. The cigarette itself dangled dangerously low from his lip for a few seconds, then dropped when he winced.
With a long-suffering sigh, Guinevere took her cigarette out of its holder and held it up to Lancelot's lips so he could take a drag. She leaned against the bar and curved into his side, then failed to protest when he put an arm around her waist. "I think we knew it was going to end up this way," she muttered. "By the way, no killing Merlin. You owe me for not throwing a fit about not being first."
"I owe you shit," Lancelot chuckled, ducking his head for another drag. "You would've done the same thing if you'd gotten to Arthur before me. But-wait, why are you asking me about Merlin? What'd he do?"
Guinevere helped herself to a long suck of smoke before she turned and whispered into Lancelot's ear. It was interesting to see the emotions flit and twitch over Lancelot's face, but his sudden jerk backwards and horrified, furious look came damned close to scaring Galahad off his chair. "He what? Goddamn it, if Uther wasn't dead already, I'd-"
"Except he is dead," from the doorway. Arthur finally came in, last remnants of some casting flickering about his fingers. He walked up to the bar with the tentative, overly-careful steps of a child that had just learned how and picked up the last glass, which he drank very slowly while Lancelot and Guinevere stared at him as if he were the sun. "He's dead and he was my father, if nothing else. He did what he believed was right."
"Which was both wrong and stupid," Guinevere mumbled. She stubbed out her cigarette and crossed her arms over her chest, just about sulking. "I hope you realize we're not them."
A strange, almost amused smile passed over Arthur's face. He glanced down into his whiskey, then finished it off in one go. "No, you're not. That's easy to see, but hard to understand right away."
"Well, we can work on that," Lancelot said. He gave his ruined clothing a mock-disgusted look. "Somewhere else. I'm not going to be able to go outside for at least two days."
"Vain jackass." Guinevere made as if to smack Lancelot, but stopped at the last moment.
He, however, took the attempt seriously and dodged back into Arthur, who pivoted without looking and grabbed Lancelot by the waist, pulling them together. Lancelot lost his balance and ended up half-slumped over the bar, twisted around so he could grin up at Arthur. "Here might not be too bad."
For the first time since Galahad had seen him, Arthur smiled without a trace of shadow. It transformed the man into something that glowed, and suddenly Galahad could understand exactly why everyone else seemed to gravitate so easily towards Arthur. "You're hopeless," Arthur murmured.
"That's what I keep telling him, but he never listens." Rolling her eyes, Guinevere went up to Arthur's other side and hooked an arm through his free one.
He looked at her, and Galahad could have sworn that the air around the three of them changed. But then everything was as it had been, and Arthur was turning serious again. "We need to get back-to go home. I know where Cerdic is."
Lancelot looked mutinous, but only for a moment. Then he was up off the bar, flinching and hissing, and grudgingly moving towards the door. When Arthur didn't immediately follow, Lancelot stopped and glanced back, face surprisingly vulnerable for him.
Arthur said something with his eyes again and gently directed Guinevere toward Lancelot, but stayed back. Tristan suddenly got up and ambled after those two, leaving Galahad to hastily stand and face Arthur.
"I suppose you don't remember me at all," Arthur said, regarding Galahad. "You were only in London for two summers before I left for the army, and you were barely older than Guinevere."
"She seems to remember you well enough." Galahad wasn't sure exactly what he was supposed to be doing, or even what he was supposed to be thinking. He was by far not one of the people with which Arthur needed to concern himself. Not that Galahad minded, because he didn't; he wasn't the kind who liked being in the middle of everything, and he hated complications. "Honestly, I don't. I remember who you are, and that you were always looking after Lance and Guin, but other than that-no."
He must have let some of his confusion show, because Arthur's expression shifted to reassuring. "There's nothing wrong with that. I didn't expect you to. But…though you don't know me, I hope that you'll wait till you do before you pass any judgments. I don't pretend to be perfect, but I also don't intend to fail in my responsibilities."
And Arthur appeared to be worried about Galahad. Instead of making everything clear, this realization only muddied Galahad's mind even more, and he struggled for the correct response. In the end, he gave up on trying to sound polite and just said what felt right. "I don't really know you, but I know what everyone else thinks of you. And if someone like Lancelot or Tristan trusts you…then that's good enough for me. I won't let you down."
The gratitude in Arthur's face was surprising enough to make Galahad look away, his discomfort growing by leaps and bounds. A hand, however, inserted itself into his vision; after a moment of stupid bewilderment, he took it and gave it a firm shake.
"Let's go home, then," Arthur said. "Time to settle accounts with Cerdic."
When the bed dipped under another's weight, Gawain had just finished counting the number of swirls in the ceiling plaster. He levered himself up just in time to watch Tristan freeze, and to hear an invisible thing perch on the chair next to the bed.
"You're up," Tristan finally said.
"Yes, I am. And you were out running around the east side because of some stupid idea about avenging me, weren't you? I talked to Bors." Gawain ran his hands over Tristan, feeling for any injuries and smelling for anyone's blood. The other man must have washed up before coming in, because his clothes were pristine and the most Gawain found were a few bruises. Relieved, he pulled Tristan all the way onto the bed and hooked his arm around the other man so Tristan couldn't sneak away. "Idiot. I'm not even close to dead."
Breath whuffed into Gawain's neck, and a hand felt its way around his waist, careful not to jar the bullet wound. "I was tracking down Cynric."
