|Causality I: Effect
Author: Guede Mazaka
If his fingers were to start falling off, Lancelot doubted that he’d notice. It’d been more than an hour since he could feel anything below his wrists, which were still tied behind his back, and if he were honest with himself, it’d been even longer since he could feel much inside. Which made it all the more painful to watch Arthur pace back and forth in the small room, living and furious and afire.
“I can’t understand…” he kept saying. By then, he had always reached the end of the room, so his turn cut off the rest of his words.
Lancelot rolled his shoulders as best he could in an effort to relieve some of the strain there. He dug his heels into the carpet and shoved himself back on the bed before he slid off, then winced as that flexed his arms in newly sore ways. “Can you take these off, at least? Christ, you don’t actually think I’m here to kill you, do you?”
“Right now, I’m not very sure of anyone.” Arthur stopped by the window and twitched aside the drapes with one finger, fast enough for it to look like just the breeze ruffling the curtains. But he knew and Lancelot knew that was plenty of time to check out the surroundings.
“Arthur. I came to warn you. In case you haven’t realized, Bill being dead means we’re at loose ends as well.” The idiot. Five years of feeling a hole in his side, one second of seeing the same scar in Arthur’s eyes, and Lancelot still ended up waiting for Arthur to figure that out. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered. “You trusted me enough for nine years—look, if it’s about that girl, I’m sorry. I thought she was one of Fatale’s bitches.”
As he breathed, Arthur’s shoulders rose and fell in a slightly irregular rhythm that didn’t bode well for his temper. He was more brittle than Lancelot remembered. Colder as well, with a frost over his eyes that hadn’t been there that memorable last time he had talked and Lancelot had yelled, and then—
--that had been stupid. It’d kept Lancelot from trying to find Arthur before, so unsure had he been of his welcome, and it was obviously weighing heavily on Arthur now. Lancelot had spent a lot of the intervening years imagining how he would explain himself and squirm back into Arthur’s good graces, but now that he had a chance, the words just wouldn’t come. He could feel his window of opportunity creaking closed, threatening to crush his fingers on the sill, but when he opened his mouth, nothing would come.
“I can kill. I can reach out and snap someone’s neck.” Arthur held up his hands and stared at the palms, then rubbed at a thick, ridged scar barring his left palm. The one mark on his body that Lancelot couldn’t seek revenge for. “But I couldn’t do that for someone like Bill—not after I found out what kind of man he truly was.”
“It took you so long? Arthur, I was fifteen when I figured out what he was up to.” The words and the tone made Lancelot wince, but not strongly enough to stop him from saying it. He curled his nails into his hands and tried to regain his balance, tried to think intelligently, but it felt like he had an electric wire running through him that wouldn’t stop shocking. His mouth was dry and his head hurt, and he wanted so badly to see if Arthur still tasted like salt-musk that it hurt to stare at the strip of Arthur’s neck that showed above the man’s collar.
Hopeless, Galahad called him on a regular basis. Well, the prick was right.
Arthur abruptly pushed himself back from the window and came to sit on the bed, less than a handspan between them. He folded his hands in his lap and bowed his head, as if praying. Once upon a time, he actually would have been praying, but by the time he had walked out on Bill’s organization, he’d lost faith in that. And he wasn’t the kind of man to try something that had burned him once before, Lancelot bitterly admitted.
“Call it a mistake of arrogance,” Arthur finally said. “I thought I could use Bill’s means for my own ends. It stopped working, and I’m fairly sure he wanted to have me killed. Beatrix offered to intervene, and she somehow convinced him to leave me alone after I left.”
“And were we part of that mistake?” The top few buttons had ripped off Lancelot’s shirt sometime in the past few hours, so he could feel the freezing air of the hotel room on his skin. He shivered, and in doing so, brushed a warmer patch of space. So he did the sensible thing and leaned into it. “Is that why you left us as well?”
Those eyes of Arthur’s were disarmingly soft most of the time, but when he wanted them to be, he could make them as explosive and piercing as bullets. As he did now, stabbing Lancelot with a violent green. “No, you weren’t. The one thing I didn’t regret was making sure you all made it to adulthood—I wish I hadn’t raised you to be assassins as well, but that’s…I didn’t want to leave you. But you wanted to stay, and I couldn’t do that.”
“You never asked! You just told me you were dropping out! Like—like it was school, or something. Goddamn it, Arthur, I didn’t think I had a choice! You were making the choices, not me.” Lancelot’s anger jerked him a little too far, and he over-extended himself, scrabbling too late for a handhold in the sheets.
Arms caught him. Hands wrapped around his shoulders, stroked down to his sides and pressed themselves to his ribs like Arthur wanted to leech what little heat he still had from him. But he couldn’t do anything except press back as best he could, twisting around and throwing one leg over Arthur’s knee as their faces slid past each other, then rubbed back to match cheeks. “I wanted to come,” Lancelot said, desperation shoving his words out so they tumbled over each other. “I wanted to, but I was angry because I thought you didn’t want me to, and—and—Arthur, I didn’t mean for it to go that far. I only wanted—I wanted to make you talk to me.”
The hand on his right side crept around to mold itself to the small of his back, and the hand on his left side dragged up to bury itself in his hair. Arthur’s breathing was ragged, and his fingertips kept twitching as if he wanted to rip into Lancelot. “You damned fool. No, not a fool—I can’t do it again. Five years was hell. I thought you were siding with Bill--”
And then Lancelot twisted, just a little, so callused strong flesh came out of his hair to where he could reach it, and he pressed his mouth to the scar in all the apologies he’d been saving up. Arthur did still taste the same, intoxicating and dizzying, and Lancelot almost didn’t notice when hand was replaced with lips. But then he was being crushed and devoured, his arms nearly wrenching out of their sockets and he didn’t care, he didn’t—
“Arthur—oh. Well. I take it I can untie the other ones?” Guinevere lounged in the doorway, her casual pose at war with the tension in her eyes. She was still looking askance at Lancelot, like she was imagining herself there.
Over his dead body. “My hands are in serious danger of falling off. As of the last time I could feel them, which was more than a few minutes ago.”
Unfortunately, his mouth hadn’t gotten the message to tread carefully around Arthur. The other man stiffened and drew away, and when Lancelot leaned after him, Arthur merely hooked two fingers around Lancelot’s arm to hold him up. Then Arthur did something fast with a knife and a set of keys that freed Lancelot’s hands just in time to catch him as the other man let go. Feeling incinerated its way back into Lancelot’s fingers and wrists, which he vigorously rubbed as he sat up. “Arthur?”
“Guinevere, I’d appreciate it if you could see to the others. I need to go talk with Beatrix.” When he walked out, Arthur didn’t even look back. It was disturbingly similar to the last memory Lancelot had of him.
But Lancelot would be damned or dead—or both—before he let history repeat itself. He scrambled up and leaped after the other man, shoving Guinevere aside to latch onto Arthur’s arm. The other man didn’t brush him off, but neither did he make any move to accept that. It was too close to call whether that or the lacerations left by the cuffs were worse.
* * *
Beatrix dubiously eyed her little sunbeam, who was happily playing coppers and robbers with the huge, silent one Arthur had addressed as Dagonet. She’d never met anyone from that group except Arthur himself, but she’d never known him to give a bad guarantee.
“She’ll be fine,” Arthur said as they stepped into the next room.
For a moment, Beatrix glowered at him. But then she sighed and acknowledged that motherhood wasn’t something she could really hide under a façade. “If you say so. The last man she got along that well with was Bill.”
“Who’s dead.” Arthur glanced back out at the room, gaze lingering particularly on the man who had had to be peeled off Arthur’s arm, and who was now loitering as near to the doorway as he could. He was staring unashamedly back, which deflected Arthur’s eyes to the girl. “Guinevere doesn’t know much about what’s going on; we’ll have to explain things to her somehow.”
“What is she, anyway?” The day had been a busy one, and while Beatrix had made sure B. B. had gotten her three meals, Mommy had been a little too preoccupied with a rising body count to do that for herself. She cracked open the coffee-maker, decided it was clean enough, and started working on getting some caffeine into her system. “You want a cup?”
Shaking his head, Arthur came a little further into the room to look doubtfully at the bed. “Are you certain having Elle around is a good idea? I thought you two hated each other.”
That wasn’t a question Beatrix felt like answering when she still had blood under her nails. She banged the pot into the machine and impatiently tapped her fingers on the top, waiting for the drip to start. “I’ve got enough tranqs, so don’t worry about that. Do I have to worry about Guinevere?”
“She’s Merlin’s adopted daughter. I don’t believe that’ll be necessary.” Only Arthur could make a statement like that sound downright dull. On the other hand, the slight gleam in his eye showed that, unlike most bores, he actually knew when he was making a gross understatement. It was oddly reassuring to see some humor in him.
“And what, exactly, are you doing with the heir to one of the most powerful organizations of the European underworld?” The percolation finally started, just in time for Elle to sit up and groan. Beatrix slipped a hand into her jacket and dug out the tranq gun, but instead of swearing and rattling her cuffs, Elle only sneered and laid back down. She should still be feeling the headache for a while, so Beatrix put away the gun. “You sure you don’t want coffee?”
Arthur couldn’t stop staring at Elle’s face, and especially at the sloppy job they’d done of filling in the sockets with blank prosthetics. It had never made much sense to Beatrix how the man could continue to be horrified at something like that, after everything they’d seen and done. “My God.”
“B’s real smart, all right. Between cutting my throat and pulling out my other eye, she knew what to do.” Elle’s words went right through Beatrix’s life-hardened skin and scored a deep one.
“I’m keeping her because that cunt Sofie thinks Elle should’ve done a better job in stopping me. As much as Elle needs to swallow lead, I’d rather it not be a pencil-pushing hanger-on like Fatale making her.” And that was all Beatrix was currently going to say on the subject. As soon as she could, she snapped out the pot and poured herself a sizable cup, which she drank black. It burned and etched and wiped out her cracks with pure acid. “God, this is shit.”
Head up, Arthur looked as if he were searching the ceiling for an exit. “Understandably,” he commented in a desert-dry tone, and it was clear he wasn’t only talking about the java. He honestly didn’t make a lot of sense to Beatrix—though that wasn’t as bad now that she had B. B. to think about—but it was genuinely unself-conscious. The man wasn’t trying to fake her out, and in fact, he was willing to explain himself as best he could. That had been part of the reason she’d wanted him around in the world. There were some people that shouldn’t die if they didn’t have to, and as far as she knew, Arthur didn’t. “Merlin and I have—had—a history. We eventually got to the point where the fight had gone on too long, and we made peace. About two years after that, he died of cancer and left me Guinevere’s guardianship.”
“Raising hellions seems to be your hobby,” Beatrix murmured, grinning as she sipped her coffee.
After a moment, Arthur let himself smile. Then he hardened and gave her an impressive warning look. “She’s only eighteen.”
“B likes them well-aged, so don’t you worry,” Elle interjected.
Beatrix turned around and leveled a look. “Shut up, Elle.”
Arthur was squinting and rubbing at his nose again, like he had a headache that was fucking him from inside out. “I have to wonder sometimes why I keep doing it. Teenagers are the damnedest things…”
“Thanks for the preview,” Beatrix snorted, downing the rest of her coffee. She stared at the dregs, noting how many grains had gotten through the filter, and briefly considered the truth of fortune-telling. “Is it…”
“It is worth it,” he hurriedly added. Then he let his feet have a deprecating grin. “Though it can be difficult to remember that.”
Nodding, Beatrix added source of parenting advice to the list of reasons why she would rather not see Arthur dead. While the men and woman congregated outside weren’t exactly what she wanted her daughter to become, they did have certain qualities. Such as a loyalty that didn’t waver even when they were audibly grumbling about what the fuck was wrong with Arthur’s head.