"Take it you found him, since you're back." Dawn was just beginning to filter through the curtains, and Gawain was beginning to feel his fatigue exert itself.
"I know where he is, but no, I didn't go after him. Not tonight." Tristan nuzzled his way down Gawain's neck, then rumpled the blankets aside so he could get beneath them. He let Gawain pull up his wrists and undo the cuffs, while in the corner feathers rustled. "Arthur has some kind of plan."
That made Gawain stop and blink. "Since when did you follow anyone else's plan? And don't give me that look-you're just as recalcitrant as Lancelot, for all that you're less obvious about it."
By the sound of Tristan's breath, he was already falling asleep. On the one hand, Gawain was relieved because that meant the other man had calmed down enough to be sensible again, but on the other hand, that meant Tristan was back to being annoyingly vague. "I don't follow people that don't make sense. He does. And apparently, he feels as much for Lancelot and Guinevere as they do him."
And Gawain forgot about the gunshot wound and sat up far too fast. He hissed and grabbed at his stomach, then shoved down Tristan's head when the other man reached for him. "I'm fine. And what the hell do you mean? Arthur actually fucked them?"
"You sound like Galahad," mumbled lips against Gawain's palm. When Gawain lifted his hand, Tristan was staring serenely up as if the world hadn't just been flipped sideways. "And sitting in the backseat before I have time to clean it would be a bad idea."
"Do I want details?" Gawain spoke sharply, but in truth he was already more than halfway reconciled to the surprise revelation. After all, the last thing they needed was a divided leadership.
Tristan rolled over and made Gawain lie back again, then refitted himself against Gawain's side. "Arthur tried to go it alone and ended up nearly losing himself in London. Lancelot brought him back, the backseat was…soiled…and Guinevere came in just in time for them to make some kind of agreement. So now Arthur has enough support to keep him from doing anything stupid."
"We hope, anyway. If he's much like you when I get a scratch…" Gawain muttered, combing his fingers through Tristan's hair. He ran his thumb over the cheek scars, grinning a little when Tristan pressed into the touch. "How do you know all this?"
"I was driving." Fingers slipped around Gawain's free hand and curled tight. "And you were more than scratched."
The urges to kiss the life out of Tristan and to slap the sense back into him were both equally strong, so it was impossible to choose between the two of them. Instead, Gawain finally just held onto the other man. "You are such a…except I'd probably do the same thing if I were you. And stop looking so damned surprised, you blockhead."
Tristan dropped his gaze, but as far as Gawain could tell, his expression didn't change. "There's something going on about Merlin and Uther as well, but I didn't hear that part. I don't think this is settled yet."
"But you said Arthur gave in?" When the other man nodded, Gawain let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. "Well, that takes care of it, then. However much a hand Uther and Merlin had in driving off Arthur, it doesn't matter. Lance and Guin are much too stubborn to give up once they think they've got a chance."
"They were trying before they even knew they had one," Tristan agreed. "Oh-there was another attempt. This time on Lancelot."
Gawain closed his eyes and tried not to think about how Tristan might know that, though he couldn't stop himself from leaning down and breathing in the scent of the other man's hair. His side was beginning to throb around the stitches, so he shifted a little, which didn't help. "Fuck."
Hands drifted down his chest and sides, and expertly helped move him till the strain eased back a little. They also started a low tingling between Gawain's legs, which he determinedly ignored as he knew perfectly well he wasn't up to it. The frustration, however, was a bit slower to go away; he forced himself to think on other things in an attempt to distract himself.
"Why does Cerdic keep going after Guinevere and Lancelot?" he asked as thoughts abruptly came together. "He has to kill Arthur if he wants London. And of course he knows that Guin and Lance are set on Arthur, but he shouldn't know that Arthur reciprocates."
Tristan went very still, then sat up. "No, he shouldn't. Arthur never showed any affection that was deeper than friendship till a few days ago…and when the three were all separated, it still wasn't Arthur that was targeted. Why…"
"You said Arthur tried to hold London all by himself? Or tried to do something with London without getting help from Guin or Lancelot?" Gawain used Tristan's shoulder to help himself sit up, thinking. This kind of reasoning wasn't precisely his forte, but no one could spend much time as part of the Round without picking up a few things. "And London nearly took him over?"
"Those that the gods would destroy are first driven insane," Tristan muttered, staring into space. "It's the same result whether Arthur loses the other two because of himself or because of someone else."
And it was too damned late-early-what-have-you-for Gawain to be having realizations of this magnitude. As worried as he was, his mind was simply too tired to work through all the ramifications to the very end. "I don't think you got the quote right."
"If that's the case, then it shouldn't be a weakness now. Arthur…reacted very badly to the assassination attempts," Tristan added, falling back on the bed. He reached out and had Gawain do the same, then curled up so his hair fell over his face. "He should be fine as long as he keeps the other two with him."
Gawain made a face and tugged the blankets over them. Once he'd done that, he turned away from the increasingly bright light pouring over the windowsill and determinedly settled himself in for a good long nap. "Which he's been doing a poor job of, so far. Good thing he's not the only stubborn one, because I hate getting shot."
Tristan didn't answer. A little worried, Gawain brushed the hair out of the other man's face, only to find that Tristan had fallen asleep. With a last sigh, Gawain burrowed down and imitated the other man.