Guinevere and Lancelot both told the rest to shut up. Then they attempted to glare each other down, much to the amusement of everyone except Arthur, who dropped his face into his hand. “How are we going to do this?”
“Ground rules might be a good place to start.” Beatrix put down her cup and started ticking off fingers. “No one fucks with my daughter. No one kills Elle except me—”
“—I’m ever so very fucking grateful—” from the bed.
“—Fatale is the enemy. I should have dealt with her, and I didn’t. Which I’m going to fix, and you’re going to help because she’d like your head, too.” She stopped and turned her hand towards Arthur.
His eyes flicked to the others for a moment, then came back to her. “They don’t die. And if it comes down to it, it’s only me and not them. I won’t be party to any egregious killing, either.”
“You heard the wrong version about the House of Blue Leaves, I take it.”
Arthur stopped fidgeting with his hands and looked up to meet her with a clear, firm, dangerous gaze. “No, I don’t think I did. Do we understand each other?”
Not much, but they did have an agreement coming into form. And when it came to the raw truth, neither of them had anywhere else to turn. Beatrix put out her hand, and Arthur shook it.
* * *
“I can’t believe he handcuffed us.” To Guinevere’s secret amusement, Galahad kicked up his feet and scuffed his heels all over the coffee table. Trained killers, and they still acted like immature adolescents. “We go through the trouble of tracking him down and trying to warn him, and that’s how we get greeted.”
Tristan finished off the sandwich from the room mini-fridge and wadded up its plastic wrapper with his napkin, which he then flicked in a perfect arc into the trash can. Beside him, Gawain blinked out of his moodiness and stared. “How do you do that?”
“I aim.” And there went that aggravating smile. Apparently, Galahad found it just as annoying, because he tossed his napkin at Tristan. Something blurred, and then it was Tristan putting down the Bible and Galahad’s napkin bouncing into the trash can. Even Guinevere had to admit it was a perfect deflection.
She wasn’t jealous in the slightest. She had nothing to be jealous of. And especially not about the fact that Tristan had switched hands and used both with equal skill.
“Hello. You’re pretty,” said her knee.
Guinevere startled out of her observations and looked down to see the Bride’s frighteningly adorable girl beaming up at her. To her complete embarrassment, she completely blanked out on an appropriate response.
“She is, isn’t she?” Lancelot commented, prying his eyes from Arthur. He lifted his chin and looked down his long nose at Guinevere, daring her. Right in front of the kid. Either he was insane, or there was some serious history behind that kiss she’d interrupted.
“Very.” Huge hands gently engulfed the girl’s waist and lifted her away from Guinevere, jouncing her just enough to make her giggle. Dagonet produced an oddly sweet smile for the girl, then a sharp look for Lancelot.
Or it was a dangerously explosive combination she was seeing, and current events were vigorously stirring the pot. Normally Guinevere did enjoy seeing just how far she could ride the edge of a potential eruption, but this time, she had a feeling that that would end in catastrophe. So she refrained from replying, even though her hands were dying to get around Lancelot’s neck and finish the job.
“His last memories of us aren’t happy ones,” Tristan volunteered. There was a moment of mass confusion while everyone figured out that he was taking things back to Galahad’s comment, during which he serenely tested the extent of damage to his bruised wrists. Creepy that he didn’t wince at all, but also impressive.
Galahad snarled and shoved himself so deep into his chair that something broke inside. He slapped the arm and moved around, trying to avoid whatever it was. “That was Lancelot’s fault. I seem to remember helping to pull them apart.”
“Excuse me?” Outraged, Lancelot pushed himself off the wall a little too quickly and nearly overbalanced himself. His whole body was trembling like an overstressed wire, and his defense was entirely too aggressive. “You threw a chair at his head!”
“Wait, wait…” Guinevere perched on the back of the couch and swung her legs over to plant them beside Tristan. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Dagonet retreating with a wide-eyed, fascinated B. B. towards the hallway, where he would still be within sight of the Bride but out of earshot. “You two tried to…tried to…”
“They weren’t trying to kill him,” Gawain said, voice muffled because he had his head in his hands. But the notes of regret and frustration sang through loud and clear, and they echoed deeply enough in the uncomfortable expressions on Galahad’s and Lancelot’s faces for her to know that they weren’t false. “Arthur—we didn’t really understand why he wanted to leave. And some people lost their goddamn tempers.”
With a soft snort, Tristan methodically rolled up his sleeve cuffs a few inches and began wrapping his wrists with some bandages. He passed a few to Gawain, who looked at the offering in total incomprehension.
Galahad got out of his chair and snatched away the bandages, then pried one of Gawain’s hands off his face so he could start wrapping it. He did that with an injured expression and restless movements of his shoulders, but Gawain wasn’t wincing much so Guinevere assumed Galahad was being careful.
“I think we should probably start earlier than that,” Tristan added. When he was done with one wrist, he neatly tucked the end of the bandage into the wrapped parts and moved onto the other. That one gave him a little more trouble, from which Guinevere deduced that he wasn’t ambidextrous by birth, though he might as well be now. “Do you know how Arthur and the Black Mamba know each other?”
With a start that irritated her, she realized he was addressing her. “Same way he knew my foster-father, Merlin. Assassins, all of them.”
She could almost see the level of respect rising in the room. It made her less proud than exasperated, because if it took name-dropping to get through to these jackasses…but at any rate, maybe they’d stop treating her like the pretty bed-pillow. “Except of course, Arthur and Beatrix were never trying to kill each other,” she added. “They both worked for some man named Bill, because he’d tricked Arthur into thinking he was running some kind of vigilante organization.”
“Which is where we came in, and which is partly true. The innocent ones never know how to protect themselves. We got saved for the real bosses with the private armies.” Lancelot was sneaking peeks at Arthur again, and this time, Guinevere glimpsed a flicker of a deep, deep uncertainty in the man’s face whenever he looked that way. “A bit beyond even Merlin’s league, princess.”
“Oh, for—look, you stupid jealous bastard, I’m not sleeping with him. Arthur. I’m not sleeping with Arthur.” Guinevere had to stop there and press her hands to her cheeks, which humiliatingly enough were burning like firecrackers. It could be incredibly frustrating to have to put up with a body that felt far too immature compared to her mind. “I turned eighteen three weeks ago. Or do you think he’s the kind that doesn’t respect legal age of consent?”
Even Tristan betrayed some surprise. “Eighteen?”
“God, the moment I can, I’m killing you all,” Guinevere muttered, burying her face in her hands. It would have been lovely if she could have sunk into the floor, but that was a children’s wish and she wasn’t a child. One deep breath, and then she lifted her head to stare at them with as much composure as she could managed. “Besides, he made it clear he wasn’t interested. For your information, I’m not so desperate as to chase after a lost cause.”
That hit home and spread over Lancelot’s face to darken it with anger. “Girl, if I wasn’t here, you two would most likely be fighting it out with a horde of yakuza hitmen.”
“That’s debatable. After all, the Bride showed up at the same side you did. And so far, her body count is higher than yours.” As sweetly as she could, Guinevere smiled at him.
Lancelot’s fists clenched, and he took one step forward before Gawain stood up, making it clear that he’d intervene. As he was still attending to Gawain’s wrists, Galahad thus was forced to rise as well.
“Arthur found out that Bill was fooling him and wanted it to stop. Bill said no. Therefore, Arthur walked out. We didn’t find that out till much later—at the time, it was only Arthur coming in and declaring that he couldn’t do it any longer.” Tristan didn’t bother to acknowledge the twitches and jerks as everyone recalled themselves to the matter at hand. He continued on as if there’d never been an inflammatory tangent to the conversation. “It did seem like a betrayal. There wasn’t much time for explanations before everyone was upset.”
Guinevere could understand that, given what she’d learned so far of Lancelot’s personality and what she already knew of Arthur’s tendency to think more than he spoke. Consideration was all well and good, but there was a point where it had to stop, or else nothing would ever get done. “And this upset took the form of…?”
It appeared Tristan was having difficulty doing up his second bandage. The wrap on the other wrist, while neatly done, was hampering his ability to bend and twist it. “Lancelot and Arthur went off to argue in a separate room. When they came back out, it was because they were fighting—”
“—all I did was tell him that he wasn’t passing my sword till he gave me a better answer. And then he—we--I don’t know what happened.” Lancelot slumped against the wall and slid down out of sight, but before he did, Guinevere got a full view of the raw remorse in his face.
Tristan rose a little to watch the other man go down, thoughtfulness shading his eyes. His fingers were still unsuccessfully fiddling with the bandage.
Guinevere gave up on reining herself in and grabbed his wrist, then did up the wrap in less than a second. She dropped his hand and refused to blink when he turned his stare on her. “Right. Lancelot lost his temper like a dick. And Galahad?”
The man started to answer, but Gawain slapped a hand over Galahad’s mouth and pointed to Tristan.
“We were trying to hold Arthur and Lancelot apart—because by that point, Arthur was angry as well—and Galahad asked what could possibly be that bad? Which is when Arthur said we were no better than the criminals we were killing.” Tristan held up a hand and gave Galahad a look. “He did not say we were murdering bastards. There’s a difference.”
“Which we’ve both been telling you for five years, so don’t even start,” Gawain snapped. He pressed his hand against Galahad’s mouth a little longer, then took it off. The other man looked as if he was ready to become a murdering bastard right there, but he just restrained himself.
Something like humor turned Tristan’s eyes black for a moment. “Galahad threw the chair. Arthur ducked, Gawain’s grip on Lancelot slipped, and Lancelot—stumbled, more or less. At any rate, his sword came right at Arthur, who grabbed the blade and shoved it aside.”
An odd little pause hiccupped into reality just then. All the men tensed and went distant at the same time, then shook it off. “While we were staring at Arthur’s blood on the floor, he turned and stepped out the door. And that was the last time we saw him till now.”
“And ever since, you’ve kept on working for Bill. Who did send assassins after Arthur, by the way. What possibly made you think you were going to get a warm welcome here?” Guinevere queried, making no attempt to keep her sarcasm out of her voice. Temper tantrum or not, Lancelot wasn’t going to get anywhere near Arthur now. Not if he had any sense, or even any shred of genuine feeling about Arthur.
“Don’t talk about things you barely know anything about. That was just the skeleton of the story.” Back stiff and jaw clenched, Lancelot got off the floor and turned around just in time to nearly walk into Arthur. In the matter of a second, his shoulders spasmed and his breath audibly caught; he was stepping back when the Bride pushed by and forced him to stay where he was.
Guinevere got up, but a hand on her own stopped her. Irritated, she looked down to see Tristan silently shaking his head, as if he knew—all right, so far he had known what was going on. But he didn’t know what the past few years for Arthur had been like, and she did.
“C’mon, baby. Sleeptime,” Beatrix cooed, gently taking B. B. from Dagonet. Granted, Guinevere knew better than to judge someone from mere rumors, but when it came to the Black Mamba, the rumors were more believable than the truth. It was just jarring to see a cold-blooded killer turn into a doting mother. “Good girl…already drooling on my shoulder.”
“They do that for a surprisingly long time,” Arthur remarked, giving the rest of the room a glance that might have been fond. Then he seemed to finally notice just who was standing in front of him, and his face shut down again. The flinch rippled down Lancelot’s back.
Guinevere belatedly pulled her hand free and glowered at Tristan. “You’d better know what you’re doing. Because—”
Someone shot out the window.
* * *
There was a reason the DiVAS were actually a collection of lone assassins for the most part, and rarely, if ever, came together to work in collaboration. More people meant more ways to snag and catch and generally slow down.
Well, Elle might have been cohabiting with other people, but that didn’t make her a sheep. She was working on the cuffs the moment B and Arthur stepped out, but unfortunately, they were too tight for the thumb-popping trick. The headboard bars around which they were slung, however, were a little loose. Elle wasn’t in peak condition, but in most cases anger made a damn good substitution for health, so that wasn’t too much of a problem.
She got the bar loose and her hands free just as somebody let off a big handgun nearby. Everyone in hearing distance being a professional, there weren’t any responses louder than a hissed swear and the creaking of furniture as people took up defensive positions. Elle didn’t bother listening for the clicking of safeties…though she did try to count how many swords were scraping out of scabbards. If she remembered right, Arthur favored a long sword.
The handcuffs weren’t coming off any time soon, and their chain was going to clink, damn it. For a few futile seconds, Elle tried to twist it up in her sleeve—oh, how sweet; B had dressed her—but that wasn’t working. She finally just gave up and picked up the loose bar, waiting.
“Arthur, I need to get B. B. out of here. She’s not fucking watching any of this,” B whispered. The edge of her voice was getting that shivery raggedness that presaged an especially violent strike.
Elle had to grin. So much for the pretty little Texan with the shy smile. To be honest, that act had always annoyed the fuck out of her; she didn’t like B period, but she couldn’t stand the woman when the bitch was trying to pretend bloodlust wasn’t even in her delusion.
“Dagonet, are Bors and Vanora still all right?” Arthur must have gotten a visual confirmation, because Elle didn’t hear anyone speaking. And since she was belly-crawling her way towards the door, she figured she had a pretty good position for eavesdropping. “B. B. can go there. Bors retired a few months before I left—he’s got a wife and eleven children. He can watch her for a while.”
“And how is she getting there?” Hysteria was adding itself to the strain in B’s voice as she realized what she was about to do. “Oh, God, honey…”
Probably a last hug, Elle thought. At any rate, more than one person was rustling around now. Arthur spoke again: “Dagonet, after you get there, you’ll stay to help Bors. Gawain, Galahad, come back as soon as you can. We’ll—here. This is my cell phone; it has Guin’s number on it.”
Interesting to note that despite the earlier sounds of discontent, it didn’t seem as if the men were throwing Arthur’s orders back in his face. More shifting noises. Some bangs and curses—the lights must be off, so they couldn’t see where they were going.
“So much for a peaceful retirement,” B murmured. She had gone cold and sharp, without a trace of the jittering worry she’d had just a moment before. Elle could hear the high whistling of B lifting her sword, and then—
--fusillade of gunshots. A door slammed open and footsteps rattled out into the hallway, which Elle figured were the men leaving with the girl. Inside the room, someone returned a shot and outside, there was a scream. First floor, then. Either that or there was a big balcony, because the sheets had been too nice for them to be in a motel.
Glass shattered as someone leaped through. Something thudded into them, they gasped wet and low, and then Arthur grunted; Elle tardily remembered what a broadsword smashing into a midriff sounded like. “Who were they following?”
“Probably me. I…ruined Sofie’s pretty face. A little.” B was grinning, razor and brutal. Elle just knew it. And she’d bet the muscles that were pulling her painfully upright that Arthur was grimacing at B, but he couldn’t do shit about a natural instinct. “Which side are the cars on—”
Another explosion, which gave Elle just enough time to step out and swing the bar. It cracked into something soft, which curled around the end and seemed to suck it right out of her hands. “Left.”
“Christ, she’s got no eyes!” gasped someone.
“No, but I can fucking hear well enough.” And Elle had been working on her spatial-imagining abilities ever since those two limpdick nurses had ganged up from opposite sides on her. That had been one dizzying, confusing mindfuck as she’d tried to figure out where the hands were coming from, the pricks—and then they’d raped her. She seriously hoped B had kept up her nurse-killing spree. “Where’s my goddamn sword?”
More bullets, ricocheting all about her. She ignored the initial chaos and tried to concentrate as sources as she ducked; something burned over her shoulder and gave her a fix on that one. Except no gun, no knife, no goddamn—hand on her thigh, dragging her sideways. “Elle, you stubborn bitch. You can’t even stand without swaying.”
“And whose fucking fault is that? You cunt, you killed Bill. Bill!” Elle slapped as best she could, given the cuffs on her wrists, and then she thought better of it. Hit B with the cuffs, hard enough so that Elle could almost feel the flesh bruising beneath her. “I didn’t think even you were that heartless—”
Growl, which was a hell of a lot more frightening—objectively speaking—than that of most men’s. Fingers raked into Elle’s hair and wrenched her around onto her belly, pinning her head beneath B’s breasts. When she howled and tried to jerk herself free, the flat of a sword smacked the top of her head. Didn’t cut, but she could remember O-ren’s skull well enough.
“Do you two have to have a catfight now?” demanded some woman—Arthur’s darling, if Elle had overheard that last of Arthur’s and B’s talk right. Guinevere?
“Why don’t you keep your mouth shut?” hissed B, who was pressing her way down Elle’s back, thighs and then flat belly sliding over Elle’s ass. One hand clamped on Elle’s neck, B was slithering towards the left and dragging Elle with her like a fucking dog. “This isn’t a catfight. We can do honor to Bill’s memory better than that, can’t we?”
In between the gunshots and the occasional sword-swing, a disgusted sigh. “My God. They make your ex-boyfriend look sympathetic, Arthur.”
This time, Elle could feel B’s snarl start, gathering its storm low in the woman’s gut before rumbling up, only thin layers of clothes and flesh separating its force and Elle’s arm. Goddamn bitch knew how to fight, and that was something Elle could never forget about B. “Girl, you’re about two seconds from—”
“Don’t you dare.” Arthur’s voice had dropped an octave. Now he sounded like a tsunami thundering ashore. “Beatrix. Don’t.”
“Oh, now you’re ruining the build-up,” Elle laughed, feeling a bit of cackle coming out. She abruptly humped up, but B’s grip was like an iron collar. Instead of flipping off the other woman, all she did was pull them both onto their feet.
B yanked Elle to her, then spun so Elle’s kick redirected itself into someone else. There was the whoosh of B’s Hanzo, and then Elle was licking blood off her face again.
Hot breath shocking Elle’s cheek, and lips nearly touching as they whispered. “You never do change, bitch.”
The contemptuous—Elle wrenched at B’s arm, but only managed to choke herself more badly. “Nice little token from the past, aren’t I?”
That broke B’s rhythm, just long enough for Elle to notice and remember. But then someone cracked a wall, and hell finally threw off all its bonds. With a raspy, low scream, B tossed them both out some door and clattered down a short stairway. She smelled like dying life and rising death, and at the base of her throat, a strange, electrically bitter salt.
Like Bill, for a moment. Elle’s head spun and she almost missed a step. But B hauled her back up and supported her all the way through the run.
* * *
Only three bodies on the floor, and already Arthur was feeling himself settle into a groove he thought he’d patched over for good. He whipped Excalibur around, two inches above Lancelot’s head, and slammed its edge into someone’s skull. It was too dark to see how deep it went, but the boneless way the body fell told Arthur that he could move on. His scabbard was blocking some ninja’s shortsword while two others tried to rush him.
Excalibur found itself awkwardly buried in one’s gut while Arthur swore at the jarring of a one-handed swing, and Lancelot stood up from his latest corpse just in time to flip the second man into the wall. A bullet took out the third one; Tristan had gone through the window within seconds of Arthur tossing a rifle over, and as far as Arthur could tell, was busy hunting in the parking lot. B and Elle were finally out, which left Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot inside. Time to go.
“Guinevere?” Arthur ducked behind an overturned couch and counted the shadows passing before the various windows. One seemed a little less thick with enemies than the other. “Guinevere?”
“Here. Give me that.” She materialized by his shoulder and snatched Excalibur’s scabbard from him, which she slung over her back without a second thought. Naturally enough, since how they usually worked was him on the ground and her a few paces behind. The arrangement played to her strengths as a long-distance killer.
On the other hand, it wasn’t like the usual nightmare, and Arthur had, incredibly, nearly forgotten about that in the thick, coiling acrid heat. Lancelot recalled them to his presence by shoving Arthur towards the window. “You’d better take care of that,” he sneered at Guinevere.
Her tongue flickered just behind her lips, as if she was restraining herself from sticking it out at him.
“Stop that.” Arthur grabbed Lancelot by the elbow, ignored the slickness he felt because there wasn’t time to check whose it was, and flung them through the window.
He didn’t see Lancelot land on his feet so much as sense it in the rightness of the thumping sounds, but then, he was already having to slice off someone’s head. Bullets pattered the concrete at his feet, the balcony railings, and Arthur let his swordhand fall back in favor of drawing a gun.
It hurt to shoot one-handed, and he didn’t remember quite how to brace himself behind the impact. His wrist was going to be stiff and sore in the morning—
“—they’re going to ask if we were pulling our dicks too hard,” Lancelot snorted, as if reading Arthur’s mind. An old joke, always told when the man had both swords splaying from one hand, and was shooting with the other. He flashed a grin at Arthur, flipping years of shadowy memories between them, and then jumped the rail.
Like before, when they were helping to build up one of the most vicious men Arthur had ever met. It seemed Bill’s ghost stained Arthur’s life in other ways besides deadly blonde colleagues.
Arthur waited till Guinevere was out and over, and then he went as well. It was only the second story so the fall wasn’t too bad, but there was a building nearby that afforded good protection for snipers. Tristan was…somewhere near the cars. Therefore, they were going that way.
A difficulty arose, and damn the night for a lost cause: they were in the fenced-in pool area. The cars were on the other side of the fence, and there were Japanese hitmen surging in from the other end. At best, they’d have seconds to get over and make a run for it. Possibly two of them could make it before their opponents caught up…
It took a moment to shoot off the rest of his bullets. Then Arthur shoved Excalibur into its sheath, which was still on Guinevere’s back, and put his hands on her waist. Other hands slapped over his; Lancelot’s face suddenly pushed up beside Arthur’s, eyes wild and desperate. “Am I that? Your ex?”
For a moment, Arthur’s tongue just tripped over itself. Then his seething fight-rage and the conflicts of past and present that had been gnawing so viciously at him burst forth. The words skittered and lashed out of him just like the bullets rattling the fence around them. “Goddamn it, Lancelot! What was I supposed to think? You didn’t even try to understand why I couldn’t kill for Bill anymore! And you didn’t stop working for him till the man was dead!”
“Right.” Lancelot snapped around and threw Guinevere over the edge of the fence, and then before Arthur could stop him, he was kneeling to seize Arthur’s foot. Quick as a snake, he knocked Arthur’s other foot out from under him and used the moment of imbalance to heave Arthur over as well.
Hitting the ground momentarily collapsed Arthur into a jumble of whining-hurt limbs, but he was up a second later and staring in horror as Lancelot failed to climb over himself. Instead, the other man picked up his swords from the ground and—
“Guinevere, get him the hell out of here,” the other man said, glancing over his shoulder. When his and Arthur’s eyes met, it felt as if Arthur was being fragmented and sucked into twinned black holes. “If you don’t believe this, then I don’t know what else to do.”
--then Guinevere knocked Arthur out.
* * *
Gawain stared in complete disbelief at the little girl snuggled in his lap. “She’s still asleep.”
“Good. The last thing I need is a screaming kid to deal with.” In the front passenger seat, Galahad squirmed around and repeatedly flipped Arthur’s cell phone open and shut. Once in a while, he would stop and almost-poke a button, but at the last minute, he would hold back. “We’re all insane. That’s the only explanation.”
“Would you rather be insane by yourself?” Dagonet abruptly said. He reached over and plucked the phone out of Galahad’s hands, then turned the car down another side-alley, where he stopped. By this point, they’d lost all their tails, but there wasn’t any harm in being extremely paranoid.
Another car was parked at the other end of the alley. Careful not to jostle her, Gawain eased the girl out and headed for that one; he assumed Dagonet would want to drive again, but the man surprised him by taking the girl and passing over the keys. “But you’re the one who knows where Bors is living.”
“Just take the highway north to exit 66. I’ll give directions after that.” Dagonet glanced down at the tiny whistling snores he cradled, face almost pensive. “She has the wrong parentage for her face.”
“It’s not going to be pretty when she grows up.” Galahad swung himself into the front seat and sprawled out while Gawain got the car into gear.
Considering who was talking, Gawain couldn’t help but laugh a little. “Like when we did?”
His chuckle trailed off into an uneasy silence as they all thought about the implications behind his words. Arthur had raised them, more or less; perhaps Bill had been the one to pick them out of the street, but in the end, he’d just been the means of transportation from one doorstep to another. It’d been Arthur and Uther who had opened the door, and Uther had gotten killed in a skirmish only a few years later, leaving an eighteen-year-old Arthur with a pack of unruly fifteen-year-olds. True, Bors and Dagonet had been adults then, but at the time they’d had more allegiance to Uther. That had soon changed.
So when Arthur had left, it had been like having a piece of their lives uprooted. Lancelot had never quite been the same. Bors had already settled down with Vanora at that point, but he’d come back for a few days ‘to find out what happened.’ More like to check on Dagonet. Gawain had been distracted enough trying to keep up with Galahad’s raw temper, but he’d noticed Tristan spending an abnormal amount of time researching. And it’d been Tristan who had eventually told them all what had really been going on.
“He doesn’t want us back, does he?” Galahad suddenly asked, voice oddly small. When Gawain looked over, he saw the other man hunched up in the seat, staring at the floor. “It’s been too long. We should’ve gone after him back then.”
It was hard to determine exactly why they hadn’t. Pride had had something to do with it, as well as a fear of making their lives even more uncertain. In the end, it’d come down to an unshaven, bloodshot Lancelot glaring at them and saying that the last thing Arthur needed was them reminding him of his past sins.
“Yes, we should have. Not that any of us was thinking that clearly in the first few weeks.” Gawain reached over and ran his fingers through Galahad’s hair, adding a little mussing at the end. He waited till he saw a grudging smile before he turned his attention back to the road. “Look, get the girl safe first, then come back and figure out things. Arthur always had a problem throwing things out when they were right in front of him.”
* * *
It only took one look at Guinevere’s face for Tristan to know not to ask why Arthur was unconscious. But as soon as they met up again with Elle and the Bride, he dug out the nearest laptop, hooked it up, and started digging.
“You did what?” Arthur stalked into the room, hands clenching and unclenching like he wanted to break necks. He stopped just short of Tristan’s desk and spun around to give Guinevere a look that could incinerate cities. “You. Left. Him.”
“He told me to! And—and there wasn’t enough time for him to—Arthur, I don’t know what’s going on! When am I supposed to listen to you, when am I supposed to listen to him—and what the fuck was that last thing he said to you? How much of this is some old quarrel of yours?” Though it’d clearly floored her to see Arthur giving her accusing looks, Guinevere recovered her poise with remarkable speed. She yanked a tissue from a nearby box and angrily started slapping it at the blood splatters on her cheeks.
Her words cut the legs out from Arthur’s fury, and a moment later, his body followed: he sank into a chair and dropped his head in his hands. For a moment, he merely rocked in place, fingers gouging at his hair.
Guinevere flinched. Then she came over and dropped to her knees in front of him. Smart girl, she didn’t try to pry his hands off, but instead only covered them with her own. “What?”
“…idiot. He thought he had to prove something--I thought he had to prove something.” Arthur’s hands clawed their way off his face to reveal red-rimmed eyes and skin stretching tight over brittle bones. He put one hand on Guinevere’s head and stroked her hair once, then pressed her forehead to his mouth. “And I’m the one that made him that way; I’m the one that taught him to kill. I can’t—I can’t do—”
The laptop beeped. Tristan surprised himself by jumping, then twisted around and tapped a few buttons. “He’s not dead.”
“What?” Now it was Arthur’s turn to be shocked.
“Of course he’s not,” the Bride said, coming in. She moved with a restless prowl that nearly jagged its grace with pent-up energy; Tristan surreptitiously reached under the table for his saber. “Sofie was Bill’s and then O-ren’s perfect little secretary—she knows all the foibles and weaknesses. And she wants your head, remember? Because you didn’t take sides when the call went out.”
Arthur sat up straight with a jerk. The hand he’d had on Guinevere’s hair slid down to her back, working fingers under Excalibur’s scabbard so he could take it off of her. “And what was she expecting me to do? ‘Come back and all is forgiven’ wasn’t something that was particularly appealing to me.”
“With Sofie, it’s more like ‘Come back or die.’” The Bride paused by the wall, plucking up a shoe-polishing cloth and using it to clean off her sword. She kept her back to Arthur as he stood up and took off his jacket, then used the inner lining to wipe down Excalibur. The scabbard he slung on his back.
Eyes flicking back and forth between those two, Guinevere wisely crawled away from Arthur and curled around the side of the desk. She glanced up at Tristan, asking, but for once, he couldn’t give an answer. In all the years that he’d been alive, he’d never actually had the privilege—or misfortune--of seeing two warriors like the Bride and Arthur in the same room. Lancelot came close to being one, but he lacked that shard of discipline that remained when everything else was broken.
“She wants you to come.” As the Bride spoke, a cell phone chimed. With an almost playful air, she pulled it out of her pocket and flipped it at Arthur, who negligently deflected it into the chair cushion where it continued to ring.
“You said you ruined her face.” The bloodied jacket slowly slipped from Arthur’s hands, leaving only the naked blade.
She was still facing the wall, but her arms had stopped moving. Six inches of shining steel showed from behind her. “I cut off her arm. And a few other parts I didn’t think she needed. That bitch knew my baby was alive and she didn’t tell me. B. B. asked me where Auntie Sofie was the other day, and I wanted to punch the wall.”
“If she takes that out on Lancelot, she won’t be the only one after you. Now, I’m going.” Arthur lifted his foot to take a step.
Tristan didn’t even see it. One moment, the two were on opposite sides of the room, and the next, Arthur and the Bride were spinning away from each other under the belated thunder of clashing steel. He had a red line trickling through his slashed right sleeve, but she was missing the top three inches of her sword.
The Bride stared at the break, then glanced at the severed tip, which had embedded itself in the floor a foot from a frozen Guinevere. “You’re lucky I save my Hanzo for the big rats.”
“Hanzo or not, all swords do break.” Too calmly, Arthur straightened up and resettled his hands on his hilt. “I think you and I both know what the outcome of this will be.”
“You think you’re better?” An abrupt, ragged chuckle dripped from the Bride’s curled upper lip. “You’re not.”
Before Tristan could get his fingers completely around his saber hilt, someone grabbed his wrist. Guinevere shot him a look, then shifted her gaze to the doorway, where Elle was lounging with handcuffs dangling from one wrist. Her other arm was tucked out of sight.
“Honey, he knows he’s shit. That’s why he’d win.” The blind woman did an exaggerated pantomiming of studying her nails and then yawning in boredom. “Need to get better chains, B.”
“If you want a broken sword in your throat—” the Bride began, a little aggravation beginning to creep into her cool tone.
Elle flicked off the other woman, then raked the hair out of her face. She stuck out a fingertip and shifted around her fake eyeball, as casual as lighting a cigarette. “B, defending someone and avenging someone are two completely different propositions. You’re currently doing one. Arthur, on the other hand, is leaning toward the other. Now, you of all people should know better—”
Then she whipped out her other arm and lunged, blade first. But the Bride merely used her sword to knock Elle’s aside, then stepped in and grabbed the other woman by the throat. She slammed Elle down into the side-table so hard one of its legs shattered, then hit Elle in the temple for good measure.
“Christ. Arthur worked with these people?” Guinevere muttered.
When the Bride stood up, she’d lost that ferocious, shaking edge that had seemed to make the whole room tremble. Arthur, on the other hand, was retrieving the cell phone with the same air of jangling, hellish wrath that he’d so lately been directing at the Bride.
“And I thought I’d seen every side of him,” Tristan added. He let his fingers drift off his saber, but Guinevere didn’t release his hand. After a moment, he squeezed hers, and she startled out of her near-daze. With a wary look, she snatched her hand back.
“I didn’t know he was that to you,” the Bride told Arthur, visibly reassessing him.
He was listening to whatever the other end of the line was saying, but he did flick his eyes towards her. Once the ultimatum had been delivered, Arthur whipped the phone shut and sheathed Excalibur. “It didn’t seem like something I had a chance of explaining to you.”
“I did love Bill.” She carefully leaned down over Elle’s slumped form and took the sword from the other woman; Tristan glimpsed a lion engraved on the blade. The Bride tossed the broken sword in the trash can and used its sheath for the Hanzo.
“But you were able to kill him. I can’t even hate.” Arthur finally looked at the Bride. “Are you coming?”
She glanced at her wrist, which bore a crudely-made bead bracelet. “If they’ll watch Elle.”
Tristan blinked. “You don’t want back-up?”
“Arthur—” Guinevere started to rise, but he sat her down with a look. She made a heroic effort to resist pouting.
“Sofie would be too cautious to show up unless they’d actually gotten one of us. Well, she would be now.” The Bride had a thin, stiletto smile on her face as she pivoted towards the door. “It’s some lackey wanting to make a name for himself. But someone’s got to stay and look after Elle; she’s not moving anything like she used to.”
Disbelief seeped onto Arthur’s face as he crossed the room. “You’re worried about her?”
“It’s a complex situation,” B replied, shutting the door.
As soon as he could, Tristan got up and pulled out his saber. He cautiously went over to Elle and knelt down to check her pulse, which was steady enough.
“When she’s not moving, she looks like a skeleton.” With commendable sneakiness, Guinevere had followed him over, and was now busily knotting a leather garrote around Elle’s wrists. “Think we could chain her to the bathtub?”
“The couch would work better. Dealing with broken plumbing isn’t pleasant.” Tristan started pulling out cushions so they could get at the iron bars that made up the frame. He was reaching for Elle when Guinevere seized his wrist again. “Yes?”
She bit her lip, suddenly showing her young age. “Arthur knows what he’s doing, right?”
“He should. Now. And he’ll probably apologize for yelling at you when he comes back.” The attempt at humor was a poor one, but it did have the effect of finally breaking the built-up tension in the room. Guinevere grinned, and Tristan felt oddly reassured by himself.
* * *
Lancelot curled up as best he could around the brutal pain in his stomach and tried to brace himself for the next kick there. No good; he nearly chewed through his lower lip holding back a scream. His hands jerked themselves at the metal cutting into them, but the damn manacles wouldn’t give.
Someone stepped up and he was disgusted to find himself cringing away, but all they did was lean down to hold a cell phone next to his head. *Bonjour. I hear you’re not the main course, but that’ll be delivered soon enough.*
And completely unoriginal as well. That last blow had been directly on his solar plexus, so he could barely breathe, let alone toss off the snappy retort that he dearly wanted to. But he did manage to dribble bloody spit all over the phone. And the hand holding it.
Yet another fucking kick, and this time it sent him slamming back into a concrete wall. Motherfuck.
Distant crackling. *Don’t touch his face till I get there, and keep him alive till you have Pendragon. Then I’ll let you gut them both. Salauds sans fidélité.*
As if she was any expert on loyalty herself. Whereas he knew very well what it was, because he hadn’t truly had it till lately. Till after he’d lost Arthur’s.
He should’ve went after the goddamned son of a bitch, and to hell with Bill and morality and everything else. Whatever Arthur wanted, as long as he stayed…
That idiot had better stay put, Lancelot hazily thought. Because this was a complete fucking hellhole of pain, and if it was going to be all for nothing—